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Book 2 – Chapter 2 – This Con Ain’t Big Enough For All Of Us – Part 3

In the late afternoon, we reached the rolling hillsides which the signs said were outside Philadelphia. I stared at the lushness of the forests from the highway, a richer olive consuming every inch of space; more than we had in Massachusetts. Simon asked for my phone and called Chet to tell him we were coming.

We passed over a deep gorge and followed a fleet of trucks up the hill. I did not want to stop. The trip wouldn’t be fun anymore, with Tigerlilac at the end.

We slowed before the first stoplight of a long business district, flanked by three huge hotels. The Doubletree Inn was the second on the left. Although its sides were plaster white, brick convention rooms mushroomed out around its base. It didn’t have its own stoplight so Simon had to hold up traffic to wait for an opening to cross.

We had arrived early as the convention didn’t really start until Friday, so we did find a spot for the car. The lot mirrored that of the Marriott hotel next door, and I had the feeling that a quarter of the Doubletree’s rooms faced directly into a quarter of the Marriott’s. Simon put the clutch up and killed the engine. The trip halted the same as any of the hundred I had taken to my grandparents’. Simon, Trisha and I were here. We just had to get out of the car to make it official.

The sun spilled out from the branches across the street, which was nice. The weather forecast had said this was expected all weekend. I had seen the downtown sights already – the malls, the eateries and the industrial parks which didn’t have any food – but it was good to know I wouldn’t be wet when I ventured outside, no matter what I was wearing.

The cars around us were clearly labeled which were local and which weren’t. Many of the trunks were adorned with the Greek Orthodox fish symbol with legs, holding a wrench and filled with the word “Evolve.” Their bumper stickers ranged from “Nietzsche is dead – God” to “Magick is real” to “Impeach Bush.” Some still had fast food bags stuffed in their rear windows.

Simon, Trisha and I carefully heaved out our bags in the hopes of moving all of them in one trip.

Trisha balanced two gym bags on each of her shoulders. “Where’s the ATM again?” she said.

“There’s one in a cubby near the lobby,” I said, “I think.”

“That’s an evil, evil machine,” Simon said, “I have all the cash I can afford. When I run out, that’s it.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. I had seen his credit card at the rest stop, still lodged in his wallet.

Simon let it drop. We were tired and the trip wasn’t really over until we has crashed in our rooms.

We carted our bags over the bumps and sinkholes of the parking lot to the convention entrance. Two Goth boys and a big guy in a “Paranoia Agent” T-shirt were smoking in the shade around the door.

The convention hallway was cool, with musky traces of wood polish and carpet shampoo. The sunlight was replaced with candle-yellow lights from the chandeliers which ran down from the lobby, complementing the carpet and woodwork which sucked up any color except darker tans. A few clusters of teenagers rested against the walls, playing cards or checking messages, while more early arrivals followed the signs towards the registration room to our left. I hid behind Simon until I was sure Tigerlilac wasn’t among them.

“Let me know if you see Emma,” I said, “Don’t… don’t tell her I’m here yet.”

Trisha nodded but I don’t know if Simon heard me. From behind us, a chunky buzz cut brown haired shape flew off the ground and pounced on him, wrapping his arms around Simon neck. “You little sod,” Chet said, “You didn’t even see me.”

Simon tapped the arms around him and staggered back. “You’re crushing my windpipe,” he gasped.

With his new mustache and goatee, Chet had become a hefty Mephistopheles since I had last seen him. He hopped down and pressed his head into Simon’s shoulder, which was easy to do since he’s as tall as I was. He inhaled Simon sweat and burst into a bubbly smile.

Simon giggled and pulled Chet closer. They kissed quickly twice, with a little tongue. Chet took out a plastic room key from his pocket. “Are you ready?” he said, “The elevator is starting to get a line.”

Simon glanced over at Trisha and me for permission to leave. Much as we loved to watch their public displays of affection, I had more pressing matters, and nodded to him.

“Shouldn’t I register first?” Simon said.

“The dealer’s room isn’t even done setting up yet,” Chet said, “Anyway, registration’s open until eight and after that, who cares?”

Simon shrugged. “Okay.”

I waved. “How are you doing Chet?” I said.

“Great! Hey Cheryl. Hey Trisha,” he said and bounced over to hug each of us, “I didn’t know you were coming. I’m running a World Tree game tomorrow and Saturday afternoon. Can you make it?”

“I don’t even know what I’m doing tonight,” Trisha said, “Maybe,”

“I may be busy, but we’ll see,” I said.

Simon reached around Chet to massage his neck. “I’ll tell you about Cheryl upstairs,” he said, “If it’s okay?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

Chet turned to Simon and back to me. “Why?” he said, “Well, okay. Have fun. It’s still pretty lax here but they have the Internet room up, and I saw a few parties tonight posted on the announcement board.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“See you around,” Trisha said.

Chet forcibly wrenched Simon’s rolling suitcase out of his hands and led him towards the lobby, chatting up a storm. Their voices faded into the lull of wandering people moving and cards slapping down.

“I’m going to register,” I said, “You’re welcome to come.”

Trisha lifted her bags with a grunt. “Thanks,” she said, “I’ll wait for you out here, though. I’ll go in tomorrow.”

I nodded. The conference was over fifty dollars a day, but I wanted access to anywhere Tigerlilac happened to be.

I brought my bags down to the registration room, fully intending on leaving them in the hall with Trisha. However there was no line at all, and they hadn’t even set up the velvet ropes to shuffle con-goers in like at the airport. I had never arrived when the con was so sedate before, when it was even possible to find a private nook in the hall. I thought I saw Tigerlilac come out of the games room next door until the woman turned her head towards me.

I reached in my pocket for my credit card. It was good to be prompt and ready, even if I didn’t have anyone behind me. Trisha settled against the wall and searched for her book.

The registration room was dazzlingly off-white, to indicate that I wasn’t in the somber hallway but a place where things happened. A row of tables blocked off half the room, behind which a couple volunteers finished the paperwork for a teenage boy, and printed out his badge. They were hunched behind laptops, so I almost didn’t recognize the wild fluffy hair of the shorter of the two women.

Elory tucked the boy’s badge in its clear pocket. She offered it to him with a warm, excited smile that seemed to welcome him to his first convention and portend all the fun he was about to have. She wore the blue “Furrificon’ 06” T-shirt that all the volunteers had, although a size too large for her. The other woman, who I hadn’t met before, passed him a fat convention bag from a box at her feet. She was calm and professional, as if this was part of her day job, too. She was about Tigerlilac’s age, and might have known her.

I dropped my bags on the floor and hurried to Elory. “When did you get here?” I said.

She was honestly shocked. “Cheryl!” she said, “I didn’t see your name on the pre-reg list.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t. I only decided on Tuesday,” I said. The other volunteer passed me the new arrival forums. She would hear anything I said about Tigerlilac and volunteers are awful gossips. “Actually, can we talk for second?” I said to Elory and gestured to the end of the table.

Another suitcase rumbled behind me pulled by a boy didn’t know, who saw me and waited. “I can’t right now,” Elory said, “We’re behind on stuffing the con bags. But come here.”

We leaned across the table for an impromptu hug. “How have you been doing?” she said.

“I’ve been okay,” I said, “I didn’t think I’d see you here.”

“Well, you did recommend it,” she said.

“Huh?” I said.

“The night you came to see me,” she said, “When we were inside after that whole…”

“Right, that,” I interrupted.

“Uh-huh,” she said, “And I have some friends in the area coming by tomorrow. Look, I can’t hold this up much longer, but I’ll be off at eight or so, and we can catch up then?”

I nodded. The other volunteer was processing the boy’s credit card but she glanced to see how I was doing. I bent over the forms and filled out my name.

“Yes, definitely,” I said.

Elory took my credit card and ran it through the machine. “How long are you staying?” she said.

“Through Sunday,” I said. I tore off the bottom of a spare form and wrote on it, “The tail is here, and it works now. I’m here to get it back.” I finished my forms and returned them to Elory with the scrap on top.

Elory stiffened when she read it. “I’m in room 852 if you need anything,” she said, “We will talk later.”

“Yes,” I said.

I chose the artwork for my badge – a space opera vixen operating an otter-faced version of Robbie the Robot from “Lost in Space”. Elory printed out my name “Kassandra” on the top. “Don’t get into too much trouble,” she said.

“I just want to crash in my room,” I said. I pinned on my badge and accepted a heavy con bag.

“I’ll be here all afternoon,” she said, and turned to the boy behind me. “Sorry, I can’t read this name for your badge. Can you spell it out again?”

I wheeled out my bags and collected Trisha. Conventions were huge lumbering things, bigger than any of us, like foreign nationalities. I could have met any number of relatives or high school classmates, and the weirdness of running across them would always fade when they were gone. When visiting a foreign land, the country takes precedence over everything, and Elory was one of the few bits of home I still had.

“I’m all set,” I said to Trisha, “Elory’s here. She’s working the tables in there.”

“Get out. Wow,” Trisha said, “Did you tell her about Tigerlilac?”

“Not yet,” I said and gritted my teeth for Trisha to keep her voice down.

Trisha stood up and dusted off her jeans. She spotted my con bag. “Can I have a look at the events guide?” she said, and reached for it before I had time to say yes. She rifled through the vendor flyers and the thick con book itself, before extracting the pocket-sized flipbook which held the schedules. “Oh good,” she said, “They’re having the panel on non-reptilian dragons. I thought that after Battrickson’s rant on clawscratches, they would have canceled it to avoid the controversy.”

I don’t know half of what goes on when I’m not following the “in” blogs. “Yeah,” I said, “I’d let one idiot’s rant stop me from hosting a panel, too.”

She shook her head. “Stranger things have happened,” she said. I grimaced, waiting for her to give me an example but thankfully, she didn’t.

Chet had been right. The two elevators in the lobby did have a small line, doubled in size by luggage. A few families who weren’t part of the convention rested on the benches scattered between the hotel entrance in the front desk. Their clothes were too nice for a long trip and they were visibly confused by the line, probably making up their own stories for why these young freaky people were there.

Trisha had me hold our spot and guard her luggage while she ran to the front desk. One phone call later, she returned with a room number. “423,” she said, “Ted’ll give us the keys.” The elevator dinged and the line moved forward a few feet. One couple ahead of us couldn’t fit all their bags in with them, so they had to haul them out again to wait for the next one. I remembered my first year when one of the elevators broke down from all our use. On that trip, I walked a lot.

When it was finally our turn, Trisha and I squeezed beside a skinny woman clutching a stack of cardboard boxes tied to a travel dolly. She hit “3” and we hit “4”. Then I noticed her con badge had the silver “Artist’s” ribbon attachedt. Her badge read “Nekopuff” and I couldn’t believe that was right. I’d seen Nekopuff’s artwork online, mostly tasteful nudes in Middle Eastern settings, but the breasts of the characters had always been too large and I was sure she was a guy. Or at least she wasn’t nearly as attractive as she was, leaning against the mirrored wall watching the numbers go up. If anyone had asked me about her, I would have said she was an anime artist starving off Ramen and college loans, or a high-fantasy type, vegan and sketching forest nymphs in the margins of her notebooks. Furry had a lot of overlap with those circles, but Nekopuff’s non-professional art seemed to be exclusively furry. She was a big name – I had even heard of her. I considered telling her I liked her work, except I knew the sour face I would make if I heard that line all the time, or the polite dismissive thanks I would give.

Trisha and I shuffled over at her floor, to give her space to pull her cart in the U-turn before she got out.

I turned to Trisha with the door closed. “I didn’t know she was that pretty,” I said.

“Meh,” Trisha said, “She still draws her boobs too big.”

On our floor, we hobbled along the dead-quiet corridors to room 423, noting how far down the ice machine was. Bare walls, indented with doors, cocooned the hotel’s hallways with an extravagant Indian print on the rug, which hinted at transcendent knowledge as an American child imitates kanji from an anime on television. Trisha knocked and stuck her finger over the spy hole, in case Ted was looking out. She shouldn’t have bothered, as he swung it open immediately.

I loved Ted’s brain, really, especially the parts which could mix the wistfulness of The Wind in the Willows with Fabio-laden dime-store romances. As for Ted’s body, well, I had to room with it for a weekends. I can’t say it was one of the worst bodies at the con, and it was clear from his stringy wet hair that he had showered. But his favorite griffin T-shirt appeared to have been rescued from his “dirty” hamper before he came, or he had been afraid to wash it and lose the print. His ruddy marshmallow face had grooves from shaving where the skin didn’t fill in afterwards, and his chin and cheeks were speckled with patches where no beard hair grew. He grinned like an alien mastering a human face.

“Hey, come on in,” he said and hugged both of us in turn. It was over quick and we squeezed our bags inside. We had a double room which overlooked the highway. Ted had his suitcase opened on the table beside the window, with some of his boots and clothes underneath.

Trisha claimed the bureau beside the television while I dumped my bags of a floor next to her. “When did you get in?” I asked him.

“An hour ago,” he said, “The con staff are showing ‘Blade Runner’ on the hotel channel, so I started watching that. I don’t know I’m going to do tonight.”

“We could do one of the parties,” Trisha said, “And I think there’s a late-night filk. I should check the Internet room to see who’s here.”

I hung up my travel bag in the closet, and unzipped it to air out my outfits. “Have you seen Tigerlilac around anywhere?” I said.

“What does she should look like again?” he said.

“Big girl, blonde hair, leather jacket, Frankenbackpack,” I said.

“She ran the Iron Forge games a couple years ago,” Trisha said. She flopped on the bed closest to the window.

“Oh, her,” Ted said, “Yeah, I saw her setting up the con suite upstairs. I went to see if they had any food but they aren’t open until eight.”

At least I had some spare time. I kicked my shoes off and lay on the opposite bed. I sunk into the tight sheets as the world settled around me. Ted heaved himself on his bed with Trisha and flipped on the movie. When I was still and simply present on the bed, I propped my head up on pillows to watch the film. Sean Young pulled her hair down and played piano as Harrison Ford slid against her back. I purloined the remainder of the trip snacks and we split them. Movies in a private hotel room with friends are just amazing, no matter what mood I’m in.

Ted pointed to the three keys on the nightstand. “We’ll have to figure out what to do when Steve and Meg come tomorrow,” he said, “We don’t have any for them.”

“I’ll find one of you guys if I need to get in,” I said, “No biggie.”

Trisha slid off the bed to fetch my con bag, and we rummaged through it, trading flyers like in the Sunday newspaper. This year, the theme of the art and stories in the con book was the “Future Year 2000”, imagining how different eras pictured the turn of the second millennium. A painting in Renaissance-style portrayed a clockwork city where people were raised on waterpowered escalators sailed about in personal airships. The Victorian futures had electric toilets and bullet-rockets to the moon. Elory’s name was in the back, along with Tigerlilac’s in the volunteer section.

Ted passed me a purple sheet which repeated the official no-drugs policy. It had big bold letters stating that any infractions would be reported to the hotel, and the con-membership would be revoked immediately, no questions.

“Oh, right,” Trisha said, “I heard the hotel was giving them grief over that.”

“No, no, that’s not it at all,” Ted said, sitting up, “The hotel’s getting nervous about having a convention here at all. It’s getting too big and they’re scared it will be unmanageable. Someone will burn their room down or something. So the con staff are doing all these safety things to try to placate them.”

“Are you sure that’s what’s happening?” I said.

“I read it on one of their blogs,” he said, “Icecat linked to it.”

“Huh,” I said.

Most of the art and game flyers were pretty but nothing kept my eye. Neither did any of the programs in the events guide. I was there for business. I had to keep minding myself with that.

Categories: Book 2 - How Cheryl Lost Her Tail, Chapter 2 - This Con Ain’t Big Enough For All Of Us.

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