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The keep of ages, p.22
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       The Keep of Ages, p.22

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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  “Does anything look familiar?” I ask Dubbs.

  “No,” she says.

  Lavinia takes a pencil and points the eraser toward a low building at the edge of the Backwoods Forest, at the far end of the park.

  “Deliveries arrive here,” she says. “There are ramps here and here, so trucks could back up and unload, but there’s also a service road that goes underneath here for deliveries directly to the production level. Level Negative One, we called it,” she explains to the others. “That’s where they brought in the flatbeds for the floats, too.” She glides her pencil down a ramp and taps another space, which is near a red room. “There’s an underground parking lot here.”

  “I think we need to focus our search on the surface,” I say.

  “Have some patience,” Lavinia says.

  “I’m just saying. We know from Dubbs that Ma and Larry were taken from the truck on the surface, near a row of shops,” I say.

  “They still could have been carried downstairs from there,” Lavinia says.

  We look carefully at all the red places, weighing their likelihood of holding Ma and Larry, and I start writing a list. Two on Negative One in storage and the press/archives room seem very unlikely to me. The rest are all aboveground, in the park itself: the first is a turret room in the keep overlooking the moat; the second is a VIP passageway behind the Glue Factory, the roller coaster in Bubbles’ Clown World; the third is a gift shop in the Backwoods Forest; the fourth is a garbage area behind a juice stand in Zombieville; and the fifth is the Lost and Found.

  Lavinia points her eraser into the Lost and Found. “This was for lost kids. Even with phones, kids still got separated from their families at the park. We could always find them by backtracking through the security footage, though. More often than not, the kid crawled into a quiet place and fell asleep. They were just overstimulated.”

  “I thought the park was mainly for teens and grown-ups,” Linus says.

  “All ages,” Lavinia says. “The park didn’t have any age restrictions, just weight and height requirements for the rides. We left it up to families to decide what they thought was appropriate.”

  I review my list of possibilities and try putting them in order for the shortest route between all of them, leaving the ones underground for last.

  1. Backwoods Forest Gift Shop

  2. Keep of Ages

  3. Zombieland Juice Garbage

  4. Lost and Found

  5. VIP behind the Glue Factory

  6. Storage Room #7

  7. Archives/Press

  I think of Berg and slowly add another number.

  8. The Vault of Dreamers

  “I hate to mention this, but it’s also possible that Ma and Larry are in the vault,” I say. “It could be that Whistler lied, or it could be they’ve been moved there.” I push my hair back from my face. “We need to find a way down there. Another way, not down through the moat.”

  “There’s no route to the vault on the maps,” Burnham says.

  “Are you sure?” I ask. “There must be a staircase or an elevator.”

  “Passages to the vault weren’t part of the original plans. They must have been put in later,” Lavinia says.

  Do you know anything? I ask Arself.

  She doesn’t answer. Exasperating.

  “We’ll leave the vault for last, then, if they aren’t anywhere else,” Linus says.

  Dubbs leans against me to look over my shoulder. I keep hoping she’ll recognize something, but she doesn’t speak up.

  “It’s a lot of places to search,” Burnham says. “I like the redundancy in the name Backwoods Forest.”

  “The Grislys had a sense of humor,” Lavinia says.

  “What’ll you do if you get caught?” Dubbs asks me, her eyes large.

  I give her a little hugging squeeze. “That’s where you and Lavinia come in. If we don’t come back out, you call the police.”

  “But what if it’s too late?” Dubbs says.

  A new notch of fear troubles me, but I manage a laugh. “When did you get to be such a pessimist? We’ll be fine. We’ll be out with Ma and Larry in no time. You’ll see.”



  THAT NIGHT, when it grows dark, Linus, Burnham, and I head back through the contamination zone to Grisly Valley. I’ve borrowed dark pants, a shirt, and some black ballet flats from Lavinia, the most suitable things she could offer me, and the guys are dressed in their darkest clothes.

  We park the blue van in the forest as close as we can to the northwest edge of the theme park, and once we crawl through the outer fence that surrounds the property, we walk along the service road toward the main delivery entrance. The sky’s partly cloudy, but enough moonlight reaches the ground so we don’t trip. Burnham has rigged a recyclable cell phone onto a visor hat for me so the lens points ahead, and I have an earphone attached. Through my phone, Lavinia and Dubbs can follow our progress remotely, provided reception isn’t too sketchy, and they can fill us in on any movement by the cameras at the Grim Reaper and the Scylla statues. I picture them together on the bed, where we left them, with the phone on speaker between them.

  A bug buzzes up in my face, and I swat it away. Then I glance to my left to see how Burnham’s keeping up. His knee brace allows for a range of movement, but he still has a limp.

  “I’m fine,” he says. “You don’t have to keep checking up on me.”

  “I can’t see anything,” Dubbs complains in my ear.

  “That’s because it’s dark,” I say.

  Near the loading docks, a security light high above illuminates the road and the steps. We keep to the shadows and take the steps up to the nearest deserted platform. The first big, garage-style door is unbudgeable, and so are the others. From the rust, I’d guess they haven’t been opened in decades.

  “This way?” Linus asks, pointing right.

  I nod. We circle to the west, following the wall on the outer edge of the Backwoods Forest, until we find a place where an old picnic table has been upturned against the wall to create a crude ladder. Other trespassers have clearly come in this way before.

  “Last chance for second thoughts,” I say.

  Linus shakes his head in a brief negative.

  “I’ll go first,” Burnham says, and starts climbing.

  It’s actually reassuring to watch him. His arms are strong, even though his left wrist is locked bent, and he swings his leg in the brace so it doesn’t catch on the angled table legs. He gets a grip on the top of the wall and, with the rough noise of fabric rubbing stone, heaves himself up. The next moment, he disappears.

  “After you,” Linus says.

  I follow Burnham, climbing carefully up the table and pressing gingerly against the wall until I can get a good grip on the top. Then I pull myself over and find Burnham looking up at me from the other side. An old ice cream cart stands below me, and I wiggle down to it, and then to the ground. I brush my hands off as Linus comes after, landing lightly on his feet.

  It takes me a sec to get my bearings in the darkness. The sound of crickets comes close, real ones this time. The Keep of Ages is barely visible through the trees, toward the center of the park. A security light to our left is too far away to cast light here, under the trees of the Backwoods Forest, but moonlight catches on bits of white litter, and I can just make out the overgrown, cobblestoned path.

  “Do you think Berg could be here already?” Burnham asks.

  “It’s possible. Keep an eye out. We need to find my parents first,” I say.

  “Flashlights?” Burnham asks.

  “No. This way,” Linus says. “To the left. The gift shop should be over here.”

  The path is uneven beneath my shoes, so I tread carefully. I thought the park would feel echoey and barren like it did the first time I came, but here the woods feel more alive, with branches reaching for my hair and shadows that don’t add up. It feels like we’ve dropped into a misguided game of hide-and-seek or capt
ure the flag. The trees pulse with a faint energy, and a soft rustle in the leaves overhead sounds like breathing. Then I hear a deep, quiet hum.

  “Do you hear that?” I ask.

  Linus and Burnham pause to look toward me.

  “Hear what?” Linus says. “The crickets?”

  “I thought it was an engine,” I say softly.

  They look around, alert.

  “I don’t hear anything,” Burnham says.

  But now I’m feeling something as well, a vibration below the frequency of audible sound, like a bass note from an invisible orchestra. It registers in my lungs, and with a slow turning, Arself shifts on again in the back of my mind.

  We’re here, she says, sounding pleased and curious.

  Where’ve you been? I ask. The hum and the vibration are gone again.

  Recharging. We were tired, too. This body has a limited supply of energy. What did we miss?

  I tried to ask you before if you know any way down to the vault of dreamers. An elevator or stairs or anything.

  No, she says. No cameras go below Negative One.

  We’re here to find my parents, I tell her.

  So we see.

  She sorts herself through my mind again. I’m almost getting used to the sensation now. There’s no point trying to hide anything from her.

  Can you help me? I ask.

  A flicker of a yellow 3-D grid passes over my eyes and then vanishes.

  If you get us to the keep, we might be able to learn something.

  That’s second on our list. We want to check the gift shop first. It’s close by.

  We know where it is, Arself says.

  I consider telling the guys that Arself is back, but Linus is already moving ahead, aiming toward the gift shop, and I don’t want to slow us down. Burnham is making good time beside me, though I can hear him panting a little with effort.

  A few paces farther on, we come to an opening in the forest and a low, octagonal building stands at an intersection of paths, apart from a short row of other shops. The trim is drab and paint-chipped, and the striped awnings over the windows sag where they’re ripped.

  I’m trying to locate the door when Arself lifts my left hand in a slow wave before my face. I come to a stop, surprised. In the wake of my moving hand, another layer of images slowly blossoms before my eyes. The gift shop shimmers into focus with bright red-and-white paint and crisp black-and-white awnings. A row of tiny white lights appears around the borders of the windows, outlining them cheerfully, and glimpses of souvenirs are visible inside. The effect is charming, but its fragile transparency convinces me it isn’t true.

  Is this what it was like? I ask.


  Curious, I smile and move nearer. For the first time, Arself makes me feel powerful with new knowledge. I step up to a large window and peer into the dim interior. Old shelves have been pushed to one side, and the long, angled counter is bare. A soap dispenser on the floor is surrounded by a sticky black puddle. Yet when I wave my hand over the same scene, the shelves are centered in the room and filled with colorful merchandise: key rings, stuffed animals, tee-shirts, and coffee mugs. Spotlights illuminate every corner, and the counter shines with polish. It has to be an illusion, but it’s so vivid I can see every detail, right down to the price tag on a Tiffany lamp.

  I thought you didn’t have your old files, I say to her.

  These are our home memories, she says simply.

  Surprised, I feel a spark of sympathy for her.

  But you didn’t exist when the park was new.

  Even so. We’ve been over Grisly endless times.

  Beside me, Linus remains in shadow. I don’t have to ask if he sees the magical visions. He would have said something.

  “Are you okay?” Linus asks me. “Do you still hear something?”

  “No, it’s gone. I’m fine,” I say, and the illusion drains away so that the reality of decay and neglect is visible again. I hate to think my parents could be inside.

  Using my flashlight, I crack a hole in the glass pane of the nearest door. Glass tinkles as it falls, and I reach inside to undo the doorknob. The place has a stale, hollow feel, and I’m careful to avoid the glass as I step in. Burnham passes me and opens a door into a back room. I lean over the counter to check behind it. The floor is bare, a checkerboard of black and white, with a faded animal cracker box in the corner. No parents.

  I slump with relief.

  “Nobody’s here,” Linus says.

  “Did you see this?” Burnham asks.

  He’s holding a framed magazine cover, tipping it toward the security light outside so I can tell the issue features the start of The Forge Show, back in 2043. The cover shows the quad of the Forge School from a bird’s-eye view, with students crossing the paths, lounging on the grass, and throwing Frisbees.

  “Weird,” Linus says.

  “Why is that here?” I ask. “Grisly wasn’t open yet in twenty-forty-three.”

  “It must have been memorabilia,” Burnham says. “Want to keep it?”

  I shake my head. It gives me the creeps. “No. Let’s go,” I say. “We have six more places to check, plus the vault.”

  “We could split up,” Linus says. “It’s all bigger than I thought.”

  “No,” I say. “We stay together.”

  “I still can’t see anything,” Dubbs says over my earphone.

  “There’s nothing to see,” I tell her. “We just finished the gift shop, the first place. Now we’re heading toward the keep. Do you see anything on the other cameras?”

  “No,” Lavinia’s voice says. “The reaper and Scylla are quiet.”

  Back outside, I look hopefully for the top of the keep through the trees, but I can’t find it from this angle. Still, I’ve memorized the layout of the park, so it’s almost instinctive to turn southeast.

  That’s right, Arself murmurs.

  Linus and Burnham fall in behind me. Unchecked nature and time have added a layer of creepy on top of the original version of spooky in the Backwoods Forest, and it seems to grow denser the farther we go. Ponderous oaks have been overrun with gnarly vines. Thorny bushes have outstripped the hedgerows that once enclosed the mazes where visitors waited for rides. A false owl decays on a branch, with its marble eyes black and strangely alive.

  A real animal skitters in the shadows just as I step into a veil of spiderwebs. I jump back with a gasp and hurry to wipe them off my ears and hair.

  “All right?” Linus asks.

  “Spiderwebs,” I say, with a shiver.

  “Want light?” Burnham asks.

  “No,” I say.

  Linus brushes off my hair and shoulders, and then turns me to check my back. I feel his hand stroke swiftly over my shirt.

  “You’re good,” he says.

  “Thanks,” I say.

  Burnham pushes through a last layer of branches, and we pause to stare up at the dark stone walls of the Keep of Ages. It rises from an island of thorns in the empty moat. Moonlight touches the roof, and the dragon hunches in its old, silent place. It holds one of the double spires with its clawed feet, and it’s as motionless as a tombstone. Then Arself shifts and passes my left hand in front of my eyes again, like she did at the gift shop. Immediately, the stones of the keep seem to darken even further, to a deeper, impossible black. The empty moat fills with a shimmery fog, and blue lights illuminate the steps of the bridges. With a thrill of fear, I look up at the dragon again to find its eyes are glowing red now, and it starts to turn, searching for me.

  My heart kicks into gear.

  You’re doing this, aren’t you? I ask Arself.

  Yes. Don’t you want it?

  I shake my head. No. I need to see what’s real.

  I keep watching the dragon, waiting, and his eyes gradually fade to black. The keep returns to its normal, decaying hue.

  Don’t do that again, I tell her.

  All right. We won’t unless you ask.

  “How do we get in?” Linus

  “Something’s wrong with Rosie,” Burnham says. “What’s going on?” he asks me.

  I fix my gaze on the dragon again, and it’s a motionless dark statue. I lick my lips. “Arself sent me a couple visions,” I say. “It feels like special effects in my head. She’s me showing what the park was like before, when it was open.”

  Linus shifts directly in front of me and takes me by the arms. “If you can’t trust what you’re seeing, we shouldn’t be here. I mean it, Rosie. It’s too dangerous. We need our wits working. Take another look at the keep. Tell me what you really see.”

  Slowly, doubtfully, I lift my gaze to the top of the keep where the dragon hunches, holding the roof. Its eyes are black, so black I can barely make them out. I let out a sigh of relief.

  “I see a dragon clutching the tower. His eyes are black,” I say.

  Linus squeezes my hand. “Good,” he says. “Don’t listen to your fear.”

  Arself isn’t simply fear, I think, but I don’t object. It’s scary, what she can do to me, but it’s also pretty amazing. If I understood her better, she’d be practically a superpower.

  “I told her not to do it again,” I say. “We’re okay.”

  “We?” Linus asks.

  “I. I’m okay,” I say.

  “Then let’s go. How do we get into the keep?” Burnham asks.

  It looks like a bridge once crossed to the back of the keep from this side, but all that’s left of it now is a pile of rubble in the moat. The next nearest bridge is part of the double staircase in front of the keep, near where I planted Lavinia’s camera by Scylla. It’s a more open area where security cameras are also likely to pick us up.

  “We’ll have to go around,” I say. “Lavinia, can you hear me?”

  “Yes,” she says into my ear. I touch my earphone for a better connection.

  “Do you see anything from Scylla? Anything out of the ordinary?”

  “No, it’s all clear,” she says. “There’s nothing at the reaper, either.”

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