Once

       part  #2 of  Eve Series  by  Anna Carey / Young Adult / Science Fiction

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Once

one

I STARTED OVER THE ROCKS, CLUTCHING A KNIFE IN ONE hand. The beach was strewn with sun-battered boats, long since wrecked on shore. The ship before me had washed in just this morning. It stood twenty feet tall, nearly twice as large as the others. I climbed up its side, feeling the cool wind coming in off the water. The sky was still thick with fog.

As I wandered over the boat’s peeling deck, I felt Caleb beside me, his hand resting on the small of my back. He pointed at the sky, showing me the pelicans plummeting into the sea or the way the fog rolled over the mountains, covering everything with a layer of white. Sometimes I found myself speaking to him, muttering sweet, muted words only I could hear.

It had been nearly three months since I’d last seen him. I’d been living in Califia, the all-female settlement founded more than ten years before as a haven for women and girls in the wild. We had come from all over, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. Some had been widowed after the plague and no longer felt safe living alone. Some had escaped violent gangs who’d held them hostage. Others, like me, were escapees from the government Schools.

Growing up in that walled-in compound, I’d spent every day looking over the lake at the windowless building on the other side—the trade school where we would have gone after graduation. But the night before the ceremony, I found out my friends and I weren’t going to learn skills to contribute to The New America. With the population decimated by the plague, they didn’t need artists or teachers—they needed children, and we were destined to provide them. I barely escaped, only to discover my true fate was so much worse. As valedictorian of the School, I had been promised to the King as his future wife, to bring his heirs into the world. He would always be searching for me, wouldn’t stop until I was locked inside the walls of the City of Sand.

I climbed a ladder to the boat’s top cabin. Two chairs sat in front of a broken windshield and a metal steering wheel so rusted it no longer moved. Waterlogged papers were piled up in corners. I sorted through the cabinets underneath the controls, looking for cans of food, salvage able clothing, any tools or utensils I could bring back to town. I tucked a metal compass in my knapsack, along with some frayed plastic rope.

Down on the deck, I approached the main cabin, covering my nose with my shirt. I slid open the cracked glass door. Inside, the curtains were drawn. A corpse wrapped in a blanket lay on a couch, sunken into its moldy cushions. I moved quickly, careful to breathe through my mouth, and ran my flashlight over the cabinets, finding an unmarked can of food and some damp books. I was checking the damage to the books when the boat shifted slightly beneath my feet. Someone was shuffling around in the sleeping cabin below. I drew my knife and pressed myself against the wall beside the cabin door, listening to the footsteps.

The stairs below creaked. I gripped the knife. I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Light streamed in between the curtains, a sliver of sun moving across the cabin wall. In an instant the door flew open. A figure rushed in. I grabbed his collar, sending him hurtling onto the floor. I jumped on top of him, my knees pressing his shoulders to the ground, the knife blade resting against the side of his neck.

“It’s me, it’s me!” Quinn’s dark eyes peered up at me. Her arms were pinned to the floor.

I sat back, feeling my heartbeat slow. “What are you doing here?”

“Same thing as you,” she said.

In the struggle, I’d let my shirt fall away from my mouth and nose, and the room’s putrid stink was choking me. I helped Quinn up as fast as I could. She brushed off her clothes as we stumbled outside, the stinging, salty air a relief.

“Look what I found. ” She held up a pair of purple sneakers, their laces knotted together. The circular emblem on the ankles read CONVERSE ALL STAR. “I’m not trading these. Going to keep them for myself. ”

“I don’t blame you. ” I offered her a small smile. The canvas was miraculously intact, in great shape compared to most of the items I’d found. Califia used a barter system, and beyond that we all contributed in different ways—scavenging, cooking, growing crops, hunting, repairing the crumbling houses and storefronts. I had a post in the bookshop, restoring old novels and encyclopedias, lending extra copies, and offering reading tutorials for anyone interested.

A tiny cut had appeared on Quinn’s neck. She rubbed at it, smearing blood between her fingers. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Maeve’s always warning me about Strays. ” Maeve was one of the Founding Mothers, a term given to the eight women who had first settled in Marin. She had taken me in, letting me share a bedroom with her seven-year-old daughter, Lilac. During my first days in Califia, Maeve and I had gone out every morning to explore. She’d shown me which areas were safe and how to defend myself should I come across a Stray.

“I’ve been through worse,” Quinn said, letting out a low laugh. She climbed down the side of the boat to the beach. She was shorter than most of the women in Califia, with curly black hair and tiny features crowded in the center of her heart-shaped face. She lived in a houseboat on the bay with two other women, and they spent most of their days hunting in the thick woods around the settlement, bringing back deer and wild boar.

She helped me cross the rocky beach, her dark eyes studying my face. “How are you holding up?”

I watched the waves hit the sand, the water white and relentless. “Much better. Each day it’s easier. ” I tried to sound buoyant, happy, but it was only partially true. When I’d first arrived in Califia, Caleb had been by my side, his leg wounded from an encounter with the King’s troops. But he wasn’t allowed in. No men were—it was a rule. Caleb had known all along, and had brought me here not so we could be together, but because he thought it was the only place I’d be safe. I’d waited all this time to hear word of him, but he hadn’t sent a message to me through the Trail, the secret network that connected escapees and rebels. He hadn’t left word with the guards at the gate.

“You’ve only been here a few months. It takes time to forget. ” Quinn rested her hand on my shoulder, leading me toward the edge of the beach, where the back wheel of her bike stuck out of the dune grass.

Those first weeks I’d been in Califia, I was hardly present. I’d sit with the women at dinner, pushing soft white fish around my plate, only half listening to the conversations going on around me. Quinn was the one who’d first drawn me out. We’d spend afternoons in a restored restaurant near the bay, drinking beer the women brewed in plastic pails. She told me about her School, about how she’d escaped by crawling out a broken window and stalking the gate, waiting for the supply trucks to make their weekly delivery. I told her about the months I’d spent on the run. The other women knew the broad strokes of my story—an encoded message detailing the murders in Sedona had already come through the radio used by the Trail. The women knew the King was after me, and they had seen the injured boy I’d helped across the bridge. But in the quiet of the restaurant I’d told Quinn everything about Caleb and Arden and Pip.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” I said. Already the past was receding, the details of what had happened growing hazier each day I was in Califia. It was getting harder to remember Pip’s laugh or the green of Caleb’s eyes.
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