At any moment, p.28
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       At Any Moment, p.28
 

         Part #3 of Gaming the System series by Brenna Aubrey  

  Because oftentimes the quiet mind could see and hear things the busy mind could not.

  I also spent far more time sleeping than I had in months. I had months and weeks of pure exhaustion to recover from. I hadn’t let myself rest or sleep before this, when she’d needed me to be there for her. With her gone, that pressure was removed. And with the sleep and rest came rejuvenation.

  Taking care of myself physically was key to recovering my mental health. And eventually I found myself in circumstances where I could seek help from others—in some of the unlikeliest places of all.

  One night, about a month after Emilia had left, I was at work after hours. Someone knocked at the door to my office and since my secretary had already gone home, I called to the person to come in.

  The door opened and Katya’s red head poked around it. “Well, hello there, boss!”

  I sat back with a grin. “Well, well. If it isn’t my newest playtester. ”

  She strutted inside, pumping a fist. “Best job ever, by the way. You are my new favorite person. ”

  “Glad you like it,” I said, reaching back to rub my aching neck.

  “Yes. So I know you don’t fraternize with your employees and all that but we’re going out for pizza tonight and I’m kidnapping you and bringing you along. ”

  “I’d like to but I have a ton of shit to get done…”

  Page 108

  Her brows rose and she folded her arms across her chest, sinking into the chair across from me. “Listen up, dude. I’m the fun police and you’re about to get arrested for the serious lack of fun in your life right now. ”

  I chuckled but didn’t say a word. She narrowed her eyes at me.

  “I even brought some muscle, should you foolishly refuse this opportunity to rehabilitate. ” She raised a finger to her lips and let out a loud, sharp-pitched whistle. Heath came through the door.

  “Well, there goes the neighborhood,” I said.

  “So do you come along with us peacefully or am I going to have to twist your arm?” Heath said, cracking his knuckles.

  “Hmm. You are making this such a tempting offer of ‘fun,’” I drawled.

  “I have a whole army out there, including your cousin, so you better come along with us peacefully. ”

  “Yeah, don’t make me beat the shit out of you again,” Heath said.

  “Again? That would imply a first time. ” Perhaps he was obliquely referring to the cheap shot he’d gotten in when he’d been as overcome by his shock about Emilia’s condition as I had. We shared a long look. “Maybe you’ve been thinking those wet dreams are reality again?”

  Instead of looking angry, Heath only grinned. “Pizza and video games, dude. Relive your adolescence. ”

  “Some of us never left it in order to relive it,” Kat quipped, shooting out of her chair. “Come on. Grab your keys, let’s go. I call shotgun in your car, boss. ”

  With a sigh of surrender, I got up, packed up my stuff in my computer bag and left with them.

  The pizza was terrible, but the company great. We were joined by Connor, Alex, Jenna and my cousin, Liam. And sometimes people wandered off with their hands full of tokens to play games, then wandered back for some more beer and gross pizza. I’d set my mind to stay an hour and then find an excuse to wander home. Because as fun as they were to hang with, their presence only emphasized the lack of her. And that lack was like a giant, painful hole right now.

  I finished up my one and only glass of beer and was about to stand up when I felt a hand slap my shoulder. I looked over. Heath grinned. “Can I have some more tokens, Dad?”

  I raised a brow at him. “You don’t get any more allowance til next week. ” I stood up. “I think I’m gonna get going…”

  “I’ll walk you out,” Heath said, popping up and giving me no say in the matter. Okay, it was obvious he wanted to talk. I knew that he’d been up in Anza visiting Emilia the weekend before. I’d resolved not to ask him about her, no matter how badly I wanted to.

  I said goodbye to the rest of the group, who all seemed disappointed I was leaving so soon, but once they realized Heath was going out the door with me, none of them said much—as if they all knew we had things to talk about. As torn as I felt about talking to him, I couldn’t see a way to avoid it.

  It was quiet out in the parking lot of the strip mall where the pizza joint was. As it was ten o’clock on a weeknight in the somewhat sleepy city of Orange, it was peaceful. I clicked my car unlocked and turned, leaning up against the door to face Heath. “That was shit pizza,” I said by way of breaking the weird awkwardness between us.

  “The games are good. What place do you know of around here that still has a working version of Tempest, Galaga and Asteroids?”

  I shrugged, glanced out over the street where the occasional car that sped by. “With a day’s warning, I could have all of those set up in my arcade room at home. ”

  “Or you could just program your own. ”

  “I got my own game to work on. ”

  “How’s everything, anyway?”

  “With the game? Great. We’re getting ready to unveil the preview of the new expansion at E3 next week. And then there’s Comic-Con in July. ”

  “Great. ” He nodded, looking down at his feet and then shifting uncomfortably again. “And—and personally? You okay?”

  I was silent, unsure exactly of what I wanted to share with Heath. We’d been friends for a long time but lately there had been tension between us, mostly over the way I’d handled things in my relationship with Emilia, whom he’d claimed over and over was as good as a sister to him.

  “I’ll live,” I said.

  Heath nodded. “There’s something I wanted to say to you…and I know things have been tense between us since Mia got sick…”

  I folded my arms across my chest, leaned back against my car and nodded. “Right,” I said in a neutral tone of voice.

  Page 109

  “Adam, I said some shit that I really regret now. I blamed you for what happened and I shouldn’t have done that. ”

  I shrugged. “You weren’t wrong. ”

  His eyes narrowed. “Yes. Yes, I was wrong. I want you to understand where my head was at during all that. She…” He hesitated and then took a deep breath. “She was falling apart. You two had just broken up and then she found out about the cancer and she swore me to secrecy. I blame myself every day for keeping a secret I had no right to keep. ”

  My jaw tightened and then I relaxed it enough to speak. “You were being loyal. You were doing what she wanted. ”

  He shook his head. “She wasn’t rational. I shouldn’t have agreed. But I did and I blame myself for that. ”

  “There’s too many of us assuming blame for things that we shouldn’t be. ”

  He studied me, scratching the side of his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yeah…so about that. I’m just saying—that day I took a swing at you and those weeks afterward when I wasn’t very kind…I was wrong. I was stressed out beyond words and worried out of my mind about her. And you were an easy target to focus all of that on. ”

  “Well, like I said before, thanks for being there for her when she needed someone…” I shifted, trying to power through this very uncomfortable conversation.

  He looked away and then, when I moved as if I would open my car door to move this along, he put a hand on my shoulder. “Adam, don’t give up on her. ”

  My shoulders sagged. “It’s not a matter of giving up on her…”

  “Man, I know what you are thinking. I know you can’t take what she’s doing to herself. She just needs the time to heal from all of this. It’s been a shitty year for both of you. But from her point of view…She had to make a gut-wrenching choice and we both know she made the choice for the best. But I don’t think she’s realized that yet. ”

  I shook my head. “She’s in hell and it’s not a hell of her own making. I put her in that situation
—”

  Heath’s hand slipped off my shoulder and he nodded. “Hmm. Somehow I knew that was at the bottom of all this. That she isn’t the only one wrapped up in her own irrationality. Given her emotional state these last few months, I’d expect that of her. But from you, I thought I’d get much more logical reasoning. ”

  “What’s more logical than she had to end a pregnancy that I caused in the first place?”

  “Shit happens. You aren’t the first guy who got his girlfriend pregnant. It’s not like you invented that. Thank God I’ll never have to face that problem. Gay guys have plenty of issues of their own. But for God’s sake, man up and realize that shit happens. It happened and it might happen again. Or it might not. You never know with life. But it’s not like you set out to do that to her. Any more than she set out to have it happen to her. ”

  I took a pained breath and let it out. He was right, of course, but I wasn’t ready to admit that.

  Heath spoke again. “I talked to her the other night. ”

  “She’s okay?” I asked between clenched teeth.

  “She’s hopeful. She’s still very hopeful about the two of you. But she’s worried about you. ”

  I sighed. “I’m not so hopeful. That’s why she’s worried. ”

  “Well, you’ve got some questions to ask yourself, then. You need to figure out whether or not you’re willing to go forward without her. Because that’s what it’s going to be. You either do what’s necessary to have her in your life or you back away, declare it too hard and not worth it and live without her. ”

  “Thinking like a programmer. How very black and white of you…”

  “Adam, you’re a problem-solver. You have a problem. You need to figure out a way to solve it. Put that genius brain to work. ”

  “I am. I have been. ”

  “Well, whatever the resolution you come to, I hope it’s the one that makes you happy. ”

  Happy. What was that? An elusive state of mind? A destination? Or a decision?

  Days went by and I pondered over that. I occupied myself with some odd things that had nothing to do with work. I was struggling to find a way to communicate with her while we were on radio silence from each other. I had an alert set up that would let me know when she’d log in to the game. She never did. I wasn’t surprised. Either she was avoiding it or she was working hard at the task of finding herself.

  Page 110

  It was on the way back from the last day of the E3 convention in Los Angeles, in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 110 freeway, that Jordan, finding me his captive audience for the hour or hours it would take, laid into me.

  He looked up after having fiddled with his phone for the first fifteen minutes. “Goddamn. We should just pull off and go sit somewhere for a few hours until this blows over. This traffic sucks shit. ”

  “Whether we sit at a bar for hours or just power through the traffic isn’t going to make a difference on how soon we get home. ”

  “We should have ordered a car and driver so at least we could do some work while sitting in this crap. Or maybe even knock back a beer. ”

  I shrugged.

  Jordan readjusted his sunglasses and set down the phone. It was a warm day. We’d both shed our business attire and the top was down, a cool breeze blowing in from the coast as we motored along at five miles per hour.

  “So I gotta ask how Mia’s doing…I haven’t seen her around much. ”

  “She’s up at her mom’s for a while. ”

  He jerked his head to glance at me. “‘A while’ sounds like a long time. ”

  I didn’t reply, checked my mirror and changed lanes.

  “You guys okay?”

  “Not really. ”

  “What the fuck do you mean ‘not really’ and why am I only hearing about this now?”

  I darted him a quizzical look before jerking my eyes back to the road. “I didn’t realize that I owe you a ‘state of the relationship’ address. ”

  “Damn right you do. After I gave up my trip to Paris for you guys—”

  “I thought you did that for her. ”

  “I did. But that means you don’t fucking dump your sick girlfriend. What the hell is wrong with you?”

  I white-knuckled the steering wheel. “I didn’t dump her and she’s not sick anymore so calm the fuck down, jeez. What the hell happened to you? Someone cut off your balls or something?”

  He flipped me the bird. “Don’t be an ass, Adam. What’s going on? You need to talk to someone. ”

  “It’s complicated. ”

  “It usually is. ”

  I let out a long breath and then changed lanes again. Not such a great idea. Some jerk-off honked at me and Jordan sent the driver his middle finger.

  “Jesus, you’re gonna start a road rage incident. Put that thing away. ”

  “So how is it more complicated than any other relationship out there?”

  “We have…issues. ”

  “What issues do you have with Mia?”

  “Oh, so you like her all of a sudden, huh?”

  He shrugged. “I think she’s a nice girl. ”

  “She is a nice girl. ” A nice girl with a lot of problems.

  “So what’s the deal? Is there, like, someone else? Did you fuck around on her? Don’t tell me it was Carisa, because—”

  “I didn’t cheat on her. ”

  “Well?”

  “We’re taking a little time off from each other. We have some shit to deal with. ”

  “And you’re not going to tell me what it is. ”

  “I would, if I thought you’d take it seriously and not be an ass about it. ”

  He pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them into his shirt. “Do I look like I’m going to stab you in the back?”

  I swallowed. “No. ”

  “Lay it on me. What happened?”

  “I don’t trust her. ”

  “She fucked around on you?”

  “God, nobody fucked around on anybody. Let me just get it out, okay?”

  He held up a hand as if to stave off my irritation. “Okay, okay. ”

  “We broke up because—well, because of stupid shit, really. But while we were broken up, she found out about the cancer and didn’t tell me. ”

  “Okay. ”

  “And then in Vegas—”

  “Yeah, yeah. I know all about what happened with you and her in Vegas. ”

  “I have no idea how you know that and it’s kind of creepy. However, what you don’t know is that she got pregnant. ”

  There was a long silence from the other side of the car. I focused on the traffic and when I finally glanced over at him, he looked pale. He reached into his pocket, grabbed his sunglasses and stuck them back on his face.

  “I think I can guess what happened since she has just gone through chemo and is obviously no longer pregnant. That’s uh… that’s some heavy shit. ”

  Page 111

  I didn’t answer. The silence lasted for a few more miles—which took almost a half hour in this damn traffic. Finally Jordan cleared his throat. “So you said you don’t trust her. This must mean you blame her for it…and if that’s—”

  “I don’t blame her. But yeah, I don’t trust her. It’s more…general. I don’t trust that she’s not going to shred me again. That she doesn’t believe in this enough to—”

  He laughed—laughed—at me. “Damn, Adam, that’s such a pussy thing to say. ”

  I clenched my jaw, gripped the steering wheel and ran my mind over the last few things I’d just said. “Adam’s afwaid he’s gonna get huwt. Poow widdle Adam. ”

  “Do you need me to let you out here? I think you can thumb a ride home with a serial killer or something,” I ground out.

  “I don’t mean to be a dick but—”

  “Too late—”

  “You need to sac up, dude. Whenever you put yourself in a serious relationship, you run the risk
of getting hurt. It’s how it works. ”

  “But usually you trust the other person not to do it. ”

  He shrugged. “Yeah. And what makes you think she will? Because of last time? You mean when she was scared out of her mind with a life-or-death diagnosis right after breaking up with her boyfriend? You really think that’s a time to judge how someone’s going to act under more normal circumstances?”

  I swallowed, suddenly feeling like a dick myself.

  “Here’s the deal…and you can consider the source and shitcan this advice if you want, but here’s Uncle Jordan’s take on things. It doesn’t matter who the person is, when you make a commitment like being in a relationship, you are always going to open yourself up to be shredded. It’s the nature of the beast. ”

  I turned and looked at him but didn’t reply, adjusting my sunglasses. The traffic was starting to loosen up and we’d made it up to about twenty miles per hour with not a brake light in sight.

  “She hurt you before. I get it. You hurt her too, right?”

  I nodded.

  “I’m your money guy so I’m going to put this in terms that are familiar to me. You need to look at this like a cost versus value decision. Is the risk you take of getting hurt worth the benefit of what you get from having her in your life? If yes, then stay with her, be with her and try to make it work. If no, then end it. ”

  “I guess that’s what I have to figure out. ”

  “Yeah. But for what it’s worth I thought you two were good together, for all that it irritated me. ”

  The rest of our trip devolved into bouts of silence or small talk and I was relieved. Jordan’s words were abrasive but not unwelcome. I wasn’t above admitting that sometimes I needed to be called on my shit. And I was sick of licking my wounds in silence.

  So to get over the bouts of loneliness—especially on the weekends—I went over to my uncle’s house for Sunday dinner. They all knew about Emilia being up in Anza with Kim, of course, so no one asked after her—not even Britt’s kids, so I had to give props to their mom for schooling them before hand on that.

 
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