You have made your way through this terrible sugared landscape, overcoming every obstacle — every gnarled step, every labored breath.”
It begins with a fever, congestion in the throat. Most of the world won’t have symptoms at all, but already you are special — the sort of special that creeps its way out of your lungs, up through your spine, and into your motor cortex. You feel so sick that you crawl into bed, and it isn’t until several days later that it occurs to you that you can’t crawl back out. It seems as if things couldn’t get worse, at least until your body forgets how to breathe.
It begins in 1948 with a diagnosis, with your condition getting worse. You’ve always felt invincible, but now you are starting to question yourself, this unrefutable fact. You used to climb trees hand over fist and now you are nothing but a shaking frame, a rasp. It’s a disease you’ve learned to fear, the symptoms like religion: something you cannot see or touch, yet you always feel it upon you, inside of you. You are sick and you do not know what to do but you pray for a solution, a miracle cure. You remember the horror stories your parents told you: the quarantine signs banning children at the city limits, the public swimming pools closed for entire summers out of fear. You’ve been brought to this ward because you will supposedly get better, but you know the truth: you have been brought here to keep the healthy ones safe from this mysterious virus, from the contamination you carry.
It begins with a rainbowed trail past a coppice of Candy Hearts, a sign that reads 127 Miles. Where it goes, you are not sure. You are not sure you are up for the journey: the calipers on your legs dig into your skin, unforgiving in their attempts to keep you on your feet, your bones electric in the pain. You’ve only just begun and already your limp is noticeable, but what other choices do you have? You move forward past a forest made of peppermint, a gingerbread tree adorned with plums. By the time you reach the Gum Drop Mountains, you see no point in going forward, no reward that could be worth this pain. You see no possibility that gets you to a destination you cannot yet name. You have 120 miles to go.
Or perhaps it did not start in 1948. Perhaps it began much earlier: In 1789 when the symptoms are first described in a medical journal. Or in 1908 when the virus is first discovered by transmitting it to monkeys. Or with the first mass epidemic in New York City: every toy and stitch of children’s clothing incinerated in the fruitless attempts of containment. Or it began in 1935 when a doctor safely tests a live-virus vaccine on himself, or several months later when the 12,000 orphans he inoculated start dying off. Later, upon learning the results of his experiments, he is quoted: “Gentlemen, this is the one time I wish the floor would open up and swallow me.” You should not be asking is where did it begin, but rather, when does it stop?
When we talk about games, we are talking about simulation: imitating a world or scenario with the purpose of discovering the outcome. We win information from an environment without consequence. Game is somewhat difficult to define: sociologists claim that it must contain elements of fun, uncertainty, non-productivity, rules, and an awareness of its own fictitiousness. “You” are a part of the game, a character in its world. There are rules to be followed that are easily understood and qualified. There is a power in knowing what you can and cannot do, to knowing that losing is the worst that can happen.
You are filled with loneliness and boredom, though mostly the loneliness. Your body has forgotten how to work and so you are quarantined, relegated to the inside of an iron lung: the vibration of the motor tingling at your back, the sound of air pushed in and out like the bellows of your fireplace — an audible gasp every time the machine kicks the breath from your chest. You don’t have pain, exactly, but everything about this gives the impression of pain: flat on your back for hours on end, the sterile smell of hospitals. You are told you will stay in the lung until your body fights the disease — at least two more weeks, possibly more. Doctors are unsure to what degree you will walk again, if at all. Your parents have brought you here because it is the best in the country, but like most children here, it means you have been left to your own devices. You will stay here until who-knows-when, and even if your parents stayed they would not be allowed to come inside. You are in a sea of hissing machinery where every hollow sound is another forced breath, another machine keeping all of you alive. You are in a sea of sick children who miss their families, children who would scream if their bodies would allow.
Another definition of “game” requires that it creates a sense entertainment, distraction, or escape: it is meant to take your mind away from the literal world and into a fictional one. If, for example, you were designing a game for abandoned children in a hospital ward, you would consider how to best take their minds off of suffering, steering them toward bright colors and pleasant fantasy. The children of this ward would be too young to read — and no adults around to explain the rules — so you would emphasize simplicity: movement by drawing colored squares from a deck. You might make the game so basic that it could even be played alone. In this simplicity, the game becomes not only possible for these children to play, but also completely mindless: a way to winnow away time when days and weeks are endless. A “game” like this can save a lonely child through the sheer force of distraction from dour circumstance. With this in mind, who can say that a game — even one based on random chance — can’t hold real meaning or consequence?
And yes, you will go home eventually — a limp in your leg, a curl in your wrist. A few years pass and a successful vaccine is presented to the world, where incidences of your disease drop by 90 percent seemingly overnight. It is so successful that there will be talk of removing this illness entirely from the Earth: a miracle cure. Meanwhile, a game made for you and people like you proves so popular that it is soon outside of hospital wards and purchased by a major game company who themselves sell millions of copies all over the world. The version you first played had the image of a boy and a girl holding hands as they entered the path of the game. That boy had calipers on his legs, but you’re not surprised to see those have been erased. This game doesn’t find meaning in your illness, but in a child’s love of candy and excess. There are no signs marking the impossible miles of the journey. Instead, there is a smiling king and a Candy Castle waiting at the end of the road to congratulate the player on a job well done, a prize of even more candy. By erasing all signs of hardship or sadness, the game has become its own miracle cure in that it erases people like you from the world entirely.
But none of that matters now. You have always been at the heart of this world; you will not be so easily erased. This is your game now, the original version played once more. You have made your way through this terrible sugared landscape, overcoming every obstacle — every gnarled step, every labored breath. This version of the game has no characters to greet you or cheer you or make you feel a little less alone. There is no Plumpy, Mr. Mint, Lord Licorice, or Gramma Nutt. There is no Princess Lollie, no Queen Frostine, no King Kandy at the Candy Castle waiting to feed you more of what you don’t need. There are no castles here. You are honest with yourself and admit that you prefer it this way, that you like the loneliness of the Crooked Old Peanut Brittle House, the quiet of the Lollipop Woods. You have travelled through caves and mountains and swamps and there is not another living thing. You have sacrificed a lot to come to this: a disease that has gripped your body and molded it into something unrecognizable, the solitude of the iron lung as you wonder where your parents are. There are no castles here because castles are not what you need: you don’t desire fantasy, do not want to bury yourself in crystallized sugar or swim in melted chocolate. No, the thing about this original version is that it understands your needs, points you toward a much simpler goal. What you find at the end of your journey is a small wooden house, a sign that reads, simply, Home.
David LeGault’s book of essays is One Million Maniacs. Other recent works appears in Hotel Amerika, Sonora Review, and Passages North, among others, and can be found at onemillionmaniacs.com. Reprinted from The Normal School (Spring 2018), a quarterly literary magazine.