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The keep of ages, p.1
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       The Keep of Ages, p.1

           Caragh M. O'Brien
The Keep of Ages

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  Copyright Page

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  For my aunt,

  Nancy J. Walsh



  APART FROM A LONE cicada’s keening, the desert evening is quiet. I lean my shoulder against a boulder and aim my binoculars toward the boxcars, where the empty laundry line cuts through the heat of our backyard like a white slash. Rolling my focus knob, I shift my circle view up the back steps to the screen door and then to each window, one by one. Nothing moves. I watch until the colors go drab, until the stillness corrodes my hope.

  No one’s home. After all I’ve survived to come back, my family isn’t here to greet me. I’d laugh if I didn’t ache so much, and if I weren’t sick with worry. Ma and Larry haven’t answered the phone since I started trying to reach them yesterday, but they normally never leave Doli. They have no other place to go. Their absence makes no sense.

  Training my binoculars on the desert surrounding the boxcars, I pick carefully over each clump of creosote to see if Berg has anyone staked out to watch my home and wait for me. From this side of the old train, out of sight of the tourists, nobody bothers with fresh paint, and each boxcar home has faded to a rusty brown that’s barely distinguishable from the desert.

  A neighbor steps out the back of her boxcar and descends to a row of chicken-wire crates that huddle in the shade of a stunted oak. First she pours a measure of feed pellets in the top, and then she takes a rabbit out by the ears. It kicks its legs, indignant, but she holds it to a stump and dispatches it quickly with an ax.

  The thunk reaches me a moment after the flash of the blade.

  If I were smart, I’d go to the McLellens’ place at the far end of the train and ask what they know about my family, but I can’t yet. Hope and fear keep me here, peering at my home, waiting in case someone comes. Dubbs should be back from school. Larry should be drinking a beer on the couch. Ma should be frying onions. Those windows should be open like mercy to let in the air.

  As the shadows turn and grow longer, I get too anxious to wait anymore. I have to see what’s left, even if my family’s bodies are baking inside that shimmering box of heat, bloating into a feast for flies.

  No, I tell myself. They’re gone. They have to be gone, not dead. They can’t be murdered.

  But my fear is real. I know how sick Berg can be. I lower the binoculars so they hang from my neck, brace a hand on the boulder, and rise. Hitching up my jeans and crouching low, I pick my way between brush and rock, until I cross the dusty slope of the valley. I duck under our laundry line and when I open the screen door, it gives a dry squeak. We never lock our back door, but since it sticks, I give it a kick at the bottom, and for the first time in half a year, I’m home.

  “Ma?” I ask into the hot, hollow stillness.

  Late sunlight sifts through the skylights, intensifying the gloom in the corners. I take a cautious breath and step inside. The stifling heat has the familiar, egg-sandwich smell of home. Dipping my head out of the strap, I lift off the weight of my binoculars and set them on the shelf. The ceiling is lower than I remember, the room more cramped. Books and dishes are left in a typical mess, but nothing looks ransacked. In the kitchen nook, a paperback props open the door of the fridge, a sign it’s unplugged, and now I know: this was a planned departure. The nearest lamp is unplugged, too. I can picture how Larry examined the electric meter while Ma went around disconnecting everything—hot water heater, toaster, clock—so not even the smallest appliance could draw any current and cost them while they’re gone.

  But where to?

  And when did they go? Sweating, I shove up the kitchen window for a cross breeze, and then I look around hopefully for a note. My gaze scans over my little sister’s school photo and a box of ammo on the coffee table. The pencil bucket stands spiky on the desk. No note. I try to tell myself that they didn’t expect me, which is not the same as being forgotten, but still, it stings. As I trail my hand along the orange plaid couch, part of me clams over a lost pearl of grief. Where’d they go?

  They wouldn’t just leave for no reason. This is our home. They’d have to be driven or drawn away by something huge. Even then, they should have left me some message.

  Despite my stepfather Larry’s paranoia about surveillance in electronics, I’m sure my parents have a computer now. They’ve been coordinating the search for me and accepting donations online. Yet I can’t find a computer or tablet anywhere. They could have taken it with them, but they haven’t answered any emails lately, either. Things don’t fit.

  I try to think where my little sister, Dubbs, might have left me a message. Turning to the red curtain that gives some privacy to our bunk beds, I drag it aside along the wire, and I’m suddenly, keenly homesick, right here at home. Dust motes float in a beam of sunlight that lands on an upturned sandal. A gleam reflects off the little framed photo of my dad and me, him in his uniform and me in his hat, still on the wall where he hammered in the nail and hung it for me over a decade ago. My sister’s bed, on top, is neatly made with her yellow patchwork quilt. Below, my red quilt has collected several drawings, a bird’s nest, and a handmade, ceramic soap dish. I turn over the drawings, which have her name and age on the back, but no clues for me. Then I remember Dubbs’s journal.

  I drop to the floor, roll to my back, and push under my bed. Ignoring the dust bunnies, I inspect the pattern of metal wires for the little homemade booklet that she used to hide under the mattress. The booklet is gone, but in the same place, I find a folded piece of paper. Yes, I think. I pull the paper between the wires and stand to hold it in the sunlight. It’s a lined sheet of notebook paper with the ripped parts still fringing one side, and it feels faintly brittle, like it was wet once and then dried. It says

  To Rosie. From Dubbs.

  See you

  I turn the note over, looking for more, but though the paper is large enough for more writing, those are the only words. Frustrated, I check under the bed again. That’s all she left. Was she interrupted? That seems unlikely, considering she had time to fold up her message and hide it under the bed. Absently, I brush the dust from my hair and shirt.

  The phone rings. I jump and bolt past the curtain to the living room. My gaze flies to the doors. The front one is still closed. The back one is still empty. When the phone rings again, I grab it to my ear.


  A faint click is the only reply.

  “Hello? Who is this?” I ask.

  I spin around the room, searching for a camera lens on the lamp or the wall or the skylight. One could be anywhere. I instinctively back into the kitchen, taking the phone cradle with me on its long cord, and I peek through the window toward the road out front.

  Still no voice comes from the phone, though I hold it hard to my ear. It doesn’t disconnect, either, so someone’s listening.

  A Jeep is newly parked beside the tamarack tree, its windows rolled down, a gun rack clearly visible on the back window. A young man with a wispy mus
tache is smoking behind the wheel, and my lungs tighten with fear. Ian. My former captor from the Onar Clinic. He wasn’t there when I entered the boxcar, but now he’s watching it.

  My heart thuds. “Is that you, Berg?” I ask into the phone.

  The faint clicking comes again.

  I slam the phone down in its cradle. Horror flashes along my skin. Out front, Ian opens his car door and flicks away his cigarette butt. He’s lanky in a black tee shirt, gray pants, and army boots. Beneath his pale hair, his expression is unsmiling, but I can tell he’s jazzed. He loves tracking me down.

  Before he can get any closer, I move swiftly toward the back door. Quickly, quietly, I step out and shut it. I wince into the setting sun, and then I sprint around the ragged fences and rabbit coops and grills behind the boxcars, heading for the McLellens’. A surprised voice calls out to me, but I don’t answer. A crashing noise makes me look back as I run. Ian vaults over a pile of cement pavers. He’s coming fast and aiming a gun.

  A popping shot fires out behind me, and a spat knocks a water jug spinning by my right ear. I dodge left and run even faster.

  “Peggy!” I scream.

  My heart’s pounding and my lungs are bursting from fear. I’m running so fast that everything’s a blur except when I leap over a shovel or launch off a garden post or flip a folding chair behind me. My ears are primed for another gunshot. My scalp anticipates pain. I don’t dare to look back again.

  I scream for Peggy again, and now the McLellens’ boxcar is in sight. It’s ten yards ahead. Five. I’m almost there when I hear a much louder shot and jolt instinctively sideways before I realize the blast came from in front of me.

  Peggy McLellen is standing on her back stoop, with her rifle raised. Her sundress rides up to show her sturdy knees and rugged boots.

  “Get behind me,” she says tersely.

  I fly up the steps and stop in her shadow, panting. I look over her shoulder toward Ian, who has stopped back in the abutting yard. He hugs a bleeding hand to his chest, and his gun has fallen in the dirt.

  “Explain yourself,” Peggy says. “This next bullet’s aimed somewhere more permanent.”

  “I’ve just come to collect Rosie,” Ian says, panting. “I wasn’t going to hurt her.”

  “She doesn’t want to come,” Peggy says. “That’s what running away means.”

  “She doesn’t know her own mind,” Ian says. “She’s sick in the head.”

  “I’m the sick one?” I say. “You’re the one who works for Berg.”

  “Who sent you?” Peggy says.

  “Her guardian, Sandy Berg,” Ian says. “If you aid her, you’re kidnapping, and that’s a felony.” He leans to reach toward his gun with his good hand.

  “Leave it,” Peggy says.

  “I need my gun,” Ian says.

  “You need to get out of here or you’ll get yourself mistaken for a gutless coyote and shot,” Peggy says.

  “It’s just tranquilizers,” Ian says. He lifts his voice. “I wasn’t going to hurt you, Rosie. You know you’re supposed to come.”

  “Where’s Berg now?” I ask. The one good thing about him still being alive is that I can’t get prosecuted for killing him.

  Ian tilts his head and gives his bangs a little flip. “At Forge, like normal,” he says. “But he’ll come now that I’ve got you. It won’t take him more than a few hours to get here. You can stay awake and talk with me in the motel ’til he arrives. Or sleep, if you’d rather. But it seems to me we’ve got things to discuss. You shouldn’t have ditched me back in Montana.”

  “Where’s my family?” I ask him.

  “Looks like they ran, like cowards,” Ian says.

  Peggy takes another blasting shot toward Ian, who screams and ducks to the ground.

  “Mind your manners,” Peggy warns him.

  Ian swears in a squeaky voice. “You don’t have to shoot me! I haven’t done anything!”

  Peggy frowns. “Your folks are looking for you,” she says to me, her voice low. “They got a tip. They left yesterday. Come on in and I’ll tell you about it.”

  “What about him?” I ask.

  Ian is crouched way down, with his hands over his ears. The right one’s bloody. It also looks like he’s peed himself.

  Peggy gestures with her gun. “Stand up, idiot. Quit your crying. I’ll only shoot you if you run.”

  He stands slowly, keeping his hands high, and he looks taller and more awkward than ever. Peggy walks behind him, picks up his tranquilizer gun, gives it a quick inspection, and tucks it in the belt of her dress. She gives him a nudge with the muzzle of her rifle.

  “In you go,” she says to him. She nods back up at me. “Rosie, take the hash browns off the stove and see if you can’t find some duct tape.”



  I SHIFT THE HASH BROWNS off the hot burner and locate the duct tape like I’m told.

  Peggy has me hold the rifle while she ties Ian’s wrists behind him. When he resists, she clouts him on the head. “You watch it. I’m running out of patience,” she says. She directs him into the closet off the living room and tells him to sit before she secures his ankles with more duct tape. She wraps a wad of medical gauze around his bleeding hand, gags him with an old scarf, and locks him in the closet.

  I won’t lie. I find this deeply satisfying. Ian kept me captive for months when I was helpless in a sleep shell, and I relish that he’s the victim for a change. Once in a while, Ian kicks, and the muffled noise gives me another little thrill.

  Peggy parks Ian’s tranquilizer gun on the bookshelf next to her Bible. Without another word, she dishes up two heaping plates of omelets and hash browns, and passes me the Tabasco. It’s the best food I’ve ever had in my whole life. I have to moan with pleasure.

  “Glad you like it. There’s plenty more,” Peggy says, smiling. “I cooked like everybody was home.”

  I glance around. The ceiling fan is on, silently alleviating the press of heat, and the windows are open. I can’t hear any noise from upstairs.

  “Where are Rusty and the kids?” I ask.

  “Visiting Rusty’s mother in Phoenix,” she says. “No offense, but you look real bad. You could use another ten pounds, easy. Eat up,” she says, and she empties the rest of both skillets onto my plate.

  The McLellens’ boxcar has the same footprint as ours—a long, narrow rectangle—but it feels completely different because they jacked up the ceiling to fit in a loft and added a ton more windows. Money’ll do that. I babysat and ran errands for the McLellens for half my life, so I know my way around. Their place is freshly painted and up-to-date, with a huge flat-screen TV and an open laptop on the kitchen counter. My gaze goes instinctively to the camera lenses, which are uncovered, and prickles rise on the back of my neck.

  “Do you mind?” I ask. I step over to her laptop and close it. Then I take a dish towel and fold it over the top ridge of the TV to cover the lens there. I check the bookshelves, the lamps, and the corners where the paneling meets until I’m sure no other lenses are aimed at us.

  Peggy, chewing thoughtfully, watches me and makes no comment. She’s a tall, big-boned woman with short hair, dark skin, and a penchant for wearing red. Her sleeveless dress today is no exception, and I can see the soft, swirly mark of an old scar on her upper arm.

  I get back to my fork. “What do you know about my family?”

  “You just missed them. They took off yesterday afternoon,” Peggy tells me. “They got a credible tip on your whereabouts. Someone had a photo of you sleeping, and your parents decided to go in person and check it out. They wouldn’t say where.”

  “Sleeping how?”

  “It was just your face on a pillow. In profile. Very little color, but some. It was pretty artsy, actually,” she says.

  Inside, I go still. “It was just a picture? Not a video clip?”

  “Just a picture. I take it you know the one I mean,” she says.

  I do. It’s from a video take
n when I was lying in bed with Linus. It sickens me to remember how we were spied upon. Was that really only a few nights ago? So much has happened since then. “How’d my parents get the picture?” I ask. “Who sent it?”

  “I couldn’t say. Your ma showed me the picture, but otherwise, she was tight-lipped about the whole thing,” Peggy says. “She was trying to protect me, or so she said.”

  As far as I know, the only person who could have sent that image is Berg, and if he’s luring my parents to him, they’re in real danger.

  “Were they driving?” I ask.

  “Yes. I sold them a car a while back,” she says. “They got a little money from people who donated to help search for you. You wouldn’t believe how stressed your parents have been. When that picture came yesterday, your ma was beside herself.”

  In a sick, painful way, I’m almost glad to hear she was upset. “Really?”

  “Of course!” Peggy says. “And Larry, too. What’s wrong with you?”

  Guilt shuts me up. A good daughter’s not supposed to have ugly feelings toward her parents, but I have layers of them. Resentment and anxiety are uppermost at the moment. It’s so easy to blame Ma for letting Berg take control of me. She’s responsible for bringing Larry into our lives, too, and what a prize he’s been. The one thing I’m clear on is that I miss my sister, Dubbs, and I’d do anything to keep her safe.

  “Once I find them, I’ve got to convince them to leave the country with me,” I say. “We have to go somewhere else and start over with new identities. It’s our only chance to have a normal life now. Berg’ll never stop looking for me.”

  Peggy wipes her fingers daintily with a napkin. “If you ask me, that sounds like fear talking.”

  “It is,” I say. “I’m not ashamed of it. Fear’s healthy when you want to stay alive.”

  She looks doubtful. “I don’t buy that. Rusty and I have been here, what, thirty years? Plenty of times I’ve been scared. Plenty of times we’ve had trouble at the business, but you don’t let someone run you out of your home. Now, if you’re tired of that boxcar and have better prospects, that I’d understand. But our kind, we don’t run. I don’t see Larry as the running type, nor your ma, either. And certainly not you.”

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