Words with Friends
"I saved the board just how it was last time. Nobody's touched it but me." I walked over to the Game Room, Jordan by my side.
He nodded, long black ponytail bouncing with every step. I slid the heavy, soundproof door open and stepped inside.
For the past three weeks, Jordan and I had been the only ones in the Game Room, at my request. The yoga mats sat unused, but clean; the television showed a pleasantly static forest; the clocks were all powerless or still.
And every surface was covered with words.
I had to glue them down. Scrabble tiles were just too light; it was all too easy for an errant foot to send them flying, otherwise. We both placed our feet carefully as we went to where we'd last been playing, between the bookshelves and the sofas.
We both knew it was my turn to start. I looked at my hand of seven tiles. AMECOWL. I considered my opening move, then walked to the last word we'd played last time. SAME. I took the last six letters and placed them down, ending on the last letter of SAME.
Jordan smiled faintly. I added 14 points to the scoresheet—Jordan was up 34,752 to 34,696. He took the E from WELCOME and built around it.
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. I’d had to tile the room with Scrabble boards to keep playing the game, but it was worth it. 110 points for Jordan. I took a look at the hand I’d been dealt, considered my options, then switched to another part of the board.
Before I’d even placed the second letter, Jordan inhaled sharply and shook his head. He took my HOME, added an I from the nearby INSTITUTE, and flicked his hand seven times.
I sighed. “I know, I know. But… you’re important to me. Not just because of what I do, but because of who I am.” I took the start of PSYCHOMETRIC and set off at a right angle.
Jordan folded his arms obstinately and turned back to the section of board we’d started in. Of their own accord, three tiles rose into the air and landed around the U in GRATEFUL.
I spread out my hands in a helpless gesture. “You’re right. The world isn’t just. If it was up to me—”
Jordan shook his head insistently. I thought. JUST. What else could he be referring to—
—oh. I met his eyes and said, “You’re right. I don’t just care about you because of what I do, but my job is a part of this. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about you as a person.” Carefully, I took the beginning of HOME, the middle of PSYCHOMETRIC, and built off that.
Jordan shuddered, but at least he used his hands this time. He started to move towards JUST, hesitated, then went to the other I in INSTITUTE.
My eyes widened in surprise for the barest instant before I got myself under control. Of course, Jordan noticed—there was no way he wouldn’t. Still, this was the most I’d gotten out of him about what he did when he wasn’t at the Institute. “Night? He comes out at night?”
Jordan hugged his knees, biting his lips. Right. I mentally kicked myself in the gut; it didn’t take a genius to see that he was scared. I placed a single letter.
Jordan blinked, his rocking stilled for a moment. Then, he barked out a bitter laugh. He, too, placed a single letter, to mirror my own. In the middle of HOME, he wrote:
Jordan’s face still held a sickly smile, his eyes downcast.
He looked up at me, weary, and placed a word perpendicular to the end of KNIGHT.
I couldn’t help but chuckle, despite the situation. I moved on to another part of the board, one we’d visited on multiple occasions before, and latched onto one of the many remnants of games gone by.
I put my hand on his.
He hesitated. Then, in an explosion of tiles, he stood.
GROUNDBINDER. WALLRAISER. DAYBRINGER. OATHMAKER.
I stumbled back as letters flew across the room. Suppressed whispers seethed from every shadow. The walls cracked and chipped.
MUTEMASTER. LIEBREAKER. LAWORDER. SAFEWARDEN.
In scorching bursts of flame, the words scrawled themselves across every board. The laws of nature went into abeyance, my careful work coming unglued, shattered remnants hanging in the air, the room coming tumbling down as Jordan rose into the air.
And then, before I could say anything, he slumped over. The walls restored themselves. The fire was snuffed out. Even the extra boards I’d lovingly laid across the room vanished. All that remained was a single, blank board. Jordan knelt in front of it, shivering.
RULES, he finally made.
I started to build off what he’d placed. But I looked around at the Game Room, all those weeks of work, undone in an instant, beyond my power to retrieve.
And so, very deliberately, I flicked his RULES off the board.
“Why?” I asked.
He stared up at me, shocked. SAFE, he wrote.
I took the L from RULES and rearranged the letters. “FALSE,” I said.
He stood up, expression unreadable.
I took his W, flipped it into an M, and added an E. “ME.”
He shivered, then brought the two together. HOME.
Light began to fill the room.
The board, the tiles, the walls, the Game Room itself—they all began to shake, dissolving under an impossible pressure, falling away as Jordan struggled. I saw it, then, the thing latched onto him. A delicate tracework of invisible currents, whose velvet fangs bit into him in a thousand places.
I grabbed the words which had no name and wrenched them off his body.
I awoke in the jagged, smoking ruins of the Game Room. Jordan was lying on his back next to me, watching the clouds lazily roll by as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
When he saw my eyes open, he let out a contented sigh.
And in a voice very small and very quiet and very much his own, he whispered, “Thank you.”
I finally relaxed. “Any time, kid. Any time.”