STAR FINDER

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Chapter 9: The First Steps Are the Hardest

At exactly ten minutes after ten on a Saturday night, Lilly found herself standing outside their apartment building. Alone. For the first time in her life. She paused on the top step. As excited as a boiling kettle, her feet wouldn’t be still. Blood pulsed in her fingertips. She rubbed her hands together as if it were a frosty evening instead of the end of summer.

With a smile ready to burst off her face Lilly murmured, “This is really happening. Cool.”

Poised to leave for Schaffer’s, Lilly glimpsed movement. Her head jerked left.

She froze. Her palms grew damp with sweat. She wiped them on her jeans.

The neon sign hanging in her landlady’s window flashed: Madame Zilla: Palm, Tea Leaves, and Crystal Ball Readings. A smaller handwritten piece of paper taped to the glass said, ‘open apartment 1A.’ The curtain shifted.

Zilla poked her long nose through the narrow slit in the lace. Although a big-boned woman she moved with the stealth of a cat.

Lilly’s flat hand pressed to her heart. Her breath whooshed out. Would the busybody tell her father?

“The key is to act natural and blend in,” Lilly muttered. She broadened her smile, showed even white teeth, and sent Zilla the Queen’s wave.

The curtains closed.

She’d cleared her first hurdle. She started breathing again.

In the next instant, Skye appeared in Lilly’s mind.

Really? Now?

It wasn’t her normal announced arrival, but more of a tickle.

“What? Now? Bad timing, Skye.”

A passing stranger turned at the sound of Lilly’s voice. Seeing she was by herself, he frowned and walked a little faster.

Talking to oneself is not normal! Of course, working problems aloud was part of her analytical process. “But not on the street!” She did it again. “Darn.” She stomped.

The tickle was faint.

“No. I’m tuning you out!”

She reconsidered. How had Skye contacted her without the headband? Lilly wasn’t frightened, just puzzled. Had Skye sought her out?

This was not the right place or time for a chat no matter how amazing this connection might be. Plus, the butterflies in her stomach were going berserk.

Lilly’s mind cleared. Skye had vanished.

“I am overreacting. I imagined Skye. This is all stress related.” She added a splash of guilt for deceiving her dad to the equation.

Hood pulled up, she started out. She passed children holding their parents’ hands, couples arm in arm, and groups of teens laughing. They all had someone: family or friends. Lilly thought about her father. As much as she hungered for freedom, she missed him now.

Subterfuge and lying were not part of her world. Would they be part of Lillian’s? That idea bothered her.

Maybe this was as far as she should go tonight. She had proved her point and taken control.

She licked her sore lips, thinking as she walked. Then again, what good are all my plans if I didn’t follow through? Dad always said: an unfinished task is nothing accomplished or learned. The clincher. I want people to see me. Really see me. And my new hairstyle.

Across from the park’s arched stone entrance, she spied a clown making balloon animals. He was knee-deep in happy children. The band played at the gazebo. Nightlife, dancing in public, it was a foreign world to Lilly and one that delighted her. The music was ear-puncturing loud. The throb of the drums reverberated in every part of her body. Her feet picked up the beat. She did a little two-step boogie.

Over the bobbing heads, she glimpsed Schaffer’s gaudy orange and white awning. It stood out against the mass of green oaks.

All the buildings and the shops in this area formed a giant square and surrounded the park. It was literally and metaphorically the center for the community. Its rusted iron fence, the bird droppings splattered on the dark green benches, and the cracked dolphin fountain had seen better days. The plants were well maintained, and in the spring and summer the flowers added a bright spot to the otherwise monochrome neighborhood.

On concert Saturdays, none of the shops closed until the band stopped playing. The typical shutdown was eleven. Lilly had it timed. For two months she had sat in the dark at her bedroom window listening to the music. Now she was enjoying it close up.

Lilly crossed the street to the park. She paused and smelled a yellow rose that was poking through the fence. “Are you the last rose of summer?”

The ice cream parlor was opposite Lilly’s building but on the far side of the park. Instead of cutting through, she took the long way around. Skirting the festivities gave her a chance to check out hairdos and what teens were wearing. In the crush of dancers, she would never get a good look.

When she turned the corner and saw Schaffer’s in the middle of the next block, drool gathering at the corner of her mouth. She licked her lips and sped on.

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