[Note: This story was written in October 2019, and was not inspired by current events.]
There used to be entire conventions just for playing board games. Thousands of strangers would huddle together over tables, breathing on each other, sweating on each other, smearing their oils on all the pieces.
Jenny couldn’t believe it, but she had seen her mother’s old childhood photos: there in the midst of the heaving crowds, inches away from people they’d never even met before, were Jenny’s grandmother, her grandfather, and her mom.
“They brought you?” Jenny had never been in a room with more than ten people in her life. “But didn’t you get sick being around all those germs?”
“Oh yeah, everyone got sick at cons, or afterwards,” her mother told her.
“We even had a cutesy name for it, like a running joke. It was…oh shoot, what did we call it?”
But Jenny’s mom couldn’t remember the term. She’d only been twelve, Jenny’s age now, when the first Preston-Sussex outbreak began to spread in late 2019.
“When my parents got sick, at first we thought it was just a cold they caught at a convention.”
It was officially Preston-Sussex Infectious Neurodegenerative Fever, but no one actually called it that. The survivors tried not to call it anything…even three decades later, just the name alone still put people on edge. If they had to talk about it, they used its nickname.
It had taken a while to settle on which nickname it would be. By mid-2020 there were dozens: The Filth, The Funk, Captain Trumps. For a while it had been called ROFLuenza, after the muscle spasms and diaphragm contractions that left patients rocking in their beds, breathing in sharp hiccupy gasps.
But as the outbreaks spread and mortality rates crept ever higher, there was only one nickname that could encompass the disease’s enormity: The Big Sick. Apparently it was from a movie.
Over the next ten years the world lost a third of its inhabitants to illness, half again as many to chaos. When the Big Sick finally subsided in 2029, humanity was diminished but it was not broken. Those who remained behind were united in sorrow: everyone had lost someone, and some had lost everyone. This didn’t lessen their suffering but it did help them somehow find a way forward. The past was unbearable and the future unthinkable, but together the survivors of the plague rebuilt the world from the ruins of their grief.
By 2051 life for twelve-year-old Jenny was in many ways no different from her mother’s before The Big Sick: she went to school, she watched movies with her friends, she played board games with her family. Her parents went to work, and shopped for groceries, and paid their bills. They just did all of this from inside their home, connected to the outside world only by fiber optic cables and drone deliveries.
The Big Sick had subsided but it never really went away. Tens of thousands still died from it every year. But the danger wasn’t just from Preston-Sussex; humanity’s collective immune system was weaker, as though exhausted from fighting off the disease all those years. A stranger’s sigh could sicken, a kiss could kill.
So the survivors spread out among the remains and sealed themselves away from each other. Middle-class families like Jenny’s spent weeks or months without ever leaving the clean monitored safety of their suburban homes. The rich lived on huge estates deep in the country, while the poor did the best they could in the cities. Everyone bought as much isolation as they could afford.
To pass the time, they played games. The world had changed but humanity had not: four billion lonely restless souls may have been shut away behind airtight doors but they were still desperate to connect with each other.
They sat together at virtual game tables. They fought side-by-side in combat simulators. They journeyed through imaginary worlds conjured via long-distance video chat.
Every home had at least one shelf full of physical games as well. Jenny’s parents were both lifelong board gamers, though; they were in the gaming world before the whole world was into gaming. Their house had…well, a lot more than one shelf.
“If everyone got sick at board game conventions, why did anyone ever go?” Jenny and her mother were in the breakfast nook playing the 50th anniversary edition of Hive.
“Because they were fun! You got to meet other gamers, you got to try out games you hadn’t played yet.”
“What do you mean…?”
Her mother laughed. “Things were different back then, you couldn’t just get online and play every game ever made. You needed to find a copy of the game, and people willing to learn it, and a time everyone could get together.”
“Yeah. But going to a convention made all that a lot easier.” Jenny’s mom picked up her grasshopper piece. “Besides, there’s just no substitute for seeing the look on someone’s face when you did…this!” She jumped her grasshopper and trapped Jenny’s queen.
“Mom! I was gonna win next turn.”
“I know, that’s why I beat you this turn.” She pushed Jenny’s tiles towards her so they could play again. “Why are you so obsessed with cons all of a sudden?”
Jenny shrugged. “No reason.”
There was something inside Jenny that was just beginning to spread: a need to do something, anything, that adults wouldn’t approve of. She didn’t understand why, but she needed to sneak off, to be free from the watchful eyes she’d lived under her whole life, to get away with it and then do it again.
It was like a fever, it made her bones ache in the night. But this was something much more insidious than Preston-Sussex; Jenny had become infected by puberty.
She didn’t want to do anything too bad—or at least not yet—she just wanted to get a little dicey. She wanted to host her own secret board game convention.
To be honest, it didn’t have to be secret. Her community had IRL meetups every few months so the neighborhood children could play together and build up their immune systems. Their parents would stand on the periphery, just outside each other’s personal space, making small talk through cotton face masks.
Jenny knew she could just ask to have friends over for games, and after a couple weeks of parental negotiations and pathogen screenings she’d have her convention. But where was the fun in that?
No, it couldn’t be at her house. Jenny’s dad had told her that a big reason people loved board game conventions was that they got to step away from the routine of their daily lives. Only in a new place, surrounded by other like-minded gamers, could they truly be themselves.
Jenny liked the sound of that. She didn’t know who her true self was, but she wanted to find out.
It took a couple weeks for her friends to line up their lies, alibis, and excuses. But finally, on a Sunday afternoon, they were able to meet up for what Jenny thought might be the first real-world board game convention in thirty years: six middle-schoolers playing games in the garage of a long-dead family’s abandoned home.
“I have name badges and lanyards for everyone.” Jenny had printed the badges at home on cardstock and threaded them onto a loop of red yarn she found in her dad’s craft closet. She handed them out to each of her attendees:
- Asap, whose parents thought he was playing somewhere in their large wooded backyard.
- Chelsea and Nolita, twins whose parents were used to them disappearing somewhere in the house together for hours at a time.
- Shivani and Aiden, next door neighbors whose parents were part of the same polycule, and who each thought their child was visiting the other.
This was everyone’s first time sneaking off, their first time meeting up without adult supervision. Jenny knew her attendees would be nervous—she was nervous too—so she tried to make her convention as welcoming as she could.
“Oh, and there are concessions.” Jenny gestured a bit self-consciously to five single-serving potato chip bags and warm cans of soda. “Snacks, I mean. It’s all I could steal out of the kitchen without Mom and Dad noticing.”
“I love the sign,” her best friend Chelsea told her. On the wall of the garage above the snacks was a banner that Jenny had made herself using printer paper, one hand-drawn letter at a time:
WELCOME TO JEN CON
“Why are we in the garage?” Aidan asked. “It’s dumb. This whole street is empty, no one would see us in the house.”
“It’s tradition, at gaming conventions you’re not supposed to see the sun.”
Everyone got their snacks and the boys swept a large patch of the concrete floor as best they could with some collapsed cardboard boxes, kicking up huge clouds of dust that made everyone laugh and sneeze.
Then the attendees sat crisscross applesauce in a circle on the floor, lit by the LED lanterns Asap had brought, and rubbed in their hand sanitizer. Jen Con 2051 was officially underway.
“We only have time for one game, so I thought I’d make it count,” Jenny told the group, getting the box out of her backpack.
She’d had to search for the game. She knew her family still had it, she’d overheard her parents talking about it a few times. They’d both grown up playing it and still had fond memories of it in spite of everything.
Most people had gotten rid of their copies decades ago…no one who’d lived through the Big Sick would want it in their home. But Jenny knew that her parents could never throw out a game, and eventually she’d found it hidden away in a faded Rubbermaid crate in the basement.
“It’s called Pandemic.” She held it up vertically on her lap, pretending to be very nonchalant about it. “It’s a co-op.”
Jenny watched her friends as they took in the box: the imagery, the subject matter, the name. They shifted uncomfortably, stealing anxious glances at each other.
It felt wrong. Their parents never talked about The Big Sick if it could be avoided, it made them sad in that vague, distracted way of adults. The kids in the garage had only heard it whispered about, just out of earshot, and only then with grim respect. No adult would ever treat the pandemic lightly, like a game.
Even tough guy Aidan looked seconds away from bolting out of the garage towards home. Her mother was right, part of Jenny really did enjoy seeing the look on his face. Was this her true self?
She considered putting away Pandemic and getting out the playing cards she’d packed, but she stopped herself. Every single Jen Con attendee was here because like her they yearned to do something dicey. Well, then…let’s get dicey.
Jenny laid the game box flat in the middle of the circle and pulled the lid off slowly. “On your turn, you can take up to four actions…”
Jen Con 2051 was a success. Once they started playing, the other kids forgot their apprehension and got into the mischievous spirit of Jenny’s choice. It felt right. The game would have been entirely inappropriate in their normal lives back home, and that made it entirely appropriate for their underground meetup.
By the end they were loudly role-playing as their characters on every move. They beat the game on the last possible turn, just before the eighth outbreak. Shivani laid down the cards to cure the final disease and the whole con erupted into high-fives, back slaps, and side-hugs.
Casual touching was forbidden, nearly extinct, but they couldn’t help themselves: they had won. In this cardboard world, at least, there would be no Big Sick. Grandparents wouldn’t die, parents wouldn’t be orphaned, children wouldn’t be sealed away in tidy suburban homes.
“This was so much fun.” Chelsea said as they were packing up.
“Yeah, it was okay,” Aidan said. “Next time I want to be the Pilot.”
The next morning Jenny woke up with a runny nose, a sore throat, and a headache. She was sick, and she knew in her heart that she was going to die. She had broken the rules, and now she had to pay the price.
Please, she prayed, don’t do this to my mom and dad. Let me live, I’ll never sneak out again.
But it turned out that Jenny wasn’t dying, she just had dust mite allergies. The emergency pediatrician said she’d drone over some antihistamines.
As soon as they were off the video call, Jenny’s mother said a bad word. “Dust!? I knew it, I told your father the air filters weren’t working right.” She tucked her daughter back into bed and went off to find her husband.
Jenny, her prayer already long-forgotten, spent the rest of her sick day planning out the next secret board game convention. She already had a name picked out…she was going to call it Pox Unplugged.