“So, Girl,” I say after a while, “thanks for your help today. For Tess, I mean. Where’d you learn to fight like that? You broke Kaede’s arm without even trying.”
The Girl hesitates. From the corner of my eye, I can see her watching me. I turn to face her, and she pretends to study the water instead, as if embarrassed to be caught looking. She absently touches her side and then makes a clicking sound with her tongue as if out of habit. “I hang around the edge of Batalla a lot. I like to watch the cadets practice.”
“Wow, you’re a risk-taker. But your fighting is pretty impressive. I bet you don’t have much trouble on your own.”
The Girl laughs. “You can see how well I did on my own today.” She shakes her head. Her long ponytail swings behind. “I shouldn’t have watched the Skiz fight at all, but what can I say? Your friend looked like she could use some help.” Then she shifts her gaze to me. That cautious expression still blankets her eyes. “What about you? Were you in the crowd?”
“No. Tess was down there because she likes seeing the action and she’s a little nearsighted. I like watching from a distance.”
“Tess. Is she your younger sister?”
I hesitate. “Yeah, close enough. It was really Tess I wanted to keep safe with my dust bomb, you know.”
The Girl raises an eyebrow at me. I watch her lips as they curl into a smile. “You’re so kind,” she says. “And does everyone around here know how to make a dust bomb?”
I wave my hand dismissively. “Oh, sure, even kids. It’s easy.” I look at her. “You’re not from the Lake sector, are you?”
The Girl shakes her head. “Tanagashi sector. I mean, I used to live there.”
“Tanagashi is pretty far away. You came all this way to see a Skiz fight?”
“Of course not.” The Girl leans back and carefully lies down. I can see the center of her bandage turning a dark red. “I scavenge on the streets. I end up traveling a lot.”
“Lake isn’t safe right now,” I say. A splash of turquoise in the corner of the balcony catches my eye. There’s a small patch of sea daisies growing from a crack in the floor. Mom’s favorite. “You might catch the plague down here.”
The Girl smiles at me, as if she knows something I don’t. I wish I could figure out who she reminds me of. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m a careful girl, when I’m not angry.”
When evening finally comes and the Girl has dozed off into a fitful sleep, I ask Tess to stay with her so I can sneak away to check on my family. Tess is happy to do it. Going to the plague-infected areas of Lake makes her nervous, and she always comes back scratching at her arms—as if she can feel an infection spreading on her skin.
I tuck a handful of sea daisies into the sleeve of my shirt and a couple of Notes into my pocket for good measure. Tess helps me wrap both of my hands in cloth before I go to avoid leaving fingerprints anywhere.
The night feels surprisingly cool. No plague patrols wander the streets, and the only sounds come from occasional cars and the distant blare of JumboTron ads. The strange X on our door is still there, as prominent as ever. In fact, I’m almost certain that the soldiers have been back at least once, because the X is bright and the paint’s fresh. They must have run a second check through the area. Whatever made them mark our door in the first place has apparently stuck around. I wait in the shadows near my mother’s house, close enough so I can actually peek through the gaps of our backyard’s rickety fence.
When I’m sure that no one is patrolling the street, I dart through the shadows toward the house and crawl to a broken board that leads under the porch. I slide the board aside. Then I crawl into the dark, stale-smelling crevice, and pull the board back into place behind me.
Small slivers of light come from between the floorboards in the rooms above me. I can hear my mother’s voice toward the back, where our one bedroom is. I make my way over there, then crouch beside the bedroom’s vent and look in.
John is sitting on the edge of the bed with his arms crossed. His posture tells me that he’s exhausted. His shoes are caked with dirt—I know Mom must’ve scolded him about that. John is looking toward the other side of the bedroom, where Mom must be standing.
I hear her voice again, this time loud enough to understand. “Neither of us is sick yet,” she says. John looks away and back toward the bed. “It doesn’t seem to be contagious. And Eden’s skin still looks good. No bleeding.”
“Not yet,” John replies. “We have to brace ourselves for the worst, Mom. In case Eden . . .”
Mom’s voice is firm. “I won’t have you saying that in my house, John.”
“He needs more than suppressants. Whoever gave them to us is very kind, but it’s not enough.” John shakes his head and gets up. Even now, especially now, he has to protect my mother from the truth of my whereabouts. When he moves away from the bed, I can see that Eden is lying there with a blanket pulled up to his chin, despite the heat. His skin looks oily with sweat. The color of it is strange too, a pale, sickly green. I don’t remember other plagues with symptoms like that. A lump rises in my throat.
The bedroom looks exactly the same, the few things in it old and worn but still comfortable. There’s the tattered mattress Eden’s on, and next to it is the scratched-up chest of drawers that I used to doodle on. There’s our obligatory portrait of the Elector hanging on the wall, surrounded by a handful of our own photos, as if he were a member of our family. That’s all our bedroom has. When Eden was a toddler, John and I used to hold his hands and help him walk from one end of this room to the other. John would give him high fives whenever he did it on his own.