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The rule of mirrors, p.13
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.13

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “What do you mean?” I ask, chilled.

  “Have you had enough stimulation?” he says.

  I punch disconnect and throw the phone away. It skitters across the kitchen table, hits the floor, and bangs against the base of the oven.

  He can’t make me believe he let me escape. I’m not free temporarily for the sake of some stimulation.

  Gingerbread meows from behind the fridge. With a shock, I freeze, listening. A thump comes from upstairs. One of the sisters must have heard the bang of the phone. She’ll be coming downstairs, and as soon as they realize I’ve phoned out, they’ll want the reward. Portia will call the hotline.

  “Rosie?” Jenny calls quietly from above.

  I have to go. I retrieve the phone and grab the nearest coat. I shove my feet in mismatched boots. I peer out at Ian in his dark Jeep, and, as I consider the puzzle once more, it hits me: Ian’s stalking doesn’t fit. The timing’s wrong. He was here before I talked to Berg, and he hasn’t made any move to come into the house. The more I think of it, Ian is the last person Dean Berg would ever send after me, and, finally, a wild idea occurs to me.

  Ian isn’t here because of Berg. He hasn’t been sent. He’s here because of us.

  Him and me.

  Ian has tracked me here by heart.




  SILENTLY, SO JENNY WON’T HEAR, I let myself out of the house. The last thing I do before I crunch down the snowy driveway is disconnect the battery from her phone and hurl the pieces into the backyard, where they’re swallowed up by the dark and the snow. Wind whips at my cheeks, but I put my head down and aim unwaveringly toward Ian’s Jeep.

  I knock on the window of the passenger door. “Hey!”

  Ian startles, and a second later, the door clicks from within, unlocking. I pull it open to a gust of warm air and the reek of cigarettes. Ian’s pale face is ghostly by the dashboard light.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask.

  He clears his throat, as if he doesn’t expect his voice to work properly. “I’m here to help you.”

  The wind blows a shimmer of snow between us.

  “Berg didn’t send you?” I ask.

  “No,” he says. “I came myself. I quit my job.”

  I glance back toward the house where now half the lights are on.

  “Are you going to hurt me if I get in?” I ask.

  His beady eyes burn, and he speaks with low, feverish intensity. “I’d rather kill myself.”

  Good enough for this girl. Like a nightmare, Ian ought to be something I can control if I exert enough will.

  “Then drive,” I say, and I climb in.

  He tosses an oily paper bag off my seat. Then he pulls onto the road. I take a look back and see Portia coming outside just as we turn the first corner. I notice a pet carrier that rests on the backseat of Ian’s Jeep. A gun rack with a rifle is mounted above the back window. I check around for visible mics and cameras but find none. A flimsy figurine dangles from the rearview mirror.

  “Where to?” he asks.

  He blasts the heat.

  “We need a place to hide and come up with a plan,” I say.

  “North, then. I know a place.”

  I peer over at him. Ian is wearing the kind of gloves where his fingertips come out the ends, like Fagan, and all of his fingernails are bitten down to the quick. His little, wispy mustache is practically the same color as his skin. His coat, a poofy, white number, was probably picked out by his grandmother, but he tracked me here somehow, and I’m not going to underestimate him.

  “How’d you find me?” I ask.

  “I tailed your car to the diner that first night, but then I lost you,” he says. He taps a finger on the wheel. “It took me a few days to remember the black woman who walked out just as I was going in. I asked the waitress who that might be. She didn’t know, but I kept watching the diner, and sure enough, a couple nights ago, the same woman came back. I followed her home and watched her house. Then I saw you come out with a bag of garbage yesterday. It was fate.”

  “You mean stalking.”

  “Stalking’s when you follow the person and won’t leave them alone,” he says. “Waiting is different. It’s a form of tribute, like a vigil, and fate rewards it.”

  O-kay, I think.

  He takes a big, deep breath and keeps his gaze toward the road. “I’ve had time to think about us,” he says. “It isn’t always easy, but people need to talk to each other honestly when they’re in a relationship.”

  “That’s true,” I say cautiously.

  “It takes sacrifice and patience,” he says. “People make mistakes, but they can be forgiven if they come clean and they’re humble enough to ask for forgiveness.”

  I feel a tingle of foreboding. “Who needs to be forgiven?” I ask.

  “You left me.”

  I glance at his profile to see that he’s serious, and I get it. This is a pivotal moment, but if I’m apologetic, then he establishes control. I can’t have that. “Not the way I see it,” I say. “You let me wake up. You deliberately messed with my meds, and then you went outside on purpose when nobody else was watching so I’d have a chance to escape.”

  “That’s not right,” he says.

  “You even told me the other guy was leaving his keys in his car.”

  “I didn’t know you were listening. I didn’t know you were outside.”

  “But you should have known,” I say. “It was your job to watch me, and instead you let me go. That means it’s your responsibility that I’m free. And that, Ian, is why I’m grateful to you. I’m not going to turn around and apologize when what I’m feeling is grateful.”

  He keeps his gaze aimed on the road. “You’re grateful,” he says.

  “Since we’re speaking honestly, yes, I am.”

  He taps the wheel again. “Then that’s all right.” His lips quirk in a tiny smile.

  I am not deceived. Ian is dangerous. He dreamed up our relationship, and he used me as his fantasy girlfriend when I was helpless. Just like before, it’s essential for me to play him exactly right, but I have the advantage now because he cares for me, and all I do is despise him.

  “What’s this,” I ask, fingering the statuette that hangs from the mirror. It feels like an air freshener, but it doesn’t stand a chance against the cigarette stench.

  “That’s Gandhi,” he says. “For peace.”

  “Like your rifle?”

  “That’s for peace, too.”

  Sure it is. The Jeep is toasty warm now, so I reach to turn the heat down, and the rushing noise drops to a hum. I check the gas level, which is full. We could go many hours before we need to stop, and it’s possible he has a spare battery with him. I check the back again and notice a couple of boxes on the floor before the pet carrier. One of them, I swear, says Fister on it, like for Burnham’s family’s company.

  “What are those boxes?” I ask.

  “Some drugs, just in case I find an injured animal on the road. They’ll work for you, too, if you get a headache or you can’t get to sleep.”

  My heart stops completely, and then I instinctively touch my hand to my shirt. I can feel the lump of my port under my skin.

  “Are they the sleep meds from Onar?” I ask.

  “Yes, but I didn’t steal them. They were expired. I was supposed to throw them out, but they still work just fine.”

  He has the means to drug me to sleep, right here in the Jeep. I swallow hard.

  “Pull over,” I say.

  “How come?”

  “Just pull over!” I say. “We’re throwing out those boxes.”

  “We are not,” he says. “They’re worth a ton of money, and you don’t know what could happen to you. You could need those meds.”

  “Pull over! I mean it! I want them out!”

  “Would you just listen?”

  I roll down my window. I take off my seat belt and flip around to reach behind the seat. He brake
s and swerves the Jeep until we bump to the edge of the snowy road and come to a stop. I grab the nearest box. He makes no move to interfere as I pull back the lid. A dozen little vials are inside. A handful of syringes are, too, and a half dozen IV drips. I hold up one of the vials, ready to throw it out. These are what have ruled my life. This is the poison that has controlled me. Cold wind swirls in my window.

  “I understand that you’re sensitive about the meds,” Ian says calmly. “But you can trust me. I’ll only use them on you if you ask.”

  “I hate these drugs,” I say.

  “I know. I’m sure. But they’re harmless now. Trust me.”

  I glance up to find him watching me with patient, rodent eyes. I’m desperate to throw out the drugs, but with the weight of the vial in my hand, I realize it’s a weapon, too. It’s power. I can use it to let him think I trust him, but that will also mean keeping the drugs in the car.

  Ahead of us, our high beams cast whiteness over the dark, snowy road. Dawn is coming, but for now, we’re far from anywhere. If I get out to walk, I’ll probably freeze to death before I reach shelter. By contrast, Ian and the drugs are known evils.

  I take a deep breath, still holding the vial. “Why do you have a pet cage back there?”

  “I keep it with me as a memento of my old cat, Peanut,” Ian says. “And sometimes I use it for the hurt animals I find on the road. I’ve got some gloves back there, too.”

  He is completely serious.

  I resist a snide desire to laugh. “Peanut,” I say.

  “Peanut the cat. Eleven years I had her.”

  I take a deep breath to calm myself. Then I think of him loving his cat, like it was practice for me. “Promise me you won’t use these drugs on me,” I say.

  “I promise,” he says.

  I shift the box to the floor by my feet and roll up my window. Ian reminds me about my seat belt and pulls back out on the highway. I watch the sky grow from dark gray to pinker. Ian sniffs occasionally beside me. He asks if I mind if he smokes. I tell him to go ahead, and he cracks the window while he does. He rolls it back up with a sucking noise when he’s done.

  “You’re probably wondering where we’re going,” Ian says, some time later. “I know a nice motel on a lake where I used to go duck hunting with my dad. The season’s wrong, but it’s peaceful there. Not a lot of people. The motel rooms all have a coffeemaker and a minifridge. It’s a drive, though. We won’t make it ’til late tonight. How’s that sound?”

  “Fine,” I say. I intend to ditch him long before then. I stretch my legs a bit. I reach down to take off my boots and manage a stealthy grab from the drug box. “I remember you once told me you had another girl you talked to at Onar,” I say. “Who was she?”

  “She didn’t ever really come around all the way like you,” he says. “I just imagined she did. I know the difference.”

  “What happened to her?”

  “I don’t know much about it. They moved her out to Miehana.”

  “Where do the dreamers come from?” I ask.

  “I already told you. St. Louis. You were an exception.”

  “But where in St. Louis? They don’t just have a bodies factory there.”

  He glances over briefly. “They get them from the Annex,” he says. “It’s an emporium. You can buy whatever you need there. Berg orders them online.” He warms to his topic, as if proud to share his expertise. “We have two kinds of dreamers, the ones that are basically soil, for seeding dreams into, and the mineable ones that haven’t fully decayed yet. Those are the valuable ones.”

  “Where does the Annex get the bodies?” I ask.

  “I don’t know. Pre-morgues, I guess. It’s fully legit, if you’re worried about that.” He glances my way again and smiles. “You think it’s gross.”

  “I may be biased.”

  Ian laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says. “I mean, I know most people aren’t comfortable with the idea of shipping bodies around, but they don’t like to think about where their meat comes from, either. Personally, I’d rather have brains recycled than left to rot in graves. This way they can help somebody. How’s it any different from recycling eyeballs or hearts?”

  “It’s completely different if the person isn’t dead, like me,” I say.

  “I know that. You were a special case.”

  “If you knew that, why did you let them mine me?”

  The road hums under our wheels for a stretch while he doesn’t answer. I realize I sound too accusatory and lower my voice.

  “Ian John,” I say. “You knew I was from The Forge Show. You knew I wasn’t like the other dreamers. You told me so.”

  “I know.”

  “So then, why did you let them mine me? Didn’t you see it was wrong?”

  He shakes his head. “You were sick. Berg said that sleep therapy was the best thing for you. The mining you didn’t even notice. It was like trimming your fingernails. It was nothing. A pinch of sand from the seashore.”

  He sounds suspiciously like he’s parroting what he’s heard. I’m not going to be able to persuade him otherwise. I think I was too perfect a temptation for him.

  I pull one of my feet up under me on the seat. “Berg told me I was staying at his vacation place. He says he hired people to look after me there and I imagined the vault.”

  “I don’t know about that. He visited you at Onar, though. He took you out for air.”

  “What do you mean?”

  He looks at me sideways. “It was part of your therapy. He’d dress you up and prop you up for a visit out on the porch.”

  I recall the closet of clothes and wigs and gear at Onar, and suddenly it takes on horrifying possibilities.

  “And you let him do this?” I ask, shocked.

  “Sometimes you have to trust people who know what’s best for you,” he says.

  “That is total crap.”

  “I don’t like this way you’re talking to me,” he says.

  “Berg destroyed me. He ruined my life, and you let him!”

  “We saved you. You needed treatment. I saw what you were like on Forge, Rosie, and you were a mess, no offense.”

  I fume, glaring out the window. Unbelievable. I hate this person. I hate everything about him, from his cat cage to his mustache. I hate him almost as much as I hate Berg.

  “Take me to St. Louis,” I say.

  “No. Your old boyfriend’s there. We’re going to the hunting motel. You’ll like it. You need some quiet.”

  He pets my arm, and I jump out of my skin.

  “Don’t touch me!” I say.

  He returns both hands to the wheel and accelerates the Jeep. “I was trying to be nice.”

  “I don’t like being touched,” I say.

  “I don’t like to be yelled at,” he says.

  “Then you shouldn’t have touched me!”

  The road flicks by, straight and ever faster. Any wavering of the steering wheel would send us into a ditch. I have to be smart. Now.

  “I won’t yell anymore,” I say in a low voice.

  “Say you’re sorry.”

  He’s got me. He has brought me back to this. He’s still speeding up.

  “I’m sorry. I might not be the easiest girlfriend,” I say, “but I’m trying.”

  “Try harder.”

  I struggle to think like him and guess what he wants. “We were never going to fight,” I say. “We promised, remember? I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. Forgive me?”

  He slows the car slightly, and I hear him take a big, steady breath.

  He taps the steering wheel again with his Fagan fingers. “I guessed you were a spitfire underneath,” he says.

  I cringe into myself, despising us both. My biggest fear now is that we’ll drive all day and get to his duck hunting, minifridge motel before we have to stop for gas. But I have a handful of the sleep med vials and syringes in my pocket. I am not unarmed.




  I WASN’T PRIVY TO THE CONVERSATION between Diego and Madeline, nor the showdown when they talked to Dr. Fallon, but by dawn, Althea’s parents and I were flying away from the Chimera Centre in our private jet. I watched the island drop below me and shrink as we rose over the ocean.

  “Do you need anything? Feel okay?” Madeline asked me.

  “I’m fine,” I said, pressing the armrest button to lean my seat back. In fact, I was a mess of emotions, from grim relief at finally leaving Chimera to sick fear for Rosie who was still asleep somewhere in Berg’s control.

  “I still think this is a mistake,” Madeline said. “I don’t see how talking to one scientist changes everything. If anything, this hybrid glitch of Althea’s is all the more reason why we should stay. Dr. Fallon is still the best person in the world to be treating her.”

  “We’re done here,” Diego said.

  I sent him a grateful look. Apparently, there were rare times when he called the shots for the family. I gazed out the airplane window at the ripply clouds below and tried to process all I knew. My gut told me Ma needed to know that my father was alive, but even if I was able to communicate with her, the news would rip her up. She was married to Larry and had been now for years, but I knew she still grieved for my dad. I was starting to understand why Orson never told her. In the ways that counted, he wasn’t actually my father.

  Still, it felt wrong not telling her. I wished I could talk it all over with a close friend. Someone like Rosie. She would empathize.

  It was so strange to think that two of us could exist now. As soon as possible, I intended to get to the Onar Clinic and free her, and I couldn’t guess what I’d find. I felt inwardly complete, like I’d taken my soul, my inherent me-ness with me when I’d escaped. But that presented a puzzle for what I’d left behind. Did she feel whole, too? Had we split neatly into two? She might be lost in an unthinking stupor.

  I needed to find out. Despite what Orson had said, I couldn’t help wishing there was some way I could still return to my old body and leave Althea’s life behind. At the very least, I needed to discover what had happened to her.

  Hours later, as we approached Holdum, Texas, the welcome sight of green rose to meet us. Our jet touched down, and with my first whiff of warm, balmy air, I shook off my last hunch of winter. A driver collected our gear while I took a backseat in a fancy, new-smelling SUV. A big sky arched above the sprawling landscape, and random, solitary trees ruled over plots of green. We passed a barbed wire fence strung with catfish heads and a yard full of birdbaths for sale. I liked Texas.

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