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The keep of ages, p.8
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       The Keep of Ages, p.8

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “Who were they? What happened to them?”

  “Gone, all three,” she says. “Their assets were tied up in lawsuits for over a decade. One of them shot himself. The second died of cancer. The third went bankrupt and moved away to the Philippines. No one’s heard from him in years.”

  “Who owns Grisly Valley now, then?” I ask, curious.

  “The state,” Lavinia says. “It bought up most of the property in the contaminated zone. They even stored contaminated cadavers there for a while.”

  As it occurs to me now why she’s showing me this, I stare at her dim profile. “You think the vault of dreamers is at Grisly Valley,” I say.

  She nods. “It may be outlandish, but that’s what I think.”

  “What makes you think so?”

  She taps her keyboard so the upper layer settles back down on top of the lower one, and her glasses flicker again with colored reflections.

  “The park is supposed to be shut down like all the rest of the OEZ,” she says. “Technically, nobody’s allowed in, but people are curious. They sneak in sometimes. I know because I used to see them. I left a few cameras behind, off the grid. Simple, solar-powered cameras to satisfy my curiosity. I used to see kids trespassing now and then. A few old hippies, too. Harmless picnickers, really. Then, one day, maybe seven or eight years ago, I noticed a truck pull in.”

  She taps her keyboard again. The 3-D map recedes, and the projection of a flat screen comes forward into the same space. It shows a grainy, black-and-white film of a truck driving slowly around the potholes of an old road. It passes near the camera and Lavinia freezes the frame. “Forge Ice Cream” it says on the side of the truck in clear letters.

  But that’s not possible, I think, dumbstruck.

  “Seems a little odd that someone at an abandoned theme park is ordering ice cream, don’t you think?” she says.

  My mind’s racing. “Linus and I had a theory,” I say. “We never knew for sure. But we thought human bodies were being delivered to Forge in the freezer compartments of those ice cream trucks.”

  She doesn’t bat an eye. “Shortly after I saw that, all of my cameras went dead except for one,” she says. “This one here, out by the road. It’s practically useless.”

  She shows me a view of a deserted, overgrown road. It could be anywhere.

  “Did you tell anybody about the ice cream truck?” I ask.

  “What would I say? That I kept illegal surveillance cameras going on Grisly Valley? That I was concerned about unorthodox deliveries?” She straightens back and folds her arms across her chest. “Since then, there’ve been rumors the park is haunted. People say the lights and the rides go on sometimes when nobody’s there.”

  “Do you believe them?”

  She shrugs. “I’d like to get some new cameras back on the property. That’s what you can do for me.” She runs her fingers over her computer, and some grainy footage of the road starts playing.

  “If the vault of dreamers is at the park, down in one of those big rooms, someone has to be living there, taking care of them,” I say.

  “That’s possible, as long as they’re doing it in secret,” she says. “It’s the perfect place, really. It’s officially off-limits, so anything could happen there.”

  As it starts to sinks in, I get a prickle of anxious foreboding. This could be it. The vault of dreamers could be right there, a few miles away, at Grisly.

  “You never went to look and be sure?” I ask.

  “No. I didn’t want to,” she says. She pauses her footage on the view of the lonely road, then backs it up and starts it forward again, slow motion. “But now look at this. This was from this morning, just before dawn.”

  A pair of headlights comes slowly into view. Details are hard to make out, but the vehicle has the shape of a delivery truck. Lavinia freezes on it.

  A sick feeling turns in my gut. “My family could be in there,” I say.

  Without replying, she fast-forwards through the footage, and half an hour later, the truck comes back out again and passes under the camera.

  “That’s all I’ve got,” she says, her expression solemn.

  The timing would work. It’s all adding up. If the vault of dreamers truly exists at Grisly Valley, my family could be hostage there. In fact, a huge number of dreamers could be waiting there, like in the picture I saw. It’s starting to feel real. Dangerous.

  Lavinia opens the door of the closet so that air and light from outside can shift in. I blink as my eyes adjust. I expect her to lead me out of the closet, but she stays seated beside me, rubbing her thumb into her palm, as if her hand aches. A faint trace of lemon dust clings to her sleeve.

  “I wish I knew why you were here,” Lavinia says quietly.

  “What do you mean? Dubbs sent me.”

  She shakes her head deliberately. “No. It feels like a giant hand has reached down to shuffle up the tidy furniture of my dollhouse life.” She turns the wedding band on her finger. “My daughter and my granddaughter both died of radiation poisoning after the incident at Olbaid.”

  “I’m so sorry.”

  Lavinia goes on as if she’s barely heard me. “The cemetery wouldn’t take them. They had a new policy based on ignorance. In any case, I should have buried them myself, back at our old place, but my son-in-law wouldn’t agree, so we sent their bodies to Grisly.” Her smile is both bitter and sad. “Ironic, isn’t it? The horror theme park became a burial ground.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “I don’t care to go into the logistics with you,” she says. “I’ll just ask you, once you’re there, to please have respect for the dead.”

  9

  THE DRAGON OF GRISLY VALLEY

  OVER THE NIGHT, I study the 3-D map of Grisly Valley until I can see every turn and angle in my mind’s eye. According to Lavinia, cell phone coverage in the OEZ is spotty at best, so using a GPS map is out. It’s best to have my directions memorized, with the understanding that it may look different in person, aside from major landmarks. Once I think I know the map, Lavinia gives me a set of fancy goggles, tabs me up with a few sensors, and drops me into an expanded version of the map so I can practice exploring it in full-scale virtual reality. This involves bumping into the walls of the closet until I get the knack of stroking my steps along the floor to propel myself through the virtual set. The virtual streets and buildings, the concession stands and rides, even the garbage cans and streetlamps all shimmer with articulated, artificial brightness. It’s pretty cool, actually.

  After I learn my way around the street level of Grisly Valley, Lavinia advises me to sleep for a while to cement what I’ve learned. That reminds me of Forge. She offers me the bed in the spare bedroom, and I crawl under the covers beneath the painting of the seashore. My dreams are full of Grisly Valley, and I wake late the next morning to the sound of Tiny purring in the crook of my bent knees.

  “Hey, girl,” I say, and curl my fingers around her flinching ears. My mouth feels dry and my muscles stiff, but for once I didn’t wake from a nightmare, and I feel well rested for the first time in ages.

  The first thing I do is check for news from Peggy on the wild chance she’s heard something, but there’s no change on her Facebook profile. On the floor beside me is a paper I drew the night before, when I was testing my memory of the map. I’m lifting the paper to puzzle over it when one of my phones buzzes. I have to sort through the bunch of them in my backpack until I find the right one, and it’s Burnham. With a pinch of remorse, I realize I should have called him sooner, when 240 Mallorca turned out to be a good lead. Also, Thea wanted me to talk to him about her, and I never did.

  “Hey,” I say, picking up. “How are you doing?”

  “Good,” he says. “Where are you now?”

  “In California.” I let my gaze travel to the window and out to the sunny sky.

  I fill him in about my messages from Dubbs and Berg, and coming to Lavinia’s, and my plan to look for my family at Grisly. I warn him
about ten times that I don’t want the police involved. In return, Burnham tells me about Ian’s pill, the red Echo 8, which is a sleep aid. The yellow double theta is a stimulant. Fister produces a slightly different version that’s used for depression. He also discovered that Fister does sell pharmaceuticals in the Miehana area, but nothing stands out as unusual.

  “Did you connect all right with your friend Thea?” Burnham asks.

  “Yes. Thanks. And I have something I need to tell you.” Shifting on the bed, I cross my bare legs pretzel style and rake my hair back from my forehead. “The only thing is, you have to promise not to tell anybody,” I say. “Not Sammi or your brother or your parents. Especially not your parents.”

  “I won’t,” he says. “I promise.”

  “You’re going to have trouble believing it.”

  “Just spit it out.”

  I launch into the complicated story of how my consciousness split in two, and half of me ended up in another body, Thea’s body. I leave out how suspicious and mean I was to her at first, until she convinced me who she was. “She was pregnant, too,” I say. “We have all the same memories up to the point when we were put in the Onar Clinic, but I swear she came out nicer than I am. I ended up helping her have her baby that same night I went to the dean’s tower at Forge, and we’re friends now. She’s back in Texas with her family,” I add. “She’s having a lot of headaches, and that’s a bad sign.”

  Burnham makes a skeptical humming noise. “And you’re positive about all this,” he says.

  I nod. “Absolutely. I warned you. You can ask her if you don’t believe me. She can tell you anything about our time at Forge before you left. You can ask her about the note you gave me. The one with the P.S. about the lady knight.”

  I can hear him clicking around on his computer in the background.

  “She was at the Chimera Centre, you say? Look at this stuff!” he says. “If this is all true, do you realize what it could mean for medical science?”

  “You’re making me nervous,” I say. “Don’t get excited.”

  “This makes so much more sense now,” he says. “No wonder Berg was taking such chances. Rosie, this is huge. If what you’re saying is true, you and Thea are huge!”

  “We are not huge,” I say. “You are not telling anybody about this.”

  “Are you kidding?” he says. “You have to let me tell my parents!”

  My heart goes still.

  “Burnham Fister,” I say. “On the soul of your grandfather who you helped kill, you are not going to say a word to your parents! You promised me!”

  The clicking stops. I can practically hear his shock in the stillness.

  “We’re done,” he says.

  I wait for the sound of him hanging up, but it doesn’t come. Is he expecting me to apologize? I pull my knees up to my chest and squeeze myself together.

  “I’m sorry,” I say stiffly. “I take that back. But you have to understand. You can’t tell anybody. If you do, I’ll deny every word, and I’ll never speak to you again.”

  From down below in the kitchen comes the growing whistle of the teakettle, and then it fades.

  “I’m coming out there,” Burnham says. “What’s your address?”

  “No.”

  “Rosie, I’m coming. We have to talk in person.”

  “Are you keeping your promise?”

  “I will. But we need to talk,” he says. “I’m not sure you realize. My parents are the good guys. They use their research to help people, Rosie, and what’s happened to you could change the world.”

  I shake my head. “You’re sounding like Berg,” I say. “I realize exactly what’s at stake, but I’m not going to sacrifice myself for any cure. I just want to save my parents.”

  “I get it, believe me. You’ve suffered,” Burnham says. “So have I. Can I just ask you one thing, though? Are you glad Thea’s alive?”

  His words catch at my heart. I tilt my head back to look at the ceiling. Of course I’m glad Thea’s alive, but that doesn’t mean I want a thousand more versions of me running around like her. Not that she’s actually me anymore. But still. He’s oversimplifying.

  “Why do you always mix me up?” I ask.

  “I don’t. Just don’t do anything until we talk, okay? I can be there in a few hours.”

  I shake my head. I am not going to let him slow me down. “No. Thanks, but no.”

  “Rosie!”

  “I’ve got to go.”

  “Wait!” he says.

  But I hang up.

  Burnham seriously disturbs me. I just knew he’d want to tell his parents, but if he does, and they start an investigation, then what Chimera did to Thea with my dreams will be all over the news. Every brain researcher on the planet will want a sample of my dreams to experiment with. I’ll never be safe again.

  I pull on my jeans, take up my map, and head downstairs to the kitchen, where Lavinia’s reading a crisp newspaper. She’s wearing a silvery-gray outfit today with a fancy brooch, and I wonder if she’s dressed up for my sake or if she’s always like this. NPR plays low from an old radio. Sunlight reflects on the faucet and sink, and a basket of scones and a pot of apricot jam are laid out on the table.

  “Did you bake these?” I ask. “I didn’t even hear you.”

  “Help yourself.”

  I slide my drawing onto the table and take a scone. Cutting it in half, I try it with a dab of butter, which melts into the warm, white tastiness. I can hardly believe how good it is.

  “Oh, my gosh,” I say, in raptures.

  With a rustle, she sets her newspaper aside. “Glad you like it. Have another.”

  I will, for sure.

  “My grandmother used to read the newspaper,” I say.

  “Is that right?”

  I haven’t thought about my grandma in a long time. She let me sit on her lap and showed me the funnies. She would read each bubble of words aloud as I pointed to it. Sometimes I would go backward, and she’d read the words in backward order. I loved that. It was like my finger magically controlled her voice.

  “Would this be your mother’s mother or your father’s?” Lavinia asks.

  “My father’s,” I say. “She died when I was little. I never knew my other grandparents. They all died before I was born.” I look thoughtfully across at her. “Do you have other family besides your daughter and your granddaughter?” I ask.

  Her gaze goes toward the windowsill, where the paperweight rests on the pile of cards. “No blood relatives. I have a son-in-law. He’s remarried. We haven’t spoken in years,” she says. “When you’re old like me, you know more dead people than alive ones.” She nods at my map. “So. Have you settled on your route?”

  I swallow another bite of buttery scone. “I’ll wait until tonight, when it’s dark, and leave my car outside the fence that surrounds the OEZ,” I say. “It’ll take me a little while to hike down to the park, but as long as I avoid any lights, I shouldn’t get picked up by any surveillance cameras.” I lean over the table and turn my map in her direction, so she can see where I’m pointing. “I’m thinking I’ll go in here, by the main entrance, if I can.”

  “There are probably lights there,” she says. “Ideally, I’d like you to put one of my cameras here, overlooking the turnstiles and this little road for emergency vehicles. The second one should go here, facing the Keep of Ages.”

  “I’ll try.”

  “Then what?” she says.

  “I need a way down to the Negative One level. I know the dreamers are in a big room, and it seems most likely that would be underground,” I say. “I was thinking of going down this first ramp.”

  She shakes her head. “That’s too open. No place for cover.” She taps a finger on my map farther along, up the Main Drag. “There’s a VIP portal here, by a gift shop. That’ll take you directly down to the greenroom on Negative One.”

  I don’t have it marked on my map. “Where?”

  “I can show you in the closet.” She shi
fts her finger. “Or here, by the Bottomless Pit. There’s another VIP portal here. That might be even better. It leads down to the grand assembly area.” She sits back. “Supposing you do find the vault, what then?”

  I don’t want to tell her how nervous I am about this whole thing. There are so many unknowns. I’ll have to trust to my wits once I’m there.

  “I’ll look for my family until I find them,” I say. “I’ll break them out if I have to, and then we’ll get back to the car and drive away. That’s the best that I’ve got.”

  “You’ll come back here afterward,” she says, frowning. “Do you have any weapons?”

  Not really. The only thing I have is a couple vials of sleep meds left over from my time in the dean’s tower with Berg, and the pills from Ian.

  “For Pete’s sake,” Lavinia says at my hesitation. She reaches behind her, opens a drawer, and slams a sheathed dagger on the table.

  Startled, I slide it out to find a sharp, ragged blade, as long as my hand.

  “I don’t know how to use this,” I say, turning it in the light.

  “When you’re scared enough, you’ll figure it out,” Lavinia says.

  I take a surreptitious look at her thin arms in her sleeves, wondering how strong she’d be in a fight. Hard to know.

  “Thanks,” I say. “Does this knife have a name?”

  “Please. This isn’t an elf kingdom.”

  I laugh, and she smiles archly back at me. I slip the knife back in its sheath.

  After breakfast, she sets me up in the closet again. I practice moving around the lower level of Grisly Valley, in and out of the dressing rooms, the cafeteria, the tech station, and the parking lot. Lavinia has me practice taking the VIP portals and routes, first by following the green lines, and then without them. I make special note of the portals by the Main Drag gift shop and the Bottomless Pit.

  When I finally take off the goggles and step out of the closet, the world swims around me for a sec until I get my land legs again. The grandfather clock ticks loudly. Outside, evening has come again and the shadows are long. Lavinia’s hunched at the table in the kitchen, tinkering with a small solar panel and a camera.

 
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