X's and O's

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic
Kyle is sitting in a metro train thinking dark thoughts about his life. He looks out the window to see Paul trying to get his attention from another train. Both trains pull out before Kyle can find out what Paul wants. When they see each other the next day, a game begins that changes both of their lives.

Submitted: June 25, 2015

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 25, 2015

A A A

A A A


X’s and O’s

Kyle found himself sitting in his usual spot in the metro car. Since he kept odd hours, the car was rarely packed full, but there were enough people so that he was just glad to have a seat. When he first started riding the metro, he had tried standing up, holding onto the overhead railing on the way to and from his destinations, but he gave that up after the first week because he quickly tired of having to always move out of other people’s way.

Kyle usually took the seat next to a window display that others seemed to shun. You could still see out of the window, but the display was a large hash-tag next to the generic run-on words, “RideTheCityTrain”. His seat had him looking through the hash-tag, and he found himself wondering, not for the first time, at how quickly the world had been overrun by these annoying grids. They seemed to surround him now. Ads, social media, the shows that he watched on TV, and even his company had begun placing them at the bottom of the newsletters that everyone received, yet no one read.

But the one on the metro was easily the largest one he came in contact with on a daily basis. He figured the ones on a few of the billboards that he glimpsed on his daily treks may be larger, but that was a relative judgment. He’d never know for sure, so there was no reason to worry about it. After all, he had plenty of real problems to worry about without adding to the pile. His neighbors, at both his apartment complex and the cubicle farm where he worked, seemed to delight in annoying him. His boss kept nagging at him for various reasons. He actually wondered if she had a check sheet somewhere with lists of things to harp on. It honestly wouldn’t surprise him. And on a romantic front, all had been quiet there since… But that didn’t bear thinking about.

Kyle was a minor player in his company, and that wasn’t likely to change. He was part of a group of number-crunchers whose sole duty was to run over the numbers of the accounting department. As their accounting department was phenomenal, they were more likely to spot errors in software than they were to find fault in the numbers that they received. This left his coworkers free to mess with each other. He guessed that most of them were the big men (and women) of their respective college campuses, so of course they would try to outdo one another, but they usually took it too far.

Kyle tried to ignore the jokes and pranks that they pulled on each other, but sometimes their shenanigans spilled over into his world. He had hoped he was done with paper wads and flying rubber bands when he graduated high school, but here he was, an adult surrounded by other supposed adults, facing them all again. Most of these things he had managed to overlook as everyone letting off some steam, but the day he came back from lunch to see two of the wheels broken off of his chair, as well as the arm taped up, he decided he had had enough.

He took his complaints, because he had been making a mental list, to his boss expecting some action to be taken. He figured there might end up just being a strongly worded memo, but at least that would be something. He was quickly shown how wrong he was. His boss, Linda, dismissed his complaints and even went so far as to tell him to suck it up. They were allowed to have some fun around their little dead-end assignments, and that’s what they were going to do.

Kyle got the distinct impression that Linda had had something to do with the destruction of his chair. Instead of pushing the matter, he decided to fill out a requisition form for a new chair. However, he had to get imaginative when the form asked him to state what, in detail, had happened to his previous chair. Everything he tried sounded like a child’s evasion technique, so he settled for “miscellaneous mishap” which he knew would cause the wheels to go slow on him getting a new chair, but it sounded better than, “I came back from lunch and the jerks had broken my chair”.

So until his new chair came in, he’d have to make do with his broken one. He tried placing binders in place of the missing wheels, but the chair kept sliding off of them, which led to more than one incident of luke-warm coffee spilled in his lap. Linda witnessed one of these spills and took it as an opportunity to launch into her favorite topic to hound him on: his lack of problem-solving skills. She made him feel as though he were the dullest creature in this part of the world, but he managed to refrain from stating that if morons had left his chair alone, he wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with. He had a feeling that it wouldn’t be a prudent thing to say at that moment.

Kyle thought about this on his way home. His apartment was only two blocks away from the metro station, so he was able to make an easy walk of it on fair-weather days, and even foul-weather days weren’t too bad, seeing as most of those two blocks contained buildings with awnings under which he could dart and trees in between. At home, he would go in, do a bit of cleaning, find something to eat, and settle in for that evening’s entertainment.

He just hoped that that entertainment didn’t include the couple in 7B fighting loud enough to require a visit from the police. Or the guy in 4D blasting his radio while smoking pot on the balcony above his. Or, Universe forbid, another drunk trying to kick in his door because it “kind of looked like his ex-girlfriend’s door”. That had been a fun night. Kyle felt his eyes roll at the memory.

He thought of all of this as he sat looking out through the massive hash-tag. He was only a few stops from his station, so he decided to snap himself out of his funk by looking at the city. He loved the city, because even in a huge crowd, he could be totally alone. He knew his family worried about him, especially after hearing about the type of people he lived around, but he would take all of the annoying neighbors and coworkers just to be able to continue experiencing the city.

There were restaurants that served food from all over the world, at all different prices. There were shops that catered to all the varieties of people that would be drawn to the city, on either business or pleasure. And the museums. This city had some of the finest museums in the world. With museums that dealt in everything between art, history, natural wonders, and even news, there was something to appeal to even the most hardened heart. Kyle only wished he had more free time to spend at the museums. But those odd hours kept him tied up during the times when the museums would be least crowded, so whenever he did find the time to visit the sights, he was often surrounded by tour groups from out of town, or by kids on field trips.

He didn’t mind the tour groups, because he would listen to them talk and try to guess where they were from. He was developing an ear for languages and accents, and was growing to love the multi-cultural atmosphere in the city. But the kids on the field trips… He knew that things were different now, and that the kids of today were so jaded by the media that nothing would impress them, but it still bothered him how many kids went through the museums with their eyes glued to their phones. He knew that if they had to write any reports on what they had seen at the museums, they were more likely to look it up on the internet than they were to actually look up and take in the actual museum.

Kyle shook his head to break free of these thoughts, and realized that his car had been stopped for a few minutes at the station before his. He looked around and noticed that there was another metro car stopped next to the one he was in. He noticed another one of those large hash-tags on the window opposite him, when something else caught his eye. The man sitting at the hash-tag in the other car had a pen in his hand and looked like he was trying to get Kyle’s attention.

By the time Kyle acknowledged the man, the trains were both leaving the station, and Kyle mouthed that he was sorry. The other man just shrugged and waved. Then he was gone. Kyle wondered what that was all about, and suddenly found himself quite paranoid. Maybe the man had been trying to warn him of someone around him. Kyle quickly looked around, but didn’t find anyone that drew suspicion. After a few more furtive glances around, Kyle decided to let the matter drop. After all, he was pulling into his stop, and he had to decide what to have for supper while he walked home.

***

Paul tried to get the attention of the man in the other train, but he seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Paul liked that. He liked thinkers. They always made the game more interesting. Those that just plod through were usually so easy to beat that it took the fun out of the win. With a thinker, a win was sweet, but so was a loss, because he could learn from a loss. But the best was when a thinker could routinely bring him to a tie.

Paul kept a pencil, a pen, a felt-tipped marker, and a dry-erase marker (with built-in eraser) on hand for the game. He also carried a small pad of paper filled half-way up with game boards. Some of them were wins, some were losses, and others were the ties that he enjoyed so much. Even though it wasn’t a particularly complex game, you could tell quite a bit about a person by how they played it. There were those that acted purely on instinct and would make their moves quickly with little to no contemplation. There were those that took their time before each move, considering each mark before they made it. And those that were a mix of both.

The thinkers were typically a pleasant mix of both. They considered their moves, but also let their guts drive the game when it was necessary. No wonder Paul loved the game so much. Look at all he had learned about people through it. He always enjoyed trying to figure people out, and considered it one of his main pastimes.

He loved the game almost as much as he loved his job. Officially, he had a desk in the office where he worked, but he was there so rarely that he often forgot what was in each drawer. His official job title was Museum Guest Auditor and his job description was to anonymously tour the various museums in the city to make sure they were making the most use of their funds and space. What he considered himself was a professional patron. He much preferred that title.

There were enough museums in the city that he was never bored, or forced to go to the same museum more than once a week. If there were new displays to check out, he could stretch a visit to one museum over a full day. If there was nothing new, he would sometimes get two museums in per day. It was fine for him to do so, since he could write off the cost of admissions as a business expense.

However, he never submitted the receipts for his meals taken at the museums because it didn’t feel like business to him. And even if he’d been allowed to submit the receipts for his souvenirs, he wouldn’t have. After all, he had plenty of items from each of the museums in his apartment. This included plenty of baubles of every shape and size, along with hats, shirts, and sweaters.

Paul enjoyed his neighbors, and they seemed to enjoy him. They often had him over to share their meals when they had family in from out of town. He knew that they primarily wanted tips on which museums to visit during the relative’s visits, but he was glad to help out. And if he happened to get a free meal out of the deal, what was the harm?

Each night, Paul spent a few hours writing up reports on whichever museum he had spent his day exploring. At the end of each report, he would give an overall rating to the museum, based on how knowledgeable and courteous the staff appeared to be, the visibility of security, the appearance of the displays, and the state of the cafeterias, both the food offered and the general cleanliness of the facilities. He invariably gave the museums high marks. This was not charity, as he was not above docking a location if there were serious issues. However, he rarely had to do this because the museums in the city held themselves to high standards, and it showed.

After he finished his latest report, a near-perfect rating for today’s modern art museum, he reflected that his life was nearly perfect. His home was comfortable and he was surrounded by mementos of the places that he so dearly loved. His neighbors were nice, and seemed to appreciate his contributions. His job was as close to perfection as he believed he could find. And even his coworkers and boss were satisfactory. Well, almost.

His counterpart, Alan, was a bit of a jerk. The corners of Paul’s mouth drooped at the thought of Alan. Part of the reason Paul started staying out of the office so much was because of Alan. Alan had the same job title as Paul, but went about getting his information in a completely different way. Paul went through museums looking through the eyes of a typical tourist, yet always keeping an eye on any lapses that would need to be fixed. Alan, however, liked to rile the museum staff up.

Alan would hire tourists to go into museums at predetermined times and make a scene. Nothing big that may lead to the police, or even the tourist being banned from the museums, but enough to draw a crowd and make a mess of the natural flow of the museum. Paul had been in a museum during one of Alan’s paid stunts. He had paid a tourist to approach one of the tour guides in the middle of one of their lectures, interrupt the poor woman, and ask her about things that were obviously in a different museum. The woman became flustered, but did her best to answer the young man’s questions.

Paul knew that Alan would focus on the tour guide becoming flustered, and would neglect to mention that the woman did her best to answer questions that she shouldn’t have been asked in the first place, so Paul made sure to write up a glowing review of her skills as a tour guide in his report. After that, Paul made it a habit to not be where Alan was. But that worked out, as it gave Paul more time to focus on being in museums instead of at the office.

Paul thought about it, and decided that there was another area in which his life was lacking. However, he dismissed the thought as something that wasn’t really missing. It just hadn’t happened yet. With that, he shut the door on the matter. He decided to turn in early, as a new exhibit was opening in the morning, and he couldn’t wait to see it. One of his favorite authors was having a series of early working notes put on display in the literature hall of the museum right down the road. It looked to be a good day.

***

Kyle had slept better than usual, and guessed it had had something to do with the fact that either one or both of his neighbors from 7B was out last night. Maybe they had finally been evicted. Kyle hoped so, but knew that it was too good of a thought to be true. But he lived in hope. He was alert on the metro, sitting at his usual spot, when the train made its unusually long stop at the station closet to his. He remembered the man from yesterday, and looked into the car across from him, curious if the man would be there again. Judging from the long blonde hair, the person with their back against the window was not that man.

Kyle thought that the guy could have opted for a wig, and that he had witnessed stranger things in the city, then laughed at himself while shaking his head. This was looking like a good day for once. He even went into his office building with his head held high, humming a tune under his breath all the way to his cubicle. As soon as his eyes fell onto his chair, his mood faltered. All but one of the wheels was now broken off. The arm that had been repaired with tape was now dangling by that same tape. And now the back of the chair appeared to have been broken.

He felt himself getting angry, and knew it wouldn’t do. If he allowed himself to get angry, he was as sure as fired, since his temper usually ran off with his mouth when he let it. Instead, he closed his eyes, took a series of deep breaths, counted to fifty, opened his eyes when he felt a bit more collected, and went to look for a folding chair to get him through until his new chair arrived.

Linda wandered into his cubicle with a smirk on her face when she saw him adjusting himself for what had to be the umpteenth time in the uncomfortable folding chair. At that moment, he knew that not only was she involved with the destruction of his chair, but she was most likely the ring-leader. He made a mental note to do a couple more sets of fifty-counts as soon as she left. Otherwise, he’d be out of a job. Then he could say goodbye to his apartment in the city. He kept the city in his mind as she went into a new speech about how important it was to respect company resources, and how he needed to be more careful with things assigned to him. Especially if he wanted her to approve his request for a new chair. She said this with such acid in her voice that he knew if he ever got a new chair, it would be one of the uncomfortable models usually reserved for interns. As she turned to look for new prey, he had to use all of his willpower in order to avoid opening his mouth. He’d never resort to physical violence, because such actions were not in his character, but when he opened his mouth in anger, the damage he could do was without compare.

The rest of his day went by without incident, for which he was grateful, because he felt that all it would take was one more thing to push him over the edge. By the time he made it to the metro, he was ready to sit in his spot and let the day go. As soon as he stepped onto the train, however, he noticed that his spot was not available. In his spot were the shoes of a kid no older than 18. He was listening to music on his phone, which would have been fine had he been using the headphones that were around his neck, but they were not plugged in. Instead, the obnoxious “music” blaring from his phone proclaimed to everyone in the car that the man singing had an unnaturally large appendage that he had used to great length the night before while on a search for drugs. The kid spotted Kyle standing there and just crossed his legs at the ankle. The message was clear.

Kyle didn’t have it in him to argue, so he went to the far end of the car to get away from the blaring phone and stood, holding onto the hand rail, waiting for his stop. At the next station, the kid got up, walked over to bump Kyle on his way out of the car, even though he bypassed a set of doors just to get to Kyle.

At this point, not even that obviously adolescent behavior made a dent in Kyle’s day. He walked over, brushed the dirt that the kid had left in his seat to the floor, and sat down looking past the hash-tag to the city beyond the train. That city was all he needed. Not the boss with the obvious grudge against him. Not the kids with their noses in their phones. Not the kids that were just looking for trouble. Not the neighbors with their constant fighting. Nothing but the city, with its little shops, stores, and museums.

Kyle had taken in enough of the city by the time that the train made its long stop so that he could look into the other car as it stopped opposite him. The man was back, and he waved. Kyle waved back. Then the man did something unexpected that took Kyle by surprise.

***

Paul was glad to see the man in the other car again this evening. He waved, and the man waved back. So Paul took it as an invite for the game. He knew that if the man took too long, they wouldn’t be able to finish their game until the next day, but that was fine. He was patient. Paul took his dry-erase marker out of his bag and marked an X in the middle of the hash-tag on the window beside him. He then looked at the man in the next train expectantly.

***

Kyle at first didn’t realize what the man was doing, until it struck him that the man wanted to play tic-tac-toe. Kyle grinned, because he hadn’t actually played a game of tic-tac-toe since he was probably in junior high. But, like riding a bike, it never quite leaves you. He thought for a second, then placed his finger on the top left portion of the hash-tag next to him. The man marked his choice with the customary O and the game continued. They had just enough time to finish their game before the trains pulled out from the station. The cat got the game, as Kyle had said as a kid. In other words, a tie. The man seemed pleased with this, and it made Kyle smile. The last he saw, the man was erasing the marks he had made on the window, which Kyle thought of as an extremely good idea.

***

Paul liked his new friend from the other train. He thought of anyone that would take a tic-tac-toe challenge from a stranger as a potential friend. And anyone that could play a game to a stalemate on the first go with a smile was a confirmed friend. He needed a new friend at the moment.

Alan had been up to his old tricks. This time, however, he had taken it a bit too far. Rather, the guy he had paid to make a scene took it too far. Paul was in line for the working notes exhibit when Alan’s mark had cut in line and “accidentally” dropped his cola onto the display. Luckily, it was behind glass so none of the liquid made it to the pages, but the man was escorted from the building and the exhibit was closed for cleaning.

Even though this put Paul into a bit of a foul mood, he refused to take it out on the museum, so he worked his way through the rest of the building, and managed to work his way back to the display before they closed for the day. But the ropes blocking access to the pages were quite a bit further back than they had been before, and Paul understood why that was, but it still bothered him that Alan’s stupidity would cost him, and so many others, the chance to see the working notes up close.

He decided he would have to talk with his boss about Alan’s information gathering tactics. But not tonight. He would go in tomorrow, and give Alan a chance to own up to his actions. That was the least he could do. After all, he tried to be fair, even to those that didn’t deserve it.

***

Kyle found himself scratching out tic-tac-toe games on random hash-tags that he found in the magazine that he read that night, and in the paper that he read in the morning. He thought that if he were to face the guy in the other train again, he had a decent chance of beating him. That was, if he continued to open with his X in the middle of the board. If not, then he’d just have to play and find out.

Kyle’s morning metro trip was consumed with tic-tac-toe boards on the window hash-tag. He was hoping for his opponent to be at the window, but it was the blonde again. She looked around at Kyle, and when he motioned to the hash-tag, she must have thought he was being rude, since she flipped him off and turned her back to the window. He finished the rest of his trip concerning himself with his own tic-tac-toe strategies, and left the passengers in the other cars to their own devices.

Kyle walked into work in time to see his chair being delivered. It was one of the nice chairs. Of course, it wasn’t being delivered to his cubicle. It was being delivered to Linda’s office. It made a kind of sense, Kyle thought. Let her have the new chair, and he’ll take the hand-me-down chair. Anything would be better than the folding chair that he was currently using. His hips hurt at the mere thought of another day in that impossibly uncomfortable chair.

When the delivery men pulled Linda’s old chair into the hallway, Kyle motioned for them to bring it into his cubicle. The delivery men looked confused and checked their orders. They then told Kyle that their orders were to take the chair and toss it into the trash. No one else was to have it. Kyle just looked at them dumbfounded as they rolled the chair into the elevator and the doors closed behind them. He turned to see Linda looking at him from the comfort of her new chair. She smiled and winked at him. Kyle walked into her office, closed the door, and opened his mouth.

***

Paul walked into his office to the sight of Alan sitting back in his chair, hands behind his head, with his feet up on his desk. He looked for all the world like a person that was supremely comfortable with his place in the Universe. Paul thought that Alan was most comfortable by making others uncomfortable. Paul nodded a generic greeting in Alan’s direction on his way to their boss’ office.

Once inside the office, Paul explained his feelings about Alan’s tactics, and cited examples of what Alan did to get his information. His boss looked back at Paul with a look of near-complete disinterest. After he had finished all that he had to say, Paul left the office and went to his own desk, which was across from Alan’s. Their boss came out a few minutes later and asked Alan to join him in his office. Alan gave Paul a dark look as he got up and went into the office.

Paul busied himself by reacquainting himself with the contents of his desk. He would have to remember to update the museum brochures in his desk as soon as he got a chance. That is, assuming he would have the chance after this mess settled down. He heard Alan start to raise his voice, and his boss said to calm down. Paul wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but his heart skipped a beat as Alan came out of the office looking smug.

Paul had finished his inventory of his desk when his boss came out of his office with a furrowed look on his brow and his hands clasped behind his back. Never a good sign, in Paul’s opinion. He walked over and stood between Paul and Alan’s desks, and said that after careful review, he decided that one of them had just been skating by with their reports, and given their differences in style, one of them would have to go. With that, he brought one of his hands out from behind his back holding termination papers and laid them upon the desk.

***

Kyle found himself wandering among the museums until he found an exhibit that drew his attention. It was the working notes of an author he’d considered reading. From what he was able to read from the pages, he decided that he’d pick up one of his books as soon as he could afford it. After all, being unemployed meant that he’d have to watch his spending for the time being. He shouldn’t even be at the museums, but he just couldn’t face going home so early, and having to listen to whatever his neighbors did in the daytime. Besides, he wanted to be on the metro at the usual time. After all, it would probably be his last chance to play tic-tac-toe with the man that reintroduced him to the game.

***

Paul sat at the station waiting for his train in a state of near shock. As soon as he saw the pink slip hit the desk, he knew things were changed forever. At the very least, he wouldn’t likely be caught up in one of Alan’s idiotic schemes to throw people off balance. As soon as his train arrived, Paul made a decision to do something new. He’d take a chance. After all, with the way that today went, what’s the worst that could happen?

***

Kyle had no problem getting his seat on the metro. There was no sign of the kid with the vulgar music, and Kyle wasn’t sure that the kid could have stopped him from sitting down even had he been there. He waited impatiently for the long stop to come, so he could play his game of tic-tac-toe and forget everything else. Thoughts of what he had said to Linda tried to crowd into his head, but he banished them. None of that mattered anymore. Only the game mattered. The game, and finding a job so he could stay in the city. But first, the game.

As the train came to a slow stop at the station, Kyle looked across at an empty track. He began to worry that the train was delayed, cheating him out of his game when he caught a glimpse of it coming out of the far tunnel. He smiled as the front of the train passed his window and slowed until he was again looking at the hash-tag in the opposite window.

But there was no one seated at that window.

Kyle looked for his opponent in the windows in front of and behind the hash-tag, but had no luck. It looked like he wouldn’t get his game after all. He closed his eyes and laid his forehead against the glass as the train started forward from the station.

He took no notice as the people that got on at the station started moving through the car, finding seats. He was trying hard not to tear up when someone sat next to him. He didn’t have the heart to tell them to go away, nor did he really have the right. But that didn’t mean he had to look at them. His stop would be up shortly, and he could make it until then. Just think about the city. That always calms him down.

He was thinking about the city when the pad of paper fell into his lap, making him jump. He looked down to see the familiar hash-tag shape drawn in the middle of the page, with an X already placed in the middle. There was a pen clipped onto the pad, ready for Kyle to make his move. But held between the pen and the paper, there was a business card. It would appear that his opponent’s name is Paul, but the pen blocked the last name. He looked up to see Paul smiling at him. Kyle smiled back. Paul asked him if he happened to need a job, since one just opened up at his firm. Kyle couldn’t help but laugh at the timing of the offer. Instead of answering, he took up the pen, placed the business card in his breast pocket, and placed his O in the top left corner of the grid.

He handed the pad back to Paul and said that the loser buys dinner.

 

The End


© Copyright 2019 CharlesLeeMcCabe. All rights reserved.

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