Authors: Anna Carey
Pip and Ruby were coming closer, weaving through the trees. I could feel Clara watching them, waiting to see if they turned toward us, onto the beach. They'd decided to eat separately, taking their meals to their room for the past two days. They spent the afternoons with Benny and Silas, the mornings scavenging the woods by the lakefront, coming back with the occasional findâa plastic cup, bent fork, or unlabeled can. I hadn't tried to speak to them since our first night. A silence had settled between us. I would think of the words to say, carefully forming another apology, then we'd pass in the corridor. Pip would barely look up, barely acknowledge me, and I'd be reminded again that it wasn't enough. Nothing I said could ever be enough.
Pip had a sack in one hand. She stepped beyond the trees, Ruby following behind. I watched them approach as Sarah filled one pot, then the next. “I just want to be there already,” she said. “I feel like this whole time I've just been waiting. You and Beatrice keep talking about all these things we'll have at Califia, but it just reminds everyone of what we don't have now.”
“We'll leave soon,” I promised, dipping my pot into the water.
My gaze returned to Ruby and Pip. Pip glanced up, and for a moment her face changed, her eyes meeting mine, her lips twisting to one side in an almost smile. She came toward us, holding my gaze for the first time since we'd arrived. “We found some black willow bark,” she said. She pulled the brown flakes from the sack, then looked from me to Helene. “I heard your leg was hurting you last night. This might help.”
Sarah set the pot of water onto the beach, her brows knitted together, as if not quite certain it was Pip who was speaking. She'd ignored most of the girls since our fight. “You eat it?” Sarah asked.
Ruby pointed to the pot of water. “You boil it, then drink the tea. Pip has been reading a book we found in the dugout about natural remedies. Black willow bark helps with pain.” Ruby offered Helene her arm, trying to ease her onto her feet. “Why don't you two come with me. We can make it now, then you'll have plenty for tonight. We can even make some for your trip.” She took one of the pots from Sarah, and they started up the beach. Ruby glanced back, nodding to me before she left.
Pip settled down on the beach. She dug her feet into the sand, her toes just grazing the lake's edge. “She thinks I should talk to you.” She stared straight ahead as she said it, looking out over the lake.
So she was sitting here because Ruby told her to? Now that she'd done it, begrudgingly, she couldn't even look at me. How long was I supposed to wait here in this desperate, pleading place of apology, hoping she'd forgive me? “And what do you think?” I asked.
Pip brushed a few tangled curls away from her face. In the daylight I could see her freckles had faded, the gray circles under her eyes making her look perpetually tired. “I think she's right,” she said. “I think there are still things left to say.”
I dug my fingers into the sand, satisfied when I had a good handfulâsomething, anything to hold on to. “I would change everything if I could,” I said. “You have to know that.”
“I know.” Pip picked up a worn twig from the shore, rubbing it between her fingers before finally turning to me. “But so much of that time in that building I spent thinking about you, worrying about where you were. I thought they might've taken you somewhere else. But when I saw you across the lake, in that dress, it was so obvious you'd been living in the City that whole time. I hated you for not being there with me. And it's too late now. I'm living a life I don't want. I never chose this.” She looked down at her stomach, the T-shirt that tightened around her midsection. Then she lowered her head, pressing her fingers into her eyes.
“There is no choice anymore. I didn't want to be my father's daughter. I was in the City when the siege happenedâI saw my friends hanged. I saw someone I loved shot and killed by soldiers. I didn't want any of it. We're all doing the best we can with what we've been given,” I said, repeating Charles's words. The Palace, that suiteâit felt far away now, a memory from a time before. “And maybe some people's best isn't enough. Maybe I didn't do enough.”
“Someone you loved?” Pip asked. “Is that the one Arden told us about? Caleb?”
“He was killed,” I said. I wasn't sure if I should go on, but it somehow felt wrong that Clara and Beatrice knew something Pip didn't. Even now, even after so much time apart. “I'm pregnant. Nearly four months. I haven't told the other girls.”
Pip studied me. “Why would you do that?” she asked. “Why would you want this?”
“There's no way to prevent it inside the City,” I said. “And with everything the Teachers said, there was no way to know what was the truth. I didn't know all the consequences, but I can't regret what we did. I loved him.”
Pip shook her head. “Both of us,” she said, her eyes misting over. “It just feels like everything is ending, like a part of me has died. Remember last year at this time? Remember all the things we talked about? I kept imagining the apartment we'd have in the City. I thought it would be so incredible to learn a trade, to live beyond the compound walls.”
“We have time still.” I let the sand fall through my fingers, then took her hand in my own. She didn't pull away. “You have to come with us to Califia. It'll be safer for you there, for both of us. You could stay there indefinitely.” She was already shaking her head. “What are you going to do here, with just you and Ruby? You can't stay here foreverâeventually the supplies will run out.”
Pip squeezed my hand hard. “I just can't go right now,” she said. “It doesn't feel right. I'm barely able to manage hereâhow am I going to be on the road for a week?”
“If we take the horses it'll only be a few days. You wouldn't have to walk,” I said.
Pip slipped her hand from under mine, instead resting it on her stomach. “What if something happens on the way to Califia? I'd just rather stay here. I don't care what the risk is. It's too late to leave nowâit's been nearly six months.”
I heard the sound of shifting rocks behind me. Beatrice started down the beach, hugging a sack of clothes. She dropped them on the ground behind Clara and rolled her pants up. She watched us as she waded in, carefully studying Pip, who was still wiping at her eyes. “How many horses are there left?” I asked.
“Maybe six or seven,” Pip said. “They took at least half of them. The others who came through had supplies, too. Someone had stolen one of the government Jeeps.”
“Four days,” I tried again. “That's all. Can you try?”
“I don't have the energy, I don't.” Her chin shook a little, the way it always did when she was trying not to cry. “If you have to go, I'll understand.”
I looked out on the lake, on its still, glassy surface. We'd be safer in Califia. The girls could begin settling in, permanently, making homes for themselves among the rest of the escapees. But how could we leave Ruby and Pip here? As much as I didn't want to accept it, I knew it was more dangerous for her to travel than it was for me. It was likely she was carrying more than one child, like most of the girls from the compound. Since we'd arrived she'd always seemed exhausted, retreating to her room before dinner to sleep for hours, sometimes not waking until after the sun had gone down. “I won't leave you again,” I said.
“But I can't, Eve.”
“I know you can't go,” I said. “Then I won't either.” I wrapped my arm around her shoulder. She pressed her face into my neck, and in an instant we returned to the comfortable silence between us. At School we'd always been good at sharing space with quiet understanding, being alone together without saying a word.
It was a long while before Clara's voice called out from the beach. “We're all finished,” she said, setting the last of the shirts down on the rocks. She came toward us, her expression softening. I could tell she was relieved to see us talking. “I was planning on training the girls this afternoon, assuming the horses are ready?” She looked to Pip.
“They should be,” she said. “Ruby feeds them every morning. She can take you to the stableâit's about a quarter mile from here.”
“Good, then,” Clara said, drying her hands on the front of her pants. “Once the girls have the basics down we can go. Give me two days with them, maybe three, depending on the horses.”
Clara had learned to ride in the City stables, spending the first few years training there. She'd taken me once, and I'd learned just enough to coax the horse around the giant dirt ring.
“I'm going to stay here,” I explained, unable to look at her as I said it. “I'm going to stay with Ruby and Pip until it's safe enough to leave for Califia.”
“Just the three of you?” she asked. “What about the girls?”
“You have to go without me. You know how to ride, and I can show you the route to take. It might even be safer in Califia without me there. They don't know you're related to my father.”
Clara just stood there. She didn't look away, as if she were waiting for me to rethink it, to take it back before it was set. “I'll come as soon as I can,” I ventured. I owed something to Clara, too, for leaving the City with me. Either way, if I stayed or went, I was betraying one of my friends. “I just can't leave them here.”
“Right, I understand,” Clara said, but she looked past me, to where the beach met the trees. “I'll be able to take them the rest of the way.”
She stared at me, the silence settling between us. “It won't be for long,” I said, but she was already turning away, walking quickly up the beach.
BENNY AND SILAS HIT THE WATER FIRST, DIVING UNDER, MOVING
as naturally as fish. The seconds ticked away as I stood there scanning the lake, waiting for them to resurface. When they finally appeared, they were several yards out, pushing each other as they played.
“How'd they do that?” Bette asked. She carefully stepped out of her shoes, letting her feet sink into the sand. “They just disappeared.”
Sarah splashed in easily, not stopping until the water came up to her knees. As she ventured further, her movements were less certain, her eyes locked on the rippling surface. “This is the hard part,” she called to Beatrice, who was standing behind me on shore, Clara beside her. “I can't see my feet. This is where I start to lose it.”
Their voices were somewhere outside me. I'd promised the girls that before they left I would teach them how to swim. I still remembered how Caleb had taught me, the first rush of the water as I went under, how it held me, my feet barely touching the sandy bottom. I'd read that when you missed someone you became them, that you did things to fill the space they'd left so you wouldn't feel so alone. Standing here at the lake, months after he died, I knew it didn't work. Doing these thingsâthe same things he used toâonly made me miss him more.
I walked into the water, oddly comforted by how cold it was. My feet stung for a moment, the feeling waking me. As the rest of the girls started in, I turned, gesturing for Pip and Ruby to join us. They sat on a tree trunk just up the shore, a basket between them, picking the stems out of wild berries.
“Headmistress Burns would not approve,” Ruby said, the faintest hint of a smile appearing on her lips. She combed a few strands of hair away from her face. “It's too dangerous to swim. Haven't you heard of those who drowned before the plague?” She imitated Headmistress Burns's gravelly voice.
It was the closest thing to a joke I'd heard in days. I would've laughed, but Pip was beside her, her steps unsteady. She walked slowly, the exhaustion taking hold. When I'd told Beatrice I was staying, she hadn't argued as I had believed she would. She seemed to agree that Pip needed rest, that it was best for her to be here until she gave birthâsomething we'd navigate together, as best we could, with the small amount of information Beatrice had given me. With Califia still nearly three hundred miles off, it was possible we'd get stranded somewhere along the way. If she wanted to stay, who was I to force her to go?
They came down to the water's edge, watching the girls as they stood in their shorts and T-shirts, some already shivering from the cold. “The first step is to go under,” I said, moving in, closer to Bette and Kit. “Like this.” I pinched my nose and let my legs give out, plunging beneath the surface, the rush of water sounding in my ears. I opened my eyes, watching the bubbles rise to the surface as I exhaled. When the breath throbbed in my lungs, my heartbeat in my ears, I finally came up for air. Only Sarah had gone under, her wet hair clinging to her cheeks.
Bette was watching Benny and Silas, who swam farther out, floating on their backs, their puffed bellies rising above the surface of the water. “Not too far,” I yelled, signaling to the birch tree that had fallen into the lakeâthe marker the boys had once used to keep them close to the beach. Benny lifted his head, as if he heard me, then disappeared again, flipping back below the water.
“I'll watch them. Don't worry,” Beatrice said, dropping three tattered shirts in the shallows. She pounded the fabric against the rocks, cleaning them as a few more girls went under. Bette stopped at her neck, wincing as she slowly slipped into the lake.
I pulled the wet sweater away from my body, but it still clung to me. Instead I sunk down, submerging myself up to my chest, letting the lake hide me. I looked out again at Benny and Silas, who were spitting mouthfuls of water at each other. Beatrice kept her eyes on them, as she said she would, making sure they didn't go too far. “You're designed to float. Just flip onto your back,” I said, moving to Sarah. She laid down and I adjusted her shoulders, helped her legs so she was in a perfect T. “Now fill your lungs. Keep your arms out, and keep looking up.” I removed my hand from under her back and she dipped down an inch or so but remained on the surface. Her face broke into a smile.