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The vault of dreamers, p.12
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.12

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  I took the box, adding an assortment of the small cameras. Then I took a slow walk through the other aisles and picked up some duct tape, on principle. I lingered over the explosives and fireworks, curious about a small box of glow worm pellets that promised to turn into black worms of ash with the light of a match. Stay focused. I gave the box a little shake and set it back.

  When I returned to the front, Muzh took off her gloves. “Any luck?”

  “I could stay down here all day,” I said.

  She inspected each item, ran a scanner over the QR codes, and called up a list for me to sign on an electronic pad.

  “Does everything work?” I asked.

  “Most likely. It all did when it was stored.” She opened the back of one video camera and blew some dust out.

  “What are these?” I asked, lifting a couple of gadgets that looked like old-fashioned toy phones.

  “Walkie-hams,” she said. “They’re an inelegant cross between walkie-talkies and ham radios. They’re susceptible to rogue interference, but they’re slightly better than two cans on a string.”

  I pivoted one of the little walkie-hams, which was about as heavy as a pack of cards. “Do you have a normal phone I could take?” I asked. Having one would be great. Other students could text one another when they had something private to say. I couldn’t.

  “Don’t you own one already?” Muzh asked.

  “No,” I said. “My stepfather won’t let me. He thinks the government tracks us and spies on us through our cell phones.”

  Muzh nodded slowly. “He’s not alone in that theory. In any case, we don’t loan out phones.” She gave my box a poke. “What are you trying to do, bug the place?”

  “More or less.”

  “What for?” Muzh asked. “The last student who took out this many cameras was looking for paranormal activity. Tell me you’re not that misguided.”

  Muzh was brilliant.

  “I’m exactly that misguided,” I said. “Do you have any ghost sensors?”

  “None that work,” she said dryly.

  I bundled the box into my arms. “Thanks.”

  “Here, wait,” she said, and handed me a box of old-style batteries and a charger. “You’ll need these. The old devices guzzle electricity. You’ll have to rotate in fresh batteries frequently.”

  “Thanks.”

  “Good luck,” she said, and reached for her gloves again.

  As I made my way back to class, a heavy door swung open, and a thickset man backed into the hallway, maneuvering a dolly of boxes. “Excuse me,” he said, pulling it aside to let me pass. Through the door behind him was a long, beige hallway.

  “Is that one of the service tunnels?” I asked.

  “That’s right,” he said, letting the door go.

  I caught the knob just before the door closed.

  “You can’t go in there,” he said. “That’s off-limits to students.”

  Reluctantly, I let the door close. There was a scanner beside the knob. The man had a swipe key hanging from a loop on his hip. I wondered if Linus had such a swipe key. The man spun his dolly before him and headed away down the hall, and I continued to the Ping-Pong room with my box.

  * * *

  At lunchtime, I looked for Linus in the kitchen. He gave me a brief wave, but he was busy with dishes again and couldn’t talk. When I took my tray out to the dining area, Janice was sitting with Paige. Burnham and Henrik were nowhere to be seen, and I secretly hoped they wouldn’t show up and join us. I glanced reflexively at the blip rank board and saw I was listed at 48. It was better than 50.

  “Hey,” I said, sliding my tray onto the table opposite Janice’s.

  The girls looked up from a phone that lay on the table between them.

  “You have to see this,” Paige said. “It’s so cool.”

  Janice pushed the phone over toward me. “Paige’s doing a thing on aging dancers, and she found this face recognition app, Ace Age.”

  “It searches the Internet for the face of a famous person, back through time, and puts the photos in chronological order, with the same eye spacing, so you can see the person growing up and aging over the years,” Paige said.

  “Really?” I asked, angling to see.

  Janice pushed a button, and a teen girl’s face began evolving gradually through a series of shots. Her cheeks and hair had a rippling, flickering quality, but the constancy of the face stayed strong, right up to the most recent picture of a woman in her midthirties.

  “That is so so cool,” I said. I had to see it again. I sat back, amazed. “Who else have you done?”

  “Movie stars. Politicians,” Janice said. “Anyone public.”

  “What about private people?” I asked.

  “They don’t have enough pictures,” Paige said. “It doesn’t have the same effect.”

  “What happens when you try?” I asked.

  “Let’s see,” Janice said. “Who do you want to do?”

  “You,” I said.

  “No,” Janice said, covering her face.

  Paige laughed, taking the phone. “That’s good. Put your hands down, Janice,” Paige said sternly, aiming her phone at Janice.

  Instead, Janice ducked her head under the table.

  “Okay, then, you,” Paige said, and before I knew it, she swiveled my direction and took my picture.

  “No!” I squeaked.

  But Paige leaned back, working the phone with her thumbs. Janice popped back up. She bumped her shoulder to Paige’s, and the two of them peered at the phone together.

  I had no idea what the app would find.

  “Cute!” Janice and Paige squealed at the same time.

  “Let me see,” I said, holding out my hand.

  They didn’t seem to hear me.

  “Oh,” Janice crooned. “Little pumpkin face.”

  I moaned.

  They were silent another moment, watching the phone, and then their smiles faded. They glanced up at me at the same time, as if they’d never seen me before.

  “What?” I asked.

  The two girls exchanged a glance.

  Then Janice smiled doubtfully. “You were a cute kid.”

  “Let me see,” I said.

  Paige slowly passed over the phone. The app had frozen on the picture of me that Paige had just taken, but by tapping the little circular arrow, I could set it back through the progression from the start. To my surprise, the first picture it found was one of me in third grade, with two pigtails, frowning in the front row of my class picture. The close-up in the app only showed my head and shoulders, but I remembered when it was taken, and how the guy on the riser behind me kept bumping my butt with his knee. From there, I aged through school photos, and it snagged for a second on one at a pumpkin farm we’d visited for a school trip. All the other kids had a parent meet them there, and I kept watching for my mom to show up, but she never did.

  After that, the pictures went downhill. A blur of homely middle school pictures merged into a dozen miserable images from Doli High. They were little better than mug shots. A slew of happier, more recent ones from The Forge Show couldn’t offset the bleak sequence from before. No wonder Janice and Paige had looked dubious.

  “I guess the Internet has a long memory,” I said. It was weird to think how many pictures of me were in the public domain, and I wasn’t famous at all, or I hadn’t been until I’d come to Forge.

  Paige reached for the phone. “I’ve got an idea,” she said. She turned toward the kitchen, where Linus was standing at the salad bar with a big bowl of lettuce.

  “Paige, no,” I said.

  But she had already snapped his picture and was hunching over the phone, giggling.

  “Paige!”

  “You want to see or not?” she asked.

  My cheeks were burning. I glanced back at Linus, hoping he hadn’t seen, but he was watching us now. When I shrank down in my seat, he lifted his eyebrows. He switched out the lettuce bowls and headed back into the kitchen.
>
  I wanted to die. “This is wrong,” I said.

  “Get over yourself,” Paige said.

  “Tell me there’s nothing on him,” I said.

  Janice’s expression lifted in surprise. “Holy crap,” she said lightly. She blinked at Paige, and then they both nudged close to the phone.

  Paige cleared her throat and sat back slightly. “Well,” she said. “They’re tasteful, at least.”

  “Let me see that,” I said.

  Paige did not let go of her phone until I tugged hard.

  The photos of Linus did not go back far. In the earliest, he was no older than eleven or twelve, about the age when he’d come to the States, and there were only a few photos from those early years. Around the time he was thirteen, his face began a seamless transformation through dozens of pictures. All of them were shot in a distinct black-and-white clarity that indicated they had come from the same camera. Sometimes he smiled. More often, his expression was neutral or serious. The app showed only his head and shoulders, but since his shoulders were always bare, it gave the impression he never wore clothes.

  The photos kept advancing toward the present, through countless sessions of the black-and-white pictures, until they finally jumped back into color and flickered more like mine had, with his dark hair changing lengths, and he was usually wearing the white shirt of his kitchen garb. Then the picture stopped on the image Janice had just captured.

  Paige cleared her throat. “I’d say our hot kitchen guy has a sordid little past,” she said.

  13

  GORGE ON FORGE

  “BE QUIET,” JANICE said.

  I was stunned. I hurt for Linus. I wanted to watch the app again and go back to those black-and-white pictures. I wanted to track down where the series had come from and skewer the person who had shot them all. Still worse, I wanted to know how far down Linus was naked. My cheeks were burning, and I felt the shame of trespassing into some horribly private mess.

  Paige gingerly pulled the phone out of my hand. “I didn’t know it would find that sequence,” she said. “You know that, right?”

  I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but I wasn’t completely naïve, either. Orly had said something nasty about Linus being catnip for Otis. I remembered him up in Dean Berg’s penthouse, after hours, and then I felt sick at myself for what I was imagining. There could be a perfectly good reason why someone had taken dozens of artsy photos of Linus with no shirt on and posted them online.

  I closed my eyes and thunked my forehead in my hands.

  “Boys,” Janice said.

  “I know, right?” Paige said. “I hope he got paid well.”

  “This is not helping,” I said.

  The bell tolled out in the quad, and students at the tables around us began getting up.

  “Look, it’s no big deal, Rosie,” Janice said quietly. “So what if some perv took a bunch of pictures of the kitchen guy? It’s who he is today that matters.”

  “His name’s Linus,” I said. Who he was today was most likely watching this very exchange on the screen in the kitchen. I put my head up and straightened my spine. “I have to get to class. Remind me to run that app on you sometime.”

  “It’s just a thing,” Janice said, looking at me strangely. “Don’t be mad.”

  “He’s not even on the show,” I said. “He deserves some privacy.”

  “Listen, I’m not the one making out with him,” Janice said.

  “You’re the one who’s drawing attention to him,” Paige said to me. “If he wants his privacy, all he has to do is stay away from you. Have you thought about that?” She stood and dropped her napkin on her tray. “Maybe he has something to gain from you. He can get famous without even being on the show.”

  Behind me, the blip rank board started to update with its flipping noise again. I looked back and forth from Paige to Janice.

  “Seriously? You think that’s why he’s hanging out with me?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” Janice said.

  “Not everyone wants to be famous,” I said.

  Paige pushed back her hair and picked up her tray. “No, but it can’t hurt. Check out your blip rank.”

  I looked over my shoulder. I’d spiked up three ranks to 45. I was appalled.

  Paige grinned at me. “Welcome to The Forge Show.”

  * * *

  I could think of only one reason why my blip rank had spiked. Viewers liked to see me upset. The next thing they would do was look up the Ace Age app. And Linus.

  I couldn’t bear to think about the pictures of him I’d seen on Paige’s app, but I couldn’t stop, either. They bugged me all through my practicum that afternoon, making me sad and worried for the kid Linus had been. At the same time, Paige had started me questioning his motives. I’d thought Linus had done me a favor by helping me get my blip rank high enough to stay on the show, and in the clock tower, I hadn’t thought twice about why he was kissing me. I’d thought he liked me, but now I had this needling doubt. He might get something else, something bigger out of being with me.

  The whole thing stank.

  In the end, the only way to quit obsessing was to focus on my work.

  After my practicum, I went back to the Ping-Pong room to check on my cameras, which I’d left there to charge. Their batteries were full. Now I just had to figure out where to place the cameras to best spy on the campus at night. My dorm room was a given. I stuck everything in my backpack and started out the door, only to encounter Burnham on his way in.

  He shifted politely to let me pass, but I backed up, doing the same thing.

  “Hey,” I said.

  “Hello,” he replied, and after some awkward seesawing, he edged in past me. He flipped on the overhead lights and headed toward his favorite computer.

  “Are you working on your project for DeCoster’s class?” I asked.

  “That would be why I’m here.” He eased into his chair and turned on his machine. A small yellow leaf was stuck to the back of his red sweater, but it wasn’t my business to tell him so.

  “You could work from the K:Cloud anywhere,” I said.

  “And yet, I’m here.”

  I gripped my thumb under my shoulder strap. “How long are you going to be mad?” I asked. “I’m just curious.”

  “You realize, of course, how irritating it is to be falsely accused of being mad,” he said.

  Oh, boy, I thought. “That’s real mature.”

  “If you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

  “Well, that’s even more mature. What are you? A grandpa?”

  His fingers froze over his touch screen, but he didn’t turn.

  “Sorry,” I mumbled, and I backed out of the doorway.

  I couldn’t let him goad me into being sarcastic. It made me feel horrible and small. It wouldn’t happen again.

  * * *

  I put one of the cameras up in the attic of my dorm, aiming out the skylight toward the dean’s tower. I planted more aiming at the quad, the infirmary, the security office in the student union, and the roads entering the school. Others I planted in whimsical places that fit my ghost theme: the graveyard, the chapel, the clock tower, and the pasture with the lookout tower in the background. At one point, I stopped in the girls’ room, hid in a stall, and experimented with the two walkie-hams, whispering in one and listening with the other against my ear to be sure they worked. Then I wrote a note: 8:00, channel 4, folded that around one of them, and slid it in the pocket of my jeans.

  I had set up all but my last two cameras when I veered to the dining hall and found Linus vacuuming the dining room. He wore no apron, and his white tee shirt had come untucked from his jeans. He was dodging the chairs that were upturned on the tables like he’d vacuumed beneath them a million times. A long orange extension cord snaked out behind him, a dense roar filled the room, and I was seriously tempted to take footage as I walked toward him.

  “Busy?” I called.

  He turned
off the vacuum, and silence rippled out around him. He turned to face me, panting a little, and didn’t smile.

  Now that I had seen his features from when he was younger, he looked different to me. His cheeks had outgrown a certain fullness, and his eyes had become cautious at the corners. He was Linus, today, but underneath he was also the boy from the black-and-white photos.

  “Not cool, Rosie,” he said.

  Blushing, I glanced down at the orange cord. “You mean the app,” I said.

  “I mean the whole thing. Looking me up. If you want to know something about me, ask me.” Linus gave the cord a yank, and way on the opposite wall, the plug came out of the socket.

  “Okay,” I said.

  He started wrapping the long cord in circles around his arm, fist to elbow. “It’s not just okay,” he said. “You know that spin-off site for Forge fans? Gorge on Forge?”

  Everybody knew it. “Yes?”

  “They’ve uploaded the pictures of me that you and Paige found,” he said. “The entire sequence is right there for anyone to watch. You should see some of the comments. I guess I’m gay now. And looking for a sugar daddy. Those are the nice ones.”

  I felt terrible. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Those people leaving comments, they don’t know you.”

  “Neither do you, really.”

  “No,” I agreed. But I wanted to. I should have come to apologize earlier. I fiddled with the straps of my backpack. “I’m really sorry, Linus. It wasn’t my idea to do you. I had no idea what Paige would find. I wish I could have stopped her.”

  Linus plugged the ends of the extension cord together. “I know it wasn’t your fault exactly,” he said. Then he added, “I’m not hanging out with you for any stupid fame.”

  So he’d heard that, too. I couldn’t believe I’d let Paige make me suspect he wanted to use me for his own visibility. Someone back in the kitchen banged a pot, and voices rose for a second. Linus glanced over his shoulder.

  “You told me once to ignore the cameras,” I said.

  “I was an idiot. They’re impossible.”

 
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