Here we are in that netherworld between Christmas and New Year’s. This is always a time for reflection for me—a time for reevaluation and, sometimes, reinvention. This coming year will be one of the latter. Major changes in my personal life have prompted that, but professionally, the only real change will be my return to WMG’s Lincoln City headquarters, which I’m very much looking forward to.
However, as I was thinking about reinventing myself, one of my all-time favorite short stories came to mind. I love it for multiple reasons. One: Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote it, so we were already guaranteed a good read. Two: It features Dungeons & Dragons, a game that meant a lot to me in my twenties. I loved the role-playing aspect of it. In its own way, it’s a way to reinvent yourself again and again.
So, as my way of saying Happy Holidays and wishing you luck on your own reinventions (should you feel the need to do so, as well), I present to you “Game Testing” by World Fantasy Award Winner Kristine Kathryn Rusch, which you may read free on this site for the next week. Or if you’d rather purchase it, you can find it on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks and Barnes & Noble, among other online retailers.
Happy reading, and Happy New Year!
Allyson Longueira is publisher of WMG Publishing. She is an award-winning writer, editor and designer.
Her car broke down north of Cairo, but Jen DeAngelo couldn’t stay in Illinois. She lived by only a few rules:
- Stay until life became unbearable.
- Get close to no one.
- Stop wherever the car did.
- Never live in the same state more than once.
When the car broke down, she had to choose between rule 3 and rule 4. She decided to violate rule 3—not liking the precedent—but liking it better than violating rule 4.
Besides, she’d lived in Illinois once before. And that experience was one of the things that led to rule 4. She’d be damned if she’d live in Illinois again.
She traded in the car for an old van, and paid cash for the difference from the last of her savings from her previous job. She had enough money left for two tanks of gas, one night in a hotel or two weeks’ worth of meals.
She opted for one tank of gas and one week’s meals, figuring by the time the gas ran out, she’d be out of Illinois. She made it to Southern Wisconsin before the indicator light came on, and to the tourist town of Lake Geneva before she had to put the van in neutral and coast down what had to be the highest hill in the entire state.
She eased the van into a parking lot beside the library, a 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright classic that overlooked the lake.
On this spring afternoon filled with the kind of sunlight that only came after a deep, dark winter, the large lake that gave the town its name looked like a mountain lake, sparkling sapphire blue that extended as far as the eye could see, only a hint of pale pink clouds on the horizon.
She’d heard about Lake Geneva all of her life, but had never visited. Her great-grandfather used to summer here in the 1920s. Her mother, in the last rebellious years of her youth, had worked as a bunny in the Playboy Club, where she met Jen’s father.
They claimed they liked the town, but after they married, they never came back, not even to close up her great-grandfather’s house. He had died the year Jen was born; no one had been inside the house since.
She wondered if she had the right to go in. She wondered if she would want to. Deciding would require a look, and a look would require a long distance phone call to her mother. A look would also require a full tank of gas.
Jen didn’t have money for the tank or the phone call.
So before she could make any decisions at all, she had to get a job. And judging by the emptiness of Lake Geneva’s streets, that might be hard.
The restaurants down on the waterfront looked old and well established. As she peered in the windows, she realized the wait staff was old and well established too. She doubted that anyone here hired extra help for summers—or if they did, they hired college students from Milwaukee or Madison or some local college she hadn’t heard of. Guaranteed labor who wanted a bit of the summer action. Guaranteed labor that was guaranteed to go home at the end of the season.
She was too old to be guaranteed. Once she’d been a young-looking twenty. Now she was a hardened thirty—still petite, but no longer cute, and certainly not innocent.
She hadn’t been innocent in a long, long time.
She stopped at Starbucks which was, oddly, the only chain she saw in the downtown. Before she went to the counter, she stood by the gas fireplace (it felt warm and welcoming, something she needed after the long drive) and removed a five from her wallet.
Such tricks limited her spending, and reminded her that her budget was a necessary one, especially if she didn’t want to turn tricks on the highway for gas money.
She folded the five in her hand, went to the counter, and ordered a double espresso with milk and the largest piece of coffee cake still left in the pastry window. That would be supper.
As she sipped her espresso, she asked the barista where the community center was. The barista gave her inexplicable directions—the kind only a local could follow—but also gave her another piece of information: the community center had a locker room complete with shower.
So, as in most communities, for only a few dollars a day, Jen could have a shower. She smiled, thanked the girl, and left the coffee shop to explore the rest of the neighborhood.
But several people stared at her from the old Victorian waterfront houses, so she headed to Main Street instead.
If she squinted, she could see the street her great-grandfather saw. A lot of the buildings had to be original to his time, a time when Lake Geneva was a playground not just for Chicago’s rich, but also for its very famous gangsters.
She was about to round the corner, when a movement caught her eye.
In what she had initially thought was a soaped up window, she saw small reflecting lights. She cupped her hands around her face and leaned against the glass.
Inside, she could barely make out a counter. Tables littered the floor, and the table tops appeared to have books mixed with bowls of dice. Several computers ran in the corner, their screen savers depicting multi-colored lights, like some kind of rock-and-roll light show.
Beside the counter stood an open door, and through there she could barely make out some tables, chairs, and a recycle basket filled with soda pop cans.
She leaned back to take a look at the business’s sign. But no matter how hard she looked, she couldn’t find one.
Then she saw the movement again. Where her cupped hands had been, someone had placed a piece of paper with calligraphed lettering:
She wasn’t quite sure how anyone would find an employee with a sign that small. It was almost timid, as if the person who had made the sign was undecided.
There had to be someone inside, someone who had just put the sign up, probably for job seekers pounding the pavement in the morning.
Since Jen had been the first to see the sign, she would be the first to apply. She walked a few yards to the recessed door, shadowed against the dying sunlight, and pushed the door open, hearing a chime that let someone know she had stepped inside the store.
That it was a store was immediately clear. There were two cash registers on the counter she’d seen through the window—one cash register was a modern computerized one, complete with LED display on both sides. The other was a 1920s antique model, with the big round keys that required actual force to depress.
But the cash registers were the only easily identifiable part of the store. What kind of store it was, she couldn’t quite say. If she hadn’t seen the books and dice through the window, she might have thought it was an art gallery.
Near the front, in Plexiglas displays, were statues—brass dragons, wizards, and women in various states of undress, their fantastically unreal figures (big breasts, narrow waists, perfectly formed hips) bent in suggestive poses.
More art was scattered all over the front room, from small paintings on tiny jeweled frames behind the books to large paintings on the wall behind the counter. All showed what could have been sketches for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, dwarves, brawny men fighting grayish creatures of the night, fantastic white horses with glowing golden horns.
But the store didn’t smell like an art gallery, though. The predominate scents here were French fries, sweat, and Axe Body Spray.
A slender man stepped out of the back. He was balding. His neatly trimmed goatee and mustache were silver, but his face was unlined. In his t-shirt and blue jeans, he looked both dapper and underdressed.
He stopped when he saw her, as if he hadn’t expected her at all.
“Help you?” he asked in that rude voice shopkeepers had for people who clearly didn’t belong in their store.
She almost turned around. But the coffee gurgled in her stomach. She didn’t want to sleep in the van much longer. She wanted a real dinner, and she wanted to see her great-grandfather’s house on the other side of the lake.
She swallowed hard before she spoke. “I…um…I’m here about the job?”
He glanced at the window, as if he couldn’t remember putting up the sign. When he saw it, he frowned a little.
“What kind of job is it?” she asked, pressing, hoping to get past his uncertainty.
He brought himself up to his full height. He was taller than she had realized. He seemed businesslike now, the uncertainty gone.
“Mostly,” he said, “you supervise the kids after school, make sure they’re actually playing an MMORPG and not surfing for porn or something. And then you’d put in a few nights a week for the old-timers—we have some folks from the beginning who still come. They’ve been playing the same characters since 1974, I think.”
Characters? Surfing for porn? It took her a moment before she realized that she’d stumbled into some kind of store that sold games.
She had never been one for games. But this might tide her over until she could find something real.
“Do you have a good imagination?” he asked.
It was her turn to blink in surprise. No one had ever asked her that before. Imagination hadn’t been part of the jobs she’d held since she left home. Imagination, in fact, had usually been actively discouraged.
“Well,” he said hurriedly, “if you have a good imagination, you might get to design your own module, or if you’re interested, you can run your own game. How long have you been playing?”
She decided to be honest. “I don’t play.”
The man’s frown deepened. “Then how did you get in here?”
She turned slightly. “The door’s unlocked.”
“Yeah, but only for gamers,” he said.
“You should put that on your sign.”
“We don’t have a sign,” he said.
“The help wanted sign. You did put up the sign, right? You do need a new employee?”
He nodded. “We’ve needed someone new for a year now.”
“But the sign just went up,” she said.
“It goes up and down,” he said, “according to suitability.”
“Suitability?” she asked.
“There has to be some reason you saw the sign.” He was speaking more to himself than to her. “Mind if I introduce you to a few of the old-timers?”
She minded. This was the strangest job interview she ever had.
“Before you introduce me to anyone,” she said, “I want to know what the hours are and what the pay is. I want to know if the job is worth my while.”
He sighed, as if he didn’t like talking details. Then he squared his shoulders again. Each time he made that movement, he seemed to grow taller.
It was a neat trick.
He said, “You get ten dollars an hour up to forty hours, double time after that, plus you get to keep any treasure you find.”
“Treasure I find,” she repeated.
“Gold, silver, jewels, standard stuff if you’re in a standard RPG. If you’re in a multi-player computer game, then you get to keep any real proceeds from the game, if there are any. But gaming is on your own time.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, like she would to someone who wasn’t quite in his right mind. And she wasn’t certain if this guy was. But she was going to find out. “How many weeks would I work more than forty hours?’
“Dunno,” he said. “Depends on whether you get lost in the games or if you’re just a standard clerk.”
“Lost in the games,” she said.
“Look,” he snapped. “Do you want the job or not?”
“I didn’t realize I was being offered the job,” she said. “You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know my name or where I live or if I have a criminal record. You haven’t asked my background, if I’ve worked retail or—”
“You got in,” he said. “You saw the sign. That should be enough, although I worry that this is all unfamiliar to you. If you’re interested, I’ll bring the guys out of the back. If you’re not interested, tell me now. You can leave and we’ll both forget this ever happened.”
She didn’t want to leave. As odd as she felt, she also felt comfortable, more comfortable than she’d been in a decade.
“I’m interested,” she said, and knew that she had spoken the truth.
The guys from the back were a motley crew. They came out one by one.
First to appear was an extremely short man wearing gray jeans and a gray shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal his muscular arms. He had a pointed gray beard that blended into his shirt.
Then a thin elderly man emerged. He had white hair and a white beard. He wore an Edwardian suit, complete with long coat and matching boots. He nodded at Jen as he took his place beside the counter.
The next man was dressed all in black. He wore a tool bag on his hip. Oddly, the first thing Jen noticed about him were his hands. They were beautiful, with long thin fingers.
She had trouble focusing on his face, but when she finally did, she realized it was average and almost impossible to describe. His hair was as black as his clothing, and if it weren’t for the intelligence radiating from his dark eyes, she would have dismissed him entirely.
The last man to emerge was breathtakingly handsome even though he was at least ten years older than her father. The man was tall, broad-shouldered, and as muscled as the short man. But instead of making him look like an overenthusiastic bodybuilder the way the short man did, this man’s muscles trimmed him and seemed as much a part of him as his twinkling eyes.
Like the short man, he wore jeans and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Unlike the short man, this man’s clothes seemed made for him, as if he were destined to wear blue jeans and a blue shirt that matched his eyes.
“She has power,” said the man in black as if he were answering a question about her.
His voice startled her. It was boyish, the kind that—had she only heard it and not seen him speak—would have been tough to assign a gender to.
“Untapped power,” said the short man.
“Untrained power,” said the white-haired man, as if that were a bad thing.
Only the handsome man spoke directly to her. “You look familiar,” he said.
Jen’s gaze met and held his for a moment. Normally, she wouldn’t have said anything about herself, but she felt the need to here.
“My mother,” she said, “used to work at the Playboy Club.”
All her life, Jen had been told she was the spitting image of her mother—except her mother had the curves necessary to be a Playboy bunny.
Surprisingly, her words didn’t faze the handsome man. Instead, he smiled gently. “That must be it, then,” he said.
The man in charge scanned all of them, as if he were trying to figure out what they thought of her just by the looks on their faces.
“Think we should hire her?” he asked.
“I think the store has already hired her,” said the white-haired man. “I think whatever we want is irrelevant.”
Then he slipped past the other men, and disappeared into the backroom, moving so quickly that Jen would have bet that he hadn’t moved at all—except that he no longer stood in front of the counter.
The other men followed him, except for the man in charge. He put a hand on the counter.
“Will you work here?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, and felt a tiny—unusual—burst of happiness. “Of course I will.”
The next morning, she was up at dawn. She bought an apple and a bottle of water at Starbucks, and then went to the closest gas station and put $10 worth in her tank. Ten dollars barely got her three gallons, but she could go at least sixty miles on that.
Then she went to the community center, paid for a ten-day pass, and used the shower. She had good casual clothes from her last job, and she put on a pair of black jeans with a satiny red top. She figured that wasn’t too dressy for the game shop, but it was dressy enough to say that she was taking the job seriously.
She went back to the library, parked, and went inside.
The library was as lovely inside as it was out. It smelled of old books and disinfectant. Already, half a dozen people sat in chairs near the windows, reading the morning newspapers. A few younger people had logged onto the computers, probably getting their news fix online.
She wasn’t there for news. She had come to look at maps, and old property records.
Old property tax record books, plat books, and old city maps all shared the same section of the library.
Nothing inside the old books was alphabetical. They all went by lot number. And Jen had no idea where her great-grandfather’s lot had been.
About 11:30, she was going to give up when she saw the stack of phone books hidden in a corner. She held her breath as she ran her fingers along them. 1990, 1989, 1988…
Eventually, she found 1970, the year her great-grandfather had thrown her mother out for taking a job at the Playboy Club. The phonebook was thin, covered with ads, and had a layer of dust that immediately transferred itself to her red satin shirt.
But she didn’t care. She opened the thin pages to the “R”s and immediately found her great-grandfather, Nathan Roshaye. Following his name was an address and a four digit telephone number.
She brought the book to the table. She took a piece of scrap paper from the pile near the request forms, used a stubby pencil, and wrote down the address, her hands shaking.
By then, she had only fifteen minutes to get to work. No time for lunch, barely enough time to clean the dust off herself.
But she had solved one tiny mystery. She would be able to find the family home.
It would only be a matter of time.
The man who’d hired her was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was an extremely tall, heavyset dark-haired boy-man behind the counter. His age was indeterminate—he could have been twenty and he could have been fifty—but Jen knew the type. He hadn’t really stepped into his adulthood, and she doubted he ever would.
“Jen DeAngelo?” he said as she came in. His use of her name startled her. She didn’t remember telling anyone anything about herself last night. “I’m Rufus Rockwell. But you can call me Spider. I’m the day manager.”
A day manager. That implied there was a night manager, which implied a much larger staff than she would have expected for a store like this.
The store looked different in the daytime. It didn’t seem as cozy or quite as strange. She recognized it as the kind of store she’d come across before, in Austin and Seattle and San Francisco. A place where people who had mutual interests met. One of them had probably opened the store to sell the wares the rest could only buy on the Internet.
Although this place felt older than the Internet. The computers in the corner almost seemed like an afterthought.
The computers were busy now: young men sat at them, leaning forward as they concentrated hard. They were all wearing headphones, and it took her a few minutes to realize the headphones ran on Bluetooth—there were no wires at all.
On each screen was an animated figure or a well-drawn building.
“Multi-user RPGs,” Spider said when he realized where she was looking. “We provide the hookup for free, and we run in-house tournaments—you may not have the most credits in the MMORPG, but you might have the most credits in the store. We’re trying to set up a dedicated site that will only serve our customers, but that’s in the future.”
As was her understanding of what he had said. She nodded anyway, then stepped behind the counter. “Am I supposed to fill out some paperwork?”
He grabbed a quill pen and a piece of parchment. “Sign this.”
She took the parchment. It was marked Contract, and was written in calligraphy, although this calligraphy lacked the elegance she had seen on the help wanted sign.
The contract said she’d be bound to the store for the rest of her life and into eternity. Should she default on her commitments, her firstborn child would have to finish out her term.
“Ha, ha,” she said dryly. “Now where’s the tax stuff and that document I have to sign guaranteeing that I’m not an illegal immigrant.”
Spider frowned at her. He took the calligraphed parchment back and slipped it in a book.
“I told Dave a girl wouldn’t be any fun,” Spider said as he pulled out the other forms.
“Dave?” she said. “Is that the man who hired me?”
Spider’s eyes widened. “You don’t know?”
She repressed the urge to sigh. She had a feeling she’d be doing that a lot during her first day at work.
“I’m new to town,” she said.
“I thought your mom was a Bunny,” he said.
She did remember mentioning that the night before. “I’m new,” she said. “My family’s been here off and on since the 1920s.”
He nodded. “People can’t stay away. Home is home, particularly when it’s weird, like this place.”
“Lake Geneva is weird?” she asked.
He did that eye-widening thing again. “You don’t know?”
“It’d be weird without the gamers. I mean, first you have the rich Chicagoans, like Wrigley and those guys, all coming here for second homes. Then the gangsters show up. This place was the hottest town on the planet in Prohibition.”
He slid that book under the counter. Jen filled in the forms while she listened.
“Then,” he said, “you have Yerkes Observatory, so scientists made pilgrimages here—even Einstein. There’s a picture of him over there with some of the locals.”
Spider waved his hand at the wall.
“Then, of course, Hefner—who was a rich Chicago guy—gets the bright idea to open the Playboy Club here. Every celebrity on the planet shows up, plus all the feminazis—pardon my French—who want to protest the mistreatment of women. Which, as you know, being a hereditary Bunny—”
At which point he looked pointedly at her chest.
“—wasn’t mistreatment at all.”
Jen felt her cheeks color.
“We had bunnies,” Spider was saying, “and gangsters and then we got dragons.”
“Dragons,” Jen said, wishing she’d never started him on this conversation.
“You know. This is the birthplace of D&D. E. Gary Gygax—he just died—started the whole role-playing thing here in his basement. And even though he lost the company in the mid-eighties to some corporation, everyone still associates it with us. We used to have the biggest gaming convention in the world right here. Of course, it got too big for us and we had to move it to Milwaukee, but still.”
Spider was grinning at her.
“A lot of the artists still live here, and some of the writers, and a bunch of the gamers. We have a big fantasy community.”
“Sounds like it,” Jen said. Sounded like the whole place existed on fantasy. Gangsters, big-breasted women, and dragons.
Her head was beginning to hurt.
“The guys who hired you last night, some people say they’ve been around since Gygax’s basement.” Spider put his elbows on the counter. “Some say they existed before the basement, and Gygax used them for inspiration. You think that’s true?”
“I have no idea,” she said, sounding as confused as she felt.
Spider sighed. “Oh, that’s right. Dave says you don’t play. We probably should roll you up a character and get you going.”
“I’d…um…rather see the whole store,” she said. “Learn my duties. Figure out what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Playing is part of your duties,” Spider said. “Eventually, you’ll run your own game. It’ll be up to you whether you do it online or on paper. Some of the older guys, they prefer dice and graph paper. Me, I use a combination of both.”
She nodded, not understanding again. He was going too fast for her.
“As for the whole store,” he said, “you’ll never see all of it. Although you’ve already seen more of it than I have.”
“I have?” she asked.
“You just walked in, right?” Spider asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Is that a problem?”
“After six, right?”
“Man,” he said. “Then you saw the backroom.”
“No,” she said. “I didn’t see the room. I just saw the door.”
She gestured toward it, then started.
There was no door. Just a wall with little metal figurines in plastic packaging hanging from wire racks.
“Do you replace those wire racks in the morning?” she asked.
He looked at the packages. “There’s nothing behind that,” he said. “Believe me, I’ve looked.”
“Okay,” she said, beginning to feel annoyed. If hiding information from her made him feel superior, then so be it. She wasn’t going to argue.
But she did hope that after she had learned the job, she wouldn’t have to work anywhere near the day manager.
“Look,” he said. “Let’s start over. Give me the paperwork, and then we’ll have lunch, okay?”
“Okay.” When it came time to order lunch, she’d just get a Coke or something.
He took the completed sheets from her. “Before I file these, you should know that if you make extra money in a game, then you’ll have to declare it.”
“Money in a game?” she asked. “Like poker?”
“Didn’t Dave mention treasure?” Spider asked.
“Yes, but…” she let her voice trail off. She’d thought he was kidding.
“If you don’t fill this stuff out, if you let them pay you under the table, then you don’t give the government 31%.”
“I’ve never given them thirty-one percent,” Jen said. “Only rich people do that.”
He looked at her sideways. “Well, duh,” he said. And then he laughed.
The first two hours of her employment were dedicated to the art and science of multi-sided dice. She learned what they were, how to identify them, and how to tell the collectible die from the average die.
Then Spider surprised her. He said, “Are you hungry?” and before she could answer, he clapped his hands together.
Bread, cheese, ham and a pitcher of the sweetest smelling water she’d ever encountered appeared on one of the tables, along with enough plates for everyone in the shop, and enough glasses as well.
She looked at Spider open-mouthed. “How did you do that?”
He shrugged. “It rubs off. I don’t know how.”
“What rubs off?” she asked.
“The magic,” he said. “I’ve been playing a wizard forever.”
“You’re a wizard?”
“Not in real life,” he said. “In the game.”
She couldn’t tell if he actually believed that or if he was just messing with her mind. She kept her voice dry as she said, “So you acquired the ability to make lunch simply appear.”
He grinned. “Small magic, but effective. Are you impressed?”
In spite of herself, she was. She became even more impressed when she tasted the bread which had more flavor than fresh-baked. The ham had a richness she hadn’t expected, and the cheese had so much bite that she almost grimaced. But the water cut the sharpness.
It was the best meal she’d had in years.
“What do I owe you for the food?” she asked when she finished, dreading the answer.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nobody ever gets charged for the food.”
He waved his hand toward the other patrons. They were all eating as well.
“Is it part of the job?” she asked.
“When I’m here,” he said. “You can make it a perk too, if you want. Depends on what your character does.”
“My character?” she asked.
“We have to roll you a character, remember?”
She did now. But she hoped she could avoid that. She didn’t want to play anything.
Maybe she could put it off. She’d put off unpleasant tasks in jobs before.
“This is great food,” she said.
Spider grinned at her, clearly pleased, and for the rest of the day said nothing else about playing games.
The rest of the week went the same way—learning some esoteric part of this esoteric business, eating an excellent lunch followed by an even better dinner, then heading back to her van for sleep. She hadn’t gotten her first paycheck yet, and even when she did, she wouldn’t have enough ready cash to rent an apartment.
Part of her hoped she wouldn’t have to. If her great-grandfather’s house was in half-way decent condition, she’d move in. She might even be able to get the utilities up and running without having someone contact her parents.
But she had to see the place first.
Lake Geneva, like most bigger towns, now required first and last and a deposit before she could even move in. With that large a sum of money, she could probably buy a house.
The house was located near a part of the lake called the Narrows, and took her nearly a week to find. None of the locals would tell her where the house was located, even though they seemed to know.
When she mentioned to Spider that no one would tell her where her family’s old house was, he shrugged.
“Too many rich folks up here,” he said. “The librarian might think you’re paparazzi or something.”
She laughed, but he didn’t. Instead, he told her to look in Newport of the West.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“A series of books the historical society put out in the 1970s on the historic homes. If your house is famous enough to be secret, it might be in there.”
She found the books with little effort. It took only a half an hour to find the listing for her great-grandfather’s house.
Initially, it had been called Kingston. But when he’d purchased it in 1925, he changed the name to Rosehay, a slight pun on the name Roshaye.
She had seen a listing for Rosehay in all kinds of publications. It was a well-known landmark, easily visible from the center of the lake.
On her first day off, she got into her grimiest clothes, and drove the van along the rabbit paths that wound through the historic houses along the lake until she found one marked “Rosehay.”
The lane was so badly overgrown that she couldn’t drive up it. She slathered on the mosquito repellant even though it was spring, took an axe that she kept in the back of her van, hooked her knife to her belt, and headed into the wilderness.
She hacked her way along, sweating despite the spring chill. She wasn’t able to get to the house, but after a few hours, she could finally see it, a four-story tower rising above the greenery like Rapunzel’s prison.
She climbed on a rock and peered over the bushes and shrubs and landscaping gone awry, and felt her breath catch.
Rosehay itself was a single building, bigger than any private home she had ever seen outside of photographs. The building itself partially obscured the tower, but she had a sense of its size and its former elegance.
Even from this distance, she could see that windows were missing and shingles had blown off the roof. After years in the harsh Wisconsin weather, she wondered what the interior would look like—if it had even survived.
But Rosehay wasn’t the only building on the property. She counted at least ten others, including an oval shaped something or other that looked like a racetrack for horses.
Her heart pounded as she contemplated it. A racetrack and stables? Could that even be possible. She wasn’t certain. The history of the house in the book was purposefully vague, saying that the current owner (her great-grandfather) wouldn’t let anyone inspect the grounds.
The book did have pictures of the original building with its tower, but made no mention of the other buildings. And it also noted that the building had been added onto in the intervening years, but did not say how.
She would guess, from the view she was staring at, the building had at least doubled in size.
There had to be another way to get to the property. She looked over that landscaping, but wasn’t able to see a path.
And then she realized that the other way was glistening in the distance.
Rosehay had to be accessible by the lake.
She would hire a boat.
Hiring a boat was easier said than done. The season hadn’t officially started, so the boat rental places wouldn’t open for several more weeks. Spider knew someone with a boat, but he disapproved of her going near Rosehay.
“Your skill set isn’t up for it yet,” he said when she asked.
She had gotten used to his quaint way of speaking. That meant, in Spider terms, that he wasn’t going to help her.
Most of her conversations at the store were about the game. The game, she learned, was Dungeons and Dragons—the original version, not Worlds of Warcraft on the computer or the new D&D multiplayer module.
Every regular played some version of the old game. Some of the games, Spider informed her, had been going on for decades, with no new blood at all. If a new employee wanted to play—and they all did, Spider said (ignoring the fact that she didn’t)—then they had to start their own game.
He wanted her to start one, but she didn’t know how. So finally, on the fifth full day of her employment, he brought out some charts, colored pens, and multi-sided dice.
“It’s time you rolled up a character,” he said.
She stared at him. “What if I don’t want to?”
“You’re already playing,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather know what skills you had instead of going blindly into the dark?”
“I haven’t played anything,” she said.
For the first time since she arrived, he couldn’t be deterred.
“We’ll take it slowly,” he said. “But you are going to roll.”
He gave her a sheet of paper that had been photocopied so many times the words were faint. There was a place for a character name, a personal description, and then characteristics.
Beneath characteristics were these words: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. Beside the words were symbols she was just beginning to understand: D6, D12, D24—all referring to a type of dice, from a six-sided die (or, as she thought of it, normal dice), a twelve-sided die, and so on.
She picked up the appropriate dice and rolled when Spider told her to.
After a few minutes, she had numbers beside each characteristic.
Spider pulled the paper toward himself and studied it for a moment. Then he frowned at her.
“I gotta talk to Dave,” he said, and took the paper with him.
She didn’t see Spider for the rest of the day.
But she did have a great memory for numbers, so about closing time, she pulled a few of the older customers to the counter.
She had written down her scores along with the words that they went with. She showed the scrap to the customers and said, “What does this mean?”
“Old game version. Nice,” said one of the regulars. “Great character.”
“Wow,” said another. “I’d love this character.”
“You obviously understand it,” she said. “I don’t. What is this?”
“A thief,” said another man. “A mighty thief, the kind you’d want in any party. Can open any door, can steal anything. Dexterity off the charts and that charisma! Unusual for a thief.”
A younger man peered over his shoulder. “That charisma would get you noticed. You don’t want that in a thief.”
“But useful if you’re going for a big haul,” said the guy who mentioned thieving.
“Intelligence isn’t bad either. Seems rather high for a thief,” said the young guy. “Means there might be some magic in this character as well.”
“But very little wisdom,” said an older woman. “Isn’t that just like a thief?”
They all laughed and went about their business. Jen stared at the numbers she’d scrawled and wondered what it was about them that had so upset Spider.
It would be another day before she found out.
She spent the morning of that day studying satellite images of her great-grandfather’s property. They revealed one small path that still looked viable. It came from a neighboring property. From appearances—and really, who could judge from the air?—it seemed like the neighbors preferred Rosehay’s tiny beach to their own.
She figured she could get onto the neighbor’s property. She spent fifty precious cents printing out a color photocopy of the satellite image, and then she went to work.
For the first time since she took the job, Dave sat behind the counter. There were no customers. Spider hovered near the door, as if he had been waiting for her to come in.
Jen’s heart beat faster. This was the point where they told her she had done something wrong. Maybe they would tell her that she was all wrong for the store. Her lack of interest in the games combined with her lack of knowledge probably wasn’t going over well with the customers.
She swallowed hard. She clasped her hands in front of her, so that they wouldn’t shake from nerves.
She hated it when she cared about a job. Caring had caused her more problems in her life than almost anything.
Anything except her family, of course.
Dave smiled at her. He seemed younger. Or maybe it was just the way the thin daylight from the small windows fell across his face. He held an envelope with her name on it.
“Your pay for the week,” Dave said, “plus a bonus.”
A good-bye bonus. Thanks, but no thanks. She nodded and tried not to look disappointed.
“You’ve done better than we thought,” he said. “So we gave you a performance bonus even though you’re not completely enrolled in the game.”
Jen looked down at the envelope he offered her. A bonus? For doing well? She’d never gotten a bonus at any job.
“You’ve been storing up questions, I know,” Dave said to her. “Now is the time to ask them.”
Spider wouldn’t meet her gaze. It made her uncomfortable. For a week, he’d been the only friend she had in this town, and her source for all information on the game itself.
She looked away from him and focused on Dave. Then she asked her first question, blurted it actually. It wasn’t even the most important question she had, but it was the one that bothered her.
“What’s wrong with that character I rolled?” she asked.
She was looking at Spider, not at Dave. Spider’s cheeks grew red. He raised his gaze to hers. He seemed almost angry.
“You’re a thief,” Spider said. “Thieves have no business behind the counter of a store.”
Her own face heated.
“I’m not a thief,” she said, looking at Dave. “I’ve never stolen anything.”
From here, anyway. She had stolen things before—a thousand dollars from her father when she ran away from home the last time, a night in an empty motel room, and an occasional candy bar when her money was long gone and she was about to pass out from hunger.
But she thought of herself as fundamentally honest. She’d never stolen from an employer, and in her own opinion, she’d only stolen when she was completely, absolutely, and utterly desperate.
“You’re the first thief we’ve hired,” Dave said, “although some of the regulars are thieves. Don’t worry about this. Your ability makes sense.”
To him maybe. She was about to say so when he explained.
“Your family history alone means you will always roll a higher dexterity than anyone else in the room.”
“What?” Jen asked.
Dave smiled. “Your father is a securities broker, right?”
“With a gift for making money off the books.”
Jen blushed. She thought no one knew that.
“Your mother,” Dave was saying, “has always stowed away little trinkets she takes from her favorite stores, sort of her revenge on having the kind of life she had always thought she didn’t want.”
Jen’s mouth opened. She hadn’t told a soul when she’d discovered her mother’s cache. Not even her mother.
“Your grandmother,” Dave said, “survived the war with some cunning of her own, but it was your grandfather who shows the most skill. He was one of the most famous pilots of World War II. He had an ability, or so they say, to get into any area that was thought impossible to penetrate. That’s how he got the nickname Wings.”
And flying into an area no one else could penetrate was what killed him. They didn’t find his body until after the war.
“But it’s your great-grandfather who gives you the most power here,” Dave said. “He was that rare creature, a gentleman thief, the Robin Hood of Lake Geneva, a man beloved by everyone poor and hated by anyone with money.”
This was making Jen very uncomfortable. “So you did your research on me. Good for you. I thought you just hired me out of the blue.”
“The store chose you.” Dave shrugged. “We wanted to know why.”
She was beginning to dislike all the mystical talk about the store.
“All of that history has nothing to do with me,” she said. Not with who she was. Those people hadn’t influenced her at all. “I’ve lived alone since I was eighteen.”
“Not entirely true,” Dave said, “but true enough for now. We’re talking lineage here, not experience. You come from a long line of successful thieves.”
Jen felt the heat grow in her cheeks. She supposed she should defend her family, but how could she? Dave had spoken the truth. No one in her family was honest.
That was why she had left in the first place.
“That’s why you hired her, isn’t it?” Spider asked. “You knew about the connection to Roshaye.”
Dave looked at Spider as if he’d forgotten Spider was part of the conversation. “We hired her long before we knew who she was.”
The “we” caught Jen’s attention. That was another of her questions. She wanted to ask it, but Dave was still taking to Spider.
“After researching her,” Dave was saying, “the dexterity comes as no surprise. It should always be high, no matter how many characters she rolls. But the intelligence—I hadn’t expected such a high magical ability. And the charisma should worry you, Spider.”
Spider’s cheeks were so red that they had to hurt. “Does it worry you?”
Dave shook his head. “I’m used to working with someone who has that level of charisma. You’re not.”
“Okay,” Jen said, trying to stop this part of the conversation. “We’ve dealt with the made-up game character. Now, I have some other questions—”
“Oh,” Spider said, “it’s not made-up. It’s you. That’s the magic of the store.”
“It’s not me,” Jen said, “and I’m sorry to tell you that the store doesn’t have any magic. Someone probably left the door unlocked that night. The store didn’t find me. I was walking down the street and saw your sign.”
“Which wasn’t up until you looked in the window,” Dave said.
“So you put it there,” Jen said. “Big whoop.”
“None of us placed the sign in the window,” Dave said. “We never do.”
She sighed. “I know you guys like to pretend that the store is magic. But it’s just a place. And that ‘character’ is just a piece of paper with random numbers on it.”
“Do you really believe that?” Dave asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Any sensible person would.”
“Sensible.” Spider shook his head.
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” she said, shaking the envelope with her bonus inside, “but I don’t understand this place—”
“That’s clear,” Spider muttered.
“Who are you, Dave?” she asked, ignoring Spider. “Are you the owner?”
“I’m the caretaker,” Dave said.
“The manager,” she said.
“We have managers. Spider for the daytime and Rafe for evenings.”
“I haven’t met Rafe,” she said.
“Not yet,” Dave said. “You might never meet him.”
“So who do you caretake the store for?” Jen asked.
Dave looked at Spider. “I thought you told her the history.”
Spider shrugged. “What I could.”
“This town is special,” Dave said. “You realize that, right?”
She was about to deny it, when she realized he was right. How many small Midwestern towns could boast a history of gangsters, Playboy bunnies, great wealth, and a large artistic community? She could think of no other.
“Sometimes, the specialness comes to a place because of the people,” Dave said. “Sometimes the people come to a place because it is already special.”
“Okay,” she said. “The lake brought people here. So?”
“So,” Dave said, pausing for dramatic effect. “The store does the same thing.”
She clenched a fist, feeling more exasperated than she probably had a right to. He wasn’t going to give her a straight answer, at least not in front of Spider.
“Who were the men I met the night you hired me?” Jen asked, deciding to try a different tack.
“The original gamers,” Dave said.
“Original to what?”
“To the store’s game,” Dave said. “They existed before the store did.”
She almost said, Well, duh, but restrained herself.
She wasn’t going to get a straight answer, even though Dave had promised them.
Or had he?
All he had promised was that she could ask the questions she’d been storing up.
“So,” she said to Dave, “are you going to let a so-called thief remain behind your counter?”
“I’m going to let an actual thief work the store,” Dave said. “And I hope you participate in the game soon. You’re going to be one of our best characters ever.”
As if she didn’t really exist. As if she wasn’t a person, just a figment of his imagination.
Which was probably more than she’d been in years. People had always noticed her, but they hadn’t really cared about her.
He seemed to genuinely care, and that was new.
“Thanks,” she said. She stuffed the envelope in her back pocket. Then she looked at Spider. “You going to mind that I’m here?”
“Probably,” he said dryly. “But I’ve never been one to shirk a challenge.”
A challenge. That was what her father had called her when she turned thirteen and began to fight with him about everything.
She didn’t like being a challenge.
But she wasn’t going to give Spider that kind of power over her.
She smiled at him, thanked Dave, and asked if she could leave.
“As long as you come back tomorrow,” Dave said.
“I will,” she said. But she wasn’t sure how long she’d stay.
That feeling of comfort had left her—and that was a bad sign.
The bonus wasn’t enough money to get an apartment. In fact, she wouldn’t have enough even if she used the bonus and all of her first paycheck. She needed both for food and gas money. However, she did find out that she had enough money to pay for a room at one of the by-the-week motels at the edge of town.
On her first day off after the character rolling incident, she put on her grungiest clothes and drove the van to Rosehay. This time, she didn’t stop on the lane, but drove to the neighbor’s property. She parked in an alcove near their driveway, but still on the public street, and snuck onto their well manicured lot.
From there, she used the satellite map to find the path that she had found nearly a week before.
She slipped onto that path with no trouble at all.
Spring had really arrived since the last time she’d come, and everything was blooming. The lake was close enough that she could smell its muddy freshness. The scents of tulips and narcissus mingled with the smell of green, tickling her nose as she moved. Something snagged her hair, and she jumped. She reached back, half expecting a bird to be tangled in the strands. Instead, she found a twig.
She untangled herself and moved on, following the twisting path past large trees and long-established (and long overgrown) hedges.
Finally she ended up on a clearing with dead grass that had probably been as tall as her knees before the winter snows knocked it flat. The buildings stretched before her—a dozen of them, all in various stages of decay.
This place smelled of rot and wet wood. All of the buildings looked abandoned, and Rosehay itself seemed foreboding, the ghost house at the end of a particularly frightening block. In the proper light, the house could decorate the cover of a horror novel: Don’t go in the basement.
She shuddered and then laughed at herself. Her flights of fancy had increased since she began her job at the store. She would have to curb that imagination if she wanted to explore this place.
The outbuildings didn’t interest her nearly as much as the main house did. Even in its decay, it was much more impressive than the photographs she’d seen in the library.
The sheer size of the house made her father’s Bel Air mansion in California seem like a cottage. The wings of this house, which had clearly had been added on, were as big as her parents’ summer home on Vancouver Island.
She wondered how someone could live here—and then, just as quickly as she had that thought, she wondered how someone could abandon this place.
She stopped at the edge of the path, where the lawn began sloping to the small beach, and stared. The view from here was spectacular. She could see the lake shining bluely in the morning light and the trees on the other side of the Narrows.
Sail boats dotted the water. The water had a bit of chop this morning, but it still looked refreshing—especially to someone as hot and sticky as she was.
The walk had taken more out of her than she expected.
Still, she had work to do. What she wanted to find was a place to sleep. Her plan was simple: she would rebuild that building first, all by herself.
By the time someone local decided to report her to her father, she would have already invested time and energy into improving this place. When she got that angry phone call, she would tell him that she had already started fixing the neglect she’d found and he had no right to tell her to leave the property.
The only thing she hoped was that they wouldn’t come here, wouldn’t try to find her. If they did that, she might actually leave.
She turned her attention to the house. The front had that strange tower which rose above her, the rounded sides dotted with holes in the siding. The regular part of the building—all three stories of it—had floor-to-ceiling windows which had miraculously remained unbroken in all the time the house stood empty.
As she moved closer, the glass caught her reflection.
She moved closer, fascinated. Her own image seemed like it came from inside the house. The house matched her movement for movement, almost as if it were mocking her.
The house had attitude.
She had to admire that, since she had attitude as well.
As she approached the windows, she noted a small break between them. It marked a door—also made of glass—that opened onto the lawn.
That door seemed foreboding to her. She didn’t want to enter the house with her back to the lake.
Instead, she moved toward the house’s west side, the side facing the path. She stopped in front of it, noticing the lack of windows here. Had someone not wanted to look at the neighbor’s house? Or did someone have an aversion to sunsets?
Or maybe the designer had deliberately chosen to leave windows off this side of the house to focus on the windows up front.
A shudder ran through her. Suddenly, the warm spring day seemed cool. She looked up. There were storm clouds over the lake.
Thunderheads. The nasty bluish-purple kind. The kind that could whip into a funnel cloud before she could even run to shelter.
She didn’t want to be outside when that storm hit.
She sighed, glancing one last time at the house. Despite its decaying, horrific appearance, it appealed to her. If she went inside, she might be safe from the storm.
Or she might get drenched. The roof hadn’t looked very sound when she had seen it from a distance. She had a hunch it probably looked worse up close.
She had time. She didn’t need to explore the entire property on this day. Besides, she needed to do laundry and get some groceries for her brand-new single room. She needed to tend to the details of her life.
Moving into this old house was still a dream.
But it had become even more of one. It seemed possible now.
She couldn’t tell Spider about her adventure—she no longer trusted him, not after that whole “we can’t have a thief behind the counter” thing. But she did find herself mentioning the storm to one of the customers three days later, the woman who had commented on her game character, a woman named Teresa.
When Jen had first met her about a week before, she had assumed that Teresa was coming to buy presents for her grandchildren. But then Teresa sat down in front of one of the computers, typed in her name and password, and produced an avatar that looked a lot like Jane Fonda in Barbarella.
That avatar destroyed two ogres and an entire hillside as Jen watched. Teresa obviously knew more about gaming than almost everyone else in the shop.
She also knew a lot about Lake Geneva. She volunteered at the historical society one day per week, and she was the one who brought up Rosehay.
“I hear your van was near the gangster’s house,” she said.
Jen started. She’d been trying to inventory the dice, which seemed like a thankless task. She was beginning to think the dice were like rabbits—multiplying when she wasn’t looking.
“I know you find it romantic up there,” Teresa said, “but it’s the most dangerous place in Lake Geneva. You shouldn’t go to the house, no matter how much it appeals to you.”
“It’s my family’s property,” Jen said. “Nathan Roshaye was my great-grandfather.”
Teresa nodded. “I suspected as much. You look like your mother.”
Without the figure, Jen thought. But she didn’t add it. Too many people had throughout her life.
“You knew my mother?” Jen asked.
Teresa smiled. “I worked at the Playboy Club too. I know that’s hard to believe.”
What could Jen say? No, that’s not hard to believe, when indeed it was? Or yes, you’re right. I would never have guessed you worked there, which, while true, bordered on cruel.
“Your mother wanted to marry a rich man and get away from your great-grandfather. I gather she did both of those things.”
“And they didn’t make her happy, did they?” Teresa asked.
“I don’t think my mother can be happy,” Jen said.
Teresa nodded. “She made you unhappy. That’s why you’re here.”
I ran away from home because of her. Because of him. Because it was hell on Earth. A beautiful hell, but hell nonetheless.
But Jen remained quiet. She liked Teresa, but Teresa didn’t need to hear Jen’s life story.
“And you want to fix Rosehay, right? You want to make it your own,” Teresa said.
Jen jutted out her chin. She suddenly had the same feeling she used to have with her father, when he guessed her motivation and then proceeded to make fun of her.
She braced herself.
But Teresa didn’t make fun of her. Teresa took her hand and held it lightly.
“It’s dangerous up there,” Teresa said. “People have died. That’s why it’s overgrown.”
Jen didn’t pull away, but she wanted to.
“We’ve lost half a dozen teenagers since Nathan died, all of them going up to get the treasure some wag said he buried on the property.”
“Some wag?” Jen asked.
“There are treasure houses in Lake Geneva,” Teresa said. “Because of the wealth that comes here. Whether or not the stories are true, people believe them. They want some kind of get-rich-quick scheme to work.”
“Breaking into Rosehay is a get-rich-quick-scheme?” Jen asked.
“For some,” Teresa said.
“Not for me,” Jen said.
Teresa studied her, as if she were trying to see inside of her.
“That’s right,” she said after a moment. “Not for you. You’re just looking for a place to belong.”
Jen didn’t like that. “I’m looking for a place to live.”
“That too,” Teresa said.
She hadn’t let go of Jen’s hand. Jen wondered if now was the time to pull away, if she wouldn’t be seen as too rude by doing so.
“Promise me something,” Teresa said. “Promise me you won’t go up there alone again. Promise me.”
Jen took her hand back, but smiled gently as she did so.
“It’s my family home,” she said.
“It was built by a man with secrets,” Teresa said. “He got more and more paranoid as he got older. He was wealthy. He had the ability to protect everything in new and creative ways. It’s like a dungeon—the kind we try to conquer. You might find great treasure. You might die. Promise me you won’t go alone.”
Jen shook her head. “I can promise you I’ll be very careful,” she said, because she knew it was the only promise she could keep.
The house seemed less foreboding the second time she approached. She had the odd feeling that it expected her.
She parked in an even more secluded spot, hoping that this time she wouldn’t be spotted.
Then she made her way to the path.
She had brought gloves this time, as well as extra food and water in a backpack. She didn’t want to be caught off guard in any way. She also had a disposable cell phone that she bought at a convenience store. The phone didn’t have a lot of minutes, but it had enough juice to enable her to dial 911 if she needed to.
She had heard Teresa’s warnings; she was just going to heed them in her own way.
Jen also made sure the weather wouldn’t surprise her either this time. Her new by-the-week room had a by-the-week television set. It had no cable, but it did get the local channels, and she watched the weather religiously, making certain she wasn’t going to get caught in a powerful spring storm.
The forecast looked bright for the next three days. If a storm showed up, it truly would be a freak.
She had no real worries. She wasn’t even worried that much about her job anymore. Dave had come in one afternoon to start her on the game. He’d walked her through her first dungeon, and taught her how to graph everything.
She felt like she was still in school. When she asked him if she could play the computerized version, he laughed.
“The game isn’t about scoring points and making hits,” he said. “It’s a social interaction. It’s about imagining the world—recreating the world—with your friends.”
But she didn’t have any friends. She wasn’t sure she wanted any either.
It took her less time to get to the house, maybe because she knew where she was going. The lake glistened to the south, and the sailboats filled the water like friendly birds.
She slipped behind the main building. She’d studied it in old photographs and on some downloaded satellite imagery. There was an old path that led to the back, and she figured that had to be the main door.
She ignored that small door on the lake side. Instead, she walked through the flattened grass to the area she’d seen on the maps. A walk made of decaying brick twisted its way from the old road.
She stayed alongside the brick, careful not to step on it so that she wouldn’t hurt herself.
The path led to stairs, also made of brick, which looked sturdier than the sidewalk had been—probably because grass and weeds weren’t trying to grow between the mortar.
The brick stairs were interesting. As they went up, they widened to an ornate double door, the wood chipped by the weather.
But beneath them, another series of steps twisted, leading to a metal door, rusted and nearly invisible against the side of the house.
If Teresa was right, and Jen’s great-grandfather had been paranoid, then he would have booby-trapped the main door. The lower door might have been the one he used.
Jen eased down the brick steps, feeling a few of the bricks wobble under her feet. She paused for a moment, then took an old rag out of her backpack and used a broken bit of brick to hold the rag down.
If she did get trapped inside, someone would know what door she had used.
If someone came looking for her.
The thought chilled her. She reached inside the pack and turned on the cell phone. It took a moment, but then the phone’s service kicked in. There was good reception here.
She would be all right.
She put the phone back into the pack and went to the door. It was locked, like she expected, but as she tugged, it came loose on its frame. The wooden frame had rotted. The hinges were attached to nothing.
If she pulled hard enough, the entire door would come off.
She didn’t need the entire door to come off. All she needed was to pry it open and slip inside. She couldn’t get past the lock, but she could remove the door’s hinges by hand with very little effort.
She put on her gloves so that she wouldn’t get stabbed by random nails, and pulled.
The hinges came out like teeth from a broken jaw.
She used the edge of one of the hinges to pry the door from its frame. It didn’t slide open so much as peel back. A waft of dust-filled air floated out at her, and she sneezed.
Then she reached inside her pack and removed her flashlight. Clicking it on, she went into the darkness.
She was in a small anteroom. A rotting chair leaned up against an interior door.
She turned the flashlight back on the main door, and saw something that didn’t surprise her. A slide-back viewer.
This had once been an entrance to a speakeasy. The bouncer had sat here, and when someone knocked, he had pulled back the slide, peered through, and asked for a password or identification.
Her heart pounded. She felt like she had stumbled into history—and she was the only one who knew about it.
Maybe that was why the door was so badly rusted; it hadn’t been used since the 1930s. She wondered what other parts of the property hadn’t been used since then.
She would wager that as her great-grandfather got older a lot of it became abandoned.
The interior door wasn’t locked. She moved the chair and opened the door, stepping into a wide room that smelled faintly of beer.
Or maybe that was wishful thinking.
A counter—a bar?—ran along one wall, and the other walls had mirrors—or maybe those were the reflections of grimy picture frames on the walls.
The idea intrigued her. Old family photographs maybe, or pictures of her great-grandfather with Bugs Moran. She walked to the reflecting wall, tripped, and tumbled forward, landing on cushions that smelled of mold.
She pushed herself up, and rolled off whatever it was. Her stomach churned. She had to be careful. She had to think before she moved.
She turned the light on the wall, and instead of seeing pictures or mirrors, she saw eyes. Dozens of eyes.
She screamed, and something flew overhead.
Inside a house?
In the basement of a house.
She covered her head, and prayed she was wrong.
After the sounds stopped, she stood. A sound, like a growl, echoed behind her.
She turned—and something hit her in the head.
The smell of mold made her sneeze. She was lying on that cushion—or she thought she was. She put her hand on her forehead, and her fingers came away moist.
She sniffed. Blood.
Her head ached and as she tried to sit up, everything went black again.
It took concentration to open her eyes.
The handsome man—the one who was older than her father—shoved the man with the long fingers aside. Teresa leaned over them.
She touched Jen’s forehead, said, “Barely. We barely made it,” and the pain eased enough for Jen to realize there was pain.
Jen closed her eyes. She rose up, as if lifted on air, and floated forward.
Dave’s voice echoed in the darkness: “Careful, careful, you have no idea what’s down here.”
And then Teresa:
“I can’t save her, Dave. She’s gonna die.”
They were sitting on the sloping lawn, Jen and Dave, overlooking the lake. The water glistened like it had earlier, but there were no boats. The sun was much too bright.
Dave handed her dice.
“You have to roll again,” he said.
“Why?” she asked.
“You need a new character.”
She frowned. Her head ached so badly that it was hard to think. But she was sure of one thing.
She didn’t need a new character. Her character was fine as it was.
“No,” she said.
He pressed the dice into her hands. “Hurry,” he said. “We’re too far from the store. We don’t have a lot of time, and I can’t bend the rules much more than this.”
“Every game has rules,” he said. “Just because I’m the caretaker doesn’t mean I don’t have to follow the rules. In fact, I’m in charge of maintaining the rules. I can’t change them. I’m not the gamemaster.”
“Who is?” she asked.
He looked sad. “If we knew, we’d appeal. But we can’t. Please, roll.”
Because he’d been kind to her, because he was here in this hallucination, keeping her company while she bled to death on a moldy cushion, she rolled for him.
The numbers were as strange as before. Only she understood some of them now. The dexterity—the thief number—was even higher than before. The strength too. The intelligence score remained the same.
He whistled. “Magic and dexterity. No wonder the store liked you.”
“Liked?” she asked.
“Finish. Quickly. Then we’ll take you back.”
Back. She rolled the last—charisma—and it was lower than before. Or not. She couldn’t remember.
She couldn’t remember anything. The light was fading. The lake was turning black. Was a storm brewing in the distance?
She turned to look, but she could see nothing.
Not Dave, not the lake, not even herself.
When she awoke, she was on clean sheets. The room smelled of disinfectant, and something beeped above her head. She opened her eyes, and saw the plain white walls of a hospital. Steel bars lined the sides of the bed, along with tubes running out of her arm.
Her head still ached.
Spider sat on a chair beside her bed, but he hadn’t noticed her. He was playing a Game Boy, his thumbs moving so fast she could barely see them.
“What happened?” she asked.
He looked up. Then he pressed the save button, turned the Game Boy off, and set it on his lap.
He did not look happy with her.
“What happened?” he repeated. “What happens to anyone who tries to go into a dungeon alone? Don’t you watch horror movies?”
“Horror movies aren’t real life.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You think that because you were wearing gloves and boots instead of a miniskirt and high heels. But the effect was the same. Didn’t Teresa tell you not to go in by yourself?’
“It’s my family’s house,” Jen said.
“Closed off for a reason,” Spider said.
She squinted at him. “What reason?”
He sighed. “I was hoping Dave would be here when you woke up.”
“Why isn’t he?”
“Game night. He’s got the store.”
She nodded, then wished she hadn’t. A wave of nausea ran through her. “What happened to me?”
Spider sighed. “You’re not going to believe me.”
“Lake Geneva is a portal.”
“Sure,” she said.
He glared. “You want to hear this or not?”
She might as well. She had nothing else to do. Someone else could tell her the truth later on.
“A portal,” she repeated.
“It always has been. There are stories that Gary Gygax used the abandoned Oakwood Sanitarium when he was a kid,” Spider said. “He said it was great fodder for D&D adventures, but most everyone knew it was the original portal.”
“Rosehay is no sanitarium,” she said.
“Oakwood got torn down. The portal moved to some other building. We don’t know which one. Then it must have been torn down. Then your great-grandfather died, and your family abandoned Rosehay. So the portal moved again. At least, that was what Dave thought. But no one knew for sure, and he couldn’t figure out how to legally explore it. You know the Lake Geneva police are supposed to arrest and prosecute anyone who trespasses on that property?”
‘They didn’t arrest me,” she said.
“It’s your family’s property,” Spider said. “Teresa tried to warn you.”
“What happened to me?” she asked.
He stared at her. “Really happened? Or you want the story we gave the paramedics.”
The story they gave the paramedics was probably the true one. “Both,” she said.
“You went inside, turned too fast, and hit your head on an exposed beam. You did some serious damage. You were unconscious when Dave and Teresa found you.”
That had to be the paramedic story. “What’s your story?” she asked.
“The house sent the first big bad after you and you had no defensive skills. If you’d been in there with your party, like Teresa told you to do, someone would have seen the problem or stopped it or a full-fledged fight would have occurred. Or maybe you would have scared it off. But you were alone. You went in, got attacked, and nearly died.”
Either way, the story was chilling. Teresa had been right; Jen shouldn’t have gone inside by herself.
“How’d you find me?”
“Someone spotted your van. Dave insisted we search for you. He brought in the old-timers. He says they barely got you out alive.”
She frowned. Something at the edge of her consciousness—a high-pitched scream, like a wail, and bright light—the smell of fire and a voice reciting nonsense words with great conviction. The short muscular man stabbing something with a sword—and Dave, Dave holding the door, as Teresa held her hand. The handsome man guided them out, remaining behind to fight.
There was more screaming, and then a blood-curdling yowl.
She had thought—at the time—that it was a death cry.
Teresa said, She’s too far gone. I can’t save her, Dave. She’s gonna die.
The white light hurt her eyes—and then it faded back into gleams of sunlight on the waves. Dave sat across from Jen, holding dice in one hand, a graph and pens in another.
Roll again, he had said. Please.
And eventually, she had.
He had saved her life.
Whether or not he had done so metaphorically or in reality, it didn’t matter. Dave and Teresa and the men who played games in the backroom late at night had saved her life.
Spider watched her, almost as if he could see her memories unfolding.
“You’ll be different,” he said. “There’s no getting around it. You’re never quite the same after the first time you die.”
“My heart stopped?” she asked. She wanted the reality not the fantasy. She wanted the truth.
“Everything stopped,” he said. He picked up his Game Boy and stood. “Now it’s up to you to play a little smarter.”
She wanted to tell him she wasn’t playing. But he had already turned his back on her. He was leaning out the door, waving at someone at the nurse’s station, telling them that Jen was awake.
She closed her eyes.
The memories were as real as if they had actually happened. Maybe they had.
She didn’t know.
And she wasn’t sure she cared.
Because for the first time in her life, someone had realized she was missing. Someone had come after her.
Someone had cared enough to see what had happened to her.
No one had ever cared before.
She opened her eyes. A nurse stood over her, cool hand against her cheek. Spider stood beside her. He didn’t seem as annoyed as he had a moment before.
He seemed worried.
Maybe that was what she had taken for annoyance. Worry.
Had anyone ever worried about her before? She had called her father from Washington, D.C., said she was in trouble, and what had he done? He’d berated her for leaving, for not calling for six months. He’d never asked what kind of trouble. Never asked what she needed.
He hadn’t cared.
But Spider had cared enough to sit beside her bed and wait until she woke up.
“What about the house?” Jen asked him. Her voice sounded raspier than it had a moment before. Or maybe that hadn’t been a moment. Maybe it had been longer.
The nurse wrote some information on a chart, then said she’d be right back.
Spider remained beside the bed. “We’ll close the portal,” he said. “Then you can move in.”
Close the portal. She didn’t know what that meant. But it sounded reassuring. Followed by the fact that she’d be able to move in.
It was only after a moment that she realized what else he had said.
He had said “we.”
There’d never been a “we” before in her life either. It had always been her or them. Never people standing with her.
Spider tucked a strand of hair behind his ear. He looked younger here than he did inside the store.
“I called Dave,” he said. “He told everyone you’re awake. We’ll be here, taking turns, until you’re better. Then you’re moving.”
“To the house?” she asked.
“The store,” Spider said. “It’ll take a while to get the house cleared. The store has a backroom.”
“I know,” Jen said.
“Not that room,” he said. “A place for people to stay before they can go home. Until we close that portal, you’ll have a place to sleep. If you want it.”
She wanted it. She wanted it all.
Fantasy or not. Reality or not. She wanted to stay.
She wanted a place to belong.
And she had finally found that—in a town her parents had abandoned, beside a lake that seemed older than time.
She smiled at Spider.
“Thanks, wizard,” she said.
He grinned at her, a genuine look of happiness she had never seen before. “Our pleasure…thief.”
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published Gamer Fantastic, edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Kerrie Hughes, Daw, July, 2009
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Balefire9/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.