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The rule of mirrors, p.7
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.7

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “That’s the one. They’ll route you where you need to go.”

  “Otis, I really know Rosie. I know about Molly, your dog, and the way Linus used to carry her up the lookout tower for you every day. Don’t hang up on me. I really need a way to reach him.”

  His voice came slowly. “You’ve just watched the show.”

  I scanned my brain for anything I could have seen that was off camera. “You have a toilet behind a curtain up there in the lookout tower. And a begonia. You have a picture of you and Parker tacked to the beam with the hammock. You’re never on screen yourself, but I know you like to wear a gray hat with a visor.”

  I held my breath, listening to the silence of his uncertainty.

  “Okay, if you know Rosie, where is she now?” Otis asked. “What’s her phone number?”

  A distinct click came from his end, like another line picking up, and then a third voice said, “Hello? Who is this?”

  It was Linus. My breath caught and my lungs squeezed tight. I didn’t know how to speak to him now, when my voice wasn’t my own.

  “This is Linus Pitts,” he said. “Who’s calling?”

  Miles vanished. His words were in my ear again, just like before, with his distinctive Welsh accent. I could picture his gaze deepening with a frown, and the suspicion hovering just behind his polite curiosity.

  “I’m Althea,” I said thickly. “A friend of Rosie’s. She asked me to call you.”

  Distance hummed between us, and I heard him weighing whether to believe me.

  “I’ll take this one, Otis,” Linus said.

  “Your funeral,” Otis said. A click sounded as he hung up, and the connection became slightly clearer.

  “Is Rosie with you?” Linus asked.

  “Yes,” I said, nodding.

  “Put her on.”

  “I can’t. She has trouble with her voice. She asked me to talk to you for her.”

  A shifting came from his end of the line. “Okay, so here’s the thing. We get a ton of calls here, and I keep telling the guys to let the machine take them, but Parker has this misguided sense of gallantry that makes him pick up the ruddy phone, and then he gets worked up, and Otis has to step in, and now you’ve worked up Otis, too, and I’m going to have to ask you to please leave us alone and go through the normal channels to reach the show. All clear now?”

  “You paid Otis in blood for your rent,” I said quickly. “You did it every six weeks.”

  I held my phone tightly, fearing that the next sound would be a disconnection.

  “I told her that in confidence,” he said finally.

  “I know, and she’s sorry she had to tell me, but she wants you to know she’s really here, listening in.”

  “But she won’t talk to me.”

  “Right. She can’t. I’m talking for her. Ask me anything. I’ll prove it.”

  “Okay,” he said slowly. “What does Cyrano have to do with anything?”

  My heart thumped, and I paused before answering again, as if I were interpreting something from a companion in the room. “You and Rosie could talk for real at night on the walkie-hams, and touch each other during the day, but you could never do both at the same time. You said it made you think of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, but twisted, as if both guys were combined into one person.” I gave a brief laugh. “Here I am talking for Rosie. It’s sort of another Cyrano thing. Right Rosie?” I paused. “She’s agreeing.”

  A moment later, his voice came again, more softly. “Is she writing answers for you? Is that it?”

  I could go with that.

  “Yes,” I said.

  “Then she should just email me.”

  “She tried. Many times. You didn’t reply.”

  “Maybe because I get dozens of emails every day from people pretending to be her.”

  “But I can prove she’s right here. I’m not pretending.”

  “Okay. Ask her why she broke up with me. Ask her that.”

  His question was ridiculously layered and complicated.

  “I don’t know why,” I said softly. “She shouldn’t have. She says she’s sorry.”

  His next pause was longer.

  “Who is this?” he asked.

  For the first time, he sounded like he might believe me. A strangling loneliness lodged in my voice box. “I’m Althea. Rosie’s friend.”

  “Althea who? Where’s Rosie?”

  “We’re out of the country,” I said.

  “Both of you?” The doubt was back in his voice. “Tell me where and I’ll come get you.”

  I turned toward the dark window. “You can’t come for us.”

  “Then why did you call me? I can get anywhere. I have resources for the show,” he said.

  I felt a twinge of caution. “You’d come to shoot a segment for your show?” I asked.

  “Althea,” he said. “Why do you think I have the show? The point of it is to locate missing children. I’ve been trying to find Rosie since she disappeared in October.”

  He wanted to locate me for his show, not for us. The truth stung. “She’s not interested in being featured on some show,” I said. “She’s had enough of that.”

  “Then what do you want? Why’d you call?”

  “I just wanted—” I stopped. What had I thought? That we’d be friends again? I wasn’t even in my own body. “Rosie thought you’d want to know she’s alive.”

  “Of course I want to know that,” he said. “But you haven’t proven anything. You know some private facts about us, but she could have told them to you weeks ago. You could have forced them out of her.”

  I clutched my fingers into a fist. “I haven’t forced anything out of her. I’m her friend,” I said. “Look. I thought when you went down the pit to look for Rosie it meant that you still cared about her. You at least owe it to her to listen to me now.”

  “Down the pit. What are you talking about?”

  “You know!” I said. “You went down the clock tower pit. You went looking for Rosie that last night at Forge.”

  “Put Rosie on,” he said. “Put her on now. Rosie? Are you hearing this? If we’re on speaker, say something.”

  I closed my eyes and kept the phone pressed tight against my ear. “She can’t talk to you.”

  “Then listen closely, Althea,” Linus said, turning the name into something ugly. “If Rosie’s really there with you, which I seriously doubt, then let her know this. She has a lot of fans who care about her. They want to know if she’s okay, and they want an explanation for where she’s been all this time. If she’s not okay, they want justice for her sake. That goes for me, too. If you’re working for Sandy Berg and you’ve got her locked up somewhere, I swear we’ll get you.”

  “I’m not working with Berg,” I said. “That’s ridiculous.”

  “And one other thing,” he said. “If I find out you’re using me or my voice to tease her or test her in any way, I’ll come for you, personally. Get that?”

  “That’s just sick,” I said. “You’re starting to sound like Berg yourself.”

  “Then where are you? Tell me.”

  I stared, unseeing, at my dark window. This call had gone nothing like I’d expected. I pressed my fist under my chin. I was lonelier than ever.

  “She’s changed so much,” I said. My voice squeaked closed again. It wasn’t a proper answer to his question, but it was the best I had.

  “We’ve all changed,” Linus said, and his voice was hard. “Tell her that doesn’t matter. Tell her I want to see her again. I want to cover her story for my show. Go on.”

  I pinched a fold of the blanket. “She heard you,” I said.

  “What does she say?” Linus asked.

  I closed my eyes. “She says she won’t be on your show.”

  “Then tell me why you really called.”

  I wished I had a good lie, but what came out was painfully true. “Rosie just wanted to hear your voice,” I said.

  The long distance spun for a moment, and whe
n he spoke again, it was in a calm, quiet voice. “I am not doing this.”

  I didn’t know how to answer. “Please, Linus.”

  “No. Not happening,” he said, still too calm. “If Rosie ever wants to talk to me herself, directly, have her call me. Otherwise, leave me alone.”

  “But she needs you!” I said.

  He gave a sharp laugh. “Did it occur to you how mean this would be? Making me believe you know her. Never mind. I’m hanging up now.”

  “Linus!”

  But he was gone.

  I’d done nothing to convince him. If anything, I’d gone backward. I slammed my phone against the table. I had to get out of this crazy place. I had to get back to some version of my own life because if I couldn’t, if I couldn’t—

  The yawning possibility stopped my heart cold. I buried my head in my pillow and squeezed away all the light and sound, but the dread still followed me.

  I would have to become Althea.

  10

  ROSIE

  DESPERATE PEOPLE

  AFTER THE LIP GLOSS, Ian brings me a stick of cinnamon bark—dry, brown, and fragrant.

  The next time, he brings me a chocolate chip, just one. The silky, melting taste of the chocolate is so sweet and rich that I nearly swoon with pleasure. I look to his hand for more, but he tosses the remaining chocolate chips back in his own mouth and masticates. Bastard. Otherworldly ripples of light emanate around his face like a halo.

  “I could only give you one,” he says. “More than that might mess up your digestion. Like it?”

  I’m salivating. “It’s heaven.”

  Next he holds up my old video camera, the one my teacher from Doli High gave me, the one I used at the Forge School. I know the width of the wristband, every dial and scuff mark. My palm knows its cool weight even before he passes it over.

  “Where’d you get this?” I ask.

  “I summoned it for you,” he says. “The battery’s dead, but I thought you might like to hold it for a while. Happy birthday.”

  I startle. “But I missed my birthday.”

  “Yes,” he says, extending the word into a hiss. “But I bought you three extra years of age. You’re nineteen like me now, and I have another present for you. A surprise. I couldn’t bring you to see my grandmother, so I brought my grandmother to see you. Let me help you sit up.”

  The ceiling drifts silently higher until the room is unnaturally tall. Through the door comes an old, bent woman with a cane. She teeters into a cone of light from a spotlight high above, so that her white veil gleams over her gray hair. Bizarrely, she’s carrying a dusty wedding gown over one arm and a bouquet of dead flowers in her other hand.

  “I thought you could borrow my wedding dress,” she says.

  A jolt of panic hits me. “This is wrong,” I say, looking to Ian. “Is this a dream?” I try to smell him for his tobacco, but the air tastes empty.

  “If it is a dream, that doesn’t make it untrue,” he says.

  “I know what’s real,” I whisper.

  “Do you? What about me?”

  My heart leaps in terror.

  Ian’s face shimmers for a second and comes back into focus, nearer and harshly clear. “Desperate people invent desperate solutions. It’s not my fault if they do,” he says, in the voice of Dean Berg.

  “No!” I scream. I bolt up, banging into the lid of my sleep shell.

  I wipe madly at the gel on my eyelids and scramble frantically at the curved glass to push it open. I suck in a gulp of air and barely bite back another scream.

  The room is dim. I’m alone and fully awake. Shivers of the nightmare fall away from me like black sand, seeping into the floor with a trickling, mocking sound. Rubbing more gel from my eyelids, I find pads and wires stuck to my temples. I rip them off and blink hard. I can’t have imagined Ian. I can’t have dreamed him all those other times. Our conversations have been too real, and he’s brought me things that I know I’ve touched and smelled.

  But he’s not here now. I don’t have my video camera. There’s no granny with a veil.

  I’m trembling beneath my gown. In the dark, windowless room, two dozen other sleep shells are parked around me with their lids glowing faintly. The open doorway lets in light from the hall. I check instinctively for cameras, but the upper corners of the ceiling are in shadow, and considering the times when Ian lingered to talk to me, we must have been unobserved. This is my first time fully awake with no one hovering, and I can’t waste my chance.

  With shaky fingers, I pull down the neckline of my gown to inspect the place where the IV goes into me. A piece of tape holds the IV line in place, and a needle goes directly into the skin over my left breast. The small, foreign lump that serves as a port is fixed under my skin. It feels like a mini jelly donut in there. With a pinch, I loosen the tape and take out the IV needle. A second line leads out of me from a spot several inches below my belly button, and I’m able to disconnect its coupling from the longer tube. I can only hope my plumbing is going to work normally. I swing my legs around and reach my toes down. The floor is cool and smooth underfoot. All I need is a little strength, a little balance, and I lurch across to the next sleep shell.

  I brace myself on the lid.

  Inside, a pale, blond girl lies with her eyelids covered in translucent gel. She’s five or six. I stare, transfixed. I’ve seen her before, back in the vault under Forge. She had a teddy bear and a fresh wound on her forehead then. Now the wound is healed over. Gracie. That’s what Berg called her. Her lips and skin have turned a chalky gray. She doesn’t seem to be breathing, and then, just barely, her chest moves.

  I jolt back as if she’s accusing me of a crime. I can’t take her with me. I can’t! I tried to save her once before at Forge, and now I can barely save myself. I stagger to the tablet at the foot of her sleep shell to find her name: Huron 6. Like the Great Lake, and the six is likely her age. I’ll try to remember. That’s the best I can do. I have to get out!

  My muscles have atrophied so badly that each step is a painful jolt, but I make the doorway. Far down the hall to my right, a door is marked EXIT, and a window shows a square of night. To my left, several open doorways are brightly lit. The nearest gives a glimpse of a metal operating table. Holding my breath, I listen for voices, but the hall yields only a vacant hum.

  With one hand skimming along the wall for balance, I head toward the exit. I pass one closed door, and then another. The next door is open, revealing a large closet with a dozen wigs in tidy rows, and a large makeup kit. From a hook, an odd, skeletal frame of plastic hangs. It looks like the supports could be hooked behind a person’s back and arms and neck to hold someone in a posed position, like a puppet. It could move a person, too. A layer of sweat breaks out over my entire body.

  “What is this place?” I whisper.

  A buzzer sounds behind me. I bolt into the closet and close the door. Flipping off the light, I crouch down and wait, my heart charging. The buzzing stops. Nobody comes. I practically taste the fusty smell of wigs in the dark beside me, and then I crack the door open to peer anxiously out. Still nobody comes.

  I can’t stay here. I have to take a chance.

  I lurch back into the hallway and hurry the last few steps to the exit door, where I lean hard against the release bar. The door doesn’t budge. I try again, using all my puny strength to push the heavy door open a crack, and a couple of snowflakes drift in.

  I gape. They’re so fragile and white, and in an instant they melt. I’ve seen snow in person only once before, and it seems magical now, as if this door opens into a completely new world. When another buzz startles me from behind, I slip out into the night and bolt for the nearest shadow.

  Cold knifes through me. I’m backed against the building. A trace of cigarette smoke laces the black air. A single lamp illuminates a small parking lot edged by dark trees, and a thin layer of unshoveled snow rests inches before my feet. Slow, isolated snowflakes drop silently into the sole cone of light above the car
s. Already I’m shivering in my thin gown. A narrow porch runs around the side of the building, and I scan frantically along it for the red glow of a cigarette. I know someone’s out here. Ian probably, but I see no one.

  Below, a smatter of distant lights hints at a valley with civilization, but there’s nothing closer. I was expecting a bigger facility, a hospital maybe, but the cinderblock building has the grudging, municipal air of a dog pound after hours.

  A sedan, a Jeep, and a pickup truck are parked a dozen yards away. I’m weighing my next move when approaching headlights crown over the ridge. I hurry barefoot down the cold steps, scramble over the snowy gravel, and hunch down behind the far side of the pickup.

  Footsteps sound on the porch, and the scent of cigarette smoke grows stronger. The arriving car noses in by the steps, and the engine cuts dead. Then the car door opens with a rush of radio music that’s quickly terminated.

  “Look who’s out smoking. What would your dad think?” says the driver.

  I know his voice. He’s another attendant.

  “Where’d you go?” Ian says.

  “None of your business, Gertrude.”

  “Don’t call me that,” Ian snaps. “You were gone more than two hours. What if something had happened here?”

  “You’d have handled it.” He sounds dismissive, despite his words.

  I stay low, barely breathing, cupping a hand around my mouth in fear that my fog will lift up and catch the light.

  “A man shouldn’t be paid for a job he doesn’t do,” Ian says.

  “I’ll be sure to remember that, seeing as you’re such a man yourself,” says the other guy. “Did you get in some good time with your little girlfriend?”

  “Have you been drinking?” Ian says.

  “Give it a rest.”

  A jingling noise comes from the car. Then a door slams.

  “You should at least take your keys,” Ian said.

  I grasp onto this information, hopeful that the guy chucked them in his car. The man’s boots are loud on the steps.

  “Doesn’t it ever get to you, what we do here?” the man says.

  “It’s a good job. A man’s job,” Ian says. “That’s what my dad says.”

 
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