She hadn't expected the hallway cupboard to provoke similarly strong emotions. The Yahtzee box started the tears, seeing her own childish handwriting scrawled across the inside of the lid: "Jill got 438! Beat that!"
Matthew had added his own addendum. "Stinkybutt! I got 439!" She laughed, remembering the hours they'd spent trying to beat each other. Dice were serious business, back then; Mum would join in on the long nights when Dad didn't come home.
The graceful loops of her mother's writing finished the exchange. "Sorry, chick, Mum got 443." Jill traced it gently with a finger, and sighed. She closed the lid and set the Yahtzee box gently on the floor.
Next on the shelf was the Scrabble box. Her mum, Beth, had loved Scrabble. She knew all the funny little two-letter words, "QI", "XI", "ZO" and all the rest, and used them to wicked advantage. Scrabble was a New Year's tradition in the family. Whoever played a word on the stroke of midnight got 50 extra points, and they still mock-complained about the time Beth played "JACUZZIS" across two triple words, just as the town clock started to chime.
Jill scrubbed a hand across her eyes again. There was work to do.
"Hey, Matthew," she called.
He stuck his head out from the bathroom, his own eyes suspiciously red, and said "Hmm?"
"Would you like Scrabble or Yahtzee?"
"Yahtzee," he said, without hesitation.
One side of her mouth twitched into a grin. "You would. Stinkybutt."
He laughed, and went back to sorting towels. Jill went through to the kitchen, where the table was covered with two piles of assorted memories and miscellania. Yahtzee went on his pile, and she reverently placed the Scrabble box on hers.
It was dark by the time Jill got home. She staggered from the car, her arms laden with boxes and bits, and gingerly made her way up the front stairs. The outside light wasn't on, so she fumbled at the door for several minutes, unable to find the lock in the dark, until Alex groaned his way off the couch and let her in.
"How'd it go?" he mumbled, immediately settling back in to his game of something loud and violent.
"Okay. It's pretty hard, you know? All those memories..." Jill trailed off. Alex didn't even notice, staring at the TV and thumping buttons on the controller. She shrugged, and went into the kitchen, depositing the armload of her mother's belongings on her own table. The "special spoon" went in the cutlery drawer ready for breakfast, the carving knife went in the knife block, and she drifted around the house finding a home for the other pieces.
The Scrabble box was the last thing on the table, and Jill considered it with an inertia born of emotional exhaustion. She slumped into a chair and stared at it, then carefully reached out and lifted the lid.
It smelled like her mother's house, like long, warm afternoons, like cheese soufflés and date scones. She didn't bother to hold back the tears that silently slipped down her cheeks, but picked up the board, unfolding it as though preparing for a game. The tiles underneath were all face down, as Beth had always insisted on doing at the end of every game.
"H4 E1 L1 L1 O1", they read.
"They must have got bumped in the car," she thought. "Or Matthew's playing a trick." She turned each tile face down, her movements jerky and cautious, covered them with the folded board, and put the lid back on, then carried the box to her own hallway cupboard. The faded box looked a little out of place among the glossy boxes of the modern games that Jill preferred, but she placed it atop Settlers of Catan and Tsuro with care and pride.
Matthew came around for dinner the next day, with a packet of fish and chips tucked under his arm. It was his last night in town, before he flew back to Hamilton. They spread the takeaways on the newspaper at the kitchen table and ate them, licking salt off their fingers, and teasing each other over who deserved the last potato fritter. Alex accepted a plateful, but stayed in the lounge, stabbing greasy fingers at his controller, and at the TV when something didn't go his way.
With the chips gone, and the oily paper bundled away into the bin, Matthew and Jill stared at each other with the uncertain expressions of dancers who have forgotten the next step.
"Scrabble?" she suggested, her voice brittle and bright.
"Sure thing, Stinkybutt. Not one of your fancy games this time?" he asked.
"Just Scrabble," she said firmly, getting up and heading for the hallway cupboard.
Scrabble box in hand, she went back to the kitchen. "You wouldn't believe what happened last night," she said, putting the box down on the table. "The tiles were all turned over, except ones that spelled-"
She stopped. Underneath the board she'd just picked up, the neat regularity of the backs of the tiles was broken by five, face up.
"C3 H4 I1 C3 K5"
"I changed my mind," she said, hurriedly putting the board back and closing the lid. "I think you'll like Tsuro."
Matthew raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. They spent the next hour making flight paths for dragons. Jill lost several games, simply because she couldn't concentrate.
"You okay?" Matthew asked. "You look a bit... distracted."
Jill nodded. "Just... you know." Her gesture encompassed the kitchen, and a world of loss.
He nodded in reply. He knew.
When he left, Jill hurriedly opened up the Scrabble box. She knew she'd turned all the tiles down last night. And yet, there it was, the name her mother had always called her.
She closed her eyes, shaking her head. This was impossible. She turned the tiles face down, closed up the box, and put it in the cupboard. Her muscles ached with tiredness and suppressed tension, and she collapsed into bed, completely drained. What dreams she had were tattered and incoherent, though threaded through with loss.
In the morning, she couldn't resist the urge to check. She peeped into the Scrabble box, with her muscles tense, already half-mocking herself.
"H4 E1 L1 L1 O1", they read. Jill could almost hear her mother's voice, calling with the exaggerated "o" sound she used when Jill was lost in a book.
"Oh, Mum," she said, and leaned her head on her hands and wept.
Alex found her there when he bumbled his way out of bed, late for work as usual. He planted a kiss on her head, snatched the toast out of the toaster, and left the house. Jill sat there, staring at the Scrabble box with her thoughts churning.
Gingerly, she reached out and turned all the tiles face down, then one by one picked them up, searching for the letters she wanted.
She placed them in order, "M3 U1 M3", and shut the box.
It felt silly to look in a Scrabble box every hour, and when lunchtime came, she decided to put it back in the cupboard and leave it overnight. She lay awake, ignoring Alex's snuffly breathing, pretending that she wasn't listening for the click of tiles turning, until sleep engulfed her.
Jill was due back at work the next day, and although she was rushed and unprepared, she took the time to check the Scrabble box. Her "M3 U1 M3" was gone; there was a new word in the tiles.
"H4 E1 R1 E1".
Crying, Jill found the letters she wanted.
"L1 O1 V4 E3 Y4 O1 U1 M3 U1 M3"
Work was agony, trying to operate in a fog of agitated disbelief, but she somehow made it through, despite the words of concerned colleagues distracting from her surface stoicism.
In the morning, the tiles read simply, "W4 H4 A1 T1." Jill blinked at them in confusion, before comprehending. She'd used more than one word, and perhaps, in this strange system of communication, it just didn't work.
She stared at the tiles, trying to come up with a single word to express an array of complicated feelings and questions. In the end, she settled on "W4 H4 E1 R1 E1."
"H4 E1 A1 V4 E1 N1"
It was agony, communicating only one word each day, but Jill was too thankful to complain. One word from her mum each day was infinitely better than a lifetime without.
"W4 O1 W4"
"Y4 E1 S1"
"D2 E1 S1 C3 R1 I1 B3 E1"
How could you not want to know what heaven was like?
"W4 H4 A1 T1"
Jill stared at her mother's message, and flicked back through the notebook she'd started to keep. What had she sent yesterday? "DESCRIBE", what was wrong with that?
Eight letters. Jill sighed, and googled for synonyms. "D2 E1 P3 I1 C3 T1," that would hopefully do.
"S1 U1 B3 L1 I1 M3 E1"
Jill grinned. Beth deserved it. Then a thought crossed her mind, and she gasped, hurrying to find the letters.
"D2 A1 D2"
The next morning, Jill rushed to open the box.
"A1 B3 S1 E1 N1 T1"
Scrabble tiles had no tone, no expression, but Jill could discern her mother's dry amusement. There was only one thing she could say.
"F4 I1 G2 U1 R1 E1 S1"
"J8 U1 S1 T1 I1 C3 E1"
Jill laughed. Just like Mum, that laconic humour. She'd accepted Dad's wandering ways with resignation, but it didn't mean she'd liked it.
"I1 N1 D2 E1 E1 D2"
"P3 A1 R1 T1 N1 E1 R1"
Partner? Did Mum mean Alex? Jill frowned. How could she ask, given that "ALEX" wasn't a valid Scrabble word?
Ah. Her mum was pretty smart, she'd work it out. If she was wrong, her mum would tell her so.
"A1 X8 L1 E1"
"C3 H4 E1 A1 T1 E1 R1"
Alex? A cheater? All he cared about was X-box and beer, a sad truth that Jill had been trying to deny to herself for months.
"N1 E1 V4 E1 R1"
"C3 H4 E1 A1 T1 E1 R1"
The tiles stared up accusingly from the box, insistent.
"W4 H4 O1"
"G2 A1 M3 E1 R1"
Jill blinked. She didn't decide on a reply message straight away, but spent the evening discreetly watching Alex. He'd swapped to a headset and microphone, and his usual shouted rantings had been replaced by murmurings.
"B3 E1 L1 I1 E1 V4 E1"
"W4 H4 Y4"
"C3 O1 N1 F4 I1 R1 M3"
"O1 K5 A1 Y4"
"W4 H4 E1 R1 E1
"B3 R1 O1 T1 H4 E1 R1"
"O1 K5 A1 Y4"
"Jill? You here? I need to talk to you." Alex stumbled in at 9pm, to find the house dark and quiet. He spotted a note lying on the kitchen table, and picked it up.
I've gone to Matthew's for the weekend to think some things over. I'll be back on Monday, on flight NZ527. Please pick me up at 3:10pm.
He never noticed the worn carving knife floating up from the knife block.