At any turn, p.26
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       At Any Turn, p.26

         Part #2 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey
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  I was willing to concede, finally. I was willing to put this in her hands. I had no idea when I’d get the opportunity to do it or whether or not it was too late. Everything was so out of my hands, so jumbled…and so uncertain.


  The following week was the congressional hearing about addiction and online video games. I’d been subpoenaed as a key witness, along with officers from other prominent companies. My old boss from Sony was there. We had lunch together, laughing about old times while he jokingly berated me for the competition Dragon Epoch was giving his company’s creation, Everquest, and its sequel games.

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  But mostly it was a stressful set of days. Especially when a senator from one of the Southern Bible Belt states started laying into me about the depiction of magic and demonic elements in my game. He didn’t understand that many of these things were key elements to the fantasy genre—dragons, wizards, spells. I saw him as one of those guys I used to hear about back at the beginning of the millennium who wanted to burn all the Harry Potter books. Clueless muggle, I wanted to mutter under my breath. Even though it was stressful, there were moments when an irreverent thought like that would cross my mind. I’d picture this staid, conservative politician barfing up a bunch of slugs or biting into a vomit-flavored jellybean. Or maybe earwax.

  When the horrible weather started to kick in and the holiday approached, Congress adjourned for the year and there was talk that, due to other issues arising in the news, these hearings might not be reopened for some time.

  I hoped the politicians would lose interest and this would be the end of it. Yet another reason to be thankful for Christmas. And after a freezing existence in the East, I was all too eager to return home to sunny weather, dry winds and the eighty degrees predicted for Christmas Day. Thank God for Southern California.

  I made it home on the morning of Christmas Eve. While I’d been gone, I’d had Maggie buy gifts for me. I usually did not adhere to this practice, preferring to make gifts more personal. But this year, since things were so crazy, I’d conceded that I just couldn’t.

  Jordan called from the road on his way to San Luis Obispo, where his parents lived, for the holiday. He’d flown back from the East Coast days before me to help wrap up the shop for the holidays.

  “Hey,” I said.

  “Merry Christmas, bro. ”

  “What’s up?”

  “While you were in the air, I got a call from development. The hidden quest has been unlocked. Holy shitballs, Adam. General SylvanWood? Talk about hiding that thing under everyone’s nose. I can’t believe I didn’t even figure that shit out. You’re a fucking genius. ”

  My world spun for a moment and it felt like being once again in the weightlessness of space. I had no words for a moment. It felt like a burden removed from me. I was lightheaded and a little giddy. Was this the feeling of relief, this revelation of yet another deep, dark secret? One of those secrets which I loved so much, according to Emilia.

  I realized that the crew at development knew about the quest triggering because the programming was in place to send notifications to them when this happened. We’d have some information about the character who had triggered it, and their account.

  “Tell me what you know. Who was it? One of the big power players on a hardcore server?”

  Jordan laughed. “They have no idea, actually. The name of the character is MisterRogers and he’s a level-four assassin. ”

  A newbie. “It has to be an alternate character of some other player. Must be a power gamer or some player who belongs to a big guild playing anonymously on a different server. Did you check the account info?”

  “MisterRogers has no guild tag and he is the only character made on his account. No high-level characters on any server. We checked. The account is fresh. And might I add that I find the name hilarious?”

  “What about the billing info on the account?”

  “Nope. Yet another dead end because the account was paid for with a prepaid game card.

  The quest was designed to be triggered when a character approached General SylvanWood and began questioning him about his lost love instead of following the usual script of the well-known newbie daffodil quest. A certain string of phrases, which a player had to intuit, unlocked the script, which would lead the broken-down general to give the beginning of the quest that would save the captive elf princess.

  The call cut off after that as Jordan said he was about to go through the big tunnel on the 101 just outside Lompoc. I stared at my cell phone for a long moment, almost tempted to text Emilia and tell her. But I stopped. I’d be seeing her tomorrow. I could tell her then…or not.

  Still, this feeling inside me was nothing like the panic I’d felt when Emilia had jokingly told me in Yosemite that the quest had been unlocked. No, this one felt…light. Like a burden removed. I could breathe more easily. I surprised even myself with that reaction.

  I went home and spent Christmas Eve alone when I could have been with her. If only I hadn’t fucked things up so thoroughly.

  And after being on the road for weeks, all I did was work out, swim and hit my bed early.

  We would celebrate Christmas day at Peter’s house, like always. And this year, the new family dynamic was awkward beyond words. Emilia arrived late, looking pale with her extra-weird hair in two braids. It was obvious that Kim hadn’t seen her daughter in a while, because she made a comment about Emilia’s new look, complete with pink and purple streaks.

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  Now that I was home and could gather my thoughts about her as I watched her stiffly greet her mom with a face devoid of any expression, I puzzled over this mystery. The change in appearance, the use of drugs, though presumably, if Heath’s assessment was to be trusted, not the abuse of drugs. Her avoidance of her mother. Her distance from her other friends. Her strange and sometimes erratic behavior toward me.

  And then this whole med school question. She wasn’t going now? She’d said it was on hold. It made my brain hurt. From where I stood, it looked like her entire life was crumbling before my eyes and I was like that child on the bus, sniveling, helpless to change any of it.

  Every other time I’d tried to find out, I fucked it up because I’d gone about it in the wrong way. So now I had to take a more direct approach. An honest approach. Honest but not pushy. Could I even manage that?

  Christmas dinner was greatly improved by the addition of Kim to the cooking team of Peter and my cousin Britt. Liam was still annoyed with me, but actually hung around with us in the living room as we sat and talked and opened gifts. He sat next to Emilia and they talked and joked.

  Surrounded by my family—which had grown now—I felt more alone than ever. Emilia sat just feet from me, but she might as well have been on another planet for all I could speak to her, hold her, find out what the fuck was going on inside that bleached-blond head of hers.

  She studiously avoided my gaze. Even when I said something directed at her, her eyes never went higher than my chest and she never answered me directly. I sat back, frustrated. Fuck. We were now in a worse place than we had been before the Con.

  It was like Vegas had never happened. It was like nothing had ever happened between us. And like before, I was getting sick as shit of the waiting.

  The family was setting up a card game at the dinner table when Emilia disappeared. I presumed it was to go back and talk to Liam. But when I excused myself to go down the hall to the bathroom, I turned and ducked my head into Liam’s room see what he was up to. Liam was in there alone, detailing some D&D figurines.

  “Hey guy,” I said, knowing I was sure to get the brush-off.

  Liam turned his head, but didn’t look at me. “Mia told me it wasn’t your fault. ”

  I shifted in the doorway, leaning up against the doorjamb. “Um, what?”

  “She said I shouldn’t be mad at you anymore. She wants us to be friends again. ”

p; “That’s good. I want that, too. ”

  “I told her she should practice what she preaches—that’s how the saying goes, right? That she should be friends with you. ”

  I smiled. “Yeah. You got it right. ”

  “Yeah, that’s what I told her. Then she got upset and went into the bathroom. ”

  I stiffened against the doorjamb. “She was crying?”

  Liam shrugged.

  I excused myself and went farther down the hall to park myself next to the bathroom door. She’d been in there awhile. Was she shooting up in there? I still hadn’t put all my suspicions to rest.

  Finally after almost half an hour, I heard the door rattle and I straightened, ready for her. She opened the door, stepped into the hallway and, seeing me, she froze.

  She glanced away, avoiding my gaze. “I’m sorry. Were you waiting…?”

  That seemed kind of silly since there were two other bathrooms in the house. “Yeah,” I said.

  “Oh. Sorry,” she repeated awkwardly and stepped to pass me in the narrow hallway, but I shot an arm out to bar her way.

  She glared at me. “What?”

  I pointed above us. There was a big bunch of mistletoe suspended from the ceiling. I’d planned it that way.

  “Gotta kiss me,” I said.

  She looked up and then, to my shock, her face split into the first smile I’d seen from her all day.

  She stepped up and attempted to land a kiss on my cheek without actually touching me. But since she was shorter than me and she wasn’t using me to balance when she went on tiptoes, all I had to do was take a step backward and catch her as she lost her balance. I crushed her against me and then turned, landing a bedazzling kiss on her mouth. To my surprise, she kissed back and her hands fisted into my shirt. I stepped forward, moving us toward the wall where I could leverage more pressure with my body against hers. It felt good, so good.

  She was breathing heavily when she pulled her mouth away, shooting a glance down the hallway. “Someone might see. ”

  “I don’t care if they do. ”

  She turned back to me. “I do. ”

  I leaned forward to catch her mouth in another kiss. I’d kiss the sense into her if nothing else would work. If talking to her, if trying to do nice things for her, if nothing else worked, this still worked between us. Why not use it to my advantage? I could still overwhelm her with a passionate kiss, an embrace.

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  She stopped me by turning her head, so I kissed along her jawline to her ear. “Merry Christmas,” I whispered as she shivered against me, making my lust surge.

  “Adam…” she whispered. “Stop. ”

  “You don’t sound very convinced that I should. ”

  “This is too confusing. ”

  “It doesn’t have to be. ”

  She placed her hands against my cheeks to keep my head from diving in again. She was flushed, breathing fast. She wanted it every bit as much as I did. “We can’t—we shouldn’t. We made that mistake once. ”

  “It wasn’t a mistake. It was the natural state for us. We’re like magnets—try to separate us and we will tear ourselves apart to get back to each other. Put us together, let us spin, and we make electricity. ”

  “God, you are such a nerd. ” She smiled as she said it. “But that’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me. ”

  “Emilia, come home with me. Let’s talk this out. I…I have some things I want to tell you. ” I wanted so much to tell her what had gone on in New York with the parents of Tom Olmquist. How I’d opened up to them. How it was all because of her that I’d even been able to do it in the first place. How I’d realized that if I could open up to them, then I could bare my soul to her.

  She’d accused me, rightly of keeping secrets. She had secrets of her own. And if I told her mine, if I gave her what she’d sought from me that night at my house before she’d fallen asleep in my arms, maybe she’d trust me enough to come to me with hers.

  At least, God, I hoped she would. Sometimes you just had to concede and call a draw in order to shorten the struggle. That life lesson from the paintball war and the settlement were stuck in my mind.

  Emilia hesitated. Then—I could see that it took every inch of conviction in her to do it—she shook her head.

  I tried to subdue the frustration that was now building in every muscle. Frustration had gotten me into trouble too many times before. I couldn’t act on what instinct was telling me to do—step in, take charge, dominate.

  I caught her gaze with mine. “Does this mean you don’t ever want to talk?”

  She looked down, at the middle of my chest, anywhere but my eyes. She reached up and fiddled with one the buttons on my shirt. I shifted my stance, but still stood with one hand on either side of her head, resting against the wall behind her.

  “Not today…”

  I tilted my head, locked my gaze with hers. “When?”

  Her eyes closed and then opened. “We should talk. But I—”

  “Don’t keep putting this off. ”

  She shook her head. I straightened, pulled away from her. I was out of patience and getting pissed. “I hope you are able to unfuck yourself soon, because you’re sure as hell not going to let anyone help you. ”

  She showed absolutely no emotion at my angry words. “I don’t need help. ”

  “Everyone needs help from time to time. But you refuse it. Despite all the people around you who care about you. Who love you. Like your mom. Why can’t she help? Why keep everyone away? You’re talking about not going to med school. You’re changing your looks. You’re—”

  Her back stiffened. “Stop pushing me, Adam. ” She sidestepped and pulled away, then turned and left me standing there, under the mistletoe alone.

  I scrubbed my hand over my face. I was confused, and totally powerless and I despised the feeling. And I was starting to hate the fact that I was still so hung up on her. Maybe it was just time to walk away from this mess? She clearly didn’t want to work it out. She clearly didn’t care enough about us to want to work through what we needed to. I’d had to practically coax her into even being in this relationship in the first place.

  Maybe she was just too immature, too much of a coward. Just plain too young, like Jordan and Lindsay had said. She wasn’t in the same place I was because she couldn’t be. That thought dug into my gut, hurting most of all because there was no way in hell I had any control over it.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Two days after Christmas, I was back at work. I headed toward development for the daily meeting—which we called the early morning scrum—where we’d go over the subject of the newly opened Golden Mountains quest chain. On the way, I barely escaped a close encounter with the predatory interns from marketing. They gathered not far from the bathrooms. I paused, not in the mood for them to see me and start the swarm of stupid again.

  This morning, I was in a pretty black place, actually, as I’d been since Christmas, between all the stress at work and having to deal with the family bullshit. Emilia had left not long after our confrontation in the hall. Peter had to console Kim. Though they hadn’t said anything, I knew they thought I’d said something to offend her and send her home early.

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  I hadn’t yet devised a plan of how to proceed. It all kept coming down to “wait until she quits in January, then move on. ” She wanted her freedom, clearly, for whatever reason. But I was slowly beginning to accept that whatever it was that Emilia wanted, it wasn’t me.

  No, that wasn’t quite true. She did want me. But she was scared.

  Instead of doing an about-face to avoid the interns, I waited around the corner for the giggle-horde to dissipate. The one who looked like Snow White had just walked out of the bathroom. “Whoever’s in there is puking again! Like every other day this week. ”

  “Shh, we were waiting to see who it is,” said the blonde with all the h
air. “She’s got to be pregnant or something. ”

  “Maybe she just binges on breakfast and now she’s purging,” said Snow White.

  “Does anyone know who it is?” said a third intern I didn’t know. Who the hell hired all these interns, anyway? Why were they swarming around my complex gossiping about coworkers?

  I moved into full view of them and stopped short, taking them all in. I decided to be a dick about it. “What’s going on here?” I said in a loud voice.

  They turned as a unit and all jumped when they saw me; the blonde had a huge smile on her face. “Good morning, Adam! How—”

  I didn’t let her get it out. Instead I made an obvious show of glancing at my watch and raised my eyebrows. “I don’t believe I’m paying you to stand around and gossip. ”

  Snow White sucked in a breath and she exchanged a long glance with the blonde. “Oh yeah, sorry. We were just—Yeah, let’s go. ” She turned and followed the rest of the pack, all of them hightailing it out of the corridor as quickly as they could move.

  I watched them go for a moment before continuing down the hallway. I was just passing the ladies’ bathroom when the door opened. I shouldn’t have looked, but when I saw that brilliant white hair out of the corner of my eye, I did a double take. Emilia came out of the bathroom with a face that was paler than the wall. She halted when she locked gazes with me, looking almost guilty.

  I tried everything I could to keep the shock I was feeling from my face. Then she faked a smile and shrugged, muttered something that sounded like, “Back to work!” and turned and left me standing there, rooted to my spot. I watched her go and in my mind I replayed the conversation of the little mean-girl interns.

  She’d been puking for a week, every morning? The mean girls had come to a conclusion I hadn’t yet considered—an eating disorder. But she’d eaten normally whenever I had a meal with her. And while eating dinner at my house, she had shown a lighter-than-normal appetite, but nothing anorexic. She had lost a little weight, but nothing drastic. But then—then when we’d met for dinner at the café and at Christmas, she’d shown little to no appetite.

  I went back to my office and did some cursory reading on eating disorders by surfing the Internet. Bulimia? Maybe…

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