“I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
~ Mark Twain
From the kitchen table, Nick Morrison watched leaves all the colours of roaring flames meander down to settle like Viking funeral boats onto the river.
He had made short work of his book report for Mr. Latimer and pretended he was still at it for the benefit of his mother in the living room. He and Andy had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit way back in Grade 2. There was likely no book either of them knew better. It— along with The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion — had been something of a religion to them in their adventures across the forests of Foxboro and Corbyville. Indeed, painted in elegant silver strokes on the dark blue mailbox at the end of the Morrison’s driveway was the word Imladris. It meant Rivendell in the Sindarin tongue of Tolkien’s elves: a place of refuge and reflection for weary travelers.
He closed his English binder and put his pen in his pencil case.
“All done! And exquisitely reasoned and presented as usual. I’m off to the Grayson’s for D&D,” he yelled into the living room. He was sure to amplify the D&D part for his mother.
A monotone “Have fun,” came back from his dad. Nothing from mom. Her disapproval of the game was well known and Nick revelled in it.
Pulling on his new Quinte Saints football jacket, he grabbed his set of red translucent dice off of the Players Handbook on the bench by the door. They were marvellous to him — like sacred gems from the dawn of time. With effort, he worked them down into the pocket of his too-tight Jordache jeans. He checked to make sure his player character sheet was still tucked inside the book.
He hollered over his shoulder as he left.
“I’ll leave the axe I’ve been sharpening in the garage. Demonic possessions and all. Can’t be too careful.”
His father’s laugh made Nick smile, and he savoured how much that laughing would irritate his mother.
The Morrisons’ porch door opened onto the same gravel driveway the Crowleys used. Andy was there strapping his Adidas bag to the crossbar of his BMX bike with bungie cords. Nick’s eyes seized immediately on the purple, velvet bag at Andy’s hip. Its gold cord was threaded through a belt loop in his jeans. The bag, which had once held a bottle of expensive Canadian whiskey, now held the Dungeon Master’s dice. Nick looked quickly away. He didn’t want to think about them, for those dice would determine the fortune and fate of Argwain Cirth, his eighth-level, half-elf ranger.
Faded, pockmarked and rounded at the edges, they were from the first basic D&D set TSR released in 1977 and they were the only dice Andy Crowley had ever owned. Andy had gibbered on to him once — in that way of his — about how they were The Platonic Solids: the fundamental geometric forms of all reality. As usual, he hadn’t really listened to Andy. All he knew was Argwain Cirth’s destiny would be decided by them — and that made them the most fearsome artifacts conceivable.
He didn’t want to think about that.
“Did you get your Bilbo-ography done?” He said, knowing full well what Andy’s answer would be.
“Bother burgling and book reports and everything to do with both of them,” Andy said in his best Bilbo Baggins Shire accent. “I’ll write it Monday morning.”
Nick frowned. He knew Andy better than anyone except maybe Deb, and had always lamented his best friend’s unwillingness to play along — to fit in. He had tried for years to get him to give a shit about his marks at school, to wear something other than concert shirts and Levis, and to take some sort of interest in girls and sports. All of his efforts had been to no avail. After Andy had quit smoking and lost weight last summer, Nick had hoped high school might spur some kind of change. But two weeks in, Nick worried now more than ever about what kind of future his best friend was setting himself up for. Even worse, he had taken to thinking they were doomed to grow farther and farther apart.
Andy had been through a lot. His dad’s drinking, his mom’s church-thing. Who in Hell left their kid to be raised by his older sister? Nick thought. Mr. and Mrs. Crowley had been like parents to him too. It made him sad to hate them. The whole thing was a mess. Was it any wonder Andy was such a malcontent? It was all made worse by the fact he was the smartest person Nick knew. “Smart all the way back ’round to stupid,” his mom always said. And she loved Andy like another son.
Nick thought better of challenging him to do his school work again. After all these years it had never gotten him anywhere. He thought of bringing up what had happened on the bus with Scott St. Pierre. Deb had told him at the mall. Funny he thought. He and Deb always seemed to talk about Andy at the mall — a place he refused to step foot in.
It was game night after all. Why pontificate on homework? But Nick could not quell the creeping sadness that swelled in the back of his mind. The chill in the air, the earlier dusk and the fallen leaves swirling about them didn’t help.
All things end, a voice inside him said — though he felt the words more than heard them.
“Nothing too mind-bendy, for poor Mr. Latimer if you can manage it,” he said. His sympathy for Andy’s teachers was genuine. “No comparing Beorn’s lodge to the night you spent on astral plane with the mayor-of-hyena-people-town’s harem.”
“Gnolls,” Andy muttered matter-of-factly as he straddled his bike. A C-3P0 Star Wars card clothes-pinned to the forks chattered over the spokes as he started up the driveway.
“Hyena-people? Shameful!” Andy admonished over his shoulder. “Read your Monster Manual son.”
Smiling at his best friend and his Dungeon Master, Nick launched onto his pedals in a standing drive into the wake of flaming leaves Andy Crowley tore down the driveway to the River Road.
Andy thought of Nick as a brother and was sure he always would. The two of them, along with Deb, had grown up together on the River Road. But he knew Nick was struggling with their friendship lately.
He had always known Nick would be successful in the way society measure success. Nick Morrison was handsome, athletic, smart, and disciplined. The girls loved him. The coaches loved him. The teachers loved him. That their fork in the road would appear on the horizon had been as certain as the return of a Canadian winter.
Andy recalled the time they raided Mr. Morrison’s liquor cabinet and he had told Nick how much he was enjoying Michael Moorcock. Nick had cried blasphemy against Tolkien — a betrayal of their sacred brotherhood. The alcohol escalated things to the edge of a drunken brawl. The whole matter — especially considering what he’d seen booze do to his father — had unsettled Andy so much, he hadn’t drunk since.
High school seemed to be accelerating the inevitable, and Andy had been meditating on this frequently. There was no point in grasping. Attachments were the bars of the prison that kept us from truth.
If you have a problem that has a solution, what is achieved by worrying about it? If you have a problem that has no solution, what is achieved by worrying about it?
Besides. It was game night.
“Total bullshit!” Dave O’Finnegan slammed the palms of both his hands down onto the flimsy, green card table. His freckled face was as red as his hair. “I sneak in, AGAIN; set off a trap, AGAIN; barely make a saving throw AGAIN” — he lunged for the Marvel superheroes thermos on the floor by his chair and took a gulp from it. Then he winced and bellowed, “Then it’s all big people treasure. ALL THE GODDAMN TIME!”
Every one recoiled from the spray of rye whiskey and ginger ale that delivered his angry words. For a moment, the musty, teenage boy smell of the Grayson brothers’ rec room took on a tinge of gingery rocket fuel.
“Say it! Don’t spray it, asshole!” Jason Baker yelled. “And slow down!” O’Finnegan was notoriously obnoxious on an average day — exponentially so when he was drinking.
“Treasure is not everything, halfling.” A calm suddenly came over everyone at the table and they turned to revere the words of the Dungeon Master. “For Brudo Thornshrike of Moonsmoor has learned much in the grey arts of stealth and lockpicking. And despite his incorrigible demeanour and frequent pettiness, he has more than shown his worth to his companions of late,” Andy paused for dramatic effect.
“Brudo Thornshrike’s small stature may limit his access to the spoils of war, but experience is a treasure in-and-of-itself — and so our halfling thief has risen a level.”
Dave’s expression went blank and everyone at the table braced for what they new came next. Jay and Dave Grayson (there always seemed to be more than one Dave) seized the opportunity the pause presented to reach for their drinks on the floor, and in so doing, avoid getting sprayed again.
“Seriously?” he asked. His disbelief was genuine. “10th level already?”
Ian Grayson hoisted a beer over the center of the table. “To Brudo Thornshrike!” he hollered and the party cheered.
“Weasel, snake, creeper, swine and drunkard!” Ian embellished. Another roar went up from the group. Brudo’s was the most enthusiastic of all. He drained his thermos and slammed it upside down on the table. Polyhedral dice and lead miniatures of a thief, a ranger, a cleric, a druid, a magic-user, and three fighters were sent every which way.
Andy was happiest in these moments. He looked at the dice scattered across the hexagonal map — a yellow four-sided, red six-sided, green eight-sided, blue twelve-sided, and a white twenty-sided.
Though few knew it, these dice were modeled on The Platonic Solids, the fundamental forms of reality. Andy wondered if, when used in the manner he used them every Friday night, they were generating new realities on planes within the mind. He wondered if, at the very least, they functioned to dissolve — even to a minuscule degree — the constructed everyday identities of his friends around this table as they shifted their energies into other selves experiencing the inner planes.
Was he a missionary of mysticism? Were his friend’s unwitting disciples toeing the thinnest edge of a wedge into the realm of the only true faith possible: the Eden of belief in no belief where transcendence of dogma and delineation alike bestowed ultimate grace. A realm of peace and a joy beyond the relative confinement of this realm’s nonsensical conceptualizations: countries and races, political affiliations and religions, letters and numbers — self and other?
His dice were his witch’s wand, his wizard’s staff — the veritable keys to — call it Nirvana, call it Valhalla, call it the Kingdom of God, found just the other side of the putting away of childish things.
Then, suddenly, his mind exploded. Something was wrong with Deb. The terror she felt assailed his wits. And in flash, he saw through her eyes what frightened her.
Frantically, he gathered his dice and dropped them into the purple bag at his hip.
“Nick, you should stay.” He said it like a command and Nick’s face darkened.
“See you guys,” he managed as he bolted for the door.
They’d seen it all before.
Rolling his eyes, Nick drained another bottle of Black Label. With Andy gone this would be the perfect opportunity to pitch the guys on changing game night from Fridays so they could go to the dances held at Club Cedars just down the road. He knew Andy wouldn’t like it, but in that very instant, like a dam that had restrained more river than was possible for far too long, he let go. For the first time in his life, he felt the relief of not considering what Andy Crowley thought.
He liked it.
They’ll see it my way, he thought.
Then, with a confidence and deftness that amazed everyone there, Nick Morrison, slammed the cap off another beer with the edge of the rickety card table.