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The keep of ages, p.3
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       The Keep of Ages, p.3

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  A rattle of a drawer makes me turn. Peggy pulls out a magnifying glass and holds one of Ian’s pills to the light, a red one. “Echo eight. I know a chemist who could take a look at these.”

  “Be my guest. Keep the whole box,” I say.

  She takes up a yellow pill next. “The idiot is rather compelling,” she says.

  “So you believe me now?” I ask.

  She lowers the magnifying glass enough so that I can see her eyes over the lens.

  “You’re not safe here. That’s clear. I suggest you call up one of your rich friends, Linus or whoever,” she says. “Go hide somewhere far from here, and once I hear from your ma and Larry, I’ll send out a signal.”

  I can’t just hide, though, not when my family is in danger. I run through my options. Calling Linus is out. I could reach Burnham if I could get on a computer, but he’s all the way in Atlanta. Thea’s the one I’d most like to connect with, but she just had a baby two nights ago. I’m not even sure where she is. The medic said she’d be okay, but what if she isn’t? Supposing her parents have brought her back to Texas, I can’t exactly show up there. Her parents are looking to buy more Sinclair 15, so going to their ranch would be like saying here, mine me.

  A phone buzzes. Make that Ian’s phone. It’s on the couch, visibly vibrating, but the caller name is simply OTHER. I pick it up and swipe the answer button.

  “Hello?” I say.

  A click and a cool silence reach me before a voice comes on.

  “I see Ian found you,” Berg says.

  3

  A TRADE OF DREAMS

  BERG’S VOICE SHOOTS through me like icy poison. I glance quickly at Peggy and then sink down on the couch, pressing the phone to my ear.

  “What did you do to my family?” I ask.

  “Nothing. They’re perfectly fine. They’re in Las Vegas.”

  “Vegas?” I say, surprised. “How do you know?”

  “I had a tracking device put on their car,” he says. “I was hoping they’d lead me to a certain elusive prodigy of mine, but I was wrong. Is Ian with you?”

  I am not Berg’s prodigy. “Yes.”

  “Put him on.”

  I glance toward the closed closet door. “Not possible,” I say.

  “Rethink possible,” he says. “I need you to put him on, and I need you to stay put where you are. I can be at the McLellens’ in three hours. If you run, it will only be worse when I catch up with you.”

  Fear ripples through me, and I cast my worried gaze toward Peggy. Berg knows exactly where I am. Peggy comes and sits next to me on the couch. She puts her arm around me, and I tilt the phone slightly so she can hear, too.

  “You need to leave me alone,” I say to Berg. “I’d kill myself before I’d let you mine me again.”

  “No, you wouldn’t. Not if I have your family. Wait there nicely now, Rosie,” he says. “It won’t be that bad. We’ll work out an exchange that’s fair to all of us, I promise.”

  I let out a tight laugh. “Are you serious? You’ve ruined my life.”

  “Actually, you made the choices that messed up our system at Forge,” he says. “Time and again you’ve thwarted me, but we have lives depending on your dreams now, Rosie. Countless lives, today and in the future. I’m not going to jeopardize other innocent people just because you’re being self-centered.”

  I can’t believe the way he’s reframing everything.

  “You stole my dreams,” I say. “Why don’t you admit you did it for yourself, for your Huntington’s disease? I know about you and your kids. Your daughter hates you, and I don’t blame her.”

  He audibly sucks in a breath. I can imagine his ruddy face going bright with color.

  “You’ve managed to surprise me, I must say,” he says. “Let me guess who you have spying on me. Linus? Has to be.” He hums a short note. “It hardly matters. I’ll grant your point. I am personally invested in finding a cure for my illness. But you also must see that our research goes far beyond my own needs. If we can truly regrow brain tissue, we’re at a turning point for all humankind, and you’re pivotal to our progress.”

  “I don’t care,” I say. I shift the phone to my other hand and stand, turning away from Peggy to focus all my vehemence on Berg. “Just keep away from me and my family, or I swear, I’ll turn this around and come after you myself. I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

  Berg makes a faint tapping noise on his end. “Why didn’t you?” he asks.

  I balk. In a flash, I’m back at the decision point, when I plunged the syringes into him and he watched me, glassy-eyed, while I tried to decide how much more of the sleep meds to give him. I hated him, but I couldn’t kill him. It couldn’t go over that line. He had a telltale bulge in the skin over his heart that matched mine.

  “You had a port,” I say.

  “I see,” he says. His voice grows slow and thoughtful. “We’re more alike than you realize, Rosie. Both of us suffer. Both of us are dreamers. How would you like to know there’s some of you in me already? If you killed me, you’d be killing a part of yourself.”

  This can’t be true.

  “A conscious part?” I ask, horrified. The phone feels suddenly heavy in my hand. It’s excruciating to imagine part of me trying to exist in Berg. “Do you hear my voice in your mind?”

  “No, but that would be a welcome side effect, I’m sure,” he says. “Does Thea hear such a voice? It’s a tantalizing prospect. Clearly, we have more studying to do.”

  “But I don’t want to be studied. Don’t you get it?” I say. “I don’t want anything to do with you, ever, period.”

  “And yet I know where your family is, and you don’t,” he says.

  I restrain an impulse to smash everything in reach. “Don’t you dare hurt them,” I say.

  “Stay where you are. I’ll collect your family and bring them back to you. We can make a trade.”

  I turn toward Peggy to see if she’s following this. Her eyes are wide with astonishment.

  “You mean, trade my dreams for my family?” I say.

  “Since you put it so crudely, yes,” Berg answers.

  I can’t bear to listen any longer. I jab the red button on the phone to disconnect, and then I throw the phone back on the couch. I tighten my hands into fists and squeeze with all my might to stop from screaming.

  “Heavens almighty. You weren’t kidding about him,” Peggy says.

  “I have to go,” I say. Everything is suddenly very clear. I have to warn my family before Berg kidnaps them, but I’m also near panic because how can I possibly find them? He’s always one step ahead of me. I can’t stand it. “I don’t have a minute to spare.”

  “I mean, really. The man’s a raving monster,” Peggy says.

  “He says my family’s in Vegas.” I look at Peggy. “What are they doing there?”

  “Take a deep breath,” Peggy says. “Let’s think this through.” She heads into the kitchen area, takes a couple grocery satchels from a hook, and starts loading one with bagels.

  But I can’t wait. I pat my pocket for my keys. I can’t stop for anything.

  “I have to leave now,” I say. And then I have a terrible realization. “Oh, Peggy. I’m so sorry! He knows where I am. He’ll come directly here, or he’ll send somebody. You aren’t safe!”

  “Don’t worry about me,” Peggy says. “I can look after myself.”

  “But Rusty and the kids,” I say.

  She shakes her head. “Not a problem. I’ll tell them to stay with his mother until we sort things out here.” She nods her chin toward the pot bar in the next boxcar. “I’ve got three vets working next door. They’re as good as an army. They’ll handle anything Berg can throw at us, and they’ll welcome the chance.”

  She’s packing more food and gear into the satchels for me: cans of soup, dried fruit, water, a camp stove, matches.

  “What about him?” I ask, pointing toward the closet. I feel a pinch of guilt. “He’s been awfully quiet. What if h
e really has a heart condition?”

  “I got him,” she says. “Don’t worry.”

  My eyebrows shoot up. “Shouldn’t I at least look in on him?”

  “I wouldn’t if I were you,” she says. She adds a box of Band-Aids to the bag. Then she sticks her hand in the cookie jar and pulls out a wad of twenties in a rubber band. She stuffs that in the bag, too. “Either he’s okay or he isn’t.”

  I step near and press my ear to the door. It’s dead quiet in there. I set my hand on the doorknob, and then reconsider. She’s right. I can imagine Ian in there, snot-faced and twisted. Either he’ll bluster and complain, or he’ll be silent and passed out, or worse. It’s bizarre to feel responsible for him after all he’s done to me. I let go of the knob and back up.

  Deliberately, I scoop up Ian’s phone again. I check the settings to turn off the GPS, and then I power it down. If I could take out the battery, I would. I put it in my pocket.

  Peggy passes me a set of keys.

  “Take the Toyota,” she says. “It has a lot of miles, but it will get you where you need to go. Just call me when you’re somewhere safe,” she says. “Hopefully I’ll hear from your parents soon so I can warn them.”

  “But what if Berg taps your phone by then?” I ask. “It won’t be safe for me to call you. It won’t be safe for them, either.”

  She frowns a moment. Then she reaches on top of the fridge to where she keeps things she’s confiscated from her kids when they misbehave. “Here. Take Freddy’s tablet. I’ll put a post on Facebook if I hear from your parents. We’ll figure it out from there. Where’s the charger?” She puts her son’s tablet and a plug in the lighter bag, instantly giving me access to the world.

  Her generosity floors me. “I don’t know what to say. This is too much.”

  She waves off my thanks. “You might as well take some of these, too,” she says, reaching for Ian’s pills. “When I find out what they are, I’ll let you know.” She takes a few of the pills, puts the rest back in the box, and snaps the lid closed. Then she tucks the box into my bag.

  I throw my arms around her in a hungry hug. She feels so solid, so real. I wish I didn’t have to leave her. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to bring you so much trouble.”

  “It’s nothing I can’t handle. Who do you think I am?” She smiles, letting me go. She plucks her red dress back in place. “Go on, now,” she says. “And drive carefully. When did you get your driver’s license, by the way?”

  “I never did.”

  Peggy lets out a booming laugh and shakes her head.

  I pick up the heavy bags and clatter down her front steps to her old green Toyota. The night has come. I drive back in the desert hills and stop at my old car, the one Burnham lent me, long enough to grab my supplies. I still have two syringes of narcotics I took from Ian, all that’s left after I injected two into Berg. I have a bag of clothes, including a few new essentials I bought the night before, when I also picked up a sleeping bag. I have way too many phones: the crappy disposable one I used for a few calls with Linus and Burnham, Ian’s phone, and Berg’s phone, which has gone dead. I have no charger for it, either. I also have two more recyclable phones that Burnham gave me. What is that, five? I dump them all in my backpack. I’ve left my binoculars back at home, but there’s no getting them now. For a moment, I peer back toward the boxcars in mournful regret. This isn’t the way I expected things to go when I came home.

  A minute later, I’m driving west, toward Las Vegas.

  I make twenty miles before I realize I’m heading exactly where Berg wants me to go.

  4

  WAFFLES67

  FOR A SECOND, I can feel Berg crowding in on my mind, playing me again. Then I step grimly on the accelerator and get back up to speed. I am not going to be paranoid. I’m five hours from Vegas. He doesn’t know what car I’m in, and it would be nearly impossible for him to send someone to intercept me. Still, I have to be smart.

  He definitely has the upper hand. All he has to do is send some lowlifes to pick up my family and stash them someplace. It infuriates me to think of Ma, Dubbs, and Larry in his control. Berg could drug them and mine them, just like he did me. Or he might keep them hostage until he can persuade me to do whatever he wants. My skin screams off my bones.

  Think, Rosie. What’s my next move?

  A truck roars past on my left and sends a mini tornado around my car.

  I wish my dad were with me. Hearing Peggy’s perspective on him was unsettling. I should have taken the photo of me and him from the wall of my bedroom. Better yet, I should have taken the nail.

  But I didn’t, and my dad’s dead. The truth is, I need help. It stings to admit it, but I do. I can’t outwit Berg on my own. I have to run over my options again.

  I have a distant cousin in Calgary. It’s almost comical how unhelpful that is.

  Linus.

  Whenever I allow myself to think of him, even his name, an anxious, melty sensation curls in my gut. I can’t call him, even though his number is in my back pocket. Berg would trace the call for sure.

  Burnham.

  I chew on the inside of my cheek and allow myself to fully consider my friend in Atlanta. The last time Burnham and I spoke, it was by phone, and I was in the dean’s tower at Forge. Burnham’s computer was getting fried by a virus from Berg’s computer. That was Friday night, or technically early Saturday, and Burnham has probably replaced his computer by now, Sunday night. I can’t imagine him existing long without one. He’s far away in Atlanta, but he could help safely from a distance. On the downside, his parents own Fister Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes the sleep meds for Forge and half the country. He’s loyal to his family and hypervigilant about anything that could tarnish the Fister reputation.

  I squirm uncomfortably in my seat and adjust the vent to get a stream of air on my neck. Okay. So there’s an added hitch to me and Burnham that I haven’t much wanted to admit to myself.

  A week ago, that first night when I was visiting Burnham in Atlanta, I had a vicious nightmare and woke in a panic. Burnham got up to make me cocoa in his kitchen, and shirtless Burnham is quite the sight. The whole memory makes me uneasy, and not just because I feel guilty about hanging with Burnham while my relationship with Linus was murky. Now that I have a little space from the cocoa episode, I feel like Burnham shouldn’t have kissed me. I know that I came to the kitchen dressed in, well, not much, and I didn’t resist the kiss as it was happening. And yet, if Burnham was really as noble as I always thought he was, he should have known I was vulnerable.

  I check my gas. I’m at half a tank. I put on my blinker to pass a slow car and then ease back into the right-hand lane.

  The worst thing is, I apologized to Burnham the next day, like the whole thing was my fault, like something was wrong with me for not being into him more. I kept trying to be honest, but I didn’t really owe him anything.

  Then the other night, when Burnham and I discovered that clip of me in Linus’s bed, Burnham was not pleased. I could tell. I wish none of this bothered me, but I feel this ick about Burnham and it isn’t going away.

  I turn my thoughts to my last real option: Thea. She changed me. I wanted to stay angry and not care for anybody ever again, but when she was suffering and having her baby in that dark, filthy tunnel, I wanted so badly to help her. I felt like I was seeing myself struggle in pain, and in the end, she broke me open. She’s me. That’s why. She’s truly me no matter how much we change. And if I can feel so fiercely protective of Thea, I must have the ability to care for other people, too.

  Fine, I think, but this isn’t helping me come up with a plan.

  I’d love to talk to Thea and find out if she’s all right, but I don’t have a secure way to reach her. Anything I plan now needs to be kept from Berg if I’m going to have any chance of beating him, which brings me back to Burnham.

  He set up a dark web Tor site so I could reach him securely if I needed to, and that’s exactly the situation I
’m in now. When I consider how devoted Burnham has always been to discovering what Berg’s up to, it reassures me somewhat. Despite our turbid chemistry, I can count on Burnham. I’m probably making too big a deal out of the kiss, anyway. Could be he doesn’t even remember it.

  At the next chance of a turn, I ease off the main highway onto a narrow, unpaved road and head north. My headlights bounce over the gravel, and phantom bushes fly past my windows, but I hold the jittery wheel steady until I find a decent place to pull over. I turn off the ignition, and in the quiet, the gravel road gleams a ghostly, pale line through the dark desert brush.

  I dig into a satchel for Freddy’s tablet, doubtful I’ll even get a connection here, but after a moment of a searching signal, I get a Google window.

  Yes.

  I check Facebook and look up Peggy’s profile. Her latest post says, The idiot is gone. Nothing about my parents. It’s disheartening, and I shiver, thinking of Ian on the loose again.

  I pull up the Tor site Burnham created when I was with him in Atlanta and type in our passcode, Waffles67. A string of messages pops up, and I feel a jolt of surprise. They’re from Burnham, and the first is time-stamped from last night.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sat 3/26/67 8:59 PM

  Subject: Hey

  I’m finally back up. Berg’s virus totally fried my computer. I had to buy a new one. Call me. 404-484-1223. The line’s secure.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sat 3/26/67 9:14 PM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  Are you there?

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sat 3/26/67 9:23 PM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  Reply if this reaches you.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sat 3/26/67 9:32 PM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  I get it. You’re not online yet. It’ll prolly take you a while to get to a computer. I’m not going to panic. Call me as soon as you can. Waffles says hi.

  From: BurnFist51

 
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