Somewhere in the wilds of 20th Street School, I read a story about strength. I’m going to mess it up, but let’s do it anyway.
So, this samurai is walking on a path, and is met by a god, might have been a goddess, now that I am thinking about it. Says to the samurai that he can save a life with his power. Samurai says, then it is his solemn duty to do so. So the goddess, might have been a god, says he will have to grant the warrior the strength of the divine. The samurai, to test the power he was given, grabs a towel and twists it until it snaps. He then folds the two pieces together and twists that until it snaps. Does this a few times. So strong.
The samurai is told by the goddess, we’ll just say goddess, that he is to carry this stone. It is a pittance of a thing, nothing too hard to hold on to, and he can save a child’s life, but put it down or drop it, and the child dies. So the stone starts to get heavier. No big deal, this warrior has been granted strength beyond strength. But that stone starts to get heavier. Goes on for a while longer. Soon, this mighty samurai has to hold this tiny stone with two hands. Soon, he plants his feet. He bends his back. He grunts and cries, hollers and sweats. He is carrying the heaviest thing ever. Can’t handle it anymore. He is near the point of dropping it when he calls upon his honor and his duty, and after the strain of a thousand, thousand men, he bears the weight. After a moment, the goddess comes back.
She takes the stone and tells the man he has done a good job. Says that a woman too weak to suffer the throes of childbirth had to give birth to the emperor, and the goddess needed someone to bear the burden of the childbirth for the mother.
The story is supposed to be about how hard childbirth is, but this was my first introduction to real strength and I remember thinking about the towel. The samurai had not meant to rend it to pieces when he twisted it. He had done it by accident.
Bump had that kind of strength.
He was not a bad guy. Not really. Arrogant. Well, he had to be. He was gorgeous. He was huge. He was older than he should have been, having failed two grades before eighth. He had the charm of a fist curled around a throat and he was my friend. Maybe. Kinda.
He had the kind of power that slopped over the sides. Would accidently squeeze your hand too tight when he shook it. Would grab your shoulder to pull you in for a laugh and you would leave that embrace wincing. He was mean when he wanted to be and he knew that with little effort he could crush all around him. He walked with that knowledge every day.
By his mercy we were all free from his wrath. He was a benevolent, gentle god, too kind to crush and break the kids of Waynesville Middle School. But he could. And we knew it.
Her name was Hardly and she was my girlfriend. I had not really had one since Jazz. Jazz had been so casual. Had been so smooth. Everything had been so easy with her. With Hardly, it was not.
Aimes and Hardly were best friends when my role in the popular crew opened up. Aimes was dating Stretch and she fixed us up. Hardly was the smartest person I ever met and she was awkward. We were awkward. She was a cute girl, kind with a great smile and bright eyes. She had opinions about how I was living my life and many of them were disapproving.
She did not like that I was playing DnD in school. She yelled at me all the time about it. She wanted me doing my classwork and getting good grades. She wanted me to sit with her at lunch. She wanted me to meet her before school and hang out with her. All things I should have been doing. But I had a job. A full-time job. It was my duty to keep D suffused with fantasy, to keep magic right at the peripheral of his life. She could disapprove all she wanted, but if I lost D’s interest, I lost everything. So I kept her in a state of mild distaste. A sort of disapproving haze. I loved her dearly. Wanted, more than anything, to curl up in a dry tub somewhere and breathe beauty for her.
But Hardly was not a girl who wanted Artist to breathe beauty at her. She was more sensible. She made more sense, was a rational person, and she never got carried away by the things I said to her on the phone. She hated Shadow. Hated his desultory violence. Hated his disrespect for all authority.
She saw what Bump was doing to me first. She was the first person to tell me it could not go on for much longer. She said I had to do something. Hardly told me to come up with a plan.
I had heard that before.
See, Bump played DnD. He played with a guy who was afraid of him. That guy ran his games, and to keep Bump happy, that guy helped him create an invincible character for the game. We are going to call this character Bumpy.
Bumpy was a paladin. For those of you who have no idea what that means, it is simple. Bumpy was supposed to fight evil. Bumpy was a weretiger. Impossible to kill without a silver weapon. Bumpy carried a magical version of every medieval weapon in the world.
I asked him once how he was able to carry it all. He said his guy had told him that he could, without question, and what his guy said was good and I had to accept it in my games.
This sort of thing was the norm. There were four different power levels of Bumpy. Bumpy sixth level. Bumpy twelfth level. Bumpy eighteenth level. And Bumpy twenty-fourth level. Whatever level games I ran for my group, he would run the level Bumpy six levels above it. Bumpy, he told me, was always going to be more powerful than anyone else.
Bumpy had the ability to sense evil at a ten-foot radius. But he preferred to walk up to people, grab them, and yell into their face, “Are you evil?” If they were, he killed them. If they weren’t, we would go on. At the beginning of the game he would collect all the character sheets and look to see if any of them were evil. If they were, he would kill them.
Bumpy was a destructive force in my game. He was killing D’s fun. Ruining the game for him. Ruining the game for all of us. He was a bully. He was the last bully I ever had to deal with.
See, school became about DnD for me. First hour, I prepped for the second hour game. Second hour was prealgebra. I was taught by Mr. Turner. Turner was a player. He loved the game. He would teach us our math lesson and give us time to do our homework in class. That was when the dice were pulled out. That was when the game started.
D, Stretch, Pretty Boy, Bump, Spider, all of them were in that class, and I would play the game and Turner would stand close and listen. He would laugh when I was clever and he would keep us all at a dull roar, making sure we didn’t disturb the other kids.
Third, fourth, these hours were prep time for lunch. Then I’d run a game with seven players, Bump being one of them. He ran over me and my game every day. And while all this went on, Mr. Turner stood over my shoulder watching the kids eat lunch. He watched the games, and fumed.
Bump’s other game started to get out of hand. His game master started piling on more and more powerful items I had to contend with at lunch. More and more powerful items that could never be controlled. Could never be reined in. Every monster I crafted, every scenario I dreamed up, Bump would flex, Bumpy would pound, and it was over before it started. D was getting bored and I was starting to panic.
Hardly told me to make a plan.
Mr. Turner gave me a gift.
He said he wanted me to have one of his old characters. Wanted me to roll him up and do whatever I saw fit with him. Said to roll up a 15th level anti-paladin. Said the character already had the sword these types of characters dedicate their lives toward getting. He told me this at my locker on the way to the bus after school. He looked me in the eye, and smiled.
When I came to school the next day, I had a plan. I had rolled up my anti-paladin. Had him neatly folded in my DnD folder. And I waited.
When I got to second hour, I was met at the door by Mr. Turner. He looked at me with a grin and asked, “You ready for lunch?”
I nodded grimly. “I am.” I had suffered under one bully or the other all my life. Char had been a bully. 20th Street School had been a bully. My mother, my sister, everyone I knew had pushed me around with the exception of a very small few. I had been beaten down by bigger, stronger people all my life. I had begun to enter a new field of play.
My life was beginning to become about the mind. About art and reason. It was about creativity and the power of storytelling. I was no longer in a purely physical world. I could hide behind my intellect a little. I could use it to defend myself. I was, at the time, the most creative person I knew. Artist was working on a different level. Magic had to be worth something and Artist had it. So with the tool Turner had given me, I went to battle against the last of the great bullies of my life.
At lunch we all took our seats and I told everyone to pull out their 18th level characters. Bump pulled out 24th level Bumpy. I took them all to a bar.
Now, those of you who do not know the game cannot imagine how often this becomes the setting. Bars, pubs, inns, taverns, pick a variation of the name and you have it. This is the classic setting. Straight out of a Conan short. Straight out of Lord of the Rings and the Prancing Pony and the Red Dragon. This is where a character comes to party and to get loud, a place where you raise a little hell, and I knew the moment we got in there, what would happen.
It happened every time. Every time Bumpy stepped into a tavern, pub, inn, or bar, he would order a keg of ale, take his magical dagger out, and cut a perfect hole in the top middle of the barrel head. Then he set the entire keg on his face, balanced perfectly as he drank it in a few brawny gulps. It was his act. The thing he loved to do. And every time he did it, he expected laughs. Every time he did it, he expected everyone to tell him how funny and crazy he was. He wanted a pat on the head each time. And, like terrified mice, we did exactly what Bump wanted us to.
So, when he smacked the keg off his head and sat up, I leaned in over the table, looked Bump directly in the eye and said to him, “Tell me exactly what you are doing now. Everything you are doing at this very moment, I want it in detail.”
The entire table calmed to a hush. Bump looked at me, Turner chuckled, and I stared at Bump. From that moment, no one has ever bullied me again. That was the moment when we stepped out of the physical arena, where bigger boys held sway over me, and pointed my mind, my art, my creativity at them. Bump stared at me, but he knew I had him. I saw it in his eyes. It was over. He knew I had a plan. And he knew I had already killed him.
Bumpy sprang into action.
He jumped up and ran to everyone in the room. He grabbed them by the shirt, lifted them off the ground and shouted in their faces. “Are you evil?”
I told him they were not.
He told me he was going to use his power and try to sense if anyone was evil.
No one was.
He checked every player, collecting all the other character sheets and looking at all their secrets. He checked and found no evil. Bumpy had exhausted his efforts. All he could do was sit down, look at me, and shake his head. “That’s all I am doing.”
Turner knew. Standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, Turner knew that I had him. That I was fighting one of the great battles of my life. I was learning something about myself I had never known. I was learning I had a mind that was not normal. I had a level of creativity that could not be faced.
Years after that, in high school, the guys and I were sitting around doing what guys do, talking about girls and fighting, and Bootheel said, “Not Jesse. I would never want to fight Jesse.” Every guy there agreed. They shook their heads and looked at me with a slice, just a slice of fear.
“Why not? I’m not that big a guy.”
“You’re a monster, Jesse. You could come up with a thousand ways to kill me before I threw the first punch. You were ahead of us before we got here. You are too creative to fight. No way. You could think me dead,” Bootheel said.
But that was years from this moment with Bumpy. That was years after this final battle, when bullies didn’t scare me anymore. Years after I looked at Bump, rolled two dice, pointed out a few highlights on my anti-paladin’s character sheet to Mr. Turner, and said, “Bump, you’re dead.”
He roared. “No way! I checked for evil. I checked everywhere for any evil and no one was evil.”
“My guy was invisible. It says right here on his character sheet that his sword gives him the ability to become invisible for two hours a day. He was in the back corner. You never sensed him. You were never close enough.”
“Well nothing can kill me except a silver magical weapon!” he yelled.
I showed my anti-paladin to Mr. Turner who nodded.
“My guy has a silver magical weapon.”
“What about my Storm Armor?” Bump shouted. “Nothing can hurt me when I am wearing it.”
The Storm Armor was a problem I had to come up with a plan for, but I had it figured out.
Days before, Bump had come to me to tell me about how his game master had given him a new set of armor. Said it was called Storm Armor.
I asked what book it was in and Bump said he didn’t know. But he had been given it by his game master so he could use it.
As I understand it, Storm Armor is pretty awesome. It cannot be crushed, sliced, penetrated, burnt, frozen, or electrified. It is made of black cloth. It weighs almost nothing. Has a hood that can be pulled up over the head and it cannot be stolen from him. After a few questions, I asked him what would happen if he was standing flat footed on the tip of a mountain, his arms spread wide as he shouted in defiance, while staring down a full-grown red dragon flying as fast as it could, with a rider on its back that carried a mighty lance. What would happen, I wanted to know, if that lance struck Bumpy right in the chest?
His answer was the dragon, the lance, and the rider would fly back two hundred feet, dazed and near death.
So yeah. His Storm Armor was a problem.
He yelled at me about his Storm Armor, and I looked at him and crossed my arms over my chest. “I asked you to tell me exactly what you were doing at that very moment. I have witnesses. All around this table are the people who heard me say that. Mr. Turner heard me say that, and every one of them listened very carefully to see what you would say. And none of them heard you say that you pulled your hood back up.” I leaned in and looked Bump in the face. “When you set that keg on your face, your hood fell back off the top of your head. Your head was exposed. My invisible character swung for your head. I rolled this fourteen on my die. That is more than I needed to slice your head in half.”
I looked at the last bully of my life and nodded grimly. “Bumpy is dead.”
And Bump took off. He yelled about it. He said every game I ran was boring. He said I was the worst game master he’d ever heard of. Said I was nowhere near as good as his guy. He said all of this and then he stood to walk away.
I stopped him.
“If you ever come back to this table, you run a character that I roll up with you, and you play with the items I give you. Don’t you ever bring another game master’s toys to my party again.”
He scoffed. “I am never playing your stupid games again.”
He stormed away and I drew in a deep breath.
The table sat in stunned silence until Mr. Turner leaned forward and patted me on the shoulder. Then everyone erupted. The table exploded with the joy of teenage boys and I leaned back. The age of bullies was over. Artist had created a new kind of defense. Had learned to forge creativity and intellect into a weapon.
It was all opening up for me.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 1: Teardrop Road, available on Amazon.