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The rule of mirrors, p.24
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.24

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “No, I’m going to eat the pillow. Shift over.”

  I crowd toward the side with my back to the window, and though I tell myself that sharing a bed with Linus doesn’t mean anything, my heart won’t listen. He tugs the quilt a little, and I move so he can pull it free from underneath me. Then he settles onto the bed beside me, lying on his back, and he gently pulls the quilt over us both. It smells of cotton. He turns out the light and switches off the music. A faint hum of wind becomes audible outside the window.

  “Is this okay?” he asks. “Warm enough?”

  I nod.

  “I’ve missed you,” he says.

  I don’t move. I can hardly breathe. My eyes are adjusting, and he’s just inches from me. His eyebrows are very black, and when he turns his face in my direction, the depths of his eyes are dimly visible. I didn’t brush my teeth, and I hope my breath isn’t too spicy. His isn’t. He still smells clean from his shower.

  “What are you looking at?” I whisper.

  “Nothing,” he says.

  Inside my clothes, my skin turns on and my sleepiness vanishes. I wrap my arms around myself and shove my hands up my opposite sleeves.

  “This is a good bed,” I say.

  “I know,” he says softly.

  He still hasn’t touched me, not once. We used to kiss and make out on The Forge Show with a thousand cameras around us all the time. Now we’re alone. The house is very still. I didn’t hear Parker or Otis come up, but I can’t hear the TV from downstairs, either.

  “Let me have your hand,” he says.

  I rustle it out of my sleeve and feel him wrap my fingers in both of his warm hands.

  “So little,” he says.

  It’s a sweet thing to say, and I don’t want to argue with him, but my hand is not small. It’s just smaller than his.

  “What’s the matter?” he asks.

  “What if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?” I ask.

  “Wake me up. I’ll make sure the coast is clear.”

  “Do Otis and Parker ever check on you?” I ask.

  “Sometimes. Not often. I locked the door.”

  “Okay,” I say.

  “Anything else?”

  I shake my head. But I keep watching him.

  “What are you afraid of?” he whispers.

  Nightmares. Ian. Berg. Linus himself. Myself with Linus. It’s not a short list.

  “What if I wake up back in the vault?” I ask.

  “You won’t,” he says. “You’ll be here.”

  But logic doesn’t work. It feels like I could go back in the vault, like I’m teetering on the same vulnerability and helplessness. I’ll never really feel safe. That’s the problem. My breath catches, but I don’t want to cry. This is so much harder than being close to Burnham, and he had no shirt on. Why is everything so mixed up?

  “Rosie, shh,” he says quietly. “It’s okay.”

  I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I gulp in a breath. “Can you just hold me?”

  “Of course,” he says.

  He knocks an arm awkwardly around my neck and then pulls me closer against his shirt. I readjust a couple of times until I land in a better place, with my cheek on his shoulder and my eyebrows near his jaw. He adjusts the quilt around us more carefully, and I curl my hand on his chest, right below my chin.

  “Better?” he whispers.

  “Yes. Thanks.”

  “Anytime.”

  As if I’ll be here regularly. I could laugh, except it hurts. His chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm beneath my hand. The wind blows again outside. Linus is holding me closely, easily, with no pressure. But even still, I can’t let down my guard. I feel like someone’s been watching me even at the most intimate, personal moment of my life so far.

  What did Berg say once? They’re always watching.

  He was wrong, though. It’s worse than that. I’ve internalized the cameras. I’ll never feel private again.

  25

  THEA

  THE MIDWAY MOTEL

  WE LEFT DOLI and drove far into the night.

  “I overheard back there,” Tom said quietly.

  I tried to draw my feet up on the seat with me and curl into a ball so I could disappear, but my stupid belly got in the way. Of course it did. I wrenched the lever to make my seat tilt back again.

  “It’s going to be okay,” he added.

  “Can we just not talk right now?” I said.

  “If that’s what you want.”

  My family was lost to me. Completely gone. What else mattered? I didn’t want to think at all. I wanted to mourn alone on a desert island and forget that Dubbs and Ma and Larry ever existed. I clicked my fingernail back against my window and traced the path of the crescent moon as we whizzed by.

  Hours later, we pulled up to a motel in the middle of nowhere. I’d never stayed in a motel before. I didn’t know we were old enough, but the cheerless clerk of the Midway Motel took one look at my belly and asked no questions. After Tom handed over his card, we trudged up to a beige room that smelled of air freshener. Two big beds were covered with brown, geometric spreads, and a painting of orange horses was nailed to the wall. It was perfectly dismal, just like me.

  “I could go find some food,” he said. “You should probably eat something for the baby’s sake.”

  I wasn’t hungry at all, but I knew he was right. While I took a shower, Tom went out to scavenge, and by the time I came out in my tee shirt and pajama shorts, he was back with some Indian food. We sprawled on the big beds to eat. When I took a paper plate and spooned some chicken tikka masala onto a little pile of rice, it was, unfortunately, the same color as the horse painting on the wall.

  “At least try to eat,” Tom said kindly.

  “I shouldn’t have gone to Doli,” I said. “You were right. Are you going to be right about everything?”

  “No. Just the important things. Go on. Eat.”

  I tried a bite. It was actually really good, so naturally I felt like crying.

  “Listen,” Tom said. “You’re going to live a long time. Those people could still come around some day. They might not ever be your normal family, but they could still be something.”

  “They were never normal to begin with,” I said.

  “See, then? No problem,” Tom said. “At least the people you love are still alive.”

  I moved a bit of rice between the tines of my plastic fork. He seemed to be saying that he knew Althea was dead. I waited to see if he would elaborate, but he didn’t. In no time at all, he had helped himself to seconds and was eating steadily.

  “Where are we? Where have you been driving us?” I asked.

  “Back to Holdum,” he said. “Where else?”

  I had a sharp realization. I still had one other person in my family: Rosie. I had told Linus that I thought she would go find him, but it was just as likely she would try to find Berg. That was who she was mad at. Why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? Berg was at Forge, and now that I knew Rosie hadn’t gone home to Doli, I had to believe that Forge was her likely destination.

  “I need to call Linus,” I said, reaching for my phone.

  “Don’t bother him. It’s the middle of the night,” Tom said.

  “I want to ask him if he’s heard from Rosie. I think she might be going to Forgetown.”

  “Kansas? Is that where you want to go?” he asked. “They’re not going to know you at the Forge School, either.”

  “I know, but that’s the point,” I said, my mind leaping. “I should take advantage of that. Everybody thinks I’m Althea, not Rosie.” I started getting excited. “We can take a tour of the Forge School campus. I could spy around.”

  “What good would that do you?”

  “I could find out about Berg and his research.” I already knew exactly where I wanted to go. I had to get back down to the vault of dreamers. I wanted to see the place where everything went wrong, and I’d figure out the rest of it from there. “Definit
ely Forgetown,” I said.

  “Would that make you feel better?” he asked.

  “Yes.” It felt good to have direction again.

  “Then we’ll go,” he said. “But don’t bother Linus, and after that, let’s go back to Holdum. Your parents still hate me, but they take the best care of you. That’s where your future is.”

  He surprised me again. I took a long look at Tom, with his blond hair and even features. He was calmly cleaning up our take-out containers and napkins.

  “What about your future?” I asked.

  “What do you mean? I’m taking care of my dad, and you if you’ll let me.”

  “But what about your dreams? What would you do if you could do anything?”

  “Anything? I’d have my old Thea back,” he said. “We’d get married and raise the kid together. Maybe have a couple more.”

  It was a sweet dream. Impossible, but sweet.

  “What would you do for work?” I asked. “Take over your dad’s cattle ranch?”

  He straightened to look over at me and smiled slowly. “It’s a sheep ranch, but yes. I plan to pay off Dad’s loans and keep the ranch.”

  Nice, I thought.

  “How about you?” he asked.

  “If I could do anything?” I searched for the right idea. “If I could do it without hurting the baby, I’d get back in my old body. But that’s impossible.”

  He waved a hand as if he commanded magic. “Okay. But suppose you did. Suppose you were back in your old body, and you could still do anything. What then?”

  “I’d visit my family. Then I’d want to stop Berg from hurting anybody else.”

  “That’s good. Berg stopped. Then what?”

  I hardly knew. I smiled at him, feeling better. “My dream before was to make films,” I said.

  “You could still be a filmmaker.”

  I turned the idea over. He was right. I’d been so driven before, back when I started at Forge. What had happened to that girl? I watched Tom as he sorted through the items in his backpack. Maybe I was imagining it, but it felt like something had changed between us. He seemed more patient, but sad, too.

  “Are you all right?” I asked.

  “Yeah. Fine. I think I’ll take a shower, too. Do you want the lights out?”

  I had to brush my teeth still, but afterward, while he took a turn in the bathroom, I climbed into the bed near the windows. I put a spare pillow between my knees. When he came back out, I held very still, nervous that he might get into bed with me. The baby rolled languidly inside me. The lights went out, and then, with the rustle of fresh cotton, the covers of the other bed shifted. His bed squeaked as he got in.

  “Good night,” he said.

  I eyed the crack of starlight between the curtains. “Good night,” I replied.

  The drain in the bathroom made a burbling noise, and I carefully smoothed my hair back from my forehead.

  “I wish you had one of Thea’s old memories,” Tom said. His voice came quietly in the darkness. “Just one, about anything.”

  His wish lingered between us, tinging the night with loss. It hit me, finally, what had changed. If Tom accepted that I was really Rosie in Althea’s body, then he was also accepting that his girlfriend was truly gone. As I lay listening, and finally sagged into the warmth of my pillow, I kept trying to think of something kind enough to say back to him, but I couldn’t.

  26

  ROSIE

  LIGHTNING

  I WAKE TO A SOFT, padding noise on the other side of the door. Linus is still sleeping beside me, a weighty, warm presence in the bed, but I lean up enough to face the door and listen better. A faint creak comes from the hallway. I can’t discern if it’s human or dog. I try not to worry. Linus said he locked the door. I’m peering at the bottom of the door, the dark crack that offers no clue, and then, silently, the door inches open.

  My heart takes off. I can’t even whisper. I give Linus a nudge. He doesn’t respond. The door opens another inch. I huddle back down, trying to hide behind Linus, hoping I’m invisible. The door opens further, noiselessly, until it’s fully open, and standing in the hallway is the dark silhouette of a thin man. Ghostly moonlight shimmers around his shoulders and dark head. A shadowed forest shifts behind him. He’s holding something toward me with both hands, something wet and dark. He doesn’t move or speak because he doesn’t need to. In a shift of the moonlight, it’s suddenly clear that he’s Ian, with his chest bloody and ripped open, holding his heart in both hands.

  I slam awake.

  I gasp with panic, staring at the door, which is solidly closed in the dark room. No Ian. No dripping heart.

  “What is it?” Linus says quietly.

  I can’t speak. He was so real. He was right there. I shoot my eyes around the room. My skin’s crawling off me.

  “Rosie?” Linus says. He fumbles for the lamp, and I wince at the brightness.

  “It’s Ian,” I say.

  Linus is squinting at me with one eye. His hair is mussed, and his shirt is tangled around him. I run both hands back through my hair and take a deep breath, but it’s no use. My imagination can’t let go of Ian. I can still picture him on the other side of the door, confused now. He’s wondering why I don’t let him in. He’s anxious that I’m in bed with Linus. His voice arrives straight to my brain: You’re the only one who can take care of my heart. He’s shifting through the door now, like a ghost who can pass through solid objects, hands and heart first.

  “Please,” he whispers.

  “I never wanted your heart,” I say forcefully. “Stay back.”

  Linus snaps his fingers in front of my eyes. “Wake up.”

  Ian vanishes a second time, and I take a deep, ragged breath.

  “You had a nightmare,” Linus says.

  That wasn’t a nightmare. That was a visitation.

  My gaze meets the Death Star. Then my empty chili bowl and my coat on the doorknob and Linus. His eyes are deep with concern.

  “Who’s Ian?” he asks.

  I sag slightly. “I thought I told you. He’s one of my keepers.” In halting words, I try to explain the weirdness of Ian, and how he was taking me to some hunting cabin until I ditched him. “He’s probably looking for me right now. He likes to stalk.” I glance toward the windows, which don’t have shades or curtains. The only buildings in view from the bed are up on the distant hill, at the school, so from the street level, Ian couldn’t have an angle to see inside.

  “He sounds dangerous,” Linus says.

  He keeps his voice low, and so do I.

  “He is. But he also really cares for me. If he ever hurt me, he’d do it out of some misguided idea because he cares.”

  Linus rolls on the bed so he’s facing me more directly. I shift to sit pretzel style, with my back to the headboard.

  “Do you think he reported to Berg that he found you?” Linus asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “He quit his job.”

  “People who work for Berg don’t quit,” Linus says.

  “You worked for Berg. You quit.”

  He hesitates. “I wasn’t on the inside, like the techies. Ian must have been deep inside Berg’s confidence to be taking care of dreamers. Even now, he could be on a very long leash.”

  I hadn’t considered that, and I don’t like the possibility. “Ian doesn’t seem like the sort of person Berg would trust. Then again, he was strangely proud of his job, like it made him a man.”

  “Did he think it was legit?”

  “I think he did,” I say. “He was aware that there are rewards for me, but he knew Berg was my legal guardian, so he didn’t question his right to keep me there dreaming.” I think back. “The whole thing’s strange. I don’t think Ian deliberately helped me escape, but he was definitely responsible because he messed with my meds.”

  “What do you think Berg would do with you if he found you again?” Linus asked.

  “Mine me. I have no doubt. Then, I don’t know. He might have to kill me.”


  “Has he ever said he’d kill you? Did he threaten you?”

  I shake my head. “When I talked to him, he asked me if I’d had enough stimulation yet.”

  “What did he mean?”

  I don’t know. I don’t know what to say. “Maybe he has me on a long leash, too.”

  “Rosie, this is bad. You can’t spend your life hiding. You haven’t committed any crime.”

  “Not yet,” I say dryly. I pull my knees up to my chest.

  Linus frowns at me. “You know, you could let me do an exclusive with you, once and for all. This might sound backwards, but if you tell the same story Berg’s been telling, you know, that you’ve been in a private psyche ward somewhere recovering, Berg won’t be able to hide you away again. You’ll come off as really sane and healed, and you’ll be out in the open.”

  “That’s ass backwards, all right,” I say. “What about the truth?”

  “You have to think about the outcome. If you say one thing publicly, you can have a private life again,” he says. “You can negotiate with Berg. Get him to give you what you want. Start your own film company. Be in control. We’d pay you, Rosie. Big time.”

  His company “we” throws me. Linus talks like I have a future ahead of me where money would matter, but I don’t have a future, really. When I think of letting Berg get away with what he’s done, a visceral loathing consumes me. I want him helpless and hurting. I want to pick through his brain the way he’s picked through mine. I want him to know it, and die. That’s all that matters.

  “I’m sick of lies,” I say.

  “I’m just thinking about what’s best for you,” Linus says quietly.

  “You’re assuming Berg can’t be beat,” I say. “But beating him is what would be best for me.”

  Linus nods slowly. “Then we’ll take him down.”

  I hug my knee, considering him. I’m not sure how much I want Linus to be involved. I’m not sure how much he can really help me, either.

  He rubs his eye and blinks a few times and squints.

  “Something in your eye?” I ask.

  “No. It tingles sometimes,” he says. “I can actually see a little better out of it in the dark lately. It’s strange.”

 
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