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 Aetherburn,” he yelled into the living room. He was sure to amplify the Aetherburn 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 Aetherburners Gnoitalmanac 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. With the likelihood of my demonic possession n’ 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 Aether Lord’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 Chaos:175 / Order 179 warrior.
Faded, pockmarked and rounded at the edges, 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 called him as soon as she go home and begged him not to bring it up. She had told him Andy had stood up to the asshole. After all these years some progress, had been Nick’s only thought! If Andy brought it up, they’d talk.
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 your dream about the palace of the king of the hyena people.”
“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 Nick over his shoulder. “Read your grimoires son.”
Smiling at his best friend and his Aether Lord, 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.