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The vault of dreamers, p.13
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.13

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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I laughed. “Do you want to come walk with me?” I asked. “It’s nice out.”

  “I can’t. But thanks.”

  I could tell that any second Linus was going to drag the vacuum toward the kitchen, and I’d lose my chance to give him the walkie-ham. I stepped nearer.

  “Whoever took those pictures of you had no right to put them online,” I said.

  “I signed away my rights.”

  “Kids can’t sign away their own rights,” I said. “With the right lawyer, you could sue the pants off the original photographer, plus Gorge on Forge. Who owns that site, anyway?”

  “I think it’s a Forge Show affiliate, actually,” Linus said.

  “Seriously?” I said. “Does Dean Berg know about this?”

  Linus considered me thoughtfully. “I’m guessing he does now.”

  A phone rang back in the kitchen.

  “Don’t you have any privacy rights as someone on staff here?” I asked loudly.

  “I do normally, unless I step onstage. Like this, with you,” he said. “Then they’re forfeit.”

  “I would say whatever you did before you came here was offstage, wouldn’t you?” I asked. “How old were you in those pictures?”

  “Thirteen,” he said.

  “Thirteen!” I said.

  Chef Ted leaned out from the kitchen. “Pitts. There’s a call for you. It’s the dean,” he said.

  Linus moved toward the kitchen, and then turned back toward me.

  “Thanks,” he said.

  I stepped near to hug him, and when he slowly hugged me back, I slid the walkie-ham between us and jabbed it hard at his belly. I felt his surprise, but he said nothing, and when we moved apart, he caught the transfer easily and covered it by maneuvering the vacuum before him.

  “I’ll see you later,” I said.

  “Okay, good,” he said.

  “You coming, love bird?” Chef Ted called.

  Linus took off toward the kitchen while I headed out the door. I could not wait to talk to him for real, by walkie-ham.

  I still had two more cameras to place, and so I went down the pasture toward the observatory. I stepped past the DO NOT ENTER sign and climbed up the narrow ladder. The dome was a brighter gray in the sunlight today, and the view was as pretty as ever. From the catwalk that went around the base of the dome, a second ladder rose higher, to the five-foot-wide satellite dish that pointed toward the sky. Perfect.

  With the thighs of my jeans against the metal edge of the satellite dish, I leaned toward the center and duct-taped my camera to the pod in the center of the dish. A strange whisper of noise skimmed over the white surface, deeper than crickets, surprising me. I flipped the camera on. I expected that it would record nothing but sky for the visual track, but I had no idea what it might collect for audio.

  Alien voices were probably too much to hope for.

  * * *

  That Wednesday night, under the cover of getting ready for bed, I set up my last video camera, my old one from home. I placed it inside my wardrobe and aimed it out toward the room. Then I turned it on and nonchalantly left the door ajar. I also managed to slide my walkie-ham under my pillow while I was folding a few clothes. After Orly distributed pills, I climbed into my sleep shell, took out my pill, watched my brink lesson, and pretended to sleep. This time, I kept my lid closed.

  Stealth was getting to feel like a routine.

  I was dying to see if Linus would come on my walkie-ham. I lay still, waiting while the clock tower bonged the interminable quarter hours into the night. When at last it approached eight, I rolled over and hugged my quilt softly to my ear. Then I pulled out my walkie-ham. I clicked on the little black device and turned the volume as low as possible, just to listen.

  Faint static buzzed from the speaker, so quiet it was barely discernible. By eight, it was still without a voice. Come on, Linus, I thought. Be there.

  I pushed the talk button and spoke so softly I didn’t believe any mic in the room could pick me up. “Hello?”

  Then I released the button to listen again. Still nothing. I kept waiting, trying not to be disappointed. He might be still working, or walking home, or busy with Otis.

  By eight-thirty, I was bummed, but I dialed slowly through the ten channels, listening carefully to the static on each one and checking back often with channel four. At nine, my hope plummeted. Maybe the walkie-hams didn’t have enough range to reach between the dorm and Forgetown. It couldn’t be that Linus didn’t want to talk to me.

  Disheartened, I flipped through the dial once more, and at a blip of noise, I stopped. On channel seven, a voice came in dimly, but it wasn’t Linus’s. A woman had an accent that I couldn’t identify, sort of Norwegian and British. I rolled over, keeping the walkie-ham hidden under my quilt, and I turned it up enough to hear.

  “Very amusing,” the woman said. “Now, let’s be reasonable. That last bit was exactly what I’ve been looking for. Invigorating. Intoxicating. I feel ten years younger. Don’t tease me with this nonsense of her being too fragile to mine for more.”

  A second voice came in, laced with annoyance, and it took me a moment to recognize Dean Berg. I’d never heard him as anything but congenial. “You weren’t supposed to use it on yourself. Did you even try to duplicate it?”

  “There was too little. I told you. Send more next time.”

  “You’re impossible. I swear. Do you remember what we said before, about trust?” Dean Berg said.

  The woman laughed. “I do love it when you get righteous. How does the minister’s daughter like her seed?”

  “I don’t seed my patients,” Dean Berg said.

  “Don’t you mean your students?” she said. “Come on, Sandy. This is me you’re talking to. When are you going to realize you have a gold mine right there already? Forget clinical medicine. Go for the entertainment potential. You could rake it in if you let a couple of us dabble in seeding your students. To watch them live it out! I know a guy or two who would get a real kick out of playing god. You can’t keep all the fun for yourself.”

  “You know the problem with you, Huma?” Dean Berg said. “You think everyone else is as ruthless as you are. Stick to the dead and leave the living to me.”

  “My clients aren’t dead,” she said. “And you’re no one to talk.” Her humor was gone.

  The voices were fading, and I didn’t hear Dean Berg’s reply. I tried shifting the walkie-ham to bring them in clearer.

  “I need more of the Lo Eight,” said the woman. “We’ve had some very nice results with that and I could use a fresh batch.”

  “How nice?” Dean Berg asked.

  “Nice enough. I’m getting more inquiries than I can possibly keep up with. I’m having to turn people away. It’s tragic. Please tell me you’re at least reading your students for potential mining. Give me that much.”

  “We do read the students,” Dean Berg said. “I’ll concede that. But only to learn from their healthy minds. Nothing else. Their dreams, as you can imagine, are exquisite.”

  “See? Was that so hard? I could help you so much if you’d just confide in me.”

  Then the voices were gone. I tried the channels again, anxious to hear more, but however the walkie-ham picked up the rogue signal, it wasn’t under my control. It killed me not to know more about the mining and seeding they’d discussed. Who was Huma? I couldn’t even be sure I’d heard her name right.

  Frustrated, I dialed back to channel four.

  I did know that the minister’s daughter had to be Janice. And he was reading us, whatever that meant. The dean was studying our minds. I found that ridiculously exciting. And terrifying.

  “Are you there?” a voice asked.

  I clenched the walkie-ham to my ear. “Linus?” I asked.

  “I thought you’d be asleep by now,” he said.

  I smiled into the darkness. “I’m not.”

  14

  WALKIE-HAMS

  I CLICKED THE button to keep our channel open.

  “I t
ried to reach you from home, but I got no signal,” he said. “I’m in the lookout tower. You should see these stars.”

  I rolled to look out my window, seeing just enough sky over the dark tree branches to tease me.

  “Are you still upset about Paige and the face app?” I asked. I curved my hand around my mouth and pitched my voice barely above a whisper.

  “Guys don’t get upset,” he said. “Besides, you were right. It wasn’t really your fault. Gorge on Forge took down the footage of me, for what that’s worth. Are you awake every night?”

  “Yes. Since the fifty cuts. I skip my pill.”

  “You know that defeats the whole purpose, right?” he said. “I mean, it’s great to be able to talk to you, but you have to sleep for your creativity to get the full effect.”

  “I know that’s what they say, but I’m not so sure that’s the reason. Why did you say that thing about how I’m safe as long as I stay in bed?”

  “Because students who leave their beds get sent home,” he said. “I don’t want that happening to you.”

  But I’ve been out of bed, I thought.

  Around me, the faint blue glow of my sleep shell had its familiar, surreal shimmer. I moved my fingers before my face, watching the black tracks that followed in the air.

  “You haven’t been sneaking out, have you?” he asked.

  “No,” I lied quickly, shielding my mouth again. “But strange things have been happening here. I saw them giving Janice an IV in her sleep a few nights ago. Sunday night, I guess. She was having some kind of seizure. Dr. Ash told me later that they put in IVs just as a safety precaution, but I don’t believe her. Last night, they took Paige out of the room in her sleep shell, and I’m pretty sure they took me out, too.”

  “You don’t remember?”

  “I was asleep again. A man came in and gave me more sleep meds, intravenously. And my sleep shell wasn’t in the same place this morning.”

  “You’re sure?” he asked.

  “Positive,” I said. “I’m not imagining these things. And just tonight I overheard a very, very weird conversation between Dean Berg and some woman through my walkie-ham.”

  “Weird how?”

  “They were talking about mining and seeding people.”

  “Mining people?” Linus’s voice lifted. “Are you sure they said that?”

  “Why? Do you know what that means?”

  Linus didn’t answer.

  I curled my face into my pillow again, keeping the walkie-ham under my quilt. “Seeding somebody sounds so evil,” I said. “Like they’re planting something inside. Mining sounds even worse.”

  A distant beeping sound came over the walkie-ham, like a truck backing. Linus still didn’t reply.

  “Linus? Are you there?”

  “I’m just trying to think,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way Dean Berg could be mining or seeding people. That isn’t even real.”

  “What is it?”

  “It’s a scam,” Linus said. “I heard about it back in St. Louis, when I sold my blood. This quack at the Annex said he could mine people’s dreams and seed them into someone else, like a drug, for a high. He was always looking for donors.”

  “But it wasn’t real?”

  “Of course not,” he said. “It was just a way to get guys unconscious. He always picked young boys. They’d be gone all night and come back the next morning with a wad of cash.”

  I listened uneasily. “You never went, did you?”

  “No. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

  “What is this Annex place?” I asked.

  “It’s a sort of emporium where you can buy anything you want.”

  “Anything like drugs?”

  “Drugs. Sex. Guns. Planes. Body parts for surgeries. Private islands. It’s a kind of exchange. You’ve heard of those places.”

  I had, but I’d thought they were all at the Canadian and Mexican borders, not in St. Louis.

  “Did you work there?” I asked.

  “No,” he said. “I was a kid. I just sold blood there.”

  “Your own?”

  He laughed. “Yes. Who else’s?”

  I didn’t know, anymore. He knew all about a world I’d only vaguely been aware of. “Is that where you were photographed?”

  “You really want to know?” he said.

  “Not if you don’t want to tell me.”

  A little clicking noise came from his end, like he was tapping something, and then he spoke. “It started a couple months after I ran away from my last foster home. A man came to the park and said he was looking for swimsuit models. He hired me and a couple of the other guys a few different times.”

  “That’s all?”

  “It was a little creepy, but he never touched me. He would just tell me politely to turn my head or lean back or whatever.”

  “Weren’t you scared?” I asked.

  He laughed. “I was hungry. I didn’t know any better.”

  It sounded awful to me. “I can’t believe you went back more than once.”

  “No?” Linus was quiet a moment. “I did a lot of dumb things before Otis found me. I’m probably lucky to be alive.”

  That I believed.

  “How did you meet Otis?” I asked.

  “He came to the Annex to pick up some blood for Parker, his partner, and he tracked me down. Parker has Alzheimer’s, and Otis likes to give him transfusions of young blood. He says it stimulates him, and he seems to think Parker responds better to my blood than the generic pints.”

  “I didn’t know there was any difference in blood, beyond the basic types.”

  “I didn’t either,” Linus said, and laughed. “My guess is Parker just happened to have a good day after one of my pints. It makes him happy, though.”

  “Otis?”

  “Both, I guess.”

  “So, wait,” I said. “Did Otis bring you here so you could keep donating blood for Parker?”

  “It’s my rent,” Linus said.

  I wasn’t certain I’d heard right. “Your what?”

  “I pay my rent with my blood. I know. It sounds strange, but it works.”

  I tried to imagine Linus living in a household with old Otis and his partner with Alzheimer’s. “Are they your family now?” I asked.

  Linus was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know what family is anymore.”

  A stillness spread through me, a quiet more lonely and sad than I’d let myself feel in a long, long time. I wished I could reach through the walkie-ham and touch him. You have me, I thought, but I couldn’t say it out loud.

  “I think family starts small,” I said.

  He laughed. “You’re probably right.”

  I closed my eyes, trying to picture him in the top of Otis’s tower. “It will be strange seeing you in the day and not being able to talk openly,” I said.

  “We have to remember to act like we haven’t had this conversation,” Linus said. “Technically, you haven’t heard about Parker, or dream mining, or my fun times in St. Louis.”

  “Good point. I’ll try to keep it shallow,” I said. I curled my knees up and shifted more comfortably. “Can you tell me one more thing?”

  “Sure.”

  “Why were you in Dean Berg’s rooms last night?”

  “How did you know about that?” he asked.

  “I saw you through the window,” I said. “I can see Dean Berg’s penthouse from my dorm.”

  The tapping came again before he spoke. “I wanted to know if I could become a techie.”

  That was the last thing I’d expected. “Really?”

  “They’re paid well,” Linus said. “I don’t have the background for it, but he told me he’ll think about it. I might have to go to university for a few years first.”

  “That’s good, right?”

  “It’s just complicated. I’ve been saving up, but still I don’t have much. I’d need my GED.”

  “You could get that,” I said.


  “Right.” He paused. “This is your fault, you know.”

  “Why?”

  “You and your dreams,” Linus said. “You asked me about going home to Wales. It started me thinking about what it would take to actually get there.”

  I wanted to jump in and cheer him on. He could totally make it. But something in his voice warned me not to overdo it. Instead, I said, “Hope is a weird thing.”

  “Yes, it is,” he said.

  I pictured him in the tower, still gazing out at a sky full of stars. I found the brightest star in my window and fixed my eyes on it.

  “You want to know something?” he asked.

  “Sure.”

  He spoke quietly, as if divulging a secret. “When I first saw you? I thought you were too good for this place.”

  I couldn’t figure out why he’d think so. “You mean that morning, behind the art building?” I asked. “You didn’t even like me.”

  “No. Before that, when you first came to campus with the other new students,” he said. “You were different from the others. You kind of kept to yourself, watching everyone, and you hardly ever smiled. But you were polite, too. You thanked me for carrying your duffel.”

  “I did?”

  I hadn’t even noticed Linus then. That first day, I’d been so awed just to be at the school. I had been so conscious of the cameras, and so nervous about doing the wrong thing. I wished I had paid attention to him. We might have become friends sooner.

  “You’re still too good for this place,” he said.

  “Go on,” I said, smiling.

  “I mean it. Don’t forget that, Rosie,” he said. “Sweet dreams.”

  15

  THE NOOSE

  A SEA OF distinct, blueberry-like droplets of water is steadily rising, overlapping the dock where I stand. Above, the sky is a noxious violet. I’m barefoot on the planks, trying to retreat, but the strange water droplets lap up to clutch at my ankles, pinning me, and I can’t escape. The droplets swarm up at a vicious pace and as I inhale, they crowd into my mouth to drown me. Something pokes my ribs and I surface.

  Squarely into the dorm.

  “Are you okay?” Janice said. “You didn’t wake up.”

  I breathed hard and filled my lungs with precious air.

 
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