Beth Fischer couldn't wait to get home from her Seattle job as a paralegal for Barney, Blackburn and Buckley, one of the most prestigious law firms in the state.
The minute she walked into her small downtown condo, she logged on to the computer. As soon as she was on the Internet, she hit the key to bring up the computer game that had enthralled her for months. World of Warcraft had quickly become addictive. Six months ago, one of the attorneys at the office had casually mentioned it; he'd laughingly advised his colleagues to stay away from it because of its enticing qualities. Beth should've listened - but on the other hand, she was glad she hadn't.
While the game loaded, she hurriedly made herself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and carried it into the small office that served as a guest bedroom on rare occasions. Directly off her kitchen, it was a perfect computer room.
She sank into her comfortable office chair, tucked her shoeless feet beneath her and signed on. Her name was Borincana and she was a hunter. Her pet wolf was called Spot, not the most original name, but it had attracted the attention of a priest named Timixie, who had since teamed up with her. Both were Night Elves and together had risen to level forty.
They were unbeatable and unstoppable, a legend in the annals of online computer games - in their own minds, anyway. Both of them were addicted to the game and met every evening to play, sometimes for hours. They didn't need to be online at the same time but often were.
When Lloyd, the attorney, had commented on this game, Beth had been looking for a mindless way to fill her evenings. She needed something to relax her - and distract her from the fact that all her friends were getting married, one by one.
So far, Beth had served as a bridesmaid in ten weddings. Ten. Already three of her friends were parents, and another two were pregnant. If she'd enjoyed crafts, she would've learned to knit or crochet. The truth was, Beth couldn't bear the thought of spending her evenings sitting in front of the television, creating little blankets for all those babies, when the likelihood of her marrying and having a child of her own hovered around zero.
Marriage terrified her. Been there, done that - and failed miserably. Fortunately she was smart enough to realize her mistake. Some people were meant to fall in love, marry and produce the requisite two children, preferably a boy and a girl. Her younger sister, Angela, had done so in record time.
For a while, the pressure was off Beth. Recently, however, her mother had taken up the old refrain. "Meet someone. Try again." Joyce Fischer hadn't been subtle about it, either.
No, thank you, Mom. Beth wasn't interested and that was all there was to it.
The World of Warcraft was the best alternative she'd found to lonely nights - and the best diversion from talk of marriage and babies. She'd been grateful to find something that was so much fun and so involving. The bonus, of course, was Peter, her Internet partner - the priest Timixie. They chatted by instant message every now and then, congratulating each other on their successes. Like her, Peter seemed to make a point of avoiding relationships.
During the game they teamed up and traveled together, roaming the World of Warcraft landscape, and generally made a great couple - in strictly virtual terms, of course. As far as Beth was concerned, her relationship with Peter via the game was as close as she was willing to get to another man.
Just when life in the alternate universe was getting interesting and another battle seemed imminent, Beth's phone rang. Groaning, she glanced at caller ID and saw that it was her mother. She ignored it and after five rings, the machine picked up.
"Marybeth, I know you're there. Are you playing that blasted computer game again? This is important - we need to discuss Christmas. Call me back within the hour, otherwise I'll drive over to your condo and I don't want to have to do that."
Beth cringed at the sound of her name as much as the message. She'd grown up as Marybeth and had always hated it. For some reason, it reminded her of those girls on reruns of Hee Haw. Nevertheless, her mother refused to call her anything else. Beth could see she wouldn't be able to ignore the call. With a sigh, she started to log off.
Right away, Peter instant-messaged her. Where are you going?
She typed back. Sorry. My mother phoned about Christmas and I need to be the dutiful daughter.
Peter's reply came right away. I hear you. I'm being pressured, too. My parents are after me to get a life.
Beth read his comment and nearly laughed out loud. My mother said almost exactly the same thing to me.
Where do you live?
This was the most personal question he'd ever asked and she hesitated before replying. Seattle.
Get out of here! I do, too.
No way! It was hard to believe they'd been playing this game for nearly six months and yet they'd just discovered they lived in the same city. Gotta go, she typed quickly. I'll be back in half an hour.
See you then, Peter wrote.
Beth put Borincana and Spot, her animal companion, in hiding, where they'd be safe from attack, and reluctantly reached for the phone. Even as she punched the speed-dial button, she knew that the conversation would have little to do with Christmas. Her mother was trying to find out if Beth was seeing anyone.
As if she'd been sitting by the phone waiting for her call, Joyce answered on the first ring.
"No, Mother, I'm not dating." Beth figured she'd get to the point immediately. That way, she could bypass all the coy questions about coworkers.
"What makes you think I'd ask you something like that?" her mother returned, obviously offended by her directness.
"Because you always do," Beth countered. She loved her parents and envied them their marriage. If her own had gone half as well, she wouldn't be in this predicament. She and John, her college boyfriend, had been young, barely twenty-one, and immature. Everyone had advised them to wait, but they'd been too impatient, too much in love.
Within six months of the wedding, they'd hated each other. Beth couldn't leave fast enough, and John felt the same. He was as eager to escape their disaster of a marriage as she was.
It was supposed to be a painless and amicable divorce. Everything had gone smoothly; she'd filed because John seemed incapable of doing anything without her pestering him. If something needed to be done, she had to take responsibility because John was utterly helpless.
They couldn't afford attorneys, so they'd gone through the legal documents with the assistance of a law student on campus. They had no material goods to speak of. He'd kept the television and she took the bed. Still had it, in fact, but she'd purchased a new mattress a couple of years ago.
What surprised Beth, what had caught her completely unawares, was the unexpected pain caused by the divorce. This wasn't like breaking up with a boyfriend, which was how she'd assumed it would feel. This was failure with a capital F.
Following the divorce, she'd gone to see a counselor, who'd described her emotions as grief. At the time she'd scoffed. She was happy to be rid of John and the marriage, she'd said. Nonetheless, she had grieved and in some ways still did. It was perhaps the most intense pain she'd ever experienced. It'd left her emotionally depleted. Nine years later, she was unable to put her failed marriage behind her.
Twice during the divorce proceedings she'd hesitated. Twice she'd considered going to John and making one last effort to work it out. The problem wasn't that she'd found him in bed with another woman or that he'd been abusive, physically or mentally. He wasn't an addict or an alcoholic - just completely irresponsible and immature. She'd had enough, and in the end she'd walked away. Her failure to try again was one of the things that still haunted her.
"Marybeth, I was asking you about Christmas," her mother was saying.
"Oh, sorry, I wasn't paying attention."
"I noticed," Joyce said sarcastically. "Your father and I thought that instead of the big fancy dinner we do every year, we'd have a potluck."
A potluck on Christmas Day? Beth didn't like the sound of that, although she understood the reasoning. Her mother spent most of the day in the kitchen and that couldn't be much fun for her. Beth decided she'd do her share without begrudging the time or expense.
"Aren't you going to complain?" her mother asked as if taken aback by her lack of response.
"No. Actually I was thinking I'd bring the turkey and stuffing."
"I can cook." Beth thought the question in her mother's voice bordered on insulting.
"Is that so?" Joyce Fischer asked. "When did you last eat anything that didn't come from a pizza delivery place or the frozen food section at the grocery store?"
Living alone, Beth didn't have much reason to stand over a stove. Not when it was convenient and easy to order takeout or grab something from the deli. Her microwave got far more use than her stove.
"Okay, okay, I'll order a cooked turkey. We have to have turkey, Mom. It's tradition."
"I'd like to begin a new tradition," her mother said. "I want to enjoy the day with my grandkids - speaking of which, when can I expect more?"
Beth was amused by the transition from dinner to her absent love life in one easy breath. "Probably never."
"Marybeth!" She seemed horrified at the prospect. "You're a beautiful woman. You need to put your divorce behind you and move on with your life. You know John has, and more power to him."
Mentioning the fact that her ex-husband had remarried was a low blow.
Lisa Carroll, a college friend of Beth's - correction, acquaintance, and an unfriendly one at that - had gleefully shared the news of John's marriage a couple of summers ago. Beth had taken it hard, although they'd been divorced for seven years by then. John was perfectly free to try his hand at married life a second time. She was happy for him. Thrilled, even.
That was what she'd tried to tell herself, but it didn't explain the depression she'd sunk into afterward. For weeks she was weepy and miserable. In the back of her mind, she'd held out hope that one day John would return to her. It was an utterly outlandish notion, wholly unrealistic.
"I should never have told you John got married again," she said, unable to disguise the pain of her mother's words.
"I'm sorry, dear. But you do need to move on. I was in church this week and I lit a candle for you. I asked God to send someone special into your life and I feel sure He'll answer my prayer."
"You lit a candle on my behalf?"
"I always do when I have a special prayer."
Beth rolled her eyes. "You asked God to send me a husband?" She couldn't believe her mother would do this.
"Don't make it sound like I signed you up for a dating service."
"That's not what I meant."
"Isn't there anyone who interests you?" Joyce pleaded.
The desperation in her mother's voice made Beth uncomfortable. "Not really," she murmured.
"Someone at work?"
"No." Beth most emphatically did not want an office romance. She'd seen a couple of those go sour. After the last one, between a legal secretary and one of the partners, the law firm had set a policy against the practice of dating within the office. Which was fine with Beth, since she happened to enjoy her job and had no intention of risking dismissal.
Her gaze drifted toward the computer screen. "Well, there's someone I met recently...."
"There is?" Hope flared instantly.
You'd think Beth had just announced that she'd set her wedding date.
"We met on WoW."
"That ridiculous game?"
"Yes, Mom. I found out he lives in Seattle."
"What's his name?"
"Invite him to Christmas dinner," Joyce said promptly. "I'll do the full meal. Forget the potluck. I'll entice him with my cooking - and I promise to teach you how. You know what they say about the way to a man's heart."
"I used to be scornful of those old wives' tales, too," her mother continued undaunted, "but so many of them are true. Now, don't worry, I'll downplay the fact that you don't cook. Leave everything to me." Her mother didn't even attempt to hide her delight.
"Mother, no!" Good grief, for all she knew, Peter was married. She didn't dare ask for fear he'd assume she was interested. All right, she was interested, but only because her mother had forced her into it.
"You've got one week to ask him."
Beth closed her eyes and before she could protest further, Joyce disconnected the line. Sighing, Beth hung up the phone. It was either arrive on Christmas Day with a man or disappoint her mother. She sighed again as she recalled that Joyce had resorted to prayer in order to find her a husband.
Beth loved her sister and she treasured little James and Bella, her nephew and niece, but Angela hadn't done her any favors by marrying the exemplary Brian and then quickly producing two perfect grandchildren.
Trying to forget her woes, she logged back on to the game and was pleased to see that her partner was still online. She joined Peter and soon afterward he sent her a message.
How'd the conversation with your mother go?
Okay. She wished she hadn't mentioned that she'd be talking to her family. She was more concerned with what had happened while she was Away From the Keyboard. Did I miss anything exciting when I was AFK?
Yeah. I teamed up with level 41 Dwarf Warrior and defeated the last two Warmongers to complete the Crush-ridge quest.
Beth sat up straighter. Wow. Great going.
You should've been here. I started pounding my chest.
You Tarzan? she joked.
Only if you're Jane, came his reply.
Beth read the line a second time. He almost seemed to be flirting with her. Nah, he was just teasing, which they often did, bantering back and forth and congratulating each other. It would be easy to misread his intentions, and she didn't want to make more of this than warranted.
When she didn't respond to his comment, they returned to the game. Only later, when she'd logged off and headed for the shower, did Beth pause to reconsider.
If Peter had been flirting, and that was a huge if, perhaps she should make an effort to learn more about him.
Beth turned on the shower. These were the thoughts of a desperate woman, she told herself grimly. Signs of someone who'd sunk to a new low - finding a date for Christmas Day through an online computer game.