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The rule of mirrors, p.20
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.20

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  He leaned in again for another kiss. “Okay,” he said.

  “Okay?” I said.

  He nodded and stepped back. “Yes. We’re good.”

  My knees were wobbly, and my skin felt hypersensitive. I was both relieved and disappointed. He ducked his head for a second and pushed his hair back from his eyes before he smiled at me again.

  “I think you dropped this,” he said, handing me Althea’s journal. “I don’t think you should read it, but it’s up to you.”

  Right. I’d completely forgotten it. He could easily have taken it.

  “Thanks,” I said, brushing a bit of hay off the brown cover. I looked up at him again, and a mysterious light flickered in his eyes. I bit inward on my tender lips, then licked them.

  He groaned and looked away. “Time for me to get on home.”

  * * *

  Later that night, after I’d said good night to the family, I went upstairs to read Althea’s journal. As I undid the twine, a photo of a collie slipped out onto my bedspread. I turned it over and read “Gizmo 2054–2065 Best Dog Ever.” With a twinge of guilty curiosity, I opened the little book. Althea’s journal was not a series of entries written over weeks or months. It was a single outpouring of tight, hard-pressed handwriting that gouged into the paper.

  Gizmo’s dead. I can’t believe he’s gone! He was my best friend, my one true friend always there when I needed him. Why does it hurt so much? He’s okay now. He’s out of pain now. Why am I so furious at EVERYTHING? My parents. Daniel again. Tom, and all he tried to do was be nice tonight. I hate that he’s nice to me. He doesn’t even know me. I wish I had Gizmo here with me! I would hold his sweet head and look into his trusting brown eyes. He had such hopeful eyebrows. His little eyebrows! He would understand me like he always does. This place will never be the same. Why’d you have to die? Why did I ever have to meet Daniel? How could he treat me like that? I still can’t believe I trusted him when I should have known! I should have known! His filthy back seat. I can still hear him. He makes me feel disgusting. Oh, Gizmo. No. I’m stronger now. I don’t have to feel this mess anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why am I crying over this again? I’m not thirteen anymore! I just wish Gizmo was here! I miss my dog.

  R.I.P. Gizmo Flores

  BEST DOG EVER

  BEST FRIEND EVER

  Her words buzzed straight to my heart. Poor Althea. Quietly, I closed her journal and picked up the photo of Gizmo again, holding it lightly. It was true that Gizmo’s eyebrow bumps made him look sympathetic. Whatever Daniel did to Althea when she was thirteen must have been deeply painful.

  I felt so awful for her. What a life she’d had—some trauma at thirteen, then losing her dog, then pregnancy and a motorcycle accident at eighteen. Being rich hadn’t saved her from trouble and loss. Then I remembered how Tom had said Althea walked proudly in high school. She had all those riding trophies, too, and her aim of being a psychiatrist. She’d felt deeply and suffered, but she’d been strong, too. I had the feeling she wouldn’t want me to pity her.

  The baby rolled inside me, poking a knee or elbow into my side. I slid heavily off my bed and slipped the journal into the bottom drawer of my dresser. A ping of headache made me cringe for a moment, and I opened my window for a crack of fresh air. The night had grown late, and the moon hung over the valley, clear and serene.

  My phone buzzed on the dresser, and I saw I’d missed a row of texts from Tom. Nothing from Linus. For the first time, I called Tom back.

  “How much do you know about what happened to Althea when she was younger?” I asked.

  “Did she mention a guy?” Tom said.

  “Yes. Daniel.”

  “When I saw her journal, that’s what I was afraid of,” Tom said. “She never talked about him much, just told me he raped her after a riding competition. She was pretty messed up about it. She almost quit competing because she was afraid to see him again.”

  “Do her parents know?” I asked.

  “Yes. She saw a therapist for a while. That’s really all I know. And the guy’s family moved out of town. I always wondered if your dad had something to do with that.”

  “Did you know him?”

  “No.”

  I could see a corner of the pool from my angle, and someone had left the lights on so the water glowed.

  “Do you remember any of it?” Tom asked.

  I shook my head. “No. The only thing I’ve come close to remembering, and it isn’t even a memory, is a feeling I get when I’m with you.”

  I touched a finger to the window sash, waiting for a reply, while his silence pulled the thread of my nerves.

  “I’m coming over,” Tom said.

  “That won’t help,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I think I need to leave for a while. I need to go see my own family. Rosie’s family.”

  “Thea, this is your family now. Rosie’s family isn’t going to recognize you. You’ll only confuse them.”

  “I still have to see them,” I said. “I miss my mom. My sister, too.” I tried to explain it. “I don’t know why, but reading Althea’s journal makes me realize how unfair this all is. I can’t possibly take over her life and remake it into my own. She’s not just some hand-me-down jeans.”

  “I know it can’t be easy,” he said. “But this is still where you belong. Thea would want you here. The old Thea, I mean. I’m sure of it.”

  “That’s a crazy thing to say.”

  “She was a very generous person. She cared about people,” he said, and stopped abruptly, like he didn’t trust himself to go on.

  This couldn’t be easy for him, either.

  I felt my pulse thudding oddly. “Maybe you should come with me,” I said. “Do you want to take a road trip?”

  I expected him to argue.

  “How soon?” he asked.

  I smiled with gratitude. “Tomorrow,” I said.

  “Then yes.”

  22

  ROSIE

  FLESH-EATING MAGGOTS

  I’M BACK IN THE VAULT, and this time Berg himself is coming for me. He lurks as an evil presence in the darkness, just beyond my sight, but I know he’s there, tinkering with something that causes a metallic, sharpening noise. When he steps into the light, I can’t move or speak. Hello Rosie, he says. You thought you could escape, but this is the only way to leave me. He lifts a short, sharp knife and starts between my toes, slitting me up my skin, opening my leg so black worms and maggots spill out.

  I scream and bolt up in bed. I clutch at my blanket and knock my hand wildly for the lamp. It crashes to the floor, and I leap out of bed toward the door. I yank it open, panting with fear. Only when I see light coming from a bathroom do I remember where I am. This is Burnham’s place, not the vault.

  I swallow hard, but my heart is racing and I can still feel the horror of Berg slicing up my leg. He could be here in this apartment. He could be waiting for me.

  Burnham leans into the hallway. “Are you okay?” he asks.

  I check my bare foot for a black seam of pain, but my leg is whole and unharmed. I search the shadows around us for movement. Violence feels ready to erupt around us.

  “Did you have a nightmare?” Burnham asks. He’s supporting himself with a grip on the doorframe. “Say something. You’re scaring me.”

  “Am I still asleep?”

  “No,” Burnham says. “You’re awake, Rosie. This is real.” He snaps his fingers. “This is real.”

  I slide down the wall to the carpet and wrap my arms around my legs. Every bit of me is shaking. “It was horrible,” I say. “Berg was slicing up my leg and letting out the black maggots.” A shiver of them flashes over my sight again.

  Burnham flips on another light. His chest is bare, and the waist of his pajama pants droops low. “Let me get my leg brace. I’ll be right there,” he says.

  “Don’t go!” I say.

  “Two seconds,” he says, and disappears into his room.

  I’m afraid to look back over my sh
oulder. I’m afraid to be alone. I crawl rapidly down the carpet to Burnham’s door, and I look in to see him on his bed, hunched over, attaching a brace above and below his knee, over his pajamas. He uses his one good hand and his teeth to pull the straps snug, and then looks across at me.

  “What are you doing?” he asks.

  “Making sure you’re not getting eaten by maggots.”

  He swings his leg over. “I don’t taste good enough.”

  And when he smiles, I finally trust that I’m awake. I’m safe. Berg can’t be here.

  Burnham looks way stronger than I expected. Shirtless, he has serious muscles in his torso and shoulders, even for his bad arm, and as he reaches for his glasses, I realize I’m staring. I shift back from the door and out into the hallway, which suddenly seems much safer than it did before.

  He appears above me, one eyebrow raised. “That looks good on you,” he says.

  I glance down at myself and remember that, aside from my panties, I’m only wearing one of his tee shirts. I clutch at my neckline. “This is embarrassing.”

  He smiles and offers his good hand. “Come on. Get up. I’ll make you a snack.”

  I take his hand and rise slowly to my feet. “I can’t, like this.”

  His eyes travel over me again. “You’re covered more than in a swimsuit.”

  Somehow, I don’t find that at all reassuring, but I don’t want to leave him to go back to my room. Chicken. As I release his hand, my fingertips are tingling. We’ve been hanging out for two days, watching The Forge Show and baking brownies when we’re not trying to work out details about Berg, but Burnham has always had his shirt on up to this point. Tonight he seems different, and it’s not just because I’m edgy from my nightmare.

  I follow him into the kitchen where he turns on a row of lights. Outside, floodlights illuminate the back porch in one direction and the parking circle in the other. No one, certainly not Berg with a knife, can approach without being seen.

  I slump onto a stool, and before long Burnham slides a mug of cocoa across to me.

  “For starters,” he says.

  I take the mug gladly in my cold hands.

  “Do you have nightmares often?” he asks.

  “Yeah.”

  He opens the freezer and contemplates its contents, bracing his hand on the door. I barely notice his bent wrist anymore, but I notice the rest of him. He takes out a pizza box. He weighs it in his hand a couple times and then chucks it back in the freezer. If he were fully dressed and this were daylight, the whole routine would be blandly normal, but it isn’t and he isn’t, and I have to lower my face over my mug to stop looking at him. Even then, I can still picture him leaning back against the opposite counter with his arms crossed over his bare chest.

  “Interesting,” he says.

  “What.”

  “I don’t have to say a thing and you’re blushing.”

  “I’m not.”

  He steps forward and leans on the counter that separates us. “I think it’s an entirely new color. A kind of tomatoesque pink. Does it hurt?”

  “Don’t be a dork,” I say.

  “Let me see. Is it hot?” he asks, reaching for my hand.

  I let him turn my fingers over in his before I realize my mistake. His touch is cool, but it only makes my skin burn hotter.

  I pull away and grip my mug again. “It’s just the heat from the cocoa.”

  “I see,” he says slowly. He draws a finger through a drop of cocoa that spilled on the white counter.

  I can tell he’s looking at me, but I avoid his gaze. The icemaker makes a rattling noise in the fridge.

  “It’s no accident that you came here,” he says.

  “I know,” I say quickly. “You’ve been great. This has been perfect. I feel a ton better than I did when I arrived.”

  He straightens stiffly. “Don’t do that.”

  “Don’t do what?”

  “Put your box around me. I’m not ‘great.’ It isn’t ‘perfect’ here. Be real with me.”

  “What do you mean?” I ask. “I am real with you.”

  “Then wake up,” he says gently.

  I am awake, more awake than ever, and I’m sitting in his kitchen in a threadbare tee shirt. It barely covers my port. My legs have never felt so long and naked. I didn’t consciously plan to be here, but somewhere along the way, I made the choices that brought me here.

  He comes around the counter, slowly, so I could back away if I wanted to. I manage to get off the stool, but I’m still right there, in reach, when he stops in front of me. My lungs go tight, and I can’t bring myself to meet his gaze. Or even look higher than his collarbone.

  “I don’t want to blow this,” he says.

  “Me, neither.”

  He sets his hand lightly on my waist so I feel his warmth through the cotton. I flash my eyes up for a second and find what I’m afraid of. He’s tender and lonely, and funny and smart. I can’t kiss him unless I mean it, and I can’t mean it while I’m still all twisted and evil inside. But I owe him. I owe him so much.

  “Don’t you be dishonest with me,” he says.

  “I know,” I whisper.

  He doesn’t move. I swear that heat particles are charging the shadow between us, but I don’t know what to do.

  “Do you trust me?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “Then let me try something,” he says, and he touches his lips to mine.

  I can’t breathe. I can feel the rest of him just beyond this soft kiss. He’s so warm and strong. If I move at all, I’ll end up in his arms, but I can’t be there. I’m not ready. I’m afraid.

  Of me. Of everything.

  My heart tumbles wildly around in my chest. I thought I knew how to kiss someone, but I don’t know how to kiss Burnham. I falter back a half step. I can’t look at him, but I hear him breathing.

  His voice comes low. “Why?”

  “I don’t know,” I say, and swallow hard.

  He slides his hand away from my waist. With a spin, I’m on my way back down the hall to my room, where I lock the door with shaky fingers. Something’s wrong with me. Broken. I don’t know what it is. I feel this pull toward Burnham, but I can’t stay here with him. Every instinct tells me to flee, and at the same time, I swear I’m being punished.

  * * *

  He’s in the weight room with a trainer when I come out of my bedroom the next morning. I linger out on the porch until they’re finished and I hear the trainer leave, and then I come back in to stand awkwardly by the couch. Burnham’s shirt is damp with sweat, and his glasses catch a glare so I can’t read his expression. He grabs a towel from the back of a chair and drapes it around his neck.

  “I hope you slept well,” he says, and aims into the kitchen.

  I hardly slept at all. I kept the light on and huddled in my bed, feeling wretched.

  “I’m sorry about last night,” I say.

  “Are you?” he says. He turns on the faucet to fill a glass with water.

  “I think I should leave,” I say.

  He drinks long, his throat working, and lowers the glass to look at me. “Okay.”

  I didn’t expect him to agree quite so fast. I take a couple of halting steps toward the kitchen, where I can see my cup of cold cocoa still on the counter.

  “I might have to borrow some money,” I say.

  “I can order another car for you, or better yet, you can take mine.”

  “I can’t take your car. Quit being so generous.”

  “What are you going to do? Hitchhike? Take my car, Rosie. I have three. You can bring it back someday when you’re done with it. I’ll give you some cash, too. How much do you think you’ll need? Doesn’t matter. I’ll give you a wad.”

  I feel really, really horrible.

  He scoops handfuls of ice out of the freezer and dumps them into a deep red bowl with a loud clatter. Then he turns on the faucet again so water rushes into the bowl. He turns off the water, carries the bowl to the table nea
r the window, and dunks his bent wrist into the ice water.

  “I’ll pay you back for everything some day,” I say. “I promise.”

  “I’ll let you try,” he says.

  Worse and worse. I have to find some decent way to say goodbye to him.

  “Remember the lady knight with the boobs?” I say.

  His expression stays flat. “What about her?”

  “I think you should still work on your game,” I say. “Go ahead and be a doctor, but don’t give up making your games, too. You were really good at it.”

  “Thanks for the inspirational pep talk.” He wipes at his face with his towel. “How’s your latest film going?”

  I don’t have one. I don’t even have a camera. “Point taken.”

  He shifts his wrist in the bowl and winces briefly. He looks unhappy, and I know it’s my fault.

  “I’m really sorry, Burnham,” I say.

  He adjusts his glasses and gazes up at me again. “I don’t get it, Rosie. We’re so good together,” he says. “Are you still jonesing for Linus? Is it that?”

  “Of course not.”

  “So then, what? I’m too klutzy now for you?”

  “Don’t say that,” I say.

  “There’s got to be some reason,” he says. “I can’t figure it out.”

  I shove my hands in my pockets and wish I could dig out of this awkwardness. I speak quietly, trying to put my thoughts together. “Something’s different in me. Sort of scrambled. I’m afraid.”

  “Of what? Me?”

  “No. I’d never be afraid of you,” I say.

  “Then what?”

  “I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” I keep feeling the vault in me. This weight. Fear. It’s like my lungs still carry tiny, heavy particles of darkness from the vault, and they’ve attached themselves deep inside me. “Love is for happy people, not me.”

  “I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous,” he says.

  It stings. I shrug. “You asked for honesty. That’s how I feel.”

  “No, the truth is, you care about me, too,” he says. “You’re just not willing to admit it.”

  His ice makes a clunking noise, and I fix my gaze on the bowl again.

  “This is exhausting,” I say.

 
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