Debbie’s family room, Friday night. At the table, they call Gina “Ms. Frost.” It’s a joke, Debbie’s joke, because she inherited her brother’s X-Men and because when it’s Debbie Jameson’s joke Gina Frost always laughs.
Ordinarily, Marcie would laugh, too, but she’s not having a good night. The dice are against her, Gina’s against her. She worries, sometimes, that Debbie’s against her, too.
She looks at the numbers covering Debbie’s sheet, across the table, upside-down. Gold, experience. And 7th level. Marcie would kill to be 7th level. And, actually, that’s the problem. Marcie’s got a good, sharp, mind, and of the three of them sitting there, Marcie, Mike, Debbie, looking over the cardboard screen at “Ms. Frost…” she’s the only one who understands the game being played.
The most important stuff’s in the red and blue boxes, or it should be. Those are the rules Marcie knows, and she’s studied them. By-laws and add-ons pop out at her from the Advanced books, the ones Ms. Frost won’t loan her, or the ones marked Arduin, but she’s got a good memory. Good enough to know that she and Debbie play by different rules.
Debbie’s just found a mace, plus one. Well, Debbie hasn’t. Elfstar has. Ms. Frost is strict on that. Even though Elfstar isn’t even an elf. Marcie brought that up, but she got shut down. That was the last time Debbie and Marcie quarreled, and Marcie keeps quiet now, because she doesn’t want that to happen again.
Mike’s not paying attention. He doesn’t, anymore. His hero, Ronin the Outcast, usually just stands and fights.
“I hit it with my club, he says,” and he goes back to reading Starlog.
There isn’t anything to hit with his club. The monsters are dead, that’s how Debbie got the mace.
But far be it from Ms. Frost to let that get in her way.
“Ronin hits the locked door with his club. A poison needle shoots out, towards…” she makes a show of considering, as if she hasn’t already decided. But at the heart of Ms. Frost is Gina, and Gina has a target already. “…Black Leaf.”
“–wait,” Marcie interjects, because she’s been here before, with Karyn the Amazon, with Bluebell the Magic-User. “I would have seen the trap.”
“Black Leaf would have seen the trap,” Debbie chides, and Marcie gets that sinking feeling.
“Black Leaf would have seen it, yeah, and she gets a roll to disarm traps.”
Gina looks at Debbie. Debbie shrugs.
“Okay, roll find traps.”
“Disarm. She’s already seen it. We agreed on that.”
The look between Gina and Debbie is longer this time.
“Shit, Marcie,” Gina says, the Ms. Frost voice slipping a little, before it comes back. “Black Leaf, roll disarm.”
Marcie picks up two of the ten-siders. She knows that Black Leaf probably isn’t supposed to even have the ability to find traps. The different rulebooks say different things, and Marcie knows one thing about rules. They exist to punish. Black Leaf was supposed to be the exception. The charts said she’d level faster. Marcie figured it’d take a few months, but she’d catch up to Elfstar. To Debbie.
Black Leaf’s chance of disarming the trap is abysmal, but Gina’s looking Debbie over and Mike’s got another magazine. Nobody’ll notice which die is the ones and which the tens…
…and wouldn’t you know it, she rolls an eight and a nine.
Gina’s eyes descend, the full glare of Ms. Frost, and the grave voice of the Dungeon Master.
“The thief, Black Leaf, did not find the poison trap, and I declare her dead.”
“I was rolling to disarm,” Marcie argues, “I already…”
Mike looks up.
“Could you quit the munchkin crap, Marcie, for like one single game?”
And Marcie breaks at that moment. She says it.
“This never happens to Debbie.”
Debbie looks at her, eyes cold as frost.
“Get out of here.”
Gina leans over the Dungeon Master’s screen to get between them.
“You can’t do this.”
It violates the rules. Dungeons & Dragons has rules, yes, but so do slumber parties, and the rule is: everyone but Mike can stay. But Marcie broke the rule about not criticizing Debbie, and now all the other rules are breaking.
“You’re dead,” Debbie says, flatly. She reaches across in front of Gina, grabs Marcie’s character sheet. “You don’t exist anymore.”
“Not Black Leaf…” Marcie whispers, as Debbie tears the sheet in half. The other girl doesn’t even look at the back side, where Black Leaf’s story was written, with the doodles of Black Leaf, and Elfstar, and even Ronin.
“You’re acting like a child, Marcie,” Gina says, confidently. “If you can’t handle your character dying, you shouldn’t play.”
“I don’t want to quit the game!” Marcie’s practically sobbing.
And then Mike, who never does anything at an appropriate moment, puts his hand on her shoulder.
“Come on, Marcie, I’ll take you home.”
Debbie and Gina are on the floor of the Debbie’s attic bedroom, later, looking up at the ceiling fan. They’ve taken a few beers from Debbie’s dad. There was giggling, and there’s been talk. Not about Marcie, not yet.
“Debbie,” Gina says. “We need to talk about her.”
Gina knows how far back the two go. She doesn’t know about the pinkie swears, the blood sisters… but she can guess. She turns her head, Debbie still looking up.
“She acts like a kid,” Debbie says. “I know.” She keeps looking at the fan.
“She’s your friend, Debbie, but you’re a lot more grown up.”
“She wants to go the same college. Be roommates.”
Gina feels a weird twinge. She ignores it.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. You’ve got a whole year, anyway, and… you can make other friends.”
Debbie turns to her.
“Yeah,” Gina says. “I mean, look, life is bigger than who you are in high school. I have other friends. They’re… older. More together.”
“Your circle,” Debbie sighs. She’s always liked grave Ms. Frost better than Gina with her witchy-fairy circles.
“There’s real power in being able to embrace yourself. Be yourself. Make friends. You’ve got the personality for it.”
“And cast magic missile?”
“It’s not like that, Debbie, you know it isn’t. Real magick is… special. Personal.”
“You know what the only good thing about my dad is?” Debbie asks. “He doesn’t make me go to church.”
“It’s not like fucking church. Just… come out with me tomorrow, right? At the very least, there’ll be wine. And, anyway… there’s another good thing about your dad.”
Debbie grimaces. The expression stays put a moment, until Gina’s hand touches her cheek.
“He lets me stay over.”
Debbie and Gina are falling all over each other, laughing.
“So it wasn’t just me?” Debbie says, looking Gina in her sparkling eyes.
“Ohh, no,” her friend replies. “Laura doesn’t think he’s quite cut out for a fertility god, either.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing nobody needs fertilizing,” and they crack up again.
“But, seriously,” Debbie says, as they get to the car, Debbie’s car, the nice one from Dad. “Seriously, you were right about this. I feel a lot better about myself. About… I dunno… my place.”
“So you’re not going to tease me about magic missiles anymore?” Gina asks.
“After tonight’s little show, I think that’s a fantasy that can stay put.”
“Good.” Gina’s smile is relief and warmth and then breaks into laughter. As she buckles up, she looks in the back seat.
There are boxes, books, miniatures still in the blisters. Brand new. The back seat’s piled high with them.
“What’s with the loot?”
“My Dad decided to talk to me about playing D&D.”
That twinge again. Gina’s gotten to know Debbie pretty well.
“So I cast a spell on him.” The smile lights Debbie’s face, but it’s fluorescent.
Gina reaches out to turn on the radio.
Marcie keeps her eyes locked on the phone, because it’s better than looking at Mom.
“You’re not leaving this room until you call her, Marcie.”
“You don’t get it, Mom, she doesn’t want to talk to me. I don’t want to talk to her.”
That’s not true, of course. Marcie wants to talk to Debbie, and desperately. But she can’t say a damn thing she wants to with her mother in the room. And… she doesn’t want to know. She’s heard Debbie’s got new friends, older friends, better friends.
Marcie, at this moment, feels acutely aware of her own adolescence. Maybe she’d hoped that would change when she let Mike drive her home, near a month ago now. But it didn’t.
Marcie tries to stare down her mother, and loses. She picks up the phone. Sighs. Dials.
“Jameson residence,” comes Gina’s voice. She sounds like Ms. Frost, grown up to be a secretary.
Mom looks at Marcie, expectantly.
“Uhm,” Marcie stumbles. Stupid, awkward kid. She tries to be poised. “May I speak to Debbie?”
“It’s Marcie,” Gina yells into the family room. The game’s set up there, though Mike’s a no-show, again. Just the adventures of Elfstar, tonight. Debbie straightens her character sheet.
“Tell her I’m busy. I want to finish fighting this zombie,” Debbie shouts back. Even though at two hit dice and Elfstar now at 8th level, there’s hardly anything to finish.
Gina glares at her. Gina hates loyalty, and all those other l words, but she’s got to do something. “She’s really upset.”
Debbie gives her a cold look, and Ms. Frost shivers, glad it’s not really meant for her.
“Tell her… tell her I’ll see her later.”
There never was a later. Debbie saw Marcie twice more. Once, hanging from a ceiling fan. Second… well, you know when.
Gina’s tried to listen, but Debbie won’t talk. Ms. Frost’s run D&D, but Debbie tunes out. They’re in the family room, looking at each other across the cardboard screen, when the tension breaks.
“If we hadn’t kicked her out, she’d still be alive.”
Marcie’s name hasn’t been mentioned tonight. Not once. But it doesn’t have to be. Marcie’s always there, at the back of all their conversations. She was, Gina thinks, even when she was alive.
“You know that’s not true, Debbie. She was messed up.”
“And if I hadn’t started going to circle with you, and we hadn’t…”
“Debbie, get your priorities straight. You are alive. Marcie is dead. Marcie is dead because she couldn’t handle real life, because she couldn’t do anything without you doing it first, because her character was too goddamn weak–”
“But the law of our faith says not to harm anyone, and we harmed Marcie, Gina. Us.”
They stare at each other in silence. Gina drops her eyes to the table, sees the minis, all laid out and waiting for them to play.
“Let’s not talk about her, Debbie,” Gina says, a tired note in her voice neither of them’s ever heard before. She picks up her random encounter chart, and gives the other girl a little smile. “Let’s let Elfstar take over for a while.”
It’s a long moment. Moments like this have to be. Debbie sighs.
“I don’t want to be Elfstar anymore.”
Four years at the stupid school, and what have they earned? The privilege to leave early on Fridays and the run of the senior courtyard. The courtyard’s a good place to sit alone. Debbie’s good at sitting alone.
Debbie doesn’t hear Mike come up on her.
“Hey, Debbie,” he says. “What’s wrong?”
Mike is the only person who would ever ask what’s wrong. Mike is the only person, or so Debbie imagines, that doesn’t know exactly what’s going on and always has been, since Girl Scouts, since pinkie swearing, since…
“I thought I had all the answers,” Debbie sighs. “And now… everything’s falling apart.”
Debbie hasn’t talked to Gina since school started. Mike looks at the ground.
“I’ve been praying for you.”
Whatever Debbie had been expecting…
“Why would you do that for me?”
“Because I know what you’re involved in.”
Debbie flushes. Even Mike knows.
“You’re involved in spiritual warfare, and you can’t win without the Lord Jesus.”
She almost laughs in relief. Maybe it isn’t written all over her.
“What can I do?” she asks, and she actually means it, because… well, at this point, she’ll try anything.
“Come with me to a meeting,” Mike says. “Meet some of my friends.”
And, yes, he’s a boy, but somebody asked her something similar once, and for a while she felt so free.
Debbie’s sins have been confessed. Her tears have been shed, again and again and, she hopes, never again.
She’s listened to Brother Raymond preach on about the occult powers of rock music and Dungeons & Dragons. And he’s a crazy guy with a moustache ten years out of fashion, but some of what he says makes sense. He talks about power and, yeah, wasn’t that what she was always after? Wasn’t that why she let Marcie tag along after her those twelve long, precious years? Wasn’t that what she never had, growing up with her father always at the corner of her eye?
It was what Gina had promised. Power over her own life. Gina. Gone away to college and good riddance.
When it comes time for the bonfire, everyone sees Debbie throw the books and the boxes on the fire. They don’t see everything. They don’t see that she kept the miniatures, including an Elfstar, tucked away in her jewelry box.
And they don’t see what’s inside the last box she throws on the fire. A “basic rulebook.” A module called “Into the Unknown.”
And a torn up character sheet, for someone named Black Leaf.