by Stephen Couch
SIDE ONE, TRACK ONE: EIGHTIES
October arrived with all the trimmings. Leaves shifted to every shade of fire, ready to fall, rot, and nourish the parent that birthed them. A nip entered the air, the first sign that the Earth was turning its face, sullenly, from the sun that warmed it. The skies reached their peak of birds, flying in melancholy, mechanistic formation to warmer climes.
And in a small Texas town, midway down Poplar Street, a giant monster was eating some innocent kids alive.
“Go! Go!” shouted Benjamin, rallying his players as they mimed a struggle against the imaginary suction that came from the monster’s ‘mouth’ — the open front door of Benjamin’s house. “The leviathan is breathing in! Everyone with a Strength of less than 10, you’re sucked inside!”
A couple of players sprinted to the door without hesitation, while others had to do a quick spot-check of the paper bracelet on their wrist, looking up their Strength stat alongside the other numbers penciled there.
Eddie, managing to look smug even with a full-head Frankenstein mask on, planted his clodhopper boots firmly on the lawn and crossed his arms, content that his high Strength score had saved him.
Others like Randall (not wearing his full-head Wolf Man mask since learning he was allergic to its fake fur) weren’t so lucky. With a howl, he joined the small group that ran to the monster’s maw, passing a kid from Eddie’s Boy Scout troop who’d been drafted for today’s game. The kid, loosely wrapped in toilet paper and paper towels to simulate mummy-hood, checked his bracelet once, twice, then stayed where he was with a puzzled smile.
As for Benjamin, he wore his best wedding-and-funeral suit, with some pancake makeup on to augment his natural paleness.
Today, he wasn’t your ordinary monster like the other players. Today, Benjamin was the Horror Host, a whole different echelon.
“Probability check!” he called, running up to the door. Some of those who’d been inhaled clung to the door jamb grimly, trying not to go down the monster’s gullet. That way lay a reduction in their Health score, and an Injury they’d have to role-play the next couple of sessions.
That is, if fate was kind. Otherwise, the monster would digest them fully, and they’d be out of the game.
Benjamin pulled out his trusty pocket calculator and punched in a few numbers, the display lighting up in red LEDs.
“Wolf Man,” he shouted. “Your fur tickles the monster’s uvula –”
Some laughter at that, from players who thought the word meant a different part of the anatomy.
“– and it coughs you back up. One point of Health gone, and the leviathan’s slobber knocks your Movement down a point, too. You’re all gross and slimy, and your fur’s matted up.”
More laughs, and some delighted, grossed-out groans. Randall, ever the trouper, tried to shake himself like a dog, but just made himself dizzy.
“Black Lagoon,” Benjamin continued, “speaking of slimy, you slide down the monster’s throat just fine. Into the stomach!”
Cy, who couldn’t afford a mask, but whose cheerleader sister loaned him green face paint, made a gargling noise and let go of the door frame, ready to run the gauntlet.
Inside the foyer stood Benjamin’s little sister, Eury, and one of her ever-giggling slumber party pals. They whopped Cy with throw pillows as he passed. “One Health point!” Benjamin said, ducking to avoid the attack as he followed Cy further into the house. At the living room, a couple more neighborhood children popped up from the divan and smacked Cy across the butt with Styrofoam swords as he hopped past. “Two more points,” Benjamin said, nearly tripping over a corner of an area rug as he consulted the calculator.
“Aaaand…into the stomach,” Benjamin said, and Cy hooked a right into the kitchen, coming to lean against a countertop with a sigh.
“I’ll get back with you about digestion odds, Lagoon,” Benjamin said, and ran back out to deal with the two other players who waited to see if they were going over the lips and past the gums. Cy shrugged as Benjamin left and helped himself to Coke and cookies.
“Okay, last two! Jason,” he said to a tall, hockey-masked kid, but then looked up from the calculator readout. “…Hang on, your Strength didn’t save you?”
Jason waved his cardboard-and-foil machete in some vague motion. “Not since I recovered from those Medusas that petrified me last week,” he said, voice muffled. “Two week penalty, you said.”
“Shoot,” said Benjamin. “Did I not make a note of that…?”
He trailed off, looking around the front yard, not seeing what he was looking for. Not seeing something that was supposed to be there, and the absence of which set his heart to racing even faster than the game had already amped it.
“Wh…where’s the book? Eddie? The book, did you see…?”
Eury poked her head out of the door, a little blonde tooth in the leviathan’s gums. “I put it in the box,” she said, pointing at a small wooden chest of props and costumes by a nearby tree. “I thought somebody might step on it.”
“Everyone knows not to step on it, Urin…” Benjamin began, but then saw the I did good, didn’t I? expression on his sister’s face, and felt a pang. The little pest, bless her, had been going out of her way to be nice to Benjamin lately, to get in his good graces so he’d let her play the game just once, even in the smallest capacity.
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Thanks.” He walked over to the box, creaked open its lid, and pulled out the book, hands a little shaky from that small jolt of panic.
It had started out life as a Trapper Keeper, but like all things monstrous the book had changed, grown, and mutated over the last year. Now it was stuffed with paper and folders, drawings and maps, statistical charts and phone numbers and addresses and short stories and unfinished song lyrics and a massive, winding, scrawled chronicle of the world, characters, and storyline of the game he and his buddies played whenever possible.
And on the cover of the book, in huge, stylized letters, was its title. The title of the book, and the name of the made-up universe of monsters and mayhem it embodied:
It was part Dungeon Master’s Guide, part almanac, part diary, part outsider art.
And for a small group of very dedicated, very imaginative small-town guys…part Bible.
Today’s Words: 1091
Total Words: 1091
Notes: If it helps, imagine the set of ascending tones from a Capitol Records cassette playing at the beginning of the novel…
(And the cat is Valentine — I figured the presence of a black cat would make things that much more Halloween-y!)