We were on a train for a school trip. Everyone had been up since early in the morning, sent off by our yawning parents, and the air was filled with expectations of adventure.
I was sitting next to another boy that I had not gotten to know well. My only impressions of him up until then had been that he was always chewing things—his pencils, the collars of his shirts—and that he was something of an outcast even among the more nerdy groups at school.
It turned out that he and I liked the same girl in our class. He mentioned her almost immediately, and it seemed as though she’d been only thing on his mind all morning, or all week. I felt a competitive pang, and chose not mention the fact that I was also an admirer of hers. It was, I told myself, obvious in any case that neither of us had any chance at all. She was smart, pretty, and from a wealthy family, and we were awkward geeks who didn’t know what to do about things like this. She was sitting just a few rows ahead of us. I could see her saying something to one of her friends.
My seatmate stammered a few more words about her, but trailed off. I looked out the window.
Several minutes later, he opened his backpack and fished out a handful of paper. He placed one on the tray table in front of him; it was a blank photocopied character sheet for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It was unclear whether they were left over or if he had deliberately packed them as some kind of survival kit for the trip.
At the top of the sheet, he wrote the girl’s name.
His pencil hovered over the character stats. He pointed to the box labeled CHA— “Charisma,” he explained. Slowly, he wrote ‘18’ in the box.
“That’s the highest it goes.”
I remember thinking: what kind of dumb rule is that? That’s the highest it can go?
A similar thought must have occurred to him. Using the saliva-coated nub of his eraser, he rubbed out the ‘18’ and, over the resultant smudge, carefully printed ‘99’.
Both of us looked at that number for a while, silently.
Then, abruptly, he crossed it out, and crumpled up the paper.