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The rule of mirrors, p.16
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.16

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  I turned to Madeline, who rinsed the pot in steaming water.

  “Why does Dad hate him so much?” I asked. “Does he think Tom turned me away from you or something?”

  “Let’s not start, Althea.”

  “Why didn’t you and Dad go with me to put Gizmo down?”

  She turned and wiped her hair back with a damp hand. “Did you remember that, or did Tom tell you?”

  “Tom told me.”

  “Of course,” she said. “That was the night he first took advantage, when your guard was down.”

  He could have taken advantage, but he didn’t, I thought. “That doesn’t explain why you didn’t go to the vet with me,” I said.

  “We were going to go to the vet the next morning together as a family, but you decided it couldn’t wait,” Madeline said. “Gizmo was perfectly comfortable. Your father and I had obligations we couldn’t get out of that night. We trusted you to stay home, but you took Gizmo and went without us. Imagine how we felt when we came home and discovered what you’d done.”

  Her version was close enough to Tom’s to make them both believable. I sank into a chair and set my cane aside.

  “So I was disobedient,” I said.

  “No, you weren’t normally. You had your rough spells like many kids, but you were a good kid. Gizmo’s death was hard for you. It brought up some stuff.”

  “What stuff?”

  She opened a bag of apples and started picking off the labels. “I’d rather leave it in the past.”

  “It’s part of who I am. It might help for me to know.”

  She shook her head. “If there’s one good thing about your brain injury, it’s that you’ve been freed from your bad memories. Besides, there are too many things in your past for me to tell you about them all. How am I supposed to know which ones matter?”

  “You could try for the major ones. Did you know Tom proposed to me last summer?” I asked.

  Her voice dropped. “No.”

  “He did today, too. I turned him down.”

  She visibly relaxed. “Of course.”

  “People ought to know each other before they get married, I think.” I slumped across the table and fingered a checked placemat. “He is cute, though,” I added. “But is he really my type? That’s the question.”

  “Funny. Very funny.”

  I felt a subtle shift happening in me. Even though we were talking about history I didn’t know and some of it was strained, Madeline treated me like I really was her daughter. Like I belonged. It felt a little disloyal to my own mother, but I kind of liked it.

  “How did you meet Dad?” I asked.

  She began washing the apples. “I was in graduate school at UT Austin, and I wanted to talk to your grandfather about his helium research at NASA. He agreed to meet me, but he asked me to come here instead of Houston. He’d just had knee surgery so he couldn’t travel. I wasn’t going to say no. Your father was here looking after him, and that’s when we met.”

  I took a critical look at her little figure and graceful hands. Madeline must have been pretty as a young graduate student. Smart, too, obviously.

  “And?” I prodded her.

  “Your father made us lemonade from scratch.” She shook her head slightly and smiled. “I’d never met a smarter, nicer guy.”

  I hadn’t ever seen Madeline blush before.

  “Aww,” I said.

  “It wasn’t all clear sailing,” she said. “I wasn’t Latina, and it took a while for all of his family to come around. His ex-girlfriend was a handful, too, but that’s long ago.”

  “Do you think Grampa set you up?”

  She nodded. “He said he just had a feeling, when he heard my voice on the phone, that I was right for his son.”

  Sweet. It mattered that Diego’s father had approved of her. Bumping down a generation, I wondered if Diego felt he deserved some say in who Althea dated. Maybe that was why he was outraged when Althea defied him by dating Tom. I tried to think how my own parents would react to me dating, and I shuddered.

  Madeline turned off the water and put the apples in a wooden bowl. “I have to believe things work out the way they should,” she said.

  “Like with you and Dad?”

  “And you being home with us again,” she said, turning to me. “I know your father can be difficult, but it’s only because he cares. He’s noticed you’ve started calling him ‘Dad.’ That means a lot to him.”

  It was more of a courtesy than anything else. “It seems simplest,” I say.

  “Even so. It shows you’re trying, and we appreciate that. I understand that you don’t feel like Althea anymore. I know you have this other girl’s memories.” She spoke calmly, but her voice carried an undercurrent of emotion. “But I can’t help hoping you’ll return to yourself now that you’re home. That’s what moms do. We hope.” She set the bowl of apples in the center of the table. Then she brushed her hands back through her soft white hair so that it stood out on both sides of her head. “I mean, just look at you,” she said with a shaky smile. “I barely dared to dream, but now you’re right here, in our own kitchen, and your baby’s fine, too. It’s just—” She broke off, waving a hand.

  “Oh, Mom,” I said.

  I stood awkwardly from my chair, and she came over to hug me.

  “You’re such a child yourself,” she said in a tight voice. “And now you’re going to be a mother, too. I don’t know if I can stand it.”

  I laughed over a lump in my throat and patted her back. “You’ll stand it. You’ve stood worse.”

  “I guess that’s true,” she said, and kissed my cheek before she let me go.

  * * *

  My jetlag kicked in, and I had to head upstairs. Althea’s bedroom was easy to identify, decorated as it was in white and creamy blue, with a row of pristine, miniature dolls evenly spaced in a white case, and exactly enough books to fill three shelves. On her dresser was a little tree of earrings. Uneasy, I fingered a pair of dangly ones of hammered silver. To pick and choose items from Althea’s life felt wrong, like I was sifting through a dead girl’s tag sale.

  A distant clank came from outside, and I lifted a gauzy curtain off a French door to find a small balcony with a view toward the stables. Beyond a stand of trees, the white-fenced paddock met the lane where Tom and I had walked.

  Tom. The view. Solana. Madeline. The earrings. Everything here from the smallest stud to the deepest relationship was Althea’s, and I’d stepped into all of it. It would be so easy, in a way, to vanish into her life. I had all these people to please here, and I already owed them so much. They weren’t asking me to pretend I remembered Althea’s old life. They just wanted me to move forward with them as their daughter and granddaughter and cousin and girlfriend. They just wanted to love me and my baby.

  When I stepped into the hot water of the shower, the freshly stocked soap and shampoo suited me perfectly, and I guessed they were Althea’s favorites. A little jar of face scrub smelled like apricots, and the creamy grit was soothing on my nose and cheeks. I was shaving my legs in the shower for the first time, flexing around my belly to slide the razor along my shin, when it hit me once and for all that this awkward, gangly body was mine. I was caring for it and living in it. Althea’s body was the tool I now used to interact with the world, and her life was mine to make decisions with.

  When I came out of the bathroom, I climbed heavily onto Althea’s bed and sank into the mattress, exhausted. My pores were still damp, and my bathrobe felt bunchy and warm around me. My legs felt nice and smooth. I felt like I was home, but it felt wrong to feel that way.

  I had too many interior contradictions: I wanted my baby, and I didn’t want it. I felt like I was home, but I wasn’t. I thought like Rosie, but I wasn’t Rosie anymore. Any last, lingering, irrational idea that I’d ever be able to get back into Rosie’s body vanished, which left me with the question: why did I want to find her?

  For her sake. Because she needed to be found. Berg had the other R
osie captive, and I couldn’t just forget and neglect her because I had new problems of my own. Besides, it went deeper than that. I owed it to myself to find Rosie. My nightmarish memories of lying helpless in the vault still haunted me, and no matter how safe I was in Althea’s pretty room, I knew I wasn’t safe inside.

  * * *

  The next morning when I awoke, Solana was sleeping on the rug beside my bed. She lifted her head as I got up.

  “You’re my buddy, aren’t you, girl?” I said, and rubbed between her ears.

  I pulled on some clothes, collected my cane, and took her out to do her business. The house was still when we came back in, but I heard a distant tapping to my right, and Solana headed in that direction, with her nails clicking on the wood floor between the carpets.

  I followed, seeing how many steps I could take without using my cane for balance. Morning light spilled in everywhere, clean and clear. I passed a library that smelled of mahogany, an office, and a south-facing solarium with a proliferation of green plants. A weapons room showcased modern firearms alongside antique rifles, pistols, swords, tomahawks, and bows and arrows. The next room contained a collection of antique ship models all in large glass cases, like for a private museum.

  The tapping came again, and I headed down a short hallway to a suite of rooms that felt newer. The ceilings slanted high, with open beams of golden wood. A mini kitchen led off from a sunken living room. I paused at the sight of a hospital bed in one of the bedrooms while a strange, eerie feeling crept through me. The bed was covered in plastic, as were a series of medical-looking machines that lined the corner. It smelled faintly antiseptic. A shelf held several empty vases and a willowy statuette of a girl with her arms extended and head thrown back.

  This, I realized, was where Althea had lain in her coma. My host body had been in this place, for weeks, and now my feet had brought me back, like I belonged here. I felt a faint flicker of fear or premonition.

  “Is that you, mi corazoncita?” Grampa called.

  I backed out of the coma room. Then I followed his voice around a bend and found a small, cozy den with a big TV, an upright piano, and a large desk. I breathed more easily. Grampa’s hat perched on a rack by a folded American flag.

  “You’re up early,” he said.

  “So are you.”

  A ship model was propped before him on the desk, and a hundred tiny timbers were spread out on graph paper. He wore special glasses with magnifying lenses built in so that he looked like a mad bug when he turned to me. “You found your old room?”

  “Yes. How long was I there?” I asked.

  “Three months. I thought you’d be there forever.”

  I came closer and leaned against the windowsill where I could watch him work.

  “You talked to Tom,” I said, thinking of the way Grampa had filled him in.

  “Yes, I did. He kept calling. Seemed only right.”

  I liked that the old man had his own code of decency regardless of what Althea’s father felt toward Tom. I nodded toward the ship pieces. “Do you make these?” I asked.

  “I restore them,” he said, holding up a tiny crow’s nest. “What do you think?”

  “Cool,” I said.

  He passed me the little piece, and then I watched as he clamped a different sliver of wood in a holder. He tightened the screw carefully and then began to shave the side with a delicate tool.

  I set the crow’s nest down softly and picked up a small round mirror. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked.

  “Ten years now. I used to be an engineer for NASA.”

  I remembered Madeline had mentioned that. I held up the little mirror, gazing into the glass to inspect my face one small circle at a time: an eyebrow, the swell of my cheekbone, my ear with the nick in the top.

  “Do you miss your old face, then?” Grampa said.

  “Sometimes. Do you want to see a picture of what I used to look like? I can get my phone.”

  “Maybe sometime,” he said. He was still focused on the wood he was shaping, and his bright work light glinted in his glasses. “It’s not particularly relevant.”

  His honesty surprised me.

  “To you, or to me?” I asked, lowering the mirror.

  “To anybody. It’s how people reflect you back that matters.”

  I wasn’t sure I understood him. “How can a person reflect me back?”

  He kept his fingers lightly poised on his blade. “If I appreciate you for what you do or say, you feel it. You feel lovable. Understood. Deserving. Right? It’s like a mirror.” He gestured toward the circle of glass in my hand.

  “I guess.”

  He sniffed. “A true reflection feels right.”

  “What am I reflecting to you right now?” I asked.

  He straightened to look over at me, taking his time. His special glasses gave him four eyes and added an air of gravity to the inspection. “You appear to respect me,” he said. “What’s more, you’re genuinely interested in my philosophical train of thought. It fits with how I think of myself. I’m clever. I have dignity. Too much, sometimes,” he added, smiling.

  I smiled back. “If you’re my mirror, what are you reflecting to me?”

  He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s a little harder. As your doting grandfather, I’d normally reflect back how incredibly special you are, but I can’t quite, can I?” he said. “You aren’t my Althea, but I can’t tell who you are yet, either.”

  He’d nailed the uneasiness between us, as far as I was concerned. I supposed that made him a true mirror.

  “I’m Rosie,” I said dryly. “Heard of her?”

  “Your father told me. If that’s who you are, she’ll show through in time,” he said.

  His words reminded me of something Dr. Fallon had said when she was first guiding me to feel my facial muscles. “Dr. Fallon at Chimera said mirrors lie. She said some women are ruled by their mirrors. She meant glass, but I suppose it could apply to people, too.”

  “Me gusta,” he said musingly. “The rule of mirrors. So many possibilities. We seek until we find a true reflection of ourselves, like I had with your grandmother.”

  “I don’t think that’s quite what the doctor meant.”

  His laugh came gently, and he focused again on his work. “No, probably not. I never met her, but she doesn’t strike me as a romantic.”

  I slid the mirror back on the desk.

  It was true that my glass reflection didn’t match who I was inside, and neither did my reflections from people. Romance aside, what Grampa said clicked with me. Everyone at Chimera had treated me like Althea, expecting me to be her, but that hadn’t matched me. Now that I was here at the Flores home, the Althea reflection was even stronger, but it still didn’t match me, and the effect was jarring. Maybe that was why I felt so unsettled. So lonely.

  I needed to find the Rosie I’d left behind.

  Wistful, I gazed past him out the other window to the valley. A second, smaller house was visible in a stand of trees, but no animals. I felt as far away from Doli as ever.

  “Did you grow up here?” I asked.

  “On the ranch? No. This was your grandmother Valeria’s place. Been in the family for generations. It’ll belong to your daughter someday, provided she wants it.”

  “She might be a boy.”

  “You’re carrying high. She’s a girl,” he said. “You look exactly like Madeline did before you were born. I mean your figure, not your face.”

  “You think so?”

  “Girl. No doubt about it.”

  I smiled.

  Grampa kept at his work, and after a bit, he suggested I take a tour of the rest of the house. “Get to know your home,” he said. “Explore while you can before your mother takes you off to doctors’ appointments and P.T. See if anything is familiar. You never know.”

  “What I need is a computer,” I said.

  “There should be one in your room. Did you look in the desk? Our housekeeper might know where it
is. She’ll be in tomorrow.”

  I said I would take a look.

  Out back, a swimming pool beckoned with bright blue water. Upstairs, half a dozen bedrooms were followed by a laundry room, a sewing room, and an exercise room with gleaming weights.

  A narrow staircase led to the third floor, where I found six more bedrooms under the eaves, all with white paneling and tall, narrow windows. Two were filled with orderly bins, but the others were simply furnished, with polished floors and a rag rug next to each bed. A walk-in cedar closet, redolent and cool, was full of vintage overcoats and furs. A quaint little bathroom had a pull chain on an old-fashioned toilet and a claw-footed tub.

  “Nice,” I whispered.

  I made up my mind. I might have to live in Althea’s body, but I didn’t have to live in her bedroom surrounded by her things. Until I could leave to find Rosie, I would start my new life up here.

  * * *

  Madeline and Diego weren’t thrilled about my choice to take an attic bedroom, but they didn’t object. After my doctor appointments and a round with a physical therapist, Madeline helped me bring up some maternity clothes she’d ordered and a few things from Althea’s room: a dozen books, her soaps and shampoos, the silver earrings, and her computer. My new room on the third floor felt deliciously fresh and simple. When I looked out my window, I had a view of the stables and the western end of the valley. Below, I could see the balcony that jutted off Althea’s French doors, and I realized I’d chosen the room directly above hers, like I was building on her roots. I liked that.

  Bunching a couple of pillows against the headboard, I settled onto my new bed that evening. It took some jockeying to position the laptop against my knees and belly where it didn’t jab too awkwardly, but then I cleared all of Althea’s files into one folder and went to work. Finally.

  Orson had told me of the Onar Clinic in Colorado, so I started with that and came up with a private research center. Hardly any info was available besides an address. I located it on a map and discovered it would take about twelve hours to drive there.

  Twelve hours. Totally doable, assuming Rosie was still there.

  I searched to see if there was anything new about her online, but there wasn’t.

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