Happy Holidays from all of us at Saturday Morning Serial. We’ve got some new things brewing for 2017 that we’re really excited about.
Until then, there’s an extra Saturday in December, so we decided to fill it with…a thing:
I’ve been a fan of The Spiel podcast (TheSpiel.net) for nearly a decade now. It’s hosts, Stephen and Dave, share their love of board games in a fun and positive way. Also, they annually host an online holiday cocktail party (click here for episode link), inviting friends to join in a bit of silliness. Participants often bring in (bad) jokes, riddles—so I offered to write a short story to share on the show.
Then my month got away from me. Wanting to keep my commitment, I decided to write a story on the fly. During the recording.
This was likely a bad idea.
Part 1: Wherein the author realizes this was, likely, a bad idea
It was supposed to be a friendly game. Mark had had a series of good hands, and when his current draw revealed ace-queen-king in all suits, and a jack in spades, he couldn’t hide his smile. That was when Mildred looked between he and his partner, Nic, and flipped the table. He fell back, surprised at his aunt’s sudden strength. His half-eaten slice of “Mathematical Pi”—he thought the joke was funny—flew in the air. His chair leaned, his arm wheeled, and his fork landed, impossibly, into the electrical socket behind him.
A brief jolt, the muscles in his arms clenching his hand around the fork. A gasp from someone across the room, cut short by…what?
Mark opened his eyes, the room bathed in the brown light of dimmed bulbs. The table was still mid-air, his once-in-a-lifetime hand suspended just out of reach.
“Mark.” The voice that called him was husky, made him think of burning wood and card stock.
Mark turned to the doorway. The figure that stood there was draped in a grey cloak, fluttering in a nonexistent breeze.
“Let’s go,” the figure said. “But, probably want to remove that fork from the wall first.”
Mark rolled out of his chair, stood. He stared at the chair, still suspended on two legs, and dropped the fork.
“Who are you?” Mark asked.
“I’m the ghost of boardgames past.” He said. “We’ve got some things to talk about.”
Part 2 – In which Mark learns nothing
The trip was cold, uncomfortable, and smelled of bacon soda. Mark didn’t mind flying, but he normally had a plane around him when he did so. He recognized the house even from a hundred feet above, and when they fazed through the wall he saw his childhood home. It was just as he remembered, the striped carpet, that mustard yellow couch.
He was seated on the carpet there—young him, in stark yellow pajamas sitting by the brick fireplace. Young Mark was surrounded by a small pile of board games.
“It used to be so simple,” the ghost said. “Monopoly. Sorry. Trouble. Do you even remember the popamatic bubble? Nowadays it’s all truckloads of goober, games that have unpronounceable German titles, and whatever a Coppertwaddle is.”
“They’re better,” Mark replied.
The ghost scoffed.
“No, really. Have you tried Settlers? It’s a great gateway—”
“What about Carcassone?”
The ghost’s face was static. “That’s not even a word.”
“Carcassone? It’s a city in the Aude plain in Fran—”
“No, just stop.” The ghost grumbled, “You’re losing the thread of what we’re doing here.”
Mark looked at his young self, reading through rule books. “I appreciate these old games, but they were the beginning of something much better.”
“How much time and money have you spent on this hobby?”
Mark winced. “Maybe we don’t talk about that. Besides, that’s not all I do. I enjoy Bridge, Opera, artisanal meat sticks.”
The ghost shook his head, “You aren’t helping your argument.”
Mark and the ghost stared at the room, at the boy and his board games.
“I liked those pajamas,” Mark said.
“They look stupid.”
“They were comfortable.”
“You look like a banana.”
Another uncomfortable silence, this time extending several minutes.
“So,” Mark said. “Is this it?”
The ghost shrugged. “Honestly, yes. This is my first time doing this. I actually thought this would be much easier. So, you’re going to be visited by two more ghosts this evening.”
“Board Games Present and Future?”
“How’d you know?”
“Don’t know,” Mark answered. “The story sounds a bit familiar, though.”
Part 3 – The (un)necessarily short one
Mark found himself on the chair again, rolled from it far less successfully this time. From the doorway, a ghost laughed at him.
“Ghost of Board Games Present?” Mark turned. “Wait, you’re the same ghost.”
“Christmas is over two thousand years old. It only has three ghosts. How many do you think board games are going to have?”
“Actually, there are Roman dice dating back to 1000 BCE. And there were copies of Senet found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 3500 BCE.”
The ghost began fading, even while Mark was talking.
“I’m dead, I don’t have to put up with this. Ghost of Board Games Present, out.”
Mark shouted to the nearly evaporated shade, “You’re going to have to come back again anyway.”
Its sleeve reconstituted, a single digit on its hand pointed to the sky.
Part 4: In which plans go poorly, and this all comes to an end.
Back in the chair. Mid-blink he had been teleported back. Literal, physical déjà vu, as disorienting as the number and orientation of accent-marks on the phrase, “déjà vu.” He stood, already looking for the ghost he knew would be standing in the doorway.
The ghost was there, leaning against the frame and clipping his nails. The clippings arced in the air, dissipating into wisps of smoke at some imaginary line three feet away from the ghost.
“So?” Mark asked. “We doing this?”
“Doing what?” The ghost didn’t even look up from his task.
“Show me my future, some horrible event that will make me want to change my ways.”
“Nope, isn’t going to work.”
“Why not?” Mark approached the ghost, shouted in pain when something pierced him through his socks.
The ghost chuckled.
“What was that?” Mark asked. He spied the ground, but couldn’t make anything out among the carpet.
“I’m sure that’s happened before. You step on something sharp and then can’t find what it is you stepped on. Or suddenly your sock is squishy and wet, but you can’t find anything wet on the floor.”
Mark looked at the ghost. Watched another crescent of gnarled nail snap from the clippers and disappear in the air.
“Did I just…step on a ghost nail? That’s gross, man.”
The ghost’s smile widened. “That,” it relished the moment, “was a toe nail.”
Mark was brushing at his foot, but now felt a dire need to wash his hands. “Wait. Then the wet feeling is, what? Drool?”
The ghost’s smile grew wider still.
“Gross. Wow, that’s absolutely horrible. Even Roscoe is house-trained.”
“Do you see any ghost toilets around here?” The ghost put the clippers away. “Okay, Mark. I’m going to be honest with you. I’m a new ghost, this was just an internship I took to fill the time. My heart’s only half in it, and I don’t think you’re working with me on this.”
Mark shrugged. “I think I’ve been pretty compliant about this. You said you’ve been half-assing this, so what if you take it a little more seriously? Maybe that way you can get your wings.”
“I’m a ghost, not a—know what? Forget it.” The ghost inhaled, his posture changing from slack to imposing. “Behold!” the ghost boomed. He waved an arm over Mark, the tattered ends of his robe brushing against Mark’s glasses. The room grew dark and ethereal. “You’ve filled your house with wood and cardboard, mere kindling for humankind’s earliest discovery: fire. See what your hobby has wrought.”
The wall where he kept his card deck collection faded back into view. Mark expected…something. But there they all were, in spooky, fog-wisped black and white.
“And behold!” the ghost declared again. “Your board games, all three hundred eighty of them. Reduced to ash and plastic, a tinderbox of destruction that you gleefully brought into your home.”
Again, the games were still there. No, Mark realized. They looked to be even more organized than they usually were. The walls of the house, the ceiling, it was all there, perhaps even better than before.
“Mark this day, Mark.” The ghost paused, cringed at his own choice of words. “On Wednesday, July Twenty—”
“I’m not seeing the problem here,” Mark interrupted.
The ghost looked around itself, only now seeing the future-world it had conjured. “But, the fire! It caught the cards, and the games, and…no!”
“A fire? Is that it? My games are insured. Itemized list. It’s part of my homeowner’s insurance.”
“Son of a—”
Concern crossed Mark’s face. “Wait. Who was over? My friends and family?”
“Wha? Oh, yes! On this day, Wednesday, July—”
“Wait, Wednesday?” Mark sighed with relief. “Thank goodness! That’s Bridge night. No one is at home.”
“But your dog, Roscoe—”
“The reason I scheduled Bridge for Wednesday is because that’s when Roscoe has his weekly meet-and-greet with his fans. He’s pretty big on Instagram.”
“Stop!” The world quickly came back into focus and color. “I’m done with you, Mark.” The ghost stomped past Mark, removed the fork from the socket and repositioned it a fraction of an inch off target.
It floated. Waiting.
“Now, get back in that chair,” the ghost pointed. “And we’ll pretend none of this ever happened.”
Mark shrugged. Climbed back into the teetering chair.
The chair fell, fork pinging off the plastic faceplate and nicking the wall. Cards and pie and table collapsed around him.
“Well,” Mark thought to himself. “That was anticlimactic.”
Stephen and Dave also run a charity, The Spiel Foundation, which provides bundles of games to children’s hospitals and senior centers across the country. Learn more over at: TheSpielFoundation.com