Once / Page 32

Page 32


Caleb opened an oval door marked EMERGENCY EXIT, pulling it out and up with both hands. Seats were lined up, row after row after row, stretching all the way back to the plane’s tail. The plastic shades were drawn. Lanterns were perched on trays in the seat backs, giving the whole place a warm glow.

“I’ve never seen the inside of one of these,” I said, following Caleb down the front rows. The seats were wider. Two were folded down like beds, musty blankets piled on top of them. A knapsack full of clothes and some old newspapers sat on the chair beside it. The top one had the picture of me from the parade, PRINCESS GENEVIEVE GREETS CITIZENS written below it.

“Look at all this room!” I spun around with my arms out and still didn’t touch anything.

Caleb pushed past me, to the front of the airplane, landing a kiss on my forehead as he did. “Where would you like to fly to? France? Spain?” He grabbed my hand, leading me into the front cabin, which was covered in metal panels and a thousand tiny dials.

“Italy,” I said, putting my fingers over his, as he moved a control in the front seat. “Venice.”

“Ahhh … you want a real gondola ride.” He laughed. He slid a tab over our heads, then another, pretending he was preparing the plane for takeoff.

I picked up one of the headsets and covered my ears. I turned a switch on our right, then another, as I settled into one of the chairs. “Fasten your seatbelt,” Caleb said. He pulled the buckle around my waist, one hand resting on my hip.

He leaned forward and gripped the controls, pretending to fly. We gazed out the front window, scanning the dark hangar as though it held the most spectacular view. “We’ll have to stop over in London first,” he said, his voice booming in the small metal room. “See Big Ben. Then maybe Spain—then Venice.”

I pointed at the ground below. “Everything is so tiny from up here.” I leaned over him to get a better look at the imaginary world below. “The Stratosphere tower is an inch tall …”

“Look,” Caleb said, pointing out the side window. “You can see over the mountains.” He rested his hand on my leg and smiled.

“We’re finally on our way.” The plane was lifting off, my body sinking into the soft cushiony seat, and the City was growing smaller, the buildings shrinking until they vanished in the distance. We were drifting up, over the clouds, the sun beaming down on us.

After a long while, Caleb leaned in and brushed the hair away from my temple, kissing my forehead. He unbuckled my seat belt and stood, pulling me out of my seat, his hands on my hips. He was smiling to himself, his eyes bright in the lantern light, as if he knew something I didn’t.

I took off the headset. “What is it?” I asked, trying to meet his gaze.

“Moss granted me leave from the City,” he said. “As soon as the first tunnel is completed, he told me I can go. He thinks it’s too dangerous to stay, to be leading the digs. They’re narrowing their search. I’ll return if he needs me.”

My hands trembled. “So you’re going to leave?” I asked, my voice thin with nerves.

“We’re going to leave.” He stroked the side of my cheek. “If you’ll come with me. I want to go east, away from the City. It’ll be a risk, but it’s a risk everywhere. We’d be on the run again, which isn’t what either of us want, but please, at least consider it.”

I didn’t hesitate. “Of course.” I brought my hands to his face, watching the lantern light on his skin. “It’s not even a question.”

He pressed our bodies into one, his hands moving over my back, my shoulders, my waist, pulling me closer and closer to him. “I promise you we’ll figure it out—we’ll figure out some way to live.” He breathed into my neck. “This feels right to me. It’s everything else that’s screwed up.”

“So things begin now,” I said. “I’m here. I’m with you. And in a week we’ll leave. It’s as simple as that.”

Caleb lifted me up, letting my back rest against the metal wall. I wrapped my legs around his waist. He pressed his mouth to mine, his hands in my hair. My lips touched his, then found their way to the soft skin of his neck. His hands slipped down my sides, ran over my vest, and settled on my bottom ribs.

He carried me into the cabin. Every inch of me was awake, my cheeks flushed, my pulse alive in my fingers and toes. I couldn’t stop touching him. My fingers ran down the knots of his spine, lingering on each one, a tiny knot below the surface of his skin. The plane was silent and still, his hands cradling my neck as we lay down on the makeshift bed, just big enough to fit us both. He pulled off his shirt and threw it on the floor. I ran my fingertips over his chest, watching goose bumps appear under my touch. He let out a small laugh. I circled over his ribs, then down to the square muscles of his stomach, watching his lips twist as my fingers moved.

“My turn,” he finally whispered, reaching for the buttons on my vest. He popped them open one by one. Then his hands moved quickly, pulling it from my shoulders and starting in on the crisp white uniform shirt. He didn’t stop until each button had been undone, the fabric pulled back, exposing the black bra I’d found in my closet the first day I’d arrived. The folded map was still inside.

He kissed me, unable to stop smiling. My head rested in the crook of his arm, his cheek next to mine as I watched his hand move over my body. His fingertips touched down on my skin, the heat spreading out beneath them as they ran along my stomach, circling my belly button. He traced a line up the center of my ribs to the hard, flat space between my breasts. Then he brushed his hand over each one. He curled his fingers, his knuckles dragging across the soft flesh that spilled over my bra.

That was all it took. Our mouths pressed together, his breath hot in my ear, his whispered words barely audible. I love you, I love you, I love you. He kissed me again, his lips hard against mine as I clung to him. His hands were all over me, his body shifting on top of mine. Then the air went out of my lungs, and the world fell away.

The walls went first, then the seats. The floor dropped out from under us, the lanterns disappeared. The voices from School were silenced. I couldn’t smell the musty cushions. We were suspended in time, his hands holding my sides, my legs wrapped around his, pulling him into me as we kissed.


THE POUNDING WOKE US. THE PLANE WAS SO DARK THAT I couldn’t see Caleb beside me. I could only hear him and feel his hands searching around my feet for his crumpled shirt. We’d only been asleep for a few minutes. We’d only just drifted off. “Who is it?” I asked, panic rising in my chest.

“I don’t know,” Caleb whispered. “Quick—we can go out the back exit.” He reached around until he found my hand. The warmth of it comforted me.

We felt for our clothing on the floor. The pounding continued, each knock jolting my entire body. “Come on, man!” I heard Harper yell. He was jimmying the emergency door, trying to pull it out. “It’s me. You don’t have much time!”

Caleb yanked his hand from mine. The cushion gave beside me and he was up, his bare feet padding down the aisle. The door finally opened, throwing a long square of light into the cabin.

“I knew it,” Harper spat. I pulled the blanket around me, ducking out of the light, scrambling to find my clothes. “I should’ve come earlier. I knew something was wrong when you didn’t show at the hangar. It’s nearly eight thirty. She’s got to get out of here.” I could only see his finger pointing into the depths of the plane. I pulled on my pants and socks and fastened my bra behind my back. I slipped my feet into the black boots, buttoning my shirt as I started toward the door.

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