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The rule of mirrors, p.26
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.26

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Where are you? I asked my inner voice.

  If she was ever going to surface again, it should be here, where Berg had tortured me. He’d asked me questions, clamping my mind on a pivot point where I was both awake and asleep. He’d found a way into me through pure fear. At the memory, sweat broke out along my skin. Somehow, searching for clues to Berg’s research felt like a search for myself.

  Can you hear me? I asked. Are you there?

  Still nothing. And then I remembered. She had hidden then, too. She had burrowed deep to stay away from Berg. Of course she wouldn’t surface here. This was a dead end.

  I turned back to the landing by the elevator, and there I scanned my light around once more. Across from me, another door accessed the tunnel I remembered. It led to the bottom of the clock tower pit, and now that I thought about it, that tunnel extended past the pit, in a direction I’d never followed.

  Where did it go? With a trickling of adrenaline, I made a decision: this was my chance to find out.

  I tried calling Tom to tell him what I was doing, but my phone had no service this deep underground. I had to hope he would keep waiting for me and not call attention to my absence.

  I pushed open the door to the tunnel and a skittering of leaves shifted along the floor. With my phone light aimed before me and my belly in the lead, I walked steadily along between the brick walls, sidestepping spider webs and the desiccated remains of a rodent. Soon I came to a glass-walled, octagonal chamber in the middle of the tunnel, and I knew I’d reached the bottom of the clock tower pit. I was curious to explore it, especially to look for the mechanism that opened the ceiling barrier that separated the glass enclosure from the pit above, but I didn’t have time now.

  Instead, I aimed down the tunnel in the direction I’d never explored before, hoping to find a new, hidden way in and out of Forge. The walls changed from brick to stone, and the floor became rougher, descending in a gradual slope that forced me to watch my step. Eventually, I came upon a side door on the left. Wooden, with an arched top, it was thick with undisturbed dust. I ruled it out. What I sought was an exit that had been recently used.

  As the tunnel went on, the floor leveled out again. The dusty silence grew oppressive. I was about to give up and go back to the arched door when my light reached the end of the tunnel. Another wooden door shut me in, but the knob was free of dust, and the floor had more dried leaves. A thin sourness laced the air. A faint powdering of light came through the crevice under the door. I tried the knob and pushed hard, but the door didn’t budge.

  Frustrated, I turned and rested my back against the door, trying to guess how far I’d come. It was impossible. My back ached and my throat was dry. My phone still had no signal, and its battery was getting low. Not good.

  A faint clanking noise came from the other side of the door. I pressed my ear to the wood and listened. A distant, mechanical, repetitive noise was punctuated by another clanking, and then a low mooing noise. A cow.

  I laughed in surprise and suddenly recognized that sour smell as a hint of manure. I’d arrived at a barn. There was no barn on the Forge campus, but I recalled at least one in Forgetown. I dug in my pocket for a nub of tissue and wedged it under the door, lodging it to the side near the hinges.

  Then I turned around to start back. I trudged the flat length, then started up the slope. I passed the arched, dusty door and the octagonal glass room. I recognized a broken light fixture from before, and I finally opened the door to the landing for the elevator. I was almost out and eager to get back to the sunlight and fresh air. The vault, through the glass on my right, was as dark as before. I pushed the button to call the elevator and brushed myself off as I waited. A slight sound came from behind me.

  “Lost?” Dean Berg said.

  I spun around.

  Berg. Here. He stepped through the door from the vault, and I stumbled back against the wall, unable to speak.

  “One of my techies told me a visitor went missing,” Dean Berg said.

  “I was looking for the bathroom,” I said hoarsely.

  “It’s back upstairs,” he said.

  The elevator doors slid open, and I scrambled inside.

  Berg came more slowly. Every instinct in me recoiled from him, and I pressed back into the corner.

  Slowly, deliberately, Berg pushed a button on the panel. Then he turned to look me over. His sandy blond hair was as tidy as ever, and he wore his classic jacket with the elbow patches. His pale eyebrows and ruddy cheeks made the picture of boyish good health, but I knew every expression of his, every manner, was a disguise for the blackest heart.

  “You’re expecting,” he said, his voice lifting in surprise. “I’m Dean Berg. What’s your name?”

  The doors slid closed.

  There was no point lying. “Althea Flores.”

  The elevator started up.

  “I’m normally very good with names, but I can’t quite place you,” he said. “Have we met before?”

  “No,” I said.

  “Very few people find their way down to the vault,” he said. “Who told you about the elevator button?”

  “Nobody. It just got stuck.”

  He smiled at me oddly. “Are you sure we haven’t met?”

  My heart lurched. It felt like he could see right past my Althea exterior to the depths of me inside.

  “I’m sure,” I said.

  “I’d like to see your phone, please.”

  “It’s dead,” I said. “The battery’s dead.”

  “That doesn’t matter. Please.” He held out his hand.

  I slowly passed it over, and he smiled as the screen lit up.

  “Not so very dead after all,” he said.

  He set his phone on top of mine, and the next moment, a barcode came up on the face of my phone. Dean Berg held his a couple of inches over it, so his camera lens lined up on the barcode, and a second later, he was thumbing through my phone.

  “What did you do?” I asked. I couldn’t see how he got past my password.

  “I’m just checking your recent calls,” he said, frowning. “Tom. Who’s that?”

  “My boyfriend. He’s outside. Give me that.”

  “Mom. Dad. One unidentified. That’s all your calls.” He took a photo of my call list with his phone, and then glanced up at me. “You clear your history. Smart girl. And no photos. Very, very interesting. New phone?”

  “Yes,” I said. “Can I have it back now?”

  He handed it to me as the elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open, and I hurried out.

  “I’m glad we met, Althea Flores,” he said. He stayed in the elevator, and his gaze rested on my belly again for a moment. He set a hand on the elevator doorway so the bumper jumped and retracted to stay open. “Before you leave, I have a little message for you to convey.”

  “What’s that?”

  “It’s for whoever told you about the elevator and how to hold the button in.”

  “I didn’t do anything special to the button,” I insisted. “It just got stuck.”

  He smiled urbanely. “Tell your friend the button still works, but it’s the only thing left. He’ll never find any answers here. He should get on with his life.”

  Bewildered, I stared. Berg let go of the elevator doorway, and the doors closed him in with a soft hiss. A shiver lifted along my skin.

  Tom entered the foyer from the main door. “Thea, where have you been?” he asked. He did a double take. “You’re filthy.”

  “I got lost,” I said.

  I was more confused than ever. Could there be other dreamers who came back looking for the vault, like me?

  Tom gently took my arm and guided me outside. The sunlight made me wince, and I glanced down at my clothes to see that Tom wasn’t exaggerating. I had brushed myself off while waiting for the elevator, but dirty webs still clung to my sleeves and leggings. With a shudder, I wiped at them, and Tom brushed off my back.

  “Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked.<
br />
  “Let me think. Can we just go?”

  “Of course,” he said, and we made our way to the car.

  Berg’s message kept replaying in my mind. Possibly, like me, other dreamers had been aware of the button and how it worked from their own trips down the elevator. Did they really come back looking for answers? I had this image of a horde of us zombie dreamers coming back here, driven by a restlessness we couldn’t resolve.

  Would Rosie come? I needed to find her more than ever.

  Berg had taken a photo of the phone numbers I’d recently called: Tom’s, Madeline’s, Diego’s, and the unidentified one that belonged to Linus. I nearly dropped my phone.

  Berg was going to put it together. He hadn’t recognized my name just now, but I was certain he was going to look up Althea Flores, and then he’d find out that I was connected to Rosie. Whatever advantage I’d had by being unrecognizable would be gone.

  “I’m dead,” I said.




  “LINUS! YOU UP?” Otis yells from downstairs.

  I wake in Linus’s arms. It’s daylight. He slams out of bed and leaps to the door. He opens it and leans out.

  “What is it?” Linus calls.

  From below: “You forgot to take the garbage out. Parker’s upset. Come talk to him.”

  I reach around the rumpled bed for my shirt and pull it on. Underneath, I adjust my camisole straps.

  “Give me one minute!” Linus yells down. He closes the door and spins around, all but naked in his underwear. Grinning, he swears under his breath. “Sorry,” he whispers. He hitches up his jeans and pulls on boots. He scoops up his shirt from the floor, takes a whiff of it, whips it toward the laundry basket, and pulls a fresh one out of a drawer. He pulls it over his head, shrugs it into place, and runs a hand through his wild hair. “You okay for a minute?”


  He’s gone.

  My lips feel sensitive when I touch them, and I’m not exactly embarrassed, but I’m fully conscious that we did a lot more than kiss last night. I pluck out my shirt to look at my port lump again, and though I hate it as much as ever, the rest of me feels pretty good.

  I tiptoe off the bed and smooth out the quilt. On second thought, I change my old shirt for a clean one, one of Sammi’s yellow, scoop-necked tees. I put on fresh undies and jeans. I rub the sleepies out of the corners of my eyes and run my fingers through my hair. Male voices talk downstairs, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Then it’s quiet. I’m looking for a hairbrush when the door opens again and Linus enters, carrying a giant mug of coffee.

  “Hi,” he says. He sets down the mug and tackles me back onto the bed.

  “Hey!” I laugh.

  He puts his finger on my lips. “Be very quiet or you’ll get no coffee.”

  I squirm beneath him, and together we struggle to make no noise.

  Otis and Parker finally leave for the day. I soon realize there’s no point trying to get on the Forge campus until it’s night. Besides, once I kill Berg, things could go very badly for me, so I decide to make the most of my day with Linus. I put off calling Burnham. Linus and I eat Cap’n Crunch cereal. We kiss some more. We talk. He asks about my ride in the driver-free car. I ask about the Lego Death Star. Linus teaches me to throw darts, but I’m no good because I throw too hard. We kiss some more.

  It’s hard for me to avoid talking about Berg because I’m nervous about the coming night, but the more I think of it, the more I decide it’s better to keep Linus out of it. I don’t want him involved as an accessory to murder, and I don’t want him trying to convince me not to go through with it. He somehow has the mistaken impression that I’m going to get a good lawyer and emancipate myself from both Berg and my parents. Then my life is going to go back to normal. I don’t correct him. He thinks we’ll be able to date in the open, like regular people.

  Late in the afternoon, he starts spaghetti sauce from scratch, cutting up tomatoes and onions. He wants it ready for when Otis and Parker come home around 6:30, and he wants me to eat with them. When he puts on a bib apron like back in his Forge kitchen days and ties the strings around his waist, it gets to me.

  “What?” he says. “It keeps me clean.”

  “I know. You just look nice.”

  He smiles, shaking his head.

  “Are you donating blood to Parker tonight? Is that why you’re making spaghetti sauce? For your tradition?”

  “No,” he says. “I donated a couple of weeks ago. I promised spaghetti to Parker because I forgot to take out the garbage. Spaghetti’s his favorite.”

  “You know, you could probably pay your rent with money now,” I say.

  He laughs. “I do in St. Louis.”

  “So you have an apartment there?”

  “Yes. I’m only here on weekends when work allows,” he says.

  “You sound so grown up.”

  He makes a face at me.

  I smile back. “Why are you still giving Parker your blood?”

  “Otis still thinks it’s good for him,” Linus says. “We’re family. How can I say no?”

  Molly scrambles to her feet and gives a bark. The doorbell rings. Linus and I stare at each other. I glance out the back windows, afraid I’ll see I don’t know what, but the dusky yard is empty.

  “Quick. Upstairs,” Linus says, taking off his apron.

  I light-foot it up as fast as I can.

  Anyone who rings a doorbell can’t be too dangerous, I tell myself. Still, I grab my bag and jacket in case I have to leave quickly, and I hide in Linus’s room, crouched behind the desk, holding a dart for a weapon.

  The footsteps of several people come up the stairs.

  “Rosie?” Linus says, opening the door. “You in here? We have visitors.”

  I straighten slowly. Behind Linus, a jock-type guy comes in and smiles politely. He has blond, short hair and a homely, square face that belongs on an Army recruitment poster. He steps aside to let in a pregnant girl.

  She’s pretty, I think, taking in her dark hair, caramel skin, and hoop earrings. She’s slender everywhere except for her belly, which bulges large under a clingy green shirt. I appreciate her red Converse sneakers. Her bag looks designer. Her face is arresting in a timeless, regal way, as if she’s a lost princess, and she casts an uncertain glance around the room before she offers me a hesitant smile.

  “Hey,” she says. “I’m Thea. Althea Flores.”

  This girl is Thea? I’m stunned. I feel cheated. Nobody told me Thea was Latina or pregnant or older. Nobody warned me she was rich and pretty.

  She’s a threat if ever I met one.




  SEEING MYSELF WAS A SHOCK. The girl in Linus’s bedroom had my body, but she was horribly thin beneath her yellow shirt, and her lank hair dragged around her face. My face. Her eyes seemed darker and wilder than they’d ever been when they were mine. She lowered the dart in her hand, and I had the freaky sense that I’d escaped from a mirror, only my image had become a living, untamed doppelganger.

  The next instant, my mind flipped. I was still in Althea’s body. She was the real version of me. I was the imposter in the wrong body.

  “Who’s this?” she asked, indicating Tom.

  “Tom,” I said. I jerked a hand in his direction. “This is Tom Barton. From Texas. Tom, this is Rosie Sinclair.”

  “Hello,” he said.

  She gave him a cursory glance before she returned her cool gaze to me.

  I didn’t know where to start. I wasn’t sure how much Linus had told her. He stood tensely in front of a desk, watching me like he expected me to start doing head-spinning tricks. I should have called first. I took a chance that he’d be home, but I hadn’t expected that Rosie would be here, too.

  “How far along are you?” she asked.

  My voice sounded wrong originating from her. The low huskiness belonged between my ears, not coming at me.

/>   “Eight months,” I said. “I’m due in four weeks.”

  “Are you the dad?” she asked, glancing at Tom.

  “Yes,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you,” he added. “I’ve been hearing about you.”

  “Is that right?” Rosie asked. She rolled a dart in her fingers, studying me. “Why are you here?”

  “I came to see Linus. I wanted to ask him if he’d heard from you,” I said. “I guess he did.”

  “Did you know she was coming?” she asked him.

  He shook his head. “No idea.” He glanced at me. “I thought you were in Texas.”

  “We took a road trip,” I said and turned to Rosie again. “I’ve been looking for you.”

  “Why?” she asked.

  “Because I’m you,” I said. It was freaking me out to talk to myself, especially when she was obviously suspicious of me. “I woke up in this body, but I started out in you. Berg had us in a vault of dreamers, and Dr. Ash came to mine us. Remember how the white spheres were stealing Dubbs? Remember the golden strands of light?”

  She tilted her head, frowning. “Go on.”

  “We had two voices, remember? We talked to ourselves.”

  “Lots of people talk to themselves,” she said.

  “But not like us,” I said. “We were trapped together. You begged me to stay in the vault with you, but I couldn’t. They were mining us away into nothing, remember? I took a chance. They were ripping Dubbs away, off the tracks, and I left with that dream of Dubbs. I had to.”

  She stood taller. “And look where it got you,” she said.

  I gasped. “Then you believe me.”

  She narrowed her eyes and took a step forward. “I have nothing to say to you, and I think you know why. Excuse me.”

  She stalked past me and out the door. I stared after her, stunned.

  “Wait here,” Linus said. “I’ll talk to her.” He left, too, and his footsteps went rapidly downstairs. His voice sounded below: “Rosie!”

  I turned to Tom, who was openly fascinated.

  “She hates me,” I said.

  “She’s a trip,” he said.

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