Three Keys in the Desert (part 21 of 26)

Ebie wandered the dark streets of 942. She was dizzy, but not so much that she couldn’t stay upright.

It was done, finally. Classes were officially over and the workstations were all powered down until after Transfer Day. Ebie couldn’t force herself to stare at the walls of her office anymore.

She still had reports in the morning, and a meeting with the Head, but she’d gone over every detail, every room, every resident, and the district was ready for inspection. She walked, looking up at the stars, enjoying the quiet. For once, she had nowhere to be.

Tomorrow would be a long day, and the day after would be even longer. She had to sleep. Her eyes hurt when she blinked, a sharp pain that made her tear up. The darkness helped, like a soft blanket. The last days were always the worst.

She stopped in front of number 14. Parties weren’t allowed the night before the Shutdown, but the smell of sau was so strong it had to be coming from some get-together. She thought about ignoring it, walking more, until her body eventually gave up and surrendered to tiredness, but… this was Leo’s building. Leo had always been responsible. She’d never had to take care of problems at 14 ever since he moved in. He was one of the few people she’d slowly learned to trust.

And now he was two days away from becoming an elder.

Still, she had to be sure. Everything had to be perfect for tomorrow.

The smell was coming from the first floor. Ebie walked slowly, until she saw the open door, third on the right. Inside the dark room she could see over a dozen people, strewn across the floor. No one was touching the beds, which was probably Leo’s design. The room was mostly quiet, with people lying on top of each other like limp dolls. When Ebie stepped inside the smell of sau was so thick it made her cough.

She spotted Leo slumped against the wall by the window. He didn’t seem unconscious, which was a good sign. Maybe she could just turn and leave? Trust him to make everything presentable by morning? She was too tired for a confrontation.

She was startled by the sound of clapping. It was Leo, up on his feet, stepping over hands and feet to come closer to her. A few people joined in, slapping their palms together, apparently all looking at her.

“Come on,” Leo said, when he came close enough to see Ebie’s confused expression. His smile looked apologetic. “We made it through another year. You got us through it.” He bent down, picked up a pipe someone was holding and offered it to Ebie. “I promise everything will be clean by tomorrow.”

She hadn’t smoked in months. Between classes during the day and Key stuff at night she rarely had the time. Especially when she had to do all her exams early, weeks before everyone else, so she could focus on Transfer Day.

She could leave. She probably should. It wasn’t a good idea, getting high in public. But her legs felt so heavy, and tomorrow was important, and her body wouldn’t let her fall asleep for hours. She could feel her brain buzzing with restless energy.

She took the pipe and stepped over three arms and a stomach to sink into the corner of the room. Hunched over, legs pressed to her chest, she took a long hit. The smoke felt bitter on her tongue, and then sweet. Another hit and breathing felt easier. Like her lungs were unfolding, taking in more air.

She closed her eyes. In a few years it would be her last Shutdown. She’d have someone to train as a replacement. She wondered if she’d be sad when she stepped on the shuttle. People always said the sadness hit you right at the end.

She inhaled through the pipe again. It was too weird to think about.

The walls and the furniture were starting to blend together. Everything was spinning but not in a way that made her nauseous. In a pleasant way, like mild turbulence. At least she could still tell the wall against her back was solid. She took another hit. Around her there was nothing but darkness, soft and inviting, and in front of her… in front of her was Len.

He was hunched over too, like the room wasn’t big enough to contain him. The thought made her smile. He was probably imaginary. She’d been seeing him a lot when she closed her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Len said, and the smile slid off Ebie’s lips.

The Len in her head would never open with that.

“Should I go?” he said. His face turned away and Ebie’s arm shot out to stop him. She grabbed nothing but air but Len’s face came back.

“Stay,” she said.

“Am I forgiven?” he asked. The sound of his voice was making something solid form in her throat. Breathing was getting harder again.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” she said. The thing behind her back didn’t feel so solid anymore. She took another hit.

“You should sleep,” he said.

“I know.” She didn’t know how to explain that her room might as well have been at Central Processing. Her limbs were too heavy to move.

He gestured for the pipe and Ebie handed it over. He took a long hit, bending his head back and blowing smoke at the ceiling.

“Are you real?” Ebie said.

He smiled. She’d missed his smile.

“Come on,” he said, drawing his arms around Ebie. She hugged him back, but then the room really started spinning. The pipe was gone and so was Leo and she couldn’t feel the ground under her feet anymore.

But Len was here, warm and solid. She didn’t care about anything else. When she opened her eyes to see the door to her room she realized her arms were around Len’s neck, and his were holding her up. No part of her was touching the floor. She let him fish the room key from her pocket. Moving was still too much work.

He put her down on the bed, gently, like she was a pillow. She grabbed his arm when he tried to pull away.

She’d managed to keep everything quiet, do all the favors and deals and disgusting things she hated, and it was done, however tomorrow went. She’d gone behind Sol’s back, and Vrei’s. She’d paid the price she had to.

She needed Len back now.

He helped her peel the uniform off when her fingers wouldn’t cooperate, and then climbed in next to her. The bed felt crowded again, but it was like every muscle in her body could finally stop straining.

She rested her head on his shoulder as he settled, with his back against the wall. The room was too hot for a blanket, but her body felt cold from the sau. She remembered smoking it as a kid, how it made the weather more bearable before she got used to it.

Len pulled something soft over both of them.

She didn’t know whether her eyes were open anymore. The darkness was everywhere and Ebie wished she could just sink into it and never wake up.

Sol was staring at her from the floor. She was lying still, right next to Ebie’s bed. Her eyes were bigger than Ebie remembered, and there was blood slowly dripping out of her nose. Ebie tried squeezing her eyes shut a few times, until finally the floor was back to being clean stone.

“I’ll always protect you,” Ebie whispered against the skin of Len’s arm. Whether he was real or imaginary, he had to know.

She could feel his even breaths, chest puffing up on every inhale. “I know,” he said. “I love you too.”


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