Once / Page 4

Page 4


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“Tell me.”

She turned to me, her eyes glassy in the lantern light. “I got lost,” she said, her voice soft. “That’s why it took me so long to get here. I went north out of Sedona and then I found Heddy. We’d been together a week when it got so hot I could barely walk during the day. Heddy kept darting under the bushes, trying to avoid the sun. Finally I decided we’d just wait out the heat wave. Find a place to rest.” She moved the wet towel over her cracked lips, sloughing off the dead skin. “We took our supplies into this underground parking lot. As we went down each ramp it got cooler, more bearable, but darker, too. I was trying to get this car door open when I heard a man’s voice. He was yelling, but nothing he said made any sense.”

I lay down beside her, curling myself into a ball. Her mouth twisted into a half smile, and she looked up at the bottom of the other mattress, its springs straining against the fabric. “It was so dark, but I could smell him. It was foul. He grabbed me and pushed me over the hood of a car. He was choking me, and I felt the blade on my neck. Then, before I could even process it, he was on the ground and Heddy was on top of him. She kept going until he was quiet.” I looked down at the dog, whose face was crusted with dirt. Patches of hair on her neck were missing, the exposed skin pocked and scabbed. “I’ve never heard silence like that.”

“I hate that I wasn’t there,” I said. “I’m so sorry, Arden.”

Arden pulled the towel away from her neck. “I didn’t even realize he’d gotten me until after we were above ground, in the light. Heddy and I were both covered in blood.” The dog jumped onto the bed and lay at our feet, the mattress sagging under her weight. She rested her chin beside Arden’s foot. “I would’ve died if it hadn’t been for her.”

Arden ran her hand over her head. Soft black fuzz was growing in, but I could still see the skin of her skull. “That’s why I did this. I thought it would be safer to travel as a man. Only a few other Strays spotted me after that, and they all left me alone. A single man in the wild doesn’t draw as much attention as a woman.”

“I hope that’s the case,” I said, my thoughts drifting back to Caleb. My gaze settled on the window. Maeve’s house was up the road from the water. I could just make out the moon’s reflection on the surface of the bay. “Caleb found me after I left you. He tracked me down, and we came here together.”

“They wouldn’t let him stay, would they?” Arden asked. She pulled the crocheted blanket over herself, her fingers peeking out from the colorful wool squares. “They thought it was too dangerous?”

“His leg was wounded. He could barely walk,” I said. I twisted a fistful of blanket in my hands, not wanting to revisit that moment at the end of the bridge.

Arden shifted so her body was pressed against the wall. She tucked her toes underneath Heddy, who was still curled up at the foot of the bed, the sound of her breath filling the small room. “He’ll find his way back to the dugout,” she offered. “He’s been living in the wild for years. He’ll be okay.”

I ducked under the covers, careful not to upset the dog. “Right, I know,” I said softly, pressing my cheek against the musty pillow. But the thoughts took hold again. I kept imagining Caleb in an abandoned house, his leg badly infected.

Arden closed her eyes. Her face relaxed, her features softening. She fell asleep easily, her grip on the blanket loosening a little with each passing minute. I inched closer to her, letting my head rest on her shoulder. I lay like that for a while, listening to her breaths, each one a faint reminder that I was no longer alone.

four

I WAS IN THE FIELD AGAIN, MY FACE PRESSED INTO THE EARTH. I’d just escaped from Fletcher’s truck. He was coming through the trees, the thin branches snapping under his weight, his breath heavy and choked with phlegm. Wildflowers were crushed under me. Their delicate blooms released a sickening scent as I stared at my hands, my fingers orange from the pollen. Then he saw me. He raised his gun. I tried to run, tried to get away, but it was too late. He pulled the trigger, the blast echoing through the field.

I shot up in bed. My skin was covered in a thin layer of sweat. It took me a moment to realize I was in Califia, in Maeve’s house, in the tiny room with the flowered wallpaper. I’d heard something downstairs—a door banging shut. I looked around. The candle had gone out. Cold air rushed through a crack in the window. I rubbed at my eyes, waiting for them to adjust to the dark.

Someone was in the downstairs foyer. Heddy raised her massive head, listening as closely as I was. “Quiet down,” I heard Maeve say. She was in the living room, or the kitchen, maybe, speaking to whoever had just come inside. “She’s upstairs.”

Heddy let out a low growl, and Arden started awake beside me. “What is it?” she asked, sitting up, her back rigid. Her eyes darted around the room. “Who’s there?”

I brought my finger to my lips to silence her, then pointed to the door. It was open just a crack. I crept toward it, signaling for her to follow. The voices had quieted down, but I could still hear Maeve’s urgent whispers, and another woman’s tense, hurried replies.

The hallway was dark. The staircase was surrounded by a fragile wooden banister, its posts missing in places. Arden shut Heddy inside the bedroom, and we crawled along the floor until we reached the stairs. Lying on our stomachs, we peered over the ledge. An eerie light glowed in the living room. “He knows she’s here—he was the one who brought her. And now this new girl shows up,” Isis said, her low, raspy voice giving her away. “Who else is out there looking for her? This isn’t how we’ve operated in the past, we can’t just—”

“Since when do we have a policy of throwing women out into the wild?” I recognized Quinn’s turquoise shirt. She was leaning against the doorframe, her back to us, gesturing with her hands as she spoke.

Isis raised her voice. “This is different. All the women are talking—all of them are concerned. We’re practically begging the King to track her here. Maybe today wasn’t the day, but it’s only a matter of time.”

I turned toward Arden, letting my cheek rest on the cold floor. Most of the women had been welcoming since I’d arrived, but there was always the worry, just beneath the surface, that I could upset the balance of Califia. That all those years of building their city, clearing out the old storefronts and houses and reclaiming them, all those years of hiding behind a layer of ivy and moss, the days spent in darkness every time movement was detected inside the city—all of it would be gone in a moment if the King ever discovered me.

“She’s no more of a threat than we were,” Quinn said. “We were all property of the King. When I showed up no one argued that I should be thrown out because troops might storm Califia. When Greta was rescued from that gang, no one cared about the raids that might happen. Those men could’ve killed us all.”

“Please,” Isis hissed. “You know this is different.” I leaned farther forward, but I still couldn’t see her through the doorway. “They’ve been looking for her for months now. You’ve heard the alerts on the radio. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be stopping anytime soon.”


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