In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate.
~ Isaac Asimov
“Checkmate!” Father said, smiling with great satisfaction.
It had been almost a year since he had been able to beat Vincent in a game of Chess, and the taste of victory was sweet, indeed. Father was trying to be a good sport about it, but he could hardly contain himself.
Vincent looked up at Father, stunned at the unexpected turn of events. He had been sure that his strategy was unbeatable. How? he wondered.
And then he saw …
Father couldn’t miss the look of surprise in Vincent’s eyes. He was about to laugh and tease his son in the good natured way that they were wont to do, when the look on Vincent’s face suddenly changed.
Vincent’s eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared, and he began breathing heavily as he stared at Father with …
Is that hatred? Father wondered, suddenly afraid. Something is very wrong, he realized.
“Vincent, what is it?” he asked, greatly concerned.
Vincent jumped out of his seat, turning over his chair and knocking into the table, upsetting the remaining chess pieces. His menacing growls filled the chamber as he moved slowly and determinedly in Father’s direction.
Father stood and began to back away. He was stunned that Vincent was taking the loss so badly. He was usually a very good sport. On the rare occasions when Vincent had lost to him, he’d never reacted like this.
Father extended his left hand indicating that he wished Vincent to stop. “Now, Vincent,” he counseled. “You must remember … it’s … it’s only a … a game. There is no reason to …to … to … be so…”
Vincent reached out and gripped Father’s shoulder, preventing his further retreat. He growled low again, baring his fangs as he did.
Father could feel Vincent’s hot breath on his face. In Vincent’s eyes, Father could see nothing but seething anger. It was a terrifying sight which he had seen only on rare occasions.
And he knew from experience that the subject of Vincent’s rage never fared well.
How could he have ever imagined that Vincent would react in such a way to losing a simple game of chess?
“VINCENT! Please!” Jacob pleaded as he grabbed his son’s upraised arm with both hands in a vain attempt to stop the inevitable death blow. “Let’s be reasonable!”
In the very moment Father saw Vincent’s arm coming down with the swiftness and power of a sledge hammer, he resigned himself to his fate. Holding his breath, he closed his eyes tightly and hoped that his death would be mercifully swift and relatively painless.
The blow, when it landed, felt softer than Father expected. He heard the ripping of fabric and then he felt his knees give way when Vincent let go of him. Everything went silent as he fell backward in slow motion against a book shelf and slipped slowly to the floor.
After a moment he realized he was neither dead nor unconscious. Perhaps I’m in shock, he thought. Otherwise, I would surely feel some pain. Slowly opening his eyes, he saw Vincent towering a few feet away from him, still snarling and shaking his fist violently, as it dripped with blood.
Vincent slowly stopped snarling and seemed to become aware of his surroundings again. He turned from Father and strode across the room. He leaned against a far wall with his back to Father, as he tried to calm himself.
Father grabbed at his chest where he had felt the blow, frantic to assess his wounds … only to discover … that there were none. There was no sign of blood on him at all, only four neat, evenly spaced rips in his vest, just above his left breast.
Holding onto the bookshelf, Father slowly rose on trembling knees and tried again to get a better look at himself. He was shaking badly from what had just passed between them. At the same time, he was very worried about his son. What’s come over him? he wondered. Then looking in Vincent’s direction, he asked himself, And if that isn’t my blood dripping from his hand, where did it come from?
Just then Mouse burst into the Chamber. He stopped suddenly when he saw Vincent and Father. “Hi, Father. Hi, Vincent,” he said, and then dropped to the floor and began searching for something.
“Archie,” he whispered loudly. “You here?... Archie?”
MOUSE! What in heaven’s name are you doing?”
Mouse popped his head up to look at Father.
“Lost Archie… can’t find. In here? Maybe? Don’t really know. If Mouse knew …. wouldn’t be lost.” He ducked back down to resume his search.
“Archie?” Father asked, unaware of any Tunnel dwellers by that name. “Do you mean Arthur?”
“No,” Mouse popped up again, shaking his head. “Archie… definitely Archie. … Mouse’s pet spider.”
“Your … your … pet … spider?” Father asked, even more confused than before.
Mouse nodded enthusiastically, held up a shoebox, and began talking quickly. “Found in park. Raised from a baby. Got loose. Good spider.* Better than good … Eats bugs.” He dropped back to the floor.. “Archie? Archie?” He popped up again, and continued, “Pretty too … black and yellow … this big now.” He demonstrated with his hands. “ Has … long legs … don’t worry … won’t bite … “ He furrowed his brow and then added, “At least …. don’t think so.”
He dropped to the floor again, “Archie? You here? Archie?”
“Mouse!” Father yelled impatiently. “Would you kindly stop acting like an infernal Jack-in-the-Box and go look for your pet elsewhere?”
Father was anxious to attend to Vincent, but he couldn’t do it with an audience. If something was terribly wrong with his son, he wanted to keep it from Mouse. After all, everyone in the community knew that Mouse couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it.
Mouse stood up and looked from Father to Vincent and then nodded. “Ok … good … ok … fine … look somewhere else… ok. Bye, Father. Bye. Vincent.” He scooted up the steps, dropped back to his knees, and crawled out of the entrance whispering loudly. “Archie? …. Archie?”
When Father thought Mouse was safely out of range he approached Vincent with caution. He could see that his son was still breathing heavily, but he seemed much calmer than he had been a few moments before.
“Vincent? Are you all right?” Father ventured softly.
Vincent nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he breathed. “I’m …” He let out a great breath. “I’m … all right.”
Coming closer, Father could see blood still dripping from Vincent’s tightly closed fist. He could see that his knuckles were white beneath the layer of fur on his fingers.
Father cautiously took Vincent’s fist in his hand and said, “Vincent, you’re bleeding. Come over here and sit down, so I can look at it.” He guided Vincent to a chair and went to retrieve his medical bag and a pitcher of water. Locating a basin he took Vincent's bloody fist in his hands.
Vincent sat at the table with the remains of their chess game, dejected and ashamed by his outburst. He rested his head in his right hand while his bloody fist rested upturned on his knee.
“Vincent, you must open your fist. Your nails have cut into the flesh. I must clean it so it won’t get infected.”
Vincent was too embarrassed to look into his father’s eyes. He was painfully aware of the fear his outburst had caused, and ashamed that he had lost control of himself. He silently obeyed Jacob’s request and offered up his bloody fist.
He slowly opened his fingers to reveal four deep gashes in his palm. It was covered with blood and a gooey yellow substance and random bits of shiny black particles.
Father was aghast at the sight. “Good Heaven’s, Vincent! What is this?”
Vincent looked at his palm and studied it for a moment, and sighed. “I believe we have just made the … very brief acquaintance of … Archie … It was … crawling on your … your …” Vincent shuddered and went silent.
“Archie? You mean this is …?” Father asked. Suddenly Father's eye widened as it dawned on him. “Ohhhhhh … Archie! Mouse’s … OH MY! OH DEAR!” He tried to stifle a giggle. “Oh, poor Archie … poor … Mouse.” He began laughing openly.
Vincent looked at his father with surprise. “It isn’t funny, Father. I’ve killed Mouse’s pet …” He shuddered from head to foot. “…. Spi … spider …” He shuddered again even more violently. “I’m sorry … I frightened you, Father… I … I… You know … how much I HATE …” (((shudder))) “… spiders. And that …. THAT SPIDER … (((shudder))) I have never … seen one as hideous as that except … in my … in my nightmares.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, in an effort to calm himself.
At this point Father was laughing so hard that he had to sit down. Only a few minutes before, he’d thought Vincent was about to kill him. Now he realized it was only a spider that Vincent had been after. Between fits of laughter, he tried to speak. “Oh, my dear boy …. I thought for a moment there…” He held his chest and doubled over laughing again. “… that I was … (hehehe) done for!” Once again he was reduced to a fit of laughter.
When he finally got control of himself, “Whew!” was all he could say. He sat up and wiped the tears from his eyes.
Poor Vincent was still sitting there, enduring the indignity of the situation. He was thankful, at least, for the fact that Father had been the only one to witness him lose control of himself.
Father stood and began to attend to Vincent’s wounds. He carefully cleaned and medicated each cut and then wrapped bandages around the injured hand.
He finally spoke in a more serious tone. “In all seriousness, Vincent, I do understand why you react in this way, to these … creatures, really, I do. What happened to you when you were a child. … it was … horrible. But you should probably … do something about your … uhm … uhm…”
“Arachnophobia?” Vincent offered. “Is that the word you’re looking for?”
Father cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes … yes … well … you know … before you … before you harm yourself … or someone else. Sometimes you get a little too… uhm … worked up, if you know what I mean.”
Vincent sighed in frustration. “Yes, I know that, Father. I’ve tried. I promise you, really, I have.”
“Well,” Father said, as he finished wrapping Vincent’s hand. “… I think the first thing you need to do is go have a talk with Mouse.”
“Yes,” Vincent nodded. “I must ask him to forgive me for what I’ve done to his pet.”
Father laughed again. “Actually I was thinking along the lines of helping him understand what might make a more appropriate pet. You are not the only one in these Tunnels who is afraid of spiders. I know I don’t have quite the reaction to them that you have, but I am not overly fond of spiders myself. If I had seen that thing crawling on my chest, I would most likely have reacted violently, as well.”
Smiling at Father’s love and understanding, Vincent stood and hugged him. “Thank you, Father.”
Father just nodded.
As Vincent left in search of Mouse, he stopped at the top of the steps and turned back. “Father?”
Jacob looked up at his son. “Yes, son?”
“I failed to congratulate you on your victory.” He looked in the direction of the chess board. “It was … truly brilliant.”
Father smiled and his chest puffed up just a little, spreading the rips in his vest to expose the shirt underneath. “Ahem, Yes … well … Thank you, Vincent. That may just go down as the most exhilarating game of chess I have ever played.”
Vincent smiled and then laughed a little.
“Although,” Father continued. “I’m not sure my heart could take many more like that.”
They both laughed again, and Vincent went in search of his friend, Mouse.
is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps,
i According to Wikipedia, Archie is of the spider species Argiope aurantia and is commonly known as the yellow garden spider, black and yellow garden spider, golden garden spider, writing spider, corn spider, or McKinley spider.
Illustrations supplied by the author