STAR FINDER

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Chapter 38: Strange Bedfellows.

Thunder belched and boomed. Rain, like fists striking a punching bag, beat on the roof. It was after two in the morning and still Lilly couldn’t settle in. She was a side sleeper and with the wrong arm tethered to the cast iron radiator she couldn’t roll. She extracted a wadded up napkin from a hole in the floor behind the radiator. Unwrapping it, she chose a pill, dry swallowed, and tucked the stash back in its hiding place.

She sighed, long and low. The sound was duplicated on the other side of the pantry.

Bobby whispered, “What’s the matter, kid? The foot giving you pain? Nightmares about being spaced? I won’t laugh.”

“No. It is the way Tem cuffed me. I cannot get comfortable. I suppose I should be thankful it is only one arm and that the cuffs are padded.” She groaned and managed a sitting position. “How about you? Is the camp cot uncomfortable?” They shared a bedroom. She showed concern to be polite.

“No. It’s good, better than the mattress. I got the best of that deal. Zilla came through.”

“She proved to be an excellent Florence Nightingale. In this, and in other small ways, Zilla had upgraded Lilly’s situation. It worked in her favor more than anyone in the house knew.

By the age of five, Lilly had perfected her lock-picking skills on this same type of cuffs, but she kept them on so that Tem had the illusion of control and would pretend to be hopelessly restrained until it was time to leave. Her injuries were all that kept her shackled. She needed to heal, to be at her best, if she was going to have any chance of shaking Nautilus.

She heard the faint rustle of movement. Bobby walked over and joined her on the floor. He leaned back against the wall. Two feet separated them.

“Since we are both awake…” he paused as if choosing his words “…maybe it’s time we get to know one another. I’m not talking in the biblical way so don’t do that screaming thing again. My ears are still ringing.”

“Very funny.” She didn’t sense any aggression, and since a proper conversation was inevitable, she said, “Go on.”

The sound of Bobby’s breathing filled the pantry. She wasn’t used to talking to boys, so doing this in the dark seemed more manageable. A sudden shyness hit and she blurted, “Who are you?”

“You heard. I’m Bobby Alabama. I’ve lived on the streets for most of my life. Most recently with a family I adopted. That’s pretty much it.”

“I thought adoption worked the other way around—that they adopted you. Never mind. Why are you here?”

“I watched you last night,” he slowed, “because I was worried. A little girl like you, geez… you were passed out a long time. I haven’t heard one thank you come out of your mouth?”

She almost stuttered. “Ah, thank you.” He sounded sincere. There was something almost brotherly in his voice. “What did you mean, ‘a girl like’ me? What kind of girl do you think I am?” Feedback, and from a boy near my own age. She perked up.

“One with young and naive written all over her?” She huffed ready to object. “Hold on.” He sobered. “Hm…you want honesty? Okay, I’d describe you as lost. It’s like you made a big mistake and landed on the wrong planet. Now your fat brain is working hard to find a ship that can get you out of here, out of danger.”

Bobby had her pegged. She had not expected such insight. Maybe she should change the subject. “How old are you and why are you here?”

“You keep firing off the questions. Bang, bang, bang.” He snapped his fingers. “I’m sixteen. Winter is coming. I didn’t have the bus fare for Florida so this is my gig for the cold months. It’s not the classiest place, but it’s warm and Zilla cooks. I know you doubt that, but the oatmeal ball today was to impress you. Let you know how bad it could get so you’re grateful for the soup.”

“Why do you let Tem manhandle you?”

“I could ask you the same. Let’s just say I’m doing a solid for a friend, one who got in over his head with Tem. So, I take a few hits. I’ve had worse.” He stretched out his legs. They brushed hers. “Now it’s your turn. What’s your story?”

“The explanation is long and complicated. It is hard to process. My head feels ready to explode.” How did one describe the past fourteen years of a shattered illusion? “The short version: there was a fire…”

Bobby interrupted. “Don’t stress out. I don’t miss much that happens around here and I saw your burns. I heard the part about the fire and your dad’s…um…passing.”

He was kind. She was grateful not to relive the fire.

“What’s Zilla holding over your head and what’s with that guy Leo?”

Should she tell him about Nautilus? No. Nothing good could come from sharing the weird circumstances of her birth and Nautilus’s involvement. If she talked about Skye and her powers she would be exposed as a mutant. That would be too cruel, a hammer’s slam to what remained of her ego. “There are some men…”

“No kidding. I talked to the jerk. I’ve seen him before. I just can’t remember where...”

“Please let me finish my sentences before you comment.”

“Should I raise my hand? Sorry, I know this is difficult. I won’t interrupt.”

“As I was about to say, my father worked for them on a top secret project. They think I have the information he hid from them.” It was a form of the truth.

“So Zilla is hiding you and wants to make you her partner out of the goodness of her tiny black heart?” He repositioned. “Doesn’t compute, kid—nice try.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Lilly’s voice sharpened. “It is true. I may have left out a few details but…Zilla thinks I can communicate with the spirits.”

“I was there when she read the tea leaves. I heard the whole ‘partner’ ploy. She’s your earthly anchor, but I also saw your face when you picked up that moonstone. You had a weird vacant expression for a good fifteen seconds.”

She had not known. She fidgeted. “Ah, well, that was part of the act.” It was a lame excuse. “Look, I have no family, nowhere else to go so becoming her apprentice is my best option—or so I thought until I saw that pinkie finger.”

“True you wouldn’t last a day on the streets. Something is missing. Let’s move on to Tem. He has a monstrous hate for you. You just met. Why?”

“Two nights ago, I was out for ice cream and bumped into him.”

“So…”

“No, I physically plowed into him. My ice cream sundae landed on his girlfriend’s chest. We got into a fight, and well…I won.”

“You decked Homer Simpson? I’d pay good money to see that.” He chuckled. “That is great. It explains the missiles shooting out of his eyes when you’re in range.”

“I am finished sharing.”

“It’s impolite to cut out like that.” He cleared his throat. “Why are you avoiding telling the truth? Your voice gives you away.”

“I…I…”

“Don’t get all defensive and throw me to the floor. If you were freed, where would you go? Do you have any friends? Got an old aunt nearby?”

“No. I already told you, I’m alone. Do you have friends in D. C.?”

“Why did you say it like that, kid? You think street people don’t have friends? I have a lot more than you.” He lowered his voice and said, “No wonder you don’t have any, you talk down to everybody. Better than the rest of us? No way, Jose.”

“I choose my words to be precise. It’s the way I was been taught. And besides, I am better. I have been raised to excel.”

“You’re just better educated.”

“I am accomplished.”

“Arrogant.”

“Gifted and intelligent!”

“Uppity and pompous.”

“Loser, gangster.”

“Snooty spoiled brat!”

“Stop…” She began to sob.

“Not better only smarter. I’ll give you that much kid. Now quit crying. Damn, you’re like a babe in the woods. You know nothing about dangerous people like Tem.”

“True. I have been sheltered. But no one could get along with that narcissistic oaf. His impulse control puts him in the adolescent category for frontal lobe development.”

“There you go again. Who talks like that?”

“I do. What is wrong with being accurate?”

“It gets you in trouble. If you want to fit in you have to learn to talk like they do.”

Weary, Lilly rested her head against the wall.

“To start, throw in a contraction once in a while.”

There were footsteps in the kitchen. Fluorescent light seeped under the pantry door.

“What is it?”

Bobby patted Lilly’s hand. His lips brushed her ear as he whispered. “It’s Tem. He’s a grazer. A regular Cape buffalo, like in Africa.”

She felt flushed. “I know what it is.”

They heard the refrigerator open and close, and then the fizz of a can of soda being opened. Several beeps and then the microwave droned. Soon corn was rapid-fire popping. The smell reached the pantry and Lilly salivated. She was reminded of movie nights with her dad.

“Three minutes and twenty-five seconds. It’s the same every time. He’s got it down to a science because he hates finding those little kernels in the bottom of the bowl.”

“I doubt it is real science. How do you know it’s timed so precisely?”

“His detailed schedule is taped to the side of the microwave. Popcorn is at three A.M. You can tell time by his eating cycles.”

This was good information. It would come in handy later. “Butter. He must use a quarter of a pound.”

“Is there anything better than the smell of melting butter?”

Lilly was about to name a few things but Bobby shushed here. “He’s coming our way.” He squeezed her hand.

The door rattled. Tem twisted the knob. He jerked the padlock, let go, and it clunked on the doorframe. The light went out and his footsteps faded.

Bobby and Lilly exhaled in unison.

“He’ll be back around four-thirty for ice cream. Zilla keeps the freezer stocked with chocolate marshmallow.”

“You are a student of humanity.” She withdrew her hand from his grasp.

“If you can call Tem human. Let’s get serious. If the owner of that pinkie is under the floor, the game has changed. They’re not going to let either of us walk out the front door knowing about that. Until we can verify the body and I can figure an angle, play it cool. Remember, the inside of this apartment is their world. They have control.”

“Believe me, I understand. Five hours in that coffin…I can’t go into the kitchen without staring at the floor. It is,” she tested his suggestion, “it’s why I can’t sleep.” Tem and Zilla had risen on her list of villains although Nautilus held the top spot.

“You must become valuable to Zilla. Your role is the happy apprentice. Draw Zilla to your side. If she sees you have value, she’ll convince Tem.” He twisted closer. “One warning—

don’t come between them. Zilla will always choose Tem. Their shared secrets bind them. Did you catch the look they gave each other last night when you said it was a finger? They weren’t surprised.”

Lilly’s mouth puckered as she absorbed all this new information. She nodded but, of course, he couldn’t see her. “Stick with Zilla, got it. She can be a bit unpredictable.”

“On the days she gives séances, her moods are even more unpredictable than a horses tail in black fly season. Be careful, be agreeable.”

“Thank you for everything. Hey, wait a minute. Why should I believe you?”

“Because you recognize the truth when you hear it? And you’re friendless…who else have you got, kid?”

Emotions drained, she wanted—no, she needed him to be right. “I don’t know if I will ever sleep again. I am—” she was learning, “I’m exhausted. Could you pull your cot closer?” She yawned.

“Not a good idea.” He moved in, their knees touched. “What if I fell asleep and they found me. That would be throwing a match on gasoline, firing up Tem.”

They were both silent. Outside the storm raged.

“Get some rest. Think of something happy. I heard you had a birthday.” His arm came around her shoulder like a protective cape. “I’ll sit with you until you go to sleep.”

She took Bobby’s suggestion and thought of the last birthday she celebrated with her dad. During the night while she slept he had filled her room with at least a hundred balloons. She smiled.

She was not alone. Her head fell limp onto Bobby’s shoulder. She drifted off thinking how nice it was to have a friend.

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