I slid my white bishop across the board and knocked down his black king.
“Ah, checkmate!” Uncle Sebastian said. “You beat me again!”
I couldn’t bring myself to exclaim or even smile. I knew he had the best intentions in letting me win, but it reminded me how pitiable my situation was. When it comes to chess, Uncle Sebastian didn’t like “taking it easy,” even on amateurs or kids. He pats himself on the back for being a tactical genius, a modern-day Bonaparte, and refuses to shatter that reputation, even if that means making some five-year-old in the park weep, even if everybody involved knows the potential loss would be a ruse. It said a lot, therefore, that Uncle Sebastian let me win not once, not twice, but thrice of the three games we played that evening. I must have looked like one poor bastard.
“Want to play again, Alex?” Uncle Sebastian said.
“Alright. I’m gonna go to the bathroom real quick. Wanna set up the board again while I’m gone?”
As Uncle Sebastian left the den, I set up the board again. One by one, I lifted each black, plastic casualty from the mass grave adjacent to my left thigh and stood them back up on the enemy side. I didn’t have to revive the dead in setting up my own white army, as Uncle Sebastian neglected to take any of my pieces, so it was a simple matter of just moving them back to their original places. I got the board all set up in record time. We played so much chess in those long days right after the funeral when my grief seemed impenetrable that I came to know the home squares of my knights and rooks by heart.
Waiting for Uncle Sebastian to come back, I threw myself sideways on the black leather sectional and stared at the back wall of the den. Surrounding the large, brick fireplace was dozens and dozens of guns, all mounted to the wall. Uncle Sebastian was a bit of a contradiction like that. You tell people he’s one of the best chess players in the region, and you assume he’s some kind of gentleman, with more European than American in his blue blood. But then you come to his home, and you see you find his den full of firearms and you find his fridge full of freshly shot venison and you find his closet full of camouflage jackets and baseball caps. That’s when you realize the only difference between Uncle Sebastian and other Appalachian folk is that, at thirteen, he read a book about chess to trick a girl he liked into thinking he was well-educated.
“Alright, ready for another round, Alex?”
I didn’t even notice Uncle Sebastian coming back in. But there he was, standing before me as I laid on that couch. He looked a lot like his brother, my father. He had big blue eyes and always wore the same, TV dinner-stained sweatshirt and sweatpants. He had a beer belly so pronounced you thought if he drank just one more can of Blue Ribbon, he might just burst, scatter his alcohol-drenched guts everywhere, his abused liver perhaps getting stuck to the ceiling. He was kind of disgusting, my Uncle Sebastian.
“Sure.” I said, lifting myself off the couch and onto the floor, kneeling before the chessboard.
“I moved first last time,” Uncle Sebastian said. “So you go first this time.”
“No,” I said. “I went first last time. And I went first the game before that. And the game before that.”
“Oh, really? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did. But you keep insisting you went first.”
Uncle Sebastian sat there for a moment, looking into my eyes with his own. They were big, wet, fishy eyes. They looked like they’d pop right out of their sockets if you squeezed his neck hard enough.
“Well,” he said. “Just take the first move. I’m gonna go get some beer.”
Gone again, I did take my first move. I always make the same first move, bringing my rightmost knight out to the front line. I lifted the white stallion up and imagined him galloping and jumping out into the battlefield as I set him down.
Realizing it would take a while before my uncle returned from the tiny fridge in his garage where he kept his alcohol, I got out my phone and scrolled mindlessly through Twitter for a couple of minutes. Finding no new content of interest, I switched off my phone and set it again by my side.
And when I looked up, I saw the leftmost black knight moved out into the third row, as if it galloped there itself.
The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I bristled with unease. I certainly didn’t move that piece. And Uncle Sebastian didn’t either when he was there. I swore I set up everything correctly. But perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps I made a mistake. I picked up the black knight and put it in its original spot.
But then, before my eyes, I watched the piece levitate and return to the square it occupied moments before as if moved by an invisible hand, an invisible player.
“What the hell?” I said aloud, standing up and moving away from the board. I was sure I was hallucinating. I hadn’t slept in many days, I barely ate, it was late and dark outside and in. I was absolutely, one-hundred-percent certain that I was hallucinating.
I ran out of the den, deciding I needed to get some sleep before I saw any more mirages. I charged. My footsteps alerted my uncle and he called after me.
“Alex, what’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep if that’s OK.”
“Yeah, sure. Good night, Alex.”
“Good night, Uncle Sebastian.”
I woke up the next morning. Refreshed after a long night’s sleep and a big breakfast, I almost forgot about the incident of my hallucinating till I happened to walk into the den and saw the board still set up. The black knight was still in its spot.
“I made it up,” I said to myself as I moved toward the board. “I made it up.”
I decided to pick up the game board and pieces, knowing my uncle’s tolerance for simple household chores after he gets home from work is low, to use a rather generous term. Mindlessly, I brought the cardboard box over, dumped the pieces inside along with the folded-up board, put the lid on the box, and set it on the sectional’s ottoman. Then I left the room to do something else.
And when I came back an hour later, the game was set up again just as it was, in the exact same spot in the den, with the black and white knights in their same locations.
“Uncle Sebastian,” I said. “Uncle Sebastian, come out here, right now. I know you’re behind this.”
I tore through every room, every closet, every conceivable hiding spot in the house. I was absolutely determined to find him because, at this juncture, I ruled out hallucinations. I had too much clarity about me and my mind. I was too well-rested and well-fed. This had to be a prank. It absolutely had to be, right?
But through all my searching, I didn’t find him. At last, I decided to call.
“Alex?” Uncle Sebastian said. “Everything alright?”
“Where are you?” I said.
“At Arby’s. I’m working today, didn’t I tell you that?”
It seemed to be true. I could hear in the background of the call voices discussing sandwiches and curly fries, accompanied by running faucets, grilling roast beef, and all the other sundry sounds that inhabit an Arby’s kitchen at one in the afternoon on a Sunday.
“Right,” I said. “Right, you’re working. I’m sorry, I forgot.”
“It’s alright. I’ll be home at seven-thirty. I’ll bring home dinner, but there should be lunch in the fridge. Leftover sandwiches from last night. OK, I’ll see you then, Alex.”
“Yeah, see you then.”
I hung up and then proceeded back into the den. The game was still all there, even though my mind wasn’t. I walked over to the board, deciding to investigate and get some answers. There was a perfectly logical explanation for all this, I told myself, and I was gonna find it. I picked up the left of centermost white pawn and moved it forward a space.
Then the invisible player brought out its second knight.
My hands were shaking. I was sweating. I felt faint. What the hell was going on here?
Faced with dramatic unreality, I stood up, tempted to run out of the room, run out of the house even. Tempted to run out of the house and set the entire edifice ablaze. I might have done all that if I hadn’t looked down at the board before I left and realized something.
When my dad and I used to play chess, back when I was really young, we always made the same first moves. I moved out my right knight, he moved out his left. I moved out my left-of-center pawn, he moved out his right knight. Every time, without fail, throughout all the numerous games we played, on turn three the board looked exactly like it did then, right there in the den.
My trepidation eased into something of a cool resolve. I kneeled back down and swept all my white pieces off the board with my forearm. I then used the pieces to spell out a message for my unseeable opponent.
As soon as I finished, he did the same. He knocked off the pieces and spelled a message of his own.
I knocked my pieces to the floor again and spelled out a new message.
“U R DAD.”
“LUV U 2”
I was weeping. I fell backward and felt the tears snake down my temples. I absolutely couldn’t believe it, and yet...
You might call me crazy. In fact, I know you’ll call me crazy. Everyone does when I tell them this story. But I know what I saw. I could feel him. I could feel my dad, his spirit, his energy. He was there with me. He was back. How could it be otherwise? Why would you want it to be otherwise?
I passed out and laid there for some hours. By the time I awoke, the sun was fading and the den was darkening. I found the board cleared off, both the white and black pieces in their familiar piles. For a moment, a deep fear entered me. It couldn’t have been a dream. It had to be real.
I waited. A moment passed. And then…
I let out a huge sigh of relief. I started crying again. I looked directly across from him, on the other side of the board, and I swore I could see the right lens of his great, big reading glasses gleaming in the fading sunlight.
Then I heard the garage door open. Its big, loud, industrial sound awoke me from my stupor and roused me to action. I needed to hide the game, keep it for myself. I pushed all my pieces into the box. Dad did the same for all his pieces. I put the lid on the box and went to run it upstairs, went to hide it underneath my bed. I was halfway up the staircase when…
Uncle Sebastian was at the bottom step.
“Alex, what are you doing?”
“The chess box goes in the den, Alex.”
“Uh...yeah. The den.”
Uncle Sebastian walked up the stairs and took the box from me and looked straight into my eyes.
“Are you OK, Alex?”
“I’m OK. Just tired.”
“Oh, I see. Well, hey, I brought you home a sandwich from work. I got you a chicken one since I’m guessing you’re kinda sick of roast beef by now. Why don’t you eat and then you can go to bed, OK?”
I followed my uncle down the steps and watched from the kitchen as he put the box, as he put my father down on the sectional’s ottoman before coming back inside. As soon as he turned about to walk into the kitchen, I looked away and shoved half the chicken sandwich in my mouth, feigning preoccupation with my late night poultry snack.
After finishing the sandwich, I shuffled off to my bedroom. There I waited till one in the morning when Uncle Sebastian finally stopped drinking and watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and finally went to sleep. When his raucous snoring began to shake the house and nearly knocked a nearby lamp off the nightstand, I knew I was safe to go.
I proceeded downstairs and stole into the den. I took a match from a box in the kitchen, lit it, and threw it into the fireplace, illuminating the room and wall of guns. I ran for the chess box and threw it open. I unfolded the board and dumped out the pieces on the floor.
“DAD?” I messaged.
The black pieces didn’t budge.
It was absolutely quiet, save for the crackling of the fireplace.
I don’t remember how long I spent down there, spelling out new messages, waiting for Dad to finally respond. Might have been three minutes, might have been three hours. Regardless, I was sobbing when I heard Uncle Sebastian descending the stairs. As he approached the den, I didn’t panic, I didn’t even move. I was just sprawled out on the floor crying.
“Alex, what are you doing?”
“He’s gone.” I said.
“Who’s gone, Alex?”
“Dad. He’s gone.”
“Oh. Oh, I get it. Alex, you’re very tired. Let’s get you to bed. No more chess for tonight.”
Uncle Sebastian went to grab the chessboard, but I snatched it away from him, cradling it like a newborn child and sending pieces flying across the room.
“Alex,” he said. “What the hell are you doing? Give me the board.”
“No! I need it.”
“Alex,” Uncle Sebastian grabbed the top of the board and began to try and wrestle it away from me. “Give me the damn board!”
I held on for dear life. Then I felt a sharp pain in my gut. Uncle Sebastian kicked me, and I fell to the floor. I watched as he grabbed the board and the pieces and began to box it all up.
“Please,” I wailed. “Give that back!”
He didn’t respond. I hoisted myself up. I staggered toward the wall.
I only realized there were bullets inside when I shot my Uncle Sebastian right in his big, round, bulging gut.