The girl spun around, her eyes wide. Krane lurched backward, falling deeper into the small room. She pressed her back against the cool concrete wall and tried to make herself as flat as possible. Her throat burned as she pushed the rejected saliva up as silently as she could muster.
“Hello?” said a fragile, shaking voice. “Who’s there?”
Now, Krane had to make a choice. For a short moment, she allowed her heart to beat wildly, her eyes to dart around the room in search of a weapon for self defense, her chattering mind to desire flight instead of fight. But then she chose. She straightened her back and pulled back her shoulders, lifting her chin and pursing her lips, building up the false face her two years of military training had taught her. And then the girl appeared in the entrance of room twenty-one.
“Hello?” she repeated. She was tall, thin, blonde, and beautiful—she looked just as Krane had imagined a Susceptible would look. But her blue eyes were wide, moist with fearful tears, and her hands were clenched together near her chest, as if protecting her heart from a painful emotional blow.
“Hello,” Krane said hoarsely then cleared her throat, attempting to keep her expression rigid while clearing out the remnants of saliva and phlegm that had been her downfall. “Go about your business.”
Wringing her delicate, white hands, the girl stammered. “I was just looking for my brother’s teddy bear. I was going to get an escort, but he was crying, so I didn’t want to have to wait.”
The girl’s voice cracked as she spoke, the words flowing out one after the other in a stream of worry. Krane stood firmly, like a soldier, like the fortress guard she’d always wanted to be. Though as she stood, unable to speak any other words, as she couldn’t discern what she was possibly supposed to say, she watched as recognition slowly melted over the girl’s milky-white face. Her expression eased into a different kind of crumpled, the confused kind. Krane stiffened her posture further, but she felt her position of authority in front of the girl weaken.
Her hands halting their twisting motion, the girl tilted her head ever so slight. “Are you a warden? You’re not, are you?” Her brow furrowed. In all her life, in all her childhood and her military training, Krane had never been caught doing something wrong. She’d never done something wrong. So she was unprepared for this experience and didn’t know what to do with the hesitant moments between the girl’s question and her as-of-yet unknown response. Rationally, it would be best to lie, to claim to be one of the wardens of which this girl spoke, except that she was unsure how the Susceptible, upon entering an area they were apparently not permitted to be, were punished. She didn’t know her way around the chambers, let alone the inside of the fortress, but if she revealed herself to be Immune, to be someone from the outside, she would likely be immediately killed. As she held her breath, out of fear of the consequences of her actions—albeit considering their accidental nature—she recognized the irony of her adrenaline-filled lack of reflexes. If she opened her mouth again, who knew what the result would be. This girl could fall ill, and the plague could erupt again within moments. This was the very thing the government was trying to prevent. This was the reason for the walls.
Krane cleared her throat again, with one beat, to be sure her voice would be assertive. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she said as confidently as she could muster, though she could feel her clammy fists, tight at her sides, beginning to shake.
“I don’t think you are either.”
There was no tremble in the girl’s vocal cords. As the girl’s blonde brows furrowed, Krane observed her inch forward one of her feet, garbed in a white slip-on shoe. She took another step, but Krane remained stolid in her repose. Her lips were hard and clenched, like her mother’s when she commanded the child Krane to go to bed or to finish eating her vegetables. She could hardly imagine what her mother, so proud of having a guard-in-training for a daughter, would think of her now.
The girl stopped, standing with a ballet dancer’s grace, four feet in front of her. “Are you lost?” she asked. “Were you looking for the wardens’ barracks? If you’re new, I understand. Everyone gets lost if they’re not used to being in this area of the compound.”
“I know perfectly well where I am. Get back to your business. Find whatever it is you’re looking for. Your brother’s toy. Then get out. I’ll let you go this time, but only this time.”
“Thank you.” By the confused glint in the girl’s blue eyes, Krane discerned that she was not saying the right things. But now that she’d said it, there was no going back. Inconsistencies would be more likely to give her away. “But, can I ask? Are you a new warden?”
“That’s none of your business. Now go.” She rose the volume of her voice ever so slightly, ting to make it sound more firm, more authoritative. She stiffened her arms at her sides even more. She could feel her veins pulsating in her fingertips and her palms.
The girl took a few steps back, slowly. Her brows were furrowed, her cheeks glowing pink. “Thank you,” she repeated, sounding not quite convinced, but getting there. Walking backwards, the girl kept her gaze pointed at Krane, though her lips were slightly pursed and her forehead was wrinkled. When she rounded the corner and slipped back into room eighteen, Krane heaved a silent sigh and allowed her shoulders to relax. She listened to the sound of the girl moving objects around in the crates and boxes, plastic bouncing against plastic, metal, and wood. The search seemed to go on for several minutes, but as Krane counted her breaths, forcing their steady slowing, she knew it could have only been thirty seconds before the girl’s gentle footsteps began again. She appeared in the entrance of section twenty-one, where Krane still stood. Once again, Krane stiffened her military stance.
“Thanks again,” the girl said, a tattered teddy bear in her hand. It had one button eye, the place where the second eye should be a hollow divot. A blue ribbon was tied around its neck, much shinier and smoother than the rough brown fur of the bear. “Can I ask your name?”
Krane hesitated. If she said her name, the girl could report her for not doing her duties, if that was what was going on. But the nervous tick of the girl rubbing the ribbon around the bear’s neck between her thumb and forefinger alerted her that there was no need to fear anyone ever knowing she was there. The girl was obviously not supposed to be here in what Krane discerned was the storage areas, some sort of lost and found.
“My name is Amma,” said the girl. “I just want to thank you again for letting me look for the bear.” She lifted it awkwardly. “I found it.”
“Good. Now go.”The girl didn’t move. The long pause in their words made both of them shift their feet, though Krane’s posture remained frozen. The desire for Amma to leave, the fear of sparking a new plague into being, had her legs nearly shaking with the need to run.