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Hello Operator, Please Give Me Number Nine

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Susie had slapped Aaron Brooks when he introduced her to the game Mao. It was at one of those dumb house parties that were full of freshman girls and upperclassmen guys. (She was one of the freshman girls, and hadn't learned to avoid them yet.) She'd had three gin-and-tonics and Aaron kept staring at her boobs, so she only felt a little sorry about slapping him at the time. (And if he was trying to sleep with her, introducing her to an incredibly frustrating card game was the wrong way to go about it.)

"This is worse than Calvinball," she'd fumed.

"Penalty for speaking. Calling a P of O. What the hell is Calvinball?" he'd asked.

"I'll tell you some other time," she'd said.

"Penalty for referring to yourself in the first person, and penalty for not putting down your cards during the P of O," he'd said, laying two more cards in front of her. That's when she'd slapped him. She'd never liked games where she didn't know the rules.

Susie has: a 3.95 grade point average, outlines for her senior theses in Anthropology and English (she's a double major), a laptop that's covered in stickers, a pretty serious competitive streak, a stack of flyers for the literary journal’s open mic night, and, somewhere in the future, a grave. An expiration date. A death.

Susie's English thesis is on the use of deus ex machina plot devices in 19th century literature. Her anthropology thesis will be about the transmission of culture among schoolchildren.

Susie's Death is staring at her from a dozen feet away.

It's 6:17 on a Friday evening, and Susie’s on her way to the the Student Union building to put up the flyers. Her Death sits on a bench at the edge of the quad, patiently waiting.

Susie’s Death looks like... well, like Susie, mostly, only without the acne scars on her chin and with more neatly plucked eyebrows. (One always comes out a little crooked when she does it herself.) Her death is dressed the way Susie dresses in her imagination: stylish, somber, neat, with the kind of fabric and tailoring she can’t afford as a college student.

Susie's read a lot of poetry and stories about death, even wrote some of her when her grandmother died a few years ago. But she's thoroughly in the post-modern realist camp: death is supposed to be an event, not a person. Certainly not a person who looks like Susie’s calmer, better-dressed, twin sister. Death doesn’t have a scythe or a black robe or anything, but she is unquestionably (if inexplicably) Susie’s Death. There’s no doubt in Susie’s mind, no denial at all.

Susie's not ready to die, but isn’t exactly prepared to refuse either. Chances are, nobody is. But, before she can doubt herself, she sits down next to her Death and says, "I challenge you to a game."

Oh, really? Death says, polite and mildly interested. What game?

Susie watched The Seventh Seal during a Post-War European Arts and Literature class. She wonders if Death had ever been challenged before Ingmar Bergman made it cool.

In the movie, Death tricks the knight who's challenged him to a chess match into revealing his strategy for winning. But the knight later tricks Death by knocking over the chess pieces and claiming he didn’t remember where they’d been places. Death remembers, though, and Death checkmates him in the next move.

The lesson here, Susie thinks, is that tricking Death is tricky business. How do you outwit the personification of oblivion? Chess, obviously, won’t be the answer.

This is not a typical request, Death says to Susie, after Susie makes her proposition.

"Not typical doesn't mean unacceptable," she replies. Calvin, throughout high school, liked to tell her that she should be a lawyer, given the way she argues. She hasn't completely decided against it, even though the job prospects for new JD graduates is sort of abysmal. Also, Death is here for her, so the chances are she won't be graduating.

She gets angry then. She's twenty-one, damn it. The world is big and she's seen only a little of it. She wants to finish her theses and graduate. She wants to travel outside the Midwest. She wants to see the weird stuff Calvin posts on Twitter this week. She wants to become an anthropologist, or a writer, or a lawyer, or a botanist/politician/social worker/cat lady. She wants to live.

Explain the rules again, Death says.

"There are at least two players, and the players wear masks," Susie says.

Death waits.

"That's pretty much it. You make the rest of it up as you go along. Volleyballs and croquet wickets are optional. Flags sometimes help."

Death looks at her. How do you win?

It's a good question. Susie doesn’t really have an answer, though.

Susie has played Calvinball exactly twice. The first time was right after her family moved to Calvin's neighborhood. She lasted about five minutes before Calvin pushed her in a mud puddle. She responded by forcing a handful of oozing mud and dead leaves down his throat.

The second time was after her dog died when she was ten years old. She'd been sitting in her backyard on the swingset, feeling sad and shocked that Bella was dead, that things could die. That things close to her could die, rather. She'd known it intellectually, but death was something that happened somewhere else. Death was another country that she could point to on a map, without any real notion of what it was or what happened there.

Calvin had wandered over, attempting to act extremely casual. He'd handed her a black tube sock with two holes cut in it and said, "Wanna rematch?"

They’d played until the sun went down.

How can you play a game with no rules? Death asks.

By not caring if you win, Susie thinks. But that's not true: she cares very much. So she doesn't answer.

Death sighs. Are you sure you wouldn't rather a game of chess? Go? Backgammon?

Susie is good at chess, but she doubts that she'd be better than Death. She shakes her head.

What kind of mask? Death says.

"Black stockings with eyeholes cut into them are traditional," she says. "But, like I said--"

Make it up as you go along, I understand. Shall we begin?

Luckily, the quad is abandoned at this hour. Susie sets down her backpack, takes off one of her socks, pokes two holes in it with her pocketknife, and ties it around her head. She tries not to feel like an idiot, and mostly fails. She's playing a game of Calvinball with Death, she reminds herself. In the scheme of things, looking cool should rate about the same concern as the milk that's a day past its expiration date in her refrigerator. It’s still embarrassing.

She crumples up a wad of the flyers into a tight ball, shouts, "Game on!" as loud as she can, and then flings it right at Death's face. It hits Death right between her perfectly plucked eyebrows.

"Penalty for not already having a mask on!" Susie shouts.

I do so have a mask on! Death answers. You think I look like this when I'm at home?

"You think I look like this at home? I'm in sweatpants the second the door closes behind me," Susie argues. She’d rather not imagine what her Death looks like at home. "Put on a real mask or you'll get sent to jail!"

The game goes on, and a funny thing happens: nobody notices. Moreover, nobody is there to notice. Professors should be leaving their offices by now, students should be trickling into and out of the library or cafeteria. Susie doesn't see anyone besides herself and her Death. The sun hangs on the edge of the horizon but never sinks below it. The streetlamps don't flicker on. They play and play and play, shouting and rolling and throwing things at each other.

New rule, new rule! Death shouts, touching one of the large sycamores on the edge of the quad. This tree is the pillar of wisdom. I have to say a fact in the form of a statement, and you have to answer it in the form of a question.

Apparently, Susie's Death likes trivia shows. But then, who doesn't like Jeopardy?

This poet, who authored 'Queen Mab'--

"Who is Percy Shelley!" Susie screams. She never waits for Alex Trebek to finish reading the clues either.

You didn't wait for me to finish!

"I'm still right! I get free passage to the safety bench!"

You still get penalized for interrupting the clue! You have to walk on all fours and screech like a howler monkey.

Susie drops onto her hands and knees and screeches like a howler monkey. She gallops that way across the quad into the center, and then does a clumsy somersault, landing on her back. She lays flat out and mouths something silently. When Death walks over to her, Susie sits up, points at her, and says, "You just walked into the Square of Secrets! You have to tell me a secret!"

You have to declare the designation of new zones, Death says.

"I did declare it. In keeping with the spirit of the Square of Secrets, I declared it silently. Now you have to answer any question I ask."

Death looks wary, but nods.

"How do I end this game of Calvinball without agreeing to die?"

Death rolls her eyes. You realize that there's no way to live forever, right? You're going to die. This is super fun and all, but even if you win, it just means a stay of execution.

"I know that," Susie says. "I'm not, like, Aleister Crowley or that guy that wrote about the Singularity or whatever. I just want--"

What does she want? Susie thinks about it. She knows people who have died. Two students on campus died last year; one from a car wreck, the other from alcohol poisoning. She was older than both of them. She can only imagine what happened in their minds, if as they swallowed that last Jagermeister shot or saw oncoming headlights, they met their own deaths and tried to bargain with them. And what would they have said?

It doesn't matter, she decides. They weren't her, Susie Derkins, age twenty-one, double-major, bisexual, junior at University of Wisconsin, and with a 3.95 GPA. Death happens to everyone, but that doesn't make it less personal.

"I'm not done yet," she says to Death, well aware of how bratty she sounds. Playing Calvinball must have made her regress a bit. "I will be eventually, I guess, but just... not today."

Death sighs. (She seems to do that often.) Okay, she says.

"Okay?" Susie repeats. "So? What's the secret?"

Death smirks. In keeping with the spirit of the Square of Secrets, I've hidden the answer somewhere on the Calvinball field.

Susie gropes until she finds the Calvinball and throws it at Death's face.

I used to be able to do this, Susie thinks, holding the jump rope in her hands. (Who even knows where Death got a jump rope.) It really wasn't that long ago. Her childhood, in fact, seems closer than it has since she was an adolescent. She takes a deep breath and tells herself that it's just like riding a bike: just don't slow down enough to fall over. She starts jumping.

"Miss Susie had a steamboat," she sings.

"The steamboat had a bell
Miss Susie had some dynamite
and blew herself to
Hello operator
please give me number nine,
and if you disconnect me,
I'll paddle your
Behind the refrigerator
there was a piece of glass
Miss Susie sat upon it and broke her big fat
Ask me no more questions,
I'll tell you no more lies
The boys are in the bathroom
Zipping up their
Flies are in the meadow
The bees are in the park
Miss Susie and her boyfriend
Are kissing in the
dark dark dark
Dark is like the ocean
Dark is like the sea
Dark is like the underwear
My boyfriend put on ME, ME, ME!,"

Susie turns three cartwheels in the grass for the last part, because she can. Death claps, impressed.

The game drags on, and Susie realizes--she can do this indefinitely. She can keep playing and playing, making up nonsensical decree after nonsensical decree. The sun can stay glued to the edge of the horizon, the campus can permanently stay empty, and she can stay alive as long as she keeps Death occupied with the game.

In the same breath, she realizes that she's tired, that she wants to go home and put on some sweatpants and drink a mug of hot chocolate. She wants to call her mom and bitch about her weird day. She wants to email Calvin and see if he'll believe her.

Gas attack! Death shouts. You have to lie on the ground for five minutes and play dead.

"I'm immune to the gas," Susie counters. She winds her scarf around her mouth and eyes. "I have a gas mask on."

It's nerve gas, Death replies. Nobody is immune to it. You can only get out of it if you hold your breath and cross the quad to the designated safety bench without breathing.

Susie takes a deep breath and starts walking. She doesn't run, though she does take long steps, stretching out her legs as much as she can. The quad seems to lengthen to match her stride. There's something cold and wet against her skin, and while it could just be the dampness of the air, she thinks it really could be nerve gas, wrapping tendrils around her ankles and wrists, slowing her down.

Step. Step. Step. She tries not to hurry or panic. She concentrates on the feeling of the wool that's still held against her mouth.

Would Death notice if she cheated and took a breath? Susie doesn't dare try it, just in case the gas is real. Belief is a strong, strange mechanism.

She jogs the last few yards, and practically collapses on the bench that they've designated as "safe". When she's able to stand again, Death is watching from a few yards away.

"Twenty minute ceasefire for tea?" Susie says. She's mostly a coffee drinker these days, but she's craving tea in little pink plastic cups.

Her Death seems to understand, she nods and says, Earl Grey, two sugars?

It's a very pleasant ceasefire, all things considered.

Childhood is a country that everyone lives in for a little while, until they get too big for the soil to support them anymore. But maybe you can still visit, if your passport is good and you aren't on a no-fly list for being too grown up and bitter about it.

Susie read a lot of fairy tales as a kid. Her mother had collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and Susie spent entire days wrapped up in stories where brothers turned into wild swans, or wolves stalked young girls through forests; worlds that were full of knights and witches and trolls and queens. In all of those stories, things were happening to people, not necessarily through any fault or virtue of their own. There was an evil queen or a lonely fairy. An angel interceded. Death appeared. In modern novels--or so she’s going to state in her English thesis--such plot devices are used to resolve otherwise impossible situations, rather than create them. This is because nobody ever grows out of asking why something happened. Grownups, though, have a much harder time than children with swallowing the answer: “Because there wouldn’t be a story, otherwise.”

Adults tend to call those things “miracles” when they seem to happen in real life. Susie, as an adult, is skeptical of miracles when they’re not in fiction.

There is a faded orange fur tail, lumpy and threadbare, peeking out of a bush.

She’s not feeling very adult right now.

"Hobbes?" she whispers. Death instituted a new decree: talking above a whisper caused earthquakes, which made all of their designated zones switch spots. She does not want to accidentally stumble into the Pernicious Poem Place again, or the Monty Python Regurgitation Station.

The threadbare orange tail is indeed attached to a threadbare orange tiger, amused smile permanently stitched into place. Pinned to one of his paws (Ouch, she thinks, not pausing to remember that he's a stuffed tiger), is a small Community Chest card from a Monopoly game: there's a picture of Mr. Moneybags with two wings, flying out of an open birdcage. "GET OUT OF JAIL FREE" it says. "THIS CARD MAY BE KEPT UNTIL NEEDED OR SOLD"

Only someone has crossed out JAIL and written DEATH over it.

"You're a great deus ex machina, Hobbes," Susie whispers, because the word "miracle" trips up on her tongue. She gives Hobbes’s belly a quick rub in gratitude, and swears she feels him purr.

The same night that he played Mao with her, Aaron Brooks also told Susie about The Game, unwittingly inducting her into it. "You lose every time you think about it," he'd said. "I lost just by telling you about it."

(She's losing now just by remembering it. She finds she doesn’t mind very much.)

Why do grownups make games that weren't any fun to play?

Most games aren't much fun to play, Death says, considering the yellow card in her hand. The sun has finally set, and the brightly-colored card seems to almost glow in the darkening evening. When you were playing by yourself as a kid, would you say you were having fun? Or was it serious?

Her games of pretend were pretty serious, Susie supposes. She doesn't recall playing house or having tea parties just as a way to pass the time. She didn't do it to amuse herself.

That said, Death continues, arching one of her perfect eyebrows, I have enjoyed myself.

Death slips the Monopoly card into her pocket and nods goodbye. (Or rather, Susie reminds herself, see-you-later.) Then Death turns and walks away, singing softly under her breath--though not so softly that Susie can't hear:

Death is like the ocean
Death is like the sea
Death is like the darkness
That waits somewhere for me, me, me...