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Book 2 – Chapter 3 – Sealed For Your Protection – Part 2

We made elaborate promises and exchanged addresses when the check arrived, and Escaflowne graciously charged the whole lot to his card. The restaurant owner allowed us to leave the simple “Good night,” and we paid Escaflowne back at the nearest ATM, except for Simon who already had the cash on him.

Simon and Chet split off from us to talk, I figured. Escaflowne had burned through most of his energy reserves on the meal and the conversation. His driver’s seat sank when he heaved himself into it and gazed into the steering wheel, trying to deduce where the key was supposed to go. I did feel bad about the way I treated him, and I might have been a few drinks away from offering him a sympathy blowjob. Trisha was glowing from the satisfaction of a belly full of fish. Ted checked his phone messages but there were none.

It was significantly past eight went Escaflowne reclaimed his parking spot at the hotel. In the convention hall, we split up with vague plans to go out the next night. The game room summoned Ted and Escaflowne away while Trisha betrayed me for the evening filk. The registration room was closed and locked, with a sign that all volunteers were welcomed in Ops, across from the con suite.

The hotel had collectively eaten dinner, and the few remaining guests wandered with menus, programs or take-out boxes. The hotel restaurant tinkled with a thousand voices while a notice board warned they had a twenty minute wait for seating.

Upstairs, I heard Dave Matthews from the Ops suite way before I reached the door. I asked the woman who answered my knock for Elory Burke. She led me through the little circles of tipsy volunteers to the bedroom where a sandwich spread was laid out over the bureaus.

Elory was resting side-saddle on the sheets. Tigerlilac and Brenda were enraptured by her, sitting crosslegged with their sandwich plates on their laps. A third woman, broad-nosed as that the Cabbage Patch doll in its late thirties, braided Brenda’s hair into pigtails behind her.

“Oh, forget about the Ozzy version and the Kinks’ version,” Elory said, “The only proper way to do it is with an entire bar, all out of tempo, swaying like a pickled cobra, singing, ‘Ah, Demon Alcohol!’“

The Tigerlilac trio joined in with their crudest, nasally induced squawks, “Memories I can’t recall!”

“Exactly,” Elory said, “It’s like one singer doing the Star Spangled Banner. What the hell’s the point?”

“Sometimes they get it right,” the braiding woman said, “Metallica did a great ‘Whiskey in the Jar.’“

“And you hear how they piled the chords on that one,” Elory said.

Tigerlilac flicked a finger in my direction. “Hey, Cheryl,” she said, “Whatcha up to?”

Elory patted the bed beside her, as if expecting I had been with their club from the start.

“We just got back from Yumi’s,” I said, “A little drama but that’s expected around here.”

The braiding woman plopped sideways on the sheets and waved to me. “I’m Dot,” she said, sing-song, “Hello. I’ve heard so much about you.”

“From who?” I said.

Elory tossed her palms up. “I haven’t breathed a word,” she said.

Tigerlilac smeared her carrot stick with dressing and bit the end off. “Relax, I’ve been good,” she said.

Dot inched herself upright with care. “She says you’re a very clever girl. We should have lunch sometime, if you’re free,” she said.

Brenda snickered, but put two fingers over her lips.

Elory bounced on the mattress springs twice, and pushed herself off on the third one. “If you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I believe I need a constitutional. Cheryl, this way?”

Tigerlilac nodded to her, and creeped over to lie in the empty spot. “Good to talk again,” she said, “We’ll be in the games’ later.”

Elory cupped my shoulder and nearly flung me into the living room. With a bemused scan, she spotted the trash and tossed her plate away. She strutted to the doorkeeper, and thanked her for the lovely spread.

Elory was especially light on her toes in the hotel hallway. While her face kept a cheerful attitude, her pupils rocked towards every passing guest, checking for something. As we passed the ice room, she tugged me inside. With the low lights and the hum from the vending machines, we might as well have been in a broom closet. Her boots discreetly closed the door.

Sealed away in our own bubble, she let herself go, seizing my shoulders in slow panic. “What on earth has Emma done with your tail?” she said.

I gulped, as everything for the past week froze my throat. “How did you find out?” I said.

“She took it, the night we went to the college,” she said and pressed her eyes shut, “I’m so sorry, Cheryl. I should’ve seen something was up. The phone call, the door, the timing, I should have known.”

I petted her hands on me. “It’s okay,” I said, “I haven’t died or anything.”

“I know,” she said, “But really, how have you been since then?”

“I’ve been making do,” I said, “Look, Professor Lanyi called me and said he didn’t have the tail. So I went to Tigerlilac’s house and her roommates had seen her fixing it. She said she gave it to Univore.”

And I lost my tail all over again. The iron bulkhead crashed behind me and Tigerlilac helped me while I cried. My tail slithered to life while I ate mashed potatoes and macaroni on my couch, remembering my nights of magic and frenzy. Even those memories changed when my brain began to lie to me, holding a magnifying lens over the crappy moments when my tail shuddered and died.

Elory stroked around my jaw. “Take your time,” she said.

I held my breath as deep as I could, and released it. “Then I spoke with Univore,” I said, “Hank Midons is his real name. He won’t give it back. He said he’d fix everything with Professor Lanyi. He’s getting Tigerlilac a job in L.A. for it. I don’t know why he wants it.”

“Dot and Brenda both work in L.A.,” she said, “They’ve been trying for years to get Emma out there. The market’s awful, they said.”

I sniffled and Elory drew a tissue from her pocket. My nose unloaded into it but I could never get it entirely clean. “So, I don’t know what to do now,” I said.

Elory pushed the trash lid open for me. “Hank’s having a party Friday night,” she said, “Invite only, on these little triangle cards.”

“I’ve seen one,” I said, “The documentary girl downstairs, Allyson, she has one. But they wouldn’t let me in.”

“What about Trisha, or Simon?” she said.

“I can ask,” I said, “But Trisha was with me when I talked to Univore. Maybe if she’s in costume. What can’t you go?”

Elory patted me. “Emma and her friends will be there,” she said, “They’d know I wasn’t invited and they’d know exactly why I was there. It’s up to you. Maybe you’ll see it at the Masquerade.”

“No, you’re right,” I said, “I have to do this. Maybe I could pull the fire alarm and break into his room while everyone’s running out.”

The crow’s feet around her eyes darkened. “You don’t want to do that,” she said.

“No, I don’t,” I said, “I really miss my tail.”

She pulled me close into her starched T-shirt and I held onto her. “You can always let it go,” she said.

“That’s what Tigerlilac told me,” I said.

“She has a point,” she said, “But she still a manipulative, hateful bitch.”

I sighed. “She is, that.”

Elory crossed her eyes, with both pupils touching her nose bridge. Then, she flicked them back and forth, like weighted balls hitting each other. I giggled. She let me go and slid a dollar in the soda machine. “You want anything?” she said.

“I’ll be good,” I said, “I should crash in my room anyhow.”

“Where is it?” she said.

“Fourth floor,” I said.

“Perfect,” she said, “I’m on the third.”

The carpet gave way to a short furrow when I scuffed it with my shoe. I wondered what kind of seeds I could plant in the carpet to grow Persian strands, or even Astroturf.

Elory went on lookout in the hall, sipping her cola as cover. She called to me, “Are you ready?”

I nodded, and we marched to the elevator. On the way, the convention goers had finally put up their colored drawings on their room doors; artists wanting business, and weird cliques calling for their friends to find them. Some had parties but nothing fun usually happened at them.

Our elevator had the absent-mindedness of a crosswalk light, but eventually it arrived. A scraggly boy inside stared at the floor while bobbing his head. We selected our destinations and gave him ample room to quiver.

Elory swished her can and spoke loudly to the boy. “This is the eighth floor,” she said.

The dimpled lights were soft overhead, but his pupils were pinpricks engulfed by hazy blue. “Eighth?” he said, squinting and holding his palms against his forehead.

“What’s your floor?” Elory said.

He yanked his head downwards, as he had been before. “I’ll stay here,” he said.

The elevator rumbled shut with a satisfied click, and lowered us. The boy was determined to avoid us, grasping his hair while his neck tried to raise itself by instinct.

Only our numbered buttons on the wall had been pressed. Her voice took on a motherly warble. “You should be back in your room,” she said.

“Can’t,” he said, “I don’t remember.”

Even coming to these conventions for years, I had never seen anyone freak out before. I’d been to parties with a little ecstasy where people babbled more than usual, but I never was afraid they might snap. I inched behind Elory, in case we unsettled him enough to charge.

“You have a key in your pocket?” Elory said.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” he said.

Her lip grazed my ear. “Help me with this kid?” she said.

I nodded and listening to her for every subtlety.

Elory let out a long “Sh,” as deep as a cat’s purr. “It will be safer in your room,” she said.

“No, that’s why I left,” he mumbled.

“Where did you leave?” Elory cooed.

“My room, 533, 533,” he said.

“It’ll be all right, breathe deep,” Elory said and punched “5.”

The elevator cycled to our stops before it close to ascend. “Slow, in and out,” Elory said.

The boy’s breaths were less shallow while the elevator was closed and moving. The brightness from the hallway had him wincing.

Elory slid off her rippled leather belt and folded it in half. “Hold on to this,” she said to him, “It’s a lifeline. It’ll be safer if we move. I promise.”

The boy rattled his head yes, and accepted the handle. “I can’t remember,” he said, “It’s not my fault.”

The belt was loose in his fingers so she jerked her belt twice to make sure he held on. “No, it isn’t,” she said, “What’s your name?”

“Barry,” he said.

He shook again when we arrived on the fifth floor, with the light spilling in. I slid out to keep the door open.

“Are there voices?” Elory said, “If there are voices, open your mouth and they will go away.”

His jaw went slack and his bloodshot eyes were trembling. Saliva dripped from his lips, but after he swallowed the rest, he immediately opened it again wide enough to engulf plankton. He released his hair and covered his mouth, but glanced at the other folks in the halls.

I took point while Elory eased him out of the elevator. “You look fine,” she said. We might have been spotted around the bend, but most everyone was digesting dinner.

Getting him near his room was as difficult as putting a cat in its carrier. Elory shushed him while I knocked. A mellow instrumental was playing inside but no one answered. “We need your key,” she said. Barry fidgeted in his pocket and gave her his card.

All the rooms are supposed to have the same layout, but this one had so many clothes, costumes and comics everywhere, I thought I was going into someone’s apartment. Another boy lay on the carpet touching up a drawing in his sketchbook. His face was as flat as an Inca statue and blinked like he was waiting for us to come into focus.

“What’s wrong?” he said, “Did something happen?”

Barry broke off and stumbled onto his bed. “Leave me alone,” he said.

Elory shut us in, but kept a comfortable distance from them. “He was hiding in the elevator,” she said, “You have any vitamins?”

The roommate staggered upright like a newborn foal. Between Barry and the bathroom, he eventually settled on the right one. The generic Safeway pills might have been candy, but they passed Elory’s inspection. “It’ll do,” she said, “Give him four now. It may bring him down a little.”

I poured a glass of water and Barry retched while he swallowed it.

A artist’s con badge lay on the nightstand with the name “Loof,” and Elory set her soda beside it. “Did anyone else take some?” she said, and put her index finger on her tongue.

“No,” Loof said, “Only me and him.” He collapsed on the bed and stroked Barry’s hair.

They spooned and I didn’t have a place in their room that wasn’t trespassing. On the floor, his sketchbook had the outline of a whirling bear over a background shifting from petals to rain to a half-drawn pagoda.

Elory knelt beside the bed misty-eyed, watching over the wounded animals. “Do you know what you were trying to remember yet?” she said.

“It’s not my fault,” Barry whimpered, and Loof petted him.

“This is our first time. It’s heavier than I thought,” Loof said to her, then kissed Barry’s neck, “I put on the right music. Didn’t I?”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Barry said, “I tried to do this right. I was thinking about the kinds of memories I should have and I got stuck.”

“I tried to finish my panda,” Loof said, “The picture kept changing. Do you want to see it?”

Barry took Loof by the wrist and slid it over his own waist. Nothing would get him to move.

“Whose voices did you hear?” Elory said.

“The kids,” Barry said, “From Sunday School, when I was a kid too. And my parents and the other parents at coffee hour.”

“You didn’t tell me about this,” Loof said.

Barry rubbed half his face in the pillow. “It’s stupid,” he said, “I’m playing catch with the little kids in the yard. Then there’s the blackout. But I don’t know it yet. Then I’m inside, and the other parents are saying one of the kids told them I beat them up. And then I remember the blackout. There’s time when I don’t remember what happens.”

“It’s okay,” Loof said, “The lady said it’ll be over soon.”

Barry shook his head. “Some of the kids are from Apollo,” he said, “And some are from Pan. I don’t know what it means but I’m in big trouble.”

“The things you’re feeling, your brain is making them up,” Elory said, “You’ll be all right. You’re safe. You’re not in trouble.”

“I don’t know what I did,” Barry said, “I can’t be here. The room’s too small.”

“Did you ever talk with the police about the kid?” Elory said.

“No,” Barry said, “No police but lots of parents.”

“Then the kids lied,” Elory said, “Kids do that when they get in trouble. Maybe one was climbing a tree and fell.”

Loof wrapped a leg over Barry’s. “Yeah, I babysit all the time,” Loof said, “Little kids lie their asses off. You don’t have to remember anything.”

“Maybe,” Barry said, “I don’t know. I still hear them.”

“Hang on,” Elory said, “Can I borrow a sheet of paper?”

Loof nodded and I passed over the sketchbook. Elory drew a spiral on a blank page, tracing it thick while it drained into the center of the paper. Ripping it free, she carried it to the door and stuck it on with a stick of gum which she quickly chewed. “I’ve put a maze on the door,” she said, “You can’t leave until you’ve solved it. Understand? You have to solve it, first.”

Barry doubled himself over to see it around the bathroom, but flushed and turned back to snuggle with Loof. “That’s too hard,” he said.

The boys were a couple of sweet, if confused angels, and Elory didn’t have to wave to me twice before I was out of there. “Take care of him, Loof,” she said.

“Goodbye… Miss?” Loof asked.

“Burke,” I said.

“Work,” Loof said, “Berk. Jerk. Turk.”

Elory hurried me into the hall. His chest exhaled so deep that it would’ve put out a candle at her feet. “You know if they been caught,” she said, “They would’ve been expelled. The staff got a huge zero-tolerance lecture this morning.”

“Yeah, I read it in the con book,” I said.

“So they’re all edgy,” Elory said, “Anyway, I’m going to turn in. Keep this under wraps until tomorrow, won’t you? You know how gossip spreads around it here.”

We did the hug thing quick, but it didn’t mean anything this time. “No problem,” I said.

Then her body shook for a moment, startled. “Oh, damn,” she said, “I left my Coke in there. Forget about it.”

The stairs were closer than the elevator so we split up. I shot by so many doors; who could tell what was happening behind each.

Drama was rampant in the hotel, except in my room. Ted had his jammies on, flipping through some new trade paperbacks with the television turned low. “Hey,” I said to him, “Are you doing anything tomorrow night?”

“No,” he said.

My brain was in full gear, going over anything I could use to acquire Allyson’s invitation. “Do you want to go to a party?” I said.

Categories: Book 2 - How Cheryl Lost Her Tail, Chapter 3 - Sealed For Your Protection.

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