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The rule of mirrors, p.9
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       The Rule of Mirrors, p.9

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
Dragging my blanket around me as a robe, I stop at the bathroom. I still have a tube hanging out of me, but I can pee like normal. Yay for small victories. I head for the kitchen. The wooden table by the windows is set for two with chipped blue plates and mismatched cutlery. Jenny, in black leggings and a gray, zippered sweatshirt, is pouring fresh batter in a hot waffle iron. Her ponytail and glowing complexion imply she’s been exercising.

  “You whimper in your sleep. Just so you know,” she says, and passes over a plate of bacon.

  “What day is it?” I ask.

  “Tuesday, March eighth,” she says. “You’ve been out for two days. We’d have taken you to the hospital, but you freaked out every time we tried to. Plus, blizzard. Again. This is our second snow day in a row, and I’m like yes!”

  I don’t remember any of it. I take a chair with a view of the road, which is just passably plowed. Two feet of new snow gives the morning a shimmer that’s nearly blinding, and I follow the curving lines curiously. I’ve never seen this much snow before. In the desert, it never piles up like this.

  A birdfeeder has a perfect pile of white on top of its pointy little roof, and I frame it up between my fingers for a memory camera. I give it a click.

  “That’s nice,” Jenny says. “Live in the moment, right?”

  She passes over a cup of coffee, and I peer gratefully down into the steamy liquid. I lift it an inch off the table and take a sip. It’s so good. So real. I guess we’ll find out how my digestive tract is working after months of sleep. Jenny peeks into the waffle iron.

  “You know what’s weird?” she says. “There’s been no new news about you. Nobody’s looking for you or posting a new reward or anything. We’ve checked online.”

  That is interesting. “Maybe Berg doesn’t want anyone to know I’m missing,” I said.

  “That’s what we’ve been thinking, too.”

  I glance around for her sister. “Where’s Portia?”

  “At work. She’s a poultry processer for Borrds up the road. She normally works the night shift, but they had some problem with the freezer, so they called her in. She wants to be a manager. Here.”

  She opens the waffle iron and forks a perfectly circular, crusty, fragrant waffle onto my plate. She pushes a dish of butter and a jar of maple syrup close, and starts pouring more batter.

  “Don’t you want to share?” I ask. “You take half.”

  “No, that’s all right. I’ll have the next one,” she says.

  I eat. The waffle’s sweet and good. I want to devour ten of them, but after only a few bites, I have to stop. I lower my fork and poke the tines around in the golden syrup.

  “Don’t you like waffles?” Jenny says.

  “It’s fabulous,” I say. “I think my stomach shrank.”

  “What’s with that tube of yours?”

  I glance down the neckline of my tee shirt to examine the lump in my chest. When I touch it, it doesn’t hurt or anything, but I want it out. Same with the hose that comes out of me lower down. I just don’t know how to extract them myself. I bundle my blanket around me again so I don’t have to see how skinny I am.

  “I’ll look up how to take them out after breakfast,” I say.

  “I’m dying to know what’s happened to you.”

  “How much do you know already?” I ask.

  Jenny gives me an outsider’s version of my disappearance from Forge, and the one thing that’s clear to me is that Berg’s gotten away with everything. He’s still working at the school, like Ian said, and the thought of him going on blithely with his life while he’s kept me stuck in a sleep shell all this time infuriates me.

  “I went back and watched a bunch of Forge episodes with Portia,” Jenny adds. “I can’t believe how different you look now. You must have lost twenty pounds. Where’ve you been?”

  “In Berg’s custody,” I say, and the truth tastes bitter. It’s hard for me to trust her, but she and Portia saved my life. I owe her, and I need her sympathy. Haltingly, I tell how I’ve been kept asleep for months and mined against my will. My emaciation is pretty good proof of my captivity, and honestly, I don’t care whether she believes me or not about the dream mining. I’m beyond trying to persuade people of the truth.

  “That’s horrible,” Jenny says. “We have to call the police and tell them. They should arrest Berg.”

  I shake my head. “I’m not calling the police. I don’t trust them. They should have come to find me a long time ago.”

  “But what about the reward?” she asks.

  “I need you to keep quiet a little longer,” I say. “I need to get back some strength. I just want to hide for a bit while I figure out my next move.”

  “That’s funny. That’s what Portia guessed you’d say,” she says. “What are you thinking you’ll do?”

  I want to kill Berg. That’s what I want to do. A strange, warm conviction uncoils inside me, like a hibernating snake has slithered out of a hole. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time. This is the point of my rage, but until now, I haven’t been able to focus on anything except getting out of the vault. I look across at Jenny’s wide-eyed eagerness, and I feel a vast separation between her and me, like I’ve aged or traveled ten thousand miles from any normal life.

  “Do you want to go home?” Jenny suggests.

  “That’s the first place Berg will look for me,” I say. “Besides, my parents turned me over to him once before. I’m not sure I can get past that.”

  “They’re offering the reward for you, and they’re suing Berg for custody again,” Jenny says. “That doesn’t sound like they’d turn you over to him.”

  Doesn’t matter. I’m not going home.

  “Where are we, exactly?” I ask.

  She names a town I’ve never heard of and adds, “We’re a couple hours east of Denver.”

  Fragrant steam is wafting from the waffle iron, and when the next one’s ready, she breaks it in half for us to share, even though I haven’t even finished my last waffle and have no intention of eating more. She sits across from me, tidily spreading a napkin on her lap before she digs in. Without prompting, she tells me about her indoor track team and her mom in the National Guard. Under a collection of magnets, the fridge shows pinpricks of rust through the white paint. A pair of binoculars and a butterfly net hang on hooks among jackets and scarfs, and coupons are piled in a tidy basket.

  “You have a nice place,” I say. “Is it just you and Portia living here?” I ask.

  She nods. “Yeah, for now. Mom’s serving overseas. She’ll be back for good in twelve days. I can’t wait.”

  “You said she’s a stickler for rules.”

  “That’s an understatement. She’s strict, and she runs everything with precision timing when she’s here. Drives me and Portia crazy, actually, but we love her,” Jenny says. “We haven’t told her you’re here. She has enough to worry about over there.”

  I stir my knife in my melted butter. “How long can I stay with you?” I ask.

  “Portia and I have been talking about that. As long as we end up getting the reward for you, you can stay as long as you like.”

  “That’s unbelievably nice,” I say.

  She sucks syrup off her fork and smiles. “You’d do the same for me. You should know, though, once Mom gets here, she’ll call the police.”

  Fair enough.

  A kitten pads softly into the room and dips its head into a bowl of food. The black-and-gray tabby has a dash of white around its mouth and throat, and its softness draws me.

  “What’s your cat’s name?” I ask.

  “Gingerbread. Mom doesn’t know about her yet, either,” Jenny smiles.

  “Can I use your computer? I want to see how to get rid of my port and my catheter.”

  “This sounds fun. Just a sec.”

  She vanishes into the living room and returns a moment later with a laptop. When she flips it open, the first thing I notice is a piece of black duct tape that covers the camera lens above the screen.
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  “What’s this for?” I ask, setting a finger on the tape.

  “That’s Mom’s precaution,” Jenny says. “She doesn’t want anyone knowing what her kids look like. Hold on.” She gets typing.

  “She thinks someone could use your computer camera lens to spy on you?” I ask.

  “It’s been done,” she says, and her gaze narrows at the screen.

  We spend the next hour looking up sites about IVs and catheters, and I learn more than I wanted to about total parenteral nutrition and suprapubic catheters. I don’t dare to mess with my TPN port, the soft lump under my skin, but apparently my bladder will heal in ten minutes if I snip a stitch and pull out the plastic tube that goes into me.

  “You are not seriously going to try that,” Jenny says.

  “You don’t have to look.”

  “Rosie! You can’t learn medicine from a video!”

  I turn to meet her worried gaze. “For the last four months, I’ve been completely helpless,” I say. “It’s my body. I can do anything I want to it.”

  I head into the bathroom, and when I come out half an hour later, my catheter is out. The port in my chest is more than I can manage to take out on my own, and I resent it.

  Jenny has cleaned the dishes, and she’s sitting on the living room couch with her laptop on her knees. “All good?” she asks.

  “Ready to pee with the best of them,” I say.

  She laughs. “Do you want to see my favorite scene from The Forge Show?” she asks.

  “Sure.” I take a seat beside her and hitch my feet up on the coffee table.

  “Don’t let Mom catch you doing that,” she says, but then she puts her feet up next to mine.

  She’s at the Gorge on Forge site, and without further preamble, she taps a featured video clip of me and Burnham. It’s shot from a high angle overlooking the pasture at Forge, and the camera slowly zooms in on us. My memory bursts to life, bringing a mix of emotions: pleasure, guilt, curiosity. From this perspective, I look quirky with my wavy curls, brown sweater, and short skirt. Burnham’s tall, square-shouldered, and visibly athletic even when he’s still. We stand facing each other along the path in the pasture, where the surrounding grass is darkly soaked from an earlier rain. I recall how Burnham wore no socks with his loafers. That same morning, he showed me the glitches he’d caught in my ghost-seeking footage, and I was ecstatic to have real proof of Berg’s evilness, no matter how small the proof was.

  “That is one fine-looking brother,” Jenny says.

  My heart beats oddly. This was our last conversation right before our accident on the observatory ladder, and knowing what’s coming gives the video a weird poignancy, like doom hovers over us. The audio catches us clearly, and I’m drawn in by Burnham’s warm, resonant voice.

  “I wrote you a letter,” Burnham says and passes me an envelope.

  “When did you write this?” I ask.

  “Last night. After swimming. Wait until you’re alone to read it,” he says.

  “Thanks. I’m dying of curiosity,” I say.

  “It’s not a love poem or anything,” he adds.

  “Of course not,” I say.

  He’s standing all quiet and casual, but that only magnifies a shifting tension between us.

  “Look at his hand behind his back,” Jenny says beside me. “See there?”

  He flexes his fingers and then curls them inward.

  “Sorry,” I say.

  “What for?” Burnham asks.

  In the clip, I shake my head, and color rises in my cheeks. I recall how awkward I’d felt, but I look almost graceful. My posture is one long curve that mirrors Burnham’s.

  “Rosie,” Burnham says. “I get that you’re seeing Linus.”

  “Yes. I am.”

  I stop the clip.

  Beside me, Jenny objects. “Hey!”

  Ignoring her, I back up the clip a couple frames to where I’m leaning toward Burnham, and I scrutinize the image. I distinctly recall spelling out that I was Linus’s girlfriend, but my body language says otherwise. I see the hopeful tension in Burnham’s shoulders and the attentive way he leans against the wind to hear me better.

  “Burnham was seriously into you. You must have known it,” Jenny says.

  I nod. “I figured that out. But I liked Linus more.”

  “Uh-huh,” she says, and points to the screen.

  I tilt my head, studying the image once more. Okay, I liked Burnham, too. I couldn’t pinpoint when that started or how much I liked him, but I did. So what did that mean, exactly? I wasn’t disloyal to Linus.

  “What did his letter say?” Jenny asks.

  “He gave me some pills that were an antidote to the sleeping meds,” I say. “That’s how I was able to stay awake at night.”

  “I don’t get it. Did you use them all the time?” Jenny asks.

  “No, at first I just pretended to take my sleeping pill and secretly spit it out. But then, when the staff checked to see that I swallowed my pill, I used Burnham’s antidote,” I say. “I was sneaking around the school at night. That’s how I found out about the dream mining. Or maybe you don’t believe that.”

  “I know what you said on the show just before you got kicked off,” Jenny says. She considers me thoughtfully. “It’s too bad you never had any proof. Did Burnham know about the dream mining?”

  “I don’t know how much he knew,” I say. “We never had a chance to talk about it.”

  “Maybe you will,” she says, and nods towards the image of Burnham again. “I mean, you broke up with Linus, right? I’d get on that thing if I were you.”

  I absolutely do not know what to say. It’s clear Jenny admires Burnham, and I can see why, but I can’t just switch gears from Linus. My mind doesn’t have a language for explaining what Linus means to me. Instead I have this raw, confusing jumble of pain and longing. He made me say publicly, on The Forge Show, everything I’d discovered about Berg and the dream mining. He made me look like a fool, and worse, he made me doubt myself. Then, when I least expected it, he showed up and tried to help me, only he got caught by Berg, too. What did that mean for us?

  Under all of my doubts is a fear that I’ll find out Linus is dead.

  Jenny’s looking at me strangely. “Okay. Time to check out the ex,” she says and types Linus’s name into the search window.

  I steel myself, and when the first picture comes up and shows him alive, I’m ridiculously relieved. Of course he isn’t dead! My emotions orbit madly around my heart for a second, and then I focus hungrily.

  Linus gazes deliberately out of his photo, not bothering to smile. He’s leaning back against a black, ironwork fence in a dark blazer, a tee shirt, and jeans. Something about the colors and composition tells me the photo was posed for a publicity shot, which puzzles me. My gut tightens as I take the computer from Jenny. I enlarge the photo to study him more closely. His nose is the same straight line. His dark hair is tousled over his eyes, and the last of his earrings is gone. He looks wrong. Bored. Bought. It’s like some corporate entity decided Linus would be more attractive with this cool, aloof expression and packaged him like this.

  I don’t like it.

  “He’s the host of a new show, looks like,” Jenny says. “Did you see?”

  I scan the article to learn he’s been named the host of a new series called Found Missing about missing kids. That explains the new look, but not how he ended up in a high-profile job. I thought he didn’t like publicity.

  The cat jumps up on the couch beside Jenny, and she absently pats it.

  “Could Linus be looking for you?” Jenny asks.

  “I don’t know,” I say. “He never found me, in any case.”

  He could have tried to reach me. I pull up my Forge email account to log in.

  “What are you doing?” Jenny asks.

  “Checking my email.”

  “You can’t,” she says. “You can’t contact anybody, especially not the host of a TV show. That reward’s a ton of money
, Rosie,” Jenny says. “We deserve to get paid for helping you. If you’re going to go public, our first contact has to be to the reward hotline, not Linus Pitts.”

  “But, how can—?” I stop. “This is ridiculous.”

  She gently tugs her computer away from me, and I realize she’s serious. I can’t contact anybody while I’m with Jenny and Portia. That’s what this means. Linus, Burnham, Janice, my family—I can’t call any of them.

  “I’m sorry,” Jenny says. “You understand, right? Portia and I can keep this confidential. It’ll be hard, but we can. As soon as it leaks that you’re here, though, poof. No reward for us. I’m sorry.”

  “I get it.”

  And I do. It’s not complicated. This place isn’t exactly a prison because I’m choosing to be here, but it comes with strings, like everything else.

  13

  THEA

  BEHIND THE BLUE DOOR

  “YOU NEED TIME TO RECOVER,” Ida my nurse said when she caught me trying to walk alone in my room. “Muscles can’t mend in a day. Neither can a brain. Besides, if you fall, you could have a serious setback.”

  “I need to get stronger,” I said, tottering but determined. “Can’t you give me some steroids or something?”

  “Not with your pregnancy. Now sit.”

  I glanced at the fetus photo I’d propped against the vase and shifted back in my wheelchair. “Do you have kids?” I asked Ida.

  “I have four. What was I thinking?” She smiled at me and flipped her braid over her shoulder. “Pregnancy is the easy part, believe me. Once your baby is out and running around, you will never have a minute’s peace.”

  “Great.”

  “Anytime, dúlla.”

  As the days passed, I was restlessly lonely, and it became difficult to hide my impatience with my slow recovery. I took to exploring the clinic in my wheelchair, propelling myself with my arms as they grew stronger, and it was a relief to be out of my room and away from Althea’s solicitous parents.

  Chimera was busy with other patients, and though I was curious about their progress and the different languages I overheard, I was not eager to make friends. I prowled from the atrium on the lower level, with its café and concert piano, to the library on the top floor. I stopped by the kitchen, the MRI room, the library, the chapel, and a small, paneled room called the card parlor. In the boutique gift shop, I peered into cases of jewelry and teddy bears, electronics and logoed bottle openers, skeptical that anyone would want a souvenir from this place, as if it were a fancy cruise ship. I intended to forget my stay here as soon as I could.

 
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