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The vault of dreamers, p.25
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.25

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “According to Mr. Roosevelt’s report, he found the two of you behind a dumpster by the girls’ dorm,” Mr. Joiner said. “That’s not a particularly romantic place to meet.”

  “But it’s dark,” I pointed out.

  Mrs. Peabody-Lily set her teacup in her saucer with a click. “The sleeping policy is for your protection and your health, young lady, not to mention your education,” she said. “If you’d slept, like you were supposed to, you would have had a break from your stress.”

  “But I didn’t want one,” I said. “I didn’t deserve one.” I twisted my fingers together behind my back. “My friend Burnham is hurt because of me. He might die. I couldn’t go peacefully to sleep while that was happening.”

  “So you went to make out with your boyfriend,” Mr. Joiner said.

  I turned to the beady-eyed man. “Wouldn’t you?”

  Mr. Joiner’s voice was deceptively courteous. “You might mind that tongue of yours, my girl. You’re not doing yourself any favors.”

  “She’s obviously lying and using the accident as an excuse,” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said. “A girl who will break the rules to sneak out of her bed and meet a boy is not the sort of student we want here at Forge.”

  “If I may,” interjected Mrs. O’Toole. “The point we should be discussing is Rosie’s mental health. The girl is falling apart as we speak. Forge has an obligation to see to her welfare. A student shouldn’t have to sneak out of her bed to plead for our attention.”

  “You cannot mean to imply that the school is to blame for her condition,” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said.

  “I’m saying she might be part of a bigger picture. What about these reports of suicidal alums?” Mrs. O’Toole said. “Were you aware of these, Sandy?”

  “What are you talking about?” I asked.

  Dean Berg ran a hand around his jaw. “When you asked the other day about the numbers of Forge alums who have died young, you hit a nerve in our alumni community.”

  “I haven’t heard from anybody,” I said.

  “No. They wisely directed their comments to me,” Dean Berg said. “Apparently, a few others have wondered the same thing, and now they’re calling in.”

  “This is very serious. What have you found?” asked Mrs. Peabody-Lily.

  “We have a unique population here,” Dean Berg said. “High achieving, but also, if I may say so, highly strung generally. There’s no evidence the school itself has a negative impact on its students’ mental health. If anything, the opposite is true.”

  “So you’re saying any correlation between attending Forge and early death is strictly coincidence?” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said.

  “Absolutely. Strictly coincidence,” Dean Berg said.

  “But what are the numbers?” Otis asked.

  Dean Berg and Dr. Ash exchanged glances.

  “What Sandy says is true: any correlation can’t be proved,” Dr. Ash said. “That being said, I have records of eight young Forge alums who have died in the past two years, three by accident and five by suicide.”

  “Five suicides,” Mr. Joiner said, sitting up. “For a school this size, that’s significant. How about it, Sandy?”

  “Naturally, we’re looking into it,” Dean Berg said.

  “Did you talk to Ellen’s family?” I asked.

  “This is a sensitive time for the Thorpe family,” Dean Berg said. “We’ve reached out with our condolences, but anything more would be inappropriate.”

  “What about suicide attempts?” I said. “How many of those have you tracked?”

  Dr. Ash answered, directing her attention toward Dean Berg. “We don’t have a number for that yet.”

  Mrs. O’Toole turned to me. “Tell us, Rosie. Honestly. Have you been feeling well? Yesterday on the ladder with young Fister wasn’t the first time you felt faint, was it?”

  I looked across at Dean Berg, who gazed back mildly at me.

  “There was one other time, in the observatory,” I said. “Dean Berg was there.”

  “Any other times?” Mrs. O’Toole asked. “Were you feeling poorly when you snuck out last night, for instance?”

  I wavered. I had her sympathy now. Even without proof, I might get the trustees to investigate the vault of sleeping bodies if I told about them. But from the dean’s patient, nonchalant features, I suddenly guessed that if I said something about the vault, I’d be playing into his hands. He was ready for me. He had some surefire way to protect himself, while if I spoke the truth, I would prove that I was crazy.

  Mrs. O’Toole was still waiting for my answer. “Rosie?”

  “I’ve been fine,” I said in a low voice.

  “Despite your fall yesterday?” Mrs. O’Toole pressed.

  “I’m worried about Burnham, of course, but myself, I’m fine,” I said.

  Mrs. O’Toole touched a hand absently to her pearls. “I’m not sure what to think,” she said. “It does seem, with her friend’s fall and how upset she was, that we might have extenuating circumstances. It was Rosie’s first offense of any kind.”

  The dean drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. Then he turned to swipe his touch screen and nodded toward a low cabinet. With a soft whirling, a large screen rose out of the cabinet. “I believe it’s only fair to show you this,” he said.

  From the speakers came the noise of rushing water. The camera slowly zoomed in on a tile roof, slick with rain, where a solitary figure stood on a catwalk, just below a skylight. I stared, spellbound. A girl in a drenched nightgown hobbled barefoot along the grating. Then she paused and straightened, pushing back her tangle of wet hair. She arched her back, turning to look in all directions, and then, with surprising grace, she spread her arms out to the sky. She flung her head back and opened her mouth wide, drinking in the rain and the night.

  She was me, more powerful and beautiful than I’d ever dreamed.

  Pride, and sorrow, and a hint of rage triggered inside me.

  “You shouldn’t have filmed that,” I said, turning to the dean. “I thought I was alone.”

  He froze the picture. “You’re at Forge,” he replied.

  He might as well have said he owned me.

  Mrs. O’Toole set her teacup on the trolley. “Well,” she said. “That changes things.”

  “Beautiful,” said Mr. Joiner quietly. “Such a shame.”

  Otis spoke up from his corner. “Explain, Sandy. When did this happen?”

  “Very early the morning of the fifty cuts,” Dean Berg said. “Rosie’s precisely the sort of person we need here. And if I do say so, the viewers agree with me. I couldn’t have been more pleased when she passed the cuts.”

  “That doesn’t negate the fact that you should have expelled her right then, the first time she broke the rules,” said Mrs. Peabody-Lily. “You were quite remiss, Sandy.”

  “I could have sent her home then, certainly. But she got me thinking,” Dean Berg said. “It’s never comfortable for an institution to have its basic principles flaunted. Here was a student who broke the rules to stand in the rain at night. She had nothing to gain from taking such a risk, and everything to lose, but she did it.”

  Mrs. Peabody-Lily closed her eyes and shook her head. “We already have a school full of artists. They’re inherently rule breakers.” She opened her eyes again to glare at Dean Berg, but she was half laughing, too. “You’re no better than one of the kids yourself.”

  “I beg to disagree. I take my duties very seriously,” Dean Berg said.

  “Then what is your recommendation?” Mr. Joiner asked.

  The dean shifted his weight against the desk. “I’m torn, frankly. Send her home, and we lose a promising student. I’d be concerned for her health, as well. Rosie comes from a family with few resources and limited access to health care, whereas we could obviously continue to monitor her closely here. Then again, if we keep her, we’re setting a dangerous precedent. Other students might feel they can skip their pills, too, which would be disastrous for the entire program.”

&
nbsp; “Hello,” I said. “I’m right here in the room.”

  “We’re not keeping this girl. She’s a liar and a cheat,” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said.

  “We could put it up to the viewers,” proposed Mr. Joiner. “Let them vote. It would be good spectacle.”

  “We are not letting viewers weigh in on a disciplinary issue,” Mr. O’Toole said.

  “No, Mr. Joiner is on to something,” Mrs. O’Toole said. “What’s her current blip rank, Sandy?”

  The dean leaned over to see the screen on his desk. “She’s number four,” he said.

  I let out a laugh. “Me? Now? I’m in fourth place?” It was my highest rank yet. My heart started thudding. “But why? Do they just want to see me get expelled?”

  “It’s drama, my girl,” Mr. Joiner said. “Our viewers like drama.”

  “It’s not that simple,” Dean Berg said. “Rosie’s drawing in an important new demographic of viewers to the show. Two new demographics, in fact. She has a vast number of followers among the very poor, like herself—no offense, Rosie—and a small but significant following of elite viewers.”

  “I see,” said Mrs. Peabody-Lily in arctic tones.

  I didn’t. “What do you mean?” I asked.

  “Elite viewers are the hyper-wealthy,” Mr. O’Toole explained. “They’ve been known to donate huge sums to the school, sometimes on a whim.”

  Mrs. Peabody-Lily rose from her chair. “Be that as it may, we do not make disciplinary decisions based on blip rank. I’m with Mr. O’Toole on this. It would be common.”

  Otis made a snorting noise. “Common?” he said. “Let me remind you that the entire school is a reality show. You’ve just been calculating Rosie’s value like she’s a prize attraction at a freak show.” He pushed away from the bookshelf. “If you’re finished with this nonsense, I’ve got a job to do.”

  “Don’t leave,” I said. He was the closest thing I had to an ally.

  Otis crossed his arms and frowned in exasperation. “Then tell me. What do you think we should do, Rosie?”

  I looked across at the dean, who watched me curiously.

  “Please, Rosie. We’d welcome your opinion,” Mrs. O’Toole said. “How do you think we should handle your case?”

  “Easy,” I said. “The board should send me home and demand the dean’s resignation.”

  The dean’s face went stiff. “I beg your pardon?”

  Otis laughed. “She’s right, Sandy. You broke the rules when you kept that roof scene of Rosie a secret. That’s a far more serious offense than hers. What gives you the right? What else have you kept hidden that we don’t know about?”

  “I believe, as dean, I’m trusted to use my own judgment in certain situations,” Dean Berg said.

  “Yes,” Otis said wryly. “And because Rosie has a few elite viewer fans, you’ve already made your decision to let her stay. This meeting is a farce and a waste of my time.”

  “Gracious!” Mrs. O’Toole said, laughing.

  “Sandy, with all due respect to Mr. Fairwell and his colorful analogies, I can see the point of keeping Rosie,” Mr. Joiner said. “But if we do, what reassurance do we have that she won’t break the rules again?”

  “There are cameras,” Mr. O’Toole said.

  “We do leave the cameras on at night,” Dean Berg agreed. “It’s a health and safety precaution.”

  “I thought the staff left at midnight,” Mr. Joiner said.

  “The techies do, but another small team headed by Dr. Ash takes over then,” Dean Berg said. “And we have campus security around the clock, obviously. That’s how Roosevelt apprehended Rosie and Linus last night.”

  “Has anyone talked to my parents?” I asked.

  “I did an hour ago,” Dean Berg said. “They’re very disappointed in you, understandably. They’ll support any decision we make.”

  Disappointed. My stepfather was going to be a lot more than disappointed. A clamp tightened in my gut.

  “I do have one other idea that might have a bearing on this situation,” Dean Berg said.

  “Let’s have it,” Mr. Joiner said.

  Dean Berg clasped both his hands deliberately together. “It seems to me the threat of expulsion has not been a sufficient deterrent to keep Rosie in her sleep shell,” he said. “I propose that she signs a contract agreeing to follow the rules. If she doesn’t, her parents can cede guardianship over to the school, and we can manage her care from then on.”

  “You cannot be serious,” I said.

  Mrs. O’Toole laughed. “We are not in the business of becoming legal guardians to our students, Sandy.”

  “We did it once before. Remember?” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said.

  “That’s right,” Mr. Joiner said. “You may recall I once served as legal guardian for another one of our scholarship students who lost his parents. It worked quite well. In Rosie’s case, the point of guardianship will be moot as long as she follows the rules.”

  I turned to Mr. Joiner. “You can’t possibly want to be my guardian.”

  “Not me. Sandy can incur the risk,” Mr. Joiner said. “He’s the one who wants to keep you. I say he can assume the responsibility for you if you disobey again.”

  “It’s rather fitting, considering he overlooked your first transgression,” Mr. O’Toole said. “He clearly has a soft spot for you.”

  “And if it turns out she’s mentally unstable, the school can foot the bill for her care. That should satisfy my dear Mrs. O’Toole’s soft-hearted concerns,” Mrs. Peabody-Lily said. “Solves everything.”

  “I’m not giving up my parents,” I said. “Certainly not to have Dean Berg named as my guardian.”

  “We’re not asking you to give up your parents,” Mrs. O’Toole said gently. “We’re simply asking you to obey the rules, like every other student. Do you want to stay at Forge or not? This is your education we’re talking about. Your future.”

  I glanced at Otis.

  The old man shrugged. “They’re mad. All of them. But you play their way or you go home.”

  I thought then of the sleeping bodies in the vault. I was the only one who knew about them, the only one who had a shot at saving them. I looked around at the watching adults and ended facing Dean Berg. He was smiling with grave concern, as if he had nothing but my well-being at heart.

  “I’ll stay,” I said.

  Dean Berg’s smile expanded warmly. “Wise decision.”

  29

  THE OBSERVATORY

  THE DEAN WANTED to confer with the school’s legal team about the guardianship contract. He emphasized that my parents would only surrender guardianship if I disobeyed the rules. He added that I should talk to my parents and take the day to think it over, and in the meantime, I should attend my classes like normal.

  As if normal was possible anymore.

  As soon as I made it down to Media Convergence, Janice leapt up from the couch and pounced on me.

  “What happened? Are you crazy? What were doing up at night?” she demanded.

  “Did you watch the meeting in the dean’s office or not?” I asked.

  “I did. We all did,” she said.

  The other students in the room had gone silent, watching us. Henrik and Paige were hovering nearby. Burnham’s usual desk was horribly empty.

  Mr. DeCoster rose from his desk in the corner. “What can we do for you, Rosie?” he asked.

  I shook my head. “I just want to call my mother.”

  “Here. Borrow my phone,” Janice said, and she thrust it into my hand.

  I dialed my mom’s work number, and got a busy signal. I wondered if she was on the line with Dean Berg. I tried several more times, but the line was always busy. When I tried our home line, thinking to leave a message with Larry, that line was busy, too.

  “I can’t reach her,” I said finally, when I handed back Janice’s phone.

  “Don’t worry,” Janice said. “She has to know what’s going on here. She’ll call you as soon as she can.”

&nbs
p; I tried to picture my mom juggling calls and trying to keep everything going at the cafeteria, too. I knew she’d call me when she could.

  My gaze kept going to Burnham’s empty seat until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went over to the Ping-Pong table, snatched up a ball, and strode back to Burnham’s desk. I set a paperclip in front of the touch screen he always used, and just like he had done once, I rested the white ball inside the clip so it couldn’t roll away. It looked small and fragile there, but playful, too.

  The room had grown quiet around me.

  “He’ll be back,” Henrik said.

  That was what we all wanted. I wondered how many of the others didn’t believe it was true.

  For the rest of the day, I was distracted and preoccupied. All of Burnham’s friends were. I kept thinking about him, but I also kept thinking about the vault from last night and Linus angry at me. Each trouble gave me a different kind of guilt that hung heavily inside me, like the clock weights in the pit of the tower. As the hours passed and I didn’t say anything about the sleepers in the vault, I felt worse, like I was becoming an accomplice to their captivity.

  Again and again, I circled back to the way Dean Berg had practically dared me to talk about the vault in front of the trustees today. He had to have some way to protect his secrets. He could possibly, theoretically, close off the tunnel that connected the bottom of the pit to the vault. Somehow.

  I felt like a mad girl, inventing bizarre scenarios.

  What would happen if I simply told the viewers what I knew? I could even go back to the pit myself, now, during the day.

  A fitful wind blew up the quad, and I brushed my hair back, squinting toward the rose garden at the base of the clock tower. Pale, soft petals lingered on isolated blooms, and in the slanting afternoon light, their beauty touched me strangely. Above, on the clock tower, the motto around the face seemed to mock me: Dream Hard. Work Harder. Shine. I couldn’t do any of those things while a vault of helpless dreamers slept beneath my feet.

  They were my real ghosts. My real project wasn’t a class assignment at all. I teetered in indecision, weighing if I should go into the clock tower. The cameras of the show would record my movements.

 
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