Time to Play The Game
When Tom Lakic saw it, when it glimmered from in his son’s hands within a dusty beam of grey light coming through the basement storage room window, such a feeling of horror and dread lashed him that he just barely managed to choke back a scream. He pressed his teeth into his knuckles, using his clenched fist as a bite block, but couldn’t hold in a gasp. The boy hadn’t noticed, but his wife looked at him inquisitively.
“Hey, cool,” said Bradley with enthusiasm. There was an interest in his tone that Tom or Sara hardly heard from their son anymore. Bradley was six.
“What’s that?” Sara said. She pulled her eyes away from Tom and looked at what Bradley had found. “Oh, looks like checkers.”
“Why’s it so heavy?” said Bradley as he examined its surfaces and corners.
Sara resumed pushing the lid of an old Rubbermaid bin down, stuffing away the last portion of their plastic Christmas tree for the rest of the year. “Looks brand-new,” she said. “Did you find that in that old wall unit?”
“Well, I’ve never seen it. Maybe your dad knows.”
“Hey, Dad? What is this?”
Tom barely heard. He only stared at the quartz black-and-white squares which were surrounded by the familiar, disturbing inlays carved onto the onyx trim. Depictions of eyeless creatures with lipless mouths, long fangs and tongues that had given him nightmares as a kid. And still haunted his dreams.
From outside, a low rumble came that rattled the rusty downspout drain next to the window. Bradley stepped back towards his mom, looking around at the storage room walls which were left unfinished years before and exposed mouldering framework.
“What the heck was that?” asked Sara.
“Probably thunder,” said Tom absently, still looking at the object that his son had his arms wrapped around. Its hinges, which allowed it to fold as it was, were pure silver that gleamed even in the dimness of the storage room.
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Thunderstorm? In January?”
“Maybe.” A memory came to him: When he was much younger, his father once drove him through a blizzard. The old man had taken Tom with him to work because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. As they crossed through the snowy back roads, they saw hot lightning cut through the haze of powdery flakes. “You see that shit,” his Dad had told him with unapologetic disapproval, “snow and lightning. You’d never see that back home. Only in this country. Only in Canada.” But had it simply been bad weather? Or —
The rumble came once more, a little quieter this time, but still with enough force to send a shiver up Tom’s spine.
My God, Tom thought, this was so much like before. Years ago. When he had found it the first time.
But I destroyed it. I watched it burn. Please, God, don’t tell me that was my imagination. Please, don’t let me be —
He saw that Bradley had found the latches on its side. Terror tore through him with black talons.
It came out sharper than he’d meant. That startled Bradley.
The game board swung open and the thirty-two marble figurines which it had contained only a second prior jumped up into the air.
For a moment, everything went freeze-frame for Tom. The figurines, however, floated there, at their apex, rotating slowly as if hanging on invisible threads. And even though they were a few meters away, in his mind’s eye he could see each piece crystal-clear. Up close. Especially the black ones. Fractal shapes with odd, improper angles. Bizarre tessellation within multiple hooplike enclosures. Prisms with fine mesh that housed labyrinthine wrinkles. And such other intricate microscopic details you’d think it was impossible to carve. Or conceive. Yet somehow they were: the ‘rooks’, the ‘knights’, the ‘bishops’, and the ‘pawns’. No, they weren’t pawns — they were eyes. They were goddammed eyes. Hideous things. All too lifelike. Resting upon thin, rippling stalks that resembled worms.
His normal perception of time resumed, and all at once the playing pieces dropped. They clattered against the concrete floor like shards of bone.
Tom instantly ripped the chessboard out of Bradley’s grasp. “For fuck’s sake, Brad. Look now.”
“Tomas!” cried Sara.
Tom hastily got to one knee and gathered the pieces up in handfuls. As he did so, he had to consciously resist a tinge of guilty fascination; a tiny urge to just admire them, to gently slide his fingertips along their grooves and curves, to neatly set them out on the board and see how they looked.
Stop it, he thought.
He quickly shoved the last of them back into the chessboard’s compartmental underside.
“Dad? What’s wrong?”
“It’s — it’s a very valuable set,” he said. “It could break.”
But it won’t break ... it won’t ever, ever break.
Bradley’s tone returned to its usual, flat near-whisper. “Sorry,” he said. “You didn’t have to swear.”
After Tom cleared the immediate area, he clamped the thing closed and stood up. “Is that all the pieces?” In a near-panic, he frantically scanned the floor. Then he suddenly shot a glare at Bradley, and his voice rose to a booming shout. “Hey! Whatsa matter with you! Can’t you do something? You see any more pieces!?”
Bradley quivered. His eyes became wet. Just as the tears rolled out over his smooth cheeks, and just as his soft round face took the contorted grimace of a child whose heart had just been pierced, Sara took Bradley by the shoulders.
“Tom,” she said, “what is wrong?”
Bradley turned and planted himself into her bosom, only managing to muffle his sobs.
Sara’s eyebrows pulled together in an accusatory expression. “Have you been —” She stopped. Tom hadn’t talked that way to Bradley for a while. Not since losing his business. Not since they moved from Guelph. Not since he stopped ...
She wouldn’t push it. Not with Bradley there.
As if snapping out of a trance, Tom blinked. “It’s nothing. Nothing right now. I — I’m not —”
“Come, Braddy. We’re gonna let your father finish up.” Sara began to usher Bradley out of the room.
Tom shook his head and then called to his wife. “Hey, ah, what else needs to come down?”
Sara replied without looking back: “A box of ornaments.”
Tom looked down at the chess set in his hands. The ‘Game of Kings’. He caught himself thinking of the old man again: “Chess is a king’s game”, he used to tell Tom.
But it wasn’t a king’s game. Not to Tom. To him, it was a tyrant’s game. A callous, tough bastard’s game. With rules. So many stringent, unbreakable rules that there could never be any room for negotiation. Never any emotions.
But some rules should be followed. Some games had to be finished. And, even after all these years, there were still suppressed emotions.
Lots of them.
At around eleven-thirty that night, Tom went to the washroom and popped two extra-strength Tylenol.
They had bought this old bungalow with the intention of restoring it and then selling it. That was six years ago. Now they lived inside of what Tom thought was a mistake, and even though Sara told him that it didn’t matter and that it was good enough and that they could make it as good as their old house back in Guelph, he knew all that was bullshit. White lies to make seem like you could grow something in this dirt. They’d downsized, for God’s sake.
And now his second job was at risk. His father-job. He went off on Brad, earlier. Sara had asked him a few times to be gentler with him and spend more time with him. That never happened. She’d also asked him to cut the drinking. More than a few times. He agreed to that. And he did manage to reduce the dosage. But couldn’t completely bring himself to throw out the bottle of Johnny Walker he kept hidden under the kitchen vent grating. About once a month, Sara would comment (seemingly to herself) that she could smell scotch. She knew.
And still — still she loved him. Still Bradley loved him.
Gotta get better, he told himself. Throw out the bottle and get better. Gotta try.
Tom stepped out of the washroom and quietly checked the bedrooms. The boy was asleep. Sara was asleep. He went back to the washroom, closed and locked the door, and then looked at the thing that he had placed on the counter. The thing he had brought up from the basement. He lifted it with both hands, held it sideways under the light, examined its surfaces.
He despised the thing; here now to ruin everything. Even loathed its very appearance. It had all contradicting elements, both archaic and ahead-of-time. Onyx trim engraved with surreal, otherworldly creatures; exoskeletal quadrupeds with barbed tails, at once both hellish and alien, chasing each other all around the border. Circularly, infinitely. A hyper-modernist’s interpretation of something out of Dante’s Inferno.
What vexed him, though, was that no matter how many times he looked it over, no matter how closely he discerned, there were no logos or stamps or ‘MADE IN’ phrases anywhere on the damned thing. Could have been made on fucking Mars, for all he knew. Or maybe — maybe nothing had assembled it. No human. No machine. No Martian. Maybe it had assembled itself. But that was insane.
About as insane as what he knew it could do.
He dropped it. He had been squeezing it so tight that his grip gave and it slipped out of his grasp. The clunk the heavy board made upon impact was deafening in the silence. And now it was flat on the counter. Its black-white-black-white square pattern offended his senses. A painful reminder.
That’s what he hated about it most of all. Not as much its appearance, disturbing as it was, but what that forsaken thing represented with its board-game disguise — rules. Don’t forget the rules, Tom, no one can break the rules.
“You go to hell,” he whispered. “I sent you there once before.”
Just then, he swore he heard a delighted sigh.
He turned the faucet on as far as it would go and let the water run into the yellowish basin. The piping was bad, so it would take time heat up. He gazed at the foamy water, sinking down the rusty drain.
He thought about his father. What the old man would say about him. What he’d tell him to do. Tom had no idea how he would continue on; barely making the hydro bill, barely affording No Name food, and he was even late on some payments to goddammed Money Mart of all things.
What sort of man was he? And why now, when he had so much to lose, did this unholy relic have to return?
For the first time in a long time, Tom allowed himself to dredge up old memories. There was nothing from his past that he wanted to recall; he had survived it, and that was that. Yet as he watched the water swirling down the drain, his thoughts travelled back.
The strongest memory Tom had of that chessboard was playing on it with his father. When he was a boy, it used to be his favourite thing to do. But the activity gradually became tainted; foul dust floated in its wake that eventually closed out his interest in the hobby forever.
When he was only two, his parents relocated from their hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia, to Canada. As he got older, he could start to see it in his old man’s face; some presence there, slowly overtaking him. Some stranger masquerading as the man he looked up to, the man he loved. By the time Tom was ten, the only trace left of that man was the game that he loved playing — the thing that everyone in Europe loved playing — chess.
He recalled playing with his father many times. But eventually it became a grim chore. A call to duty. The man started drinking more and more during games. And now that he thought about it he wondered if his father hadn’t been trying, as best he could, to subdue the influence of that goddammed twisted board.
The last time they played together was the worst time. He couldn’t forget it: his father telling him in his broken English that it was time to have a game. The sour stench of beer on his breath. Seeing him sitting on the other side of that board and looking right into him with the piercing, apprehensive glare of a drill sergeant.
They’d gotten two moves in. It was Tom’s turn.
But Tom didn’t know what to move. Was it a knight, now? Or maybe a pawn was better? Or —
“Tomaž, you make move. This should be easy.”
Of course, he couldn’t just ‘make move’. It wasn’t about just making a move. It was about making the right move. The move that was expected. Demanded.
“I don’t — know w-what you —”
“Tomaž.” His father’s voice took a gravelly weight, and his eyes were all smouldering. “If you do not make move in five second — I am going to give you a punishment.” Each consonant puffed a stagnant hoppy odour into Tom’s face.
Tom was afraid then. He uneasily watched the man lift a bottle of Laško Goldhorn to his mouth and glug the stuff down. Each swallow felt like the tick of a countdown timer.
He simply couldn’t focus on —
It pounded into his left cheek like a lead weight; his father’s fist.
He couldn’t recall many details after that. But he did remember the image of the chess set, warped through his bleary vision, and the distorted shape of his father standing over it. The playing pieces were toppled over and lying all strewn across squares of black-white-black-white.
The bruise he got from that never healed. Not really. As far as Tom was concerned, that incident was the perfect metaphor for his relationship with his father; once that first pawn had been moved, the game went forwards and could never go back to how it was arranged before — and preparing the pieces of every chess game thereafter only felt like reassembling shattered porcelain.
For years, Tom had truly believed something was wrong with him. How stupid must he be if he couldn’t figure out the right moves? That his father would hurt him?
He must be really bad, he’d concluded. None of the other kids at school were hurt by their dads — not that he was aware of — so he must be worse than them. Worse than anyone. And if he couldn’t wrap his head around a game like that, a game that encouraged problem-solving, then what else would he not be able to understand when he grew up? The whole thing put a fear in him. Not unlike a curse. If he couldn’t figure it out, he thought, he wouldn’t ever figure anything else out. He wouldn’t ever be happy. Bad things would happen.
So he played. Forced himself to. Sought approval from his father more than anything; something to reconnect the torn link between them. And that was why he’d taken to playing with the chess set by himself. No — that’s why it played with him.
The running water had been going for a while now, and it was warm. Slowly, Tom cupped the water into his hands and brought it to his face. After he rubbed his eyes, he wiped the moisture off on a towel.
Then he looked over at the folded chessboard. The thing that should not be. Should not exist.
For a moment he could see its black king from somewhere inside of it, perhaps only in his imagination; some kind of mangled monster with a head that resembled the skull of a hound, its mandible lined with fangs and a tentacular tongue escaping its throat. It had solid, almond-shaped eyes that glared up at him from under a crown of embedded horns. Horrible, marbleized space-demon.
Is it time, Tom?
“Shut up,” he said, “you can’t be here. It’s not possible.”
Oh, but I am. Oh, but it is. Is it time yet, Tom? Is it time to play The Game? You remember. You pay if you lose. What are we going play for this time? How about Sara. She’s a good woman. So loyal. But what about — Bradley. YESSS, the boy. So many THINGS I’ll show him, and I’ll show you too. Maybe I’ll make him cry, Tom, like you made him cry. But I’ll make him cry RED tears. It’s time to play, Tom. It’s time to play The Game. TIME TO PLAY THE GAME!!
“Shut up, shut up!” His voice raised hysterically. “Why don’t you just go play with yourself, huh!? Why don’t you just go and fuck yourself!?”
“Tom?” — It was Sara, from on the other side of the washroom door — “Are you on your phone in there?”
“No, ah, I was just singing a song I heard once — heavy metal.”
There was a momentary silence. Tom placed his hand over his eyes.
“Come to bed,” said Sara, flatly.
He heard her footsteps fade away, the shuffling of her slippers along the creaky hardwood.
Gotta find a way to get rid of this thing, he thought, get rid of it for good. Think of something tonight and in the morning get rid of it. Then take Brad to an arcade or something. Take him somewhere. Anywhere. Do something together. Gotta get better. Gotta try.
You don’t have to worry about all that, Tom. Let me shoulder some of the load. All you have to do is play.
Tom literally cringed. He grabbed the chess set. He brought it to the basement and then crammed it into an old cardboard box. He tucked the box away into the water heater closet. Where he knew no one would find it. He hoped.
On his way back up to bed, that rumble came again. From outside, howling winds blew sand-fine snow against the windowpanes.
He got into bed. He wanted to kiss his wife goodnight, but he didn’t. Touching the chessboard had made him feel filthy.
When Tom finally fell asleep, he must have slept deep. When he awoke the next morning, his digital clock read 11:56 am.
Sara wasn’t in bed. He got up, rubbed his eyes, and without changing out of his pyjamas he went across the hall to Brad’s room.
Ruffled Batman sheets. Empty bed.
He wondered where they were. It was Sunday. Tom made his way down the hallway, towards the kitchen. Actually, he needed to go to the basement. He still needed to find a way to deal with —
He froze. He felt his heart stop dead, then suddenly pick up to a pounding gallop.
The chessboard. The Game. Unfolded. On the dining table. It had escaped from the box in the basement and all the figurines were neatly in place on their squares. Except for a white pawn two spaces forwards, and a black pawn the same way.
Your move, Tom. It’s time to play The Game.
He lunged at it, meaning to stop it somehow, perhaps to swat it right off the table, then grab a hammer and smash it, get his hacksaw and ...
No good. Just as he reached it, he stopped himself. Placing both his elbows on the surface of the table, he slowly sunk down to his knees and planted his face into his palms. He knew better. He’d tried all that before. So many times. Everything he could think of. Always it survived. Always it returned. Always it wanted to play.
Play, play, play. You had to play. You had no choice. It would find ways to make you play. And if you lost, it would find ways to make you pay. It would find ways to make people die.
You have to play, Tom. If you don’t, you know I’ll get someone else. That would save you some stress. But then, maybe not. Maybe it would be Bradley or Sara here instead, with me. Oh, and you don’t want to think about that, do you?
Tom stood back up, wearing a grimace. He dragged his eyes over to the morbid figurines atop the board. Already it was working against him. The Game had been started. By his hand, or someone else’s, it didn’t matter. All that mattered to it was that there was a player, and every moment that passed that there wasn’t, it would conspire to arrange for it. Be it him, or Sara, or Bradley — it didn’t care. And only God knew if it didn’t already reach out to Bradley with its mad needs.
A sickly thought occurred to Tom. A grim, desperate thought. There would only be one way to deal with this. He would have to play. He would have to finish The Game.
But I never won against that thing, that goddammed forsaken thing, never won once. And every time I lost ...
Was the playing even relevant? Or was it all just some form of amusement for it? He couldn’t destroy it, he knew that. But there had to be something meaningful he could do. To protect himself and his family. There had to be, because if he accepted the alternative, all of them were in very real danger.
Tom closed his eyes. Perhaps there was something he could use. A clue tangled up in his past. Once more, he allowed the memories come, desperately seeking some kind of strength for what was going to do.
He braced himself like riding the first incline of a rollercoaster, just before the drop.
Familiar fears rose in him like fire.
On a warm evening in June, 2002, Tom stood before a roaring bonfire, the biggest one he’d ever made. He was sixteen.
He’d spent that entire afternoon gathering discarded lumber from construction sites next to his street. There were plenty of broken discarded skiffs he could take. He hauled each one about half a kilometre along the Nith River, through acres of forest with brambles that scraped his arms. In a clearing just next to a farmer’s field, he had stacked the wood neatly on top of crumpled pages torn out of a Sears catalogue. He did it all himself. He no longer had anyone to help him.
By nightfall, he had a magnificent pyre going. The wood crackled and popped from the heat, so hot that Tom could barely stand to face it.
He’d brought a leather duffle bag which had once belonged to his father. He undid the buckles and pulled out the reason for his building the fire. The reason for his misery. The reason for his pain.
He held it out in front of him, saw its strange border engravings shift and morph in the shadows of the flickering orange light. “Come on,” he told it, feeling himself about to cry for the first time that day, “leave me alone. There’s no one else.”
“Say something, huh? Goddammed thing. Why won’t you leave me alone?”
No response. Its silence mocked him, as if to say ‘You know why’.
“It’s not my fault! It’s not ... my ... fault ...” He said each word between sobs. A seething pain inside him boiled over. He was damned. Maybe it was his fault. He should never have taken the thing. He should never have used it. If he hadn’t stolen it out of his father’s shed, so many years back, none of the bad things would have happened.
The first time he saw the chess set was when he was six, at the house his father had bought up in Thunder Bay. Back in Slovenia, his father had been an engineer for the machines used to mine and process raw ores, so when they moved to the West the old man was experienced enough to get a new job at a company named Engel. But it was less pay (at least he suspected as much), and Tom’s mother couldn’t find much work due to the language barrier. They constantly struggled. That made what would happen all the worse.
Tom had found the chess set in his father’s tool shed, during a particularly rainy day. He was told to never go in that shed. That there were all sorts of things in there he could hurt himself with. But the way the shed was nestled up against the wall of trees in the backyard, with its wooden walls and gambrel roof, it had an enticing sort of cabin-in-the-woods quality. And, besides that, he knew his father kept other stuff in there. He’d seen him put them in. Mementos from back home. Things from a world he’d been too young to know.
Tom liked to go in there. The mysterious little ‘cabin in the woods’. He’d sneak in when his father was away. There were machines in there he had no idea what the purpose of which were, but they had such long and smooth fantastical bodies — almost dragon-like — with headstocks drenched in oil. There were shelves of sharp, weaponlike cogs and rods. Metalwork sculptures of a dying Jesus on the cross, which he presumed his father had made with one of the machines. Piles of magazines written in a language he didn’t know that featured complicated circuitry and wiring on their covers. He’d carefully take anything of interest into his hands and examine it, absorb each unique detail, before placing it exactly back where it had been. No matter how much stuff he looked at, though, it never felt like he had seen it all.
Now Tom wondered if maybe he’d been trying to understand his father better.
But the most intriguing thing he found in there was also the most frightening. As Tom explored the shed that day, he worked his way to the farthest corner of the top shelf. As the rain softly pattered on the roof just above his head with sporadic palpitations, he saw something peeking out from over the edge of the shelf. Something that immediately looked different. Not like any of the other stuff there. Organic.
Tom hoisted himself up, and with both hands on the shelf, he peered over the top. He was met with the stark depictions creatures that were both beastly and extraterrestrial, with lashing tongues and horribly long fingers. It gave Tom a start, and he almost lost his grip, his heart thumping as if he’d discovered a roost of bats.
Then he observed its stillness, its glossy checker pattern, and soon realized it was some kind of board game. Carefully, he slid it off the shelf. When he determined that it was chess, the game he often saw his father playing, he was delighted.
Yet hadn’t there been something else? An instinctive feeling of repulsion? Perhaps there had been, but maybe he hadn’t cared. Or maybe that emotion had been overridden by something. Something inexplicable. With memories like this, it was difficult to tell. And memories didn’t always tell the truth.
Had it willed him to find it?
Tom’s father had given him a pummelling when he found out about his going into the shed. He told Tom about the chessboard. That it wasn’t a toy. That sometimes, the pieces could move themselves. He said it should only be used when his father was around — or something like that. He was too young to understand. And too sore to pay much attention.
He would have obeyed his father’s warnings if it hadn’t been for one thing. Somehow, he always remembered that one thing his father had said about the chess set, the concept which would tug at him for years to come: sometimes, the pieces could move themselves.
Tom discovered its capabilities when he was eleven, not long after the game of drunk-chess his father had so graciously provided.
He’d been looking for ways to play without his father; kids at school, chess clubs, even bought one of those electronic boards you could get at a RadioShack — but the thing busted after only a few weeks. Later, he’d suspect that too was part of the chess set’s machinations.
He became impatient. He wanted to get better. And he was desperate enough to impress his father, that one night he did something foolish.
He’d been apprehensive, although he barely remembered going outside one night, back to the shed, to get his father’s chessboard. That chessboard. The chessboard that could move its own pieces.
He quietly snuck it into his room, opened the silver latches, and proceeded to set it up. It was time to play The Game. The most important game, his father would call it. The ‘Game of Kings’.
It’s time to play The Game.
Its playing pieces were so detailed and perfect, like action figures of the highest quality. Especially the white — they were the complete opposites of the black pieces; smooth, supple formations of with a liquidlike quality. They just begged him to wrap his fingers around them.
When Tom made the first move and saw a black pawn move on its very own, his heart made a staggering leap. The black pawn slowly slid across the squares into its new position. A tiny, mouselike squeak escaped Tom, and he could only stare. Eyes wide. Lips trembling.
It’s time to play The Game. Time to play The Game. YOUR MOVE!!
Tom jumped in an alarm and quickly, if clumsily, moved another pawn.
Another black pawn glided across the board.
It was unreal. It couldn’t be. And yet ...
Oh, I will teach you. Oh, I will play. You’ll get better at The Game and no one will ever beat you again. Not your father. Not anyone.
... he could practice with this. Whenever the old man was gone at work. Bring it to school, play at recess. Play. Play, play, play.
It didn’t happen exactly how Tom thought it would, though. It won every time. And after only three games with it, he realized too late that there would be a price of each loss. A blood-price.
And that led Tom to the bonfire, years later, that summer night in 2002. He wanted to destroy it.
He shook the board, heard the figurines rattle inside. He shouted at it: “Come on! There’s no one else! Will you leave me alone? Will you just — stop —” He knees buckled and he barely managed to break his fall with his hands. The chess set flopped to the ground, and Tom was on all fours crying long, braying sobs. His tears pitter-pattered upon the ground, blackening against the dirt.
Is it time, Tom?
He sniffed and wiped a glob of snot off his nose. “No. I hate this. I fuckin’ hate this. And I hate you.”
I think it’s time. Time to play The Game. Who’s next, Tom? Is it your aunt Renata? She was so kind to take you in.
“Be quiet, be quiet —”
NO. I will NOT be quiet. You LOST. YOU LOST. I won. So I take a prize. Those are the RULES. No one gets to change THE RULES.
YES, Tom. YESSS. Oh, you lost, fair and square. Three whole times. And so three whole people died. BECAUSE OF YOU. Because you’re a miserable, useless failure. That’s why you can’t beat me.
Remember Joseph McNitt, Tom? That day at Lake Superior. You couldn’t even save your best friend. No, instead you panicked and stumbled around and cried to Mommy, and then by the time anyone knew it, little Joey’s lungs were all filled with lake water. Remember his face, Tom? When they pulled him out? The way his blank eyes stared through you?
“That was you! You did it!”
No, Tom. No. You did. Because you lost. Remember Daddy?
Remember bringing home your best report card? How excited you were. Then you opened the front door and saw Daddy lying there. You saw all the empty Laško bottles. You saw the colour of your father’s insides. His pale limp body against a foamy puddle of beer and blood and vomit. Was it because he was homesick? Was it because he was manic? Was it, Tom? Or was it because you couldn’t make him happy?
“No, no, no! That was you too, I know it! Everyone was you. You lying, manipulative, sonofa —”
Was Mommy my doing, too? I don’t think it was, Tom. After Daddy died, she has no one to look after her. Daddy was the provider. But you are nothing. You don’t know anything of love and care. You failed her. That was why she got sick. That’s why she refused treatment. She told you it was God’s plan and that she was glad, but you knew better, didn’t you? She felt too alone. She felt too helpless. She let go, Tom. Because of you.
Tom screamed and scrambled to the game board. He lifted it above his head with both hands.
BECAUSE OF YOU, TOM!! BECAUSE YOU LOST!!
“I hate you!! Goddammed thing!!”
With a great heave he threw it into the bonfire. It crashed into glowing cinders in a whirl of sparks.
He watched the fire envelope it. Saw its hinges melt. Its surface scorch and darken. Saw it contort and crack from the searing heat.
Something seemed to loosen inside Tom, and then he sat down with his knees pressed against his chest, rocking back and forth, as he watched the chessboard slowly deteriorate into molten sludge.
But now ... impossibly ... it was back.
It always came back. It always made you play. And now it wanted to play. Play, play, play.
Tom slowly rubbed his eyes and groaned. It was all about playing The Game. All about rules.
He hated rules. Stupid, unbreakable, goddammed rules. They were a cage that trapped him.
But that was right, wasn’t it? No one could break the rules. No one. Perhaps not even it. Chess was about opposing forces; black versus white, bad versus good. If he lost, something terrible would happen, but if he won ... shouldn’t the opposite be true?
(I won. So I take a prize. Those are the RULES. No one gets to change the RULES.)
Yes. It must. It must follow its own rules. The rules of The Game.
Just then, Bradley walked into the room. “You awake, Dad?”
“Brad? Where’s Mom?”
“Went to the corner store, to get some hot chocolate, ’fore it gets bad out. It’s gonna be a snowstorm. They said so on the radio, ’member?”
Tom scratched his head. “I don’t remember. Did you see me?”
“Yeah, Dad ... you said we’d all hang out today and drink hot chocolate, but — but it was like you were talking to yourself.”
“Yeah, kinda. I dunno. Mom laughed at you. She said you were a tired zombie. But it was scary, a little.”
“Well, I’m fine now. What about the chessboard? Did you take that out?”
Bradley looked at Tom cautiously. “I didn’t, Dad — you did. After Mom left. Then you went back to bed.”
“I — I did what?”
Brad came up close to Tom and grabbed his hand with both of his. He pulled Tom lower, and spoke into his ear then, very quickly, as if someone — or some thing — might overhear. “Dad, I — I moved a piece. I dunno why, Dad, I ... The black pieces in the front, they were looking at me. And if I went to the other room, I could feel them l-looking ... like it — like w-wanted something ...”
Tom could feel the boy’s hands trembling. “Like it wanted you to play,” he said.
Bradley nodded and then suddenly burst into tears. “I’m sorry! ... I’m s-sorry! ... Dad —”
“It’s okay, Brad. Something’s wrong with it.” Tom hugged his son and held tight. “I’m going to get rid of it.”
He gently told Bradley what his father told him about the chessboard. That it was a souvenir his father had brought back from Europe. That it was dug it out of a big crater which contained tons of a special ore called uranium. That it couldn’t be disposed of.
Tom’s explanation was disjointed. But Bradley asked no questions; perhaps, Tom thought, filling in the gaps for himself.
Tom guided Bradley over to the kitchen table, where the chessboard was. “The only way,” said Tom, hoping he was right, “is to win a game.”
Bradley reluctantly took the seat opposite of Tom, as if he was the Black player. Tom sat for White.
Is it time? Winner take all. WINNER TAKE ALL. IS IT TIME!?
Tom picked up his pawn and then slammed it down onto the board, two squares forwards, opposite of Black’s.
Yes, YESSS. It IS time. Oh, it’s time.
Bradley watched open-mouthed as Black’s pawn slid forwards to meet Tom’s.
Outside, a flash of lightning shot through grey clouds. Seconds later, a rumble crawled all through thunderheads gathering above.
“Dad, I’m scared,” said Bradley.
“It’s okay, Brad. It’ll go away.”
Not unless you lose, Tom. Not unless you lose.
Both player’s centre pawns were in play, opening up some of their back-row pieces. The temptation was there for Tom to bring out his queen.
Do it. Move the bitch. See what happens.
But that would be a greed-play. The queen was the strongest piece — but also a big target. Taking her out too early had the tendency of backfiring. And, if you happened to lose your queen, then for all intents and purposes you’d be on a very slippery slope.
It was safer to vie for control of the middle-squares with expendable pieces. He brought out a knight.
Instantly, Black moved a pawn into position for a free take by White.
But Tom knew enough though not to capture. It was just an attempt to avert his control of the main squares. Instead, Tom brought out another knight. Now he had two mid-strength pieces on the board, while Black had none.
AH-HA-HA-HAH! Good, Tom. Good. You haven’t forgotten how to PLAY.
Black moves a bishop out in attacking position for one of Tom’s knights.
Tom responds with an offensive pawn.
Black’s bishop falls back.
Tom’s own bishop out — check.
Black defends with a pawn.
Tom pulls the bishop back, near the side of the board, to safety.
Scared, Tom? Have a drink. Go for that bottle of scotch. Clear your head.
“I’m not doing that. I’m not.”
“Just — thinking out loud, Brad.”
Again, a crack of lightning. This time, the following rumble caused the floorboards to shake. Plates and bowls and mugs chattered furiously from within the kitchen cabinets.
“Dad, what’s going on?”
Tom wrapped his hand around Brad’s. He could barely feel Brad’s tiny fingers, the sensation dampened, mere pressure, as if his nerves were blocked. “It’s okay, Brad. Trust me. It’ll be okay.” Please, he thought, please let it be okay.
Tom continued in a blitz, keeping up with Black, advancing pieces and making exchanges instinctively. When he reached the mid-game, however, Tom began to feel his advantage waning.
His mouth became too dry to swallow. His skin started to feel heavy. He needed a move. A good move.
Trying to figure out what your move is going to be? I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.
“Forget it.” Tom captured a knight, sacrificing a bishop in the process, but opening the way to Black’s king.
They played on, at a slower pace, but steady. Tom felt his confidence growing.
That is, until he made a fatal error.
Tom hadn’t seen Black’s bishop, its bishop which hadn’t been moved all game, in attacking position for his queen. And now it was too late. The bishop rushed out and took Tom’s queen.
Tom clenched his teeth as anger swelled in him. In response, he slowly captured the subject bishop with a knight. Stupid, stupid mistake.
That’s right, Tom. Wasn’t it obvious? You’re no good after all.
Tom looked up and saw his son there, The Game’s hostage, and he wanted to weep. Innocent child. No idea what was really happening. Unaware that, in less than a few minutes, his life might end.
He looked back down. Felt his sanity slipping. He was down to one pawn, a bishop, and his king. Black had a queen on him. In four moves, he’d be in check — then checkmate, inevitably. Because Tom lost his most powerful piece, each move would only bring him and the boy closer to doom.
He had only one slim chance in hell.
He shoved his last pawn forwards. “You’re nothing,” he said.
I’m The Game. And I want to PLAY.
Black ignored the feeble piece, and its queen darted across the board, setting up for check.
The rumbling roared. The house windows cracked. The furniture trembled.
Tom pulled Bradley close with one arm. With his free hand he moved the pawn up again.
“Yeah,” Tom whispered to the board, “you’re nothing. Nothing but hate and regret.”
Black’s queen slid over to his back-line. It would be checkmate in two moves.
White pawn up one square.
“Your game isn’t chess. It’s emotion.”
The windows shattered inwards. Cold air swept into the room and wrapped around Tom’s neck.
I AM THE GAME AND I WANT TO PLAY!!
“Dad!!” screamed Bradley.
Tom covered Bradley’s face with the brunt of his shoulder.
Black’s queen moves in, one more move to check.
“That’s right. You want one thing. You’re one-dimensional. Play your game.”
Tom moved his pawn for the last time, reaching the last row.
“Now queen me,” said Tom. “Queen me, you goddammed thing! Queen me!!”
Tom’s pawn transformed into a new figure, an angel, putting black into check.
Black’s king was trapped by its own line of pawns. It had nowhere to move. Its queen was so far out of position that it couldn’t cover.
Black’s king swayed then, as if tipped some invisible hand, and then fell over with a disproportionately loud thud.
The wind stopped. The rumbling faded.
All was silent. Tom looked to the ceiling, and let out a great sigh.
“Is it over ... Dad? Is it over?”
Tom looked at the board. Somehow it bore no resemblance to the thing that had haunted him for so long. “Yes, I think it’s over,” he said. “For good.”
He heard Bradley say something into his chest, between sobs, muffled by the fabric of his shirt: “Why ... why did you have to play, Dad? ... Why did you have to play that scary game?”
“Sometimes bad games have to be played,” said Tom, “so that they’ll be over. Like going through a bad dream.”
Bradley looked up at his father. His teary eyes glistened in the rays of new sunlight. Tom saw a hint of something on the boy’s face. Maybe a hint of hope.
“And all bad dreams have to end.”
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