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The rule of mirrors, p.5
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.5

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Police Question Forge Staffers, Teachers Re Missing Girl

  He was alive. Relief and happiness whooshed through me, and I smiled. I wasn’t surprised that Linus’s hotness was making headlines. I had picked up on that as soon as I’d met him. Others had become interested in Linus since the half-naked, black-and-white photos of him at age thirteen had come to light. But his looks were only a fraction of what drew me to him, and my smile dimmed. What I didn’t understand was how Linus could get from the vault in the basement of the dean’s tower to hosting a TV show.

  I clicked on an ad of him walking through a paint-chipped playground. “Missing children live among us every day,” Linus said. “I know. I was one of them.” He moved past the chain of a deserted swing set, and the camera closed in on his face. His dark hair, straight brows, and intense eyes were achingly familiar. “I was orphaned at thirteen,” he continued. “When I began working in the kitchen at The Forge Show, I had no idea that my Aunt Trudi in Wales was trying to find me.” In the next shot, he set his arm around a short, dour-faced old woman who stared distrustfully at the camera. Her shoulders sloped in a gray, formless cardigan, and she bore only the faintest resemblance to Linus. “We’re reunited now, thanks to state-of-the-art technology and a new, international clearinghouse for missing and exploited children. Now, with a simple phone app, anyone can help with the search. At the playground, in the grocery store, anywhere you go, you can help anxious parents find their missing children. And kids find their folks. Click a picture, and the app will automatically scan for a match and alert local police. We’re making a difference and reuniting families. Watch Found Missing to learn more about our most vulnerable kids and what you can do to help.”

  I blinked at the screen. Reuniting families was a beautiful idea, but Linus was asking people to spy on each other. He must realize that. Who would control all that data on the kids? I didn’t trust it, and this slick version of Linus made me uneasy.

  A soft noise from the hallway made me look over expectantly. I waited for someone to come in my doorway and tell me I ought to be sleeping, but no one entered.

  I couldn’t stop browsing.

  It was easy to find clips of Linus and me together on The Forge Show. He’d stepped on stage to be with me often enough. The clips lured me irresistibly, but it was strange, so strange to see a scene reframed by multiple camera angles. They doubled a kind of postcard quality on top of my own memories.

  One popular clip showed the time Linus and I ate ice cream together on a bench in the quad while a dozen other students performed spontaneously in the background. I glowed with a teasing happiness, which was impressive considering that my mind had been racing with things I had to hide. Linus ducked his head and looked at me sideways. The shaded light caught in his honey-brown eyes. He relaxed into his shoulders, and when he reached to touch my leg above the knee, I felt the tingle again vicariously.

  I set a finger to the screen, pausing it and cropping close on Linus. I’d had no idea back then how bad things were going to get at Forge. My quiet, dim bedroom at Chimera felt a light-year away from that ice cream afternoon. Wistful, I studied the way his dark hair touched his eyebrows, and the color where his red bib apron lay against his neck. This was the Linus I cared for, not the cool guy who hosted Found Missing.

  My baby gave me a couple nudges, the little insomniac. I closed my eyes a moment, uncertain, and then I set up a new email account for myself. I located an email contact for Linus through his new show. Possibly it would be screened by staff, but I had to try.

  Dear Linus,

  I’ve missed you.

  Wrong. Way too honest. The last time I’d actually talked to Linus, we’d broken up. If I had to explain that I knew he’d come looking for me on my last night at Forge, it would all get tangled. I deleted and tried again.

  Hey, Linus. This is Rosie. I’m in some hospital in Iceland and I’ve been

  I stopped again. “… in a coma” was what I’d been about to say. But Althea had been in the coma, not me. Today was March 1, more than four months since my last day at Forge. I couldn’t exactly say that during that time I’d been sleeping and, what, growing in a petri dish?

  Hi, Linus. This is Rosie. Sorry I haven’t written sooner, but I’m in a hospital. I’ve had some problems, needless to say. Please write me back. I need to talk to you. I miss you.

  Rosie Sinclair

  I read it over, deleted the I miss you, and read it once more. My heart gave out three heavy, doubting pulses, and then I hit SEND.

  Now I had to wait. Waiting was the worst. Twenty seconds of it killed me.

  Guiltily, I realized I probably should have tried to email my mother before Linus. I looked up her work email and began typing.

  Dear Ma,

  I couldn’t go on.

  Loss, longing, and anger pulled my fingers from the phone. Ma stood at the bathroom mirror as she tried with her pinky to get the last dab of color out of a used-up lipstick. Another time she leaned over Dubbs at the kitchen sink, dribbling her hair with a lemon rinse. Still later she passed me an ice pack for my sore face, and a bowl with the last smears of cookie batter. I longed to hide in her hug. I also wanted to punish her. She’d hurt me unforgivably in our last phone call, when she agreed to the dean’s ridiculous contract for guardianship. No pro bono lawsuit could cancel the hurt I felt.

  The phone automatically dimmed from disuse.

  Then again, I wasn’t a child. I’d signed that contract, too, for reasons of my own. Slowly I deleted my email draft. I couldn’t contact Ma yet. I felt too much. Better to wait until I could call and actually talk to her.

  A faint noise drew my attention to the doorway again, and I was sure that someone was just beyond my view.

  “Hello?” I said. “Who’s there?”

  Puzzled, I kept watching. A nurse checking on me would simply come in. I hadn’t imagined the sound, but the silence lingered and no one answered.

  I did not believe in ghosts, but they reminded me of my ghost project at Forge, and my cameras, and then Burnham. A mix of guilt and confusion surrounded my memories of him. The night was growing late and I was tired, but I typed in Burnham’s name for one last search.

  Burnham Fister, Son of Pharmaceutical Moguls, Returns Home to Atlanta

  Fisters Thank Doctors, Nurses; Donate New Wing to Sterling Memorial

  Top 10 Hottest Guys on Forge

  Forge Concert for Burnham Raises $30K

  Fisters on Sinclair Disappearance: No Comment

  Forge Fans Ship Rosie and Burnham

  What? Me and Burnham? “I don’t know about that,” I muttered. Sure I had figured out that Burnham more than liked me, and he certainly was attractive in his own way. But I’d tried to be clear about how I was seeing Linus. I focused on the news that Burnham was better and was grateful for that. Tomorrow I would send him an email through his parents and hope it reached him.

  My baby rolled again, and I touched a hand to my belly where a little lump was jabbing out. “You’re okay in there,” I said, and rolled to my other side, facing away from the door. The baby shifted again to a more comfortable position.

  I was getting sleepy, but it was so hard to stop browsing. I needed to feel connected to my old friends and my old life, but nothing was satisfying me yet. Restless, I searched until I found The Forge Show streaming. Back in Kansas, the time was early evening, which meant the show was running footage from that morning, twelve hours earlier, on the repeat cycle.

  The bare, winter trees around the quad had a light coating of fresh snow, and the grass was covered in white. I pulled up Janice’s feed. She’d changed her hair to a silky red color, and her pixie cut had grown out. Down in our old classroom under the library, she was constructing a tiny stage set out of foam core while the noise of a Ping-Pong match bounced in the background. On a hunch, I pulled up Paige’s and Henrik’s feeds, too, and they were the ones playing Ping-Pong.

  Nostalgic, I watched them having fun. My old friends,
engrossed in their regular lives, were continuing on as if I’d never existed and no danger of dream mining had ever touched them. I didn’t exactly begrudge them their normal lives, but they brought home how much I’d missed. My life could have been golden, like theirs. I didn’t see why I was the only one who had been ruined by the dream mining, while their lives sped blithely along, like a train on a parallel track while I was stuck in a pit.

  Finally, deliberately, I set the phone away from me.

  I lifted a hand in the darkness and pivoted my wrist so my fingers made a silhouette before the window. My hand. I didn’t choose to be Althea. The truth finally came to me: it was loneliness, not curiosity, that kept me awake tonight. I trailed my hand softly along my eyebrow, then over my cheekbone, and paused to learn the feel of the bridge of my nose.

  When I closed my eyes and went quiet inside, I was still here. If I could dig gently past the old, familiar ache of longing, I found that the reaches and dips of my thinking still felt right. The deepest core of me was still Rosie, and I could hold on to that. The night expanded indefinitely, and home was far away, but I softly filled up with my own blue light.

  7

  ROSIE

  CHERRY LIP GLOSS

  THE NEXT TIME, Ian brings me cherry lip gloss.

  “Do you want me to put it on for you?” he asks.

  I’m filled with rage. This stupid, meaningless token is nothing but a tease from the real life I’m missing. I can barely force myself to smile.

  “I can do it myself,” I say. “Do you have a mirror?”

  “I forgot.” And then, “Is something wrong?”

  I bring my voice light. “No, not at all,” I say.

  I unscrew the plastic lid and press my pinkie into the waxy color. I’m like his doll now, and he likes to watch my tricks, so I don’t hurry. I dab the balm on my dry lower lip first, then my upper. I press my lips together to feel the slight smear, and the taste of cherry pops along my tongue.

  He shakes the bangs out of his eyes and slides a hand along the rim of my sleep shell. I can see his nubby fingernails.

  “You look nice like this,” he says. “It’s a good color on you. You didn’t smudge at all.”

  “Thanks.”

  He presses against my sleep shell. “Say my name,” he says.

  “Thanks, Ian John Cowles.”

  He nods. He likes that. He’s gross.

  “You seem different today,” I say. “More confident.”

  “Really? Funny you should say that. My grandmother said the same thing. She said I’m not mumbling as much. I think you’re good for me.”

  “Maybe because you’re good for me,” I say. No brainer there. “Are you going to clean my port?”

  “Lindsay did earlier. We can’t talk long today,” he says.

  “Why not?”

  “Dr. Ash will be here tonight. We’re supposed to clean all the dreamers before she comes.”

  “Won’t she see my lip balm?” I ask.

  “She won’t mind,” he says. “She lets me put a little color on the females. Nothing too much. It was my own idea.”

  I’m surprised that he puts makeup on dreamers who are all but dead. I get the sense that he thinks he’s doing us a favor.

  “That’s nice,” I say. “How many dreamers are here right now?”

  He turns, and I watch him scan the room, counting. “Eighteen.”

  “How often does Dr. Ash come?” I ask.

  “Every week or so. It’s hard for her to get away from Forge during the semester. She has to make the round trip in twelve hours.”

  “She still works there?” I ask, surprised.

  He frowns. “Sure. Why wouldn’t she?”

  “Does Dean Berg still work at Forge, too?” I ask.

  “Of course,” Ian says. “That’s his job. He’s here more in the summer when school’s not in session.”

  This boggles my mind. I guess I’ve assumed there was an investigation into Berg after I disappeared. Then again, if someone found enough dream mining evidence to arrest him, they would have come to rescue me, too, and I’m still here.

  “Who actually mines me, then?” I ask.

  “It’s Dr. Ash, with Mr. Berg consulting long distance,” Ian says. “Nobody else is allowed to touch your mind. You’ve got warnings all over your chart.”

  A trickling noise comes from one of the lines above, and Ian glances up. Then he looks over his shoulder.

  “You’d better give me the lip gloss,” he says. “I’ll keep it for you.”

  I hand it over, but slowly. “The taste makes me hungry.”

  “You shouldn’t be hungry,” he says. “Your weight’s stabilizing. That’s a good sign.”

  “It is? I feel pretty skinny.” My wrists are bonier than before, and I’m definitely weaker. When I shift to look at my knees, they’re narrow wedges under the blanket.

  “No, you’re good,” he says. “Dreamers usually lose a lot at the beginning. We expect that, but then they stabilize when they hit the right nutrient balance.” He taps my IV. “One of the reasons I was worried about you before was the way you kept losing all along. I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure, but for the last two weeks, you’ve been steady at one-oh-eight. That’s really good.”

  No wonder my hand looks so frail. I haven’t been this thin since I was twelve. I smooth a hand over my hip bone. “That’s crazy skinny,” I say.

  “No, for a dreamer of your height, it’s good,” he says. “It means you’re settling in like.” He smiles modestly. “You haven’t had a breakdown this time, either, did you notice? That’s very good.”

  A distant clank sounds from the hallway, and Ian glances over his shoulder again.

  “Sorry,” he says, and reaches for my IV. “I have to put you out. Lindsay’s back from her break. This was kind of risky today, but I didn’t want you to miss the lip balm.”

  My heart beats quickly. For an instant, I consider calling out to the other attendant to see if she would help me more than Ian, but already the meds are trickling into my veins, bringing the cool heaviness.

  “When can I see you again, Ian John Cowles?” I ask.

  “You’ll just have to wait and see, Miss Sinclair Fifteen,” he says.

  It’s downright saucy, for him. He settles my hands at my sides and smoothes my nightie and blanket. He doesn’t kiss me, but he strokes a finger gently down my cheek.

  “Let it be soon,” I say.

  He closes my lid, and I see his palm pressed on the glass for a moment before he steps away.

  I’m dying here. I feel like I’d make more progress begging a slug to throw me a life preserver, but I need Ian’s help to get free. I bite my lower lip, tasting cherry misery, and I can barely stop from crying in despair.

  8

  THEA

  FACE LESSONS

  “HOW ARE WE FEELING?” Dr. Fallon asked. “How’s your voice?”

  She stopped by just as I was finishing breakfast. A mirror in her hand slashed an angle of light around the room before she placed it on my desk. Then she stepped to the window to adjust the shades, reaching in her white coat to expand my view of the trees and mountain. Another cloudy morning beckoned, and over the past week, the snow on the nearby pine had evaporated to a thinner layer.

  “About the same,” I said. But my voice came out clearly, without the painful crackle I was used to. I touched my throat, amazed. “It doesn’t hurt.”

  “And you sound very nice,” she said. “Your parents will be thrilled. Say your Pledge of Allegiance for me, slowly.”

  I didn’t care much for Dr. Fallon, but it did me no good to be openly belligerent. I worked my mouth around the familiar words of the Pledge, surprised by the breathy, melodious sound of the new voice between my ears. I could hear the Texas in my vowels, and a cultured mellowness that struck me as classy. I liked it. It wasn’t me, of course, and Althea’s voice was higher than my old one, but it was nice. At last I could have an actual conversation.


  I glanced at my phone, thinking I could call Ma, but then I realized she wouldn’t recognize my new voice. This was going to complicate things.

  “Where are my parents?” I asked.

  “I met them on my way up and suggested they step outside for a walk,” she said. “You’ll be out there soon yourself at this rate. How do you like your P.T.?”

  “It hurts.”

  “Because it’s working,” she said, smiling. “Marcus is very good at what he does. Sit up a bit more.”

  Even with the heaviness of my belly, it was getting easier to sit up. My muscles had a new, restless eagerness, and my appetite had improved, too.

  “What’s the mirror for?” I asked.

  “I want to get your face going. In a way, it’s another form of P.T.”

  “My face feels fine,” I said.

  “It’s about to feel better.”

  Dr. Fallon cleared my breakfast tray off my desk and propped up the mirror. The sunkenness around my eyes was noticeably less, and my acne was clearing up, leaving my tan skin smoother. My hair fell in dark, limp strands around my face, clean but dull. My face now belonged more to an acquaintance than a stranger, and I turned to see the little, familiar notch in the top of my ear.

  Dr. Fallon pulled over a chair as she spoke. “The truth is, Althea, your features hardly move. They’re out of practice. We’ll have to teach your facial muscles how to express your feelings again, and once we do, you’ll appreciate the way it feels. When your cheeks and eyes feel a smile, for instance, they’ll codify backward to your emotions, and you’ll feel happier. To start, close your eyes. Now try a natural smile.”

  I did as she said, curious.

  “Is that completely comfortable and natural?” she asked.

  “Yes.”

  I heard a camera click.

  “Good. Now open your eyes,” the doctor said.

  I did. My reflection was basically deadpan, with only the slightest quirk to my lips. By concerted effort, I widened my lips more and achieved a freakish duck face.

 
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