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The vault of dreamers, p.28
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.28

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
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  “I thought it was best to keep things simple. Questions?” he asked.

  “Number four is a bit open-ended.”

  “Not at all,” Dean Berg said. “It’s a very straightforward agreement. Either you consent to abide by our rules, or you don’t. The severe consequences are to ensure your compliance.” He gave his ready smile. “We’re not going to be made to look like fools.”

  I tapped the paper softly with my fingers. “Why am I so valuable to you? Why don’t you just send me home?”

  “All our students are valuable to me,” Dean Berg said. “We’re deeply invested in each student’s success. You’ve had a rough couple of days here between the accident and last night’s episode. Your outburst with Linus today was a sign, I feel, that what you need most is compassion. I firmly believe, as does the board, that with the right support, you’ll come through this difficult time very well.”

  “Despite my nightmares.”

  He crossed his arms. “Your nightmares, if you can think of it this way, are just the flip side of your creativity,” he said. “Handling them is a matter of adjusting your meds and giving you the right outlets.”

  “For my art.”

  “Yes. Precisely.”

  I glanced down at the contract again. “What is this about ‘elsewhere at your discretion’?” I asked.

  “I could admit you to a hospital if that’s what’s called for, or I have property in Colorado where I could send you,” he said. “It would depend on what I thought was best for you. Naturally, I would confer with your parents, but I won’t send you back to them in Doli. That’s off the table. Frankly, if you think there’s any chance you’re going to break this contract, don’t sign it.”

  “And go home now?”

  “Right.”

  My mother didn’t want me home. She thought I could get better care here.

  “You don’t trust me,” I said.

  “It’s just the opposite,” Dean Berg said. “I’ll trust you if you sign that paper. It’s a way for you to take ownership of your situation.” He paced nearer and placed his hands on the desk across from me. “Think of it from my side. We’re taking a risk with you, Rosie. We’re opening ourselves up with a precedent that could impact many future disciplinary decisions. You’ve already proven you can get out of your sleep shell, twice, and we need to make sure that won’t happen again.”

  I’d been out of my sleep shell far more than two times, and he knew it. But this contract would neatly box me in. Getting down to the vault again would be nearly impossible, and if I was caught, that would be the end of me unless I could prove to the world, once and for all, what a monster Dean Berg was.

  I smoothed my hand across the paper. Dean Berg waited on the other side of the desk as I picked up a pen. It grew heavy in my hand as I paused, listening. The sound of the rain touched against the windowpanes. I thought again of those people down in the vault, completely helpless.

  Any last thoughts? I asked.

  We’re taking him down, she said.

  I firmed up my grip, put the pen to paper, and signed my name. Then I set the pen back in its holder and stared a long moment at my signature.

  Dean Berg straightened. “Thank you,” he said. “I think you’ll be very happy with your decision.”

  33

  THE B BUTTON

  THAT NIGHT, WHEN we lined up for our pills, the rain had intensified its patter on the vaulted ceiling, and a cool draft ran over my bare feet. Orly came down the row, and I watched as one by one, the girls took their little white cups, tossed back their pills, followed them with swallows of water, and climbed in their sleep shells. Paige took her pill, and then Janice took hers, and I was the last.

  “And finally, our star,” Orly said. “Dr. Ash has upped your dose.”

  I took the little cup, tilting it to see the pill inside. It was a round, red pill this time, as shiny as a poisonous berry.

  “Have you ever tried one of these?” I asked.

  “I’m not the creative type,” she said.

  “No, I suppose not.”

  Orly gave the tray a little jab toward me. “No need to be smart,” she said.

  I gave the pill a quick swirl around the bottom of the cup, and then swallowed it down, for real. I opened my mouth for inspection. Orly used a stick to have a good long look around my mouth, and then she nodded.

  “All right. Climb in and close your lid,” she said.

  “Can’t I leave it open? I like to hear the rain,” I said. I swore we had discussed this before.

  The clock tower began to toll six.

  “You know the rule. After your brink lesson you can. But I doubt you’ll be awake that long,” she said.

  She was right about the power of my sleep medication. Even as I climbed in my sleep shell, I could feel a leaden heaviness settle in my limbs. I closed the lid and ignored my brink lesson, watching for the moment Orly turned off the overhead lights. Then I felt along the inner seam of my pillowcase to where I’d hidden the tissue with Burnham’s antidote pills. I opened the tissue and spilled out the two remaining yellow pills. They were heavy and awkward under my fingers. With an effort, I tongued one up from the fabric, and it began to dissolve into bitterness on my tongue.

  Swallow, she ordered me. Quick!

  I worked the pill down my throat and quit struggling. I closed my eyes, leaning my cheek deeply into my pillow. The antidote wasn’t working. What Dr. Ash had prescribed was too strong.

  Open the lid. Rosie, open the lid, said a voice from far away.

  My arm was impossibly heavy, but I fumbled for the edge and slid the lid back. Cooler air touched my face and neck. I took a deep breath, trying to remember some elusive, important concept, and failed.

  A sniffling, trembling noise came from the sleep shell beside mine. It penetrated to my heart. I forced my thick eyelids open to look across at Janice, who had her lid open. Her pale blond hair glowed in the faint blue light, and her skin shone with phosphorescence. She lay on her side, with her fists bunched under her chin, and her face was crunched in misery. Her sobs became more distinct, a counterpoint to the drone of the rain on the roof. I lifted my face an inch off my elbow.

  “Janice,” I whispered.

  She didn’t hear. I called again, but she didn’t respond. She couldn’t. Janice, who obsessed over Hamlet, who wore polka dots and made me a dream catcher out of swizzle sticks, was crying in her sleep.

  I looked helplessly down the row at the other girls. Their faces were washed in the same faint blue, as if they were so many Snow Whites, all but dead. I was failing all of them, my classmates and the children in the vault, and if I didn’t get down to the vault soon, the dean would move all his sleeping bodies somewhere else before they could be discovered. However he’d gotten them in, he must be able to get them out.

  Burnham had told me only ever to take one pill, but I had one more. I nibbled it between my lips. Instantly, it began to fizz and dissolve between my teeth. I circled my tongue to raise saliva and forced the pill down with a thick swallow.

  As I struggled to keep my eyelids open, a faint buzz began in my muscles. It beat back the seaward pull of exhaustion and gradually wired up my nerves. Every restless sob from Janice resonated in me with painful clarity. It took forever for her crying to stop. Then the silence expanded like a violet fog in the air.

  I was awake now as I had never been awake before, and I was not insane. I had not imagined anything. I knew what the truth was.

  I lay as still as possible, pretending to sleep, plotting. My plan was risky, but possible. I would return to the vault again to film the sleeping children, but this time I would not linger. This time, once I surfaced, I would run as fast as I could for Forgetown. Linus had shown me where he lived, and I knew I could persuade Otis to help me get out of town. Only then, when I was far away and safe from Dean Berg, would I show people what was on my video camera. I would bring my proof to the world. I would demand justice for the people in the vault and a
nyone who had ever come under Dean Berg’s scalpel.

  The catch was that I’d have only one chance. If I was caught out of bed, I’d be sent somewhere at the dean’s discretion, and since he’d need to keep me quiet, it wasn’t going to be anywhere nice.

  The clock tower bonged midnight, and I mentally reviewed the contents of my backpack: my video camera, my jacket, a bit of money, a paper roadmap, a penlight, and my two photos of Dubbs. Everything was ready. The dean or Dr. Ash would probably see me the minute I left my sleep shell, but I would be fast and it would take them some time to locate me in the dark.

  When finally the clock struck one, I slid back my lid, pulled on some clothes, and grabbed my backpack. I paused only to look out and see that the lights in the dean’s penthouse were on, and then I sprinted for the door and tore down the stairs to the first floor.

  The pill from Burnham made me feel stronger than ever, with acute hearing and sight. I had an impulse to laugh with giddiness, but instead, I channeled my energy into assessing each shadow and ran lightly to the door. Outside, the rain showed as a halo around a distant streetlamp. The dumpster, which had hidden Linus and me the night before, drummed with a loud pitch.

  So far, so good. Now if I could just get to the clock tower.

  I ducked my head and tore down the steps into the rain. I leaped over a puddle, hunched my shoulders, and dashed along the film building where I had gone the night before. Because of the rain, it was almost too dark to see, but a grim, reckless thrill was rising in me now. I spun around the corner of the building and dropped into a crouch behind the bushes.

  Lightning flashed.

  Thin pools of light dropped at the base of each streetlamp around the quad, but otherwise it was dark, with only the lit face of the clock tower floating in the rain high above. Thirty more paces at a dead run would take me through the rose garden to the clock tower, but I waited, watching to be sure it was safe.

  We’re forgetting something, said my inner voice.

  What? I said.

  This is too easy.

  I peered toward the clock tower and scanned my memory. It was too easy. It felt like a trap. Besides, Janice had told me the pit was sealed at the bottom, and I believed her.

  I needed another way to get to the vault. I thought over what I’d seen last night, and recalled how the tunnel from the bottom of the pit had gone in two directions. Near the vault, I’d seen an elevator and stairs. The elevator made sense as a way to bring sleep shells down there, which brought me back to the night I’d used Linus’s pass to take the service tunnel to the dean’s tower.

  Then it hit me. The vault could be directly under the dean’s tower. It made sense. The underground distance from the pit was about right. The vault would be convenient for Dean Berg who lived in the penthouse. In fact, I had seen the elevator. I had even seen, behind the vending machines, the secret door that could well be the upper opening to the staircase that led down to the vault.

  Water dripped down the back of my neck, and I shivered. I craned my head, trying to see along the dean’s tower for a way in, but the darkness made it difficult. I sprinted across the road to hide in the bushes beside the dean’s tower. Then, quickly, I circled around the building until I found a window with a gap open at the bottom.

  I stood on tiptoe and peered inside, into darkness. I scrambled up the wall, shoved the window sash open, and half fell into the room just as another burst of thunder pounded through the air. A light came on overhead, and I dropped instinctively to the floor.

  I was alone and dripping in a small, white bathroom. The light, apparently, worked by motion sensor. My heart was beating hard, and I glanced down to see my jeans and sweatshirt were streaked with mud. Cautiously, I stepped to the door and peeked out. No one was in the hall, but I knew I’d be near cameras once I reached the foyer. I wiped at my wet nose and waited for the next flash of lightning.

  The instant it came, I sprinted for the foyer. Beneath the gold dome, I bolted right, and skidded toward the elevator. The thunder came just as I was about to hit the down button, and then I realized I couldn’t wait there in view of the cameras. Instead, I grabbed the banister and sprinted down the stairs. At the basement level, I spun past the snack machines and slammed my palm against the elevator button.

  I cowered against the wall, tense with fear, waiting until the elevator dinged. The door opened with painful slowness and as soon as I jumped inside, I jabbed the lowest button on the control panel, the B button.

  The elevators slid closed, but the elevator did nothing. Instead of falling, it remained still. My pulse jolted. I jabbed the B button again, but the button light wouldn’t stay on. I looked up, over the door, to the numbers. They indicated I was already on level B.

  There was nowhere lower to go.

  I’d guessed wrong.

  This elevator didn’t go down to the vault. I’d walked into a dead end.

  “No!” I said.

  Hold it in! Push in the B and hold it! my inner voice commanded.

  I jammed my thumb into the B and held the button hard. The little disk of a button sank in a click farther, and the floor trembled.

  Then the elevator began to fall.

  34

  THE VAULT OF DREAMERS

  THE ELEVATOR ACCELERATED downward, lifting my gut as it dropped. A whisper of memory slid through my brain. We had been here in this elevator before, in our sleep shell, when we were taken down to be mined. We had heard, before, in our sleep, the telltale double click of the elevator button, just as we had felt this same elevator fall and smelled this same stale popcorn tang as we descended.

  We’re getting smarter, she said.

  It was going to be a race. I slid my backpack off and took out my video camera, switching it on and checking the lens for fogginess from the rain. It was fine. I sniffed, wiping at my nose again with my wet sleeve. I had to be prepared. Someone could be waiting to catch me when the door opened. I started my video camera recording, and aimed it at the doors.

  When they opened, I was facing the same hushed, dimly lit vault I’d visited once before, and I was alone. I took a deep breath and stepped into the lobby. I had no time to waste. I shucked off one of my sneakers and set it in the opening of the elevator doors so that when the doors tried to close, their rubber edges touched the sneaker and reversed again. It made a fruitless loop. No one else could take the elevator down to where I was, though I couldn’t do anything about the stairs.

  To my right was the tunnel that led to the clock tower pit. Ahead of me, on the other side of the glass, the rows of sleep shells glowed in the dark vault. As I opened the door and stepped through, the filtered, humidified air filled my lungs.

  I lifted my video camera to eye level and scanned it around the room.

  “I’m in the basement of the dean’s tower,” I said. “These people are alive.”

  In the hush, I thought I heard the faintest stirring, as if one of the dreamers shifted to listen. I aimed my video camera into the first sleep shell at an eerie, deathly young woman. Her voiceless lips were gray, and a pair of black pads was glued to her temples. When her chest moved lightly, I instinctively inhaled along with her, willing her to take a deeper breath.

  Go fast, said my inner voice.

  I broke away to the next dreamer and the next, filming as I walked swiftly down the row. The first time I’d visited the vault, I’d been shocked to discover the sleeping bodies. Now I was even more dismayed by how passive they all were. So hopeless. I could practically hear a resonating hum from them all, a collective pleading as they mutely begged to be freed.

  I aimed my camera up at the tubes and cords that dropped from the ceiling to each sleep shell, and a horrible idea occurred to me. Freedom didn’t have to come from waking up. It could come by death.

  Don’t do this. Get out of here.

  She was right. I could not think that way, but a strange immobility was taking hold of me.

  In the closest sleep shell, a child lay sleepin
g. She was a slight girl of five or six—younger than Dubbs. Her stringy hair was smoothed back from her face and her eyelids were thick with gel, like the others, but she was different. She was fresh. A nasty, recent wound that ran across her forehead was held together with butterfly bandages. A tinge of color livened her cheeks and lips. She even had a hint of a tan.

  Tucked in the corner of her elbow, like a cruel joke, was a small teddy bear.

  My throat tightened up, and my hold on the video camera faltered. I carefully slid open the lid. The girl didn’t move. I shifted her gown to look beneath. One fine tube led into her abdomen, and another led to her groin.

  “Stop,” Dean Berg said. He braced a hand against the doorjamb, gasping for breath. “Don’t touch her.”

  I shot my gaze to the elevator beyond the glass. The elevator doors were closed, so he must have moved my shoe. Other people could be coming soon. He touched a dial switch, and the overhead lights came on.

  “Don’t touch her,” he repeated. “For heaven’s sake, don’t touch any of them.”

  “What kind of animal are you?” I asked. “Look at these people!”

  Dean Berg was still heaving for air. He licked his lips and raked his hair back from his forehead. His complexion was patchy with color and he gleamed with sweat. “You have to come out of here. You’re disturbing them. We can talk, I promise. Just come on out.”

  Instead, I looped the strap of my camera around my neck, reached into the sleep shell, and scooped up the girl. She was far too light to be healthy.

  “You don’t know what you’re doing!” Dean Berg said, staggering forward. “Be careful!”

  I steadied the girl’s head against my shoulder and slid my other arm under her knees to lift her body against mine. I caught the lines of IV in one hand, preparing to yank them out of the sleep shell. With my pinky, I snagged the bear, too. “Stay out of my way,” I said. “I’m taking her up.”

  He came to a stop. “You can’t! She’ll die! What are you doing?”

 
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