Three Keys in the Desert (part 16 of 26)

3 Days Until Transfer Day

Kim woke up suddenly, with a gasp.

Dej was shaking him. She backed away as soon as he opened his eyes.

“You were making noise,” she said, quietly. Everyone else in the room was still asleep.

Kim tossed the blanket aside and planted his feet on the cold floor. He could still remember the dream—Sol’s face bent over him, her skin peeled back, her fingers stabbing his chest like needles. His heart was still pounding.

“We should check on the girls,” Dej said, already dressed, crouching by the door.

Kim hated waking up so early, but it was the only way to make sure he could deliver on the deal he’d made. Once the sun came up, keeping a secret would go from difficult to impossible.

He rummaged under his bed for some clean underwear and headed for the showers, closing the door gently behind him. The hallway was packed with sleeping bodies. Kim nearly stepped on someone’s face in the near-darkness. The building had run out of beds a long time ago but people kept coming. Most of them were kids and secondyears, but a few were older.

The cold water of the shower helped clear his head.

All they had to do was hide the body far from the Gate and then move it to one of the closer buildings when the Head was somewhere in the middle of the district. She wasn’t going to teleport from the Compound to the fence, no matter what route she picked. In theory the 942 was big enough that it should work. As long as no one ran to tell Arai.

They’d picked a building that was about thirty minutes away. It was as close to the Gate as they could risk it. One of the thirdyears there owed Kim a favor and Dej thought they could trust her to keep a secret. Besides, the last Head had skipped it two years in a row, so maybe their luck would hold. If they moved quickly, they could let whoever the other Key sent spend the night in their building, and then move him once the Head got far enough away from the Compound gate.

There was barely enough light to see the street, but Kim could still make out three bodies passed out outside his building. Behind them was a smoking pile of… something. He tried to get closer but Dej grabbed his arm.

“Heard them last night,” she whispered. “Said no one could make them go back to the Compound if they burned their uniforms.”

“But they’re wearing their uniforms!” Kim whispered back.

Dej shrugged.

They had to go. Kim tried not to wonder what had been sacrificed in the fire, or how they got it lit. The district couldn’t run out of sau fast enough.

The girls at the building near the Gate seemed reliable. They met Kim in the lobby and didn’t ask questions about who exactly they’d be hiding. Kim didn’t volunteer any details. Getting caught would cost them all the same, whoever they were hiding, and it was safer this way.

He and Dej were back home just as the room was starting to wake up. Nobody wondered why the two of them were dressed already—just jealous that they’d managed to beat the bathroom traffic.

Tyen slid off his bunk without even registering Kim’s presence. He’d been in a fog for days. If anything happened while he was like this, who would they even go to for vouchers? Even in the dim light Tyen’s eyes looked heavy and bruised. Kim tried to compensate by not letting him out of his sight.

Breakfast was emptier than usual. The mess hall was maybe a third full, mostly with elders.

“If I could just talk to him,” Kim said, staring at his vegetable-mix kasha.

“The Key?” Dej said, from the opposite side of the table.

“The kid,” Kim nodded. “Sol was appointed, but Arai?” Ever since the other Key had mentioned it Kim couldn’t get it out of his head. “She’s been keeping him locked up in that room.”

“She’s here now,” Tyen said, looking somewhere beyond Kim’s shoulder. He hadn’t touched his protein stew.

“Without the kid,” Dej added. After a moment her eyes met Kim’s. “You think she keeps the door locked when she’s gone?”

No, she couldn’t, not with the kid inside. That would be ridiculous. Kim surveyed the mess hall again—most of the residents of number 8 were here.

“Go,” Tyen said. His eyes were on his food. His fingers on the table were jittery. He pulled his hand back once he noticed Kim staring.

“Go,” Dej said, more forcefully.

She was right. Tyen wasn’t alone, and the Compound was always safer than the district. He wouldn’t be gone long.

“Come on,” Dej said to Tyen, picking up her trey of half-eaten food. Kim frowned at her but she ignored him, heading for the disposal unit and forcing Tyen to follow.

Kim could either follow them to a classroom or go back to the dorms.

He took a few more spoonfuls, not trusting himself not to look suspicious if he got up immediately, and then walked as casually as he could to the exit.

While his neighborhood was bursting with people, the streets outside the Gate were deserted. Kim stuck his hands in his pockets and forced himself not to run.

He slowed down as he got closer to number 8, but no one stopped him when he tried to go inside the building. Some of the room doors were open, but he hardly saw anyone on the way to Sol’s. He imagined it was different, before she died. She had a habit of spending her days in there, getting high. She wouldn’t have let the place get so empty and quiet, probably.

He could see the door he wanted was slightly ajar, as soon as he came up the stairs. Arai would definitely have closed it when she left. Why would the kid keep it open? Maybe he was in the showers.

Kim pushed the door open wider.

The boy sat on the bed, his back against the wall, knees pulled up to his chest. He looked even smaller than Kim remembered, not wrapped up in layers of blankets and sheets.

His name is Bo, Kim reminded himself.

“Just do what you’re here to do,” Bo said, without looking up. He was wearing underwear and a uniform shirt too big for his shoulders.

For a moment Kim was lost for words. How did Bo know he’d come here?

“You should know,” Bo went on, before Kim could ask him what he meant, “I asked them to pick someone else.” Bo closed his eyes. “I did everything I could. So, whatever you’re going to do, just… just do it. I won’t fight.”


Bo wrapped his arms around his knees. “The place where I grew up, they told us about people meeting each other again after they were dead.” He sounded like he was holding back tears.

Kim didn’t remember any stories like that from his own childhood. He wished they’d told him the dead all go somewhere else and hang out with each other, instead of staying to watch over the living.

“I miss her so much,” Bo said. “I thought I could do it myself but I… I’m glad you’re here.”

The words didn’t make sense for a second, but then everything shifted, like the room rearranging itself in front of Kim, and suddenly he understood. Bo had been sitting here waiting for someone to walk in and… reunite him with Sol? Throw him out the window? Beat him to death? Kim tried to find something in Bo’s face to make it not true.

Did he keep the door open on purpose? Did he send Arai away? Did he spend the morning sitting here, waiting, preparing himself? This was why a kid couldn’t be a Key. In a few years Bo would still be young and inexperienced, but he wouldn’t be… like this. Probably. Whatever the new Head was thinking, she was wrong. Why couldn’t anyone at the Compound see that?

“Bo,” Kim said. “I just came here to talk, I swear.”

Bo shook his head. The full weight of his resigned expression, his passive posture, was making Kim’s chest feel hollow.

“You hated her,” Bo said. The morning light from the window accentuated the dark circles under his puffy, red eyes. “You were happy she’s dead. And having me is even worse.”

Kim should have made a plan before coming here. He should have thought about what he’d say. He took a deep breath and tried to think. Arai had probably gone to the Compound for food, she wouldn’t leave a kid in this state alone for long. Even she wasn’t that stupid. Kim didn’t have a lot of time.

“Sol’s been running this place since I was your age,” he said, finally. “I… I don’t have any answers, Bo.” How would he have reacted to becoming a Key as a kid? Worse than Bo, probably. “Yes, I didn’t like a lot of what she did. But that doesn’t matter anymore, you’re not her.”

Kim turned and closed the door. It didn’t click shut but at least no one passing in the hallway would see him. Talking like this in the middle of Sol’s building was bad enough.

“Arai…” Kim tried find the right words. Sol had snapped Bo up so quickly he didn’t know anything about the district. Certainly if he thought anyone would risk killing a Key for the greater good at a time like this. Kim had to get through to him. “You can’t trust Arai. Sol didn’t.”

That got him a sharp look.

“You know that better than I do,” Kim said resolutely. “She’ll be gone in two years, and you’ll stay here with the rest of us. For a long time.”

“She’s got friends,” Bo said, looking back at his knees. “I… I can’t.”

Yeah, Arai was friends with sixthyears she knew from the Palace, and the elders who were about to leave. “I could help you make friends, Bo. I know people. People who won’t enlist in a year. People who could help you run things.” Eventually, at least. Kim couldn’t quite imagine how it would work. But anything was better than having Arai in charge. Kim thought about telling Bo what the foreign Key had promised, but he couldn’t do that without revealing other things. Trusting the kid with a secret was out of the question.

Bo let out a loud sob. “I hate it here,” he said, the words slurred through the tears. “Worse than the Palace. Every morning I keep waiting for her to open the door.”

Kim felt like his chest was slowly cracking open. How many days of waking up in this room did it take before Bo decided to do the district a favor? What had this kid done to deserve this? Nothing. Just like Tyen, just like half the people Kim knew.

“Let me…” Kim said, swallowing, trying to find the words. “Let me protect you.”

Bo shook his head, wiping at his eyes. “Arai protects me.”

The frustration made Kim take a step closer to the bed. If he sat down it might make Bo flinch, but he could still reach out. He put his fingers, hesitantly, on Bo’s exposed knee.

There was noise coming from the hallway, footsteps approaching.

Bo looked up at Kim. He didn’t look angry or surprised. His eyes were deep brown, like Dej’s, except filled with something soft and vulnerable that Kim wasn’t used to seeing. He looked fragile. Kim could see why Sol chose him.

“I just want everything to go away,” Bo said.

“You can’t just give up,” Kim told him, in the most certain tone he could muster. “Tell Arai you need to sleep somewhere else, somewhere with other people.”

“Sol gave up,” Bo said, looking away.

The footsteps in the hallway were coming closer.

Kim shook his head, clenched his fingers around Bo’s knee. It couldn’t end like this. The kid was desperate for something to believe in, some kind of hope, but Kim was out of ideas. “Let me see you again,” he said. “Please. Tell Arai you want to talk to me.”

Bo stared at him for a moment, uncertain, before nodding halfheartedly.

The footsteps were right outside the door now.

Kim was out of time.


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