Once / Page 38

Page 38


When we reached his floor, Charles leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. I turned away, not caring if the soldiers saw. He stepped back, his face pained. I just pressed the button in the car, over and over again, not stopping until the doors shut behind him, locking him out.


BEATRICE MET ME AT THE ELEVATOR. SHE WALKED ME TO MY suite and helped me from the dress, all the while asking me about the party. It was a relief to be out of those skintight clothes. My face was wiped clean, my reflection finally recognizable without all the makeup caked on it. We sat down beside each other on the bed. I slid off the ring and set it on the nightstand, a faint pink mark on my finger the last reminder of what had happened that night.

“I never would’ve managed this long without you,” I said, pulling at the collar of my nightgown. “A ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem like enough.”

“Oh, child,” she said, waving me off with her hand. “I’ve done what I can. I only wish I could help more.”

“I can’t live like this,” I said. My lungs were tight at the thought of it, day piled on top of day, each one more stifling than the one before. I kept waiting for something to change, for the paper to reveal news of Caleb. But nothing happened. Now there would be plans for the wedding, ceaseless, senseless talk of bouquets and rings and which foods they would bring in from where. Did I want beige linens or white? Roses or calla lilies?

Beatrice pressed her palms together, her face strained with worry. “You will live like this,” she said, “as we all have. With the memories of life before the plague. With the hope that it will one day be better.”

“But how?” I asked. “How will it be better?”

She didn’t answer. I put my face in my hands. I couldn’t reach out to the Trail anymore. No one would trust me. I was under constant surveillance now. Caleb was gone, somewhere beyond the City’s walls, with no promise of coming back. Even if the tunnels were built, how would I get to them? And if I managed to escape, how would I survive in the wild alone, with no weapons or food, the King’s troops following just hours behind me?

Beatrice sat down next to me, working at the thin skin on her hand. “Since you’ve arrived I’ve wondered … if it’s possible for anyone to be truly happy here. You have to hold on to certain delusions, I suppose. Maybe hoping is foolish,” she said, staring at a spot on the floor. “There have been rumors going around the Palace. The workers have been talking. Is it true, what you did for that boy?”

I offered a slight nod, knowing I could never truly answer that question.

“It was a brave thing,” Beatrice said, resting her hand on my back.

I wiped my nose, the memory of Caleb’s broken face coming back to me, the tender pink slice that ran across his forehead, the welt on his cheek. “It doesn’t feel that way,” I said. “I might never see him again.”

Beatrice let out a deep breath. Her fingers wandered over the bedspread, digging into its soft gold fabric. The smell of cigar smoke still clung to my skin. “You do anything for the person you love,” she said finally. “And then when you don’t think you can give any more of yourself, you do. You keep going. Because it would kill you not to.” She turned to me, her gray eyes wobbly. The room filled with the rush of the air-conditioning vents. “I’ve bargained with the King, too.” A strand of gray hair fell in her face, shielding her eyes.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When they were doing the census you had to answer questions. Did you want to live inside the City? Did you want to live outside the City? What skills did you have to offer? What resources could you contribute? Some people had companies, warehouses full of goods. I had cleaned houses before the plague struck. I didn’t have much money, and my daughter and I didn’t have anything they wanted. We were put in the lowest category, with the most basic jobs and housing. We would’ve been living in the Outlands with all the others. After the chaos following the plague, people weren’t sure what that would mean, if it would be more of the same—people fighting for food and clean water, more violent robberies.

“But I was told I was lucky. I was selected out of thousands. They said my application had been flagged, and I was offered a job in the Palace. But my daughter couldn’t come with me. She would go to the Schools. We wouldn’t be able to keep in contact, but she’d return to the City after she graduated, if that’s the life she chose. Now I realize they probably just wanted more children for the Schools and the labor camps, as many as they could get. The Schools …” Beatrice let out a short, sad laugh. She rubbed her cheek. “They were supposed to be these places of great learning, where girls could get a top-rate education. They told me they would give her much more than a life in the City could. When I heard about the Golden Generation, everyone assured me it wasn’t mandatory, that the members of the birthing initiative had volunteered. They said girls were given a choice. But then you came here …”

“How old is she?” I asked. “Do you know which one she’s in?”

Beatrice shook her head. “I don’t. I was pregnant when the plague began. Sarah just turned fifteen last month.” She looked at me with pink, watery eyes, her lips twitching as she tried not to cry. “Do you know anyone there still? Anyone you could talk to for me?”

I reached for her hand, my fingers shaking. I thought of Headmistress Burns, her sagging, miserable face, how she’d been aware of the Graduates’ fate all along, how she’d kept her hand on my back as I took those vitamins, how she’d taken me to the doctor each month. I didn’t know what had become of Teacher Florence, if they’d discovered she’d helped me escape. “I don’t know,” I said. “I can try.”

Beatrice squeezed my fingers so hard her knuckles were white. “That would be good,” she said, her voice breaking.

I enveloped her in a hug, feeling how small she was, her shoulders stooped, her hands clasped tight behind my back. “Yes” was all I could manage as we sat there in the stillness of the room. “I will try.”


“WELL, LOOK AT YOU, CHARLES HARRIS!” MRS. WENTWORTH cried, poking Charles playfully in the chest. “You’re looking more handsome than ever. It must be the glow of looooove,” she drawled, swaying her big hips back and forth. I’d been told Amelda Wentworth was a prominent widow in the City, one of the original founders who had given the King access to her dead husband’s assets, including his trucking company. She’d been like an aunt to Charles, watching him since he was a teenager, when he had first arrived in the City.

“And you, Your Royal Highness,” she added, curtsying. “What a thrill this must be for you. One day you are living in the Schools and the next you’re here, inside the City walls. Princess Genevieve.” She was standing beside us, turning every few moments to glance around the crowded party.

We were in the penthouse of Gregor Sparks, one of the men who’d donated resources after the plague. The three-story apartment at the top of the Cosmopolitan building had a waterfall in the center of the room and recovered Matisse paintings on the walls. It was yet another engagement party, this one with delicate crackers dabbed with cheese and a full roast pig laid out on a silver platter. It was larger than the ones we had at School ceremonies, its haunches spread wide as a worker cut into its tender flesh.

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