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The rule of mirrors, p.15
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.15

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  I was only alive now, standing by this fence, because Althea had been pregnant when she went into a coma. However bizarrely I’d come to exist in Althea’s body, I owed this baby my latest life. I didn’t know why this news shifted the debt I felt, but it infused it with sadness, and somehow, it gave me a different ownership of this fetus within me. We needed each other more than ever.

  Tom was watching me thoughtfully. “You look confused.”

  “I am. It’s a lot to take in,” I said. “Are you Catholic, too?”

  “Yes,” he said. “How much do you remember from your life before?”

  “Nothing,” I said.

  His eyes narrowed. “But you can talk and everything just fine. Your mind’s working like normal.”

  “Not exactly normal,” I said. “I don’t remember any details from my life before.”

  “Are you saying you don’t remember me?”

  Nerves swirled in my gut. “I’m sorry,” I said slowly. “I don’t.”

  He let out a snort. “You might be mad at me or whatever, but you couldn’t forget about us.”

  “Don’t try to tell me what I know,” I said.

  “Then don’t talk crap,” he said.

  I braced my cane and faced him directly. “I don’t think you get it. I have a brain injury.”

  “Forget brains,” he said. “I know about this.”

  I half expected him to grab me like some macho dude, and I was ready to shove him off, but instead, he skimmed a finger over the back of my hand. I gripped my cane harder, stunned by the feathered tingling that ran along my skin. With a shock, I found his lips close to mine. I caught my breath.

  “Remember me now?” he whispered.

  I shook my head slightly.

  “Not now?” he asked, and dovetailed his fingers lightly over mine.

  My cane dropped away. My body, which had been a sluggish, uncooperative partner in my existence ever since I’d woken up in it, now electrified with sensitivity.

  “Still no,” I said.

  He laughed softly. “Yeah, right.” And then he kissed me.

  I locked my knees. His pressure was tender and light. Different. A tiny desperate flag in the back of my mind warned me this was a mistake, but I ignored it. When I almost closed my eyes, he held back slightly, and it took me a sec to realize he was waiting for me to lean in, like this was a dance and I had a choice. I leaned in, touching a hand to his chest for balance. It turned out he knew exactly how to match his lips to my new ones. I tilted into him even more, riding instinct, and Tom’s mouth moved easily with mine.

  “Um,” I mumbled. That was not supposed to be so good.

  He held still, his chin half an inch away.

  “Don’t say you’ve forgotten me,” he said. “You couldn’t be that mean.”

  I lifted my gaze to his. My heart was still pounding with eager, visceral certainty, and I took a break from strict honesty.

  “It’s possible some small, unreasoning part of me remembers you,” I said.

  “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said, smiling.

  He slid his arms loosely around me so my curved belly fit against him. My shirt met his. I pressed my tender lips together and glanced over his shoulder toward the barn, wary of onlookers. The warning flag in my mind kicked in again and produced a name—Linus—but before I could formulate a coherent thought, Tom dipped near to kiss me again. This time, he brought a teasing kind of heat, and I tapped my palms against his shoulders, uncertain whether I ought to hold him off or swallow him whole.

  “Okay. Let’s go to my place,” he said. He scooped my cane off the ground, pulled me against his side in a supportive way, and turned us toward the road.

  “What, now?”

  “Have you got a better idea, genius?”

  No matter how much I liked kissing Tom, I had just met him. The Linus flag prickled into a stab of guilt, too. I didn’t know where I stood with Linus, but he still had the ability to make me miserable and confused, which had to count for something.

  My mind still likes Linus. My body is all about Tom.

  “Whatever you’re thinking, I don’t like it,” Tom said.

  “It’s my first day back.”

  His eyebrow lifted. “How right you are.” He gave my hand a little tug.

  “Have we always had this—?” I didn’t know what to call it. We were somehow already back in each other’s arms. My shirt felt clingy and hot.

  “Much fun?” he said, smiling sideways. “No. It took you a while to catch on.”

  Before he could kiss me again, I extricated myself and took back my cane. Then I had to take off my sweatshirt because I was still too hot. I felt ridiculous.

  “I would like to have some basic information about our relationship,” I said.

  “I’d say you just had a pretty good sample there, darlin’.”

  “I’m serious,” I said. I brokered some real space between us. “I want to know how we met and where we started this baby.”

  He rubbed a hand along his jaw. “I could make up something here, couldn’t I? And you wouldn’t know the difference.”

  He was evil.

  “Fine,” I said, turning for the lane. “Don’t tell me. I’m heading back.”

  He fell into step beside me and gently took my sweatshirt for me. “Tell me if this rings any bells. We met in eighth grade,” he said. “I was a year older, but I got held back, and they put me in your class. We had math together.”

  “Why’d you get held back?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I didn’t apply myself,” he said. “You had this dark purple hoodie you always wore, and your fingernails were all black and chewed up. You were cool, in other words. We got put in this group project together about polynomials, and you kept calling me a ‘maroon’ just under your breath.”

  “The color? How nice for you.”

  “It was an insult, believe me. But it beat having you ignore me.”

  To our right, we had a view of the valley, and cloud shadows were moving slowly over the landscape, turning it dark in patches. Tom broke off a branch of laurel and balanced the stem on his palm.

  “Don’t tell me we started going out in eighth grade,” I said.

  “Gross. No,” he said, smiling. “You asked how we met.”

  I laughed. “So then what?”

  “Things changed fall of junior year,” he said. “We had math together again, and you started up the same old routine. ‘Get your stinking boots out of my face, Maroon,’ you’d say all quiet. I’d be like, ‘What? What did I do to you?’”

  “Why was I so mean?” I said, pausing to face him.

  “That’s what I wondered. You weren’t like that to anybody else,” he said. “You were out of the hoodies by then. You walked proud, like you owned Texas, and that’s when I developed my curse.”

  “What curse?”

  He picked apart the flower. I noticed that his sideburns were slightly darker than the rest of his hair. Maybe he was blushing, too.

  “Five seconds before you came through the door, any door, I would feel you coming,” he said. “I’d look up, and there you’d be, every single time. You’d catch me staring like I’d been waiting for you the whole time.”

  “Oh, no,” I said.

  He brushed a hand back through his hair. “It gets worse,” he said. “You could have laughed at me. Instead, you’d just shake your head, like Really, Maroon? Again? I didn’t have to say a word. You knew exactly how bad I had it. It was humiliating. And worst of all? You quit teasing me.”

  “Poor Tom,” I said, smiling.

  “Exactly. You pitied me.” He dropped the last shreds of the laurel to the road and stepped on them.

  Pathetic as it was, I was glad he was telling me the whole story. “So what happened then?” I asked.

  He glanced up to study me, all irony gone. “One night, I was riding home late from work when my motorcycle broke down. It was raining and cold. I couldn’t leave my bike, so I was
pushing it along the road. Then a truck slowed down in front of me, and it was you.”

  “Of course it was.” For the first time, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the real Althea, not just the daughter of Diego and Madeline. “Did I offer you a ride?”

  “Yes, except I didn’t want help from you,” he said. “You got out and practically dragged my bike into your truck yourself. ‘You should have called me,’ you yelled. And I was like, ‘What? You never would have come.’ And you were like, ‘How stupid can you be, Tom?’ I had no idea what you were saying. I got in your truck, and my boots smeared black mud all over your floor. I expected you to yell at me about that, but no. And then I saw you were crying. I was like, crap. I didn’t know what to do.”

  “What was wrong with me?” I asked.

  “You really don’t remember?”

  I shook my head. “Tell me,” I said.

  “I asked you to pull over and tell me what was wrong,” he said. “Turns out your collie, Gizmo, had been sick. Terminal. That night, you took him to the all-night vet to have him put down. His collar with the little name tag was right there on the dashboard, getting cold.”

  I could easily imagine a collar there, with the windshield wipers going and the ticking of the rain. “That is so sad,” I said.

  “Here’s the thing,” Tom added. “You went to the vet by yourself, without your parents. They had a party that night. Some fundraiser. They couldn’t be bothered.”

  I stared at him. “That is not okay.”

  “I know,” he said. “You told me about holding Gizmo for his final breaths, and then you started crying for real. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t dare to put my arm around you, but you leaned into me a little, and then you just let go.” He wedged the toe of his boot against the crushed laurel. “I’d never seen a girl cry like that,” he said quietly. “It’s strange, telling you this. We never talked about it.”

  “Is that when you became friends?”

  He shot me a curious glance. “You mean us? We were never friends in the normal way, but after that, you weren’t quite as mean to me. We started hanging out.”

  “Why was I still mean to you at all?”

  “It was so obvious,” he said. “We could never be even.”

  “Even, how?” I asked.

  “We knew it was only a matter of time before you’d break my heart,” he said.

  He spoke simply, as if this was a given. I hardly knew what to think.

  He smiled at my expression. “You asked for the truth.”

  “And when did all this begin?” I asked, and stroked a hand down my belly.

  He glanced once more at me sideways and then aimed his gaze toward the valley. “You said you wanted to do it with someone you could trust before you went to college.”

  “We only did it once?”

  “Ah, no,” he said, and started walking again. His cheeks were definitely ruddy now.

  “A couple times, then?” I asked, strolling beside him with my cane.

  “Not exactly.”

  “How’d I get pregnant?” I asked.

  “Classic faulty condom. As in, it never made it out of my pocket.” He cleared his throat. “There you have it. The whole story.”

  Not quite. There was still the question of how I ended up on his motorcycle in the rain, but I got the feeling that would be best left for another day.

  “What did you do after my accident?” I asked. “Did you start college?”

  “No. I’ve been working for my dad, helping out at the ranch. I’ve been teaching a little karate, too. Dad’s had some heart trouble. Lots of trips to the doctors. He’s okay for now.”

  “Do you live nearby?” I asked.

  “On the other side of Holdum. Not far.” He watched me thoughtfully. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

  I shook my head. I felt a little guilty getting his whole story when I really wasn’t Althea. “I need to tell you something,” I said, pausing on the lane again. “It’s going to be difficult to take in. I’m not really Althea anymore. During my surgery at Chimera, they implanted a dream seed into me from someone else. My mind really belongs to another girl, Rosie Sinclair. You can look her up. She was on The Forge Show.”

  “Your grandfather told me you might say something like this.”

  “He told you?”

  “Yeah. When he warned me to stay away.”

  I was surprised, but also kind of relieved. “But you still told me all that about you and Althea.”

  “Well,” Tom said slowly, “even if it’s possible that you have a new mind, this is who you are now, right?”

  “I guess,” I said. I hadn’t really expected that he would accept me as I am. I looked at him again, impressed. “I’m going to try to find my original body as soon as I can. She might need me.”

  “And then what?”

  I hadn’t thought that far. “I don’t know.”

  I idly slid my hand down my belly, and just then, I felt another kick inside. It was like a gurgly stomach, but deliberate, and the nudge registered against the palm of my hand.

  “Want to feel something?” I asked.

  “Is the baby moving?”

  I nodded. Tom stepped nearer. I guided his hand to the right place and held it there. I watched as he focused gravely, waiting, and the warmth of his palm penetrated the fabric of my shirt to my belly. A moment later, the rolling feeling came again, and Tom jumped.

  “Hey!” he said, laughing. “That is totally wild.”

  I smiled. “I know.”

  “Little monster. Wow.”

  He returned his hand to my belly, more confident this time. I’d been examined and prodded by a million people in the last few weeks, but this was different. This was a personal touch shared by my baby’s dad and our child and me, together for the first time. When the baby poked again, Tom’s eyes filled with wonder.

  “This little fighter has beat every odd,” he said softly. “You know that, right?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  “I can help you raise him or her.”

  Raise the baby. At one level, I had known that this infant would be born into the world and need diapers and food and parenting. I’d heard the heartbeat and held the sonogram photo. I’d started a list of names. Yet now it suddenly felt a lot more real. This was a person who would command relationships. He or she would bind me to other family. Permanently.

  I reached blindly for my sweatshirt and put it on.

  “Thea?” he said.

  This was a baby I was having, not a temporary glitch in my life. A baby would completely derail my connection to Rosie and my old life.

  “What am I doing?” I muttered.

  My mind was racing. I shifted away and zipped up my sweatshirt. What options did I have? It was far too late for an abortion even if I wanted one, and I didn’t. That meant childbirth. For real. After that, who would raise the kid? Me? Unthinkable.

  I was sixteen! I’d had a life of my own and dreams and a future! Althea had lost her life, but I didn’t have to lose mine, too, did I? I wanted to have the baby. Of course I did. But I didn’t want to have it, too.

  They would all hate me if I put my baby up for adoption.

  “I’m not ready to be a mother,” I whispered and instantly clapped my hand over my mouth. I glanced up at Tom, ashamed, and then I felt a surge of defiance. “I’m not!”

  He looked startled. “Take it easy, Thea. I just said you don’t have to do this alone. That’s what I came to tell you.”

  “What do you mean?”

  He put a gentle hand on my arm. “My proposal still stands,” he said. “I get that things are complicated, but that doesn’t change anything for me. Nothing could.”

  I stared while the meaning of his bizarre words sank in. I had to steady my grip on my cane. “You want to marry me,” I said.

  “That’s the idea.”

  It would have been funny if it wasn’t so horribly sad.

  “I just told you I
’m somebody else,” I said quietly. “I don’t even remember you. How can you possibly want to marry me? What do you think marriage is?”

  His eyes flashed oddly as he released me.

  “No. Don’t answer that,” I said, backing up a step. “I’m sorry, but this is all wrong. Wait. Did you propose to me before?”

  He did. He must have. It was clear in his face.

  “What did I say before?” I asked.

  He slid his hands in his pockets and gave his crooked smile again. “Like I said. We always knew you’d break my heart.”

  19

  THEA

  THE RULE OF MIRRORS

  I WALKED BACK ALONE to the house, taking my time. The person he loves isn’t me, I told myself. I didn’t break his heart. But that only complicated my sympathy for him. Plus we obviously had some chemistry. Big time. I’d been planning to focus on finding Rosie, but clearly I had the tangle of life as Althea to deal with, too.

  What was I going to do about this baby?

  Voices quickly hushed as I pushed open the kitchen door. Diego was wrapping plastic over a noodle casserole, and Madeline was scrubbing at a pot on the edge of the sink. Everyone else was gone. Though the rifle was out of sight, the air still bristled with tension.

  “Where is everybody?” I asked.

  Solana touched her nose to my knee, and I reflexively reached down to pet her head.

  “Grampa’s in his den working,” Madeline said. “We sent everybody else home. We’ll have a proper party later after you’re settled in.”

  “Thanks,” I said, relieved.

  Diego slid the roll of plastic wrap into a drawer with a little click. “What did Tom have to say?” he asked.

  I studied Diego coolly. “He says he’ll be a good father,” I said.

  Diego’s mouth set in a grim line “A good father,” he echoed. “Over my dead body.”

  “Diego,” Madeline said calmly.

  “Is he gone?” Diego asked.

  “Yes,” I said. “You didn’t have to hit him.”

  Diego left the casserole on the table and stalked over to the door. Solana followed. Diego put his fists on his hips, radiating fury. “Arrogant prick,” he said. “Stay, Solana.” He banged out the back door.

 
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