You are about to walk out of your apartment when you hear a voice behind you.
“So, what game would you like to play?” You spin around expecting to see your great grandma back from the dead but find the young woman standing inside your apartment instead. You wonder who is she? Why is she here? How did she get into your apartment?
Before you can fully form these questions, she says, “I’m Death and I’m here to challenge you to a game for your life.” Well, that answers those questions.
“Are we playing by the rules in the book?” you ask holding up the game’s rule book, “Or do you have some additional rules you’d like to play by?”
“We’ll play by the rules,” she says.
“Am… am I dead?” you ask, patting yourself down. You feel solid. When you look behind yourself for a body lying on the ground, there isn’t one.
“Not yet,” Death says a grin dancing across her lips. She’s enjoying your confusion you realize. “You get one chance to avoid an accident death, if you can beat me in a game.”
“And if I lose, do you get my soul or something?” you ask.
“Who goes first?” you ask.
“I’m the challenger, you have first move,” she says.
She looks hurt at your question, “You humans are so untrusting of me. No, I’m not taking your soul. No, you won’t be damned to hell. No, I won’t take you first born child. No, I’m not going to cheat. Although, I am an immortal being who has witnessed all of human history, so I kill at history in trivia games.”
“So, if I win I get to avoid an accidental death? When am I going to die?” you ask trying to grasp the situation.
She reaches behind her back and pulls out a thick leather bound notebook far larger than could have been tucked in the back of her jeans or under her tight fitting jacket. She opens it and begins thumbing through the pages. “I don’t really have to look up this info but I find it puts people at easy if I seem less than all knowing,” she looks up at you, “Is it working?”
“It was until you pointed it out,” you reply bitterly.
“Right,” she snaps the book closed and immediately opens it again to a middle page, “Here it is. In one hour, you die in a traffic accident. You will not be looking both ways. Unless you win our game.”
You had hoped she would take the first move. Against players you know taking the first move nets you a slight advantage but she is a cypher. You have no idea what strategy you should pursue. Territory rush, resource grab, full on attack, or some combination. You pick a strategy almost at random and begin playing.
“And if I don’t win?” you ask.
“You forget this happened and go on to die like you’re destined to.” She snaps the book closed again and returns it to behind her back.
“Does everyone get this chance?” you ask.
“No they don’t,” Death says, “Several decades ago, your great grandmother got me into a bit of a compromising position and to get out of it I had to make a deal with her. I would allow her and her descendants to play a game for their lives in the case of an accidental death before their fortieth birthday. If they win they get to live, otherwise they die in whatever accident they were going to die in anyway.”
Slowly Death reveals herself. She makes decisive moves but is careful not to overextend her control. A third of the way through the game, you change your strategy. Your pieces rush around the board grabbing territory and gaining you resources haphazardly. Death clears some of these seemingly random land grabs but leaves many alone. You expand slightly but mostly fortify and defend while Death grows her numbers and creeps across the map.
“Why have I never heard about this before?”
“Only those that win can talk to other winners about this deal. Standard transcendental pact silence clause. Over the years I’ve challenged several of your relatives. Only three have beaten me after your great grandmother. Your line hasn’t had a player yet. You’ll be the first. So, what game would you like to play?”
Play slows until your borders meet. Death rolls across your small outposts toward your home base. She controls most of the board but her forces are spread thin. Death is at your door but you have a plan.
You remember Great Grandma saying the same thing every time you visited. She loved games. She always played to win but also taught you how to win. You glance at your bookcase of various board games, decks of cards, role playing books, and even a shelf of video games. It is filled to capacity. Your parents have a similar bookcase as does most of your extended family. It’s become family tradition to play games at holidays, birthdays, or any time you get together. Great Grandma had been preparing her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren for the game of their lives.
A calm settles over you, as you realize what game you want to play. The only game you should play with stakes like these. You walk over to the bookcase and pick it up.
With a final, almost desperate, move you capture Death’s home square. “I win,” you declare.
“You can not win with that move,” Death says, “That is not how the game is won.”
You pick up the rule book and flip through the pages. “I don’t actually need to look up the rule. This is just to disarm you. Is it working?” you ask trying, but failing to keep the sarcasm out of your voice.
Death scowls and says, “No.”
“Fine,” you say and flip to the last page of the rule book, “Here it is.” She takes the outstretched rule book and reads the page.
“Are you sure?” Death asks.
You glance at the game in your hands. You’ve played this game for hours with friends and family You know the rules by heart and you know all the tricks to win. This is your game. You smile and nod.
“This rule has been written into the book. It is not part of the regular rule set.” She’s right, of course. The last page in the rule book was blank when it was printed but over the years it has gained a few handwritten house rules.
“We’re playing by the ‘rules in the book’ aren’t we?” you ask.
She glares at you before replying, “You really are Clarice’s descendant. Yes, we are playing by the rules in the book.”
You are back at your door ready to leave for the day. “You win,” Death says, “Don’t forget to look both ways when crossing the street,” she says before disappearing between blinks.
You pause to check the time. It’s still time for you leave for work. A short walk that crosses a few streets that never have much traffic. It should be easy to see a reckless driver if you pay attention.
You decide to call out from work just to be sure.