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The keep of ages, p.4
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       The Keep of Ages, p.4

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sun 3/27/67 6:06 AM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  I just saw Berg on the Forge Show like nothing’s wrong. Where are you? Don’t be dead. That would be uncool.

  From: BurnFist51

  To: LKRose

  Sent: Sun 3/27/67 10:34 AM

  Subject: FW: Hey

  The now is miserable.

  Burnham once professed that he didn’t worry because it made the now miserable, but clearly I’ve pushed him over the edge. I scramble for one of my new, recyclable phones and pull off the wrapper. Please have a signal, I think. I punch in Burnham’s number and listen to the rings. What time is it in Atlanta? Before I can calculate time zones, the connection comes on.

  “Hello?” he asks.

  I bolt up in my seat, smiling. “So you do worry after all.”

  “I’ll be,” he says in his Southern drawl. “You’re not dead.”

  I shake my head, clutching the phone hard. Hearing his voice twists me up because he sounds so close. A thrum of wind surrounds the car, and the desert outside my windows is impossibly vast and dark. “Nope,” I say.

  “Don’t do that again,” he says. There’s a fumbling noise like he’s arranging something, maybe reaching for his glasses or shifting his brace. “Where are you?” he asks.

  “About an hour west of Doli. I’m in my car, by the side of the road,” I say. I glance out the window. “In the desert.”

  “Alone?”

  “Yeah.”

  “And you’re really okay? Berg didn’t hurt you at all? It sounded bad when I got cut off.”

  “I’m okay,” I say. “I was able to jab a couple syringes into him and dose him with sleep meds. That was fun.” I explain how I escaped, and how my friend Thea had her baby down in the tunnel. “Berg kept her prisoner down there.”

  “That guy is seriously twisted,” Burnham says. “But now, who’s Thea?”

  I’m startled to realize I’ve never told him about her. I didn’t really know who she was myself when I visited him in Atlanta. It’s tempting now to tell him the whole story, but I have a sneaking suspicion he’ll want to tell his parents, which would not be good. Besides, I should check with Thea before I divulge what’s basically her health history. Come to think of it, I really should have checked with Thea before I told Peggy about her, too.

  “Thea’s a friend of mine from way back,” I improvise. “We’re really close, actually, and she showed up at Linus’s house looking for me. She’s normally in Texas with her family, and I really need to talk to her and find out how she is, but I don’t have a safe way to call her. In fact, I haven’t been in touch with anybody ’til now.”

  “No problem,” he says. “I can send her a recyclable phone and give you the number. Do you still have one yourself?”

  “I have one left,” I say.

  “Then what else? What else do you need?”

  He is truly such a nice guy, and it feels so good to have his support.

  “I have to find my parents and my sister,” I say. “Berg said they’re in Las Vegas, and he pretty much promised to kidnap them if I didn’t let him mine me.”

  “You can’t let him do that.”

  “I know, but I have no way to warn my parents,” I say, frustrated. “They don’t have a phone. I’m scared, Burnham. He could take them anywhere. Anywhere in the world, actually, even Iceland. The Chimera Centre’s there.”

  “He can’t take them personally, though,” Burnham says. “He still has to show up regularly on The Forge Show. He could hire people to kidnap them, but I doubt he’d take them out of the country unless he had you, too.” A tapping comes from his end. “This isn’t good. I could get a PI, but that would take time. Do you have any other ideas? Why are your parents in Las Vegas?”

  “I’m not sure,” I say. “I’m not even sure Berg was telling the truth about them being there. My neighbor Peggy said my parents had a lead on where I might be and that’s why they left. Vegas might have been their destination, or they could have been heading somewhere west of there and just stopped on the way.” I frown out my window as a shimmer of dust passes through my headlights. “There’s supposed to be another vault of dreamers in Miehana, California. A big one. I can’t help thinking it’s important.”

  “You mentioned that once before,” he says. “Miehana,” he adds slowly. “Isn’t that near the Olbaid Nuclear Power Plant? The one that blew up?”

  The name tickles a memory of a story from science class. “Possibly,” I say. “Let me take a look.”

  On Freddy’s tablet, I do a quick search for the Olbaid Nuclear Power Plant, which is right on the Pacific coast, about halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. It had a major meltdown in 2048, about twenty years back. The town of Miehana is thirty miles inland, just outside the Olbaid Exclusion Zone. Images of the OEZ show the rusty ruin of a roller coaster and decaying, overgrown summer cottages.

  “You’re right,” I say, impressed.

  “Okay,” he says. “We’ll see what we can find out about that vault in Miehana. And here’s another idea. I can search the Fister database to see if there are any significant sleep med orders in that part of California.”

  “You think that vault of dreamers uses sleep meds?” I say. “The dreamers are already asleep.”

  “They used sleep meds for you when you were at Onar, didn’t they?” Burnham says.

  He’s right. They did. “But I was an exception,” I say. “Berg buys bodies from a pre-morgue. They’re legally dead. He’s just found a way to boot up their bodily functions. He can reignite their brain stems.”

  “Who told you this?”

  “Berg did,” I say, remembering Gracie, a little dreamer girl from the vault under Forge. “From what he said, the dreamers are sort of half back from the dead, just enough for their old dreams to stir. Berg uses their brains almost like potting soil. He could implant dreams from Forge students into them and they’d take root. That’s what he said, at least.”

  “Holy crap,” Burnham says. “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?”

  “I don’t know. It didn’t come up.”

  “That is one creepy dude,” he says.

  No kidding.

  “Hold on. I’ve got another thing,” I say. I locate the pill box I took from Ian and fish out a few of the little pills. I turn on the overhead light so I can inspect a red one. “See if you can find out anything about a red pill marked ‘Echo eight,’ and a yellow one. I think this is a double theta marked on it.”

  “Send me a picture.”

  It takes me a couple seconds, but I do. “This phone camera’s not the best.”

  “That’s okay. Where’d you get the pills?” Burnham says.

  “I found them on a guy who works for Berg. Remember Ian? He came looking for me in Doli.”

  Burnham wants to hear all about that, too, and I tell him how Peggy and I stuck Ian in the closet.

  “You’re really not safe anywhere, are you?” Burnham says.

  I focus out my window again. The place where I’ve pulled off is still dark and quiet. If I turn off my headlights, I’ll practically disappear, but I’m too anxious to stay here doing nothing. I switch the phone to speaker and prop it on my knee. Then I start the car again and turn back toward the freeway.

  “I’m going to keep driving toward Las Vegas,” I say. “I’m going to hope Peggy warns my parents about Berg in time and they start driving back toward me.”

  “Sounds good,” Burnham says. “But maybe get some sleep in there.”

  I laugh. Like I could sleep. “And you’ll do your research and send a phone to Thea,” I say.

  “What’s her address?” Burnham asks.

  “I don’t have it on me. You’ll have to look it up. Her name’s Althea Flores. She lives in Holdum, Texas, and her family owns a ranch. They’re super wealthy.” I realize he’ll learn a ton about her online, but that’s for another conversation. “How long will it take to get her a phone?”

/>   “I can have it delivered first thing tomorrow.”

  “Thanks, Burnham,” I say. “This is so nice of you. I mean it.”

  “Don’t mention it,” he says. “I’m glad to be back doing something. I was worried about you.”

  A louder shifting noise comes from his end. I think he’s about to say goodbye, but instead, he clears his throat.

  “Listen. Do you have another minute?” he asks.

  I’ve just reached the highway again and I turn on my blinker, which clicks in loud rhythm. I look to my left for oncoming headlights and wait while a pair of headlights gets bigger.

  “Sure. I’m just driving,” I say.

  After the car passes, I pull out onto the road and pick up speed.

  “I was talking to my sister, Sammi, yesterday,” Burnham says. “I kind of told her about when you were staying with me here in Atlanta. That night. After you had your nightmare.”

  I know exactly what he means. A cold furball lodges in my lungs. I can’t believe he told her about us.

  “I remember,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant. “What about it?”

  “Sammi says I owe you an apology,” Burnham says quietly. “She got me thinking I came on too, well, strong, and then I wasn’t exactly cool the next morning.”

  I feel a snap of relief, like a cord breaking. I grip the steering wheel harder and aim straight ahead as an overpass whooshes above. “Wow,” I say.

  “So she’s right?”

  She’s brilliant is what she is.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “I’m sorry, then. I really am,” he says. “The trouble is, I can never tell if the vibe between us is good or bad, or if I’m just imagining it, you know?”

  I do know, unfortunately. It’s not like I have everything figured out. “Let’s just agree never to kiss each other again,” I say.

  “Not ever?”

  I throw up a hand. “Burnham!”

  “I’m apologizing,” he says. “I’m trying to be straight-up honest with you.”

  “And you’re making me really uncomfortable,” I say. “Just stop.”

  “Okay. All right,” he says. And then, “Just tell me one thing. One last thing.”

  “What?”

  “That picture of you in Linus’s bed. Does that mean what I think it does?”

  I frown at the road ahead and watch the white lines flicking by. I don’t owe Burnham an answer. I know that. I’m certainly not going to tell him that Linus and I didn’t have sex. But I have to say something.

  “Linus doesn’t pressure me,” I say.

  The car hums over the smooth road.

  “Touché,” Burnham says softly.

  I shake my head. He asked; he got his answer.

  “If you don’t want to help me anymore, that’s fine,” I say.

  “Wait a second,” he says. “I’m not helping you just because I like you. We’re a team, Rosie.”

  “We are?”

  “Berg messed up my life, and think of all those other students at Forge. We trusted that place, and he stole our dreams. I don’t mean mine, literally, but it’s effectively the same thing.”

  A prickling of hope gathers in me. “You’re right,” I say. Burnham has always had an innate sense of justice. I knew that.

  “We’re going to bring him down, Rosie. You can be sure of that.”

  Wow, I think, and my hope is buoyed into something more certain. “Thanks,” I say.

  “Of course,” he says. “Now, I’ve got stuff to do. Don’t drive too late. And be sure to eat something. Cheetos, at least.”

  I smile. “All right,” I say. “Thanks again.”

  He hangs up, and I’m left alone, still driving. It’s funny. With all the dips and turns our friendship has gone through, I feel closer to him now than I did when I was standing in his kitchen. I wonder if he feels the same.

  My smile fades. If only I knew where Linus was.

  5

  LEMON SMOKE

  INKY DARKNESS PRESSES against the windshield. It spreads, clinging, an ultra-blackness that blots out the stars, the road, and the headlights. And yet the Toyota’s speeding along. I can feel the momentum and hear the wind whipping past. In Fagan gloves like Ian’s, Linus has taken my place behind the wheel. Elation lifts my heart, but then I remember his eye and misery follows. With the dashboard casting a faint glow over his features, I can just make out his profile, but he won’t look at me. When I ask him where he’s taking me, he doesn’t reply, and then comes the creeping feeling that he won’t look my way because something’s wrong with his face. I know this, but I can’t see it yet because he hasn’t turned, and suddenly I don’t want him to. What if his other eye and his cheek are melting? My voice box locks onto itself. I can’t speak. A prickle scatters through my body, and at the same time, a leaden heaviness consumes my muscles. My heart beats harder, but it also feels thick. It feels wet.

  I look down at my chest to find that black ooze is seeping through my shirt, from my heart. Linus! I whisper, terrified. Help me! I press against the wound of my heart, trying to keep the ooze in, and finally Linus turns to me. Where his face belongs, a boil of black sludge slowly churns around a single, clean, protruding eyeball. The eyeball slices open mechanically to reveal a tiny figure inside, a man at a control center with levers and cogs. It’s Berg. He smiles at me knowingly, and the black ooze gushes from my heart.

  I jolt awake, gasping.

  The car is filled with murky light. A film of moisture beads the windows. I’m in the backseat, parked on a deserted side road where I stopped when exhaustion caught up with me. My heart’s beating wildly, my skin’s slick with sweat, and I’m clutching my bulky sleeping bag to my chest.

  “I’m okay,” I whisper desperately.

  It was a nightmare. Just a nightmare. A horrific blend of fears. Linus betraying me, Berg in charge, me helpless—these are all terrors I can’t bear to face.

  I pull on my shoes, shove open the car door, and step out onto the dirt. Depthless violet touches everything, near and far. Dawn has come, the stars are fading, and I can’t see another car or a house in any direction. The only truth is red sand, mesquite, and saltbush sloping toward the distant horizon. I take a deep breath of the cool, tangy air and push my thick hair back from my face.

  “I’m all right,” I say again, more certainly.

  But my heart still aches. It’s been two full days now since I’ve seen Linus, and it feels like so much longer. I pull out the sticky note Peggy gave me and look at his number. It’s possible, I suppose, that it’s a secure way to reach him, but I don’t know if it’s worth the chance. He could be waking up in St. Louis, in an apartment I’ve never seen, sitting alone at the side of his bed, checking his messages to see if I’ve tried to contact him. Or he could be on location somewhere, drinking a cup of coffee in his stylish clothes, prepping to shoot another episode of Found Missing.

  Finally, self-indulgently, I choose to imagine him asleep in his rumpled bed where we lay together. Early light is sifting in the dormer window, crossing his knuckles at a slant. He’s half in shadow, with his face relaxed and his dark hair a mess. He smells of cotton and salt, and his chest barely moves with his slow, even breath.

  “No,” I mumble, sliding the note back in my pocket.

  It’s no good thinking of him this way, reducing the real Linus to nostalgia. He isn’t mine. I can’t be with him now. My dream made that clear. No matter how little Linus is to blame for the camera in his eye, Berg rides along inside Linus like a tiny, perpetual spy, seeing everything he does, invading every aspect of his life.

  A buzz in the car makes me turn, and I instinctively think it’s Linus calling. Instead, I find a message from Burnham that says he’s had a recyclable phone delivered to Thea already. It occurs to me then that Linus might have tried my old disposable phone, so I dig it out of my backpack. Sure enough, I’ve missed two calls from him. An odd little thrill goes through me, part relief and part power. I compare the callback n
umber to the one Peggy gave me, and they’re different, which makes me all the more skeptical that either is secure.

  What am I thinking? I just decided not to contact him. I’m not going to change my mind.

  I do a quick check of Peggy’s Facebook page, but she hasn’t added anything new.

  Unwrapping my last fresh recyclable phone, I dial up Thea. As it rings, I grab a bagel from my supplies and step out of the stuffy car again.

  A girl’s quiet, uncertain voice comes on. “Hello?”

  “Thea? It’s Rosie,” I say. “Did I wake you?”

  Thea gives a soft laugh. “No, but this phone showed up only ten minutes ago. Imagine my surprise. How are you? Where are you?”

  I am so, so relieved to hear her sounding normal. I barely allowed myself to think that she could be dead or back in a coma. Grinning, I meander into the desert, where dew has darkened the dust and the tops of pebbles.

  “I’m in Arizona,” I say. “And I’m good. How are you? How’s the baby?”

  “I’m exhausted,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe how tired. But my baby’s unbelievable. She’s absolutely incredible.”

  “Really? I’m so glad. What’s she like? Tell me.”

  “She’s the sweetest thing,” Thea says, her voice warm and dreamy. “She has these stern little eyebrows that’ll melt your heart. And she never cries. She’s sleeping now in a little bassinet right next to me. I just want to watch her, every second. Tom’s in love with her, of course. He’s a big fat marshmallow.”

  “What did you name her?” I take a bite of bagel as I listen.

  “Valeria, after my grandmother,” Thea says. “She was a pistol, apparently.”

  Valeria was not our grandmother’s name. We had a Kelly and an Alvina, but I let it pass.

  “Thanks for helping me with her,” she adds. “That was bad in the tunnel.”

  “I know. I’m just glad you made it okay. I’ve been worried,” I say.

  “Tom was fit to be tied when he found out.”

  “I bet,” I say, smiling. It’s easy to picture the big, protective guy in a state over Thea.

  A bird chirps from nearby. I turn my gaze in the right direction and search the bushes for movement.

 
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