~ a short story
Clouds gathered over the house. The door clicked behind Roc as he crossed the threshold. The rain began to fall outside. He turned and locked the door from muscle memory. Instantly, the soft pattering turned to hard slaps.
“I’m here!” Roc shouted. Dropping his backpack with a clattering, he began to stomp his way into the hallway toward the living room. Roc scanned for the cat. He liked to chase her.
“Quiet down Roc!
“Where is everybody?” Roc returned without hesitation.
“They’re upstairs!” John’s Mom shouted from the other room. She’d never met Roc’s parents, but she resented them out of hand. No kid was born an unconscionable rascal, she believed. This kid was made via foolhardy parenting.
Matt unseated himself from the table and gave Martha a pleasant nod of thanks for the breakfast and coffee. Mug in hand, he headed out of the kitchen and into the hallway to intercept Roc. The hall was suddenly empty. Roc’s shifty form was nowhere to be found. He glanced down at the backpack on the mat before the door. He rolled his eyes. Taking a sip, he moved immediately to open the small door underneath the stairs.
From out of the cubby, Roc pounced with a shriek and Matt turned deftly to avoid his emergence. A couple drops of coffee spilled. Matt cursed internally.
“Olay!” Matt deadpanned.
“Eck. Why are you drinking that hot poo-piss,” Roc laughed into Matt’s face. Roc’s lanky form and dirty blond hair shook in bouts. His face was never at peace, always shaping itself into some newer, odder form. Roc appeared unfazed by his failed surprise attack. Perhaps he knew there would be other opportunities.
“Hey!” John’s Mom surfaced from the kitchen.
Before Matt could respond or Martha could catch him, Roc slid over on his socks to pick up his backback. He run upstairs giggling like a madman.
“Always a pleasure,” Matt said to no one in particular. He finished his coffee and handed the mug back. “Thanks again.” He started upstairs as well.
“Y’all don’t destroy anything up there alright Matthew! I’ll be expecting you to keep them in line,” Martha commanded him, but with a smile.
Matt smiled back, not really understanding the imperative to not destroy, and nodded,
“Of course.” We are not so particularly ‘destructive’ are we? The plan was to play some games, as always.
He glanced out into the downpour through the windows before turning the corner and heading up the steps two at a time.
Matt turned the corner at the top of the stairs and started to approach John’s room at the end of the hall. But then he heard shouting from above and behind him. Monty, the black cat scurried from out of one of the other rooms, through his legs, and back down the stairs.
“Matt, get up here, hurry you gotta see this!”
Pete. Upstairs. But I’m already upstairs… He turned to gaze down the other end of the hall and saw a drop-down ladder leading up. The attic. In all the times he’d come over here, Matt hadn’t even known about it. An exhilarating surge of curiosity coursed through him. What’s up there?
Matt walked over and grabbed one of the bottom rungs. Above was nothing but a musty darkness. He started to shout something back but right as he breathed in a crash of lightning struck outside. When he opened his eyes again, Roc was there, staring down at him. His face was lit up from a light now emanating from within the previous darkness of the attic. He smiled and flashed his light down into Matt’s face.
“Get up here!”
“Get that outta my face.”
Matt climbed up and surfaced to a large, steepled room full of junk. It stretched the full length of the house. More spacious and more full than he expected. The air was dominated by a fetid musk and he found himself having to blink through an apparent haze. He stifled a cough and waved the air before his face, blinking and scanning. The scent of old paper mixed in with the damp air of the storm’s rain upon the roof. Pete and John sat in the center clearing of the room back towards the front side of the house. They laid out something at their feet lit by a lantern light. Their attention focused upon it. Roc wandered around the edges of the room, pulling things off shelves, looking at them for a few seconds, and then placing them down somewhere else. Upon closer inspection, this place seemed to serve as a storeroom, mostly for books and boxes filled with old documents. And, Matt noticed, trinkets.
At the far end of the room, Matt walked over to towering bookshelves, one after another, and glanced along the spines. The Odyssey, Treasure Island, Dante’s Inferno. Naive to their significance, Matt thought the titles merely provocative. He reached to grab Odyssey, when another boom shook him out of his ponderance and forced him to look out of the small circular window nearby, back to the downpour. Lightning seemed to flash right alongside the sound. It had heightened since the morning. Matt unconsciously loved days like this; it’d become more conscious as he grew older. For now though, an afternoon of violent torrent was an uncherished novelty. The storm is getting serious, I guess.
“Matt get your ass over here!” John called.
Matt turned around and started to walk across to them. He had to step over some stacks of books and other unrecognizable things. The trinkets, small metal machines, boxes & spheres of wood, old timey toys and dolls and figurines, littered the floor of the attic around the doorway down. He heard a bit of static nearby, as if from a radio. But Matt couldn’t be bothered to locate the source. John’s call beckoned him over.
He passed a section to his right, with a small light glowing over a ratty baseball glove and a binder of cards and other sports memorabilia. On his left was a table with a meticulous setup of little army soldiers charging a bunker at the top of a hill. All across the miniature battlefield were men in various states of the agony and ecstasy of war. The craftsmanship impeccable and eye-catching.
Matt started to edge over to get a closer look, but Roc lurched over with a toy plane and crashed it into the midst of the army men. The plane broke apart in his hands and he swept his hand across the field with careless ferocity, knocking all of it over onto the floor.
“KAMIKAZE! HA-HA-HA,” Roc proceeded with the commensurate explosion sounds and roaring screams of mass death.
Matt couldn’t help but laugh before realizing how old everything here was, and how important it might be to John or his parents. ‘Don’t destroy’ was the command reverberating in his head.
“Goddammit Roc. You just can’t help but muck up everything you touch eh,” Matt ribbed.
Roc paused over the table he just wrecked before turning around with a jump. Matt grabbed his shoulders and was about to tell him to stop being an idiot before he stared up into his face.
Matt’s heart leapt with fear. He stared, clear-eyed into the countenance of a demon. Gasping, he stumbled back over a rocking horse. It cracked and shattered in two, but all Matt could hear was everyone’s laughter. Looking again, Roc simply wore a red and black striped mask. He laughed uncontrollably underneath it. Matt smiled, took Roc’s shaking hand and pulled himself up. Matt ripped the mask from Roc’s hand and flicked like a frisbee into the shadows behind them. Roc laughed and pointed so hard, he was unable to speak at all.
Soon after, they headed to the light where John and Pete continued to pour over whatever they were looking at.
“What is that?”
“What is what?” Matt responded.
“That book. You won’t need it or anything else in here. We already found the best game,” John explained. He stared under his brown bangs, the lantern light reflected off an incredulous expression. He still wore his pajamas. A pair of red and blue-thatched trousers along with a loose-fitting t-shirt with an exaggerated cartoon character on it in a pose of action.
Matt looked down in his hand. He held a book. Hadn’t noticed he was still holding it. Rolled over to the cover: Dante’s Inferno. Weird, he had meant to grab Odyssey.
He put it down on a side table and asked John, “So what is this game?”
He glanced down at a relatively simple setup. There was a single board on the wood flooring. It looked like a maze, or rather some kind of labyrinth, but over an overland map of a group of continents. In the center of the smallish board, was a stack of cards. He bent down and reached to grab one.
“Don’t! Not yet,” Pete said from the side. He had his back turned, he was reading a large book, ‘The Rulebook.’ Pete’s long, blonde hair had trimmed to a close crop since the last time Matt had seen him. His face serious, he returned immediately to his reading after the admonishment.
“Sorry,” Matt recoiled his hand.
“It’s just.. that there are very, very specific rules to this game. It is crazy,” Pete trailed off, lost in the Rulebook again.
“Yeah. Gramps never told me about this one,” John mumbled. He was sorting through the game pieces and equipment. Pete continued to read. Roc had finally settled down across the way, sitting in a rocking chair with his arms crossed a stretch too far around his body. He held the appearance of one attempting to mime a straight jacket, without actually wearing one.
Matt considered the odd sight before seeing the stack of the other games on the floor behind John and Pete. In a messy organization, some half opened and some upside down, Matt poured over the titles with increasing excitement. John and Pete must’ve compiled them from elsewhere in the attic in the search to find the ‘best.’ Matt was aghast at the veritable treasure trove of games, old and new, all complex, all undeniably awesome. Dragon Wars. Blood Castle. Islands of Gold. The Emperium Experiment. Night World. Apocalypse Wars. Galactic Conquest. God-Shaper: Transmogrifications Edition.
Matt had played only a few with the others before. There were at least a couple he’d never even heard of. The Emperium Experiment was raw. Blood Castle was super rare. Apocalypse Wars sounded really freakin’ cool.
“Dude, where did you get a Blood Castle!” Matt ran over to it, opened it up. Drawn into it, he started to construct the castle tower.
“These were all Gramps’ games. He wouldn’t let me play them with anyone outside the family,” John said absent-mindedly.
“That’s pretty fucking stupid John,” Roc said from his chair. Matt agreed out of hand. John’s mom rolling toons in Night World? What? No way.
“Yeah, well y’all always break stuff,” John said.
“No, he’s totally right. That is stupid. Why would hold out on us with all these awesome games? Pretty selfish,” Matt said.
“Calm down, it’s cool. They weren’t actually John’s property, wasn’t his call,” Pete interjected.
“But now they are and so we can play ‘em,” Matt said
“Yeah exactly. That’s why we’re up here Matt. D’uh,” John remarked. Matt rolled his eyes.
Pete got in again, “But Matt, listen. We found a better game than any of those by far and we’re gonna play it.” He motioned to the game they’d begun to set up before them.
Matt glanced over to the relatively simplistic board lying next to the lantern again, and the tome of instructions Pete continued to thumb through.
“This one? How do you know it’s better than all of em? Better than Blood Castle? Better than Emperium Experiment? C’mon,” Matt scoffed.
“Because, Gramps said so himself,” John proclaimed. He threw a journal to Matt’s awaiting hands.
It was light, tattered and looked old, like everything else in here. Matt opened it up. The pages were yellow. He flipped through them, much of what had been written was now illegible.
“Go to the page we marked,” said Pete.
Matt turned to the page.
“This is not how I planned on spending my summer vacation,” Roc muttered.
“Look outside jackass, this is as good as it gets right now,” John had to speak over the heavy rains rising up against the attic windows. “Now is everyone ready?”
Everyone nodded. Roc last. Pete said, “Go ahead and start John.”
John began to read the introduction to the game.
Welcome to Magus, an uncharted realm of adventure, magic, and discovery.
You assume the roles of The Players.
Magus is a cooperative game. But it is also a competitive game.
You work together to achieve your goals; at the same time, each of you will be awarded points individually.
At the end of the game, the one with the most points is considered the Most Valuable Player.
It is up to you how you go about playing this game and achieving your points.
Magus is open-ended in this respect, but the goal is the same: Win.
There is a Board, a Deck, and a Book. From there, it is all you.
John stopped reading, turned the page to the section titled ‘Rules Addendum.’ He continued.
The Three Types:
Performance — The Game instructs the player to perform a specific action. Based on The Players’ decisions from there, consequences follow.
Pact — A Player makes a secret pact with the game, a compromise between the desires of the player and the desires of the game.
Providence — Something happens to The Player(s) & something is revealed about Fate.
John stopped again. Pete spoke up, “Alright. Let’s get started.”
“Wait, that’s it? I thought you said the rules were super complex?” Matt said confusedly.
“No, I said they were super specific,” Pete explained.
“But what about that big tome over there, that you were reading out of. ‘The Rulebook.’”
“That isn’t the rulebook. It’s ‘The Book’ the game just referred to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go take a look, dummy.”
Matt did. It was heavy, easily a thousand or more pages, but when he opened it he saw.
“All the pages are blank,” he flipped through them quickly. They were old and leathery, as if they had seen a century. In a similar state of disrepair as John’s Grandpa’s journal, except apparently unused.
“Yeah. I think it’s meant to ‘write our story,’ or something,” John said. “It’s part of the game’s lore. Part of playing. Gramps’ journal made that clear.”
“We’ll get to The Book later,” Pete sounded impatient. Roc was still silent, rocking in the chair.
“Okay,” Matt was unsure of what to think. But he had to admit he was intrigued by the idea of this game. Cooperative, competitive. Open-ended. Secret pacts. Desires of the game. Fate. Matt mused on the descriptions. Wild.
“So we have these Performance, Pact, and Providence cards,” John motioned to the decks. “There is a board where we can move around, and the big book over there.” He’d laid out the materials, but hesitated. Everyone fell silent, unsure.
“So how do we play this thing?” Roc finally spoke up, annoyed. He was up, fidgeting and pacing around now. Matt was thinking. Can we actually play this? It seems too open-ended. Where do we start? How do we start? It’s a cool premise, but what is the real payoff? Matt considered Gramps, from the few times he’d met him.
“Well, clearly we draw a card,” Pete said.
“But from which pile?” John returned.
“And where are the pieces?” Roc was looking around in other parts of the attic away from them.
“I think,” Matt said pondering, “part of it might be to figure how to play the game.” Gramps was a weirdo. A kook, they’d called him. Even John. This is exactly his type of game. Matt didn’t know if that boded well for their afternoon or not.
“Well, I read the rules. They were short but…” John said.
“But I think they weren’t the full story,” Matt finished his thread of thinking. “There’s more to this. Gramps was always tricking us, pranking us. He was more of a kid than we were. At times, it seemed he tried to out-kid us.” Matt reflected on those memories and gleaned something.
He continued, “Think about what your gramp’s journal said. He implied this game was the best because ‘you are the game.’ Or rather, we are — all of us together — make up the game’s real components. The Players.”
Roc hummed from the back corner, steadily rising in volume and lacking in melody.
“What are you talking about Matt?” Pete asked.
Matt squinted over to it, “Let me see the game board.”
John walked over and handed it to him. Inspecting it, Matt looked over the labyrinth and the continents, the lands and the seas. He flipped it over. It looked brand new. No wear and tear, no bends in the card board at all. It confirmed his suspicions.
“This is nothing but a red herring. The book probably is too. This is no ordinary game. And there are no pieces. It’s all on purpose.” Matt smirked, proud of himself. He chucked the board back onto the wood floor of the attic at their feet. A puff of dust kicked up into John and Pete’s faces.
“That doesn’t make any sense though, I mean, clearly these— “
“Don’t you see? It’s simpler, it’s different than all these other games. That’s why Gramps liked it so much.” Matt presented his hands to his side and looked around, “We are the pieces. The game is like life. There is no board. As far as I can tell, we are the writers of the tale to be in those pages.” Matt essentially parroted Gramps’ words from the journal, but with his newfound understanding in hand.
“I don’t think I understand,” Pete said, trying to. John looked around the attic in confusion, as if to indicate to Matt that he had no idea what he might be talking about.
Roc burst into his customary laughter, but with even more gusto than before. “Looks like the game is working.” He whistled in delight in between choked laughs. He now stood behind John, nearly doubled over with delight.
“What?” Matt looked back at him.
Roc held up a card, twirling in his fingers, he read it aloud: “‘The truth of the game is revealed, by a Player’s words or actions. The storm outside gains momentum.’”
Pete got up, “Wh-When did you draw a card, Roc!”
Matt’s stared across the room to everyone, his eyes wide and his shock genuine. Pete ran over to Roc and his card. John glanced out the circular window with the cross in it. Roc laughed all the louder.
The drawn card’s title read ‘Providence.’
A sudden stroke of lightning crashed just outside, booming the boys into new rumination. Eventually, their eyes drew back to the game, and to one another.
To be continued ~