Tuesday came rather quickly, considering my boycott of the game. Not wanting to give into the urge to track down Smith and have another baffling conversation, I stayed off both characters, and spent time on other endeavors. I may have detailed the apartment with cotton swabs, I may have eaten twenty pounds of candy, I may have even spent (cringe), time with Sarah, but I – did – not – get – on – my – computer!
By one in the afternoon, a mere hour before my first shift at the book store, I paced idly up and down the hallway outside my bedroom. With each pass, I glared in at the computer, wishing Smith’s final words had pushed me away. They’d done the opposite. He’d drawn me in with his condescending accusations. And why? Because I had to prove - however impossible a task it may be - that I was NOT a spoiled brat.
Would the billionaire father be enough evidence? Or should I tell him about the three maids I had as a child? Or the very interesting fact that, at twenty-three, I was still getting the kind of allowance that would make most celebrities cry.
It was undeniable, the pull toward that machine and the possible next conversation. Would we fight? Would I find out he lived in Moscow? Would he apologize and keep me up all night talking about everything? Finally, I rushed to my desk and logged in. At this point, not even nuclear war could have stopped me from checking my mail.
Right away, I noticed the little icon. I clicked it and read:
You know, this game was fine before you came along. I enjoyed the raids, the simple things. But now, it’s awful.
What the hell? I made the game awful? To hell with him!
I read on:
Now when I get on, I hope to see you.
I actually hope you’ll be there stalking me. It’s a nightmare. And when you’re not on? It’s not much fun, anymore. Do I miss you?
My heart fluttered a little, a betrayal to my better judgment.
I wouldn’t go that far. But I’m sorry if I pissed you off. I hope you haven’t disappeared for good…
It was from him – from Smithlol2. He’d actually started a secondary character on my realm just to send me a message. Did he miss me? I almost fainted when I saw that someone was whispering me in chat.
[Sword Death] Hey, no guild? Why not?
It was nice to see a familiar name, even if that name belonged to a sixteen year old ADHD-ridden alcoholic with intermittent temper-tantrums. The guild question was one that came up often, since I was high level and fully geared. But I wasn’t the type to play nice with others, and I didn’t like the schedule. Most guilds required you have no job and no life outside the game.
[Healslater] Hey, Sword. I don’t do group dynamics very well.
[Sword Death] You mean you don’t get along with people?
[Sword Death] That’s cool. Hey you wanna join a raid?
[Healslater] Ten man?
[Sword Death] Yep. Smith’s in here.
[Sword Death] He told me to ask you… We need a better healer – the fucker we had was a total douche. He ditched in the middle of a huge fight!
[Healslater] Oh, that sucks.
I was biding my time because I couldn’t think to type. Smith had asked for ME? He’d basically apologized in his letter, and now he was seeking me out? I checked the time.
[Sword Death] You there?
[Healslater] I can’t. I’m sorry – have to work.
There was a long pause between messages, during which I assumed the conversation was over. But just as I was about to sign off and head to my beloved J – O – B, Sword sent an entreaty. One I was not expecting.
[Sword Death] You gonna be on later? Smith wants to call it until you can come.
I scowled. I blinked. I re-read the IM. It was still there, though fuzzier now. And the edge of my peripheral was growing dark and quiet. Smith wanted to pause the raid until I could join? Me? The worst healer of all time? I took a deep breath to keep from passing out, and replied.
[Sword Death] I dunno. He’s raid leader, tho. So, you gonna be on later?
After a quick calculation, I told him I could be on by eight. Then before I could change my mind, I turned off the game and sat in the quiet, listening to the blood pulsing in my ears. I’d just made an appointment to spend time with some guy I sorta hated, and was sorta starting to love a little. Either because he was Mr. Alpha-Confidence, or because he was the first guy ever to stand up to me, I was intrigued.
Nervous, and probably smiling like a moron, I grabbed my coat and headed out into the blustery weather.
With all the snow and wind, I assumed it would be a slow and boring day at the bookstore. I envisioned the hours scraping by as I unpacked boxes and dusted the baseboards, or whatever they have newbies do… I was wrong.
As soon as I opened the front door, I was met with a throng of people seeking sanction from the storm. There were lines of them at the coffee shop in the back corner, as well as trailing halfway around the room from the three front registers. Little crowds everywhere, bundled in wool coats and scarves, discussed what was fast becoming a blizzard. For a second, all I could do was stand in the doorway – directly between two storms. But then, a girl who looked no older than twelve, and wearing the most hideous pink glasses, came suddenly out of nowhere.
Without an introduction, she tried pinning something to the front of my shirt.
“What?” I stumbled sideways, out of her reach. “Hey, watch it!”
“People will need to know your name,” she told me curtly, pressing her glassing more firmly to the top of her little nose. “It’s store policy that you wear this.”
I took the name tag. It said ‘Lura’. “Awesome.”
“What’s wrong with it? Too blue-collar for you?” she asked.
Was I that transparent? “No. It’s just spelled wrong, is all.”
My assumed ‘trainee’ pointed to her own tag. “You think my name is really Jin?”
“Is it?” I asked, stupidly.
She rolled her eyes so emphatically, her head actually followed along. “I tried to tell them to give me a new one, but apparently that’s just not in the budget.”
I pinned my new name to my shirt. “How’s that?”
“It’s fine.” She handed me an apron so we could be twins. “It’s time to get to work, Lura.”
I followed her lead toward the back room. “Whatever you say, Jin.”
Three hours later, I’d spent that exact amount of time straightening books and putting away the ones people couldn’t seem to put away themselves. My job, my ONLY job, was to take the stack of ever-growing misplaced novels by the front registers and help them find their rightful place in the store. Jen found great satisfaction in watching me flounder around with the giant basket. She wasn’t so much vindictive, as she was childishly entertained. And I didn’t blame her for that. I did, however, blame her for bossing me around like I was her invisible friend.
“Okay, Jen. I get it,” I told her, stuffing a new batch of miscellaneous books into my basket on the floor between my feet. “History books go in the history isle, religion in the religion isle. Pretty self-explanatory.”
“If it was so obvious,” she countered, “then you wouldn’t be screwing it up! No offense, but this job is really important! And if you put books in the wrong place, like that one over there, sticking out halfway? What is that? A hunter’s magazine in the vegan cooking section?”
She seemed to notice the error mid-sentence and ran off, deciding to amend the problem I’d caused. Heaven forbid we traumatize some hippie with their euphuistic sense of self. They might learn Bambi’s mother was not only shot, but also made into yummy venison jerky as well. It would shatter all their illusions of the real world.
Whatever. I hefted my basket and went toward the center of the store. Several people tried stopping me to ask questions, but I just shrugged and did a little sign language with one hand. I’d learned a few letters in grade school, which was also about the time I’d learned that if you appeared to have a disability, people tended to leave you alone.
Jen didn’t like that. “What are you doing now? You’re going to get fired, you know. And on your first day.”
“Only if you tell!” I stuffed a book frantically onto the shelf. “Besides, I don’t have time to help people. These books need to be straight and ORDERLY!”
For a second, I cringed. Because it looked like she’d sensed my sarcasm and might go on another tirade. Instead, Jen sighed and nodded. “You’re absolutely right.”
“Thank you.” It was like we were talking about hospital protocol during a bomb-raid. The bad kind of raid.
She went back to the front, but not before giving me a look of camaraderie. I spent the next forty-five minutes hard at work, but then something caught my eye. It was a dark head of very recognizable hair, one row over.
The voice was also familiar. It sounded like Mason talking to a friend. “Don’t get that one, it’s ridiculously over-priced,” he was saying about a book. “And anyway, I actually have a copy at home, if you wanna learn C-sharp.”
His friend responded with a laugh. “Like I’m ready for that shit, man.”
“Maybe if you dedicated some of your Mario Cart time to reading,” Mason told him. “Here, this is perfect.”
I stood on tippy toes and barely glimpsed their faces. It was Mason, alright. He was handing a book to some guy in a Mets jersey.
The friend laughed a second time. It was a robust sound, impressing that back in the day he’d been starting quarterback and wasn’t yet over the ego trip. “HTML? Whatever. You’re hilarious.”
As they began to leave the Computer Science section, I gauged their direction and took a route to keep from being seen. I didn’t want to have that awkward encounter where I pretend I hadn’t already been spying on them, and Mason can’t even remember who I am - then I have to explain how we talked at the coffee shop, but then he still looks confused, so I quote some of our conversation, basically showcasing my desperation. Also, if Jen found me talking to the patrons, she might think I was being ambitious and give me more work to do. So, I grabbed my basket and crept to the end of the isle, peeked around the side to watch Mason’s friend as he set three books on top of the shelf, completely out of place.
I ground my teeth and glanced at the clock. It read 5:52. Eight minutes until the end of my shift. Two hours and eight minutes until tonight’s date. How pathetic was it for me to count tonight, sitting at my computer with a box of Whoppers, a date?
Avoiding them turned into a game of chess. At one point, we nearly crossed paths, but I quickly ducked into the children’s area. I had to crouch down and pretend to be very interested in level-one readers until the two of them were a safe distance away. But not so far away that I couldn’t hear them if I strained a little.
It was ridiculous, really. I should just ‘accidentally’ bump into him, apologize, and wait to see if he recognized me. Then I could laugh charmingly and explain that I’d taken this job to help someone out - (my boss). He’d introduce me to his friend, who is hopefully not the art guy, and we would exchange numbers and live happily ever after.
He was just one isle over. I took a deep breath, prepared to enact my brilliant plan, and stopped short when I heard my name.
“Laura,” Mason clarified. “Her name’s Laura, not ‘chick’.”
Suddenly, I abandoned my plan and leaned against the row of books to better hear their conversation. Hopefully it wasn’t bad.
“Did you get her number?” The friend asked, nosily.
“Yeah, Greg. I always get girls’ numbers. You know me.”
Did he, now? He didn’t ask for mine.
“Well, you said she was cute.”
Had he? I was blushing now and trying to fix my hair as I tiptoed to the end of the isle so I could peek around and see them. Definitely, not a stalker.
“She was cute.” Mason flipped idly through a large, blue book. He didn’t seem to find any of the pages of interest, or maybe his mind was focusing on something less tangible. He took a deep breath and shook his head. “But she was also…”
What? Also, what?
Greg had his eyebrows hitched, his hands stuffed into roomy jeans’ pockets, as he rocked onto his heels. Then he asked the question I was sending telepathically down the isle. “What? What was wrong with her?”
“Nothing. She was really nice. She was easy to talk to – maybe a little rough around the edges, but…”
Rough around the edges! I was about to storm into his isle to give him a piece of my mind (because that would prove him wrong), when Mason’s next words stopped me short.
“I get this weird feeling I’ve met her before, and she didn’t like me much.”
Greg laughed. “Not too hard to believe.”
Mason mock-punched his friend in the shoulder.
Greg pretended to be in pain. “Alright. Well, forget the coffee-shop girl, and let me set you up with someone else.”
“Seriously, no trolls.”
“Seriously, no thanks.”
In a motion of exasperation, Greg sighed. “Fine. Whatever. Stay hung up on that chick - I mean LAURA - forever.”
“I will.” Mason’s answer left me all warm inside.
“Be the guy who falls madly in love-”
“I’m not MADLY in love.”
“-And never do anything about it.”
“Who said I wasn’t gonna do anything about it?” Mason asked.
“What are you gonna do?” Countered Greg. “You’ll never find her again.”
“You don’t know that.”
Greg shrugged one wide shoulder. “I guess you could hang out at that coffee shop until she shows up again.”
“Or write my name and number in this book.”
I felt my forehead furrow in confusion. Why would writing his name and number in that book be a solution to finding me? Then again, who cared? He was talking about wanting to see me again! This was my chance! My chance to go barreling down the isle and announce myself like a crazy person. Only, he wouldn’t know I was crazy. He would think this was fate bringing us together again! Or he’d decide it was time to move to Jersey and invest in a security fence.
I stayed put.
Greg laughed. “Like in the movie? Good luck with that. She’s not Beckinsale, and you’re not Cusack.”
“Yeah, maybe not.” Mason returned the book to it’s rightful place on the shelf.
“Plus, even in the movie it took YEARS for her to find that book. And she wouldn’t have found it if she hadn’t been LOOKING for it.”
Mason gave Greg an incredulous look. “How many times did you see that movie?”
“I’m just saying,” Greg defended, “that fate doesn’t exist. Not in the movies, and not in real life. You have to make things happen for yourself.”
“Like camping out at the coffee shop?”
“Exactly,” Greg’s words faded as they walked toward the exit. “And by the way, I have six sisters. How many times do you THINK I’ve seen that movie?”