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The rule of mirrors, p.31
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.31

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Another team of medics jostles in, and it finally hits me the police could be next. I don’t want to talk to them. I have no way to explain why Thea and I are in the tunnel, and I don’t want them calling my guardian, either.

  May he rot.

  I pick up my jacket and Thea’s from the ground. They’re both bloodstained and filthy. My hands aren’t much better. I take a step back, torn. I hate to leave without saying goodbye to Thea, but this might be my only chance to get away. Then again, someone should tell the medics about Thea’s past. What if the birth sends her into another coma? Could that even happen?

  I get another glimpse of Thea’s insensible face, and then I grab one of the medics nearby. I leave blood prints on her white sleeve.

  “You shouldn’t be down here,” she says, and then frowns. “Are you injured?”

  “I’m her friend. I was helping her,” I say. I thrust Thea’s jacket into her hands. “She used to be in a coma a few weeks back. She’s really fragile. She was talking really strangely before she passed out.”

  “Wait here,” she says, and plunges into the group surrounding Thea.

  I can’t wait. I can’t be caught down here. Already one of the other medics is looking at me like he recognizes me. I take a last, agonized look at Thea. Then I slip out of the tunnel and go up the stairs to the main floor. As soon as I get a phone signal, I call Linus.

  “Thea’s had her baby,” I say. I push out the barn door into the fresh, cool air and veer away from the ambulances. “Call Tom and let him know. The medics are with her at the dairy barn. Tell Tom to call her parents and get them here as fast as he can.”

  “Is she all right?” Linus asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “I’m afraid.”

  “Where are you?” he asks.

  I’m already heading back to my car, the one Burnham loaned me. I feel like I’ve been in the tunnel for years, like this air on my face belongs to a new planet. The sky is the gray of pre-dawn. I need to run. I need to think.

  “Rosie!” Linus yells.

  I can’t talk to anybody anymore. It’s too much, all of it. I ought to be thrilled that I helped a baby be born, but I’m not happy. I’ve failed, somehow, and the truth is agonizing. Thea came looking to save me, and now she might be dying. Between Berg and Thea, I’ve lost something. Something huge.

  I shove my phone in my pocket and run.




  BY THE TIME I REACH the dim street where I left my car, I’m breathless from running and my throat’s aching from held-back tears. The water tower looms above in black silhouette while the first light of dawn touches the sky to the east. A shadow beside the car materializes into Linus, and I slow. If he says the wrong thing, if he tries to hug me, I’ll start crying, and I don’t want to do that. I dig for my car keys.

  I struggle to make my voice calm. “How’d you find my car?” I ask. Like that matters.

  “Georgia plates,” he says.

  Just as I expected, he goes to hug me. I lean back, gripping my dirty jacket to my chest, and he stops.

  “What were you and Thea doing at the dairy barn?” he asks. “I went to Forge to look for you, and I couldn’t find you anywhere. I tried to reach Burnham to see if he knew anything, but he wouldn’t answer. Then Tom told me Thea was missing, too.” He tilts his face. “You look awful. Are you okay?”

  “I don’t know if Thea’s going to make it,” I say tightly. “One of the medics said she would, but they didn’t know yet about her history with the coma.”

  He swears softly. “Are you hurt?” he asks. “I can take you to the hospital. Let me drive.”

  I glance down at my dirty hands and yellow shirt. “I can’t go there. I can’t talk to the police. I did something horrible.”

  “It can’t be that bad.”

  It is. It’s that bad, or at least the police would think so. I was this close to killing Berg. I might actually have done it with the two doses I gave him. Nightmare. I find my key finally and try it in the car door, but I keep locking instead of unlocking it. I’m not like Berg. I’m not.

  “Okay,” Linus says decisively, and sets his hand over mine. “We need to go somewhere and talk. Don’t say anything yet, though. I know this is Burnham’s car, but someone could have bugged it since yesterday.”

  I almost laugh at his charade. You’re warning me about what’s bugged? I think.

  I know all about the image of me sleeping last night, the image on Berg’s computer. Linus told me his room was private, but the camera that filmed me was right up close. If Linus didn’t take the footage himself, I don’t know who did.

  “Why are you looking at me like that? Let me have the keys,” he says.

  And I do. What does it matter? I’m fighting some unnamed despair that I can’t yet figure out.

  As we pass the dairy barn on our way out of town, I see that a couple of police cars have pulled up. So has a news truck. The ambulances are gone. I hunch down and don’t straighten up again until we reach the open highway. I pluck a tissue out of a box and try to wipe some of the grime off my fingers.

  “I’m going to need somewhere to hide,” I say.

  “Don’t say any more yet. Please.”

  I spit on my palm and wipe some more. The gray prairie speeds by outside, and the silence lets me think.

  Anger’s safe. It protects me from needing to care for anybody. Revenge made me strong, but when I saw Berg’s port, when I felt the ugly, desperate way we were the same, it ruined me. I couldn’t kill him, even though he’s the one who destroyed my life. Then, when Thea was suffering in labor, I couldn’t help but care for her. I hated seeing her in pain, and once her baby was born, she was so little in my hands. So helpless. So powerful.

  I’m weak now, and lost. I don’t want to care for people. It hurts to trust them and feel for them. If they get hurt, it hurts me, too. I’d rather go back to when I was strong and I didn’t care, but I can’t. I crumple my tissue into my fist and bite inward on my lips.

  Linus pulls the car onto a dirt road, and then he turns onto a track that’s hardly more than a dent in the grass. The world simplifies down to a big, gray-pink sky over a long, dark horizon. We ride up a slope and down a curve until we reach another upswell of prairie, and there he finally parks, out of sight of the road.

  As soon as I open my door, a soft, sweet wind surrounds me. I catch my hair back behind my ears, and for the first time in hours, I can take a deep, steady breath. The sun will be rising soon. Linus comes around the car, and we walk wordlessly through the grass to the top of the next knoll. A little moth rises out of my way in a flicker of pale wings.

  “Okay, here’s good,” Linus says, slowing to a stop.

  I know we need to talk. There’s no way around it. If Berg can somehow listen in through Linus, even here, it wouldn’t surprise me. I just can’t say anything Berg doesn’t know already, or couldn’t guess.

  When Linus turns to me, the breeze lifts the collar of his black jacket. A hint of stubble outlines his jaw. “First tell me why you think Thea might not make it.”

  “She lost a lot of blood,” I say. “She was totally unresponsive to me by the time the medics came. One of them told me she’d probably be okay, but what if she goes into another coma?”

  I don’t tell him about the way she talked to me, like she wasn’t herself anymore.

  “That’d be bad,” he says. “I’m sure you did all you could for her, though, right? We have to hope for the best. And her baby was okay?”

  I nodded. “It’s a girl.”

  “What were you doing in the barn?”

  “We were in the tunnel when she gave birth,” I say, and I can see I’m going to have to explain. “There’s a tunnel from the barn to the dean’s tower. I found Thea in the vault under the school, in the operating room. Berg locked her in. She was there for hours in the dark with no way to get help, and she was in labor.”

  “She must have been terrifi
ed,” Linus says. “Why would he do that to her?”

  “He’s sick. He wanted to keep her and compare her brain to mine,” I say. Another idea hits me. Berg must have known I was coming to him. That was why he kept Thea so long. “He was waiting for me.”

  I look back toward the car, where I’ve left my jacket in the front seat. I still have two syringes hidden in my pocket. I still have Berg’s phone there, too.

  “You said you did something horrible,” Linus says. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”

  I keep thinking about how Berg had a port, too. I could have put a third dose of sleep meds right in there. It would have been so easy, but it became completely impossible. I squeeze my fists together. “I don’t think so,” I say. “I’m not sure.”

  “Rosie,” he says, his voice low. “What did you do?”

  “He threatened my sister,” I say. “I injected him with some sleep meds. A double dose. I don’t think it was enough to kill him. I wanted him powerless. I wanted him to know what it felt like.”

  “Did you just leave him there?” Linus asks.

  I nod. I lift my gaze to study Linus, trying to decide if his concern is for me or for Berg. “Don’t you get tired of playing his game?” I ask.

  Linus stares at me strangely and blinks against a breeze. “What do you mean?”

  My heartbeat ticks up a notch. “Berg had a video clip of me sleeping in your room the other night,” I say. “How did he get that?”

  “From when you stayed over?” he asks. He seems honestly surprised. “Are you sure?”

  “Positive. It showed you smoothing my hair off my forehead.”

  He tenses. “Rosie, I have no idea what that’s about,” he says. “Berg must have rigged it somehow. He has no shortage of footage.”

  “It wasn’t rigged,” I say. I try to think of any other logical explanation. “Is it possible he planted a camera in your bedroom? Could he have told Otis to do it?”

  He shakes his head. “I’ve gone over my room a thousand times, millimeter by millimeter. I check it every single time I visit, sometimes twice a day just so I can be sure. It’s private.” His eyes change. “You think I’m lying?”

  I do. I know what I saw.

  Linus squints against the wind, and over our friction, I get an odd prickling. He once said that he could see better out of one eye in the dark. The sky is getting lighter now. I take a step nearer to Linus and peer up into his eyes.

  “What are you doing?” he says, his voice defensive.

  “Hold still. Look at me.”

  His eyes are a clear, caramel brown with dark lashes, and they look completely normal, aside from his anger. I think back to the first day I met him. He was leaning against a giant wooden spool behind the art building. He had an icepack to his eye because the chef had hit him so hard his eyeball was filled with blood. Later, Linus went to the infirmary, and what did he tell me about his eye the next day, after his patch was off?

  Dr. Ash did a little surgery to it.

  “This isn’t amusing, Rosie,” he says.

  “Could Dr. Ash have put a camera lens in your eye?” I ask.

  His eyebrows lift in surprise. Then his gaze shifts away, and he closes one eye and then the other, testing his vision. “I hardly notice the difference anymore, except in the dark,” he says. “I thought it was left over from my hyphema.” He frowns. “They wouldn’t do that. A camera?”

  “Berg’s capable of anything,” I say. My mind’s leaping. Back at Forge, Berg eavesdropped on our walkie-ham conversations. This is a million times worse. “He could spy on both of us through your eye. He could have done it the whole time we were at Forge. He could be spying on us right now.”

  Linus shakes his head. He backs up a step. “This is freaking me out,” he says.

  I let out a brief laugh. “Me, too.”

  “It isn’t technically possible,” Linus says. “He’d need some kind of transmitter on me. Wouldn’t he? Do you think the camera’s on all the time?”

  “I don’t know how it works,” I say. “I’m just saying it could explain how Berg has an image of me in your bed. Did you wake up and look at me? Did you touch my hair?”

  Linus nods, visibly trembling. “If this is true, he’s been with me all this time, seeing everything I do.”

  “Exactly,” I say, and jam my hands in my pockets.

  He scowls at me. “You still think I’m lying to you! You think I knew!”

  I don’t know what to think. I never do with Linus.

  “Great,” he says. “Just brilliant.” He runs a hand back through his hair. “I really hate that guy,” he says, and then his eyes narrow. “Okay. We’ll use this somehow. If I really have a camera in my eye, we’ll use it against him. We’ll feed him false information. We’ll double-cross him somehow.”

  “He’d know. He knows everything,” I say. I didn’t plan past killing Berg. At some level, I figured I’d be arrested for his murder, but now, with Berg still alive, he’ll always be coming after me. “It’s hopeless, Linus. He can get to my family. I’ll never be free of him.”

  “I think it’s time to talk to the police yourself,” he says. “I can go with you.”

  Not happening. I take another step back and turn into the wind so my hair will get blown out of my face again. This is as bad as before. Worse. I think of the data I saw on Berg’s computer and the pictures of all those dreamers. Wanting a future causes all kinds of problems.

  “I take it that’s a no,” he says.

  I look up at Linus again, wishing I knew whether I could believe anything about him. “I have a lot to figure out. You included.”

  He steps near enough to shelter me from the breeze. “You should have told me you were going to see Berg. I would have gone with you.”

  I shake my head. “I wanted to kill him myself.”

  “But you couldn’t, he says. “I could have told you you’re not a killer, Rosie. Why did you ever think you were.”

  Because that’s how I felt. It hurts. This whole thing hurts. And now here I am, caring about Linus, and he’s just another one of Berg’s tools. I can’t look in his eyes without wondering if there’s a spy behind them.

  “Don’t look at me like that,” he says, and closes his eyes.

  His face has never seemed so vulnerable, and I’m unbearably touched. I lean up to kiss him, and his lips are warm. His shadow of beard is unexpectedly soft, and he wraps his arms around me. The kiss deepens. Hope and misery lock into each other so that I can’t tell them apart. When I have to come up for air, he keeps me tight against him, and I find I’m gripping him, too.

  “You’re leaving. I can tell. But I’m going with you,” he says.

  “No, you’re not.”

  He kisses me again, trying to persuade me, until I have to break off. I steady myself against him. With my heart charging around, it’s very hard to be rational, but I tuck my hair behind my ear again and try. He is watching me closely, and I’m sickened to think Berg might be observing me through Linus even now. Just thinking this puts Berg between us again. I want to cover Linus’s left eye with the palm of my hand, but Berg could see that. Instead, I ease out of Linus’s arms.

  “Keys,” I say.

  His eyes grow dark. “Please, Rosie. This is a mistake. We can figure this out together.”

  “No,” I say. “Not with Berg along.”

  I turn toward the east, where the sun has now topped the horizon. Then I look back down the slope toward the car. My family needs me. No matter what has happened, I’m still Dubbs’s big sister, and it won’t take too long to get home. If he hasn’t already found me through Linus, Berg will be looking for me soon. I tap the pockets of Linus’s coat for my keys, and then I dig them out. I squeeze my fingers around them so the metal bites.

  “Let me give you a ride back to town,” I say.

  “Forget that,” he says. “How will I reach you?”

  I glance up to find him smiling in his old way, where his mouth curves but hi
s eyes stay serious. Loneliness. I never realized before exactly what was behind his smile, but I get it now.

  “I’ll call when I can. I promise,” I say. “Let me give you a ride back to town.”

  “No, I can walk back,” he says.

  “Seriously? It’s far.”

  “That’s the least of my problems.”

  I take a step backward, away from him, and a weird sort of thrill goes through me. I don’t want to leave him, but now that I’ve decided to, I feel an urgency. It’s a kind of power.

  “You can’t keep doing this to me,” Linus says.

  “I have to.”

  I turn and stride down the slope through the grass. I get in my car, close my door, and twist on the ignition. Linus is still standing on the top of the slope, a spare figure with a long shadow. With my heart aching, I memorize every line of him. Then I turn the car around and bump along the dirt road, back to the highway. For a moment there, I pause.

  I blink out at the long, empty road and the early light on the wind-swept prairie. In a way, I have nothing now that my anger’s gone, but I also feel like I’ve just started. Like I might have some hope. I gently rub the port lump in my chest and glance at my jacket, where I still have my syringes. Berg’s phone, too. It could be useful.

  I roll down my window to let in the sweet wind. Then I grip the wheel and accelerate, driving west hard.


  With warmest gratitude, I wish to thank the following people for their practical support and kind encouragement during the writing of this story: Katherine Jacobs, Kirby Kim, Claire Dorsett, Emily Feinberg, Brenna English-Loeb, Suzannah Bentley, Nancy O’Brien Wagner, William LoTurco, Lauren Dittmeier, Emily LoTurco, James Moen, Michael LoTurco, Cynthia Myers, Jennifer R. Hubbard, Robin Blomstran, Annie Greineder, Suzy Staubach, and Alvina W. O’Brien. As always, I’m grateful to my husband Joseph LoTurco for everything.


  Since earning a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins University, Caragh O’Brien has been a high school teacher, a published author of romance novels, and now a novelist for teens. Her first young adult novel, Birthmarked, was a Junior Library Guild selection and an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and was nominated for the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults list as well as the 2010 Amelia Bloomer list. You can sign up for email updates here.

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