In Memory of Lord Hylan Dronta, the Mad Jester, Part I

I had few friends left by my sophomore year in high school. I was shy, stand-offish and in retrospect not always the kindest person. But that year I met James Paul Peterson, my best friend throughout my teens and twenties, a non-genetic brother who seemed to see what was good in me before I ever did, and that friendship helped define the course of my life for fifteen years until his abrupt death at the age of thirty on April 26, 2011. In the time I knew James, we grew into adulthood together, went through plenty of changes (for good and ill) together and occasionally bickered as only the best of friends can, but there was never a time when I didn’t love the man like a piece of my own soul, and I always will.

Most of my lunch breaks in school back then were spent either wandering the halls or reading and writing in the library. The latter is where I remember  first chatting with James. We went to different elementary schools, and though we went to the same junior high, I have to confess I don’t remember him from back then. I don’t know that I was on his radar back then either; James’ early adolescence included time in a back brace and an extensive, painful back surgery that involved hooking metal rods to his spine due to his battle with Friedreich’s ataxia, so he certainly had his own priorities during those years. But we hit it off in high school after we discovered we read many of the same books and played the same videogames, and over the weeks we made small talk about Terry Brooks and Final Fantasy and shared ideas about the Great American Novels we’d write after we graduated. James told me about Lord Hylan Dronta, the noble warrior-king whose epic he would one day tell (and over the years, while the story always changed, the name generally remained the same, in his prose and in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and countless MMORPGs). One day in the gym I told James (probably in too much detail) about my teenage magnum opus, and he asked me if the character Maxim was named for the hero in Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. (He wasn’t, but it was a hell of a guess as that’s one of my favorite SNES RPGs—though I don’t think I’d yet played it at the time; I just knew the reference from reading “Epic Center.”) Looking back, I think that was when I suspected what a dear friend James would become. Is that nerdy as all hell? Sure. But that’s where we both were at the time.

Now I am thirty, and the year I met James was half my lifetime ago. That is a fraction that will continue to shrink for me. Someday (I hope) my fifteenth year of life will be ¾ of my lifetime ago, then 5/8, then 9/10, if I’m lucky and medical science continues to advance apace (and assuming the books I plan to write don’t get me shot). But that fraction is frozen in time for the man whose friendship occupied half our mutual lifetime. Doing the math still breaks my heart a little. Still, that means I can say that I knew him about as well as anyone else did (or if nothing else had a fairly unique perspective) for a full half of his life.

Here’s the first thing you need to understand about James: he had a gift for the spoken word. He claimed his own mother nicknamed him the “Silver-Tongued Devil.” Whether that was true or not, I couldn’t tell you. The man was also a brilliant liar, and I don’t mean to demean him in saying so; take it more along the line of “he had a hell of a poker face,” and he often used these two gifts in tandem to satisfy his own sense of humor. To put it bluntly: he loved to fuck with people, especially when they underestimated him.

The gift of gab is not a talent I share; where James could enter a room full of strangers and leave an hour later with a dozen new friends, I’ve always been the reserved, slow-to-speak type who spends most of his time in solitude. But we shared a passion for the written word, so I think he’d appreciate me putting in pixels what won’t come out right if I try to use my voice. As different as James and I could be, there were a million unspoken agreements between us, and he probably knew me best out of Earth’s seven and some billion human inhabitants in many ways—if nothing else, he was one of a handful of people who could usually tell when I was joking and when I was serious. The converse is probably true as well, which is why I’d like to tell you about the James Peterson I knew—my best friend of many years, my partner in most of my young adult crimes, my brother.

Our friendship developed slowly that first year. We had our first period class together (I don’t remember which it was), and we’d meet in the hall every morning. James would recount the previous night’s adventures on Ultima Online (the granddaddy of the MMORPGs he loved), where he was known as Lord Hylan Dronta, of course. I’d never played the game—I didn’t even own a computer back then (we’re talking 1997)—but I listened and managed to get a few dozen words in edgewise most weeks. I shared some of my writings with him, mostly bizarre short stories or song parodies, which he took in good humor. We worked together to write a parody of “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy),” but all I remember of it now is that the bit in the original that went “Uh-huh! Uh-huh!” changed to “Corp Por! Corp Por!”

I do remember a day that winter when we both learned a bit about each other. The Post Falls school district didn’t have much money for maintenance—the high school was at something like 150% capacity and starting to fall apart besides—and ice would build up on the sidewalks faster than the groundskeeper(s) could put down salt. One day when we were leaving for the afterschool buses, James hit a patch and went horizontal in midair; his toes climbed level with his chin, then he hit the concrete with a thud and a “WHOOF” as the air rushed out of his lungs. Laughter exploded from the bus five feet away as teenage fingers pointed against the misty windows. For my part, I damn near panicked, and I bent down next to James, afraid to move him, as his mouth moved silently. All I could think was that James was hurt and trying to tell me as much, but then he found his breath and I realized he wasn’t trying to tell me how much pain he was in—he was laughing too, and the tension dissolved out of that potential brush with disaster. But he told me later how much it meant to him that I’d been so worried and hadn’t joined in the pointing and laughing, and I wondered how much of that he’d put up with in the past with his surgery. I don’t know if I ever said it to him, but his reaction that day meant a lot to me too; instead of focusing on the negative or embracing his own victimhood, James chose to accept what came and tried to have a sense of humor about it. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize James was one of the zennest people I’ll ever know.

Eventually we took up a spot in the lunch room that morphed into our table for the remainder of our high school careers, and we spent our free time debating the late 90’s console wars, books, television and movies, with a little philosophy, history or theology thrown in from time to time; we’d make jokes about one English teacher’s harping on the “symbolism of the symbolic symbols that are symbolic of the symbolism of the symbols” in the stories he made us read; we complained to each other about our lack of teenage sex lives, seeing how many of our peers (and certainly most teenagers on TV) seemed to be getting a little something-something. (And for the record, he lost his virginity probably six months to a year before I lost mine. I couldn’t tell you the dates, but I have to give him props for that.) I had plenty of bad mojo in my home life at the time, and James certainly had his own struggles, but all was good at the nerdiest table in the school cafeteria. Still, it wasn’t until I began visiting James’ home that our friendship really took off.

James, ever the consummate gamer, had a copy of Final Fantasy VII as soon as the game came out; if memory serves, he may have even faked sick a couple days to stay home and play it. I was still stuck in the 16-bit age at home, so James invited me over to check out the new game in what was then our favorite series. I suppose saying our fifteen-year friendship was cemented with a JRPG may sound odd to some people, but is it really any weirder than lifelong friends bonding over a favorite band or sports team?

I took my ten speed to James’ place—it was a four or five miles ride across town, one I’d get used to quickly—and discovered I was not the only newcomer to the Peterson household that day. We played with Jasper, the Petersons’ new miniature dachshund puppy (a breed of companion now a staple of their household), until the little guy was tuckered out and crawled inside James’ shirt to sleep, and only then did I start up the game I’d been invited over to play.

Months of visits involving a few hours of after-school cross-town bike rides and gaming sessions later, I beat the game; as far as memory serves, James even avoided ruining the end-of-disc-one plot twist for me. I gradually got to know James’ parents a bit, and even managed to run into his brother Joe a few times, though back then I mostly tried to stay out of his way after (if my memory serves) seeing the damage his temper had inflicted on his little brother’s bedroom door. Mostly, I got to know James better; our conversations turned down new paths, we invented private jokes that only made sense to the two of us (for example, he was “Mop Boy” for a while after attacking me with… well, guess), and by the time we both started driving we were nigh inseparable. People would ask if we were brothers when we went places together.

During our senior year we embarked on our first website together, a game-reviews-and-whatever-else-we-came-up-with project on Geocities that we called “The Intelligence Games” (a title that drips with teenage conceit—but we were both still invincible in those days). I was “Czar Ben,” James was of course “Lord Hylan” and James’ cousin Jake contributed pieces as well as “Big-Head Bob.” We learned about the wonders of Super Nintendo ROMs and fan translations that suddenly made formerly-Japanese-only games playable in English. We sat together in US government class, where we had daily tag-team spats with a couple kids sitting in the next row that neither of us got along with very well. When graduation came, James and I were the last two down the isle to get our diplomas, side-by-side.

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