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The vault of dreamers, p.7
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.7

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Following her cue, I tried a forkful of cake, and the sweetness dissolved in my mouth. It was insanely good, a taste of pure happiness, with a thin, gooey line of bittersweet frosting between the spongy layers of cake.

  “You should have seen the losers,” Janice said. “Number fifty-one was destroyed. It was awful. Dean Berg’s saying goodbye to them.”

  “Where’s Burnham?” I asked.

  “I don’t know.” Janice pulled out her phone. “It’s my mom,” she said, looping her blond hair to one side. “Excuse me.” She snagged another piece of cake as she shifted away to talk.

  I scanned the crowd and absently rubbed my arms with the towel I’d kept. Henrik and Paige stood talking in the far corner, but I couldn’t find Burnham. I wanted to celebrate with him, especially since he’d helped me at lunchtime, but instead I felt a letdown. I didn’t see any of the students I’d shot for my footage, either. In terms of passing the cuts, it hadn’t made a difference for any of them, but I had to think it had helped me. That hadn’t been my intention when I’d started out, not consciously, so it shouldn’t have made me uneasy. But now it did. Ellen wasn’t going to be easy to forget.

  “My parents say congratulations,” Janice said, coming back over. “Have you talked to yours yet?”

  “No,” I said. I didn’t have a phone, but there were a couple of landline phones in the student union next door.

  “Here. Use this,” Janice said, handing me her phone.

  “Really?”

  “Go ahead,” she said. She was still smiling happily, and another girl came up to give her a hug.

  I took her phone and dialed my home number. Turning away to face the rainy windows, I waited while it rang.

  “Ma?” I said.

  “Rosie! We’re so excited!” my mom said. Her voice came over the sound of partying in the background. “You made it! We’ve got the McLellens and all the neighbors here. We’re so proud of you!”

  I felt a mix of pride and loneliness. “I’m happy, too. Is Dubbs there?”

  “Who was that boy? Are you seeing him?” Ma asked.

  I glanced down at my wet boots and stuck a finger in my other ear.

  “Maybe. I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t really talk now. The cameras, you know.”

  “Oh, yes!” she said. “Oh! There you are on the TV right now, in that towel, talking on the phone. Isn’t that amazing? Can you wave?”

  I waved.

  She squealed.

  “Ma, I’ve got to go,” I said. “Give my love to Dubbs, okay?”

  From the background, my stepfather yelled something that was greeted by shouts of laughter.

  “We’re so excited for you, Rosie,” Ma said. “Be a good girl, okay? Wait, your father wants to talk to you.”

  A clicking and mumbling ensued. “Rosie!” my stepfather called into the phone.

  “Hi, Larry,” I said.

  “You’re a big star now, huh kid? What happens next?”

  “What do you mean?” I asked.

  “How do you win? When’s the next elimination? Next week?”

  How he could possibly not know this was unbelievable to me. It was as if he’d paid zero attention to what I’d been doing, all that time I’d talked about the show and prepared and applied.

  “There are no more eliminations,” I said. “These were the fifty cuts, just now, tonight. That’s it. Now we stay on for the rest of the school year.”

  “But then, how do you win? How do you get the big bucks?” he asked.

  “It’s not about winning,” I said. “It’s about getting an education.”

  “Don’t pull that,” he said. “You said there was money.”

  He’d paid attention to that much, at least.

  I wasn’t in the mood to explain this. “Ask Dubbs about it. She understands.”

  “I’m asking you,” he said. “What, are you too much of a big shot now to talk to your dad?”

  Stepdad, I thought. A bumping noise came from the other end of the line, and my mother came back on.

  “Don’t worry about him,” she said. “I’ll explain it all to him. You’ll do fine. Just fine, Rosie. We love you so much. This is an incredible opportunity for you. Give me a smile, would you? Let me see that little gap of yours.”

  My family had bought a cheap tablet so they could watch me on the show, and I could picture Ma holding it up for the others to see. I didn’t know which camera was focused on me, but I lifted my head and tried a smile over my shoulder, toward the center of the room. I was extra conscious of the gap in my teeth.

  “How’s that?” I asked.

  “Beautiful,” my mom said. “My baby.” More voices were cheering behind her.

  “I’ve got to go, Ma,” I said.

  “Of course,” she said. “Thanks so much for calling. Don’t forget to thank Dean Berg for letting you stay on the show. What a very attractive and distinguished man he is. So brilliant.”

  Across the room, Dean Berg had entered with Mr. DeCoster. The dean struck me as a sandy-haired, clean-cut, Scoutmaster type, more boring than attractive, but there was no accounting for Ma’s taste.

  “They’re so lucky to have you, sweetheart,” Ma said, with a wistful sigh.

  “Got it,” I said. “Thanks, Ma. I love you, too. Bye.”

  The phone buzzed with party noise for another second while I found the end call button. I hoped I wasn’t too abrupt with her. I loved my mom, but I never handled sappy from her very well.

  “Thanks,” I said, handing the phone back to Janice.

  Most of the other students were heading out of the dining hall, and it hit me again that I got to stay. Instead of going home to that staticky world on the other end of the phone, I was fully admitted to the Forge School, a place to dream and work and shine. I was deeply grateful and excited, but I couldn’t quite ignore what it had taken for me to earn my place.

  I glanced across the room to find Dean Berg regarding me thoughtfully. Our eyes met for too long to pretend otherwise, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. He broke into a genial smile and lifted his glass to me briefly before his gaze moved on.

  Weird, I thought. I hugged my damp towel around me and turned away.

  8

  THE LAST BOXCAR

  IT WAS RAINING the day I was sent home from Doli High for fighting. The road was so flooded, I had to walk my bike the last mile, which made me muddy on top of irritable. I stashed my bike under the boxcar and stomped up the steps to slide open the door with a careless bang.

  “Shut that thing!” my stepfather yelled from the couch.

  I stayed outside, peering in, while the rain drummed down around me and splashed in the ruts of the door. Tempting as it was to leave again and avoid Larry, I was hungry and I had nowhere else to go. I stepped in and rolled the door partway back on its wheels, leaving a gap.

  Larry twisted his head around so that creases showed in the back of his neck. “What are you doing home?” he asked.

  I shucked off my muddy shoes and reached for the dishtowel looped on the cutlery drawer. Before I patted at my soaked shirt and hair, I took my video camera out of my backpack and checked to see that it was dry. My skirt was wet through, dripping down my legs.

  “I asked you a question,” Larry said.

  “I got sent home.”

  “What for?”

  “Fighting,” I said.

  “You don’t fight people,” he said.

  I did when they started it.

  I tossed the towel in the sink and looked down at my hand, flexing my fingers. They didn’t hurt too much anymore, but I checked the freezer for some ice. The ice tray contained little square puddles of water, proof that the freezer had stopped working. I checked the fridge, which was still cold, but it contained only a jar of horseradish and a couple of eggs. Nothing else. I started water to boil for tea.

  “Did you tell your ma?” Larry asked. His gun parts were spread over the coffee table on a layer of newsprint. Since the chemical facto
ry was on strike, he cleaned his weapon a lot, ostensibly for relaxation, though I never saw that it worked.

  “I tried to,” I said.

  “What’s that mean? Didn’t the principal call her in from the kitchen?”

  “He did. She couldn’t stay long. Once she saw I was okay, she had to head back to work.”

  “Let’s have the story,” Larry said.

  I leaned back on the counter and crossed my arms.

  To my left, a red curtain hid the bunk beds I shared with Dubbs, and to my right, a wall of bookshelves separated off my parents’ bedroom. The center section of the boxcar, where we cooked and lived, hummed with the rain on the metal above. In the corner behind my stepfather, a busted TV sat on a dresser under a rack of antlers. A drip fell from one of the skylights into a rusty coffee can.

  I resisted an urge to sag.

  “I’d say I don’t have all day, but I do,” Larry said.

  “It wasn’t a big deal. A couple of seniors were picking on one of the fat kids,” I said. “She was taking a shower after gym and they hid her clothes. One of the older girls took out her phone and videotaped the fat girl when she came out naked, like that was real funny. They were going to post it online.”

  “So what did you do?”

  I plucked slowly at my wet shirt, remembering, feeling my rage again. “The naked girl was begging them not to post it, but the seniors were laughing hysterically. So, I laughed too, and I asked to see, and when the senior girl passed over her phone, I dropped it in a toilet.”

  Larry briefly shook his head. “Mistake.”

  It had felt great, actually.

  “Yeah, well,” I said. “That’s how I got in a fight.”

  “Did you explain all this to the principal?”

  I shrugged.

  “Did you hit someone first?” he asked.

  “I don’t know. I guess.”

  “You guess?”

  “All right, I did.”

  The whole thing still pissed me off. The older girls tried to make me reach in the toilet for the phone, but I wouldn’t. They shoved me, so I fought back. The whole time, the fat girl had had nothing to wear, no towel or anything, and she went scrambling through the stinky stuff in the lost and found box. Jill. That was her name. It wasn’t like I’d expected her to thank me or anything, but she yelled at me as if I was just as bad as the others.

  I would never videotape someone like that. I would never defile my video camera with footage that mean.

  The water was boiling now, adding steam to the damp air.

  “I think I’m in trouble,” I said. “School has a zero tolerance policy for violence.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “The principal’s considering his options,” I said.

  “How about the other girls? Are they in trouble?”

  I clicked off the burner.

  “Rosie?” Larry said.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “That doesn’t really matter, does it?”

  * * *

  By the time Ma and Dubbs came in, I’d cooked half a box of spag with some stewed tomatoes, and I was setting the table. Dubbs ran and gave me a hug as if she hadn’t seen me in days, so I knew Ma had told her I was in trouble. I lifted her up for a kiss, inhaling the scent of glitter glue.

  “Ma says she’s quitting her job,” Dubbs said.

  “What for?” I said.

  Larry looked over from the couch. “Nonsense,” he said.

  My mom dumped down her purse and sat heavily to take off her shoes. She was a big woman who moved slowly even when she wasn’t tired. She was allowed to eat whatever she wanted at work in the school cafeteria, but she couldn’t take anything home, not even if it was past its expiration date. The policy drove her crazy, but she never broke the rules.

  “You didn’t really quit, did you?” I asked.

  “No, but I will,” she said. “I’m not going to work at a place that won’t educate my daughter.”

  “What did the principal decide about me?” I asked.

  A brown hairnet pinched along Ma’s forehead, and when she took it off, it left a faint pink line in her skin. “You’re supposed to pay for the phone you ruined, and you’re getting switched to the N.I.P. track.”

  “What’s that?” Larry asked.

  “Needs Improvement slash Parole,” I said.

  A few years back, Doli High had merged with the low-security prison in our town to form the Doli High School and Incarceration Institute. On the N.I.P. track, I would be required to wear an ankle bracelet and take classes with the student-inmates. Forget that.

  “You’re not quitting over this,” Larry said to Ma.

  Ma laughed. “No?”

  “You’re not,” he insisted.

  “For how long? How long am I supposed to be in N.I.P.?” I asked.

  Ma winced. “It’s permanent,” she said.

  “What?” I shrieked. I’d be derailed from the College Prep track, with no chance of getting back on. “That’s completely unreasonable! I might as well drop out right now.”

  “Will she be eligible for any scholarships on the N.I.P. track?” Larry asked.

  “Nobody goes to college from N.I.P.,” my mother said. “It’s a dead end. That’s why I’m quitting. Can you see Rosie here, living like this for the rest of her life?”

  Dubbs was watching with worried eyes. “Can we eat?” she asked in a small voice. “I’m hungry.”

  I looked across at my mother, who didn’t move. I wasn’t sure she’d even heard Dubbs. I wanted to explode, but instead, I brought over the pot and took my place at the table. Ma and Larry sat at either end, and Larry dished out the food. Opposite me, Dubbs led grace and we dug in. There wasn’t enough. Fuming as I was, I still managed to eat slowly, conserving my noodles, and when Dubbs finished hers, I silently reached over and pushed the rest of my food onto her plate.

  “Thanks,” she said.

  Ma put her fork down. She started to cry. My stepfather kept eating.

  “When’s your next pay day?” he asked.

  “Thursday,” Ma said.

  I looked at him, at the way he was forking up his food while Ma wiped at her eyes.

  “Maybe you should get a job,” I said to him.

  He backhanded my face so hard I flew crashing to the floor.

  Dubbs screamed.

  “Larry!” my mother said.

  My mind reeled. I could barely breathe, let alone think. My stepfather leaped around the table. He grabbed my hair and jerked me up. Bile rose in my throat.

  “Don’t you throw up,” he said.

  I gritted my teeth, forcing the bitterness back down.

  “My hair,” I whispered.

  He released me. I fell again, and he backed up a few inches, pointing at me the way a master tests a dog to see if it will stay. For a moment, we fixed like that. Then he flexed his hand and turned away.

  “Pawn the gun,” he said quietly to Ma.

  Then he reached for his hat and walked out the back door, closing it after himself.

  * * *

  I didn’t exactly hate my stepfather. I more despised him. Either way, he was just another part of my life of rolling, low-grade injustice that I couldn’t change. Yet.

  An hour after Larry hit me, Ma passed me a napkin filled with warm chocolate chip cookies. She’d walked up to McLellens’ with the gun and come back with the baking ingredients, and she’d made a cheese omelet, too. Dubbs, at the other end of our orange plaid couch, was ripping an old red shirt into thin, stretchy strips so she could tie them in loops for a weaving craft she liked to do, but she paused to reach wordlessly for one of my cookies.

  My nose was scratched across the bridge and swollen, too, but it wasn’t broken. I could hold a cold cloth to my face and eat cookies at the same time without too much trouble, though the cookies took on a damp taste.

  “Any better?” my mom asked.

  “Yeah.” I sounded muffled. “Why doesn’t Larry get a job?”


  “The workers are still technically on strike,” Ma said. “If he gets a different job, they’ll take his name off the roll, and he won’t get any of his back pay if they rehire again.”

  “But it’s been a year.”

  “It’s our problem to worry about, Rosie. Not yours,” Ma said. “Just try not to exasperate him, okay? You want the rest of this?”

  She passed me the mixing bowl before she turned back to the kitchen area. I ran my finger inside for a gob of cookie dough, and Dubbs crowded over to poke her finger in, too. I licked down smooth heaven: buttery, sweet, and chocolaty. Sometimes, it felt good to let my mom indulge me like a kid, but it didn’t erase what had happened. She might want me to leave the problems to her, but my parents’ problems had become mine, too. Whatever trapped them trapped me.

  I’d been running errands for the McLellens as long as I could remember. If I couldn’t get a decent education, I’d end up working at their pot bar and sundries shop for the rest of my life, or turning into my mother, which terrified me. I loved her, but still. I didn’t want her life. She’d loved my birth father, her first husband, and they’d been saving up to move before he went MIA in the Greenland War. Then, after my dad had been declared PD—Presumed Dead—she’d ended up marrying his best friend, Larry, and having Dubbs.

  Sometimes, like tonight when my nose hurt, I looked up through the skylight and dreamed about how my life would have been different if my own dad had never died. The only thing was, I’d never give up my little sister.

  “Where’d you get that, Dubbs?” my mother asked.

  “From the school library,” Dubbs said. She had pulled out a tablet and, with layers of red strips still woven through her little fingers, was skimming the touch screen. “Remember you signed the permission slip? I get it for one night for free.”

  “Don’t let your father see that.”

  “It’s not a phone,” Dubbs said. “He won’t care.”

  Larry was paranoid about cell phones. He thought the government used them to track every citizen, so he refused to have one. We had to be the last family in town with a landline phone, and half the time it was disconnected because we didn’t pay our bill.

 
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