At school, it’s a game. Just a game. There is no imminent danger. The other kids laugh when I’m called out. I swallow the panic rising in my throat, blink to stop the tears. At home, there are consequences for losing.

I invented the game for my little sister a couple years ago. Life at home is better with the game. How could I have guessed other people played the game for fun? My eight-year-old survival instincts had been functioning at optimal levels when I explained the rules to my sister.

We call the game “freeze.” At school, on the playground, it goes by longer names–“freeze tag” or “freeze dance.” Those extra words make it sound more fun. Maybe I should have added a word when I introduced my sister to it, but I was more worried about saving her life.

Dad drinks. Mom told me this is the reason for our problem. I saw my friend Kristi’s parents drinking wine once when we had a sleepover. I asked her that night if they had the same problem. I shouldn’t have done that. Fortunately, she knows how to keep her mouth shut. As for me, I learned that drinking isn’t always a problem. For Dad, though, it must be.

Dad isn’t always mean. In fact, he doesn’t hit us often, even when he drinks. I think he might hit Mom quite a bit, but I know better than to ask. The game keeps him from lashing out at us kids. I think he appreciates when we play it, but I wouldn’t dare tell him why we play.

Right before my eighth birthday, my sister had a bad day. When I got home from school, Mom was scolding her for eating the frosting that was supposed to go on my birthday cupcakes. “But I was hungry,” she protested. Mom sighed and turned away.

“Mom has a headache, Lisa,” I said, giving my sister a hug. “Let’s go outside and play so she can rest.” It’s my job to take care of Lisa when Mom has had enough.

Supper was late that night. Dad was mad. When we sat down at the table, I could tell Mom had been crying. When Dad asked Lisa about her behavior earlier, she jumped up from her seat to hug him and ask forgiveness. That was the wrong thing to do. Dad just snapped.

Afterward, at the hospital, I overheard Mom tell Lisa, “You need to be careful with Daddy. He might kill you next time.” I vowed in my heart that there would never be a next time.

I saw the next time lurking a few months later. Dad came home late again. Mom didn’t have dinner on the table yet. Lisa was about to inject herself into the chaos. I grabbed her arm and pulled her down onto the floor behind the couch where I had been watching. “He’s in a bad mood,” I told her. Lisa always wants to make things better for everyone. The trouble is she sometimes makes them worse. “He won’t hurt you if he doesn’t notice you. Try to stay very still.”

That night, I heard Lisa crying in bed. “What’s wrong?”

“Dad isn’t happy. I didn’t help him.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “You helped a lot by staying quiet tonight. He didn’t hit anybody, did he?”

She sniffed and shook her head.

“Let’s make a pact. Whenever Dad comes home mad, we’ll play a game. Let’s call it ‘freeze.’”

Sometimes Lisa has trouble remembering to freeze. Now, after school, I  always take her outside to play and run off her extra energy. Mom’s headaches make it hard for her to entertain Lisa.

When Mom calls for supper, I remind Lisa to be good. Whenever Dad starts banging around the house or cursing under his breath, we hold our breath and freeze. Sometimes Lisa can’t concentrate long enough, starts to wiggle. Most of the time it works out okay anyway.

Last week the kids at school started playing freeze like it was some sort of recreational sport. My friends noticed that I was particularly good at it. I don’t like playing, but there isn’t any graceful way around it. Kids ask too many questions, so I play. When I lose, they laugh. I hide my fear inside, waiting for the next time Lisa and I have to freeze at home.