Conjunctions:77 States of Play: The Games Issue

The Sequence
         When she was young, Sidra and her twin sister used to play a game. They used to play lots of games, but this was, so far as Sidra could remember, the only game they were careful about, the only one they never played somewhere where adults would see. Except, of course, their grandfather: because of his condition they felt it did not really matter if he could see them. Though later, they, or at least Sidra, came to feel differently.
            It was Sidra’s twin who started it: Sidra never would have thought up the game on her own. At the time, she was not sure exactly how Selene had come up with it. Later, she thought perhaps her twin hadn’t thought it up on her own after all. Perhaps something had whispered the rules of the game in her ear, and though she had not consciously heard them, she had still taken them in. Perhaps her twin had felt she was making up a game from scratch when, in fact, she had been tricked into playing it all along.

            The game began something like this. Sidra was gathering buttercups into a heap and Selene was stirring an anthill slowly with a stick, when suddenly Selene stood up and said, “Do you want to play a game?”
            This confused Sidra a little. “But we’re already playing games,” she said.
            Selene made a little disgusted noise and brushed the hair out of her eyes. She was sweaty and dirty, but so was Sidra. Each of them was always just as sweaty and dirty as the other. That was, Sidra felt, part of being a twin.
            “This isn’t really a game,” Selene said. She gestured at the stick poking out of the anthill, astream now with confused ants. Then she gestured at the pile of wilted buttercups. “That isn’t either.” Ants had made their way into the flowers as well, Sidra saw, and were swarming all over them. “These are the kinds of things people do when they can’t think of a game.”
            Sidra shrugged. “OK. What do you want to play?”
            Selene stretched out her hand. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

            Her twin led her away from the anthill and the buttercups and across the lawn to where their grandfather’s wheelchair was. He sat in it slightly slouched, a parasol wired to the wheelchair’s frame and unfurled above him. He was dressed to go out—their mother always dressed him like that, even though she never took him anywhere. The only thing she did was roll him out of the house and park him in the yard. She would check on him every hour or two, charging the girls with letting her know if anything went wrong in the meantime.
            “Hi, Grandpa,” said Selene to him, and Sidra echoed, “Hi, Grandpa.”
            He didn’t respond, or hardly did. Behind his greasy-lensed glasses he blinked. That was all he could ever manage. He had been paralyzed for as long as Sidra had been alive. She had asked her mother about it once, asked why he couldn’t move, and her mother had sighed. “Nobody knows why,” she said. One day her father had been walking and talking like normal and then, abruptly, he collapsed. He hadn’t moved since.
            “We’re going to play a game, Grandpa,” said Selene, and their grandfather blinked again. One blink. Probably means “yes” or “I understand,” thought Sidra. If it means anything at all. Maybe it means nothing.
            “Is Grandpa playing too?” asked Sidra.
            Selene shook her head. “He’s just the starting line,” she said. Then she turned to their grandfather. “No offense,” she told him.
            He blinked again.
            Selene looked at Sidra. “You need to do everything I do,” she told her. “Exactly as I do it, in the exact same way.”
            “That’s the game,” said Selene. “Step where I step, exactly. Move like me too. It should be easy for you because we have the same size feet. If we weren’t twins probably only one of us could play.”
            This confused Sidra, but she just nodded.
            “All right then,” said Selene. Her face was creased, her gaze abstracted as if she was listening hard, trying to hear something far away. “Let’s begin.”

            Sidra's twin moved forward until the toe of one foot was touching the rubber of the wheelchair’s wheel, her opposite hip knocking against her grandfather’s knees. She sidestepped, clapped once, then stepped backward while sucking in a deep breath. All the while their grandfather was blinking, blinking, more rapidly than Sidra had ever seen him blink before. What did it mean?
            Her twin took another step, clapped, then peered back over her shoulder, encouraging Sidra to repeat the pattern.
            Sidra did. She moved toward her grandfather until the toe of her shoe touched the wheel. That close to her grandfather, pressed against his leg, she could smell his body. She did not care for the sour smell of him. But despite that she concentrated on doing everything her twin had done, and doing it all exactly right. That was the game after all.
            “Good,” murmured Selene, and began another sequence. This time Sidra followed her closely, staying only a step or two behind, putting her foot into the impressions Selene’s feet pressed into the grass before they could disappear. And this time, with this new sequence, Sidra felt something had begun to change. Not something she could see exactly, more something she could sense. The air seemed stiller than elsewhere on the lawn and the light was becoming different too. This scared Sidra a little, but since Selene kept moving forward Sidra did too. Sidra had been born second, and ever since she had always followed behind Selene.
            They turned right and took a few dozen steps, touching the toe of one step to the heel of the next, picking a quiet, gapless line across the lawn. There was their grandfather, to one side, a little way away now. It looked to Sidra as if a pane of dirty glass now lay between them and him, leaching him of color. And then Selene stepped sideways and suddenly the hum of insects, the soughing of the gentle breeze, the chirping of birds all vanished. Sidra couldn’t hear any of it anymore, couldn’t even hear her sister’s footsteps.
            In front of her she saw her sister clap her hands together in the air, but Sidra couldn’t hear that either. She could feel it, though, could almost see the soundless sound ripple out through the air toward her. She could see the air shiver, and for just a moment a transparent wall became vaguely visible beside her, and then the shiver stopped and the wall faded away, becoming invisible again. Or nearly so: perhaps that was what was making their grandfather seem drained of color. The house, too, had faded, felt less present, less real.
            Suddenly Sidra began to be afraid of where her sister was taking her. I don’t like this game, she said, I want to go home. But no sound came out of her mouth, none at least that she could hear. Only that same ripple through the air, a brief coalescing into being of that translucent wall beside her.
            But her sister felt it. She turned her head to face Sidra, her finger pressed hard to her lips. Because the game demanded she do what her sister did, Sidra turned her head too and pressed her own finger to her own lips, even though she was not sure that her sister had meant for her to repeat the gesture. She wanted to stop playing, but was afraid of what would happened if she did: would everything that was drained of color stay that way? She could sense now parts of the world around her opening and other parts closing—but above all changing, folding in, tightening, in ways that made her feel they were being herded into a tighter and tighter chute. What, she worried, will be there to meet us at the other end?
            Her sister turned again, and smiled. Her skin was gray, her teeth gray, as if she were carved from stone. Sidra turned and smiled behind her too, and for just a moment thought she caught a glimpse of another fleeting face. But no, it was her imagination, an odd trick of the light, it had to be: there wasn’t, there couldn’t be, anyone following them.
            And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. Another step and sound swelled back up around them and the colors returned. She and her twin were back on the lawn, not far from their grandfather, and everything was back to normal.

            “We got it wrong,” her sister told her. “We were close, almost there. I could feel it but you stepped wrong or I did or we both did, and then everything came crashing down.”
            “Almost where?” asked Sidra.
            Her sister chose not to answer. Perhaps she didn’t know the answer or perhaps she simply didn’t want to tell Sidra.
            “Where were we walking?” Sidra asked. “What was that place? Why did everything go gray?  What happened to the sound?”
            “Nowhere,” said Selene.
            “Nowhere? Where’s that?”
            Her sister frowned. Sidra watched her search all around her with her eyes, looking for some way to explain it.
            “We were…between things,” her sister finally offered. “At least I think so.”
            “Between what things?”
            “I don’t know how to explain,” said Selene. “I’m still figuring it out.”
            And so they stopped talking about it.

            If it had been up to Sidra, they wouldn’t have played again, but her twin insisted. Even then, she made it clear that Sidra didn’t have to play, that Selene could do it without her. She didn’t need her—she could do it all by herself. Which made Sidra feel like Selene was threatening to take something away from her. Indeed, everything her sister said, she realized later, was carefully constructed to ensure that Sidra would play the game again after all.
            As soon as they entered their grandfather’s field of vision he began rapidly, desperately blinking. They ignored this, simply began to execute the sequences of the game again.
            But this time, nothing happened. They were just two girls playing a made-up game, walking in strange made-up patterns across the lawn. There was no leaching of color, no graying of bodies, no absence of sound.
            “You stepped wrong,” Selene accused.
            Sidra shook her head. “I did everything you did.”
            They traced the path backward, taking the sequence apart, but Selene couldn’t figure out where they’d gone wrong. “We’ll do it better tomorrow,” she finally said.

            In the middle of the night, Sidra awoke. Her sister, in the bunk above her, was moaning, shaking. It seemed like she was saying words that were not words—at least not words from a language that Sidra could recognize. It was an awful sound and Sidra could not bear it.
            She climbed the ladder until she could see over the edge and into the top bunk. There was her sister, a blanket all contorted around her. Sidra shook her until she woke up.
            “What is it?” her twin asked.
            “You were having a nightmare,” said Sidra, “and it was starting to leak out of your mouth.”
            Selene was silent for a while. “Yes,” she finally said, slowly, “I suppose that’s true. A dream, anyway.”
            Standing on the ladder, holding to the side rails, Sidra waited for Selene to go on. But she did not.
            “Do you want to tell me about it?” prompted Sidra.
            “No,” said Selene. “No, I don’t think I do.” She was quiet for a while, then finally said, “It was just a dream.”

            The next time they played the game they must have somehow gotten the sequence right, because it began to happen again. There came, as she focused on following her sister’s steps, a moment where Sidra began to pass into a different relation to the world. There was the fading of the colors of the world as she knew it, and then, without warning, the snuffing out of all sound, the rippling in the air as Selene clapped her hands, the barest hint of that translucent wall. Sidra reached out and touched the wall and felt it, or felt something anyway, for just a moment before the rippling of the air calmed and the wall was gone, her hand sliding right through.
            Ahead of her, her twin hesitated, trying to decide where to go. What was the right next step in the sequence? Selene lifted her foot tentatively, then set it down again in exactly the same spot. Then, a little more confidently, she repeated this gesture, then did it a third time.
            When she brought her gray foot down to rest again on the now gray grass this third time, the air tore open just beside her. Selene stared into the sudden, impossible opening then stepped up to it and waited just outside it for Sidra.      
            Sidra, amazed, quickly moved to the place Selene had left, stomped her own foot thrice, then joined her sister. Together they went through.

            On the other side lay a world that looked exactly like their own world, except that it was a sickly gray. There was their house, their lawn. There was their grandfather, sitting as always in his wheelchair. The only thing different was that standing directly behind their grandfather was a man. When he turned and faced them, Sidra realized with a start that he looked exactly like their grandfather.
            This other grandfather seemed astonished to see them. He opened his mouth and called out to them in a voice that couldn’t be heard and they saw the air rippling out from him. And then, moving rapidly, he started toward them.
            For once Sidra acted rather than following her sister’s lead. Before the other grandfather could reach them, she grabbed her sister’s arm and yanked her back through the tear.
            Almost immediately they were back in the normal world, breathing hard, fallen in a heap on the ground.
            “Why did you do that?” asked her sister. She was very angry; Sidra could hear it in her voice.
            “I was saving us,” said Sidra.
            “Saving us? But we’d finally arrived!”

            Once Sidra refused to play the game anymore, Selene tried to play on her own. Sidra watched, sitting on the grass, her knees drawn up and her arms locked around them, as Selene engaged in her careful, slow trancelike movement across the lawn. But Selene never disappeared, never turned gray. Without Sidra, the game wasn’t working.
            Selene, stubborn, kept trying. Once—so it seemed to Sidra from where she was sitting—there was the shimmer of something nearly happening. But that time too her twin did not manage to step out of the world and into a place between things.
            Her sister tried for all of three days, then for the morning of another, before finally collapsing beside Sidra. She was, Sidra saw, sweaty and dirty—much sweatier and dirtier than Sidra was, which had really never happened before. It was as if one of the conditions of their twinship had been violated, but Sidra couldn’t say if Selene had betrayed it or if she had.
            “What do I have to give you?” asked Selene, flopped there beside her.
            “For what?” asked Sidra, though she already knew the answer. And Selene, knowing her well enough to know this, said nothing, just stared.
            “I don’t want to play,” said Sidra.
            “It’s a whole other world,” said Selene. “How can you not want to? Aren’t you curious?”
            “I’m happy with just this world,” said Sidra.
            And then Selene, never raising her voice, never looking directly at her sister, began to slowly and relentlessly lay out all the reasons why Sidra must play the game again. Didn’t she love her sister? Didn’t she want Selene to be happy? Well yes, of course Sidra wanted her sister to be happy, but hadn’t Selene felt how awful that man who looked like their grandfather was?  No, claimed Selene, she hadn’t. It had felt strange, sure, to have two of the same grandfather, but that was all—it felt strange, but not awful, not like a threat.
            But to Sidra it had felt like a threat. “What is it?” she asked. “And why has it taken the shape of our grandfather?”
            “It is him,” Selene insisted. “It’s all the parts of him that have slipped out of his body somehow. That’s why he can’t move, can’t speak.”
            Sidra thought about this. Perhaps this was true, but even if it was, something still nagged at her.
            “How do you know?”
            “I’m just guessing,” claimed Selene.
            “No, it was more than guessing,” said Sidra. “We’re twins. I can tell when you’re lying. How did you know?”
            Selene wouldn’t meet her gaze. “I just know,” she said.
            “You’re not telling me the truth,” said Sidra. “You’re hiding something.”
            Selene looked at their grandfather. She looked at the house. She looked at everything except for Sidra.
            And then, finally, she did look at Sidra. “I dreamed it,” she said.

            There was more to it, more discussion, more back and forth, but it hardly mattered—it was just a kind of ritual they went through, another game the twins played. Sidra could not resist Selene. She knew she couldn’t: she never had. It just wasn’t in her nature. In the end, she knew, she would do what her twin wanted, even if she was sure it was a bad idea. That, too, she told herself, was part of what it meant to be a twin.
            They began at the starting line, at their grandfather. But now that she had seen the second grandfather it felt like there was a reason for starting just there, standing touching the real grandfather. And what had before seemed a game that her sister had made up but that somehow still worked now seemed to Sidra like something that had been whispered to her in a dream. It was a mistake to listen to someone or something that came to you in a dream.
            But there was no reasoning with her twin. Sidra knew that. Selene was used to getting her way. Better, then, to just get it over with, to let whatever bad was going to happen happen so that, if they survived it, they could get on with their lives.

            Her sister stepped just as she had the first time, and Sidra followed. Almost immediately, Sidra felt as if someone was watching them. Any time the sequence instructed her to turn around, she would catch the briefest glimpse of a face in the air behind. Her heart began to beat too fast and too hard, as if threatening to break the bones of her chest, but somehow she kept walking, kept imitating her sister.
            Ahead of her, Selene clapped, and Sidra clapped a moment later as well, neither clap making the slightest sound. Suddenly, she couldn’t hear even her own breathing or the beating of blood in her ears. Every noise within her body had been snuffed out. And there, just ahead, her gray sister raised her foot and brought it down, raised it and brought it down, raised it and brought it down, until the air to one side of her tore open. Selene stepped to the very edge of the tear and turned toward Sidra, smiling, triumphant, waiting for her to catch up. Sidra moved forward and, just like her sister, lifted her foot and brought it down. She repeated the gesture a second time, flawlessly. But before she could manage a third, she looked up and saw what was there behind Selene.

            It was not that what she saw was unexpected; it was more that it was all too expected. It was the same face, she realized now, that she had glimpsed vaguely behind her as they had traveled between things. It was the face of her grandfather, grayed but animated, expressive rather than slack, and in this case expressing the same sort of triumph that Selene had shown when the air had torn open. As Sidra watched, his arms flashed out through the opening and wrapped around her twin and pulled her through. An expression of terror flooded Selene’s face, and she must have screamed too—her face looked like she was screaming even though no sound came out. And then she was gone.
            Sidra leaped after her—of course she did: this was her sister!  But she hadn’t finished the final sequence and so everything fell apart. She found herself sprawling on green grass, back in her own world.
            But everything was okay: Selene was there too, lying on the ground beside her, staring up at the sky. Sidra got to her knees and extended her hand to Selene to help her sit up, but Selene ignored the hand. In fact, Selene did almost nothing at all. She just blinked, blinked, blinked, blinked, blinked.

            Her mother came, a doctor was called, specialists appeared. Just as with her grandfather, nobody could quite say what had happened to Selene or why, and Sidra’s panicked, tear-stricken explanation was seen to be the delirious imaginings of a child. They did tests on Selene, tests on the grandfather as well, but none of it told anybody anything. The specialists tried to communicate with both of them, one blink for yes, two for no, but although both gave responses that seemed at first lucid, they quickly decayed into incoherence. They’re both there and not, one specialist said, a statement that struck Sidra as being close to the truth, though perhaps not in the way they realized.
            The tests continued several weeks. During that time, every day Sidra attempted to play the game, hoping to find her sister again. At first it didn’t work and she worried she could not do it without her sister to guide her. But then, finally, one day it did work, but though the gray version of her house and lawn was present, nobody was there. The world seemed deserted. She wandered through the gray yard a little, made her way into the empty gray house, then went back through the tear, fell back onto the green lawn. Later she realized she hadn’t seen anyone because her sister and grandfather were both absent, away doing their tests, her parents gone with them. She would have tried again once her sister and grandfather were home, but before she could a decision was reached: out of an abundance of caution Sidra must be separated from her twin and their grandfather, just in case whatever it was that had afflicted them was contagious.
            Sidra was sent to a boarding school. “Just for a few months,” her father told her. “Just until we have a better handle on what’s going on and know it’s not contagious.” She tried to tell them it wasn’t, that that wasn’t remotely what had happened to her sister, but as they had been doing with her all along, they ignored her. She was a child: what did she know?

            That first night away from home, that first night in her new room, she dreamed a dream. In the dream at first all she could see was her sister’s mouth. Her sister was speaking but her lips did not move, and the sound of her voice was so soft Sidra could hardly hear her. Was Selene trying to tell Sidra that she was all right, to reassure her? No, not that exactly: she was saying she missed her, that she wanted to see her again, that she wanted to be with her again. Twins belong together, Selene said—only said wasn’t quite the word. It was more that the words appeared hazily in her mind. Sidra could see how if she didn’t know what was happening she might believe she was thinking it herself rather than being told it by something that had crawled its way into her dream.
            In the dream, once she thought this, she recoiled from her sister’s mouth. She drew back and, as she did, saw more and more of her sister’s face, the skin slack and seemingly lifeless, the eyes blinking rapidly. And then she pulled away farther and saw the gray being that both was and wasn’t her sister, standing behind her sister, hands lightly resting on her shoulders. It was these gray lips that the words were coming from, though now that she could see the lips she understood that they were not making sounds, only making the air shiver. But for her sleeping mind, that was enough that she could understand.
            And then she recoiled farther still and saw, seated beside her sister, her grandfather, and, behind him, his gray other self. He was speaking too, no sound coming out. But if she focused very hard, she could feel words begin to form in her mind.
            Come play with us, the words prodded. We love you and we want you. And then there came the sequences she would have to follow to play the game that would allow her to join them.
            Below this gray man, her real grandfather was blinking rapidly, desperately. Beside him, so was her real sister.
            The other grandfather kept speaking with his gray, gray mouth. The gray sister, however, just smiled. She knew Sidra well enough to know that in the end she would give in. She knew that Sidra could never resist her twin, no matter what form she was in or how gray her flesh was, that at this game she had already lost. All they would have to do was wait.

Longtime Conjunctions contributing editor Brian Evenson is the author of overa dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House Press). His work has won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards, and he has been a finalist for the Edgar Award and the Ray Bradbury Award.