The next day dawned gray and drizzly, Steve’s parents lounged in their bathrobes late into the morning, and they all sat down to a late breakfast. As Steve’s dad dished eggs onto his plate, he said, “Your mother and I have a few things to share.” He nodded toward Steve’s mom, who lifted an envelope next to her plate.
Steve felt his chest grow tight. Mail was seldom good news, unless it was his birthday, and that wasn’t till December. “We just got your appointment confirmation. For your cast. It comes off Monday.” Steve heaved a sigh, but his mother hadn’t put down the envelope. She glanced at it as if just finding it in her hand.
“But this is something else,” she said.
Steve’s mind stalled. He noticed his father watching him, his mouth crooked in a half-frown that might have been an ironic grin. Rain dripped steadily off the gutters outside the window, marking time.
His mother said, “Your father and I have talked about it, and we’ve decided that you’ve endured enough of Pioneer Junior High. We forwarded your grades, and you’ve been accepted into Merriweather Prep for this fall.” She handed the letter over, and Steve took it reluctantly, his guts starting to sink. The return address was embossed in gold foil and had the academy logo next to it: an explorer in tricorne hat shielding his eyes against a stylized sunset. The envelope had been carefully slit along the top.
Steve’d never heard of Merriweather. He wouldn’t miss much about his school, but— He had a quick flash of Tess there without him, meeting some guy, getting hassled by teachers.
“Well?” his dad said.
“Is this a done deal?” Steve asked. “Do I get to think about it?”
His dad sighed, which drew a scowl from his mother. She said, “No, he’s right. It’s a lot to spring on him.”
“I mean, what’s this place about?” Steve asked.
His dad said, “It’s one of the finest college-preparatory academies on the West Coast. Ninety percent of the graduates go on to college. Fifteen percent go to Ivy-League schools, MIT, or Stanford. They have a great foreign-language program, and are starting computer science this year, with BASIC and FORTRAN. They’ve got fencing and chess clubs.”
“A bunch of rich kids.” Steve’s heart raced; the air felt thin, and his cheeks hot.
“Smart kids, gifted kids. They have scholarships for less affluent kids who show enough aptitude. There’s a mix of income groups.”
“Where is it?”
“Down in Lake Oswego,” said his mother. “You stay in a dorm; it’s like college. But—” she added hastily, “you can come home every weekend. We’ll keep your downstairs just the way it is.”
“I don’t know. Maybe in another year,” said Steve.
His dad sighed again. “I wanted to give you a solid chance of getting in, so I made a donation and a deposit. It was the only way to really secure a spot. Competition is fierce.”
“I mean,” his dad said, exasperated, “fierce to get in. Sure it’s a rigorous school, but you’re smart, and it will be fun. This is exactly what I wish I’d had. I went to public high school and busted my ass” —Steve had heard this story several times before — “and getting Valedictorian barely prepared me for state college. The teachers just don’t know their stuff.” Steve said nothing. He felt surly and lonely and hopeless. After a few minutes of silence, his dad added, as an obvious afterthought: “And I understand this game you’re into is really big there.”
Steve’s temper eased a bit at this. His dad was trying to placate him. If the school raised the status of C&C for his dad, well, he had to admit it might be okay. But Tess, Tess….
“I know this is an intimidating transition. We just thought you’d be excited,” his mom said.
“It feels like you’re trying to get rid of me,” said Steve, holding tight to his resentment.
“That’s not true!” his dad said hotly. “We’re not laying out this money to get rid of you, for God’s sake. Get rid of you? What’s to get rid of? You spend all your time downstairs anyway. We never see you, always writing up scripts or whatever.”
“Dean,” his mother said in a warning tone. “His feelings are perfectly valid. What I think we need is a few days to let this mellow. And I think for now we should just congratulate Charlie on his accomplishment in getting in.”
Incredulous, Steve coughed and forced a chuckle. “ ‘Accomplishment’? He just said he bought me in!”
“I didn’t ‘buy’ your way in.” His dad’s voice was low and put-upon. “You couldn’t have gotten in without showing aptitude, and you impressed Alex enough to vouch for you. He sent them a letter of recommendation.”
Tess’s dad did that without telling him? He felt conspired against. “Mr. Harrison hardly knows me. Besides, isn’t that a little weird? He’s the principal and he’s trying to get me out of his own school.”
Steve’s dad shook his head wearily. “That’s not it, and it’s not his school anymore. He’s leaving for Ashland in August.”
“Leaving?” He thought about Tess with sudden despair. She’d be gone for good. But maybe not, he realized. Her mom was up here in Portland. Would she be shuttled off to some other home?
“Yes,” said his dad, “he got a better job, and from what he’s told me, you and he are both leaving in good time. It’s going to hell.”
“But what about Tess?”
“She’s going with him.”
“But her mom—”
Steve’s mom reached across the table and awkwardly gripped one of his hands. “Tess’s mother has been in bad shape for over a month. She probably won’t live out the summer, Charles.”
“God, but what if she does. Tess won’t want to leave.”
“She won’t have to,” his dad said, in a mild tone. This topic at least didn’t seem to provoke him. “Alex said he’ll let her stay as long as she needs to. He’s got a sister up here. They’ve worked it out.”
The earth seemed to shift under him. There were too many transitions implied. How did Tess endure it, getting constantly moved around, not knowing what would happen? She obviously admired her mother and was close to her and that seemed to help keep her steady. Steve’s relationship with his own parents was different, more distant, but it was stable. He felt a jolt of sympathetic horror that Tess would lose her mom. He’d be there for Tess, keep in touch, write.
“So,” he said, mostly to distract himself, “if this is good news, do you have bad news?”
“The bad news, and it’s not so bad,” said his father, “is that I expect you to do some work this summer for a change. Pick berries, mow lawns, I don’t care. Of course, your arm has to heal. It’s not about money; I don’t expect you to make much. It’s about a work ethic. It’s past time you started.”
This didn’t really bother Steve, though he didn’t exactly like the idea. Rei had been picking berries for two summers already; the work was always done by noon, and it didn’t seem to cut into his play time. He supposed he could arrange to work with him. “Okay, I’ll look for a job. Can I wait till next week?”
“No, I want you to spend the next few days either working or trying to find work,” said his dad. “Then we’ll be leaving on a two-week trip, starting next Friday.”
“Where?” This was completely unexpected. His dad took him along fishing sometimes, but never more than a few days’ camping. A couple of weeks was a major event.
“We’re meeting the Harrisons in central Oregon. I can only afford a week off, but I agreed you could stay with them for an extra week and keep your girlfriend company. Unless you’d prefer to come home early….” He chuckled at what he read in Steve’s face.
Steve tempered his gratitude. Mr. Harrison had obviously talked his dad into it. Also, his dad probably thought that Tess would be gone for good after this and decided to take some pity on him. Two weeks, though, Steve thought. And the damned cast off. He’d worry about the rest later. For now, this was pretty good.
* * *
That day and the next continued wet, and after their big announcements, his parents gave him time alone, which he used to work on the adventure in his room. The worst part of having the cast had been trying to hold a pencil, though now he’d almost gotten used to it. He drew up his maps on graph paper and wrote the keys longhand, putting each finished page of college-rule in a three-ring binder. Notes on characters, potential encounter scenarios, and plot hooks he kept in an unlined diary. On a good day, he could complete a map, three or four pages of its key, and a few pages of history or monster ecology. So far, the adventure spanned two full binders and a diary and a half. He was months ahead of the players, but all the extra work paid off. He constantly drew on that lore, doling it out in pieces, and it gave the playing sessions depth and his pronouncements more authority.
These days, the diary began to form a narrative. He wrote about Stefan’s early childhood with Varanor, who served as both his parent and mentor, and with the rock-shaper dwarves as his foster brothers. By the time Stefan was ten years old, he’d made several forays out to the shores of the Nightwater, in the neutral strip between the wharves and the first curtain wall of the city. He’d met a fallen-elf girl there once, with purple eyes, pale white skin, and long black hair. She looked no older than Stefan, but could have been as old as thirty, given the slow growth and longevity of elves. The fallen elves worshipped demons and were carnal and brutal, but while suspicious and aloof, this girl seemed different. She lacked the disdain of the princesses he’d glimpsed riding up from the docks on palanquins born by gruant slaves. She’d been lounging on a piling, eating the dregs out of a red sowbug shell the size of a grapefruit (the crustaceans were thick in the corals by the docks and tasted even better than lobster). He and the girl hadn’t spoken. She’d extracted a strip of rubbery meat from the shell and tilted her head up as she slurped it languidly, her eyes never leaving him. The hanging street lanterns asquirm with glowgrubs reflected in her eyes like windows onto the fitful blue starscape of the Nightwater behind her.
Steve got the idea for the Nightwater in a National Geographic article on phosphorescent plankton. A friend of his dad’s had described a trip to the Caribbean once where some kind of crustacean about a quarter inch long washed up in huge numbers after a squall, their bodies emitting an electric-blue glow, making the beach look like a reflection of the starry sky.
The Nightwater stretched far under the earth, and eventually connected with the sea on the edge of the continent a few hundred miles away. Aboveground, this area of Brasdain was temperate, but volcanic action heated the water to about ninety degrees, with locally hotter pockets. Strange bacteria, corals, tubeworms, and mussels supported the ecosystem — also something he’d read about in National Geographic. Without the Nightwater, you couldn’t have a city like Barathrum. What would all those predators eat? Where would all the sewage go? There were a few magical gates out of the city to other worlds, and various races brought in animals and plants to sell, and there was some traffic with the giants aboveground, but most of the food came from the sea.
Steve slipped deeper into his daydream. Stefan had been taught ecology by Varanor. Watching the elf girl, though, he’d been thinking only of how mysterious and lovely she was, between the glowing ceiling and the Nightwater’s upside-down sky. Just then, a tall figure in a black cloak, hood up, approached her out of the crowd of passersby, who included gruants, ogre dock workers, insect-men, and half orcs. The figure said something in a hoarse, matronly tone. The girl turned and threw the shell out into the bay and then meekly followed her mistress, sparing one glance back, to give him a faint smile. That was almost fifteen years ago. Had it been Megaera? Stefan had wondered that from the moment he’d set eyes on her….
* * *
Steve spent a long time mapping out the inn where the little girl had been taken. He knew the floor plan; he knew the store-rooms, the kitchen, the latrines. He knew what strange creatures were staying in each room and what depraved business they engaged in — a group of insect men gambled to decide which one would be eaten in a group mating ritual; some ogres were doing drugs together, and were addled and moody, a succubus-demon prostitute was taking payment in blood. Tess would never find out about half this stuff, but he never knew what bits of it he’d want in a pinch.
By Sunday evening, he’d completed everything he’d need for the rescue mission. Over the next few days, he’d do a little work on the adjacent dwellings and businesses. He had a dozen or so Barathrum sites sketched out in his diary: evil temples, weird shops, dangerous nests. He hadn’t located them precisely within the city, and maybe he wouldn’t until he needed them during play. The landscape of the adventure should fit the group vibe. He had to admit, though, that lately, he’d taken most of his cues from just one player. He needed to be more attentive to Rei and Curt.
* * *
On Monday morning the cast came off. Steve had final X-rays, and these checked out fine. His doctor, a balding older man, had a clinic downtown, just off Burnside, conveniently near Powell’s. His mother had promised to take him book shopping afterward. Steve had expected the cast saw to be like the kind they used on skulls in brain surgery — he’d seen one on a PBS Nova special — and he’d fretted about whether the doctor would have a light touch. His first glimpse of the saw confirmed his fears. It was a small wand with a radial blade on the end, but the doctor registered his anxiety and said, “Breaks the plaster by vibration.”
“Could that cut through bone the same way?” Steve asked.
The doctor laughed. “I don’t think so. It would have to break the skin first.” He gave a wry, superior smile and went to work.
Moving along the cast in steps, the doctor pressed the blade through the plaster. He cut the top side of the cast, then the bottom, and pried it apart with a metal spatula. A funky, rancid smell emerged as he worked. Yellow sweat stains blotched the padding within, and as the doctor cut it away with scissors and peeled it back, his freed arm evoked some nasty pupa emerging from its cocoon. The sparse hairs of his arm stood out dark against the milk-pale, flaking skin. Steve was fascinated, and wondered how he’d use the image: rotting undead? Grubs of insect-men mewling in filth?
Lots of possibilities.
The doctor’s eyebrows came up. “Well, you’ve got a touch of rash, not bad, but look at this.” He gripped both of Steve’s wrists and pulled his forearms out side-by-side in front of him. “No atrophy. Turn your wrist around, like this.” He rotated his own hand. “Any pain?”
“Huh. Well, that’s great.”
“So, what’s the big deal about the atrophy?” Steve asked, curious. He wanted to take it as a compliment.
“A lot of kids use a cast as an excuse to get out of writing. You write a lot?”
“Yeah, but there’s hardly any muscle there to atrophy.”
“You’d still notice. So what do you write?”
“Stories. Castles & Catacombs game adventures.”
The doctor grimaced. “That violent stuff, killing monsters with swords?”
“Yeah,” said Steve. He picked up a chunk of cast and waggled it at the doctor. “But not half as violent as school.”
The doctor shook his head.
* * *
When Steve got home with some fantasy novels from the trip to Powell’s, he placed half the cast with honor on his bedside night table, setting it up close to the wall to obscure the disgusting, sweat-stained inner curve. His mother had objected to his keeping it at all, since it smelled, but he wanted to ponder it and the message on it a while longer. “Stay fantastic! From her most exalted nobility, the Lady Megaera” — it was her answer to being put on a pedestal. Every time he’d looked down at his arm, he’d gotten her belittling rebuke. But now the cast was off, he wasn’t as physically pathetic; he didn’t need to be emotionally either.
“Okay, Tess,” he said aloud to his empty room. “I really got it. Duh.” But had he gotten it too late?