In ninth grade, Toddy told everybody that Don Romeo had unleashed the rancid-egg-salad fart of death in history class, when actually it had been me. Every sixteen-year-old needs a friend like that, but such allies were doubly indispensable for Lords and Lairs role playing game enthusiasts in 1994. At that time, we geeks were like early Christians, persecuted for our beliefs. Without Toddy, I never would have survived it.
All of that changed, though, the day that Sir Drexler Impaler came along and ruined everything.
It was a Tuesday. Toddy and I had gotten word that Mark Trunlo intended to dunk both of our heads in urinals after gym class, so we decided to forego school attendance for the day. We didn’t admit to each other the real reason for our truancy, of course. We just acted as if we were tough guys who refused to assimilate into the scholastic machine. It felt a lot cooler to quote Nirvana lyrics about rebellion than it did to discuss our aversion to getting our asses kicked.
Cops often parked at the bottom of the hill near the school in order to catch skippers, and that day was no different, but Toddy and I were no mere amateurs at the craft of truancy. With the danger spots already mapped out in our minds, we used the baseball dugout and bleachers to conceal our escape route, cutting across a tract of woods to the Ransom Green neighborhood. Once there, we were out of sight of the teachers and police and had only five blocks to go to reach the train tracks.
We were joking and shoving each other around when Toddy stopped abruptly in his tracks. I followed his gaze to a garden gnome standing at the edge of a well-manicured lawn a few feet from the street, grinning.
"Look at you, you pretty thing," Toddy whispered to himself. "You pretty, pretty thing." He walked over and fell on his knees before the statue, caressing its face tenderly.
Toddy had a deep affection for garden gnomes. He had no less than ten of them stashed in his bedroom already. I often wondered how he slept with those creepy ceramic eyes watching him.
I laughed nervously, scanned the windows of the houses, and tried my best to sound cool and indifferent. "Somebody’s going to call the cops, man. Let’s go to the tracks."
Toddy sat back on his haunches and cocked his head to examine the statue. "You know, Sean, in all seriousness, this may be the ugliest garden gnome I have ever seen."
He was right. The statue’s hat, pants, and coat were all painted an identical lime green. The face was cobbled and cracked. I was in no mood to joke about it, though. Toddy had been acting increasingly erratic in the previous weeks. His volatility put me on edge, especially in broad daylight during school hours.
I pulled at the back of his shirt. "Come on, man. It’s time to go."
"Yes," Toddy whispered to the gnome. "It is time, isn’t it, old friend?" He stood and I thought we were about to leave, but in one swift motion he hoisted the statue over his head and smashed it in the street.
I looked up in shock to see a woman’s wide-eyed expression in a big picture window. A moment later, a police siren blared in the distance.
"The truancy cop," I said, as if it mattered.
Toddy took off running down the street, hooping with laughter all the way. I looked to the woman in the window one more time, trying to appear apologetic, and followed him.
Three blocks later we crashed into the foliage between two houses and slid down a leaf-covered hill to the train tracks. The siren sound neared and tires skidded to a screeching halt. We ran harder.
We continued at top speed, almost tripping every time we looked over our shoulders. After a solid mile we finally felt safe enough to slow to a walk.
"Why the hell did you do that, Toddy?"
"I couldn’t help myself." He clutched at the air over his head like a mad scientist in ecstasy. "The sight of that lime green garden gnome drove me mad with ecstasy."
His pointless daytime destruction of the ornament aggravated me, but his refusal to take it seriously annoyed me even more. "You’re a real asshole sometimes," I said.
"Watch it, skipper. I don’t want to have to smash you like I smashed that poor gnome." He shoved me so that I tripped over the train rails and almost fell.
I pretended to laugh, just like I always did when Toddy threatened me, which was something that had been happening more and more frequently.
"So, what have you been cooking up for Lords and Lairs, oh great Lair Guide?" My flattery was basically sincere, though my use of it to dispel the tension was probably more than a little cowardly. Toddy really was the best Lair Guide in school and, far as anyone knew, the world. "The party is getting pretty powerful, slaying dragons like they’re nothing. Pretty soon you’ll have to throw Nexus Darks at us."
Toddy scoffed. "Nexus Darks are nothing. You guys are going to have to fight Don Romeo’s egg-salad-fart of death."
"No one’s going to survive that." This time my laugh was authentic.
The hypothetical presence of the cop pursuing us acted like a force field pushing us farther down the tracks and away from town. Pretty soon, we were farther than we’d ever been before.
The woods lining the tracks thinned out and revealed a pothole-covered street with a row of old storefronts. Only one of the businesses seemed to be occupied. Cracks spider-webbed through the building’s exposed foundation, and a sign over the door read “Tempest Gate Games.” Like ants responding to an identical chemical command, Toddy and I hurried towards the store.
The interior was crammed full of board games and toys, all looking very old and alien. Dust-covered Jack-in-the-Boxes marked with esoteric symbols, decks of playing cards with otherworldly suits, board games with dice that looked like they’d been carved from bones. Somewhere inside the store a radio played one of those witchy old Delta Blues tunes that sound like they’ve been fermenting inside the bayou for a thousand years.
We drifted apart from each other. A museum-like silence filled the place, so pristine and delicate that a single word might shatter it. No signs marked off the sections, but the items were collected into categories. Without consciously looking for it, I found myself in the area with role playing games.
Most of the gaming systems were foreign to me. Half of them weren’t even in English. But as I picked through the tomes, I found one Lords and Lairs gaming book. It was an entire module dedicated to a figure named Sir Drexler Impaler, Beheader of All That is Good and Innocent. On the cover, a blonde-haired man with blue-fire eyes and black sigils tattooed on his neck and emblazoned in his plate mail armor hoisted a sword into the stormy sky.
"What’s that?" Toddy asked over my shoulder. Without waiting for an answer, he snatched the book from me and opened it. Handwritten red words filled black pages. Picture after picture showed Sir Drexler Impaler massacring elves, dwarfs, and humans, always with the same malicious sneer on his face. The artwork was disturbingly graphic and gory, and twice I had to avert my eyes. Toddy just whistled. "Bad ass."
Some instinct compelled me to grab the book from him. It was that same reflex that takes over when you see a child about to stick their finger in an electrical socket. But, before I could reach it, a woman’s voice startled me. "Can I help you?"
I spun around to see a stocky, bearded woman watching us. As if sensing the discomfort I felt as I tried not to react too overtly to her facial hair, she started combing her fingers through the whiskers in long, thoughtful strokes.
"How much is this module?" Toddy asked. His eyes were still glued to the cover. I didn’t think he’d even actually looked at her yet.
"It’s not for sale."
Toddy scoffed. "You might want to consider refraining from putting things on your shelves that aren’t for sale. I’m no businessman, but I do believe that’s how businesses are usually run."
The woman tipped her head aside with a cocksure smile. "Smart mouth little punk, aren’t you?" For the first time, I noticed that her eyes were two different colors. The right was hazel while the left was blue. She snatched the book from Toddy’s hand. "This particular item doesn’t like being kept out of sight. That’s the only reason it’s out here."
Toddy scoffed again. Scoffing was sort of Toddy’s trademark move. "You talk like it’s a living thing."
The woman studied Toddy through her mismatched eyes. "Be careful the games you play, kid, or else the game might play you."
Toddy snickered. "Thanks for the bearded-lady wisdom, bearded lady."
"You’re welcome." She set the book back on the shelf.
Toddy nudged my shoulder. "Didn’t you want to check out that satanic Jack-in-the-Box?"
No, I had not, actually. The satanic Jack-in-the-Box actually creeped me the hell out. But Toddy knew that, too, and was really asking for a distraction. I knew it instantly. Best friends develop a psychic rapport with each other over time. A single flick of any eyelid can communicate worlds of information. Because I wanted to be a good pal, I asked to see the satanic Jack.
The woman led me over and took it down from the shelf. I turned the box’s crank until the monstrosity sprang out with its smashed pumpkin head and jagged teeth holding a pair of bloody garden shears.
"That’s the most terrifying toy I’ve ever seen," I said.
The woman belted out a deep, good-natured laugh. It was infectious, and I laughed a little, too. "Well, you’re the one who wanted to look at it."
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Toddy tuck the book into his jacket and walk around us to the front door. I honestly didn’t know that that was his intent upon manufacturing the distraction. I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t suspected the possibility, but I had hoped I was wrong.
"This place smells like dusty pee," Toddy said over his shoulder. "I’m out of here."
Shoplifting was the most serious crime I’d ever experimented with, and the guilt I carried over that bag of candy fish still affected me, almost a full year later. So, my first instinct upon seeing Toddy actually stealing the book was to shout at him. But of course I didn’t do that. I was sixteen years old, and he was my best friend.
The woman watched Toddy’s exit intently. She took the box out of my hands and pushed the Jack back inside. "Don’t go opening a monster box unless you’re ready to deal with the monster inside."
I started to tell her that Toddy wasn’t such a bad guy, but was frozen in place by the sight of her eyes. The right was blue, and the left was hazel. I could have sworn they’d been opposite just minutes before.
"The Jack is a hundred dollars," she said.
"That’s too expensive for my blood." I backed casually towards the door, fighting the instinct to run. "Thank you, though."
"De nada. My name is Olga, by the way."
I stopped at the door. "Mine is Sean."
She twisted her beard between her fingers and smiled. "We’re open seven days a week, Sean. Stop by any time."
It was a regular enough invitation to hear from a store owner, but the way she said it seemed to insinuate something deeper. I nearly asked her what it was, but then I remembered I was an accessory to shoplifting and decided to just get the hell out of there.
Toddy stood in the middle of the train tracks with the module in hand.
"Great, man," I said. "You’re a thief now. That’s cool."
Toddy shrugged. "I would have bought it if she was selling."
"It’s not up to you to decide."
"Excuse me, fan of Bearded Lady, but you stole worms once, if I do recall."
We headed back home, not saying much. Toddy held the module loosely in his hand. It swung back and forth beside me like a scythe, Sir Drexler’s blue-fire eyes holding relentlessly on mine.