On the eve of the winter solstice, ever since I can remember, my brothers and I have played a game that only we can play.
It’s because we made it up. We made it up together. I would have let my brothers decide everything. I was the littlest. I didn’t know as much as they knew. I didn’t know anything. But they told me that was the point. No one knew anything in the beginning of their journeys. They only started knowing things by going on the journey. By making decisions before they even knew what the right decision was.
And they told me that it was better to learn some lessons in a game than it was to learn them in real life.
But none of us ever expected, or suspected, that our game would become real life.
And now…we are trapped in it. And the only way out is to win.
And the only way to win is to defeat the most powerful enemy we have ever faced, the Intolerable Dread.
My name is Lilac.
And this is not the story of how we won our game. It’s the story of how we got trapped inside it. I have to tell it, so that I can remember it. And I have to remember it, because I think, I think that there are clues in that story.
I have to remember it, because only I can remember. I was the Star player.
I have to help my brothers get out. Because it’s my fault we’re in here.
Kaito didn’t want to play the game anymore. We had barely managed to convince him the year before. We thought it was because he was getting older, old enough to leave home, and because he wanted to pretend he didn’t care about things from when he was a kid. And we were afraid that maybe he wasn’t pretending. Maybe he really didn’t care anymore. So we confronted him.
“Our game was fun while it lasted,” he said. “But you two will outgrow it just like I did. It’s not the end of the world. We can make new traditions—“
“That’s crap, Kai,” Orion said. And his voice was quiet, almost as quiet as mine. Orion’s natural voice was pretty loud. So Kaito listened.
Orion frowned. “Our game has been growing up with us. So what you’re saying…is crap. There’s nothing wrong with the game. So why don’t you want to play anymore? I know why. You think you’ve outgrown us. That’s fine. Go off with your friends every other day of your life. But on winter solstice, you play our game.”
While Orion was talking, I saw different parts of Kaito’s face twitching. The space between his eyebrows. His bottom lip. The corner of one eye. The rims of his nostrils.
I started breathing slowly, and I listened for where my mom might be downstairs. Because if my brothers were about to fight, I wouldn’t be able to stop them. I’d have to go get help before they hurt each other too bad.
I saw Kaito take a deep breath through his nose, and his shoulders went up. I glanced over at the open door.
And when I glanced back, Kaito let all his breath out. His shoulders dropped. And his face stopped twitching, except…his eyebrows were still pinched in the middle.
“We made something special,” Kaito said. “Like…a really great movie. The best movie. We started it. And we kept it going. Now we have to end it.”
Orion shook his head. “Why now?”
Kaito raised his hands and made them into half-claws, like he did when he was really excited about whatever he was talking about. “Because if a really great movie kept going and going, it wouldn’t be great anymore.”
Orion blinked and rolled his eyes away and back. “Sure, but how do you know that now is the right time to end the game? Lil and I don’t think so.”
I nodded and clasped my hands. “We started it together. Shouldn’t we end it together, when we all want to end it?”
Orion looked at me. “Yes, together.” Then he looked at Kaito. “So why is only one of us deciding to end it?”
I put my hand on Kaito’s wrist. “We can’t play our game without you. It won’t be our game.”
Kaito breathed in again and sighed. “That’s what I’m counting on.”
Orion and Kaito waited until they thought I was old enough to understand and agree to the plan. Kaito would always let Orion and me pick what game we would all play together. But Kaito always won, unless he let someone else win, because he’d already played and gotten good at everything by the time I was old enough to play. And if Orion ever really beat him, it was usually on accident.
Kaito figured that the only way to make a game that was fair for all of us was if we made up that game ourselves. We could adjust and change the rules and the game as got older, to keep it fair—or as fair as we could. So this game was only for us. One of the first rules was that we never shared our game with anyone else, no other friends, no cousins, and definitely not our parents. It was our secret game, and each year we got better at playing it. To help keep it secret, we agreed that there would be no game board, no pieces, no drawings, no writings, no evidence of the game anywhere other than our minds, our imaginations.
That’s where we came up with the plans for it. That’s where we built it. Our imaginations.
We said that we would keep building it for the rest of our lives, that we would play our game instead of playing chess or bingo, like other old folks. Even the years when we couldn’t play on the winter solstice, because one of us was sick, we would play as soon as we all could. And we would add that exception to the rules. Orion was right, the game was growing up with us. There was nothing wrong with the game.
Maybe when I got old enough, I would have started feeling, deep down inside, that it wouldn’t really last forever. If we grew apart, the thing we built would fall apart too. And maybe I would have let Kaito have his way.
But I was only thirteen.
And Kaito had tried to back out of playing the year before too. Orion may have been doing all the talking. But I was the one who was determined not to let Kaito end our game.
“I’ll play on one condition,” Kaito said. “This has to be the last time we play, and it has be an easy game,” he said, turning to me. And I felt my stomach churn.
I would be Star player that year. That was the person who was in charge of the game. The person who told the story of the adventure we’d be going on, who decided on what the rules meant if there was any argument about it, and who kept one eye on the real world, while the other eyes was in the world of our game.
(At first, this was so we wouldn’t stay up too late. Our game had to be played and finished in one day. But soon, we started thinking of it as keeping an anchor in the real world, so we could pull ourselves out of the game if things got too intense.)
Kaito put one hand on Orion’s shoulder and one hand on mine. He looked between us. “I’ll tell you why we need to end our game. You might get scared. Or you might not believe me. You might want to keep playing anyway. But please, listen, okay?”
Orion and I nodded. He said, “Okay.” And at the same time, I said, “We’ll listen.”
Kaito looked between both of us again, to make sure we really meant it. He took his hand away from our shoulders, and we all sat down and leaned in close.
“I first noticed it a couple of years ago,” he said. “The last time I was Star player. That’s why I didn’t want to play last year.” He turned his head to Orion. “You were mad at me. I was worried that you might summon it up again, especially if I warned you not to. And if you did, and if we didn’t win, then it might follow us out.”
I remember. Kaito had come to me and asked me to convince Orion to tell a fun story, something that went through the levels we made when we were younger. Those levels were full of stuff like cartoon dragons whose fire only turned our hair crispy and left a few cute smudges of ash and charcoal on our faces, grass that was as bouncy as a trampoline, and taverns that only had soft drinks and hot cocoa on tap.
I knew my brothers had been fighting over something—and that they would both be over it in a few days—so I didn’t think it was strange that Kaito wanted to use me as a messenger. And I didn’t care, because I agreed that it would be fun to revisit those levels. We’d been doing a lot of swords-and-mages stuff. And Orion and I had been talking about starting some epic space adventures. But our game could get really tiring some years. So I was ready for a year where we took it easy.
But a few days before winter solstice, Kaito declared that he didn’t think he’d be able to play. He’d made plans to go to the movies with his friends.
Orion was too upset to deal with it.
So I went to Kaito, and I begged and bargained my way to getting one hour from him. And I went to Orion and got him to agree. And for the first time since we started our game, we spent only an hour playing. It was awkward, and when the hour was almost over, Orion had us jump to another level. Kaito didn’t say anything. I thought he was mad. His face was all flush and sweaty. So I bugged Orion to help us finish the game.
We finished it. And we didn’t talk about it after like we normally did. Kaito left and went out with his friends. Orion said he’d go help prepare dinner. And I wanted to stay in the room alone and sulk until someone found me and asked me what was wrong. Or get angry at my brothers and not speak to them until they made it up to me. Or start planning a game so spectacular that neither brother would ever want to stop playing…ever.
But I just went downstairs, and watched a movie with my mom.
“Don’t you remember?” Kaito said. “The smell of the hot chocolate, when Orion said we entered the tavern? And don’t you remember the smell of wood burning and ashes, when the dragon sitting in the corner helped the innkeeper stoke the fire?”
Orion put his hand on his knee and leaned in even further. “Don’t you remember? Dad was trying to bake a chocolate cake. And then he burned it.”
“That’s what you said last year, a few days after the game. But it wasn’t just that.” Kaito looked between us. “Do you both know what I’m trying to say about the game? Is it sticking in your minds? I can’t tell.”
Orion threw up his arm. “Instead of trying, why don’t you just tell us?”
“I did,” Kaito said. “I told you last year. And I told you a week ago.” He looked between us again. “Neither of you remembers if I just tell you. But if I walk you through it and let you remember on your own…I don’t know.”
“You’re remembering something about our game that we don’t?” I asked.
Kaito nodded. “Our game is becoming real. Or it’s already real. And when we play it, it’s like we’re calling it—summoning it here, into the real world.”
“What are you talking about?” Orion asked.
“Two years ago, when I was Star player, remember when I had us face the Intolerable Dread?” He made a fist with one hand. “When you said it felt like something was squeezing your heart and scratching at your lungs?” Kaito turned and looked at me. “Why didn’t mom and dad coming running when you screamed, ‘Leave him alone!’ and when you stood up and threw your chair across the room? Who were you screaming at, Lil?”
“I was screaming at…you.” I frowned. I remembered what Kaito was talking about. Sometimes he made the game too scary.
He loved telling stories, especially scary ones, and he loved learning and using new words. The year he learned the word “intolerable” was the year he invented the Intolerable Dread.
At first, whenever Orion or I would asked what that meant, Intolerable Dread, Kaito would only look dramatically worried and nervous. He would lower his voice, and tell us that he didn’t want to scare us, and that he would tell us when we were older.
“But for now, I’m just asking you for your trust,” he would said. And he would look us each in the eye, and raise his eyebrow, and twist his lips. Of course Orion and I would nod and tell him that he had our trust.
But Kaito was just buying himself some time. He admitted that to us later, and we all laughed about it. Orion and I weren’t mad. We’d had a good game that year, an amazing game, because Kaito was the Star player, and he was the best storyteller. And he finally told us what it was that he had invented. It was a danger that emptied a person’s mind and instead filled it with a fear that was so intense that they couldn’t stand it. The only way to fight off the Intolerable Dread was to fill our minds with our favorite memories and with solid knowledge, and wisdom too, as we got older.
Kaito’s eyes were getting shiny now with tears. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But it seems like your memories are being displaced by…”
“Intolerable Dread,” Orion said in quiet voice.
“Is that I’m so scared that you’ll stop playing?” I asked.
“I let it out,” Kaito said. “And I thought it got you, both of you. And I was trying to figure out how to tell mom and dad, but the next morning, you both seemed fine.”
“I was screaming at the Dread,” I said.
Orion shook his head. “I only remember being…frozen.” He shuddered.
Kaito winced. “There was something above you. I couldn’t see it. I just knew it was there.” He turned to me. “When you threw that chair, it hit something.”
I shook my head. “But it didn’t make a difference. It didn’t let him go.”
“I was frozen. But then I felt warm in my hands first,” Orion said. “And then my arms, and my chest. I heard your voices. Barely at first, but they got louder and louder.”
“We were telling you stories about yourself,” I said. I dropped my jaw and turned to look at Kaito. “We were trying to chase the Dread away by filling his head with his own memories.”
Orion smiled. “You were making promises too, about everything you’d do for me if I came back.” He pointed at Kaito. “You said you’d bake me a cake.”
Kaito scratched his head. “Oh, you remembered that part too?”
“I’m still waiting.”
I gasped suddenly, and my brothers looked at me.
“I have an idea,” I said.
“We’re traveling through…the Carnival of Cakes.”
My brothers glanced at each other and started smiling. I had officially started our last game.
“I get the feeling I’m going to like it on this level,” Orion said.
“You will,” I said. “There are lots of pretty girls here.” I raised and lowered my eyebrows a few times.
Orion’s eyes grew bigger and he looked away.
Kaito started laughing, and he nodded at me.
“I don’t just like girls,” Orion muttered. “I like other stuff too.”
Kaito burst out laughing again. He rocked back and slapped Orion on the shoulder. “Sure, brother. Sure.”
I grinned at Orion, feeling a little bad for teasing him. “You also like cakes,” I said, hoping that would make it all right.
“Do they have chocolate cake with orange frosting?” he asked, glancing over at Kaito, who made a face.
“They have every kind of cake we can imagine,” I said.
Kaito crossed his arms and nodded at me again, looking serious now. “That’s a lot of cakes.”
We had to end our game the right way. We had to finish our adventure, and then say goodbye, and lock our game up.
So I created a special new level. We’d been talking about cakes so much, it had me thinking about how cakes reminded me of celebrations.
We would travel through the Carnival of Cakes. We would remember our adventures, celebrate with our friends and allies in the game, say goodbye. All of those messages would be on different cakes that we would have to “earn” by doing some easy task. We had been playing for a lot of years. We had already done the hard tasks.
“I think I smell chocolate,” Orion said. “With a hint of orange.”
I smiled and kept describing it, and then Kaito and I started smelling it too. I glanced over at the clock to see the time. I was supposed to keep the game short. Just one hour. Maybe less. All three of us had written little speeches to give at the end.
I described us taking slices of Orion’s favorite cake.
I blinked, and the cake was sitting there between us all.
On a plate the color of moss sat a chocolate cake with two layers, orange cream frosting, and three slices cut out of it. The slices were sitting on smaller moss-green plates that sat right before each of us. Silver forks that looked different from any fork we had in the house sat on each plate.
Orion smiled and reached for his plate.
Kaito grabbed his wrist. “Maybe we should just…imagine eating the cakes.”
Orion lowered his hand. “This level is going to be harder than I thought.”
I decided that I had to make the descriptions of all the cakes less delicious. It wouldn’t be as much fun. But it would keep the game moving along. “All three of us ate one slice of the chocolate cake with the orange cream frosting, and we left the tavern after—no!”
Orion reached again, not for the plate, but for the slice of cake itself.
Kaito caught his wrist again.
But Orion kept reaching, pulling Kaito’s hand along with his. He grabbed the slice of cake.
Orion moved his face toward the cake.
Kaito tried to use his other hand to cover Orion’s mouth.
But he was too late.
Orion opened his mouth wide and chomped into that slice of cake.
He flickered away, and Kaito, who was still holding onto him, flickered away too.
The cake and the plates of slices all…flickered away.
I gasped in a breath and sobbed it out. Gasped in another breath, and sobbed it. I had to say something, cry out my brothers’ names, cry out for our parents. I had to scream at least.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything but breathe. But I was breathing too fast. That’s why I couldn’t speak.
I was breathing too fast. I slowed my breathing. I made myself breathe in through my nostrils and breathe out through my mouth.
“We next came to the Tavern of the Allspice,” I said, my voice shaking, tears dripping. I wanted to run downstairs and get my mom and dad. But they couldn’t help me. They couldn’t get their sons out of the game. Only I could do that.
“None of us really liked the spice cakes they made there, but the people had been good to us, even before we helped them defeat the nest of vampires living in the mountains above their village. So we each took a tiny chunk of spice cake.”
A red plate appeared in front of me. A small square of cinnamon-brown cake sat on it. I reached for the cake, and I looked at the clock on Kaito’s nightstand.
I had to keep one eye on the real world. But the rest of me had to dive into our game.
I took a bite, and I entered the Carnival of Cakes.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel