“Waters rise!” Alex practically shouted as she turned over a new card.
“Ah c’mon, Alejandra. Again? You’re practically a flood jinx.” Alex’s roommate, Jenna sighed.
I regarded Alex’s roommate, who sat across from me. Jenna was gorgeous with pale blond hair—complete with a lone dark teal streak—and serene blue eyes. She twirled one of those platinum strands around a long, thin finger. And my eyes again returned to the table between us, with the cards spread out in a tiled pattern.
Alex puzzled over how to play the cards she pulled while Jenna leaned forward, giving her ideas. As this was a cooperative game, we all had to work with each other rather than against.
When I’d initially met Jenna, I hadn’t immediately clicked with her. She was more reserved than the boisterous Alejandra. But I was slowly warming to her.
Jenna seemed almost oblivious to the two males (whose names I did n ot remember) at the table who were practically drooling over her. Rumor had it (okay I only had Alex’s gossip to go with on this) that Jenna was dating both of them at the same time. If that was true, she was managing them both like a pro right now and not even sweating it a little.
Or maybe it was just an unfounded rumor.
“So Mia, are you seeing anyone?” Alex asked.
I stopped myself from raising my eyebrows in surprise as I drew my three adventure cards and lay them out on the table in front of me: goblet, statue, statue.
I cast a wary glance at the guys whom I barely knew and said. “No one in particular.”
No reason to go into the fact that I never dated nor, even worse, the reasons behind it.
“I’m between boyfriends myself,” Alex said with a smirk at Jenna. They shared a knowing look, an in-joke of some kind that seemed lost on the guys. “Okay Mia draw your flood cards.”
“Some people are really good at moving from one relationship to another with ease.” Alex said. “I’m not one of those. I need recuperation time in between.”
She shot a pointed glance at Jenna who just as pointedly ignored her. “I guess not all of us are in search of Mr. Right?”
“Mr. Right?” Jenna said. “You’re actually looking for the knight in shining armor. You were born about four hundred years too late for that, chica.”
Alex rolled her eyes and told her to take her turn.
The girls were a lot of fun and on the occasions when I really felt the need to bust out of my introvert shell they were a great alternative to interrupting my BFF’s rocky romance to the guy who hated me or my various study groups.
There was, of course my gaming group. They were quickly growing into a second family. If families met online to blow virtual crap up regularly, that was.
Heath came to my house to mooch the Internet from me, ironically. He and Brian had just moved into their new place—a nice two-bedroom condo—and his wasn’t installed yet. So tonight would sort of be like old times—us gaming together in the same room.
“You all ready to go? I think we agreed to working on Kat’s complete heal spell quest.” Heath checked his watch. “We’re meeting online in an hour.”
“Yeah.” I said. “Logging on to check if the MCAT scores are up today. Officially they don’t go up ‘til tomorrow but word on the street says that they sometimes are available early, after end of business the night before.”
“Well, log in, then! Let’s check it out. You were saying you felt like you did okay…”
Suddenly there was a rock in my stomach. What if I’d bombed it? I fiddled with the keyboard in front of me. “Wait…wait. I’m not sure. I kind of like not knowing.” I said as Heath pushed it closer to me.
“Better to know, right? You ace every test you take, anyway. The best friend a guy could hope to cheat off of in high school.”
But that rock only grew heavier and I thought back to that time, a month before, that I’d taken the test. It had been just two short weeks after learning of Mom’s news. Already she’d had two chemotherapy sessions and, though she still looked as hale and hearty as ever, I knew it wouldn’t be long before it took it’s toll. I’d managed to make it back home each weekend that I could scrape up the gas money for the trip.
With a deep breath, I navigated to the Association for American Medical Colleges website and used my account info to log in.
It seemed to take forever to pull up my scores. And when they did come up, my stomach dropped.
“Eighteen,” I barely squeaked out. Even I could hear the disbelief in my shivering voice.
“Is that good?” he asked, every muscle tensing as if poising to jump up and pull me into his arms in a congratulatory bear hug.
“It’s terrible,” I rasped. “It’s beyond terrible. It’s abysmal. It’s…” my words stuck in my throat and nausea threatened.
“Well surely it’s salvageable with your grades, right? I mean you have straight As in every class. You’ve never so much as earned an A-“
I shook my head, my eyes flooding with tears. “Not even my grades can save this. It’s give-up my-med-school-dream bad.”
Heath straightened, watching me closely as I blinked back those tears fiercely. He’d never seen me cry and I’m certain that it disturbed him greatly to see how close this was bringing me.
“Then you retake it. All isn’t lost. You can retake this thing over and over again, right? Like me with that fucking SAT? Goddamn verbal pissed me off.”
I avoided his gaze, licked my lips and shrugged. Every bit of life and excitement rushed from me, pooling into a disdainful puddle on the floor beneath my seat.
“Yeah..I guess.” I whispered.
He put a hand on my shoulder. “You know what? We’re not going to think about this now. We’re going to log on and blow shit up tonight.”
I shrugged off his hand and shook my head. “I think I’m just going to take a nap.”
I held up my hand. “I’m sure you can pick up an enchanter or enchantress tonight for the group quest. Please? I just…I feel super gross right now and I’d like to be alone. Can you hit the Starbucks for their Internet?”
Heath looked at me for a long time. “Let me log in and cancel. I’ll stay and hang out with you, make sure you’re all right.”
I pounded the desk in front of me. “I am all right and I won’t be able to crash if you’re in the room. Please. I just need to be alone. I’ll be okay. Please?”
Heath’s forehead creases deepened. “Okay…how about I go down to the Starbucks in the Circle so I can look in on you on my way home?”
I shrugged. “If my light’s off, don’t knock. I’ll be sleeping. I’ll call you in the morning, promise.” I hated the way my voice shook during that entire sentence.
Heath finally left, brows creased so close together they threatened to stay that way permanently.
And then… and then. Alice tumbled down the hole, ass over teakettle. And she didn’t end up in Wonderland. She wallowed, instead, marinated by the salt of her own tears and failure, in a stew of her own making, haunted by if only.
If only I’d been able to work harder.
If only I’d been able to push my concerns out of my head, be single minded. What kind of a doctor would I make, after all, if I couldn’t set aside personal worry and do the work I was trained for? What kind of doctor would I be to become distracted when lives depended on me?
If only Mom hadn’t gotten sick.
If only I hadn’t lost all hope.
I called Mom every day and she sounded just a tiny bit more tired each day. Soon, her hair would fall out, if it hadn’t started to already. She was protecting me from the truth. So I wouldn’t be distracted. So I’d succeed.
I couldn’t even imagine the crushing disappointment she’d feel when she heard this news.
I hadn’t just failed myself. I’d failed her.
It hurt. So damn much. I cried myself to sleep.
And since I had no class the next day, I slept in…or would have if my phone hadn’t chimed at me at 8 am.
You okay? It was FallenOne.
I blinked sleep from my eyes and tried to process the message. Why had he texted me? Was he checking up to find out why I hadn’t logged on last night? How much should I tell him?
Me: Hi. I’m fine.
Him: I don’t believe you.
Me: Why…because I’m such a hopeless addict that only the direst of circumstances would pull me away from logging in to DE?
Him: Something like that.
Me: What did Fragged say to you guys?
Him: He said you weren’t feeling well. Is it a bad thing to check up on a friend?
Me: No it’s not. I’m fine.
Him: So that’s it? Just fine?
Me: You’re being a pest. Haven’t you got a class or something?
Him: Or something…but not for an hour. I have time. What’s bugging you?
Me: I got my MCAT results back… I hesitated, my thumb hovering over the send button. Did I really want to go here with him? Was I prepared to dump this on a virtual stranger? Then again, he was the one I’d turned to when no one else was there for me when Mom got her diagnosis. Fallen had stayed up with me the entire night. He cared. He’d proven it before.
I took a deep breath and hit the delete button and retyped the message.
Me: I bombed the MCAT.
Him: What’s an MCAT? Oh wait, is that the big test you were prepping for?
Me: Not just any test. THE test.
Him: So…defined “bombed.” Does that mean you didn’t get the score you were hoping for?
Me: It means I’m a complete and utter failure.
Him: Um. Not.
Me: Afraid so.
Him: So you got a shit score. You’ve had a lot going on in your life lately.
Me: I’m afraid the AAMC doesn’t accept excuse notes from my Mommy.
Him: That’s not what I meant. I meant you can retake it.
Me: At the moment, I need to focus on passing all my classes, actually. Even though I’ll probably never be a doctor.
Him: Now you’re just being silly. Of course you’ll be a doctor.
Me: They don’t train wannabes who can’t concentrate their own way out of a paper bag enough to take a test.
Him: That test is very hard, I’ve heard. I looked it up when you first told me about it. And you did have a lot going on. You can take it again. I’ve just Googled three different locations in the LA area that are giving it next month. I’ll send you the link.
Me: Thanks but I’m not taking that test next month and definitely not driving to LA to take it when it’s given regularly in Anaheim and Fullerton. Much closer.
Yeah I was telling him where I was located. Over three million people lived in Orange County. It wasn’t like he could stalk me from that info, even if he did decide to fly out to my side of the country and try to meet me or something else weird.
Him: TMI. I could be a serial killer, you know.
Me: I was starting to get that vibe from you but after this test score I just got, I kinda have a death wish.
Him: I hope you are kidding. Please tell me you are kidding.
Me: I’m kidding.
Kind of. Okay I wasn’t really going to do anything drastic. But I did feel like shit.
Him: I have to go in a minute but I’m checking on you later today. Please will you call Fragged or me or someone if you are really feeling down?
Me: You have my word.
Him: You’re logging on tonight. We’ll go do something fun. There’s this cool spot in the Forgotten Ridge zone. A hidden cave. I’ll show it to you.
Me: You’re lying…I’ve never heard of that.
Him: It’s top secret. Can’t tell anyone. Can’t blog about it.
Him: Cuz then it wouldn’t be secret anymore!
Me: How did you find out about it? and why tell me, a blogger?
Him: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Me: So you *are* a serial killer.
Him: I am a serial killer…of pixelated goblins, trolls and vampires. And all that other shit we have to grind on to get levels.
I sighed and sat back, surprising myself to note that I was smiling in spite of myself.
Him: So you’re logging on right?
Me: Or else what?
Him: Or else I’ll tell Fragged to go over there and bother you.
Me: I’ll log on. Besides if he comes over here, his BF will have a tantrum. Tonight’s their date night.
Him: Great. It’s just you and me then. And that special little hideaway in the Forgotten Ridge.
I almost—almost—typed “It’s a date” before I thought the better of it.
It took about a week but eventually I bounced back from this. But that stinging sense of failure never completely went away.
And I mostly did it due to Heath either coming over to physically drag me out of my shell—to the movies, over to miniature golf or just whatever. And Kat and FallenOne’s virtual nagging to log on and grind quests with them. We got Kat her complete heal spell and moved on to Fragged’s Barbarian quest to learn the great hidden techniques from the Great Mercenary Hermit (who, ironically, lived in the Forgotten Ridge).
Fallen did take me there and it was an awesome hidden zone though I was never completely able to find out how he knew about it or why the place was even in the game. He never explained either. And I never blogged about it.
One night, a few weeks later, we were working on Heath’s incredibly tedious quest (with much good-natured bitching from both Persephone and me).
“Stop complaining, Eloisa. Your big quest is next. Unless you want me to moan about it the entire time we work on it.” Heath said. “Payback is a bitch.”
I sent him a virtual middle finger in a private message.
A good mercenary with good skills was a bonus to everyone in the group, since he was the one who stood up front, shouted annoying things at the monsters so they’d only attack him. His sole job was to stand there like a meat shield and get beaten on while the rest of us took the mob down. At this level, every fight was a team effort.
“You know,” I said after we’d killed our fifteenth troll. “I’m enjoying this game a lot. I like the quest design creativity. There’s something for everyone.
“There’s not much for the chicks to look at in the way of hot men, though,” Persephone groused on our favorite subject.
“Or for us men who prefer to look at the hot men rather than the scantily-clad chicks,” Fragged added.
But tonight I didn’t want to go over familiar territory. FallenOne never really joined in with our complaints and I think it may have even started to annoy him. So I had tried to avoid the subject lately. “I was thinking more along the lines of the quests. Like I wish that they had something for those of us who want to dig deeper and find out a mystery.” My thoughts were on that hidden cave and my curiosity as to why it was there. I’d wanted to dig deeper. To find out.
FallenOne tells the group: What do you mean?
“Well, for example, I’d love it if there was a secret quest.” I straightened in my chair and watched the screen, hitting the appropriate buttons for my spells as they lit up the screen like a thunderstorm. “Like something hidden in the game underneath the obvious quests. Maybe we’d have look for clues or speak to NPCs in order to get a hint that leads us on a secret quest chain. I love being forced to think outside the box. Someday there will be a game that will do stuff like that.”
FallenOne tells the group: That’s a really interesting idea.
Fragged laughed. “I don’t even think they can do something like that. Not with current programming technology.”
I hit my last nuke to finish off the big monster, then indicated that we needed to wait until my mana regenerated before our next fight. “ I wish they could. Dragon Epoch is so much more advanced than the MMOs I’ve played up ‘til now. If anyone could do something cool like that, it would be the people who made DE.”
“Maybe,” Fragged replied.
FallenOne tells the group: It wouldn’t be hard to implement. Some creatively constructed nested coding.
Fragged snorted. “Oh so now you’re an expert at coding, are you?
FallenOne tells the group: *shrug* It’s just a guess. Maybe it would be too hard. Who knows?
I sighed. “That would be a shame, because it could be a lot of fun. Like, they could drop weekly hints to the players interested… I dunno. It was just a thought.”
FallenOne tells the group: Hints? That’s weak sauce. Make the players work for it.
“Well however they wanted to do it,” I replied. “They could get all creative with it. They could even have it open a new zone or expansion. It would have a story behind it.”
“Anyway,” Persephone interrupted. “Aren’t we supposed to be finding this named boss to finish Fragged’s quest?
“He hasn’t spawned yet,” said Fragged.
Persephone sighed. “Let’s go do something else for a little while. I’m bored.” A common complaint coming from our energetic Canadian friend.
“You’re bloodthirsty,” Fragged accused.
And they continued a good-natured argument while another conversation started beneath the surface.
FallenOne tells you: So tell me more about this secret quest idea. I think it’s cool.
I smiled, bit my bottom lip and replied.
You tell FallenOne: Oh it’s just an off the cuff idea I had. I would love it if the game put in Easter eggs like that. Just fun little secret quest for us to go out and discover for when we get bored of collecting Giant Lizard tongues for the random local which or Tiger teeth for the shaman in town.
FallenOne tells you: Those quests aren’t *that* bad…
You tell FallenOne: No, they’re not bad but they aren’t exactly outside of the box, either, know what I mean? It just seems to me that DE is such a kickass game, and they’ve shown with their game design that they are so awesome. I’d think it would be a fun idea if they could implement it. Too bad they don’t have a “suggestion box” so that players can make suggestions like that to the designers.
FallenOne tells you: Haha very funny.
FallenOne liked to remind me regularly that I should put my ideas into a suggestion box.
FallenOne tells you: Maybe they should just read your blog. Someone should tell them about it.
You tell FallenOne: Pfft. My little ol’ blog is hardly worth their time. But that’s cool of you to say.
FallenOne tells you: You play down how good your blog is. You shouldn’t do that.
You tell FallenOne: Well… thanks. I’m glad you like it. If I don’t end up being a doctor, maybe I can figure out how to live off my leet blogging skillz.
“What the hell are you two doing, smoking ganja?” Fragged yelled over the headset. “We’re fighting, here!”
And that was the end of that. We finished Fragged’s quest that night and there was never any more discussion about a hidden quest…until rumors started to surface about a month later that something like that indeed might be in the planning works.
Small universe. Great minds think alike or maybe…just maybe they did read my blog!
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