Time Enough

By

Kim Bellard
Copyright © Kim Bellard 2009 All Rights Reserved

Time Enough

Prologue It may be cynical but nonetheless it is almost certainly true that while people are curious about other people’s lives, they are mainly interested in their own. Thus it is that when an unusual set of events happens to someone else, we tend to think of it as a coincidence, if we think about it at all. Unusual things happen to people all the time. Maybe it’s good luck, or bad luck, or merely “their luck,” but it’s just life happening. When that strange, unexpected congruence of events happens in one’s own life, though, it is something entirely different. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it the hand of God, call it anything you like, but no longer is it something random, something without meaning. If it happens to us, it must have meaning, it must have happened for a reason. Or so we like to think. The trouble is, we don’t always know when these special events have happened to us, or sometimes that they have happened at all. Our lives separate from the path they were on without us necessarily knowing the specific point at which it branched off or why it did so. We don’t choose the path; it is chosen for us. Whether that choice is done randomly or by design is a matter of theology or philosophy. A famous scientist once said that in an infinite universe, anything that can happen must happen. That is to say, the law of large numbers catches up with everyone. Any given gambler in Las Vegas can win any given time they play, but the house always wins in the end. The slight but definite statistical advantages they hold assure that the casinos’ profit margins stay healthy. That’s why they keep building ever more ornate casinos, the better to take suckers’ money. Similarly, quantum physics allows for the possibility – granted, a very, very, very tiny possibility, but one nevertheless -- that the atoms which make up our body could suddenly disappear and then magically reassemble perfectly across the universe, but it’s not something you are likely to see happen outside of Star Trek reruns. These laws of large numbers usually protect us from untoward things happening and, unfortunately, also assure that we rarely will ever clean up in the lottery.

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It wasn’t so unusual that they were two Jason McKenzies living in the same city. After all, they were born in different years, in different cities, and were only two of the several dozen McKenzie’s one could find in the local phone book. If they were related, it was from some distant relation that neither cared nor knew about, so they were entirely unaware of each other’s existence. In most versions of the universe their lives would have never intersected, or would only have done so in inconsequential ways. As fate might have it, they did not happen to live in one of those versions of the universe. It wasn’t even so unusual that the two McKenzies were also born on the same day of the year, albeit in different years. One doesn’t need to be an actuary in order to calculate the chances that could happen; it’s higher than most people would guess. The odds that their social security numbers would also only differ by one digit, in the seventh position, do begin to be much longer, but are still not out of the range of calculability. The combination of that with the common name, current city of residence, and birthday, plus the very similar social security number, added up to what was a very unlikely occurrence, something one would want to place large bets against happening, perhaps on the order that one might be struck by an errant meteor while walking down the street dodging a clown car. Still, all of this would have been moot had both McKenzies not been suffering from similar symptoms – headaches, no less -- around the same time, and went to the same imaging center for the same series of tests. Even those improbable overlaps were not sufficient to trigger the events of this story; it took a bored medical technician rushing to file the test results before going off to her lunch for the string of required events that all had to line up perfectly in order for this story to happen. It shouldn’t have ever happened, almost never would have – but, in their case, it did. Pessimists would tell you that life is a tragedy, always ending in death. After all, no matter if one is seven or seventy, everyone’s fated to have that gift of life yanked away, usually sooner than desired and on terms not of one’s own choosing. That happening

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through bizarre coincidences in one’s life is the universe showing off. In the words of yet another famous scientist: “…the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine.” This is the story of what happened to the McKenzies – be it bad luck, the universe’s indifference, or destiny.

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Chapter 1 Jay McKenzie – he hated being called by his given name of Jason, and only allowed his grandmother to get away with it – woke thinking it was going to be a good day. It was starting well, in his fiancée’s bed, with her cuddled close to him, his arm around her. They always liked to sleep as close as possible, even in the biggest of beds. He lay still, mostly awake and already thinking ahead to the day. He liked these moments of stillness, before the day got going and before she awoke, so he could savor his life. Nothing bad happening at work today. He thought he might pick up some donuts on the way to work, both because he felt like something sweet, even if unhealthy, for breakfast and because he felt bad for his coworkers who had stayed behind yesterday while he and the other account executives had been out at a golf outing with clients. He was expecting to have lunch with his fiancée’s brother, his best friend, so that was something to look forward to as well. And he’d probably end up at his fiancée’s again tonight. Yes, he thought, it was shaping up to be a good day. The only flaw in the day was his headache, but that was nothing unusual and nothing he couldn’t put up with. Jay was half-full glass type of person. In fact, he was someone who fully expected that life would soon refill even that half-full glass. He never thought much about the future because his future always took care of itself, without any need for him to think about or plan for it. He always expected it to go well, because it always had. The light was coming through the curtains of the bedroom window. Jessica – that was his fiancée, Jessica Berardi – liked things bright, and the walls were some pale shade of yellow that Jay had been along to help pick out but which had seemed indistinguishable from the other half dozen swatches she had asked him to compare it to. The comforter was color-coordinated with the walls, the sheets complimented the comforter, and the many pillows all made the scene a pretty picture when the bed was freshly made. Jessica was a fiend for decorating; Jay, not so much. Yellow made him think of Curious George,

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which wasn’t exactly the best image for the bedroom, but he’d known better than to express this opinion. He rubbed his head, trying futilely to rub the dull ache out of his brain. Jessica stirred. “Is your head bothering you again, bear?” She reached over and rubbed his upper back tenderly. He glanced over at her. God, she was beautiful! Freshly woken, no make-up, still slightly groggy from sleep, and yet his heart leaped at the sight of her. The soft light bathed her in a glow that could have been staged; movie directors paid people good money to light their stars this favorably. Jessica was three years younger than he was, having just turned thirty a year ago, yet she could pass for early twenties and probably would look this young for several years to come. She was athletically built, with long legs, distinct but not ostentatious curves in all the right places, and nicely firm where firm was good. She had soft wavy blonde hair that hung down to her shoulders, which she liked to brush every night before she went to bed. It had become one of their rituals for him to do that for her. Of course, the fact that the rhythmic stroking of her hair often led to his stroking other parts of her, which inevitably led to activities that were mutually rewarding, helped to establish the habit more firmly. He reached over and cupped her face in one hand. “Oh, not too bad. At least I don’t have any blurriness or other weird things going on.” She covered his hand with her own, and pulled it over her mouth. She gave the palm of his hand a soft kiss, then repeated it. “Poor baby,” she cooed. “Anything I could do to make you feel better?” she asked innocently, giving him a look he knew well and always relished.

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Jay was already fully aroused. He’d learned to live with the headaches, and even after being with Jessica for almost three years she still excited him like no woman had ever done. All she had to do was walk in the room and he was ready to go a round with her. “Now that you mention it, I could use some therapy…” She gave him a salacious look. “Give me a minute, hon,” she told him, giving him a quick kiss on his shoulder. She hopped out of bed and scurried to the bathroom. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt, and Jay watched her appreciatively as she moved away and closed the bathroom door. He lay down on his back, his hands behind his head and his headache diminishing in importance by the second, as blood was rerouted from his head to where it was now needed on an emergency basis. Other women might go the Victoria’s Secret route, and he knew she had a array of sexy undergarments for other occasions, but just the sight of her in the t-shirt did it to him every time. She was not a thong girl, but neither was she a granny pants kind of panties girl. He suspected bikini briefs at the moment, and was very much expecting to confirm that speculation shortly. God, he thought with immense satisfaction, he was lucky. Jessica was not, one had to admit, model type beautiful, nor did she have a Playmate-type body. She had their desired girl-next-door kind of beauty, but he liked to think of her body as the sports model. Her body was firm and sinewy like an athlete but not boyish in any sense. She was, in fact, pretty athletic, and was game to try almost anything, whether it was black diamond ski slopes, scary roller coasters, costume parties, flag football, or – for that matter – sex. She threw herself into things with intensity and abandon, not like a little delicate flower that he’d have to protect. Her face was open and perpetually sunny, with a pert nose and some of the widest, most inviting eyes he’d ever seen, in which he looked forward daily to getting lost. Yes, he was smitten.

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The bathroom door opened, breaking his reverie. “Ready for me, baby?” she cooed as she walked towards him, twisting her t-shirt off over her head as she came nearer. He was right about her panties, he noted with satisfaction in some distant portion of his brain. He almost came right then, but fortunately was able to resist. “I’m always ready, babe,” he responded somewhat hoarsely, emotion getting the better of him. He took her in his arms…

An hour later he was on the way to work, having showered and dressed at Jessica’s after their early morning romp. She’d joined him in the shower, which had nearly thrown off both their schedules, but had been well worth it. Jay never figured out exactly why she needed all the various bottles of conditioner, lotion, shampoo and other little bottles that lined the shower, but he figured that whatever they were, they were working pretty well, so he left well enough alone. He had scurried out of the shower before her so she could finish her preparations alone. He’d packed for the morning at his own apartment the night before. They spent most nights together, and most of those were at her condo instead of his apartment. He liked his apartment, and it suited him, but he had to admit that Jessica had more creature comforts at her place. Once she’d given in and bought in a flat screen TV and a gaming system of her own, both on his behalf, he’d found fewer and fewer reasons to stay at his place. She kept nagging him about moving in together, telling him that he was just wasting money by keeping his apartment. He knew they would eventually end up living together, probably before they got married, and he was all right with that. Still, part of him was reluctant to give up his own apartment. Maybe it was his last tie to bachelor days, maybe it was that her condo was, when it came right down to it, really her place more than their place. He figured when the time was right, he’d bring up selling her condo and getting a new place together, a bigger condo or even a small house. That way

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they could start on equal ground. Sure, she’d still take care of the decorating and such, but at least he would be coming into it from the start. Jay said his usual hellos when he got to the office. He’d already checked his emails on his smartphone, sent a few texts to friends, checked Facebook, and posted a few tweets on Twitter while on the way, so he was off to a good start. The hours he spent asleep always made him feel a little out of touch with his friends; Jay sometimes felt a little like an addict needing his social fix. As further evidence of this, he hated to just get straight to working when he got to the office. It helped get his juices going to shoot the breeze with his fellow coworkers first. He wasn’t simply pretending to enjoy their company and he wasn’t trying to avoid working. Jay simply liked being with people and liked making sure everyone got along. If that made it easier for him to get things done when he needed their help, so much the better. He’d be friendly with them in any event. His company tried to be more “open” by limiting offices to the very senior officers, and had ensured that there were multiple mini-meeting areas scattered throughout the floors. Jay had made sure that his cubicle was located right next to one, which had become the de facto food area/party gathering place for his quadrant of the floor. Jay didn’t need a pretext to draw a crowd, but the box of fresh donuts he brought with him helped attract a small crowd that now milled around the food cubicle like sharks sensing blood in the water. It just took one of them to take that first bite. “What’s the occasion?” Charlie Neuschwander asked. Charlie was an account manager in Jay’s area. He’d been there longer than Jay, and had not managed to rise as Jay had, partly because Charlie was more likely to be drawn to a crowd than to draw a crowd. Jay liked Charlie well enough, but not so well as to invite him out to lunch regularly very often. “I think Jay’s feeling guilty about ducking out yesterday afternoon for the golf outing,” Amanda Knutson suggested. The small crowd around her chuckled appreciatively. She had a donut in her hands, but Jay knew she’d nibble at it for the rest of the day without

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doing as much damage to it as Charlie would do with his within the first two bites. Amanda, Jay did like. She was married, in her late forties, with two kids in college. She had a sweet smile that she used frequently and without malice, even when complaining about the few extra pounds she always claimed to have. Amanda was another one of the account managers, supporting Jay and another account executive with some of the more mundane tasks of keeping their accounts happy. She’d been the administrative assistant in the area when Jay had started there as an account manager, and Jay had quickly realized what an asset she was. When he was promoted to account executive he fought, against some significant resistance, to have her promoted to his old spot. He’d ultimately been successful, and she’d more than proven her worth. Not surprisingly, Amanda was fiercely loyal to Jay. “Just part of the job, guys,” Jay told the group. “It’s tough to tear myself away from this place to walk around a golf course for a few hours, but it comes with the territory.” They bantered for a few minutes, in the usual I-don’t-really-want to-start-working mode, Jay leaning back in his chair with his feet on the desk as he sipped his coffee and dunked one of the donuts. It was a cake donut with vanilla frosting, one of his favorites, and there was something about that coffee/donut combination that just fit so well. “So we’re just about to tee off on the twelfth hole and we saw these horses grazing in the pasture that runs along the creek there,” Jay began telling them. “My old buddy Patrick decides he wants to see if we can hit them with a golf ball.” Patrick was Patrick Dye, Jay’s contact at GSV Industries, Jay’s biggest customer. “What?” Amanda said. “Hit them with a golf ball! Those poor horses.” “Why’d he want to do that?” Charlie asked, picking up another donut and taking a big bite. “Because he’s an asshole. So I bet him he couldn’t.”

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“You encouraged him?” Amanda accused. “Relax,” Jay assured her. “They were an easy hundred and fifty yards away, at a slight angle. I knew there was no way he was going to hit them by aiming at them. Hell, they were more at risk of his fairway shot. So I bet him a hundred bucks he couldn’t hit them. I even gave him three shots.” The horses were on a pretty horse farm that abutted the golf course. It wasn’t particularly large but it was well tended, with the nice white picket fences surrounding the pastures. Jay wasn’t sure if the owners boarded horses for other people or if their property was a stud farm, but he figured the owner must have “fuck-you” money to resist the offers that real estate developers must have offered for the property. Eventually the land would get developed – the owners would die or get bored – but for now it was a nice oasis amidst the ruthlessly upscale country club and associated housing estate that surrounded it. Jay had gone to the Kentucky Derby one year, for the party of it. It had been a fun experience, and the Derby was all it was cracked up to be, with the different kinds of parties going on – ranging the rowdy college kids drinking lots of beer in the infield to the refined society ladies in their boxes wearing elaborate hats while sipping their mint juleps. But what he had most remembered about the weekend was the side trip his friends had taken him on, a tour of the countryside. The magnificence of the horse farms had struck something in him. The picket fences, the expanses of grass, the horses serenely idling their time – it was hard to say why the ingredients made such a powerful cocktail, but they had. He didn’t actually much like horses – a childhood experience of a big horse pissing on his tennis shoes might have had something to do with that – and he didn’t particularly care for horse racing, aside from the betting. But every so often when he was playing golf some of the grazing horses would take off in a trot or even a gallop, seemingly just for the hell of it. And he loved that. He loved seeing the grace of them run, knowing they were doing it not because some little tyrant was on their back ready to whip them should they falter but simply because running was what they did, what they were built for.

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He thought, at those times, that he hadn’t quite found that comparable thing out about himself, but it never seemed to bother him enough to do anything about it. “I always envied those horses,” Jay continued, his face deadpan. “Pretty nice life. You wander around all morning, outside in the nice weather, get fed…” “Yeah, if you like to eat grass,” one wag interjected. “…maybe get laid a couple times a day,” Joe said, giving the cynic an evil eye. “Anyway, Patrick asks me what club I thought he should try and I tell him a five iron, even though he’s never going to hit a five iron that far. He hits it, and of course he’s fifty, maybe seventy-five yards short. Now he’s pissed. “So I tell him to maybe try a three iron, but I look over at the next foursome as I’m saying that. They’re not really getting close to the tee but I wanted him thinking about his shot, worrying about them wanting him to hurry up. He lines it up, and, sure enough, he slices it, lands in the creek not a hundred yards away. The horses hear the splash, raise their heads for a second to take a look. I’m guessing they’ve been through this drill before, and aren’t too worried about it. “Anyway, now I tell him to pull out the big gun, hit a wood. He stews about it, grumbles to himself, but now he takes his Big Bertha out. For a one hundred and fifty yard shot, mind you.” Jay shook his head in disbelief, his face a study in incredulity. “He takes his time, stands over the ball. The guy even asks me if he can use a tee, which I tell him absolutely not, it wouldn’t be fair to the horses. I look over a couple times again at the foursome behind us, and tell him he better get going, trying to really add to the pressure. So he settles in, takes a slow swing, and whacks the ball. You could tell from the sound of it that, for once, he managed to get a solid hit.”

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The crowd was rapt, not saying a word and not even chewing their donuts. Jay was enjoying their attention. “We watch the ball. It must have gone almost a hundred and eighty yards in the air, hit the ground rolling, and kept going another forty yards or so.” “So he did hit them?” Amanda asked, leaning forward closer. Jay took a bite of his donut in order to draw out the moment. “Nah, Patrick hooks his woods. He had the distance but he was about fifty yards to the right of the horses. They didn’t even look up when the ball hit. Easiest hundred bucks I ever won.” Jay clasped his heads behind his head and leaned back slightly further, a smug expression on his face. “Yeah, so you must have really cleaned up on the day,” a voice from the back of the crowd. “How much did you walk away with?” The voice was followed by a person, as he worked his way to the front of the group. It was Kurt Josephs, another account executive. He was a rising star, having been recruited by Jay’s boss, Scott Reusser, from a rival company and promptly handed several key accounts. He was a couple years older than Jay, and had the Ivy League/prep school manner about him, from his Mercedes to his McMansion and his Stepford wife. Jay avoided him as best he could but tried to stay cordial. “I mean, up a hundred on one hole alone,” Josephs prodded. “You must have walked away with a grand or two, right?” There was something about his tone of voice that irritated Jay, but he tried not to let it show. He folded his hands in his lap. “What makes you think we had other bets?” he asked, keeping his tone light.

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“Because I’ve met your buddy Patrick, and he’s a junkie for golf bets.” Josephs had a smile on his face but it was like the smile on the face of a mean drunk. He was out to hurt someone, and he’d enjoy doing it. “So, come on, tell us – how much did you take from your best customer?” Jay’s smile stayed in place but may have dropped a few lumens, particularly as he wondered when Josephs had met Dye. “I, umm, finished slightly down.” Josephs feigned amazement. “Down, to that guy? I’ve seen him golf and I’ve seen you golf. How could you have lost to him, especially with the extra hundred on your tab?” Jay took his feet down from the desk. The truth was, he was a much better golfer than Patrick. The sadder truth was that, Patrick being Patrick, Jay always seemed to have an off day when it came time to play him, and he always seemed to miss the crucial shots when the money got serious. Patrick not only never realized Jay was dumping his game; he counted on beating Jay and prided himself for being a clutch golfer. It was galling as hell, and more than once Jay had to really struggle to find ways to lose to the guy when it counted. “Just a bad day,” he replied evenly. “It happens.” “Funny about that,” Josephs observed. He picked up a donut, looking at it as if it was a squirrel that someone had shot and then brought in to eat. He put it back down and rubbed his fingers together to get the sugar off of them. He turned and walked away with a satisfied expression on his face. “Back to work, I guess,” Jay said, trying not to sound too dispirited. Josephs had that effect on him, and the worse of it was that Josephs not only knew it, he reveled in it. Jay liked to think he’d gotten to where he was in large part because he was good with people. Josephs, on the other hand, scared people away, and one had to figure he got to where he was because he had photos of someone, or had stabbed a line of people in the back as he climbed over them. The others murmured their own reasons for needing to get back to their desks and magically disappeared.

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The only donut left – which no one would touch – was the one Josephs had put back.

Chapter 2 “Jason! Time to get up – breakfast is ready.” Jason McKenzie begrudgingly rubbed his eyes, vaguely surprised to be alive. Then again, he was always surprised to wake up; every night he went to bed fully prepared that he might die in his sleep. It was not an entirely unwelcome expectation. He’d been up till almost four trying to break down a new game. People thought that video games were mindless wastes of time that led users to get evermore slothful, but, in his opinion, they were both physically demanding and mentally stimulating. It had taken several hours of his most creative thinking to figure out some of the game’s nuances, and once he got the hang of it he’d still had a heck of a time staying alive in it. He checked his watch; it was eight-thirty on the dot. His wake-up call was right on time, wanted or not. “Jason?” the voice prodded. “Yeah, Gram, I’m awake,” he shouted back. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. The blood rushed from his head, which didn’t help the headache that he’d woken up with. His vision blurred for a couple of seconds before reestablishing itself. Both the headache and the blurred vision were common enough occurrences for him, although he still had not been able to pin a diagnosis on them yet. Jason wondered if he was going to die sometime today. It was a typical first thought for him, as well as a recurrent thought throughout the day. Playing video games that usually featured frequent deaths didn’t exactly help take his mind off his mortality, although in

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the virtual worlds there were always second chances, always ways to try again. Real life, he knew, wasn’t like that. Real life always ended badly, and for him that most likely was going to be sooner rather than later. If it weren’t the headaches, it’d be something else. Jason’s attitude towards the proverbial glass was that it was not just half-empty, but half empty with a hole in the bottom. He expected no long term future, and had grown accustomed to that. Some might call him a pessimist, but he liked to think he was simply a realist. Life was going to crap on him, and all he could do was wait for the shit to fall. Jason was an only child; his parents had trouble conceiving, so when his mother got pregnant just shy of her fortieth birthday, he became the center of her life, giving up her career to focus on raising him. She coddled him as a baby, held him out of school at the slightest sign of a temperature or a runny nose, and generally drove his pediatrician crazy. Identifying and attacking potential health issues became a bonding time between the two of them. His father generally scoffed at their concerns and tried to encourage Jason into being more physical, like playing more with other children, but his efforts were usually overruled by his mother’s objections and Jason’s nascent fears. It wasn’t until junior high that Jason realized the obsession about health was unusual, and by that time the die was cast. He quickly became an early connoisseur of health websites, from the more general ones like WebMD to very detailed, condition-specific sites where people with the condition shared their terrible experiences and offered faint avenues of hope for experimental treatments. As he grew older, and learned more about the countless things that could go wrong with the human body, his self-prognosis grew ever darker, and moved seamlessly from morbidity to mortality. One of his favorite television shows was “House,” in which the hero combated exotic diseases that baffled him and everyone else for almost the entire episode before Dr. House put the clues together at the very end and cured the patient. He wished he had his own Dr. House. The main thing he didn’t like about the show is that House pulled all the information from his head, never seeming to do any research. Jason knew that was implausible, that the torrent of new information alone was more than

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anyone could keep up with. He’d diagnosed himself with numerous fatal illnesses over the past ten plus years, using the vast resources of the Web, only to be gently – and sometimes not so gently – rebuffed by his father, friends, and doctors. Even his mother had grown more skeptical of his concerns. The recurrent headaches were his latest deadly symptom, having gradually grown worse over the years, and he’d identified an assortment of possible tragic outcomes they could result in. He’d managed to convince a neurologist to do a full work-up on him a few days ago, offering some hope for proof that his problems were real. Most of the possible outcomes he’d researched were hopeless, a few had possible but kind of gruesome treatments, and a handful were treatable. He’d already ruled out the latter; no way he was that lucky. Suddenly remembering that his grandmother had called for him some time ago, he thought to yell back to his Gram. “Give me five minutes.” If he was going to die, he hoped it would wait until after he’d gone to the bathroom. He’d hate for Gram to have to come and find him on the crapper.

Ten minutes later he was sitting in the breakfast alcove in his grandmother’s kitchen, dressed in the boxers and t-short that he’d slept in, but with an old, tattered bathrobe thrown over them for modesty’s sake. His grandmother had cooked him pancakes and bacon, two of his favorites. “Do you want coffee or milk?” she asked, holding a coffee pot in her left hand but ready to lunge for the refrigerator door with her right hand should he go for the milk. “How about an energy drink?” “Milk, then,” she decided. She put the coffee pot down on the counter and proceeded to pour him a tall glass of milk, which she put in front of him. She sat down across from him, her newspapers spread out in front of her.

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Jason’s grandmother was in her mid-seventies; he didn’t really know the exact number. In fact, were it not for a reminder on his PC, coupled with a phone call or email from his mom, he wouldn’t even remember her birthday. She was a tiny thing, with grey hair that she kept pulled closely to her head, and she had the kindest eyes he’d ever seen. Behind that sweet façade, though, there was a tough lady. Her husband – Jason’s maternal grandfather – had died when his mom was a teenager. Gram had never had to work outside the house before that, not really, but after his death she went to work for the University and gradually worked her way up to be the executive assistant to the Provost. Jason knew enough about academia to suspect that she’d learned to quietly work the internal politics, and that people who had wanted to influence the Provost knew that they had to get her on their side first By comparison to most of her friends – the ones still alive, of course – she was in good shape, young for her age. To Jason, though, she was old, unfathomly so. He often wondered which of the two of them was going to die first, and endlessly debated the pros and cons with himself. On the one hand, her dying first would mean no one would have to break the news of his untimely death to her, but on the other hand, her going before him would greatly complicate his own situation. Where would he live? Who would cook breakfast for him? Besides, he would miss her. He’d concluded that it would be better if he happened to go first; old people were used to other people dying. Jason dowsed his pancakes liberally with syrup, and crammed a piece of bacon in his mouth. He didn’t recall if he’d had dinner the night before, and realized that he was very hungry. He was two bites into the pancakes before he realized that she didn’t have any food in front of her. “Err, aren’t you eating?” he asked sheepishly. She waved her hand in the air dismissively. “Oh, I ate hours ago. I can’t wait for you to get up to eat.” She nodded cheerfully towards his plate. “You go on and eat.” He’d moved in with his grandmother after graduate school. His father had gotten a job in St. Louis, and so his parents had moved. He’d shared a place with some fellow computer

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science geeks while in graduate school, but that had no longer been an option once he’d graduated. His mom had gone to university for free due to Gram working there, and they both had lobbied for him to continue the tradition, but instead he’d gone off to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where he’d gotten both bachelors and master degrees in computer science. He probably could have stayed in school forever, teaching a little, toying with a dissertation, but mostly just looking into things that interested him. He could have had his pick of jobs – Google, Microsoft, and a number of his friends with start-ups came calling – but he wasn’t that motivated. Establishing a career seemed a lot of effort if he was going to be dead in a year or two, as he’d expected even then. In the end, it was his grandmother that had broken his inertia. She’d called one day and had offered him her finished basement. Jason ordinarily would have turned her down – politely but certainly – but there was something in her voice that had given him pause. He’d called his mom to tell her about the weird offer and she’d pleaded with him to take her up on it. “She’s all alone there --” failing to note her large number of friends. “And she loves you. I think it’d be good for both of you.” The subtext, which Jason understood even though he doubted that they realized that he did, was that none of them thought he was capable of living on his own. Even if he found a job, something that did not seem at all that clear back then, he was not good about things like laundry, cooking, or cleaning. He suspected that his parents were afraid of getting a call from some irate landlord or perhaps a Department of Health official who had been summoned to inspect his apartment. And none of them thought there was any realistic prospect of him finding a girlfriend who might handle these sort of domestic considerations for him. “Think about it, dear,” his grandmother had told him at the time. “The basement is finished. It has a bedroom, a full bath, and a small living room where you can put your computers and such. You can even come and go from the back stairs, so it’s not like I’ll know everything you are up to.”

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Jason had reluctantly agreed, less out of family responsibility than because he lacked not only a better plan but also the desire to formulate a better plan. At least it was a plan, albeit one that no one else might recognize as such. He’d always assumed it would be temporary. Making long-range plans was sort of foolish when he was living practically day-to-day. If he got an apartment and a bunch of his own stuff, someone would have to take care of it once he was gone. No, that was just creating more trouble for someone, most likely his Gram or his parents, and he didn’t want to do that to them. In truth, he had a pretty sweet deal. Gram didn’t charge him rent, did his laundry, always made breakfast for him. If he wanted, she’d cook lunch and dinner for him as well, but he tried not to overburden her about those, usually going out to pick up some fast food or ordering in. She even managed to sneak down and clean up his mess, although he wasn’t quite sure when she did it, how she even knew when he was or wasn’t there. His late hours and sometimes loud gaming didn’t seem to bother her; the house was well built and well insulated. They’d had to upgrade the electrical system in the basement to handle the demand he put on it, but he had insisted on paying for the work. All Gram wanted, in return, were these quiet times at breakfast, and occasional company for a dinner or two during the week. So no matter how late he’d been up he made a point of getting up to eat with her, even if he ended up going right back to bed afterward. Some days she was the only person that he talked to, and on many days she might be the only person he’d see in person. “What are your plans for the day?” Gram asked cheerfully. Jason was almost through the pancakes and halfway through the bacon by this point. He tried to not rush through the meal pell-mell, as he usually wolfed food down, but it was a hard habit to break. And Gram was a pretty good cook. He paused the fork on the way to his mouth. “Umm, I have some work stuff to do. And the tests this afternoon.”

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Gram nodded sagely. Going to the doctor was something they had in common. He often chauffeured her to her appointments; she could drive just fine, but he was worried one of these times she was going to come out from an appointment with upsetting news and he didn’t want her driving like that. Plus, he kind of didn’t mind the time they spent together in the waiting rooms, even if she usually would be reading a book while he was playing games or surfing the web on his smartphone. They’d make some small talk periodically and, well, just know they were together. It reminded him – although perhaps mostly subconsciously -- of doing the same with his mom when he was younger. On the other hand, he never let her come to his doctors’ appointments. He was always expecting some dire prognosis and didn’t want her there when he’d just received the news. Even though he’d been preparing himself for bad news since he was as teenager, he still figured he’d need a little time to prepare himself for exactly how to break it to her when the time actually came. He worried more about how she’d take his death than he did anyone else. She saw him the most, and she relied on his company the most, in her own way. He felt bad about his impending mortality, and knowing that she’d miss him so much helped him keep fighting to find the right diagnosis whenever he acquired new symptoms. Still, he figured that since she was old she’d known a lot of people who’d died, so maybe it wouldn’t be as hard on her as he feared. This afternoon he was getting something called Computed Tomographic Angiography, or CTA. He’d been keen to get one ever since he’d discovered them in his research about his headaches. It combined a CT scan with a contrast dye that was injected into a vein. He hadn’t wanted to get the catheter that a normal angiography would require, so pushed his internist and neurologist to get the CTA until they gave in and ordered one for him. He was also quite eager to ask the technician some questions about the program that the CT scan used. Most of his doctors didn’t seem to really think his headaches meant anything, other than just headaches. They weren’t quite migraines, and they had tried a variety of palliative measures to no noticeable effect. He was in the paradoxical situation of wanting to prove

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them wrong, that there was something wrong with him, while being scared shitless that the tests might, in fact, confirm that. Deep down, he thought that his Gram didn’t quite believe there was anything wrong with him either, and went along with his hypochrondria as if it was a phase he was going through. He didn’t mind so much that other people were skeptical, but he hated that his Gram had doubts too. It was probably just self-protection on her part, he decided. “You know you can read all that online,” Jason reminded her, nodding towards the newspapers Gram had. In addition to the local daily paper, she also subscribed to The New York Times, and devoured both of them religiously each morning. Jason didn’t know exactly when she got up, but he knew every morning when he emerged for breakfast she’d be done eating and studying her papers, just as she’d resume looking at them when he went back downstairs. She was a fiend for international news and politics, neither of which Jason had the least interest in. Jason hadn’t read a newspaper for years; he relied on the Web for whatever news he might want. “It’s not the same, dear,” she replied, unperturbed. It was a familiar discussion between them. “I’m just set in my ways.” Jason had gotten Gram to use the computer – and he’d helped her get her own – but she primarily used it to email Jason’s cousins, plus some small amount of shopping. “Think of all the trees they have to cut down to support your habit,” he argued, appealing to her environmental conscience. “Trees grow back, “ she noted. “I hate to think of what they have to do to manufacture all your computers and phones.” Jason decided to abandon the argument, although he still didn’t get why she refused to give way. They had the same argument about books; they both enjoyed reading, but Gram insisted on actually reading from an actual physical book, whereas Jason only read

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e-books. He supposed she was indeed just too old to change her ways, and was glad he wouldn’t get old enough to be so far behind on using cool technology. Jason took the last bite from his plate and polished off his milk with a big gulp. “Anything else?” Gram asked. “A muffin or piece of toast? Maybe a Danish?” She stood up and took his plates, but waited for his response. Jason shook his head. “Gram, I’m full.” He rubbed his stomach appreciatively. “It was great, as always – thanks!” He stood up as well. “Can I help you with those?” He didn’t really mean his offer and knew that was very little chance she’d take him up on it, which made it safe to make the offer. “Oh, no – I’ll do them. You go get showered.” Gram took the plates and put them in the sink, where she rinsed them off and put them in the dishwasher. He looked at the pans she had used to cook the pancakes and bacon, and was about to thrown in a half-hearted offer to help clean those, when she turned to him. “I almost forgot -- someone from your work called.” “From work? Who was it?” It was unusual that anyone from work would try to get him through Gram, and he immediately started speculating. “Let’s see. It was an unusual name.” Gram looked worried, and rubbed her chin in thought. Jason worked with many people whose names might seem unusual to Gram, so that didn’t narrow the field too much. “Said?” he speculated aloud, naming one of the most likely candidates. “No, that wasn’t it,” she replied slowly. She looked up. “Raoul?” she suggested, giving it the French pronunciation.

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He laughed. “No, you mean Rahul,” he corrected her. Rahul Ibrahim was the product manager for the game he was working on, which nominally made him Jason’s boss on this project. Rahul was more of a marketing person than a technical one, and, as such, rated lower in Jason’s estimation. He didn’t even think Rahul really liked gaming all that much; it seemed like more of just a job to him. “Yes, that’s it,” she agreed excitedly. “He said he called you several times on your mobile phone yesterday afternoon but didn’t get you, so called the house this morning. I think he was worried about you. Was your mobile phone out of power?” No, Jason thought, it just has caller ID and I didn’t want to talk to Rahul. He had to give Rahul points for craftiness, though; he’d figured out that the soft way to him was through her. “I’ll call him after I get cleaned up.”

Chapter 3 They needed a new shortstop. Randy Berardi – Jessica’s older brother and Jay’s best friend -- put down his sub to make the point. Randy was good looking but didn’t look all that much like his sister, something Jay was thankful for, as it might have been weird sleeping with Jess otherwise. Randy was an inch or so shorter than Jay and perhaps fifteen to twenty pounds heavier – mostly muscle -- but was probably a better athlete than Jay. In this he and Jessica were alike. He had extremely closely cropped hair, part of an effort to disguise the fact that he was already showing male pattern balding, something Jay had no hints of yet. On the other hand, he could grow a full beard in a couple days; he joked that his hair follicles had just gotten mixed up, probably due to some youthful indiscretion involving illicit substances. “I hate to say it, but Jim is our weak link,” Randy was saying. “He’s got too many errors and his batting is for shit.” He took a long drink of his soda and wiped his mouth with a flourish. “I mean, yeah, he’s a good guy and all but he’s got to go.”

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Jay chewed thoughtfully. He was having a Philly cheese steak, loaded with peppers and onions, along with some fries on the side, and if Jessica knew she’d be disappointed. She’d prefer that he not come to sub shops at all, much less order the least healthy items on the menu. If she were with him she’d have tried to push him towards a turkey sub or a club sandwich. He didn’t mind those kinds of choices every now and again, but he really liked the greasier fares, which is why he tried to go to places like this without her. Brother or not, he knew Randy wouldn’t rat him out. He’d known Randy longer than he’d known Jessica – in fact, Randy had introduced them – and had considered him his best friend almost from the first day they’d met in college. They went to Two Brothers sub shop – named literally after the two brothers who owned and ran it -- maybe once every couple weeks, depending on their schedules, rotating it with other local favorites. They liked the place in part because it wasn’t a chain. The two eponymous brothers used only fresh ingredients in their sandwiches, but Jay always believed it was their great bread -- made daily by a nearby Italian bakery – that stamped their sandwiches apart from sandwiches from anywhere else. Jay and Randy had an ongoing argument about which of them had originally introduced the other to the place. It had been easier to get there when they both worked for the same company, but Randy had gone on to work at a competitor, and that made getting together for lunch a little harder logistically. So they often met after work for a drink or two, especially if there was a game on that they wanted to watch. Randy was watching him now and clearly was looking for a response about the shortstop. Jay cleared his throat. “I don’t know. We’re still in second place, and Jim’s been with the team since we started it.” Randy looked carefully around them. It was a small place, but the odds that anyone could hear them amidst the din of the other conversations and the constant patter of the cooks at the grill, or be interested in the intricacies of their softball lineup, were pretty slim. “I’m not saying get rid of the guy entirely. I’m saying maybe we need to add another player or two to the team. We’ve only got eleven now, so that doesn’t give us

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much cushion when people’s schedules get conflicts. Hell, you know that with the new baby Herb’s going to start missing games.” “So let’s get a replacement for Herb.” Randy realized that he’d walked into that. Herb played first base and was one of their better players. Shortstops usually were good field, so-so hit, and Jim was a so-so fielder, terrible batter, whereas Herb was a great fielder, good batter. If they found a replacement for Herb they’d need him at first. Randy’s face brightened. “That’s what I’m saying – maybe a couple new players,” he recovered. He buried his mouth into his sub – an Italian sub, with plenty of meat, cheese, and toppings - and tried to act nonchalant. They spent several more minutes on their line-ups, as their food quickly disappeared. Jay knew that Jim had done something to piss Randy off but he wasn’t sure what. Knowing Randy, this would blow over in a week or two, all would be forgiven and Jim would be back in Randy’s good graces. Softball was mid-spring through late summer, with basketball in the fall and winter. Golf was whenever they could get the time. And, of course, there were various fantasy leagues that they took part in zealously, not to mention the sports-based video games, so one would have to say sports was a big common denominator between them. They’d both played varsity sports in their respective high schools, hadn’t been good enough to play varsity in college but had taken full advantage of the intramural programs, which was where they had met. Randy had taken Jay out with a tackle in a touch football league, which had come close to starting a fight between them, but after the game they’d shared a late night of drinking that had forged their bond. Their zeal had continued postcollege, with several of their ex-college buddies still playing with them, including the unfortunate Jim. Both suspected, but hadn’t admitted to the other, that these days of youthful athleticism were numbered. Work was already sometimes an encumbrance, and they’d had to be very creative about arrangements some weekends when their attendance was required at a friend’s wedding. Jay’s wedding was still some time off but not so far

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in the future that Randy wasn’t starting to think about the impacts on line-ups. In fact, Jay realized, that prospect might have had more to do with today’s line-up discussion than Randy might consciously realize. Randy had spoken of his sister while they were in college, and even swore that Jay had met her one weekend when she came up to visit, but the point was hotly contested, as Jay had no recollection of having met her then – or of the weekend in question, to be fair. Jay had not only persuaded Randy to move to town but had also helped get him his first job, as a coworker. It wasn’t until she moved here as well several years after she graduated college at Denison that they’d met, or become reacquainted, as the case may be. Jay’s initial impression of Jessica had been one of surprise. The photograph of her that Randy had always had was one of her from high school, when she was a pretty but jailbait young girl. The person he subsequently met was a beautiful young woman. He was immediately struck by her lively eyes and cheerful smile, which made him feel like he was suddenly getting more oxygen, even if his increased respiration and heartbeat used up all of that and more. He was almost embarrassed to have noticed her body, although not so much that he hadn’t talked Randy into forming a co-ed softball team and inviting her to join the team, mainly so he would have a chance to see that body in less clothing and more action. He was not disappointed on either count. At first, Jay had resisted getting involved with her. Part of it was that he still thought of her as Randy’s little sister, still a kid and much too young for him, even though in actuality she wasn’t so much younger. But more of it was that she was Randy’s sister at all. He knew the perils of getting involved with a friend’s sister; should things not work out, it could lead to undesired consequences. At the time, he wasn’t looking for anything serious, and neither was Jessica. So initially she hung around with him as a friend, and he found that she was as easy to talk to as she was on the eyes. She laughed at his jokes and had her own shrewd perspective on people, along with a stubbornness that he sometimes lacked. It didn’t hurt that she was so good looking, and he found himself

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resenting guys who hit on her. Still, he tried to remain detached about guys who dated her. She only had one serious boyfriend in the time he knew her, and he had spent a lot of him consoling her when they broke up, finding himself not feeling too bad about the jerk’s departure. Things went from friends to something more very quickly, and unexpectedly. One night they’d been out at a bar with some friends, not drinking too much but having a good time. Randy had gone home with his date of the week, and asked Jay to make sure Jessica got home safely. Somewhere between parking the car and walking her to her door they both got the curious idea that a kiss would not be out of order, and with that kiss the walls came tumbling down. They kept their burgeoning romance secret from Randy for several weeks, although several of Jessica’s friends and a few of Jay’s gradually caught on and were immediately sworn to secrecy. Randy didn’t even question when he found one of Jay’s t-shirts in her living room one morning; they both told him that Jay had crashed on her couch one night, and he seemed to believe it. They got a good laugh at that, knowing how hard it was to keep their hands off each other at that point. The couch would not have been safe territory, not by then. When they finally broke the news to him that they were dating, they weren’t quite sure what to expect. Randy was astonished, then pleased, and only after realizing how oblivious he’d been did he become annoyed. “You guys must think I’m some sort of idiot,” he’d told them indignantly. “I knew the whole time.” They just broke out in laughter. Wrapping up their trash, Randy and Jay got up from their booth, threw the remains in the garbage can. “Yo, Freddy, take it easy,” Jay said to the brother manning the register. Freddy nodded and waved, the phone cradled against his shoulder as he took a phone-in order. He was in his late twenties, the younger and more social of the brothers. His brother Tony oversaw the grill, keeping the three other cooks from cutting corners or

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slowing down. They looked like brothers, Tony being a slightly older, slightly heavier version. They both had tattoos that covered their forearms, and Tony had an elaborate snake that wrapped around his neck. Jay liked that they both had a heart tattoo on their shoulders with “mom” on it; they’d confided to Jay and Randy once that it had been their first tattoo, although less so out of filial affection as shrewd calculation that their very Italian mother might be less upset with the art that way. Tony saw that they were leaving and waved before turning his attention back to dumping a fresh load of uncooked fries into the fryer. Jay and Randy paused outside on the sidewalk, both putting their sunglasses on. Jay could walk back to work, but Randy’s office was twenty minutes by car. Jay declined Randy’s offer to drive him, as it was a nice day and he was in no hurry to return to the office. “So what’s this thing you have today?” Randy inquired, not entirely comfortable with the topic. “A CTA,” Jay told him matter-of-factly. “Computed Tomographic Angiography. You’ve probably seen them on TV.” Randy nodded sagely. “And it’s no big deal?” He tried to sound nonchalant but there was an air of concern that he couldn’t quite mask. Jay shook his head. “Nah, they tell me the procedure takes fifteen to twenty minutes, maybe I’ll be there an hour or so. Not invasive; they don’t even put me under.” Randy looked at him seriously. “You sure you don’t want someone there with you?” Jay shook his head again and laughed self-consciously. “No, and that was a discussion with Jessica. You can imagine.” Both of them laughed, having each been in the position of trying to dissuade Jessica about something she thought she should do. “I figured she’d get more nervous about it than I would, and there’s no need for that,” Jay concluded.

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“Still, though, you got to be a little worried if you’re having the damn thing done.” Jay looked down the street. “I’ve been having headaches for years. It hasn’t killed me yet, and I don’t figure it’s going to. My mistake was admitting it to your sister. She nagged me until I saw the neurologist, and then pushed me to nag him until he ordered the CTA. I still think the whole thing is a waste of time but maybe I can get Jess off my back.” He looked back at Randy and shrugged. Randy nodded; he’d been on the receiving end of his sister’s drive to enrich the health care system. She’d inherited it from their mom. He put his hand on Jay’s forearm. “Still, though, bro – if something comes up and you need me there, just shout out.” “Thanks, man.” Jay smiled and shook his head. “I’m not even going to know the results today. The way I understand it, they have a radiologist read them and he calls my doctor. I’m supposed to go see him tomorrow.” “All right,” Randy agreed. He brightened. “Hey, buy you a beer at Pete’s after it’s all over?”

Chapter 4 It took Jason almost two hours to call Rahul back. He quickly showered and threw on some clothes – newly laundered by Gram, of course – but got distracted by another new online game he was checking out. It was a fairly stereotypical post-biological war survival game, complete with mutants and zombies, but had some interesting twists, like the zombies being immune to bullets and explosions; you needed to take them out with knives or – as it turned out – reflecting bright light onto them using mirrors. It took him forty-five minutes to break out of the first level and almost an hour to get out of the second level, both unusually long for him. He’d have to play the game some more, he vowed, and was already thinking of how he’d talk about the game in his blog.

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Nominally Jason worked for CS Games. It had been founded by Ben Ziegler, a friend of his from Carnegie Mellon. He, Jason and a couple other friends had developed a game together -- Hardware Wars -- as a senior project. They thought of the game one day when they had taken a trip to Home Depot to get some shelves for their rented house. They needed the shelves to store some of their overflowing gaming equipment on. As it worked out, amongst the bunch of computer engineering nerds they had been unable to effectively assemble the shelves in any remotely stable configuration, and had needed one of their dads to stop by and put it together. While they were in the store, though, they had seen a paint mixer in action and someone – their memories diverge on who it was – wondered aloud about what would happen should the mixer go out of control. That had led to a two hour long sojourn through the store, whooping and giggling as they saw new possibilities for mischief and mayhem throughout the store. The staff had finally been forced to stop them and request that they buy something or leave, preferably both. The game itself had taken a couple weeks to get into a working prototype. Jason had participated just for the fun of it, and had ended up doing the lion’s share of the coding, but had lost interest once it had reached the beta stage. After all, he knew all the tricks and surprises, so there was very little point in playing it. Much to his surprise, Ben started talking about starting an actual company, and got some money from his dad to do so. Ben offered to include Jason as a partner, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t think Ben would make much money, and if he did, Jason didn’t see the point of his getting rich: whom would he give it to when he died? Ben started selling CDs of the game on campus, got a good review in a student publication, and soon picked up a strong word of mouth. Three years later CS Games – short for Cool Shit Games – got bought by a big company for a significant amount of money. Ben stayed on as CEO, running the company as an independent subsidiary, and was now richer than Jay could imagine. He’d first met Ben in high school, which is how they’d connected at CMU, and when Jason came live to town he hooked back up with him. Ben had never gotten over feeling guilty about Jason not cashing in on Hardware Wars, so he hired him as more-or-less an

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employee for life, giving him a decent salary and benefits while letting him work pretty much at his own schedule on whatever interested him. The other two original friends that had helped had gone off to try their own luck at fledgling start-ups, leaving Jason as the remaining slacker some ten years after helping launch the game. None of this made it easy for anyone to manage Jason, so Rahul had to have the patience of Job in dealing with him. Jason preferred to get involved only in the highest levels of CS Games’ games, developing fiendish scenarios for the small percent of gamers who happened to reach that level. He spent most of his time playing other games, both online and on gaming systems, then blogging about them. Among gamers and companies that developed or sold games, his blog was highly respected and feared. A bad post could kill a new game, while a good review had helped launch more than one previously unknown game. Ben had told him on several occasions that he should make some money from his blog. If he would accept advertising he could probably make a pretty good living from it, but Jason didn’t want to be seen as a sell-out. “You don’t even have to take advertising from gaming companies, you idiot,” Ben had yelled at him. “Lots of other advertisers would kill to reach the demographics that reads your blog.” Ben had gone corporate in a big way, with the BMW, an upscale condo in one of the gentrified areas downtown, even a pretty wife, but Jason noticed that he didn’t seem to get involved in actually making or even playing games anymore. So he agreed to disagree with Ben, slowly growing ever more distant from him all the time, like two comets whose circuits had brought them close for a short period but then diverged into deep space. No one could say whether their fates would lead them back together again, or if they would just continue to grow more and more distant. That was pretty much the story of most of his friends from high school and college, and he hadn’t spent any energy making new friends since he moved in with Gram. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the idea of having friends. He just didn’t make the effort to try to get to know new friends or to maintain existing friendships, since he knew that having friends would demand time and attention from him that he was

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unwilling to give them. He didn’t see any point, since he expected to drop dead at any minute. Gram, it seemed to Jason, was crazy about Ben. She’d only met him a few times, but he’d somehow quite impressed her, especially after he started making the newspapers. He’d been over to Jason’s basement once or twice, mostly in the early years, and Gram hung on to that like a squirrel holding on to the last nut before winter. She periodically asked after Ben, and kept suggesting that Jason invite him over. Jason managed to evade taking her suggestion, but he was always afraid he’d find Ben invited for dinner some night. It wasn’t that Jason didn’t like Ben; he just didn’t want to socialize with him. They didn’t have that much in common any more, if they ever did. “So what’s up?” Jason asked Rahul on the phone. “Well, if it isn’t the incredible Jason McKenzie,” Rahul said with his slight accent. “You finally deign to return my calls?” Jason did feel guilty, especially about getting his grandmother in the middle. She didn’t quite understand what he did, and never got over the fact that he could do most of his work from the basement, but he didn’t want her to think he was in trouble. “I was in the middle of something,” he improvised. “Dude, there’s no need to call my grandmother. That’s not cool.” “Hey, man, if you got a better number to get a hold of you at, give it to me. I tried IMing you, I tried emailing you, I tried texting you, I tried calling your mobile phone – I was pretty much out of options here, my friend. It’s been two days.” Jason shrugged uncomfortably and looked around the room. He had an impressive assortment of PCs and laptops, gaming systems, two flat screen televisions, and a sweet sound system, all purchased from money that CS Games had paid him. Of course, he

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also had a heavy-duty smartphone, Kindle, and an iPod, even though he wasn’t so much into music. “Sorry, man.” “If you’d come to the weekly staff meeting like you promised, I wouldn’t need to track you down,” Rahul pressed. “That’s all I ask of you, Jason. Just come by the office once a week for a damn staff meeting with the team.” “I said I’m sorry,” Jason replied, his face getting red with embarrassment but not really meaning his apology. He hated going to the staff meetings because he had a hard time remembering people’s names, and he got nervous around people he didn’t know well, especially the several women who were part of the team. A couple of them were graphic designers, not even programmers, so he had even less in common with them. He preferred to work independently, or collaborate online. He didn’t mind actually playing games with other people, but even then he tended to do anonymous online games or play with a small circle of people he knew rather than to try to use gaming to meet new people. Games didn’t lead to particularly close relationships, especially ones he played using an avatar that didn’t even require him to be himself. If he stopped playing, people could just assume he’d just gone to a different site or game, or switched identities. Being impersonal, or being someone else, suited him just fine. “Tell me the problem, Rahul.” “The problem, my genius friend, is that you didn’t design a way to get out of the level you’re supposed to be finishing. I’ve had everyone give it a shot over the last week, and no one can get to the next level. You made the damn thing too hard, it doesn’t allow anyone to beat it.” The game was a not terribly original premise, a fantasy sword and sorcerer epic that required a young hero to prove his worth, rescue the princess, fight his way through evil to claim his rightful place in the kingdom. CS Games’ spin on other versions was in the quality and intricacy of the world, and the cleverness of the tricks required to succeed.

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When it came to the latter, Jason was unparalleled, but Rahul evidently thought that he was more intent on beating the would-be gamers than on following the game’s roadmap. “That’s not true,” Jason told Rahul with some small satisfaction. “It’s not?” Rahul said icily. “Please enlighten me.” Jason contemplated how to describe the scenario to Rahul. He wasn’t lying about there being a way to the next level, but he didn’t think Rahul was going to like his solution. He looked at the computer screen, where he’d paused the game he’d been trying out. It had had some imaginative tricks, and he wondered if the game’s designers would continue to use variations of the same tricks in the next level, reverse them, or require an entirely new bag of tricks. He found himself starting to plot a strategy when Rahul prodded him again. “Well?” Jason roused himself and sat up straighter. He cleared his throat. “OK. Have you had people get to the room at the top of the tower?” “The locked room, with no windows and the skulls hanging on the wall?” “All the rooms have skulls hanging on the walls, if you hadn’t noticed.” He didn’t think it was important to point out to Rahul that the skulls were based on the members of the team’s heads. He’d taken photos of them and ran them through an aging algorithm. It usually was used by forensic scientists to take skulls and see what the people had looked like while alive, only he used it in reverse. “This is the one at the top of the black tower, with the serpent in the ground floor. There’s a fireplace with a fire burning.” Rahul was silent for a second while he checked his notes. “Yeah, we got there.” “Did they have the princess?”

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“Yes, of course.” “And the magic sword?” Rahul checked his notes again. “Yes, we had all that that. Nothing anyone did could get out of the room. They did find a hidden door next to the fireplace.” “Well, that’s the way out. All you have to do is get through the door and you’re in the next level.” Rahul checked his notes again. “No, it doesn’t work. Several people got that far, got the door open, but no one actually has gotten through the door. It shuts too quickly, usually when the hero or the princess, or both, are still going through. Very messy, I might add.” Jason had to smile at that. He’d enjoyed making the timing so unpredictable, and Rahul was right – their demises caused by the door slamming on them were particularly messy. “Oh, yeah, there is a wrinkle to getting through the door,” he admitted casually. Rahul sensed a trap of some sort. He checked his notes, ran through the scenarios that the team members had gone through, and tried to visualize what steps they might have missed. He’d gotten to the locked room only once. As he recalled, there wasn’t anything useful in the room. Was it the skulls? He started to think about how the skull could be helpful. “Is it the hooks the skulls are on? Do they control the door’s shutting?” “No,” Jason said slowly, but started to think about how he might incorporate that. “So I’m back to not seeing the way out.” “It’s easy,” Jason assured him. He looked longingly at the frozen game on his computer. It was so much easier to just play the games rather than explain them to other people. “The hero has to take the sword, and get it red-hot in the fire.”

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“Yeah?” Rahul asked skeptically. “Then he cuts the princess’s arm off,” Jason said matter-of-factly. “What!” Rahul bellowed. “You have the hero cut the princess’s fucking arm off?” “Yeah, you need it to keep the door from shutting. And you need to heat it up so the sword cauterizes her wound, otherwise she’ll bleed to death.” “Let me get this straight,” Rahul said, trying to reestablish a calm tone of voice. “Either the door kills them, or the princess bleeds to death, or you use her SEVERED ARM to get through the door?” His voice got loud towards the end, and his tone of voice was not at all amused. “You really are fucked up, you know that, Jason? I mean, you are seriously strange.” “Don’t worry, Rahul, she’ll get her arm back in the next level. Not easily, but there’s definitely a way for them to regrow her arm.” Rahul was breathing heavily. He was trying to figure out if he needed to tell his boss, and ultimately Ben, about Jason’s bizarre solution, or to try to get Jason or one of the other designers to redevelop a more acceptable solution. Or maybe he should just let it go, recognizing that very few players would get that far and more than a few of them might think Jason’s solution was cool. Having a Jason McKenzie twist to the game could add some word-of-mouth -- or word-of-web, as the case may be – street credibility. “Let me think about it,” Rahul said at last. “But try to come into next week’s staff meeting.” Jason decided not to tell him what he had planned for the princess’s head in the next level. He’d cross that bridge later. He promised to try to make it to the staff meeting,

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although Jason had no intention of doing so, and they hung up. He reminded himself that he’d probably be dead by the next staff meeting anyway – dead or in the hospital, waiting for his version of Dr. House to figure out his very complex case -- so no point thinking about it too much. “OK, then mutants,” he said while reaching for the game controls. “Let’s see what you got.”

Chapter 5 “Hey, College Boy,” Pete said when Jay and Randy walked into Pete’s. He said it mildly, with a tone of recognition but without a smile. That was about all anyone could hope for from Pete. He gave Randy a brief once-over, just to see if he knew him or thought he might be trouble, then dismissed him as neither and turned away. Randy had been in many times -- only with Jay – and Pete’s reaction was always the same. He’d given up hoping Pete would even say hello, much less give him a nickname. Pete was the owner, bartender, cook, and fix-it man at his bar. It was not a swanky place. He’d been a bricklayer for twenty years until a bad back forced him out of the construction business. He still looked the part of a bricklayer, built like a tank with thick arms that remained as muscular as ever. He had some middle aged spread around the waist, but no one would dare call him fat. After he’d been forced out of the trade, he’d bought a crappy little bar in a rundown neighborhood, and started to gradually fix it up, getting lots of volunteered assistance from his friends. After fifteen years, the place looked pretty good, including a great bar that he’d bought at auction from an old hotel in town that was slated to be demolished. He’d had to disassemble it there, reassemble the pieces in his bar, and renovate it. But it was worth it; the bar added a certain character to the place that newer, spiffier bars couldn’t replicate. Then again, his clientele wasn’t exactly coming for the décor. Or for the menu, which pretty much consisted of cold cuts and chips. Even the beer and liquor selection was built for speed, not for range; not many imports, nothing fancy. People came here to

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drink and to hang out with their buddies. It was a workers’ bar. His old friends in the construction industry had been his early and loyal patrons, and that remained true. It was usually packed in the later afternoon, when guys were getting off the job and wanted to put down a quick one or two before going home. The neighborhood had gotten better since the early days, but it wasn’t like the place was surrounded by a mall or chain restaurants that might help generate traffic. One didn’t have to be a construction worker to come to Pete’s. He did not tolerate rudeness or nasty comments to strangers who might stumble upon it, whether they were yuppies out searching for hidden gems or office workers needing the next drink. But it usually didn’t take too long for outsiders to realize that they didn’t fit in. Maybe the waitresses took a little longer to come to their table, maybe their order got served last, and maybe they got a few unfriendly stares from the other patrons in the bar. Jay had once seen Pete throw out a table of rowdy college kids, mostly because they were making fun of the construction guys playing pool. He’d been quick, quiet, and scarily efficient in getting them out, and Jay had suspected he’d done it as much for their safety as anything else. The guys at the pool table had been ignoring them, but that wouldn’t have lasted indefinitely. Jay knew the bar because his dad had been a master electrician, and he’d put himself through school working construction. He was pretty handy and ended up as kind of a jack-of-all trades, able to fill in on a job site for a variety of needs. His dad had called him College Boy in a mock dismissive tone, but Jason knew that his dad was inordinately proud that he went to college and was now successful in a white collar job in which the only time he was likely to get sweaty was playing golf. His dad would never outright admit it, but over the years College Boy had gone from an implied criticism to a term of endearment. His dad’s friends had picked it up, and it had become his nickname in those circles years ago. He didn’t wander in those circles much anymore, and didn’t come to Pete’s all that often, but Pete had a long memory.

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Randy had tried to use the nickname once, outside the bar, and got a punch in the arm for his troubles. It hadn’t made much sense outside of Pete’s anyway, since all of their friends had gone to college and would have had a hard time picturing a world where such an academic accomplishment was a rarity. He let the nickname stay reserved for Pete’s. Randy loved to go to Pete’s mainly because he didn’t fit in. His dad was a very successful doctor, and never had time to learn or pass along how to build or repair things. He constantly was asking Jason to help him with household repairs, and was very proud of a built-in bookcase the two of them – well, mostly Jay – had recently put in his house. “Hey, Pete,” Jay replied. He stopped by the bar to pay his respects, Randy at his side. “How’s business?” Pete replied simply by looking around at the bar, which was about two-thirds full, with a solid wall of conversation making it impossible to hear the television perched over the bar. “Good to see you, Pete,” Randy added. Pete looked at Randy with no expression on his face, and without a word moved down the bar to attend to another customer. Jason smiled at Randy in sympathy. “C’mon, let’s go grab that booth.” They settled themselves in and before long the waitress came to see them. “Jay, good to see you,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. She was one of the regular waitresses, and Jay knew her name; he tended to remember names. Jill was an attractive woman, with a long yet solid frame that might have suggested a volley player or a basketball player in another life. In her current life, being on the go constantly in the bar kept her from putting on any unwanted weight. She wore a pullover top with a scooped neck that showed just a hint of cleavage, and somehow managed to endure the endless barrage of flirtations, suggestive comments, or outright rude propositions without ever seeming to lose her cheerfulness. Jay figured her for someplace in her thirties, maybe a couple years older than he was, not so much because she was showing much wear and tear as because

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there was a weight in her eyes that suggested she’d seen a bunch of life already. He liked her for that, and occasionally wondered at what she’d seen and lived. She was pretty in a way that lots of women were pretty, the ones you’d see on the street or in the grocery store, not the kind of pretty you’d see in the magazines or the movies. These women were who had made being single fun for Jay, back when he was on the market, and he still enjoyed spotting and appreciating them, as he did Jill. He hoped he’d never get so old or be so married that the sight of a pretty girl didn’t catch his eye. “Jill, don’t you ever get any time off?” Jay asked lightly. “Nah,” she told him with a smile. “I might miss you when you came in.” She said it in a way that Jay might believe there was a kernel of truth to it, except for the fact that he’d heard her say much the same thing to other regulars. She was good at remembering customers, making them feel welcome, and talking to them just long enough to make them think she liked them without talking to them long enough to allow them to think she was interested. She somehow managed to let each one think that perhaps they were something special to her. That is, right up until they asked her out. She’d been waitressing here for as long as Jay could remember, aging indefinably in a way that was more like ripening instead of getting older, yet Jay knew that there was an ongoing pool in the bar about whether she’d go out with a customer. He’d put down his two dollars, many years ago, had made a half-hearted attempt one night, and had been relieved when she’d given him a light-hearted rejection that let him off the hook gently. Neither had ever mentioned it again. The last he’d heard, the pool was up to a couple thousand dollars, and only rubes were still putting money into the pot. “Couple beers?” she asked.

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“Bud Lite,” Randy requested. “Rolling Rock for me, if you got some. Otherwise, maybe a Yuengling?” “We’ve got both. I’ll get you a Rock, and you can switch later if you want,” she told him. She didn’t write their order down, never seemed to need to, but almost never got orders wrong. The one time she got one wrong when he was around was a case where, Jay had suspected, the customer either had forgotten what he’d ordered or was just trying to make a scene. She went off to get their beers, and Randy immediately launched into telling Jay about how his afternoon had gone. Jill slipped their beers in unobtrusively during Randy’s monologue about a coworker who he wanted to date. Jay had seen this before, and tried not to get involved. “Don’t even tell me her name,” Jay warned Randy, waving his hand sharply. “If you go out with her – and that’s a big if – then you can tell me her name after you’ve met her parents. Not before. Otherwise I’ll just think of her as one of the Barbies.” Randy leered at him. “You’re just jealous because you’re a one woman guy.” Jay raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. Do you mean you want me to dump Jessica, or just cheat on her? I mean, you make it sound like I’m missing out on all these available women.” Randy’s face fell. “Ahh, I didn’t mean that, you know that. Jess is a great girl, and I’m happy she’s going to make an honest man out of you. Hell, you’ve been ready to settle down for as long as I’ve know you.” “I dated,” Jay protested. “I dated as much as you.”

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“Yeah, but you didn’t get laid as much. You were too interested in not hurting their feelings.” He grinned mischievously at Jay. “You mean I was too interested in them as people,” Jay corrected. In fact, neither one of them had been extreme players, but neither had been exactly celibate, and Randy didn’t usually want for anyone to accompany him for special events. “You may want to not learn their names until I’ve met their parents twice,” Randy suggested with a thoughtful expression. “Remember the girl a couple years ago who took me back to her apartment on the first date, had sex with me in her living room, then woke her parents up in the guest bedroom to introduce me? She’d neglected to mention they were in town visiting when we were deciding whose place to go to.” “I don’t even want to know the rest of the story,” Jay told him, dismissing the conversation with another wave of his hand, beer included. “I’ll wait to hear what happens with this new one.” Jill reappeared, having noted that their beers were close to the bottom. “Another round, guys?” Jay picked up his bottle and saw that there was about an inch left. He swallowed the remainder. “Nope, I’ve got to get going.” He looked over at Randy. “You staying or going?” He seemed to weigh this for a couple of seconds. On the one hand, he had two dollars in on the Jill pool too, and wouldn’t mind taking her out, pool or no pool. On the other hand, he could tell from the way she was eying him that he’d be wasting his time even asking. He looked quickly around the bar, still filled with guys who had largely come in their pick-up trucks and were still dusty from their own version of the day at the office. “Nah, I’ll get going too. What’s the damage for the beers?”

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They paid up and made their way to the door, and walked to their cars. “Don’t tell Jess I had a beer before meeting her for dinner,” Jay reminded Randy. “Scout’s honor,” Randy agreed, making the scout sign with his right hand. He started to get in his car, then paused. “Say, I forgot all about it. How did that test go?” Jay shrugged. “No big deal.” He got in his car and went to have dinner with the love of his life.

Chapter 6 Jason wasn’t worried about the CTA so much as just hyped up. Going to doctors’ office was familiar territory for him. In an odd way, he was more comfortable there than most places. People weren’t really interested in small talk or hearing about his personal life or telling him about theirs; he was just a patient with a problem. Still, there was always that sense of trepidation that comes from knowing that the potential for bad news or uncomfortable things happening to one’s body always lurks in the exam room. He had read enough about CTAs to know what the procedure should entail, and believed he was mentally prepared for the fatal diagnosis it might lead to, but still found himself with a rapid heartbeat and breathing that he fought to keep under control. The office was quite modern and efficient looking, with the muted colors and comfortable-but-not-too-comfortable furniture that hinted at a professional medical office decorator. There was a handful of other patients in the waiting room, filling out forms or talking to the friends or relatives who had accompanied them. Jason checked in at the front desk, gave them his insurance information, and grimaced when the receptionist handed him the inevitable clipboard with the blank medical history form. “Do I really have to fill this out?” he asked, already knowing the answer. “My doctor already has all this.”

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The receptionist smiled tolerantly at him, having heard this more times than she could count. “I know, but we need our own copy. Please fill it out.” “You’d think the offices would all be connected,” he continued to grumble. “It wouldn’t be that hard to do.” “Well, they’re not,” she told him. “Someday…” “See, the thing is,” he told her, “I’ve got a lot of history. It’s kind of a pain to write it all down again. Can I print you a copy of my online health record?” She eyed him dubiously. “Your online record?” “Yeah, through Google Health. It has all my information. If you let me use your computer I could pull it up for you.” She was not pleased about this turn of events. Another patient had come in behind him and was waiting for them to finish. She glanced at him quickly and turned her attention back to Jason, frowning. “It’s probably better if you just fill our form out.” He was not about to give in that easily, having won this battle in a few other offices. “No, I mean, it’d really be better if we could use the one I already have. If I fill out your form I’ll probably forget things, and I have terrible handwriting, so you’d have a hard time reading it. Just let me show you.” Somehow she wasn’t worried about him; he seemed not so much crazy as just keen to share something neat with her. Still, he was disrupting her routine and starting to slow up the intake, so she was not happy. He started to move around the counter to her side, but she raised a hand to stop him. “Let me get the office manager,” she said firmly, deciding to pass the buck upward. The office manager – Angelika – took him back to her small office. He gave her his quick pitch, and she let him log in to demonstrate his records. He lucked out in that she

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was a younger woman; he’d discovered that the older office mangers, especially the men, were most likely to be against trying something different. “See, Angelika, it’s got my prescription history, doctor visits, emergency room visits, all that stuff – all in one place. I just update it every time I go to the doctor or get something new. And if I hit “Print” it prints a summary version for you that you can stick in your files. If you had the right interface you could just upload it.” She looked at him appraisingly. “I’ve heard of these. I mean, we have our own files electronically, but that’s just our files and the radiologists who use our results. Do you mind if I take a look?” Jason gave her back her chair and let her sit in front of the screen. Angelika started navigating through his records, getting a sense for the type of information. Jason watched her for a little while, but soon started looking around her office. She was one of the neat ones; several file cabinets, both above and below the desk, and the very few papers that were out were neatly ordered. She had several of what appeared to be children’s drawings posted to her tackboard; Jason couldn’t tell if they were from the same or multiple children, although from the several photos she had on display near her phone it looked like she might have a couple kids, plus a cat. One of the pictures was of her and the kids – no sign of a husband, although he might have been taking the picture – at Disney World, next to a life-sized Mickey Mouse. He figured her for mid or late thirties, with a friendly face. She was of average build, and dressed very professionally. The garb for the Disney World photos – Capri’s and a loose t-shirt showed a different side of her. Jason couldn’t help himself. “Doesn’t Mickey cause problems?” Jason asked, suppressing a smile. In another man it might have been flirting, but that didn’t even cross Jason’s mind. He wasn’t bothered by the kids, the possible husband, or by the different color of her skin. He just assumed she’d have no interest in him, but that didn’t mean he had to avoid trying to make her laugh, or at least smile.

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She looked over at him, not following. “What’s that?” He pointed to the Disney World photo, in which Mickey had his gloved hands around her and her kids. “Doesn’t your cat get jealous?” She involuntarily glanced at the photo before she caught herself, and looked back at him, trying to suppress a smile. It was kind of goofy humor, but he seemed like kind of a goofy guy, or maybe quirky was a better word. “You know it’s not a real mouse, right?” she replied slyly. Jason kept his face seriously. “Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t – but the question is, what does your cat think?” Jason thought for a second. “Of course, maybe that’s not a real cat either.” Angelika nodded solemnly. “Oh, he’s real, all right. I guess he just doesn’t think of Mickey as potential food.” She decided right then that she liked him. Most of the patients who came in were too worried about what was going to happen to them to them to protest filling out the forms, or to make silly jokes. She thought there was something young about him – not immaturity, but rather in the way he got so enthused about things like his electronic record. It didn’t seem that he yet been broken by the world’s apathy towards the things he cared about. Angelika asked him if he was in health care, given his obvious familiarity with health records, and wasn’t entirely surprised to find out that he was in video games; perhaps that helped explain his youthfulness, if not his interest in health care. The latter was more easily seen by the mass of information in his health record. From what she’d seen on the screen he’d shown her, he had a lot of health visits but no serious diagnoses, not even many ongoing prescriptions. Angelika wondered if he was one of the “walking worried” that the office sometimes got, or if the poor kid was at the early stages of a medical journey that might end badly. She hoped it was the former; he seemed like a nice enough guy, almost naïve in his passion for his electronic record. “All right,” she decided. “Let’s print this out and you don’t need to fill out the forms. And let me get someone to take you back to get you ready for the procedure.”

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A half an hour later he was gowned, had received the dye injection, and was waiting to be put into the CT scanner. The room was moderately lit, with muted colors, all in what he assumed was an attempt to soothe troubled patients. He figured that anyone who let themselves be seduced by the lighting while ignoring the gaping maw of the CT scanner, in which they were about to be swallowed up, was probably too dim to have their brain function register. Jason had made a point of wearing his best pair of boxers, as he always hated having to be exposed when he had the gown on. It was bad enough that anyone could see his underwear, so he wanted to be sure that if they did see it at least it didn’t have any holes and covered not just his family jewels but also half his thighs. “Are you going to be all right, Mr. McKenzie?” the attendant who had wheeled him in asked. He thought she might be about his mother’s age, although she’d have been offended to know this assessment, given that she was some ten years younger than his mother and had a boyfriend not much older than Jason. The nurse who had given him the injection had been younger and prettier, but had been brisk and fairly impersonal. The attendant seemed more concerned. She fussed with his gown, flattening it out. “Are you warm enough? Would you like a blanket?” He smiled up at her gamely. She thought he seemed more like a brave little kid putting up with a confusing health care situation than he did a grown man. “No, I’ll be all right,” he assured her. “Timika, is it?” She nodded. “So, are you a nurse or a technician, Timika?” “I’m an MA,” she informed him, deciding he seemed kind of sweet. Most likely he was just scared and trying not to let it show. “Medical assistant. That’s a fancy way of saying I do the stuff none of the others want to do, like talk to patients.” She smiled at him. “Just kidding. We all like patients, some more than others.”

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Jason got some of her life story, such as how long she’d been at the imaging center and how it was so much better than the hospital she used to be at. No matter what the situation, Jason couldn’t resist asking questions. People might assume because he was shy that he’d always be quiet, but that wasn’t the case. In situations like this, where interaction was expected, he could be talkative. He liked to figure things out, wanted to understand what people did and how things worked, both processes and the systems that powered him, so he asked questions. Plus – and this was of no little importance – Jason knew that if the other person was talking they were less likely to ask him questions about his own life. A casual observer, who could see them talking but not hear the actual words, might take it for a very normal conversation. It wasn’t, not really. Jason didn’t really like to get into other people’s personal feelings or private lives at all, much less share details of his own. Talking about someone’s job or their computer was a lot more comfortable ground. So when the MA was just starting to tell him about her daughter Jason was relieved that someone stuck their head in the door and called for her. She looked at him apologetically. “Sorry, I’ve got to go. Are you going to be OK?” Jason assured her again that he was. He told her good-bye and went back to inspecting the room. The imaging facility was a new building, designed to be efficient and assure the patients that everything was state-of-the-art, from the online scheduling system to the gleaming imaging machines, and the private patient rooms complete with vanity and closets. Even the gowns and slippers seemed a cut above the standard ones he’d experienced in other offices. There seemed to be an endless number of staff, efficiently escorting patients like himself – although usually much older – around to their tests and back to their changing rooms. The room looked like something out of Star Trek – from The Next Generation version, not the clunky medical facilities of the original series. Everything looked sleek and high

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tech, which made Jason feel more confident about the place. He hoped he could get a better look at the controls and the monitor before he left. He wished he’d have been allowed to bring in his Kindle or his smartphone. Jason hated to have to just sit and wait; given time to kill someplace, he’d be on his phone, laptop, or reading an e-book. Right now he was reading a book about the invention of the telegraph, and the parallels to the early days of the Internet. Jason wasn’t a big reader, and didn’t have very diverse tastes, but he loved to read about the early days of computers or the Internet, or about people like Alan Turing or John von Newmann who had pioneered key parts of computer languages. He was always surprised that his coworkers didn’t care much about the history of their field. Still, it was hard to find time to read, amidst his work and playtime on the computer. Here he was with time to kill and he didn’t have any of his electronic comforts; it almost made him wish he had an actual book, clunky as it would be. He started to visualize some effects for a game he was interested in. Jason was relieved when a young man came into the room a few minutes later and picked up his chart. “Oh, so you’re the guy,” he said, looking over at Jason. “I heard about you.” Jason frowned. This was an unusually frank admission that his condition was indeed rare and no doubt terminal – and he hadn’t even had the tests yet. Then he realized that the guy was looking at the printout he’d generated in the manager’s office. Jason smiled meekly. “Are you the doctor?” Jason thought the man was younger than he was; he’d never had a doctor younger than himself, and didn’t quite like it. “Doctor?” he said. “No, I’m Jake. I’m the technician. I just shoot the images.” It seemed like a lot of different people were involved in this process, which seemed silly to Jason. “Where are the doctors?”

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Jake laughed. “Ha! The doctors are in fucking India, man! Can you believe it?” He seemed amused. Jason didn’t like the sound of that. He frowned. “India?” Jake put the clipboard down and came over to the gurney that Jason was on. “Yeah, it’s all digital these days, man. We shoot the images, put them on the server, and these radiologists over there read them. Your neurologist will have the results by tomorrow. These doctors over there make, like, I don’t know, a tenth of what radiologists over here so, so our company makes a bundle.” “So there’s no doctors actually here?” Jason asked, troubled. Who was in charge? “Sure, there’s always a doc around, just in case. But he’s not the boss, and he doesn’t really read the images. The guys in India do all the brain work.” He laughed again, amused at American radiologists having had their work outsourced, like they were assembly-line workers in some dated factory. Jake made sure that Jason was properly aligned in the CT scanner. “You going to be OK, dude? Aren’t claustrophobic or anything, are you? You have to keep really still until we’re done.” “I’ll be OK,” Jason replied, with more confidence than he felt. Jason had practiced being in an enclosed, dark space as best he could, using his closet. Intellectually, he was OK with it, but he couldn’t be sure how he’d react when it was for real. He looked up into the cylinder and shivered slightly. It was very sleek and modern looking, but once he was inside he wasn’t going to be in control. He tried to distract himself by asking questions. “Listen, I was hoping you could tell me about the programs the CT uses to generate the 3-D images. I do a lot of gaming and I was wondering about the protocols you use.” He hoped his trembling wasn’t going to distort the results.

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Jake laughed again. “Nah, I just press the buttons, man. I don’t know how the damn thing works. Don’t know and don’t care.” With that, he pressed the button that took Jason into the scanner.

Chapter 7 The plan was for Jessica to make dinner for them in her apartment. She liked to cook, whereas Jay liked going out. She always admonished him that they couldn’t always go out and they needed to be saving money for when they were married, and he usually went along with her. He had an early meeting the next morning, so he stopped by his apartment to change, pick up his mail, check his email quickly, post his status on Twitter, and get a change of clothes for tomorrow before heading to her place. It was a familiar routine. “It’s me,” he announced, upon entering her condo. “In the kitchen,” she directed him. He put his bag down on the couch and went over to give her a kiss. She was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt and a pair of short shorts, showing off her nice legs. He enveloped her in his arms. “Man, you look good.” “Mmm,” she cooed. “That feels good. I missed you today.” “Right back at you, babe.” He pulled away, still holding onto her but giving her an appreciative look. “Umm, how long until the food is ready?” A small smile lit up her face, and her eyes quickly checked the time. “About ten minutes.” “Hmm,” he speculated aloud. “That’d be enough time for me.”

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She laughed and pulled away. “Not so fast, stud. If we’re going to get busy you’re going to take the time to do it right.” “You didn’t seem so time conscious this morning in the shower.” “Situational thinking, my dear,” she informed him. “Now make the salad.” They chatted while getting dinner ready. Jessica had a new recipe she was trying out, marinating chicken in some kind of sauce overnight then baking it. She’d also made some twice cooked potatoes and some fresh green beans to go along with it and the salad. She told him about her day – she was an office manager at a medium sized downtown law firm, charged with keeping all those big egos happy and productive. “Kelso and Williamson were at it again,” she told him as they sat and ate, citing two of the usual hot heads. “Honestly, I feel like I’m watching a bunch of kindergartners sometimes.” “Who better?” he asked rhetorically. “Hey, the chicken is really good.” She beamed at the compliment. To be honest, he’d have been just as happy throwing the chicken on the grill then dousing it with barbeque sauce, but he’d learned that he couldn’t go wrong with telling her the food she cooked was good. Sort of like telling her she looked good; she always did, but still felt the need to do things with her hair or make-up to try to improve her appearance further. He liked her just fine straight out of bed or right out of the shower, but she pooh-poohed it when he told her that she didn’t need to fuss with anything extra. Her effort in trying new recipes was much the same. “Thanks, it is good, isn’t it? I found the recipe online.” They ate contentedly for a few more minutes, and he took half of the extra piece of chicken. “So,” she started, resting her chin on her hands, elbows on the table. “How was your day?”

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“Oh, pretty much the usual. Talked to some of my customers, went to a couple of meetings, bunch of emails.” He shrugged. “Same old, same old.” She raised her eyebrows. “Oh, really?” He knew she was after something but was blanking on what. “Umm, let’s see. Kurt Josephs was kind of a jerk this morning – no surprise – and Scott nagged me more about when Pat is going to make a decision about their upgrade.” Reusser was an easy-going guy in his later forties; he’d been in the same job for years, and was happy if nothing rocked the boat. Change was bad, in his humble opinion. Jay had been working on persuading Pat Dye to buy a badly needed upgrade for their ERP system, which would go a long way towards not only his revenue goals but also Reusser’s. Reusser asked him about it every chance he got, but didn’t really do anything to help him. When it came to Josephs, though, Jay thought Reusser was more worried about Josephs’ ambitions than he was, and he’d be right to. Josephs wanted Reusser’s job next, although he wouldn’t be content to stop there. He’d stab both Jay and Reusser in the back if he needed to in order to make his way up. Actually, Jay thought ruefully, scratch the “if he needed to” and substitute “if he could.” Jessica put her hands down, and reached across the table to hold Jay’s left hand. He put down the fork in his right hand and used it to cover her hand cautiously. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” Jay looked at her sheepishly. “It appears that I am.” She stared at him with a firm expression. “The tests this afternoon?” Jay realized that he’d made a tactical mistake. He should have called her right after he was done with them, or at least told her about them first thing upon arriving. He thought quickly about how best to recover. “Oh, honey,” he said in his most conciliatory tone of

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voice. “It was nothing. Took less than an hour, and only a few minutes of that was the actual scan.” “What did they find out?” Her hand tightened on his, and Jay realized that she was still pretty worried about these tests, despite his repeated attempts to calm her. “Babe, we talked about this,” he reassured her. “They just took the images today. They have to have a radiologist read them, and I’m meeting with the neurologist again tomorrow for him to tell me what he knows. He may not even know anything then, but everything seemed to go OK.” He smiled at her. “No one flipped out or anything.” “I’m just worried.” Her eyes watered up a little, and Jay just melted, as he always did at that. “It’s going to be OK, babe,” he told her, believing that to be true. “There’s nothing wrong with me. They’re not going to see anything, not going to find anything, and it’s all going to be OK.” “Promise?” she asked in a small voice. “Promise.” Jay didn’t have any doubt in his head, and was touched by her concern, groundless as it might be. “Now you go relax and I’ll clean up.” “I’ll help you,” she offered, her face brightening.

They had a quiet night, watching some television and surfing the net. Jay had to make some trades on his football fantasy teams, which involved some four way messaging with some of the other team’s managers; Jessica had learned to just roll her eyes and ignore him, as long as he didn’t start yelling. They talked about inconsequential things – poking fun at TV characters, discussing a few ideas for things to do over the weekend, giving each other updates from friends’ emails and tweets. It was a nice evening, and Jay felt

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the sense of comfort he always had with Jessica. It was a life; it was his life. Other guys his age might have thought it boring – perhaps even Randy – but it suited him. This is what married life will be like, he thought contentedly. He didn’t see any need to hurry up getting married, but he wasn’t afraid of it either. He thought their future looked pretty good. Evenings with Jess, waking up every day with her, looking forward to weekends and vacations together. And, someday kids. They’d talked about kids, agreed they wanted two or three years together without them, but definitely planned to have some. They went to bed early by unspoken consent, but did not make love. It was enough to lie close together, Jessica wrapped in his arms as they listened to some quiet music and the sounds of the breeze in the trees outside. Jay was half asleep when he felt Jessica shiver. “What is it, Jess,” he asked groggily. “You cold?” She looked up at him. His eyes were adjusted enough to the semi-dark to make out the worried look in her eyes. “I don’t know, Jay.” She searched his eyes. “Maybe I drifted off and had a little nightmare. I just – I don’t know – had this terrible sense that something awful was going to happen.” “Getting psychic on me now?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light. Her face was entirely serious, and she looked at him as though making sure every feature was exactly as it should be and that she had them committed to memory. She took a deep breath. “It was probably nothing,” she said, as much to herself as to him. “Go to sleep, my darling,” he told her in a soft voice. He held her a little tighter, feeling her heart beat. “Everything is going to be just fine.”

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Chapter 8 Jason stopped by CS Games about eight. He had gone back to Gram’s after his scan and killed time there working on his blog, but had declined Gram’s offer to make him some supper. He knew there’d be someone at work, and where there were people working there’d be food. He figured that there’d be some pizza or leftover Indian food there he could munch on. “Dude!” Ryan Giesman yelled, catching sight of him. “I was going to call you.” Ryan was one of the other developers at CS Games, one of the guys Jason tolerated spending time with. Great programmer, good gamer, and not too nosy. Ryan was in his mid-twenties, boyish and excitable. He thought he would look more mature by growing a beard, but the wisps on his chin – of which he was inordinately proud -- had the opposite effect. He’d put on ten or fifteen pounds since college that were only going to grow over time. “Said or Eric around?” Jason asked, looking around, mentioning the other two people whose company he didn’t mind, mostly because they were good at playing games and didn’t press for more time other than that. In Jason’s experience, where you found Ryan, Eric usually wasn’t far away. And Said could be counted on to be in the office at all hours. Ryan, Eric, and Said were the people closest to being friends that Jason had, and they might have considered themselves to be his friend, even if that was not a designation he probably would have used. He’d actually “met” Eric while playing him online; Eric was good enough that Jason had urged him to come to work at CS Games, where his real skill was less developing games than testing them. He was a superb player, always giving Jason a run for his money. He particularly excelled in his creative trash talking during a game, something that Jason wasn’t very good at and always envied Eric for. Ryan was a programming star, and had worked closely with Jason on a couple of games, earning Jason’s grudging respect. He was often more talkative than Jason liked, but at

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least he usually kept his comments focused on whatever they were working on or playing. Said was probably the best programmer among the three of them – not including Jason, of course -- technically, and had made his name working on mobile phone platforms, but was struggling making the transition to developing games. He lacked some of the flare that Ryan and Jason had, and Jason was trying to get him to play more to help him think about how things unfold in games. Said was unfailingly polite, but extremely quiet; he made Jason look like a chatterbox. None of them had been to his house, and it hadn’t occurred to Jason to invite them. Even their meals together were almost always snatched during or between gaming or programming efforts rather than going out to an actual restaurant, unless the menu was on the wall and the food came on trays or in bags. All three of them looked up to Jason like he was a rock star, especially because he was one of the few who wasn’t intimidated by Ben Ziegler. He wasn’t aware of it consciously, but he basked in their obvious admiration of him; neither he nor any of them thought of them as equals. So his relationship with any of them was not something that could truly be called a friendship. He just tolerated them better than he did others. “Umm, I’m pretty sure Eric went home, but let me IM Said.” He typed quickly on his computer, and got an almost immediate response. He made an amused face, and whipped off a quick retort. He looked back at Jason. “He’ll be right over. Hey, while you’re here I want you to look at some code I’m having trouble with.” Jason wasn’t too surprised at Ryan’s request, and, to be honest, he didn’t mind showing off a little. Ryan showed Jason the code in question, explaining what he was trying to do and why it wasn’t working out quite right. Said came up unobtrusively in the midst of the explanation. Said was a contract programmer from India, but was a Muslim, and as a result had had a terrible time getting a visa. He was tall and painfully thin, and one of the shyest people at CS Games, even by Jason’s own standards. Said waited until Ryan stopped talking before he made his presence known. “Ah, Jason – how good to see you.”

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Jason waved without taking his eyes from the screen. “What’s up, Said? Has Ryan told you about his little roadblock?” “Yes, yes – very interesting effect. I do not think he can accomplish it in the way he is attempting.” The three of them crowded around Ryan’s computer, studying the problem and offering suggestions. Over the next twenty minutes they each took turns typing in commands, then stepping back to see how the new sequence manifested itself visually. Finally, Jason told them he had an idea. Said relinquished Ryan’s chair and Jason starting coding furiously, typing away for a good five minutes with the other two watching intently. Said started nodding and quietly muttering, “yes, yes” after he got the idea of where Jason was going with his changes. “Let’s try that,” Jason announced, finishing his work at the keyboard triumphantly. They watched the results, and agreed it achieved what Ryan was trying to do -- and then some. “Thanks, man – I owe you one,” Ryan told Jason earnestly. “You owe me a lot more than one, guy,” Jason reminded him – and he was counting. “Listen, you guys got any food around here?” They wandered into the break room, where they found not a pizza but a large sub that someone had ordered but not finished. They each cut off a sandwich-sized piece and got sodas and chips from the machines, which didn’t require any money – one of the perks of working at CS Games. “So why’d you stop by?” Ryan asked, his mouth full. “I thought we might play some games.” Another advantage of working at CS Games was that they had a fully equipped game room, even nicer than Jason’s home set-up and far nicer than anything most of the others

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had at their own homes. CS Games intended, of course, that people use it to test out its own games, but the programmers worked such crazy hours that management didn’t mind it when they used it just to have fun. “How about Famine?” Ryan suggested. Famine was a relatively new game that they’d gotten. It was set in a post-nuclear New York City, and the big problem was finding enough food or water to stay alive, while fending off various attackers. The game’s characters need to find some of both every few minutes or would quickly weaken and die. Some of the food and water were poisonous, so figuring out not only where to find them but also what was safe was a challenge. On top of those problems, there were the usual video game kinds of threats – marauding mutants, rats the size of dogs, carnivorous cockroaches. Jason loved the game. “You’re on,” he said. They adjourned to the game room, taking their food with them. They installed themselves at the game consoles and booted up the game. “I’m going to play solo – what about you guys?” Said and Ryan conferred, and announced they were playing as a team. In theory, the chances for survival were slightly higher as a team, but Jason preferred to play on his own. The game was a zero-sum game – any food or water he found meant there was that much less for other players -- so his success meant quicker demises for other players, and vice-versa. The game kicked off, and he moved his character away from the Empire State Building, leaving the other two characters behind. All the characters had indicators that let them know the approximate location of the other players, so he kept his eyes on their progress. He first located some water bottles in a bombed out convenience store that he’d spotted

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in an earlier iteration, picking up a book of matches at the same time, and went to a sporting goods store for a shotgun and an axe. He knew they’d both be useful soon. Sure enough, he was soon confronted by a pack of rats. A shotgun blast scattered the pack and left one rat trying to limp away. He killed the rat with the blunt head of the axe, knowing that the shotgun blast might draw the attention of Ryan and Said’s characters. He quickly made a fire, chopped the rat’s head off, and threw the body of the rat into the virtual fire. He’d learned that eating the mutated rats was fatal unless cooked first, so he waited a few seconds for it to be done. He kept an eye out for the expected cockroach swarm; when it appeared, he threw the head of the rat as far as he could and watched the swarm follow it. So now he had his first water and food. He gradually made his way up Broadway, heading towards the George Washington Bridge while keeping an eye on the other two players. They had started to track him, so he started to poison the water sources he uncovered after he’d had his fill; he didn’t plan on returning this way. He’d learned to stay out of Central Park – there was lots of food there, but lots of fierce creatures defending it as well – and moved up Broadway, making a few kills along the way. He’d learned that apartment buildings were pretty good sources of canned goods and water, but he’d had to acquire a couple of pistols to avoid getting trapped by some of the former, not-quite human residents of them. The grizzly bear he ran across near Columbia was a new one on him; the shotgun was ineffective, and he’d had to relinquish his emergency food store to divert its attention. That was when he decided to lay a trap for Said and Ryan. Food was food, in the virtual world. They were playing against him, and that meant they took their chances. Kill or be killed. Life was hard in the game. Still, it followed a set of rules. He liked life here because the rules were discoverable. Play the game long enough, and you learn the rules, figure out

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the tricks that allowed you to keep alive a little longer. Of course, all the games ended in death. Just like real life, except that in these worlds he could restart, get a new life. Real life wasn’t so accommodating. People behaved in unpredictable ways, and you didn’t always get second chances. The rules in the real world were confusing – if they existed. Gram never really understood why he spent so much time in the virtual world, and he didn’t have the words to explain it to her. He had been focusing on his own trap for Said and Ryan’s characters that he’d not been paying enough attention to what they were up to. He’d been thinking of them as passive characters to be acted upon rather than as characters with intentions of their own. A shotgun blast tore off the corner of the building just to his side, and only then did he realize he was under attack. A check of his indicators confirmed that they’d caught up to him and were trying to pin him down. He smiled, and took a quick glance at their real-life bodies, huddled together with their joysticks. They were a good team. They’d been communicating on their headsets, so he’d not realized what they were up to. They’d maneuvered him into a position that didn’t leave him a lot of good exit opinions. Usually he liked to play solo games, or online games against players who could literally be anywhere in the world. It didn’t matter to the game. Still, he thought, taking a quick glance over at the two of them, there was something to being physically with his opponents that made it different somehow, even though the battleground was still virtual on his screen. He grinned savagely. They’d forgotten that he was better than they were at urban warfare games, and that they really needed at least three players to effectively pin him down. What ensued next was a few minutes of feints and attacks. He had to drop his stockpile of food and water, as it slowed him down. He’d have to come back for it once he resolved this crisis. First he lured Said into an apartment building, where he trapped him in the basement. Either the rats or the zombies would get him. He heard the real Said exclaim and slam his controller down, so knew he was out. Ryan took a little longer.

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Jason had his character pop an energy pill that gave him a burst of unexpected speed; it allowed him to cross the street faster than Ryan was expecting. Jason then shot out the supports of a balcony overhanging Ryan’s position, causing it to crash into the balcony below it, and causing a chain reaction all the way down. Ryan was in a stairwell but was now trapped. The door in the stairwell was locked, and it would take him time to get the debris off – time he didn’t have. The cockroaches would get him before he could dig out. He saw Ryan throw his control down in frustration as well. Unfortunately, the building debris had also buried his stash. Cursing to himself, he looked around. He was low on energy and needed water very soon. He started up the street, eying his options, but found his character less and less responsive as his energy levels reached red zone levels. When the rat confronted him, he was unable to raise his gun fast enough to kill it before it jumped on him. Next time he’d need to do a better job protecting his stores; he hadn’t realized how quickly he ran out of energy. See, this is what he liked; he learned the rules to the games, played better, and survived longer. Tomorrow, he remembered, he’d get some news that would throw his real life into something he didn’t know the rules for, and he was only going to get the one chance at it. And, in the end, he’d lose. Game over. Meanwhile, virtual life offered no such confusion. He looked over at his friends. “Cool! Want to play again?”

Chapter 9 Dr. Alex Toney paused in the hall outside the exam room. His nurse handed him the chart of the patient inside. “Oh, shit,” he cursed softly, not aware that he’d spoken aloud.

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The nurse kept her face impassive, but she’d glanced at the chart earlier and knew the reason he was cursing. He didn’t like to lose patients. Dr. Toney had seen the results previously. He’d been surprised at them then, and had reviewed them with several of his colleagues. They all agreed that there was no doubt about the results. He hated breaking this kind of news to patients; after twenty years of seeing patients, he never got used to it. But it was part of the job. He took a deep breath and went into the room. Jay sat on the edge of the exam table, swinging his legs back and forth and whistling cheerfully, seemingly without a care in the world. The nurse who had led him here had told him he wouldn’t need to put on a gown, so he was fully clothed. Jay wasn’t used to going to the doctors, but he wasn’t much of a worrier, and, besides, the doc had seemed like a nice guy when Jay had his exam. Jay was checking his Blackberry when the doctor entered, then looked up and smiled as Dr. Toney entered the room. “Hey, doc,” he said. “Only fifteen minutes late. I thought I was going to be able to catch up on my emails.” He brandished the Blackberry and stowed it on his waist clip. “Hello, Jay,” Dr. Toney replied, his face carefully neutral. He shook Jay’s hand and sat down on the stool, so he was looking up at Jay as he faced him. Suddenly Jay had the sense that something was off. He’d had a pretty good discussion with the doctor about the University’s chances in an upcoming game in their last meeting, but it didn’t look like there was going to be any small talk. Today Dr. Toney appeared more subdued, his shoulders slightly hunched. Still, Jay mentally shrugged it off. The poor guy was probably having a bad day. Dr. Toney cleared his throat. “Listen, Jay, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he started, looking Jay straight in the eyes but clenching the chart more tightly.

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Jay arched his eyebrows in surprise. “Bad news? What kind of bad news?” He hadn’t expected that, hadn’t really prepared himself for that. “You mean, like more tests? Did you see something on the scan?” Dr. Toney nodded his head solemnly. “Jay, I’m afraid you have an aneurysm in your brain.” Jay looked at him blankly. “A what?” “It’s a weakness in a blood vessel. It causes the blood vessel to blow up like a balloon.” Jay weighed this, picturing a little balloon in his head. He associated balloons with good times, not bad news. He shook his head in disbelief. “And that’s bad?” The doctor nodded again. “If they can’t be fixed – usually surgically – the weak point that allows the ballooning will eventually burst. That’s very bad.” “So that’s what’s causing my headaches?” Jay asked, starting to accede to the news. The doctor nodded in assent. Jay took a deep breath. “OK, so what do we do?” He was already working on how to make the best of the situation. It would work out, he reminded himself; things always worked out. Dr. Toney steeled himself, not sure how this young man would react. This was the hard part. He moved his stool in closer. “Jay, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do,” he told him quietly. Jay shook his head quickly, not sure he’d heard correctly. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Um, I thought you said usually you can fix these by doing surgery.” Jay didn’t relish having brain surgery, but if that’s what it was going to take, well, that’s what he’d do. Bummer about having to shave his head, though. At least he’d see what he would

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look like if he went bald. Maybe it’d be OK, like Michael Jordan when he went from the short Afro to the cleanly shaven look. Dr. Toney shook his head again, this time the sadness coming through on his face. “Jay, I’m afraid the blood vessel is in a location that doesn’t lend itself to surgery. There’s too much chance that you’d die on the operating table -- or be left a vegetable.” Jay stared at him, trying to contain the feeling of panic that was starting to come up his throat. “Um, there must be other alternatives then. Some medication or radiation or something, right?” He didn’t like the edge of desperation that was coming through in his voice. Dr. Toney reached out and put a hand on Jay’s knee. “Jay, I’ve looked at the results very carefully, and I talked to the radiologist who read them. I talked to several of my colleagues as well, including the best brain surgeon I know. You’re always free to get another opinion, get more tests, but based on what I’ve seen and heard, there’s nothing we can do.” He scowled, his lips tight together in frustration. He knew Jay was a young man, evidently in fine health aside from the looming disaster hidden in his skull. From their brief conversation during their last exam, Dr. Toney had the clear impression that his patient had not believed there was anything wrong with him. He’d kidded about only being there because his fiancée had “made” him. Dr. Toney wished that had been true, or that there was something he could do. He wasn’t used to not being able to do anything, but he was not about to lead this young man on by allowing him to have false hopes. Jay was stunned, simply stunned. He stared out with an unfocused gaze, or perhaps a gaze focused somewhere far from here, to a life that suddenly was far away and now unreachable. He had not prepared himself at all for this kind of news, which, in retrospect, seemed ridiculously foolish.

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He slowly came back to this world, to the small impersonal exam room and the doctor waiting for him. Jay took a deep breath to calm himself. “How long do I have?” he asked quietly. Dr. Toney was impressed with how calmly Jay was taking the news. No arguing, no hysterics, no desperate pleading for options. In a way, it made it harder. He knew how to deal with those reactions. This quiet acceptance usually came later, when the patient had already run the gamut of emotions and could listen to the finality without reacting further. He didn’t know how to help his patient now; it was no longer a medical question. “I can’t tell you, Jay,” Dr. Toney admitted. “It could be five, ten years – or it could hit you leaving the office. You’re young and are otherwise in good health, so your blood vessels should be in pretty good shape, but – honestly – it’s a crap shoot.” Jay nodded, the doctor’s answer not really helping. He thought for a few seconds, trying to think things through logically. “Are there things I shouldn’t be doing? I mean, like, does getting my heart rate up make it more likely that the blood vessel will burst?” “Well,” Dr. Toney thought aloud, “I’d avoid mountain climbing or skin-diving, things where the air pressure might vary drastically, but exercise is unlikely to bring it about. You’re not a marathoner or something extreme like that, are you?” Jay shook his head. “Then you’re probably OK.” “Sex?” Dr. Toney sat back slightly and smiled wanly. “I’d say, get it while you can.” It was meant to be moderately funny, but neither of them laughed. He patted Jay’s knee encouragingly and told Jay to take his time, he could collect himself in the exam room as long as he needed. He stood up. “You should probably come in every three months or so, so we can keep tabs on things.” He paused, and looked Jay in the eyes. “Jay, I’m really sorry about this. I wish you the best of luck.”

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Dr. Toney shook Jay’s hand and excused himself. Outside in the hall, he told the nurse he needed some time before he saw his next patient. Jay sat quietly in the exam room for a few minutes. He hadn’t paid much attention to the room before. It was just another exam room, looking pretty much like the ones he was used to for his physicals. Bland wallpaper, bland cabinets, the requisite exam table and counter – everything set up and looking like thousands of similar exam rooms. It didn’t seem special enough to get this kind of news. In the movies he’d seen patients hearing this kind of news in the doctor’s office, sitting in some plush chair in front of the doctor’s desk. That way you could see the doctor’s diplomas, so you’d feel more confident he was qualified to give this kind of news. Those were rooms you might remember when you were trying to recall where you were when you got the bad news, Jay thought ironically; this room, though, didn’t have a single distinguishing feature about it that would help mark that it was the room in which he’d been told he had to die. The next patient was going to come in here and not realize that a landslide had landed on the last person. Jay laughed mirthlessly; maybe the patient before him had had even worse news, although for the life of him he could not imagine what that might be. His Blackberry was buzzing, signifying that he had new emails, but for once he decided he was going to ignore it. He had planned to go back to work, but that was out now. Going to a bar sounded better. Sitting in the dark in his apartment sounded better yet. Finally he roused himself and left, without a backward glance at the exam room or saying good-bye to the front desk staff. He did not bother making a follow-up appointment.

Chapter 10 “Jason, this is good news,” Dr. Lepako reminded him.

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He’d just given Jason unexpectedly good news; the CTA had shown no organic damage. He’d actually been surprised himself when he first got the report. Jason had been coming to him for the past eighteen months complaining of these headaches. Dr. Lepako had Jason try various medications and other tests before finally agreeing to the CTA, which Jason had wanted to do from the start – damn Internet, with all of its information that inspired patients to demand anything and everything. He had to admit that Jason had won him over with the sincerity of his belief that something was seriously wrong with him. The thickness of Jason’s medical record, compiled from a number of physicians in an array of sub-specialties, attested to the depth of his conviction. He could read between the lines in those reports that many of those physicians believed that Jason was a hypochondriac – a pleasant one, but one nonetheless. Still, Jason was clearly very intelligent, and had done his research. He had meticulously recorded the frequency, time, specific location or locations, and severity of his headaches, and had slowly convinced Dr. Lepako that there was something medically wrong with him. These results, though, clearly indicated that none of the likely suspects were at cause. Jason nodded, not convinced. “May I see the results?” Dr. Lepako might have been surprised if other patients had requested this, but not Jason. Indeed, he’d have been surprised if he hadn’t. “The report or the images?” “Um, the images first.” Dr. Lepako handed him the folder with printout of the digital images. “Could we look at the actual images, instead of the print-outs?” Jason asked, starting to scan the pages. “Not here. We’d have to go to my office or one of the terminals.”

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“Oh. Well, I suppose these will be OK,” he said dubiously. He’d have preferred to see the actual images, view the 3D version directly, but since he didn’t really know what he was looking for he didn’t want to push the issue. Dr. Lepako had to suppress a smile as he watched Jason carefully but quickly review each page. It took a lot of training and experience to know what to look for, and there was no way that Jason was going to pick up anything from the images that he and the radiologist had missed. But that was part of the charm he had come to associate with Jason McKenzie. Jason was earnest, well prepared, and dogged, but not contrary or difficult. “The report?” Jason asked, handing the folder back. Dr. Lepako handed him the radiologist’s report and watched Jason carefully but quickly read it. Finally Jason sat back, holding the report absent-mindedly. “Any questions?” Dr. Lepako asked. Jason looked down at the report, not re-reading it but just to be reminded at the import of it. He couldn’t believe what he was learning, but he could find no flaw. “You’re sure?” he asked at last. Dr. Lepako smiled. “I’m confident we’ve done the right tests, and the tests don’t show anything wrong. No tumor, no abnormality, no areas of concern. It’s a clean bill of health. Your brain is normal.” “Tell that to my grandmother,” Jason quipped without thinking, his heart not really in it. He nodded slowly, his mind still not quite caught up to the news. He’d done his research carefully before coming to see Dr. Lepako. He’d checked out Lepako’s medical training, viewed his standings on some physician rating websites, and asked his other doctors their opinions about neurologists. All the evidence pointed to the fact that Dr. Lepako knew what he was doing, and didn’t sugarcoat or hide things from his patients. Jason had been

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counting on both that expertise and that honesty. He just hadn’t counted on this outcome. He thought for a few more seconds, then looked up at the doctor. “But I still have the headaches,” he pointed out, puzzled. “I woke up with one this morning. I have one right now.” Dr. Lepako shook his head. “I know, Jason. We’re been trying to figure them out for a while now. We’ve discussed before that, from a medical standpoint, headaches are a very tricky thing. They can mean any number of things, and people’s reporting of them is very subjective. Sometimes they are a marker of something wrong in the brain, which is what we were ruling out. Your other doctors have ruled out most of the other probable causes.” Jason regarded the doctor intently. “There’s nothing you can do? I just have to live with these?” “I’d be happy to keep trying some other medications that might bring some pain relief for some of the bad ones, but that is really just palliative. We’re not looking to try to cure you of anything.” “So that’s it?” Jason sounded disappointed, and in a weird way, he was. He had been looking for finality, for a definitive diagnosis that would confirm his longstanding fears. This was the exact opposite result, telling him that those fears were groundless. He’d been worried about this for too long, with what had always seemed good reason, to yet accept this apparent windfall. Dr. Lepako regarded Jason with an almost paternal air. “Jason, I’m sure that you were expecting much worse news, and I’m glad that it isn’t. Medically, I can’t explain your headaches any better than the previous possibilities we’ve talked about, none of which we’ve been able to pin down.” He paused, not wanting to offend the young man. Jason knew there was something more there. “But?”

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Dr. Lepako smiled. “If I can offer some personal advice…” Jason wasn’t sure he really wanted or needed any personal advice, even from his doctor, but he didn’t want to be impolite. “Sure.” “You seem to be wound really tight, Jason,” the doctor said with a concerned look. He smiled quickly. “That’s not a medical diagnosis, of course. You’ve been very worried about these headaches for a long time now; I’m sure they’ve put a lot of pressure on you. It might just have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” “Like a feedback loop,” Jason said, testing the hypothesis aloud. “Exactly,” Dr. Lepako confirmed. “So – stop worrying so much. Relax, enjoy your life. You’re a young man. These should be the best times of your life. Try to make them so.” Jason wasn’t entirely convinced, but he nodded anyway, if only to placate Dr. Lepako. “That’s good advice.” It sounded as hollow as Jason felt. The doctor stood up and put out his hand to shake. Jason stood as well, and had the sense that Dr. Lepako was, in some sense, saying goodbye. He shook hands solemnly, and watched the doctor stride out of the room. “Time of my life, huh?” he muttered to himself. “Now what?” he asked himself.

Chapter 11 Jay did not go to a bar. He went home and renewed his friendship with a bottle of excellent single malt scotch that had been waiting patiently for just the right occasion for

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a couple of years. This wasn’t quite what he had been saving it for but, given the circumstances, saving it for some later date seemed somewhat pointless. He didn’t turn the television on, didn’t turn the lights on, and – most significantly -didn’t answer his phone or check his emails. He couldn’t believe the diagnosis. He’d walked into the doctor’s office a healthy guy, with everything to live for. He’d never given any thought to being really sick, much less to dying. He worried sometimes about his parents’ health but even they were young enough that he’d never seriously considered the prospect of them being dead. Death simply hadn’t been part of his world. Now the Angel of Death had touched his shoulder, and his life was over. Well, he conceded, maybe not yet literally over, but soon. He always could have always died at any moment – hit by a bus, caught as an innocent bystander in a robbery – but those kinds of things were rare and didn’t have enough weight to give much thought to unless one was morbidly obsessed, which he had never been. He now knew what victims of those deaths did not – he knew that he was going to be a victim and that it would be soon. He just didn’t know exactly when. He had a bad headache. The scotch and the thinking about death weren’t helping. They might have given him a headache had he not already had one. Jay got up and walked over to the window. His view included the apartment complex’s pond as well as a small playground. A flock of birds was sunning itself on the pond, dipping their heads under the water for a quick bath or maybe snagging a morsel to eat. There was a mother with two young children playing in the playground, the kids running around in the sand while the mother sat patiently, no doubt hoping their exertion would tire them enough so that dinner would be easy and they would go to bed on time. The kids – a boy and a girl -- looked to be maybe four and five, but could be fraternal twins. Jay wasn’t that good with judging kids’ ages.

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It struck Jay that he was never going to have kids now. He wasn’t going to take his kids to the playground like this mom was doing. He wasn’t going to teach them how to throw a football. He wasn’t going to take them to the pool and splash around with them. The list of things that he wanted to do with his kids suddenly appeared longer and longer, but all in vain now. Kids weren’t going to be in the picture now. The shame of it was that Jessica was nuts about kids. He’d seen her with her friends’ kids; she always got that indisputable I-want-to-be-a-mom look in her eyes that was not to be denied. She hadn’t ever pressured him about it, and he didn’t think her biological clock was getting dangerously close to the alarm going off, but it was somehow implicitly understood that they’d have kids after they were married. He had thought maybe three or four years as newlyweds before taking on that responsibility. Now – well, those kids were as much of a casualty of his diagnosis as he was. The difference was, they would never get the chance to exist. He thought he should be feeling more about the whole thing. Jay went back to the breakfast bar in the kitchen and poured himself another shot. He took a sip, feeling the burn down his throat. See, he thought, I feel that! My life is slipping away like the scotch sliding down my throat, so why don’t I feel that more clearly as well? He held the glass up in the air and looked at the liquor in the light, appreciating the nice color of it. He decided that the trouble was that he was numb about the prospect of dying. He should be scared, he should be mad, he should be morose; he should be feelings lots of things that he didn’t seem to be feeling. It was too much too soon to absorb, so his mind acted the way that the body initially does in time of great injury, it went numb out of shock. Unfortunately, that meant it was likely that the pain was coming, and it would hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Maybe numb wasn’t so bad. Restless, he went into the living room. He sat down on the couch and picked up his game controller, but didn’t turn it on. I could distract myself for longer, he told himself, but

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there were things I need to think about. What the hell do I want to do with the few remaining days of my life? It would be easier, in many ways, if he knew the date. He’d feel pretty foolish if he quit his job and blew his savings, only to have death not take him for a couple years. On the other hand, if it came tonight there were things he’d regret not having taken care of. Like Jessica. “Oh, shit,” he said softly aloud. “What am I going to do about Jessica?” She’d be brave, he knew. Jessica was a tough girl, under that lovely exterior and great personality. People might think she belonged in the comfortable, prosperous surroundings she’d grown up in but Jay knew better. She’d have been a great frontier wife. You’d want her along if you were one of those pioneers in the nineteenth century, taking their wagons out to the frontier and trying to make a life of it. She would have sewn and cooked and cleaned and planted a garden. And she’d raise a brood of youngsters, some of whom would have not survived childhood. She’d have supported her husband, giving him comfort and strength when he faltered under their load. All without a complaint, without second-guessing how she ended up in such a situation. If he had cancer, he knew she’d sit by him in the hospital, hold his hand during chemo, take of him when he was weak. She’d research alternative treatments, drag him around the world if need be until they’d exhausted every bit of hope. She’d do the same with this, put as much of her life on hold as she needed to in order to try to support him. She’d waste those years of her live, then have to try to pick up the pieces of her own life after he was gone. And he’d still die.

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Yes, Jessica would be brave, all right. The thing was, it would cost her. It would cost her those years of waiting, trying to fight the inevitable. It would cost her emotionally in ways he did not even want to imagine. Jay felt drained. OK, he was going to die. It was something that had been unimaginable when he started the day, but the doctor’s words had settled into him like the cold seeping in to someone left outside in the Artic winter. He didn’t want to fight. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but he didn’t want to spend that time getting more tests, trying new treatments, maybe getting his skull cut open. If he had to die, he wanted to die with his dignity, living a life he recognized. Just maybe not the life he knew now. Jessica, Jessica, Jessica. He picked up a picture of them together, on a friend’s sailboat. Jessica was wearing a bikini. She looked happy and smoking hot. Jay looked pretty happy in the picture too, and Jay recalled that he had been, had been very happy indeed. It had been a good day, like most of their days together, swimsuit or not. He sighed heavily and put the picture back. Jessica was going to get hurt; he could not see any way out of it. That was something he didn’t feel numb about that. That was the worst of this whole thing, that his demise would cause her the most pain. In some strange way, he was OK with dying. It wasn’t something he wanted, but it was something he could face, like how someone with an amputated limb ends up going on with his life with surprising alacrity. But if it had been Jessica getting the death sentence, he knew how devastated he’d be. He wouldn’t be sitting here numb like he was; he’d be howling at the moon in anguish, raging at the gods for the injustice of the whole thing. He might be useless to Jessica as a result. She might hide her pain better than he would be able to if their situations were reversed, but hiding and not feeling are not the same thing, much as WASPs try to pretend otherwise. He had to protect her from that. That became his whole focus.

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It took a couple hours, and a couple more drinks, for him to find a way out of the problem. He picked up his phone. “Randy,” he said. “How about you meet me for a drink?”

Chapter 12 Jason sat in his car in the parking lot of his doctor’s office. He needed a plan, a new plan, because his old plan had gone to hell. Jason thought of himself as a scientist, not a developer or a computer programmer, and definitely not just a gamer. A computer scientist, but a scientist nonetheless. People who didn’t know him very well thought of him as “just” a developer, but programming was really just something he did as finger exercises. He was more interested in the structure of programming languages and supporting hardware, especially related to computer graphics. Video games were a practical application of those interests, but were not an end in themselves. He’d just fallen into them mostly by default. As a scientist, he liked to have a plan. When he started his day, he had a plan for what he wanted to accomplish. When he played a game, he had a plan of attack. When he did programming, he had a plan for how the code would work and fit together with the supporting gaming system. Sometimes people mistook his quickness for impetuousness, but that was their mistake. Just because he worked fast didn’t mean he worked solely by instinct. The plan for his life had been to wait to die. Living in his grandmother’s basement, earning spending money by dabbling with programming video games, not getting too close to anyone – these were part of his master plan. He hadn’t seen the point in building a career or in making good friends when time was going to get cut very short, without warning. Better to live his life to leave few traces. Granted, it wasn’t much of a plan, but it served its purposes given the facts he’d thought he’d known.

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Well, that plan was for shit, he thought glumly. He could live for decades! He could get as old as his grandmother, maybe even older. He was horrified at the prospect. It seemed impossible that he might live so long. Part of him didn’t fully believe anyone could live as long as that; he couldn’t imagine his grandmother having ever been, say, his age, and suspected she’d somehow been put on earth at maybe fifty. How could he live another fifty or sixty years? What would he do with all that time, all those days building up to all those years? It was not just scary; it was unimaginable. Jason tried to console himself – not very successfully -- that other people probably didn’t know what they’d do for all their years either. They probably just played life by ear, taking things as they came. That wouldn’t do for him. He needed a plan. Still, he decided that he didn’t need to plan in detail how he’d live each of those years. He just needed a structure within which to live, and hopefully the details would become clearer as time passed. Hopefully. He turned on his car. It was a Prius, so it was only the dashboard display lighting up that confirmed that the engine was on. He liked how quiet it was; he didn’t need some big engine roar to validate his existence or prove his manhood. He hadn’t bought the car so much out of any environmental zeal as because the technology had simply intrigued him; he just thought it was cool. He pulled out and headed for home. Except he didn’t go home. He found himself driving aimlessly. He didn’t really know many places in the city. He knew where Gram’s house was, of course, and CS Games. He even knew two or three ways between them. He knew where the mall was – not that there was only one mall in town, but there was only one he went to, and even then not very often. Between the mall and the surrounding big box stores, it had all the shopping he needed, plus movie theaters for when there was some big sci-fi movie out. He mostly shopped and watched movies or TV online anyway. Jason didn’t see much point of malls; why would someone drive there, to battle crowds for less selection than they’d get online? It was really the people at the mall who made him uncomfortable. They seemed

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to roam the mall in little packs, especially the teenagers, sure of themselves and their place in the world in a way he never had been. He always felt like an alien when he saw them, and it added another big reason to stay away. Jason could find his favorite Indian restaurant if he was coming from CS Games, but if he was coming from Gram’s he’d have to use the GPS, which was pretty much the way he found most anything not on his short list of familiar places. He understood – from things he overheard from coworkers or had read online -- that the city had many interesting areas, but he’d never seen the need to explore them. He’d checked out the satellite views of some of the neighborhoods on Google Maps, but more to check out the quality of the views than out of any particular curiosity about the actual city. He’d have to get a job, he guessed, glum about the idea. Technically speaking, he sort of had a job, but it was hard for him to think about it as such. If it was a real job he’d care more what his boss said; he’d complain more about money; he might even have to dress up a little. Maybe getting a job wasn’t such a great idea after all. Jason found himself by the mall after all, drawn there like a zombie in a George Romero movie, except he didn’t want to kill anyone, or even to go inside. Because he had no destination in mind, he started driving around the perimeter. The mall was moderately busy, populated by shoppers who also apparently did not have or perhaps want jobs. Many of them, he observed, were young women, saddled with small children in their minivans. He wondered if a mini-van was in his future now as well. That would require a wife, of course, who would first demand a house, then kids, then the minivan. That was too much to think right now, and harder to picture than being as old as Gram. He figured he’d be better off starting with the job thing. He could start a company. He knew other people who had done that, with varying degrees of success. Ben was the perfect example, with not nearly the technical skills or

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expertise that he processed. Ben would freely admit it. Of course, Ben was pretty good at the business side, marketing, sales – all the boring stuff Jason really didn’t have much appetite for. He’d need to raise money if he started a company. Maybe Ben would bankroll him, but then Ben would insist on knowing what was going on, and that was pretty much like having a boss. That sucked. Maybe starting a company wasn’t such a good idea either. Jason found himself sitting in front of a green light, a fact that other motorists “helpfully” pointed out to him by honking and yelling at him. With a start he pulled out through the intersection and, for lack of a better place to go, he headed towards home. He’d need to cultivate some friends too, Jason realized. That was even scarier than the whole career thing. He knew he had some actual technical skills, ones that other people valued, and that would make the job thing easier. By comparison, though, he didn’t believe he possessed equivalent social skills. He was basically retarded socially, he thought dispiritedly. He’d have to try to overcome that somehow, raise his social IQ from retarded to perhaps simply below average. He’d have to start talking to people, spend time with them, pretend to care about some of the stupid things they liked. Jason allowed a small sigh. That was all going to be hard. It wasn’t that he disliked people, or looked down upon them. He simply didn’t think he needed them, and they certainly didn’t seem to need him. He didn’t know what he had in common with most of them, and lacked the appropriate conversational skills to establish what common areas of interest there might be. It had always been far simpler to stay quiet when the conversation wandered into areas other than computers or video games, but now he might need to know things about, say, politics or clothing. Stupid things, things he had little knowledge about and even less interest in. He didn’t think he could go around ignoring people for the next thirty, forty, maybe fifty years. Not without becoming one of those kooks that people fear are going to go postal, and maybe not without risking actually going postal. And once Gram wasn’t around,

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forget it. He hated to admit it, but as solitary as he liked to view himself, he wasn’t sure he was equipped to do so long term. The Unabomber had to go live in a shack out in the mountains somewhere, and Jason wasn’t about to go anywhere without broadband. What a bother, he sighed, pulling into his grandmother’s driveway. He turned the car off and sat quietly in the car for a few minutes. He’d need a list, Jason decided, a list of the areas that he’d need to change about his life. Then he’d need to prioritize it, and work out game plans for how exactly to change them. This not being under a death sentence was going to require some work. He felt exhausted already. He went into the house. “Is that you, Jason?” his grandmother called out from the den. Jason could hear the television going. He affirmed his presence and started to head to the basement when he stopped himself. Instead, he walked to the den. His grandmother looked up in surprise. She was wearing reading glasses and had a book on her lap. “What are you watching, Gram?” he asked. “Oh, just an old Cary Grant movie,” she told him. “Want to watch it with me?” Jason had no real idea who Cary Grant was and ordinarily the prospect of sitting with Gram to watch some old movie with him -- or anyone else -- in it would have been something he’d face with dread, but he took a seat anyway. He needed to practice this kind of stuff, he reminded himself, and who better to start with than the ever-forgiving Gram. She raised her eyebrows in slight surprise, not used to him taking time in the middle of the afternoon to just hang out with her. Gram simply assumed something was bothering him, and knew him well enough to let him tell her at his own pace – or not at all. On the screen a good-looking man that Gram informed him was Cary Grant was talking to a pretty woman, everything in black and white. The woman was wearing a fancy evening dress that intrigued Jason, and seemed keen to impress Cary, but he was playing

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it cool. Jason had never used the word “debonair” before, but he now had an example of it. Cary Grant must have been a long time ago, he decided, maybe as old as Gram. All the men were wearing suits and ties, and carrying or wearing hats. That was pretty silly. He wondered how he’d look in a suit. Probably not as good as this Cary guy, even if he slicked his hair back like that. And forget debonair. Gram asked him how the doctor’s visit went. “Uh, it went OK,” he told her, not taking his eyes off the screen. “He says everything is all right.” “Really? No follow-up tests, no referrals?” Jason shook his head glumly. She was more used to the lingering next steps that had accompanied his numerous other doctors’ visits, and he kind of thought he might be disappointing her. Maybe she thought he wasn’t being quite truthful. “That’s wonderful, Jason,” she said, putting down her book. “Yeah, just peachy,” he said without enthusiasm. They watched the movie for a few minutes more. This Cary guy was pretty cool, Jason decided. Maybe he could pick up a few pointers from him. “Mind if I watch this for a while more with you?”

Chapter 13 Jay met Randy at Wings & More, which was sort of a local version of Hooters. The servers weren’t quite as good looking, and didn’t show quite as much cleavage, but it hired a lot of college girls who made coming there fun nonetheless. The wings weren’t bad either.

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Jay and Randy quickly agreed to order an order of wings with the second hottest sauce. “Man,” Randy sighed. “I used to be able to handle anything. Now I’m afraid that their thermonuclear sauce would keep me up all night.” “We all get old,” Jay agreed, the irony not lost on him. Their server – a pretty girl named Laci, who appeared old enough to be fair game for Randy – brought them their beers and cheerfully told them their wings would be coming. Randy launched into a recap of his day, including some thoughts on what he’d like to do to his boss. Randy had a love-hate relationship with his boss; Jay had met him, and thought he was a pretty good guy, but Randy could be a little high maintenance. Jay wasn’t sure he’d like to have to have Randy work for him, much as he loved him like a brother. Jay only half listened to Randy’s saga, thinking ahead to the conversation he had to have with him once Randy took a break. He idly also checked out the other patrons. Wings & More was hopping even at seven on a weeknight. Many of them appeared to be young professionals like him and Randy, stopping after work. The family wave had mostly come and gone, and in a couple hours the bar would be busier than the tables. Everyone seemed happy and having fun, which made him feel out of place. Laci delivered their wings, along with extra napkins and some wetnaps. “Enjoy!” “Thanks, Laci,” Randy said, sizing her up. “You worked here long?” Laci never lost her smile, but Jay caught that she checked them both out before answering. “A couple months.” “You in school?” She laughed. “Thank you for that! No, I graduated a couple years ago. I work as a secretary, and just do this to bring in some extra cash.”

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“Well,” Randy told her, “you really brighten the place up.” Before Randy could follow this with any dialogue that might lead him to asking for her phone number, Laci put her hand on his shoulder. “I better go – I have some tables waiting. Enjoy the wings!” Jay made a face of mock surprise at Randy, pointed a finger downwards while he made a crashing sound. “She’ll be back – you’ll see,” he vowed. “Or she’ll leave her number on the check.” They started in on the wings, which were as good as they recalled. They were hot enough that they appreciated the blue cheese dressing and the beers to help mitigate the effect of the spices. Jay waited until Randy had taken a big bite before launching into what he had to say. “Randy, I have to talk to you about something.” Randy waved his hand magnanimously. “Shoot,” he said while chewing. Jay hesitated. He looked around the room, ostensibly to ensure no one was listening in but actually just stalling for a few more seconds. He took a deep breath and looked back at Randy. “It’s like this – I can’t marry your sister.” Randy froze. He stopped chewing his mouthful of wings, and his face showed his confusion. He swallowed quickly. “What?” “I said I can’t marry Jessica.” Jay’s face was stone cold serious. Randy nodded slightly. “That’s what I thought you said.” He sat back in his chair, staring at Jay thoughtfully and trying to figure out if Jay was screwing around with him. He somehow knew that he wasn’t. “What, I mean, do you – oh, hell – what’s going on?”

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Jay wished he could take back the words, that he could start the day all over again and have none of this happening. But he’d never been one to spend too much time wishing things weren’t true; he’d been raised to deal with things that were. He exhaled heavily and leaned forward in his chair. “Randy, I’ll explain it to you, but first you have to promise that you won’t tell Jess. Not now, not ever. This has to stay between you and me.” “There’s another woman,” Randy suggested flatly. Laci happened to stop by their table at that moment to check on them, but Randy waved her away without looking. “No, man, come on,” Jay replied, shaking his head. ‘You know me better than that.” Randy seemed to relax slightly, and smiled quickly. “For a second there I thought Mr. Boy Scout was going to lose his fidelity merit badge.” He laughed, then remembered that the bullet hadn’t actually been dodged; it was just shot by a different gun than he’d thought. His face grew serious again and he leaned in closer as well, resting his arms together on the table. “So what is going on?” “You gotta promise.” Randy nodded. “Yeah, yeah, just between us.” Jay shook his head. “Listen, Randy, this is a big deal. If you promise me you really can’t tell anybody. Not Jess, not anybody.” Randy studied him closely, and Jay was reminded of why Randy was his best friend. A lot of people only saw the happy-go-lucky dude, always good for a joke or a laugh, but there was a serious side of him that came out when his friends or family needed him. He’d die for them if he had to, only that wasn’t an option here, not that Jay would ever ask. Still, Jay wasn’t sure how he’d deal with competing needs of a friend and his family. “I’m in, man,” Randy assured him. “Whatever you need. So why can’t you marry Jess?

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Getting cold feet?” He nodded sympathetically; he knew he wasn’t ready to be tied down, and could see how Jay might be feeling the same way. “You know I’ve been having these headaches, right?” Randy was surprised at this conversational gambit. “Yeah, sure. You have one now?” Jay shrugged, neither confirming nor denying the presence of a headache, although he did, in fact, have one. “Jess made me go to a neurologist, and he ordered some tests.” Randy frowned. “And?” Jay took a drink of his beer, not wanting to say the words. Once he said the words, once he said them aloud to someone else, it truly was real. But the fact of that matter was that it was true, it was real. He took another deep breath. “I have an aneurysm in my brain. You know what an aneurysm is?” Randy shook his head, and Jay quickly explained it to him. The balloon analogy was very helpful, he decided. Randy’s eyes got wide. “Oh, man, you’re kidding,” he said automatically, although he already knew this was no joke. If it was some sort of sick practical joke, if he was being punked, there would be some serious payback. But he didn’t think Jay would pull a stunt like that. “What are they going to do about it?” He started to see why Jay might want to back out of the wedding; maybe he was expecting to be caught up in all sorts of medical treatments. Jessica would want to be there with Jay, he decided, wedding or no wedding. Jay shook his head. “Nothing.” Randy was taken aback. “Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? They can’t do nothing!” he exclaimed. He mulled this over for a second, then added hopefully, “Does that mean it’s no big deal?”

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“It’s in a part of my brain where trying to get to it would be riskier than not doing anything at all. So I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” “How so?” Jay signaled Laci for another round of beer; his glass was empty, and Randy quickly polished his off as well. He waited until she dropped the beers off before continuing. She inquired as to if they were done with the wings, which were only half gone. Jay told her they were still working on them, although it appeared both of them had lost their appetites. “The doc says the aneurysm is going to blow one of these days. That will kill me, pretty much immediately.” “Kill you?” Randy repeated incredulously. He shook his head in disbelief, looked down for a long time, and then raised his head. His expression was that of a man facing the firing squad as bravely as he could, but fearing the shots yet to come. “How long?” he asked hoarsely. Jay shrugged helplessly. “Could be five years, or I could drop dead into the wings while I’m talking to you.” He laughed mirthlessly. “There’s no way to tell, and there’s nothing to be done.” “What about another doctor? There must be something that they can do!” Randy sounded desperate, and he searched Jay’s face for some glimmer of hope, some sign that not all was lost. Jay wasn’t able to give him any. He simply shook his head. Finally, Randy looked away. He watched the people laughing at the bar, wishing he were one of them and wondering if he’d ever be able to laugh again. Right now he didn’t think so. “Jess is going to want to know,” he told Jay at last.

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“I know,” Jay agreed. “That’s why I made you promise not to tell.” Randy looked at him almost fiercely. “You’re going to need us. You’re going to need the people who love you. You can’t shut her out.” Jay reached over and put his hand on Randy’s arm. “Look -- I’m scared shitless. I’m still trying to get my head around the whole thing, and I’m not doing so well with it. You’re the first person I’ve told about it, and you may be the only person I’m going to tell. But I can’t do that to Jess.” Randy took a quick shot of beer. “Maybe we need something stronger,” he said absently. He exhaled heavily and made small popping noises with his lips. “Jess will still love you, you know. This isn’t going to scare her off.” Jay smiled sadly. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Chapter 14 Jason went into the CS Games’ office early, feeling a combination of terror and dread at the prospect of the day ahead of him. “Early” is a relative word, but in his case when he entered the lobby a little before nine the stares he got were from a combination of people not recognizing him – the ones who worked eight to five kind of days -- and expressions of surprise from the ones who did. The security guard, an older man with the wizened face and crew cut of a veteran but with a torso that looked like it was melting around the middle, took some time in examining Jason’s ID badge before allowing him to continue. Evidently he worked days and didn’t see Jason often enough to recognize him. Jason wanted to start fresh. He’d hoped to get up and out without waking his grandmother, but that was a silly hope. His grandmother had not only been awake, but

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also fully dressed and already finished with her own breakfast. Jason had to wonder what time she got up. Of course, she was usually in bed – or, at least, in her room – by the early evening, but he thought there was something unseemly about being ready to face the world as early as she apparently did. That’s why someone had invented the snooze button. As usual, she had insisted on making his breakfast, an energy-laden meal of oatmeal, with some bacon and a couple biscuits that she whipped up for him. Between the brown sugar on the oatmeal and the honey on the biscuits he was pretty wired for his day at the office. Jason felt funny about his clothes. Ordinarily he’d have just thrown on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, possibly remnants from the night before. Today he had wanted to make a better impression – even if no longer a first impression – so he was wearing some khaki slacks and a button-down shirt that Gram had once given him for some birthday. It had been one of the several clothing suggestions she had given him as gifts over the years, most of which never emerged from his closet. This one wasn’t too bad, he’d decided, and almost looked like grown-up clothes. If it didn’t quite look like the old Jason at least it didn’t scream that his grandmother had it given to him. Still, it felt like new skin on the new life he was hoping to start, and both felt uncomfortable. Neither fit. He said hello to a couple people on the way to his cubicle, dredging names up from somewhere but ignoring the people whose names he couldn’t recall, and he imagined that he could hear an undercurrent of whispered conversations stirring in his wake. He settled into his cube, feeling the strangeness of it. It was, of course, much smaller than his home set-up, and didn’t have nearly the range of hardware. He’d taken no effort to personalize it, and it appeared that someone had been using his file cabinets as excess filing storage. Usually if he came into the office it was late at night and he mostly hung out at other people’s cubes, or the game room, so this was somewhat virgin territory. The cube fit him no better than his clothes. This was where he was supposed to work? The prospect of working in this dull cubicle was about as appealing as going to jail.

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He turned on his computer and thought about what he should do next. His plan hadn’t really advanced much beyond getting here early, and he was already starting to regret even that much. He felt almost panicked; he’d used up all his nerve and most of his adrenaline simply by showing up. It didn’t seem fair that he had the whole day yet to go, much less a whole life of doing this day after day after day. “Daunting” wasn’t a strong enough word to describe it. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” Rahul said, surprising him. Rahul stood in the opening of his cubicle, leaning against one of the walls with his arms folded across his chest. He did not appear happy. Rahul was thin, slightly shorter than Jason, with thin black hair that was starting to recede, adding insult to injury. He always dressed neatly, with a long sleeved shirt throughout the year, always neatly ironed and tucked into his slacks. Jason figured he must be married, with a wife who pressed and ironed his clothes every night, but he never cared enough to actually confirm Rahul’s martial status and hated to imagine the kind of woman who would consider him a catch. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage. Whenever Jason saw him, which wasn’t often, Rahul had an expression on his face that was a mixture of frustration and defiance. It didn’t occur to Jason that he might be the cause of that expression. “Hey, Rahul,” Jason said unenthusiastically, wishing that he’d done a better job of preparing for this moment. He hadn’t thought it would come this early in the day, and his head wasn’t fully alert yet anyway. “What brings you in so early?” Rahul inquired, his sharp tone of voice at odds with his solicitous words. Jason shrugged. “Just thought I’d work from here today. You always tell me I need to come in more.”

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Rahul furrowed his brow slightly. He had urged Jason to do that, but never really expected anything would change his behavior. It felt like a trick. “Hey!” Ryan yelled, fairly bounding to a stop at Jason’s cube. He did a double take when he realized it was Rahul talking to Jason. He looked back sheepishly at Jason. “Umm, I’ll catch you later.” Without looking back he scurried away. “You were saying…” Rahul said. Jason didn’t really remember what he had been saying, and squirmed in his seat. “Well, I thought I could talk to some of the other guys working on the new game,” he offered, thinking quickly. “I have some ideas that might help make some of the transitions better.” “Uh-huh,” Rahul said, not appearing convinced. He studied Jason closely. “Are you going to resign?” he asked suddenly. “If you are, just tell me now. Don’t make me wait all day.” Jason was surprised anew. “Resign? What makes you think that?” “Look, Jason, I’m not an idiot, no matter what you think.” “I never – “ Rahul cut him off with a glare. “Never mind. Look, you show up here --” he checked his watch – “at nine in the morning, for the first time I’ve ever heard of. You’re wearing a shirt with a collar and – if I’m not mistaken – those shoes are loafers.” “They’re Skechers,” Jason added helpfully.

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“Whatever. It all adds up to something going on. What it adds up to me is that you came in to pick up your personal shit and turn in your resignation, never mind that it would leave us high and dry on the new game.” Jason looked at him for a few seconds without saying anything. “What personal shit?” he said at last, gesturing around his cubicle. Rahul followed his gesture, and started to look a little sheepish. Jason leaned forward slightly. For the first time that he could recall, he felt bad for Rahul. The guy was trying to do his job – although Jason wasn’t exactly sure what that was – and somehow Jason was making him worry. It was almost like Rahul was a real person. “Rahul, look – I’m not planning to go anywhere. I just – I just thought maybe I’d start coming in the office a little more. That’s it. No agenda.” Rahul seemed relieved, although also afraid to let himself feel that way. He shifted his feet and stood up straighter. “Well, then, OK,” he said, clearing his throat and trying to pretend he’d won some small victory. He looked down the hall to avoid looking at Jason. They talked for a couple more minutes. Jason even asked him if there were particular things Rahul wanted him to look at, not that he was really intending to take Rahul’s suggestions; he was just curious what Rahul might say. Rahul had a hard time answering that one, but made some vague suggestion about updating the project log for the new game. He left seeming not only mollified but also more than a little pleased with himself. Jason turned back to his monitor.

The day seemed to take a long time, even with a long mid-morning coffee run and lunch with Ryan and Eric. He had been wary about going to lunch with them. Left on his own, he’d have probably just gotten some candy or chips from the vending machine, if he was really into something, or gone to McDonalds or someplace else quick, where he could play games on his handheld while he was eating. If he’d been at home either Gram would have made him something or he’d have gone somewhere for a sandwich, but it would have taken Gram to remind him it was time to eat. He had a fixed set of places

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he’d get food from, rotating them not for the variety but so that he wouldn’t become too much of a regular anywhere. He’d learned from experience that once that happened, the staff might start saying hello, anticipating his order, or – worst yet – trying to strike up a conversation. He just wanted to eat something and be left in peace. Today, though, he was determined to do his best to be social, so when Ryan came by to ask about lunch he agreed to go. Eric usually ate with Ryan, and Jason thought having two other people there might help, since then the conversational burden wouldn’t fall so much on him. Still, he was nervous about it. Even though he knew Ryan and Eric, he couldn’t be sure where they would go or what they’d talk about. He had this horror of being stuck someplace with food he hated – seafood or vegetarian, for example – and being forced to talk about politics or business or other boring topics. As it worked out, they let him pick the place to eat – a nearby Chinese restaurant that Jason liked – and mostly talked about games, both the ones they were working on and their favorite ones to play. It ended up not being too bad, he thought, and he heard about a new game he wanted to check out for his blog. Everyone seemed to tiptoe around the fact of him being in the office, during daylight hours. After lunch Ryan point-blank asked him if he was going to resign. Evidently that was the rumor of the day. “Listen,” he said in a conspiratorial voice when no one else was around, “if you are going to a new company maybe there’d be a job for me?” Jason had to tell him that he wasn’t planning to go anywhere, and he wasn’t sure if Ryan was relieved or disappointed. Around three he was ready for either a nap or for watching some online TV episodes, but forced himself to wander around the office. People seemed to be working pretty hard. He wasn’t unused to working hard himself, or even to collaborating with other people on projects, but what he didn’t really get was that they seemed to like just hanging out with each other. He saw people walking together to get sodas, hanging out together talking about what sounded like their weekends or, in a few cases, their kids. It was like they were speaking a language he didn’t know. He lacked small talk, much less kids. Even if

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he had something to offer in those kinds of conversations – which he didn’t think he did – he couldn’t fathom how he would initiate being part of one. He was walking past a cube where someone was typing furiously at his keyboard, staring intently between the screen and the keyboard, only to be stopped by a belated “Hey!” Jason stopped and retraced his steps to the opening of the cubicle. The guy at the keyboard was now half turned around, staring at him. He’d started some animation on his screen and Jason recognized it as one of the games he’d been working on. “Are you Jason McKenzie?” the young man asked dubiously. Jason nodded. “I thought that was you. I’m Maurice Shanks.” He looked young, maybe fresh out of college, and was as slight as Jason was. His skin was a light coffee color and his hair closely cropped, but he did sport a small goatee. He eyed Jason for a few seconds longer than Jason expected, almost as though he was still skeptical about who Jason was, and, if he was, what he should do about it. Jason tried to stand a little straighter. Finally Maurice seemed to make some sort of decision. He stood up. “The Man. The legend,” he said, nodding his head slightly in deference. “This is an honor.” Jason blushed. “I don’t know about that.” Jason nodded towards the screen to change the subject. “Looks like you’ve been busy.” “Well, you raised the bar with that bit about the princess’s arm,” Maurice exclaimed with some glee. “Wicked, really wicked.” He shook his head in admiration. “You liked that, huh?” Jason asked. Maurice was the first person who had said something complimentary about his surprise twist.

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“That’s the kind of stuff I want to do,” he exclaimed. He gestured at his screen. “Righteous shit. Let me show you something I’ve been working on.” He was working on a car chase in an update to an old game, and was trying for some new twists. They talked for a few minutes about Maurice’s work, and Jason offered a few tips that Maurice seemed to appreciate. The kid’s – Jason found himself thinking of Maurice as a kid, although Jason couldn’t have been even ten years older -- work seemed pretty good, Jason admitted to himself. Not as good as his, of course, but with some experience maybe the kid could be good. Maurice started in earnest on his rework, while Jason walked away feeling pleased with himself -- partly because of Maurice’s obvious hero worship but also because he’d forced himself to make a new acquaintance, and it hadn’t gone too badly. Not too badly indeed. He’d done enough for one day, he decided, even though it was only four-thirty. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all, he rationalized. Besides, he really was more productive at home.

Chapter 15 Jay called in sick the next morning, something he rarely did. He told Kathy, his assistant, that he was coming down with something and he thought it would be Monday before he would be up to coming back to work. He felt bad about lying to her, but figured she wasn’t going to be the last person that he was going to have to deceive. She was duly sympathetic, told him to go to the doctor and to take it easy. Whatever he was doing, he thought as he hung the phone up, he was not taking it easy. The next call was harder. He called Jessica and told her he’d come over later in the day. He kept the conversation short, telling her he was pretty busy but not telling her that he

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wasn’t working. He knew that would be a red flag. If she thought he was sick she’d probably rush over to nurse him. “What time?” she asked. “I dunno,” he said. “Seven?” “Should I cook or will we order? Or do you want to go out?” Jay really wasn’t up for this. “Don’t cook. Let’s just see what we feel like,” he told her. Jay knew if they had dinner he’d never have the nerve to give her the bad news. “Look, I gotta go, Jess. Later.” He hung up the phone before she could say anything else, realizing belatedly that they hadn’t said their usual “I love you” before hanging up. That might tip her off that something was amiss, he thought. They never failed to end their calls that way. It wasn’t that he no longer loved her, of course. He hadn’t said the words because saying them, or hearing them, right now would only break his heart more. Jay hoped she would just attribute his omission to being rushed; maybe she’d think he was in a meeting or something and didn’t want to say something mushy in front of whomever he was with. Maybe. He had a number of tasks that he had to get done. He didn’t know how long he’d have before his head betrayed him – and, goodness knows, it was beating him up now – so he had to make sure his affairs were all settled. He downloaded a will and filled it out. It was surprisingly easy. He didn’t have a lot in the way of assets but he didn’t want any doubt about their distribution. He named Randy as the executor, and hoped it wouldn’t be too tough for him. He put all of his bills on automatic payment, so he didn’t have to worry about something bouncing if he was laying here dead when one came due. He checked the beneficiaries on his company life insurance plan and his 401k plan. He discovered that his parents were listed as the beneficiaries for both -- evidently he hadn’t looked at them since he started with the company -- so he switched both over to Jessica. He didn’t have a lot in the 401k yet but

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the life insurance was double his salary; it would be a decent windfall for Jessica. That is, assuming he didn’t quit his job before he kicked the bucket. It was hard for him to be in the apartment and see the constant reminders of Jessica. There were too many to get rid of them all, but he had to do something about the pictures – of her, of them together, of places they went. So he put all the pictures of Jessica away in a drawer, not replacing them with anything else. Their absences left lots of holes in his decorations, and putting them away cut equivalent holes in his heart. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the pictures or to delete the digital pictures on his phone and laptop; putting them out of sight was hard enough, but getting rid of them for good would be too much like dying. A picture of the two of them at a party, slightly drunk but clearly crazy about each other, was the wallpaper for his computer and he didn’t change that. It might be a poke in the eye for him each time he opened the laptop, but he wasn’t ready to take it off. Not yet.

Jay wandered around his apartment the rest of the day, keeping his phones and computer turned off. Randy had called twice before Jay turned off his phone, and Jay felt guilty about letting those roll to voicemail instead of answering. He especially felt guilty for not even having the nerve to listen to the messages; Randy would only ask him to do something he wasn’t going to do, like tell him how he was doing. He wasn’t used to being alone for long periods of time, and wasn’t used to not being in touch with his friends. Jason thought that at times like this he was supposed to reach out to friends and family more than ever, but he just didn’t feel up to it. If he couldn’t tell Jess, why would he tell anyone else? And how could he hang out with anyone with this hanging over him? Talking to people seemed an impossibility, as if his diagnosis had rendered him mute. He hadn’t spent a lot of time in his apartment over the past few months, as more and more of his time had been spent at Jess’s. This was still his place, reflecting his tastes

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with sprinkles of Jessica’s touches. He started wondering what their house would have been like; would he just have a room that was his, would he just let Jess have her way and it’d just be another, bigger version of her condo, or would it have been a house that they each felt at home in? He had to shrug off these thoughts; he was never going to live in that home. He was never going to even see the house, much less make it a home, and that made him sad all over again. He tried to clean the apartment up – nothing that would pass Jess’s or his mom’s test, but not bad for a guy. If he died here he didn’t want someone to come in and not only discover his cold body but also then think he was a big slob. He supposed it shouldn’t matter, that once he was dead he’d never know, but he hated to have people think bad things about him. So he cleaned the bathroom, vacuumed, washed a few dishes, even dusted a few of the more obvious places. The windows he left alone. By focusing on these minute details he found he could avoid thinking about Jess for seconds, sometimes minutes, at a time. The rest of the time he couldn’t help but think about what he was losing, the life he wasn’t going to be able to have with her. When he wasn’t thinking of that he was thinking of how he was going to have to hurt her, for her own good. She’d hate him, in the short term, but he hoped that once he was dead she’d understand that it was for the best, and maybe she wouldn’t hate him so much. When he looked at it that way, the end couldn’t come soon enough. A day of her hating him was a day too long.

“Hey, Jess,” he said as casually as he could when she opened her door. She looked surprised to see him. “Why’d you ring? Why didn’t you use your key?”

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God, she looked great, he thought. She was wearing shorts and a tank top, her feet bare. Before he could answer she swept in a big hug. “I missed you.” “I missed you too,” he responded softly. He held her for a few moments longer than normal, trying to indelibly stamp the feel of her, the smell of her, into his brain. He doubted he could ever forget any of it but this might be the last time he could hold her in the flesh, and he wanted to soak in everything. This was going to be too hard, he thought desperately. How could he possibly leave her? It was madness! He had to force himself to remember the time bomb in his head was also the time bomb threatening her future happiness too. It took all of his strength, but at last he released her and came into her condo, a once familiar place that now seemed like somewhere from another, happier world, only now a distant memory. Jessica followed him with a concerned look on her face. “Everything ok, hon? You look a little pale.” Jay didn’t answer, and instead wandered into the kitchen. He was afraid that if he sat on the couch, with her close to him, he’d lose his willpower all over again. He stood at the counter, not able to quite keep still but not wanting to sit down either. The look on his face must have given something away. Jessica came close, and put her hand on his face. “What is it, bear? Tell me.” He couldn’t meet her eyes, and couldn’t look at her body either. She was so beautiful, the opposite of the mythical Medusa; instead of turning those who looked upon her into stone, she turned men, especially Jay, to jelly, made them weak in the knees. Still, she turned men hard elsewhere; no time for that now, he chided himself. “We have to talk.” He sensed her stiffen, and her hand came away from his face. “Well, that’s usually the woman’s line, isn’t it?” she said, trying for a light tone but not entirely succeeding. She stepped back a half pace, with an even more concerned look on her face.

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Jay had never been good at breaking up. With most of the women he’d dated breaking up had been more of a matter of simply not following up; no phone call, no returning phone calls or emails, and eventually they got the idea. The couple of relationships that had merited a more formal breakup had, indeed, been ugly, and one reason he’d been happy to find Jessica and get engaged was the expectation that he’d never have to go through that awkwardness, that painful discussion and hurt feelings that came from a bad breakup. He’d heard of amicable breakups but that hadn’t been his experience, not at all. It looked like now he was facing the mother of all breakups. Jay exhaled heavily, not realizing he was doing it nor aware of the noise it made. He glanced up and noticed the confused look on Jessica’s face. “Sorry, Jess,” he apologized. She was going to get hurt, any way he did this. All he could do was to cut her losses, try to minimize her pain. Knowing that didn’t make what he had to do any easier – but it made it possible. He steeled his will and looked her in the eyes. “Jess, I can’t marry you.” His voice trembled when he said it. There it was. The look on her face would have been comical were it not so tragic. Weren’t those supposed to be two sides of the same coin? He never understood that expression until this moment. “What?” she asked at last, her voice breaking and the disbelief radiating across her face. Jay hadn’t thought that one word could last so long or break so hard, and the look on her face was devastating. His heart broke. “What did you say?” she asked, her eyes searching his, pleading for it not to be true.

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He could no longer meet her eyes. He moved to the other side of the counter and stared down at it for a few seconds. “We can’t stay together, Jess. I can’t marry you.” His voice was dead, resigned to the tragedy but unable to do anything to lessen it. “But, but – why?” He didn’t need to look at her to know that her lips were trembling and that there were tears in her eyes. He knew because he knew her, and because his own eyes were wet. Jay felt a weight fall upon him, and his head suddenly savagely pounded him. Let this be it, let this be the end, he prayed, but why couldn’t it have come ten seconds earlier, before he’d uttered those fateful words? Only he didn’t die, and Jessica was still standing across from him waiting for him to explain, to say something, anything that would help her with this. He could just tell her the truth. She’d understand what he’d tried to do, probably love him even more for trying to protect her. She’d wrap her arms around him and make everything better, at least for the moment. It would be so easy to fall into that warm embrace, to slip back in the comfort of her sphere. Jay almost gave in to the voices in his head that were competing with – or perhaps adding to – the pounding in his head. No. To give in would be to trade his own comfort for hers, to absolve some of his pain by adding to hers. He loved her too much, way too much, for that. In the end, that’s what it all boiled down to. He put his hands flat on the counter, as though he was pushing away from their life together, and slowly raised his face until he was staring at her. He felt almost numb, like the pain had driven him into shock. This was worse than the pain of knowing he was going to die. This was the amputation of something that had once been part of him, the best part of him. “We have to break up, Jessica,” he told her softly, the words barely escaping his mouth. “I wish I could explain but I can’t.” He stopped, and watched the

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pain move in waves across her face, the tears welling up and starting to fall down her lovely face. Everything was in slow motion. “It’s not you,” he tried to reassure her, feeling stupid as he did. “It’s nothing you did. It’s me, it’s about me.” Jess put one hand to her mouth, and tried to wipe away tears with her other hand. “But why, Jay? Why?” He shook his head, trying to clear his thinking. For the last day he’d been trying to come up with a plausible response to that inevitable question, something that she wouldn’t immediately see through. In the end, the best he had come up with was to fall to the classic stereotype. “I’m just not ready to commit. I just can’t do it.” This seemed to give her hope. “Jay – please don’t do this,” she pleaded. “So let’s postpone the wedding, give us some time to work this through. I love you and I can’t lose you!” Her eyes were red, her cheeks were wet, and her nose was running a little. Jay thought she’d never looked so beautiful. Jay was again so tempted. He’d known it was going to be hard, but this was too hard, this was unreasonable. No one could stand it. But stand it he must. He shook his head again slowly, sadder than she could ever know. “It won’t work,” he said softly, and he wasn’t quite sure if he was telling her or talking to himself. Jessica seemed to deflate in front of him. It was more than Jay could bear. He turned and walked out, hearing the wailing begin behind him. It haunted him long after he was out of range.

Chapter 16

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Jason felt distinctly out of place, sitting in a bar. Well, it was really a restaurant that happened to have a bar, more a place to push high margin drinks to customers while they waited for a table then a serious drinking establishment, but there he was, amidst the more established bar patrons. They were an interesting mix of twenty or thirtysomethings, mostly attractive and chattering quite animatedly to each other. They seemed comfortable here – something Jason most definitely was not – and it wasn’t clear if there was so much talking because people came with people they knew or if they came to meet new people. Jason noticed a couple older men sitting by themselves at the bar, observing the action over their drinks. Jason had the impression the older men were like old lions, too toothless to fight the young studs for the best prey but hoping to wait out the initial kills and hope there were some spoils left when the night drew to a close. He’d been watching too much Animal Planet, Jason chided himself. It was really Maurice’s fault that he was there. Maurice had blithely suggested that they go to happy hour after work – apparently a common practice at CS Games on Friday nights -- not realizing how unlikely it was that Jason would agree to it. None of the other coworkers who’d known Jason longer would have dared invite him. Jason was initially taken aback at the prospect, and very nearly took the easy way out by declining, but reminded himself that he needed to start leading a more “normal” life. He allowed that going out with coworkers after work, for something other than gaming, was considered normal by most people. He’d reluctantly agreed, which made Maurice happy. He’d sort of backed into letting Maurice act as sort of a guide to the rest of the world for him. Maurice seemed to like to spend time with him, yet – unlike the other people Jason knew – hadn’t fallen prey to the social limitations his other coworkers had learned to expect from him. Plus, the kid more than made up for Jason’s reticence; he’d happily chatter away with or without Jason’s active involvement in the conversation. He’d had to introduce Maurice to Ryan and Eric – Said already had met him – and they seemed

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somewhat surprised that Jason knew someone at CS Games they didn’t. They were even more surprised that Jason seemed willing to be more social around Maurice. Once word got out that Jason was going to happy hour, attendance in the outing had grown. Jason wasn’t naïve enough to think that he was that popular, but he understood that the novelty factor was in play here. A few of them – Maurice, Ryan, Eric, Said and him – had gotten to the bar before the crowd and had snagged a primo corner booth. Thus it was that he was sitting at the table with a core group of his four coworkers, with another three or four floaters from CS Games hanging around but not exclusively attached to their table. Sort of like the bees in the hive whose job it was to forage, he thought. He really needed to stop with the Animal Planet, he told himself. The rest of the CS Games crew was hanging out elsewhere in the bar; he didn’t know most of them. He eyed the talkative crowd at the bar, both envious and disdainful. They belonged here. They looked like they knew what they were doing here. He was the one who was obviously, terribly, wildly out of place here. They were the ones who were at ease – not only that, but having fun. The only fun he was having was watching them out of an almost anthropological point-of-view, a scientist watching a foreign – or perhaps alien – tribe practicing their strange cultural activities. A surprisingly large part of him wished he could be standing up there, so clearly having a good time and feeling part of whatever conversations were going on up there, but he knew that wasn’t going to happen. He’d never fit in well with groups of people, especially ones drinking or at parties. It wasn’t a choice, it wasn’t a preference; it was, he was sure, a personality deficiency of some sort on his part. Jason wondered what they were talking about so animatedly. Probably sex, he decided. Sex, plus drugs and parties. There were little groups of people talking mostly amongst themselves but eying the other packs while trying not to be too obvious about it. Every once in a while someone from one of the packs – and sometimes it was the women

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making the first move, Jason noticed with surprise – made forays to the other packs. Occasionally these attempts were successful, and a new pack would form. It really was like watching Animal Planet after all. He thought perhaps some of the trips to the bathroom – and he observed such comings and goings carefully – were probably assignations for having sex and/or doing drugs. He tried to detect if anyone’s behavior differed on the way out versus the way back – did anticipation make the walk faster? Did satisfaction result in a more relaxed facial expression? Was anyone obviously higher afterwards? – but if there were clear signs, they were lost on Jason. They were a strange brood, he thought gloomily. Nominally, he was the same species, shared much of their DNA. Actually, he doubted if he could mate with these women even if they gave him a chance. His gene pool had been too isolated for too long. So he stuck to the safety of this booth as though he was at the bottom of a deep gravity well. To his right, Ryan and Eric were talking about some reality show from the prior night. Jason had never seen the show – or, for that matter, any reality show – so he stayed out of the conversation. Technically, he had watched two episodes of “Beauty and the Geek” – the prospect of a fellow geek hooking up with a cute girl was irresistible -- but once he saw how it was going to go he stopped watching that too. He didn’t see any reason to try to work that into the conversation. When they’d first arrived, everyone had made a point of including Jason in conversation. It had been easy at first. He and Eric had battled on a motorcycle racing game before coming to the bar, a battle won by Eric, and he was enjoying crowing about his victory. Jason was arguing that the game hadn’t been calibrated quite right, although of course he’d never been on a motorcycle in his life and had no intent to do so; he viewed his organs as too valuable to risk having them donated. However, once they’d thoroughly dissected their game, and made vows to play again, the conversation had drifted to other topics and Jason became adrift in that current. He listened to Eric and Ryan’s conversation much like he would follow a conversation in a foreign language, not comprehending the meaning at all but just trying to follow the sound and form of it. He’d

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noticed that the two of them never seemed to lack for conversation, and on a wide variety of topics. There weren’t that many subjects that interested Jason, much less ones he could maintain a conversation about, and he was baffled as to how they could fill up minute after minute, hour after hour, on all these irrelevant subjects. Television? Singers? Sometimes even sports; why in the world would two geeks like them – geeks much like he was – know anything about sports, much less care enough to have a conversation on it? They apparently played in some online fantasy leagues, something Jason had never gotten into because it required too much reliance on the real world. Being here was scary and exciting at the same time, like a kid getting to go with his parents to some adult-only place. He knew he didn’t belong, and wondered if he ever would. Sitting here with the people he knew was not too bad. He was scared that at some point they’d abandon him and he’d be stuck sitting by himself, looking stupid and out of place, without their protective camouflage. At least no one was dancing, so no one would expect him to. Jason was sitting next to Maurice, who was similarly not really partaking in the conversation about the cultural wasteland that constituted American television. Ryan and Eric didn’t seem all that keen to include Maurice in their conversation, and, next to Maurice, Said was doing something on a smartphone – Jason wasn’t sure if he was texting or gaming, but in either event Said was oblivious to his companions and to their surroundings. Unlike Ryan and Eric, Said was usually happy to sit in silence; he could do so to the point where even Jason would feel the need to say something. Jason nudged Maurice. “I’m guessing you are not a TV guy?” Maurice glanced over at him. “I like TV all right. Just not that crap.” Jason nodded. “Yeah, give me reruns of Lost or Battlestar Galactica any day.”

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Maurice stared at him for a long second, then looked back at Ryan and Eric. “Lost is for suckers,” he pronounced. “BG is OK. Now Dark Angel, now we’re talking about a reason to turn on the tube.” He got a dreamy look on his face. “Jessica Alba…” “I don’t really watch much TV anyway,” Jason explained. “Too passive. Gaming is better because it’s more interactive.” “I hear that.” It felt like a bond, but Jason suspected that the same would be true of many of their companions. They wouldn’t be working at CS Games for long if they weren’t a little maniacal about games, not with the hours they voluntarily put in. Of course, those hours weren’t all slaving away for their jobs; they spent a suspicious amount of their time just playing games, both ones from CS Games’ portfolio and any other cool ones they liked. It did make the dividing line between their work life and their personal life fairly arbitrary, but most of them were young enough to not really care. Jason nursed his diet coke. Maurice was drinking a beer, as were Ryan and Eric. Said had something that could be water or Mountain Dew, Jason couldn’t tell. The prevalence of alcohol made Jason feel all the more out of place, like a fifth grader at a grown-up party. He didn’t really feel dressed right either. It wasn’t so much that he was wearing the wrong thing so much as how he was wearing it. To Jason, clothes were just clothes, something he put on as a small accommodation to society, or at least to his grandmother. He didn’t much care. To most of the people here, clothes appeared to be an integral part of how they wanted to portray themselves to everyone else at the bar. By “they,” of course, Jason meant the women, and the men who felt they had at least some plausible chance of attracting the interest of said women. That didn’t include many of the people he knew.

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“You come here much?” Jason asked Maurice, less out of trying to make conversation as out of fact-finding. He wanted to see if he was the only neophyte in this realm. Maurice scowled. “You giving me a line?” “What do you mean?” “That’s something guys say to girls they want to meet in bars.” “You’re kidding,” Jason responded. “That works?” “Almost never.” Maurice explained that he usually went out after work on Fridays, but mostly to meet his brother. He didn’t usually go to the CS Games’ happy hour outings. “The others --” he nodded towards their coworkers “—some of them do this pretty regularly. Said is just here because you came. Ryan came because Megan was coming.” He explained that Megan was Megan Torpy, a graphic designer at CS Games. “She’s cute,” Jason allowed. He’d noticed her and had worked with her on a couple projects, but he never had imagined that she might possibly be interested in him, and he figured he had it way over Ryan on the appeal to women scale. Granted, that was setting the bar pretty low, but there it was. “Ryan really thinks she might go out with him?” Maurice snorted. “He’d be happy if she smiles at him. Watch him keep an eye on her drink and how he rushes up to get her a refill whenever she starts to get low. If she let him drive her home he’d come in his pants.” That amused Maurice, but Jason was taken aback, thinking how embarrassed he’d be in that situation. He had to admit that if Megan or any equivalent woman showed him that attention he might have trouble himself.

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“Your brother work at CS Games too?” Jason asked, steering the conversation back to safer territory. Maurice took a drink of his beer and kept the bottle in front of him, staring at it. “Nope. He’s not in the business.” “What’s he do?” Jason didn’t really know many civilians. Maurice’s brother, as it turned out, was an auto mechanic, which fascinated Jason. He could fix computers or gaming systems, but cars or other mechanical devices mystified him. Maurice explained that Jamal was ten years older than he was, and had never been to college. Jamal had gotten his then girlfriend, now wife, pregnant just out of high school and had been forced to go to work. “But he stayed on my case. He made sure I studied, didn’t let me hang around with the wrong crowd. He goes out for a beer most Fridays and usually we hang for a bit before he goes home.” Maurice shrugged apologetically; it was obvious that Jamal meant a lot to him. “Hey, Jason, you having fun?” Ryan interrupted, speaking loudly from across the table. The noise level from the crowd had ratcheted up significantly in the last few minutes, as more people packed the bar. “You couldn’t even measure it,” Jason shouted back ambiguously. “Excellent,” Ryan yelled back, smiling. He seemed unaware that Jason might be sarcastic. He resumed talking to Eric. Said looked up briefly, then resumed his attention to the keyboard. Jason decided he was playing a game, and tried to figure out which one it might be, given his finger motions. He was a little envious, and if it wasn’t for Maurice’s presence he might have tried the same thing.

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In truth, Jason was thinking about leaving. Talking to Maurice was all right, and earlier when some of them were bragging about some of their exploits on their favorite games, that had been fun, but it quickly was becoming too much effort to hold a conversation. Jason saw a well dressed young man – not one of the CS Games crowd -- approach their booth. “You guys leaving?” he asked. His question wasn’t really aimed at any of them in particular, but since Jason was in the middle of the booth the young man aimed the question in his general direction. The man had the look of a jock, Jason decided. He probably played basketball or football, the kinds of games Jason was terrible at, except in their virtual form. More importantly, he looked like he belonged here – and knew that they didn’t. The group looked at each other, not sure about who would be the spokesman. “We weren’t planning on it, no,” Eric said at last. “The thing is, my friends and I would really like this booth,” the man explained patiently. “We’re going to be here all night, and it doesn’t look like you really need the whole table.” Jason’s group only had five people sitting in the booth, which could hold closer to eight. Behind the man a small group of his companions – other guys and several attractive young women – had assembled, their expectation clear. Jason and his companions looked at each other. They knew they were the interlopers here. The young man and his ilk were better equipped to fit in to this environment. Jason didn’t think it would come down to them being physically ejected, but he uncomfortably realized that, should the young man and his friends opt to, they would have no difficulty in doing so. Judging from their sheepish expressions, his coworkers felt the same way, except for Maurice, who was staring balefully at the man but keeping quiet. “Well…” Ryan started.

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“Is there a problem here?” a new voice asked. The owner of the voice was an AfricanAmerican man. He was of average height and not dressed to impress, but there was something about him that gave the young man pause. The newcomer seemed solid and implacable, and there was something in his eyes that suggested he’d seen things that the rest of them might have only seen in the movies. “We were just asking if these guys wanted to swap tables,” the man explained, his tone slightly truculent. “There’s more of us.” His friends – the guys, at least – crowded slightly closer to illustrate, and possibly try to intimidate the newcomer. It didn’t work. He stared back. “Tell you what. My friends and I are going to stay here until we’re ready to go. You got a problem with that?” His tone was not argumentative, but there was something firm about it that brooked no further discussion. It was news to the young man – and to Jason’s table – that he was a friend to the people at the table. He looked nervously back at his friends, and then looked again at Jason and his friends, clearly not understanding why this newcomer was challenging them. His gaze settled on Maurice, and he looked back from Maurice to the new man, believing he now understood. He mumbled his apology and edged away, taking his posse with them. The man watched them go, then looked at Maurice. “How’s it going, little brother?” Thus was Jason’s introduction to Jamal Shanks.

Chapter 17 Jay stayed in all weekend. He felt as low as he’d ever felt in his life, and he just couldn’t deal with other people right now. So he kept his cell phone, his Blackberry, and his laptop turned off, and zoned out.

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No texts. No calls. No emails. No status updates. No visits. Nothing that let the world know what was up with him, or vice versa. It was cold turkey in an era of ubiquitous connectivity. Jay was of a generation that was used to constant contact with friends, using a variety of media, usually electronic. Privacy was not only an outdated notion, it was, for the most part, an unwanted one. But not this weekend. Jay had crushed the heart of the woman he loved without reservation, still struggling with the devastating news about his own mortality. Jessica was the one he’d ordinarily have turned to for comfort in the face of death, but the path he’d chosen had precluded that. He had chosen to cut Jessica out of the loop and he was so heartsick about it that he couldn’t muster the energy to lean on any of his other friends. He flipped around aimlessly on TV half-heartedly for some of the day, played video games for some of it, and sat on his balcony staring into the distance moodily for the rest. It was a nice day outside, with white, puffy clouds floating serenely in blue skies, but it was nothing he could take any solace from. It didn’t seem quite fair that the world could look so pretty when everything had gone so very badly in his life, but evidently the world didn’t care. Other people’s lives went on, the birds kept chirping, and children played happily. The cloud of gloom and doom was centered around him. Jay slowly polished off a six-pack of beer over the course of the day, not in any attempt to get drunk but just keeping a buzz on. Besides, it was the only alcohol he had left in the house and he didn’t feel like going out to get more. He liked playing the video games the best. It took most of his concentration, so he couldn’t easily drift off letting his mind go places he was afraid to go, each game took a long time, and he always got killed. The latter was, oddly enough, the best of the reasons. He played several bouts of Wii boxing, largely for the chance to take out his aggression, but enduring a pounding from his virtual opponents seemed only fair, given how he was

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feeling about himself. He supposed it was better than finding a dark alley somewhere and letting himself get mugged. The game he enjoyed the most was set on a space station orbiting around Saturn. The station had been invaded by hostile aliens, intent on wiping out the crew and taking control of the station. It took several times playing the game for him to realize that the aliens could take on seemingly limitless forms. At first they looked like large lizards who walked on their back legs, their skin some sort of scaly armor, but that made them too easy to spot, if not so easy to kill. They killed him several times before he caught on that they could also appear as something akin to rope, which they used to hide along floorboards and ceiling junctions, only to snag unwitting victims. They wrapped them up tighter than a python, squeezing until the victim was simply gone, although sometimes the victim’s head exploded from the pressure before the rest of him disappeared. When he tried to run, he’d discovered that they could curl themselves into a circle and roll along faster than a man could run. One had to try to outwit them, get an airlock between you and them if possible. And, of course, in the third level the aliens learned to take over the other crewmen’s bodies, making the friend-or-foe distinction very difficult. Jay’s strategy was either to kill anything moving on sight, or to flee and see what chased him. Eventually Jay learned that his goal was not to get to the command center – which the aliens had long taken control of – but to make his way to the shuttle bay, steal a ship, and get the hell off of the station. Of course, in the next level the aliens shoot the shuttle down, making him crash land on one of Saturn’s moons. And then he ran into the really scary aliens. Dying in the game had a nice finality about it, albeit very temporary. It was like hitting himself in the head with a hammer over and over, because it felt good to finally stop and know he wasn’t being hunted by crazy alien rope-creatures and his body wasn’t being

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devoured or absorbed by said aliens. By comparison, he reasoned, his current situation wasn’t so bad. He ordered a pizza for a late dinner, ordering from a place he’d never used before so he wouldn’t run the risk of getting a delivery guy that he already knew and be forced to chat with him. Usually he liked talking to the delivery guys, and was on a first name basis with several of them, but he didn’t feel up to it now. He wasn’t very hungry but eating was something to do, helping pass a few minutes. In the evening Jay stood by his window and stared out into the dark. Cars were driving by, lights were on in other apartments, and people were coming and going. It all was so very normal, so very social. Normally his life would be like that too. He still couldn’t get over how his whole world had been turned upside down – and it was humbling to realize how little the world noticed, except for Jessica. He had known breaking up with Jessica would be hard, but not this hard. This was like a knife in his heart, twisting and causing him ever-present pain, but still somehow not killing him. The prospect of dying seemed trivial by comparison, even if it was at the root of his problem with Jessica. His ongoing headache seemed like justice, in some sense, completing his sense of misery. He’d assumed that the gaping hole which Jessica’s absence created would quickly be filled by his other friends. Even if they didn’t know the full story, they’d certainly be happy to spend time with him, distract him from his bad news and, more importantly, from the terrible thing he’d done to Jessica. Unfortunately, now that he’d done the unforgivable he found that he didn’t want to be with other people. Any distraction or comfort they might give him would seem undeserved. He deserved to suffer for the pain he’d caused and – he could only assume – was causing Jessica. As long as she was out there somewhere hurting, he should be in pain too. Jay supposed some of his friends might be wondering about him by now, wondering where his status updates were and why they couldn’t get in touch with him. Surely Jessica had talked to Randy by now and Randy would be worried about him, unless

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Randy was too pissed about how hurt Jessica was. Maybe even his parents would be trying to get in touch with him, although they were used to not reaching him quickly. A day without anyone hearing from him was like a week without contact twenty years ago, when the landlines were the main form of connection, or like a month had been a hundred years ago when people used letters to stay in touch. He’d gotten so used to being hyperconnected that this sensation of being alone was almost as scary as dying. Maybe more. Still, they were just going to have to deal with it. He wasn’t sure how he’d explain his period of isolation once he emerged from it; he’d deal with that if and when he did emerge. Tonight he just wanted to not have to think about other people, unless they were fictional characters on television. Everything seemed to work out in their lives, with hugs and laughs at the end. His life had been like that until a few days ago. Now it seemed so strange to him that the video game seemed more plausible right now. Jay fell asleep in front of the television, the pizza only half-eaten.

On Sunday Jay went for a fifty-mile bike ride. Biking was nothing unusual for him; he and Jessica often rode together. They rode both for the exercise and for the pleasure of their time together. They liked to pick scenic routes, chatting along the way and pointing out interesting sights. They usually packed a lunch or arranged the routes so that they could stop someplace for lunch or a snack. Today was different. Today it was not for fun. It was for oblivion. He didn’t wear his helmet, the way that he would have had to if Jessica been with him; she’d have insisted on it. It had been a point of some contention in the early days of their riding together, but once she had first nagged him, then sweetly bought him a helmet, he was kind of maneuvered into doing it. He had accepted her arguments about the need for safety, but now it seemed pretty pointless. He figured – what was the worst that could happen? So what if he went headfirst into the pavement? If it didn’t rupture his faulty blood vessel,

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or kill him otherwise, maybe he’d end up brain dead. At least then he would not longer be aware of what was happening to Jessica. So no helmet today. This ride wasn’t about snacks or the scenery, and it certainly wasn’t social. He pushed himself hard, head down and cranking away like a machine. Lance Armstrong would have been proud of him. He barely acknowledged other cyclists or hikers on the bike path, other than to curtly announce his passing. Jay wanted to hurt himself, to push himself so he couldn’t think about anything else. He didn’t want to reminisce about past rides with Jessica and he sure as hell didn’t want to think about what Jessica might be doing now. Was she crying? Was she angry? Was she telling all of his friends what an asshole he was? Whenever these kinds of thoughts floated into his head he forced the tempo a little harder to try to drive them out. And, if Jay was honest with himself, he was pushing himself hard because he wanted to see if he would trigger the rupture in his brain. He needed to know if getting his heart racing would kill him. When it didn’t, he couldn’t have said if he was relieved or disappointed.

After the ride he came back to his apartment to clean up. He’d drunk a bottle of water during the ride, gulped another as soon as he got to his kitchen, then took a long shower to wash off all the sweat and grime and soothe his already aching muscles. The truth was that Jay was a social person. He liked being with people. He liked hanging out with his friends, or starting conversations with strangers and getting to know their stories. It’s what made him good at his job; people trusted him almost on sight, felt comfortable with his kind smile and easy manner. They were lulled by his willingness to be open about himself with them, and in turn tended to confide in him. Customers, coworkers, and many random acquaintances became friends, like a garden that grew with only casual cultivation needed from him.

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His life had been pretty full before Jessica came along. He had lunch dates most days – either with clients or coworkers – and could usually be counted on for after-work outings. He was in several athletic leagues, and his weekends had been busy with friends, dates, or parties. It wasn’t like he was trying to fill up idle time; he just liked being with people more than a quiet night alone. It surprised both him and his friends that he’d made time for Jessica right away. Other girlfriends had had to fight and claw for their fair share of his time, and usually those relationships ended because his and their opinion about what constituted a fair share didn’t agree. With Jessica, her time with him quickly expanded, not because she demanded it but because he wanted the increased time with her. It had taken some time and effort to establish the right balance and re-juggle everything. The odd thing was that he hadn’t minded. It had proven easier than he expected to make more time for her, to want to spend most evenings and most of the weekends with her. Some of his face time with friends had been transferred to electronic updates, but he had made it work. Jessica was worth it. Now there was a gaping hole in his life. He’d amputated Jessica out of his life, and he couldn’t see how he could resume his old social life. It all seemed so trivial now. His old friends at best wouldn’t understand why he’d left Jessica and at worst would want to set him up with someone new. He was having a hard time imagining mundane conversations with them, carrying his awful secret like a cross on his shoulders while they went on about fantasy leagues or hot dates. And there wasn’t much point in making new friends. Jay stood in his kitchen, drinking greedily at another bottle of water, and suddenly he wanted out of his apartment. The fresh air and sunshine on the bike ride had made the darkness and gloom of his apartment now seem like a cell, in solitary confinement. He had no more alcohol in the apartment, and he was pretty sure its comfort would be required. He stared at his various electronic devices, sitting mute on his desk. He was sure that each had things to tell him, and that outside his apartment there was a whole

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network of people he knew who were wondering why he wasn’t communicating with them. He had relied on these devices, hadn’t viewed them as burdens like some people he knew did. They were part of his social currency, enabled a significant portion of his social contact. Now he viewed them as dangerous. They had an enormous appetite for information, for news, and the only thing he had to tell right now was something that he couldn’t share with anyone. If he stayed here, there was always the risk that someone would come along and knock on his door, checking in on him like an elderly neighbor. Randy was first in that line. Jay didn’t think he’d be able to just ignore that knock; his car was in the parking lot, so if Randy didn’t get a response he’d break the door down if he had to in order to make sure Jay hadn’t done something tragic to himself. Yet he didn’t feel like answering the door, even for Randy, wasn’t ready to have the post-break-up conversation he knew he was going to have to have with Randy. Randy was in the middle here. He knew the pain of Jay’s problem, and would suffer the collateral damage of Jessica’s anguish as well. It wasn’t fair to Randy – and still Jay knew he’d do almost anything to avoid answering that door should Randy come calling tonight. Maybe tomorrow he’d talk to Randy, Jay told himself. He’d apologize for the blackout, perhaps find out how Jessica was weathering the break-up, and try to restart some semblance of life. It might be more like a zombie life than his old life, but he was going to have to get through each day until his head let him off the hook. The apartment reminded him of Jessica. It had been his before he’d met her, and she hadn’t completely put her own stamp on it, although he had more furniture and more amenities – coasters? Kitchen towels? – that he’d ever have had without her. She’d been here enough that everything now reminded him of her. They’d cooked dinner in this kitchen. They’d eaten meals at the counter. They’d sat intertwined on the couch watching TV. And they’d made love – well, too many places to list. Living here was going to keep reminding him of her; maybe he was going to have to move. Even without

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her pictures, her touch was indelibly everywhere he looked. It threatened to overwhelm him, break him into tears. Jay decided that he definitely needed a drink. He put down the water disdainfully. Not water, not a soft drink. He needed a real drink, maybe a few of them. He didn’t need the idle chatter of a happy hour gathering, he just needed some solitary drinking time where he could slowly drink himself into not thinking so much about what a mess his life had become. He needed someplace where people would leave him alone, but where he could trust that they’d not take advantage of him should he have too much. Jay made up his mind. He was going to Pete’s.

Chapter 18 Jason was bored. A couple of days earlier his grandmother had mentioned she was having some friends over on Saturday. Ordinarily he would take this as fair warning, and on such occasions he had either made himself scarce or barricaded himself in the basement until all was safe again. This time, though, when she informed him they were sitting together watching an old sit-com, and for some reason she had looked over at him meaningfully. “You wouldn’t want to come, would you?” she’d asked sweetly, implying her hopes for the exact opposite. No, not in the least was what he’d wanted to say. Then he remembered his new vows, and thought about how happy it would make her for him to be there. Swallowing hard, he told her, “sure, Gram.” He tried to suppress the gag relax, and focused instead on her satisfied smile.

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Which is why he was now sitting in his grandmother’s living room, dressed in slacks and a nice shirt -- both presents from Gram – while trying to balance a plate of crackers on his knee, and to be invisible to the eight elderly women sitting around him. To be fair, it wasn’t too hard to be invisible. Gram had seemingly taken great pleasure in introducing him as each guest had arrived. And they’d all expressed great pleasure in meeting him, shaking his hand or – in a couple cases – hugging him, which he thought was weird or even slightly repulsive. Then they pretty much ignored him, focusing on catching up with each other. After that, he figured he didn’t have much reason to be there. He wasn’t part of the conversation, nor was he interested in their conversational topics, and it seemed unlikely that they’d want to talk about subjects that he might be conversant about. Unfortunately, he was stuck on the couch, and couldn’t see a good way out. His best remaining strategy, he quickly had decided, was to stay silent and try to not fall asleep. In retrospect, he’d have served his purpose had he simply agreed to meet everyone, then made his escape. Having failed to act promptly, now he was stuck on the couch amidst their conversation. They were all old. Jason had a hard time telling the age of anyone over fifty, or maybe over forty, but he guessed that they were all about Gram’s age. Maybe plus or minus ten years, although there was one little old lady that he swore was maybe a hundred. She kept a watchful eye on him, or maybe on his stash of crackers, and he similarly watched her out of the corner of his eyes, afraid she might keel over at any time. She made him nervous, and it didn’t occur to him that his corresponding youth might be making her nervous, or perhaps envious. Every so often the cheese and crackers would run low and Gram would ask him to get more, which at least allowed him to go into the kitchen for a while. He stretched those periods out as long as he figured he could without attracting undue suspicion or concern, eying the back door with great temptation. Then it was back to the god-awful conversational circle.

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For the most part they talked about people he didn’t know, a great many of whom seemed to have various medical problems. That often brought on discussion of their own maladies, which they described in some detail. This was something he could relate to, although most of the conditions they brought up weren’t ones he’d suspected himself as having. He wondered how they researched their conditions without using the Web; certainly they didn’t just rely solely on their doctors, did they? Death seemed an even more popular topic, as they compared notes on people they knew who had recently died, with commentary on the resulting funerals that he found strangely matter-of-fact. Having been somewhat of a connoisseur of ways that he might be dying over the years, he was strangely fascinated by their stories and the easy familiarity they seemed to have with death. He once fancied himself as being ready to visit that strange land, and now it seemed strange to him that these old crones – with apologies to Gram – were going there before him. For a short period there was a conversation about email and the Internet. He’d perked up for that, especially since Gram made a point of informing the group that he was a “computer whiz.” They beamed encouragingly at him for that, so he started to tell them about some of the games he liked, but even he could tell that their eyes were starting to glaze over and he trailed off, allowing them to change the topic. He retreated to his crackers, wishing he’d thought to grab a handful of Fritos while he’d had the chance. Jason thought back to a Charlie Brown cartoon he saw on TV when he was a kid. He didn’t remember much about what happened in the cartoon except that you never saw any adults, and when the off-screen adults talked, it came out as an undecipherable squawk. That’s how he felt at the moment. The doorbell rang and he looked longingly towards the hall, but didn’t make his move soon enough. Gram was on her feet and moving before he could secure his plate. She reappeared shortly with yet another one of her friends, who – curiously enough -- had a teenage boy in tow. The kid looked maybe twelve or thirteen -- Jason had a better sense

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of how to gauge that kind of age –- and he looked even more miserable than Jason. “I think you all know Betty,” Gram said, by way of introduction. “Betty, that attractive young man there on the couch is my grandson Jason. And who is your young man?” Betty introduced him as Billy Hines, her grandson. This made the kid seem even more miserable than before, if possible, and he appeared to wish he could disappear or just die on the spot. She made her way around the circle greeting the other women. Thinking quickly, Jason stood up and offered his seat on the couch to her, which she accepted gratefully, and looked back at Billy. Billy seemed horrified at the prospect of squeezing in on the couch between his grandmother and some other old woman; a look of panic flashed across his face. Gram caught the look. “Jason, I wonder if Billy might be interested in playing some games with you downstairs,” she suggested sweetly. Jason was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t like letting strangers down into his living quarters. For that matter, he wasn’t too keen on people he knew going down there either. On the other hand, he reasoned, any port in a storm. “Sure, Gram,” he replied with more ease that he felt. Billy eyed him dubiously, but seemed to make an equivalent calculation; going to the basement with a stranger on the off chance that he might get to play some games still beat sitting on a couch with his grandmother and her friends. Jason led Billy down the stairs and showed him to the gaming center. Billy’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “This is all yours?” he exclaimed animatedly. He walked around the room, touching consoles, screens, and game packages gingerly, as though he was in a museum with irreplaceable objects of art rarely seen by the general public. Jason didn’t like a stranger touching his stuff -- what if he put something in the wrong place? – but he had to admit, with pride, that it was an impressive collection. None of the individual

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games or equipment was that special, aside from a few beta versions he was testing. It was the gestalt that made the place so impressive. “So what do you want to play?” Jason asked, grabbing his usual spot, a big easy chair that allowed him a wide range of motion. He wanted to claim it before the kid took it. Billy seemed intimidated by the question. “What do you play the most, at home?” Jason prodded. “My mother doesn’t really like me to play video games,” Billy admitted, his face dropping. He seemed even more miserable than he had upstairs. “Well, your mom isn’t here now, is she?” Jason pointed out. They settled on a Sim City version that Billy had played; his parents thought it was moderately educational. The kid wasn’t bad, but his hand-eye coordination was slow and he clearly hadn’t played enough to pick up some of the tricks needed to be successful. After a couple games, Jason introduced Billy to a vampire game. He first played a solo game, to give Billy an idea how to play, but he soon realized that Billy’s attention was drifting, either because he wasn’t good at watching or because Jason was simply playing too fast. He let himself get killed off and handed the console over to Billy. Billy was timid at first, but gradually started to get the hang of it, spurred on by some verbal coaching from Jason. They then played a joint team version, which Billy seemed to find helpful. Jason saved Billy’s virtual life several times, only to have Billy inadvertently kill him twice and abandon him to die once. So it goes, Jason thought.

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They eventually took a break. Billy seemed equally impressed by the fact that Jason had his own refrigerator of drinks, plus a stash of snacks, as he was by the gaming center. “So you live here?” Billy asked, his mouth half full of Snickers and Mountain Dew. Jason nodded. “Yeah, Gram lives upstairs but all this is mine.” “Pretty cool,” Billy allowed, gazing around with evident longing. “My parents would never let me have all this stuff.” “Well, I bought it myself, so my parents didn’t really have a choice.” Billy nodded, noting the distinction. “They want me to study all the time.” He said it like this concept was the dumbest thing in the world, taking his valuable time away from more important pursuits. “I bet you didn’t worry about school.” “Umm, I didn’t like high school much, but college was all right. They leave you alone more there.” Billy tried to act nonchalant. “Yeah, college is probably pretty cool. Did you, like, go to a lot of parties?” In fact, Jason hadn’t been a lot more social than he’d been in high school. He was just surrounded by more kids like himself, nerds who could concentrate intently on a game or a computer program the way most guys their age focused on the NFL or, well, girls. The computer science courses had been hard, but in a fun way, like solving puzzles, but he’d struggled in the rest of his courses, except for math. Jason shrugged and ate a handful of chips in lieu of a real answer. Let the kid infer what he wanted, Jason reasoned. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Billy being here. He never really invited people over here, and rarely went to someone else’s house. It was too easy to get trapped into spending longer with people than he feared he might want. CS Games served as his only

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real social locus, and until recently he’d mainly gone there to play a few games and then depart, always on his own schedule. Billy was too young to be a friend, of course, but still here he was sitting in his basement, playing his games and eating his food. God forbid that he use his bathroom, he thought. This must be what being social is like, he thought glumly. People came over; people used your stuff. People disrupted your routines. It was kind of a bother, he thought reluctantly. Jason realized that he didn’t really have any friends. People like Ryan or Said came closest, but they’d never been here, and he’d never been to their houses. He’d never met their families. Hell, he’d met more of Maurice’s family in one evening than he’d met of his other coworkers. It wasn’t that he disliked them; he liked playing games with them, and didn’t mind helping them with work. Hanging out with them wasn’t so bad, he thought, but if he was going to do more of it he’d have to get used to them intruding more into his life, and to showing more interest in their lives. It seemed like a lot of work. “Nah,” he admitted at last, since Billy continued to wait for an answer. “I mostly just goofed around with programming and gaming and shit.” He told Billy a little about life at CMU, and Billy seemed extremely interested, asking several questions about the classes, the kinds of things he worked on, and so on. He was more animated than he’d been during their games. They were about to go back to playing another game when they heard the door to the stairs open and then footsteps start down. Jason assumed it was going to be either Gram or Billy’s grandmother, although the footsteps were coming faster than he would have expected from either of them. “Billy! Billy - are you all right?” a voice called out. Not Gram or Billy’s grandmother, Jason decided. It was a woman, but definitely much younger than Gram’s friends. The voice had a twinge of concern in it that puzzled Jason.

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Before either of them could respond, the owner of the voice skidded into the room. She was in her twenties, with a trim build and of moderate height. Her light brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was wearing shorts and a couple of long, tight t-shirts, with sandals on her feet. Her face was, well -- Jason thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, shining with a brightness that caused him to blink. “What are you guys doing?” she asked, her tone mildly suspicious. “Nothing,” Billy answered guiltily, inadvertently giving the impression that they had been up to no good. “We were playing some games, then had a snack,” Jason explained, his tone apologetic. “We were going to play another game.” The woman took this in, sizing him up with a pair of very nice eyes, a bluish-green color that Jason found entrancing. Her face eased into a smile that warmed his heart, even thought it was aimed at Billy. “Billy, aren’t you going to give your aunt a hug?” “Aww, Aunt Sydney – I’m not a kid anymore,” Billy protested. “Get over here,” she commanded, holding her arms out welcomingly. Billy dutifully allowed himself to be wrapped up in a big hug, and Jason found himself wondering what that would be like. Gram sometimes hugged him, but those were more of a polite hug, and she was his grandmother, after all – she wasn’t anything like this woman. He hadn’t wanted to be hugged by Gram’s other friends, but he thought he could make an exception for this one. “So you must be Jason,” Sydney said, after releasing Billy, who was actually blushing. She stepped forward and offered her hand. So no hug; Jason found himself oddly disappointed.

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Jason automatically took the hand, although he was sure his hand was sweating nervously. Touching her was like getting an electric shock. He found himself sorry when she released his hand. Sydney looked at her nephew. “So, Billy – your mom asked me to rescue you. Ready to go?” “We were about to play another game,” Billy protested. She seemed to consider this, and Jason found himself reluctant to see her go. If she was like Billy’s mom, she probably hated him playing games, and would yank him away. He’d never see her again. She surprised him by allowing Billy to play one more game, with a conspiratorial gleam sparking in those lovely eyes. Jason took some care in selecting the game to play. He didn’t want to pick one that had too many half-dressed women in it – even if they were the heroes – for fear of upsetting Sydney, and he wanted a game that would neither get over too quickly nor last so long that she’d get impatient. While he was deciding, she was flipping through his game collection. Suddenly she brandished a game casing, and exclaimed. “Madden 2009! Let’s play that!” Sydney proved to be pretty good. At first Jason found himself holding back with her. He was too cautious blocking or tackling her players, as though the virtual violence was somehow real – and, from surreptitious glances over at her, he doubted that he could tackle her in real life. He was better off in the virtual world. In the end Jason regained his touch, and he and Sydney ended up battling for the championship. He won, but she gave him a good run for his money. When it was over, she shook his hand. “That was fun. We’ll have to do it again.” She looked over at Billy. “Go tell your Grandma we’re ready to go. I’ll be up in a minute.”

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Billy scampered up the stairs, with a longing glance back at Jason’s game room. Sydney watched him go, then looked at Jason, who stood awkwardly, not knowing how to talk to someone like her. “Thanks for taking care of Billy,” she told him. “I don’t know what his mom was thinking sending him here! If you hadn’t bailed him out, I can’t imagine what would have happened upstairs.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile. Jason shifted his feet. “Yeah, well, I didn’t mind getting out of there too. Billy seems like a good kid.” Sydney nodded. “He is. He doesn’t have many friends, that’s all. His parents just wish he’d find something he likes.” “I think he likes playing games,” Jason ventured. She laughed. “I think that’s what they’re afraid of.” She looked around his set-up as well, taking in not just the gaming area but also the entire area. Jason found himself wondering what she thought of him, if she thought he was some strange geek. Maybe he should mention that he did games for a living; perhaps she’d find that more acceptable. He realized that she must have been afraid he’d been some kind of pervert when she rushed down, and suppressed a shudder. Now that she’d gotten to know him a little bit, did she think he was an OK guy? Did she think it was weird that he lived in his grandmother’s basement? He had never really cared or thought much about what other people thought of his situation, but now he found himself anxious that Sydney approve. He had a girl down here, he realized suddenly, causing him to blush. He had never really thought much about inviting women down here, under his grandmother’s nose, but having someone like Sydney here was beyond even his fantasies. He wanted to ask her to stay longer, to play another game, but didn’t know how to even broach the subject. Swallowing hard, he consoled himself that his voice wasn’t working too well anyway.

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Sydney appeared to have finished her quick assessment, and looked back at him. She smiled and put her hand out. “Anyway, I’m glad we met. Maybe we’ll do this again sometime.” It took all of Jason’s willpower to nod his head – although once he started he found himself bobbing furiously, like a bobble-head doll gone wild – and to grasp her hand. He held on to it for slightly too long, until she flexed her hand and pulled it away. She smiled and turned, then bounded up the stairs. Jason watched her go up the stairs. He wondered if she meant it when she said they’d have to do it again. Suddenly having people over to his home no longer seemed so objectionable.

Chapter 19 Jay had two good reasons to go to Pete’s instead of any of the other bars he knew. One was that he wasn’t likely to run into anyone he knew. There was always the small chance that he’d run into one of his dad’s old buddies, but even if so they weren’t likely to ask about Jessica. The other reason was that Pete, unlike virtually every other bartender he knew, made no effort to have a conversation. He seemed to know everyone, but he didn’t really feel it was his mission to talk to his patrons. He’d greet you when you came in, then leave you alone. He managed to stay busy behind the bar, but he could also just stand there, arms folded and impervious as a statue. Jay had often wondered what Pete was thinking about in those quiet periods, but never had the nerve to ask. Pete’s was not terribly busy when Jay came in. There were a couple of regulars at the bar, and maybe half of the tables and booths had people in them. There was a darts game going on, and a football game was on the television above the bar. Jay slid onto a stool at the bar. “Hey, College Boy,” Pete acknowledged in a quiet voice. “What are you drinking?”

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“Shot and a beer today, Pete,” he said. “How’s business?” Pete shrugged, and poured a shot of whiskey. “Not bad.” He filled a glass from the tap, and put both the whiskey and the beer in front of Jay, then backed off. Jay downed the shot, then took a sip of the beer. He wasn’t looking to get drunk, and if he was, Pete’s wasn’t the right place to be. It drew its share of hard drinkers, but Jay had to confess that he’d never seen anyone really out-of-control drunk. Pete seemed to have a way of slowing service down to anyone he deemed getting too drunk, and had no problem shutting someone off if he needed to. The other patrons sitting at the bar were regulars he recognized, and he knew they could sit there all night nursing a beer or two. At other bars they’d be encouraged to either drink more or to move along, but at Pete’s they could take their time. That’s what Jay was looking for. He wanted to sit here, a beer in front of him, and just turn off his mind. Pete’s had the nice advantage of being a social place without requiring him to be social. There was a comforting buzz of conversation in the background, from people he didn’t know talking about lives he didn’t care about. The murmur of the television added to the hubbub; he couldn’t really make out what the announcers were saying, but again he didn’t really care. He soon fell into a reverie, and was startled some time later when Jill appeared and sat down on the stool next to him, her back to the bar so she could face him. She leaned back, resting her elbows on the bar. “Hey, Jay – nice to see you,” she said with an easy smile. She looked around. “You waiting for some friends? I have a nice booth opening up over there.” She nodded towards the far wall, where a foursome was vacating a booth. Jay managed a weak smile back. “No, thanks. I’m just having a quiet evening. Save the booth for some bigger party.”

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Jill looked at him, the smile turning into something else. It didn’t quite disappear but a look of concern creased her brow, making her expression even more warm and touching. “You all right, Jay?” she asked, reaching out and putting her hand on his forearm. “Anything wrong?” Despite his self-pity, Jay felt moved. He didn’t really know much about her, not even her last name, and she couldn’t know much about him either. Still, it seemed like she genuinely cared. In another time, in a different mood, he might have found himself confessing to her, but he steeled himself to keep his armor up. “Nah, nothing like that,” he assured her, doing his best to flash her a smile. “Just came out for a drink or two.” He indicated his glass of beer, which was mysteriously almost empty. He could only remember taking a few drinks from it. Jill looked at him for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not to accept his response. Evidently she bought his story, or was letting him off the hook. She slid off the stool. “Pete,” she called out. “College Boy here needs a refill.”

By eleven the bar had quieted down considerably. The only person left at the bar had his head down and appeared to be taking a nap. The dart players had long dispersed, and Jill was closing out the one remaining group – a pair of middle-aged couples in a booth who had been talking quietly for most of the evening. Jay had been keeping an eye on them, and had made up that they were long-time friends who’d been going out together once a week for twenty, maybe thirty years, through kids, job changes, some rough patches, and had survived with their friendship intact, perhaps had survived because of their friendship. Jay felt bad that he was never going to get the chance to do that. He knew he had to go home eventually. He didn’t want to, but he knew he was going to have to go. It would be quiet there, too quiet, too dark, too full of memories. He’d walk

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into his apartment, turn on some lights, maybe turn on the television, and eventually try to go to bed, but going home would not be a comfort. Jessica wouldn’t be there, just the absence of her, and that would be a pain that he’d feel like a sharp knife. He’d had three, maybe four beers, but wasn’t really feeling the effects. He’d had a ham sandwich and some potato chips around eight, just to get something in his stomach to help absorb the alcohol. Pete didn’t offer much in the way of food, but what he served was solid. Jay played with his almost empty glass. “You want a refill?” Pete asked, noticing him. “Nah,” Jay replied. He stretched. “I should be going.” But he made no move to go. The prospect of his dark, solitary apartment was daunting. He wondered if Randy was still up. Randy would come out if he called him. Randy would go out drinking with him, sit and shoot the shit, whatever. Randy was a good friend. Jay found himself feeling a little sentimental; maybe he had a little buzz after all. But he wasn’t going to call Randy, just like he wasn’t going to call Jessica, although that is exactly what he most wanted to do. He sighed, more loudly than he intended. Jill patted the sleeping customer gently on the shoulder, calling him by name. He roused, stretched. Pete told him what his tab was, and the man pulled out some bills to cover it. Jill walked him out, holding on to his elbow to make sure he was steady. “You sure you are OK to drive, Roy?” she asked at the door. He opened the door and shook his head in the fresh air like a dog shaking water off, and assured her that he was fine. He left, and Jill stood holding the door for a second, watching him make his way to his car. She finally shrugged, closed the door behind her, and walked over to the far end of the bar, where Pete joined her. “How are you doing there, Jay?” she asked from the other end of the bar.

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It occurred to Jay that he didn’t know when Pete’s closed, especially on a Sunday night. He looked around the room, confirming that he was the last patron there. He held up his almost-finished glass. “I’ll get out of your way in a couple minutes,” he told them. “No hurry,” she assured him. Jill and Pete proceeded to have a muted conversation, heads close together and their voices low. Jay had the sense that she was asking for something – perhaps negotiating her shifts – and Pete was resistant. At last they concluded their conversation, and Jill got up. “’Night, Jay,” she called to him. “Be careful going home.” She disappeared into the back room. Jay waited to see if she would reappear, but after a few minutes it seemed unlikely that she would. He felt oddly disappointed. Jay took a last drink of his beer. Pete was washing another glass, and seemingly not paying any attention to him. If he was in a hurry to close up, it didn’t show. Jay put down the glass. “OK, Pete, what’s the damage?” Pete looked up, and told him. Jay paid him, and gave him an extra thirty dollars. “The ten is for you. Give the twenty to Jill. I feel kind of bad about not sitting at her table tonight.” Pete shook his head. “You don’t need to do that.” “It’s fine.” Pete came over and collected the money. “I’ll make sure she gets it.” Jay thought that was the end of it, and stood to leave. “You OK there, College Boy?” Pete asked gruffly, surprising him. Jay looked around quickly. “Yeah, sure, I’m fine.”

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Pete studied him, and Jay couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He nodded at Jay. “Women or money?” “What’s that?” Jay asked. “It’s one of those that usually gets guys so moody,” Pete told him, his face expressionless. “Like you. So which is it?” Jay shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just…stuff.” Pete’s expression stayed deadpan as he watched Jay. He put his hands on the bar but didn’t say anything. “It’s just--” Jay found himself saying. He paused for a few seconds, not sure what he wanted to say or how to articulate it right. He exhaled heavily, the weight of his life too heavy. “It’s just that I thought I would have more time.” His words came out softer than he intended; he wasn’t entirely sure Pete could hear him. He hadn’t expressed his loss quite like that before, but he felt time slipping away from his life like a tire with a huge puncture losing air. Pete cocked his head. “More time?” Jay knew he hadn’t explained himself well, and probably couldn’t. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Forget about it.” Pete nodded slowly, and pulled away from the bar. He eyed Jay. “You getting married? Is that it?” The words were like blows to his face, but Jay tried not to let it show. He had to wonder if Pete just had some finely tuned bartender’s sense, or if he’d overheard something about

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his engagement along the way. In any case, it didn’t really matter, not now. “No, no, I’m not getting married,” Jay said slowly, and the truth of it cut his heart out. Pete studied him, not entirely believing him but not willing to call him on it. “You’re a young man, Jay,” Pete said at last. Jay was surprised that Pete had used his name; he hadn’t been sure Pete had known it. It made Jay wonder how much Pete knew about him, and about his other customers. Probably more than anyone guessed, Jay realized. “What you don’t know yet is that there’s never enough time,” Pete continued in his quiet, deep voice, his face looking older somehow. “The years add up, and it’s always later than you think. Look at me. I’m sixty-three. I’ve got two ex-wives, a great kid, two grandkids. I was a fucking good Marine, a damn good bricklayer, and I’m a pretty fair bartender. I’ve lived a life.” He nodded his head in satisfaction, then his face drew serious again, his eyes boring into Jay’s. “But I can tell you, I’m not just waiting it out. If I’m lucky, I got ten, fifteen, maybe twenty years left.” He paused, and for the first time his gaze seemed less focused on Jay and more distant. He continued, his voice softer. “And it’s not enough. It will never be enough.” He stopped and refocused his look on Jay, his expression unreadable. “What do you mean?” Jay asked. Pete shook his head, as if frustrated. “I would have liked to spend more time with my kid, and I’d sure as hell like to see my grandkids more. I wouldn’t mind getting married again someday.” He looked around the bar. “This is my place, but I’m here seven days a week, week in, week out. I’d love to take in a game someday, maybe do a tour of all the ballparks. Someday. But there’ll never be enough time, not for everything. Never.” Jay didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what Pete was looking for from him. “It’s not the same,” he said at last.

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Pete nodded his head slowly, frowning slightly but not seeming very convinced. He seemed disappointed in some way that Jay couldn’t identify. “Whatever.” He turned away and walked towards the back room, leaving Jay to show himself out, wondering what test he’d failed.

Chapter 20 Jason spent a fair amount of time with Maurice over the next few days. He was coming in to the office two or three days a week, but he stayed in pretty good contact with Maurice even when he was working from home, mostly through instant messaging and some online collaboration. They started brainstorming about some ideas for a new game that Maurice had suggested. He wanted to do a game with World War I fighter pilots, and Jason had been dubious initially. “It’s been done. Lots of good games out there like that.” “Lots of airplane games,” Maurice had corrected. “Not like I want to do.” Maurice had gone on to explain more about his vision of the game. The planes back then had been actually pretty slow and kind of fragile, but they could turn on a dime, take off or land in a field within fifty yards. “The pilots could, like, see each other, yell insults at each other,” Maurice had reminded him. “It’s almost like hand-to-hand combat in the air. Plus, they had all these weird-looking planes, since they were still figuring out what designs worked and didn’t work. We could try a bunch of strange designs, give them different capabilities that the players have to learn and adapt to.” “You’d have to make the designs aerodynamically valid,” Jason mused, starting to think about Maurice’s idea. “I bet you could still get some radical designs.” “The pilots could feel the air going by them; they weren’t enclosed,” Maurice had gone on. “The players have to feel that, really get a sense of it. And it’s not enough that players in other planes or even players on the ground are trying to get them -- I want

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random thunderstorm or wind shears to come along and push the planes around, with nothing the pilots can do but hang on.” Jason had only been on a plane a couple times, and never a small plane, much less in an open cockpit. He’d never even been in an open convertible. Still, he started thinking how it might feel, and how he’d have to program to achieve the effect, along with the Gforces from the maneuvering. It sounded like a fun challenge. He’d bought in to the concept almost without a fight. Jason and Maurice even had lunch a couple times, sometimes talking about Maurice’s game, sometimes talking about other games. It was what they had in common. Other people in the office noticed they were acting friendly. Ryan said something snotty, so to keep the peace Jason found himself inviting Ryan and Said to lunch as well. Then he had to invite Eric to join him and Maurice in one of their brainstorming sessions, and suddenly there were three of them developing the game concept. All this time with people felt like it slowed him down, and was vaguely constraining. He couldn’t quite pin down what it might be keeping him from, but surely it was something. Even worse, once Jason started spending more time in the office, going out to lunch and such, other people in the office started noticing him more. They still were wary about coming up to talk to him when he was by himself, but if Maurice was with him their reservations seemed to melt away. He didn’t know most of their names, and wasn’t sure he wanted to, but in any event he didn’t know how he might start conversations to acquire that information. He’d just made eye contact with Maurice and look where that had led. Jason was worried that if he was too friendly all of his time would get eaten up. So he tried to avoid eye contact with the other people he ran into in the office, returned only the vaguest imitation of a smile when one was offered to him, and rushed away from the vending machines when someone came near. He was starting to get used to being in the office. He still didn’t really fit in, but he was managing to get through the days – although those days seemed to take a lot longer than

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they should. He tried to imagine it was a new game, one that he was struggling to figure out. Certainly, he rationalized, he’d get better at it, unless he got bored and gave up on it first. Jason’s time in the office both pleased and scared Rahul. At first Jason noticed him walking around looking extremely proud of himself, evidently sure that he had finally been the one to be successful in making Jason come to the office. Ironically, Jason thought, he was getting less work done than he would at home, something Rahul didn’t seem to notice. After a few days of this, though, Rahul started to seem more paranoid again, like he had been originally, especially when Jason was with Maurice. “What are you guys doing?” he asked suspiciously at one point, stopping by Jason’s desk after Maurice had walked away. “We’re working,” Jason replied, leaning back in his chair. “On what?” Jason scowled at him. “What do you think? We’ve got some ideas for a new game. Maurice has some good ideas. Didn’t you want me to work more with the other developers?” “Did you run this past Ben?” Rahul demanded. Jason just looked at him, until Rahul realized the foolishness of his question; Jason didn’t need to ask Ben’s permission, unlike anyone else. Rahul wasn’t satisfied, but couldn’t find a good reason to object. “Just make sure it’s business,” he muttered, walking away. Jason found himself considering inviting some of his coworkers over to his place to play some games and maybe talk more about Maurice’s game, but that still seemed like a big step. He didn’t mind spending more time with Maurice, much to his surprise, and he had to admit that Ryan, Eric and Said were OK too, but inviting them to his basement was

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different. The idea quickly passed, a folly that undoubtedly would have led to nothing good, he told himself. On the other hand, he wouldn’t have minded having Sydney over to his place again, but he couldn’t imagine actually inviting her. Besides which, he didn’t think there was any realistic chance she’d agree. Anyway, he consoled himself, it’s not like he had her phone number or email address. Ben Ziegler came up to his cube one day. Jason was tweaking some of his final touches on the highest level of one of their best-selling games, Zombie Zoo. The premise was that an unnamed zoo imported a new howler monkey from the Amazon that carried with it an unfortunate mutation. As might be expected from the name, after a short period of gestation, it turned into a snarling, aggressive, bloodthirsty zombie. In the first level of the game it quickly infects the rest of the monkeys, who then get out of their cages, with resulting havoc, as they infected both other animals and humans. A zombie lion is pretty much like a regular lion in terms of being scary, except they sleep less, but a zombie monkey or gorilla is a lot more terrifying than a normal one. They’re mean motherfuckers -- smart, strong and quick, not to mention cruel. Ben had chosen the theme a few years ago after a trip to Brazil, loving their loud vocalization, considered the loudest of all land animals. “Think what we can do with this,” Ben had gloated, playing the developers a sound bite. The game had gone through several versions, each upping the gruesome quotient, and Jason was trying for a few more twists. “Look, it’s the yeti!” Ben teased, standing at the entrance to Jason’s cube. “He does exist!” Jason was startled, then turned around. “Hey, Ben” he said noncommittally. Ben checked out Jason’s cubicle. “Love what you’ve done to the place, J-Man.” Ben had been to Jason’s basement a few times, although not lately, and he knew that the cubicle was not someplace Jason had much invested in.

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Jason looked around. “I thought the soul-sucking management wanted us working all the time. No time for frills.” He’d always been uncomfortable the J-Man nickname; he thought Ben meant it affectionately, but nonetheless wasn’t completely sure it wasn’t aimed at making fun of him somehow. Ben laughed easily. He’d come without his normal retinue of minions, although Jason could see a few coworkers pausing in the corridors to gawk at the presence of their CEO – not just there but talking to someone. Ben rarely talked to the developers any more, spending most of his time on business development, franchising, and other weirdly corporate things that Jason had no interest in. Ben did approve all proposals for new games or versions of existing games, and had final signoff. He was once a pretty good developer, especially with the graphics, but Jason felt those skills had eroded in the past few years. Look at him, Jason thought to himself – wearing pressed slacks and a buttondown shirt, the sleeves rolled up neatly to mid-forearm, and expensive looking shoes polished to the max. He looked like a CEO trying to pretend to be just a regular guy. He might as well be wearing a suit made out of thousand dollar bills, Jason thought sourly. “I heard you’d been coming by the office more,” Ben said, giving Jason a level gaze. “I wanted to come by and say hi.” “Hi.” Jason kept his face neutral. Ben absorbed this with an amused smile. “That’s the Jason I know,” he said proudly. He asked about Jason’s family, whom he’d met while they were at CMU, and made a point of telling Jason to tell his grandmother that he’d said hello. “I like her,” Ben told Jason with a little smile. “She doesn’t take any shit.” There was a brief pause in the conversation, which Jason felt no need to fill. He stared pointedly at Ben, who didn’t seem ruffled. “What are you working on?” Ben asked at last.

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This was a topic that Jason was comfortable with. He quickly briefed Ben on what he was doing, mentioning Maurice’s idea as well. He and Ben had enough years together that he could talk to him in a kind of shorthand that Rahul could have never followed, Ben nodding his head most of the time but offering a couple good comments that surprised Jason a little. “Good work,” Ben said, moving back away from Jason’s computer, where they had been crowded together. “I’ll have to meet this Maurice one of these days,” he said casually. “Maybe the three of us could grab some lunch.” Maybe howler monkeys will fly out of your ass, Jason thought meanly. “Yeah, sure.” Ben moved to leave. “I guess I better get going. My assistant is probably frantic about where I am.” “Yeah, mine too,” Jason said sarcastically. Ben paused by the entrance to the cubicle. “It’s good to see you, Jason,” he said in a soft voice. “It’s good to see you here,” he added meaningfully. Jason grimaced. “Whatever,” he replied, uncomfortable with the sentiment. He turned back to his computer.

He was trying to catch up on his blog one evening late in the week when he discovered Cathedral. All the time he was spending with Maurice and the others was seriously cutting into his free time. Taking his job more seriously, and allowing time for other people, didn’t allow him the luxury of time that he was used to, and testing out new games was one of the areas that had taken the biggest hit so far. He was kind of frustrated by that, but people seemed to be so happy that he was coming in the office that he wasn’t prepared to go back to his old ways, even if that had been an option, and he didn’t think it was. Twenty, maybe thirty more years of this, he reminded himself grimly.

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One of the readers of his blog sent him a link to a game, along with a user name and password. The email address was not one that he knew, but he didn’t know most of the readers of his blog, and it was pretty common that his devoted readers alerted him to new games he hadn’t heard of. Sometimes the games’ developers or owners sent the links, either openly or pretending to be fans. This email simply told him to check out the link, without any description of the game or effusive praise about it, which was unusual. He put the URL into a new browser, making sure his security settings were set high. One never knew when some asshole was going to try to slip in some nasty virus. The browser opened into an innocuous looking site, not much more than a place to login. Jason was already feeling dubious about the whole thing; the splash page showed nothing promising about the site’s design or architecture, nor did it have any marketing about the site or the game or games on it. It made him suspect that it was something pretty amateur. Despite all that, he logged in, and found himself – in a virtual sense – in a field. In the near distance was what appeared to be a small village from the Middle Ages. He could see a few signs of life – there were farmers plowing their fields, smoke was rising from somewhere in the primitive village, and he thought he could make out some villagers walking around in the village’s main drag. Unlike the landing page, though, the scene looked very realistic. His immediate thought was that this must be a sword/warrior fantasy game, perhaps with dragons or wizards. He panned around, getting a feel for his control over the environment. He found he could look around, and move in every direction. He couldn’t tell what he was in the game – he might be a person, or he could be a horse or an alien – but if he had weapons or special powers, they weren’t immediately clear. No one and nothing had seemed to have noticed his arrival. Still, nothing much seemed to be happening. He had to admit, though, that the quality of the setting was pretty good. For a mundane setting, with no action to speak of, it seemed pretty realistic. He just didn’t know what he was supposed to do next.

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He almost bailed on the game. By now, he would have expected to be attacked, or perhaps have some damsel in distress come running at him. He had plenty of other things to do in the real world, other games to test – games that had more interesting action. Still, he hated to not figure out what a game was all about. Perhaps he just hadn’t been proactive enough. He started walking towards the village. Jason realized that the quality of the scene really was very good. The sky was a deep blue, with a very realistic sun shining, as well as randomly scattered clouds, clumping together like a flock of sheep grazing in the sky. He could see the wheat or grass or whatever it was growing in the fields swaying, each stalk clear yet moving together in rhythm as the wind blew. The buildings in the village were each distinct, and each showed unique signs of age and other damage. He could hear a soft breeze, and the chirping of birds, some of whom he could see swooping over the fields. The closer he got to the village the more he started to hear sounds from humans – the hammering of a blacksmith, wagon wheels turning, indistinct conversations. Maybe it was simply a historical site, not an action game at all. Then he spotted something unusual. There were a number of impressive looking churches ringing the village. No, not churches, he realized, looking more carefully. These were cathedrals, big creations designed to shock and awe the peasants of the time. Given that this looked like a fairly small village, it didn’t make any logical sense for it to have – he did a quick count – some fifteen cathedrals adjacent to it. Several were high up on hills – one to a hill -- but a couple were by the small river, and the rest were scattered in locations whose advantages were not immediately apparent. He stopped in his tracks. Whatever was going on in the site, he was sure they were a key feature. There were too many of them to fit with the village. One, maybe even two, wouldn’t have drawn notice, but the presence of all of these indicated something was going on with them. He adjusted his direction and headed towards the closest one, set on the river on this side of the town.

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Before he knew it, he was standing outside the cathedral. He stopped and took it in. It was larger than it had seemed on his walk, as if the physical dimensions in this part of the game were different than in the rest of the site. He walked around the building. He marveled at the detail. It was made of stones, ranging from small ones about the size of bricks to larger rocks a foot or so long. Mortar bound the rocks together. It didn’t look particularly ancient, but it had weathered enough time to have slight imperfections and discolorations. The roof appeared to be thatch, coated with something to keep it in place. There was a solidity to the place. It didn’t feel, somehow, like a 2-D representation in a video game. It seemed real in some sense that he couldn’t put his finger on, more than the 3-D effects, more than just the fine detail. He noticed the gargoyles at the edge of the wall and the roof. At first he ducked involuntarily, expecting them to come alive and swoop down at his character. But they stood silent, scary yet motionless. He had made his way around, and was back at the front doors, two wide wooden doors that had intricate carvings on them. Since he didn’t know what else to do, he pushed the doors open and stepped inside. It was magnificent. The outside of the cathedral was impressive, but mostly just a big, boxy looking structure. The inside was, well, breathtaking. There were long soaring wooden eves that spanned the church. The interior was filled with small nooks and crannies, and all of the walls were filled with inscriptions. Even the floor had writing carved into it, although it appeared to be in Latin or some other archaic language and appeared worn down by centuries of feet walking over it. There were not many windows, so the lighting was supplemented by lots of candles, sitting on candlesticks positioned everywhere – sometimes singly, sometimes in mass. The combination of the light coming through the windows and the flickering light of the candles made the texture of the light uneven, murky and bright at the same time. He stepped into one of the nooks, and realized that there was a crypt inside. In fact, if Jason didn’t miss his guess, there was not only a crypt but also a few bodies were under

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the floor itself, judging from the style of the inscriptions. Neither the words nor the dates made any sense to him. Maybe this was a game where the dead rise from their graves, Jason thought. He looked at the crypt and at the floor to see if there was any obvious way to open them, any hinges or other mechanisms he could trigger, but didn’t spot them. An undead game he could play, but he still hadn’t figured out what he was, if he had arms or weapons or anything that he could use to defend himself. That was what made new games interesting and frustrating at the same time, having to have the game beat you a few times before you got the hang of it. “May I help you, my son?” Jason about jumped out of his seat. It took him a couple seconds to realize that the sound did come from his computer, and must be part of the game. He turned his character slightly, and saw the priest standing in front of him. He was dressed like the Friar from Robin Hood, his robes brown and sort of worn, not plush or fancy. Unlike Friar Tuck, though, this priest was skinny and old, maybe fifty or sixty years old, and those had evidently been hard years. Jason turned his microphone on. “Umm, yeah, I’m new here.” “I know.” The priest’s mouth spoke in excellent simulation of actual speech. “Do you have questions?” Jason panned his character around. “What happens here?” The priest looked around as well, coming back to stare at Jason’s character – and, by extension, at Jason. Even the guy’s eyes were pretty good, Jason marveled. Not quite lifelike but better than the eyes in most games. He knew how hard that was to do. “People come to enjoy the cathedrals. Much as I hope you are doing.”

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Jason was trying to decide if the priest was another player, or an avatar for the game’s help function. He decided to assume it was the latter. “Am I in danger here? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” The priest smiled. Christ, Jason swore to himself, even the guy’s teeth were done well! They looked uneven and slightly yellowed, like those of someone to whom regular dental care had been unavailable. “You are in no danger here, and you do not have to do anything.” There was something the priest wasn’t saying. Jason was sure of it. He thought for a few seconds. “The others who come,” he said slowly, working it out as he spoke. “What do they do?” The priest hugged. “Some come once, and do not return. Some come and just visit us, each of our cathedrals. They sit and contemplate, or study the cathedrals.” Jason saw the gap. “And the rest? What do they do?” The priest smiled again, happy that Jason had asked what appeared to be the right question. “Why, they build cathedrals, of course.”

Chapter 21 Jay wanted his return to work to be low key, but he didn’t quite make it. As soon as he showed up Monday morning, he could sense a buzz starting – people’s heads popping up from their cubicles, an increased murmur of conversation, an air of anticipation – that Jay couldn’t miss.

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Kathy Gouran was the first person to have the nerve to stop by. Kathy was his administrative assistant, supporting Jay and the other account executives. After Amanda had been promoted, he’d helped hire her, then had taken her under his wing, mentoring her and helping her think about her career. She had also made friends with Amanda, who had shared with her what Jay had done for her career. Kathy was in her mid-twenties, cute and blonde, with great teeth and a big smile. She was brighter than most people gave her credit for, probably because many people didn’t see past her being blonde and the fact that she was highly social. She had a bubbly personality that made people like her right away. Customers calling in for the account executives didn’t mind getting her on the phone instead – she knew how to flirt without going too far, making it fun. She flirted pretty well in person too. Kathy played on one of Jay’s softball teams, and was actually a good player, quick and full of hustle. She seemed to make sure she tagged along when the group went out for lunch or happy hour – especially if Jay was coming. He thought she might be a little interested in him, but she knew about Jessica and kept a safe distance. If only she knew Jessica was out of the picture now, Jay thought ruefully. “You’re back!” Kathy exclaimed. “Feeling better?” Jay looked up at her, not ready for casual conversation but knowing he had to start someplace. “A little.” “You still look a little peaked,” she observed. Seeing that Jay hadn’t bitten off Kathy’s head, Amanda and Charlie invited themselves over as well. “Hey, buddy,” Charlie opened with. “Glad you are back.” “Yeah, Jay – it’s not like you to just take off like that,” Amanda chimed in. “You must have been really sick.”

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In truth, Jay was kind of wiped out from his night at Pete’s – he hadn’t gotten drunk but between the drinking and the lack of sleep he wasn’t at his best – not to mention from his general emotional damage. He’d almost called in sick again but had known he had to face work sooner or later. He thought he’d perk up once he got to work and got together with people, but he still felt like he was walking around with a big hole in his heart. He just didn’t have much heart left to be social – and the day was just starting. “I’m OK,” he lied to them. “Just kind of tired.” They made small talk for a few minutes, Jay not adding much, and eventually the other three left him alone. He had the distinct impression that they thought he wasn’t himself but were cutting him some slack, which he appreciated; surely he’d feel better later in the day, or tomorrow. Surely. As he feared, he had lots of emails, both work and personal, plus a couple dozen texts and a handful of phone messages to catch up on. Randy had been the most persistent in trying to contact him, and Jay knew that was not a conversation he’d be able to defer indefinitely, but not one he was yet ready to deal with. None of the messages were from Jessica. Jay wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. He wasn’t used to going so long without being in contact with her. Still, he couldn’t have borne to see or hear what a message from her might be right now – would she plead, would she curse, would she cry? She was out of his life, and he’d been the one to put her out of it, but the pain of that separation was still too fresh. He missed her terribly. Jay muddled through the week. The day didn’t get better for him, nor the next day, or any of the following days. Randy called him at the office Monday morning, but Jay begged off talking, promising they’d catch up after their softball game Wednesday. Jay eventually forced himself to start returning calls and emails, but found it hard to summon his normal enthusiasm. He turned down offers to join coworkers for lunch or coffee runs,

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telling people that he was still recovering, and that kept their sympathy. He wondered how long it would be before they got suspicious. One of the emails he saw concerned the sale of their supply chain software to a big trucking company. He’d been working with Mike Trico, the salesman, on the company for a couple years, helping with the RFP, doing a couple client presentations with Mike, and working with him on the strategy. He and Mike had worked well together on several good sales over the years, with Mike doing the initial sale then transitioning to Jay for the account services. This account was a great sale, and would bring in lots of incentive payments for Jay and his team for a couple years. It was the first thing that had perked him up in the least since his bad news. As soon as he saw the note he called Mike. “Mike, I saw the news about PM Trucking. Great sale!” “Uh, hi, Jay,” Mike replied. Jay thought that Mike didn’t sound as excited as he expected, but attributed that to his own lack of energy. He figured he must be projecting it on Mike. “We should get together to start talking about implementation.” Mike was silent, and a little alarm bell started going off in Jay’s head. “What is it?” he asked. “Jay – it all came to a head on Friday, when you were out. I couldn’t reach you anywhere. I talked to Scott, and he told me I should work with Kurt. He said that Kurt was going to be the AE. I told him I wanted to work with you, but he was pretty insistent. What was I going to do?” Mike sounded defensive. Jay took this in for a few seconds. Kurt had been angling for Jay’s clients for some time now, and must have been watching for an opening like this. Leave it to Kurt to take advantage of someone being sick to take someone’s account. If he knew Jay was

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terminal he’d really go to town. Scott was, well -- Scott wasn’t the firmest guy in the world. Kurt must have steamrolled him. Ordinarily Jay would have blown up, confronted Kurt and Scott, and not let this go unchallenged. Now, though – what was the point? “It’s OK, Mike. We’ll do another one together,” he said in a soothing voice, feeling resigned to the loss and not really believing he’d get another chance with Mike. Mike was glad to get off the hook. Josephs came by later in the day to gloat, in the form of pretending to see how he was doing. He made it sound like taking over PM Trucking had been Scott’s decision, said some nice things about the work Jay had done to help with the sale, but Jay had the sense that Josephs was eyeing his desk to see if there were other things he could steal as well. He knew he should stand up and go head-to-head with Josephs, intimidate him, let him know that he wasn’t going to put up with this kind of shit. You let a bully take something from you and he’ll never stop, not until you stand up to him. Jay knew all this but right now he just didn’t care enough to deal with it. “Congratulations, Kurt,” was all he said.

After the softball game Wednesday he and Randy stood by their cars after everyone else had dispersed. Their team had pulled out a win, but not due to any of Jay’s performance. He’d struck out or ground out at his at-bats, and had missed catching a hit that he normally would have gotten. The game had just had too much down time; in between the action it was too easy to start thinking about better days, and he found himself distracted. Basketball would have been better; no time for thinking. “C’mon,” Randy urged, as the two of them stood in the parking lot after the game. The sky was bright orange from the setting sun, and the lights on the adjoining fields made the scene look like a low-rent movie set. “Let’s go get some wings and a beer.”

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“Not tonight.” Randy looked at him expectantly. “It’s me, man. How are you doing?” Jay shrugged. “I’ve been better.” He looked away to the action on one of the neighboring fields. “Your head all right?” Jay shook his head. “It’s not that.” Randy watched him sympathetically. “It’s got to be hanging over you.” Jay shrugged again, still looking away. They were silent for a couple minutes. The teams on the adjoining field were talking trash to each other, and the small crowd was also vocal, cheering their spouses or boyfriends/girlfriends on. People were happy. If their game had been like that, Jay had been oblivious. Finally he had to ask. “How is she doing?” His voice broke. He could tell Randy was watching him closely, but dared not look. “She’s hanging in there,” Randy replied at last. “It’s been a rough couple of days.” It wasn’t what Jay wanted to hear, but he didn’t know what he did want to hear. He turned to Randy. “You know I’m sorry, don’t you? I never would have hurt her if I had any other choice.” Randy nodded sadly. “I know.”

By the end of the week, the rumors were starting that something had happened between him and Jessica. No one came to ask him directly, but he overheard enough whispered

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conversations, seen enough people stop talking when he walked by. He figured either he was getting fired or they suspected he’d broken up with Jessica. It wouldn’t be too hard for them to piece together. In a normal day, he’d talk to or text with her several times, and his conversations with his coworkers would include updates on her or things they had done lately. Now, though, not only were those things not happening, but he was avoiding hanging out with them at all. If it had been someone else, he’d have pinned it on a breakup as well. “Jay – see you at happy hour?” Amanda asked, sidling up to his cubicle as he packed up. “No, not tonight.” Most weeks Jay not only attended happy hour, but also often was the instigator – picking the place, cajoling people to come. Jessica had sometimes met him at the chosen location. Just two weeks ago she’d joined them for what had ended up as a karaoke evening. They did a duet to a hip-hop song that Jay hadn’t known then and still didn’t know. They had been comically bad, and had given them something new to tease each other about. She stood there, wanting to ask him something else but apparently not ready to attack it directly. She took a different tack. “Big plans for the weekend?” He paused. “No,” he said, struggling to keep his voice from getting emotional. “I guess I’m still recovering.” In point of fact, the weekend loomed over him like a vast wasteland of time. He didn’t want to be alone but couldn’t bear to be with anyone; spending time with anyone would eventually mean the topic of Jessica would come up. And he thought that would break his heart all over again. “If you don’t mind my saying so – you don’t look too good, boss,” Amanda told him with obvious concern. In fact, he didn’t look like his normal self. For one thing, he had dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t been sleeping well at all. He missed having Jessica right next to him.

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Sleeping without her was like sleeping without an arm or a leg. And he knew that his missing part was matched by the corresponding part at Jessica’s. He suspected she wasn’t sleeping any better than he was, which made it all the worse. Jay also simply wasn’t smiling much lately, which people weren’t used to and threw them for a loop, although they might not realize that was the thing that was different about him. But, most of all, he seemed smaller somehow, as if his having pulled back in his shell emotionally had made him physically smaller too. He kept worrying about someone asking him the wrong thing, asking about a topic he could not bring himself to discuss, and his wariness about that gave off a vibe that practically shouted “stay away” – and people had listened to that little voice. Jay didn’t know how to respond, so he just shrugged helplessly, unable to meet her eyes. He looked away so she wouldn’t see his eyes watering. “Jay, if you ever want to talk, you know I’m there for you,” Amanda offered in a soft voice. Jay could tell she meant it, but he wasn’t going to – couldn’t -- put this burden on her. “Thanks, Amanda,” he told her, trying to pull himself together. “I’ll remember that.” She seemed disappointed that he hadn’t taken her up on her offer, and for a second Jay feared she’d press him on it. But instead she’d given him a puzzled look, and simply walked off; Jay felt sure he’d disappointed her. Something else to feel bad about, he thought glumly.

Jay made his escape from work, and slowly drove home. At least at work there were other people around, and he could talk about safe topics, like things that had to be done for their accounts. Being at home was like a small death, and he dreaded it. He’d been staying late at work all week, finding little tasks to keep him occupied. He wasn’t used to being at home alone. His apartment had been more of a way station to Jessica’s, serving as a quasi-storage unit for his stuff. So this week he’d been staying late at work, then stopping someplace on the way home where he could get something to eat at the bar, then

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nurse a drink for another hour or two. He wasn’t drinking so much as he needed a place where he could be alone with other people. He’d thought that time would heal his wounds, that the shocking pain of not having Jessica would gradually diminish. Most pains do. Instead, though, the week had been interminable. Each day without her was harder than the last, each moment of not hearing her voice or knowing how she was doing was less bearable than the moment before. It was a slow torture. He’d read once of a torture where the captors would place a prisoner above a sharpened bamboo plant, and have it slowly but inexorably grown into the prisoner’s body. It wouldn’t immediately kill the prisoner but each moment brought more agonizing pain. Being without Jessica was like that. He pulled into his parking space. It took him a few moments to summon the will to unbuckle his seat belt and get out of the car, dragging himself up and out like a creaky old man. Jay slowly walked to his doorway, only to see someone sitting in the hall outside his door. A sense of dread filled his heart, and the dull pounding in his head turned to a symphony of drums banging as he recognized the person now scrambling to stand up. He stopped dead in his tracks. “Jessica?” he said weakly.

Chapter 22 “Look at Ryan over there,” Jason said in surprise, as he watched Ryan talk to Megan. He was sitting with Jamal and Maurice at happy hour with the CS Games gang. It was the third Friday in a row that he’d gone to happy hour, and, like the earlier times, he was ending up talking to the Shanks brothers rather than the rest of the crew. Surprisingly, he was finding that he didn’t hate these outings. That is not to say that he felt he fit in any better, or that he enjoyed them, but not hating them was a revelation to

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him. He didn’t feel any pressure from the Shanks to try to be cool, or even to be talkative. He could just sit with them and watch, listen to Maurice’s running commentary on the action around them or on the state of the world generally, and their accepting his presence made him feel like he wasn’t a total misfit. It was like going on a bathysphere in the ocean depths with Jacques Cousteau and his team – well, back when Cousteau was still alive. The environment was deadly and filled with strange and bizarre creatures, but he could feel safe with his expert guides. He could stand about an hour of it, which worked out to be about as long as it seemed to take for Jamal to finish his beer. After that the urge to flee, to get back to his solitary life and leave these social animals to their world, got too strong. Maurice and Jamal alternated choice of where they’d go on their Friday night outings, and the previous Friday it had been Jamal’s turn to choose the place. He’d selected a bar near his work, a small place that was definitely not part of a chain and where people weren’t going for the food. Jason hadn’t realized where they were going when Maurice had said something about happy hour, and had almost backed out when he realized it was just going to be the three of them in some strange bar. Failing to think up a good enough excuse to back out, and curiously reluctant to disappoint Maurice, he’d followed Maurice’s car to a neighborhood that he didn’t know and didn’t feel very comfortable in. The bar looked like it had been there a while, and was generally worn down, but was pretty full. There was a trio playing what Jason gathered was jazz of some sort and a constant hum of conversation from the crowd, but the background noise wasn’t so loud that conversation was impossible, especially between sets. Jason had been one of the few white faces among the clientele, and certainly the only white face without tattoos. Maurice had noticed Jason’s discomfort, and had been mildly amused. “Not too comfortable with black folks, eh, Jason?” “I’m not too comfortable with any people,” Jason had responded truthfully. Maurice had laughed somewhat gleefully, while Jamal just tilted his head and reflected on Jason’s existence.

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This week they were back at the usual CS Games hangout, which featured its usual mixture of families eating dinner in the restaurant area and a bunch of young techies searching for some safe action in the bar. It wasn’t a wild crowd, but the bar crowd was wilder than it would be in smaller numbers. There was enough critical mass, and enough alcohol, to loosen some of their normal inhibitions. Jason’s headache was pretty bad, and not that long ago it would have caused him to hole up in bed or to find a new doctor, but now that he knew it was just psychological he was determined to not let it rule him. “He actually thinks he has a chance with her!” Jason said in amazement. He thought Megan was way of Ryan’s league, but even he could tell that Ryan’s interaction with Megan indicated he was very interested in her. He was less sure if Megan reciprocated, but at least she wasn’t sending Ryan away. Jamal seemed more interested in his beer than in whatever Ryan might be up to, but Maurice snickered. “I told you, he’s been trying to hit that for a while now.” Jason seemed unfamiliar with the expression – why would Ryan want to hit Megan? Could it be some form of mating ritual? – but he let it slide. “Poor guy.” Maurice looked over at Jason with mock surprise. “You kidding? Ryan’s as good as in with Megan.” Jason furrowed his brow. “Are we taking about the same Ryan? Goofy guy? Big nerd like me?” “That’s the one,” Maurice replied, turning his attention back to Ryan. “See – he’s got her laughing. That’s a good start.” Jason was having a hard time digesting this. “Ryan knows how to talk to girls?”

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Maurice turned back to Jason, amazed at his apparent ignorance. “Dude, Ryan always has a girlfriend. Sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for a weekend. But he does pretty well.” He peered intently at Jason. “I thought he was a friend of yours.” “Kind of,” Jason protested weakly. He was struggling with the notion that Ryan was good with women. “We never really talked about it. I, I just assumed he was like the rest of us – bad with girls.” “Well, speak for yourself,” Maurice said haughtily. Jamal laughed. He evidently had been listening after all. “Baby brother loves the women.” He looked up with an approving smile. He was nursing his bottle of beer. Each of the prior weeks Jason had been surprised that Jamal would go out, yet only have one drink. He seemed to savor just sitting there with a beer in front of him. He wasn’t much of a talker, although he wasn’t sullen or withdrawn. He just spoke sparingly. Even at his bar last week, he had been quiet – smiling and exchanging a few words with people he knew when they approached, but never getting into long conversations. Left to their own devices, Jason and Jamal might sit there forever without exchanging words, not out of any antipathy but simply because they didn’t feel the need to fill the quiet with sound. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective – Maurice more than made up for their reticence. He had no trouble chattering away, sharing his insights and, as his mood struck, pushing them into responding. “Now, of course, when it comes right down to it, though – he ain’t no better with girls than you are,” Jamal told Jason. He chucked. “Hey, bro!” Maurice objected, his face crestfallen. “Now, now, baby brother,” Jamal chided gently. “You’ll do just fine. Mom will keep setting you up until she finds you a nice girl.” He looked around to indicate the crowd around them. “You and I both know picking up someone here isn’t your game, much as you’d like it to be.” Maurice looked resigned but did not protest further.

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Jason chewed on his lip. “What about Eric, or Said?” Ryan’s ability to talk to women had changed the world that he lived in, and he wanted to see how far these changes went. “You really don’t know these guys at all, do you?” Maurice teased, his spirits lifted again. He was not one to stay quiet long. Maurice smiled broadly and shook his head in amused disbelief. “Said is married, with a kid. He’s maybe two. The wife and the kid are back in India. Eric is dating a cute chick from Advertising.” He nodded at the bar, where Ryan was finally getting to buy Megan a drink. “He got together with her at one of these.” “How do you know all this stuff?” Jason asked in puzzlement. Maurice shrugged in false modesty. “People talk. You just gotta pay attention. I spotted Ryan getting Megan sodas at work a couple months ago. Said has pictures of his wife and kid on his desk.” He shook his head. “It’s not really that hard.” Jason looked at his coworkers at the bar. “I’ll never get this stuff.” Jamal gave Jason an inquiring look. “You aren’t a virgin, are you, man?” Jason blushed, surprised at Jamal’s blunt question, which seemed to come out of the blue. “No,” he stammered out. “Of course not.” In point of fact, he was not. He had been with a total of two women, and the total times he’d actually had sex with them could be counted on one hand. The first had been in college. She’d been a girl in his dorm. There’d been a floor party that his roommate had dragged him to, and somehow this particular girl had attached herself to him. She was a plain girl, kind of shy and without many friends. She’d had a lot to drink, and was clearly amorous. Jason had not been drunk. He’d felt guilty about not stopping her advances, but he was desperately horny, and his high school and college experiences to

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date hadn’t suggested he was going to get many chances. So when she maneuvered him back to her room he allowed it to happen. Unfortunately, “it” was over all too quickly, before she really noticed, and he left feeling more embarrassed than relieved. He had never been sure that the girl even remembered the incident; she never made eye contact again, and he never had the nerve to approach her. His second girlfriend, as it were, was more serious. Neelam was a fellow graduate student, coming to CMU from India. He found her quite bright – and very attractive. She was a dedicated student, studiously paying attention in class and working hard. She seemed very shy, yet allowed a dazzling smile to escape in his direction on rare occasions. He began to attend the class they shared more rigorously, and even joined a study group she was in just to spend some time with her. Over a period of a few months they began to do little things together – getting sodas or snacks, then lunches, and finally going to out to dinner. In the last week before graduation they finally shared a kiss as he said goodnight at her apartment. She invited him over to her apartment the following night, when he discovered that her intent was seduction. He didn’t need much seducing. Neelam was even shyer physically than socially; she insisted on turning the lights out, and only removed the last of her clothes under the covers. That was fine with Jason, who was pretty self-conscious about his own body. Their first time was quick and fairly awkward; he didn’t think she was a virgin, but neither of them knew quite what they were doing. Jason felt encouraged that she didn’t seem to mind, or even notice, his inexperience. They made love a couple more times over the course of that weekend, getting fairly comfortable with each other and enjoying the sex. He was awe-struck at her body, which was thin without being skinny. She continued to insist on only fully disrobing in the dark, but allowed him to touch her freely once under the covers. He kept tenderly caressing her, exploring her body. He savored how soft her skin felt and the simple fact that he could touch her anywhere he wanted. She made small noises of pleasure when he touched her, which got him even more excited. He didn’t even notice that she didn’t seem as interested in exploring his body.

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Jason thought he was madly in love with Neelam, but her family came for her graduation a few days later, and whatever had happened with them was over. In front of her family she acted as though he was just another student in her program – and he could never get her alone to find out if that was case or what had happened between them. Neelam moved back to India without him knowing if he had just been her American fling, or if he had just waited too long. He still kicked himself mentally about it. Since CMU he’d been in a dry spell. Spending time alone waiting to die is not a great prescription for dating success, or for dating at all. He didn’t think the women of the world were rueing his absence from the dating scene. Maurice and Jamal exchanged a glance. Maurice started to smirk, but Jamal patted his forearm, silently chiding him to be more tolerant. “Nah, man, our boy here is just having a little crisis of confidence, that’s all.” Jason hung his head forlornly. “Women just aren’t interested in me,” he told them. He looked up at Maurice with an almost accusatory expression. “You have a girlfriend too?” “Well, not at the moment,” Maurice admitted. He looked around the room slyly. “But the night is young.” “J-Man, why do you think women wouldn’t be interested in you?” Jamal asked kindly. Maurice had overheard Ben calling him that, passed it along to Jamal, who had smiled and immediately adopted it. Somehow, Jason didn’t mind it when Jamal said it. “Why would they be? Look at me versus, well, guys like that.” He pointed to a group of guys – not from CS Games -- standing at the bar chatting up some attractive women who had come with them. The guys were in their element, with an air of arrogance that bespoke prior success. Their physiques indicated regular workouts, their clothes flashed money, and their smiles revealed perfect white teeth. Jason couldn’t imagine what those

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kind of guys would talk about, but whatever it was, the women around them seemed interested. “Hah,” Jamal guffawed. “You could take women away from any of them.” Jason gave him a disbelieving look. “You must be kidding.” Jamal shook his head. He eyed Jason carefully. “You’re a good looking dude, man,” he judged at last, his face serious. Jason made a face of disbelief. “Now I know you’re kidding me.” He looked at the confident, well-muscled guys at the bar, who not only were good looking but knew it. He felt like an evolutionary dead end. Jamal laughed. “Whatever. It doesn’t really matter -- women look for the sensitive, funny, smart guys. They date those guys but they end up with guys like you.” He thought for a moment. “You can be funny, right?” It wasn’t something Jason thought much about. He wasn’t a joke-telling kind of guy, and what he thought was funny in his game touches had proven to not always carry over well with others. “I suppose so,” he said dubiously, watching the men accumulate more stray women, like a swarm of asteroids gathering in orbit around the sun. He didn’t see any sensitive guys walking away with any of the women. “J-Man, women are creatures of great beauty, mystery, and generosity,” Jamal told him solemnly. “They grace us with their presence for reasons we never quite understand. We’re never quite good enough for them, but somehow they forgive us.” “Why do they do it?”

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Jamal shrugged. “Evolution. They want men, men want them, and they make little babies and the whole thing starts over.” Jamal looked at him seriously. “See, the thing you got to remember is women want sex. At least women your age.” Jason barked out a quick laugh; he assumed Jamal was kidding him. “Not with me.” Jamal shook his head, his face still serious. He asked Jason how old he was, and nodded at what Jason told him. “See, women about your age are at their peak. You’ll still be attracted to women this age when you’re old and got no teeth yet. Ten years ago you’d have been too young for them, and in ten years or so you’ll start being too old, unless you got lots of money. But, right now, you’re just the right age. You got to understand, women in their twenties and thirties, they’re biologically designed to have babies. Women in their teens too, but you better stay away from them. You’re at the right age, you’re giving off the right look or smell or whatever, but they’re going to want you. It’s all hormones and genes and all that. They can’t help it.” “Not all women want babies,” Maurice objected. “They do but they don’t always know it. They want to have babies, so nature has worked it out that if you have sex enough, you have babies. Their heads just don’t always know why they want sex, but they do know they want it.” “Yeah, but they still don’t want it with me,” Jason mumbled, feeling bad for himself. He looked longingly again at the attractive men and women at the bar. He assumed they were all going to go home and have sex. Probably Maurice and Jamal would each go their homes and have sex with their women too. He’d be the only one in the world not getting any. Jamal nodded, not in agreement but in understanding. “Man, look at me. I’m married, and women hit on me all the time. Hell, why else do you think I hang out with you dudes

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instead of drinking alone someplace? Too dangerous -- my wife would kill me otherwise!” Jason wasn’t sure if Jamal was kidding or telling the truth; he hoped Jamal wasn’t using him just to stay out of trouble with his wife, but he wasn’t sure. He shook his head vigorously. “Yeah, but you’re a good looking guy.” Plus, Jason thought, Jamal had that quiet confidence that he suspected was even more appealing to most women than the hearty bluster the guys at the bar displayed. Jamal tapped his beer bottle on the table a couple times. “Jason, I’m a poor black man. I live in a little house, drive a cheap car.” “Your car is da bomb!” Maurice objected. “It’s a cheap car that I did some work on,” Jamal corrected him. “But it ain’t no Rolls Royce.” Jason had seen Jamal’s car. He didn’t know much about cars, but he had to agree it was pretty cool. Jamal had taken a basic America car – Jason wasn’t sure if it was a Chevy or a Ford – and had essentially rebuilt it. It no longer looked like a suburban ferry. It looked and sounded like – well, to Jason it was the mechanical version of a tiger, sleek, powerful, and when it made its throaty growl you knew you better get out of the way or it would eat you up. Jason had always viewed people who were clueless about computers very dismissively, but he felt in awe of how Jamal could have done all this by himself. “And your house is cool,” Maurice persisted. Jamal gave Maurice a warning look. He looked back at Jason. “The point is, I never went to college, I don’t make much money, and I don’t have a job where I’m ever going to make much money. That’s what women are supposed to want, right? So why do I have a wife and kids, and have to sit here with you two computer geniuses to stay out of trouble with women?”

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Jason looked at Maurice for help, but Maurice just snickered. Jason looked back at Jamal. “Because you like us?” Jamal took a short sip of beer, and nodded his head. “Well, sure I do,” he said after a time. “Look. You got a job?” Jason was confused. “Of course I do. You know that.” “You got a car?” Jason nodded. “You got a place to live of your own?” “I live with my grandmother.” Jason caught the dismayed expression that briefly crossed Jamal’s face. “I live in the basement. It’s like, totally separate.” “Uh-huh,” Jamal said noncommittally. He eyed Jason skeptically, then continued. “You got a prison record?” Jason’s face showed his astonishment. “No! Of course not. Why would you ask that?” Jamal raised a hand to stop Jason’s objections. “So, listen man: a job, a car, a place of your own – sort of – and no prison record. Where I come from, you’re the prize catch. Women would be flocking all over you.” Maurice laughed, and Jamal let a smile slip across his face. Jason studied them, waiting for their amusement to subside. “All evidence to the contrary,” he noted, gesturing with his hand towards the women surrounding the pretty

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boys at the bar. “How am I going to get women interested in me instead of guys like that?” It was a breakthrough of sorts that Jason even despaired about attracting women; he’d sort of given up so much on the notion that he hadn’t bothered to even feel bad about it. Jamal was giving him faint hope about the prospect, which had revived his despair. It was progress of sorts. Jamal chuckled and shook his head. He took another short sip of beer. “Well, you’re not going to get every woman interested in you. All it takes is one, just one. You never know where that lightening will strike.” He shook his head again. “Besides, J-Man, this is a place for sightseeing, not hunting. You don’t want to meet women in places like this. That ain’t your game. Guys like you meet women at work, or friends introduce you. At church. Places like that.” “I don’t go to church,” Jason noted, but only half-heartedly. He was too busy taking in what Jamal had said. He’d already met a woman he was interested in, and it wasn’t in a place like this. “There’s chicks at work who dig you,” Maurice offered. Both Jason and Jamal looked at him, Jason’s face expressing the most surprise. “There are? Like who?” “Sure. Let’s see. Usha has had a crush on you for a while, and Becky has been asking about you lately.” He nodded towards Becky, who was with a few others from CS Games standing at the bar. Jason had worked with Usha on a project a few months ago, although mostly virtually. He was pretty sure he’d met her, but couldn’t pull up a definite mental image. Perhaps if he saw her he might remember her. His impression of her was that she was friendly yet

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deferential, to the point he’d had to prod her to critique his work. Her own work was solid but unspectacular. Becky, on the other hand -- he knew her by sight and by reputation, but had never had the nerve to speak to her. She was a graphic designer of some good reputation, and an even better reputation among his fellow developers for being both brash and very cute. He’d once noticed, when she was bending over with her back to him, that she had a tattoo on her lower back, and he thought she had at least one other one, on her neck. As a result, she totally intimidated him. Talking to women was scary enough under the best of circumstances, but talking to a woman with a tattoo – it was unthinkable. “Why would they be interested in me?” he asked, honestly bewildered. “Because you’re like, the mystery man,” Maurice offered. “Until lately, no one ever really saw you. You’re buddies with Ben – helped start the damn company – you write incredible code, you have the coolest gaming blog on the planet – and no one knows you.” “Like the Wizard of Oz,” Jamal murmured. Maurice nodded in agreement. “So, now you got this air of intrigue going for you. Women love that shit.” “Like Becky,” Maurice added. Jason looked out at the crowd at the bar, eying Becky in particular. He wondered if there were any more tattoos he should know about. As intriguing as Jamal’s assertion was, it seemed implausible that any of the women up there might be interested in him. They still seemed like a different species somehow, but perhaps not such a distant species as he used to think. Being here didn’t seem natural, and wasn’t something he would do alone, but sitting here with Jamal and Maurice made it tolerable. Maybe something more than that. “You can practice on these women,” Maurice teased. “Just go up to one of them and start talking. Go talk to Becky, for Christ’s sake. Offer to buy her a drink. Tell her you like her outfit. Better yet, tell her you like her eyes.”

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Jason took a few seconds to respond. Maurice and Jamal could be excused for thinking he was surveying the field, working up his nerve. “So, Romeo, got your eye on anyone?” Jamal asked. “I might,” he said absently. He turned back to his two friends. “I just might.”

Chapter 23 Jessica looked tired but determined. Her hair was pulled up and she was dressed in a grey pantsuit that Jay had always liked; she must have come directly from work. The jacket was open, revealing the frilly white blouse beneath it. Jay was always glad he didn’t work with her, because there’d be no way he’d be able to keep his eyes off her. He’d always wondered if her coworkers had the same problem, and it had always given him such a sense of pride that she’d chosen him instead of anyone else. Now Jay eyed her warily, at once thrilled and terrified to see her. He wished he knew what she wanted, but he was afraid to find out, fearing she’d ask him for things he couldn’t give her. Jessica finally broke the silence. She nodded towards the door. “Could we talk for a few minutes?” Jay shook himself out of her reverie. Jessica had her own key to his apartment, of course, but clearly felt it was no longer someplace she could just enter. That was probably for the best, Jay thought sadly; he might have had a heart attack had he opened his door to find her inside. It was hard enough seeing her waiting outside. “Sure, sure,” he said, taking out his keys and moving to unlock the door, all the while thinking this was a big mistake. He knew he should stop this right now, turn her away before they could start a conversation, but he was powerless to resist her entreaty. He ushered Jessica in, watching her move slowly past him into the apartment and taking in everything about her

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presence -- how she looked, how she smelled, how she moved when she walked. It was intoxicating, like an addict getting an overdose after having been on the wagon. His apartment had seen better days. Jay was not a great housekeeper to begin with – Jess had usually ended up “helping” him clean up – and, after his initial attempt at cleaning up, in the last couple of weeks the apartment had accumulated some of the new debris of his life. It was a mess, to put it mildly. Half-empty pizza boxes, beer bottles, and Chinese take-out boxes were scattered in both expected and unexpected places. Jay found himself gathering up a few in a belated attempt to make the place more presentable. He discretely deposited them in the kitchen. Oblivious to his housekeeping efforts, Jessica wandered into the living room, holding whatever observations she might have to herself. “Want to sit down?” he asked, gesturing to the sitting area in front of the big screen TV. She shook her head and stood, instead, near his desk. She stood there silently and Jay realized that she must realize that all the photos of her were now gone. Pictures from vacations, candid shots of her, scenes of the two of them mugging for the camera or giving each other a kiss or a hug. They’d been touching in almost every photo. She’d know exactly where each of them had been situated the last time she’d been here, and she’d know he’d removed them. She couldn’t know, not really, if he’d removed them because he was truly cutting her out of his life or because their presence was too painful, but the fact that he’d done nothing to replace them might give her a clue. She could use this to hurt him, which he would deserve, or perhaps as part of a campaign to try to reconcile with him. It all depended on what she was there for. Jay was in no hurry to find out. Seeing her was as hard as he’d feared. She looked so beautiful, so fragile yet so strong. Having her near was like having his missing half back again – almost. This wall of silence was still between them, and he had built it.

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If she turned around and begged him to come back to her, he knew he’d give in. It had been so hard to break up with her. Despite knowing intellectually why he’d done it and that it was the right thing to do, he simply was not strong enough to resist her should she plead to get back together. It would be even worse if she were to start crying. He’d have no choice but to move to comfort her, to put his arms around her and hold her, and once that happened he’d crumble, would beg her to forgive him and take him back. In fact, he was finding it hard to think of anything she might say or do that wouldn’t cause him to reverse course and agree to get back together with her. It was simultaneously what he most wanted, yet could least afford to have happen. The pounding in his head reminded him of what was at stake. Oh, Lord, he thought to himself, let her forgive me, then You can go ahead and take me, he prayed silently. But that wasn’t going to happen, he thought grimly. He had to watch out for her himself, not leave it to fate and not worry about the consequences to her once he was gone. He had to be strong. So, if he was going to pray, he thought, it should be that she turn around and scream at him, tell him what a terrible jerk he was. She could say anything bad about him and he’d deserve it, just as long as she didn’t ask him to reconsider. His heart almost stopped in anticipation when she actually did turn and face him. Her eyes were red; she wasn’t crying at the moment, although she appeared close to it, but there had been crying in her immediate past, possibly as recently as when she’d been sitting in her car in his parking lot. “It’s been a tough couple of weeks,” she admitted, not quite meeting his eyes. “Me too,” he said haltingly. She brought her eyes up to his and took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking and thinking, trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.”

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It was all real, he wanted to tell her. More real than she knew, more real than he could ever say. But Jay stayed silent. “I tried to see if I could pinpoint where things went wrong,” she continued, breaking off eye contact. Her voice sounded strained, like she was trying to stay in control but it was a battle. She hung her head slightly downcast. “But I couldn’t,” she finished, her voice trailing off. Again, Jay was at a loss. Seeing that she didn’t seem inclined to go on, he felt compelled to say something. “It wasn’t anything you did,” he told her in a low voice. “It wasn’t anything about you.” Jessica laughed bitterly. “It had something to do with me, didn’t you think? I mean, I was part of us.” Jay shook his head in frustration, but held his tongue; anything he might say threatened to push him down the slippery slope towards reconciliation. Jessica straightened her shoulders, as though strengthening her resolve. She looked at him intently. “Just don’t tell me you didn’t love me,” she said fiercely, her pain now mixed with some rage. Jay was dumbstruck. Jessica took a half-step closer to him. She pointed a finger at him. “And don’t tell me that you didn’t know I loved you,” she continued, her voice low but powerful and trembling with emotion. She poked him in the chest for emphasis. “Don’t tell me that you didn’t know that no one will ever love you the way that I do – did.” She faltered at the tense of the last two words. Her eyes teared up but she held herself sternly together, resisting the need to cry.

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“I know all that,” Jay admitted in a hoarse voice. She was so close. A half-step of his own, and he’d have his arms around her. The walls would fall and they’d be back together. It’d be bliss, he thought wistfully. Right until he croaked in the middle of something and broke her heart again, this time for good. I want you to have a long and happy life, he wanted to tell her. I wanted to give you that. I know no one could love me like you do, and, as much as I want you to be happy after I’m gone, I know no one will ever love you like I do. Jay wanted to say those all those words, but he couldn’t. Without really meaning to, he took a short step back. Jessica caught the move, and recovered herself. She took it as evidence that he was still distancing himself from her emotionally. She nodded her head, more to herself than at him; Jay had unwittingly confirmed that her fears about him were true. “Don’t do this, Jay,” she urged in a small voice, husky with emotion. “If you end it with us like this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” Her eyes searched his, pleading. He already knew that; the only saving grace was that the end of his life would come much sooner, and much differently, than she was imagining. He could not speak, and she soon realized he was not going to. She shook her head in dismay, and her face hardened. “You’re being a coward, Jay. I’ve never known you to be a coward.” Her face softened. “Don’t give up. Let’s make this work.” It took all of Jay’s strength to not give in. He thought it so unfair that what she was viewing as cowardice was him trying to be brave by protecting her, but it took more willpower than he knew he had not to give in. “I can’t, Jess,” he muttered haltingly. “I wish I could. I really do.” Her face fell, disappointed and crushed in a way he’d never seen before and that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life, however short or long that might prove to be. “I

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just wanted to make sure you knew,” she told him firmly, steeling her resolve. She stared at his face as though trying to make sure he was the same person she’d known, or trying to memorize it in case she never saw it again. A cloud came over her face. “You’re breaking my heart,” she said, choking on the words. With that she rushed by him and left the apartment. Jay wanted to run after her, tell her that he still loved her, explain why he’d acted the way he had. Every fiber of his being demanded action, pleaded for him to ease her pain and to get her back. He inadvertently started forward, but ruthlessly stopped himself. “Be a man,” he admonished himself. “Think about her pain, not yours. Think about sparing her the pain she’d feel if we did get together. She deserves better. Let her deal with the grief of breaking up, not of being a widow.” Jay didn’t go to the window to watch her drive away. His eyes would have been too full of tears to make out her car in the twilight anyway. He thought about her last words, and knew that the worst of it was that her heart was still breaking; there was yet more pain she’d have to go through. He wanted her to go through this rough patch and on to her next life, her true destiny that wouldn’t include him. He didn’t know that she sat in her car for an hour, sobbing in frustration and pain.

Chapter 24 Jason sat in his car outside a community center on the east side of town. It was an older residential neighborhood, within the city limits but with a definite suburban feel of its own. The houses were mainly built in the thirties and forties, smaller but more quaint and individualized than more modern houses. There was a little downtown area of its own, like a little town, with a few restaurants and useless gift shops. It was the kind of community that young professionals migrated to, at least until they had kids or until the kids got old enough to start worrying about high school. Then they moved to the suburbs

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and some other, younger version of them swept in to take their house and redecorate it to their own tastes. He was here because Sydney was giving a class. It was titled “Introduction to Yoga,” and supposedly was for people who had never taken a yoga class. That universe certainly included Jason. Jason didn’t like to think he was a stalker, but searching the Web for information about Sydney hadn’t seemed intrusive. He learned that she didn’t own either a home or a landline, but he’d found her address (an apartment not too far from the University), knew what charitable and political contributions she made (mostly environmental ones for the former and liberal candidates on the latter), what kind of car she drove (a 1997 Honda Accord that, it appeared, her parents had given her), and – most interestingly – had discovered that she taught yoga, at a few local health clubs, a YMCA, and this community center. He didn’t know if that was a job, a hobby, or what, but he’d gotten the schedule of her classes. He researched yoga, at least enough to know what it was. It wasn’t something that he’d otherwise have any interest in, but showing up at one of her classes seemed more feasible than appearing at her apartment, or calling her. If he called her, he feared he’d freeze up whether he got her voicemail or, God forbid, she actually answered. He’d have to explain who he was, and face the indignity of her not remembering him. At least with the class if she didn’t recognize him he could just slip away, another failed convert to the mysteries of yoga. Jason looked over at the rolled up yoga mat he’d purchased a few days ago. He’d felt sort of silly in the sporting goods store picking it out. He’d been afraid that the sales person would start asking him questions about why he was buying it, what kind of yoga he was into, or something else that he couldn’t answer, but it had turned out that they guy who directed him to the mats was a bored high school kid who abandoned him as soon as he’d pointed out the general area of the store where the mats might be found. Jason

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didn’t buy any special clothes for the class, and was wearing a ratty pair of sweatpants, a t-shirt that he’d gotten as part of a promotion for a new game a few years ago, and some tennis shoes. He was hoping he could keep his shoes and socks on, or at least his socks. He hated having bare feet in public. The community center was an older building that looked like it might once have been an elementary school; it had been spruced up and reconfigured, but still left one wondering where all those little kids had gone. Perhaps some of them would be in the class. People starting wandering into the community center, some carrying their own mats. He counted eight such people – all women, mostly young but with a couple middle-aged ones thrown in for good measure – but didn’t discount that some attendees might have arrived before him, or were walking in without mats. People were careless like that, in his experience. “Am I really going to do this?” he wondered aloud to himself. It was madness for him to try to make an excuse to see Sydney again. He had no reason to think she’d want to see him, no reason to think she might like him, and he had no chance of anything happening with her. She belonged to some other world, a world that was as much of a fantasy as some of the games he played. Yet here he was. He noticed that his heart was beating faster and his palms were getting sweaty. Classic anxiety symptoms, as was his headache. A few weeks ago he’d have assumed the headache was a telltale sign of something worse, but he was trying to not let himself fall in to that trap again. It wasn’t the first time he’d gone to the location of one of her classes. Two days ago he’d gone to a health club nearer to Gram’s house, a monstrous new building that, if the gym’s website was to be believed, contained just about anything known to the fitness world, including an indoor pool, indoor running track, and enough stationary bikes to power the neighboring streets for several blocks. Sydney wasn’t teaching an introductory class then, as she was today, but it had been billed as a beginners’ class and if he took a tour of

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the gym he could have sat in on it. The combination of having to not only go into her class but also get through the barrier of having some pushy salesperson try to persuade him to sign up for a membership had proved too daunting. So here he was. It was touch-n-go there for a while about leaving or going inside. Jason liked to think he was a rational man, and thought things through logically. There was no logical reason for him to be scared, yet there was no logical reason why he should go inside either. She probably wouldn’t care either way. Logic was not proving helpful here. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” he thought to himself, making his mind up to go through with his plan after all. Probably the bravest too, although that realization wouldn’t come until some time later. Jason took a deep breath and got out of the car, dragging the mat with him. If he’d been asked what made his decision, Jason would have been unable to give a reason, an intellectual blind spot that he’d think about later, at home. The pull of seeing her again was more powerful than all the forces that were urging him to simply drive away. Jason walked into the community center, his heart pounding so hard that he thought other people could hear. Fortunately, no one seemed to pay any attention to him. He located some signs pointing him to the appropriate room, and made his way there. He paused outside the door to the classroom. There she was, looking even more attractive than he’d remembered. She was wearing some ultra-thin tights made out of spandex or something, which ended just below her knees, and a sleeveless top. He blushed just looking at her; her outfit was form-fitting and very effectively showed off her body, which she seemed unaware of, and certainly not self-conscious about. She was chatting with some of the other recruits to the class. As Jason had surmised, most were other young women, attired similarly to Sydney, although – in Jason’s opinion -- not quite as attractively. In addition to the two middle-aged women Jason had noticed before, there was one other male present, a much older looking guy. The man and one of the older women wore conservative sweatsuits that didn’t reveal their arms or legs, which Jason was pleased about, but the second woman was showing an alarming amount of cleavage. Jason feared he’d have a hard time not looking at when she bent over, even though because of her age looking seemed especially wrong.

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Maurice would be crowing at the dating odds, Jason found himself thinking. Counting Sydney, there were eight women, ranging from great looking (Sydney) to attractive to a plain girl who was somewhat overweight but appeared to be oblivious to the fact, based on how tight her top was. Jason found his nerve quickly fading away. Indeed, he was just about to slip away when Sydney glanced towards the door and spotted him. She smiled, first catching the mat that indicated he was a would-be attendee of her class, then widening her eyes in recognition. “Jason!” she exclaimed. “What a nice surprise.” He was stuck. At least she remembers me, he told himself in a vain effort to bolster his confidence as she came towards him. For a second he was afraid that she’d give him a hug, which he wouldn’t know how to respond to, but she stopped short and just smiled at him. “Wow – I never expected to see you in one of my classes!” Her smile faded slightly, and her brow furrowed. “What are you doing in this part of town?” It was a question he’d been prepared for. “Umm, I have a friend who lives out this way,” he lied. If she asked for a name, he had a completely authenticable story all made up, although there was, of course, no such friend. Still, he feared he’d crack if pressured on his reasons for being there. Fortunately, she did not pursue his story. “Well, great to have you. I see you have your mat all ready. Come on in and we’ll get started.” She turned and went back in. He had no choice but to follow.

The class was harder than Jason expected. He did have to take off his shoes and socks, which he wasn’t happy about. Sydney arranged the class in several rows, and Jason made sure he was in the back row – along with the old man and the less attractive middleaged woman. Jason figured the three of them were the most self-conscious, although he

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realized during the class that the old man might have chosen his spot for the view of the women in front of him. Jason revised his guess about the man’s age; he wasn’t quite senior citizen, maybe was his dad’s age or a little older, so late fifties or so. Jason tried to picture his dad in a class like this, staring intently at the young bending female bodies in front of him, and had to shudder. Sydney first had them just sit on their mats, close their eyes and simply focus on their breathing. Jason had a tough time sitting still at all, much less keeping his eyes closed and thinking about his breathing. Breathing was supposed to be something that happened without thinking, Jason grumbled to himself. Sydney walked around the room offering encouragement in a hushed tone, and soon came to stand behind Jason. If you’re trying to get me to focus on my breathing, he thought to himself, that’s not going to help. “That’s it, Jason,” she encouraged him nonetheless. “Keep breathing slowly and regularly. Try to feel your body.” Still, Jason was unable to keep his eyes closed for as long as thirty seconds at a time; it felt like an eternity. He thought it curious; he could sit all day in front of his computer, but to close his eyes for just a few seconds seemed quite beyond him. Sydney had instructed the class to try to clear their minds, but Jason found his a whirl of thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Jason was glad when they ended the breathing exercise. Next up were a series of slow stretching exercises. He found their names either obvious or silly – for example, the chair, the crescent moon, the five pointed star, the cat tilt pose – and found his body none too keen to achieve the proper form. He’d done some research on yoga on the Web before coming to the class, so these weren’t entirely a surprise, but that preparation wasn’t helping him actually do the positions. He and the old man exchanged sympathetic glances at one point, equally dismayed by their lack of flexibility. “Tough stuff,” the man grunted at him after one stretch. “Yeah,” Jason agreed, breathing heavily. He was keeping an eye on Sydney, who was helping one of the women in the first row.

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The man looked where Jason was, and got a sly smile on his face. “There are fringe benefits to this yoga, aren’t there,” he said with a leer. Jason shot him a disdainful glance, and turned his attention back to Sydney as she started to explain the next pose. Some of the young women did amazingly well, belying their supposed novice status. At first Jason was frustrated, but he gradually got more into it. Stretch, hold, release. Stretch, hold, release. He didn’t look as comfortable as most of the others did, and it certainly didn’t feel comfortable. Awkward or not, he found himself trying to do better to the man next to him, who was focusing mostly on the view ahead of him. Sydney periodically walked slowly around the room, quietly giving advice and encouragement to the attendees. Jason found himself growing especially nervous when she came to his row, and tried harder to relax, which proved at cross-purposes to the exercises. He was both relieved and disappointed when she moved on to someone else. Jason felt way out of place. The others were supposedly new to yoga, as he certainly was, but they were probably used to being in rooms with strangers, which he most certainly was not. Everything he did felt artificial and awkward, and he was flooded with both excess self-awareness and the sights and sounds from the rest of the class. Sydney’s presence alone, of course, would have been enough to throw him in a tizzy. The class took longer to get over than Jason would have liked. He’d been watching the clock throughout, knowing it was scheduled for forty-five minutes but finding it impossible that time passed as slowly as it did. Towards the end he had just about concluded that the clock was not working correctly, but finally it was over. Still, when Sydney declared it over he was sorry, and suddenly realized he didn’t know what to do next. He’d taken the initiative to attend one of her classes, but hadn’t planned out any further than that. He suspected that Maurice would tell him to ask her out to coffee or something. Jamal would have agreed that he should take the chance. But such a request seemed beyond him; he didn’t have the words.

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Nonetheless, he found himself taking his time putting his shoes and socks back on, then in rolling up his mat. He kept Sydney in view the whole time, greedily enjoying the sight of her lithe body and how she warmly said good-bye to the other participants. He realized belatedly that she must eventually get around to him, short of him rushing out the door before she got to him. He almost did, but then suddenly there she was, right in front of him, and he jerked slightly backward in surprise. “So, did you enjoy it?” she asked with a broad smile. “`Enjoy’ is probably not the right word,” he admitted. “It was interesting.” Sydney raised an eyebrow. “`Interesting,’ huh?” she repeated. “I’m not sure I like that.” Jason tried to smile. “No, interesting is good,” he told her. “I’m kind of ADHD, so it’s hard to keep me interested. But you did a great job.” “Hmm,” she said, studying him more closely and evidently not quite convinced. “I have to admit, I’d never have expected you to come to one of my classes.” Jason shuffled his feet awkwardly, looking away from her in some embarrassment. He wondered if she was telling him that she didn’t want him to be there, or simply hadn’t thought about him at all. “Well, after I beat you in Madden I figured I needed to let you humiliate me in something.” Even as he said it, Jason was mentally kicking himself for such a lame response. Sure enough, Sydney frowned slightly. “Hmm, I’m not sure if I should be more bothered because you think you humiliated me in Madden, or that you felt humiliated today. I must have done a bad job.” Jason quickly looked at her in alarm. “No, no, you were great!”

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She reached out and touched his arm. “Relax, I’m just messing with you.” She could have said just about anything and he wouldn’t have really noticed. Standing this close to her, with her wearing her skimpy yoga outfit and her hand touching him, pretty much wiped out any capacity for rational thought on his part. It took him a couple seconds to realize that she’d spoken, and he had to frantically try to reformulate what she might have said. Otherwise, he’d stand here gaping like an idiot. “Oh, yeah,” he said lamely. “That’s funny.” They stood there for an awkward couple of seconds. She said good-bye to one of the last remaining students, and Jason used the diversion to work up a small bit of courage. “Hey, maybe you and Billy could come over to play some games,” he suggested, again unable to meet her eyes. There was a pause, and he had to look up to see what her response was. Sydney had a small smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. “Well, Billy’s in school most of the time, but you could buy me coffee sometime,” she suggested without a hint of hesitation.

Chapter 25 Jay woke slowly, a headache savaging his thinking like a hurricane tossing about a small boat. Against his better judgment, he forced himself to sit up, vaguely aware that this was not the first time that he had tried to rouse himself. He slowly became aware of a few things that would have been surprising had he been able to experience such an emotion. The first was that his headache was not the usual headache. That villain was there, to be sure, but this hammering bore the characteristics of something he had not experienced in quite some time: a hangover. He could tell by the fuzziness of his thought process and

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the general ache his body felt. It occurred to him to wonder why he might have a hangover, and quite a raging one at that. The next realization – which came as somewhat less of a surprise than it might once have, given that he had identified that he had a hangover – was that he had no idea where he was. He was on a couch, half-covered by a blanket. He was, curiously enough, still clothed, except for his shoes and jacket. His jacket was hung neatly on a nearby chair, the shoes neatly arrayed beneath it. Jay scanned slowly around the room he was in, moving his head and eyes slowly to lessen the pain such movements caused him. He was in the small living room of an apartment. He could see the kitchen, and a short hallway where, he suspected, a bathroom and a bedroom or two might be found. The floors of the room were hardwood, and even in his impaired state, he could see that they were wellkept but of some age. What he could see of the apartment suggested that it was in an older building, although the tenant had done an excellent job of keeping it neat and wellkept. The surprise was that he failed to recognize anything about it. He had no memory of ever having been here before, or of how he might have come to be here now. The puzzle hurt his head all-the-more. It took him a minute or two of taking in his surroundings to become aware of the third and final surprise: sitting across from him, leaning forward in a chair, was a young girl. She sat across from him in a chair, with a serious and very focused expression on her face as she watched him. “Are you my mother’s new boyfriend?” she asked once she saw that his gaze had turned towards her. He stared at her dumbfounded, his brain processing her question as slowly as if she were speaking a foreign language. Instead of answering directly, Jay took another slow look around the room, hoping that it might provide an answer to her question, or – better yet –

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that she might prove to be a figment of his imagination when he looked back at the chair. He failed on both accounts. “I suppose that depends,” he told her slowly. “Who is your mother?” She seemed disappointed. “If you don’t know my mother, why are you here? Did you break in?” As best he could work it out, she looked fifteen or sixteen, seventeen at most. She was a pretty girl, with brown hair that hung down past her shoulders. He found her gaze to be unsettling, her eyes inquisitive and lively. He felt like a wild animal must feel upon waking after having been captured, tranquilized, and dumped in the zoo. “Tell you what, young lady,” he said, stalling for time. “Could we continue this questioning after you show me to the bathroom?” She blushed, and pointed down the hall. He limped towards it, and closed the door. He fumbled with his zipper, and relieved his bladder, which went a long way to helping him feel better. He took the opportunity to wash his face. The bathroom was clearly one used primarily by women; no men’s toiletries could be seen amidst the organized clutter – combs, brushes, make-up, lotions, and other kinds of items he recognized from Jessica’s bathroom -- that lined the wash basin, tub, and small cabinet. He wanted to brush his teeth to free himself of the grimy feeling his mouth had, but didn’t want to use one of the occupants’ toothbrushes, so he put some toothpaste on his finger and swiped it around in his mouth. Jay stared at himself in the mirror, wondering who the person in the mirror was. He couldn’t remember waking up in a stranger’s house, at least not in a very long time. He’d been in college the last time he’d been in a situation remotely similar to this, back when the future was more fungible, back when he had a future and the loss of a single night mattered little. Last night could have been his last and he might have been found dead in this apartment, leaving his family and what remained of his friends to piece together how he’d come to be here.

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He walked slowly back to the couch. The girl had folded up his blanket and straightened up the pillows he’d been sleeping on before resuming her perch upon the chair. She followed his progress back towards the couch gravely, as though he was a kind of wild animal, capable of multiple unpredictable actions. He plopped himself back on the couch, taking his time to get back to her inquiries. “Now, then, you were saying?” he asked. “Something about why I’m here.” The events of the prior evening were starting to come into better focus. After the debacle with Jessica, he’d wanted nothing more than oblivion. He’d driven to Pete’s, and had started drinking. After a couple of double Scotch’s downed back-to-back, Jill had successfully steered him to a small booth, where she managed to slow down his drinking by taking her time in refilling his drinks and by switching him back to his regular beer. He was past caring, and sat there moodily drinking to forget the pain he had caused – was causing! – Jessica. Whether done out of love or not, the impact to her was the same. Jay recalled that Jill had made several attempts to sit down with him at his booth, asking him if he was OK, trying to get him to talk, even offering to call Randy on his behalf. She’d seemed genuinely concerned, yet he had been in no mood to talk even to her. He’d been a jerk to the woman he loved by not talking to her when she needed him to, and he had seen no reason why he should not continue that behavior with this relative stranger, kind though she may be. “Are you going to tell me?” the girl prodded, interrupting his reverie. He’d forgotten she was there. Startled, he looked closely at her. “What’s your name?” “Amy.” “How old are you, Amy?”

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“Sixteen,” she announced with pride, obviously believing this made her enough of an adult to have a conversation with her mother’s gentleman caller on her own. “What’s your name?” He told her his name, and a new piece of the prior evening fell into place. There had been a rowdy table of newcomers to the bar. Jill had been their waitress, and over the course of the time he’d been drinking their interactions with her had deteriorated in inverse proportion to their drinking, moving from flirtation to suggestive to indecent proposals and, at last, to physical contact. At first one of them had slapped her ass lightly as she walked by – earning the approving catcalls of his companions and a warning look from Jill – but the next time she’d come by another one had grabbed her and forced her into his lap. Jill had not taken this well, Jay had noticed even in his own impaired state. She’d slapped the man sharply and moved to stand up, but he’d held her down with one hand and slapped her right back. The bar had gone silent at that, and – much to his own surprise – Jay had found himself on his feet. He’d confronted the foursome, causing them to rise and, in the process, release Jill. He recalled that Jill had stood by their table rather than fleeing, and had assured him that it was all right. She’d told him that he should stay out of it, but his blood was up, picturing a newly unprotected Jessica prey to such brigands. Some words had been exchanged, and the one closest to him had swung at him. Jay managed to block it and get in some good punches of his own, putting the man down, only to find himself held from behind by another of the foursome and taking blows from the other two. That had lasted for only a short time before the cavalry had arrived. Other bar patrons had quickly and savagely put the foursome down, then literally threw them out the door. Much macho bonding had followed; he joined his rescuers for some celebratory drinking, complete with toasts. Thus the hangover.

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But he still didn’t know where he was or who the girl’s mother might be. He didn’t recall any women drinking with him. Perhaps they’d gone someplace after Pete’s to pick up women. Perhaps they’d gotten him a hooker, although he doubted a hooker would bring him home to where her daughter was. Then, again, with her asking him all these questions now, it seemed more likely that she hadn’t been around when he’d arrived, whenever and however he’d gotten here. He studied Amy closely, looking for clues in her face. He’d always been bad at spotting familial resemblances, and he wasn’t exactly at his best now in any event. No one that he knew came to mind. “I have to admit, Amy,” he told her slowly. “I have no idea why I’m here, or who your mother is.” Amy pursed her lips thoughtfully, and seemed to be taking into account the couch he was sitting on, recognizing that she’d found him there and not in her mother’s bed. “So you’re not my mother’s boyfriend?” Jay thought he caught a faint tone of disappointment in her voice, which flattered him. “I think that’s a safe bet, Amy,” he admitted. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t in any condition to be anyone’s boyfriend last night.” He looked around the apartment, hoping again that something would spark his memory but getting nothing. Suddenly they both heard a key in the lock, and turned their heads inquiringly. The door swung open, a grocery bag leading the woman carrying it. She stopped and surveyed the scene. “Amy, why are you home already?” Jill Wells asked. Then, turning her attention to Jay. “I’m sorry, I was hoping to get back before you got up. How are you feeling?”

Chapter 26 Jason found himself immersed in Cathedral. He’d enjoyed visiting the various cathedrals in the game, but he’d quickly realized that he wouldn’t be satisfied just sitting and admiring them, beautiful as he found most of them. Some of them were quite bizarre, not conforming to classic conventions of cathedrals, at least as he understood those. For

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example, one of his favorites was apparently based on a Klein bottle, a mathematical abstraction that had no distinct inner and outer surfaces. It couldn’t exist in the real world, yet here not only existed but was decorated and furnished. Merging the exterior and interior design and decorations obviously had taken considerable thought, and Jason was deeply impressed – a rarity for him. One wouldn’t think it would make a good cathedral, but it did serve to instill a sense of awe, so perhaps it wasn’t as different from the others as one might think. He wished he’d thought of it. No, Jason wanted to build his own cathedral, not just visit others’ work. The rules for doing so took some effort to discover, but essentially boiled down to the following. Only materials and technologies that existed, or could have existed, in the early Middle Ages were allowed. Thus, no steel or Plexiglas. Labor could not be automated; he could create copies of his avatar and set them to a task, but only under his direct control, which was difficult. Players could alter the time scale – otherwise it would take a hundred years even for multiple players to finish a single cathedral – and were allowed to collaborate, but the work had to be done stone by stone, brick by brick. Players could develop applications that made working easier, but only if the results of those applications could have been invented at the time. For example, one player had developed a mobile elevator, made out of wood and rope and pulled by oxen, which had greatly improved the ability to do work at the upper levels, replacing the need to haul materials up via ladders or pulleys. That had achieved great popularity, which translated into a form of currency that made it easier to secure assistance for the developer’s projects. The game could be played either solo or in collaboration. True to form, Jason didn’t see much point in the latter. The raw materials were readily available, a player could clone oneself to a limited extent in order to get more work accomplished, and the time scale acceleration made progress easy to accomplish.

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In his first effort he was about half way done with the walls when he suddenly noticed a slight wobble. At first he thought it was an optical illusion, but the wobble gradually became more pronounced, and suddenly the wall collapsed in a wave like a row of dominos falling, killing a few of his clones in the process. Jason found himself actually jumping back in alarm, a reaction he rarely had in games. He diagnosed that the problem with his design was either that the ground he had built on wasn’t entirely flat, or that there had been some imperfect bricks, or perhaps a combination of both. In any event, between the debris of the bricks and the startling gruesome bodies of his dead clones, he decided to start fresh for his next attempt rather than rebuild this one. His next attempt – this time using stone blocks instead of brick, and excavating a uniform base level to build on – went better, but faltered with the roof. He was using flying buttresses, but they collapsed when he was only about a third of the way through installing the rest of the roof. Again, several of his clones were killed in the collapse. Jason was used to dying in games, but usually it was just one of him. Somehow seeing multiples of his characters – who had been acting under his supposed supervision – die at once was more unnerving. He was also no stranger to gore in games, but the realism of the damage to his clones took him aback as well. The frustration of his designs failing was bad enough, but this seemed like adding insult to injury. He was surveying the demise of the second cathedral after he’d returned from his yoga class. He and Sydney had agreed to meet for coffee tomorrow, and he was already beside himself with worrying about it. He still couldn’t believe she’d suggested it. What would they talk about? What should he wear? What if she was some kind of coffee connoisseur and expected him to know a lot about different blends? All he really knew about coffee was that he wanted caffeine and lots of cream and sugar. There just seemed so many ways the whole affair could go badly that he felt discouraged. As excited as he was about the prospect of spending more time with her, he was about equally terrified of having to do so.

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“May I offer a suggestion, Player of Games?” the Priest asked. It was the same figure as had greeted him during his first visit, and used his game name. Jason had been paying so much attention to the wreckage of his effort that he’d failed to notice the Priest’s arrival. In another game, such surprise would have meant almost certain death. “Well, I couldn’t do much worse,” Jason had replied wearily. “So why not?” The Priest smiled at him kindly. “Now, now. You are doing quite well, given your time in game, sir. I can’t recall anyone attempting two structures in such short order. Perhaps you are simply trying too much too soon.” The Priest went on to explain that it was usually helpful to participate in the building of others’ cathedrals before attempting to build one themselves. “That way, sir, you can gain experience with the various techniques and options.” Jason was not too keen on this approach. He didn’t like to collaborate in games – playing or designing – and this suggestion would mean not building his own ideas. “How long would it take?” he asked uneasily. The Priest shrugged, his smile beatific. “It is different for each player. Only a few, such as yourself, try to design and build their own from the start. Most of them need an apprenticeship, if you will, before succeeding. It might only take one cathedral, or many. It is hard to say.” The Priest shrugged, and peered at Jason’s avatar. “You are not, I might guess, an architect or an engineer?” Not this kind, Jason thought to himself. “No.” The Priest nodded thoughtfully. “Then perhaps you could learn from those who are. You do seem to be a quick learner.”

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Jason spent the rest of the night, until the early hours of the morning, helping on someone else’s cathedral. He chose one that was in the early stages of construction, by all accounts a pretty but uninspired design but that allowed him to jump in right away. He found himself working as a glorified extra set of hands, helping a more experienced mason lay brick and stone under the direction of a more experienced supervisor. The time scale was sufficiently ramped up so that he could see significant progress throughout the evening, and he did, indeed, discover some of the mistakes he’d made in his solo efforts. The supervisor had the workers set up in an assembly line of sorts. Initially Jason was assigned ferrying bricks from the kiln to the construction, but within a couple hours – more like a couple years in the accelerated time of the game -- he had been promoted to bricklayer assistant. The person he was assisting – Glorious Myke was her game name – didn’t talk much, rarely using the instant messages or direct conversation allowed via the game, but did show him how to lay the bricks and how to ensure they were mortared into place solidly. He realized that he’d been too haphazard in his solo efforts; no wonder the walls had collapsed. “How long have you been doing this?’ he messaged her. At least, he thought the character was female, given the name. The characters in the game were, as best he could tell, unisex; the differences between them were by class of worker, not by gender. So the bricklayers all looked alike, the bricklayers’ assistants all looked alike, and so on. Jason suspected that, to the other players, his character had changed shape when he had changed roles in the game. “Today or ever?” she responded. “How long with the game?” “A month,” she replied. “Nothing like it.”

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“Have you built your own yet?” She kept laying bricks methodically, slowing slightly as she balanced typing her message with controlling the bricks on her keyboard in the real world. “Don’t want to. Helped on five, not counting this. Now back to work.” Jason wondered why someone would want to just help but not build their own, but supposed it wasn’t entirely different from people who liked to play games but not build them. Still, he thought building one’s own cathedral was the real point of the game, so couldn’t quite understand Glorious Myke’s point of view. He and Glorious Myke were one of several teams working on the wall. There was not a lot of interaction between the teams, but Jason tried to watch what neighboring teams were doing while trying to keep out of their way. When the system worked well, which was most of the time, it was a thing of beauty. The bricks came out of the kiln, got ferried to the line, assistants handed them to the bricklayer, who slapped the new brick into place in the fresh mortar just so. Jason didn’t relish being a cog in the wheel but found there was a rhythm to it that was almost hypnotic. The masonry was mind-numbingly boring, although the accelerated pace kept it a challenge. He had to keep his focus or face the criticism of Glorious Myke or the supervisor when he had set a stone incorrectly or mortared it too sloppily. It only took a few instances of that to sharpen his resolve to reduce his errors, although preventing future ones required his full attention – no flipping to other browsers, no texting, no thinking about other games or programming. It was almost as if he was really laboring. He could almost feel each brick he picked up and positioned ever-so-carefully into place. He could almost feel the sun beating down on him – his avatar even sweated, requiring him to figuratively wipe his hands and his brow periodically, and he could almost feel the cooling breeze that rustled the virtual grass nearby.

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In a way, he thought during a break to get a snack, it was kind of what Sydney was hoping for with the yoga. She had urged the class to clear their minds, focusing only on the breathing or on the stretch. He was used to playing games or working for long periods of time with great intensity, but never with this degree of repetition or lack of variety and intellectual stimulation. It was both refreshing and wearying.

The main walls of the cathedral were essentially up when Jason ended his shift. The supervisor told him the next step was the arches and the roof. The supervisor strolled around the edge of the virtual wall, inspecting it and occasionally criticizing areas that were uneven or sloppy. “Good job, everyone. I’m going off now too,” he said. “Pick it up tomorrow?” “We’ll see,” Jason told him, tired from the work. He’d learned a lot in his long evening, but he didn’t think he’d learned enough yet. Still, he did have other things to do, including an early afternoon coffee with Sydney. He should also blog about the game, but he found himself curiously reluctant to do so yet, not while he was still, in essence, only a drone. He’d save it for his first successful cathedral, he decided. He went to bed thinking about that cathedral – and of wanting to show it to Sydney.

Chapter 27 Jay sat at Jill’s breakfast table, which sat in the never-neverland between the kitchen and the living room. The table was polished to a smooth and shining finish, which only served to preserve the burns and nicks of its previous existence, like dinosaur bones encased in amber. Jill had helped get Amy back out the door – she had been at an overnight with a friend and wanted a different outfit than she’d packed for the day’s activities – and settled Jay down at the table while she rustled up some breakfast. Out of

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deference to his hangover, she made him waffles instead of eggs, but she sweetened the deal with a pot of strong coffee. Jill’s apartment was, he guessed from a more coherent look around, in a building that must have dated from the twenties or thirties. It was solidly built – the walls were thick plaster, the floors hardwood – and had the inevitable wear and tear of the generations of people who must have lived here. It wasn’t air conditioned, although perhaps there were wall units in the bedrooms, but the windows were open and there was a nice breeze that made sitting here quite pleasant. He could see some adjacent buildings and hear street noises, so it evidently was in a pretty urban location. He just couldn’t figure out where. Jill had evidently put a lot of effort into keeping the apartment up. The floors were not only cleaned but also waxed, the walls were brightly painted, and everything in the kitchen and living room was tidy. The furniture was well worn but not quite run down; Jay suspected Jill scouted out yard sales to get quality second hand furniture cheaply. She had the obligatory pictures of Amy on the refrigerator, as well as a couple of drawings that Jay guessed Amy might have done when she was much younger, and there was a big calendar on the wall that appeared to consist of Amy’s school and activity schedules. “Nice place,” Jay offered. “And my compliments to the chef.” He raised a forkful of waffles in the air towards her in tribute, then promptly downed it. Jill seemed mildly amused. “They’re frozen, you know. I’m just hoping you can keep them down.” Jay nodded as he chewed his mouthful. “I guess I had a little too much to drink last night.” “I guess.”

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Jay took another mouthful, and ate it reflectively. “I don’t really remember how I got here.” He looked at her curiously. “I’m not even sure exactly where in town we are.” Jill nodded and smiled at him. “Well, you obviously weren’t in any shape to drive home. Some of the guys offered to drive you home, but Pete told them you could sleep it off in the back of the bar.” He waited a second for her to connect the dots, but she was going to make him work for it. “And yet here I am,” he observed lightly. “I live upstairs, on the third floor above the bar. Pete owns the building.” Jay absorbed that while he polished off the rest of his breakfast. It had been good, but nothing fancy. Jill did not strike him as a gourmet cook; from what he saw of her food and her kitchen, she used cooking to keep her and her daughter fed, without worrying about novelty or impressing anyone. He hadn’t known there were apartments above Pete’s; he’d never really paid attention to the upper floors. And it never would have occurred to him that Jill lived above the bar. Jay wondered if Pete lived in one of the other apartments. “I like your daughter,” he offered. “She seems like a good kid.” It seemed like a safe conversation, and, besides, he did like Amy. Jill lit up in that special way parents do when discussing their children. “Yeah, I think so too. Sixteen going on twenty-six.” She seemed both amused and frustrated about the latter. “She’s at the age where she thinks she should have her own life, without me interfering.” Jill stared at her coffee cup for a long second. “I don’t get as much time with her as I’d like. My mom used to take care of her after school when I was working, but now she pretty much takes care of herself. When I’m off and she’s not in school I want to spend time with her. I have a few hours before my next shift and when I saw she’d come home early I was hoping we could do something together, but she wanted to

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go back with her friends, of course. So here I am.” She said this in a resigned tone of voice and took a calming drink of coffee, not looking at him. A response seemed called for. “I’m sure that’s tough.” Jill just nodded. Jay felt guilty about something else. “I hope her finding me here doesn’t create a problem for you.” Jill took a deep breath, and held her coffee cup closer. “It’s not something I would have liked her to find, but it could have been worse.” She took at him teasingly. “It’s not like we were having sex or anything.” “Or had sex,” he added tentatively. He looked at her awkwardly. “We didn’t, did we?” She smiled at him, amused by his sudden concern. “You mean you don’t remember me?” He felt pole axed, and hung his head down – only to hear her laugh heartily. He looked up. “Jay, I promise you – if we had had sex, you’d remember!” She laughed again, and, after a few seconds, he joined in. He had a feeling she was right about that. “So why am I here instead of downstairs?” he asked at last, rising his eyes to meet hers. She was watching him with interest, holding a coffee cup in both hands, her elbows resting on the table. She’d not eaten much of her own breakfast. She shrugged. “Oh, the couch downstairs is pretty uncomfortable to try to sleep on, and Pete would have woken you up a couple of hours ago when he came in to the bar this morning. This way you got a better night’s sleep.” She took a sip of coffee, then quickly put her cup down. “It’s not

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something I do very often.” She paused, and Jay fancied that a faint blush came into her cheeks. “Or ever,” she added in a soft voice. Jay nodded appreciatively at her. “My thanks.” They sat in a comfortable silence for a little bit, drinking their coffee. Through the open windows the noises of the city – well, at least the neighborhood of the city Pete’s was in – came through, along with the warm sunlight. “So what’s going on, Jay?” Jill asked at last, holding her cup up against her chest again. Jay’s immediate response was a slight panic. Who knew what he might have said while getting drunk, or while tossing and turning in his drunken stupor on her couch. “What do you mean?” he asked warily. She sighed, and held her cup closer to her chest. Her eyes seemed sad, and endlessly deep. Jay suddenly realized how lovely she was, and was aware that he was sitting alone with her in her apartment, having spent the night there. He wondered what Jessica would think. “Something is different. You come in by yourself, you drink a lot more,” she pointed out carefully, “and you get yourself into a bar fight with four guys that you had no chance of beating.” Now it was time for Jay’s cheeks to redden. “I wasn’t going to let them bother you like that.” Jill smiled tolerantly. “Jay, I’ve been a waitress almost twenty years now. Do you think that’s the first time something like that has happened? Don’t you think I could take care of myself?” Jay rocked his head back and forth. “Maybe. I admit my judgment was a little, umm, less inhibited than it usually would have been.”

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“I’ll say,” she agreed, smiling warmly. “That’s my point. Besides, I’ve known most of the other customers for years; I knew they wouldn’t let things go too far. And, of course, Uncle Pete would have stopped them.” Jill got up to refill her cup. She brandished the coffee pot at him. “More coffee?” “Uncle Pete? Pete is your uncle?” he said in astonishment. He’d seen her there for years, watched them interact, but never had the slightest suspicion they were in any way related. That must explain why she was living upstairs from the bar. Thinking back, he remembered Pete watching her interactions with the troublesome table closely, and could imagine him swooping into action. He figured it wouldn’t have been pretty for the instigators, not with those arms. Jill smiled again, this time in amusement, and leaned against the counter. “Don’t tell anyone.” Her face grew serious again. She looked concerned. “But that’s neither here nor there. You’re not the same guy you were a couple weeks ago. So I’ll ask again – what’s going on?” Jay’s face fell, and he looked down at his plate, the weight of his sadness crashing down all the harder after its temporary oblivion. He shook his head stubbornly. “It’s nothing you need to worry about,” he told her, his tone slightly harsher than he intended. He tried again, in a gentler tone of voice. “It’s all right.” She considered that for a long couple of seconds. “You get drunk, get into a fight defending my honor, and end up sleeping on my couch. I figure I get another question or two.” She watched him, waiting to see if he would try to stop her. For some reason, he didn’t. “You’re a young guy, and look like you’re in pretty good health” – if only she knew, he thought with some irony – “so it can’t be that. You’re too smart to get fired, or if you did, you’re too smart not to get another job easily, so it’s not that. So it’s got to be your girlfriend,” she concluded. She smiled at him. “How am I doing?”

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“Fiancée,” he noted absently. “Ex-fiancée.” He grimaced, staring out the window at a world that meant nothing to him now, where sunshine didn’t cheer him and where no one could make him feel whole again. “Ah,” she said. She took a drink of her coffee, sizing him up. A shrewd observer might have caught a look not of surprise but, for lack of a better word, of hope cross her face, before retreating to concern. “Is this a fight or is it really over?” Jay forced himself back into the conversation, turning his face back to her. Part of him didn’t want to say anything further, while not wanting to be rude. Another part of him wanted to tell this relative stranger everything, seduced by her warm interest and kindly nature. She was dressed comfortably, in jeans and a loose white blouse, with bare feet, and Jay suddenly thought she’d never seemed more attractive than at this minute. What Randy wouldn’t give to be in my position right now, he thought, seeing the irony. He realized that although he’d always noticed the pretty of her, he’d missed the beautiful about her, and that was quite powerful. But that beauty was for the land of the living, a country in which he only had a temporary visa. “Oh, it’s over, it’s really over,” he told her sadly, turning away again to look out the window, his eyes not really seeing anything. He was in a world until himself, and it was not a happy place. Jill had many more questions that she wanted to ask. She wanted to know who the woman was that let Jay go. She couldn’t understand how someone would let such a man go. She didn’t know him well – she didn’t know where he worked, where he’d gone to school, what his hobbies were, if he cried at sentimental movies – but she’d worked in a bar long enough to get a pretty good idea of customers’ character, at least for the regulars. She’d long thought of Jay as one of the good guys, and seeing him walk into the bar, with his easy smile, had always made her heart beat a little faster. Now here he sat in front of her, in agony, with that smile long gone. Maybe he’d done something stupid – anyone

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can make a mistake, as she well knew – or maybe the fiancée had, but he seemed beyond any platitudes she might try to say to him. She considered her options carefully. There were safe moves and there were bad moves. He was very vulnerable right now, and she wasn’t someone to take risks with men easily, not with Amy to be considered. It’d be easier if he’d just break down and cry, or if he tried to ignore his pain by making a pass at her, but this withdrawal was neither like him nor something she could just watch. Jill put her cup down on the counter and walked to him, not sure what choice she was making. “It’s OK, dear,” she murmured, pulling his head against her chest and beginning to softly stroke his hair. “It’s OK.”

Chapter 28 At breakfast the next morning Jason’s grandmother was sitting across from him reading her newspapers and drinking her coffee. She’d made him an omelet – four eggs, chopped onions, bacon, and three kinds of cheese – along with hash browns. As usual, it was delicious, and he enjoyed it immensely despite his lack of sleep. He was chewing automatically, his brain torn between thinking about the game the previous night and the prospect of coffee with Sydney later in the day. Gram was used to him being quiet, and had learned to leave him alone when he wasn’t feeling talkative in the morning. She enjoyed sitting here with him, even when he was preoccupied or half-asleep. Jason wasn’t used to asking people for help. He liked to solve problems on his own, and loathed sharing personal details with other people. Yet he was clearly faced with problems that he didn’t seem likely to resolve on his own. He knew Gram would love to help him with whatever problem he might have. Normally he would have avoided asking

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for her assistance, but these were not normal times. He sighed inaudibly, and decided to ask. But which problem? “Gram, do you know much about cathedrals?” he asked. After all, what would she know about girls, he rationalized. She took this question in stride. “The usual, I suppose. Your grandfather and I visited a number of them on some of our trips to Europe.” Jason looked up at her, his fork paused midway to his mouth. Gram had been to cathedrals? Not just a trip but multiple trips to Europe? He couldn’t get over his amazement. Who was this person that looked like his Gram? Surely this was some imposter! “You’ve really been to some?” he asked incredulously. “Seriously? Do you have pictures?” This was beyond belief for him. She carefully put her paper down. “Well, of course, dear. I’ve got some photo albums I could show you if you’d like.” Jason would usually do about anything to avoid having to go through Gram’s photo albums – a bunch of people he didn’t know in places he didn’t recognize, from a long time ago – but he found himself nodding. “Maybe later this morning?” he asked, meaning – “after I‘ve woken up more.” “Certainly, dear.” She seemed mildly thrilled by the idea, and knew better than to ask why he suddenly was keen to at her photo albums. Jason ate some more of his breakfast, his mind processing on a number of fronts. “What do you remember the most about the cathedrals you saw?” he asked her. Gram considered the question. “Aside from being there with your grandfather, you mean?” Jason didn’t really remember much about his grandfather, but he knew she still doted on his memory, so many years after his untimely death. He nodded at her, and she looked out the window as she thought back. “I suppose their sense of age most of all.

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Some of them were five hundred, even a thousand years old, and still standing,” she told him. She looked back at him. “To think that people that long ago, without modern equipment or materials, could build such buildings, and build them so well that they’re still standing and still impressive.” She nodded to herself, slightly lost in memory. “It makes you very humble.” Jason nodded in agreement, thinking of the hordes of workers working in the game. He thought carefully about her answer. “Did you feel kind of, umm,” – he hated to use the word – “in awe?” “Oh, yes,” she replied quickly. “There is a real sense of majesty about them, not in an imperial way but in an inspirational way.” She went on to explain that, for her, it was the quiet, the sense of space. She paused for a moment, thinking back. “It was the small, personal touches that reminded you that real people built them, real people worshipped there, and real people died and were buried there.” Her face was lost in memory, or in wonder, while Jason wondered how he could use these features in his cathedral. He didn’t ask Gram about how to talk to Sydney.

Later that morning Jason did, indeed, spend almost an hour with Gram looking over some of her photo albums. Opening the albums had been like opening a time capsule, to some distant world he might have read about but couldn’t understand. The pictures themselves were old, in black and white for the most part, and were from a time he could not identify with. He knew intellectually that his grandmother had been there, but he couldn’t identify the person sitting with him, taking such pleasure in showing him the scenes, with the person who had lived those scenes. She looked so young then, a pretty young girl that he could hardly recognize in her today. She and his grandfather seemed to be having so much fun – their outdated clothes and funny haircuts notwithstanding. He found himself wishing he’d known her then.

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Most of the pictures were of places or things, which included lots of great cathedrals, he was happy to see, but after a time he found himself almost preferring to see pictures of the two of them. They had been so happy then, and Jason found himself wondering, for the first time, how she was able to bear his not being alive. “Show me some more, Gram,” he had asked gently each time she had tried to stop. She would simply smile and turn the page, then start to tell him about the next scene.

Jason was looking at more information on cathedrals from the web in his cubicle at work when Maurice stopped by. He’d intended to do some work on a CS Games game once he got to the office, but he was working on some hidden features of a castle in a new game and as a result his attention had inadvertently returned to Cathedral. He’d programmed some pretty slick castles in his day, and he was pretty sure he could program some cool cathedrals – but he wasn’t sure he could build them within the Cathedral. “What are you working on?” Maurice asked him. “Oh, nothing,” Jason replied, hurriedly closing the browser he was working in. “Just working on something.” Maurice stepped closer. “What was that you were looking at?” he demanded, not fooled in the slightest by Jason’s attempt to cover it up. With a sigh, Jason switched back to the page he’d been on, which described the use of stained glass in medieval cathedrals. “Just getting some ideas for something,” he said lamely. He didn’t feel like explaining, and now that Maurice was here, Jason wanted to bring up a new subject anyway. It wasn’t like him to bring up his own problems to anyone, but having a date was clearly beyond his comfort zone and Maurice was his most likely candidate for advice. “Listen, there’s something I want to ask you.” Maurice leaned against Jason’s desk. “Shoot.” He seemed flattered that Jason wanted his opinion on something.

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Now that he had Maurice’s attention, he didn’t know how to start. It’d have been easier if they were at happy hour someplace, talking about dating and watching people he knew trying to do so, and easier still if Jamal was there with his sage advice. “Let’s say I was meeting someone for coffee,” he started, looking down at his keyboard so he didn’t have to meet Maurice’s eyes. “By ‘someone’ do you mean a woman?” Maurice teased. Jason made a face, and felt it growing hot. He shot a glare at Maurice. “Yes, a woman.” Maurice whistled appreciatively. “You’ve got a date!” Jason shook his head. “Not really a date. It’s just coffee.” He went on to explain how he’d gone to the yoga class -- which required him to backtrack and explain how he’d met Sydney in the first place -- and eventually he fumbled his way to how it ended up with him and Sydney set to have coffee in a couple hours. “So she asked you?” Maurice noted, picking what he thought was the most salient point of the story and ignoring, for the moment, the comedic possibilities of Jason in a yoga class. It had never occurred to him to think of it that way. He’d been so focused on simply finding an excuse to be with Sydney that the prospect of asking her out hadn’t really seemed like a possible outcome. Her asking him had been a scenario that could only happen in some strange parallel universe, where he was famous and good-looking and women pursued him all the time. He didn’t live in that universe. “I suppose so,” he concluded in amazement. “Hey, don’t tell anyone, all right?” Maurice laughed. “Are you kidding? You should be telling everyone! Not only do you have a date, with what you say is a good-looking woman, but she asked you out. I’d be bragging to everyone I know.”

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“I’m sure it’s not a date. She’s just being nice to me; I don’t know why.” Jason stopped and shook his head at the mystery of it. “I don’t know what we’ll talk about,” he confessed. “Once we do it she’ll probably never want to do it ever again.” He was glum at the prospect. Maurice shoved him playfully. “Stop being such a defeatist. Fact of the matter is that she asked you out, man. You just have to show up and listen,” Maurice assured him confidently. “She’ll do all the talking.” That prospect seemed appealing to Jason. He’d be happy to sit and listen to Sydney talk. He’d be happy to sit and just look at her. But he was still terrified that she’d be bored, and his one time out with her would be his only one. He didn’t want to admit this to Maurice, so he turned his head towards his screen. Maurice noticed, and looked at what was on the screen. “So what’s all this stuff for?” “I’ll tell you some other time,” Jason promised, gently but firmly closing the browser down. He’d shared enough for one day.

Chapter 29 Jay wouldn’t have minded staying longer at Jill’s, but he felt awkward enough as it was and she had things to do as well. Being with her was comfortable in some strange way, but once he left that comfort vanished and the darkness in his world reemerged in full force. So he went home, and spent another long day alone, aimlessly watching TV or playing video games in solo mood – dying, dying, dying. He didn’t go to Pete’s that night, or the next night either.

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Monday morning came as not exactly a relief, but at least with an excuse to be someplace. He slipped into his office as unobtrusively as possible, only to have Kathy pop her head in. “No donuts?” she asked disappointedly. Charlie Neuschwander crowded in behind her, peering over her shoulder. “Did I hear ‘donuts’?” he asked. “They aren’t on the food table.” Jay told them that, unfortunately, there were no donuts today. “Maybe tomorrow,” he offered half-heartedly, not really believing it. Normally, even without donuts, he’d have shot the breeze with them for a few more minutes, compared weekends and mock complained about the week ahead. Occasionally they might have had an actual productive work conversation too. But not today. He shooed them out of his cubicle, not noticing and beyond caring that they adjourned to Charlie’s cubicle to speculate about what was wrong with him. Their best theory was still that he and Jessica were having troubles, but they had a hard time coming up with reasons for the breakup. Charlie defended Jay, claiming he’d never cheat on Jessica, but Kathy was more sage, fully believing that some hussy might have thrown herself at Jay and he might have given in during a moment of weakness. “Jessica should still give him another chance,” she declared, part of her wishing she’d been bold enough to be the hussy who had come between them. Jay forced himself to go through the motions of the day – making phone calls, doing emails. The days ahead stretched out like a jail sentence, with the death penalty as the date-uncertain endpoint. He consoled himself that he had to take it day-by-day, minuteby-minute, like a prisoner facing a life sentence, or like an addict fighting to get over his addition. He wished he felt like joking around with his coworkers. It didn’t feel right to be in his cubicle, overhear people he knew talking, and just sit in his chair. He knew he should feel like joining in the conversations, see the smiles on their faces and get a few on his

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face as well. But what was the point? If he tried to join them, at some point the topic of Jessica would come up, and it’d be clear to them that something was very wrong. He was going to die, and he deserved to die for the pain he was causing Jess. So he stayed in his cubicle as much as possible, slipping out at lunch to eat a sandwich by himself, less out of hunger than out of routine and as a well to kill another hour of the day.

He had a lunch with Pat Dye mid-week. It had been scheduled several weeks ago. If he’d had a plausible excuse, he would have gladly cancelled. Among the people he didn’t feel like being with, Patrick was near the top of the list. But Scott Reusser had called him to his office to remind him of the importance. “You need to get an update on the upgrade, Jay,” he said ferverently. “What’s taking so long?” “I don’t know, Scott,” Jay admitted wearily. “From what I hear, we were clear winners on the RFP, it’s in the budget, and the users want it. All Pat has to do is give the goahead.” Reusser stared at him. “So why doesn’t he?” Jay shrugged. “You know Pat – he does things his own way, in his own time. Hell, I wouldn’t put it past him that he’s just screwing with us because he knows we want it so much. You know he’s going to push us more on the price.” Reusser nodded vigorously. “Sure, sure. We’ve got a little room.” He got up and closed the door, and stood near Jay nervously. “I don’t have to tell you that we need this one, buddy.” “No, you don’t.” Jay had been counting on the incentive payments that he and his team would get for the sale, although his own payments now seemed relatively less important. He couldn’t count on ever being able to spend them.

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“I mean it, Jay,” Reusser emphasized. “The division’s revenues are down, and we need this one to hit our numbers. My bonus is at stake here too, my friend.” He stopped for a second, eyes downcast. “Maybe my job.” He looked up and stared at Jay defiantly. “Maybe your job.”

Pat Dye was a large man. As he tended to work into conversations, and as was evident from the photographs and memorabilia that lined his office, he’d been a football player in college, starting as a tight end for the University of Illinois. But that had been fifteen years and thirty pounds ago, and the Fighting Illini hadn’t exactly been world beaters – or even Big Ten beaters – to begin with. The years had seen too many steaks, too many drinks, and too many late nights for Dye. He was only a few years older than Jay but those years were dog years. “How’s the steak?” Jay asked, watching Dye carve up his T-bone. They’d gone to Ruth’s Chris, as usual. Dye had ordered a cocktail before lunch, and now was washing down his steak with a bottle of wine. Jay couldn’t keep up with Dye’s eating or drinking on his best days, and this was far from his best. He only nibbled at his Ahi-Tuna, and was drinking water. Jay had a bad headache, and Dye’s voice grated on him more than usual. Jay generally liked people and could find something to talk about with anyone. He’d managed to get along with Dye these past few years without actually liking him at all, but his tolerance for other people in general – and Pat Dye in particular – was at an all-time low. He made no further attempts at small talk, which Dye didn’t seem to notice at all, chewing away devotedly. The silence while Dye ate was welcome, although watching him eat was almost as bad as listening to him talk. Dye looked up only briefly, and grunted out something that might have been “good.” He resumed eating, and Jay decided to not pursue further conversation until Dye had finished trying to fill his empty places with the solace of food.

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It was over post-dinner drinks – cognac for Dye, coffee for Jay – that Jay tried to get down to business. “I was kind of wondering what’s happening with the upgrade, Pat. It’d be good to get that implementation started before the year’s over.” Dye swirled the cognac in his glass and gave Jay an appraising look. “I don’t know, Jay,” he said cunningly. “Lots of hurdles. I’m going to have to do a hell of a job selling this inside.” He shook his head, as if daunted by his task ahead. “That’s strange, Pat. I heard from your CIO and your SVP of Ops that they can’t wait for the upgrade to be installed, and I understand that our bid came out the clear recommendation in the RFP process.” Jay kept his voice neutral. It was a little more direct than he’d usually have been but he didn’t have as much patience with Dye as he normally did. Life truly was too short for him to jerk around with the likes of Pat Dye. Dye kept a poker face. “That so, Jay? You sound pretty sure of your facts there, boy.” “I understand it’s up to you to give the go-ahead. I was wondering what the hold-up was. Is there something we need to do from a budget standpoint?” he asked delicately. Dye leaned back in his chair. He looked around the room quickly and turned his steely gaze back on Jay. “You ever been to the Super Bowl?” Jay wasn’t sure why Dye was changing the subject, but figured he had his reasons. “No.” Dye nodded. “I have. I’m telling you, it’s a great party – assuming you get the right package. Tickets to the good tents, a corporate box, nice hotel. I mean, there’s no point going to just sit in the cheap sets, right?” He smiled mirthlessly at Jay. “I suppose so,” Jay agreed uneasily, thinking he knew where this was going.

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“I’ve been to one,” Dye informed him. “One of my other suppliers got me a package. I’d kind of like to go again. Maybe this year.” He paused and slurped appreciatively from his glass of cognac. “Ah” he gasped. “That’s some good shit, I’m telling you.” Dye leaned forward, putting his glass down and his forearms down on the table. “One of your competitors has suggested they could get me something.” There it was, Jay thought. Now, he’d gotten Dye tickets for events in the past. Tickets to their box at the stadium, tickets for Dye and his long-suffering wife to the Broadway Series, tickets to Opening Day. It was all part of the usual amenities that came with the care and feeding of customers. The Super Bowl package was quantitatively different, but not qualitatively. “Pat, you know our bid clearly makes us the winners. Your auditors would have a field day if you chose someone else.” Dye laughed and leaned back. “So maybe we don’t do anything this year. Maybe we wait a year or two and rebid the thing. You never know how it would come out.” Especially after you fed our responses and pricing to your buddies, Jay thought grimly. Dye was looking for a little bonus for himself, and Jay wasn’t going to be able to ignore that. He rubbed his head, trying to ease the now sharp pain he was feeling. He forced himself back to the conversation. “I’ll see what we can come up with,” he conceded at last. “Give me a couple days.” He felt dirty. Dye nodded in satisfaction. “That’s fine, my man. Talk to whomever you need to.” He polished off his drink and stood up. “Oh, and Jay – I’d need some folding money for the trip, of course.” This was a new one. Jay just looked up at him, narrowly his eyes. “What are we talking about here, Pat?” he asked, knowing that even asking that question made him complicit in this new, more outrageous demand. Jay was already trying to adjust his thinking about

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how much might be “reasonable” in this extortion. A thousand dollars? A couple thousand? Certainly no more than five thousand. Dye smiled at him, sensing victory. “I’m thinking about twenty K.” “What about some hookers, Pat?” Jay shot back without thinking. “I suppose you’ll want me to get you some girls as well?” His disgust was evident. Dye pretended to be astonished. “Hell, no, Jay,” he said, a wicked smile crossing his face. “Get me the money and I’ll get my own hookers.” He patted Jay on the shoulder. “You talk to your boss, buddy,” he said, and walked off, leaving Jay to pay the bill and to start thinking about how he was possibly going to pull this off.

Chapter 30 Jason got to the coffeehouse about a half hour early. It was located at the end of a strip mall that fate had not ruled on yet – it might take advantage of nearby neighborhood revitalization or it could well slump further. Next to the coffeehouse were a hairdresser’s, a nail salon, two vacant storefronts, an Indian restaurant and an adjoining grocery, and a vintage clothing store. He sat in his car nervously waiting for Sydney, idly watching the comings and goings of the various customers. He didn’t want to go in by himself. For one thing, he still thought it quite possible that she wouldn’t show up at all. Her suggesting that they meet for coffee was implausible enough. He didn’t think she’d be cruel enough to give him an actual place and time to meet simply as a prank, but he wasn’t willing to rule it out entirely either. And, even if she did intend to come, she might forget or run very late; it certainly couldn’t be as important to her as it was to him.

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He certainly didn’t want to sit inside by himself, although he saw that people doing exactly that didn’t appear to be unusual at all. Even from his car, he could see two women and one man inside, each sitting alone. The man was working on his laptop, one of the women was intently reading, and the third woman was just drinking her coffee and staring out the window. So it wouldn’t be so strange to sit inside by himself until Sydney came, but then he’d be faced with a different quandary. Would he just plop himself down on a chair until she got there – which could make the workers wonder what he was up to – or would he order something? If he didn’t order something, the workers might think he was there to rob the place or something, and if he did order something it might seem rude to Sydney that he hadn’t waited. Jason agonized over this for some time, anxiously keeping an eye on the time. No, he decided at last, waiting in the car was clearly the best option. Fortunately, Sydney did show up, almost right on time. His heart picked up when he saw her get out of her car. He got out of his own car. “Sydney,” he called out tentatively. Sydney was wearing jeans and a yellow hoodie, zipped down enough so that Jason could see that she had a light camisole on underneath. She wore flip-flops on her feet, her toenails a dark red. Sydney looked up at the sound of his voice, and smiled. “Jason!” She stopped and waited for him to walk over to him. “Is that your car?” she asked, nodding towards his Prius. He affirmed that it was. “Nice car,” she said appreciatively. “Great for the environment. Good for you. One of these days I’d like to get one.” “Yeah, I like it,” Jason offered lamely. He didn’t much care about either gas mileage or saving the planet, but if Sydney thought those were good things, he was all for them. Heck, he thought, if she wanted his car he’d swap her straight up. Cars weren’t really that important to him. “Should we go in?” she asked politely, and led him in. It quickly became apparent to Jason that she was a regular here. She didn’t need to even look at the options, and she

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chatted amiably with the two clerks behind the counter, who greeted her enthusiastically by name. Jason couldn’t quite follow her order, and was too nervous to analyze the menu above the counter. He’d already looked over the menu on their website and made a note of a couple possible options, but he froze up when the clerk – a pretty young woman, with too many earrings on one ear and multi-colored hair, who made him feel a little intimidated despite her cheerful personality -- asked him what he wanted. In a panic, he simply told her to get the same as Sydney was having. It was easier not to try to think, because his head was starting to hurt, going from a fairly typical dull ache to a sharper pain. Crummy timing, he cursed to himself. They settled into a couple of overstuffed chairs in the corner. The coffeehouse was part of a local chain, with five locations in the area, and followed the Starbucks-standard of big chairs, a few couches, and several small tables scattered throughout the sitting area, all designed to make customers believe they were in someone’s living room. Admittedly, Jason wasn’t sure who would have such a living room, but it beat sitting in a McDonald’s. He’d never actually been inside a place like this, although he’d formed an impression of what they were like, from commercials or television or movies. Still, hanging out at one was new to him; he’d never been closer than the drive-through. Jason wasn’t sure how to act in such an urbane environment, home to more social creatures than himself. He watched Sydney put her cup to her lips to take a short sip, and followed suit himself. He still wasn’t quite sure what it was; there was white foam – possibly cream? –on top, and he thought he detected some chocolate amidst the coffee. Still, the coffee was too strong for him. He involuntarily wrinkled his nose. “You don’t like it?” Sydney asked, watching him while putting her cup on the side table. She curled her legs under her on the chair, slipping her flip-flops off first. “Umm, no, it’s good,” he pretended. He put his mug down carefully as well, and looked around. The two women were indifferent to their presence, but the guy with the laptop was checking Sydney out from the corner of his eye. He looked like a businessman, although he wasn’t wearing a suit or even a tie. Although he looked to be about the same

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age as Jason, he seemed older somehow, or maybe just more mature. Jason figured he must be wondering who Jason was to Sydney – boyfriend, friend, maybe a brother? He hoped the guy wouldn’t just come over and hit on Sydney in his presence. He hadn’t seemed to make a move on the woman looking out the window, but she looked like she might be a college girl, probably too young for the man. The woman with the book, on the other hand, was probably a little too old for him, probably a housewife taking a break from her house duties. So that left Sydney or the female clerk as hunting for the dude, Jason figured, and he’d probably already made his move on the clerk and failed. He found himself bristling at the guy, only to discover that his rival’s attention had turned back to his laptop. “No classes today?” Jason asked, trying to act like he wasn’t nervous. He was aware that his hands were shaking slightly and prayed that she wouldn’t notice. Another good reason not to pick up his drink. “Teaching or taking?” Jason was puzzled at this. “I meant your yoga classes. Do you take them as well?” Sydney shook her head, smiling tolerantly. “No, I’m taking some courses to be a massage therapist. I have a class tonight.” “Oh,” he said lamely. He’d done his homework on her, prepared a list of topics he might bring up if the conversation lagged – for example, how she got into yoga, her nephew, even global warming, although he knew that’d be risky – but now that he was here with her he felt stupid. There was too much he didn’t know about her, as her comment about the massage therapy proved. There was nothing about him that would interest her. She was way too good looking for him. He snuck a quick glance at the guy with the laptop. He dressed neatly, had a nice haircut, was better looking, and obviously at ease in places like this. Jason felt sure he’d be one of the guys at the bar that he’d be watching in action at a happy hour. He’d have a couple pretty girls -- maybe not as pretty as Sydney, but

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pretty nonetheless -- at his side, smiling at him and following his every comment with devotion. Jason felt a sense of utter despair. OK, he mentally gave in, let the guy come over and take her; just make it quick and relatively painless. “I’ve done a few different jobs in my life,” Sydney commented, raising her eyebrows to emphasize. “Maybe massage therapy will be “it” but I just feel like there are so many things I want to try – not just jobs but places to go, experiences to have. I’ll probably be one of those old ladies wanting to skydive.” She laughed, her tones sparkling like champagne in Jason’s head, or how he imagined champagne would sparkle if he drank it. She looked at him with a bemused expression. “Life just isn’t going to be long enough to do everything I want to do. Do you know what I mean?” Jason froze. He felt the opposite; now that he wasn’t in imminent danger of dying, he was worried about how long life was going to be, about how he was possibly going to fill up all that time. It daunted him. Sydney was filled with more ideas for her life than she knew what to do with, while his life stretched out ahead of him like a blank canvas he didn’t think he could possibly have enough paint for. “Uh-huh,” he finally muttered in response as he realized that she was waiting for an answer from him. He looked away to try to lessen the chances she’d continue this line of conversation. Jason thought it was surreal being there, like something out of a dream, except that this was not a scenario he’d ever dreamed about. He’d fantasized about being with a woman, of course – usually a version of a blonde star of one of his favorite video games – but not being in social situations with one. That would be more of a nightmare. He hadn’t imagined being in a place like this, certainly not with a woman like Sydney. It was more like a parallel universe of some sort, a reality where he acted like normal people. Jason felt lost; he didn’t know the rules of this parallel world. It was scary, but exhilarating in some sense too, sort of like what he imagined being drunk or stoned might be. He worried about doing something extremely silly without realizing it. “Earth to Jason,” Sydney called out. “You there?”

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Jason realized that he must have zoned out during his fit of inadequacy. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I, umm, I was thinking of something. Did you say something?” Sydney seemed amused, not mad, he was surprised to discover. “Yes,” she said. “I asked you how you got so good at video games.” “I don’t know,” he responded dubiously. “I’ve just always played them.” That led to a quick recap of his going to CMU – which, he realized, she seemed impressed by! –and then to working with Ben on the game that led to CS Games, which meant he had to tell her about what he did there. He stopped after a bit, realizing he’d been talking for five or ten minutes with hardly a word from her; Sydney just sat there sipping at her drink, an interested look on her face. “Oh, gosh,” he said, blushing. “I’m sorry to go on like that.” “No, no,” she protested. “I asked you. It was interesting – and I don’t feel so bad that you beat me at Madden.” She sat back and took the opportunity to take another drink of her coffee, looking at him with a frankly evaluative gaze that made him even more nervous. “How’s Billy?” Jason asked, less out of interest than out of desperation to break that study, fearing that the more she looked, the more she’d find fault in him. He figured that the most likely reason she’d agreed to coffee was to get him to play with Billy again, sort of like an adult babysitter or maybe a personal entertainment center. Hey, he thought, if that got him more time with Sydney, it was something he could happily live with. Sydney smiled warmly. “He’s good. Believe it or not, he told his mom he now wants to go to CMU too! They negotiated a deal – she told him he had to really work on his grades to get in there, but if he does that she’ll let him play more games at home. It’s only been a few days but she tells me that he’s really making an effort. So you really made a difference.”

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Jason didn’t know what to make of that. He’d never thought of himself as a role model of any sort, and certainly hadn’t been trying to give the kid any advice. “Huh,” he offered at last. She didn’t know what to make of his reaction, so sipped her drink again. Somewhat to his surprise, she did not pursue the topic of her nephew. “So, what do you do for fun? I mean, besides video games.” “For fun?” He still thought perhaps she was just taking a circuitous route towards a plea that he help entertain her nephew. Sydney laughed. “Yeah, duh – you play games for work, so does that leave you with time to do anything else fun?” Jason felt slightly wounded for some reason. “It’s not really like that,” he said in his defense. “I suppose not.” She considered him for another few uncomfortable seconds. “Is that what you do with your friends? Hang out and play or work on games?” Jason looked away. The easy answer, the one she was expecting, was that he had lots of buddies that he hung out with, played games with, and that was his life. But that wasn’t quite true. The truth was something that he had been starting to realize only slowly and very recently, and was beginning to worry him. Sitting here with Sydney helped solidify it. “Not really. I don’t really have many friends. Maybe none.” He smiled forlornly. Sydney seemed surprised, and put her cup down. She frowned. “What do you mean? Who do you play games with in that big basement?” Jason shrugged, and looked intently at the floor. “I mean, I play with lots of people, all over the world, but that doesn’t really make them my friends. And I don’t really have

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people over to my place to play.” For some reason, he felt slightly better having made the confession. He took a chance and looked up at her, with a half-smile on his face. “You and Billy were among the few people who’ve actually been there.” “Is that so?” she asked curiously, not quite sure what to make of this. She seemed to want to ask him something else, but didn’t. She just looked at him steadily with those eyes. “I play with people at work sometimes,” he continued earnestly. “More often I just play online against other players. I like to be by myself when I’m playing.” He shrugged again. “I don’t know.” He could tell her that he read. He figured her for a reader, and someone who’d expect her friends to be well read. But he was afraid that she might not think much of the books he liked to read, and, even worse, she might view reading was another solitary activity that would only confirm the impression he feared he was making on her. There was another pause. Sydney was eying him again carefully, but Jason couldn’t tell if it was with sympathy, pity, or curiosity. He wasn’t sure he could distinguish those anyway. “I do have a friend,” he blurted out. “This guy at work, Maurice.” He told her about going out to happy hours with Maurice and Jamal, and about the game he and Maurice were working on. Although he was trying to be honest with her, he didn’t admit that he hadn’t known Maurice much longer than he’d known her, or that Maurice had been the one to initiate the friendship. Sydney nodded encouragingly. Still, Jason worried that his having such few friends might be a red flag to her, might serve to scare her off. He decided to try to divert the topic, and asked her what she liked to do with her friends. “Oh, lots of things,” Sydney exclaimed with a smile. “Go out to dinner, go to concerts. Several of my friends are artists, so we go to openings or galleries. I love being in the water, snorkeling or scuba diving.”

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Jason felt more intimidated than ever. He knew how to swim in a primitive way, but wasn’t very good at it and hated being in the water. Plus, going to the pool or the beach would mean being around all those voracious attractive people showing off in their swimsuits, giving them yet one more reason to ignore him. A woman who not only swam but also went under water – what interest could she possibly ever have in someone like him, he asked himself forlornly. “Or we just hang out,” Sydney said with a smile. She nodded around at their surroundings. “Sometimes at places like this.” Jason wondered if she was hinting they were now friends. He tried not to allow himself that hope, because he feared such hope would only be dashed. He wasn’t even going to bother asking if she had a boyfriend; of course she’d have a boyfriend. He was sure that there was no way that someone this beautiful and this special wouldn’t have a boyfriend. She had to go scuba diving with someone, probably a big blond guy with a great tan and lots of muscles, he thought darkly. Someone much more suited to her than he could ever dream of being. Maybe she was here as repayment for spending time with Billy, maybe this was just out of pity. Maybe she had coffee with everyone in her classes – hopefully, though, not including his lecherous classmate, who had eventually introduced himself as Roger. Still, here she was, sitting with him in person and looking wonderful, even talking to him. Jason mentally shrugged; he didn’t care why she was there with him, he was just happy she was there. Sydney smiled brightly at him again. “How did you like the yoga?” she asked. “You should come to another class.” ‘I don’t think I was very good at it,” he admitted. He hesitated again, thinking back to what he did like. “That doesn’t matter,” she told him sympathetically. “Do you work out or anything?”

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Jason blushed, knowing he couldn’t give her the answer she’d probably hope he would. “Umm, sometimes I use the Wii Fit,” he admitted. It wasn’t entirely inaccurate. “Well, that’s a start,” she told him encouragingly. “They’ve got a good yoga module.” Jason had actually used that one, but was more likely to use Wii bowling than the other Fit activities. He’d tried the golf and tennis games but pretty much sucked at those, akin to what he expected his real life prowess would be. Unconsciously he rubbed his head, trying to assuage the pain. She noticed and inquired as to the reason, so he told her he had a headache, and had to admit this was not uncommon. “I’ve been to lots of specialists, but they tell me it’s all in my head.” He flashed a wry smile. “So to speak.” “The yoga could help,” she told him with a concerned expression. “Lots of people find that it helps relieve stress, helps them relax. It’s good for headaches.” Jason didn’t want her to think of him as this damaged creature – well, OK, maybe he was kind of damaged socially, from her point of view – but he didn’t want her to think he was sick or anything like that. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he replied inconclusively. He paused for a few seconds, which drew her attention even further. “I’ve been playing this game that makes me think of yoga,” he admitted at last, not quite looking at her. He was surprised by his admission. He hadn’t told anyone about Cathedral – hadn’t talked to Maurice about it, hadn’t even blogged about it. He’d kept telling himself that he needed to understand it better before he starting telling people about it, but now he wondered if he had unconsciously just not wanted to share the news of its existence with people who might not appreciate it. “Really,” Sydney said. She sat back further in her chair, and put a relaxed arm on the back of her seat. “Tell me about it.”

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Chapter 31 Jay was spending most of his time alone and brooding. He wasn’t used to either of those, he didn’t like it, and he wasn’t good at it. But, nonetheless, there he was. He thought of himself as, well, not exactly a ghost, but something less than living but more than dead. He was a dead man walking, aware of his fate but waiting for that fate to occur. On the weekends or in the evenings he tried to avoid contact with the living. If he had to be with people – such as in a restaurant or at the grocery – he watched them like a ghost might, seeing scenes that only served as a reminder of a life he once had but had no longer, speaking or making eye contact only when absolutely necessary. He hadn’t imagined his life changing so radically, and would have expected that it would be hard for him to become like this, but he found this new life frighteningly easy to adapt to. He simply had no will to interact any more with these people who could blithely live their lives unaware of their own mortality. Work was the most painful; he couldn’t avoid being with or talking to other people, and – worse yet -- people he knew at that. His cubicle was open territory, too hard to avoid the coworkers that he normally would have welcomed. He did his best to look immersed on his computer, or pretended to be on long conference calls, but ultimately he had to resort to coming in late, leaving early, taking long lunches, or even working from home to minimize the chances of encounters. Still, people had to talk with him at times. He’d snapped at a few people, not really meaning to but finding no other way to end conversations that verged on topics that were too personal, like his life. This had the effect of scaring people away from talking to him, which he both welcomed and abhorred. When they absolutely needed to talk to him about a work question, he noticed that they had started standing a safe distance away, and kept the conversation brief. Years of bonding with his coworkers, building relationships that were more like friendships than work relationships in most cases, were being destroyed in the space of a few weeks. It was like being in a slow motion car crash, and

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he was not only driving but also seemed to be steering towards the victims. He didn’t like how he was acting, and hadn’t foreseen the effect his breakup with Jessica would have on everything else in his life. It all was spiraling away from him, out of his control. Kathy Gouran had walked away in tears after he’d too fiercely rejected her suggestion to join in on a lunch outing. He hadn’t meant to turn her down so sharply and might not have minded going, but he was afraid of what topics might come up in the course of the conversation. Amanda tried on a few occasions to start a social conversation, but he found ways to avoid getting into it with her, leaving her confused. He felt bad about that, but that’s how it had to be. Talking about work was difficult but possible, but talking about his life, or hearing about their more normal lives, was beyond him. If work was bad, being away from work was worse. He hated being in his apartment. He felt imprisoned in a fortress of solitude, and he was both the prisoner and the warden. Going home each night felt like a defeat, yet not going home felt impossible. What else was he going to do? Eating out alone drew the spotlight on his being by himself, yet doing things with other people could lead to no good. So he rushed through meals, or, more often, got take-out or a delivery and retreated to his apartment. He ate not for the taste of it, but simply for fuel and as a way to kill fifteen minutes, maybe a half an hour. Going to the movies wasn’t too bad, and blotted out a couple hours, but the downside was that the theaters would usually be populated with couples or groups of friends, laughing or talking amongst themselves. Like eating in a restaurant, it only served to remind him that he’d lost the right to such familiar ease. It was curious. Jay found that once he stopped trying to interact with people – no cheerful smile, no meeting eyes, no improvised conversations while standing in line, no returning phone calls from friends – he had started to feel invisible, not part of the larger world of people. Then people had started to treat him as though he were invisible, like he wasn’t even there. It would have been maddening, ego-crushing, if he hadn’t known that he had started this chain of events, and he deserved whatever consequences it would bring. He just hadn’t realized how hard it would be.

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Jay thought about suicide, at first just a passing thought but over time something he considered more seriously. When he got the diagnosis he sort of assumed the end would come soon, which is why he had to cut his ties with Jessica. He’d even tried to help it along with his long bike rides, getting his heartbeat up. But he hadn’t foreseen day after day of still being alive, his head often hurting and with no will power to resume his social nature. What if dying was going to take a year, two years, five years? It would be intolerable. At this rate, he thought glumly, the people who had once been his friends would have all drifted off by the time he actually did kick the bucket, and no one would mourn his loss. He’d be better off dead soon, and he thought about how he could bring that about. Unfortunately, he had no good ideas as to how to accomplish that. Hanging himself, slitting his wrists, slamming his car into a bridge at a high speed – all seemed much too gruesome. He supposed he could ask a doctor for some sleeping pills – since he hadn’t, in fact, been sleeping well – but somehow the thought of seeing a doctor right now didn’t have much appeal. Besides, he thought sourly, what if he tried to take an overdose and ended up vomiting them back up? It’d be pretty damn embarrassing, not to mention messy, and he’d be damned if someone was going to find him with a mouthful of vomit. No, scratch the sleeping pills. Video games and DVDs provided his only solace. They allowed him to escape into someone else’s life, if only for a respite. The dying allowed him to look forward to his own demise almost with longing, although he hoped his end would be less gruesome.

Jessica’s pictures were too painful a reminder of better days. The framed ones sat in the drawer as a hidden reminder, taunting him that even out of sight, the times they portrayed could never be erased. Sometimes, usually late at night, he gave in and flipped through the digital versions on his computer. That was the worst, breaking his heart all over again at the sight of her but also reminding him, in an odd way, of how lovely she was and how he had to do everything he could to protect her. He would touch the images of her

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tenderly with his finger and promise her that someday she’d understand, that it was for the best. It didn’t make him feel any better. Jay tried to keep some of his normal routines. He finally gave in to Randy’s repeated urging for him to rejoin the softball team, but it hadn’t gone well. Randy ended up benching him after striking out twice and a fielding error. He sat on the bench the rest of the game, his arms crossed, a hood over his head, and no one dared to sit within three feet of him. After the game, Randy insisted on taking him out for pizza, and he lacked the will to refuse, although he suspected that the meal would end up being painful. He was right. “So, I don’t really need to ask how things are going,” Randy observed wryly after they’d ordered. Jay grimaced. “Very funny.” Randy nodded solemnly, his point confirmed. He drank some of his beer. “We really missed you out there tonight.” “Yeah, I’m off my game.” “No kidding.” Randy checked out the tables around them, full of families and other groupings of people. It was a noisy place, with lots of unfettered conversation, waiters constantly on the move, and a warm feeling that the visible brick oven helped generate. The tables had the classic red and white checked tablecloths, the walls had the expected maps and pictures of Italy, and the servers were a combination of energetic college kids and stocky middle-aged women who moved slower but made up for it in their cheekiness. He and Jay had been coming there for years, believing it to be the best pizza in town – or, rather, the best place to have pizza. The constant crowds served to validate their opinion.

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Jay knew he should feel more comfortable. Randy was his best friend, this was a favorite place, and he should be hungry. But he was antsy, wanting to bolt like a cornered animal trying to escape. Fortunately the pizza – a large, thin crust meatlovers – came soon enough, giving them something to distract them from having a straight-up conversation. The pizza had a wafer-thin crust, loaded with a combination of several cheeses and a delicious secret family recipe tomato sauce. The toppings were almost superfluous. They each grabbed a slice and started eating. “How’s work, then?” Randy asked halfway through his second slice. “Crap,” Jay responded immediately. Randy asked him to explain, and Jay torturously explained to him how difficult things were at work, about how hard it was to have to push people there away, and how it was even harder to have them stay away. Neither Randy nor Jay felt the need to note that, as hard as that might be with his coworkers, what Jay was doing to his friends was even worse. “Then there’s this shit with Pat Dye,” Jay said absently. Randy drew it out of him, how Pat was trying to extort him into a large bribe. Randy knew his feelings about Dye, was more sanguine about the use of quid pro quo in the sales process, yet even he was taken aback at the audacity of Dye’s demands. Randy asked if he’d talked to his boss about the situation. “I tried to,” Jay said, playing idly with his mostly empty beer bottle. “He didn’t want to hear about it, but he did hint that if I needed to put through some unusual expense reports I didn’t need to be too explicit about what they were for. I mean, he’s basically telling me how to get the cash for the bribe.” Jay shook his head in dismay. “What are you going to do?”

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Jay shook his head and drank some beer. He looked at the remains of the pizza; he’d only had two slices, compared to Randy’s four-soon-to-be-five, but decided he wasn’t hungry. “It doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to die knowing I gave in to the rat bastard. I’d rather lose the sale. Still, that means my team loses the bonuses that would come along with it, so they get screwed. I lose either way.” He shook his head again. The two of them let a silence spread, not entirely uncomfortable. Randy watched Jay, concerned for his friend, while Jay avoided looking at anyone, staring into the distance on his plate. “It’s good to see you, man,” Randy said earnestly. Jay didn’t know what to say. Randy was his best friend, had been for years. They’d told each other everything – well, almost everything – over the years. It was so familiar being here with him, like so many times over the years. But it wasn’t like the old times. Looking at Randy, sitting with him trying to have a conversation, only reminded Jay of how violently he’d been wrenched from that life, of how he could never have that life again. It was a cruel trick to pretend that their being here now was normal in any way – cruel to him, and cruel to Randy. It hurt like hell, and Jay figured it must be hurting Randy too, even if he wasn’t showing it. Jay took a deep breath, more like a sigh, but didn’t say anything. What was there to say? “Have you seen any more doctors?” Randy asked at last, having recognized that Jay wasn’t going to answer. “No,” Jay said, after a pause so long that Randy hadn’t thought he was going to reply to this either. “There’s no point.” “There might be.” He was going to have to cut Randy off too, Jay realized sadly. He had kind of liked being able to sit with his old friend, but it was too hard. Only Randy could ask him questions like that, and only Randy could know the sadness he faced, the pain he was

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causing Jessica. Jay couldn’t bear it, as much as he loved Randy and wished things could be different. “I’m not going to any more doctors,” Jay told him quietly, looking up to stare directly at him. Randy put up his hands in concession. “OK, OK.” After another long pause, punctuated by another round of beers, Jay smiled wanly. He held up his beer. “You’ll be pleased to know I got drunk a few night ago.” Now that it was past, it seemed like a funny story, one that Randy might appreciate. It was a story that he might have told under normal circumstances, told with gusto to his old friend. But now he felt bad about even trying to act normal again, even to this extent. He frowned suddenly. Despite Jay’s sudden mood change, Randy managed to drag the story out of him, including the conclusion of story -- his awkward morning with Jill. Randy sat back. “I don’t now which to be more impressed by,” he concluded. “Your getting into a fight or your ending up at her apartment.” He leaned in closer. “You’re sure there was no, umm -- ” “Quite sure,” Jay interjected. “Too bad. You could have won the bet.” Randy was trying hard to keep it light, but only partially succeeding. After all, if Jay had slept with Jill, he’d have been cheating on Randy’s sister, in some strange way. He asked Jay a few questions about Jill and her apartment, but gave up after Jay found himself curiously reluctant to share details of Jill’s life or their encounter. Jay especially didn’t tell Randy how Jill had cradled his head. And he didn’t ask the question he really wanted to, about how Jessica was doing.

Chapter 32

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Over the next two weeks, Jason’s life settled into a new equilibrium of sorts. He didn’t have coffee with Sydney again, but he did go to two of her yoga classes, as well as two other classes from another instructor in between the two, wanting to impress her with his progress -- although he wasn’t sure how much he was making. He still had a hard time with most of the poses, finding the stretching most difficult, but he gamely did his best and managed to only moderately embarrass himself in the classes. It wasn’t that anyone made fun of him or anything – thank goodness – but he almost always was the worst in the class. The breathing exercises were the only thing he felt he was getting better at. It had been too strange at first to close the world off and just try to relax, but he started to find it relaxing. He wasn’t able to entirely clear his mind, but he turned it into kind of a game, one where he was walking very slowly through a dark tunnel. He didn’t know where the tunnel was leading – in an actual game it would be into some threatening situation, or a vicious creature would use the dark to leap out and attack him – but he found it soothing to drift along in the dark. The last few times he’d done the exercises, including ones he was doing on his own at home, he’d noticed that his headaches started to diminish while he was in the tunnel. He simply imagined that he was walking away from the pain, that it was back in some dark place that he was moving away from, and it really helped. He had started to enjoy the breathing exercises, to the point where instead of being one of the first to open his eyes he was one of the last. Sydney noticed the improvement and complimented him, giving him a thrill. After both of Sydney’s classes he hoped he might have the nerve ask her out for coffee again. The first time he simply lost his nerve and fled as she was wrapping up with some of the other attendees, cursing himself for his cowardice once he got safely to his car. The second time he kept his nerve longer, biding his time after the class -- doing a few extra stretches, rolling up his mat with extreme care, all the while keeping an eye on her status. Unfortunately, Sydney was talking animatedly to a couple of the women in the class, and it didn’t look like it would be breaking up anytime soon. If he was a different person he might have simply sat and waited for her; if he was more confident in himself,

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he might have just walked up and joined their conversation, perhaps making a couple of new friends in the process. But he was who he was; those women were good looking and self-assured, like Sydney, and he didn’t exist in their world. He admitted to himself that he was being stupid to think about asking her out, even if his goal was not for a “date” – he’d ruled that out as impossible -- but simply for some extra time with her. Defeated, he’d again slunk away as inconspicuously as possible, feeling miserable. The time he’d had coffee with her was receding quickly in his mind, becoming almost like something he’d imagined, and his imagination was having a hard time picturing it happening again Jason spent several days at home, catching up on reviewing some new games so he could update his blog. He’d missed several days of blogging while playing Cathedral, which was highly unusual and was an eternity for his readers. Several of his devoted readers had posted some interesting comments on his silence, at first amused but gradually more strident. He’d known that his followers were pretty hard core gamers, but still hadn’t fully appreciated the fervor with which they followed his updates, like he was cheating them somehow to skip a few hours, much less a day or two. A few weeks ago he’d have been proud of this, but now he was starting to feel slightly alarmed. The cathedral he’d been helping with had the main structures done. He’d been “promoted” to supervisor for the completion of the roof and interior ceiling. The promotion was due in part to simply staying on the project long enough, but he did feel he was getting the hang not only of how to do the construction but also how to most effectively use the other co-workers. It gave him kind of a thrill. The cathedral’s designer was giving the workers the opportunity to decorate the cathedral, and the game allowed the use of small applications to create interesting effects – engravings, friezes, inscriptions, and the like. Jason had volunteered to do the gargoyles around the roof; he’d always been fascinated by gargoyles, and had often used them in games. He liked to make them come alive unexpectedly during the game, throwing players off and making nothing, including supposedly inanimate objects, safe.

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He was at his cubicle looking through his code library for various manifestations of gargoyles he’d used over the years. Jason was very good about never just doing code and leaving it in a game; he kept copies of everything, filed and cross-referenced for easier use when he needed it. Today he was looking at his gargoyle library, trying to decide how to use them for the cathedral. The trouble Jason was finding was that he’d created the gargoyles in the games for a different reason. He’d designed them to scare, and – depending on the players’ skill – eventually kill the players. They were evil, designed that way. That wasn’t the point in Cathedral. They sat to watch over the cathedral, to protect it, in some cases to make visitors smile at some humorous twist – a caricature, an odd position, even an embarrassed expression. It was kind of an ethical coding problem to reuse the evil versions to serve those purposes, he thought. It would be easy enough to simply use the same code in Cathedral, but he thought he might want to start from scratch. Jason switched browsers when he heard Maurice coming. Maurice knew better than to surprise him, so he always started talking when he was several feet away from Jason’s cubicle, even if he was alone. Sometimes Jason would be so focused on what he was doing that he didn’t consciously hear Maurice, but his showing up didn’t startle him as much as it would have had Maurice not thought to warn him. “Hey, J-Man,” he called out from around the corner. “You there?” “Yo, over here,” Jason replied, leaning back in his chair. He put his feet up on his desk. Maurice was sheparding a young man. The guy was younger than Jason, and even thinner, to the point of almost being gaunt. His unkempt hair trailed behind him in a ponytail that reached his shoulder. Jason had seen him around the office, maybe at happy hour, maybe not, but he didn’t know – or didn’t remember – his name. Fortunately, Maurice was there to provide it. “Jason, my man, this is Dylan.” All Jason knew about Dylan was that he always wore Birkenstocks, which Jason found oddly troubling.

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Jason nodded noncommittally at Dylan. He knew what was coming. Maurice had started bringing these kinds of guys over to Jason’s cubicle with their problems. Their programming problems, of course. He’d snap at anyone else who might have tried that, but it was Maurice, so he cut him some slack. “What’s up?” he asked, looking at Maurice. Maurice explained that Dylan was working on one of the updates to their popular car chase game. The game had been around for a few years, and it was getting tougher and tougher to top. They’d been borrowing some of the effects Jason had put in for the highest levels and putting them in the lower levels to help keep the game fresh. Since Dylan appeared too bashful – or too starstruck – to tell Jason directly what he needed, Maurice took it upon himself. He explained that Dylan was looking for some blood effects – gushing blood, of course – that would stand out. Jason starting nodding his head before Maurice finished. “Sure, sure. A common effect,” he noted. “You gotta remember, though, it should depend on the situation.” Dylan looked confused. “What do you mean?” Jason tapped his fingers on his desk impatiently. “Well, arm versus leg, vein versus artery. How fast was the character’s heart beating before he started bleeding? Once it’s out, it starts congealing, unless it gets diluted by rain or a puddle or something. If there is a fire or something hot around, the blood’s going to get boiled away after it starts coming out.” He looked intently at Dylan to make sure he was following. Maurice was trying – not very successfully – to suppress a smile. Dylan’s mouth was gaping. “How the hell do I know what happens to blood in all those situations?”

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“You have to do some research,” Jason told him sternly. “You don’t just write code, not if you want to be good. You want the code to be real. You have to work at it. Got it?” Dylan appeared flummoxed, like a kid being told to do his homework. Jason relented. He put his feet down and leaned over his keyboard, typing away quickly. He pulled up his files, and selected a sample. “Here,” he said. “Check this out.” Dylan quickly scanned the code, his brow furrowing. “Umm, interesting,” he mumbled. He scratched his head. “How does it, um, how does it look?” Jason leaned back over the keyboard, and launched the snippet of code. They watched it on the screen. It was odd, the blood spurting on its own, with no context or other objects on the screen. Despite that, it still enthralled them with how realistic it was. “Tell me what you want and I’ll do it for you.” Jason offered, figuring it’d be much faster and get Dylan out of his hair. “No,” Maurice interjected. “I think Dylan’s got the idea. Why don’t you give him some of the base codes you’ve got and let him work it out?” “All right, Jason agreed, frowning slightly. He looked at Dylan. “I’ve got a few versions I can send you the links to.” Dylan started to profusely thank Jason, who simply waved it off. He was not comfortable with that kind of emotion. “I’ll buy you a drink at happy hour,” Dylan offered. “Great,” Jason said, his tone at odds with his words. He felt like Maurice was slowly trying to involve him with the lives of Dylan and his ilk. Part of him – the old part, the part he used to be – resented his interference. Stranger still, though, part of him not only didn’t mind, but kind of enjoyed helping the other programmers. It made him useful in a new way. When he wrote code he felt connected to the game but not to the other developers, but this was more personal.

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Dylan rushed off, eager to start playing with the code that Jason was going to give him. Maurice stayed behind, leaning against the edge of Jason’s cubicle. He had a satisfied smile on his face. “You enjoy this, don’t you?” Jason said mockingly. In fact, Maurice was enjoying it. His status at CS Games had skyrocketed due to his relationship with Jason. People figured that if Jason spent time with him, he must be pretty smart, and if he was a friend of Jason he was probably friends with Ben. So they started seeking him out, including him in discussions or outings that they might never done previously. It was ironic that Maurice was aware of and enjoying his newfound status, while Jason remained fairly oblivious to his own cult status. “I’m just trying to give these guys the benefit of your genius,” Maurice replied calmly, his smile getting bigger. “Just a tip – it’ll be better if you guide them instead of just telling them what to do. Let them figure it out.” “That takes too long.” “It’s like the fish,” Maurice explained. Jason looked at him blankly. “You know – give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he eats for a lifetime. You gotta teach them how to do this stuff.” “Huh,” Jason allowed, mulling over the analogy. “I’ve never really liked teaching. People are just too slow.” “Give them a chance,” Maurice urged. Jason gave him a probing look. “You’re encouraging them, aren’t you?”

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Maurice smiled coyly. “I can’t help it if they’re too afraid to come to you directly. I figure once they meet you, though, next time it will be easier.” “Yeah, and I’ll spend my whole damn day helping them.” “Working with them,” Maurice reminded him. “Who knows – maybe you’ll learn something from them.” Jason thought about this, and believed it wasn’t as far-fetched as he once might have thought, oddly enough. “Maybe,” he allowed. He frowned and shrugged in frustration. “I can’t even remember all their names.” “That will come,” Maurice assured him. He leaned towards Jason’s screen. “So,” he said, changing the subject. “What are you working on?” Jason hesitated just slightly, deciding how open to be with Maurice, then started to talk about some effects he was trying for in the expert levels of a new game – motorcycle racing on an extreme roller coaster loop -- he was working on for Rahul. Maurice could tell he was bored just talking about it. “No, no – I don’t mean what Rahul wants you to be working on. I want to know what you’re really working on. And don’t tell me about your blog, because I’ve been checking it and I know you’re up to something else.” He leaned closer. “Whatever it is, I want in.” This time Jason’s hesitation was just to smile, implicitly acknowledging that Maurice had caught him. “OK,” he started. “There’s this new game I’ve been playing.” Jason stopped himself. Thinking about Cathedral was reminding him of yoga, which led him directly to Sydney. It would be easier to talk to Maurice about Cathedral than about Sydney, but he needed advice more about her than about the game. Games, he understood; people, he didn’t. Jason took a deep breath, feeling confused and at a loss. He didn’t even know where to start. Maurice was eyeing him with some interest,

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watching his apparent internal struggle and waiting him out. “This isn’t about a game, is it?” Maurice asked sympathetically. “Problems with your girlfriend?” “She’s not my girlfriend,” Jason protested weakly. “Well, she did ask you out,” Maurice reminded him. He eyed Jason with unmasked glee, enjoying seeing him tormented by a woman. “She’s probably waiting for you to ask her out.” “I doubt it,” Jason objected with a frown. “I’m sure she’s got a boyfriend, and I don’t do any of the things she likes to do. And – I mean, look at me. She’s way too good looking to go out with someone like me.” Maurice nodded knowingly, and tapped his fingertips together. “Is that so?” he asked with a smile.

Chapter 33 Jay was eating a solitary lunch in a Subway not too far from work, although not the closest. He would have much preferred to eat at Two Brothers, but then Freddy might try to start a conversation, and in any event Jay would start remembering better times eating there with Randy. The food was decent but unremarkable at Subway; the main advantage was that he was not likely to run into coworkers or to get into a conversation with the counterman. He was chewing as slowly as he reasonably could, since he dreaded going back to work, having to face the long hours of avoiding interactions with his coworkers. He briefly considered taking the afternoon off and going home, but even the office was preferable to an afternoon trapped in his apartment. He’d taken to regularly taking bike rides in the evening after work and on weekends simply as a way to kill time, an hour or two during which no one questioned why he was alone or tried to talk to him. If he was

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lucky he’d tire himself enough to make sleep come sooner and more deeply. He didn’t often get that lucky. “Hello, Jay,” Kurt Josephs said, slipping into the cheap plastic booth across from him and breaking Jay’s reverie. His Hugo Boss suit looked even more out of place in the Subway than Jay’s slacks and sports coat, but he had his usual air of confidence about his presence here. Jay stared at him in surprise. He blinked, just to make sure that Josephs wasn’t an illusion, a horrible artifact of his headaches – could he now be having hallucinations? Once he satisfied himself that Josephs was real, in the flesh, he did a quick glance around the room to make sure Josephs wasn’t just the tip of the iceberg of other coworkers. Jay wasn’t entirely sure that he wouldn’t have preferred that Josephs simply an illusion, but it didn’t look like that was an option. It appeared that Josephs was alone, so Jay put down the remains of his sandwich and stared at Josephs. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I wanted to talk to you,” Josephs said, putting an arm along the top of the booth, seeming very relaxed. “You’ve been kind of discouraging people from talking to you at the office lately.” “Evidently not everyone,” Jay replied sourly. “Are you going to eat that pickle?” Josephs asked, without waiting for a reply. He reached across the table as he spoke and took it, then took a big bite. “Thanks. As you know, I’m a guy not easily discouraged.” He smiled coldly at Jay, and put the half-eaten pickle back on Jay’s plate. “Unlike some people I know.” Jay wanted to protest, wanted to shout that he had a damn good reason for withdrawing the way he had, but he was not about to show weakness – especially not to this man. “What do you want, Kurt?”

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Josephs flashed his smile again. “I thought you’d never ask. I was wondering if you were planning to use the corporate box tickets that Scott has for tomorrow night.” The company had a very nice box at the arena, and encouraged its sales people and account executives to entertain clients and prospects there for concerts or sporting events. In times past, Jay did his fair share of entertaining there, but he’d lost interest given the recent developments in his personal life. He knew that it was stupid professionally, but added it to the list of mistakes he was making lately, all in a good cause. “No,” he told Josephs tightly. “That’s good,” Josephs said breezily. He pulled some passes from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “Because I already got them from Scott.” “Bully for you,” Jay mumbled back. He looked down and pushed his sandwich around, his appetite now totally gone. The presence of the pickle didn’t help. It took him a couple seconds, but eventually he raised his head to look at Josephs. “Why are you telling me?” Josephs took his arm off the edge of the booth and leaned forward, arms on the table. “Well, I’m planning to take your boy Pat Dye.” Jay was shocked. “You can’t do that.” “I already have. Called him this morning. He’s happy to go.” “But, but – he’s my account,” Jay protested. Josephs shook his head, as if disappointed by Jay’s naivety. “Jay, Jay – neither GSV nor Pat Dye belong to you,” he lectured. “GSV is a customer, and that customer deserves the right amount of attention. I’m just trying to make sure that Pat feels like he’s wanted.”

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Jay stared at Josephs incredulously. Josephs sat back, a satisfied expression on his face. “How do you even know Pat?” Jay asked at last. Joseph shrugged. “Oh, we’ve had drinks a couple times, played in a foursome once,” Josephs said casually. “Good guy. I think he and I look at business in the same way.” Jay had a pretty clear idea that Josephs was alluding to Dye’s request for payoffs, and harbored little illusion that Josephs would have no qualms about meeting his demands, assuming he could find the money. He was distressed to hear that Josephs had been courting Dye for some time now, while he’d been oblivious, and he realized he also had to wonder how Josephs had come to get assigned to PM Trucking, Mike Trico’s recent sale. He didn’t think Mike would have gone for a payoff of some sort, but Scott Reusser was another matter. Josephs stood up. “You’re making this too easy, McKenzie. It’s almost not fun like this,” he told Jay. He turned to leave, but stopped after a step and turned around. “Oh, hey – you know, there’s a lot of rumors floating around that you broke up with your girlfriend.” Jay’s cheeks had already been starting to redden from anger at Josephs’ previous comments, but now flamed anew in mixed embarrassment and anger. He stared up in impotent fury at Josephs. “You know,” Josephs reminded Jay in a honeyed voice. “The pretty girl whose picture you used to have on your desk, and now keep in your desk drawer.” Jay was stunned that Josephs was essentially admitting that he’d been rooting around in Jay’s desk. He hadn’t had the heart to look at that picture – one taken in the Rockies on one of their vacations, with Jessica’s face glowing from the light of the sunset hiding behind the mountains – but hadn’t had the heart to get rid of it or take it home either. He’d stuck it in his upper desk drawer, and hadn’t summoned the courage to look at it

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again since. For all he knew, the son-of-a-bitch had stolen it already, as another provocation. Perhaps Jay’s failure to discover the theft had caused this confrontation. Josephs leaned in closer. “Hey, Jay – since you and Jessica are broken up, maybe I’ll give her a call.” He watched Jay’s face fall, then walked away laughing.

Jay forced himself to return to work, and suffered through the afternoon even more than usual. He knew Josephs had just threw in the comment about Jessica as a shot, and that Jessica would know better than to ever get involved with a jerk like that, but the shot hurt nonetheless. It might not be Josephs, but since he’d cleared the field for Jessica he had to assume that at some point she’d find someone else. He loved her too much to want her to end up never falling in love again, never getting married or having kids. Hell, allowing her to live happily was the whole point of his self-imposed exile. It would be easier if he died before she found someone else. As much as he wanted her happy, he doubted he could bear seeing her with anyone else – not that he was likely to see much of her, unless he started spying on her, something he feared was possible if he had to go on without seeing her for too long. On the other hand, if he died before she fell in love again, how could he ever be sure that she would? He didn’t know what he believed about Heaven or Hell or an afterlife, but he hated to put his faith in being able to observe her life after the end of his own. Given his recent luck – or Fate, or whatever one wanted to call this recent string of unfortunate events – he wished he could be sure Jessica was happy before he kicked off. Even if it broke his own heart.

Before the end of the day, Amanda Knudson and Kathy Gouran popped into his cubicle, Kathy sliding into his guest chair and Amanda leaning against an edge of his cubicle.

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Because he had been zoning out, their appearance caught Jay by surprise, materializing as if transported straight into his cubical. “Jay, we have to talk,” Kathy began. “It’s not a good time, guys,” Jay replied without quite looking at them. “It’s never a good time lately,” Amanda observed. “But we need to talk.” “Jay, what’s going on?” Kathy asked pointedly. Jay looked at her, not sure what she might be referring to. The range of possibilities was too large to take a guess. “What do you mean?” “There’s a rumor that Kurt Josephs is taking over on GSV,” Amanda said. “And he got PM Trucking,” Kathy added. They looked at him intently, and he had to look away. “Jay,” Kathy said softly. “I don’t really want to work for Kurt Josephs. But if you’re losing these accounts to him, that’s what’s likely to happen.” “You haven’t been yourself lately,” Amanda continued with concern. “And you won’t tell anyone what’s wrong.” He’d fucked up, Jay realized, that realization hitting him like a ton of bricks. He’d known that his own life was already forfeit, and that he was wreaking havoc with Jessica’s in his noble but perhaps stupid effort to protect her, but he hadn’t really taken into account that the collateral damage that he was causing to people like Kathy and Amanda. Of course, if he’d simply died straight away they might still be in the same situation, with Kurt swooping in to pick up the pieces of his career, but he’d been simply letting things happen. It wasn’t fair to everyone else; he was going to have to do something to protect his friends at work too, difficult as that might be. He looked up

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steadily at Kathy, then Amanda, seeing not just worry over their jobs but also their real concern for him. “I’ll take care of it,” he promised, although he didn’t know for the life of him how he would do that.

Chapter 34 Jason was sitting next to Jamal at the CS Games happy hour hangout. Maurice was at the bar, supposedly getting a drink but taking his time while he chatted up a woman from Marketing. Eric was on the other side of Jamal, talking intently to Ryan. The topic of their current shared fascination was a graphic novel series that CS Games had a game based on. They were discussing the most recent issue, which they had found an advance copy of online and downloaded. “I can’t believe his girlfriend is dumping him again,” Ryan said sadly, shaking his head. “Yeah, well how many times does she have to get kidnapped by bad guys before it’s OK for her to get a boyfriend who isn’t a superhero?” Eric replied, flipping through some of the pages. “Think of all the bad shit she’s been through.” “She doesn’t even know he’s a superhero,” Ryan retorted. “Dumb broad.” Eric and Ryan erupted in an explosion of giggles. “You into this shit as well?” Jamal asked Jason, rolling his eyes slightly. “Not so much,” Jason admitted, looking around tentatively. He didn’t exactly advertise that he wasn’t so much into comics or graphic novels, since so many games were based on them.

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“You more a -- what do they call them -- Manga? – kind of guy?” Jamal asked, drawing out “manga” in a way that suggested some implicit but very subtle degree of disdain. “Not them either. If I’m going to read, I read a book that I’m going to learn something from.” Jamal studied Jason silently, and Jason somehow felt that he’d passed some sort of test. It made him feel inordinately proud. Jamal turned to his drink, still mostly full even after an hour at the table. “I’m a reader myself,” Jamal confessed. He took a short sip of his beer. “Got myself a little library in my basement.” He seemed vaguely embarrassed about this, as though he was admitting to a secret he didn’t share much. Jason pulled out his Kindle. “I’m more into e-books. Easier to get books, and you can carry them around with you. This can hold a couple thousand books.” Jason pulled open a book and flipped through some pages, showing Jamal what it looked like. “Better than the real book.” He put it down on the table near Jamal. Jamal looked at it carefully, but made no move to pick it up. “I’m old school,” Jamal commented mildly. “That’s for you young bloods.” Jason started to put away his Kindle, but Eric interrupted his discussion with Ryan to ask to see it. Jason passed it over, and Eric and Ryan immediately started playing with it, geeks with a new toy. Jamal just shook his head. Jason looked around the bar, surveying the activity. The woman Maurice was with was cute enough, and the way she was laughing at whatever Maurice was saying to her suggested that she was playing the game. He knew Maurice well enough to know that Maurice was not that funny, so she had to be pretending as part of the dating ritual. He wondered if he should try that if he ever had coffee with Sydney again. Maybe he should check out some joke sites on the Internet.

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The bar was fairly full, with Jason’s table being the sole quiet zone, even with Eric’s and Ryan’s chattering. Jason figured he knew maybe half of the people there. “Knew” was perhaps an overstatement; he only knew the names of five or six of them, had talked to another seven or eight of them through Maurice’s introductions but hadn’t retained their names, and believed he’d seen a few more, either at CS Games or at previous outing here. He suspected that he’d been introduced to more of them than he recalled, but he was still pretty bad with faces, especially when he saw them out of the context in which he’d met them. This being social was hard work. He’d been considered taking photos with his phone anytime he met someone, but he hadn’t worked out how he’d pull them up unobtrusively when he ran into them later. Still, he felt the idea had some merit and was still mulling it over. “Sweet,” Eric praised, handing the Kindle back. “Download one of the X-Men series,” Ryan requested. “I want to see how it looks.” Jason gave him a dubious look, and stored it carefully back in his computer bag. “My man here is an intellectual,” Jamal chided them gently. “He doesn’t have time for that nonsense.” Eric and Ryan proceeded to start to explain why comic books and graphic novels were the new literature for the 21st century, but Jamal just looked at Jason and shrugged, indicating his lack of interest in hearing their rationale. Jason tried unsuccessfully to suppress his smile and turned his attention back to the crowd at the bar. There were a number of attractive women, he had to admit. He’d started to pay more attention to how women looked since he’d met Sydney. Jason was used to getting flustered when he met women, blushing and doing anything to avoid eye contact, but now sometimes when Maurice introduced him to women at work he got flustered not because he couldn’t imagine talking to them at a happy hour but because he was starting to imagine that someday he might want to try to. He wasn’t ready to actually talk to them at

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the happy hours he attended, but he could now see how it was theoretically possible. Theoretically. He was still unsuccessful imagining talking to any of them while sharing a meal or other forms of dates; talking to them at work or maybe at a happy hour as about as far as he could picture himself doing. Someone at the bar called out to Eric, and he and Ryan excused themselves to go talk to them, carrying their drinks with them. That left Jason alone with Jamal. He still didn’t feel entirely comfortable with Jamal – he felt like Jamal certainly couldn’t truly care to hang out with him – but he’d grown more used to it over the past few weeks. Jamal kept his conversational cards close to his chest, so Jason simply waited for him to feel like speaking. “I wanted to thank you for looking out for Maurice,” Jamal suddenly said, staring at his beer. “Excuse me?” Jason said, not sure he’d heard right. Jamal looked over at him. “It ain’t easy for a brother in your world, or in the world he comes from,” Jamal explained. “Not many like him either place.” Jason still didn’t quite understand. “But -- people like Maurice.” He nodded towards the bar, where Maurice was now talking animatedly to a group of coworkers. Jamal nodded slowly, watching his brother. “Sure they do. But he’s shy, doesn’t make friends easily.” Jason stared at Jamal in confusion. “Oh, I don’t think so. He’s very outgoing. He talks to everybody. Just look at him.” Jason nodded again towards the bar. Jamal looked at his brother, and smiled slightly, a smile of pride. He shook his head. “Just because he can talk to people doesn’t mean he ain’t shy, and just because they talk

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to him doesn’t mean they’re friends with him.” His face grew serious as he looked intently at Jason. “Fact is, he doesn’t let many people in. He never came to these things until you started coming. I know you guys hang out at work too, going out to lunch and whatnot. All I’m saying is, I appreciate it.” Jason was about to say something to try to correct Jamal, but then it struck him that he hadn’t ever noticed Maurice going out to lunch with many other people, certainly not introducing people the way he did with him. Maurice seemed comfortable talking to people, but now that Jason was thinking about it, Maurice didn’t really seem close to anyone else at CS Games, and didn’t really collaborate with the other developers like the two of them had started to. Jason wanted to explain to Jamal that, no, it was Maurice who was drawing him out, that it was Maurice who was causing him to be more social, but something in Jamal’s steady gaze deterred him. “I like Maurice,” he said at last. Jamal nodded, his eyes deep with feeling. “He’s a good brother.” He turned to watch Maurice for a second, a small smile playing over his face, then turned his attention back to his beer. It was then that Jason noticed the attractive woman making her way to the bar. She wasn’t dressed like the others; she was much more casual, wearing faded jeans and a simple top, with flat sandals instead of the heeled versions that most of the other women seemed to wear – the better to show off their calves, Jason understood. The other women dressed more competitively -- tighter jeans, shorter skirts, skimpier tops, spiked heels – but didn’t make them look any better than this woman did. Jason thought that she must know who she was and didn’t have to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. He very much approved. He liked the way she moved too, treading her way lithely through the crowd. And she was good-looking, a pretty face, with nice hair and lovely eyes, eyes that appeared to be searching around for someone. It was Sydney, Jason realized with a shock.

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He hadn’t recognized her at first because she was, for him, totally out of place; he never imagined that she’d turn up here. He clenched his lips together tightly; her being there must mean that she was meeting her boyfriend here. Jason did not want to see that. He feared seeing her kiss him, maybe pretend to laugh at his stupid stories, the way Eric’s girlfriend pretended to. She might turn into one of those silly girls, and his impression of her would be totally ruined. As impossible as it seemed, her presence here suggested that her boyfriend might work at CS Games, and Jason started searching through the faces to see who might qualify. He couldn’t think of anyone near good enough for her, short of maybe Ben, and he was married. Curiously, he noticed that, although Sydney drew appreciative looks from many of the men, none of them looked at her in recognition. Jason heard Maurice snicker, and broke his intent staring at Sydney to look over at him. “So that’s the mystery lady,” Maurice said, having made his way back to their booth unobtrusively, along with Ryan. He whistled appreciatively. He nodded at Jason, then turned his head to watch Sydney appreciatively. “I can’t believe she’s here,” Jason lamented, watching Sydney make her way to the bar. She shook her head at the good-looking man who immediately appeared next to her, evidently shooting down his offer of a drink. He beat a tactical retreat, not giving up but not pressing his luck just yet. “I can,” Maurice announced proudly. Jason whirled to face him. “What do you mean? Is she dating someone at work?” Maurice shrugged casually. “She’s here because she’s meeting you.” “I don’t think so,” Jason responded. “Why would she be meeting me here?” “Because you texted her to meet you here.” Maurice seemed inordinately proud of himself.

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Jason was thoroughly confused, so Maurice proceeded to explain that he’d purloined Jason’s phone earlier in the day, found her number, and exchanged texts with her to set up their meeting here. “She was delighted to join us,” Maurice pronounced. He thought for a second and added a correction. “To meet you.” Jason went from being confused to being briefly angry to being a little scared – now that she was here, he was going to have to talk to her. Jamal just smiled a tiny smile, holding his beer and keeping his attention on it to stay out of this discussion. “So what do I do now?” Jason fretted. He watched another player approach Sydney and get shot down. He felt oddly relieved. “You go up and talk to her,” Ryan joined in, watching her in open admiration. “Better do it before one of these guys says the magic words and she lets him buy her a drink. If you don’t hurry I might have to take a shot myself.” “Yeah, like you’d have a shot at someone like that,” Maurice said dismissively. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Now me, on the other hand – after all, if you think about it, in a way she is here meeting me.” “Shut up,” Jason told him, not really believing Maurice would try it, given their friendship, but not entirely sure either. “I think your problem is solved, boys,” Jamal interrupted quietly. They both looked at him in curiosity. He nodded towards the bar. “I think she’s found you.” Jason whipped his head towards the bar so quickly that he was fortunate not to get whiplash. Sure enough, Sydney had turned around to survey the outlying areas of the

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bar, and had settled her gaze upon their table. When she caught his eye, she smiled and waved. Jason felt weak at that smile of hers, but managed a half-hearted wave in return. Sydney turned to get her drink and to put some money down for it – waving off another offer by a neighboring patron to buy it. While her back was turned Jason whispered to Maurice, “I’m going to kill you.” “Not likely,” Maurice responded with a laugh. Sydney slid into the booth next to Jason. “There you are,” she said, giving him a forgiving smile. “I didn’t see you at first.” “Yeah, I kind of missed seeing you there too,” Jason lied. “Hard to believe anyone could miss seeing anyone as beautiful as this woman,” Ryan offered gallantly from across the table. She looked at him with a smile. “How nice of you.” She looked around the table. “Jason, these must be your friends.” Jason quickly introduced them all to her, having to take a little extra time explaining how Jamal fit into the group. If Jason’s explanation sounded awkward, Jamal didn’t show any sign of being bothered. He lifted his glass a few inches off the table in salute and gave her a small nod of acknowledgement. Introductions complete, Sydney turned to Jason. “I was so glad you invited me. I was wondering when I was going to see you.” “Funny thing about that,” Jason admitted, feeling guilty that it not only hadn’t been his idea, he hadn’t even known about the invitation. He wanted to clarify the invitation.

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She looked at him curiously, but before he could continue Maurice jumped in. “We’re glad you could make it. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” He gave Jason a warning look to tell him not to blurt out anything about his role in the invitation. Out of the corner of his eye, Jason could see that Eric had seen Sydney come over, and was gesturing at Jason, pointing at himself in symbolic suggestion that he join them. Jason shook his head the smallest amount he could. Eric tried again, and Jason had to more firmly shake his head in the negative. He barely finished before Sydney looked back at him, aware he’d been doing something but not quite sure what. “Yes, we’re happy you came,” he babbled. “I’m happy you’re here.” The group spent another thirty or forty minutes together. Ordinarily, Ryan would have pealed off, and even Maurice would have made a foray or two, but neither of them was going anywhere with her there. Jason’s one hour alarm should have been going off, but Sydney’s presence had magically inactivated it. Everyone at the table except for Jamal had another round of drinks. Sydney noticed how he husbanded his drink but did not comment. The conversation was mostly aimed at Sydney. Maurice and Ryan professed to be very interested in yoga, not to mention the benefits of massage therapy, and did their best to keep her talking. Sydney eventually turned the tables. “So, Maurice and Ryan, you work with Jason?” They nodded enthusiastically, their heads bobbing like bobbleheads. “How’s that?” “Pretty cool,” Maurice told her. “They pay us to design games!” Ryan exclaimed. “Can you believe it?”

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“So you’re all into games like Jason is?” she asked. “I played him once and he beat me badly.” “It was pretty close,” Jason corrected. “Yeah, he’s pretty good,” Ryan admitted. “He killed me a few times today.” “I got him once,” Maurice boasted. “Out of six games,” Ryan shot back. “It was just a stupid game,” Jason told her, wanting to change the subject. “What about you, Jamal?” Sydney asked, her attention turning to the previously quiet Jamal, trying to draw him into the conversation. Jamal’s lips quivered in the slightest of smiles. “I was working all day,” he informed her gravely. “No time in my life for games.” “I know what you mean,” Sydney agreed. “Jason’s life is games,” Maurice offered. “Playing games and designing games.” It wasn’t untrue, and normally Jason wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but with Sydney there he suddenly felt uncomfortable being characterized so simply. He wanted to be, he didn’t know, deeper, more mysterious. More like someone Sydney would like, or at least not think of as trivial. He shifted in his seat nervously. Maurice started telling her about Jason’s blog. “You have to read it,” he told her. “He’s like, the king of games.” He bowed his head deferentially towards Jason.

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“Yeah,” Ryan chimed in, trying to draw Sydney’s attention. “You have thousands of readers, right? And the game companies send him all kinds of shit, trying to get him to say nice things about them.” Jason felt embarrassed, and was starting to blush. Sydney looked at him, trying to look impressed but struggling, just a little, to keep a straight face. “Wow, I had no idea.” “It’s no big deal,” Jason told her. “He helps you, “ Jamal said to Maurice, surprising everyone. “When you needed some help on that game you’re developing, you asked Jason.” Maurice looked at his brother in surprise. He realized what Jamal was doing. “That’s right, that’s right,” he agreed. He turned to Sydney. “When I have a really hard problem – Jason’s the man.” “That’s right,” Ryan chimed in. “We all go to him for help.” “Is that so?” Sydney said, looking at Jason in what he thought might be a different light. “That’s nice of you.” She thought for a moment, and looked at her watch. “Oh, my – I’ve got to get going.” Maurice and Ryan protested, but Sydney’s resolve was unshaken. Jason wished she could stay forever, but recognized that if he was lucky enough to be with her forever, this noisy, crowded bar might not be the best choice. Sydney took a last drink from her glass and stood up. “It’s been nice meeting you all.” She remained in place, and it took a subtle nudge from Jamal to make Jason realize what was expected from him. “I’m leaving too,” he said hurriedly. “Let me walk you out.”

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Chapter 35 “Is this Jay?” the voice on the phone asked. Jay had almost not answered his mobile when it rang. He didn’t recognize the number, and he’d been avoiding calls lately. However, the caller was persistent, calling every couple of minutes and not leaving voice mails, and Jay was getting annoyed. He didn’t recognize the voice. “Yeah, who are you?” “Amy.” She apparently did not feel the need to elaborate. This wasn’t getting anywhere, Jay thought, getting more annoyed. He knew a few Amys, but she didn’t sound familiar to him at all. “Amy who?” “Amy Wells,” she told him impatiently. It took a couple of seconds for her name to register, and then he recognized the voice from his time talking to her. “Jesus, Amy – how did you get this number?” “From your phone,” she told him. “You know, from when you were in our apartment.” “Uh-huh.” He realized she must have gone through his jacket while he was still conked out. At least his wallet had been in his pants. “Listen, we need to meet.” Jay wasn’t expecting this, not at all. “Meet?” he sputtered. “Are you crazy? You’re a nice kid and all, but you’re too young to be calling up strange men and asking them to meet you someplace. Your mom would flip if she knew you were doing that.” “Don’t worry about my mom,” Amy replied confidently. “We need to meet.”

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“Why would we ‘need’ to meet?” Amy was silent for a moment. “Because I say so,” she told him stubbornly. “Amy, we’re not meeting,” he told her firmly. “I’m going to hang up now.” Before he could make good on that, Amy played her best card. “I’ll tell Jessica.” That set him back. How could she possibly know Jessica? Why would she want to talk to her? What would she tell Jess? This was ridiculous, he thought. “I don’t know who you are talking about,” he bluffed. “Jessica Berardi,” she informed him smugly. Jay was stunned. She proceeded to give him Jessica’s mobile number, confirming that this was no bluff. He hadn’t done anything wrong with Jill – that he knew of – but he wasn’t sure how Jessica might view it, and he didn’t want to hurt her any more than he already had. Blackmail or not, he had to do what Amy said. She told him where and when to meet. She warned him not to tell her mother.

Jay walked into the luncheonette with an attitude. It wasn’t a place he knew, although he’d seen it while driving by. Pete’s was a couple streets away, and he figured that’s why Amy chose it. The place had evidently been around for some time. The tables were chipped, and the floors showed the scuffmarks from years of patrons walking in and back out. Jay could smell the food the instant he walked in the door, a smell like someone’s kitchen. No nouvelle cuisine here; their food would still be with you for the rest of the day. Jay imagined that the years of cooking had left a patina of aromas on the place, like flavoring to a stew pot. He liked it.

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It was after the lunch rush, and there were not too many customers left. There was an older couple, silver-haired and in no hurry to go back to wherever they lived. There were two young African-American men talking intently – perhaps about school, perhaps doing some business they didn’t need an office for. There was a decrepit man that Jay suspected was homeless, based on his tattered attire, slurping up a bowl of soup at the counter. And, sitting in the corner by herself, was Jill Wells. He hadn’t expected to see her, but wasn’t entirely surprised. Perhaps she had found out what Amy had done and had come along as a chaperon or to yell at him for agreeing to meet her daughter without him. He strode over to her. “Where’s Amy?” he asked, sitting down across from her. She looked up, surprised at his arrival. She didn’t seem to be expecting him. “Jay?” she said, and Jay suddenly realized she really hadn’t expected to find him there. She recovered herself and continued. “Where’s Amy? That’s what I would like to know. I’m supposed to meet her here for lunch.” “I’m supposed to meet her here too,” Jay said, starting to understand what Amy had done. Jill made a wry smile as she made the connection as well. “I thought it was odd that she wanted to have lunch with me,” she admitted. “Now I see what she was up to. I think we’re being set up.” A waitress stopped by, coffee pot in hand, so Jay ordered a coffee. She warmed up Jill’s cup as well and left them alone again. Jay felt profoundly uneasy being there, especially since he was there under what had to be considered false pretenses through Amy’s matchmaking. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Jill – quite the contrary – but dating anyone was the last thing on his mind these days. He couldn’t tell what Jill thought about being set up with him, aside from her now appearing somewhat amused at her daughter’s stratagem. “Does this sort of thing happen to you often?” Jay asked uneasily.

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Jill looked at him curiously. “Not so much. She doesn’t run into many guys she can con into meeting me.” “I’m sure Amy wouldn’t have to con anyone into going out with you,” Jay offered gallantly. “Well, thanks for that,” Jill replied, with an amused smile. “She thinks I need to get out more and have some fun.” “Ahh,” Jay said knowingly, the notion of having fun one that he remembered but could not imagine for himself at the moment. “The thing is,” Jill said, leaning in slightly, “what I like to do for fun is to be with Amy, and she’s past the age where it is as much fun for her as it is for me.” There was a long moment of silence following that. “Now what do we do?” Jay asked at last, uneasy at the situation. Ordinarily he’d have not minded spending some time with Jill, but he was kind of out of practice being social these days. “We could just talk,” she suggested. “I liked talking to you the other day, even if you weren’t exactly feeling your best.” He smiled awkwardly. “I have to apologize again for that. You were really nice about the whole thing.” “Well, like I told you, I wouldn’t have done it for just anyone.” Jill played with her coffee cup, but looked at him confidently, her eyes bright and lively.

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Jay was getting nervous about what signals she thought she might be getting. “Jill,” he said gently. “I like you a lot and all, and I’m touched that your daughter thinks I’m good enough for you, but I’m not in the market right now.” Jill smiled reassuringly. “Yeah, I sort of got that the other day. Amy just thinks I need to get out more, and after you showed up, I suppose she figured you were my best prospect.” She reached across the table and touched his forearm with her hand. “Don’t worry about it.” She did not take her hand back. “So you’re off this afternoon?” Jay asked, trying to distract himself from her touch. Jill explained that she was scheduled to work late in the afternoon and all evening, at some point withdrawing her hand and leaning back in her chair. She told him how she tried to work out her schedule to fit Amy’s schedule, but noted that it was actually more difficult now that Amy was older and had her own ideas about who she wanted to spend time with. “Still,” she noted proudly, “we’re pretty close.” “So I gathered,” Jay agreed. As delicately as he could, Jay asked about the father, and learned that he was long out of the picture. “High school boyfriend,” she admitted, laughing at the cliché of it all. “Prom night, the whole bit. I wasn’t exactly a virgin but I thought it was something special, thought we had a future together.” Her face grew serious, and a little sad. “It was just a good time for him.” She told Jay about raising Amy as a single mom, not looking for any sympathy but frankly describing how she’d arranged her life around Amy. Her own plans for college went out the window. Waitressing had been an easy way to make some decent money and have lots of time for Amy. She could have made more at someplace other than

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Pete’s but he gave her more flexibility and the shortest possible commute. Jill’s parents lived nearby and had done a lot of babysitting, although her father died about five years ago, fighting a fire. “Good man,” Jill observed soberly, her face solemn at the memory of him. “God bless that there are firemen,” Jay offered. “Indeed, but he wasn’t one. Nah, he used to own this place,” Jill told him, smiling wanly and looking around wistfully. “Kitchen fire. After he died my mom got some insurance money, and sold it.” She looked back at him. “Jill and I still like to come here because it reminds me of him.” Jay didn’t know what to say to her. He found himself liking Jill more and more, and didn’t know what to do with those feelings. He tried to steer the conversation back to safer ground, off her dead father or her careless high school boyfriend, and nowhere near any feelings he himself might have about her. “Amy planning to go to college?” She gave him an exaggerated look. “Oh, most certainly. Amy is going to go to college. That’s been the plan since she was a little girl, that’s why I’ve scrimped and saved to put her through private schools, that’s why we make sure she does her homework every night and has as many extracurricular activities as she can that will look good on a college application. Oh, yeah – she is definitely going to college.” Her tone brooked no disagreement, and Jay suspected that had been drilled into Amy’s head from an early age. Jay knew it was risky but said it anyway. “Does Amy want that too, or is it just you wanting it for her? If you want it so much, aren’t you afraid she might try rebelling against you by not going?” Jill cocked her head and gave him a searching look. “You’re pretty smart for a guy without any kids of his own.”

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“I was young once myself,” Jay admitted dryly. “Me too,” Jill said absently, remembering a time when she was young and her whole life was in front of her. Before she got pregnant and put all her plans on hold. She shook her head, clearing it of those kind of pointless thoughts. “I think Amy understands how important college is, and her friends are all going, so I think she’ll go.” She flashed him a smile. “Or I’ll kill her.” They talked for a couple of minutes about Pete. Jay relayed how eager Randy was for Pete’s approval, or at least acknowledgement, which made Jill smile. She told Jason how accommodating he’d always been to her, gruffly hiding his vast love for her from the other patrons. “I never suspected for a second you were related,” Jay confirmed. “There you go,” Jill agreed. “So what about after Amy goes to college?” Jay asked. “What are you going to do?” She looked at him curiously. “What do you mean?” Jay felt uncomfortable. “I mean, she won’t be around as much. You don’t need those flexible hours, so you’ll have other options than waitressing. You could do anything you wanted.” Jay saw an expression on her face that he didn’t quite understand, so he hurried to add, “not that there’s anything wrong with being a waitress.” Jill nodded thoughtfully, and looked out the window. She sighed, barely audibly, and stared off into the distance. “I hadn’t really thought much about it.” She was silent for a long few moments, and Jay wondered what she was thinking. Her voice was soft when she continued. “Maybe I’ll always be a waitress but I’d like to learn more about things.” She pursed her lips together as if surprised she’d said the words out loud, and looked back at him. “I’d like to be able to tell people that I went to college.”

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“There’s nothing wrong with not going to college.” “No,” she said slowly. “But it’s nothing to be proud of either.” “You should work someplace where they’d pay for your college,” he suggested. “Go to school at night or on weekends. They have colleges now you can go to online, never have to leave your house.” “You don’t say,” she said. He wasn’t sure if she was being tolerant or was interested. “These places that pay for your school – that’s like working in an office?” “Yeah, like in an office. You could get a job like that. I’d think the hours would match up better than working at Pete’s does anyway. You seem to work a lot of nights.” “It worked better when Amy used to go to bed by eight,” she agreed, looking out the window again. She seemed to be thinking. “That’s been a while.” She exhaled and looked back at him, smiling a slight smile that seemed to indicate a small joke, one that was on her. “Besides, what office would hire me?” “I think lots of places would be happy to have you,” he told her, meaning it. “Like yours?” she asked, still playing it like a joke. “I’d think so,” he responded seriously. She looked down at her coffee, holding the cup in both hands and lost in thought again. Jay had a terrible feeling that she doubted she could ever get that kind of job, that he was just being polite to suggest it. “You wouldn’t even need to wait till Amy goes to college,” he added, giving it his best sincere look.

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She nodded slowly, and raised her head. “I’ll think about it,” she allowed. She gave a game smile. “If I decided I wanted to, maybe you could put in a good word for me.” “Absolutely,” he assured her. He was excited for her, and it was a nice change from his mood lately. That all came crashing down when he remembered why he’d been in such a bad mood. He realized that he’d not been thinking about his own problems for several minutes now. He’d been thinking about Jill’s life, wanting to help her, and – frankly – enjoying her company. It felt wrong to him; he felt guilty about not punishing himself even for those few minutes. He’d hurt Jess, and he was going to die soon; he couldn’t forget that. He forced a weary smile. “I just wouldn’t wait too long.”

Chapter 36 Jason was thinking about stained glass. The past several weeks had been a whirlwind. He’d continued spending a lot of time in the office, and it was like his cubicle had been declared a free trade zone. For the most part, coworkers no longer felt the need to use Maurice as an intermediary to come see him. People who had once come through Maurice now came directly, and other coworkers, seeing their success, were starting to shyly approach him on their own too. The funny thing was that Jason was finding that he really didn’t mind, not too much. They usually had a specific problem that they wanted his help on. His natural inclination to a request for help was to be kind of brusque, simply telling them what they should do or, better yet, simply writing or fixing their code, but he quickly realized that Maurice was probably right about that being a shortsighted tactic. He could either scare them off – which he found he didn’t really want to do – or they would just keep coming to him with the same kinds of things. So he’d shifted his approach, started to use a more Socratic approach. He made them tell him what they thought was wrong, what their options to fix it were, and tried to lead them to the solution instead of just giving them a

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solution. It took longer, but Jason was surprised to find that he enjoyed it more. It was kind of like being back in school. If he simply gave them a solution they might walk away thinking he was a genius, but when he helped them figure things out on their own they walked away feeling better about themselves. And they still thought he was a genius, even when he hadn’t really done anything. He also found that he learned a lot about them by letting them fumble towards their own answer. Of course, some of them stubbornly refused to learn, failing to apply lessons from one problem to another, but that was a small minority; CS Games didn’t hire many idiots. Jason found that he really enjoyed seeing people “get it,” make the connections and figure out the solution to their problem. He knew that feeling, and simply being told the answer was not the same. It made him feel older somehow. He liked to think it meant he was more mature, and he thought Sydney would be impressed if she knew about it. He still wasn’t comfortable talking to them about non-work subjects. Some of them would try to preface their work requests with small talk or asking him questions about what he was doing, and he was not comfortable with either. He preferred to get straight to business. He was finding, though, that it wasn’t that he objected to conversations about topics other than work, it was just that he didn’t think he was very good at them and hated for that awkwardness to show. So he didn’t encourage it, but allowed people to ramble on for a little while with superfluous topics, not really listening but observing. Hell, he even tagged along to lunch on occasion with people he didn’t know well. He didn’t necessarily feel like part of the group, but he was starting to feel like he was at least on the periphery of the group, perhaps tenuously but attached somehow nonetheless. Maurice just laughed at him. “They’re still more in awe of you than you’re scared of them,” he observed, leaning back in his chair when Jason stopped by his cubicle after one of the lunch outings to lament. He’d gotten into a fairly regular routine, lunch a couple times a week with Maurice. He even invited him over to his basement a couple times for

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some game nights – which, he had to admit, he’d enjoyed pretty well. Of course, Jason usually won the games, but sometimes they’d end up just talking about a game or ideas for new games, and that was OK too. Gram liked Maurice. The second time he came she managed to intercept him on his way in, and ended up chatting with him for a good ten or fifteen minutes. She’d told Jason the next morning how much she’d enjoyed meeting Maurice, and Jason wasn’t sure how much of that was Maurice and how much her relief that he had invited a friend over. Still, Jason wasn’t convinced that his new popularity with his coworkers would last. “Yeah, but what happens when the novelty wears off and they see through me?” Jason told Maurice. “You are one strange dude,” Maurice pronounced, shaking his head in disbelief.

As for Sydney, Jason saw her regularly at the yoga lessons. He was going to her classes twice a week. He had never gotten up the nerve to ask her to go out for coffee, yet somewhere along the line they had nonetheless taken to often getting something to drink after class – usually juice or water, sometimes coffee or soft drinks. Jason wasn’t quite sure how they’d fallen into that pattern. He was pretty sure he hadn’t initiated it, but he couldn’t specifically remember her asking him out or anything either. It just seemed to have started spontaneously. However they’d fallen into it, he enjoyed sitting with her for a few minutes longer, talking about nothing in particular. His buddy from that first class – Roger, a sixty year old widower who was on the make for a fling or maybe wife number two – figured it out early on and winked at him at the end of each class. “Way to go, pal,” he’d once whispered, figuring Jason must be dating her. Jason hadn’t known whether to be embarrassed or proud, but had missed his chance to correct Roger’s impression and didn’t know how to correct it at this point. To be honest, he’d have been happy being invisible and just watching Sydney lead the classes. He liked how she moved, so graceful and confident. She did the poses without

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effort, making them look so easy, yet was patient and encouraging to the efforts of everyone in the class – Jason wasn’t always the worst. He and his would-be buddy Roger both liked to get in the back row for the view, but while Roger’s intent was salacious Jason’s admiration was of a different kind. When Sydney made her way to the back row part of him wished he could sink into the ground, while another part desperately hungered for the small comments, the bits of praise delivered with a lilting smile that she would offer him about how he was doing on the pose or exercise he was doing. He just tuned Roger out. Jason liked the yoga, the mindless routines that forced him to let go of his normal anxieties. He felt calmer not only while doing the routines but for some time afterwards, and Sydney had been right – it did help with his headaches. They hadn’t gone away, not by any means, but he was starting to not mind them so much somehow. Still, Jason wasn’t using the extra time with Sydney to make any moves on her. Asking Sydney out, though, was something he could not bring himself to try. She mentioned several friends, male and female, in the course of her conversations, talking about various things she was up to. He was sure someone among the people she mentioned was her boyfriend – or, for that matter, a girlfriend – and that some of the times she went out were dates. He listened to see if he could identify which people she talked about the most, or spoke of with the most affection, but he’d been unable to break the code. Jason’s blog still was not getting the attention it deserved either. He wasn’t playing enough new games to have much to say, and he wasn’t making enough time to write about the ones he was trying. He could have filled up lots of entries talking about Cathedral, but he still didn’t want to do that, for reasons he still couldn’t quite articulate. It felt too private. Fortunately, the readers of Jason’s blog were a vociferous lot, feeding him lots of posts that he ordinarily would have read and pretty much ignored. So he started promoting some of the better ones, some of which he had to admit were pretty good. The site’s

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traffic was actually up; Jason wasn’t sure if that meant people liked the other people’s posts more than his, or if they were just keen on the increased chance that one of their posts might make the cut now too. For now, though, stained glass was the problem he was interested in. Jason still liked helping out building other people’s cathedrals, and had developed enough of a reputation within the game that he could secure good positions on the most interesting constructions, but he wanted to do more. He no longer wanted to try a design of his own; not yet. He’d learned a lot from helping but not quite enough that he felt he could come up with something really good. Stained glass, though, was something he thought he could make a difference with. He’d been struck by how beautiful they were in Gram’s pictures, and in images he’d subsequently viewed in his research. The applications that existed within Cathedral for stained glass were, in his view, fairly primitive. People playing the game could make glass, to be sure, and even had mechanisms for imbuing them with colors, so there was stained glass of a kind. The result was OK, but he was sure he could do better. Jason wanted the stained glass to inspire awe. The “talking dog” syndrome – it doesn’t matter that it’s done well, it’s enough that it happens at all – wasn’t enough for this. He wanted brighter, more vivid colors. He wanted panes that could tell a story. Jason wanted something that someone sitting in the Cathedral could watch all day, as the light in Cathedral changed, so would the images from his stained glass. The hard part, of course, was that his application could only do things that could have been done in the Middle Ages. If he was designing stained glass for a video game he could come up with some pretty spectacular results, but that wasn’t an option in Cathedral. He’d had to do a lot of research on how stained glass was made back then, what he’d need to replicate those techniques, survey which applications already existed – glassblowing or smelting, mining the oxides and other minerals needed – and figure out which he’d have to develop de novo. And he needed to not just take into account his application, but the application for the sunlight within Cathedral, where the panes would

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be located in the cathedral and where their light would fall. It was very complex and extremely difficult. Honestly, it was fun. It was the kind of hard problem he enjoyed devoting himself to. It was the kind of problem he used to like to work on, back in college and graduate school when he was still learning and exploring not just his possibilities but more importantly the possibilities of the medium itself. It struck him, with a sense of loss, that his work these past few years hadn’t had the same kind of thrill. Oh, his coworkers and most of the devotees of his blog might think he was in the forefront, but Jason dismissively thought of his work there as a kind of diversion – creating ever better aliens, ever more imaginative ways to die, ever more intricate twists in the rules. His work was technically impeccable, elegant in a way that only other programmers could fully realize. But, at the end of the day, it was all still just a way for him to waste time and for players to do the same. He’d been killing time while waiting for death to claim him. This felt different. To be sure, for all he knew, only the devotees of Cathedral – and that was a pretty small number -- might ever see the results of his application, and even they might not fully grasp what he had done. But he was trying to create something of beauty, and that was worth something. The work required a lot of intense concentration. Jason couldn’t really work on it during the day, due to the constant interruptions he now had, so he was spending most of his evenings focusing on it. He found that he was particularly productive if he worked on it after doing some yoga, particularly breathing exercises. They cleared his mind and let his subconscious do its thing. It was kind of funny, Jason mused. Yoga seemed like the kind of thing he would have been best at before he started being friendlier with people. But being solitary isn’t the same thing as being introspective. He had to start going to yoga class to learn how to apply the techniques, and he wouldn’t have gone to a class if he hadn’t wanted to spend more time with Sydney. He wouldn’t have appreciated the solitude of the breathing

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exercises and the poses had his life not gotten busier. And, strangest of all, somehow when he did his yoga he felt connected, in some inexplicable way, to all the other people doing it – be they experts like Sydney or rank amateurs like himself or Roger. He was part of something bigger than himself, and he didn’t mind. He felt that way about Cathedral as well. He told himself that he should feel that way about the gaming community in general; for Pete’s sake, he played games where they created whole societies and had alternative personalities that carried on lives for them. But it didn’t. Jason played around with his stained glass application. It was, more accurately, an array of applications. He’d built it so other players could “buy” the glass, the stains, and the designs independently, or as a package. Jason was confident enough in the quality of these that he believed he’d boost his reputation within the game very easily. He was going to hold back on the most innovative parts of the applications, the ones where the images that emerged from the glass popped out most dramatically. Those he reserved for the day he had his own design for a cathedral, or for a breakthrough design by someone else that he felt would be worthy of them. It was late at night. Jason played with some of his work, idly running through some designs under different light from the Cathedral sunlight application. He’d taken a digital photo of Sydney – taken during a yoga class using his phone, when she wasn’t looking – and had morphed it into an image he could burn into one of his stained glass panes. He ran the program through an accelerated day, watching the beams of light illuminate her face. He wasn’t satisfied with her eyes; the sparkle that flowed from her real eyes didn’t quite come through here. The images were beautiful, he grudgingly admitted; shockingly real, touchingly powerful. Not perfect, but powerful. As good as he was, as technically wonderful as his program was, the images would never be as beautiful as the real life Sydney. Jason was the master of the online universe, or, at least, one of the masters. He could make her simulated image do things that the real

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Sydney couldn’t ever do, he could illustrate her in colors that would put a peacock to shame. He could even animate her if he so chose, putting words in her mouth. He could make her say words that he wanted to hear. It wasn’t enough, and it would never be good enough. Not like the real thing. He would never hear her say the things he’d like to hear, just like he’d never have the nerve to say the things he’d like to say to her. Jason sighed. He closed down his browsers and logged off, deciding it was time to go to bed. Perhaps he would see her tomorrow.

Chapter 37 Jay brought in cupcakes to the office a few days later. At first, his coworkers were wary about stopping by, like animals who had been nearly caught in a trap once before. Gradually, though, the temptation drew them to the food table. “Hey, who brought in the cupcakes?” Charlie asked, hesitant to pick one up but eying them greedily. “That would be Mr. McKenzie,” Kathy announced formally, brandishing the cupcake she’d claimed, an angel food one with vanilla icing topped with sprinkles. “All right then,” Charlie said. He surveyed his options and picked the most chocolate one he could find, devils food with double fudge icing. He carefully peeled off the wrapper, tore off the bottom of the cupcake, and took a big bite from it. Noticing the people around him watching him with amusement, he told them, “I like to eat the icing last. Less messy this way.”

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“Uh-huh,” Amanda pronounced, picking up a cupcake of her own. She looked over at Jay. “What’s the occasion?” “No occasion,” he told her. “I mean, it must be someone’s birthday.” “Close enough,” Kathy insisted, not wanting an interrogation of Jay to begin. They all settled in to eat, still not quite comfortable but reminded of the familiarity of the scene. Jay reached over and got a cupcake of his own. “I heard you got PM Trucking assigned back to you,” Amanda said as casually as she could muster, playing with her cupcake wrapper to avoid looking at him. “Well, it was Scott’s decision,” Jay demurred. “But I’m happy about it.” He looked around at them. “We all worked hard to help Mike land them.” “It’s going to keep us pretty busy,” Charlie noted, not unhappily. Both he and Amanda had been in danger of being reassigned to support Kurt Josephs, which they had not been looking forward to. In fact, it had taken some effort on Jay’s part to right that piece of his world. He’d gone to Mike Trico and asked him for a favor. “Mike,” he’d told him. “I need this one.” It wasn’t like Jay to directly ask for a favor; usually people just did things for him, without his having to ask. It was hard for Jay to make this request, forcing him to overcome lots of barriers. Mike had frowned. He admitted that he’d rather work with Jay than with Josephs, but feared things were too far along. Then they talked further, strategizing about how to make this particular internal sale. Mike had ended up going to his senior vice president – who owed him a few favors in return – who had subsequently talked to Scott Reusser’s senior vice president, and that had done the trick. Josephs had been furious, and had stormed to Jay’s cubicle to raise hell. Jay had played innocent, which had just pissed Josephs off more, but both he and Josephs knew what had happened.

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Getting PM Trucking assigned back to his team would have consequences, Jay knew. He was still going to lose GSV Industries; once Josephs and Pat Dye worked out their “considerations,” Josephs would have Dye throw his weight around to get Josephs assigned to the account. It was the way of the world. Jay hated that he had to spend time with this kind of shit, but if he hadn’t gone to Mike Trico he’d have lost both accounts and some of his staff. He wouldn’t have minded so much for himself – what did it matter to him now? – but he hadn’t been willing to let these guys get lost in the mix. So for now they were safe. It felt nice to take action, to stop the freefall – at least in some small manner – that his life had been in. However, he recalled forlornly, the last time he’d taken action he’d broken up with Jessica, and look how disastrously that had worked out. So he thought it was quite possible that this would come back to bit him on the butt. For the moment, though, it felt good. They gossiped amongst themselves for a few more minutes, Jay not really adding anything but feeling himself at least part of the group. It wasn’t like old times but at least it wasn’t like the cold distance of recent times. Jay missed his old self and thought that they did as well, but it didn’t matter. That guy had died when he’d received his death notice; now he was a ghost pretending to still be alive. But at least he was making an effort to pretend. “You doing OK, boss?” Amanda asked, lingering after the others had finished their cupcakes and had drifted away. She’d known him a long time, and could tell not all was right with his world. “What? Yeah, sure, Amanda,” he said, recovering from the surprise of her direct inquiry. “Thanks for asking.” “You haven’t been your normal sunny self lately, you know.”

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Jay nodded slowly in acknowledge. “I suppose not. I’m sorry about that.” He couldn’t quite meet her eyes. “I’m not looking for an apology,” she told him in mock exasperation. “You’ve got a lot of people who care about you, that’s all. We’ve been worried.” Jay was beginning to be sorry that he’d brought in the donuts. It had just invited this line of conversation, which he was in no way up for. He didn’t know what the appropriate response was. He hadn’t wanted people worrying about him, wondering how he was feeling and all, but he seemed to be causing that anyway. “I don’t mean to be a burden on anyone,” he told her softly. “You big dope,” she said with open affection. “Worrying about people you care about is no burden. You of all people should know that.” She studied him carefully, not quite sure where her boundaries should be here. “Is it true about you and Jessica?” she asked in a soft voice. She didn’t think she had to specify what “it” was. Jay patted his fingers absently on his desk, not quite looking at her. “We’re not together any more, if that’s what you mean.” He tried to keep his voice as neutral as possible, but he was on shaky ground. Amanda watched him, her heart heavy for him. She couldn’t believe anyone would dump Jay – not anyone in their right mind, anyway – yet Jay wasn’t acting like someone who had done the dumping either. She’d been wondering these past few weeks what had happened to Jay, and with Jessica, but hadn’t come up with any plausible theories. It was driving her crazy. This was the closest chance she’d had to ask him to explain, but she still didn’t know how to get him to talk. “That’s too bad,” she said at last. “I liked Jessica.” Jay looked up at her with a small smile that was all the more poignant for its sadness. “Me too.”

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Over the next couple weeks Jay’s life started to become, well, not “normal” but closer to it, at least on the surface. He started forcing himself to make calls to his accounts again, setting up meetings and lunches. He didn’t quite enjoy these, not like he used to, but he found he could tolerate them. Sometimes during such times he found himself wondering why he was spending what could be his last few days, perhaps his last few moments, on such mundane activities, but that was the problem, wasn’t it? He didn’t know when that end was. He had to go through the motions until then. He tagged along to a few work/social functions – a birthday celebration, a wedding shower, and a couple lunch outings – but he was no longer the informal leader of the pack. He felt like he was his own socially awkward younger brother, accepted only because of that relation but neither quite at home nor quite accepted. He mostly kept quiet on these outings, but if spending time with them wasn’t as much fun as it used to be, neither was it as painful as it had been lately. And it definitely was better than being alone. Jay limited his reemergence to his work life, for the most part. He still liked to go home and then out on bike rides after work; it gave him an excuse to leave work early or on time, it beat hanging out at his apartment, and gave him a nice period of solitude, with no phones to ignore, no people dropping by, no feeling like the unwanted stepchild. He still spread his evening meals to an array of takeout places or delivery orders, mostly Chinese or Thai or pizza, alternating where he ordered from so as not to get too familiar with any of them. Eating was still a chore, a task to get through and a way to kill some time, and he gobbled his food down without really paying much attention. If asked what he’d had for dinner the previous night, he’d be hard pressed to remember. Pete’s provided another place of solace. He tried not to go there too frequently, but perhaps twice a week he stopped in for a slow drink of beer. He usually sat at the bar,

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where Pete left him alone and the other patrons followed suit. Jay enjoyed seeing Jill, but even she gave him plenty of space. She’d sit next to him for a few minutes at a time a couple times a night, giving him a smile and asking him questions about his day, to which he gave noncommittal answers. He wanted to ask her about Amy or if she’d given any more thought to a career change, but Pete’s did not seem like the place for such a conversation. He could have asked her to meet him somewhere else, but he feared getting too involved in her life. What was the point of getting distance from Jessica and the other people in his life if he was just going to get closer to Jill, he reasoned. Jay thought that if he pretended to be normal then people would stop worrying about him, and if they stopped worrying about him they would eventually stop caring too much about him, as long as he kept them at a distance. So he did the sociable things he had to do, but with the bare minimum of outgoing effort he could get away with, just enough to not scare people but not enough to keep them close. Randy kept pestering him to get together. He tried guilt over the softball team’s declining fate, he suggested their favorite restaurants, he texted, called and stopped by unannounced. Jay finally gave in and agreed to meet him for lunch at Two Brothers. “Yo, Jay,” Freddy called out when Jay entered. “Tony, look who is gracing us with his presence.” Tony looked up from the grill and made a face that indicated he was impressed, then turned his attention back to his cooking. “Where you been, dude?” Freddy asked. Jay shrugged. “Just busy.” “Too busy to eat?” Freddy asked incredulously. He turned to his brother. “You hear that, Tone?” He shook his head in amazement and eyed Jay suspiciously. “You been sick or something?”

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“Something like that,” Jay agreed, more to stop the questioning than to admit the truth of it, feeling bad at how close to home Freddy’s guess had been. Freddy nodded wisely. Randy was already there; he greeted Jay with a man hug. They gave Freddy their orders and sat down. “How you been, man?” Randy asked, his breezy manner trying to lighten the mood after Freddy’s speculation and belying his underlying concern. “You know,” Jay said vaguely. “Hanging in there.” Jay knew that Randy would fill any silence, so he let Randy talk. Randy gave him an upload on his life at work, on the softball team, on what was happening with various of their mutual friends – on everything except the topic Jay wanted most to hear about, and was most scared of. Jessica. Randy slowed down slightly once they got their sandwiches. “Man, that’s good,” Randy pronounced, taking a bite of his meatball sub. “Yeah, not bad,” Jay conceded about his pepperoni stromboli. It tasted like real food, after a few weeks of what his might as well have been eating cardboard. They ate for a few minutes in companionable silence, enjoying the food and each other’s company. It reminded Jay of a time that seemed so long ago now that it was barely a memory, and if that life wasn’t so unreal to him now the memory would have been so painful that he couldn’t have borne it. It hit Jay like a freight train that he missed Randy, missed sitting around shooting the shit, even if that largely meant listening to Randy. He’d shut down his feelings for the last several weeks, like cauterizing a wound, so allowing these feelings to emerge almost overwhelmed him. Hell, he missed coming to Two Brothers, missed bantering with Freddy, missed their delicious sandwiches. His old life was pretty good, and he’d take it back in a second if he could. If only he could. “Work OK?” Randy asked carefully, wiping some sauce from his chin. He knew something was going on in Jay’s head but wasn’t sure what.

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Jay nodded. “Yeah, it was a little rocky there for a while,” he admitted, not letting his emotions show. “But it’s getting better.” “How you been feeling?” Randy asked, a quizzical look on his face. He didn’t like talking about illness. “Umm, no better, no worse,” Jay said. The headaches had been about the same, almost seemed second nature by now. They were mostly interesting to him, wondering if they’d be an early warning mechanism of his demise. Randy took another bite of his sub, savoring it as he chewed. “Been to Pete’s?” he asked, fishing for topics that might draw Jay out. Softball had failed, their friends and Jay’s work were dead ends, so that left favorite places. Jay nodded nonchalantly, not interrupting his eating. He didn’t really want to explain why he went there, or get into how he’d gotten to know Jill a little bit better. He knew Randy wanted him to open up and, as much as he cared for Randy, he wasn’t going to do that. “Feeling sorry for yourself?” Randy asked softly, his head tilted slightly. Jay was taken aback. He almost shot off a caustic reply, something on the order of telling Randy he’d like to see how Randy would do if he had a death sentence, but it petered out almost immediately. The fact was that he loved Randy and would never wish him to be in the dilemma he was in. The fact was, he had been acting like he was feeling sorry for himself, and only a good friend like Randy could call him on it. He essayed a weak smile. “I suppose I am. It shows, huh?” Randy gave him a somewhat conspiratorial smile, relieved to see a hint of the old Jay. “Just a little.”

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Jay nodded his head slowly. “I’ll try to do better about that.” Randy nodded and gave him a reassuring smile, and Jay felt a wave of emotion, allowing himself to be comforted for the first time in too long by a friend. Randy was polite enough to ignore his flash of sentiment. He finished up his sub and crumbled the wrapper. “Ah, that was good.” Jay couldn’t quite finish his stromboli, but declined Freddy’s offer to wrap it up for me. “We’ll throw in some extra sauce, wrap it up tight – it’d be a great late night snack,” Freddy suggested, standing at their table. Jay politely declined, and he and Randy got up and left, saying their goodbyes to both Freddy and Tony. Randy lingered on the sidewalk, shifting his weight impatiently. He looked around and cleared his throat. “I miss you, man,” Randy said gruffly. “Yeah, I miss you too,” Jay admitted awkwardly. “It’s just, you know…” Randy nodded, pretending he understood when, in fact, there was no way he could. He looked away, and Jay knew something was on his mind; he suspected he wasn’t going to want to hear it. “Well, I better get going,” Jay said, trying to preempt any further discussion. “Lots to do back at the office.” “Yeah, I know how it is,” Randy muttered awkwardly, looking around to avoid meeting Jay’s eyes. He finally summoned his courage, straightened up, and looked Jay squarely in the eye. Now Jay knew he wasn’t going to like whatever was coming. “It’s like this, Jay,” Randy started. “It’s Jessica.” Jay’s heart leapt at the sound of her name, and was simultaneously gripped with fear that something had happened to her. Maybe she was hurt, or sick. Perhaps she was moving to start over someplace. Or, he thought in dark despair, maybe she’s met someone. “What about Jess?” he asked at last, his voice husky.

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Randy cleared his throat and looked around, as if checking that they weren’t being overheard but really just stalling. He exhaled heavily, knowing he was the bearer of bad news and also knowing it had to be said. “She wants to see you.”

Chapter 38 “What, did you take a Dale Carnegie course or something?” Sydney teased Jason, after one of his coworkers went on his way to the bar from their booth. She’d only been there twenty minutes and already three of Jason’s coworkers had stopped by to say hello to him, chatting briefly before flittering away to another conversation locus. Sydney was sitting with Jason and Jamal in their usual booth. Maurice was talking to a small group at the bar, while Said and Eric were playing one of the old pinball machines over by the restrooms. From the sounds of it, they were having fun. Jason felt his ears burn in embarrassment. “I think they’re coming over because you’re here,” he told her truthfully. “Nah, my man, they came to talk to you,” Jamal said, nudging Jason slightly. He looked at Sydney with a slight smile. “No offence, ma’am. They’d be coming over to talk to you if they thought they had a chance in hell.” “Why so popular all of a sudden?” Sydney asked. Jason blushed, and hung his head. Jamal – whose previous comments would have already been considered talkative for him in an entire evening – stepped in again. “You’re looking at the King Geek for the Geek Squad. The Godfather,” he announced proudly. “They come by to pay their respects.” “So you’re actually talking to people at work?” Sydney asked in mock surprise.

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“Ah, come on,” Jason replied, his face still red. He looked at Jamal, whose own expression was maddeningly neutral. “It’s Maurice’s fault. He started bringing people over and now I can’t stop them. Takes up a lot of my day.” Maurice chose that moment to slide in the booth next to Jamal, fresh drinks in each hand. “Jason, one of these is for you, I forget which. But don’t worry, I’ll drink it for you.” To prove it, Maurice took a long drink from the fuller glass. “Ahh, that’s some good stuff,” he exclaimed in satisfaction. “We were just talking about you,” Sydney told him with a meaningful glance. She gave a quick recap of the conversation and Maurice was laughing before she’d finished. “Yeah, my man there is quite the social butterfly these days!” he told them. He leaned in closer. “The dude even goes to lunch with us sometimes, even if I’m not there to chaperon. Next thing you know he’ll be dating one of the pretty ladies who think he’s so smart!” Jason winced at this; he didn’t think it was true, in the first place, and even though he was pretty sure that Sydney wouldn’t ever be interested in dating him, he didn’t want to give her the idea that he was unavailable. “Be quiet,” he told Maurice crossly. “Well, I think it’s nice,” Sydney said. She reached over and patted Jason’s cheek gently. “I always knew you were a nice guy.” Jason almost fainted from the unexpected touch of her hand, his eyelids fluttering briefly. Fortunately, Maurice’s attention span was short, and he started telling them about how he could make pinball so much better as a virtual game. “I was watching Said and Eric play. Everyone says there’s nothing like the old pinball machines, but I think I could do a pretty cool electronic version,” Maurice exclaimed, thinking aloud, “Yeah, I know people like to bump the machines and all, but I could simulate that by using some body motion sensors to influence the ball’s trajectory. No big deal.” He sat back proudly.

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Just a couple weeks ago Jason would have been very interested in this line of conversation and would have gladly thrown his own ideas out for debate, but it didn’t appeal to him tonight. It felt like too familiar a conversation; he’d been there, done that, with other games. He noticed Sydney surreptitiously checking the time. “You have to go?” he asked her, a little disappointed. “Getting hungry,” she told him. “I didn’t have any lunch.” “Eat here,” Maurice suggested. “We could order some appetizers.” Sydney looked around them, at the busy bar and through it towards the dining area, teaming with couples and young families. “Think I’ll pass,” she told them. She gathered her purse and stood up. “It’s been fun, guys.” Jason slid out of the booth, grabbing his backpack. He was planning to come right back but he didn’t like leaving it unattended, even with Maurice and Jamal there to watch it. For all he knew, Maurice would put a bug on his laptop while he was gone, just as a prank. “I’ll walk you out,” he told her. This had become their little ritual whenever they went to get something to drink. He’d walk her to her car, and – if he was lucky – maybe get the chance to talk with her alone for a couple more minutes. He never worked up the nerve to suggest that they go someplace else, and the thought of trying to kiss her or something was so far-fetched that it had to stay as a fantasy that he sometimes let himself have very late at night before drifting off to sleep. He didn’t want to do anything that might risk their current arrangement, whatever it was – acquaintance, yoga teacher/pupil, casual friends. Maurice said a hearty goodbye and Jamal, as usual, simply lifted his glass a couple of inches off the table in salute, his eyes watching them closely. Jason couldn’t really tell but he thought Jamal found the whole thing pretty amusing.

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Jason escorted her out – with several of his coworkers saying goodbye to him as he walked by. He wanted to tell them that he would be right back, but thought that might be rude, and didn’t want Sydney to misunderstand. When they got to her car she paused. “Thanks for walking me out, Jason,” she said with a smile. “You know you don’t have to do that.” “I don’t mind,” he admitted, standing a safe couple feet from her. She was wearing a scooped blouse that showed off her shoulders and the upper part of her chest, along with Capri pants that reached just below her knees. As usual, she wore sandals, and today her toenails matched her fingernails with a bright pink polish. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore no make-up that he could detect, although he was hardly an expert. Everything was casual, and Sydney probably hadn’t even thought twice about any portion of it. Jason thought she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Sydney held her hand up to her chest, toying with her keys. She’d unlocked the door but made no movement to open it. “I’m in the mood for Indian food,” she announced. “I figured you might know some good places. You like Indian food?” “I know some great places,” Jason replied, happy that he could show some expertise outside of computers and games. One doesn’t work in programming without getting to know where the best Indian restaurants were. He was eager to show off his knowledge by making some recommendations to her. “You like Tandoori, or curry, or what?” “I like trying new things,” she said ambiguously. “Why don’t you suggest a place?” She smiled at him, folding her hand over her keys as if making a decision. “In fact, why don’t you come with me?”

Chapter 39

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Jay was still reeling from Jessica’s request to meet when he went back to his cubicle. He sat at his desk, unable to get started with his work. Fortunately, no one stopped by his cubicle to chat; he didn’t think he’d be able to talk without giving away how much turmoil he was in. Meet with Jessica? Jay couldn’t imagine what she could possibly hope to accomplish. Maybe she wanted to yell at him some more, or perhaps she wanted to see if reconciliation was possible. He didn’t much relish getting yelled at about something he already felt so badly about, and having to resist an attempt to get back together would take more strength than he thought he had. No, meeting with her, even for a few minutes, was a recipe for disaster. It would be madness. He’d stalled giving Randy an answer, told him that he’d have to think about it. Randy hadn’t been surprised at his response, and seemed to feel pretty uncomfortable with Jessica’s request himself. He was in the middle between his best friend and his beloved sister, and it was clear he didn’t like it. Jay didn’t know what to do. He had to say no, of course, but how could he? How would that look to Randy, and to Jessica, if he refused to even talk to her? Despite everything, he still cared about them and whatever they might think about him. He leaned back in his chair and exhaled heavily, shaking his head wearily. Nothing was working out the way he’d hoped. Jessica was hurt but not forgetting about him, he’d inadvertently pretty much cut himself off from his friends and coworkers, and he hadn’t died yet. The only thing he’d done well was to fuck things up. He needed to talk to someone about Jessica, how to handle the situation. Obviously, Randy was out as an option. He mentally sorted through the list of other possible candidates, and the list was pretty short. In fact, there was only one name on his list, and it was a pretty iffy name at that for these purposes. But it would have to do. Jay didn’t like it, but he took out his mobile phone and pulled up the number. Staring at it for a

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moment longer than he needed to, he hit the call button. “Hello, Jill,” he started when he heard her voice. “I need to talk to you about something. Can we get together?” Jay was barely off the phone – not sure if he’d just done something incredibly stupid or smart -- when Kurt Josephs strode into his cubicle like he owned the place. Well, not like he owned the place so much as that it was beneath him, although his own cubicle was no grander. Josephs leaned up against Jay’s desk. “I wanted you to hear it from me,” he told Jay smugly. “Hear what?” Jay asked cautiously. Josephs put his hands on the edges of the desk, practically lifting himself off the edge with excitement. “GSV is my account now,” he informed Jay smugly. “Scott just told me that Pat called, told him that we got the upgrade – on the condition that I’m the account exec.” Jay didn’t know how to feel about that; it didn’t surprise him but it hurt nonetheless. He tried not to let his face show any reaction. “Is that so?” “Yeah, buddy. You couldn’t get the job done, so I did.” Josephs was fairly bouncing with excitement. “Scott saw things my way.” Jay looked at him with loathing. “How much, Kurt? I’m really curious -- how much did you have to cough up to pay Pat Dye off?” Josephs laughed, his conscience clear – or missing. “You didn’t even bargain with the guy, for Christ’s sake! I mean, come on, a guy asks for something, that doesn’t mean he expects to get it. What kind of salesman are you?” Jay regarded Josephs coldly. “I guess I missed the class in bribes, Kurt.”

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“It’s the way the world works, buddy. It’s about time you learned the lesson.” Josephs was supremely pleased with himself. He pushed away from Jay’s desk and started to pace in the small area around them. “How much?” Jay repeated softly, knowing that Josephs was bursting to tell him. “The schmuck didn’t even insist on a box,” Josephs bragged. “Some tickets on the fifty yard line – but pretty high up, not primo seats – and tickets to a couple of the parties.” “And the cash?” “Ten thousand now,” Josephs said. He stopped and looked at Jay with a big smirk on his face. “He thinks he’s getting ten thousand a year indefinitely, but – fuck him! Once he’s put the upgrade in, what’s he going to do? He can’t rat me out without getting in even deeper shit for himself. He doesn’t have anything in writing from me.” Josephs was proud of himself for getting what he wanted while screwing both Jay and Pat Dye. Jay shook his head, dismayed at how dirty both Dye and Josephs were. Knowing Dye, he’d be looking for some way to cheat Josephs, just as Josephs planned to do with him. They deserved each other. “I’ll be needing some of your people, you know,” Josephs said in a silky voice. “I don’t know, Kurt,” Jay replied, keeping his voice as level as he could. “I got PM Trucking back, you know.” Josephs shot him a quick glare, which smoothed out into a calmer expression almost immediately. “That was well played, Jay,” he said with an insincere smile. “I didn’t think you had it in you.” His expression hardened. “But I’ll get it back, just watch me. Give me two months and you’ll lose that one too.”

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“We’ll see,” Jay said with false bravado. He might not be around in two months, but he didn’t doubt Josephs’ ruthlessness. “So for right now I’ll just take some of your people,” Josephs said, as if he was doing Jay a favor. “You can keep that bitch Amanda. She’d just be looking to undermine me. When I do inherit her I’ll fire her ass, you can be sure. So let’s agree on Charlie for now.” Jay put up a cautioning hand and shook his head. “I’m not agreeing to anything.” Josephs’ ignored him. “Kathy, though – well, I might have to have a talk with Kathy, tell her how things are now.” Jay stared at him. “What do you mean?” Josephs’ eyes fairly glowed with excitement. “You’re dead, man.” Jay’s heart almost stopped, wondering how Josephs could possibly know, but he quickly realized that Josephs meant something else. Josephs shook his head. “You got no juice left. If you’re smart you’ll be looking for a job somewhere else, someplace that doesn’t expect results. So Kathy, if she knows what’s good for her, better learn how to make me happy.” Josephs gestured at his groin with one hand. “You’re an asshole,” Jay responded in dismay. He didn’t doubt that Josephs meant it. He stood up and got in Josephs’ face. “Get the fuck out of here before I throw you out.” Josephs stood face-to-face with Jay for a few long seconds, enjoying the confrontation. Jay thought for a second that it was going to come to blows, but then Josephs stepped back and laughed. “You don’t have anything I need here,” he told Jay, looking around dismissively. “Try to act surprised when Scott gives you the bad news.” Josephs turned and strode away with a lilt in his step.

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Jay’s head, which had been quietly throbbing, now burst into a savage pain, pounding away mercilessly. He closed his eyes. Maybe this was the end, he thought, almost ready to give in. Then the memory of the expression on Josephs’ face hit him. Jay had been ready to die, practically waiting to die, for the last several weeks. It would take the weight of Jessica from him, allow her to get her life back on track. That’s what he wanted, what he thought he wanted. But Josephs had thrown a monkey wrench into that. If Jay died now, Josephs would simply waltz into taking everything, including Jay’s people. And he didn’t doubt that Josephs was capable of the kind of sexual harassment that he boasted about. Jay had to do something to stop him, and to do that, he had to stay alive. Jay massaged his head, trying to sooth his headache and trying to think at the same time. Maybe Josephs was right about the way the world worked, and, if so, it was a world he didn’t care to live in. But while he was still alive he was going to refuse to admit defeat. He tried to think about how to stop Josephs. Reusser was no use; he was weak, and too driven by the easy answer. Reusser’s boss wouldn’t want to be bothered, not unless Jay had some hard proof, which he didn’t have and was unlikely to get. Josephs couldn’t get away with what he was doing. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t ethical, and it wasn’t legal. His trick in getting PM Trucking hadn’t been enough. He had to take more serious action. Suddenly Jay’s head perked up. He knew who he had to talk to.

Chapter 40 Sydney insisted on having Jason drive, telling him she’d been wanting to ride in a Prius for a while. “Besides,” she said. “My car has been acting up lately. I need to get it looked out.”

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She was quite impressed by the Prius, exclaiming about how quiet it was on the ride over and enjoying the fancy dashboard display that told them more than they could ever want about the car’s performance, including real time mpg. It was just transportation to Jason, but if it helped impress Sydney – well, his opinion of it took a huge leap up. He could scarcely believe she was in his car, much less in his car on the way to a dinner with just the two of them. Hell, he thought jubilantly, he’d give her the car if it meant her going out with him like this. At the restaurant they were greeted like long lost friends. Jason had been here before, but he didn’t really think anyone actually recognized him. They just seemed thrilled to have customers, even though the restaurant was already moderately busy. Or perhaps their effusive greetings were due to Sydney’s presence, which, he’d noticed, tended to liven people up. Many of the other patrons were Indian, which always helped confirm for Jason that the cuisine was genuine. They sat down, and quickly ordered some drinks and some naan before taking time to review the menu. “That’s some good bread,” Sydney said, savoring a mouthful of the naan after the friendly waiter brought it and their drinks. “Yeah,” Jason agreed in between his own mouthfuls. “We should order some paratha too.” They ended up ordering not just paratha, but also gobi aloo, with a chicken vindaloo for Jason and a lamb biriyani for Sydney. They agreed they’d share everything, and had to restrain themselves from ordering some additional entries just to have more to sample from. “I thought you might be a vegetarian,” Jason admitted, after the waiter left. Sydney shook her head. “I tried that for a while, but it didn’t stick. Too many good foods involve meat of some sort, and I’m not in the habit of avoiding good things.”

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The food arrived quickly, and they set upon it as if they were starving – which, Jason suddenly realized, he felt like he was. The first few minutes were filled with little talking, and what conversation took place was devoted to praising the food and the logistics of sharing it. Once the pace of their eating slowed down, Jason realized that they’d have to have a real conversation, and he got so nervous that he could barely swallow his food. There was something important on his mind, and he summoned his courage to bring it up. “Umm, I suppose I should have asked you this before, but, well, your boyfriend – is he going to mind you having dinner with me?” Sydney had a forkful of the biriyani on the way to her mouth, and it didn’t pause as she put it in her mouth and chewed it, watching him with an expression that Jason couldn’t quite decipher but which any bystander might recognize as mischievous. He was too nervous to keep eating, so he just waited, his foot tapping furiously under the table. “Boyfriend?” she repeated once she’d finished her mouthful. She cocked her head and gave him a coy smile. “What makes you think I have a boyfriend?” Because you’re so beautiful, he wanted to blurt out. Because every man who saw you would want to go out with you, and any man who went out with you would fight to keep you. Instead, he chose a somewhat safer response. “Because, I don’t know, I just figured, you know, that you’d have a boyfriend.” Well, that was just brilliant, he thought in dismay. That was just fucking great. He thought he’d be lucky if she didn’t laugh in his face. “That’s so sweet,” Sydney said instead, her smile melting his heart. “As it happens, I’m not currently involved with anyone – but if I was, I’d still be having dinner with you.” That confused Jason, so he nodded quickly and started stuffing his face with some of the vindaloo, enjoying the extreme spiciness of it. He tried to work out what she’d meant.

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Did she mean that he was so non-boyfriend material that no boyfriend would feel threatened if she had dinner with him, or did she mean that she considered him a friend, one who would survive boyfriends? He thought he’d better change the conversation before this line went places he wasn’t ready for, so he asked her how she got into teaching yoga. She seemed slightly surprised at the question, arching an eyebrow, but she answered anyway. “Oh, I kind of drifted into it, I suppose,” she told him, smiling demurely and looking down at the remains of their food. “Degree in English Literature, but not much interest in teaching it.” She nibbled on some of the paratha. “I tried a lot of different things, and somewhere along the way I started taking yoga classes. I really liked it, and eventually one of my instructors suggested I try teaching it. That was three years ago and I’m still at it.” “You want the rest of the gobi aloo?” Jason asked politely, his fork already poised to take it. Sydney waved him on. “You’re good at it,” he told her, meaning the yoga. “Well, I enjoy it, but it’s not something I want to do the rest of my life,” she admitted. “I mean, I’ll keep doing yoga, just not teach it.” She looked at him quizzically. “So is it helping your headaches? I remember you mentioning those.” In truth, Jason had a moderate headache, but he was so happy to be with Sydney that he didn’t mind at all. “Yeah, it really helps, especially the breathing exercises. They help calm me down.” Sydney asked about work, so he mumbled about a couple examples of what he was working on, feeling oddly uncomfortable about it. He wasn’t very good about talking about what he did – he was better blogging – and right now talking about games was one of the last things he wanted to talk about. To be honest, all he wanted to do was to sit here listening to Sydney talk, and just enjoy being with her.

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“You don’t seem all that enthused about it,” she observed. “I’ve read your blog – Maurice was right, you really seem to know your stuff. I mean, I didn’t know what most of the games were or what you were talking about most of the time, but it was still clear to me that you’re pretty passionate about it.” Jason sopped up a last bit of the vindaloo sauce with a piece of the naan. “I used to be,” he told her in a small voice, and it was the first time he’d admitted it to himself. He looked up at her with an apologetic smile. “It’s funny. Things have never been better at work, in a lot of ways. I come in to the office more, and I’m actually enjoying helping the other guys. Even my boss – well, I guess you’d call him my boss -- is happy with me for once.” “Only you’re not having fun.” Sydney’s voice was gentle. Jason shook his head, not able to meet her eyes. He didn’t like admitting it, and he didn’t like where the conversation was going. Sydney nodded sympathetically. “Why not? What changed?” Jason took a deep breath, becoming more and more uncomfortable with the conversation. “I don’t know,” he said slowly, shifting uneasily in his seat. “It just seems, I don’t know. Silly. Childish.” “I understand that video games are big business,” Sydney told him encouragingly. “Over $50 billion in revenues, way more than movies. They’re not just for kids any more.” Jason nodded glumly. He knew all the numbers, understood the demographics. He chewed on his lip and watched her carefully, still not quite believing he was sitting with her, especially talking about his life. The waiter chose that moment to come along with the bill. They argued over it briefly – first, Sydney wanted to pay since it had been her

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idea, and when Jason wouldn’t hear of that she offered to split it. Jason insisted on paying the whole bill, and paid with his debit card. Sydney thanked him, but surprised him further by suggesting that they go to a coffeehouse she knew to get some dessert and coffee. “And we can continue our conversation,” she told him with a meaningful look. On the ride over to the coffeehouse Jason was quiet, his stomach in knots. If going to dinner was a fantasy, following it up with coffee and dessert was beyond even fantasy, too improbable to even make-believe. And she wanted to talk about his life, actually seemed interested. It was a lot to take in. He hoped she would just forget about the topic, but after they’d gotten themselves seated with their coffee, with a slice of chocolate cake for him and a cream puff for Sydney. “Back at the restaurant you were saying,” she started with a leading tone. Jason shrugged and chewed a mouthful of the cake for far longer than he needed to. But Sydney simply waited him out, holding her coffee cup in both hands and looking at him with those mesmerizing eyes of hers. Jason took a final swallow. “It used to not matter. I didn’t mind wasting my time.” Wasting time had been all right, he thought, because time had been something he hadn’t been expecting, every moment he’d stayed alive was a surprise. Now that time was, for all practical purposes, unlimited, it had paradoxically become more important. But he couldn’t tell her any of that, of course; he wasn’t going to drag in his sorry medical history and his former delusions of imminent mortality. He took a deep breath and continued, staring at the table. “Playing games, working on games – it was all I really wanted to do. Lately, though, it doesn’t seem like enough.” Sydney registered this with minimal surprise. “Go on,” she encouraged him. Jason looked down. “I didn’t used to think very far ahead. Now I’m starting to wonder what I’ll do for the rest of my life.” He looked up suddenly and barked out a quick laugh. “It seems a lot longer than it used to.”

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Sydney nodded. “That’s pretty natural. It’s part of growing up. But, you know, most people don’t really know what they want to do for the rest of their lives.” She grinned at him. “Look at me.” “You’ve got lots of friends…” he started without thinking, stopping once he realized what he was saying. “So do you,” Sydney replied, appearing surprised. “I’ve seen you with them.” Jason toyed with his coffee cup. “Maybe Maurice, and that’s pretty recent. Everyone else I’m just kind of friendly with, not really friends with them.” Sydney let that pass without comment, and they sat in a comfortable silence for some time. Jason finished his cake while Sydney continued to watch him while holding onto her cup. She sat with her legs folded under her like a teenager, and looked so cute doing so that Jason could barely keep his eyes away from her. “A while ago you told me about a game you were playing that you seemed pretty excited about,” she said at last. Jason looked up, his face brightening. “Cathedral.” “That’s it. I wonder – do you have your laptop with you?” Jason nodded, indicating his backpack. “Show me,” she commanded. Jason didn’t need any encouraging. He took out his laptop, booted it up and found the local Wi-Fi network, then logged into the game. “Wow,” she exclaimed about the opening scene in the field. “That’s very realistic.” “Wait till you see the cathedrals.” Jason took her to one of his favorite ones. She made him “walk” around the building twice before letting him take her inside, although within the game there was only his avatar. She asked him to slowly tour through the interior,

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and to sit down for a couple of minutes so she could absorb it. “Wow,” she said at last, speaking in a hushed voice. “This is amazing. I’ve been to cathedrals in Europe, and this is – it’s just incredible.” He took her to two other of his favorites, earning her amazement even further. She sat very close to him on the couch, staring intently at the screen. Their bodies were flush together, and it took all of Jason’s strength to not give in and swoon like a teenage princess in a fairy tale. He explained to her what real cathedrals they were based on, and what liberties the designers had taken in adapting them. “Wow,” she exclaimed. “You really know your stuff.” In truth, Jason had ended up doing a lot of research on cathedrals, more than he had expected to, and was surprised that he had enjoyed it. “A little,” he admitted cautiously, not wanting to make a big deal about it. He always researched effects he was designing, but he’d found himself actually interested in the cathedrals themselves, and the times that had spawned them. “This one is different,” she said during the tour of the third cathedral. She raised her index finger and moved it along as if tracing the image, almost touching the screen. “It’s the windows,” she marveled. “The stained glass. The other ones didn’t have anything like this. I don’t quite remember what they had but I know they weren’t like this. The colors and the images are incredible.” “Those are mine,” Jason admitted proudly. “I was looking for something I could add to the game and so I developed the app for this.” Sydney leaned back slightly so she could look at him properly. “Jason, I had no idea,” she told him. “I mean, everyone told me you were good, but I didn’t think this is what they meant. This is – this is art!” Her face shown with excitement and, Jason thought, a certain degree of admiration.

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Jason blushed, and had to turn away from her intense gaze. “I think a lot of people would be surprised about this,” he told her. “No blood and guts, no killing, no monsters.” He smiled tightly. “Most gamers would be bored with this.” “Then they’re crazy!” she exclaimed, turning back to the screen. She took over control of the avatar, walked around further in the interior. “I could just sit here and look at this all day.” The expression on her face was beatific. This is what I want to do, Jason wanted to say. I want to design things that people like you appreciate, that amazes and delights them. In point of fact, he realized, smiling a tiny smile, amazing and delighting you would be all the reward that I’d ever need or want. But all he said was, “I’m glad you like it.”

Chapter 41 They met in a small park not too far from Pete’s. The park, like the neighborhood around it, had seen better days, although neither had quite given up the ghost. The ground under the swing sets had well-worn tracks in the gravel, with patches of dirt showing, and the surrounding grass had several spotty areas where blight or weeds were winning. Still, the grass was freshly cut, the trash was mostly in the trash containers, and the swing sets still had seats in them. The trees dominated the park, having had several decades to grow and giving it a massive leafy presence. They were losing their leaves now, but still provided a refreshing shade. All in all, still a nice place to hang out. There were a few other people in the park. A couple of mothers whose young children scampered with abandon not too far from the swings, a young couple enjoying the public privacy of pulling a blanket over them to help mask their amorous activities, and two homeless men sitting quietly in the far corner, holding paper bags that had an

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unmistakable shape. None of them paid any attention to the two adults sitting on the swings. “Nice place,” Jay commented, and even he wasn’t sure if he was being ironic or not. “Well, it’s not Central Park, but it’s close and fairly safe,” Jill noted, looking around her and thinking of different times. “Amy and I used to come here, back when she still used to come to the park with me.” She nodded towards the young couple. “I’m afraid she’s more likely to come with a boyfriend than me these days.” “She has a boyfriend?” “Who knows?” Jill said with a resigned shrug. “She’s more likely to tell you than me. Anyone is better than her mom. I keep tabs as best I can, but usually all I get is that she goes out with her girlfriends or in mixed groups.” She shrugged again, resigned to the ways of teenagers. “You raise them the best you can, and hope they make good decisions.” Jill thought for a long moment, kicking her feet idly under the swing. She looked down and watched them. “I didn’t, not always.” Jay let her reflect for a moment longer. “I get the feeling that Amy’s a good kid,” he said at last, watching her. “Whatever happened that you had her young, you did good with her.” Jill bit her lip, just barely nodding her head. “You just want your kids to have better lives than you did,” she told him. She exhaled heavily and looked up at him, seeming to shake off her introspection. “But you didn’t call me to talk about Amy, did you?” “No,” he admitted, already feeling guilty. “I needed a friend to talk to.” She raised her eyebrows. “So you said on the phone. You must have plenty of friends – you barely know me.”

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“I think I know you well enough,” Jay said, more trying to convince himself than her. He didn’t want to tell her he’d cut himself off from all of his other friends. The park was peaceful. The children’s squeals were joyful, and not loud enough to be annoying, and the trees helped dull the sounds of the cars on the surrounding streets to a dull murmur. Even the slight squeak from the swings was a comforting sound from childhood. Jay had had a busy couple of days. He’d gone to see the company’s Compliance Officer about Josephs, figuring if anyone would care about the bribes, it should be her. Jay didn’t know her, and found her to be a somber middle-aged woman, complete with graying hair and reading glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, their chain looped around her neck. Still, she listened patiently to his story, making him repeat it a second time while she made some notes and asked a few questions. Jay had to admit that he lacked any kind of evidence; he only had Josephs’ boasts. She frowned, and took her glasses off her noise, letting them dangle from their chain. “I’ll look into it,” she had promised, “but don’t get your hopes up.” But that wasn’t why he had wanted to talk to Jill. “I’ve done something bad,” he confessed, looking straight ahead, to the edge of the park or perhaps to nowhere at all. “I doubt that.” Jill watched him with concern. Jay nodded his head. “I thought I was doing a good thing, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Not for anyone.” Jill started her swing moving with a gentle push of her feet, the swing swaying a few inches in both directions. “You don’t always know how things will turn out, do you?

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You just make the best choices you can.” She gripped the chains harder and swung her feet harder, lengthening the arc of her swing. “That’s my pep talk.” Jay moved his head slightly to watch her swing, and started swinging to match her. Before they knew it, they were kicking their feet up in the air, trying to see who could get their swings the highest in the air. After a few minutes they slowed down, laughing and looking at each other with guilty pleasure. “Amy used to love to do that,” Jill recalled with pleasure, her face glowing at the memory of it. “She loved seeing how high she could go.” “I was afraid the swing set would give out on us,” Jay admitted. “Yeah, we better get out of here before some park police come along and yell at us,” Jill suggested, snapping back to the present. They got off the swings and sauntered over to a nice patch of shade under one of the bigger trees, and sat down on the grass. Jill leaned back on her arms, her legs straight ahead of her. She was wearing jean shorts that showed off her strong but shapely legs to good advantage, as well as a spaghetti strap top that showed the top of her breasts when she leaned over. Jay sat with his knees pulled up and his arms wrapped loosely around them. “It’s nice out here,” Jay observed, looking around. He was losing his willpower to broach the subject he wanted to talk about with her; it was so comfortable simply being here with her. He was trying, not entirely successfully, to avoid staring too much at her legs or chest. Jill could see indecision on his face. She wanted to let him off the hook, to let him simply relax and enjoy the afternoon with her. She didn’t get too many chances like this, out with a nice guy and simply being a woman with a man, not as a mom or a waitress. But he was clearly still troubled about whatever was weighing on him.

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“So what’s on your mind, Jay McKenzie?” she asked coquettishly, giving him the chance to spill or to start flirting back. Jay breathed out heavily through pursed lips. He shook his head. “Now that I’m here, I don’t really know where to start.” “At the beginning?” she suggested helpfully. “The beginning?” he repeated, trying to think about how much to tell her. “Well, I guess it started with my fiancée,” he told her, deciding to delay bringing up the part about being told he had a death sentence. “I kind of figured it would.” He looked at her sharply. “What do you mean?” “Cherez la femme,” she told him cheerfully. “It usually works.” He nodded, and looked away. “I suppose so.” “You told me that you’d split up with her, that time in my apartment. You just didn’t tell me why, or who broke it off.” “Oh, I broke it off, “Jay said matter-of-factly. “And now you’re having second thoughts?” she questioned. “Or did she get a new boyfriend and you don’t like it?” He shook his head, like a dog ridding its fur of water. “I broke up with her. I didn’t want to but I had to.” He stopped and looked away again.

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Jill waited to see if he would finish his explanation but he seemed lost in thought. “Why did you have to?” she nudged him gently. He was silent for so long that she wasn’t sure he’d heard her, or would respond to her. “So I wouldn’t hurt her,” he said at last, still looking away at nothing in particular. She looked at him appraisingly. “You broke up with her so you wouldn’t hurt her?” she asked carefully, a hint of doubt in her tone. He simply nodded, moving his head the smallest amount possible. “That’s a new one,” she observed, watching him closely. They were both quiet for a long time, Jill watching Jay, Jay looking away. Both of their minds were racing, albeit in different directions. Jill was the first to break the silence. “It’s not because you’re a bad guy,” she thought aloud, watching him carefully. “I know that. I kind of doubt you cheated on her. So it’s not that you’d hurt her like that.” She thought for a while longer, still watching him even as he seemed to be paying no attention to her musing. Jill then got another idea, and it chilled her heart. “HIV?” she speculated softly. Jay seemed surprised by her question, and looked over at her. “No,” he replied, trying to keep his voice even. Her guess had the wrong condition but the right problem. He wanted to avoid this part of the discussion. “Once I broke up with her, I didn’t really want to be with people, so I started getting kind of distant,” he explained. “Now my friends don’t know what the hell they’ve done to make me mad, my work has suffered, and I’m a wreck.” He rubbed his forehead, trying unsuccessfully to assuage the headache that had inconveniently appeared. “Yeah, the drinking alone isn’t a good sign,” Jill admitted. “I even kind of miss your buddy Randy.” “Yeah, me too,” he told her absently.

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Jill sat up and leaned towards him, crossing her legs under her and resting her forearms on her thighs. “Listen, Jay – I don’t know why you broke up with her, but if you had good reasons to, you have to stop second guessing yourself about it and move on. You should be doing things with your friends, not avoiding them.” Jay shrugged. “I know. I just can’t bring myself to. It’s, it’s just easier to not have to deal with them.” “You will eventually,” she promised. His troubles just seemed a fairly routine case of a hard breakup. He was just tenderhearted, Jill thought fondly. He’d be a good rebound catch, she thought somewhat selfishly, not quite liking the way she thought it but not pushing the thoughts aside either. He laughed humorously. “I don’t think so.” Jill frowned. “You’re not – you’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?” He bit his lip. “I’m not going to commit suicide, if that’s what you mean,” he responded carefully. He didn’t see the need to confess that the thought had preyed upon him, or that it would be superfluous. All it would do would be to make the timing of his end more certain. She studied him, not knowing what to say to him. “It’s such a beautiful day,” she said at last, looking at the lovely surroundings and the soft blue sky. “Are you going to waste it by moping around?” Her tone was deliberately buoyant. The beauty of the day, he thought, was made all the lovelier by her presence, a fact she either was too modest to add or didn’t see the need to point out. “If you knew something terrible was going to happen to you, wouldn’t you want to try to make it easier on the people you love?” he asked, looking at her with quiet desperation, and fearing he was giving away too much.

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“I suppose so,” she said tentatively, scared about what terrible thing he thought was going to happen to him. “That’s what I wanted to do.” Jay clenched his teeth together and looked away again. “But if I knew something terrible was going to happen to someone I cared about, I’d want to spend as much time with them as I could,” Jill told him with urgency. “Helping people you care about with their troubles isn’t a question; it’s what you do. But I don’t have to tell you that.” Jay took a deep breath, but couldn’t meet Jill’s eyes. “I don’t recognize the person I’ve become,” he admitted. “And I don’t much like him.” Jill reached out and patted Jay’s arm tenderly. “I don’t know, he seems like a pretty good guy to me. He’s just going through some hard times, that’s all.” Jay didn’t know what to say to this, didn’t know why Jill had such an inflated opinion of him, so he simply looked away. Jill was thoroughly confused about what was troubling Jay, and what to do about it. This was no simple break up. Jay was an honorable man trying to behave honorably, except something had gone wrong and he was hurting himself and everyone around him as a result. She needed to do something break the spell, and it occurred to her that it might be quite simple, and kill two birds with one stone at the same time. Jill reached out and touched his arm tenderly. “Kiss me, Jay,” she suggested. He looked at her in surprise. “What?” “Just do it.” She kept her hand on his arm, keeping the connection.

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Jay was sure that this was not a good idea, not at all, but she seemed so sure of herself. Plus, well, he didn’t have any better ideas. He leaned towards her and slowly touched his lips to hers. Her lips were soft and inviting. He closed his eyes and was lost in them, luxuriating in the feel and shape and texture of them. Jill made a soft noise of pleasure, hinting of a battle against restraint that she was willing to lose should he wish it. It had been a long time since he’d kissed a woman other than Jessica, and it had been too long since he’d simply had real human contact with anyone. Her lips were different than Jessica’s, in ways he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Different wasn’t better or worse; it was just novel, and still quite pleasurable. It was a nice refuge, and he almost forgot himself. But with every first kiss there is a moment, a time when the kiss either ignites or it does not. Sometimes the ignition is a false flame, but when it doesn’t happen at all there is no getting around it. Jay broke it off and leaned back, looking at her with deep tenderness. She looked back at him, her tenderness edged with a sadness that matched his underlying desolation. “You still love her, don’t you?” Jill asked, her voice not quite under control. Jay nodded wretchedly. His eyes watered, and a single tear slowly traced down his cheek. He let it fall, his hands trembling in front of him. He fought to keep himself from blubbering like a schoolgirl whose crush has broken her heart. “Then, my dear, dear man, you should be with her.” Jill stood up and resolutely walked away, her back slightly hunched against the hopes that he would still call to her, or would run up and pull her to him. It took all her considerable strength to keep walking and to not look back. Jay watched her go, the taste of her lips still on his, his mind in a whirl.

Chapter 42

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Jason drove Sydney’s car to the Sears Automotive Center where Jamal worked. After hearing Sydney mention she’d been having trouble with it, and seeing her rave about his Prius, after they’d left the coffeehouse he’d convinced her to trade cars for a day so he could get Jamal to work on it. He’d had to hurriedly call Maurice once he got home, still flush from excitement from his evening with Sydney, and ask for his assistance. Maurice had slowed him down and, in growing amazement, had him recount exactly how it came to happen that he had Sydney’s car and was in charge of getting it fixed. “You went out with Sydney?” Maurice had asked incredulously. “On a date?” Jason had denied it was a date, but confessed that he’d spent the evening after happy hour with her, including dinner and coffee. Once he was brought up to speed, Maurice enthusiastically agreed to be part of the plan, and the next day at CS Games he’d told Jason when and where to bring the car. The Sears was in an older mall on the east side of town. The mall was on its downward slide; the Macy’s had departed, with no replacement in sight. The faded letters of Macy’s name had left a shadow imprint on the side of building, a sad reminder of better years. Now the Sears and a Big Lots were the anchor tenants, but the largely empty parking lot suggested they weren’t quite enough of a draw to keep many stores solvent. At least the Auto Center seemed to be doing a brisk business. Jason didn’t see any BMWs or Mercedes waiting for service, and it was likely that most of the cars being served had had multiple owners over their lives. Still, the waiting room didn’t seem too rundown, and the people waiting looked like they weren’t reduced to sleeping in those cars. The service attendant asked Jason how he could help him, and Jason told him he was there to see Jamal. “Oh, you’re Jamal’s friend,” the man said. He checked his computer. “Honda Accord, right?” Jason was thrown by the concept that he might be considered a friend of Jamal, so he simply nodded in response. The man picked up a microphone and paged Jamal. Jason

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felt sort of stupid standing there, especially since the bored man went back to studying whatever was in front of him, so he moved to the side. He was relieved when Jamal sauntered through the door from the service bay, wiping his hands on a rag. He was wearing coveralls that showed what must have been years of stains, which had the effect of acting as markers for Jamal’s long service in them. “Hey, J-Man,” Jamal said when he saw Jason. He raised his hands apologetically. “I’d shake your hand but they’re kind of dirty right now.” He told Jason to pull the car into the service bay. “Should I wait in the reception area?” Jason asked after Jamal had directed him to the appropriate slot. “Nah,” Jamal replied, already having popped the hood and starting to look under it. “Stay and talk.” Jason looked around, and didn’t see any other customers, but he wasn’t going to argue with Jamal. He backed up against a workbench filled with tools that he had, at best, only a theoretical knowledge of. Jamal seemed very intent on his work and was busy checking under the hood. “I was surprised that you worked at a Sears,” Jason offered. Jamal didn’t look up from his inspection. He appeared to be fiddling with the battery. “Why’s that?” “I dunno,” Jason answered, embarrassed he’d brought it up. “I guess I thought you’d work in some little independent garage.” “Hard to do nowadays,” Jamal told him. “Everything is computerized. You need the right kind of diagnostic equipment to do anything. The independent garages are a dying

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breed.” He paused and looked over at Jason, smiling proudly. “You should see my garage, though.” Bending back over the hood, he went on to explain that he restored vintage cars, and had collected a large array of tools and parts. “You restore cars?” Jason asked. He’d known that Jamal had fixed up his car, but not that doing so for other cars was a hobby of his. “You work on cars all day long, then go home and do it for fun?” “Kind of like working on games and then going home and playing them.” Jamal’s voice was neutral. Jason had to admit that Jamal had a point, and was quiet for a few seconds, thinking about what he did. “You like your job, Jamal?” he asked in a wistful tone. Jamal looked up at this. “I’m good at my job, and I like being good at it, but it’s just my job. It pays the bills, that’s it. Not everybody does what they love, not like you and Maurice and your buddies at CS Games.” It used to be that Jason loved what he did, or so he thought he remembered. Maybe he never did. But it struck him now that, however it had started, he no longer did. He’d lost something without having realized it, had drifted off course without having known he had a course. He felt its absence acutely. Jamal could tell something was on Jason’s mind. “My kids come first, “ he explained. “Then my wife and my brother. Then my church.” He flashed a quick smile. “Truth be told, church is mostly to keep my wife happy. Restoring cars, that’s next in line. That and my friends.” He shrugged. “The job’s just a job.” Jason had no response to that, so he let Jamal get back to work. He tried to develop his own list. Let’s see, he thought. Gram would be on it. Maybe his blog. Definitely Sydney, and probably Maurice. And, he realized, Cathedral would be there, far ahead of work, ahead of his blog or his various electronic toys.

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Jamal had that smooth competence that comes from years of being good at something, with no wasted motion or false starts. Jason had no real idea what Jamal was doing but he could tell that Jamal was good at this, and he was envious. He knew the developers at CS Games thought he was good at what he did there, but what brought a small smile of satisfaction to his face was remembering Sydney’s reaction the previous evening to his work on Cathedral. He drifted off, but instead of pulling out his smartphone or one of his handheld games, he simply watched the flow of Jamal working. Jamal was not one to indulge in idle conversation, and their little zone of silence was lost in the noisy sounds of the cavernous service bay – engines sputtering, pneumatic drills, people yelling. Jamal finished up in less than a half hour. “No big deal,” he told Jason. “The timing was off, it needed some new spark plugs, and the filters were pretty clogged. Listen to the difference.” He started the car and even to Jason’s untutored ears it sounded much better, almost new. “That’s great, Jamal,” Jason said eagerly. “That was pretty cool watching.” He shuffled his feet awkwardly. “Umm, what do I owe you?” Jamal grabbed his clipboard and made several quick notations. “It’s not too bad,” he told Jason. He told how much and instructed him that he had to go to the cashier’s to sign for the work and pay the bill. Jason thanked him, but found himself reluctant to get going. He suspected Jamal had plenty of work to get to but something that had been nagging at him since he’d gotten there suddenly came to the forefront of his brain. “Hey, Jamal,” he started, causing Jamal to look up at him expectantly. “When I got here the guy asked – no, really just said -- I was your friend.” “Is that so,” Jamal said easily, neither confirming nor denying the statement. He wiped his hands on the rag.

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“So I was wondering,” Jason started, feeling awkward and embarrassed. “Am I?” The question seemed to hang out there like a pop fly, easily handled but also embarrassing if muffed. Jamal seemed amused. “How many kids I got?” he asked. The question confused Jason. It felt like a trick question. He knew Jamal had gotten his girlfriend pregnant when he was young, but had never heard him or Maurice talk about others. “Umm, one?” he offered hopefully. Jamal laughed. “No, I got three. A boy and two girls. Oldest one’s almost twelve, the youngest is five.” His face grew serious, almost sorry. “So, no, man, I don’t guess you’re my friend.” He considered this for a second. “Not yet, anyway.” Jason’s face fell. It was the answer he should have expected, and he felt embarrassed that he’d never inquired after Jamal’s family, yet he found himself disappointed all the same. “I see what you mean.” He gave a forlorn smile. “That’s great about your kids.” Jason started to leave again, but was stopped by Jamal’s soft voice. “But you’re my brother’s friend.” Jason turned around. “Really? You’re sure?” Jamal nodded. “For sure. Maurice is choosy about his friends, but you’re one of them. OK?” He smiled reassuringly at Jason. Jason felt proud out of all proportion. Having someone he considered a friend felt novel to him, and he wondered if there were glaring holes in his knowledge of Maurice’s life – equivalent to his failure on the Jamal progeny quiz – that he should be filling. Maybe he should invite Maurice over to his house again to casually worm some more information out of him, just in case.

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Jamal looked over at Sydney’s car, then back at Jason. “What’s the story with you and Miz Sydney?” Jason blushed. “I’m just doing her a favor.” Jamal smiled knowingly. “I hear you and she had a date last night.” “I wouldn’t call it a date,” Jason qualified, sure that everyone could see his red cheeks. “Someone like Sydney wouldn’t date someone like me.” Jamal studied him carefully, not quite losing his smile. “Is that what she says? ‘Cause I think that’s a woman who says what’s on her mind, and I don’t get that she’s giving you any warning signs.” He flashed Jason a knowing smile. “Not at all.” Jason had to admit that she hadn’t said she wouldn’t date him, not in so many words – not that he had the nerve to ask her. “It just stands to reason,” he rationalized, not able to meet Jamal’s eyes. Jamal laughed. “Man, reason don’t got much to do with it. Women are mysterious creatures, my man. We’re not all a Denzel or a Bill Gates, where a woman would be nuts to pass up a chance to be with them. No, my man, most of the time you never understand what your woman sees in you, if she’s a good woman, the kind you’d want to be with, maybe even be the mother of your kids -- the kids you don’t even know you’re ready to have until she tells you it’s time. When a woman like that chooses to bless you with their company, you don’t ask questions, you just accept it and be glad.” He looked seriously at Jason, his expression now serious. “I’d get on that, right away.” Jason was numb with surprise, and could only nod dumbly. He turned again to walk to the cashiers. He only made it a few feet before Jamal’s voice stopped him again, quiet yet cutting through the noise that surrounded them. “And, Jason, my man,” Jamal called out softly. “I was just joshing you about not being my friend. ”

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Jason walked away with a huge smile, a curious and unaccustomed pride swelling in his heart.

Chapter 43 Jay sat in his car in the parking lot next to Pete’s. He’d turned the car off but had made no move to get out of it. He sat there in the twilight, watching without interest other patrons coming and going, occasionally glancing over at him with idle curiosity. Maybe they think I’m just waiting for someone, or maybe they think I’m a cop or a private detective, he thought without amusement. Someone on a stakeout, watching for a person of interest. Only he wasn’t waiting for anyone, he was just waiting, and he couldn’t name what he was waiting for. He’d thought he was looking for another evening of solace. Jill’s words to him in the park had gotten him all confused. He felt vulnerable and lost, and he didn’t like feeling either way. Jay didn’t want to think about why he felt this way, and certainly didn’t want to figure out what to do about it. So on automatic pilot he’d come to Pete’s, hoping to sit quietly and not be bothered, let himself slowly drink a beer and zone out. It was oblivion he was looking for, not resolution. Except he found that he couldn’t bring himself to get out of his car, much less go inside. Pete and the other customers would leave him alone; he was sure of that. He’d taken comfort in their silent acceptance over the past few weeks, their allowing him be part of the place without feeling any need to engage him. Pete’s had been the perfect place. Only now Jill’s presence spoiled it, strangely enough. She had once been one of the attractions of the place, a pretty face with a welcoming smile and warm banter. She’d cared enough to try to engage him when he’d started coming here during his troubles, but hadn’t pressed him about it. Now, though, things were different with her. She wasn’t

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just another friendly waitress; she’d somehow become a friend, maybe something more, despite all the walls he’d hurriedly tried to build up. She’d seen the walls and somehow managed to slip right through them, like a subatomic particle doing some quantum tunneling. However it had happened, she was on the inside, and he’d know it every time he saw her. He couldn’t sit at the bar and be oblivious to everything around him when she was around. Jay had to admit that, as much confusion as she was causing him, he liked having Jill in his life. He didn’t know what he was going to do with her, but he felt better with her in his life than he did when he was just another customer. Still, tonight was not the time to bask in the comfort she offered. He found himself turning on his car and pulling out of the parking lot, no destination clearly in mind. He drove aimlessly, changing the channels on his satellite radio frequently as he found that nothing suited his mood. He passed by his apartment building, but didn’t even think about pulling into the parking lot there. His apartment seemed like such an empty place, full of sorrow and solitude. He might have to end the evening there but he wasn’t ready to drown himself there quite yet. So he drove on by. The streets were busy but not crowded. The traffic flowed along like blood running through young arteries. From the sky, it would appear as busy as an anthill, with the cars moving along with apparent purpose to their intended destinations. Talk of humans or free will or doubt would seem superfluous, and for a time it was enough for Jay to drift along mindlessly, just another ant in the hill. Two cars pulled up on either side of Jay at an intersection. To his left a car full of teenagers – two boys in the front, two girls in the back -- had its music blaring loudly through its open windows. They glanced over at him briefly, enough to ascertain if he was one of them, someone they knew or might want to know, but found nothing of interest about him and turned away. Jay was not that much older than they were, not in the big scheme of things, but he suddenly felt old and all-the-more alone. He

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remembered being one of the kids in that car, full of excitement about the night ahead, about being with his friends, and about the prospect of whom he might meet next. The world had no boundaries then, he thought longingly, and life had no end. Jay looked over to his right and saw a lone woman, her phone held to her face and engaged in a conversation. She was not much younger than him either, yet the animation she displayed made him feel like she lived in a different world. He had his own phone, yet there was no one he felt like calling, and no conversation he might have that would spark him the way that hers was. He looked away before she could look over at him and perhaps feel pity for him. Fortunately the light changed and the other cars pulled away, with even that small touch with humanity fading with their taillights. He drove aimlessly, and it was with no small measure of surprise that he found himself outside of Jessica’s building. He let the car slowly drift to a stop on the street, easing into a vacant parking space. There was no reason for him to be there, he reminded himself. No reason at all. She was the last person in the world that he should see, and he was probably the person she least would want to surprise her by showing up. She might have told Randy that she wanted to see him, but Jay couldn’t imagine that she’d think that meant appearing out of the blue at her condo. He had no business there, and it was dangerous to even sit here quietly. She probably wasn’t home, Jay told himself. She was probably out enjoying her new life, the life without him that he’d bequeathed to her. Maybe she was out with girlfriends, toasting his departure and eying potential replacements at some club. Maybe she was already out on a date, trying to decide if the guy was worth allowing a kiss. It was a better life for her, he tried to convince himself again, a life without the heartbreak he would inevitably bring her. Or maybe she was already home, safe inside the place he’d once considered a second home. He wondered if she’d removed all traces of him, the same way he’d unsuccessfully tried to do with her.

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Yet Randy had told him that she wanted to see him, or at least to talk to him. He’d avoided giving him an answer. He didn’t think he wanted to talk to her, and saw no possible good that could come of such a conversation, yet still he hadn’t been able to simply refuse the request. He could just go to her door and ring the bell, Jay mused. Wouldn’t she be surprised? He allowed himself the flash of a quick smile at the thought. Perhaps for a quick moment she’d see him as he used to be to her, and it would warm her heart. On the other hand, Jay thought ruefully, she might immediately start spewing invective at him for having the gall to show up at her door uninvited. She’d look beautiful either way, he knew. He was not cut out for this solitary life. It came to him suddenly, in a flash that he couldn’t have explained, that he needed to end his efforts at living one. The conversation with Jill must have been percolating in his subconscious all day, adding to the mix that had accumulated over the past few weeks, ever since his bad news. It was not that he couldn’t bear being alone, although it was certainly true that he didn’t enjoy it. It was that he wasn’t going to be this stranger he’d devolved into, this person who tried to protect his friends by shunning them. He didn’t belong in this world where he couldn’t show the people he cared about that he did. It didn’t matter so much if Jessica should be with him or not. He’d made a judgment and had made the tough choice. But, he was coming to believe, it wasn’t his choice to make. He could have told her the truth, given her the option to bow out, and let her make her own choice. Yes, it might have been hard for her to feel she could leave him at such a critical time, but they could have found a way for her to gracefully exit if that was what she’d wanted.

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Everything had fallen apart following his unilateral if well-intentioned decision, costing him the support of his lover and his friends, damaging his relationships at work, and leaving him unhappy and uprooted. Pete had told him that life never has enough time, that everyone always ends up wishing they had more time. Jay had tried to spare Jessica a life in which he would suddenly depart much too soon, leaving their life together before they’d really had a chance to live it. But, he realized with growing excitement, that’s always the risk of life. You can walk out the door and get hit by a bus. The uncertainly is what gives life its sweetness, knowing that each moment has to be savored without letting the fear over what may happen next spoil the taste. He might not have time to live fifty years with Jessica. He might not see his children graduate from college, or possibly even see them be born. He might not have all the time he’d want to have in a lot of respects. But, Jay decided firmly, he might yet have time enough. Jay got out of his car and started to walk resolutely to the door of Jessica’s building.

Chapter 44 Jason called Maurice to invite him over to his house. “We can play some games,” he’d suggested, not quite sure how this was done. “Hang out.” So it was that Sunday afternoon Maurice showed up at Jason’s house – or, rather, at Jason’s grandmother’s house. “Well, hello, Maurice,” Gram said, getting to the door before Jason could get there. He’d told Maurice to go around to the back entrance again, where he could directly access Jason’s portion of the house, but for some reason Maurice had ignored that. “Good to see you again,” Gram said with a warm smile, extending a hand for him to shake.

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“Yes, ma’am,” Maurice replied meekly, shaking her hand in return. Gram brought Maurice in, but before allowing him down to Jason’s basement she led him to the kitchen. “I have some cookies here, if you are hungry.” The freshly baked cookies smelled wonderful, and before he knew it Maurice was seated in the breakfast nook with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. Faced with such determined opposition, Jason could do nothing but acquiesce, with his own plate of cookies and glass of milk. Gram skillfully garnered some additional pertinent pieces of information from Maurice that’d she’d been too circumspect to try to gather on his previous visits. She already knew that he was Jason’s coworker, and that he and his brother had been accompanying Jason on the happy hour expeditions, but soon Maurice explained where he’d grown up, gone to high school and college, what his parents did, and how he’d come to work at CS Games. Oh, and that he had no steady girlfriend but was looking. It was done so neatly that, had she been a pickpocket, they’d have never known they’d been robbed. Jason was amazed at how much he’d learned about Maurice’s life in such short order, and wondered how Gram had acquired that knack. Gram knew better than to press her luck, though, so after a few minutes of the friendly interrogation she looked at the clock and cited pressing things to do, releasing them to go off on their own. “I do hope we’ll be seeing more of you, Maurice,” she said as she shook his hand again. Maurice agreed, and allowed himself to be led into the basement, Gram tousling Jason’s hair affectionately as he walked by her. Maurice stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked back up the stairs to satisfy himself that they were alone. He let out a low whistle. “Man, your grandmother is something!” “Yeah, I guess she is,” Jason replied, worrying that this was not starting off well and that Gram had done something wrong. Maurice laughed. “She reminds me of my mom. I like her.”

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Jason felt compelled to explain how he had come to live with Gram. “You the only grandkid?” Maurice asked, looking around the basement. Jason told him that there were four others – two older, two younger, with a boy and a girl in each set – but none lived in town. “She invite any of them to live with her?” Maurice asked. “No,” Jason replied, feeling embarrassed. “I think she wasn’t worried about any of them the way she was about me.” He gave a little laugh. Maurice didn’t laugh. “Nah, man, I saw the way she watched you. You’re the favorite, I can just tell.” Jason didn’t know what to make of that; he’d never thought of himself as Gram’s favorite. It was true that the other grandkids didn’t call or visit as often as he thought Gram might like, but they had busy lives and Gram never nagged them or complained to him about any of them. Still, being her favorite was hard for him to accept; being anyone’s favorite was. He and Maurice looked through Jason’s collection of games trying to decide what to play first. “I brought a couple games you might not have,” Maurice told him, holding out a couple of CD cases. “They’re pretty obscure, but cool.” Jason took them and, without thinking, immediately replied, “I’ve played these.” He happened to catch a look of disappointment or surprise pass over Maurice’s face, and realized that Maurice had brought these believing them to be special. He took a second look at the cases. “Oh, yeah – not these versions, though,” he told Maurice, not entirely truthfully. “I’ll be interested to see how they updated them.”

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So they played a few games, including a few online games where they challenged other players as a team, and spent almost a couple hours doing so. They finally took a break to go to the bathroom and get a snack. Jason made some popcorn and got them some sodas. He sprawled in the big easy chair while Maurice took up residence on the couch. Jason changed the big screen TV from the internet connection to cable, and used the remote to flip through the cable guide. They agreed on the SyFy channel, which was showing some “Battlestar Galactica” reruns. “Man, I wish I had a robot like that,” Maurice drooled over Number Six. “She’d probably kill you,” Jason retorted. “It’d be worth it,” Maurice pronounced. They debated the merits of Number Six versus Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager or the hot terminator from The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a few minutes, neither believing for a minute that in real life they’d have a shot at any of them, but taking comfort that in a science fiction world or in a game, they could very well walk away with a prize like one of them. It made Jason think of Sydney. “Maurice, what do you do when you’re not working or playing games?” he asked Maurice. Maurice gave him a quizzical look. “You mean, besides hanging out with friends? Like this?” Jason wondered who else Maurice had to hang out with, and if he’d ever meet them. Maybe they wouldn’t like him, but maybe he’d gain some new friends. He asked Maurice if he played any sports, and was relieved when he admitted that he wasn’t so good at sports either. “Maybe I shoot some hoops with some buddies sometimes,” he allowed. Jason made a mental note to find out at some later point what sports Maurice liked to watch. To him, sports only existed in the context of their virtual counterpart, but if

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Maurice liked to watch them with live players maybe he’d missed something. “Do you ever go to, you know, concerts and such?” he asked, pretending to be casual. Maurice peered at him intently. “Well, sure, sometimes. Why, are you thinking of going to a concert? Who?” “I don’t know,” Jason confessed. He hesitated for a second. “Sydney likes to go listen to music and I kinda thought, well, I might ask her to go with me sometime.” Maurice whistled. “Whoo-we,” he exclaimed. “So she is a girlfriend after all, and a fine one at that! Way to go, my main man!” He leaned over with a fist extended, which puzzled Jason until he realized that a reciprocal gesture was required. He tentatively put out his own fist, and tapped it lightly against Maurice’s, feeling both foolish and proud at the same time, as if he’d just joined a secret club. “She hasn’t actually said yes,” Jason noted. “I haven’t actually asked her yet, to be honest.” He paused. “But I will,” he added forcefully. Maurice nodded vigorously in agreement. They watched more TV, with Maurice talking to the characters on the screen in a way that puzzled Jason at first, until he got into the swing of it and started to enjoy the running commentary and suggestions. His mind started drifting, thinking about what Jamal had said and replaying his evening with Sydney. They both participated in a world that Jason had always tried to avoid, but one that he now wanted to establish citizenship in, or at least get a visitor’s visa to explore. When the show was over, Maurice asked if he wanted to play some more games. “Do you ever think about doing something different?” Jason asked, his tone pensive. Maurice realized Jason was not asking about playing games, at least not literally. “You mean, not work at CS Games?”

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Jason shrugged. “I like playing the games, sometimes, but I feel like I want to do something more. Something, I don’t know – something more useful.” Maurice stared at him in astonishment. “What do you have in mind?” Jason told him.

Monday morning Jason found his way to Ben’s office. He rarely went there -- maybe half a dozen times over the years, counting visits to his office in the old building -- and more often than not Ben wasn’t there anyway, off doing deals with someone: raising money, developing merchandising partners, all sorts of things that Jason never had interest in. Ben’s office, along with those of the CTO and the Chief Marketing Officer which were located adjacent to his, were the only real offices in the building. They were nice, but not exactly the kind of plush offices that Jason had seen on TV. “Jason,” Lisa – Ben’s admin assistant – called out in surprise. “We don’t see much of you here.” Jason didn’t remember her name, and had to quickly check her nameplate. “I have a meeting with Ben.” She frowned. “I don’t think so,” she said, sounding very doubtful about his claim. However, she looked at her screen to check Ben’s calendar. Her face expressed her surprise. “Well, so you do,” she murmured. “How about that?” She got up and went into Ben’s office. Jason could hear them talking but couldn’t make out any of the words other than his name repeated a couple times. Lisa finally emerged and told him he could enter.

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Ben’s office was sparsely decorated – a desk that really was just a flat top, with an expensive looking ergonomic chair for Ben and three leather visitors’ chairs across the desk. He had a laptop attached to a flatscreen, a small bookcase along the far wall that was half filled with books, with pictures of Ben’s family spread along its surface. The only art on the walls were framed covers from CS Games’ game covers, including their original game. “Jason, this is a nice surprise,” Ben expressed. He gestured for Jason to sit down in one of the chairs across from his desk. The chair felt so soft that Jason could imagine it melting. “It’s funny – when I came in this morning I was pretty sure I didn’t have this meeting on my calendar.” He gave Jason an amused look. “Since no one but Lisa and I have access to my calendar, can I assume you hacked it?” “Ben, I wrote the damn program for it, years ago. You don’t think I can hack my own program?” “And a good job you did of it,” Ben allowed, smiling broadly now. Jason had worried that Ben might be mad about Jason’s hacking into his busy schedule, but Ben appeared to be amused by the whole thing. “What can I do for you?” Now that he was here, Jason felt stupid – scared and stupid – for what he intended to ask. He decided to take a long way around. “Ben, all these years – why have you kept paying me to work here? Until lately I wasn’t doing you much good, and even now I’m not sure I’m helping all that much.” Ben’s face grew serious. “You’re a damn good developer. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. I’d be foolish to let you go.” “There’s lots of good developers out there, ones who would kill for a chance to work here, and who would have worked a lot harder for you than I did,” Jason argued.

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“Maybe,” Ben responded, not sounding very convinced. He leaned forward. “What’s this all about?” Jason matched Ben’s stare. “I want to ask you a favor.” Ben’s expression showed his surprise. “Boy, that’s not like you! Sure – name it.” “Just like that?” “Just like that.” Ben smiled, amused at Jason’s skepticism. Jason’s face showed his confusion. “Why?” Ben exhaled, and stood up. He walked around the desk and sat down in the chair next to Jason. “Because we’re friends. Because we go way back. You need a favor, I’ll try to do it for you.” Jason tilted his head and stared at Ben in amazement. That was why Ben had carried him all these years, he realized. Not because he felt guilty, not because he couldn’t hire anyone better, but because Ben thought of him as a friend, despite Jason’s indifference to making any reciprocal efforts. He’d thought of himself as being alone in the world, yet there’d always been Gram, and Ben, and maybe others he didn’t realize. He didn’t deserve friends like Ben, or Maurice, or Jamal, and certainly not Sydney, yet there they were, standing up for him. Once time had been something uncertain, his horizon no more than a day ahead. Then, with his cleared diagnosis, time had become a problem, something that he was going to have too much of and would never be able to fill. Now he was coming to realize that time was something precious, an ally if he used it well. Time with Sydney, time with Gram, time with Maurice and Jamal. And in his time, short or long, he wanted to do something useful, something that made him feel good about himself and that he’d be

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proud to show to Sydney. He knew he’d have a lot of time in his life but after years of waiting he’d decided he wanted to use it well, and he had an idea about how he could start doing that. He looked towards Ben’s laptop and gestured at it. “Have you ever heard of a game called Cathedral?” Ben thought for a moment, and shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t even remember reading about it in your blog.” Jason asked permission to use Ben’s computer, and quickly took Ben on a tour of the game, including his own contributions. Ben whistled in admiration. “That’s pretty good stuff,” he commented, staring at the interior of one of the cathedrals that was lit by Jason’s amazing windows. “Not exactly our style, though.” Jason now looked at him, his face as serious as it had ever been. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about…” he started earnestly.

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Epilogue -- Three Years Later “Omigod,” Jessica exclaimed. “You died yesterday!” Jay looked over at her. She sat at the breakfast bar of their house reading the morning paper, while he was feeding Lily, their thirteen month old daughter, in her highchair. Lily was, as usual, making a game of it, especially since her father was doing the feeding. She was decidedly a daddy’s girl – her first and still favorite word was “dada” – and, as much as he loved Jessica, Lily was the apple of Jay’s eye. Jay was only successful in delivering the food into her mouth on about every other spoonful, so her face, bib, and tray were a mess. She looked so cute in the process that Jess had already taken several photos with her digital camera, adding to the hundreds, if not thousands, that they already had. “What’s that?” he asked, pausing the spoon in mid-flight and looking over at her. Lily made her displeasure known. “It says here that Jason McKenzie died Tuesday night – I guess that was really night before last – in his sleep.” She read on, wrinkling her nose. “No, it isn’t you.” “Duh,” Jay commented, turning back to Lily and getting most of the spoon’s contents delivered. “He was a couple years younger than you. Different Jason McKenzie.” “Well, thank heavens,” Jay said distractedly. “Maybe he was a cousin or something. I never knew there was another one here in town.” Jess went on to recap that the other Jason had been discovered by his long-time companion, one Sydney Hines. “Ooo, yuck,” Jessica said. “It says she woke up in the night and realized he wasn’t breathing.” She lowered the paper to look at Jay, who was focused on his feeding. “Think how horrible that’d be to wake up and find the person in bed dead.” She shuddered. “I’d have nightmares the rest of my life.”

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“Uh-huh,” Jay responded, all too aware of the prospect that she might well face that someday. She knew what his prognosis was, of course, but chose to not dwell on it. Jessica continued to read silently for another minute or two, spending more time on the fairly obscure story than she would have had the deceased not shared a name with her husband. Jay and Jessica had indeed gotten married, although they moved the date up to within weeks of their reconciliation. No sense wasting time, they decided, given that time was likely not on their side. It had been a small ceremony, but those present reported never having seen a happier couple. It had turned out that Jay’s news was not the surprise to Jessica that he’d feared. “I thought something must be wrong with you,” she’d told him that night in the apartment, holding on to him for dear life. It was not for several months that she’d confessed that she’d pressured Randy into spilling the beans a few days prior to that – she figured he had to know more than he was letting on – but Jay had no trouble forgiving him for this breach of secrecy. “If you’d taken any longer I’d would have come to beg you to reconsider,” she’d admitted once Randy’s disclosure was confessed. “I couldn’t bear losing any more of whatever time we might have together.” Much had changed in Jessica and Jay’s lives. They’d gotten married, they’d bought this house, and, of course, they had Lily. It had taken them longer to get pregnant than they’d hoped – much to Jessica’s surprise, Jay wanted to start right away – but now they didn’t know how they had lived without her, except for having had more time to sleep. The landscape at work had changed significantly too. Much to Jay’s surprise, the Compliance Officer had done a through investigation into Jay’s allegations. Josephs had done a poor job covering his tracks, barely trying to disguise the bribes. He was fired for falsifying expense vouchers. They hadn’t been able to prove Scott Reusser’s complicity

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in the arrangement, but it was clear that his career was over there, and he was gone less than six months after Josephs’ departure. Jay had been promoted into Reusser’s job, an outcome he’d never even considered but one that was met with applause and cheers from the entire team. No one was sorry to see either Josephs or Reusser go. Pat Dye had also lost his job; the Compliance Officer had reached out to her counterpart, and it didn’t take too much digging into what Dye was doing to uncover a pattern with multiple vendors. Jay had indeed hired Jill, and she’d proven the wisdom of that decision on countless occasions. Amy was doing well in college, and Jill was taking night classes herself. It was hard for her and Amy, but they moved out of the apartment over Pete’s into a nicer apartment closer to the university and to Jill’s new workplace. Jessica always wondered what had gone on between Jill and Jay – it seemed obvious there was some special connection between – but she never asked about it and neither of them clarified it. Jay simply told her that they were just friends, good friends, and that she’d helped him when he was at his worst. Jessica was wise enough to know that if Jill had helped Jay find his way back to her, well, it didn’t really matter how. “It says that they don’t yet know what killed him,” Jessica continued aloud as she read the article. “He had a history of headaches, but his girlfriend said he’d gotten them checked out and he was OK.” She lowered the paper again and looked at Jay. “Sounds like your headaches, except they didn’t find anything wrong with him.” Her tone was worried. “Maybe she killed him,” Jay said flippantly, perhaps a little too much so. He didn’t want to think about headaches or dying in his sleep. “It’s usually the spouse.” “Harrumph,” Jessica said. “You just better not die when I’m next to you or I will kill you.” She took up the paper again to report that the other Jason had been co-founder of a small online education company, focusing on game-like approaches to teaching. It turned

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out that Jason was especially talented at using video games to making learning fun, especially for teenagers, the very kids that schools struggled to keep interested but who loved games. He’d started out, naturally enough, with a companion program for Cathedral, teaching about real life cathedrals and their history, and the unexpected success of that had led to comparable products in mathematics and physics. They’d signed a big deal with a big consortium of charter schools, and the company’s future looked bright. It had only been in existence for about three years, and the article quoted both the other cofounder – Maurice Shanks – and the CEO and main investor, Ben Ziegler. Both were cited as close friends and in shock at the news. “I think someone told me about that company a few months ago,” Jessica recalled, watching Jay maneuver another spoonful towards Lily’s mouth. “They were really impressed, but I never got around to checking out the link.” Jay wasn’t talking much, but he was wondering about the poor girlfriend. He wondered if she’d known that her boyfriend had been at risk – if the poor guy himself had even known. Whether she’d had warning or not, it sounded like she was now suffering quite a loss, and he selfishly was glad it was her and not Jessica. Of course, he thought glumly, Jessica’s day was coming too; they already knew how, just not when or where. What Jay didn’t know, and was unlikely to ever learn, was that Sydney was taking the loss about as well as could be expected. She and Jason hadn’t gotten married because she wasn’t big on marriage, although she was fine with commitment. “Just enjoy the day,” she always urged Jason. They’d had over a thousand days together, living together the last half of that, after Jason’s grandmother had died, and she was thankful for that time. If asked, she’d have been sure that Jason would have felt the same way. They’d made love the night of his death, and if he died with a smile on his face, it would be because he had much to be happy about. Jason had taken Gram’s death hard, much harder than he’d expected. Still, Sydney had been a great comfort. He’d gained some solace by using Gram’s voice – obtained by her recording on her voice mail – as part of the template for the help avatar in one of their

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most popular sites. Sometimes he would log onto the site just to be with her virtual counterpart; it wasn’t like the real thing, but it was a comfort nonetheless. Jessica finally put the paper down. “Sad story,” she said in a quiet voice. She reached out for him, putting her hand on his shoulder, feeling the reality of his presence. Jay glanced over at her and smiled. “It wasn’t us, hon,” he told her in a quiet voice charged with emotion. “Not yesterday and not today.” Jay and Jessica talked about their respective plans for the day as Jay finished feeding Lily. These were the kind of moments Jay treasured, these little moments – times not just with Lily, but also with Jessica, with Randy, or just standing outside in the cool evening looking at his yard and feeling happy and proud about his home. Life is made up of those moments; one can never have enough, but the quality of one’s life matters more about treasuring the ones you experience than on trying to be greedy about how many one is granted. Both Jay and Jessica had learned, as had Sydney and Jason, that making plans was a kind of hubris, that the universe has its own way of dashing your plans and imposing new plans. But that’s all anyone can do – live your life as best you can, but don’t count on the future, because it may never happen, at least not like you expected. Life may be a tragedy, but if so it can be at least a noble tragedy, or even a comedy, because despite knowing the ending we persist in searching for and, if we are fortunate, finding the joy life can bring. In whatever time one does have, there is time for joy, and time for love. And, in the end, that’s time enough.

THE END

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