Once / Page 50

Page 50


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The silence was enough to raise the fine hairs on my arms. Two backpacks sat on the ground by my feet, unzipped, the contents riffled through. I knew immediately something had gone wrong. I backed out of the room. I took in the hangar—the rusted staircases that were scattered in the corners, the towering airplanes above. In the plane to the left of me, all of the shades were down except one. Something—or someone—moved inside. I turned and started toward the door, keeping my face down.

I was nearly at the exit when a familiar voice called out, echoing against the walls. “Don’t move, Genevieve.”

I glanced up. The first of the soldiers were exiting the airplane, their guns fixed on me. Their faces were covered in hard plastic masks. “Keep your hands where we can see them.” Stark was in front, circling me at a distance.

Two more appeared from behind a staircase in the corner, while yet another emerged from the tunnel. They spread out across the hangar, moving along the concrete walls to either side of the entrance.

Stark was on me now, yanking my wrists behind my back and looping a plastic restraint around them. I kneeled down, afraid my legs might give out beneath me. I thought only of Caleb, hoping one of the dissidents had warned him of the raid.

As Stark took me toward the back room I heard footsteps nearing the door to the hangar. Someone was coming. The soldiers crouched beside the entrance, their guns in hand, waiting. Before I could act the door opened. Harper stepped inside. I saw him process the scene, just a second too late. He fell first. It happened so quickly I didn’t realize he’d been shot. I just saw him lean against the doorframe, the open wound in his chest where the first bullet hit him.

I stood up from the floor. “Caleb! They’re here,” I shrieked, my voice strange as it left my mouth. “Turn around!”

Stark put his hand over my lips. Caleb was just rounding the corner, his face barely in view. His eyes met mine and then I heard the gun, the shot that ripped through his side. It sounded louder in the massive concrete space, ricocheting off the walls. I watched him stagger back. He lowered himself to the ground, his arm crushed beneath him, his face contorted and strange. I kneeled there, refusing to look away as he seized up, his eyes squeezed shut in pain. Then the soldiers moved in, the great mass of them swallowing him whole.

forty-one

THE JEEP MOVED QUICKLY, SPEEDING THROUGH STREETS ROPED off for the parade. Thousands of people leaned over the barricades, still cheering for their Princess, searching the route for signs of her. I was hunched over in the backseat, curled in on myself, unable to believe what had happened. My hands were scraped from when they’d taken me from the hangar. I’d struggled in the soldier’s grip, trying to grab onto anything I could, but they’d dragged me away before I could get to Caleb.

Caleb has been shot, I told myself. I saw his face again as the bullet went through him. He was alone there, on that cold concrete floor, the blood spreading out beneath him.

We sped up the Palace’s long driveway. They ushered me inside, past the marble fountains. The main floor had been emptied out for the wedding, our footsteps sounding down the hollow hall. Reginald was the only one there. He was pacing outside the elevator, that stupid notebook in his hand. He bit down on the end of his pencil.

“Stay away from me,” I said, already imagining the story that would run the following day—how enemies of The New America had been caught the morning of the wedding. How the citizens were all so much safer now. “Don’t even try.”

“Can I have a moment with the Princess?” Reginald asked the soldiers, ignoring my comment. “She needs to be debriefed before she goes upstairs.” The soldiers cut my restraints and stepped away, watching us.

“What do you want?” I asked when we were alone. I rubbed at my wrists. “Some quote about what a joy today has been?”

He rested his hand on my shoulder. His eyes darted to the soldiers, now stationed along the walls of the circular lobby. “Listen to me,” he said slowly, his words barely above a whisper. His face was calm. “We don’t have much time.”

“What are you doing?” I tried to push him away but he came closer, his hand still on me, his fingers digging into my skin.

“It’s over,” he said softly. “As far as you are concerned there is no Trail, there are no more tunnels. You never met Harper, or Curtis, or any of the other dissidents. As far as you know, Caleb was working alone.”

“What do you know about Caleb?”

Reginald looked down. “A lot. Harper and Caleb died today, fighting against this regime.”

I shook my head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Look at me,” he said, squeezing my shoulder. He didn’t stop until my eyes met his. “You know me as Reginald—but others know me as Moss.”

He stepped back, letting his words sink in. I stared at his face, seeing him for the first time, the man who was always scribbling in that notepad, running stories in the paper, clipping quotes to suit his needs. This was the same man who’d helped Caleb out of the labor camps, who’d helped build the dugout. He was the one who’d organized the Trail. “Caleb’s dead,” I repeated. A numbness spread out in my chest.

“You have to continue on as though this never happened,” he continued. “You have to marry Charles.”

“I don’t have to do anything.” I struggled free from his grip. “What will that accomplish?” The sound of cheering swelled outside the Palace’s front entrance.

“You need to be here as the Princess,” he whispered, his lips an inch away from my ear. “So you can kill your father.”

He stared at me intently. He didn’t say anything else, instead flipping open the pad and pretending to make notes of our conversation. Then he signaled the soldiers back over, following us into the elevator in complete silence.

forty-two

WHEN I RETURNED TO MY SUITE, THE KING WAS WAITING FOR me. He stared at the wedding dress laid out on the bed, a bundle of papers clutched in his hands.

“You said you’d let him go. You showed me pictures, took me to his cell,” I said, unable to contain my anger any longer. “You lied to me.”

The King paced the length of the room. “I don’t need to explain myself, certainly not to you. You don’t understand this country. You knew about people who were building a tunnel to the outside and you didn’t tell me.” He turned, leveling his finger in my face. “Do you have any idea what kind of danger that would’ve put civilians in? Having an open passage into the wild?”

“The soldiers shot them,” I said, my voice trembling.

The King crumpled the papers in his hand. “Those men have been organizing dissidents for months, planning to bring weapons and who knows what into this City. They had to be stopped.”

“Killed,” I snapped, the tears hot in my eyes. “You mean killed—not ‘stopped.’ Say what you mean.”

“Do not speak to me that way.” The blood rushed to his face. “I’ve had enough. I came here this morning, early, to bring you this,” he said, throwing the bundle of papers at me. They landed on the floor. “I came to tell you how proud I was of you and the woman you’re becoming.” He let out a low, sorrowful laugh.


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