Billie closes the blackout curtain over the view. She pulls the cover off the bed closest to the window. She takes off her jeans and shirt and bra and puts on the Boston Marathon T-shirt she found in Paul Zell’s suitcase.
She lies down on a fresh white top sheet, falls asleep in the yellow darkness. She dreams about you.
When she wakes up she is drooling on an unfamiliar pillow. Her jaw is tight because she’s forgotten to wear her mouthpiece. She’s been grinding her teeth. So, yes, the teeth grinding, that’s me. Not Melinda.
It’s 4:30, late afternoon. Billie takes a shower. She uses Paul Zell’s herbal conditioner. She folds the borrowed T-shirt and puts it back in Paul Zell’s suitcase, between the dress shirts and the underwear.
The hotel where she’s staying is on CNN. Because of the superheroes.
For the last three weeks Billie has tried not to think too much about what will happen at dinner when she and Paul Zell meet. But, even though she’s been trying not to think about it, she still had to figure out what she was going to wear. The skirt and the sweater she brought are Melinda’s. They fit okay; Billie hopes they’ll make her look older, but not as if she is trying to look older. She bought a lipstick at Target, but when she puts it on it looks too Billie Goes to Clown School, and so she wipes it off again and puts on ChapStick instead. She’s sure her lips are still redder than they ought to be; she hopes no one will notice.
When she goes down to the front desk to ask about Internet cafés, Aliss is still on the front desk. “Or you could just use the business center,” Aliss tells her. “Guests can use their room keys to access the business center. You are staying here, right?”
Billie asks a question of her own. “Who’s that guy, Conrad?” she says. “What’s his deal?”
Aliss’s eyes narrow. “His deal is he’s the biggest slut in the world. Like it’s any of your business,” she says. “But don’t think he’s got any pull with his dad, Little Miss Wannabe Sidekick. No matter what he says. Hook up with him and I’ll stomp your ass. It’s not like I want this job, anyway.”
“I’ve got a boyfriend,” Billie says. “Besides, he’s too old for me.”
Which is an interesting thing for her to say, when I think about it now.
Here’s the thing, Paul Zell. You’re thirty-four and I’m fifteen. That’s nineteen years’ difference. That’s a substantial gap, right? Besides the legal issue, which I am not trying to minimize, I could be twice as old as I am now and you’d still be older. I’ve thought about this a lot. And you know what? There’s a teacher at school, Mrs. Christie. Melinda was talking, a few months ago, about how Mrs. Christie just turned thirty and her husband is sixty-three. And they still fell in love, and yeah, Melinda says everyone thinks it’s kind of repulsive, but that’s love, and nobody really understands how it works. It just happens. And then there’s Melinda, who married a guy exactly the same age that she was, who then got addicted to heroin, and was, besides that, just all-around bad news. My point? Compared to those thirty-three years between Mr. and Mrs. Christie, eighteen years is practically nothing.
The real problem here is timing. And, also, of course, the fact that I lied. But, except for the lying, why couldn’t it have worked out between us in a few years? Why do we really have to wait at all? It’s not like I’m ever going to fall in love with anyone again.
Billie uses Paul Zell’s hotel room key to get into the business center. There’s a superhero at one of the PCs. The superhero is at least eight feet tall, and she’s got frizzy red hair. You can tell she’s a superhero and not just a tall dentist because a little electric sizzle runs along her outline, every once in a while, as if maybe she’s being projected into her too-small seat from some other dimension. She glances over at Billie, who nods hello. The superhero sighs and looks at her fingernails. Which is fine with Billie. She doesn’t need rescuing, and she isn’t auditioning for anything, either. No matter what anybody thinks.
For some reason, Billie chooses to be Constant Bliss when she signs onto FarAway. She’s double incognito. Paul Zell isn’t online and there’s no one in King Nermal’s Chamber, except for the living chess pieces who are always there, and who aren’t really alive, either. Not the ones who are still standing or sitting, patiently, upon their squares, waiting to be deployed, knitting or picking their noses or flirting or whatever their particular programs have been programmed to do when they aren’t in combat. Billie’s favorite is the King’s Rook, because he always laughs when he moves into battle, even when he must know he’s going to be defeated.
Do you ever feel as if they’re watching you, Paul? Sometimes I wonder if they know that they’re just a game inside a game. When I first found King Nermal’s Chamber, I walked all around the board and checked out what everyone was doing. The White Queen and her pawn were playing chess, like they always do. I sat and watched them play. After a while the White Queen asked me if I wanted a match, and when I said yes, her little board got bigger and bigger until I was standing on a single square of it, inside another chamber exactly the same as the chamber I’d just been standing in, and there was another White Queen playing chess with her pawn, and I guess I could have kept on going down and down and down, but instead I got freaked out and quit FarAway without saving.
Bearhand isn’t in FarAway right now. No Enchantress Magic EightBall either, of course.
Constant Bliss is low on healing herbs, and she’s quite near the Bloody Meadows, so I put on her invisible cloak and go out onto the battlefield. Rare and strange plants have sprung up where the blood of men and beasts is still soaking into the ground. I’m wearing a Shielding Hand, too, because some of the plants don’t like being yanked out of the ground. When my collecting box is one hundred percent full, Constant Bliss leaves the Bloody Meadows. I leave the Bloody Meadows. Billie leaves the Bloody Meadows. Billie hasn’t quite decided what she should do next, or where she should go, and besides it’s nearly six o’clock. So she saves and quits.
The superhero is watching something on YouTube, two Korean guys breakdancing to Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Billie stands up to leave.
“Girl,” the superhero says. Her voice hurts to listen to.
“Who, me?” Billie says.
“You, girl,” the superhero says. “Are you here with Miracle?”
Billie realizes a mistake has been made. “I’m not a sidekick,” she says.
“Then who are you?” the superhero says.
“Nobody,” Billie says. And then, because she remembers that there’s a superhero named Nobody, she says, “I mean, I’m not anybody.” She escapes before the superhero can say anything else.
Billie checks her hair in the women’s bathroom in the lobby. Nothing can be done. She wishes her sister’s sweater wasn’t so tight. She decides it doesn’t make her look older, it just makes her look lumpy. Melinda is always trying to get Billie to wear something besides T-shirts and jeans, but Billie, looking in the bathroom mirror, suddenly wishes she looked more like herself, forgetting that what she needs is to look less like herself. To look less like a fifteen-year-old crazy liar.
Although apparently what she looks like is a sidekick.
Billie doesn’t need to pee, but she pees anyway, just in case, because what if later she really has to get up and leave the dinner table? You’d know that she was going to the bathroom, and for some reason this seems embarrassing to her. The fact that she’s even worrying about this right now makes Billie feel as if she might be going crazy.
The maître d’ asks if she has a reservation. It’s now five minutes to six. “For six o’clock,” Billie says. “For two. Paul Zell?”
“Here we are,” the maître d’ says. “The other member of your party isn’t here, but we can go ahead and seat you.”
Billie is seated. The maître d’ pushes her chair in, and Billie tries not to feel trapped. There are other people eating dinner all around her, dentists and superheroes and maybe ordinary people, too. Costumes are definitely superheroes, but just because some of the hotel guests aren’t wearing costumes, doesn’t mean they’re dentists and not superheroes. Although some of them are definitely dentists.
Billie hasn’t eaten since this morning, when she got a bagel at Port Authority. Her first New York bagel. Cinnamon raisin with blueberry cream cheese. Her stomach is growling a little, but she can’t order dinner yet, of course, because you aren’t there yet, Paul Zell, and she doesn’t want to eat the bread sticks in the bowl on the table, either. What if you show up, and you sit down across from her and her mouth is full or she gets poppy seeds stuck in her teeth?
People who aren’t Paul Zell are seated at tables, or go to the bar and sit on bar stools. Billie studies the menu. She’s never had sushi before, but she decides that she will order boldly. A waiter pours her a glass of water. Asks if she’d like to order an appetizer while she’s waiting. Billie declines. The people at the table next to her pay their bill and leave. When she looks at her watch, she sees it’s 6:18.
You’re late, Paul Zell.
Billie eats a bread stick dusted with a greenish powder that makes her lips burn, just a little. She drinks her water, and then, even though she went to the bathroom not even a half hour ago, she needs to pee again. She gets up and goes. Maybe when she comes back to the table, Paul Zell will be sitting there. But she comes back and he isn’t.
Billie thinks: Maybe she should go back to the room and see if there are any messages. “I’ll be right back,” she tells the maître d’. The maître d’ couldn’t care less. There are superheroes in the hotel lobby and there are dentists in the elevator and there’s a light on the phone in room 1584 that would flash if there were any messages. It isn’t flashing. Billie dials the number for messages just in case. No message.