Once

       part  #2 of  Eve Series  by  Anna Carey / Young Adult / Science Fiction
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Page 8
Isis shook her head. “He was probably making it up. He’s a Stray. ”

Regina was smiling. “She loves him. She can’t just leave him out there. ”

A few of the women started to agree, but Maeve raised her hand to silence them. “No one is going to find Caleb,” Maeve announced. “Because Caleb isn’t even there. The Stray probably lied. They always do. ” Then she turned to me, her face full of concern. “Besides, we couldn’t have you going back into the wild now, not with the King after you. ”

All I heard were the intentions lurking behind each word. You will never leave here, she seemed to say. I won’t let you. She grabbed my arm and ushered me out, following close behind Isis, who was taking Delia. A few other women helped Missy into a chair, offering her their condolences for the knot forming on the back of her head.

Outside, the night was cold and damp. I slipped out of Maeve’s grip. “You’re right,” I said meekly. “It has to be a lie. I guess I just wanted to believe it. ”

Maeve’s face softened and she reached out to squeeze my shoulder. She held Lilac close to her side. “We hear these types of things all the time. Better not to entertain them. ”

I shook my head. “I won’t then. I promise. ”

But as we walked back to her house I slowed my pace, letting her, Lilac, Delia, and Isis get a few steps ahead. Arden ran up behind me. We were both smiling in the dark. She nodded toward the bridge, the idea already taking root. The question that had consumed us was answered. Finally, we knew what to do.

seven

“JUST A LITTLE FARTHER,” ARDEN SAID. SHE CROUCHED BEHIND a burned-out car, her breath short as she pulled Heddy to her, gripping the dog’s rope collar so she wouldn’t move. “We’re almost there. ”

I peered through the binoculars, looking at the tiny, nearly imperceptible lantern light that shone at the top of the stone ledge. Isis was just outside the front entrance to Califia, a black dot moving against the gray landscape. “I can’t tell if she’s using her binoculars anymore,” I said. That night, long after Maeve and Lilac had gone to sleep, we crept into the storage room, carefully collecting supplies and loading them into two backpacks. Then we’d made our way across the bridge, darting from car to truck to car, zigzagging so as not to be seen. Now we’d nearly reached the end: Only a few yards separated us from the short tunnel leading into the city.

“Let’s sprint it just in case,” I said. Each step was unsteady, and my legs felt like they might give out beneath me.

Arden looked at Heddy, smoothing down her soft black ears. “You ready, girl?” she asked. “You have to run fast. Can you do that?” The dog stared at her with big amber eyes, as if she understood. Then Arden turned to me and nodded, signaling for me to go first.

I sprang up from our hiding place, pumping my legs as fast as I could, not looking back at Califia or the lantern or Isis’s silhouette, pacing in front of the stone ledge. Arden followed close behind, jumping over deflated tires, charred bones, and overturned motorcycles. The bag was heavy on my back. The jarred berries and meats inside clanked together as Arden darted ahead, the dog right beside her. I kept running, clutching the binoculars and sprinting toward the black mouth of the tunnel.

I didn’t even see the battered cart. It was lying beneath a truck, its hooked handle reaching for my ankle as I passed. It pulled me, pack and all, to the ground. I screamed as my knee met the pavement.

As Arden ran she turned back, her gaze scanning the mountains. “Get up, get up, get up,” she urged, stepping over the last of the debris until she was safe, out of sight, in the entrance of the tunnel. She and Heddy watched me from there, her voice calling beyond the darkness.

I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the binoculars, which had been crushed beneath me in the fall. My backpack was dripping, and something thick and purple ran down my legs as I limped forward, trying to get out of Isis’s line of sight. When I reached the tunnel, I collapsed against the wall.

“Has she spotted us?” Arden asked, holding the dog back to keep her from licking my face. “Where are the binoculars?”

“Right here. ” I held them up. The center had cracked, leaving the two scopes connected by only a narrow piece of plastic. I pressed them to my face, searching the hillside for signs of her, but both lenses were black. “I can’t see anything,” I said frantically, banging the binoculars against the palm of my hand, trying to fix them.

Isis was probably halfway down the dirt path by now, sprinting to the houses to wake up Maeve. It wouldn’t be long before she came across the bridge to retrieve us. “Come on,” I whispered to myself, shaking the silly contraption to get it to work.

But when I held them to my face again I still couldn’t see anything. No Isis. No Quinn. No Maeve. There was only infinite black in front of me, and my eyes, bloodshot and frightened, reflected in the glass.

THE NARROW HOUSES OF SAN FRANCISCO WERE COVERED IN colorful, ornate carvings, their paint peeling off in sheets. Burned-out cars were piled at the bottom of each hill. There was shattered glass everywhere, making the pavement sparkle.

“We need to pick up the pace,” Arden said. She and Heddy were a few yards ahead of me, wading through the litter on the sidewalk, crushed plastic bottles and foil wrappers coming up past her ankles. She glanced above us. The moon was disappearing, the giant black dome of the sky now streaked with light. “We have to get there before the sun rises. ”

“I’m coming,” I said, looking over my shoulder at the store behind me. A car had smashed through its front window, shattering the glass. Vines and moss hung down over the opening. Inside, beyond some overturned shelves, something moved. I squinted into the darkness, trying to make sense of the shadow, but then it was bounding toward me.

Heddy barked as the deer sprinted out of the store. I watched it disappear down the road. We’d been traveling for four hours, maybe more, snaking our way through the city. We were almost at Route 80 and the bridge that would take us to Caleb. Soon the entrance ramp appeared, covered in moss. I kept waiting for Maeve or Quinn to show up, or for a Stray to jump out and force us to surrender our supplies. But neither happened. I was going to be with Caleb again. With each step I took, it seemed more certain, more real. From now on, it would be Caleb, me, Arden, and Heddy—our own little tribe—hiding out in the wild.

We made our way up the ramp onto 80, weaving through the cars that would be forever frozen in traffic. My steps were lighter as we passed the old construction site Caleb and I had seen the day we’d first arrived. “That’s it!” I cried, as the road curved up, hugging the ocean. The giant building was just ahead, its blue plaster falling down in clumps. IK A was spelled out in yellow letters, with only a faint shadow where the E had once been.

All that separated me from Caleb was an empty parking lot and a concrete wall. I started running, ignoring the ache in my knee from where I had fallen, and Arden’s voice calling out behind me. “You shouldn’t go alone,” she tried.

I had thought about this moment so many times. In those weeks after I arrived in Califia, I’d stare up at the sky, reminding myself that Caleb and I were both underneath it. That wherever he was, whatever he was doing (Hunting? Sleeping? Preparing dinner over a fire?), we would always share something. Sometimes I’d pick a specific building in the city and imagine him inside, reading a water-stained book as he rested there, waiting for his leg to heal. I was convinced we would return to one another—it was only the how and when that had yet to be decided.
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