“What kind of shit?”
I breathed deeply. When I’d moved to Austin to continue school, my family had moved to Madison, Wisconsin — a very similar city, in terms of being college towns and capitals of large, largely rural states of America, but they could not be further apart in terms of climate or in simple geographic location. It was about as far from Austin as you could get while still staying in an urban area of the United States, and it was unreasonably cold. The first time I went up to spend a holiday with the family, I got a sinus infection that lingered nearly a week. I always hated the cold. The deep heat was where I was born, in the middle of the summer, and that’s where I reckoned I’d live my life through.
And somehow, maybe because I started seeing them less and less as I approached the end of high school, the family that remained in Texas had begun to grow very distant in my mind: my grandparents, both couples on both sides alive and well against all odds, and an uncle, my mom’s younger brother and his family. I’d grown apart from them, though their very existence was a major underpinning of my firmament. I came to realize that I’d built a lot of myself on that stability when something bad happened to one of them.
“My granddad had a stroke,” I said. “They say he’ll be okay, probably — it was a small one, but he was such a big, strong guy, it’s hard to imagine him being weak.”
“I bet. I know what you mean.”
It seemed childish to bring up work at that point, though the truth was that my work was more important to me than my family, at that point.
“Work sucks,” I said.
He winced. “Gotta get that book out, huh?”
I tried not to wince myself. I’d been working on a book for nearly a year, the one that Mentor had set me up to write before Steve had let him go, a game that we’d acquired from one of our foreign licensors. Jeff had been given authorship of a licensed property, which he cranked out over a chunk of long weekends and ended up making a good chunk of change off of royalties, selling something like 10,000 copies. I was a little envious of Jeff — so many things seemed to come so easily to him, though he seemed perpetually stuck at plateaus with most of his skills. They were decently high plateaus, but plateaus. A lot of what he thought he did was good enough, though, and it was only more infuriating that he was often quite right. So part of the reason I was working on the book was to feel as though I’d shown that working hard to develop your skills would result in something much better than simply “good enough.”
There were a couple of enormous differences between our two writing gigs, though.
For example, his was the simple adaptation of an existing role-playing game into our company’s universal gaming system. The property in question was a fantastically popular game of gothic horror, produced by a competitor whose fortunes had started out small and then gone through the roof. Mentor had arranged a license as they were on their growth curve, so all we needed to do was write up our version and print it and the money would flow. It was a good deal for us, and a great deal for Jeff.
My gig was a foreign game, so we first had to get it translated. My French sucked, so I got a friend from design school to help. He got enough translated that I could present it to Steve, who’d rejected it outright. He’d been expecting to see a slightly different approach to the gothic horror genre that was so popular at the time, only with angels and demons instead of vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, instead of being slightly different, it was totally different, enough so that he disliked it.
“Do you think you could make this into something good?” he asked me, by which he meant, “Do you think you could make this into something more like the gothic horror game I thought I’d bought?” I said I could.
In addition to the setting, he didn’t like the game itself very much, either, so he asked me to rework the whole thing. Because it was turning into a larger job, Steve offered to let me bill the company for the hours, though I’d be doing so at a lower royalty rate than most of our regular writers. I’d also be designing and laying out the book, spec’ing the cover, working with our best house artist to come up with the aesthetic of the book, promoting it within the pages of Pyramid, designing the posters, and the like. So it would basically be a large part of my job that year.
And it had been. I simply hadn’t been doing it very well.
“Are you okay?” Andy asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. It’s just that the book’s not going great.”
Steve wasn’t liking what I’d come up with. And to be honest, I wasn’t wild about a lot of it myself. There were big parts that I thought could be good enough, though very little of it was good enough for me.
“It’ll be fine,” Andy said, which was what everyone else had been telling me. It was the kind of thing that everyone had told me in the dorms, back when I was getting kicked out of the university, so it didn’t bring me much comfort.
“I’m just worried,” I said. “I’m actually really worried.”
“Channel that. Use it. Get it done. It’s basically finished, right?”
It wasn’t. It was mid-June by this point. In order for the book to make it to press on time, for an August ship-date — for the enormous, once-a-year game convention at which it was slated to be introduced — it would have to be done in three weeks.
“Even if Steve liked it,” I said, “I don’t see how I can make the date without throwing myself into it completely. Like, completely.”
“So do it, man. You’ve done it before.”
I had, and I would again, but not that time.
Texas heats up by the time June comes around. That summer, life was painfully, unreasonably hot. Even though I spent most of my time in the air-conditioning, as most people did and still do, I couldn’t escape a kind of heat I held inside.
I remember being home one afternoon, maybe a week later — why I was around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I have no idea — when the phone rang.