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The vault of dreamers, p.14
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.14

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  Janice tipped her head, frowning at me. “Could something be wrong with your sleep meds?” she said.

  “No, I’m good.” The last of the blue droplets trickled away, taking the fear with them. “I’m good,” I said more certainly.

  “If you say so,” she said.

  I didn’t believe in trying to interpret dreams. Nightmares, either. Nevertheless, I got the impression my subconscious was not entirely at ease.

  A bit later, when I went over for breakfast, I looked for Linus, but Franny told me he was out running errands for the chef. Afterward, I collected a few of the cameras I’d posted around campus so I could check out the footage in Media Convergence. The morning was clear and cool enough that I half wished I’d worn jeans instead of a skirt.

  I was retrieving a camera from the graveyard when Burnham walked out of the IMGD building. The early sunlight streamed in behind him and highlighted the artful mess of his hair, making me wonder if he just naturally looked cool all the time, or if he had to work at it. Our non-friendship was like an itchy scab I couldn’t resist picking at.

  “Hi, Burnham,” I said.

  He slowed on the other side of the spiky iron fence. “Good morning, Rosie.”

  “You heading to the library?” I asked, coming through the gate.


  We fell into synch walking together, but with enough space for an elephant between us.

  “I love these intimate exchanges we have,” I said. “Don’t hold back.”

  “I was never mad at you,” Burnham said. “I don’t like being misunderstood.”

  “You called me a manipulator.”

  “But I wasn’t mad.”

  “What was that, then? A calm opinion?”

  “It was a mistake,” he said. “I apologize.”

  I turned fully in his direction, astounded. He looked perfectly serious.

  “Where is this sorriness coming from all of a sudden?” I asked.

  “My brother told me I was a tool,” he said.

  I let out a laugh. Other students ahead of us were taking the steps into the library, and Henrik gave us a curious glance.

  “Let’s hear it for brothers,” I said. “This is the same one who told you about my conversation with Linus? When I hatched my masterly, diabolical scheme?”

  “Same brother,” Burnham said. “Are we good?”

  I wouldn’t have minded a little more explanation and groveling, to be honest. It would have been just fine with me if he took back that “awkward” insult.

  “Sure,” I said.

  “Great.” He strode into the library ahead of me.

  Guys. It was so tempting to generalize about them. But Burnham was one of a kind, and he mystified me.

  Down in the basement classroom, I picked a computer as far from him as possible and unloaded my cameras. It was not a good idea to watch the one from my wardrobe. If it had caught any suspicious activity, I would rather discover that in secret, which meant I would have to view it at night, in my sleep shell.

  I lined up four of my other cameras on the counter and advanced each one to six o’clock the night before, when all of us students went to bed. The quad camera showed the campus growing dimmer as the sun went down, but very few people were about. A few techies and a cleaning crew went by, and then a security guy in a slow-moving golf cart. The attic camera showed the lights going off on different floors of the dean’s tower until only the fifth floor was lit. Shortly after midnight, that went dark, too. Later, lights went on in the dean’s penthouse, and still later, in the background behind Otis’s lookout tower, an ice cream truck arrived at the loading dock of the dining hall.

  It was all painfully dull.

  I slumped my chin into my hand, my elbow on the table, bummed that I didn’t have a faster, more efficient way to watch the footage. Henrik and Paige were playing Ping-Pong. Janice had taken a computer beside Burnham, and other students were working, too. Mr. DeCoster was back in his corner with his pistachios.

  “I need to go out and put my cameras back up,” I said to him.

  Mr. DeCoster glanced up. “What are you working on?”

  “I’m looking for ghosts,” I said.

  He tossed a shell at his coffee cup and missed. “You believe in ghosts?” he asked.

  “I don’t, but I want to look for them,” I said. “It’s a fruitless quest, fraught with failure.”

  He nodded slowly. “I suppose you’ve got the graveyard.”


  “You might try the observatory,” he added.

  “I already put a camera on the roof.”

  “Inside is where you want to go,” Mr. DeCoster said. “One of the old-timers hanged himself in there. If I were a ghost, that’s where I’d be.”

  Funny way of putting it.

  “How can I get in there?” I asked. “It’s locked.”

  “One sec.” Mr. DeCoster sat up and touched a finger to his earphone. “Sandy? Who would have a key to the observatory?” He glanced toward the windows, frowning absently. “Okay.” He leaned back. “Dean Berg can meet you there.”

  “Himself? What, now?” I asked.

  “You want to go in, right? He’ll be there in five minutes.”

  It was weird to think of going to the observatory with Dean Berg. I couldn’t guess why he would drop everything to help me personally, but I couldn’t exactly argue.

  “Okay,” I said.

  “Go on, then,” Mr. DeCoster said. “The dean should have a good perspective for your project. He knows everything about the school, onstage and off, forward and back.”

  I collected my cameras in my backpack and headed out.

  * * *

  I passed the lookout tower as I strolled down the sheep pasture. It spiked up against the sky, and as usual, Otis was working the big black eye of a camera lens toward me. I was more curious about him now that I knew he was Linus’s landlord and vampire. Or Parker was. When I waved, he lifted a hand back.

  Grasses at either side of the path skimmed my shins, and I covered my eyes to squint down the pasture. The sheep were absent today, but a gray cat lay in the road to Forgetown. As I rounded the corner of the observatory, the area near the door was vacant, so I turned back toward the pasture to look for Dean Berg. He had said five minutes, but I knew important adults had trouble keeping time, so I sank down to wait on the sunny gravel path that circled the observatory.

  Farther downhill, Forgetown huddled beneath its water tower, with prairie stretching out in either direction. I pulled out my video camera and panned the little town from left to right. A man was hanging laundry on a line, and a pair of people were working on the solar panels of the dairy barn. I had no way of telling where Linus lived, but I picked a yellow house with gray shutters and imagined it was his.

  I swiveled to aim my camera back toward campus and focused in on the clock tower. The Roman numerals were sharply vivid, and so were the carved letters of the school motto. Dream Hard. Work Harder. Shine. I always liked the way a dream was either a hope to be longed for, or an elusive flight of sleep.

  “Hello. Sorry to keep you waiting,” Dean Berg said. “Something always seems to hold me up.”

  I scrambled to my feet and dusted off the back of my skirt. “That’s okay.”

  I stashed my camera in my backpack while he pulled a ring of old-fashioned metal keys out of his pocket.

  Appearance wise, Dean Berg always struck me as blandly forgettable, and now I tried to figure out why. He was a fit, plain man somewhere in his early forties, I guessed. Carefully trimmed, sandy-blond hair, pale eyebrows, and soft-looking, ruddy cheeks gave him a healthy, tidy look. He wore a green tie with ducks on it, a tweed jacket, and the obligatory earphone. Altogether, he was the last person I would suspect of masterminding anything, but when I recalled his phone call I’d overheard, I knew his looks were deceiving.

  The trick was going to be acting like I didn’t know anything.

  “How are you liking Forge?”
he asked in a friendly voice. “Does it live up to your expectations?”

  “Yes. It’s great.”

  “I understand you’re looking for ghosts,” he said.

  “It probably sounds a little silly,” I said.

  “I’ve learned to go with our students’ ideas. You never know where they might lead. This, let me tell you, is one of my favorite old buildings on campus.” He pointed the key toward the door. “Just give me a minute to be sure the cameras are up and running inside so our viewers can come along with us. Wait here,” he said, and pushed open the door.

  I stood on the threshold while he disappeared into the dark space. A moment later, lights flickered on, accompanied by a flapping noise, and Dean Berg was talking into his earphone. “Bones? We good here? How about to my right?” He called back out to me. “Rosie? Come on in.”

  I stepped in slowly, scanning around the cramped, stuffy interior. The space was smaller than I’d expected, with large, boxy computers crowding in from the walls, and a narrow staircase that led up to the telescope platform. The black, cylindrical machine was aimed directly upward, like a stubby rocket set to launch. I felt a faint, interior shimmer of familiarity, as if I’d been here before, and then I went up the steps. The interior of the dome, above, was a dark, steel color, and another fluttering noise startled me.

  “Wouldn’t you know. Doves,” Dean Berg said. He touched his earphone. “Bones? Ask Leroy to send over a work crew, will you? They’ll need to find and patch the hole. See if they can relocate the nest outside.”

  Guided by a mess of droppings that streaked one wall, I peered up to a ledge where the dome met its lower circle. The nest explained why the stuffiness had a tinge of feathery rot to it. A bird flapped its wings loudly and then darted out of sight. My déjà vu of familiarity grew more intense.

  I stayed near the telescope while Dean Berg paced around the lower circle.

  “I remember when the astronomer hanged himself,” he said. “A terrible pity. It happened during my first year here as dean. Clarence Smith, his name was. He was nearing a hundred.”

  A cool shiver slipped along my skin, and I looked up again, instinctively searching for a likely hook or beam for a noose. Without effort, my imagination summoned an image of an old man in black, hanging straight and still, his shoes tugging at his limp feet. I could even picture his knobby ankles.

  “What was he like?” I asked, and I half knew how the dean would answer.

  “He was a quiet man. Kept to himself,” Dean Berg said. “No family to speak of. He loved the stars, though. He told me many times that making you all sleep so long was an egregious mistake. He said you would miss the night.”

  “He was right,” I said.

  “Unfortunately, there’s no way around that,” he said, still pacing.

  “I suppose not,” I said.

  He tapped his key on the lower railing, and the pinging grated on my ears.

  “You’re an interesting student, Rosie,” the dean said. “You’re an observer by nature. We have that in common, actually.”

  “I just want to make films,” I said.

  “I notice you aren’t filming now,” he said. “Do you want to set up one of your cameras?”

  I didn’t want to. The space was feeling claustrophobic. Lights flickered at the edge of my vision as if I’d stood up too fast, and my sense of déjà vu grew stronger. “Can we open the dome, do you think?” I asked. I needed light and air.

  Dean Berg pointed to the telescope before me. “There should be a button.”

  To my right was a panel of buttons and switches, so old they had punch-labels on them. Half of the labels had buckled or fallen off, but one green button said OPEN on it. I tried it, looking up expectantly. Nothing happened. My déjà vu told me the failure was entirely normal.

  “It doesn’t work,” I said. My voice was both muffled and echoey.

  “There’s probably a master switch somewhere,” Dean Berg said.

  I didn’t see one. I didn’t know where to look. The air seemed thicker than ever.

  The dean’s voice dropped to a low, dragged-out bass. “Don’t you want to know where the astronomer killed himself?” he asked.

  I couldn’t have heard him correctly. His question was too bizarre. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure he’d spoken at all.

  My déjà vu might have supplied his words.

  “Excuse me?” I said.

  “Rosie? Are you all right?” The dean’s voice came from far away.

  I didn’t want to know where the body was. I wanted to get out of there. I shook my head, but at the same time, I was busy anticipating the next thing he would say.

  “Can’t you guess where we found the body?” whispered through my mind.

  As if compelled by a deep command within me, I lifted my gaze upward, expecting to see a gray knuckle of a hook for a noose, but before I could locate it around the rim of the dome, a sudden dizziness hit me. I reached for the stair railing to catch my balance, but missed. I lurched forward, grabbing blindly, and gripped a knob on the telescope, just barely. Sweating and unsteady, I held on tight and closed my eyes.

  “Rosie!” Dean Berg said sharply.

  I focused all my energy into my grip, fighting to stay conscious. I could feel the dead man’s invisible feet overlapping with my face, stifling my nose and mouth so I couldn’t breathe. Gravity shifted sideways.

  A quick noise came behind me on the stairs.

  “Come here,” Dean Berg said.

  Stars exploded behind my eyelids in spikes of pain. The dean’s arm came around my waist. I tried to pull away from him, but he held me tighter just as I lost balance completely. I pitched forward, and he caught me hard. My knees gave out from under me, but the dean, with surprising strength, lifted me in his arms and carried me swiftly outside.

  “Bones, send Dr. Ash,” the dean said. Then to me, as he set me on the doorstep, “Steady on. Have a seat. Keep your head down. Let’s get this off.”

  He helped me out of my backpack and I leaned forward over my knees.

  My head was still swimming, and I focused on breathing. Dimly, I registered that Dean Berg was talking into his earphone, calling again for Dr. Ash. I had never come close to fainting before now. My fingers were trembling, and my throat felt tight. The dean was asking me questions, but I couldn’t reply. I was too busy watching the gravel between my shoes, trying to stay conscious, and at the same time, my heavy head felt like I was stuffing a roomful of feathers into a small, airless breadbox.

  “Let’s get you to the infirmary,” the dean said.



  DR. ASH’S EXAM of me was thorough, but she found nothing to explain my sudden faintness. She noted my reflexes were a little slow, but she wouldn’t say whether that was a cause or an effect. She suggested I might have been dehydrated and advised me to eat well. Stress, she said, could cause unexpected symptoms.

  “I don’t faint,” I said.

  “Maybe not,” Dr. Ash said. “But you came close to it today. I suggest you take it easy for a day or two. I wouldn’t take up any new activities that require a lot of balance, like tightrope walking or bouldering. Not until you’re feeling better.”

  “I’m feeling better now,” I said. “It was just stuffy in the observatory. Some doves had a nest in there.”

  I didn’t tell her about the déjà vu.

  She smiled. “Fortunately, there’s no need to go back in there.”

  She made me promise to come see her the minute I felt any dizziness again, and I was out of there.

  * * *

  I’d missed my Masters class, but I made it to Space on time, and I spent the rest of the morning studying solar flares with my classmates. I tried not to think about how weird my time with Dean Berg had been. My group was doing a report on the Flare of 2032, which had started wildfires on three continents, fried two-thirds of the telecommunications satellites, and disrupted half the cell phone service in the Northern Hemisphere
for over three months. On the plus side, it saved the landline phone industry and instigated an international medical alliance on solar radiation poisoning and related cancers. One of the students in my group, a girl named Rebecca with sturdy knees and blue-tipped hair, wanted to turn our report into an interpretive dance. I finally gave up trying to tell her we were in a math/science class.

  At lunch, Linus was out on the terrace of the dining hall, serving ice cream for students with Franny and another staffer. They all wore cheery red bib aprons for the occasion, and Linus put his arm into the work of scooping. He passed me a big bowl of chocolate-chunk-coffee-cinnamon-swirl and abandoned his post when I came through the line.

  “Where are you going?” Franny asked him.

  “Shirking, obviously,” Linus said.

  “I can see that,” Franny said. “For how long?”

  “Long enough to drive you mad, love,” Linus said, and took a second bowlful for himself.

  I caught Franny shaking her head and fighting a smile.

  Linus and I strolled over to one of the benches under a tree, where Linus straddled one end and I sat normally, so I could keep my short skirt decent. Students relaxed in clusters on the lawn while a campus tour group passed by. The day had warmed up considerably, and the cool sweetness of the ice cream was pure heaven in my mouth.

  “How’s the dizziness?” he asked.

  “Gone completely,” I said, and licked my spoon. “I’m fine.”

  “What happened?”

  “I don’t really want to talk about it.” On camera.

  “Right,” he said.

  A couple of guys with bongo drums started playing across the quad, which was all the invitation Paige and a couple other dancers needed to head over and start improvising. I was happy talking with Linus and watching the lithe figures as they bent and twirled over the grass. This was what I’d hoped Forge would be like, and in the brightness of a sunny day, I could almost forget about Dean Berg and my nighttime anxieties.

  “Where’s your camera?” Linus asked “Don’t you want to film them?”

  I shook my head. “Sometimes its better to live in the moment.”

  As we finished eating, he took my bowl and set it with his in the grass.

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