It’s Just a Game

Two years after her father’s death Barb was still getting rejection letters for his manuscript.  Ever since her father’s death she received crisp envelopes and the form rejections inside were sterile, printed on sharp copy paper.  On his death bed she had forged an acceptance letter for him.

“Oh, God, no… it’s all over.  I wished he’d never find it…  how did he?”  Were his final words.  He died with a look of horror on his face.  She had served him a lie in his final moment and the guilt was killing her, but the mystery was worse.  It didn’t help that she stayed on in the house.  The house Dad died in and before him the house Mom died in – they died in the same room years apart.  Now, Barb slept in that room because it was too much trouble to move furniture and too expensive to move out.

The rejections kept coming, a vengeful ghost was haunting her with these letters from all over the nation.  They were inhuman, computerized printouts, so at first she thought it was a software bug in an automated system, but after calling and connecting with a revolving door of secretaries and assistants at multiple agencies she discovered all the literary agencies she contacted had received her father’s manuscript queries no more than two years ago, some as early as three months ago.  He’d been dead for two years.  Someone was trying to rip him off.  Barb took it upon herself to find out who.

Plausible, her father’s name was Michael Brown making it a common name for an extraordinary man.  Extra ordinary.  Mr. Brown, her father, was so ordinary he had extra to spare.  Her mother always said that her husband was melatonin personified.  Now, Barb thought of her mom.  Mom was gone, too, and that was a sad memory.  She had never gotten to know Mom in life.  It wasn’t until she was cleaning out Mom’s room that she saw her mother’s happiness was just a mask, a stiff nuclear winter to go with the nuclear family.  Barb was surprised, their lives were complete, everything they wished for was granted.  Her brother was late for both funerals.  His excuse was he was older, his excuse was his family.  Barb had neither age or obligation.  Not even distance.  So, she went to Mom’s funeral with Dad and even through the wake he was ordinary.  Ordinary tears trembled down his face.  Ordinary service paid for from the church she no longer went to because she could not force herself to believe anymore.  She was sure Dad didn’t believe either, but that would have been out of his character, not very ordinary at all.

It had been up to her to go through Mom’s things and separate the trash from the keepsakes from the yard sale items from the donation junk.  Piles of odds and ends she had never seen before.  What took her breath away were the board games.  Old cardboard boxes with obscure company logos and even weirder game titles.  Morbid curiosities, spectral adventures, the games promised both fantasy and the obscene.  Her mother had collected board games from around the world and hid them in the attic.  She had a family to play them with and not once had they even played the popular ones like Monopoly or Parcheesi, which Barb found mixed with the odds ones.  The games were all opened and the pieces felt new, the cards and fake money were crisp, but Barb knew that her mother had rifled through the games, read the instructions, maybe even played herself all in secret.  Barb had asked her brother about the board games because she did not want to ask Dad.  She had moved into their parents’ house to keep Dad company, and Michael was there “just for the funeral” he kept saying, reminding everyone that he was needed more at his job and with his family.  Michael’s family did not come with him because of scheduling issues, but Barb was sure Michael forbade them to come just so he could use them as an excuse in case she or another relative asked him to stay longer.

“Those games?  I heard Mom playing with Dad one day.  I had to leave the house, lots of thumping up there, ya know?”  Michael said with a grimace after Barb asked about the board games, suggesting Mom and Dad had some kind of game-night kink.  Maybe that’s why Dad had kept the games after Mom died, but after seeing the rejection letters for her father’s book Barb wasn’t so sure.  The two were connected.

“You didn’t throw out those games, did you?”  Her Dad had asked, already showing signs of the sorrowful disease that would kill him.  She told him she did and would not throw them out.

“And don’t play them.  None of them.”  Her Dad said with such seriousness that she promised she would not.  She didn’t have anyone to play with, so it all worked out.

But now, two years later, Barb raced up to the attic.  She had kept the odd games, the foreign ones and morbid ones.  She kept one in particular that came in a red cardboard box and had a blank black square board.  This board was like Metallica’s Black Album, her favorite during rough teenage years, the album cover was black with embossed black designs.  This board looked blank, but when tilted in the light black symbols and lines appeared.  A two-dimensional labyrinth.  That was it.  No cards, no fake money, no instructions.  It was packed in a box too big for just this board.

Chills shivered through her like a supernatural flu.  The games were inside a trunk her Dad had made.  He had picked up carpentry after retirement along with writing and she was often kept up at night while he banged and sawed in the garage.  He wrote most days.  Dad used to be a general practitioner, just a family doctor, and she was sure he had no background in either creative writing or woodworking.  The funny thing was, he slaved away at each hobby, developing a lousy talent for both but determined to do better as if his life depended on it.  Barb let Dad go and saw he was disappointed with every project.  This trunk he had made was uneven, the wood splintery and knotted and finished in a sticky matte lacquer.  A real shitty job even by amateur standards.  A rushed job, as if the trunk had to be made quick.

She dropped the board and it hit the floor with a metallic clang.  Sheet metal.  The game board wasn’t painted black, it was solid harsh metal.  She hadn’t noticed before, she was so preoccupied with the funeral.  She tilted the board and saw symbols and letters flash embossed black on matte black.  There it was… the title of the game in the upper righthand corner.  The title of the game was the same as the title of her father’s novel.

The novel that would not rest.

But which came first?  The book or the game?

She pushed the spooky feeling in her stomach aside.  Her brother had their father’s name.  It explained the continuing query letters, but not why she was getting the rejections.  She laid the game board down and called Michael on her cell.

“Why are you querying Dad’s book?”

“Because I like to find money anywhere I can.”  Barb rolled her eyes, of course.  Michael was money hungry with two children.  One born just out of high school, ending his college career before it began, and another years later before Dad’s death.

“You know there’s a game up here with the same title as his book?”

“He was a nerd trying to capitalize on what he thought could be a franchise.”

“So, you know how the game works?  Which came first?”

“I have no idea.  Mom was the one into games.  She made the Parcheesi set.”

“I threw that out, I wish you told me!”

“Oh, you weren’t born then, I guess it must’ve been 1979 or 80?”

“Don’t ask me, you were alive.”

“I can’t place it, but she made the game pieces and the board and we played a few times, and she worked on other wooden thingies.  The game nights stopped, though.”

“At least… the nights including you?”

“Ha, yuck.  I guess so.”

“I don’t remember Mom doing anything like that.  I do remember an old guy, Dyer or Dryer.  Supposed to have been some kinda genius.  Weird guy, though.”

“I don’t remember him.  Did you get rid of all the games?”

“I kept the weird ones.”

“You would.  Hey, speaking of weird, the kids…”  Barb took a breath in frustration, she didn’t want to talk about Michael’s children, but Michael didn’t like to dwell on things that weren’t his office or family, the things in his life that made his life.

“Michael.  What made you move out?  It wasn’t the baby.  People become young parents out here, practically goes with the high school diploma.”  Barb said, remembering crying one day after school.  She got off the bus just as he was packing his shitty car, his pregnant wife-to-be standing by.  They didn’t even say goodbye, and she couldn’t remember seeing his wife before that day, either.  It was as if this new life of his sprung from thin air, but she had gotten used to abrupt changes.  Unsuspected Christmas gifts, passing tests she should have failed.  She had always felt charmed until that day.  That day would mark the end of charm and the beginning of tedious curse.

“Mom and Dad fought, it wasn’t good for Wendy and the baby.  I always wanted to ask if that’s why you stayed, if you thought you could fix things.”

“They didn’t fight.”

“Barb, it’s ok, you can talk to me.”  Barb bit her tongue, he was only saying that because he wanted dirt.  He wouldn’t actually help her.  The curious thing was that she was sure her parents never fought.  No game nights, either.  Michael was trying to dodge the present by diverting her into the past.

“You haven’t got any acceptance letters for your novel.”  She said.

“Worth a shot.”

“For two years?”

“Hey, I read online this sorta thing can take a long time for a response, if any.  I paid a company to send the queries.”

“So, you never read the novel?”

“No.  You?”

“No…”  Barb said, surprised with herself.  The game and the novel were joined.  Her Dad wrote the novel, her mother built the game.  Both felt unfinished.  There were so many questions, why did they play alone?  Why is this thing metal if all they did was woodwork?  Where’s the rest of the game?

Barb sifted through the games.  The black board from the red box was so entirely different.  It lacked the warmth of shared experience and care.  Barb turned the board in a beam of sunlight from the only window, an oval that overlooked the overgrown lawn.  The flashing embossed symbols on the board meant nothing to her, hard lines and squiggles that resembled ancient text, but her parents didn’t know anything other than English.  Then, again, she didn’t know about the games, so what else was hidden?

She repacked the metal board inside the red box and tucked it under her arm.  She wandered the attic, looking for signs of her parent’s life up here.

Barb knew what she had to do after finding nothing else in the attic.  She took the game downstairs and set it on the dining room table.  She went to her father’s office,  now her office, and pulled out a cardboard box.  Inside was the only hard copy of her father’s novel.

The title: Wish

The same title as the board game.  She opened the book and started to read, and then she knew why it would never sell and why Michael, her brother, would never reap their dead father’s royalties.  The enormous book was a manual for the game.  Detailed instructions and by the third page Barb saw that she was reading incantations, or so she suspected because she understood none of it.  Did Mom and Dad toy with witchcraft?  It would’ve been laughable if not for the evidence of conjoined madness in the lonely house her parents had died in.

Barb went outside to get a dose of sunshine she had never needed so badly until now.  She was a shut-in, unlike everyone else in her family.  Michael was always doing dinner parties and play groups with other families and their children, her parents were always out and she remembered more nights with babysitters than family dinners.  That’s what made this so odd, if anything she should be the one writing in-depth directions to a crazy game without pieces.

Instead she binged on streaming slasher flicks and read herself to sleep with only the cat to keep her company.  She worked ten hours a day as a secretary in her father’s hospital.  She read some more paragraphs and still understood none of it, it was written in some sort of verse and the language was English, but the arrangements were disjointed.  She understood one part of a sentence that ran on for pages – blood calls the challenger[…]  Did a blood offering start the game?

The hospital.  Her father’s things were still there, at least the files were and they’d be there for another eight years.  Barb didn’t know why she felt she didn’t have eight years, or minutes, but she grabbed her car keys and left the house in a such a hurry that she had to double back and lock the front door.  Something in the air made her feel like she should stay with the game, an invisible attraction not quite strong enough to stop her physically.

At the office, Barb went through the files containing all of her father’s former patients.  Barb found the medical record of a famous physicist, Donald Dryer, another weird thing she never knew about her past.  She had rubbed elbows with a Nobel Prize winner.  She remembered a strange old man who visited form time to time – could this be his medical record?  DECEASED was stamped on the first page of Dryer’s file and she read he had died ten years before her parents.  There was nothing abnormal in the file, but there was no date of death.  This wasn’t unheard of, the man probably switched to a celebrity doctor after getting the Nobel Prize.  Barb found her own file, the perk of being the daughter of a physician became creepy but she found nothing unusual about her physical condition, except the long standing vitamin-D deficiency.  She took supplements when she remembered, but getting real sunlight beyond going to and from work was not an option.  She didn’t care for people and there were too many of them under the sun.

She took a look at her brother’s file.  The file was old (her brother’s official name was Michael Brown II) and ended just before he left for college.  This was about the same time he had said their parents were getting weird and he got a girl pregnant and moved away.  Mom died a few months after Michael left to take on his new, mysterious life as a father and husband.  The file said Michael was sterile.  Barb wondered how awkward that  exam must have been and… but Michael had children…

She remembered going to the stupid baby shower in a strange city where the basic bitches finger painted on Michael’s wife’s bloated abdomen and gave her gifts they had bought on dwindling credit to one-up each other.  Barb kept the cat company and couldn’t drink the wine fast enough because the other women were inhaling it as if this was the last party they’d go to for a long time.  She had pitied Michael’s wife, it was like watching someone volunteer for indentured servitude for at least eighteen years.  Barb ended up with the cat because the gray tabby hated Michael and his family.  It liked her, though.  It was more gecko than feline the way it stuck to her screen door.

Ah, shit, where was Mother Fucker?  She thought to herself.  Usually there were morning cuddles, then afternoon Netflix binges with the occasional hairball for attention, then reading in bed and  Little Punkasaurus would fall asleep on her chest.  Wake up, repeat, just not today.  The perk of being a loner was life never got complex.  After Dad died she couldn’t afford to be complex.  They had been rich and enchanted, but ever since Michael moved it was hard enough to pay for food.  The social downfall isolated her from former rich friends.  The only miracle was that the house was paid off before Dad died.  It seemed that once the money stopped coming in, so did the people.  She was happy to be alone and no longer struggling.  She didn’t need anyone.  She thought along these lines of logic when she felt lonely and was on the verge of downloading Tinder for the fortieth time in a month.

She wondered if Michael had met the surrogate father on some sort of dating app.  “Husband sterile, please help.”  If that’s true then Michael made a profile pretending to be his wife, creeptastic!  But how did he talk his vanilla wife into that?  Barb didn’t care for Michael’s children, the older one was a tween wretch and the toddler was turning out the same.  No matter where the kids were or what they were doing they were always out of place and always on the verge of a violent tantrum.  They gave off a vibe thick as a stench that they were not happy, and so did Wendy, Michael’s wife.  But, finally!  Barb had a reason to endure a conversation about his kids!

She dialed his number on the drive home and he didn’t pick up until she was walking up the driveway.  It was a nice day out, Autumn, Halloween coming soon.  Maybe she’d carve pumpkins and leave the light on so she could hand out candy.  She had a sudden urge to see little ghosts and goblins and their parent’s half-assed costumes as Debt Reaper  or Mortgage Monster.  The cat had a little Dracula cape collecting dust somewhere.

“Are your children yours?”  She said, cutting to the chase to catch Michael off guard.

“No.  What?  In what context?”

“Biological.”

“Barb… did you find something?  Like a black game board in a red box?”

“Yeah, how’d you guess?”

“Don’t play that game.”

“I’m not playing a game, Michael, I got spooked by that stupid thing Mom and Dad made so I went through Dad’s office to see if there were any more weird things.”

“Just put it away and forget it.”

 

“Is it dangerous?”

“Yes.”

“Then why’d they keep it?”

“Because you can’t get rid of it.  Just the pieces.  Did you try to get rid of it?  You didn’t hurt yourself near it, did you?”

“No…  wait, why’d you try to sell Dad’s novel if you can’t get rid of it?”

“Because if you transfer the game instructions the board goes with it, but it’s gotta be paid for, blood or money.”

“Huh?”

The front door was unlocked when she inserted the key.  The key spun freely in the lock, like turning the dial on her fear.  This one goes to eleven.

“Look, I’ll deal with the game.  I just need to think of a good excuse for Wendy and I’ll fly out soon.”  Barb heard him, but she was preoccupied with the screen door on the other side of the unlocked glass door she opened.  This was the cat’s screen where he leapt onto it like a lizard.  The screen was bowed straight backwards, not hanging low like it did with the cat’s weight.  His little claws were stuck in the screen, too.  Sometimes that happened, one or two would come loose from him being stupid, but this time all of his claws were stuck in the screen.  It was as if he had been hanging there and someone had wrenched him off.

Michael was still talking, “You can’t give it as a gift, people throw it out and then it comes back to you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”  Barb said, hanging back on the stoop, afraid to go inside.  Why’s it always the stupid cat?  She thought, thinking of movies like Straw Dogs and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“I’m talking about wishes.”

“Wishes?”

“Mom and Dad found a way to grant wishes.  We had a good run, a charmed life because of that game but I…  I guess they didn’t like what I did.”

 

“You mean… your kids, you wished them to life?”

“Don’t do anything with that game.”

“Michael?   Are you ok?”

“Never better.  I’m glad we had this talk.  Don’t play that game if you value anything in your little life.  I’ll fly down ASAP.”

“Listen, something’s come up, my door’s open and something’s happened to the cat.  I’m probably gonna die soon.”  Barb said to dead air.  She didn’t believe for a second that a schizophrenic board game was the reason Michael had a nuclear family.

She pulled a tube of pepper spray from her purse.  A larger than normal spray, police issue and illegal for the everyday consumer.  She hoped it wasn’t past its expiration.  She checked so she wouldn’t have to brave her home just yet.  It was expired by two years, which was funny because that would mean she had bought it when Dad died.   Was I always like this?  She wondered as she opened the bowed screen door and stepped into her home, the pepper spray leading her line of sight.   Stop thinking so much.  Focus.

But she couldn’t focus.  The cat who had many names, mostly curse words, was limping in the dining room.  Barb stopped breathing, willed her breath to hold.  If she let go she’d be crying.  This fucking cat, unlike her brother, had been there for her.  Terrible dates, financial fiascos, bad days at work, this stupid cat’s puke was worth more than most people.  And it was limping with a dead look in its eyes.  Barb lived in a quiet town.  Families, schools, a playground without even a hint of dog poop.  The only bad things in the neighborhood was the rumor that a witch lived here.  Such was the fate of a single woman living on her own in a house she could never afford.  Barb also knew there was no better breeding ground for a frustrated man with violent needs.  If the invader was still here she would prove the witch rumors true.

She went through possible encounters and solutions.  If he pulls a gun I’ll run, distance and obstacles increases survival, if he gets close and pulls a knife I’ll use the spray and disarm him, if he’s unarmed and grapples I’ll sink my pinkies into the outside corners of his eyes, hook and pull -POP!  Living alone had given her a willingness to trade serious injury for another shot at life if it came down to a fight.  She had had no one but herself for a long time.  In fact, in this moment, she wanted to murder someone.  Her cat was hurt.  It was a friendship contingent on kibbles in the morning and inconvenient cuddles, but it was real.

What was also real was the metal game board stabbed into the dining room table top.  It stood still, so it must have been there long enough to stop wobbling.  The wood was splintered where the sharp corner had embedded into the heirloom piece of furniture.  She had left it there in its box, but the box was now shredded on the floor.

Her mind betrayed her with an attempt at humor, Hey!  This is great!  You’ve always wanted proof of an afterlife!

It couldn’t be that simple.  The game was unrelated to her invaded house.  The game was unrelated to her brother.   But if that’s true…?  She kept her mind blank and checked her home, pepper spray in one hand, and she grabbed a razor-sharp and curved cheese knife with the other.  She found no one in her house, no James Ellroy type creepers or any sign of intrusion.  She tried to pull the game board from the table but it was stuck there.  She even got on the table, straddled the vertical board and used her legs.  She cut her palms on the sharp metal edges, but the thing would not budge.  She felt sick, and there was a ringing in her ears and an invisible force was pushing and pulling her in waves.  She looked at the cuts on her palms and saw the blood drop on the table top and… the blood was moving against gravity, collecting on the vertical metal.

Barb forced her body to move away, to chalk it up to being scared.  She got a towel and cleaned her palms.  The cuts weren’t that bad at all.  If she calmed down she would be able to perceive her situation as it really was; nothing but awful reality.

She left the metal game board in the table and checked all of the locks and windows.  The house was just this side of air tight.  The house seemed bigger though.  Every shadow, nook and cranny held a world of evil devoted to her torture.  She knew it was all in her head, but she could not ignore the evidence of actual, physical wrongdoing.

Barb picked up Nameless and they huddled together on the couch.  Soon, the Cat Who Shall Remain Nameless was purring and warming her belly.

“Hey, little man, what happened?”  She said to the cat, ashamed of the stutter in her voice.  She had no right to be scared because she was alone.  She should be glad that she had no evidence or worse to call the cops, but Barb had the feeling the night was just getting started.

When she woke up Barb wondered if she were still dreaming, but the coolness of where the cat had been proved she was awake in a terrible house.  The cat was hissing, arching its back.  She woke up because the metal game board fell over with a sharp clang like a guillotine.  The pages of her father’s instruction manual turned and dented, some unseen presence was prodding and pounding a page, yet the only sound was the crinkling paper.  Barb forced her body up from the couch with the cheese knife in hand and as she got closer to the dining room table she felt repulsion, a physical withdrawing forcing her to move around a space just big enough for a large man who was not there.  Magnetism, the word jumped into her mind and as if on cue the knife in her hand, the blade, warped and snapped, flying away and stopping in the wall behind her.  Her body felt weak, syphoned of energy and it seemed that the board was sucking it all up.  Just when the nausea was too much the force was gone and the cat retched on the couch and went to its food bowl.

The invisible presence was gone.  It was just a normal day, again.

But it wasn’t.  It wasn’t even day, yet.  The sun was a whisper on the horizon and Barb knew she had to play the game or suffer poltergeist annoyance for the rest of her life.  She didn’t want to be pestered ethereally or otherwise, but she did not want to do the ghost’s bidding.  This demon gave my brother children!  The horror was palpable.  She thought hard about what she wanted out of life, Michael said their parents had found a way to grant wishes in this game.  In quiet and boring hours of the day, at her job or alone she felt like she wanted things.  A new car, a loving relationship, a cat who didn’t puke on the couch.  But now that she was faced with actually getting something she found that she didn’t want anything.  Except she didn’t want to have company, living or otherwise.

She read the page the ghost had been jabbing at, directions on how to build the game’s pieces.  There were no pictures, so she had to decipher the strange text.  She guessed there were four tokens that resembled stick figures, two die, shreds of paper that could be money or tickets of some kind, a curved shard of wood that was a deadringer for a Ouija board planchette, and an hourglass.  Imagine all those childhood games you played while drunk and bored in the middle of nowhere and mashing them into one desperate extravaganza to conjure excitement back into the evening and you might get this.

Barb was competing to reclaim her solitude.

She tried to stay awake, but the cat was asleep and she didn’t know the first thing about woodworking.  The instructions were so strange and specific she was overwhelmed every time she read them.  By the time she was feeling like she knew what the instructions wanted the strange ebb and flow of magnetic energy was long gone and so was her fear.  Barb picked up The Pest and they went to bed like it was a normal night, but daylight was streaming through the window.  She sat against the headboard, wondering if any of the crazy things that happened really did happen.  The cat was asleep, it must be safe.  She inspected the cat’s paws.  No blood, but the claws were gone.  The cat whined, waking back up.  Barb petted it and rubbed its belly and it purred back to dreamland.  Maybe Little Bitch really got stuck on the screen this time, worse than ever before and there was nothing dangerous going on.

Why wasn’t there a lock on the stupid chest holding this game?

Because that would have piqued your curiosity.  A voice didn’t say, she felt the energy of the thought squiggle into her mind.  She felt the repulsive energy from before, sitting next to her.  The mattress sank with invisible weight.  Undeniably male, this energy, a tension between potential violence and kinetic desire.  You looked because your brother was trying to get it back.

“How?”  Barb said, glancing out of the corner of her eyes.  She was alone with this invisible energy indenting the bed.  She felt hot breath on the back of her neck.

Selling the instruction manual, you can’t just give it away.  There are rules.

She turned to the source of the breath and couldn’t as her body tensed against a human form that was not there.  She felt a hand slowly close over her thigh, finger by finger.  Two bodies, but also she felt it was the same phantom.  The beings were closing together with her in the middle and when she shut her eyes she saw the thing, a man split in half and and cut deep from head to tow, his ribcage was pulling shut around her, his arms folding to lock her inside.  She was sitting on his spine, his blood pooling on the bed–

She lashed out and the field of energy broke.  The demon cried, his howl flashed behind her eyes.

If you don’t play the game with me I will win.  You named no challenger for your blood.  The challenge defaults to me.

“But if I don’t play there is no game!”  Barb shouted at nothing.  The energy wasn’t gone, just far away.  She heard a noise downstairs.  The cat was up, arched back, drool spilling from a hissing mouth.  This was real.

The game is indifferent.  The game moves on its own and those who win get what they want.

“Those who don’t?”  She didn’t know why she was humoring it.  It seemed more dangerous not to, like a child with a gun and a vague understanding of permanence.

That’s for the winner to decide.  Barb shut the bedroom door.  She didn’t want the cat to interfere.  She went downstairs slow, a hand stretched out to feel the mysterious entity, the energy that flowed and repulsed.  She found the game board set with the missing pieces.  Four stickmen, two lopsided die, a warped stone planchette, a stack of uneven cards, and an ornate bronze hourglass.  It was a true hourglass, measuring that exact amount of time in crimson sand.  The holder was the head of an androgynous human in agony.  Face down it vomited blood, face up it choked on blood.

The glass was choking, had been for at least fifty-nine minutes.  She had seconds to decide to play.  She had to play, didn’t she?  It was able to touch her, hurt her, and it would do worse if it won.

“How do I play?”  Laughter filled the room from a faraway place that echoed.  There was a visible ripple in the air, a chilling wave.

Barb flipped to the beginning of Dad’s novel.  She read. 10, she picked up the dice, 6, she rolled, 4, she selected a stickman and set him on the board.  The last second drained.  Nothing happened.

“Did you win?”

Yes.  Thank you.  I’m sorry I scared you.  I’m sorry about your cat.  I was angry, you would be, too, if they took–

The energy left and she felt empty without it.  Its final thought through her mind was sincere, the tone was utter joy.  She felt fine, herself.  What did you win?  She thought and knew for sure it was gone because there was no response.  The board was still there and so were the pieces.  Barb got the box and put it all away.  She knew everything was back to normal when she heard the cat scraping its litter box.  What had been taken from the demon? He didn’t sound evil.  Sounded betrayed, regretful..

The telephone rang.  There would only be one person calling.

“Holy shit, you’ll never believe it!”  Barb said, relief and awe of surviving an ethereal panic dropped her to the floor.  Even the cat seemed better, despite being declawed.

“You cunt.”  Michael said so sharply that Barb could not help but feel the demon was talking to her.  “You played that game and you lost.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t want to hurt me?”

“Of course not!  He wanted my family!  And you let him!”  His rage made Barb recoil in fear.  He had never ever been so angry with her.  Grumpy, quick to judge, but never raging.

“Your kids?”

“I was saying goodbye to all of them before my flight and then, poof, they’re gone.  See you in six hours.”

“What’s going on?”

“You’re gonna help me fix this.”

“What happened to your kids?  Are they coming, too?”

“They’re gone, Barb, you stupid bag of hairballs!  Gone!  Because you just had to play the game.  What did you want?  Money?  A man?”

“Fuck you!  I didn’t want anything!”

“Don’t do a goddamn thing until I get there.”

“You took his kids, didn’t you?”  But Michael had hung up.  Barb flipped the hourglass – vomiting, choking, vomiting, choking, vomiting, and halfway through the final and choking hour Michael burst through the front door.

“I looked for that thing for a long time.  Where was it?”  Michael said, pointing a meaty finger at the metal board between them.  It hit her, her father’s last words.  Dad had played the game one last time and wished that Michael would never find it, again.  She broke the spell by finding it and playing it.   But it was an accident… She thought.

“That’s why you wanted to sell Dad’s book.  Whoever bought it would get the game, then you’d know where it was!”  Barb said, putting it all together way too late.

Barb kept the dining room table between them.  The cat hissed, Skinny Bitch always hated Michael and until now Barb had no idea why – it knew his family wasn’t real and Michael was pretty fucked up for stealing them.

“You’re just so practical and serious I never thought you’d play it.”  Michael seethed.

“You took someone’s kids!”

“Not someone, another reality of me.”

“Another what?”

“Dad treated a physicist and the guy had developed some sort of dark matter portal access.  Dad played the game with him to help get some miracle drug that’d cure some disease.  Dad made us rich.”

“And it wasn’t enough for you.  You had to wish for children.”

“Wendy came from there, too.

“From where?  The aether?  The void?  What do you call it?”

“It’s a second earth.  You’re there, everyone here is there, but different lives.  The guy who developed this portal designed this machine to open up the path.”

“But it’s a game.”

“It could only be a game.  Rules, a sensory simulation of a reality that isn’t there, complete mental focus.  It had never been done before because the materials weren’t right.  The scientist went to the other side with a copy of Dad’s book.  You have to play with materials from both sides.”

“But there are other realities?”

“Countless.”

“But the game only accesses this one?”

“Right.”

“Lucky shot, another earth.  Could’ve been poison gas or aliens.”

“I don’t know.  It just is.”

“Why do wishes come true?”

“You’re focused on the game and if what you win is what you think then it becomes real here, subtracting from the other world.”

“You piece of shit.”

“I gave them a better life!”

“Did she want this?”

“I saved her.  And our kids.”

“But none of them were from here!  How would you react talking to someone who looks like your husband but in whole new reality?”

“Does it matter where they’re from?  They were happy.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Life is life wherever you go.  Ups and downs.”

“Wendy was a bitch, so was your daughter and your son was well on his way.  They didn’t belong here, they felt it.  I felt it playing this game with your other version, a repulsion.  I couldn’t live like that!”

“But I’m a good guy!  They have a future with me!  You know who I am over there?”

“Was Dad a good guy?  Were our lives built on wishes?  What the hell happened to the people we stole from?”

“I’m a goddamn car salesman on the other side.”

“And you stole your family.  These aren’t things you just wish for, Michael!”

“How would you know?  You’ve never done anything in your entire life!”

“I know because I don’t do what I don’t want, I don’t enjoy hurting people even if it means I lose.  I go after what I know I can get and it’s safe and it keeps things consistent!  I’m not lazy, I just know my boundaries.  People aren’t things, life isn’t something you can just design!”

“Are you telling me it’s not a game?”

“I’m telling you it shouldn’t be.  Games are something you go to when you want a break.”

Michael bit his finger and smeared blood on the board.  “I challenge you, Barbara Brown.”

The hourglass flipped.  Michael rolled the dice and the stickman moved three spaces on the black metal.  He touched the planchette and it swiveled across the board.  Michael watched the board, reading something that Barb could not see.  He cut the deck of cards, selected one, and moved his man a few paces ahead.  Michael played the card he drew.  The sand in the hourglass froze and in a blink the majority of the sand vomited to the bottom half.

“Looks like you’ve got twenty seconds for your turn.”

“I’m not doing this.”

“I had a feeling that’s how the other me won.  You refused to play just like you refuse to live.”  Barb leaned over the table.  Michael wouldn’t tell her how to play, he wanted to win and get his family back.  It was so sick, it was clear Wendy and her children didn’t want to be here and yet they had no choice.

“If you don’t play then I win.  If you do play I’ll still win.  Maybe they won’t feel so awful if you could be a better sister-in-law and aunt?”  Barb held out her hand for the dice.  10, Michael took three seconds to hand over the dice, 7, Barb rolled, the stickman moved two paces, 5, Barb selected a card.  It was blank.  3, she touched the planchette and it wiggled over the board.  1, she dropped her card on the discard pile and her stickman moved back to the start.

“You have no idea what you’re doing!  Didn’t you read the card?”  Michael laughed.

“There wasn’t anything on it!”

“You gotta focus.  You can’t win if you just play.  That’s why you have plenty of time to let the game absorb you.”

“I bet they feel more like these game pieces than they do your family.  No wonder they just did what you wanted, how could they argue with someone who pulled them from an alternate reality?”  Barb smiled when she saw her words cut Michael’s smug face.  He shut his eyes, rocking the dice in a heavy fist.  Barb’s hand darted out.  She thought about life and rules and games.  It all worked until it just didn’t.  Rules bent, mended, or broke, and games stopped working due to the players or… the pieces needed.

She felt bones snap in her hand as her hand forced itself against the negative energy forcing her back.  It wasn’t her turn, the game knew that much, but she was getting through and before she lost feeling from the elbow down she felt his game piece crush in her palm.  She pulled back her arm and cradled it.  Michael stood with his mouth open.

“You can’t do that.”  He said.

The hourglass choked on sand.

Barb ran away from the table, toppling a chair to give her a second or two to gain distance.  She only had to keep this going for an hour.  From out of nowhere the cat leapt and bit into Michael’s thigh.  Michael yelped and smacked at thin air because the Coolest Kitty On Earth was gone before he could get a hand on it.  How did it get out of the bedroom?  Barb spun around a corner and toppled a bookshelf.  First editions and signed copies spilled, dust clouded the air.  She kept going.  She heard him grunt and the squeal of wood gave her the mental image of him pushing the bookcase over.  She ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom.  She leaned into her dresser and it scraped up the floor all the way to the door just as Michael turned the knob.  He was kicking at it.  He had always been a sore loser.  Barb went to the window and threw the stickman out into the waning sunlight, but it came back at her, hit her in the face.  It clattered on the floor and slid across the hardwood.  She dove and missed it and it slipped under the door.  Going back to the game, she thought and she struggled to push the dresser back so she could get out.

Michael ran, she heard his panic stricken strides chase after the stick figure.  If he took his turn she’d have an hour to take hers, but she would not be able to pull this stunt, again.  The game rules said nothing about cheating.  Most games never account for cheats, but this is unrealistic given any world and any time with a fallible, free people.  Michael would either let her stay in her room or he would tie her up, or kill her to be sure he’d win.  He could just let her play, too, she had no idea what she was doing.

The cat jumped onto the dresser, meowing encouragement.  She got the dresser out of the door’s way and bolted downstairs.  Michael was on his knees scrabbling through piles of books.  The game piece was scraping over the floor under the piles of hardcovers.  It was attracted to the game, where it belonged, like gravity or reflecting light, invisible forces of nature called it.  She charged into Michael and sent him sprawling.  She made a grab for the game piece.  She caught it against the floor, but before she could curl her fingers around it, Michael wrapped his fingers around her throat, one by one, and the hot sticky sweat of his palms burned into her skin.  She felt the blood pulsing in her head just behind her eyes.  She got the game piece and stuck it in her mouth and it pressed against the back of her teeth.  Michael flung her against the floor, but she gritted her teeth against the wind flying from her lungs.  Michael was on top of her, peeling back her lips.

“You’re gonna watch.  You’ll see how happy they are!  You’ll see you’re a fuckin’ loser just because you think you can’t have anything!”  He was crying, tears of desperation and fear.  He didn’t really want to hurt her, but he was doing this for a fantasy only he believed in.  He had nothing else and could not even fathom earning what he had gained after getting everything so easy.  She felt blood pool in her mouth and choke her, he had torn her lips wide open and he got fingernails under her incisors.  His thumbs were prying her mouth open and even if he couldn’t do that the blood filling the back of her throat was going to make her cough and gag any second.

Her only other option was to stick her pinkies into the outsides of his eye sockets.  She did so, even with a broken hand her muscles forced her finger to obey.  Once dug in, Barb hooked her pinkies, feeling the squish of the white orb and the string of optic nerve against her curving fingers.

She ripped back her arms, yanking out his eyeballs.  She coughed blood into his face and the game piece launched into the air, arcing to the game board.  She heard it hit the metal and freeze in place.

Michael shrieked so loud and shrill there was no way the neighbors did not hear it.  He tried to get away, but she had his eyes gripped in her hands.  She let go and Michael flailed on the floor, torn between mauling her and coping with the worst pain of his life.  She got away, spitting her blood out on the floor, crawling over books and climbing up a dining room chair to catch her breath.  He was still screaming.

It was much easier to lift up the game board this time.  The metal didn’t cut her.  She raised it over Michael.  He was in mid-scream when she drove a sharp corner of the metal board through his skull.  She waited to get her wish, but Michael’s body was still there, his head bisected like Frankenstein’s Monster.  She stepped away from his pooling blood and sat back down at the dining room table.  The hourglass had about fifty-eight minutes left.  It happened that fast?  The game would wait that long to allow Barb to win.  In the meantime, she heard footsteps outside, then the doorbell.

Ah, shit.

Barb smoothed her clothes, sweats she reserved for her weekends.  The sweatshirt was printed with a tacky neon unicorn, but the blood made it grotesque.  She had to answer the door.  If whoever was on the other side heard the screams they’d start looking in windows and they knew someone was home because Michael’s rental was in the driveway.  Her car was hidden in the garage.  The cat was licking blood off its paws.  Barb thought fast and whisked The Dire-Wolf-Puma into her arms.

She answered the door.  Of course, super snoop Shannon was calling.

“Goodness, is everything ok?  I was walking the dog and heard the worst racket!”

“I’m fine.  Little Thing here got stuck in the screen.”  Barb said pointing out the claws still stuck in the bowed screen door she would not open for the worst neighbor.

“Oh, my god!  I thought there was, like, a murder or something!”

“No, cats scream like that.”

“But the car?  I thought I saw someone come in?”

“No, that’s a rental.  My car is shot, it’s coming back Monday.”

“But your lip!”

“Cats don’t know any better when they get in a panic.”

“That’s why I’m a dog person!”  Shannon said and Barb forced a smile so wide her lip bled worse.  It had the desired effect.

“Well, glad you’re ok!”  Shannon turned on her heel and power-walked away with her tea-cup gremlin in tow.  Shannon would spread the news and no one would be trick-or-treating her house.  Hell, no one would walk their dogs up this way anymore.

Barb locked the door and drew the blinds around the house.  She let the cat go back to lapping up Michael’s blood.  Barb respected the cat’s disregard for custom and the polite way of things.  That’s how these dummies survived evolution.  She sat and looked at her brother’s corpse.  He had forgot to be human in exchange for what?  A wish?  She pitied him, unable to find satisfaction in this world.  He gave up too soon and it wasn’t just the family he had wished for as she had  a feeling he started small watching their parents help that scientist.  Michael went after money, a job, maybe even his high school diploma – all taken from that alternate reality, destroying lives so suddenly.  Maybe the bad things that happened in your life were the result of someone else getting their heart’s desire.

Michael had never lived.  And me?  He was right… I haven’t lived.  But she wasn’t going to live a lie like he had, exploiting the other reality to do so.

It could do some good, but not if it took the good away from someone else.  Are we morally obligated to not just this reality, but others?  It was too much for her.  Barb listened to the hiss of the last grains of sand draining.  She felt that magnetic energy push her and she felt a voice invade her mind.

And what is your wish?  It was the mental voice of the alternate Michael.

“Nothing.  I can do this myself.”

But you helped me?

“Don’t worry about it.”  She wouldn’t wish this mess on anyone in this world or another.  This was her problem, the consequence of solving a problem before.  She was afraid to break the links of her life or lose track of them.  If she let the alt-Michael take care of this she might need him later to fix something else, which meant she would never stop playing the game.

The energy left the house in chilling waves.  The cat gnawed on one of Michael’s eyes.  Barb reached out and touched the metal board stuck in the floor through Michael’s cranium.  The pieces fell off the board and scattered.

She went to the garage and carried back tools to dismember Michael.  A grisly mess, but she handled it and disinfected and destroyed the evidence.  She suspected that Michael had done some of this work for her.  He had come here to hurt her, so he wouldn’t have told any friends where he was going, he wouldn’t have rented a car or used his credit card. When she got into the car she saw it wasn’t a rental, but a cheap third hand vehicle, which proved her suspicion.  He had paid cash for this junker.  He also no longer had a family who would look for him.  She took a short road trip and it felt good to get out of the house.  She transported Michael’s wrapped body parts and buried him across the rural outskirts beyond the small town she called home.  She parked the car on the bad side of town, which amounted to college parties and mild vandalism.  She left it unlocked with the keys on the seat and the pink slip on the dash.  She walked home in the refreshing Autumn air.  This work was a small price to pay in order to keep her freedom and solitude.

She cleaned up everything, and placed the game back into the chest.  She didn’t buy a lock for it.  That would only make people curious.  She hadn’t wished the game away because she didn’t want the alt-Michael or anyone else to deal with it.  She wrote a simplified instruction manual, a single page, to supplement her father’s tome.  One day, when she was gone, someone would find this chest and start the game.  Hopefully, her instructions would help the player think beyond greed.  Until then Barb ignored the pulls of energy drawing her to the attic where the game was hidden.    She didn’t think she would ever hear from alt-Michael, again.  He got what he wanted the only way he could, so he had no reason to play the game, either.  If she did answer the game’s call the challenge would be against someone new, someone wishing for something they didn’t think they could get and felt they deserved.  Barb ignored the calls, the push and pull of spooky magnetic energy.

But when the forces of the other world became too powerful and desperate Barb got out of the house.  She started doing things out there in her world.  When she returned home the energy was usually gone, it had lost patience, or maybe there were other game boards and other players around the world of both realities.  It didn’t matter, she refused to play.

She would grant her own wishes from now on.