Authors: Anna Carey
“What girls?” I watched the Jeeps make their way down the main road, stopping and starting up again. A handful of soldiers were standing in the middle of the pavement, directing them. There were a few dozen trucks, at least. It was the most cars I'd ever seen driving in one place.
“The girls from the Schools,” he said. He rested his hand on my back, as if that gesture alone could calm me. “I heard your father talking about it today. They said it was a preventive measure after what happened at the camps.”
The King had been locked in his office with his advisers after dinner. I knew they were developing a defense strategy, that much was clear, but I hadn't imagined they would go so far as to evacuate the Schools. Before I could process it, tears collected in the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision. They were here, finally, impossiblyâRuby, Arden, and Pip.
“Is it all of the girls? How many total?” I moved quickly around the room, pulling a sweater from the wardrobe and a pair of narrow pants from the closet. I yanked them on under my nightgown, not bothering to go into the bathroom as I normally did. I turned my bare back to Charles as I traded the gown for a soft beige sweater.
When I spun back around he was staring at me, his cheeks flushed. “I believe it's all of them. It's supposed to be done by sunrise. They don't want it to be public.”
“That'll be impossible.” I glanced behind him, at the building across the way. A few other lights had gone on in the apartments. Silhouettes passed behind the curtains, looking down at the scene below.
He didn't respond. Instead he studied me as I pulled on the shiny black flats from the bottom of my closet. Alina, my new maid, rarely allowed me to wear them in public, insisting on the formal heels that pinched my toes and made me feel like I was falling forward. “You can't leaveâit's past curfew,” Charles said, realizing what I was doing. “The soldiers won't let you out.”
I grabbed a suit jacket from a hanger, along with the pants that were folded underneath. “They will,” I said, tossing them at him one by one, “if you're with me.”
He glanced at me, then at the clothes, which were balled up against his chest. Slowly, without a word, he went into the bathroom to change.
IT TOOK US NEARLY AN HOUR TO REACH THE HOSPITAL IN THE
Outlands. The vehicles were still clustered on the main road, so a soldier escorted us by foot. As we walked, I kept my head down, my eyes on the sandy pavement. The last time I'd been in this area I was going to meet Caleb. The still night had enveloped me, spurred on by the possibility of a life together beyond the walls, the possibility of
. Now the faint outline of the airport rose up in the distance. My eyes found the hangar where we'd spent the night. The thin plane blankets had provided little protection from the cold. Caleb had brought my hand to his lips, kissing each finger before we fell asleep .Â .Â .
A queasy, unsettled feeling consumed me. I held the cold air in my lungs, hoping it would pass. As we moved further into the Outlands my thoughts shifted from Caleb to Pip. The last time I'd spoken to my friends was months before, on an “official” visit I'd negotiated with my father. I'd returned to our School to see them, agreeing to address the younger students there. Pip and I had sat just beyond the windowless brick building, Pip rapping her knuckles against the stone table until they were pink. She'd been so angry with me. It had been more than two months since I'd given Arden the key to the School's side exit, the same key Teacher Florence had given me. But I hadn't heard anything about an escape attempt. I wondered if Arden still had it, concealed somewhere among her belongings, or if it had been discovered.
As we approached the hospital, the air filled with the low puttering of engines. A row of Jeeps hugged the side of the stone building, their headlights a welcome respite from the dark. Up ahead, three female soldiers stood outside the glass doors, half of which were boarded up with plywood. The hospital hadn't been used since before the plague. Even now, the shrubs around it were shriveled and bare, the sand piled in the space where the wall met the earth. Two of the soldiers were arguing with an older woman dressed in a crisp white shirt and black pantsâthe uniform worn by workers in the City center.
“We can't help you,” a soldier with a red, oval birthmark on her cheek said to the woman. One of the other soldiers, a woman in her midthirties with thin eyebrows and a small, beaklike nose, ordered the person on the other end of her radio to hold off.
The worker had her back toward us, but I recognized the thin gold band she wore on her finger, with a simple green stone in the center. They were the same hands that had held mine when I'd first arrived in the Palace, the ones that had worked the washcloth over my dirt-caked skin and carefully untangled the knots in my wet hair. “Beatrice,” I called out. “How did you get here?”
She turned around to face me. Though only two months had passed, she looked older, the deep lines framing her mouth like parentheses. The skin beneath her eyes was thin and gray. “It's so good to see you, Eve,” she said, stepping forward.
“Princess Genevieve,” Charles corrected, holding up a hand to stop her.
I pushed past, ignoring him. After I was discovered missing the morning of the wedding, Beatrice had confessed to helping me leave the Palace. The King had threatened her and her daughter, who'd been in one of the Schools since she was a baby. Afraid for her daughter's life, Beatrice had told him where I was meeting Caleb, revealing the location of the first of three tunnels the rebels had built beneath the wall. She was the reason they'd found us that morning, the reason we'd been caught and Caleb killed. I hadn't seen her since.
“There was a rumor at the center,” Beatrice went on, her voice nearly a whisper. “I saw some of the trucks coming through and followed them. They're the girls from the Schools?” She pointed back at the building, at the windows that were covered with plywood, her hand unsteady. “I'm right, aren't I?”
The soldier with the birthmark stepped forward. “You have to leave, or I'll have to arrest you for being out past curfew.”
“You're right,” I interrupted. They'd ultimately cleared Beatrice of any involvement with the dissidents, after I argued her case to my father, insisting she knew little about Caleb, just that we were planning on leaving the City together. They'd moved her to the adoption center, where she now worked, caring for some of the youngest children from the birthing initiative. “That's why we're here, too.” I turned to the soldier. “I wanted to see my friends from the School.”
The woman shook her head. “We can't permit that.” Her words were clipped, her eyes never leaving mine. Despite efforts to keep the story contained, it felt as though all the soldiers knew what had happened: I had tried to escape with one of the dissidents. I knew of a tunnel being built beneath the wall, and I'd kept that information from my father, despite the risk it posed to security. None of them trusted me.
She pointed behind me at Charles and the male soldier who'd escorted us to the hospital. “Especially not with them here. You have to go.”
“They won't come with us,” I insisted.
A shorter soldier with a chipped front tooth kept pressing her thumb down on her radio, filling the air with static. On the other end of the connection were the low murmurings of a woman's voice, asking if they were ready for her to pull another Jeep around for unloading. “We already know about the Graduates,” I said loudly, nodding to Beatrice. “Both of us. I've visited the girls in the Schools before, with my father's permission. There's no security risk here.”
The woman with the birthmark rubbed the back of her neck, as if considering it. I turned to Charles to see if he could sway her. His word still meant something inside the City walls, even if my loyalty was in question. “We can wait here for them,” he said quietly, stepping away from the building.
“We have to finish bringing the last of them inside,” she finally said. Then she moved from in front of the glass doors, permitting us entrance. “Ten minutes, no more.”
ONLY A FEW LIGHTS WERE ON IN THE FRONT LOBBY. MOST OF
the bulbs were broken, but a few flickered incessantly, stinging my eyes. Beatrice walked closely behind me. Some of the chairs in the waiting room were overturned, and the thin, tattered carpet smelled of dust. “Back in your rooms, ladies,” a woman's voice echoed in the hallway. A shadow passed on the wall, then was gone.
Someone had made hasty attempts to wipe down the floors, but it had only moved the grime around, covering the hall tile with black streaks. Equipment on rolling metal racks lined the hallway, beside old machines covered with paper sheets. I turned down a side corridor, where an older woman wearing a red blouse and blue slacks stood, scribbling something down on a clipboard. I stared at the Teacher's uniform I'd seen thousands of times at School, then at the woman's narrow face. It took me a moment to realize I didn't know herâshe must've been from another facility. “I'm looking for the girls from School 11,” I said. For years I'd known my School only by its geographic coordinates, before finding out the City had numbers for them all.
Beatrice took off down the other side of the corridor, pausing in one doorway, then the next, looking for her daughter, Sarah. I started past the woman, into the dimly lit hospital room behind her. Low cots covered the floor, the thin curtain drawn. The girls were all younger than fifteen. Most were curled up in their uniform jumpers, pilled cotton blankets over their bare legs. They hadn't even taken off their shoes.
“I'm not certain,” the Teacher said. She studied my face, but there was no sign of recognition. In the sweater and slacks I looked like any other woman inside the City. “Not this floor, but maybe upstairs. May I ask what you're doing here?”
I didn't bother to answer. Instead I walked past her, pushing into a separate corridor blocked off by double doors. In the first room a girl sat on the high bed farthest from the window, another girl on a rusted machine with wires snaking out of it. The blond girl held a paper fortune-teller in her hands, like the ones we had made at School. When they heard me they jumped down and hurried under their blankets.
I moved quickly down another hall, double-checking the rooms on either side of the corridor. Occasionally a Teacher slept on one of the musty hospital beds or in a chair in the corner. None of the students were pregnant. I knew they had to have housed the girls from the birthing initiative separately from the rest, but it was impossible to know where.
I ran up a side stairwell. It was mostly dark, the headlights from the Jeeps outside casting a dim glow on the walls. I went up one flight and started past the doorsâit was the same as the first wing. I wound my way up to the next corridor, then through it, not stopping until I'd studied all the rooms. The girls were just as young as the others, their faces unfamiliar.
When I reached the sixth floor landing, a female soldier was stationed outside the door. I'd hardly noticed I was running. My eyes were down, my hair clinging to my damp skin. “Can I help you?” she asked. A scar cut through her top lip, the skin white and raised.
“I need to find girls from one of the Schools,” I said. “I'm looking for a girl named Pipâred hair, fair skin. She's five months pregnant or so.”
The soldier went to the edge of the banister and peered over, down into the hollow space in the center of the stairs. “What did you say?” she asked, turning back to me. She held the butt of the rifle out, just inches from my chest, to prevent me from going any farther. “Who are you?”
I held up my hands. “I'm Genevieveâthe King's daughter. I was at the School myself.”
The woman considered me. “The one with red hair? From the School in northern Nevada?”
I nodded, remembering the city I'd seen on maps. I'd spent so many years referring to the School by its coordinates, as if it were the only thing that existed in that place. Now it was hard to think of it as an actual town where people had lived before the plague, somewhere someone called
. “You know her?”
Without saying anything she unlocked the door and went through it, leaving enough space for me to pass. Only one light was on in the long hall. Two female soldiers were stationed along the corridor. One glanced up from a tattered book with a dinosaur on the coverâsomething called
. “I might know who you're talking about,” the soldier with the scar said. “She was in the Jeep I came in on. We had about ten girls in the back.”
The queasy, light feeling in my stomach returned as I glanced into the rooms where the girls slept. They were all around my age, some a bit older, their swollen bellies visible beneath the blankets. They couldn't have been more than six months pregnantâthe girls who were further along must've been deemed too fragile to move.
Now, with them so close, I tried to keep the fantasies contained. How many times had I walked through the City, imagining Arden beside me, or stared at the empty seat across from me during afternoon tea, wondering what it would be like if Pip was there? I still set aside a portion of my chocolate cake out of habit, knowing it was Ruby's favorite. I understood what it must've been like to come here after the plague, to be one of the citizens who'd lost every friend, every member of their family. My friends' ghosts followed me always, appearing and disappearing when I least expected them.
“She's back there,” the soldier said, gesturing to a cot at the other end of the room, just below the window. I stood frozen, looking at the girls' faces, their eyelids fluttering in sleep. Violet, a dark-haired girl who'd lived in the room beside us, was turned on her side, her pillow tucked between her knees. I recognized Lydia, who'd studied art with me. She'd made so many versions of the same ink drawingâa woman in bed, a towel pressed to her nose, trying to stop the blood.