“I bought a game,” dad says. We’re all sitting in mom and dad’s den. The fireplace roars in front of us, striping our faces in an orange glow. I stare into my brother’s eyes and trace the path inside his pupil to where the mirrored image of the fireplace crackles and burns. He stares back at me and takes a sip of his drink—whiskey, dry, just like dad likes his. I give mom a look who sits on the recliner across the room like a small raisin, her feet tucked under her legs trying to warm them. She raises her shoulders up and lets them drop back down again, shrugging. I cross my arms against the scratchy plaid blanket we’ve always kept on this couch in the den. I run my fingers along the maroon and mustard lines; it smells like lavender dryer sheets and a bit like hay.
“Yeah?” Jason says. He sets his glass on the coffee table; the amber liquid rocks to one side then settles.
“I hate board games. If it’s a board game I’m not playing,” I say. Jason wraps his arm around my shoulders and pulls me in, ruffling the top of my head with a curled fist.
“She’s a sore loser before the game even starts. I bet she’s already figuring out ways to cheat, just look at her scheming away,” Jason says. I bite my lip and pull at the chapped skin that’s become loose. My lips are a wreck—they feel rough like an Ace bandage, and the insides of my cheeks look like gouged out craters, some in the process of healing, others bloodied and still raw. I look over at Jason again; his eyebrows are patchy, his eyelids gummy and pink, shrouded in lilac circles. We must have inherited these compulsions from somewhere, from someone; I’m not sure from whom.
“I’m not scheming. I don’t even know what game dad bought. Dad, what did you get?” I say.
“Doesn’t have a name,” he says.
“What?” Jason says.
“What kind of game is this? Where did you get it?”
“He totally got swindled. Dad, did you get swindled?”
“Quiet, you two. Listen to your father.” We stop and the room stills, settling into place after mom has spoken. She’s always had this power, although she’s always been small. Now, she is so small she is like a bird you could cup in your hands and lose easily. We have already begun to lose her. Jason and I sit in silence, waiting for dad to continue.
“A family was having a garage sale down the road so I stopped and bought it there. Happy?” Jason and I nod, looking to mom for approval. She bows her head at us and looks away out the window, watching the rain drip like melting wax against the pane. She traces the raindrops with her fingertips. She’s always loved the way the drops run down individually and eventually catch and hold each other, disappearing. It’s hard to look away from her as I’m scared she will be sucked into the vortex she already seems to be half-living in, but it’s even harder to look at her, with her hair in clumps stuck to her scalp like a child’s art project from school instead of long and frizzy as it used to be, as it should be.
“So, we’re all playing against the game then. We’re all playing together.”
“So there’s no winner?”
“We would all be winners if we beat the game.”
“Ha!” I say. The rain and the wind beat against the windows. Jason rolls his eyes at me and starts to help dad unpack and set up the game.
I think of last night, of crawling into bed beside Jason under his childhood light-up stars permanently stuck to the ceiling, their lime green alien glow. I think of my tears running hot and unceasing against Jason’s neck, pooling into the crevice of his collarbone. We made rules for ourselves when we received the news of mom’s diagnosis, unspoken rules—no crying in front of her, we uproot our lives and move back home until the inevitable, and any grudges or grievances between the two of us are let go.
He whispered, “Libby. Hey, Lib. Let’s go for a walk, okay?” I nodded, the top of my head hitting his jawbone.
We walked the familiar streets of our childhood. Jason found the small wooden box he buried in the brush on the corner of our street forever ago. We smoked the joints, little glowing orbs in the otherwise dark abyss of the empty neighborhood. He kicked gravel with his hands in his pockets and I let the hundreds of little forest fires alighting my sternum try to mend me, heal all my gaping holes.
“You know what I wish for, right now?”
“I have some guesses,” Jason said, sitting down on the edge of the curb.
“I wish I had a contraption that let me expand time, elongate it like making taffy. I wish I could stretch it out and I could jump inside it at different points to relive them. I wish I could just make it all last longer, everything.”
“Yeah, no, that sounds nice, Lib. I know what you mean.” We watched our breath curl in the night air, and walked home slowly, our arms wrapped around each other’s backs.
Everyone receives cards, picks players, rolls dice. The skin on mom’s hands is thin like paper, and they shake as she tries to hold up her cards.
“Mom, just set them in your lap. No one will look,” I tell her. She mouths, “Okay, okay,” at me without setting them down. I sigh. Jason squeezes my ankle. The goal is to outsmart the board. We play until two, dad taking over for mom when she goes to sleep at midnight. The game still hasn’t finished. We’ll pick it up tomorrow. Tomorrow. I pace the grass in the backyard; the patio table, chairs, and umbrella look like an unsettling dark monster looming in the corner of the porch. I call my boyfriend Steven who’s still living in our apartment across the country.
He asks, “Should I come now?” We both know what this question means. He asks it every few days or so. I’ve been apart from him now, living here, for a month and a half. I shake my head in the darkness. I say, “No,” into the phone. His voice sounds far away and tinny on the other end. I think of the elasticity of time like taffy again. I want to pull and stretch it; I want to create a portal in which Steven can visit easily back and forth, where he can hold my face in his palms and tell me everything will be okay so many times it will be etched into my brain, will bleed out of me, its tiny little letters like hundreds of black ants—everything will be okay, everything will be okay, everything will be okay.
I watch the cream-colored curtains flutter against the windows in mom and dad’s bedroom upstairs like living, breathing things. The grass is damp beneath my feet, the rain funneled into a light drizzle; when it catches the light from the back porch’s automatic system, it looks sparkly. I tell Steven, “The house feels too big with my mom in it now. It’s like she’s dancing on a huge, deep stage alone while the other dancers were supposed to be onstage too. And it makes me angry, so angry, that the other dancers missed their cues and left my mother all alone in what should have been an ensemble piece.”
He asks if I’ve been exercising. I say yes when the truth is no. He asks if I’ve been getting good sleep. I say yes, but I mean no. I’ve really been dreaming about long bridges over water that lead nowhere, or a sky that pulls me into it like a tapestry, but when it spits me out onto the other side, it’s the same, just more and more endless blue or inky black, and I can never fall back asleep. He asks if I’ve been praying, I say no, but I have been. I’ve been pulling all the hurt into my chest and holding it there, in that penny-sized space knitted between my ribs the size of a locket; only opening it to put more hurt in, and praying into the tiny space, rubbing it with the tip of my thumb until I howl and wail like a hurt animal because I am a hurt animal. No one howls back.
“I will always howl back,” Steven says. I smile.
“Dad got this new board game we can’t figure out how to beat.”
“Should I come help?” Yes, I mouth. Yes, yes, please yes.
Finally I say, “Yes.”
“I’m coming then,” Steven says. I nod, I cry, I bite my lip some more. Something cracks in the forest behind our house. I make my way back inside and into bed.
“So, the game goes like this…” Dad is explaining the rules to their friends Luke and Cindy. Cindy sits on the edge of the recliner next to mom, holding her hand. The game allows for other players to be added as needed. We play all afternoon, taking a break for sandwiches in the kitchen around lunchtime, and for soup in the evening. Cindy makes us all gin martinis. I look at mom all the time; she’s smiling and peaceful with her legs kicked out in front of her on the recliner seat.
The next day, mom’s teacher friends are over to help play the game. That night, Steven arrives. We sleep close and nestled like Russian dolls, our eyes painted on, our bodies like waxed wood, a red dress and headscarf drawn onto my naked skin, Steven a black suit. He unstacks me, pops off my many layers and just holds me.
My aunt and uncle and cousins visit to see what all the fuss is about; they too are unable to crack the board game’s code. Dad’s retired work friends come over, mom’s friends who she used to play mahjong with once a week, more cousins, neighbors, my and Jason’s old teachers, Jason’s high school girlfriend, my middle school friends. It’s always the same. Dad announces the rules of the game in his burnt sienna puffer in front of the fireplace in the den, everyone picks a player or an existing one, and we continue trying to beat the never-ending game.
“Dad?” We finally ask him one night. “What is this? What kind of monstrosity is this? How can a game be this unbeatable? How can this many people have tried to beat it to no avail? Why do we continue to play this day in and day out? We should be...we don’t know. Looking at photo albums, transcribing every story mom ever told us, fulfilling every last wish of mom’s as much as we can…” Dad smiles, his wiry, gray mustache lifting.
“Just play the game,” he says. So that’s what we do—we play the game. The minutes fold in on themselves, crinkling, but the hours grow long. We all drink lots of tea; if we removed the tea tags from their string, we’d be able to stitch many blankets from all the thread. At night, I dream of patchwork quilts, of flying high above the ground and looking down on the perfectly siphoned off squares of land below, and of the plaid blanket I’ve had around my lap since being home, of time passing and watching the blanket crumple and disappear into dust.
I sneak into mom and dad’s bedroom one night. I crawl into bed beside mom on the outside of the bed. They’ve still slept in the same bed throughout mom’s cancer, despite her bouts of nausea and insomnia. She turns over on her side to face me, and cups my cheek in her palm.
“I wish I could die for you. I wish I could go to the other side and tell you what’s there,” I whisper.
“Oh honey, I don’t wish that.”
“I know, but I do.” She runs her fingers over my eyelids. “I’m so scared.”
“I wish there was a way I could knit you into my life. I could keep a part of you with me always, in my sweaters and chairs and lampshades and shoes. I wish I could ground your presence, make it stay here with me forever in a physical sense.”
“I’ll always be there, with you, a whisper of immortality.”
“I don’t ever want to be alive and conscious and have you not there, even by phone. How can I go on like that?”
“I don’t know; I don’t have the answers. All I know is that you will, baby.”
When I wake, the room is empty and dipped in sunlight. I make my way downstairs and pause at the foot of the staircase to observe the den and the kitchen. Steven sits on the couch beside mom in the den leaning toward her, making her laugh, which makes me smile. Jason and dad are in the kitchen making omelets. I help carry bowls of fruit into the den where we all take up our positions to restart the game, yet again. Dad reads the opening card which we all have memorized, so we say it simultaneously, laughing, smiling into our laps. I’ve decided to change my strategy for today. I won’t bargain with the board game; I won’t try to bend its rules. I will give in, fully, and let myself be taken by the challenges it throws back at us, the sacrifices it forces our hands, and when it seems we’ve exhausted every option, examined every angle, I will open myself to the new, surprising paths it affords us.