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The keep of ages, p.17
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       The Keep of Ages, p.17

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  The next search is more serious. My mind is actively frisked as every book in my mental library is taken out and shaken. The search is completed almost before I know it’s begun, and I’m left breathless, dizzy.

  It’s okay. We can still do this, she says. It’s so personal. So immediate and sensory. That’s the trade-off. And what’s this?

  I feel a plinking of strings at the back of my mind, like she’s testing the taut wires of a harpsichord.

  Stop that! I say.

  How do we turn her off? Is it this?

  A slash of pain rips through my head and I gasp, paralyzed.

  “Rosie!” Linus says. He gives my shoulders a shake. “You’re having a nightmare. Wake up.”

  I manage to peer directly, desperately into his good eye.

  “Help me,” I whisper.

  With a jerk, Linus lifts me bodily and carries me out the door to the porch. Cold rain slams down on me, drenching me completely. Shocked, I suck in air, and my senses smack back on. The voice is gone. I’m alone again in my head. With both hands, I clutch Linus’s shirt. He lowers me until my socks meet the wet floorboards of the porch, and then he locks me close against him. My wet sweatshirt plasters thin to my chest. I can feel his belt buckle between us and the plane of his torso where we meet.

  “Better?” Linus asks, searching into me.

  He’s so near, I can see the rain clumping his dark eyelashes into spikes.

  I nod.

  “Let’s just be sure,” he says, and dips even nearer.

  As I feel his lips meet mine, a ripple of happiness spirals through me. My eyes close, and I hold him tight. Rain is pouring down on both of us, but I don’t care. I gulp a big breath of air between raindrops and kiss him again. He is one strong, solid pillar in a haze of scary uncertainty, and I don’t want to ever let him go.

  He squeezes me tighter, and then loosens his arms enough to meet my gaze.

  “What was that?” he asks.

  “A kiss?”

  He laughs. “I mean before. You looked like you were in a trance. Could you hear me at all?”

  “Not really,” I say, shivering reflexively at the memory. I feel like I barely escaped. “This thing completely took over me. It controlled my muscles like I was a puppet. It wanted to turn me off.”

  “Did they seed a dream into you when you were down in the vault?” Linus asks.

  “Whistler said they’d never do that, but it was something. I felt it before, back in the vault, but it didn’t control me then.”

  “Is it gone now?” he asks.

  I listen inside a second, hearing only silence. Then I nod again.

  “You were pretty upset about your dad. Could that have triggered it?” he asks.

  “I have no idea. I guess it’s possible,” I say. “It said I let it through. It talked like I was no more than a pesky fly, and it wouldn’t answer any of my questions. It was terrifying.”

  “But you’re okay now?”

  I sniff hard and bite my lips inward, tasting the rain and the tenderness left from his kiss. “Yes,” I say. “A little freaked out and wet, but at least I’m me.”

  He laces his fingers in mine. I can hear the surf pounding below, and the rain falls in solid gray sheets around us.

  “Let’s get inside.” Linus tugs me back toward the door, and we go back in.

  As I close the door, shutting out the noise of the rain, my gaze goes instinctively back to where ARSELF is still written in the steam on the glass. Could the voice really have just been waiting for me to say its name? I swipe the letters clear with my hand. Then I stay where I am, plucking at my soaked clothes and dripping on the wooden floor while Linus runs to the bathroom. He reappears with a couple of towels, and I dry off as well as I can. I can’t believe I’ve managed to get my borrowed clothes all wet, too. I hug my towel around me, pulling the cottony nubs against my neck.

  Linus pulls off his shirt before he dries off, too. He catches me looking and lifts his eyebrows. “You don’t mind, do you?”

  “No.” But, naturally, I start blushing.

  He smiles. “You could take your clothes off, too,” he says.

  “What is it with you?” I ask. “My sister’s right here.”

  I glance toward the couch, and at that moment, Dubbs turns her head and opens heavy-lidded eyes.

  “Rosie?” she says in a voice thick with sleep.

  Joy spikes in my heart. I sink to the rug beside the couch and lightly smooth her hair back from her pink cheek. “Hey, girl,” I say. “I’m right here. How’re you doing?”

  She tightens her grip on her blanket and shifts her gaze around the room. “Where are we?” she asks, frowning.

  I am so happy to have her awake and speaking like normal that I have to kiss her and ruffle her hair. “We’re in California, thanks to you,” I say. “You left me a secret note, remember? You know Linus, I think.”

  He has discreetly pulled his wet shirt back on.

  “Hi,” he says.

  Dubbs pushes up on one elbow. “Is this two forty Mallorca Way?”

  “No,” I say. “We’re at a friend’s house by the ocean. We’re safe. How much do you remember?”

  She scratches a hand in her hair and then draws one of her blond curls into her mouth. “We were in Las Vegas, camping,” she says. Her eyes search the room again. “Where’s Ma and Daddy?”

  “We’re working on that,” I say. “I’m sure they’re just fine. We’re tracking them down.”

  Dubbs sits up further and puts her arms around me, leaning her nose against my neck. “I want to go home, Rosie,” she says. “That’s a fact.”

  “I know,” I say. “Me, too.”

  “You’re all wet,” she says, drawing back again.

  I laugh. “I was out in the rain.”

  She looks suspiciously toward Linus. “He’s wet, too.”

  Smiling, Linus tosses his wet towel into her lap. “So are you. Or damp, at least.”

  With a surprised look, she touches a hand to her belly. Then she shoves his towel to the floor, tugs away her blanket, and lifts her gown to expose the catheter that’s coming out of her lower abdomen.

  “What’s this?” she asks, her voice going shrill. “What is this thing?”

  “It’s okay. Calm down,” I say, taking her hands. “It’s a catheter. I can take it out. I had one myself once, and it came right out.”

  Her eyes go wide with fear. “What happened to me? Where’s Ma?”

  “Listen, I need you to take a deep breath,” I say calmly. “We’ve had some trouble. I won’t lie. But for now we’re okay, and that’s what matters. I need you to be brave and not panic, okay?”

  She looks toward Linus and then around the room before she focuses on me again. “Are we going to die?”

  “No. Of course not,” I say. “Why would you say that? Nobody’s dying.”

  “Okay,” she says. Her eyes are still huge. “Okay, but you have to tell me everything. I want to know.”

  “I will. I promise,” I say. “How about if we get this out of you first? All right?”

  She nods. “Just get it out. I don’t want to look.”

  20

  PHANTOM AUDIENCE

  WE HEAD INTO THE BATHROOM, Dubbs and I, and I’m careful snipping the threads to her catheter and drawing it out. I show her the tiny scar where I took a similar catheter out of myself, and I promise hers will heal, too. Then, very calmly, I show her my port lump in my chest. When she discovers she has one, too, she freaks out again, and we have a very bad half hour. Eventually, we put a Band-Aid over her port lump, and she makes me put one over mine, too. She’s teary-eyed and anxious, but she agrees to try to be brave, and we’re able to make it out of the bathroom.

  In Lavinia’s room, Dubbs changes into the blue shirt I found in Linus’s duffel. It’s the length of a minidress on her, and she layers it with the sailboat pajama top. She’s all skinny legs and knees, but I can tell by the way she twists and models in front of the mirr
or that she’s feeling a little better. I exchange my rain-soaked sweatshirt and pajama bottoms for a red sweater and my old scrubs pants, which are now practically dry.

  When we return to the living room, I see Linus has changed, too, and his shorts and a gray shirt look comfortable. His knees make me smile. He has noodles boiling for mac ’n’ cheese, and I move around him, gathering bowls and silverware to set the table on the crate by the couch. As I pour water in three mugs, the simple, normal activity feels sort of homey. Dubbs gets busy folding paper towels into triangles for napkins.

  “What is this place, anyway?” Dubbs says.

  I don’t want to scare her, but I promised I’d tell her everything, so I start back with how I went to the boxcars and found our family gone. I tell her how her secret note led me to Lavinia, and how I ended up in the vault of dreamers under Grisly where I found her. Watching Dubbs all along, I’m wary for any sign of fear, but she takes in the story as if the events were all one step removed from her. “You don’t remember anything from being in the vault?” I ask.

  She climbs on the couch beside me. “No, and I’m glad. When can I get my port out again?”

  “Soon,” I say. “As soon as we find Ma and Larry. Now, what can you tell me about them? When’s the last time you saw them?”

  Her eyebrows lift in surprised discovery. “At Grisly,” she says. “I didn’t know where we were, but that has to be it.”

  I feel a jolt of eagerness. Linus comes around from the kitchen to listen.

  “What do you mean? How do you know?” I ask Dubbs.

  “I saw the stores. A row of stores,” she says. “I couldn’t see much because it was dark, but I looked out of the truck and I saw this row of colorful stores. I thought it was a fake mall or something.”

  “Were Ma and Larry with you then?”

  She shakes her head. “No. They were gone. First the guys took out Daddy. He was still asleep. Then they came back a little later for Ma, and she was still asleep, too. I was looking for a chance to run away, but I couldn’t get out. They locked the door.”

  “How many guys? Do you know what they looked like?” Linus asks.

  “There were two guys. They had masks on the whole time,” she says.

  “Can you remember anything else?” I prompt her gently. “Did you see any signs or anything? Did you see any rides?”

  She scrunches up her face and then shakes her head again. “No, but it felt spooky. Really spooky. After that, they came back and gave me another shot.”

  “You were so brave,” I say. “You know that, right?”

  She hugs her knees to her chest. “I guess. Yeah.”

  I give her arm a squeeze. Already, I’m casting about in my mind, trying to think where the men might have stashed my parents. A row of shops means the truck could have been parked along the Main Drag.

  “Linus,” I say. “We have to go back.”

  “I’m coming, too,” Dubbs says.

  The complications start cropping up. We need somewhere safe for Dubbs to stay and someone to look after her. We’ll have to search the park and watch out for Berg.

  “Linus!” I say.

  “I know,” he says evenly. “We just have to think it all through. It could still be someplace else.”

  I glare at him. It is not someplace else. But he slants his eyes quickly toward Dubbs in a sharp signal, and I realize she’s hunched in a tight ball and she’s pulling the neckline of her shirt up over her nose.

  “Hey,” I say. “We’re going to get them back. You don’t have to worry, you hear me?”

  “Don’t leave me,” she says.

  “I’m not going to leave you,” I say firmly. I grab an arm around her neck and rock her against me. “You’re going to be safe. Nobody’s taking you ever again. We’re going to keep being brave, right?”

  She takes a shaky breath. Then she snuggles even closer to me and pulls my head so that my ear is near her mouth. She’s actually breathing into it.

  “What is it?” I say. “Tell me.”

  “When you never came home, I thought you were dead,” she whispers.

  I shift to put my mouth by her ear, cupping my hand around my voice. “I’m not dead,” I say softly. “Dead people can’t eat your hair.” I go for a teasing bite, and she squirms away, laughing.

  * * *

  Linus has made two boxes of mac ’n’ cheese, so there’s plenty. We have raw baby carrots, too, and whole dill pickles. The noodles are rich and comforting with their little curved elbow shapes, and I savor each mouthful.

  “You’re a good cook,” Dubbs tells him.

  “Thank you.”

  She likes to poke the tines of her fork into the holes of the noodles. “I used to see you sometimes back in the kitchen on The Forge Show,” she says. “They should have given you your own feed.”

  “That’s very nice of you,” he says.

  I smile.

  “Why’d you really get hit in the eye that time?” she asks. “Just before you met Rosie.”

  “That isn’t really when I met her,” he says.

  “It was,” Dubbs says. “It was the day of the fifty cuts.”

  “No, I met her before that, when she was moving in,” he says. “She just didn’t notice me.”

  Dubbs looks surprised, then suspicious. “I have to go back and watch that,” she says.

  I laugh. “You can believe Linus,” I say. “He was there.” He and I have been over this before.

  “Our conversation went like this,” he says. “Me: Hi. Welcome to Forge. Need a hand with your bag? Rosie: Sure, thanks. It’s kind of heavy. Me: No problem. That was it. The whole thing. It’s burned into my memory.”

  Dubbs giggles and tucks her feet under her on the couch. “Then why’d you help Rosie stay on the show?” she asks. “She wouldn’t have passed the fifty cuts without you. Did you like her?”

  “Dubbs,” I say warningly.

  Linus pushes his fork around his mac ’n’ cheese and smiles at her. “Of course I liked her. She was different. She was nice.” His beach chair creaks as he shifts in it. “She still is, sometimes.”

  “Hey,” I say.

  “Did she tell you about Daddy?” Dubbs asks him.

  A flare of alarm lights in my chest. Linus looks at me curiously.

  “No,” he says. “What about him?”

  I nudge Dubbs with my elbow, and she shoots me an abashed look. She should know better than to talk about Larry. “It’s just that he didn’t believe I’d make it at Forge,” I say. “He was sure I’d get cut.”

  Linus looks from me to Dubbs and back. “Well, he was wrong,” he says. “You’d have made it to first place if you’d stayed on the show.”

  “That’s what I think,” Dubbs agrees. She crunches on a carrot, and then she leans back, sending her gaze toward the windows. “I want to go down to the beach,” she says, and yawns.

  I look out at the gray weather. The rain has stopped, and a heavy mist hangs in the air. I’m starting to wonder where Lavinia is.

  “You sure?” I say to Dubbs. “You look like you could use a nap.”

  “Beach,” she says decisively.

  * * *

  I’ve seen pictures and movies of the beach, but nothing has prepared me for the first time I step off the rugged path and sink barefoot into the dark sand. It’s a savage beach, with the cliff behind us and loud, heavy waves that crash against a steep shoreline. For once, I want to ignore my worries about my parents and appreciate something bigger and wilder than anything I’ve ever seen. Dubbs runs ahead of me toward the water and instantly I’m scared that my voice won’t be loud enough to reach her over the sound of the water.

  “Dubbs! Don’t go too far!” I shout, and my voice comes back to me.

  But she turns, smiling, to wave both arms. “Isn’t this great?” she calls, and though her voice is muffled, too, her happiness is contagious. “Come on!” she beckons.

  I run heavily over the sand to hold hands with her. We grip t
ight and line up our feet at the edge where the last wave shrank away. We watch the next one approach, tense with anticipation, and when the icy water rushes up around our ankles, we both scream and run backward, splashing.

  Linus laughs at us.

  I have to do it again. Dubbs tightens her grip on my hand, and we cavort back to the water’s edge. It’s a ridiculous game, but I’m jubilant. The waves are pure color and sound rolling toward me. Grays, blues, and glistening light roll into one massive crash after another. Moisture hangs in the air like a layer of shimmery magic, turning the sunlight into a new, tangible substance, and every breath brings a taste of salt and some weedy decay.

  Linus takes Dubbs’s other hand, and we try jumping the waves as they reach us.

  We are not swimming. We discussed this on the way down. But the hem of Dubbs’s borrowed shirt is soon dark with water, and my rolled-up pants are wet at the knees. Below his shorts, Linus’s bare legs are wet, too. I look along the beach for other people, but the sand is deserted in both directions, and considering where we are, on the edge of the OEZ, I doubt other people will be coming.

  Another wave washes in, bigger than the others, and Dubbs squeals with laughter as she drops my hand and runs to higher ground. Following her footsteps, I’m chilled already, and salty sand clings to my legs. As Dubbs crouches on her haunches to inspect something in the sand, the wind tousles her blond hair. Then she picks up a stick of driftwood and starts strolling down the beach without bothering to look back for me and Linus.

  “Wait up!” I call.

  “She’s fine,” Linus says, pitching his voice so I can hear him easily over the surf. When we fall into step together, he dodges lightly around me to walk on my left side.

  “So I can see you,” he says.

  I put a hand on his arm and make him stop so I can look at his eyes again, this time more carefully. In the brightness by the water, the difference between his eyes is more pronounced, and the fixed, glassy black dot over his left pupil is distinctly bigger than his right one. His good eye, his right, looks far more alive. From now on, I’ll make a point of looking directly at that one.

  Suddenly, I register the frank way he’s watching me back.

 
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