Non Player Character (Chapter 8: Still Strangers)

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!

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Chapter Eight: Still Strangers

‘And as blood gurgles from the courier’s mouth, he looks down to see an arrowhead protruding from his chest … and that’s where we’ll leave it tonight.’ Pauline’s lips quirked as everyone started talking at once.

‘Nooo!’ Arries put his hands on his face. ‘You can’t stop there! What does the note say? Who was The Man of Many Names sending the note to?’

‘I read the letter,’ said Hanna. ‘I immediately take it, and I read it — what does it say?’

‘You’ll find out next session,’ said Pauline.

Hanna groaned. ‘Come on, P — bullshit! Just a little hint?’

‘It’s almost ten — game time is over. Anyone staying for beer and board games?’

‘I’ll get the drinks,’ said Ellis. He looked down at me. ‘Can I tempt you?’

‘I — uh, I don’t drink,’ I said truthfully, though right now I was struggling to come down from the game. It seemed like such an enormous amount of story and character development could be crammed into a few short hours and I almost needed a moment to re-orientate myself for the real world.

I froze as I realised what I’d just said. It had never in my life worked out when I told people I didn’t drink. They would ask questions — demand an explanation, for which my only answer could be that I didn’t like it. Then they would try to persuade me, or coerce me, or insist I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was one of the simplest ways of accidentally ostracising myself I’d ever found. My eyes moved from Arries, to Hanna, to Pauline, to Ellis, but nobody seemed moved to say anything about it. Hanna raised her eyebrows at me.

‘Do you want to stay for board games, at least?’ Pauline asked, still not looking up from her notes.

‘Uh,’ I said, wondering how best to extricate myself this time. I didn’t think I could keep using the amorphous ‘I have somewhere to be’.

‘Oh please stay,’ said Arries. His eyes were wide and pleading. ‘Pauline has some really fun games.’

‘I’m leaving,’ said Rex. His bag was already packed; he stood up and nodded to Pauline without lifting his gaze.

‘Somewhere to be?’ Hanna asked waspishly.

He shrugged. ‘See you next week. Thanks again, P.’

As he pushed his chair back to get out, his gaze met mine. He flicked his eyes at the door, then back at me.

‘I’m leaving, too,’ I said quickly. Sometimes, in situations like this, it felt like my brain moved too slowly to keep up, but I was going to seize an opportunity when it was offered. I grabbed my backpack and followed Rex to the door. ‘It was a really good game,’ I said as I left.

‘You’re a good player,’ said Pauline. She smiled, so quickly I almost didn’t catch it, and it made me feel a lot better about leaving. I wasn’t ostracising myself. I wasn’t the odd one out. I was just being like Rex.

‘See you in ARO tomorrow morning!’ Arries said. I nodded and ducked out the door after Rex.

My mind was still whirling as we put on our shoes. The relief I’d felt when Pauline smiled was fading fast. Every awkward moment, every miscommunication, every odd thing I’d said and done during the evening was coming back to me in a way that made my limbs tremble. The euphoria of a social event gone well was replaced with a growing, choking horror.

‘So … you play ARO?’

I flinched at Rex’s voice, startled from my spiralling thoughts. ‘Uh … yeah. I, um — I play with Arries, mostly.’

‘What’s your main?’

‘I play a Half-Elf Knight. You?’

‘I jump between a Half-Elf Assassin and …’ his lips twisted wryly ‘… a Demonkin Warlock.’

I smiled, letting the moment push my worry to the back of my mind — though not entirely gone. ‘So Ram, basically.’

He shrugged. ‘I guess I see myself as a semi-demonic spellcaster. Do you play often?’

I weighed my sad truth against a boring lie. ‘Daily. I think I’ve mentioned the void of my existence before.’

‘You did. I play a lot too.’

‘Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?’

‘Maybe you already have.’ He opened the door and held it for me to walk through. ‘It’s entirely possible. We’re both on the UK servers. It’s weird to think we might have partied up sometime and not realised.’

‘Probably not,’ I said. I realised as I was saying it that this was one of those times where I was supposed to just nod and laugh, but it was nearly impossible for me to let an incorrect impression stand. ‘I mostly solo, except when Arries is on. I hardly ever party up with strangers.’

Outside, the evening was dark and blissfully cool after the scorching heatwave during the day.

We hesitated on the doorstep, both caught in the awkwardness of a final goodbye. Rex smiled, almost meeting my eyes. He seemed more relaxed than I’d seen him before, his shoulders lower, a sort of brightness in his usually guarded eyes. Some of the tightness in my chest eased as a result. ‘We could add each other on ARO.’ I surprised myself with the hopefulness in my voice. I offered Rex a shaky smile staring somewhere in the vicinity of his shoulder.

‘I don’t know. Maybe. It … it seems like it might be a lot of pressure. No offense!’ He raised his hands. ‘I haven’t added Arries, either, and he’s probably my best friend.’

‘Arries is everyone’s best friend,’ I said, and his lips twitched at that. Maybe Rex, like me, wondered what kind of alien creature Arries must be to be so generous with his friendship.

Another awkward beat, where neither of us seemed to know what to say. ‘See you next week.’ He dipped his head, pulled up his hood, and walked away from Pauline’s house. After a moment, I followed and climbed into my car.

On the drive home, I started to feel it. I gritted my teeth and whined under my breath, glad of the dubious privacy of my car. I could feel the too-sharp sting of elation and tried to hold onto it to ward off the walls of my mind from closing around me.

I pulled up outside the house and killed the engine. I rested my forehead against the wheel, closing my eyes. I tried to focus on my breathing, but my thoughts kept turning over every interaction from the party. In particular, I kept going back again and again to the last few minutes with Rex. It had seemed so natural and comfortable at the time, but now the memory made my skin crawl.

I went to my room as swiftly as I could, eyes low to avoid catching Saanvi or Riya’s eyes. I didn’t think I could bear to be thought strange by anyone else.

 

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