I stared at the email on my screen, wondering what it meant. For a few moments I thought I was going to die, or at the very least someone was going to try to kill me. It was a remarkable feeling, one I’d never had before, but it passed when I realized I’d never felt that way because I wasn’t the kind of person someone would track down and kill. I wasn’t the kind of person someone would track down for any reason.
It was signed “DJW” – initials I hadn’t seen in a long time. They were the initials of someone that I hated once upon a time, a person that hated me back. We had a rivalry in middle school, but it disappeared in high school when I heard that he moved somewhere far away. I think it was one of the Carolinas.
Alone, the message seemed ambiguous. It could bear with it the realization that you’ve been discovered living a false, peaceful existence buried deep in the foothills of Arkansas where you toiled away as a tractor mechanic while hoping the evil forces you left behind would eventually forget you existed, your entire life disrupted in knowing you would once again be on the run, fleeing from motel to motel until you’re trapped in a dirty cabin in the woods, gunned down in the end on the edge of a cliff, body falling into a deep ravine where it wouldn’t get found before it was eaten by wildlife. Or it could just be something said during a game of hide-and-seek, internet style.
I decided to assume it was an impractical attempt at a practical joke. Even if Derek James Walker did bother to think about me every now and again, which was more often than I had thought of him until that e-mail, there was no reason for him to look me up. There had been ample time for both of us to develop new rivalries. Someone was playing games, and I didn’t really have time for it.
I tossed off the reply and went back to my inbox. I was looking for a back story from one of the new players in my Thursday night game. It was a standing house rule that starting characters could get 500 experience points if the player wrote a character history, and Gavin had promised me he would send his to me before the next game night. I was ready to leave for the next game night and the story still hadn’t arrived.
Another standing rule is that I don’t give out the experience until I’ve had a chance to read the story. Often because I’ll do some creative editing to get rid of overly cliché or trite sections that every player seems to want to squeeze into their character’s history. If the players had their way, every adventuring party would be made up of fallen princes fighting for their kingdoms, bastard children of mighty men, or special children born weak but containing a great magic within.
The most recent trend was wealthy fop with something to prove. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of comic books. Everyone wanted to be the medieval Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen. Why can’t anyone ever want to be Hunter Rose?
The third applicable standing rule was that experience is never given in retrospect. Once a character started living in the game world, they had to earn their way just like everybody else. Players new to the group would often have to make up two or three characters before they got the hang of how we did things, but once they settled in they always seemed to enjoy it.
I didn’t have a smart phone. Mine was dumb as a rock – far too dumb to try and read hundreds of words of text on. Probably thousands considering everyone else was sixth level or higher. If I didn’t get it before I left the house, it wasn’t getting counted. Gavin’s second character would end up being a second or third level red shirt, just like his first.
Another email informed me that Garfunkel and Oates had a new video up, so I watched it. It was only a few minutes long, but it gave me an excuse to stall. I liked Gavin and I really wanted him to stick around a while, and he seemed earnest enough when he told me he would write something for a back story instead of letting me roll a generic one up for him.
After the video was over, I deleted the email and refreshed my inbox. There was a new message. It wasn’t from Gavin; it was from the other person, the one that wanted me to think they were someone I hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. Maybe more than two decades. Probably more than two decades.
Now, I knew it was a joke. I couldn’t be ruined. I had nothing to ruin. Things hadn’t turned out as planned. I wasn’t a professional game designer or a military officer or a powerful CEO or any of the other things I envisioned myself being when I used to envision those things. I was just a below-average Joe with a same-thing-different-day kind of life.
I went to delete the email and then stopped myself. Just to be safe, I moved the message to a folder, along with the first. Sometimes people just went batshit crazy, and if DJW was one of them then there wasn’t much I could do about it but curse my bad luck and deal. It wasn’t like eight words took up a lot of space in my mailbox. Might as well have the exchange handy, just in case.
I closed the browser and shut down my computer because it hadn’t been restarted in at least a week. I was out the door and in my car before it was done doing what it had to do.
All of my books and character sheets were in my bag, along with mechanical pencils and colored pencils and colored pens and dice, a handful of miniatures, my 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s screen, a small bag of loose change, a half-ounce of weed, a small, freshly-cleaned glass pipe, a paperback copy of The Nine Princes of Amber, a pair of socks, two decks of Magic cards, a band sticker a friend had given me that I still hadn’t found a place for, a necklace I never wore, a small digital camera and a flashlight. What wasn’t in my bag was something to drink.
When I called Stacey, she told me that nobody needed anything because they were all smart enough to take care of it themselves, and besides I was fucking late anyway so hurry up. I hung up and went to the store.
Before I left the store, I double checked the half-dozen texts that came in while I was there to make sure I had everything all of the smart people didn’t forget, including Stacey’s cigarettes. I knew they were hers because they were the long skinny ones that douchebags liked to call bitch sticks. She thought she was slick, tucking them into a text from someone else, but I knew that they were hers. I would give them to Shannon and he would pay me and then the second my back was turned he would give them to her.
I would let them think I didn’t know, but the first time an enemy rolled a miss on her, I’d go ahead and make it a hit. Not a chart-topper, but strong enough to hurt.
The driveway was full because my friends are jackasses that refuse to carpool. I parked in my reserved spot between the maple tree and the side of the garage. I think it was a maple tree, because sometimes it was sticky, but it could have been some other tree that bled a lot of sap.
Sulley must have heard me pull up because he was opening my back door before I was out of the car. His nickname came from the spiky blue hair he had for a few months when he was in his teens combined with an enormous frame that resembled John Goodman after the holidays. Now his hair was a strange combination of fire engine red and hunter orange so the name didn’t make sense to anyone that didn’t know the story, but his frame hadn’t changed except maybe to get even larger. He struggled to reach across my back seat without pushing the door so wide it would never close again and grabbed the two twelve packs of soda and the six pack of beer, leaving me with just my backpack and a plastic bag filled with snacks and smokes.
Little C, Gavin and Freedom all got back to the dining room slash game room at the same time I made it to my seat at the head of the table. They had been out smoking on the back deck, which explained how Sulley heard me pull up. I could hear Shannon in the kitchen helping Sulley put away the drinks as an excuse to help himself to the first beer. The sound of Stacey’s flat feet slapping down the hallway told me she would be indisposed for a moment, which was fine because it also told me that everyone was present and would be ready to play by the time I got my station set up.
I didn’t say anything to Gavin about the missing story, but I didn’t need to. While I was organizing my things, he pulled a folder from under his character sheet and handed it to me. It was the kind of folder someone would use for a college paper, with a heavy cover tinted magenta, just translucent enough to see that there was paper underneath without being able to decipher the contents.
I flipped it open, happy he had made the deadline, even if he was cutting it close. It was neatly typed, single-spaced with a normal font, and a quick scan of the contents told me it was at least moderately thought out and well-written. I wouldn’t have time to go over it, but since this session would be his first introduction to the group and that introduction would involve a respectable brawl, I figured we could deal with the final details later.
“Twelve pages, plus two sentences,” he bragged.
“That’s good for three thousand XP,” I told him. His work looked good enough. If it ended up being awful, I’d punish him creatively. “Add the one free level you get for your character dying permanently last week and you’re up to level four.”
“I’d really like to start out on five so I’m not too underpowered.”
Shannon came into the room drinking a beer. He carried the six-pack in his other hand and sat it on the table before he sat down. Sulley was right behind Shannon, and he took a beer out of the bunch before he took his spot.
“If you buy him two bean burritos plus lettuce and pico, and a side of nacho cheese, he’ll give you another thousand, but only if he hasn’t already eaten at Taco Bell today,” Shannon said in an effort to sound helpful without actually being any help.
“Yeah, except I need about four times that many,” Gavin said.
I continued to set up my things as everyone else settled in. Stacey got back from the bathroom, so everyone was there and we could get started as soon as I was ready. Instead of sitting down right away, she walked over to me and stopped.
As soon as I turned my head to look at her, she smacked both sides of my face with her hands. It wasn’t hard, but it was shocking. They were warm and wet and she smacked me high on my cheekbones before running her fingers down my face. I hadn’t shaved in a couple of days so her fingertips found traction and her hands moved slower than they should.
“Teach me how to pee,” she said, a pout on her face.
“You are so foul,” I snorted as I tried to pull away from her, but she was having none of it and that just made her reach forward and rub her palms on my forehead. They were even wetter than her fingers. I knew it was tap water, but I couldn’t help think it was pee.
She smiled at me and then skipped her way over to her chair, a miserable attempt at imitating a coy minx. Nothing she could do would make her anything less than brash and obnoxious.
“Would you seriously accept burritos for XP?” Gavin asked.
I finished drying my face with the crook of my elbow before I answered him. “I do, but you don’t have time. We need to get you with the group fast if we’re going to get through the first part of this thing.”
“If you can be bribed with burritos, can you be bribed with other things?”
Stacy laughed. I imagined it sounded like a donkey braying, but I’d never actually heard a donkey make any noise.
“He’s a pushover,” she scoffed. “For the right price you can get anything you want.”
“Within reason,” I admitted. I was almost ready.
“Within reason my ass,” she volleyed. “What about that skinny bitch that just joined the LARP? What are her bribes paying for?”
“I was thinking this might get me something.” Gavin tossed a film canister on the table in front of me as he said it.
I appreciated his timing. The Thursday night game was not a place to hold court on the goings-on of the Saturday LARP. Stacey knew that, but she didn’t care. Her only goal was to bait me into losing my temper, and it would have worked if the new guy hadn’t saved the day.
Inside the film canister was one of the most beautiful buds I’d ever seen. It smelled like fruit punch. Purple and orange hairs crisscrossed the outside like a flannel shell created by little hippie spiders, and minute milky crystals covered the whole thing in frozen dew.
“And you’re level five.”
“Good to hear. I’ve already got my character ready.”
Freedom packed the bowl while I finished getting ready.While she was packing it, she kept sticking her nose in the film canister to breathe deep. I didn’t blame her. It smelled delicious.
I got done right as she handed the bowl to me. I lit it and took a deep hit and then passed it to the left, which meant it went right back to Freedom. It tasted like sunshine and melted, candied daydreams.
I let the hit out and addressed the group. “Who can recap last week’s game?” I asked. I always started with a recap.
“I got this,” Little C spoke up. “We started out in our tree fort, but now we’re underneath the palace, looking for some asshole.”