Valentine comes in on the 4:30 from SFO, landing in Bozeman around seven, just as the sun is setting. He’s not in uniform—he flew comped, on standby—but he nevertheless waits until everyone’s off the plane to exit.
“Force of habit,” he says to the other flight attendant, but she only smiles a little.
“Go on,” she says. “Enjoy your vacation.”
He drags his feet and his roller bag through the small Montana airport. It has six gates and one gift shop, a tiny storefront that sells postcards with bears on them and huckleberry-flavored saltwater taffy. He hasn’t been back in nearly four years, not since his parents moved to Seattle, and he feels nervous, like he’s breaking some kind of rule. He wipes his hands on his pants and takes breath after deep breath of dry, thin air.
Harper’s waiting for him right outside the double doors. Her long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she’s wearing muddy work boots over her jeans. She’s in her second year of vet school now, concentrating on livestock, just like she always said she would.
When he sees her, they hug but let go quickly, and Harper says her truck is idling outside so they’d better get a move on. She sounds the same as ever, voice deep and serious. It always seemed strange, this powerful tone coming from such a small girl. Except when she laughed, which was always light, always infectious. If he doesn’t hear that laugh this trip, Valentine will know it is all his fault. He has promised himself he will mend things but now that he’s solidly on the ground, things seem a lot less certain.
They drive along the flat, two-lane highway that leads towards the center of town, listening to the whir of the engine and the thump of wind as it gusts across the truck. The wide sky has begun to darken, flattening to a rich, royal blue just a few shades lighter than the surrounding mountains. Valentine says, “I had a good flight.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s good.”
He clears his throat. “I’m working on the way back, did I tell you that? I’ve got my uniform in my bag. They’re going to route me through Minneapolis.”
Harper purses her lips. “My parents are probably to ask you a million questions,” she says. “They think you’re going to tell them all of these airline secrets.”
“I will,” Valentine says. This feels better, like it could be the beginning of a new private joke. “I’ll distribute the cyanide capsules with their security clearance.”
Harper doesn’t smile, just slows to a stop and turns onto an unmarked gravel road. Grazing horses look up from behind a wire fence and begin to trot alongside the truck.
“You guys have more than I remember,” Valentine says.
“Some are fosters from the school. They’re giving me credit towards some bullshit Equine Therapy course.”
This is the Harper he remembers, and Valentine feels his heart begin to slow a little. They pass by the three sheds leading up to the house: the lean-to with the horse gear, the shack with the tractor, and finally the one they called theirs, a twelve by fifteen building made out of cinderblocks and covered with a corrugated tin roof. As children, they spent almost every summer day in there, playing an elaborate fantasy board game Harper had invented called Queendom’s Harvest.
Valentine sees Harper watch him look at the shed. He swallows twice. “What’s in it now?” Valentine says.
Harper shrugs. “I haven’t really touched it.”
“You mean everything’s still there?” Valentine is thinking of the painted dice and the clay figurines and the notebooks chronicling years of gameplay, drawings Valentine made of all of the characters, amulets and dried flowers and the white crown Harper wore each time they played.
“Almost everything,” she says.
He swallows again. What she means is: everything but the pieces she sent him, in the padded envelopes that also contained her letters, every week then every other week then finally, as Valentine’s freshman year finished and the last six packages went unanswered, not at all. He wonders if now is a good time to start saying he’s sorry, but it seems too hurried, like he’s trying to get it over with. So he says nothing.
“You can go check it out later if you want,” she says.
“I do,” he says, and for the first time her eyes soften. He peers out the window, watching the sun disappear behind the jagged mountains.
When they get inside the house, a storm descends as Harper’s parents come to meet them at the door.
“Val! Val!” Harper’s mother says, hugging him. “It’s been so long!”
“How are your parents?” Harper’s father asks.
“They’re good,” Valentine says. “They like Seattle. They say they miss you guys.”
“Oh, they should have come!” says Harper’s mother. “We’ve got room for everyone, you should have told them to come with you.”
“Becky,” Harper’s father says. “No one wants their parents at their class reunion.”
Harper’s mother puts an arm around Harper. “You’ll have to tell us all about your job, and Berkeley…”
“It was good,” Valentine says. “I’m really glad I went.” After a childhood spent playing games in Harper’s shed, college had felt like a delayed adolescence. There, he had kissed his first boy, had had his first drink and first fistfight and first broken heart. The days were warm and windy and the nights open with possibility. He knew he should not have stopped answering Harper’s letters but for four glorious years, he couldn’t imagine a world better than reality.
“Harp’s been loving her vet classes, right Harp?” Harper’s father says.
“They’re fine,” Harper says. “I save a lot of money by living at home.”
“She’s going to graduate early,” Harper’s mother says. “Next summer maybe. Will you come to graduation?”
Valentine looks at Harper. Her expression is unreadable.
“Let’s see if I get the credits first,” she says. “I still need a hundred more clinic hours working with sheep.”
“Speaking of which—I’d better get those lamb chops on the grill,” her father says. He starts down the hall. “C’mon, Val,” he says, “I want to show you my new setup. You’ll love it, I’ve got a special feeder just for the charcoal.”
Valentine follows Harper’s father out towards the back porch.
“We’re glad you’re here,” Harper’s father says without turning around. “Harp’s really missed you.”
“I’ve missed her too,” Valentine says.
“She’s doing okay,” he says in a way that makes it clear she’s not.
“Is something wrong?”
Harper’s father opens the sliding glass door. “You’ll have to talk to her,” he says. He runs a hand through his hair. “But don’t—you know—say I said to ask.”
Valentine stares at the dark stained wood beneath his feet. “Of course.” He cannot imagine what type of things would bother Harper now; that part of his mind feels faded, like a painting left too long in the sun.
When he looks up again, Harper’s father has turned away from him, bending deep over the grill as he flicks the button on a lighter. “How do you like your lamb chops, medium rare okay?”
“Oh yeah,” Valentine says, composing his face into a smile. “Whatever’s easiest for you.”
After dinner, Valentine follows Harper outside into the blue evening to check on the horses one last time before bed. The streetlamp at the end of the drive glows like a far-off star; the rest of the light comes from the house and the half moon, which hangs big and orange above the peaks of the Bridgers. When they get out to the gravel, Harper turns on a flashlight and that’s all Valentine can look at, following the white circle as it bounces from step to step.
“Your parents seem like they’re doing well,” Valentine says.
“They don’t like that I’m still living at home. They want me to get my own place next year.”
Valentine looks at her but her face is shadowed in the dark. “What do you think about that?”
“I don’t want to live by myself.”
“You could get roommates.”
Harper shakes her head. Valentine’s stomach feels icy. When the letters finally stopped coming, he told himself she’d found a posse of new companions, drawing them in with the same power she’d used when she’d met him at age twelve. You’re going to be my best friend, and he was. He’s never seen her fail at anything, nor seen her as gloomy as she is acting now.
“So you wanna see TNP?” she says, turning off the road and towards the sheds.
“What about the horses?”
He follows her through the grass and into the shed, which is unlocked. She flicks on the light switch they begged her father to install for them and the bulb dangling from the ceiling snaps on, casting a yellow light over the dusty floor, the two folding chairs, and the wooden trunk. Valentine goes over to the trunk and runs his hand along the top. They called the game Queendom’s Harvest but that was a secret they didn’t write anywhere: across the top of the trunk Valentine had painted the name of their world, The New Plane, along with a silhouette of the two of them, swords raised in front of a bright yellow moon. He feels a hitch in his chest like he usually does when he sees something he has drawn, a mixture of pride and regret.
“Open it if you want,” she says.
He flips the latches and pries up the top. The interior smells a little musty but everything is there. He picks up the marbled notebook and flips to the last log. August 11, the day before he left for California, now almost five years ago. He begins to read:
“Knight Valentine removed the last traces of malarkey from the outer Queendom, taking the magical sphere to the high library for safekeeping. He will leave tomorrow to scour the unincorporated lands for further pockets of the plague. During his absence, Queen Harper will attempt to contact the four witches of the ancient code—”
Harper breaks in: “To determine who or what brought such sickness over the land. They will continue their correspondence each week until it is possible for them to meet again.”
Valentine feels his throat get tight. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have stopped writing to you.”
Harper shrugs. “You grew out of it. I understand.”
“Still,” Valentine says. “It was just—busy. I met a lot of new people.”
“Of course,” Harper says.
Valentine stands up. “If it makes you feel any better, now they’ve all ghosted on me.”
“Can’t you make new friends at your job?”
Valentine shakes his head. “There aren’t many people my own age, and the ones I do meet are, I dunno, dumb. You don’t have to go to college to be a flight attendant.”
“So why do you do it?”
He is ready with a list of reasons polished like rocks in a tumbler. But it feels weird to lie in here. “I fucked up,” he says. “Illustration seemed like too much work so I dropped it. I majored in communications instead.”
“And pointing out exit rows is the only thing you can do with a major in communications?”
“With a 2.1, yes.”
He’s glad that Harper doesn’t say things are going to be okay or try to come up with a solution. “Wow, you did fuck up,” she says. Then she turns and pushes through the door back outside.
He thinks about saying he’s sorry again but doesn’t want to overdo it, so he heads out of the shed into the blackness, closing his eyes tight so they’ll adjust faster to the night.
The next morning, he hasn’t gotten any texts or messages so he sends some out. He stares at his phone for a moment, waiting to see if anyone responds right away, but it’s probably too early. No one’s going to be up at eight in the morning on a Saturday.
Upstairs, Harper is eating cereal with their father. She’s wearing the same sweater she wore the night before. In the light, it looks shiny and cheap, mall fabric worn by Midwestern tourists on connecting flights to Disneyland.
“I have to go,” she says as Valentine enters.
“Go where?” Valentine says.
“One of our ewes at school may have given birth last night. I need to go check on her.”
“It’s not.” Harper sounds just as irritated as she did last night, which is disappointing: Valentine had thought maybe they could start anew today, enjoy the reunion later.
“Well, if you want to come, I’m leaving now,” she says to him, and quickly begins walking towards the door.
Once outside, he stands by the truck, waiting for her to let him in. “Thanks,” he says. “I feel like we’re going to school.” He remembers waiting outside her house in the winters, choking cold air until she came running out, huddling in the cab of the truck as the engine chug-chugged in the cold. Today, although the morning is chilly for May, the truck starts in one go.
“So you have a boyfriend?” Harper says as they crunch down the driveway.
Valentine swallows. “No,” he says. “Not right now.” When she doesn’t say anything else, he goes on. “I mostly just use Grindr.”
“You’ve never heard of Grindr?” He pulls out his phone. “You just log on and it tells you if there are any guys nearby. If you’re downtown, it’s crazy, you’ll turn it on and it’ll be like, there’s someone 40 feet away.”
“And then you go on a date with them?”
“Not really a date, but you can meet up—you know.”
“Oh,” she says. “I get it.”
He picks at his fingers, feeling awkward. “So how about you?” he says. “You go on a lot of dates?”
“No,” she says. “It’s hard—I live with my parents, I’m always busy with class, and since I don’t drink—”
“It seems stupid,” she says. “Why would I want to put something in my body that makes me act like an idiot?”
This was the way they felt in high school, of course. They were too smart to experiment with alcohol or drugs, their lives were exciting enough without dumbing them down through a drunken haze. It was how they had justified not being invited to any of the parties where there was booze. But it’s hard to believe that Harper has stuck to this dogma for so long after. He shifts in his seat.
“It’s not bad,” he says, then feels like he needs to explain. “My best—my friend Katie—was on the Mock Trial team, they had this house where they’d play this game called Gonzo where you’d all stand around a table with a cup and a ping-pong ball … It’s hard to explain how it works, but it’s a lot of fun.”
“Is Katie one of the people who ghosted you?”
“She works a lot.”
Harper’s tone is very even. “Huh,” she says. “Huh.”
They drive in silence until she parks at the edge of a frosty pasture. Clusters of sheep chew straight ahead, barely turning as they walk past. Valentine feels the cuffs of his jeans soaking with dew.
“There she is,” Harper says. “That one with the orange tag. Looks like she still hasn’t—Oh.” Valentine sees it as Harper points: the red streak down the ewe’s hindquarters, the little gray lump in the grass.
As they approach, he sees that the dead lamb is curled into a ball like a roped calf, its hooves still clear and soft-looking, although now flies have begun to cluster around its eyes and mouth.
“What happened?” Valentine asks.
Harper kneels down, touching the lamb’s ear with her bare hands. “It’s probably toxo,” she says softly. “Toxoplasmosis. It’s this disease they get from cats.”
“I’m sorry,” Valentine says. “That’s sad.”
Harper runs her hand through the lamb’s sticky coat. The ewe looks at her, sniffing. She pushes herself up and looks around. “Can you help me carry it?”
Valentine steps back. He’s got on a new oxford, darkwash jeans. His shoes are already muddy. “These are the clothes I’m wearing to the reunion,” he lies.
She kneels down again, works her arms under the carcass. The lamb’s lips open and a line of ants emerges from between its teeth. “I’m going to take him inside,” Harper says, nodding towards the barn. “You don’t have to come.”
“Okay.” Valentine puts his hands in his pockets. He watches her carry the lamb across the pasture then turns back to the ewe. She stands still, not chewing, eyes fixed on the big red barn. Valentine’s throat feels cold and tight.
“It’ll be okay,” he murmurs in the direction of the ewe. “You’ll be okay.” He clears his throat and pulls out his phone. Still no replies. By now, the silence feels personal. Everyone’s awake by now, and god knows the first thing they’ve done so far is check their messages. He feels frustration rise in his throat at the thought of being deliberately ignored.
When Harper comes back, she brushes off her hands and walks quickly towards the truck. There is a big smear of brown down the front of her sweater. Good riddance, Valentine thinks, then feels embarrassed for thinking that.
Harper stops the truck well before they reach the house, at the spigot attached to the lean-to where the horses go when it’s cold.
“Are you okay?” he says, because she’s splashing water everywhere, the ground is getting muddy around the concrete and she’s rubbing her hands together hard like the blood is made of acid.
“I don’t need your help,” she says.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he says. “If anyone could have saved it, it would’ve been you.”
Harper doesn’t turn around. “You don’t know me at all.”
“Jesus,” Valentine says. “Can’t you see that I’m trying?”
Harper rips off her sweater and balls it up under the stream of water. She’s wearing a thin tank top underneath, and Valentine can see her spine through it as she bends over. Has she always been this skinny?
“I’m not a consolation prize,” Harper says. “You can’t just ignore me for years then come crawling back when your life sucks again.”
“My life doesn’t suck.”
“Oh, so you like passing out peanuts on planes?”
He stops. “If that’s how you feel, then why did you invite me?”
She turns off the spigot. “I didn’t think you’d say yes.”
He watches her wring the water out of her sweater and set it on the split rail fence to dry. Water darkens the pale wood. He feels desperate to think of something that will snap her out of her funk, which unsettles him more the more he sees it. So he nods towards the shed.
“Look,” he says, “Come with me.” He starts off across the driveway, scared for a moment that she’s not following him, but too embarrassed to look back to check. As he reaches the door of the shed, he finally hears the crunch of her footsteps and relaxes. He puts his hand against the rough shed door, waiting for a moment before he pushes it open.
In the daytime, light streams in through the gaps in the walls, illuminating a row of beams on the concrete floor. He crosses over quickly and opens the chest.
“You can keep the log,” he says, handing her the notebook. “I’ll set the board.” He unfolds the nine sheets of laminated paper, spreading them out on a part of the floor where the sun shines brightest. He digs deeper into the collection of their things, pulling out the dice and the stones and the dozen clay figurines painted like knights and goblins. “You’re in the castle, I assume. I’ll put everyone there, to start. Except me, I’m on the greatroad, heading West.” He fishes out the wooden crown and hands it to her. “Do you want to wear this?”
Harper takes the circlet but does not put it on. Instead, she sinks to the floor. “You’re serious about this?”
She straightens her figurine on the paper but doesn’t say anything.
He clears his throat, worried she’ll remain silent. He doesn’t know how to start this by himself. But finally she raises her head.
“I had an idea about the witches.” She runs her hand along the rough wooden edges of the circlet. “I think, when I searched for them, I could find only three. The last one had died, and that’s where the sickness came from. It had been bound within her body.”
Valentine feels a little chill of excitement. Harper always thought of the best plot twists, ones that made him keep thinking about the game even when he was alone.
“So we resurrect her?” he says. “Or we kill the person who killed her?”
“Impossible. She has taken her own life.”
Valentine watches as Harper twirls her little figurine on the floor, spinning it by its pointy head. “She was weary,” she says, “Of immortality. The other witches I spoke with, they are having similar thoughts.”
“We have to stop them,” Valentine says. “The last plague was madness. We can’t handle it again, not threefold.”
“It would envelop the land,” Harper agrees. She looks at the dice and Valentine hands them to her. “Let me search for a spell that will bring the remaining witches to us. Once they’re inside the castle, we can attempt a curse that will prevent them from harm.”
“Fuckin’ do it,” Valentine says, grinning. She sets down the book so she can roll the dice on its cover.
Just then, his phone rings. It echoes loud in the empty space, and he freezes for a second. “Sorry,” he says. “Sorry, I had no idea the ringer was on.” He pulls it out and sees Katie’s face appear on the screen. He swallows. She hasn’t called him in months.
“Do you want to take that?” Harper says.
“It’s okay.” Harper sets down the game pieces and crown. “I have to move the truck.”
“No,” Valentine says, “Wait, I want to keep playing.”
But Harper is already walking out. Valentine watches the door slam shut, and, anxious, answers the phone.
“Hey,” Katie says. Her voice sounds bright and happy, and hearing it makes him feel drunk with relief. He holds the phone tight to his ear. “How are you doing?”
“Good, good.” Valentine nudges one of the pieces of the board so it lines up better with the others. “I’m in Bozeman for the weekend.”
“I know,” Katie says. “You said so in your text.”
“So what’s up?”
“I went out with some coworkers last night and I feel like shit. I seriously don’t think I can drink as much as I used to. Is this what getting old feels like?”
“You tell me,” Valentine says. “I’m still 22.”
Katie laughs. “I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to the party. You know Eli showed up with Claire?”
“I saw something about it on Snapchat. She was wearing, like—”
“Like an actual romper, right? I literally thought I was hallucinating.”
Valentine stands up. It’s cold in the shed but he doesn’t want to leave. He doesn’t want Harper to overhear him gossiping about parties, it’ll just reinforce her assumption that he’s petty and shallow. But he doesn’t want to let Katie go either, it’s been so long since they’ve talked.
“This reunion is going to start soon,” he says. “I’m going to have to go get ready.”
“You going to She’s All That everybody?”
“What?” Valentine laughs. “No, I just want to look nice.”
“Let me know what everyone says. You don’t often get a chance to say fuck you, haters to so many people at once.”
Valentine says he will and hangs up, walking quickly out into the bright sun. Harper is nowhere in sight so he follows the road up to the house.. Why, out of all the months of silence, did Katie have to call now? He feels angry at himself for interrupting the moment with Harper; it’s like he’s stuck in a cycle where he keeps pushing her aside and then regretting it, and even though this betrayal is on a much smaller scale, he still feels guilty.
Harper’s parents say she has gone back to sleep so he tries to do the same, but even though he turns off all the lights in the basement, he can’t trick his body into thinking it’s night. Lying in bed, he pulls up Katie’s Instagram feed. Her latest photo shows her in the middle of a group of women, grinning in front of a neon sign that says Karaoke. They all look a little tired and drunk but happy, their arms draw each other closer towards their bodies. Valentine scrolls through his own feed. His photos are mostly of clouds: pink and yellow in the morning, blue and gray as day fades into night. He thinks about what Katie said. He wishes he had haters he could say fuck you to. But no one was ever really mean to him in high school. Even though he was gay, even though he was scrawny, even though he had bad acne and weird clothes and spent his lunches drawing horse-headed dragons in the library, people mostly ignored him. Harper was a powerful persuader, and when she told the rest of the world not to mess with them, the rest of the world listened.
He leans his head against the windowsill, remembering the excitement that spread through his stomach when Harper had started telling today’s story. He hasn’t felt that excited about something in a long time. He hopes it wasn’t his last chance.
Harper knocks on his door at seven. She’s wearing a faded black dress he recognizes and her hair is pulled back in a ponytail.
“We have to go now,” she says. “Or mom and dad will want to take pictures of us.”
They walk out to the car in silence. Harper drives quickly down the quiet streets and into the parking lot of the high school, both hands on the wheel. When they get inside, a girl gives them programs and two drink tickets each. Harper puts hers in her small pleather purse and swings it over her shoulder, but Valentine keeps his out.
Inside, two dozen circular tables have been spread out along the walls, covered in yellow and green paper tablecloths. The chairs around them face a small platform, where a bar has been set up.
“I’m going to get a drink,” Valentine says. Harper says nothing.
Around him, the gym is beginning to fill up with people but Valentine barely recognizes anyone.
“Two whiskey cokes,” he says to the bartender, sipping them slowly as he walks. He smiles at people and as they nod back he tries to remember their names. Hillary, Sarah, Scott. He’s Facebook friends with some of them, but none of them say hi. She’s All That indeed.
He sees Harper at a table off to the side and sits down. “I got you a drink,” he says. “You should try it, at least once.”
She puts the cup to her lips. It looks like she’s sniffing for poison.
“It’s good,” he says. “Whiskey and coke.”
He half expects her to put it down but she tips the liquid quickly back into her mouth and swallows without grimacing. “You’re right,” she says. “It’s not bad.”
Valentine realizes he’s been holding his breath. “Give me your drink tickets, I’ll go get us two more.” He nods at a screen that has been hung from the bleachers. “Before the slideshow starts.”
“Okay,” she says, pushing her purse towards him.
When Valentine gets back, Harper has finished her drink and the screen is swiping between photos of a prom neither of them attended.
“Cheer if you peaked in high school,” Harper says under her breath, after a table to their right bursts into applause.
Valentine snorts. “You’re going to get us kicked out.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
The prom photos fade out and “Graduate” by Third Eye Blind begins to play. A succession of shots appears from their own graduation. The valedictorian speaking to the assembled crowd, a group of kids from the swim team wearing goggles on the lawn.
“I honestly still don’t think some of these guys actually passed 12th grade.” Harper stacks her full cup into her empty one and laughs. Several people turn.
“Sorry,” she mouths, “Sorry.”
Valentine knows people are getting mad, they can tell Harper is making fun of them, and a few scowl in their direction. But he’s too elated to feel embarrassed. Harper looks happy again, smiling wide as she points to a photo of Mr. Phillips, the popular young AP Bio teacher who wore bowties and brightly-colored sneakers.
“I could never figure out,” she says, “If he wanted to be a student or just sleep with one.”
The rest of the photos flip through quickly, shot after shot of smiling faces in green caps and yellow gowns. It’s like a lightning round for Harper, who stage whispers “Idiot, creep, dumb slut, dumb slut again,” as she finishes her second drink. Her cheeks are flushed, and Valentine is trying to remember how many drinks got him drunk the first time he drank when she points to the screen. “Oh.”
It’s a photo of the two of them, one Valentine does not remember posing for. In it, he and Harper hang off the flagpole like in Singing in the Rain, laughing, caps askew. They look wildly happy. Valentine looks at Harper, but she just cups her hands around her mouth.
“Fuckin’ nerds,” she says loudly.
When the last picture dims, Harper takes his hand and they run out of the gymnasium and collapse giggling in the bright-lit hall. It’s empty and smells, overwhelmingly, like school. Comet and pizza grease, tinged with glue and mold and layers of cheap perfume.
Harper squeezes Valentine’s hand as they walk out into the parking lot. “Am I drunk?”
“How do you feel?”
Harper twirls in a circle. “Amazing.”
“I’d better drive, then.”
When she gives him the keys, she closes them in his hand. “Thank you,” she says. “This was fun.”
“Me too. I mean—me too.”
He gets in the truck and pushes the seat back so he can sit comfortably. It’s been a while since he’s driven, but after a minute or two it stops feeling unnatural. He turns out of the lot and onto Main, where light from the streetlamps illuminates the wide, empty sidewalks.
“Not a lot of people out,” he says.
Harper doesn’t answer, she’s looking out the window. “You really think I could have saved him?” she says. “The sheep, I mean.”
“Harper,” Valentine says. “You’re the best person I know.”
Harper runs her finger along the dusty dash. “You must not know a lot of good people.”
He slows down as he turns into the driveway. The car thumps from side to side on the gravel but Harper stays perfectly upright, rolling on the bumps like a buoy on a choppy sea. Her face is hard and stiff and fixed in the direction of home.
“Here,” Valentine says, “I have an idea.” He feels like he is casting about wildly, trying to recapture how they felt laughing inside the school. So he pulls up next to the shed and turns to Harper. “Want to?”
Harper shrugs and mumbles something he doesn’t catch, but when he gets out of the truck and walks over to the shed, she follows him, not fast but not slow either. Inside, she leans against the wall while he rights the pieces that have fallen over. He hands her the dice but she does not sit down.
“I want to know what happens to the witches,” Valentine says. “Don’t you?”
Harper lowers herself to the floor, kneeling beside the board. “Nothing,” she says. “Nothing happened and they lived happily ever after. Isn’t that what you want?”
“No,” Valentine says. “I want to play.”
She pauses a long time, looking at him, as if she’s trying to see if he’s telling the truth. Valentine nods, again and again. “Please,” he says. “I’m serious.”
Harper drops the dice and they crack loudly against the cement.
“Come on,” Valentine says, “I’m ready.” He knocks over one of the blocks experimentally, it thunks on the floor. He sets it back on its edge.
“Well, I guess I’ll try to figure out how to summon the witches first.” She pushes her clay figurine down the board. “I’ll use one move to get to the library, one to search the spell, and one to find it.”
“What will it require?”
“Nothing much. Some potions I had lying around anyway.” She twirls her ponytail between her fingers. “I’ll use my last three moves to make it.”
“Okay…” Valentine takes the dice but rolls cat eyes. “Shit.”
Harper shakes her head. “You were always terrible at rolling.”
“Some stuff never changes, I guess.”
She doesn’t answer.
“I guess this gets me two more leagues up the greatroad,” he says. “Your turn.”
Harper takes the dice but looks at them a while before she rolls. “I wish we had more to drink.”
“I’m glad you liked it. I was worried you wouldn’t.”
Harper rubs the dice between her hands so they click. “I do.”
“Come on,” Valentine says. “It’s your turn.”
She drops the dice and one of them rolls against Valentine’s shoe. He hands it to her. “The witches come,” she says. “The three that are left anyway.”
“Stall them,” Valentine says. “I’m coming, I’ll help you with the spell.” He rolls again, two threes. “Dammit.”
“I start to speak to the witches,” Harper says. Her voice sounds smoother as she relaxes into the story and Valentine too feels himself beginning to loosen. “They are dressed in black rags and their faces sag in pain. They each have a knife made from the tooth of a black lion. They tell me their sister took her own life by plunging the knife into her eye. They say they’re ready to do the same.”
Valentine takes the dice from her hands. “Keep stalling them,” he says. “Okay, an eight—I’m almost there.”
Harper begins again without rolling. “I ask them what would make them want to do such a thing. Then the oldest speaks. We are tired, she says. We have seen many terrible things and it weighs on us. There has been no act of great heroism in a long, long time.”
“I’ll give you an act of heroism,” Valentine says. “Just keep them talking. I’m there in five.”
He rolls and the dice flash bright. A six and a four. “Yes!” he says, sliding his figurine across the board. “I use five moves to get into the castle.”
“Knight Valentine.” Harper nods. “It’s been too long.”
The wind buffs against the tin roof. It sounds a little like thunder. “I’m sorry,” Valentine says, hoping this time she will finally believe it. “I’m sorry and I’m ready to help.”
Harper nods again. “Do what you must.”
He tears into the trunk and pulls out the spells notebook, leafing through the pencil smudged pages until he sees one that says “binding.” He feels his heart pounding faster, a mixture of excitement and anticipation he hasn’t felt in a long time.
“Four moves,” he says, showing her. “And I’ve got five left.”
“As you cast the spell, the witches crumple. Their cloaks wrap around them, pulling each into a tight ball, knees to chest, hands clasped together, daggers locked in their sheaths.”
“It’s done.” Valentine grins.
Harper stares off into middle space. “You have one move left.”
He looks at her. Her mouth is drawn. “I carry them each to the royal guest houses. They are not here as prisoners, but friends.”
“An act of true heroism,” she says.
Valentine feels chills run up his arms. “It’s what they needed all along.”
“Needed, I don’t know—wanted, for sure.” Harper pushes herself up from the ground, unsteady at first. She brushes the dirt off her knees.
“Harper?” Valentine says. “I have an idea. Remember when we used to think we’d write all our adventures down in a book someday? Why don’t I take this with me when I go back, and type it up—and you can do the same for the older ones. And then the next time I’m in town, we’ll pick the scenes that we want me to draw—”
“You’re coming back?” Harper has a strange look on her face.
“If you’ll let me.”
“Do whatever you want.” Harper slides the laminated pieces of the board together and tips it all into the trunk. Then she walks outside.
“Wait,” Valentine says. “Where are you going?”
Harper walks faster towards the house. Even without flashlights, the gravel glows white under the starlit sky. It’s gotten colder since the sun went down, and their breaths mist in front of them like impatient ghosts.
“Harper,” Valentine says. “Wait.”
Harper turns right before they reach the porch. When she looks up at him, her whole face sags, like she hasn’t slept in days.
“What’s wrong?” Valentine says.
Harper shakes her head. “I used to dream about this,” she says. “But it’s not the same, is it?”
Valentine swallows. “I had a good time.”
“I didn’t.” Harper bites her lip. “But that’s fine, right? Everyone grows up and grows out of stuff.”
Valentine doesn’t know what to say. “Tomorrow,” he says. “We’ll try again tomorrow before I have to leave. I’ve got some ideas already, I’ll set it up for you.”
“You really felt it?” she says. “Like, the way it used to feel?”
“Yes,” Valentine says, although as soon as he says it, his breath hitches. Suddenly he’s not sure. He’s not used to being put on the spot like this; he finds himself doubting his memory. Maybe he was just going through the motions. He looks to Harper, but she just shrugs.
“Good for you, then.”
Valentine’s throat is tight. “Harper,” he says. “Your parents are worried about you. What are you going to do when I leave?”
Harper blinks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, like—don’t hurt yourself or anything.”
Harper tilts back her head and laughs. “Oh god,” she says. “That’s so dramatic.” She claps Valentine on the shoulder. “You can tell them they don’t need to worry,” she says. “I wouldn’t do that now. Do you believe me?”
Valentine finds himself nodding. “I just thought maybe—the witches… ‘weary of immortality…’”
“Come on,” she says. “It was only a game.” Then she pushes past him and walks into the dark foyer. He watches her go, swallowing the tightness further down his throat.
Valentine takes the stairs slow into the basement, then collapses next to his suitcase on the bed, scrolling through his phone. He doesn’t want to think about anything that’s happened to him. Back home, everyone’s nights are just beginning. He sees Katie smiling behind a martini glass that is smoking like a potion, arm slung around a guy he doesn’t know. This just pisses him off so he turns on Grindr, waiting for a moment for it to find his location. When it does he laughs out loud. The closest person to him is a guy named the_snooz with a penis as his avatar. He is 141 miles away.
He scoots back so he’s sitting up against the pillows and opens the notebook he’s been carrying since he followed Harper out of the shed. It’s one of maybe sixteen, only covers the quests they went on senior year and the summer before. He flips through without reading, watching the blocks of text change between Harper’s messy script and his own tiny letters. They alternate evenly, like patchwork, until he gets to the beginning of the notebook and finds a drawing that he doesn’t remember sketching. It’s of a hand in a steel gauntlet, sheets of metal overlapping like scales on a fish. The fingers reach towards the edge of the page, grasping for something—a sword, probably—and Valentine is surprised at how realistic it looks. There is motion and light and shading, things he doesn’t remember learning until college. He turns over the page to see if he can tell if he traced it, but the back of the paper is smooth. He feels proud. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen when he drew this. Not a prodigy but not an idiot either. Carefully, he tears that page out of the book, folds it twice, and tucks it into the outer pocket of his roller bag. There are some things still possible to recapture, even if they aren’t the ones that matter most.
He turns off the lights and lies down, looking out the basement window to the corrugated metal of the window well. He can see a little grass at the very top and it looks brighter than it should be, illuminated by something stronger than the moon and spattering of stars. The light in Harper’s room must be on, two floors above him.
He watches the grass to see when the light will go off, and when after thirty minutes it does not, he thinks about climbing the stairs and knocking on her door. But he doesn’t know what more he can say. So he keeps waiting, and staring, and finally, sometime before he sees the light go off, he is asleep.