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The rule of mirrors, p.4
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.4

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “It’s that nonstop one about the art kids,” he said. “I never did, but Althea could have. Maybe this is that celebrity quirk Dr. Fallon talked about.”

  Madeline looked thoughtful and passed the phone back to Diego. “I suppose.” She turned to me and smiled. “Don’t worry, darling. They told us that certain patients develop a fascination for some celebrity or random stranger. It can be a kind of identity escape. It’s just a phase. It doesn’t last.”

  I flicked my gaze to Diego. He was staring down at his phone, thumbing slowly through the posts. I reached to indicate I wanted it back. Instead, he slipped the phone into his shirt pocket.

  I vocalized again, more urgently. “FFOE.”

  “Don’t be difficult, Diego,” Madeline said. “Give it to her. She can type to us.”

  “I think it’d be better to let her get reacquainted with her real life before bringing the Internet into it,” Diego said.

  “For heaven’s sake. She just wants information. Who wouldn’t?” Madeline leaned over my table and held her own phone in front of me. “Maybe you’d like to see some friends. I have some pictures.” Her fingers got busy. “See? These are your cousins, and here you are for prom, with Tom. You have more on your own phone. We’ll have to get that for you.”

  The picture showed an arresting girl with sharp features and vibrant eyes. Her slender arm encircled the neck of a muscly white guy in a tux as she mock-choked him. I liked the soft, deep blue of her dress and his bowtie of the same hue. A headband of pearls and glitter was threaded through her hair. The two looked enviably relaxed and happy together. Stylish, too. I slid the photo sideways, and the next pic showed them together again, only this time, the girl was goof-facing the camera, and the big guy, very chill, was smiling at her with open adoration.

  Cute, I thought. And then, that’s the guy she slept with. Has to be.

  “You know what’ll kill me?” Madeline said. “If she knows Tom but she doesn’t know us.”

  “But she does know us,” Diego said. “Don’t you, sweetheart?”

  I hesitated, uncertain what to say. I couldn’t look at Diego. I needed these people, and I was likely to get more of their support if they believed I was their daughter. But I couldn’t lie. “No,” I said. “Mm sorry.”

  Madeline bit inward on her lips. She patted my hand. “Not to worry,” she said softly. “Give it time.”

  “But the other day,” Diego said. “I swear she knew I was her father.”

  “Let’s give it time,” Madeline repeated. “She’s coming around. That’s the main thing. Every day she’s better.”

  Her tender optimism killed me. When I glanced at Althea’s dad, he had a lost, gut-punched expression, and then he turned to the window with the stoic silence of an eagle. The baby kicked inside me again.

  “Mm sorry,” I said again, and I was.

  The snow on the pine had come loose in a couple of places and dropped off to reveal the darkness of the tree underneath.

  “I don’t suppose you’ve called Tom,” Madeline said.

  “No,” Diego said. “He signed off on the baby. You know where I am on this.”

  “But we have to think of her wishes, now,” Madeline said. “Althea,” she said to me, and I turned. “Would you like us to tell Tom you’re awake again? Just say yes or no.”

  I was curious about the guy in the pictures, but I had no idea what Althea would want, and I couldn’t guess how her awakening might affect Tom now. As I wavered, Althea’s parents went on.

  “Think for a second, Madeline,” Diego said. “She was leaving him. She was riding away from him when she crashed.”

  “She’d left us, too,” Madeline reminded him. “None of that matters now. I’m thinking about his intrinsic rights as a father, regardless of what he signed. The situation has changed.”

  “But she’s still our daughter,” he said. “She might not know us, but we have to protect her. He’d only rile her up. You know he would. That’s what the bonehead does.”

  “You just don’t want him involved at all.”

  “Correct.”

  I watched, intrigued. I’d never seen an argument like this between parents. It seemed so calm, with no one throwing anything or yelling. I kept expecting Madeline to give in like Ma would, but she didn’t. She just waited, firm and civil, like a blade.

  Diego looked at me. “Do you have an opinion?” he asked.

  I balked. Yes?

  Diego gestured impatiently. “Fine, Madeline. Do what you want.”

  “Thank you,” she said. “I think the news would be best coming from you.”

  “I don’t want him under my roof.”

  “He’s not coming under your roof,” Madeline said. “He’s just getting some information. I’ll feel better when he knows. You can text him. Do you have his number?”

  “Of course,” Diego said, and poked at his phone for a minute. Then, “There. Done. Happy?”

  “Yes. Thank you.”

  I reached again for Madeline’s phone and switched to a notepad app. It took ages with my slow thumbs, but I typed: What happened to me?

  Madeline sat up straight. “Look what she’s typed, Diego. She doesn’t remember.”

  Diego glanced at the phone and then peered thoughtfully at me. “Where to start,” he said slowly. “You were in a motorcycle accident. This was last August, August twenty-second, the night before you were supposed to leave for college. You had a fight with your boyfriend Tom, and you borrowed his motorcycle. It was raining, and you hit a wet curve and flew thirty feet into a gully. You had a helmet on, but still. That was six months ago. Your doctors kept on saying we had to wait and see. You’ve been in a coma ever since.”

  Six months. From September, that put us into February. I’d lost more than three months since I was at Forge, but Althea’s coma had lasted even longer.

  “You broke your shoulder and your arm and three ribs,” Madeline said. “They’re healed now. We thought you might miscarry at first, but you didn’t. We flew in different experts. We consulted with the top neurologists.”

  “None of it made a difference. They tried to be optimistic, but when pressed, not one of the doctors could say you’d get any better,” Diego said. “We finally decided in December to hire a team of nurses and bring you home, where you could be comfortable.”

  “Where you could have your horse and your dog nearby,” Madeline said.

  “That was hard,” Diego said.

  “Yes,” Madeline agreed softly. “That was hard.”

  A rolling cart went by outside in the hall. All this time, they’d watched their daughter day after day, overseeing her care, waiting while her bones healed and her fetus grew, and wondering when or if she would ever wake up. My heart ached for them.

  “Remember Christmas?” Diego said. “The cherry cobbler?”

  “Yes,” Madeline said, with a misty smile. “And the crèche camels Javier put on her bed?”

  Enough of this. I looked down to type some more.

  I want to go home.

  I spun the phone on the table so it faced them. Madeline and Diego both leaned near enough to read it.

  Diego cleared his throat. “I’ll call the pilot and tell him to fire up the jet,” he said.

  “Diego, please,” Madeline said.

  “You saw what she wrote, Madeline,” he said. “Let’s get her out of this place. We’ve got plenty of good doctors back in Texas now that she’s out of the woods.”

  “She’s not out of the woods,” Madeline said. “Dr. Fallon’s the expert. We’re not leaving here until she says it’s safe for Althea to go.”

  Diego lifted both hands. “If Dr. Fallon’s so smart, why didn’t she tell us Althea could type?”

  My laugh came out as a weird, hiccuppy sound that startled me. Madeline and Diego both looked shocked, and then they laughed, too.

  “Was there ever a sweeter sound?” Diego asked.

  Madeline nodded. “But we’re not leaving, Diego. It’s to
o soon.”

  Go home, I typed again.

  Madeline hitched her chair nearer, swiveled my table out of the way, and took my hand.

  “Try to understand,” she said. “Every expert we talked to said, in so many words, that your case was hopeless. You had no reasoning or thinking ability left. But you could breathe on your own. You had your baby growing. I couldn’t get past the idea that some of you still existed inside somewhere. Some tiny spark. Some memory. And then we heard about Dr. Fallon.”

  I frowned, remembering. I’d looked up Dr. Fallon myself. She donated money to Forge, and I’d read about her clinic, never guessing that I might end up here myself. Madeline looked over to Diego, who rose to lean back against the windowsill and cross his arms.

  Then Madeline patted my hand and continued. “We owe her everything. She took a chance on you when no one else would. I trust her implicitly.”

  “Tell her what Fallon does,” Diego said.

  “Dr. Fallon specializes in an experimental form of brain surgery,” Madeline said. “She takes brain cells from people who have died in accidents. Donors. It’s the same principle as when they harvest healthy hearts and livers for people, but Dr. Fallon rescues brain tissue. Dream seeds, she calls them. Her team here grows the cells into a kind of patch, and she injects that into an injured brain, like yours. Your old connections regrow through the patch, recreating your memories and thought processes until you wake up. That’s why we’re here.”

  I got it now. They took my dream seed out of my body, grew it for however long, and put it here, in Althea’s brain. But Althea hadn’t recovered. My dream seed had taken over instead.

  “What’s the point of having a fortune if you can’t spend it on the ones you love?” Diego said dryly.

  “We took a chance,” Madeline said. “We brought you here and took a chance on Dr. Fallon’s technique, and she took a chance on you, even though she warned us it might not work. You’re a miracle in so many ways.”

  Except the procedure hadn’t worked right. I wasn’t Althea. I didn’t have one tiny hint of Althea’s memories. She was as lost as ever. I still wanted to leave this place.

  Madeline turned to Diego. “We can’t take her home yet,” she said. “It’s too soon, Diego. What if something goes wrong? We have to keep her here.”

  “Okay, Madeline,” he said.

  “Please understand,” Madeline said to me. “We’ll take you home as soon as it’s safe, but we can’t go yet. Can you put up with all of this a little longer?”

  I typed again. I’m scared.

  Madeline glanced at the screen, and her eyes welled up. “Oh, honey,” she said, and she strengthened her grip on my hand. “I know you’re scared, but the worst is over. Believe me. You have so much to live for. We’ll get you through this if it takes every penny we have.”

  That brought up a question that had occurred to me. How rich are we? I typed.

  Madeline gave her attention to my words and let out a bright laugh. “Oh, Althea. You are too much,” she said. She held the phone toward Diego.

  He smiled and shook his head in amusement. “Your mother invented a nuclear process to synthesize helium,” he said. “We’re rich as thieves.”

  “I wouldn’t put it that way,” she said, smiling. “But I do tend to get what I want. You’re rich yourself, too. We gave you eighteen million on your last birthday.”

  Wait. Eighteen million dollars? I grew up in the boxcars of Doli, Arizona, which had the poorest zip code in the United States. I’d never had any money except what I’d earned babysitting and running errands for the McLellens. Eighteen million was enough to buy every home in Doli, or feed a smallish country of hungry children. Eighteen million was madness.

  I stared, puzzled that Althea’s parents could look like normal people when they were so rich. Madeline didn’t wear any expensive jewelry. Her outfits were so understated that I’d barely noticed the muted greens and blues. Diego wore white or blue button-down shirts and conservative jackets. Yet here we were, in an elite, experimental clinic in Iceland, where they’d just bought a miracle for their daughter.

  Me, they’d bought. Sure they’d aimed to resurrect Althea, but if I looked past all the research and medical advances and techniques that had gone into Dr. Fallon’s surgery, it all boiled down to one basic thing: they’d bought my mind for their daughter.

  That was not okay with me.

  6

  THEA

  NOT CURIOSITY

  I COULD BARELY WAIT until night when I could use the phone Madeline left me. Finally the nurse wished me good night and dimmed my lights. As her footsteps receded, I pulled out the phone and lowered the brightness of the screen. Finally, I could find out what was going on in my real life. I hated to think Berg might have the old me still imprisoned in a vault, sedated and helpless. The chances of getting back into my old body were small, of course, but she might need me.

  My first instinct was to call home. No matter how mad I was at Ma, it made sense to start with her and find out what she knew about me. I was going to need her help to get home, too, and restart my life in this new body. I had no real voice yet, though, so a call wouldn’t work, and when I tried to log on to my Forge email account, some security wall blocked me and said it didn’t recognize my device.

  Great. Next I found that my profiles on social media had been deactivated. No doubt I had Berg to thank for that. Reaching out to anybody was going to require me to open a new email account, but I was too impatient for news.

  I ran a search of my name again, and this time, I had a chance to peruse the headlines.

  Forge Disappearance: Rosie’s Guardian Says Girl Is Perfectly Safe, Healing

  “Missing” Forge Student Spotted Vacationing in Maui

  Where’s Rosie? Noncustodial Parents Search for Missing Forge Girl

  The Rosie Hoax: The Scheme That Maxed the Ratings

  10 Top-Rated Psychiatric Facilities for Teen Celebs

  Did Linus Kill Rosie?

  Troubled, Creative Teens Crave Attention: A Profile of Rosie Sinclair

  Raking It In: “Missing” Forge Girl More Valuable Unseen than Seen

  The speculation was rabid. Fascinated, I cobbled together the public story of what had happened to me. The last official footage of me on The Forge Show pegged me resting in my sleep shell like all the other girls at six o’clock on the evening of October 29, 2066. By the next day, I was off the show, and Dean Berg announced that I had violated the rules of my freshly signed contract by getting out of my sleep shell during the night. As my new legal guardian, he removed me from the school and admitted me to a private psychiatric hospital for observation and treatment. Case closed.

  Except not.

  I was gratified to see that tons of people did not believe the dean. The ratings for The Forge Show went wild, and reporters flocked to the school. My parents objected violently to my removal. They demanded to know where I was and insisted that Dean Berg release me to them. He declined politely, firmly, and publicly. Within hours, my parents were repped by a pro bono lawyer who filed a lawsuit against Berg and the school. The police interviewed Dean Berg and investigated the grounds. When they confirmed that no crime had been committed, it galled me to think that Berg had gotten away both with stealing me and with his dream mining.

  Fans of The Forge Show deluged social media with questions and speculation about where I’d gone. A site collected info on sightings and contributions to fund the search for me. Irate donors petitioned for the dean to be fired.

  Dean Berg countered with a clip of me on the deck of some mountain cabin, cradling a cup of cocoa and conversing calmly with him. He accused my parents of medical neglect, saying that I had manifested psychiatric symptoms before attending Forge. He claimed that my parents had exacerbated my mental illness with poor nutrition, lack of oversight, and a violent, unstable home life. He said they concealed my troubled school record and heedlessly, knowingly pushed me into the spotlight when they knew the pressur
e could harm me. He insinuated that my sister, Dubbs, would be better off in foster care.

  My parents sued him for libel.

  “What Rosie needs most at this time is privacy,” Berg said, when cornered by a reporter. “Putting her on a show with a million cameras was arguably the worst thing we could have done to this fragile, brilliant girl. I deeply regret we didn’t realize sooner how harmful it was for her, but she’s now getting the care she needs. I’m sure you’ll all be hearing from her soon. She appreciates your concern. The board is reviewing its health screening process for future students.”

  I bet it was.

  I examined the footage of me on the cabin deck, trying to see how it could have been faked. Berg did, after all, know a thing or two about cameras and CGI, but he also knew that experts could tell when something was rigged. Everything in the clip looked authentic: the lighting, the shadows, even the moving shadow of a plane that passed over the pines in the background. The girl in the clip was dressed in a parka and sunglasses. She didn’t move much, but she was unmistakably me, down to the gap in my teeth.

  It was a good sign, and I was relieved. At least the original me was alive somewhere, or had been as of the date of this video. Best case scenario, he’d actually moved me to some psychiatric facility like he said. I would hate that, but at least I could be conscious and reason with people there. On the other hand, Berg might still have my body locked up in some vault. He could have hauled me out for show while he filmed that clip and dumped me right back to sleep afterward.

  I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Evil Incarnate.

  What had he done to Linus? I tilted the phone nearer, held my breath, and typed in a search for Linus Pitts.

  Top 10 Hottest Guys on Forge

  The Bare Facts: Linus Pitts Uncensored

  Did Linus Kill Rosie?

  Found Missing Taps Linus Pitts as New Host

  Forge Dishwasher Reunites with Aunt

  Forge Staffer Linus Pitts Hosts New Docu-Show

 
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