Billie runs for the door. Gets there just as Conrad Linthor realizes what she’s doing. “Wait!” he says. “Don’t you dare! You bitch!”

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Too late. She’s got the door shut. She leans against it, smearing it with butter.

Conrad Linthor pounds on the other side. “Billie!” It’s a faint yell. Barely audible. “Let me out, okay? It was just fun. I was just having fun. It was fun, wasn’t it?”

Here’s the thing, Paul Zell. It was fun. That moment when I threw Hellalujah’s head at him? That felt good. It felt so good I’d pay a million bucks to do it again. I can admit that now. But I don’t like that it felt good. I don’t like that it felt fun. But I guess now I understand why supervillains do what they do. Why they run around and destroy things. Because it feels fantastic. Someday I’m going to buy a lot of butter and build something out of it, just so I can tear it all to pieces again.

Billie could leave Conrad Linthor in the freezer. Walk away. Somebody would probably find him. Right?

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But then she thinks about what he’ll do in there. He’ll kick apart all of the other buttervillains. Stomp them into greasy pieces. She knows he’ll do it, because she can imagine doing the same thing.

She lets him out.

“Not funny,” Conrad Linthor says. He looks very funny.

Picture him, all decked out in red and black butter. His lips are purplish-bluish. He’s shivering with cold. So is Billie.

“Not funny at all,” Billie agrees. “What the hell was that? What were you doing in there? What about your friend? Ernesto? How could you do that to him?”

“He’s not really a friend,” Conrad Linthor says. “Not like you and me. He’s just some guy I hang out with sometimes. Friends are boring. I get bored.”

“We’re not friends,” Billie says.

“Sure,” Conrad Linthor says. “I know that. But I thought if I said we were, you might fall for it. You have no idea how stupid some people are. Besides, I was doing it for you. No, really. I was. Sometimes when a superhero is in a really bad situation, that’s when they finally discover their ability. What they can do. With some people it’s an amulet, or a ring, but mostly it’s just environmental. Your adrenaline kicks in. My father is always trying stuff on me, just in case I’ve got something that we haven’t figured out yet.”

Maybe some of this is true, and maybe all of it is true, and maybe Conrad Linthor is just testing Billie again. Is she that stupid? He’s watching her right now, to see if she’s falling for any of this.

“I’m out of here,” Billie says. She checks her pocket, just to make sure Paul Zell’s ring is still there. She’s been doing that all day.

“Wait,” Conrad Linthor says. “You don’t know how to get back. You need help.”

“I made a trail,” Billie says. All the way through the corridors, this time, she pressed the diamond along the wall. Left a thin little mark. Nothing anyone else would even know to look for.

“Fine,” Conrad Linthor says. “I’m going to stay down here and make some scrambled eggs. Sure you don’t want any?”

“I’m not hungry,” Billie says.

Even as she’s leaving, Conrad Linthor is explaining to her that they’ll meet again. This is like their origin story. Maybe they’re each other’s nemesis, or maybe they’re destined to team up and save the world and make lots of—

Eventually Billie can’t hear him anymore. She leaves a trail of butter all the way back to the lobby. Gets onto an elevator before anyone has noticed the state she’s in, or maybe by this point in the weekend the hotel staff are used to stranger things.

She takes a shower and goes to bed still smelling faintly of butter. She wakes up early. The bubble of blood is down in the lobby again, floating over the fountain.

Billie thinks about going over to ask for an autograph. Pretending to be a fan. Could you pop that bubble with a ballpoint pen? This is the kind of thought Conrad Linthor goes around thinking, she’s pretty sure.

Billie catches her bus. And that’s the end of the story, Paul Zell. Dear Paul Zell.

Except for the ring. Here’s the thing about the ring. Billie wrapped it in tissue paper and sealed it up in a hotel envelope. She wrote “Ernesto in the kitchen” on the outside of the envelope. She wrote a note. The note says: “This ring belongs to Paul Zell. If he comes looking for it, maybe he’ll give you a reward. A couple hundred bucks seems fair. Tell him I’ll pay him back. But if he doesn’t get in touch, you should keep the ring. Or sell it. I’m sorry about Hellalujah and Mandroid and The Shambler. I didn’t know what Conrad Linthor was going to do.”

So, Paul Zell. That’s the whole story. Except for the part where I got home and found the e-mail from you, the one where you explained what had happened to you. That you had an emergency appendectomy, and never made it to New York at all, and what happened to me? Did I make it to the hotel? Did I wonder where you were? You say you can’t imagine how worried and/or angry I must have been. Etc.

I’ll be honest with you, Paul Zell. I read your e-mail and part of me thought, I’m saved. We’ll both pretend none of this ever happened. I’ll go on being Melinda, and Melinda will go on being the Enchantress Magic Eightball, and Paul Zell, whoever Paul Zell is, will go on being Boggle the Master Thief. We’ll play chess and chat online, and everything will be exactly the way that it was before.

But that would be crazy. I would be a fifteen-year-old liar, and you would be some weird guy who’s so pathetic and lonely that he’s willing to settle for me. Not even for me. To settle for the person I was pretending to be. But you’re better than that, Paul Zell. You have to be better than that. So I wrote you this letter.

If you read this letter the whole way through, now you know what happened to your ring, and a lot of other things too. I still have your conditioner. If you give Ernesto the reward, let me know and I’ll sell Constant Bliss and the Enchantress Magic Eightball. So I can pay you back. It’s not a big deal. I can go be someone else, right?

Or else, I guess, you could ignore this letter, and we could just pretend that I never sent it. That I never came to New York to meet Paul Zell. That Paul Zell wasn’t going to give me a ring.

We could pretend you never discovered my secret identity. We could go on being Boggle the Master Thief and the Enchantress Magic Eightball. We could meet up a couple times a week in FarAway and play chess. We could even go on a quest. Save the world. We could chat. Flirt. I could tell you about Melinda’s week, and we could pretend that maybe someday we’re going to be brave enough to meet face-to-face.

But here’s the deal, Paul Zell. I’ll be older one day. I may never discover my superpower. I don’t think I want to be a sidekick. Not even yours, Paul Zell. Although maybe that would have been simpler. If I’d been honest. And if you’re what or who I think you are. And maybe I’m not even being honest now. Maybe I’d settle for sidekick. For being your sidekick. If that was all you offered.

Conrad Linthor is crazy and dangerous and a bad person, but I think he’s right about one thing. He’s right that sometimes people meet again. Even if we never really truly met each other, I want to believe you and I will meet again. I want you to know that there was a reason that I bought a bus ticket and came to New York. The reason was that I love you. That part was really true. I really did throw up on Santa Claus once. I can do twelve cartwheels in a row. I’m allergic to cats. May third is my birthday, not Melinda’s. I didn’t lie to you about everything.

When I’m eighteen, I’m going to take the bus back to New York City. I’m going to walk down to Bryant Park. And I’m going to bring my chess set. I’m going to do it on my birthday. I’ll be there all day long.

Your move, Paul Zell.

Kelly Link is the author of the collection Pretty Monsters, as well as Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her partner, Gavin J. Grant. Together they run Small Beer Press and produce the twice-yearly zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet as well as co-edit the fantasy half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Link’s stories have won the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Awards.

When she was in third grade, Kelly read the Lord of the Rings series eight times. Today she’s a Katamari Damacy addict, and someone (Holly Black) is finally teaching her how to play D&D.

Text by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. Illustrations by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

FREAK THE GEEK

by john green

Right after our last class, Kayley and I are walking past the only bit of stone wall that survived the epic 1922 fire that nearly destroyed Hoover Preparatory School for Girls. Tragically, the school was able to reopen, which led inevitably to our matriculation at this god-awful place. The only redeemable facet of Hoover is Kayley herself, who is about the best baof one could ask for. (Baof meaning, of course, best and only friend; it is the final frontier in friendship, the heady waters out past the Sea of Bff.)

So we’re walking past the waist-high ruin of the wall, which everyone since 1922 has touched whenever walking past it—the wall has been touched so many times that it is worn down into an almost pleasant oval. Kayley walks past, spits in her hand, and rubs the wall. I laugh, and then don’t touch it myself, not because I’m scared of Kayley’s germs, but because I hate traditions.

Hoover Preparatory School for Girls has a number of profoundly stupid traditions—such as the singing-the-alma-mater-song-every-Thursday-at-lunch tradition, and the stand-when-your-teachers-enter-the-classroom tradition, and the everyone-has-to-wear-the-exact-same-uniform-so-that-no-one-will-be-able-to-tell-who-the-geeks-are-except-of-course-everyone-can-tell-who-the-geeks-are-because-geek-isn’t-something-you-wear-it-is-something-you-are tradition.

As it happens, I think doing things solely because they were done in the past is absolutely idiotic. I suppose it shows respect to our teachers when we stand every time they come into the room, but you know what would show more respect? If the insolent students who have colonized this awful place paid attention in class. Or took notes.

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