In the coming weeks, Steve developed a casual friendship with Jane. Lety was friendly but formal, but Jane would often stop to talk when they passed each other on campus. She hoped to go to a top college and get a job in nursing someday. She had Rei’s high regard for pop-rock bands like Journey. She was energetic and smart but neurotic; extremely sexy, but overweight. It was just as well he didn’t need a girlfriend. Tighe, for one, would tease him. He was contemptuous of any girl who carried even a few extra pounds. But did he really care what Tighe thought?
His mind wandered often to how Jane had taken charge and led him out to dance and lost herself in the music, unselfconscious and happy. She reminded Steve of someone, an actress or model or some other famous woman; he couldn’t remember who. Finally, one midweek night while he stared at the dorm ceiling, images from the camping trip sifted through his head, and he lingered on Tina Harrison smiling at him across the fire, painted in soft orange light. She was the one. She and Jane both had long, foxy faces and warm energy. Tina stirred similar deep, contradictory associations: vulnerability, confidence, sensuality, girl, mother.
That creeped him out a bit.
* * *
Steve continued to write Tess every week, but her letters became perfunctory. She did not mention school or what she was up to beyond the work on the adventure. He began to worry that she had found some new guy.
Meanwhile, his roleplaying endeavors with Aaron — both the book and his participation in the Game Den campaign — went well. Now all the book’s basic writing and editing was done. Aaron entered the text into a word processor. He explained the next steps would be to output it on a Daisy Wheel printer, make a camera-ready paste-up, with Tess’s illustrations, and then go to film. He’d been sketching out designs, and Steve understood how lucky he was to have Aaron for a publisher. Steve could dream up fantastic scenarios, but his ideas about book design fell short of Aaron’s. Guided by old illuminated texts, Aaron made complex drop capitals and border art, and he treated the presentation as a job all its own.
“Maybe you could teach me book-making and I could help out.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Aaron said. They were in his dorm room, the layout sketches arrayed on Aaron’s bed. “But it would probably be a waste of time in the long run. Computers are changing all this stuff really fast. In a few years, you won’t even have to do paste-up; it’ll be put together all from disk files.”
* * *
By the end of November, things had taken an interesting turn in Aaron’s campaign. Led by the scroll they found in the hollow bracelet, the party had sneaked into a castle that had been taken over by evil men and exposed a plot to turn everyone in the countryside into cannibal zombies. The great badguy behind the whole thing was Cax.
“My Cax?” said Steve.
“We’re business partners,” said Aaron. “He’s not just yours anymore.”
Mary said to Steve, “But don’t let your head get too big.”
The castle belonged to a duke. They rescued three of his daughters from the dungeons, but they could not find Tereza, the youngest daughter, who, according to her three sisters, wrote the letter found in the bracelet. Nor could they find the duke. “Poor Tereza,” they said, “she’s so kind and beautiful and talented. She painted the chapel ceiling, she killed an orc once, she sang like an angel.” Described as lean, and pale, and raven-haired, strong yet delicate, Tereza was obviously Tess under a similar name.
“Looks like we’ve got to rescue your girl,” Mary said.
“Finders keepers,” said Jack, and she gave him a dig with her elbow in genuine annoyance.
The party located some maps and journals that revealed the ultimate plan of Cax’s minions, which was to finance a major prospecting operation in the distant north. Tens of thousands of years ago, two Powers, Abraxas and Demimorn, killed each other with enchanted weapons, and the energy released shook the entire planet and plunged it into an ice-age, burying fantastic cities and ancient portals to other worlds. The ice had been in steady retreat, and prospectors worked at its edges until late fall each year, when the first snows came. The maps the party found showed secret ways under the ice into long-buried ruins, where a new stronghold had been prepared in secret.
“So that’s where we’ve got to go?” said Steve.
“And the snows are coming, the prospectors are leaving, and the yetis are emerging from aestivation. The three sisters ask to join you. They’re all trained adventurers.”
The sisters revealed strong personalities: tall, lean, and homely Beatrice was sullen and truculent but a great fighter; pretty, delicate Alys was thoroughly sociopathic, manipulative, and damaged, but also an excellent thief and assassin, good at stabbing monsters (and men) in the back; and Greta could cast powerful healing spells but could not fix her own depression and baseless self-loathing. Aaron had a fat notebook of scripts prepared for these characters, and they became so lifelike and captivating that they stole the adventure. No one seemed to mind.
Over the next three weeks, Steve wrote Tess a series of letters about the “Psycho Sisterhood,” as Keith put it. It was almost Christmas when he realized he had not had a reply from her all month.
* * *
That Friday when he arrived home for the weekend, he discovered a letter on the counter, like a flat white hole centered in the black marble. Steve approached it warily as he removed his heavy pack of books. He glanced at his mother, and she strode past removing her driving gloves, completely oblivious.
The letter was from Tess.
I have a confession to make. The last couple months have not been good. I can make plenty of excuses, but I have myself to blame. God, if your dad ever reads this, that’ll be the end.
Steve looked up to see his mom paused at the hall entryway, pensive as if she’d forgotten something. “I’m going downstairs,” he said.
“I’m too tired to cook,” his mom replied. “How about we order pizza?”
“That sounds great.”
* * *
Seated on his bed, he resumed reading.
I don’t know who I am, Steve, but it’s not Tess Arthur anymore. I’ve turned into a real piece of crap. I started drinking with some older kids right around homecoming, which was no big deal, I thought, but then it became a problem. I got to be friends with this really nice guy named Hank, good-looking, smart, kind of reminded me of you, and this girl Janet was always around him, but I didn’t quite get that they were a couple. I’d been here about two months and was feeling bored and sorry for myself, and this dude named Jim, a senior, invited me to a house party after one of the football games, and I went and saw Hank there, and he came over and asked if I was okay, probably because he could tell I’d already been drinking. Jim had brought a half-pint of whiskey . . .
Steve could feel his face heat up and his stomach churn. The air in his bedroom seemed to have grown thin. Each line clawed at his chest, like a drunk person trying to get a hold on him. He started to scan.
. . . tried to kiss Hank, and he backed away with a shocked look, and then I saw Janet there, and she hurried off, and he went after her . . . reminded me of Emma, but . . . my fault this time. Totally. And of course Jim . . . a few hours later we were making out, even though I didn’t want to . . . really drunk. I couldn’t face it, and got defensive . . . . And again at another party. . . .
Steve forced himself to slow down and read the rest word for word. He’d gotten the gist of the worst.
And for a long time, I had just about zero shame. Janet faced me in the hall at school and said she forgave me for making a move on Hank but that she didn’t want it to happen again, and I told her to go screw herself. She took the high road, and that made me even more pissed off and I started talking dirt about her. Also, I started not doing homework and chores and Alex got a call from a couple of my teachers about my attitude and crappy work, and he tried to reason with me, but it was Tina who really got in my face, big time. We still can’t talk to each other. She doesn’t even let me babysit anymore, and I don’t blame her, not one bit. I’ve managed to screw up everything in record time. I have no girlfriends, because I talked too much shit about them and was too friendly with the guys they liked. The worse I felt about myself, the easier it was to rationalize it all. “I’m poor Tess who lost her mother and to hell with them if they’re pathetic and insecure about holding onto their guys, and what are their guys worth anyway if they haven’t got any loyalty? That’s not my problem. And screw that Chuck O’Reilly guy who thought I was ‘noble.’ ” Steve, that’s what I’ve turned into. I guess your dad was right about me. . . . But there I go. I know mentioning your dad will make you want to defend me. I don’t deserve it.
Alex put me into extra counseling and doesn’t let me go out. He’d spent a fortune on me already, and this only makes me feel worse. Tina says I don’t need more counseling; I need tough love and a kick in the ass. Not sure she was serious about the love part. Tina wants to go back to school to get an art degree, and she can’t now. Because of me.
Steve, just to spend time with you, like the way things were, even with Mom dying or even having just died, that would be heaven compared to where I’m at right now. I can’t even get my brain to work even though I haven’t had any alcohol or weed — yeah, I did some of that too — for a month, but I think I must’ve done permanent damage to myself, because my thoughts won’t focus. My new therapist says that’s a normal symptom of depression. At first she said that given my family history and what I’ve been through I need to start giving myself a break. She said that a few times, and then I opened up and told her everything, and then she didn’t say anything. She got this look, like someone gets just when they’ve been chewing and realizes they’ve got a chunk of something in their teeth, and after that I didn’t hear anymore bullshit about being easy on myself.
Oh, Steve. I’m so sorry I’m not who you built me up to be, when you looked up to me and helped me feel good about myself, and made me a hero in your adventure. But whatever black magic Megaera got herself into, it doesn’t compare to the stuff I’ve conjured up. I’m not the sorceress; I’m the apprentice messing around with the sorceress’s stuff.
Okay, I’m almost done, but I want to lay this all out. Even a confession could be me trying to control you with sympathy. Don’t let me sucker you, Steve. The people who really deserve an on-my-knees apology are Tina and Alex, and probably Jacob and Adam, too, because I’ve made pretty big scenes here. But get this, I haven’t apologized and you know why? Because then I just don’t know what I’ll say when I do it all again.
Yours for what it’s worth,
The overhead light shone stark. All the furnishings of his room — bed, nightstand, the table where the group had played — took on a surreal, counterfeit sharpness. He got up from where he sat on the bed and walked over to the table so he could see the poster Tess had drawn. And there was Tess in her Megaera persona, wielding the Bugclaw, looking heroic.
He felt the heat behind his lids build slowly, and when it finally spilled over and ran down his cheeks, it came as a relief. He wiped the tears away and started thinking, and thinking, and thinking.
Steve ruminated about the letter through Christmas break. At last, he wrote a brief reply.
Don’t write me at home anymore. Use my school P.O. Box. It’s on the envelope and on the other side of this page. I still don’t know what to say. I’ll write, just not yet.
Your friend always,
The first school week in January, Steve spent every waking moment and much of his dream time knotted with rumination and despair. At the end of the week, he checked his mail slot at the student lounge and found she’d written him. He stuck the letter into his backpack and waited outside for his dad to pick him up.
He saved the letter till late, after the house had gone quiet.
You know what made my day? “Your friend always” — I hope you meant that, because I really need it to be true.
Do you know what being depressed is like, Steve? You feel worthless and lazy and nothing turns you on, and there seems to be a clock ticking in the back of your head, marking the seconds to Doomsday. Actually they’re more like thumps that don’t really make a sound at all. Thump. “Too late to do that.” Thump. “There’s another second that you didn’t do anything worth a crap.” Thump.
The terrible thing is the urgency of life slipping you by. Like when Megaera got paralyzed by Orson and couldn’t move and had to just take what he dished out to her. Your mind races slowly to nowhere.
I’ve started jogging. My therapist said the exercise would be good for me. I wake up exhausted at four a.m., feeling anxious and desperate that I have to get through another day, and I just lie there till Alex gets up to work just after six, and by then I’m already in my sweats, and I run the hills around here for half an hour, and I cry and I sweat, and when I get back to the house, I still feel horrible. My arms and shoulders are tight, but if I didn’t run, I would just rock in the dark and cry. I’m not smart and pretty anymore. I’ve lost weight. I don’t really want to lose weight; I don’t have crazy body issues that way. I’m just not hungry. My boobs were always small and now they’re small empty bags, and I can feel my ribs. Is this grossing you out? You’re the last person in the world that I believe still cares about me, and here I’m doing my best to turn you off too.
I couldn’t take it last weekend, and Alex drove me to the hospital in Medford and committed me to the mental health wing for two days. The place was right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, drab institutional with lots of linoleum and shitty puke-colored shag carpet in the rec room, a front desk with wire-reinforced glass so the orderly could see out in all directions. They took my shoelaces when I went in and my nail scissors, anything I could hurt myself with. A doctor came and asked me questions, and they put me on horrendous pills that dulled me out, so that I felt like my mind had been shut away in a cage. I’m just starting to get it back. Funny, you can go to jail for doing street drugs, but if you really want to get messed up in an unpleasant way, you do it legally. We had group therapy with the most godawful zombies, and the rest of the time was just slow and boring and safe. After two days, they asked me some questions and let me go, and the only thing I got out of the experience was feeling really, really dumb that I’d made Alex take me there in the first place.
Now that I’ve told you all this, you’re probably wondering why. What could have sent me over the edge? That’s the worst thing, Steve. Nothing. Yeah, I miss Mom, and I miss you, but really there’s no excuse for me. I just kept making bad decisions. I felt insecure, so I tried to impress the wrong people, and then I just couldn’t stop screwing up, and I realized that I wasn’t interested in anything anymore, and I got bored and lazy on top of everything. I look back on how I used to be even last summer, and that person amazes me. She was smart and cynical and interested in your game and doing art and could stay up all night reading and still wake up feeling pretty okay. Now I can go to bed at eight or twelve, it doesn’t matter, and when I wake up at four, I never feel rested.
Steve, I just want to thank you for being my friend. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that you’re great. Thanks.
Steve got up and walked upstairs and went to the dark kitchen. The fluorescent was on over the stove, and the streetlights blurred through rain on the windows. He could hear the distant television in his folks’ room. Whatever show they watched had a laugh track, but every now and then he caught his parents’ giggles interspersed with the canned ones, which meant they’d be distracted. At the alcove near the fridge, he pawed quietly through a drift of loose receipts and other papers until he found the typed list of phone numbers edited with pen here and there in his dad’s tight, messy hand. He saw “Alex” near the bottom with the number crossed out. A numbness at the center of his forehead made his eyes blur. He blinked and a faint ink slash materialized between the name and the paper’s edge.
He turned it over, and there was the number.
As he dialed, cranking the rotary wheel around on the thick handset, the ratcheting noise made him wince, and he sat down to use the food-prep island as a sound barrier between him and the hall to his parents’ room.
On the second ring, Alex picked up and said hello. “It’s Steve O’Reilly, Mr. Harrison.”
“It’s late, Steve, and Tess is in bed.” After a pause, he said, “It’s good to hear from you. How have you been?”
He ignored the question. “I know she’s been having trouble.”
“Yeah, she’s had a rough time. We all have, really.”
“Could you just go check and see if she’s awake? If she’s asleep or doesn’t want to talk, that’s cool.”
Silence followed. Steve didn’t know if Alex was thinking about it or working up a new dismissal. The silence stretched out for a full minute.
“Steve?” It was Tess.
“I got your letter.”
“Yeah? The depressed one?”
“That doesn’t really sort them out for me,” he said.
She made a tired snort.
“Did I ever mention the thing about the dragon kings and depressed people?”
“No,” she said in a small voice, “tell me.”
“At the heart of the kingdom is a land called the Refuge, where the dragon king sends anyone who feels sad or overwhelmed. Even when the dragon kings were out of power, the Refuge was well defended, because the people there believed in it and fought for it. The place filled up pretty fast with artists and with veterans traumatized by wars and people with birth defects and mental illness. You’d think that it would be the land that the rest of the country didn’t want very much, like we gave the Indians for reservations, but it wasn’t. It was the best, most beautiful, fertile, temperate land.”
“Would they take screwups like me?”
“Sure, of course they would.” He resisted the urge to let her off easy.
“So it was a whole land of people just moping around, is that it?”
“Oh no, that’s what a lot of people on the outside thought, and false rumors were spread that the taxes for roads and the king’s army went to support the Refuge, but nope. The people in the Refuge were the hardest-working, best-adjusted, overall-sanest people.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Nothing was expected of them. Zero. They were self-proclaimed washouts, but with a few exceptions, what happened to most people was that they got interested in things other than themselves and how worthless they were. The stakes had gotten so low that they took chances — with nothing to gain, they had nothing to lose — and because anything they did to help themselves or their neighbors was welcome, they got a little confidence, and then eventually, they filled all their time with productive stuff without anyone pushing them, and a lot of them left to champion some cause on the outside, like helping orphans or fighting monsters on the frontier. The borders of the Refuge are monster-proof. The brightest and the best live in the Refuge.”
“But what if you didn’t do anything for a long time, like a year? They’d still take care of you?”
“What about the rest of your life. What if you just sponged.”
“It’s called the Refuge for a reason, Tess.”
“But all those smart, hardworking people would look down on you.”
“Nope. They’re smart and hardworking, but they know how it feels to hit bottom, and that’s what makes them wiser than other people. No one stays sad in the Refuge.”
“I don’t know if it would work. It doesn’t seem like real psychology.”
Steve smiled to himself. He knew this contrary style of hers. This was the sound of Tess showing spirit again. And taking him seriously. “Tess,” he said. “It does work.”
A thoughtful silence descended. “So how long have you been working on this idea? Seriously.”
“Well, I think I mentioned it before during the campaign, about how the warriors who can’t cut it for the king’s guard are sent to defend the Refuge.”
“Unh-uh. I don’t think so.”
“Okay, honestly, Tess, I had a rough idea a while ago, but I started really thinking about it just last week. After I got your letter.”
“You did that for me? It’s nice, Steve, thanks.” Her voice had grown small and tired. He waited. At length, she said, “I’ve really enjoyed your ideas and had a great time in the game, but I’m not Megaera; it’s not really me. I actually kidded myself that it was, but it’s not. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, Steve, but my refuge here is on borrowed time. I’m hurting people who tried to make things good for me. I’m not like Megaera, or anyway, not much.”
“No more stories, then, huh?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that! Don’t stop with the stories, but I don’t expect you to make it better, Steve. That would be a heavy trip to lay on you.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you a story about Megaera I’ve been thinking about. And I’ve got some notes.” He removed a chunk of folded paper from his jeans pocket, but started from memory: “After the battle with Raglar, Megaera spent a lot of time in Varanor’s citadel. Stefan tried to get to know her. He’d fallen for her pretty hard.”
“Aww.” Tess sounded almost sincere.
Steve opened the papers, scanned them to get his bearings, and continued: “It worried Stefan, though, that Megaera seemed to be falling into a darker and darker mood. The problem was Bugclaw, and she knew it, but she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of it. It made her feel powerful, and it could read people. Bugclaw has its own senses, and they’re not quite human senses; it’s one of Cax’s feelers, after all. It urged Megaera to insult people who cared about her opinion so that she’d always have some power over them. She began to develop feelings for Stefan, but Bugclaw warned her to hold herself back at just the right times to make Stefan frustrated and even more dependent.”
“No, Steve, I never did that. I—” He ignored her.
“Slowly without even realizing it, Megaera began to fall deep under Bugclaw’s influence. The weapon managed to confuse her thinking. It probed her mind for weakness, and started to prey on her issues with her step-father, that drunk, weak guy who hated himself. He hadn’t actually beaten her, but he’d made her feel unsafe, and Bugclaw promised she’d never suffer that vulnerability again. The experience with Orson really shook her up, but Bugclaw seemed to steady her.”
Tess heaved a sigh. “I know, I know. She has to get rid of it. It’ll turn me into a bug. So I need to give up my pride, like those Refugees, is that where you’re going with this?”
“No. I’m telling you a story about Megaera. Do you want to hear it or not?”
“Stefan was a bit slow, but he eventually figured out that Megaera had become more sly than when they first met, and he mentioned it to Varanor. The dragon called her in for a talk and asked her if she would allow him to destroy the flail, but Megaera said no. She wouldn’t give it up. The world was a bad place. Without Bugclaw, she’d have bad dreams.”
“Bad dreams?” Tess asked.
“Yeah, like Hamlet. She could be bounded in a nutshell and be queen of infinite space, were it not that she had bad dreams.”
“Well, not having bad dreams would be a start. Does the dragon give her tough love?”
“No, he says, ‘I have observed the flail working through you, upsetting Stefan and my other servants. I believe I was wrong.’ I now believe it won’t transform you. The flail suits you, I’m afraid.’ ”
“Whoa, there’s a vote of confidence.”
“He says, ‘If I took it from you now, its hold on you would linger, darkening your outlook and making you cruel. Of course, the same thing will happen without my intervention. Do you want this to happen, Megaera?’ ”
“Of course she doesn’t, Steve.”
“ ‘Then I offer you an alternative. I will teach you a discipline that will be very hard to master. If you lose your resolve and your vigilance, the flail will destroy you, but maybe you can dominate it.’ ”
“And keep my soul, and not turn into a bug,” Tess said.
“That’s the idea, that Megaera will be able to grow as a person again. She’ll have the power of Bugclaw without it turning her into a bitch.”
“This had better be good, Steve.” Her tone was stern, and he smiled to himself at the return of her composure.
“Varanor says, ‘You must project a sphere of mental force that will blind the flail. It will not be able to sense or attack anyone outside the sphere. You can extend or retract the sphere. You will be tempted to dispel it, but that you must not do!’ ”
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed.
“What?” Steve asked.
“It’s just a magic thing. I thought you actually had some advice for me.”
“Bear with me. This sphere has another benefit, beyond cutting off Bugclaw’s perceptions; it protects you from people reading or controlling your mind. So go ahead. Make the sphere. Try it.”
“Who? Me or Megaera.”
“Ha, ha. Is this about ego boundaries, or something?”
“Tess, I just go by feel. If this gives you an idea you can use to help yourself, I’m psyched, but actually, I’m just trying to figure out how this will lead to another story I can tell you. I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
“Okay, thanks, Steve. You’ve calmed me down a little.”
The house creaked. Steve lifted the receiver away from his head, alert for footsteps. Just when he thought all was okay, he heard his dad’s voice on the edge of the room, beyond the counter island that blocked the view. “Chuck? Who’s on the phone?” His dad could obviously see the cord hanging down.
“I’ve gotta go, Tess. Good night.” He got to his feet and hung up. His dad looked severe.
“Did you call or did she?”
“I did, but she’s been having a bad time.”
“I know. I’ve talked to Alex. You can’t help her, Chuck. I know you think I’m an asshole about this, and I’m really sorry for Alex and Tina, but we don’t need to get involved.”
“I’m involved already. She’s my friend.”
“Go to bed, Chuck.”