There wasn’t much to say about Maddie.

She was Craig’s shadow, as much as he would let her be, which meant that I’d known her about as long as I’d known him. On the rare occasions that I would go over to their house, she would bring chips or drinks for us while we played videogames or watched TV, and then stay there, sometimes adding to whatever conversation was going on, but usually being quiet. Craig’s attitude toward her seemed to be that he would tolerate her so long as she stayed in the background, and I didn’t ever see a lot of pushback from her on that. Craig only spoke of her in annoyance, but for the most part, he didn’t speak of her at all.

Their home life wasn’t great. Their father had been out of the picture since around the time Maddie was born, and their mother went through a string of boyfriends, but none that lasted long. Craig didn’t talk about his mom much, except to say that she was a ‘raging bitch’. The charitable version is probably that she was a single mother with too few resources to deal with her children. Craig was often put in charge of Maddie, even though he was only three years older than her. That was how Maddie had ended up joining our games.

She was awkward, enough that I noticed it. Some of that was just the fact that she was an interloper, mentally tagged by all of us as Craig’s kid sister rather than being her own person. I could make more excuses for her, like pointing out that she was a girl entering into a male-dominated game, or pointing out that she was younger than us by enough of a margin to matter. Really though, she was just awkward. She didn’t really have any friends her own age, and none of us were really interested in being friends. Tiff was the one exception to that, but the friendship never really clicked, maybe because Tiff was too well-adjusted and Maddie was too … not.

As far as I could gather, Maddie spent most of her free time online, which meant that she was at least partly raised by the internet, and not the best parts of the internet either. To my knowledge, she never fell in with the kind of people who were on the lookout for impressionable pre-pubescent girls, but she did find a lot of those incestuous websites that have built up their own obsessive mythologies, rituals, and words of power. There were times when she was talking when she would drop in some random bit of deep lore from one of those places, or use a turn of phrase that no one around her was at all familiar with. Sometimes we asked her to explain, but mostly we ignored her, in part because her explanations made it clear she expected us to have read some obscure creepypasta or watched five seasons of a show someone had given a glowing recommendation to.

(I’m aware that this is me saying that, trust me, I am, but when I dropped my references, it was either with the necessary background, or with the intent that no one would be able to connect. With Maddie, it was pure social disconnect, like she didn’t realize that other people had internal lives of their own.)

She leaned hard into whatever counterculture she could get her hands on, where “counterculture” is loosely defined so as to include Hot Topic, Star Wars, and anime. Being a teenager is, at least to some extent, a matter of trying things out, but she took that to the extremes of what people wouldn’t physically stop her from doing. The worst was probably the week she went around wearing cat ears and a tail, which made me physically cringe whenever I saw her in the halls.

(Actually, scratch that, the actual worst was when she glued circles of velvet to her face. During the 18th century it was fashionable to wear ‘beauty patches’ to cover up the facial blemishes associated with smallpox scarring. Maddie had learned about this during a session of my Magus Europa campaign, and, I guess, thought that she was going to bring it back in style? I never really asked about it, because it caused a lot of second-hand embarrassment I wasn’t eager to relive.)

She hit puberty at 13, and transformed from an awkward, gangly little girl to a slightly taller and still very awkward girl with big boobs, which mostly changed things for her in a negative way, since it meant that she started getting the wrong kind of attention. The most that was ever said about this by anyone I knew was when Reimer made a comment about no one talking about “the two elephants in the room” when she went to go use the bathroom, which got Craig more pissed off than I’d ever seen him. He made it pretty clear that his sister was off-limits for those kinds of comments, and while Reimer protested that he was just making a joke, it was the last time anyone so much as joked about her.

I should put an asterisk there, because it was about two years later that I ended up having sex with her.

Look, age of consent laws aren’t really governed by reason --

Wait, no, I can do better than that.

Kansas legislators respond to their incentives, and there’s nobody lobbying for saner age of consent laws because of the obvious assumption that they were doing so for nefarious purposes, so obviously the age of consent laws that we got were ridiculously poorly constructed, mostly to appease the religious majority, who have their own motivated reasons for --

Okay, no, let me start again.

When we’re talking about capacity to consent, we’re really talking about mental development, which isn’t a hard line, and which age is only an inaccurate proxy for, and --

Nope. I don’t think there’s any way to justify it without sounding like a creep. She was just barely fifteen and I was a few months from eighteen, and age difference aside, there was a pretty big difference in emotional maturity, so I couldn’t even hide behind her being old for her age. To make it all worse, she was Craig’s little sister.

And legally? In Kansas, having sex with a fifteen-year-old was classed as criminal sodomy, a felony that carried a sentence of up to five years in prison, with no close-in-age exemption to speak of.

All of which might lead one to wonder why the hell I did it.

Arthur had set up a wiki for our group, which I was the primary contributor to. We mostly used it for campaign notes, maps, and (more rarely) character sheets and backstories, but it was the online holding area for pretty much everything that we wrote down. I had special permissions as the resident DM, which let me make pages that no one else could see, and there were dozens of half-baked worlds that had skeletal outlines, plot threads, and characters on them, all hidden from anyone.

One of the features Arthur had enabled on the wiki was the forum, which we used to supplement our group chat, especially during the summers, when we didn’t see each other every day in school, or when there was something going on that we wanted to talk about without being realtime.

When Arthur died, Reimer made a memorial post in the forum, which we all added to, but then no one wanted to be the one to displace that memorial with some new bit of unimportant discussion, or necro some old conversation with an update. The forum effectively died. I went to visit it sometimes, mostly to reread old stuff from back when Arthur was still around. It was, in a way, like he was there, a digital ghost that could regurgitate his old opinions on things. I didn’t believe in an afterlife, but Arthur lived on in the stuff he’d written. Reading through his posts invariably made me feel depressed and anxious, knowing that he would never post anything ever again. Sometimes I would type up a response to some long-ago comment from him and sit there, crying, because he was gone.

I eventually stopped going to the dead forum, not because I’d gotten smarter about avoiding the things that hurt to look at, but because I’d read everything there was to read, and I’d grown inured to what was contained in that particular crypt.

After the Fel Seed Incident, I visited the forum again, only to find that someone had been there.

There were six posts by Maddie, none of them with any replies, all a few days apart from each other. None of them were anything too special, nor did they seem like they’d taken a lot of time or effort on her part. At a cursory glance, it seemed like she’d found some links she liked and wanted to share them, which was one of the things that the forum was sometimes used for.

I was pissed off about it. The forum was dead, a dusty mausoleum, and trying to bring it back was only going to underline how dead it was while marring its usefulness as a memorial.

The thing was, I was also lonely as all hell. Reimer, Tom, and Craig were the only three people who really talked to me anymore, and of them, Reimer hated me, Tom was so earnest it grated on me, and Craig was more or less checked out, ready to go join the Army once he had his high school diploma. I could recognize, in the way Maddie had posted, a desire for someone to talk to, and as upset as I was that she’d desecrated the final resting place for Arthur’s online presence, I felt so alone I was on the verge of a breakdown.

One of the links she’d posted was to a video of a cat failing to jump properly. I typed “heh”, waffled over whether or not to post it, and then finally clicked the button and closed the tab before I could change my mind and delete it.

When I came back to the forum a few hours later, Maddie had left a few excited paragraphs for me. She treated me like we were old friends who had lost touch, even though I saw her in the halls every once in a while, and she’d been to a handful of our D&D games since Arthur had passed. It was transparently obvious that she wanted someone to talk to, and while Maddie had never been my favorite person (or even someone that I thought that much about), she was validating my existence at a time when I was passing by the train tracks and thinking about how easy it would be to dart in front of a moving train to end it all.

Maddie and I began talking a lot, mostly online. I’d had three or four pen pals over the years, and we fell into that same sort of pattern, leaving each other long chunks of text. It gave me something to look forward to. It’s hard to say that I really enjoyed myself, because I wasn’t at a point in my life where I enjoyed anything, but talking to Maddie took me out of my own head a little bit, except when I had some heavy stuff that I wanted to talk about to someone, or more accurately, depression and anxiety that I wanted to weigh someone else down with.

Eventually we switched from that single thread on the forum to talking to each other on messenger, multi-paragraph bursts replaced by single lines fired back and forth. Maddie had a habit of splitting up her sentences into multiple lines, as though she was hitting the Enter key out of nervous habit rather than because she’d finished a thought, which drove me nuts. I tended to write longer messages, sometimes several paragraphs, which would inevitably lead to her seeing that I was typing. She would always tell me that she was patiently waiting for me to finish, which never came off as particularly patient.

There was a lot that I didn’t like about Maddie. Maybe I would come off better if I said that I liked her, or even that I’d fallen in love with her, but the truth was, she was the only person that I really had to talk to, and liking her wasn’t really what it was about. She was there, ready to hear my side of the stories that she must have already heard through the grapevine. She got anxious when she didn’t hear from me, and she was eager to listen. I didn’t really like Maddie that much, but the attention was intoxicating.

“Do you think I’m pretty?” she asked one night, a few weeks into our let’s-call-it-a-friendship.

“It’s okay if you don’t,” she added, when I didn’t immediately reply.

“Obviously I want you to find me pretty,” she said.

“Not you, specifically,” she added.

“People,” she said.

“I just asked you because,” she said. Then the typing indicator lit up, died down, then lit up again.

“I care about what you think,” she finally finished.

“Yeah, I think you’re pretty,” I replied.

“Yay!” she replied.

“Did you have to think a lot?” she asked. “Or?” It had taken me some time to think about my reply, and one of my big problems with instant messaging was that people could tell how long you were thinking.

“It’s probably not a thing I should be saying to you,” I said.

“???” she asked.

“I don’t want things to get weird,” I replied.

“Weird how?” she asked.

“Do you really not know?” I asked.

“Is it weird that I think you’re handsome?” she asked.

“I’m not handsome,” I replied.

“You are,” said Maddie. “I was looking at pictures of you,” she continued. “Today.”

I sat and stared at my keyboard for a bit.

“Was that weird?” she asked.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Maybe I’ll just shut up now?” she asked.

“You were typing and then you stopped typing,” she said.

“Press Enter,” she said.

“Please press Enter?” she asked.

“I thought manners might help,” she continued.

“Waiting patiently, since you’re still typing,” she added. “Don’t mind me.”

Here’s what I’d been typing: “You said that you cut yourself sometimes, just to feel something. I keep thinking that if we started dating it would be that, for me. I have so much trouble caring about anything anymore. It feels good to have you flirt with me, and maybe I encouraged it because … I wanted to feel something that wasn’t pain, loneliness, and despair. I’m standing at the edge of a cliff now, with you. So far, I haven’t actually done anything. If I tell you that I like you, and you say that you like me back, then what happens? It’s mean and unfair to you, but I’d be a senior dating a freshman, and with everything else that’s happened I’d probably have to accept that I’d actually hit rock bottom. If I keep my distance then at least I can say, ‘well, I didn’t date Maddie’. Even if no one would ever give me credit for that, I would be able to hold onto it. And the shitty thing is, I don’t even like you that much.”

I stared at the wall of text. Maddie was typing, again. Ctrl+A, Ctrl+X, and what I’d written was gone. She was fifteen, and it was just too fucking mean.

“Maddie,” I finally said, instead of all that. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“So don’t?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Can we meet in person?” she asked. “I don’t like IM. Too many weird pauses.”

“In person they would just be silences,” I said.

“I could see you though,” said Maddie. “I’d like that.”

“I need to shower,” I replied.

“I don’t mind,” she said. “Or I can wait until you’ve showered.”

I kept staring at my computer screen. It was late in January and just below freezing. My dad kept the temperature low in our house, and the heating ducts never really seemed to circulate air to my room properly, so it was frigid. If I sat at home by myself, I was probably going to spend a half hour trying to find something to watch on Netflix, then spend an hour or two on reddit trying to find something funny enough that I would exhale slightly harder than normal, then porn and masturbation, and then the nightly few hours of staring at the ceiling thinking about how much I hated my life.

“Sure,” I said. “We can meet in person.”

We ended up dating.

It was the same cloak-and-dagger shit that I’d done with Tiff, but a bit more serious this time, and a lot less fun, because I was pretty sure that Craig would be fucking pissed if he found out. There was also the question of their mom, who had reported Maddie’s last boyfriend to the police, though he was a year older than I was, in college when they dated, and nothing had ever come of it. I didn’t know whether or not it would be worse because I was a friend of the family, but I expected that it would be worse.

I guess I had this idea that I could save her from the trajectory she was on; it was certainly a way for me to cast myself as the good guy. Maddie smoked cigarettes, which I thought was a fucking stupid idea for anyone, let alone a teenager who didn’t even have the excuse of having started before anyone knew that it was bad. She was in a few remedial classes, and talked a lot about emancipation, dropping out, and getting her GED, since she didn’t think college was in her future. I had no idea what kind of life Maddie had in front of her, but it certainly didn’t look good, and I thought that I could swoop in and fix it.

Being together was weird and awkward. We’d talked more naturally online than we had in person. Online, I’d understood the cadence of her typing, but when she was next to me she was like a totally different person, and we didn’t really mesh together. Despite that, I was determined that I was going to make it work somehow, because if Maddie liked me, and I was her boyfriend, then I wasn’t going to bow out at the first sign of trouble. In some ways it seemed like that would be the worst possible thing, because I’d prove that I was just as much of a heel as I suspected myself of being. If I was going to be her boyfriend, then I wanted to do it right, not just fuck it up like I’d fucked up everything else.

As it turned out, dumping her wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.

Instead, she dumped me, after about a week.

The thing was, she said, that we were better as friends, and she didn’t want me to take it too hard, but she just wasn’t feeling it. I sat in stunned silence as she dumped me, and then she kept asking me to say something, and I just sat there, not knowing what the hell I’d done with my life that I’d gotten to this point.

It was a few days later that Craig showed up early to D&D. We were playing at my house, because my parents were out of town. I had everything laid out on the table for the session, paper, pens, dice, minis, battlemat, et cetera, and was staring at my skeletal notes. I should have been preparing, but I felt too numb to do it. Most likely the session would go the way that sessions had been going lately, with me winging it, poorly, and then us ending things far earlier than we used to. I hadn’t made anything new since the whole Fel Seed thing. After that had all gone down, we went back to Long Stairs, but I wasn’t even bringing much creativity to it, because I couldn’t think of anything suitably horrifying. There were lots of gaping, sucking voids, empty places that had once held life, all painfully thin metaphors that no one appreciated, not even me. Our gaming sessions were happening by rote, one more thing that I couldn’t take pleasure from anymore. I had almost canceled the session, but I knew once I canceled one, I would start cancelling others, and that would be one less thing tying me to the world.

Craig came in and sat down without saying a word. He was staring daggers at me. I couldn’t meet his eyes.

“You fucked my sister,” said Craig.

It was pure, naked hostility, and it was almost cathartic, given how much I deserved it. “Yeah,” I said.

“Jesus fucking Christ Juniper,” said Craig. “Do you know, if it had been anyone else, I would have been okay with it? Tom? Fucking great guy, salt of the earth, probably too good for her, and she’d break his fucking heart without meaning to, but I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, except that it would be stupid. Even Reimer would at least have been the best boyfriend she’d ever had, though that’s not saying much, because she’s dated some real fucking losers. But you?” He clenched his fists in front of him like he wanted to grab me and shake me to death. “You are such a fucking cancer on everyone around you. You’re a sad sack piece of garbage just fucking intent on infecting everyone around you with all the pain, anger, and misery that you can squeeze out. And fucking why?

“I’m not in a great place,” I said.

“No shit?” asked Craig. “Fucking no shit, Joon, really? Because Arthur died, eight months ago? Does it have something to do with that?” He threw up his hands. “Arthur left this hole in all of us, and you grew these fucking claws and tore that hole open wide like fucking Satan himself. Arthur died, and it fucking sucked, and then you just wanted to see how much worse you could make it, didn’t you, you fucking miserable shitbag.” He was seething with anger. “Do you know I defended you? Colin was talking shit about you, and I damn near threw the first punch in a fight that I knew I couldn’t win, because I thought, you know, he’s fucking Juniper, he’s going through some shit, but he’s still in there somewhere. But no, you’re this fucking zombie, and I would stab you in the heart myself to put you down if I thought that you had a fucking heart anymore. You never even liked Maddie.”

“I did,” I said, but it didn’t sound convincing.

“Bullshit,” said Craig. He stood up from his chair. “Fucking bullshit, and you know it. You know that I fucking talk to her, right? Because she’s my goddamn sister? She came home crying and, just, fucking why would you put her through that? What in the hell was your end game?”

“I thought,” I started, then stopped. “I just needed,” I said, then stopped again.

“Yeah,” said Craig. He turned to go, then turned back. “Look me up in a few years if you ever get your shit together.”

I stayed silent.

I wanted to tell him that I probably wasn’t going to be around in another few months, let alone a few years, but I held my tongue as he stormed out of the house. I looked down at my threadbare notes for the session. I was going to have to change things around, because we were down to two players, Tom and Reimer.

I closed my eyes and let out a shuddering breath, and didn’t open them again until Reimer and Tom came in the door together.

“Got a text saying Craig’s out?” asked Reimer.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You okay?” asked Tom.

“Not really, no,” I said. “Whatever, let’s run it. Craig’s character will have died between sessions. Poison, I guess, something thick and choking that was filling the room, and he just … it got to be too much for him. And Maddie, she’s not -- she won’t be coming.”

“Joon,” began Tom. “If there’s anything --”

“No,” I said. “Let’s just fucking run it, okay? Either you make new characters or I can fill out your ranks with NPCs, party needs a healer one way or another.”

“Something happen between you and Maddie?” asked Reimer. “Last session she was a little --”

“I really don’t want to talk about it,” I said.

I was faintly surprised when they let it drop. I knew they’d hear the story from Craig or Maddie later on. Tiff probably would too. I felt a wave of nauseous anxiety just thinking about that, but I could take some comfort in the fact that she probably already hated me.

I always thought one of the really underrated things about getting transported to a fantasy world was that you could leave everything from the normal world behind. You get to start over from scratch, and sure, maybe that sucks if you were a star athlete at the top of his game, or you have a job doing something you love, or a wife and kids or whatever else, but even then, there’s no one around to remember all the things from your past that you hope no one is going to bring up in polite conversation. It’s basically the ultimate form of having things expunged from your record.

I felt a profound sense of shame at the way things had gone with Maddie, but on Aerb, I wasn’t actually obligated to tell anyone. I could instead let that incident fade into the past and forget it had ever happened. I hadn’t really planned it, but the way things had shaken out with Amaryllis and Fenn, I could construct this new version of my past that was at least partially sanded down, with some of the warts and hard edges removed. I had eventually told Fenn, in a long letter during the endless months in the time chamber, but that had mostly been because I felt like I was keeping things from her by never mentioning it. (And Fenn, naturally, hadn’t given a shit about any of it, except to say that if Valencia was Joon-bait, then Maddie was proto-bait.)

The problem was, Aerb didn’t seem to really go in for the “leave the past at the door” type of deal that fantasy protagonists usually got. I’d been given a few things that felt like pokes and prods in that direction, all of which I’d ignored, none of which I’d talked about. Now Maddie’s character was literally standing at our front door, impossible to ignore.


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Alexander Wales


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