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The rule of mirrors, p.14
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.14

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “Almost home,” Diego said.

  At the next corner, we turned off the highway onto a private road.

  “At last,” Madeline said softly. “Would you look at the laurel.”

  Shrubs of blue flowers edged the road, which went on for another couple of miles before we slowed to pass through a security gate. As we came around a final bend, a wide, sunny valley opened up on my right, like a giant hand had scooped out a perfect bowl of earth and filled it with grasses and wildflowers. On a ledge overlooking the valley stood a huge, rambling house of wood and stone. I counted five chimneys. An enormous beech tree dropped dark shade over the front yard and the porch, where a beagle rose to its feet.

  “You didn’t tell me we lived in a castle,” I said as we pulled up.

  “It’s just an old farmhouse, really,” Madeline said. “We added on.”

  “Hey, girl. Hey Solana,” Diego said, getting out. “Look who’s back.”

  The dog trotted eagerly over to Diego. I smoothed my sweater over my belly, caught up my cane, and stepped out of the car.

  Madeline moved beside me and crouched down. “Solana, come here, girl! It’s Althea. Get over here and say hello.”

  The dog came over to sniff at my knees and sneakers, but she showed no special recognition.

  “It’s okay,” I said. I reached down to pat the dog’s soft head.

  “I don’t understand it,” Madeline said. “I thought she’d be ecstatic. She still sleeps at the foot of your bed.”

  A door slammed, and up on the porch, a dozen people came spilling out. They hurried down the steps, calling and laughing in welcome.

  “Althea!”

  “¡Bienvenida a casa!”

  “Really, Diego?” Madeline said.

  “Es nuestra familia,” Diego said. “What could I say?”

  Two dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins surrounded us, all laughing and talking at once. Most of them were Latino, like Diego, but a few were from Madeline’s side of the family, and all of them seemed bent on hugging me to death. Madeline tried to introduce people, but the names blurred together. Sunny and sassy, avuncular and intense, the different personalities were overwhelming. Aunts patted my belly and exclaimed over the baby, and a little boy cousin shyly gave me a homemade fuse bead star.

  The last person to claim me was a big, hulking man with a strong resemblance to Diego. Althea’s grandfather wore a hat and a button-down shirt, as if he’d dressed up to bring some dignity to the occasion, and when he calmly took my hand, his grasp warmed me through.

  “Mi corazoncita,” he said. “I’m so happy to have you home again! Let me see you.” He studied me openly. “Tell me honestly now,” he added. “How much do you remember?”

  Around us, the others grew quiet. I glanced awkwardly from one face to another.

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve never seen this place before. I don’t remember any of you.” A flicker of headache pulsed through my brain, and I squinted against the brightness.

  In the stillness, the little boy cousin tugged his mother’s skirt. “Can I have a popsicle yet?” he asked in a loud whisper.

  The others stirred again and smiled.

  “It’s all right,” Grampa said to me, patting my hand. “The heart knows where it belongs.”

  “Okay, everybody,” Madeline said. “Let’s give Althea a chance to settle in.”

  “That’s right,” added an aunt. “Food’s on. Aim for the kitchen.”

  The circle broke up, and the family began drifting back inside.

  Grampa offered me his elbow, and I shifted my cane so I could take his arm.

  “Have you talked to Tom?” he asked. We walked slowly up the steps into the soft shade of the porch.

  I shook my head.

  “I’m surprised the boy hasn’t shown up,” he said. “Maybe he’s learned some sense. If you need anything, you let me know, hear?”

  “Okay,” I said.

  “‘Yes, sir,’ you mean,” he said gently. “That’s how we do it here.”

  I gave him a quick look, but his expression was kind.

  “Okay. Yes, sir,” I said.

  He gave my hand another pat and released me as we stepped into the darker coolness of the house. He headed toward the kitchen, and I instinctively breathed deep, curious to see if the place might feel familiar in any way and awaken a trace of Althea inside me.

  The air was redolent with a mix of furniture polish, a tang of wood smoke, and the sweetness of baking brownies. Laughter and the clink of silverware carried from the back of the house. The driver came in with a couple of suitcases and headed up a wide staircase toward a landing with big, tall windows. On my right, in the living room, a bronze sculpture of a duck sat on a small table by the windows, and books were piled and tucked into every corner. Time-mellowed woodwork laced up to a high ceiling, and a soft, heirloom carpet in indigo and beige beckoned me to take off my shoes. Already I could see glimpses of a library, a solarium, and a music room.

  “This is beautiful,” I muttered, and stroked my hand along the back of a chair, liking the satiny wood. None of it was familiar.

  “It’s home,” Madeline said from behind me.

  I turned to see her taking a desultory pass through the mail on the hall table. She had a subtle new air about her, still commanding but more relaxed, like she’d arrived where she belonged.

  She glanced up at me and smiled. “Something here ought to resonate, don’t you think? Eventually? Even if it doesn’t, you can learn your memories again. That’s what Dr. Fallon said. Enough to get by and go forward.”

  “It wouldn’t be learning again. It would just be learning, the first time around,” I said.

  Her smile pinched at the corners. “We’re saying the same thing.”

  We weren’t, but I didn’t see the point of arguing. “Yes, ma’am.”

  She gave my arm a motherly squeeze. “Come get a bite to eat.”

  “I could use a minute to freshen up, actually,” I said.

  “Of course,” she said. “Head on up. Take your time, and I’ll see to the family. Your father’s right. We couldn’t keep them away, but they don’t have to stay forever, either. Solana, go with Althea. Go on.”

  Solana and I looked doubtfully at each other.

  “Hi, Solana,” I said. “Want to go find my room?”

  The dog wagged her tail. I pointed with my cane, and she bounded up the steps ahead of me. I had just reached the top of the stairs when I heard a commotion below and paused to look back.

  “Thea!” a guy called. “Thea! Where are you?”

  Solana gave a bark, barged past me, and scrambled down the stairs again. I held on to the bannister, peering over.

  Down below, a guy sank his hand into Solana’s furry neck, looked up my way, and froze. I stared in surprise. I recognized Tom instantly from his photos, but he was utterly different in real life. Whiplash energy coiled in his frame and bright, compelling eyes lit his face. A bolt of alertness shot through me.

  “Thea!” he said. “You’re actually here. I don’t believe this!”

  A man charged in from the side and tackled Tom out of sight.

  “Outside!” Diego yelled. “I don’t want you under my roof!”

  I came down the steps as fast as my legs would let me and found Tom backed against a wall, both his arms up, with Diego inches from his face.

  “I just want to talk to her,” Tom said.

  “I want you out!” Diego gave him another shove.

  Tom shot his gaze to me. “Thea, come outside with me. I’m not going to fight your father.”

  Diego packed a jab into Tom’s gut, and with an Oof! Tom folded over.

  “Thea!” Tom said.

  I was shocked by Diego’s sudden violence, but even more, I was stunned by my reaction to Tom. A foreign sense of urgency, a deep, reaching awareness syphoned all of my attention toward him. I was riveted by the turn of his neck and the ruddy color in his cheek as he glanced up at me from his
pained position.

  Diego hauled Tom toward the front door and delivered another punch to his gut. I winced in vicarious pain. A swarm of men rushed in from the kitchen and pulled Tom and Diego apart. The rest of the family flooded in, too, shouting questions.

  “For heaven’s sake,” Madeline said. “Get ahold of yourself, Diego!”

  “I don’t want him under my roof!” Diego bellowed.

  Tom shook off the men who were holding him and strode outside.

  I started after him.

  Diego caught my arm. My cane clattered to the floor. “You don’t have to talk to him,” he said. His chest was heaving. “I’ll kick his mangy butt off the property. You just got home and already! Already it begins!”

  “I want to hear what he has to say,” I said. “Let go of me.”

  Diego only held tighter. He shook his head, back and forth, like a bulldog that refuses to negotiate. “He’s going to twist you up. He always does. He’s going say things that make you think we’re the bad guys, me and your mother, and that’s the last thing we need right now. The last stinking thing this family needs.”

  “Would you let go?” I said fiercely, tugging against his painful grip. “I’m not stupid.”

  He released me suddenly. He glared at me a long, conflicted moment, and then his lips closed in a hard line. “You might not be stupid, but look at you. What’s he doing to you already?”

  I didn’t know. Some new excitement buzzed in my veins, and I wasn’t surprised that it showed. I turned to look toward the doorway, where sunlight gleamed beyond the porch, beckoning. “I’m just going to talk to him,” I said.

  A dozen worried people surrounded us, but no one spoke. In the silence, Grampa bent over to pick up my cane.

  “You said yourself you don’t know anyone here,” Diego said to me. “But we know you, and we know him, too. Trust me. You don’t need to talk to him. Listen to me, please, this once.”

  “I am listening,” I said. “But it’s my life now. Mine to make my own mistakes with or not.”

  “You’re killing us,” Diego said. “Tell her, Madeline.”

  But Madeline only shook her head. I’m not sure I would have heard her speak, anyway. The feverish curiosity in me was burning with a life of its own, lighting me up inside and drawing me toward Tom. I had to answer it for my own sake as much as his.

  “Unbelievable,” Diego said. He turned on his heel and elbowed through the others.

  I took my cane from Grampa, passed out the front door to the porch, and paused at the steps, wondering at the churning that charged my pulse. It had nothing to do with logic.

  Tom stood in the shade of the big beech in the yard, facing away, toward a breathtaking view of the valley. The leaves were a dark, purply red, and the trunk was a melting gray color that seemed to pour downward rather than grow out of the ground. Together, Tom and the distant horizon and the tree created a striking, eternal picture. A splash of sunlight dropped through the leaves and lit up the shoulder of his shirt, and when he turned to face me, every cell in my body calibrated to a new hum.

  My cane made a hollow noise on the wooden steps as I started down. Behind me, I heard the movement of a dozen people, and then the distinctive ratchet noise of a rifle being cocked.

  “Upset her in any way, boy, and I’ll shoot you dead,” Diego said clearly.

  “Thanks, Dad,” I said. “I’ll take it from here.”

  18

  THEA

  MAROON

  I STRODE SLOWLY DOWN TO TOM, and I tried with each measured placement of my cane to still the adrenaline in my veins. Behind me, my pseudo-father, who had seemed so sensitive and gentle at Chimera, had just demonstrated a shocking capacity for violence. I wasn’t sure what to make of any of it.

  “Don’t mind my father,” I said. “He doesn’t mean anything with the gun.”

  “Except he does,” Tom said. “He’d love to shoot my nuts off.”

  Up close, Althea’s boyfriend was nothing like the easy, adoring guy in his photos. In a faded plaid shirt over loose-fitting, dusty jeans, the real Tom was taller and leaner. The dappled shade made each detail of him vivid, from his worn, scuffed boots to a blotchy freckle on his collarbone. His short hair was lighter than I had expected, and softer looking. His blue eyes were harder.

  “Did he hurt you?” I asked.

  “No.” He wiped the corner of his mouth and nodded toward my cane and my belly. “How are you?”

  I smoothed a hand down my blue sweatshirt. “Not bad. I’m awake and pregnant.”

  “I see. And the baby?”

  “Healthy.”

  He peered at me with grim, unnerving directness. “You were essentially dead,” he said. “You know that, right? What did your parents do to you?”

  “They managed to get me out of a coma,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

  He closed his eyes for a moment and opened them again with a pained expression. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You would not believe how many times I’ve imagined talking to you again, and now I don’t know what to say.”

  “You’re happy to see me?” I suggested.

  He winced briefly and then gave a slow, crooked smile. “Yes. Of course. I’m sorry. Do over?”

  My heart gave a tiny kick. “Sure.”

  He pointed toward the road. “Want to walk to the stables? Can you go that far?”

  For a moment, I considered the risk of getting to know him at all. I wasn’t here to pose as Althea in her old life. I wanted to get well enough to go find Rosie, and Tom could only be a complication. Still, there was something bluntly compelling about him.

  I smiled. “Let’s find out,” I said.

  I glanced back toward the house, expecting Diego to still be armed on the porch, but he had gone inside with everyone except Grampa, who was settled in a wicker chair. He tipped his hat and shook out a newspaper. I waved back.

  Tom and I soon left the road for a dirt lane that was bordered by laurel, and each tiny bell of blue petals was a perfect witness to our awkwardness. He said politely that he was glad I was back. I thanked him. I felt self-conscious with my cane. Tom’s stride, matched to mine, was hardly less stilted. An empty paddock beside the barn was fenced in white. A muted clanking came from inside the barn. Above, a greenish copper vane of a running horse pointed west into the breeze, and I breathed deep. After months of confinement, it was heaven.

  “It’s so pretty,” I said.

  “Yes.”

  In the open door of the barn, I paused at the smell of horseflesh. I held my breath and gazed down a row of horses, huge and dark in their stalls. When I breathed again, the scent magnified into a noxious mix of sweat, hay, and manure. I turned instead for the paddock.

  “Are you okay?” Tom asked, following me.

  “The smell’s too strong in there,” I said, unzipping my sweatshirt.

  “Can I get you anything?” Tom asked. “Do you want to sit?”

  “No,” I said. “I’m totally fine. My sense of smell’s just sharper than it used to be.” I took a few more steps toward the white fence and focused on the pure air. The riding ring inside the fence was carpeted with overturned clods of rich, dark earth.

  “I feel like I should do something for you,” he said.

  I smiled. “You can’t, really.”

  “This is weird,” he said. “Isn’t it weird to be back here together?”

  “It’s weird period,” I said.

  “What’s it like to be pregnant?”

  I laughed. “It’s like having a whole new body. It’s like being taken over by an alien who loves to kick your bladder. Sometimes it’s actually kind of wonderful, but more often it’s terrifying.”

  He nodded, watching me closely. “I want you to know I plan to be a good father,” he said. “That’s why I came. To tell you that. And I’ll do whatever it takes to support the baby.”

  “You don’t have to do anything.”

  “Yeah, but I do. And I’m sorry,” he said. “
I’m sorry for everything. Fighting with you, and then signing off on the baby. I only did it because I thought it would help. You realize that, don’t you?”

  “Help how?” I asked. “I’m not sure what you’re saying.”

  He braced a hand on the top rail of the fence and frowned toward the valley. When he looked over at me again, his eyes were deeply troubled. “Okay. You have to know what bad shape you were in after the accident. I couldn’t stand to see you suffer anymore. I thought signing off as the baby’s father was a technicality I had to agree to before the doctors would pull the plug on you. Then your parents claimed guardianship of the baby and used your pregnancy to justify keeping you alive.”

  “They never told me this,” I said. “Is that even legal?”

  “They were already calling the shots for you,” he said. “The baby just made their position stronger. I wasn’t going to fight them at that point.”

  “Let me get this straight,” I said. “You wanted me to die?”

  “You were already dead, Thea,” he said. “You were just a body barely breathing. For weeks you were like that, and you weren’t getting better. The only sound you ever made was a tiny, guttural whimpering sometimes. It was the most heartbreaking sound. That’s when I wanted to let you die. Was I wrong?”

  I had to see the irony of him asking me this, except I wasn’t Althea who had survived. In the end, her consciousness was gone. “I don’t know,” I said. “If I had died, the baby would have died, too.”

  “I know. That ripped me up. Believe me,” Tom said. “But it was cruel to keep you alive and suffering for the baby’s sake, especially when you’d never even wanted it.”

  “I didn’t want the baby?”

  He tilted his head, and then his voice dropped low. “They didn’t tell you.”

  Althea didn’t want this baby. The idea blew my mind. I’d thought since she was Catholic, she had wanted her baby.

 
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