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The Game of Pretend - Rachel Nielsen

Every summer, the old station wagon turns down the dirt path to the saggy wooden gate and we settle in to the cabin for a few weeks. The screen around the porch has holes in it – there is no avoiding the mosquitos. I spend too much time reading and am now afraid of malaria and the West Nile virus.

It used to be my parents, my brother, and me, but now my parents are gone. It wasn’t too long ago, three or four years. I was only 18 then, barely graduated from high school. But now time escapes me and it’s easy to forget what year it is, how old I am.

My parents always talked about fixing up the cabin. They’d talked about it for years, fixing the holes, sanding down the splintering wood that keeps breaking free from the rest of the paneling, redoing the fence with the promise of function. But they always said that it was more trouble than it was worth. When they died, Frank talked about selling it. He talked to a realtor who told us we’d have to fix things up before anyone would want it, spend money we didn’t have on lumber and tools and supplies, then spend it again when we made mistakes learning how to put this place back together.

We’d been coming up here since before I could remember, Mom, Dad, Frank and me. Mom and Dad taught us to swim in the dirty lake water, and over there a tire swing used to hang from an old tree branch before that branch withered and broke away. Once Frank went away to college, he stopped coming. He wanted to spend time with his friends at the dorm or go with them to the beach. So just the three of us would come. I didn’t mind. Sometimes we’d drive into town to hide in the dark movie theater after a long day broiling in the sun.

My brother was always closer to our parents. They fawned over every practice and football game, especially when he made All-American. My mother’s delicate hand would rub his shoulder in approval. Frank would look up at her and they’d share a smile. Her acrylic nails were always painted Christmas red. My father would get up from his droopy armchair and let his rough hands muss up Frank’s curly brown hair. I’d watch them from the corner, hiding around the furniture. When I was a child, my favorite place was under the dining room table. My mother would always drape a tablecloth so that it hung elegantly close to the ground. No one could see me, but they knew I was there. Now my favorite hiding spot is outside, against the splintering wood or in the wild grass.

Frank insists we still come out to the cabin. He says tradition is important. At first it was just the two of us, but the cabin was damp with their presence. We argued about the beach and the kitchen and the dust under the tables. He got mad when I stayed at the cabin to read instead of going to the lake with him, and then he got mad when the cabin wasn’t clean enough. So now Frank brings some friends to air it out for a few weeks in July. And every year, we have the same conversation about the lake and we argue about me coming. I tell him about splinters malaria and ticks and sunburns and in the end, he always wins so I bounce in the backseat of Frank’s old station wagon, listening to his friends yammering along the way. Sometimes Frank and I make eye contact in the rearview mirror and he always looks concerned. But it’s always fleeting because then he turns back to his friends and cackles along with them.

Sometimes when he looks at me it feels like he wants to look through me but doesn’t know how. Or that he wants to tell me I’m doing something wrong. Maybe because now I’m too old to hide. Pretending is a game I know, so I do that instead. I pretend not to see him when he opens the cabin door, and I pretend not to hear him when he asks me to clean up. Instead, I sip my beer hiding in the tall, dry grass.

It’s so warm out. I think the sun is supposed to make me feel happy and appreciate the days like these, ones where the colors are vivid and you can feel nice things on your skin. Like a breeze, cool and calm, one that makes the leaves rustle in the trees. I see how the ends of the branches sway a little in the wind, and how all the leaves have this same dance, moving in time with the branch. All of them except the dried ones, withered and darkened. Those ones hang lifelessly, waiting for a strong enough gust to pull them away from their living kin.

I’m sweating and I want it to stop. I go inside and shower, rinsing the dirt off me. I can feel the tiny blades of green sliding off my skin and falling onto the floor of the shower, swirling around my toes. It seems silly to shower since I’ll be sweating again soon, but for now, the water collides with my skin and it feels like waking up.

Afterward, I take a break from hiding in the shade and head down to the lake. I know Frank and his friends are there, but I don’t care. I’ll sit on the beach with all the other vacationers and just drift away. The sand breaks underneath my feet, and the beach is filled with faceless people. They smile at me as I pass by to find my place in some corner of the beach. I nod back, giving them new names each year. Cindy and John are here with their three kids who like to fish, and Bev and Dale always stay under their umbrella. But then sometimes someone will come up to me and comment on how much I’ve grown, remind me that I can’t pretend forever. Sometimes they’ll be brave and say something about my parents, apologize for what happened or ask how I’m doing. I’m not sure why they want to bring it up.

“Every year we think about them, you know? It just must be so hard for you two,” one of them says. “At least you have each other.”

I nod, looking over at my brother having a good time with his friends while they make crude comments about women in their bathing suits.

“Excuse me, I’m going to head into the water. Enjoy the sun.” I smile apologetically and they never give me a hard time.

Frank and all his friends pass around beers. They jump in the water and splash each other. When Frank and I were kids, we would swim to another nearby beach to find high rocks to jump off. Our parents would yell at us from our beach, escaping the safety of their umbrella. We’d have to swim back, chopping through the water. But one time I was brave and finally climbed a rock. Frank watched from the water, whooped and hollered like he was doing with his friends now. My skin stung when it hit the surface and as I swam back up, Frank was clapping his hands in applause. Mom and Dad waited for us by their umbrella and I wasn’t allowed at the beach for two days.

If I come to the beach now, I like to stand in the water and let my fingertips graze the surface, watch the ripples as my hands move in circles. Every so often Frank checks to see that I’m here, too, and he looks like it’d be better if I stayed at the cabin after all. I think maybe he resents me. He skipped the trip when everything happened, it was just me with them up here in the cabin. He didn’t get to see them the last time they said goodbye, when they left with their beach bag filled with drinks and dinner for the boat they’d rented down at the dock. I’d stayed at the cabin, let them have their night out, so it was just me when the policeman came to the door. “There’s been an accident,” he said, but all I saw was the shiny gold badge that sat on his heart. He took me to the station and I sat up front in the police car where I got lost in all the buttons and sounds, the muffled voices that came in over the radio. And when he pulled into the parking lot, he turned to face me and said, “We need you to identify the bodies. Can you do that?” But all I could do was stare at the gold crest resting on his uniform.

“Hey.” One of Frank’s friends sneaks up on me.

“Hey, Jeff.”

“How’s it goin?” His eyes are green, almost matching the lake. I think his eyes are sincere, but they’re just as reflective as the water.

“Fine, I guess. You?”

“I’m good. I thought you might want a beer.” He lifts a Budweiser with his thick fingers and puts it in my hand.

I stare at the cold, wet can. “Thanks.”

He’s still standing there. His neon shorts glow through the lake and below that his feet are resting on the rocks. “It’s so nice out, huh?”

“Yeah.” My eyes squint as I look up towards the blue sky. “I guess it is.”

I pull my eyes back to the water, hoping for reprieve from the bright blast of sunlight. My eyes adjust and I can see Frank watching us. Jeff stands there for a moment. The sound of beach chatter surrounds us, filling the space between our bodies in place of our own conversation.

Jeff watches the ripples in the water with his murky eyes. “Want to come hang out with us? Might be nice.”

I look over to see Frank. He’s kept his eye on us, even while another friend yells in his ear. “Maybe another time,” I say.

“You sure? Frank’s just no good at this stuff, you know?”

“Talking to me?” I ask.

“Being there. I know he wants you to come hang out.”

Frank is still now, waiting and watching. He looks like he wouldn’t know what to say if I went over there, so I shrug. “Another time.”

Then he says, “Well, okay, I guess. See you later.” He submerges himself in water, causing his blonde hair to look brown.

I watch Jeff swim back to the group. They’re all laughing and going farther into the lake. Jeff’s tall, lean body doesn’t really match how thick his fingers are, and I wonder if he pities me. He doesn’t look at me like the others do. Like there’s something off. I’m not even sure why Frank drags me out here every year. He says he thinks it makes our parents happy. But maybe he just feels bad because he’s away at college and now we can’t afford to send me, too.

My fingers bump into something cold and slimy. A fish is bobbing at the surface. I shudder and the sun laughs radiating heat.

I escape toward the cabin and my feet collect dirt and grass with each step. As I get closer I see the chipped white paint that keeps peeling away from the wood. I wonder how long until the whole thing finally falls apart.

I take a seat on the bench that’s been there for as long as I can remember. My shoulders itch, but I lean against the splintered wood anyway.

Deep laughs can be heard coming through the trees. Frank and his friends are walking back, talking over each other about their day at the lake and that one chick so and so could’ve nailed. The way Frank and his friends talk makes them all sound the same, deep grunts coming from their throats that carry like the terrifying thunder during stormy season. But as they walk past me toward the house, each of them grows quiet and nods a quiet hello, suddenly calm. Frank has the same concerned look he has in the rearview mirror.

Jeff pauses at the door and stands over me. I wonder if he can see the dirt gathered around my feet. “You left early,” he says. His eyes are still muddy green, and his shorts are still electric.

“I burn easy.”

“That’s too bad.” He smiles wide and his teeth are like tombstones. Jeff runs thick fingers through his damp hair. His body glistens in the setting sun.

I shrug my shoulders. “Maybe next time.”

Jeff goes inside to join the others and I’m alone outside. The sun wakes up the moon, and I can see the stars. Even if I can hear Frank and his friends inside, out here it’s just me, the dark trees, and the sounds of night birds. My knees curl up onto the bench and I reach into the cooler. Its icy insides make my fingers tingle. I crack open a beer and I can hear the creaking door. I turn. It’s Frank. He looks me in the eye and I’m waiting for something to happen. “Can I have one?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say.

After he opens his beer, it’s quiet. I keep my eyes forward, pinned on the tree I know is out beyond the house. I feel exposed in the dark and there’s nowhere to hide.

Finally, he speaks. His voice is raspy from yelling with his friends, from laughing with people who aren’t me. “I saw you talking to Jeff,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “He wanted me to stay out with you guys today, but it was too hot.”

“Could’ve been fun,” he says.

“You could have asked me,” I say.

We’re quiet again. Mosquitos buzz at our ears and every so often there’s the slapping of skin.

“I don’t know why you make me come up here,” I say. I pick at the tab on my can, trying to busy my fingers. I feel the sharp corners that dig into my skin and it feels nicer than wondering what he’ll say.

“This is our place,” he says. “It always will be.”

“Until it comes crashing down one day.”

“Until it comes crashing down one day,” he repeats.

He takes a long sip from his beer and then says, “Sometimes I worry about you.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “That you’re alone so much. That this is too hard. I don’t know.”

“I’m okay,” I say. And even as I say it I don’t know if it’s true.

Then we don’t speak and we both look up at the stars, at the constellations that I pretend to know and try to find shapes I can recognize. I know he doesn’t know them either but I also know he can’t see the shiny gold badge, that he never would.

His friends call him and we both turn to look in the window. One of his friends is setting up a beer bong and Frank rolls his eyes and smiles at me. “Wanna go inside?”

I tell him I’m going to finish my beer but I’ll follow him in a few minutes. I can hear the creaking door as he heads inside and now it’s just me. I dig my finger into the edge of the tab and I try to remember before the police badge, the days at the beach, the cool movie theater. I try to remember Christmas red nails and sagging armchairs and it comes in blurry flashes, barely recognizable but there enough that I can pretend. Frank and his friends are laughing and I take my time finishing my beer before I go inside.


Rachel Nielsen is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer from Oakland, CA. She received her MFA from Kingston University London where she won the 2019 MFA Creative Writing Prize. She was a finalist in the 2021 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards, and a finalist in the 2021 San Francisco Writers Conference Contest.


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