–You walk through the doors.
–What do I see?
–You’re in a medium-sized grocery store, very bright. There’s signage everywhere, and music. You don’t see anyone. There are red tulips for sale on your right, twelve ninety-nine a bunch. The Produce section is on your left, and they’ve got a big display of organic peaches from Chile, and there’s that smell of dirt that Produce sections have. You can see a display of cheap Shiraz ahead of you.
–Should I check out the Shiraz?
–I don’t know, do you like Shiraz?
–No, I’m asking, does the adventure need me check out the Shiraz? Anyway, why is this adventure starting in a modern grocery store?
–Is your character standing in the entry asking the air that question? Because that’s what’s happening.
–No, I mean– I was just at the Hy-Vee on 6th on my way over here, and it was a lot like this, but it wasn’t an adventure, it was just me doing stuff.
–Grocery stores aren’t the starts of adventures?
–Not usually, though I’m sure you are about to do something wonderful.
–Am I? Your character is still in the doorway.
–All right, I go look at the Shiraz. I’m checking for traps.
–Roll a Perception check on a d20.
–There’s no trap. But I’m going to save us both some time and tell you that the only traps here are hidden sugar in some foods, and the little add-ons at the checkout. So, you’re at the Shiraz. While you’re standing there, you notice there’s an animal of some sort under the display rack.
–Does it look dangerous?
–You see no visible weapons, if that’s what you mean.
–Can I see what kind of animal?
–It looks like a wolf.
— Is it really a wolf, or does it just look like one?
–It might be a coyote, but probably not. Or a dog even. No, it’s a wolf.
—Why is there a wolf in the grocery store?
–Are you asking the wolf?
–No, I’m asking you.
—I’m not there.
–Fine, my character walks to Customer Service–
–There is a Customer Service desk. There’s a woman behind the counter.
–and I ask her—
–She’s made out of animal horn.
–“Why is there–” She’s what?
–Made of animal horn. She’s translucent, different shades of brown and beige. She looks bored, but she smiles her customer-service smile and says, “How can I help you?”
–Did you roll for this encounter?
–The customer-service woman says, “What encounter?”
–No, I mean you. Did you, the Game Master, throw dice and consult a secret table that said, 14 on a d20, female human made out of animal horn?
–Rules say I can do whatever makes the game interesting.
–And yet you set it in a grocery store.
–Interesting for me. I’m doing the work here. Do you want to run the game?
— Maybe. I mean, no. So I say, “Why are you made out of animal horn, if you don’t mind telling me?”
–She says, ‘Why not? Why are you made of blue jays?’ And you look down and realize that is exactly what you are made of. Your voice is not a single voice, it’s lots of them, and you’re all talking at once. One of you flies into the deli. The wolf follows that part of you.
–Am I all bluejays now?
–How many of me are there?
–Ah…fifteen. One of you in the deli, three of you are in the bakery, one’s on top of the express register, two are at Customer Service–
–Never mind. So the Me, or Mes, I guess, who’s still at Customer Service asks the woman, “Why is there an animal under the Shiraz? And why am I jays now?”
–She’s ignoring you, looking at scratch tickets. She doesn’t speak to birds.
–Okay, the one in the deli with the wolf….
–That You is fluttering around. The wolf was snapping at you, but it gave up and now it’s sitting next to a refrigeration cabinet full of cheeses.
— I say, “Do you speak jay?” –Or Human or whatever I’m speaking.
–It does speak whatever you’re speaking. It kind of barks at you, “Can you do me a favor?”
–“What kind of favor?” –I ask it.
–“I have this bone stuck crosswise in my stomach, and I need someone to go down there and pull it free. I’d reward you!”
–This is the dumbest wolf ever. That story is a million years old.
–Did you say that?
–Probably not. So, my other jays are coming over — staying carefully out of reach — and one of us says, “Ooooh, that sounds awesome! But why don’t we just peck our way in from the outside?”
–The creature looks hurt. “Well, there’s no need to be snippy about it. I’m just hungry, that’s all.”
–Some of me say, “You’re in a grocery store. It’s a dumb place to be hungry.”
–It says, “There’s hungry and hungry.” Roll a d20.
–D20 rolled…All right, I got eighteen.
–So. The wolf or coyote tells you that what it really needs is for you to buy it a magazine.
–My jays go, “What?”
–It wants a National Geographic. You’re a jay, it figures you understand shiny things like money.
—That’s what eighteen on a d20 means?
–No, that’s what this eighteen on a d20 means. It means that the wolf is tired of being in this grocery store all alone, tired of the cold air and the empty aisles at three in the morning. And it thinks, maybe reading an article about cephalopod intelligence on the Great Barrier Reef will somehow be enough to compensate for all this.
–Bored, and lonely, and maybe a little sad, yeah.
–I ask it, “Why are you here? Really?”
–Roll a d20.
–It says, “I’ll tell you a story. There were three of us once: a woman made out of scraps, a woman made of nameless dread, and a woman made out of a wolf. Together we ran a truck stop where all the rivers met. Everyone came in sooner or later, and we fed them gasoline and cherry pie and soupbones and pencil erasers. Then it ended. The End.”
–The creature says, “Who says anything happened?”
–“Because things happening is what stories are.”
–“Things Happening is what your stories are. My stories are stories because they end with ‘The End.’”
–Things Happening is the part that matters.
–So, I’m asking, “How did you get here get from your truck stop and your friends and the erasers and the cherry pie, to here, to National Geographics in a grocery store?”
–The creature says, “All right, then, bring your jays together, and I’ll tell you about Things Happening.” I forgot to tell you, the grocery store is getting harder to see around. Its not dark, it’s like fog.
–Can I trust the wolf?
–Roll a d20.
–You can trust it not to eat you.
— Okay, then I bring all of me back.
–It takes a minute.
–What was the rest of me doing?
–Jay stuff. Made noise, stole food, broke things, flew around. Two of you watched the woman made out of animal horn, but she just ignored you and started reading from a notebook that was behind the counter. Do you want details?
–No, we’re good.
–Eventully, you all collect and settle down. It’s getting harder to see clearly and it feels as though the aisles are changing somehow, getting wider and emptier. You end up having to perch on the ground in a big circle around the creature. Carefully out of reach.
— It leans forward and says to the ring of your jays, “Things Happening is not a story. That’s just reality — random real life, a string of events that takes you between then and now. A story is when the things that happen mean something, actions mean things, feelings change things. But they don’t really, not until you get to The End and look back.”
–Do you believe that?
–The wolf does. Roll a d20.
–Rattle those bones, friend.
–I got seven, but–
–You hear sounds in the darkness and and a shape rises behind the wolf, a giant shadowy form.
–It’s a shape. A shadowy form, like I said. Ghost-like.
–But why is it here?
–It’s an adventure. You like when Things Happen, you said so. So scary monster thing happens. The wolf jumped up and is looking surprised. What do you do?
–Yeah, I like things happening — just not completely out of left field random things.
–And this shadowy form is where you draw the line? This is the one thing you could reliably have expected in an adventure: a monster. So what are your jays doing?
–We all jump out of range too, I guess. Is it attacking us or anything?
–No, it’s just floating there. But since you’re paying attention, you notice you’re getting a feeling off it, loneliness. Like the wolf was sad. It doesn’t seem to see you. It’s caught up in its own thing. It picks up a bottle of Shiraz and some magazines and floats toward the Customer Service counter.
–We’re following it.
–The woman made of animal horn rings the shadowy form through. The wolf went behind the counter with her. The three of them are talking together.
–Can I hear any of it?
–It’s clear they know each other and that there’s history; but theyre not speaking a language you understand. The shadowy form hands something shiny to the wolf.
–What’re the magazines?
–Uh, Car&Driver and Vogue. The shadow goes out through the front door and vanishes into the darkness.
–That’s it? Nothing happens?
–No, I said it bought some things.
–This was our first monster of the night…
–Actually, the wolf’s a monster, and so’s the woman.
–our first scary monster…
–and you’re a bunch of birds, so technically you’re kind of a monster, too.
–and it didn’t pass on any secrets, or try to kill us or trick us or give us a map or — or anything that would contribute to an adventure.
–A glass of wine and some magazines is the adventure it wanted tonight, so: mission accomplished. This is what late-night grocery runs are about, going into the darkness and finding a bright space that has what you need, maybe someone who’s like you, alone and a little hungry. Anyway, the wolf says, “Hey, here’s a story for you. Come see what it gave me…” It’s holding something in one paw.
–We come close.
–It’s a gold coin. Wolf goes, “See what it says, right here?” Roll a d20.
–It drops the coin and starts biting your jays. Roll a d6.
–It eats four of you before the rest get out of range.
–What the fuck. How did that make sense? That was just random.
–Not true, dice are like physics, in an adventure. They’re like Newton’s laws in our world. You wanted Things Happening; here’s a thing.
–I wanted things that make sense.
–“Don’t trust wolves”? That would be a sensible takeaway from this.
–Why do our games always end in chaos?
–Because they’re not done yet. Somewhere down the road, you’ll know the whole story.
–Which is what?
–Put the dice away and I’ll tell you.
Kij Johnson’s speculative fiction has won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. She teaches creative writing, fantasy, and experimental literatures at the University of Kansas, where she is associate director for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Holly Elander is a born-and-raised Angeleno whose inspiration comes from the architecture, people, animals, and mood that make up Los Angeles. She often uses several thin, flat layers of paint to mold realistic spaces of her own creation and of real life. Through her work, Holly gives a platform to quiet, surrealistic and often forgotten scenes of her world. She is influenced by the artists Edward Hopper, David Hockney and Michael McMillen. Holly is a Pratt Institute graduate and is currently working and residing in Echo Park.