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The keep of ages, p.2
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       The Keep of Ages, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  I throw up my hand. “I’m not talking about local trouble. Berg has allies all over the world.”


  I can’t explain this to her. She isn’t going to get it.

  “Don’t you make that disgruntled face at me, Rosie,” Peggy says, pointing her finger at me. “You just lay it out properly. Start back at the beginning. Don’t leave anything out. I saw you on that fancy show of yours. We all did. But I never understood why you got out of your bed and broke the rules. Did you want to get expelled?”

  So I try. I tell her I wanted to expose what Berg was doing with the dreamers, but I got caught. Berg took me from the school and stuck me in a vault with more dreamers at the Onar Clinic in Colorado. For months, I was kept asleep there and mined for my dreams. Once I finally escaped, I made my way to Burnham in Atlanta, and then I went back to Forge, where I met up with Linus again.

  I pause, remembering the morning in Linus’s bedroom when we were joined by Thea and Tom.

  “Go on. I’m listening,” Peggy says.

  I try to explain that this girl Thea has my mind in her body. Unsurprisingly, Peggy looks skeptical. I skip the part about nearly killing Berg in the dean’s tower, but when I get to how Berg kept Thea captive in the basement even though she was in labor with her baby, Peggy looks more thoughtful. Meanwhile, I go through my second helpings. Peggy opens a jar with a pop and pours me a sloppy serving of applesauce for dessert. The sweet, wet taste is heaven.

  She leans back and fixes a bobby pin over her ear. “That is some wild story,” she says at last. “If even half of what you say is true, Berg’s a psychopath. How can anyone be that evil?”

  “I don’t know,” I say. “He doesn’t think he’s evil. He’s trying to save himself and his kids. He’s mining dreams for medical research.”

  “How’s that now? He’s the dean of a boarding school,” Peggy says.

  I nod toward her laptop. “Look up the Chimera Centre and Dr. Huma Fallon. Berg’s connected to that research. He sells dreams from Forge students and other dreamers to doctors who try to heal or rejuvenate brains, like for coma patients. That’s how Thea got my memories into her. Berg has a personal stake in it, too. He wants to find a cure for his Huntington’s disease before it gets worse, and he wants to be sure his kids don’t get it.” He also spoke about wanting to be immortal, but I spare Peggy that outlandish detail.

  She leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. “Suppose what you say is true. I’m not saying I’m convinced, but just suppose. It still doesn’t explain why Berg is pursuing you, specifically,” she says. “What is it that makes you so special?”

  “Not me. My dreams,” I say, and I rise to do the dishes. I squirt plenty of blue dish soap on a yellow scrub sponge. “Berg told me my dreams are unusually vivid and versatile, especially when I’m scared. He said he’s trying to figure out why. There’s a lot of money involved, I guess.” I nod toward the closet. “This is just the beginning. Berg’s never going to give up looking for me. He needs me too much.”

  “I’d like to give him a piece of my mind,” Peggy says. “Not literally, of course.”

  I laugh. “I don’t suppose my parents took a phone with them.”

  “No. You know how Larry is about cell phones.”

  I do. My stepfather believes cell phones are a government scam so they can eavesdrop on us all. I don’t agree with him, but I am convinced Berg has ways to tap into my calls, given half a chance. It’s happened too many times before. I have a few recyclable phones that I consider safe, but I know the best way not to be traced is to never call anybody. I turn on the hot water to rinse a cup and set it on the rack.

  “Speaking of phones, I had a call for you yesterday,” Peggy says. “A young man named Linus Pitts left a message in case you contacted me.”

  Hearing his name aloud gives me a start. I turn from the sink. “What did he say?”

  She reaches toward a yellow sticky note. “He was quite insistent that you call him. Fancy that. Handsome young man, if you ask me. I like his accent.”

  Peggy passes over the sticky note, and I take it with wet fingers. A small flutter attacks my lungs and won’t stop. I told him I’d call him when I could, but what is there to say? It’s painful to speculate that he has a camera in his eye, and that Berg has always been a silent spectator in our relationship. Berg may have even seen yesterday’s kiss.

  “I do believe that is a blush I see at last,” Peggy says, her voice amused. “What did I tell you before? Smart boys like smart girls. It was only a matter of time.”

  “It’s not that simple,” I say. “I just realized yesterday that he must have a camera in his eye. He said he didn’t know about it, and I want to believe him, but it freaks me out.” I stare at the note, and now the blue ink is bleeding where it’s wet. “We’ve always, always had someone else with us, spying along with everything we’ve done.” I can’t explain how this makes me feel, like our relationship has been defiled.

  “So talk to him about it,” Peggy says.

  I shake my head. Linus is inextricably linked to Berg. Too many feelings to face. “I tried,” I say. “It’s no use. I just can’t right now.” I shove the sticky note in my back pocket.

  “That’s too bad,” Peggy says. She folds her napkin. “Your sister Dubbs likes him.”


  “She near idolizes him, from what I can tell,” Peggy says. “She watches that show of yours more than what’s healthy. There’s some fan site that has all your old footage on it, and she watches your episodes with Linus over and over. Gorge on Forge. That’s what it is. A born romantic, that kid.”

  “I guess,” I say. I let out the drain so the dishwater can gurgle down. “How am I supposed to find her and my parents?”

  “Larry said they’d call me from a phone booth when they could to check in, in case I heard anything about you.” Peggy taps absently at her collarbone. “You could stay here with me. That’s probably the smartest move, at this point. When I tell them you’re here, they’ll come home and you’ll be reunited.”

  “Ian’s in the closet,” I say, pointing out the obvious and all it implies. A tick of fear reminds me I shouldn’t linger. “He must have told Berg when I showed up. It isn’t safe for me here.”

  “Your parents were working with a lawyer to try to stop Berg’s guardianship of you,” she says. “We could contact him.”

  It’s all I can do not to roll my eyes. “You don’t get it. A lawyer can’t keep me safe,” I say. “This isn’t a fight that will wait for the courts. Berg is utterly ruthless. He wants to mine my dreams, and nothing’s going to stop him until he’s dead or I’m dead. Even then, I wouldn’t put it past him to keep mining me somehow. He’s just like that.”

  “I see,” she says slowly.

  Her gaze shifts toward the afghan on the couch, so she’s not looking at me directly anymore, and I’m instantly uneasy.

  I’ve known Peggy McLellen for as long as I can remember, and I can read when she’s figuring out how to say something I won’t like. She’s probably the closest thing I have to a second mother. Ma taught me my letters and how to read, but it’s Peggy who took me to the library and braced her dark fingers on the paper form while I signed up for my first library card. More than once growing up, I wished Peggy and Rusty would adopt me, and not just because Peggy made better grilled cheese sandwiches. Effortlessly, casually, they made me feel safe and welcome, and I never want to lose that.

  “There is one other possibility here,” Peggy says. “Now don’t get mad at me. We could try calling a doctor.”

  “For what?”

  “You might need a little help,” Peggy says. “There’s no shame in it.”

  I look at her in disbelief. Even with Ian in the closet, she thinks I’m making up my problems. “You think I’m crazy.”

  Peggy opens both her hands like stranger things have happened. “I’m just saying. Your ma and I talked this over. A lot. She has a mess of regrets about
how she handled you when your dad left.”

  I stare at her. “What’s Dad have to do with anything?”

  “You don’t remember,” Peggy says in a tone somewhere between sorrow and resignation. Her eyes go serious. “You and your dad had a special connection. He was a dreamer, just like you. Big imagination. No goal was too far-fetched. And he loved this country. He believed in it. When he went MIA, you got real quiet. You barely talked. Your ma didn’t know what to do.”

  “She never told me this,” I say.

  “Why would she?” Peggy says. “She tried everything with you back then, but you were a mouse. You had this dreamy, faraway look. Rusty said you were downright spooky. When we asked you where you were, you said, ‘Talking to Dad.’”

  A tingle lifts along my skin. “I don’t remember any of this,” I say.

  “I don’t blame you,” she says. “Memory’s a strange thing. When we heard the news that your dad was presumed dead, your ma was afraid to tell you, but you heard about it somehow. You stopped eating for three days. You wouldn’t talk at all. Not for weeks.”

  I keep waiting for a resonating prickle of recognition. I was four when my dad went missing and eight by the time he was presumed dead. That’s old enough for memories, but I don’t recall going silent or talking to him in my head. I just remember missing him.

  “And you think that old stuff is connected to now?” I ask. “You think that excuses why she signed me over to Berg?”

  “I’m just saying, she was afraid you’d need some help once you came home,” Peggy says. “It can’t hurt to talk to a doctor. She wishes she’d brought you to see somebody when you were little.”

  Her wishes come too late.

  “We can’t blame everything on the past. My mother is weak,” I say, coldly. I brace my hands on the edge of the metal sink and think of what she’s let Larry do to me over the years. “You know her. She’s always been weak.”

  “Don’t you think you’re being a bit uncharitable?”

  Stung, I frown at her. “Would you ever sign a contract to give up control of one of your kids?” I ask.

  She bites her lip, and then shakes her head slightly. “No.”

  “Because you’re a normal, decent mother,” I say. “Ma wanted to give me up. It wasn’t the money. It was easier for her that way.”

  “Rosie, no. You’re not being fair,” Peggy says.

  The ugly, old anger I feel toward Ma makes me twist the dishrag extra hard.

  “I’ve always been too complicated for her,” I say. “She’s never understood me. She let Doli High put me on the pre-prison track! She married Larry, for heaven’s sake!”

  “We all make mistakes,” Peggy says. “And Larry’s not all bad.”

  I let out a pained laugh.

  “Would you quit defending her?” I say, but it comes out as a squeak.

  Peggy rises slowly from her chair and comes over to give me a hug. I stand stiffly in her arms, wishing this would all just go away. I thought going to Forge was going to fix everything. Give me real skills and a place to belong, away from my family. Now I’m right back where I started, only my life’s a thousand times worse.

  “My parents were supposed to be home, waiting for me,” I say, my voice tight.

  “I know, baby,” she says.

  What am I doing wrong? How can I be so angry at my parents and miss them this much, too?

  A banging noise from the closet makes me jump. Peggy loosens her arms.

  “Keep it down in there!” I yell to Ian.

  He shouts something back, muffled but angry.

  Peggy releases me completely and turns toward the closet. “We’re going to have to check on him. Tell me what you know about this boy.”

  I wipe my sleeve across my eyes and focus on the simpler, immediate problem of our hostage. Our disgusting hostage.

  “His name’s Ian. Ian John Cowles,” I say. Of course I know his middle name. It’s so annoying, what I had to listen to from him. “He’s nineteen. He used to take care of dreamers like me at Onar. He liked to put makeup on the girls. He brought me little gifts, like lip balm and fresh mint leaves.” He liked me helpless. A shiver of revulsion ripples through me. “He had a crush on me, and I tricked him into thinking I liked him back so he’d lighten up on my sleep meds. That’s how I finally got away. He normally lives with his granny in Colorado. He likes to hunt, but he also rescues hurt animals when he finds them on the road. I thought he quit working for Berg, but obviously, he didn’t.”

  “And you hate his guts,” Peggy says.

  “Can you tell?” I say dryly. “Oh, and he had a cat named Peanut. She died. He still keeps her cage in his car.”

  Peggy rubs her hands together. “Let’s see what Mr. Cowles has to say for himself.”

  She steps over to the closet and opens the door.

  Ian’s narrow features are normally pale, but now he’s red-faced and snotty. His teeth bite into the scarf gag, which has darkened with saliva. Still tied securely, he has shifted into an awkward sitting position among a jumble of hiking boots and a broom. His shirt is twisted, and with his wrists bound behind him, his skinny arms look unexpectedly strong. He flips his head, trying to get the sweaty, wispy blond hair out of his eyes. Angry, guttural noises explode around his gag.

  “It won’t do you any good to yell,” I say. “No one can hear you. Okay?”

  He says one more loud, indecipherable thing, and then goes quiet, looking at me through vicious eyes. He’s never looked more dangerous to me, and I think, This is the true Ian. This is who he is underneath.

  “Myself, I’d give him more time to stew,” Peggy says.

  He garbles into the gag again and looks furiously toward me. His demand is obvious.

  “Hold still,” I say, and I lean in to get the scarf out of his mouth.

  “Untie me,” he says, spitting. “This is ridiculous! I’m on your side.”

  I wipe my fingers on my jeans. “What do you know about my family?”

  “I told you. They’re gone. That’s all I know,” Ian says. “Berg sent me to get you, not them. Why don’t you call him if you want answers? Use my phone. Go on. It’s right in my pocket.”

  I glance at Peggy, who shrugs. Then I reach into his pants pocket to find a phone and a small, clear box with a bunch of colored pills inside, red and yellow. I give it a shake, and Ian’s gaze glues to it.

  “What’s this?” I ask.

  “Nothing. They’re for my heart. For when I’m stressed.”

  I toss the box to Peggy and stand. “Do you realize what Berg wants to do to me?”

  “It’s no secret,” Ian says. “He’s going to mine you again. He’s going to take out your worst dreams and leave the rest to help you heal, like before. You’re overdue. We need to get you back to treatment before you hurt yourself.”

  He is so completely wrong that I’m actually impressed.

  “Interesting,” Peggy says.

  “Berg’s so-called treatment nearly killed me!” I say. “He ruined me!”

  “You’re not ruined,” Ian says. “You’re overexcited. Unpredictable, maybe, but that’s not incurable. You just need the right care.” He tries unsuccessfully again to flip his sweaty hair off his forehead. “Untie me, Rosie. Let me help you.”

  No possible way. “Why would you want to help me? Aren’t you mad that I ditched you?” I ask, genuinely curious.

  “I was, at first. Any guy would be. I offered you everything,” he says. “But then I remembered how sick you are. I was worried for you.” He tilts his head to get a better look at me. “I’ve only ever wanted what was best for you. You know that. I’m not giving up on us when you need me most.”

  Loathing renders me speechless.

  Peggy clears her throat. “Touching devotion.”

  Ian’s gaze never leaves my face. “I’m ready to forgive you, Rosie. You only have to ask.”

  “Here’s what I have to ask,” I say. “I want to know the scope of Berg’s operatio
n. A few days ago, I saw a picture of a vault of dreamers much bigger than the one at Onar. Is that the one in California that you once talked about? Where your dad works?”

  He tries to sit up a little straighter, and the broom knocks out of the closet.

  “It could be,” he says cautiously. “The big vault’s in Miehana.”

  “Are there other vaults in the U.S.?” I ask.

  “I don’t know. I haven’t heard of any.”

  “Where is the one in Miehana, exactly?” I ask. “Do you have an address?”

  He blinks at me, frowning. “No, he never told me.”

  “But you’ve talked to him,” I insist. “You must have some idea where your dad is.”

  “We email,” he says. “His phone doesn’t work underground.”

  “Can you email him now?” Peggy asks.

  “I will if you want. He doesn’t always answer.” He arches back and sniffs like he’s had a sudden jolt of pain. “Call Berg. Just talk to him. If he knows where your parents are, he’ll tell you.”

  Peggy shakes a couple of Ian’s colored pills out onto her palm. “You’re looking a little stressed. Want one of these?”

  Ian looks from Peggy to me and back. “No. I’m fine.”

  “What are they? Roofies?” Peggy asks.

  “No. Like I said, they’re for my heart,” he repeats.

  “You’re a total liar. Are they for me?” I ask. “Were you going to drop one in my drink?”

  His cheeks turn a livid red. “No,” he says. “They’re just nothing!”

  He can rot in the closet for all I care. I yank the broom out of the way and slam the door.

  “Rosie! Don’t do this!” he yells from inside the closet. “Call Berg! I didn’t mean anything with the pills!”

  I turn and chuck Ian’s phone on the couch. I can’t believe how pissed I am. Ian’s a scuzzbag, but the real monster behind everything is Berg. If he has my family, I’ll kill him. This time I really will.

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