Four months after the divorce, Peggy still felt what she called “glumbly”—lousy, fluish, flattened into something dark and sticky that had to be peeled off the ground.
By then, it had stopped being about sadness. It wasn’t even pain. But she could feel Henry’s absence like a hormone missing from the body, throwing every last bit of her life nauseatingly off-balance. Food lost its taste. Conversations were harder to follow. Time—all time—felt like waiting.
Peggy tried to be brave. She had conceded long ago that she would never be skinny, or charming, or all that good with numbers (like that young accountant Henry had fallen in love with), but she figured she still had a chance of being brave. So, when she forced herself out of bed each morning, she peered into the bathroom mirror and recited her affirmations.
“I am a fighter. I am strong. I am worth of the journey that lies ahead of me.”
She never believed it right away. She went about her day, repeating the words whenever she had a spare moment—driving to her shift at ValueFresh, eating lunch alone in her car, watching Jeopardy in the dark. I am a fighter. I am strong. Sometimes, by the time she had convinced herself that the words were true, it would already be time for her to go to sleep. Then she’d wake up the next morning just as glumbly as before and start the brutal process of convincing herself to go on all over again.
Steffie told her to keep trying. Steffie had always known better than her, ever since they were girls, and she was never condescending about it like Henry sometimes was, God bless her. She was usually busy with her kids, but she still managed to drop by with dinner when Peggy was feeling too down to cook.
“You don’t have to go through this alone, you know,” Steffie said on one of those nights, when she brought over a dish of baked ziti.
“I’m not alone. I have you.”
“After my divorce, I joined a support group,” Steffie said. “It’s called ‘Divorcees Nurturing Divorcees.’ They meet at the community center near White Pine Park. It changed my life.”
“God, I could never talk about my problems in front of people just like that,” Peggy said.
“Why not? Everyone there is exactly like you.”
Peggy imagined a whole room of worn-down, nervous women sitting in a circle, each too shy to speak. “I don’t know if that sounds helpful.”
“Group therapy is a miracle,” Steffie said. “I met this really nice gentleman whose wife left him for a 21-year-old billionaire in Sweden. And then there was a woman whose husband turned out to be a homosexual who was in love with her brother. We were all miserable. After a month of D.N.D. meetings—just a month—I felt happier and more confident than I ever did when I was married. I swear.”
Peggy had to admit this was tempting. “What do you do at the meetings?”
“It’s very free-form,” Steffie said. “There are lots of group exercises. They can be a bit on the experimental side, but you have to keep an open mind about it. Therapy isn’t always straightforward, you know.”
“Divorcees Nurturing Divorcees.” Peggy chewed on a burnt corner of the ziti—her favorite. She was starting to feel hopeful, despite herself. “Do you really think I’d be a good fit there?”
Steffie nodded. “You’d be perfect.”
* * * * *
It took two weeks for Peggy to summon up the courage to visit the community center. She sat in her parked car for five minutes, aching to turn around and go back home. “No. I can do this. I am a fighter. I am strong,” she reminded herself.
The “front desk” was a buckled plastic folding table covered in pamphlets calling out to English language learners, recovering alcoholics, and those who were Pregnant? Scared? Sitting at the desk was a teenage girl wearing a “Welcome Center” badge, chipping away at some homework. She didn’t notice Peggy approaching.
“Excuse me,” Peggy said, almost too quiet to hear. “Excuse me, I’m looking for a group meeting.”
“Oh!” the girl said. She picked up a clipboard. “Which group?”
Peggy opened her mouth to reply when it struck her that she didn’t know how “divorcee” was pronounced. Was that last syllable “see” or “say,” like French? God, how had Steffie said it? She didn’t want to sound pretentious. But she didn’t want to sound dumb.
“D.N.D.” Peggy whispered.
The girl squinted at the clipboard. “Did you say D&D?”
“Alright. The D&D group meets in Room 208.”
Peggy exhaled as she made her way to the staircase. For one thrilling moment, she felt maybe not happy, but at least clear, no longer oddly displaced in her own little corner of time and space. She was moving forward, finally.
She walked past Room 126, where the real Divorcees Nurturing Divorcees meeting was just about to start.
Peggy climbed the stairs and rounded the corner. That old anxiety pulsed through her as she came to the door numbered 208, but she decided there was no more room in her life for hesitation.
She was going to get the help she needed.
* * * * *
“I cast Thunderwave,” Wyatt announced. “The orc has to roll a Constitution saving throw against my spell save DC of 14 or else it takes 3d8 damage.”
“Ooh, tough one. It has +3 Constitution,” Rafael said. He paused to roll a twenty-sided die. “That’s an 18.”
“Damn it,” Wyatt said. “Well, I still do half damage.”
“Okay,” Rafael said. “Fendryn Bollwicke summons his druidic powers to cast Thunderwave. A deafening boom echoes across the Shattered Glade, rattling the leaves on the decaying trees. The orc shudders and lets out a howl of pain. It turns its attention away from you, Fendryn, and lifts its greataxe to attack…” Rafael scanned the group for his target. “Amaris.”
“Son of a bitch!” Samantha said, pushing her glasses up her nose.
Rafael and his friends had been playing Dungeons & Dragons since they were eleven. They were in college now, and it was Rafael’s turn to run the campaign. He was joined by Wyatt reprising his role as Fendryn Bollwicke the druid, Samantha as ranger Amaris Greenthorn, and Dillon as Ehlrich Jaeger the disgraced warlock.
Their current campaign was a continuation of a project they called the Lanferth Chronicles, an enormously intricate web of characters and lore they had built up over the years. Back in middle school, none of them owned an official Player’s Handbook—and they found the technicalities kind of boring anyway—so their games were mostly cobbled together from improvised rules, hand-drawn maps, and stories sketched out on the backs of homework assignments. They would meet up after school on Fridays, convince someone’s parents to make them nachos, and spend hours crafting their universe piece by piece.
“I rolled a 17,” Rafael said. “You take 14 points of slashing damage.”
The door to the room creaked open. A middle-aged woman stepped in, keeping one hand tentatively on the doorknob. Rafael waited for her to realize that she was in the wrong room, but she closed the door behind her and waved instead.
“Hello,” the woman said. “I, um, hope I’m not too late for the meeting.”
The rest of the group was clearly waiting on Rafael to say something.
“This is our D&D group,” Rafael said.
“Yeah, I’m here for D.N.D.” The woman made her way for an empty seat near Dillon. “My name is Peggy, and this is my first time here, and I’m kind of nervous about it…oh gosh, you’re all so much younger than I expected.”
That made sense, Rafael thought. Most people who played Dungeons & Dragons in its heyday were probably in their forties by now. “I think these days, more people our age are starting to embrace D&D again. It’s not seen as this, like, embarrassing thing anymore.”
“That’s wonderful. There shouldn’t be a stigma surrounding—you know, especially for young people,” Peggy said, wringing her hands around her purse strap.
No one responded.
“Listen, lady,” Dillon said suddenly. “Our group is full. Sorry. Maybe you can find someone else.”
Peggy’s nervousness slowly settled into a well-worn expression of defeat. Rafael was struck by how naturally her face seemed to fill out the shapes of sadness, like it was returning to its default state.
“Oh,” Peggy said. “God, I’m sorry. This is—this is embarrassing.”
“Wait,” Rafael said. “Guys, can we talk about this for a second?”
“What’s there to talk about?” Dillon asked. He was either bad at hiding the contempt in his voice or simply saw no need to do so—Rafael could never tell with him.
“I just think we should consider it before making any official decisions,” Rafael said. “Peggy? Could you wait in the hallway for a second?”
Peggy nodded fast before gathering up her things and leaving the room, trying to make herself as small as possible.
“What are you thinking?” Dillon spat as soon as the door closed behind her. “She clearly has no idea how to play.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to have to stop every five seconds and explain everything to her,” Samantha said.
“But aren’t we always looking for new people to play with?” Rafael said. “That’s the whole reason we decided to hold these meetings at the community center.”
“People who actually know how to play Dungeons & Dragons,” Dillon said. “She’s going to be dead weight. We can’t just ruin the campaign so some random grandma doesn’t get her feelings hurt.”
Rafael knew that appealing to Dillon’s sense of empathy was a lost cause. “Okay, think about it from a team composition perspective. We have two magic users and a ranger who specializes in archery. No one in our party is any good at hand-to-hand combat. Wouldn’t a new character round out your team?”
Wyatt considered this. “You’re kind of right.”
“But,” Dillon said, leaning forward as if racing to catch up with his words before they could explode from his mouth, “what if she picks a shitty character class, like Bard? You know this old lady’s going to go ham on the opportunity to be a flute-playing poetry nurse. And then we’re double unbalanced.”
“Compromise,” Rafael said. “What if we only let her in if she agrees to choose Fighter for her character class?”
Wyatt shrugged. “Sounds good to me.”
Samantha agreed. Dillon grumbled, but didn’t say no.
“Perfect. I’ll go get her,” Rafael said.
He poked his head into the hallway. Peggy was sitting on a bench, her flabby stomach heaped up on her lap, nervously picking at her nails.
“We’ll let you in, but you’ll have to be a Fighter,” Rafael said.
Peggy’s face erupted into a smile so self-assured that it almost scared him. She stood up and spoke, as if possessed:
“I am a fighter. I am strong. I am worthy of the journey that lies ahead of me.”
* * * * *
With help from the group, 58 year old grocery clerk Peggy Halliburton was reborn as a level 10 lawful good dwarf fighter named Guinevere Stormheart.
“Backstory? Guinevere is from—oh gosh…” Peggy squinted through her reading glasses at the map Rafael had given her. “Which one is the good side? West Lanferth?”
“Technically, there is no ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side,” Dillon said, trying to balance his chair on its back legs. “Even the bloodthirsty lords of Vernalia think they’re justified in pillaging the Western Empires for—”
“Yes, it’s West Lanferth,” Wyatt said. “Let’s start playing.”
“Alright,” Rafael said. “We’re back in the Shattered Glade. The orc, while badly wounded, still musters up the strength to lift his greataxe. Gray specks of slobber fly out from between his tusks as he huffs with rage.”
“I’m sorry,” Peggy said, raising her hand a little. “What am I supposed to be doing right now? Should I write this down?”
Dillon groaned melodramatically.
“No, you just imagine it,” Rafael said. “I’m the DM, or Dungeon Master. That means I wrote this story and I’m narrating it for you. When it’s your turn, you tell me what your character does.”
“How do we know what you want us to do?” Peggy asked.
“You can pretty much do whatever you want,” Rafael said. “Or rather, whatever you think Guinevere would do.”
“What would Guinevere do?” Peggy repeated softly.
“Yeah. Just think about that question,” Rafael said. “Now, where were we?”
Peggy still didn’t understand where all of this was going. No one asked her about her divorce, or even mentioned their own. She had trouble understanding their metaphors about “goblins” and “proficiency bonuses.” And she hadn’t expected so many kinds of dice to be involved. But Steffie told her to keep an open mind about therapy, so she did.
After three and a half hours—just when Peggy felt like she was getting into the rhythm of things—the session ended. “Same time next week,” Rafael said. And Peggy felt almost better. But when she got home, her old grief—embedded in the lights, the books on the nightstand, Henry’s spare glasses still on the bathroom counter—unfroze itself from where she last left it and resumed its slow trickle down her spine. Peggy went to bed and tried to unknit the ache that tightened itself around her chest.
She thought about Henry. He was always so rude to waiters, even when they seemed like nice young men. He invited all his friends over for dinner and never offered to help her with the dishes. He hated trying “ethnic” food. He teased Peggy about her weight, her job, her shyness. “Come on, you know I’m joking,” he said. “Most people don’t get so defensive about this stuff, you know.” And when he left her for good, what was the last thing he said? “It’s not right for a woman to make her husband feel trapped.” He said it over and over again, in that ugly voice he often used when he decided that she was no longer entitled to his patience.
Peggy thought that focusing on the bad would help her move on. It only made her feel stupid for missing him.
She almost didn’t go back to the community center the next week. Not that she didn’t think it would help, but she couldn’t find the desire to feel better.
“If you wait until you feel ready to get going, you’ll never get going,” Steffie said. “That’s the thing about recovery. You’ll have days when you’re not excited about it. But you always have to be committed to it.”
And isn’t that what Rafael said on her first day of group therapy? Guinevere Stormheart was “bound by a sense of duty.” Peggy still didn’t quite get the “lawful good” terminology, but she could sense it was important. She needed to honor her promises to the group and to herself. So she peeled herself out of her numbness and made it to the community center.
Within a month or so, Peggy found herself looking forward to the small private joy she felt when she stepped into that meeting room, with its sweetish old-classroom smell and broken plastic chairs that clipped and pinched her skin. She stopped feeling that flush of hesitation every time she wanted to speak up during a session. As she talked, she felt Guinevere carry herself off the pages of her character sheet and develop a new, sometimes surprising personality—she was afraid of swimming, had a soft spot for Fendryn Bollwicke, loved sweets but couldn’t bake any to save her life.
Peggy had always been averse to asking questions—she didn’t want to be a bother on account of her own dumbness—but she found that Rafael seemed to enjoy answering them. She asked about his side characters, the history of Lanferth, the sights and sounds of each new locale. Rafael always provided long explanations in response, which made Dillon roll his eyes.
“Danfrey’s Tavern comes alive at night,” Rafael would say. “A traveling band plays a spirited jig as old sailors pass frothy mugs of ale around. The beautiful Brynn Sweetriver tends bar as always, her curly hair tied back with a blue ribbon. She grins and waves your party to an empty table. Beside her, the drunk blacksmith has fallen asleep next to his plate of roasted leeks and potatoes.”
Peggy didn’t notice when this change occurred, but at some point, she stopped thinking about Henry before bed. Instead, as she lay in the dark, her mind circled around memories of her fellow adventurers slaying the wild chimera in the Hills of Hanaldrion or bribing the notorious rogue Godwin Gallovy to sneak the group into the disputed lands outside Vernalia or decoding the illusory scroll her party found in the Temple of Bashar-Qal.
As she fell asleep, she felt excited to see what would come next.
* * * * *
“Hey man, are you awake?”
Rafael dropped back into reality. He looked around, his awareness returning block by block. He was at the Thai place near the community center. D&D was starting in half an hour. He had ordered an iced tea with boba, which was now sitting in a little pool of condensation on the table.
Dillon had not been sitting across from him when he had fallen asleep. Rafael knew this because he would have never made the conscious decision to spend time with Dillon in the real world. But it was too late now. Dillon was seated contentedly, shoveling shrimp fried rice into his mouth.
“When did you get here?” Rafael asked.
“Like, ten minutes ago,” Dillon said. “You were out cold. Did you have midterms?”
“Not even,” Rafael said. He looked down at the notebook open on the table in front of him. “I’ve just been working on the campaign all night.”
“Inspiration, I guess?” Rafael yawned. “Like…remember when we were kids, and we gave up trying to actually play the game, so we’d all just lay down on Wyatt’s bedroom floor and talk about what it would be like if our characters owned a waterpark together? I feel like that again.”
“Except some 70-year-old rando is there too, asking a million questions every second.”
“What’s your deal with Peggy?”
“I don’t trust her.” Dillon put a whole shrimp in his mouth, chewed, and spat the fragments of its tail back out onto his plate. “She just showed up out of nowhere. No prior knowledge of how the game even works. I think she’s hiding something.”
“Maybe she’s in some sort of cult,” Dillon said, “and the only time she can leave her compound and explore the real world is on Tuesday nights.”
“And she uses her only free time to play Dungeons & Dragons?” Rafael asked.
“That’s what I’d do.”
“I hate that I know you’re not kidding,” Rafael said. “Still, I think you’re wrong. Maybe she just wanted a fun new hobby.”
“So this random old woman just suddenly decided to befriend a ton of college students purely because she was drawn to the magic of a rich, collaborative role-playing experience?” Dillon demanded.
“I don’t know, dude! Why does it matter? She’s having fun.”
“No one’s just having fun,” Dillon said. “Everyone’s got an angle.”
“You’re basically Neutral Evil in real life, you know that?” Rafael said.
“Our fantasy selves are just our true selves unbound by fear,” Dillon said. A moist speck of fried rice flew out of his mouth and fell onto his cargo shorts.
At 6:00, Rafael and Dillon headed over to the community center. Samantha, Wyatt and Peggy were there already, looking at something on Peggy’s phone.
“You can order your own custom set of dice,” Wyatt said. “There’s like, a ton of colors to choose from.”
“Oh, these are gorgeous,” Peggy said, pointing at the screen. “Look at these purple ones.”
“No, these are better,” Samantha said, scrolling down. “Check it out. They look like a sunset.”
“You guys ready to get started?” Rafael said.
Before anyone could answer, someone opened the door.
The man who stepped inside was sunburnt and wearing a polo shirt a few sizes too big for him. He was about Peggy’s age, thin yet flabby around the arms and stomach, with milky eyes hiding behind wire glasses. He scratched at his turkey neck.
“Can I help you?” Rafael said.
“Henry?” Peggy said at the same time.
“Peggy,” the man said, shutting the door behind him. “Steffie told me I would find you at the community center. I had to look all over for you. Why aren’t you downstairs?”
“What do you mean, downstairs?” Peggy asked, her voice breaking slightly.
“At the, you know, the divorce therapy group,” Henry said.
“This is the divorce therapy group,” Peggy said.
“Therapy?” Rafael repeated.
Peggy stared at him. “Isn’t this…”
The room was silent for one immense, unbreakable second. Finally, Dillon spoke. “We’re just here to play some Dungeons & Dragons, dude.”
Peggy closed her eyes. “Good lord, I’m an idiot.”
“Come on, Peggy,” Henry said. “This is nonsense. I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I want to work this out—”
“Hey man,” Wyatt said nervously, standing up to block Henry’s path.
“No, it’s okay, honey,” Peggy said, putting her hand on Wyatt’s shoulder. “This is my husband. Or, ex-husband. I’m sorry. I thought…I’m so sorry. God, I’m so stupid. I should just leave.”
“You know you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” Samantha said quietly.
“No, no,” Peggy said. She stood up and started gathering her things. “I shouldn’t have come here anyway. I’m so sorry for barging into your group and—”
Peggy paused, then shook her head.
* * * * *
“Henry, let’s just go home,” she said. “Let’s talk.”
Henry held out his hand, and Peggy took it with mechanical familiarity. Rafael wanted to have something to say. She hadn’t looked like this—so small, so fallen—since the first time she came in. But he said nothing, and Peggy waved as she walked out.
“See, I told you something was up with her,” Dillon said after the door closed. No one responded. “Now, let’s pick up where we left off.”
But nobody made any motions to begin playing again, not even Dillon. Eventually, Samantha left, followed by Wyatt. Dillon kicked his chair and grumbled something on the way out. Rafael stayed behind, rolling and re-rolling his dice against the table, unsure of what outcome he was waiting to get.
* * * * *
Week by week, the group slowly returned to its pre-Peggy normalcy. Samantha spent entire battles arguing about loopholes in the rulebook. Wyatt tried solving every conflict with nonviolence. Dillon insisted on solving every conflict with excessive violence.
Rafael wrote more than ever. He reread every crumpled, thumb-smudged page he could dig up from the Lanferth Chronicles’ early days. He started coming to the community center hours early just so he could sit on the bench outside Room 208 and write the next bit of his campaign, dozens of parallel universes and alternate endings unfolding before him. That feeling of getting blissfully lost in the way only an adventurer could—he wished he could breathe it in forever, hold it in his lungs until his ribs cracked.
He was writing one day when Peggy sat down on the bench next to him. She was soft and anxious-eyed as ever, but didn’t look defeated, like the last time they met. She smiled.
“My husband is gone for good,” Peggy said after a moment. “But this time, it was my choice. You probably don’t care, but…”
“I do,” Rafael said. “Are you, uh, feeling okay?”
Peggy thought for a second. “It still hurts a little. I didn’t think it would. But I knew he wasn’t going to change, and I told him that, and I know I made the right decision.”
“So, are you going to start going to that therapy group now?”
“That’s why I came to the community center today.” Peggy hesitated. “But honestly, I’d much rather stay here instead.”
Rafael laughed. “I don’t think we’re qualified to help.”
“I know,” Peggy said. She smiled nervously. “But it’s just so much fun.”
Rafael kept writing. Wyatt showed up before long, then Samantha and Dillon. To Peggy’s relief, nobody made a big deal out of her return as they filed into the room, though Samantha squeezed her hand as she walked by. They all knew her well enough to fill the silence with banter and arguing, letting her slip quietly into her old seat and pull out her character sheet and dice as if nothing had changed, no questions asked.
“You guys ready?” Rafael asked.
The adventurers nodded.
“Alright,” Rafael said, leaning in. “You now stand at the edge of the Shattered Glade. The words of Ula’atha the Mystic echo in your minds. It’s now or never—Drothgar the Demon King has opened a portal from the Abyss, and his Demonic Horde threatens to destroy the western empires and all that lies beyond. General Hesperia Silverblade has gathered her troops to fight by your side, but you are still wary of trusting the Vernalians who have caused so much death and suffering in your hometown. The sound of war drums grows louder…”
Jasmine Don is a graduate of UCLA’s English and Creative Writing program. Her writing has been published in Westwind Journal and received honors from the David Sedaris Humor Writing Contest, FPS’ Pilot Script Competition and the May Merrill Miller Award for Fiction.