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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Game by Meradeth Houston

It's all just a game...so long as you know the rules.

New College Scarf :)
Some might say I’m lucky, but I know better. It’s all in what you see. What you say. How you place your hands, and the way you walk. The length of time you make eye contact. All together it creates the image I need to guarantee everyone will like me. That I can ensure they will do what I want.

It’s a game. Pure and simple.

Or at least, this is what I tell myself to pass the time. The ticks of the clock that can stretch on infinitely if I allow my mind to wander. I count flecks of dandruff and know my boss has changed his shampoo. I watch the way my coworker tries to hide the blister on her heel from her new shoes with the tilt in her walk. I know that exactly 3,597 regular holes mark the ceiling, with the exception of the left corner near the window where the straight lines waver slightly and there’s a perforation missing.

Someone changed the water filter in the building last night—the coffee tastes better.

It’s easier this way. To pick apart the pieces to keep distracted. Dwelling’s a little too easy. The articles I read last night could keep anyone up. The upsurge in violence in Africa has me frightened. But no one wants to hear about that. No one wants to talk about the real world. No, it’s better to hide in the news-that-is-not-news, or at least news masked in the parody of some comedian. That’s not reality. It’s a bastardization of it. The real world is so chock full of problems I can understand why people willingly blind themselves; let themselves be led by the nose to the scandalous, the inane, the downright ridiculous. It’s easier that way.

Just like it’s easier to pretend I’m the same. It’s all part of the game.

“Those shoes look fabulous! I love how they match your shirt.” My smile tips up just enough, reaches my eyes with the right little crinkle at the sides. She’ll never know I can tell she’s been waiting to wear them for months. Something must have happened yesterday for her to drag them out. From the slight redness around her eyes, I’d put money on it being her husband.

“Oh! Thanks. I saw them and just couldn’t resist.” She blushes a little and I relax into the conversation. Just because I could analyze every word to figure out how well her two kids are doing in school (one’s struggling in English), or what her husband did (embezzled at work), it’s not like I have to. Or want to. Sometimes it really is easy to just let that all slide. A part of the game.

She doesn’t wobble quite so much when she walks away, her shoulders straighter. A little smile, this one not calculated for the perfect angle, touches my lips.

My computer dings with a new message and my heart picks up a notch. The thing with playing the game? There are days when I find myself arriving home and collapsing in a heap on my bed. My friends would come if I called them. We could go out and have a good time. But it’s not like I can explain the truth of the matter.

That there’s a part of me that’s lonely, that wishes I could discuss the potential the new algae carbon processing strains might have on reducing our environmental impact. That wants to do more than debate who’s going to be given a rose on the show my brain refuses to remember the title of, as if in some silent protest to the fact that I record and watch every episode (albeit on fast-forward) so I know what the ladies talk about at lunch.

But that changed about a month ago with the email in my inbox.

“Do you always read Schrödinger on the train? I always thought his views on his cat were rather morbid.”

It made me laugh.

The email though—no name, just initials and a generic @gmail account. Tracing it back to where it’d been sent from didn’t take much work. Whoever it was must have wanted to be found. But, that turned into dead end after dead end—all coffee houses in various parts of the city with no record of who the person behind the emails could be.

My response, amused, part of the game, was more because I had to know who this person was, especially if they managed to work out my email based off the only clue I could see in my outward appearance: the Oxford scarf I’d grabbed for no particular reason other than I felt nostalgic.

Someone else played the game. If that was the case, I was sure to win.

The notes had gone from every other day to multiples a day. To be safe, I varied my route home. Guarded any bit of personal information. Played the game to ensure no one would show up on my stoop. And it was fun. The truest fun I’d had in years.

The topics we covered varied from life on Mars to the potential for the lower class to revolt in a return to the revolutions of centuries past. It helped with the tedium, made the game more fun.

Thus far, I’d only worked out three points about the sender: he was male (from the way he spoke about his mother and brother), lived in the city but wasn’t born here (from the lack of knowledge of where to get a decent cup of coffee), and occasionally took the train (from how he spotted me).

This was about to change. After confessing the emails to my best friend, she’d urged me to try and make contact.

“You can’t keep doing this forever. He’s obviously interested, and what’s not to be interested in?” Her British accent and sharp jut of her hip had made me smile.

The new message sat at the top of my queue and I opened it with a decisive click. The message was simple: “Are you certain?”

My response was a single word.

Two minutes later: “Half an hour.”

Smothering a grin, I gathered my things. My boss idled by, running his hands through his hair. I really ought to do him a favor and anonymously drop some decent shampoo in his office.

“You leave for Belgrade in two days. Is your report filed?” He watched me drop lipstick, keys, and jump-drive into my black leather bag.

The report had been in his inbox for two hours. But I smiled and nodded. “Of course! I just have a meeting. Your new cufflinks look great, by the way. Gift from your wife?” I tilted my head. They were a gift from his mistress, which I could tell from her perfume that lingered around him.

He didn’t blink, just nodded and walked off. Point to me.

A text from Celine, stating that she was already settled at the café—my safety net for the evening. No one meets strangers from the internet without someone nearby with the police on speed dial.

It was a struggle to keep from skipping down the stairs and out the nondescript front of the building. All I wanted to do was run. But the two snipers on the roof might view that as odd, and I didn’t need to explain myself to anyone, least of all my boss.

The café was not more than a block away. I made a quick sweep of the area, peeking in the window before I entered through another set of doors. Celine didn’t look up from where she sipped tea and typed furiously on her phone.

Plenty of people filled the seats scattered around. One more test. Which one was him?

The tall and lanky man in the corner was too old—he’d never have understood the reference we’d laughed about regarding the Power Rangers. The other man with the laptop on the couch wore a wedding ring and twisted at it like he wished to throw it across the room—not him either, if he’d worn such a thing to meet me.

The last unaccompanied option sat with his back to the door. Dark hair spilled over his collar of the leather jacket he wore. Long legs stretched to make the tall chair he sat on look tiny. And then I spotted it. My clue. A hint of the Oxford colors nearly hidden behind his jacket.

The grip of nerves that hit my gut felt like I’d been punched. It wasn’t too late to back out. To make good use of the door I blocked and disappear back to my office.

Celine glanced at me, her expression perfectly blank, but the challenge still rang in her eyes. She’d never let me live it down if I didn’t at least go over.

Fine. I could play this game.

My feet seemed to have a mind of their own, walking too fast across the room. I was nearly out of breath as I stepped up to the empty seat across from the man.

Not the best entrance, nor the best set-up for my next move. But when he looked up, I realized I
A little like what I thought the cafe might look like.
didn’t quite care.

“Tea, right? Earl grey with honey.” He pushed the mug across the table, along with a pot of hot water and a tea bag.

“Thank you. How very thoughtful.”

“Just a lucky guess,” he said with a little smile that made me very grateful I’d settled onto my seat.

Oh, luck had nothing to do with it.

***

These characters are from Surrenderthe Sky, part of the Sary Society books that also include Colors Like Memories and The Chemistry of Fate.

Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:

>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.
>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA. For fun!
>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.
>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.

Find Meradeth Houston online at: www.MeradethHouston.comFacebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Amazon, Goodreads, and of course her blog!