We don’t think you’ll be seeing this particular board game on the shelves of Toys-R-Us anytime soon…
THE GAME OF ETERNAL LIFE
“Aunt Ruth?” I rang the bell twice and tapped on the window glass of the front door. The lace curtains inside prevented me from seeing in.
“What’s the matter, isn’t she home?” my husband asked, coming up the steps behind me and setting our luggage down on the porch.
“She must be. When I phoned yesterday I told her we’d be here about three. Aunt Ruth?” I called again, louder, beginning to worry a little. My great-aunt had been living alone here since my great-uncle died ten years ago.
“Maybe she’s napping. Give her a chance to come downstairs.” Brian’s words calmed me. “But you were right about this place, Cheryl,” he added.
“You feel it too?” I joined him where he stood at the railing, gazing out at the front yard. We’d been married four years, but this was his first visit here, where I had spent most of my summers when I was a child. I wondered if he was sensing the same mysterious atmosphere about it as I always had. The house was a 1930’ s style two-story at the end of a country road, with the closest neighbor a half-mile away. There was a seclusion about it, an otherness, as though it wasn’t part of anything outside its own boundaries.
“Yes, there’s something different here,” Brian answered, sniffing the soft breeze which always blew around here. “All those roses and hollyhocks growing wild against that split-rail fence - - it seems like a painting out of the past.”
I nodded. “You’ll notice it more inside. Nothing ever seems to change,” I told him. Even now, along the outer borders of the property, I could hear the willow branches brushing the ground with their same old mysterious whispers. I remembered the crushed clamshell and gravel driveway, and it looked the same, except for our red car parked on it now. I hadn’t been here since my uncle’s funeral ten years ago, but the gray clapboard, the thick white doorframe, and the two wooden rockers on the porch were all just as I remembered them. I leaned back against the familiar railing and said, “ Every time I came here when I was little, I felt myself surrounded by magic.”
As I said the word, the present suddenly vanished, and I found myself beneath the porch in the latticed enclosure where I used to hide for fun when I was a child. The same old smells of damp earth and musty wood rose up to meet me. Through the floorboards over my head I heard the two rockers, side by side, groaning on the wooden porch floor as my aunt and uncle rested in the evening. They were discussing places they planned to travel.
Uncle Willard said, “We haven’t seen the Rockies for a while.”
“I guess that would be nice,” my aunt replied. ”But we haven’t gone to Chicago recently.”
“Nothing much to see there,” Uncle Willard grumbled. “Bunch of buildings and a lake.”
“But you know the agreement,” my aunt said. “Equal time on each.”
I wondered what that meant. Often I had heard them haggling over where to travel next. They seemed to be always going away somewhere, but they never sent me a postcard like I asked them to - - not once, in all those years….
* * *
“Welcome back,” Brian said, a teasing look on his face.
He grinned at me. “You were obviously day-dreaming. Your eyes had that far-away glaze over them.”
“Oh - - yes, memories.” It had been real. I had just been beneath the porch, age seven. That was impossible, yet it had happened. Nervously I rubbed my hands against my jeans. I couldn’t tell Brian. He’ d think I was losing it. But I knew for sure, something had made me seven again, for that few moments.
Brian went to the door again, and rang the bell. “Aunt Ruth!” he called in his deep voice. Then he turned to look at me. “This door is open, Cheryl, didn’t you notice? She must have left it unlocked for us.” He pushed, and it swung in slowly. A chill tingled the back of my neck. That door had been closed and locked, because I tried it twice!
He stepped inside, and I followed into the dim hallway. The house was silent, except for the familiar ticking of the grandfather clock in the dining room to our left. I felt like I had never been away. The gray and maroon carpeting in the hall and on the stair treads, the wainscoted walls of pale blue, and the pearly gray portieres in the doorway of the living room, were all exactly as I remembered. Something about walking into the past made me uneasy - - I had a strange foreboding of being trapped in it.
“Maybe you should go upstairs and wake her,” Brian said. “I’ll wait here.”
As I watched, he parted the portieres and went into the living room, or as Aunt Ruth called it, the parlor. “Wow,” I heard him gasp. I looked in too - - no changes here, either. There was the player piano, the overstuffed sofa, and the collection of Depression glass on the marble-topped table. The only modern objects in the room were the television and a telephone. Otherwise it looked like the early 1930’s.
Brian was drawn to the board game on the card table in the corner, with two chairs pulled out. I had a feeling of deja-vu. Those chairs had been like that ever since I could remember. And the game didn’t look any different, either. The little markers seemed to be standing on the same boxes as the last time I was here, and the cards representing travel tickets, college degrees, stocks and bonds, marriage certificates, etc., were lined up on each player’ s side. The board was titled “Game of Eternal Life” and I had been permitted to “look but don’t touch” when I was a child. At that moment, something else crossed my mind: I couldn’ t recall ever seeing anyone sitting there playing.
“Game of Eternal Life,” Brian read from the board. “I’ve never seen this before. Sinister-looking jailer.”
“That’s the executioner,” I told him.
He chuckled, and reached down as though to touch the board.
“No!” I cried, grabbing his hand. “Don’t touch anything!”
“Don’t get upset. I’m not going to disturb your aunt’s game.”
“No, you don’t understand. There was always one major rule in this house - - touch anything you want, play the piano, or do anything you want - - but do not, under any circumstances, ever touch that game.”
“Really?” Brian grinned and shrugged. “Okay. Am I allowed to sit on the sofa, or is this museum just for looking?”
I sighed. “Sorry I jumped on you. But it was really drilled into me when I was a kid. I better go upstairs now and get Aunt Ruth.” I turned, and there she was, standing right behind us. I almost bumped into her, she was so close - - like she had materialized out of nothing. I felt spooked. “Aunt Ruth! I didn’t hear you!”
She looked flustered and slightly disheveled. Her silvery gray hair, which she always wore in a neat round bun on top of her head, was loose and wispy, and on her silver eyeglass frames were large specks of what looked like soot. “ Cheryl, dear, you’re lovely as ever,” she said, hugging me. Then Brian, whom she had met at our wedding, hugged her too. She said, “I’m so glad you could come. You both look wonderful.” She put her hand to her hair, trying to straighten it.
“Where were you?” I asked. “I was getting worried.”
Her hand left her hair and went to the cameo brooch at her throat, the same brooch she always wore for as far back as I could remember. “Oh, I was just busy,” she said distractedly. I saw her eyes glance quickly at the game. Then she seemed to brighten, and smiled at us. “Why don’t you take your things upstairs while I make some lemonade. Then we can sit on the porch and catch up on everything.”
* * *
“Weird,” Brian said, tossing our suitcase on the bed and unsnapping the catch.
“This bedroom isn’t weird,” I objected. “Maybe a bit frilly, but it was intended for a little girl, six years old. That was my first summer here.” The immense bed with the ruffled skirt and the big brass headboard brought back happy reminders of the times I had spent sitting against the downy pillows to read.
“No, I don’t mean the bedroom is weird. I meant downstairs, the way she just popped up behind you. I never heard her footsteps or saw her come through the doorway.”
I nodded. “She always moves like that - - softly and quickly.”
“Yes, she’s really spry for her age. You said she’s eighty-eight?”
I sat down on the edge of the bed. “Yes. She and my late grandmother were sisters, and if Gran were alive, she’d be eighty-five.” I vaguely remembered my grandmother, Elsie Bricker, who had been killed in a car accident when I was six.
Brian frowned. “Hard to believe. Your aunt looks about fifty. She hasn’t changed a bit since she came to our wedding.” He picked up one of the bisque dolls from the wall shelf. “ How come you spent so much time here when you were a kid?”
“My parents thought it was better for me to be out here in the fresh, country air, instead of home in that smoky city.”
“This seems like a dull place for a kid.”
“It wasn’t, really. Aunt Ruth put rolls on the player piano and we’ d sing. When I wanted someone my own age to play with, a girl named Marion would come over to play jump rope or hide and seek in the yard. I had my own television, plenty of books, and loads of dolls.”
“So I see,” Brian said, picking up a different one. “They all look brand new, like you never even played with them.”
“But I did, lots of times,” I said, taking that one from his hands. He was right. The doll still wore the same yellow outfit, crisp and spotless, and the dark hair was in perfect little ringlets. I glanced at the other dolls, and then at the vanity skirt, the curtains, and the bedspread. They were definitely the same ones that had always been there. “ I never noticed before, but everything seems just as brand new as it was twenty-four years ago, when I was six.” I looked at Brian for an answer.
He shrugged. “Either your aunt is a meticulous housekeeper, or she uses some secret charm to preserve everything. Maybe the whole place is bewitched. You’ll find out someday. You said she’s leaving it all to you, right?”
“Yes. She made her will out to me ages ago.”
“I wonder if the enchanted spell goes with the house, or if you have to make a separate agreement with her for that.”
Brian was joking, but an eerie shiver touched my spine. I recalled my aunt and uncle talking about the agreement.
The smell of freshly baked cookies drifted up the stairway, and Brian’s nose twitched. “Let’s go down now,” he said. “We can unpack later.”
I followed him out of the room, but I felt uneasy. How could everything in this house remain the same as when I was a child?
* * *
I sat on the porch rocker watching Aunt Ruth and Brian walk through her garden. She had beautiful, healthy roses and peonies, and I tried to remember when they hadn’ t looked so perfect. It seemed they were always in bloom, every summer, always looking the same. Why hadn’t I noticed that when I was young? I suppose I was always busy playing with the dolls, or running around the yard with Marion.
When Brian and my aunt came back up on the porch, I asked her, “What ever happened to that little girl I used to play with?”
She sat in her rocker, her face a bit flushed from the warmth of the sun. She fanned herself with her apron. “Who, Cheryl?”
“Marion. Remember, when I used to ask you if I could go over to her house to play, you’d say she was already here in the yard. I never saw where she lived. I thought maybe now I’ d stop to visit her, or at least her parents, if she’s married.”
“They don’t live here any more,” Aunt Ruth said. “They moved away, and I don’t have their address. More lemonade, Brian?”
I put my head back and closed my eyes, rocking. I tried to recall Marion’s last name, but I don’t think she ever told me. I wished I could see her again.
* * *
“I’m right here, Cheryl,” Marion said.
I opened my eyes. Brian and Aunt Ruth were gone, and I was ten years old, rocking leisurely on the porch. Marion stood on the steps, in her familiar yellow dress, her dark hair arranged in the usual ringlets. “Come on, let’ s play tag,” she coaxed, tapping me on the arm. “You’re it.”
I raced after her, our giggles catching on the breeze and echoing back from the hollyhocks, our feet crunching swiftly across the clamshell driveway. We darted back and forth on the lush green lawn and between the sweet-smelling peony bushes.
Finally I tagged her, yelling, “Gotcha! You’re it!” Turning quickly, I dashed for the safety of the porch and flopped into the rocker. “This is home safe,” I panted, as Marion froze in mid-flight and faded from my sight.
* * *
“What was that you just said, Cheryl?” Brian asked. His face, with cookie crumbs flaking his upper lip, slid into focus.
“Nothing,” I replied, finding myself back in the present. Had it been a dream, an illusion? Then why was I breathing heavily, as though I’d been running, and why was my body damp with perspiration?
That evening, after dinner, Aunt Ruth and Brian sat at the piano together, pedaling and singing to the tinkly, old-fashioned music. I stood looking down at the Game of Eternal Life. It had no dust on it - - the markers and cards were like new. But then, nothing in the house ever had dust on it. All was spotless, like my room, and the dolls. Into my mind flashed the image of the doll in the yellow dress, and then, I suddenly saw Marion. “They’re the same!” I said, but no one heard. My words were drowned beneath the music and the singing.
Quietly I left and went upstairs. The doll lay on the bed where I had left her earlier. Her yellow dress, the dark curly hair, the face - - were all Marion’ s. My knees trembled. This was unreal. Or had I dreamed about Marion, substituting the physical appearance of the doll because it was fresh in my mind? As I stared at the toy, I tried to convince myself that’s what happened.
Yet - - a restless suspicion danced at the edge of my consciousness that there was more to it than that. The tag game had been too real for a dream. From the darkest corner of my mind I kept wondering: if nothing ever changed in this house, had the doll always been my childhood playmate named Marion? That was absurd! Where did I get such a farfetched idea? But it persisted. I had to know. With shaking hands I returned the doll to her shelf and went down to ask Aunt Ruth.
* * *
I found Brian alone in the living room, watching a baseball game on television. “Where’s Aunt Ruth?” I asked.
“On the porch. She said she wanted a breath of air and if I wanted to watch TV, to go ahead.”
At the door to the porch, I paused. I heard voices. Aunt Ruth was talking to someone. I heard both rockers creaking back and forth. Aunt Ruth said, “I want to tell her, Willard, I really do. That’ s why I asked them to visit during their vacation. I want to be with you. But I don’t know if the rental agreement can be transferred.”
“She’s your only blood relative, it has to be.”
That was my uncle’s voice. But he was dead! I couldn’t move and my heart thundered in my ears. Then I heard Brian yell, “That one’s gone! Two nothing, all right!”
Back in reality, I pulled the door open and stepped onto the twilighted porch. A softly glowing, protoplasmic vapor rose from one rocker and spiraled off into oblivion.
My hands felt like ice. “What was that?” I asked. “Was that - - Uncle Willard’s ghost?”
Aunt Ruth turned to look at me. “You could see him?”
“I saw something,” I replied. “And I heard, or thought I heard, his voice.” I steadied my shaking body against the railing.
She shifted her gaze out to the sweep of willows at the edge of the property, that were now swaying like gentle shadows in the dusk. “He was right, then,” my aunt said. “ You have the ability. Everything must be put in your hands now, Cheryl. Sit down, we must talk.”
Unable to place myself in the same seat that had just been phantom-occupied, I sat on the floor with my back against the railing. I asked, “Was that really his ghost?”
“Yes. It’s part of the rental agreement that the departed may return at intervals.”
There it was again - - the agreement. The breeze from the willows was always warm, but tonight I felt it as a chilling prelude. What strange secrets had my aunt held back from me all these years? I asked, “ Can you explain all of this, Aunt Ruth? First, tell me one thing - - Marion - - was she real, or was she one of my dolls?”
Aunt Ruth fingered the cameo brooch at her throat. “How did you know?”
“This afternoon, I dreamed I was ten again, and Marion was here. Later I realized she looked exactly like the doll in the yellow dress. It gave me the spooks.”
“You guessed right, Cheryl. When you were small, you needed a playmate your own age. So we gave you Marion. You were too young to realize it was your doll, come to life. But your dream today was real. Here, time drifts into the past, present and future.”
“Wait. What do you mean you gave me Marion? And who is we?”
It was dark now, and I could no longer see my aunt’s face. She said, “Willard and I decided to ask permission for you to have a playmate. It was granted, and the doll in the yellow dress became Marion when needed.”
I scratched my head. “This is getting weird. You asked permission? From whom? It sounds like you had a pact with the devil.”
For a long moment she didn’t answer. At last she replied, “No. With the Game of Eternal Life.”
I felt her hand close over mine. “Just listen, dear. It’s time you knew.”
Aunt Ruth began to rock slowly. While she spoke, I heard the soft hum of the television inside, I smelled the roses and peonies in the garden, I saw bright little stars glowing in the dark sky beyond the willows, and I felt the vibration of her rocker on the porch floor. All of these things stayed with me as I followed my aunt’ s voice into the past, and saw everything she said.
* * *
“In 1937, Willard and I had been married a few years and decided to buy a house. We drove past here and saw a for sale sign out front. As soon as I stepped up on this porch, I felt an almost overpowering longing to live here. The door was open, so we peeked inside. No one answered our calls, so we wandered in. The old-fashioned charm delighted us, and we decided to buy it if the price was affordable.
“We sat on the porch to wait for the owners, and we both fell asleep. When I woke, I found a cameo brooch pinned to my dress, and beneath it were two pieces of paper: the deed to the property, and the list of covenants. When we checked at Town Hall, we found the deed had been recorded in our name. The former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Smith, had signed it over to us. But we couldn’ t find out anything about them, or why they had given us this house. It was terribly mysterious. Then we read the covenants. The first one was about the Game of Eternal Life that we found on the card table. The covenant said: ‘ This is the game of the past, present and future. Never disturb it, or you will pay the final price.’
“Another agreement was that we had to travel by railroad to the destinations on the board, spending an equal amount of time every year on each one. Suddenly Will and I found ourselves on a train, looking out the window at the tall buildings of Chicago. The trip seemed to take ages, but then, out of the blue, here we were back in our rockers. This morning, when you and Brian arrived, I was on a trip to the Rockies.”
“So that’s why you appeared so suddenly, with soot on your glasses.”
My aunt said, “Yes. I was in a rush to get here, and the train blew a blast of smoke over me for my impatience. It does that sometimes, plays little tricks.”
As I listened, I was almost convinced my aunt was unhinged. But there were other extraordinary circumstances that needed explaining. I asked, “Why does everything always look the same here - - the roses never die, and the dolls look brand new. You look half your age, and Uncle Will died ten years ago, yet he was here, I heard his voice!”
“Will refused to go on the trains any more. I begged and pleaded, but he said he was sick and tired of the same places, over and over, year after year. When I returned from my first trip alone, I found him dead in that rocker, of heart failure.”
I shuddered. “And you really think the game did it?”
Aunt Ruth sighed. “I know it did. Everything remains as it is, unless we tamper with it. The house has never required painting or repairing. The grass never needs mowing. I never have to clean, or dust. I don’ t have to shop - - the refrigerator and pantry are always stocked with whatever I want.”
It sounded delightful. But then I wondered: wouldn’t it become boring, even maddening, day after day, year after year, almost like being a prisoner? I asked, “How would a game have so much power?”
My aunt stopped rocking. “I don’t know. But now I’ve told you everything. Let’s go back inside.”
* * *
After Brian and I were alone in our room, I told him the whole story. He was skeptical. “I don’t believe in ghosts, Cheryl. Maybe it was a reflection of a car headlights down the road, or lightning bugs.”
“I know car headlights and lightning bugs from a ghost,” I snapped. “Besides, I heard Uncle Will’s voice.”
“All right,” he said. “Let’s sleep on it. Tomorrow we’ll observe everything very closely.”
“You can stay here and observe,” I told him. “First thing in the morning, I’m going to Town Hall and the local library to do some research.”
* * *
At Town Hall, the records showed that the house was deeded to my aunt and uncle by Josiah and Helen Smith, but I found no recording of the birth or death of either one of them. At the library, I went through the 1930’ s microfilms of the local newspaper, skimming for any information I could find. Suddenly a headline hit me: Josiah and Helen Smith, mediums, in board game dispute. I read the story:
Josiah and Helen Smith, locally well-known mediums and psychics, have created a new board game called The Game of Eternal Life. They are accusing the wife of the parson, Mrs. Elsie Bricker, of interfering with the marketing of the game. Mrs. Bricker is leading a crusade against the purchase of the game, claiming it is filled with witchcraft. The rules promise that the game will alter your past, present and future, and even the lives of your future generations. A hearing is scheduled for next month.
I re-read the story three times before I sat back, rubbing my hands for warmth - - they had grown icy as I realized the Elsie Bricker mentioned was my own grandmother, Aunt Ruth’ s sister. So the Smiths had a grudge against Gran. I searched for any further items. I found only one. The judge ruled that Mrs. Bricker was entitled to say what she wished, according to her constitutional freedom of speech. A small photograph of the Smiths was blurry, but plainly visible was the depth of hatred in their eyes.
I drove back to the house, thinking the best thing for Aunt Ruth would be to sell the house and move to the city with us. I felt she was in danger with all that black magic from the mediums who had obviously hated her sister. That look in their eyes told me the Smiths had placed a curse on the house and the entire family.
I found Aunt Ruth sitting on the porch with Brian. The willows stirred continually with soft, hypnotic sighs. It took all my effort to remember what I had just learned, and to repeat it to my aunt. I sat down on the steps. “ Did you know the people who invented the game had it in for Gran?” I asked.
As she shook her head no she seemed very tired and old. She rocked, and closed her eyes.
I wanted answers, but more than anything, I wanted to get us all out of there. Some unearthly forces were at work in this house, and it would be better to leave first and ask later. I turned to my husband for help. “ Brian, we have to get out of here. We have to take Aunt Ruth with us. Aunt Ruth, wake up.” I shook her gently.
“What, dear?” she mumbled, putting her hand to the cameo brooch at her throat, and I saw that she had aged a great deal since we arrived. The thin skin of her hands and face was creased and liver-spotted. Her eyes remained closed, and she breathed rhythmically. She was asleep.
“Brian?” I said. “Did you hear me? We have to leave here, now.” He too was lost in sleep. As I fought the impulse to join them, the willow breeze brushed against my eyelids with a soothing hush, and closed them gently.
* * *
When I woke I saw that both rockers were empty. My husband and aunt must be inside. As I got up, I noticed something pinned to my blouse. It was the cameo brooch, and it was holding two pieces of paper. One was the deed to the house, and the other was the list of covenants.
“Brian! Aunt Ruth!” I called hysterically. On shaky legs I raced into the house, screaming their names. Where were they? When I pushed through the parlor portieres, I smelled the gritty smoke of a train, and when I looked down at the game, I saw tiny bursts of steam coming from a card with a picture of a railroad train. I received an image of the wheels spinning, going nowhere forever, and imprisoned at the window were my aunt and uncle, their old, withered faces resigned to their fate. With a sudden malevolent puff of smoke, the card was gone.
“You dropped this card, Cheryl,” Brian said. I jumped. He was standing right next to me.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“Right here,” he replied, looking surprised. “You better put that card back on the board. We can live here forever, as long as we don’t disturb anything.”
“Like prisoners,” I said, as I turned the card over. On it was printed: ”The game never ends.”
Helen and Josiah Smith were still spinning their web of evil over the house, the family. It made me angry. “Oh yes it does,” I said. “This time it does end.” I went into the kitchen for a garbage bag, and came back to sweep the game of eternal life and all its pieces into the bag.
The house shook. The windows rattled and the glass fractured. The parlor portieres twisted and thrashed like living things. The piano began to play the old, tinkly tunes as the dolls of my childhood ran down the stairs to bare their teeth at me.
“Cheryl!” Brian shouted. “Are you crazy? You’re tampering with black magic! Put the game back!”
From outside I heard the willows shrieking as the rockers on the porch rolled and slid about wildly. Great chunks of wainscot broke loose and flew at Brian and me. I knew there was only one safe place. “Under the porch!” I called to Brian and grabbed his hand.
We stayed there until it was all over. The house collapsed, then turned to dust that settled over the empty yard. The bit of lattice around the space beneath the porch was all that remained. The dolls were gone, the willow trees, the rockers, the hollyhocks. “Wow,” Brian breathed.
“Come on,” I said, dusting myself off. “Let’s go home. The game is over.”