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The rule of mirrors, p.11
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.11

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Any way I looked at it, my dad was my enemy.




  WITHIN A FEW HOURS, the jar I stole went black inside. The tiny lights vanished, and the murky substance congealed into a thick, putrid mess. I’d killed it. Chagrined, I wrapped the jar in a paper towel, concealed it in a box of tissues, and hid the box in the back of my closet. There it festered, the black heart of my anxiety, while I tried to pretend everything was normal.

  All that day, I tried to figure out the best way to confront Orson. I had to hear him admit he was my father. Every instinct told me I had to get to him on the sly, but my hours were full, and it was impossible to sneak away in my wheelchair. My parents lingered in my room after dinner, gossiping amiably about whatever while I silently plotted.

  “Don’t you think, Althea?” Madeline said.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “I was just saying we could add an elevator off the library back home,” Madeline said. “It would make it easier for you to get around once we go back.”

  “An elevator?” I asked. What kind of house had an elevator? A big one.

  She reached to pat my hand. “You seem a little testy,” she said. “Is there something we should know? Are you feeling all right?”

  “Of course I am,” I snapped. “I’m just ready to get out of this place.”

  Madeline set her lips in a line, then nodded. “We should probably let you rest.”

  She led a prayer, and then they kissed me good night. After they left, Chimera settled into its night routine. I was curled in my bed, conserving strength, waiting for the right opportunity to leave my room, when a faint shuffling noise came by my door. I recognized it immediately.

  “Come in,” I whispered.

  The quiet unspooled while I waited, watching for Orson. The door was ajar, but not enough for me to see much of the hallway. I heard a soft footstep and then, just below the upper hinge of the door, in the narrow crack, I saw a shadow and the hint of an eye.

  I bolted up. “I see you! Come in!” I called.

  The shadow vanished. I pushed off my bed. Bracing myself on the wall, I staggered to the door and threw it fully open. Down the hallway, Orson was striding away in a long brown coat.

  “Orson, wait!” I called after him.

  He glanced over his shoulder and kept going, faster.

  I lurched after him, hanging on to the hallway bannister.

  Ida came quickly from the nurse’s station. “What’s wrong? Where are you going?” she asked.

  “I have to talk to that man,” I said.

  She looked over her shoulder and then back to me. “Althea, please. This isn’t safe. You could fall,” she said.

  I pulled free of her and struggled a few steps farther, but then, with a bing, the elevator door opened, and Dr. Fallon came out.

  “Althea!” she said. “Just the person I was coming to see.”

  I backed against the wall. Not good. This was not good. She didn’t normally come around at night, and she never came dressed in scrubs.

  “Where are my parents?” I said. “I want to see my parents.” I looked behind her for Orson, but he was gone.

  “They’re in their suite,” she said. “Don’t be worried. I’ve just come to check on you. I hear you met my daughter.”

  She knew.

  I backed away from her and shot a look at Ida, whose face was drawn with concern. A second nurse came around the nurse’s station, ready to assist, cornering me in.

  “What are you going to do to me?” I asked.

  “You won’t feel a thing,” Dr. Fallon said kindly. “You’ll feel better in the morning. Less confused. I promise.”

  “I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “I don’t want any tweaking. I’m fine. Get my parents.”

  “They’ve already approved,” she said gently.

  I tried to run. I screamed in protest, but they caught me swiftly, and I felt the sharp sting of a syringe in my arm. “No,” I whispered, pleading.

  Dr. Fallon smoothed the hair out of my eyes. “You’ll be fine, Althea,” she said. “That is your name, right?”

  An instant later, the hallway tipped and went foggy, and I was gone.

  * * *

  When I woke the next morning, molasses had been poured into the clock of my brain to clog the cogs. The sky, an opaque gray outside the window, dropped its cool light on Madeline, whose face was a pucker of worry.

  “Thank heavens you’re awake,” she said, pulling her chair nearer. “How do you feel?”

  Like crap.

  “I want to go home,” I said.

  “I know, sweetheart,” Madeline said. She reached to hold my hand. “We’ll get there. Two steps forward, one step back.”

  Diego came in, as if he’d been standing just outside, listening. “How is she?” he asked.

  “She’s awake,” Madeline said.

  “You let them operate on me again,” I said.

  “We had to, honey,” Madeline said. “You were slipping away from us.”

  Something was missing. Some key word. My name. I hovered inside my mind, waiting for the answer, but nothing came. I pushed back my covers and lumbered over to my closet. I pulled open the door, and when I reached up for the tissue box, I could tell from the lightness before I looked into the layers of tissue: my jar was gone.

  The jar with my name on it was gone.

  “What are you doing?” Madeline asked.

  “What’s my name?” I asked.

  She exchanged a quick glance with Diego. “Althea, of course,” she said. “You’re Althea Maria Flores.”

  “No, my real name,” I said fiercely. It started with an R. Rochelle. No. Rachel. No! I ripped fruitlessly into the tissue. “What is it?” I yelled.

  Madeline’s eyes went wide with astonishment. “Darling, calm down,” she said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

  I threw the tissue box to the floor and caught myself on the closet.

  Diego set a strong, supporting hand my arm. “Is it Rosie Sinclair?” he asked.

  I tested the syllables, uncertain. My heart kept pounding. Rosie Sinclair. I searched Diego’s face. His eyes were sad and full of sympathy.

  “You looked her up online, remember?” he said.

  I did and I didn’t. My memory was spotty. “Rosie Sinclair,” I whispered, uncertain.

  “Diego,” Madeline said warningly. “You’ll confuse her.”

  “It calms her down,” he said. “Look at her.”

  I pressed a hand to my face, still Althea’s, and then the baby rolled to assert its existence in my belly again. I glanced toward the fetus photo that I’d propped against the vase. The pieces settled back in place around a key point of tension: this body was Althea’s, but I knew in my heart that the real me was never pregnant, which meant the real me, inside, wasn’t Althea. I was still Rosie. Rosie Sinclair. Yes. Relief eased through me. Dr. Fallon hadn’t erased me, for now.

  “Do you want to get back in bed?” Diego asked. “Rest a little more?”

  I nodded. Diego helped me back onto my bed, and I sank heavily into the mattress. I’d been punished. Regardless of Dr. Fallon’s stated reasons, she had tweaked me because I’d wandered too close to Jónína, Orson, and the Sinclair 15. I was sure of it. She must have read Jónína’s notes and discovered I called myself Rosie. She’d discovered the jar I’d stolen.

  I wasn’t safe here. Not even Diego and Madeline could keep me safe from Dr. Fallon because they trusted the doctor. I was grateful to Diego for helping me remember my real name, but I knew, if I was smart, I had to play Althea as long as I was here.

  I gave him a weak smile. “Thanks, Dad. Stay with me?”

  “Always, m’ija,” he said.

  * * *

  After the tweaking, I was secretly desperate to leave Chimera. I trusted no one, but I needed the therapists and nurses to help me, so I used them like tools and faked my gratitude. Over the next week, I grew noticeably s
tronger, and as I finally grasped how pregnancy had shifted my body’s center of gravity, I was able to work with it instead of against it. I graduated from my wheelchair to a walker, and then to a cane, celebrating each milestone with my team, but inside, I was as watchful as ever.

  Besides that one time with Diego, I never mentioned my real name. I answered to Althea like a good girl. I was constantly afraid that Dr. Fallon would tweak me again if she heard I still thought of myself as Rosie. I had no idea what would happen to me if she succeeded in eradicating my consciousness from Althea’s mind, but I didn’t want to find out.

  It tormented me to think my father was one building over, an inexplicable conspirator in the dream mining. Everything about Orson Toomey confused me. Memories of my dad were coming back to me. I had watched, fascinated, as he shaved, tilting his chin before the mirror. I had cuddled in the curve of his arm as he taught me to read, sharing letters and words, back when the paper smelled like magic. He was here, so close, and he didn’t care enough to come see me.

  Night after night, I checked my phone and tried to reach my old friends, but they never replied. Each time I saw my empty inbox, my loneliness dipped to a new low. I had no one. Sleepless, desolate, I watched my door for Orson until I drifted into nightmares about Dr. Fallon and a thousand savage scalpels.

  “When can we go home?” I asked.

  Soon, the grownups all said, but never today.

  I had to take matters into my own hands.

  My chance came late one night when the nurses were called into a different patient’s room, and the hallway was unattended. I pulled on my sweats, slipped on my sneakers, grabbed my cane, and tottered down the hall to the elevator. I took it down and headed outside. The smell and sound of the waves below the cliff rose on an up-current of air. A new, light snow had fallen, adding its freshness to the cold night. The clouds had passed, and the stars were brilliant above me. An eerie, blue-green streak shimmered in the sky to the north, and in awe, I took the aurora borealis as a sign for courage.

  Outside Orson’s lab, I peeked in the dark windows to where the cases glowed with faint blue light. I tried the back door, but it didn’t open. I peered in the glass pane of the door, and then leaned back, squinting up toward the gingerbread part of the building where I suspected Orson lived. Those windows were dark, too.

  I wound back my cane like a baseball bat and smashed the window in the door. Glass tinkled wildly around me. Reaching in, I opened the handle from inside and let myself in. With the glow of the cases to guide me, I hurried past the stuffed marmoset, into the smaller lab, and over to the shelves that contained the Sinclair 15. In less than a minute, I had a dozen of the little jars piled on the counter before me.

  The blue door slammed opened, and Orson charged into the lab. He flipped on the overhead lights.

  “What are you doing?” he demanded. “Get back!”

  Instead, I picked up one of the jars and hurled it to the floor at his bare feet. The guts of it scattered in a blinking mess.

  “Stop!” Orson shrieked.

  I took another jar and held it high above my head.

  Orson put out a hand in a gesture of caution. Shirtless, with black sweatpants, he inched his toes back from the shards of glass.

  “I need some answers, Dad,” I said.

  “Hold still!” he said. “Don’t kill them! You don’t realize what you’re doing!”

  I smashed the second jar and reached for another.

  Orson waved his hands. “Stop! Please!”

  I held the jar high above my head. “Do you know what my name is?” I asked. “I’ll give you one guess.”

  He hesitated, his eyes wild. I made to throw the jar.

  “It’s Rosie!” he said. “Rosie Sinclair! I’m sorry. Put that down, please! I’ll talk to you, I promise, but only if you don’t kill any more seeds.”

  “You’re my father, aren’t you?”

  “I was, once, yes,” he said. “Please, please put that down and I’ll explain.”

  I lowered it slightly and tried to ignore the way my heart was reaching for him. He looked like my father and sounded like him, too, which was even more upsetting. Still, he wasn’t completely unchanged. His face and body were older, and his bare chest showed dark, jagged scars along his ribcage. He self-consciously hitched at the waistband of his sweatpants.

  “I never thought I’d meet you like this,” he said.

  A laugh caught in my throat. “You didn’t expect to meet me at all,” I said. “How did this happen?” I wasn’t sure which hurt was harder to bear: that he’d never called my family in all these years, or that he’d neglected me even when I was here at Chimera.

  A clicking noise came from a speaker over the door. “Everything okay there, Dr. Toomey?” asked a man’s voice.

  “I’m good,” Orson said loudly. “I just dropped a box of recycling.”

  “You ought to get some sleep.”

  “Will do.”

  The speaker went dead. I did a quick scan for camera lenses, but found none.

  Orson regarded me intently. “I’m sorry,” he said more quietly. “Truly, I am.”

  “Why didn’t you ever call home?” I asked.

  “I’m not exactly your father anymore,” he said. “This is Robert’s body, but I’m not your father. My mind isn’t his. I didn’t think you’d recognize me. I still can barely credit that you’re actually conscious as Rosie. Robert Sinclair died a decade ago. Please put down that seed. We’ll talk.”

  “If he’s dead, then who are you?” I asked.

  “Orson Toomey. Please,” he said gently. “Let me put the jars back in the incubator. They’re not safe at room temperature. They’ll die.”

  “They’re dreams, aren’t they?”

  He nodded. “Dream seeds. They start as seeds and grow.”

  “Was I in one of these jars?”

  He nodded again. “We nurtured Rosie’s seed along before we put it in Althea.”

  “So these others with my name on them, are they me, too?”

  “They’re seeds from you, but they aren’t conscious,” he said. “They aren’t aware.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “They need a body to be conscious,” he said.

  “But they have the potential to be conscious, too, don’t they?” I pressed him. “They’re alive?”

  “The answer to that’s more complicated than I can explain in an instant,” he said. “Please, Rosie. Let me put them back. They’re incredibly fragile.”

  He sidestepped the broken glass to come nearer, but I raised the jar higher again, and he stopped.

  “Tell me about my dad,” I said.

  He splayed a hand lightly against his chest. “Your father’s body was recovered from an ice field in Greenland a few years after the war ended,” Orson said. “He was perfectly preserved, and the scavengers who found him sold him to me. That was six, no seven years ago.”

  When I was nine, I thought, calculating. My mother had remarried by then. “Did you even know who he was?” I asked.

  Orson nodded. “I looked him up, of course. The U.S. Army kept records of his DNA, and they’d posted rewards for info about MIAs. Your father was presumed dead by then. I could have turned in his body, I know. No doubt you believe I should have. But I thought, just possibly, if my experiment worked, I could restore him to you alive, not dead. He was physically fit, aside from being dead. In the cold, he was perfectly preserved. He was the ideal subject.”

  “So you experimented on him?”

  He gestured a hand around his lab. “I’ve been doing medical research for decades. I started in degenerative brain diseases, looking for similarities. Along the way, I developed a method for harvesting dream seeds and preserving them. Then I started implanting them, practicing on cadavers, and I had some startling results. That’s when I met your father, so to speak.”

  “You had no right to experiment on him,” I said. “My father was dead. He never consented. He deser
ved the honor of a military funeral.”

  “I’m aware of that,” he said. “But would he have refused a shot at a second life?”

  The idea made me pause. “What did you do to him, exactly?” I asked.

  “I put my own dream seed in him,” Orson said. “It was supposed to be just a kick-starter for him, but it caught and grew. His brain function reactivated first, starting his heart and breathing. Then gradually his consciousness evolved. Me, again.”

  “And what about my father? What about his consciousness?”

  He shook his head gravely. “I’ve tried to find any trace of him in me. Any memories. But they’re gone.”

  “So you failed,” I said.

  “Yes, from your father’s perspective. But I also succeeded, from mine.” Orson folded his arms across his bare chest. “By the time I woke in this body, it was too late to tell your family what I’d done. I needed your father’s body for my own sake. I owed it to him not to make his family suffer more than they already had, so I stayed away and kept silent.”

  “Where’s the original version of you?” I asked.

  He gave a pained smile. “I was an old man. I overlapped with this version of me for only a few months, and then the original Orson died. His death ripped me up. It was terribly disturbing. I wasn’t sure I deserved to go on after that.”

  “You didn’t,” I said coldly.

  He shook his head slowly. “But how could I waste this second life? I owed your father. I vowed to use his body wisely.”

  I backed a step away from him, trying to process it all. I’d never wanted to believe that my father was dead. For years, I had hoped that he somehow survived, but not like this. Never like this.

  He nodded toward the jar I was still holding. “Can we please put those away now?”

  The little jar in my hand flickered with pinpricks of light. As I thought back to where it had come from and where I’d first been mined, a startling idea hit me.

  “You told Dean Berg to mine me, didn’t you?” I asked. “You wanted my dream seeds from the Forge School.”

  “I was curious about you, yes,” he said.

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