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The vault of dreamers, p.2
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.2

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Other students went around us and kept picking out food.

  “I don’t see anything,” the girl said, bumping my tray with hers again. “They have banana pancakes. Sweet.”

  I slid my tray down the poles and peered through the next counter slot, trying to see the guy once more, but instead, the cook’s sweaty face blocked my view. He looked casually across at me through wafty sizzles of sausage smoke, and I felt the same vicarious burn of anger that came whenever my stepfather clocked me.

  I ducked my head and moved down the cafeteria line, but I hardly noticed the food anymore. First Janice, then my own track mark, and now this flash of violence in the kitchen. They were like cracks at the edges of The Forge Show, cracks that made me question the appearance of everything on the stage around me. I paused by one of the wooden pillars with my tray.

  Morning light dropped in the big windows, glinting on saltshakers, and the dining hall buzzed of coffee and sugar. In a corner beneath an abstract wall sculpture, Janice was eating with a couple of guys. She smoothed her long blond hair from one side of her neck to the other, like an angel spreading its glittery wings, and with my mental lens, I saw how naturally she projected a photogenic presence. She wasn’t the only one, either.

  We were the show. I got that. I knew that coming in, just like everybody else, but accepting the constant cameras wasn’t the same as liking them, let alone performing for them. The Forge School was an elite arts academy, while The Forge Show was the reality show that tracked and broadcasted the activity of each individual student at the school. It was a smart, interactive system. Viewers at home controlled who they watched by selecting their favorite students’ feeds. The feedback of their viewing choices, in turn, determined student blip ranks.

  To sweeten the value of popularity, banner ads linked to each blip rank were incrementally more expensive as the ranks rose toward #1, and students banked a fraction of what the advertisers paid, receiving the funds at graduation. For the most popular students with the highest blip ranks, their banner ad funds after three years of high school could top a million dollars.

  I’d certainly watched the show before, from home, back when my dream to come here had seemed impossible, but until I’d arrived on campus, I hadn’t fully understood how the stage aspect of the school pervaded everything. The other new students like Janice were perpetually projecting extra-watt versions of themselves for the cameras. For them, it seemed effortless. They even thrived on it. But to me, who preferred the other end of a camera, the super-visibility was exhausting.

  A big, old-fashioned tally board on the wall made a flipping noise while it updated the blip ranks of every student in the school, and I watched as my name settled in at 95th place. Great. My oatmeal was skimming over as it cooled. It was no use. My appetite was shot, and food wouldn’t settle my restlessness, anyway. I left my tray at the counter and stepped outside to the terrace.

  Breathing was immediately easier. The rain had stopped, leaving a layer of moisture in the air and an overcast sky. Far off, between the buildings, the Kansas plains turned blue as they approached the horizon. Nearer, the sheep pasture was a deep, soggy green, as if the mud beneath carried its lifeblood up each blade of grass.

  On impulse, I walked between the dining hall and the art building, toward the pasture. A clattering came through the sieve of the kitchen window screens, and I smelled coffee cake more distinctly than I had when I was inside. A Forge Farms Ice Cream delivery truck was parked by the loading dock, tucked up close so the driver could load the big cardboard tubs onto his dolly.

  Ahead, half a dozen sheep made a constellation of white against the green of the pasture, and I mentally framed them up in a bucolic shot. Artsy me. Farther east, beyond the short stone wall that edged campus, a sky-blue water tower labeled “Forgetown” overlooked a rambling assortment of small homes. Just inside the campus wall, on a knoll of its own, stood an old observatory with a gray dome. To my left, a wood and stone lookout tower rose dark against the gray sky. At the top, big camera lenses gleamed like black, mismatched eyes. The semisphere of a microphone dish with its lacework grid of metal could be aimed to pick up sound from any direction, including mine.

  Just then, one of the cameras swiveled to aim directly at me, and I swear, it tempted me to do something asinine. It really did. You’d never believe how annoying it was to be watched all the time, even when you were doing absolutely nothing. It put me at war with myself all the time: behave. Don’t behave. Behave. Don’t.

  The toe of my boot bumped against a rock. I picked it up and hurled it. The rock soared, shrank to a speck, and plummeted into the grass far from the sheep. Face it, I thought. You’re getting cut. No matter how ideal it seemed, I shouldn’t want to stay at a place where students had secret seizures at night, but stupid me, I did anyway. I wanted to stay at Forge so badly I could gnaw it in my teeth. I just couldn’t see that anything I could do would make a difference. I backed around, searching for one last rock to throw before I went to class, and then I paused.

  Behind the art building, leaning against a giant, paint-spattered wooden spool, a guy was pressing an ice pack to his face. He was all Adam’s apple with his head tipped back, and a white bib apron protected his shirt and jeans. I picked up another rock and ambled slowly across the gravel lot.

  “Hey,” I said. “I saw, in the kitchen before. Are you okay?”

  He lowered the ice. His bruise was a defined crescent, and the skin near his eye was ruddy and shiny from the cold. He might have been my age, fifteen, or a little older. His dark hair partially hid a row of three rings in his ear, and after one measuring glance, he hefted the ice pack and put it back on his bruise, closing his eyes.

  “I’m not interested,” he said. An accent gave his words an extra clip. “Go find someone else.”

  “For what?” I asked. When he didn’t explain, I went on. “If you want to report the cook, I’ll back you up. I saw what he did. He shouldn’t have hit you like that.”

  “That’s cute,” he said.

  “I mean it. Is he always like that?”

  “I don’t need you to make a report,” he said. “Fortunately, no one gives a crap about what happens in the kitchen.”

  “What did you do, anyway?” I said.

  He shifted the ice pack and opened his good eye. “Spilled his precious eggs. Pulled a knife on him. It was instinct. Stupid.” He gave me a little wave. “Okay, enough. You can go now. You’ve got your spike.”

  “My spike?”

  “You know. For this compassionate little outreach of yours.” He did a double jerk of his thumb, like a hitchhiker, to indicate the cameras.

  It took me a sec to follow his logic from the cameras to the viewers to a likely spike in my blip rank. “You think that’s why I’m talking to you?” I asked. “For my blip rank?”

  “The fifty cuts are tonight,” he said. “Students will be pulling stunts all day today to get their blip ranks higher. It happens every year. It’s pathetically predictable, actually, especially among the doomed.”

  I dropped my rock and brushed my hands. “Actually, asswipe, I just wanted to be sure you were okay,” I said. “My mistake.” I turned and started toward the quad.

  His voice came after me. “Your name would be?”

  “Seriously?” I paused to stare back at him and braced a fist on my hip. “That’s an apology?”

  He lowered his ice pack again. He didn’t bother to smile and I didn’t either. Then he gave the slightest shrug.

  “I beg your pardon,” he said. “It hasn’t been my best morning. I’m Linus Pitts.”

  I frowned, considering him, and then I took a couple steps nearer again. “Rosie Sinclair,” I said.

  “We meet at last.”

  His voice was so deadpan I couldn’t quite tell if he was being ironic. That was when I noticed something really was wrong with his eye. I came nearer to inspect him. The pupil was a murky color instead of clear black.

  “Can you see all righ
t?” I asked.

  “As it happens, I can’t. I think there’s blood in my eye.”

  “Let me see.” I looked closer while Linus aimed his eyeballs at me. It looked like red liquid had spilled inside his left pupil. I didn’t know that was possible. “Shouldn’t you get that checked?”

  “Probably.”

  “Like now?” I said.

  He closed one eye slowly, and then the other. “This happened to me once before. It’ll clear in a few days.”

  I laughed. “So you’re half-blind and it’s no big deal?”

  “I’m not keen on doctors.”

  “Neither am I, but I like to be able to see.”

  “Like I said. It’ll clear.”

  With a beeping noise, the ice cream truck backed up from the dining hall next door and drove away.

  “How long have you worked here?” I asked.

  “Me? Three years.”

  “That’s a lot of dishes,” I said.

  “What makes you think I only wash dishes? I do a lot of prep, too.”

  He resettled the ice pack against his bad eye and shifted so he could see me with the other.

  “Where’s your accent from?” I asked.

  “I’m Welsh, by way of St. Louis.”

  “Why aren’t you in school yourself?”

  “Because I quit,” he said.

  “To work kitchen prep?”

  His eyebrows lifted. “You’re a regular charmer. You know that?”

  “Sorry,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with kitchen prep. I’m just wondering.”

  “How do you feel about getting cut tonight?” he asked. He pushed off from the giant spool and ran a hand down his apron, catching his thumb where the string wrapped around to the front.

  “I said I was sorry. You don’t have to be vindictive.”

  He let out a laugh. “Not bad, Sinclair. You almost make me want to watch the show.”

  “You don’t?” I asked. “Seriously? But you work here.”

  “Exactly. It’s too much of a good thing. Franny likes to run it in the kitchen, and I always work facing the other direction if I can help it.”

  I couldn’t believe it. He worked on the staff of one of the most popular reality shows of all time, and he didn’t watch it. Actually, that was pretty interesting. “Cool,” I said.

  “Tell me something,” he said. He lowered the ice pack and turned it in his fingers. “All that compulsory sleep every night. What’s that feel like?”

  “It’s a little weird,” I said. I glanced around to see a mic button on the top of the giant spool. Every inch of this place was wired for sound. I leaned back against the spool in the place where he had been, and tugged idly at my necklace.

  “Do you dream a lot?” Linus asked. “Can you actually feel yourself getting more creative?”

  “Not really.”

  “That’s the theory, though, right?” he asked.

  It was. One of the principles of the school was that our creativity was increased by our sleep because it cemented the learning from the day. It puzzled me, though, why we needed a full twelve hours. I wondered if Linus knew anything about what happened at the school at night.

  “I didn’t know it was such a tough question,” he said. He had a way of smiling with his eyes narrowed in concentration, like he was serious even more than he was happy. I found it oddly inviting.

  “It’s weird,” I said. “I miss the night. I miss who I am in the night.”

  “That’s not so weird,” he said. “Go on.”

  “I don’t dream at all anymore, either.” I glanced out at the sheep again. “I miss that, a lot. I also miss feeling like I’m asleep. I know I’m asleep. I know the time goes by because when I wake up, it’s daylight again. But I don’t feel like I’m sleeping here, you know?”

  “That sort of makes sense,” Linus said.

  It was hard to explain what I didn’t fully understand myself. I put the toes of my boots together and examined them. “I think it’s connected to the cameras. I feel like I’m always on,” I said. “Like they’ve pushed a button and I’m always on. Night is completely skipped. When I wake up, I’m continuing directly from the evening before when I climbed in my sleep shell. Like I haven’t had a break. Like I’ve been cheated.” That was it. I felt cheated. I wasn’t simply asleep. Someone was stealing my sleep and my privacy from me, until I existed only for the show. “It’s like being robbed.”

  “That can’t be good,” he said.

  I did the double thumb jerk to indicate the cameras. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about this.”

  He smiled. “You can talk about anything. People say negative things about Forge all the time. You’re only being honest.”

  I felt a tingle of apprehension. “It feels like a mistake.”

  “It adds authenticity. Viewers love that,” he said. “Besides, if you dislike it so much, you should be glad to be going home.”

  “Don’t say that!” I said, alarmed.

  “Why not?”

  “I want to stay here so badly, it hurts,” I said. “It’ll kill me if I have to go, but every time I look at my blip rank, it’s worse.”

  “So you’re a pessimist,” Linus said. “How refreshing.”

  I laughed and half squirmed at the same time. “Are you doing this on purpose? Tormenting me?”

  “Not at all,” he said. “Why do you want to stay? You want to be a big star? Is that it?”

  I couldn’t possibly explain this hungry thing inside me. I needed to make films, real films about real people. It was the one way I knew, the one, complete way to get to the truth and show what really mattered. If I had to go back to Doli now, without an education, realistically I’d end up working at McLellens’ Pot Bar and Sundries, or at the prison school like Ma. I’d be dead my whole life.

  “Have you ever heard of Doli, Arizona?” I asked.

  “No. Should I have?”

  “We’re the poorest zip code in the country. Half the people don’t have jobs. My school is a farce and I’m on the pre-prison track there. It’s teaching me nothing, let alone anything about film,” I said. “And don’t ask me why we don’t leave Doli. It’s still my home.”

  “I didn’t ask you,” he said quietly. He leaned a hand on the wooden spool. “You can’t seriously be here for the education.”

  “Crazy, huh?”

  He drummed his fingers for a second. “What’s your blip rank?”

  I lifted my gaze toward the horizon. “Last I checked, it was ninety-five.”

  “That’s quite lousy.”

  “Exactly.” I took a deep breath and tried to smile. “The worst is going to be facing my little sister. She believed in me so hard.”

  He sloshed the ice pack in his hand and then chucked it with a clank into a garbage can. “You’re good. I’ll give you that,” he said.

  I wasn’t sure what he meant. Linus took a step backward and waved up at the tower where the big cameras were. An old guy with a mustache looked around from the back of one.

  “Hey, Otis! How’s it going?” Linus said, and waved again.

  “Where are my smokes?” the old guy called down.

  “I’ll bring them at lunch!” Linus yelled back.

  Otis vanished again.

  “What are you doing?” I asked.

  “Otis is a sharp old bastard,” Linus said. “You want to get him on your side.”

  “You can’t just flag down the camera guy,” I said.

  Linus slid a hand in his back pocket. “Why not? Get this, Sinclair,” he said. “I may not watch The Forge Show anymore, but I get how it works. It’s a show. You’re a performer on a TV show. That’s what matters. Not your fancy education part of it. Your entire value is measured by how popular you are to the viewers.”

  “You mean for the banner ads,” I said.

  “You won’t even be eligible for a banner ad unless you pass the fifty cuts,” Linus said. “You have to think about the audience every minute bet
ween now and five o’clock. You have to plan for them and calculate their reactions. You need a strategy.”

  I straightened away from the spool. “Just because you work here doesn’t mean you know what it’s like from my side. I’ve been thinking about the cameras. I’ve followed all the rules, but it doesn’t work for me. I can’t explain it. I never feel like myself here.”

  “You don’t understand,” Linus said. “Forget the cameras. Think about the people watching. That’s the difference. The people out there care about you, or they would if they felt like they knew the real you.” Linus ran a hand back through his hair. “Look. I can help you. I do know what works here.”

  “And what’s that?”

  “Honesty. Integrity.”

  I laughed, thinking of all the Janice types on the campus. They didn’t strike me as honest, but they had high blip ranks. “What else?”

  “You could take the talent show approach,” he said. “That works if you’re phenomenal. What’s your art? What did you do to get in?”

  “I made a documentary about my sister Dubbs,” I said. “She’s seven. I want to make films.”

  “Oh, films,” he said, in a snobby drawl. “You can’t exactly make a film in a day.”

  “I could, actually, but it wouldn’t be any good,” I said. “Next idea.”

  He opened a hand. “Hang out with one of your friends who has a high blip rank,” he said. “You’ll get a shadow effect.”

  I didn’t have any friends. I had acquaintances, but it took me longer than ten days to make what I considered real friends. “Next idea,” I said.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. What else?” I asked.

  “Betray your boyfriend. Or girlfriend. Whoever. Go for personal drama.”

  “I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said.

  “Then find one.” His eyes stayed serious, as if he were testing me. “Think tryst,” he said. “Cut out later and meet up with a humble dishwasher with a festering black eye. It’ll add a good ten points to your blip rank.”

  He was neither humble nor festering, obviously.

  “You are a very misguided person,” I said.

  “I’m just right. You know I am.”

 
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