Tess took a deep breath and leaned back on her hands. They’d played for hours and the light in the tent had been dying for some time, so that they now faced each other through deep gray gloom. The river murmured in the distance; the little boys rough-housed, their laughter interspersed with their plaintive shouts; the voices of the adults ran together in an incoherent chant. Just audible, a match was struck and a kerosene lantern hissed, but here, silence cocooned them in. Despite the wan light, certain details had grown surrealistically stark. Tess’s forehead glowed pale, eyes black with huge pupils, eyebrows inky arches against the skin. Her stacks of tapes stood solid as bricks by her hand, the pillow at the end of her sleeping bag resembled a snow bank.
All this struck him only now that they’d reached a break, and Tess’s contemplative, dazed attitude said that she had been as deep in as he had.
At last she said, “Wow, he really defeated the hag?”
Steve’s inclination was to dissemble, or not answer, to leave room for doubt and future plot developments. Instead, he merely nodded.
“What is up with this Lim guy? Lim. Limax, right? What’s that mean? It’s another one of your special words, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather not say,” he said.
“Okay. So the kid got rescued? She must have. I thought they were letting me go in alone.”
“Stefan followed after Megaera with his team,” Steve explained. “When he saw that the hag was coming to the inn, he knew something was wrong. He knew the layout of the inn and where to have the dwarves try to burrow into it.”
“Why couldn’t he have done that in the first place?”
“Varanor didn’t want him to. The innkeeper was very dangerous. There are magical safeguards all over the place, controlled by that sapphire ring, but even though you have it, you’d have to know how to use it, and you don’t.”
“So now what? Where did that guy in armor take us?”
“To the giant’s dungeons, along with Lim.”
“You mean I’m just going to sit around as a prisoner until Rei and Curt come and rescue me?”
“No, there should be a surprise or two. You could keep going, but then you might finish the whole thing by yourself.”
“So? This is cool. You can make up more stuff, right, after we defeat the giant?”
“I’ll make it up to Curt for missing the finale,” Tess said. “I’ll buy him a rulebook or something.”
“What about Rei?”
Tess thought for a minute. “I don’t know. Share a beer with him by moonlight?” She gave him an ironic smirk.
Someone was walking across the camp toward the tent. “Tess?” It was Alex.
“Yeah, we’re just talking. Come on in.” A moment later the zipper went up and Mr. Harrison pulled back the flap. “You’re going to wreck your eyes in here. Why don’t you come join us by the fire? We’ve got plenty of leftovers to scrounge.”
Stars had begun to break in a flawlessly clear sky. The air was crisp, a little heavy, and very fresh. Beads of water still hung from the round blue-gray juniper berries overhead and the ground was dark and no longer dusty. Tina and Steve’s mom fed a crackling fire, and the boys sat in camp chairs, each struggling to get a stick into a marshmallow. Steve saw that Adam’s patient work would soon pay off, but Jacob teetered on the edge of frustration and tantrum, so he knelt down and guided his hands. Grinning triumph with the marshmallow brandished high, he promptly swatted his older brother in the head. Adam boiled up, but Tess, already alert, removed the stick and Jacob before he got shoved into the fire.
After marshmallows and a quick scrubbing of hands and faces, Tina bundled the boys off to their tent. Meanwhile, Mr. Harrison and Steve’s mom and dad stared into the fire and drank Cokes, looking glum. Steve’s dad gave him an ironic salute with his can. Mr. Harrison chuckled and fetched a couple more Cokes from the cooler and handed them to Tess and Steve. They all watched the fire in silence until Tina returned five minutes later with a can of her own, which was Miller Draft.
She sat wordlessly, slurped, and stared blinking into the fire like she’d just woken up.
“We’re having soft drinks tonight,” Mr. Harrison said. Back in the tent, the boys could be heard arguing.
“To hell with that,” she said. “Mama drinks beer.”
Steve’s mom got herself a beer shortly afterward without comment.
“You two were in that tent for a long time this evening,” Tina observed.
Steve’s dad snorted and scowled into the fire. Tina shot him an annoyed look that he didn’t notice. She continued, “How’s your adventure going?”
Tess said, “We raided the dungeon of an evil innkeeper, rescued a little girl from being eaten by a giant hag, and met some weird guy whose eyeballs pull back into his head.”
“Sounds like a full day’s work,” Mr. Harrison muttered. Steve’s dad chuckled.
“Would you not be such an ass,” Tina said, facing her husband in genuine annoyance. His face went instantly contrite.
“This is something you put together?” Steve’s mom asked him.
“Yeah,” Steve said.
“Sounds grim. You’ve got such a good imagination, Charles. I know I’ve said it before, but maybe you should take up writing.”
“It sounds to me like he has,” Tina said. Steve caught her steady gaze and smiled at her, feeling sheepish.
“You just don’t get it, Mrs. O’Reilly,” said Tess hotly. Steve’s mom narrowed her eyes, and Alex shook his head at Tess, his face reproachful. Tina became interested in her beer can. “It’s a different kind of art.”
“I’ve watched a little of this game,” Steve’s mom said. “The creativity is healthy and the improv builds communication skills, but it’s not art. And I’ll tell you why. The setting is dictated by the storyteller. And if characters have their viewpoint fed to them, they’re necessarily shallow. For instance,” she looked up past the rising smoke, “in a novel, the viewpoint character might feel oppressed by a starry sky because it’s so cold, because she’s having trouble with her marriage, and because that’s the kind of person she is, or if she’s feeling happy, she might think it’s wonderful, or she might not see the stars at all. If Charles tells you what your character thinks, he takes her out of your control. Whose story is it? Is it anyone’s story really, or are the characters just empty masks the players put on? I’m curious how you could explore a literary story this way.” Her tone, however, was anything but curious.
Steve was surprised to hear his mother make these observations. He’d assumed she’d never given the game any thought at all, and here she seemed to have analyzed it quite a bit.
Tess was thoughtful for a while. “For one thing,” she said at last, “I ask Steve questions about what my character sees; I choose what details to focus on, and that obviously affects what he tells me. A lot of this happens in your head. Also, when you get to know and trust the storyteller — it’s called a gamemaster, but whatever — you can sort of collaborate to both make the character.” Even under the firelight, Steve could see that her face had colored. Suddenly, he realized that it wasn’t the argument that had embarrassed her, but what she’d suggested about the depth of their relationship.
He said, “Mom, you make a good point. When there’s a group of guys playing, the action gets kind of generic. I can’t explore the issues of each character very well, but one on one, you can have a main character with a story that develops just for him — or her.”
“Hmm,” his mom said, “okay, but I still don’t know. This seems very limited to me, and the appalling violence in these games.…”
“There’s plenty of violence in literature,” said Tess. “Violence is conflict, and most of the violence is against monsters. Sometimes violence is symbolic.”
“I think it would be more instructive to discuss good books than indulge violent fantasies.”
“You can talk about books all day in class and not make any connection with people or use your brain in a really creative way,” said Tess.
Steve’s mom sniffed. “When you get into college, maybe you can make a judgment like that.”
“Actually, I’d be surprised if Tess wasn’t better read than most undergraduates,” said Mr. Harrison.
“Oh?” said Steve’s mom in an annoyed tone.
Mr. Harrison looked at Tess as he spoke. Tina stared into the fire, looking chagrinned. “In the past year or so she’s read Nabokov, Steinbeck, Jung, and Freud. She’s got basic Latin grammar, and already has a fair survey of the classics from her mother. If it weren’t for being moved around over the years, she’d be halfway through high school by now.” At first cool and reasonable, Mr. Harrison’s tone had begun to tick up with indignation.
Tina said, “I think we get the point, Alex.”
Steve’s mom had grown suddenly pensive. She said to Tess, “I forgot about your mother. She’s a professor too, isn’t she?”
Tess heaved a sigh that bordered on a huff. “She never got the chance,” she said.
“Forget it.” She got up. “Good night, everyone. Good night, Mrs. O’Reilly.”
“Good night, Tess.”
Tess left without saying good night to Steve. Tina caught his eye and nodded after her. Steve rose.
“Where are you going?” his dad asked.
“To pee,” he said.
He caught up to Tess just outside her tent. Some moonlight slanted through the trees, down the fall of her hair over one shoulder, but her face was shadowed. “I’m sorry my mom was rude.”
The cool voice that answered him was weary, calm, and womanly. “She’s insightful, but she’s also kind of smug. She doesn’t understand me, and she doesn’t understand our game. Of course, I don’t understand it all myself, but I think I understand it better than she does. I’m sorry if I got impatient. She’s your mom; I should be more polite.”
“I can’t help my parents, Tess. I wish I could, believe me.”
“I know.” She turned and unzipped her tent, and then came around and gave him a short hug. She gripped his arms and leaned her head in close. “It’s okay, Steve. I know. Have a good night.”
* * *
The bright sun next day made the rain a dubious memory. Steve got up late. The tarp was down, the ground dry and dusty again. He found Tina reading a book at the table, eyes cocked up now and then to watch the boys running through camp, but no one else was around. Distracted, she muttered that the men were fishing. “And,” she added with a hint of annoyance, “your mother has gone for a walk.” While Steve ate breakfast, his dad waddled up in his waders carrying two fat trout on a stick. “You should’ve gotten up,” he said. “There was a new hatch, and the fish were going crazy.”
Steve had initially woken up when his dad went out, but had dozed again until he heard his mom leave. He’d lain a while thinking about the previous night and also about the next chapter of the adventure. He didn’t feel like fishing anymore. Fishing was both his way of communing with a river, with its scenery and its hidden life, and of probing down into the deep layers of his own mind, and with Tess’s provocative nearness, the tension with his folks, and the drama of the adventure, he’d wallowed enough. Actually, he wanted now simply to get a little sun and exercise.
His dad stowed the trout in a cooler and went to the tent to change. A minute later, Tess came out of the trees blinking, her hair back in a ponytail, eyes puffy, and slightly red-rimmed, almost as if she’d been crying. Tina Harrison had hooked Jacob with one arm and now fought to get him out of a sweatshirt. He’d been running around camp after his older brother, and his cheeks were red and his bangs matted with sweat. “Sit still!” she said, then noticed Tess. “There are still some eggs and bacon. Help yourself.”
“Coffee?” Tess asked.
Tina sighed. “Okay. I think there’s some left in the pot next to the skillet. The mugs are washed on the table. Half-and-half’s in the cooler.” Tess got the food first and set it beside him, went back, got two mugs, dithered behind the stove where he couldn’t see, and then brought coffee out for both of them.
Tess flopped bleary-eyed next to him. With glum esprit, they raised mugs, clinked them together, and then dived into the eggs.
A minute into their meal, he said, “I’ve got an idea.”
“Let’s hike to the rimrock.”
Tess glanced up through her brows at the canyon, then raised her head when her eyes wouldn’t go high enough. “Way up there?”
“Sure, it’s not so steep. I did it before once when I was ten.”
“What about snakes?”
“They mostly stay near the river.”
“Tina?” Tess raised her voice. “Do you want me to watch the boys?”
“I’d love it, but maybe I’ll ask later. In a couple of hours, I’m taking them to shower at a truck stop.”
“Count me in on that!” Tess said, then to Steve, “Can we get back in two hours?”
“Sure, easy. It’s not as far as it looks.”
“I’ll ask Tina. You should ask your dad.”
“They might say no,” said Steve, though he didn’t think they would. He wanted to take the lead for a change. “Let’s just go.”
* * *
They negotiated a near vertical stretch of tumbled rock across the highway and struck a gentle slope. Scattered sage brush and juniper braced against the hill among dun boulders starred with lichen. Putting each foot before the other was no more difficult than climbing shallow stairs, but when Tess looked up, uncertainty showed in her face.
“I’m telling you, it’s not that bad,” Steve said. “Don’t look up.”
Going was hard exercise, and they both puffed without speaking. They each had on a T-shirt, and Steve’s, at least, began to get wet under the armpits. A rustle ahead startled Tess. Something rat-like with no tail broke from a mound of bunch grass and hopped downslope. Tess paused and turned. Sweat beaded on her forehead. “Wow, we’re really high.”
He followed her gaze. The campground with its stand of trees occupied only a portion of the view, and they could see far up the fat ribbon of the river in either direction. “It looks steeper now than when you’re climbing, doesn’t it?” he asked.
She nodded and looked upslope. “It’s now just as far and steep ahead as down below.”
Another ten minutes brought them to the rimrock’s straight palisade of bunched columns, which turned out to be only a dozen feet high. A sort of chimney in one place offered lots of handholds, and Tess went ahead. Steve followed close, ready to help steady her legs, but there was no need. The climb was easy. She spidered up and clambered onto a shelf of rock a second ahead of him. The flat on top was broken here and there by draws and populated with a few lonely sagebrush. When they’d caught their breath a moment, they both stood up and turned.
For miles through the canyon wound the river, down to green pastureland on the flats, near Prineville. A hawk circled overhead, and its cry bounced along the bluffs. Across the canyon, over the far rimrock, stretched a flat expanse of pebbly waste, and beyond that were the distant Cascade foothills, with Mt. Jefferson’s white head above a thin band of cloud.
“Cool,” Tess said, “we made it. And no snakes.” She sat and dangled her legs over the edge, and Steve joined her. “I’m kind of thirsty, though.”
“It’s quicker going back, and it only took us half an hour to get here.”
“Yeah, all right. You know, if you look out that way” — she indicated southwest toward the opposite mesas — “you can imagine it being anytime at all. There’s no telephone poles or houses or anything.”
“Remember right where you guys escaped the werewolves? This is kind of like it.”
“Oh, yeah, okay,” she said. “It’s real Old West-looking, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but I like to think of it even before that, when the Indians were the only ones here, back in the Middle Ages. Railroads and six-shooters and buffalo hunts and stuff just messes up the picture for me.”
“Alex says we’re going to Elk Lake tomorrow. Where’s that?”
Steve pointed out slightly farther south. “Out past Bend, back in the Cascades. That area has pine forests and lava flows and stuff, like the country where Megaera chased Vidal.”
“Is it deserty like this?”
“No, it’s more forest.”
A warm wind came up. A cicada trilled in a juniper just downslope.
“It’s funny, isn’t it, how our camp and the river are just an oasis? When you’re down there, it seems bigger. It’s like a different part of the country. It seemed like we were camping in a forest, but there are just a few trees by the water. You can even count them.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, “it’s all a matter of perspective. You don’t have to go very far, and you’re in a different world.”
* * *
When they got down to the road, Tina came up to meet them. “Where were you?” she said, obviously distraught.
“Just hiking,” said Tess. “Where are the boys?”
“With Alex. Wait,” she said as Steve began to walk past. “Your dad’s packing up the tent. Your folks have decided you should all go home.”
Steve’s heart began pounding in his ears, and he felt lightheaded and a little sick. “Already? Why?” When Tina didn’t answer, he thought for a moment. “Did you guys have an argument?” he asked.
“No,” she said in a sad tone.
Tess’s mouth hung open and her eyes were wide and imploring.
“I’m sorry, you two. I really am. You were welcome to stay with us, Steve. Maybe I shouldn’t be up here talking to you, but I’m a little upset.”
“But what happened?” Steve persisted.
“Nothing. Maybe it’s something your parents have been thinking about; maybe your mom’s just not into camping, but when your dad couldn’t find you, it finally set him off.” Tina watched him askance, then looked away up the road, distraught. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, seemingly to herself. “I don’t need this. I can’t manage everybody’s good time, damn it! It’s hard enough with two little kids.”
“It’s okay,” Tess said. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it was my idea to go hiking,” said Steve. “Tess even said we should tell everyone.”
Dithering, Tess said, “I’ll take the boys, Tina. I really messed up with the beer and everything.” Tess rounded on Steve: “Did you tell them about what happened down at the river?”
For a moment, Steve was genuinely confused. “What do you mean?”
Tina looked at each of them with sudden alarm. “What are you talking about, Tess?”
Tess looked down, her face reddening. “Nothing. Forget it.”
“Steve?” Tina asked.
“Nothing happened, Mrs. Harrison. And, God no, Tess, I wouldn’t tell them.”
“I’m confused,” Tina said, her voice stern.
“No, Tina, he’s right. We just made out a bit.” Tess’s confidence held Steve’s embarrassment in check. “But you know, the way Steve’s dad has been, I figured if he knew….”
“Just kissing?” Tina said. Tess rolled her eyes and nodded. “Well, what’s wrong with that? No, I get your point.”
“He doesn’t trust me, Tina.” Her tone was surprisingly hurt, and Steve wondered why it would mean so much.
Tina hugged her, and Tess began to sniff a little, but then got herself under control.
“I guess we’d better go down,” Tina said.
* * *
Steve had no luck trying to change his parents’ minds. His dad packed the camp gear with forced good humor, while his mother helped with grim efficiency. Alex Harrison stood by, drinking beer and watching, eyes blank. Tess paced inside the trees, while Tina led the boys off to the tent.
For the second time, Steve asked, “Why?”
His dad shoved a sleeping foam into the Jeep and then arranged a tackle box on top of the cooler. Without facing him, he said, “We’ve had a good visit. Your mother and I talked it over, and we decided it was best not to miss more work, and you need to get back to berry picking.”
“You said I could stay an extra week.”
“We hadn’t thought it through. It’s important you do some work this summer.”
“That’s not it. You’re upset about something.”
His dad rounded on him and said in a low, irritated voice, “Look, we’ll talk about it in the car. I’m not upset about anything. I just realized that your mother doesn’t have a lot to do; we’ve gotten in some good fishing and visiting; and I’m not forcing you on the Harrisons. This is their vacation, not yours. Tess needs to watch the boys, which she can’t do properly with you around.”
“I could help,” Steve protested.
Mr. Harrison stepped forward. “Honestly, Dean, we’re fine having him along. I can help with my own sons.”
Steve’s dad’s mouth tightened in annoyance. “Alex, we really think it’s best that Charles come home. He and Tess can meet when you get back.”
Mr. Harrison’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils widened. The signs of his growing rage were subtle, but impressive. Steve had never seen him so severe, not even when taking apart Eric Noble’s bullshit. He thought hopefully for a minute that he would challenge his dad, but he just said, “All right, Dean. We’ll look forward to having him over when we get back.”
“Good,” Steve’s dad said absently, shutting the rear door of the Jeep. He turned and seemed to catch the pitch of Mr. Harrison’s mood. An awkward beat of silence passed. He looked away, his face drawing together in sudden doubt. “Tess is welcome at our place anytime, Alex.”
Alex Harrison’s expression softened. His eyes, which had blazed a moment before, went heavy. “Have a good trip back,” he said.
Steve’s dad went and shook his hand. “Thanks for sharing your space. I really enjoyed it. You’re a good friend. Let’s run the mouth of the Columbia next month for Chinook. It’ll be on me.”
Mr. Harrison nodded.
Steve’s mom hurried by with a last roll of paper towel, stowed it in the front of the Jeep, and came back, fumbling with her sunglasses. She got them on, and shook Alex’s hand. “I’d better say goodbye to your wife.” Steve noticed the formality. He watched her march into the trees and saw Tess veer off at her approach. Suddenly he remembered his gaming equipment.
“I need to get the stuff out of Tess’s tent,” he said.
He dashed into camp and saw Tina emerge from her tent, arms crossed. His mom came up short. As he passed, he caught a snatch of their conversation. “I won’t pretend I understand this, Gale. The kids are upset.”
“Tess and Steve. If you’ve got a problem with me, I’d be grateful if you not be passive-aggressive.”
“Look, I’m not, and I don’t appreciate the accusation. You’ve got your hands full, and Steve’s a distraction. We…”
Steve didn’t stop to hear the rest. The gist was clear. Whereas his dad seemed to genuinely like Alex, the two moms couldn’t stand each other. He knew his mom’s style. She’d subdue Tina with reasonableness and a touch of condescension.
He found Tess down the bank where they’d hunted frogs the other night. Her arms were crossed, and she looked miserable.
“I just wanted to say goodbye. My dad told Alex you’re welcome at our place when you get back.”
“Aren’t you upset?” she asked.
“Did we blow it, Steve? Is it my fault?”
“Why do you care what my folks think? You’re my good friend, Tess. I think you’re great. Alex and Tina think you’re great. And you know why?”
“Because they’re great and they would know. My parents don’t know shit.”
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“What does ‘limax’ mean?”
Steve heaved a sigh. This was not what he wanted to leave her with. “It means ‘slug.’ ”
“Slug?” She looked down and chewed her lip. “Eww, so that…”
“It’s something I made up, a thing called an oblimid. I’ll explain it all later. I need to get my stuff out of your tent.”
“Hey, I’m sorry about the other night. That wasn’t how I wanted it. Here…” She put her hands on his shoulders and leaned in to give him a full, tender kiss. He closed his eyes, and the sun through his lids struck the world a hot, orange-red. When she pulled away, she had to brush hair out of her face. The gesture was sweet. He felt tears well up. Warm wind had started to blow, and the cicadas revved again, enthusiastic. “And I don’t care if you tell Rei, but… just don’t brag about it, okay?”
He shook his head, then leaned in and kissed her cheek, turned, and left.
He felt so euphoric as he retrieved his bag from her tent, his thoughts racing nowhere so fast that he had to check his hands twice to make sure he’d gotten all of his stuff. He passed his mom and with a distant surprise saw her hug Tina. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll give you a call. Maybe you’re right; maybe we’re making a mistake, but it’s not you, you know that.” His mom turned away but went back at a thought: “You’ve got lovely boys, Tina. Enjoy your trip.”
* * *
They’d been on the road a full hour without talking, and were fifteen minutes out of Warm Springs, climbing the rangeland stalked by small, lonely pines. Up ahead the green foothills brooded. In half an hour they’d be crossing back over the mountains.
Steve’s mom watched the landscape with a regretful expression; his dad kept his eyes on the road in silence until the first stands of trees passed. “So what were you two doing in that tent?”
His tone was even, but it still sounded like an accusation. “What do you mean? We played the game, that’s all.”
“You know I said we’d talk. Here’s where your mother and I are coming from. Everything I said was true. Even before the beer incident, I realized we didn’t think things through. It’s not fair to put so much pressure on Tina when she’s got the boys to look after. More than that, though, I realized the arrangement wasn’t good for you and Tess. I know you care about her, but you don’t know what to do with those feelings; they’re too volatile, and with you two alone for another week, something might happen.”
“Uh—” Steve began to protest, but his dad raised his hand.
“When she gets bored in another couple days, who knows how she’ll act out? I know you’ll be angry at me about this and maybe for good reason, and maybe time will bear that out, and if so, I’m sorry. Here’s how it is: I talked myself into this trip out of selfishness, because I wanted to go. When I woke up this morning, I knew it was time to leave.”
“I don’t know, Dean,” his mother said. “Maybe we’ve just amped-up the drama here. Tess and Steve both feel punished, don’t you?” His mother leaned over and caught his eye in the rearview mirror.
Steve shrugged. He didn’t want to help with their demeaning analysis.
“Well,” his dad said, “I’m sorry about that, I really am. You two can see each other at home. Being alone in a tent hours a day for two weeks is just too much. Even if you are just playing a game, it’s an uncomfortable situation for Alex.”
“You just don’t like her,” Steve said.
“She’s a little too proud of herself, but no, it’s not that I don’t like her. I think she could mature into a very interesting person.”
“You don’t trust her.”
“No, Steve, I don’t. I’m sorry. And as much as I trust you, if I were you, around her at your age, I wouldn’t trust myself.”