Once, p.9
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       Once, p.9

         Part #2 of Eve series by Anna Carey  
Page 9

  When I reached the glass doors, they were locked, their metal handles threaded with a heavy chain. But two of the bottom panes had been kicked out, and I crawled through, careful not to cut myself on the shards of glass. Inside, the massive store was dark and silent. The morning light coming in through the doors cast a faint glow on the concrete floor. I felt for the flashlight in my pack and turned it on, making my way farther in.

  The beam flitted around the room, settling on a crate of moldy pillows, then on an old bed frame and a dresser, a lamp and books sitting on top of it as though it were someone’s home. A kitchen was nestled in one corner, the refrigerator and stove still in place, and a sitting room down the hall with a long blue sofa. I had passed stores before, seen their long, narrow interiors, but this felt like a giant maze, with each room spilling into the next.

  I heard a rustling and jumped back, the beam of the flashlight hitting the floor just in time to reveal a rat scurrying by. In the dining room beyond, a few of the chairs were turned on their sides. I didn’t want to risk calling out into the darkness. Instead I kept silent, walking as lightly as I could over litter and broken glass.

  I wound through the rooms, shining the flashlight in corners to be certain I hadn’t missed anything. I moved past beds and tables and chairs, my eyes slowly adjusting to the dark. I was looking in one of the fake shower stalls when I heard it: a faint coughing. It was coming from my right, a few rooms away. “Here,” a voice called weakly. “Eve? I’m here. ”

  I covered my mouth, too shaken to reply. Instead I ran, weaving through the rooms, my heart light. Caleb was alive. He was here. He had survived.

  As I got closer I spotted three candles on the floor. A man’s silhouette was visible on the bed. I started toward him, but when I reached the bedroom, he wasn’t alone. There were more of them—three men altogether. One sat in an armchair in the corner, his skin ghostly pale. Another stood by the room’s other entrance, blocking the path through. His face was scarred, and he wore dirt-caked pants and the same boots Missy had described in Califia. The others were in uniform, the New American crest pasted on their shirtsleeves.

  “Hello, Eve,” the man on the bed offered. “We’ve been waiting for you. ” He sat up slowly and studied me, his face half in shadow. The thin hairs on the back of my neck bristled. I knew him. I knew this man.

  His eyes looked out from behind thick black lashes. He was young—no older than seventeen—but his face seemed more mature than it did when we’d encountered him at the base of the mountain that day. The day I had shot and killed the two soldiers. After he had stitched up Caleb’s leg, I had released him. I had let him go free, only to find him here, now, in this strange place.

  The soldier with the scarred face crossed his arms over his chest. “I was wondering how long it would take for you to get the message. ” He looked to the others. “Word spreads quickly among Strays, doesn’t it?”

  My thoughts went immediately to Arden. She and Heddy were probably at the door, working their way inside the building. They had followed me here, on my stupid insistence. I had led Arden into danger once before. It couldn’t happen again.

  I needed to warn them.

  The young soldier nodded to the other two and they rushed forward. The flashlight was heavy in my hand. I didn’t think. As the pale one came at me, I swung, landing one blow across his cheekbone. He stumbled backward, into the other one, giving me just enough time to slip away. I took off through the maze, jumping over chairs and tables and broken lamps. I could hear them gaining on me, their steps close as I reached the entrance.

  Arden was readying herself to climb through the broken glass door. Heddy started barking, growing more frantic as we neared. Boots pounded the concrete floor behind me. Heddy barked even louder. I kept running, aiming for the opening in the door. I didn’t look back as I threw myself through it, screaming the only word I could manage.

  “Run!”

  eight

  GLASS SLICED INTO MY BARE ARM. FOR A BRIEF MOMENT THE world was completely still. My body was halfway through the broken door. I saw the empty parking lot before me, weeds sprouting up through the cracks in the pavement. Heddy was snarling. Frantic, Arden grabbed me under the arms and pulled, trying to get me out. Then a hand was on my ankle, fingernails digging into my skin as one of the soldiers dragged me back into the warehouse.

  Heddy bolted through the door beside me and sank her teeth into his leg. “It’s on me,” the young soldier screamed to the others. Heddy was growling, a low rumbling sound that filled the air as she shook her head back and forth, tearing through his pants and into his flesh. She knocked him down and he finally released me. I turned to see his head smash into the floor, his eyes squeezed shut in pain. “Shoot it!” he yelled.

  Arden kept pulling, my blood soaking her sleeve, until I was out in the open air of the parking lot. It was nearly fifty yards to the road. Woods spread out behind the warehouse; the dense trees would provide cover. I got up and ran toward them but Arden was frozen, staring at the doors. Heddy was still inside. She had the soldier pinned down and was barking in his face. When the other two came out of the darkness she bared her teeth, as if guarding a fresh kill. “Heddy, come, come here,” Arden urged, smacking her hand on her thigh. “Get over here!”

  The soldier dressed as a Stray pulled a gun from his waist. He aimed at the dog but she lurched suddenly, biting into the young soldier’s arm. “Just shoot it!” he yelled from the floor.

  “We have to go,” I said, pulling Arden away.

  “Come, Heddy!” Arden tried again as she ran backward, away from the store. “Come—”

  A shot sounded. Heddy let out a horrible whimper and staggered away, her side bleeding. The soldier helped the boy up, then shot the chain holding the doors closed until it broke. The three men walked out into the parking lot.

  I grabbed Arden’s hand, pulling her toward the woods behind the warehouse, but she dragged her feet, staring at the building. Heddy had started limping after the men, her hind leg completely paralyzed. “Arden, we have to go,” I urged, yanking her in my wake. The men followed us, but Arden was barely moving, her neck craned backward at the suffering dog. “Come on,” I pleaded.

  But it was no use. Within seconds, they had caught up to us. “Lowell, get her,” the young soldier said, pointing at Arden. The pale one grabbed Arden’s elbow and yanked her arms behind her back. She kicked wildly but the other one grabbed her legs, tying a plastic restraint around her ankles. In one swift motion he tightened it and she stopped kicking, her legs twisted and trapped.

  As they held her down, the young soldier came toward me. His steps were unhurried. His leg was raw where Heddy had bitten him, a bloodstain spreading over the thin green fabric of his uniform.

  “I’m taking you in,” he said calmly. His face was more angular than I remembered. His nose had a large red bump on its bridge, as if it had been broken recently. He grabbed my wrist but I pulled my fist downward, just as Maeve had shown me all those weeks before, when I’d first arrived in Califia. It slipped out from underneath his thumb. Then I leaned down, levering myself against the pavement, and landed my elbow into the soft nook of his crotch. He doubled over, his bloodshot eyes watering.

  I ran at the two others. The one with the scar looked surprised right before I punched him, as hard as I could, in the neck. He made a wheezing noise and staggered back, releasing Arden’s legs. The pale one dropped Arden on the ground and sprang on top of me, pressing me to the pavement. “You’re lucky,” he whispered in my ear. I could feel his breath, hot and wet, against my skin. “If you were anyone else I’d slit your throat. ” He took a plastic restraint from his pocket and looped it over my wrists, pulling it so tight the blood throbbed in my hands.

 
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