‘Checkmate’ by D.V. Layton
I stared at the opening move. King’s pawn to D4.
Irritation flashed through me. I don’t like anyone touching my chess pieces unless we’re playing. I scoured my memory, looking for the culprit. Who was last in my apartment? Jason. Friday afternoon. That can’t be right. There’s no way it would take me three days to notice. And Jason wouldn’t even know what an opening move looked like.
I stared at the chessboard. Whether it was a moment of silliness in an existence that had become far too predictable or the simple love of playing chess that stopped me from returning the pawn to its setup position, I’ll never know. Instead, I played my turn. Black pawn, D7 to D5. Then I headed off to work.
Four days later I stumbled through my apartment to brew my morning heart-starter. Did I glance at my chessboard every morning? Was it a habit I wasn’t aware of? I don’t know, and I can’t go back to find out. But I looked. I almost swallowed my tongue. A counter move had been played. White pawn, C2 to C4.
I stumbled across the room in shock, staring at the chess board, my mind scrambling to stay above a fog of surreal perception. I felt like I was losing my mind. Was someone sneaking into my apartment during the night to play a game of chess with me? What sort of weirdo does that? I knew what my next move would be. But should I keep playing? Who was my opponent? Maybe I was sleepwalking, playing against myself? Did I want to play chess that badly? It was a better thought than some stranger breaking into my apartment while I slept. I made my move. Black pawn, E7 to E6.
I checked the next morning. I almost slapped myself. I needed to get out more. On the third morning, as I came through to the kitchen, I purposely forbid myself from looking. I made my coffee, and wandered out onto the balcony. The sunrise was a kaleidoscope of oranges and pinks. I breathed in the new day.
Emptying my cup, I headed back in. My heart started at the sight. I’d forgotten to stop myself from looking. There it was. White knight, B1 to C3. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. I was enjoying this. I caught myself. What was I thinking? Something weird was going on.
I suddenly knew how to find out who was moving my chess pieces.
That evening, on the way home from work, I stopped at the local electronics store and purchased a home surveillance system. I battled the instructions for an hour and a half before I finally won. With the camera trained on the chessboard, and a small lamp lighting the area, I made my move. Black pawn, C7 to C6. Then I went to bed.
Two days passed. On the third morning, I awoke early, as always. There it was. White knight, G1 to F3. Whoever it was, they were good.
My heart beat thudded in my ears as I poured through the footage of the previous eight hours. There! I dropped into my chair. There was no intruder. I wasn’t sleepwalking.
I replayed the footage. Again. And again. The piece had moved by itself.
How? It made no sense. It had to be an illusion. I checked the timer on the footage. There was no gap. I headed over to the chessboard. Part of me wanted to kick the table over, to put an end to this weird stuff once and for all. I was scared. I couldn’t think of a logical explanation for what was happening. Strangely, I realised that another part of me – the child in me – wasn’t frightened. He was having fun. It was a mystery, a game with a magical friend.
I pondered my next move all that day. I waited until after I’d cleaned up from dinner, then I pulled a chair up to the chessboard. Five minutes passed. I reached out. Black knight, G8 to F6. I watched a bit of TV, reset the recording on the camera, and went to bed.
I hadn’t been expecting it. It usually took a couple of days. But there it was. The following morning. White bishop, C1 to G5.
I fretted over my next move. Should I try to win? What was at stake?
On Saturday morning, I made my move. Black knight, B8 to D7. Then I headed off to the markets to buy my fruit and veg. I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years while I was there. She invited me to dinner, and seemed pleased when I accepted. I wondered if her social life was as non-existent as mine.
That evening, I showered and dressed in what I hoped looked okay. I arrived at Alice’s apartment just after seven. I was nervous. I handed over the bottle of Shiraz I’d brought with me.
“Can I offer you a drink, Mark?” she asked, taking my jacket.
“To be honest, a glass of wine with dinner is about my limit,” I said.
“Mine too. Make yourself at home.” She vanished into the kitchen.
I glanced around her apartment. Neat. OCD neat. I spotted a chess board on a low table in a small alcove.
“I didn’t know you played chess, Alice,” I said, heading for the alcove.
She abruptly appeared.
“Please don’t touch that,” she said, looking mildly panicked.
I studied the board. When I turned to look at her, I caught sight of the surveillance camera. I realised my hands were trembling.
“Black pawn, D7 to D5 – last Monday morning at 7:45am,” I said.
“Yes.” Her face paled. “How did you know?”
“I bought a camera, too. I thought I had an intruder.”
“But, on the video…”
“I know,” I said. “The pieces move by themselves.”
“I don’t know. But, it’s your turn.”
Her return smile was bewitching.