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The keep of ages, p.15
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       The Keep of Ages, p.15

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  Above, leaves rustle softly. We’ve arrived not in the middle of Grisly Valley, but in a small stand of eucalyptus trees near a deserted, decaying road. Bark peels in colorful, untidy strips from the tree trunks, and the dust is covered in the detritus of fragrant, dewy leaves. Fresh early-morning air carries a hint of the ocean moisture, and around every shadow, sunlight is landing with clear, almost painful precision.

  A greedy, happy tingle lights up the back of my brain. I sniff and wipe my nose with the back of my wrist.

  Yes, it’s good to be alive, I think.

  The tingling sensation sends an extra current, as if to confirm my thought. It’s seriously strange. Unnerving, for sure. I’ve had some experience coexisting with another voice in my head, but this is a whole new level of strangeness.

  It occurs to me as I rest there beside the maintenance-hole cover that I’ve just done something that I was physically incapable of doing. I’m not normally strong enough to carry Dubbs through a river with some kind of mutant fish creature, much less up a ladder like I just did. Besides, I should be weak from my captivity. I understand the strength of willpower and desperation, but that doesn’t seem like enough to explain what I’ve just done. Is it possible, I wonder, that the new presence in the back of my mind helped me rescue Dubbs and escape?

  “Can you talk to me?” I ask out loud. “I used to have another voice that could talk to me. Are you like that?”

  A stillness answers me inside, an inner readiness. Then my fingertips start to tingle and grow light, like they’ve been released from gravity. Letting the sensation guide me, I lift my right hand off Dubbs, and I stroke my fingers along my forehead and down my cheek like I did once before in my cell. It seems like a deliberate response, but I can’t guess what it means.

  “Are you saying that’s you?” I ask.

  My hand comes to the base of my throat and rests there gently. Affirmative.

  Okay, it’s spooky. Definitely. My skin lifts in goose bumps. I’m not sure I want to believe it, actually. In any case, I can’t sit around talking to myself and pawing my own face. It’s only a matter of time before the doctors in the vault discover where I’ve gone.

  Rising, I scoop Dubbs into my arms, and the full weight of her is a shock. I bite back a groan, and then I start along the old, pocked road. I need to find my car, I think, before I remember the doctors took it. I’ll need to come up with a proper plan, but for now, putting distance between me and the park is the most important thing.

  My wet socks pick up nubs of dirt as I trudge along. The road winds up a forested hillside through the OEZ. Leaves flicker in the occasional breeze, and plenty of insects wing through the shadows, but there’s no sign of any birds or rodents. It feels strangely deserted. Too quiet.

  Eventually, the road opens on a view of the Grisly Valley Theme Park, which is farther away than I expected. Once I have my bearings, I’m able to aim toward the outer fence of the OEZ, far in the distance. Once I’m there, I’ll beg a stranger for help, I guess, and try to get a ride back to Lavinia’s.

  By the time I squeeze through a break in the last fence, I’m famished, and my arms can’t bear my sister’s weight anymore. I’m worried about her. She has stopped shivering, but her skin is pale and clammy, and she smells faintly sour, like an overripe peach. I haul her over to a shady spot under a tree and sit down with her in the grass. I just have to catch my breath. Gently, I rub my thumb over her eyelids, wiping away some of the gel.

  The sound of a vehicle coming fast down the road makes me look up, and an old blue minivan slows to a stop across the road from me. I barely have time to take in the California plates and rust spots before the door opens and a young, dark-haired guy in a blue shirt and jeans gets out.

  I stare, dumbfounded.

  He’s really Linus Pitts, as wiry and handsome as ever, and in the next moment, he’s sprinting across the road toward me. An instinctive blip of joy soars through me before I can squash it wildly down.

  “Thank goodness,” he says, crouching beside me. “I was just about to go into the park and look for you. How is she? How are you?” With his familiar British cadence, his voice is frank and warm, as if he’s forgotten how I left him. He gently touches a hand to Dubbs’s face, and then his gaze lifts to meet mine. A potent mix of relief and concern emanates from his features, and it kills me to think of the spy in his eye. “What’s happened to you?” he asks.

  “I’ve been to the vault,” I say. I barely got out. How’d you find me?”

  “Lavinia sent me,” he says. “I got to her place late last night. She’s been watching the cameras you set up, and she said you completely disappeared on Tuesday.” He points back along the fence. “I was just parking over there when I spotted you. Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

  He starts to lift Dubbs out of my arms, but I stop him, holding her tight.

  “Wait,” I say. “Let me see your eye.”

  A slight hitch tightens his expression. “This is what matters right now?” he asks.

  But he levels his face with mine and stares at me. Under the shade of the tree, I study his caramel-brown eyes, trying to see what’s different from before. His right eye is normal, as clear and keen as ever, but his left pupil has a mismatched, dead quality, like the false lens of a machine. When he blinks, I become abruptly aware that he’s scrutinizing me back.

  “What did you do to it?” I ask.

  “I had a cap put in. Don’t worry. You’re safe.”

  “You mean you can’t see out of that eye?” I ask. “Not at all?”

  “I couldn’t very well live with a spy in my head,” he says. He collects Dubbs firmly and rises. “Shall we?” He shifts into the sunshine and aims for the minivan.

  He did it for me. I can’t help thinking he did it for me, and I’m awed. He glances back my way.

  “Coming?” he says.

  I roll to my feet and follow him, trying to understand the sudden shift in his demeanor. It’s subtle, but I can feel his shield of reserve like an invisible wall between us. He helps to settle me and Dubbs on the bench seat in the middle of the minivan, and never once does he meet my gaze again. The shadow of our last meeting has returned, and I didn’t help by insisting to see his eye.

  Linus starts up the engine and pulls out onto the road. Digging up a seat belt, I get it around Dubbs and me as best I can. Her lips are blue, and she’s shivering again, so I try to keep her close. When we pass the place where I left my Toyota, it’s gone. So much for all my gear. Berg’s phone. Even though it had gone dead and I never used it, I liked knowing I’d taken something from him. Peggy’s son’s tablet is gone, too, and so are my clothes.

  “Can you take us to Lavinia’s?” I ask.

  “That’s where I was going, unless you think a hospital would be better,” he says. “How bad is your sister?”

  I look down at Dubbs again and stroke her pale cheek. How I need her to be okay. The smart move would be to take her to the hospital, I’m sure, but she might only need a little time to wake up, like I did after my sleep meds wore off. I certainly don’t want anyone taking her away from me, and of course, the hospital authorities would ask a million questions. They’d get involved. They’d take over.

  As I picture a team of police invading the vault of dreamers and disturbing them, I’m surprised by a new, powerful urge to protect the dreamers. A slither of warning passes through me, strong and personal, but it’s totally counterintuitive. I used to want Berg’s work to be exposed to the police. What’s happened to me?

  “Hospital?” Linus says.

  “No,” I say. “Lavinia’s.”

  “You sure?”

  “I think Dubbs will sleep it off,” I say. “At least, I hope so.”

  “Okay.”

  Linus handles the big steering wheel in a generous, looping way, and I sway from side to side as he navigates around the potholes of the old road.

  “Any word on your parents?” he asks.

  “I couldn’t fin
d them,” I say. “Berg must have them somewhere else.”

  He adjusts the rearview mirror and I catch his eye for an instant.

  “We’ll get them back,” he says. “You know that, right?”

  It’s such a small word, we, but it gives me enormous relief to know that he’s with me on this. I nod. “Yes,” I say. “How did you find Lavinia?”

  “Your sister asked me to track an email, and it led to Lavinia’s IP address,” he says. “That’s how I found her place.”

  “Dubbs did?” I say, astonished. “Dubbs got in touch with you?”

  “She guessed I’d be willing to help,” he says, and slows for an old speed bump. “She and your parents were headed to Lavinia’s before they dropped off the planet.”

  “I know. Dubbs left me Lavinia’s address,” I say.

  “She was going to call me once they got to Miehana, but she never did,” he says.

  “Because she was kidnapped with my parents.”

  “So Lavinia told me.”

  I’m so impressed with my sister. She’s such a smart little kid.

  “Could Berg know about Lavinia’s?” I ask, reconsidering if it will be safe to go there.

  Linus drives around another curve, and trees blur by the window. When we come to a stop sign, he breaks and lets the engine idle.

  “I don’t know what Berg knows,” he says evenly.

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that,” I say. “I was only wondering if it’s safe to go there.”

  “I wouldn’t take you somewhere unsafe.”

  “I know that,” I say. It’s getting tangled with him again. I can’t do this. I’m too tired and stressed. “Don’t get all stiff at me, please,” I say. “I was so happy to see you. I can still hardly believe you’re here.”

  He turns back then to face me, his eyes watchful.

  “Is that so,” he says. “You could have called me, you know.”

  “I’ve been stuck in an underground cell.”

  “Before that,” he says. “When you were on the road. Or at Lavinia’s.”

  “But you had a camera in your eye.”

  Linus waits another moment, like I can read his mind, like I’m missing something huge and obvious. It’s horrible. Then he faces forward again, eases the minivan into the intersection, and makes a right.

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have called you.”

  “It’s all right. I get it.”

  No, he doesn’t. He can’t understand me when I don’t even understand myself. I lean back against the seat and close my eyes, weary to the bone. I remain that way, trying not to think, but at the edge of my mind, I recall the ache of longing I felt for Linus back when I was in my cell, when this thing inside me sent me the vision of us together on the prairie. The real Linus is a thousand times more complicated. It shouldn’t be possible to miss someone when he’s right here in the car with me, but I do.

  With my eyes closed and my heart plucked open, I don’t notice where we’re going until we descend a steep incline and pull up before a strange, unfamiliar cottage.

  18

  STAY OUT

  WE’RE BY THE SEA. Even with the windows closed, I can hear the rumble of the ocean, and I’m instantly curious. I’ve always wanted to see the ocean.

  Linus parks beside another car under an overhang made of coruscating plastic. Dark rows of pods and debris line its gullies. A nearby cottage, caked in peeling stucco, perches on a steep embankment, with stilts supporting one side. I’m disconcerted by a pair of signs nailed to the front porch.

  CONDEMNED: EARTHQUAKE HAZARD

  OLBAID EVACUATION ZONE. STAY OUT.

  “I thought you were taking me to Lavinia’s,” I say.

  Linus pulls the key out of the ignition. “This is her old place, from before she was relocated. She said we’d have more privacy here.”

  “Do you know how far we are from the power plant?”

  “A couple miles.”

  I take another look at those rickety stilts. “Do you think it’s safe?”

  He tilts his head, peering out. “Comparatively.” He turns back to face me and nods toward Dubbs. “How is she?”

  “Still asleep.”

  “Hold on. I’ll come around for her.”

  A moment later, he lifts my sister away from me, and he’s careful to shelter her blond head against his shoulder as he straightens. His tenderness triggers a tug of longing in me, and I glance away. The sky has turned overcast, and the air is suffused with soft gray light. Far below, the shoreline churns with the lacy white lines of the incoming waves, and the horizon is so huge, it seems like an optical illusion, both distant and flat.

  Stepping warily in my socks, I follow Linus around to the front porch where a rotting board gives under my feet but doesn’t break. Before we can knock, the door opens, and Lavinia waves us in.

  “You had me worried,” she says. “Where’d you find them?”

  “By the fence. They were on their way out,” Linus says.

  While Linus lays Dubbs gently on the couch, Lavinia holds a couple pillows, and then she tucks them around my sister and settles a creamy blanket over her wet gown. Lavinia leans over her to hold Dubbs’s wrist for a pulse, and then, with a satisfied expression, she straightens.

  “What do you think?” I ask her.

  “She has a nice pulse. I think she’s sleeping and she’ll wake when she’s ready,” Lavinia says. “She has a sweet face. She’s eight, you say?”

  “Yes,” I answer.

  Lavinia turns her gaze to me, and I’m startled to find she’s changed from when I last saw her in her apartment. She’s brighter and clearer. Her gray hair is whiter, and her updo with the braid is looser, for a softer effect around her face. Her lipstick is a more muted, flattering hue, and she’s wearing a pearly green, cottony outfit that brings out the color of her eyes behind her glasses. Her old home must agree with her.

  A hovering seagull outside the window catches my eye before it drops from view. Lavinia’s place isn’t nearly as shabby inside as it is from the outside. I can tell it was once lovingly cared for. Pale blue walls are offset with white trim. Two folding beach chairs with woven seats face the curved wicker couch, while a wood-burning stove, darkly solid, sits in the corner. A wooden crate is overturned as a coffee table. Half a dozen glass balls of red, yellow, and blue hang in an old fishing net, and glass doors fogged with moisture close off a back porch that hangs directly over the steep escarpment.

  The best thing, though, is the view to the water. Or maybe the soft, airy light. I can’t decide which.

  Lavinia sets a hand on my shoulder. “How about you?” she asks. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”

  “I’m pretty wiped out,” I admit. “How long was I gone?”

  “Four nights,” Lavinia says. “This is Saturday, April second.”

  “Four nights!” I echo, astounded and bereft.

  They must have kept me asleep longer than I realized. And my parents! We still don’t know where they are. Berg has had them since early Monday. That’s six days!

  “Have you heard anything about my parents?” I ask.

  “I guess that means you didn’t find them,” Lavinia says grimly. “There’s been nothing in the news.”

  I have to check Peggy’s Facebook page. “Do you have a computer here?” I ask.

  “Of course. Hang on,” she says.

  I sink down on the couch near Dubbs’s feet, and as soon as Lavinia passes me her laptop and the slow Internet kicks in, I pull up Facebook and Peggy’s profile. She has nothing new posted, and neither do her kids. Deflated, I push the laptop onto the crate and slump back.

  “Nothing,” I say. “I can’t believe this.”

  “Tell us what you found at Grisly,” Lavinia says, taking a seat in one of the folding chairs. Linus takes the other. “I saw that wild business with the dragon and your sister when you first arrived. Quite an effect,” she says. “But then where did you go?”

/>   It takes a while to tell them about my discovery of the vault of dreamers, and then my dark hours after I was caught. They’re outraged to hear I’ve been mined again, and clearly impressed that I was able to escape, rescue Dubbs, and find a way out.

  “But the biggest problem is that I still don’t know where my parents are,” I say, frustrated. “Whistler told me they weren’t in the vault, but Lavinia and I saw the footage of the truck arriving at Grisly.”

  “Either Whistler was lying, or the truck dropped off Dubbs and took your parents somewhere else,” Linus says.

  “Why would Berg do that?” I ask.

  “I’m not sure,” Linus says. “Could he have known you were going to Grisly? Maybe he was worried you’d find them there.”

  “I never know what Berg knows,” I say darkly. I hate mysteries.

  With a faint click, Lavinia fingers her bead necklace. She juts her chin at me. “You did a good job setting up my cameras. Thank you.”

  “You’re welcome,” I say.

  Beside me, Dubbs sniffs. She shifts to tuck her fist under her cheek in such a normal motion that it gives me hope.

  “Dubbs? You awake?” I rub her arm lightly again, but she doesn’t respond.

  “She’d probably be better out of that wet gown. You might as well look through my drawers for whatever you can find for her and yourself as well,” Lavinia says. She stands and reaches for her keys. “I’m going back for Tiny, but I won’t be long.” She nods at a cardboard box on the counter. “There’s food and bottled water. My computer’s battery should hold, but otherwise, there’s no power in the house, and no water. I rigged a pully system for rainwater on the roof for the toilet, but that’s it. Let’s see. What else. I don’t normally bring company out here. Do you know how to use a camp stove?”

  “Yes,” I say.

 
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