The Rule of All Page 2

He rips off his cap and flashes me one of his old winsome smiles, but it’s strained and awkward. Smiles are another rare commodity these days.

“Ironic, considering your tattoo,” I say, knowing my words will sting. I’m in no mood for company.

Head bowed, Ciro fiddles with the cuff of his right glove, revealing the black and yellow ink of a diamond-topped skeleton key.

“It was quite vainglorious of me to believe I had all the answers,” Ciro mutters, his cherubic cheeks flushing with embarrassment. I can’t help but stare at the unsightly scar that bisects his scalp. A poorly healed gash he earned from a baton strike to the head the day our team was captured and very nearly killed by a Texas State Guard firing squad. He’s traded his once buoyant curls for a military buzz cut, as if he wants people to see his wounds, to know what he’s been through to get here.

Or maybe he just wants to remind himself.

Ciro’s a far cry from the high-ranking boaster I met in Canada—the twenty-year-old boy who once vied to become the Common’s leader.

“I’ve learned no one has the answers to anything,” I say, picking the correct key on my second attempt. I twist the lock and push through the glass door, Ciro following close after me. “Life is just a game of guesswork. We’re all pretending we know what we’re doing. That we’re in control. But no one knows a goddamn thing.”

Ciro frowns down at me as he locks the door behind us. “I presume there’s been no word of him, then?” he whispers, voice tight with concern.

There’s no need for hushed conversation. Though my eyes have not yet adjusted to the dimness of the hospital warehouse, I know we’re the only two in here. The storage room is always empty, vacant of people and any scraps of medical supplies that once filled the teeming aisles.

It’s why I took the back entrance. To avoid running into anyone.

“I’m here,” Ciro says, pointing out the obvious. “I know you have Ava . . . but I am here if you need me. Would you like to talk about him?”

I let my silence speak for me. Three at a time, I move up the stairs behind the shelves that previously housed surgical instruments, hoping Ciro and his questions won’t trail after me. Unsurprisingly, I hear the soft clicks of his umbrella turned walking stick only a few steps behind.

Everyone’s too scared to leave me alone.

As for the “him” Ciro keeps referring to, it’s a coin toss.

I snap my eyes out the floor-length windows that greet us at the landing and stare at the thirty-story wanted image glaring back at me from a building’s facade. Mere weeks ago, it was my own face that adorned these streets, flashing on every high-rise across the country. Wanted. A single bold word signifying that I was criminal. Dangerous. That I didn’t belong.

Now the face glowering above the incriminating word belongs to the man who sought to condemn me. The reason the states are at war. The reason the Common came out of hiding.

Former Texas governor, Howard S. Roth.

He’s been missing for three weeks since he deserted and fled his capital, stealing his illegal second grandchild away from us. From me.


The boy who was my mission. The estranged Roth living a peaceful life in Canada before I ripped him from his ignorance and dragged him into my mess.

Sweat pools in my eyes and pours down my nose. I feel my panic surge, exhausting and all-consuming. Spinning away from the governor’s looming scowl, I stumble for the hallway. I free myself of my sun-protective layers, peeling back my gloves and scarf, fighting for a gulp of air.

My thoughts are at once sluggish and dizzying. I feel as though I move beneath a weight meant for a body much stronger than mine. But I fear closing my eyes, for even as I blink, the faces of those taken from me flash behind my lids.

My grandmother, father, mother.


He’s always there, waiting for me when my consciousness drifts off into darkness. His face is faded like the others. As pale as his brother, Halton, was when death took its rigid hold.

Is Theo lost to us—to me—forever?

I try to shake his screams from my mind, but they only increase, sounding like loud alarms, as if he’s warning me of some impending peril.

Get a grip, I chide myself, remembering I’m not alone. You’re no use to anyone like this. The ruinous effects of heatstroke and insomnia are taking their toll. I can’t let people see.

Ciro appears at my side and slides open a window, to little effect. He hands me his umbrella to lean on, which I begrudgingly accept.

“I realize I’m a northerner not yet adapted to the Southwest climate,” Ciro pants, looking as if he’s just stepped from a shower, fully clothed. “But shouldn’t the air-conditioning down here be world-class? How can any Texan expect to outlast the summers?”

We stand motionless, listening to the rattling hum of the AC working overtime. Lifting my hand, I discover the vents above blow nothing but lukewarm air. It’s too hot outside. The units can’t keep up.

They can and they will, I chastise myself again. Dallas can take the heat.

I shove the umbrella back into Ciro’s gloved hands and straighten my shoulders into the posture of someone who is spirited and fortified. Maybe if I keep pretending, I can reclaim the girl that I once was. No, the woman I fought so hard to become.

A woman who knows—knows—she deserves to be here. Not merely existing, but living, loudly and unapologetically.

I make a sharp left turn, avoiding the network of hallways that lead to the main entrance, to the doors that open to hundreds of exam and delivery rooms still bustling and open to the public.

The Family Planning Center can’t just close because of a rebellion. New life enters the world every second of every day. With so much loss, this thought should bring me comfort, but instead it quickens my pace. What kind of a future will they be born into?

A doctor in clean white scrubs strides toward me from the far end of the corridor. I nearly stumble, and it takes every shred of my self-control to refrain from cowering.

Men like him took people like me away.

“Afternoon, sir,” Ciro acknowledges the obstetrician as he passes. Recognition flickers across the doctor’s eyes as his head whips back at me in a double take.

Tell me I shouldn’t be here. My old fury ignites like dry kindling and I hold my glare, goading him to say something. I refuse to hide in here. This former epicenter of the Rule of One has been revamped and revolutionized. It’s now a place to find who you are.

“Afternoon,” he says faintly, hastening his pace.

I wonder if he knew my father. If he was—or still is—a Roth zealot. How many Multiples did he deliver? How many times did he tell a mother to choose?

Another turn and I reach the wing I came here for. My heart lifts when I spot the new frosted glass sign etched above the open doors. An exuberant tree, twin trunks interlocking, it’s lush white and yellow branches reaching skyward.

My aunt Haven established this center. After a lifetime imprisoned in labor camps across the state, never knowing who she was—that she had family, loved ones, a history—she made this place her fight.

With the Common’s backing, Haven seeks to rejoin what was separated. Here, inside the very walls that tore parents from their second-born children, my mother’s twin seeks to make broken families whole.

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