Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Short Fiction

I took a class on “Vampires in Literature in Film” this semester, and opted to write a short story rather than a term paper. It was harder than I thought it would be. I wanted to present the story entirely through Facebook updates, blog entries and texts, but my prof didn’t approve. Maybe I will re-work it someday.

This one’s for the guys. You know who you are.

* * *

October 7, 2010: The Portal

Midnight: a graveyard. The moon is full. You and your companions move cautiously through a cold mist. You’re not sure what manner of undead you’re hunting, but you’ve followed the victim’s blood trail to an elaborate marble tomb with a huge winged figure silhouetted on the top. The blood seems to disappear into the angel’s shadow. The tomb looks ancient and you cannot read the inscription. The entrance is a slice of darkness amid lesser darkness. The portal is open.

Are you going in?

Max leans back, re-reads, and hits publish. He doesn’t have much time before the new guy arrives, but he likes getting the blog synopsis of the last adventure session up before starting a new session. This adventure is not his best – Moose actually rolled his eyes and said “Undead again? Come on!” but he hopes a new player will stir things up. Get the blood moving. Or maybe it was time for someone else to run an adventure, if the guys thought his ideas were getting stale. They didn’t need to know how little he planned out in advance…he wasn’t even sure what kind of undead they were stalking. Vampire? Revenant? Some kind of zombie? He had a little time while they figured out how to get into the tomb—not as easy as it looks!-- and then there was the labyrinth to get through. He had lots of traps planned. Max was good at traps.

Half the time no-one was paying attention to the game anyway. Justin couldn’t stop texting that bitch he married. So they joked: the “bitch” was his job. His actual wife, who started the joke, walked out on him years ago. So now it was Justin and the bitch, together forever. Moose, on the other hand, really was married to a bitch. A vegetarian bitch who pitched a fit over the upcoming hunting weekend; poor pussy-whipped Moose would stay home and eat…tofu or whatever. Mock duck. But Al would be there, as he was every year. Al was womanless, a chronic condition that made him a more reliable friend. Max didn’t know how he would have made it this far without friends. Even tofu-eating ones.

He pushes his hair out of eyes and gets up to clear the crap off the dining table. He sets up the Dungeon Master’s screen, to keep the players from seeing his notes, hitches up his jeans, grabs his smokes, dice and couple of books. A beer. While he waits, he flips through the Dungeon Master’s Guide, looking for monsters.

* * *

October in Minnesota: it gets dark early, but there’s nowhere to go.

Refresh, refresh, refresh. The vampire hit it again. Nothing. Nothing interesting on the Twitter feed. Nothing on Facebook, where his name is Joseph Hulf; Joe to his 473 friends. A very American name, a name of the times. He even checks MySpace, predictably peopled by musicians and loose women; good for hunting but not much else. He had immersed himself in World of Warcraft for some time, but it had lost its appeal. There was only so much thrill to be had in pushing buttons, alone, no matter how pretty the action on the screen. He leans back and lights a cigarette; in his opinion, one of the few fringe benefits of immortality. He sighs. It was time to it return to his sanctuary, sleep off the boredom and re-emerge as a new man in a new age: another all-too-short fiction of a life that would last until people became suspicious. He had done this many times but it was getting harder; the internet was a retreat but also a trap of records too easily traced. He should disengage, wait it out. Hunt sparingly, rest. But he keeps putting it off. The years of in-between, of waiting to become again, were the loneliest; the most lifeless.

The computer chimes. A message from Max Madenson on Facebook: Glad you like the blog! If you’re still interested in trying Dungeons & Dragons, it’s really different from playing anything online. We’re meeting at 7. Sorry for the short notice. Come early and I can help you create a character.

He is interested.

* * *

October 12, 2010: Descent

You stand before the tomb with your companions: Godrich the elvin Priest, a scarred Fighter called Samuelle the Disowned, and a Mage: Morde Flamethrower III. You are joined by a latecomer, a Thief who offers to help in exchange for a share of the loot. Typical. He calls himself Xantos. You do not know if this is his real name; you never can tell with Thieves.

After making it past the gate guardian and disarming some traps, you descend stone steps. Moss grows on the walls; you can hear water dripping. Samuelle slips and is steadied by Godrich. You come to the bottom. This is no ordinary tomb, but a huge vaulted space: echoing, empty. There is a ripe smell of decay, and you find what’s left of the victim. There isn’t much.

There are three corridors before you. One is dimly lit by a greenish glow. One flickers with torchlight. One is dark.

After some debate, the adventuring party chooses the darkness.

Dice roll, monsters are slain. Mountain Dew is consumed and pot is smoked. Dick jokes are made. It gets late. Joe does not want to stop playing; he wants to know what will happen next. When he leaves the warmth of the house for the cold of the night, he hunts distractedly. That night, he dreams for the first time in many, many years. He is in a tomb. He is sly, stealthy. He has a lock-pick. He has friends. They are stalking the undead.

This is so much better than World of Warcraft.

* * *

October 20, 2010: Signs of Danger

You seem to have turned back more than you have gone forward. This accursed maze has dished up traps, zombies and other hazards, but you know there is something…bigger down here. Some powerful evil that eludes you. There are clues, if you are attentive enough to notice. Something seems to float alongside you in the dark, silent but watching, waiting. Hungry. You limp on.

The tunnel ceiling is so low that Samuelle keeps hitting his head. He takes one point of damage every time, not enough to slow him down, but he complains bitterly. Flamethower has produced a dimly glowing ball that lights the way. Xantos and Priest Godrich check for traps. They miss one.

You hear a whooshing sound as a blade sweeps the air in front of you, like a horizontal guillotine. Everyone ducks, rolls and jostles. The Mage-fire goes out. In the darkness, someone screams. Something warm hits your face and runs down your neck; you hear a spurting sound, a sprinkling sound, then the thud of a body hitting the ground. The stench of blood fills the air- thick, metallic—

There is a crash, and a gurgle. Al’s pop glugs over his character sheet as the can rolls its way to the edge of the table. There is a pause, then everyone scrambles for paper towels.

Joe mumbles “I’m so sorry…” and helps clean up.

“Motherfucker.” Al says, but without heat. Joe smiles sheepishly. Justin high-fives him.

“Yeah, Max gets a little gory.” Justin grins. “You squeamish?”

“I don’t think so.” Joe replies. “I never considered it.”

“Wanna go hunting?”

“I beg your pardon?”

Everybody cracks up at that. Joe’s alright, but he sounds like a professor.

“Grouse-hunting. We’re going up North Friday night, so we can get out early on Saturday.”

“No…” Joe says slowly, “I can’t.”

“Are you vegetarian, too?” Max can’t help himself. Moose gives him a dirty look.

“No.” Joe smiles. “I don’t think so.”

“Well you’re welcome to join us if you change your mind, as long as you can keep from killing us all.” Justin is grinning again.

Joe gapes, wide-eyed, and everyone laughs. Justin nods to the spot where the pop can was knocked over, “I mean, you’re pretty fucking clumsy, dude. I don’t know that I’d wanna be around if you were armed.”

Joe has a strange look on his face: amused, confused and…something else.

“Ok, ok.” Max lights a smokes, inhales, pauses. “Where were we? Ok, it’s dark, and someone –maybe more than one someone-- is badly injured. You can’t see anything. What do you do?”

* * *

November 18, 2010: Interlude

It’s been hard to find time to get together. Flamethrower is sick again –he’s had the flu for like, weeks, and the elf’s working overtime.

But the adventure is going great! Xantos is a good fit for the group. He’s inexperienced but enthusiastic and really gets into the game. His accent adds to his character. He’s from England but has lived here for a long time. He wants to meet more often, which isn’t going to work. I may be unemployed but (sadly?) other people have lives. Maybe Xantos can roll up another character and we can have a one-on-one adventure? Could be fun. He’s only free nights, but it’s not like I have a lot going on.

I’ve gotten feedback from readers. W00T! Nice to know someone is actually reading this. I’ve been asked if there is another character, the second-person “you” that is used in the narration. Well, reader, it is you. If you’ve played D&D before (if you’re reading this, I assume you have) or I guess even if you’ve ever really gotten into a book, there is a “you” that walks alongside your character. That’s you in real life, you the player, or in this case, you the reader. Your character acts, but you’re the actor. Or something. Get it?

I might experiment with other points of view. But it’s you that’s in the game, really, so it’s you I write for. It’s supposed to draw you into the adventure, make it more real. Is it working?

Max rubs his eyes and stares at the screen. He isn’t sleeping well. For the first time since he was a kid, he is having nightmares. Monster dreams. It’s embarrassing, but the adventure is haunting him. He knows what kind of undead they are hunting: it flits across his bloody dreams. He wants to get this adventure over with and start a new one with no undead. It’s creeping him out. Worse, it’s humiliating; what is he afraid of? Vampires? Good God. He needs to get out more. He’s barely been out of the house the last couple of weeks; it’s cold out and he just feels drained. Maybe he caught whatever Al has. He digs around for a smoke, and stares at it for a moment before lighting up. He should quit. But fuck it, who wants to live forever? He takes a drag and exhales deeply.

At this time of night, everything feels sad and sinister: unreal. He feels as if he’s faking something, like he is somehow pretending at life. He feels worthless; no job, no girlfriend. He’s living on unemployment. His friends made lives for themselves, someone to go home to or at least a career. He wishes he could start over. He would do it all differently this time: be a new man. Maybe he just needs to take a break from the D&D. Or get some sleep, or both.

* * *

November 29, 2010: A Glimpse of the Adversary

You come across a vast and beautiful chamber, with lavish furnishings and tapestries on the walls. A fountain burbles in the corner. Thick carpets are strewn across the floor. As you enter, you smell the stench of decay. Six zombies stagger out of the darkness on the far side of the room. They are followed by a pale, stately man in dark robes. His eyes are red.

“You presume to defy me?” he says scornfully. “You are more foolish than you look. You will fall, and rise, and join my undead army. You will be my servants.”

The zombies attack.

It is a vicious battle. Flamethrower the Mage falls, and at a word from the robed adversary, rises. He looks crumpled, reduced, undead. He (it?) attacks your companions. Zombies are weak though, and he (it) is quickly destroyed by the enraged Samuelle. The other zombies also fall, hacked to bits, never to rise again. When the battle is done, the pale man is nowhere to be seen. You search; he is gone. Vanished.

Godrich looks down at what was once his friend. “We must burn it.”

“NO!” Joe shouts, startling everyone. Al moves his pop out of harm’s way. “Resurrect him!” He turns to the Priest “Don’t you have a spell for that?”

“Sorry, man, I don’t.” Justin replies. “He’s dead for real. No worries; Al will just roll up a new character. Anyway, you can’t resurrect someone who’s been turned into a zombie.”

“Why ever not?”

“Well, you just can’t. They’ve been made into undead. Their soul is, like, destroyed.”

“Yes you can.” Moose insists, in an everybody-knows-that voice. “A resurrect or true resurrect spell—“

“NO YOU CAN’T.” Max thunders. “And anyway, it’s moot. Your Priest doesn’t have the spell. Forget it. You can’t just go around resurrecting people. Dead is dead this time.”

“But this is quite ridiculous!” Joe protests “Why do undead lose their souls? Is that in the rules?”

Everybody groans, anticipating a lengthy search through rulebooks. Max looks at him coolly.

“House rules. Sorry. Now, Godrich just started a fire…”

Joe snarls. They play on. The fire gets out of hand.

* * *

Joe paces impatiently. When will they start? The other guys are gathered over a Domino’s box; Moose eats pepperoni with a look of bliss while Al, gesticulating with his slice, tells a long-winded story about brake pads. Max is quiet. No one has heard from Justin since last week when he texted that he couldn’t make it and was going to be busy at work for awhile. Joe left in a huff; everyone else hung out and played Mario Kart.

“Ok, looks like we’re a player short.” Max finally says. “D&D or Wii?”

Everyone but Joe votes for Wii. He stops pacing and strides over to the table. Suddenly the room is quiet.

“Enough of this,” he says softly, “I want to play D&D, and I want to play now.”

Max is used to keeping the peace, but not this. He smiles uncertainly. Joe does not smile, but reaches out to snag Moose’s collar. Eyes still on Max, the vampire pulls Moose, squawking and flailing in surprise, towards him. Joe is considerably shorter than Moose and has to bend him over backwards to bite into his throat. The scream is bubbly. Joe raises his head, blood dripping, and spits out a piece of meat. Moose is making gurgling sounds; there is a lot of blood now. Joe lowers his head and drinks, deeply. Al, pizza in hand, watches with a look of bewilderment. A phone buzzes, vibrating blood-splattered dice on the table. Max faints.

The vampire feels better.

* * *

Max stares at the ceiling. He remembers the pump and spray of blood, the screams and grunts and snapping bones. He remembers his friends. He sits up, opens the Monster Manual and looks up “Undead.” He reads the description for “Vampire.” It is familiar. There is nothing here that can help him.

He flips open his laptop and starts to write.
December ?January?: Need Help

I’m alone. My friends are dead.

I’m in some kind of dungeon. It looks like a motel room. This is the only room with anything in it. Outside it are stone passages and empty stone rooms. There are bodies too, old ones, like skeletons. They don’t seem real. None of this does.

He brings me food. I don’t know where he comes from, how he gets in or out. I’ll look up, and he’s there. He looks like a corpse. Did he always?

I’m really tired, but sleep doesn’t help. I have awful dreams. I’ve lost track of time.

All he wants to do is play D&D. I’m running the rest of the adventure for Xantos the Thief; he is tracking the vampire, closing in. It’s sort of messing with my head. The adventuring makes him happy though. He says he just wants to be someone else for awhile.

Yeah, don’t we all?

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