Three Keys in the Desert (part 15 of 26)

Ebie’s bed felt big enough to stretch on, for once. The room was quiet and chilly, perfect for sleeping. She had a luxurious four hours before reveille. Her head pounded, her eyes felt too heavy to open, but sleep still wouldn’t come. She’d slept badly for the last few nights, but today it felt impossible. The room felt too empty, too big. She let herself slip to the floor, when she couldn’t stand being on the bed for another second. She hit her knee on the stone floor, but making a sound was too much effort. She dragged the blanket down from the bed, to wrap around herself, and regretted it immediately. It smelled like Len.

She tried closing her eyes again, told her head the hard surface should make a difference. No distractions, no memories, no thinking about Transfer Day or the Palace or Sol, just a black void she could fall into.

But long minutes passed and she could still hear the sound of her own heartbeat, feel the dust moving around the room, smell the person she hadn’t slept without in years.

Finally she let out a deep breath and rose on her elbows. Getting up, going somewhere, felt impossible, but she couldn’t spend another hour lying here, letting the frustration and anger build up. She’d be totally useless tomorrow.

The hallway outside was dark, but Ebie knew it well enough to find her way to the showers. She didn’t bother putting on clothes, so fumbling with the faucets and getting everything wet wasn’t a problem. At least the cold water made her headache a little better. The soap felt nice in her hair. A shower always made her feel more human.

She grabbed a hygienic powder pack from the dispenser, chewed until her mouth felt like it was on fire and spit it out. Back in her room, she pulled on a pair of uniform pants and a clean undershirt and went downstairs.

The building she wanted was a ten minute walk away.

The streets were empty at this hour. There was some light coming from the Compound, like a soft glow meant to direct everyone there in an emergency. Ebie walked in the opposite direction, relying on the stars. There was an uncountable number of them here. When she was little she lived in a huge city, in a community house where the floors were all soft rubber and the plants were synthetic. Real flowers cost too much, but the ones in Ebie’s dorm would turn a different color every day. She always liked them better. The sky was always totally black, though. Even on camping trips to the suburbs. She’d never imagined there could be so many stars until she came here.

The room she needed was on the first floor. She’d given the elders living in this building a choice, and they’d all chosen to be closer to the exit. When she opened the door to the right room, it was mostly empty. Four of the seven beds were unoccupied, though the bottom bunk nearest the door contained two people.

The exhaustion was making it harder to think, harder to focus, and this was definitely not a problem she needed to waste her time on. She told herself elders knew better than to cause trouble.

A woman slept alone in the bottom bunk by the window. Ebie shut the door quietly and took two steps forward to lean against one of the beams connecting Lai’s bed to the empty bunk above hers.

Ebie hadn’t been in this room since last year. Just seeing this, remembering Lai’s rants about how sleeping next to the window was the only way to get oxygen at night, made her chest feel too tight for her lungs.

Ebie let herself slide down, too tired to think of what to do next. She stretched her legs out when her ass hit the floor.

Maybe just being in a room with people would fix her. She’d never had problems sleeping before she became a Key. Even when Len’s nightmares woke everyone up, Ebie never had a problem going back to sleep.

“Ebie?” Lai said, barely audible. She sounded groggy and unguarded. A rare echo of how Ebie remembered her.

“Hey,” Ebie whispered. She had to apologize for barging into Lai’s room in the middle of the night. That was probably the right thing to do.

Lai rose up on one elbow. She looked like she was still trying to decide if this was a dream. “Why… what are you doing here?” Her long fingers were clutching the blanket.

“Can’t sleep,” Ebie said.

Lai sat up fully, frowning. She squinted at Ebie, trying to make out her face through the faint starlight coming from the window.

Ebie stood up, slowly. She slung an arm over the top bunk to keep herself steady.

Lai pushed back her braids and rubbed a hand over her eyes. Her face looked softer than Ebie remembered, in this light.

“I could go,” Ebie said.

Lai gave Ebie a look that wasn’t quite annoyance. Ebie tried to brace herself. The walk back to her building would be torture, but she’d crawl there somehow. Maybe she’d just pass out in the hall and wait for someone to wake her in the morning.

Lai looked at her for a long moment before rearranging herself, pushing her back against the wall, and making space for Ebie on the bed.

Ebie didn’t try to hide her relief. “Thank you.”

Lai yawned, rubbing the back of her hand against her eyes. “Last time, kid.”

Ebie nodded and started toeing off her boots. She pulled off her uniform pants and kicked them under Lai’s bed. Lai didn’t like ‘real clothes’ on her clean sheets, that much Ebie remembered.

The warmth of Lai’s blanket felt like home. The smell of the pillow was so familiar, Ebie bit her lip to stop herself from speaking. Nothing she could say now would lead to anything good. Lai was leaving in a few days. They’d said everything they had to say to each other years ago.

Lai’s lips curled into a smirk as Ebie got comfortable. “Your First having trouble performing?”

It was a joke. One Ebie was used to hearing by now. She should have rolled her eyes and said something clever, but she was so tired. There were no words in her head except about how much she’d missed this. How much she’d give up to have it again.

“It’s not like that, with me and him,” Ebie said, finally.

“I know,” Lai said, after a pause, her face changing from a hard, closed off expression to something softer. Her fingers traced Ebie’s lips and Ebie had to hold herself still and quiet. “You picked the weirdest boy on the planet.”

Lai’s hand slid down to Ebie’s collarbone, pressing down, as if trying to memorize her skin. Ebie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling Lai’s fingers rise and fall with it. When they’d met Ebie had been a nobody. She’d never met Sol, or Michael, didn’t even know what a Key did, exactly. Lai had explained it, one night.

She didn’t want to think about any of that. There were so many secrets she had to keep already, the weight of all these memories was too much. She could feel it pricking at her eyes, asking to spill out. In a moment Lai would notice it and Ebie wouldn’t be able to hold back at all.

She had to talk about something else. Maybe she couldn’t tell Lai the whole truth, but she could give her a piece of it, at least. Anything to stop thinking about how she never wanted to climb out of this bed.

“You know how I met him?” Ebie said.

“The Palace,” Lai said. Her hands were caressing Ebie’s stomach. Ebie was ticklish, but Lai kept her touch light enough that Ebie didn’t swat her away.

“First week, kitchen duty,” Ebie said. Her face felt unusually warm. She stared at the top bunk over her head. “They sent me to clean one of those giant food mixers. I climbed in there and didn’t come out for hours,” she swallowed. “The drugs, they… they must have not worked on me or something. When I was done there was blood everywhere. My pants were soaked, everything was dirty.”

Lai didn’t make a sound, but her hand froze, halfway under Ebie’s undershirt.

“I didn’t notice until they sent him to get me,” Ebie said. “It was right before dinner, they would have had to sanitize the machines all over again. Remember Cecilia, the old fluff minder?”

Lai’s face was covered in shadow, Ebie couldn’t see her expression. “She would have skinned you alive.”

“Yeah,” Ebie said. “And Susanna would have drugged me into a coma.”

Lai’s hand kept caressing under Ebie’s shirt. “He didn’t tell anyone?”

Ebie felt her lips curve at the memory. It felt good to share this in the dark. Easier. “He put his arm on one of those sharp bolts, the giant ones in the machine they tell you not to touch? Sliced himself open, elbow to wrist. Must have hit a vein. The blood went everywhere.”

Lai let out a huff.

“They thought it was an accident.” Ebie’s said, letting herself smile. “He started screaming. I had enough brain cells to make sure no one noticed my pants. We didn’t even know each other before that, never had any chores together or anything.”

“Good thing you picked him,” Lai said, after a moment. She bent down to press her lips to Ebie’s neck, pushing a strand of hair out of the way. “I would have just told Cecilia it was your fault.”

Ebie pulled away, took off her undershirt and threw it on the floor. She found Lai’s hand again and put it back where it was, warm against her skin. It was a little easier to breathe now. The pounding in her head was barely noticeable and her throat didn’t feel like it wanted to climb out of her chest anymore.

She turned over to face Lai, the two of them pressed up together. “I know people expected things, after I got appointed,” Ebie said. All of Lai’s friends expected her to become First, not Ebie’s weird friend from the Palace. A lot of people hated Ebie back then, for turning everything upside down. The district ran on a system: be friends with the Key and get favors, be a nobody and get left alone, be a kid or a weirdo or a weakling and hate everything about your life. Everyone expected Ebie to follow it, but she couldn’t. She’d never thought of herself as a strong person, just someone steady and firm, bad with people but good at keeping things organized. But she couldn’t keep letting the elders do what they wanted, relying on them to keep the peace. When Michael chose her, she knew she had to change things or die trying.

“I’m sorry,” Ebie said, feeling the moisture gathering in the corners of her eyes. “I had to do it my way.” It would cost her friends and parties and, eventually, Lai, but back then keeping herself isolated was the only way she knew to keep herself clean. People were never nice to a Key without wanting something. And she didn’t want to hand out any favors, intentionally or otherwise.

“Old news, kid,” Lai said, her lips curving into what Ebie thought was a half-smile. “Besides,” she went on. “You’d do it the same now. So don’t start apologizing.”

Ebie leaned over, so close to Lai that she could feel her breath, and Lai buried her fingers in Ebie’s hair and pulled her closer until their lips met.

 

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