Of course, the road to selling twenty-three million cards wasn’t completely straight. For example, the first production batch of cards from the printer were not what we wanted. Evidently, the printer thought we were just kidding when we’d talked about having a mathematical formula, even a simple one, for controlling the distribution of the common, uncommon, and rare cards. And then once the retail stores heard that we were actually going to be able to deliver on what they ordered, they not only weren’t worried about having ordered too much of the game, they simply raised their orders further. We weren’t able to adjust the print run at that point, though we felt good about penciling in a reprint sooner than later.
The area of damp dog smell radiating out of the carpet from the fireplace was still growing. The night before Thanksgiving, some of my archaeologist housemates decided to take serious measures against the dog spirit who it seemed was haunting our home. I came in from a night out with friends around one in the morning to find that I could not see anything at all in front of me. Usually, I could see down the short front hall and through the long living room out through the glass door to the backyard starlight beyond.
Flipping on the hall light showed me why: visibility was only about 3 feet or so, after which a solid volume of smoke filled the house floor to ceiling. I called hesitantly to my housemates, but got no response. After confirming that no one was in the living room I made my way to the fireplace, where embers still glowed. Coughing, I opened the flue and cracked the back door, then I retreated to my room. One open window and a damp towel along the door’s bottom edge later and I felt safe going to sleep that cold November night.
To be fair, though, they’d exercised whatever had been haunting us. It’d be a month before people stopped asking me why I smelled like a campfire, though we never felt dampness on the carpet or smelled wet dog in the living room again.
The weeks leading up to the game’s release were some of the sweetest in years, and one of the few bright spots through my year of tedious depression. People were talking about a new movie that had just come out called Pulp Fiction, and after all the time we’d spent together over the past three months it felt great to get out with Steve to do something fun — I thought Doug Barnes had come with us as well, though he doesn’t remember it that way now; someone did, certainly. It felt even more right to be seeing for the first time a movie that seemed destined to be a classic.
“It’s a great game,” I said in the parking lot on the way out from the film.
“Well, I hope so,” Steve said. “I think it will sell.”
“It will,” I said.
Back at the office, Jim McCoy, lead admin for Illuminati Online, was opening one of the first sets of finished, packaged, store-ready cards and sorting them out. I thought seeing that many cards so soon would be nausea-inducing. I was wrong. For whatever reason, it was comforting. To see Jim so delighted by the cards was a real gift for me, too. I told him about Pulp Fiction, strongly recommending he see it.
He nodded quietly, adding nothing further. That was when it hit me: I always knew Jim was a cool guy, though I hadn’t realized how shy he was. I hoped he’d open up some day.
I told him how the Newton coupled with the software he’d given me had saved the day for us in Michigan, at the press check, marveling at how much technology had to be bent to make up for being short a single quarter. We had a good laugh. I liked Jim.
We played our first in-house game with real, finished cards — six of us battling it out for world domination. I won.
Soon, the fan mail began pouring in — mostly electronic, at first, though this was in the day when physical fan mail still arrived every day, with questions or ideas or strange randomness. Overall, I think the game had a mixed reception. It took much longer to play than Magic, for example, and it was a specific kind of dorky that was different from Dungeons & Dragons dorky or Star Trek dorky. It had its serious fans, though, and in those first few weeks, most people were pretty excited about it. There’d only been four collectible card games of note, by that point, not counting two tiny disasters from two tiny companies.
We were excited, certainly. The best part, of course, was finally having something worth talking about with people who didn’t give a crap about games. At a small concert in downtown Austin, I ran into one of Cookie’s old roommates and her boyfriend, the young designer who’d been running down my Internet predictions.
“It hasn’t even been a week,” I said, “and we’ve nearly sold through twenty-three million cards.” They stared, mouths opened. “I think it’s pretty cool,” I filled in. They wished me a merry Christmas, turned, and walked away. I never saw them again. That’s fine.
The following week, I met up with Cookie. She called because she was in town for Christmas to see her parents. I picked her up in town and we drove over to just north of the university campus. That’s where in Austin you always used to find the most spectacular holiday light displays, strands of brilliance stretching from pole to pole along and across the street and back. Maybe it’s still that way today.
Standing on a corner, looking up at the pin points of color, I hugged her from behind as she reached up to squeeze my forearms gently.
“Some part of you will be inside of me for eternity,” I said, not sure it was a good thing even though it was true. We did not kiss. That would be more than six months out, still.
As uneven as some of our moments had been during production, Steve was gracious and generous once the money began rolling in. He gave me a bonus that was almost half my annual salary at that point, as well as a 20% raise. This was still not a lot of money, even in Austin terms, but I was finally making more than a starting teacher’s salary, so it began to feel more real. I began to wonder if I might actually have taken a much larger step towards adulthood than I’d thought.
I was having fun, and I was learning something. What’s not to love?
My mom called. “You won, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“The nerds. The nerds won.”
“You did. You always said that computers were the future, and that tying them together was important, and in the past year it’s finally happened.”
“Are you saying you think it’s cool to be a nerd?”
“No,” she said. “I think the nerds aren’t nerds anymore. I don’t know; they just are. But they’re in charge now. You’re in charge now.”
“It doesn’t feel like it,” I said, quickly adding, “but thanks. Thank you.”
Our house was full for New Year’s Eve. Jeff and Andy and their larger circle were there, plus Suzanne and some of her other friends; Patch and Felicity showed up, though Doug was busy — and of course there were the archeologists and all their friends. Even Mentor came through, for a time. Rick couldn’t make it. He was back in Houston, having girlfriend trouble. Something would have to change there soon.
As the night breezed on, I found myself sitting in one of those big round rattan papasan chairs, half curled up and watching everyone moving in and around the party, basking in the magic of the evening. Down on the floor by the chair, Felicity asked something of Patch, pointing up at me. He grinned and shrugged, and like a careful cat she crawled up to nestle with me in that eternal moment. She held my hand, pressing it against her thin waist.
“I can see it,” I told her. I tilted my head toward Patch, who sat watching us from the thick shag carpet. “I see it.”
“See what?” he asked, still grinning.
“All the connections,” I said, my gaze drifting. “I can see the three of us on the day we met. I can see every time Felicity served me eggs over-easy at Red River Cafe. Doug was so important to all of this, and I can see the raw deal he got, in the end — I wonder what’s going to happen to him? It’ll be so marvelous to see.”
I went on. “I can see all the ways that I know all the people here, and how we’ve touched each other’s lives — the important ways, the trivial ways. All the connections. It makes a pattern.”
“Cool,” he said.
“Someday,” I told them both, “I’m going to write it all down.”
“If anyone can,” Felicity said, “it’s you.”
“Well,” I began to say —
— then a short fuse ignited in my brain, and for a moment, only for a moment, I thought I heard my mother saying something, and I remembered the thing I hadn’t even known I’d forgotten, never known I had lost.
It came to me, only for a second: my true name. I reached to grasp it with both hands and like that, it was gone. Worse, I couldn’t even remember what it had been, what it had meant to me, or the mysterious web of connections it had so briefly unlocked.
“Are you alright?” Felicity asked.
“I think so,” I said, though I did not think so.
Someday, I told myself, I should at least try to write it down. But being realistic, until I finished the book that Steve had pulled — and he was right to pull it, I could see it by then; the most infuriating thing about Steve was that he was right, he especially was usually right about things being wrong — I couldn’t even begin to think about writing anything else.
One year to the day, I would again remember my true name. But it would be a long year.
Here’s the story.