By: Daniel Olivieri
Back then, we were disappointed with the lack of monsters under our beds, with the murderers not lying in wait for us, with the severed limbs not buried in our backyard. We liked the idea of demons and arsonists and serial killers because by the summer after eighth grade, we’d run out of things to be afraid of. We weren’t afraid of adults because they always let us off with a warning. We weren’t afraid of our parents because they felt anything we did wrong was really their fault. We weren’t afraid of bullies because we were the bullies.
Daylight meant that we were trespassing our way through the cedar woods or getting kicked out of Seven Eleven. It meant we were catching crawdads in the river or staking claim to our usual corner of the nearby parking lot. In all our summer days, not once did we encounter Satan himself. We never even managed to find a disemboweled corpse. The only blood we saw was from picking at our scabbed knees.
Nighttime meant we stopped going after monsters and tried to get them to come to us. It meant we were drawing pentagrams with highlighters or reading incantations off of pdf files. We spent at least two dozen midnights calling out for Cthulhu, for Asmodeus, for Baba Yaga, for anything that might eat us whole. We knew that safety was the real danger. If we were eaten we wouldn’t have to see summer end, wouldn’t need to move on to high school, wouldn’t need to turn fourteen.
It didn’t work. Summer did end. We did move on to high school. Our dad baked us lemon cake for our fourteenth birthday.
The demons accompanied us into high school. They appeared doodled in the margins of my Biology notes and on the walls of every bathroom stall you sat in. They had horns that jutted out of their heads at odd angles and long tongues that curled in on themselves. Sometimes they carried swords. More often though, we drew them with wings and no hands.
We kept up with our rituals too. We would still call out to the spirit world on Friday nights. Still try new spells. Still set out unlit votive candles and sacrifice kit-kats or army men. But now we’d try to get our summoning wrapped up by eleven-thirty because you didn’t want to be tired for soccer practice in the morning.
While we kept up our interest in monsters, our interest in criminals waned. By November of ninth grade we’d discovered them and had been underwhelmed. Everyone knew that Davis Horwat could get you an ounce of pretty good weed in a ziploc bag for $35. Jared Miller could get you an ounce of mediocre weed for only $25. We bought when we had the money—from Davis when we could, from Jared when we had to.
Around the same time we got into weed, we got into Dungeons and Dragons. First we played at lunch, then after school, then on Friday nights. We ended up with a whole D&D gang: Tristan as a paladin, Spencer as a rogue, Elena as a barbarian, you as a warlock and me as Dungeon Master. Sometimes Davis Horwat would come too, just to watch. It was fun, but it was different from summoning. The character sheets, the D20s, the little plastic figurines, they all put a layer of pretending between us and the monsters.
The next demon, though, that we didn’t have to pretend for. It was small. Small enough to fit inside mom’s head, but big enough that it had its fists clenched around her whole body. Our parents had been worried about this since before we were born, but now they could no longer hide it from us. Mom would miss work and forget to pick me up from Science Olympiad. She’d drink sometimes when dad was away and give us $40 to go buy dinner. She went to a therapist. Then another. Then a psychologist. Then another. And it turned out that this demon was resistant to exorcism, no matter how many PhDs its exorcist had accumulated.
We got jobs. You bagging the town’s groceries, me selling the town its milk and cigarettes. To our surprise, we made good employees. We showed up on time, picked up extra shifts, only dawdled a little when coming back from fifteen minute breaks. When kids tried to steal, we told them to scram and said we were going to call the police, but never did. Never even intended to. We had enough money now that we could always buy from Davis. It was convenient timing. It wasn’t long before Jared was busted and snitched on most of his clients. By that time he’d forgotten about us.
The Dungeons and Dragons petered out just a week or two before the party was going to fight Abraxas, the Unfathomable. None of us wanted to stop playing. Our Friday nights had just filled up. We had significant others or new friends or both. The adventuring party that had cut its way through legions of kobolds and rescued the town of Vanaheim from storm giants ended up being defeated by scheduling conflicts.
In the same way that Dungeons and Dragons fell apart slowly, mom moved out slowly. First she was just in a day program. Her newest psychologist said it was a good place for “people like her,” not specifying what that term meant. She still had no diagnosis. Or, rather she had so many different and conflicting diagnoses that they cancelled each other out. Before long, she was at the hospital almost every week day. And then she was spending some nights there too. And then one night we brought her toothbrush over so she wouldn’t have to borrow one. Then it was her copy of David Copperfield, then her orthopedic pillow. And as we kept bringing things, she kept saying that it’d be an ordeal to pack up all this stuff when she moved back into the house. I nodded and so did you. We didn’t believe it though. Even then I knew she wasn’t going to move back home in the same way I knew there wasn’t going to be another session of Dungeons and Dragons.
And then it was colleges. You applied to in-state colleges to be close to mom. I applied to out of state colleges to be away from mom. We wrote our common app essays. Mine was about working in the grocery store, yours was about the time we got to meet Vin Diesel. I sent out a transcript with mostly A’s and some B’s and you sent one out with mostly B’s and some A’s. When we heard back, we were both happy.
Now that we’re getting ready to go off to college, you’ve started talking about us in middle school.
You say, “Man, we weren’t afraid of anything or anybody back then.”
I say that I disagree.
“What were we afraid of then?” you ask.
And I smile and say, “Us. The people we are right now. It’s the versions of us that have let our knees unscab and have forgotten how to catch crawdads in the creek. It’s the versions of us that pay money for candy bars instead of stealing them.The demonology and the spells and the sacrifices, that was our way of not being afraid. That was supposed to be our way of avoiding this.”
And you shrug and you look away because you don’t want it to be true. You don’t want us to have disappointed our former selves. And then you say something like, “We did get what we wanted, though. We wanted to get eaten alive right? Well, we did. We did get something to eat us. The D&D and our jobs and the weed and everything. That was the middle school versions of us getting chewed up.”
“But then what’s going to happen to the current versions of us once we go to college?”
“They’re gonna get chewed up too, if we’re lucky.”