Stella stood before the cabinet of collected mugs and smiled. “She’s shown me pictures,” she said. “But in person, it’s…” The word she wanted to use was “enchanting,” but she wasn’t sure if it would come off as insincere. “I want to say, ‘enchanted.’”
Elaine’s father grinned at her. “Then go ahead and say it.”
“It’s enchanting. I’m enchanted.”
“And they’re not just for show. We actually use them. We’ll be using them tonight.”
He started explaining his logic for organizing his nearly forty-year mug collection, and then talking about how he was thinking of reorganizing. That’s when Stella’s attention drifted for a moment to the sound of a heated discussion in the hallway.
Stella could see the two women through the door. Elaine had her back turned to Stella. Elaine’s mother was facing Stella. She gave Stella a sympathetic smile, before returning her attention to her daughter.
“We just learned we’ll have a couple of unexpected guests for dinner,” Elaine’s father explained. “But don’t worry, we had enough warning to figure things out.”
“Oh, is there anything I can do to help?” Stella asked. She was already turning toward the door, ready to head into the kitchen and serve as someone’s assistant.
“You’re not family yet, Stella” Elaine’s father said. “Tonight you’re our guest, and guests don’t lift a finger around here.”
Stella turned her face to him and smiled, but then she turned back to the hallway, looking to see if her fiancé needed her. Elaine and her mother were already gone. In a decorative mirror hung in the hallways of the huge house—manor really—Stella caught a glimpse of gray.
The last two guests had just arrived.
Elaine’s one living grandmother, and her estate lawyer.
After only the briefest of introductions, they all sat down to dinner. Stella was not surprised to see that instead of uniform glasses or cups, everyone had their drink of choice in a mug. Elaine’s mother had a rough, hand-made looking mug of a deep blue and green. Her younger sister’s mug looked like an oversized soup bowl with gold foil art deco designs against a dark red base. Her younger brother’s mug was a typical mug shape and had the colors and logo of a college or university that Stella didn’t recognize. Her father’s mug had a quote in a calligraphic script next to a line drawing of a cartoon fish. Stella couldn’t read the quote, but she found herself already forming impressions about the people she’d just met, the people she’d be calling family soon enough.
Elaine’s grandmother declined any drink. That left three people to choose from among the three mugs that Elaine’s father presented on a platter.
“Dad, you fixed it!” Elaine said, reaching for a cup-shaped mug with a teddy bear sporting angelic pink wings.
Stella recalled something about a beloved mug that Elaine always used to drink out of when she was a girl.
The lawyer gestured for Stella to choose next. Stella reached for a tall mug that was misshapen on one side, with a handle made out of bone shapes, and a white skull and crossbones design against black. Aside from being more interesting than the generic mug with cartoon question marks on it, she saw the twinkle of a star in the skull’s left eye. She’d been born with a star-shaped birthmark near her left eye. It had later faded, but was the inspiration for her name. She wondered if Elaine had told her dad the story, and if her dad had made the mug with Stella in mind (she’d also gone through a pirate phase in her teens.)
During the ten or so minutes of small talk before the salad was brought out, everyone sipped their drinks and nibbled on some kind of shortbread cookie.
Stella heard the small groan that her fiancé uttered just before laughter burst from the opposite end of the table.
“You okay?” Stella asked, rubbing Elaine’s arm as it rested on the table.
Elaine was leaning forward and slouching a little. “I feel woozy…or foggy?”
Stella raised her brow at the mug sitting below Elaine’s face. “How much of that did you have?”
“Not much. Must be jet lag.”
Over salad, Elaine’s grandmother suggested that they play a game after dinner. Stella noted the family’s reactions. Shoulders went stiff. Someone bit their lip. A brow was wiped. A fork was dropped on the floor and slowly recovered. She glanced around the now-silent table and realized that everyone was acting as if they had just been given a command that they were reluctant to follow.
Elaine frowned. She looked at her mom. “I’m pretty tired. I think Stella and I will just turn in for the night after dinner.”
“Those who are tired can rest,” the grandmother said. “Stella can stay and play. She must.”
Stella felt a twinge of panic as eyes turned toward her.
Elaine’s grandmother smiled at her. “It’ll be my way of getting to know you.”
Dinner continued with various side conversations. Stella was grateful to avoid being questioned in front of everyone. Elaine didn’t have much of an appetite, but Stella was starving. And it was a good thing. The family had prepared a hearty meal. And Elaine’s sister had made croissants, because Elaine had mentioned that Stella preferred them over dinner rolls.
By the time they finished dinner, Elaine was fighting sleep and incapable of carrying on a conversation. Stella insisted that she go lie down, but Elaine had promised that she would stick by her during dinner, and any other group family moments. As a compromise, Elaine lay her head on Stella’s shoulder.
“I can rest and stay upright at the same time,” she said.
Stella glanced around the table, self-conscious about Elaine’s public display of affection. But the rest of the family wasn’t paying any particular attention to them.
Their attention was on the game board that was being set up once the table was cleared.
Stella wondered if it meant they weren’t having dessert. She’d heard Elaine’s mother say something about a lemon cake. She gave herself a silent and mild reprimand for expecting more from an already lovely dinner.
Only one thing raised her baseline feelings of anxiousness at meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time. Every time she caught sight of that lawyer, she wondered what he was doing there, and if it had something to do with Elaine’s inheritance, and her recent betrothal to Stella.
“Choose your pieces,” the grandmother said. She appeared to be sitting this one out. It seemed she had designated herself the games master.
Stella was unfamiliar with the game, though she’d played similar-looking ones at various game nights. There were several character pieces. After consulting the board’s quick description of each, Elaine chose the piece labeled “The Hero,” prompting Stella to pick “The Sidekick.”
But while the other family members were choosing their pieces, Elaine started feeling so drowsy that she meandered away from the dinner table and plopped herself down on a divan that Stella had thought was just for show. Stella rose and went over, kneeling beside her.
Elaine folded her arms together. “I’m just going to rest my eyes while the board is being set up.” She closed her eyes and went limp, her arms slipping apart, and one of them dropping down.
Stella frowned. She pushed Elaine further onto the divan so she wouldn’t fall off. Elaine didn’t rouse.
“Elaine?” Stella shook her gently. She glanced back at the dinner table. Elaine’s brother was looking at them.
“Out cold,” he said. He was shivering and rubbing his upper arms.
Elaine’s sister smirked. “Did she faint again?”
Stella gaped. “Faint? This has never happened in all the time I’ve known her.”
“She had fainting spells all the time when she was a kid,” her sister said. “Don’t worry. She’ll snap out of it.” She waved a hand. “Let her sleep it off.”
Stella didn’t move, but Elaine’s father waved her back to the table. “She probably didn’t tell you because she was embarrassed about it. Or maybe she plum forgot. She used to faint a lot as a child. The doctors said she was otherwise in good health and just to keep an eye on it.”
“Isn’t it just like the Hero to fall asleep on the job, and leave the Sidekick to do all the work?” the grandmother said. She waved a hand at the center of the table, where the game was now set up and ready.
Elaine’s father insisted that they could take breaks in between and check on Elaine.
Stella took off her outer sweater and lay it over her fiancé. It was a cozy temperature in the dining area, but Elaine didn’t like even taking a short nap without some kind of cover over at least part of her body.
Stella begrudgingly left her fiancé’s side and returned to the dinner table next to Elaine’s father.
He leaned toward her and whispered, “The game is quite easy, but it’s also hard. You’ll win it for sure if you know who you are.”
Stella responded with an uncertain smile. Her turn came first. She glanced over at Elaine, who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. With a twinge of concern and a twinge of envy, Stella turned back to the table.
The game did appear easy, or at least simple. It was just a path, split up into spaces, almost like a little kid’s game, leading around the board’s periphery, then spiraling inward until it reached a circle at the center with a treasure chest lying on it. Whoever got to the treasure chest first won the game. There were obstacles along the way, which were indicated on select spaces that prompted the player to draw from a stack of cards. Stella guessed that at least some of the cards had a “truth or dare” component that the grandmother hoped to use to “get to know” Stella. Or maybe she hoped to uncover some dark secret that would give her cause to disapprove of her granddaughter’s betrothed. Elaine’s grandmother hadn’t done or said anything hostile, or even rude, to Stella. She just had a…troubling vibe.
That’s how Elaine would have put it.
Stella decided she might as well go all in and use the game to learn more about her prospective in-laws as well. The grandmother was not playing, but maybe Stella would be able to learn more about her from the other members of the family—or even the lawyer, who weirdly enough, was playing.
Stella took her turn and advanced into an empty space.
“Alea iacta est!” the grandmother cried.
She commented that she’d learned Stella had four years of Latin in high school. “You must know what the phrase means,” she challenged.
“I don’t remember many specifics from then,” she said after a few beats. It was true. And she didn’t directly deny knowing what the particular phrase meant, though in this case, she did know.
“The die is cast,” the grandmother said.
Stella nodded, not quite sure what she was trying to do by feigning ignorance. But she would rather be underestimated. With Elaine snoozing, she was alone in the room with a family that was not yet her own, facing the gauntlet of a grandmother’s game. The only advantage Stella had was in being underestimated.
As soon as the others took their first turns, Stella could swear that the family’s personalities seemed to shift. They seemed to take on the personas of the pieces they had chosen. She assumed it was their way of really getting into game. Both parents had been kind to Stella, but now Elaine’s mom turned stoic (The Recluse), while her dad remained sweet (The Helper). The sister who only seemed skeptical of Stella out of a perceived protectiveness for Elaine, was now sarcastic and mischievous (The Trickster). And the brother, who had been preoccupied with some problem of his own and had only acknowledged Stella with politeness, now seemed nervous, even panicked about something (The Crier). Stella imagined that if the game had a piece called “The Foil,” maybe the grandmother would have played with that piece. The fidgety lawyer didn’t say much before taking his turn, playing “The Pawn.”
The lawyer took his first turn. He rolled the dice.
And that’s when the game changed.
The lawyer gasped and slumped down onto the table, his outstretched arm falling onto his mug, spilling his drink. Stella rose from her chair. Elaine’s sister, who was sitting next to the man, placed two fingers on his neck, while she held her other hand over his mouth and nose.
Stella pulled out her phone just as Elaine’s sister declared, “He’s dead!”
“Stop her!” the grandmother cried, pointing to Stella. Elaine’s mother swept around the table, and gently but firmly grasped Stella’s hand.
“Is it murder?” the grandmother asked.
Elaine’s sister held up the lawyer’s mug. “Looks that way.”
Stella gaped. Her mouth had gone dry.
“Someone in this room is a murderer,” the grandmother declared, pointing her finger out and sweeping it across the room. “They’ve put a strong sedative in one mug, a fast-acting poison in another, and a slow-acting poison in a third. Now, I put it to the Hero to solve one murder, prevent another, and wake the sleeper. But as the Hero is herself the sleeper, it falls to the Sidekick to save.”
Stella pushed her chair away and stepped back. She held one hand out toward the family. “I’m calling the police,” she said, raising her phone so she could look at it and keep her eye on the family at the same time.
“She doesn’t know it’s a game,” Elaine’s mother said in a cold monotonous tone. Stella glanced at her to find her looking at the grandmother.
The grandmother looked at Stella. “Doesn’t know it’s…well of course it’s a game. Wake up and wave at the girl, will you?”
The lawyer raised his hand and waved, but remained face down on the table. Stella gauged the tense expressions on the faces of the sister and mother, and the nervous looks on the faces of the father and brother. Something was still wrong. Stella went to Elaine. She knelt down and shook her.
“She’ll wake when you win the game, Sidekick,” the grandmother said.
Choice words came to Stella’s mind, but she didn’t speak them. She just kept trying to rouse Elaine, until the father knelt down and spoke to her quietly. He told her that his mother’s ways were bizarre and twisted, but Elaine was alright. She was safe, and if Stella sat down and got the game over with, and won, then the grandmother would go, and they could all breathe a sigh of relief. He promised that the rest of the family would make it up to Stella.
“Is that a promise you can keep, sir?” Stella whispered back.
“The game is easy, but it’s also hard,” he said. “You’ll win for sure if you know who you are.”
Stella frowned. “What does that mean?” But he didn’t answer. He sounded like one of those non-playable characters in a video game, who repeated the same set of phrases over and over.
“It’s a game within a game,” the grandmother said. “Solve his murder, and you’ll solve your own.” She waved a hand at the game board. “You’ll find the antidote in the treasure chest, and your sleeping beauty will wake, and you’ll live happily thereafter.”
“There’s nothing to solve,” Stella said, rising. “You’re the murderer.”
The grandmother smiled and cocked her head. “How so? The murder weapon is poison and I haven’t touched a single thing on the table since I arrived. It couldn’t be me.”
It was true. When she arrived, the grandmother had claimed to have had dinner already. She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything. She’d only carried on a conversation throughout dinner, mostly with Elaine’s sister.
Stella wasn’t strong enough to lift Elaine, throw her over her shoulder, and make a run for it. She still considered it. She wasn’t going to leave Elaine. Maybe that was the test. If it was, then the grandmother had chosen a nasty way to administer that test. And the rest of the family was just as guilty for going along with it.
Or maybe they were as stuck as she was for some reason she couldn’t figure out in that moment.
Once again, Stella begrudgingly agreed to sit down and play. At the very least, it would give her time to think. She rolled and advanced, and landed on a space that prompted her to pull an obstacle card. The sister unhelpfully commented that it would probably be hounds chasing her back to the beginning. The grandmother pulled the card. The card simply had a question. She read the question aloud.
“The day after Elaine was born, her mother suffered the worst headache she’d ever had. Luckily it wasn’t anything more serious and didn’t recur, but it prompted her to joke about naming the newborn girl Athena.”
Great, Stella thought, she’s testing me on Greek mythology now.
The goddess Athena was born from Zeus’s skull after he suffered a headache so bad it caused him to split his own head open.
But the aim of the question wasn’t about myth. It was a true or false question.
Stella didn’t know. She didn’t recall Elaine ever telling her this story. She looked around the table, expecting the rest of the family to be watching her, waiting for her to answer, but half of them were looking at the board. Elaine’s mom had her fists clenched on the table, and she was breathing hard and leaning forward. She was looking right at Stella. It was almost as if she wanted to say something.
If Stella guessed, she had a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right. Elaine’s dad had claimed the game was easy, but also hard. She wasn’t sure how knowing who she was would help her answer a question about Elaine. But if she were in any other situation where she didn’t know the answer, she would turn to someone who did.
Stella looked at Elaine’s mom. “I don’t suppose I could get some help from my fellow player on this one. What do you say, Missus—“
“It’s true!” Elaine’s mom cried out. She smiled at Stella, but then she gasped and went stiff and stoic again.
“True,” Stella said, and her piece advanced.
The other players took their turns, and at one point, Elaine’s sister was ahead. Based on the glare she directed toward the board, she did not like that one bit. When a card was called about a speech Elaine gave at a graduation party, it was her sister’s eye rolls that clued Stella in to the right answer. Half the answers Stella knew on her own, and the rest of the family helped her with the other half, mostly with subtle clues and signals. The grandmother was irritated by this. She didn’t seem to do anything about it. She was just an observer. But Stella could swear that when Elaine’s sister rolled her dice, they fell strangely, giving her an advantage. She once again pulled ahead of Stella.
Stella wiped the sweat forming at her brow. The room felt warm. She wanted a drink of water, but she wasn’t sure it was safe to drink anything out of that skull and crossbones mug she had chosen. There was no way she could strategize her way to the front of the game. She had to think of some way to cheat. The grandmother favored Elaine’s sister for some reason.
Stella sat up. She remembered what Elaine’s father had said about guests. She politely asked Elaine’s sister if she wouldn’t mind getting another croissant for her. Elaine’s sister gasped, as if she’d just surfaced from beneath a pool. She nodded to Stella and slowly rose from the table. She was gone so long, she missed her next turn, and Stella again took the lead.
None of the other players ever landed on a spot that prompted the pulling of a card. But it wasn’t them that Stella had to worry about. The person she was truly trying to out-maneuver was the grandmother. And the grandmother had some kind of hold on the rest of the family, a hold that only Stella seemed to have the power to break, maybe because she was a guest.
After a couple of hours, she was only a few spaces from the treasure chest, but she had to throw the exact number of spaces. Two turns went by and she didn’t get the number she needed. It wasn’t a trick. The grandmother didn’t seem to have the power to affect Stella’s rolls. It was just chance. But the other players were catching up.
Stella wasn’t sure if it would work, but she decided to try distracting the grandmother’s attention.
“I’ve learned something about how Elaine was named,” she said. “But did she ever tell any of you how I was named?”
The grandmother was watching the board, seeming to ignore Stella. But Stella continued anyway.
She told a story about how when she was born, there was a sudden flash in the room, not just bright, but hot, and it happened when the nurse first put her in her mother’s arms. The heat was searing and the flash so bright that some cried out and everyone was disoriented for a few minutes. The only one unaffected was her mother. A nurse later told her mother that there was a starry shimmer in her eyes whenever she looked down at her baby. And so, she was named Stella after the Latin word for “star.”
Stella smiled as she rolled her dice. “True or false?” They landed on the number she needed. Stella moved her piece onto the treasure chest. She felt it click, as if there was a magnet in the board. A little slot opened up and spit up a card. Stella reached for it before the grandmother could take it.
“Congratulations,” the card said. “You have already taken the antidote.”
Below the words was the image of a skull and crossbones, a little start twinkling in the skull’s left eye.
Only then did Stella notice that the room’s stifling heat began to cool. And the whole family relaxed back into their chairs.
A pressure that had slowly been building on her chest suddenly released, and she gasped.
“Why is it so hot in here?”
Stella’s heart skipped at the sound of her fiancé’s voice. She looked over at Elaine, who was sitting up and drawing in a deep and deliberate breath.
When Elaine woke, the rest of the family seemed to wake too, as if they were coming out of some trance. They rushed the scowling grandmother out of the door.
Stella heard the lawyer mumble, “I should be leaving too.”
She wanted to watch them go. She wanted to see them leave the property with her own eyes. But as soon as Elaine woke, all Stella wanted to do more was rush to her side.
She took Elaine’s hands in her own. They were warm from how warm the room had become.
“Did I conk out on you?” Elaine asked, her eyes half-lidded, her voice thick. “I was supposed to stay with you. I broke my pledge.”
Stella heard Elaine’s mom note that they hadn’t yet had dessert. She sounded a bit confused, but then asked her younger children to come help in the kitchen.
“We had fun without you though, didn’t we, Stella?”
Stella turned and looked up at Elaine’s dad, who was smiling down at her.
“Did your…did your mother get out alright?” Stella cautiously asked him.
Elaine’s dad was still smiling as his brows drew in. “My what?”
Stella rose and looked between her fiancé and her future father-in-law. She remembered how the grandmother hadn’t eaten or drunk or touched anything. Her heart went cold.
“Do you have any living grandparents?” Stella asked.
Elaine shook her head. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you have a…a family lawyer?”
Elaine exchanged a glance with her dad. Stella dared to look over at the table. The table was cleared of the game, or maybe the game had vanished. Elaine’s dad followed her gaze.
“Who’s that extra mug for?” he asked, pointing to the question mark mug that the lawyer had drunk from. He frowned, blinked, and shook his head. Stella thought she could see his mind struggling with something. The memory he almost caught hold of, wiggling and leaping away like a slippery fish.
Stella sighed. She dropped onto the divan beside Elaine. She looked up at Elaine’s dad. “What do you both remember about the last few hours?”
Elaine placed a warm hand on Stella’s shoulder. “Maybe you should tell us what you remember about the last few hours.”
“I’ll gather the rest of the family,” her dad said. He headed to the kitchen.
Stella shook her head. Now that it seemed to be over, now that no one but her remembered or knew what happened, it would be easier for her to let it go. She had won the game, after all.
But she remembered how the family had been trapped. They didn’t know. Or they didn’t remember.
She would scare them by telling them. But she had to tell them. So they could figure out what to do next, together. They had helped her win that game after all.
“You’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into,” Elaine said.
Stella clasped her fiancé’s hand. “I’m pretty sure I’ve just gotten myself into your family.”
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel