she_sells_seashells: maybe (Default)
Author: she_sells_seashells
Bell does not discover immediately that the Bar will let her run a tab. Having spent all of her shells on that one, glorious meal, this limits the amount of time she can spend there - although not by very much. On that kind of fuel Bell easily spends 34 hours eating nothing but half of a friendly old man's fried potato sticks and some water from the sink in the bathroom (to which she finds it necessary to climb).

During those hours, apart from two naps spent curled up on a booth bench, Bell meets everyone. She listens with enormous, sparkling eyes to every story they will tell her and tries her best to trade back in stories of her own. She doesn't know very much about the reality of her world yet. She's only started school recently. But here everyone is strange and no one can tell the difference if she runs out of reality and trades in stories about Atlantis that the sailors tell.

(Most of them can tell, but she's six, and they indulge her.)

After she's been in the bar for a day and a half, she is hungry enough to notice, and she's out of shells, and no one besides that old man has noticed how spindly and tired she is and responded with an offer of food. Bell needs to go home and eat some... sigh... clams. Maybe salty bread too if she's lucky.

She runs up to the bar that is a lady. "I gotta go," she tells it. "Can I come back soon? Please? I'll bring you so many shells."

The napkin says, That's not up to me, little one.

"Who is it up to?" Bell asks, putting one hand over her stomach and feeling it gurgle.

The Bar doesn't answer her.

"Well," says Bell, "please ask them real nice if you can come visit me again?"

No reply.

"Bye," whispers Bell.

The nice man might have taken her home, but Bell has parents at home, and friends, and she'd miss them. It's worth eating clams to have her family, especially since without her to dig clams they wouldn't have as much to eat.

So she goes through the door, and lets it close behind her, and winces when she hears it click and turns around and sees only the door to her room. (Bell has her own room mostly because she is an only child. If she had a brother or a sister she would have to share.)

She tells her mommy she's hungry. Her mommy serves her some bread and some clams in a thin sauce.

Bell needs to go back.

But first she needs more shells.


Bell becomes obsessed with Milliways. She doesn't find it often. The shortest gap is six months and the longest is sixteen. But by proxy, she becomes obsessed with shells. Everyone - even her parents - calls her "Shell Bell" by the time she's turned eight. She keeps clamshells, sacks of them by every door in town she ever goes through and the one on the clam boat she crews with, and throws a tantrum when someone moves them away. They're clean shells, they don't stink, and she's cute; people get used to it. Sometimes she finds that someone desperate has stolen a sack of them to sell, but she always manages to replace those before she finds herself staring into Milliways through a ransacked door.

She also finds out that other shells are worth more than clam shells. It is harder for her to keep these. They're more expensive - a decent cowrie or oyster or abalone shell can be sold for serious money, and she could get in trouble for serious poaching if she were caught and Shark's friendships with his ex-co-workers couldn't save her. She obtains and cleans the shells in secret, between clamming expeditions, when she can get away - usually she just eats the meat of the animals she's harvesting, raw, alone on the beach, and then she takes thread from her mother's sewing box and ties it around her prizes and wears them under her clothes so she's never caught without them.

When Bell finds a door to Milliways, she makes use of it. She stays as long as she can pay for meals with clamshells. She doesn't indulge too much in feasts like that first. It's cheaper to get other things. She can stay for weeks if she holds herself down to potatoes and chicken with enough butter on them to keep her going so she doesn't need more than one meal a day.

Her other shells go towards other things.

By the time she's been to Milliways three times and she is nearly nine, Bell has borrowed many books and videos from the bar and learned a thousand incompatible facts about faraway worlds, and she's also bought a few things that she can take home. She has a large bottle of children's multivitamins and she takes one every other day so they'll last. She has the most condensed, preservative-riddled food the bar can sell her, squirreled away in hiding places her father's too busy and her mother's too silly to check. She specifically requests it in packaging that looks like it could drop off a Capitol cruise ship. When times are bad - when the salmon trawler comes back empty, when all of the neighbors have enough patches on their clothes for a week solid - she can roll a can in sand or wrap a plastic packet in a bit of seaweed and claim she found it on the beach, and they can have beans or Mandarin oranges in syrup or beef jerky and get by a little longer.

She spends so much time on the beach and has such bizarre preferences about her clamshell sacks that people begin to consider Shell Bell a little... feebleminded is one of the nicer words. She doesn't pay a lick of attention in school; she can learn anything she'd care to know in Milliways without a teacher breathing down her neck. She does her work on the clam boat, but quietly, making no friends. Mercifully, she does not attract bullying; anyone who wanted to beat on her would have to answer to Shark. (She does have a reputation as a tattletale as well as a weak mind.)

Bell tries to perform transactions with the other patrons, too, she wants magic and tech, but this doesn't usually work as well. In general they're happy to talk, reluctant to give her stuff, and she imagines this will only get worse as she grows older, taller, less adorably waifish. Some of them would be happy to bring her to their worlds, but she doesn't know how to survive in them, she doesn't know how long it would take her to get back - they say they have more food, there, in their homes, but food costs money or harvesting time or both, it always does, and if she went someplace where they didn't have any clams and her shells were no good as money she would simply starve.

When Bell is thirteen, though, someone recognizes her.

"You look like Her Majesty," observes the sleek young lady in the pretty dress. "Younger, but..."

Bell tilts her head.

"She must be another version of you. I've met fully six of her, but they all looked late teens, early twenties, though some were far older... What's your name, child?"


"Yes, clearly some sort of alternate. Are you planning to take over your world, little Bell?" chuckles the lady.

"Maybe," says Bell cagily, because she wants more information.

The lady laughs. "Most of you do! There was one who only had her own inventions to work with, no magic, and she only has a country, not a whole world, but that's you, that's your type."

"Will a lot of people recognize me now I'm this age?" Bell wants to know.

"Probably," laughs the lady. And then she goes home.

Bell thinks.


Future trips to Milliways see Bell paying an oyster shell for a piece of posterboard and begging the loan of a marker. She writes, My alternates tend to take over the world. Advice available. Rates negotiable. She puts the sign up for ten minutes out of every hour, so most visitors have a chance to see it but she can still move freely about the bar and talk to people the rest of the time.

And most people laugh at the sign, or have nothing she wants, or aren't interested in her advice.

But some of them don't and have and are.

Bell starts taking home interesting trinkets. She's limited to things the clients can afford to buy from the bar or that they have on them on the spot, but Milliways is a place of coincidences. She can't take anything she'll have to explain so her payments run towards the small and covert. A flat little pouch that will cling to the skin on her back, match its color, and hold her shells. A slender stick of an audio recorder that will hold terabytes, so she can take down every conversation she has in the bar and consult it later. A jar full of water purification tablets that she starts dropping in the well, and her family doesn't get the salt fever that year.

And a wand of pyrokinesis, which as far as she can tell has no productive use at all.

Bell has no idea, when she takes this wand, why she wants it. But she does want it. It looks like a stick, and not even a metallic stick like her audio recorder; she can wear it in her hair and this won't look suspicious given that she's already considered funny in the head. And she doesn't often have cause to set things on fire, really, but having it makes her feel better. She plays with it when she's on the beach and there's no one watching and the sand around her is wet and it's safe. When she gets more accustomed to it, she can make ugly black glass.


Bell doesn't take tesserae. Her parents don't ask her to. They get by, and she does conveniently produce food that she "found on the beach" whenever things threaten to get worse.

Bell is picked as tribute once anyway, when she's sixteen, and she has to stand on the stage trembling and wondering what will happen to her family if she manages to escape into someone else's world before they put her in the arena, wondering what will happen to everything if she goes in and wins by setting the other tributes alight with her wand (they'd let her take it, you're allowed one thing, it's a stick). But District Four has Careers, and a lithe, powerful girl who knows what she's doing with a trident and a net volunteers, and pats Bell patronizingly on the head, and goes into the Games and dies of dehydration four days in.

Bell "finds food on the beach" for her family, too, after that.