Saving Throws – Michael McSweeney
May 3, 2021
We manage to find a cab to Mae and Rich’s place even though the world is about to end. Everything happening aside, our Dungeons and Dragons group decides in the text thread that our weekly session should go on as scheduled.
Genn and I wait around outside for twenty-five minutes until a cab arrives. A small miracle. The driver chews an unlit cigar and doesn’t look at us as we clamber inside. The cab yelps, rushes forward down the street and passes beneath red light after red light without stopping. I look over at Genn as they read headlines on their phone. The page they’re on reads VENUS FLUNG FROM ORBIT in bold red letters.
“Don’t read that shit,” I say. I put my hand over the screen.
“You don’t need to apologize. Just don’t waste your time.”
“I guess.” Genn squeezes my hand with theirs, smaller and thinner than mine. The screen’s light peeks through our fingers and illuminates the sweat beads on Genn’s face.
“Hey, can you pull over one block up?” I ask the driver. “We need to stop for something.” The driver grunts.
I open my window and the cool air rushes inside. Thin haze hugs a sky bronzed from the city lights. My eye settles on one of the few visible stars. After a few moments, the star vanishes, a twitch of dim light to nothing.
“Hey,” I say, turning to Genn.
“Here good?” the driver asks. He points with a thick index finger. I recognize the intersection, a block or so from the apartment.
“Yes, this is fine, thank you.”
The cab wrenches to a stop and Genn and I both lurch forward but we catch ourselves on the front seats. Genn’s glasses fall from their face and I watch them grope around at their feet.
“How much do we owe you?” I ask the driver.
“What good is money?”
“Then why take fares tonight?”
The driver shifts in his seat. “Something to do.”
We exit the cab and watch it jump into motion, twist around a corner, disappear. I wonder where the driver will go next. What he’s thinking. If he plans to stop. Maybe that’s just the way of things. Life keeps steering until the wheels fly off.
There’s a wine shop here on the corner and its front window is burst open like a pulverized mouth, glass shards scattered on the sidewalk and the floor inside. I crunch across the shards and find three unbroken bottles of cabernet on the floor. Then, Genn calls out to me. A helicopter buzzes overhead as I step back through the window. Its landing skids nearly touch the tops of the trees, the chopper soaring unsteady like a wasp too sick or angry to fly straight. Genn raises their phone to take a picture before the helicopter jerks around the side of an apartment tower and out of sight.
“Maybe someone is going for a joyride,” Genn says.
At Rich and Mae’s apartment building, we find the front door held open by a metal folding chair. The lobby is dry quiet, the kind of quiet that makes you uneasy thinking about its origin, enough so that we grow suspicious of the elevator and decide to take the stairs. Five flights up, slow steps, my face flush and body heavy from the climb. We haven’t left our own place much in the past week so the exercise is more grueling than it should be. Nights bound to the gravity of our phones, disorganized versions of a directional truth more staggering with each refresh of the digital stream. This morning I dropped mine from our balcony and watched it splinter like concrete. A small, clean sound in a momentary stab of quiet between police sirens on the street and the interstate thunders. Genn said I was crazy for doing it. I said I was tired of knowing the time.
Mae, our dungeon master, answers the door. Her long curly hair falls on her shoulders like sea waves at night. We kick our shoes off in the entryway and I see a few bits of glass sparkle on the hardwood floor. Rich grins at us from the living room and we help him gather chairs to place around the table. Then we assume our usual spots. Rich fetches some wine glasses from the kitchen and sets one down in front of each of us while Mae unties the opening of a purple cloth bag and pours out a colorful splash of plastic dice, twenty-sided, eight-sided, six-sided—everything we’ll need. She unfolds a stand-up cardboard barrier decorated with a drawing of an enormous horned beast as it charges a group of D&D heroes. A Tarrasque. The greatest enemy in the game.
“What’s the plan for tonight?” I ask Mae.
“That’s up to you. That quest to clear an orc cave you got at the end of the last session is one option.”
Rich pours himself a glass from one of the cabernet bottles. “I want to do something crazy,” he says. “For our last game.”
“Don’t,” says Mae.
“Come on, it’s not—”
“Not again.” Mae pauses, then says more quietly: “I asked you before.”
“Then the Orc cavern it is.”
“Ah, fuck. We left our Player’s Handbook back at the apartment,” I say.
“It doesn’t matter,” Mae says. The comment hangs in the air like it pinched someone’s skin. “I mean it doesn’t matter because we have extras. On the bookshelf.”
“The tavern is packed with people,” Mae says. “Swigging grog, playing dice, arm-wrestling—the classic activities of a Saturday night. The three of you are sitting at your usual table. What do you do next?”
“I’m going to stand up and take out my sword,” says Rich.
“Then I’m going to walk up to the biggest guy in the bar and attack him.”
I look up from my character sheet. Rich’s eyes are on Mae. Genn has their phone in their lap and is typing something and doesn’t seem to have heard what was said.
“Do I need to roll to attack?” Rich asks.
“No. He’s just a local rando in a busy tavern. You…hit from behind. Now just, just roll for damage.”
Rich sifts through the big dice pile, takes a ten-sided one and flicks it onto the character sheet in front of him. It lands on 0, meaning ten.
“That’s fourteen with my Strength modifier. Fourteen damage.”
“The guy dies. Everything stops and everyone else who was at the table stands up. Two city guardsmen who are in the tavern approach you and take out their swords. Now you roll for initiative.”
Rich rolls a twenty-sided die. “Nineteen.”
“Should we also roll?” I ask.
“If you want to get involved in the fight,” says Mae. She rolls some dice behind her barrier. “You go first,” she says to Rich.
Rich rolls his twenty-sided die. “Fifteen.”
“That’s a hit.”
“Okay.” We hear Mae scratching a number down with a pencil. “Now the guardsmen…they all miss. You go again.”
“Sixteen to hit.”
“The guard dies.” More dice rolling behind Mae’s barrier. “They all miss,” she says.
“Okay, next guard,” says Rich. He rolls again. “Nineteen. Damn, so close to a critical.”
“You know it’s a hit.”
We listen to the scratch of graphite against paper. Then, two dice as they knock against each other.
“Two critical hits,” says May.
“Two critical hits from both guards, so let me roll damage,” says Mae. “Twenty-two damage total.”
“Jesus,” says Rich. He looks at me. “Jamie, can you heal?”
I lower my wine glass. “Uhm, I mean—”
“You’ll get drawn into the fight if you heal him,” says Mae.
“You need to help me. You’re the cleric.”
I laugh. “You picked this fight, not me.”
Rich’s eyes flash from his dice to me and all I see is basalt, something flash-cooled, something that makes me afraid in a vague way like a dull persistent ache in the chest, and then they are back on his dice again. “Please, Jamie,” he says.
My next laugh is more forceful, transparently so. I feel like our relationship has entered a strange territory during an even stranger time. I look at Genn. “What do you think?”
“It’s your funeral,” Genn says. “I thought we were gonna fight orcs in the morning. This was supposed to be usual tavern bullshit.”
“Okay. I cast Cure Wounds on Rich. As a second-level spell,” I say. I take two eight-sided dice and roll them. “Thirteen points of healing, plus two from my bonus.” Rich nods, erases a number on his character sheet and writes a new one in thick gray digits. His handwriting is small, boxed in.
“Now roll initiative,” says Mae to me.
I roll my twenty-sided die. “Five.”
“You’re last, then. Genn?”
“Uh, sure,” they say. Genn rolls their twenty-sided die. “Fourteen.”
“Okay, so you go before Jamie.”
“Whose turn is it now?” Rich asks.
Mae smirks and rolls some dice behind the barrier. “The two other guardsmen who just entered the bar get to go.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” says Rich.
“You started this.”
“One of them hits you.”
“Because they know you started the fight.” Mae rolls a damage die and it bounces off the cardboard barrier. “Ten damage.”
“Jesus Christ. You’re targeting me.”
“What about the other guards?”
“They all missed.”
“It’s your turn, Genn.”
Genn plays a sorcerer. They flip their character sheet and peer at the tiny scribblings on the back side—their list of spells.
“Uhm,” Genn says.
“Do something big,” says Rich.
“We can’t just vaporize a bunch of people in the tavern.”
“Why not?” asks Rich.
“Because. Because we’re not that kind of group.”
“If you say so.”
“I’m going to cast Fog Cloud,” says Genn. They smile at me. “In a twenty-foot radius around us. So we can get the hell away.”
“Okay,” says Mae. “You cast Fog Cloud and this huge eruption of fog fills the place. It’s hard to see and you hear people crashing into tables, glass shattering, people shouting. Combat is suspended.”
“Cool, let’s get out to the street.”
“I’m going to swing my sword at the nearest person I see,” says Rich.
Mae taps the eraser of her pencil against the table. A soft tap-tap-tap. “Why?”
“Because I want to.”
“You don’t know who you’ll attack. Because of the fog?”
“I swing my sword.”
“Roll your d20.”
Rich rolls his die. The number one, stenciled white on sky-blue plastic, face up toward the ceiling. “That’s five, with my modifier.”
“You rolled a one,” says Mae.
“It’s a five.”
“I see a one. Roll for damage.”
Rich scoffs and flings his ten-sided die on the table. It bounces off Mae’s barrier and Rich leans forward to peer at the result. “Nine damage.”
“Okay. Your sword slices into Genn and deals nine damage.”
“What the fuck!” Genn cries out, her tone a mix of amusement and bafflement.
“It was your fog,” says Rich. “It was a dumb idea.”
“I was trying to get us out of here.”
“Can we still run?” I ask Mae.
“Genn needs to roll to see if their concentration is broken.”
“Bullshit,” Genn laughs. They roll the twenty-sided die across the table and clap when it lands on a sixteen. “Hell yeah!”
“The fog remains,” says Mae.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” I say.
“Fine,” says Rich.
“Okay,” says Mae. “I should make you all roll some checks, maybe a dexterity so you don’t trip over a goddamn table, but for the sake of moving on, let’s say you all make it. You’re in the street now. Fog pours from the windows of the tavern. There’s lots of screaming and confusion and the people who happen to be in the street at this hour are gathering in a crowd. What do you do now?”
“I swing my sword at the nearest person,” says Rich.
“Dude,” I say. “What the fuck?”
“This isn’t even fun anymore.”
“It’s just a game, Jamie.”
“You really want to do this?” Mae asks.
“Okay. Give me an attack roll.”
Rich rolls his twenty-sided die. “Fifteen to hit.”
Mae rolls a die behind her barrier. “Now I need you to roll a dexterity save.”
“Because the person you attacked is doing something in response.”
Rich rolls his die again. “Twelve.” He watches Mae roll a few more dice.
“As you swing your sword, the guy pulls a blade out from beneath his cloak and deflects your attack. He then lands three separate blows with a curved elvish blade. You take twenty-nine damage.”
Rich stares at his character sheet. “That drops me below zero.”
“You fall unconscious.”
“It was a fair dice roll.”
“Bullshit.” Rich slumps back in his chair, then sits up, takes his wine glass and drains the rest of it. He looks at me. “Can you revive me?”
“I can try.”
Mae straightens her body in her chair. “A group of guards emerges from around the corner and runs toward the tavern. They point at the three of you and shout that you need to stop. They draw their weapons, swords and bows.”
“We should grab Rich and run,” I say to Genn.
“You’ll need to roll a strength check and carry him.”
“I have a higher strength rating,” I say. I roll my twenty-sided die. It lands on a three.
“You struggle to lift him off the ground.” Mae rolls some dice. “As you try, three arrows hit the ground near you but miss.”
“Maybe we should just run,” Genn says.
“And leave me?” Rich asks.
“Well, fuck dude, you’re the one who went all psycho Grand Theft Auto 3.”
“Try rolling strength,” Rich says to Genn.
“Fine.” Genn rolls their die. It lands on seven. “My strength score sucks, so I got…an eight?” They look at Mae.
“Not high enough,” says Mae. More dice rolling. “One of the arrows hits you and does…three damage,” she continues after rolling another die. “Rich, you need to roll some death saving throws while this is all happening.”
Rich rolls his twenty-sided die. It lands on a three. He rolls again and gets a six.
“Two failures,” says Mae.
“We were supposed to fight orcs, dude,” says Genn.
“Let’s just…can we just like, start over from the top?” I ask, laughing, not entirely sure what’s funny about the situation beyond the absurdity, Rich’s fantasy blood lust, the flat expression on Mae’s face as she watches Rich shift angrily from behind the cardboard barrier.
“No,” says Mae. “What are you going to do?”
I look at Genn. “I guess we run,” I say.
“Okay. Let’s see some dexterity rolls.”
Genn and I roll our dice, several times in quick succession. Mae nods along before stopping us. “Okay, that’s enough. You manage to get out of the town center. You sneak down the quiet night streets until you reach the harbor. It’s quiet down there, with boats tied up in the harbor. A waterfront tavern is nearby, bustling with activity.” As she speaks, Rich stands without saying anything and heads in the direction of the kitchen before turning through another doorway and closing the door behind him.
“We could steal a boat,” Genn suggests.
“Let’s do it,” I say.
“Cool,” says Mae. “You steal a boat, unfurl the sail, and let the wind carry you out of the harbor. The sea is calm, even as you get further out, just a beautiful calm night. “
Rich reappears, standing between us and the front door. “I’m going for a walk,” he says.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Mae says without turning around.
“I’ll be fine. Back quick. Just some air,” he says. He begins to turn his body but stops, a twitch-like motion. “Sorry. I’m sorry. That was all…that was all weird.”
We watch him go to the door, take a coat from the long rack and pull it over himself. Mae stays at the table and teases a small tear in the cardboard barrier with her thumb and forefinger. When Rich leaves, the door closes behind him with a dull thud.
“I’m…sorry about that,” Mae says. “We…well, you know.”
“Yeah,” I say, not really knowing why, not knowing at all what she might mean beyond the obvious. Maybe it’s just that. The obvious. Things usually are that obvious. Then I ask if I should grab another bottle from the kitchen.
“Sure. They’re all on the counter.”
I stand and go into the kitchen, a narrow room with a small fridge and a gas stove. The refrigerator is plastered with printed photos of Mae and Rich. A fishing trip in the Florida Keys. Mae and Rich leaping from the side of a boat, hands linked, the water below them a molten-white glow. In every picture their faces are bursts of pure joy, wide-mouth grins. Jealousy rises inside me like steam.
I walk back into the room and sit down in my chair.
“So, what do you do next?” Mae asks.
Now I’m thinking about being on a boat and about how long it’s been since I last went to the ocean. At least since last summer, some day trip to Coney Island, two hours by train from our apartment, the smell of hot food and bodies and salt, people crisping on the beach, kites flickering in the wind. I feel a strong urge to swim, immerse my body completely and know the grace of water and absolutely nothing else.
I look at Mae and smile. “I’m going to jump out of the boat.”
Mae laughs. “What are you talking about?”
“Yeah. I’m going to jump out and swim.”
Mae drains her glass and reaches for the bottle. “Okay. Fuck it, we’re swimming now. Give me a dexterity check.”
“Okay.” I roll the twenty-sided die. It lands on the twenty.
“Nat-fucking-twenty!” Mae shouts. She fills the glass near the brim and thumps the cork back into the bottle. “Okay, so you jump from the boat and just…start tearing like hell through the water. No looking back, but if you did the boat would look like a tiny dot to you. So…now what?” she asks.
“I’ll keep going. “
“Okay, roll again.”
I roll the die. Another twenty.
Genn laughs. “Rich could’ve used these.” We all laugh now.
“Alright, shit, you just…you just keep going and going. Genn, what are you doing meanwhile?
“I guess I just keep sailing? And keep an eye out for another shore.” Genn shifts in their chair and cracks their knuckles. I watch them move and think about how beautiful they are, how beautiful they make my life. I’m not even thinking about this in the context of the world ending. They’re just beautiful, in that small and human way that’s hard to actually describe when you’re asked. I wouldn’t even want to try. “Somewhere for a solo adventurer to land I suppose,” they say before pausing, character sheet resting against the edge of the table. “Do I find somewhere?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I mean, you eventually find a small town with a harbor, not as big as Midgaard, obviously, but you know, a good-size settlement. It turns out they don’t have a resident wizard or sorcerer so you take up residence there, helping people, befitting your lawful good alignment of course. People there…they like you, you find a home there.” Mae goes quiet and none of us talk for a while. I’m thinking about Genn.
“And I keep swimming,” I say, finally, to break the spell.
Mae laughs. “Well, you owe me a shitload of dexterity checks, so let’s at least get one.”
I take my die from the table, then turn my head toward the long window at the other end of the living room. The apartment is high enough to provide a view of Brooklyn’s maze of monarch lamps, then on to Manhattan, hot holy cluster of steel and stone, the glitter of descending aircraft above and beyond. Now I can’t see anything. A vantage entirely absorbed by nothingness, the world beyond the glass flooded by some light-devoid sea that threatens to consume us in an inky rush. Genn and Mae don’t seem to have noticed. The game is more important. Maybe Genn is thinking of a town with no name, a place where death isn’t close, while Mae worries about Rich or her goddesshood or both.
I cast my die across the table. The die pings as it glances off the stem of Genn’s wine glass. Then our eyes sharpen and bodies bend inward to learn what the outcome means.