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The rule of mirrors, p.2
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Just explain what’s happened to me, I thought. Cut the apologies and spell out the facts. I needed my inner voice now. Where are you? I asked her insistently.

  A nurse strode in, and I turned to her eagerly.

  “Will you look who is awake? Welcome back!” she said. Her voice had a lilting, unfamiliar accent. “Are you not a sight. Tracking is dead on already, I see. Very nice. I’ll inform the doctor. You’re probably a little confused, are you not?”

  What is this body? What am I doing here?

  She smiled. “It’s perfectly natural. We will fill you in, I promise. For now, you just relax, okay? You’re doing very well. Beautifully, in fact.”

  She flipped back her brown braid and reached for a computer screen at the side of my bed. Tapping followed. I tried to see her screen, but the angle was wrong. I tried to read her nametag, but it was written in some foreign script.

  “Can she talk?” the man asked.

  “Those eyes are certainly expressive,” she said. “We will have to see where her language is. The doctor will be able to tell you more, but her tracking is a very good sign. Does she seem to know you?”

  “I couldn’t say. Ha pasado mucho tiempo, mi niña. ¿Conoces a tu papito todavía?”

  I had no idea what he meant.

  The nurse leaned near me. “Where is your father, dúlla? Can you look at your father?”

  There was only one man in the room, and he wasn’t my father, but I felt his need pulling like a vortex. I flicked my gaze in his direction, and a dawn rose in his features.

  “This is unbelievable. You have no idea,” he said, choking and then clearing his throat. “If you’d seen what they scraped up after her motorcycle accident, you’d have sworn this day would never come.”

  “It’s no less than you deserve,” the nurse said kindly. “Careful, here.” She set a straw to my lips. “See if you can sip. Go on.”

  I didn’t want to sip. I wanted answers. But I complied. It took concentrated effort to open my lips and set them tightly around the straw. When I sucked up my first taste of water, my eyes closed in pure pleasure. More, I thought.

  “They are always thirsty,” the nurse said. “To be honest, your daughter was the worst case I have ever seen Dr. Fallon attempt. She won’t normally take on anyone who is so far gone.”

  Fallon. I felt an instinctive spike of fear as I tried to place the name.

  “My wife can be very persuasive,” the man said. “And my daughter’s a survivor.”

  The nurse laughed. “Indeed she is.”

  It hit me. Dr. Fallon had been Dean Berg’s contact in Iceland, the woman he had sent dream seeds to. My pulse jumped and set off the beeper again. The nurse reached behind me to make the noise stop.

  “Is her heart okay like that?” the man asked.

  “She is a little agitated, understandably,” the nurse said. “We can give her something to keep her calm.”

  I didn’t want anything to keep me calm. I needed to stay awake. With Dr. Fallon involved, whatever they’d done to me could only be bad. She could have hooked me into some sick experiment. This all seemed real, but it might still turn out to be some illusion. My parents weren’t here, either—another bad sign. I needed to get out of here and go home to Doli.

  Quick footsteps approached, and then a small, angular woman stopped in the doorway. She clasped her hands together against her chest. Around her pale, strained face, a shock of short, silvery hair stuck out in all directions.

  “Good Lord,” she whispered. “Diego, is it true?”

  He rose out of his chair to a lanky height. “I tell you, Madeline, she’s following every word we say. She just had a sip of water from a straw, our very own girl.”

  Madeline moved closer to me, slowly, disbelief visibly warring with her hope. “Hello, my little Althea,” she said. “I am so happy to see you. Praise God. I have lived for this day, honey. I have prayed for it, as the Lord is my witness.”

  Althea.

  Althea was not my name. The intensity of this woman rolled over me in a pounding wave of claim, but she was not my mother.

  I’m Rosie, I thought. I’m not your daughter.

  No matter how hard I tried to summon the words, I couldn’t get them past my lips.

  Madeline gave me a tender kiss on the cheek and set her hand on my belly. She smiled at me with brimming eyes. “Have they told you? You’re baby’s just fine,” she said. “All this time you’ve been in a coma, your little baby has been growing along just perfectly inside you.”

  My ears stopped working. Her mouth kept going but my mind froze.

  No.

  No baby.

  I could not be pregnant. I could not be in some other girl’s body. This whole thing with the snow outside and the hospital and the strange hands attached to my arms had to be a nightmare. It had to be some new torture from Dean Berg, some dream seed or mining gone wrong.

  Just then, my belly dipped again, only now I recognized that it wasn’t just gravity pulling at me. I had a creature in there. Nudging. Horror should have woken me from a nightmare, but it didn’t. It couldn’t.

  This was real. This body was real, and it was mine.

  3

  THEA

  BLINK TWICE

  WHERE ARE YOU? I screamed silently.

  But still there was no answer. My inner voice had vanished, and I’d jumped into my new hell alone.

  I flailed my hand against the bedrail, desperate to jolt awake or jar myself back to my old body, but the sharp pain did nothing except start the heart monitor beeping again.

  “Althea, stop. You’ll hurt yourself,” Diego said.

  I didn’t care if I hurt myself. I had to get out and away from all of this. I struggled to move, but my scrawny arms had hardly any strength, and my body responded only by bumping awkwardly under my coverlet. Panic made me wild, and I reached frantically for the nurse. She caught me firmly.

  “Calm down, now,” she said. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but thrashing about will not help anybody.”

  You don’t understand, I thought. These are not your normal questions. What happened to me? Where’s my real body?

  My tongue was as stupid as clay.

  “Let me, Ida,” said Madeline, and she slipped forward to take my hands. “You’re all right, Althea. Look at me. You’re going to be just fine. We’re all here to help you.”

  I looked back and forth between Madeline and Diego, who clearly thought they were my parents. But they were not.

  “Are you in pain anywhere? Does anything hurt? Your head? Your joints?” Madeline asked.

  I paused to take stock. My belly was a compact knoll in the landscape of my bed, and that turning I’d felt seemed ready to happen again. I pulled free from Madeline and pressed my hands to my belly, astounded by the dense curve. My normal waist was utterly gone. I touched my face. To my fingertips, my cheeks and jaw felt too wide and boney. On my head, I found a fine softness that was nothing like my old thick waves of hair. I needed to see myself.

  I looked Madeline straight in the eye and willed her to understand me. Then I patted my cheek deliberately and held my hand up before my face, mimicking that I was gazing into a mirror.

  “She wants to see herself,” Diego said. “Madeline, she’s asking for a mirror.” He laughed again in disbelief.

  “One sec,” Madeline said. She rustled through her purse, opened up a compact, and handed it to me.

  The sight in the little circle was bizarre. My hazel eyes, curly dark hair, and gap-toothed mouth were all gone. Instead, a girl with wide-set, sunken, gray eyes gazed back at me. Her tan-skinned cheeks were unnaturally wilted, and patches of acne marred her chin, nose, and forehead. Her lips were full, but dry and tender looking. When I turned my head slightly, I found a scar along her right temple that disappeared up into her hairline, and when I smoothed back my new soft hair, brown and silky limp, I saw the tip of her ear was missing, as if the road had taken a bite out of it. I touched it tend
erly, hearing the faint tracing sound of my finger along the ridge. I peered at her eyes again, trying to see if any hint of Rosie would shine back out at me, but the mask was complete. My physical exterior was entirely new.

  Whoa, I thought. It didn’t seem possible, but somehow my consciousness had arrived in another girl’s body. When I’d made my leap with my love for Dubbs, I’d never imagined that this could happen. I tilted the mirror slowly, trying different angles. I tugged at my skin, trying to absorb the truth. This sad-eyed, wasted girl in the mirror was me. I’d ended up in a Halloween mask I couldn’t take off.

  What had happened to my old body?

  “Don’t you worry,” Madeline said gently. “You might not look like your regular lovely self at the moment, but we know she’s in there. That’s all that matters.”

  The irony was laughable. I didn’t look anything like myself, but at least Althea didn’t look like herself, either. I took a more critical look at Madeline, and the girl in the mirror, noting the resemblance of the wide-spaced eyes. Under the sickliness, my new face had a mix of features from both parents, with my chin and darker coloring closer to Diego’s. The way he spoke Spanish clicked. Althea had some Latina heritage, I thought.

  “She seems so alert,” Diego said. “I can’t get over it. After all this time.”

  “Remember the doctor who told us to unplug her?” Madeline said.

  “Which one?”

  “That first one,” she said. “That genius back in Houston. I wish he could see this now. Have you called your father yet?”

  “I will. He’ll be over the moon. The whole family will.”

  A tap came at the door, and a woman in a white coat walked in. “I hear someone’s awake,” she said, smiling.

  At the sight of her, a shock of jangled memories ignited in me like a whole grid of power surging on at once: overheard calls between this doctor and Dean Berg, nights of sneaking around the Forge School, and the vault of dreamers I’d uncovered deep under the school. I’d endured the torture of being mined when I was still impossibly awake.

  Linus! Panic hit me again. They had taken Linus, too!

  The alarm sounded behind me once more, and the nurse reached for it again. The beeping changed to a regular, soft blip noise that matched the tempo of my heartbeat.

  “She has been very excited,” the nurse said, shifting to make room for the doctor.

  “I’m not at all surprised. This is a big day,” Dr. Fallon said. “We can mark down February twenty-fifth as her second birthday. Hello, Althea. I’m Dr. Fallon, your surgeon. How are you feeling? A little confused, maybe. Any pain?”

  Try anger.

  They raised the head of my bed more. Dr. Fallon shone a penlight to blind me in one of my eyes, and then the other. “Can you follow the tip of my finger?” She lifted a digit before my eyes and began to move it slowly left and right, up and down.

  Try explaining how you stole months of my life and stuffed me in a different body.

  I ignored her finger and studied her face instead, searching past the afterglow of the penlight for a hint of the monster inside her. Her pale skin, black hair, and red lipstick were as vivid as a model’s, and her eyes were frost blue. This was the doctor who had bought dream seeds from Dean Berg after he mined them from unwitting students at Forge. She’d collaborated with him. As far as I was concerned, she was as vile and evil as he was. My heart monitor audibly kicked into a faster rhythm.

  The doctor lowered her finger. “Interesting,” she said.

  “She was just looking at us and following our voices fine,” Diego said.

  “I believe you,” the doctor said. She straightened, crossing her arms in her white coat. “She’s choosing not to cooperate with me.”

  My heart monitor went silent an instant, betraying me, and then blipped onward.

  “Althea?” Madeline said. She looked mortified. “What is this? We need you to do what the doctor tells you.”

  The doctor smiled. “There’s no need to scold. It’s actually a very promising sign of autonomous intelligence.” She swiveled closer to me once more. “Let me introduce myself again. I’m Dr. Huma Fallon, and you’re staying with us here at the Chimera Centre just south of Reykjavik, Iceland. You had an accident six months ago and fell into a coma. Your parents brought you here to me three weeks ago, and we were able to perform a surgery to help revive and restore your memories.” She reached to clasp my hand. “Can you squeeze my hand twice if you understand me?”

  I glanced at Diego and Madeline, who both had their gazes locked on my hand. Behind them, the nurse was also watching gravely.

  I squeezed twice.

  Madeline let out a startled gasp.

  The doctor patted my hand. “Perfect! Very good,” she said. “Over the next few weeks, you’re going to go through a series of changes. You’ll relearn to use your body and your voice. Most important, you’ll have to relearn to use your own mind.” She clicked her pen a couple of times. “There’s no other way to say this. You’ve suffered massive brain damage. Your memory is going to have gaps in it. You might not remember people you once knew and loved dearly. You might not even recognize yourself at times, and this, understandably, could be highly disorienting. But you’re in good hands here. You’ve come to the premier facility in the world for this kind of recovery, and we’ll do everything we can to see you through,” she said. “I promise.”

  You are a scheming liar, I thought. How fast can I get out of here?

  “Please squeeze twice if you understand,” Dr. Fallon said.

  I did and then tugged free of her as quickly as I could.

  Diego reached an arm around Madeline’s shoulder and gripped her tight. “How long will it be before we can take our girl home?” Diego asked, his voice rough.

  “I’ll have a better idea of that after we run a few tests,” Dr. Fallon said. “We had one young man who was ready to go home in a month, almost fully recovered. Another one of our patients took six months to go home, and he’s still slowly improving there.”

  “That’s not counting your patients who never revived,” Diego said.

  “That’s right,” Dr. Fallon said. “Obviously, Althea doesn’t fall into that category.”

  “Or the ones that relapsed,” Diego said.

  “That’s always a possibility, as we’ve discussed,” Dr. Fallon said. “These next few days are especially critical. We’ll be watching her very, very carefully for the slightest regression.”

  “I just can’t get over the way she’s watching us,” Madeline said. “It’s a miracle. Do you think she really understands us?”

  “Blink twice, Althea,” Diego said.

  The three of them turned to me again, like I was a puppy who would perform for a treat. Fine. I’ll play. For now. I blinked twice.

  Madeline laughed, pressing her hands together before her mouth.

  With an effort, I pointed to my water cup, and then I touched the fingertips of my two hands together, asking for more.

  Madeline nodded. “What’s she doing?”

  “It’s sign language. It means ‘more.’ She’s thirsty,” the doctor said. She passed Madeline my cup, and with trembling hands, Madeline held the straw to my lips again.

  I sucked up the ice water and drank deeply, until the cool fluid slaked my thirst.

  “But how did she know that ‘more’ signal?” Diego asked. “Did you seed that into her?”

  “No. She must have known it before,” Dr. Fallon said. “Old things from deep in her memory can be coming back to her. Did you use sign language with her as a toddler?”

  “No,” Madeline said, glancing at Diego. “We never did.”

  “Maybe some caretaker did, or a friend,” Dr. Fallon said.

  I knew all the sign language to “The More We Get Together.” Dubbs had taught me the song after she learned it in preschool, and we had practiced it for hours, singing it with shadow hands on the wall above her bunk.

  I missed her, my smelly kid sister
, and a twist of sorrow spun through me. I couldn’t help thinking that my love for Dubbs was what had landed me here, in this new body. The last thing I remembered from my old body was the time Dr. Ash was mining me. I’d had a memory of Dubbs on the train tracks near our home, with the flowers and the sunlight, and it had snared inextricably into a dream Dr. Ash was mining from me. I would never forget the swirling, euphoric release when I leapt free from my trapped body. I’d had to escape to survive.

  My inner voice had been furious, though. She’d begged me not to go. She’d warned me. I had no idea now what had happened to the part of me that was left behind. Had she survived in my old body without me? Was my old body dead? I had to find out.

  “Has ido de un misterio a otro, ¿no?” Diego said. “Dime que mi pequeña todavía está ahí adentro.”

  I looked to Madeline, half expecting her to translate.

  “She doesn’t understand me,” he said quietly. His eyes were dark with dismay. “She’s lost her Spanish.”

  “Be grateful she’s alive, Diego,” Madeline said. “Look how alert she is.”

  “Be honest with us, doc,” Diego said. “Althea was going places. She was ready to start college last fall. She had plans to be a psychiatrist. Is there any point dreaming that big anymore?”

  “These are early days yet,” Dr. Fallon said. “I think your daughter will have options, but for now, you’ll have to be patient and see.”

  “I don’t want her to suffer anymore,” Madeline said. “That’s all I want.”

  The doctor kindly put a hand on Madeline’s arm. “We’re doing all we can,” she said.

  “Yes, I know,” Madeline said quickly. “And we’re beyond grateful. I mean, look at her. Look at my baby girl.”

  They looked. I looked back, absorbing the weight of their hopes. I couldn’t help liking Althea’s parents, but I was destined to disappoint them when they realized who I wasn’t. I signaled “more” again, and Madeline helped hold my cup and straw. These people needed the girl they’d lost, not me.

  Me. That was pathetic. I hardly knew who I was anymore. I wished I had a clue where my body was. My original self. I hoped, wherever she was, that she wasn’t still captive in Dean Berg’s vault.

 
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