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The rule of mirrors, p.3
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien




  WHEN IAN APPROACHES my sleep shell, I’m ready for him.

  Once, a couple years back, Dubbs put a coil of fresh flypaper inside our freezer to see if the temperature would affect its stickiness. When she hung the frozen helix from a lamp on the back stoop that night, flies and moths came to it by the dozens, sticking and struggling until their wings disintegrated, until Dubbs cried and I doused the writhing flypaper in a bucket of water.

  Now I’m as cold as that flypaper. I lift my hand in a flimsy wave and compose my sweetest smile.

  “You shouldn’t do that,” he says as he opens my lid. “What if it wasn’t me?”

  “It has to be you,” I say, and beam gratitude. “Nobody else lets me wake up.”

  “If Dr. Ash figured out what I’m doing, she’d kill me,” Ian says.

  Every now and then, Ian lightens up on my meds. When the narcotics wear off, I can come around, and usually he’s beside me already, waiting for me.

  “So why do you, then?” I ask.

  “You know why,” he says. He glances over his shoulder and then back at me with a shy smile. “I’ve been thinking of you.”

  He hovers awkwardly closer, and I close my eyes. His lips are light on my cheek, with a tickle of mustache, and I know he wants me to turn to him, but I just can’t. He’s too repulsive. I’m grossed out by the possibility he might actually press his lips to mine. So far, since he knows I’m conscious, he has refrained, but I don’t know how long that will last.

  “I brought you something,” he says.

  I open my eyes as he passes me a sprig of fresh mint.

  “It’s from my grandmother’s greenhouse,” he says. “It’s fresh. You have to crush it a little. Hold on. I’d better do it for you or you’ll get it on your fingers.”

  He pinches a few of the green leaves, and when I brush the soft foliage against my nose, a burst of ripe scent fills my nostrils.

  “Wow,” I say, and inhale again. The tangy mint is the essence of green.

  “Like it?” He drums his fingers on the side of my sleep shell and smiles.

  “It’s amazing,” I say. This much is true. I lick a corner of one leaf.

  “Don’t eat it. We can’t mess with your digestion. But go ahead and smell it again. Todd’s out on break, and Harvey called in sick. Or his kid’s sick, in any case.”

  “So it’s just you today? You have a lot of responsibility.”

  We should have more time to talk, I think. More time for me to work on him.

  “It’s not that hard. We’re down to only seven dreamers right now,” he says. “We should get more next week, though.”

  “Then it’ll be busy?”

  He nods. “In a good way. Excuse me. I have to clean your port.” He undoes the shoulder snaps of my gown and folds it down carefully to reveal the port in my chest, inches above my left breast. It’s a lump under my skin, shaped like a mini donut and as big as a quarter. As we talk, he takes the old IV needle out of me and cleans the surrounding skin. “You know what I like most about this job?” he asks.


  “The dreams,” he says. “Seeing them. Dr. Ash lets me watch while she’s mining, and you wouldn’t believe the things you all come up with. Flying’s my favorite, but I like the twisted dreams, too, the ones that make no sense. You can never guess where they’ll go. Oh, and the flashing color ones, those are good, too,” he said. “You have very nice dreams,” he adds politely.

  “Do I?”

  “Yes. Very colorful and unpredictable. Even the awful ones are interesting.”

  “What awful ones?”

  He puts in a new IV. “You dream about the black guy who falls off the tower,” Ian says. “Sometimes he turns into your little sister. She falls backward and screams and then you, like, scramble.”

  I fixate on a vivid image of little Dubbs with her arms out. She’s a silhouette against a blue sky, falling and pinwheeling with panic. Her fall stretches out and rips into me because I can’t save her, and then I slam down the door in my mind to block it out.

  “I don’t want to talk about my sister,” I say.


  Instead, I recall the real episode of falling off the observatory ladder, hitting into Burnham on my way down, and plummeting with him to the ground. There’s an awful crunch, a sound I don’t consciously remember hearing at the time, and then a suspended silence before a bird chirps in the distance.

  “You’re making me remember things,” I say.

  “Is that bad?”

  “I don’t know.” It’s better than being asleep forever.

  “That black guy wasn’t your boyfriend, was he?” Ian asks.

  “No,” I say.

  “Would you date someone black?”

  “If I liked him,” I answer.

  Ian sniffs and wipes at his nose. “You also dream about the other guy,” he says. “I forget his name. The kitchen guy. I never liked him.”

  Linus lay unconscious on Berg’s operating table the last time I saw him. Guilt taints my memory, as harsh as the lights on the stainless steel. Linus was there in the vault because of me, and if Berg hurt him, if he scraped through Linus’s dreams, it’s my fault.

  “Maybe you miss him,” Ian says. “I understand. That’s okay.”

  I shake my head. I can’t bear to think of Linus, either. “We broke up,” I say.

  Ian pats my shoulder. He sets aside the suction cleaner.

  “You don’t need to be sad,” Ian says. “You have me, now.”

  “I know. I’m so glad,” I say. I force myself to meet his gaze again. “You’re so nice and understanding. How did I get so lucky?”

  He blushes again and hooks up my IV. “Dr. Ash says you’re doing a little better. I was worried you were kind of getting mined out, you know? But I think maybe the stimulation has helped, don’t you?”

  “I’m sure it has,” I say, and smell the mint again. What’s mined out mean?

  “I had one bad moment, though,” he says. “I showed up in one of your dreams.”

  “You did? When?”

  “The other day,” he says. “I was worried Dr. Ash would guess what we’re doing, but you dreamed that I was hunting in a forest with a gun. In camo and boots, with a pistol, which doesn’t make much sense from a hunting perspective. How did you know I have a pistol?”

  “I didn’t,” I say.

  “I thought it was a close call, but it was also kind of cool,” he says. “She didn’t ask me anything about it, fortunately. I don’t know what I would have said.”

  “When did she last mine me?” I ask.

  Ian flips a tablet at the foot of my sleep shell. “Six days ago.”

  “I don’t remember that,” I say.

  He smiles wisely, the way he does, with his lips stretched so a line of wet shows at the crease. “Of course not. You were asleep, silly. I for sure don’t mess with your meds the day of a mining.”

  “When will she mine me again? Is that on that chart?”

  Ian inspects the tablet again, squinting for a moment. “Tomorrow. I’ll give you your full dose when we’re done. Don’t worry.”

  My pulse picks up. I have to focus on getting Ian to help me out of here.

  “Ian, will you do something for me? Will you call my parents for me and tell them where I am?”

  Ian adjusts a shoulder snap on my gown and tucks my blanket softly around my waist. The IV is ready for a final twist of the upper clamp. “They aren’t in charge of you anymore,” Ian says. “Berg is your guardian.”

  “But do they know where I am?” I ask.

  “Not from me,” he says lightly. “They’re still offering huge rewards for you, you know. Every time they up the amount, I just have to show it to Dr. Ash, and she gives me a bonus worth twice that much. It’s a good deal, to my way of thinking. It may not show, but I’m quite a wealthy guy.”

  Like a faltering stone, my hea
rt slips off the edge of a cliff and plummets. I’ll never get out of here. Ian will never help me escape.

  “I want to go home,” I say. It slips out before I can even think.

  “You don’t mean that,” he says. “This is where you get the treatment you need. Remember? You’re getting better.”

  “Am I?”

  “Of course. You shouldn’t worry. Look at your mint here,” he says running a finger through the sprig. “It’s just what you wanted.”

  “From your grandmother’s greenhouse, you said.”

  Ian smiles. “Yes. Funny thing. She’s always telling me to find a girlfriend, but she has no idea. I live with her and look out for her now that my dad’s gone to California. He got me this job. Sometimes I wish I could bring you home for Sunday dinner, but of course, I can’t.”

  “Would she like me?” I ask.

  “Are you kidding? She’d love you,” he says. “I’ve been watching old episodes of The Forge Show with her so she can see what you’re like, but I never tell her you’re here. It’s an amazing secret. She thinks I’m just your fan.”

  I touch the mint lightly to my lips, and his gaze drops to the gesture. A slow blush comes up his cheeks, and his eyes grow warm again.

  “You’re so sweet,” he says. “Sweet as honey.”

  He is not the most original guy, but I smile as if I’m flattered.

  “What’s your middle name?” I ask.

  “Give me the mint.”

  I breathe it in. “Not yet, please. Come on. Tell me your middle name.”

  “Try to guess.”

  It must be something creepy. “Roderick?”

  He laughs. “It’s John. Ian John Cowles. It’s kind of repetitive because ‘Ian’ is Scottish for ‘John.’ Now give me the mint. Be good.”

  I hand him the mint slowly. “And what’s the date today?”

  His smile fades. “You don’t need to know that.”

  “Yes, I do,” I say, smiling again. “Please? Tell me what the date is. Is it still February?”

  “The last time I told you the date, you got upset.”

  “I won’t be upset,” I say. “I just need to know. I can’t tell how much time is passing unless you tell me.”

  “It isn’t too much time,” he says. “Close your eyes.”

  “Don’t put me out again! We have to talk!”

  “We did talk. That’s enough for now.”

  “Did we have Valentine’s Day yet?” I ask.

  He hesitates, looks guilty.

  We did. I can tell. Time is vanishing without me.

  “You have to let me out of here!” I say. “Please, Ian. You can’t let them keep me here. It’s not right!”

  His expression shuts down, and he reaches for the clamp on my drip. “We can’t have these little breakdowns, Rosie.”

  I struggle against my panic. I’ve made a mistake. “I take it back,” I say, and I reach for his hand. “I’m fine. I know you can’t let me out. That wasn’t fair to ask. I want to stay here with you, anyway. I love being here with you. You’re taking such good care of me.”

  He sighs and pulls his hand free. “Just close your eyes, Rosie. Don’t make this hard.”

  “Why? What does it matter if I close my eyes?”

  “I don’t like seeing the whites.”

  “Are there others here who don’t close their eyes?” I ask.

  He shifts uncomfortably. “No.”

  “Ian, is there another dreamer like me? One you talk to?”

  “There was only one who opened her eyes sometimes,” he says. “She never talked to me. I’m not sure she even saw me. She’s not here anymore.”

  Alarm shatters through me. “Where is she?”

  He doesn’t answer.

  “Did she get mined out?” I ask. “Is that what happened? Did they move her to the main research center?”

  “Close your eyes,” he says more loudly. “Don’t make me be mean.”

  With a sense of horror, I obey him. I squeeze them tight, and I struggle to make my tone light again. “Thank you for bringing me the mint. It was such a perfect surprise.”

  “I try to be nice,” he mumbles. “It’s never enough.”

  “Of course it’s enough,” I say. “You’re amazing. I’m sorry I lost it there a few minutes ago. I just started hoping we could be together for real.”

  “We can’t. We only have this.”

  Sightless, I wait to feel his kiss on my cheek again, and I fight a new wave of despair. It’s so hard to make any progress with him, and now I fear I’m not the first to try.

  “You’re pretty when you relax,” Ian says quietly.

  A soft, bumbling touch along my hair sends my scalp tingling.

  I loathe him more than ever. “Thank you,” I say.

  “Let’s never fight.”

  The meds are already making it hard for my words to come. “Okay,” I whisper.

  He strokes my hair a second time, and a third, like I’m some big pet doll. I catch another whiff of the mint, very near. This time, I don’t fight the narcotics, but it still takes a full, awful count of five before I’m out.





  But I hadn’t had sex. The most I’d done with Linus was kiss him. The kissing had been very nice, actually, but we could never go too far on The Forge Show, and honestly, that was okay with me. In a way, the cameras made it more exciting because I felt the buzz of taboo at the edge of my consciousness. I could sense the viewers coming on board and my blip rank rising. But the cameras also set a safe boundary, a precise edge of frustration. I could give in to the wild pull I felt with Linus because we both knew, at a certain point, we would have to stop.

  It was strange to think of how much I’d shared with Linus, and how messed up things had gotten with him. Now I was pregnant without even a memory of the sex that had gotten me here. It seemed totally unfair. I didn’t even know what Althea’s boyfriend looked like. I had no way to imagine kissing him, let alone anything more advanced.

  “I can’t help wondering what she’s thinking,” Diego said.

  I’m thinking about the sex I haven’t had, I thought.

  Diego was back in his chair by the window, and Madeline was sitting beside me, reading some report. She glanced up and flipped the page closed.

  “Does her face look a little fuller to you?” Madeline asked.

  “Maybe,” he said. “Yes.”

  Behind him, the sky was overcast today. The roses had been replaced by a vase of red tulips with loose, arching stems.

  In the four days since I’d woken up at the Chimera Centre, I’d been prodded by more people than I cared to think of. Dr. Fallon came regularly to examine me, and a nurse midwife came every morning to listen to my fetus’s heartbeat and check my urine. When I wasn’t getting another MRI, I was in physical or speech therapy.

  The first time I’d had a proper look at my body happened when the nurse, Ida, came to change my catheter. She’d rearranged my sheets and gently pulled up my gown. My new legs were skinny and puffy, like ecru-colored nylons stuffed with mush. Far at the other end, my feet sported a waxy, violet tinge between the toes, and when I ordered them to wiggle, they responded in the most casual, disinterested way. Who, us? Hello. My belly resembled a spreading, giant jellyfish that had swallowed a basketball. My boobs were tender and way bigger than before. Compared to my old body, which had been tight and strong, this one felt like bread pudding.

  My physical therapist was jubilant in his torture of me. I learned to roll from my back to my side, and then to push upward with my arms, protecting my belly during the effort. I felt like a monstrous baby training my weak, clumsy body to obey me, and it hurt, too. My muscles burned from the unaccustomed exercise, and my sessions left me exhausted and irritable.

  My garbled efforts with the speech therapist were a joke. But I had quirky, nice surprises, too. Just that m
orning, I had discovered that I could read nametags, which apparently weren’t written in a strange script after all. Letters formed magically into English words that had not been there the day before. It gave me hope that my mind was healing, along with my body.

  Madeline leaned near and traced her finger over my cheek. “You’ve always had the prettiest skin,” she said.

  It was such a mom thing to say. Madeline made me miss my ma, and I was hungry for news about my old life. I pointed at Diego’s breast pocket where I could see his phone and focused my mouth as best as I could: “FFoe.”

  He touched a hand to his pocket. “You want my phone?”

  I nodded. Yes.

  “Sure.” He arranged my swivel table above my lap and positioned his phone before me. “What do you want to see?” he asked.

  I couldn’t speak to tell him, but he opened an Internet search window and let me type. Alien and klutzy, my thumbs worked the letters: ROSIE SINCLAIR.

  The browser produced a scroll of posts, all in tiny letters. I had to enlarge them to read them, but I fumbled with the open-tweezers move and the print wouldn’t expand.

  “Diego. She’s using her right hand,” Madeline said.

  I glanced up at her.

  “You’re left-handed,” she said to me.

  I flexed my stubby fingers experimentally, and then I tried my left hand on the screen instead. Instantly, my fingers moved with the smoothness of a familiar tool, astonishing me. Madeline laughed, but I hardly heard her. I manipulated the screen to bring a headline into focus: Where’s Rosie? Still No Sign of the Forge School Star. The next read, Rosie Sinclair Sighting: Latest Forge Hoax.

  “What do you have there?” Diego asked. He angled the screen so he could see, and his curious smile faded to a puzzled expression.

  “What is it, Diego?” Madeline asked. When he passed the phone to her, she became engrossed. “Who’s Rosie Sinclair?” she asked, flipping through the phone. She frowned. “She was a star on The Forge Show,” she said. “She was expelled last semester. There’s some story here about the dean becoming her guardian. Very strange. Have you ever watched the show, Diego?” she asked.

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