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The rule of mirrors, p.10
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.10

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  One sunny day, about a week after my frustrating phone calls with Linus and my parents, I made a solo trip up to the roof of the clinic. It was a flat, Spartan, snow-dusted area with a tile bench and a dreary pot of sand for cigarette butts. Patients, I guessed, didn’t normally come here, which made it all the more inviting to me. I wheeled over to the wall and breathed deep. The sky soared above, defying the rugged peaks of the mountains, and the waves crashed in shrunken, petulant bursts on the icy rocks below. Far off, the ocean made a clean line of dark gray where it met the sky, and I followed the horizon north, to the bulky shape of Iceland proper with its hulking volcano.

  Snow glittered everywhere except on the puny paths and roads that had been plowed. Shading my eyes, I gazed east, into the valley, where a landing strip lay like an ironed ribbon of silver. A dozen private jets were parked along one side, tiny as pocket toys, and as I watched, another one approached from over the ocean and made a gradual descent.

  It was weird to think my family owned one of those jets. Althea’s family. Not mine. Keep that straight.

  A clinking drew my attention. Below, a man in a lab coat hunched his shoulders and cupped his hands to a cigarette, lighting it. He tossed his head back to exhale a blur of smoke. Lean and dark-haired, maybe forty, he stood in a small, sheltered nook beside an outbuilding. It was a hybrid structure, half concrete and half stone cottage, as mismatched as a shoebox glued to a gingerbread house. I watched absently until the smoker stubbed out his cigarette and went inside, and then it occurred to me: in all my roaming around the Chimera Centre, I’d never seen a lab. Where, exactly, did Dr. Fallon do her research? Not her clinical work on patients, but her basic research. That shoebox suddenly looked promising.

  The next morning, very early, while the clinic was still quiet, I dressed in my sweats and slippers, climbed in my wheelchair, and headed down the hall toward the elevator.

  “You’re up early,” a nurse said as I passed the desk.

  “Couldn’t sleep,” I said.

  “Do you need a hand with anything?” she asked. “Coffee? Breakfast?”

  “I’m all set. I’m just going up to the library. I think I left my book there yesterday.”

  “It should be open. Good luck,” she said.

  I took the elevator down to the atrium level, where the fountain was off and the café was dead. My wheels made a faint, smooth sound through the hush as I crossed to the doors. I pushed my way out to the terrace, where the early chill touched my face with welcome freshness and fueled my excitement. Then I started around the building.

  Frost lines laced the stone walkway, and my breath came out in foggy puffs that vanished into the pre-dawn gloom. I reached the outbuilding and tried the door. It didn’t budge. Undeterred, I wheeled myself along, peering in the windows, but it was hard to see more than a few black countertops. Where the building ended, a fenced area contained bins for garbage, recycling, and radioactive waste. Cigarettes butts littered the curb.

  I pivoted to start back when my wheel went over a lip of concrete into a crevice and stuck. I stood carefully and tugged at my chair, righting it. As soon as I sat, it rolled and wedged in again.

  “Hello,” said a girlish voice. “What are you doing back here?”

  Behind me, beside a streetlamp, a black-haired teenager straddled an adult tricycle and dangled a helmet from one hand. The shoulder strap of a purse cut diagonally across her gray jacket, and her black-clad legs were as thin as a bird’s.

  “I came out to smoke and got stuck,” I said.

  “Patients can’t smoke,” she said, her accent light but clear. “One sec. I’ll give you a hand.” She dismounted and chained up her bike. Then she unlocked the nearest door and dumped her helmet and purse inside before she came over to grab my chair.

  Wordlessly, she jacked my chair back onto the sidewalk, rocking me side to side in the process.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  “No problem,” she said. “What’s your name?” she asked.


  To my surprise, she took a little notebook out of her pocket and jotted in it with a nub of pencil.

  “What’s your name?” I asked.

  “Jónína,” she said, and headed toward the door.

  She was the first regular teenager I’d seen in months, and I was not letting her get away.

  “Can I see your lab?” I asked.

  She turned back to me, her expression flat. “It’s not mine. I just water the plants.”

  “Let me just warm up again before I head back.”

  The girl reached for her notepad again, but she didn’t try to stop me as I edged my chair past her and muscled over the bump of the threshold. A vinegar-like, chemical smell bit my nose, and my heart gave an involuntary kick. The scent reminded me of the operating room off the vault of dreamers.

  “What are you writing down?” I asked.

  “Everything,” she said.

  “How come?”

  “That way I know it happened. It’s my life experiment. I’m recording it.” She pulled off her jacket and put her notebook and pencil in the pocket of her green cardigan. “Touch anything and you die.”

  She started turning on lights and switches in the shoebox section of the building. A circulation system kicked in, and it became easier to breathe. The lab was a large, open room, sectioned off by counters and cabinets into different bays. Jónína put a watering can into a sink and twisted the faucet, and I noted a dozen different plants tucked on the windowsills. They looked none too healthy.

  “How many people work here?” I asked over the rush of water.

  “I don’t know. Six or seven? We used to have more, but a bunch of people left a couple months ago. We’ll never leave. Mom promised. I don’t like change. Check this out,” she said, and pointed up to a stuffed rodent mounted on a high shelf.

  “What is it?” I asked.

  “It’s a marmoset. I stuffed it myself,” she said. “I took it to a taxidermist, Mr. Pall, and he taught me how to do it. The eyes are made of glass. Do they look real to you?”

  Real enough to be creepy.

  “Yes. They’re nice,” I said. “How old are you?”

  “Me? Seventeen,” she said, turning off the water with a squeak.

  Older than me. Younger than Althea. When she turned her head, I saw a streak of blue in her black hair.

  “Is your mom one of the scientists here?” I asked.

  “This is her place,” Jónína said. “She’s Huma Fallon.”

  Surprised again, I tried to see a resemblance, but Jónína, with her skinny figure and stilted manner, seemed nothing like the doctor.

  “Is your dad here, too?” I asked.

  “He’s traveling. He’s always traveling.”

  As Jónína tended the plants, I wheeled down the length of the room, curious.

  Along one wall stood several large, humming cases with glass doors. The shelves inside were lit with a soft blue light that reminded me of our sleep shells back at Forge, and I peered close. Rows of clear, covered disks filled the interior, each labeled in script too small for me to read. They contained pastel growths of some sort. When I touched the glass door, it was warm.

  “Don’t do that. Don’t touch anything,” Jónína called.

  “Sorry. I know. I won’t,” I said, and slid my hand away.

  I moved to the next case and the next, which were equally full. A door beckoned at the end of the room. I checked over my shoulder for Jónína, who was carefully tipping the long spout of her watering can into a fern, and then I tried the door. When it opened easily, I wheeled into the next room, which was much smaller.

  Instantly, a different hush surrounded me, and my pulse rose a notch. The overhead lights stayed off, leaving me to find my way by the diffused light from more cases. A pungent stench of chemicals and cleanser couldn’t mask the putrescence of decay. I moved slowly, careful not to bump anything. Vials, pipettes, and bottles covered the counters in seeming disarray,
but two surgical tables, which stood to the side, gleamed clean and cold. I passed a drain in the floor. The far wall was made of stone, and set into it was a strange blue door—an old, arched one with bars over its center window. A dimly lit hallway on the other side led into the old, gingerbread-style section of the building, and the door still had a house number, 6, painted in black at the top.

  The blue glow of the nearest case drew me over, and on the outside, a yellow sticky note read: Do not send Sandy any Sinclair 15. Huma’s orders. My heart jolted. “Sandy” was Dean Berg’s first name. I rose out of my wheelchair to see better. Inside, rows of small, opalescent jars shimmered faintly. Their labels were barely decipherable, but I made out that the jars were arranged in alphabetical order, layers deep, and many of the jars had the same name but a different number: Huron 6: 35/65, Lo 15: 28/119, Minaret 17: 7/10, Richards 18: 25/222, Sinclair 15: 29/300. I stopped, staring at my own name. Then I checked the next shelf: Sinclair 15: 39/300, Sinclair 15: 49/300, Sinclair 15: 59/300. The next five shelves contained jars with my name on them, hundreds of them.

  Fear spiked along my nerves.

  Silently, I opened the case and picked out the topmost jar with my name on it, Sinclair 15: 29/300. It clung with magnetic resistance to the shelf, but once I slid it free, it was surprisingly light and warm in my palm. The jar had a metal bottom but glass sides and a glass lid, and as I held it up close, I saw a murky, gray substance inside that flashed with electric pinpoints of color, like a miniscule lightning storm. It flowed in a thick, viscous manner when I tilted the jar, and I could have sworn I heard thunder crashing inside: tiny, perfect thunder for a miniature world.

  Whatever was in those jars, it was derived from my dreams. A keen, powerful resentment stirred in me.

  The door opened behind me, and I quickly shoved the jar down the front of my shirt.

  “Rosie? Are you in here?” Jónína asked.

  With a shock, I realized I’d given her my real name. I spun to face her.

  “You shouldn’t be in here,” Jónína said. She stood on the threshold of the first laboratory, still holding her watering can.

  “I’m coming,” I said, plopping back in my wheel chair. “Listen, Jónína. Rosie isn’t my real name. I made a mistake saying that.”

  “But I wrote it down,” Jónína said. She tucked the watering can under her elbow, reached for her notepad, and flipped it open. “It says it right here: ‘I met Rosie outside the lab.’”

  “Can I see?” I asked.

  She held the pad tightly. “Nobody sees this.”

  I wheeled a little closer. “Can you make a correction in your notes?” I asked. “My real name’s Althea.”

  “That makes no sense,” she said. “Why’d you lie to me?”

  “It was a mistake, not a lie,” I said. I smiled and tried for lightheartedness. “Haven’t you ever mixed up your own name?”

  Jónína stared at me intensely. “No. That’s not funny.”

  The stench of the lab suddenly felt stultifyingly close. Like poison.

  “Do you have another name?” I asked softly.

  She clutched her notepad and her watering can together, as if they could keep her safe, and her gaze shifted sideways. “My name’s Jónína. It’s always been Jónína.” She frowned at me. “You have to leave. Mom’s going to be mad.”

  “She doesn’t have to know I was here. I won’t tell anyone,” I said.

  “She’ll know. She always knows everything.”

  I nodded at her notebook. “Maybe because she reads your journal.”

  “It’s not a journal,” she said. “It’s an experiment, and I don’t let her read it.”

  A disturbing possibility occurred to me. “Has your mother ever done experiments on you?” I asked.

  “No. She saved me,” Jónína said. She cocked her head in alertness as if listening for something.

  I listened, too, and heard nothing. “Saved you from what, Jónína?” I asked.

  “I was drowning. I don’t quite remember it. I was little. They thought I was dead at the bottom of the lake, but Mom swam down and brought me up.”

  “Did she operate on you?” I asked.

  She gave me an odd look. “Of course. She’s a doctor. That’s how she saved me.”

  “Is that when she started all this? Is it all for you?” I asked.

  Jónína opened her notebook a crack and gripped her stubby pencil in tight fingers, ready to write. I took the jostling watering can from under her arm, and she stumbled back a pace.

  “Are there bodies here, Jónína? Are there dreamers?” I asked.

  Her gaze flicked toward the blue door. “You’re scaring me now,” she said.

  “Are they back there? Are they here, in this building?” I asked. I wheeled my chair backward, back toward the blue door, but she shot out a hand and gripped my chair’s wheel. The watering can clattered to the floor.

  “I don’t want bodies here,” Jónína said.

  Her gaze shifted past my head, and a click behind me made me look over my shoulder.

  A thin, motionless man stood on the other side of the blue door, studying us through the glass and bars. His cheeks were sallow and wasted, and soft, brown, boyish hair fell long over his eyes. With his pointy, narrow shoulders and threadbare brown sweater, he seemed both strong and spindly at the same time, as if an unseen wind blew against him and he was only barely managing to stay up.

  Then he tilted his head, and a strange, tantalizing flash of familiarity lit up the back of my brain. I’d seen this man before. Not just when he was smoking the day before, but earlier. An old teacher, maybe. I knew him, definitely, from long ago.

  My memory shifted. A slim wisp of an idea squeezed past the stony barriers of impossibility and took my breath away.

  But it couldn’t be.

  “Dad?” I whispered.

  The man slowly eased backward and then turned to walk away.

  I scrambled to spin my wheelchair and barreled toward the blue door. I jerked at the knob. It was locked. “Dad!” I called, rapping at the glass. He retreated in a languid, bow-legged stride and vanished around a corner. I rapped harder. “Dad!”

  “He doesn’t want to be disturbed,” Jónína said.

  “But that’s my father!” I said. “Dad! Come back!”

  “He’s not your dad. That’s Orson Toomey.”

  She was wrong. She had to be. He had just been looking at me and watching me. He knew me, too.

  “What’s he doing here?” I demanded. “How long has he been here?”

  “Since forever, I guess,” Jónína said. “Mom says Orson’s a genius. He doesn’t talk much. We leave him alone. He told me he likes my marmoset, though.”

  I gave the doorknob another frantic tug. “You have to let me in there!” I said.

  Jónína shook her head. “I don’t have a key. It’s private.”

  “Does he live back there?” I asked.

  “Usually, yes, unless he’s on a trip like my dad,” she said. “Some men like to live by themselves and be left alone. It’s just how they are.”

  I spun to look at her, frowning at her maddening superiority. At that moment, a car pulled up audibly outside, and Jónína stepped to the window.

  “People are coming,” she said, peering out. “Quick. This way. Out the back.” She seized my wheelchair and rattled me rapidly through the larger lab to a back exit.

  “Take me out of your notebook,” I said. “Take me out, or your mom will find out you let me in here. You’ll get in trouble.”

  “I can’t take things out. That would be lying to myself.”

  I gripped her shirt and yanked her close to me. Her eyes bulged in startled fear.

  “Then lie,” I said fiercely. “Grow up.”

  I pushed her away and wheeled rapidly outside. I raced my chair along the cliffside path, expecting any second to hear a voice call after me, but none came, and I wheeled up the wooden ramp to the terrace of the main clinic. There I pau
sed, out of breath, and pressed a hand to my face.

  My father. Could it really be him? But he was dead. He’d gone missing in action a dozen years before. The military had declared him presumed dead back when I turned six. I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. That man, Orson Toomey, looked exactly like I remembered my father, only older. Hope soared in me, then crashed in confusion. My father couldn’t be alive. He certainly wouldn’t have any reason to be here.

  Yet Orson had looked at me with open deliberation, as if he knew me. But I looked like Althea now. Even if Orson was somehow my father, he couldn’t know the girl in this body was his daughter Rosie.

  Unless he did know.

  Unless he’d been involved with putting me in this new body.

  It was too much to take in. Too utterly crazy-making. I suddenly recalled the nights here at the clinic when I’d sensed someone hovering outside my bedroom door. That was Orson, too. I knew it was. He’d been checking on me. My hope careened and dive-bombed again. If Orson truly was my dad, he had years of absence to account for. Any decent man who’d survived the war and turned up alive would have contacted me and my mother long ago. He would have come home to Doli to find us and be with us.

  But he hadn’t. Like he didn’t care.

  It didn’t fit. My dad used to walk with me on the old train tracks near our home, hand in hand. He helped me balance my bare feet on the rusty, sun-warmed metal of the rail. We would stop to pick blue cornflowers and practice whistling, and when I grew tired, he’d carry me home on his shoulders. I had missed my dad for so long that I didn’t believe it was possible to ache for him again in a new way, but the little kid in me broke apart all over again.

  “Really, Dad?” I whispered to the gray sky.

  Loss spilled out of my heart. It used to be that my sweet, lovable dad was dead—terribly, honorably dead. Now, instead, he was alive, but he’d abandoned Ma and me. Worst of all, he worked with Dr. Fallon, and by extension, with Dean Berg.

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