Until the Last Pawn Is Gone

March 6, 2008
By Adele Smith, Rochester, NY

The people were chattering like magpies. The glittering sun beat fiercely down upon the cobblestone courtyard, but neither the well-watered guests nor the roses seemed to mind. The hired quartet played Mozart, and one could almost see the music notes soaring to the heavens unnoticed. Fragrant perfume of elegant ladies mingled with the mouth-watering aroma of the catered food; herb-roasted turkey and spicy grilled chicken, peanut coleslaw, skewered shrimp, diced fruits and various flavors of lemonade. The aromatic scent of the perfume was like walking into a candle store. The local country club was alive with the sounds, sights, and smells of the garden party. A petite girl sat alone on a hard, wrought iron chair, watching the scene before her.

Laurel was fidgeting nervously with her black party dress. It was around her knees, flirty, cute, and flattering. Chic. Her curly ash blonde hair was loose, and she was looking very pretty. Pretty as she looked however, it was obvious that being at the party was rather painful for her. It was being put on by her parents at the country club, with a group of friends and co-workers. She was the only teenager in the courtyard, and all the adults ignored her, except to say hello and my, what pleasant weather we’ve had this past week.

The sixteen-year-old girl stood up with the slightest of sighs, and walked to a remote part of the garden. It was deserted, and she welcomed the silence. She hated parties. When both her parents were together, it was as if only she could see the air sizzle from the tension between them, like two pots just about to boil over. A divorce was probably coming soon, but they were trying to keep the marriage together through unsuccessful counseling and dueling it out in the kitchen.

She tried to think of a time when they hadn’t fought. She had been named after a character from their mutual favorite book, and they used to read it to her together when she was little. She remembered Christmas, all of them laughing and smiling as they opened presents from Santa. She remembered holidays at the seaside, kayaking, sailing, swimming and bonfires with ghost stories as the sun went down. Now the book sat on her bookshelf, the pages left unturned and dusty. It was the dearest thing to her in the entire world, but her parents never read it anymore. At Christmas one of her parents would always find an excuse to not be there, whether it was a business trip in China or too much work at the office. Presents were sent care of FedEx, and she spent her holidays at home with only one of them. She barely saw both her parents together any more, except when she was brought to parties like these, where they put on a deceptive masquerade, hiding how they really felt.
Sometimes, she simply wanted the masquerade to end, yet she knew that when it did, her family would fall apart.

“Laurel? Honey, what are you doing out here?” Her mother came up behind her, pulling Laurel out of her reverie. The teenager turned around. Her mother was striking, with shoulder length dark blonde hair, rich tanned skin, and tall, but not unattractively so. Her mother’s eyes were green as the leaves on a cherry tree, and deep. So deep.

“Hi mom.” She smiled wanly at her mother. “It’s just…somewhat crowded. And I’m a little tired.”

“I can drive you home if you really want me to...” her mom said, still looking worried. Laurel shook her head at her mother.

“That’s okay, mom. I was actually wondering if I could just walk. It’s only two miles...” She hoped her mother would let her. It wasn’t a far distance, but sometimes her mother was overly protective, as if it would make up for the times she forgot she had a daughter.

“Sure you can, sweetie.” She kissed Laurel on the forehead. “Your father is leaving for Canada tonight, so I doubt you’ll see him, but I’ll try and be home soon.” Right. Her mom might come in around two in the morning and consider that soon.

“I’ll see you later, mom. Tell dad I love him and I hope he has a nice trip.” Her mother would not tell him, of course, but the thought was there. If a group of men and bottles of scotch had not been surrounding her father, she might have gone in to say it herself.

She left the country club, removing her black high-heeled shoes and carrying them in her hands as she walked across the green lawn, barefoot, feeling the grass and dirt between her toes. Laurel liked the feeling. Shoes made her feel confined and restricted, and there was a freedom of sorts in being barefoot.
Halfway home, she happened to walk by a small, neat park. An empty playground with swings and slides was the core of the park, with basketball and tennis courts, and tables. There were no children in the playground, but a few elderly people sat at the tables, playing chess. Curious, she decided to walk over. At one table, a frail, thin looking woman sat alone, watching her chess set. The pieces were made of bone and ivory, one set painted a beautiful, faded shade of red. The chess set was antique and looked loved.

“Hello there.” The woman looked up at her with a smile. Her voice held a soft, Russian accent, and her face had a pale, worn look to it. She looked kind however, and her smile was as warm and welcoming as fresh baked bread.

“Hi.” Laurel smiled back a little hesitantly.

“Do you play chess?” She covered her mouth with a handkerchief as she coughed slightly.

“I used to play it a little. I haven’t in years though.”

The old woman motioned to the seat across from her. “Sit down then, humor an old lady with a game.” Laurel’s smile spread across her face she placed herself across from the woman, and began to set up the pieces.

“My name’s Emily.”

“I’m Laurel.”

“What a pretty name.” Emily smiled and they began to play. She moved her Queen’s pawn up two spaces. “You look like something wrong. Care to talk about it?”

Laurel moved her Castle’s pawn up one. She felt like she could open up to Emily, and began to tell her about her parents’ problems. “I feel caught in the middle. I don’t know what to do, and I just want everything to be over.”

Emily looked pensive for a moment. “Life is like chess, you know. You start out, thinking you know how the game will be played, but opponent always surprise you. Life full of surprises, and not always good ones, but you have to learn to make the best of it and find new way to play the game.”

“But what if your opponent’s move makes you lose the game?” Laurel moved her King’s knight out.

“You have not lost until King is captured. Even if there is one pawn, you have not lost. You are still in game. And you are only losing when you decide to lose.” Emily’s Queen’s bishop crossed the board.

Laurel thought about that for a moment as she moved another pawn. “So even if it’s you against the world, you’re still in the game…”

Emily smiled. “That is right. You hold on until nothing left. Life may be another game, but is game to be taken seriously, like chess. And no one like to lose. So hold on until last pawn is gone.” She started coughing into her handkerchief again.

“Are you all right?” Laurel asked, slightly worried about the frail looking woman.

The old lady just smiled. “I will be fine. Come, it is your turn.”

Emily won the game in twenty minutes. They played again and the victory was Emily’s once more. Laurel’s spirits were lifted, even though she lost. The girl promised to come back in the morning and play her again, and Emily promised she would be there. Laurel walked home, and left a note for her mother, saying goodnight and that she loved her, and left a message on her father’s cell phone, saying she loved him and she hoped his trip went well. Then she slipped off the black party dress, hung it up in the closet, and curled up in bed.

In the morning, Laurel got dressed in a white quarter sleeved shirt and a white summer skirt with a pair of sneakers. As she went downstairs to grab a light jacket, she saw her mother reclining on the couch in front of the TV, reading a magazine advertising how to be slimmer in four weeks, and how to catch your crush’s attention. The TV was showing an episode of Jerry Springer.

“Good morning, mom.”

Laurel’s mother looked up and smiled at her teenage daughter. She looked tired, but couldn’t have stayed out too late with her guests. “Hi, sweetie. How did you sleep?”

“Pretty well. I’m going to the park to play chess.” Laurel snagged a pear from the fruit bowl that served as the kitchen table’s centerpiece.

“Oh, that’ll be fun. Your father called you back by the way. He’ll be back by tomorrow evening.” She looked back down at her magazine.

“Hey mom...” She stopped, hesitant about how to broach the subject as Jerry Springer’s bouncers had to hold a woman back to prevent her from cat scratching her husband’s mistress.

“Yeah, honey?” Her mom replied absentmindedly.

“Do you think that everything is like TV, where the parents get divorced and they think the kids are still happy?” She bit her lip, not wanting to break down in front of her mother. With that, she ran out of the house, the door slamming shut behind her like the crack of thunder, her mom looking after her with a shocked expression.

The walk to the park helped calm her nerves as she breathed in the crisp, clean air, and she could smell the hint of rain on the breeze. In moments, she arrived at the well-kept little park, and there was Emily, her chess pieces all set up and waiting.

“It is beautiful morning, yes?” Emily said with a smile as Laurel sat down. The girl looked up at the sky, the glittering sunlight broken by patches of cotton candy clouds.

“It looks like it’s going to rain tonight, though.”

Emily shook her head. “Do not look at things so pessimistically. I was not speaking of tonight; speaking of right now. The sun is out, sky is blue, and we are both alive. It is beautiful morning.” She smiled again, and Laurel did too.
“I guess you’re right then. It is a beautiful morning. And this morning, I am not going to let you beat me like you did last night.”

“We will see.” The old woman just smiled her cinnamon smile and they played the game. Every time Emily took her turn she said something about life being like chess, or some other bit of wisdom. Sometimes Emily started coughing, as she had yesterday, and she would cover her mouth with a black handkerchief quickly pulled from her coat pocket. If Laurel asked if she needed anything, Emily only smiled and said she was fine. So Laurel stopped asking.

The teenage girl captured one of Emily’s Knights with her Rook. “Are you from Russia?” She asked, the accent undeniable. But perhaps she was first generation, and her parents had come over as immigrants.

“Yes. I moved here when I was eighteen with my husband, Tomas. He had job opportunity and we had just gotten married. I love and miss the old country, but this new country is nice one as well.” She moved her Queen’s bishop and deftly captured Laurel’s Queen. In several more moves, she got the King in checkmate.

“Tomorrow I’ll beat you.” Laurel said with an easygoing grin. Emily’s chuckle turned into another coughing fit. “Are you okay?” The teenage girl asked in concern.

Emily waved a hand at her, using the other to cover her mouth with the handkerchief. As she put the handkerchief away, Laurel saw the spots of blood. She tried to think of what illness had that, but couldn’t think of it. Emily looked paler today than yesterday afternoon, if that was even possible. “I will be fine. I go home now and rest. Tomorrow we play again.” Emily rose to her feet, putting the chess pieces in their box then placing the box in her large, flowery purse. She waved a frail hand to Laurel and walked off, looking happy, if ill. Laurel prayed that whatever was wrong with Emily, for something was indeed wrong, that the sweet old woman would be well soon.

The next morning she went to the park and waited. Waited. The old woman never showed up, and Laurel was concerned. Maybe she had forgotten. On the other hand, maybe she didn’t feel well enough to come today. Maybe she was only running late. She tried not to worry too much, but as the morning faded away, she could not help but be troubled

Around noon, an elderly man carrying a plastic bag approached her. He was wearing a shabby looking yet warm coat, with scuffed up shoes and a sturdy wooden cane.

“Excuse me, miss. Are you Laurel?” His voice was like Emily’s with a slightly thicker accent, and slightly less frail. She nodded, and he continued. “My name is Tomas. I am Emily’s husband. She mentioned she was meeting you here for chess.” His pale blue eyes began to tear. “Emily pass away last night. She had been ill for long time and the doctors could not do anything for her…it was the consumption that took Emily to God. Her coughing was terrible last night, and she had fever. We both knew it was coming. She love this little park, miss. Even though she knew she not have much time left, she came here every afternoon with her father’s chess set. It was the one treasure she brought from Russia.” He smiled in fond memory, even as the tears gathered in his eyes. “Emily was determined to hold on until the last pawn was gone, as she would always say. I thought you should know, so you were not left here waiting, thinking she had forgotten you.”

Laurel was quiet for a moment. “Thank you…for telling me. I’m sorry for your loss. Emily was a wonderful person. I wish I had known her longer than I did.”

“She spoke highly of you last night.” Tomas smiled. “She said you had lot of promise.” He reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a small box. “This is her chess set. I do not play, and I do not know whom to give it to. I think she would want you to have it, even though you two had just met. Emily always knew a good soul when she saw one.”

She took the box, and opened it up. The painted bone and ivory chess pieces were set neatly inside the box. “Thank you, again…I’ll cherish this. And Emily’s memory.”

Tomas nodded and with a farewell smile, walked away. Laurel turned to leave the park, the chess set tucked under her arm. She walked resolutely towards home. When her father came home from his business trip, she would ask him to play.

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