Oven Game – Paul A. Hamilton

The oven door creaks open, revealing the grimy, sweat-tracked face of a girl just past her seventh birthday. Opening an oven from the inside is difficult for a child, but Drea Kane has had practice. She crawls into the unfamiliar house and dusts off her black knit dress. Her grease-caked tights are living up to their name, squeezing her calves. She rubs the underside of her nose with a wrist; the streak of wetness finds its way onto her dress at the hip. The black hides the stain.

“Hello? Is anyone home?” she calls. Her voice is soft, the question more perfunctory than inquisitive. She already knows the answer.

The clock over the stovetop reads 12:34. On the other side of the oven, the time was shortly after five. She announces her presence again, bolder this time, and makes a slow turn. Drea is too young to be impressed by the kinds of details that excite home-buyers: crown moulding, hardwood floors, wide bay windows overlooking a valley bearded with evergreens. But the immensity of the house is not lost on her. The kitchen is larger than her parents’ whole apartment.

She searches the house, but finds no sign of the laundry room, or of Taka. Four minutes have passed and the tights are now cutting into her feet and waist. It’s happening faster this time.

It takes both hands to wrestle the tights off her legs. By the time they are clear of her calves, her shoes no longer fit. The dress is stretchy; she knows it will suffice for another few minutes, but she must find something else quickly.

Eager legs carry her out to the entryway and up the stairs, where she pauses on the broad landing. Below, the glass-inset front door glows with a sinister red shine. Every time she travels through the oven, exterior doors are blocked by the red shine. It’s a barrier, because there are rules to the game. Rule number one: she cannot venture outside the homes she crawls into.

Her dress is becoming uncomfortable, the hem that once brushed the tops of her knees now barely covering her thighs. The short bob of her unruly black hair tickles past her shoulders. Rule number two: she must age quickly, like a time lapse.

There are a lot of rooms to examine. Most are grown-up rooms: a well-used study with stacks of files surrounding a computer; a library; guest rooms with empty dressers. Toward the end of the hall she finds a room that might belong to a big kid, perhaps a high schooler. Inside the large closet Drea finds three walls of thick-packed clothes on wood and metal hangers. She strips off the dress whose sleeves have drawn into tourniquets. There is a mirror behind the closet door.

She will be, according to the age acceleration provided by the oven game, a disappointingly plain teenager. Her sweet cherub cheeks will flatten into a broad face; the hugeness of her dark eyes will be overtaken by a thickening temple-to-temple slice of bushy eyebrow; her mane of hair will become an unruly thatch of kinky curls and puffy flyaways. Yet the novelty of seeing her body transform is never lost. The thick patch of moss sprouting between her legs precedes the twin bulges of her developing breasts, followed by the stretching of her legs and the outward slope of her hips. The rush of sensation from this process is difficult for her second-grade mind to grasp. A tingly exhilaration threatens to overwhelm her if she watches the transformation too long.

While she waits for her body to reach its full size, she browses the closet, thrilled again at the remarkable simplicity of being able to reach. Height, she has determined, is the principal joy of adulthood. She selects a pair of jeans from a shelf and pulls down a printed T-shirt. Comfortable clothes, because her body no longer provides its own comfort. She has never determined if the unease comes from invading other people’s homes or from the loss of familiarity with her flesh and bones. This is her body, but during the oven game it behaves as if a new kind of gravity acts upon it.

There is a slight reluctance as she emerges from the closet. This is her favorite part of the oven game, but it always sends her belly into fluttery trembles that travel down her legs and up into her chest. She’s looking for the laundry. Specifically, the dryer.

#

She finds the laundry room in a partitioned corner of the finished basement. She steps in and looks around. He’s not here yet.

She examines her hands, remembering that while her teenage body is unremarkable, her young adult characteristics are somewhat more distinguished. The baby fat that will linger through adolescence dissipates in her early twenties. The long, lean fingers are perfect reminders of the overall sleekness that will accompany her post-collegiate years. Drea paces, worried about Taka’s excessive tardiness. If her aging outstrips his, it could force her back through the oven before the rendezvous is complete. Rule number three: she must be back in the oven before old age makes the clumsy climb into the appliance impossible.

A pair of warm, smooth hands slip over her eyes and she yelps, clawing for a moment at the assailant. When his scent reaches her, raw and animal, she is reassured. She tries to spin into him, whirling her face from his cupped palms. Her shoulder catches something, hard and sharp: a shelf overhanging the laundry machines. Some of the bottles and detritus wobble and rattle together, but they settle after a tense second. Drea sighs with relief.

He laughs in her ear, a deep-voiced chuckle that sounds masculine but has the untethered emotional exuberance of a child. She grins and presses herself into his chest. Until she began playing the oven game, her father was the most handsome man alive. But this man is rugged behind a full beard instead of the careful regency of her father’s thickly waxed mustaches. His hair is a rusty brown and soft, so unlike the coarse television snow of Papa’s mane. And he smiles with his eyes.

Drea does not know his name. He speaks a language she doesn’t understand. Often he says a word that sounds like Taka, and she has come to think of him as her Taka, though that may be his name for her. It doesn’t matter. Close as she is to his breast, she can feel the tapping of his heart against hers. This is the best part of the oven game. He smiles right until the moment their lips meet. She is seven inside. Outside, she is twenty-eight, rapidly shifting into twenty-nine. This is their thirteenth kiss, and she believes Taka will be her true love forever.

“You came through early,” she says when they pull away. She can’t explain why her kisses with Taka are so different from her mother and father’s kisses. Why they share so little in common with the goodnight pecks she gives her younger siblings on the lips before bed. An easy assumption would be that here, playing the oven game, she is different and older and therefore her kisses are more mature and sophisticated. When she daydreams, she often remembers Taka’s lips.

Taka smiles and says something in his rapid, fluid tongue. Drea has learned that laughing whenever he speaks is usually the easiest way to communicate. He grins at her musical giggle and holds her out at arm’s length, examining her. Taka always does this. As if watching her age is as much a part of the game for him as the kiss is for her. She notes, again, how fortunate he is to come through the dryer. Arriving in the laundry room almost always means he has ready access to clothing that will fit his expanding frame. Today he has borrowed a pair of corduroy slacks and a blue button-down which he has mis-buttoned only twice. His thickly muscled chest peeks through the open neck.

Usually, after they kiss, they hold hands and explore until they feel old and tired. At that point they separate, to return to their homes and youth. There is no fourth rule. But, if there were one, it might be this: play the game the way it is always played.

Instead, her fingers reach through the folds of the shirt to touch the skin. In thirteen expeditions through the oven, she has grown comfortable with Taka. Her action is tender; anything but aggressive. Perhaps it is merely the unexpected sensation, or that Drea changes the game, unchanged for months, spontaneously.

Whatever the cause, Taka recoils from her touch. His movements remind Drea of a marionette whose paddle is shaken in frustration. He leaps back, pressing himself clumsily against the wall.

“I’m sorry,” Drea begins, but she is interrupted by a tremendous crash. The bracket her shoulder hit moments before rips free of the wall. It might have fallen anyway. The shelf is overloaded with the sorts of household items that don’t typically have a comfortable home: heavy bottles of bleach, stain-fighting solvents, cans of touch-up paint for the upstairs bedrooms. It could have been seconds from falling already. The impact of Taka’s back on the wall could have sent it crashing down either way. But as Drea watches the slow yet inexorable chain reaction play out, she can’t stop remembering: she bumped it first.

The contents of the shelf topple and fall half a meter onto the dryer’s flat metal top. Jugs and canisters bash into the top of the dryer with a series of deafening metallic clangs. Taka and Drea clap their hands over their ears in helpless fascination, watching the rain of miscellaneous items batter and dent the lint-coated surface of the appliance.

At last a small fabric softener ball rolls off the crooked shelf. It bounces, almost cheerful, from the warped dryer top to the pile of broken and leaking cans and bottles on the floor. The smell of mixing chemicals stings their eyes and noses, and they turn worried expressions toward each other. They have always been careful not to leave evidence behind when playing the oven game. No one has ever been home, but the houses always seem lived in, never abandoned. Drea consistently battles the fear of being caught. This terrible mess will be impossible to clean before they are too old to manage a mop or broom any longer.

She hears a choking sound come from Taka, like a sob.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. Taka moves closer to the dryer, staring at the pull-down handle on the door. The metal has crumpled, obstructing the door. An icy breeze whispers along her back. Neither of them moves for a long moment until Drea looks up and sees small sparkles of white snow through his hair.

“Can you open it?”

Taka presses his lips together, understanding enough to know he has to try. There’s no use staring, wishing it undone.

As soon as it’s obvious Taka can barely curl his fingers under the beaten metal to grasp the handle, Drea knows it will not open. Taka yanks, and the whole dryer screeches forward across the dirty tile, but the door holds fast. He says something vulgar-sounding through gritted teeth and bashes the door furiously. The appliance becomes wild in its rocking, its plastic-coated feet beating against the floor. Taka’s frenzied effort fills the basement with deafening, overlapping echoes.

“Stop! Stop!” Drea screams over the racket. “That’s not helping.” She tries to think, but Taka is panicking, the sweat and tears mixing into a salty shine on his face. Crow’s feet collect the squeezed tears and run them to the outside of his beautiful cheeks.

With a jerky motion, Drea grabs Taka’s hand. “Come on,” she says, pulling Taka toward the kitchen. She never considered what might happen if they played the game until they couldn’t escape. When she first discovered the secret door at the back of her parents’ oven, she stayed for hours. Then she found the delightful stoop of her spine and the charming thinness of her legs nearly stopped her from crawling back. But as long as she could make it into the oven, she emerged in her parents’ apartment the same age as when she left, only a few seconds having passed.

She knows Taka might not get home right away if he can’t go back through the dryer. But if she can get him to her house, maybe they will be able to return tomorrow or in a couple of days. Or he could try a different dryer. There are many questions unanswered, and a lot of unknowns, but she is certain they can’t stay. Eventually Taka will get too old to leave at all. She doesn’t like thinking what that might mean. A quiet but insistent corner of her mind worries it could signal the end of the oven game.

She examines the kitchen before making any moves toward the stove. No overhanging shelves, only a large hood built right into the wall. It seems unlikely it could crash down and block their second escape, too. But she hadn’t considered the laundry shelf a threat, either.

Unlike Taka, Drea always leaves the oven doors open behind her. She’s irrationally annoyed that he did not have the foresight to take this small precaution. She gestures at the oven and catches a look of deep-creased worry on Taka’s face. He is aging even more rapidly than usual. They both have been, she knows. Frustrated by his hesitation, Drea pushes him toward the portal.

“Go! Climb in,” she says.

Taka looks terrified, but flashes Drea a weak, thankful smile before putting his hands onto the lowered door and crawling in. She notices for the first time that ovens in the game have their racks lowered, almost to the elements. This strikes her as unusual, but she doesn’t have time to ponder it further. Her breath catches and she waits for him to disappear.

His head vanishes into the darkness of the oven. A moment later she hears a light thump followed by a small whimper of pain as Taka runs head first into the rear of the stove.

“No,” Drea says in exasperation, reaching out to pull him back by the seat of his corduroys, “you have to open the little slide-door first! Don’t you know anything?” Taka rolls aside and Drea leans on the oven door. It groans under the weight of the two adults. She gropes in the claustrophobic dark for the tiny handle, the one that allows her to move into the oven game.

The handle isn’t there.

“That’s impossible,” she says. “Here, get off.” She makes way, noting a new twinge of discomfort in her middle back. Taka groans his way off the oven door and Drea crawls in as quickly as her stooping bones will allow. Alone now, she finds the handle right away. She slides the panel open and sees her own parents’ kitchen.

“There!” she cries, and wriggles backward, leaving the passage open for Taka to use. She turns to him, seeing a smear of ashy grease on his forehead. He squats, a mixture of pain from his bulging knees and deep concern in his eyes. “Look,” Drea says, “you can go now.” He looks in bewilderment at the oven’s interior and shakes his head. “Go!” Drea practically screams at him.

With reluctance, Taka pulls himself into the oven again and pauses just before the open passage. “Well go on,” Drea says, exasperated. Taka looks over his thinning shoulder. His hand reaches out toward the dim light of her home. It stops, meeting obvious but invisible resistance. He feels along the empty space between the oven game and her home, like a mime with a vein-splintered hand. He turns to her, questioning.

“No,” Drea says. It is the only word she can remember. No. No. No. This cannot be. She pulls him out again and crawls in, ignoring the curl of her own aging fingers as they push through the charred crumbs at the bottom of the strangers’ oven cavity. Her face passes the barrier that blocked Taka, but she’s careful not to go all the way through. She smells the familiar sandalwood and cinnamon aroma of home. The passage works. She scoots free and stands, reaching around to clutch her back against the hurry of her spine’s curve.

“You can make it,” she pleads, “you have to.”

Taka shakes his head. He says something quiet. He sounds resigned. His beard is white. His hair is snowy. His eyes are sad but kind.

“You have to!” Drea screams at him. “You have to!” She cries. “You can’t stay here. You just can’t.”

Taka reaches out to her, pulls her into a hug. He whispers. She doesn’t know the words, but she understands completely. Her hips ache. Her eyes blur, even beyond the mist of the tears she can’t stop. He doesn’t kiss her one last time. Instead, he rubs his thumbs along her cheeks so her vision clears momentarily, and then he nods toward the open stove. His own atrophying muscles offer what little help they can. Drea hesitates in her crawl, turning back. He puts a hand on the small of her back, urging her forward.

When the oven door slams closed in her kitchen, she turns a seven year-old head and peers through the opening. She needs Taka to know she’s coming back for him. Sometimes it takes a day or two, sometimes weeks before the oven is ready for her to play again, but she is impatient this time. She needs to return right away, with her youth reset. She needs to try to save him again.

She sees nothing. Just the dark gray back of a cold appliance she shouldn’t be playing with in the first place.

#

She never plays the oven game again, though she tries to daily, even hourly at first, for months. Her parents are concerned. She cries herself to sleep and says disturbing things about her imaginary friend, Taka, who has apparently aged himself to death somehow. They send her to therapy.

After some time, Drea claims it is helping. She stops talking about Taka, but the dreams take longer to fade.

As a plain teenager, desperate for acceptance, she tells a new friend about the Oven Game, in confidence. The look on the other girl’s face is stricken and horrified.

“You’re sick,” the girl says. “Why would you make up something like that?”

Drea can’t answer. She struggles to remember which parts of the Oven Game were real and which were dreams.

In the casually cruel manner of teens, Drea is quickly branded a freak; a weirdo who lies to get attention. She goes back to being friendless, and sobs to her therapist, “I just want to stop dreaming about these stories!”

“It’s good that you refer to those events as stories. I’m glad to hear you frame them as made-up,” her therapist says in that soft, non-confrontational way of psychiatrists.

“But the dreams,” Drea says miserably.

Her therapist taps a pen to her lips. “Have you ever tried hypnosis?” she asks. Drea sits up a little straighter and wipes her eyes.

By the time Drea graduates from high school, she sleeps soundly at last. Memories of her childhood playtimes fade, like polaroid photos tossed into an old shoebox.

#

Drea is a capable woman, just past her thirty-sixth birthday. She has two teenage children and a busy husband, plus an accounting job she loves. Her life is extraordinarily normal, and she tells this to people at her simple yet elegant cocktail parties with a self-deprecating laugh.

Even her husband, Trey, doesn’t know about the troubles she went through as a young girl with an overactive imagination who frightened parents, teachers, and classmates with elaborate stories. She has worked very hard for over twenty years to ignore her life before college. When she thinks back to her childhood, which is very rarely, it feels as if it were something she read in a book. Those years happened to someone else, and the memories are hazy and slippery, which doesn’t bother her in the least.

Everyone believes she is completely normal, and that makes her very happy.

Trey and Drea have moved around a lot. Trey’s job requires frequent relocation, and Drea has been game to start over on many occasions. Re-establishing herself at a new job and settling the kids into new schools is always the hardest; even that has become somewhat routine. Her favorite part is house-hunting. They’ve bought or rented many places over the years and Drea has always been the one to make the final decision. Trey likes to joke about Drea’s “house feelings:” they never choose a home unless Drea walks through and declares, “Yep, this feels right.” She can’t explain the house feelings. Some places, when she walks in, just make her happy, a sensation she says is like a cozy fire and hot tea on a winter night.

But now they have their dream house at last, a gorgeous near-mansion overlooking a valley in the Colorado hills. She has found a position that suits her with a company she likes. The kids have made fast friends at school. Trey loves the proximity to the ski slopes and the grandeur of the kitchen, which has always been his domain. Drea hates to cook.

Because of all this, they worry about the next transfer, even if it may be years away. She doesn’t want to leave a place where everything is perfect.

Almost perfect. Lately, she has noticed some peculiar occurrences. Break-ins, she thinks. It started a dozen or so moves ago, and it seems to have become more common. They are almost, but not quite, predictable with each new home. From time to time the family will be away for a day or an afternoon and come home to the distinct impression that someone has been in their house. Nothing valuable is ever stolen, the door and window alarms are never tripped. But the eerie sense of ghostly presences is palpable.

Drea would dismiss these notions if her husband and the kids didn’t remark on them. There are small evidences of invasion: a tiny sock; clothing missing from her son’s room; an unused closet door left ajar; a smear of a handprint on a doorframe, far too small and low to the ground to belong to her teenaged children.

This morning, she comes home from an overnight business trip and enters the kitchen. She lets out a single, unbroken scream that causes the neighbors to call the police.

#

When the responding team arrives, they enter the kitchen where a woman stands over the bones of an elderly man. She is shrieking, weeping and inconsolable. The only sign of struggle is rooms away, in the basement. The laundry area is wrecked. A shelf has broken, its contents scattered on the floor. The dryer is damaged, its door bent and stuck fast.

The woman cannot be persuaded to say anything other than a single word, over and over and over: “Taka.”

###

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