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The keep of ages, p.5
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       The Keep of Ages, p.5

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “Want to hear something kind of different?” she asks.

  “Sure.”

  A shifting noise comes over the phone before she goes on.

  “When I was in labor, I had the strangest vision right before the baby came,” Thea says. “I could see Althea’s grandfather on the porch here at the ranch, and Althea’s old dog Gizmo, only Gizmo was still a puppy. A little collie. And I was a girl with little-kid hands. The thing is, it felt like a real memory, like my own. What do you think that means?”

  “I don’t know. Has that sort of thing happened before?”

  “No. I’ve had some of Althea’s feelings before, around Tom especially, but that’s the first time I’ve ever had anything like a real memory.”

  “What feelings for Tom?” I ask.

  “Just feelings. That’s not the point. It just made me wonder if part of her is still alive in me.”

  I pause a moment to idly push a dry stick with the toe of my sneaker.

  “You said something,” I say. “That night, you asked me to give a message to Althea’s parents and her grandfather. You told me to thank them and tell them they did right by you.”

  “I did?” Thea asks.

  “Yes.” At the time, her voice even sounded a little different. I was terrified, actually. I thought she was dying. I chomp down on my bagel again and work through a thick, stale bite. She’s quiet for so long, I start to wonder if we’ve lost the connection. “Thea?”

  “I’m just thinking,” she says. “It’s scary. It was a nice memory, but I don’t want Althea to come back. I couldn’t handle sharing my brain with her, and I wouldn’t want her taking over, squeezing me out. Is that selfish of me?”

  I hadn’t thought of Althea taking over.

  “No,” I say. “Or yes, it is, but you deserve to feel selfish about your own mind.”

  “Even if it was hers first?”

  “Thea! You’re not giving up, are you?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Are you having headaches or déjà vus? Any dizziness?” I ask.

  She exhales a big breath, and then speaks very quietly. “Actually, the headaches are pretty bad.”

  “Have you told your parents?” I ask, alarmed.

  “They know,” she says. “Did you say you’re home? How’s Dubbs?”

  “You’re changing the subject,” I say.

  “I want to hear about you,” she says firmly. “And our family.”

  I squash down my anxiety for her, but I’m not forgetting it. “You’re not going to like this,” I say. Then I tell her about my visit to the boxcar and how our family was gone. I add in my run to Peggy’s and the mess with Ian. “Berg’s after me,” I say. “He wants to mine me again, and I’m worried he’s kidnapping Ma and Larry and Dubbs to force me to cooperate with him.”

  “And you think they’re in Vegas?”

  “That’s what Berg said.”

  “I’m trying not to freak out here,” Thea says. “It’s weird that they didn’t leave any note for you. Did you look everywhere?”

  I’d completely forgotten Dubbs’s note. Now I chuck away the rest of my bagel and pull the scrap of paper out of my pocket. “There was something from Dubbs, actually, but it didn’t say much. She hid it under the bed, where she usually kept her journal.” I smooth the paper and read the message into the phone. “It says, To Rosie, period. From Dubbs, period. See you, no period.” I hadn’t noticed the periods before. Dubbs is eight. She’s not big on punctuation. Then again, maybe she is. I’ll take any clue.

  “There’s no drawing?” Thea asks.

  “No.”

  “Does it smell?” she asks.

  I lift Dubbs’s note to my nose and breathe in the dry scent of lemon. An odd possibility occurs to me, and I inhale the scent again. No, I think, awed. Then I smile.

  “The little sneaky genius,” I say. “It smells of lemon.”

  “You know what that means,” Thea says, excited.

  “Yes. Just a minute. Let me find a match.”

  “We’re like twice as smart now,” she says. “This is so exciting. Check quick. Valeria’s waking up again.”

  “Hold on. I have to go back to the car.”

  Dubbs and I once had a trick for secret messages that we wrote with lemon juice. I read about it in a magazine from the library, and we spent a string of summer afternoons squeezing lemons, writing messages to each other with the juice, and letting them dry so the writing disappeared. Sometimes we’d write a decoy message on the paper with regular ink, so no one would ever guess a hidden message was layered beneath.

  Now, with the phone tucked under my ear, I light up a wooden match and hold it beneath the paper, close enough to feel the heat, but not near enough to catch fire. At first, nothing happens, and then the heat makes brown letters appear where the dry juice is hidden in the paper and completes the message.

  To Rosie. From Dubbs.

  See you at 240 Mallorca Way

  in Miehana, CA.

  Don’t tell. I miss you.

  The last line encircles my heart and squeezes. I hold the match an instant longer to see if any other writing will appear, and then I wave it out.

  My brilliant, brilliant sister left me an address. And she hid it, too, like she knew someone might come looking through our house, like she knew she was in danger. Not good. The address is in Miehana, the same place as the big vault of dreamers. It can’t be a coincidence.

  “What did you find?” Thea asks.

  “It’s an address in Miehana, California: Two forty Mallorca Way,” I say, trying to remember if I’ve ever said anything to Thea about the vault in Miehana. I don’t think so. “It has to be where my family was going. She says not to tell anybody.”

  “Dubbs is a genius,” Thea says. “You’re going there, right? I wish I could go with you!”

  “You just had a baby. Your head’s a mess.” Already I’m walking around the car to get in the driver’s seat. I toss the matches on the dashboard and take another sniff of Dubbs’s note. Now it smells like smoke as well as lemon, and it’s almost as good as having her in the car with me.

  “At least tell me what can I do to help,” Thea says. “I have money now. What do you need?”

  “You sound like Burnham.”

  “Burnham! Exactly. We have to tell him. He’ll be a huge help.”

  I look again at Dubbs’s note where it says Don’t tell.

  “I’m not sure I want to tell him,” I say.

  “Why not? How much does he know about you and me?” Thea asks.

  “I wasn’t sure you’d want me to tell him about us.”

  “What is wrong with you? That’s ridiculous,” Thea says. “Call him back. He already knows I was in a coma. You should at least explain to him how we’re connected. Then he and I can put our heads together. He’ll be a brilliant ally. He knows all about computers. You know, I bet he could even break into the Forge computers if he tried.”

  I switch the phone to speaker and rest it on my knee. Then I start up the car and shift into gear.

  “He did try,” I say.

  “What?!” she exclaims.

  “He tried and failed, just a couple days ago while you were locked in the vault at Forge. In fact, the whole thing backfired,” I say. I turn the car around and head back toward the highway. “The point is, for the very first time, I might actually have an edge over Berg. This address could be the key to the vault of dreamers in Miehana, and he doesn’t know I have it. I have to be careful who I tell and what I do next.”

  “We have to be careful,” she says. “Don’t you dare try to do this on your own. Imagine how I feel. I care about Ma and Dubbs as much as you do.”

  I notice she doesn’t mention Larry.

  “And Larry,” she adds. “Besides, we don’t know anything about that address. It could be a trap. Why don’t you come to Holdum instead? We can work together and figure out a plan.”

  “I think we’re both safer apart,” I say.

>   She lets out a laugh. “What are you talking about?”

  I hesitate, not certain how she’s going to take this. “Berg told me your parents want to buy more of my dreams for you.”

  I aim around a pothole.

  “They probably think you’re dead,” Thea says, her voice low. “They wouldn’t want to mine you if they knew you were alive.”

  “No? Have you told them about me?”

  “I have, obviously, but it didn’t do much good,” she says. “They won’t believe I’m you inside. They know Rosie Sinclair was a star on The Forge Show, but they think I’m just obsessed with you. They don’t realize Sinclair Fifteen comes from you.”

  “What are they? Stupid?” I say.

  “You know what?” she says calmly. “Sometimes you sound just like you used to when you were a little voice in my head and you said the sort of thing I knew not to say out loud.”

  “And sometimes you sound like a superior butthead.”

  “I’m trying to be rational here,” she says. “Madeline and Diego are very shrewd people, but they’re not cruel. They must think the original source of my dream seed is dead. Or a volunteer. A dream donor or whatever.”

  Thea’s deluding herself, but I keep my opinion to myself this time.

  “Did they tell you to invite me there?” I ask.

  “They suggested it,” she says. “When I told them how you helped me deliver my baby, they said you would always be welcome here.”

  “I see,” I say, coming to a stop before the highway. I crack my window to let in a little air. “I hate to point out the obvious, but having me nearby would be awfully convenient if they ever needed to mine me.”

  “Rosie, they wouldn’t. I promise you. That would never even be a possibility.”

  “No? What if you fall into a coma again? What if your headaches get worse?” I say. “Why not tap old Rosie? She’s got dreams to spare.”

  From her end of the phone, a muffled shuffling happens.

  “I’d give you my dreams in a heartbeat,” she says.

  I laugh. “Oh, great. Now I’m a selfish jerk.”

  “I didn’t say that.”

  “No?” I say. “I guess I’m not as generous as you. I wouldn’t sacrifice my dreams for you. I already did that when it wasn’t my choice, and I’m not doing it again.”

  I’m surprised at how vicious I sound. But they mined me and mined me until I was a pathetic shred of myself. I barely survived. I’ve never been the same.

  “Rosie,” she says sadly. “You know I had to leave you.”

  “Don’t.”

  I already feel ugly and bad enough as it is. I don’t need her bringing up her justifications again for why she abandoned me, and sure as I live, I don’t need to think any more about what it was like in the dream hell of Onar. The simple, bitter truth is, I’m never letting anyone mine me again, ever.

  “You said you’re sorry. We’re done,” I say.

  A little squawking noise comes over the line, and then a guy’s murmur. It’s disconcerting to think Tom might have been overhearing her end of the conversation.

  “Valeria’s awake,” Thea says. Another shuffling noise follows. “She needs to nurse. Listen, will you call me later? We’ll figure out what to do about Berg, okay?”

  “I’ll try,” I say.

  “Don’t be mad at me.”

  “I’m not mad,” I say. I am, obviously, fuming mad.

  “Then will you please tell Burnham about me, really? Please?” Thea says. “He’d never believe me if I tried to tell him myself.”

  “I will.”

  “Call me after you talk to him.”

  She’s off.

  I ease onto the highway and get up to speed. She thinks we belong together, like we’re still halves of the same whole. She’s wrong, though. We aren’t the same. We have completely different lives now. What’s more, we don’t even really think alike. We never did, actually, even when we were part of the same mind. That’s why we could disagree with each other before. You have to be separate to disagree.

  And yet. We still have fifteen years of shared memories, and she helped me find the lemon juice clue. I hold the note above the steering wheel and take a moment to memorize the address. For the first time, I wonder how Dubbs got it.

  Then I touch Dubbs’s note to my nose again and breathe in the lemony, smoky fragrance. It’s a small, churlish comfort to think that Dubbs will recognize me rather than Thea if we ever all meet together.

  6

  LINUS: HALF BLIND

  HE HATED DOCTORS and doctors’ offices and hospitals. He couldn’t stand being asked to undress, or feeling a paper gown against his skin, or knowing he’d be touched with impersonal, efficient hands. His mum had died in hospital. His dad, too, an ocean later. The slimy guy who’d photographed him at age thirteen, Floyd, had divined this revulsion somehow. He’d worn a stethoscope around his neck while he took the shots of Linus, posed half-naked on the brown, carpeted podium. The hidden tension was what gave the photos their power, Floyd had said.

  Sweating in his suit, Linus sat in the waiting room of the top eye surgeon in the country and tried not to think about the past. To look at his eye, they weren’t going to make him undress, that was for sure. He could keep it together. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He wasn’t subject to Floyd’s sick power.

  He couldn’t live with a camera lens in his eye anymore. He couldn’t have Berg spying on every tiny, intimate detail of his life. His gut tensed with hunger. He hadn’t been able to eat since he’d found out his eye belonged to Berg, and no matter how much he faked his normal confidence, he was shaking and fizzing inside like a faulty firecracker that spun around on the street and never fizzled out.

  If Rosie were here with him, he could calm down, but that wasn’t realistic. If she would just return his calls, he would quit wanting to rip her apart. How many times could she break his heart?

  A teenage girl and her father looked his way and whispered to each other. They recognized him, no doubt, but he hoped they’d stop at the friendly, knowing smiles and not approach to talk to him. He wore shades, and he had a patch over his left eye. If that wasn’t a big enough hint that he didn’t want to interact with the public, he didn’t know what was. Twenty other patients were waiting as well. The TV beside the receptionist’s window was tuned to The Forge Show, low volume, and even though he didn’t watch it, he could feel the light of it washing over him personally like a punishing, scalding X-ray.

  The inner door opened, and the famous doctor herself leaned out. Dr. Keane’s long nose and silver hair matched the photos he’d seen. Her dangling blue earrings were a surprise.

  “Mr. Pitts?” she asked, glancing up from the clipboard she held. Her eyebrows lifted as her gaze settled on him. “Won’t you come in?”

  As Linus rose, the girl whispered audibly to her father, “See? I told you.”

  Linus expected to face an examination room, but instead, the doctor led him to a small office with wall-to-wall diplomas and awards. A snow globe rested on the corner of a shiny mahogany desk, and he relaxed slightly at the whimsical object. Inside, a pair of tiny skaters were poised on a glassy pond. When she gestured him toward a leather armchair, he was too restless to sit.

  The doctor crossed her arms in her crisp white coat. She was nearly as tall as he was, meeting his gaze straight on and patiently, as if she didn’t have a crammed schedule.

  “This is a pleasure,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed following your career, but I never expected to meet you in person.”

  “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice,” Linus said.

  “Not at all. What can I do for you?”

  “It’s of a confidential nature.”

  “Of course.”

  “I have a camera lens in my left eye,” he said, pointing to his patch. “It was put in while I worked at Forge, and I didn’t know about it until Saturday. I called you as soon as I could.”

  Her eyes widened in surprise. “You didn
t consent to the camera?”

  “I was never even asked about it. The cook at Forge hit me in the eye, and I couldn’t see, so I went to the infirmary,” he said. “The doctor there told me I had a hyphema. She said she had a procedure to make it clear, and she worked on me for maybe half an hour. Not long. She put me out while she did it. Then I wore a patch afterward for twenty-four hours, but that was it. When I took the patch off, I could see again. Things were a little bright, but the doctor had told me to expect that, so I didn’t think anything about it.”

  “You want me to testify? Is that it? What you’ve described is a serious breach of ethics,” the doctor said.

  “I want you to get it out,” Linus said.

  She took a penlight out of her pocket and gestured toward his eye. “May I?”

  He stiffened. “What? Right here?”

  “We can move to an examination room if you prefer,” she said.

  “No,” he said. “Here’s fine.”

  She tilted her face, smiling oddly, as if she were reading exactly how nervous he was.

  “It’ll only take a minute,” she said. “I’ll need you to take off your glasses and your patch. Here. Hold this for me.”

  She passed him the snow globe, which was cool and heavy in his hand. The glass was so smooth it was almost oily, but it felt good, too. Calming. He gave it a tilt, and the snow drifted around the skaters. When the doctor smiled, he set aside his sunglasses and his patch. Then he held the snow globe in both hands and offered her his face. Lightly, she pressed her cool thumb and forefinger around his left eye, stretching wide his eyelid.

  “Look up?” she said. “Now down. To the left? Now the right.”

  Her light beamed into him, creating a blind, silent hollow. He concentrated on the cool sphere of glass in his hands until she lowered the light away, leaving a ghost glare behind. She examined his right eye, too, and then dropped her pen back in her breast pocket.

  “All done,” she said. “You were right. You have a camera in your eye.”

  Linus felt an ugly twist of vindication, and then a new shot of anger. He couldn’t help wondering if Berg was watching this very scene.

  “Have you seen these before?” he asked.

 
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