Chapter Four: The Releasing Game
“The first one is the Releasing Game…” she’d said.
It was gonna be a long night.
I had a giant lump in my stomach. Yali had stopped me from stuffing myself too much, but it wasn’t about the food, anyway. I wanted to do what she wanted me to. But I just couldn’t.
The explanation had been simple enough. “I’m going to have you do a series of games,” she’d said. “Really, they’re mental exercises, but it’s more fun to call them games.”
“The first one is the Releasing Game, where you let yourself feel whatever you want to feel. The game is to let your anger run wild. Then once you’re fully angry, we can do the other games, like the Calming Game, where you try to bring yourself down again.”
I had let her go on with the explanation. If I had trouble getting mad for the games, Yali’d said, she could “help” me get mad, just like she had in the ordeal we’ve just done. And there were a lot of variations of the games – there was the Controlling Game where you stay angry but just don’t do anything, the Expressing Game where you yell about things that don’t hurt anyone, and so on. The idea was, if I practiced doing these games enough, then I’d get better at controlling my emotions, even when I wasn’t doing the games on purpose. I listened to all of it and acted like I was interested, and I even asked her some questions about it. But I was only dragging it out. The longer the explanation went, the longer I could put off actually doing it.
But finally, I couldn’t think of any more questions. The time had come to get started. But…
“I can’t,” I moaned.
“What’s the matter? You know I’m always here to support you if –”
“I don’t know. It’s stupid.”
“Stupid is okay. Go on, say the stupid thing. We can find something smart to say later.”
“Okay. Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to admit it, but… “I… I can’t get angry. I’ll hurt someone.”
“You know this is an exercise, right? It’s not –”
“Of course I fuckin’ know,” I said glumly. “I know it’s not dangerous! I just… I don’t believe it. I mean, I believe it, but I don’t really believe it. I mean –”
“You don’t believe it in your heart.”
Then Yali had gone quiet. And that’s where we were now. I was just slumped on her couch, fidgeting with the tail end of my shirt, feeling like shit.
While I sat, Yali idly started cleaning up our dirty dishes. And every now and then, she gave a long look back at me. She was probably thinking about how to help me with this. She was trying to help me! Why did she have to help me with something I should be able to just do?!
Gods, she was even doing something productive while I was just sitting there messing around with my shirt. I was being such an asshole. “I can help you with the dishes –”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Stern take it all.
When she was done, she came back and sat with me. She held my hand. I looked away from her.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured. “Maybe I can help your heart believe what it needs to.”
“Of course you can,” I said bitterly.
“If you’re not ready, I can –”
“It’s not that, it’s just, why do you always have to help me with everything? Why can’t I be the one helping you sometimes?”
“You will be helping. You’re helping protect me from dying, which, which, which, if you don’t remember, would always happen if you weren’t the Blood Child –”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“We’re helping each other.”
“You know what, never mind, just do the thing. Make me believe the shit.”
“Okay.” Yali squeezed my hand. “You’re trying to tell yourself that the anger isn’t a real danger, so it’s okay. But I’d like you to try thinking about it as if it is real, but it’s a, a, an inherent part of the process. Like you give in to the danger for now, so you’ll be able to fight it better later. ‘Let me yield when I must yield, even if it costs my pride.’”
That was from a prayer to the Stern God. “Fuck the Stern,” I said automatically.
Yali looked uncomfortable. “Rinn, I know you hate the Stern, but I just can’t. It’s the Stern Temple that pays for me to live here.”
“Since when do the Stern pay for anything that helps anyone?!”
Yali gave me a dirty look. “The point is, it’s all part of one process. So, so, let’s say I had a car, and I wanted to keep the car in my garage forever. I was going to be an expert at keeping my car in the garage. And I didn’t even have a driver’s license.”
“Haha, that sounds pretty stupid.”
“Now one day, a thief comes along and steals the car. And we catch the thief, and, and, and everything’s in order, except now I have to get the car back into my garage, but I still don’t know how to drive. So, do you think I should have done anything differently?”
“Well, duh, of course you should’ve learned to drive.”
“But to do that, I’d have had to drive my car out of my garage at least once, and I want to be an expert at keeping my car in my garage, –”
“Well course you should drive your car out of your garage for practice, it’s not like it has to stay out of there forev– ohhhhhhhh.”
Yali smiled and waited for me to go on.
“So… it’s actually like learning to drive? Not that I’ve actually learned to drive, it’s not worth the effort, in most of the city you can go places faster by running than by driving, like I actually raced my parents once in their car and – but that’s not the point, it’s like, I’d be taking my anger out for a drive? That actually sounds kinda fun – no, I can’t! You could get hurt!”
“It’s okay if I get hurt a little. Remember, it’s part of the process.”
“Hmm.” Yali stopped and thought. “Well, you don’t have to hurt me. You can do other angry things if it makes you more comfortable.”
“If it makes me more comfortable?! Are you for serious right now?!”
“I, I, –”
“Oh my gods, you are serious, I – okay. Okay,” I tried to sort out my thoughts. “I don’t get it, but you’re clearly serious, so, I can – I – fine. We can do the thing. Wait, what do we actually do?”
“We start with the Releasing Game. Think of how you felt during the ordeal. Bring that feeling to the forefront of your mind…”
I tried. “I told you, it doesn’t work that way, it’s not happening right now…”
“That’s okay. I expected this. With you, we need a physical trigger. So, go sit in the chair again.”
“Ugh, I’m still sore from sitting there already!”
“Perfect! Keep complaining! Get angry about it! But also go do it.”
“FINE. I can’t believe you’re making me do this, you asshole – no, I don’t mean you’re actually an asshole –”
“It’s okay, keep going! Let the anger fill you, lash out however you feel like –”
I sat down in the chair. “Ugh, fuck, you asshole…” Even though she wasn’t officially forcing me this time, all those closed-in feelings came rushing back when I looked at the table that way again. Then, to make things worse, Yali pushed the wooden blocks in front of me. “Those FUCKING blocks!” I exploded. I grabbed one of them and pounded it on the table, yelling every insult that came into my head. “I can’t BELIEVE you made me do this all day, you Stern-blasted asshole! Gate jammer! Shut-eye! Go drown in the Earth!” I swung the block up in the air, then hesitated.
“You can throw it at me if you want.” Yali raised her arms to cover her face. “I’m ready.”
I hadn’t thought I was going to do it, but I couldn’t resist. “Fuck! You!” I hurled it straight at her.
“Owww!” she yelled as the block bounced off her arm.
“Oh shit, I didn’t mean to –”
“I didn’t mean to say ‘ow’, I thought I was ready –”
“I’m sorry, I promise I won’t –”
“Don’t worry about that!” Yali leaned forward excitedly. “Now let’s do the Calming Game! Return to calm!”
“You want to be able to do that, right?”
“Well – that just wasn’t what I was expecting – okay, I get it –” Slowly, I sat up straight and forced my hands to relax. “Okay,” I said uncertainly. “But, I wasn’t exactly angry right then. That all went away when, uh,” I carefully kept my voice calm, “when, you know, uh…” My eyes lingered on her hurt arm. I was still feeling pretty weird about the whole hurting-Yali-is-part-of-the-process thing.
“And then you were worried instead of angry? It’s still a strong emotion. Still worth calming down from.” Yali took a close look at me. “Are you calm, or are you just acting that way?”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to get it perfect on the first try. In fact, acting calm is the way you do the Controlling Game, so that’s just a different type of success. Now, Releasing Game again!”
“You don’t have to throw things at me this time. You can throw them, uh, over there. At the couch.”
I grabbed a block. “Fuck you, couch! This is all your fault!” Yali snickered.
And so it went on. Releasing Game. Calming Game. Releasing Game. Controlling Game. Calming Game.. It went on and on, and it was exhausting. The sun had already set when we’d started, and now the night was dragging on later and later. I kept trying to actually calm myself down, but I never felt like I was doing more than just pretending. How was I even supposed to do that? What was I accomplishing here?
Finally, we were both too exhausted to go on. Yali told me I’d done a great job, but I still didn’t feel like I’d gotten anything done at all. Worse, when I got up to jog home as usual, it was just too overwhelming to think of. I ended up flopping on Yali’s couch that night. I went to sleep feeling weird, almost disoriented.
In the next week or so, we saw a lot of each other. Every time we hung out, we did some more of the “games”. I still didn’t get it, but Yali was sure I was making progress, and I had to do something. Even if I wanted to procrastinate, we were on a clock – the Ravelling was just six weeks away. If I ever spent a week putting it off… Well. It could get us both killed. Nothing like a little fear of death to get me off my ass, haha.
At the same time, I was having that dream again. It was hard to remember, but it was like I was walking through the ruins of a gigantic city. And the sun… The sun, always high in the sky, warm and bright, pulsing like a heart. Every pulse filled me with its warmth, melting away all my worries and stress. It was funny – a lot of days I was going to bed tired or irritable from burning myself out doing the “games” a lot, but the dream practically wiped it all away. The more I had that dream, the more I woke up feeling like I was ready for anything.
After having the dream like half a dozen times, I thought of telling Yali about it. I told her all about the city and the sun and everything. As much as I could, anyway. Even for the parts I remembered, there was no way I could really get across how awesome it was.
“A bright sun that pulses like a heart…” Yali said thoughtfully. Then she cringed.
“Wait, is there something wrong with that!?”
“No, no, it’s, it’s, it’s… I think you might be dreaming of the Blood God’s world. Which is fine, I, I, –”
“Oh right, you died there once. I mean, one of the other Farseers died there and you have their –”
“– their memories, yes. So the memory feels the way the person felt when they were forming it. But, for, for you, it sounds like a good thing. I love how your face was lighting up when you were trying to explain the dream to me. That face, I think, that is, I, I…” she trailed off.
“That is what?”
“Why do you love me so much?” said Yali suddenly.
“Whaaaaaaat?! But there’s so much about you to love! Don’t tell me you don’t –”
Yali gave an embarrassed smile. “No, no, I, I mean, I’ve been meaning you to ask, I mean, it’s obvious that you do love me, but, but, wait, I don’t mean I’m insecure about it, but, I just want to understand, what is it about me? Like, what do you look for, in, in… someone?”
“I mean, I just know when I like someone? ‘Lucky if we understand what the Seeking gives us,’” I quoted. “I mean, with you, it’s like, you’re sexy, and you’re smart, and you’re caring, and, there’s this thing about how you move – like, whenever someone’s got that thing where they move so confidently, like they don’t care what anybody thinks, it’s like, woah. Even boys! Layo’s got it – I mean, he’s a boy, so I’m not really interested in him romantically, but I definitely think he’s hot.”
Yali smiled. “Does he know that?”
“Oh yeah, we joke about it all the time. He thinks I’m hot too. Of course, nothing’s gonna happen because I’m gay and he’s got his thing, but –”
“He’s not gay, he’s just decided not to date anyone until he’s older. No casual sex, either. I don’t get it, but it’s his own business.”
“Ah… Going back, I’m surprised you said that I move confidently. I’m always trying to be careful about how I move, because I’m clumsy and I’ll slip or drop something if I don’t do it exactly right. Other people have told me it looks awkward, but it’s what I have to do. In fact – there’s actually something I wanted to ask you –”
“Who cares if it looks awkward! The way you move is great! Honestly that was one of the first times I really noticed you – you were, like, we were in class, and you were just sort of awkwardly getting out of a chair. Gods, I could watch you awkwardly get out of a chair all day. It’s just so, so –” Then I realized I had interrupted Yali, so I shut up. “Er, were you gonna say something?”
“Yes… You know how you keep wanting to be able to help me somehow?”
“Well, I thought of something. Do you… do you know your way around the gym?”
“Well, yeah, I mean, I’d rather just run around outside instead of messing around inside a gym, but I know my way around, yeah. What about it?”
“In case you haven’t noticed… My body doesn’t work very well. I’m clumsy, I feel chilly all the time, I get awful period cramps, I bruise really easily… and some other things, too. It’s just so cliché for Farseers. You know, blind seers, frail oracles who sit around in their temples all day instead of getting any exercise? I’m just lucky I have 20-20 vision so I’m not a complete stereotype. And the worst part is, I kind of think the Waiting God wants it that way. Like it specifically picks people who are physically weak. So, I know just exercising won’t fix everything, but I, I, I really want to get in better shape. I guess it’s not as dramatic as how you’re going to be going against the Blood God, but, I, I just, I really don’t want to just do the Waiting God wants, too, I…” Yali trailed off.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Yali seemed a little more emotional than usual, so I wanted to sympathize. It would even make me feel better! But the problem was, I didn’t know what to sympathize with. It was obviously about more than just the physical thing, but what was so special about defying the Waiting God? The Waiting God wasn’t bad, was it? Well, at least there was something I could say to be helpful. “I’ll totally show you around the gym if that’s what you want! I’d be happy to.”
Yali still looked sort of downcast. “Will you go with me… more than just once? I was thinking about why I don’t just go do it myself. I think… I don’t want to feel this way, but I think I’m worried that people will be judging me because I’m fat. I’ve been telling myself that my life is more important than other people judging me, but…”
Now this I could make sense of. “Of course I’ll go with you! It’d be no big deal, really. Nobody will look at you funny when I’m around, I’ll beat them up.”
Yali gave a half smile. “Please don’t actually beat anyone up for my sake.”
“Oh don’t worry, no one will mess with us in the first place, so I won’t have to.” Yali glared at me a little. “Okay, okay, fine, I won’t.”
“…thanks.” Yali sounded subdued, but somehow extra sincere.
“I still don’t feel like I’m doing anything,” I said, as we walked home from the gym one day.
“You are, and I appreciate it greatly.”
“What would it take for you to feel like you were doing something?”
“I don’t even know!”
Yali had picked out an exercise routine almost immediately. Stern take it, she’d probably looked it all up online before I even got involved. I didn’t end up doing much but standing around, keeping her company and spotting for her when she was using the weights. She didn’t even want to talk much – she always got quiet when she was concentrating on what she was doing, just methodically going through the motions.
While we walked, I tried to make conversation. “You’ve been working really hard. Aren’t you tired?”
“I am,” she said simply. Even now, she was walking along at a steady pace, not showing any sign of fatigue, even though she’d just been on the treadmill for half an hour too.
“You know you don’t have to be so Stern about it, right?” I said. “You can be like ‘Ow, my aching legs’ and then I can be like ‘I know right?’ and then –”
“Stop,” said Yali forcefully. I was surprised into silence.
“Uh…” I began, after a moment. “What –”
Yali started answering before I’d even asked my question. When she spoke, she didn’t seem that upset from the outside – but compared to how she normally was, she was practically radiating discomfort. “I know I’m not, not, not good at expressing myself when I’m, I’m, when something hurts. But just… don’t. It’s, it’s easier this way.”
I had loads of questions, but something told me it wasn’t the right time for them. “It’s okay, it’s okay, I can respect that. Contrary to popular belief, I sometimes know when to shut up.”
It was already October by the time we started getting somewhere on controlling my emotions. And when we did, it caused a whole new problem.
It started out like any other day, hanging out at Yali’s house, running through the “games” for the umpteenth time.
“Expressing Game,” said Yali.
I’d almost gotten used to it – whenever she said “Releasing Game” now, I could sort of turn the anger back on from all the other times, as if it had been there the whole time and I’d just forgotten it. And then I could yell about it, or control myself, or whatever. But how the fuck was I supposed to do the Calming Game? I couldn’t just be angry and then just not be angry. Yali seemed to think I’d get there eventually, but number one, how the fuck?, and number two, we were running out of time. It hit me again every time I glanced at the date on my phone. There was less than a month left until the Ravelling, and I didn’t feel anywhere near prepared.
And now we were sitting here, doing the same thing that hadn’t been working. “Ugh, the Expressing Game is the hardest,” I complained.
“Oh? I thought letting you yell about things would give you an outlet.”
“Yeah, but, I mean, the more I yell, the more I want to do something, you know? It’s just so, argh –” I made a fist to demonstrate. “At least with the Controlling Game I can just not do anything…”
“Good to know…” Yali stopped and thought. But of course, once she was done thinking, she’d found a way to make it even more evil. “If that’s the bigger challenge, let’s see how far we can go with it. So, let’s try, let’s try… Yell at me as bitterly as you can, but don’t move at all. And, and, keep your hands open on the table.”
“Oh, fuck you!”
“Yeah, but with your hands open.”
I did what she said. Every time I yelled, it sent a wave through my body, making my hands want to clench, my body want to lean forward, jump up from the chair, anything. But I had to hold myself back. It was torture. Each word just exploded out of my mouth, leaving a lump of pain that piled up with all the others.
“Controlling Game,” Yali said finally. I slumped back in the chair as relief flooded through me. I didn’t even think about what I was supposed to do next. By the time she said “Calming Game,” I was just glad it was over.
“Yeah, yeah, I did it,” I said dully. “I’m not angry anymore.”
But that was when the problems started. Because right away, Yali started asking me to describe what it had felt like… and I just couldn’t. The anger was gone, but in its place, I felt utterly drained. Even just thinking back to describe my feelings felt like way too much work. Seconds passed, one by one, until it began to sink in how weird this was. I always had something to say. But now, I just felt empty.
“Can we call it a day?” I mumbled at last.
“Are you sure? We only just –” She cut herself off and waited for me to respond.
“…yeah, I’m sure.” It felt weird to hear myself say that. Normally I’d snap at someone who asked me that, like, ’course I’m sure, you think I would’ve said it if I wasn’t sure, huh?. Or since it was Yali, I’d have stopped and come up with something nice instead. But now… I just said it. Snapping back felt meaningless.
And Yali accepted it, of course. We tried to find something fun to do instead, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Even the things I normally liked doing seemed sort of distant and pointless. I tried to make it work, and she could tell I was trying, that was the worst part. But in the end, we couldn’t think of anything better than to send me home early. At home, I collapsed into bed even before my official bedtime. I just wanted the day to be over already.
There I was, leaning on the wall after school, staring at my phone. At an unanswered text from Yali.
Ugh, this wasn’t supposed to happen! Other people spent ages worrying about what to text to their girlfriends. Not me!
It wasn’t even anything weird, just normal making plans. But whenever I thought of talking to her, it just came back, that exhaustion from the Expressing Game. I just couldn’t see her today. But I loved her so much, it would just be stupid if I missed a chance to get together! Plus, if I didn’t answer the text, that would make me an asshole! If I wasn’t going to see her today, I should just tell her instead of screwing around. No, I couldn’t say that, because then I wouldn’t get to see her!
Ugh, I needed to talk to someone about this. But who? Yali was the only one who knew how to help me with my feelings! But I couldn’t ask her for help again! She was already helping me so much!
As soon as I thought that, I practically heard Yali’s voice echoing in my head, saying “It’s okay, the point is for me to help you.” Okay, fine, that was probably what I should do, but fuck that! Couldn’t I just chicken out of something once in a while? No way, I was Rinn Akatura, I never chickened out of anything! I –
If only there was someone else I could trust…
Then it hit me. “Trust… Layo,” she’d said.
Ugh, she’d planned for this. Even when I decided not to get help from Yali, I was still getting help from Yali to do it. Well, never mind that, there was no time to waste. I took off running.
A few minutes later, I had another problem: Where the fuck was Layo?
I had looked everywhere for him. He hadn’t answered my message, and he wasn’t at his locker, or his last classroom, or the club he sometimes volunteered with. The only people I did find were Pèi and Dehel, who were hanging out at the corner behind the school where the Stern wouldn’t catch them smoking. I knew Layo wouldn’t be there anyway because he couldn’t stand the smoke, but it was worth a shot.
“Hey, where’s Layo?” I called as I ran up to them.
“I don’t know,” muttered Dehel.
“I do!” said Pèi cheerfully. Then she kept standing there with a smug look on her face.
Ugh, was it going to be one of those days? Pèi was hilarious, but she was kind of an asshole sometimes. “You gonna tell me?” I snapped.
“Maybe…” she teased.
“I’m not in the mood for fucking games right now!” I got right up in her face. “If you weren’t my friend, I’d smack you right now!”
“Oh no, I’m so scared.”
I stared at her.
On any other day, it would’ve gone on like this for a while. I would’ve kept getting madder, and Pèi would’ve kept finding more ways to send me Seeking. Until she finally decided it would be funnier to tell me the answer than to keep going. But today… I could see it all coming, and I just thought, why?
What I’d been doing with Yali was practically a ritual now. Calming Game, I said to myself automatically. “Never mind, I’ll be fine either way,” I said out loud. But hey, the other part was automatic too. Releasing Game. “You fucking asshole, I could just smash your face in!” Calming Game. “Nah, I’m cool, I’m cool…”
“Uh, I think Rinn’s gone crazy,” said Pèi.
“We all knew it would happen eventually,” said Dehel sagely.
I stared at them both for a moment, then doubled over laughing.
What did it even mean anymore? If I could just… be calm, or be angry, just because I said so? Which one of them was real? Or maybe neither of them was real! I couldn’t stop laughing.
Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed so much right after running all over the place, because I was already breathing hard, and then suddenly I choked and started coughing my lungs out.
“You need some help there?” said Pèi awkwardly.
I caught my breath. “Nah, I’m good, this is the best, you’re all the best.” I grabbed both of them and hugged them. “I love you all.”
Pèi maneuvered her way out of the hug. “Layo’s in the art room. Er. You know. In case that matters.”
“Yeah, thanks, you’re the best.”
Layo could tell right away that something was wrong. He took me to a park where we used to hang out back in middle school – a park with winding paths between the trees, enough to get a bit of privacy. Trees had always been a good compromise between me and Layo. He liked nature, I liked climbing things, it was a perfect match.
I didn’t feel like climbing things today. I found a weathered old wooden bench, tucked away where you couldn’t see it from the street. And there, sitting on the bench, I told him everything.
Once the words started pouring out, they wouldn’t stop. The gods. The Ravelling. All my feelings about it. I told him things I hadn’t told even Yali. He was my oldest friend. Someone I could always be myself around.
“…but I’m just so tired,” I finished. “It shouldn’t even be this hard! All I have to do is like, yell about stuff, and then not yell about stuff! I should be able to just do it! Why does it make my brain feel like it’s drowning in the Earth?”
Up until now, Layo had been patiently listening, with an arm around my shoulders. But now, he spoke up.
“If that’s how you feel,” he said earnestly, “then maybe you need a break from it.”
The thought of taking a break was like a punch in the gut. “No!” I said desperately. “This is Yali! I have to do whatever it takes to protect her! If I ever, ever let Yali get hurt because I didn’t try hard enough, I’d fucking, I’d rather die!”
Saying those words made me flash back to when she’d made me promise not to die for her sake. Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself for me, she’d said. Ugh, why did I have to think of that promise? It wasn’t like it was going to actually come up, was it? Still, it made me add, sort of compulsively, “Okay, I’m not going to literally die, but that’s how I feel!”
“I know you care about her,” said Layo gently. “But you have to think. What’s going to happen if you keep pushing yourself?”
I thought about it. But when I visualized what it would be like, to be sitting at Yali’s place and running through the games again, it felt like everything was closing in on me. It felt like my head would split open. If I could just take a break from it… if I could have a chance to relax… I rebelled against the thought, but the sense of relief was overwhelming.
“No, no, no,” I moaned. “Don’t tell me I have to give up…” I hunched over, burying my face in my hands.
Layo hugged me tight. “I understand. It’s not the answer you wanted. But my dad always says, ‘no one with a mission wants to stop and rest, but –’”
“‘– but when it catches up to you, you’ll wish you rested,’” I mumbled into my hands. Layo’s dad had loads of sayings like that, bits of wisdom from the Broken. And… shit. It wasn’t wrong. I sank deeper into the feeling… the desire to just give up and rest…
When I pulled my hand away from my face, it was damp with tears.
“What the fuck is this?!?” I exploded. “I didn’t even cry when I lost the ordeal and thought we were going to die for sure! Why am I crying now?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” murmured Layo. His arms were so warm around me. I sank into them, curling up and sobbing freely.
“I love you so much, you know that, right?” I didn’t have to say “as a friend”. We both knew how it was.
“I know. I love you too.”
We kept talking for hours. Layo cried too, knowing how he’d miss with me while I was gone for the Ravelling. But the more we talked, the more I could tell what decision I had to make. And that meant I had to think about what I was actually going to do next. I was going to have to tell Yali that I needed a break. Yali! What was she going to say…?
“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” I moaned, as we finally moved to go our separate ways. “I’m going to have to tell her I couldn’t handle it…”
“It’s okay,” murmured Layo. “She cares about you. You’ll work things out.”
But as we parted ways, I was still dreading having to actually tell her.