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The rule of mirrors, p.19
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.19

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Burnham takes off his glasses and rubs the lenses with a corner of his shirt. “Funny you should say that. I’ve tried to hack into the Forge computer system to dig around, but I can never get far. It runs on a closed network.”

  “But they’re always collecting viewer data for the blip ranks,” I say. “Can’t you get in that way?”

  “That’s a separate system,” he says. “I can’t get to anything private, like Dean Berg’s or Dr. Ash’s files. The best I managed was to disarm the swipe locks of the doors once.”

  “What if you could get onto Berg’s computer directly?” I ask.

  “Then I’d be in, but I’m never going back to Forge.” He rubs his eyes.

  “Tired?” I ask.

  “A little.” He puts his glasses on again and aims his gaze toward the deck.

  A red-tailed squirrel is poised on the picnic table, dissecting a nut so the shards of hard peel scatter around him. Burnham’s place is so peaceful that I ought to be able to relax a little. But I can’t. I’m wired all the time. Edgy.

  I check around once again, reflexively looking for cameras. The corners of the walls and furniture are clear, and the white ceiling has no bumps or eyes along its seams.

  “We’re private,” Burnham says.

  “Do you ever get used to that?” I ask.

  “No.”

  21

  THEA

  BEST DOG EVER

  THE MORNING AFTER I talked to Linus, I searched the Internet again for any news of Rosie. There was none. She puzzled me. I was relieved that she’d escaped from Berg, but I couldn’t guess where she was, and that bugged me because I felt that I should be able to reason out where she would go. She and I were growing apart now that we were both out of the vault, and as impatient as I was to find her, she obviously didn’t feel the same. It was so tempting to try to reach her through our Forge email.

  “Althea!” Madeline called from downstairs.

  I closed my computer and rolled off my bed to stand in the doorway. “Yes?” I called down.

  “You have some friends here to see you.”

  I made my way down to meet three girls I’d never seen before. They acted warm and concerned about me, but it was totally awkward. I mixed up their names. They wanted to take an ussie of the four of us. I said no. One of them got all teary-eyed, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Madeline mercifully stepped in, and the girls left shortly after.

  “No more of that,” I said to Madeline, waving them off.

  “They mean well,” she said.

  “Do they? I get the feeling they came to see the show.”

  Madeline didn’t deny it. We headed back to the kitchen, where Solana dozed in a parallelogram of sunlight from the window.

  “A couple of reporters have called asking for interviews,” she said. “The press doesn’t seem to know you’re pregnant yet, but that won’t last. I’ll just keep telling them no, if that’s what you want.”

  “Thanks.”

  My phone buzzed with another message from Tom. I glanced at it briefly and set it back on the table. Madeline filled me in about the appointments she’d lined up for me with a local neurologist and a nurse midwife. My physical therapist was coming to the house later in the afternoon. Madeline had made me haircut and manicure appointments, too, which was more than I’d bargained for. I gazed out to the pool where the morning light was reflecting on the blue water.

  “What would you think about looking into summer classes at the community college?” Madeline asked. She stepped over to a tablet on the kitchen desk and began typing. A varicose vein showed below her knee. “Your baby will be a little older by then, and we can watch him or her for a few hours while you’re at school. You could start with a basic psych class. See if it’s what you’re still interested in.”

  I hadn’t even finished high school. “It’s hard to think that far ahead,” I said.

  “It might help to have a focus,” she said.

  “Like I’m your focus?”

  She stopped typing. “Excuse me?” she said.

  I took a deep breath. “I don’t need you managing my life for me.”

  “I’m only pointing out your options,” she said.

  This was bigger than that. I had a new name now. Being me wasn’t about choosing between Althea and Rosie. It wasn’t a war in my head. It was more of a melding truce, and I was going to have to stand up for who I was as Thea. “If we’re going to consider my options, what would you think about me putting up the baby for adoption?” I asked.

  Madeline’s eyes narrowed, and her voice thinned to black ice. “Don’t you dare.”

  “It might be the kindest thing to do,” I said. “I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a mother just yet.”

  “We did not save you and your baby just so you could turn around and give up that baby for adoption. Out of the question.”

  “It doesn’t hurt to talk about it,” I said.

  “Yes, it does,” she said.

  “Why?” I asked. “I thought Catholics supported adoption. Didn’t you save me because you’re Catholic?”

  “Althea!”

  “I just want to know,” I said. It felt good to speak up. “You saved your daughter, but you never intended to save me, and now I want to know where I stand. What rights do I have? I’m not going to be friends with those girls who just left. We have nothing in common. What if I don’t feel like going to community college? What if I don’t want to be a mother? You can’t just shoehorn me into Althea’s life.”

  “What’s all this about?” she asked. “We’re not ‘shoehorning’ you anywhere. You’ve only been home two days.”

  “But I’ve been awake for weeks, and I’m telling you, I’m not Althea.”

  “You could still get your memory back.”

  “But I don’t have it back now,” I said. “Can’t you see me as I am?”

  Grampa came in, carrying a coffee mug. “Hello, ladies.”

  Madeline threw out her hand in my direction. “She wants to give up her baby for adoption.”

  “I didn’t say that,” I said. “I wanted to talk about it.”

  “No adoption. It’s not going to happen,” Grampa said.

  “See? What did I tell you,” Madeline said.

  He set his mug in the sink and glanced over at her. “I thought you were going in to work today.”

  “Stuff came up,” Madeline said. “I’m going tomorrow.” She braced a hand on her hip and turned more fully toward me. Her white hair glowed in a gleam of sunlight. “We didn’t keep you alive because I’m Catholic,” she said. “I am religious, deeply, but I’m also a scientist. I don’t blindly follow a set of rules. Our ability to reason is one of God’s gifts, and it’s our obligation to use our intellects.”

  “So then, why did you save me?” I asked. “I was all but dead anyway. Tom said I was suffering. He said I whimpered.”

  “And what does that tell you?” she said. “Does a dead thing cry?”

  I stopped short. “I guess not.”

  “You had a fetus in you,” Madeline said. “The sanctity of life is not a rigid ending point to an argument. It’s a beginning. If you were already dead, mind and soul, then it didn’t matter to you that we were keeping your body alive a few more months for the sake of your baby. And if, despite everything the doctors told us, some tiny, lost spark of you was still living inside you, then keeping your body alive might give that spark a chance to reignite, too.”

  I followed her logic, but at the same time, I couldn’t get past the idea of Althea suffering and helpless. “Didn’t it matter to you that I was in pain?” I asked.

  She winced. “Of course it did. Watching you lie there, each day. It was torment. I’d have done anything to switch places with you.” She set her lips tightly and shook her head. “If you want to kill someone slowly, give them a daughter in a coma.”

  Grampa moved over and put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “It’s over.”
<
br />   Madeline looked at me like she didn’t completely agree with him.

  I felt bad, like I’d been disrespectful. I was still an outsider to what they’d suffered, even though I was intricately connected to it, too. “What if I hadn’t woken up?” I asked. “What if, after the baby was born, I was still in a coma. Would you have kept me alive still?”

  Madeline gazed past me, and her eyes lost focus for a moment. “I don’t know.”

  “You don’t know?” I asked, surprised. She seemed so full of conviction.

  “I don’t,” she said. “We make each decision when we come to it and do the best that we can.”

  I supposed she was right. “That’s what I’m trying to do, too.”

  “You aren’t really thinking of giving up the baby, are you?” Grampa said.

  I looked down at Solana, who yawned at me and beat her tail on the floor in oblivious contentment.

  “No,” I said. But that didn’t mean I saw clearly how to live out my life with Althea’s family.

  Madeline’s shoulders relaxed, but she shook her head as she looked at me, like she wasn’t pleased with her first real glimpse of the stranger in her family.

  * * *

  A couple of days later, after dinner, I took my first significant walk without my cane and went to the stables. It was a relief to have some time alone. Relatives had started dropping in to visit. They were nice, but between them and the housekeeping staff, the house was never quiet. Now twilight was falling, and I liked the slow wave of purple that eased up the valley. This time, the scent of the barn was milder, and I was able to wander in. The dark, solid woodwork gleamed beneath metal bits, coils of rope, and tack. Big animals shifted their feet in the shadows as I, the alien, ambled slowly past the stalls.

  This isn’t a bad place to be in limbo, is it? I asked my inner voice. To beckon her was instinct, but she wasn’t there, and the back of my mind remained silent. That was another thing to ask Rosie when I ever saw her again: did she hear voices? Did she notice I was gone?

  A horse raised its head to look at me with big black eyes, and I had no idea if he was mine. I didn’t even know how to touch him. A flapping above drew my gaze, and cooing came from the loft.

  “You used to play up there when you were little,” Tom said.

  I turned to see him walking into the barn, and my breath hitched. He looked different, and not just because of a recent shave and clean clothes. He seemed to be part of the calm of the barn, like he belonged here more than I did. The blue in his shirt was a good match for his eyes, and he watched me thoughtfully as he approached.

  “I’m sorry I haven’t replied to any of your messages,” I said.

  “So you got my texts? I came to see if your parents took your phone.”

  “They didn’t.”

  “Good to know you avoided me all on your own,” he said, smiling.

  “I’m surprised my father let you come out here.”

  “He didn’t. Your parents don’t know I’m here,” he said. “I’d rather keep it that way.”

  “How did you get past security?”

  “I know a couple trails,” he replied. “It’s no big deal.”

  The alertness I’d felt around him before was back again, and I felt a new blush around the neckline of my shirt.

  “Want to go up?” he asked, nodding his chin toward the ladder.

  I took a look at the old wooden rungs. “No thanks. I’ve had bad luck with ladders before.”

  “So I hear,” he said. “I did a little research on Rosie Sinclair. She acted pretty unglued at the end there before she was expelled. I’m not going to lie.”

  “She wasn’t unglued. She just had nobody believing her,” I said. “I thought you didn’t believe I was her.”

  “I’m not sure what I believe, but I can tell she’s important to you, so I looked her up. Nobody knows where she’s gone,” Tom said. “Do you?”

  I thought of my phone call with Linus. “No,” I said. “I don’t know where she is. I wish I did. I’d like to help her if she needs it.”

  “Would she let you?”

  I laughed, surprised by his astute question. “I don’t know. That’s a good point. She probably wouldn’t know me at first.”

  “I’d like to see that meeting.” He set a hand on the ladder. “You used to keep some stuff up in the loft. Want to see? I could bring it down for you.”

  “I guess. Sure.”

  He headed up the ladder, and the bird flew out with a rustle of wings. I heard some bumping, and a moment later, he came back down carrying a crate on his shoulder. He set it on a bench. Under a couple of gilded riding trophies, I saw a jumble of paper dolls and a crusty hand-held computer game. I sat slowly on the bench and pulled an old plastic halyard out of the crate, the sort kids made in crafts at camp.

  He took the other end of the bench. “That’s ugly,” he said.

  “Truly.” I nodded toward the crate. “Althea won those trophies. I can’t even ride a horse.”

  “So?”

  “I don’t know. I had a talk with Madeline the other day. She made a manicure appointment for me.”

  He laughed. “She should have known you wouldn’t go for that.”

  “That’s the thing,” I said. “It feels like I don’t have any control of my life here. My family wants me to be someone I’m not. They’re nice and everything.”

  “But they don’t know you.”

  I nodded toward the crate of memorabilia. “And here you are trying to prompt my memory. You can’t resist, either.”

  “It’s that obvious, huh?”

  I leaned my head back against the wall and rested my hands on my big belly. “I don’t blame you. You want Althea back, like everyone else does. But she’s not coming. I’m a perpetual reminder and disappointment.”

  “I find you fascinating, actually,” he said.

  I glanced over at him, doubtful. He was flipping over a flimsy paper doll. He tried fitting the paper stand section in the notches.

  “Do you have any sisters?” I asked.

  “Nope. Only child.” He set the paper doll aside and pulled out the ancient computer game. Frogger. He tapped the buttons experimentally.

  “Do you live with your parents?” I asked.

  “My dad. My parents got divorced when I was in seventh grade. My mom remarried and moved away.”

  “That had to be hard. Do you see her much?”

  He shrugged. “No. It is what it is. I got the best of the deal, staying here with Dad. He wants to know when you’re coming over, by the way. No rush.”

  “Good,” I said. Because that wasn’t happening any time soon.

  I peeked down into the crate and lifted up a little pile of books: a couple of graphic novels, a volume of poetry, and a red school notebook tied with twine. Private, it said on the cover.

  I held it up for Tom to see. “Did you know about this?”

  He shook his head and held out a hand. “Let me see.”

  Some instinct made me hold it back, and I pressed it to my chest. “I don’t think so.”

  His eyebrows arched in surprise, and he laughed. “I have more of a right to read that than you do.”

  “No you don’t. You actually knew her. Since she kept it hidden from you, she had her reasons.”

  He stood up and came before me. “Let me have it. I mean it.”

  “No.”

  “Come on. I’m not going to fight you for it.”

  “Good,” I said, rising to my feet. I had to steady my balance a second, but then I was fine.

  “I know what,” he said. “Let’s leave it here. Or better yet, we’ll burn it unread. That’s what she’d want.”

  I looked at him, curious. “What are you afraid I’ll find in here?”

  I watched his gaze drop to the book in my hand, and then rise to my mouth.

  “I just have a bad feeling about it,” he said quietly.

  He was lying. He was also standing unnecessarily close. I tried to
back up, but my legs met the edge of the bench. His expression shifted subtly to some unspoken question.

  “I’ve been thinking about something you said the other day,” he said.

  “What?”

  “Actually, you didn’t say it so much with words.” He touched a hand to my arm and electricity lit up my nerves. He laughed softly, and his eyes went warm. “Kind of like that,” he said.

  I was acutely aware of how little space remained between my body and his, and the next thing I knew, my fingers wanted to go touching all over his clean blue shirt.

  “I’m not sure how to say this. I have a boyfriend sort of. Or I did. It’s kind of murky,” I said.

  “Linus left you,” he said. “I watched the show.”

  “I talked to him just the other day, though,” I said.

  That stopped him. He glanced around the barn and then focused back on me, more intently than before. “I don’t see him here.”

  “I know, but—”

  “Just no,” Tom said.

  Then he kissed me.

  I should not have melted, but I couldn’t help it. I should have been able to step away, but instead I moved closer, right up against his shirt, which was just as soft as it looked. The journal slipped from my fingers, and I slid my hands up his back. His warmth spread into me, and I kept reaching for more until I was on my tiptoes. Gravity, I discovered, did not apply on planet Tom.

  “This is really not right,” I said, torn.

  “Too much talking.”

  He moved in again, and I went along until I had to gasp for breath. I linked a finger through his belt loop and tried to clear my thoughts. I attempted to focus on his chin, but his chin was very close to his lips. I shut my eyes.

  “Tom. We have to stop,” I said.

  He backed up an inch, but he didn’t release me.

  “There’s a very nice loft up that ladder,” he said. “I could help you get up. We’d be very careful.”

  I opened my eyes to look up at him. Logic warned me that going up that ladder with him would be a mistake, but the physical side of me was fully good to go. In a very serious manner, he brushed a strand of my hair back around my ear.

  “You’re not ready, are you?” he asked.

  I shook my head.

 
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