Once / Page 3

Page 3


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I looked down the barrel, out across the bridge and the gray ocean, trying not to dwell on Maeve’s omissions. She didn’t mention what would happen to me. Instead, the statement had the slight tone of an accusation—as if I had personally invited the soldiers here.

We kept our eyes ahead. I listened to the sound of Harriet’s breathing as the figures made their way over the bridge. From such a distance I could only see two dark shapes, one smaller than the other, moving between the burned cars. After a moment, Isis set down the binoculars. “There’s a dog with him,” she said. “A Rottweiler.”

Maeve took the binoculars. “Keep your aim, and if there’s any aggression, don’t hesitate to shoot.” The two figures moved closer. The man was hunched over, his black shirt camouflaging him against the charred pavement.

“He isn’t wearing a uniform.” Quinn eased her grip on her gun.

Maeve kept the binoculars to her face. “That doesn’t mean anything. We’ve seen them out of uniform before.” I studied the figure, looking for any resemblance to Caleb.

When he was less than two hundred yards away he stopped to rest beside a car. He squinted at the hillside, searching for signs of life. We crouched further down behind the ledge, but the man didn’t look away. “He sees us,” Harriet hissed, her cheek pressed against the stone. The man reached into his knapsack and pulled something out.

“Is it a weapon?” Isis asked.

“I can’t tell,” Maeve replied. Isis moved her finger, resting it lightly on the trigger.

The man stalked forward, a new resolve in him, and Quinn aimed her gun. “Stop!” she yelled out to him, keeping low so he couldn’t see her behind the ledge. “Do not go any further!” But the man was running now. The dog was right beside him, its thick black body heaving with the effort.

Maeve inched forward, whispering in Quinn’s ear. “Don’t let him get off the bridge. No matter what.”

Her eyes betrayed no feeling. The day I came across the bridge with Caleb, we were unbearably tired, the past weeks weighing us down, making every step difficult. His pant leg was soaked through with blood, the fabric stiff and wrinkled where it had dried. Maeve had stood at the entrance to Califia, an arrow aimed at my chest, the same hard expression on her face. No matter what threat this man posed, at that instant he was only guilty of trespassing—nothing more. I took the binoculars from Maeve’s hands.

The man was quickly approaching the end of the bridge. “Do not go any further!” Quinn yelled again. “Stop!” I steadied the binoculars, trying to catch a glimpse of him. Then, for only an instant, he looked up. His face was like a corpse’s, with sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks. His lips were gray and chapped from days without water, and his hair was cropped close to the skull. But I felt the pull of recognition.

I looked at Quinn’s gun, and then at the figure racing toward the end of the bridge, moving steadily around overturned cars and piles of charred debris. “Don’t shoot!” I yelled.

I started down the hill, the thick brush scratching my legs. I ignored Maeve’s shouts behind me. Instead, I tucked the rifle under my arm, my eyes on the figure as I moved closer. “Arden,” I whispered, my throat choked. She had stopped, one arm resting on the hood of a truck, her back hunched from the effort of breathing. She looked at me and smiled, tears spilling down her cheeks. “You’re here.”

The dog lunged at me but Arden held it back, whispering something in its ear to calm it. I ran toward them, not stopping until we were together. I wrapped my arms around her frail body, enveloping her. Her head was shaved, she was twenty pounds lighter, and her shoulder was bleeding—but she was alive.

“You made it,” I said, squeezing her tighter.

“Yes,” she managed, her tears soaking my shirt. “I made it.”

three

THAT EVENING, I TOOK ARDEN TO MAEVE’S HOUSE. THE narrow two-story home was connected to six more, the whole row of them nestled into the side of the hill. Residences in Califia were easier to conceal if they were spread out, so of the six, hers was the only one that was occupied. The walls were patched in places, the floors a mosaic of mismatched tiles. Arden and I were in the small bedroom upstairs, our skin rosy in the lantern light. Maeve slept in the next room, Lilac beside her.

Arden stripped off her long black shirt and stood before the dresser in her tank top, pressing a wet towel to her face and neck. “When I arrived and you weren’t here, I thought the worst,” I said, leaning against the bunk bed where I slept. The room’s flowered wallpaper was peeling in places, a few strips held up with tacks. “I thought the soldiers had found you. That you were being held somewhere, tortured, or …” I trailed off, not wanting to go on.

Arden worked at her skin with the towel, clearing away patches of dirt on her arms. In the lantern light I could see each of her vertebrae, tiny pebbles trapped beneath her skin. I remembered her face the last day I had seen her, when we were hiding behind the shack. Her cheeks were full, her eyes alert. Now she was so thin her shoulder blades jutted out of her back. Fresh scabs dotted her scalp.

“They never caught me,” she said, not turning around. She watched herself in the cracked mirror, her reflection split in half. “The day I left you by Marjorie and Otis’s house, the soldiers chased me through the woods. I got a lead on them when I reached the outskirts of town but there wasn’t anywhere to hide. I found this metal door in the street, a sewer, and went underground. I just followed the tunnels, moving through the sludge, and kept waiting for them to track me there. But they never did.”

The giant dog lay at her feet, its chin resting on the floor. I kept my eyes on it, remembering all those warnings we’d heard at School about people being mauled by the packs of wild dogs roaming the woods. “Where’d you find him?” I asked, nodding at the animal, whose head was nearly as big as mine.

“She found me,” Arden laughed, setting down the towel. “I was roasting a squirrel. I guess she’d been separated from her pack and was hungry. So I gave her some food. And then she started following me.” She kneeled down, taking the dog’s head in her hands. “Don’t judge Heddy by her appearance—she’s really sweet. Aren’t you, girl?”

Arden looked up at me, smiling, and I noticed the thick red scar that snaked down her collarbone and over her right breast. It was still bleeding in places. Just the sight of it made me wince. “You’re hurt,” I said, standing to get a closer look. “What happened? Who did this to you?” I grabbed her shoulder and turned her toward the light.

Arden swatted me away. She fished the towel from the washbasin and covered her neck. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m here now and I’m not missing an arm or an eye. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“Let’s not leave it at that,” I said, but Arden was already climbing into the bottom bunk. She threw herself down next to Lilac’s old dolls. Most of them were naked, their hair matted from years of neglect. “Arden,” I said again, pleading. “What happened?” The dog followed me to the ladder and whimpered, trying to get up on the mattress.

Arden sighed. “You don’t want to know.” She pressed the wet towel to her chest, willing me away, but I didn’t move.


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