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The rule of mirrors, p.17
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.17

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  I checked my old email again out of habit and found, for the first time, that I could log in again. Maybe it helped to be back in the States. I had a zillion emails, but two were marked as read: one from Linus and one from Burnham. Both of their emails were months old, but I was still psyched. Then an eeriness set in. Only I knew my password. And Rosie. She must have read these messages before me, but when and how? Did it mean she’d escaped from Berg?

  I had to be walking in her cyber footsteps. I checked my sent box, but there were no outgoing messages. I considered sending an email to myself on the chance she’d see it, but then I realized an administrator like Berg could oversee my email, too. It wasn’t safe. Rosie must have realized that, too.

  I blinked at the screen, wondering if Linus had had any luck finding her. I hadn’t talked to him since our one dismal conversation, weeks earlier, but maybe she’d called him since then. Things couldn’t get much worse between us. I tried him again with the number from the email, feeling nervous.

  “Linus here,” he said.

  I let out a pent-up breath. “Hi. It’s Althea again.”

  “I remember. The liar.”

  My heart constricted. “I only lied a little bit so you’d talk to me. Everything I said that mattered was true.”

  “Rosie tells me you’re not her friend, so the only question is, how did you know all that stuff about us?” Linus said.

  “You’ve talked to Rosie?” I asked. I shoved my computer off my lap and tucked my feet under me. “Where is she? Is she okay?”

  “Why is that any of your business?”

  “Because she’s me,” I said. “I’m Rosie. They mined me out of her and planted me as a seed in another body. That’s why I have the wrong voice, and that’s how I know all that stuff about you and her. We have the same memories.” I was afraid he’d hang up. “I just want to find her and help her. When did you talk to her? How is she?”

  “She’s almost as screwed up as you are. You get points for your seed theory. That’s new.”

  “When did you talk to her?”

  “Friday night, late. Or I guess early Saturday morning.”

  “This past weekend? Where is she?”

  “She wouldn’t say. She didn’t trust me. Imagine that,” he said.

  I couldn’t believe he’d talked to her only three days ago. She had to be free from Berg.

  “What’s her number?” I demanded.

  “Not happening.”

  “Linus, she’s me,” I repeated. “I have to find her. I can help her.”

  “I don’t think so. She wasn’t particularly pleased to know you’d called me.”

  “You told her about me?” I was so excited. “What did she say?”

  “I told you. She’d never heard of anybody named Althea.”

  Right. She wouldn’t know about me. For all she knew, I didn’t survive when I leapt out of our mind and left her behind. She had no clue I was seeded into anybody else. Come to think of it, she’d been furious when I was leaving, so she might still be mad at me. How strange it was to be imagining what the other version of me was thinking about this version of me. It was like a Ping-Pong match between the same player.

  “Listen, I know this is hard to believe,” I said. “But if I could just talk to Rosie, I know I could make her understand.”

  “Good luck with that. She’s not answering her phone.”

  “Haven’t you tried to find her?” I asked. “I know Berg had her at the Onar Clinic in Colorado. I have that address.”

  “Of course I’ve looked for her,” he said. “She’s in hiding. She said she was with friends, but when I tracked the address connected to her phone number and paid a visit, they said they didn’t know her. Then they said the phone I was tracking was stolen. I think they’re lying, but for now, I’ve hit another wall. She doesn’t want to be found, and they’re keeping her secrets.”

  “I don’t have any friends in Colorado,” I said, puzzled. “Who were they?”

  “A teenage girl and her older sister. They were getting ready for their mom’s return from deployment overseas.”

  I gnawed the inside of my cheek. “How long do you think Rosie’s been away from Berg?” I asked.

  “She said a couple weeks. We didn’t talk long. She was kind of scattered, honestly.”

  “Upset?”

  “Yes. And different,” he said. “I couldn’t put my finger on it. You talk much more like the Rosie I knew, except your voice is wrong.”

  A little thrill hit me. “Then you believe me?”

  “I don’t know what to believe, but I agree we have to find her,” he said. “Where do you think she’d go? Back to Doli?”

  That seemed doubtful. I was pretty mad at my parents and she probably was, too. “When I tried to call home, my parents didn’t believe I was me because of my new voice. They’ve blocked me.”

  “What’s your last name?” he asked.

  I hesitated only a second. “Flores. From Holdum, Texas. You aren’t going to tell anybody about me, are you?”

  “What do you think I am? The host of a TV show? Just kidding,” he said. “I won’t say anything.”

  I could hear typing on his end, and then a pensive humming.

  “What?” I said.

  “This Althea Flores I’ve found was in a motorcycle accident last fall. She was in a coma.”

  “That’s right. For six months. I woke up at the Chimera Centre in Iceland. It’s a private hospital and research center.”

  “This girl is kind of athletic and Hispanic looking. Big eyes, maybe blue. Are you saying that’s you?”

  “That’s me,” I said. “But my eyes are gray. I’ve gained some weight lately, too.” Understatement.

  “Who’s this Tom Barton?” Linus said. “Your boyfriend?”

  “Althea’s boyfriend,” I said.

  A contemplative tapping came over the line, like Linus was beating something with a pencil. “Does he know about the real you?”

  I picked at the hem of my shirt. “Not exactly. I’ve only met him once. Yesterday. He knows about my Rosie-ness in theory, but I can tell he doesn’t get it.”

  “So he doesn’t know about me yet then, either.”

  “No,” I said. “Should he?”

  More tapping noises from his end.

  “Your voice is all Texas and you look completely different, but otherwise, you do sound a lot like her,” he said. “Even this wildly unlikely story about being in another body is the sort of thing she’d come up with. This was always my problem.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “There was nobody else like Rosie Sinclair,” he said. “Ever. She was, I don’t know. Herself. Completely original. Completely, just, Rosie.”

  It was the nicest compliment I’d ever had, and the hardest, too, because it applied to a girl I could never be again. “You are the only one who’s ever come close to understanding who I am,” I said.

  A silence stretched between us like a long, fragile thread.

  “Even though it’s impossible, I guess I want it all to be true,” he said finally. “I miss her.”

  An ache tightened in my chest. “Me, too,” I said.

  What a bizarre thing to share with him. I stared absently toward the window.

  “Do you think she’d come back to Forgetown?” he asked.

  Leaning back against my pillow, I remembered Forge and the other people I’d known there, like Burnham and Janice. I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever get them to believe I was Rosie. At least with Linus, I had some inside information from our private conversations.

  “She’ll come and find you,” I said. “I don’t know when or where, but she will.”

  “What makes you so sure?”

  I glanced down at my hands. “She’ll want to see you,” I said.

  It was what I’d want if I were her. I wondered if he understood this. He made a shifting noise with the phone on his end.

  “She didn’t sound like she wanted to see me,
” he said quietly. Then his voice became brisk again. “What should I call you? However you know Rosie, I can’t deny that you do.”

  “I’m still Rosie, even though I’ve changed.”

  “What should I call the other one, then?” he asked. “Rosie Two? Or are you Rosie Ego and she’s Rosie Id?”

  I laughed, but it wasn’t funny. He had a point. I couldn’t keep claiming to be Rosie anymore, but I wasn’t Althea, either. I needed a name to reflect that. Althea still sounded to me like Diego and Madeline’s daughter from her pre-coma life. Tom called me Thea, and that worked a little better.

  “You can call me ‘Thea,’” I said.

  “Thea.” His Welsh accent gave the syllables an appealing lilt. “We should keep in touch, Thea. If I hear anything more from Rosie, I’ll let you know. You do likewise.”

  He was wrapping it up. He was letting me go.

  Perfectly understandable. I couldn’t blame him. I’d just failed, once again, to convince him of the truth.

  “All right,” I said. “Sweet dreams.”

  “You, too.”

  20

  ROSIE

  WAFFLES2067

  HOURS LATER, OUTSIDE BILLINGS, Montana, Ian and I pull into a gas station. The miles have worn our tension down to a latent threat, like the line of sand mix that edges the road and invites a skid. Ian gets out to pump. I pull on my boots, check my pocket for the vials and syringes, and step out, too.

  “You should stay in the car,” Ian says.

  “I have to pee. I’ll be right back.” I start walking toward the shop.

  “Wait,” he says. “Get me some cigarettes. Camels will do.”

  I’m about to remind him that I’m too young to buy tobacco, but he pulls out his wallet and hands me a fifty.

  “Can I get some gum?” I ask, keeping it casual. “I’ll share.”

  “Sure. Make it sugarless.”

  I pivot and start away again, feeling with each footstep that he’s following me with his possessive, controlling gaze. I have one chance, maybe a five-minute window, to escape from him.

  As I head inside, a bell jingles over the door. A small, dark woman in a brown sari is reading a fat hardcover behind the register.

  “Can I help you?” she asks in an Indian accent, without looking up.

  “Bathroom?” I ask.

  “On the left.”

  I look down the aisle of chips to check for a back door out of the shop. I glance back at her book, noting the plastic wrap.

  “Is there a library near here?” I ask. “Don’t point.”

  She looks up for the first time, her face expressionless. I subtly jerk my head toward the car outside.

  “My boyfriend doesn’t like it when I read,” I add.

  Her gaze shifts outside for a moment and then back to me. “Take a right out of the lot and go two blocks. It’s on the right. You can’t miss it.”

  I slide the fifty across to her. “Delay him as long as you can, okay?”

  She spread-eagles her book on the counter. “I shall call the police.”

  “No!” I say. “Please. Just delay him and don’t tell him where I went.”

  I back a step away from her and take a last look at Ian, who is still filling the gas. Then I bolt out the back door.

  I make it into the alley and cut behind a row of garbage dumpsters before I have to stop. My heart is ready to explode. This is preposterous. I have zero stamina. Panting, I peek back to see if Ian is facing my direction, and when he isn’t, I run across a gap to hide behind the next building. Come on, I urge myself, but I can only manage a fast walk along the alley that parallels the main road. Finally, three blocks down, I find a modest cement building with a flagpole and a couple of mailboxes out front. I hurry inside.

  The library is an oasis of calm, with worn carpet and soft lighting, but I’m terrified that Ian will follow right behind me. I dive into the women’s bathroom and think hard. Who do I have to call? My family? No. Linus? No. Burnham?

  The thought of him tantalizes. Could I really? I have his email address. What are the chances he’s online? If he’s recovered enough and he’s anything like the Burnham I knew at Forge, the chances are good.

  I peek out of the bathroom door and see no sign of Ian. A nearby computer is unoccupied, so I slouch over and take a seat. The Internet is painfully slow, but I pull up an email chat, drop in Burnham’s address, and hit call. I leave my visual feed off and plink down the volume so the rings are soft.

  “Yeah?” he answers.

  He sounds sleepy. It’s three in the afternoon. He shouldn’t be asleep.

  I lean near to the computer and glance around the library, trying not to disturb other patrons. An old man looks at me briefly and then returns to his computer.

  “It’s me, Rosie Sinclair. Did I wake you?” I ask.

  “Eat it, Horatio,” he says.

  “It’s really me,” I say, a little louder. “Can’t you at least tell I’m a girl?”

  “Rosie?” he says. “Holy crap. This is unreal. How are you?”

  My heart soars. “I’ve got a problem. Can you help me?”

  “Hold on a second,” he says.

  Rolling noises. I imagine him putting his glasses on. A thump.

  “What’s up?” he asks.

  And that’s it. Immediately, effortlessly, Burnham’s himself, as if he’s been waiting for my call all this time, as if no accident ever happened, as if he doesn’t blame me for a thing. I let out a laugh over a pain in my heart. Then in a few words, I explain where I am and how I have to shake a stalker. “I can’t tell the police,” I add. “It’s complicated. If I can get to Atlanta, can I stay with you for a little while?”

  I hear him typing for a minute.

  “No problem. I’m sending a car for you,” Burnham says. “Give me an hour to line it up. Can you stay put?”

  “I was going to hitchhike,” I say.

  “That would be inconspicuous,” he says dryly. “No one would ever recognize you.”

  “I’m glad your sarcasm’s intact.”

  “It’s a driver-free car,” he says. “You’ll need a code to get in it. Waffles2067, all one word. Can you remember that?”

  “I’ve never been in a driver-free car,” I say. “What do I have to do?”

  “Just punch in the code and get in. It’ll bring you here. We can finally talk,” Burnham says, and he sounds happy about it.

  We disconnect, and I hide in the bathroom again until a half hour has passed. Then I come out to check the window. Once I see Ian cruising by, but he doesn’t stop. A bit later, the librarian asks if he can help me with anything, but I say no. Finally, a brown sedan pulls up in front of the flag, nose in. No one’s driving. I go out, type the code onto the door panel, and get in. The dashboard has options for manual override, climate control, and rest stop, but the most conspicuous button says Start Trip, and it notes a location in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve got nothing to lose. I push the button. A voice reminds me to fasten my seat belt, and after I do, the car starts moving.

  * * *

  It’s a long drive from Montana to Georgia. After an anxious hour of watching to see how the car performs, I settle in the back, where a seat is supplied with a little pillow, a blanket, and a bottle of water. A complimentary snack basket holds pretzels, beef jerky, peanuts, and cinnamon cookies. A charging dock is ready for any device a client might have. I have no devices. I literally own nothing but four stolen vials of sleep meds, several syringes, and the clothes I’m wearing, which, come to think of it, aren’t mine. But I’m away from Ian now, and for the first time in ages, I’m practically giddy.

  I spare one thought for how upset Ian must be. One. Then I’m done.

  Every few hours, I hit rest stop, and the car finds the nearest place for a bathroom break. Since I don’t have any money, I can’t buy anything to eat, so I make my snacks last. States speed by. My chair reclines deeply, and I doze. I watch a couple of movies, then a couple more. At night, the car pu
lls up to a charging station and plugs itself in. The next day passes in the same manner, and somewhere in the second night, I leave winter behind and drive into spring. Late in the afternoon of the third day, the car arrives in Atlanta.

  I sit up and run my hands through my hair. I don’t need a mirror to tell me I look godawful. I’ve smelled better, too. Soon the car turns in at a driveway, and a man in a gatehouse lifts a hand in greeting as if he’s expecting me. The wheels crunch over a gravel drive that winds through enormous oaks, heavy with Spanish moss. The car passes beside a pond and a pagoda, and then curves slowly toward a brick mansion with yellow shutters. A heavyset man rides a mower out front, and he, too, lifts a hand as I pass.

  No kidding, you’re rich, Burnham, I think.

  Behind the mansion, the car pulls up before a carriage house with four garage doors. An apartment that spans the upper floor is easily ten times larger than the boxcar I grew up in. The car voice announces that we have arrived. Warm, honeysuckle sweetness greets me as I step out, and I’m filling my lungs when Burnham appears on the upper landing of the carriage house.

  “You made it,” he says, smiling down.

  “Yes,” I say.

  And that’s all that comes out, because Burnham looks unbelievably wonderful to me. He’s thinner, and his fabulous long hair is gone, but he’s nodding like he just scored a major win, and I love that he’s so happy to see me.

  “What should I do about the car?” I ask.

  “Leave it. I’ll send it back. Get on up here already,” he says to me.

  I grab the railing and mount two quick flights, and it’s only then that I see Burnham’s leg brace and the tight, unnatural curling of his left wrist and hand. I hesitate before I move in for a hug. It’s only a little awkward.

  “I’m so glad to see you,” I say. “This is amazing.”

  “Pretty incredible,” he says. “Let me see you.”

  When I draw back, he nudges his glasses and takes me in. I do the same to him. A red shirt like he always used to wear sets off his dark skin, and he’s still wearing his St. Christopher medal around his neck. With his hair short, his face looks different, more square, and I like it. His baggy shorts sag in a relaxed way, and he’s barefoot on the landing planks. Already I avoid staring at his wrist.

 
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