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 Four: No Destiny
I was surprised how fun the game was. I felt completely immersed in spite of not completely knowing where they were in the story or one hundred percent understanding the rules. All the research and character planning I had done had helped a lot but I still felt a little out of my depth.
I looked around at the others. They were laughing and smiling while they packed away their character sheets and dice. I hoped they couldn’t tell that I was drenched in sweat. Although I’d enjoyed myself, my entire body ached from sitting tense and rigidly for four hours of play. It was the longest I think I’d ever spent in an IRL social situation, but it had passed quickly.
Ellis nudged me with his elbow, making me jump. ‘So how’d you find it?’ he asked, clearly not realising the panic spiral this unexpected contact had sent me down.
‘Um, good,’ I said. ‘I like how creative it is.’ I tried to tell myself to calm down, that just because I’d been touched once didn’t mean that it would happen again, that it was only a small thing that a normal person probably wouldn’t even notice. But I still felt panicked about the whole thing.
‘Haven’t scared you off yet, then?’ He grinned at me and pat my shoulder. ‘It’s good to have new blood.’ His hand felt heavy on my back.
He was just being friendly, I told myself, even though it made me feel sick and cornered, made the air feel too thick to breathe. There was nothing sleazy or inappropriate about his behaviour, but I was exhausted after four hours playing a new game with several strangers and I no longer had the capacity to pretend to be normal. I tried to smile and say something reassuring but no words would come.
I glanced at Arries but he was excitedly miming out the battle we’d had to Hanna, who rolled her eyes but was barely concealing a smile.
‘Ellis. You can’t just touch people, we’ve been over this.’ I glanced around at Rex. He’d put his hood down during the game, revealing messy pale blonde hair. His shoulders were hunched defensively as he glared at Ellis, make eye contact for the first time that I could tell the entire afternoon.
‘I thought that was just with you?’ Ellis said.
‘It’s with everyone.’
‘Are you — ah, sorry.’ He looked sheepish as he registered my expression for the first time. ‘I forget sometimes that not everyone’s like me. I’ll do better. I’m getting a drink — anyone want anything?’
Rex and I shook our heads and Ellis got up and headed into Pauline’s kitchen. Pauline suddenly looked up from the notes she was writing up to call sharply ‘And this time don’t break anything!’
‘You okay?’ he asked quietly. Again, avoiding my eyes. I was struck again by how soft his voice was — when he was playing, he spoke with a lot more conviction and confidence, but now he seemed to shrink into himself. ‘It’s okay to just get up and leave if you need to. Nobody’ll hold it against you, and Pauline’s surprisingly chill about that kind of thing.’
I nodded and drew a shuddering breath. ‘I was hoping to get through today without any awkwardness.’
He shrugged. ‘You’re not that bad.’
Pauline wheeled her chair away from the table and over to the wall of board games — I realised for the first time that she’d been in a wheelchair the whole session. ‘Anyone for beer and board games now?’ she asked. ‘We can order takeaway — healthy takeaway,’ she said with a glare at Hanna.
‘I’m plenty healthy,’ Hanna muttered, and she was — she was easily the most athletic person in the room.
I scooped my dice into their pouch and stood up. ‘I actually have somewhere I need to be,’ I said. ‘Um — but thank you. I’d definitely like to come again, if — you know –’
‘We’re not gonna give up our druid!’ said Arries. He gave me a concerned look. ‘Are you sure you won’t stay? Pauline has a really good selection of games.’
I nodded — well, more of a sharp jerk of my head. ‘I’m sure. Thanks though. Uh … bye.’ I edged past Ellis.
Arries stood up. ‘I’ll see you out.’
‘It’s okay, I’m going anyway,’ said Rex.
‘Thanks Rex — oh! Tar! I’ll send you a link to the party chatroom. Thanks for coming!’
I nodded again and ducked out the door, Rex on my heels. He had a black backpack slung over one shoulder — I noticed the ARO logo on it but was now far too nervous to ask.
‘You don’t have to go on the chatroom if you don’t want to,’ he said. ‘And they don’t really mind whether we stay for beer and board games — well, Arries does, but he just wants to surround himself with everyone he loves all the time.’
‘Do um — do you go on the chatroom?’ I asked. I knelt to put on my shoes and he hovered awkwardly, waiting for me to finish.
He dipped his head. ‘Yeah. Yeah. I like these guys, but I find it easier when I’m not … I find it easier online.’
I smiled tightly. ‘I get that.’ I stood up and then he got his shoes on and we both paused on the doorstep. ‘See you next week,’ I said.
He nodded, again unable to meet my eyes, and we both walked in different directions away from Pauline’s house.
I got an email from Arries not long later with a link to a chatroom labelled ‘Ninth Rain’. My thumb hovered over it a moment, then I switched off my screen and headed for the bus stop home.
“Home” was a lodger’s room in a semi-detached house on the outskirts of Goosey. I walked down a street with sad yellow grass and sweaty trees, looking for the daisy-yellow house I’d lived in for the last 2 years.
I intended to vanish into my room. My encounters with my host and her daughter were infrequent and I intended to keep it that way. I never knew what to say to them and didn’t want them to think I didn’t like them. But as I came through the door, there was a scene I couldn’t easily skirt.
Saanvi, a woman with tired eyes, russet-brown skin, and a crow-black pixie cut, was on her knees wrestling with her 6 year-old daughter who was, I realised with a start, completely lacking clothes.
‘It’s a fancy dress party, Riya! You need to be dressed for a fancy dress party!’
‘No!’ Riya clenched her fists and dodged her mother’s attempt to pull a spiderman costume over her head.
‘You need a costume, sweetheart!’
I edged toward the stairs.
‘I have a costume,’ Riya shouted. ‘I’m a BABY!’
Saanvi saw me and a look of pained embarrassment crossed her face. She ushered her daughter into the sitting room. ‘Babies wear clothes.’
I scurried upstairs and closed the door to my bedroom, trying to ignore the tight feeling in my chest that I had handled the situation wrong. My mother would have made a joke. Arries would probably have tried to help — though whether he would have sided with Saanvi or Riya, I didn’t know.
Thinking of my mother, I cringed as I flopped onto my bed. I’d cancelled her call earlier — we’d been mid-way through a tricky battle with will-o-wisps and I hadn’t wanted to miss anything. I’d sent her a short text in apology, but I knew that wouldn’t be enough when I’d specifically asked her to call me.
I looked around my room — curtained, cool, with a galaxy-coloured bedspread and books piled up along the walls. Some clothes were scattered across the bed beneath me — the remnants of my early-morning outfit panic. It all looked and smelled so perfectly of home — my own bed, my own books, my own desk, my own ARO posters on the walls. I’d hoped to just go home and spend the entire evening on ARO, trying not to obsess over every last awkward thing I’d said and done at the game, but I knew that I owed it to my mum to give her a call.
She picked up on the first ring. ‘That was very rude of you, darling.’
I gazed at the rough-painted ceiling of my bedroom. ‘Sorry, mum.’
‘I’ve always been puzzled by this sort of behaviour in you. I was so careful to have you in July, but you’re not like any Cancer sign I’ve ever known. Always so independent, so withdrawn. Anyone would think you were a Capricorn.’
I rolled my eyes at the phone, but I didn’t take the bait — every few months my mum tried to trick me into letting her hold court over my star sign, the minute details of my birth, and what her psychics had told her about me. Sometimes I corrected her out of irritation without thinking, and I got sucked right in. But today I was apologising, which put me in a generous enough mood that she could talk all the nonsense she wanted without getting a rise out of me.
‘What was so important you wanted to arrange a phone call, anyway? You weren’t,’ her voice turned stern, something that sounded out of place in her breezy, gossipy voice. ‘You weren’t trying to escape another date, were you?’
‘No! Mum, I don’t date anymore –’
‘Because I really think you need to develop a more graceful exit strategy than having your mum call you and maybe you should give these young men and women more of a chance –’
‘Mum! It wasn’t that. I went to play a –’ I hesitated, trying to think of how best to explain this to my mum. ‘Do you know what a role-playing game is?’
There was a pause at the other end of the line. ‘I’m glad you feel comfortable enough to talk about it with me, but I didn’t think you were into that kind of thing, darling. It’s good to experiment, though –’
‘No! Mum. It’s … Dungeons & Dragons? You know … it’s like a board game? Everyone tells a story together about like … elves and wizards …’ I hazarded that she might recognise those as fantasy ‘… and roll dice and stuff?’
‘Well — that sounds exactly like your sort of thing, darling. Whyever did you need me to call?’
I hesitated. ‘There were people there I didn’t know, and I thought, if I panicked …’
‘You met people? Darling, that’s wonderful!’
‘Yeah,’ I said. Although I’d found the game itself to be a dream-like experience, I still wasn’t entirely convinced on the ‘other people’ part of it.
‘Well, I’m glad you called me, anyway. My astrologer cast my chart today and she could see that there was a particular convergence in my future, so she suggested I do a tarot reading for the specifics, and I really think it might concern you, darling, because …’
I let me mum tell me all about the reading, even going as far as to confirm or deny recent events in my life, to her delight or disappointment. Although I didn’t believe in psychology, or psychics, or whatever new fortune-telling fad my mum favoured at the moment, I felt myself relax as she spoke. I sort of liked how she was always looking forward, how confident of her own destiny she was. My mum knew who she was and she knew where she was going — and she made sure her psychics confirmed it.
Me, I felt adrift at any point in my life. Like I didn’t know where or why anything in my life happened, like someone else had pre-plotted my every step, and had done a patchy job of it.
I liked that for the space of a conversation, I didn’t have to say much, and I could pretend, however briefly, that there was any sort of excitement or adventure in my future.
The evening after she hung up wasn’t kind to me. I felt wrung out, bruised inside and out, with lungs that were squeezed too thin. I’d never been very good at processing emotions, and now, with nothing to distract me from feeling everything that had happened that day, it was like standing in oncoming traffic.
There was nothing I could do but crawl under a duvet and try to pick up the pieces of myself in the morning.