STAR FINDER

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Chapter 50: You Are Going to Need a Bucket

Seventeen hours later, just before dawn on Saturday morning, Lilly rolled side-to-side, her knees pressed to her chest. She clutched her gut as Bobby worried over her.

“I should have given you a smaller dose, you weigh next to nothing.” The heel of his hand struck the pantry wall. “Damn. I dosed her at six o’clock last night.” He ticked off the hours on his fingers. “It should have worn off by now. No way she’ll be strong enough to travel later.”

Bobby kneeled to check his roommate. “What have I done? She looks bad.” The crest of Lilly’s ribs outlined the indented pit that had once been her stomach. Her thin T-shirt fell into the hollow.

He stood and paced, dragging his fingers through his hair. Lilly was never out of sight. “And where’s my care package? Why wasn’t it in the garbage cans?” Had his family failed him?

His brain was a pinball machine. Doubts pinged around. Can this evil twin phase even be broken? Was I wrong and it has nothing to do with the kid’s proximity to Zilla or the crystal ball? Lilly said Skye was a friend so the alien isn’t causing this. Or is she? What if the nasty version of Lilly is permanent? Do I force her to escape?

Lilly gagged and lurched upright. Bobby dropped down by her side.

Head over the bucket, slimy drool trickled out of the corners of her mouth as she heaved. He held out a wet washcloth and she took it.

“Bobby? Is that you?”

“Of course.” He repositioned the flashlight, directing it away from her. When her head tilted up he took the cloth out of her hand and wiped her face. “Better?”

“Yes. Thank you.” A weak spark of the old amber light had returned to her eyes.

“Thank you?” He moved in. “I haven’t heard anything that close to kindness coming out of your mouth for weeks.”

“Don’t be silly. Give me that.” She yanked the cloth free and straightened. Covering her entire face with the cool dampness she rested back against the wall and talked through the cloth. “Is this because of what I told you about Skye? Or the whipping boy thing? If I yelled at you while I was sick, I’m sorry, but you do have a flare for embellishing. I hear it is an idiosyncrasy common to many males.”

He grabbed her shoulders and crushed her in a hug. “You’re back! It’s you!”

“What is wrong?” She held him at arm’s length. “I haven’t gone anywhere. That would give Tem a reason to beat you. What kind of a person do you think I am?” She shifted to pout. “Yuck. Something smells…” She exhaled into her hand and sniffed. “OMG. It’s me. I have halitosis.”

“Here.” He held a glass of water to her lips. “Swish and spit.” He offered her the bucket.

She looked inside. “Ugh. Disgusting.” She repeated the procedure several times. “Better.”

“Eat some crackers. More water?”

“Your aberrant behavior calls for an explanation. I know I’ve had the flu, but I can assure you I am not dying. So back up to where you accused me of being in a perpetual bad mood.”

“First, what do you remember, before the flu? Humor me, please. Believe me, it’s important kid.”

Over the rim of the glass, she analyzed him. “So serious. Okay, I’ll play. After, can I have something to eat? I am famished.”

“Famished? It’s your kind of word, a good word. Yes. Start talking.”

“You want me to talk? That’s a first.” When Bobby didn’t crack a smile she began. “I’ll give the chronological version. Let me see.” Her brow creased. “We discussed the proper use of contractions in conversations so I wouldn’t stand out among urbanites. I wrapped your broken ribs. You told me about your ‘family’ and how you landed here so Tem and Bavol won’t hurt Surprise. It gets a little fuzzy here.” Her eyes constricted.

“Anything else?”

“Bobby, is this really necessary?”

He nodded.

“Um. Zilla made me sit in a closet and listen to her conning people. It was cold.” Her lips puckered, “I told you about being a savant and,” she matched his concerned expression, “about Skye. After my first séance with Zilla, I think I got sick.”

“That’s it? You’re sure?’

“During the séance I was dizzy. Does that help? I am sure that was a precursor to the flu. By the way, while I was ill I had the most terrible dreams.” Her lips stayed pursed as she concentrated.

Bobby laughed. “I haven’t seen that face in some time.”

“Don’t be silly. You see my face every day.”

“Not that one.” He tweaked her nose. “This one’s your thinking face. When your brain starts percolating, you pucker your lips like you’re going to kiss someone.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It was her turn to point at him. “Bobby, I’m so tired.” Her head lolled. “Can I sleep now and eat later?” She melted down onto her mattress.

“No. No. I have a lot to tell you.” He propped her up.

“What time is it?”

“Four in the morning.”

“Turn out the light, Tem will be raiding the fridge.”

“We’re safe. He doesn’t do that anymore. He’s on a diet.”

Her eyes widened. “Was he replaced while I slept? Is the world coming to an end?”

“Later, it will make sense.” He squeezed her hand. “Try to concentrate.”

Her smile faded. “Bobby, you’re scaring me.”

He took a breath. “First off, I have to apologize. I made you sick.”

“The flu is not your fault. I haven’t taken my supplements since …” her face showed her inner struggle to remember. She gave up. “My body’s vitamin and nutritional balance has been depleted by these living conditions and poor nutrients. My immune system is compromised. If I…”

“Lilly, you haven’t missed a single day taking your vitamins. You told me to give them to you and I did. And you don’t have the flu. Yesterday I started putting a few drops of Ipecac in your food—lunch and dinner. I picked it up when I went to the pharmacy for Tem’s muscle-building supplements.”

Her jaw slackened. Shock shifted to confusion and ruptured into full-blown anger. “What? Why would you do that?” She scooted back.

“It was the only way to keep you away from Zilla and her spooky crystal ball. I didn’t even know if it would work.” He was pacing again. “I was trying to break the spell they had you under. Crazy right?” He snickered. “I wanted the old annoying you back.” Puffed up he said, “And it worked.”

“And that’s your idea of an apology?”

“You are amazing.” He squatted. “Anyone else would question my motives. Those you trust. You’re upset because my apology was inadequate and framed incorrectly.”

“Bobby, explain.” Her arms crossed. Eyes fully charged now.

“You were replaced by your evil twin. You should be thanking me.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

“Says the girl with fungus on her tongue.” He paused. “Sorry. The verbal dueling is fun but we have serious matters to consider. I am very sorry I made you vomit.”

“Apology accepted.” She grew quiet, face solemn. “You saw my evil twin?”

“I suppose everyone has their dark side.”

“Yes, but they don’t let it out to play. And you’re saying I did?” Her pucker reformed. “Bobby, in my nightmares I vented a truckload of anger. Was that real too?” Her breath streamed out and her body stiffened. She inhaled. “Was I called ‘the traveler’?”

“Take it slow.”

She sent him a weak nervous smile. “Every dream began with a flashback of the warehouse fire. I-I was afraid, alone, and trapped.” She met Bobby’s eyes. “I lashed out. I’m so ashamed.”

“Kid, you have experienced more than your share of the ugly side of life. You have to vent. The way Zilla played on your fears and tormented you—now that’s despicable. I don’t believe you had a true dream experience but staring at that crystal ball put you in a trance.”

“Hypnotized?”

“You can find that answer better than I.” He whispered the secret name: “Skye. Later you two can figure out what happened.” His brows wagged.

“So you believed me. The diamond and Skye?”

“Kid, what I’ve heard and seen during the last two weeks…hell, I believe in Santa Claus. The alien versus the Dustman…not as farfetched as I had once believed.”

Her hand shot out and gripped his. She paled. “Oh! I remember that. It was all darkness, a whirl of energy. Did I commit a crime?”

“Don’t worry about that. Your mind was high-jacked.”

“That excuse equals a yes.”

“What your evil twin did, stays with the evil twin. It was not you. Right now I need you and your brain back and functioning at full capacity. Do you know today’s date?”

“Let’s see. I’ve been here about a week plus a few days. It’s the beginning of September. Zilla and I talked about my birthday on the seventh.” She rubbed her temples. “I might have lost track, but last night after a session with Zilla I re-bandaged your ribs and…” She looked at Bobby. “That was three days after Tem beat you. Tuesday. No, Wednesday.”

Bobby shook his head.

Lilly closed in on Bobby’s face. Her fingertips traced and circled his eyes sockets as a blind person might lock in an image. “The bruising, it’s, it’s all gone. Ribs?”

“Healed. It’s been more than two weeks since that other you, the evil twin, showed up.”

“Please stop referring to me as evil.”

“Sorry, but that’s how I kept you two separated. There were flashes of the old you but they became infrequent. I got nervous, thought I was losing you. So I executed my Ipecac plan.”

“By the way, what is it with people that makes them think the first course of action in problem-solving is drugs? First Zilla drugs me and now you make me sick. Even my own father with his vitamins.”

“Lilly,” Bobby put a gentle hand over her mouth, “Stop. You’re over analyzing.”

“Right.” She hid behind her hands as a memory struck. “Bobby? Did I call you horrible names?” Her large eyes dodged away from meeting his.

“Forget it. Let’s move on.”

Her face betrayed her self-loathing. “I don’t know if I can. These echoes are troubling.”

“It was like I said—evil twin. That’s over. We’ve more important things to worry about. Like how to get out of here.”

Lilly’s head snapped up. “Really?”

“This place is no longer safe. We must leave. Let me explain what’s been going on.”

She dove into the box of mini graham crackers, dumped a handful in her lap, stuffed several in her mouth, and gagged.

They both vaulted for the bucket and waited.

“It passed.” She sipped water. “Enlighten me.”

“Chew. Eat slow.”

She nodded, wrinkled her nose, but pulled the bucket closer.

“Tem has a girlfriend—Claudie. Do remember her?”

“Kind of. Did I meet her?”

“No. Thank goodness. He talks about her all the time. I thought maybe…anyway, she’s spying on the people in the building. There are cameras in the halls, on the stairs, and in the foyer. I found them when I was cleaning. Borrowing one of your favorite phrases, it’s a logical assumption that Nautilus sent her to get close to Tem and check us out.” Bobby scooted the bucket further from his line of sight. “I never thought Tem and Claudie matched up as a couple.”

“What are you a matchmaker?”

“This is serious. There has been another development. Tem’s alcoholic abusive father, Max moved back home.”

“He’s dead.”

“Not anymore.”

“The body is under the floor?”

“We guessed wrong. It’s not him.”

“Then who?”

“That’s trivial at this point. Max is a mean man, a boozer. He bounces Zilla off the walls when Tem’s not looking. It won’t be long before he gets drunk at the corner bar and let’s slip that you are here. Then Nautilus breaks down the door.”

“What do we do?”

“I’ve been working on that. My family will hide us if—and that’s a big if—we can smuggle ourselves out of here. I set it up for tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I couldn’t continue to make you sick. What if I killed you?”

“Gee, how considerate.”

“Tonight one of the tenants is throwing a big party. Tem gave his permission and there will be dancing in the foyer. The place will be packed.”

“You should go and get the money hidden in my old apartment.”

“I’m not going to charge you.” He huffed.

“Let me finish.” Her hand rested on his knee. “I thought about what escaping meant. The whole point was to find my dad.”

Bobby fidgeted. Her smile reeled him in.

“So I asked myself, what good is escaping if the only person who loves me isn’t waiting? My dad’s dead. I have to accept that. I won’t risk your life or the lives of your ‘family’ for my irrational hopes.”

“Is this you, the most stubborn person in the world, talking?”

“Keep your voice down. Look I have put you through enough. I can’t be responsible for anyone else getting hurt. I’ll stay and you go. I’ll be a diversion.”

“I can’t believe you’d just give up. You told me you have been isolated your entire life. And now you want to leave it before you see it. I bet you’ve never tasted southern barbecue. Am I right? Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean?” He sold life like a game show host. “You could accomplish more with that big brain of yours than twenty other people including finding a way to destroy Nautilus!”

“What if the evil twin makes a return visit?”

“I’ll be there to watch you, keep you straight. Don’t waste what you’ve been given. What about Skye? You said she needs your protection and I’ve never met an alien.”

“Me either.” She nibbled on the crackers. Maybe her father had wanted her to be with Skye when she turned sixteen.

“We get out of her together. Then we find the alien.”

“I don’t know where to begin.”

“You bragged about being a finder. Maybe you’re not as good as you think?” He challenged her and plunged on. “Are you hesitating because Zilla used you to steal from people?”

“Evil twin brain-freeze is thawing and it isn’t a pretty picture.”

“Scared? Good. That’s a lesson in who to trust. I have an idea. Later after we escape we’ll pay back all the money you helped Zilla steal. You said you’re loaded. I bet Skye would help.”

“It sounds right.”

“Yeah, now how do we make all that happen?”

“You say I have been taking my vitamins.”

“Yes.”

“They will help me connect to Skye over longer distances. Later today, once my head clears I’ll contact her and power up. Then I can zero in on that tunnel’s entrance.”

“Did you just say tunnel?” He pointed at the cellar. “Under here?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I guess I didn’t have a chance. Many tunnels pre and post-Civil War have been dug under the streets of D. C.. They still exist.”

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