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The vault of dreamers, p.21
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.21

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  I took the chair beside his. “How was your diving yesterday?” I asked, and reached to turn on my machine.

  He took out his right earphone and let it hang. “It was good. And thanks, by the way. My mom says hi back.”

  “Hello again, Burnham’s mom,” I said, offering a wave at the nearest camera. “You have a very nice boy here. Very smart and handsome. You should be proud of him.”

  “Okay, enough of that,” Burnham said, shaking his head.

  On his screen, an army of cartoon dragons was attacking the clock tower with little bursts of flame.

  “You’re not failing at that,” I said.

  “Yes, I am. It doesn’t match what I imagine yet,” he said.

  He had to have some imagination.

  “Where’s the lady knight?” I asked.

  He pointed. “Here. She’s running things.”

  I leaned closer. She still had my hair and a nasty scowl. Her cleavage had been augmented.

  “Well done,” I said.

  I pulled up some of my footage from the graveyard and started working on a ghost I could superimpose into a sequence of scenes. Burnham worked companionably beside me for a while, and then he paused to stretch his hands over his head.

  “Hey, I want to show you something,” he said.

  Beside me, he left his game up on his big screen and skimmed a hand over his smaller touch screen to pull up some of my own footage. He had it arranged in nine miniwindows and he zipped through them all with fluid ease.

  “You weren’t kidding about taking a look at my footage,” I said.

  “I ran them through an analyzer,” he said. “There were two things that caught my eye. You’ll like this.”

  He set his touch screen between us and shifted his chair closer. Then he pulled up some footage from the clock tower. Purely for the artistic effect of it, I had aimed a video camera down the pit where the weights from the clock dropped on their chains, but even when Burnham ran the footage in high speed so a bit of window light streaked around inside of the cylindrical pit, the chains barely seemed to move. Then the pit went dark as the clock tower was lost to night.

  “That’s it,” I said.

  “Just wait,” he said.

  A flicker of light smudged the screen. Burnham stopped the footage and reversed back to a certain frame.

  A circle of light, deep down in the pit, silhouetted the chains and weights dropping down. I leaned closer to the screen, peering.

  “Guess what it is,” Burnham said.

  I slid the time marker through the footage to see that the light lasted about twenty seconds. Then it went off. I stared some more. It wasn’t a bright, direct light that would be used on purpose to illuminate the bottom of the pit. And it wasn’t a reflection, because if the floor was wet and reflecting light back up, then there would be light in the foreground from the original source, too, but there wasn’t. The light at the bottom of the pit was more like refracted light that had bounced down a hallway for a while and lost its luster.

  It suddenly occurred to me that Burnham had made a point of showing this to me on the small touch screen, where it wouldn’t be readily visible to the cameras.

  I glanced over at him. “You’re a crafty one. Did you rig this up?”

  “I didn’t. I swear.” He tilted his chair back, smiling. “I knew you’d like it.”

  “I do.”

  It made me think. A light down there could mean there was another way to the bottom of the pit, like from the side. Or from another perspective, the pit could lead to a tunnel. I put a marker on the footage, and looked at Burnham again.

  “Did you find anything else?” I asked.

  “Just a sec.”

  He leaned in again. This time he pulled up a shot of the girls’ dorm at night, with all our sleep shells lined up. The lids glowed faintly, including mine in the foreground. The scene was from the video camera I had set up in my wardrobe, and though I’d checked all of it before myself, I couldn’t help fearing he had flagged a time when I wasn’t sleeping.

  I reached to turn it off. “I’ve seen this,” I said. “We just sleep.”

  “Hold on,” he said. “I know you all sleep. Okay, now watch here.”

  He pointed to the girl in front: me. I lay in the closest sleep shell, with half of my face visible above the edge and my white quilt snuggled softly over my shoulder. My lips were parted just a hint, and my hair was a fluffy mess. On my bedside table, beside my notebook, I had propped up a photo of Dubbs. I pointed to the photo.

  “You gave me that,” I said.

  “Just wait. There.”

  On the screen, I still lay sleeping, but my shoulder was bare and my lips were closed. I had moved, but the film didn’t show me moving. Instead, it showed a jump cut from one frame to the next. Everything else was the same—the photo of Dubbs, the dimness, the other sleep shells—except for my shoulder and my mouth. Burnham backed it up and I watched it again. I checked the video track, and saw the black line of a splice.

  I touched the line with my finger. “Did you put that in?” I asked.

  He shook his head, watching me. “I found it like this.”

  I sat back slowly, my mind racing. For a glitch like that, someone had deliberately taken out a segment of my footage and spliced the loose ends together. It could mean a second had passed, or an hour. With the integrity of the footage gone, anything could have happened in the dorm room that night.

  I felt excited and half-sick at the same time. “You know what I’ve been searching for?”

  Burnham nodded. “Ghosts.”

  23

  GHOSTS

  WE COULDN’T TALK about it on camera.

  We’d just discovered something huge, and I had to act like it didn’t matter. I knew viewers at home couldn’t very well have seen what we were looking at on Burnham’s small touch screen, and it was doubtful that many of them would have understood the significance of the jump cut, even if they had. I had to keep them uninterested.

  I laughed. “I wouldn’t say it’s definitive proof of the paranormal.”

  “No, but it makes a person wonder,” he said.

  “Was there anything else you wanted to show me?”

  “That’s all I got.”

  Burnham slid his touch screen back in front of himself and switched it back in synch with his computer game of cartoon dragons. I put some of my other footage up on my main screen, too, so it looked like I was moving on, but I could barely pay even cursory attention while my mind was still racing.

  What I liked most was that the splice cut proved someone had something to hide. It was my first actual proof, tiny as it was, and Burnham had seen it, too. I had to laugh. My energy had switched from ho-hum to boundless, and I couldn’t possibly stay in my chair anymore. I stood and turned off my computer.

  Mr. DeCoster was just finishing his conversation with Harry. He glanced my way. “Everything all right?”

  “I’m just getting another one of my video cameras,” I said. I grabbed my brown sweater. “Burnham’s coming, too.”

  “I am?”

  “You are.”

  Burnham gave his chair a spin and stood up. “Off we go.”

  Moments later, we burst outside. The morning was still new, splashing with sunlight, and I filled my lungs with the fresh air.

  “You’re excited,” Burnham said.

  “Of course! What a gorgeous day.”

  “Where are we headed?”

  “To the observatory,” I said. “Have you been there?”

  “Not inside. Isn’t it locked?”

  “It doesn’t matter. My camera’s on top.”

  In the pasture, a shimmer of moisture lingered in the air above the grass. A couple of birds flapped overhead, and a clink came from the back of the dining hall. I looked back over my shoulder toward the kitchen, but Linus wasn’t visible through the windows. I gave a wave in his direction, in case he was watching me on the TV screen. Above, from the lookout tower, Otis ai
med a camera at us and I gave him a wave, too.

  It was just so good to finally have some proof, no matter how small it was. As I led the way down the narrow path, the wet grasses made dark streaks on my leggings and boots. I looked back to see that Burnham was in loafers.

  “I hope you’re at least wearing socks,” I said.

  He pulled up his jeans leg to show a bare ankle. “It’s no problem,” he said. “When did you put a camera on the observatory?”

  “A few weeks ago, back when we first started our projects.”

  “This whole time that you’ve been looking for ghosts, did you have a plan in case you actually found one?” he asked.

  “No. Like what?”

  “Tell the police?” he said. “Start an investigation?”

  He wasn’t talking about ghosts, but I had to answer as if he were.

  “They’d laugh their heads off,” I said. “Nobody believes in ghosts. Not really. They’d think I’m crazy.”

  “I don’t think you’re crazy,” Burnham said. “I think you’re brilliant.”

  I laughed, surprised at the simple sincerity in his voice. “Well, thanks. That’s probably an overstatement.” I tucked my hands in the sleeves of my sweater, trying to figure out what to say without saying anything.

  “I wish you had a phone,” he said.

  Then we could text. “Me, too.”

  “I wrote you a letter,” he said. He took his hand out of his back pocket and passed me a small, bulky envelope.

  “When did you write this?” I asked.

  “Last night. After swimming. Wait until you’re alone to read it,” he said.

  I could feel something hard inside the paper, but I put it in my skirt pocket without examining it closely. “Thanks. I’m dying of curiosity.”

  “It’s not a love poem or anything,” he added.

  “Of course not,” I said, and wondered if he was aware that Linus had given me a poem.

  Through his glasses, Burnham was watching me in a quiet, casual way. I noticed that he was a little taller than Linus. My gaze went to the shape of his mouth, and it took me too long to look away.

  “Sorry,” I said.

  “What for?”

  I shook my head.

  “Rosie,” he said gently. “I get that you’re seeing Linus.”

  A blush of heat burned up my cheeks. “Yes. I am.”

  Linus could be watching this very conversation, actually.

  I spun and continued down the path through the pasture, across the dip and up the knoll toward the observatory. Burnham’s letter burned in my pocket, making me feel oddly guilty for accepting it, but I couldn’t very well give it back.

  My boots crunched loudly as they met the gravel path that circled the observatory. The dome glinted brightly in the sunlight, but the ladder, recessed back from the main door, was in the shade. I took a quick look up its height. Then I gripped a cool metal rung and bypassed the DO NOT ENTER chain.

  “We’re not supposed to go up there,” Burnham said.

  “I went before. It’s safe,” I said, climbing higher.

  The rungs made a hollow, metallic pinging as I ascended. The noise plucked at the edge of my brain. I stepped up a couple more rungs and felt a déjà vu begin. I paused between two rungs. It was an odd déjà vu, different from the last time, because I had truly been here before, so part of my memory was real. It made for layers of being-here-ness.

  I kept climbing. “Are you coming?” I asked.

  When he didn’t answer, I twisted back and leaned into the ladder to look below me. Burnham was standing solidly on the gravel, with his hands on his hips, gazing up.

  “I’ll just watch. I’ll catch you if you fall,” he said.

  “You look an awful lot like a chicken from this angle,” I said. The words tasted familiar in my mouth.

  “I’m not a coward.”

  “Then you should come,” I said. “It’s beautiful at the top. I mean it.”

  He reached past the chain, and I felt the ladder vibrate as a rung bore his weight. My déjà vu intensified. I reached higher and paused to brush a little brown spider off the ladder. It spun out on a new filament of thread and fell gracefully from my sight, precisely the way I expected it to do.

  As I looked upward to see how much farther I had to go, a whirl of dizziness caught me by the back of my head. I sucked in my breath and gripped the rungs. The ladder tilted dangerously, trying to buck me off. I yanked it back into position. My eyes went tight and black, and with a sense of horror, I realized I was fading out.

  I couldn’t faint. Not here.

  My déjà vu showed me I was about to fall.

  I held hard to the ladder, trying to breathe deeply and maintain consciousness, but my upper foot grew limp and heavy. I could feel it slipping from the rung. I wanted to call out to Burnham and warn him, but my head nodded forward on its own, shutting down my jaw and my voice. I concentrated with all my might on my fingers, willing them to clench the ladder. I could still dimly hear Burnham climbing behind me, and then I was falling.

  Weightless.

  24

  THE AFTERMATH

  I SURFACED INTO fear.

  Before I focused on the grass an inch in front of my eyes or felt my arm twisted in pain, I knew the real crisis was the stillness of the body beneath me.

  “Burnham?” I said.

  I rolled off of him and turned to look.

  He was still. His eyes were closed. My fear escalated toward panic. Wake up! I told myself.

  But I was already awake. This horror was real.

  I leaned close, studying his face for any flicker of motion. His cheeks and eyelids remained smooth. I checked beneath his head and saw that he’d landed with his skull squarely on a stone paver that edged the path. I hadn’t even noticed the pavers before, but now they made a hard, deadly line between the grass and the gravel.

  “Burnham,” I whispered, and set my hand on his chest. “No, no, no.”

  He wasn’t breathing.

  I stopped thinking and moved to kneel beside Burnham’s head. I opened his mouth, pinched his nose, and bent close to seal my mouth around his. I breathed into him once and let go of his nose. His lips and jaw were slack. I readjusted and tried again, pushing air into him. Then I released his nose again and watched his chest.

  Nothing.

  Come on, Burnham, I thought.

  I gripped his nose and chin more firmly and breathed into him again, a cycle of breaths and pauses, as evenly as I could. With each breath, his unresponsiveness made me panic a little more. I didn’t know what else to do.

  “We’ve got him, Rosie,” a voice said.

  Firm hands gripped my shoulders as a mask was slid into place over Burnham’s face. Dr. Ash and half a dozen others were swarming around us with a stretcher and medical supplies.

  “Let’s give them a little room.”

  I was guided back and up to my feet.

  He has to breathe, I thought. My mind wouldn’t go any further than that.

  Dr. Ash doubled her gloved hands on Burnham’s chest and administered CPR in forced, rhythmic compressions. Someone else was peering into Burnham’s eyes with a penlight, and a third stuck an IV in his arm. The doctor gave clipped directions to her team, and then another medic passed her the paddles of a defibrillator. I couldn’t see. Too many shoulders blocked my vision.

  I tried to shift nearer, but someone was holding me back.

  “Rosie,” said a calm, low voice.

  I jumped as I realized that Dean Berg had me by the arm. “Let me go,” I said, pulling free.

  Mr. DeCoster and a dozen others were coming down the pasture. A couple girls were pressing their cheeks and covering their mouths in caricatures of shock. Four guys came running over in swimsuits and towels, as if, bizarrely, they’d jumped out of the pool and raced to try to save Burnham.

  I glanced across at the observatory ladder. We’d fallen maybe fifteen feet. Not even. It could not happen, it could not
be true that Burnham was seriously injured. Things didn’t work that way.

  He still didn’t move. Dr. Ash and the medics were working over him. This had to be a good thing, I thought. They wouldn’t bother if it was hopeless. They wouldn’t keep pushing on his chest or fit a collar around his neck if he was already dead. A man counted aloud, and on cue, the team lifted Burnham onto a stretcher. I hadn’t seen the ambulance come, but it was parked on the grass beside us.

  “What have I done?” I whispered, starting to shake.

  The medics carefully bundled Burnham into the ambulance, and the last I saw of my friend, one of his loafers was slipping off his foot.

  “Rosie!” Janice cried, charging through the bystanders.

  She flung her arms around me. Burnham’s ambulance was pulling away. I didn’t know where they would they take him. I didn’t even know where the closest hospital was.

  “You’re hurt,” Janice said, studying me. “Your arm. Is it broken? Dean Berg, Rosie hurt her arm.”

  That was when I first felt the pain in my right elbow. Dean Berg turned his soft, grave face in my direction, and when I saw his façade of concern, cold fury hit me. My accident with Burnham was Berg’s fault. My déjà vus and my dizziness were because of him and what he was doing to me at night.

  “Enough,” I said to him. “This has to stop.”

  Dean Berg looked like he hadn’t heard me. His forehead was creased in concentration. He had his normal earphone in one ear, and held another phone to the other. The buzz of a voice in the receiver was loud enough for me to hear.

  I pushed up near to him. “I said, this is enough.”

  He smiled kindly and took my hand. “We’ll take care of you, Rosie,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

  I jerked away from him. He called out to one of the medics and pointed toward me. Then he turned back to his phone call.

  “Rosie, hold on,” Janice said, stepping between me and the dean. “Let him talk to Burnham’s parents.”

 
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