This is the 25th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “Y“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “Y” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2021 — E. J. D’Alise
(3,630 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Jamey, finish your breakfast and get ready.”
“I’m almost done,” my son answered without looking up from his tablet or touching his cereal.
I waited, arms crossed, looking at him. It took only a few moments for Jamey to register the lack of sound or movement and look up.
“Sorry, dad,” he said as he put the pad face-down and attacked his now-soggy cereal.
I looked at my daughter sitting on the sofa, her small suitcase and coat sitting in the foyer. She’d been ready for at least ten minutes and was focused on her tablet, probably continuing last night’s game.
I briefly wondered if it was a gender thing, but then remembered jokes and cartoons were almost always the opposite; the male waiting on the female to finish getting ready. Not in this house; no matter what schedule we agreed on, Jena would be ready at least twenty minutes beforehand, as evident by her suitcase and coat sitting next to Maddie’s. In contrast, one of my wife’s few frustrations with both Jamey and me was our propensity to wait until the last minute, a behavior I’ve mostly changed but not eliminated and which I struggled to change in Jamey.
I again looked at the letter sitting at the edge of the counter and sighed.
Sixteen-year-old Brandon stood next to his court-appointed advocate as the Judge Levi reviewed his record, every passing moment resigning him to yet another stint in Juvie Jail.
The judge put down the papers and removed her reading glasses before looking at Brandon. On a reflex, and against what his advocate has said, Brandon stood taller and stared back, his chin set. No way would he cower and plead for leniency, forgiveness, or whatever she was about to demand.
“You have a choice,” the judge finally said. “You can do six months in Juvenile Hall followed by six months of probation, or you can do one year of community service while in probation. Two hours a day, twelve hours a week, for fifty-two weeks.”
Brandon quickly did the math and smiled. He was about to answer when the judge interrupted.
“Before you answer, let me finish,” she said. “That’s in addition to going back to school. Plus, any day of school you miss will add eight hours to the sentence, and if you miss more than two community service days per month, you’ll be back here, and we’ll go with the six months of Juvenile Hall and the six-month probation in addition to time already served. Understand this well; you are young, and hence I’m afforded some latitude. In two years, you’ll be an adult; make the best of the time you have and change the path you travel because this kind of behavior will land you in jail as an adult.”
Brandon adjusted his calculations and was less pleased. Seven-hundred-twenty-eight hours of community service and nine-hundred hours of school were still less than the forty-three-hundred-and twenty-hours of Juvie Hall, but he would trade six months of round-the-clock supervision for a year’s commitment to more lax supervision. He hardly bothered registering her final admonition, and after a brief consultation with his advocate, Brandon agreed to the community service.
“You got this, hon?” I asked Jena as we waited to check-in at our hotel. It had been a full travel day, and I was tired, but I saw a group of people I knew and wanted to go to them.
Jena looked at the group, and then looked at Jamey and Maddie sitting next to the luggage and immersed in their pads, smiled, and nodded.
I smiled back. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
I passed by the kids on my way to the small group of people who, by then, had noticed me and were waiting.
“You kids OK for a few minutes?” I asked.
“We’re fine,” Maddie answered for both of them without looking up from her pad.
“OK, I’ll be right over there. Don’t stray and help your mom when she’s done.”
“We will,” Jamey replied, also without looking up.
I walked over to the people who had rearranged themselves into a casual semi-circle. I’d not seen them in years, but we’d kept in casual touch.
Paul nodded a greeting as I got near.
“Hey, Paul,” I replied.
Megan’s eyes were on the verge of shedding tears and still red from having recently cried. She hugged me, softly adding her own “It’s so sad” and prompting my own eyes to well up. “I know,” I said, just as softly.
I exchanged hugs and handshakes with the rest before looking back at Jena, who was now by the elevators with the kids and luggage. She made a motion that she would head up to the room, and I nodded.
“The family?” Paul asked.
I nodded, still unsure of my voice.
“Nice,” Megan added. She then pointed to a man and teen girl waiting in the atrium. “That’s my lot.”
A few of the others also pointed to their family members before we drifted into a momentary lull in the conversation.
“I still can’t process it,” Megan said, breaking the silence.
“We knew it would happen,” I replied and instantly regretted the statement as not a comforting thing to say. “I mean …” I continued but found myself at a loss for words.
“It’s OK,” Paul interjected. “We know what you mean. We all knew it but preferred not to think about it.”
We made a bit more small-talk before breaking up and heading to our respective destination. We’d see each other in the morning to conclude the business at hand.
Brandon stepped off the van from the community home where he lived. They had picked him up after school and driven him to an assisted living facility. It wasn’t what he’d envisioned when the sentence had been handed down. To be frank, he didn’t have any idea what “community service” would entail, so anything other than picking up trash at the park would have been a surprise.
“Good luck,” the driver said after shaking the hand of the lady that had met them at the entrance and leaving. Brandon wasn’t sure if it had been directed at him or the lady.
“Hello,” the lady said, extending her hand, “my name is Carla. You must be Brandon.”
Taken aback, Brandon automatically shook her hand, not used to adults treating him like an adult. “… uh, hi,” he replied.
In contrast to his, hands were soft, pale, and small, but she still offered a firm handshake. Like most teens, he wasn’t great at estimating an adults’ age, but he put her at over forty … but less than sixty.
“You’re assigned to Yuri,” she said as she led the way through the foyer and into the facility proper. “He’s Russian, or rather, originally from Russia. Nice person, very smart. He’s in a wheelchair, and you’ll help him get around and even outside, weather-permitting. Other than that, hang out with him and see if he needs anything.”
After negotiating a couple of hallways, they came into what looked like a recreation room, with people engaged in various activities; some watching TV, some playing card or pool, and some reading. And some just sat there, sporting a blank look and distant eyes; Brandon had the impression they were just passing the time until they died. Like most teens, the concept of getting old was foreign and seldom entertained, let alone the idea that death was inevitable. The scene brought both of the concepts in cold focus, and Brandon had the sudden urge to leave. So much so that he had missed Carla’s introduction to an old man in a wheelchair.
“You get used to it,” the man said.
“What?” Brandon answered, focusing on the speaker. Again, estimating age was difficult, but he would later learn the man seventy-years old.
“I said,” the man repeated, gesturing to sweep the room, “you get used to it. And, it’s no different from what you see outside of here.”
Brandon looked at the man, trying to parse what he had just said. Deciding it didn’t make any sense, he opted for the safe answer. “OK.”
“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” Carla said. “I’ll get you when the van gets here,” she added, addressing Brandon, and then she walked off.
“Ah, if only I were thirty years younger,” Yuri said as they watched her leave.
Surprised, Brandon turned to look at the man.
“You looked shocked,” the man said. “Heck, many of the people here are probably getting it on more than they did when they were younger. A regular hotbed of passions, this place is,” Yuri continued and then laughed at Brandon’s facial expression.
“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” he added, still laughing. “Come on, wheel me to my room.”
Along the way, Yuri asked a few general questions and then asked Brandon if he had any questions.
“I’m new at this,” Brandon answered.
“Well, don’t be afraid to ask whatever you want to know.”
Yuri’s room was small since he lived alone, and the decorations were sparse except for one wall with closely spaced framed photos. Overall, the place was cleaner than most of the places Brandon had lived in, including his current shared room at the community house.
The furnishing had a few things knick-knacks on them, but, again, little in the way of decorations. A sizeable L-shaped desk took up one of the corners along with a good chunk of floor’s real-estate, and on it sat five chessboards with games in progress. Another chessboard sat on a small table with only one chair; those pieces were in their original positions.
“Do you play?” Yuri asked.
Brandon had vague memories of learning the basics but didn’t remember much about the game or strategies, so he shook his head.
“Wanna learn?” Yuri asked as he rolled up to the small table and positioned himself across the single chair.
Jena’s mother had arrived this morning, and they and the kids had gone down to the pool, giving me the space they instinctively knew I needed. While not drawing directly on their support, I knew they were there for me, and they knew that I knew.
I almost made the mistake of thinking how lucky I’d been to find Jena, to have two great kids, but stopped short.
It wasn’t luck; we worked at it; stuck together through the bumps, overcame the hurdles, and kept our eyes on the long game when so many didn’t.
Often, I’d been tempted to shout at the world, telling people it’s not the instant gratification that matters, not the short-term gain that was important, not one’s self-centered interest that satisfied.
But I’d learned that wasn’t my flag to carry, and that wasn’t something one can make people understand just by shouting it at them. You can’t change the minds of a group; the best you can hope for is to change some individuals and hope they’ll eventually reach a critical mass and affect the direction of the whole.
Even then, people still stumbled and chose the easy answers, the empty promises of a silver bullet.
Brandon sat across from Yuri.
“Right, let me first explain how the pieces move, and then I’ll show what people call the ‘fool’s mate’ and a few other opening mistakes as examples of how one can win the game.”
Brandon didn’t touch a piece for the first hour or so but watched as Yuri explained the “why” of the moves he made, explained that each move was either in the service of an overall strategy, or in defense of a strategic attack . . . and sometimes, both.
The first game Brandon played, he lost . . . and then lost the next four. With each loss, his frustration grew. Just when he thought he had the upper hand, Yuri would make a move that forced and limited his response and led to him losing. And each time, Yuri would explain that the game had been lost much earlier than Brandon had realized.
A soft knock on the open door interrupted their sixth game.
“Your ride is here,” Carla said.
“Well, that went by fast,” Yuri said. “We can finish this game tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to play again,” Brandon replied as he stood and pushed the chair back with the back of his knees.
He grabbed his backpack and walked out the door, not seeing Carla smiling at Yuri and Yuri returning the smile and adding a wink to it.
Carla caught up with Brandon and guided him to the foyer.
“Are you upset?” she innocently asked.
“Chess is a stupid game!” Brandon said by way of an explanation.
“Ah, I see … tell me, Brandon, what sport do you like?”
“Basketball,” he replied, an edge still in his voice.
“So, how upset would you be if you had the chance to play against Shaquille O’Neal?”
Brandon stopped. “What?” he asked.
Carla walked back to where he’d stopped, looking up at Brandon.
“Say you had a chance to play one-on-one against Shaquille O’Neal, how upset would you be that he’s so much better than you’ll ever be?”
They stood there in the foyer, looking at each other for a few seconds before the van driver interrupted them.
“Yeah,” Brandon replied and walked out to the van, not bothering to answer Carla’s “See you tomorrow!”
During the drive back to the community home, Brandon mulled things over and included Carla in the pot of irritation he was mixing up.
They got back to the house as dusk gave way to a clear and cold winter’s night, and Brandon hurried inside. When he got in, an eerily familiar scene greeted him . . . some kids were sitting watching TV, a few were playing games, and a few just sat there passing the time until something changed, vacant stares looking at nothing. Yuri’s words resonated . . . “Not much different from what you see outside.”
“Did everyone show up?”
Paul scanned the list, counting those who opted out.
“Four are overseas, two are deployed, one died last year, and we’ve not heard from three others,” he answered. “I didn’t have the contact information for five others.”
“How many family members?” I asked as I did a mental calculation.
“Nearly all,” Megan replied. “To avoid disruptions, two wives and four husbands will take care of a temporary nursery for kids who are too young. With spouses, kids, and a few grandkids, we need to accommodate close to two hundred.”
“OK,” I said. “I’ll take care of the arrangements with the convention room staff.”
For the next two days, Brandon hardly spoke, and Yuri didn’t press him. Other than asking for a glass of water, or to be wheeled to one destination or another, barely two words were exchanged. On the third day, Brendon sat at the desk where a space had been cleared so that he could work on his homework, and Yuri worked on solving chess problems from a book filled with nothing but chess problems.
Brandon made an irritated noise and closed a book he was reading.
“Something wrong?” Yuri asked.
Brandon looked at the older man and was close to telling him to mind his own business but didn’t. He sighed, picked up the book, and held as far from himself as he could, slightly shaking it as he spoke.
“The Canterbury Tales,” Brandon said. “I’m supposed to read it and ‘discuss the significance of Chaucer’s work’ in a two-thousand words essay. Some kids are buying CliffNotes, and some have parents helping them. Me? I’m trying to figure out what to say.”
“Did you like the book?”
“Yes, but I think they want more than that for the essay.”
“Well, I can give you a quick summary, stuff like it documented the emergence of the middle class, the need and advent of surnames, and that it’s a good example of satire writing,” Yuri said. “But Mrs. Henderson might be better at explaining it.”
“She’s a retired English teacher. I think she would welcome the idea of discussing Chaucer with you.”
“You don’t want the help?” Yuri asked.
“Oh, I do, but . . . could we play a game before we go see Mrs. Henderson?”
It turned out there were a couple of retired teachers at the facility, and Brandon got into a routine that took it to the end of the school year. One hour of tutoring, one hour of playing chess.
In June, Brandon ended the school year with near-perfect attendance for the months after his court appearance, much-improved grades, and looked forward to going back in the fall as a seventeen-year-old senior.
Carla hired Brandon as part-time Summer help, which gave him more time to both play chess and also partake in the facility’s astronomy club. That required him to stay later when the group met for observations during clear and dark nights. On those days, it was Carla who, late at night and accompanied by her daughter, would drive Brandon back to the community house. After being dropped off, Brandon always took the opportunity to identify visible constellations before going inside.
Through the summer, his chess-playing improved, and while he still lost every game, he came close. Even so, it was no longer about winning but playing the long game and seeing how difficult he could make it for Yuri to beat him.
Going back to school in late August, Brandon was looking forward to the college preparation coursework and, with Yuri’s help, began exploring his options for continuing his education past his graduation.
September 11 changed much of the world, and it also impacted Brandon. His path now seemed clearer, obvious even.
“Why do you want to join the military?” Yuri asked.
“It … I mean, I think … I feel a sense of duty, of responsibility.”
“Understand, I’m not trying to dissuade you. As we spoke before, the armed forces’ education benefits are outstanding and practically a no-brainer for someone in your position,” Yuri said.
“But?” Brandon asked. “I sense there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
“… but there are pitfalls,” Yuri added.
Brandon hesitated and involuntarily looked at Yuri’s legs and wheelchair.
“You served in Korea,” Brandon said. “You’re in the photos on the wall.”
“Yes, but I was drafted. And, yes, I lost the use of my legs there, but that’s not what I’m cautioning.” Yuri said. “It’s what you can’t see that’s often the more damaging. They have a word for it now; PTSD. I saw plenty of men come back damaged.”
“I don’t understand; are you saying I shouldn’t go?”
“I’m saying ‘be careful.’ You have two things going for you; you have good coping skills and don’t suffer from mental health issues. Even your anger has taken a back seat as far as your personality goes.”
“That’s the lessons I learned from losing every chess game we ever played,” Brandon quipped.
“I think you had it in you all along, but remember these two things; sometimes things happen that makes no sense. Just accept it and move on. And, if you lose something of yourself, find something else to take its place.”
Brandon had learned to listen when others talked, so he got what was being said. Yuri had found chess; the order and rigor of the rules; the intricacies of the strategy; the method and reason behind each move. That’s what Yuri had found.
Brandon played with a combination of intuition and planning, but Yuri — in every game, in every move — always played purposefully, always planned, always a goal in mind; always played the long game.
Not that Yuri could control the game, for each opponent was different, and one didn’t ‘play chess’, but rather, played the opponent. Still, always a purpose, always a goal, always a plan to achieve that goal. Brandon realized he’d learned the same thing.
It was only years later that Brandon realized what else Yuri had found.
I stood at the podium and looked out at the silent crowd before me. I shifted my gaze to my family, Jamey and Maddie sitting between Jena and Carla and clutching their pads. Next to Carla sat Judge Levi, now retired. Behind them sat families that also spanned three generations and a few that spanned four. And all shared one thing in common.
I picked up the box with the checkered pattern, the chess pieces inside making a slight noise as they tumbled against the felt interior.
“We are here to thank and mark the passing of the man who showed us a better path than the one we were following,” I said, and then I held high the chess set Yuri had given me and spoke in a clear voice. “My name is Brandon, and I thank you, Yuri.”
From the first row, it continued . . .
“My name is Paul, and I thank you, Yuri,” he said, raising the chess set he’d been given above his head and holding it there.
“My name is Megan, and I thank you, Yuri,” she said, raising the chess set she’d been given above her head and holding it there.
. . . and it continued until the forty-nine of the sixty-four people Yuri had helped, those who had made it to the memorial, all stood with their arms raised and holding the chess sets Yuri had given them.
“… and our children thank you.”
With that, nearly all the children of the forty-nine stood and raised their chess sets. Some were physical chess sets, and some were electronic units like Maddie’s and Jamey’s.
“We will not forget you.”
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
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