Chapter 9

Because Andy refused to set foot in the mall, Dave O’Finnegan operated as something of an acting Deputy Dungeon Master while they were there. Some members of the group couldn’t regulate their enthusiasm for the arcane mysteries that lay hidden between the covers of the D&D adventure modules that lined the store shelves at Leisure World.

“Hands off, Baker!” O’Finnegan snapped. Sheepishly, Jason Baker put the module back on the shelf. Leisure World, the sole purveyor of Aetherburn RPG merchandise in Belleville, was always their first stop at the mall.

“Ok, hard-ass! Slow down. I’m not looking inside.” Baker put the module back on the self like a cornered perp putting his weapon on the ground for police. In his head, he was working out how to get out of O’Finnegan’s line of sight.

“So what’s with Nick, do you think?” Ian Grayson held a translucent, orange 20-sided die up to the light and inspected it as though it were the Hope Diamond. On their way to Leisure World, after Nick had told them he was going to look for Deb at Sneaky Petes, they had been discussing his sudden disinterest in game night.

“Jesus!” O’Finnegan said. “If I had the prospects with the ladies Morrison has, I wouldn’t be spending Friday nights with you nerds!”

“So it’s girls then?” Jason was eyeing a new Aetherburn adventure, Seige of Geburah. “I like girls.”

“Or girl. Singular.” Dave Grayson was with O’Finnegan looking at other role playing games. There had been buzz recently about taking a shot at the newly released Marvel Superheroes RPG. “He did make a b-line to find Debbie Holcroft.”

“Shani, Lori, and Tracy will be with her. So it could be any one of them.” Ian said.

“Or all of them!” O’Finnegan’s face lit up. “He’s Nick friggin’ Morrison.”

“Deb’s got a thing for Andy,” Baker said it absent-mindedly. “I was on the bus the other day. Those two are like Siamese twins. It’s not Deb.”

“It’s not the other three either,” Dave Grayson said. “Nick would’ve said so. If anything he can’t stand them. He doesn’t get why Deb hangs out with them. If it’s anyone, it’s Deb — or someone else altogether. Probably one of the city girls.”

“Listen to us cackling hens! Jesus!” O’Finnegan was reading the back of the Star Travellers boxed set. “I’m done here if you guys are. Feels like Miller Time to me, gents? Tudor Arms?”

“Gary’s working!” Jason Baker dropped the Plume Mountain module back in its place on the shelf. Dave O’Finnegan shot him a disapproving glare and shook his head.

Gary “Gare-dog” Murphy was one of their D&D friends from the city and a waiter at the British pub in the mall. He never hesitated to serve them booze.

“Let’s track down Morrison first,” O’Finnegan said. “What kind of fools would go into a babe-lair like the Arms without their 18-charisma wing-man?

“That’s why you’re the DDM,” Baker said, trying to curry favour after getting busted for sneaking a peek.

“Douche Dungeon Master?” Ian said. They all laughed.

“Deputy DM!” O’Finnegan said, genuinely hurt that they weren’t taking his role seriously. “With new adventures for you ogres, no less,” He proudly brandished the Star Travellers RPG boxed set he carried to the checkout.

“Star Master will do just fine, thank you.”

 

Nick hadn’t found the girls at Sneaky Petes.

Famished from hockey practice, he ordered two burgers, fries, and a Coke and sat by himself.  He would need the fuel to track them down. He was not a big fan of doing laps at the mall. For a moment, he saw how Andy might be right. The hub of smallness Andy called it. The slackjawed hordes utterly consumed with constructing identities for themselves with the shit they buy.

In his heart, Nick Morrison believed most of the same things as Andy. He had always thought of him as nothing less than a brother. Finishing his second burger, Nick watched the mall people go by. Anxious moms, grumpy dads, crying kids. None of them realizing they already had everything. All of them jonesing for more.

Am I one of them? He thought.

Andy’s parents had left him, yet he always seemed satisfied with his life. His bike, his dice, his records, and his library card were his only possessions. God knows he didn’t care about clothes. Nothing but jeans and those goddamn concert shirts! Andy owned less than almost anyone Nick knew — yet he carried himself like the richest man in the world: a paradoxical cross between a stately philosopher-king and a squirrely 10-year-old hopped up on Halloween candy.

Nick admonished himself. Enough of this. Yes, he’s my friend. But I need to live a life of my own. Andy isn’t Batman. And if even if he were, would I really be willing to be his Robin?

He’d made up his mind. Why all this self-deliberation?

Shuffling out of the booth, Nick Morrison made his way into the crowd toward the Denim Nexus. There was a good chance he’d find Deb there.

 

Nick found Deb in front of Sam the Record Man. Begrudgingly, he prepared to fake interest in Platinum Blonde, Corey Hart or whatever other pop pablum the girls were into these days.

“I got the job!” Deborah Holcroft threw her arms around Nick Morrison.

Though Nick had thought himself confused of late — it all amounted to nothing next to what he felt in this moment. Suddenly, Deb’s body against his, her energy, her enthusiasm, and the ferocity of her embrace threatened to overwhelm him.

“At Denim Nexus! I’m a sales clerk! Thursday nights to start and then Saturdays starting in December.”

Through the tumult of feelings and physical reactions, Nick managed a wide — what he hoped was not too nervous — smile. He knew Deb’s friends would be watching. Would they notice what was happening to him? I don’t know what is happening to me? He thought. This is Deb!

“That’s so cool!” he managed to say!

“I can get a discount on a new jean jacket for you!” She said. “You totally need one.”

“Sure thing. That’s awesome.” Nick lied. He loved his old jean jacket. Andy had painted a WWII Flying Tigers emblem on the back. There they are. He suddenly noticed Shani, Lori, and Tracy. Other girls, from the city, were with them too. He didn’t know who they were  — but he could tell right away they had been thoroughly briefed on who he was. He rolled his eyes in his head. He had learned how to control doing it outwardly in these situations.

He was relieved to note the expressions on their faces were the typical ones. He got the sense no one had gleaned anything from his unexpected response to Deb’s hug.

“Can we talk alone, Deb. It’s about Andy.” Nick was sure he heard an “ewww” and a “gross” from the tittering girls. They all loathed Andy Crowley. This, despite Deb’s lifelong advocacy on his behalf.

Idiots, Nick thought. What am I doing? Was he really trading his Friday nights with his best friends to be with these people? Suddenly, where a moment before he had been taken aback by inexplicable feelings for Deb Holcroft, he was angry at her for her shitty taste in friends.

He remembered all the years when it had just been the three of them. Deb, Andy, Nick.

Then she took his arm and pulled him back toward Sneaky Petes.

The moment she put her hand on him and set her eyes upon his, the confusion he had felt took him again. He was certain she had never looked at him like that before.

Nick Morrison did not know Deb Holcroft thought he was going to die and so misinterpreted the way she was looking at him the same way he had misinterpreted the intensity of the hug she had given him.

The thought of just the three of them fell completely from his mind then, and he forgot about Andy Crowley completely.

“How ’bout a beer instead,” Nick stopped and gently pulled Deb’s arm. “Tudor Arms to celebrate your new job?”

To Chapter 10