Authors: Anna Carey
“I must seem so foolish to you,” she said with a laugh. “I'm carrying on a relationship in my head.”
“Not at all.”
How many times had I stopped in Califia, imagining Caleb was there beside me while I sat on the rocks, watching the waves lap at the shore? How many times had I let myself believe that he was still here, inside the City, that he'd appear one day, waiting for me by the Palace gardens? I still spoke to him, in the quiet of the suite, still told him I wished to go back to everything before. There were times I had to remind myself that he was gone, that the death report had been filed, that what had happened could never be reversed. Those facts were my only tether to reality.
Before I could say anything more, the door opened, the King pushing into the room without so much as a knock. He did this sometimes, as if to remind me that he owned every part of the Palace. “I heard what happened,” he said, turning to me. I sat up straight, as the doctor came in behind him.
“It was nothing,” I said, even though I wasn't yet sure. Moss had taken the remnants of breakfast to the Outlands, trying to get answers about what it contained.
“You threw up twice,” he said. “You're dehydrated. You could have passed out.”
The doctor, a thin, bald man, didn't wear a white coat as the ones at School did. Instead he was dressed in a plain blue shirt and gray slacks, like any other office worker in the City center. I'd been told it was safer this way. Even sixteen years after the plague there were feelings of resentment toward surviving doctors, questions of what they knew and when.
“Your father was concerned. He'd asked if it could be a reemergence of the virus,” the doctor said, cupping his hands together. “I assure you it's not.”
“This has become such an
,” I said, my gaze darting between them. “I feel all right, really.”
“It'll happen again, though,” the doctor said. I stared at him, confused. “Nausea gravidarum,” he said, as if that explained something. “Most people call it morning sickness.”
My father was smiling, his eyes giving off a look of quiet amusement. He came toward me, pulling me to stand as he squeezed my hands. “You're pregnant.”
He hugged me, the sick, heavy scent of his cologne stinging my lungs. I didn't have time to process it. I had to smile, to blush, to feign whatever joy I knew I was supposed to feel. Of course this was what my father wanted. In his eyes, Charles and I had finally given him an heir.
“This is happy news. We must go see Charles in the Outlands,” my father went on. “Once you're properly dressed, come meet me by the elevators.” Clara didn't say anything. I didn't dare look at her; instead I listened to her slow, uneven breaths. It sounded like she was choking.
“You'll have to come in to the office this afternoon,” the doctor continued. “Run some tests to make sure everything is normal. In the meantime I've had the kitchen stock up on some ginger tea, some crackersâlittle things to settle your stomach. You may feel a bit nauseous, but skipping meals will only make it worse. And as you probably already know, you may find it wears off over the course of the day.” He put out his hand for me to shake. I hoped he didn't notice my cold palms or my stiff, unchanging smile. It wasn't until he was gone, my father following behind him, that Clara finally spoke.
“I thought you didn't love him,” she whispered, her words slow.
“I don't,” I said.
I'd seen Clara angry before, could recognize how her face changed, her jaw set in a hard expression. But this was different. She turned her back to me, moving around the room, shaking out her hands as if trying to dry them. “It's not true, Clara,” I said.
true?” She stared at me, her eyes watery.
I hadn't told anyone what had happened in the hangar with Caleb. It was the thing I returned to whenever my thoughts wandered. I remembered how his hands felt cradling my neck, his fingers dancing over my stomach, the gentle give of his lips against mine. How our bodies moved together, his skin tasting of salt and sweat. Now it existed in memory, a place that only I could visit, where Caleb and I were forever alone.
I'd heard the Teachers' warnings, had reviewed all the dangers of having sex or “sleeping with” a man. They had told us, in those still classrooms, that even one time could bring on a pregnancy. But in the months since I'd left, I'd learned that nothing they'd said could be trusted. And even if it was a hidden truthâeven if it wasn't an exaggeration or falsificationâit wouldn't have mattered. There was no way to prevent pregnancy inside the City. The King had forbidden it.
Now, so many thoughts flew through my head: That it would be better if she didn't know. That it would be safer if she didn't know. That I would feel lonelier if she didn't know, that I would be in more danger if she did know, that I would feel deceitful if she didn't know. “Caleb,” I said finally. As soon as my father reached Charles it would be over anyway. “It was Caleb. I told you the truthâI have no interest in Charles. I never have.”
She let her hands fall. “How come you never told me?” she asked. “When?”
“The last night I left the Palace,” I said. “Two and a half months ago.”
She worried at the waist of her dress, picking at the delicate stitching. “Your father can never know,” she said.
I imagined my father's expression when Charles told him the truth. His mouth would tense as it always did when he was angry. There'd be that hint of something darker, then he would set himself right, rubbing his hand down his face, as if that one motion had the power to fix his features. He would kill me. I felt certain of it then, in the stillness of the room. I was useless to him now. Since Caleb's murder there were so many questions about me, about my involvement in the building of the tunnels. Did I still have connections to the dissidents? Had I betrayed him since Caleb's death? I was allowed to live in the Palace, kept as an asset, only because I could produce a New American royal family. I was Genevieve, the daughter from the Schools who'd married his Head of Development. When Charles revealed the truth only we knew, my father would find a way. Maybe I'd disappear after the City had gone to sleep, as some of the dissidents had. They could say anythingâan intruder in the Palace, a sudden sickness. Anything.
There wasn't time to explain it all to Clara, to tell her the whys and hows. I knelt down and pulled the thick books from the shelf, tucking the tiny bag into the side pocket of my dress. I put the knife and the radio into my purse, then started out of the room. I needed to do what Moss had said, to go through with this, before I was discovered. I would leave the City today if I had to.
“Why do you have a knife?” Clara asked, stepping back. “What are you doing?”
“I can't explain it now,” I said quickly, as I went to the door. “I don't know what's going to happen when my father finds out, and I need protection.”
“So you're bringing a knife .Â .Â . to do what?”
“I don't know what my father is capable of,” I said, shaking my head. “It's just in case.”
Clara nodded once before I turned out the door.
I kept the bag tucked tightly under my arm as I went down the hall. The soldier's footsteps were somewhere behind me, coming closer as I moved toward my father's suite. I took a deep breath, imagining what it would have felt like if things had been different, if I had found out about the pregnancy in some other place and time. I could've been happy, had Caleb been alive, had we been out in the wild, at some stop on the Trail. It could have been one of those unclouded, perfect moments, a quiet realization shared between us. Instead I felt only dread. How could I raise a child by myself, especially now, in the midst of all this?
My father emerged from his suite. “Perfect timing,” he said. He turned toward the elevators, gesturing for me to follow.
As I approached the door to his suite, I slowed, swallowing back the sour spit that coated my tongue. I pressed my hand to my face, wiping at my skin, and took a deep breath. This was it.
I held one palm to my mouth and gestured toward the door. “Please, I think I might be sick again.” I didn't meet his gaze. Instead I rested my shoulder against the door, waiting for him to let me inside.
“Yes, of course,” he said, punching a few numbers in the keypad below the lock. “Just one moment .Â .Â .” He pushed the door open to allow me through.
My father's suite was three times the size of ours, with a spiral staircase that led to the upstairs sitting area. A row of windows overlooked the City below, with views stretching out beyond the curved wall, where the land was riddled with broken buildings. I turned, taking in the miniature models that sat on the credenza beside the door. There were elaborate wooden boats in glass bottles, all different colors and sizes, their canvas sails raised. I'd been in the suite only four or five times, but every time I studied them, trying to understand why my father spent his free time putting together miniature ships. I wondered if he found it satisfying to contain them all, these tiny worlds always in his control.
“I'll just be a minute,” I said, starting toward the bathroom. It was shared with the master suite, but the second door was nearly always locked. I pressed one fist to my mouth, as if struggling to keep my composure. Then I rushed into the marble bathroom, thankful when I was finally alone.
I TWISTED ON THE TAP, LETTING THE COOL WATER RUN OVER
my fingers. I let out a few loud coughs and started on the narrow set of drawers, searching through the tiny plastic boxes and canisters. The writing on some of the labels had worn off. I picked over tall bottles filled with white liquid, a pair of thick metal razors, a horsehair brush and hard soap used to make shaving foam. There were folded white towels that smelled of mint. Then, in the top drawer, I found two amber-colored bottles. A handwritten label was on each, with the doctor's signature scrawled across it.
The extract felt heavy in my pocket. I emptied the shiny white capsules onto the marble counter and began the work, popping open three of them and spilling their insides into the sink. The powder clumped together and was swept away, floating above the drain for a moment before it was sucked under.
I emptied some of the extract on the counter and pressed it inside the hard capsule, careful to keep it away from my face, as Moss had instructed. I pinched one side and slid the cap on, dropping it back into the bottle. I was halfway through the second one when my father knocked on the door. The sound echoed in the hollow room, raising tiny bumps on my arms. “Is everything all right?” he asked. The knob turned but locked in place, refusing to open.
“Just one moment,” I called.
I moved quickly, finishing the second pill, then three more, and dumped the remaining poison into the sink. I secured the lid on the bottle, careful to set it back just as it had been, in the empty space between two tin boxes. Then I washed my hands, letting the cold water run over my fingers until they were numb. I splashed some on my face and slipped the bag back in my pocket.
When I stepped outside my father was standing right beside the door, just inches away. His arms were folded. “Feeling better?” he asked, his eyes lingering for a moment on my hands, which were still wet.
I brought them to my cheeks, willing the soft, red skin back to normal. “I have to lie down,” I said. “I won't be able to make it to the Outlands. Not like this.”
My father tilted his head to one side, studying me. “I can't go see Charles alone,” he said. “Come now, it will be a quick visit. You'll be back within the half hour.” His features hardened, and I knew then it wasn't up for discussion. His hand came down around my arm, guiding me toward the door.
THE RIDE WAS ENDLESS. THE CAR LURCHED AT EVERY CORNER
, the cabin thick with the smells of leather and cologne. I opened the window, trying to get some air, but the Outlands held the dry stench of dust and ash. My hand was at my waist, feeling the soft flesh of my belly for the mound that had not yet appeared. I knew I'd missed my period and had wondered if it was possible I was pregnant, but everything in the past months had gone by quickly, somewhere outside me.
Moss had stolen a tattered T-shirt from the box of items recovered from the airplane hangar. There was a C on the tag, the fabric thin from so many wears. Alone in the suite, Caleb's shirt balled in my hands, I was certain that when he died a part of me had died with him. I couldn't feel anymore, not the way I had when he was here, inside the City. The days in the Palace seemed endless, filled with stilted conversation and people who saw me only as my father's daughter, nothing more.
I picked at the thin skin around my fingernails, watching as the car sped closer to the construction site. The list of slights against Charles took on significance now. Things I'd done or hadn't done felt like more reasons he'd tell my father the truth. I'd been the one to insist he leave the bed that first night. I couldn't stand it when he looked at me too much, when he talked to me too much, when he talked to my father too much, when he said anything positive about the regime. Though there were moments when things were bearable, most of the time we spent together in the suite was marked with his questions, his effort, and my silence or criticism.
“Genevieve, I'm speaking to you,” my father said. I flinched when he touched my arm. “We're here.”
The car had stopped outside a demolition site. They'd torn down an old hotel that was used as a morgue during the plague. It had been boarded up for more than a decade, the bones of victims still inside. A few bundles of flowers sat on the groundâwilting roses, daisies that were now shriveled and stiff.
The site was blocked off with plywood fencing, but there were openings leading down to the massive crater in the earth. I got out, walking toward a break in the wall. “Genevieve,” I heard him call behind me. “That's not for you to see.”