I lean against the wall, taking a swig. I don’t want to go back to the room yet, but I also don’t want to pass that group of friends again, and they’re between me and both the stairwell and the elevator.
If I had friends, or a girlfriend—there’s a hilarious idea—now’s when I’d fire off a text message to catch up, say hey, complain about my day. I settle on the vending-machine-room floor and idly thumb through my messages from the bottom up, contact after contact after contact. A few odd texts with the Seaside cast from last March, but I was never close with them—they’re all, like, twenty-five and on the opposite coast. Then some with the Seaside publicist, my publicist Stacey, Gail, Mark…all people I work for, or people who work for me.
I’m not lonely. I’m not, I swear.
Then, at the top, there’s that wrong number. The chimichanga girl—or guy, I guess, but for some reason I assumed it was a girl.
I sip my soulless water. There’s no reason to text the number again. Absolutely none. But I’m bored, and I’m stuck, and my fingers type up a quick message and hit SEND before my head can catch up.
I ROLL OVER ON THE BED, taking my phone out of my back pocket, and slide my thumb across the cracked screen to the message.
It’s the stranger. Well, the cosplayer. Carmindor.
Unknown 9:42 PM
—How were those chimichangas?
I chew on my lip. This guy could be a stalker. Or some weird old geezer with a Carmindor fetish. Or just someone who wants to know about Mexican food on my spaceship el pumpkin.
—Did you get in contact with who you were looking for?
Unknown 9:48 PM
—Haven’t had time to track them down.
I sit up. The convention was a part of me I walled off after Dad died. I didn’t want to be a part of it, didn’t want to walk in through those glass doors and almost see Dad standing in the lobby, Carmindor coat starched, starwings gleaming. Besides, the people at ExcelsiCon haven’t been much in contact with me either. Pretty much dropped me cold turkey after Dad died. Some community that was.
But Dad always believed in helping everyone no matter what. In being kind and going the distance. I wish I was half the person he was, but he always said he learned it from Mom. So if Mom was kindness and Dad was half of her, what did that leave me? A quarter?
Chewing on the inside of my cheek, I reply, wondering why I’m making an exception.
—Maybe I can help?
—Although the REAL Carmindor doesn’t give excuses, you know.
Unknown 9:48 PM
—What do you call episode 26?
—Uh, he was mind-warped by a Nox?? Please.
—Unless I’m wrong and you’d like to set me straight, your Federation highness.
Unknown 9:48 PM
—Somehow correcting you about Starfield feels like a bad idea.
—As I tend to have.
—You wouldn’t be Carmindor without your bad ideas.
Unknown 9:51 PM
—None taken. I pity the poor galaxy that falls under my rule.
—So…you’re a Stargunner?
—I bleed Federation blood.
Unknown 9:52 PM
—Born from the Brinx Devastation itself. I promise-swear.
Like I believe his promise-sworn…whoever he is. Lightning cracks across the sky again, closer this time. I wait to hear thunder. One-one thousand. Two-two thousand. Three-three thousand…Then it comes, slow and soft like a song.
Dad always liked thunderstorms. The way it rattled the house, like a heart rattling in a ribcage.
Unknown 9:59 PM
—Can I ask you a weird question?
Unknown 10:00 PM
—What do you think of the new Carmindor?
Uh-oh. I think back to my blog post. My viral blog post. I’d lie to him if I said anything other than what was absolutely true.
—You mean Darien Freeman?
Unknown 10:00 PM
I tilt my head back to watch the storm roll in out the window. I could link him to my blog post, but chances are if he’s a Stargunner he already knows my feelings. Or the author’s feelings. That no matter the universe, Darien Freeman will never be Carmindor. Instead, I decide to stall.
—Why, are you a Seaside Cove fan?
Unknown 10:01 PM
—Please, give me Gilmore Girls. Coffee. Quick wit.
—So you don’t think he can pull it off?
—Darien, I mean.
I don’t know why I say what I do next. I guess because if he’s asking, he genuinely likes the casting.
—I…think if he tries, maybe he could do it.
—I mean, that’s what Carmindor would do. Try. Even when the odds seem hopeless.
—But who knows if Darien Freeman cares enough to try.
Unknown 10:01 PM
—So you DO think he’ll be good? As a fan?
—Can I take a rain check on that answer?
Unknown 10:01 PM
—Depends. How long’s the rainstorm?
I look out the window, at the water whipping through the night sky. Never ending, I want to say. But instead I reply:
—Until he does something to change my mind, I guess.
—Show he’s going to try.
MARK’S STILL SITTING WHERE I LEFT HIM, sipping on his beer. He lifts an eyebrow as soon as I slip back through the door.
“So the prodigal son returns,” he says in greeting. “Cooled your jets?”
“Yeah, they’re cool.” I sit down opposite him in the room’s sitting area. His thumbs fly across his antique Blackberry, the clicks on the keyboard eating up the silence between us. I tap my half-empty water bottle against my thigh, thumping out the Starfield theme.
If Stargunners want me to prove that I’m their Carmindor, that I’m one of them—even after missing the ah’blena question on Hello, America, which I’m sure will come back to haunt me—then I have to be a fan. And there’s only one way I know how to be a fan.
There will be people like Fishmouth and that guy from the cafeteria and whoever blogs at Rebelgunner who scream so loud it’s hard to hear anything else. But then there’ll be people like the person on the other end of those texts, whispering in a steady cadence. Those are the people I signed the contract for. Because I know what that’s like. Starfield was there for me when my shitty parents and my shitty friends weren’t. That’s why I took this job. Because I’m a fan.
“I’ll do the con,” I say.
He glances up from his Blackberry. “You will?”
“I just said so.”
He begins to stand up. “Great! I’m glad to hear it—”
I put up a hand. “On one condition.”
He sits back. “Of course. Are you sure it’s not two? Three?” He flicks his eyes to the ceiling—almost rolling them, but not quite. “Well, what is it?”
Here goes. Aim. Ignite. “I want to help judge the cosplay contest. I don’t just want to be some aloof movie star posing for photos. I want to be part of this fandom.”
“Part of the…what? Fandom?” Dad’s too-smooth forehead gets the tiniest crease—his expression at its most emotional. “It’s not on brand, Darien.”
“Please, just this once. To show I’m one of them.”
“But you’re not.”
I purse my lips. “I’ll be there already. We could make it on brand.”
Mark shifts in his chair and I can tell he’s doing some mental calculus. Would Chris Pine condescend to judge a costume contest? Would Chris Evans? Chris Hemsworth?
“It would be hard,” he says at last.
“But if you’ll just let me—”
“But.” He holds up a finger to stop me. “I think we can make it work. And ExcelsiCon will be more than happy to agree to that.” He takes another sip of beer. “Yeah…yeah I think we can make it on brand. Keep you front and center. You’re a genius.”
I don’t like the look that slowly slides across his face, half smug, half scheming. What is he thinking up? I’m not sure I want to know. Still—he didn’t say no. For once I got through.
“Thanks,” I say.
And for a moment, I almost add Dad.
I dON’T KNOW WHEN I FINALLY FALL ASLEEP after the last text message, but I know exactly when I wake up.
“Danielle!” my stepmother snaps as she yanks the covers off me. “Danielle, get up!”
“Whaaa…,” I murmur, and wince when she shines a flashlight into my face.
Hard rain pounds against the window as zigzags of lightning flash across the sky. I squint at the clock, but it’s completely dark. The storm must’ve knocked out power. The howl of the wind almost drowns out her words—almost—but Catherine would never allow something to be louder than she is.
“Get up!” she roars, barely giving me a chance to take in her hair in fat foam rollers and her ridiculous silk bathrobe before she yanks me out of bed by the arm. I rub the sleep from my eyes and stumble after her, her nails digging into my forearm until she lets me go at the end of the hallway.