He stumbled into his dorm after nine o’clock curfew, and the resident assistant let him in and said he’d have to write him up. Numb to the reprimand, Steve flopped into bed exhausted and quickly sank to oblivion through the sonorous muck of Tighe’s snores. When Steve woke up the next day, he was disoriented to find himself in his dorm rather than in his room back at his parents’ house. Tighe had already gone to class, but Steve still had time to make first bell. Loneliness ached in his chest, and his mind searched dully for an image of someplace where he would feel cared for. Not even his home offered that mental refuge. His parents had put him here, after all. Now when he went home, he was just a guest.
At lunch, he caught sight of Jane and Lety across the dining area and avoided looking in their direction as he went to sit with Tighe and Piper.
“You got back late,” Tighe said. “How’d it go in Ashland?”
“Shitty,” said Steve, “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Sorry, dude. So how bad is it?”
Piper said, “Is this Tess you went to see? Tighe mentioned her.” Piper had her dark-blond hair back in a ponytail, exposing the strong sweep of her high cheekbones and the pebbly skin just below, where her makeup concealed her acne. Her heavy-lidded eyes and thick raised eyebrows projected a soulful concern. He realized it was a mistake to bear their pity and scrutiny; it made him feel not just lonely but pathetic.
“Yeah, it was Tess,” he said and his gaze drifted to a girl and boy upperclassmen in the lunch line, holding hands. Thoughts congealed in his head and stopped, and he envisioned a huge oak door, bound in iron, like a portal in the lair of some giant. “We’re done,” he said, not looking at Piper. He imagined the door just boomed shut; the echoes pounded in his skull.
* * *
Jane waved to him across the central fountain plaza the next day, and he pretended not to notice. He didn’t see her the rest of the week.
Back at home for the weekend, he had to face his dad, who’d been informed of his late arrival to the dorm.
“I’d been out all day. Some older friends drove me down to Ashland to see Tess.”
“And who are these friends?”
“Just older kids from school,” he lied. “They wanted to go down and visit this one guy’s cousin.”
“And did you meet Tess?” His father’s voice was even but his face had gone blank and unreadable.
“For a few minutes. I kinda surprised her.”
“Only a few minutes?”
“She was with her new boyfriend.”
His dad lowered his eyes and breathed deep. “Sorry, Chuck. Are you done? No more day trips across the country?”
“Yeah.” Seconds trickled by, filling him with a poisonous brew of resentment and self-loathing. He needed to say anything to break that flow. “You were right,” he said, not because it was true.
“Sometimes I am, son.”
* * *
Later that afternoon, Aaron phoned to cancel that night’s gaming session. Blue-line proofs had come back on the campaign book. He had to explain to Steve how the printer ran a copy off the plates just in blue for the customer to look at. “It’s my last chance to catch mistakes,” he said, “and if I don’t check them now, I might not get to them for weeks.”
On Monday, he saw Jane again across the cafeteria and briefly met her gaze. He smiled halfheartedly at her and she turned away, her jaw set. After classes, she intercepted him going across campus. “So what’s up, Steve? Do I embarrass you now or something?” She struggled to keep her tone even.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. You look all angry and put out and pretend not to notice me.”
“Remember Tess, the girl I told you about?”
“Your girlfriend in Ashland?”
“Yeah, well, I guess I lied. She never was my girlfriend, just a friend. She kissed me a couple of times, but it meant more to me than her.”
“What’s this got to do with me?”
Steve looked up and saw Jane studying him askance, her eyes heavy with hurt. She reminded him of Tina just then; he marveled at having her attention. Jane was more of a woman than a girl. “You’re older than me.”
“I don’t want you to see me feeling bad. I’m self-conscious.”
She made a tight frown. “I thought we were friends, Steve. You started that. It was silly at first, because you were so young, but you convinced me you were up to it by being smart and cool.” He couldn’t hold her gaze and she grabbed his chin and forced it up. “You want to talk about this, or do you want to just drop the whole ‘friend’ idea?”
He smiled. “You’re asking me to grow a pair, huh?”
She shook her head slowly with a puckered scowl. “That is such guy bullshit,” she said.
“Whatever,” he said. “I’m sorry I was such a wuss. Partly, I just didn’t want to dump on you. Partly—”
He felt reckless, like he had that night with Tess along the riverbank, just before he’d pushed things to a head. But even if Jane got mad at him or weirded out, it would hardly make it worse. “Mostly, I didn’t want you to see me upset, because it’s hard to be cool when you’re upset, and honestly, Jane, you’re really hot.”
She straightened and her face went red. “I’m not . . .” she began in a hoarse whisper and waved a hand at her throat as if to excuse herself. “I’m not hot.”
Steve pressed his advantage. “You’re so hot, it’s not fair. Anyway, I just went to Ashland on Monday and saw Tess with her real boyfriend…”
“Really? You did? No wonder you look so down.”
“Jane, you’re beautiful, but I didn’t go over to your table that one time because you were hot. You were nice to me at the dance. You’ve been nice to me for months.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’ve just wanted a friend, not a girl I feel I have to impress. I’m sorry I let your being hot get in the way of being friends. Now that I’ve thought about it, you’re right: it was wussy. I don’t care that you’re hot; I just want to be your friend.” He knew that it was more than half a lie, but it seemed the right lie at the right time. Suddenly he cared very much that she was hot and that the compliment would provoke her to say something similar about him.
Jane’s complexion faded from scarlet to pink. “Steve, that is such a dorky thing to say.” He felt his confidence waver. “But sweet,” she added. “Really sweet. Why don’t you come to my dorm room now and we can talk? I’ll sneak you in through the back.”
“But it’s against the rules, right?”
She reached out and grabbed his hand and began to haul him across campus. “The dorm monitor sneaks guys in all the time and we know it. As long as we’re not obvious, she’ll cover for us. Trust me.”
When they reached her dorm, Jane directed him to go around the back, and he waited in the narrow alley between a retaining wall and the rear of the building. She opened the door a minute later, checked that no one else was around, and brought him in.
Jane’s roommate was out for the afternoon at track practice. A poster of Mikhail Baryshnikov presided over Jane’s bed. He stood en pointe in tights and had his arms arched near his sides, his head cast down at a dramatic angle so that overhead stage lights gleamed from the planes of his cheek and jaw. Jane took a seat on her pink quilted spread and patted a spot next to her. When he’d joined her, she took his hand and stroked it, studying it sidelong in a pose of affectionate thought. He felt himself smile, torn between arousal and relaxation. A few seconds later, without a word, she moved smoothly in and kissed him. Her mouth was full, wet, and very warm, her lips a little loose, and the smell of her perfume brought to mind a field of vetch or clover under broad sun. He closed his eyes and drifted in a comfortable void. His hand lay between them, so he put it to her waist. She moved it to her breast, which was full and heavy.
A moment later, she pulled away and so did he. She wiped her mouth and then leaned forward. He mirrored her, and their heads touched. Large blue eyes filled all his view. “You know,” she said, “I’ve wanted to do that for a long time.”
* * *
Steve and Jane developed a comfortable, undramatic relationship. As the weather warmed, they spent afternoons studying together under a tree on the campus lawn, lounging and kissing. She listened politely to him describe roleplaying adventures and he met her enthusiasm for dance and pop bands with equal patience.
Rei found their relationship confusing, and Steve had a hard time explaining it to him. The second Friday evening in May, Steve went over to his house and played Atari video games. (Neither of them had time to actually start a new campaign together. In addition to regular homework, which he aced despite its being accelerated — he and Jane had the same biology class—Steve had been involved with a computer club and was mastering BASIC programming. The school had three new Radio Shack TRS-80s, each with a full sixteen kilobytes of RAM.)
“So,” Rei said, after winning the final round of Tank War, “this girl is an upperclassman and she’s good-looking and not a ditz, and you’re not just friends but you’re not serious about her? Why not?”
Steve shrugged. “We’re just comfortable together. We don’t have misunderstandings. It’s really nice.”
“Has she ever had a boyfriend before?”
“Well, you know, is she experienced?”
“Has she had sex?” Rei persisted.
“I knew what you meant.”
“But you guys haven’t?”
“Not technically, no.”
“Why not?” Rei’s expression was baffled.
“Ever heard of getting a girl pregnant, Rei?”
“Ever heard of a rubber?”
“It’s cool the way things are. She’s a great kisser and sweet and we just don’t have any pressure.”
“But how do you stand it? I mean, don’t you get horny or anything? And she’s had sex; she’s gotta be ready.”
“You want me to explain how this works, Rei? She didn’t have a good experience. A lot of girls don’t. She’s taught me how to touch her.”
“And you’re not gonna have sex? I mean, once you get done with your touching lessons or whatever?”
“But you like her, right?”
“A lot. But it’s just not something we need to do.”
“Would you have sex with Tess?”
“Just shut up and play.”
* * *
The next day at the Game Den when everyone assembled, Aaron produced the first advance copy of Brasdain: The Dragon Kingdom. The cover was a full-color version of Tess’s poster that Steve still had hanging in his room at home.
They passed the book around speechlessly: a tome of over three hundred, two-column pages, fully indexed and illustrated. At the bottom, beneath the picture of the adventurers, was the byline: “Steve O’Reilly” and beneath that, “Illustrated by Tess Arthur.”
“Way to freakin’ go, guys!” Mary said.
When the book came around, Steve stared at Tess’s name.
“You talk to her?” asked Mary.
“No.” Steve felt a heavy sadness that matched his pride in the book. He wanted to call Tess and forgive her everything, and then it finally occurred to him that perhaps the reason she hadn’t written since that thoroughly shitty day was that she hadn’t forgiven him. After all, he’d left her in anger out of hurt and insecurity. Why would she care anymore? “So where’s your name?” he said, looking up at Aaron.
“On the inside. All over the inside.”
The session went well. On the edge of the glacier lands, the party came to a boarded-up inn on the tundra, closed for the winter season. They broke inside and started a fire in the hearth and laid plans for the last leg of the trip. If not for the “Psycho Sister” Alys, now played by Mary in addition to her own female dwarf character, they might not have made it through the night. The missing baron appeared as a frozen undead revenant, and Alys defused his rage by slipping behind him and hanging his chain of office on his neck, recalling his lost humanity. He bade his daughters farewell and asked them to avenge him in the city beneath the ice, before disappearing in a swirl of snow.
“But what happened to Tereza? Why didn’t he say?” Steve’s character asked the three mournful sisters.
Aaron and Mary exchanged meaningful looks, and Aaron read from a sheet of notebook paper held above his screen, “ ‘The women cast sidelong glances at each other, and Greta steps forward, bows her head. “Shortly after our mother died, when Tereza was very young, she nearly drowned and it made her feebleminded. Soon after, our father, a stalwart adventurer, was poisoned battling a giant serpent. For months he hovered near death. No one wished to tell him that Tereza would not recover, so we conspired to withhold the truth. Our father very slowly improved, but Tereza did not. Years went by. From his sickbed, father asked word of her, and we began to lie. He must have suspected, but he played our game, pretending to accept news of her good health and growing cleverness and beauty. In her tenth year, six after the accident, the real Tereza died of fever, but our counterfeit lived on, and when our father at long last grew hale, our beautiful, clever, and nimble sister ran off with the son of a duke. She wrote apologetic letters filled with remorse at her wickedness. At last our father called us together and bade us keep her further letters to ourselves. When the castle came under attack, we brought her back to keep us company. There is no Tereza, only three damaged women. Now that our father is gone, it is time for Tereza to rest.” ’ ”
“Whoa, that is messed up, but kinda cool,” said Keith.
“You guys like it?” said Aaron.
“Yeah,” said Mary. “I mean, I know you told me weeks ago when I took over the Alys character, but I’ve been thinking about it. It makes the sisters interesting.”
“It’s not very subtle, though,” said Steve. “I mean, Tereza is supposed to be Tess, right? And you know how I felt about her.” Anger tried to kindle in his gut, but he was just irritated.
“I think it’s good work,” said Jack. “Nice job.”
Aaron nodded. “I think it’s good too,” he said, “but it’s not mine. It’s a submission. Maybe I’ll publish it.”
“You didn’t write it?” said Steve. He reviewed all the Tereza details in his head. Had he gotten so obsessed that he could see Tess when she wasn’t remotely there?
“Nope, I didn’t,” said Aaron. “Not the whole adventure.”
“Who did?” said Steve. “Mary? You?”
Mary frowned at the table. “No,” she murmured. “I didn’t. Who do you think, dummy?”