It’s the day after Halloween and Allen is still wearing his costume—a long tunic belted with an intricate buckle he insists his granddad got in the war. He’s tucked his leggings into his mom’s knee-high boots, and his wig is a little offset from the running around we’ve been doing in the woods beyond his backyard. Except in his mind, these woods aren’t the buffer zone between our neighborhood and a stretch of I-40. This is Sequoia, the legendary temple-city of the Elves; and he’s not Allen anymore, he’s Alvana.
This is what we usually do on the weekends. Allen’s written some adventure for us to go on. He’s got maps and character sheets, the whole shebang. When we play “The Game,” as we call it, I usually play as whoever Allen wants me to be—today that’s Sir Lucas, a knight who was betrayed by his people. Allen is always princess Alvana. He’s writing a story about her that’s gotta be over a hundred pages by now. He tells me he’s been working on it since fourth grade.
At first, it sort of weirded me out that he always wanted to be the girl. He really gets into it, you know. But Allen’s never been one to do things the conventional way, so I guess I just got used to it. Now I can’t imagine Allen being anything but Alvana in these woods.
Today, something's up, though. Ever since his mom helped him get that costume together, Allen’s been acting a little strange. Stranger than normal, I mean.
Allen thumps his stick-staff into the dirt. “The army of Skrell will be upon us by nightfall, Sir Lucas,” he says, his chubby face forlorn. “I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do to stop them. We will be consumed.”
With sweat clinging to his forehead, and his curls tucked away under the wig, he really looks the part of the elven princess he pretends to be. My eyes meet his and I try to come up with a response. What would Sir Lucas say to Princess Alvana to restore her hope?
“Do not fear, my lady. By my sword and my father’s grave, I swear we will overcome them.”
Allen smiles like I imagine a princess might. His eyes are cloudless, and I see my face reflected in them. We are standing so close.
“You are brave, young knight. You speak with fire befitting one emblazoned with the Emblem of Dawn.” He brushes some wig out of his face. “Then you will help us?”
“I will,” I say, striking my chest with my fist.
He places his hand on my shoulder. Soft, unaffected, he presses into me.
“Then perhaps there is hope, after all.”
Allen’s the only friend I got that I feel like really wants me around. Most of the people I know don’t go out of their way to talk to me, but Allen does. He and I just work, you know?
I first saw him the day I moved into the house across the street the summer before sixth grade. He was sitting on his porch writing something while my parents and I moved boxes into the house.
I thought he looked odd sitting there. Well, maybe just odd for an eleven year-old. I mean, he looked so composed with his pen gliding across the notepad in his lap. I’d never seen someone my age so concentrated on something like writing. His hair was longer back then, and a few curls kept falling into his eyes. He would brush them away every once in awhile, but they almost assuredly fell right back into place each time. I would later find out that before he met me, Allen didn’t have many friends either.
We started talking at the bus stop, naturally—both of us going to the same middle school and all. We were the only ones in the neighborhood who rode this bus. There were two buses from our school that came through here, and their stops were only a couple streets apart. For some reason, everyone rode the other bus. It made sense, I guess. The other bus came a little later, and its stop was further from the main road, so the parents felt safer. Sometimes the bus driver of that bus played CDs. Our bus driver just yelled at us to sit down.
The bus stop was right outside our houses though, so it made sense for us to ride it together, but no one else did.
The first day of sixth grade, I was sitting on the curb waiting for the bus to come. Allen crossed the street to come over and sit down next to me.
“You just moved here, right?”
I’m pretty quiet around people I don’t know, so I just sort of grunted an approval. It couldn’t have been later than 7 a.m.
“I’m Allen.” He pressed his hand into mine and shook it.
I remember his palm being oddly clammy, like he had just got done rubbing the outside of a frosted glass.
After that, without waiting for me to introduce myself, he started talking about magic.
“You ever wanted powers?” he asked. “I’m not talking super strength, that’s lame. I mean like real life magic.”
It was too early for this. I shrugged.
“Sometimes I stare really hard at my cereal spoon. I stare and stare; I stare so much my eyes start to hurt. But one time, no joke, one time it moved. It slid right into the bowl. It was leaning on the rim and then it just slid all the way into the milk!”
I didn’t know what to say. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose.
“I had to fish it out to finish my breakfast.” He laughed as he said it. “I haven’t been able to do it since, but I like to try. When I’m sitting in class, I’ll start staring at other people’s pencils. I stare at people’s hats in church.”
“That’s telekinesis,” I said, recalling a chapter book I had finished a few weeks ago. “Moving stuff with your mind.”
Turns out, we had similar tastes in literature.
“What power would you have?” he asked me.
I thought about it for a moment. That’s a big question to ask a fantasy-obsessed eleven year-old. The options were seemingly limitless. I let my mind slip to that place where it goes while I read. A sort of floating, airy place full of spiraling sounds and untapped potential. And there I was, standing in an endless field with hills rolling into the horizon. The sun stood at high noon over my head. I raised my fingertips towards the sun and let the heat irradiate me. A rush of power filled my body, and for a moment, a brief, wonderful moment, I felt like I could do anything. I could just jump and take off flying over those hills towards that beautiful sun.
“Fire,” I said simply. “I want fire.”
“Exactly,” I said, and we were friends ever since.
Allen and I ended up having a lot of classes together, and we ate lunch at the same time, too. At lunch, we would talk about the latest book we’d read, or some video game we wanted to try to convince our parents to let us play. Usually, it would just be the two of us sitting at our lunch table. Like I said, neither of us really had many friends, and we weren’t particularly inclined to make more. Between the two of us, we had all we needed. Allen would tell jokes or elaborate stories, and I was his attentive audience member, laughing or gasping at all the right places. He hardly ever talked about himself, who he really was. Instead, he would tell me about the next chapter of his story about Alvana, or some idea he had for “The Game.”
That isn’t to say our friendship was one-sided in any way. Of the two of us, I was definitely the more academic. So I’d help Allen with his algebra homework, which he’d always end up putting off until the last possible moment. I’m not sure what else he got from me besides that. To me, though, Allen was my best friend. The one person in the whole world I felt like I could be myself around. I could vent to him when my parents were being jerks, or if some kid in gym class made fun of the way I ran, and he’d listen to me. He’d never tell me to calm down or chill out like my parents or my sister would. He let me rant and rage at the unfairness of the world with a sympathetic ear or a lighthearted comment that would disarm me completely. I don’t know how I would have survived sixth grade without him.
Every once in awhile, this girl Victoria would sit with us. She was small, the type of girl you’d find in the far corner of a classroom nose deep in a book. She read a lot, more than Allen and me combined, so I guess she liked that we were into it too. Though she didn’t have the patience for our roleplaying fantasy nonsense. Anyways, she stopped sitting with us after a while. Seventh grade came around and she made some new friends. These things happen. Allen seemed relieved when she stopped sitting with us. Something about her always put him on edge. Sometimes I’d say something stupid to make her laugh, and Allen would get all uncomfortable. He never told me what it was that bothered him about her. Like so much else, I never got him to open up about it.
Allen and I tramp across the saturated leaves carpeting the forest floor. He leads me, using his staff to drag lines in the mud left behind from the morning’s sporadic showers. Overhead, the sky foretells more rain to come.
“We can set up a perimeter with my archers here. As long as they don’t break through this wall, we have a chance.”
I nod. “What do you want me to do?”
He turns to me, his face an unreadable mask. “You’ll have to lead the charge.”
In ten minutes or so of real time, and hours in our minds, everything is prepared. The archers are in place, the walls have been fortified, and the supplies restocked. I’m mounted on an armored horse with my sword in hand, ready to break through the enemy lines. Allen is safe behind the parapets. If everything goes according to plan, he’ll be able to cast magic from the wall without any chance of reprisal.
On the horizon, just across the highway, the horde of darkness begins surging towards us like the tide. They aren’t really there, of course, but Allen narrates their approach:
“Thousands of them, wearing horned armor cast from molten black dragonscales. They brandish their wicked tulwars as they charge. Some of them are riding on warg-back, others cram into a siege tower. This will be a fight to the last.”
The forest is dead silent. The only sounds are Allen’s voice and the cars in the distance.
“They’re almost in range. Archers at the ready!”
I set my jaw and stare out at the empty forest. There’s a blood-red cardinal that’s settled on a sapling in the distance, right at the edge of the treeline. Just past it, I can see the highway.
Nothing happens. There isn’t some breeze to rush through the forest like a hail of arrows, nor any powerful thudding like the beat of a thousand hooves on the earth. Just Allen’s voice and the cars.
“The arrows strike the front lines, but they show no signs of slowing. Ready another volley!”
I turn to look at him. He’s fixated on the middle distance and a strange expression has come over him.
“My lady, should I begin my charge?”
He turns to me, and I detect something in his eyes. It isn’t something he means to reveal to me, as he looks away as soon as our eyes meet. They are watering slightly, just around the edges. His whole face is hemmed in shadow.
“Alvana, what should I do?”
Still he stands motionless. Suddenly, he makes a noise with his mouth like a terrible explosion. He blasts from his safe place on the ramparts and falls onto the forest floor.
“Alvana!” I race over to him and crouch down where he has landed.
Weakly, he rolls over towards me, his face a mask of agony. “They have a warlock. I’ve been struck by witchfyre.”
“What can I do? I… I don’t have any healing magic.” My breath catches in my throat and I begin hyperventilating to make up for it. A thick winter freeze has encased my chest. “Alvana, what do I do?”
It hits me like a tree felled in an ice storm. See, yesterday on Halloween, Allen wore his costume to class. Our principal had made some big announcement the day before over the intercom that no one was to dress up in school. I guess Allen didn’t get the memo because he walked into homeroom with his wig on and everything.
I was sitting in the back like always. The teacher must have been in the bathroom because it was just us kids in the room. Allen strode in, head held high, looking right at me with a big smile on his face. He took his usual place next to me. As he walked through the class, nobody said a word. We were just staring, necks on a swivel, following his path.
Since he hadn’t ridden the bus that morning, I hadn’t seen his costume before then. He’d been telling me for a couple weeks that it was gonna be awesome, and a big surprise. Seeing it here for the first time, I felt an amazing array of emotions. The first thing that hit me was just how great he looked, believe it or not. His wig was all clean and bright, the hair the color of a golden sunrise. The tarnished metal of the belt buckle still caught the overcast light coming through the east-facing windows. His face, normally haggard from a night spent up too late playing Morrowind, was bright and buoyant. His chubby cheeks seemed slimmer, his eyes lustrous. When he walked, he walked with a confidence that looked alien on him.
As soon as I felt that, I started getting nervous, real nervous, shivering in your boots nervous. I knew how the other kids were gonna see it, and even as I looked around the room, I could see their merciful silence beginning to degrade into a few scattered, muffled laughs.
Once Allen took his seat, someone really started to go at it with their laughing. Then other people did too. Victoria was sitting on the other side of the back row with her narrow hand pressed to her mouth doing her best to conceal her chuckles. Allen was just staring at me with his big, dumb smile.
People started talking to Allen, some of the kids near the front who liked to mess with the teacher and make fun of the way I run in gym. They were asking him who he was dressed as.
“Britney Spears, post-freakout, pre-shaved,” one of them yelled in answer.
Allen kept on staring at me. The smile faded away from his face, and his expression froze over. Now he was just looking at me, as if asking me for something. I felt myself standing without realizing it. Rising out of the chair, I faced the front of the class and said nothing. The laughing was dying down; the joke was getting old already.
“Look, K-Fed’s gonna stand up for his girl.”
I stood like that for a long time. People kept throwing insults at me and Allen for a little while. Someone called us fags. Someone else stood up, daring that I come up and do something about it. But I didn’t hear any of it. My mind had slipped off to that same infinite grassland with the high noon sky. The world around me drifted into the ether, to be replaced only by a burning roiling somewhere beneath my chest. I was angry. Suddenly furious. I wanted, more so than ever before in my entire life, to pyromance. I wanted to burn down the school, to turn these smirking faces to ash. I wanted to incinerate everything in the whole world save for me and Allen, and I wanted to tell him how awesome his costume was. Then we could go run off to the woods and play “The Game” like that was all there was in the world, and we’d be right.
Just at that moment, the sun tore through the cloud cover. Light caught on everything, and I couldn’t see out of one of my eyes. Long shadows stretched across the desks. It was a moment of absolute radiance. I stared out at the class, watching how people’s faces become silhouettes when they turned away from the sun.
Eventually the teacher came in and started laying into us, and people shut up real quick after that. She saw Allen’s costume and demanded that he go to the front office to change. Allen pulled himself out of his desk and retreated from the room. He hadn’t said a word since he walked in.
I was still standing—I couldn’t move—so the teacher turned her attention to me.
“Do you want to go, too?” she asked with incredulity still plain in her voice.
Someone started whispering to me. I turned and focused my attention on the source of the sound. It was Victoria. She was telling me to sit down.
I stared at Victoria, or the silhouette of her. Just barely could I make out the movement of her lips. She kept saying it over and over again: sit down, please sit down.
It all seemed fake. Like the sort of dream you get just as you’re falling asleep where everything feels real until you’re jolted awake. Then you think back on it and wonder how you could have mistaken that for reality at all.
So I sat down. What else could I do?
After school, Allen and me Trick-or-Treated like nothing had happened. Because my family doesn’t celebrate Halloween, I didn’t have a costume. I went as Sir Lucas wearing jeans and a t-shirt. His mom had made me a black cape out of velvet that I wore tied around my neck with a silver clasp. I carried the same wooden sword I always played “The Game” with. I had gotten it at Tweetsie Railroad years ago. A plastic armored helm completed the look.
We didn’t mention what had happened that day in class aside from me asking him, “What the heck were you thinking, Allen?”
To which he responded, “I couldn’t wait to show you.” He didn’t look at me as he said it.
That night, though, something weird happened. After we got back from Trick-or-Treating, we played video games in Allen’s room because it was too dark to stay outside. Allen’s parents let him have a TV to himself in his room, which I think is nuts. Fueled with the candy stash we’d managed to snag that night and a few energy drinks obtained from a local convenience store with money his mom had given us for dinner, we stayed awake well past midnight. When I finally couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer, I retired to the couch downstairs for the night.
I lay there for a while, unable to fall asleep completely. Every time I closed my eyes, I imagined standing in the classroom in front of all those kids all over again. I’m not the kind of kid who can give public speeches or perform on stage or anything like that. Hell, I get nervous even raising my hand in class. So I couldn’t figure out what it was that had gotten me to stand. As I was thinking these thoughts, I started to feel my heartbeat in my brain. It pounded away at me like some great bell. Try sleeping through that.
After something like an hour of this, I heard someone start to come down the stairs. It wasn’t one of Allen’s parents, I could tell by the weight of the steps. Allen didn’t have any siblings so I knew it was him. He seemed unsure of the footing. A couple steps creaked as he placed his weight upon them. Each time this happened, he waited a while before taking another step. In the silence that followed, my heartbeat would start up again on its pounding. It threatened to knock my eyes out of their sockets.
Finally, he reached the linoleum at the bottom of the stairs. He was wearing socks, so his footsteps were nearly silent—only a pad-pad noise. He reached the entrance to the living room, and I pretended to be asleep. I slit my eyes as tight as they would go while still letting me see and stayed completely still.
He just stood there, watching me sleep with his hand against the wall. He wasn’t wearing anything but boxer shorts, socks, and his wig. His skin was nearly silver in the faint light dispersed throughout the room. There was a window facing the street and I could see the front of my house. Above it, there was a solitary moon broken up by formless protrusions of cloud cover. The only light was from that figment of a moon.
My hands slowly clenched into fists under the covers. There was some palpable sense of unreality in the air, like I was dreaming, but this was no dream. Allen was really there, hand on the wall staring at me, and I was really lying here on his couch watching him. I could feel the sheets clinging to my bare chest. My nipples were hard and chafed against the fabric. I felt a rush of heat throughout my body, some nervous yearning overcoming me. Some part of me wanted him to come over to me, to lay down with me. In his wig, standing there in the moonlight, I saw Allen for the first time all over again. He was beautiful.
We stayed like that for a long time. How long, I have no idea, but it felt like a lifetime. Eventually I spoke up.
“Allen?” I said, my voice sounding fake in my ears, like someone else was using my vocal chords to speak.
The silver form of Allen shifted. He took his hand off the wall and pressed it to his heart. I heard a startled intake of breath.
“Hey, sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you had everything you needed.”
“All good here,” I said awkwardly.
“Ok,” he said. “Well, if you need anything, I’m right upstairs.”
I nodded, and then, realizing the futility of the gesture, I told him I knew.
He bid me goodnight and began his journey back up the stairs.
I lay there for a long while after that, but my mind was strangely blank. Listening to the terrible pounding in my brain, I ran my hands across my bare skin, feeling what it was like to be alive and warm.
He didn’t mention anything had happened the next day over breakfast, so I wrote it off as some kind of dream or vision, but now that Allen’s lying on the forest floor with tears going down his face, I realize he was trying to tell me something. He wants to kill Alvana for good.
I turn out towards the highway, towards where the imaginary army is, to where the evil warlock must be, and I let out a scream unlike anything I’ve ever heard come out of me before. Raising my wooden sword over my head, I rush towards the battleline. My heart is racing, and the wind starts to whip up. I’m spinning around and around, dancing between the tree trunks, lashing out with my sword at blinding speeds.
I hear Allen’s voice behind me. It’s choked with tears, nothing like his usual narrating voice. His words subsume my consciousness and I feel myself slipping away again.
“Sir Lucas charges into the fray upon the tides of fiery dawn. The conflagration races from his hands as he meets the horde head on. He wreaths his blade with a torrent of flame and carves a swath through the advancing army. They swell around him, surrounding him on all sides. Each time they pile on tighter, and each time Sir Lucas incinerates them. The air is filled with the stench of smoke. A thick carpet of ash begins to cover the battlefield. After one final strike,” he says just as I throw my body into the air with all my might and come crashing down onto the forest floor, “flames erupt from his body, spreading across the forest returning the forces of darkness to their putrid grotto. Stragglers run back the way they came, and the line is broken completely. A cheer resounds from the ramparts.”
I turn to look at Allen. He’s taken off his wig and is sitting on the ground staring at me with tears pouring down his face. He’s clutching his wig in front of his chest.
“You’ve done it, Sir Lucas,” he says. “It’s over now.”
“This, ‘The Game,’ all of it.” His voice is almost inaudible. “I can’t do it anymore. There’s no point.”
“What are you talking about, Allen?” I take his hand and lead him towards the highway.
Throwing his wig to the ground, he shakes his head. “No one’s ever going to understand.”
I stop and pick up the wig. In my hands, it just looks like a pile of empty threads. I try to brush away a few pieces of dirt that have gotten stuck in it. We keep walking until we reach the edge of the treeline. In front of us, cars rage past us going faster than any horse will ever go.
“I understand. Don’t you get it? Do it for me.”
I throw my arms around him and pull him into an awkward embrace. We’ve never hugged like this before. He doesn’t make any move to stop me. Around us, the forest sways in a sudden gale, each branch bending in the wind. With the wind, furious rain starts driving down. I feel the drops striking my bare arms where they’re wrapped around Allen. An echo of distant thunder shakes me. I exhale all the air in my lungs. When I breathe in again, I taste a change in the air that fills me. The cardinal takes off from its perch, throwing a song to the cloud-dark sky. I follow its scarlet flight into the far distance. Across the highway, between the cars, a path opens up for us. The path heads off towards tomorrow. Cars keep flying past. None of them see us among the trees. Nothing can see us. I let Allen go and look him right in the eyes.
“Do it for me, Allen.”