THE KEYSTONE CURE
Ben was thirteen when the night sweats began. As much as he knew his prayers wouldn’t ward them off, he prayed anyway. What else could he do? Prayers came to him when he was thankful or desperate. He wasn’t thankful now.
He looked over at Abby. Her tiny body snuggled under her scratchy, gray blanket, gently heaving in the soft rhythm of deep sleep. Perhaps there was something to be thankful for after all.
He got up, drenched to the point of dripping, closing the bathroom door completely before switching on the light. The fluorescent bulbs running through the hospital were blinding even when it wasn’t pitch black. He waited a moment for the split second flash headache to clear before finding his way to the sink. He splashed cold water on his face for a full minute. This wasn’t working. He turned on the shower. He hated the cold showers, but without them, he knew he wouldn’t make it through the night. This was his fifth night shower. His first came the night after his birthday three months ago. As excited as he was about becoming a teenager, twelve was looking pretty good right now.
At least his mother was too far-gone to understand it was happening to him too. Before they came to the island, she would have scolded him for being up in the night, never mind showering while the family was trying to sleep. But the family wasn’t the same anymore. There was no one left to wake except Abby, and she still slept in the blissful state of childhood ignorance.
When his temperature felt normal again, Ben turned off the water, shivering. By the time he had his towel to his face, the droplets on his body had evaporated, and when he looked closely, he was sure he saw steam coming off his skin. The shower didn’t take. He dried off anyway, hoping to find sleep again tonight, but not betting on it.
“Crap.” He whispered. He’d forgotten to grab a dry pair of pyjama pants. There was no way he could put the others back on. They were drenched in sour smelling sweat. He wrapped the towel around his waist, leaving the soiled pants on the floor as a thirteen year old is bound to do. He might remember to put them in the laundry tomorrow. Probably not. There would be a nurse to do it for him anyway. The hospital didn’t worry much about enforcing chores. What was the point of learning lessons here?
Ben switched off the light and opened the door, muffling a scream as it scraped over the top of his foot, taking a layer of skin with it. Stumbling out, he waiting a moment for his eyes to adjust in the pitch black again. He limped slowly, running his hand along the end rail of Abby’s bed, reaching out to touch her foot, just to make sure she was still there. Still safe. If there was one thing he could never be sure of, it was that.
He got to his bed, going the long way around, reaching out to find his mother’s bed. He felt her hand, warm, reassuring.
Ben managed a couple hours of fitful sleep before the hospital slowly came to life. He could hear the old wheels on the food trays catching as the nurses struggled with them down the hallway. For a pharmaceutical company owned by a billionaire, you would think they could get a new trolley. But that was how it was around here. Just good enough.
As he often did, Ben found his mind drifting back to his old room – a place where he didn’t have to think about night sweats and the sores behind his mother’s ears. He forced himself to think about what breakfast might be today, but his thoughts strayed to his father. He missed him everyday. Thinking about other things helped sometimes. Not today.
Today was egg day. For most kids, eggs were a welcome change from cold cereal, but not here. Here the eggs were cold, and took on the consistency of old tires. He couldn’t even imagine what form of cooking could achieve this result, but here they were, staring him in the face like two giant yellow eyeballs. He didn’t feel quite so hungry anymore.
Abby was finally stirring. She sat up; a giant rat’s nest swirled in a counterclockwise circle in the back of her head.
“Perfect,” he thought. It fell to Ben now to untangle the unruly mess. His mother was no longer capable. Abby hated it when he brushed her hair, but there was no one else. He glanced over to his mom. She would be asleep for another couple hours at least. Some days she slept until noon.
Tears burned behind his eyes. He held them back so hard his nose stung, but he couldn’t let Abby see. It wasn’t so long ago that his mother was the one dragging them out of bed for breakfast. Back then it was warm blueberry muffins fresh out of the oven, and a smiling face that could remember who he was. Now when she woke there was nothing but confusion. Ben wasn’t even sure she was seeing him when she looked at him, or simply through him as though he was a window covered in fog.
“Eggs again?” Abby’s face said what he was thinking. She was not happy.
“Yeah. But it looks like the toast is a little less soggy today. And look,” he held up a little square, plastic package. “They sprung for peanut butter today.”
She rubbed her eyes, taking off the cover, revealing the same unblinking yellow eyes. Her face sqinched like she’d just taken a gulp of lemonade someone forgot to add the sugar to. She grabbed her fork, shoving her eggs out of the way of the toast that was ever so slightly touching them. “Ugh.”
Ben got up to put the peanut butter on her toast, rubbing her back for a moment when he was finished, as Abby began to chow down. It was something he remembered seeing his mother do. Before.
Abby inhaled her toast in a minute flat. There never quite seemed to be enough food around here. He could feel the ridges of each of her ribs. He wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay. That they would be going home soon. But he couldn’t lie to Abby.
The nurse came in, hustling to take away the trays, but left a small paper that had been underneath. Ben had seen it once before, and his blood ran cold. He knew what it was immediately:
“The Hunt for the Keystones:
Finish the Hunt and receive the cure!
Saturday, 12 noon.
The fine print at the bottom explained, just as it had the last time, “You will gain health and freedom for your entire family if you complete the Hunt. Please note: Medi-core is not responsible for injury or death which may result from participation in the Hunt.”
What the cheerful flyer failed to mention was the twelve-day deadline, and that the hunt only happened once a year. That is if you make it that long.
There was an identical flyer under Abby’s tray. She was holding the paper close to her face, searching for words she knew. Thankfully she didn’t know many.
So far, his symptoms hadn’t gotten bad. It wasn’t worth the risk – not yet.