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The vault of dreamers, p.17
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.17

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  He tossed me the ball and I caught it. For the first time since before the fifty cuts, he smiled at me for real, and I smiled back, relieved. Burnham’s gaze shifted toward the door behind me.

  I turned to see Linus framed in the doorway.

  19

  THE LOOKOUT TOWER

  LINUS’S HAIR WAS shorter, and he was wearing a dark jacket I hadn’t seen before.

  “Hey, Sinclair,” he said. “You busy?”

  I smiled and set the Ping-Pong ball back on Burnham’s paper clip. “Come on in. Do you know Burnham?”

  Linus stayed where he was in the doorway. Burnham swiveled his chair around and said hi. Linus said hi back.

  It wasn’t awkward at all.

  Linus hooked a hand around the back of his neck and looked toward me. “I was wondering if you wanted to come do something,” he said. “I’ve got a half hour.”

  “It’ll take me a minute to pack up,” I said.

  “I can watch your stuff,” Burnham said.

  “Are you sure?” I asked.

  Burnham reached over to swipe my touch screen, and nine bars showed the uploading progress of my footage. “No problem,” he said.

  “Thanks. I’ll be back soon,” I said, and zipped up my backpack to leave it tidy by my chair.

  Linus and I climbed the stairs to the main door of the library and pushed out into the fresh air. Though it was still sunny, the temperature had dropped, and I could hear a breeze rippling the trees along the quad.

  “You cut your hair,” I said. He’d taken out a couple of his earrings, too, I noticed.

  “It’s too short,” he said.

  “No, it’s good.” I examined the back of his neck where the trim little hairs looked soft and sharp. He looked older, somehow, with the shape of his head more defined. “It’s definitely good.”

  “Thanks. Want to watch the storm come in?” he asked.

  I glanced over my shoulder at a dark bank of clouds. “Sure.”

  “I know just the place,” he said, and reached for my hand. “You’re cold.”

  “A little,” I admitted.

  He shrugged out of his jacket and put it around my shoulders.

  “But then you’ll be cold,” I protested.

  “No, I’m fine,” he said. He had only his white tee shirt on, and I could see goose bumps all up his arms.

  I protested again, but he insisted, and when I reluctantly slid my arms into the sleeves of his jacket, I could feel his residual body heat in the fabric.

  “Okay, I’m never giving this back,” I said.

  He laughed. “I’ve missed you,” he said.

  “You saw me yesterday.”

  “Even so.”

  I lifted my gaze quickly to his. He meant he missed me at night.

  “I have to be in class sometimes,” I said.

  “I know.”

  We moseyed between the chapel and the art building. He leaned over sideways and put a kiss on my earlobe.

  “You’re cute in my clothes,” he said. “Want my pants?”

  “Like that’ll happen,” I said, laughing.

  “You wouldn’t have to actually wear my pants,” he clarified. He nodded at the chapel. “We could always take a couple blankets behind the organ.”

  I’d heard about that. “But there are still cameras back there,” I said.

  “I know. It’s not ideal.”

  “And everyone would know what we’re doing.”

  “They would, yes,” he said, smiling. “They would absolutely know.”

  “Are you teasing me?” I asked.

  “Maybe.”

  “Just how old are you?” I asked.

  “Seventeen,” he said. “How about you?”

  “Fifteen.”

  “When’s your birthday?” he asked.

  “December.”

  “December whath?”

  “December fifth,” I said. “Why?”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “Sixteen just seems like a good age.”

  “For what?”

  “For teasing somebody.”

  I laughed again. We were walking behind the art building, past my favorite wooden spools, and I glanced up at the lookout tower where a big camera lens was, predictably, aimed at me. Linus drew me over to the base of the tower.

  “Hey, Otis!” Linus called up. “Drop us the key!”

  The old man with the mustache peeked out from behind the camera. “A storm’s coming.”

  “Yeah, I know,” Linus called. “That’s why we’re coming up.”

  “Stand back,” Otis said.

  A moment later, Otis tossed out a small, spiky object that fell in a long arc to the gravel at our feet. A trio of metal, old-fashioned keys was attached to a mini rubber duck. I peered toward the top again.

  “Watch that ninth step,” Otis called.

  Linus worked the key in the lock, pushed open the thick door, and held it for me.

  Inside was a dim, dusty stairwell that smelled of cool stone and old wood. I moved farther in to peer up the center column of the stairs, liking the ascending, octagonal spiral.

  “I should have brought my video camera. You know all the coolest places,” I said. “Are we still on the show in here?”

  “Of course,” he said, and pointed out a camera. “Only people who have Otis’s permission can come in the tower, though.”

  “So you had to use your special connections.”

  “That’s right.”

  Our shoes made hollow noises on the steps, and the railing was dusty under my fingertips. With each window I passed, the scene outside dropped lower. One window showed foreshortened little people between the dining hall and the student union. The next overlooked the infirmary roof. At the top, the staircase ended in an open lookout area and as I turned to meet Otis, I found he had turned one of the long-range cameras inward to aim at me. The black lens was as big as a pie plate.

  “Hello,” I said.

  The old man shifted from behind the camera. “Forgive the overkill. I don’t usually have guests,” he said.

  “Otis, this is my friend Rosie Sinclair,” Linus said. “Otis Fairwell.”

  “How are you?” I asked.

  “Fine, thank you,” Otis said. “It’s a pleasure.”

  He made no move to shake hands, and I wondered if he was deliberately staying off camera or if he was naturally shy. Short and thin, he was dressed in a thick camo jacket and baggy trousers. His eyes were sharp, with deep squint lines, and he wore a typical Forge earphone. A hunting cap, the same gray hue as his mustache, fit his scalp with worn familiarity.

  At his feet, a sleek golden retriever panted at me and gave a thump of its tail. Its nose was gray with age.

  “This here’s Molly,” Linus said, and crouched down to rub the dog’s furry neck. “Hey, girl. Good dog.”

  “How old is she?” I asked.

  “Fourteen,” Linus said.

  “She has trouble with the stairs,” Otis added. “Linus carries her up and down for me. Go on, now. Admire my view.”

  I braced a hand on the railing and peered out. “Oh, wow.”

  “Nice, right?” Linus said.

  The air was incredibly fresh. The land stretched away for sweeping miles all around us. Far out on the horizon, a streak of sunlight dropped down and lit up a shimmering, narrow patch of prairie green. In the other direction, to the west, black clouds piled high over a giant, slanting curtain of gray rain.

  “I don’t allow any other view in all of Kansas to be prettier than that there,” Otis said. He flicked a match and cupped it to light a cigarette between his lips.

  “Can we see your house?” I asked Linus.

  He pointed toward Forgetown. “It’s that gray one, the second one behind the water tower.”

  “With the dog house?”

  “Yes, and the black shutters,” he said.

  “Nice,” I said.

  Linus smiled at me, and then turned to Otis. “Want a hand with the windows?


  “Just those six,” Otis said, pointing. “Leave the other two up.”

  Linus reached to unhook the big windows, which swung down on their hinges, and I helped to fasten them closed. As we finished the sixth, a wash of drops darkened the sidewalks and roofs below, and the sound pelted against the glass.

  “Fun,” I said, laughing. “Has the tower ever been hit by lightning?”

  “Thirty-three times that I’ve recorded,” Otis said. “We’ve got a rod. It’s safe enough, but you can feel the shake of the power, that’s for sure.”

  I believed him. A framed photo of Otis with his arm around another man’s shoulders was nailed to a post. Down a couple of steps, behind a tidy curtain, I glimpsed a little washroom with a sink. Another corner had a minifridge, a Hot Pot, and a spindly begonia. A hammock was looped on a hook.

  It struck me that this was the place Linus called me from when we were talking on our walkie-hams.

  “It must be nice up here at night,” I said.

  Linus smiled. “It is.”

  He came to stand beside me as we looked out one of the open windows. I bunched up the sleeves of the jacket Linus had loaned me and slid my hands into the pockets. My fingers came up against a hard ridge.

  His swipe key was in the right pocket.

  Excitement flared inside me before I realized I would be stealing. I had no idea how mad he would be if I took his key. Probably very. Guilt hovered in my fingertip but I already knew what I was going to do.

  A rumble of thunder shook the windows.

  “Your lips are a little blue,” he said. His eyes frowned while his mouth smiled. “Let’s see.”

  I tipped my face up for his inspection and hoped he couldn’t see my agitation about his swipe key. Then I felt his finger touch lightly to my lower lip.

  “They don’t feel cold,” he said, and brought his mouth to mine.

  I could never get used to kissing Linus. He was sweet and unnerving every time, especially now, when I felt a twinge of shame for what I was going to do. He shifted both his arms around me, snuggling me against him. My feet went pigeon-toed to fit between his. Where his jacket on me came open between us, the feel of him made me suck in my stomach and want to be even closer.

  A discreet “ahem” alerted me to Otis standing there with his monstrous camera, not ten feet away.

  “Ignore him,” Linus said.

  “I can’t,” I said, blushing.

  I leaned my forehead against Linus for a moment, and then I glanced over my shoulder at the old man. “Does Linus bring all his girlfriends up here?” I asked.

  “Yes,” Otis said.

  Surprised, I spun back to Linus.

  “Are you going to explain for her, Otis?” Linus asked.

  “You’re doing a good enough job explaining, I guess,” Otis said.

  Linus kept me near. “You’re the only one.”

  I studied him. “Really? Wait, I’m the only girlfriend you’ve brought here, or the only one you’ve had?”

  “Both,” he said simply.

  I was still uncertain. “But you kissed somebody before. I distinctly remember you telling me that,” I said. “These things matter, Linus.”

  Linus laughed. “She wasn’t exactly a girlfriend. She was more of a neighbor, looking to practice.”

  I just bet she was.

  “It’s better practicing with you, needless to say,” he added. His hand slid to my waist under the jacket, and he kissed me once more. At the next rumble of thunder, he leaned close to my ear. “Would you please stay awake tonight and call me?”

  I jumped inside.

  “Are you afraid of thunder?” he asked at normal volume.

  “Only when it’s really loud,” I said, and when another crash of thunder came just then, I laughed and covered my ears.

  “We should go,” Linus said. “Chef Ted expects me back. Your friend’s waiting for you in the library, too.”

  I’d forgotten about Burnham, but Linus was right.

  “Thanks for having me up here,” I said to Otis.

  “It’s funny. I’ve only met a handful of students over the years,” he said. “I think I know you from the cameras, but it’s different once you know me back, even a little. Come up again anytime, with or without Linus.”

  His invitation surprised me. “Thanks.”

  Linus gave Molly another friendly petting, and we started down the stairs.

  In the dimness, it was simple to move his swipe key to the pocket of my jeans. When we reached the bottom, I opened the door and paused at the prospect of all the rain, now that I was going to have to run through it.

  “Otis liked you,” Linus said.

  “I liked him, too,” I said. I slid off Linus’s jacket and passed it back to him.

  “No, keep it. You’ll get all wet,” he said.

  “I’m fine. Really,” I said. “You have to go to work. You don’t want to be wet all night, and I can run back to my dorm and change and get my own jacket.”

  “That’s ridiculous. I’m two paces from the dining hall.”

  I backed up, smiling, and stepped into the rain so I was already drenched. “Too late,” I called, and I took off sprinting, with his swipe key in my pocket.

  * * *

  Back in my dorm, I was able to hide Linus’s swipe key under my clean sweatshirts while I was changing, and once I was in dry things, I took an umbrella and headed back to the library. Burnham had loaded all of my footage onto the computer and organized it in my editing program so I would be able to watch it efficiently. I hardly knew how to thank him.

  We went over to dinner together. When we were joined by Janice, Paige, and Henrik, I liked the relaxed friendliness of our circle, especially when one of them teased me about my blip rank. It had risen into the thirties again without any special effort from them. Once, I looked up to see Linus working in the kitchen, and I felt a complicated hitch of guilt, half for him being an outsider, and half for stealing his swipe key. I didn’t know when he would notice either.

  Later that evening, when Orly came by with the pills, I faked swallowing mine for the first time in nearly a month. As soon as she was gone and the lights were out, I took the pill out of my cheek and put it in my pillowcase. Then I closed my hand around my walkie-ham, weighing my options.

  On one hand, Linus had asked me point-blank to stay up and call him. I could picture him in the lookout tower, surrounded by Otis’s gear and the stars, waiting for me to connect. The problem was, I’d stolen Linus’s swipe key. He might even be in trouble for losing it. I didn’t think he’d tell on me. Not at first. But I might only have one chance to use it before it was deactivated, assuming it wasn’t already.

  If I called Linus, I would have to admit I’d done something wrong and face his anger. I knew he’d tell me not to use the swipe key. But I had to use it. The news of Ellen’s death disturbed me, and I couldn’t get past the idea it might be connected to what was happening here at night.

  I needed to know where they took our sleep shells. Just that much. If I could figure out that one thing and see for certain that no one was harming us, I promised myself I would let the rest of my suspicions go.

  I left my walkie-ham off and tried not to think of Linus waiting futilely for my call. After midnight, when I knew that the techies would leave for the night, I quietly got up and peered out the window. All the floors of the dean’s tower, including the fifth and the penthouse, were dark. The only illumination was a slight glow from the corner of the sixth floor, where I had seen Dean Berg once before.

  I could only hope he’d been lulled into inattention by all my nights of obedient sleeping.

  Quietly and swiftly, I pulled on my jeans and tucked in my nightie. I threw on a sweatshirt and shoved my feet into my sneakers. Grabbing Linus’s swipe key and my video camera, I hurried out the door and down the stairs to the basement. I passed the elevator, and this time, when I came to the service tunnel door, I slicked Linus’s pass through the crevice. T
he light stayed red, for locked. I turned the key over and swiped it again. The light blinked once, and then turned green.

  I was in.

  I gripped the handle, caught my breath, and pushed the door open.

  A concrete corridor flickered to life before me as motion-detector lights came on above. They buzzed faintly. Gray paint was chipping from the walls, but the floor was smoothly swept, and the cool, musty air held a familiar hint of ammonia.

  The door closed behind me with a click. I checked quickly for cameras, but the walls and ceiling had none. I was offstage, invisible, and that alone was worth a smile. I hurried until I came to an intersection of more corridors. The three new hallways all led toward darkness, and no signs gave any directions. Behind me, my corridor was going dim as the lights turned off, one by one.

  The last light above me went off, plunging me into darkness, and as my other senses sharpened, the combination of mustiness and ammonia brought me an odd awareness: I’d been here before. This scent had penetrated my sleep, which meant I’d been wheeled this way before, in my sleep shell.

  I waved a hand to make the lights go on again, and trusting instinct, I turned right. Lights kept coming on above me, and soon the next corridor ended at another steel door. I put my ear to the cool metal, hearing silence. Then I turned the handle and pushed.

  I’d arrived in a wood-paneled hallway, with an elevator, a staircase leading up, a set of bathrooms, and a couple of empty vending machines. I checked quickly for camera buttons and found none, which meant I was still offstage. But where?

  The elevator dinged.

  I bolted back. As the doors whooshed open, I squeezed behind the nearest vending machine.

  “Don’t mention it,” a woman said. She had a crackly, high voice. “I don’t mind waiting. It’s better than walking back with you-know-who. Good gracious. Would you believe it? Still?”

  A bang came against the vending machine and I jumped out of my skin.

  “I don’t know why we even try,” said a second voice. “They never fill these machines. Why do they even have them if they never fill them up?”

  “I have to use the can before we go. Coming?” the first voice said.

  “This has been the longest day.”

  A door was opened, and their voices receded into the echoey space of the bathroom. I squeezed sideways a little farther behind the vending machine and tried to peer down past my shoulder so I wouldn’t bump into a plug and electrocute myself. The two vending machines were side by side, presenting a united front, but the second machine was farther away from the wall, concealing a narrow, upright space in the corner of the room. Not counting a furry layer of dust, it was the perfect place to hide.

 
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