Three Keys in the Desert (part 7 of 26)

Ebie took the long way from the Head’s office back to her own. Her brain was a box of static She knew the part of the Compound that belonged to the 745 like the back of her hand, but instead of taking the direct route she walked from the entrance to the staff areas, at the heart of the Compound, all the way back to her district’s gate. At least the corridors were mostly empty at this hour, just after breakfast.

She walked into the mess hall, empty except for a few fluffs cleaning the tea machines. They startled when they saw her, making her walk right back out again. She couldn’t hide out here.

Eventually she would have to get back to her office. If she left the Compound now it would take her hours to come back, and she didn’t have that kind of time. Rounds, meetings, spreadsheets, check-ups, none of it could wait.

Her fists clenched as she turned around again, and walked back into a gray, metal corridor. Her feet wanted to keep walking but her mind was clear enough now that she knew she had to go back. She had to keep functioning somehow.

She didn’t register anything except her office doors parting automatically to let her in. Her chair, worn and thinly padded, had been a gift from Sol. She’d helped Ebie get rid of the old, rusted one during Ebie’s first week as Key. Sol had taught her how to trick the supply office into parting with one of theirs in exchange for a favor. Ebie’s predecessor had never spent enough time in his office to bother.

She didn’t notice Len sitting in his usual seat until she heard his voice say “How was it?”

Of course—she’d told him to wait for her after the meeting, before anyone knew what it would be about.

“I heard about Sol,” Len said, hesitantly. “They announced it while you were gone.”

She couldn’t look at him. Her jaw already hurt from gritting her teeth, her chest was already on fire. The things she’d done behind Sol’s back for his sake. It made her want to claw the skin off her own bones.

“They said it was suicide—” Len began to say.

“It wasn’t suicide,” Ebie interrupted. “She was a Key for four years. She would never—” her voice faltered. She cleared her throat. “She wouldn’t have just given up.”

“You think someone… killed her?” Len’s brows were furrowed in disbelief. “I know her district’s had problems, but—”

“I don’t know,” Ebie said. “Nothing adds up.” She couldn’t stay in this office, coming here was a mistake. She needed to be alone, and moving. But walking around the halls would mean questions, especially after that stupid announcement. Why couldn’t Michael have at least waited until after the meeting before announcing it to the whole school? She wished she could go back to her room, lock the door and not deal with anyone for a week.

“So, Arai’s in charge now?” Len asked.

Ebie felt the anger flare up again. “No, some kid. You’ve seen him waiting for Sol.” The words felt like picking at an open wound. “She used to drag him to Key meetings just to annoy me? Supposedly the Head appointed him last night.”

She could tell the exact moment Len’s brain supplied the right visual. He stared at her wide-eyed. “That kid?”

If only Michael had seen it that way. If only Vrei hadn’t folded so quickly. “The new Head looked like she just woke up from a bender.” Ebie rested her fingers on the desk, forcing herself not to grab the nearest pile of paperwork and tear it to little pieces. “Could barely say two words, Michael did all the talking. I don’t think she even remembers what happened.” If Arai had just kept her mouth shut Michael would probably never have known.

Len let out a breath. “At least now it makes sense.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in before they started to tug at Ebie’s insides. “What?”

“Killing herself,” Len said. “It didn’t make any sense before.”

Ebie forced herself to take a breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to find a thread of calm. If things were different, if she hadn’t been forced to… but she’d betrayed Sol just like the rest of them. Whatever Vrei’s mistakes were, Ebie had made her own choices. She’d chosen to go behind Sol’s back to get what she needed, so what right did she have to be angry?

Ebie slammed her hand on the desk. It felt good. The stinging in her palm felt like an anchor. She had to focus.

“Get out,” she said.

Len looked startled. “I’m sorry, Eebs. Obviously you knew her better than I did.”

He didn’t deserve this. But neither had Sol. “Get out,” she said again, quieter.

He got up quickly, chair screeching against the floor. “I’ll see you at lunch. Leo’s got a stomach thing, we need to—”

“I don’t want to see you,” Ebie said, “until further notice.” Her eyes burned, from her lashes to the inside of her skull to her throat. She had to make him leave before she lost control of herself, before she took the anger out on the only person who’d never fight her back.

Len was silent for a moment. “Right. Sure,” he said, finally. The doors made a soft sound closing after him.

Ebie glanced at the desk littered with medical reports, requisition forms, housing requests. She sank lower in her chair and stared at the walls.


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