[previously published in Graphos and accepted to the 2010 Sigma Tau Delta Convention.]
Cooper and Sydney play Guitar Hero after school when a flash of lightning illuminates the already bright basement. Seconds later, the lights and blue glow from the TV cut out and the two are left in darkness.
“Aw, c’mon!” Sydney shouts at the TV. “I had a streak going!”
“I win since I was ahead when the power went out. Default.” Cooper takes off his guitar and slumps onto the couch. “Can we just work on calculus now?”
“Cooper.” Sydney remains in guitar-playing position. “First, the power just went out. I’m not going to play ‘Boy Scouts’ and do homework by flashlight. Second, you did not win; I had my guitar on the left-handed setting.”
“You’re left-handed, Syd.”
“Not when I play guitar, Coop.”
“Well I have to be home at five to watch Mia while my parents cook dinner. It’s French Food Night at our house and they foresee trouble with the soufflé if Mia’s around.” Cooper pauses, pulls at a loose thread on the couch, “Mom said you’d understand why you aren’t invited either.”
“Yeah, remember Irish Night? I mean, that wasn’t entirely my fault, but whatever; your family’s themed meals stress me out.” Sydney finally takes off her guitar to look for one of the many flashlights her parents keep for emergencies.
“I know. I should have reminded you Grams is Catholic.”
“It would have made my drunken Irish Catholic joke a lot less awkward,” Sydney shouts from the closet. She comes back with two flashlights, shines one at Cooper’s face. He flinches as the light momentarily blinds him. “So now what?” she asks.
"Watch the eyes, Syd." Cooper grabs the other flashlight from Sydney's hand. “I don't know now what. The storm put a kibosh on the driving range and Guitar Hero."
"Well we have to do something to decide once and for all which of us is more amazing.”
“Really? We’ve been doing this since sixth grade. Can’t we just call it quits?”
“Are you kidding me? We need to finish what we started. Or are you afraid of losing?” Sydney holds her flashlight under her chin so it illuminates only her face. “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story, 'The Tale of the Spineless Pansy,'" she says in her best Are You Afraid of the Dark? voice.
“Oh, very nice Sydney. Why don’t you just make fun of me using obsolete pop culture references? Let’s just go to McDonald’s; we can probably get some free burgers. My parents keep making dairy-based meals even though they know I’m lactose intolerant.”
“Ew, we’re not going to McDonald’s. Besides, I’m a vegetarian.” Sydney sits next to Cooper and uses her flashlight to make shadow puppets on the ceiling.
“How long have you been a vegetarian?”
Sydney consults her imaginary watch, “Like a week, I think. Anyways, come on. Can we just play a board game? One game, that’s it. Winner takes all.”
Cooper lets out a long breath. They are seniors in high school. Sydney will never grow up. “Okay. We’ll play one game — no rematches, no do-overs.”
“Sudden death by candlelight; I like it.” Sydney heads to the bookshelf and looks over her board game selection. “Alright, we have Monopoly—”
“Takes too long. Besides you used a Sharpie to change it to Redistribution during your Communist phase.”
“Oh, right. Battleship?”
“We've played that before. You always move your ships around so they're never in the same spot.”
“I just want it to be realistic. If you ever want to make it in the Navy you've got to know how to hit a moving target. How about Clue?”
“That one might work.”
Sydney pulls the Clue box down. “Actually,” she bites her bottom lip, “let’s not play Clue. We’re missing all the guy pieces.”
“We’ve only got Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock, and Miss Scarlet. Remember the feminist phase I went through last winter?”
Cooper shakes his head as Sydney puts Clue back on the shelf.
“What about Scrabble?” he asks. “That way it’s about skill, not luck.”
“Alright, but just know I’m a Scrabble champion.”
“Sydney, you can’t even spell champion.”
“Oh, it is on, Cooper. Hardcore.” Sydney pulls the Scrabble box off the shelf, handing it over to Cooper to set up on the table while she finds some candles.
Sydney lays first: “Free. That’s seven points for Team Amazing,” she says.
“We’ll see who’s amazing after I get done owning this board,” Cooper says.
“You talk big words, can you play any?”
“C-R-E-S-T,” Cooper says. “Crest for fifteen points. I’ve already doubled your score, Syd. What’s your next move?”
Sydney wrinkles her forehead and sticks her tongue out in concentration. Finally she puts down an O and a blank tile next to Cooper’s T, declaring it TOP. “Two points,” she mumbles, picking up two more tiles.
Cooper grabs two tiles and arranges them on the board in one graceful motion, turning Sydney’s FREE into FREEZE. “Nineteen points. If you want you can give up now.”
“You don’t need to worry about me, Slim. I’ve got this in the bag.” Sydney concentrates on her tiles. “Can I change the blank tile to an N? TON is still a word.”
“Have you ever played Scrabble before? No, that’s cheating.”
“Is not, Rule Nazi.”
“Don’t call me a Nazi, Communist. Just play something else.”
“Fine.” Sydney places an A under the blank tile serving as a P, followed by a V and another blank tile. “PAVE,” she says.
“You had both the blank tiles?”
Sydney nods. They continue playing. The only sounds interrupting their focused silence are the candles burning and tiles clicking.
After several minutes, Sydney places O-B-I-A beneath the F from FREEZE.
“That’s not a word, Syd. Phobia is P-H-O-B-I-A,” Cooper says.
“I know; Scrabble is phonetic.”
Sydney looks across the board at Cooper. “My house my rules?”
Cooper shakes his head, making the already flickering shadows dance on the wall. Sydney lets out a huff and takes her tiles back.
“Is mibanox a word?” she asks.
“What? No. What?”
“Mibanox. Never mind. Here,” Sydney slaps down a blank tile in front of the word LIPS. “It’s an F,” she says, arms crossed over her chest.
“Syd…that’s the third blank tile you’ve used,” Cooper says, reaching down to pick it up. “There’s an N on this side! You’re a crazy person.” He throws an S and an L-E on either side of WIND to turn it into SWINDLE. “How’s that for a good word?” he says, leaning back in his chair with a smug grin.
“Oh, Cooper's got tricks. Alright, I’ll add an I-X to CLEAN and we have Kleenex.” Sydney grins right back.
“You can’t use proper nouns, Syd! Plus, that’s not how you spell Kleenex. Not even close.”
“Close enough. And what’s this about proper nouns? You were the one who started it with Crest. Like the toothpaste?” Sydney raises her eyebrows, waiting for Cooper’s answer.
Cooper opens his mouth to say something, then closes it again, shaking his head. “Sydney, ‘crest’ is an actual word with a definition; it’s not just a brand of toothpaste. You know that.” Cooper pushes his chair away from the table and stands up. “I can’t do this anymore. It’s like playing with Mia. Ever since we were kids you’ve been like this, with your phases and no-carb diets and, and....changing the rules to everything....Remember that research paper we had to write for Mr. MacSween? I know you made up all your facts and sources. You wrote that Shia Labeouf is a direct descendant of Einstein.”
“Whoa. Cooper. Settle down. It’s just Scrabble and Shia and Einstein do have almost identical bone structure. Besides, everyone knows MacSween never reads those papers. I wasn’t cheating, just simplifying.” Sydney crosses her arms.
“Well I’m sick of you simplifying! Does everything have to be done your way?”
“What’s your deal, Cooper? I don’t come down on you for being such a hardass all the time. Can we please finish the game?”
“No, because it will never be good enough. You’ll blame your loss on being sick and demand a rematch. Let’s just stop now.”
Sydney doesn't say anything, only stares at the board.
“Did you hear me, Syd? I give up. You win — by default.” Cooper walks back to the couch and sits, flicking his flashlight off and on.
“Cooper, c’mon...” Sydney stands up to join him. “I really don’t care who’s more amazing. It’s all just a stupid game, I know.” She sits and pulls her knees up to her chin, then lets out a small laugh.
Cooper looks over at Sydney. With the sparse candlelight he can barely see her. “What’s so funny?”
“It's nothing, just...promise you won’t be mad?” Sydney asks.
“No, Cooper, I mean it. I should tell you something, and it’s kind of funny, but I don’t know. You might just think I’m crazy.”
“I do think you're crazy.”
Sydney turns to look at Cooper, raises her eyebrows.
“Sorry. I promise I won’t be mad or judge you or anything, okay?”
“Okay.” Sydney takes a deep breath, “We’ve been best friends since we were six. But in middle school, you got cool and I got weird. I hated that we weren't hanging out anymore, so I figured if I made a game out of it you would have to keep hanging out with me, at least until someone won. I know how competitive you are. And then I just never let the game end. I think it might have gone on too long. I know I can be obnoxious.”
Cooper's mouth hangs open like it does when he's confused. “Sydney, are you serious? You thought all of that in sixth grade?”
“Well, no. I mostly made that up now. But it was something like that.”
“I didn’t know you were so worried about that stuff. You don’t have to worry. I mean, I only got cool in middle school because that's when I got my braces taken off. It wasn't long before everyone else had straight teeth too, and then I was back to being Cooper, the kid everyone copied answers from.”
With a few flickers, the lights and TV come back on. Sydney and Cooper blink as their eyes adjust. Upstairs, the refrigerator hums to life.
“Oh.” Sydney says. “Well, speaking of copying ans—”
“Yeah,” Cooper clears his throat. “Let’s finish calculus.”
They push the Scrabble board and their conversation off to the side and replace it with calculators and textbooks.
“How did you eliminate the parameter in number five?” Cooper asks.
“That was easy. I just drew some dynamite around it, and then a stick person lighting it and running away. And then I showed the parameter blowing up,” Sydney pushes her notebook over to Cooper. “It’s simple, see? Parameter eliminated.”