The hotel clerk behind the desk is only a few years older than me. (Than that girl, the one who’s come to meet Paul Zell. Is it pretentious or pitiful or just plain psychotic the way I’m talking about myself in the third person? Maybe it’s all three. I don’t care.) The clerk’s nametag says Aliss, and she reminds the girl that I wish wasn’t me of someone back at school. Erin Toomey, that’s who. Erin Toomey is a hateful bitch. But never mind about Erin Toomey.

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Aliss the hotel clerk is saying something. She’s saying, “I’m not finding anything.” It’s eleven o’clock on a Friday morning, and at that moment the girl in the lobby is missing third-period biology. Her fetal pig is wondering where she is.

Let’s give the girl in line in the hotel lobby a name. Everybody gets a name, even fetal pigs. (I call mine Alfred.) And now that you’ve met Aliss and Alfred, minor characters both, I might as well introduce our heroine. That is, me. Of course it isn’t like FarAway. I don’t get to choose my name. If I did, it wouldn’t be Billie Faggart. That ring any bells? No, I didn’t think it would. Since fourth grade, which is when I farted while I was coming down the playground slide, everyone at school has called me Smelly Fagfart. That’s because Billie Faggart is a funny name, right? Except girls like Billie Faggart don’t have much of a sense of humor.

There’s another girl at school, Jennifer Groendyke. Everyone makes jokes about us. About how we’ll move to California and marry each other. You’d think we’d be friends, right? But we’re not. I’m not good at the friends thing. I’m like the girl equivalent of one of those baby birds that fall out of a nest and then some nice person picks the baby bird up and puts it back. Except that now the baby bird smells all wrong. I think I smell wrong.

If you’re wondering who Melinda Bowles is, the thirty-two-year-old woman you met in FarAway, no, you’ve never really met her. Melinda Bowles has never sent late-night e-mails to Paul Zell, not ever. Melinda Bowles would never catch a bus to New York City to meet Paul Zell because she doesn’t know that Paul Zell exists.

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Melinda Bowles has never been to FarAway.

Melinda Bowles has no idea who the Enchantress Magic Eightball is. She’s never hung out online with the master thief Boggle. I don’t think she knows what a MMORPG is.

Melinda Bowles has never played a game of living chess in King Nermal’s Chamber in the Endless Caverns under the Loathsome Rock. Melinda Bowles doesn’t know a rook from a writing desk. A pawn from a prawn.

Here’s something that you know about Melinda Bowles that is true. She used to be married, but is now divorced and lives in her parents’ house. She teaches high school. I used her name when I signed up for an account on FarAway. More about my sister Melinda later.

Anyway. Girl-liar Billie says to desk-clerk Aliss, “No message? No envelope? Mr. Zell, Paul Zell?” (That’s you. In case you’ve forgotten.) “He’s a guest here? He said he was leaving something for me at the front desk.”

“I’ll look again if you want,” Aliss says. But she does nothing. Just stands there staring malevolently past Billie as if she hates the world and everyone in it.

Billie turns around to see who Aliss is glaring at. There’s a normal-looking guy behind Billie; behind him, out in the lobby, there are all sorts of likely candidates. Who doesn’t hate a dentist? Or maybe Aliss isn’t crazy about superheroes. Maybe she’s contemplating the thing that looks like a bubble of blood. If you were there, Paul Zell, you might stare at the bubble of blood, too. You can just make out the silhouette of someone/something inside.

Billie doesn’t keep up with superheroes, not really, but she feels as if she’s seen the bloody bubble on the news. Maybe it saved the world once. It levitates three feet above the marble floor of the atrium. It plops bloody drops like a sink faucet in Hell. Maybe Aliss worries someone will slip on the lobby floor, break an ankle, sue the hotel. Or maybe the bubble of blood owes her ten bucks.

The bubble of blood drifts over to the Spanish-tiled fountain. It clears the lip, just barely; comes to a halt two feet above the surface of the water. Now it looks like an art installation, albeit kind of a disgusting one. But perhaps it is seeing a heroic role for itself: scaring off the kind of children who like to steal pennies from fountains. Future criminal masterminds might turn their energies in a more productive direction. Perhaps some will become dentists.

Were you a boy who stole coins from fountains, Paul Zell?

We’re not getting very far in this story, are we? Maybe that’s because some parts of it are so very hard to tell, Paul Zell. So here I linger, not at the beginning and not even in the middle. Already it’s more of a muddle. Maybe you won’t even make it this far, Paul Zell, but me, I have to keep going. I would make a joke about superheroic efforts, but that would just be me, delaying some more.

Behind the desk, even Aliss has gotten tired of waiting for me to get on with the story. She’s stopped glaring, is clacking on a keyboard with her too-long nails. There’s glitter residue around her hairline, and a half-scrubbed-off club stamp on her right hand. She says to Billie, “Are you a guest here? What was your name again?”

“Melinda Bowles,” Billie says. “I’m not a guest. Paul Zell is staying here? He said he would leave something for me behind the desk.”

“Are you here to audition?” Aliss says. “Because maybe you should go ask over at the convention registration.”

“Audition?” Billie says. She has no idea what Aliss is talking about. She’s forming her backup plan already: walk back to Port Authority and catch the next bus back to Keokuk, Iowa. That would have been a simpler e-mail to write, I see now. Dear Paul Zell. Sorry. I got cold feet.

“Aliss, my love. Better lose the piercing.” The guy in line behind Billie is now up at the counter beside her. His hand is stamped, like Aliss’s. Smudgy licks of black eyeliner around his eyes. “Unless you want management to write you a Dear John.”

“Oh, shit.” Aliss’s hand goes up to her nose. She ducks down behind the counter. “Conrad, you asshole. Where did you go last night?”

“No idea,” Conrad says. “I was drunk. Where did you go?”

“Home.” Aliss says it like wielding a dagger. She’s still submerged. “You want something? Room need making up? Nightshift Darin said he saw you in the elevator around three in the morning. With a girl.”

Girl is another dagger.

“Entirely possible,” Conrad says. “Like I said, drunk. Need any help down there? Taking out the piercing? Helping this kid? Because I want to make last night up to you. I’m sorry, okay?”

Which would be the right thing to say, but Billie thinks this guy sounds not so penitent. More like he’s swallowing a yawn.

“That’s very nice of you, but I’m fine.” Aliss snaps upright. The piercing is gone and her eyes glitter with either tears or rage. “This must be for you,” she tells Billie in a cheery, desk-clerk robot voice. It’s not much of an improvement on the stabby voice. “I’m so sorry about the confusion.” There’s an envelope in her hand.

Billie takes the envelope and goes to sit on a sofa beside a dentist. He’s wearing a convention badge with his name on it, and where he comes from, and that’s how she knows he isn’t a superhero and that he isn’t Paul Zell.

She opens her envelope. There’s a room key inside and a piece of paper with a room number written on it. Nothing else. What is this, FarAway? Billie starts to laugh like an utter maniac. The dentist stares.

Forgive her. She’s been on a bus for over twenty hours. Her hair is stiff with bus crud and her clothes smell like bus, a cocktail of chemical cleaners and other people’s breath, and the last thing she was expecting when she went off on this quest, Paul Zell, was to find herself in a hotel full of superheroes and dentists.

It’s not like we get a lot of superheroes in Keokuk, Iowa. There’s the occasional flyover or Superheroes on Ice event, and every once in a while someone in Keokuk discovers they have the strength of two men, or can predict the sell-by date on cans of tuna in the supermarket with 98.2 percent accuracy, but even minor-league talents head out of town pretty quickly. They take off for Hollywood, to try and get on a reality show. Or New York or Chicago or even Baltimore, to form novelty rock bands or fight crime or both.

But, here’s the thing; the thing is that, under ordinary circumstances, Billie would have nothing better to do than to watch a woman with a raven’s head wriggling upstream through the crowd around the lobby bar, over to the fountain and that epic bubble of blood. The woman holds up a pink drink, she’s standing on tiptoes, and a slick four-fingered hand emerges from the bubble of blood and takes the glass from her. Is it a love story? How does a woman with a raven’s beak kiss a bubble of blood? Paul Zell, how are you and me any more impossible than that?

Maybe it’s just two old friends having a drink. The four-fingered hand orients the straw into the membrane or force field or whatever it is, and the glass empties itself like a magic trick. The bubble quivers.

But: Paul Zell. All Billie can think about is you, Paul Zell. She has the key to Paul Zell’s hotel room. Back before she met you, way far back in FarAway, Billie was always up for a quest. Why not? She had nothing better to do. And the quest always went like this: Find yourself in a strange place. Encounter a guardian. Outwit them or kill them or persuade them to give you the item they’ve been guarding. A weapon or a spell or the envelope containing the key to room 1584.

Except the key in Billie’s hand is a real key, and I don’t do that kind of quest much anymore. Not since I met you, Paul Zell. Not since the Enchantress Magic EightBall met the master thief Boggle in King Nermal’s Chamber and challenged him to a game of chess.

While I’m coming clean, here’s a minor confession. Why not. Why should you care that, besides Enchantress Magic EightBall, I used to have two other avatars in FarAway. There’s Constant Bliss, who’s an elfin healer and frankly kind of a pill, and there’s Bearhand, who, as it turns out, was kind of valuable in terms of accumulated points, especially weapons class. There was a period, you see, when things were bad at school and things were worse at home, which I don’t really want to talk about, and anyway, it was a bad period during which I liked running around and killing things. Whatever. Last month I sold Bearhand when you and I were planning all of this, for bus fare. It wasn’t a big deal. I’d kind of stopped being Bearhand except for every once in a while, when you weren’t online and I was lonely or sad or had a really, really shitty day at school.

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