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The rule of mirrors, p.23
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.23

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Molly darts up the steps and wedges past his knees. I come a little more slowly into the dim kitchen, happy and shy, and a bit thrown by my reaction to him. Linus closes the door behind me with a soft click. Chili is simmering nearby, emitting a savory fragrance. Molly laps water noisily in the corner. I clutch my bag in both hands. For a moment, Linus silently looks at me. Then he shakes his head with a smile.

  “Come with me. Be quiet,” he says.

  He leads me to a hallway and gestures for me to wait there while he goes back and turns on the lights in the kitchen again, like they were before I came in. The indignant voices of a political talk show yap from the front room, around the corner. The hallway has gray wallpaper and a smattering of family pictures in dusty frames.

  “Did you let Molly in?” Otis calls from out of sight.

  “Yes,” Linus says loudly.

  “How’s the basement?” he calls.

  “It’s done. Give me ten minutes to take a shower and we’ll eat,” Linus says.

  He gestures to me again, and I follow him softly up the stairs. At the top, he pulls me into a bathroom and pulls down the shade, the same one I saw from the outside. He leans past me and turns on the shower so the rushing noise fills the little space. As I get my first decent look at Linus, I find him covered with dust and webs, like he’s been cleaning out a tomb. He’s taller and his dark hair’s short and his earrings are gone, but he’s not the stiff, slick TV show host that I feared. He’s still himself. I forgot how expressive his eyes and dark eyebrows could be, even when he’s simply watching me back. Steam starts to fog the glass of the window and the mirror.

  “Welcome,” he says solemnly.

  I burst out laughing and quickly cover my mouth with both hands.

  He smiles in his grim, quirky way. “I cannot believe you’re actually here. In my bathroom no less.”

  “Me, neither.”

  “Want to get naked?”

  “Linus!”

  “Worth a try.”

  It’s a cozy bathroom, so when Linus stands with arms akimbo, one of his elbows is over the sink and the other bumps the shower curtain. Color rides high along his cheekbones, and his dark eyes gleam. He needs a shave. He looks wonderful, actually. He’s looking me over, too, and I’m highly conscious of my pickings from Sammi’s wardrobe: a gray jacket, a brown shirt, and skinny jeans.

  He points to me. “Coat.”

  I shrug out of my jacket, and he hangs it on the back of the door. The drain makes a gurgling noise, and the shower keeps hissing into the tub.

  “I have to get back down there. We’ll have to talk later,” he says, his voice low, and his gaze shifts to the shower. “You don’t mind if I jump in, do you? Don’t look. Or actually, look all you like.”

  I laugh again, but then I put down the toilet lid, sit on it, and gaze pointedly at the floor. Beige tile. He shucks off his sneakers. I hear him disrobe, and his dirty jeans and shirt hit the rug an inch from my shoe. Boxers in the jeans. The rungs screech as he adjusts the curtain, and I peek up to see if anything shows. It doesn’t.

  This is truly the last place I expected to find myself. Naturally, I want to giggle. Most uncool. I try to get a grip. Yes, he’s Linus, and yes, he’s in the shower, but I have to calm down. Tangy shampoo laces the moist air, and not seven minutes later, the water goes off. His hand reaches out for a towel, and I zero in on the floor again.

  “How’s that? Better?” he asks, stroking his jaw and looking for my approval.

  He shaved in the shower. I didn’t know guys could do that.

  “Yes,” I say.

  Linus scoops up his clothes and passes me my coat. “Okay,” he says. “Come quietly.”

  A brown towel hugs his hips, and drops glint on his skin. His bare feet leave wet tracks on the wooden floor as I follow him down the hall to a bedroom. He brings me in, closes the door, and points to his bed.

  Am I really going to get on his bed? I am. I do. I sit on his blue quilt and try not to look, but I’m fully aware that he’s jimmying into fresh jeans. Then I hear his zipper. I glance up as he towels his head savagely and then he chucks the towel in a laundry basket. He shoots me a smile, eyebrows up. Then he pulls a gray, long-sleeved shirt out of a drawer and pulls it over his head, covering his chest and lean belly.

  I let out a breath.

  “You look very sweet there,” he says. “Stay put. Don’t make a sound. Don’t get off the bed.” He dances his fingers downward. “The floor squeaks.”

  “I’m hungry,” I say.

  “I’m on it.”

  For a second, he hovers, considering me as if he’s going to lean over for a kiss. The next moment, he rifles through his dirty jeans, digs out a phone, and slides it in his pocket.

  “I won’t be long,” he says, and steps out of the room.

  As he closes the door, I feel like a whirling tornado of energy has left the room. I silently set my shoes on the floor with my bag, pull my feet up, and try to get my heart to quit pounding.

  I check around for cameras, just in case. Linus’s bedroom is a small, corner room with an angled ceiling and two windows. On his desk, a box of Magic cards, in slipping stacks, rests beside a Swiss Army knife and a bucket full of pencils. Tinfoil gum wrappers litter the bedside table. Stacked wooden crates, filled with aging, fusty paperbacks, line one wall. A dartboard hangs on the back of the door, and extra holes pepper the wood. He has no photos of his parents. What I like most is a big Lego model of the Death Star that hangs from the ceiling. I suspect it was glued together, and I wonder if he did it alone or with Otis and Parker.

  Distant clinks and voices come from below me, and my mouth salivates as I think of them eating. The last time I ate a proper meal was days ago, at Burnham’s. I consider texting him to tell him I made it to Forgetown, but then I don’t.

  A faint static noise draws my attention to the bedside table; I’m surprised to find a walkie-ham, the twin of the one I had at Forge. It’s connected to a small recording tablet. Impressed, I realize Linus has rigged a way to listen to the channels even when he isn’t here. It takes me a bit to figure out how it works, but then I find two files marked Emma and Woman 1. Gently, I disconnect the tablet from the walkie-ham so I can’t possibly send out an accidental signal. Then I turn the volume down, one notch above mute, and click the first file.

  On comes a young female voice that I’ve never heard before.

  “But you promised. You said you’d be here,” she says.

  “I know. I’m sorry. I feel terrible about it. Things just came up here, and I couldn’t get away.”

  My skin shivers as I recognize Dean Berg.

  “It was the one thing I asked you to show up for,” she says. “The one thing. I even told my friends you were coming!”

  “I tried to call you,” Berg says.

  “After the dance,” she says. “I don’t know why I bother anymore. Mom told me you wouldn’t come. She warned me. I should have asked Darren like she said.”

  “Who’s Darren?”

  “Her latest. Don’t you know anything?” she says.

  I like this girl. Give it to him, I think.

  “What can I do to make it up to you?” Berg asks. “Would you like a trip? I could take you to Paris. Brian, too, if you like. Let’s make a memory.”

  “I already have enough memories of promises you don’t keep,” she says. “You can stuff your Huntington’s crap. I don’t care about it anymore. I don’t care at all.”

  “Don’t say that, Emma.”

  “No,” she says, and she sounds a little choked up despite her words. “Go ahead and rot. You won’t find me crying at your funeral.”

  “I’ll find an answer for you in time,” Berg says. “I promise.”

  “Fifty-fifty, Dad,” she says. “You don’t even know if I have it.”

  “Please, get tested. I’m begging you.”

  She laughs. “Why? Because you care? You couldn’t show up for one night.” Her voice goes hard. “You k
now what? Don’t call me again. You’re worse than no father.”

  The recording ends abruptly, but her words leave a sizzle behind them. Emma has my complete sympathy. Berg sounds like a horrible father, and I’m glad she blasted him. Then I wonder what Huntington’s is. I’m not familiar with it at all.

  I puzzle over the device in my hand. I once overheard a rogue conversation between the dean and Dr. Fallon on my walkie-ham. The signal must sometimes, if rarely, cross over from Berg’s phone to the walkie-ham frequency, and Linus must have been scanning for those crossovers. I try the next clip. This one is scratchy, but I recognize both voices.

  “I suppose I could send some back,” Dr. Huma Fallon says. “But why? You didn’t lose a source, did you?”

  “It’s just a glitch,” Dean Berg says. “We’re letting the source recover, but in the meantime, we have another client who needs a supply.”

  “Which one, then? I’ll talk to my staff.”

  “Sinclair Fifteen.”

  A faint crackle comes over the line. “Okay, what’s going on, Sandy? What have you done?” Dr. Fallon asks.

  “It’s nothing,” he says. “I simply want to help out this other client if I can. You do have the raw astrocytes, don’t you? Not a cultured seed. I need the dream pure.”

  “It’ll take me a minute to find out.”

  “I’ll wait, then,” he says.

  “You owe me, Sandy. I’ll call you back.”

  The recording stops, and there isn’t another one.

  I lean back, pensive. I wish I had a date for this one. Berg has been sending my dreams to Fallon all along, but is this call old, or does he need a dream returned now that I’ve escaped? I can’t think why he would need one back.

  It’s frustrating. Plus I’m hungrier than ever.

  I reach over to snag one of the gum wrappers off the bedside table, and I lick the lining for the film of sugar. As I reach for another, I bump a white plastic spoon that topples to the floor. Retrieving it, I find a bit of red yarn tied around the handle, like it’s special. That’s quirky. I run my thumb over the concave surface. I envy how the casual castoffs of Linus’s life lie around here, undisturbed.

  I miss having things of my own. I used to have a necklace with a New York City subway token that I wore all the time. Dubbs and I found the token on the train tracks near our boxcar, and it felt almost magical, a tiny portal to another time and place. I don’t know what happened to it. Berg probably threw my token away, like he threw away the rest of my life. I run my fingers idly down my neck. Unbidden, that old, lonesome feeling I used to have, the one that yearns and can’t be satisfied, twines its way into my hunger until I don’t know where one begins and the other leaves off.

  I blink slowly out at the stars, framed by Linus’s window, until I don’t even notice them anymore.

  * * *

  When the mattress dips, I jolt awake. Linus is sitting at the edge of the bed. A small, shaded lamp glows on the bedside table, and outside the windows, full night has gathered near. In his hands, he holds a big bowl of chili with a bagel resting on the rim.

  “I wasn’t sure if you like cheddar and sour cream on your chili,” he says quietly.

  I sit up. I rub my eyes. My nerves jolt on again. The clump of grated cheese has melted on top of the brown chili, and I take my first bite with a taste of the sour cream, too. I half swoon.

  “Who made this?” I ask.

  “I did.”

  “It’s amazing,” I say, scooping up more. Then I take a thick bite of bagel. It’s delicious, too. I go back to the chili. So good.

  Linus reaches over to a computer on the desk and touches a button to make an indie playlist come on, just audible enough to cover our voices. Then he drops off his shoes and lounges on the bed, one elbow deep in the quilt. He brushes his bangs off his forehead. They fall back on.

  “Tell me all about your famous life,” I say. “Do they cut your hair for the show?”

  “Every time we film a new segment. Makes for consistency. It’s obnoxious,” he says.

  “I’m sure.”

  He smiles at me. “We were able to track down my Aunt Trudi. Contrary to our coverage of the reunion, she hadn’t been looking for me,” he says. “In fact, she didn’t care one bit what had happened to me. We had to pay her ten thousand pounds to pose with me.”

  “Real nice,” I say.

  He shakes his head briefly. “I did like seeing Swansea again, though, and the whole thing reminded me how lucky I am to have Otis and Parker.”

  “How are they doing?”

  “Good. They like when I visit. They put me right to work.” His nods his chin toward me. “How about you? Where’ve you been?”

  I’m not ready to talk about the vault. “Places. Denver. Atlanta.”

  “Really? With Burnham?”

  “Yeah,” I say, still eating. “He loaned me a car and everything. He was really helpful.”

  “How is he?”

  I try to describe how Burnham is okay and how he’s not. Then I remember my awkward encounter with him in the night and run out of things to say.

  “Interesting,” Linus says.

  “Yes.”

  “And then you decided to come here.”

  It’s a leading sort of observation. I’m not sure it’s smart to tell him about my mission to kill Berg yet, if ever, but I nod at the walkie-ham. “You’ve been listening in on Berg,” I say.

  “Did you hear the clip with his daughter?” Linus asks. “I think he could have Huntington’s.”

  “What’s that?”

  “It’s a disease where you start to lose your mind early, like in your thirties or forties,” he says. “It keeps getting worse until you can’t think right or control your body, and then you die. It’s genetic. It’s horrible. His kids have a fifty-fifty chance of inheriting it, too.”

  “He’s looking for a cure,” I say, thinking it over. “That’s why he’s involved with this dream mining research. He wants to save himself and his kids. It makes so much more sense now.”

  “I think you’re right. That’s why he’s collaborating with the people at Chimera.”

  “That’s the clinic in Iceland, right?” I read about it. I watch Linus carefully, curious to find out how much he knows.

  His eyebrows lift slightly. “Okay,” he says slowly. “I know you don’t want to talk about this girl Althea, but she matters. She’s been to Chimera. She woke up from a coma there, and she says she has your mind. I’m not saying I believe her entirely, but she’s pretty convincing.”

  “Come on,” I say.

  “She knows everything about you up to the point you were in Berg’s vault,” Linus says, and he’s serious. “She says that’s where she left you.”

  A shiver creeps over my skin. I look out the window toward Forge. I can just make out a few lights through the budding trees. I wouldn’t put anything past Berg, but if a second version of me is walking around on Earth, I’m not sure what to think.

  “Is she like my mental twin, then?” I ask.

  “It’s hard to say. Her voice is different, but she sounds a lot like you. She says she thinks like you. She predicted you’d come here. To see me.”

  I frown at him, considering. He’s blushing faintly.

  “How often do you talk to her?” I ask.

  “We’ve talked twice. Last time, a few days ago. Tuesday, I guess. She was in Texas. She has family there.”

  “Texas.” I nod, like this makes sense. This makes no sense. Neither does Linus’s blush. “I wonder if Berg knows about her,” I say.

  “I don’t know if he does,” Linus says.

  “But you know something else,” I say.

  He glances uneasily at me and then sits up straighter on the bed. “I’m not sure how much this matters, but Berg asked to meet up with me once in St. Louis. He knows the producers of Found Missing, and he offered to drop by the studio and take me out to lunch. I didn’t want to, but I thought I might learn something from him
about where you were, so I went.” He runs a hand back through his hair. “He spent the whole lunch reminiscing about your time as a student at Forge, Rosie. You were all he could talk about. It was bizarre.”

  “He had me asleep in the Onar Clinic all that time, but he wanted to talk to you about me?”

  Linus nods. “I think he’s obsessed with you. And that’s not all. He wanted to hook me up and track my reactions to some footage of you. He offered to pay me a lot. I said no, of course.”

  “That is way too creepy,” I say. “Why would he want to do that?”

  “I don’t know.” He wedges a hand under of one of his feet. “I know you blame me for not doing more to shut Berg down, but I’ve still never had any good evidence for what he’s done. The police have been all over him, and they’ve never found anything. He’s incredibly sneaky and careful. What do you think he’s up to?”

  Berg is playing a deeper, bigger game than I’ve ever imagined. I recall the way Ian talked about another lab in California. I wonder if Althea has any information about that. Someone has to stop Berg. Soon.

  Linus reaches for my dirty bowl, and as I shift my legs, the plastic spoon with the red yarn falls on the quilt. He picks it up and puts it in a drawer.

  “You keep spoons?” I ask.

  He looks at me sideways and smiles faintly. “You ate ice cream with that one,” he says. “I didn’t have anything else of yours, so I saved it.”

  “Seriously?” I think back. “Was it that afternoon in the quad? With the chocolate chunk coffee cinnamon swirl ice cream?”

  “Your favorite. Yes. So?”

  I smile at him, then laugh. “That’s pretty pathetic.”

  “Thank you. I’m well aware.”

  I chuckle again, and then I stifle a yawn.

  “When’s the last time you had a proper night’s sleep?” he asks.

  The last two nights were on the road. Before that, nightmares at Burnham’s. I guess my first night in Atlanta wasn’t too bad. “Four nights ago?”

  He shifts on the bed. “Time to fix that. Pass me a pillow.”

  “Are you going to sleep with me here?” I ask.

 
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