The Gamer Series #2
Eve 2.0: Night Terrors
Mondays are never easy for an introvert like Gwen, but the Monday right after spending a harrowing weekend trapped in a government simulator is especially difficult, and that’s saying a lot given that she just spent days dealing with life-or-death situations and a twisted love triangle. It’s hard to take in, and it doesn’t help that the school is abuzz with rumors. She hates being the center of attention, and she wishes it would all just go away, but the day goes from bad to worse when she and Ryan begin exhibiting troubling symptoms…hallucinations and haunting visions, and that night, the dreams begin.
At first, they aren’t so bad, but as days go by and their symptoms worsen, Gwen begins to suspect that the government simulator may have somehow tricked them into believing they made it out okay, but in reality, they’re still trapped in Eve 2.0.
BUY THE BOOK
~ Fifty Shades of Tomato ~
I’m not imagining it. Everyone is staring at me. Granted, there aren’t too many kids wandering around since first period has already started, but the ones who are, are definitely looking. Flustered by all the unexpected and unwanted attention, I try to pull the main office door open even though it’s supposed to be pushed. As if my mortification isn’t bad enough, a resounding thud reverberates down the hallway. Everyone who wasn’t already looking shifts their attention my way. Wonderful. My cheeks blaze, but I thankfully have enough sense to push open the door and make it to the front desk without another embarrassing incident.
“Good morning, Gwen,” the school’s secretary greets me with her usual enthusiasm.
“Good morning, Ms. Pints,” I reply as I reach for a pen so I can sign in late.
“Oh, my,” she gasps at my bandaged hand. “What happened?”
“Nothing major,” I say with a shrug. “I just got bit by one of the dogs out at the clinic this morning. I don’t think he was ready to get out of bed,” I add jokingly, even though the little Chihuahua had really gotten me good.
“I understand that feeling,” Ms. Pints says with a smile, though, given her chronic giddiness, it’s hard to imagine her cranky at any time of day. “Did Dr. Z wrap that up for you?” she inquires as she eyes my crappy gauze job.
“No, but it’s fine,” I assure her as I push the sign-in book and pen toward her.
“Maybe you should have the nurse look at it,” she suggests absentmindedly as she returns the pen to its cup and then takes the sign-in book off the counter.
As she types something into the computer, I catch sight of three cheerleaders pointing toward me while whispering feverishly back and forth to each other. When they notice me staring back, they quickly turn away and hurry down the hall.
“Did you have a good weekend?” Ms. Pints inquires.
In the four years that I’ve attended school, I’ve never had a conversation with Ms. Pints before. She’s always been cordial enough whenever I needed something from the main office, but her sudden interest in my life starts to gnaw at me. Granted, it’s an innocent enough question, but gossip has a way of spreading like wildfire in Castle Rock and Ms. Pints suddenly has that gleam in her eyes—the one that says she’s dying to know what happened over the weekend. I can’t tell her, of course, or the government will do who-knows-what to me—and maybe to her too.
“I heard little Ben got sick. Is he feeling better?” She looks at me then, clearly desperate to get me talking.
“He’s much better,” I offer, since Ben getting sick is the only bit of truth we can give to the public. “Just a stomach bug,” I add, the cover story slipping off my tongue easily enough.
“And Ryan?” she asks while leaning her elbows onto the counter. “How’s he handling his broken leg?”
I gulp. Before last week, everyone knew better than to mention Ryan Nelson’s name around me. I was definitely his least favorite fan, and since I’ve always kept to myself, I usually didn’t have to worry about awkward conversations involving much of anything, especially him.
“I’m sure he’s relieved that you volunteered to help him with his books,” she continues, her overly dramatic cooing tone cementing the truth for me once and for all. The word is out. Everyone, including the staff, knows that Ryan Nelson dumped Carly Tannen... for me. “That was so sweet of you, Gwen.”
“Ah…thanks,” I say, not really knowing how else to respond to that.
She hands me my late slip and smiles. “Have a good day.”
“You too.” I quickly pocket the slip and then hightail it to my locker. As I hurry along, I catch sight of several people eyeing me or whispering back and forth while pointing. It’s annoying, and as I near my locker, I can’t help but wonder why there are so many people wandering around during first period on a Monday morning anyway!
By the time I get to my classroom, my cheeks feel as though they’re on fire. I gently knock on the door before I let myself in as quietly as possible, hoping beyond hope that I can slip into my seat without anyone really noticing.
“Nice of you to join us, Ms. Nielson,” Mr. Edwards says, his voice echoing through the classroom.
“Sorry,” I mumble as I walk over and hand him my late slip.
“That’s okay,” he continues, his monotone voice returning to its regularly scheduled snore-fest level. “We were just getting into the grit of Babinet’s principle.”
Yay, I think with all the enthusiasm reserved for a hanging in town square. I make my way to the back of the classroom and for the first time dare a glance in Ryan’s direction. As always, my heart skips a few beats and my already scorching cheeks kick up another ten degrees as I take in his beaming smile. Good grief, with those big blue eyes, perfectly chiseled features, and a quaff of dark hair that most women would kill for, the boy could be a model.
While Mr. Edwards continues with his lecture, I silently slide into the vacant seat beside Ryan and duck down a bit.
“Nice hair,” Ryan whispers as he leans closer. He reaches for a strand and playfully tugs on it. “Though I really do love it when it’s up in that sexy librarian bun.”
When I meet his adoring gaze, my stomach does a couple of flips. It’s such a visceral reaction that I actually have to shift in my seat. Jeez. Life was somehow easier when I hated him. Liking him again is just so…confusing and overwhelming.
He twirls the strand of long, blonde hair around his finger while smiling mischievously, almost as if he somehow knows I left it down for him. My scorched cheeks get warmer still. I’d like to tell him the reason my hair is down is because that dog bit me, so putting it up into my usual bun would have been impossible given my bandaged hand, but I can’t, because I did leave it down for him.
In the span of a weekend, I’ve gone from being tough-as-nails Teddy to love-struck designer Gwen-doll. It’s disgusting, really. With that nagging thought resonating through my mind, I tug my hair out of Ryan’s grip and reach for my backpack.
Ryan sucks in an obnoxiously loud heap of air. “What happened to your hand?” he practically shouts.
For a second, I just stay frozen in place, unsure of how to proceed with life after so many successively embarrassing moments squished so closely together in time. Then my cheeks, which by this point should have melted off my face, begin to throb painfully, snapping me out of my state of shock. I dare a glance around the classroom, all eyes, much to my utter horror, are on me again. Even Mr. Edwards is staring intently.
“Um…” I place my hands on my lap and decide to focus all of my attention on my jagged cuticles. “One of the dogs at the clinic isn’t a morning person.”
Ripples of laughter fill the silence.
“You want me to grab you a health pack?” Ryan whispers.
I shoot him a dirty look.
“Okay, class,” Mr. Edwards says just as the last of the laughter fades away, “let’s get back to Babinet’s principle.”
Thankfully, the rest of the class period goes by without incident. When the bell rings, I shove my books into my backpack then turn my attention to Ryan.
He chuckles. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, reaching for his books. “It’s just a teeny bite.”
“Not about that,” he says. “I mean, I’m glad your hand is okay, but you seemed pretty flustered when you walked in earlier. Did something else happen?”
I walk over to his desk and shove the books into his backpack, my cheeks, undoubtedly, still a brilliant shade of red. “Nothing. It’s just been an interesting morning.” I reach for his crutches.
“Did someone mess with you?” he asks, his eyes narrowing to fine slits.
“No.” And if they had, it isn’t like I’m some damsel in distress. I mean, I get that Ryan and I just spent a pretty harrowing couple of days in a top-secret government simulator—and he did save my butt quite a few times—but I don’t need protecting. I can take care of myself. “I’m fine. Really,” I add for emphasis. Then I motion toward his cast. He had broken his leg the week before during an idiotic game known as car surfing. Apparently, climbing onto the roof of a moving BMW and then trying to stay put when it suddenly swerves isn’t an easy task, so Ryan had broken his tibia and fibula and he had banged up the rest of his body pretty well too. “How’s your knee holding up?”
“Not bad enough to need the wheelchair, but I can definitely use some help with my books. You still up to walking me to class?”
Yesterday, in the safety of his house, I had agreed to help him, but I’m totally out of my element here. I mean, I’m used to being a wallflower—and that’s not a complaint. I like going through life unnoticed, so the perpetual spotlight that seems to follow Ryan and me wherever we go is unnerving. “Maybe you should have one of your friends do it.”
“Okay,” he says, “I’ll ask around and see if I can find someone. Mind just helping me to next period?”
I sigh, but it’s more out of guilt for bailing on him than anything else. “Yeah, of course.”
“Hey,” he says as he stands, “did you get a chance to ask Dr. Z if you could have Friday afternoon off?”
“Oh, right…” I hurry ahead to grab the door for him. “No…and with Margie still on maternity leave, I’d feel really crappy bailing on him.” Though, if I were being entirely honest, I’d tell him that out of the clear blue sky this morning, Dr. Z had mentioned that he didn’t need me to come in on Friday. The whole thing seemed fishy, and it had Ryan Nelson’s name written all over it.
“You can’t spend senior skip day at work, and I want you to come to Coop’s party with me.”
“I’ll swing by afterward,” I say, already formulating a plan in my mind to show up around six. Maybe seven. Hopefully, by then, everyone will be too drunk to notice me.
Ryan starts to object, but once we’re in the hallway, everyone begins to greet us. It’s weird. Most days, I’ll walk to class and barely be acknowledged. Today, I’m quickly beginning to realize, isn’t a normal day though, so I politely nod or smile every time someone calls out, “Hey, Gwen!” or “I love your hair, Guinevere.”
It’s beyond annoying, but I try not to let my unease show.
Ryan chuckles. “You’re turning fifty-shades-of-tomato again.”
“Shut up, Nelson,” I retort with a smile.
“You know, for a girl who can kick some serious ass while fearlessly facing pirates and monsters, you sure do embarrass easily.”
“Tell me about it.” I stop by his classroom door. “Do you think you can make it from here?” I really don’t want to set his backpack on his desk since I know Carly is in this class period with him. I’m so not ready to deal with her yet.
“Hey, guys,” Brian Cooper calls as he makes his way over to us.
I wave, since of all of Ryan’s friends, he’s always been the nicest. “Hi, Coop,” I say when he reaches us, hoping if I use his preferred nickname, he’ll return the favor.
“Hey, Gwen,” he says, which chaps my hide even though he seems to have genuinely forgotten that I like to go by Teddy. “Hop-Along,” he says to Ryan with a chuckle.
“Ha, ha,” Ryan says in response to his cool, new nickname.
As they get a good laugh, a thought suddenly occurs to me. “Hey, Coop,” I say, offering Ryan’s backpack with what I’m hoping is a pleading look in my eyes. “Would you mind carrying this in so I can get to class?”
“Yeah, no sweat,” he says, but before he takes the bag, he playfully slaps the back of Ryan’s head.
Ryan ignores him, his expression dead serious as he looks at me. “You’ll be here when I’m done, right?” asks Ryan.
“Ah...” I glance in the general direction of his classroom and sigh. “Ryan—”
“Gwen…” He says with a genuinely sad expression shadowing his handsome features. Then he tucks the crutch under his arm, reaches for my hand, and gives it a gentle squeeze. “It’ll be fine. I promise.”
I hate that my heart skips a few beats. “Okay,” I say as I slip my hand out of his and shove it into the pocket of my hoodie. “But only if you promise to quit being such a sap.”
He laughs then holds up his hand and says, “Scout’s honor.”
Before I can get a word out, Carly Tannen, clad in her Sabercat cheer uniform, rounds the corner with three friends in tow. I can’t help but stare at her as she practically floats toward us. It isn’t because she’s pretty or anything. I mean, she’s okay—in that girl-next-door way when she piles on the makeup—but what she lacks in beauty, she makes up for in presence. As she drifts down the hallway, everyone gives her and her entourage a wide berth. Not out of fear, but out of reverence. I mean, the girl practically radiates light, and somewhere, in some alternate universe, she probably has her own theme music and a wind machine that blows her strawberry blonde locks around her while she walks in slow motion.
“Hey, Gamer Girl,” Ryan says gently, almost as if he can sense my unease. “I’ll see you after class.”
I look at him, kind of warming up to him using that term of endearment. Then I force myself to look in Carly’s direction. I don’t like this newfound fear I have toward her, as if she has some kind of power over me. I had broken her nose freshman year, and I had stood up to her bullying ever since, so I wait until she’s close enough before I looked back at Ryan. “I’ll be here,” I say, my voice thankfully not betraying my suddenly queasy gut.
Ryan winks at me then smiles. “It’s a date then.”
For the first time, I wink back at him, and as I turn to make my way to my classroom, I stop long enough to look at Carly. Her smoldering gaze is nearly my undoing, but I push my fears aside and force myself to smile. Then I wink. Her mouth, which had been pressed into a tight frown, pops open. In response to her genuinely shocked and bitterly appalled expression, my smile deepens, and as I head down the hallway, I actually chuckle. Game point, I think to myself with pride. That’ll hopefully be the last time I have to deal with Carly Tannen thinking she can get the best of me.