"We're seventeen years old????!!! He-LLO! What were you thinking?" I screeched at Liz Parker, dumbfounded at how readily she spilt the beans about our age.
Ms.-We're-Seventeen and I had just been turned away from the casino by a security guard for being underage. To add insult to injury, the guard suggested that we go to the arcade. We were now walking towards the said arcade.
"Tess, he didn't believe we were twenty one, okay?" Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes responded breezily.
"Well, he might have if you didn't open your big mouth and tell the man we were seventeen!!! I was trying to whip some other fake ID's for us," I argued, still highly annoyed at how quickly Liz caved. One little quip about Charo and she blabbed.
"Get over it, Tess," Liz told me, shrugging and entered the arcade.
"No, I will not get over it," I half-muttered, following her inside and sniping about being kicked out of the casino.
Liz merely ignored me and headed straight for the pinball machine, dropping a couple of quarters in it. Soon, she was in the midst of all the pinging.
I stood next to her, almost aghast that she could find enjoyment in such a mundane, boring game while I was still steaming at recent events.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm down. Anger wasn't going to solve our predicament. It was time to think of a new plan. But before I did that, I needed to let a few things off my chest.
"You know what it is? It's because we're small," I released that little nugget. "If we weren't so damn short, they would have totally bought that we were twenty one," I continued.
Now that I got that off my chest, I decided to let Ms.- Pinball-Whiz in on the plan hatching in my mind. "So what I'm going to do is...I'm gonna mindwarp the security guard, make him think that we're 5 foot ten and we'll just go and sit down," I said gleefully, happy at the notion.
"Tess, I'm fine here," Liz shot down the plan without a second thought. Forget deep, calming breaths, my anger was resurfacing.
"Great, stuck in the party capital of the world with Liz Parker," I huffed, feeling distinctly shrewish. I was in Las Vegas...Las Vegas! The city of neon lights and of reckless abandon and what was I doing? Not gambling, not having fun. Instead, I had to look at Liz Parker play pinball. There really was no justice in the world.
My temper flared, and I spit out with sarcasm, "No, or if we're feeling dangerous, we could always challenge a couple of eight year olds to foosball or go to the Ice Capades."
To my surprise, Liz turned away from the pinball machine to reply with some fire of her own. "You know, for your information, Tess, I didn't wanna come to Vegas in the first place. I knew that this would be the most miserable trip of my life. I knew it. But I didn't listen to my instincts. And by the way, Tess, I don't enjoy being stuck with you either," she ended with a sting.
The fire took me by surprise and I quickly covered up my surprise with a nonchalant "Fine!" and flounced off. Who knew Ms. Scientist could be catty? I almost smiled at that. Almost but not quite.
I left the arcade with my temper simmering. "Fine," I muttered again. "I'll find something fun to do," I promised myself.
My original plan of mindwarping the guard sounded solid enough so I stalked over towards the casino entrance.
My steps faltered before I reached my destination as a thought popped into my mind. I could mindwarp the guard but what about the rest of the casino staff? I couldn't do it to all of them. The last time I tried a group warp was at the university in Las Cruces just before school started. That only lasted five minutes. Five minutes at the tables wasn't enough. Not to mention, I'd get too drained from the effort. I sighed in frustration as my plan bit the dust.
Angrily, I turned around and tried to think of something new. Maybe I could get a sea scrub like Maria? Uh, no, they'd probably stick me in the same room with her and then I'd have to listen to her babbling about Michael. I wasn't in the mood for that.
Maybe a little sightseeing on the Strip? No, sightseeing alone wasn't my idea of fun either. Who would I talk to about the kitschy tourist stuff? Who would I bug about seeing more sights? I had a great time walking up and down the streets of New York with Max and talking to him about the Empire State Building, Central Park and all the other sights.
Shopping perhaps? I glided towards the shops, randomly looking at the display windows. I entered one store, then two, then three, looking at the merchandise in lackadaisical fashion. Too much touristy stuff there, most key chains, cups and t-shirts saying "I love Las Vegas!" and none of them worth my money.
It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. Disconsolately, I wandered back towards the arcade.
Liz was still there, still banging away at the pinball machine. How long could she play that stupid game anyway? My eyes wandered around and found the same things: kids and teens all caught up in the games unfolding before their eyes.
I plopped myself down at a random video booth a few seats away from her. Her eyes flicked at me momentarily, acknowledging my presence and darted away again to focus on pinball.
Idly, I waved my hand over the video game in front of me and started it. I didn't know what the game was nor did I really care. It had something about paladins, rangers and ogres fighting off demons and trying to get to some mystical land.
I looked at Liz, wondering when she'd get tired of playing pinball. Her eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she hit the side buttons and tried to rack up her score. Typical. She looked at the game like it was some big science experiment she had to ace.
Halfheartedly, I drew my gaze back to the video game I was playing. To my surprise, I had risen to another level. Whopee.
My eyes started to wander back to Liz. I stared at her profile, trying to keep my mind occupied. Nothing really interesting there. She was rather average. Average brown hair, nondescript eyes and a blah mouth. Why did Max even like her? Why did Max fall in love with her? I couldn't see anything particularly remarkable about her.
The machine she was playing on pinged rapidly, signifying some sort of victory. She stood back, watching the colorful lights blink. With triumph, she shifted her head to the side, as if to tell a non-existent sidekick to check out her score.
It was then that I saw it: a smile. Not a grin but a smile. Slowly, it crept up her face, changing it, making it shine almost iridescently.
I had never seen Liz smile before. Funny, I had known her for months but never saw anything but blandness. Oh, sure, I saw pain, hurt, anger and loneliness but mostly they were buried under her usual blanket of blank expressions.
I stopped playing my video game to concentrate on this strange phenomenon. Tilting my face towards the screen and angling it towards her, I watched this smile spreading slowly through her face.
Liz became this whole other person when she smiled. She became radiant...beautiful even.
That particular thought worried me. What was I doing, waxing poetic about Liz Parker? I concluded the pinging probably numbed my brain somehow.
I left the arcade, muttering at what she had done to me. I was supposed to be having fun, living it up and gambling in the desert city. Not staring at some girl who I normally couldn't stand and thinking she was beautiful.
I rode the elevator back up to our room, trying to chase away unbidden and unwanted thoughts about her. Entering the room, I slammed the door rather carelessly, upset at the direction of the evening. The room was empty with no Max, Michael, Isabel, Alex, Maria or Kyle in sight. Probably out winning a bundle at the tables, I thought.
Mindlessly, I turned on the TV and flopped on the couch. I barely paid any attention to the action on the screen, flipping channels carelessly. My eyes wandered towards the one end of the long couch.
Liz's jacket, the one with the god-awful flowers on it, was slung over one arm of the couch. She had left it there, folding it meticulously in half and draping it smack dab in the middle of the arm. Such a perfect-Liz thing to do. I glanced away from it and proceeded to watch whatever was on screen.
I woke up with a small start. Great, I had fallen asleep. So far, my evening was so eventful. I rubbed the vestiges of sleep from my eyes and looked around the room to see if anyone had come in while I was asleep. No sign of anyone, not even Liz. Hmmmph, she was probably still playing pinball.
My eyes alighted on her jacket again. It seemed to be calling me somehow. No, don't even go there, I thought to myself. I didn't want any more thoughts of Liz in my head. But the jacket wouldn't stop its siren song.
With resignation, I slid over the couch and grabbed it. I told myself I was just going to put it the closet. Or the trash. A small gleam entered into my eye. I'd be doing her a favor if I got rid of the hideous thing. I'd also be doing the rest of the world an even bigger favor by not having them look at the poor excuse for a jacket ever again.
I pictured myself marching to the trash can and stuffing the jacket in it. Instead, I stood there, in the middle of the room, holding the soft jacket then slowly brought it up to my face and inhaled.
At first, no discernible scent filled my nostrils, just the smell of the cotton fabric. Then a light aroma permeated through, like fresh spring rain.
Suddenly realizing what I was doing, I dropped the jacket quickly, as though it had grown thorns. I was doing it again, going all poetic on Liz. No, not Liz but her jacket. Her jacket, for crying out loud!
I flew out of the room, trying to escape my thoughts once more and punched in random numbers on the elevator. When the doors opened, my eyes spotted the video arcade. She was in there. I pursed my lips together, feeling upset at my inability to elude her.
The arcade was where it all began. That's where all my strange thoughts and feelings about Liz originated. And that's where it would end, I vowed.
I squared my shoulders and marched back in the arcade, seeking to purge Liz from my head once and for all. I knew as soon as I saw her that would do it. I'd see the same average looking brunette, the same pinball playing science nerd and the same wimpy human I didn't care for. Then I'd go back to not even thinking about her at all.
I approached her and the pinball machine, the one she had been playing for the last few hours. She didn't even look towards me, so focused was she on the game currently playing before her. With a few feet separating us, I waited for the first wave of the reality check to hit.
Her hair shone. That was the first articulate thought that came to my mind. Did I think it was average before? Maybe. But now it shone, reflecting the garish lights of the arcade hovering above. Some strands of it glinted, playing off of the light. Her brown mane hung straight down her back like a rich chocolate waterfall. I wondered whether it would be smooth and silky when I touched it.
"Liz," I croaked, then cringed at my voice. Reality was not going the way I planned.
She glanced up from her game, quirking her eyebrows up. "Thought you'd mindwarped the guard and be at the tables by now," she commented. "Or at the Ice Capades," she added.
"Yeah, whatever," I shot back, trying not to sound resigned. She gave me a slightly ironic grin, seeming delighted at my capitulation, my presence in the arcade I spurned earlier.
The triumphant twinkle in her eyes made them seem like they were dancing. Who knew nondescript eyes could dance? Who knew that they were these deep pools that held a thousand different shades? I wondered whether they'd be the color of russet or auburn when they alighted on me again.
That reality check was falling by the wayside so I decided to prod it along. But before I could think of something to say, her machine pinged and glowed like crazy. She was moving to the high score level on pinball.
Discarding my company, Liz started clicking on the side buttons vigorously, bumping her hips towards the machine in a steady fashion. I stood my ground, watching her.
Liz parted her lips slightly as she followed the metal ball clanging around the machine with her eyes. Her lips looked soft and inviting. I thought I saw them quiver in anticipation of something. Or perhaps it was I who was quivering in anticipation, hoping she'd hit the big score and turn that smile on again. Who knew watching someone's lips could be so mesmerizing?
A ringing sound blasted throughout the arcade as Liz hit the top level of the pinball game. She jumped with childish glee, pumping both her arms up and down and squealing, "Yes!!!" And then she smiled.
I forgot all about reality and simply basked in that smile. It was an open and honest smile, one that connected others into her private little world of joy. She would never be alone when she smiled like that. Reluctantly, I found myself being pulled into that world too.
Was this what Max felt when he was around Liz? This restless, almost irresistible pull towards a connection? Was that why he was so drawn to her?
A part of me was beginning to understand the attraction. I had looked for something similar my whole life. A connection, a bond, a bridge, something to anchor me and make me feel part of something. The fact that Max discovered that connection first that didn't sit quite right with me. A part of me wanted that discovery all to myself.
I moved closer to her, a 'congratulations' hovering on the tip of my tongue. I halted when I caught a whiff of a familiar scent. Fresh innocence radiated from her.
Unbound and untainted by other aromas, her scent felt like some wonderful kind of freedom. It...no, she, projected a sense of liberty, a sense of endless possibilities. A feeling of awe snuck in me as I breathed in more of her. I was drowning in her.
Did Max also bathe in the same scent, this strange and uncorruptible scent that emanated from her? Perhaps.
The smell was intoxicating. It signalled some kind of release, a breaking away from the tight shackles that bound us to our identities.
I embraced destiny's dictates for so long, I had forgotten what freedom almost felt like. Freedom. Liz unearthed it with her beautiful smile, her innocent smell.
The paradox of connection and freedom, two things I wanted most, was in Liz. Why didn't I see it before? Why didn't I see her before? What else didn't I see?
I found myself suddenly fixated on her. Her smile, her face, everything that was her. I wanted to see more of her. No, I just wanted...her.
Desperate to shake myself out of this spell that Liz wove around me, I glanced around the arcade in an effort to reconcile my thoughts elsewhere. But one thing and only one thing came to the forefront...Liz.
My knees buckled and I clutched at a discarded seat nearby, grabbing it with an outstretched palm. I sat down and looked the ground, blinking a few times. I didn't want Liz invading my head. Things were complicated enough, with all the alien threats, the spectre of destiny and the emergence of my new family. Now I had to deal with this. What was this? Infatuation? Obsession?
I moved my glance towards the window, away from her and onto the neon lights of the Vegas strip outside. Loud and bright, they flickered on and off like some Christmas tree display run amok. The lights hypnotized and enthralled with over the top aplomb, making onlookers feel like they had entered an entirely different world.
Something struck me right then and there. Perhaps my newfound obsession with Liz Parker had nothing to do with her and everything to do with Vegas.
This place, this land of fantasy, spun its own spell over everyone, including me. Vegas wove a shimmering blanket of make-believe over its inhabitants, twisting their eyes and making them see mirages. Nothing was real. But in the same sense, everything was.
I got up from my seat and headed out of the arcade, not going in any particular direction.
All I knew was I couldn't wait to leave Las Vegas.