Bean slips carefully from beneath his tangled and twisted covers and crawls to the end of his bed, head ducked low as his feet search for the first rung of the ladder in the dark. He hasn’t slept well since his birthday, the space between his mattress and the ceiling seemed to have shrunk, and in his restless hours he feels increasingly confined. In the mornings, if he has managed to get some sleep, more often than not he forgets to be careful and smacks his head off of the white plaster, what a way to start your day! But most nights, when no matter how much he tosses and turns he can’t get comfortable, when he’s spent hours staring up at the blankness, it’s not quite so difficult to remember. His feet hit the ground and he quietly crosses his bedroom into the empty space that used to be the nursery. The room he’s just entered feels blank and loaded with potential; the room he’s just left feels cramped and full of ghosts.
Over the course of the next hour and a half he paces back and forth across the wooden slats, his bare feet sticking slightly to the still shiny varnish as he gets lost in thought. He imagines the room redecorated to his tastes, a room that’s all his in a house that feels like a prison. He imagines scenes almost vivid and whimsical enough to be dreams, he imagines what his life would have been like if everything was different. If he’d never let Jack be kidnapped, if his mother loved him, if his parent’s divorced and he could go live with dad somewhere else. He imagines bursting from the room and running down the stairs, out the front door, and through the gate, never to return. With a yawn, he imagines a night he can sleep through and as the sun begins to lighten the horizon he climbs back up the ladder and tries to get a little bit of rest before his alarm goes off.A dream has barely started by the time the clock begins to blare, startling Bean and causing him to sit upright… Almost. One of these days he’ll either crack the ceiling or his skull, or perhaps both? Rubbing at the now-tender skin he hops down, showers, pulls on his clothes and tramples down the stairs as loud as an elephant. He ignores Berjes call for breakfast despite how tempting the pancakes smell, and leaves the house in a rush. The door slams behind him, it’s not on purpose – not really – but he doesn’t make any attempt to close it quietly either. Not 20 minutes after his alarm goes off Bean is outside the walls surrounding his house, hidden from view and nose deep in a book. He doesn’t know that this morning, as with every morning, Lee had been waiting to greet her son in the kitchen, hoping to share breakfast with her family. This morning, as with every morning, the slamming door gets her anger up and she gives up on her attempts for a cordial morning to go give her eldest son an earful about manners (and proper eating habits). This morning, as with every morning, Berjes heads her off before she can open the front door and keeps the peace. This morning, as with every morning, Berjes bears the brunt of his wife’s emotions, but this morning, unlike every other morning, he’s fed up with being a punching bag.
“He could show us some respect, you know! Come down for breakfast and say good morning. He’ll break the door one of these days!” Heat fills Lee’s voice, fire in her eyes. Bean hasn’t spoken to her since she emptied the nursery months ago, not a word since screeching that he hated her. She’s stopped being sad, she’s tried putting forth the effort (as far as she’s concerned) but she’s become agitated. “And to just stand out there?! Anything could happen to him and he just doesn’t care.”
“Of course he cares!” Berjes fires back, tired of playing middle man to his son (who won’t speak of his mother) and to his wife (who won’t consider anyone’s feelings but her own) “But he’s a young man now and is it any surprise he wants a bit of freedom?”
“He’s just a kid and Sunset Valley isn’t safe.”
“You and I both know that crime is down, practically non-existent, and Bean knows it too!”
And so the argument goes, with Lee insisting that she knows best and Berjes persisting in his belief that Lee needs to let go a bit. Around and around until they both throw their hands up and go their separate ways, neither stopping to consider that they haven’t spoken that many words to each other, all at once, in over a year.
Lee and Berjes retreat from their argument to their own personal sanctuaries. Lee to the studio in the backyard and Berjes to the next room, where he plops down in front of the TV and switches on the first cooking show he finds. While Lee has the luxury of being able to spend all of her time doing whatever diverts her attention from her problems, Berjes is in charge of cooking and cleaning and still attending a stressful, unfulfilling job. Is it any surprise that he’d rather zone out to reruns of shows before his shift start instead of working to mend the wounds in his family? While her husband decompresses, Lee settles into the well-worn couch in her studio, a book in hand and the anxiety of their confrontation already fading. It’s a story Bean was reading, she’d snagged it from the bookshelf once he’d finished with it in hopes that they could discuss it, that it would be an opening to conversation, but the truth betold, she just couldn’t get into a story about Sims trapped on other planets, even if it was written by her grandfather. She doesn’t realize that her relationship with her son is too fractured to be repaired by talking about literature, it’s too little, too late.
Despite being older and wiser, Bean is still under strict instructions to be home immediately after school each day. No enrolling in afters chool activities, no leeway for detention (though he’s a good kid who stays out of trouble), no going to friends, his friends must come to him. And they do. Ever supportive of their buddy, Eric, Jeremy, and Maebe continue to spend afternoons and weekends over at the Clarke compound either finishing up homework or delving into the depths of the Plumbobs & Pixies universe. Their campaign is unchanged, with Bean as DM to his motley crew of Orc Warrior, Werellama, and Elvin Battle-mage princess.
“The rusty hinges scream as you push open the wrought iron gate and enter the witch’s fortress”
“I approach the door and use search to check for traps… Plus modifier… 18”
“You don’t see anything, but the door swings open revealing a dark and dusty entrance”
“I run inside, axe ready.”
“I cast Light Ball and throw it in front of the Orc to light the room… Oh! 25!”
“Critical success! Your light is so bright it almost blinds the Orc and he stumbles further into the room, knocking over an old coat stand”
“And nothing, the light shows a stair case going up and three closed doors.”
“Which door should we try?”
“Is there a difference between the doors?”
“Nope, all are wooden with iron bands.”
“I swing my battle axe at the door to open it.”
“You know there are handles, right?”
“I swing my battle axe. 26!”
“Another success? You guys are rolling too well tonight! The door looks more solid than it is and flies off it’s hinges into the room. There are squishing sounds, and screams from within.”
“I direct the Light Ball to the room.”
“The door is lying on the ground, but not flat. Little green arms and legs twitch from beneath it. Seven goblins are looking at the doorway in terror but they still have their weapons drawn. Attack! One of them screams and everyone rolls for initiative.”
High school has changed the group. Shy Jeremy is beginning to come out of his shell, he’s funnier than anyone knew and put-together Eric is even more fastidious. Maebe has become something of a daredevil, and if anyone is in detention it’s her. But when all four are in the basement it’s like they’re still 8 years old except that their old costumes no longer fit. It was no surprise to anyone when all three boys turned their attention to Maebe, trying to flirt and ask her out without actually knowing how. What was surprising was when she only had eyes for Eric. There were no hard feelings among the group, only now Eric has less time to help tutor Bean.As a tutor, Berjes leaves much to be desired. He can’t remember his history, the only math he knows are temperature and measurement conversions, the term “Oxford Comma” bewilders him, and he’s just as confused as to why half the work is assigned as Bean is. During their evenings, Bean spends more time explaining concepts than he does learning how to apply them and as a result his grades are dropping. In elementary school his teachers had taken it easy on him due to his… circumstances (that’s how they always phrased it) but now he’s getting no such consideration. He’s still passing, and that’s all that matters to him and his father right now. With that common understanding in place, Berjes and his son’s relationship continues to flourish.It breaks Berjes’ heart to say “no” to his son and he has to say it too often for comfort. “No,” Bean cannot go out with his friends this weekend. “No,” he can’t get a tablet computer. “No,” he can’t even get a smartphone until the contract on his current cell phone is up. “No,” and this was one of the hardest, they can’t convert the old nursery into Bean’s new bedroom. There just isn’t enough money to get a new bed and dresser, never mind to paint or wall paper the walls that Lee stripped. He wants so badly to let his son be free and let him run around in the sun with his friends, but he has to keep the peace and Lee would absolutely flip out if and when she realized that her boy wasn’t exactly where she expected him to be. More often than not, that somewhere is in the little cave that was created when their family was whole and healthy. All of Bean’s books are down there, cramming the shelves full of P&P manuals, sci-fi novels, and comic books. Even the costume chest has been repurposed to keep books off of the floor. This is his safe place, just like Berjes has the kitchen and Lee has the studio, but safe isn’t happy and Bean is itching to get out.Any errands that are run are usually done by Berjes on his way home from work but after many mornings and evenings of debating and a final compromise, Berjes finds a way to take some of the burden off of his shoulders and a way to get Bean out of the house. It’s a right of passage for every young person and none should be left out: Berjes is teaching Bean to drive. The old truck is rust held together with paint, it rattles and squeaks and doesn’t always start the first time the key is turned but it eventually goes and then stops reliably and that’s all that’s really needed, right? If Bean was more like his excitable friend Maebe, he would have squealed and jumped with joy when Berjes wordlessly tossed they keys in his direction, grinning the whole time, instead he ran down the stairs and was out the door and in the truck in about two seconds flat.Assuming that her acquiescence to expand the constraints of Bean’s cage is enough to show a marked improvement in their relationship, Lee begins to essentially follow her son around the house. She hopes that just by being in his presence will remind him that he should talk to his mother, but he ignores her. He doesn’t seem to see her, he doesn’t respond to the things she says with so much as a blink of the eye. The only acknowledgement she ever gets is when he flinches away from her should she reach out to touch him.
He pretends that he’s let go of his anger towards her, that he’s totally ambivalent, but he’s perpetually aware of where she is in regards to him. He may seem focused on the cosmos and like he’s dreaming of another life, but he’s hearing every click of the pieces on the chessboard and has to force himself not to scowl at her every time she clears her throat. Before long Lee has to admit some sort of defeat. She may be a bit crazy but she’s not wholly delusional, sharing space isn’t the same thing as sharing a life and she can’t keep stalking the halls of her home waiting for Bean.