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The vault of dreamers, p.8
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       The Vault of Dreamers, p.8

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  I sat up slowly, and Dubbs settled close enough that our arms bumped. She tapped up The Forge Show, which I hadn’t watched since our TV broke. A menu along the bottom of the screen ran a tally of the top ten students in each grade, in blip rank order, so it was easy to track the popular students. Another menu listed links to spin-off commentary, interviews, and merchandise. Since the hour was after six, the show was on its repeat cycle, looping through the feeds from earlier in the day. It was showing that morning, around 8:00 a.m., when the students were dancing, singing, and studying in their classes.

  “Who should we watch?” Dubbs asked. Each time she clicked on a student profile, it enlarged to fill three quarters of the screen, shrinking the other profiles to smaller boxes along the margin and muting their audios.

  “Him,” I said, pointing to a senior student with a goatee.

  He was standing in a recording booth with a female student, coaching her on how to sing. He wanted her to be more internal and private with her characterization of a voice she was doing for a cartoon he was animating. As they talked, he urged her to feel it more, and he warned her that the mic was picking up her extra breaths. He left the booth for the other side of the glass while she gave the song another try.

  The whole process fascinated me.

  Dubbs flipped through different feeds, following her scattershot whims into ballet studios, art ateliers, and music practice rooms. Ma looked over the back of the couch.

  “Do they ever take regular classes?” Ma asked.

  “They have to take some electives in lit, history, science, and math,” Dubbs said.

  I laughed. “You know a lot about it.”

  “My friends watch it all the time,” Dubbs said. “You’d be great there, Rosie, except it’s too far away.”

  “Thousands of people apply every year,” I said.

  “So? You should at least try,” Dubbs said.

  “We could never afford it,” Ma said.

  “They have scholarships,” Dubbs said. “They won’t care if you’re in N.I.P. It’s based on talent.”

  “What would you study there? Film?” Ma asked.

  “Of course film!” Dubbs said. “Really, Ma.”

  My inner longing expanded at the idea, and my gaze shot automatically to the top of the refrigerator where I’d stashed my video camera. I mentally framed up the shot of my sister and my mother together, with Ma leaning over the back of the couch, watching me, and Dubbs all pink-cheeked. A second later, I jumped over the back of the couch and grabbed my video camera to start shooting.

  Dubbs took another bite of cookie and stuck out her tongue at the camera.

  “That’s the charm,” I said. “Give me more.”

  “Where’d you get that old thing, anyway?” Ma asked.

  “My science teacher gave it to me. He said I could keep it if I could fix it,” I said.

  I’d found a way to rig a penny in the battery pack. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved that video camera. It gave me an excuse to stare close up at whatever I wanted, but it allowed me some distance, too, because I was never quite in the scene when I was filming.

  I turned the video camera upside down as I aimed it at Dubbs and focused in on one of her eyes. Her lashes were huge. “Say something brilliant, Dubbs,” I said.

  “I need to fart,” she said.

  “That’s good,” I said, laughing. I zoomed out again to frame up both of her eyes. Her lashes were still huge.

  “No! I’ve got it!” she said. She made her little voice serious. “This is my brilliant message: you have to dream.”

  My sister said that. My little sister.

  I lowered my video camera so I could see her in real life. She killed me sometimes when she was right.

  Then she farted.

  We both laughed. I set my video camera aside so I could wrestle her into a squashed, squirming shape beneath me. “You’re disgusting!” I said, and exhaled cookie breath in her face.

  “Stop!” she said, laughing harder.

  I did. Eventually.



  MY FIRST ELATION at passing the fifty cuts soon faded. I paused as I stepped into our dorm room that Monday evening. It had always been a large, uncomfortable space, more like a drafty barn than a bedroom, but now it veered toward the ominous. With their lids dim and closed, the sleep shells of the cut girls were interspersed among the remaining ones like great, hulking coffins.

  “This is creepy,” I said.

  “Forgive us if we can’t move twenty-five sleep shells out of your room in under an hour,” Orly said dryly. “They’ll be gone by morning. Hurry, now, and get ready for bed. Pills in ten minutes.”

  I hadn’t seen her standing by the door. Orly was a big-boned woman who favored gray, high-necked blouses, and she retained a dour air despite the general cheer of the rest of the staff. I glanced toward the other girls who were getting ready for bed, and then back to Orly.

  “I didn’t mean to criticize,” I said.

  “You, of all people, should be grateful you’re still here,” she said. “That was quite ruthless, making a project of all those losers. Not to mention using that kitchen boy like you did.”

  Her words stung.

  “I didn’t use Linus,” I said.

  “No? What was that, then? Spontaneous chemistry?”

  Orly was laying out small white paper cups on a tray for the evening pill-taking routine. I didn’t understand why she had a grudge against me, but wittingly or not, she was giving me a chance to defend myself before the cameras.

  “I had no idea what I’d find when I went to take footage of Anna and the others. I was just trying to capture an important time,” I said. “And I happen to like Linus.”

  “I’m sure you do,” Orly said. “I’ve seen it all before, believe me. You’re certainly not the first to stage an opportunistic romance.”

  I squared my feet. “What’s bothering you? That I filmed those other students, or that I kissed Linus?”

  Her mouth went prim as if she weren’t going to answer. Then her eyes went snappish. “That kiss was trashy,” Orly said. “It cheapened both the school and the show. Maybe nobody else will tell you so, but it’s the truth. And Linus is little better than catnip for that old goat in the tower.”

  “Excuse me?” I said.

  “It’s their business, I’m sure,” Orly said. “Not mine.”

  My thoughts leapt and just as instantly reversed. I couldn’t believe she’d said such a thing on camera. Orly turned her back before I could respond, and I looked awkwardly around at the other girls. The nearest ones were acting like they hadn’t overheard, but they weren’t chatting like normal, either.

  I headed down the length of the room, toward my wardrobe. I was acutely uncomfortable. Orly obviously didn’t think I deserved to stay, but my blip rank proved her wrong. My viewers had multiplied enough for me to stay. That was all the vindication I needed.

  It wasn’t until I had changed into my nightie and brushed my teeth that I realized I was judging myself by my blip rank, using that to bolster my confidence. I wasn’t any better than Paige.

  I was supposed to take my pill and go to sleep like everyone else, but I didn’t want to. I had too much to contemplate. I needed time alone, to think, to settle, and I couldn’t do that properly with the pressure of the cameras. So, after Orly distributed the pills, I climbed into my sleep shell and closed my lid. Then I curled into my pillow, shifted my quilt around my face, and took the pill out of my cheek where I had hidden it. I slid it into my pillowcase.

  “Good night, girls,” Orly said from the far end of the room. “Sleep well.”

  The vaulted room dropped into murky twilight as she turned off the lights, and half of the sleep shell lids glowed with brink lessons. The one to my right side stayed dark. My brink lesson showed a pair of hands folding a square of silver paper into an origami shape, and at the end, the person blew into the paper to expand it into a cube. It was a c
lever play on dimensions, and it made me smile.

  Dubbs would like a cube like that, I thought. I missed my sister. I wanted to make her proud. When my brink lesson ended, I slid my lid open and listened to the hush in the room. I vowed to do everything I could to make the most of my time at Forge, and I wouldn’t do anything reckless again like go out on the roof at night, no matter how tempted I was. I was incredibly lucky that Dr. Ash had given me another chance. I wouldn’t ignore her warning.

  The rain stopped, leaving drops clinging to the glass of the nearest window like colorless ladybugs.

  I didn’t realize I had dropped into a doze until a low, rolling noise awakened me. The overhead lights were on again, but it wasn’t morning. I listened, hearing more rumbling from the other end of the room, near the door. Without rising, I shifted just enough to take a peek.

  Workers were quietly moving the extra furniture out of the dorm. Pairs of people rolled the sleep shells and eased them, one at a time, out the doorway and around the corner. Others tilted the dressers on dollies to guide them out. I counted six movers, plus Orly, who was giving directions.

  The process was marked by extended gaps, and I guessed that the elevator couldn’t handle more than one sleep shell at a time. The movers were also bringing in simple wooden chairs and rugs, like midnight magicians or the set crew for a play.

  I closed my eyes to feign sleep as the noises gradually worked their way down the room toward me. When I heard Linus’s voice nearby, I nearly jumped.

  “Touch her and you’re dead,” Linus said.

  “Come on,” said another guy. Some nasal quality of his speech reminded me of a weasel. “She’d never know. They’re completely asleep.”

  A brief squeak came from a rolling wheel.

  “All right,” said the same weasel voice. “I was only curious. Take it easy.”

  “I don’t even know what you’re doing here,” Linus said. “I thought you stuck to the fifth floor.”

  “It’s good extra money. Besides, I wanted to see my girl in person. Check her out,” said the weasel guy. “Why do you suppose she leaves her lid open?”

  “I don’t know. Don’t touch it.”

  “It has been one crazy run. Victor couldn’t believe it when I came in at fifty. You heard about my bonus, right?”

  “I don’t care about your pissant competition,” Linus asked. “Watch your foot there.”

  “Victor sure cares,” said the weasel guy. “This was the first time in three years he wasn’t in the top fifty. Bummer.”

  “You got lucky being assigned to Rosie,” Linus said.

  I was surprised to hear him use my first name.

  “No, she was lucky to get me,” said the other voice. “Picking the angles is an art form. It’s so ironic, filming a girl who calls herself a filmmaker. The students get all the credit, but they wouldn’t be stars without us.”

  Okay, he was a jerk, but still, it was totally cool to realize this guy was one of the techies who managed my profile for The Forge Show.

  “Is that so,” Linus said.

  “The better I know her, it’s like I can read which way she’s going to turn, and then she does,” the weasel guy said. “She moves right into my picks, like we’re dancing together. Except she doesn’t know it. She beamed that smile at her mother last night? And bam, I was right there to get the gap and all.”

  “She doesn’t even like the cameras, Bones,” Linus said.

  The weasel guy, Bones, laughed softly. “They all like the cameras, idiot, or they wouldn’t come. What did she say when you kissed her?”

  “Let me check my notes and get back to you,” Linus said.

  “So funny. Truth be told, the visuals were tough with the rain,” Bones went on. “I only had four decent camera angles to choose from, and I didn’t want to spin between them too often. Pacing’s everything, especially when you’re respecting an intimate moment. I had to choose between Otis’s wide shot from the lookout tower and a button close-up from behind her head. The close-up had no lips, so I went with Otis’s. The man’s an ace for framing it up, but I could have killed him for not going in closer.”

  “Incidentally, I don’t give a crap about your angles,” Linus said.

  “You know, I should have mic-ed you,” said Bones. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

  “Possibly because I’d beat your brains in before I’d ever let you mic me,” Linus said.

  Their voices were moving farther away. I itched to take a look and see what the weasel guy looked like. I didn’t dare move, though.

  “What if Berg insisted on it?” Bones said. “I’m surprised he didn’t. Maybe next time. I’ll talk to him.”

  Next time? Dean Berg? A chill spread over my skin. If Dean Berg could make Linus wear a microphone, what else could he make Linus do? He couldn’t have sent Linus to kiss me, or to meet me in the first place. No. Of course not. Linus was on staff, but that didn’t make him a puppet. I was way too suspicious.

  I kept listening to the quiet movement of furniture, hoping to hear Linus’s voice again. Once I heard my techie Bones again, speaking to Orly, and once, later, I heard steps coming near that I thought might be Linus’s. I expected he might say something. My ears strained for a clue to where he was, and how near. I opened my mouth slightly to take in extra air, and a faint tingling in my lips reminded me of how it had felt when we’d kissed.

  It was a strange kind of suspense, not being able to open my eyes, and not knowing if I was imagining that he was there.

  “That’s enough, now, Pitts,” Orly said clearly from the other end of the room. “We’ve got the boys’ dorm to do still.”

  I felt a faint tremor, as if a hand was set on the end of my sleep shell, and then I heard footsteps retreating. A minute later, the lights went out again. I took a deep breath and rolled over to my other side, waiting forever for my pulse to calm.

  It was almost as if Linus had known I could open my eyes. As if he’d dared me.

  I needed to get some solid sleep or I’d be dead the next day. I let myself go, willing my muscles to unclench. I tried to recapture the feeling I usually got from my sleeping pill, the way a warm, easy calm soothed through my veins, wicking through my neck and shoulders, relaxing my hips and knees. My mind slowed, my fingers went limp, and the brown mist slipped gently in.



  A TRACE OF dream clung to me as I surfaced into Tuesday morning, a shadow twin who stretched out from my feet, farther and farther ahead of me along the railroad tracks, until she detached and slipped away.

  Languorously, I smiled and rolled over. It was the first hint of a dream I’d had since I’d come to the Forge School, and I loved remembering dreams. I’d missed them while I was on the pills.

  The bells from the clock tower were still tolling six as I opened my eyes on a transformed room. Half the sleep shells were gone, and each of us had been given a straight-backed chair, a small bedside table, and a braided oval rug. For the first time, the dorm room felt, if not quite homey, at least less oppressive. Best of all, the clouds outside had finally cleared.

  My sleep shell had stayed at the end of the room, but Janice’s had been shifted next to mine in the line. She was leaning on the edge of her sleep shell, running her bare toes over her rug. Sunlight dropped in the windows around her, bouncing off her blue quilt and bright hair.

  “This is a vast improvement,” she said.

  I eased over to the nearest window and with a finger on the glass, I located the pale gray façade of the dean’s tower. It was the most modern building on campus, morphing out of an older, shorter building. I counted up five stories to the row of windows where Linus had said my techie worked, and I wished I could see inside.

  “Did you ever watch one of those Forge specials about the people who work behind the scenes?” I asked.

  “Sure,” she said. “With the tunnels and stuff?”

  “I’d like to get in the dean’s tower sometime,” I said.
  “I’d rather go to Forgetown. I heard last year, after the seniors graduated, they all went into town and partied with the techies.” She cupped her hand in a princess wave. “Hello to you, techie,” she said, and laughed.

  “He’s probably choking on his coffee right now,” I said.

  “I think of mine as a her,” she said. “I don’t know why. She’s very kindly and soulful.”

  I thought of mine as an arrogant weasel named Bones.

  The upbeat voices of the other girls made a nice change from the stress of the day before. Paige was doing ballerina stretches between her rug and a chair, extra wide splits that hurt me to look at her. Janice began getting dressed. I examined my arms for new marks, and found none. It was a relief.

  Maybe I was going to be okay here now. I could hope.

  * * *

  I saw Linus in the kitchen when I went through the cafeteria line, but he was busy with the meat slicer, and it wasn’t the right time to flag him down just to say hello. He was wearing his eye patch again, and I wondered how much sleep he’d gotten the night before. The blip rank board in the dining room had been reconfigured for the new total number of students in the school, fifty in each class of tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-graders, and it was satisfying to see myself listed there even though I was still number 50, the new last rank for our grade.

  After breakfast, when I walked into Media Convergence class, a number of the usual students were gone, cut from the show, and others had been switched in. Burnham sat at a desk near the back, next to Henrik, and after a moment’s hesitation, I took a seat beside Janice, near the front.

  She put a hair binder in her mouth and reached up with both hands to twist her blond hair into a sloppy bun. “Kill me now,” she said, wrapping the binder in place. “I ran into this guy from acting? He hears we’re doing the coolest gender flip thing. I want to be Hamlet.”

  While she chatted, a few other students came in, and then Mr. DeCoster appeared carrying a metal coffee mug. He paused at the door to speak to his earphone, and Paige edged in around him.

  “Okay, everybody,” Mr. DeCoster said. He pointed to a couple of big tables that were pushed together. “Circle up the chairs around here. Time to talk.”

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