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The rule of mirrors, p.8
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.8

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  “Your dad’s a regular genius. Where’s he now? Miehana? Snaking for those California babes?”

  “None of your business,” Ian says. “I should report you for shirking.”

  The guy laughs. “Go ahead, you piece of weasel crap. Then I’ll report how you fraternize with the dreamers. How’d you like that?”

  The door to the clinic swings open with a squeak. Next, it closes with a heavy click.

  I hold motionless, listening, trying to learn if Ian has gone in, too, or if he’s still on the porch. Silent snow drops into the cone of light. My teeth chatter once, so I open my mouth and jut my jaw out to stop the noise. The trees whisper with a breeze, and the wintry air skims my back through my gown. I lean forward an inch, and then another, scanning the porch where I heard Ian’s voice.

  I’m smelling cigarette smoke ever so faintly. I can’t see any movement, though, and finally I can’t wait a moment longer. Any second now, the man inside will discover my empty sleep shell. He’ll ask Ian where I am. They’ll start their search.

  I touch my way around the truck, bracing myself for balance and wincing at the snowy gravel beneath my feet. A second more I pause, listening, and then I sprint to the car that has just arrived and yank on the handle. The interior light comes on as I jump inside and close the door. I scramble my hands along the dashboard, over the seat, and down by the pedals until finally I connect with the keys.

  Shaking, I locate the biggest one and jab it in the ignition.

  The door to the clinic bursts open, and a big man hurtles out to the porch. Ian charges out right behind him. I get one clear flash of Ian’s stunned expression, his mouth the open O of a gasping fish.

  “Hey!” the big guy says.

  I turn the ignition with a roar and the headlights shine on. I slam the car into reverse and floor it backward in a wide arc.

  “You can’t take my car!” the man yells. He’s running toward me.

  I rip the gear into drive and aim right at the guy. He rushes for the car door, but I hit the accelerator hard, and he gets jolted into the blackness beside me. I jerk the wheel to steer onto the road, barely missing a post that appears out of nowhere. I jab my bare foot harder on the gas and hold myself up by the steering wheel so I can see over the dashboard.

  Night trees flash past in a wild kaleidoscope of high beams and black. A void of eager emptiness opens on my left, signaling the edge of a cliff. Bumps jolt me wildly in my seat, but I don’t slow for anything—not my seatbelt or ice or stop signs—until I make it out to the flatland and a straight, two-lane highway. Some bottle clinks on the floor, toasting my acceleration, and I roar the car as fast as it will go.





  The snow has picked up, and the flakes aim into my headlights with mad surprise. My windshield wipers thwack away. I manage to pull my seat forward, but I have to sit tall to see because the car was designed, apparently, for a giant. Plus, despite the blasting heat, I can’t get warm, so my scrawny muscles are tight with shivering. I’d give anything for a coat. Or shoes.

  I sniff and wipe my drippy nose with the back of my hand. I need everything: clothes, food, and a place to hide. I have to get as far away from the Onar Clinic as I can, but I also need to ditch this car, which is easy to track. Every mile feels like a risk either way.

  That’s why I fly like wild. My wheels catch a patch of black ice, and I swerve in a nasty spin that lands me backward in a full stop. Only then, with the heat ticking in the silence, do I realize how stupid I am. I didn’t get out of the vault just to kill myself on the road. I’m not the best driver to begin with. Never got my license. From then on, I’m more cautious. I straighten out and drive for a couple hours through worsening weather. The road meets a clutch of small, dark buildings and a brace of streetlamps, all haloed with falling snow. I turn into the parking lot of an all-night diner and skid slow-mo into a spot. Exhaustion hits me as I turn off the engine.

  The slats of the blinds are open in the diner, spilling striped rectangles of yellow light out onto the snow. It’s like a Hopper painting, but grainy, and I squint to see inside. Behind the counter, a tall, thin man with a gray complexion is filling sugar shakers. Another man sits on a stool at the counter, methodically eating ham and eggs. The only other customers are two young black women in a booth. They’re sharing French fries from the same dish, and the sight of one smearing a long fry in ketchup sets my mouth salivating.

  Think, I tell myself. I can’t, obviously, go into the diner in my hospital gown, but I can’t stay here in this stolen car, either. I check around me once more for anything I might wear or use, but the only article of interest is a bag of weed in the glove compartment. I dump the weed on the floor and slip the bag over my foot. I wrap the bag at my ankle as best as I can, for one sad sock.

  As soon as I climb out of the car, the cold swirls viciously around me and steals my breath. I run as fast as I can and try the doors of the Honda Fit, hoping to hide in the back, but they’re all locked. I glance toward the diner where the French fry eaters are now rising out of their booth, and then I sprint to the pickup. These doors are locked, too. Crap!

  I’m out of options.

  In the bed of the truck, a couple of over-sized bags of cat food are collecting snow. The cold is unbelievable, and I instinctively huddle low, balancing on one foot. The diner door opens with a tinkling bell.

  “Hang on. I forgot my purse,” says one of the women.

  “I’ll get the car,” says the other. “Man, it’s cold. Isn’t the snow pretty, though?”

  At the same time, a Jeep turns into the lot. It pulls up in front of the car I stole and blocks it in. Not good. I try to see into the cab to identify the driver, but the angle is wrong.

  The French fry eater crosses through the car’s low beams, and before she can come any nearer, I climb into the back of the truck and huddle down. The night is stupidly, brutally cold, and I’m shivering on top of my shivering. How fast can I die in this cold? The truck’s door opens audibly, then closes, and a second later, the engine starts.

  Peeking over the edge, I see the driver from the Jeep climbing the steps, and as he enters the diner’s light, he’s clearly Ian, bundled up in a big white coat with fake fur around the hood. I could kill him for his coat alone. He holds the door for the second woman as she exits, and soon after, she gets in the pickup. I lurch onto the nearest bag of cat food as we head down the lip of the driveway, and then the truck turns onto the road.

  The truck picks up speed, whipping my hair around me. I keep low and drag the bags of cat food into the corner behind the cab. As I climb onto one, its paper cover breaks open beneath me. The pellets are dry, and they give a bit under my weight. I can actually burrow into them somewhat, and I brace the other bag against me as a windbreak of sorts. It’s hardly any shelter, and I’m shaking from cold, but I curl into a ball and put my head down against my knees. It occurs to me dimly that I should knock on the back window of the cab and try to get the attention of the women inside, but it’s already too hard to uncurl.

  For a time, the cold is unbearable, a pain beyond madness, but soon I slip into a dream. I’m huddled by a fireplace, with a soft white rug beneath me. As long as I don’t move, the firelight flickers on my closed eyelids and warmth eases through my body. I smell hot chocolate, and Linus kneels down beside me. I know he’s there, even if I don’t open my eyes, simply from the feel of his nearness. He says, “Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking for you.”

  It’s hard to speak, but I manage a whisper. “I’m freezing,” I say.

  “Yes. This was an idiotic mistake. But I’ve got you now.”

  I feel another layer of warmth as he covers me with a blanket, and I keep very still.

  “Don’t tell Dubbs,” I say.

  It’s the wrong thing to say because he’ll never see my sister. They aren’t even acquainted. But he gives me the right answer anyway.
  “I won’t.”

  * * *

  Some time later, a new voice comes from far away.

  “Portia, check this out.”

  I can’t move or feel anything.

  “Don’t tell me she’s dead,” says another woman. “Where’d she come from?”

  A touch on my back sends a crackling through my body, like I’m ice and streaks of white are breaking me into pieces.

  “We have to get her to the hospital.”

  “I doubt she’d last that long,” says the other. “Help me get her inside.” She adds a curse.

  I feel them rolling me, but I’m so clenched and cold, I can’t do anything to help.

  “Look how skinny she is.”

  “Just get the door. Watch her head.”

  I pass out again, and when I resurface next, it’s to a painful prickling that burns all over my skin. I’m shivering wildly. They’ve put me in a bathtub to thaw like a Thanksgiving turkey. My lower tube has a new stopper in it. The port in my chest looks horribly foreign. I don’t understand my skinny, wasted body. All I can do is stare at the faucet and the water valves, the old-fashioned, knobby kind that squeak when one of the women turns them. They’re asking me questions, but whenever I try to unclench my jaw to answer, I chatter too much.

  “It’s all right,” one of them says. “You’re going to be okay. Some frostbite, but you’ll survive.”

  I lift trembling fingers to push my hair out of my eyes and smell a trace of cat food. Perfect, I think, and go off in a weird, sniveling laugh. Eventually they dry me off, put me in clean sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and settle me on a couch under a pile of blankets. One of them wraps my wet hair in a towel, and the other brings me a brown mug of warm cocoa to sip. It takes forever for my shivering to stop and the pinpricks of pain to dull into patchy itchiness, and by then, I’m exhausted.

  Hiding practically naked in the back of that freezing truck was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Even my hallucination of Linus knew it. But I don’t regret it now. I survived and I’m free.

  I glance around the quiet living room. On a prominent shelf stands a framed photo of a smiling woman in camouflage with her arms around my rescuers, who are obviously her daughters. A series of moths and butterflies, framed in pairs, hangs behind a rocker. Their bright colors stand out against the dullness of fading wallpaper, sagging upholstery, and a wayward crack in the ceiling. Each surface is meticulously clean. I’m the biggest mess this place has seen in years.

  “I’m going to call her in,” one of the sisters says.

  “Don’t, Portia. The police will only screw it up. Ten to one we’ll end up accused of something.”

  “But she’s not our problem,” Portia says. “I don’t like the look of those ports. What if she has something contagious?”

  “She’s not wearing a hospital band. Doesn’t she seem familiar to you?”

  “Not really.”

  “I think she’s somebody.”

  The sisters consider me from the other side of the coffee table. They have similar heart-shaped faces and wide eyes, but the one called Portia is heavier and older I’d guess by a few years. The younger one is close to my age. She has a thin, long-legged build and nicely done nails. She inspects the gown I came in, and then she takes a sniff inside the bag I wore on my foot. She passes it to Portia, who smells it, too.

  “Weed,” Portia says, glancing to me. “Are you sick?”

  “It’s not mine,” I say. My voice is husky, but I can talk. “Thanks for taking me in. I’m not contagious or anything.”

  “What’s your name?” Portia asks.

  I don’t want to say, but I can’t answer their generosity with rudeness, either. “Rosie,” I say.

  The younger sister reaches for her tablet. “I knew it,” she says. “You’re that girl from The Forge Show. The one that’s missing. Rosie Sinclair.”

  “Who?” Portia asks.

  “You remember. The crazy one. Oh, my gosh!” The young one types quickly and then passes the tablet to Portia, who looks up at me quizzically.

  “That’s you?” she asks, and turns the tablet toward me to show a shot of me from Forge. It lists a reward that would tempt anybody.

  I nod. “Please don’t call anybody.”

  “But your family’s looking for you,” the younger one says. “Tons of people are. They’re worried about you. Where have you been?”

  “In hell,” I say. And then I laugh because I’m actually not exaggerating. “What’s the date today?”

  “It’s Sunday, March 6, 2067,” the young one says.

  Four months. I curl my hands over my skinny knees. No wonder I’m so thin and weak. For months I’ve been subsisting on whatever nutrients came in my port. I lift my hand to the lamp, and I swear I can see the light glowing through my flesh.

  It makes me angry.

  Portia sets down the tablet. “Okay, listen. You’ve been through something horrendous. We get that,” she says. “We’d like to help, but we obviously have to call somebody. You’ve got problems way out of our league.”

  “But of course we’ll help you,” the other interrupts. She smiles at me. “I’m Jenny, and this is Portia. I can’t get over this. This is huge. Mom’s going to go bonkers when she finds out. And we saved you! We’re heroes!”

  “Hold on. We need a plan,” Portia says. “Where’d you get in our truck? At the diner?”

  “Yes,” I say. “Please don’t call anybody yet. I need to think.”

  “Where were you before that?” Portia asks.

  The Onar Clinic, Ian called it, but I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure how much of my story I should tell them. “I don’t know exactly,” I say.

  “Were you, like, kidnapped?” Jenny asks. “I knew it. I always knew that dean from your school was evil. Don’t worry. You’re not going back. Does anybody else know where you are?”

  I shake my head.

  “Then you’re safe here,” Jenny says. “We’ll look after you.”

  “We can’t just keep her here,” Portia says. “She needs a doctor.”

  “No, I don’t,” I say. “No doctors.”

  “What about your ports? What do they mean? What if they get infected?” Portia says.

  “I’ll look them up online and figure out what to do with them,” I say.

  “You’re joking,” Portia says.

  “No, I’m not,” I say. “I’m not ready to go public. If you report me, the police will start an investigation. They might take me to a hospital at first, but I won’t have any choice about where I end up. Please, I just need to rest for a few days and figure out what to do. Let me stay here. I won’t be any trouble. You can call in for the reward then, okay? I’ll tell everyone you saved me. Jenny’s right. You’ll be heroes.”

  Portia leans back, considering.

  “You know what Mom would do,” Jenny says.

  “She’d call in the police right now,” Portia says.


  For some reason, this works on Portia, but not the way I expect.

  She nods slowly. “All right,” Portia says. “For now, you can stay. But if you get an infection, we’re taking you in.”

  Jenny smiles and pulls her feet up on her chair. “Mom’s a stickler for rules. It gets annoying.”

  “Thanks,” I say. I settle deeper into the couch and tuck the blanket closer against my cheek. “I don’t suppose you have any ketchup,” I say.

  Jenny steps out and returns a moment later with a red plastic bottle, a small blue bowl, and a spoon. “How much?” she asks.

  “A lot,” I say.

  She squirts a steady stream into the bowl, and then, after glancing at me, another. When I taste my first spoonful, my taste buds go wild. It’s heaven, sweet and salty and redly luscious. I eat it all and then reach for the bottle, which is disappointingly light. I give it a little shake, and then upend it above me to squirt more ketchup directly into my mouth.

  A swishing c
lick makes me look over. Jenny has taken a picture with her tablet. I freeze.

  “Delete it,” I say

  “You look awesome,” she says.

  “Delete it! I don’t want any pictures!” I say.

  “Okay, calm down. I’m deleting it,” Jenny says. “Whatever.”

  I’m shaking again, and I have to fight an impulse to hurl the ketchup bottle and bowl across the room. As I bundle up in my blankets again, the damp towel slips from my hair. I slide it off the rest of the way and dump it on the floor. Portia comes over to pick it up just as I hide completely under the blankets, curled up in a ball. I’m shivering again, with every muscle clenched.

  “She’s a wreck, poor kid,” Portia says quietly.

  “What do you suppose happened to her?” Jenny says.

  “I don’t know, but it was bad.”

  You have no idea, I think. But I’m not done, and I’m not pathetic or crazy, either. I’m going to get even.




  MY LITTLE SISTER searches for a lost puppy in a downpour of rain, calling plaintively, “Here, doggy!” She pushes her bike through the mud, peering under the boxcars. Her boots sink ankle deep with each step, and I slog along behind her. The rush of water is deafening. When she steps too near the train tracks, a slick river of mud rises from beneath the metal and sucks her under the train. She screams and twists back to grasp at air. Her bike goes down completely, wheels and handlebars slurped into the black muck. Her pale, mud-streaked arms reach out for me to save her, and she gasps for breath. I try to catch her, but I fall in, too, and the muddy water gets us both. I drown with my eyes open, under water, under mud, still reaching blindly for my sister, until suffocation burns my lungs.

  I wake panting in a tangled sweat ball. I’m on Portia and Jenny’s couch. Bright light streams in the windows, and my heart is pounding with fear. It’s all right, I tell myself. I’m alive. I’m out of the vault. I glance around for Dubbs, but of course, she was never here.

  A country station is playing in the other room, accompanied by a sizzling noise. I smell bacon.

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