Non Player Character is a work-in-progress but I wanted to share it while I work on the first draft. Please bear in mind that this is an unedited work, but hopefully you will still enjoy it!
Chapter Ten: The Bedroom Monster
Impossible though it had seemed when I first stood on Pauline’s doorstep, D&D became part of my routine. My days became more than a blur of tourists and canned lines while I waited to play ARO. Every Friday or Saturday at 7pm, I would inhabit Astara of the Silver Grove, who was gradually becoming accepted into the notorious Ninth Rain. There, I would laugh with Hanley and Vandellis, help Arries keep the party intact, and discuss magic and loneliness with the ever-mysterious figure of Ram. But I was becoming part of the group in real life as well, a transition so gentle that I barely noticed how close we were really becoming.
Hanna always wanted to know about the funniest tourists I’d seen that day, and Ellis would practice his Welsh with me to try to win a bet with Hanna. Arries and I still talked daily on ARO, but now it was much more personal than just discussing the latest raid. He would keep me updated on all the others and answer any questions I had been too nervous to ask. Even Pauline, with all of her abruptness, would check in with me every couple of days. She seemed concerned about my health — I’d let slip in the chat that my diet was largely pizza and junk food.
Only Rex was hard to pin-down, a fleeting figure in the chatroom, ever-present but always lurking in silence, or being called away on unspecified business. He would pipe up to quip or joke, or offer his somewhat cynical advice, but otherwise chose to fade into the background. And that was okay, even if it disappointed.
I got back from work one day too tired to face cooking a meal. I ordered pizza and flitted up and down the stairs like a ghost when the doorbell rang, whisking my greasy prize back to my room. I opened it on my desk and reclined in my seat while ARO loaded, letting the dramatic music swell around me.
A phone symbol blinked in the corner of my screen. I let a cheesy bite slide down my throat, then accepted the call. ‘Hey Arries.’
‘Hiya! I didn’t think you’d be on today. Aren’t you meant to be visiting your mum?’
I took another bite, giving me a moment to think before responding. I didn’t want to talk about my mum, about how hard I found it to visit her in Carydwen. She lived in a cramped flat in the city, where there was nowhere to park. I had to get the train whenever I visited, and navigate the town alone. All perfectly regular things for a human to do — other than me. I felt … fuzzy … whenever I thought about making the trip. Flashing between static and clear, like a TV losing signal.
‘I rescheduled,’ I said, which wasn’t true. I hadn’t gotten up the energy to call, or deal with the situation in any way. Did that make me an awful daughter? I looked at my phone and contemplated calling her, but hearing her disappointment was more than I knew how to deal with right now, and she never understood why I couldn’t just do the things that other people did. I could text her, but then she would know something was up, and she would immediately call me anyway.
I let my silence speak for me. For a moment, Arries didn’t say anything either. I wondered if he was thinking: You haven’t seen her in three months and she only lives one town over. I wondered if he thought I was being pathetic, or lazy, or callous. Maybe I was being all of those things. I only knew that I couldn’t face the cold horror and sickly brain static of making the journey.
After a moment, Arries said, ‘I’m sorry, Tar. I know you want to go. Are you feeling, uh, unwell again?’ He said the word in a way that clearly meant ‘in your brain’.
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
I exhaled long and slow. ‘I just want to be distracted right now.’
‘Right. Right! I can do that.’
We played for a while. I wasn’t as lively on the chat as I usually was, but Arries could fill awkward silences single handedly, and soon I could feel myself loosening up. We’d just slain the slimy wyrmlings in the Wyrm’s Eyrie quest when I heard a knock at my door. ‘BRB, Arries.’
I took off my headset and went to the door, puzzled. Saanvi rarely disturbed me, unless I’d gotten a parcel in the post or something. When I opened the door, it took me a moment to look down into the face of Riya. She was wearing Spiderman pyjamas with the shirt on backward — I’d heard her shouting before that the spider went on the front, and she’d refused to wear it any other way since. In her hands was a still-wet painting in thick, dripping strokes.
She offered it to me silently. I looked at it. ‘The Bedroom Monster’ it read in a balloonish hand, imitating Saanvi’s neat pencil handwriting at the top of the page. It portrayed a blue woman and a small green girl holding hands.
She looked at me, as if waiting for something. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to break the silence, but it seemed wrong to send her away empty handed. I offered her a pizza slice. She accepted it with a nod, and padded back to her bedroom.
‘Back!’ I said. Arries’ big lizardman character was doing a sort of jig. He went back to all-business as I spoke.
‘Great. What was it?’
‘Riya.’ I glanced at the moist painting on the desk. ‘She made a painting of us together.’
‘Aww! Did you tell her it was great? You were nice about it, right?’ Arries’ tone was light, but I could detect his anxiety that I would somehow crush a young child. ‘Children need lots of encouragement.’
‘We didn’t really speak,’ I said. ‘But I gave her a piece of pizza.’
‘That’s … uh, did she seem happy?’
‘She seemed satisfied, yeah. Artists are supposed to be paid for their work, right?’
‘I … guess.’
We returned to gameplay as normal, but every now and then I glanced at Riya’s painting and smiled.
Hanna: It’s my birthday on Thursday!
Arries: OMG happy birthday, Hanna!
Ellis: Congratulations on your continued existence
Hanna: THANK you.
Pauline: I assume you have the usual plans to debauch yourself.
Hanna: Oh yeah. I am going to get extremely debauched.
Hanna: I’ve got big plans for Saturday.
Arries: You’re still coming to D&D, right?
Hanna: Oh yeah. I don’t trust P with my character.
Tar🕷: Happy birthday for Thursday! Why don’t you trust P?
Ellis: There was … an incident.
Hanna: Hanley got killed the last time I missed a session!
Arries: I don’t think P meant anything by it …
Hanna: I got back to a session that started with a desperate race to a temple to resurrect me.
Pauline: That was unfortunate, but Hanley was fine.
Hanna: You were punishing me!
Hanna: Why else would you kill my character when I wasn’t even there.
Pauline: It’s a game run on dice and chance. These things happen.
Hanna: It’s a game run by YOU.
Ellis: It did seem kinda like a punishment.
Pauline: Your character didn’t die when you missed a session.
Ellis: No, but I did lose all my equipment.
Pauline: By chance.
Tar🕷: So what I’m hearing is: don’t miss sessions.
Pauline: Of course. It would be rude to miss a session.
Hanna: Even though I’m seeing you Friday for the game
Hanna: And even though I’m gonna celebrate properly on Saturday
Hanna: I kinda wanna see you nerds to celebrate on the actual day.
Hanna: And since none of you will get fucking sloshed with me
Ellis: I refuse to get a beer belly
Arries: I like to be clear thinking
Pauline: I’ll drink but I’m not a degenerate
Tar🕷: Not my thing
Hanna: I we could go out and do something fun?
Hanna: What do nerds do for special occasions? Laserquest?
Arries: OMG I LOVE Laserquest
Pauline: Not great for me. Spaces are too tight.
Hanna: Sure. Well, what do you suggest?
Pauline: I really enjoy escape rooms?
Hanna: What’s that?
Rex♛: You know when P locks us in a dungeon and sets off a timer and we have to solve a puzzle before the time runs out?
Ellis: Hey Rex. You lurking?
Rex♛: Anyway, escape rooms are like that but IRL. We get “locked” in a room and run through a scenario and have to solve a series of puzzles to escape.
Ellis: Basically the most P thing ever
Hanna: That actually sounds good!
Hanna: In a nerd way
Ellis: We get it! You’re cooler than us.
Hanna: Okay. Could someone get that booked?
Pauline: Of course. I’ll send the details once confirmed. Who’s going?
Rex♛: I don’t think so
Rex♛: I’m not feeling very social
Hanna: When do you ever?
Rex♛: Sorry, Hanna. Hope you have a great time.
My fingers hovered over the keyboard, frozen in the moment before I gave one of my usual excuses. I knew I would get away with it — probably even more easily than Rex, since there was more trust there so they felt more able to push.
But the escape room sounded fun. Another game, another story, and this time we would really get to be the heroes.
And I liked Hanna. I liked all the other players.
I just had to somehow make it there and into the room, where it would be too late to run away.
It was getting easier. Every week, it got easier. Arries to care how I was feeling. Rex to understand. Hanna and Ellis to make me laugh. Pauline to keep me grounded and give me something to focus on. Friends. Something I’d never really had, thanks to my habit of freezing or fleeing when faced with people.
Tar🕷: I might come
Arries: 😀 😀 😀
Pauline: Excellent. I’ll book for five then. I believe it will come to £20 each.
I made a face at the screen. That was wildly expensive, but I didn’t want to admit it.
Arries: Ouch. Okay.
Hanna: I’m not worth £20, Arries?
Arries: Of course you are. 😀
Ellis: I’m undecided on that front
Ellis: But I’m still coming
Pauline: I’ll message back in a few hours with the details.
I logged off from the chat and folded trembling hands in my lap. But for once I didn’t feel overwhelmed by my fear — I felt elated, like I’d been filled with air and light. These people were genuinely excited to see me, and the escape room sounded like the kind of activity that would keep us all focused and engaged and save me from the small talk I’d mostly avoided thanks to Pauline’s tight D&D schedule.
I was going to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
Later, when I was lying in bed online shopping for a good present for Hanna — my plan was a necklace that said ‘Bard’, which I hoped would appeal to the secret nerd in her without offending her outer athlete — my phone buzzed with a notification from the chatroom app.
A private message from Rex.
Rex♛: Why did you decide to go?
Rex♛: Not that I think it’s a bad idea — I think it’s a good idea
Rex♛: It’s just
Rex♛: You’ve never gone to anything but D&D
I paused, running a finger across my lip as I considered my response. I didn’t like my motivations being questioned, generally. It made me feel examined, and like someone was going to discover my crazy at any moment.
But this was Rex, who would help me escape after every D&D session, and who sat with me in Pauline’s front garden until I felt like I could go in. I couldn’t see what he got from that — we weren’t close like me and Arries — except that he understood and didn’t want to leave me to flounder. He was kind. So though I normally squirmed under any kind of scrutiny, I didn’t think that was what was happening right now.
Tar🕷: I think I want to be more than D&D friends
Tar🕷: Before that thought was scary but now … I’m willing to try
Rex♛: That’s really brave of you
Rex♛: I mean
Rex♛: Not because they’re bad people — they are the best people
Rex♛: Just because it’s hard to do. Connecting with people.
Tar🕷: Oh, I know
Tar🕷: I guess I’ll see you at D&D?
Rex♛: See you then
Rex♛: I hope you crush the escape room record
Tar🕷: Me too. I could use an actual talent
Rex♛: You’re already really talented, Tar.
Rex♛: Anyway. Good night.
His status greyed out to offline, leaving me alone with the messages. I stared at them for a long time, wondering what Thursday would hold, and wishing Rex would be there to join us.
‘Stupid,’ I muttered to the blue-white glow of the phone screen. ‘I’m being stupid.’
I put my phone on charge, closed my eyes, and tried to fall asleep.
They were the best people, and soon I’d meet them without even a character sheet to use as a shield. And somehow, that was more exciting than terrifying.