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The vault of dreamers, p.22
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.22

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  Burnham’s parents were on the phone? I’d hurt their son. The blame I’d shot at Dean Berg instantly reversed, and I was hit by an onslaught of guilt. I gripped Janice’s arm. A medic started asking me questions, but I couldn’t answer him. I kept waiting for Dean Berg to look back at me. I had to see the moment in his face when Burnham’s parents accused me.

  “Rosie, they found a heartbeat,” the medic said. “Your friend’s heart started again just as they got him in the ambulance. That’s a very good sign.”

  I turned to face him and tried to process his words. The medic was a small man in a tidy uniform, and he gave me a reassuring nod.

  “Are you sure?” I asked.

  “I’m sure. He has a heartbeat.”

  Burnham was alive. I gasped for air and covered my face. Janice hugged me again and I hid against her shoulder.

  I didn’t kill him.

  My friend wasn’t dead.

  25

  THE YELLOW PILLS

  NOBODY YELLED AT me. I wished they would. Or rather, my stepfather yelled at me, but nobody who mattered did. According to Larry, I could be charged with manslaughter if Burnham died.

  “Don’t listen to him,” my mother said, taking the phone back.

  I was sitting in one of the examining rooms of the infirmary an hour later, waiting for the medic to tell me it was okay to go. Apparently, the police wanted to keep me separate from the other students until they could talk to me.

  My arm, in a sling, was numb with a shot they’d given me, but it wasn’t broken.

  “I feel awful,” I said into the phone.

  “Do you want to come home?” Ma asked. “Are they taking good care of you? I could borrow a car from the McLellens and come for you.”

  “I don’t mean physically.”

  The last thing I wanted to do was leave school. My guilt about Burnham now riveted me to the place.

  “It wasn’t your fault,” Ma said. “It was just an accident, and really, if he’d landed anywhere else he would have been totally fine. It was just that paver in the wrong place.”

  I slumped lower in my chair.

  “You’re slouching,” Ma said.

  “Don’t try to tell me it wasn’t my fault,” I said. “That doesn’t help.”

  “Getting snippy won’t help, either,” she said gently.

  She was right. My problems weren’t because of her. I straightened slightly, for her sake. “I just want more news on Burnham.”

  “Forge has changed his profile picture to a still photo,” Ma said.

  No surprise there. I fiddled with a penlight the medic had left on the table, flicking it on and off.

  “Rosie’s blip rank is fourteen. Is that good?” my stepfather called in the background.

  Fourteen. My rank had never been so high. Brilliant.

  “Dubbs wants to know what Burnham said in his letter,” Ma said.

  I reached back to touch the bulge in my pocket. I’d forgotten about it.

  “I have to go read it,” I said. “Talk to you later?”

  “Anytime, sweetheart. I took the day off from work so I’m right here whenever.”

  I hung up, stole the penlight, and slipped into the bathroom. It was a small room with a little sink, a mirror, and a can of air freshener on the tank of the toilet. I examined the walls and fixtures to be sure there were no cameras, and then turned my back on the mirror, just to be sure. With my right arm in the sling, it was awkward getting the envelope out of my skirt pocket, but I managed. Then, as I ripped it carefully open, I was surprised to find three pills inside. They were small, chalky, yellow disks, each one imprinted with a .

  Since when did Burnham supply drugs? I unfolded his letter.

  Rosie,

  I’ve thought about your footage and I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  1. You’re spying on Forge for a real reason. Which means,

  2. You witnessed something suspicious, and because of the cameras, that could have happened only at night. Which means,

  3. You’re staying awake at night somehow, at least sometimes.

  I thought I was the only one. We have to be careful.

  These pills are antidotes to the sleeping meds. You can take one right after your regular pill and it will keep you up. Never take more than one. Never take one by itself or it will fry your brain. I repeat, fry your brain.

  Please write me back. I can help. My parents are going to be unbelievably pissed if something unethical is going on here, but they’ll want to know. They won’t kill the messenger. I promise. Flush this when you’re done.

  Burnham

  P.S. You’re right. The lady knight is you.

  I leaned back against the edge of the sink and read the letter again. Wow. I wasn’t sure what stunned me more: that he was staying awake, too, or that he’d given me the antidote pills. Crafty, crafty Burnham, I thought.

  A tap came on the door. “Are you okay in there? The police are here to talk to you.”

  “Coming,” I said.

  I wrapped the antidote pills in a tissue and stuffed them down my bra. Then I ripped his letter in shreds, flushed it, and prepared to go out onstage.

  Leave me out of it, said a small voice.

  I held still, my hand on the knob. I waited for her to explain, and when she didn’t, I tried thinking back at her. You know I don’t talk about you.

  Then, though I was standing motionless, I felt my balance shift, like she was deliberately doing it to me. I gripped the knob harder.

  You mean the déjà vu? The dizziness? I asked. But that’s Dean Berg’s fault.

  My mind suddenly filled with an exaggerated image of the dean’s face, and his features distorted into ruddy ugliness with bulging, evil eyes.

  For your own sake, don’t tell them about any of it, she said.

  All right, I said. I won’t tell about anything strange.

  She slid back into her murk, appeased, and left me alone.

  I took a deep breath and stepped back out onstage.

  * * *

  The police grilled me politely but repetitively about what, exactly, had happened on the ladder. I didn’t see the point, considering how many cameras had recorded the event, but I hid my impatience and repeated my story: I slipped and fell. Yes, I had seen the DO NOT ENTER sign, but I had ignored it. It was all my fault, not Burnham’s. He hadn’t even wanted to climb. Yes, the ladder had seemed safe. I’d been up there twice before with no problems. I wasn’t scared by the spider, I wasn’t distracted by any noise, I wasn’t shaken by Burnham’s weight on the ladder below me. I simply slipped and fell, and Burnham had cushioned my impact or I would have been the one in the ICU. Couldn’t somebody please get ahold of his family and tell them how sorry I was?

  I left out my déjà vu and my dizziness and my inner voice. When they asked to see Burnham’s letter, I said it was just a thanks for understanding about his grandpa, and I’d destroyed it out of respect.

  News came that Burnham was in a hospital in Chicago. He was on a respirator and suffering from brain trauma. Beyond that, nobody would say. They wouldn’t even commit to whether or not he was in a coma. Twice I tried to reach his family to tell them how sorry I was, but I didn’t hear back.

  The rest of the day was hellishly uneventful. The dean encouraged everyone to keep attending classes, and a counseling station was set up in the library for anyone who was too distracted or upset to stick to routine. I didn’t go there.

  Instead, I made my way to the kitchen, where the impersonal, well-run activity was distinctly soothing to me. I took a stool near Linus and hitched my heels on the uppermost rung so I could lean over my knees. In time, Franny put me to work peeling and slicing Granny Smiths for pies, which was a perfect, mindless task. I could feel the pain in my elbow as the meds wore off, and I was glad. I wanted something to hurt. It helped me settle back into myself.

  Around one o’clock, Otis came in the back door and took off his cap. Linus was deboning a dozen chickens, and
though he looked over, he didn’t stop working.

  “Parker’s asking after you,” Otis said to Linus. “Ted will let you go.”

  “It’s not a good time.”

  I looked back and forth between them.

  “We had an agreement,” Otis said.

  “I can do it tonight,” Linus said.

  Otis turned his hat in his hand. I expected his gaze to shift to me, but I was wrong. Otis didn’t say anything more, and a moment later, he went back out the door. Only then did I remember that Linus was due to donate his blood that afternoon.

  “You don’t have to stay for me,” I said.

  “It’ll be okay,” Linus said.

  In that one exchange between him and Otis, I’d glimpsed a whole relationship of patience and power, a dynamic completely unlike anything I knew at home.

  Chef Ted passed behind Linus with a sack of potatoes, and Franny turned on the mixer at high volume for a minute. Linus kept working with the raw chicken, and I glanced up at the TV screen where a live version of me was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, watching herself on the TV screen. It went on in an endless loop. Surreal, I thought.

  And then, unexpectedly, I thought of Parker wanting his meatballs and his movie, and it mixed up with Burnham being maybe in a coma, and without warning, I felt prickles rise at the back of my eyes. I had to look up toward the ceiling and blink rapidly to stop from crying. I didn’t want to cry today on camera. I couldn’t stand the idea of gaining anything from this situation, not even sympathy from my viewers.

  “Your friend’s going to be all right,” Linus said.

  He rested the point of his knife on the wooden board, and in his white tee shirt and apron, he looked aggressively healthy and strong and alive.

  “We don’t really know that,” I said tightly.

  “His parents will get him the best care anybody could.”

  That much was true. I couldn’t bear to talk about Burnham. His loafer had been slipping off, there at the end. I didn’t want to talk at all. I didn’t want to think.

  “Do you know that story of Cyrano de Bergerac?” I asked.

  “Turns out, I do,” he said. “Why?”

  “No reason in particular.”

  He took the hint. For now, we could just be bodies in the same room. Later, we would talk.

  * * *

  That night, when Orly came to distribute our sleeping pills, Dr. Ash entered with her. Her red sweater was vivid under the lights as she walked down the length of the dorm directly to me, bringing my own private tray of a pill cup and a glass of water.

  “How’s the elbow?” she asked me.

  “Fine,” I said, and rubbed it gently. I had taken off my sling when I changed into my nightie.

  Dr. Ash set down the tray, rolled up my sleeve, and examined the bruise. I smelled her faint, familiar perfume as she leaned near. Over her shoulder, I saw Janice and Paige watching curiously. When the doctor turned my wrist, I gasped at the pain in my elbow. She lowered my arm.

  “I could give you something for the pain, but once you’re asleep, you won’t feel it,” she said.

  “I’m really okay,” I said. “Have you had any more news about Burnham?”

  “Only that he’s still not responding,” Dr. Ash said. “They’ve cooled him down and they’re inducing a coma to help him stabilize. It’s standard practice. The next twenty-four hours are critical.”

  Any kind of coma did not sound good to me. “His parents are with him, right?” I asked.

  She nodded. “Of course. And his brother and his sister. We might have more news in the morning. From what I understand, he’s not in any pain.”

  “Do you think he’s going to be all right? Honestly?” I asked.

  “I wish I could say, but it’s really too soon to know,” Dr. Ash answered. “Each case is so individual, and I’m hardly an expert on the brain. I wouldn’t want to give an uninformed opinion.”

  I was amazed that she could be so convincing when she lied. She knew plenty about brains. She operated on them.

  When she lifted the little tray and held it toward me, I noticed a tongue depressor beside the cup. “I’ll be checking to see that you swallow your pill,” she said.

  I felt a prick of adrenaline. She had as good as admitted to viewers that I was at risk for skipping my pill. Did they notice? I glanced back at Orly, who was watching us with her typical dour expression. The other girls had climbed in their sleep shells and were closing their lids.

  “Shall we?” Dr. Ash was still holding the tray toward me.

  I took my pill, tossed it back, and swallowed it down with my water. When I opened my mouth, Dr. Ash pressed the little wooden stick inside my cheeks, first one side and then the other. Then she nodded and gestured toward my sleep shell.

  I climbed in.

  Dr. Ash slid my lid closed for me and gave it a light pat. “Sleep well.” Her voice came slightly muffled through the glass.

  At the other end of the room, Orly turned off the overhead light, and I could hear Dr. Ash walking away. Night came earlier since we’d passed the equinox, and the room was already dark. My brink lesson came on: a soothing scene of a stream trickling down a mountainside, with delicate spring wildflowers on either side. As I watched, the sleep drugs eased through my veins with twice the speed as normal, and an undertow of exhaustion began to drag me under.

  Don’t give in, said the voice in my head.

  I jolted back awake, but only for a moment. I couldn’t withstand the punishing lethargy.

  Take Burnham’s pill, she said.

  Why? There’s no point.

  As if a lion suddenly jumped on my chest, a jolt of adrenaline charged through my body. Before I could reason, I shot a hand into my pillowcase and scrambled to locate the tissue I had hidden there. I pulled it out and focused desperately on unwrapping the pills.

  Just one, Burnham had warned me. I slid one of the yellow pills onto my palm and tossed it back, swallowing it dry. I could do nothing more. My eyelids closed heavily, my arms went limp, and my mind snagged into an uneasy tangle before I descended over the edge.

  Except I didn’t.

  Gravity seemed to stagnate inside my body, causing my organs to neither fall nor float. My bones turned gray, like fog in the early morning, and then a tingling swarmed in my fingertips. It spread into my hands and up my arms. It burned in my sore right elbow and kept going. I could feel each pulse as my heart pumped blood through my veins, and in the space of two breaths, I went from soporific to hyper-awake. Energy and strength lit me up from within, and I couldn’t keep my eyes closed.

  Nice drugs, Burnham, I thought. Seriously.

  My first instinct was to jump out of my sleep shell and tear around the room. I fought to resist it. My foot vibrated at a rapid pitch, and my mind clamped onto a single warning: wait until after midnight. I had to wait until the techies went home.

  I hid my two extra pills in my pillowcase and pulled out my walkie-ham.

  “Linus?” I whispered. “Are you there?”

  I listened impatiently to the static. I tried the other channels, then dialed back to four.

  Be patient, I told myself.

  But it was impossible. My mind clicked like an unleashed train that could go in ten directions at once. It headed toward Burnham lost in his coma, and then it veered to the ladder on the observatory to relive the agony of my fall. It zipped next to the kitchen to revisit Linus cutting chickens, and then to the sixth floor of the dean’s tower, where Dean Berg plotted with his projections and screens.

  “Linus,” I tried again.

  No reply.

  Burnham’s pill had me totally wired. I tried breathing slowly, deliberately, but at the same time, I couldn’t stop vibrating my leg.

  I gulped back a laugh. I pressed my hands to my temples.

  For heaven’s sake, said my voice. Take it easy. They’ll see you thrashing around.

  I’m going crazy here, I said.

  Unbidden, a redolent
memory of Thanksgiving dinner surfaced from the back of my mind: turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. I could taste the meat and the tangy sauce together, and then the cloying, buttery heaviness of the mashed potatoes. A calm worked its way around the buzz in my gut, coating and soothing it until I could breathe more evenly. I managed to stretch out my toes and quit shaking my leg.

  How do you do that? I asked.

  Have a little more turkey.

  I let out a soft laugh, grateful. Soon, I was calm enough to lie still under my quilt and pull together the bits of a plan.

  I needed to find out what was going on once and for all, and get evidence about it. Burnham’s injury was not, I believed, directly caused by whatever Dean Berg was doing at night, but my fall was most definitely connected. It was possible that Ellen had been damaged by Dean Berg, too. I wasn’t going to sit around while casualties piled up, especially now that I had evidence that someone had tampered with my night footage of the dorm. Add what I’d overhead between Dean Berg and Huma Fallon, and it was enough.

  If I could just find the operating room, I was certain I’d find evidence I could film, and this time, I would take it public myself, immediately. Once, while Dr. Ash was operating, I had heard Dean Berg talk to her about returning to the surface, which implied that the operating room was somewhere underground.

  I had two possible leads: the secret door behind the vending machines in the dean’s tower, and the pit in the clock tower. Somehow I had to find a way down, even without a swipe key.

  “Linus?” I whispered again into my walkie-ham.

  Then, at last, I remembered how Otis had come to the kitchen looking for Linus. He was probably busy with Otis and Parker, donating his blood. I narrowed my eyes at my walkie-ham and touched a finger over the little pockmarks of the speaker. It was all right. If Linus never answered, it didn’t matter. It would be better to go without him, anyway, and not risk getting him into trouble.

  After the clock tower struck midnight, I gave it another half hour to be sure the techies had all left. A look out the window convinced me that the dean’s tower was dark, as much as I could see. I couldn’t spot the dean in his dark penthouse, but I took it as a good sign that he wasn’t at his sixthfloor station.

 
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