There are dead ants in the spine of the Monstrous Manual.
When I turn the glossy white pages they stick together, crackling apart with disintegrating exoskeletons. I try to brush them out, but the black bodies smear, obscuring the hit points of a roaring Chromatic Dragon. And it doesn’t matter anyway, two more of them crawl from the plywood deck, over my knees and onto the pages.
“Leave it,” James says, looking up from his sheaf of printed papers. The adventure. He sits behind a folded piece of cardboard, his legs crossed, fidgeting with dice.
“But the ants,” I say.
Matty pulls the book from my hands, aligns the page on the edge of the tree house, and then flicks the ant off with his fingernail. The tiny fleck vanishes.
“So you see the kobold leader sneering. He’s holding a knife to Kya’s neck. ‘I know you’re there!’ he cries.” James makes funny imitations of the different monsters in the Monstrous Manual.
I flip over to the kobold, a sad gray little goat man holding a spear. Matty smirks at me.
“I’m gonna throw my magic ninja stars at the kobold’s hand.”
“Uhhh,” James says, flipping a few pages forward in the printed packet. “You sure?”
“Yep,” says Matty. The only thing he holds in his lap is a desiccated scrap of paper, scribbled with notes and diagrams, and black smears where erasers have worn away the current count of hit points and experience points, again and again.
“Roll a D20.”
“Gonna use my precision throwing talent. And the magic bracers.”
“Yes, the bonuses.”
James hands Matty the dice. Matty cradles it in his meaty, sweaty fist, and then tosses it. It bounces with a few sharp clunks against the plywood, then takes a bad hop and falls off the edge.
James sighs. Matty starts to get up.
But I’m past him, leaping off the edge into the pile of dead leaves below.
I spot the dice nestled against a pine cone.
“What’d it land on?” Matty shouts down.
“Uh…an 18.” It’s sort of on the side, between an 18 and a 3. But things are more fun when Matty rolls high numbers.
“You can’t,” James starts.
“That was my roll,” says Matty, firm.
“Fine,” James relents. “The throwing star flies true, and severs the hand of the kobold leader, before continuing into his throat. He falls over with a gurgle. Kya is safe.”
A shrill whistle cuts through the early evening air. “Dinner!” calls Mom.
“50 xp,” says James, already folding the books and papers into neat stacks and placing them in an old plastic tool case. “We’ll play after dinner.”
Matty hands over his character sheet, then leaps off the tree house, landing with a thud and a roll in the old soggy leaves.
“Right in the deer poop,” James says, climbing carefully down with the case.
But Matty and me are already racing back to the house.
I get a drink with Matty in a rundown dive bar on the east side. He’s growing his hair out. He’s wearing a vintage tee, a video game belt buckle, skate shoes and skinny jeans.
We sit at the bar and sip our craft ales and he tells me stories from the industry.
“This chick Rachel is pretty cool. She went to our high school. She was telling me about the crazy stuff these actors want in their rooms. Imported coconut water. Japanese toilets. These health magnet things.
“So anyway she’s in there to drop off some catering, pick up some dry cleaning. And in the pants pockets off these jeans is a wad of bills. As thick as my fist.”
He brings up his meaty hand to emphasize.
“What did she do?”
“What do you think,” he smirks. “Took em to the dry cleaning.” He sips on his beer.
“You sleep with her?”
He sucks on his lips “Maybe. Yea.”
“You like her.”
“You said that.”
“She’s a thief.”
“I always thought thieves were kinda cool,” he says, looking wistful.
“Maalox’s guard is on the alert, now that he’s found his dead companions,” says James. He rolls a hidden dice behind the Dungeon Master’s shield. “He begins to look up towards your position in the rafters.”
“Swing down and backstab him,” says Matty.
“Roll for Dexterity,” says James.
Matty tosses the dice and it bounces around on the dusty plywood, coming to rest on a three.
“You lose your grip and fall right in front of the guard, who swings at you.”
James rolls a few dice, frowns.
“His attack nearly cuts you in half, but you dodge at the last minute, doing three hit points of damage.”
Matty erases the corner of his character sheet.
“This guy is dead. Impale him with my ranseur pole.”
Dice are rolled. Verdicts are made.
“You kill the guard and step into the shadows. Deeper into the layer of Maalox’s cultists.”
A breeze picks up, ruffling the papers on the tree house. A screen door slams at a neighbor’s house, muffled yelling.
The neighbor kid – Cliff – sometimes plays with us. But usually his Dad just yells at him to pick up the yard.
James doesn’t play very much with the other neighborhood kids. They chased him home from the bus stop a few times, his heavy backpack bouncing, khakis stained from tripping in the grass.
Then there was “the war”.
Back in the woods, one of the trees grows these big green seeds. The kids call them monkey balls. When they first fall, they’re as hard as a baseball, but they get soft and rotten and stink.
All the neighborhood kids thought it would be fun to have a war with the monkey balls. Sneaking through the woods, throwing them at each other.
But when the armies got drawn up, it was everyone against Cliff and James and Matty. I watched from the climbing tree as my brothers set up a fort of sticks and leaves and stacked ammo. James went out to scout, but came sprinting back. Some big kid pegged him in the back. Matty put up a good fight, but someone threw a stick and it hit Cliff on the cheek, leaving a mark. He ran home, starting to cry, more in fear of his Dad than the encroaching enemy.
The war petered out, and I followed my brothers inside, watching as they washed the sticky monkey ball goop off their hands.
Mom ended up driving Matty over to a friend’s house, but James sat alone in the basement office, in the half dark, flipping through a fantasy novel, waiting for the crackling modem to connect to the internet.
We all catch the bus in the morning.
It’s a long hike up the hill, in the cold, wearing heavy backpacks. The cool kids slick back their hair, their pants tight against their ankles, and carry their packs on one shoulder. They all wear the same brand of clothes from stores in the mall. Mom doesn’t buy us clothes from the mall. She says it’s too expensive. So she takes us to TJ Max.
James had holes in his shoes from scuffing around on his skateboard, so Mom took him to Payless. He picked out a pair of white shoes with a red sole and proudly wore them to school the next day. But that afternoon he came home and put the shoes in the back of his closet and went back to wearing the shoes with holes.
In the early morning we stumble to the kitchen for cereal. We’re not to bother Dad. He’s having prayer time.
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him in the living room. He’s kneeling in front of the couch, an old notebook and Bible in front of him. He kneels with his hands folded and his thumbs in his eyes.
On Sunday and Wednesday he takes us to Church. The singing is nice, and some of my friends are there. Only a few of the other girls are mean, but most are happy, and we sneak down to the youth room to play ping pong and drink coke.
My dad is more serious with James. They go on long walks in the woods together. Dad gives James book of the Bible to read. Assignments and coursework. James doesn’t mind. He seems to like it. Reading through thick books is sort of his thing.
I go to see James on a Holiday break.
He lives in another town and I fly in and meet him and his wife at the airport. We drive for a long time to a nice house in the suburbs. The yard is well kept and we eat barbeque on the back patio.
“How’s Matty?” he asks, serving me a portabella on a wheat bun. “I never hear from him.”
“He has his own schedule,” I say.
“Parties all the time?”
I shrug. “I guess. He works too.”
“Doesn’t seem like he works very hard,” says James’s wife. “Those pictures he posts. Pretty slutty girls.”
“They’re harmless,” James says, shrugging it off. “Wish he’d come out here though.”
A smart phone chirps with urgency.
James taps it on, quickly reads through, furiously composes a reply with his thumbs.
“So you are you happy?” I ask him when he looks up. “With all this?”
He’s thoughtful for a moment, genuinely considering the question, analyzing the weighted values of pros and cons.
“You know, I am. I feel like I’ve built something. Constructed a life.”
We go inside for a drink. He pours me a glass of an old, expensive whiskey.
In his den are shelves piled high with novels and nonfiction, bold titles on science and history and math and computing. There are a few I remember from back in the day.
But the Monstrous Manual is not among them.
Dad was good at making fires.
He was proud of his Eagle Scout badge, his expeditions to the high Sierras. He gathers sticks and kindling, “squaw wood” snapped off from the underside of hemlocks and pines. He arranges them in a perfect pyramid in the middle of the yard, on a patch of bare earth surrounded by stones. And this time, for good measure, he dumps a gallon of gasoline on top.
Dad lights a scrap of paper with a match and tosses it on the pile, and with a hot whoosh the entire thing is on fire. The flames look weird and small in the broad daylight.
James comes up, pushing the wheelbarrow. Matty solemn behind him. Stacked in the rusty bed are his books and magazines, the cardboard shield, the dice, even the little metal figures Matty carefully painted red and gold.
“Do we have to?” Matty whispers in a sort of whine.
“Yes,” says James. He’s stoic. Dad says nothing.
“The dragon sleeps on his pile of gold, his tail curled around the stalagmites. You can see smoke rising from his nostrils.”
“Do I see any weaknesses?” Matty asks, fiddling with a scrap of string on his cargo shorts.
“There are none on the body of the dragon itself, but you do see an enormous stalactite hanging directly over his neck.”
“Can it be broken loose?”
“You’ll have to find out,” says James.
“I’m an acrobat,” says Matty. “I’ll climb up there.”
Matty rolls a 7, but I can tell James likes the plan so he lets it slide.
“You climb to the ceiling of the cavern and expertly begin to cross from one pillar of stone to the next. You reach the final enormous stalactite and crouch where it meets the roof the cavern, a hundred feet above the sleeping dragon below. You see thin cracks along the stone, but when you push against it, it doesn’t budge.
“Excellent,” says Matty, peering at his cryptic character sheet. “I pull out my explosives and wedge them into the cracks.”
“Explosives?” says James, confused. “You don’t have any…”
“Gnomish fireworks,” says Matty, grinning. “Got em back at level two.”
James clenches his jaw. “You reach into your pack to pull out the gnomish fireworks, but as you do so, some pebbles are knocked loose from the rock. They rain down on the dragon, who momentarily snorts a small jet of flame. But it doesn’t wake up, just curls into the fetal position. Its head and neck are now out of range of the stalactite.”
“Damn,” says Matty. “Wish someone was down there to distract him.”
My ears perk up. “I can,” I say. “I can be a young ranger, exploring the cave.”
James looks at me.
“It’s sort of complicated.”
“I can do it.”
“Maybe next time. This is a dragon encounter.”
“No,” James says.
I jump off the treehouse into the leaves, hiking back to the house. They can play their stupid game alone.
“Honey,” Mom says. “You coming in?”
She sees me and comes over. “What’s wrong?”
“The boys are just being stupid.”
“Are they with that Dan boy?”
“Yea, they are always talking about playing with Dan.”
I snort. “Dand. With a D at the end. D and D.”
“D and D?” she says. “What’s that?”
“Dungeons and Dragons.”
“Oh,” says Mom, her mouth opening.
“Honey,” she says to Dad, who is fooling with the pipes under the sink. “They’re playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
Dad pops out, toweling off his hands. His eyes look sad and tired. “I heard.”
“You should talk to them,” Mom says.
“I’ll talk to James,” Dad says, ducking back under the sink.
Another round of drinks and Matty is just getting started for the night.
We wander over to a place called BarCade and get twenty dollars in quarters to feed into retro arcade machines. Matty is transfixed on a game of Golden Axe, slaughtering minotaurs, a brutal Viking with a dwarf on his shoulder.
“You working tomorrow?” I ask.
“Dunno,” he says. “Gotta check the schedule.”
“Any weekend plans?”
“Dunno,” he says.
“Gotta check the schedule.”
He’s mute, intense, button mashing. “Yea,” he finally exhales, the screen going red.
We stumble into another themed bar.
This one broadcasts old science fiction movies onto big screens against the wall, and DJs mix the audio clips into dubstep and house music. Kaleidoscopic lights give the whole thing a trippy ambience.
Matty orders an absinthe, a tower of ornate brass that drips green liquor on a sugar cube into his glass.
We sit and drink and sink into the leather couches. Matty plays with his phone.
“Matty!” some guy calls from across the room. My brother looks up. The guy has a flawless complexion and gleaming white teeth, but his head looks one size too small.
“Chip, buddy!” Matty gets up, clapping the guy on the back. Lethargy replaced with charisma.
“So I got a spot for you,” says Chip. “Union gig, grip, maybe even some lines. You in?”
“You bet.” Matty beams back, handshakes and back slaps.
“Great!” returns Chip, breaking free, straightening up. “We start Monday. Five AM. See ya.”
I raise my glass to Matty. “You just got a job, huh?”
“Just got a job. Gotta quit another one though.”
“Maybe it is. The universe or whatever. Sometimes things just work out.”
It’s cold at the bus stop.
The kids are underdressed in thin sweatshirts and jeans. Some even in shorts. Damp, gelled hair. Wind whips through the trees, most still naked in the early spring. James wears a hoodie and leans into the wind, reading a fantasy paperback.
A girl in his grade steps up to him, leaning in to look at the cover.
“Good book, huh?” she asks him, smiling.
“Yea,” he mutters, just looking up.
“What’s it about?” she asks. “Dragons?”
“There are dragons,” replies James.
“Big, flaming, pink dragons?” says a blonde guy, older, leaning in next to the girl.
The book’s cover is faded, so the fiery red drake is a little pink.
“You like gay dragons,” says the girl, grabbing the pull strings of hoodie. The blonde guy laughs.
They pull his hoodie down over his face, knocking the book from his hands and begin kicking him in the shins.
James doesn’t react, he just tries to back away, reaching down for the book. But the girl yanks the cords and he’s stuck. “Ok, ok,” he pleads, muffled from the hood.
Matty and I just sort of stare, too frozen to react.
And then the bus roars up, honking its horn, and everything goes back to normal.
Dad takes James to some sort of weekend retreat. Church stuff. Serious stuff.
I overhear my parents. “It’s demonic,” I hear Mom say.
“He’ll have to decide,” Day says. “He’s mature enough.”
In his study James props up his feet, turning the sweating glass over in his hands. He flips through a few books he’s reading and we trade authors that we’ve enjoyed lately. Murukami. Delillo. Chabon.
“I wish he’d call me,” he finally says. “Matty. We used to be such pals. Did everything together.”
“He doesn’t think you have time for him. A life of responsibility.”
“Some people have to work,” James says. “I mean not everyone can float through life. Someone has to turn the clocks. Make the engines run.”
“He knows that,” I say. “I just think he’d rather live in the illusion that it’s all magic.”
“That’s the funny thing,” says James. “Once you know how the trick works, you have all the power. But none of the wonder. And it’s no longer magic, it’s a job.”
The handwritten and printed sheets go on first, and they flicker and curl into white ash almost instantly. Then the cardboard shield and the tomes. The wizards and warriors in vibrant cloaks and gleaming chain mail, curl and melt. The ink from the pages feeds the fire, which shifts green and blue. Eerie incantations in the flame. Matty tosses on his character sheets and figurines. The sack of dice falls into the ash with a hiss. The Monstrous Manual with its beautiful drawings of horror and wonder. The fire consumes all, and we stand there in the daylight and the smoke puffs up higher than the big climbing tree, past the treehouse, out over the woods.
Matty is sullen, but James has his arms folded, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
When the fire burns to a heap of smoldering ash, Dad pours a bucket of water on it. Then shovels the ash into the wheelbarrow. He dumps it into the leaf pile beneath the tree house.
Days later, I stumble across that spot, already growing back young green grass. Something plastic and artificial glints in the mud. I pick it up, brush it off and look at it.
A geometric shape. Hard corners. Symmetry, and twenty numbers on the faces, each one a universe ready to spring forth.