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The rule of mirrors, p.21
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.21

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Burnham laughs briefly. “Tell me about it.”

  I move a few steps closer until I’m in the sunlight of the window with him. “I need to figure out some stuff. I have to go back to Forgetown to see Berg.”

  “And Linus.”

  I hesitate, but that’s true. “Yes, if he’s there. But mostly, I need my revenge.”

  He shifts his wrist in the ice water again. “I see. You won’t kiss me, but you’d risk your life to kill someone.”

  “I never said I’d kill him, per se.”

  Burnham looks at me, deadpan. Okay, he knows it’s what I want to do.

  I slide my hands in my pockets. “I’m not expecting you to help me.”

  “No. But it might make you happier,” he says. He considers me a long moment. “I’ve been thinking about it. If I give you a peg, and if you can stick it in a port of Berg’s personal computer, I can hack it remotely.”

  I move a step nearer to him. “That would be totally illegal.”

  “Do you care?”

  “I don’t care if it’s illegal, but you’re different.”

  He pulls his wrist out of the bowl and dries it with the towel. “That’s where you’re wrong, just like you’re wrong about us,” he says. “I want revenge, too.”

  23

  THEA

  THE BOXCAR

  I CAME DOWN THE NEXT MORNING and found Diego, Madeline, and Grampa around the big kitchen table. Sunlight slanted in and bounced off the wooden floor. On the stove, a black iron skillet held a couple of fried eggs, and the place smelled like bacon. Madeline had her briefcase open on a neighboring chair, and Grampa was working a crossword puzzle from the paper.

  “I’m going to take a little road trip with Tom,” I said. “We should be gone three or four days, I expect.”

  Diego set his coffee mug down with a thud. “Unbelievable.”

  “It’s important,” I said. “I need to go see my other family back in Arizona. I need to do it now, before I have the baby. Before things get more complicated.”

  “Did you talk to them?” Madeline asked.

  “No. They won’t listen to me. I have to see them face to face,” I said. “I’m aware that’s a problem, but I still have to go.”

  “Enough,” Diego said. “As long as you live under my roof, you’ll do as I say, and I say you’re not going.”

  “Then I guess I’m moving out,” I said.

  Madeline broke into a laugh. “Would you listen to yourself? You can’t move out. Don’t be ridiculous.”

  Grampa wasn’t laughing. I looked at him. “You understand, don’t you?”

  He sat back and set his pen down on the crossword. “No, I don’t. You belong here with us.”

  “I’m supposed to have eighteen million dollars,” I said. “Where’s that?”

  “In a trust fund,” Madeline said. “You don’t get a cent unless your trustees agree.”

  “And who are my trustees?” I asked.

  “Your mother, Grampa, and me,” Diego said.

  I should have guessed. “So the money isn’t really mine?”

  “It is for anything reasonable,” Madeline said.

  Which a road trip was not. I got it. This actually made things simpler. Fortunately, I hadn’t gotten used to having money, so giving it up wouldn’t be hard. I might have to lean on Tom financially for a while, but I could pay him back eventually. Once I got to Doli, if I stayed there, my parents would help. I could probably work at McLellens’ Pot Bar and Sundries for awhile. I would figure it out.

  “Okay, then,” I said. “I’ll let you know how I’m doing.”

  Diego set both his hands on the table. “Get that smirk off your face. I said you’re not leaving.”

  “I heard you just fine,” I said. “I’m still going. I don’t need your money. Tom’s giving me a ride, and if my real parents won’t help me out, I’ll ask him to support me just until I’m on my feet.”

  “We’re your real parents,” Madeline said. “I know you’re confused, but you’re still our daughter.”

  “Then treat me with the respect I deserve,” I said.

  Diego rose to his feet and glared at me with barely checked fury. “I’d like to say something, and I’d like you to listen to me good and hard,” he said.

  I twisted my fingers together. “Go ahead.”

  “Your mother and I, we’ve been through hell for you,” he said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like. You won’t know until you have that baby of your own and you agonize over every breath it takes. Quit acting like a selfish, self-destructive idiot.”

  “Diego,” Madeline said.

  He held up a hand. “Cut him loose, Althea,” he said. “Don’t waste yourself on some Podunk slob who can’t even tie his own shoes.” He stood stiff with pride and anger. “Don’t waste your second chance.”

  “This isn’t about Tom,” I said.

  “Isn’t it?” Diego asked. “Do you think I’m blind? We know he’s constantly calling and texting you. It’s only a matter of time before he sneaks in past security.” His expression hardened. “He already did, didn’t he?”

  I cleared my throat. “Yes. But that isn’t what matters,” I said. “We can’t keep pretending I’m just going to go on with Althea’s life. I don’t have her memories or her scars. I never knew Daniel or lost Gizmo. I never dreamed of being a psychiatrist. I have my own roots as Rosie Sinclair, and now’s my chance to go home and face what that means.”

  Diego and Madeline stared at me.

  “She’s getting worse,” Madeline said in a tight voice.

  “No, I’m not,” I said. “You’re not listening. I’m just trying to be myself.”

  “By taking a road trip?” Diego asked, his voice contemptuous. He crossed his arms. “I’ll tell you who you are. You’re Althea Maria Flores, and you’re not going anywhere.”

  “What are you going to do?” I asked. “Lock me up? Shoot me?”

  Diego started yelling in earnest. Madeline wasn’t much better. Grampa looked at me sadly, shaking his head, and of all of them, he was the one I was most sorry about. But I was done arguing and done trying to explain. I walked down the hall, picked up a bag I’d left by the stairs, and went out to the front porch, where Tom was just pulling up in his truck. I got in without a word and didn’t look back.

  * * *

  We drove west. A slew of country songs, some heartsick, some peppy, made a soundtrack for the passing hills. I shucked off my shoes, tilted my seat back, and pushed my feet up on the dashboard. The sky was a huge pewter plate above us, and the road was as straight as murder between acres of grit and sage bush. The holomap on the windshield was an old one, with a faulty glitch of a blank on my side, and the voice had a British accent that reminded me of Linus.

  My first false contraction came, tightening the outer surface of my basketball belly in a slow wave of tension. It held for a long moment, focusing me inward. I ran a hand slowly down my shirt and stared absently out the windshield until it passed, releasing me. The baby stretched inside me as if to say what on earth was that? My midwife had told me about Braxton-Hicks contractions. They didn’t mean labor, but they were a kind of practice. I was excited. Nervous, too. It was March 26th. I still had four weeks to go, but that was shorter all the time.

  “I’ll have to stop for coffee soon,” Tom said.

  “I can drive some,” I said.

  “Have you driven since the accident?” he asked.

  “I wasn’t there, remember?”

  “Do you have your license in your old life?”

  “No, but I’ve been driving since I was fourteen.”

  “How old are you in your old life?” he asked.

  “Sixteen.”

  His eyebrows shot up and he glanced over briefly. “Are you serious?” he said. “That explains a few things.”

  “Like what?”

  He waved a hand vaguely. “You’re kind of nice. Sweet.”

  In my head, I wasn’t sweet. “Wasn’t Alt
hea?”

  “She was nice, but in a different way. She was more wound up.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket, glanced at it, and nudged it up on the dashboard. It had been making ding noises on and off all morning.

  “Who’s calling?” I asked.

  “Bunch of journalists. Not Linus.”

  I hadn’t talked to him in the last day or so. I wondered what he’d think of my road trip. “Let me drive,” I said.

  We changed it up. It felt good to be in charge. A vibration in the steering wheel registered in the bones of my fingers, and I smiled.

  “This is a little freaky for me,” he said. “I never expected to see you driving again.”

  “How’d my accident happen?”

  “You were mad, that’s for sure.”

  “At you?”

  He laughed. “Of course. Your parents, too, I guess.”

  “Did we break up?” I asked.

  “We didn’t break up. You broke up with me,” he said.

  “Over the baby?” I asked.

  “Yeah.”

  I settled in the right lane and hit cruise control. The road was long and straight before us, and I kept my gaze toward the distance ahead. “I’m listening,” I said.

  Tom told me about the day Madeline found Althea’s pregnancy test in her bathroom. When she asked Althea about it, Althea said she intended to get an abortion. Madeline was flatly against it. Diego was against it, too, but he said the choice was Althea’s.

  “Your parents started fighting. You knew they’d be upset,” he continued. “That’s why you didn’t want to tell them. You were leaving the next day for college. You were packing and everything. It was all pretty emotional.”

  A small, tight ache started behind my eyes, and I touched a hand to my eyebrows. “How about you? What did you think about the abortion?” I asked.

  He shifted in the passenger seat. “I was mad that you hadn’t told me you were pregnant. Then I said I’d support whatever you decided.”

  I glanced over briefly at his calm features and then back to the road. “Why do I get the feeling there’s more to it?”

  He took his time answering. “It wasn’t enough just to support you,” he said. “You asked me what I really wanted. I said it didn’t matter what I wanted because it was your body, and you said it did matter because I was the father. You wouldn’t let me just be neutral.”

  He fiddled with the button of his window, pushing it down and up a couple of times so the sucking wind alternated with silence.

  “So what did you say?” I asked.

  He spoke loudly. “I said we should get married, okay? I said, either way, whether you had the baby or not, we should go through it together.” He jabbed the window down and up once more. “And you know what you said? You said I was a coward.”

  I glanced over again to see that his gaze was narrowed toward the horizon. Every line of his face was taut.

  “But I wasn’t a coward,” he said. “That was the one time I stood up to you. And that’s when you left me. That’s when you took my bike and practically killed yourself.”

  The road churned beneath our wheels, and I held tight to the steering wheel. He was talking to me like I was Althea again, and I didn’t know what to do for him, so I just kept driving.

  He wiped a hand against his eye. “I should have told you,” he said. “I wanted you to keep our baby. I’m sorry. I did.” His voice cracked but he kept on. “I left you to make the decision alone. I thought that was the right thing, but you needed me. I should have told you how I really felt.”

  “It’s okay,” I said softly.

  “No, it’s not. You were so upset.” His voice dropped low. “Can you forgive me?”

  I glanced over, startled. He was wincing, with his eyes closed.

  “Of course,” I said. “Tom, Althea’s accident wasn’t your fault. She made her own decision to go riding that night. I’m sure she knew how you really felt.”

  “You haven’t been listening,” he said, and his voice went dead. “Of course she knew how I really felt. She wanted me to man up and say it, and I wouldn’t. That’s what I can’t forget.”

  * * *

  Tom and I reached Doli at the end of the day, when the last sunlight was leaving the desert, and the sky was dimming to a grainy purple. We hadn’t talked much more, but he seemed calmer, like maybe talking to me had helped after all. Stars appeared past the bug splats on the windshield. South of town, the boxcars stretched out in a long, weathered line, hunkered down, waiting for another earthquake like the one that had stranded them there.

  As we came down the ridge and hit the turn at McLellens’ Pot Bar and Sundries, I rolled my window down to stare at the new construction and garish lights. Crickets chirped from the sage.

  “Slow down,” I said to Tom.

  The McLellens had expanded. A lighted billboard promised ATV rentals, tourist info, clean bathrooms, and cold drinks. A cartoon drawing of a girl with dark curls was holding a video camera and riding an ATV. She looked vaguely like the original me. A big sign said BRING ROSIE HOME!

  The next boxcar, previously a massage parlor of ill repute, was now a bar/gift shop called The Sandman’s, and a dozen tourists were out on the deck nursing drinks in fancy, sweaty glasses. Tinny reggae music topped off the ambiance. I instinctively slouched down in my seat out of view, even though no one could recognize me.

  “Don’t stop,” I said.

  “I thought we were here,” Tom said.

  “No. Our place is at the other end. Go.”

  As Tom drove down the dirt road beside the row of railroad cars, I had a bad premonition that Larry had similarly capitalized on my fame. A drooping string of bare light bulbs ran from one boxcar to the next, illuminating glimpses of new, garish paint. Oil drums lined the road like guideposts, with pails of plastic flowers on top. The Doli boxcars had always been poor, but now they were cheap, too.

  Yet when our boxcar came into view, it was the same rusty, unpainted metal as before. The same threadbare curtains hung in the windows, and a defiant old pot of real petunias sat on the top step. It felt like years since I’d been home, but it looked miraculously the same.

  “Is this it? You sure?” Tom asked.

  “I know my own home,” I said.

  “I think this has gone far enough Thea,” he said quietly. “You don’t want to bother these people.”

  “You probably ought to decide once and for all whether you believe me or not.”

  I opened my door and got out on stiff legs, straightening my shirt over my belly. The night was soft and smelled of dusty eucalyptus. A flock of thrushes landed in my chest. Behind me, Tom got out and slammed his door.

  I glanced under the boxcar to where I used to store my bike and found Dubbs’s bike in the same shadow. I climbed the familiar, sagging wooden steps to find a little sign had been posted next to the door, under the sconce light.

  PLEASE RESPECT OUR PRIVACY.

  THIS MEANS YOU.

  THANK YOU.

  THE SINCLAIR/HOGARTH FAMILY

  I tugged at the door. It didn’t open. “Ma?” I called. “Dubbs?”

  “Thea, what are you doing?” Tom said. “They don’t want visitors.”

  I tried to peer in the gap of the kitchen curtains, past the old screen. The window was up and the sink was empty. That was all I could see, but it tugged at me.

  “Ma!” I called in the window. “It’s me! Rosie! Let me in.”

  A scrambling came from inside.

  “Rosie?” said a bright young voice.

  A clicking came from inside, and then the door rolled open sidewise on its wheels. My sister Dubbs stood in the opening. Her face was alight with anticipation.

  “Hi, Dubbs,” I whispered.

  Her face fell. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously.

  She was taller by almost an inch, with a new fullness to her cheeks. Her blond, touchably soft hair fluffed to her shoulders, and she wore a new striped sweater of purple and re
d. Before I could drink in any more, she started to close the door.

  “Wait!” I said, blocking the door with my foot. “I need to talk to you about Rosie. I have news about her. Is your ma home?”

  “Dad!” Dubbs called.

  “What did I tell you?” Larry called from inside. “Never answer the door.”

  Dubbs was staring at my belly now. When her gaze lifted to mine again, her eyes narrowed. “You said you were Rosie.”

  “It’s complicated,” I said. “Rosie’s changed. She has a new body.” I bent lower so my face was on a level with hers and smiled. “You wouldn’t believe how happy I am to see you.”

  She ducked her head back on her neck and made a face as if I stank. Larry stepped behind her and set a heavy hand on the doorway. He was all stubby bulk and crew cut. He shot one look at my belly and another toward Tom, who stood behind me on the steps.

  “Okay, that’s enough,” he said. “Move along. Can’t you read?”

  He smacked a hand on the sign. Dubbs withdrew behind him.

  “I’m not a reporter,” I said. “I’m a friend of Rosie’s. She gave me a message for you.”

  “Did she now,” he said. “Nobody’s heard hide nor hair from her in months. What’s the message?”

  “Let me in and I’ll explain,” I said.

  “She said she was Rosie,” Dubbs said.

  “Yeah, and I’m pregnant, too,” Larry said. He regarded me skeptically and spat. “Move your foot or it’ll get crushed.” He began rolling the door shut.

  “Wait! You read mysteries and you like to hunt,” I said to Larry. “You had a pet parakeet that died a year ago.”

  Larry held the door at a gap and measured me. “What was its name?”

  “You didn’t give it a name,” I said. “You just called it ‘Bird.’ I tell you: I know Rosie.”

  He picked at his neck. “What’s your name?”

  “Thea Flores, from Texas,” I said. “We drove all day to talk to you.”

  “You called once before, didn’t you? I don’t forget a voice.” Larry’s gaze shifted from me to Tom again. “Who’s this meathead?”

  “He’s my friend, Tom Barton,” I said. “Can we please come in?”

  Larry lifted his chin at me. “Are you mic-ed?”

  “I’m not,” I said. “Dubbs can pat me down. I don’t have any cameras, either.”

 
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