Tessa was gripping my hand like it was the last thing in the world she would touch. It hadn’t occurred to me that she lived in her own illusionary world, but I thought of it now and realized that without her own coating over reality, everything probably seemed foreign, maybe even terrifying. Her eyes were so wide open I worried that her eyeballs would fall out.
“Hey, are you OK?” I asked. The girl stared at me, unfocused and flailing in a sea of unfamiliar colors and textures.
“I can’t…I can’t…I can’t…” she murmured like a mantra. Flexing her fingers over and over again, Tessa tried to create illusions around her. She did it the same way Avel did, by focusing on something from afar, flexing her fingers, and tilting her chin up.
“Madam?” someone called out. I turned. In our haste to get Tessa in a room where she could freak out in privacy, I had bypassed the ticket checker. Apologizing, I handed over our papers, heart beating like a tom-tom.
“Alright, grazi,” he said after giving Tessa’s fake passport a cursory glance. I looked him in the eye and smiled, wondering how much he had been paid off today.
Pulling Tessa along like a stuffed toy on a child’s leash, I wound around the upper level of the ship before stopping in front of room 112. Tiberon was close behind us, his massive shoulders taking up every inch of space in the hall. He tried to turn sideways to allow a couple of tourists to pass, but even that didn’t help much. They had to wait for us to get into our room before they could venture any further down the hall.
When I let go of Tessa’s hand she collapsed on the spot. I didn’t even have time to think about catching her. Tiberon was holding too many bags to be of any use. We both exchanged looks, expecting the worst and feeling like terrible guardians. I was about to put my hand on her back to try and comfort her when I heard the strangest sound: laughter.
“Uh…Tessa? Are you…OK?” I glanced up at Tiberon, who shrugged. Tessa’s giggles filled the room when she rolled onto her side, her hair splayed fan-like on the bland blue carpet. She smiled up at me, one of the first smiles I had seen her produce without any traces of mischief or false happiness.
“I’m grand, grand, grand! Wonderful!” She cracked up again, unable to control herself.
“I’m gonna go check out what they have to eat,” Tiberon said, leaving me with the hysterical kid. He shut the door quietly, and I wish I had glared after him the way that I wanted at that moment, because, well, in my experience, you don’t just drop a partner in the middle of a firefight.
Just as the door clicked, Tessa lifted up her head and grinned at me. The laughter was gone, as was the unfocused gleam in her dark eyes. I suddenly felt uncomfortable and exposed and I reached for my gun. It wasn’t there. My boots squeaked as I shifted position.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
“I’m tired of laughing,” she said. “Let’s go do something.”
“How about we wait for Tiberon to get back?” I asked. I didn’t like the way her eyes were glinting. As if in response to this thought, Tessa stood up suddenly, white teeth flashing. Her hair looked almost black again, and her face was in shadows since we hadn’t turned on any lights yet. The only light was coming from the window behind her.
“How about we wait for Tiberon to get back?” she said, mimicking my tone and mocking it. I reached for the knife in my boot, ready to restrain her with force, then checked myself. I was going to use a switchblade on a little girl? What kind of idiot does that? I pulled my hand back up to my knee and stood, looking down on her and enjoying the extra height my boots gave me.
“Would you rather do something else?” I asked. “I’m wide open for ideas.”
“How many of those little pills are there?” she asked out of the blue. When I looked her in the eyes, though, I had a wiggly little feeling that the twenty minutes since I gave her that first dose had all been planned. I was being set up.
“Got a whole bag of them,” I said as nonchalantly as I could. Tiberon, you leave me again and I’ll kill you, I thought. Tessa smiled sweetly and brushed a wrinkle out of the bedspread before sitting down. After she patted the mattress next to her, I sat down, too.
“How big is the bag?” she asked.
I hesitated, then held out my hands like I was holding a cantaloupe. “This big. Give or take.”
“I see,” Tessa said. She put a hand to her chin. “And how often must I take them?”
“Every two hours,” I said, not wanting to lie about that part, since she would figure it out soon, anyways. I could see why the Palermo guys were so nervous about her. Tessa reasoned like an adult and creeped me out like a talking snake. And then she put her hand on mine.
“It’s alright, you can trust me. I won’t do any illusing.”
I could hear the unspoken loud and clear: Don’t you dare make me take another pill.
“I’m sorry, but Avel said they had to be every two hours,” I said as I pulled my hand out from under hers. Tessa looked up at me from under her black eyelashes and looked like she was about to say something when Tiberon came back in holding a plate of sandwiches, pizza, and cartons of milk and juice.
“So I raided the kitchen. Little chef guy wasn’t too happy that I didn’t want to wait for the buffet,” he said as he kicked the door shut and put the tray on the empty bed. It took him a couple of seconds to catch the look in my eyes. "What?"
I looked as nonchalantly as possible at Tessa, who was still glaring in her "I'm angry" pose. Tiberon squeezed his lips into a thin line, completely failing to understand the clues of the situation. He straightened while tossing a box of chocolate milk to Tessa.
"Meliora and I were just discussing the idea that I really don't need to take those pills so often," Tessa said. I looked at the girl with surprise. I had never told her my real name; as far as I knew, she still thought I was Renee.
"Who told you my name was Meliora?"
"Nobody," she said, fingering the milk carton and pushing the flaps back to open it. "I just knew."
"You mean you were listening at the door, don't you?" I asked. She just grinned.
"You and Tiberon talk very loudly, Meliora," Tessa said. She downed some of the chocolate milk, then wiped traces of it off of her mouth. "Especially about the twelve little things you have in your pocket. Oh, I'm sorry. It's down to eleven, isn't it? Eleven little pills? I was just wondering, how are you going to get me to America if you think the boat is eating your toes?"
Tiberon looked down at the floor, half expecting to see it rise up and attack his feet. I kept my eyes on Tessa. We still had an hour and a half before the first pill wore completely off. Ninety minutes to prepare for battle.