Wednesday, November 25, 2009

[OCS Scenes] Saint Mary's: Chess


Saint Mary's is a tale that grew from our questions of disempowerment, of bullying, of youth. This is how I heard it told.

It seemed like everyone was older and taller than Elmo, and he didn’t know anyone.

“Welcome back St. Mary’s!” read the banner that spanned the width of the dining hall. Elmo slipped through the double doors at the front of the hall. I don’t want to be here. One month, his dad had finally agreed. One month, and they’ll let me come home.

He thought about making his way over to the punch table in the center of the hall. That was a good thing to do when you didn’t know anybody, right? Didn’t adults cluster around drinks at parties? Cocktail parties, thought Elmo. One huge freaking cocktail party.

Instead, he slid past the gathered circles of loud, older teenagers, towards the dimmest corner of the room. He sank back into a sofa crammed up against the wall there, relieved. From there, Elmo could watch the room. He was more comfortable studying them, unobserved. My new classmates, he thought. Charmed, I’m sure.

“Do you play?” came a voice from his left elbow. Elmo hadn’t noticed the boy. A blond kid stood against the wall, smiling, half-concealed by thick, tied-back curtains. A moment ago, he’d probably been sunk into them entirely.

“Do you play?” the boy asked again, as Elmo took him in. He had striking features, a graceful frame. Maybe two years older than Elmo. A golden child, no doubt, even though his greased-back hair and patched jeans tried to hide it. I thought they had a dress code. Elmo realized he hadn’t answered, and that he had no idea what the boy was talking about.

“Um, play?” He asked quietly, not breaking eye contact.

The boy moved suddenly, dropping into the sofa opposite Elmo’s, and slapping his hand on the table between them. “Chess!” he exclaimed. “The game of knights and kings! The only game fit for men!” Elmo had just noticed that the table was one of those chess-board-coffee-table affairs, but the boy didn’t slow down for him. With one hand, he started sliding open the drawers and pulling out the pieces inside. The other hand, he held out to Elmo.

“Peter Tyrone Fields,” he said. “And you're new here.”

“Uh,” said Elmo. “Yes. I am.” He slowly took Peter’s proffered hand. “Nice to meet you, Peter.”

Peter squeezed, hard, still smiling widely and setting out chess pieces with his left hand. “Oh, no, it’s Petey, please. My loyal sycophants all call me Petey.”

Elmo said nothing as Peter deliberately ground his fingers together. He only tried not to flinch. A moment later, the boy let go, and glanced down at the chess board.

“Why, you haven’t set up your pieces! Here, let me help you.” He began to lay out Elmo’s pieces for him. Elmo noticed that at least half of the hand-carved pawns were missing, replaced by buttons and pennies, and that one knight was actually what looked like a slightly crumpled paper crane.

“It must be hard,” continued Peter, after Elmo refused to fill the silence. “A lot of the students here aren’t very nice to newcomers. I’m not sure why! I guess they just don’t like you. Myself, I’ve always had a great fondness for you new kids. Your move.”

Elmo didn’t like this bully, and didn’t know why he’d been targeted. He liked even less that several others had started to gather nearby, watching. Elmo got the feeling that they were here for spectacle, and he hoped that didn't mean bloodsports were in order.

So he said, “I don’t want to play Chess with you, Peter Fields.”

The kids watching (there were more of them already) were surprised, but Peter seemed to take it in a stride (though Elmo thought the glint in his eyes might've turned a little more evil with the challenge). “Kiddo, I told you, I have a special fondness for new kids. That’s really why I want to play chess with you. I like you.” Peter had kicked up his feet on the sofa now, and hooked his hands behind his head. A contemplative look came into his eyes as he continued, “You seem like the book-y kind, so think of this as a pop quiz. If you get an A, you won’t be spending so much time in toilets or lockers this semester. I always find battles that matter more exciting, don’t you?”

Elmo was silent again, glancing down at the board. He reached out towards one of the pawns, and paused in mid-motion, fingers an inch from the piece.

“What if I walk away?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

Peter’s eyes glittered with excitement, “Why, then you’ll find out what our audience is hoping for.” His voice was soft, but his grin was feral.

“So, you’re saying, if I lose to you at a single game of Chess, then you’ll torment me for the rest of this semester-”

“At least!” interrupted Peter.

“Right, at least. And if I win, then you’ll leave me alone?”

Peter became serious for the first time, before he answered with slow deliberation. “Scout's Honor,” he intoned.

Elmo looked at him directly again, his own face was barely more than a child’s face but as just as serious. He reached down and picked the pawn up from the table. “Then let’s play, Petey.”

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