The Improbability Volumes – Day 11

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This whole section came out of nowhere, but I’m ridiculously thrilled with it. I hope it makes it into the final cut, because I’m that proud.


BOARD RESET

Denna wallowed in recovery and misery for several days before she got fed up with her own inertia. She was starting to plan her days by the daytime television schedule, and her state of the art kitchen, which had been pristine when she’d returned from Germany, was now covered in empty takeout containers and coffee cups. She’d have to get rid of the mess before the housecleaner showed up again.

One morning, she found herself awake at half past four and couldn’t get back to sleep. She was still spending most days and every night on the couch. The confining space and cocooning blankets gave her a temporary sense of control, but this morning, it felt hot and confining. Denna kicked off the blankets and sat up with a sigh. She didn’t know what she needed to do next, but she did know that she was done lying on this couch, half stoned on painkillers and indecision.

The shower was still awkward but she managed. Once she was clean, and oddly as mentally refreshed as she was physically, an idea came to her. Before she could change her mind, she dressed and issued a quick voice command to the home system.

She shoved one arm into a heavy leather jacket and pulled the other arm loose over her cast. Pocketing only her ID and cash, she walked out her condo door. By the time she made it to the lobby, the requested car was already waiting for her out front.

Denna winced at the pain of maneuvering herself into single seat electric automobile. She’d decided to forgo the painkillers today, and would probably regret it, but she was done with the fog in her head. It was time to get some air, in more ways than one.

She adjusted the seat and leaned back, trying to get comfortable for what would be a long and most likely sleepless drive. The car’s navigation system asked for a location.

“Washington Park in New York City.”

**

Her game was rusty.

She’d been playing pickup chess matches since she’d arrived in the park a couple of hours ago, and had lost more games than she’d won, but the tide was changing. The money she’d lost had been regained quickly in two matches against local hustlers who thought her an easy mark. Now she was up fifty bucks. Not bad for a Thursday morning.

Her latest opponent, a black man in his late twenties with an overstuffed attache pressed against his legs, looked like a university graduate student or a young professional. So far, he’d given her one hell of a challenge, but she could see his demise in about six moves. In the next moment, he saw it, too, and with a frown that didn’t look particularly malicious, tipped his king and then handed over a wad of cash.

She watched him walk away, no doubt headed back to his office or the next class, and then she started to set up the board for the next match when a familiar disdainful voice spoke nearby.

“Well, aren’t you far from home.”

She turned her head towards the voice and the sun. Despite the glare, she could easily recognize the backlit shadow before her. He was the reason she’d made the trip.

“Hi, Uncle Ethan.”

He sat across from her with a grunt, and assessed her with dark eyes she’d never been able to read.

Ethan Roberts owned a hobby shop here in Greenwich Village that specialized in the world of chess. [FIX] He looked older, but of course he would. She hadn’t seen him in several years, and his once jet black hair was now silver and gray. His rugged good looks hadn’t faded, even with the new lines on his face. He was dressed in several layers against the autumn chill, though his signature trench coat was open. Ethan had always been a stocky man, but muscle had given way to fat since last Denna had seen him.

As it always had been, the way he looked at her made her feel both naked and translucent. She turned her eyes to the game. Her side was white, so she moved first.

They played in silence for the opening. This too, was as it always was between them, their method of getting the pleasantries out of the way.

Her king castled, her rooks connected, she lifted a knight to secure another spot in the center of the board when he spoke again.

“So who died?”

It froze her hand for a moment, but then she set the knight down as planned. She started to say that no one had died, not really, but that wasn’t the whole truth.

“Me, almost.”

It surprised her to see a flash of pain in his eyes. She didn’t think he cared about her that much.

His tone didn’t change, though. “Sounds like a story.”

Her uncle wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t feel like telling him about her ordeal. She’d have to leave out most of the details anyway.

“Where are you staying?” he asked, several moves later.

“Nowhere. Just in town for the day, I think.”

He scoffed, and his concern took a back seat to his predictable irritation. “Such a jet-setter. Glad my tax dollars are keeping you in the high life.”

She didn’t take the bait. Ethan was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, and while he wasn’t a complete anarchist, he had nothing good to say about his government.

On top of that, Ethan had never approved of his sister’s choice of husband, and had been vocal about his disgust with David Lopez’s employer, one that he thought contributed too much to the military industrial complex. When Denna had joined the ranks of government employees as well, Ethan had berated her for weeks.

Her lack of response prompted another lengthy mid-game silence.

“Not cancer?” he asked after a while.

Of course he’d think that. He’d traveled across country to be at his sister’s side near the end of her illness, and Denna had seen how heartbroken Ethan had been. He was a hard, opinionated man, but he’d loved his younger sister.

“No. Nothing like that. Work.” She captured one of his bishops.

“How the hell do you have a near-death experience in a cubicle?” He took one of her knights on his next move.

She retaliated by snagging a rook.

“No. It was in the field.”

His expression hardened. There were few things he hated more than the three letter agencies, and hers was at the top of his list.

“Since when are you running with the big dogs?”

Denna shrugged and looked back at the board.

Ethan had served a stint in the army, back during the second Gulf War. He’d done a tour in Afghanistan, and mustered out with an honorable discharge, but never had a kind thing to say about any aspect of government after that. He’d reached rank of [RESEARCH], which was admirable in her eyes, but she often thought that he’d had loftier goals, and that his temperament had kept him from achieving them.

She wondered if most of his animosity stemmed from his resentment that his sister’s family worked above his own pay grade.

“I’m sure your mother would be proud.”

It was a low blow, and before the whole Renault and Roux debacle, she might have let it slide.

Not today, though. “About as proud as she’d be of you being an asshole to her daughter.”

This time, she held his gaze, and didn’t back down. This time, he was the first one to look away.

While he stared at the board, planning his next moves, she looked at him with new eyes. He was no longer the man she’d known as s child, the man she’d loved to visit ever summer  when her mother came to visit family. He’d taught her the play this game, trained her in this very park until she could hold her own against the speed champs and the hustlers.

Since he couldn’t get a response from her verbally, he attacked her on the board, just like he had when she was a kid. She sighed, dismayed. He’d have her mated in four moves.

“Why are you here, Denna?”

She stared at her doomed king, and the answer fell over her lips without thought. “You’re the only one who knew them both.”

And there it was. She missed them – her mother and her father. The people who had guided her world, who had helped her through the rough spots, the hard decisions, and she felt like another one was coming.

Ethan wouldn’t have the answers, and she didn’t plan or want to ask him for any, but just being near him made her feel like she wasn’t alone. That there was someone else in the world who remembered them, and how wonderful they’d been.

This cranky old bastard she wasn’t even sure she liked was the last person in the world besides herself who had known the people she’d loved the most.

Now that she knew why it was that she’d come, there wasn’t much to talk about, not with the impasse between them. She played until there was only one move of hers left before he could put her in check, then tipped her king. He grunted.

“Take care of yourself, kid. I always thought you were pretty good at that.” He stood. “Maybe I was wrong.”

He tucked his hands in his pockets and walked away without another word. She stood and watched him until he was out of sight.

With her new view of the world and how tenuous life was in every moment, she wondered if she’d ever see him again.

**

If she couldn’t decide exactly what she wanted from her life moving forward, she could at least begin by culling the parts of her life she knew she no longer needed. It took a few more weeks to get some of the pieces in place, but now the board had been reset.

After the deep purge of her belongings back in Washington, D.C., what few personal items remained were boxed and packed away in a small unit of a storage facility near her building. She’d worked out a deal with the owner’s association to leave the furnishings in her condo. They planned to use this unit as a showplace. She’d take a loss on the final sale, but it was a done deal and she didn’t have to do anything else that she couldn’t handle by phone or email.

The cast had been removed and her arm was healed, but it was still weaker than it had been. Only time and consistent physical therapy would get her back into working shape, but she’d do it. And then she’d do more.

Once again, everything she needed was in her backpack. Packing light had become a habit, as easy as a “hello, world” program and as second nature as tying shoes.

She didn’t even give the place a final look before she walked out the door.


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