At any turn, p.13
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       At Any Turn, p.13

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
 
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  I wanted to pull her into my arms. I wanted to forbid her to leave me. I wanted to stand my ground and not give an inch. All my first instincts. All terrible mistakes.

  I enfolded one of her cold hands with mine. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. ”

  We were quiet again for a long, tense moment. Then she cleared her throat. “Adam, I still—”

  “Don’t say it,” I choked out before she could finish, before the knife could sink deeper into my heart. “I don’t want to hear you say it again until you are in my arms, your lips an inch from mine ready to kiss me, ready to be mine again. Because, Emilia, if you can’t trust me to come back to me for forever, then don’t come back. I won’t be able to stand this again. ”

  She left minutes later. I walked her across Bay Island to her car and when I would have bent to kiss her good-bye, instead I opened her door for her. She looked up at me through the window for a long moment before she started the car. I stepped back and walked away, refusing to watch her drive away, drive out of my life.

  My life was careening out of control. I was no longer steering. And I was losing everything.

  Chapter Ten

  The next day, Wednesday, I was at work again, this time spending the entire day on insurance and lawsuit business. I tried not to be pissed at Jordan every time he showed up in my office to work on stuff. It wasn’t his fault, after all, that I’d followed his shitty advice.

  My cousin, Liam, made a rare appearance in my office just before lunch. When Maggie buzzed him in, I looked up in surprise, finishing typing out the e-mail I was working on. He went over to the window and stared out at the atrium.

  “Hey guy, how are you doing?” I said, closing my computer.

  He gave an agitated shrug and said nothing. Uh-oh. He was in one of his moods.

  He didn’t turn to look at me, which was unsurprising as he rarely made eye contact with anyone. We, his family, were used to it, but most other people found it oddly unsettling. “Neurotypicals,” as Liam referred to us, had the disturbing habit of needing people to look them in the eye—a need that he lacked.

  He reached up and fiddled with the edge of the window.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Family dinner,” he mumbled.

  “Sorry I had to bail early on that—”

  He huffed and started pacing the room, his hands stuffed into his pants pockets. “Mia didn’t come. ”

  Chalk him up with the rest of my family who were more concerned about her not being there than me. Jeez. Did I smell bad or something?

  So Liam was blaming her absence on me. Well, one thing could be said about my cousin. At least he was consistent. Very consistent.

  “She wasn’t feeling well that day. ”

  Liam glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes.

  “Everything’s messed up now. Everything. She’s not working here anymore. Why can’t you just apologize to her? Why can’t things be the way they were?”

  I blinked. “I wish it were that easy. ”

  “It could be that easy. If you just stopped being an idiot. ”

  I took no shit from anyone, but I allowed a lot of leeway to my cousin. Nevertheless, he was now on my last goddamn nerve. “Watch yourself, Liam. I’m not in the mood and I don’t have my usual brand of patience, so if you are in here to bellyache about the fact that Emilia wasn’t at the family dinner you can—”

  “Mia,” he said.

  “What?”

  “She prefers to be called Mia. ”

  Not by me.

  “So you think she didn’t go to dinner because I don’t call her Mia?”

  He kept pacing and pulled his hands out of his pockets and worked them furiously like he did when he got agitated. It was a stim—a soothing mechanism where he rubbed his palms with his fingers. “Shut up, Adam. You know that’s not the reason. Just apologize to her. Tell her you want her to come back. ”

  I stood up. This could be a good opportunity to reinforce that pressure that I’d wanted to lay on her to stay at the job. “Why don’t you call Mia? Let her know how much you miss her at the dinners and at work. ”

  Page 49

  He stopped his pacing so suddenly I thought he might fall over. He looked down at the floor, fiddling with his palm. “I did. ”

  Oh? Well, that was interesting. “What did she say?” God, was I so desperate to hear about her that I was interrogating my hostile cousin to give up anything he knew? I was pathetic.

  He cleared his throat. “She said it wasn’t because of you that she wasn’t coming. But I know she’s lying. ”

  Liam finally shuffled over to the chair in front of me and slumped into it. “She just seemed so sad lately and tired. You’re her boyfriend. You’re supposed to make her happy. ”

  My jaw tightened as I fought off the bitter reply that jumped to the fore. I would make her happy, if she’d let me.

  “I think going to medical school is what’s going to make her happy at this point,” I said, the words surprising even myself. My chest tightened and it was hard to breathe at that thought. I was almost certain that she was using our breakup as the excuse to accept the spot at Hopkins.

  And my hands were completely tied when it came to finding a way to manipulate her to keep her here. I studied Liam’s bowed head for a moment. But…I wasn’t the only one who cared about her staying here. Her friends were all here. Liam, Alex, Jenna, Heath. And so was her mom. If I alone wasn’t a strong enough reason, maybe all of us combined would be.

  I rubbed at the stubble on my jaw with the back of my fingers, mulling this over. It wasn’t like the intellectual puzzles I used to spend hours on when I was a kid. This was life. It was messy and it wasn’t logical. And since I was—most of the time—a very logical thinker, I knew this was far beyond my scope. The wheels started turning.

  I turned back to Liam. “Hey, remember how you keep bugging me to start my D and D campaign up again?”

  He blinked at me, clearly annoyed. Liam hated when anyone changed subjects without any warning. Even when it was a subject he would like. “What—what?” he asked.

  “Sorry. I was just thinking that maybe we could all get together for a game. Mia’s friend Jenna has been wanting to get people together for a Dungeons and Dragons game for a while. I figure she might not mind if I run the game as DM and she could play a character. So could you and the others. ”

  He shook his head. “What does this have to do with Mia?”

  “Well, they could invite her, too. ” And it would be a great excuse to see her now that there was no other avenue for me to do it.

  “But she’s never played. She likes computer games. ”

  I shrugged. “We’ll invite Heath, too, and they can all browbeat her into going. ”

  “Beat her?”

  “Idiom,” I said, giving the usual cue that he was used to. My cousin was a bright guy and incredibly talented, but he had trouble with figurative language. And sarcasm. He didn’t do sarcasm at all.

  “Okay. I don’t want to beat her. I was going to say if you beat her maybe that’s why she doesn’t want to be around you. ”

  I grimaced. “Thanks, Liam. ” She didn’t want to be around me. The words stung, but they were true. And right now she had a pretty good reason for that. I just hoped it wasn’t so strong a reason that she’d want to avoid all her other friends in order to avoid me.

  ***

  Jenna was thrilled when I proposed to run a dungeon for her and her friends. She invited us over to her and Alex’s apartment in Fullerton. I might have offered my house, but figured it more likely that Emilia would show up at Alex’s place. We crowded into the typical college pad—me, Liam, Alex, Jenna. Heath texted saying he was going to be late.

  Not long after arriving, Jenna informed me that Emilia had sent her a brief text the day before indicating that she wouldn’t be able to come. I tried to curb my visible disappointment at this news
. I’d worked extra hard to design a fun adventure that, I thought, would be an enjoyable introduction for her to tabletop gaming. Was she really so pissed off that she’d blow off all of her friends just to avoid me?

  As I thought about it and heard Jenna and Alex make a few subtle comments about Emilia’s absence, though, I began to suspect it wasn’t just me Emilia was avoiding. I could have questioned the two of them about what they thought was going on but the glimmer of another idea flickered into my brain instead. I’d try to be subtle and I’d get what I wanted by using my specialty—playing games. If I rolled my dice right, we’d all soon be banding together for the common cause of keeping her here.

  Alex threw a stack of D & D manuals at us. “Aren’t we rolling dice to make our characters?” I asked.

  Page 50

  She frowned at me. “How long has it been since you’ve played? That’s old-school. You buy your stats with points now. Are you sure you’re up to being the DM?” The Dungeon Master was the storyteller who described the situations and the world in which the characters interacted.

  I frowned. “I worked a long time on my storyline. It won’t take me long to learn the new mechanics. ” Of course, now with my new idea, I had to scrap the whole storyline I’d developed. So I’d be winging it. I could do that too.

  While they made their characters with pencil and paper on clean forms, I browsed through the new rules. They had changed a lot since the days when I had been a hardcore player, back when I was fifteen and sixteen. The company that owned D&D changed the rules every four to five years—otherwise known as “as soon as we’d gotten used to the old manual” or “whenever they wanted to sell some more books,” according to some cynical players. I supposed I shouldn’t have been too irritated by the marketing practice. We in the computer game market did the same thing by releasing expansions of the old material that players had to purchase in order to keep generating capital.

  Fortunately I remembered everything I read. So in about forty-five minutes I had most of the basics of the new system in place. I spent about five minutes whipping up the setup for my new idea. It wouldn’t be nearly as well thought out as my original idea, but maybe it would help me get my point across, even off the cuff.

  A little while later, the players sat hunched over their character sheets, twenty-sided dice in hand, ready to begin a new adventure. Heath had arrived late, looking mildly irritated and darting me a couple dark looks. I judged this to mean that Emilia had recounted my colossal fuckup to him. Great.

  Jenna had made him a character to use, so he didn’t have to take the time to make one.

  I picked up the printed sheet of storyline that I’d written out by hand on some old parchment paper. I’d even burned the edges with a match to give it an ancient look, threatening to set off a smoke alarm in my office. I did like my Dungeons and Dragons old-school. However I wasn’t going to read what I’d originally written on the paper, but my improvised version instead.

  I cleared my throat, glanced around the table and then, in my most serious, oratorical voice, I began to “read. ”

  Greetings, travelers. You have come from far and wide, under many different circumstances. Some of you left families because you need to find work to provide for them. Some of you are running away from dark pasts. Still others of you are seeking the adventure that calls to your heart. You find yourself inside a murky tavern, the Pig’s Blood, at the edge of the distant country of Tarenia. It is only moderately clean and you sit, sipping your watered-down ale, reflecting on your uncertain future when a middle-aged woman shuffles into the tavern, a dark shawl tucked around her head.

  Alex and Jenna exchanged glances and looked at Heath and Liam.

  I bent down over the cardboard partition that separated my part of the table from theirs, so they couldn’t read my notes or see the dice rolls behind the screen. “What do you do?”

  Jenna raised her hand. “I’m a connoisseur of fine spirits, the daughter of a successful wine merchant. I would never drink watered-down ale. What else is there to drink here?”

  “It’s the only tavern in a tiny borderland village that doesn’t even have a name. That or polluted water are your only choices for drink,” I answered.

  “Well, I wouldn’t be drinking that slop,” she sniffed. “I’ll have bread and cheese, instead. ”

  “The bar wench brings you a hunk of hard bread and some moldy cheese,” I replied. “You notice the woman who just entered has been crying. She approaches the bar and appears to be looking for someone. ”

  Alex raised her hand. “Is there anyone who looks like they have a lot of money in the room? Someone I can pickpocket?”

  Alex, apparently, had made her character a thief. “Almost everyone here is in homespun. They look like what they are—people on the frontier struggling for survival in a harsh borderland. ”

  She blew out a breath and rolled her eyes. “Bo—ring. ”

  I shrugged. “Liam? What are you doing?”

  He frowned. “How long is the bar?”

  “About eight feet long or so. ”

  He took his pencil and scratched out something on a pad of paper. “How many chairs—wait, chairs or stools?”

  I shrugged, “I dunno…five?”

  He squinted, continued drawing. “You didn’t answer…chairs or stools? And the room? How large is it? And how many entrances and exits?”

  Page 51

  I fought the urge to roll my eyes. I’d forgotten how obsessively visual he was due to his autism. It’s what contributed to his amazing artistic abilities, but sometimes, in cases like these, it was an annoying trait. “Why don’t you draw the room out on the battle map? I’ll give you the dimensions. ”

  Liam stood, grabbed an erasable marker and began drawing on the washable surface of the blank grid that served as a battle map. I gave him some details that I made up off the cuff and he drew them on the map like a floor plan. The players then arranged the pewter figurines that represented their characters in different places in the room. Heath shoved his wizard in the corner.

  “Heath? What is your character doing?”

  He sat with his chin in his hand, still moping. “Drinking watered-down ale,” he droned and then tossed a die.

  I suppressed a sigh of frustration, suddenly remembering why I wasn’t ever excited to act as Dungeon Master for these sorts of role-playing games. The players never did what you wanted them to do.

  “So isn’t anyone curious about the loudly crying woman in the middle of the room?”

  Alex perked up. “Does she look like she has money? Maybe a pouch of gold dangling from her belt?”

  “She’s wearing black mourning attire. Are you going to try to rob her?” I replied, exasperated.

  Alex rolled her eyes again and hunched over her group of dice, attempting to build a tower by stacking one on top of the other.

  I hunched over, mimed like I was wiping my eyes and talked in a ridiculously high pitch. “Won’t anyone hear my tale of woe?”

  “Okay, I’ll bite,” Jenna said. “I’ll walk up to the old woman and offer her my seat. ”

  “Thank you. Thank you, dear child,” I said again in my falsetto voice.

  “What seems to be the problem, old woman?”

  “She’s not old. She’s middle-aged,” I corrected.

  “In medieval times, if you lived to middle age, you were considered old,” Jenna replied.

  “Fair enough. ” I resisted debating the useless point. “The woman turns to you, wiping her eyes. ‘I’m so afraid,’ she says. ‘So afraid that I’ll never see her again. ’”

  “Who?”

  “My precious daughter, Emma. ”

  “Where did she go?”

  “She’s been ensorcelled by the famed alchemist Baridus. He’s going to spirit her away to a far-off land to study with him. I doubt she’ll ever come back. ”

  Liam looked over at Jenna. “You know,” he
said, jerking his eyes downward when she looked at him. “You should use your skill to detect motive and see if she is lying. ”

  Jenna drew back. “Um. Okay. And my eyes are up here by the way,” she said curtly.

  Liam blinked at her. “Of course they are,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on her chest. Oh shit, Jenna was getting pissed thinking Liam was checking out her tits.

  “Anyway—” I interrupted before sparks started to fly. Jenna was glaring at Liam, who still hadn’t looked away from Jenna’s chest. “Liam,” I said and finally he turned his head. Thank God.

  “What?”

  “Is your character doing anything while Althea and the woman are talking?” I said referring to Jenna by her character’s name.

  “I’ll wait and watch,” said Liam, throwing a glance at Jenna out of the corner of his eye. I held my breath, hoping he wouldn’t start staring at her chest again.

  Jenna glared at him and then turned back to me. “Maybe, uh, yeah maybe I’ll try to sense her motive. ”

  “Roll a d20 based on your skill level. ”

  Jenna checked her character sheet with all of her character’s statistics, then picked up a twenty-sided die and rolled it. “I made my roll. Do I detect anything?”

  “You sense that she is honest in her motives. She seems to be telling the truth. ”

  “Okay. I’ll put my hand on her shoulder, to console her. ‘There, there, good wife. Might we be able to help you? What happened to…uh…what was her name again?”

  “Emma?” I said, answering as the character. “My dear girl had been acting strangely for a while now. She had declared the wish to push away her friends and her beau and even me, her dear mother. She’s following the wish of this Baridus, wanting to become a famed alchemist like him. I think he means to steal her away forever. I’m looking for some brave adventurers to go out into the land, gather her closest, beloved friends and break the spell to convince her to stay here. ”

  Page 52

  Oh God, this was so transparent. They were sure to figure out what I was up to. I usually had my shit together better with storytelling—that’s what DE was all about, after all. But since I was winging it and also desperate, my performance was less than stellar.

  Heath was glaring at me, but I ignored him.

  Alex cocked her head at me. “So are you wanting us to go and find a reason to keep Emma here?” she asked.

 
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