Chess for One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

The school library should be empty. And if you were to look through it's broken shutters, you'd probably think it was. That is, until the first piece on the old chess board has made it's move.

There was no chess club, not officially. What we did have though was an old, chequered board, sitting not far from what’d once been a fireplace in the corner of the old library. There were candle stands still dotted about the various writing desks and bureaus, each settled into one of the many bookcase corners. They hadn’t been lit in years, instead being replaced by the warm light of a dimmed overhead light bulb and a few shaded lamps here and there. Even the chessboard itself was only there because the Headmistress had personally requested it be left alone. Just like the candles and the bureaus, and even the books in its later years, it’d become more a show of class than something to be actually used. I’d always thought the Headmistress simply believed having it there made us look clever whenever exchange students found themselves here, but not even our own students tended to visit this place anymore. There were no computers or comfy beanbags to sink into between classes, although there were a good few wooden chairs set beneath some of the desks. Even the few plug sockets that’d been fitted in the 80’s were all taken up just to keep the room lit, not to mention the notable absence of a librarian or any books written past the year 1985. I’d spent enough time checking the dusty pages after all, for one reason or another. Mostly because I enjoyed the old cookbooks you could sometimes find if you searched long enough, ever amazed at how many ways people could find to make animal organs sound like fine dining.

I wasn’t reading that day. Instead, I could be found seated beside the chessboard, as I so often was once classes had ended. The evening sky was patched with rain, not that I would’ve been out anyway. The absence of double glazing always made it louder in the library than it ever was in our dorms, and I might’ve thought it fitted the room rather well if my attention hadn’t been elsewhere.

Judging by what I’d been told by somewhat unreliable sources, if most people peaked into that room they would’ve have seen me alone, peering over the chessboard with a concentration far better suited to a girl with an actual opponent. If they stayed to look a little longer, they might’ve seen one of the pieces on the opposite side of the board move towards my own. Only after I’d made my move though would they notice something was more than a little off. Because apparently anybody can hear the dear departed once they’re close enough, it’s only seeing them that’s the hard part.

To eyes that had been granted permission to see it though, two boys stood watching the chessboard from behind me. One stood with practiced posture in what might’ve been a jacket or coat, tall socks stretching to the breeches at his knees. His hair was short and brown and neat, and had been like that for nearly three-hundred years. Beside him stood Steven, who in comparison might’ve almost looked normal had he been alive. He wore grey shorts and a matching blazer, with a messily knotted tie falling from his collar and a bemused grin tugging at his cheeks.

‘That’s a ghastly move!’ He exclaimed from over my shoulder. ‘How on Earth you’ve beaten so many of us like that I’ve no idea at all!’

I held my hands over my head in frustration, searching the board for mistakes or moves that would let our game last a little longer.

‘Well maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are,’ I replied, my gaze still held by transparent fingers as they hesitantly hovered over the enemy rook.

‘Tis true!’ Another voice chimed in to my right. ‘I would dare say you Sir have greatly exaggerated your successes!’

I was granted only the briefest moment’s silence as my newest competitor made his move, taking one of my final pawns in the process. I’d been trying to get that one to the other side of the board for five turns now. This new guy was annoyingly good.

I turned to Steven and Roderick standing behind me, the dimming light of the library’s windows streaming through them as if they were made of the very same glass.

‘Haven’t you got halls to be haunting?’ I asked them, waving towards the old wooden doors to our left. ‘I can’t concentrate with banshees in my ears.’

‘Banshees!’ Roderick bellowed in a voice far too loud for someone of his size. ‘I take that personally young lady, I’ll have you know I made the 1734 choir the best we’ve ever-‘

‘I’ve heard your singing old fellow.’ Interrupted Steven, crossing his arms against his thick woollen blazer. ‘I would take heed and leave if I were you’

‘Both of you!’ I exclaimed, laying my chin tiredly against the chess board. ‘Shut up and let us play in peace! I could be at home by now, sleeping my worries away in the comfort of my own damn bed. The least you can do is let me concentrate!’

My voice was tired but my mind felt wide awake, dividing my attention between the board and the quiet figure sitting on the other side of the table. I’d never even seen him before today, and I’d been so certain I’d met all the library’s inhabitants.

The boy sitting opposite me considered my move without saying a word. In fact, I hadn’t heard his voice at all yet. It was Steven who’d told me there was someone new who wanted to play, and I still hadn’t quite gotten over the idea that there might’ve been even more of them who’d been watching our matches without appearing like the two behind me.

I wondered if he’d been wanting to introduce himself for awhile now, and why he hadn’t done it at the same time as the others.  

‘Mm,’ Steven mumbled to himself, ‘That’ll do it my boy. It’s check my dear.’

‘Oh,’ I said, shaking myself back into the present. ‘How did that happen?’

‘Jamie here used to be the head of the Chess club!’ Roderick told us. ‘That must’ve been some, oh, seventy years ago now? I dare say there hasn’t been a player quite like him since though.’

That would have made the fifteen year-old boy opposite me around eighty-five years old. He was certainly one of the younger ones then, my Great-grandmother might’ve even gone to school with him.

Steven strolled forwards to examine the board for himself. ‘Goodness, you really ought to have gotten a little better at this by now. You know he had you from the beginning.’

I sighed, stretching myself against the back of the chair. The clock over the doorway told me it was seven o’clock, I didn’t have long till I needed to be back.

‘I’m good enough to tell when I’m gonna lose,’ I said, waving my hand through him as if he weren’t there at all. They didn’t like that, which I found to be a particularly useful thing when they got loud.

Steven took his hands off the board with a disapproving scowl and headed to the doorway with Roderick in tow, their interest quickly wavered by what was clearly a predetermined game.

‘I presume to see you tomorrow my dear,’ said Roderick, waving back at me as the two of them left through an unopened door. For a moment, Steven’s head poked back in through the old wood.

‘Go easy on her old chap!’ he told Jamie, before disappearing once again.

I rolled my eyes as I brought my focus back to the boy Steven had called Jamie, his hands already moving the pieces back to their starting positions. Maybe I stared just a little more than I’d intended, because he seemed a little startled when he looked up to find my eyes watching him.

‘Do- do you have time for another game?’ He asked me nervously, his shoulders seeming to shrink as the words left him.

‘He speaks,’ I teased, ‘But sure, I can do one more.’

With a hesitant grin, he stood from his chair and switched the board around, leaving me with what’d been his pieces and him with mine. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he also looked to be making himself seem smaller.

‘It uh, makes it fairer,’ he said, noticing my confusion. ‘We can stay the same colours if you’d prefer though?’

I shrugged, quietly amused by his sudden capacity to speak as soon as the others had left. ‘This is fine by me, it’ll probably end the same way anyway.’

‘Right. Well… good luck.’

For a quick moment, he seemed to start raising his hand out in front of him for me to shake, pulling it back to his side when he realised what he was doing.

People who can breathe can’t touch people who could, that’s another thing I’d learnt during my time in the library. It might seem obvious if it weren’t for the fact that they can still move the things around them without issue.

With barely a thought, I advanced one of my pawns and watched closely as he considered it for a short while.

‘So,’ I began, watching as he moved his own knight ahead. ‘Are there lots of you who don’t actually appear, or are you just the quiet one?’

I didn’t mean for it to sound like an accusation, but he shifted in his seat as I said it.

‘A few,’ he replied, shrugging off his embarrassment with a quiet smile. ‘It’s a big school.’

‘But you’ve been here awhile right? I think I’d talk to people when I could if I had to stay in a place like this for so long.’

I moved one of my knights as he thought for a second, his eyes following the piece with vague interest.

‘The king’s knight opening,’ he mused to himself, ‘You should do that after I move my king’s pawn, it’ll work better.’

‘Oh great, you know the strategy names, this isn’t gonna go well for me is it? But you didn’t answer my question.’

He stifled a smirk, ‘I’m fine just watching. Those two do enough talking for all of us.’ He nodded in the direction of the doorway, making his own move as I turned.

My eyes widened in amusement, ‘Oh, we’re using underhanded tactics now are we? Awfully ballsy for a guy who usually stays invisible. What would the captain of the chess club need with cheating?’

‘It’s only cheating if you get caught.’

‘Which you did?’

‘Which I did,’ he agreed. ‘I haven’t played in a while.’

‘Did you enjoy it?’ I asked, resting my head against the table. ‘Chess club, I mean. We haven’t had one in years.’

The wind picked up outside as he regarded the board then, his mind searching through memories of a time when his name was on the class register. I’d asked Steven and Roderick about the past, only stopping myself when my thoughts wondered to how they might’ve died. The interesting parts were always the lesser things anyway. What their classes were like, what kind of places they lived in when the bell rang them out for the day. They both had a way with words that beat any old cookbook when they felt like it.

‘I did,’ he said eventually, tucking a lock of translucent hair behind his ear. ‘I wasn’t the best though. There were two captains at the time.’

‘Doesn’t that defy the entire point of a captain?’ I asked him, ‘Surely there can’t have been that many of you?’

‘No, there weren’t. But we were good enough to get to nationals, and our picture is still on the walls beside the teacher’s offices. She just didn’t want to be the captain, so we both did it instead.’

He took his turn and then I did the same, neither of us concentrating on the game I was sure to be losing. The rustic lamps flickered like flames and rain rattled the window frames, filling our silences with the library’s own song between the tapping of the pieces.

‘I thought you looked a little like the other captain,’ Jamie said eventually. His voice could have been so easily mistaken for a stray gust of wind rolling through the shutters. ‘I thought you might’ve been related somehow but, I don’t think I was right.’

I rose my gaze from the board, my sudden interest evident on my features.

‘You got on well then?’ I said, pulling at the conversation like strings. There were methods to learn when talking to these people, but if you’d done it as long as I had, it became a little easier. They would offer threads every now and then, hints at a story or discussion they wanted to lead. And If you were wary enough to look out for them, you would often find yourself swimming in a pond of another person’s memories.

He relaxed his shoulders and made his move.

‘I only became captain because we’d played so many games together. I wouldn’t have stayed long enough if I hadn’t been so competitive.’

‘Didn’t want to lose to a girl?’ I asked, smiling again as my bishop swung in on one of his pawns.

‘Chess wasn’t a girl’s game back then,’ he admitted, ‘So yes, I didn’t. But I did. She won most of our games, even in the tournaments.’

I felt a swell of pride at that for a girl I’d never met.

‘Then I’m surprised you thought we were related, because clearly I’m absolutely terrible.’

He took my bishop. I hadn’t noticed it’d moved.

‘I doubt chess is a family heirloom,’ he said, pleased. ‘You have the same confidence, maybe that was it.’

‘Maybe, or maybe it’s just because I’m only the second girl you’ve seen play. What was her name?’

He looked up at the ceiling in the way people do when a memory is just out of reach, as if it might’ve been written above their heads the whole time.

After a moment, he said, ‘Lianne,’ and I thought he might’ve been lying for whatever reason.

‘I imagine she went on to work in a nursery or something like that. She used to like the idea of that.’

There weren’t many pieces left on the board by now, but there were clearly far more of his than their were of mine. He moved his rook, and my king was in check.

‘I can check if you’d like,’ I told him, ‘You’ve heard of the internet right? It wouldn’t be that difficult to find out if you told me her full name. There can’t have been that many Lianne’s in the fifties.’

He considered me for a quiet second, his gaze moving from the board, to me, to the room around us. I would’ve liked to have known what was going through his head then, but I didn’t. His eyes settled again on the board as I moved my queen to block his own. It would be taken in the next move, the game was decided.

‘That’s… I think I’m alright not knowing,’ he decided, his fingers tapping against the table absently. ‘Everyone here knows life doesn’t usually turn out how you expect it to. We wouldn’t be here if it did. If I’m going to be here for a long time, I think I’d like to spend the time thinking about it rather than getting the answers early on, if that’s alright. You’re welcome to find out for yourself if you’d like.’

His queen took mine, leaving my king to stand alone in the centre of the board. Etiquette would have me forfeit. I didn’t. My king moved one step up, ready for his gallows.

‘No that’s alright, she’s your history not mine. If I searched all the questions I had for you guys online, there wouldn’t be any reason for me to come here anymore.’

Without a word, he moved queen ahead of my king.

Checkmate.

Jamie grinned, toppling my final piece with a flick of his rook. ‘Well, you still have to beat me. In my experience that’s a pretty good reason to keep coming back.’

We both stood from our chairs to leave, but before I begun to pack away the pieces for the night, I held my hand to shake his.

‘Then I shall see you tomorrow evening,’ I said, grasping a hand I couldn’t feel. And with a nod and flash of transparent teeth, I was left alone with the chessboard in library.

 


Submitted: October 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Malakai Godfrey. All rights reserved.

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Short Story / Young Adult