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X on a Corner Square

When Mum told me Grandma was moving in, she taught me how to play Scrabble. I didn’t think it was much fun, having to make the words you could, rather than the words you liked. It was not that sort of a game, Mum said, it was not really a game at all.

When Grandma came, she turned me into a hologram. I was seen but not heard, not speaking until spoken to, so not speaking much at all. The sofa wasn’t my launchpad any more, it was her planet. I was stuck in orbit, sitting on the floor, where fidgeting was not allowed, no matter how quiet it was. I learned the pattern of the carpet off-by-heart, made up new words for all the browns, hoping Mum would ask me.

Mum wasn’t talking much, probably because her face had gone so stiff. After a few days, at bedtime, I broke hologram rules and asked her. She told me Grandma was dragging us back in time, but she didn’t know and couldn’t help it.

I should have realised that Grandma was a time traveller. Her expression was like old photographs, but her hair was such a bright orange it had to be from the future. Her glasses were not only octagonal, but showed her everything I was about to do wrong. Since she’d been around, teatime always seemed so much further away and bedtime so much closer. I wondered about the golden clock she’d brought with her, with its whirling globes, four tiny worlds trapped under a glass dome. When she said I’d never be a scientist, I thought she’d met me as a grown-up, but Mum told her that things have changed, now I can be whatever I like. The future changes all the time.

For example, before Grandma moved in, I expected to watch Star Trek every single night. Afterwards, I only expected to watch the news and documentaries about the sad parts of history.

I predicted that Sunday would be the longest day, even though it was the wrong time of year. I tried to use up all the extra minutes, but it didn’t take me nearly long enough to read all of my library books, join every single dot to dot, colour everything inside the lines, and search for all the missing words. The only thing to watch on television was my own reflection, until six o’clock. I didn’t know that yawning was rude, or that one day a train would come out of my mouth, but Grandma did.

Mum sighed and Grandma asked her what she had to sigh about. For a moment, it was like we were all floating in the great airless void that is space. Then Mum took a deep breath and said it was time for Scrabble and asked me to fetch it from the chest.

Only special things were kept in there, things for parties and Christmas, or left behind by dead people. It smelled like liquorice. I brought the Scrabble to the coffee table. It was from the past, the green worn off at the corners, the name written on the inside of the lid was my Mum’s, but in handwriting like mine, now. Grandma said I was too young, but Mum said I’d played before. Grandma said she’d keep score. Mum agreed that she always did.

The bag of tiles sounds like something broken, but the tiles are smooth with lovely rounded corners. Grandma told me not to look, Mum said I wasn’t a cheat. I wanted the K5, which is the best letter, but I didn’t get it, just a silly O1, and had to go last. Grandma told me not to pout and I didn’t think I had been, or had been just about to either, and to make sure I didn’t, I pinched my lips. She had a different frown for each of her letters and huffed as though the tiles were misbehaving, too. She stared at them for such a time that I wondered if she was changing them into letters from a future turn.

To avoid fidgeting, I concentrated on the pink star at the centre of the board, the galaxy of double score blue giant suns and triple score red supergiant suns. Grandma’s tiles turned the heavens back into a board. Her first word was P3E1E1V4E1. Mum said it was perfect, but Grandma didn’t seem pleased. Mum quickly put down D2E1A1D2L1Y4, and laughed a bit like she was coughing. My word was P3I1N1E1. I liked it because it left P3O1O1 on my rack and nobody knew but me. Grandma told me I should use my O1, but that would have ruined it. Mum said that Grandma meant the word O1P3I1N1E1 and that it meant telling innocent victims what you think and what they should do, all the time. Grandma said that rather than be spoon-fed sloppy definitions I should be taught to look words up in the dictionary. I was sent to get it.

Grandma and Mum took their turns without waiting for me, complicated words with consonants all squished together. Grandma took the dictionary from me without thanks, as if it had floated over to her. I didn’t mind because I got the best letter and played one of my top one hundred best words ever, S1P3O1O1K5. They were only interested in the word Mum had played before it, S1T1Y4M3Y4. Spelling is important, everyone knows that, but Grandma and Mum were arguing about the morals of people who get it wrong, until Grandma slammed the dictionary shut, scribbled a number under each of our scores. Mum said she was betting her sanity on this game. She wiggled her eyebrows at Grandma like she was daring her.

There are a hundred tiles in Scrabble but it felt like a septillion. I played one or two letters at a time, sliding each tile across the board, changing direction if Grandma’s eye ticked or Mum bit her lip. They were pretending that each of their words was the most important ever, but they weren’t especially cool ones. I mainly watched the clock hands, creeping towards perfect alignment. I told them it was six o’clock, but Grandma was celebrating her high-scoring N1A1Z10I1, and had forgotten all about the news.

Eventually, the bag was empty. All the blanks were gone. Mum and Grandma were fiddling with their last few tiles, staring at the board. I had seven letters left to play. I had collected them. They were the ones I wanted. I put down E1Q10U1I1N1O1X8 with the X8 on the triple score supergiant corner square. I said it aloud, though nobody had asked me to, and I told them that it was my top favourite word and explained what it meant.

That night I watched Star Trek from the sofa.

This story was first published in Hysteria 6.

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