Steve wrote to Tess every other day, and on days he didn’t write, he thought about what he’d say. Tess matched him one letter for every two or three. The emotion was restrained on both sides. They wrote about music, and books, and daily life, and about Steve’s game world. “I really think you should talk to Aaron and try to get your ideas published. Do you think you could send me a general description of the geography and history? I might want to draw some more pictures.” Steve set to work consolidating various notes into a long, coherent summary. He apologized for the hand-drawn maps he included, and lied that he’d scratched them out quickly. In all, he sent her two-dozen pages, and she quickly sent him a reply praising his ideas.
Steve lifted weights religiously. Following the chart in his dad’s book, he forced fifty grams of protein down every day: milk, eggs, tuna fish, and even soy powder that he bought with the money he made on raspberries.
From day to day, the mirror didn’t reveal any transformation, so he judged his progress by small but appreciable strength gains and the ubiquitous soreness in every muscle.
The week before he started at Merriweather, Steve joined Aaron’s new campaign at the Game Den. In a world much like Middle-earth, their party followed rumors of monsters to tunnels beneath an ancient graveyard. They had several battles, disarmed a pit trap, and eventually rescued farmers who’d been missing from a nearby hamlet. Just before they ended for the evening, Steve’s character, a half-elf fighter, investigated a hollow bracelet taken from an orc and found a note hidden inside with a plea for help. A nearby castle had been taken over by monsters, and the inhabitants were secretly held prisoner. They resolved next time to go on a rescue mission.
As they were packing up, Mary said to him, “I got a letter from your girl the other day. She really misses you, but I guess you know that. She said you guys had been writing each other.”
“She didn’t say she missed me.”
“Huh, well, she does. She said that she thinks about you a lot.”
“What was up with you two anyway? Never mind. She’s just lost her mom and got moved again — she’s a little messed up.”
Aaron took down his cardboard gamemaster’s screen and thrust it into his backpack. “Actually,” he said, looking thoughtful, “she wrote me too with sketches she’s done, from your game. Very cool stuff, of vampires and werewolves, and this one picture that’s just wild, something called an oblimid.”
Steve’s hands began to clench; it took him a second to realize he was doing it. He wondered whether Rei felt the same excitement all the time. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s all in there.”
“That’s what she said. She’s going to send me more illustrations next week. I told her what I was working on, and she didn’t seem too thrilled about it. She kinda pissed me off, actually. She thinks I should table my projects and publish your stuff first, and said she’d do the drawings.”
Steve didn’t know what to say to this. Aaron’s face had gone pink, and he seemed to be struggling with both anger and hurt feelings. Steve realized that he had been gaping and shut his mouth. Aaron continued: “I admit I was mad at first. I’m pretty good at this stuff, and it’s my company. I didn’t go through all the trouble of putting it together to promote someone else.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure your stuff’s better than mine.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” Aaron said, and let the statement hang in the air for a moment. “Also, I couldn’t find a better artist for twice the money, so maybe it’s fate. If you’re still interested, bring me all your notes next weekend and we’ll go over them.”
* * *
Steve had his orientation at Merriweather a few days later and wrote Tess about it.
I’m in school, starting this morning. Merriweather is even ritzier than I’d predicted, but not in a showy way. The campus is like college; it’s coed with the girls’ dorms on one side and boys on the other. Have you ever been to Lewis and Clark? It’s like that, with lots of low, modern buildings tucked away on different levels in grassy hills, with Japanese maples and fountains and a couple of tile courts. My dorm building is two stories with an open interior. I’m on the upper level, and the balcony hall looks down on the central lounge. My roommate seems all right. His name’s Tighe, pronounced “Tie.” He’s a tough, stocky kid from California who’s into Heavy Metal and comic books. I think we’ll get along.
Anyway, I got down to the Game Den, and Aaron let me join his group’s campaign. Rei’s been busy on weekends, so it’s just me and the college kids. Mary told me you wrote her, and Aaron’s going over my work next week. I can’t wait to see the pictures you drew. I kinda wonder why you didn’t send me photocopies or something, but maybe you figured you’d see what he’d say first.
Mary said you miss me. Maybe I shouldn’t bring it up. You know I miss you. Okay, you’re going to think it’s dumb, but I thought it was appropriate you chose Megaera to be an elf. You know why? Because the first time I saw you, I thought you looked like some ethereal fairy creature. (Is that painfully geeky? Sure, but I don’t care. Well, maybe I do, but I’m not doing this letter over.) You seemed out of place, and I felt the same way, and wow I feel so lucky to have become your friend.
I was really angry with my parents about this boarding-school thing, but now, you know, I think it’s going to be way cool. I only wish you were here too — then it would be the BEST.
Your friend, Steve
* * *
Tess’s reply came the following week. (In the meantime, Aaron reviewed his campaign notes and ruefully agreed that they would make a more marketable book than the one he’d started.)
* * *
Ashland is HOT, I mean temperature-wise, though the town’s pretty neat, too. Alex took me and Tina to some plays — Twelfth Night was cool, The Crucible wasn’t so great — and we walked through Lithia Park and the SOC campus. The town is a big tourist trap, but even so, it’s got some genuine Bohemian charm. The hippie culture is going away, mostly. It’s getting commercial here, but it’s still beautiful. You’d dig it. Come down sometime!
Our place is across from a vineyard. Most of the houses are nicer than ours, but at least we get sun out here on the side of the hill, not like that cave we lived in back at Portland. The yard is full of lizards. Adam and I scrounged half a dozen blue-bellied swifts and an alligator lizard for his new terrarium. (I had to look up what they’re called in his reptile book.) One of the swifts bit him, but he was brave and didn’t cry, even though it bled quite a bit.
Your “ethereal fairy” comment made me laugh. Ethereal? I’m not even subtle, you silly gamemaster dude! I want us to be friends for the rest of our lives, you know that, I hope. School here is better than Pioneer, but then anyplace would be. I’m actually making friends already.
P.S. I’ll be really psyched if Aaron does a book of your adventures and I get to draw the pictures! Oh, and the girls here think your necklace is rad. They might form a Steve O’Reilly fan club.
* * *
Merriweather prep turned out to be an even better experience than Steve had hoped. His roommate Tighe had been weightlifting himself, and they trained together every day. The teachers treated the students with respect and all seemed to have done something remarkable. Many were Ivy League graduates, and had published books or scholarly articles. Steve’s Spanish instructor had fled Pinochet’s regime in Chile and was a novelist and political activist. His math teacher had a degree in computer science and showed them how to apply trigonometry to three-dimensional graphics animations. What set these teachers apart was their infectious excitement and their curiosity about students’ interests. They all seemed as willing to learn from the students too, and that made Steve feel, for the first time, like he actually belonged.
Every weekend, Steve not only played in Aaron’s campaign but also walked to Aaron’s dorm at Portland State from the Game Den to go over their book. Aaron rewrote nearly everything in a more polished style and added and changed stuff as he saw fit. At first, Steve felt a little defensive about this, but after seeing how adding or removing a sentence or even just a word made the writing so much better, he came to trust Aaron’s decisions. Tess sent new illustrations in the mail every week, each more spectacular than the last. Her style, professional at the outset, improved rapidly. Within a few months, she sent in new versions of her earlier work, and it got to where Aaron asked her to stop revising and to move on.
* * *
In the first week of October, the school held a dance. Steve wanted to skip it, but Tighe badgered him until it came clear that he needed Steve for emotional support.
“The chicks have to see your new guns, man,” Tighe said. By this time, Steve had put on ten pounds of muscle, which brought him to about a hundred and fifteen pounds. The previous weekend, his mom had noticed the change and commented over breakfast. (His dad studied him briefly and made a dubious grunt.)
“I’m not interested in the girls here,” Steve said.
“Are you crazy? That chick Piper is hot and she seems to like you.” Piper Wilson was a tall leggy girl with bad skin but a pleasant face. Tighe was obviously in love with her and had been jealous ever since she’d thanked Steve for picking up a textbook she’d dropped.
“You’re right,” said Steve. “She’s pretty nice. You should ask her to dance.” Tighe looked stricken. “All right. I’ll come and hold your hand, you wuss.”
* * *
Steve arranged to stay over in the dorms that Friday night and have his folks pick him up Saturday morning. The dance was held in the school gym after the football game. The school’s desultory football program had an abysmal record. Most people skipped the game. Steve wandered in late wearing a white dress shirt and black pants. The music thumping from the speakers seemed to thrust numbing plugs in Steve’s ears. When his eyes acclimated to the mirror-ball gloom, he found the freshmen in separate herds of girls and boys near the exit, with the older kids either dancing up front or gathered in smaller clusters across the floor. He took a minute to gauge the social layout, and saw that Piper and Tighe had each gravitated opposite each other to the edge of their cliques, their backs half turned. Steve shook his head. Their fake nonchalance was almost painful.
Steve trudged up to Piper, drawing bemused looks from a group of older girls. When she noticed him, she fidgeted, glanced away, and gave him an uneasy smile.
“Hey!” he shouted, just to be audible.
“Hi. Steve, right?” He nodded.
“My roommate likes you. If I have him ask, will you dance with him?”
Piper shrugged, but when Steve didn’t leave, she nodded, vigorously.
He crossed the floor to Tighe, who shouted, “Hey, ass! Where have you been?”
“Shut up,” Steve said evenly. “Piper wants you to ask her to dance.”
“Yeah, go ask her . . . ass.”
A couple of other freshman guys waved half-heartedly to Steve, looking nervous. It amused Steve that people generally seemed to think he was cool. He didn’t feel cool; he just didn’t care enough to be self-conscious. All he wanted was Tess. He turned and watched the dancers, wondering what she might be up to that evening. He wanted to call her, but he didn’t have her phone number. Why in the hell hadn’t she given him her number?
Why hadn’t he asked?
Someone tapped his shoulder and turned to see a tall blond girl looking down at him with her head cocked to one side, grooving to the backbeat of the song that had just come up, “One Way or Another” by Blondie. She had a woman’s face, lean, strong-jawed, and pretty, and a woman’s somewhat overweight body, with heavy hips. “Wanna dance?” she said.
Steve felt a sudden panic, but then reminded himself he didn’t care. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose. He laughed. “I can’t dance!”
“Sure you can,” she said. “Just do this.” She moved her shoulders and hips in snaky counterpoint and pistoned her arms, snapping the fingers of her right hand at every other beat. She pinched his shirt and tugged. Steve decided that it couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t serious, after all. And he let her drag him onto the floor. He began to roll with the music and followed her lead, a little clumsily, and she smiled and nodded encouragement, then leaned in and yelled in his ear, “That’s it! Good!”
Steve tried to feel the music and not get self-conscious. He concentrated so hard that he forgot to look up, and when he finally did, he saw her working her heavy figure with abandon, hands overhead, whipping the air with her hips. His face flushed, and an intoxicating desire lit him from head to bowels. He’d never had such raw sexual heat pointed anywhere near him, and he felt like he’d suddenly stepped out of a boy’s body and into a man’s.
The song came to an end and she bounced forward. “My name’s Jane! What’s yours?”
“Thanks for the dance, Steve!” And she led him off the floor. When they’d reached a quiet-enough area, she said, “I saw you hook that guy up. Is he your friend?” Steve nodded. “That was so cool the way you did that! I’ve gotta go, but I’ll see you around.”
Steve waited for half an hour with no other clear dance opportunities before wandering alone to the dorm.
The following Tuesday, he saw Jane in the cafeteria. She was sitting with a short, dark Hispanic girl, and since Tighe had gone off to sit with Piper, he approached their table on impulse. The girls didn’t notice him until he’d been awkwardly standing there a long time. “Mind if I join you?” They both wore surprised looks.
“Hey,” Jane said as he took a seat, “I know you, from the dance, right?”
He nodded and extended his hand to her friend. “I’m Steve.”
The girl smiled but her brows remained creased. “Lety.”
“Mucho gusto,” Steve said.
Lety laughed and said, “I speak English.”
“Obviously,” he said. Steve repeated his new mantra: Nothing to gain, nothing to lose. “So where are you from?”
“El Salvador,” Lety said, her stern look softening. “So what are you, a freshman?”
Steve nodded. “Yeah, but an unusually mature one. How about you guys?”
“Juniors,” said Lety.
Jane laughed. “He’s smooth, Lety. Did you catch the way he introduced himself to you, in case I’d forgotten his name? I didn’t forget, Steve.”
Lety shifted in her seat. Her brows came back together. “Is there something we can help you with?”
“Lety!” Jane said.
Steve removed the bun from his hamburger and put condiments on the meat. “Nah, I just saw you here and remembered Jane from the dance and how’d she’d been so nice to me. Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a girlfriend.” He replaced the top of his burger and then lowered his head and stared at Lety until she blushed. “I already have one.”
“What’s she like?” Jane asked.
Steve gave it some thought, picked up his hamburger, took a bite. When he’d swallowed, he mused, “She’s like winter storm clouds over snow.” The girls put their heads down and looked askance at each other, but he tried to ignore them. “She’s pale and dark-haired. She’s an artist, and she’s illustrating a book I’m working on.”
“Are you sure you’re a freshman?” Lety said.
Steve ignored her. “She’s into punk, and she can be kinda fierce and sarcastic, but really nice. Do you like punk music?” he asked Jane.
“No, not really. I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t listened to much of it.”
Seconds ticked by. Steve took a bite from his burger. When he swallowed, he asked, “Have you gone here all high school?”
“No, I transferred last year from New York. My folks live back there. Lety’s here on scholarship. Things are bad in Salvador, and her family got refugee visas.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Lety.
“Okay,” said Steve, and he saw in her eyes that she’d seen things he didn’t want to know about.
Jane said, “I’m here because my stepmom and I weren’t getting along; my own mom has young kids to take care of.”
He didn’t know how to respond, and both girls watched him curiously. “So how do you guys know each other?” he asked.
Lety said, “The first day I came here last month, she just said hi when no one else would, and we were friends. She’s the best.” She smiled at Jane, who grinned shyly.
“Well, she took pity on me at the dance,” Steve said. The girls laughed. They got quiet, and he hastily finished his hamburger and stood up. “Thanks for letting me have a seat. Nice to meet you.”
“You don’t have to leave,” said Jane. He settled back into his chair, feeling awkward.
After the silence grew heavy, Jane said, “What’s this book you’re working on?”
“It’s a role-playing game sourcebook. This guy I know at PSU has a publishing company, and he’s putting it out.”
“I don’t even know what that is — a ‘sourcebook’?”
“Do you know Castles & Catacombs?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s for that. It’s story material for playing the game. I ran this adventure for a long time, and Tess had a character in it.”
“Yeah. My girlfriend,” he said, and it suddenly felt like a lie. “I’ve got to get ready for math. I’ll see you later, okay?”