At any turn, p.25
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       At Any Turn, p.25
 

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
Page 95

  In spite of everything, though, when I laid eyes on her, everything seemed to lighten—in my own mind anyway. I hadn’t realized how much I’d looked forward to seeing her again and how much I missed her, because I hadn’t allowed myself to dwell on it. I’d been burying myself in work.

  “Hi,” I said, taking a menu and glancing over it.

  “Hey,” she said quietly, setting her phone aside and looking up at me.

  “How’s it going?”

  She shrugged. I waited. That was, apparently, the only answer I was going to get.

  The waitress came and I ordered my favorite—the two-taco carne asada plate. Emilia ordered a lemon-lime soda.

  “You aren’t hungry?” I asked

  She seemed to pale even more at the mention of food. “Not really. ”

  I clenched my jaw and released it, frowning. At that moment, a stab of pain went directly through my left eye. I pressed my finger to my brow just above it, tried to power through, ignore it.

  She studied me. “You okay?”

  “I’m fine. Why aren’t you eating?”

  She shrugged again. “I just don’t feel like eating. ”

  When the waitress came back with our drinks, I ordered a bowl of soup for Emilia. She scowled, but didn’t object.

  “So…what did you want to talk about?”

  “I told you in the text. I promised Peter that we’d talk about Christmas. You and I are going to have to find a way to get along on Christmas because they’ve already told us both that they want to spend it together, and regardless of how either of us feels about it, I’m not going to avoid spending the holidays with my family because of you. ”

  She rolled her eyes. “I could just not go. That will make it easy. ”

  I stiffened. “I’m also not going to take a giant ration of shit from your mom or Liam because I’m the one to blame for you not being there. ”

  She poked her straw into her soda a few times and shrugged. “Christmas isn’t for over three weeks. Why talk about this now?”

  “Because I’ll be gone for a while and I’m going to have to fight to make it back in time. ”

  Her hand froze. “Gone? Like…where?”

  I rubbed my forehead again. The headache was starting to tighten in my temples. “Back East. Lawsuit stuff…”

  “And the congressional hearing? They’re going through with that? I thought those were just blog rumors. ”

  I blew out a long breath. “Nope, apparently not. Someone got a good scoop. Sorry it wasn’t you. ”

  She pursed her lips in thought. “I don’t give a fuck about a scoop. You’ll…you’ll be okay?”

  I stared at her for a long, silent moment and nodded. “I’ll live. What about you? Apparently you’ve stopped eating…”

  Her eyes avoided mine. I looked around and slipped her a padded envelope. She looked at me with a question in her eyes.

  “It’s the medicine you left at my house. I had the empty syringes disposed of properly. ”

  Without a word she tucked the envelope into her backpack. And she sat quietly, fidgeting. This was my gesture—to show her that I trusted her. To show her that I trusted when she told me she wasn’t abusing drugs. It had taken me long hours of deliberating to decide what to do. In the end, I handed them back to her with a cold fear at the back of my throat, giving up what little control I had to prove something to her.

  “Are you—do you want to talk?” I said, clearing my throat.

  She looked up into my eyes and I felt a stab of something. That painful jab of constantly missing her. She watched me with wide eyes for a long moment, then shook her head.

  “Emilia…” I reached my hand across the table and covered one of hers with it. It felt soft, cool to my touch. “If you need anything. Any help. You know you can come to me, right?”

  She looked away and blinked. After a long tense moment she shook her head. “We were supposed to be talking about Christmas,” she said in a tiny voice.

  Slowly, oh so slowly, I pulled my hand back. I rubbed a finger along my bottom lip. “We can’t screw this up for them,” I said. “We need to act like grown-ups for their sakes. God knows they both deserve a little happiness in their lives and who are we to decide that it shouldn’t work for them just because we turned into a disaster?”

  Her dark brows drew into a frown and it almost looked like she would get emotional, but she nodded. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s not fair to them. And they deserve to be happy. Mom deserves to have someone. ”

  Page 96

  So did we. My throat clenched tightly. I couldn’t even swallow.

  When dinner came, Emilia dipped a piece of bread into her soup and ate it slowly. I watched her while I wolfed down bites of my taco.

  “So…” I began, suddenly feeling awkward.

  She swallowed her soup-soaked crust of bread and looked up at me.

  “Are you going to catch that Doctor Who Christmas special with anyone?”

  Her jaw clenched. “No. I’ll probably watch it alone. ”

  I frowned. “Not even Alex and Jenna?”

  “Jenna is going home for winter break. Alex will be busy with family stuff. ”

  “If you wanted to…you could come watch it with me in the theater room. ”

  Her face went blank. “Adam, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Don’t push this, okay? I came here to talk to you about Christmas—”

  My fist closed on the table in frustration. “We’re done talking about Christmas. I want to know about you. ”

  She picked up her napkin and wiped her mouth. “I have to get going now. ”

  A fresh bolt of pain shot through my head so suddenly I gasped, pressing my hand to my temple.

  “Do you have a headache?”

  I glared at her. “Do you care?”

  “Of course I do. ”

  “Talk to me, Emilia. ”

  Instead she grabbed her bag and stood up. “Please, Adam. I’ll see you at Christmas, okay? I promise to be a perfect grown-up about it. ”

  I watched as she walked out. Maybe I’d bring that obnoxious blonde intern with me and see how grown-up she’d be about that.

  I put my head in my hands, only half-finished with my taco plate. That detested feeling of utter helplessness washing over me. I closed my eyes and instead of seeing Emilia in my mind, I saw Bree…

  “Get back on the bus, Adam! You don’t belong here. ”

  I tug on her sleeve, pulling her with me. “You have to come with me. You have to! I’m not leaving until you do. ”

  I’m so adamant, I stamp my foot, folding my arms across my chest.

  “No!” she screeches. The people around us turn and stare. She claws her hands through the air like a crazy woman. “You have to go! This is not the place for you. You’re not staying here. ”

  “Come with me!”

  Her eyes are hollow, haunted. “I can’t. I can’t go back. I’m not as strong as you are. ”

  I cinch my arms around her and start to cry. “Please. You are the only person in the world I care about, Bree. Please come back. ”

  She pushes me back on the bus, but I’m stubborn, I drop my backpack, slip around her arms and step back off. She screams again, tears on her cheeks.

  “I’m going to kill myself, Adam. If you don’t get on that bus, I’ll lie down in the street until someone runs over me. ”

  She grabs my backpack and launches it at me, her pale cheeks flushing with the first sign of color in the days since I had been with her.

  I’m crying now. Sobbing. “Bree!”

  But the bus driver is dragging me back, pushing me into a seat. His hands aren’t gentle and he growls a warning at me that he’ll be pulling out soon and if I take one step off the bus, he’ll leave me in downtown Seattle alone.

  But all I can do is press my wet cheek to the window. I’m sobbing so hard I can’t move. I can h
ardly catch the next breath. Hiccups are starting and another one of those really bad headaches that feels like someone is chopping my head open.

  Minutes later the bus pulls away. And she stands there watching me, balanced on the curb, looking wraithlike in that massive, poorly fitting coat. Her cheeks pale and hollow. She’s dying. I know it even now.

  And this would be the last time I’d see her.

  That night, I lay in bed staring up at the darkened ceiling, immersed in that same shitty sense of powerlessness. Just like Bree, Emilia was pushing me away, forcing me to back off. And there was not a thing I could do about it.

  ***

  Almost a week later, I was sitting outside the conference room at the offices of my liability insurance company, waiting to go into the dreaded meeting with the families of the victims of Tom Olmquist’s shooting rampage. I was almost trembling with nervous, raw energy. The five miles I’d run on the treadmill this morning had done nothing to diminish it, either.

  I worked a hand furiously at my side, staring off into space when Jordan sank into the chair beside me. “So…” he started.

  I shook my head. I wasn’t in the mood for his bullshit.

  Page 97

  “I’m going to be right in there with you, man, right by your side. Remember what Joseph coached us on—no admission of guilt. We express our heartfelt condolences at their terrible loss and the horrific tragedy, yadda yadda. ”

  I shook my head, tapping my foot. “This sucks shit. It really does. I go in there and it’s like admitting I’m guilty of being a virtual crack dealer. ”

  “No, man. It’s like…they have a point and we have a point. We both occupy our own moral high ground. It’s like with the paintball war against the Bliz. They kicked our asses at King of the Hill. We wiped the floor with them at Capture the Flag. In the end, we had to declare a draw. ”

  I squinted at him. “You’re comparing this to a paintball scenario?”

  “Why not? It’s as good a comparison as any. If we aren’t willing to declare the draw and concede, then this drags out for years and years and ends up doing everyone involved more harm. ”

  I thought about that for a minute, rubbing my jaw. It seemed to make sense, though I would have preferred it hadn’t.

  Minutes later, we were shown into a conference room where three people sat. The couple I recognized instantly from news footage as Tom Olmquist’s parents. The third person, a woman in her early forties, was introduced to us as the mother of Tom’s girlfriend, Evy. There was a somber, heavy atmosphere. They were still in mourning, of course, the loss of their loved ones still so recent.

  I could feel their accusing stares weighing me down, so I tried not to look at them as I read my canned “cover your ass” statement that had been written and revised by my lawyer and the counsel for the insurance company. I set the card aside when I was done and laced my hands on the table in front of me.

  “Allow me to add my very…personal condolences to you at this time. I know it must be very difficult. ”

  Tom’s father, Mr. Olmquist, spoke up first. He’d scowled at me the entire time I’d read my statement and now, given the fist closing on the table in front of him, I could see that he was armed for bear. “Honestly, what would you know about how difficult it is? You’re a kid yourself. You’re not—what? Four or five years older than Tom. You’ve sat in front of a computer programming games your whole life. What would you know of grief—of this kind of loss? Of the horror of watching someone you love dwindle into a shadow of himself as he withdraws from the real world?”

  I swallowed as something gripped me, a feeling I couldn’t quite describe—nerves, anger, frustration. I was being judged by this man who knew nothing of me, nothing of what I’d been through. Jordan placed his hand on my elbow, having read my body language.

  I relaxed my jaw. “Sir, I’m sorry that you feel that way. I’m honestly sorry for your loss—”

  “But you’re not sorry for the millions you’ve made while doling out an addictive and destructive game to kids just as young as you are—and younger. A game that ruins lives before they’ve even started. You ride around in your limo, using your fancy gadgets. You have no conscience about the havoc you wreak on other people’s lives. It’s all about the almighty dollar for you. ”

  I sat back, feeling like he’d just pummeled me. I relaxed my hands, which had knotted into fists. We held a long, heated stare. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying not to succumb to my own anger. “With respect, Mr. Olmquist, I may be young. I may only be six years older than your son, but I do know something about addiction and abuse. And I know what it means to suffer when someone close to you is addicted. My mother is an alcoholic. Because of that, I rarely touch hard liquor myself, afraid that I might develop the same problem…”

  He said nothing, fortunately, just continued to watch me with eyes like stone. The woman beside him, Tom’s mother, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. I stared at my laced hands. “But she’s not the person who taught me the raw pain and powerlessness of loving an addict. ” My voice tightened with emotion and Jordan shifted at my side. Maybe he was trying to get my attention, to shut me up. But something inside me told me that it was time to let go of this secret now. Because keeping it so close, so deep inside me was only harming me and shutting everyone else out.

  I cleared my throat and swallowed. “I have—had an older sister. She was seven years older than me and because of our home life, she was like a mom to me. She started using drugs when she was thirteen. ”

  Evy’s mother gave a sharp intake of breath. I plowed on. “By the time she was fifteen, she ran away, leaving me behind, and she was on the streets, a slave to her addiction. So in reply to you, Mr. Olmquist, I do know what that’s like. Exactly what that’s like. And I’m sorry you’ve had to experience it. I’m sorry you had to watch your son get sick. Because I know…” I paused, waited, cleared my throat. Why was this so easy and yet so difficult at the same time? I was talking about things I never talked about. Not even to those people closest to me in the world. Jordan, for example, was hearing this for the very first time. He had no fucking idea I’d ever had a sibling. He sat at my side, absolutely still. I didn’t dare look at him for fear of the pity I might read in his eyes.

  Page 98

  I took in a shaky breath. “I know that feeling of powerlessness. That struggle against it. That constant second-guessing. I’ve lived it for the past thirteen years, since she died. If only I had refused to get on the bus. If only I had refused to leave her behind. If only I had been a little older, been able to take care of her like a man instead of the boy that I was…” I drew in a long ragged breath and said nothing.

  Mr. Olmquist sat back and stared at me, his mouth hanging open. Mrs. Olmquist was openly sobbing into her tissue and Evy’s mother was swiping at her eyes with her hand. I didn’t take my eyes off the man in front of me. “I know that addiction is addiction, whether it’s alcohol or food or gambling or even a video game. A person with that predilection inside of him will gravitate toward his poison of choice and unless he can get help for himself, the ones he loves are helpless to stop it. And my hope for you—for all of you—is that you don’t do what I have done. Don’t live your lives with regret, with the secret shame of not being able to change what you were unable to change. ”

  The meeting ended not long after that. Mr. Olmquist and I managed to shake hands, not quite meeting each other’s eyes. When they had walked out, Jordan turned, watching me carefully. “Dude, I have to ask but…you didn’t just make all that shit up to get yourself off the hook, did you?”

  I looked at him like he’d just babbled at me in Klingon. “Wow, you’ve got a great opinion of me, don’t you?”

  He snorted and then grew serious. “No, it’s just that …well, that was some heavy shit. I…I really had no idea. ”

  I wanted to shrug it off. Wanted to blow off the concern, which made me feel un
comfortable, undeserving of sympathy. Instead I accepted it. “I never talk about that shit. And I guess that was my big mistake. ”

  He studied me closely and nodded.

  I looked away, rubbing my jaw. “I think that’s what she was trying to tell me,” I muttered.

  Jordan paused. “Mia?”

  I nodded. She’d said that losing Bree had defined me and she was right. I’d kept that secret shame over my powerlessness close to my soul. I’d used it as armor, to keep everyone at a distance, especially her. I’d used the fear of loss to drive me to recklessness. To hurting her.

  And all I could think of in that moment was how right she was about me. How she knew me better than anyone else, had looked into my soul, seen the worst of me and never looked away—not until my own wild fear had driven me to push her away.

  The emotion that rose in my throat must have shown on my face because Jordan excused himself, presumably to give me a moment to collect myself.

  That night when I got back to my hotel room, I had to pack up in preparation for the next leg of the trip in the morning—the short hop to Washington, DC. But before I crashed, I picked up my cell phone and stared at it. It was midnight on the East Coast, but only 9 p. m. in California. I wanted to call her. Needed to hear her voice. My finger hovered over her number, but I didn’t do it. I couldn’t risk her not answering. I felt too tender, too vulnerable to put myself out there like that tonight.

  My thumb hovered over the send button…

  Hey. Just wanted you to know that I’m thinking about you. xoooooo (all the o’s mean tight hugs)

  She’d probably do a double take. We seldom exchanged lovey-dovey text messages. Our text exchanges were usually utilitarian. Meet me here. See you there, etc. We saved the intimate stuff for up close and personal time, the way I liked it. With a deep sigh, I deleted the text before I could send it. I tried to ignore this pain compressing my chest. Tossing my phone aside, I lay in bed, awake for hours.

  I was beginning to figure that I was catching a clue of how I needed to proceed with her. That moment of epiphany, that thing that Jordan said—about sometimes you just had to concede in order to end a long struggle that would lead to even more harm—it stayed with me. Like it might be a clue for how to deal with this thing with Emilia if I could just figure out how it applied. I’d considered and then rejected advice from The Art of War that went along those lines. The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without feeling disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service…is the jewel of the kingdom

 
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