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The vault of dreamers, p.5
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.5

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  A voice startled me from behind.

  “For goodness’s sake. What are you doing here?” she said.

  I spun to see the dark-haired woman who had tended Janice the night before. I backed up nervously as she stepped around me. She swiped her hand briskly across the touch screen to turn the monitors dark.

  “What is all this?” I asked.

  “You’re off-limits,” she said. “Come back on camera. Did Mr. Ferenze let you back here? Where is he?”

  “No one was at the desk,” I said. “What were those images?”

  “Oh, those,” she said, with a self-effacing wave. She was slender, of Asian heritage, and up close, she seemed younger than she had in the dorm. “It’s just my hobby. I’m experimenting with photography. It’s hard to work here without getting inspired.” She laughed, but she also kept crowding me back toward the hallway until she could close the door. “I’m Dr. Glyde Ash. Thanks for coming in. Right this way.”

  She led me down the hall and gestured me into an examining room.

  “What am I here for?” I asked.

  “It’s nothing serious. Have a seat.” She patted a paper-covered bench. “One sec. I’m with another patient, but I’ll be with you shortly.” She stepped out, and I listened as her high heels clicked down the hallway. “Ferenze?” she called.

  I hitched up onto the bench to sit and let my feet hang. A button camera on the windowsill aimed at my face. Another was on the ceiling. Out the window, I could see Otis’s lookout tower. I hung my head and knocked my boots together a few times. Then I flopped back and covered my eyes with one arm, trying to look bored.

  Inside, I was dying of curiosity. What was Linus’s connection to Otis? And Dr. Ash’s pictures were definitely weird. I didn’t buy that they were just a photography project. These glimpses off the edges of the show were baffling. Worst of all, I dreaded having the doctor ask me point-blank about last night, when I’d been out of bed. If only I knew how to play this.

  Dr. Ash returned a few minutes later and washed her hands at a little sink. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Busy day here. Lots of stress-related issues.”

  “What’s wrong with me?” I asked.

  “Nothing serious, I’m sure,” she said, ripping a paper towel from the dispenser. “I just want to follow up on some readings we had the last couple nights.”

  Here it comes, I thought.

  She took out a penlight. “Look up,” she said, and shone it in my right eye, and then my left. The glare half blinded me. “Good. Now down.”

  “What kind of readings?” I asked. I would play dumb as long as I could.

  She looked in my ears next. “Elevated heart rate and breathing. Just because you go to sleep at six o’clock doesn’t mean we stop caring. Some of our new students have a mild reaction to the sleeping pills. We monitor you all very carefully, and at the first sign of an irregularity, we’re right there.”

  “So I had a problem?” I asked. “Does that mean you have to send me home?”

  “No, no. I wouldn’t say it’s a real problem,” she said, with a smile. She rolled a temperature gauge along my forehead. “You were very restless. Having a bad dream, no doubt. It happens, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t fit to stay, provided you make the cuts. Finger, please.”

  I held out my finger, and she put a white clamp around it. It sounded like she was giving me a warning. Maybe that was all this was.

  “I don’t have any dreams here,” I said.

  “You do. You just don’t remember them.” She lifted the back of my shirt. “Take a deep breath.”

  I did. The cold disk of her stethoscope on my back made me flinch.

  “Again,” she said.

  I took a few more breaths, as directed. She pulled my shirt down and took the stethoscope out of her ears to loop it around her neck. Then she took a small, triangular hammer and beat it against my knee. My leg jerked. She did the other knee, too, and then took the clamp off my finger to inspect it. She backed up to tap into her tablet.

  “Have you had any dizziness? Nausea? Headaches?” she asked.

  “No.”

  “Appetite normal?”

  “Yes.”

  “Déjà vus?”

  I laughed.

  “I’m serious,” she said. “Have you had any déjà vus recently?”

  “No. I haven’t had any déjà vus,” I said.

  She took my blood pressure, and the cuff made a little hiss in the silence. The scab on my arm was visible, like a secret test between us, but the doctor didn’t touch it or mention it. She released the rest of the blood pressure cuff with a whoosh of air.

  “You’re fine. Totally fine,” she said. “A little stressed, but nothing to be concerned about. That’s perfectly natural.”

  I looked directly at her. We both knew Janice had had a seizure in the night. That shouldn’t be hushed up. Then again, the doctor wasn’t saying on camera that I’d broken the rules, and mutual silence made for an odd form of trust. I decided to take a chance.

  “I have a question, actually,” I said. “What’s this?”

  She brought her face close to inspect the crook of my elbow, and ran a finger over my track mark. “That’s from an IV,” she said. “Most students never even notice. It’s a standard precaution to put one in. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we don’t even have to use it, but I like it ready.”

  “What happens the other one percent of the time?” I asked.

  “You know, sleeping medication is just not something we take chances with,” she said. “If someone’s in trouble and we need to bring them around, we can.”

  “So you have an antidote to wake someone up from the sleeping meds?”

  “Yes,” she said. “But like I said, we almost never need to use it.”

  “You could have warned us about this,” I said.

  “We did. It’s in the fine print. You and your parents signed the contract before you came,” she said. She wrapped up the cord of the blood pressure cuff. “Honestly, Rosie. This is about the safest place you could ever be, and you’re perfectly fine.”

  I got it. This was definitely a warning disguised as a reassurance. I had read my contract, of course. It stated clearly that I was supposed to take my pill each night, and it contained all sorts of cover-their-butts legalese about risks and potential death. I had never thought any of that was a real possibility, though. Now I wasn’t so sure.

  A tap came on the door, and a man in a white coat looked in.

  “Doctor? We’re ready for you,” he said.

  Dr. Ash looked toward me. “Any last questions?”

  “Why did you need to check me out? I could be gone in a few hours,” I said.

  “That’s true,” she said. “But I’m a stickler for following up, and while you’re here, you’re under my care, no matter how short or long that is. Good luck with the cuts.”

  * * *

  I had Practicum for two hours next, followed by an original one-act play some older students put on, and afterward, around 3:30, I went back to the girls’ dorm to pack.

  All first-year students were supposed to pack and have their belongings piled at the ends of their sleep shells before the fifty cuts. In theory, this was to make the removal of half the students quick and easy after the cuts. In practice, it made the fourth floor of the girls’ dorm a miserable place to be. The big room was hushed when I arrived. Some girls had come and gone already, leaving their mute, tidy piles behind. I passed several other girls who were quietly folding their things and tucking them in suitcases. A few were passing around their phones to exchange numbers, with big tears and promises to keep in touch. Looked fake to me, but whatever.

  It took me five minutes, total, to drop everything in my duffel bag and zip it closed. No way was I going to wait around and swap daisy chains with the other contestants.

  “This is decidedly unfun up here,” I said to Janice, pausing by her sleep shell. “I’m going for a run. Want to come?”

  She
shook her head. “I told my parents I’d call them.”

  “Where’s Paige?” I asked, scanning the room.

  “She went to dance,” Janice said. “You know. Art and guts.”

  “And niceness,” I added. “Thanks again for the spike at lunchtime.”

  “No problem. Actually, I’ve been remembering Camp Pewter, from when I knew Burnham before,” she said. “He was kind of a chubby do-gooder back then.”

  “He’s not chubby now,” I said, leaning a hip into the end of her sleep shell.

  Janice laughed. “No. He’s not.”

  “Were you friends?”

  “Not exactly. But I definitely remember him.” Janice folded a yellow sweater, adding it to her suitcase. “On the last night of camp, everyone went down for the last campfire out on the point. It was this special tradition, right? With all these nice songs and prayers and readings? It was great until I got some ash or something in my eye. It wouldn’t come out, so I started back to my cabin to get a mirror, and one of counselors saw me going.” Janice slowed down. “I thought, you know, he was coming along to look after me.”

  “What happened?” I asked.

  “This counselor, he kept putting his arm around my shoulder,” she said. “I shrugged him off, and then he put his hand around my waist. It was really creepy. ‘What’s your hurry? Watch your step,’ he kept saying. ‘Listen to the crickets.’ Like it was a nature walk, but it wasn’t.”

  Janice slowly raked a hand back into her hair.

  “Creepy,” I said.

  “I know, right?” she said. “Then one of the boys came running along the trail behind us. He caught up with us, and I was so glad. He said he had to use the biffy. That’s what we called the bathroom. He walked with us all the way back to the cabins and the slime ball counselor didn’t touch me again.”

  “Let me guess. It was Burnham.”

  Janice picked up her brush and absently pulled a matting of hairs out of the bristles. She gave a crooked smile. “We passed the biffy and he stayed with us the whole time until I went into the nurse’s office. I think he knew. I think he was protecting me.”

  “How old were you?” I asked.

  “Like, twelve?”

  “Didn’t you become friends after that?” I asked.

  “No,” she said. “I was kind of embarrassed, and camp ended the next day anyway. I hadn’t thought about it in ages. Then I saw him here.”

  “All grown up and not chubby,” I said.

  “Yes. But still nice.”

  I absently fingered my necklace. “Do you think he remembers?” I asked.

  “I have no idea.”

  I wondered where Burnham was now. Probably working on his computer game. I recalled the image from Dr. Ash’s office of a young, Burnham-like kid, gazing into a campfire. It was odd to think Janice could have seen him that way once. The elusive connection was enough to be inspiring.

  “Maybe I’ll take some footage instead of going for a run,” I said.

  “Footage for what?” she asked. “You only have a couple hours. Not even.”

  “I don’t know yet,” I said, but I was already getting ideas. I had the mini video camera my old science teacher had given me. Sometimes I liked to just collect footage, though I hadn’t done it since I’d come to Forge. It wouldn’t actually be a documentary, but it could capture my last hours here. Like a journal. I’d be making meaning for myself.

  I checked my blip rank on the panel by the clock. My rank had dropped to 72 from my high of 69 at lunch. Scores were moving around a lot, just as Burnham had said they would. I looked at the last name on the list: 100 Anna Mezzaluna. I didn’t know her, but I was getting an idea.

  “I’m going to take some footage of the losers,” I said.

  6

  THE LOSERS

  “LIKE THAT’S NOT sick and cruel,” Janice said. She did the double jerk of her thumb to indicate the cameras. “I wouldn’t.”

  “I would,” I said. “It’s reality. There’s nothing wrong with that. Do you know Anna Mezzaluna?”

  “She sleeps there,” Janice said, nodding at the sleep shell beside hers where three black, matching suitcases were neatly lined up by size. “She’s a classical cellist.”

  “Can you find her for me? Look up her profile on The Forge Show.”

  “I don’t have to,” Janice said. “She’s always in the practice rooms at the music building.”

  Perfect, I thought. “Come with me. Please? You know you don’t want to sit around here.”

  I completely expected her to say no.

  Janice zipped the closure on a bag of earrings. “I still have to call my parents,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the music building. Just give me ten minutes.”

  “Fine,” I said.

  “What exactly are you going to do?” she asked.

  “I don’t know yet,” I said. “Trust the process, right?”

  I ran past the other sleep shells and down the stairs, passing the floors for the older girls. I took the back door out of the girls’ dorm, cut behind the dance building, and hurried to the music building, where I followed arrows to a warren of practice rooms under the auditorium. The hallway was stuffy and smelled like cork. Each door had a small, narrow window and a sign-up schedule. I could faintly hear the muffled sound of jazz piano from one room, but most of the others were dark and silent as I passed.

  At the last room, I caught the clear, crooning notes of a cello, and I peeked in the little window. A girl’s slender back was toward me, with the curving wooden knob of her cello over her shoulder. It gleamed beside her smooth black hair. I considered just filming her from the window, but then I’d be no better than an anonymous Forge Show camera. I knocked.

  The music stopped. The girl looked over her shoulder, and I saw her small, pointed face for the first time. She reached to open the door without rising.

  “Yes?” she asked.

  Panels of white cork lined the walls, soaking up her voice until it was wispy thin. She was alone in the little room, with nothing else but her cello, her cello case, a chair, and an empty music stand. Four camera buttons were discretely positioned in the corners.

  “I’m Rosie. I’m getting some footage from the last hour before the fifty cuts,” I said.

  “And?” she asked.

  I wasn’t sure what to say. It suddenly seemed like a horrible idea, what I was doing. I couldn’t tell her she ranked dead last.

  “Can I film you playing?” I asked.

  She looked at me a long moment, and her expression broke into a pained little smile. “It won’t make a difference,” she said.

  “I know,” I said. “But can I?”

  She gave a wave with her cello bow. “Be my guest,” she said.

  I sidestepped into the corner, scooted down on my heels, and lifted the camera to my eye. The girl, Anna, set her bow on a string, positioned her finger on the same string higher up, and closed her eyes. For a moment, she was still, and I hardly dared to breathe. Then the bow began to move, and music resonated into the tiny room.

  She didn’t know me. I’d never met her before. She had no reason to give me anything, but she played with such soul-searching tenderness that the song spilled into me, filling places I never knew were empty. I didn’t dare move. I hardly breathed. Long minutes later, when she finished and the last note faded into silence, she rested her bow hand on her knee.

  I lowered my camera.

  “I’m speechless,” I said.

  “Thanks.” She opened her eyes but didn’t look at me.

  “I wish I’d met you earlier,” I said.

  She examined the calluses on her fingers. “You met me now,” she said.

  “That’s true,” I said.

  The quiet was as empty as the music had just been full, but it wasn’t sad. It was powerful. Defiant. Anna nodded at my camera. “Good luck with that.”

  Her approval meant a lot to me. A knock came softly at the door and I looked over to see Janice outside th
e little window. As she opened the door, a welcome influx of cooler air stirred against my neck.

  “Did I miss anything?” Janice asked.

  “Yes,” I said. I switched off my camera. “Do you want to come with us?” I asked Anna. “We’re going to find someone else to film.”

  “No. I’m good.”

  “You sure? Come with us,” I insisted.

  She shook her head. “I want to be here.”

  Janice beckoned me. I slipped around Anna to the door.

  “That was wonderful,” I said.

  Anna balanced her bow again in her hand. “Thank you,” she said. “Close the door.”

  I did, stepping out into the hallway. Faintly, from inside, I heard Anna starting another piece.

  “What happened in there?” Janice asked, whispering.

  “It was incredible,” I said. “She played for me.” I’d never been next to a cello like that. I had no way to describe how Anna had sucked me into her music, or the power in the silence afterward. She’d given me a perfect gift just when I was ready to receive it, and somehow it felt even more generous because we were strangers.

  “Can I see?” Janice asked, reaching for my camera.

  “No,” I said. “We have to find the next person.”

  “I bet that boosted Anna’s blip rank,” Janice said, pulling out her phone. “She’s up to eighty-two!” Janice said. “That’s a huge jump!”

  “Who’s at one hundred now?” I asked, looking over her shoulder at her phone. Someone else must have slid down to take the bottom rank.

  Janice skimmed her phone. “Terry Fieldstone. He’s in the library. It looks like he’s reading or sleeping.”

  “Let’s go find him,” I said.

  We did. In worn boots and a plaid shirt, Terry was sprawled in one of the low armchairs near the windows. It turned out he was reading Shakespeare and memorizing the “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” speech from Romeo and Juliet. When I asked if he would recite it for me to record, he tilted his head back in his chair and his gaze went far away. He spoke the words tenderly, effortlessly, as if he were remembering a dream he’d once had, and it lifted a brush of goose bumps along my arms.

 
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