Three Keys in the Desert (part 18 of 26)

Ebie was late.

The sun was almost gone, leaving behind a gray light that wouldn’t last for long. The building she needed was on the outskirts of the district, far away from the Compound gate. She ran up to the third floor, past kids and secondyears clustered on the stairs. If she’d been here an hour ago there would be less people, less eyes, less questions, but without Len she could barely keep up with her schedule.

The room closest to the stairs on the third floor of this building was the smallest one in 942. Not all the buildings were the same, but this particular one had a room that was half the size of a normal one, with enough space for only two bunk beds. Ebie’s favorite explanation was that they’d buried bodies in the walls during the War and then had to plaster over them.

When she pushed the door open three startled faces greeted her. Good, nearly a full house.

Two people were playing stones on one of the bottom bunks, and a girl sat by the window in her underwear, holding a torn boot.

Ebie didn’t wait for one of them to speak. “How is he?”

One of the guys playing stones was the first to recover. “Better, today,” he said uncertainly.

Ebie had to see for herself.

She didn’t bother closing the door again. She went past the showers, to the room at the end of the mostly dark hallway.

She opened the door carefully, trying to be as quiet as possible.

Currently the room had only one occupant. The boy was lying on the bottom bunk by the window, same as the last time she saw him. He was asleep, blanket draped over his legs, mouth open on the pillow. At least he looked better than two days ago. His eye was still swollen shut, his arms were mostly bruises, but his chest rose and fell easier, without the little rasps of pain Ebie remembered. At least she could be grateful for that.

She grabbed the doorframe and took a step back. This was all Vrei’s fault. Ebie had done everything humanly possible to prevent this. Nothing this violent had happened in the 942 since Ebie’s first few months as Key, when people were still testing her. She’d made sure younger residents couldn’t be magically found injured anymore, with no one to blame. She’d given up so much to make it happen, only for Vrei to let this shit back into the 942 with her negligence.

Ebie forced herself to take a breath. It was late and she felt the frustration and anger threatening to overwhelm her. She needed to sleep.

She closed the door gently.

The boy would recover. She had a plan and it would work. No one would find out and Len would be safe and everything would go back to normal. She tried to keep those thoughts in her head on the short walk back to the room by the stairs.

Inside, no one was playing stones anymore.

“You’ve been changing his bandages?” Ebie asked, closing the door behind herself.

“Before first bell,” said the girl holding her torn boot. She’d put on a shirt while Ebie was gone. “And as soon as we get back from the Compound.”

Ebie believed her. They boy’s bed was clean—no blood or drool on the sheets.

“We’ll move him tomorrow night,” Ebie said. “I’ll help you get him to the Compound. You’ll hand him over to someone else.” She rubbed her palms into her eyes, trying to make them ache less. “Now let’s talk about what you owe me.”

“Wait,” said one of the guys on the bed. “We thought—”

Ebie looked up just in time to see the other guy silence him with a hand on his knee.

“This is just basic clean up,” Ebie went on. Her legs ached, though she’d spent most of the day sitting. “You still owe me for letting this happen in the first place.”

“Ebie, we don’t even know who did it,” the girl said. “He was out by the fence alone, yes, but this… Secondyears—they’re practically kids. They’re always doing something stupid—”

“You’re the oldest people in this building,” Ebie interrupted. “You knew what that meant when you took this room.”

“I begged you for a year!” said the guy who’d been silent before.

Ebie remembered. He’d told her all kinds of touching stories about why he and his three friends had to live alone together, why this room was made for them.

“It was just a fight,” the girl said. Ebie remembered her too, from the Palace. They’d never been friends, but she was one of the people everyone assumed would be a Key one day. She used to be a good little politician when they were younger. Definitely more impressive than Ebie.

“In this building there’s practically a brawl over the showers every morning!” the girl went on. “Come on, Ebie.”

“He can’t walk!” Ebie said, hearing her voice rise. She forced herself to take a breath. “He’d cost us a week of vouchers, if we had any left. He’ll be in recovery for months. It was your job to watch him. All of you. If you can’t prevent shit like this, then you’re useless to me in this building. I can find someone else to take this room who’ll make sure the secondyears don’t murder each other.”

The girl nodded, appeasing. “We can try to find whoever did this. Wouldn’t that help? Probably someone from this neighborhood—”

“No,” Ebie said. “There’s no time for that.” There would never be time, because making this public would mean Len finding out, and she couldn’t risk that. “Fights like this don’t just happen. Everyone in this building is counting on you.”

“We know,” said one of the guys on the bed. His fingers were clenched around three stones of different colors.

“You’re out of this room after Transfer Day,” Ebie said, turning to leave.

“You can’t do that,” said the girl. “Please.”

“If you don’t disappoint me again until then,” Ebie said, “I’ll consider putting all of you in the same building.”

She left without looking back. The stairs were still crowded, the sky outside was a dark grey. She still had at least three hours of paperwork to go over.


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