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The vault of dreamers, p.10
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.10

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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“You actually think I masterminded yesterday,” I said. “You think I was using you and everybody else.” I felt a horrible twinge of conscience. The spike at lunch had been mainly my idea, but I hadn’t set out to use the others at our table, and they had benefited, too.

  “You’re good, Rosie,” Burnham said. “A far better actor than Janice, in my opinion. And now you’ve made the cuts. I fully expect you to claw your way right to number one.”

  “That’s awful,” I said furiously. “I wasn’t thinking about what Linus said. I was just being myself.”

  “And yet you managed to kiss him at five o’clock, in the rain,” Burnham said.

  “Now the weather is my fault, too?” I demanded.

  “Cut the righteousness,” Burnham said. “Just admit you played me and be done with it. Just admit it, and say you’re sorry, and I’ll admit I was stupid to believe you were just a nice, awkward kind of girl, and we’ll be even.”

  “Awkward!” I said, and my voice strangled into incoherence. I narrowed my eyes to slits. “You know what?” I said. “I know what I did yesterday, and why I did it. I don’t need to justify myself to you or anyone else.”

  “That is not an apology,” he said.

  “You’re right. It’s not. Because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

  “You cheated and manipulated to pass the fifty cuts,” he said. “You set me up and used me.”

  I glared at him, seething. “I did not. You’re just saying that because I’m not the meek little awkward thing you thought I was.”

  “So it’s my fault, then?” he said. “Fine. Believe that. And now I’m sick of being nice.” He pushed his watch farther up his wrist and started swiping on his touch screen.

  “I hate to tell you this. You’re not nice,” I said, and left.

  11

  THE CLOCK TOWER

  BURNHAM’S DISAPPROVAL STUNG. I couldn’t believe he’d thought I was just a nice, awkward sort of girl, but it was even worse that he thought I was a manipulator. I kept reviewing what had happened at lunch the day before, and I knew I’d asked, in so many words, for him and the other students at our table to try to get me a spike in ratings. But he was the one who had proposed the theory of influencing spikes, and the others had seen their blip ranks improve, too.

  I hadn’t filmed the losers to be cunning and vicious. I’d had no idea that Ellen would be in meltdown. I certainly hadn’t planned on kissing Linus for a premeditated finale.

  “What’s wrong with you?” Janice asked me later, when I went up to the dorm to change for a run. “You’re all moody and quiet.”

  “No, I’m not.” I turned my back to the room and changed into shorts and a shirt as quickly as possible. The techies were notoriously discreet about not broadcasting nudity, but me in my bra and undies was fair game. I could have gone to a bathroom stall to change, but I wasn’t shy and awkward like some people might think I was.

  What had given him that idea?

  “Do I seem awkward to you?” I asked Janice.

  She set her shell on her bedside table beside a collection of swizzle sticks. “You seemed a little aloof before I got to know you,” she said. “Maybe a little introverted, but driven, too. Why?”

  “I’m just wondering.”

  She pulled up a ratty old paperback of Hamlet and flipped through the pages. “Remember the simple old days, when all boys were obnoxious and clammy?” Janice said.

  “I don’t want to talk about boys,” I said.

  “Fair enough. It was just a shot,” she said. And then, “Burnham was pretty weird around you earlier.”

  I reached for my sneakers and frowned over at her. “Okay. Do you think he’s jealous because I kissed Linus?” I asked. “I’ve known him for a day. Could he be that cliché?”

  “It’s remotely possible,” she said. “He did have a chivalrous gleam in his eye where you were concerned.”

  I laced up one foot. Then the other. “That was yesterday. Now he thinks I’m a manipulative cheater.”

  Janice set a finger to hold a place in her book. “He actually said that?”

  “He did.”

  “That’s not very like him,” she said. “I’d say he’s more of a hero type. He likes to save people. Besides, he seemed happy about your spike at lunch.”

  It was true. He’d given me the picture of Dubbs then, too.

  “He won’t be saving this girl,” I said. I didn’t want to think about him anymore. I certainly didn’t want to talk about him and have his pesky watching brother get back to him about it. My eye caught on Janice’s shell again, and I remembered what she’d said in DeCoster’s class. “What’s it like on Nantucket?”

  “Pretty. The light feels like afternoon all day long,” she said. “I miss it.”

  Here I’d been blabbing on about myself without ever giving her a chance to talk. I pulled my thick hair back in a ponytail. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?” I asked.

  “Just my little sister, Amy,” she said. “I miss her, too. Want to see?” She reached for her phone and pulled up a photo to show me. The two sisters had their faces cheek to cheek, and they were basically adorable.

  “You have the same smile,” I said. “What do your parents do?”

  “Mom’s a minister, and Mami’s a pediatrician,” Janice said.

  Two moms. And a minister’s daughter, too. “What’s that like?” I asked.

  “Which part?” she asked, still gazing at her photo.

  “The two moms.”

  “I don’t know. What’s it like having different sex parents?” she asked, glancing up.

  I smiled. “You have a point.”

  “What’s your family like, though, really?” she asked. “The typical mom and dad? Golden retriever?”

  I shook my head. I didn’t like talking about my family, especially on camera. I wasn’t exactly ashamed of my parents, but I could never be sure what I was revealing about Larry, and I couldn’t explain what it was really like living in the boxcars. “I live with my mom and my stepfather and my half sister, Dubbs. She’s seven. She’s pretty cool.”

  “Do you have a picture?”

  I reached into my backpack and took out a little notebook. Tucked inside was a small paper photo of Dubbs and me at the Grand Canyon from three years ago. Behind it was the picture Burnham had given me of her. I handed Janice the one with the Grand Canyon, and looked again at the other, wondering if he still wanted me to keep it.

  “Nice,” Janice said. “She has a sweet face.”

  I looked down at both images before I tucked them away again. “Yeah,” I said.

  The bonging from the clock tower came through the window, and I leaned against my wardrobe to stretch out my calf muscles.

  “I’m going for a run before dinner. Want to come?” I asked.

  “Gads no,” she said. “Maybe it will help if you go talk to that guy.”

  “He’s too mad at me.”

  “Not Burnham, genius,” Janice said. “The hot kitchen guy.”

  I hadn’t talked to Linus all day. I frowned down at the floor. “It’s too weird with all the cameras,” I said.

  She laughed. “Get used to them, girl.”

  “I mean, Linus could have seen my conversation with Burnham this morning.”

  “He probably did. Burnham can watch you with Linus, too. He could be watching this right now, come to think of it. Either of them could.”

  “Burnham’s not watching me. He’s far too cool for that.”

  “Should we check?” she asked and reached for her phone.

  “No!”

  “I’m just teasing you,” she said, laughing.

  Just what I needed. “Thanks. You’re the best.”

  “Anytime.”

  * * *

  I was obviously heading to find Linus, but for my pride’s sake, I took my run first. Running usually settled my nerves, but this time, my nerves fueled my run instead, and I started out way too fast.

  I was not an athlete. Far
from it. I didn’t even have decent shoes, but that never stopped me. I cut north between the gym and the amphitheater, and hit a steadier, more realistic stride as I started counterclockwise around the campus loop. Echoey voices and a lifeguard’s whistle came through the windows of the pool. Big, loose clouds were locked in place, dropping patches of muted silver on the solar farm beyond the campus to the west. With my sneakers drumming a regular beat, I zigzagged through the sculpture garden and past the graveyard with its tilting markers.

  By the time I reached the sheep pasture, I was panting hard, but I pushed on to the old, defunct observatory. A twenty-foot ladder led up the limestone building to a narrow metal catwalk that ran around the gray dome. On impulse, I sidestepped the DO NOT ENTER sign and climbed the ladder hand-over-hand to the top. When I finally stopped, I braced my hands on my knees and sucked air.

  “Okay,” I said.

  My mind was clearing and my body felt deliciously loose-limbed. I straightened, leaning back against the base of the dome, and soaked in the vastness of sky. The prairie stretched out for miles, wide as an ocean, with flowing ripples of wind blowing through the grass. A pair of swallows flew overhead, and I joined them, soaring and dipping above the green.

  I had to smile. I’d found my favorite new place.

  A satellite dish was propped beside the dome, aimed toward the universe. I seriously doubted if the quirky, anachronistic building even had a functional telescope inside anymore, but I was glad it hadn’t been torn down to make room for something useful, like a parking garage. I’d heard someone had died inside the observatory, but on such a pretty afternoon, that was hard to believe.

  I walked around the dome, liking how the slanting light fell on the curved surface. The opening for the telescope was sealed. No doubt the entrance down below was locked, too, but I could imagine the darkness inside, with its cache of privacy. How I’d love to get in there. I glanced up the pasture to the lookout tower, and sure enough, Otis’s big camera was angled at me. I waved, and was surprised to see the old man wave back.

  I climbed down the ladder, careful of the chain near the bottom, and headed up the pasture path. At the service entrance of the dining hall, I jogged up and peered inside the screen door, looking for Linus. Two other kitchen guys and the frizzy-haired woman were working, but I saw no sign of Chef Ted. Hoping I wasn’t too much of a sweat ball, I straightened my shirt and rapped on the door frame.

  The woman came over and undid a hook inside.

  “Hi. Is Linus here?” I asked, entering.

  She called over her shoulder. “Linus! You have a visitor!”

  Linus came out of a back room carrying a white plastic barrel. His eyebrows lifted as he saw me, and when he hefted the barrel onto a counter, he smiled. His patch was gone. A shadow of bruise circled his eye, but he looked better.

  “Hey,” he said to me. And then, “Look, Franny love. It’s Rosie. Fancy her stopping by the kitchen all uninvited.”

  Franny put a fist on her hip. “If that’s your way of saying ‘I told you so,’ it’s not very subtle.”

  Linus untied his bib apron and ducked out of it. “Rosie, this is Franny. Franny, Rosie.”

  “Hello,” I said, and she gave me a nod.

  “Do you think you can hold the place together for ten minutes without me?” Linus said to Franny, and tucked his white tee shirt loosely into the waist of his jeans.

  “Oh, please,” she said with a dismissive flick of her fingers.

  He smiled and pushed open the door, holding it for me. We headed down the back steps and cut right, toward the back of the art building where we’d met before. The big, paint-spattered spools were dry, their wood warm in the sun. I hitched myself up on one and let my sneakers dangle. Linus stayed on the ground and picked pebbles out of the gravel to pitch toward the pasture.

  “Franny’s been warning me all day you wouldn’t come by,” he said. “She started running your feed in the kitchen just to prove she was right.”

  “You knew I’d come, though, right?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I hoped.”

  I smoothed my shorts more comfortably under my legs. “Can I ask you something? Do you think I’m a big manipulator?”

  “I don’t care if you are,” he said. “It was fun to see you work your way on.”

  “Burnham thinks I use people,” I said.

  “Fister uses people, too. He just doesn’t know it. Come on.” He held up a hand to me.

  “Where are we going?” I asked. “I like it here.”

  “You’ll like it inside the clock tower, too.”

  “I didn’t know you could get in.” I took his fingers as I hopped down.

  “It’s kind of cool. I’ll show you,” he said, and we headed uphill, toward the quad.

  The late afternoon sunlight was striking the clock tower sideways, adding long shadows to the hands on the face of the clock. The rose garden, with a scattering of late blossoms, was far more inviting now that it was free of rain, and I fingered the soft petals of a flower as we passed. At the side of the clock tower was a small wooden door.

  “Watch it!” Linus said.

  A Frisbee soared past my head, and Linus caught it out of the air. I jumped, looking back over my shoulder. A guy yelled an apology, and Linus threw it back in a smooth arc. For an instant, Linus was just like one of the other students, and I felt a wavering in the line that separated us, a line I hadn’t even realized existed.

  Then he reached to open and hold the door for me, and the impression was gone.

  “After you,” he said.

  “Are there cameras in here?” I asked

  “Yes. Watch your head,” he said. He propped the door open with a wooden kick wedge so the sunlight and air could come in.

  I went up a couple steps and ducked a low-hanging beam. Sparse windows cast beams of spindly, dust-shot light into the tower and illuminated a dozen chains that hung from the mechanism of the clock high above. The chains fell level to where we stood and below, even lower, into a pit. I stepped to the railing and peered down into a deep, dim shaft, spotting four of the clock’s weights before the chains vanished into darkness.

  “Cool, isn’t it?” Linus said. “The guy who designed the clock made it so it only has to be wound once every five years.”

  “Really?”

  Linus pointed to a cylindrical weight that was suspended some distance above our heads. “It runs on gravity, by weights and gears. Even the LED light at the top of the tower is powered by gravity. Otis explained it to me once.”

  I could see a delicate, horizontal wheel spinning far above in the main mechanism, but everything else looked motionless.

  “And what’s this?” I asked, looking over the railing again. Metal rungs were bolted to the inner wall and descended down like they were disappearing into a bottomless well. The clock chains had the smoothness of old, oiled metal, and I wondered if bugs or dust ever got caught in them.

  “The pit is just for the weights,” he said. “It’s thirty feet deep.”

  “Wow.”

  “I knew you’d like it.” Linus leaned sideways into the railing and passed me a pebble. “Go ahead.”

  I weighed the little stone in my fingers, and then dropped it, listening while it vanished down through the silent blackness until it finally hit with a faint, distant clink.

  “Deep,” I said.

  He laughed. “Yes.”

  I glanced up to find him smiling at me.

  “Is your eye better?” I asked.

  “Yes. Dr. Ash did some minor surgery to it, after all,” he said. He closed one eye, and then the other. “I can see a little better, actually, though things are too bright. That’s supposed to go away.”

  “You seemed like you didn’t want to go to the infirmary, yesterday in the kitchen,” I said.

  “I didn’t. But it turned out okay.”

  I remembered what I’d overheard about him selling blood, but I didn’t see how to ask him about it. Instead, I
shifted nearer to examine his eyes, and he held still, waiting. The pupil in his left eye was bigger than the other, but the difference was slight. His irises were a rich light brown, very like the honeyed color inside the tower.

  “I wish we could talk,” I said softly.

  “I know,” he said. “But there’s no way to be private.”

  I thought of what Bones had said in the night.

  “You aren’t wearing a microphone, are you?” I asked.

  I glanced down at the neckline of his shirt, and then up to find him regarding me oddly.

  “No,” he said. “There are mic buttons on the wall.”

  “I suppose we could meet in some bathroom stall. That’s private.”

  Linus laughed again. “Or a shower.”

  “They’d hear us anyway,” I said, reconsidering.

  “What do you want to ask me, anyway?” he said.

  “Just regular stuff.”

  “Then ask away,” he said. “I don’t care about the cameras.”

  I hesitated. “I don’t exactly have a list ready to go.”

  “Okay. Then I’ll start. Tell me about your necklace,” he said, and touched his finger to the token I wore.

  I looped my thumb through the leather cord and lifted the little disk for him to see better. “It’s an old subway token from New York City. Isn’t it cool? I found it near the tracks where I live,” I said.

  “And where’s that?”

  “Doli, Arizona.” I remembered the day with my sister. It had been so bizarre to find the vintage coin with the pentagonal hole in our own backyard, as if it were a ticket to a distant place or time. “We live in the boxcars at the edge of town. The train was abandoned there after an earthquake made it too expensive to repair the bridges for the rails, so people started moving in. My sister Dubbs and I find all kinds of things along the tracks.”

  “When was the earthquake?” he said.

  “Back in twenty-forty-five,” I said.

  He smoothed my token lightly back in place. “You know, the token’s no good anymore.”

  I laughed. “I like it anyway. I’ve worn it so long now, I’d feel weird without it.”

  “You could give it to your sister.”

  I was startled by the idea, and pleased. “Do you have any sisters or brothers?” I asked.

 
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