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It took her a few seconds to realize that the sound of wind chimes was not the music of some temple in her dreamscape, but rather the ringing of her very real-life cell phone...

Checkmate

By Laura Plummer

Tuesday

It took her a few seconds to realize that the sound of wind chimes was not the music of some temple in her dreamscape, but rather the ringing of her very real-life cell phone as it vibrated closer and closer to the edge of the nightstand. She squinted at the name on the caller ID.

“Dad?”

“Dani, the cats are sick.” A beat. “Are you there?”

“Yeah, Dad, I’m just… It’s three o’clock in the morning.”

“Dani, the cats are not eating, and they’re not drinking either. Something is very wrong.”

A deep sigh. “Dad, the cats are fine—”

“They’re not fine. I just went to clean the…the…”—he grasped for the word—“the litter box, but there’s nothing in there. They’re on some kind of hunger strike. I don’t know what to do.”

Of course, there was nothing wrong with the cats. Dani had had this same conversation almost every week for the past month. But three a.m. was a new record. Usually the calls ended by eleven, sometimes twelve. She imagined her father pacing around the kitchen in his maroon bathrobe, raking through the clay grains of the litter box, a litter box he had cleaned five times already that day. Where was Julia? Tuesday night was Julia’s night.

“Okay, Dad. But I can’t do anything about it right now. I will call the vet tomorrow—today—in the morning.” There was silence on the line. “Dad?”

“Okay.”

“Go back to bed, Dad.”

“…Okay. Bye.” Click.

Eleven seconds later, wind chimes.

“Dani?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

* * * * * * *

“Dad, I got the cats an appointment for Friday at four p.m.” She was crouched in the last stall of her office bathroom.

“You what?”

“I called Dr. Kim—he can see them Friday. I’ll come by and get them after work.”

“Why would you do that? They just saw Dr. Kim last month. He gave Benedict some medicine for his crusty eye.” That was a year and a half ago. “Beatrice has been sneezing a lot, but I think it’s because of all the dusting Julia’s been doing. You know how Julia gets about dust.”

“Well, I’d still like to come see you after work on Friday.” Silence. “Dad?”

“Oh, will you be in town?”

Dani had worked a mile and a half from her father’s townhouse for the past eight years.

“Yeah. I can bring you some dinner.” Silence. “So I’ll see you Friday?”

“See you Friday.” Click.

She tapped out thirty-two seconds with her toe on the black-and-white checked linoleum. Wind chimes.

“Dani?”

“Yes?”

“I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

* * * * * * *

Friday

“What a surprise!” he exclaimed, opening the door.

“Hi, Dad. I brought dinner.” She held up two brown paper bags.

“If I had known, I would have cleaned up a little. Please come in. Julia can take your coat.”

Amy, a nursing student, scuttled about in the dining room, organizing laundry. Amy was Fridays. Dad called her Julia. He also called Gita, his Saturday and Sunday overnight nurse, Julia. They had stopped correcting him. It didn’t matter that one was short and blonde, one was a tall redhead, and one was a stout Indian-American. Pretty soon the whole staff would be Julia. It was just easier that way—people who came to the house were Julia.

“Greek!” he exclaimed, unfolding the contents of a carefully crafted gyro. “You know, your mom used to take me to a Greek restaurant every year for my birthday. We haven’t been there in… must be years…”

Thirteen years, to be precise. Her mother had left her father when Dani was a freshman in college. She had remarried several times and was, she believed, currently living in a mansion on the West Coast. Oblivious.

“How’s your sister?” he asked, dropping a shred of lamb at his feet where Benedict greedily gobbled it up.

“She’s good,” Dani guessed. The truth was that she hardly knew her sister. They led different lives, in different cities, touching base only to coordinate his care.

He mused about her sister’s elopement, now a decade ago, to her much older boss. “Do you think you’ll ever get married?”

She laughed. As an editor for a women’s alternative health magazine, her prospects weren’t exactly abundant. And with her side job as a ghostwriter and blog contributor, neither was her time. In fact, never in her adult life had dating held less appeal. Besides, Friday night was dinner-with-dad night. It had been that way for a long time.

“I don’t see why that’s so funny. Can’t an old man walk his daughter down the aisle anymore?”

Under the table he nudged her leg playfully with his toe and she couldn’t help but smile. As a child, whenever her mother had nagged her at dinnertime to sit up straight (eat her vegetables, get her elbows off the table, chew with her mouth closed), he would reach his foot under the table and tickle her shinbone to make her laugh. This was their secret body language, and the body doesn’t forget.

“You’re not that old, Dad.”

It was the truth. Even had he been in his eighties, his could hardly have been called a forgiving disease. But sixty-one? Just as he had been approaching retirement with a dream to travel the world? A man who had longed to go to Prague, Australia and the Galapagos could no longer leave his own house without supervision. He required the familiarity of those walls. He knew where they began and ended. He knew, at least for now, where the hallways led, and which door opened to the bathroom and which opened to the closet. It was the only map he needed, the only one he had left.

* * * * * * *

 

The library, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and traditional oversized oak furniture with the dark leather upholstery, would rival any presidential sitting room. A retired high school teacher and amateur historian, her father had always been a prolific reader. Now Dani reflected on the cruel irony of a man who could tell you the precise dates of the battles of the Norman Conquest but couldn’t tell you the headline from that morning’s paper. The shelves had always been fastidiously organized, first by topic and then by author’s last name. Recently, the shelves had gaping holes and there were books and old manuscripts in piles on the floor, on the armchair, on the mantel over the fireplace.

The only uncluttered surface was the marble coffee table in the center of the room, which featured a family heirloom, an antique chess set that had been handed down from father to son through the generations. Being that she had no brothers and that she was the eldest, Dani stood to inherit the set for herself. In truth, it was the only thing her father owned that she couldn’t imagine living without. It was saturated with his energy. How many times had his thumb and forefinger held the smooth pieces of hand-carved bone and black onyx? He would sometimes pick up a captured rook and roll it between his palms as he contemplated his next move.

“Care for a game?” he asked, and she knew that he had set up the pieces in anticipation of her arrival, at some point when he still anticipated it. He had made it sound like a question, but they both knew better. She acquiesced and they settled into the high-backed armchairs.

Dani was surprised to find that her chess game was still strong. She had been his dutiful apprentice in the years before boys and makeup had taken over her developing adolescent brain. She recalled the day that he had stopped letting her win. It was the morning after her twelfth birthday. She had emerged victorious after a long game—those games where she could sneak into the living room and catch an episode of X-Files between moves. As he was returning the pieces to the velvet-lined case, he caught her eye, saying, “I want you to know, that time was all you.”

Surely that had been a proud moment for him, when his young protégée had finally reached eye-level with her instructor. His little girl had outgrown her booster seat, cast off her training wheels. So when had the shift occurred?, Dani wondered. When, in those ensuing years of playing as equals, did she start letting him win?

It was white’s turn. He was obliged to move a piece, but he had run out of options. Any move he made at this point would be unfavorable. He knew it, too. She could see it in the tightening of his forehead as his eyes darted around the board, considering each doomed scenario. There was simply no way out.

Sheik-mat,” he whispered to himself in Arabic. He had always talked to himself, even when he was well. “The king is dead.”

“Unless you go with the Persian,” Dani offered.

“What?” He was suddenly aware that he had spoken aloud.

Shah mat. In Persian, it means the king is defeated, not dead. You taught me that.”

“I did?”

“Yeah.”

He cocked his head and his forehead softened again. “Well, now you’re teaching it to me.”

In reality, Dani knew that the etymology was more complicated than that. Grimmer. In modern Persian, mate referred to someone who was without speech, catatonic even. She imagined the poor souls shuffling about in the halls of nursing homes, slack-jawed and unresponsive. Maybe she preferred the Arabic after all. The king is dead. At least there was a certainty in that. At least there was a finality, an opportunity for closure, for grief. Game over.

* * * * * * *

 

“Say goodbye to Dani, Julia!” he hollered from the foyer. Amy just leaned into the doorway and flashed a sympathetic smile. Dani turned up the collar on her pea coat, wondering if she herself was fated to end up as just another Julia, just another helpful face in an endless stream of helpful faces, none more or less important than the next.

She hugged him, long and hard, trying to imprint the feel of their embrace on her mind, even if he couldn’t. Because he couldn’t. She used to adore the autumn. That evening as she left, she imagined that each brown leaf crunching under her boot was a memory, drained of color and relegated to the gutters of time.

Sitting in her parked car outside the townhouse, she counted. Fifty-one seconds. Chimes.

“Dani?”

“Hi Dad.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

* * * * * * *

Tuesday

This time, the chimes didn’t wake her. She had been starting at the ceiling for almost an hour.

“Dad.”

“Dani, thank God you answered. It’s the cats. Their box is empty. I think they’re sick or something—” his voice trailed off.

“Dad, where’s Julia?”

“Who?”

“Julia, your aide.”

“Oh, she’s around somewhere. She wouldn’t understand anyway. Can you come over?”

“I would, Dad, but it’s really late. It’s four in the morning, and I have to work at eight. But I can call the vet tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“When the sun comes up.” Silence. “Dad?”

A pause. “Okay.”

“Try to get some sleep, Dad.”

Another pause. “Okay.” Click.

Instinctively, she glanced at the clock on the wall, its hand ticking out the seconds, and counted.

One minute and nineteen seconds later, the device in her palm was still and cold. She dialed him back. The ringing ceased but there was a silence on the line.

“Dad?”

“Dani?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Laura Plummer is an American writer born in Massachusetts in 1984. Read more of her work at lauraplummer.me.

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