Authors: Rona Jaffe
Mazes and Monsters
In the spring of 1980 a bright, gifted student at Grant University in Pequod, Pennsylvania, mysteriously disappeared. Vanishing students were not unheard of, particularly during the stressful period before final exam time, but it soon became apparent that this case was different. When the police were finally called in, it was revealed that the missing student was one of a group at Grant who were involved in a fantasy role-playing game called Mazes and Monsters.
Played with nothing more than a vivid imagination, dice, pencils, graph paper, and an instruction manual, Mazes and Monsters is a war game with a medieval background, in which each player creates a character who may be a fearless Fighter, a treasure-hunting Sprite, a magic-using Holy Man, or a wily Charlatan. The point of the game is to amass a fortune and keep from getting killed. The characters are plunged into an adventure in a series of mazes, tunnels, and secret rooms run by another player, the Maze Controller, a sort of referee. The mazes are filled with frightful and violent dangers—monsters who can kill, maim, paralyze, and enchant the players. But if the players can kill, maim, trick, or stop their assailants they can take the fabulous treasure that awaits hidden in the maze.
What made the student’s disappearance so ominous was that the police discovered this particular group of players had begun to act out their fantasies in a real environment, taking the game to the underground caverns near the university campus.
The caverns had been banned by the university as off limits in 1947, when two students, amateur spelunkers, were lost there and died. Their bones were found three years later. Now, in 1980, the police cautiously began inspecting the dangerous caverns again, but stated they were quite sure that no one who was lost in there could still be alive.
None of the other students would come forward to say they were part of the group that had played the game with the missing student. As the tension-filled days wore on, the Mazes and Monsters case became both a cause célèbre and an embarrassment around Grant University. Reporters came to interview students and professors, trying to understand what was now revealed as an obsession with a game—an obsession that had turned into something sinister.
“It’s a perfectly harmless
” one student protested. “I mean, people who think that stuff is real are just nuts.”
But often a defense seemed eerily ambiguous: “It’s a game that doesn’t require anything more than imagination,” one student said. “It’s inside everybody. You just have to tap it.”
One student wrote a letter to the university newspaper,
The Grant Gazette:
I know Mazes and Monsters is a very popular game on this campus. I played it for two years. But last summer I destroyed all my $100 worth of equipment. The game takes control of your life. You change. I strongly warn anybody who is thinking of starting to stop, and anyone who is playing it to quit before it’s too late.
Perhaps what was most disturbing about this case was something that was on every parent’s mind. These players, the ones who had gone too far and the one who had disappeared, could be anybody’s kids; bright young college students sent out to prepare for life, given the American Dream and rejecting it to live in a fantasy world of invented terrors. Why did they do it? What went wrong?
But for the friends of the missing student, the ones who would not come forward to reveal themselves, such a question seemed trivial and meaningless. This was their
They knew what had happened. They knew it had, in different ways, happened to each of them. And they knew that no matter what anyone said, what had really happened was much, much worse.
THE THROW OF THE DICE
Fall, the year before
Jay Jay Brockway was the first of his friends to arrive back at college after summer vacation. He was always the first to show up anyplace and the first to leave—a combination of his need to be properly prepared and his fear of being left by someone else. Small and lithe, with a pointed face and a halo of golden curls, a sixteen-year-old Sophomore with an IQ of 190, an undisputed genius, the son of rich, rather famous, successful parents in New York, he knew he was exactly the kind of person the other kids at Grant would think was weird. And so, being not only intelligent but a survivor, he had turned everything that could have been a disadvantage into an advantage. He was different? Good, he would be eccentric. He was too young and too small? Good, he would become adorable. He was out of step with the masses? Perfect, that kind of person is meant to be a leader.
Jay Jay’s ambition was to be a movie or television star, or if that failed, at least an actor. He knew he was meant to do comedy. He had chosen Grant because it had a good acting school, but more importantly to spite his parents. With his marks he could have gone to Harvard or Yale. But he had chosen a relatively unprestigious university which none of his parents’ friends had ever heard of, whose good acting school had not turned out one famous star, and then he had proceeded to major in English. He had picked English even though it was the one thing that pleased his parents—his father, Justin Brockway, was a brilliant young publisher and editor in New York and everyone knew Jay Jay could get a job in publishing after he graduated if he wanted to. Jay Jay thought he’d rather stick his hand over a lit match than ask the fecalite for a job. He had a love-hate relationship with his father: missing him because they’d never had any rapport since the day he was born, and then his parents split up when he was seven and he went to live with his mother; and trying to imitate him in some ways, like copying his father’s preppie way of dressing.
“Justy,” his father, the boy wonder in cashmere crew-neck sweaters and chino pants when all the other executives wore business suits and ties. Jay Jay, the boy wonder son who had an even dozen cashmere crew-neck sweaters to wear with his designer jeans when everyone else in his school wore plaid shirts with holes or T-shirts with slogans on them. Justy, at the top of his profession at thirty-five. Jay Jay, a college Sophomore at sixteen. Justy, funny, brilliant, eccentric, and admired. Jay Jay, ditto. And they had nothing to say to each other. Never had.
His parents had lived together when they were in college, a rather unusual thing to do in the early Sixties, and then his mother had gotten pregnant and they’d gotten married, which was what people
do. They were both nineteen when Jay Jay was born. He didn’t remember much of those early years of his life: an apartment with cracked walls, always filled with people, nobody telling him he had to go to bed, a home where he learned how to make sandwiches and drink wine when he was four, where people treated him as a sort of pet—something cute until it wanted too much attention and then they said, “Sit!” They’d had a real pet too, a large fluffy dog his mother had rescued from the pound, but everyone said the dog was neurotic and his father had finally given it away to one of his authors who lived in the country. After that Jay Jay always had the vague feeling his father might give him away too, because Justy never really seemed to like him any more than he had the dog.
“We were married too young,” his mother said afterward, explaining the divorce, perhaps explaining how they felt about him. “We were nineteen. A very
nineteen. We weren’t ready for any of it.”
He had been born when his parents were just three years older than he was now. He couldn’t imagine such a weight of responsibility. It gave him a chill. No wonder they had felt trapped. But he didn’t like thinking about his parents being nearly his age and being reckless and romantic and frightened. He preferred thinking about his friends and his life here at college, and his image, and the game they would be playing again this fall. And, of course, he had to think about the big problem. They needed a fourth player. Michael had flunked out last spring after final exams, and that had made it necessary to replan their entire strategy.
Jay Jay began to unpack as he thought about what they were going to do. First he took the cover off Merlin’s cage. His beloved mynah bird, whom he’d named Merlin “because he brought a little magic into my life.”
“Good morning, Merlin,” Jay Jay said.
Merlin blinked his goofy little eyes and began to whistle “Toot, toot, tootsie, good-bye.”
“Oh, I love you,” Jay Jay said. “I love you the best and the most. Talk to me.”
“Birds can’t talk,” Merlin said sternly, just the way Jay Jay had taught him to.
Jay Jay laughed and filled Merlin’s bowls with mynah bird mixture and water, and then he plugged in the electric heater that kept the room warm enough for his tropical bird.
He folded his dozen cashmere sweaters and put them into the dresser drawer along with his two dozen preppie-looking shirts. He lined up his collection of funny hats along the dresser top: the Alpine hat, the hard hat, the cowboy hat, the sombrero, the Snoopy aviator cap, the World War I German helmet, and the Mickey Mouse Club beanie with the ears. Shiny loafers were neatly lined up inside the closet, under his jackets and raincoat and down coat for the hateful winters. He unrolled his posters of W. C. Fields, Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin, and his true love, Brigitte Bardot, and taped them on the walls. Jay Jay was crazy about older women. He blew Bardot a kiss. Stereo components assembled and plugged in, tra la. Books and records neatly placed in the bookcase. A nice bottle of Mai Tai mix in case the occasion arose. A bottle of vodka in case it didn’t. Six cartons of thin brown cigarettes that looked like little cigars, in the back of the closet because people in the dorm stole things. A little bag of Acapulco Gold—the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—under the mattress. And, saving the best for last, the maps he had made of every Mazes and Monsters game the four of them had ever played, plus his dice, his new graph paper, his already memorized
Encyclopedia of Monsters,
and his Creature Compendium Advanced Edition III.
Now he was ready to go downstairs, wait for his friends to arrive, and figure out how to replace Michael.
Last year the four of them had been perfect. Daniel had been the Maze Controller because he was a computer genius with a wild imagination. Also Daniel was calm, and he was never arbitrary. If he said the King of the Gray Rats had bitten off your arm, he was indisputably right. If you were dead, well then you were dead. Kate, Michael, and Jay Jay had been the players. Kate was the bravest, Jay Jay the cleverest, and Michael—well, forget him, he was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins now. At the end of last year they had decided that this year they would all get single rooms, but Michael would room with Daniel and they would use the extra room
just to play the game.
It would be sacred. Every room had a lock on its door. They would have their own fantasy world just for themselves and no one would know. But the dummy had been so involved in the game that he stopped going to classes, stopped studying, and blew it.
Nobody would room with Jay Jay; he was too crazy, and he kept his room so warm for Merlin that nobody could stand it. Kate and Daniel couldn’t room together; there was nothing romantic between them, which was just as well. If you went together and then broke up it would mess up everything to do with living arrangements. Jay Jay wondered briefly what it would be like to go with Kate, and he smiled ruefully. There were some people you just knew you could never have, no matter how much you charmed everyone else.
He remembered the first time he’d ever seen her—a year ago at Freshman Orientation Week. She had just parked her car, a little red Rabbit with California plates, in front of the dorm, and was unloading it. He couldn’t believe a Freshman girl had driven all the way across country all by herself. She was just his height; which made her five feet five; and slender, and she had shiny shoulder-length brown hair, big chocolate-brown eyes, and little freckles—but what was so marvelous was her smile. It lit up her whole face and made you want to laugh. Jay Jay fell in love with her at first sight, and actually offered to help her lug her things up the stairs, a considerable task as she had everything you could think of including skis. It seemed about ten minutes later that she’d found a boyfriend, and it wasn’t him. But she remained his friend. It was sad when he thought of what would never be, because he was always right about these things and he
he and Kate would never be, but he also knew he was the only person who understood her. She was small and tough and fearless and independent. Nobody messed with Kate. It was typical that when they chose which characters they would be, Kate had made herself Glacia the Fighter.
Jay Jay had been Freelik the Frenetic of Glossamir, a Sprite. They planned to continue being these characters this year, forever in fact, unless they got killed. He was the Sprite with his flighty but wily ways, the scamp, the trickster. Can’t catch me, can’t hurt me, can’t leave me because I’ll disappear. Couldn’t hurt a Fighter either. But secretly Jay Jay knew that he and Kate were just the same. For under that armor she wore for the world, he had seen what no one else had been able to see: seen it and loved it and loved her for it—her frightened, vulnerable, wildly beating heart.