“Yes. Just like that! Ohhhh babyy!”
The neighbors across the way were at it again. And due to the hot weather, I had my window open which—despite the distance—apparently was in a perfect position to pick up the sound waves from out of their window.
They had sex all the damn time. All. The. Time. You’d think it was the best thing ever to do. Or that it might be going out of style tomorrow.
Shit. They needed a hobby or something.
“Yes. God, yes! Yes! Oh Jesus.” As far as I could tell, they didn’t even go to church on Sundays, either, for all that her exclamations seemed to profess deep belief in a higher power.
Jeez, I needed to get the hell out of this tiny apartment and away from the sex-a-thon for a few hours.
I texted Heath and asked him if he wanted to grab dinner. As long as we picked some place cheap and air-conditioned, I’d be happy as a clam.
He picked me up a half hour later, when the smell of cigarette smoke was drifting up from the neighbors’ window. They’d be at it again later tonight, for sure.
I sat at the sandwich shop down the street—no chance for chill air-conditioning, but at least we were able to park our sticky bodies in front of a giant, high-powered fan.
I poked at my greasy—and overly salty—potato chip crumbs.
“You okay?” Heath asked.
“Mm,” I mumbled, distractedly.
Heath bit into his extra-large Italian sub on onion roll and watched me with wary eyes. He waited, well-aware that I’d come out with it sooner or later. And, as it were, it took hardly any waiting at all.
I dropped the last bit of my sandwich onto my plate. “What’s the big deal about sex, anyway?” I asked. I was only aware that I’d asked that in a slightly too-loud voice when heads at the next table turned to stare at me. I let out a frustrated sigh, my face burning.
Clearing my throat, I swallowed and ignored their stares until they went back to their previous conversation. Heath gazed at me with his mouth hanging open. I made a face at him.
He rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe you just asked me that. Have your neighbors been knocking boots again?”
I blew out a breath. “It’s the only thing they ever do. Damn they need a TV or something.”
Heath’s grin grew sly. “Nothing on TV is half as fun as what they are doing.”
“But do they have to let the whole damn world know? I mean this woman is quite…loudly emotive…and overjoyed about her orgasms.”
Again, my voice must have risen because those heads turned once more. My eyes narrowed as I stared back at them. “Oh, just go back to your food and your own conversation!” I barked at them and their eyes widened. Heath was red-faced and barely breathing from cracking up so hard.
I held up both hands, each pointing the middle finger straight up on either side of my face, while I stuck my tongue out at him. It only made him laugh harder. And after a few minutes, watching him fight to breathe, I had to admit that it was infectious. I started to laugh too, damn it.
It truly was ridiculous. “You either need to channel Meg Ryan and give her a scene like the one from When Harry Met Sally, or download some good loud porn and blast it back at them the next time.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure they’d only find that a turn on.”
He shrugged, wiping tears from his eyes. “Probably so.”
I blew out a frustrated breath. “I don’t get it.”
“Oh, my dear, someday you will. If you ever bother to date, that is.”
I shrugged, poking at the discarded crust of my sandwich. “I don’t have to date someone to have sex with them.” At least this time, I remembered to keep my voice low, thank God.
Heath blinked, bit into his sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “Definitely true. But you don’t go out to meet people even just to hook up. And since you are painfully socially awkward—”
I scowled. “Jeez, Heath. Shut up. You sure know how to boost a girl’s confidence. I’m not ugly.”
His brows rose. “You are definitely not ugly. Quite the opposite. Men check you out all the time when we are out together. But, you’re totally clueless about that fact—which is at once endearing and pitiable.”
I made another face.
“But definitely not when you make that face.”
Picking up my crust of bread, I tossed it at him. It bounced off his massive shoulder and landed on the table i. He scooped it up and threw it back on my paper plate.
“I’m just saying that if you want the opportunity to…explore…you need to make yourself available.”
I laced my fingers together and sat up straight, mimicking an overly attentive student, blinking my wide eyes innocently. “Like should I run a personal ad on Craigslist? SWF seeks BHM for hot sex and virginal deflowering?”
Heath’s forehead buckled. “BHM?”
“Big hunky man?”
He snorted. “Don’t do Craigslist. You take your life in your hands with the crazies. I forbid it.”
I bit my lip. “One of those swipe left or right apps, then?”
Heath’s mouth twisted thoughtfully. “Make some friends. Go to a few parties. Stop spending every night gaming with me, Fallen and Kat.”
A group of rowdy high school students made their way past our table, bumping Heath’s back. He threw them a glare and they all backed off immediately, hands upraised appeasingly.
“Oh, you want me to stop gaming with you?”
“No, I didn’t say that. I said stop gaming every night with us. Get out and enjoy your college years—especially now that they are almost over. You’ve only got a year and a half left.”
I shook my head vehemently while gripping my hands together even tighter. “I don’t want to do the social thing. I don’t want to spend time with a guy who will boss me around. Or worse—someone who will want to change me to fit his image of what he wants from me or whatever.”
I didn’t look Heath in the eye as I said this to him. I actually, in many ways, was describing his boyfriend, Brian. Heath had no idea how much I disliked Brian and if I could help it, he’d never know.
But yeah, theirs was definitely a relationship I wasn’t interested in emulating. I didn’t want any relationships. And I didn’t see the need. Due to my own history, I didn’t think much of having to rely on a man. I’d never had to rely on a man—from the moment I was born, even—and I never, ever would.
But sex…maybe sex could be good. I’d never know until I tried it, right?
It was just that getting past that first hurdle—that pesky virginity hurdle—seemed a hard one. No casual one night stand dude would want a part in that. Would they?
“What about that Jon guy in your study group? He seemed nice when I met him.”
I shrugged. Jon was a good-looking guy but… he just didn’t do it for me. There was something about him that put me off.
“He’s definitely into you. That was no mystery,” Heath said with a crooked smile as he threw down his last French fry. “You know, whoever it is, it doesn’t have to be a big long term commitment. You’re friends with the guy. Why not just do a friends with benefits thing or something?”
I rubbed at my cheek, my eyes drifting off as I considered it. It wasn’t really a bad idea. Jon was nice enough. He was smart. He was attractive. And no, I didn’t want him hanging around forever as a boyfriend. But once I retook the MCAT, I wouldn’t be in his study group. Nor would we share any of the same classes, since he was a year behind me.
I contemplated that possibility. He’d probably ask me out again. He’d been persistent in the past. But…could I go all the way with him? And would he be the type to back away afterward if I did? He seemed a bit too…needy.
I blew out a breath. “There has to be an easier way to do this.”
Heath laughed. “Don’t sweat it, Mia. If you stop being so…aloof and unavailable, it will probably take care of itself. Just don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
I raised a brow at him. “Have you ever known me to do anything spontaneous and potentially self-destructive?”
His smile faded. “There’s always a first time…try to be your usual sensible self. I’m sure you’ll get that cherry popped in no time. Just don’t expect it to be the best experience of your life that first time. And don’t give up on it because of that first time.”
I shook my head, grimacing. “Wow, when you put it that way, what the hell have I been waiting for? Hold me back before I find some big stud to deflower me!”
And fortunately, I’d remembered to keep my voice down but just in case, I glanced over at the table next to us. The guys were gone and a bus boy was clearing their debris, thank God.
It was the end of the week and I was blowing off steam by running around with FallenOne on the game. I guess he had nothing better to do with his Friday night, either. Maybe he was like me and never got laid.
Our two missing party-members, however, had not hesitated to inform us that they were going to enjoy their Friday nights getting some.
I wondered what had happened that Fallen was hanging out with me. He’d been hooking up with someone fairly regularly up until recently. He’d casually mention going out with a “friend” or having a “date.” And, as usual, he’d been mysterious about it, referring to her only in vague terms so much so that it took an occasional pronoun—a drop of “she” or “her”—to clue me in that it was a woman.
Me: So why aren’t you out on a date tonight, too and leaving me to grind my dailies alone?
Him: Shrug. I dunno.
Me: Did things fall through with your “friend”?
Him: You’re nosey. And why would you put friend in quotes?
Me: Well, I guess it’s just my way of abbreviating Friend With Benefits.
Him: Well, we used to work together. She recently moved on to something else. Haven’t seen her much and, honestly, we never hung out a lot…
Me: You just got together to hook up?
Him: Not *just to hook up, no…but…more often than not.
Him: What, hmmm? I take it you disapprove?
Me: Me? No…I’m just wondering how something like that comes about…a friends with benefits type of situation. Like if there’s someone you’re hanging out with as a friend and you just decide to start sleeping together? Does it just happen or do you have a conversation about it ahead of time or…?
Him: You’re overthinking it.
Me: I overthink *everything. I am the queen of overthinking.
Him: I can see that. What’s got you so interested in all this?
Me: I dunno. I think it’s time to …move forward and experience new things—so to speak. But I have zero interest in relationships or dating. You seem to have a convenient set up so was just trying to figure out how you did it.
Him: I’m sure you’ll figure something out with a little of that brainpower. But you know, what’s the rush, right? You’ve got tests and medical school and all that…
Me: The rush is that I don’t want to be an octogenarian virgin, tyvm.
Him: Also think there’s quite some time before you become an octogenarian.
Me: Oh, whatever. Let’s just go kill stuff.
Him: How about we try out that new fireworks quest? Word on that street is that people are having a lot of fun with it.
Me: Blowing crap up is almost as good as killing stuff. I’m down for that.
FallenOne and Eloisa are scrambling around the crater of a steaming volcano, dodging random pools of lava as they collect pockets of sulfur for their wicked concoction.
Hassim, the quest-giver, has provided them with a special collection container along with a list of ingredients that they will need in order to help him with his magical—and explosive—creations. Once finished, they will have to venture into the darkest caves of Yondareth to collect saltpeter…
“I hope this quest is worth doing,” Eloisa murmurs to FallenOne, holding her nose to block out the rotten egg smell of the sulfur. Even so, she manages to reach her scoop into a pocket of the yellow substance hiding under a rock and dump it into her clay container, corking it up tightly.
“Hassim makes beautiful fireworks,” replies FallenOne, nodding. “I’m sure it will be a sight to see.”
After hours—and days and multiple treks across the land—the two adventurers end up in a dwarvish mining camp trading their labor—repairing the minecart tracks for lumps of raw copper. The metal is a vital ingredient to produce the blue sparks among the many other colors of the display.
It’s a long and tireless quest and finally, with all ingredients gathered, they return to Hassim. The exotics chemist will assemble them into his famous creations in time for the Great Gnomish World Festival.
Both FallenOne and Eloisa are full of excitement and can’t wait to participate.
“Aside from the rewards of getting our own personal fireworks to set off whenever we want, I can’t wait to help assemble the display for the Festival.” FallenOne combs his hand through his snowy beard thoughtfully, picturing what it will be like.
Eloisa, however, has been silent ever since turning the ingredients over to Hassim and waiting for him to assemble his fiery rockets.
The two adventurers have been asked to create a clearing, build a platform and, once the rockets are ready, set them up properly. She’s beginning to think that this is a lot of work for not very much gain.
As the tasks mount, Eloisa becomes less and less amused.
“This is a great deal of work for little gain, I think,” she pouts.
FallenOne straightens from his backbreaking labor, having assembled the platform and stands where he will set up the rockets. “We’re almost done. You’ll see! Once the sun goes down there will be such a site to be seen and we will be the great heroes who brought this beauty and the magic of Hassim’s creations to all the inhabitants in these parts.”
But there are still more tasks to be had. Hassim is very specific about the layout out of rockets in a particular pattern as well as the arrangement of black powder to act as a fuse.
Eloisa’s cheeks grow red with frustration and even a little anger. She’s at the end of a too-long tether of patience. And she’s not going to take Hassim’s dictatorship here in this tiny village lightly.
She’s going to fight back.
She grabs the majority of the rockets and the barrel of black powder before FallenOne even realizes what she is doing. Hauling them to the platform, she piles them in a high mound.
“That’s not how Hassim told us to do it!” Fallen protests when he finally catches up with her, still a little stunned that she can move so fast.
“I don’t care,” retorts Eloisa. “That’s what he’s going to get, anyway.”
Then she uncorks her keg of black powder and begins to spread it across the ground in intricate patterns, shapes and spelling out words in foreign tongue that FallenOne has never seen before.
He watches, eyes growing wider at the pictures her patterns seem to form. “That’s not—you can’t be—What—?“
“Watch me,” Eloisa bites out as she throws down her empty barrel of powder and pulls out her flint and steel. “I’d advise you to stand back.”
Eyes wide and jaw practically hitting the ground, FallenOne complies, backing as far away as he possibly can while still in a position to witness what is about to happen in this tiny hapless hamlet at the edge of the woods.
When she’s ready, Eloisa throws her lit match at the end of a long and twisting trail of scattered black powder all along the ground, leading up to the gigantic mound of fireworks, sure to explode, once the fire reaches them.
“I’m going to give them a show they’ll never forget. That’s the last time I do their monkey labor all for a damn reusable firework that will sit in my backpack and take up room forever until I decide to destroy it!”
FallenOne can only shake his head wordlessly as the fire follows the trail of the black powder, twisting and winding around the intricate shapes and foreign alphabet letters…wending closer and closer toward the heap of explosives at the center of the platform.
“Just watch!” Eloisa shouts gleefully.
I watched the display on the monitor, a fist pressed to my mouth as I suppressed a cackle. I tried not to gloat too much over on-voice chat. I could sense Fallen’s annoyance from here.
The powder ignited from where I’d set fire to it and flames erupted lighting up the patterns. I had no idea what was going through Fallen’s mind as he witnessed my rebellion but it sure was funny as hell to me.
Flames circled around two giant circles, stretching into an elongated shaft of light. Flaring into the eruption of stream of white stars from the end.
Lights flickered in patterns and spelled out words. “Fuck off, Hassim.” And “You suck, Draco.” And other fun little messages.
FallenOne remained noticeably quiet until the trail of flames led to the grand finally—a giant ass mound of fireworks heaped in a pile and all exploding at once, nearly burning my retinas out with the on-screen flashing and obnoxious display of light.
The entire village, had it existed outside the realm of pixels and bytes, would have been devastated.
I giggled like a child as I witnessed my devastation—the giant crater in the clearing, all tinged with black and smoking. In just a quarter of an hour, it would all go back to looking how it had before, for the benefit of the NPC villagers and the players who would venture out there with their own quests to complete.
But I’d likely burned my own bridges—so to speak.
That thought just made me laugh harder.
FallenOne: Cock and balls, Mia, REALLY?
Eloisa: It’s funny! Hassim’s quest *really was annoying af. Don’t you think?
Him: It wasn’t *that annoying.
Me: It was damn annoying. This game is full of annoying busy work quests like that. I had enough.
Him: Oh come on, it was an interesting quest. And a great reward!
Me: Says you. I rebelled.
Him: Sigh. So I’ve noticed. You are quite the rebel.
Me: I like mixing it up, what can I say?
Him: So I assume there will be a full and thorough review of this quest chain on the blog sometime soon?
Me: Of course, I took screenies and everything.
Him: Wow. You’re going nuclear.
Me: Meh. If I was going scorched earth, you’d know it. This is nothing. They’ll get over it. Maybe they won’t make so many busywork quests in the future. Win-win for all of us players.
Him: Are you actually trying to school the creators of the game with your snarkfest of a blog?
Me: I offer another perspective.
Him: Yeah, ya do.
I thought I’d get more of a laugh from FallenOne than I actually managed to get. Maybe my humor was too immature for him, or something.
Once we made it back into town, we both had other quest items to turn in for—surprise!—a new breastplate!
We gathered our items and turned them in to the quest giver—this time a ruffian named Dirty Deena, who had raided an armory and was all ready to give us shiny new breastplates in exchange for the random items she needed.
So, we turned in our sea shells, our mollusk-encrusted dubloons, our torn sails salvaged from a sunken ship. And…
FallenOne, as a spearman, received glistening, polished and studded leather breastplate that gleamed in the sunshine. I quickly emoted my excitement to him, cheering and clapping and roundly encouraging him as he popped on that new badboy and I saw the graphic. He looked GREAT.
Me: Show me the stats!
Him: Turn your stuff in. You’ll have the exact same stats!
So I did. I gathered my same item and handed them to Dirty Deena and she laughed and danced a pirate jig before handing me mine. I checked the stats. A noticeable improvement to the breastplate I’d been wearing for the last four levels. But what did the graphic look like?
I removed my old breastplate from the “chest” slot in my character screen and dragged over the new item, thereby “equipping it,” then switched back to the main screen so I could see what the graphic looked like on my character avatar.
Cue trombones. Wah wah waaaaaah.
It was nothing more than a glittery bikini top, perfectly tailored to show off Eloisa’s ample bosom and cleavage.
Cue female player RAGE.
Eloisa: W.T. Actual. F.
FallenOne: It, uh, looks good on you.
Me: Shut it, spearboy. Before I take that spear and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
Him: Touchy, touchy.
Me: You would be too if all of Yondareth were conspiring to force you to go into battle wearing nothing but an armored loin cloth. You wouldn’t dig that, now would you?
Him: Well, no. But look on the bright side?
Me: Bright side? There’s a bright side?
Him: Yeah, our breastplates have the exact same stats on them. Same armor class, same hit points. Same protection all the way around but yours weighs a lot less.
Me: That’s because it’s TWO MICROSCOPIC TRIANGLES OF ALUMINUM FOIL
Him: Wow. Shouting. Deep breaths and look at the plus side…
Me: Yup you’ve convinced me. I’m now all for showing all of Yondareth my virtual cleavage!
Me: No. NOT really. Get outta town with this dumbass game.
Him: This isn’t going to make you rage quit is it?
Me: I got my finger on the rage quit button even as I type!
Him: Deep breaths, Mia. DON’T do it. You know you love Dragon Epoch.
Me: I’d love it more if they remembered that women play their damn game, too.
Him: And you’ve been giving feedback in the suggestion box?
Me: Yes. And blogging about it.
Him: Maybe they are implementing the changes even as we speak. Maybe they’ll give women a choice of the armor they want to wear…
Me: Cuz we all know that the ones with the skimpy armor will be played by boys.
Him: So be it.
Me: I just wish they gave the girls more cred. I can’t possibly be the only female who rails against it. I know Kat isn’t a fan either.
Him: Well the beta test is almost over and the real deal launches soon. I have faith that they’ll take all our feedback to heart.
Me: I guess I’ll believe it when I see it. Girls just want to look badass, ya know? More Joan of Arc and less Princess Leia in the gold slave bikini.
Him: But Leia killed Jabba while she was wearing that gold bikini. She was badass AND sexy as hell.
Me: Sigh. Maybe that was a bad example. I just think we should have a choice.
Him: Maybe have a little faith that your feedback will be listened to.
Me: OR I could hope that the next quest gives out skin tight metal hotpants that match this bikini top!
After we turned in our items—and he listened to me rant at length—both in text chat and over voice—we went to the town square to do some housekeeping tasks before going on our next big quest binge with the group. There, we’d be selling our junk to vendors, buying food items and putting extra stuff in the bank so we wouldn’t have to keep carrying it around.
On my way to the bank in Cormir city, however, I came across a curious gathering. A female avatar—a sexy elf with miles of flowing golden hair down to her ankles and clad in the skimpiest of shiny armor, jeweled breast cups and all, stood on a platform surrounded by quite a few other characters.
The dialogue being shouted out in the general chat channel made it sound like there was an auction going on. And from the looks of the set up, it appeared as if the subject of the auction was the elf avatar herself.
FallenOne appeared just as perplexed as I was when I sent him a message asking him.
FallenOne: I have no idea. People are bidding on “alone time” with the elf, named LadyHaHa.
Eloisa: Alone time? Like…for what?
I continued to read along for a few minutes as he emoted shaking his head and feigning disbelief with his character. Eventually the innocent little virgin girl caught on. The elf girl was auctioning off cyber time. Cyber. As in cybersex. People were offering to pay her to have virtual sex chat with this hot elf with her double G breasts, that probably wasn’t even played by a real-life female.
Me: Holy crap. I can’t even.
Him: Yeah. And here I thought I’d seen everything in my years of gaming… I’m speechless.
Me: You’re always speechless. It’s why you type.
We bantered back and forth like that for a little while longer but he quickly made his excuses that he had to log off. Me, I had to watch the shit show for as long as it lasted. Eventually a winner was declared, the agreed-upon fee was exchanged and the two participants filed off into a private room somewhere in the basement of an in to emote sexually to each other.
Wow. Disturbing or ingenious? I guess it depended… on so many things. Consent being first and foremost.
With a shrug a frown, I made a note to investigate this phenomenon further once I had a chance—possibly as a future blog series. There were so many things at play, here and it could become a rather complex issue—even for the people who ran the game.
I had to admit, over the next few days, she gave me a lot of food for thought, that girl auctioning off her special cyber time. If she was of age and the other participant was of age and she needed the gold…then why not?
We stopped playing over the holidays. Christmas break led me back to my mom’s ranch and the Internet there was less than stellar for gaming anyway. Plus, Heath was going to spend time with Bryan’s family in Northern California and Kat had double shifts at work. And Fallen had whatever the hell Fallen had (which he was not forthcoming about—surprise, surprise). Thus, it didn’t end up being a big deal that I was taking a temporary break.
Which meant I had no one to turn to when, at the end of my vacation, I made a disturbing discovery.
Mom had left to run some errands and I was getting ready to go home. She still wasn’t well enough to re-open the inn and it really wasn’t worth it to do so until the late spring and summer seasons. This allowed her some time for recovery. And she’d insisted that she was fine—just fine—with her finances.
Which is why I was stunned when I discovered her cache of late mortgage notices and a crapload of medical bills that I could hardly fathom.
I hadn’t been actively snooping. I was just looking for a pencil and paper to jot down a quick grocery list so I could hit the store on the way home. I’d opened the drawer where she kept the scrap paper and found a folder full of torn envelopes and refolded bills along with them. Everything from unpaid statements for her chemo treatment to charges for her prescription medications to her in-patient therapies. She’d had no medical insurance to cover them.
I paged through everything with shaking hands, my stomach in my shoes as I happened upon her bank statement too. There was next to nothing in it. And without guests at the inn, there would be no active income, either.
Unlike Mom, I did have some money stashed away. It was only a few thousand that I’d been skimming off of my scholarship and grant money by living extra frugally and slowly building a nest egg to start medical school with.
I collected enough of the remittance forms that I felt I could afford—which was most of them, fortunately, and stuffed them into my bag before mom came home.
I’d have to figure out the rest later. I had another semester’s worth of student loans coming and no more classes to take…so there was some leeway there. I could help her. I could pay these for her.
What this meant for medical school, however, remained to be seen.
But I’d find a way.
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