How much would it cost to buy your friendship?
The last bell of the day rang at 3:55 PM. By 3:56, kids were pouring out of the high school on their way to the soccer field, the library, or the houses of their latchkey friends. Seniors with cars hit up the mall two towns over, the band dorks mustered in the music room, and the punks snuck into the woods to get high.
I was a geek, though, so my afternoons were spent holed up at Legends, the local comic shop. The building that housed Legends was a pharmacy back when the town had several large textile mills, so it still felt like a relic from another century. Old boards creaked when you walked up and down the rows of comics. The air smelled like an old farmhouse, lead paint and all. There was a big table in the front, family dinner style, and it played host to a giant daily game of Magic: The Gathering.
If you don’t remember the game from your own lunchroom days, Magic is a trading card battle where people build personalized decks filled with monsters and powerful spells. Imagine a game of poker where your jacks and kings can pick up swords and fight for you from the back of a giant dragon. I’d play for hours, shuffling up and rejoining the game whenever I died, happy to be around people who thought the game was as much fun as I did.
Without Magic, my time in high school would have been a whole lot worse. My two best friends were veterans of the big table at Legends, as was my first real girlfriend, so it’s no exaggeration to say that the place was the nexus of my social life. After graduation, I took my cards with me to college and brought them to the big regional store in Somerville. I played ranked matches against many of the best players in the northeast, several of whom traveled the world playing the game professionally. Before long, I was accepted as one of their own.
I returned to Legends the summer after my freshman year of college. I was a wizard among acolytes. The best Magic cards are expensive and hard to find, but I had just spent a year training and trading with the best.
My decks were unstoppable. Wave after wave of my goblins crashed into my hapless opponents while they were frantically trying to summon a dragon. If they ever managed to get one out, I’d cackle, drop a mind control spell, and kill them with their own giant beast.
It wasn’t long before a bounty was placed on my head. Kids ripped open packs and bought cards just to try and beat me. Whenever anyone opened a particularly good spell, everyone in the store converged on him and begged for a trade. The games became shorter and more cutthroat. You were no longer allowed to re-join if you died. Many of the younger players had stopped going altogether, frustrated by their inability to win.
Thankfully, my job at the summer camp started in June, so I had a good excuse to stop showing up for a while. By August, I was only stopping in once every couple of weeks.
One Saturday afternoon near the end of summer, I was engaged in a free-for-all game with six or seven others when a pudgy kid entered the store carrying a shoe box. My opponents immediately scooped up their cards and ran over to him. “It’s Craig!” one of them told me. “C’mon! Get in line!”
Craig sat down at a small table next to the side window. He looked to be fifteen or sixteen, but his weight made his age hard to tell. He wore a long-sleeved polo shirt, odd considering the stifling heat, and his dark hair was cut neat and short. His glasses were thick and oblong, like hand-me-downs from the 1970s, and I considered why a boy who had clearly been dressed by wealthy parents had chosen such dopey and anachronistic frames.
“I’m here,” he said, his voice fae and slightly grating. “Who wants to trade for my Magic cards?”
The nerds descended on him like coyotes snapping at a scrap of meat. After a few minutes, a jittery kid named Rob squealed and pulled a shiny, rare card out of the box. The art depicted an elegant Japanese dragon, scales hewn from opal and obsidian, emerging from a cloud of dust on a mountaintop. It was worth at least twenty or thirty dollars, and the last time I saw someone successfully trade for one, he had been so excited that he nearly burst into tears.
“I want the dragon,” Rob told Craig. “Trade me for this?”
Rob handed Craig a ratty common that I have never seen anyone actually use in a game. On it, a smiling jungle frog emitted a cloud of noxious gas. I suspected that Rob had pulled it out of Craig’s collection in addition to the dragon and was trying to pass it off as his.
Craig weighed the two pieces of cardboard in his sweaty palm and gave Rob a deep, soulful glance. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll make this trade if you’ll be my friend.”
Rob wasn’t shaken by the question. In fact, it appeared as though he had been expecting it. “Sure, I’ll be your friend,” he said, snatching up his dragon. Then he wandered off to get a drink from the vending machine in the back of the store.
The next trade was even more lopsided. A buck-toothed twenty-year-old abandoned all pretenses and demanded that Craig give him a card for free. “You can keep it if you’ll be my friend,” Craig said, and the guy ended up with a legendary sword.
For the next ten minutes, player after player pledged their friendship to Craig in exchange for Magic cards. Some went back two or three times, digging through the box until every good card in his collection was gone. Then they left him sitting there, alone, surrounded by piles of bent, worthless cardboard.
The game started up again and I joined in, shuffling my deck and drawing a new starting hand. Craig continued to sit there, ignored, at the table by the window. He didn’t have enough cards left to make a deck and no one in the room seemed eager to lend him one, either. He followed the action as best he could, sneaking glimpses of the table over people’s shoulders.
“Hey, uh, Rob?” He said. “Maybe you should, uh, maybe you’d want to play your dragon now?”
“Don’t give it away!” Rob snapped.
A few minutes later, Craig left the store. I never saw him again.
I haven’t been back to Legends in six years. The internet tells me that the store still exists, albeit in a larger and more modern location. I don’t know if they brought the large Magic table with them. I don’t know if it is once again the kind of place where a high school geek can make lifelong friends.
I don’t think much about the store these days, but I do think about Craig. His face fills my mind when I feel alone in a crowd, surrounded and bound in silence by a group of laughing friends. I think back on the extra decks I had socked away in my backpack that day. I imagine Rob’s shiny dragon, long forgotten, tucked away in a binder in the back of his closet.
I think about Craig the most whenever I enter a comic shop alone and make my way to a table in the back. I still love Magic at age 28, though many of my friends have given up on the game and moved on to purely adult hobbies. I attend tournaments almost every week, often by myself, and find myself staring at the small plastic deck box where I keep my favorite decks. There is a stunning blue dragon on the front, peering out at me from behind a waterfall. The lid is fraying, having accompanied me on two cross-country moves and countless trips to shops and convention halls.
“Will you be my friend?” Craig asked me as I turned the box over and over in my hand, admiring its weight. “I’ll give you that box if you’ll be my friend.”
“Yes,” I lied, handing him a couple of useless cards.
I keep waiting for him to walk into my life once again, a rumpled, prematurely balding mess, still carrying the same worn shoe box.
“Craig?” I’d ask him. “Want to play a game of Magic?”
“Nah,” he’d say. “I don’t need it anymore.”