Birthmarked Page 27

Pulling the chair near, she sat before the desk, frowning. She could do this. She must, somehow. She would think of her father and his sewing things and his capable, wide-knuckled hands. She would use every hint she had and try to read her fathers mind. As her gaze unfocused, she heard the rhythmic sound of his foot working the treadle of the sewing machine, half humming, half clicking. But then sorrow, like an under' ground stream, seeped into her mind, slowing her thoughts. In so many ways, she wished he were there with her.

"If only he were alive," she muttered.

"He is. In you. Somehow," Sgt. Bartlett said. When he smiled encouragingly, a faint glimmer lit his brown eyes. "I need to go." He hurried to the door. "I'll be back later with food. If you need anything else, a dictionary or anything, I'm supposed to get it for you."

She swallowed, nodding, her eyes already scanning over the symbols, looking for anything that might be familiar, that might be a clue. He shut the door softly as he went out, and Gaia sank her chin into the palm of her cool, smooth hand.

Forget the running clock, she told herself. Forget that Mother s life depends on my cooperation. Thin\ only of Dad. She closed her eyes and heard the treadle sound again. She summoned a mental image of him sitting near the window at his machine, hunched over to peer at the fabric as it passed under the speeding needle. He always stopped when she came near, sitting back and stretching his arms over his head. His brown eyes were kindly, warm, and his voice overflowed with laughter. Then he would lean close and pull one of her braids with a little, teasing jerk she could still feel. "Hey, squirt."

It hurt to think of him, even the happy memories, but she tried to summon what she knew. Because of his reverse alphabet song, which she'd remembered when her mother sent her the note about Danni O, it was likely he'd done some reverse of letters. On inspiration, she pulled the mirror out of her pocket, and tried looking at the symbols through that:

[Symbols Removed]

"This is impossible," she muttered. It looked just as indecipherable this way.

Another hour passed, and the only thing she gained was a neck crick from tension. She flexed her arms in a stretch and leaned back. She'd found several symbols that repeated, but not in any way that made sense to her. She was getting nowhere.

She was hungry, too. Standing, she went to the yellow door and tried the knob. It was locked. She knocked on it, wondering how she was supposed to ask Sgt. Bartlett for something if he wasn't there. There was no reply.

At least she could drink from the sink. As soon as she entered the little bathroom, she decided to clean up. The shower water was hot and delicious on her skin, strangely comforting when her mind was in turmoil. She opened her mouth to the warm spray, drinking. Soon she was dressed in clean clothes, and she found a ball of socks in the pocket of her new dress. She pondered the socks, remembering her fathers lemon-shaped pincush' ion, and wondering again how that boy could have gotten it. The same thing could happen, she realized, with any information she gave Mabrother Iris. Once it was out of her hands, she had no control over where it might end up or how it could be used.

Then again, it wasn't like she had a choice at this point. Until she deciphered the code, she had nothing to bargain with. She needed to at least appear to be cooperating if she was ever going to see her mother. She had to keep trying.

As she stepped back into the little yellow room, softly rubbing her short wet hair with the damp towel, she noticed the top paper with the code had blown to the floor. Her eyes, unfocused for a moment, simplified the code to a pattern of blurry lines, and for an instant, she thought she saw some thing. She blinked rapidly and leaned nearer. As she reached down for the paper, it was gone, whatever it was, and the dazzling confusion of symbols was as baffling as ever.

"What did I see?" she asked herself.

She dropped the paper to the floor again and walked back into the bathroom, determined to retrace her steps.

"I must be going mad," she muttered.

She stood in the bathroom doorway, looking over at the code on the floor, and squinted. From here, the code looked like lines of color against a background of brown. Due to the angle and the distance, the background emerged conspicuously as narrow bands of brown, regular stripes.

"Read between the lines," she whispered, letting her eyes focus normally again.

This time, when she set the paper on the table, she tried looking at it not for each individual symbol, but for the space between the lines.

[Symbols Removed]

There was a knock on her door, and she backed toward the window, trying to smooth her wet hair with the towel.

Leon opened the door, carrying a tray. Her lips opened in unspoken surprise. Her mind scrambled back over memories of their last conversation, and the bread he'd bought her, and Myrna's awful pronouncement of his crimes against the state.

"Take this ," he said, thrusting the tray toward her. She tucked the towel under her arm and took the tray while he looked quickly down the hall and then carefully shut the door.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I came to see if I could help," he said. "Are you making any progress?"

Her heart constricted with doubt. "Did Mabrother Iris send you?" she asked, setting the tray on the desk. "Do you know anything about my mother?"

He gave her a peculiar, pulled look. "I came myself," he said. "As soon as Bartlett told me you were here. I haven't heard anything about your mother." He straightened slowly, his expression grave.

"I'm sorry," she said quickly, holding her damp towel in both hands. "It's just-- " She was afraid of being manipulated, and the truth was, Leon did something to her. She might as well admit it to herself. Even now, she felt better just having him there. Strangely charged, too. He was still watching her with his pensive, guarded expression, and she finally threw up a hand. What if he was a tool of the Enclave? It wasn't like she had anything to lose.

"I thought I saw something," she admitted. "A sort of optical illusion. But I wasn't sure."

"What was it?" he asked.

She reached over the bowl of soup and picked up the roll of black bread, casting her gaze over the code again. "I don't know. It was there when my eyes were unfocused, I think." She took a nibble of the bread, and as if that triggered her hunger, she was suddenly ravenously hungry. She bit off a huge bite.

"Careful you don't choke," he said. He took off his hat and set it beside the tray, watching her with a frown. "I'm glad to see this situation hasn't affected your appetite," he added dryly.

She had a perverse desire to laugh. Or cry. Or both. She finished chewing and swallowed.

"Good bread?" he asked.

She nodded. If he said anything nice to her, anything gentle, she was going to burst out sobbing.

He nodded, too. "Let's see this mysterious code."

She swallowed thickly. As he leaned over the desk to inspect the papers, she stepped nearer to him. He braced a hand on the table, flipping the top sheet over and twisting it in different directions. She consumed the last bite of her bread. His shoulders were broad, and she could smell the clean fabric of his black coat, as if sunshine still clung to him.

Somehow that, too, confused and troubled her. She wanted sunshine of her own.

Get a hold of yourself, she thought sternly. She turned to step into the bathroom and hang up her towel, and as she did, she took a furtive look at herself in the mirror. A hint of moisture on the glass softened the harsh clarity of the image, and for once she forced herself to look directly at her face. This is the face of a girl who may die soon, she thought. Beauty was irrelevant. Her right cheek was faintly flushed from her shower, and her brown, short hair lay in damp, untidy waves around her brown eyes. The left side of her face was scarred a blotchy red-brown from her earlobe to the tip of her chin and up across her cheek to her eyebrow. The tender skin looked as if someone had taken a wrinkled page of tissue, soaked it in colored glue, and stuck it madly across her face. A mask, she thought, not for the first time. It looked like she wore a hideous, permanent mask. Anyone who said anything to her about it not being that bad was clearly lying.

Cold, sobering reality steadied her nerves once more. She needed to solve the code. Nothing else mattered.

"Gaia." Leons voice came in an undertone from the door' way. "What's the mirror for?"

She jumped self consciously, then realized he meant the little hand mirror shed left on the desk.

"Just an idea," she said. "It didn't help. My dad liked reversing things, like we had a funny backward alphabet song."

"Maybe you need a bigger mirror," he said. He held out the code and gestured toward the mirror over the sink.

She considered, then took the paper from his fingers. Holding up the page before the mirror, she was about to wipe the glass dry when again she caught a glimpse of something, just a hint of recognizable letters. Puzzled, she looked more closely, but the shapes shifted, and again it was a jumble of enigmatic symbols. She let out a grumble of frustration.

"What is it?" Leon asked. He was standing just behind her shoulder.

"I keep thinking I see something," she said. "But then it's gone."

He leaned nearer to her, so that his arm nearly brushed her shoulder, and she instinctively shrank from him, keeping her gaze on his eyes in the mirror.

"May I?" he asked politely, and then he used the towel to wipe the last vestiges of steam from the mirror. Gaia felt strangely crowded in the little space, even when he withdrew his hand again, and her lungs grew tight with the strain of breathing beside him.

She focused intently on the mirror, her eyes scanning the spaces between the lines, and then all of a sudden she saw some thing. She held her breath. Peering nearer, she was suddenly sure. She had been looking at the symbols, trying to find a pat' tern in them. But the pattern was between the symbols, in the negative space.

"Look!" she said, pointing.

Leon looked as baffled as ever.

"Here," she said, turning with the paper and pointing to a gap between two symbols. "It's going backward now, but there are letters between the symbols. Oh, look!"

"I don't see it," Leon said.

She was flushed with excitement, and she impulsively grabbed his arm. "Here, I'll show you," she said, and pulled him back to the room with the desk. She laid the paper flat on the table, and picked up two of the pencils. Laying them along the horizontal lines between the symbols, she created a border above and below a line of characters.

[Symbols Removed]

"Look between the symbols," she said, pointing. "There are backward block letters in the spaces. Going backward." She started on the right and moved left, bit by bit. G, L, M, V, T, L, M, M, R, V, L, I, R.

Watching his face, she saw the exact moment when under-standing came to him. His smile spread warmly, and his blue eyes lit up with excitement.

"What's it say?" he asked. "May I?" He took the paper again and went back into the bathroom to hold it before the mirror. She knew what he would see, and she was already thinking ahead to the next step. She took out more fresh paper from the desk and quickly jotted with her pencil.



"Oh, Daddy," she muttered, torn between sadness and satisfaction. "If this is it, you re too amazing." She was impatient now, and she practically snatched the paper out of Leon s hand when he brought it back.

"What are you doing now?" he asked.

But she didn't answer. She transcribed the letters from the top line of the code onto a clean sheet of paper, and used her reverse-alphabet to change the letters into their opposites. Puzzled, discouraged, she added the next line. She was halfway through the second line before she realized she was spelling names she knew. The names went right to left, like the backward letters, and something was still wrong -with the dates, but there they were:

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