Not until the ride back to the valley did it really hit Steve that with her mom gone, Tess would be leaving soon for Ashland. There would be no one-on-one campaign.
After a solemn hour, Steve’s mom said, “Maybe Rei would like to spend the rest of the afternoon at our house?”
“Sure,” said Rei, and to Steve, “We could figure out what to do with Arslan’s stuff.”
“It’s all yours,” said Steve.
* * *
Tess called the next day. She had been having a really hard time, but didn’t want to lie around anymore.
Steve said, “I told Rei about your wanting to take Megaera out of the campaign, and he’s pretty bummed.”
“You know, in a month I’m going to Ashland,” she said, ignoring him.
“Yeah, I guessed.”
“We’re not really going to have time for something new.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that.”
“If it’s all right, I want to play this to the end, you and me and Rei. We can get together every evening. I don’t care if it’s at your place. Your dad won’t kick me out, will he?”
“He won’t.” Steve didn’t add his bitter thought that his dad would be generous now that her mom was dead and she’d be leaving.
* * *
Mr. Harrison brought Tess over each night for two full weeks. A couple of times, Steve’s dad met her with warm formality. In return, she was reserved, not really rude, just disengaged. Once, his dad fixed Steve with a look over her shoulder that said, “I’m being patient here.”
The adventure became an earnest chore. Tess had been right. The party no longer had a pivotal role. This was bad design on his part. He’d put too many extra heroes in the adventure who could take over. Still, they had nothing better to do, and Tess worked so hard to stay in character that Rei, at least, seemed satisfied.
In the rooms adjoining the chamber where Arslan had died, the party found several small kegs of wine branded with a Ouroboros symbol of a snake eating its own tail; only, this snake had little forearms — a dead giveaway. They gathered them up and headed back, to encounter four hags crawling up the ziggurat toward them. Dirk suffered grave wounds before dispatching a hag with Arslan’s scimitar. Zadrian and Megaera each took on separate ones, and the last would have finished Dirk for sure had not a fifth hag bearing the giant’s two-handed greatsword climbed up and slashed down her own sister.
Rei, and presumably Dirk, was confused. “What an awful body,” said the hag. “Lucky that it has transformation magic.” And with that, she changed into a woman in a jade-green dress, beautiful except for the squidlike, barbell-pupiled eyes that restlessly bulged and retracted in their sockets.
“Ah,” said Rei. “It’s Limax. Good!”
“Took you long enough,” said Tess.
When they rejoined the others in the dungeon, Stefan received the Scepter of Intimidation and took command. They broached the kegs of enchanted wine and left them outside the smithy, and when the ophidiag emerged and drank them, it fell into a drugged sleep. After that, after a well deserved rest, they began to explore the fortress.
The party had grown to such unwieldy size, with werewolves, Karl, Stefan, the baron, and Jonril, that Stefan split them up. Jonril joined Megaera, Dirk, Zadrian, and Limax. They fought their way up through kitchens and feast halls, and killed hordes of giants, orcs and ogres, and wolves kept like guard dogs. Over the course of a week, they negotiated a minotaur maze where they found The Gorget of Guilt, defeated a gauntlet of traps, and reached the fortress’s outside courtyard.
* * *
At the same time that Tess renewed her commitment to the game, she grew distant outside it. She hardly said anything when she wasn’t in character. Steve labored all the more at his gamemaster role.
Curt’s abrupt departure from the group weighed on him. Rei still kept in touch with Curt, and several times during the game, Steve asked him how Curt was doing, but Rei was noncommittal.
“So he’s still pissed, huh?”
“Nah, I’ll let you know when he wants to talk.” Then he added, “Don’t worry about it. I think he’s just into other stuff right now. I’ll have him call you.”
* * *
In the penultimate session, the characters emerged onto the castle grounds and approached Raglar’s royal pavilion next to the fighting pits, the smell of blood and excrement on the air, and the sounds of howling wolves and dying men mingling with the cheers of giants. Just as they prepared to attack, Rei’s mom arrived.
“I can’t play for a few days,” Rei said. It was now a Sunday, fourteen days after the funeral. “Dad says I’m behind on my chores.”
Tess shrugged, looking irritated.
When Rei left, she said, “We’re almost done, right?”
“Yeah, one more session. I could draw it out, if we want.”
“Nah, but thanks. I appreciate how hard you’ve worked. I know it isn’t fun for you anymore. It’s not that fun for me, either, even though you’re doing a great job. But I’ve just needed this. Before Mom died, I wanted to start something new, but afterward, I just wanted things to stay the same as much as possible. I’ve even felt a little bummed that Curt’s gone.”
“You’ve been so quiet,” Steve said. “I thought maybe it was because you were sick of me.”
“You’re a real idiot sometimes,” she said, without heat. “I love you, Steve O’Reilly.” But she held herself tight, and he resisted the urge to touch her.
* * *
The next day, Steve took all the cash he’d earned that summer, a hundred and fifty-two dollars, stuffed it into his jeans, and rode his bike into the city. He’d gone through the telephone book for a jewelry maker and found a promising entry: “Dragonlight Metals and Lapidary,” on the west end of Park street.
The shop huddled in an ancient brick building shadowed by chestnuts whose roots pushed up the surrounding concrete and asphalt. The door was narrow, and the shop itself consisted of a single aisle with a glass case to one side, and a cash register at the end.
A middle-aged guy bent over a device that looked like a small potter’s wheel. He had disheveled curly hair; thick, wide-rimmed glasses; and a lean face behind a huge nose. A metal arm extended over the wheel, out of a metal protractor and gear assembly. He adjusted the protractor and turned a knob just above it, lowering the arm to the plate. He flipped a switch. The plate whirred for a few seconds and made a faint rasp. He stopped the wheel, fiddled with the end of the arm, and repeated the operation.
Steve let his attention drift to the near end of the case. Within, various rings, necklaces, pocket knives, glass prisms, pewter statues of dragons and wizards, and metal smoking pipes were arrayed on a long runner of black velvet. A couple of ankh earrings and an ankh necklace caught his eye, but none of it was quite what he wanted. He strolled down the case and then waited to be acknowledged. The man had detached the metal arm from the machine and was tugging something free with a gloved hand. “Yes?”
“Do you have any female-symbol pendants?”
“No, but I suppose I could make one.”
“Could you have it so it hangs upside down?” Steve drew a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it on the counter. He’d traced the symbol from a dictionary, and put a tiny loop in the end of the descending bar.
“Is this a Satanic thing?”
Steve decided he’d come into the wrong shop. He crumpled the paper and stuffed it back in his pocket. “No,” he said. “It’s just made-up.”
“Huh. Well, I can do it in silver for fifty dollars.”
“What about the necklace?”
“An eighteen-inch silver chain is thirty dollars; twenty-four-inch is forty, or fifty for thirty-inch.”
“How much to put a gemstone where the bar crosses over?”
“Depends on the stone.”
“Depends on the diamond. What about a ruby?” The man extended his gloved hand and shook the stone he held onto the palm. The ruby was blood-colored, meticulously faceted but with some purple gunk stuck to it. “I just finished. That stuff on it’s wax. It’ll come off. Go ahead and pick it up. Just don’t drop it.” Steve held the stone toward the front window; the shop was dim, but a flare of sunlight reflected in from a car in the street. “See how there’s not a fleck in it? Almost pigeon’s blood, too. It’s got a hint of silk on one side, but when it’s set, you won’t see it. That’s over half a carat. Nice, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” said Steve, and handed it back carefully. “How much is it?”
“I wanted to sell that one for two hundred.”
“I don’t have that much.”
The man frowned and tapped a gloved knuckle against his other hand’s bare palm. “Is this for you?”
“No, for a girl in my gaming group. The symbol represents her character.”
“Are you talking about Castles & Catacombs?”
Steve nodded, and the man smiled. “Man, my kids love that game. How about I give you the ruby and do the metalwork for a hundred and seventy.”
“That’s really cool of you,” Steve said, “but I wanted a long chain, too, and all I’ve got is a hundred and fifty.” He pulled out the fat roll of bills as evidence.
“This girl must be something special.”
“She’s the best.”
“Your money looks like it’s been in the dirt.”
“I’ve been picking berries all summer.”
“A thirty-inch silver chain?” Steve nodded. “Okay, buddy. Sold.”
* * *
Four days later, Steve picked up the pendant and necklace. The jeweler had thrown in a hinged velvet box, and when Steve opened it, he felt his heart pound. The symbol was about two inches square, thick and flat, pierced by a grommet with tiny flanges that held down the stone and let light behind it. The metal was polished to a high gloss. The jeweler smiled as Steve pulled it out and admired it on the end of its thick silver rope. “Good?”
“It’s perfect,” he said.
“Knock her dead, kid.”
* * *
Later that afternoon Steve answered the phone, and the caller said, “So I want to get some things straight.” He didn’t know who was talking for a moment. “You guys have been wondering behind my back whether I’m gay, and thought I was jealous of Tess, but I’m not, all right — I mean gay, or jealous. And, yeah, Tess kind of bugs me but it’s not about her.”
Steve was taken off guard. He could hear Curt breathing. “Man, I’m really sorry,” he said at last. “You probably wondered the same thing about me, or maybe Rei. You know we both like you.”
“It’s just shitty, is all.”
“Honestly, we kind of wondered about it once or twice, but not like we really cared.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Yeah, all right. I believe you. We never cared, honestly.” Steve was confused. “So this is why you left the game like you did?”
“No, he told me afterward.”
“It was nothing, Curt. It came up like once; I don’t even remember how.”
Curt was silent a long time. Steve thought hard about how he’d treated him. Had he made him feel uncomfortable. Had Tess? He’d been so focused on how Rei interacted with Tess, fearing a rival, that he hadn’t watched Curt. Had he been attracted to her and felt ignored or put down? Tess could be harsh. “So why did you leave if this isn’t about Tess?”
“I know you guys thing she’s hot, but she really doesn’t do anything for me. And her attitude isn’t very feminine.”
Steve had to clench his teeth to keep from saying, “You sure you’re not gay?” Instead, he asked, “So what is it, then?”
“I just realize I don’t belong with you guys as much as I thought. Tess just made me realize that sooner. I haven’t told Rei yet, but I think I should just step back from roleplaying and do something else.”
“I’m really sorry,” Steve said. He worked hard to create a world in which his players could really be themselves in a way that was impossible in real life. “I feel like I let you down.”
“No, we had a really fun time, mostly.”
“I guess I hoped it would be more than just a fun time,” Steve said. “I hoped you and me and Rei, and maybe Tess too, could be really good friends. Us against the world, in my adventure. Maybe that was dumb.”
“No, it wasn’t dumb. You’re not dumb at all, but you don’t understand everything.”
“When Arslan and Dirk solved puzzles, that was cool. You did a good job setting that up. I’d like to solve some real-world puzzles.”
“Huh, that’s cool,” Steve said. “I just want to tell stories.”
“I hope you can do that.”
They talked a while longer, the conversation meandering to books and movies, but Curt didn’t really seem engaged. He’d apparently thought things through and had really called just to say goodbye. “You’re a good guy, Steve,” he said finally. “I’ll see you around.”
* * *
Steve, Tess, and Rei finished the adventure Friday night, engaging Raglar and his bodyguards in a long, drawn-out melee of giants, warriors, werewolves, and one very bad-ass werebear, equipped with a flaming sword and magical scale armor taken from an ogre chieftain. Karl killed three giants single-handedly before being flattened by a spiked club. (A minor inconvenience. Werebears are tough to kill.)
After donning the Crown of Worry, Raglar cowed every challenger, but at last, with a lucky roll that would have made Curt proud, Dirk launched a grapnel and pulled off the crown. His mana dispelled, the giant king turned to run, but the defenders hamstrung and butchered him on the very edge of the arena wall, to wild applause from the gladiators massed below. Stefan laid down his scythe and picked up the giant’s crown. “The lands are free. Our work here is done.”
“So that’s it,” said Tess.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“No it’s not,” said Rei. “We need to add up all the treasure and see if Dirk hits the next rank.”
“You go ahead,” said Tess. “I’m going to sit in a corner and read maybe.” Her eyes, grief-haunted all evening, had become especially hopeless.
“Rei, would you mind if Tess and I went for a walk? Here—you can look through my notes and figure out all the treasure and the advancement points for the monsters.”
Rei accepted the binder greedily. “Sure, yeah. I’ll just have a couple Cokes while I wait.”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Tess put on her jacket and Steve got his windbreaker. It was not yet full dark out. They walked south on the street, past older teenage boys playing basketball in a driveway court, along banks of tams and hedges of arbor vitae. The street sloped down, affording a view of the Willamette above Portland, its dark course described by lights like the Nightwater plankton, or bivouac fires of a valley-spanning army.
“How are you doing?” he said.
“Mmm okay, I guess. We’re almost all packed now. We might even leave this week. Tina’s going nuts. She’s been really great and patient, but I can tell she’s starting to get tired of me moping around.”
“You’ve got a good excuse.” She didn’t answer. “Tess?”
“Do you think I can come and visit you later this year?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Will you write me? I’ll write you every week. I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, Steve. I can’t believe we just met a few months ago. I feel like I know you better than almost anyone alive.” The last word hung significantly a moment.
“I feel that way too. Here.” He fumbled the jewelry box out of his pocket and held it out to her as she walked lost in thought beside him. When she noticed, she flinched with an expression between surprise and alarm. She recovered with a wry smile, but stayed wary as she took the box. “I hope you’re not proposing marriage or anything.” She peeled back the lid, frowning for a moment, and then her eyes went wide. “My God, what is that? A ruby?” She drew the pendant out slowly until the chain cleared the box.
“This must have cost over a hundred dollars.” She gave him a suspicious, half-reproachful look and he shrugged. Heat rose to his cheeks, but she was obviously impressed. She put it on, and it hung just at mid chest. She tucked her chin in to study it, and then threw her head back in a dramatic pose, and said, “How does it look?”
On serious appraisal, it seemed showy and weird. He said, “The metal and the ruby look nice, but the symbol kind of overpowers it all. I never thought of that.” His heart began to tick up a bit with anxiety and doubt.
“Do you think it looks geeky?” It was an honest question, which was better than her patronizing him and then just putting it away in a drawer.
Then his insecurity dissipated and he could see things clearly. The symbol was odd if you studied it, but the overall effect was good. “No,” he said, now confident and relieved, “it doesn’t look geeky, it looks—ironic?”
“How?” Her expression was open.
“Well, it’s kinda like a cross, only it’s not, so it’ll confuse religious people, and it’s a female symbol, only upside-down, so it’ll confuse the equal-rights women.”
Tess’s mouth spread in a broad grin and her eyes lit up. “It’s perfect then! Thanks so much, Steve.” She gave him a big hug and then plucked the pendant out from her chest and turned it in her fingers, admiring it. “Is it real silver?”
“Yeah, all silver. Werewolf-proof.”
“I love it. I really, really do.”
* * *
Late Monday morning while Steve was picking raspberries, Tess left town. He got home to find a letter in the front door.
We’re leaving for Ashland now. Alex thought it might be another week, but all the people who are helping us are ready this weekend, and the buyers for our house called last night and really needed to start moving in today. I feel terrible I can’t say goodbye, but I’ll write to you. You’re one of my very best friends and the most creative guy I’ve ever met.
Write often and be good to yourself. Goodbye for now.
P.S. Tina was completely knocked out by your gift to me. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I still think it’s perfect. You’re the best.
Steve read the letter over and over again. He went downstairs with it and sat on his bed and smiled at every affectionate word. The day outside was bright. Hummingbirds flitted by the windows. The burr of their passage and the hum of the refrigerator condenser across the room were the only sounds. A cloud dimmed the sun, and then passed, but somehow the light didn’t seem as bright as before.
Slowly the realization that Tess was gone stole over him. He felt numb and abruptly tired. He lay down, and stared at the ceiling until his eyes watered from the strain.