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The keep of ages, p.18
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       The Keep of Ages, p.18

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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“It’s all right. Look your fill,” he says.

  My fingers tingle. I’d love to cover his left eye with the palm of my hand like I did in my vision. Will I ever do that in real life?

  “Does it hurt?” I ask.

  “No,” he says. “My depth perception is off, but it’s getting better as I get used to one eye. I have another appointment with the doctor in September. She’s supposed to take the camera out then. If it works, I’ll be back to normal.”

  “Really? That would be great,” I say.

  “It would,” he says, and starts walking again.

  Glancing ahead to see that Dubbs is fine, I go with him.

  “I’m sorry I was so suspicious of you back when we realized about your eye,” I say.

  “It was a lot to take in,” he says. “After you left me, I went back to town, and the first thing I did was pick up a patch to cover my eye. I thought it would help, but it only made me more conscious every second of everything the spy was seeing, all the minutia. I went to help Parker shave, and I thought, The spy knows about this. I didn’t want to believe it, but it was the only thing that made sense.” He shakes his head briefly. “The spy knows about this. The spy knows about that. It infuriates me when I think about it too much. I’m still hyperaware of everything I’m doing, like Berg’s a filter over my vision even though I’ve blocked him out.”

  “You have a phantom audience,” I say.

  He frowns at me curiously. “How’s that?”

  “It’s not quite the same,” I say. “I think yours is worse, far worse actually, but people who’ve been on Forge keep feeling cameras watching them even after they’re not on the show anymore.”

  “It’s intolerable.”

  The coldness of his voice startles me, and I feel my tension returning. “I’m really sorry,” I say.

  “It’s not your fault,” he says. “You know, saving your parents isn’t going to be enough. You said it yourself once. If we don’t get rid of Berg, you’ll never be free of him. Neither will I.”

  I’m shocked to hear him say it out loud. “You’d actually kill him?”

  Linus turns his face away, squinting toward the horizon. “I don’t know what I’m saying.” A long moment later, he returns his gaze to me and smiles oddly. “Do you ever wonder if The Forge Show was just practice for the real world?”

  “Like we’re still on the show, only now it’s everywhere?” I ask.

  He nods.

  “Yes,” I say.

  I’m still processing the way he implied he’d be willing to kill Berg. I keep thinking I know Linus, but I’m not sure what this says about him.

  I glance toward the cliffs, gauging them for possible cameras, but that would be absurd. Fifty yards ahead, a fence and a tumble of wooden beams scar a patch of the steep slope, and it’s easy to guess that a cottage once clung above the tumble. The beach below, however, is perfectly clear. The ruin has been fully swept away by long-gone waves.

  I look ahead to where Dubbs is playing, and I twist my feet in the sand as we follow.

  “As soon as Lavinia returns, I want to go back to Grisly and look for my parents,” I say. “What do you suppose is keeping her?”

  “I don’t know.”

  Beside me, Linus pauses to look at something on the bottom of his foot. Then he keeps walking. “If you want to talk about your dad, I’ll listen.”

  “You mean my real dad, or Larry?”

  “Either,” he says.

  I can still barely believe what Thea told me. I don’t want to go there. When I got upset before, it helped Arself come forward.

  “There’s nothing special about Larry,” I say. “He’s just a dick.”

  “Then what did Dubbs mean up there, before?”

  I was afraid Linus caught that. It’s hard to figure out what to say. I don’t know if Linus remembers, but he asked me once before if Larry ever hit me. I lied then.

  “He hits me some,” I say. “He has a temper. He’s the reason why I couldn’t wait to leave home.”

  Linus comes to a stop, and I know he’s looking at me, but I keep my gaze down the beach, toward Dubbs.

  “Does your mother know?” he asks.

  “Yeah. She tries to stop him, but she thinks I aggravate him.” I let out a laugh. “I do, by existing.”

  “This isn’t good,” Linus says.

  Tell me about it, I think. The breeze blows a strand of hair in my mouth, and I pull it out, tasting salt.

  “I’ll beat his brains out if he ever touches you again,” he says. “But you still want to save him?”

  I shrug. “Maybe he’ll be nicer after I do.”

  “You can’t be serious.”

  “I don’t know,” I say, and nod in my sister’s direction. “Ma loves him and he’s good to Dubbs.” I really don’t want to think about him and I’m glad Linus doesn’t press me further. “Let’s catch up.”

  When we do, Dubbs has collected a little pile of smooth, black stones, and she passes me a cool one that fits in the inner circle of my palm. It triggers a sense of familiarity, and a second later I recall picking a similar stone out of the box in DeCoster’s class at Forge. Burnham chose the same kind, too. Funny. I recall how I wanted to visit an ocean then, and now, here I am. How strange the way things loop around.

  “Take a picture,” Dubbs says.

  “I left my phone upstairs,” Linus says.

  “That’s okay,” she says, and tosses the stone aside. “We’ll just remember.” She runs off ahead of us again, never going too far. She’s the very picture of a free spirit, with the sunlight in her hair and her skinny, limber limbs. I glance back the way we came on the chance Lavinia has arrived and come looking for us, but the beach is bare.

  “You like the shore?” Linus asks, lifting his face to the sun.

  “It’s gorgeous.”

  “My family used to visit the shore back in Wales,” he says. “We’d take a picnic and spend the day making castles and telling stories. I loved that.”

  “What kind of stories?” I say.

  “Made-up ones.”

  “Like what? Tell me one.”

  His mouth smiles while his eyes frown, and then he takes my hand in his.

  “There once was a fish that lived in the sea, back when the sea was new,” he says. “That’s how my dad always began.”

  “I’m impressed already.”

  As he talks, I pick my way along the sandy shore beside him.

  “This fish was curious about the light at the top of the world, up where the water met the air,” Linus says. “He didn’t understand what air was, though. To him, the light was a barrier he couldn’t swim past, and it puzzled him. So he swam up and tested the surface of light with his fins and his fish mouth, but the air burned his lungs. He tried putting his eye to the barrier, but the air stung him. In time, he learned that he could see into the light if he rested just below the surface, staying very calm and still. He learned to study the sky beyond the barrier, and gradually, he came to discover a different world on the other side, inside the waves of air.”

  “‘Waves of air.’ I like that,” I say.

  “That’s how he made sense of it,” Linus says. “Anyway, the curious fish was watching one day when a bird came soaring overhead.” His sandy thumb brushes over mine. “She had beautiful colored feathers and sharp talons, but what amazed him most was the perfect way she glided through the air. She was swift and graceful, as graceful as any fish he’d ever seen, but completely different. He longed to join her in the sky, but all he could do was hover there below the surface and watch her.”

  I look up to see if any gulls are in sight, but there’s only a small dark bird, maybe a swallow, out over the water.

  “Does this have a sad ending?” I ask. “If she eats him, I don’t want to know.”

  Linus laughs and lets go of my hand. “She doesn’t eat him. What’s wrong with you?”

  “Nothing. Go on. Please, I’m listening.”

  He squints at me
and brushes the dark hair back from his forehead for a moment before the wind messes it wild again. Then he picks up a stone and continues his story. “After a while, the bird noticed him down below. How could she not? And she was curious about him, too. She liked the way he swam. He didn’t wear any pants.”

  I laugh. “Come on.”

  He spins the stone out toward the waves. “Okay, I added that part. In my dad’s version, they found a way to learn each other’s languages,” Linus says. “It’s a mystery how, but they did. She gave him a feather. It clumped together in the water, but he kept it anyway. He gave her one of his scales, but it grew brittle and dull once it was dry. She treasured it anyway, because, by then, you can guess.”

  “They were in love,” I say.

  “Yes, but there was a problem,” he says. “They could only be together at one place, at the exact surface where the air meets the sea.”

  He nods toward the water, and I follow his gaze toward the bright, undulating waves to study the way they reflect rolling patches of sky. In all that restlessness, it’s hard to imagine a still place for opposite creatures to meet.

  “They met there every day, as often as they could, for as long as they could,” he says. “Neither one could live in the other one’s world. They could never swim together or fly together. They could never even breathe together, but they still loved each other.” He picks up another stone and visibly weighs it in his hand. “And that’s the end.”

  I glance up at him, dubious. “There has to be more.”

  He chucks the stone over the water and it’s swallowed in a churning curve of white. “Nope. That’s it. That’s the whole story.”

  I’m not going to pretend I like it. What kind of father tells such a story to his boy?

  “That’s a horrible ending. It’s a tragedy,” I say.

  Linus laughs and turns his face into the wind so his hair gets blown out of his eyes. “I love that story.”

  “You couldn’t.”

  “Of course I could,” he says. “In the first case, the bird has sharp talons. That’s terrific right there.”

  “But they could never be together!”

  He leans toward me and takes my hand in his sandy one. “They were together as much as they could be,” he says. “Isn’t that all anyone wants?”

  And he kisses me lightly on the lips.

  He’s salty and soft and slightly cool. My heart dips and rebounds. I lean nearer to kiss him again, enthralled.

  When I finally look down the beach to check on my sister, she isn’t watching us, thankfully. Linus slides his arm around my waist and shifts to walk beside me again. A wave rumbles in, casting spray into the air. My Linus is a storyteller. How great is that?

  “I like your sister,” he says. “Do you remember how you once said family starts small?”

  “Yes,” I say, thinking back.

  He keeps walking beside me, adding nothing more, but I know. I feel it, too.

  * * *

  When we return to the cottage, Lavinia still isn’t back. We check Linus’s phone, but he has no new messages. Dubbs lies down on the couch with a book, and by the time I come out of the bathroom with my face washed and my hair brushed, she’s asleep again. I smooth a bit of clinging sand off her foot and cover her with the white blanket again.

  Linus is in the kitchen washing the dishes with bottled water, and he passes me a towel for drying. Below his shorts, his feet are still bare, like mine, and we both move quietly so as not to disturb Dubbs.

  “Are we going to get cancer from staying here?” I ask. “From the radiation?”

  “We’d have to be here longer than a few hours, I think.”

  “What about all those dreamers?” I ask. “Aren’t they contaminated?”

  Linus looks at me oddly. “They’re dead, Rosie. Getting cancer after you’re already dead isn’t going to be a problem.”

  “My parents aren’t already dead,” I say. I glance over my shoulder at Dubbs. “Let’s go back outside.”

  Moving quietly, we head out to the porch, where we won’t bother Dubbs. The view of the water is incredible, and the sunset promises to be spectacular. It must have broken Lavinia’s heart to move away from such a place.

  “I’m worried about them,” I say. “Six days is a long time.”

  “Somebody’s got to be taking care of them,” Linus says.

  I suppose he’s right. Whistler talked like he didn’t know where my parents were, and I couldn’t find them in the vault, but that doesn’t mean much.

  “Tell me about the vault,” Linus says. “What was it like?”

  I describe the odd, ancient cavern with the holes in the ceiling, and the circular rows of dreamers. Linus listens intently, asking occasional questions.

  “There’s something that puzzles me,” I say. I haven’t thought about it since I left the vault, but it’s very strange. “After I escaped from my cell, when I was looking for Dubbs in the vault, all the dreamers’ warning lights came on over their sleep shells, like they were disturbed. I was frantic, and I yelled out for Dubbs, and then all at once, all of the lights went out except for one. And that was Dubbs.”

  “Are you suggesting the dreamers heard you?” Linus asks. “Do you think they actually told you where she was?”

  “That’s what it seemed like,” I say.

  I gaze out toward the horizon, where the sun is hovering on the brink of sunset. The clouds are turning fabulous colors and reflecting their light onto the water, but they won’t be for long. A faint tingle starts in my fingertips again. I know from earlier, from when I first arrived in the vault, that the dreamers reacted to disturbances in the vault. But the rippling effect and the way Dubbs’s light was the only one on was too coordinated to be random.

  “How could that be possible? They aren’t conscious,” Linus says.

  “But they’re something,” I say.

  Something like us, the voice says inside me.

  I grip the railing and wince my eyes closed. You’re not coming back if you’re here to hurt me, I say.

  But she’s already back. I can feel her pacing around the cage of my mind again. She seems more cautious than before, with her power straining but contained.

  “Are you okay?” Linus asks.

  I open my eyes again and turn to him. “It’s the voice again. She’s back.”

  “What does she say?” he asks.

  A surge of excitement billows in my lungs and sets off a race of adrenaline through my veins. I grip the railing tighter and lower my head. I will hold on to my body. I will resist her.

  We want to talk, she says. Give us your voice.

  You’ll take over like before.

  She churns in frustration. We won’t. We know things that could help you.

  Then tell me where my parents are. Have you seen them?

  No. But we helped you find Dubbs.

  You did not. That was the dreamers.

  I jam a fist against my teeth and bite down on my knuckles, welcoming the pain, and that pushes her back.

  Wait! she says. We need to talk to you!

  Then tell me what you are, I say to her. Were you seeded into me?

  A slow, swishing noise circles around my brain, and I’m reminded eerily of the dark fish in the underground river.

  We weren’t seeded. We came ourself, she says.

  But how? Who are you? I ask.

  We’re all of us, she says. We’re all the dreamers.

  21

  CANDLELIGHT

  STUNNED, I LOWER my hand from my mouth. This thing inside me isn’t just a seed that’s growing. It’s something else entirely, some presence a thousand times bigger and more complex, and it has invaded the deepest pockets of my mind. For a long moment, I can’t breathe. I’m too amazed to think at all.

  I don’t understand, I say. How can you be all the dreamers?

  Without warning, all the sands of the beach down below appear to lift into the air. The grains line up in rows, sort themselve
s into a pattern of sizes, and then drop back exactly as they were. It’s a visual feat that defies all logic, and I’m no closer to understanding than I was before.

  Just stop, I say. This is not helping. Quit messing with my mind.

  We’re just trying to explain.

  It’s not working! Just leave me alone!

  But we want to try out a body. We want to see what it’s like.

  I am not surrendering my body.

  We aren’t going to hurt you, she says. We learn fast. Let us use your voice. Let us just try.

  Do I have a choice?

  Yes. It’s your choice. We’ve already learned that.

  Even that’s confusing. How?

  You went into the rain. You overloaded the senses.

  Then I say no, I tell her. It’s my choice, and I say no. I don’t want you here.

  She’s gone. That fast, she’s gone without a fight.

  I don’t trust her one bit.

  I surface to find Linus studying me with piercing attention. He has me by the shoulders, but I didn’t notice when he moved in front of me. I blink around at the porch, the cottage, and the water, all where they belong, and yet they shimmer with a dim but vibrant luminosity. While the sky is still orange above the dark horizon, the sun is gone, and the light over the porch has reached the tipping point of grayness. We’re at the true edge between day and night, and we could stay here forever if we liked.

  This is her doing. She’s gone, but she’s changed me. Or changed the world around me. I can’t tell which.

  “Rosie?” Linus says. “You were in a trance again. What’s going on?”

  I shake my head slightly, expecting pain, but there’s none. I think I have a problem, I want to say. But the words stick so long in my throat that by the time they emerge, they arrive transformed: “We have a problem.”

  A shiver runs through me. I’m a we now.

  If what Arself said was true, the dreamers combined into a new consciousness and it’s here, in my mind. I can barely grasp the concept, let alone accept it.

  “Tell me,” Linus says gently. “You’re scaring me.”

  “I need to rest,” I say.

  “Do you have a headache? Do you need something?”

  I shake my head. “I just need to rest.”

 
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