Chapter 8:

October 14, 2015, 4:40 PM

Let's Make Love Bloom

My game was coming along great. With some extra environment assets from Stephen and one whole music track from Romana, I had a complete first level on my hands. I was in the library playtesting it, and any random passerby, depending on what I was doing, might just think I was screwing around and wasting time by taking up valuable college resources to play some dumb little pixel game. But it wasn’t just any dumb little pixel game; bitch, it was my dumb little pixel game, and as I played that first level over and over again, running and jumping into every little nook and cranny, looking for bugs or other little hiccups in the design, I could not for the life of me stop giggling to myself. I had made a thing and it was great and I loved it, and no one could take that away from me.Bookmark here

I was proud of how it had come together. As far as opening levels go it was fairly simple, but I thought it did a good job of teaching the game’s basic platforming mechanics. The game featured two characters which the player could freely swap between, and swapping was necessary in order to make progress. One character excelled at speed and covering horizontal distance, the other excelled at jumping high and covering great heights. For this first level, I simply guided the player through a few non-lethal obstacles which required them to swap to the appropriate character to clear—platforms that fell out from your feet if you weren’t fast enough, platforms too high up to reach with the fast one’s jump, things like that. In its current state, the level doesn’t have any enemies, and I wasn’t sure whether to add them in the future. I was still working out exactly how I wanted the character’s abilities to translate to combat, though I already had a few basic ideas implemented. Point is, I had a simple version of the first level done in which the player should be able to learn how to use their basic abilities and, narratively, the player characters start to learn to cooperate, and I was happy.Bookmark here

Speaking of, while I was no writer, I was planning to implement some kind of narrative in the game. I hadn’t been planning on it originally, but thanks to that adorable little animation Stephen had showed me a few weeks back, ideas had started forming and eventually I decided I just had to. It wasn’t going to be anything complex (again, writing is Masashi’s thing, not mine), just enough to give the player the sense that things changed between the start and end of the game. The idea was that the two player characters would start out not getting along with each other, and over the course of the game, as they keep on having to work together, they’ll grow to trust in and care for each other, ultimately culminating in the end in that little kiss that Stephen had so kindly animated. Question was, how to implement that mechanically? Stephen and I had already toyed with the idea of their early-game animations reflecting their inexperience with each other; like when they were both out together, they might look away from each other, crossing their arms and going “hmph!” in contempt, a behavior they’d drop as the game progressed. But then if there were moments when the player was controlling both at once, how would that work, exactly? We still had a lot of brainstorming to do on that front, and as I ran through the first level for the umpteenth time, I continued to brainstorm until I was brought out of it by a tap on the shoulder. (It took a considerable amount of restraint not to yelp and jump out of my seat.)Bookmark here

“Hey,” said a familiar voice. Flustered, I looked up. It was Masashi. The hell was he doing here? His class wasn’t supposed to get out until somewhere around an hour after mine. I had gotten here just after class ended at about, what, 4:30? And he was already here? His class doesn’t get out until around 5:20, I think. I glanced at the clock in the bottom-right corner of the computer monitor: 5:40. Damn. Time really does fly when you’re having fun. Looking back up and ready to say hi back, I realized that it wasn’t Masashi who’d said it. He wasn’t alone. His hand was firmly in the grasp of someone else’s. I looked over the unexpected arrival and saw someone I hadn’t seen since I’d first met him: Oscar.Bookmark here

“Hey, man,” I said, shaking his free hand. “Guys, what’s up? What’re you doing here?”Bookmark here

“Well, he wanted to see you,” Masashi said, jerking his head over to his boyfriend.Bookmark here

“That I did,” Oscar said. Then, he glanced around the room with furrowed brows. “It’s a bit crowded in here. Want to go walk with us?”Bookmark here

“Uh, sure,” I said, flustered at the sudden invitation but seeing no reason to deny it. After I saved and closed everything I had been working on, I retrieved my USB drive, logged out, and we were on our way out. (And no sooner did I stand than did a lurker dive into my now-available seat to claim use of the computer. Sharks, I tell you.)Bookmark here

Our campus, being fairly large, had plenty of open paths to walk down in relative peace and quiet where you could have private conversations without much worry. On our way out of the library, heading in the direction of one of the narrower walkways lined with trees on either end, so thick with leaves that the sun could only poke through in small rays, we made some small talk. Oscar asked what it was I’d been working on, and I was all too happy to talk about how well my little project was coming along. Then, once we were under the cover of wood and relatively alone, Oscar launched into the reason he had sought me out.Bookmark here

“Listen,” he said. “I—we—just want to thank you. I know it’s only been, like, a month, but things have been going super well for us. We’re both really happy together, and it’s insane to think that we never would have met if not for you.”Bookmark here

“Oh…” I didn’t know what to say to that. All I could do was blush and avert my gaze. Really, I hadn’t done all that much. I was just lucky, is all. “There’s… you don’t need—”Bookmark here

“Oh, but I do need,” Oscar said, cutting me off. “See, Masashi just told me the other day about the little plan of yours that led to all of this—which, wild, by the way. But hey, can’t fault you. It worked. So he told me about it, and here I was thinking I should just buy you a drink to thank you for setting us up, but then he tells me about that and a much better idea pops into my head.” As he spoke, he pulled a folded-up notecard from his pocket and handed it to me. Confused, I took it and opened it up. On it was a phone number and a name: “Juniper.”Bookmark here

“As it just so happens,” Oscar said when I looked back up at him, “I know a girl who’s on the market.” Finally comprehending what was happening, I looked back down at the notecard and felt my heart stop as my jaw popped open with some embarrassing pop sound and hung down for probably a solid minute.Bookmark here

“Oh my God,” I finally said. So much started running through my mind at that moment: is this really happening? Oh geez, I’m not ready for this, oh God. This is my shot, holy crap, it’s finally happening, but it’s just so out of nowhere, and from Oscar of all places, oh God, what do I do? This is it, this is it, this is what I’ve been waiting for, this is excellent, fantastic, love it, I’m going to bloody panic oh no, someone help me or I’m going to die—Bookmark here

“Whoa! You okay there?” I’d lost focus on the world around me, and when those words brought be back, I looked around to find that the world was tilted. I had fallen straight backwards, and Masashi had caught me before I hit the ground.Bookmark here

“I-I’m fine,” I said, struggling to balance on my shaking legs. “It’s just… holy shit, man, I don’t know what to say.”Bookmark here

“Hey, you don’t have to say anything to me,” Oscar said with a shrug. Pointing at the card, he said, “All you’ve got to do is talk to her, if you’re up for it. She’s expecting your call.”Bookmark here

“Ah…” I think some more sounds escaped my mouth right then, but whatever they were, I don’t think they were much more than incomprehensible gobbledygook.Bookmark here

“Do you need to sit down?” Masashi asked, having taken up position beside me to catch me just in case I stumbled again. A warm hand of his on my shoulder calmed me just enough to ensure that wouldn’t happen again, but in general his presence was comforting.Bookmark here

“Yes, please,” I said, and in no short order Masashi led me to a nearby bench and sat down with me on it; Oscar stood just beside him.Bookmark here

“Now you know how I felt,” Masashi said, giving my shoulder a friendly shake.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said in a breath, though I was pretty sure I was feeling the pressure much more than he had. Despite this being what I’d wanted for so long, that little notecard was the scariest thing I’d ever held in my hand. “Sorry about that.”Bookmark here

“Hey, no worries, we’re even now.” I nodded, then sulked a little as I struggled to get my thoughts in order. It was clear that saying no to this was not an option: not only had I always wanted it, but it’d be rude to Oscar and Masashi to throw this gift away after they’d be so kind as to give it to me. But no matter how much I told myself that, it didn’t make the prospect of actually calling this Juniper any less frightening. That being said, after taking a few moments to calm down, I did find enough resolve to say just a couple of things.Bookmark here

“Oscar. Masashi,” I said, doing my best to appear calm as I looked them both in the eye. “Thank you both so much for this. I need some time to think this over. Or not think, just… you know, prepare myself emotionally.”Bookmark here

“Sure, yeah, whatever you need,” Masashi said.Bookmark here

“Should I tell her to expect your call today, tomorrow, what?” asked Oscar, holding his phone and looking ready to text.Bookmark here

“Good question. What time is it?”Bookmark here

“About six.” That was worrying. If I wanted to do it today, it’d have to be soon, because no way in hell was I making that call once I got home. Tomorrow would be safer, and give me more time to think. But then, what if tomorrow was too late? What if she got impatient by then? What if she made weekend plans in the meantime? What, am I going to throw away this chance I’ve been waiting for forever just because I’m scared? And make no mistake, I’m terrified. But I’d been waiting so long, I couldn’t let it stop me.Bookmark here

“Better I rip this bandage off before it’s too late,” I said. “Give me half an hour.”Bookmark here

“Alright, I’ll let her know.” Oscar took a few steps away to shoot off that text, and Masashi squeezed his hand.Bookmark here

“Do you want me to stick around?” he asked.Bookmark here

“No, I’ll be fine,” I said. “In fact, I think I need to be alone. You two go have fun, I’ll catch a bus home when I’m ready.”Bookmark here

“Okay,” he said, and gave my hand one last squeeze before standing up. “Good luck.”Bookmark here

“Thanks.” With that, he and Oscar peeled off, leaving me to sort through my panic in private.Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

That half hour passed in a haze. The whole time, I didn’t leave the bench. My thoughts were trapped in a cycle, barely able to escape the initial reactions I’d had upon first realizing what was happening. I was simultaneously excited and nervous, delighted and terrified. I absolutely wanted—no, needed this, but was convinced that there was no way it was going to end well. My luck streak had been too good lately, and this development was pushing it too far. Surely something was going to go wrong. Hell, I’d probably find a way to screw it up myself. As the half hour wore on, I became increasingly convinced that I was going to say something dumb or act like an idiot or otherwise mess up this potential new relationship before it even got started, and my leg was shaking so much that my heel would’ve dug a hole through to the center of the earth if the ground wasn’t concrete. And even then, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a few new cracks there. In any case, as the time limit ran out, I was almost as much a nervous wreck as I had been to start, but along with that nervousness, I had mustered an inflated sense of determination. You have to do this, I kept telling myself. This is your big chance, don’t throw it away. Trying my damnedest to think thoughts like that, forcing them to overpower my nervousness, by the time the half hour was up and my phone was in my hand, I had just enough mental fortitude to force myself to dial the number while not giving myself pause to reconsider. By the time my thumbs froze and I thought that I should reconsider, I could already hear the dial tone.Bookmark here

It was time. Buckle up, girl, this could be the most important phone call of your life. Whatever you do, don’t panic.Bookmark here

And just as I told myself up, the call went through.Bookmark here

“Hello?” came a woman’s voice through the speaker.Bookmark here

“H-hi, is this Juniper?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Yes, this is Juniper. Might I assume that I have the pleasure of speaking to Sara?” Her voice was somewhat familiar, but I didn’t the mental capacity to linger on that familiarity. Instead, I was captivated by her polite, well-spoken tone.Bookmark here

“Yeah, that’s me.” God, in comparison I sound so gruff. She’s so going to hate me, I know it.Bookmark here

“Lovely, very pleased to your acquaintance.”Bookmark here

“Uh… likewise.” Her speech was so formal. Which was cool in its own way, but also made me feel like kind of a dunce. Then again, maybe this careful speech is just her way of trying to impress? Guess we’ll have to see. Regardless, I suddenly felt like a peasant who had come face to face with a noble prince; so flustered, forming coherent words seemed as difficult as summiting Mt. Everest. “So, uh…” But before I could stumble over any more words, Juniper interjected.Bookmark here

“Are you quite alright?” she asked. “Oscar let me know that you might be a little nervous, and don’t worry, I fully understand. If I’m being honest, I’m a mite nervous, too. I’ve only done this blind date thing one other time before, and I don’t mind telling you that it ended in complete disaster.”Bookmark here

“Oh, really?”Bookmark here

“Oh, yes. It’s funny to think back on now, but at the time it was nothing short of humiliating. And tell you what, I’d love to tell you all about it. Or, rather, perhaps that may not be the most appropriate topic of conversation for a first date. I shall have to give that some thought. Regardless, are you free this weekend?”Bookmark here

“Uh, sure, yeah! I’ve got no plans! Zero! None!” Oh God, I just sounded desperate, didn’t I? That’s something a desperate loner would say. Why oh why did I say that oh God please just kill me already I can’t stand how stupid I’m being anymore wow it’d be easier to just pass out please—Bookmark here

“Excellent!” Oh thank God she didn’t notice. Or care. Or maybe she’s desperate, too? Don’t think about it too hard, Sara. Just let the good things happen, you damn paranoid fool. “There’s this family-owned restaurant that just opened up nearby that I’ve been meaning to visit forever now, and this seems as good an opportunity as any. Say, seven PM Saturday?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, totally, that works.”Bookmark here

“Great! I’ll text you the address, then. Is it okay if I text you?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, that’s fine.”Bookmark here

“Lovely. Then, I’ll get that done as soon as possible. I’ll see you then.”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Looking forward to it.”Bookmark here

“As am I. Good night, then.”Bookmark here

“Good night.”Bookmark here

And we hung up. Or to be more precise, she hung up; meanwhile I let the phone hang against my ear silent as I mentally replayed that conversation.Bookmark here

First impressions of her were excellent, no doubt about that. She was lively and enthusiastic and well-spoken and polite and really just excellent. I know it was only a short phone call, but already I was excited to meet her. The only problem was that I had come off as such a passive nobody. She’d done all the talking, and I’d barely said anything! What sort of impression does she have of me, then? I surely didn’t leave near as strong an impression on her as she had on me. Best-case scenario, I was a blank slate to her who could turn out to be anything come Saturday evening. Worst case, I was just some dull introvert who would bore her to tears and she’d call things off early. I don’t know if my heart could handle it if that happened and—Bookmark here

Wait a minute, how the hell am I going to get to a restaurant out in town on a Saturday evening, of all times? Oh God, I did not think this through. I never had to worry about what my parents would think when I was out of the house on a weekday; after all, I had classes. But on a weekend? “Hey Padre, could you drive me to this restaurant? Oh, no reason, I’m just going on a date with a girl I’ve never met, you want to meet her?” No bloody thank you. And even before that, I couldn’t just get out of the house without a good enough excuse that wouldn’t arouse suspicion. I wasn’t so much afraid of being physically stopped from leaving as I was of sowing seeds of doubt and distrust that might one day sprout as something worse. “What do you think our precious daughter is doing out of the house without telling us?” they might wonder, and take measures to find out, and…Bookmark here

Oh my God, I’m paranoid. I’m overthinking things. Surely they wouldn’t be so mistrustful? I’d been so good to them for so long.Bookmark here

Somehow, just thinking those things to myself didn’t make me feel any better.Bookmark here

Okay, then. If I was going to live with my paranoia, I was going to need a plan, a damn good reason to be out of the house and be out late. And there was I only one person I could count on to help me pull off such a dangerous stunt.Bookmark here

I pulled my phone back out and texted Masashi “HELP.”Bookmark here

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