The tinny scratch of 8-bit music filled the cool bedroom. Colorful pills plunked into place, forming rows that flashed and disappeared. Blocks fell and kept falling. A chaos of colorful dots stacked up and up to the top of the bottle until there was no more room and then--
"One more?" I asked, conscious of the lightness of my voice, determined not to let her know that I knew.
"Sure,” she said flatly. Jenny wasn't as good at pretending. Or maybe she just wasn't trying.
I selected "Try Again" and the game repeated itself. New patterns and lines formed as we each tried to arrange the falling pills into rows. But the good doctor always conspired against us. He didn't care that we were trying to cure ebola, or AIDS, or whatever the red, yellow, and blue viruses represented. He was happily ignorant of the chaos he caused, content to smirk through his mustache, throwing pills at random and let us sort out the rest.
My mom had passed on her love for the game. It was her nightly ritual during our exile in Spokane -- every night after closing out at Blockbuster, she came home to wind down with a few games of Dr. Mario. I suspect that, like I did later, she delighted in bringing order to the chaos -- of watching organization slowly suppress and eliminate uncertainty, one malevolent, multicolored virus at a time. As long as the pills were falling, maybe it felt like the uncertainty of her world could be confined to that bottle, and that every virus squelched was another care erased until finally, the bottle, and her mind, were clear. With a deft set of thumbs and the proper organizational skills, any bottle, no matter how chaotic, could be emptied. Any unforeseen obstacle could be rotated and rearranged to fit her will. Almost any.
But when it went wrong, it went wrong fast. At first it seemed like there was plenty of room. The patterns came easily. All of the colored pills fell effortlessly into place. But one mistake and you fell behind, creating new mistakes to fix the first one, each compounding on the last until you started storing your mistakes off to the side of the bottle, knowing you had no hope of solving them. Knowing the only way to win is for the other player to lose first.
On the screen across my bedroom, Jenny’s bottle overflowed and grayed out. An orange-lettered banner declared "Winner" across my side of the screen.
I turned to her to see a heavy tear trailing down her cheek, shimmering in the glow of the television.
"We need to talk." She sniffed as she wiped the trail away with her fingertips.
Photo by Arielle Fragassi, with some changes