Imagine a house that feels unfamiliar, with a long wooden table pushed close against the window of the dining room, and prints of Mount Rainier peering down from the wall with old man stares.
Can you see it in your mind? It will be the picture on the first card in the deck.
It’s your house, which means that you no longer notice what I’m noticing now. I’m sitting with you at that wooden table and we have cards in our hands and then more cards in an oblong cardboard box on the edge of the table. You have a pen and a dice and an expression on your face that is half patience and half frustration. You’re trying to teach me how to play Magic. This is lesson two of the indeterminate number of lessons needed to gain mastery, which, for me, could take a great deal more lessons than you anticipated.
“So can I cast this land?”
“No,” you say. “No, it’s legendary, see.”
“So, I can’t cast lands anymore?”
“No. Well, I mean you can still cast lands. Just not that land because it’s a legendary land and you’ve already cast one that’s the exact same.”
Mom used to read Jumanji to Hannah and me when we were little. I know you’ve seen the movie, but have you read the book?
Imagine a house on top of the world where you can sit out on the back deck as the darkness gathers and glimpse the tip-most spherical point of the sky cleaving against the evening stars. You wouldn’t know this house, but I’ve looked for that spherical tilt in other places and I’ve never been able to find it since.
Imagine two families who love each other sitting on that deck. I’m there, but I’m eleven and sport a chlorine-crushed bowl cut. You might not recognize me, but imagine that you do. Hannah’s there too, and Lizzy and JT, and Mom and Dad, and Mr. and Mrs. Nowakowski, and that big orange tabby named Marmalade. JT teases us at dinner because we eat our edamame whole, fuzzy shell and all, and gosh, haven’t we ever learned how to eat soybeans properly before? I think I stick out my tongue. I’m sure I laugh.
We play Pictionary that night under that great cleaving sphere of evening sky, all eight of us together, plus Marmalade the cat. Hannah’s a budding artist, and so she and JT duel it out for our respective teams. When it gets too dark to see, we move the game inside.
JT’s team wins.
The next time we play Pictionary, he will be dead.
“Very important: Once a game of Jumanji has started, it will NOT be over until one player reaches the golden city.” Mom loves this line. Whenever she reads it, she reads it ominously, with arched eyebrows.
There is a glossed wooden table in a dining room that is not unlike the one you and I sit at now. There is a fire crackling in the fireplace and multicolored lights on a Christmas tree glowing in muted reds and greens, and a mother and her two daughters bent intently over a Scrabble playing board.
I’m one of the daughters, the fourteen-year-old one with the glasses and the braces. It’s a perfect scene. And yet, can’t you hear me yelling?
“Mom, you can’t just help Hannah like that!” I protest furiously.
I can’t help thinking that Hannah doesn’t even know what the word “vixen” means. But Mom’s just won fifteen points for her, and in the bottom corner too, and now she’s going to win.
“Hillbilly’s a sore looo-ser,” crows Hannah.
“I’ll help you next time, Hillary,” soothes Mom. “You were winning right up till the end.”
“I don’t want to play with cheaters,” I snap, and dump my word tiles into a forceful pile on top of the board. Angry tears are springing to my eyes. My throat is closing in.
When I play with you and Steve, the two of you fight sometimes too. I wish that you wouldn’t.
Don’t you know how lucky you are that your brother still wants to play?
Judy and Peter are the main characters in Jumanji, and they are bored. But when Hannah and I peer down at the illustrations in Mom’s lap, they don’t look bored. Maybe that’s because there are suddenly chimpanzees in the kitchen and a rhino stampede in the living room.
I don’t think I would be bored if I were playing this game.
I’m pretty sure I’d be terrified.
Imagine a house that I love more than any other in the world. Imagine the desert cedar rafters set against the red stucco, and the alternating patterns of suns and moons and cactuses around the window sills and mirrors. Think of every happy memory I’ve had here, and then think of this one, which is sad.
You already knew me when I was twenty, but picture me in this sad memory in a happy house, sitting on the floor with Mom and playing Scrabble on the coffee table.
Grandma is sick. It is Thanksgiving, and I’ve helped Mom prepare the instant mashed potatoes, and the green bean casserole, and the pre-cooked turkey breast that we bought at the Harmons’ Deli last night. Grandma comes out of her room only to pick at her mashed potatoes before retreating again like an injured lamb.
Hannah is in the other bedroom that she shares with me. She won’t come out either. I haven’t played Scrabble with her since that fight six years ago.
Mom looks tired. I know that I am tired. Our baggy eyes and blank stares help to smother the other things we feel. The game is distracting, which is why we are playing it. We move our wooden tiles without saying a word.
I sometimes think about the lion in Jumanji. In the story, he appears on top of the piano, gives a great roar, and chases Peter into the bedroom, his dreadful paws stretching outwards to grab at a leg or an arm. Peter only escapes from those hot jaws when the lion’s head gets caught beneath the bed.
What if that lion hadn’t gotten stuck?
I’ve done something right in this game of Magic that you’re playing with me. I’ve just blocked one of your creature cards from attacking me, and somehow that means that I get a dice on top of one of my cards with six new creatures that each have a power and toughness of one.
I’m not entirely sure what it is that I’ve done, but I’m happy because you’re happy. A six on a dice is a good roll.
I think I might even be winning.
It’s Peter’s turn. The square he has landed on reads “Monsoon Season Begins.”
Mom has to pause for a moment to explain what a monsoon is. When she does, the line about how the rain is falling in buckets suddenly makes more sense. The room is flooding. The chimpanzees are scared out of the kitchen. The illustration shows them crouching around Judy at the game table, eyes wide, hands outstretched.
I tell Mom that I’m worried the monkeys will drown.
In that house on top of the world, a six on a dice is fine, but only when the other four die are also sixes.
Of course, this only applies to Yahtzee, which is what we are playing right now. Hannah and Lizzy and I love this game, but we only love it because it is the one that JT hates the most.
“It’s too random,” JT complains. “There’s no strategy.”
Hannah agrees. She rattles the red cup with the five die in it and pours it over the top of JT’s head. Somehow, she scores a perfect Yahtzee with five sixes all in a row. JT protests, but she’s the youngest, so we let her pick the die off of his head and shoulders and keep her score.
Scoring a perfect Yahtzee like that doesn’t always happen, even if you try. Sometimes you role two ones, a two, a three, and a six, which scores the lowest.
Eight years later, maybe JT rolled that combination. Maybe that’s why he took twenty-four Tylenol to bed and never woke up.
“Four, five, six… Bitten by Tsetse fly.
Contract sleeping sickness. Lose one turn.”
I huddle next to Hannah on the bed. Mom’s voice drops in pitch and becomes more foreboding. Judy must take the next turn alone. Her brother is unconscious on the table across from her. She rolls the dice… One, two, three…
Would I be able to be that brave?
There are two college students sitting in the Salt Lake City airport on a row of hard black benches. They’re both flying out of the same terminal, but the sign on one of the gates reads “Providence, RI” and the sign on the other reads “Seattle, WA.”
I’m there and Hannah’s there too. We’re playing Uno with the deck of cards you gave me as a Christmas present. We’ve balanced the card deck precariously on a paper folder on the bench arm, and we have to keep our fingers pressed on the edges of the folder or else the whole contraption will topple over.
Hannah’s winning. You know how you told me once that I was the best Uno player in the world? Well, Hannah’s a lot better. We used to fight about it when we were little. Now, each time Hannah wins, we just deal out seven more cards and keep playing
College has taught us one thing. It’s easy to fight when we’re losing. It’s a lot harder when we’re leaving.
After the flood in Jumanji, there is a volcano. The lava hits the floodwaters and erupts into an explosion of steam. Mom shows us the illustration of the board game disappearing into thick, scalding fog.
I’m on the other end of the picture. It’s still hard to breathe.
Imagine a Christmas Eve phone call from the hospital near the house I love more than any other in the world. Imagine the four of us exchanging nervous glances over the caller ID. Imagine the fear when Mom takes the call.
“Hello? What….? Is she okay?”
We hadn’t planned on playing any games that night, but as we listen to Mom’s end of the phone call, Dad and I pick up the ping pong paddles and hit the balls mechanically back and forth. Hannah stares blankly at us from the couch.
Ping. Pong. Ping. Pong.
“Do they know what’s wrong?”
Ping. Pong. Ping.
(Pause to retrieve the ball from behind the piano.)
“A broken back…. I see…”
Ping. Pong. Ping. Pong.
(Pause to retrieve the ball from underneath the couch.)
“No, of course. Thank you. Can I speak to her doctor?”
For nineteen Christmas Eves, I fell asleep dreaming of Santa and presents beneath the tree. On my twentieth, Grandma was in the hospital.
I cried myself to sleep.
“Jumanji! she yelled, as loud as she could,” Mom reads this line and pauses for dramatic effect. Hannah and I cluster closer together, waiting for the verdict. What will happen to the lion and the steam?
“Everything was just as it had been before the game.”
You let me win at Magic. We both know it’s because you have been peeking at the cards in my hand and hinting at the ones I should play, but you congratulate me anyway.
“Maybe someday I really will beat you,” I say.
“Maybe,” you say with a bit of a tease in your voice. You shuffle our card decks and deal out eight more cards. “Now, what do you do first in a game of Magic? Do you remember?”
I cast a land card onto the table. The corner of your mouth tugs upward into a smile.
You sometimes wonder why I no longer play games unless I’m playing with you. I don’t tell you that it’s because I worry about what might happen if I lose.
And yet you aren’t sick or sad or dead. You still want to play.
Jumanji ends when two new siblings find the game in the park and take it home with them to play. It gives us a quiver up the back of our spines when Mom reads the final lines.
We hope they will be all right.