The party was in full swing. Friends, colleagues, drinking, laughing, dancing. There must have been at least thirty, packed tight into my little living room. The music filled in the gaps in the chatter to avert any danger of silence. Silence breeds thoughts, and we didn’t want any of that. I didn’t really like any of these people; I’d put up with them for Helen’s sake. I loved Helen. We’d met at work, and they were mostly her friends and relatives, to be honest. But apparently it was my birthday, and it was made clear to me that I ought to enjoy it.
Suddenly the conversational hubbub abated, and someone turned down the music to a faint electric hum. Helen was next to me, holding a large box, all glittery ribbon and shiny red giftwrap. Everyone was watching. “Happy Birthday!” they said. “Open it!”
I gave the box a little shake and a faint rattle came from inside. “Stop messing around and open it!” someone shouted from the back of the room. Helen was smiling, so I did what they said. I untied the ribbon, ripped off the paper, and opened the plain white box.
Inside was what seemed to be a board game. There was a board, folded into four, that opened out to show a complex printed playing surface. It was a bit like the Snakes and Ladders I’d played as a child, but the creatures painted on the board, the hazards along the way, were wilder and stranger than that. The little silver pieces looked a bit like the ones you get in Monopoly, tiny figures of men and animals, objects and symbols. I looked in the box for instructions, but there was nothing else.
“Where are the rules?” I said.
“There are no rules,” they said. It was a man who spoke, someone I vaguely remembered seeing on the third floor at work when our washrooms were out of order. Why was he here? I looked at Helen, but her face wore a tidy, even smile. “You make them up as you go along,” she added. “Use your imagination.”
“But what’s the object of the game?” I asked, puzzled.
This time it was a woman who spoke. I didn’t recognise her. “Get through the maze without losing any of your people,” she said. “Fight off enemies. Avoid hazards. It’s simple enough.”
“Who are my people?” I asked, confused. I looked around my house at the guests I hadn’t invited.
“We are your people,” they said in chorus. “There’s a piece for every one of us. We protect you. We employ you. We give you the means to live. Destroy anything that threatens us.”
I played the game. I did what they told me. I protected the little silver tokens, and along the way I killed or neutralised anything that looked like a threat. I started with critics and trolls and went on to spies and whistleblowers. I silenced their voices and I cut out their tongues. I locked them in prisons and I threw away the keys. I burned their homes and villages. I took away their children. I cast them into outer darkness, and I watched their lifeblood run red.
It took a long time to win the game. Along the way I sometimes forgot what I was fighting for. It was better not to think, really, not to look too closely at things like whys and wherefores. I was a loyal footsoldier. I protected my own, and I came out of the maze with all my people, save one.
When I got to the end, they smiled and said “well done” and commended my loyalty. “You’ve given years of good service,” they said. “It’s time for a reward. You made life so much easier for us. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
I asked where Helen was, but they said she’d had to go, and I didn’t need to worry about her any more. I protested as they pinned a medal on my chest. I began to ask questions but they were already laughing, and their cackle rose to a crescendo as I tried to read what the medal said, upside-down. One by one, they were getting up to go. My little house was emptying as their mocking laughter echoed.
Suddenly I wondered why I’d ever thought they were my friends. I upset the board and its thirty – no, twenty-nine – silver pieces. I ripped off the medal. And as I stood alone in the ruins of the party I’d hosted for them, remembering the kind of game I’d played, I read the two words ornately engraved into its surface: Devil’s Advocate.
Clare O’Brien lives in a crofting township on the north-west coast of Scotland where she helps run the family business while working on her first novel. Her poems and stories have appeared in Mslexia, Hedgehog Poetry Press, The Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter, Fearless Femme, and many more.
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