THE GAME


 

By Christine Eskilson

 

 

 

It sounded so innocent at first.

“Let’s play a game,” Debbie suggested, leaning across the coffee table to pick her glass of wine. “It’ll be fun and it’ll help us get to know each other better.”

The other four women in the room nodded in agreement but I choked back a groan. I wasn’t intending to get to know anyone better and Debbie’s game sounded suspiciously like group therapy, not exactly the adventure weekend I had signed up for.

Actually I hadn’t signed up for anything at all. Wild Women Exploration weekends were marketed for women of a certain age (that’s travel speak for over forty) and my brother had given me the trip for a significant birthday divisible by five.  He must have thought my Club Med days were behind me so instead of sipping Pina Coladas on a beach I was trapped in a cabin in the Berkshires, supposedly bonding with women I’d never met before.  And most likely would never see again. Debbie was our Wild Women group leader. Yesterday was whitewater rafting on the Deerfield River and today was the trek to the summit of Mount Greylock.  Tomorrow we’d be Wild Women no longer.  After breakfast Martha would go back to her husband in suburban Boston, Jennifer would spring her blue Persians from the cat sitter, Alex and Alice would return to their Cambridge condo, and I’d go home to Boston, too.

“Can I go first?” Martha asked, putting down her knitting.  She looked as eager as a kid who’d just been introduced to Candyland. Martha had told us all Friday night that she hadn’t spent a weekend away from her husband in ten years. Maybe she was making up for lost time.

“It’ll work best if I go first,” Debbie said after swallowing her last sip of the Shiraz Alex had produced earlier. “It’s called True or False.  I’m going to tell you two facts about myself.” She pursed her lips. “You know, forget facts. Let’s call them factoids. One statement is completely true and the other is false. You can ask me any questions about them and then you decide which one is the truth.” 

“Sounds fun,” Jennifer offered from her spot on the floor, running her hands through her dark cropped hair.  She’d struck me as the sensible, low-maintenance member of the group — the one who always had a granola bar and a fleece to spare. 

“I guess it could be worse; it could be charades,” Alex drawled as she unfurled her long legs.  “I’ll open another bottle.”

“Wine goes well with this game,” Debbie agreed. “What do you think, Alice?”

Alice, sprawled next to Martha on the couch, had seemed on the verge of falling asleep since we got back from the mountain. Her blue eyes fluttered open and she looked around slowly, like she wasn’t quite sure where she was. 

“We’re playing a game, Alice,” Alex told her. “Sit up and I’ll get you another glass of wine.”  Her tone was sharp but since Alex and Alice were sisters I chalked it up to the familiarity of siblings.

Alice obediently stretched out her arms overhead and sat up.

Debbie turned to me. “You in?”

I wasn’t going to be the spoiler so I nodded yes.

“Here are my factoids,” Debbie announced, settling back into the loveseat. “Number one: my father was a Pentecostal minister and I grew up speaking in tongues. Number two: one of my cousins had a fling with President Clinton.”

Number two really woke Alice up. “She did? Like Monica Lewinsky?” she asked.

Alex snorted as she held up a second bottle of wine. “Alice, it’s a game. We don’t know which one is true. That’s what we have to find out.”

Alice’s milky white skin, which had gotten too much sun today, reddened even more. “Okay, I forgot,” she said meekly.

Alex poured everyone more Shiraz and then draped herself over an armchair. “Where did you grow up?” she asked.

“Arkansas,” Debbie answered and her voice carried a touch of southern softness I hadn’t noticed before.

Jennifer’s turn. “What was the name of your father’s church?”

Debbie fingered the stem of her glass. “It wasn’t really a church, but he did have a congregation.  People would come to our backyard every Sunday. He called it Nearer My God to Thee.”

“Were there snakes?” Martha’s needles clicked busily. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what she was making. At first I thought it was a baby sweater but it had a long torso and absurdly short arms.    

“No snakes,” Debbie laughed, “but people did speak in tongues.”

“Let’s move on to President Clinton,” Alice spoke up. “When did your cousin meet him?”

“High school. He was a few years ahead of her.”

“Do they call them flings in high school?” Jennifer wondered. “I thought the term was hookups.”

“So he wasn’t President then.” Alice sounded disappointed.

“No, but she always said he’d be famous one day.”

Alex let out an exaggerated yawn before I had a chance to leap in. “This is getting boring,” she pronounced. “The answer’s obvious. Look at Debbie. We already know she speaks Italian, Spanish and French fluently, with a smattering of German.”  This was true — yesterday Debbie was telling us about the trips she led all over the world — Wild Women Go to Warsaw and the like. “Of course she speaks in tongues. I vote for the Pentecostal minister.”

“That doesn’t necessarily make any sense,” Martha began but Debbie nodded. “Alex is right.  My father was a Pentecostal minister in Arkansas and, on occasion, at services we spoke in tongues.”

“So your cousin never went out with President Clinton?” Alice persisted.

Alex rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you listen to the rules, Alice? Only one of the stories is true.”

“Sorry, Alice,” Debbie said. “I don’t even have a cousin. Both my parents were only children.”

“That’s kind of sad,” Martha observed.

“Do you come from a big family, Martha?” I asked. Not that I really cared; I was just trying to be polite.

“Tom and I both come from large families.”

“And you left your husband with all the kids for the weekend?” Alice asked. “He must be a saint.”

Martha only smiled modestly.

“What would you know about husbands?” Alex asked, wagging her finger at her sister. “Last I checked you haven’t been out on a date this millennium.”

A hurt look crossed Alice’s face but she didn’t say anything. 

“Okay, ladies,” Debbie said, “let’s move it along. Who’s next?”

We didn’t all leap up at once.  Even though the game was mildly interesting, I didn’t feel like revealing anymore of myself than I already had over the past few days.

“I’m passing on this round,” Alex said. “I have to make some calls.” She rose from her armchair to retreat to the sleeping loft we all shared upstairs.

“I’m afraid the service is pretty spotty here,” Debbie warned.

“I’ve noticed,” Alex flung back over her shoulder, “and please don’t drink all the wine.”

With her sister gone Alice cheered up. “I’ll go next,” she volunteered, “here are my facts. Fact number one: Alex spent two years in the Peace Corps after college. Fact number two: in high school I played Annie in ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’” She looked at us expectantly.

No one said anything (maybe we were taken aback by the possibility of Alex in the Peace Corps) until Jennifer ventured, “Aren’t both the facts supposed to be about you?”

Jennifer and Martha looked at Debbie like she was a professor about to give instructions on how to take a test.

Debbie shrugged. “Hey, you guys are sisters; we can go with this variation. So Alice, who did you inherit your musical talent from?”

Before Alice could answer the clatter of high-heeled boots signaled Alex’s return. She must have heard Debbie’s question because she let out a loud groan. “Oh God, Alice, are you still bragging about ‘Annie Get Your Gun?’ That minor highlight was at least twenty-five years ago. Did she tell you on opening night she was so nervous she threw up six times?”

“Alex!” Alice protested for the first time this weekend, “you ruined the game!”

Ignoring her sister, Alex threw herself back in her chair. “I couldn’t get any service at all tonight.”

“Sorry,” Debbie said, “but I warned you.”

The mood had darkened to the point that it felt like I was in a room full of women with raging PMS, but we were all pushing menopause, if not there already. Alice glared at Alex, Alex fiddled with her iPhone, muttering under her breath, Martha furiously knitted her odd-looking sweater and Debbie took a big gulp of wine. I guessed she was buying time to figure out how to get her group back on track.

Jennifer stepped in as a peacemaker. She was the only one of us who’d been on trips with Debbie before so maybe she was used to an occasional Wild Women breakdown. “Alex, why don’t you go next?” she suggested. “Since Alice did play Annie that means you weren’t really in the Peace Corps but I bet you could come up with something to stump us.”

Alex was not immune to flattery. She stuck her cell in the pocket of her black jeans with a sigh.  “I suppose I could try. Certainly something more intriguing than high school musicals.” She closed her eyes briefly and then opened them wide.

“Factoid number one: I killed the boy who lived next door to us. Factoid number two: I escaped a fire in downtown Boston that killed twenty people, including six children.”

There was a gasp from the couch. I wasn’t sure if it was Martha or Alice. It might have been from both. I didn’t blame them. Alex’s factoids had unnerved me as well. 

Debbie cleared her throat. “You’ve certainly added some drama to the game, Alex.  I can’t say I’ve played it with such — um — violent facts before.”

Alice shook her head. “This isn’t fair, Alex. You can’t do this.”

Alex had a thin smile on her lips. “I promised intriguing, my dear. Just trying to deliver.” She flung her arms out wide. “So who’s first? Ask me a question.”

Alex kept shaking her head and Martha was trembling so much her knitting fell to the floor.  Again Jennifer stepped in. Maybe Debbie gave her a discount to help the trips run smoothly.  She’d really deserve it for this one. “Your next door neighbor. How did he die?”

“When I said I killed him, that’s not strictly speaking what happened. While Alice was belting out ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,’ I was driving around with Kevin and his friends looking for ways to get high or drunk. We lived in the middle of nowhere so if you weren’t into being Miss Rah-Rah High School there was nothing else to do. Anyway, one night we were out on a back road — I was speeding in my dad’s truck and Kevin was in the passenger seat. For some reason he decided to stick his head out of the window, the way a dog does to feel the breeze.”

Alex paused and I looked over at Alice. She was completely still now, except for a single tear trickling down her cheek.

“What happened?” Jennifer almost whispered.

“I guess I was driving a little too close to the side of the road and he hit a stop sign. It took his head off.”

Jennifer looked down in her lap like she’d wished she’d never asked the question. I could have done without it as well.

Debbie clapped her hands. “You know, I think it’s time for all Wild Women to retire to bed. We’ve had a vigorous workout the past few days and I’m sure you’re all exhausted. Let’s get a good night’s sleep to prepare to go back to reality tomorrow.”

I wasn’t about to put up an argument but to my surprise Martha objected. “But Alex’s story might not be true, Debbie. It’s a horrible story but she might be making that one up.”

From the way Alice had reacted I didn’t think so.

“Where and when was the fire?” Martha went on.

Alex yawned. “I’m sure you heard about it when it happened. It was the one ten years ago on Boylston Street. They were doing rewiring and an electrical panel exploded and started a huge fire. I was working at a travel agency on the first floor.” She pushed up the sleeve of her silk turtleneck to reveal a patch of scar tissue on her right arm. “They did some skin grafts but it still looks like this.”

“I remember that one,” Jennifer said. “A daycare center was in the building and they weren’t able to get all the kids out.”

“Like I said, six kids died.”

Martha spoke up again. “I remember hearing that some people in the building helped evacuate the day care center. Did you do that?”

Alex shook her head. “I’m not pretending to be a hero. I heard the kids screaming but I just wanted out. I wasn’t going to risk my life.” She let out another yawn. “Who wants to take a guess? Is it the stop sign or the fire? Or is it both? And by the way, Alice, you’re disqualified from guessing this round.”

Alice’s tear was gone, leaving only a thin wet streak, but she still sat motionless on the couch.

Silence settled on the room again. No one wanted to pick between Alex’s two horrific tales.

“No takers? Then I’m with Debbie and I’m ready for bed.” Alex pulled out her iPhone to turn it back on. “Still no service,” she advised us as she made her way upstairs.

I helped Debbie bring the empty wine bottles and glasses into the kitchen. “Alex is quite a character,” I observed. “I wonder which of those stories is true.”

“She certainly has made this trip unusual,” was all Debbie would say. 

 

I had a restless night. The sleeping loft was spacious enough and screens separated the beds so we each had some measure of privacy but the occasional coughs or snoring bouts that I’d slept through on the past two nights kept me up on this one. After what seemed like hours I finally was slipping into blissful unconsciousness when I heard muffled footsteps. I cracked open one eye and saw Alex, fully dressed, heading down the stairs. As I closed my eyes again I sensed that someone was getting up to follow her. I kept my eyes shut. After the evening’s entertainment the less I knew about Alex the better.

Even though I’d had so much trouble getting to sleep I seemed to be the first one up. The sleeping loft was quiet as bright sun peeped through the yellow curtains in the window nearest my bed. Behind my screen I pulled on a pair of running shorts and a t-shirt, figuring I’d squeeze in one last workout so I could tell my brother he got his money’s worth.  I tiptoed downstairs, carrying my sneakers, and slipped out of the cabin’s front door.

But I wasn’t going anywhere. A body lay on the flagstone path, a few feet away from the cabin.  I dropped my sneakers and ran to the figure. It was Alex. She lay face down, arms outstretched, cell phone clutched in one hand.  Blood smeared the back of her head, matting her long black hair.

“Alex?” I asked stupidly as I crouched down beside her, “are you all right?” She must have slipped and fallen while outside checking for cell coverage, hitting her head on the flagstone.

Then I saw the large rock stained with blood.

 

I’d heard that a person who finds a dead body often becomes the prime suspect. I can report that didn’t happen to me. To be sure there were a few uncomfortable moments after the local police arrived and I was questioned intensely on the weekend and the game we played the night before.  We all were, of course. But it helped that I had never laid eyes on Alex before the trip and my brother, who was a lawyer in New York, drove out to be with me. We were all allowed to go home, with strict instructions not to travel anywhere without notifying the police.

Alex’s death got a lot of media play in the Berkshires and in Boston over the next days. Were we a group of women who had gotten a little too wild or had she been the victim of a random attack?   Neither, as it turned out. Alice was arrested and charged with her sister’s murder within the week.

Apparently the story Alex had told us about the boy next door and the stop sign was true. What she left out was that Alice had been in love with Kevin. She’d had a nervous breakdown when he died and never fully recovered. According to the district attorney, Alex had been psychologically tormenting Alice for years and she finally snapped after Alex used Kevin’s tragic death in Debbie’s game.

I didn’t know what to think when Alice pleaded not guilty but my brother pointed out that every defendant is entitled to make the state prove its case. I was subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution at the trial in Pittsfield, along with Debbie, Martha and Jennifer. My brother said there was no way to get out of it but he promised for my next birthday to send me to the Canyon Ranch Spa in Lenox.

I told the jury about the game and that I had seen Alex sneak out in the middle of the night. I also told them that I thought someone had followed her. When I left the stand I stole a glance at Alice, sitting small and pale between her attorneys. She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

Although there were no fingerprints or other physical evidence linking her to the crime, the prosecution’s theory convinced the jury. They took less than six hours to find Alice guilty, and that was including lunch. She was sentenced to life in prison.

 

I was never going on another Wild Women trip so after the trial I didn’t expect to see anyone from that weekend again. Last week, however, I ran into Martha in a Costco outside of Boston.  Her cart was jammed full of enormous bags of dog food.

“Hi Martha,” I said, “you look like you’re going to be well-stocked.” I nodded at the cart.

“Oh yes, it’s on special and the kids won’t eat any other brand.”

I was confused. “Kids? But this is dog food.”

Martha smiled patiently. “My husband and I raise daschunds. They’re our children.”

“Somehow I thought you had other children. Real children.” Open mouth, insert foot. “I mean human children. I thought you told us that.”

Martha’s voice lowered. “I did have a daughter but she died when she was very young.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I apologize, Martha, I’m a complete idiot. Please forgive me.”

She looked straight into my eyes and her voice lowered even more. “She died in a fire. It was in the building downtown where her day care center was. Six of the kids didn’t make it out. She was one of them.”




Christine Eskilson received honorable mentions in the 2012 Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Contest and the 2012 Women’s National Book Association First Annual Writing Contest.  Her stories have appeared in Blood Moon (Level Best Books 2012), Rogue Wave (Level Best Books 2014), Red Dawn (Level Best Books 2015), the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable (September 2014), and Creatures of Habitat (Main Street Rag 2015).
Copyright 2015 Christine Eskilson. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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