Tiberon and I were probably stupid not to put more distance between us and Tessa. I mean, what’re you supposed to do? She was just a kid, and everyone was treating her like she was the most dangerously volatile being on the planet. Avel’s Palermo contacts were so afraid of her that after we met her, they gave us a car and let us do wherever we wanted. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit bad for her.
Poor Berto was assigned to follow us around, and Tiberon and I let him join us for dinner. Well, “let” is sort of a lenient word in this instance. More like, we very strongly encouraged him to talk with us over a cordial meal. It’s amazing what you can do with a dark-eyed illusionist and a semi-automatic.
On our twelfth day in Palermo, I was packing my bag and making sure everything was ready to bring across the border. It would be easier to take everything out of Palermo, since our hosts had such an impressive grip on the authorities in the city. But I still wanted to be prepared. As I was zipping the last compartment, I heard a tiny knock on my door.
“Signora?” It was one of the wives. Tiberon and I didn’t know enough Italian to tell them that we weren’t actually married, so I let them call me Signora or whatever they wanted. Very few of them ever wanted to talk to me; I guess I scared them by not being afraid of their young charge.
“I want to ask after my cousin,” the woman said. She was petite, maybe 15 or 20 years older than me and wearing red Louboutins under a white Chanel pantsuit.
“Your cousin?” I asked. Was I supposed to know her cousin? My stomach dropped as I remembered the last time I had been to Palermo. It had been a few years, but...I sighed.
“Sì, my cousin Luigi, he has been a contact in New York for a year,” she said. It was hard to catch, but her voice took on a shrewd tone, and she eyed me like I was a piece of art of questionable origin. Luigi…the name rang a bell. I smiled, using the half of a second I had to think as quickly as possible. Luigi? Wasn’t he the guy that fell on his thing? That one time? I mentally kicked myself. I felt like I should know how to answer her, yet I was coming up with nothing but blanks.
“Luigi?” I clarified. The woman nodded curtly. I opened my mouth, ready to answer. The first word, “he”, was out of my mouth before I realized that Luigi was the guy Avel’s instructions had talked about. I was supposed to hate him or something.
“He…he’s a traitorous bastard,” I grunted, trying to sneer and work up some spit at the same time. The saliva launched about an inch away from my teeth and plummeted. It wasn’t the most beautiful shot, but at least I didn’t hit the Louboutins. The woman watched me spit with a slight hint of amusement playing at the very edge of her red lips. Without another word, she smiled, dipped her head at me, and disappeared.
I was suddenly very tired, and I stood unmoving for a minute before I remembered to check that I had the twelve little pills in my pocket. Then I sat down next to my bag. A tiny voice in the back of my head told me that I had just passed a test. Wasn’t sure what had gotten tested, but, hey, I don’t argue with passing scores.
Tiberon came in then, sat on the bed next to me. “Some lady asked me about Luigi,” he said. “I never thought I’d use so much Italian cussing.”
“She asked me, too,” I said as I stood and stretched. “Think they were making sure we’re actually from Avel?”
He shrugged. “No other explanation. C’mon, let’s get out of here. I had some of the ladies dye the kid’s hair. They were shaking in their fancy feet-killers the whole time.”
Laughing, we both threw our bags over our shoulders and went to find Tessa. She was outside, sitting cross-legged on a bench in the sun. Her hair had been black, but now it was much lighter, like mine. She was wearing it down, hanging in her face. I dropped my bag on the ground next to her, making her jump.
Berto was on the other side of the courtyard, reading a paper and trying to look like he wasn’t actually there. Tessa glared, then smiled when she saw that it was me and not one of the Italians. “You’re late,” she said as she unfolded her legs and slipped her shoes on. I looked at her intently, tilting my head.
“You cut your hair, too?” I asked. Tessa shrugged as she self-consciously touched her new bangs.
“Do they look bad?” she asked.
“Oh…no! I just wasn’t expecting them,” I said. “They look good.” Tiberon tossed our luggage in the trunk as I looked at Tessa, thinking that now her eyes looked even darker, deeper now that they were framed with hair with a slight hint of chestnut.
“Berto! You’re driving us!” Tiberon yelled. The little man grimaced, tossed his paper down and stalked over to us, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Girl…in back,” he said in the broken English we’d become fluent in over the past twelve days. I looked down at Tessa, who didn’t seem very happy, but she obliged Berto by sitting as far away from him as she could manage in an enclosed space. I saw her eyes light up mischievously so I poked her in the side before she could drive the poor man crazy.
We drove for about twenty minutes before the car stopped at a dock. A small ship was a port and passengers were boarding. I got out and stared for a second, then looked back at the other three.
“Boat?” I asked. Tessa smiled sweetly.
“I don’t do planes,” she said. She even tossed her hair at me as she walked towards the gangplank. Tiberon came up next to me and handed me my bag and our papers.
“Dudes told me this morning. Sorry I forgot to mention it,” he said.
“It’s fine. But…why are we taking a boat? It’s going to take forever!”
“Tessa doesn’t do planes,” he said, mimicking the girl’s tone from before.
“Seriously?” I asked. “We’re taking a boat across the Atlantic just because some kid doesn’t like flying?”
Tiberon didn’t answer; he just lifted his shoulders in defeat and went to join Tessa. I turned back to Berto and thanked him before following them.
As I caught up, the boat changed shape. Lines melted and regrew, and new colors jumped into existence in a kaleidoscope of awkward movements as I stood still and dumbfounded. For a minute I forgot about Tessa and I looked around for Avel. The small ship now had wings and levels like a skyscraper. I blinked. My head hurt from trying to remember that it was just a boat, not a flying building.
Tessa giggled, giving away the game.
“Stop it,” I said, rubbing my eyes. I remembered Avel’s instructions. I was supposed to give Tessa the first dose of the twelve pills now. “Here, you have to take this.” I handed her one of the tiny brown pills from my pocket, along with a plastic water bottle.
“What is it?” she asked warily.
“I have no idea. Avel’s orders,” I said. At the sound of his name, Tessa relaxed and unquestioningly popped the pill in her mouth and swigged some water. The plane-boat thing was so strange, I couldn’t help but stare at it. I don’t know if Tiberon noticed, but the pill had an immediate effect. Tessa’s eyes grew wide with surprise, her pupils dilating, then contracting, as the illusion of the flying building-boat disintegrated and was replaced with reality.
Avel had managed to take away the one thing that made her terrifying. I felt elation and relief flood every inch of me, only to be taken over by this thought: I only had enough for a day's worth of traveling.