“You moved out! Without telling me a thing? You don’t answer my calls, you avoid me at work. Really Hill?” Tori cornered me in the staff dining room.
I had managed to avoid the conversation for so long. I’d taken early breaks and purposely kept busy. I had cashed in vacation time and called in sick, but now it was time for questions that had no acceptable answers.
“I did tell you.”
“You mean on Chatter? Yeah, that answered nothing. You dodged everything. Not one of your replies was a clear answer. What is going on with you?”
“It’s complicated.” How could I tell her that I was staying with Brad to protect her?
With one phone call, he could cause her serious harm or worse. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t be that selfish. I wanted Brad out of my life. He manipulated and belittled me constantly. He’d struck me in the past and even imprisoned me in that dump of a home on occasion, but my freedom wasn’t worth the pain of someone I loved.
For weeks after his threat, Brad had been pleasant. We went to nice restaurants. Rainbow Tavern to be exact. The most romantic restaurant in Coerce de’ Lile. Carved into the side of a mountain, the moonlight bounced in a prism of color off the ocean and rocks and illuminated the dining room. We ate, we danced, and we drank champagne until mid-morning.
And, he held my hand in public, something he’d refused to do a long time before. I felt hopeful. Brad actually made me smile and he had apologized the threat he had made against Tori. Perhaps he had truly changed or maybe I was making excuses because I was out of options.
“Hillary?” Tori took my arm, forcing me to face her. “Don’t walk away from me!”
“Tori, he’s different. I’m happy now. I am.”
“For how long this time?”
“Tori, please don’t be mad.”
It broke my heart. Tori stomped off, throwing her arms up as if she had finally washed her hands of me.
I was devastated. How could I ever survive without my best friend? Avoiding her had been hard, but I missed her. I missed living with her. I missed my life living on Beau Reve and … I still missed Ethan.
I stared at Ethan’s last attempt to contact me. I guess I hadn’t thought of everything. He’d friended me with a fake account, pretending to be a woman.
Knowing he still thought about me, a month later, shattered the walls I’d built. I chuckled at his deception when I should have been pissed and I removed his name from my block list, but I didn’t send him a friend’s request. I had to draw the line somewhere.
Considering my current situation, I needed the fantasy more than ever. Besides, Brad wouldn’t know. He didn’t have a Chatter account. None of his friends knew me as Velvet Rose. I was careful with my alias. Not wanting him to find that part of my life where I enjoyed browsing the site and reading the posts. I met interesting people, but I knew I had a part to play to keep the peace as well and that meant giving up so many things. Damn, I was so tired of feeling like I was walking on glass and that at any moment I would make one false move and end up cut wide open. Why did it have to be that way? I never imagined this – I’d always thought living with a man would be wonderful and romantic.
I stared at the message again. Who cared if he was the real Ethan or not? It was just part of a fantasy. One I desperately needed to survive my reality.
“Listen to yourself!” I spat too loud, drawing the attention of my superior.
“Are you okay, Hill?”
“No. No, I’m not,” I said honestly. “Can I leave? Please?” It wasn’t like me to ditch my residents in the middle of the workday. I never left early. I rarely called in, but I just didn’t feel like me. I felt scared. I felt confused and I needed to get as far away from the real world as I could.
I rushed to the dorms, rented a room and locked myself in with my laptop that I kept in my locker at work. I couldn’t even take it home because Brad hated it so much and it was one more thing I went without just to ensure he didn’t slip back to his old ways. I powered it up, logged in and disappeared into Torel.
In Torel, I was rich. I had a nice home, expensive furniture, and nice clothes. Even though I didn’t accept many buddy requests, my character was famous. Known all over Tiara Shores Realm. I attended fashion contests and won more than not. I went to parties, hosted parties, and drove around town in my shiny amethyst convertible. I was a celebrity. People got excited when they saw me and if it was quiet enough, I could pretend that was my reality and forget I belonged in any other world.
I hopped on the bed, crossed my ankles and set my laptop on my legs. I placed my headset on my head and soon I was exactly where I wanted to be. I tapped the keys on my keyboard, driving around the game world until I reached the large suspension bridge. I stopped. It would take me to another realm. I rarely visited any of the others. Tiara Shores banned crime and violence, which made it one of the safest worlds. Only fantasy and witchery characters could use their powers, but spells were limited, causing most to fizzle and spark like fireworks. It was the best place in the game for a player like me who only knew how to accessorize, but that night I wasn’t in the mood to grace Tiara Shores with my presence.
I hit the button and a page popped up asking me where I wanted to go. Rows of round pictures lined the page, each representing a realm and a short description. Faylon was a fantasy realm where the characters were all fairies, pixies, imps, and gnomes. Vargon was a sinful casino world where gamblers migrated. I’d won most of my vast fortune on my last visit there, but I didn’t feel lucky at the moment.
Wickora was Tori’s realm, where witches and warlocks roamed. I usually avoided that realm. On my first and only tour, I had run into a clownish character who thought I would look funny with a jackass tail and a pig nose. It had cost a pretty penny – in real cash – to remove his handy work. Nope, I wasn’t going to do that again. I would stick to popping directly into Tori’s Wickora Castle from then on, thank you.
I didn’t race, so Axo was out. Syca’s colorful skinned aliens were always pleasant … Granota.
Hmm. I tapped the mouse. It was a dark place for people who preferred fast-paced crime and police chase games. Maybe that was what I needed. Something exciting and dangerous. The best items hid in their pawnshops, but it was a risky shopping trip at any time of the day. I sent my beloved vehicle home and hailed a taxi to take me to Granota.
Stealing cars was the main objective of gameplay besides shooting and who knows what else. That was how I obtained my car in the first place. I giggled as I recalled the memory. The woman I’d taken it from had been so angry, yelling obscenities, but I didn’t care. It was part of the game after all.
“You look lost, doll.”
Two minutes inside the realm and this cocky looking character walked up wearing a leather jacket. He had a pointy blonde Mohawk with black tips and tribal tattoos on the hairless sides. His waist was skinny and his chest, shoulders, and biceps were freakishly large. He had a scar down his left cheek and a lunky assault rifle hung at his side.
“Ah, a seasoned player,” I spoke into the microphone on my headset.
“Let me guess … Tiara Shores princess. You’re too pretty for this realm, baby. What brings you here?”
“Shopping.” I groaned as I gazed at the avatar on my computer. I should have changed her appearance and I would as soon as this guy got out of my way.
“Shopping?” He chuckled. “Were you planning on walking? You should have brought your limo and bodyguard, Princess.”
“I was planning on borrowing a car or two. Unless you want to be nice and escort me around.” There was no need to write him off too quickly. I was lonely and I was feeling adventurous.
“Your chariot awaits.” The character bowed slightly before opening the passenger door of his car so I could slip inside. He drove a shiny black model that was a good recreation of a late-model Camaro, outfitted with Batmobile like shields and bulletproof glass. It looked like a sporty little tank and I liked it.
After a few minutes of chatting, the guy seemed harmless. He was a bit silly and it calmed me, making me forget my real-life worries. Not many from his realm could be trusted, especially when they visited Granota.
“I’m guessing you spend most of your time in the Miytia combat zones.” He wore gray camo cargos and had several battle scars. Miytia was the military based realm and it was easy to see this guy had seen many battles. “You should visit Tiara Shores sometime and check out the spa. It could clear those battle wounds in a couple of seconds.”
I hated that part of the Torel game. If a character received a cut, lost an arm or grew extra appendages, it was stuck until the player spent real cash in a spa. Just another way for the game makers to squeeze a few more pennies. Needless to say, I was very careful where I roamed. I was quite fond of my avatar’s appearance.
“Nah, I kind of like my scars.” The male replied cockily. “And I really like that necklace. Rare. Launch day right?”
“You know your Torel inventory.” He knew it too well, I thought. The ruby necklace that hung around my avatar’s neck was my favorite. A special item the game only sold the day of its launching. It was worth millions of coins.
“How did you get something like that?”
“It was a gift.”
He stopped in front of a row of shops, most of which were there just to fill space. Owning a business in Torel cost over two hundred in real money, so most just held yard sale like events in their homes and posted them in the bulletin tabs.
“This is my favorite pawnshop. This guy’s a friend of mine.”
“You have rich friends.”
“He’s expensive but he collects a lot of rare stuff. He’s the only one willing to give big enough loans to the people pawning them and he keeps his store open even when he’s not online.”
“I’ll pin it to my map,” I promised. I was feeling too comfortable around this guy and I had to keep reminding myself where I was.
A tiny bell rang as we entered the door, just like a store in the real world, but the owner wasn’t there.
“You weren’t kidding. There’s a lot of great stuff here.” I browsed the virtual screen above the counter, flicking the pages one by one. It would have been easier to pull up the full-screen inventory, but it was too risky around other players and I didn’t have a bodyguard to execute defense moves in my absence, but it just so happened the pawnshop had two of them in stock.
“I’ll take them both,” I said it aloud even though I only needed to click a button to perform the purchase.
“It’s too bad you can’t activate them until you get home.”
“Yeah, that’s one sucky flaw to this game. How long have you been playing?”
“Ten years. You?”
“Less.” I kept it vague. It was obvious he was fishing in an attempt to size up my threat value.
The game didn’t display a player’s experience level or their name beneath or above its avatars. It was something that would block the entire screen leaving the character vulnerable. I knew he wasn’t going to do that and neither would I.
We visited a few more shops and chatted. He was so funny and he protected me when a pair of goons tried to jump us when we exited the third pawn shop. I started to feel a true connection.
“That necklace of yours is going to get us killed.” He chuckled.
“I’ll take it off.”
“Don’t do that. I enjoy the challenge.”
Or maybe he wanted to steal it himself, I thought. He couldn’t obtain it if I wasn’t wearing it, but if I tried to take it off in his presence, he could swipe it before I knew what happened. I guess I wasn’t ready to trust the guy.
We spent an hour together. He seemed to know where all the best pawn shops were. I acquired a good many items. I found a window that would make my wall look like I lived behind a waterfall, a drunken bum charm that Tori had been searching for, and a pair of ruby earrings that almost matched my necklace.
“I’m glad I don’t have to carry your shopping bags, Princess. I don’t think I’d be strong enough.”
Boy, that guy made me laugh and I thought about adding him to my buddy list so I could spend time with him again. I didn’t have a Torel boyfriend and this character had the potential to be a wonderful distraction from my real-life troubles and possibly make me forget Ethan.
I loved his voice. He had one of those deep drawls that stirred something deep inside my intimate soul and I had become completely comfortable around him … until we left the last shop.
“I’m so sorry about this.” He raised his assault weapon.
I laughed even though I was slightly disappointed, but I wasn’t so naïve when it came to the world of Torel.
He took a step toward me and I tapped my mouse, unleashed a special charm that worked in any realm. I paralyzed the traitor.
“My best friend is a sorcerous. She gave me a few toys.” I purred then I quickly accessed my favorite weapon from the oversized purse I carried and sliced my would-be assassin’s head right off his shoulders.
My avatar sauntered over to him and squatted, touched her fingertips to her lips, and then to his avatar’s forehead, permanently marking my causality with a pretty lilac rose.
I commanded fingertips to trail the fender of his car just to mock the owner of the character I’d slain.
“That’s too bad, I really thought you could be someone special,” I sighed. “Thanks for the new toy.” And I returned to Tiara Shores realm with his car and I’m guessing part of his ego.