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The rule of mirrors, p.6
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.6

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “That’s frightening,” I said.

  She laughed. Then she guided me through a series of uncomfortable grimaces. Inside, they felt extreme, but on the mirror, they hardly showed at all. She told me to feel the pull around my ears. I used my fingers to prod my new features—eyebrows, nose, and cheeks. I broke out in a sweat.

  “It’s like trying to shape a mask,” I said and shook my head. “I don’t look anything like I did before.” As spoke, I realized I meant the way Althea had looked before, in her photos.

  “Nobody really looks like they do in the mirror, or in pictures, for that matter,” Dr. Fallon said. “We think we know our faces because we put on our makeup in front of a mirror, but scrutinizing each pore doesn’t show us how we really look. A mirror never captures the way we laugh unselfconsciously with our friends.”

  “Film comes closer,” I said.

  She regarded me curiously. “You have point. The truth is, you’re a naturally beautiful girl, but without your normal animation, it won’t show.”

  “I don’t care about being beautiful,” I said.

  “Then you’re very unusual,” she said. “Most women appear to be ruled by their mirrors. As your doctor, I want you to have every advantage, including your natural expressions. I’ll have Marcus add a facial component to your P.T. sessions.” She smiled. “You’ve made tremendous strides these past ten days. You’re breaking all our records for recovery.”

  I lowered the mirror. “That sounds like something you say to all your patients.”

  Dr. Fallon leaned back. “In your case, it happens to be true, but it also brings me to another point I wish to discuss with you.”


  She slid her manicured hand along the edge of the table. “Your rapid recovery itself is some cause for concern. I don’t mean to alarm you. All the MRIs we’ve been taking are very reassuring. But the seeding operation is a very delicate procedure, and I need you to let me know if you experience any headaches or vision problems.”

  “Why?” I asked. “What could happen?”

  “Sometimes the host brain decides to team up against the new cells and kill them off,” she said. “Other times the new cells keep expanding, like tumors. They don’t so much kill off the old brain as crowd it, and then they starve off the blood supply. Either way, we need to step in quickly.”

  “What’s that feel like, that crowding or whatever?”

  “Headaches, at first,” the doctor said. “Double vision that can progress to blindness. If patients lose their speech again, then the overall prognosis is very poor. But please don’t worry. So far, we have no indication of anything like that happening to you. I just want you to be on the alert for any symptoms and be sure to tell us promptly.”

  I hardly knew what to say. She had me pretty scared. “What would you do then?”

  “It involves some micro surgery. Some tweaking,” she said. “That’s why we can’t let you go home just yet. We have to watch how everything knits together.”

  “Do my parents know about this?” I asked.

  “I’ve explained it to them,” she said. “We don’t want any surprises here, and that’s why I want you informed, too. You’re your most important advocate.”

  I studied Dr. Fallon with her perfect pale face and red lipstick. She never had a hair out of place, and it seemed like nothing ever ruffled her, but she might have trained her face to conceal her feelings. I somehow doubted my facial P.T. would include such advanced techniques.

  “You said a host brain could fight back, but I thought Althea was brain dead when she came here in a coma,” I said.

  The doctor regarded me with new attention and tapped a finger on the desk. “Althea didn’t have any consciousness in the traditional sense, but she wasn’t strictly brain dead. She could still breathe. It’s an important distinction.”

  “But she hadn’t recovered for months. I don’t get how her brain could have anything left to fight me off now,” I said.

  The doctor’s finger went still. “You’re calling Althea ‘she,’” Dr. Fallon said slowly. “Do you see yourself and Althea as two separate entities?”

  My heart chugged with alarm, and I tried to recall if she’d tricked me into talking about Althea in the third person. “No,” I lied. “I just want to know how likely it is that my old cells will fight off my new ones, like you said.”

  “Small,” she said. “The chances are small.”

  “How small? One percent?”

  “Maybe five percent,” she said. “I’d give it five to ten percent.”

  Ten percent sounded big to me. This was not good. “When will I know I’m out of danger?”

  “The more days that pass without symptoms, the better,” she said. “Listen, I’m sorry. I can see I’ve troubled you. Let me remind you that you are a very special case. One of a kind. You’ve already come so much farther than we had any reason to expect.”

  “What makes me so special?” I asked.

  “It’s a combination of factors. Your youth, your stability after your injury, your brain’s innate elasticity. Your baby matters, too, of course,” she said.

  I had momentarily forgotten about the baby. “I don’t see why,” I said. “You have other patients here who aren’t pregnant.”

  “True,” she said. “But their brain injuries weren’t as severe as yours, either. Your pregnancy was vital to your case. It’s a key reason why I took you on. We often think of fetuses as helpless little beings, nurtured in their mothers’ wombs, but pregnancy is a complex symbiosis, a give and take,” she said. “The hormones and nutrients that have helped your fetus develop have been circulating in your system, too.”

  “Are you suggesting my baby kept me alive?”

  “It was certainly a factor in why we’re both sitting here today.” She clicked the end of her pen. “Althea, your parents wouldn’t have brought you here if they didn’t trust me. I wish you could, too.”

  I eyed her suspiciously. “You’ve just told me I have a ten percent chance of being attacked by my own brain.”

  “Only if you don’t report any early symptoms,” she said. “That’s why we need to keep you here a little longer. Will you tell me if you have any sign of a headache, no matter how small?”

  I didn’t trust her, but my only choice was to play along. “Yes,” I said.

  A sound at the door made me glance over. Madeline, dressed in bright blue, gave the door a light tap. Her staticky hair was fluffier than usual, as if it had been ruffled by the wind. She reminded me of a dandelion gone to seed.

  “I don’t want to intrude,” she said, looking at me curiously.

  “You’re not. We’re just finishing up,” Dr. Fallon said, reaching for the mirror once more. “I want you to close your eyes again,” she said to me. “Think of something happy. Someone who makes you laugh.”

  Laughing was a gift I’d had far too little of lately. I cast my memory back a couple of years, to Dubbs. We sat in the shadow of our boxcar, drawing in the smooth, cool dirt with sticks. I was teaching her to read by writing words like “poop” and “fart.” She was careful sounding out the letters, concentrating and serious, but the instant she grasped a new word, she’d shriek and collapse laughing. I’d laugh, too. I felt so powerful. So proud.

  “Hold that,” the doctor said. She clicked another photo. “Now open your eyes.”

  In the mirror, Althea was smiling at me. It wasn’t a big smile, but it was a genuine one, and her eyebrows arched up in delicate surprise.

  Madeline sighed from the doorway and shook her head. “There she is,” she said.

  “I’ll leave you the mirror,” the doctor said to me. “Remember what I said. Communication is important. Use that new voice of yours.”

  “Okay,” I said.

  Madeline looked at me uncertainly. “Your voice. I wasn’t sure. Is it better?”

  “Yep,” I said. I pondered what to say next. “What’s for lunch?”

  She pressed her lips togeth
er in a tight, happy grin. Then she nodded and let out a laugh. “I think it’s chicken. Oh, won’t your dad be thrilled?”

  Diego might be thrilled, but he still wasn’t my dad. Having a voice gave me new ways I’d have to lie.




  LATER THAT DAY, a technician rolled in an ultrasound machine to check up on the baby. The baby’s heartbeat came loud over the speaker, chugging insistently like the wash cycle on the McLellens’ washing machine. My own heart lurched in response, and I peered over my shoulder at the screen while the technician tapped measurements into her keyboard with one hand.

  Afterward, my midwife, Freyja, sat down with me for a long, cozy talk. While I was in a daze, holding a little black-and-white photo of the baby, she talked about vitamins and diet, Kegel exercises, and the importance of regaining my strength as soon as possible, for the baby’s sake.

  “This is real, isn’t it?” I said.

  Freyja smiled and pressed her warm hand to mine. “Yes, it is. You’re due in seven weeks, Althea. April twenty-fourth, plus or minus two weeks. That’s in no time. We need to keep you and the baby healthy until then, and after. Dr. Fallon’s concerned about how the childbirth might impact your blood pressure and stress your brain. You’re high risk. It will probably be safest for you if we schedule a C-section when we get closer to the time.”

  That sounded scary, too. I ran a hand over my abdomen. Freyja had kind eyes and big, steady hands. With her fresh-scrubbed complexion, funky, super-short blond hair, and blue-rimmed glasses, she seemed a little out of place in the antiseptic Chimera Centre. It turned out she’d been hired to come to the island just for me.

  “I wish you could come to the U.S. with us,” I said. “I don’t want to still be here in seven weeks.”

  She smiled. “Your parents already offered me a fortune to come with you,” she said. “I’m thinking about it, but my family’s in Reykjavik, and I’m not licensed to practice in the States. You’d need a local midwife or doctor to oversee your case.”

  “My parents could arrange that.”

  She smiled. “I’m aware.”

  When I didn’t smile back, she gave my shoulder a light squeeze.

  “What’s going on with you?” she asked.

  At her kindness, I blinked back sudden tears. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. “How am I going to be a mom?”

  “Take a deep breath,” Freyja said. “You’re just going to live it. You’re going to keep it real, day by day. Your baby’s fine right now, and so are you, right? That’s enough, right?”

  I nodded. I felt miserable.

  Freyja smiled gently and came around to give me a hug. “You’re so young,” she said. “Have you talked to the dad yet?”


  “Maybe that’ll help, elskan,” she said.

  I doubted it would. I didn’t know him from a doorknob.

  “Have you thought about names?” she asked. “Maybe a nice Icelandic name?”

  She made me laugh and gulp at the same time.

  Later, when I mentioned this to Diego and Madeline, they had plenty of name suggestions, especially family names, and Madeline happily jotted down lists for a boy or a girl. Since they had declined to know the gender of the baby, preferring to speculate, I decided not to find out, either. They seemed delighted to talk about the baby as long as nobody brought up Tom. It was also increasingly difficult not to blurt out to them that I wasn’t their daughter, especially when Diego would give me a quiet, curious look.

  When Madeline eventually led a prayer and they said good night, I was worn out. She straightened the rosary next to the flowers.

  “Are we Catholic?” I asked.

  Madeline touched her thumb to my forehead, drawing a cross for a blessing. “Yes, of course,” she said. “Now rest easy.”

  My need to talk to my own mother was stronger than ever. Something about hearing the baby’s heartbeat and seeing the ghostly figure on the ultrasound had thrust my pregnancy into reality, and turning into a mother made me miss my own. So much had happened to me, and she didn’t know any of it.

  After the nurse turned my lights low, I huddled down in my bed and calculated seven hours earlier to Arizona. It was Saturday around two in the afternoon there. Ma might be home. I tapped my home number into my phone. I knew Ma wouldn’t recognize my new voice, but I’d find a way, somehow, to explain who I was. Ma would believe me. I stared absently out to the hallway as I waited through the rings.

  “Hello? Who’s calling?” Ma said.

  Her mumbly, sleepy voice made my heart soar. I could picture her taking a nap on the couch.

  “Ma? It’s me. Rosie.” My voice choked off. “Did I wake you?”

  “Rosie?” she said slowly. “You sound different.”

  “It’s really me! My voice has changed, but it’s me,” I said. I sat up, keeping the phone close to my ear, and I tried to pitch my voice lower, like mine had been. “How are you? Are you good? How’s Dubbs? Does she miss me?”

  A rolling noise came from her end of the line. “Tell me where you are,” she said. “Are you all right? Is Berg hurting you?”

  “I’m okay. I’m in Iceland at a clinic,” I said. “Berg isn’t even here.”

  Her voice became doubtful. “Iceland?”

  “It’s complicated to explain,” I said. Suddenly I didn’t care at all anymore that she’d messed up my guardianship. I missed her so badly it hurt to breathe. “I want to come home.”

  “What happened to your voice?” Then, through a muffling, “She says it’s Rosie.”

  “I had a surgery,” I said. I struggled to think how to begin. “A lot about me is different.”

  A bumbling noise came from the other end, and then my stepfather’s voice came on. “Who is this?”

  “Larry, it’s me,” I said. “It’s me, Rosie. Let me talk to Ma again.”

  “You think I don’t know Rosie’s voice? You’ve got some nerve, harassing us in our own home. We can trace your call. We’ll prosecute the crap out of you.”

  “It’s me,” I said loudly. “You punched me in the face when I told you to get a job. Remember? Last spring? You told Ma to pawn your gun that same night, remember? So we’d have enough to eat? Dubbs was starving.”

  His end went silent. I could picture him frowning by the couch. A faint pounding noise came, like someone was working outside. I heard Ma’s voice in the background, and then she abruptly stopped talking, as if he’d raised a hand to warn her into silence.

  “You never got that out of Rosie,” he said.

  “We own an orange plaid couch,” I continued, searching my way. “You read a lot of mysteries, and the antlers over the TV came from your brother’s place after he died.”

  “Who is this?” Larry asked.

  I clenched the phone anxiously. “I said. I’m Rosie. Your daughter. Let me talk to Ma again, please.”

  “You mean ‘stepdaughter,’” he said with a bark of a laugh. “You blew it, kid. Rosie always threw that ‘step’ in my face. Now leave us alone.” The line cut off with a slam.

  “Wait!” I said, but it was too late. The dead connection shocked my ear. Despair clamped my heart. I had so much proof! I’d thought for sure they would know me, despite my voice. Ma did. Larry was the problem. He was always the problem. I immediately called back again, but they didn’t pick up. Our landline had no voicemail, no answering machine. I was blocked.

  I sat in my shadowy hospital room, stunned. A machine made a soft hissing noise behind me, and I stared bleakly at the bumps of my feet under the blanket. What if no one from my old life ever believed who I was inside? The possibility horrified me. How could I prove I was me without my own voice and body? My parents wouldn’t even let me try.

  I lay down again and rolled over heavily. I couldn’t bear another night of being lonely, with no one to talk to. I was afraid I’d vanish if I didn’t find someone who knew me as Rosie.

I chewed the inside of my cheek for a minute, remembering how cool it had been talking to Linus at night when I was at Forge. I’d loved trying to guess his expression from the sound of his voice. The rest of the school would be asleep, but I had my walkie-ham in my sleep shell with me, like a lifeline to the outside world. What I wouldn’t give to have that now. I still hadn’t heard from Linus despite repeated tries over the last few days. I hadn’t heard from Burnham, either. In fact, the only person who had tried to contact me was Tom, Althea’s old boyfriend, but I had no idea what to say to him. His messages were piled up on my new phone, unlistened to, like too many valentines from the wrong guy.

  What I really needed was Linus’s phone number so I could text him directly. I did a search for Otis, Linus’s friend and landlord, the old guy who worked the camera in the lookout tower at Forge, and found he had a listed number. I tapped it in and listened to the rings.

  “Hello?” a man answered.

  My heart jumped, and I sat up straight in my bed again.

  “Is Linus there?” I asked.

  “Thomas Kent runs like a girl,” the man said.

  The non sequitur threw me. Then I remembered Parker, Otis’s partner, the guy with Alzheimer’s. I had seen him one night when he was walking in the quad at Forge. He’d paused in front of the dean’s tower to pee on the steps, and Linus had run over to take care of him.

  “Is this Parker?” I asked.

  “Parker here,” he said. “I’m busy. I’m on the telephone.”

  “Hi, Parker. This is Althea. I’m a friend of Rosie Sinclair’s. Is Linus there?”

  “I’m on the phone,” Parker said.

  A man spoke in the background, and when a new voice came on, I recognized Otis. “Hello? Can I help you?”

  I introduced myself as Althea once again. “I’m trying to reach Linus.”

  “You want the hotline for Found Missing,” Otis said. “Try this.” He rattled off a number. “Good luck to you.”

  “Wait!” I said. “Please don’t hang up. Rosie’s been trying to email Linus at Found Missing, but he doesn’t answer her. She asked me to call him. Does he even see that email?”

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