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Authors: Guillaume Musso

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BOOK: The Girl on Paper
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I still hear the cry that seemed to come from the heavens.

I still feel how I just let myself fall into the void.

I still feel my body tumbling.

I still remember the tears of the little girl from MacArthur Park.

 

13

The escapees

People ask me when I’m going to make a film with real people. What’s real?

Tim Burton

‘You took your time!’ I heard a voice complain.

It was not an angel, much less St Peter.

It was Billie Donelly.

Clinic parking lot
Midday

I had fallen two storeys and now found myself tangled in a curtain on the roof of a beaten-up old Dodge, parked exactly under the window of Sophia Schnabel’s office.

I had one cracked rib, and my knees, neck and ankle were killing me. But I was alive.

‘I don’t want to hurry you,’ said Billie, ‘but I’m worried that if we don’t get out of here pretty damn quickly they’ll stick you in a straitjacket.’

I saw that she had once again helped herself to Aurore’s clothes and was wearing a white camisole with a pair of faded jeans and a belted jacket with silvery edging.

‘Come on, unless you want to spend all night on this roof!’ she said, jangling a bunch of keys on a Bugatti key-ring.

‘So you’re the one who nicked Milo’s keys!’ I exclaimed, climbing down from the Dodge.

‘You’re welcome!’

Incredibly, I seemed only to have sustained a few minor injuries, but when I put weight on my foot I couldn’t stop myself crying out in pain. I had a badly sprained ankle and found I couldn’t walk properly.

‘THERE HE IS!’ shouted Milo, who had suddenly appeared in the parking lot and was now sending three male nurses built like rugby players after me.

Billie got into the driver’s seat of the Bugatti and I threw myself in beside her.

She slammed down the accelerator and headed for the parking lot exit just as the barrier was coming down. Without a second’s hesitation she screeched to a halt on the gravel.

‘TOM! COME BACK!’ Carole begged as we hurtled past her.

The three giants tried to block our path, but Billie just accelerated, clearly enjoying herself.

‘You must admit you’re glad I’m here!’ she announced triumphantly as the car smashed through the barrier and we sped toward freedom.

14

Who's that girl?

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Dylan Thomas

‘Where are you taking me?' I asked, clutching my seat belt.

Turning onto Pico Boulevard, the Bugatti was now heading toward the Pacific Coast Highway at full speed.

At the wheel, Billie, clearly under the impression she was the new Ayrton Senna, had adopted an aggressive driving technique, favouring sudden braking, rapid acceleration and abrupt turns at top speed.

‘This thing goes like a rocket!' she said happily, instead of answering my question.

Thrown back against the headrest, I felt as though I were on an aircraft about to take off. I watched her change gears with surprising dexterity. She was obviously having a field day.

‘The engine's a little noisy, don't you think?'

‘
Noisy
? Are you kidding? It's like Mozart!'

She had obviously forgotten my question, so I repeated it, feeling annoyed.

‘Where are you taking me?'

‘Mexico.'

‘Huh?'

‘I packed a suitcase and a washbag for you.'

‘What? I never agreed to this! I'm not going anywhere.'

I demanded instead to be dropped off at a hospital so I could get my ankle looked at. I was not at all happy with the way things were going. But she ignored my request.

‘Stop the car!' I commanded, grabbing her arm.

‘You're hurting me!'

‘Stop the damn car!'

She slammed on the brakes and swerved to the side of the highway. The tyres of the Bugatti screeched over the asphalt before coming to a halt in a cloud of dust.

*

‘Why on earth do you want to go to Mexico?'

We had both got out of the car and were arguing on the strip of grass that bordered the road.

‘I'm taking you where you're not brave enough to go on your own!'

‘Oh, of course! And where might that be then?'

I had to shout over the roar of the passing traffic, exacerbating the pain in my chest.

‘We're going to find Aurore!' she yelled, just as a truck narrowly missed colliding with the Bugatti and sped past with its horn blaring.

I stared at her in a daze.

‘I don't see what Aurore has to do with any of this.'

The air was thick with fumes. Beyond the wire fencing I could make out the runways and control towers of Los Angeles airport.

Billie opened the trunk of the car and took out a copy of
People Magazine
. There were several headlines splashed across the cover: Brangelina's potential break-up, yet another Pete Doherty scandal, the holiday snaps of the latest Formula
1 champion and Rafael Barros with his new fiancée – Aurore Valancourt.

Just to torture myself, I opened the gossip magazine at the relevant page to find glamorous photos taken in some utopian beach resort. Surrounded by steep rock faces, white sand and turquoise water, Aurore radiated beauty and serenity in the arms of her Hispanic hero.

My vision blurred. Paralysed by shock, I tried to concentrate on the words in the article but I couldn't. Only the highlighted quotes managed to leave their painful imprint on my mind. 

Aurore:
We only met recently, but I know that Rafael is the one for me
.

Rafael:
Our joy will be complete when we have a child
.

Disgusted, I sent the rag flying to the side of the highway, then, despite my current lack of a licence, climbed into the driver's seat, slammed the door shut and turned the car round to head back into town.

‘Hey! You can't just leave me by the side of the road!' Billie shouted after me, waving her arms and positioning herself in front of the hood.

I let her get in, realising that I was not going to have a moment's peace.

‘I understand what you're going through,' she said.

‘There's no need to feel sorry for me; you have no idea what you're talking about.'

As I drove, I tried to get my head straight. I needed time to think about the events of the morning, I needed to…

‘So where are you taking us?'

‘Back to my place.'

‘But there's no such thing as “your place” any more! And
there's definitely no such thing as “my place”.'

‘I'll get myself a lawyer,' I muttered. ‘I'll find a way to get my house back, and all the money that Milo lost.'

‘It won't work,' she interrupted, shaking her head sadly.

‘I didn't ask for your opinion – mind your own business!'

‘But this
is
my business! May I remind you that I'm stuck here because of your mistake, because of that stupid badly printed book!'

At the traffic lights, I scrabbled around in my pockets until I found my tranquillisers. I had a cracked rib, a swollen ankle and a broken heart. So I felt justified in swallowing three tablets in one go.

‘That's right, take the easy way out,' said Billie reproachfully, her voice heavy with disappointment.

At that precise moment, I could happily have murdered her. Instead I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm.

‘You won't get your girlfriend back by just sitting on your butt stuffing yourself with pills, you know.'

‘You don't know anything about my relationship with Aurore. And, for your information, I've tried everything to get her back.'

‘But maybe you didn't try the right way, or at the right time. Maybe you think you know what women want, but really you don't know anything about them. I think I could help you—'

‘If you really wanted to help me, you'd shut up for a minute! Just for one minute!'

‘You want to get rid of me? Well, get back to work then! The sooner you finish your novel, the sooner I can return to the world of fiction.'

Clearly pleased with her retort, she sat back and crossed her arms, waiting for a reaction that never came.

‘Listen,' she said excitedly, ‘I'll make you a deal: we go to Mexico, I help you get Aurore back, and in exchange you
write the third part of your trilogy, because that's the only way to get me back where I belong.'

I rubbed my eyes, unsure of how to respond to this extraordinary proposition.

‘I brought your laptop with us,' she added, as if this fact would somehow sway my decision.

‘It doesn't work like that,' I explained. ‘You can't write a novel to order. There's a kind of alchemy to it. I would need at least six months of dedicated hard work to finish the book. It demands an ascetic commitment that I have neither the strength nor the desire to give to it.'

She looked at me mockingly, imitating my voice: ‘“You can't write a novel to order. There's a kind of alchemy to it …”'

She paused for a few seconds before bursting into hysterical laughter.

‘My God, you need to stop wallowing in your own misery. If you don't snap out of it soon, it'll get the better of you for good. It's so much easier to self-destruct gradually than to try and pull yourself together, isn't it?'

Touché
.

I didn't reply, although I took her point. She wasn't totally wrong. Earlier in the psychiatrist's office, when I had hurled the statue through the window, something inside me had been released: an inner protest, a need to regain control of my life. But I had to admit that that desire had disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.

Now, however, I had the impression that Billie was not going to drop this, and was not afraid to confront me with difficult truths.

‘You know what will happen if you don't really start to fight your natural inclinations?'

‘No, but I'm sure you're about to tell me.'

‘You'll keep taking the pills and you'll keep snorting drugs.
Each time you'll sink a little lower into self-hatred and
self-disgust.
And when you're stone broke, you'll end up on the street where one day they'll find your corpse with a syringe still sticking out of your forearm.'

‘Charming.'

‘You should also be aware that if you don't act now, you'll never find the energy or the strength to write another line.'

With both hands on the steering wheel, I gazed
absent-mindedly
at the road ahead. She was right, of course she was, but it was probably too late to do anything about it now. I was probably destined to go under for good, when my destructive side finally won out.

She looked intently at me. ‘And all those lofty morals you preach in your books – resilience in the face of adversity, second chances, inner resources you have to find in yourself to recover from life's blows – they're much easier to write about than to put into practice, aren't they?' All of a sudden her voice faltered unexpectedly, as if overcome with emotion, tiredness and fear. ‘And what about me? You don't give a damn about me! I've lost everything in your story: my family, my job, my home and I'm stuck in a reality where the only person who can help me would prefer to wallow in self-pity!'

I was taken aback by her reaction and turned my head to look at her, not knowing what to say. Her face was haloed by the sun, and her eyes glittered with distress.

I glanced in my rear-view mirror and slammed down the gas pedal, overtaking a long line of cars, before doing another U-turn and heading for the south again.

‘Where are we going?' she asked, wiping away a stray tear.

‘To Mexico,' I said, ‘to get my life back, and to change yours.'

15

The pact

No magic tricks, no special effects. It was created by words thrown down on the page, and words on the page are the only thing that will rid us of it

Stephen King

We stopped at a service station just past Torrance Beach. I don’t know if the Bugatti had a rocket engine, but it certainly consumed as much fuel.

Pacific Coast Highway
South Bay, LA
2 p.m.

The gas station was crowded. To avoid waiting too long, I decided to fill the tank at one of the self-service stands. I almost cried out in pain when I stepped out of the car; my ankle was hurting more than ever and it had started to swell up. I inserted my card, put in the PIN code, but

 

TRANSACTION NOT PERMITTED

 

The message was splashed across the screen in angry digital lettering. I pulled my card from the machine and wiped it with my sleeve then tried again, still without success.

Damn it
.

I rummaged around in my wallet, but found only a lone $20 bill. I stuck my head angrily through the passenger window.

‘My card doesn’t work!’

‘Of course it doesn’t! You don’t have a penny to your name, remember? It’s not a magic card!’

‘You don’t have any money by any chance, do you?’

‘And where would I have stashed that then?’ she answered calmly. ‘I was as naked as the day I was born when I landed on your terrace!’

‘Well, thanks for the help!’ I fumed, limping over to the till.

The shop was crammed with customers. In the background Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s magical version of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ could be heard, a masterpiece sadly ruined by being played to death in countless elevators, supermarkets and places like this.

‘Cool car!’ someone called admiringly from the line.

Several customers and cashiers looked curiously through the window at the Bugatti, and a crowd quickly gathered around me. I explained my credit card problem to the guy on the till who listened to me patiently. I had a trustworthy face and a car worth $2 million, even if I didn’t have enough money to put two gallons of gas in its tank. People in the crowd started to fire questions at me that I didn’t have the first clue how to answer: was it true that you had to put down a deposit of $300,000 when you ordered the car? Was there a secret key that allowed you to go up to 250 mph? Was the gearbox really worth $15,000 all on its own?

A customer who had just paid his bill, an elegant man in his fifties, with salt and pepper hair and a white shirt with a mandarin collar, jokingly offered to buy my watch so I could pay for my fuel. He offered me $50 for it. Then more serious bids started to roll in: an employee called $100, then $150
before the manager trumped him with an offer of $200.

It had been a gift from Milo and I loved it for the simplicity of its discreet metal casing, off-white face and black crocodile strap. However, I knew as little about watch-making as I did about cars. The watch told me what time it was and that was all I ever asked of it.

Everyone in the queue had joined in with the auction, and the bidding stood at $350. It was at this point that the man in the mandarin collar decided to take a thick wad of notes out of his wallet. He counted out ten $100 bills and laid them on the counter.

‘I’ll give you $1,000 for the watch if we do this quickly, no questions asked,’ he said solemnly.

I hesitated. I had paid more attention to my watch in the last three minutes than I had in two years of owning it. Its rather unpronounceable name meant nothing to me but I was no expert on the subject. I could have recited entire pages of Dorothy Parker but I would have been hard pressed to name more than two brands of watch.

‘You have yourself a deal,’ I finally replied, undoing the strap.

I pocketed the dollar bills and gave $200 to the guy behind the counter to pay for my gas in advance. I was just about to leave when I remembered something, and asked him if he had any bandages for my ankle.

Fairly satisfied with my purchases, I went back to the Bugatti and inserted the nozzle in the fuel tank. As he pulled away, I saw my buyer give me a brief wave before speeding off in his Mercedes.

‘How did you get on then?’ asked Billie, lowering the window.

‘Fine, no thanks to you.’

‘Go on, how did you do it?’

‘I used my natural wiles,’ I said proudly as I watched the numbers flash past on the machine.

I had aroused her curiosity.

‘And?’

‘I sold my watch.’

‘Your Portuguese?’

‘My Portuguese what?’

‘Your watch. It’s the IWC Portuguese model.’

‘Well, that’s useful information.’

‘How much did you sell it for?’

‘One thousand dollars. That should keep us in gas all the way to Mexico. And I’ll even buy you lunch before we set off.’

She ignored that and said, ‘How much did you really sell it for?’

‘I really sold it for $1,000,’ I repeated, replacing the hose on the pump.

Billie put her head in her hands.

‘That watch is worth at least twenty grand!’

My immediate reaction was that she was joking. Surely people didn’t pay that much for watches? But, judging from her obvious disgust, I was forced to admit that I’d been had.

*

Half an hour later

A roadside fast-food restaurant near Huntington Beach

In the men’s room, I washed my face and strapped up my ankle, then went back to join Billie at our table.

Perched on a stool, she was working her way through a giant banana split that she had ordered as dessert after two cheeseburgers and a large portion of fries. How did she manage to stay so skinny with an appetite like that?

‘Mmm, delicious. Youwannatastesome?’ she asked, her mouth full.

I shook my head, choosing instead to wipe some whipped cream off the tip of her nose with my napkin.

She smiled at me then spread a map out on the table between us to show me the route we were taking.

‘Right, it shouldn’t be too hard. According to the magazine, Aurore and her boyfriend are on vacation until the end of the week in a luxury hotel in Cabo San Lucas.’

She leaned over the map and with a marker pen made a small cross on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.

I had heard of the place before; it was a popular destination for surfers because of its extremely powerful waves.

‘It’s not exactly down the road, is it? Don’t you think it would be better to fly there?’

She looked at me darkly.

‘Taking airplanes costs money, and selling your most valuable possessions at discount prices isn’t a great way of holding on to it!’

‘We could always sell the car.’

‘Enough stupid suggestions! Concentrate! Anyway, you know perfectly well I don’t have a passport.’

She traced an imaginary route across the map with her finger.

‘At the moment I think we’re about 125 miles from San Diego. I suggest we avoid the freeways and toll roads so we don’t waste any more money, but if you let me drive we could be at the Mexican border in under four hours.’

‘And why would I let you do that?’

‘I’m a bit more in my element, aren’t I? Cars don’t seem to be your cup of tea. You seem more interested in book stuff than in mechanics. And, anyway, with that ankle—’

‘I’m not so sure—’

‘You look offended! I hope it’s not that you have a problem
with being driven by a woman. I would have thought you were past that macho bullshit by now!’

‘All right! No need to go off at the deep end – you can drive us to San Diego but after that we’ll take it in turns because it’s a long journey.’

She seemed satisfied with this arrangement and continued with the explanation of her master plan.

‘If all goes well, we’ll be in Tijuana by this evening and we’ll be able to look around for a nice little motel to stay the night in.’

‘A nice little motel.’
As if we were on vacation!

‘And then tomorrow we’ll wake up early and get going straight away. Cabo San Lucas is 750 miles from Tijuana. We could do that in a day, and get to your one true love’s hotel by sundown.’

When she put it like that, it sounded easy enough.

My phone vibrated in my pocket – I could still receive calls, even if I could no longer make them. Milo’s number flashed on the screen. He had been leaving me voicemails every ten minutes for the last hour, but I was systematically erasing them, without even listening.

‘So we’re agreed: I’m going to help you patch things up with your sweetheart and in exchange you’re going to write this damned third volume!’ she summarised.

‘What makes you think I’ve still got any chance with Aurore? She’s madly in love with her Formula 1 man.’

‘That’s my problem, not yours. You just concentrate on writing. But no messing around, got it? I want a full-blown proper novel. And don’t forget my terms and conditions.’

‘I’m sorry? Terms and conditions?’

She nibbled the end of her pen, like a small child about to start her homework.

‘Firstly,’ she began, marking a large 1) on the paper
tablecloth in front of her, ‘I want you to stop making me the fall guy in your plotlines. Does it amuse you to lump me with every scumbag on the planet? Do you enjoy setting me up with married men whose wives no longer excite them and who see me as nothing more than a sure thing to satisfy their frustrated sex drives? Maybe my unhappiness makes your female readers feel better about themselves but it’s killing me bit by bit.’

This unexpected tirade left me speechless. It was certainly true that I hadn’t cut Billie much slack in her life, but as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t a problem: she was a fictitious character, a purely abstract creation who existed solely in my imagination and in the imaginations of my readers. She was a heroine whose material form consisted of nothing but words on a page, but now the creature was attacking the creator!

‘Secondly,’ continued Billie, tracing a 2) on the tablecloth, ‘I’ve had enough of being broke. I love my job, but I work on the cancer ward and I can’t deal with watching people suffer and die every day. I’ve become a human sponge: I absorb my patients’ emotions. And I’m also up to my ears in student debt! I don’t know if you know what nurses get paid, but it’s not exactly Wall Street!’

‘So what can I do to make you happy?’

‘I want to be transferred to the paediatric ward. I want to deal with life, rather than death. I’ve been asking to move for two years now, but that shrew Cornelia Skinner says no every time. She claims we’re understaffed. And—’

‘And what?’

‘I’d love to come into a little money sometime soon, just to oil the wheels.’

‘Now hang on—’

‘What difference does it make to you? It’s so easily done! It would only take a line! Look, I’ll even write it for you: “Billie
suddenly inherited half a million dollars from an uncle whose sole living relative she was.”’

‘Yeah, I guess I could do that. You clearly have no scruples about me killing off an uncle of yours!’

‘No, no, not my real uncle obviously, just some great-uncle once removed that I never knew, you know, like in the movies.’

She wrote down her sentence, obviously pleased with herself.

‘Is that the end of your letter to Santa? Shall we get going?’

‘One more thing,’ she said, calmly. ‘The most important thing of all.’

She wrote a 3) at the edge of the tablecloth, and then a name:

Jack

‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘I want Jack to leave his wife for good to come and live with me.’

Jack was Billie’s lover. He was a married man, a selfish jerk with devastating good looks, and the father of two small boys. She had been having a passionate and painful affair with him for the past two years. He was a jealous and possessive narcissist who kept her firmly under his thumb, flipping between declarations of love and humiliating
put-downs,
always keeping her in the role of a mistress whom he could screw and then discard as he pleased.

I shook my head in disgust.

‘Jack thinks with his dick.’

I didn’t even see her hand coming. She slapped me as hard as she could, almost knocking me off my stool.

The few customers left in the restaurant had all turned to stare at us, waiting for my reaction.

How can she defend that jerk?
wondered the angry voice
in my head.
Because she’s in love with him, for God’s sake!
answered the more rational voice.

‘You have no right to pass judgement on my personal life, any more than I have the right to judge yours,’ she said defiantly. ‘I’m helping you get Aurore back, and you’re going to invent a life for me where I wake up every day in Jack’s arms – deal?’

She signed the contract that she had drawn up on the tablecloth, then carefully tore it free and offered me her pen.

‘Deal,’ I said, rubbing my face.

I signed on the proverbial dotted line and threw a few dollar bills on the table so we could leave.

‘You’ll pay for that slap,’ I promised her, giving her a withering look.

‘Yeah, we’ll see about that,’ she said, walking back to the car.

BOOK: The Girl on Paper
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