STAR FINDER

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Chapter 30: The Roommate

Cold…so cold… Lilly pulled the sheet up to her chin. Her hand sought her flowered quilt but came back empty. She snuggled down, cherished the warm nest, depression cradling her small body.

A scrunching sound, pinched plastic, annoyed her. “Argh-h-h.”

Lilly reached out to flick on her bedroom lamp, the porcelain one with ‘Thunder Bunny’ for a base. The pink rabbit, a make-believe pet since she wasn’t allowed a live one, stood guard on her nightstand.

Her hand raked the empty air. “Huh?” Her lids refused to open. It had been a strong deep sleep. One filled with bizarre dreams.

Hoodie bunched up in her armpits, she shifted onto her other side. The air mattress peeled away from the exposed skin on her back. “Ouch.” She kneaded the irritation with one hand and with the other finger-combed the hair off her face. She rubbed the frizzled ends between her fingertips. Short? Crispy?

Her lips fluttered in a long exhale.

A knuckle worked at the crusty grit in the corner of one eye. “Wake up Lilly.” Her arm flopped back down. Her whole body begged to be lazy. “Ew. Wet?” She fingered her clothes and the sheet to confirm. “How did that happen?”

All in one motion, she rolled up to a sitting position and pivoted, expecting her legs to dangle over the side of the bed. She bounced out as if she had been sleeping on a trampoline and rolled on the floor.

“Yikes!” She pushed up, rubbed her neck, back, and legs. “I hurt all over.” Had she spent the night in the clothes dryer on the tumble cycle? No. She wouldn’t be soaking wet and sitting in a puddle.

One hand groped her stiff left leg and found the air cast. Zilla…I’m in the pantry at Zilla’s. Memories stumbled to find their proper place. Tem patted me on the head and said, “Stay. Be a good doggie.”

In the next breath, she thought of her father. The picture provoked a mixture of smiles and tears. The remembering hurt. She sat straighter. No more pity parties. Dad’s gone—get used to it. Get tough. Time to bury the kid and grow up. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Chronologically that was impossible, but mentally it was plausible. She had always been more mature than her peers and had the education to back it up. Now was the time to put all her training to the test. Her father died so she could survive and be free of Nautilus. Don’t waste his gift, Lilly.

With this simple decision, she blew out the flickering flame of her childhood. Not surprising after the events of the last twenty-four hours, the little girl was so easily extinguished.

Seconds passed. Sopping wet, she dragged her battered self up onto the air mattress. It was too dark to see her injuries, but she felt pus running down her elbows. The pantry reeked like a sweaty locker room. How would she heal in this polluted environment? What she wouldn’t give for a breath of fresh air, three acetaminophen, and a hot shower…

“Hold fast, Lilly. You can think circles around these people.” Or could she? Her mind seemed slow, foggy, and working below capacity. What was the cause?

Loretta’s diagnosis of a possible concussion couldn’t be true. Her fingertips probed for sore spots. “I don’t have time for brain swelling.”

Logic told her to stick with the most rational answer. Work through it. “Do I have tranquilizers circulating in my system?” Basic neurology told her the impulses traveling in the brain flowed much like electricity through circuitry, wires. Drugs prevented the synapses or bridges between nerve cells from connecting. “Spotty transmissions, the yo-yo emotions…it could all be chalked up to drugs.”

To test her mind, Lilly ran through a complicated calculus problem, one she had previously solved. Stored data blinked in and out. “This is like trying to pick out one particular eel from a bucket full of the slimy critters.” Concepts were tough to hang onto.

How long would this feeling last? “This isn’t because of Wanda’s tranquilizer. That was a minuscule dose and the oxygen cleared my head. Or did I get a booster?”

Lilly’s forehead scrunched into narrow furrows. Then she remembered. “Yes, someone was at the door. It was in the juice. Zilla, no, wait Tem drugged me.” He had plenty of reasons. “Payback. That would be his style.” Arms crossed she slumped down to think.

Out of a dark corner of the pantry came a husky voice. “Tem. Now you’re getting it.”

The voice struck with the stealth of a submarine’s torpedo. Lilly recoiled. “What! Who are you! Where are you? Stay back!”

Lilly scrambled off the mattress backward like a crab, dragging her injured ankle. She collided with a set of steel storage shelves, and they tipped. Pots, pans, and canned goods rained down on top of her. “Ow! Ow!” She picked up a can from her lap and raised it above her head as if about to deliver a fastball.

“Don’t come any closer. I’m armed.”

“Stand down kid. You’re pretty beat-up. Cried and thrashed all night.”

The mystery man whispered, “And put the soup down.”

“How do you know it is soup?” Why did she ask that? Silly question.

“I can hear it sloshing. Hum. Little girl marinated in chicken noodle, not appetizing. Relax kid. You’re not on the menu.” He chuckled.

“Zilla! Zilla!” She dropped the can on the floor.

“Shut-up. Don’t scream. We’re not supposed to be talking.” He huffed. “Besides who could have missed all your crashing and banging! They’ll be here soon. Keep it down if you don’t want to be gagged and cuffed.”

“Who you are?”

“Hush.”

“I’ll scream again if you don’t answer my questions.”

“What if you don’t like the answers? Do you scream then too?” He snickered. “Okay. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

“Who are you? Where am I?”

“Tell me your name first. You’re the party crasher. They woke me up. Then stole my mattress. Bad form to take the bed out from under a sleeping guy.”

She didn’t answer.

“Not sharing? Okay, then we’re skipping the first question and the second one was stupid. You know where you are—Zilla’s. You just called for her. Don’t play dumb. So we’re done here. Just be quiet.”

“No!” Lilly demanded, “Who are you?” No one had ever called her dumb. “And I am advanced for my age. Very smart.”

“Duh. What are you in kindergarten? You sound five. Plus, you snort in your sleep. And so you don’t throw another temper tantrum, I’m Bobby and that was your last question.”

Bobby? The name was familiar, but her drugged mind didn’t make a connection. “Tell me why I am all wet.”

He whispered, “Maybe you peed your pants. How should I know? Babies do that stuff.”

“I did not! Why is it dark?”

“You really can’t stop talking can you? You yammer and whine when you’re asleep and awake.”

“Please.” Lilly sniffled, “I don’t like the dark.” Back to the wall she forced her aching body to stand upright.

“Baby…like I said. Oh, all right then turn the damn light on. The switch is behind you, just to the left of the door.”

Floorboards creaked. There was movement. He was coming from the far corner. “I’ll get it, kid.”

She heard him walking toward her. Lilly’s hand leapfrogged over the wall behind her. Propped up next to the door her hand latched onto a broom. Gripping it with both hands she swung it like a baseball bat and screamed. “Stay away! Help! Zilla help!”

Bobby kept coming. “Stop. Shut up. She won’t help you.” Bobby went for the broom and missed. He slapped his free hand over Lilly’s mouth to keep her quiet. “Shush.”

She chomped down on his finger drawing blood.

The door at her back jerked open. Lilly spilled out of the pantry and onto the floor of Zilla’s kitchen. Bobby took the dive with her.

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