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The keep of ages, p.16
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       The Keep of Ages, p.16

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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I’m uneasy about her leaving alone, though. Linus offers to go with her, but she won’t hear of it.

  “I shouldn’t be more than two hours. Three, tops, if Tiny doesn’t come right away,” Lavinia says. “She does this now and again, sneaks off for a good prowl, but with this rain coming, she’ll probably be waiting on the fire escape when I get back.” She frowns at me. “Are you thinking of calling Berg?”

  My gut turns cold. He’s the one with answers about my parents. “I have to think about it,” I say.

  I glance at Linus, but he doesn’t say anything.

  “All right, then,” Lavinia says. She waves her fingers in her silvery way again. “Look after that little girl. I’ll be back soon.”

  The door closes softly behind her, and the quiet of the cottage settles in over the rolling noise of the waves below. She’s probably right that we should change into dry clothes, but I don’t even want to move. The thought of calling Berg makes me ill. I settle back on the couch with one hand on Dubbs’s blanket, and I look across at Linus. He runs a hand back through his dark hair, and then shucks off his shoes so they topple to the side.

  “Berg authorized my mining,” I say. “He knew I was in the vault. He could have killed my parents by now.”

  “You can’t think like that,” Linus says.

  “He thought they had me secure,” I say.

  “But he didn’t mine you himself,” Linus says. “Isn’t that what he wants?”

  I frown, considering. Linus might well be right. I can imagine Berg using my parents and threatening them to terrify me, and then following my fear into my dreams. Berg did say he had some plan for a host body for his hybrid and it was taking some time to line that up.

  “It’s impossible to guess what he’s scheming,” I say.

  “Then you have to have hope,” Linus says. “We have to assume your parents are still alive.”

  “Somewhere,” I say.

  “Yes. Somewhere.”

  I feel like I’m missing something, like I should know where they are. I was so sure they’d be in the vault. I shake my head, frustrated again. Six days. Where could they be? Berg has to know I’ll keep looking for them.

  Linus sets his hands on his knees and pushes up to standing.

  “Hungry?” he asks.

  I am. I’m starved. And my damp clothes are getting smelly. I should really change before I eat. I’m so sore and stiff that getting up is going to be awful. What I wouldn’t give for a hot shower.

  “I need to change. Help me up?” I say.

  He steps over and reaches out both hands to me. I grip his fingers, and he hauls me smoothly to my feet. That should be the end of it, but his fingers are so warm, I don’t want to let go. Energy lights up in my lungs, and I lift my gaze to his. He tilts his head, eyeing me in quiet speculation, and then he drops his gaze toward our joined hands. He hasn’t kissed me yet. Surely he must notice.

  When he lightly releases me and steps back, a jolt of disappointment rocks me to my socks. Say something, I tell myself, but I don’t know what.

  “I’ll just get my suitcase from the car,” he says. “There might be something you can use.”

  “Are we—?” I begin uncertainly.

  He regards me doubtfully. “Are we what?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “Okay?”

  “You’re ready to talk about us?”

  Actually, I’m not. I’m a total coward when it comes to us. If we have to talk about us, we’re a problem, and I absolutely don’t want that. “What is there to say?” I ask.

  He squints briefly and turns toward the door. “Exactly,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

  He heads outside, and I bolt for the bathroom.

  What is wrong with me? I think. He isn’t kissing me. So what? He must have his reasons. Life isn’t all about kisses.

  Except maybe it is.

  No. Stop this.

  A plastic gallon of water rests next to the bathroom sink, and I wash up as best I can. By the time I move into Lavinia’s room, a small brown duffel has appeared on the bed. I look through Linus’s things and set aside a shirt for Dubbs to use later, but he doesn’t have much to begin with and I don’t want to use up his clean things if I don’t have to. Lavinia has a small closet with a curtain drawn across it, and inside is a small dresser with three drawers. The top one has folded sheets, a box of safety pins, and a bar of French milled soap, almost scentless now it’s so old. The next has a few sweatshirts, a couple nighties, and an assortment of swimsuits with brittle, loose elastic. In the bottom drawer, I find a pair of men’s cotton pajamas with little blue sailboats on them. Score. The waistband is way too big, but that’s what safety pins are for.

  By the time I’m comfy in rolled-up pajama pants and a red sweatshirt, Linus has some soup warming on the little camp stove in the kitchen. He glances at my attire without comment. I grab Lavinia’s laptop and curl up next to Dubbs again. It worries me that she’s still in damp clothes, but she seems warm and comfortable enough.

  I wait out the slowness of the Internet, and soon I’m into my Tor site where, sure enough, there’s a message from Burnham.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Tues 3/29/67 10:29 PM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  Tried to call you. I talked to Thea. Amazeballs. Call me.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Tues 3/29/67 11:02 PM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  Where are you? We need to talk. Thea wants you to call her, too.

  The messages are both dated late Tuesday, the same day we last talked, I realize. He’s probably worried about me. I look up to find Linus watching me.

  “Bad news?” he asks.

  “No. I just need to call Thea and Burnham. Do you have any recyclable phones?”

  He pulls out his phone and starts tapping. “I don’t have any recyclables, but I can route you through a proxy. It’ll be secure that way.”

  “I don’t think so,” I say. “I heard the doctors talking down in the vault and they said Berg was tracing all your calls. They even knew you’d called an ophthalmologist.”

  “That’s from my other line,” he says. “I keep one going that I know they tap, like a decoy. I call for pizza and stuff on it. I’ve upgraded my security again for important calls, and I go through a proxy. It’s secure, I promise you.” He listens for a second, and then passes the phone to me. “Go ahead. Dial up.”

  I have to refer back to my earlier emails with Burnham to find Thea’s number, and then I dial.

  When Thea comes on, she sounds anxious.

  “Rosie?” she asks. “Are you okay?”

  “I’m good,” I say. “I have Dubbs. She’s sleeping, but I think she’ll be all right.”

  Thea lets out a huge breath of relief. “Thank goodness! Can you bring her here? What about Ma and Larry?”

  “I haven’t found them yet,” I say. “I hit a few snags.” I fill her in about Grisly Valley and my time in the vault of dreamers. She wants all the details, and I go over everything I can remember, ending with my escape with Dubbs up the ladder. The only thing I leave out is the new presence in my brain that showed up after they mined me. It’s been dormant lately, and I’d be glad if it stayed that way. “I’m with Linus now. We’re staying at a friend’s house.”

  Linus wordlessly offers me a bowl of soup, and when I glance up, I see he’s listening carefully to my end of the conversation. I take the bowl but set it on the overturned crate.

  “How long were you actually down in the vault?” Thea asks. “I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”

  “Since Tuesday,” I say.

  “I can’t believe you were mined again,” Thea says. “I’m so sorry. I wish you’d come here. Bring Dubbs and come. I promise you’ll be safe, both of you.”

  “About that. When I was down in the vault, I overheard a conversation between the doctors and Berg. It sounded like your parents invited a doctor ove
r from Chimera to check on you. I wouldn’t trust him one bit. He’s there to mine your dreams.”

  A light patter sounds on the roof, and I glance out to see the rain has started.

  “You mean Orson. Orson Toomey,” she says slowly.

  “That sounds right.”

  “What else did Berg say about him?”

  “Nothing, why?”

  Linus is sitting opposite me in the beach chair again, quietly consuming his soup. He holds it close beneath his chin.

  “We’re family, right?” Thea says. “We’ll always be family, no matter what. Don’t you agree?”

  “For lack of a closer word,” I say dryly. “What’s going on?”

  “There’s something I need to tell you,” she says, with a note of dread in her voice. “I should have told you days ago, but I never had the right chance.”

  I can’t imagine what it might be. “I’m listening,” I say.

  “It’s about Dad,” she says. “Not Larry. Dad.”

  I’m surprised she’d bring him up. She knows how much we don’t like to talk about him. I tuck my free hand under my leg. “Go on.”

  “It turns out someone found his body,” she says. “He was recovered from an icy crevasse a few years ago in Greenland, but the people who found him never reported it to the authorities. They were scavengers. They sold his frozen body to a research facility in Iceland, and those scientists never reported him, either.”

  A dark, ugly idea starts to form in my mind.

  “Wait,” I say. “Just hold on. Not the Chimera Centre.”

  “Yes,” she says.

  “And then what? Didn’t he still have his uniform?” I ask. I’m picturing his frosty corpse laid out on an operating table. “They experimented on him, didn’t they. Is that what you’re telling me?”

  Linus is still in the chair opposite me, but he has set aside his soup, and he’s leaning forward tensely, his elbows on his knees.

  “It’s more than that,” Thea says quietly. “A doctor at Chimera seeded a dream into Dad, and he woke up. He became alive again, only he wasn’t our dad anymore. He had a different mind inside him, the mind of his seed donor. Like me.”

  I almost laugh. It isn’t possible. What are the chances this happened to two of us from the same family?

  “I don’t believe this,” I say.

  “Rosie, listen. I know it seems impossible, but it’s true. I’ve met him. I’ve talked to him.”

  “You’ve talked to him!” I shriek. I can’t be hearing this. I pull my feet up onto the couch and curl into a tight ball. I shake my head, refusing. He was dead. How can he be alive?

  “Rosie?” Thea asks.

  I can barely hear her. It’s hard to breathe.

  “No,” I say flatly.

  “I know it’s a lot to take in,” she says. “I was shocked, too.”

  I let out a laugh. Shock doesn’t begin to describe it. “You’re completely serious,” I say.

  “Yes. On my life.”

  I glance across at Linus, barely seeing him.

  “And how long have you known this?” I ask.

  “Since I was at Chimera. I found out there,” she says.

  “Months ago?” I ask, my mind reeling anew. “And you kept this to yourself? What’s he like? What did you say when you talked to him?”

  “He looks a lot like Dad, only a little older,” Thea says. “Same dark hair. Same eyes and nose and everything, but he isn’t Dad. You’d know that immediately if you met him. He doesn’t laugh like him or say what Dad would say. He’s a stranger. A doctor.”

  And now it falls together. “From Chimera,” I say.

  “Yes,” Thea says. “I guess he’s more of a scientist. He does the research experiments in the lab. He’s the one who developed the method for putting your dream seed into me, the one that expanded and took over. He’s the one staying here at the ranch with us now.”

  “Unbelievable. Why on earth would you trust him?”

  “I don’t, but my parents do,” she says. “He saved my life, Rosie. It’s complicated.”

  Dumbfounded, I try to grasp all that she’s telling me, but it’s too much. This is my dad we’re talking about, my own father. The pain of missing him has sunk into the dirt of me, the subterranean, fatherless mire of me. I may not examine it often, but the loss is as raw and strong as ever.

  And now he’s alive? But not really alive? And he’s actually staying at her ranch?

  “Why didn’t he call us?” I whisper. “He should have told us, me and Ma.”

  “He thought it would be better not to,” Thea says. “More merciful, instead of opening old wounds. I’m not saying I agree with him, but that was his reasoning.”

  But you did the same thing, I think. You didn’t tell, either.

  “Please don’t be mad at me,” Thea adds. “I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t know how. It was a shock for me, too.”

  “Hey,” Linus says gently. He’s hitched his chair nearer.

  “She’s telling me my father’s alive, sort of,” I say to him, dazed. “He’s an evil scientist now.”

  From his sympathetic expression, I see he’s been following my end of the conversation.

  “He can’t hurt you,” Linus says. “It’s going to be okay.”

  “Is Linus there?” Thea asks.

  “Of course,” I say, and I hold the phone blindly away from me for him to take.

  Linus moves to the other end of the room, near the little black stove, and when he speaks, it’s into the phone. “It’s me,” Linus says. “Hold on. Slow down.”

  His voice is the same, like he sounds when he’s talking to me. Another cruel surprise.

  “Yes,” he says. “That’s a good idea. Okay. I’ll tell her, of course.” And then, “Don’t cry, Thea. She’ll understand. It’s not your fault.”

  It is her fault. It’s all her fault.

  “Does Ma know?” I say. “Ask her, Linus. Does Ma know?”

  Linus looks back at me, and then asks the question into the phone. He glances at me again and shakes his head. “No. Your mother doesn’t know.”

  It’s going to destroy her. Bad as it is for me, it’s going to be even worse for her. She isn’t going to understand who he is. Nevertheless, she’ll have to be told. It’ll fall to me to tell her. I can see that now.

  If she’s still alive.

  Wouldn’t it be something, I think, if my mother’s dead, and the doctor in my father’s body seeds a new mind into my mother’s body? Wouldn’t they make a fabulous pair?

  I let out one horrible, ugly sob before I clamp my hands over my mouth.

  I miss my dad. I miss his goofy laugh. I miss how safe I felt with him. After all this time, I can hardly bear to scratch the surface of my memories of him because the hurt is too deep. And now I could actually see him walking around, alive?

  My left hand loosens from my grip and through no effort of my own, my fingers stroke slowly down my cheek. I get that this thing inside me is trying to comfort me again, but it’s way too much for me to handle right now. Way too much.

  “Stop that!” I say sharply. “I won’t be screwed up. I’m sick of this!”

  My fingers still. The tingling stops. Then it grows stronger again, stronger than before, like a burning. It’s insistent and angry, the way I feel myself, and suddenly I’m stronger. Certain. A kick of adrenaline burns through my veins, forcing me to my feet. I leave the couch and step over to the porch door, where a film of moisture still coats the glass. My right hand lifts of its own volition, and my index finger traces six capital letters in the cool gray moisture: A-R-S-E-L-F.

  My hand tingles as it drops away. I stare at the word. It’s a name.

  “Arself,” I murmur, testing the sounds.

  A light flashes behind my eyelids and a rushing fills my ears. I stagger back, still staring at the name on the glass. I can hardly breathe. It’s like getting ripped to shreds and being put precisely together at the same time.

  “Rosie,
what’s wrong?” Linus says. “What’s happening?”

  But I can’t answer him.

  Can you hear me now? says a voice in my head.

  19

  ARSELF

  THE VOICE HAS AN ETHEREAL, hollow sound, like it’s coming from the end of a canyon or the bottom of a well. It’s mesmerizing and terrifying both.

  Who are you? I ask.

  “Rosie, what’s going on?” Linus asks, coming near. “Look at me.”

  My heart is pounding and tightening in vicious ways. I back away from Linus and slide down the wall to sit on the floor. I press a fist to my chest, hard against my ribs, and suddenly the tight pain in my heart stops. Relief trickles through me like soft blue water, allowing me to breathe again.

  Linus has joined me on the floor. I’m aware that he’s speaking to me, but I barely listen to him. The presence is active in my mind again, and I need to concentrate.

  This is better, she says, and this time the voice is closer, more immediate. We knew you’d let us through eventually.

  I didn’t let you through, I say.

  You called our name.

  An extra circuit of power is lacing slowly through my veins and muscles.

  Three dimensions. So heavy! How does this work?

  Invisible strings jerk at my elbows. My jaw works open and closed.

  Hey, stop that! I say.

  She sends a spiraling, giddy sensation through me, and an instant later, I laugh.

  Linus frowns at me. “Rosie? Can you hear me? Say something.”

  Get out of me! I say.

  Instead, she balls into a heaviness that travels distinctly down my right arm.

  So clumsy, but so perfect, too, she says.

  I lift my hand and turn it before my face. As if a bright, new light is illuminating each cell, I notice the little creases that separate each section of my fingers. When I curve my fingers together, my palm creates a perfect little nest for water or berries.

  Berries, she says. We want to taste raspberries fresh from a summer bush. Where? How far?

  Would you listen to me? I ask.

  A skittering shifts through my brain like fast hands through a pile of laundry, followed by a confused sense of alarm.

  We’re cut off. We don’t know anything! How does she stand it?

 
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