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The vault of dreamers, p.16
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.16

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “I can tell.” He put a napkin on my tray for me and smiled. “Very admirable. Want some of that ice cream? I saved some for you.”

  I wanted to tell him I wouldn’t be calling him anymore. I needed to sleep. I needed to be good. “Thank you, but no.”

  “I thought it was your favorite.”

  “It is, but I don’t want it every day. That might spoil it,” I said. I was so bad at lying. I smiled tightly. “I think the pace here is catching up with me. I’m actually looking forward to going to sleep tonight.”

  He tilted his head back slightly. “You don’t want to burn out.”

  “No,” I said. I gripped my tray. I didn’t know why it was harder to pretend to be a normal student when I was with Linus, but it actually hurt that I couldn’t tell him what was really going on. I gazed past his shoulder, spotting Janice, Paige, and a couple of the other girls, Mae and Rebecca, together at a round table.

  Linus followed my gaze, and then looked back to me. He thoughtfully rubbed a knuckle to his eyebrow. “I’ve got plenty of work to do myself. A little studying, too.”

  “Really?”

  “Turns out I need to learn geometry for the GED. Who knew?”

  I laughed. “Good luck with that.”

  He gave my shoulder a squeeze and then leaned in to kiss my cheek. “See you around.”

  “Hold on. Not so fast,” I said, and shifted to make sure I got a real kiss, with actual lips meeting mine. Linus obliged. I thought it would be fast, but it kind of slowed down, and edges blurred, and then, through lingering, I forgot where I was.

  He smiled. “Don’t lose your dinner, Sinclair.”

  I glanced down to see he was steadying my tray for me. I felt right for the first time all day.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  “Anytime.”

  * * *

  For the next few weeks, I took my sleeping pill every night like everybody else. There was no way I could face getting in my sleep shell unless I knew I’d be unconscious there, and it was a relief to escape my fears and wake physically rested and refreshed. Part of me longed to forget what I had seen at night and accept the bright existence of my daylight hours. Days at Forge were certainly full enough without me also trying to unravel the puzzle of what was happening at night.

  But as time passed, I felt increasingly restless and unlike myself. Without the night to clear my head, I felt an insidious poison crawling just beneath the surface of my conscious mind. It made me tense, and irritable, and the more I tried to smile and pretend it wasn’t there, the more false I felt to myself.

  I couldn’t fully bury the possibility that Dean Berg had put his hands under my covers to take my video camera, but I couldn’t come up with another explanation for my deleted footage, either. Maybe he’d sent Dr. Ash to take the camera, but that was only marginally less creepy. I tried setting my video camera to spy on the dorm out of my wardrobe, but it never caught anyone coming in. It seemed to prove that we were undisturbed at night, but I still wasn’t reassured. I kept checking the other cameras I had set up for my bogus ghost project and they, too, yielded nothing.

  Dean Berg scared me. All I had to do was see his smiling, youthful face—and he could show up anywhere on campus—and I had to fight not to cringe and flee. He made me feel dirty, ashamed. It was bad enough that I suspected he’d come to my sleep shell in the night, but I also felt like I’d capitulated to him. I couldn’t tell anybody about what I knew because they’d think I was just a crazy kid who skipped her pill. Without ever making a threat, he had trapped me into secrecy.

  As an added frustration, sleeping at night also meant I couldn’t have a candid conversation with Linus. I saw him almost daily, whenever our schedules allowed, but aside from assorted kisses, which were brilliant, our exchanges were superficial and inhibited. It was often easier not to see him than to pretend I wasn’t hiding anything. I felt like a puppet performing for the cameras with my puppet boyfriend.

  On Sundays, when I called home, my parents sounded busy with their own lives. Larry pestered me about my blip rank, which gradually drifted back down to the forties. Ma worried that I looked tired, which wasn’t remotely possible since I was sleeping my full twelve hours a night. Only Dubbs was good to talk to, and her bubble of conversation always left me smiling. “I miss you,” she’d say. “When are you coming home? You’re famous enough now.” She mailed me a drawing of a purple shark which I taped to my wardrobe.

  One Monday afternoon, for Practicum, I had an assignment to film scenes in a gradation of color, from black and white, through pastel, to super vivid. I started with the dome of the observatory, and recalled that I still hadn’t retrieved the video camera I’d put in the satellite dish. The place evoked an unpleasant memory for me now, and I had no urge to climb up it today.

  Next, I filmed some of the tilting gravestones in the cemetery, and then a chapel window, interested by how dull the stained glass looked without any illumination behind it. The chapel reminded me of Ellen, with her knife and her kitty purse. It still disturbed me to think of how upset she had been when I joined her in the bathroom stall. I felt like I had sat beside an abyss of despair instead of a living girl. A gust of wind moved through the graveyard, ruffling the grass between the stone markers. I hoped Ellen was okay.

  When I met up with Janice in the dining hall, even though the room was as bright and noisy as usual, I was still preoccupied by my mood of gray scales.

  “Do you ever think about Ellen?” I asked.

  “Who?” Janice asked.

  “The singer in the bathroom the night of the fifty cuts,” I said.

  “To be honest, not really. No,” Janice said.

  She had another swizzle stick to add to her collection, and her dinner consisted of cole slaw and fries. Without even trying, I had loaded up my tray with comfort foods: a Sloppy Joe, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and applesauce.

  “Do you think she’s okay?” I asked.

  “Why are you thinking about her?” Janice asked, smearing a fry in ketchup.

  “I was by the chapel taking footage. It reminded me of her,” I said. “I was wondering if she went to the chapel for the acoustics, to sing.”

  “I think she probably went there to be alone,” Janice said. “She knew she was getting cut.”

  I idly spooned up some applesauce and sucked it through the gap in my teeth like I used to do when I was little. “Let me borrow your phone,” I said.

  Janice had it on the table, and I drew it across to me. It didn’t take me long to do a search for Ellen Thorpe. To my surprise, the top listing was an obituary for a girl of the same name, and then I realized it wasn’t a different girl. It was the same Ellen. I had to check again twice before I could believe it. I passed the phone back toward Janice.

  “Did you hear about this?” I asked.

  Janice frowned, scanning the article, and her eyes went wide when she looked back up at me. “That’s awful. You’d think they would have told us.” She typed on her phone, and then studied it for a long moment. “She died in a car crash. She was driving alone at night and hit a tree.”

  “Is there anything more?” I asked, trying to see upside down across the table.

  She shook her head, typing again. “There’s no condolence site. She’s not on Facebook. I wonder if her family took all her stuff down. What do you think?”

  “It’s sad,” I said.

  Janice passed the phone back to me, and I scanned the related news articles. It only said Ellen’s car had hit a tree at seventy miles per hour. I felt kind of freaked out. I had sat next to this girl only a few weeks earlier. I had thought she was home, getting help.

  “It’s really sad,” Janice agreed. “She was pretty bummed in the bathroom. Didn’t she have a knife?”

  I glanced up and wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking.

  “Do you think it was suicide?” I asked. “I heard a lot of teen driving accidents are actually suicides but nobody ca
n prove it.”

  “That is seriously sick.”

  Sick or not, I couldn’t help wondering how much Ellen’s death had been an accident, or if there were others like her. I felt kind of ill. “How many Forge alums kill themselves?” I asked.

  Janice tucked her chin back and made a face. “Somebody really got up on the dark side of the bed this morning.”

  “You had to sign that paperwork when you came, right?” I asked, remembering the waivers my parents and I had signed. Dr. Ash had mentioned them, too, the day of the fifty cuts. “Was your mom the doctor concerned at all about side effects from being here?”

  “No.” Janice looked both revolted and concerned.

  I wound my finger around a twist of my hair and pulled it taut. “You feel totally fine, don’t you? You never feel the least bit weird or stressed or anything here, do you?”

  “Okay, maybe I should take you over to the infirmary,” she said.

  “Just because I’m asking questions doesn’t mean I’m sick or crazy.”

  “No, but if you were sick or crazy, you’d be acting a lot like you are right now,” Janice said.

  I took a good, hard look at my friend. Janice oozed confidence and energy. I’d thought, when I first got to know her, that she was a little East Coast prim. These days, she laughed easily and had tons of outgoing theater friends. She’d cut her long blond tresses into a wispy, wild hairdo, and she wore what she called her Hamletta scarf wherever she went.

  I glanced past her shoulder at the rest of the room. Henrik and Burnham were flicking a triangular paper puck across one of the tables, aiming at goals made with their pinkies. At that moment, Paige trapped the puck under her hand. Then she dropped into Henrik’s lap, draped her willowy body around his, and kissed him before she gave back the puck. Other students around us were laughing and lively, too, glowing in the hotbed of creativity that was Forge.

  The contrast to my own stifled condition hit me in the gut. What I felt most, unexpectedly, was envy. What on earth was wrong with me? I was taking my pills like everyone else. Why wasn’t I turning into an artistic genius? Why was I the only one who was unraveling?

  As the blip rank board on the wall began its flipping noise again, I covered my ears with my hands and closed my eyes. I didn’t let go of my ears until it stopped.

  “It’s no good trying to hide,” Janice said. “The blip board knows all.”

  I looked up then to see I was ranked fiftieth.

  “You’re fifty,” Janice said.

  “Thanks.”

  “To clarify, you’re absolute last,” she said.

  “I got that. Really.”

  “Look, whatever’s going on with you, you need to figure it out,” she said. “I mean it. This isn’t a place that lets students fall apart. Honestly? I’m surprised no one’s onto you.”

  “Unless they want me to fall apart,” I said.

  “Come again?”

  I sighed. At some level, I’d never stopped worrying about what was happening at night. Inside, I was half-unglued, and apparently it showed because the board, like a magic mirror, never lied.

  “Maybe it’s good for the show, altogether,” I said. “Maybe they like having one student in crisis so the rest of you look good.”

  She scratched her head. “They haven’t done that in past shows.”

  “Maybe it’s new for this season,” I said.

  “Are you admitting you’re in crisis?” she asked.

  “No.”

  I slouched my arm out along the table and laid my cheek along my arm. This way, my eyes were close to my fork when I twirled it in a morsel of Sloppy Joe. I was serious about wanting to know how many Forge alums committed suicide or otherwise died young. How to figure that out was the question. I got an idea.

  I sat up straight and made a slow-motion princess wave with my hand.

  “If anyone out there in viewer land can tell me how many Forge alums kill themselves or otherwise die young, I’d be grateful for the info,” I said. “Same about kids who get cut in the fifty cuts. Feel free to send me an email. R-Sinclair-at-TheForgeSchool-dot-com.”

  “What are you doing?” Janice said. “I do not approve.”

  “I’m just putting it out there,” I said. “There’s freedom in being dead last. And incidentally, for the record, even though I’ve actually said the word suicide out loud, I’m perfectly fine.” I slumped back on my arm and fed myself a cold, waxy morsel of Sloppy Joe.

  * * *

  On Tuesday, after classes, I headed down to the basement of the library. Most of my cameras for my ghost hunting project had reached capacity on their memory, and I needed a way to store the footage or lose it. So far, I’d watched only a fraction of what I had. Even though I seriously doubted that Dean Berg would allow me to record anything to incriminate him, I still had to try. I also needed to use the footage for DeCoster’s class.

  I chose a computer near the windows, and I was uploading my footage when Burnham came in.

  “Hey,” I said.

  He scooped up a Ping-Pong ball by the net and strolled slowly nearer. “It’s Rosie, at it again.”

  His hair was wet and his blue shirt looked fresh, like he’d just come from a shower. “Is this seat taken?” he asked, pointing to the place beside mine.

  “Go ahead,” I said.

  He swiveled into the chair, turned his computer on, and set the Ping-Pong ball in a paperclip on his desk, where it couldn’t roll. It was a little weird having him near me since we were still barely speaking. I glanced to see if anyone else was coming in, but we were alone.

  “How’s your project going?” I asked.

  “Not bad.”

  A gaming program came up on his screen, with panels for settings, rules, and characters. I watched him skim through various screens until I saw a bird’s eye view of a clock tower and a quad.

  “Are you making a game of the school?” I asked.

  “Sort of.”

  “Are you?”

  “Sort of.”

  He was. How totally cool. I leaned closer, intrigued. He even had the benches in the quad and the fence around the rose garden configured in 3-D so they shifted appropriately whenever he swiveled angles.

  “That is so cool,” I said. “Who are the characters?”

  “I’m still working on them.”

  “Let me see. Are they us? That looks like a knight.” I hitched my chair closer to his so I could point. “Does that guy have a name?” I asked.

  “She’s a lady knight,” Burnham said.

  “Really?” I said, peering closer.

  He pointed. “She has boobs.”

  I laughed.

  “It’s a little hard to tell under her armor, but they’re there,” he said.

  “For the discerning gamer,” I said. “The boob-seeker.”

  “Exactly.”

  I gave the character a closer inspection. “Did you mean for her to look like me?”

  “No.”

  “She does,” I said. “Curly brown hair. Nasty, nasty scowl. That’s totally me.”

  Burnham nudged his glasses and leaned toward the screen, examining his own artwork as if he’d never seen it before. “You’re full of it,” he said.

  I looked down at my own cleavage and straightened my violet tee shirt. “If you say so.”

  He frowned over at me. “I hear you’re looking for ghosts?” he asked politely.

  “Yeah. I know. I don’t believe in them, either, but there’s merit in an impossible search,” I said. “The problem is trying to sort through all my footage. If I watched it in real time, I’d have to watch ’til I’m forty.” I swiped a couple of files on my touch screen.

  “Why are you spying on Forge?” he asked.

  “Like I said—”

  “No. Why? I’m curious.” He planted an elbow on his desk, swiveled in my direction, and waited like he expected a real answer.

  I opened my mouth and no words came out. A flash of panic hit me. Since he co
uld guess I was spying, he ought to know I couldn’t explain my motives on camera.

  “I’m just attempting to fail, like Mr. DeCoster said,” I said.

  The lie was so obvious between us, it was almost a form of truth. Was this why he had sat next to me? To ask about this?

  “And you’re doing it with all your heart?” Burnham asked.

  “That’s the goal. To fail with all my heart. Remember the assignment?”

  He lifted one of my video cameras, the one from the graveyard. I’d taped a cross to it so I could keep track. “Are these all the cameras you have? Nine?” he asked.

  I glanced at my row of video cameras. I had hours of footage that showed moonlight shifting over the quad, and a security guard passing in a golf cart, and cleaning crews going by with barrels of garbage. The one useful thing I’d discovered was that the techies consistently headed home around midnight, after which I could expect hours of nothing. “I have one more camera on top of the observatory,” I said.

  “Why there?”

  “It’s haunted.”

  He picked up the Ping-Pong ball and rolled it between his palms. “To start with, if you want full coverage of the school at night, you need to plot out the angles of what the cameras are covering,” he said. “Then you need a system to review the footage efficiently.”

  I noticed he’d gotten past needing to know why I wanted the coverage.

  “How would a person review the footage efficiently?” I asked.

  “It’s easy,” he said. “You could use ten computers simultaneously to load the footage and dump it in the K:Cloud, and then combine them in your editing platform.”

  I had been stuck on the technical limitations of the uploading, but his idea made perfect sense. I glanced again at his game, and remembered my pretend motivation for filming the school at night. “I could add a little ghost to some of the scenes, and move it from screen to screen,” I said.

  “That would be faking a ghost sighting, which isn’t what you set out to do,” he reminded me.

  “True, but it would be fun,” I said. “Fun’s worth something and projects evolve. I don’t suppose you’d help me.”

  He leaned back in his chair, still rolling the small white ball. “Possibly, I could,” he said slowly. And then, “Catch.”

 
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