Playing With Fire (CHAPTER TWO)

BY THE TIME I REACHED the Ambassador Suites-without being hit by a car, damn it-I'd successfully forced the day's events to the back of my mind, to be considered and dissected later. Why not worry about it now, you ask? Because my head was about to explode into tiny Belle fragments, that's why. A sharp ache pounded in my temples and beads of sweat dotted my skin. My stomach pricked and burned as if I'd swallowed a thousand acid-coated needles.

Hunger pains, maybe? No, surely not. I'd skipped lunch, true, but I'd skipped meals before and never reacted this way.

I stumbled into the hotel's bathroom, the black-and-white-tiled floor spinning and making me dizzy. My eyes were normally hazel, a green-brown mix, but right now, in the mirror, they appeared a glassy emerald. Too bright. Dilated.

My hands shook as I splashed cold water on my face. But the liquid didn't trickle down; my skin seemed to open up and absorb every drop. It happened so quickly I would have missed it if I blinked. My pores screamed in protest, burning, burning.

A moan slipped from my lips. What the hell was wrong with me? Had I picked up a vicious, fast-acting virus after leaving Utopia?

God, I hurt everywhere, the pain growing stronger with every passing second. My joints were swelling, and I was having trouble drawing in a decent breath. Straightening as best I could, I stared again at my reflection. Bruises had formed under my eyes and bright red spots of color painted my cheeks. My lips were pulled tight.

I looked liked a drug addict. In desperate need of a fix.

I could just imagine how a potential employer would respond to that: throw me out on my ass and post my picture all over the building with a notice that I was to be arrested if I set one foot inside the place ever again. Great. Freaking great.

A sudden cramp doubled me over, and I cried out. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out. Gradually, the pain subsided. I straightened again, my ears ringing loudly as blood pounded through them.

"Holy hell." Just get the interview over with so you can go home and rest.

Somehow, and God only knew how, I pulled myself together enough to walk into the interviewer's office with my head held high and my shoulders squared. An older man with thick silver hair and a stiff brown suit sat behind the room's only desk. He grinned when he spotted me, his eye crinkling at the corners. Kindness radiated from him.

"You must be Belle."

"Yes." I forced my lips into an answering smile. I wouldn't be able to keep up the facade for long. I realized that when the interviewer-what the hell was his name?-shook hands with me. The feel of his palm against my too-sensitized flesh nearly dropped me to the ground, huddling in a fetal ball and crying for the mommy I hadn't seen in more than twenty years. The contact, though brief, cut through me like a barrage of slashing knives.

"You're a little late," he said, glancing at his wristwatch, "but I think there's just enough time to get to know each other."

"Thank you. Thank you so much. I had an unavoidable delay, but I promise you now, I'll never be late again." Hurriedly I unfolded my r��sum�� from my pocket and handed it to him, careful not to touch him.

Ding, ding. Let the interview begin.

OKAY, SO I TOTALLY BLEW the interview.

My ears had rung too loudly, and I hadn't been able to hear him. My joints had ached too fiercely, and I hadn't been able to sit still. My mind had neared explosion, and I hadn't been able to think of intelligent answers.

Disheartened and racked by intense, debilitating pain, I entered my apartment, tossed my keys onto the old brown shag carpet, locked the door and lumbered to my bedroom, stripping as I walked/crawled/begged God for sweet death. As I fell into the soft coolness of the bed, the entire horrific nightmare replayed in my mind.

Interviewer: My, but you've worked at a lot of jobs.

Me: Only recently. Before that, I was a maid-with the same hotel-for almost five years, as well as a waitress-for the same restaurant. But at each of my latest jobs, I assure you I've learned valuable lessons.

Interviewer: What, uh, did you learn at the Kimberly Dolls factory?

Me: I learned that it is not funny to put the Kevin head on the Kimberly body.

Interviewer: Hmm. And at the pet groomer?

Me: I learned that dogs and cats are to be respected and not shaved to resemble lions. In my defense, the lion look is very popular with certain breeds.

Interviewer: I see. I'm curious about something. Were you fired from each of these jobs or did you quit?

Me: I prefer the term "let go." Fired just sounds so… mean.

Interviewer: Were you let go, then?

Me: Yes, but I can explain.

Interviewer: I'm listening.

Me: At Harrison and Co. Books, I completely misunderstood the return policy. A simple mistake, really, one anyone could have made. You see, I thought it would be totally fine to take the books home in my bag, read them and return them. You would have thought the same thing, wouldn't you? That's what return means.

Interviewer: Well, uh, hmm. What about Jumpin' Jive Cars? Why were you let go from there?

Me: Well, that's an interesting story. See, there was an unfortunate accident with one of the cars I borrowed. Totally not my fault. The lady in front of me didn't signal, and you know how important it is to signal when changing lanes.

Interviewer: Yes, that is important.

Me: Just give me a chance, Mr. uh, uh-

Interviewer: Mr. MacDonald.

Me: I'll be the best damn, uh, uh-

Interviewer: Maid.

Me:-maid you've ever seen. Maid! That's excellent. I told you about my five years of experience, didn't I? I'm great with people and even better with toilets, and that's the Belle Jamison guarantee. There's nothing more solid than that, Mr. MacRonald.

Interviewer: It's Donald.

Me: Why, thank you, Donald. You may call me Belle.

Interviewer: That's not-never mind. I have to be honest with you, Miss Jamison. We at the Ambassador are looking for someone more, well, grounded.

Me: I'm grounded. Totally. I spent most of my teenage years grounded.

Interviewer: Hmm.

Me: That was a joke. Promise. My dad didn't have the heart to ground me, even when I deserved it.

Interviewer: We need someone levelheaded.

Me: I can be levelheaded. One time I was shopping with my friend Sherridan, who will kill you if you call her Sherry, and she wanted to buy this very pretty, very expensive blue dress. Blue is totally her best color and it looked killer on her, but she'd already maxed out her cards and didn't have excess cash. I told her the dress made her ass look fat so she wouldn't put herself into more debt. A gal doesn't get any more levelheaded than that.

Interviewer: I'll make a note of that. Meanwhile, it was nice to meet you. I'll call you and let you know our decision.

Me: When? I really need this job. Really, really badly.

Interviewer: I'll be making calls in a few days.

Me: Okay, great. I'll keep my ringer turned on so you can reach me anytime. Really. Anytime is good. Well, except for tomorrow morning. I'm not feeling so great. And maybe tomorrow night won't be so good, either. And Saturday. But other than that I'm completely reachable.

Interviewer: That's… good to know. I'll have security show you out.

YEAH, LIKE Mr. Donald MacRonald was ever going to call me.

"Ouch, ouch, ouch." Groaning, I clutched a pillow to my stomach. I'd never been this sick. Not even the time Bobby Lowenstein planted a big wet one on me in the ninth grade and I woke up the next morning with lymph nodes the size of baseballs. Mono had sucked ass.

This sucked bigger ass.

Maybe I'd call Sherridan and make her come over and take care of me. As it was, I didn't have the strength to go into the kitchen and get myself a glass of water and eight hundred Tylenol.

I whimpered as another wave of pain assaulted me. My blood heated to boiling, burning like lava in my veins before chilling to ice. If I hadn't known better, I would have thought something was alive inside me, clawing its way through my every cell. Slicing me apart and rearranging my organs.

Forget Sherridan. I needed a doctor.

I reached for the phone, but my arm dropped onto the bed, too heavy to hold up. A strange but welcome lethargy suddenly flowed through me, lulling me into darkness, away from the pain. My eyelids closed and a black web wove inside my mind. Morning. I'd feel better in the morning.