Steve sent Tess the letter describing Stefan’s imprisonment in mid-January. He waited eagerly for her reply. Finally, on the last Friday of the month, he got it.
I’ve been thinking about the adventure for a week. Sorry I’m not very creative. My doctor got me on new meds. They make me dizzy and twitchy, but my mood is a little better and so’s my school work, I think. Also, I’ve made new friends.
Thanks very much for everything. I feel bad that I’m so messed up that I can’t meet your creative energy, but I will reply properly someday. The adventure is still important to me, and, of course, so are you.
He wrote right away, assuring her that she had nothing to prove and that they could put the story aside for as long as she wanted. He was interested in anything she wanted to write about. He sent her a new installment.
Varanor had trained Stefan to cultivate detachment so deep he might preserve his mind under extreme torture. However, now, when he finally stood in the dark, stripped to a loin cloth, forced to stand by short chains on manacles that chafed his wrists bloody, shivering cold, and starving, he had the horrifying impression that all the time he’d been free and comfortable had been an unnatural, lucky reprieve. This was the proper state of his cursed life. His patron did not know where he was. And he worried about Megaera. His luck had run out. As the hours passed, even a single minute became a very long time, and despite his best efforts, he could see time stretching away from him in hard, round seconds, as numerous as pebbles on a beach. Finally, his legs spasmed and buckled and would not support him, and he slumped down against the chains. Under the weight of his own body, he slowly began to suffocate. A welcome numbness took him down a dark shaft. “I’m sorry, Megaera,” he murmured. The dark folded over him like a warm cloak.
For a beautiful moment, he had lost all sense of his body, all pain, and the coming back was agony. Every muscle felt strained. A bright light stung his eyes. He was incredibly thirsty, and the air smelled of urine and feces.
He’d been taken down from the wall, seated in a chair, and wrapped about with a cold chain so that he slumped forward but couldn’t fall. A light had been thrust before his face but withdrew and was placed on a hook over his head. Now he could see before him a small round table. Sethis took a seat opposite, a crystal ball in his hand.
“Good, you’ve come around.” He placed the orb in the table’s center, and despite its being a perfect sphere, the ball sat still. He then reached behind him and pulled up a bulging waterskin. “You must be thirsty. Do me a favor, will you? Look into this ball, and then I’ll give you a drink.”
“What is it?” Stefan gasped. The opening of his throat seemed to evaporate his last moisture.
“A toy of Mother’s. She called it a Mind Maze, but it’s really a kind of theater, where you become the actor in a play. It’s a sort of puzzle, actually. If you can solve it, I may very well let you go.”
“Afterward. Look for a few seconds. Then I promise you can drink.”
Stefan was beyond defiance. He leaned forward. The orb had kindled a light in its center. The light resolved into a bright galaxy twisting as it grew to fill the whole space with a fine-grained sift of stars. The stars diverged across a field of black. The globe followed and captured one star; slowly it grew to resemble the sun, and then the black space surrounding it lightened, through dark gray and purple to the bird’s-egg blue of a summer sky. He tried to look away from the globe, but he seemed to be falling into it, into that blue sky. He shut his eyes, and floated into gentle dark oblivion.
Someone nudged his ribs with a boot. He found himself lying in a new-tilled field, and a fat man in rough tunic stood over him, with the sun winking over the curve of his shoulder. “Get up, Carlos! You can nap when you’re dead.” Stefan glanced around. A bony ox stood a short way off, yoked to a canted plow. The beast shifted uncomfortably from side to side against the twisting weight. Stefan felt for his Dragonclaw, and his hands found a rough linen shift and a worn leather belt around his waist. “You hear me, Carlos? Are you sick or been drinking?” The fat man gave him a mild kick; then a harder one.
Stefan, no, Carlos, clambered to his feet, and noticed the ill-made boots he had on were too big. They shifted around his ankles. His legs were weak, and he was thirsty, horribly thirsty. He looked up and saw the man watching him. A waterskin hung from his belt. The man stepped up and tilted water into his mouth, and he gulped and gagged, and gulped some more. Finally, the man had given him all the skin, and pulled it away. He coughed and coughed to clear his windpipe. The thirst eased but was not wholly slaked. “There,” said the man. “You good now?”
Carlos nodded, not wanting to appear weak. This crude man was his father, he knew, but he didn’t remember anything they’d done together. For that matter, he couldn’t clearly remember anything at all. He had been having a dream about a dungeon, and terrible hunger. That hunger, at least, was not a dream.
“I need to eat.”
“That’s two of us,” said his father. “But I suppose it won’t do to have you starve.” He waved him toward a stone cottage thatched with field grass, and Carlos hobbled after him. Inside, the man had him sit and brought him a chunk of hard old bread, a cup of slightly sour milk, and a strip of dried venison. These things did not taste good, but he was ravenous.
He glanced around the hut. His pallet was on one side, partitioned from his father’s by a screen of wattle and daub. The cook hearth was a rough cylinder of rocks, joined by crumbling mortar. The table at which he sat had a top of warped, splintery planks.
“What’s wrong with you, Carlos?” his father asked.
“I don’t know. How long have we lived here?”
“What are you talking about?”
“How long!” Stefan — no, Carlos — demanded, but then Carlos immediately regretted his outburst.
“Don’t take that tone!” said his father. The big man swung a lazy backhand. He raised his own forearm to block, and then realized, with confusion and dismay that his arm moved as if through water, and over what felt like seconds, the man’s hand connected with his head in a slash of red pain.
His father stared at him. He had the ghost of a scar over his left eye. A tear spilled from it, and he wiped it away. His breath was rancid as he drew close, and his rotten teeth looked like pitted quartz and granite. “Don’t take that tone!” he repeated. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Why do I take your abuse?” said Carlos.
“You have no skills,” said his father. “You cannot smith or lay stone.”
“I know many things,” Carlos said, “about numbers, and politics, and philosophy; mathematics and combat.”
“You’ve been dreaming,” his father said. “You have no skills. You waste your time dreaming, and so no one at the keep takes you as apprentice. And now you’re going mad.”
“I am a prince,” said Carlos, but he felt suddenly doubtful and then ridiculous.
“You are a dreamer, and we have ten more years on our indenture. If you run away, you will be hunted down and flogged. Get that through your head. Dream all you will, so long as you don’t forget. I will report you if you miss another workday. He got up, went to a barrel in the corner, and drew a cup of water with a ladle. “Here,” he said, thrusting the cup at him. Carlos drained it instantly. “Now back to work.”
The plow skipped on big stones, jerking Carlos this way and that as he followed behind the ox. The sun became an angry yet indifferent god; it baked him, heedless, distracted with its own fiery thoughts. Hour after slow monotonous hour passed, and passed, and passed. The sun sank. His father came and cursed his slowness and stupidity. Carlos at last put up the ox in the shed beside the house, gave it greasy, unclean water, and fed it. He stumbled into the cottage. He was terribly hungry, but even more exhausted, and he slumped onto his cot and tumbled into a scratching whirlwind of fitful, incoherent dreams.
* * *
Steve wondered what Tess would make of that. But she did not reply.
* * *
In mid-March, Portland enjoyed a spell of unseasonably warm weather, and one Saturday, Steve joined the other players outside the Game Den during their smoke break. Mary offered him a cigarette. He turned it down.
“I suppose it doesn’t go with your training regimen,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Steve said.
“Come off it. You’re going to be Lou Ferrigno at this rate. Make a muscle.” Mary stuck her cigarette in her mouth, grabbed his arm, and held it up. He had on a T-shirt, and she pushed back the sleeve and squeezed his bicep. “C’mon,” she said, scowling. He flexed and the muscle leapt up, the size of a baseball.
“Dude,” said Keith, surprised. “You have been pumping iron.”
Mary removed the cigarette and blew smoke from the corner of her mouth. “You know,” she said. “It’s supposed to be nice the next few days. Why don’t we all cut class Monday and go down to Ashland to see your girl.”
“We gotta score some dope off Jack’s cousin,” said Keith. Mary punched his shoulder with her middle knuckle extended and gave a tight shake of her head, cutting her eyes toward Steve. Keith looked contrite.
“Like I said,” Mary went on, “we can surprise Tess.”
Steve thought he could fake being sick. “You’d have to pick me up near school,” he said, his excitement building.
Jack nodded. “No problem, man.”
* * *
Steve’s dad dropped him off Sunday night as usual, and he got up early the next morning, put on a windbreaker over a dress shirt and good jeans, and walked down to a donut shop in Briarwood, a couple miles from campus. The spring morning was cold and gray at seven a.m., and he bought a cup of coffee and a cruller and waited huddled in his windbreaker outside.
Jack pulled up in his battered red Pinto a couple minutes later. From the back seat Keith waved him over. The Pinto only had one door on each side, and Mary was pressed almost to the windshield as Keith made space for him to clamber in. Mary had barely closed the door before Jack sped them off as if making a getaway.
“What’s wrong?” said Steve.
“Nothing,” said Mary. “We thought you might be tailed by some truant cop from Fauntleroy Academy or whatever.”
“Same difference,” said Keith.
Keith thrust a brown paper bag into his lap and proclaimed him caretaker of the soda and jerky. Jack popped a tape in, and the heavy, long chords of Black Sabbath shook the car doors. Mary howled in protest, but he only cranked the music louder and Keith joined him in a chorus of “War Pigs” until she’d subsided into a feigned sulk. When the song was over, she pulled out a tape of her own.
“Uh oh, what’s that?” said Keith, leaning between the front seats.
“What is it?” said Steve.
“A new punk band,” said Jack. “Check it out.”
They rolled to manic Rockabilly guitars and a thrusting beat, down to Salem under sleepy morning sun. Jack donned mirrored sunglasses from the glove box and put the pedal down. By ten o’clock, they’d reached Eugene, at the end of the Willamette Valley, settling into The Beatles and The Beach Boys, which they all sang to raucously during the long climb through the southern hills. Mixed fir and pine forest whirled by, mist steaming in the hollows. Outcrops loomed and fell like the time-lapse upheaval of mountains. An hour later, they stopped at the Rice Hill truck stop outside Sutherlin, at the rundown Fifties-style drive-in locally famous for ice-cream.
Mary couldn’t finish her cone, and no one else wanted strawberry, so she fed it on the sly to a pit bull in the back of a pickup.
“He’s gonna puke all over that dude’s chainsaw,” observed Keith as she minced back, wiping melted ice-cream from her hands.
“Did you see the Reagan sticker on the bumper?” said Mary. “Serves him right.”
Around noon, they descended through rocky, ochre hills of scrub oak and pine to Grant’s Pass. A few more hills brought them to the Rogue Valley proper, with Medford sprawled in the near distance. Mount McGloughlin reared high, gleaming white over the Cascades ahead. The valley stretched out ten or fifteen miles broad, and the low foothills all around, terraced with late snow, now obscured the Cascades and also the Siskyous to the south. Steve knew from a map that Mt. Ashland was close, but the nearby hills blocked that view also.
“Next stop, cousin Dan,” announced Jack.
“Uh-unh,” said Mary. “First we see Tess. We can stop on the way back.”
“He was gonna meet me at two. We’ve only got an hour.”
“So we gotta wait around?” she said. “Why don’t you run me and Steve to Ashland and come back and get us this afternoon. I want to look around anyway, and you can catch up with the cuz. Besides, he’s kinda an asshole. You can give him my best.”
Jack frowned up into the rearview mirror at Steve. “All right,” he growled.
They pulled off at exit 19 and took the north frontage road into Ashland. The small town hugged the eastern Siskiyou foothills and was built in levels on both uphill and lateral slants, with the vale of Lithia Park, at its center, cutting straight south into the hills. The site of several live theaters, Ashland sported Tudor-style shops and hotels in keeping with its prime tourist draw, the annual Shakespearean festival.
A few blocks beyond the park, nearing the college, Jack said impatiently, “Where is this place?”
“Take a left up there, on South Mountain Drive,” said Mary.
“Right here, dumbass.”
Steve’s heart began to pound. In the rarified air, the bright sky and the hills took on a diamond clarity. And suddenly he realized that they were abreast of a small campus of cement courts and breezeways, dominated at one corner by a three-story building with a long balcony running all around each level, its outer walls flaring upward so that it looked like an upside-down pagoda. Beyond this building a single gigantic pine tree rose among blocky offices of concrete and glass.
“Drop us off here,” said Mary, and she reached over and pulled Jack’s mirror shades from his face.
“I’ll take good care of them.” She threw the door open, got out, pulled the seat forward, and tugged Steve onto the sidewalk.
“Two hours!” yelled Mary as Jack burned rubber from the curb. She caught Steve by the shoulder and poked the glasses onto his face. “Give me that windbreaker. It’s not hip enough. She wadded it up and stuck it under her arms. “And spit in your hands and muss your hair. . . . No, like this.” She wet her own palms and violently scrubbed at his scalp with her long fingernails until it burned. She considered him a moment and shrugged. “Better.”
They walked across a broad sweep of flagstones to the administration office. Inside, she went up to the front desk while Steve hung nervously behind.
“We’re here to see Tess Arthur.” The woman behind the counter looked dubious. “I’m her cousin. We’re here because her dad . . . .” She turned to Steve.
“Alex,” he said, his stomach sinking. He was positive the lady would throw them out.
“Alex really needs her to come home. It’s an emergency.”
“I’ll send someone down when her next class starts.”
A few seconds later, the class bell rang like a brief fire alarm. Mary grabbed Steve’s hand and tugged him away.
“Miss—” began the secretary, but Mary had jerked him out into the open breezeway and into a clamor of moving students.
Steve felt so wound up and anxious he was almost sick. He and Mary furiously scanned the passing faces. “There she is!” Mary yelled and waved frantically. “Tess! Tess!” She rushed ahead, and muttering apologies Steve shoved his way after her through the press.
When he caught up, Mary had Tess in a close hug. Tess wore a shocked look and color rose to her cheeks. She cut her eyes toward Steve, apparently didn’t recognize him, and then gave him another look. Self-conscious, he removed the sunglasses. Tess seemed to have diminished since he’d seen her last, and then he realized with a euphoric rush that he was almost as tall as she was.
“Steve?” she said, and her face went very red.
“Brought your man,” said Mary, stepping back with a satisfied smile.
Tess’s eyes grew distressed. Steve felt a vein in his neck throb, almost painfully. She glanced behind her, and then offered him a worried smile. “You look wonderful, Steve.”
“Hey, babe, what’s up?” a boy said, coming to her side. He had an athletic build, shiny black hair spiked up in front, and chiseled good looks. Mary brought a hand to her mouth.
“Steve,” said Tess, “this is Evan.”
Evan held out his hand, but Steve didn’t take it. Evan’s expression went from friendly, to confused, to defensive. Tess grabbed Evan by the shoulders and steered him to one side. “They’ve come down from Portland. I need to talk to them. I’ll see you later.”
“Talk about what?” Evan said and shot a dangerous look at Steve.
“Things, okay? I’ll see you later.”
Steve didn’t wait. His head had gone light, his stomach churned with nausea, and the nearby buildings, boxy and concrete, assumed an oppressive, institutional feel. He turned and walked back toward the street, now almost deserted, and picked up speed. Mary reached his side, put her arm around his shoulder, and gave him a supportive squeeze. He was almost numb to it.
“Steve!” Tess called. “Wait!” Steve heard her take an irritated tone with Evan, who made a petulant response. Hot blood rose in his face. He wanted to go back and put a fist in Evan’s teeth.
* * *
On the curb across from a low yellow bungalow, Steve finally let Tess catch up. She had on her dark mascara, a sweater, and the necklace he’d given her. He found it easier to stare at the pendant than meet her gaze.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“What the hell!” screamed Mary. Tess recoiled, caught off guard. “We came all the goddamned way from Portland to see you!” Mary yelled a spate of obscenities, expressing the full darkness of his own mood — and then some. Tess bore it stoically a few seconds and then her eyes glazed and teared up. A moment later, her lower lip trembled, and she turned and ran back to the school.
Steve felt utterly miserable.
Mary pursed her lips and watched Tess go. She dithered a full minute, then heaved a sigh, her face still flushed. “I wasn’t really that mad, you know, but I had to even you up. She really pulled a number on you.”
He didn’t say anything.
“You probably don’t give a shit about her anymore, but I think she really did like you. The last letter I got from her wasn’t so clear, but now I think I get it.”
“Get what?” he croaked, the saliva thick in his mouth.
Mary shrugged and her eyes grew shifty. “She was trying to say that she had to move on.” She sighed again. “I’ve softened her up for you. You should probably see if you can find her and try to patch some of the damage before we take off.” Steve hesitated, and Mary threw up a hand. “Just do it,” she said wearily.
* * *
He found Tess curled up at the base of a redwood tree, just inside its retaining wall, crying. The school secretary stalked by and warned her that she was late for class but she waved her off angrily.
Steve took a seat next to her.
“Mary hates me now. You hate me,” she said.
Steve wanted nothing more than to hug her, but he merely breathed deep. “No. I’m hurt, but I couldn’t hate you, Tess, ever. You tried to warn me over and over, I think, but I never wanted to pay attention.”
“Warn you about what?” she said. He saw her eyes were puffy and her mascara was smeared all over the tops of her cheeks.
“That you weren’t attracted to me.”
“Oh, Steve,” she moaned. “You dummy. I am attracted to you. I love you. I told you that. It took me a while to realize it, but I do. God, I love you. But can’t you see it won’t work? We’re never coming back, and even if we were, even if we’d never left, you don’t really know how I can be. I’m not good for you. You thought it was you, but it’s not. It’s me.”
“ ‘Not you . . . It’s me,’ ” Steve repeated, as vacantly as he could. “I think I heard that in a show once.” She had her legs drawn up, and the silver chain made a loop between her neck and the pendant, which rested on her knees. All the hard work he’d done last summer had gone into that gift. He got up, suddenly filled with spite, remembering Evan and the dark look he’d gotten from him. Now she was wearing his necklace while going out with that asshole. He felt short of breath.
“We both need to see other people,” said Tess. She glanced up and smiled through her tears, oblivious to his growing rage. “Look at you. You’re gorgeous. You’ll find other girls, Steve.”
“You say we need to see other people? Well, not me, Tess. Not me. I don’t hate you, but I’m goddamn sorry we ever met.” He turned and stomped away, and she renewed her sobs behind him.
* * *
He and Mary walked the town streets in silence. After half an hour, she got visibly bored and pulled him into a curio shop on the main drag. He looked over some cheap pewter figurines of wizards and dragons, and finding he had no stomach for them, went out and sat in a bench on the sidewalk.
At the end of two hours, they went back. The school day was over and the grounds were deserted. Jack and Keith drove up in high spirits but soon read the mood. Half an hour later, in the hills above Medford, Jack caught Steve’s eye in his rearview mirror. “You know what you need, buddy?” he said solemnly.
“You. Need. Some. Saaab-bath!” Keith smacked the seat and chanted, “Sabbath! Sabbath! Sabbath!” Jack put in the cassette and cranked “Paranoid,” and he and Keith sang along, loud and offkey. Mary shook her head, but after half a minute, she was doing it too. By the time “Iron Man” came on, the sun blazing straight through the hills out of the west, they were all singing themselves hoarse.