At lunch on Monday, Steve arrived at the table first. When Tess took her seat next to him a few minutes later, she wasted no time getting to the point: “So, you killed the baron. That sucks.”
“Since you’re taking it so hard I’ll tell you,” he said.
“Tell me what?”
“He’s not out of the picture, just taken prisoner.”
“You don’t have to do that for me.”
“No, honestly. There’s a good reason he’s not dead. You’ll find out.”
“Now you’ve got me curious,” she said, and then attacked her spaghetti. A full minute of silence passed. Tess had heavy mascara on, but wore a long-sleeved forest-green blouse and new bell-bottomed jeans with high-heeled boots. Her hair was back in a ponytail. He would not have remembered what any other girl had worn a minute after he’d talked to her, if he’d even noticed, but he knew what Tess had on a month ago. Of course, she rarely changed. “This is a new look for you,” he said.
“Yeah, well, Alex has been hounding me to dress nice.”
“Why’s he say that?”
“He subscribes to the idea that you act a certain way and your attitude will follow. I think they call it cognitive therapy, or maybe that’s when you think a certain way, your feelings will follow. I guess my shrink’s a cognitive therapist.”
“You have a shrink?” said Steve.
“It’s no big deal, really. So what was up with that bullshit story Lydia told us about her father?”
“It’s not really important, but if you ask her, she’ll tell you that she didn’t make it up. She got it from a prospector and his daughter who were captured together and taken below.”
“Uh-huh, I figured.” Steve smiled to himself. She acted as if his ideas reflected a universal logic. “So,” she said, “the werewolves captured the real daughter and father? Why didn’t they just eat them?”
“No, the werewolves didn’t capture them. They only helped. The part about Vidal was true. He carted the daughter off.”
Tess’s nostrils flared, and her jaw clenched. “Bastard. Too bad I didn’t kill him myself.”
“He deserved what he got, but that’s not the point, is it?”
“Well, obviously, killing him would have given Bugclaw more influence over you.”
“Sometimes I think you’re doing this adventure to mess with my head, but you couldn’t be that smart.” She cocked her head and squinted, suddenly suspicious. “Are you?”
Steve groped for a clever response, to seize that admiration she held out just above his head like a prize, but his hesitation was her answer. Her face relaxed as if she saw her world put back in familiar order.
“I mean,” he said, “I don’t think like that. I’m just trying to tell a story that will interest you. I get an intuition about what to do. When the adventure is going really well, it feels like the players and I are being plugged into each other’s minds. When an adventure works, it’s almost like it’s true on some level, you know?”
“Well, maybe it is,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe it’s true to the players, at least. It’s like we have these feelings that it’s just easiest to explore in the adventure. Am I making any sense?”
“Yeah, you are. But the gamemaster has to be smart.”
“I like to think so,” Steve said, and smiled. “Anyway, sometimes I don’t understand the guys well enough to really make it work, but since you’ve started playing, it’s coming together.”
“So you think you understand me?”
“Maybe sort of, on a gut level. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”
“Believe me, you don’t wish that,” she said, very seriously.
Steve wanted to say that he wished that more than anything.
“You think Megaera’s kind of edgy, but if I played her like I really am, she’d make you want to barf.”
Steve opened his mouth to protest, to say that even if she were a killer or a cannibal, he would still want her for a friend and more than a friend, but that was ridiculous and, as he thought about it, not even true, and he had a slight misgiving about what Tess might be hinting at. At last he said simply, “You know I think you’re cool.”
Tess shrugged. “So are we going to rescue them?”
Steve was taken off guard. “Rescue who?”
“The prospector and his daughter.”
Actually, he hadn’t given them any special thought. He wondered how he might work them into what he’d already sketched out. “Do you want to?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, that’s awful what Vidal did to her. The old guy probably deserves whatever he gets for being an old coot, but she cared about him and was loyal, so yeah, him too, I suppose,” she mused.
“And what am I going to do about this werewolf I’ve got on a leash?”
“Yeah, what are you going to do?”
Tess shook her head and unhappily attacked a mound of boiled peas.
“Hi, Tess.” One of the ninth graders, Troy Wagner, passed the table and smiled at her.
She returned the smile and waved. Troy was a tall, athletic kid, with well-combed wings of feathered brown hair. Steve didn’t know much about him, other than hearing a rumor that he’d been shaving for a year already. He hung out with a bunch of active rowdy guys, not the worst kids, but still irritating bigmouths who always yelled down the hall at each other, as if everyone was interested in what they had to say: important stuff like “See you at my house for basketball!” or “Come on over for some Atari!”
Troy didn’t bother to look at Steve and so didn’t catch his nod.
“You know Troy Wagner?” Steve asked.
“I just met him today. Emma introduced us in the hall.” Steve unconsciously made a fist with his cast hand, and then realized both that he felt stupid about wearing it and that his arm felt fine now. He needed to ask about going in and getting rid of it. He’d passed Eric Noble laughing and rough-housing in the hall earlier that morning, back from his short suspension, but Eric had pointedly ignored him. For all his weeping in Mr. Harrison’s office, Eric seemed to have gone back to being a boisterous asshole the minute he returned to school. Troy was probably another asshole too. He hated that Tess had connected with him.
“I’ve got to get going,” he said, and for maybe the first time, he was the one to leave.
* * *
The next day in the morning, Steve saw Tess against her locker down the hall with Troy leaning over her. She was clutching her arms nervously and smiled at something he said. Troy leaned in farther as if to give her a kiss, and Steve felt his cheeks go instantly hot. However, Tess merely tucked in her chin. Troy whispered something in her ear. Tess looked up and caught Steve’s gaze, and she had a guilty, uncomfortable expression. She tilted her head sideways and rolled her eyes up at Troy, her mouth tight, as if attempting to communicate something. Troy finally noticed that he’d lost her attention and tried to follow her gaze, peering at one student after another, working his way methodically toward him. Steve decided to leave before they made eye contact.
At lunch, Tess was nowhere to be seen. Steve ate hastily and left early.
* * *
Steve took stock of his physical condition that night, and not just his arm. His Dad’s idea about working out together had come to nothing. Of course, there wasn’t much he could do about it right now, but he hadn’t even brought it up.
* * *
Tess found Steve in the hall before the first bell. She wore a stricken expression. She had on her striped punk sweater under her denim vest but no makeup, and her eyes looked puffy as if she hadn’t slept well.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Why didn’t you help me yesterday?” she said, almost whining.
“With what?” But he knew. He felt unsympathetic. It served her right for getting close to a kid like Troy.
“That guy was all over me. I wanted you to come and give me an excuse to get away.”
“You don’t like him?”
“No. Well, I don’t know, but— Just forget it.” She started to walk away, and he caught up with her and walked silently along.
“What is it?” he asked finally.
She faced him and then seeing other kids talking, she pulled him into a space between two banks of lockers and lowered her voice. “Okay, I admit, he’s a good-looking guy and everything, but he’s aggressive, and Emma has liked him for a while. I didn’t do anything to encourage him, but he kept on me. He’s not mean, but he talks about himself all the time, and—oh, shit.” Tears started in her eyes. “He cornered me after school at the side exit and kissed me on the neck, and then before I could stop him, he felt up my tit, and I tried to pull away, but someone saw, I don’t know who, and they told Emma, and she wants to kick my ass now. And it’s not my fault!” She sobbed. Steve felt his face burning. He had so many conflicting emotions, but the overriding one, the one that reconciled all the others, was an urge to extricate himself from the whole mess. “Well?” she said, drying her eyes on her sweater sleeve, calming herself. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
He had never seen her so vulnerable and needy, nor so beautiful, but he was numb. He couldn’t help but imagine her being groped; and he couldn’t ignore her ambivalence. The next time Troy grabbed her, maybe she wouldn’t think it was so bad. He looked down at the cast on his arm and felt feeble and unattractive and dejected. “I’ve got to go to class,” he said. Her lip trembled. She searched his face, and he looked away, and she ran off down the hall.
He stood there, now numb all over. He tried to imagine himself a warrior or a cynical thief in one of his adventures. How would he act? How would Tess’s character act? But Tess wasn’t Megaera, not even close. That was just fun, and this was real, and Tess was not the tough, aloof girl she tried to advertise. Now that she’d been vulnerable and he’d let her down, he wondered what would happen. He couldn’t see her showing up Friday night, or ever again, and why? Because he put his own insecurity ahead of their friendship. If he let it play out like this, he’d lose her, even as a friend. “Don’t be a damned wuss,” he said under his breath.
He turned and broke into a sprint, his cast swinging, and ducked a tide of kids just in off the buses. He caught up to her near the girls’ bathroom.
“Tess!” She kept going. “Tess!” He reached up and laid his left hand on her shoulder. She turned and faced him. There was no reserve in her tear-stained face, no fight or defiance. He gently pulled her into a loose hug, and she yielded. Suddenly he realized how much taller she was; he’d never been so close. He cursed the stupid cast that got in the way as she threw her arms around his neck and sobbed. Kids glanced with mixed concern and curiosity as they passed, but he didn’t care, not if Tess didn’t, and she was obviously beyond caring. Normally, he’d try to savor the hug. But right now, he just wanted to give what he could without holding back anything for himself, and all he had was friendship and sympathy, and a rough cast to cry on.
The hug lasted what seemed a long time. Finally, she pulled away, and wiped her eyes, and smiled, embarrassed. “Thanks,” she said.
“I’m really sorry. I was surprised and didn’t know how to react, but you know I’d do anything to make you feel better.”
She nodded, and walked off into the girls’ bathroom. He waited outside for a long time. Girls who hadn’t witnessed the drama shot him irritated looks for being in the way, but he stayed exactly where he was until after the bell rang for class. Tess finally emerged, looking composed with the help of dark mascara. She pecked him lightly on the cheek and left without a word, and he heaved a sigh and went off in the opposite direction.
* * *
He intended to go straight to class, but something felt unresolved, and then anger burned up through his chest into his face, and his stomach went a little sick with fear, but he became indignant with himself at being afraid. He knew what he had to do. Even if it meant getting pounded, he had to confront Troy.
Unfortunately, the asshole wasn’t around, along with just about everyone else, and he had to wait. He went to class. The day dragged along. By the last bell, he mostly felt a sense of hopeless duty; his rage had grown tepid. He’d written a note to slip through the grill of Troy’s locker, in case he didn’t catch him, but he wasn’t sure which was his. He made a rough guess and lounged against the opposite wall, waiting.
Most of the school came and went. He was just about to ask a kid which locker was Troy’s, when Tess appeared at his arm, startling him. “What are you doing?” she said, but it wasn’t really a question, more like an accusation. She obviously had him figured out.
“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her directly, and his heart thumped, first from the surprise, and now embarrassment and chagrin. He’d messed it all up.
She searched his face. Not knowing what to do, he grew stoic. “Anyway,” she said, “he’s not here; he’s got baseball practice. I think he said he only uses the locker in the gym. What were you going to do?” He shifted his gaze toward her, and saw her eyes bright with amusement but also concern. She glanced to his hand, where he clutched the letter.
He let her have it, feeling completely stupid.
When she opened and scanned it, she gaped. “Um, wow, I don’t think he’d take you up on this, and I don’t know if he’d believe that you saw it happen. But, anyway, you know he’s pretty big?”
“I don’t care, Tess. I’m done with running from jerks, and I’m done with feeling like a wuss. I’m—” He needed to offer proof of his resolve. “Dad’s getting me into training, right after this damn thing comes off.” He raised the cast, and set his face hard, defying her to mock him.
She frowned and averted her eyes. “I’m the wuss. I went to Alex, after I told you. We had a long talk, first to calm me down and then to calm him down. Alex can be a little nuts.”
“So what’s he going to do?”
“He already did it. He left me in the office and got Troy from class. He made him apologize to me and then told him that if he ever so much as came near me again, he’d get him kicked out of school and file criminal charges for sexual assault.”
“Well, yeah, but Troy’s too dumb to know that’s bullshit. Anyway, Troy acted kind of tough at first, but then he actually broke down and started crying and blubbering how sorry he was to both of us. I mean, I would’ve too, the way Alex got in his face and looked at him like he was complete shit and wanted an excuse to punch him. Troy’s cocky, but he doesn’t think of himself as a mean guy. He didn’t really understand what he’d done.”
“That’s no excuse.”
Tess shook her head. “No, it’s not.”
Steve tried to calculate what this would mean. He really didn’t want to be let off the hook. He sincerely meant to fight Troy, but now that seemed useless. Troy didn’t even know him.
“It was hard, but after I told you, I felt I had to tell Alex, and I’m glad I did.”
“Because it’s not fair to drag you into it.”
“You didn’t drag me into it.”
Tess got quiet. They were alone, and the buses would be leaving soon, but they weren’t done. Almost a full minute passed. Then Tess smiled and wiped a lock of hair from her face. “You didn’t leave yourself any way out, did you?”
“In the letter, dummy. You could’ve threatened to tell on him. You could have said that I complained to you. Instead you made up this crap about watching him, like you’d hated him for a long time.”
She got close and he leaned in to catch a whisper but received a kiss on the cheek instead. “It’s brave, is all,” she said and walked briskly away, carrying the note.