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     Once

       part  #2 of  Eve Series  by  Anna Carey / Young Adult / Science Fiction
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The young soldier slowly got up, gesturing for the scarred one to retrieve something from the woods. He staggered off, his hand still clutching his neck. I turned to Arden. She was curled on the ground, crying, her eyes locked on Heddy. “It’s okay, girl,” she whispered. Her cheeks were wet and splotchy. “I’m here, girl. I’m here. ” The dog’s whines grew louder as she dragged herself forward. Blood was streaming down her limp hind leg.

The air filled with the grating, familiar sound of a Jeep’s engine. The scarred soldier pulled the truck out of the woods into the empty lot, while the two others loaded us, one by one, into the back bed. “Enough,” the pale soldier yelled at Arden, unable to stand her crying any longer. “I can’t listen to this. ”

The scarred soldier spun the Jeep around and started back toward the highway. “We can’t leave her like that!” Arden’s voice was choked with sobs. “Can’t you see she’s suffering?”

I pulled at my restraints, wishing I could hold Arden and comfort her. The tears soaked her hair and shirt. But the men ignored her, their eyes on the ramp that led back to 80. She threw herself into the backs of their seats and screamed. “You can’t do this, you can’t leave her,” she cried. “Kill her, please, please, kill her,” she repeated, over and over again, until she was out of breath. Exhausted, she leaned her head against the seat. “What’s wrong with you? Just put her out of her misery. ”

The young soldier put his hand on the driver’s arm, signaling for him to stop. Heddy’s painful cries filled the air. She licked at her side, as if trying to stop the blood.

The young soldier got out and walked across the parking lot toward her. He didn’t flinch, just raised his gun. I turned away. I heard the blast, saw Arden’s crumpled face, and felt the air go still and silent.

As we drove away, Arden buried her face in my neck, her body heaving with quiet sobs. “It’s okay, Arden,” I whispered in her ear, my head resting on hers. But the tears only came faster, her cries inconsolable as the Jeep moved east, into the rising sun.

nine

FIVE HOURS LATER, THE JEEP CAME TO A STOP OUTSIDE A WALL nearly thirty feet high, ivy snaking up its stone front. My skin was sweaty and sunburned, and my hands and feet had gone numb from the restraints. I squinted against the sun, awake and alert. Months on the run, so many near misses and escapes—none of it had mattered. I’d ended up here anyway. The City of Sand.

“Arden—wake up,” I whispered, nudging her in the side. She had fallen asleep a few hours into the trip, her sobs giving way to exhaustion. Her face was red and streaked with tears, her eyes nearly swollen shut.

“This is Stark,” the young soldier spoke into a handset in the front seat. “Nine-five-two-one-eight-zero. We have her here. ” I cringed at how cocky he seemed now that he had me sitting, hands tied, in the back of the truck. He’d been in the front seat during the five-hour ride, talking the driver through each turn, answering the radio whenever it buzzed. The other two glanced at him before doing anything, as if seeking permission. An hour into the journey, Arden and I had loosened the plastic ties and tried to jump from the moving car, but the soldier in the backseat caught sight of us and tied our wrists to the Jeep’s metal carriage.

The air filled with static. “Opening the gate now. You can pull inside,” a voice replied through the handset.

I pulled at the rope threaded through my wrist restraints. “It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” Arden whispered, looking up at the wall. Her shirt hung loose around her chest, exposing the top of the thick pink scar. “All that talk about its grandeur. A bunch of crock. ”

Those twelve years I’d been at School it was always a point among the Teachers, and in all those radio addresses they broadcast in the main hall—the City of Sand was an extraordinary place, the center of The New America, a city in the middle of the desert, restored by the King. Pip and I had talked about our future inside its walls, of the massive luxury apartments overlooking elegant fountains, the train that passed on a track above the street, the shops filled with restored clothing and jewelry. We dreamed of the roller coasters and amusement parks, the zoos, and the towering Palace filled with restaurants and shops. This was nothing like the grand metropolis we’d envisioned. The wall was hardly higher than the one at School, and there were no glittering towers visible beyond it.

The metal gate clanked and shifted, opening slowly. The pale soldier, whose name was Lowell, got out of the Jeep and circled around to Arden, cutting the rope that tied her to the carriage. Stark cut me free as the gate pulled back, exposing a short brick building. His hand was on my arm, moving me from the Jeep’s bed to the backseat.

“No,” Arden muttered as we both realized where we were, her body turning to dead weight as she dropped to the ground. “I’m not going back. ” Lowell yanked her arm, trying to get her on her feet.

Standing on either side of the gate were Joby and Cleo, the two guards who had been fixtures at School for so many years. Their machine guns were aimed at the woods behind us. From the back, the brick building looked smaller than I remembered, with a row of low, barred windows. A grassy yard was beside it, surrounded by a chain-link fence, its top curved inward to prevent escape. A few of the girls were outside, dressed in identical blue paper robes, sitting at two wide stone tables.

The Jeep pulled forward. I ran toward Arden, throwing myself at Lowell. I rammed my shoulder into his side, but with my hands tied behind my back, it was practically useless. He quickly caught his balance, then began pulling Arden through the gate. Cleo grabbed her legs to keep her from kicking. “You can’t do this,” I yelled. Stark’s hand closed around my arm as he escorted me back to the Jeep.

“This is where she belongs,” he said coldly. I looked back at her over my shoulder. Arden struggled against the soldiers, her feet and hands still bound. Lowell covered her mouth as they entered the fenced-in area. He and Cleo passed her off to the two guards by the door as if she were a sack of rice.

“Just one minute,” I pleaded, digging my heels into the earth, refusing to take even one more step. Stark turned to look at me, but his hand was still on my arm. “Can’t you allow me that? You have her here—you did what you came to do. I’m going to the City of Sand. Now I want one minute, just one, to say good-bye. ” He stared at the high fences on either side of the dirt path, then at the building ahead, its stone facade nearly thirty feet high. The soldiers had pulled the Jeep sideways, blocking the gate. There was nowhere for me to go.

Stark finally released me. “You have one minute,” he said. “Do what you need to. ” I started up the dirt path, my skin stinging where he had grabbed me. A woman came out of the building. She wore a paper mask over her mouth. She wheeled a metal bed to the entrance and Cleo strapped Arden down, exchanging the plastic restraints for thicker, sturdier leather ones.

My eyes met Arden’s. When she saw me there, beyond the fence, her body relaxed. “I won’t let them do this to you,” I said. “I won’t. ” She opened her mouth to respond, but Joby pulled her inside, the lock clicking behind them. She was gone.

“What about me?” a familiar voice asked.

I froze, knowing who it was before I turned my head. She stood just two yards away from me, her hands gripping the chain-link fence. I walked toward her, taking in her sweat-dampened black hair, the bruises around her wrists and ankles, the scratchy paper gown that came down to her knees. “Ruby,” I said, looking down at her stomach, hidden behind the robe. She didn’t look like she was pregnant—at least not yet. “You’re okay. ”
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