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Chapter 1: I Always Miss the Ending

To all the creators whose work helped me get through life and to all the fans I hope this speaks to: “What I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that even though I do not know you, and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you… I love you. With all my heart, I love you.”

— Valerie, V for Vendetta

Of all of the times to need to pee, I would not recommend the last forty-five minutes of a premiere film you came to Hollywood expressly to see. It doesn’t matter how awesome your artistic little sister is at describing things, just trust me on this one and don’t drink the Icees. They always seem like a good idea, but I’ve made this mistake enough times by now… Ha, I should really know better.

Yet here I am in a bathroom stall, taking care of business as fast as I can and berating myself for my undisciplined choice of drink instead of sitting next to my sister, nonverbally fangirling about the first movie installment to our favorite animated series, Serenity Peaks. Some people might find it childish that a twenty-five-year-old graduate student and her art college undergraduate sister still watch cartoons, but we don’t hang out with those people. Born and raised on Pocket Monsters and Sailor Luna, cartoons have been high art to my sister and I since she was four and I was eight. Serenity Peaks has been my life’s blood since home became an obscure imaginary place with a nostalgic feeling behind it and no tangibility. I mean, just take the premise: two kids stranded in their great uncle’s small town Oregon tourist trap of a home? The possibility of magic I saw in the shadow of every tree growing up come to fruition? Topped off with a heaping dollop of hijinks? If I wasn’t such a good person, I wouldn’t even take the time to wash my hands before getting back upstairs to the theater.

But I am. I am a good person. Filthy, lowdown subject of fandom though I may be, I am still a good enough person to wash my hands—because although I’m Serenity Peaks trash, I’m not just straight-up trash. Standards. We must have standards. Some, anyway. I dry my hands on my jeans, push my glasses back up, and scurry back out into the lobby.

And am brought immediately to a halt.

Great.

In all seriousness, though: it isn’t bad enough the only bathroom in the whole damn place is on the bottom floor when the feature theater is at the top, but now there are all these people gathered in the lobby?

They’re crowded in the circular room like sardines. The concessions counter to the side is still open for business, but people don’t seem like they’re lined up for that. Huh. Whatever, I’ve got to get back to my movie.

You’d think I’d be used to crowds—‘cause Comic Con, let’s be real—but not when they’re between me and the stairs I need to run up to get back to Serenity Peaks. I’ve never been very patient anyway. Plus, walking in crowds when you’ve got the long legs of a 5’ 9’’ lady is highly irritating—shuffle, weave, shuffle. I sigh and start negotiating the crowd to get the stairs. Then someone starts addressing the crowd. Hang on, I know that voice… A few memories of interviews and panels I’d streamed come back to me, and I realize who it is.

I look up from my struggles with the crowd, searching the stage again. From my new angle, I can see a small sort of small stage that’s been set up since Lizzy and I were in the lobby. The screen is white and blank for the moment, but next to it there’s a three-legged stool and a side table with a bottle of water. Sitting on that stool is the one, the only, Terry Walsh, creator of Serenity Peaks.

I stop dead in my tracks and stare. Where the hell did he come from? There was nothing in the event listing about him being here, and I certainly would have noticed VIP tickets even if they’d been sold out or unaffordable. Not that Terry really indulges in exclusionary things like that. If his presence and attitude at conventions is anything to go by, he really appreciates his fans and wants to engage them on a personal level… But still! I thought he was across the country at a convention in New York! But there he is in his signature red plaid, wearing the easily recognizable pine tree emblazoned Clint hat from his show.

I mean, sure, brand awareness or whatever, but it’s not like he needs to promote. His show took off; it’s one of Bizney’s biggest hits. Although Serenity Peaks’s main characters Cassie and Clint are based on Terry and his twin sister Titania. Every fan knew that, what with the way they both went on about it on Twitter. Maybe that’s why he’s wearing the hat today.

I stand in the crowd for a moment, letting myself take him in. I really only came to know his show in the last couple of years, and one of those I spent overseas. Getting to actually see him in person isn’t something I really thought I’d have the chance to do since there were rumors that Terry was planning the end of the series and I was busy with grad school and job hunting and the other numerous concerns of “adulthood” that sometimes keep geeks like me away from events and conventions.

It’s… nice. To get to see him, I mean. His show has meant a lot to me, and I’ve admired him and his work a lot. He’s someone who’s already living my dream: having made something meaningful that entertains people and gets them through hard times. I let myself stand in the crowd, hoping he’ll shed some light on what he’s doing here.

“Welcome, everyone!” he says, waving his hand in a sweeping gesture of greeting. You gotta get good at encompassing everyone when you say things like that, I guess. Don’t want your fans thinking you’re picking favorites or trying to seduce them, I suppose. “You all excited for the Serenity Peaks movie?”

The crowd roars excitedly back at him and I smile to myself. Of course he’s doing a pre-movie pitch, that’s very him. But I wonder why Lizzy and I didn’t get this when we came in. Maybe he was late or something? If there’s anything Terry’s Twitter presence has taught the SP fandom, it’s that Terry is a real person with a real life that doesn’t actually revolve around the show 24/7.

Oh, shit. Late. Like me for my movie. I start battling my way through the crowd again, half-listening to him as he gushes about how happy he is to be here and how blown away he is by how many people turned out for the second showing—

“Because, do you know that every seat is sold out upstairs right now?” he tells them. “Every. Seat.”

Well, not every seat… Gotta get back to mine!

“But enough about that. You’re here for the pre-show gig, right?”

No, Alexis. Editorial comics master’s student, sucker for bonus material and process and, well, him that you may be, you gotta keep moving. Do not turn around, do not turn around, do not—

“Well, the inspiration behind this particular installment in the series came from a really, really old anime. Like so old so many of you probably haven’t even heard of it. Specter in the Shell anyone?”

So much for leaving now. Specter in the Shell is one of my favorite old anime franchises. If his inspiration came from any part of that story, I want to hear about it. I hop up the first three steps of the staircase and stop at the first-floor landing, propping my elbows on the banister to listen.

“Little known fact,” Terry says, waving a finger in the air. “This was also totally what gave those American directors the idea for This Specific Matrix.”

The original obviously-made-of-anime-geeks-and-their-partners cheer suddenly increases in volume and Terry smiles. “I know you guys would understand that one. You young people, you.” Like he isn’t a late twenty something himself. “Anyway, it’s a different part of the movie, but it’s when two characters essentially mind meld and experience the world through each other’s sensory organs. Suuuuuper trippy, and I don’t want to spoil anything, so… Yeah, I’m just gonna let this play, and then you can watch my movie, and then, mmm, tweet your thoughts at me later? Tag it #SpecterPeaks so I’ll know to pay attention.”

He queues up the clip and I try to will myself to start moving again. I know Specter in the Shell. I’ve seen this scene a billion times. I don’t need to see it again, and I’m currently missing the movie I came to Hollywood to see. But as the lights go down in the lobby so the crowd can see the clip Terry’s playing on the screen, I find myself unwilling to leave. I’ve already seen more than half of his movie… It’s like watching this scene with new eyes, letting it give context to what I’ve seen of the Serenity Peaks movie already. Besides, given what he just said, I can’t help comparing the two

It honestly makes a lot of sense, the way two worlds are linked by this one tenuous connection to each other. One small step on one end or the other can bring it to an end or create something so new and wide and unexpected. Damn, I forgot how much I loved the first Specter in the Shell movie—and it’s obvious where Terry drew his thematic inspirations from for the SP movie now.

I’m drawn out of my critical analysis by a flicker of movement to my right.

Shit, the movie! Are people coming down from the theater already?

I turn my head to check, and… Well, the good news is I haven’t completely missed the end of the movie, because, no, no, that is not an audience member, not at all, no.

Truth is—and I’m not sure this is bad news either, considering, but it’s sure as hell got adrenaline spiking through my veins as if I’m about to face off against a Wookiee, win, and regret it—the author of the whole affair is leaning against the stairwell wall behind me.

Just standing there, his youthful face lit up by the light of his phone as he fiddles with it in the darkened lobby at the foot of the stairs. He’s probably just setting up the #SpecterPeaks tag himself, but I whip back around and stare at the screen in the lobby like it’s a life line.

Jeez, I never thought I’d meet this guy, let alone be literally five feet away from him. It’s really tempting to just let the fan in me run wild and use this opportunity to…

To what? Terry’s meant a lot to me as a creator, and his show has gotten me through some really, really earth-shattering times, but it’s not like I really know him. How do you tell someone that they’ve meant the world to you when they’re a complete stranger?

I turn away from the screen and walk robotically up the stairs. They don’t cover how to retreat from encounters like this in JRPG battle systems, so robotic movement is the closest I can get to natural at the moment. I’ve gotta get back to my movie anyway. That’s the best way I can show my appreciation, probably—finishing the movie and gushing about it with my sister. That’s why he made it, for his audience, for his fans. It’s what I’d want a fan of mine to do if I was cool enough to make something like this.

My movements get more natural as I climb the stairs and my breathing returns to normal. It’s hard for me around people I admire because I’m often just so in awe of their talent. It’s even worse if they’re passionate and friendly. I have a weakness for passionate people.

I’m almost back to normal when I reach the top of the stairs. I turn the corner into the hallway and reach for one of the doors of the grand, double-doored entrance to the theater—

Only to have it open of its own accord as someone pushes it from the other side.

“Oh! Sorry!” the person who pushed it open says. They move a little so I can sidle through, but it hardly matters now, does it?

I drag myself through the crowd of people exiting the theater, keeping my eyes out for Lizzy. I make it to the main room before I find her. She’s in the top row where I left her, jiggling her leg and eating the last of her popcorn. When she sees me, she crushes the bag between her hands and gives me crazy eyes. “You just missed the best movie of the year, sister.”

People wouldn’t know Lizzy and I were sisters by looking at us. Mom’s Greek father and Scottish/Swedish mother brought a grand assortment of genes to the pool, and undoubtedly Dad’s traits were recessive, just like him. That’s how Lizzy’s frizzy thick red curls and my fine stark-straight so-dark-brown-people-mistakenly-call-it-black hair ended up in the same brood. My skin is olive, hers is fair, and our eyes don’t match either. She has our father’s blue while I took our mother’s hazel. Although, she got our mother’s terrible eyesight while I’m still getting away with just a slight astigmatism—not that people can tell since she wears contacts and I still prefer to stick with my glasses. Despite our differences, it had been easy to see the family resemblance between us back when our family all lived together. At least Lizzy and I could commiserate about the hardships of clothes shopping for our strudy, curvy builds together and were somewhat similar in height—she had a half an inch on me, not that I would ever admit it as her older sister. Not much for physical likeness, but what we lack in that department we more than make up for in like-mindedness when it comes to quality video games, comics, and animation.

Like the movie I just missed.

I look up at the big, blank screen that would have held the last thirty-five minutes of my movie if I had just been faster, and sigh. Movie of the year is probably an understatement for what I just missed. “I know.”

Lizzy thrashes dramatically in her seat. “And the worst part is, I can’t even tell you about it!”

“Yes you can,” I tell her. “You know spoilers don’t bother me.”

“But it bothers me that they don’t bother you.” She grabs my bag from the seat next to her and walks disgruntledly down the stairs. “Honestly, you couldn’t hold it for another hour?”

“Give me my purse back and just tell me what it was about already.”

Lizzy shies away, keeping my purse on her shoulder. “Hmm,” she says, thoughtfully, dancing away from me when I try to take my bag back again. “I’ll comply with only one of those requests.”

I glare at her and she grins at me gleefully. She knows what I’m going to choose. No detail goes unscoured between us in this mystery-filled and conspiracy-theory-riddled franchise. Why would the movie be any different?

“What was it about?” I ask.

Lizzy smirks, a devious look in her eye. “Well, if you really want to get down to the heart of the matter, it was about…” She pauses; I can only assume for dramatic effect. “Matter!”

I blink. Then I groan. “Seriously?” I say. She giggles. “Not only was that too metaphorical to be a real explanation, but you make fun of me for my puns—and I swear mine are better than that.”

“Yours are precisely that bad and you know it.”

“Alright, quality of puns aside…” I lean forward and give her what I can only assume is my most manic grin. “What does it mean?”

Lizzy shrugs and hops one step above me. “Honestly, that’s the most accurate I can be without giving you spoilers. It was about matter.”

“Okay, but.” I lift my foot and start to kick her lightly but methodically in the shin. “What does that mean?

“Alexis,” Lizzy hisses.

“I’ll stop kicking you when you tell me what this matter stuff means.”

“No!” Lizzy jerks her head towards the theater entrance and gives me the same crazy eyes from earlier. That’s about all she manages before what she was trying to warn me about is upon us.

“Oh, did you two just catch the show?”

I freeze.

He’s behind me.

Again.

This is getting to be like a bad gag.

I turn marginally, and there he is, in all his ginger, bashful glory, rubbing the back of his head like he’s sorry to interrupt us.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt. I just overhead what you said about matter, and…”

“Ohmigosh, see?” Lizzy said, taking my shoulders and shaking me. “I told you this was the only way to describe what happened!” She clears her throat and turns back to Terry. “But, um, if you don’t my saying so, it’s a real surprise to see you here, Mr. Walsh.”

He laughs. “Terry is fine. I get why you’re surprised, though. My PR rep thought I’d be too drained after the convention in New York to come out to this, so they didn’t even mention it…but you know me, I don’t like to miss out on sharing these events with fans like you. They had to scramble at the office to get everything worked out, but then my flight was delayed and I missed my chance to talk to the audience of the first showing…” He broke off there and sighed. “Looks like I missed them the second time around too, except for you two. I was hoping to talk to everyone, but I guess there was a mix-up about who was supposed to come up here and hold the audience after the show.”

“Well,” Lizzy says, toeing the ground in a way that I know means she’s feeling self-conscious, “if you’re not extravagantly busy, you’re still not interrupting, and I’d love to hear what you think of my ‘matter’-of-fact interpretation.”

He chuckles and says, “Well, I wouldn’t want to say anything to condemn or support it, you know? I just made this thing. It belongs to you guys now.”

Oh, he’s too cool.

“So you’re of the opinion that a creator’s interpretation doesn’t create a ‘correct’ one,” I say. Terry’s eyes focus on me, and I’m already reprimanding myself for saying anything. I get all tongue-tied in front of the people I admire, but he was talking craft! That’s my thing.

“Yeah, actually,” he says. “Especially with this fandom. There are too many questions, and it’s not like I’m gonna give you guys all the answers.” There’s a tense moment where he holds my gaze—like he’s challenging me to say otherwise.

“It wouldn’t be right if you did,” I murmur.

He smiles like I gave him the right answer to a math problem and then drops his eyes politely. “Sorry, where are my manners.” He holds out his hand. “I’m—”

“Oh, we know who you are,” I reply.

He laughs, looking at me with a sparkle in his eyes. “This is probably one of the only contexts in which saying that isn’t creepy, right?”

I can feel myself coloring, but there’s nowhere to run while he’s got his eyes on me. “So what are your names?” he asks.

Ha! Like my name matters! Does he know who he is?

I use the opportunity to turn and introduce my sister so he won’t see my blushing. “This is my sister Lizzy,” I say.

“I’m studying art!” she interjects. As expected from there, she launches into a tirade about art school, about how the professors don’t understand the subjectivity of the medium and hold everyone to strange, outdated standards of “good art” and “bad art,” skillfully diverting attention away from my still warm cheeks. She tells him my name while I pretend to tie my shoelace even though I’m wearing boots.

“So, let me make sure I’ve got this right,” he says. “Lizzy and… Alexis, was it?”

I look up when he says my name. He’s got me in his sights again. Whelp, mission to hide fangirling failed. I swallow my trepidation, force myself to maintain eye contact, and nod.

“Lovely to meet both of you.” He releases me, shifting his gaze to Lizzy. “Now that we’ve met properly, I’d love to hear what you had to say about what was the ‘matter’ with my movie.”

Lizzy glances at me and then bites her lip. “I had a whole Katamari explanation lined up for you, but I’m not sure it’s serious enough for him.”

“Katamari?” Terry and I say at the same time.

“Okay, you know what, never mind,” Lizzy says, crossing her arms. “I don’t care what you say, it totally makes sense.”

“That entire game doesn’t make sense,” I say.

“Totally why I loved it,” Terry agrees. ‘But I have to say,” he continues, “inspiration wise, I played a looooot more Robot Unicorn Assault while working on this.”

I shake my head, chuckling. “I didn’t play that gay”—I’m stuck holding that syllable for far too long because I want to backpedal. That’s not how you even use that word, I know that; I hate when people use this word that way, I’m bi for crying out loud, I take it personally when people do this, ahhhhh he’s gonna think I’m a bitch!—”ass game.”

Oh yeah, nice save, honey. Adding “ass” to that tooootally made it better.

He gives me a disbelieving look and then says, “Tch, yes you did.”

Ah, beautiful thing, he’s given me a way out!

I grin back and make a sort of shrugging gesture. “Well, if it had actually been gay, I totally would have, but I make it a point not to play games with the words ‘robot’ and ‘unicorn’ right next to each other in the title.”

“What?” he says. “Got something against cyborg unicorns?”

“Cyborg unicorns are different!” I tell him, raising finger to instruct him. “Don’t test me, man, I know my unicorns. Little Alexis was very adamant about knowing her unicorns.”

“Oh, really now?” His eyes narrow, but he’s still grinning like he’s enjoying arguing about this. “Then how did you feel about ‘The Last Cassiecorn’?”

Ah, yes, the episode where Cassie must find a unicorn and obtain some of its hair to complete a warding spell to keep the entirely-too-dapper-for-a-cycloptic-polygon dream demon and series antagonist Buck Puzzle out of the Conundrum Cabin—and the unicorns are complete dicks.

Loved it,” I murmur.

“Oh?” he says. “Even as an adamantly unicorn-knowing thing like you?”

“Well, okay, hear me out,” I say—because he’s right, I am that, but still…

“Oh, here we go,” Lizzy grumbles, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

“The unicorns in ‘The Last Cassiecorn’ were not the unicorns people fall in love with as kids,” I say. “They’re parodies. You really took the tropes, made them your own, and broke them. Never have I ever taken such pleasure in a unicorn being such a dick. Or in Cassie punching someone.”

He looks vaguely proud of himself. “Well, thank goodness. Means I’m doing my job right.”

Lizzy laughs her “I can’t believe you just said that” laugh.

I verbalize what she’s saying. “More than doing your job, I think.”

His grin cracks wider and he takes a tiny bow.

I find myself wanting to say more.

“Plus, it was really clever how you used the unicorn hair to include Cassie in warding the cabin against Buck.”

Something in his eyes turns wicked. “Ah, yes. Buck… So what is it about Buck?”

The way he’s looking at me says he knows about the way the fandom sees Buck. I freeze, a deer in the headlights as my mind fills with every sinful fanwork I’ve ever read, seen, or personally created involving the villainous, insane, inexplicably sexy polygon that is Buck Puzzle.

Once, someone asked Terry on Twitter why he made Buck sexy. Terry asked them their age. When they said fourteen, he told them they’d answered their own question, because puberty is so confusing that kids will be attracted to anything confident and yet nonthreatening, even a rectangular dream demon. And, like, he’s not wrong, but that hardly explains the mountains of fanfiction we of the sixteen to mid-thirties age variety are creating and consuming.

It’s okay, it’s okay, Alexis, play it cool; he can’t know about all of the things you’ve seen—all the beautiful, sexy, horrible things you’ve seen…

But, fuck, if that cocky grin doesn’t say he does.

Just be, um, professional about this, yeah.

“W-well, okay…” I start. “It’s not even anything to do with his being a rectangle with two adjacent equal sides, it’s not like everyone’s raving mad for polygons—I mean, unless they’re geometry nuts.”

Oh thank my lucky stars, he actually laughs at that.

“I mean, not that his rhombus-ness isn’t awesome, the designer did a great job—”

“Yeah, yeah, she did, didn’t she? Good call on the color, and the sizing—”

“Now people are too busy making blue ‘square’ jokes instead of calling him a dollar bill—”

“Potato-potahto, you should see some of the more outlandish fan theories—”

Oh, I have. “About his sense of nostalgia due to his bowler hat and tendency to recognize himself in the likeness of floppy disks?”

Terry grins. “Audiences are like kids on the playground: there will always be something to make fun of.”

“Is that coming from experience?”

He groans and hides his eyes behind a hand, still grinning. “You were telling me what it is about Buck.”

“Okay, okay. So if it’s not the equilateral, equiangular quadrilateral-ness, despite the fantastic work of the design team, it comes down to his character, right?”

“Right.”

“Well then, you’ve answered your own question. I mean, you wrote him, and you’ve seen at least some of all the fan inspired work, right? It’s all electronic swing music and fitted waist coats and, and…” I’m hunting for a one-word summary of the core of this character. “Swagger.” Oh, there it is. That’s the thing, that’s gold right there. “Yeah, that’s it.” I straighten up from my musing and meet Terry’s eyes to give him my findings. “Buck is such an alluring character because of his swagger.”

Terry really seems to like that word, ‘cause he lights up like a fucking Christmas tree. “His swagger, huh?”

I nod meekly, feeling like I may have just said the dumbest thing in existence. I can already feel Lizzy mentally kicking me for telling him why we find the umbrella-carrying demonic square hot. Terry’s a creator! It’s one thing if he stumbles across fanwork online, but none of us are supposed to acknowledge this black underbelly of fandom in person; and here I am analyzing it for him.

Terry chuckles. “Honestly, I’ve never heard a more agreeable analysis as to why people go crazy for a deranged rectangle. Makes sense to me.”

“Especially considering the emerging mainstream awareness for non-binary gender and sexual preferences,” Lizzy pipes up.

“Too true!” Terry agrees, looking for all the world like he’s going to launch into the world’s most long-winded explanation of how exactly this might relate to Buck and people’s crazy affinity for him —when a theater attendant comes up to him and says, “Um, Mr. Walsh, sir?”

Terry closes his mouth like he’s putting the rant on pause and turns to the attendant. “Hm?”

“The audience for the second showing is all set to come in. Every seat is sold out, so it’s going to take some time to get them all in here, but…” The attendant’s eyes flick nervously behind her glasses over my sister and I. “Should we have them wait?”

Whoa, wait a second, hold up; this poor attendant thinks my sister and I are important enough to hold a whole audience for?

“Oh gosh, sorry,” I blurt out. “We’ll get out.”

The attendant looks nervously back at Terry and he nods. “Don’t worry, you weren’t interrupting anything,” he tells her kindly. “The pre-show was over when I stepped off stage downstairs, so this was just me geeking out with some of the fans from the first showing.”

The attendant visibly relaxes. “Oh, thank goodness,” she mumbles. “And here I was worried I’d missed part of the memo on your special appearance, and…”

He laughs. “No, no, you’re good. We’ll get out of your hair now.”

She nods gratefully. Terry stands aside so Lizzy and I can pass him. As I do, I have a sudden burst of melancholy. I guess that’s it for our interview with our favorite creator. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted. I’m sure there will be other chances to see him. At conventions and things. When he has a whole line of fans to see and no second to spare to talk about the craft behind Grunkle Alex’s character motivations, or the familial parallels between Alex and his twin brother Xander and the younger set of twins Cassie and Clint…

I stop once I get outside the theater and away from the door. Terry falls in next to me, startling me out of my thoughts and back into the here and now where he’s still with us. I smile a little bit at him and he smiles back and then says, “It’s been fun talking with you about this.”

“The pleasure was ours,” I say, but as I say “ours” I realize Lizzy isn’t near me anymore. I look up and see her diligently pressing the down button by the elevator down the hall. She’s glaring at the line of people on the stairs, probably thinking about what a fire hazard they are and how much faster she could have gotten out of here if she could take the stairs. My funny sister. She never did like crowds. But how did she get so far ahead of me?

Right, walking. We were walking and I stopped because I was lost in thought about how much I don’t want to this to end. I sigh and correct my course, heading towards Lizzy and the elevators.

Terry follows me. “Did you…did you ever notice anything about Buck’s umbrella while you were watching the show and analyzing his ‘swagger’?” he asks.

I give him a bewildered look and then direct the question to Lizzy. “Did we?”

If anyone would remember, it would be Lizzy. She’s good with details, and if we had discussed it she would remember. The fact that I don’t remember means that if it did come up, it had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the story. Or at least, not in a way that we’ve seen yet. Then again, Terry keeps proving to the fans that he likes to play the long game when it comes to delivering on some of his arcs. Seriously, I’m not alone when I say that I can’t wait to see what he does with his series finale.

Lizzy’s button pressing slows and she twists her lips the way she does when she’s thinking. She looks at me blankly. “No.” I frown, now concerned we totally missed something. We both look back at Terry. “Should we have?” Lizzy asks.

He laughs awkwardly, like a teenager trying to tell you he didn’t buy you that super expensive game you wanted for Christmas when really he’s holding it behind his back, hoping you’ll leave the room before he has to walk sideways out of it to keep you from seeing.

“Okay, well, that’s a yes,” I mumble. Lizzy leaves off pressing the down elevator button, her attention captured by something far more interesting.

“Listen,” Terry says, “it’s not a big deal, and I don’t want to spoil anything…”

“Oh, consider it spoiled,” Lizzy says. “This is gonna keep me up all night.”

“It will too,” I tell him. “She’s one those fans that decodes the secret messages you leave in the credits.”

“I’m already running over every scene I can remember where Buck has his umbrella, summons one, or dismisses it,” Lizzy prompts.

“Would you really actively rob an art student of another night of sleep?” I ask him.

Terry looks conflicted. Then he puts his hands up in defeat. “Okay. Okay. If Buck gestures with his cane in a scene, four frames later, look at the point he was gesturing at on the screen. Just, start there, and if it doesn’t make itself obvious, start telling other fans. This fandom can crowdsource the mystery out of anything.”

Lizzy stands back on her heels and crosses her arms. “I guess that’s a satisfactory answer,” she says.

“You wouldn’t really be satisfied if he just flat-out told you,” I say.

Lizzy grimaces. “Yeah… I guess you’re right.”

“I would be, though,” I chuckle.

Terry looks at me. “You don’t share your sister’s code breaking enthusiasm?”

I shrug. The elevator dings as it arrives. “I prefer analyzing plot and character due to the foreshadowing clues you leave instead.”

“Ah, a conspiracy theorist of plot then,” he says. “Spoilers wouldn’t bother you.”

“Yeah, they never have,” I respond.

“She makes better faces when she doesn’t know what’s going to happen, though,” Lizzy mumbles. I muss her hair as she passes me to get on the elevator. I get on after her, but Terry stays on the landing. Guess he’s staying for the show and this is goodbye for real this time.

“We’ll be sure to look for the umbrella clues,” I tell Terry. “But first I gotta grill this little lady about the ending of the movie.”

“Wait…” Terry steps halfway onto the elevator, blocking the doors from closing. They start to, but he pushes them back. “You missed it?”

I shrug. “My fault. I should know better than to get an Icee, ya know?”

The door tries to close on him again and he holds it back. “We’re gonna play it again. You could stay.”

I blink. I hadn’t considered that. I mean, I’d have to buy another ticket and I’d have to catch up with Lizzy later, but I could… Oh no, wait. “Didn’t the attendant say it was sold out?”

Terry actually swears under his breath. “You’re right, she did, didn’t she?” He steps away from the elevator for a second, running his fingers through his hair and pacing in a quick circle before coming right back just as the door starts to close again. How long are we gonna hold up this elevator? But I can’t find it in me to be mad. As long as that door stays open, I don’t have to say goodbye to this or to him and go back to the real world where I could never talk to him like this.

He steps in close, and there’s something…different about his eyes—like he’s made a very important decision.

“Listen,” he says. “I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a total creep, but if you want to see the ending of the movie tonight… I have a private copy of it back in my hotel room.”

There’s a difference between making eye contact and staring. A moment ago I was making eye contact. Now, now I am staring.

But I don’t have time to process and respond before the elevator has had it with our bullshit and is doing that screamy buzzer thing that lets you know you have exactly two seconds to decide what you’re going to do with your life before everyone who is not you in the elevator attacks you for holding it up a moment longer.

I put my hand on his chest and push. My momentum carries me out of the elevator after him. The doors immediately close behind me, cutting off Lizzy’s cry of protest, and leaving me standing in the upper lobby with my hand on Terry Walsh’s chest.

When he puts his hand over mine, we’ve gone back to “Is this a dream?” mode.

But if this is a dream, that means I’m lucid dreaming right now.

And if I’m lucid dreaming right now, that means I can control what happens.

And if I can control what happens, then all I need to do is be logical about this.

Because if this is, by some crazy happenstance, not actually a dream, I will be happy I treated non-dream Terry with the courtesy and respect I would treat any real person with.

So. What are the facts? The facts are that this is Terry Walsh, creator of my favorite animated TV show, and that although I have known who he is for close to three years, I don’t know a thing about him. I know that he wants to show me the ending of the movie that I just missed and that he just invited me back to his hotel room in order to do so. I know that there are about a million people who would kill to be me right now and that there are about a million ways to take this and that there are about another million ways to fuck it up, and above all I know I can’t fuck it up. There have to be rules. He’s too important to me to let him or me ruin any of this.

Those are the facts. So long as I remember them, maybe I can let myself have this, dream or not.

I take a deep breath and dive. “I’d really, really like see the end of the movie…”

“Yes?” he prompts.

“But I just met you, and I’m a fan, and I don’t know anything about you, and is that really okay with you?”

He takes a deep breath and then lets it out slowly. “Yeah, this is definitely an ‘I just met you and this is crazy,’ sort of moment, huh? I get that…but it’s been really interesting talking to you about the show, and I’d—selfishly—like to hear what you have to say about the ending of my movie.”

It’s as if my head is incapable of processing what he’s just said. I’m stuck staring at the floor, biting my lip, trying to wrap my head around this really happening. I stay like that, as if looking for my answer in the design of the rug, until he squeezes my hand. Then I open my mouth and I say, “As long as this is just about the stories, I’ll come with you.”

There. Rules set. Safety made. Now I can’t ruin him.

He smiles this smile, like… Like he knows what I mean. Like he understands that I can’t come back to his room for anything other than his story, even though I want to and he’s amazing. He gets that I don’t know him and that he’s too important to me as a creator to do something sexual with when I don’t know him as a person, and he understands and wants it too.

And it’s enough for him. It’s enough that I love his story and that I understand it and that I want to know him, but that for now all I’m capable of is the stories because we’re essentially two strangers holding hands—oh my gosh, we’re holding hands. He still hasn’t let go of my hand. I mean, it’s not like I’ve tried to get away, and I’m still pretty convinced this is a dream, so the gentle pressure of his hand around mine is probably the only thing keeping me grounded right now.

Oh, reality check: what if this is real life?

“Um, I should probably call my sister,” I say. “She’s probably brooding somewhere in the lobby waiting for me…” Assuming it wasn’t so crowded in the lobby that she just jumped ship and started walking back to the hotel without me. She really, really can’t deal with crowds.

“Oh, of course!” he says, hastily letting go of my hand.

I rub my hand lightly, discreetly retracing the places where his fingers were touching. I start to reach for my purse and realize I don’t have it. Where…? Dammit, that’s right, Lizzy has it. I can feel a blush coming on as I reach hopefully to my back pocket, hoping my phone is there. I come up empty. I feel a blush of embarrassment rise on my face as I say, “Lizzy had my purse.”

He blinks uncomprehendingly at me for a moment, then blinks with realization and digs in his pocket. “Here, use mine,” he offers. “Sorry. I should have realized… I mean, you can’t have yours on you unless I’m seriously missing something about those skinny jeans.”

I feel the intensity of my blush skyrocket. He was looking at my jeans?

I take his phone from him, pause, and then admit, “I… I don’t know her number.”

“You know, I don’t know my sister’s mobile number either.” He takes the phone back and thumbs over to a different set of apps. “Skype? Facebook Messenger? Twitter? Some crazy new thing I haven’t head of but can download for you this very second?”

“She’s got notifications on for her Facebook messages, and she’ll reply immediately if I message her there.”

“Wow, she must be really into social media,” he says. He hands me the phone back, the Facebook app already open to the login screen.

“Heh, no.” I login, switch to Messenger, and start typing. “I’m just the only one who ever messages her there.”

“Ah, so the closest of siblings then.”

“Mhmm. Wouldn’t bring a weak one to this.” It’s easier to banter when I’m not looking into his pretty eyes.

“Ah, yes, you’re right. They’d never survive the conspiracy theories.”

“Wouldn’t get past the backwards message in the opening credits,” I agree. I run my eyes over the message to Lizzy. Relevant amount of freaking out? Check. Time in which to check back in and check-in password alluded to, but not actually typed within the message so she knows it’s me just in case this is actually a shape-shifting Terry clone that doesn’t have a hotel room and is gonna kill me and steal my form? Also check. Everything looks good, so I hit send.

She responds with a rapid burst of celebratory emojis. Wait. She’s happy about this? I thought for sure she’d argue…

Oh, no. Do I actually not want to go with Terry? Was I hoping Lizzy would put a stop to this and call me back to reality? It’s hard for me to accept good things when they happen because bad things have been happening for so long.

Are you sure you don’t need me to go back to the hotel with you? I ask her.

What the hell are you talking about, I already left without you. You know how I feel about crowds.

But… I say.

Oh, no… You’re not doing the thing are you?

There’s a pause, and I don’t respond. I only have to wait a second before the typing icon informs me she’s started typing again.

Don’t do the thing, sis. Just stop it. This is motherfucking Terry Walsh, not the guy who raped me, not Dad, not any of those sexist assholes you deal with on a daily basis. And I will personally murder you if you come back to this hotel room without picking that brilliant fucker’s brain for every piece of artistic knowledge you can. Do you have a death wish? Don’t make me a murderer!!!

That gets a chuckle out of me. Okay, I type back. I look back up at Terry. His face is pleasant and clear, but he’s fiddling with the cuff of his red plaid shirt.

“How’d it go?” he asks.

“I’m staying with you,” I tell him. “Do you want me to log out of my account?”

“Nah. Go ahead and turn on notifications too. Just in case anyone wants to get a hold of you.”

Aw, he’s sweet.

I turn notifications on and hand his phone back to him.

He takes it, makes a thoughtful face, then flips back to Messenger. “On second thought, how about I give Lizzy the hotel name, room number, and the fake name I’m staying under too, hm?” He starts typing away. “Just so she doesn’t worry.”

Never mind. I take it back. He’s not sweet at all. That word is too much of a transgressional understatement to describe him.

When he’s done, he offers the phone back to me. “Here. I turned off the lock feature too.”

I slowly wrap my fingers around the phone. In this day and age, letting someone have your phone is a lot of trust to put in someone. “Are you sure? I mean, I can—”

“Nah,” he says. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to ask me for permission to talk with your sister.”

I duck my head, letting my hair swing into my face to hide it. I’m overwhelmed. This is exactly the sort of thing I expect men to think of to make women feel safe, but it’s the first time I’ve actually had one do something like this. His attention to detail apparently extends beyond his show. I take a deep breath, collecting myself and then raise my head back up, putting his phone in my back pocket. “Thank you,” I tell him.

“Don’t sweat it,” he says. “Ready to go?” He gives me a bashful smile and then offers me his arm just as awkwardly as he released my hand.

I take his arm and say, “You bet. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.”

 

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