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The rule of mirrors, p.25
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.25

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “Isn’t that the eye you had injured, back when I met you? From the chef?”

  “Yes.”

  “Is it tingling now?” I ask. “Look up.”

  I move nearer to peer inside his pupil, and he aims his gaze toward the ceiling. It looks normal to me, a clear, tight disk of black inside an iris ring of honey brown. I gently tug at his eyelid, checking in case a lash has fallen in. He looks in different directions, but everything seems fine to me.

  “It’s better now,” he says. “Turn out the light.”

  I reach for the lamp switch and he flops back on the bed, belly up. He folds his hands behind his head so his elbows flare out like wings. My eyes adjust to the soft gray light diffusing in the window, leftover starlight and moonlight. It mutes all the colors so his gray shirt is the same hue as his cheeks.

  He closes one eye, and then the other. I lean near again, trying to tell if his pupils have dilated the same amount, but it’s too dark to be sure. Then I notice he’s watching me closely, with a slight smile.

  “Your eyes are fine,” I say quickly.

  “Don’t move. You have a kind of halo.”

  I hold still, watching him, and then he lifts a hand to my hair. He tugs a strand, lightly straightening it out to its full length before he lets go and chooses another. A shiver lifts along my neck.

  “I’m glad you decided to come,” he says.

  “I guess I wanted to see if anything we had was real.”

  “What do you think?”

  I shrug. “It’s only been a few hours.”

  His smile widens. I set my hand on his shirt, and his warmth seeps though the cotton to my fingers. I could try to hash out with him the reasons why we broke up, but that’s not what I want to do.

  “You used to think I was completely delusional,” I say. “Why do you even like me?”

  “I suppose it’s the gap in your teeth.”

  “I mean it, Linus,” I say. “What is it about me? Only me?”

  He shifts slightly. He touches a finger to my chest, above my heart, an inch from my port. It makes me self-conscious. Then he peers back up, and I can feel him searching into me.

  “It’s this little hole you have here,” he says.

  He doesn’t mean my port. I go still while the hollow, dark place inside me tests its edges. I’ve never told anybody about that lonely, reaching place. I study him, unsure.

  “You have it, too?” I ask.

  He nods, and then looks away. A painful, tiny crack opens inside me. I don’t want him feeling as alone as I do. The window rattles once with a gust of wind. I slip my hand into his.

  He glances up at me again, intently. “I’m only going to kiss you. That’s all,” he says. “Okay?”

  He’s still lying back on the pillow, all these gray-scale hues of skin and cotton, with black for his hair and the depths of his eyes. His lips are open a little in the middle. I can’t quite imagine how he’s going to move up to meet me, and then I realize he isn’t moving. I’m the one moving. I’m touching my mouth to the curving lines of his, because that’s how lightning happens, in the wrong direction, inescapably.

  27

  THEA

  A TOUR OF FORGE

  TREES DROPPED their spindly shadows on the hood of the truck as Tom and I drove up the familiar road of the Forge School. One state west, in Colorado, they still had snow, but here in Kansas, spring was early. The trees were fuzzy with buds, and the pasture was green with new grass. On my right, the observatory where I once fell with Burnham aimed its gray dome toward a blue sky, and the lookout tower cast its great lenses over the campus.

  Tom and I had slept late at the motel and driven half the day to arrive at Forge by mid-afternoon. I’d checked in with Madeline enough to allay her fears that I was dead on the road somewhere and ask if I had any messages. I didn’t. I didn’t have any on my own phone, either, and by daylight, it was easier to resist calling Linus. What would I tell him, anyway? I couldn’t very well force myself into his life, even if I was visiting his proverbial back yard.

  Now Tom and I pulled into the driveway behind the art building and parked before the giant wooden spools. One was still splattered with colorful paint. The other had been painted black and drilled with holes.

  I’d had my first kiss by those spools, in the rain, in desperation. I had to wonder where Linus was at this moment.

  “It all looks bigger than I guessed from TV,” Tom said, as he locked the car. “Where are the cameras?”

  “They’re everywhere. Most of them are small buttons. They blend in.”

  “Like that?” he asked, pointing to one on a metal railing.

  “Yes.”

  I almost told him not to point, which was taboo for students. Even though the cameras weren’t broadcasting me, everywhere I turned I instinctively felt a prickling along my neck.

  “Relax,” Tom said, squeezing a hand into my shoulder. “No one’s going to recognize you. They can’t.”

  “I know. It’s just weird to be back.”

  “We’re simply taking a tour. No big deal.”

  I shot him a smile. “Right. Thanks.”

  We’d agreed to take a tour of the school and wing it from there. Tom knew that I hoped to learn more about Berg’s research, but he’d pointed out that any real discovery was unlikely, given that I would have no chance to get off stage in broad daylight. I felt, distinctly, that he was indulging me.

  I also sensed that he’d withdrawn from me at some level. I couldn’t blame him. Each stop on our road trip was proving how little I resembled Althea. Then again, it was a relief for me to have someone from Althea’s life finally get an up-close look at where I’d come from.

  A dozen people were gathered on the steps of the student union, mostly parents and their teenager sons and daughters. In snug yellow pants and a black coat, a big white guy with pale curls stood out from the crowd. A tall, young black woman with hoop earrings idly met my eye, and then gave me a nod. Several others surreptitiously checked out my figure. I felt like my belly was huge. I wasn’t recognizable as Rosie, but I was still conspicuous.

  “You were here how long?” Tom asked quietly.

  “Two months. A lifetime.”

  I could feel a level of eagerness in the way the others fidgeted. Visitors to the campus didn’t merit any special attention, but they each stood a chance of being in the background of a Forge student’s feed. After the tour, visitors could order memento clips of the background footage compiled from various feeds, for a price.

  I didn’t want anything to do with that, obviously.

  My friend Janice came lightly down the steps of the student union and stopped before us, tucking her short hair back around her ear. I was stunned to realized she was our tour guide. She’d changed her hair from blonde to a burnished, golden-red color that made her eyes look almost purple, and she wore a white jacket with big black buttons over her black jeans and boots.

  “Hi, everybody,” she said with a friendly wave. “Welcome to Forge. I’m Janice. I’m a sophomore acting student, and I’ll be your tour guide this afternoon. Before we begin, why don’t each of you perspective students tell me your name and your art? Go ahead.”

  They started at the other end with the guy in the yellow pants, who turned out to be a singer. I scrambled to concoct what I was going to say, but when Janice came to me and Tom, she passed right on to the next young person. Startled, I glanced at Tom.

  He leaned near to my ear. “I feel incredibly old and unartistic.”

  I smiled and nudged his elbow.

  “Let’s start with the drama department and work our way around the school, shall we?” Janice said. “If you have any questions, be sure to speak up.”

  “Weren’t you friends with Burnham Fister and Rosie Sinclair?” someone asked.

  I peeked around the others to see it was the tall black woman who had spoken.

  “I was, yes,” Janice said. She still smiled, but more tightly. “To be honest, though,
I meant questions about the school. I’m not comfortable talking about my friends. If anyone wants to know more about Burnham or Rosie, or safety here at Forge, you can stop by the dean’s office. They’ll be able to answer your questions. Now, the music building, here on your right, was built fifteen years ago.” She continued smoothly on with her tour info.

  I was impressed with her aplomb.

  “You knew her?” Tom asked me quietly as we moved with the crowd toward the auditorium.

  “Yes,” I said. “We’re in the same year.”

  “What’s her blip rank?” he asked me.

  “You’ll see on the board in the dining hall. Or you could check her profile on your phone.”

  Janice led us around the campus, winding over to the dorms and behind the dean’s tower to the sculpture garden. Seeing her in the role of guide, both businesslike and anonymously friendly, made me itch to jolt her out of it, but I had to resist.

  “How do you like Mr. DeCoster for a teacher?” I asked politely as we headed into the library. He’d been my favorite.

  “He’s brilliant,” she said. “My Media Convergence class meets in the basement here.”

  “Could we take a peek?” Tom asked.

  The others were interested, too, so Janice led us down the stairs. The Ping-Pong table and the couches by the fireplace were the same, and the boxes of Settlers of Catan and Dominion still occupied the coffee table. Burnham’s computer had a Ping-Pong ball in a paperclip before it, just like the one I’d set there ages ago, after his accident. We didn’t know then if he would recover. It was a horrible time.

  I drifted near. Burnham wouldn’t recognize me now if I tried to reach out to him, but I still felt guilty for my part in our accident. I would never be able to apologize to him. He didn’t know I existed. I let my fingers hover over the small white ball. I missed my friend.

  “Coming?” Janice asked from the doorway.

  I glanced over to see that Tom and I were the last ones in the room.

  “Yes. Sorry,” I said.

  After a stop in the main library upstairs, we returned to the quad, where Janice gave the history of the clock tower. I gazed up at the motto inscribed near the top: Dream Hard. Work Harder. Shine.

  Lies, I thought. It should say Dream Hard So We Can Mine the Best out of You.

  “Can we go inside?” I asked.

  Janice hesitated. “We’re running short of time.”

  “I’d like to go in, just for a second,” I said. “For Rosie’s sake.”

  Janice looked at me oddly. “Did you know her?”

  “I feel like I did,” I said.

  She glanced around toward the others. A few were nodding. I wasn’t on The Forge Show anymore, but Janice still was, and I could practically see her calculating. Her feed was live right now, and viewers who knew Janice and Rosie had been friends were watching her reaction. This could be worth a spike to her blip rank.

  Her gaze went distant for a moment. “She used to look for ghosts,” Janice said obscurely. Then she straightened and gestured to the tour group. “Go in if you’d like, but I’ll wait out here.”

  She held the door for us, and I led the way into the tall, hushed space. High above, the mechanism of the clock made its distinct ticking, and the chains with their cylindrical weights dropped down through the gloom. The narrow windows shot diagonal streaks of sunlight into the dim air, and dust moats drifted into the light like fairy dust. For me, this was the heart of the campus, a crux of nostalgia and danger. The others came in curiously, stepping softly as if respecting a sacred place. They touched their fingertips to the railing, one by one, and looked down into the pit as I had done the first time I’d been here with Linus.

  I lingered with my back to the wall and let the quiet chill of the stones seep into me. Tom stood patiently nearby, saying nothing, and as the last visitor left, he stepped to the railing and peered down.

  “I can’t see the bottom,” he said. His voice carried easily in the hollow space.

  “No,” I said. “It’s thirty feet down.”

  Without warning, I felt a twinge of déjà vu, my first ever in my new body, and I breathed deep. The quirk of familiarity brought me super alive.

  “Want to come look?” he said.

  I saw myself step forward an instant before I did. I watched myself set my small hand on the black railing, knowing in advance how it would look around the metal. I felt a tug to lean over the railing, an impulse stronger than any déjà vu. I was certain to lose my balance and tumble head first into the black.

  I held tight to the railing, leaning back as my heart pounded.

  Take me out, I tried to say. But I didn’t speak in real life. My voice couldn’t escape.

  Tom turned to me. “Are you all right?”

  I foresaw myself capsizing down through a black rushing noise until I slammed into the floor and died.

  “Thea? Let’s go back out,” Tom said.

  A piercing headache spiked between my eyes. I gasped as Tom peeled my fingers off the railing. Blind with pain, I felt his arm come around me. He guided me out of the clock tower, and I blinked at the sunlight through a haze of needles.

  The others were waiting in the rose garden, and Janice’s spiel of information broke off sharply. “Is she all right?” Janice asked.

  “We’re just going to rest here a bit,” Tom said. “You all go ahead.”

  I sank to a bench and leaned my head heavily into my hand.

  “I can call the nurse,” Janice said.

  “No,” I mumbled.

  “It’s okay. She gets a little nauseous sometimes,” Tom said. “We’re fine, really.”

  Dimly, I heard them discussing me, but I couldn’t say anything more. My headache was crushing my brain into pulp. One instant it was so bad I thought I was imploding, and the next instant, just as suddenly, the pain vanished, like a vice breaking apart into atoms. Cautiously, I tilted my face back so the sunlight fell on my cheeks. Merciful tingles of pleasure danced down my skin like warm streams of water, and the world returned to focus.

  “See? She’s already better,” Tom said.

  “I guess,” Janice said uneasily. She pointed to the nearest building. “There’s a bathroom in the dean’s tower if you need it.”

  “Thanks,” Tom said. “We’re all good. And thanks for the tour.”

  Janice gave us one last look, and then she continued with the others, veering off toward the studio art building.

  “What was that about?” Tom said quietly. He sat beside me, and his eyes were lit with concern.

  My baby kicked inside me, and I shifted slowly on the bench. “Just some weird spiking headache,” I said. “It’s gone completely.”

  “Can I get you something? I can take you to the hospital. Should we call your parents?”

  I breathed again, deeply and calmly. “They’ll only worry.”

  “Maybe they should. I’m worried.”

  “I’m really all right,” I repeated. “See?” I straightened and produced a smile.

  Tom shook his head. “Your eyes are strange.”

  “Really?”

  “They’re dilated.”

  I guessed things looked a bit brighter than usual. I rose to my feet, pleased to find that I was completely steady. I brushed my hair back around my ears. “This is my chance,” I said, my voice low. “Wait for me here.”

  “You’re not going anywhere.”

  “Actually, I’m going to the ladies’ room, and you’re not coming with me. I’m really okay,” I said, and gave him a measured look. “Trust me.”

  He got it, finally, and quit arguing. I left him in the rose garden and went alone up the steps to the dean’s tower. That headache was a killer, but it had given me the perfect excuse to go exactly where I wanted.

  * * *

  The foyer’s gold-leaf dome gleamed above as I entered the cool stillness of the dean’s tower. To my right, the door to the dean’s office was open wide, and I had a familiar glimpse of t
he thick carpet, white bookshelves, and lush curtains. Congenial voices and the clink of a teacart drifted out, reminding me of the time I’d been summoned to meet the board of trustees.

  I crossed in the opposite direction, toward the elevator, and when it came, I pushed the B button and held it, hard. It yielded inward an extra click just as it had once before, and then the elevator began to drop. Instead of slowing at the next level down, it accelerated, falling deeper into the earth. With a thrill, I realized Dean Berg hadn’t altered the secret button since I’d been here before.

  Then I wondered why not.

  When the elevator slowed to a stop, heaviness lurched in my gut, and then the doors opened on a quiet, dark landing. Cautiously, with one arm bracing the door, I leaned out, expecting a light to come on with a motion sensor. It didn’t. I switched on my phone’s light and cast the white beam before me. To one side stood a kitchenette counter with a dusty coffee machine. Gone were the microwave and minifridge from before. Gone, too, was the table with the vase of flowers.

  Before me, through the wall of glass where I had first seen the rows of dreamers, I found the dark of emptiness.

  I stepped away from the elevator and let the doors swoosh softly closed behind me. The dark grew more intense, and my phone light seemed pitifully meager. My pulse picked up. I tried the door to the vault, and the handle gave unexpectedly beneath my fingers. Inside, the air was cooler, with a faint, sour tinge. The vinegar of my nightmares. I cast my light before me into a void, left to right. Deep in every direction, the room was bare. The overhead framework that had supported the tubes and wires for the sleep shells was gone. The floor was clear except for a couple of old, dried leaves. But it wasn’t a simple empty space. Nightmares had breeded here. Silent screams had soaked into these walls. Berg didn’t keep his sleepers here anymore, but I could feel their agony calling to me. I’d been one of his captives, too.

  My heart began to thud painfully. I crossed to the far wall, to the door that led to the operating room where I’d been mined. The sense of déjà vu hovered near again, as if I was about to see the surgery tools and head cage from before, but when I scanned my light inside, the tables were gone along with every other sign of medical torture. The only thing left was a camera in the upper corner. That was all.

 
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