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The rule of mirrors, p.22
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.22

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  He gave me another long look and then backed up a step. “All right,” he said. “But only you. The meathead stays outside. Leave him your phone.”

  I glanced back at Tom, who frowned in pure warning.

  “I won’t be long,” I said, passing him my phone.

  “This is nuts, Thea,” Tom said.

  “No, I’m good. Ten minutes.”

  I stepped inside, and Larry rolled the door closed behind me with a metal bang.

  The stale orange couch, Ma’s fabric softener, and the metal of the boxcar combined in a unique, homey smell. Above, the skylights were black, and wan lamplight pushed the dinginess to the corners. The red curtain still hung on its sagging wire, separating my and Dubbs’s bunk beds from the living room, and the kitchen table had its same circular marks from wet glasses.

  “I don’t want to pat her down,” Dubbs said.

  Aside from growing taller, she looked sturdier, too, like she’d been eating better. I couldn’t get enough of her beautiful little face and knowing eyes. I longed to see her break into her old smile.

  “It’s okay,” Larry said. “She’s doing the talking anyway, not us. Tell us. Where’s Rosie? What’s her message?”

  My heart sank at the implication that he hadn’t heard from her. “Rosie left Berg,” I said. “She was able to escape the Onar Clinic where he was keeping her and get free.”

  “Onar, huh? Where is she now?” Larry asked. “Why hasn’t she come home?”

  “She’s hiding,” I said, inventing a theory. “She’s afraid to come here in case Berg has you watched.”

  I glanced toward my parents’ bedroom beyond the bookshelves, then toward the screen door that led out back, but there was no sign of Ma.

  “Of course he has us watched,” Larry said. “Some kid’s been skulking around the place, and more cameras show up every other day. I shoot them as fast as I can, but there’s always more. If you ask me, Berg’s sick in the head. But he’s also smart. Scary smart.”

  “Do you talk to him?”

  “Can’t get past his lawyers,” he said. “Where’s Rosie hiding? When did you talk to her?”

  “I knew her at Onar,” I said. “She wants you to know she isn’t crazy.”

  “Of course she isn’t,” Larry said. “Or if she is, it’s Forge that made her that way. I figure everything she told us was true. Rosie means big money to Berg, one way or another. That’s why he’s kept her.”

  It was great to know he believed in Rosie. “You’re right,” I said. “He was able to mine dreams out of Rosie and ship them to be seeded into other people. That’s what he’s been doing.”

  Larry started looking skeptical, so I plunged on.

  “I saw this first hand,” I said. “He’s been working with a team in Iceland. They have a research clinic there, and they put Rosie’s dreams into a coma patient there, trying to save her.”

  “Were you a dreamer, too?” Dubbs asked. “Did they mine your dreams, too?”

  She was leaning against the back of the couch, and I turned to her.

  “This is why I’ve come here,” I said softly. “They put some of your sister into me.”

  Dubbs’s little mouth opened. “But what did that do to Rosie? Is she okay?”

  “Now, hold on,” Larry interrupted. He shot me a warning look and gave a quick jerk of his head toward Dubbs. “Some of us have got enough nightmares as it is. I’m sure Rosie is just fine, wherever she is. You said she got free, right?”

  My heart thudded painfully. “Right. She did.”

  “Then why doesn’t she call us?” Dubbs said. “When is she coming home?”

  I sank slowly to the armrest of the couch so my face was on a level with hers. “You miss her, don’t you?” I asked.

  She nodded. “She’s my sister.”

  “You know she loves you, right? No matter what,” I said.

  Dubbs’s big eyes were wary. “What did they put in you from her?” she asked. “Like, feelings? Dreams?”

  “Some feelings,” I said. “Some memories.”

  All of them, actually, I thought.

  “Is that how you know about Bird?” Dubbs asked.

  I nodded. “Yes. And I have memories about you, too, like all those times we walked on the tracks together and picked wildflowers to make crowns. Once we found a subway token all the way from New York. Remember? The one with the square hole?”

  I touched my neck. I had threaded the token on a string of leather and I’d worn it as a necklace every day. She had to remember. Dubbs was standing very still, with her knuckles bent awkwardly against the couch. I could see her weighing my words, testing them against what she knew.

  Then she shook her head.

  “No,” she said. “We didn’t do that.”

  My heart ached. “I shared my cookie dough with you, right here on this couch,” I said. “We did it the night you told me I should apply to the Forge School. It was all your idea. We watched the show on a tablet you borrowed from the school library, remember?” I could see it so clearly. I was still holding an ice pack against my face from when Larry had hit me.

  Dubbs looked at my belly. “I didn’t do that with you,” she said.

  “I mean, not with me as I am. With Rosie,” I said quickly. “You shared the cookie dough with Rosie. I just have Rosie’s memories, too. We had the same bunk bed, right over there. I gave you your glitter glue pens, remember?”

  Dubbs backed up a step and reached for Larry’s hand. “You’re wrong,” she said. “Something’s wrong with you.”

  I caught my breath as the reality slammed me. Of course. From her perspective I was a pregnant stranger. With my big belly, darker skin, and higher voice, I looked nothing like the sister she’d loved, no matter what I said. “Rosie just wants you to know that she loves you,” I said.

  “I know that,” Dubbs said. “She didn’t have to send some freaky pregnant girl to tell me that.”

  A small, sharp twig snapped apart inside me. Back in the vault, I had staked my life on my love for Dubbs. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would lose her love in the process. I glanced at Larry, whose frown was deep and hard.

  “I thought for sure you’d understand,” I said.

  “You’d better go,” Larry said. “Whatever they did to you, I get that it messed you up, but you have to go.”

  I rose unsteadily to my full height and looked around the boxcar again, scanning the books and the computer, the coffee table and the antlers. It all looked the same, but it wasn’t. None of it was the same. It wasn’t my home anymore. This wasn’t my family. It would never be again. Loss poured through me, as wild and lonely as the moonlight on the wind.

  The sound of footsteps came lightly up the back steps, and the screen door opened. Ma came in with a six-pack of beer and paused on the threshold, smiling.

  “Who’s this?” she asked.

  “Dubbs let her in. She thinks she’s Rosie,” Larry said. “She was just going.”

  Ma looked startled. She batted away a moth that had come in with her. “That’s a new one,” she said. She looked me over carefully, and then nodded toward my belly. “When are you due?”

  “Next month,” I said, my throat suddenly dry. Hug me, I thought.

  “That last month’s the worst. Feels like it’ll go on forever,” Ma said. She walked to the table to set down the beer and wiped a hand on the back of her skirt. “We’re kind of busy,” she said. “Bath time for Dubbs. I’m sorry we can’t be of help. They sell souvenir pictures of Rosie down at McLellens’ if you’re interested.”

  “Ma, it’s me!” I said. “They put Rosie’s memories in me. I’m your daughter! Won’t you at least listen?”

  She smiled sadly, took my arm, and steered me toward the door. “Come on, sweetheart,” she said. “On your way. Do you have somebody to take you home?”

  “She came with a guy. He’s outside,” Larry said.

  “Wait, please!” I said. “Ma! Just let me explain! I grew up here. I rememb
er Dad before he went MIA. We used to have tea parties under the table. You used to paint my toenails with watercolors, remember? Use your imagination now, please. Just try to believe me for one second.”

  Ma went pale. She released me. “Larry,” she said calmly.

  Larry crossed instantly to me and backed me toward the door. “Don’t make it any worse.”

  I looked at my stricken mother, and my heart broke. I turned to Dubbs and tried to smile once more. I failed completely. “Just remember Rosie’s message, okay? It’s real, no matter what.”

  Dubbs hid her face against Ma, who hugged her tight.

  Larry lugged the heavy door open for me.

  “Watch your step now,” he said, and guided me out.




  BEFORE I LEAVE BURNHAM, he buys me half a dozen recyclable phones. He also uses the Tor network to set up a private website where we can connect. This seems like overkill to me, but he says if our phones get tapped or our emails get hacked, it’s good to have a backup. We agree on code word Waffles67. Then Burnham loans me a blue Honda Fit and stocks it with snacks and spare outfits from his sister, including a visor hat and sunglasses so I’m not so easily recognizable.

  “Remember. You promised to pay me back,” he says.

  I don’t know what to say. Leaving him is hard. We have an awkward hug, and I promise to call him once I’m in Forgetown. He’s working on a way to get me past the cameras so I can get to Berg’s computer in the dean’s tower.

  It’s a long drive from Atlanta to Forgetown, seventeen hours by holomap and twice as long with bad luck. I’m not the best driver, and I can’t risk getting pulled over, so I keep under the speed limit. I hit traffic around Nashville, and torrential rain in the Tennessee Valley. I spend my first night in the car getting wind-swiped at an abandoned drive-in. Nightmares haunt me, and I don’t sleep soundly until day comes. I wake groggy around noon, and by the next evening, when I arrive outside St. Louis, I’m beat. The temptation to call Linus and maybe get an offer of a decent place to sleep is strong, but then again, I’m not even sure he lives there. He might be living back with Otis and Parker when he’s not traveling for his job.

  It’s raining again when I pull off the highway and stop in a park, and the raindrops make a gentle drumming on the roof of the car. In the distance, I can see the Gateway Arch dark against the clouds, and I can’t get over how big it is. Linus must see it every day that he’s here. He and I haven’t spoken since I was at Jenny and Portia’s—a conversation that still troubles me—and I’m nervous about calling him now. The truth is, I’m not over Linus, but what that means exactly, I don’t know.

  I turn off my car. Then I take out one of my spare phones and dial Linus’s number. When he picks up, I release my seat backward so I can stretch my legs, but I’m more tense than ever.

  “Hey. It’s me, Rosie,” I say.

  A shuffling comes from his end.

  “Finally,” Linus says. “You are one difficult person to track down.”

  “Not for Berg. You said your line wasn’t bugged last time, but he called me right after I talked to you.”

  “I’m sorry,” he says. “This line’s encrypted, so he couldn’t have heard what we said, but if he’s tracing all my calls, he could have found your number that way. I’m really sorry.”

  I think back and wonder if checking my Forge email alerted Berg that I might call Linus. Hard to know. I decide to assume Berg can eavesdrop in, despite what Linus says.

  “Are you in St. Louis?” I ask.

  “I’m working in Stillwater, Minnesota,” he says. “I can be in St. Louis tomorrow.”

  I gaze out again at the arch. “I’ll be gone by then,” I say.

  “I can meet you in Forgetown, at Otis and Parker’s place. Would that be better? I was planning to go there for the weekend.”

  This is what I want, I realize. It feels huge to admit it, like I’m letting a hammer break out of a block of ice. “Okay,” I say. Take that, Berg. I’m coming to town.

  Linus laughs. “Really? Good. I’m so glad. You sound a little tired. Are you okay?”

  “I’m okay.” I tuck my hair behind my ear. “Berg said something strange to me, like he let me out of the vault on purpose.”

  “Why would he do that?”

  “I don’t know, but there hasn’t been any news about me,” I say. “I don’t think he wants anything contradicting his story that he’s taking care of me.”

  “I know what you mean,” Linus says. “I went to see Portia and Jenny. They wouldn’t say anything about you. I think they were bought off. I think Berg doesn’t want the public to know that you’re missing.”

  So Linus tracked down Portia and Jenny. I wonder if he’s trying to get me to confirm I was with them. What else does he know?

  “Rosie?” he asks.

  “I’m here.”

  “Have you talked to your parents?”

  I get the sense he thinks I should. I don’t want to. I frown as a drop on the windshield merges with another. “No.”

  “That girl Althea called me again,” he says. “She wants to talk to you.”

  “I don’t give a crap about that girl,” I say, annoyed. “She’s got nothing to do with me.”

  “Okay. I’m sorry,” Linus says.

  Confusion is churning in me, and I flip on the windshield wipers so they cut through the raindrops.

  “I’m sorry,” he says again. “It’ll be better when we can talk in person.”

  “Will it?” I ask.

  His voice is slow in coming. “What’s wrong?”

  I don’t know. Except that it has to do with before. “You made me doubt myself, that last time we talked at Forge. You left for St. Louis like you didn’t care, but then you came back to look for me. Why?”

  “Because I did care about you, obviously,” he says. “I watched you sign that contract with Berg, and I knew that wasn’t good. It was my fault for making you admit what you thought to the cameras on the show. That’s what got you in so much trouble.”

  “Then did you believe me about the mining or not? I still don’t understand.”

  “I believed you enough to go down the clock tower pit and look for the vault of dreamers,” he says. “Give me credit for that, at least.”

  I can’t quite voice the next question, the obvious one: do you believe me now? That’s the question that leads back to why he still hasn’t done anything to expose Berg.

  My throat feels achy. “How well did we ever really know each other?”

  “I can only speak for myself,” he says quietly. “I used to talk to you more honestly than I have ever talked to anybody else. I miss that. Don’t you?”

  I hold my phone tightly and nod out at the rain. He doesn’t sound like a TV star tonight. He sounds real. “Yes,” I say finally. “See you soon.”

  We say goodbye. Before Berg can call me, I drive to the nearest recycling bin and chuck my phone out the window.

  * * *

  Late the next evening, near nightfall, I drive into Forgetown, Kansas, and unroll my window an inch. I’ve left the rain far behind, and the familiar smell of dry prairie blows into the Fit. The towers and buildings of the Forge School loom darkly on the slope to the west. It’s after hours. The students sleep. A light shines from a top window of the dean’s tower, where Berg lives in his penthouse like an evil lord who controls all he surveys.

  I turn away from campus, driving slowly along the shadowed streets of Forgetown. Even though it’s Saturday, it’s quiet. Most of the people who live here work at the school, and their schedules revolve around the daily timing of the show, which knows no weekends. I forgot to ask Linus for an address. In theory, I know where he stays because he pointed out the little gray house once when we were up in the lookout tower with Otis, but the angle is different from street level, and even though it’s a small town, it takes me a few passes to find the right house.

  I check for Ian
s Jeep, just in case. It isn’t there, and I don’t see any other suspicious cars, either. Berg might have cameras aimed at Linus’s house, but I’m hoping they won’t pick up much in the dark. I park near the end of the block, take my jacket and a bag with a few of Sammi’s clothes, and walk up the dark alley behind his place. An old golden retriever wags her tail and pants at me through a metal fence as I approach.

  “Hey, girl,” I say, keeping my voice low. I open the latch on the gate and go in, crouching down to pet her head and shoulders. “Good dog. Good Molly.”

  She sniffs my pocket where I have the vials and syringes.

  “Nothing for you in there,” I say.

  I stay low, peering up at the house. I could call Linus, but I don’t want to clue in Berg that Linus is getting a call from another new number. A bank of lit windows reveals a kitchen at the back of the house. I can’t see anyone inside, so I wait, studying the place. This is Otis and Parker’s home, where Linus started living when he was fourteen, after his time on the streets of St. Louis. He must have played catch with Molly in this very backyard. My stomach growls with hunger. Molly gets bored with me and wanders away.

  In time, a light goes on upstairs, and Linus reaches up for a window shade. My stupid, hammering heart charges around like wild. He’s right there. In the house. Right now. I see his dark hair, straight nose, and brown shirt. Then the shade comes down. I grin in the darkness, shocked by how powerful my reaction is. Clearly coming here was the right thing to do.

  I scratch around in the grass for a pebble to throw. This gets Molly interested. She comes back to me and barks.

  “Shh!” I say.

  She barks again.

  Above, the shade rolls back up, and the window opens.

  “Molly!” Linus calls. “Keep it down out there!”

  Molly wags her tail. She barks once more, proudly.

  I push back my hood and lift a hand in a silent wave. Linus ducks to put his head out. He squints a moment, and then he smiles. I’m shredded. He lifts a finger to his lips. Then he goes back in, and the window closes. I stay where I am, with a hand on Molly’s warm head. My heart lifts with anticipation. Soon the lights in the kitchen go off. Another minute later, he opens the back door and beckons us in.

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