A NIGHT IN THE BOOKDOCKS

As all the kids settled into their separate rooms for the evening, Gia made her way to Kei’s door and gave it three quick raps.

Kei answered within moments, perfect skin and downy lashes framing the sharp eyes that gazed up at her with near-cartoon innocence.

“May I come in?” Gia asked. “I need you to help me understand something.”


Kei’s head dipped in polite consent as the door opened wide for Gia.


She entered, closing the door behind her as she held up a small notebook. “I have an accounting of items that went missing at our stops today.” She opened the notebook. “Item One: a roll of stickers a little girl made.” She arched a brow. “Know anything about that?”


Kei’s head dipped again. “The girl’s name is Ember and she needs to raise $350 so she can go live in a tent for five days with her social group. I cannot understand why it should cost so much for a child to live up in the mountains, but am happy to cover Ember’s costs in exchange for her stickers. I only had the money for ten, but wanted an entire scroll.”


Gia held her tongue on at least a dozen different responses before going with, “So you just took what you wanted?” 


Kei nodded. “Yes.”


Wow. A full confession. Easy as that.


Too easy, in fact.


Gia’s eyes narrowed on Kei before reading off the rest of her list. “And does the same logic hold for the deck of blank playing cards, sketchbook, seven mechanical pencils, three packs of Sharpies, eight magazines, three packs of nuts, two bags of sunflower seeds, and local crime dollar-paper?”


Kei held out a note to her with a slight bow. “Yes. Your accounting is correct. Most impressive. Now, if you would please pass this note to my parents, they will handle everything.”


“Already handled,” Gia said, not reaching for the note. “You may give your notes to your parents after this trip is over if you like. But, per our written agreement, I will not be passing them on. Understood?”


“Understood,” Kei said as if amused somehow. 


Gia hated to admit it, but the condescension in Kei’s tone tickled at her temper a little bit. She’d have to watch this one just a little bit closer. 


All the information she’d received on Kei before the trip had advised her that Kei was an agent of chaos. Untethered. Irrational. Unpredictable. 


But that simply was not true.


Kei was incredibly structured within a core set of rules. Gia could see that now, which meant tomorrow would be better.


“Kei, you are not the exception of the five-dollar rule,” she said. “Do you understand?”


“Yes.” Said so easily, as if it was as simple as that.


Gia held her hand out. “I need you to give all the items you stole back. No one gets to shoplift just because they plan to pay things off later.”


“No.”


Gia studied Kei for a moment, waiting for a flinch of guilt that never came. 


“No?” she asked. “You’re not going to give them to me?”


“No,” Kei affirmed, voice as gentle as a happy grandma sitting in a spot of sunshine. It made Gia feel like a brute to insist, but she bruted on anyway.


“Then I’m going to need to go through your stuff until I find it all.”


“Okay,” Kei replied with such a total lack of concern that Gia felt certain she wouldn’t find the items among Kei’s things. They’d been stashed elsewhere, and Gia really didn’t have time for a full-scale search at the moment. She was on a tight schedule for the next little bit.


Or, rather, Adam was on a tight schedule and he was the job. Everyone else was a tourist. Including Kei.


“I’ll do a search before we load up in the morning,” Gia promised as she moved toward the door. “Until then, the sterile-packed sheets and inflatable mattress you requested are—“


“I saw them,” Kei interrupted. “And you are now 200 seconds behind schedule. I will be fine until morning. You may go.”


Hmm, was all Gia could as she fought the urge to correct the claim about her running late. 


If Gia hadn’t had a team working with her, then she would have been behind schedule. But she did have a team, which meant she was about to be right on time.


Gia did not correct Kei, however. She simply decided never to underestimate the teen icon again as she paused at the door to leave Kei with a final thought. 


“If you steal anything at any stops on our path tomorrow, I will send you home. You are a guest on this trip, not the boss of it. I can’t let you be the reason we leave a trail others can follow. Do you understand?”


This time, the response was delayed. Then came, “I understand.”


Gia knew she’d have to wait until tomorrow to find out exactly what Kei meant by that. In the meantime, she had a schedule to keep.


“I’ll wake you at six o’clock, sharp,” she said, closing the door behind her as she left. “Sleep well, until then.”

 

~o~

 

The good news about the out-in-nowhere motel? 

It was tidy and everyone all had their own rooms.

The bad news? 

Whitney would rather sleep on the dirt outside. 

Because ew


The motel was old and it had seen a lot. Everything looked worn in or patched-up, and Whitney didn’t want to touch any of it. Only a fire could truly cleanse it at this point. Everything visible was simply too gross to ever truly be clean again. 


Why couldn’t Whitney just magically sleep in her own bed somehow that night? Like, could that be a thing? 


Could she not have to sleep in a motel decorated like a quaint horror movie after one of the weirdest days of her life? Could she just click her heels three times and just be done with all this already?


Okay, technically, yes. She could.


But then she would be haunted forever by all the answers she didn’t get, which was a bad trade for not having to deal with an old building for nine hours.


“You can do this,” she cheered herself, totally not imagining where cameras might be tucked, what kind of creepers might be crouched in the closet, and what level of grossness was incubating on each and every surface. 


One foot. Then the other foot. Then repeat and keep moving.


The mantra took Whitney as far as the room’s dresser, where she placed her night bag as she tried to wrap her head around the aesthetic of her sleeping situation. 


How many thousands of people had slept where she was about to? Based on what Whitney was looking at, the answer was, like … a lot.


Seriously, if walls could talk, Whitney would probably be screaming and running for her life right about then. But walls couldn’t talk, which meant anything Whitney thought these walls were saying right then was totally her own imagination. 


And that was almost worse because it meant she had a terrible imagination.


Regardless, Whitney needed to stop staring at everything like a weirdo and start doing whatever a normal person would do next.


She just didn’t know what that was.


Brush their teeth, perhaps?


Whitney looked toward the sink.


Ew.


Whitney definitely had to brush her teeth at some point, but she might have to work up to navigating that bathroom.


So where else to start? 


“What would a person who wasn’t totally freaked out do?” she muttered to herself.


If this was a movie, the script would probably have her bee-bop to some song and go get into the shower. That’s what girls like her always did in movies ... while some creeper watched before killing her with his incel knife while she fought back with shampoo in her eyes.

Worst. Death. Ever.

Especially since cops always found the body naked and gross under the still-running shower.

Such a waste of water.

There were no less than a hundred reasons Whitney refused to die in a shower, which was why she would not be showering that night. Or in the morning, either. Then she would use her next $5 to buy some baby wipes to freshen up tomorrow. 


So that was decided, at least.


And that brought Whitney back to the task of making peace with the sleeping situation. 


Would she rather be burrito-wrapped in a sea of blankets on her own bed than slip between some recently laundered public sheets? Of course. 


Who wouldn’t? 


She just needed to get a little strategic and find a way to distract herself until she was exhausted enough to unsee a few things in the name of sleep.


But that might be a while. 


It was currently 9:49 pm and Whitney wasn’t even close to exhausted. Her brain was spinning at 800% capacity and she would have traded a week’s earnings for a treadmill to appear for her to wear herself out on.


But, apparently, people who lived out in the middle of nowhere didn’t really need treadmills. Which meant no fitness rooms in the boondocks where Whitney could run and think for a little bit.


She’d just had the actual worst day of her life, she understood nothing, and she didn’t have her phone. Or access to the internet. Or anything familiar.


At all. 


And there was nowhere to run -- not even a treadmill -- leaving Whitney alone to process a veritable volcano erupting in her chest as she stood in the middle of a motel room where the air seemed to be getting thinner … and thinner…

Oh, no. It was happening. 


Whitney was having an anxiety attack. 


Because, of course, she was. No terrible day was complete without a total and complete, involuntary freak out.


“Nope,” she said, rushing toward open air on instinct. 


Maybe her room door closed itself behind her as she rushed down the motel’s single hallway and past the check-in desk, maybe it didn’t. Whitney couldn’t care. She was too busy bursting out the front door and into seedy porch light, where she proceeded to gasp like she’d swallowed something wrong. 


Maybe don’t stand in the spotlight of the building entrance for this, an inner-voice coached her. 


And the voice was right. 


Whitney really didn’t need spectators in her life just then. That would just be attracting the wrong kind of attention. She was better off finding some shadows to ride things out for a sec. 


Once she could breathe again, then Whitney would get back to the business of acting normal and come to some sort of decision about what to do next. 


It would be fine. 


Everything would be fine. Which was why she didn’t need to have this panic attack in the first place.


She just needed to breathe.


In, out. In, out. In, out.


Once she had that under control, she needed to unpack how Adam had spent the entire day acting towards her ... even though she still fought the urge to puke while thinking about it.


When Whitney first laid eyes on Adam that morning, she had smiled and thought, Surprise! while making a technically perfect entrance.


Seriously. It had been perfect. Not a single rehearsal had gone better.


Whitney had nailed something for the first time in her life, and Adam’s response had been … nothing. 


Absolutely nothing. 


He hadn’t even checked her out—not her butt, not her boobs, not her hair, not a thing. 


Whitney didn’t know how to process that after all the semi-discrete body shots she’d sent him over the years.


And that wasn’t even the worst part. 


Adam hadn’t even seemed to recognize her. Not even a glimmer. Which was absolutely impossible because they messaged each other pretty much every day. 


Adam was Whitney’s person.  And he was the only one on the planet who knew her secret: Whitney was a total and absolute fraud. 

Her brand was a lie.


The truth was, Whitney hadn’t found herself these past two years through self-enlightenment and meditation. 


She’d found Adam. 


And, just like she had in all her prior codependent relationships, she’d latched on. The only difference this time being that no one ever saw Adam. And Whitney never mentioned him, so everyone just assumed Whitney had changed. 


So she’d gone with it—repackaging her conversations with Adam into wisdom-isms she shared with followers on the internet. Then she went viral a few times and started to make a real income out of it and, suddenly, life had really started coming together for her.


Since finding Adam, Whitney had clocked actual thousands of hours DMing with him. He was the best friend she’d never met. He was her compass. He was that person she checked in with when all the world was in chaos. 


The terrible truth of it all was: Even though Whitney had made video after video about how she’d found herself by being single, she was totally co-dependent on Adam. He was the one person Whitney was ever fully honest with. 


Ever. 


She’d poured herself out to him. And he’d listened—really—listened and responded. It kind of freaked her out, sometimes, honestly. There was a bit of a too-good-to-be-true element woven into everything about Adam. 


Which should have been her biggest red flag, in retrospect.


Adam was too perfect. 


That had been apparent enough when they’d talk through the wee hours, leaving Whitney sleepless, yet re-charged and ready to accomplish anything when the sun rose.


So, yeah, Whitney was totally codependent when it came to Adam.


Like … totally.


Yet there hadn’t even been a flash of recognition on his face when they’d locked eyes that morning. He’d simply tilted his head at her, as if thinking, Interesting, before going back to reading a book as if she didn’t exist!


Was he … gay? 


And, even if, he still had no excuse not to look because her outfit today was on point. There had been absolutely no excuse to dismiss her with a glance that morning. Tim Gunn would have looked.


Whitney just needed it all to make sense and she was still working on untangling her thoughts and evening-out her breathing when she spotted him … standing next to a telescope and looking up toward the sky before bending to peer through the lens again.


Adam. 


He was calculating something in the sky, just like he did every night. Because he was a nerd like that.


Sometimes, Adam talked about  astronomy when they DMed, but this was her first time seeing him work. There was a stillness to his motions that made her feel like she was intruding even though she was definitely still mad at him.


Mad, yet breathing normally again, as if the sight of Adam had knocked the wind back into her for some reason. And now that she was breathing easy, Whitney realized the air was good out in the boondocks. Like … really, really good. 


Clear. Cleaner. Unpolluted.


And the stars were unreal. She’d never seen so many in her life!


The light of the waning moon glowed down on the clearing where Adam made notes in a small book before tucking it away in his pocket.


Oh, no. He was packing up. 


Crap. 


She had to move now. It might be her only shot.


Not allowing herself to second guess, Whitney stepped out of the shadows to the glow of the clearing.


“Hey,” she said. Not her best pick-up line, but she really wasn’t in the mood for anything more embarrassing. 


Adam turned, clearly taken aback to see her. “Oh. Hi.”


There was a carefree innocence to Adam’s tone that made Whitney want to scream. 


But she didn’t. 


She swallowed back the scream and kept walking toward him. “Can we talk?”


He grew still. “About what?”


Seriously???  


Was that all he had to say to her? Even out here —alone— where nobody else was listening?


Whitney stopped in her tracks. “Adam, I need you to be real with me right now.”


“Okay,” he said, as if logging a data point — as if her feelings were some optional variable in a necessary calculation. 


Whitney very nearly lost it again, but swallowed past the lump in her throat and kept her voice calm anyway. “I seriously don’t know what you’re playing at right now, but I need you to” —tears sprang to her eyes and cracked her voice. Shit. “I need to know why you’re pretending not to know me.” She took another step forward. “Talk to me.”


Adam was backlit, so she couldn’t see his face when he said, “About what?”


He. Could. Not. Be. Serious. 


Whitney’s chin came up. “You know who I am, right?”


Gah! Why did she sound like a drunk Reese Witherspoon today? She was, like, textbook: insufferable. And it almost made it worse that Adam didn’t call her out on it.

“Dr. Gia said your name is Whitney,” he replied. As if that was that. The end. 


No backstory.


“And you’re going to stand there and act like you don’t know any Whitneys?” she balked.


“I know many Whitneys,” Adam replied. “A woman named Whitney cuts my hair.”


Well, that was new information! His hairdresser had the same name as her? Why had he never mentioned that across two actual years of haircuts? 


“Who’d you meet first?” Whitney asked. “Me, or her?”


“I … what?” he asked, sounding hesitant. “You want me to recall which of you I met first?”


“Yes!”


“Okay … and which Whitney are you again?”


And, poof! Just like that, Whitney was standing in the middle of an actual nightmare.


This couldn’t be happening.


Could. NOT.


“Adam,” she breathed, feeling her throat tighten up again. “It’s me. You can’t say you don’t recognize me from my pictures. Aren’t you supposed to have a photographic memory? This is seriously something you can’t play dumb about.”


“They say my memory is eidetic, but I doubt it,” Adam replied, as if that was the topic of interest.


Holy cow. 


He was a narcissist. An absolute, total narcissist. Because, of course, he was. 


But that didn’t get him out of owning up to the truth and answering a few questions. 


Whitney moved within a few steps of him. “I want you to look me in the eye and tell me, Adam: Who am I?”


“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “But … I’m uncertain. And I sense it would be unwise to guess. Can you give me a hint?”


She nearly screamed.


It nearly got out. 


But she stopped it as she stepped in again, “Adam, how can you not recognize me? I have literally DMed you hundreds of photos.”


His head tilted with interest. “Of your face?”


“What?” she roared, unable to control her volume for a moment. “Are you seriously asking me that?”


He considered a moment and nodded. “Yes. I can see you’re upset and don’t wish to agitate you further—”


“Well, it’s not working!” she all but yelled back while he sat and took it like a champion.


“I can also see that. My apologies.” He stepped forward. “But I can’t imagine forgetting hundreds of pictures of your face. That’s why I asked. If we’ve met before, I seriously need to get my head checked because I cannot imagine forgetting you.”


Well, wasn’t this guy just a big ball of silver-tongued alibis that simply could not be real. 


Even though … now that Whitney thought of it, she had made a habit out of cropping her face out of pics in DMs so they could never be used against her by blackmailers.


So, whatever. Adam maybe had a point about her face not being in her pics. But she’d just assumed he saw her face in all the pictures and videos she posted to her account.


Like, had he not checked out her feed at all?


“Can you tell me things that were in pictures with you, or what colors you were wearing?” he was asking. “That might help me recall the pictures you sent.”


Okay, this was officially insane and Whitney had no idea where to start or what to say to move forward.


In the end, a voice from the shadows spoke for her.


“It’s 9:54, Adam,” their driver said, stepping forward. “It’s time to move to the next thing. You two can continue this conversation tomorrow.”


Awesome. 


G.I. Jane had been there the whole time and heard and seen everything? Amazing.


“Adam has a tight schedule,” Gia said as Adam started toward her without even pretending he wanted to talk further.


“My parents are quite strict,” he said as he passed. “If I’m late zooming with them, they might call all this off. I need to go.”


“You’ll have all the time you need to talk on the bus tomorrow,” Gia agreed.


Well, that was basically the opposite of reassuring. If Whitney wanted to have this conversation while trapped in a moving vehicle, she would have done that already. But it looked like she didn’t really have an option.


Great. 


All Whitney could say at this point was: sticking around for the big reveal had better be worth it.


“Fine!” she huffed before storming away. 


It was time to grab her notebook and get her story straight before morning. Because she and Adam were definitely going to talk.

 

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