Mom was getting better. I could hear it in her voice every time we talked and every weekend when I went home to spend time with her. She had finished her last round of chemotherapy weeks ago and no longer had that Walking Dead zombie-like yellowish caste to her skin. It would be a while before her hair grew back, however.
I left the ranch on Sunday afternoon, landing a kiss on her papery cheek. Mom had taken to wearing scarves on her head underneath her straw cowboy hat paired with big sunglasses—giving her the appearance of a cross between a faded Hollywood starlet and a well-worn cowgirl.
Thankfully, she’d temporarily shut down the B&B while she’d dealt with her health crisis. I was glad, as this eased her work burden while she healed. But I was still worried about her, all alone up there. And I wished that she had someone in her life that she could lean on. Aside from my aging and sick grandmother in San Diego, she had only me. And we were both at least two hours away from her.
For the ten-thousandth time in my life, I wished for a bigger family.
We had some amazing neighbors, but still it wasn’t the same. They weren’t family. And even the part time ranch hands she’d hired went home at the end of the day. I worried about her. All the damn time.
I buried that worry in my studies and in my gaming. Thank god for my online friends!
FallenOne: You’ve been quiet lately.
This message came in the middle of a gaming session where I’d been pre-occupied. My mistakes had caused our entire party to wipe three times in a difficult dungeon before everyone had diplomatically decided to go work on something a little easier. No reprimand. No acknowledgement of my mistakes. I loved my friends.
Eloisa: Sorry. Preoccupied.
Him: How’s your mom?
Me: Getting better. I think. Won’t know for sure until she goes in to get a scan in a few months.
Him: I’m sure she’ll be okay.
Me: That’s what my research professor says, too. He’s an oncologist, so I guess he knows WTF he’s talking about. But it’s one thing to know something in your head and a different thing to feel that fear in your heart, know what I mean?
Him: Sure. Yes. I definitely do.
Me: I’ve decided I want to be an oncologist. Cancer needs its ass kicked—badly.
Him: That’s awesome… not only because you’ve decided to choose that in honor of your mom, but that you know what you want to do at such a young age. What are you 20? 21?
Me: So you can ask me personal questions, but I can’t ask you? I try to a/s/l you and you just answer that you’re a dude. I don’t even know if THAT is true.
Except I did. I’d heard his voice on the phone. For a few minutes, anyway.
I sat back with a sigh and waited, ignoring the fight on the screen and staring at the blinking cursor in the dialogue box, wondering how he’d answer. Would he finally cough up the goods or evade, like usual? I had to admit that I was intensely curious about him and got more curious as days went by—which only meant that he became much tighter with his info. And of course, I began to wonder if he was playing his own type of game.
Him: I practice cyber safety. Strict cyber safety.
Me: So you’re afraid I’m going to find you, stalk you and boil your pet rabbit?
Him: Anonymity is a gift. It’s hard to give up—sometimes so hard that it’s almost impossible, even when you want to. I guess it’s kind of like burrowing yourself into a cozy little hole and not wanting the gig to be up.
Me: Now it’s sounding like YOU are the rabbit.
Him: I’m sorry I don’t mean to be difficult. I just…think it’s better this way.
My mouth quirked when I read that line. That must have meant he was married or had a girlfriend. Definitely had a girlfriend at the very least. Who knew… And why did I care?
He was just a friend, right? Like Heath? And Kat? And what I hoped Alex and Jenna might become someday? Someone I could lean on—even if I hardly knew him.
But how could I ever become close friends with someone I knew next to nothing about? Was that even possible? And did I really want a friend like that?
We wiped again and Heath called it a night with a frustrated sigh. I knew I’d let everyone down and my shoulders slumped. Katya made her excuses and soon it was just Fallen and me, grinding away on dailies—repeatable quests that got us experience and some other benefits.
Me: If anonymity is a gift, then maybe I should practice some too.
Him: Fair enough. I can respect that.
Me: You pretty much have to…
I tapped my fingers over my palmed mouse, waiting for his comeback. It never came. He changed the subject instead!
Him: So let me ask you this…why do you want to be a doctor?
Me: Because for my entire life, I’ve always wanted to help people.
Him: That’s cool. I admire that.
Me: How about you? Do you know what you want to do?
Him: More or less. I’m of the same mind as you. I want to help people too, but in a different way. By entertaining them. Or giving them a way to escape.
God, I hope that meant he was an actor-wannabe and not some paid escort, which is what it sounded like. But hey, escorts made a lot of money so…whatever worked for him. I couldn’t stop giggling at the thought: FallenOne, College Gigolo.
Minutes later, we logged off. As usual, he nagged me to go retake the MCAT. I told him (as usual) that I’d think about it. We had a whole little routine we went though, it seemed, at the end of every gaming session.
It was cute. Endearing. And…sweet. And frustrating because he was still holding back. Katya had told me she thought he’d come around eventually. That he was shy. But I figure my guess was probably more accurate…
He was hiding big secret.
It’s late. Late late. I should be on my way home but instead I’m in Jenna and Alex’s dark living room in front of their aging TV (a big fat CRT that Alex inherited when her mom upgraded to a flat screen). The popcorn bowl had long since transformed into a greasy vessel of congealed melted butter, salt and a billion kernels.
And through the holes in my sweater—while hiding the fact that I’m trying to hide— I’m watching the “Bushwhacked” episode of Firefly with Alex and Jenna. The crew of the Serenity have discovered a derelict ship floating in space with no known survivors aboard. And, knowing nothing of what has occurred on the ship, they are searching it in order to get loot and maybe discover what happened.
I’ve seen the episode before—several times—as a devoted Firefly fan. But this episode gets me every time.
“Oh shit, I hate anything to do with the Reavers,” Alex breathes. “They scare the crap out of me.” She shifts a big cushion in front of her face while occasionally peeking around it at the screen.
The only one of us who appears unaffected by the onscreen tension is Jenna, who is sitting with legs crossed, her elbows resting on her knees, her chin in her hands, staring merrily at the screen. “They’re gonna get you, Alex! The cannibalistic space pirates are going to sneak into your room tonight!”
“Shut up, Jenna.”
Jenna only snickers in response and then repeats Zoë’s famous quote about the villainous Reavers from the TV series. “They’ll rape you to death, eat your flesh and sew your skin into their clothing. And if you’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”
I shuddered—just before jumping as, onscreen, Jayne is hit from behind. Wildly pivoting he starts shooting blindly. Alex and I both jump while Jenna continues merrily watching as if a leprechaun riding a unicorn over a rainbow has just appeared on the screen. Honestly, that girl has either seen this episode eight thousand times (a definite possibility), or has nerves of titanium—or both.
Suddenly, we are all bolting and screaming, however, as three figures burst through the door in the dark, screaming gutturally.
We all jump out of our seats and run for the adjacent kitchen while four guys enter wearing horror masks. My heart is racing, the adrenaline pumping. Alex is letting out high pitched screams and flailing about randomly with her hands. The more she shrieks, the more deep, throated laughter comes from the masked invaders. Even Jenna let out a scream when the original burst through the door. But now she’s standing in the kitchen with her arms folded across her chest, facing them off.
“Okay, douchebags,” she finally says. “Very funny.”
“Made ya scream, Jen. That’s one of one hundred that we owe you.”
“Fuck you, Nolan,” she sneers, kicking out a leg in his direction. If he’d been standing closer, he would have yelped if she’d connected. Even as it is—three feet away—he steps back, pulling off his mask.
“Assholes!” Alex screams again. “I’m so getting you back for that.”
“Hey that was for glitter-bombing! We are even,” one of them replies. Alex told me about that prank—had loaded a box up and labeled it “baked goods” when it was actually a balloon-powered package of glitter explosions waiting to happen. “We’re still finding glitter all over the place. That was effin’ mean.”
“Cry-babies,” Jenna replies. “Maybe you should clean your filthy pit once in a while and the glitter would be gone.”
“Why don’t you clean it, isn’t that what women are supposed to do anyway?”
Wisely, they deliver that line while running out the door, cackling. Jenna chases them to the stairwell and they run—fast. Smart of them. She would have kicked their asses—literally—if she’d caught them.
She returns, breathing hard, while Alex and I pick up the over-turned bowl of popcorn kernels that Alex launched at the intruders when they’d busted through the door.
“Okay we start our plans of revenge tonight,” Jenna mutters through clenched teeth.
“Aren’t you afraid of just escalating the conflict?” I ask as I pick out popcorn crumbs from the outdated shag carpeting.
“A girl can’t back down,” Alex mumbles, then leaves the room to get the vacuum. “Otherwise they’ll keep terrorizing us. Lock the door in case they decide to come back. We need like a password or something.”
“Yeah, I got one, ‘No douche-canoes allowed,” Jenna mutters from the sink where she’s washing out the empty popcorn bowl.
“Too easy,” I object, shaking my head. I glance over at the TV where Mal Reynolds is facing off against the alliance commander who’s searching Serenity for fugitives. “We should make an all-girls club. No boys allowed. Just like the old days of grade school.”
“We can make Heath an honorary member!” Heath had met them a few times when they’d been hanging out at my house and they all got along well.
“Our password should strike fear in the hearts of men everywhere,” Jenna said with a gleam in her eye.
“I’ve got it!” Alex says. “Our password is: I aim to misbehave. And where those boys are concerned, that is definitely the truth!”
“Nolan so wants to go out with you, Alex.” Jenna smirked. “He’d totally drop this if you did.”
“Hell to the no!” she sneers.
Jenna dries off her hands and came over to the living room where we were standing. She holds out her hands. “So it is, girls. Our club—we won’t even name it. We’ll call it the Club That Shall Not Be Named. Girl power!”
I put my hand on top of Jenna’s and Alex rests hers atop mine. “We aim to misbehave!”
“Maybe we can allow cute guys to be temporary members? Must be extremely hot, though.”
“We can make Jack Eversea our mascot!” Jenna giggled. “He’s so dreamy.” Jack was Jenna’s celebrity crush du jour.
“Okay, exceptions for hot guys. Especially dark-haired guys.” Alex nodded.
“I like blonds and red-heads better,” I chime while weirdly wondering what color hair FallenOne had. I shake off that thought.
Both girls frown at me. I always have to be the voice of dissent, don’t I?
Soon after, we begin nefarious plans to escalate this cycle of pranks against the boys in the building.
Hey, I live seven miles away from this building. I’m safe from their retaliation. So I happily participated.
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