Chapter 2: Thrust, Parry, Leg Squeeze, and Detente
That night, sitting on his bed, Steve wrote in his adventure notebook: “Lakebridge barony sits high up in the Piney Mountains, amid ancient lava flows and the trees that give the mountains their name. The main road passes over the water by a causeway and goes up to the main town, which is on an island formed by a dead cinder-cone volcano. A crenellated rampart towers along the narrow strip where the island connects to the far shore.
“A high-rank swamp-hag sorceress named Annabis has joined the local giants. Her son, Sethis, also a high-rank mage, has infiltrated and taken over the baron’s keep. He has shapestealer servants and controls several vampires who used to be local villagers. His vampires were turned by the venerable Count Olaf, a longtime minion of the hag (qv, the Hag’s Lair section on page XX). After nightfall, the vampires will attack the local inn, along with the local temple of Hathor Lux, the sun goddess. They will wipe out all the priests, but their priestess is away on errands and will return the next day. The party can hire her for a hundred gold doubloons. She can sense vampires and has a plus-three bonus to repel them.”
Steve closed the book and picked up a graph-paper map lying nearby, and used the book as a little desk as he sketched the halls and dungeons of the baron’s keep. Now and then his mind wandered to Tess. What would interest her about the campaign? Well for one, the baron’s daughter, Zadrian, had avoided capture. She had on magical shadow armor and roamed the keep to free her father, who was staked out in the courtyard. (The shapestealers used him for arrow practice. He was barely alive.)
Maybe Tess would think Zadrian was cool, because – because why? What did he know about girls anyway? At last he admitted with a sigh that he was kidding himself: he’d never get Tess into his game.
To Steve’s huge dismay, she wasn’t in class the next morning, but he spotted her at lunch, alone in a far corner. She noticed him coming halfway across the cafeteria and pursed her lips in what could have been either annoyance or dry humor. When he reached the table, she said, “Don’t you have any friends in this school?”
He shrugged. “My friends go to private schools, mostly.”
“You hang with a rich crowd.” Steve took a seat, and she shifted from lounging to sitting up straight.
“Yeah, we live up in the hills. Most of the kids are well off. But my dad says private school is a waste till high school.”
Tess picked up a fork and poked at her salad of iceberg lettuce and cucumber with bright red French dressing. She tried a small bite, then grimaced and took the pizza square from the main cup in her tray. The hard crust was painted with some tomatoey stuff too dry to call sauce, and its web of cheese had dry-looking hamburger crumbs trapped inside it. She nibbled at the square like she was trying not to get any on her tongue. “They have this pizza in every crappy institution, you know? I had a dorm friend in the Home that called it ‘shit on a shingle.’ ”
“Sounds like being in the military.”
“Yeah, she heard it from her brother in the army,” Tess said.
“No, I meant ‘the Home.’ What’s that?”
“Residential treatment. It’s like a cross between a hospital and a boarding school. I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Okay. I was just gonna ask how it went with the with your foster dad.”
“He’s cool,” she said, meaning it was okay. She picked some cheese off her pizza and ate it while staring into her lap. “So,” she said, “why’d you stick up for me?”
She had raised her head, but looked off to one side, bored and indifferent. Steve was taken off guard. He took a couple seconds to find his voice. “You seem smart, and tough.”
“You like girls who are smart and bitchy, huh? What’s your mom like?”
This set Steve back again; it seemed a change of subject. “My mom’s a professor.”
“So she’s smart,” Tess said. “Is she bitchy?”
“No, she’s—” What was she like? “She’s polite.”
“No, she says she doesn’t trust nice people.”
“Sounds tough,” Tess said.
Steve knew that Tess was playing him, but he didn’t understand how. Was she implying he had a weird relationship with his mom? “No,” Steve said, glad to contradict her again. “She’s not tough. She’s not weak. She doesn’t seem to think about being one or the other.”
“So you think I’m tough?”
She shrugged and stared straight into her plate.
Steve said, “You’re worried about your mom, right?”
Tess nodded. She grabbed the edge of the table like she was about to push herself away. Hastily, Steve added, “I don’t know if you’re tough, but I think you’re brave.”
Her arms relaxed a little, and she settled back into her chair. “Yeah? How?”
“You got in the teacher’s face.” He had a sudden inspiration, remembering an ABC Network Afterschool Special from a couple weeks ago. The TV psychiatrist used a line on the troubled boy. “If it’s not safe in this school, you’re gonna find out right away, even if you don’t want to.”
“You know, Steve, you’re not as dumb as I thought.”
“I’m not dumb at all,” he said, angry.
She smiled, opened her mouth, shut it, then snorted and smiled again. The smile made her whole face glow. Steve cleared his throat. His cheeks felt hot.
“I was kidding,” she said. She pushed him, hard, so the front legs came up on his chair and he almost tipped over. She covered her mouth; it was the first girlish gesture he’d seen from her. “Sorry.”
With one hand, he feinted like he was going to push her back; as she flinched, he grabbed her leg with the other just above the knee and squeezed. “Oww.” She kicked out and hit the center stand of the table with her foot. He let go, and she flipped a lock of hair over her shoulder, affecting indifference.
“Huh,” said Steve.
Tess made another attempt at the pizza. After a few seconds, she looked at him sidelong. “ ‘Huh’ what?”
“You know, you’re not quite as bitchy as I thought.”
“Haw haw.” Across the cafeteria, kids had their heads together and cast glances back at them. Tess picked at her food.
“What is ‘Tess’ short for, anyway?” Steve asked. He tried to make it casual, but he’d been wondering all day. He’d thought “Teresa” maybe, but that didn’t seem to fit.
She sighed. “I’d rather not.”
“My full name’s Theresse” — Steve repeated the name in his head, the soft th, the regal accent on the second syllable; the last part like on “duchess” or “countess” –“after my great-grandmother.”
“Nice.” He smiled to himself.
She shrugged. They ate a while, until finally, she said, “So you don’t look like a jock, and you don’t seem like a complete nerd. What are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re that boring, huh? What did you do last night besides homework?”
“Worked on my writing.”
“What, like stories or something?”
“Sort of. I run a game called C&C for a couple friends, and I create the adventures.”
“Really?” she said. “You play Castles?”
He couldn’t tell whether she was excited or just incredulous in a bad way. “Yeah, do you?”
A genuine smile lit her face. “Uh-unh, but it looks kinda neat. There was an article a couple years back in The Oregonian. They had pictures of college students dressed as knights and princesses and werewolves and stuff.”
Steve leaned in, mouth open, and then, self-conscious, forced himself to ease back. “That’s what made me interested too,” he said, checking his enthusiasm, “but they got it all wrong. A guy sent his troll to drink a potion, and it turns out to be poison and kills it. You don’t play a troll. And they didn’t even mention the luck roll to survive the poison.”
Tess got a shifty look, and for a second Steve thought he’d turned her off. “Actually,” she said, “I was so curious, I got my mom to buy me the player’s guide for Christmas.”
“Have you read it?”
“Yeah, basically. I know about the classes and everything, but I never actually made a character. So what’s your adventure about?”
He reminded himself to go slow. He was putting a secret and vulnerable part of himself on display. “There’s a barony centered in a lake-side town, and evil giants are organizing nearby. Something weird is going on with the local baron. His men arrested a mysterious drifter, and since then the keep has been closed. The baron’s own knights don’t know what’s going on, and the players will have to sneak inside.”
“Sounds complicated. What do the giants have to do with it?”
“It’s all connected.”
Steve hesitated. Was this really such a good idea, after all? What would she think of his twitchy friend Rei? No, of Curt—what would that be like? Curt nitpicked the rules, and had even less social skill than Rei. “Why don’t you join the campaign?” he asked.
“Campaign?” She laughed, and he thought she was turning him down. “You mean like running for office?”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “No, it’s a series of adventures. Roleplaying games came out of miniatures rules, where battles are laid out with lead figures. A campaign is a series of field battles. There’s a lot more to adventures than battles, but you get the idea. A campaign is a bunch of related adventures.”
Tess looked chagrinned and said, half to herself, “Yeah, duh, so a presidential campaign’s a metaphor about battles. I hate it when I miss connections like that.”
Steve shrugged. “Hardly. I didn’t get it either.”
The lunch bell rang. Next period was Social Studies, another class with Mrs. Isobel. But when they got up, Tess said, “I’m not in what’s-her-name’s classes anymore. Alex got me out. I have independent study in the library.”
She started to walk away. Steve felt desolate.
“So what about the campaign?” he said.
“Huh?” She turned back. “Seriously? Okay, yeah. Where?”
“At my place. The group meets at eight on Friday.”
“Sure.” She took a few more steps, then turned again. “See you here at lunch tomorrow. We can talk about it then, right?”
He nodded, his face hot.
“See ya,” she said.
Steve wanted to laugh like a maniac. He stood and watched her fight her way into the crowd of kids pushing to the exit, until she passed the doors. He tried to see himself as she saw him. Maybe she didn’t think of him as a hopeless dork after all.
The next day, Wednesday, Tess was not in the cafeteria. Steve looked for her desperately, stayed all lunch period waiting by himself, and hardly touched his food, despite its being the most palatable lunch they got — mashed potatoes with meat gravy. When he finally remembered that Tess had independent study the next hour, he quickly dumped his tray, raced down to the library and slipped inside just before the bell. The librarian, Mrs. Crane, was away shelving. Steve hid in some stacks and waited. A class bustled in, and after the librarian became distracted calling them to order, he came out and began to check the carrels at the end of each row. All were empty. The librarian caught sight of him as he crossed to the exit.
“Can I help you?” she asked. About twenty seventh-graders seated on the floor turned to face him.
“I was looking for someone, Tess Arthur?”
“Ah, she’s out sick today. If you’re supposed to be in class, you’d better hurry. The bell rang a while ago.”
Outside, he saw the principal himself coming down the hall, his attention focused on a newspaper. Steve turned away, thinking he’d gone unnoticed, but he’d hardly taken two steps before Mr. Harrison called out, “Steve? Can you wait a second?” The principal closed the distance in brisk strides. “I’ve got a message. Tess is sick but said she’s looking forward to your game this weekend, if it’s still on?”
“We’re playing Friday. Is she okay?”
“She’ll be fine; she gets these headaches occasionally, and she may have a bout of the stomach flu. She could be out for another day or so.” He added, “You know, I’m grateful you’re being nice to Tess. She can be abrasive until you get to know her. She just needs some good people near her. If she’s rude, hold your ground and don’t take it personally.”
“I like Tess—a lot.”
“I think she values your, ah, friendship too.”
This wasn’t quite the high level of encouragement he’d been hoping for, but he guessed it wasn’t too bad. Steve was impressed by Mr. Harrison’s attention to Tess and her friends. He wished his own dad looked out for him as much.
Mr. Harrison glanced around the hall, as if just noticing it empty. He checked his wristwatch. “Say, you need to get to class. C’mon, I’ll take you.”
Mrs. Isobel jerked her head up from her notes as Steve came in. Mr. Harrison held the door open a moment. She immediately glanced away.
Tess didn’t come Thursday, either, and he’d begun to suspect she wouldn’t show up Friday after all. When he got home, the house was empty as usual, but he found a note on the counter saying that Tess had called, along with a number. His mother evidently took it down between teaching classes. There was no message.
He dialed up immediately. A woman answered, and when he asked for Tess, she said to hold on. He could hear little boys shouting and laughing in the distance. A full minute ticked by.
“Yeah? Hello?” Tess croaked as if she’d been woken up amid bouts of being sick.
“It’s Steve calling you back.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I just wanted to get your address, for tomorrow. I’ve been studying the equipment in the player’s guide, like weapons and climbing gear, and I’ve got some ideas about what to put together for my character. You still want me to play?”
“Great! I mean, yeah, of course, if you’re up for it. You sound terrible.”
“I’ve had the flu the past day, and now I got a migraine and cramps. It’s getting better right now. Tomorrow will be okay, I can tell. You know, it’s a girl thing, and I’m still getting used to it. Be grateful you’re a guy.”
“Isn’t there anything you can take?” Steve felt uncomfortable at this revelation.
“Last time we visited, my mom said I might try going on the Pill if it’s still bad next year. She says that worked for her.”
Silence hung on the line for a while as Steve strained for a casual rejoinder. His paltry male problems, like what a drag it was he messed the sleeping bag during a camping trip, didn’t measure up. “That must really suck.”
“God, I guess you don’t need to hear this. It’s just that Mom and I were real open about this stuff. Maybe it’s had something to do with not having a guy around much.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m really sorry you’re not feeling well.”
“Thanks, Steve.” His pulse tripped faster as she used his name. “Like I said, by tomorrow, it should be okay.”
Awkward silence stretched out on the line. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Like what? I said I’d be in school tomorrow.”
“I don’t know.” His cheeks started to burn. “Maybe bring some dice to roll up a character?”
She laughed. “How’s that going to make me feel better? No, actually, can’t we just make the character at your place?”
He felt like she’d thrown him a lifeline. “Sure, and Curt loves that kind of thing too; he’s got the rules memorized. Actually, that’s also annoying sometimes. So are you really going to come over?”
“Uh, why wouldn’t I?”
Steve felt his confidence drop through a hole in his stomach. “I mean, because you’ve been sick. Do you need a ride?”
“Alex can handle it. I’ll come.”
“Good. We get started around eight. You know the zoo exit after the tunnel going west on 26?”
“Just a sec; hold on while I get a pen…. Okay, go ahead.”
He gave her the rest of the directions and an address, then added, “Get well.”
“Heh. Okay, bye.” He listened to the dead line for several seconds before hanging up.
He went downstairs and surveyed his apartment. When Steve was ten, his parents had given him the entire daylight basement to occupy, and while he’d done his best to clutter his living area, he hadn’t quite achieved the effect of full occupancy. Picture windows dominated the east wall, but the sun had retreated far into the backyard, leaving the den in heavy shade. At the bottom of the stairs, Steve flipped the switch to the fluorescents, and the ballasts flickered awake with a sullen glow. A ten-foot square of green shag carpet drifted on a sea of concrete. Against the west wall, next to his bathroom door, a full refrigerator emitted a congested hum. And directly across the room, by the arch that led to his bedroom, a scarred oak dining table was strewn with lead warrior figures and plastic dice. The seats around the table were oddly matched: a couple of office swivel chairs, black and brown, covered in vinyl and another, green-gold upholstered one. The stack of the original dining chairs gathered dust under the window.
Over the table hung the album cover for a band called Molly Hatchet. The cover was Rei’s idea: he referred to Frank Frazetta’s axe-wielding “Death Dealer” — a sinister horseman lifting a wicked axe, face shadowed in a horned helmet — as their “mascot.”
It was not a place for impressing a girl. Or was it? Tess wasn’t like anyone he’d ever met. He drifted into the room, uncertain, went over to the table, and was about to drop into his seat, when he paused to look out the window.
Below the back lawn, the slope dropped off to a view of Portland, the Willamette River winding among its sun-shot towers. The sky, cirrus-painted, had gone an orange pink, and fifty miles away the upper glaciers of Mount Hood’s conical spire flared like a beacon. Just visible to the north over the distant arch of the Fremont suspension bridge, the rounder dome of Mount St. Helens shone under a veil of what might have been either cloud or ash. For the first time in over a hundred and twenty years, several minor eruptions had shaken the mountain, and now only researchers were allowed within a wide quarantine zone around it.
Rei said he had the best view in the West Hills. It didn’t take much imagination to see it as a fantastic kingdom, a capital of glass towers that had been reared by magic amid untamed lands, where monsters crawled the ancient lava tubes beneath white-capped volcanoes. He sat down and swiveled back and forth, pondering his spare redoubt. Yep, he decided, it could be a lot worse.
A few minutes later, he went upstairs and called Rei. “We’ve got a new player.”
“Aw, c’mon, tell me.”
“Trust me, it’ll be a cool surprise. Anyway, I want you guys to come an hour early and get a head start.”
“Huh, you’re acting weird, man. Is this some older guy or something?”
“It’s not a girl, is it?”
“Rei, do you know any girls who game?”
“Good point. So why is he joining the group? You think we need help?”
“For what you’ve got coming up? Maybe, yeah.”
“Decent. We need a priest, right?”
“Right. Anyway, you can tell Curt for me. I need you to come an hour early. I told the new player too much about the adventure, so I need you guys a little further along to catch up.” Steve often asked Rei to be the go-between with Curt. Steve was closer to Rei, and Curt and Rei went to the same school.
“Yeah, okay,” said Rei. “We’ll see you Friday.”
Later that evening, after dinner, Steve paced his den some more. He considered the Death Dealer, and took him down. What could he put up instead of the mascot? Maybe a Rowena Morrill painting from the Tolkien calendar, something with Aragorn or a dragon. Not the Luthien picture. Unless he punked her up with a Sharpie, dancing in the forest, showing off tattoos. That could be kind of cool. Yeah, right, and what would Rei say about that? “Where’s the mascot? What’s with this shit? You into punk chicks now?” He put the Death Dealer back.
He stalked upstairs across the long hardwood floor, and into the carpeted hall. His dad’s study was open a crack and dim light spilled out. He rapped at the door lightly with his knuckle.
“Yeah? Come in.”
The room was dark except for an extensible lamp focused into the rolltop desk where his dad hunched over a fly-tying vise, wielding forceps and thread spool to twirl a feather around the fuzzy black body of a wooly bugger.
“Dad, how much is a personal trainer?”
“Trainer in what?” he said. “You going out for sports?”
“No, just to get in shape. Weightlifting.”
“You’ve got a weight set.” This was true, and he worked out a little each week, but he wasn’t seeing the results he wanted.
“I need someone to help me.”
“It’s just discipline, Chuck.” His dad finished off the hackles on his fly, tied off the body, then painted some shellac on the head. He capped the shellac bottle, and turned toward Steve. “Why the sudden interest in weightlifting?”
“I want to be stronger.”
“Someone bothering you at school?”
“Okay, how about this. I’ll make a call to a local gym sometime this week and ask about a personal trainer, just for a visit. Then we’ll see if you can follow a routine at home. I’ll spot you on the exercises.” He considered for a moment. “I guess I could train myself a little.” He smacked his paunch, which just over-spilled his belt.
“Yeah, okay, I guess.”
His dad nodded and turned back to his fly-tying.
“Uh, Dad, I’m having the guys over tomorrow again, and we’ve got another kid coming too.”
“New guy from school?” His father seated another hook in the vice and picked among the detritus of quail feathers, tinsel, and piping scattered over his desktop.
His dad’s fingers hung over a scrap of deer pelt. His head came up a bit. “Hmm, I think I get it now. Anything you want to tell me about this girl?”
“No. Just — just be cool about it. She knows me as Steve, just like the other guys. Okay.”
“You got it, Chuck.”