Once, p.5
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       Once, p.5

         Part #2 of Eve series by Anna Carey  
Page 5

  Her words raised the fine hairs on my arms. Isis had lived in a houseboat for the last two years. She was one of the other Founding Mothers, and had survived in San Francisco after the plague by seeking refuge in an abandoned warehouse before finding her way across the bridge. I’d sat in her kitchen, eaten meals at her table, talked with her about the antique jewelry one of the women had recovered or her friend who was training to cut hair. I felt stupid now for having trusted her.

  “I’m not throwing her out,” Quinn said. “Tell her, Maeve. Tell her we won’t. ”

  I could hear Maeve pacing back and forth, the floor creaking underneath her feet. Even in my darkest moments, when I imagined what might’ve happened to Caleb, when I wondered about Pip, or Ruby, or the fate of my other friends, I never considered that I’d be forced out of Califia, that I’d be sent back into the wild, alone.

  After a long pause, Maeve finally let out a breath. “We’re not throwing anyone out,” she said. Arden squeezed my fingers so hard it hurt. In the faint light, her face looked even thinner, her cheeks hollow and gray. “Besides, it would be silly not to use this to our advantage. If the King discovers her here, he discovers all of us. And we’ll need her as a bargaining chip. ”

  My chest tightened. “If that’s how you rationalize letting her stay, fine,” Quinn tried again. “But he won’t track her here. She’s no more of a risk than anyone else. ”

  “I hope you’re right,” Maeve said. “But if he does, we won’t be martyred on her behalf. You’ll take her to the bunker and stay there until we’re ready to release her to the troops. This could be our chance at independence from the regime. ”

  I felt sick, remembering how I had thanked Maeve endlessly after I’d arrived—when she set a plate of food in front of me, when she found clothes for me at the store, when she heated rainwater for my baths. It’s nothing, she’d said, waving me off. We’re happy to have you.

  A few more whispered words passed between them before Maeve strode out of the living room, Isis and Quinn following right behind. Arden and I slid back, trying to stay out of sight. “They’re not going to find her here—they have no reason to,” Quinn said, one last time.

  “It’s nearly four,” Maeve said, holding up her hand. “There’s nothing more to say. Why don’t you two go home and get some rest?” She carefully opened the door and parted the thick curtain of ivy that hid the front entrance. As they left, I could hear Isis starting the argument again.

  Maeve turned the lock and started up the stairs. All the breath left my body. Arden and I scurried along the wall like mice, desperate to get back to our room. We landed in bed just as Maeve reached the top step. I pulled the blanket up over us and lay my head down, closing my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

  The door opened. The glow of a lantern warmed our faces. She knows you were listening, I thought, my mind sprinting ahead of me. She knows and now she’ll lock you in that bunker until she turns you over to the King.

  But the light was steady. She didn’t move. I only felt the heavy dog at my feet, her head lifting, probably offering Maeve the same sweet gaze she’d offered me.

  “What are you looking at?” Maeve finally muttered. Then she closed the door behind her and started down the hall, leaving us there in the dark.


  THE FOLLOWING DAY WAS OPPRESSIVELY BRIGHT. I’D GOTTEN used to the gray skies of San Francisco, the fog that settled on us every morning, rolling over the hills and out to sea. Now, as Arden and I left Maeve’s house, the sun burned my skin. The reflection off the bay was blinding. Even the birds seemed too cheerful, chattering away in the trees.

  “Remember—we didn’t hear anything,” I whispered. But Arden’s lips were pressed into a thin line. She’d never been good at pretending. Back at School she’d been in a miserable mood in the weeks before her escape. She’d separated herself from the rest of us, standing at the sink in the corner as she brushed her teeth, not looking at us as she hunched over the dining hall table during meals. I’d suspected she was planning something that night before graduation, but had assumed it was another of her stupid pranks. I never would’ve guessed the truth.

  We wound down the narrow, vine-covered path until it emptied out to the waterfront. The skeletal remains of boats were piled up on the rocks, their windows smashed in, their paint peeling away. A few rested belly-up. Out across the bay, the rest of Marin was just a green mound, the trees growing between the houses, hiding them under their leaves.

  Arden pulled the linen shirt around her thin frame, steeling herself against the wind blowing in off the water. “I could barely look at Maeve at breakfast,” she said. Heddy walked beside us, her black fur shining in the sunlight. “Knowing she’s planning to—”

  “We can’t talk about this here,” I said, glancing at the row of shrouded storefronts. The front window of a café was covered with newspaper, but I could hear women cooking—pots clanking against one another, water sloshing around in the sink. “Wait until we’re on the boat. ”

  It was impossible to find privacy in the small city, which housed over two hundred women. A few of the shops and restaurants along the shore were in working order, while others remained hidden and unused in the dense brush. Every woman had carved out a place for herself, a purpose.

  “Good morning, Eve!” Coral, one of the oldest Founding Mothers, called as she came down the path. She was carrying three chickens to slaughter, their bodies paralyzed as they hung upside down by their feet. Heddy barked at the birds, but Arden yanked her back. “Beautiful day, isn’t it? Reminds me of life before. ” Coral glanced at the sky, the green, tangled hillside, the broken dock that stretched into the water.

  “Lovely,” I said quickly, trying my best to smile. I had taken an immediate liking to Coral when I’d arrived. She’d spent her whole life in Mill Valley with her husband. They lived as Strays for three years before he died. I loved the stories she told, of how she’d grown her own garden and cooked on an open fire in her backyard. She’d once lured a gang across town so they wouldn’t discover the stockpile of goods in her storm cellar. But now even she seemed unfriendly. I wondered if she knew about the plan. I wondered if she’d always seen me as a way of negotiating Califia’s independence.

  The old woman passed. Up ahead, Maeve and Isis were coming along the path on a horse, towing a cartload of reclaimed clothes. Every month they traveled to a different town beyond Muir Woods and searched the houses to find goods to distribute or barter at the shops in Califia.

  I glanced sideways at Arden, then at the rowboat tied to the dock. It was one of the few boats the women had restored, its insides coated with a thin layer of wax. “We better go now,” I said. I could feel Maeve’s eyes on us. She had dismounted and approached the shore as we started toward the dock.

  I untied the boat, looking over my shoulder to address her. “Thought I’d take Arden and Heddy out on the bay today. Show them what Califia has to offer. ” I climbed in, trying to keep my movements calm and deliberate. I took an oar in each hand, thankful when the wood dipped into the water, the resistance steadying my shaking fingers. Arden lowered herself into the boat and called for Heddy to follow.

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