“Christ! What’s that smell?”
“Dunno, it comes from that hole over there. I reckon the council workers killed someone and dumped the body.” Karen wrinkled her nose, “actually, I think the smell is worse since yesterday. Maybe there’s more than one body. They looked pretty shifty – I wouldn’t rule out they’re really a satanic cult of serial killers.”
For this I gave up a night of binge watching my favourite TV show? The only positive thing about the smell was that it was outside Karen’s door and not mine. And although I’d never smelled a decaying corpse I tended to agree with her council worker/serial killer theory.
“Only a dead body or a conservative politician would smell that bad,” I ventured.
“Still with the biting social commentary, I see. Watch out you don’t cut yourself on all that edge.”
“Really? That’s how it’s going to be tonight? Remind me again why I’ve come out rather than being home comfortable in my onesie?”
“I can’t believe that’s actually a question. In what world is you in a onesie a good thing?”
“Hey, don’t pick on my Totoro onesie. It’s great. I put it on and hang out at bus stops.”
“You know, recreating the scene from the movie…” Each word of that sentence felt like less of a good idea than the previous one.
“Uhhhh, I don’t actually do that.”
Karen pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.
“Anyway,” I said, changing the subject, “that hole smells disgusting. Let’s go inside.”
“Nice escape attempt. Before we do, go closer and check it out. It’s even worse up close.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m watching a movie, if the probably evil character tells another character to look at the suspicious object/alien egg/portal to a hell dimension more closely I’m the first to complain that only a moron would do that. So don’t make this into a movie or I’ll think I’m an idiot as a character.
I mean, nobody would really fall for such an obvious trick. Except me, apparently. Honestly, it seemed like a reasonable suggestion at the time. I don’t know why I didn’t read anything into her sly grin as she suggested it. I obediently went and looked in.
Although we weren’t yet into winter it was getting dark earlier these days and shadows swallowed up details quickly as twilight set in. Tonight it was even more so because of the heavy, low cloud cover. The clouds were reflecting the street lights and made it feel like we were in a cave rather than out in the street. The closest streetlight was about halfway down the block. Its orange glow wasn’t strong enough to illuminate anything around us. I crouched down and peered into the hole.
Nothing unusual at first. It was basically a hole (what was I expecting?) – roughly circular, about an arm’s length across with jagged edges cut by some heavy tool. But at close range it was oddly different. It was filled with an impenetrable darkness. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. An uneasy feeling of deja vu was coming over me. At this close range the stench was overpowering but the blackness drew me in. The darkness seemed to spill out, filling my vision.
Whoa, keep a grip on reality. You’re moving your head closer to the hole, that’s all. Closer to the blackness I’ve seen so many times. But this time it’s real. It’s beyond an absence of light. It’s something solid in itself. Lightning tears the sky. Lights up the whole street for one brilliant moment. Does nothing to the blackness in the hole.
Or… was that a movement. Something on the edge of perception…
A sharp push from behind broke the spell. I barely saved myself from what I was sure at the time was a nasty fall. I jumped up and yelled some more, this time directly at Karen who seemed to find no end of mirth in the situation.
“Big bloody joke! I nearly fell in!”
“Oh come off it, that huge head of yours wouldn’t even fit, let alone the rest of your body.”
I was slightly surprised she only managed one put down between the gales of laughter, which was the only positive thing for me in the whole situation. Still, i could hardly blame her for laughing. The simplest of tricks had worked. Hole in the ground, Michael looks in, Karen goes “BOO!” Michael is scared half to death and almost falls in. But even the embarrassment of the situation could not completely kill the feeling that something was lurking there.
“That hole is really weird. It isn’t normal. They should fill it in.”
“Freaked you out, huh?”
I could have denied it. But there was hardly any point. It was obvious. I was freaked out.
“Remember that feeling. It might come in handy during the game.”
Another huge warning sign that got right by me. At the time I was glad for the change of subject and I leapt upon it eagerly.
“So who are we waiting on?”
“Nobody. Everyone else is busy. It’s you and me alone tonight.”
I swear I am not stupid. Looking back, this and all the other warning signs were right out in the open for me. But I didn’t see the setup coming. Like the sly grin earlier, this went right over my head. On the surface, this was nothing outlandish – I had played solo adventures before. So I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary.
We left the hole to its own (undoubtedly evil) devices and walked up the stairs, each one creaking its protest, to Karen’s flat. Like me, Karen was living away from home for the first time to go to university and we both reveled in having complete control over our environments for the first time. It’s funny when I look at my friends’ places – we all clearly decided there was no way we were going to decorate the same way our parents did. We were going to express our individuality. Which made it really disturbing to acknowledge how similar so many of our homes were.
The furniture was mostly second-hand, more about comfort than looks. Maybe we bought it from an op shop or an online trading post, maybe we scored it from our parents or maybe it was what I called “urban recycling” – someone better off than us dumped it on the footpath to be collected with the rubbish but some opportunistic students liberated it before it was carted away. Cheap is good – free is better. Like the vinyl lounge I had. Sure, it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen but I didn’t have to pay for it and it could fit four people. We covered the walls with posters of bands our parents had never heard of and played music they didn’t understand.
“Do you want a cuppa before we start?”
“Oh god, yes.”
A pre-game cup of Earl Grey tea was somewhat of a tradition in the circle of gamers that Karen and I played with. I think it started as a Star Trek TNG reference (“Earl Grey – hot” as ordered by Captain Picard) that was intended to be ironic but over time it simply became the thing we did. After the ordeal I had been put through it was a necessity.
We had the usual argument about me taking too much sugar (I know people who take way more than three) and how only philistines have it with milk. Then we were able to settle down. Between sips, I passed the time by reading the side of the box the tea had come from to discover the enthralling story of how many Earls Grey had had this tea blended especially for their family. I was struck by the use of surname only in the signature of the current (sixth, I believe) Earl Grey.
“What sort of wanker uses only one name?”
“You mean like ‘Droban’?”
Ouch. She got me there. Droban was the name of the character I had been playing for years and would be playing in tonight’s game. He was my favourite character. Karen made the comment seem lighthearted, barely a barb at all but there was no mistaking her meaning. I knew what her smile was this time as well. An extra smackdown putting me well and truly in my place. I started to realise now I was in trouble. She was attacking my character before we even started.
She was out to get me.
This particular character did use more than one name originally. I initially called him “Droban The Terminator” and you honestly don’t have to tell me how juvenile that is. In retrospect, being sixteen hardly seems a good enough excuse. It took me a couple of years of derision about “macho fantasies” to swallow my pride and cut the name back to Droban. And now that was working against me.
“OK then, assuming the personal insults are done with, why don’t we play?”
Karen walked past me into the lounge room. She seemed to enjoy my discomfort and was doubtless planning to increase it as the night wore on. For the moment though, she was content to set up the game.
All the components were in one box: dice, pencils, mapping paper and rule books. One box and our imagination were all we needed. It was enough to create whole worlds. I sat down opposite Karen, ready to begin. Every game was a fight for survival and I knew tonight would be even more so. Nobody liked to lose characters and the dungeon master (DM) would usually cut you some slack if you played creatively but the game wasn’t as much fun if your characters weren’t at some genuine risk. So occasionally much-loved characters that had been developed over years would be killed.
I would have to think quickly tonight if I wanted Droban to get through.
“So where does this epic begin?”
Karen smiled another enigmatic smile. Usually I would assume she was trying to put me at ease. This was definitely not usual. I was playing not so much against the Mona Lisa as against that shark in Finding Nemo that is welcoming its new “friend”.
“It starts easily enough. First up you’re recuperating from your previous adventure.”
“Fine, where am I?”
“In a village.”
“Have I been there before?”
I had. The dice rolled. The game had begun.