Playing Her Secret Crush(9)

By: Casey Griffin

“So is learning How to Hook Your Guy.”

She stuck out her tongue. “Touché, I guess.” Shifting through the pages, she paused on one article and scanned it. “Here’s a good one.”

Alex pulled her wheeled chair closer so he could read over her shoulder.

How to Find a Lasting Relationship

1. Be a friend

2. Spend time together

3. Go on a group date

4. Get closer

5. Make sure they’re the one

6. Be honest about your feelings

The article went on to explain each point further, but the basic theme was “take it slow.”

“See?” Katie said. “It’s not so complicated. You just need to be patient.”

He grinned. “Well, restraint isn’t exactly my thing.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve noticed.”

He spun her chair so she was facing him and placed a hand on each armrest. “So you’ll help me? Keep me in check? Be my wing man…err, girl?”

She let out a slow breath as she regarded him from beneath her thick, mascaraed eyelashes. Why was she hesitating? He wished he knew what was going through her mind. When she didn’t say anything, he dropped the playfulness.

“I feel like I need this,” he told her seriously. “I feel like, despite trying to fulfill my promise to Jason, and the extreme sports, and the therapy sessions, something’s still wrong. Won’t you help me?”

Before she could answer, a trumpet blast from her laptop interrupted them. A message popped up on the screen from Pizzalover. Katie turned to her desk to read it.

“The others are ready,” she said.

Nodding, Alex pulled his laptop out of his backpack and logged into Conquerors of Caroon. Katie said nothing more about his dating life as she pulled her headset on. Unplugging her laptop, she brought it over to the bed so they could assume their usual battle positions.

Laptops on their legs, they arranged themselves the way they always did—however they could fit on her single bed. Sometimes that meant contorting themselves in a pretzel-like fashion, legs intertwined. Now she slouched down until she was leaning against his chest at an angle, one leg over his, so they could both see each other’s screens.

As Alex pulled on his own headset, her hair tickled his cheek. He inhaled. Coconut—still his same Katie.

When Alex and Katie jumped into the game, they found Sugarplum and Pizzalover standing at the mouth of the cave that led into the Dwarf Mountains.

“Are we ready?” Trevor asked.

Penny gulped. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“Let’s do this.” Alex said. “I’ll go first.” Pressing the forward arrow button, he plunged his elf into the inky blackness.

As the others followed, their footsteps echoed in his headphones, hinting at the deep and endless passageways hidden beneath the mountain. His screen dimmed as darkness swallowed his avatar, and he shivered in real life.

Sometimes the game felt so real. While playing Conquerors, it was as though he became Dark_Prince. When he swung his sword, his muscles tensed like he was the one fighting for his life. When the wind blew around his avatar, he could practically smell Caroon.

Pizzalover cast a spell over the orb on her staff. It glowed deep purple, lighting their path and casting eerie shadows on the rough rock walls. They ventured deep into the heart of the mountain, slaying all manner of creepy crawlies: bats, giant insects, slime creatures.

Katie remained quiet next to Alex. She was usually more animated when they played. Was she still thinking about his request? He wanted to ask if she was okay, but he didn’t want the others to hear.

As the team rounded a curve in the tunnel, a distant clicking tapped in Alex’s headphones like the steady beat of the mountain’s heart. Footsteps, he suddenly realized. And whoever it was—or whatever—they were in a hurry. Was it an ambush?

His hand automatically hovered over the attack button. “Hold up, you guys. Something’s coming.”

Alex sidled his avatar to the bend in the rock wall and waited for the right moment. The footsteps grew louder, the echoes bouncing off the cave walls, overlapping until it sounded like roaring applause. When movement appeared around the corner, he attacked.

There was a high-pitched squeak. Alex’s blade came within inches of a human male’s clean-shaven throat. The man barely danced out of the way in time.

“Look.” Katie pointed at his screen, at the coat of arms pinned to his chest. “He’s a royal herald.”

Garbed in a rich velvet tunic with puffy shoulders and a flouncy hat, it was clear he wasn’t looking for a fight. Alex realized it was a non-player character programmed into the game. He sheathed his sword.