It was pushing midnight and I was at work still, hunched at my little corner desk crammed into our miniscule workspace in Irvine.
We’d just asked permission to take in the place next door so we could expand. The company was growing by leaps and bounds and I was expanding on credit based on pre-orders for the game alone.
But boy were those pre-orders flooding in.
My trusty open beta testers were quickly spreading the word and gamer nerds across the country were flocking and clamoring for the game to open to them. If you build it, they will come. When the game opened, the company would be worth millions, or so my wet-behind-the-ears CFO had informed me.
Well, good. At least all this slaving away a hundred hours a week would be worth it.
I’d managed to fit in a run in the dark around the deserted industrial park to clear my mind. So now I took this chance to fit in a break because my brain felt like a wet sponge. I sat at sucking down water while running around on FallenOne doing quests with Eloisa.
We were in the middle of working on the mid-beginner main quest line that started with General Sylvanwood and the daffodils for his lost love. We’d moved that beginner quest and were progressing nicely. Eloisa was heavy on the snark but I could tell she was enjoying herself.
Which was good. Market research, right? Up close and personal. Ah hell, who was I kidding… I was enjoying myself, too, even if I did know the game inside out. It was fun to see it through her eyes, witness her obvious amazement at new storylines, non-player characters and new lands to discover.
We were in the middle of progressing through a particularly tricky mountain passage when Jordan spoke at my shoulder and nearly scared me out of my skin.
“What the heck… are you sitting here at almost midnight like some reclusive nerd playing on your own game?”
After I levitated almost a foot out of my seat, I spun on him. “Fuck. What the hell? Give a guy some warning before you sneak up on them like some kind of ninja.”
His brows raised, eyes widening. “I wasn’t actively trying to creep up on you. I guess I’m naturally quiet.”
I shook my head at him. “Must be from all that sneaking out in the morning before the flavor-of-the-week wakes up.”
Shit-eating grin activated. It was Jordan’s favorite expression. “Hell, yeah.”
“So aside from trying to give me a heart attack and send me to an early grave, what the hell are you doing here?”
He held up his hands, palms out. “I was just driving back to my place after a date. Noticed the light on. I’m the last one who’d want you to damage your health. I got way too much money riding on your talent. I want you healthy and happy. And So why are you sitting here playing your own game instead of catching some much-needed sleep?”
I typed a quick message to Eloisa to tell her I was afk for a minute then turned back to Jordan who was staring at me like I was an alien.
“You’re grouped up with someone?”
I shrugged, embarrassed for some reason to tell him the truth. “Just some rando. Taking a break and resting my brain. I sometimes like to see how people are enjoying the game.”
His brow arched. “Uh, okay.” Then he pointedly checked his watch. “You should actively trying to get some sleep, shouldn’t you? I mean, even quasi-androids require sleep.”
I flipped him the bird. “Sure, Mom. Whatever you say.”
Just then, my phone chimed and since Jordan was closer to it, he snatched it up to read the text update. “Who’s texting you this goddamn late, anyway? Oh, booty call.” Then he gave an obnoxious wolf whistle. Dude was like a perpetual horny thirteen year-old in a 24 year-old’s body.
I gritted my teeth. “Goddamn it. You know how much I fucking hate when you do that.” I held out my hand and he shrugged, passing the phone to me without comment. I read the message.
Hey, Adam. Are you planning on stopping by tonight?
Candace. Well shit. Jordan wasn’t wrong about it being a booty call. I vaguely remembered telling her I’d touch base with her about tonight if I had the time.
“Someone is expecting you. Hopefully naked on her bed with wine and some warm massage oil.”
I eyed him. “Dude, you are fuckin’ weird. I don’t need all the info on your fetishes.”
“What? Hot oil massage is a guaranteed way to get her in the mood. That and multiple orgasms, but that takes talent and I’m thinking you’re probably amateur material.”
“Why, because I don’t fuck everything that moves like you do? Someone’s gotta get the work done around here.”
“Jeezus, Adam. You’re grouchy tonight. You really should take up Candy on her offer and go blow off some steam.”
I rubbed my forehead. “I have a headache.” I stared at him. “I’ll finish up here shortly and close up. You can go home now.”
He held his hands up. “Okay, okay. Sheesh. Just trying to watch out for you, man.”
“Watch out for yourself. Your dick’s gonna fall off from some exotic and acute STD because you keep sticking it anywhere you can.”
He waved. “Don’t be jealous. See ya tomorrow man. Seriously, grab some sleep. You really look like you could use it.”
Whatever. I took in a deep breath and held it until he turned to go. Then I sighed with relief.
My best friend could really be a pain in the ass sometimes. And yet, I did have to wonder why I was so short with him—aside from being exhausted. I was irritated that he’d interrupted my private playing time. With Eloisa.
We’d never actually spoken and only been playing together for a little over a month and yet I was really enjoying the time I spent with her and the time I spent reading her blog. Weird, that.
I’d wondered often if she was as fun to be around in person as she was in virtual space. And then when I caught myself wondering that, I told myself sternly to stop being an idiot.
Nevertheless, after I logged off that night, I tucked my phone into my pocket, text message unanswered. I’d get back to her eventually. But Jordan wasn’t the only person who thought it was weird that I was passing up sex to log on and play my own game with a stranger.
So I decided I’d get back to Candace and hang out with her the next time I was tempted to log onto the game instead.
Real life—and real needs—had to take precedence, right?
*Eloisa tells you, Where were you the other night?
It was days later and this time I’d decided to go home before checking my notifications to see if she was on the game. Though I had fun hanging out with the whole group, I found that Fragged and Persephone didn’t hold the same type of appeal for me that Eloisa did. So I rarely logged in these days unless she was on, too.
It occurred to me, at the back of my head, that they might catch on to that eventually. But oh well, it’s not like I’d ever meet any of them or build any sort of long lasting friendship. This was temporary. And a fun distraction from the fact that I barely ever saw anybody besides the people I worked with—and occasionally some of my family members in passing.
So the other night, I’d made a point to hang out the entire evening with Candace.
But now she was starting to worry me, too. She was starting to act a little too much like a girlfriend for my comfort.
I turned back and red the purple text of Eloisa’s message again, biting my bottom lip and deciding how to respond.
*You tell Eloisa, I had a date, sorry
Eloisa: Oh, interesting… didn’t know you had a girlfriend.
I frowned. Why was that interesting? And why was it bugging me that she thought that Candace was my girlfriend? I blinked. This was confusing.
People were so much more confusing than machines.
I understood machines. I spoke their language fluently and could write sonnets and odes with my code. But women?
I enjoyed hanging around with them, especially friends and co-workers. And I enjoyed sleeping with others. But that’s as far as my comfort level went. The idea of a girlfriend wasn’t even on my radar. I didn’t need it. Didn’t want it.
Me: Not really a girlfriend. Just a friend.
And I wasn’t really even that with Candace. She was so sweet and often thoughtful but our conversations never went all that deep and our interests were solar systems apart. But we were good in bed together and for now, that’s all that really mattered to me.
Her: Does she play DE?
I laughed to myself, thinking of the few times I tried to teach her how to play and she’d quickly grown bored. But hey, when she got bored, she often got horny so… not a bad thing.
Me: Nope. No way.
Her: Why “no way?” You don’t care to associate with gamer chicks or something?
I found myself smiling at that. It was almost like I could hear the offense in her voice even though we were communicating entirely in text tonight.
Me: I associate with you, don’t I?
Her: Not the same. We aren’t friends IRL.
Hmm. Now it was my turn to feel a little offended at that. Frowning, I shook the tension out of my shoulders before leaning forward to respond.
Me: It’s the same. I consider you a friend.
I blinked, reading that line again before hitting send. Maybe she’d get the wrong idea? And where had that even come from, anyway? She was mostly just someone I logged on to game with, right? But we spent time together in cyberspace. That made it real, right? Or as real as it could get.
In some ways, I felt more friendship toward her than I did toward Candace. We connected on a different level. A level that didn’t require orgasms, but was satisfying in a different way. I blinked, considering that. How weird. I’d never even thought about this kind of thing before. I’d shared a lot of laughs with Eloisa. I looked forward to connecting with her online when we were both available. We spent long hours in each other’s company—virtually. So in that, it felt very real.
Her: But I bet this girl knows your name. You never tell me your name..
Me: You’ve never asked.
Her: You know mind. Quid pro quo, ya know.
Huh. Fair enough. She was right. A few nights before, we’d been in the group and the others had shared their real names. Fragged was a guy named Heath, and he was her platonic roommate. Persephone was a woman named Katya. And Eloisa? Her name was Mia.
Mia. She didn’t sound like a Mia to me. She sounded like someone more sophisticated and smart and yet innocently naïve in other ways. My brows crunched together at that thought. Where the hell had that come from? Fuck this was weird.
We played a little more cat and mouse with that conversation. She was angling to find out more about me, my name and other things. Of course, I gave her nothing.
But I wondered about that. If I did consider her a friend, was it real if I hid the basics about who I really was to her? Could I be her friend if I was just some anonymous avatar typing messages to her at sonic speed?
And strangely, her comments seemed to follow the same line as my thoughts.
Her: Well anyway, we could become IRL friends and it would be awkward calling you Fallen all the time. And if you ever come out to California, you could hang with me and Fragged. We could show you a good time around here.
My fingers twitched over the keyboard and I pulled them back, rereading. Okay… what were the odds that she’d be from the same state as me?
California was a huge state so she likely lived hundreds of miles away. And there were almost forty million people living here—the most populous state in the country. So, as an American, she statistically had a 12% chance of being from California.
A strange coincidence, surely. But I couldn’t help myself. I was curious to know just how far away she lived from me.
Me: What part of California are you in? North? South?
Her: South. Not far from LA.
I blinked again. Okay, that was statistically much less probable that she and I would live in the same region, possibly within a hundred miles of each other. I blinked again. I lived in Orange County, which was south of LA and she had not said where she was in relation.
And anyway, there were millions who lived in this county so the odds of us running into each other by happenstance were next to nil.
Regardless… I was taken aback and though I was kind of interested in calculating those odds, I couldn’t help but also realize how exhausted I was. Glancing at the clock, I realized why. It was nearly four a.m.
Well, fuck. Contrary to what Jordan believed, I did require sleep. I stifled a yawn into the back of my hand, cognizant that I had an all-hands meeting with my staff in the morning.
This was getting ridiculous and yet I was finding it too crazy easy to lose track of time while hanging out with her.
After calling it quits due to time and wishing her a good sleep, I collapsed into bed myself.
But even though I was exhausted, my mind wouldn’t shut off and I started finding myself insanely curious about Eloisa. The witty, bright and hilarious Eloisa. Or Mia, mystery girl with a name that didn’t fit her at all.
I eventually drifted off to sleep but I had no idea when. Judging by the way I felt when my alarm went off it felt like I’d gotten all of about twenty minutes of sleep.
Another day, another dollar.
I had to stop doing this shit to myself.
With an extra hot shower and a triple espresso, I managed to get through the day.
But even as I swore I wouldn’t be that careless about neglecting sleep again I knew… I knew that Miss Eloisa had intrigued me enough to log on again. And soon.