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The rule of mirrors, p.18
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.18

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “You’ve been through it, huh?” he says.

  “No worse than you.”

  “I want to hear all about it. Hungry?”

  “I’m starving.”

  He brings me in. Before I can look around, a yip makes me turn to the kitchen where a small brown dog is standing on alert.

  “That’s my parents’ dog,” Burnham says. “They’ve gone up to DC to help my sister move into a new apartment, and they asked me to watch him for a couple days. Here, Waffles. Say hi to Rosie.”

  The dog sits instead and licks its tiny chops.

  “He’s not a very smart dog,” Burnham says mournfully.

  I have to laugh. “Do your parents know I’m here?” I ask.

  “I didn’t tell them yet, but I’m sure our guy at the gate has told them I had a girl delivered.”

  “Nice way to put it. Can you not tell your mother I’m here?” I ask.

  “She’s still one of your biggest fans,” he says. “She’ll be glad you’re visiting.”

  I find it hard to believe she doesn’t blame me even a little for the accident. “Even so.”

  He looks at me closely, and his eyebrows lift. “Not a problem,” he says. “Do you like lasagna?”

  “Sure.”

  He stops by a corner where a couple of computers are running and taps a few keys before he heads into the kitchen area. A smooth black stone sits on top of one computer, and a Ping-Pong ball rests on a paper clip, like the one back at Forge. I can’t help taking the ball and giving it a toss. The place doesn’t have a Ping-Pong table, though. No cameras, either, I notice.

  A stone fireplace anchors one wall of the living room, and another wall is bright with large sliding-glass doors that lead to a deck. An elevator takes up another corner. I glimpse a couple of bedrooms and a workout room down the hall. Framed photos show three generations of his family, and he has tons of books and comics.

  “I could like this place,” I say, and absently give the ball another toss.

  “Henrik sent me that,” he says from behind the kitchen counter. “I had the weirdest gaps in my vocabulary when I was first recovering, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember ‘Ping-Pong.’ Do you want fresh Parmesan? I can call over to the house for it.”

  “No, I’m good,” I say. “Whatever happened with your Forge School computer game?”

  “I put it on hold.”

  “What have you been doing?” I ask.

  “When I’m not in P.T.? School stuff and some data analysis for my parents,” he says. “I’ve decided to become a doctor after all.”

  The oven beeps as he sets a temperature.

  “Your parents must be psyched,” I say. “What are you doing for high school?”

  “I have this tutor. He’s a bear. I’m going to take my GED early and apply to college next year.” He waves his fingers at the oven. “This will take a few minutes to warm up,” he says. “Do you want to clean up before we eat?”

  “Do I smell that bad?”

  He laughs. “No.”

  “I’m kidding. I’d love a shower.”

  He guides me to a guest bathroom, and I have never seen so many clean white towels in my whole life. The inside of the marble sink is ribbed like a giant shell, and the creamy paneling reminds me of those pictures in fancy architecture magazines. There’s even a skylight over the Jacuzzi.

  A pile of clean clothes has been set on a chair. I touch the soft pink of a shirt and look up at him.

  “My sister left some stuff here,” Burnham says. His voice is quiet in the cool, echoey space. “She won’t mind if you use it.”

  He’s just incredibly thoughtful. I hardly know what to say.

  “This is an amazing place,” I say.

  He’s looking up toward the skylight, not at me.

  “Yeah, I’m lucky,” he says, but his voice is oddly flat. “Take your time.”

  He softly closes the door, and a full-length mirror on the back of it gives me a sudden, unexpected view of myself. I’m skinny and dirty, in scuzzy boots and a sagging coat. My hair, I don’t even know what shape it’s in, and under my low, dark eyebrows, my eyes have a furtiveness that I’ve never seen in myself before. This dodgy girl in the mirror—frankly, she’s scary.

  Why Burnham should like a girl like me, I don’t know. But he does. I can tell. And that makes me nervous. I hope coming here wasn’t a mistake.

  * * *

  After my shower, I brush out my wet, wavy hair and leave it to dry on my shoulders. The clothes Burnham set out include a new three-pack of undies and a black, spaghetti-strap camisole. No bra. The leggings are gray with George Washington University printed on the thigh. The pink shirt has a sweetheart neckline that dips a bit low on me, but it’s soft and I like it, even though I haven’t worn pink since I was five.

  I take a stool at the counter while Burnham limps around on the other side, cutting a loaf of French bread and setting out plates. He pulls a bubbling dish out of the oven and serves up two huge slices of lasagna. He’s adept with his right hand, and he uses his stiffly curled left hand to brace things. Once a splash of red sauce lands on his dark skin, and he rinses it clean.

  “What can I help with?” I ask.

  “You could take these over to the couch,” he says, nodding at the dishes.

  We eat on his couch, facing the porch, and the lasagna is by far the best food I’ve ever had in my life.

  I settle a foot under me and ask him about his recovery. He tells me about moving to different hospitals and rehab places. One of the best, it turns out, is right nearby in Atlanta. He had memory problems at first, and trouble speaking and finding the right words, but gradually that improved. His leg is improving, too. His wrist and hand, not so much. His family has been amazing, he says, and fierce about making him independent.

  “What about you?” he asks. “Where’ve you been all this time?”

  As I tell him about my months in the vault at Onar, I again feel my simmering rage at Berg. Burnham leans back, regarding me thoughtfully, and with a bit more prodding, I spill out the details of my escape, my time with Jenny and Portia, and my road trip with Ian. By the end, I’m so restless it’s hard to stay on the couch. I set my empty plate on the coffee table and hug a pillow.

  “What do you intend to do next? Go home?” Burnham asks.

  I’m not sure I can tell him yet that I plan to go for Berg. “Maybe.”

  “You haven’t called your parents yet, have you?”

  I shake my head. “No. I don’t trust them. They let Berg take me.”

  “Have you talked to Linus?”

  “I did last Friday. It wasn’t good.” It was, in fact, a bitter, confusing dose of disappointment.

  “How so?” Burnham says.

  “He tried to apologize.”

  “And that’s bad?”

  “Why are we talking about Linus?” I ask.

  Burnham slides his plate onto mine and sets both our forks neatly on top. When he glances up, his expression is inscrutable.

  “Tell me something,” he says. “I’ve watched the footage from the day we fell and the day afterward when you were in your so-called meltdown, so I know what you said to Linus about the dream mining. How much did Berg know about your suspicions before we fell from the ladder?”

  “Are you wondering if he made me fall on purpose?”

  “Yes.”

  Waffles climbs onto the couch next to Burnham, and he ruffles the dog’s furry neck.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t see how he could have made us fall, or at least not directly.” I take a deep breath. “I’ve never told anybody this, but I was having a déjà vu when we fell off the observatory ladder. It sort of predicted our fall as it was happening. I had a similar experience once before, that time I half fainted inside the observatory.”

  “Do you think the déjà vu was connected to the mining?” he asks.

  I nod. “Berg was mining and seeding me back then. In the observatory, I had a viv
id image of the man who hanged himself there, a really vivid image of him down to his ankles and his black shoes. I think that image came from a dream seed, and I think being around the observatory became a kind of trigger, like it jostled my subconscious and made me dizzy.”

  “If you were having a déjà vu, and you knew we were going to fall, then what were we doing on that ladder?” Burnham asks.

  “I didn’t know we would fall,” I say. “It wasn’t a pattern that I understood yet. I’m still not completely sure. I was fine when I started up the ladder. Then, once the déjà vu started, I couldn’t do anything about it.”

  Burnham keeps petting Waffles with his good hand while his eyes aim unhappily toward the windows.

  “Just say what you’re thinking,” I tell him.

  “I nearly died, Rosie.”

  “I know! I’m sorry,” I say. “I never meant to hurt you.”

  He doesn’t say he forgives me, which is what I want to hear. He doesn’t say anything or do anything but pet his dog.

  I can’t sit still anymore. I shift off the couch and take our dishes to the kitchen counter. “I shouldn’t have come here,” I say. “You blame me for everything.”

  “Not everything.”

  “Thanks,” I say with a pained laugh.

  “I’d rather blame Berg than you.” He shakes his head briefly. “Really it was my own fault. I knew we shouldn’t go up that ladder. I saw the sign. I knew it wasn’t safe, but I followed you anyway.” His hand goes still on Waffles’s back. “I never expected you’d actually come visit me. This is kind of a lot to handle, Rosie.”

  Regret seeps out of my heart with nowhere to go. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I really am.”

  He looks up at me from his place on the couch. “Let’s agree about something. Let’s not blame anybody for what happened, and let’s not be sorry for each other.”

  I clench the edge of the counter. “I blame Berg for ruining my life,” I say. “I’m not giving that up.”

  “It’s not going to help you any.”

  “It will, though. It’ll help me get even.”

  I squeeze some soap on a scrubby and start washing the dishes. Burnham stands slowly and gives his left leg a little throw to get it moving. Then he brings over his glass. I wipe the counters while he puts away the extra lasagna.

  “If you were going to get even with Berg, how would you do it?” Burnham asks, closing the refrigerator door.

  “Why? Want to help?”

  “Maybe.”

  I glance over at him. Burnham the do-gooder might have a nefarious side after all. “I need to learn more about Berg’s research and find out how he’s connected to the Chimera Centre,” I say. “Ian told me there’s another place for dreamers in California, and I want to know if that’s connected to Berg, too.”

  “How many dreamers did you see under Forge?”

  “Maybe fifty? Sixty? They filled an entire room down there. More than I could count.”

  “Then it had to be a serious project getting them out of there after you were expelled. They disappeared in a short time with nobody seeing,” Burnham says.

  This is a logistical problem I haven’t considered before. “Good point,” I say.

  “Do you know where the dreamers come from originally?”

  “St. Louis. Berg has them supplied from the Annex, according to Ian.”

  He nods. “Interesting.” He glances toward his computer corner. “I might have an idea.”

  He takes a laptop and brings it to the couch. When he opens it up, I spot a piece of black tape covering the lens.

  “We share the same paranoia,” I say, pointing to the tape.

  “I hate cameras. Come sit.”

  I settle in beside him, on his right. Burnham works the keyboard one-handed, with unerring speed. He pulls up a file with a bunch of numbers, and then a map of the United States with circles and dots spread all over it like bubbles. They look like files from his family’s pharmaceutical company. “These are sales of a specific Fister drug by location,” he said. “One sale is a dot. A thousand sales is one of these bigger circles. I can narrow down the time frames, and I can identify when a certain pharmacy has a peak of sales.”

  “That is scary precise information.”

  “Look here. This is Forgetown,” he says, and focuses in on Kansas. He sets up an evolving cycle, showing sales of a drug over a period of decades. The circles fluctuate, but generally get bigger. He runs it through again. “The Forge School is a consistent customer of our sleep meds,” he says. “They buy in batches eight times a year so the product is always fresh, but look here.” He stops the map on an image when the circle is as large as my thumbnail. “Sometimes there are extra orders on top of the normal sales. The number of students doesn’t change, so why the sudden increase?”

  I puzzle over the map. “Maybe Berg needs extra meds for his dreamers,” I say. “Or he could be buying the meds at the school and using them someplace else.”

  “Possibly. I have something else, too, but it’s a little sick.”

  “Fine with me,” I say.

  He brings up another map of the United States. This one has several dozen pinpoints spread all over the country, from L.A. to Bangor, Maine, and from Ft. Lauderdale to Bellingham, Washington.

  “These are Forge School alums. And these,” he pauses to type, and a dozen of the pinpoint dots turn red. “These are suicides and accidental deaths of anyone who was ever on the show, whether they made first cuts or not.”

  “Like Emily Thorpe, the singer from our year,” I say.

  “Exactly.”

  I lean in, fascinated and sad, as if the misery behind the dots gives them gravitational pull. “I met her in the chapel basement, right before the cuts,” I say. “She was in bad shape. She was in a car accident a few weeks later.” There are twenty-one dots, and when I check the date range, they’re all within the past five years. “This is awful,” I say softly. “The trustees said the number of suicides was more like seven or eight, but this is way more.” It doesn’t take a genius to realize the numbers are much too high for one small school. I turn to Burnham. “Why don’t people care more about this? Why aren’t they looking into it?”

  “I don’t know,” he says. “We all signed the waivers. Students and their families can’t legally hold Forge accountable for anything. I’m not sure they even realize there’s a pattern.”

  “But people should be warned. Students should know they’re risking their lives when they go to Forge.”

  “Would it have stopped you?” he asks.

  I think about how desperate I was to go to the school. I would have believed I could beat any odds. “Probably not,” I say. “I didn’t leave even after I knew wild things were happening at night.”

  He leans back. “There’s a curious thing about statistics,” he says. “People only believe them when it’s convenient.”

  I pull my feet up on the couch and sit cross-legged. “I’m not sure what this proves. Why are you looking into all of this?”

  “My parents wanted me to see if there was a correlation between the suicides and Fister drugs,” he says. “So far, I can’t find one, but I can’t rule it out, either. We designed the twelve-hour med specifically for the Forge School. Maybe suicide is a long-term side effect. My parents insist it’s not. They think there’s a separate cause.”

  “Like the mining,” I say.

  “My parents are skeptical about the mining,” he says. “But they do think there’s an unknown separate cause.”

  I consider him with a new sense of appreciation. “You’ve been trying to prove me right, haven’t you?”

  “I was always curious about what was going on at Forge,” he says. “At first, when I went there, I felt a kind of responsibility because Fister drugs were being used. I wanted to see for myself that everyone was fine at night, you know? So I stayed awake with the antidote a few times, and then one night, I saw Dr. Ash giving one of the other guys an IV. It looked lik
e he was having a seizure. That didn’t seem right. When you started looking for your ghosts with cameras everywhere at night, I realized you must have discovered something, too.”

  “That’s when you gave me your note.”

  “Yes. I thought we could work together to figure out what was going on. But then we fell,” Burnham says. He frowns for a moment. “Why do you think Berg got involved with the dream mining? Why would he risk it?”

  “For money maybe.”

  He shakes his head and sets aside his computer. “He must have a better reason. Some personal reason. How much do you know about him?”

  I consider what I know. “You once told me he went to medical school and law school. He has an ex-wife and two kids. Twins. They’re about our age, and they live in New York. He also has a vacation place in Colorado where he pretends to keep me. And he likes to watercolor.”

  He laughs. “Like, paint?”

  “Yes,” I say, and I look absently toward the glass door. Evening has arrived without me noticing it, and a couple of small lamps have come on by the deck. “I talked to Berg a couple days ago. He said something disturbing, some question about me getting enough stimulation. He seemed to suggest that he let me go on purpose. He’s still into mind games.”

  “It is strange that there’s no news about you,” Burnham says. “Do you think Jenny and her sister decided not to call the hotline?”

  “Maybe Berg bought them off somehow,” I said. “It’s weird. I feel like he’s just waiting for me to do something before he pounces out from nowhere and grabs me again.”

  “My sister Sammi said the contract you signed with Berg that made him your guardian wasn’t legally binding. She thought it was just a gimmick for the show.”

  “Then why weren’t my parents able to get me back from him?” I say. “Your sister’s theory doesn’t help.”

  “I’m sorry,” he says.

  “He’s after me. I can feel it.”

  “Our security guy will tell me if anyone steps on our property,” he says. “You’re safe here.”

  For now, I think. I’m not sure I’m really safe anywhere. “I’d love to spy on Berg for a change.”

 
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