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The vault of dreamers, p.6
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.6

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  When I lowered my camera, he still didn’t move. Janice was spellbound.

  “That was awesome,” she said.

  Terry eased out of his concentration and rubbed both hands in his hair. “I’ve seen you in acting class,” he said to her. “You’re good.”

  “I can’t do better than what you just did,” she said. “That blew me away.”

  He laughed. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll be back to driving my aunt’s tractor tomorrow. This was fun.”

  “You’re a farmer?” I asked.

  “Yep,” he said. “In Montana. My aunt wanted me to try out for this, though. Never thought I’d get this far.”

  “But you’ll keep acting once you get home, won’t you?” Janice asked. “You can’t give up.”

  “Well, now, I’ll think about it,” he said. He gave her a smile. “I’ll be following your career, no doubt about it.”

  The charm was too smarmy for my taste, but Janice blushed. She pushed up the sleeves of her blue dress and adjusted the strap of her purse over her shoulder while she chatted. I tried to duck out and leave them to it, but Janice gave him a wave and came along with me.

  Once we were around the corner, she pulled me up short and took out her phone.

  “He’s up to eighty-six! That’s a lot better than one hundred,” she said.

  “It’s probably you brushing off on him,” I said. “Who’s one hundred now?”

  “Let’s check your blip rank,” she said.

  “Not yet. I don’t want to know,” I said. “Tell me who’s at one hundred.”

  We used Janice’s phone to guide us on a sort of scavenger hunt around the campus. The next student to drop to the lowest blip rank was an artist who was working on a graphic novel with pages and pages of drawings. Hunched over an easel in the top floor of the art building, he had a radio blaring and smudges of ink along the sides of both hands. After him, the next student with the lowest rank was a costume designer we found ironing fabric in the drama department. Then I filmed a dancer who was working solo before a bank of dusky mirrors.

  Despite their lowest blip ranks, they weren’t losers at all. The whole system was an arbitrary, capricious farce, and with each artist I met, I felt my biggest mistake had been in not trying to get to know more of the people here, and I felt a growing disgust for the fifty cuts.

  Finally, we located Ellen Thorpe, a singer, in the girl’s bathroom of the chapel. When I heard retching in one of the stalls, I fingered my camera but didn’t turn it on. Janice softly backed out the door, beckoning me, but I shook my head.

  “Do you need anything in there?” I called through the stall door.

  There was no immediate reply. I glanced around the bathroom. Cameras in the sink area weren’t aimed to view in the stalls once the doors were closed. The mics picked up voices, but as long as Ellen was silent, she was essentially invisible to the show, and I had to think that was by choice.

  Janice signaled to me again. Leave her alone, she mouthed silently.

  “No,” Ellen said.

  “You sure? Some water?” I asked.

  The rush of a toilet flush came from inside. “No, thank you,” she said. Her voice was low and husky. Not what I expected for a singer. “It’s just the nerves. I’ll be okay.”

  “It’s getting late,” Janice said quietly to me. “We’re supposed to meet in front of the auditorium by quarter to five.”

  It was a decent enough excuse to leave, but I hesitated when Ellen’s voice came again.

  “They’re putting everyone’s profile up on the outside of the building,” Ellen said. “I saw them there.”

  “On the big screens?” I asked. “Is that something new?”

  “Yes,” she said. “It’ll be extra humiliating.”

  I glanced again at Janice, who was still bracing the door open to the hall. I could see the last pews of the chapel around the corner.

  “Come with us, Ellen,” I said. “We’ll go together.”

  “I’m dead last, aren’t I?” Ellen asked.

  Janice glanced at her phone and then nodded to me.

  I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t just leave her there. “Come on out,” I said, tapping the stall door again. The beige was an industrial, impersonal hue. “We can’t talk to you through the door.”

  “I’ll be okay. Just go,” she said. A choking, stifled sob came next.

  Crap, I thought. I tiptoed nearer to Janice. “This isn’t good.”

  “I know,” Janice said.

  “Go get somebody.”

  “Who?”

  “I don’t know. A teacher? Someone from the infirmary? Anybody.”

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

  “Talk to her, I guess. But hurry.”

  Janice slipped out.

  “Ellen?” I asked. I propped my dormant camera on a shelf by the sink and tapped the door again, trying to listen inside. “You still in there?”

  “You don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve got nothing after I’m cut.”

  I had a flash memory of our refrigerator back home, with two eggs and a jar of horseradish inside.

  “Tell me,” I said.

  “My mom,” she began, and then her voice strangled off again.

  Double crap. I gave my skirt a hitch. Then I dropped to my elbows and knees so I could peek under the door. Ellen was sitting on the tile floor before the black-seated toilet with her knees drawn up and her head buried in her arms. By her feet, a pink purse with a kitty on it rested beside a paring knife.

  “Ellen,” I said softly.

  She wouldn’t look at me. She shifted to press the heels of her hands against her eyes, and her mouth stretched in a grimace.

  “This is so stupid!” she said.

  I didn’t know this girl. She terrified me. But nobody deserved to be this unhappy. I ducked my head and crept bare-kneed under the door to squeeze into the lonely space beside her. I wished I knew what to say, or if I should touch her. I’d been unhappy before, but not this miserable.

  “That’s a nice purse,” I said.

  “I hate this purse,” she said.

  Okay, I thought. Wrong tack. “Sorry. That was stupid,” I said.

  She wiped her eyes with her arm, and turned to me with a bleary gaze. “Who do you even think you are?” she demanded.

  I went very small inside. Very still. If Ellen knew what I’d been doing for the last hour, she might think I was in for the kill, catching people at their lowest. She was still glaring at me, expecting an answer.

  “I’m Rosie?” I offered.

  She stared at me another long, hard minute. Then she closed her eyes and seemed to deflate. Her eyebrows crumpled together in a pleading way. “I’m just so tired,” she said.

  “I know,” I said. “Me, too.” And I was, suddenly.

  She put her face down on her knees, curled her arms around her head again, and held herself there. The knife was still an inch from her shoe. I was afraid to move. I didn’t know what else to do. We dropped into an isolated morass of time that had never begun and would never end, where my sole job was to listen to her breathing and stare at the beige tiles on the floor.

  It took forever, but I heard the outer door open and then footsteps.

  “Rosie?” Janice asked.

  I exhaled a silent sigh of relief. “In here,” I said. “I think we’re okay.” I had no evidence of that whatsoever. I looked at Ellen. She slowly pushed the hair back behind her ears.

  “Can you open the door?” asked another voice. Dr. Ash.

  “Give us a sec,” I said.

  I pulled off some toilet paper and handed it to Ellen. She wiped her nose.

  “Ready?” I asked.

  She nodded. I got up, brushed off the back of my skirt, and helped her up, too. I handed her the kitty purse and left the knife on the floor. Then I straightened her shirt along the shoulders, like that would help. I tried to meet her eyes, but she wasn’t looking at me.

  Finally, I
pushed over the lock and pulled open the stall door. We had to edge around it one at a time. Beside Janice, Dr. Ash and a couple of medics were crammed in the space near the sinks. The team quickly, gently surrounded Ellen, and in a surprisingly short time, they guided her out. One of the medics collected the knife in a little bag and looked back at me as he held the door.

  “Are you all right?” he asked.

  I nodded.

  “You certain?” he repeated.

  “Yes. I’m fine,” I said.

  Janice reached for my camera on the shelf. “Do you want this?” she asked.

  I didn’t want to use it anymore, and I didn’t have a decent pocket. “Can you stick it in your bag for me?” I asked.

  “Sure.”

  I needed some air. We headed out of the chapel, and I saw an ambulance pulling away. A light drizzle had begun to fall, and the shrouded light turned the buildings and the lawns all the same slate gray. At the base of the clock tower, the rose garden was a bleak tangle of thorns. I stood under the chapel awning with Janice beside me.

  “I think you saved her life,” she said.

  I didn’t want to talk about it. Ellen had rattled me in some dark place below words.

  “Look at the time! It’s almost five,” Janice said. “We’re supposed to be over by the auditorium.”

  I glanced up at the clock tower, where the school motto was etched around the face of the clock: Dream Hard. Work Harder. Shine. We had seven minutes until the fifty cuts. Down the length of the quad, at the far end, I could see lights shining near the auditorium, and I felt a conflicted rush of emotion. I still wanted to stay at Forge, but I was also completely disillusioned about the cuts.

  “Come on already!” Janice said. She went running down the quad sidewalk, holding her bag over her head for shelter from the rain.

  I hunched my shoulders and followed after.

  Students were dodging the rain as they ran, and a crowd had gathered beneath an overhang of the student union. I ducked under, too, just as the rain began to fall in earnest. I lost track of Janice. Through the downpour, the giant screen panels that covered the façade of the auditorium were aglow with the live broadcast of The Forge Show. All one hundred of the first year students’ profiles were up, magnified to five times life-size. They were bright enough that the rain only added a shimmer of streaks before them, and they were organized by rank, with the top fifty students bordered in bright green. Every twenty seconds, like a fancier, faster version of the big blip rank board in the dining hall, all the profiles shifted to show their updated rank.

  Cheers and gasps came from the students around me. More students were sheltered near the doorways of the dance and music buildings, anywhere it was dry enough to see the big screen, and their voices cut across the quad, too, like an echo.

  Dreading what I would find, I scanned the profiles until I found mine in the sixth row: a thin, wet, bow-legged girl standing under a rainy awning. I was in 54th place, the highest I’d ever been, but it wasn’t high enough. Janice’s blip rank was up to 26. Burnham’s was 7. Ellen, the girl from the chapel bathroom, was now ranked at 70. Her profile showed a still photo of her smiling, and I was puzzled until I realized they must have cut her live feed when she entered the ambulance and drove off campus.

  The screens flickered and refreshed again. Another burst of cheers and groans surrounded me. I was down a notch to 55.

  My fate was right there on the wall, impossible to ignore, and still, stupidly, I couldn’t accept it. This idiotic hope of mine wouldn’t die. Despite everything I’d learned about Forge today, I still wanted to stay.

  In four minutes, the time would hit five o’clock, and the scores would be finalized.

  A gust of wind blew a spattering of rain on my face, and I winced.

  I couldn’t stand still watching helplessly.

  I bolted out into the downpour and turned sharply, sprinting alongside the student union. Completely soaked, I cut behind the dining hall. Behind the art building, the two giant wooden spools were dark with water and more drops bounced off their edges. I ran toward them, splashing loudly in the wet gravel. A garbage can pinged under the cascade of drops. I peered around the parking lot, then through the rain toward the pasture and the tower, seeing no one.

  He wasn’t here.

  7

  THE FIFTY CUTS

  I HUGGED MY arms around my wetness, closed my eyes, and tilted my face to the pouring sky.

  “Rosie?”

  I spun around and squinted toward the back of the art building where Linus was striding forward. Under a baseball cap, he wore a dark patch on one eye.

  “Where’ve you been?” he asked.

  My throat choked up and I could barely talk. “It looks like I’m going home,” I said. I wiped my nose with the back of my wet hand and let out a laugh. “All the real artists are fine about it. Except this one girl Ellen. She’s a mess. And me. What did I do wrong?”

  He came a step nearer, and as he did, I discovered a hug was what I wanted more than anything. I leaned near him uncertainly. His white tee shirt was wet. Lightning flashed, and I shivered, expecting thunder. When it finally came, the sky opened up harder and the rain fell with a punishing noise into the gravel.

  “Hey,” Linus said, bending near to my ear. “They can’t hear us.”

  When I peered up to him, he took off his hat and put it on me so the brim sheltered my face.

  “I don’t want to go home,” I said.

  “Then stay,” he said.

  “I can’t. It’s too late. Listen.” I could hear the clock starting to bong. It was so unfair to want it most just as I was losing it.

  “You know what to do,” he said, and his gaze dropped to my lips.

  Fear shot through me. I’d never kissed anyone before. I didn’t know how. It felt like despair to even try, and I didn’t know why he wanted to help me. But he was giving me a chance. I had to take it. I clenched my fists and leaned into him a little bit more.

  I didn’t know his mouth would be warm in the coolness of the rain. I didn’t know I would shift myself a little nearer to feel the right pressure, or that when I did, a tiny jolt inside me would erase the rest of the world. I didn’t think to unclench my fists. He didn’t do more than touch his lips to mine for a slow moment, but when he finally backed up a little and I could breathe again, I hardly remembered how.

  With his one good eye, Linus was watching me closely. I felt hopelessly wet and self-conscious in my clinging shirt.

  “I think this had better be our secret,” he said just over the noise of the rain.

  “What?” I asked.

  He curled a hand to his mouth and leaned close to my ear. “I mean, that this matters,” he said.

  I searched his expression, and though he couldn’t have come up with a more perfect thing to say, it riddled me with guilt. Our kiss had been completely contrived. A zillion Forge Show viewers had just seen it, and even now the last toll from the clock tower bonged through the rush of the rain. No matter how much I’d liked kissing him in the moment, it was all fake, right?

  Linus was frowning. “Was that your first kiss?” he asked.

  “You could tell.”

  His smile was genuinely warm. “Yes.”

  “It wasn’t yours, I take it,” I said.

  He laughed. “No. But it was my first in a very long time. It was my first with you.”

  I withdrew half a step, letting the rain fall between us. “And probably last,” I said. “It’s past five o’clock.”

  “Let’s go see if you’re cut,” he said. “They’ll have the news in the kitchen.”

  We turned together to dodge across the puddles, and another flash of lightning burst around us as we hurried up the steps to the loading dock. Linus held open the kitchen door for me and I stepped inside, hunched and dripping.

  Half a dozen kitchen workers turned to face us and let out a rousing cheer. The frizzy-haired cook pointed to a TV screen on the wall.

&
nbsp; “You made it!” she said to me. “Blip rank fifty. You’re in! Congratulations!”

  I let out a squeak of joy and instinctively grabbed Linus’s arm.

  Linus grinned and took back his hat. “Nice,” he said.

  At the front of the dining hall, laughing, jubilant students were streaming in from the quad. Cake and punch had been set out for the celebration. A young man handed me and Linus a couple of towels to sling around our shoulders, and Chef Ted gave me a nod.

  “Go on out and join the other winners,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”

  I glanced back at Linus, who was still smiling. In his wet shirt and eye patch, he looked like a pirate just in from a storm.

  “Great job, Sinclair,” he said. “I’m happy for you.”

  “Come with me,” I said.

  “No,” he said. “I’m good.”

  “I owe you,” I said.

  “Yes,” he said. “You do. Go on.”

  I gave a wave to the rest of the kitchen staff and headed through the doorway to meet up with the other students. Other winners from the auditorium were streaming in, laughing as if they couldn’t contain their delight. Teachers and older students filed in, too, until the place was packed and the windows steamed over.

  Janice nearly attacked me. “You made it!” she said, and gripped me in a hug. “It was so exciting! I nearly died! Who is that hot, hot guy from the kitchen? Is he here? When did you meet him?” She rose on tiptoe, looking past my shoulder toward the kitchen.

  I peeked back to where Linus was ruffling his hair madly in the towel.

  “His name’s Linus,” I said, blushing. “I met him this morning. Quit staring.”

  “Way go to, Rosie. I mean, really.” Janice dropped her voice. “Way to pull it out of the bag.”

  “It wasn’t exactly a premeditated plan,” I said.

  “Whatever. It worked, right?” Janice said. “Burnham made it, too. And Paige. And Henrik. Holy crap. They have chocolate cake. Check out that frosting.” She passed me a piece and started in on her own. “I’m starving,” she said. “Who knew anxiety could make me so hungry?”

  “You weren’t seriously worried for yourself,” I said.

  “Are you kidding? I’ve been a mess,” she said. “Plus of course I just started my period. Whoops! Too much info. Man, this is good.”

 
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