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The rule of mirrors, p.1
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.1

           Caragh M. O'Brien
The Rule of Mirrors

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  Copyright Page

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  For my sister,

  Alvina K. Hart




  WHEN I FEEL SOFT, breathy pressure on my lips, I open my eyes and grab the guy’s throat.

  “Stop,” I say. It’s my first word out loud ever, and the power of it thrills me.

  The guy jerks free from my grasp and rubs his throat. He’s ugly and young. Mousy hair. Wispy, loathsome mustache. He’s in scrubs, like he’s a hospital attendant, but I’m not deceived. This is no hospital. It’s a vault of dreamers.

  “You can’t be awake,” he whispers. He looks rapidly over his shoulder and then back to me. “Whoever screwed up your meds, it wasn’t me.” He reaches for the drip that will infuse a new dose of narcotics into my veins.

  “No, wait,” I say. “Just wait, please. I need to talk to you.”

  “This is impossible,” he whispers furiously. “You must be talking in your sleep.”

  “Do I look like I’m sleep talking?” I stretch my eyelids super wide and reach up for his face.

  “Don’t do that,” he says, with hushed urgency, and he pushes my arm back to my side.

  “I know you like me,” I say. “You were this close to kissing me.”

  “No, I wasn’t!”

  “No one else has to know,” I say. “Is your name Ian? Is that what I heard? Please, Ian. Please talk to me for a second. I’m so lonely.”

  From my inert position in my sleep shell, lying on my back and dressed in a thin gown, I doubt I could look more helpless if I tried, but I put every bit of pleading into my eyes, and before I can stop myself, real tears brim over. I hate appealing to him like this. I hate that my loneliness is so true.

  He frowns above me, this ugly boy-man with droopy, soft lips. Big ears. Bulbous eyes. Soft everywhere. He might be man height, but I swear his voice never changed.

  “Don’t cry,” he says. “I don’t believe this is happening.” He touches his sleeve to the corner of my eye, and then he smiles shyly. “All right. I’ll talk, but just for a second. I’m a big fan of yours.”


  He nods. “I used to watch you on The Forge Show. I couldn’t believe my luck when you came here.”

  “Where’s here?”

  His brows lift in surprise. “This is the Onar Clinic, out of Denver. We do sleep therapy and research. You’re here to recover. Now hold still. This shouldn’t hurt. I just have to check your port.” He leans over the place in my chest where an IV goes into my skin and peels off some tape.

  I try to make sense of this information.

  The last thing I knew for certain was that Dean Berg had me trapped in the vault of dreamers under the Forge School. Linus was there, too, and a pang accompanies my memory of his limp body lying on the operating table. Dean Berg mined me that night, and the pain was excruciating.

  Or wait. I recall a span of time after that, too. I was trapped in another vault, maybe this one. I glance up at the supply lines that run along the ceiling. Yes. I’m as certain as I can be that this is the same place. Ian was in that memory, too. I was here a couple of weeks or more, and I still had my other voice with me then. We tried to comfort each other. We tried for hope, but then—it comes to me fully now, the last thing I remember, when Dr. Ash was mining me. Us.

  The gilded, honeyed lights surrounded our memory-dream of our sister Dubbs on the train tracks, ripping it away, mining it savagely out of us, and when my other voice couldn’t bear to lose our sister, she wrapped herself around Dubbs and held on so tightly that they both were torn away from me. A shattering of star bits swirled around me in the aftermath and broke the night into slivers of gold while I, in disbelief, in agony, screamed and tried to follow.

  It was useless. The schism was complete, and my other voice was gone. I was left behind in our body. Me. The other, lesser voice who spoke only in our head, never aloud. Until now.

  Ian slides a new IV into my chest, and the prick hurts. “Sorry,” he mumbles. He peels off a new piece of tape to secure it.

  This is what I’ve struggled to wake up to. This hideousness. I’ve come close to surfacing before, enough to be certain that Ian has lingered over me previously, but this is the first time I’ve actually broken through.

  It’s so hard to know what’s real.

  I always depended on my other voice for reason and logic. She made our decisions while I mocked and doubted, loitered and craved. Of course, I have my own quicksilver, instinctive way of drawing conclusions, and I fall back on that now. Keep him talking.

  “How old are you?” I ask.

  “What would you guess?” he says.

  I have no idea. “Twenty-five?”

  He laughs and then modestly adjusts my gown once more. “I’m nineteen,” he says. “Three years older than you.”

  “Four years,” I say. “I’m fifteen.”

  “No. You had your birthday in December. You’re sixteen now.”

  Alarm slams me. “How long have I been here?” I ask.

  “Let me think,” he says. “You came right before Halloween, I remember. It was wild. Four truckloads of dreamers showed up at the same time, and Berg told us we had to keep a special eye on you. I was like, that’s her, Rosie from The Forge Show. I was so psyched. I loved watching your blip rank go up. The show wasn’t the same at all after you left.”

  “But how long ago did I come here?” I insist. “What’s the date today?”

  A mumbling of voices carries from the distance, and Ian looks over his shoulder until the noise passes. I can’t see much from my angle, but from the way Ian keeps turning, I assume a doorway opens in the direction of my feet. He faces me again.

  “Today’s February eleventh,” he says.

  My mind balks. I’ve been here in this vault for more than three months! Three months! This is worse than a prison. It’s stealing my life! I thrash my hand up in desperation.

  “Please, Ian!” I say. “You have to help me. I can’t stay here like this!”

  “Careful.” Ian catches my hand and holds it down.

  “Are they mining me? Do you mine me?” I ask.

  He smiles. “No. Not me.”

  “Dr. Ash, then? Does she mine me?”

  “Look, it’s all for your own good,” he says. “You have to calm down. It’s not right for your heart rate to go up like that. It’ll change your metabolism and everything else.” He reaches for the narcotics dial again.

  “No, please!” I say. “I’m calm. See? I’m fine.” I try to smile.

  “I mean it,” he says. “If you destabilize, they might decide to move you.”

  “To where?”

  “The main research lab,” he says. “To be honest, Onar is more of a sorting station than anything else. It’s strange for a dreamer to be here this long, but that’s what Mr. Berg ordered for you. I think it has to do with confidentiality. He trusts us here.”

/>   “I don’t want to go anywhere,” I say, willing myself to be calm. I know, at some level, he’s my only chance. He’s the one who lingers over me. I must manipulate him right. “I want to stay here with you.”

  “You’re lucky it wasn’t one of the others who noticed you were awake,” he says. “I really ought to report this. The doc will want to adjust your meds.”

  “Don’t tell them,” I say. “It wasn’t luck. I waited to wake up just with you.”

  “Is that right?” he asks, looking pleased.

  “I have an idea,” I say. “Why don’t you lighten up on my meds so you and I can talk sometimes? I’ll keep it a secret if you will.”

  He rubs his nose and smiles again. “That’s funny,” he says. “You’re asleep all the time. You have nobody to tell.”

  Duh. Exactly, I think. “I like to see you smile,” I say.

  He glances over his shoulder again and leans near so I can smell the potato chips on his breath. “I like your smile, too. This is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me.”

  “Don’t tell anybody,” I say.

  He whispers confidentially. “Okay.”

  “Can I ask you something? Do you have a girlfriend?”

  Straightening again, he shakes his head, but a touch of color rises in his cheeks. “I never know how to talk to girls.”

  “You’re talking to me,” I say.

  “I guess. This is different, though.”

  “No, we are definitely having a conversation, and I am definitely a girl.”

  He breaks into a quick, private smile and then frowns again. “I really need to put you back to sleep.”

  “Will you do me a favor?” I ask.

  He looks a bit wary. “What?”

  “You smell like the outdoors,” I say. “Like the forest.” This is patently untrue. He reeks of tobacco. “Could you bring me something green to smell?”

  “You want something alive, from outside?” He sounds surprised.

  I nod. “It would mean so much to me.”

  He is grotesque to me, this evil troll, but when he pauses to consider, his eyes take on a liquid, dreamy quality, and he looks younger. He pushes back his mousy hair and rubs behind one ear.

  “It might help your dreams,” he says pensively.

  “Is something wrong with my dreams?” I ask.

  He hesitates, then shakes his head. “No. They’re fine.”

  He’s lying, obviously. Panic tingles at my throat. Dean Berg hasn’t killed me in a brief, merciful way. He’s been mining me for over three months. He’s kept me wasting. Tethered. This is exactly the hell my other voice foresaw when she escaped.

  “Ian, please. You have to help me! You can’t let them keep me here!”

  He reaches for the dial on my IV again. “Don’t get excited,” he says. “It’s your job to sleep.”

  “Just bring me something green,” I say. “That’s all I want. Promise me!”

  He shakes his head. His lips go straight and firm.

  I want to scream at him.

  “When can we talk again?” I ask. “Ian?”

  His eyes go sad. “That’s enough, now. Just close your eyes.”

  I hate obeying him. He infuriates me. But I do what he says.

  It’s an exquisite kind of horrible, lying there blind, hearing him breathing and knowing he’s turning the dial on my IV. We have a fragile new pact that’s built on us both knowing that I’m awake. He could do anything to me, and I’m helpless to stop him, but I have to hope he enjoys the power he has. The control. The mercy. I want him to sense how grateful I am for his decency and gentleness.

  Not that he’s decent at all. He’s a pawn. A Berg tool.

  The brown, warm heaviness seeps into my blood. I hold out as long as I can, resisting the meds with will power. If only I knew how to be smart like my other voice was.

  Where are you? I call to her.

  I listen to the hollow of my mind, waiting while the delicate emptiness plays in my ears, but only my own echo answers back, mocking me. She’s gone. I miss her. I hate her, too, and bleating for her won’t bring her back. A swirl of bitterness fills me. If she’s extinguished, it’s no less than she deserves for abandoning me.

  I never asked to be in charge, but I’m all I have left now.

  “I’m sorry,” Ian says softly. “That was a mistake, talking to you. I didn’t mean to get you upset.”

  He smears a touch of gel on my eyelids. In a moment, he’ll close the lid of my sleep shell and walk away. He’ll never let me wake again.

  “Kiss me goodnight, Ian,” I whisper.

  “What?” he asks.

  It’s my last trick to play, and I can’t bear to say it again.

  Gentle pressure lands not on my lips, but on my forehead—a kind kiss from a monster. It tears at me. I can’t tell which of us has won this round, him or me.

  Then my lungs fill with pure loneliness, and I’m back to the airless agony at the bottom of my pond.




  MY BELLY DIPPED, returning to gravity. I could breathe again, too. The weighty fullness of my body swelled into being around me, and each warm, corporeal cell of flesh dazzled. My second breath brought the raspberry scent of roses, cloying and near.

  An indifferent twilight lingered inside my eyelids. The strands of honeyed light that I last recalled spinning around my sister and me were gone, and so was the euphoria of release. My hands felt small and empty.

  Are you there? I asked silently.

  I lay waiting for the familiar shift of my inner voice to stir at the back of my mind, but my mental corners remained as clean and still as a swept pine floor. I felt odd. Not just awake, but new. Inhaling deeply, I filled each tiny pocket of my lungs. My muscles came painfully alert, like they might respond if I tried to move, but I didn’t dare to test them or open my eyes until I had my bearings. If I was still in the vault, someone could be watching.

  Approaching wheels gathered volume until they squeaked to a stop.

  “Good morning, Mr. Flores,” a woman said. “Coffee?”

  A man spoke up in a deep, weary voice, as American as a cowboy’s. “Thanks. Black will do. What time is it?”

  As liquid poured audibly into a cup, the aroma of fresh coffee cut through the redolence of the flowers, and the clues of normalcy thrilled me. Let this be real, I thought, and not some dream.

  “Five eleven,” she said. She had an unfamiliar accent and a lilting voice. “Looks like a beautiful day out there. How’s your daughter? Any change?”

  “Her heartbeat’s up slightly,” he said. “I don’t know if that means anything.”

  Me. They had to mean me.

  “There it goes again. See that jump?” he said.

  “Right. This will be the day,” she said. “I have a good feeling about it. You said black, right?”

  “Yes, perfect. Thank you,” he said.

  The coffee lady wished him a good day, and the rolling noise receded into the distance. No way could I still be in a vault of dreamers. Whoever these people were, wherever I was, I must have escaped, which set me teetering on the possibility of joy. For a last moment, I primed myself, readying for anything and guarding myself against disappointment.

  Then I opened my eyes on a painfully bright world.

  I blinked, squinting at a hospital room, and my gaze shot to the window. Just outside, a pine stood under heavy snow, bulging and clean against a fresh blue sky. Each minute, crystalline surface of the flakes glittered, and my heart ached at the pure beauty of it.

  Beside the window, a man turned a paper cup idly in his hand and aimed his attention outward, toward the view. He was a regular, middle-aged guy, not some attendant in a lab coat. That alone was reassuring, but he also had a fit, big-boned frame, and rugged, dark-skinned features that appealed to me as unaffected and down home.

  It hit me, with growing pleasure, that I had surfaced in a safe, normal place among
everyday people instead of TV stars or the victims of a maniac. A black-and-silver rosary rested beside a vase of yellow roses. A TV was mounted near the ceiling, and a white board was covered with scribbles. I didn’t see a single camera anywhere. My happiness soared.

  The man turned to look my way, and when his eyes met mine, he lowered his cup to the window ledge so rapidly that a few drops spilled. He touched a hand to his heart. He shook his head, as if overcome, and then he seemed to both melt and levitate at the same time.

  “Hello, m’ija,” he said. “¿De veras estás despierta?”

  I recognized Spanish, but I couldn’t understand him.

  He came over to set a kiss on my forehead, and then he beamed his warm eyes directly into mine. “Are you back with us again?”

  Yes, I’m here, I thought, but trying to transmit the words to my lips brought only a thickness to my tongue. I felt my first flicker of fear.

  “It’s all right,” he continued. He laughed and straightened and wiped at his eye. “I can hardly believe this. You’re actually awake, aren’t you?”

  He went off in another stream of Spanish, but I hardly heard him.

  I couldn’t speak. What else couldn’t I do? I moved my head slightly and twitched my fingertips, but I wasn’t getting any signals from my toes. When I tried to shift my legs, they were too heavy, as if instead of the sheet I could see, a lead apron pinned down my lower limbs.

  I wasn’t going to panic yet.

  “She moved her head, Madeline,” the man said, now speaking into a phone. “I swear. She’s looking at me right now, clear as can be. Get yourself down here.” He smiled at me, a stiff pinch of lips. “You’re hearing every word I say, aren’t you? Unbelievable.” He set down his phone and reached forward to lift my hand into his.

  Except it wasn’t my hand. The hand at the end of my arm was all wrong: too knuckly and stubby. Too dark. What on earth? My heart pounded, and a simultaneous beep startled me from behind. Wait! I checked the other hand and it was wrong, too.

  “Forgive me if we’ve done wrong,” the man added. “We’ve only wanted what’s best for you, and if this was a mistake coming here, I beg you to forgive us.”

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