Worth the Candle, Ch 42: A Pleasant Interlude in Kansas

Tiff had taken to driving me home after D&D. She didn’t live anywhere near me, but she’d said she lived so far out in the country that the extra few miles didn’t matter to her, and I naturally accepted the rides, because she was Tiff.

“I have a question about the unicorns,” she said.

“Unicorns in general?” I asked.

“No, your unicorns, the creepy rape monsters,” she said.

“They weren’t actually rapists,” I said. “Just, rape adjacent. And that was a long time ago, so I’m not sure that I’m going to remember anything.”

“Well, you can make something up for me then,” she said. “The thing was, I kind of didn’t get the time powers.”

“Oh,” I said, “So, the unicorn kind of merges alternate realities to put himself in a position –”

“No, sorry, I mean I get how it physically works, or at least I think I do, I just don’t understand why that’s a power that unicorns have,” said Tiff. I watched her as she kept her eyes on the dark road ahead of us. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, which was one of her most attractive looks. “Not to pull back the veil too much, meaning don’t tell Arthur that I asked, but why did you give them time powers? I thought it was just random, but you usually don’t do random.”

“Eh, it’s dumb, and we didn’t really do anything with it,” I said. “Cutting room floor type thing, happens a lot.”

“You may proceed,” said Tiff, in her best impression of a Star Fleet captain.

“So, I had the unicorns as like this hyper-masculine, purity obsessed, possessive creature, right?” I asked. “That much came through?”

“Yeah,” said Tiff. “I really liked it.”

“Well, the time powers were supposed to be more about manipulation and gaslighting,” I said. “Like, I had this idea of the unicorn as this abusive guy who just beats and abuses his wife or daughter and then pretends that nothing happened, or says that it’s only because he loves them so much, or … whatever. It was more about making his victims question the nature of their reality, I guess?”

“Okay, but we rescued the girls, and you said that they seemed fine,” said Tiff. She pulled up to my house, an unremarkable blue rambler with a pair of trees blocking most of the windows from sight. It was late at night, and all the lights were off.

“Yeah,” I said, looking at my house. “I chickened out. We were getting toward the end of the session and I just, didn’t really want to have this messy, complicated ending that was going to bring everybody down.” I made no move to get out of the car. “I used to do those a lot, and I think I was the only one who enjoyed them, because it was like, that’s how the real world is, things don’t have these nice conclusions, and sometimes even if you save someone they’ve got issues that, maybe don’t scar them exactly, but that they’ll have to work through on their own. There’s not always a panacea.”

“Don’t want to go in?” asked Tiff, after I kept looking at my house for a bit.

“Eh,” I said. “Church tomorrow. Dad’s stopped going and it’s always,” and then I stopped there, because I didn’t really see the point in continuing. I’d been wishing that my parents would just get a divorce for the last few years, but it didn’t seem like either of them were at their breaking point yet.

“Did you want to spend the night at my place?” asked Tiff. I turned to look at her. She was barely visible under the reflected light of the car’s headlights.

“Yeah,” I said. The car started moving again, and I only took my eyes off her for long enough to send my dad a text I knew from experience he wouldn’t read until the morning, keeping the details vague. “Are your parents going to be okay with that?”

“They’re in Toulouse for the week, so I’m all alone,” said Tiff. She cleared her throat. “I don’t want you to think that this is, like, a thing. I mean, I know that your parents are being, whatever, and we’ve been going late so you can avoid them. Just, remember that it’s a position of vulnerability for a young woman.”

“Ah,” I said. My heart was beating faster and my breathing was a little deeper. Tiff had just invited me to spend the night with her, with her parents gone, and she didn’t want me to think that this was ‘a thing’, but everything in my teenage boy brain was screaming that if I ever had a chance with her, this was it.

Whatever my troubles at home, there suddenly wasn’t space in my brain to worry about them anymore.

“I’m really horrible about signals,” said Tiff. “I get that, about myself. But it’s so embarrassing to just plainly say things, right?” She was normally more articulate than this.

“Yeah,” I said. “Or, no. Embarrassing isn’t the thing I feel. For me it’s like I’m walking through this minefield and I get really tense because it feels like one wrong step is going to get me blown up.”

We drove in silence for a bit as we made our way out into the country, past the occasional too-bright reflective sign.

“I don’t want to make things weird between us or in the group, but I have a huge crush on you,” I said. I’d rehearsed that in my head three or four times in the silence, and my chest felt like it was constricting as I said it. “I just, thought you should know, because maybe it would be easier for both of us if I didn’t spend the night, so I’m not torturing myself thinking about the minefield.”

“Oh,” said Tiff. There was a long pause. “Well I like you too.” There was another pause, as a wild grin began spreading across my face. “I like like you.”

“Well,” I said. “Good. Good to know.” I was sure that my smile could be heard on my voice. Relief was washing over me, because I had stepped out into the minefield and not gotten my foot blown off, or at least, not yet.

“When I say that I don’t want to make this, tonight, a thing, I mean,” Tiff was speaking quickly, her voice unsteady. “I mean there are certain assumptions that a boy might make if a girl invited him over for the night when her parents were gone, especially if they’d just confessed their feelings to each other. And I don’t want you to think, not that you would, that this was a proposition of some kind, or a promise on my part, that asking you over is consent of some kind.” She let out a breath. “See? Just incredibly embarrassing. I feel like I’m going to melt.”

“You’re saying I shouldn’t try to kiss you or anything,” I said. My heart was flopping around in my chest like a fish out of water, because the ground still felt unsteady. Was it enough that she like liked me? She hadn’t said that she wanted to go out on a date, and I hadn’t asked her, and I could think of plenty of reasons why it would be a bad idea, like what things would look like if it didn’t work out, and the fact that Arthur had the biggest crush in the world on her — everyone knew that, did she know that? I had no idea how I would explain things to him, if Tiff and I ended up, impossibly, as a couple, something I’d been fantasizing about for months but never whispered a word of to anyone.

“It’s more the ‘or anything’ I was thinking about,” said Tiff. She cleared her throat. “You could try to kiss me.”

So I spent the next five minutes of our trip trying to surreptitiously see whether my breath was still fresh, to make sure my lips weren’t chapped, to think about everything I knew about kissing (not much), to plan and strategize and run scenarios in my head until I was almost dizzy.

And then when we pulled up onto the dirt patch that served as parking, I got out and went around to her side, where she was waiting for me, with her chin tilted up and her lips slightly parted, and maybe it was the anticipation of the car ride, or the warmth of her mouth in the cold night air, or the prospect of not just spending the night together but all the nights that might lie ahead of us, but kissing Tiff somehow managed to not just exceed my expectations but transcend them, so I forgot that I even had expectations.

And then we kissed some more in her house, and she took me onto the roof where we looked at stars in the cold, and I kissed her on the head from time to time, because that was a thing I could do now. I didn’t try to go any further than kissing, not even when I could feel her pressing her body against mine as we kissed, or her shaking hands touching my neck as my tongue entered her mouth.

She gave me a ride home in the morning, after I slept on the couch, and the whole way I couldn’t stop staring at her and smiling.

This might sound dumb, but we never ended up telling Arthur or the group that we were dating. At first it was because we didn’t want to make things weird. We were very conscious, especially in the beginning, that it might not last. Some of it was a desire for privacy, or a segregation of social roles, because if we were suddenly dating in all contexts then that would place this huge pressure on us, with questions and probes coming from everyone we knew. And yes, some of it was about Arthur.

“Yeah, I know he likes me,” said Tiff one night, as we lay on her couch together with her DVD player bouncing its image around the corners. “Promise not to be jealous?”

“The mind is a funny thing,” I replied.

“I did like him,” said Tiff. She was watching my face as she spoke. “Especially in the beginning, when we’d get into these big arguments, he was just so passionate about all these stupid little things.” She placed a finger on my collarbone. “You’re like that too, but about different stupid little things, and it’s hard to notice sometimes because your thoughts are like these icebergs, and you only ever reveal the tip.”

“Just the tip,” I said. “Just to see how it feels.”

She gave me a playful slap and then kissed me. “I was saying something. Oh, how is your funny mind?”

“Fine,” I said. “You were saying that you liked him.”

“I did,” said Tiff. “And I knew that he liked me. I kept waiting for him to ask me out or even just confess to me, but months and months went by and he never did, and then my interest started to fade because there was this other handsome boy, so what was I supposed to do?”

“Make the first move?” I asked.

“Not making the first move is a woman’s privilege I will happily take,” said Tiff. “I get clammy just thinking about it. Feel how clammy I am.” She stuck out her hand, and I clasped it in mine.

“You are not at all clammy,” I replied.

“No, but I like when you touch me,” she said with a faux-shy smile.

“Do you ever get sickened by being so cute?” I asked.

And anyway, this part of it was all fun and games. There was something charming about the cloak and dagger aspect of secret dating, passing coded messages to each other, that kind of thing, and no one was any the wiser, which meant that we didn’t have to tell the group or Arthur and make things awkward or painful for anyone. We carried on like this for about five months.

Then Arthur got in a car accident, and eleven days later he died, and it all went to shit.

We were playing at Reimer’s house, and I’d shown up half an hour early because I had been dragging my feet on preparing for the session. We had started a new, temporary campaign when Arthur got in his accident, because we all felt bad and didn’t want him to miss out on any sessions of the regular one (and if he hadn’t been in a coma, I think we would have tried to play during visiting hours). I’d decided on Long Stairs, vol. 2, because army guys going through an infinite fantasy dungeon sounded like the sort of brainless thing we could use to occupy our time. After he died, I kept running it, because the thought of going back to our old campaign and just dropping his storylines seemed like it would leave me a sobbing mess.

“So, how long have you and Tiff been a thing?” asked Reimer as I looked at my notes.

“A few months,” I said. I didn’t ask him how he’d found out, and I didn’t particularly care. I didn’t even make a token denial. The cloak-and-dagger covert dating thing had, understandably, lost its luster, so we weren’t really bothering.

“Seems like the kind of thing that you should have shared with the class,” said Reimer.

“Fuck off,” I replied.

“Do you wish you’d told Arthur, before he’d died?” asked Reimer.

I picked up my black novelty d20, hard acrylic and the size of my fist, and whipped it at him as hard as I could. He brought a hand up to block it and grunted in pain as it hit his forearm.

“You are such a fucking asshole,” I growled.

“Yeah, I am,” said Reimer, rubbing his forearm. “The difference between the two of us is that I know I’m an asshole, and you prance around like you were his bestest friend in the whole world. You and Tiff could have told him, he’d have been upset but at least it would have spared him being made a fool of. He died a virgin, pining after her, and you were just laughing behind his back about what a moron he was.”

“You know it wasn’t like that,” I said. I could feel the rage building up, and it hadn’t been more than a week since I’d been arrested for attacking Victor Clark over his whole ‘god has a plan’ thing. But in the wake of Arthur’s death, nothing seemed like it mattered anymore, and I kept thinking about how good it would feel to smash Reimer’s face in. “He was my best friend.”

“Maybe when you were growing up,” said Reimer. “After that, Tiff was your best friend, because you chose her over him.”

Tom showed up a little bit after that, walking into the stony silence and asking if everything was okay, to which we both replied that it was nothing. What Reimer had said cut deep, because I had already been thinking those same things, and it wasn’t like you could just call dibs on a girl, they weren’t property, but at the same time, why hadn’t I told him, if I knew he was still hung up on her?

I killed Reimer’s characters eight times that session, an all-time record by a very wide margin, sometimes without looking at the dice, and one time without giving him so much as a (meaningless) roll. After the second death he stopped making new characters and just brought back the old ones with different names, and I kept killing them in various ways with little regard to the rules, the narrative, or the increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere of the game room. Reimer just took it without saying much of anything, except maybe to tip over a mini, and the party trudged on, battling the endless horrors of the Long Stairs until they found another of his characters, a lost marine or something equally contrived, who would proceed to die within a few minutes.

“Fun session,” said Reimer at the end of it, without a trace of humor or warmth in his eyes. “Same time next week?”

When Tiff asked me what that had all been about, I shrugged her question off, because I didn’t want to have to repeat what he’d said to me.

The funny thing was, while Reimer and I never actually made up, we kept playing together, and in the end, just before I left Earth, he and Tom were the only ones still willing to play with me. For Reimer, it was because he was something of a masochist when it came to tabletop, not to mention a stubborn asshole, and Tom, I guess, because he was a great guy who thought that the final death of the group before we all went off to college would have been a travesty, or maybe just an insult to Arthur’s memory.

Looking back, I have to wonder how much of Reimer being a dick to me was just him trying to process the grief in his own way, in the same way that I started to lash out at pretty much everyone around me for every little slight, or anything that could possibly be interpreted as disrespect to Arthur. I was his best friend, and he was mine, that was how I saw myself after his death, and I applied as much paint to our relationship as possible, until it was sometimes hard to remember that I’d been anything but a perfect friend.

My relationship with Tiff was one of the early casualties. It was hard to take joy from her kisses when I felt like I didn’t deserve them. It was hard to comfort her when doing that felt like a betrayal to Arthur’s memory. He might have wanted me to be happy, but I didn’t want myself to be happy, and that was probably the death blow for things between Tiff and I. We drifted apart by inches until she was sitting somewhere else for lunch and the last text message from her (an unanswered ‘how are you doing?’) was months ago.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 42: A Pleasant Interlude in Kansas

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