Puzzles And Games

Entry by: RoryP

24th March 2023
John almost didn't see it at first. He was walking, thinking about life and how he should spend the rest of his when he realised Rosie was no longer by his side. Looking back, he saw her sniffing at the base of an old oak, lightly pawing at the dead leaves and earth beneath.

"Here girl." He called, but she didn't hear him. Almost twelve years old, too old for a Lab really, she needed a surgery he could not afford. The vets had suggested euthanasia, and so he had had to stop taking her.

"What is it, eh? Leave the poor thing alone."

But there was no squirrel, or mouse, as was her customary victim. Instead, half hidden amongst the debris of the forest, he found what looked like an ivory chess set. The board glowed in the evening sun, and upon it sat thirty-two intricately carved pieces. They were all in their starting positions, as if waiting patiently for the game to begin.

"Well I'll be damned." He said to Rosie, who had since lost interest and was rolling gleefully in a nearby puddle. "Do you think someone left it here by mistake? Seems an awfully strange place to be having a game of chess."

Rosie, satisfied with her new look, did not respond.

For a moment he considered taking it back home with him. It was a small village and surely before long he would have been able to find the owner. Then he remembered something his wife had shown him many years ago. Little trinkets hidden around the countryside. Geocaches, she called them, where hunters would replace what they found in little boxes with items of their own. They had even found a few themselves, he seemed to recall; a fridge magnet depicting the mountains of India, and a marble figurine that looked remarkably like Rosie.

And so, rather than taking it away, he carefully moved the white's F pawn forward two squares and left.

At home, he gave Rosie a bath, cooked a meal of fried eggs and beans, and tried to settle down to read a book. Each time he tried, however, he couldn't get through more than half a dozen words when thoughts of what he had found distracted him. He'd never been much of a chess player over the years, assuming that he had little skill in this regard, and that to develop any would require a level of attention he could not afford. Still, the mystery intrigued him. Had it been placed there intentionally, and if so, who by? Was there perhaps a prize to be won, or something to be lost if luck did not go his way?

If only his wife had been there. She would have loved this. He remembered when she had tried to teach him chess strategy not long after they'd got together. Even then he hadn't cared for the game, enjoying the lessons not for their intellectual challenge but for the chance to spend time with her. To hear her talk passionately and get caught up in a world he did not understand. It was too late now, of course, and he wished he had paid more attention. Maybe then, he would have been able to make her proud.

The next day John returned with Rosie to the forest at the crack of dawn, and sure enough, the game had progressed. On the opposing side, glistening with dew, a black knight stood before its row of pawns. Glancing around to see if the perpetrator had hung back to watch, he played his counter-move. Keep it simple. A bishop came to protect the queen. Then, taking the note he had written late the night before from his pocket, he placed it jutting out from one side of the board.

It was a long shot, he knew, but grief had instilled in him an element of desire that went beyond the rational. In life he had had little time for her superstitious beliefs. Whenever she had come to him with horoscopes or psychic premonitions he had dismissed them as childish illusions. Now, he was trying to make amends for his actions. As he returned home he recounted the note he had written.

"To my darling Steph,

I doubt you will ever read this. You are in a grave not far from here. You are returning to the earth, as they say, and it is foolish of me to try and reach you. Still, I thought I should try. Do you hate me now? I still remember the last argument we had, and how your face looked when I said I was leaving. It was such a terrible thing to say. If I could take it back, I would. If you are angry with me, I understand that, too. I would be angry with me. So, if by some miracle you are reading this, and if even more you do not wish to forget all about me, I would like to propose a deal. We will carry on the game I believe you have started. I will return here every morning as early as I can. I will not come looking for you. I will not try to trick you in any way. If I win, you will allow me a chance to explain myself. You will come to me in whatever form you are able to take and we will talk. That is all I ask. On the contrary, if you win, I will leave you alone. As much as it will pain me, you will not hear from me again, and I will have to learnt to live with the damage I have done."

Over the course of the next few days, John emersed himself in the world of professional chess. At the local library he used the computers to research certain strategies and moves. Using the sketches he made of the board in the forest each morning, he would play out possible sequences on a board back home. The stakes had been raised. Despite his philosophical beliefs, he was now playing for much more than mystery or ego. He was playing - nay fighting - for the closure he'd dreamt of through two years of mourning. What he had said to his wife was inexcusable, but part of him believed that this alone was a path to possible redemption.

After two weeks of the same routine; rising early, leaving with Rosie for the forest, assessing the position of the board and carefully deciding on his next move, then, dropping Rosie at home, spending the rest of the day hunched over at the library computers, the game was coming to a close. The note remained under the board, now half disintegrated by rain and insects. Each move was taking immense concentration. It seemed that each time the sophistication of his play increased, it was rebuffed by an even more advanced mind. White than black raising the level of the game, always leaving him on the back foot.

On his penultimate visit to the forest, John saw that he was doomed. With one more move his king would be cornered, and he would have to admit defeat. It was over. For almost an hour he sat beside the board, trying to think of a move that could avoid the inevitable, but it never came. In the end, he left without making a play. One more day, he thought. One more day before he was ready to handle the truth.

It was with great reluctance that he returned the next morning. In one hand he held a note. The words of farewell he had never got the chance to utter while his wife was alive. When he reached the board, however, something was clearly off. Where the day before each black piece had stood precisely in its dedicated square, they were now laying on their sides, some having rolled off into the foliage. As he neared, John saw the second unexpected change that sent a coldness snaking down his spine.

There, tucked nearly under one corner of the board, was a white envelope. With shaking hands he tore it open.

"I'm sorry." It read. "I am not your wife. Or if I am, it was so long ago I do not remember. Time works differently here. We do not have mornings and evenings, days and nights. Nor do we have the same identities as we held in life. Forgive me, but I fear I have allowed you to believe something truly harmful to the conscious world, and only now do I see the truth. This game was intended simply as a way to pass the time. I wish I could give you the answers you need. I wish I could come to you as you ask and listen to your story, but alas our time is over. The game, as you must have seen on your last visit, is over. I hope you will accept my meagre offerings of apology. Under the board you will find enough money to cover poor Rosie's treatment.

Until we meet again.

Yours sincerely,
The Player."
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