Back in summer of 2017, I was still testing out my pens to see if I could write decent stories in English.
I had just published a novel (which was in dire need of professional editing) and had gotten some lower ratings and reviews on it which made me doubt my ability.
That was when I stumbled onto Reedsy's weekly short story contest.
The contest is still alive and the concept is easy: every Friday, the Reedsy team comes up with five prompts (you can check them on their website or get them by email). You then have a week in which to write a short story that is between 1k and 3k words in length and send it back to them. (Now, there's also a $5 entry fee, I believe.)
So on May 26th, 2017, I got the email with the prompts and chose the following one:
You find your grandparents’ old chessboard in the attic. Absentmindedly, you move a piece. The next day, an opposing piece has been moved.
Of course, I saw a ghost story in there right away! So I spent the following week plotting, writing and self-editing my short story, and on June 1st, 2017 I submitted it...and won first place!
The story is publicly available on MEDIUM and I've made it available on my Wattpad profile as well.
So I've decided to add it here for your entertainment. ^_^
Let me know what you think!
I drove up the dirt path and on a dry branch which broke with a loud snap. I stopped the car.
The house stood at the heart of a clearing in the woods, surrounded by dozens of tall trees. The wind blew the leaves to life, turning them into thousands of waving hands, greeting me back.
A heavy sigh rested on my chest. The peaceful silence reflected my pain in contrast. Everything was now tainted of sadness. The joy of this place and its memories were but echoes of a past long gone. How long exactly had it been? I could hardly remember…
I pulled out of the car and climbed the few wooden stairs that led to the porch. I stood in front of the door, uncertain. I felt watched. As if I was about to enter a forbidden tomb and the forest disagreed with my actions. But I couldn’t just do an about-face and leave. I’d come here for a reason…
I slid the key into the lock and turned it.
The door opened a crack with a mandatory creak to add to the tomb feel. I held my breath and pushed it further slowly, with reverence.
Inside, everything was as I remembered. The kitchen’s counters were clean. No dishes caked in the sink. No stool knocked over in the struggle…
I could see the armchair in the living room through an archway straight ahead. It seemed as if it was just waiting for my grandpa to come home, sit in there and smoke his pipe. How disappointed it would be when it’d find out…
Patricia pushed past me. “Dunno about you, but I’ve got other things planned for today.”
I watched her go in, stomping her heels on the floorboards, disturbing the silence. She dumped the folded cardboard boxes next to the armchair and propped them against it. She then disappeared at an angle of the living room, behind the stairs.
I could very well imagine her grabbing the souvenirs and knickknacks that cluttered the shelves, and appraising them with snobbishly raised eyebrows before tossing them into a box. I knew my sister. And I didn’t need to see the Patty-storm ravage the living room. What I’d come here to save was not in there anyway.
“I’ll take care of the attic,” I shouted to let Patricia know where I’d be.
She didn’t answer even though she’d heard. It was just the kind of person she was. I shrugged and walked upstairs.
The landing was dark. I suppressed a shiver as I felt for a switch. A soft yellow light bathed the hallway soon after. It smelled like musty mothballs up here, just as one would expect of a house that’s been closed for years. The odor was strong, but I didn’t want to open a window to clear the air as if I feared something precious might escape. I knew it was silly, but I couldn’t help but wonder where in the house was floating, in this instant, the last breath he’d exhaled here.
I walked down the hallway and passed the rooms without looking in.
I could almost hear the master bedroom beckoning. There were so many memories left in it. Memories of a sunny morning pillow fights. Of a father figure, sick with the flu, sitting in his rocking chair, sipping on chicken broth. Of a frightened little boy climbing into his grandparents’ bed on a stormy night. Memories that should have been mine and his, but ended up being mine alone.
I skewed when I passed by the room, my eyes trained in front of me. I knew I’d have to go in there eventually, but it would have to wait. They were not the memories I’d come to save.
Finally, I reached it; the cord dangling from a trap in the ceiling. I pulled on it and a ladder unfolded down. I climbed it.
Silence returned. Up here, I couldn’t hear my sister rummaging through the house anymore.
It was still early. Daylight poured through the dirty windows into the tent-shaped room. Old furniture, forgotten trunks, and forsaken toys cluttered the floor. A narrow path slithered between the piles of mementos of times long gone.
I let my gaze embrace them all.
A wardrobe sat by the trap door like a sentinel. A dress laid unfinished on a heavy-figure sewing mannequin as a reminder that a woman once shared this house. A mirror stood under a white sheet as if repurposed as the mandatory ghost every attic or basement should have.
Everything was as I remembered it. I smiled. This was grandpa’s treasure trove. The place where he’d store all the objects that meant something dear to him. Where he tucked away the various items he could not bear to give away or sell. His treasures.
He used to climb up those stairs almost every day and spend the best part of an hour in the attic. He’d walk around, running his fingers across his souvenirs, smiling at people trapped in his past, … in his memory.
When I was old enough to understand the objects’ real value — the one beyond the dollar sign — grandpa brought me here and told me each item’s story. Most of them didn’t mean much to me. After all, I had never met grandpa’s parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. The only value I could confer to these objects was the memory of grandpa recalling his own past. I knew dearer objects. Those I treasured as much as he did. And I knew some of them — quite a few actually — rested up here, waiting to be rescued.
I set down the folded cardboard box I brought up and took a few steps around. My feet had not known this floor in over a decade. And yet, nothing had moved since then. I walked with a purpose and reached an end table. A box rested on top of it. The box used to be a vivid red. At least, I remembered it that way. It was held close by a small golden hook which I unlatched before flipping open the cover. A wooden train lied inside. It had known better days. The paint flaked here and there, and one of the wheels had fallen off, but the memories remained untarnished. So many games, so much laughter. And one special Christmas night when grandpa had given me the toy.
“Here’s a present from me, son. But I gotta admit I needed some help from Santa on this one.”
He’d ruffled my hair and left me to open the present. When I uncovered the treasure, I knew he’d lied to me. Grandpa hadn’t needed any help. Not for this. With a chisel and a mallet, he could have run Santa’s workshop…
I lifted the retired train from its crate and gently turned it over. Surely enough, carved in the wood on the locomotive’s underbelly, were grandpa’s initials. I smiled and placed the train back in its box. “You’re coming with me.”
My treasure hunt lasted the entire afternoon. I had to save all that I could from my sister’s we-could-sell-it-on-eBay mentality. She’d pawn family pictures if she thought they’d fetch a nice price! And the items that wouldn’t sell had a reserved spot in a garbage bag. I doubted I could ever make her understand the importance of a few broken mementos in a dusty attic.
Around five o’clock, I reached the end of the room where an object caught my eye. Hidden behind a few boxes and displayed atop some others was a chessboard. The board was set, its figures stoically awaiting a new game. An old dining chair had even been pushed next to it as if a player was expected any minute.
What drew my attention was that the chessboard itself. This was no cheap set you could find at any game store. This one had been carved. It was intricate, beautiful, almost poetic. The figures were the usual ones, but they all displayed an element of grace I had never seen in any chess set before. The horses’ manes waved elegantly, the kings and queens wore crowns, the rooks were sculpted in a brick-like pattern, and the pawns were in fact war banners. The pieces had been varnished, but not cooked, and they were dyed, not painted. This was unique.
This was handmade.
“Why have I never seen this piece before, grandpa?” I whispered to the attic’s air. “Did you make this?”
I bent forward and studied the thing. No signature was visible. I didn’t wish to knock over the figures by lifting the entire board — even though it seemed like the most logical place to look for a signature — so I hoped I would find my answer under one of the pieces. I lifted a rook. Nothing. I set it back. I lifted a knight, a bishop. I lifted the king and the queen. Still nothing. I lifted every piece until finally, it was down to the last pawn. I lifted it…
“We gotta go back.”
I jumped. Patricia’s voice had sprung out of nowhere. Of course, had she walked up the stairs instead of yelling at their base, I would have heard her coming and expected a shout. I replied on the same tone. “Okay. But I’m coming back tomorrow.”
“Whatever, just take your own car then. I’m not coming back before Saturday with the truck for the furniture. So, if you want to keep any, put on a Post-it on them.”
The furniture… Soon, the house will be empty of it. An empty shell, just like his head. Empty of the memories of creepy stories told on that twin bed. Of delicious meals savored at that dining table. Of peaceful family evenings with all of us pressed together on that couch to watch a movie on that TV. Of —
“Are you coming or not? ’Cause I got no problem leaving you behind!”
“Ugh… Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.” I set the pawn back and left the room. I’d collect the items tomorrow.
I had known better nights. I was restless and when sleep finally came, it brought over images of my grandfather at the end of his life. A sick old man, too thin to leave an imprint on his mattress, spending his days staring at the walls of his tiny room and looking right through them. Right through me…
I woke up with a sense of dread and sadness weighing on my every thought. I needed to combat the image. I wanted to remember him as something more than just a shell. I poured my morning coffee in a cup to go and hopped in the car as soon as my eyes could focus.
The house had not changed, of course. Why should it? Pain was not always visible.
I unlocked the front door and climbed up to the attic right away. It was cloudy today and the sun did not shine through the murky windows. Instead, bleak daylight seeped in, heightening the shadows rather than illuminating the scene.
The box I had started to fill with memories was waiting for me. I walked to the back where I knew the chessboard was. I made the decision, as soon as I left the house the previous day, that I would bring it with me, had it been carved by my grandfather or not. It was simply too beautiful to leave behind.
The corner where it stood was dark. I reached for my cellphone and tapped the flashlight application. The light blazed a trail in the shadows and encircled the chessboard. It still rested on the top of a brown box. The pieces were still aligned in their start-up position, except for the pawn that I had absentmindedly set back on a nearby space…
… and for the knight of the opposite team which had left its starting space and moved down its L-shaped path. A move I did not remember making.
I looked around. I was alone, of course. Nothing had fallen on the board. And there were certainly no open windows to let in a gust of wind strong and willful enough to move a single chess piece of solid wood over a row of pawns. This was a deliberate move.
And it wasn’t mine.
A crazy thought entered my mind. I decided to ignore the voice of reason in me and followed my crazy thought to the end. I moved my open rook.
The little boy in me — the one who’d wanted to believe in ghosts ever since he saw Casper — giggled. The adult was a lot more reluctant and showered me with rational explanations, but I paid it no mind. This was the house of my childhood. And so, I would listen to the child.
I sat in the dark, staring at the chess board, and I waited. And waited. And waited… Until finally, my morning coffee could no longer remain inside. I walked down the stairs, and went to the bathroom. I then raided what was still edible in the pantry. Satisfied, I climbed back to the attic and checked the board.
Nothing had changed.
I sighed, and gave up. I packed the game away.
It wasn’t until I unpacked it at home that I remembered I played chess as a child. I didn’t remember the chess pieces to be so beautiful, but I suddenly remembered the board very well. I could even remember it had a secret compartment. Something that used to make me see it like the treasure it was.
With rushed movements, I held the base and the checkered top and spun my hands in opposite direction. A click was heard, and I could slide the top off the base. My heart pounded as I discovered my childhood precious items: a rock, a dried-up flower, a brass army man, and a picture of my grandfather and me. My favorite picture of us.
I picked it up with great care as if it’d turned as fragile as the flower’s dried-up petals. A smile stretched my lips, but it left me seconds later as I discovered, engraved at the bottom of the compartment, something I knew was not there before. Four words…
Four simple words I had longed to hear. Four words that brought back the tears.
In careful calligraphy, anyone now could read them. “I remember you, Thomas.”
Had he written this before his illness? Before we brought him to the special care home? The child within me whispered that the answer was more difficult to grasp, more ethereal. I smiled again as I chose to believe it. If in life, his memories should be taken from him, it seemed only fair that in death, they were all he had left.