The Universe Game By Kathleen Hale


Dear God,

Before Mom left, her and Boz and Ava fought constantly. Or really it was more like Mom yelled at Boz about personal things in the kitchen, and then Ava yelled at Mom for being mean to Boz, or at Boz for putting up with being yelled at. The only time Boz fought back at all, really, was this one time when Mom changed the locks on him, which I guess is pretty offensive, based on what he said to her when he got back inside. Boz’s quietness isn’t loud like Mom’s—you can tell that when he’s being yelled at and isn’t saying anything, he’s just waiting for it to be over, not plotting something. Not like Mom who gets quiet the way a volcano is quiet most of its life.

Anyway, Ava and I didn’t even know Mom had changed the locks until Boz got back inside, because Mom put the new keys on our key chains while we were asleep, and so when we got home the next day from school nothing had changed for us. All I remember is there were a few days where Boz was gone and Mom said it was because he’d gone on a business trip, even though she was the one always gone on things like that.

“Something’s fucky—you can just tell us if you’re fighting again,” Ava told her, after we saw Boz tapping on the windows. “We already know you’re sleeping with your client.”  Ava’s always been the quick one. I’ve got all her old teachers and most of them seem pretty disappointed with me.

“You’re Ava’s sister?” they ask. “Geeze Louise, she was one of my brightest students.”  I want to tell them that she swears a lot, which I think makes her sound common, which is a word I heard the pastor say about people with low morals. (I’m the only one in my family who still goes to church.)

Anyway, we didn’t know for sure that Mom had changed the locks ‘til Boz found a way back in. One day the shower was cold, and Mom never cares about those things, so I went into where we keep the boiler to fiddle with it like I’d seen Boz do, and just as I walked in there I saw a little piece of the floor pop up and there was Boz, sticking his head in. There’s no basements in Albuquerque—no place to store things except for the closets—and I guess when he couldn’t get in with his old key, he’d crawled through the outside vent or something, and under the house. It was pretty brave. I mean, he was covered in dirt and spiders.

“I built this floor, I can come back in if I want to,” he said. He hadn’t built the floor, but I didn’t say anything. And then he reached for me, like maybe I was big enough to pull him out.

I haven’t talked to Ava since she left, but we didn’t really talk before that, either. Ever since she got to be a teenager she’s been sort of a snob to me. She’s 15 now, which also isn’t fair because 5 is my favorite number. It’s weird being 12. It sounds like a big bell or a blue crayon or something else that’s boring.

I know she’s sick all of a sudden and that I should be nice about her, but it’s hard to imagine her being anything other than my really pretty sister who everybody liked more. You can’t turn off jealous feelings just because someone’s sick. Ava’s got super long, dark, curly hair, and these big blue eyes, so it’s hard to imagine her brain is in a wheelchair, or however Mom tried to dumb it down for me. And regardless of where her brain is I still want to be her, because my hair can’t be long for some reason. It breaks off at the ends if I grow it past my ears, which my doctor says is from stress but what am I supposed to do about that? I don’t even get to choose what I eat for breakfast so it’s not exactly like I’m in the driver’s seat of my life. Though Boz finally let me start getting my arms waxed last month which helped a lot with my self esteem.

We’re supposed to go see Ava today and I don’t want to. But Mom and Boz already went three times without me and Mom said that’s the last straw and that she didn’t come home to watch me be selfish.

“You’re the one who’s like that,” I wanted to say, but instead I sat very still and tried to get her to hug me just by looking at her. I won’t go if she won’t hug me, I decided, but it’s hard for me to yell at her, like I want to. I don’t know why. Ava once told me she didn’t know how to fight with either of them until she became a teenager.

“Then something just clicks,” she promised me. “All the stuff you’ve been thinking your whole life comes out massive and mean and it makes sense, too, and you even sound smarter than them, which’ll hurt them and you both, because you realize you’re going places they’ll never go, and there’s power in that, you’ll see.”

The last time I saw Ava was when the police brought her home and they had a grey blanket around her because she was naked. One of the officers was carrying her clothes. They told Boz what happened and recommended she be a mental patient right away. I was watching from the top of the stairs, and let me tell you, Ava’s eyes were super red and she kept looking all around, smiling and muttering about geniuses, and she actually looked close to ugly for once. Who am I kidding, she looked beautiful. Anyway, I thought for sure she had taken alcohol or drugs like we learned about in DARE, but when the police left, Boz told Ava to stop with the shenanigans; he said he wasn’t going to take her anywhere and that she was just going to stay put and stop acting out because Mom had gone.

Boz is a medical doctor but sometimes he doesn’t pay very much attention and misses obvious stuff, in my opinion. When Mom loved him she explained he was a space cadet because he had to pay very close attention at work so that nobody sued him, so he came home with his mind tired and let it wander occasionally to give it a break. Now she just calls him an idiot.

“I know how you feel, Ava-boo,” he said to Ava. “But you need to keep your pants on, all right?”  He said it all very softly and nicely, because she kept taking off her pants and talking about the universe, and then he locked her in her room, which he said wasn’t inhumane because she had a bathroom in there. But I thought it was pretty mean so later I unlocked the door and ran away, which I guess makes me responsible for how she ended up using the serrated bread knife to scratch the words “UNIVERSE GAME” onto her belly. It wasn’t deep enough to scar but it was still my fault and sometimes I wonder if anyone will love me as much as they love Ava.

When Ava came down the next morning bleeding letters through her t-shirt, Boz mopped his mouth and grabbed her by the wrist and drove her straight to the hospital where the police had originally said to take her. “I don’t know what else to do,” he kept saying, and it came out sounding like an apology, though you couldn’t tell who he was talking to.

When he came back he had all these pamphlets from a place called Earthen Meadows, which I thought was pretty great sounding because I immediately imagined that if I were at Earthen Meadows I’d find a way to escape, and then everyone would think I was smart, and they could make a movie about it called “Escape from the Earth.”  But Boz told me to be serious for a second because Ava wasn’t escaping and she wasn’t well and she wouldn’t be the same anymore and so I needed to get used to it, and then he told me to call my mother and tell her what had happened.

Mom was on one of her business trips at that point but Boz had been calling it a business trip for a while and I was starting to think maybe it was something else, like a new life with this client she’s apparently in love with. I guess he thought she might not listen if he called, or maybe he thought she’d yell at him, which makes sense. Probably he thought she’d be nicer if it was me.

And she was nice, sort, of. She asked me if I was okay, but I didn’t really know what to say at that point (I’ve come up with something since then, parts of which I took from movies, which goes: “I’m coming apart at the seams, darling, I just don’t know how I’ll go on…the future looks so dark and I worry all the time”), and now that I’ve said, “I’m fine, thanks,” it’s like I’ve lost the chance to be a baby about it, or something.

“What the hell is going on over there?” is what she asked next.

“A lot of nudity and gore,” I joked. She got quiet and hung up after that. But after a couple hours she was home.

Now that she’s back the air conditioning is on too high, and it’s still two months before school starts again, and I’m starting to realize why certain relatives say my parents are crazy. Close to 100% of the time I’m glad they’re both around, but I wish Boz would go back to work instead of taking the day off due to Ava because then maybe Mom would hold me on her lap (even though she hasn’t done that since I was a baby, practically) and talk to me softly and not in a mad way. Her sister, my Aunt Linda, got drunk at a dinner party last year and said it’s Boz who makes her like that. Actually it seems like everyone has an opinion about my dad—even Ava, actually, even though she just says everyone only thinks he’s so annoying because he lets them.

Boz told me once he got his nickname from what his parents used to call him: Bother. Bother, Bozzer, Boz. I guess when Mom found out they called him that she started calling him that too. I’m not really sure about if Boz bothers me or not, or if the nickname bothers him. But I know he bothers Mom, because she started pulling her hair out before she left on this last business trip, saying that she couldn’t stand another second in this place, and I like to think that she meant him, and not all of us.

A few days before Ava went to the park and stripped naked, she was going on and on about this Universe Game stuff, saying how the universe was a game and adults are whales that move back and forth between genius and “total deproximation from their own totality,” which didn’t make very much sense. But even before that she was doing stuff like eating peanut butter with her hands and squeezing me too hard when she wanted hugs. She told me that the heart is a muscle and it needs a workout, which Boz got a real kick out of—probably because he wasn’t the one getting Ava’s boa constrictor treatment. He said she had a way with words and could be a doctor or an artist if she wanted, which was rare (“You could be a teacher,” he told me, over and over again, until the idea felt boring and tired like the sun in your eyes after a movie matinee).

Ava also lied a lot, which is partly why I’m trying to be honest about all this no matter what. I used to say I was sick when I wasn’t or that things hurt when they didn’t, just to get Boz or Mom to look at me or touch me. And I won’t do that anymore. But when Ava and I were little, for instance—like when I was six and she was nine—she used to have really weird dreams that always had something to do with what we were learning in school. We’d be at the breakfast table with Mom and Boz—who talked so much back then that the only way to get their attention, really, was to shock them—and so I’d spill my milk on purpose usually, which I guess is also kind of weird, and meanwhile Ava’d be talking about some dream she had, like for instance:  “You know, last night I dreamt we were in a world without violence, blacks and whites were friends, and racism was totally abolished.”

It’d be while we were doing Martin Luther King Week in school, or something, so it’d be super obvious to me that she was only pretending to be wise. But Mom always called it Ava’s creativity “sparkling through”—which was unfair, I think. I started to feel like I was always the only one who could tell Ava was lying sometimes, which was sort of a lonely thing, actually. She always said “You know” before she lied.

The more I think about it the less I actually do want to be like Ava. Church helps me remember that. Ava isn’t even allowed to call home anymore because apparently she tried to attack a nurse inside the phone booth. She just kept hitting her over and over again with the receiver, and even if I could be the prettiest person in the room, I’m not sure I’d want to also be the one who hits people with phones.

The thing about church is it’s clean and never quiet because there’s always the organ going or the sermon happening, and it’s never musty, and I like the way the colored glass makes the pastor’s face look like a traffic light whenever he’s talking. One time the Pastor took me aside after the sermon and asked where I lived and where my parents were, and when I said down the street he took me over to the bulletin board in the lobby, which has all the support group pamphlets on it. Bright green paper for “Confused Love Seekers,” and light brown for “Adult Children of Divorce.” So far, since Mom’s been back, I’ve gone to Alcoholics Anonymous (they asked me to leave halfway through) and something called Ravenous Appetite, which I thought was about food, but which turned out to be a thing for people who have sex too much (they asked me to leave right away).

From what I know so far you’re supposed to pray to your hands (folded) or to your knees or to the sun, but still sometimes I go down underneath the house through the outside air vent or the loose floor board and sit Indian style in the dirt and talk out loud, hoping something will happen. Like, “maybe if I leave the cobwebs stuck to my face like cotton candy, they will notice I was gone,” or “maybe Boz won’t sleep on the couch tonight if I stay here in the dark and let it be uncomfortable and scary for ten more minutes.” Or something. It’s probably weird to go through trap doors your dad made and sit in the dirt in secret passageways, but I’ve said it out loud now, which makes it better, and maybe also talking about what you pray is like praying it twice, which increases your chances.

I’m sitting underneath the house when I hear Boz calling for me. I stay very quiet but then he sticks his head through the trap door and says, “Again? Honestly? What are you always doing down there—it’s dirty and I’m not finished with it yet, I’m going to finish it—now come on, skedaddle, we’re going to the hospital and you’re coming this time.”

The thing that makes my stomach hurt the most as I crawl toward the light is that I wasn’t even hiding at all, it’s just that nobody was trying to find me.

Boz says that every person has an episode, especially in our family. Boz says it runs in our blood and that Ava’s episode was probably there before, and only now decided to happen—like puberty, he said.

“When did yours happen?” I asked.

But he didn’t want to talk about it.

“What about Mom’s?”

He shook his head. “Mom’s was the worst,” he whispered, and that was all he’d say about it.

Personally I think all this episode stuff has something to do with the snakes inside of us, and the yellow bottles behind all the medicine cabinets. They look pretty when you put them on the windowsill and let the sunlight through. Sometimes if you squint into the darkness like I do underneath our house you’ll see a snake inside of you where a baby goes. One day it comes bursting out of your chest, and then that’s who you are after that.

You’re the snake.

It was different for Ava, I think, but maybe it wasn’t.

“Will Ava be a snake when we see her?” I ask softly as Boz drives us to the hospital. Mom’s meeting us there.

“Don’t be stupid,” he says, rolling his eyes.

“Did you know about Ava’s snake before she took off her clothes and started yelling about outer space?” I ask.

“Don’t be mean,” Boz says, and rolls down the windows to cover up my words with wind.

If I’m really telling the whole truth from now on, the Universe Game didn’t used to just be something Ava said and then wrote on her stomach. It actually began as these hospital games we played as kids, which I feel a little weird about now that all of this is happening, because maybe it’s one of my symptoms too.

Anyway, Ava and I used to play this game called Ant Hospital, which is where we’d sit outside on the patio, and when the ants crawled from between the cracks in the patio wall, we’d press them against the concrete with our thumbs. We’d have little Dixie cups of water, and we’d put the flattened ants in there for their hospital baths. It was up to us to save them, but we had to kill them first. Otherwise they’d just crawl around our fingers and arms and wouldn’t cooperate.

We also did Worm Hospital, which was basically the same thing, only instead of the patio, we’d sit on the porch off of the playroom, and instead of pressing the worms with our thumbs, we’d stretch them out like strings and karate chop them in half. We used gauze instead of Dixie cups to fix them. Or at least we said we were fixing them. Really we were just wrapping gauze around two pieces of the same worm, and the two pieces would always wriggle further into the gauze, looking for each other, wrapping up in a sort of knot or bow to be close again.

Pretty soon we had to stop pretending we didn’t know what we were doing, because it gave us this ache in our stomachs, acting so pretend about it when really we knew that we were killing things. That’s what Ava said. She was 12 and I was 9, and Ant Hospital and Worm Hospital became just the Universe Game, because the ants and worms were like little people in medium civilizations, she said, and we were great big Gods, picking creatures for heaven.

After Ava got nude in the park and before she starting writing on herself with knives, I heard her talking about the Universe Game stuff to the police—the new Universe Game, though, the one where humans are whales and stuff. At the time I mostly felt flattered that she was remembering something we did as kids, because now that Ava’s a teenager she doesn’t really talk to me anymore, like I said. I tried to figure out if she was the whales, or if we were both whales together. I even looked up what “totality” meant, because she kept shrieking it downstairs that day. But after a while I got tired and went to sleep.

At Ava’s hospital we have to get buzzed in through two heavy doors to get to where they keep her. The ceilings and walls are white but the floors are a dirty yellow, and nurses are walking around with carts full of dirty dishes or clean laundry or sometimes just pillows. Other people who obviously aren’t nurses are walking around in slippers playing with their fingers or talking to their fingers. They look like how Ava looked that day the police brought her home from the park, except tired, like me. Everyone’s wearing nightgowns, even the boys.

“Don’t listen to any of these people,” one of them says as she walks past us in her nightgown. “They’re all crazy.”  Her hair is cut unevenly and short, like maybe it breaks off instead of grows, like mine.

Mom and Boz are walking on either side of me but neither of them tries to hold my hand when the sick lady passes, not even when I let my arms bop against theirs.

“This whole place looks the same,” Boz stops walking and looks around. “Such uniformity, I wonder—”

“Save your academic jerkoff for someone who cares.” Mom rolls her eyes at him. “Jesus, Boz.”  She starts walking faster away from us and around a corner, and we follow.

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She’s gone into a room with one grey wall and two beds and a narrow window in the center with bars in the glass. Ava’s on one of the beds on her back, and there’s another girl in the other bed, facing the wall.

“Well hellooooo,” Ava says, smiling. Her eyes are barely open. After Mom left I saw her come home drunk once and I knew because Boz was scolding her. She looks like that now. “How good of you to come, baby sis.”

“Don’t call me that,” I say, because I’ve always hated it. Ava laughs. I wish Mom and Boz would leave because right now I could ask her if she’s the whale or if I am or if with both are.

“Oh honey,” Mom tells her. Mom and Boz are planted like statues, standing by Ava’s bed but not too close to it. You’d think they’d be better at this visiting stuff because unlike me they’ve done it before, but Boz keeps opening his mouth and shutting it, and Mom looks like she’s going to cry, so it’s sort of up to me to make the noise, I guess, per usual.

“Are you sick still, Ava?”

Mom gives me a look but I stick my tongue out at her, because all of a sudden it feels like this is the sort of place where you can do anything, and plus you can’t just come home after loving your client for so long and expect to be the boss again.

“I don’t know, really,” Ava says.  “I feel packed in foam rubber.”  She opens one eye at me. “You know, I had a dream last night that you and I were in this field of crows, and among them was a tiny black rabbit.”  She winks at me, or maybe she’s just falling asleep. “That’s what you are, baby sis: a black rabbit among crows.”

Mom and Boz both look choked up. But mostly there’s something about the way Ava’s talking—like all those times she came down to the table and said something huge and smart and I had to spill my cereal to get anyone to look at me.

“What does that mean?” I ask her, because no matter how much I hate her sometimes, I still want to know. “Does it mean I’m hiding?”

“You know, you two are beautiful together,” she says to Mom and Boz. “Don’t ever part, all right?  You create such genius as a team.”  She yawns. “I feel so strong when you’re together.”

“Ava, answer me,” I say.

And then I see this crazy thing: Mom reaching for Boz’s fingers, the two of them holding hands. My stomach tightens and I don’t know if I’m sick or excited. Ava’s just smiling, her head nestled in pillows like some kind of queen.

“I want to talk to Ava,” I shout, and Mom and Boz sort of jump, then roll their eyes in unison, smiling at each other with these smiles I haven’t seen in years. And then they leave us. So it’s just Ava and me and that girl who’s a lump in the other bed.

“Sis,” Ava hisses, squinting at me. “They’ve got me on so many drugs it’s crazy.” She looks up at the ceiling. “I’m crazy. It’s like being on a cloud. But sometimes I barf because of turbulence.”

I squeeze her arm, trying to get her to look at me. “Ava, are you lying again?” I ask, because Mom and Boz never touch each other anymore, but they would for this kind of emergency—and Mom was about to leave, it seemed like, but now it looks like she might stay. “Did you just want Mom and Boz to make up and have a baby again, or something?”

“Why would I want that? They made us, remember, and now we’re stuck with it.” Ava smiles at me, her eyelids droopy. “Anyway, I’m not a witch.”

My stomach twists again. All I can think about is that snake. “Ava,” I whisper, shaking her arm. “Ava, listen, am I going to go crazy, too?”

“I’m not an oracle either,” she says, and turns on her side to face the wall. Soon she’s snoring. One more lump in the room.

On the way home I say nothing. We pull into the driveway and Mom and Boz walk to the front door together, and he’s rubbing little circles on her back. I stay outside.

The vent is still loose from where I pulled it off last time, so I crawl in underneath the house and sit down cross-legged, watching light knife through the wooden floor above me and sparkle on the dirt. There’s barely enough room to fit and I don’t know how Boz ever squeezed through that day after Mom changed the locks. I can hear them above me now. Their footsteps send dirt into my hair.

I wipe the cobwebs off my face and stick my finger in the grey dirt to draw a 5, my favorite number, with an exclamation point next to it. 5! 5! The exclamation points look like daggers with puddles of blood underneath, and 5 is a snake looking at the sky, going to heaven.

5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5,




Kathleen Hale is the author of two novels: No One Else Can Have You and Nothing Bad is Going to Happen, the latter forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2015. Her nonfiction has been published in The Guardian and Vice, among other places. One of her personal essays, “Quit Everything,” will be featured in the anthology Never Can Say Goodbye, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster this fall. Her Twitter handle is @halekathleen.