From Caragh M. O’Brien comes The Vault of Dreamers, a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when your dreams are not your own. Read an excerpt below, and look for it September 16th from Roaring Brook Press!
The Forge School is the most prestigious arts school in the country. The secret to its success: every moment of the students’ lives is televised as part of the insanely popular Forge Show, and the students’ schedule includes twelve hours of induced sleep meant to enhance creativity.
But when first year student Rosie Sinclair skips her sleeping pill, she discovers there is something off about Forge. In fact, she suspects that there are sinister things going on deep below the reaches of the cameras in the school. What’s worse is, she starts to notice that the ridges of her consciousness do not feel quite right. And soon, she unearths the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding—and what it truly means to dream there.
I missed night. I had other reasons to disobey, too, like wanting to escape the cameras, but most of all, I missed the deep, vacant darkness of night.
We lined up as usual, shivering in our bare feet and nightgowns. Rain streamed down the windows, obscuring the gray view of the prairie, and the patter sounded gently on the vaulted roof overhead. Orly passed out the pills, starting at the far end, and I watched as each girl obediently swallowed, climbed into her sleep shell, and slid her lid closed with a soft swoosh.
When Orly reached me, I took my pill like the others but faked tossing it back. Instead, I lodged the disk up alongside my gums before I took a sip of water and opened my mouth for her inspection.
She turned and went on to the next girl.
I’d won. I climbed in my sleep shell, spit the pill into my hand, and wedged it under my pillow.
“Close your lid,” Orly told me.
“Do I have to?” I asked. “I like the sound of the rain.” “You can open it again after your brink lesson if you want,” she said. “Sleep well.”
When Orly switched off the lights, the room went the soft, gray color of childhood naps. I pulled my lid closed to watch the brink lesson cast across the glass: a scene of a woman laying bricks, tucking them evenly in a row. What I was supposed to learn from it, even subconsciously, I couldn’t tell. Afterward, I slid open my lid again and rolled over on my pillow. Across from me, the next girl fell asleep easily and completely, and from the uninterrupted sound of the rain, I knew forty-eight other girls fell asleep on schedule, too.
Myself, I was secretly, deliciously awake. As the hour brought the darkness closer, I lay fidgety with hope and relished how it felt to be alone, stealing back the real me. The windows darkened like a gift until I could see the faint, blue reflections of our domed lids in the glass. A nearly invisible glow fell over the dormant faces, making the girls’ skin gleam with faint phosphorescence, as if they had been chalked and scanned under a black light. I slowly waved my fingers before my face, testing. The glow gave my fingers a staggered trail of black shadows, like cartoon lines of motion, tracks in the air.
Deep night came at last, bringing me more awake than ever. After nine nights of drugged sleep, my nerves seemed to have lost the trick of falling asleep naturally on their own, and now they worked in reverse, lighting me up within. To watch the night out my window was not enough. I wanted more.
It was a risk, breaking the rules, but following them hadn’t done me much good, either. I had to face facts. With the fifty cuts happening the next day, this could well be my last night at Forge. I didn’t want to waste it sleeping. From outside, the bells of the clock tower tolled midnight, until the twelfth bong resonated away to nothing.
Slowly, I sat up to look around the room.
No alarm went off. No warning lights. Orly did not come running. Our fifty sleep shells, with their paneling below and full-length glass lids on top, were lined up in two rows as straight and motionless as so many coffins. Cameras had to be picking up my movements, but either no one cared that I was breaking the rules, or the night techies didn’t watch carefully. A third possibility didn’t then occur to me: someone cared very much, was watching very closely, and still let me continue.
Clutching my nightie close, I tiptoed the length of the room, past the other girls, and peeked through the doorway to where the hall was dark, empty, and cool. Barefoot, I crept across the smooth floor to the stairwell and touched a hand to the banister. Downward, a wide, dark staircase led to the floors for the older students, but upward, an old, narrow staircase led around a corner I’d never noticed. I took the old steps up to an attic, where the roof was close and alive with the rain’s pattering.
I breathed deep. The aged, still air was faintly sweet, as if the missionaries who had raised the roof long before had also left behind a trace of incense in the wooden beams. I had just barely enough light to see, which also made me trust that the attic was too dark for the cameras to find me. I was effectively off stage for the first time since I’d arrived on the show, and the privacy was so palpable, it made me smile.
Two large, old skylights glowed in the slanted roof, setting edges to my blindness, and I wound my way gingerly past a number of storage bins. Rivulets of rain were slanting down the glass. With a hand on a rafter, I leaned close to the first skylight and peered out. To the left, the dean’s tower was dark except for lights on the top floor, where I’d heard the dean lived in his penthouse. The techies who worked in the building must be gone for the night. It made sense, I realized. They couldn’t have much to do in the twelve hours of night while The Forge Show was on the repeat cycle, rebroadcasting the feeds of the previous day.
With a shove, I pushed the heavy skylight upward on its hinge and propped its bar in the opening. The rain dropped in a perfect curtain just beyond my touch, releasing a rush of noise and tropical mist. The drenched roof tiles smelled unexpectedly like the metal of the boxcars back home, or maybe I was smelling the wet grid of a catwalk I spied running below the skylight.
I ached to go out and feel the soft blindness of the night touching my skin with the rain. It would make me strong. When I rolled up my sleeve and reached a hand out, clean, colorless droplets fell upon my skin. They were warm and irresistibly inviting.
Using a bin for a step, I hitched my nightie around me and crawled gingerly through the skylight to the catwalk. I gasped. The rain drenched me instantly, and I hunched against the downpour. It was so wonderful, so surprisingly not cold, that I had to laugh aloud. After nine days of guarding myself, trying fruitlessly to please the teachers and cameras, I was free.
I grasped the railing of the catwalk with one hand and pushed my wet curls out of my eyes. This was good. Light from the dean’s tower cast outlines on the sloped roof of the film building next door and beyond that, I could see the sharp roof of the clock tower. A row of lamps illuminated the edge of the campus and separated us from the darkness of the plains beyond. Except for the faintest flickers, the lights of Forgetown were lost in the rain to the east, and my home, to the southwest, was impossibly distant.
I looked, anyway, employing my filmmaker trick. I imagined my gaze forward, high speed between the drops, to the boxcar where my kid sister was sleeping in the top bunk. I zoomed in large to picture her rosy cheek and her eyelashes. Then I scanned past the curtain to the living room and put my stepfather in a stupor on the orange plaid couch. My mother I bent over a calculator, with some paperwork from the cafeteria, while the lamplight limned her profile. Home. In the next instant, I released them all to dissolve in the rain, and I was back at Forge.
My homesickness wasn’t truly for home, I realized. It was for something more elusive. A silent, low-grade, unnamed yearning persisted inside me. It was always there, a reaching feeling that grew stronger when I was alone and listened for it. The rain understood what it was.
I spread my arms wide and tilted my head back to let the night splash into my mouth. Too little of it fell in to actually quench my thirst, but the few drops that passed my lips tasted sweeter than anything from a glass. This moment was real, at least. This was worth remembering. If they cut me the next day and I left Forge as a failure, ashamed, I could always recall my invisibility on the roof in the rain this night, and I would know this moment was my own.
“You like that?” I said, facing the sky. “Is that good enough?”
It was for me.
And the next second, it wasn’t. The truth was, I would do anything to stay on the show.
A gust of wind blew me into the railing of the catwalk. This was a mistake. My stupidity astounded me. Why did I think, at any level, that doing something at night when the viewers weren’t even watching could possibly help my blip rank?
I turned back to the skylight. Getting in was harder than getting out. I had to grab my drenched nightie up around my waist, and then I crawled backward into the skylight, reaching with my toes for the bin below. As I carefully reclosed the skylight, the chilly air clung to my nightie and set my skin prickling. I wrung out the fabric as best as I could and flicked drops off my legs with my fingertips. Then, quietly, I descended the stairs again.
Wet and chilled, I raced silently along the length of the dorm. I hung my drenched nightie on a hook in my wardrobe and swiftly pulled on a dry one. Soon I was back in my sleep shell, burrowing into my quilt, and I waited, in dread, for someone to come for me.
It took a long time. The rain made it hard to listen for footsteps, but finally, a quiet voice came from further down the room. I tried to calm my heart and breathe normally. Another voice answered, just distant and soft enough that I couldn’t grasp the words. I waited as long as I could, listening, and then I turned toward the voices and slit my eyes open to see.
Down the row, a man and a woman stood by one of the sleep shells. The lid was open, and their figures were dark in contrast to a soft light that shone on the student. I hadn’t made friends with any of the girls, and this one, Janice, I knew only slightly. She was twitching in spasmodic, unnatural tremors, though from her silence, I guessed she was still unconscious. The man, an older, bearded guy with a potbelly, held a tablet and a pole with an IV bag. The translucent line glowed as it led down to the girl’s arm.
“Too much, do you think?” he said.
“No, she’ll be all right,” said the woman. “She’ll settle. Just wait.”
She leaned over Janice’s face, propping up her eyelids to shine a pen light in one eye, and then the next. A cushiony bar had been wedged between Janice’s teeth. The man touched his finger to the tablet, indicating something.
“Just wait,” the woman said again.
When she set the back of her fingers tenderly against Janice’s cheek, and then her forehead, the sleeve of the woman’s red cardigan took on a garish, flickering hue. Together, she and the man peered at the tablet again. The woman’s smooth dark hair slid forward, covering her earphone as she waited, and her expression stayed watchful.
After a few more moments, she said, “See?”
“Yes,” said the man.
Janice’s trembling diminished, then stopped. She never once opened her eyes. The man straightened, relaxing. The woman reached to skim a finger over the tablet, tapped it, and nodded quietly.
“That was close. I’ll admit it,” she said.
“I’ll say. These new ones. You never know.” The man reached for the absorbent bar in Janice’s teeth and gently worked it free.
The woman in the red sweater took out Janice’s IV, handed it to the man, and pressed a cotton ball to Janice’s arm. With her free hand, she touched her earphone. “There’s no need. She’s fine for now,” she said. And then, “Right. Of course.” She made a sign to the man, and then a circle with her finger that encompassed the room.
The man turned, and I closed my eyes.
“Yes. Of course. We will,” said the woman.
I held very still, feeling my heart pounding, as the sound of footsteps spread out around the room. As one of them came near my bed, I inhaled a faint trace of perfume. I could feel the presence of the woman hovering at the end, near my feet, and I breathed as evenly as I could.
“This one?” It was the man’s voice, very soft. “What’s her blip rank?”
There was a faint rubbing noise of fabric.
I waited for more, a touch or a sound. A reply. I listened inside myself, too, distrusting my own body. Would a seizure hit me soon? My ears stayed primed, but I heard no reply, only the continued pattering of the rain high above. It took forever before there was another faint sound, a clicking from far down the room near the door. I exhaled in relief. I didn’t dare open my eyes again, didn’t turn my head or shift even when I felt the gentle tickle of a hair against my cheek.
I’d forgotten my wet hair. They must have seen it. They knew what I’d done.
But they’d said nothing.
When the morning alarm awoke us at six, I sat up slowly. My hair was dry in thick, post-rain clumps, and my mouth felt fuzzy. Orly checked in for a minute to be sure we were all up, but she paid no special attention to me. As I headed toward the bathroom with my shower kit and fresh clothes, I looked over at Janice, who was talking to one of the other girls. She seemed fine. She pulled her blond hair high over her head in a ponytail, and when her sleeve shifted, I saw a scab mark on her forearm.
Do you tell someone she’s had a seizure in the night? You don’t, not if it would mean admitting your own crime of being awake. I passed her by without speaking, but I wondered how Janice could not instinctively know about her episode. She should at least notice the pinprick where the IV had gone into her skin. I pushed up my sleeve and glanced down at my own arm, and that’s when I saw it: a faint, healing track mark in the crook of my left elbow.
They’d done it to me, too.
Shocked as i was, I knew not to show it. Cameras were following my every move from a dozen different angles. I headed straight into a bathroom stall for privacy, locked the bolt, and closely inspected both my arms. One mark was all I had, and I couldn’t tell how old it was, but they must have given me an IV, too, sometime fairly recently.
I didn’t understand. Was I sick without knowing it? I felt okay. I also didn’t get why I wasn’t in trouble for breaking the rules during the night. Possibly they were waiting to call me in for discipline at a time that would be optimal for the show. I had no idea when that might be. In the meantime, the only thing to do was pretend everything was normal.
I flushed my sleeping pill down the toilet, unlocked the door, and headed into the one other place we also had privacy: the showers.
This was the day of the fifty cuts, a Monday when my life would be decided. The Forge Show posted minute-to-minute blip ranks for every student at the school, with the most popular in each grade ranked #1, for first place. We had one hundred first-year, tenth-grade students who had been on campus for ten days, but today, half of us were getting cut, which meant anyone scoring worse than 50 at 5:00 p.m. would be gone. The eleventhand twelfth-grade classes, each with fifty students already, were safe. If I stayed at the Forge School, on The Forge Show, I’d have a shot at a dream life of fame and art. If I was cut, I’d be lost to the dead-end boxcars of Doli. Not to put too bleak a spin on it.
Considering that my blip rank was 93, my chances didn’t look good.
I toweled off, threw on my favorite skirt, boots, and a tee shirt, and headed to the dining hall for breakfast.
A crash behind the serving line of the cafeteria made me look up just as the cook pummeled his fist into a guy’s face. The guy staggered back, out of my line of vision.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the cook said, lifting his big hands in warning.
“It was an accident,” came the guy’s voice.
“That knife’s no accident,” said the cook. “No way am I getting attacked in my own kitchen. Put it down.”
Others in the kitchen moved warily nearer, but I still couldn’t see the guy who had been hit. A clatter came as something dropped on metal. The cook stepped out of my sight. I heard another smacking punch.
“Clean it up, you royal bastard,” the cook said. “You hear me?”
A shuffling clank and a stream of indecipherable words came next.
“What’s that?” the cook demanded.
“I wasn’t going to use it,” came the guy’s voice, clearly.
The girl beside me gave my tray a nudge. “You’re holding up the line,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“The cook just hit somebody,” I said, edging further along.
“You’re kidding. Really? Where?” she said.
I craned to look back in the kitchen, and when I caught a brief glimpse of a brown-haired guy crouching near to the floor, cleaning something, I stopped again.
“Back there. He just hit him, hard,” I said. I had the tense, flayed feeling that I was supposed to do something about it, even though it was none of my business.
Other students went around us and kept picking out food.
“I don’t see anything,” the girl said, bumping my tray with hers again. “They have banana pancakes. Sweet.”
I slid my tray down the poles and peered through the next counter slot, trying to see the guy once more, but instead, the cook’s sweaty face blocked my view. He looked casually across at me through wafty sizzles of sausage smoke, and I felt the same vicarious burn of anger that came whenever my stepfather clocked me.
I ducked my head and moved down the cafeteria line, but I hardly noticed the food anymore. First Janice, then my own track mark, and now this flash of violence in the kitchen. They were like cracks at the edges of The Forge Show, cracks that made me question the appearance of everything on the stage around me. I paused by one of the wooden pillars with my tray.
Morning light dropped in the big windows, glinting on saltshakers, and the dining hall buzzed of coffee and sugar. In a corner beneath an abstract wall sculpture, Janice was eating with a couple of guys. She smoothed her long blond hair from one side of her neck to the other, like an angel spreading its glittery wings, and with my mental lens, I saw how naturally she projected a photogenic presence. She wasn’t the only one, either.
We were the show. I got that. I knew that coming in, just like everybody else, but accepting the constant cameras wasn’t the same as liking them, let alone performing for them. The Forge School was an elite arts academy, while The Forge Show was the reality show that tracked and broadcasted the activity of each individual student at the school. It was a smart, interactive system. Viewers at home controlled who they watched by selecting their favorite students’ feeds. The feedback of their viewing choices, in turn, determined student blip ranks.
To sweeten the value of popularity, banner ads linked to each blip rank were incrementally more expensive as the ranks rose toward #1, and students banked a fraction of what the advertisers paid, receiving the funds at graduation. For the most popular students with the highest blip ranks, their banner ad funds after three years of high school could top a million dollars.
I’d certainly watched the show before, from home, back when my dream to come here had seemed impossible, but until I’d arrived on campus, I hadn’t fully understood how the stage aspect of the school pervaded everything. The other new students like Janice were perpetually projecting extra-watt versions of themselves for the cameras. For them, it seemed effortless. They even thrived on it. But to me, who preferred the other end of a camera, the super-visibility was exhausting.
A big, old-fashioned tally board on the wall made a flipping noise while it updated the blip ranks of every student in the school, and I watched as my name settled in at 95th place. Great. My oatmeal was skimming over as it cooled. It was no use. My appetite was shot, and food wouldn’t settle my restlessness, anyway. I left my tray at the counter and stepped outside to the terrace.
Breathing was immediately easier. The rain had stopped, leaving a layer of moisture in the air and an overcast sky. Far off, between the buildings, the Kansas plains turned blue as they approached the horizon. Nearer, the sheep pasture was a deep, soggy green, as if the mud beneath carried its lifeblood up each blade of grass.
On impulse, I walked between the dining hall and the art building, toward the pasture. A clattering came through the sieve of the kitchen window screens, and I smelled coffee cake more distinctly than I had when I was inside. A Forge Farms Ice Cream delivery truck was parked by the loading dock, tucked up close so the driver could load the big cardboard tubs onto his dolly.
Ahead, half a dozen sheep made a constellation of white against the green of the pasture, and I mentally framed them up in a bucolic shot. Artsy me. Further east, beyond the short stone wall that edged campus, a sky-blue water tower labeled “Forgetown” overlooked a rambling assortment of small homes. Just inside the campus wall, on a knoll of its own, stood an old observatory with a gray dome. To my left, a wood and stone lookout tower rose dark against the gray sky. At the top, big camera lenses gleamed like black, mismatched eyes. The semisphere of a microphone dish with its lacework grid of metal could be aimed to pick up sound from any direction, including mine.
Just then, one of the cameras swiveled to aim directly at me, and I swear, it tempted me to do something asinine. It really did. You’d never believe how annoying it was to be watched all the time, even when you were doing absolutely nothing. It put me at war with myself all the time: behave. Don’t behave. Behave. Don’t.
The toe of my boot bumped against a rock. I picked it up and hurled it. The rock soared, shrank to a speck, and plummeted into the grass far from the sheep. Face it, I thought. You’re getting cut. No matter how ideal it seemed, I shouldn’t want to stay at a place where students had secret seizures at night, but stupid me, I did anyway. I wanted to stay at Forge so badly I could gnaw it in my teeth. I just couldn’t see that anything I could do would make a difference. I backed around, searching for one last rock to throw before I went to class, and then I paused.
Behind the art building, leaning against a giant, paintspattered wooden spool, a guy was pressing an ice pack to his face. He was all Adam’s apple with his head tipped back, and a white bib apron protected his shirt and jeans. I picked up another rock and ambled slowly across the gravel lot.
“Hey,” I said. “I saw, in the kitchen before. Are you okay?”
He lowered the ice. His bruise was a defined crescent, and the skin near his eye was ruddy and shiny from the cold. He might have been my age, fifteen, or a little older. His dark hair partially hid a row of three rings in his ear, and after one measuring glance, he hefted the ice pack and put it back on his bruise, closing his eyes.
“I’m not interested,” he said. An accent gave his words an extra clip. “Go find someone else.”
“For what?” I asked. When he didn’t explain, I went on. “If you want to report the cook, I’ll back you up. I saw what he did. He shouldn’t have hit you like that.”
“That’s cute,” he said.
“I mean it. Is he always like that?”
“I don’t need you to make a report,” he said. “Fortunately, no one gives a crap about what happens in the kitchen.”
“What did you do, anyway?” I said.
He shifted the ice pack and opened his good eye. “Spilled his precious eggs. Pulled a knife on him. It was instinct. Stupid.” He gave me a little wave. “Okay, enough. You can go now. You’ve got your spike.”
“You know. For this compassionate little outreach of yours.” He did a double jerk of his thumb, like a hitchhiker, to indicate the cameras.
It took me a sec to follow his logic from the cameras to the viewers to a likely spike in my blip rank. “You think that’s why I’m talking to you?” I asked. “For my blip rank?”
“Fifty cuts are tonight,” he said. “Students will be pulling stunts all day today to get their blip ranks higher. It happens every year. It’s pathetically predictable, actually, especially among the doomed.”
I dropped my rock and brushed my hands. “Actually, asswipe, I just wanted to be sure you were okay,” I said. “My mistake.” I turned and started toward the quad.
His voice came after me. “Your name would be?”
“Seriously?” I paused to stare back at him and braced a fist on my hip. “That’s an apology?”
He lowered his ice pack again. He didn’t bother to smile and I didn’t either. Then he gave the slightest shrug.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “It hasn’t been my best morning. I’m Linus Pitts.”
I frowned, considering him, and then I took a couple steps nearer again. “Rosie Sinclair,” I said.
“We meet at last.”
His voice was so deadpan I couldn’t quite tell if he was being ironic. That was when I noticed something really was wrong with his eye. I came nearer to inspect him. The pupil was a murky color instead of clear black.
“Can you see all right?” I asked.
“As it happens, I can’t. I think there’s blood in my eye.”
“Let me see.” I looked closer while Linus aimed his eyeballs at me. It looked like red liquid had spilled inside his left pupil. I didn’t know that was possible. “Shouldn’t you get that checked?”
“Like now?” I said.
He closed one eye slowly, and then the other. “This happened to me once before. It’ll clear in a few days.”
I laughed. “So you’re half blind and it’s no big deal?”
“I’m not keen on doctors.”
“Neither am I, but I like to be able to see.”
“Like I said. It’ll clear.”
With a beeping noise, the ice cream truck backed up from the dining hall next door and drove away.
“How long have you worked here?” I asked.
“Me? Three years.”
“That’s a lot of dishes,” I said.
“What makes you think I only wash dishes? I do a lot of prep, too.”
He resettled the ice pack against his bad eye and shifted so he could see me with the other.
“Where’s your accent from?” I asked.
“I’m Welsh, by way of St. Louis.”
“Why aren’t you in school yourself?”
“Because I quit,” he said.
“To work kitchen prep?”
His eyebrows lifted. “You’re a regular charmer. You know that?”
“Sorry,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with kitchen prep. I’m just wondering.”
“How do you feel about getting cut tonight?” he asked. He pushed off from the giant spool and ran a hand down his apron, catching his thumb where the string wrapped around to the front.
“I said I was sorry. You don’t have to be vindictive.”
He let out a laugh. “Not bad, Sinclair. You almost make me want to watch the show.”
“You don’t?” I asked. “Seriously? But you work here.”
“Exactly. It’s too much of a good thing. Franny likes to run it in the kitchen, and I always work facing the other direction if I can help it.”
I couldn’t believe it. He worked on the staff of one of the most popular reality shows of all time, and he didn’t watch it. Actually, that was pretty interesting. “Cool,” I said.
“Tell me something,” he said. He lowered the ice pack and turned it in his fingers. “All that compulsory sleep every night. What’s that feel like?”
“It’s a little weird,” I said. I glanced around to see a mic button on the top of the giant spool. Every inch of this place was wired for sound. I leaned back against the spool in the place where he had been, and tugged idly at my necklace.
“Do you dream a lot?” Linus asked. “Can you actually feel yourself getting more creative?”
“That’s the theory, though, right?” he asked.
It was. One of the principles of the school was that our creativity was increased by our sleep because it cemented the learning from the day. It puzzled me, though, why we needed a full twelve hours. I wondered if Linus knew anything about what happened at the school at night.
“I didn’t know it was such a tough question,” he said. He had a way of smiling with his eyes narrowed in concentration, like he was serious even more than he was happy. I found it oddly inviting.
“It’s weird,” I said. “I miss the night. I miss who I am in the night.”
“That’s not so weird,” he said. “Go on.”
“I don’t dream at all anymore, either.” I glanced out at the sheep again. “I miss that, a lot. I also miss feeling like I’m asleep. I know I’m asleep. I know the time goes by because when I wake up, it’s daylight again. But I don’t feel like I’m sleeping here, you know?”
“That sort of makes sense,” Linus said.
It was hard to explain what I didn’t fully understand myself. I put the toes of my boots together and examined them. “I think it’s connected to the cameras. I feel like I’m always on,” I said. “Like they’ve pushed a button and I’m always on. Night is completely skipped. When I wake up, I’m continuing directly from the evening before when I climbed in my sleep shell. Like I haven’t had a break. Like I’ve been cheated.” That was it. I felt cheated. I wasn’t simply asleep. Someone was stealing my sleep and my privacy from me, until I existed only for the show. “It’s like being robbed.”
“That can’t be good,” he said.
I did the double thumb jerk to indicate the cameras. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about this.”
He smiled. “You can talk about anything. People say negative things about Forge all the time. You’re only being honest.”
I felt a tingle of apprehension. “It feels like a mistake.”
“It adds authenticity. Viewers love that,” he said. “Besides, if you dislike it so much, you should be glad to be going home.”
“Don’t say that!” I said, alarmed.
“I want to stay here so badly, it hurts,” I said. “It’ll kill me if I have to go, but every time I look at my blip rank, it’s worse.”
“So you’re a pessimist,” Linus said. “How refreshing.”
I laughed and half squirmed at the same time. “Are you doing this on purpose? Tormenting me?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Why do you want to stay? You want to be a big star? Is that it?”
I couldn’t possibly explain this hungry thing inside me. I needed to make films, real films about real people. It was the one way I knew, the one, complete way to get to the truth and show what really mattered. If I had to go back to Doli now, without an education, realistically I’d end up working at McLellens’ Pot Bar and Sundries, or at the prison school like Ma. I’d be dead my whole life.
“Have you ever heard of Doli, Arizona?” I asked.
“No. Should I have?”
“We’re the poorest zip code in the country. Half the people don’t have jobs. My school is a farce and I’m on the preprison track there. It’s teaching me nothing, let alone anything about film,” I said. “And don’t ask me why we don’t leave Doli. It’s still my home.”
“I didn’t ask you,” he said quietly. He leaned a hand on the wooden spool. “You can’t seriously be here for the education.”
He drummed his fingers for a second. “What’s your blip rank?”
I lifted my gaze toward the horizon. “Last I checked, it was ninety-five.”
“That’s quite lousy.”
“Exactly.” I took a deep breath and tried to smile. “The worst is going to be facing my little sister. She believed in me so hard.”
He sloshed the ice pack in his hand and then chucked it with a clank into a garbage can. “You’re good. I’ll give you that,” he said.
I wasn’t sure what he meant. Linus took a step backward and waved up at the tower where the big cameras were. An old guy with a mustache looked around from the back of one.
“Hey, Otis! How’s it going?” Linus said, and waved again.
“Where are my smokes?” the old guy called down.
“I’ll bring them at lunch!” Linus yelled back.
Otis vanished again.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Otis is a sharp old bastard,” Linus said. “You want to get him on your side.”
“You can’t just flag down the camera guy,” I said.
Linus slid a hand in his back pocket. “Why not? Get this, Sinclair,” he said. “I may not watch The Forge Show anymore, but I get how it works. It’s a show. You’re a performer on a TV show. That’s what matters. Not your fancy education part of it. Your entire value is measured by how popular you are to the viewers.”
“You mean for the banner ads,” I said.
“You won’t even be eligible for a banner ad unless you pass the fifty cuts,” Linus said. “You have to think about the audience every minute between now and five o’clock. You have to plan for them and calculate their reactions. You need a strategy.”
I straightened away from the spool. “Just because you work here doesn’t mean you know what it’s like from my side. I’ve been thinking about the cameras. I’ve followed all the rules, but it doesn’t work for me. I can’t explain it. I never feel like myself here.”
“You don’t understand,” Linus said. “Forget the cameras. Think about the people watching. That’s the difference. The people out there care about you, or they would if they felt like they knew the real you.” Linus ran a hand back through his hair. “Look. I can help you. I do know what works here.”
“And what’s that?”
I laughed, thinking of all the Janice types on the campus. They didn’t strike me as honest, but they had high blip ranks. “What else?”
“You could take the talent show approach,” he said. “That works if you’re phenomenal. What’s your art? What did you do to get in?”
“I made a documentary about my sister Dubbs,” I said. “She’s seven. I want to make films.”
“Oh, films,” he said, in a snobby drawl. “You can’t exactly make a film in a day.”
“I could, actually, but it wouldn’t be any good,” I said. “Next idea.”
He opened a hand. “Hang out with one of your friends who has a high blip rank,” he said. “You’ll get a shadow effect.”
I didn’t have any friends. I had acquaintances, but it took me longer than ten days to make what I considered real friends. “Next idea,” I said.
“Nothing. What else?” I asked.
“Betray your boyfriend. Or girlfriend. Whoever. Go for personal drama.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said.
“Then find one.” His eyes stayed serious, as if he were testing me. “Think tryst,” he said. “Cut out later and meet up with a humble dishwasher with a festering black eye. It’ll add a good ten points to your blip rank.”
He was neither humble nor festering, obviously.
“You are a very misguided person,” I said.
“I’m just right. You know I am.”
“Why would meeting you be worth a spike?” I asked. “Because I’m a student and you’re on the staff? Is that supposed to make us special?”
“Don’t be dense.”
I searched back and forth between his mismatched eyes, waiting for something in his words to make sense.
He smiled slightly and spun a hand back and forth between us. “We have this,” he said.
“You know,” he said softly.
I did not know. The fine, expectant buzzing in my chest had nothing to do with him.
And then it did.
His eyes warmed. “See?”
I took a step back. The buzzing had exploded into wild wings of surprise.
“You’re smiling,” he said.
“I’ll be here at quarter to five,” he said. “Just in case. I’m telling you, personal drama’s good. It gets viewers to care about you.”
I backed up some more. “Get your eye checked.”
“You do bossy very well, Sinclair,” he said, covering his heart. “Irresistible.”
He was impossible. But he was also right about one thing. As I turned and ran for the film building, I was grinning and primed with hope.
The Vault of Dreamers © Caragh O’Brien, 2014