Chapter 15:



November 9, 2022 AD. Sunview University, California, USA, Earth

Cam paced the floor of his dorm room. It was a Wednesday, but he had only had one class that day. He had spent his free afternoon in his room, alternatively napping, gaming, and attempting to complete various homework assignments. It was now evening. “I’m bored,” he complained to Jordan, who was changing into his work uniform in the room as well.

“Prepare for your next D&M game,” Jordan said disinterestedly. “Or hang with a friend. Boredom is a failure of creativity.”

“The game is all prepared. And did you forget the whole I-don’t-have-any-friends thing I’ve got going on?”

“Do you seriously think that? Sometimes, you’re even stupider than you look. Anyway, I’m off to work. See ya.” Jordan exited before Cam could come up with a comeback.

Cam flopped down on his bed with a sigh, staring up at his D&M poster with the knight with a magic sword fighting a dragon. That’s not quite right, he thought. D&M isn’t a solo game. In a playgroup, there would never just be one player who fought a dragon without help from their friends. Friends… “Oh,” he said out loud. “I get it. Jordan, why do you have to be right about everything?” He got out his phone and opened the group chat that contained himself, Annette, Bekah, Dinah, and Ella. The chat was fairly active. Besides his frequent texts to confirm scheduling, the girls often posted various things. The most recent text, from earlier that day, was a meme Dinah had made about the last session. Cam smiled as he read it again. Scrolling further back, he reviewed a short but spirited debate from a few days ago between Bekah, Dinah, and Annette. They argued if the group should have returned to the elf village to try to collect some kind of reward from the elves for defeating the troll incursion.

Cam quickly typed out a message into the group chat. Hey ladies, anyone want to hang out tonight? Maybe get food later. His finger hovered over the send button. A few months ago, he would have been terrified to send a text like this to a group chat of attractive girls. Actually, he was still nervous. “No reason to bother them,” he muttered, this time directing his words at his pillow. “They’re all probably busy. Why would they want to spend time with me? I’m sure they’ve got better things to do.” Stop lying to yourself. I’m just a coward. “Ah, man. What would Cyton do if he were here instead?” Actually, Cyton was also sort of a coward. Hm. What would Cyton like to do in this situation? The answer, of course, was send the text.

Cam suddenly laughed. “I’m trying to take advice from the idealized version of a fictional character who I made up and who I totally control?” He re-read the text one more time, deleting the ladies at the beginning. He pressed the send button. With a sigh, he lay back in bed.

Less than a minute later, the phone buzzed. A message from Dinah, saying she wanted to hang out. A few moments later, Ella also texted, saying she had some work to finish but she could bring it along. Cam knew Bekah was busy with some church thing on Wednesday nights.

Within a few minutes, Dinah and Ella arrived, practically at the same time. Dinah carried an enormous backpack on her back and a few books in her hands. A few hundred feet behind them, Cam spotted Annette also walking toward the room. “Thanks for coming,” he said awkwardly as the three girls set themselves in the same places they always sat for D&M.

Ella laughed. “Hey, thanks for the invite.” She removed a laptop computer from a small bag she also carried. She opened it and began contemplating deeply, occasionally typing a few words.

Dinah opened a textbook as she sat down, but her eyes darted to the small TV that Cam used for gaming that was precariously balanced on his desk. The screen was still running the opening menu of the last game he had played that day. “You play Fighting Fighters III?” she said, pointing at it.

“Yeah, sometimes. Do you play?” Dinah nodded. “Want to do a round?”

Dinah looked conflicted. “I need to study…”

Annette, who had entered the room behind her, laughed. “What’s the harm? Play one. Loser has to buy me and the winner a soda!”

“How come you get a soda in this situation?” Cam said exasperatedly as he looked for his second controller. He found it buried in a drawer full of old tests—he winced at the scores on some of them—and handed it to Dinah.

Dinah was quite good, but she was clearly rusty. Cam won their game, causing Dinah to start cursing. “That sweaty stupid evil broken projectile! Why does it have 35 frames of invincibility! PATCH THIS FREAKING BROKEN GAME ALREADY!” She rounded on Cam with a wild look in her eyes. “One more!” Cam was too frightened to object. He won the second game as well, although by a narrower margin, causing Dinah to freak out almost as much and demand the best three out of five. When Cam won the next game, she wanted five out of seven. All the time, Annette was watching, clearly having the time of her life observing Dinah’s breakdown. Even Ella, who apparently was focused on her computer, was smiling.

Cam lost track of how many games they played. Dinah did win a few, but Cam still won the majority of the games. Finally, Dinah threw the controller onto the table. Annette, who had been holding herself back the entire time, finally burst out laughing. Dinah looked embarrassed. “I-is it that funny that I lost?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Annette replied. “The violent side of you is so unexpected that it’s adorable.”

“W-well, that’s over now, right?”

“I thought you’d say something like that,” Annette said, holding up her phone. It played a video of Dinah’s reaction after a particularly bad loss. In this one, she had actually grabbed the TV and shaken it slightly before returning to her seat, cursing the idiocy of the developers of this game.

Seeing the video, Dinah turned totally scarlet. “What a-are you going to do with that video?”

“Oh, who knows,” Annette responded teasingly. “Maybe watch it whenever I’m depressed. Maybe send it to Cam whenever he’s depressed.”

Cam hadn’t thought it possible, but Dinah turned even redder. “G-give me th-that!” She reached for the phone, but Annette dexterously moved it out of the way. The two got into a wrestling match with Dinah trying to grab the phone while Annette kept it away. It somehow turned into Annette tickling Dinah on the floor, causing the girl to abandon her quest of grabbing the phone in favor of attempting to squirm away while howling with laughter.

Cam was watching the two with great fascination when something very solid smacked him on the head. He turned, rubbing his head in pain to see that Ella had smacked him with one of Dinah’s textbooks. He asked, “what was that for?”

“We’ve been training together long enough that you shouldn’t even feel the pain anymore. You still have much to learn, young grasshopper.”

“I’m not going to lose all sense of pain just from a little workout!”

“I’m done with my stuff,” Ella continued. “Let’s get some food.”

Before Cam got the opportunity to agree, Jordan entered the room, looking tired. He tried to hide it, though, when he saw that there were more people inside than just Cam. He greeted the group with a wave and a quick “hey all.”

Cam, Dinah, and Ella responded with similar simple handwaves of acknowledgement. Annette, however, had a much stronger reaction. As soon as she saw Jordan enter, she sprang up, running to his side. “Hi again Jordan!” she said brightly, putting her arms behind her back and leaning slightly sideways. “I’m so happy to see you again.”

“It’s nice to see you again too, Annette.”

She practically squeed, a noise that sounded outright bizarre coming from her mouth. “Wow! You remembered my name! That’s so thoughtful of you.”

Jordan smiled bashfully, putting one hand behind his head. “Well, I do my best to remember names. It makes people feel appreciated.”

“I agree! But I’m so bad at remembering names. Hm… say, could you teach me how you do it?”

Looking surprised, Jordan said “you can’t be that bad at names. You remembered my name, right?”

Annette’s reply came in a breathy voice. “I could never forget you, Jordan…” She bashfully looked down.

Throughout this whole interaction, Annette seemed to have forgotten that anyone else besides herself and Jordan was in the room. Furthermore, something seemed different about her. The way she carried herself, the subtle hints in her body language, the delivery of her words—she seemed like a slightly different person. Almost as if she was acting in a movie.

Ella broke into the conversation. “Jordan, we were gonna grab some grub. Want to come?”

“No thanks, I already ate.”

“Ok. Cam, Dinah, Annette, let’s go. I’m starving.”

Dinah nodded, but Annette stood up. “I should pass. I’ve been trying to watch what I eat. I’ll go back to my dorm, which as I’m sure you know is right in this same building. My roommate is out today.” As she said the last two sentences, she pointedly looked at Jordan.

Jordan, for once in his life, seemed lost for words. Cam was glad to get away from the suddenly awkward situation. He offered to drive himself and the two girls to a nearby burger place that was popular with Sunview students.

The drive took about fifteen minutes. Cam noticed that Ella listened to her own music on her phone, but Dinah in the back seat looked fidgety and uncomfortable. Worried that something was bothering her, he kept checking on her in the rearview mirror. He almost crashed twice on the short journey because of that. Finally, he decided that asking her was slightly less likely to cause his doom than driving in this state.

Dinah looked a little surprised when he asked. “Nothing’s wrong,” she answered. She hesitated a little longer before asking “do you think Annette likes Jordan?”

That comment caused Cam to press on the breaks a little harder than he had intended, causing the car behind him to honk angrily. “Why do you ask?”

She hemmed and hawed, clearly reluctant to explain. “Maybe because, um, uh, um, if s-somebody already liked Annette, but he knew that she liked someone else, he would give up…ah, this is embarrassing to talk about!” In the rearview mirror, Dinah was staring at her toes.

Is there a guy she likes that has a crush on Annette? “Maybe she does. You’d think I’d have enough practice understanding girls, but that girl is impossible to read.”

“What do mean ‘enough practice understanding girls?’”

Crap. Cam had avoided mentioning to these four that he had had a bad string of luck with girlfriends in the past. Not that he was ashamed of it or anything. And not that it mattered to them; he knew that all four of them thought of him as just a casual acquaintance. Still, he didn’t really want to bring up any of his exes. Especially Cindi. Please, whatever God Bekah prays to, give me a distraction!

As if by immediate divine intervention, Ella removed her earbuds. “Hey, were you guys talking about Annette and Jordan? Boy, that sucks for you, Cam.”

Cam said, “what do you mean ‘sucks for me?’”

“Huh? Isn’t it obvious? She’s hitting on another guy right in front of you when you obviously have a crush on her.”

There was a moment of silence. At the same time, Cam and Dinah both shrieked “what?!” Cam involuntarily yanked the steering to the right, pulling a dangerously sharp turn into the burger restaurant’s parking lot. Cars swerved out of his way, honks and curses filling the air. By some miracle, Cam avoided an accident. He pulled the car into a parking spot. “I don’t know how you got that crazy idea in your head, but I definitely do not have anything close to a crush on Annette.”

Ella looked totally unfazed by both the dangerous driving maneuver and Cam’s question. “What are you talking about? You clearly have a crush on her. I mean, you check her out every time she walks in the door.” When she saw his horrified expression, she said “it’s not a bad thing to like her.”

“I. Do. Not. Like. Her. That. Way.”

“Really? Are you sure?” She looked genuinely surprised.

“I am very sure. Why would I not have said anything to her all this time?”

“I assumed you already asked her out and got shot down.”

“Don’t assume things like that! Now can we stop talking about this?”

“C’mon, there’s no need to be self-conscious,” Ella said. “I’ve seen you puke down your pants while training, so this is nothing.”

Dinah chimed in curiously saying “he did?”

“Don’t bring that up, Ella!” He took a deep breath. “Let’s just get our food and get out of here.”

“Sounds good to me,” Ella said. “This whole conversation made me even hungrier.” She exited the car and began walking quickly across the large parking lot to the burger place. Cam and Dinah followed, but Dinah lagged behind.

“Cam. Is it true what you said?” Dinah asked quietly but intensely.

“Yes. Ella was just jumping to conclusions.”

“I’m glad.” Before he had a chance to ask what she meant, Dinah skipped ahead to catch up to Ella. As she turned to gesture to him to hurry forward, Cam noticed that Dinah had a joyous look on her face.

The burger joint was packed with all kinds of people, including several college age students from Sunview University. After the three ordered their food and sat down at one of the only available booths, Cam idly scanned the crowd. One girl in particular caught his attention, although it took him a moment to realize why. The girl was sitting with two other girls two booths down from him, but while Cam watched, she turned her head. As her eyes locked with Cam’s, he finally recognized her: Cindi, the girl who had dumped him over text on his birthday two months ago. Although he tried to break eye contact, it was too late: she had already recognized him. She stood up and walked toward Cam’s table.