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Life and Love

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”Close your eyes.”


Beth hears her mother’s words and sees something in her eyes that frightens her. It’s the same resignation, the same emptiness, she has seen at times before. Like the day her mother dove into the water of that lake and stayed under so long she thought she had become an orphan. Or the night she had taken her out for a walk along the cliffs and stepped so close to the edge and just stood there for so long Beth thought she had turned into a statue.


Then, she sees the approaching truck and in a moment of complete clarity, the young girl understands what is about to happen. She screams for her mother, but the woman she has depended on, but also not depended on, for all her life, only turns back to the road and faces the same sight. The same inevitable fate she has only moments before decided to steer herself and her daughter headfirst into.


But survival is still fighting to win in the young girl, even if the woman has, at long last, given up, Atropos’ shears already fraying her thread. A small body throws itself to the floor behind the passenger side of the front seat just in time to let it stop her from flying out through the windshield and end her life on the front of that grey truck. The mother never learns of her daughter’s escape from her own end.


The world both stands still and speeds her by while she lies on the floor of the car, seeing both only white and the world spinning around so fast she feels sick at the same time. But her mind, it stays perfectly still, because on some level she knows that the worst pain of her life awaits her as soon as she lets herself realise where she is and why the world has just turned on its head.


An indeterminable amount of time has passed when the first new impression intrudes upon the small space she has reduced her world to. But even if she has no idea where she is, the sound of sirens is unmistakable. And that sound is never a harbinger of good news.


Suddenly, the thought that she has arrived at this place with her mother intrudes upon her and she hurriedly squeezes her eyes shut to keep it at bay. Nothing but misery awaits at the other end of it.


The sirens come closer and she wonders why she lies down. Should she not be sitting up in the back seat, like she always does? And why are they standing still? Did they reach their destination? Her mother never told her where they were going after they stopped by at that man’s house. The man her mind tells her must be her father, but her heart feels no attachment to.


A car stops outside, tires screeching a little as if it had driven at a very high speed. Car doors opens and slams and even pressing her hands against her ears can no longer keep the world at bay.


She hears voices. Male. But even if they are close, and getting closer, she cannot make out the words. Then, a face appears in the window, and she realises she has opened her eyes again. The man looks at her and she looks back. Not until she blinks does he react, and the word make sense again.


“There’s a girl back here! She’s alive!”


All of it comes rushing back. The crash. Her body’s instinctual reaction to try to save itself. The scream that her mother ignores. The realisation of the significance of the approaching truck. Her mother’s last words.


“Close your eyes.”


They pull her out of the car. No, the wreckage. Places her on the side of the bridge. Then they pull out her mother. No, the body. She does not have a mother anymore. And with a father that does not count, she realises she is now an orphan. Yes, all alone.


Turning away from what up until not even an hour ago was the most important person in her world - in most ways the only person in her world – she silently watches as more cars stop, people getting out of them and staring. At her. At the wreckage. At what used to be her mother.


No one dares to talk to her after one of the men in uniform asks who she is, who the body was – though not with those words – and if she remembers what happened. She lies on the third question.


Then, a dark car pulls up and the woman who exits comes to her after talking to the uniformed men. She introduces herself, says she has come to take her to a new home. Beth wonders at the word home. She knows what it is, but somehow she has never felt it. Her mother has never made her feel safe enough in any place for her to associate it with the word. She knows the technical definition, but has never felt the attachment. Just like with her father.


Homeless. Fatherless. And now, motherless.


An orphan.


She is first taken to a temporary place, where she gets to sleep in a small bed in a small room. The woman lets her know they are arranging for a more permanent place for her. A new home. Hopefully, she can go there in a few days.


When the woman tells her the new home is a place for orphans, she does not contradict her. She does not protest that she knows her father is still alive somewhere, with a new wife and child. She can still remember the night he chose to walk away. Young as she may be, and ignorant of the world, she respects that decision, and nothing would ever make her try to run after him. It is clear that this time it was he who did not want to be found.


Mrs Deardorff welcomes her with a smile. The woman has not even reached the end of the stairs at the entrance and the car has not come to a full stop and still she smiles already.


Beth is expected. Despite this, she cannot smile back. There is a distance in the woman’s eyes. Her smile might be welcoming, but her eyes are evaluating. Not that she feels the welcome is false or that Mrs Deardorff does not care for her. She simply does not care like a mother cares for a daughter. Something even her own mother was capable of. In her own way.


Barely a word crosses her lips while she is first shown around and then treated like a doll. Her hair cut and her clothes changed. She traces her name one last time. The name her mother has given her and embroidered on her dress. When Mrs Deardorff takes it from her, she does not resist. Her life is not her own any longer. Not that it ever was.


Meeting Jolene for the first time does nothing to prepare her for the friendship they will come to share in the future. In that moment, when Beth is still overwhelmed by this efficient introduction of her new place in life, the older girl’s words and questions feels like nothing more than an added burden.


After she once more denies the continued existence of her father, wondering if she is going the path of Judas and damning herself, she is unintentionally, but forcefully, thrown back into the worst moment of her life.


“What’s the last thing they said to you before they died?”


Beth can barely breathe.


“I ask everybody that. We get some really fun answers” Jolene continues, ignorant of the hurt she has caused, and Beth manages to keep her in the dark. She says she does not remember, but those fateful three words are suddenly on repeat in her head.


“Close your eyes.”


“Close your eyes.”


“Close your eyes.”


The pills are hard to swallow. They are big and almost get stuck in her throat. It is not long after that she is overcome with a strange sensation. In a way, it feels like when she laid on the floor in the car. The world has both stopped and ran away. She is detached. The world is detached. Everything is both muted and highlighted.


When night arrives, it is impossible to sleep. Her mind has sharpened, and she remembers a time in the past where she has seen those green pills before. The night her father came by the trailer her mother told her was home. They were in a small glass container and her mother threw them on the floor. She had not taken any of them and the next night they lit up the open area outside with a fire. A fire in which they burned many of the things that used to be inside. Papers, books and even clothes. She saw her mother’s name on one of the books, but that did not stop the woman from feeding that to the flames too.


She is also kept awake by another reason. She does not want to shut her eyes. Because darkness no longer awaits on the other side. The inside of a car does. A car her mother drove as she talked about a problem. The problem of what she would do with Beth. Her own daughter. And the terrible decision she had made. The approaching truck. The crash. Her life up to that point coming to an abrupt and painful end. And the words that haunt her with the short and useless pleading they had offered her. The last words her mother said to her.


“Close your eyes.”




Jolene is as close to a friend as she gets. The girl, despite being enough years older than her to make it a significant difference at their age, is helpful and her smiles reach her eyes. She introduces Beth to her new life in a much more useful way than Mrs Deardorff and she starts to feel like she has landed on her feet after all. Her advice about the green pills is especially useful and she has soon learned how to deal with them.


The first night she has saved the pill and takes it after lights out, it helps her to forget why she does not want to close her eyes. It makes the world crisp and the pattern the tree outside makes on the ceiling is distracting enough to keep her mind occupied until the true darkness of sleep – with no car or terrible words to be had – takes her.


She enjoys the lessons. Learning new things has always attracted her and now that her mother is no longer around to dictate the boundaries of her world, she is eager to take advantage and expand it.


Most off all, she enjoys math. It is easy for her to see the patterns in the numbers and symbols, making the equations allies rather than enemies. On one level this scares her. She remembers all the papers with numbers and symbols in the trailer. The ones her mother burned the night after her father came by and gave up on them. What if she is like her mother in other ways than liking math? What if she too would be capable, in the future, to drive herself and her own child right into the front of a truck?


The thought that gives her comfort is that she takes the green pill. The one her mother decided to throw away. Besides making her feel good and see the world much clearer, it also keeps her safe. So long as she takes the pill, she does not need to fear the world.


It is unexpected, but perhaps also fitting, that it is her proclivity for math that has her stumble upon the one thing that will change her life forever. Well, not strictly speaking the only thing, but the others are still years away and without this beginning none of the other bricks in the game of dominoes of life would topple either. But that is so many years in the future her mind is not capable of perceiving even the smallest of hint of it. For now, green pills are the core of her world. The foundation on which she stands.


When Miss Graham sends her down to the basement with the erasers after she has finished the practice sheets early, she is curious about what the place looks like. The girls never go down there unless assigned this specific task and this is a first for her. It feels like a different world down there and it is a welcome, even if short, break from the monotony her life has fallen into. An adventure almost.


She finds, however, that she is not alone down there. The custodian, Mr Shaibel, sits in his own little space down in the world that is his domain. She has seen him before, going about his various chores, but never exchanged a word. She does not intend to break that silence now, but then, when he does not look over to her even when she noisily claps the two erasers against each other, creating a cloud of wiped away numbers and symbols, she gets curious. What could possibly hold his attention so strongly?


Leaning over a little, so she can peer around the shelf that obscures his table, she discovers a most curious sight. A board of some sort lies there, filled with light and dark squares in a perfect pattern. On some of the squares, no more than one in each, are small figurines. Pieces that match the light and dark of the surface they stand on. A large, worn hand moves the pieces, one at a time and alternating between the colours, and even if she only watches a short while and a few moves, she instinctively feels that there is a pattern to those movements as well. That board is a little world of its own, governed by rules she does not know yet, but rules all the same. A world even smaller than the one she experienced on the floor of the car. A world that requires you to keep your eyes open and it might be yours for the taking.


When Mr Shaibel looks up she is pulled out of that tiny world she has already dived into and runs away. He holds the key to full submersion, but she is too afraid to ask.


Even so, the thought of it follows her through the day and into the night. The patterns and rules beckon her and in the darkness after lights out, the branches transform as they move in the wind, showing her that world, full of so many promises.


The next day is Sunday and all she can think about is those squares. When she has to stand up in the chapel and sing, she barely remembers the words and she knows she has to go back down there now. She has to learn. That is where her salvation lies. Not up here with silly songs not even Miss Lonsdale seems capable of mustering up any real enthusiasm over.


Wordlessly making her excuse, she hurries down the stairs, down into the dark and quiet realm of Mr Shaibel. He sits at the table now too and she asks him before her courage has time to fail her and ignoring it when he tells her she ought to be elsewhere.


“What’s that game called?”


He does not answer her, instead insists she should not be there. She insists right back, and he gives in.


“It’s called chess.”


“Will you teach me?” she asks, feeling a crack in the door keeping her out of that world. But the crack refuses to give way, she is denied entry, has the word strangers thrown in her face, and she has to leave. Feeling like a failure. Feeling empty. Somehow also feeling betrayed.


During the following weeks, she continues to get her math assignments done early, since she knows Miss Graham will always ask her to go and clean the erasers when that happens, having nothing better to offer her. Their education is for blending in, not getting ahead.


She does not fell brave enough to try the leap across the chasm that is the word strangers. Another terrible word added to her world. However, she does give herself a few moments each time to watch the custodian those times he is there, always playing chess with himself when he is.


As she makes out more and more about the rules that governs how the pieces are allowed to move, she starts to picture them on her board at night, moving them around to get a better feel for them. Even without knowing their names she starts to get to know them. Soon, they are no longer strangers.


Despite the progress she manages like this, she knows she can only get so far without guidance. Without a teacher. And eventually, she takes the leap once more, hoping that her stubbornness might just take her across the void.


It pays off and for the first time in her life, Beth is allowed a taste of the world that is a chess board and the power and control it can give her. Something life has denied her so far and she finds she desperately longs for. This one small taste and she finds herself addicted. It does not matter that she only manages three measly moves before something called the Scholar’s Mate puts a jarring end to it. But not in the way the car came to a loud and abrupt end. It is not the end of life as she knows it. Merely a first taste of what is yet to come.


But when her opponent refuses to explain how he did it, how he moved the pieces to stop her, she experiences her first withdrawal symptoms, even if she does not know it, abruptly turning annoyed and angry. It is the most she has felt since her arrival.


It is not until she has left that she realises what he actually said. He did not turn her away permanently, like he tried to last time. He simply invited her back another day and now she has two new significant words in her life. But this time they do not frighten her. Instead, they are full of promise.


“Not today.”


They echo in her head that night, after she takes all the pills she has saved and plays through her defeat again and again until she understands it. Understands where she went wrong and promises herself to do better next time.


From then on, she sneaks down into the basement every opportunity she gets, which are mostly on Sundays, and more often than not, Mr Shaibel is there, waiting for her, board and pieces ready. She gets to learn through trial and error and things go well until one day the price for a mistake is so high she leaps headfirst into withdrawal and the anger it brings, when she finds it unfair.


Why would she have to give up when they had not finished? Every time they have played up until now, they have never stopped until checkmate and she cannot understand the difference. It is far from the first time she has lost her queen.


Then, for the first time ever, it is she herself that adds a terrible word to her life. One single word is all it takes to close the door of her new word in her face, both literally and figuratively.


She knows she should not say it. She knows better. But like every time Mr Shaibel shuts her down and keeps her from learning more about chess, fury rises inside her. And with it comes that one word. The word she had heard all the way back on her first day there. The word Jolene had shouted and Mrs Deardorff and Mr Fergusson had reacted to in such a way as to let her now it was not acceptable, even if she did not understand it. But all that fits in her head right now is the desire to hurt Mr Shaibel back in any way she can, because he hurts her over and over. Her being a child life has so far been unkind to is the only excuse for why she projects her own unreasonableness onto him and feels justified in taking that one giant step too far. It is a paltry excuse.


“Get out.”


Two words to cancel out “Not today”. Two words to send her into despair.


She copes. Because she has to and because the pills keep her calm. They also keep her playing and she now has another mistake to learn never to commit again. But playing on her own is not the same and the door to the basement stays locked. She stole the names and rules of the game with her into exile, but it can never replace being inside that world, living and breathing its very essence.


Eventually she in desperate enough to try to find out just how bad that one word is and when she finds herself alone with Jolene, she asks. But not before the word cracker is added to her vocabulary. She is not entirely sure what it means, but her friend says it with enough warmth that she puts it in the good category.


The answer to her question is unexpected and requires some additional research on her part. The picture at the back of the health book is most illuminating and she begins to understand what exactly is wrong with the word. But before she has a chance to do much else about it, the basement is unlocked again, and Mr Shaibel shows himself to be more forgiving than she feared and lets bygones be bygones. The gate to the world of chess is once more opened wide, and she is so eager to use it she sneaks away so often she starts to get the feeling that she misses some important things in their lessons. But it is impossible to care since whatever is being taught above stairs could never ever compare to downstairs. And downstairs is the only world that truly matters to her.


Then, she gets to learn the name of the squares and that world opens even wider. There are even books about it, and she continues to ignore her regular education in favour of her secret one, reading them in class. Because that is her life now. Green pills and a world made up all in black and white. Her hunger for more is insatiable and she observes and absorbs everything she is offered.


Her eyes have never been so wide open.