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The keep of ages, p.28
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       The Keep of Ages, p.28

           Caragh M. O'Brien
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A flicker high above draws my gaze, and I peer up into the smoke.

  The undersides of the dragon’s wings glow white as it circles above the burning ruins of the park. It beats its wings in a gangly effort to rise, and then skims along the rising heat in a fluid, mournful arc. I know it can’t be real. It can’t even be a special effect, now that all the mechanical controls are lost in the inferno. But it’s still the truest thing I’ve ever seen, and my throat chokes tight with inexplicable grief.

  “Rosie, please,” Linus says gently into my ear. “We have to go. We have to take care of your mother and Burnham.”

  I turn back toward the van, feeling the cooler air on my face like a reproach. Linus helps me settle in with Ma again before he closes the door. Burnham swivels stiffly to look back at me, and the orange firelight brightens half of his features.

  “Your stepfather’s back there?” Burnham says in his rough voice.

  I nod, my throat tightening. “My dad,” I say.

  I never called him that to his face. He always wanted me to. Now it’s too late.

  I hug Ma and pull her close, hoping she keeps sleeping a while longer, hoping she never has to know how I let Larry burn. As Linus turns the minivan around again, I look back over my shoulder, watching the burning theme park as long as I can, searching for the dragon until we pull out of sight.



  WE’RE IN SORRY SHAPE by the time Burnham’s plane touches down outside Holdum, Texas. Ma’s the worst. She woke once during the flight to ask for a sip of water, and I was thrilled to see her conscious. After she gave me and Dubbs tearful hugs, she drifted off again. Burnham’s coughing is horrible to hear. He’s the one who insisted we get to his jet without stopping for medical care. He argued that a hospital would tie us up with questions, and his pilot had basic EMT training. We couldn’t refuse him. Not surprisingly, his family’s plane is stocked with every drug that Fister sells. Burnham’s been on oxygen the whole flight, along with some bronchial expander his mother ordered him to take. She is not pleased with him.

  Linus has been quiet. Attentive. He showed Dubbs how to do KenKens in a book he found in a seat pocket, and she’s been sitting beside him, eating duos of Milano cookies and tapping her pencil eraser against her lips.

  We’re it now, the five of us. After she met us at the jet with Dubbs, Lavinia stayed behind in Miehana.

  “I really ought to thank you,” Lavinia mentioned as we were saying goodbye.

  “What for?” I said.

  “Before you burgled into my apartment, I was content observing things from afar. I’d forgotten how satisfying it is to be involved.”

  “What’ll you do now?” I asked.

  “I’m weighing my options,” she said. “I’ll look up my son-in-law, for one thing, and then I think I’ll take a little trip to Forgetown. They’re going to need some oversight now that Berg is gone.” She passed me a half-full package of lemon drops. “Look after your family, Rosie. That Dubbs is a special one. Now give us a hug.”

  I glance down now at the scuffed black flats she gave me and step out onto the top stair of the plane. The bright Texas wind makes me squint, but it’s easy to spot a young doctor approaching with some gear on a two-wheeled cart. It turns out he’s brought a portable X-ray system, and he carefully examines Burnham first. He takes blood samples, too, and gives him a shot.

  “Your parents want you home,” the doctor says.

  “I know,” Burnham says. He pulls on a fresh tee shirt, moving stiffly, and tucks his St. Christopher medal under the neckline. “I’m just stopping here for a few days first. You can tell them I’m fine, right?”

  “What I’ll do is send them your X-rays,” he says. “You’ve got yourself some lung damage there.” He passes Burnham a vial of pills. “You need to watch for infection.”

  “I will,” Burnham says. “Thanks.”

  Then the doctor gently goes over Ma and Dubbs, and finally he focuses on me and takes out the line from behind my ear.

  “What about our ports?” Dubbs asks.

  “Those should wait until you’re at a proper clinic,” the doctor says. “As for your mother, she should be all right, physically. She needs fluids and a healthy diet most of all, and rest. Minimize her stress if you can,” he says. “What she’s been through emotionally you’d know better than I.”

  Soon after, we all help Ma and Burnham down the stairs to where Tom Barton, Thea’s friend, waits with an SUV. Tall and blond, Tom has the build of a young cowboy, and he’s quick to open doors and lend a hand. We settle my mother in the back, and when I climb in beside her, she puts her head on my lap and closes her eyes again, sighing.

  “I’m so glad you’re here, Rosie,” Tom says.

  “Thanks. Me, too.”

  The others pile in the SUV, too, and Tom takes the wheel, heading toward the Flores ranch.

  Wide green horizons stretch under an open sky, and the sunny beauty is almost more than I can take in. Part of me is still in shock. I sniff absently at my sleeve. Even though I washed up a bit on the plane, my clothes and my hair still smell of smoke. I’m never going to be able to forget what happened at Grisly, but at the same time, I can barely accept that Larry and Berg and the others are all dead. Even Ian. I mean, I despised him, but he didn’t deserve to die. A residual shiver ripples through me.

  Forward. I need to look forward.

  “How are Thea and the baby?” I ask loudly so Tom can hear me in the front.

  Tom adjusts the sun visor over his head. “Madeline didn’t tell you?”

  “Tell me what?” I ask.

  The SUV accelerates a bit under his control.

  “Thea’s in a coma again,” Tom says. “She’s not responding at all.”

  “No,” I whisper, stunned.

  “When did this happen?” Linus asks.

  “She slipped off yesterday, a few minutes after she talked to Rosie,” Tom says.

  His voice is calm, but I could swear he’s implying a connection.

  “Does anyone know why?” Linus asks.

  “No,” Tom says. “The doctors from Chimera warned us this could happen. It wasn’t completely unexpected.”

  “Madeline didn’t say a word,” I say. When I called Thea’s mother from the plane, she insisted we come to the ranch. She wouldn’t have it any other way, but now I’m chilled to realize what she omitted in her invitation. I glance forward to find Linus has turned back in my direction.

  “Do you still want to go?” he asks me.

  I don’t even hesitate. I nod. If Thea’s sick, if she needs me, I have to be there. “Yes, of course,” I say.

  Ma shifts her head on my lap, and then her voice comes weakly. “We shouldn’t be imposing. We don’t even have a house gift.”

  I let out a strangled laugh. Of all the trivial things to worry about.

  “It’s okay,” I say to her. “They won’t mind, I’m sure.”

  “Have they taken Thea to the hospital?” Linus asks Tom.

  “No,” Tom says. “Thea left very explicit directions that she doesn’t want to be taken to a hospital again. That doesn’t really matter, anyway. The Floreses have essentially brought the hospital to her.”

  He slows to make a turn onto a narrow road, and after we pass under a wooden sign that reads “Flores,” he speeds up again. I barely notice the passing blur of greenery. A new truth has suddenly become horribly clear. After all we’ve been through in the past twenty-four hours—losing Larry, the deaths of Berg, Ian, the doctors and Whistler, plus the obliteration of hunderds of dreamers—if Thea dies, I’ll have failed miserably. It wasn’t enough to save Dubbs and Ma. I need to make sure Thea’s alive, too.

  I tighten my hand into a fist and press my thumbnail against the gap in my front teeth.

  “It’s going to be all right, Rosie,” Burnham says in his husky voice.

  I let out a laugh. He doesn’t know that. We jolt over a pit and I brace my knee on the back of the seat before me.

  Arself? I ask uncertainly. Are you with me?

  She hasn’t spoken since we were down in the vault, and the last hint I had of her was the strength she gave me to help Ma and Burnham out of the park. Maybe my vision of the dragon flying over the flames was from her, too, though I don’t know. It hardly matters. It was beautiful, and tragic, and right. Arself doesn’t answer me now. She’s never been one to surface on command, even though I could use her comfort.

  I blink as the car pulls to a stop.

  “We’re here,” Tom says.

  On a slope overlooking a wide, grassy valley, a mansion sprawls in rustic phases of wood and stone. Upper windows reflect the sky, and worn, satiny rockers beckon from the porch. Massive trees drop pools of cool shade on the lawn, and a cast iron bell tops a pole near a raised bed of flowers. A sweet fragrance, maybe honeysuckle, drifts on the air, and I can feel the exclusive hush of privacy and wealth.

  “Althea grew up here?” I ask.

  “She sure did,” Tom says.

  Only now do I recall that Thea’s family wasn’t too keen on Tom. I wonder if that’s changed lately with the birth of his baby.

  Linus comes around to give me a hand with Ma. She’s able to walk now, but she’s far from steady. Dubbs goes ahead beside Burnham, and Tom brings up the rear. The front door of the house opens, and a beagle comes out to bark from the porch. An old man follows.

  “¡Silencio, Solana! ¡Ya, deja de hacer tanto ruido!” he says, and the dog quiets. The man lifts a hand and smiles. “We’re so glad you’re here. Come in!”

  Dubbs shifts closer to Burnham, but she’s all eyes for the dog.

  “Does your dog speak Spanish?” Dubbs asks.

  The man smiles and leans down to take the dog by the collar. “Si, she does. Do you want to pet her? She’s friendly. Her name’s Solana.”

  It feels bizarre to have cordial introductions when we’ve just come from Grisly and we’re all thinking about Thea, but that’s what happens. The old man, Thea’s grandfather, asks us to call him Tito. Thea’s parents quickly join us. Diego’s tall and broad-shouldered, with a quiet, sober demeanor. It’s obvious that Thea gets her eyes and Latina coloring from him. Her mother, Madeline, is a petite, fair woman with short, silver hair that sticks out in a staticky halo, and she radiates both friendliness and high-strung energy.

  As soon as Madeline meets Ma, she takes charge, bustling her off upstairs to a guest room. A frosty pitcher of iced tea stands on a silver tray with matching glasses, and a fresh bouquet sits on the bedside table.

  “We can all get properly acquainted after you’ve rested,” Madeline says, drawing a curtain across the window with a soft rustle. “Not another word until then. We have a highly trained nurse on staff, and I can send her up to look in on you. Also, I had my assistant pick up a few clothes for you. They should be here in the closet.” She opens a door and glances inside. “Yes. And the bathroom’s through there. Anything you want, you just call down and we’ll get it for you, all right?”

  Ma looks at me, amazed, but as Madeline leaves us, she sags onto the bed. It’s a big one, with a carved wooden headboard and a white, nubby spread, and Ma spreads out her fingers over the fabric as if she’s never touched anything like it before. With her dirty dress and limp hair, she looks completely out of place. We all do.

  “Who are these people?” Ma says.

  “I told you. They’re Thea’s parents, and she’s a friend of mine.”

  “But what do they do?” Ma says.

  “I’m not sure,” I say, trying to recall if Thea ever mentioned what her parents did for a living. “Burnham said they made their fortune in the helium business, I think.”

  Dubbs is busy rustling through the closet. “Check this out,” she says, holding up a hanger with a green dress in her size. She fingers the price tag. “It’s new,” she says reverently. She holds the fabric up to herself before the mirror and then heads into the bathroom.

  “What would Larry think of all this?” Ma says.

  It’s the first time she’s mentioned him, and I feel a tick of alarm. I sit slowly on the bed beside her. “Ma,” I say softly. But then I don’t know how to go on.

  She gives me a weak, sad smile. “My sweet Rosie, always so fearless. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you when you first told me the truth about Berg back at Forge. I should have.”

  I shake my head. I don’t want to hear this now. “It’s okay.”

  “No. Leaving you there was the worst mistake of my life,” she says. “Even Larry knew better.”

  “Ma,” I say. My throat’s tightening.

  “Are you safe now? Is Berg still after you?” Ma asks.

  “No,” I say. “That’s all done. He’s dead.”

  She pats my arm and then frowns. Her troubled blue eyes search mine.

  “Larry’s dead, too, isn’t he?” she asks.

  I nod.

  She nods, too, and then her gaze slants away. “I thought as much.”

  I never liked Larry, but I know Ma loved him, and I hate seeing the tears brimming in her eyes. I can’t begin to describe what happened at Grisly. “There was an accident of sorts,” I say. Major understatement.

  She holds up a hand to stop me. “You can tell me all about it later,” she says. Her chin trembles. “I should really take a shower,” she adds, but instead, she slowly topples over on the bed.

  Dubbs comes out of the bathroom and stares at us. Then she crawls onto the bed beside Ma and tugs a soft blue blanket up around Ma’s shoulders. She pulls a strand of her own bright hair between her lips to suck on, and then tilts her head to share Ma’s pillow. At the sight of the two of them together, a new crack opens in my heart. We’re the whole family now. Larry’s gone. No matter who else might be there for us—Linus, Burnham, Thea—when the door’s closed, we’re the only ones together behind it.

  “Do you think we could get a dog like Solana?” Dubbs asks, like the decision is up to me.

  “I don’t know. Maybe,” I say gently. “Can you stay here with Ma?”

  “Yeah. Where are you going? To help Thea?”

  “If I can,” I say.

  She snuggles deeper into the pillow. “Okay. Good.”

  * * *

  I take a quick shower and slip into a new pair of jeans, a soft yellow shirt, and some flip-flops before I head downstairs. The house smells of wood polish and the faint, spicy tang of faded smoke. Sunlight collects in a blue-and-white bowl on a circular table. As I trail a hand along the banister and descend the second flight of stairs, I hear voices from the back of the house, and then Madeline appears by the newel post. Pressing her hands together, she offers a quick, nervous smile.

  “Can I see Thea?” I ask.

  She exhales in relief. “Yes. Please,” she says. She backs up a couple of steps into the living room, her green dress swaying over her golden sandals, and then she turns to guide me. “I don’t know how much Tom told you. She’s very ill. The doctors warned us back at Chimera that her dream transplant might fail, but she was well for so long that I guess we thought she’d beaten all the odds.”

  “She was in bad shape after she had the baby,” I say.

  “I know,” Madeline says. “Very bad. She’s never quite been stable since, and then she crashed yesterday.”

  “After my call.”

  She shoots me a worried smile.

  “Do you think it’s related?” I ask.

  “To be honest, I don’t know what to think anymore. Did she say anything to you about having headaches?”

  “Yes,” I say.

  “I knew it,” she says. “She kept insisting she was fine.” Then she adds, “This way, please.”

  Madeline leads me through a living room and a library, a solarium and a den. We pass model ships, an antique gun collection, and a trickling fountain. My flip-flops sink into deep, indigo carpets, and every wooden surface gleams, like in a fancy hotel.

  “When I talked to Thea, she told me Orson Toomey was here,” I say.

/>   “Yes,” Madeline says. “He’s still with us. He’s done all he can, but I’m afraid it hasn’t helped.”

  “Can you trust him?” I ask.

  “What do you mean? He saved our daughter’s life. We owe him everything.”

  Her gratitude shocks me until I recall that Thea’s parents have never known about the underside of Chimera. All of the connections to the dreamers at Forge and Grisly are still completely secret, which means Madeline is not going to be receptive to what I could tell her about how Orson acquired Sinclair 15.

  This is not going to be easy. For now, I decide to keep my information to myself.

  We descend a couple of steps into another wing of the house where the ceilings are higher and the floors are made of golden wood. In a small sitting area, a petite black woman with a sparkly barrette sits before a busy computer screen of medical readouts.

  “Any change, Doris?” Madeline asks.

  “No, ma’am. I would have called you,” the nurse says. “Tom has the baby.”

  “Thank you,” Madeline says.

  She stops outside a door and turns to face me. For a moment, her keen gray eyes appraise me soberly like she has a million things to say, but in the end, she simply opens the door and ushers me in.

  Thea lies asleep in a hospital bed in a large, sunny bedroom. Her chest lifts and falls rhythmically, and her hands are folded serenely on top of her blue blanket. The lump of her pregnancy is gone. A patch is attached to her temple, an IV goes into her arm, and a clamp is taped to one of her fingers. As a soft hiss comes from a machine behind her, I glance over to see a monitor recording her heartbeat in a pulsing, jagged line, and it seems to match the tempo of my own heart.

  We’re the same inside. How many times did she insist that was true?

  Madeline steps over to adjust a vase of colorful flowers beside an empty bassinet, and I move a bit closer to Thea. Her dark hair is smoothed back from her face with a red hairband, and her ear piercings are empty. Her cheeks are too thin, and her tan complexion has gone a sickly gray. Worst of all, her closed eyes have a bruised, sunken look that reminds me of the dreamers.

  She looks so helpless like this. Both old and young, and not like Thea at all. I hardly know what to say. I look to Madeline and realize she’s barely repressing tears. She smiles, touching a hand to Thea’s arm.

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