Joy of Checkers (Short Story)

The world has forgotten its history and now resides in a rustic shadow of its former glory. But one little girl determines to share her memories no matter what.

This was my second short story for my Advanced Creative Writing class. As I did with the last one, I had to write a literary short story that focused on characters more than plot, but I decided to again defy the expected and wrote a science fiction literary story.

The main characters live in a post-modern world that’s intended to allude to the current political mindset of “forget our history, forget our mistakes.” The government in the story has erased its history, and anyone caught remembering or recording past events are taken into custody.

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The stretch of hemp fibers and rawhide creaked as a lone archer drew back his primitive bow from a crook in the maple tree. The fletching caught the golden hue of sunset dribbling through the trees, every fiber glistening in fire. The archer shifted his weight in the maple, carefully balancing his position in order to follow the deer picking its way through the underbrush, unaware that a stone arrowhead carefully tracked its heart from above.

Aaren swallowed. His tongue peeked out from between tight lips as he squinted at his prey—an expression he’d adopted at six years old, when he first began to hunt with a bow. The deer turned its backside to Aaren, blocking the path to its heart with its own body.

The bowstring cut deep into the backside of Aaren’s knuckles as he waited for the beast to turn. While the seconds ticked by, his eyes stayed alert, but his mind wandered. This place—it did things like that: make his mind amble where and when it shouldn’t. Before Aaren had a chance to retrieve his wayward thoughts, he’d already recognized this clearing—remembered what happened here all those years ago when he and his brother were young. The bear that reared up behind Evan . . . the way the leaves glistened scarlet after the battle . . . the Community’s ritual and promise to forget the accident in order to stay strong and move on together with one comrade fewer. No one had spoken his brother’s name since.

Aaren cursed his mind’s disobedience. If only the Community knew that he sometimes remembered Evan and the bear incident, they’d send a runner to the Authorities immediately, who would then reprove Aaren and his family via phone call. No one but the Community Mayor actually knew what a phone call was, but Aaren didn’t want to find out. To remember the past blinded him to what was possible in the future—at least that’s what he’d always been told.

A snap of a twig caused the deer to yank its head skyward, white tail vertical in apprehension. A sloshing of leaves followed, and the deer bounded toward the horizon.

Aaren’s fingers let the arrow fly, fletching whipping past his forearm in pursuit of the runaway kill. The arrow dropped to the forest floor, doing no better than skewering a few fall leaves. Aaren reached to load another arrow, but the deer dipped into the underbrush and disappeared for good. He snorted through his nose, a small puff of breath escaping from his nostrils, before he glared in the direction the intrusion had sounded from.

There. A short figure weaved through the trees, blond hair ablaze in the dying light. Aaren slid from his perch and landed soundlessly below, slung his bow over his shoulder opposite his quiver, and crept after her, ignoring the Authorities’ teachings of forgetting the past, letting go of what’s already happened. That girl had cost him his kill.

The saboteur proved to be a poorly skilled traverser of the forest. Her feet swished through the brittle leaves, and twigs snapped and popped every three feet. Aaren squatted low, torso erect, and followed toe to heel. After a moment, Aaren could see the girl more clearly. She was young, maybe half his age if he had to guess, with flowing golden hair and bright clothes that clashed with the nature around her. In her arms she hefted several small sticks, a few rocks, and a handful of beech leaves from the surrounding trees. Unknowingly, she led Aaren to a flowing creek, swelled from last week’s rain, and a bridge stretching over its width.

The girl stopped abruptly in the center of the bridge, making Aaren have to duck down beside it for fear of being spotted. She crouched, sat, and crossed her legs as she began arranging her natural treasures out before her like a puzzle. Aaren watched from his hiding space, deer nearly forgotten now that he was entranced with the girl’s odd ritual. The longer he watched, the more confused he became as he observed her picking up a leaf, moving it, then picking up a rock, moving it as well, then moving the leaf again.

Inexplicably, the girl looked up and her eyes met his. Aaren tensed, wishing he could meld into the forest and go unseen, but the girl’s lips twisted into a smile as a small hand lifted in a friendly wave. “Hey! Doya wanna play checkers with me? It’s hard with just one player.”

Aaren stood, indignant over the fact that a child had spotted him. A child who couldn’t take two steps in the woods without scattering all the creatures that lived in them. “I don’t know what checkers is,” he said. “I’m working anyways.”

“By hiding under a bridge?” The girl patted a spot on the smooth bridge invitingly. “I can teach you. It’s not a hard game. And it’s my favorite, so I’m really good at teaching it.”

Aaren sighed. He wouldn’t have any more luck tonight with the fauna anyway. Not after the girl’s scavenger hunt chased them all off. He trudged over to her, feet floating toe to heel automatically across the wood. The girl cocked her head at his gait. “Why doya walk like that?”

“It’s quieter. You should try it sometime,” Aaren muttered as he folded down across from the girl. Up close, he could see what she’d done with the sticks, rocks, and leaves. The sticks had been arranged into a square of some kind, with lots of smaller squares inside. The rocks occupied the squares on her side, and the leaves occupied the squares on his side.

“I don’t have a real checkerboard,” the girl said, completely missing Aaren’s remark. “I’ve always wanted one, though, but the Authorities don’t like anything old, Mom says.”

Aaren tensed. “This is Authority banned?”

The girl shrugged as she rearranged the rocks and sticks so they all lined up in their own squares. “Yeah, but a lot of what we do is Authority banned, Mom says. She says they don’t like it when we write books and tell stories or keep things from before all the Communities were made. But our Community does anyway.” She looked at Aaren closely, a suspicious scowl marring her childlike face. “You won’t tell, right? Mom says I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

Aaren shook his head and found himself saying, “I won’t tell,” before he got a chance to think about it. Her mention of books had sent his mind reeling, trying to remember what he knew about them. He was pretty sure the Community Mayor had books, but he’d never seen one before. People said books helped remembering and that it stunted Community development.

The girl seemed satisfied with his answer. “I’m Joy, by the way. What’s your name?”

“Aaren.”

“It’s sad you’ve never played,” Joy said. “It helps me relax when I’m tired of working.”

“Well I’m always working.” Aaren rolled his shoulders again, using his gruff voice to make him sound even older than he was. But Joy didn’t seem impressed. She just tightened her lips sympathetically as she finished rearranging the game pieces.

“Okay. You be leaves. I’ll be rocks. You have to get your leaves to my side of the board, and I have to get my rocks to your side. You have to jump over my rocks and capture them to win, and I have to jump over your leaves to win. Does that make sense?”

Aaren struggled through two rounds of checkers before he finally understood its point, but the game didn’t intrigue him as much as Joy and the subjects she talked of did. She explained the game had been played for thousands of years all across the world. She mentioned odd places like Iraq and Egypt where the game had first come from, and all the famous people she wondered who might have played it—names like George Washington, Caesar Augustus, and Kubli Khan—none of which Aaren had ever heard of.

“Did George Washington come from Egypt?” he asked as he jumped her rock. It was his fifth rock captured so far, and he felt pretty proud of it—until Joy jumped two of his leaves.

“No, silly,” Joy sneered. “George Washington came from America. He fought in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Egypt was on the other side of the world.”

“Well then—what was the Revolutionary War?”

“It was a war for America’s independence. They didn’t want to be a part of England anymore, so they decided to fight for their land and freedom. And they won, too.”

Aaren left the bridge that night with more questions than he had answers. The deer had been completely forgotten, and what replaced it in his mind were thoughts of books, wars, and Washingtons. While listening to Joy explain what she called “world history,” he decided her Community must have been one of those outlaw Communities he’d heard about—the ones that kept remembering, even when they were told not to. He’d always heard that the outlaws were primitive tribals, but he wasn’t so sure now that Joy had taught him so much in one meeting.

Every night that week, Aaren slipped off into the woods, eager to hear of the banned history. By the third day, he’d beaten Joy at her own game and learned they both lived in a territory that had been called Virginia back when Washington lived. The illegal activity made him squirrelly, worried that the Community might discover them, but his desire for knowledge and his budding friendship with Joy was growing faster than he could control. She was funny, bright, and always smiling—three things he rarely saw within his own Community. The Community Mayor, instead of greeting his comrades with a wave like Joy did, would only squint with his small, beetle eyes set in the center of a large, moon-like face that bunted under his chin. His attitude always caught in the comrades’ souls like pneumonia caught in a pair of lungs, and Aaren rarely saw anyone match Joy’s happy, care-free demeanor.

As the months grew colder and as snow began to frost the trees and ice chilled the creek beneath the bridge, Joy taught him about Christmas—about the manger and holly leaves. Angels and carols and fat men dressed in red pajamas. . . .

“If we still had Christmas,” she sighed one evening, “you know what I would wish for?”

“What?” Aaren asked, moving his leaf to jump two of her rocks. He paused to rub his hands together and blow hot breath in the hollow of his palms while Joy took her turn.

“A real checkerboard,” the girl breathed, a stream of crystalized breath tumbling from her chilled lips. She looked skyward with a smile Aaren saw regularly whenever she talked about something that excited her. “One made of maple wood, all sanded down smooth and everything, with painted flat pucks for the checker pieces.” Her face fell then, the light dimming in her eyes as Aaren watched her return to the present. “But of course…Christmas doesn’t happen anymore.”

Well, Aaren was going to make it happen. With the colder season coming in, the demand for food grew higher and his availability to meet with Joy became less and less. Still, she would visit the bridge and wave at him if she could spot his perch in a tree nearby, her little form a silhouette against the the shadows as she stood in a pool of footprints on the snowy bridge. He always risked his cover from the deer by waving back.

And in the late nights, by firelight, Aaren worked. He whittled away at the maple wood he’d hewn down himself. Cross-legged by the campfire, the only comrades who passed him in the night were the scouts. Whenever their shadow crossed his lap, he’d sit on his work and warm his hands by the fire, thinking up poor excuses for being up at night.

The carving was slow and arduous, since he only learned by watching the whittlers who sat by the chopping blocks, but many bleeding fingers later, the checkerboard was a completed. He sat admiring his work, realizing he actually enjoyed relaxing over a hobby and not exclusively slaving over survival. The final touch was a simple one, but one he thought Joy would appreciate. He flipped the board over to expose its underside, where he carved “Joyful Christmas” into the wood. He thought it was a more clever touch than “Merry Christmas.”

The day that the snow started to slush and the first bird flew back to its familiar perch, Aaren trudged into the woods, checkerboard propped under his arm. He faded in and out of the line of trees, making his way to the bridge, expecting to find Joy waiting for him there, but there were no recent footprints or snapped twigs that suggested she’d visited recently.

He waited all day. And all the next.

By the time the snow had vanished completely, Aaren still heard no word from Joy. Desperate, he risked asking questions whenever the Community Mayor wasn’t loping along the paths: was there a Community in the woods? Has anyone seen a little girl with blond hair? Has there been any Authority activity over the winter he hadn’t heard of?

The answer? Was yes. Yes, Authorities had swept the woods at the end of December. They found an outlaw Community. No one knew or cared what happened to its occupants.

The day Aaren realized he might never see Joy again was the first day he’d grieved since Evan was killed. But he refused to say why, even when the Community Mayor raised a thin, questioning eyebrow in Aaren’s direction. Instead, he took to hunting again. Harder than ever. He shot rabbits and deer—even a couple of bears—always hoping that a curtain of blond hair would catch the fading sunlight and distract his aim. But of course it never did. He’d lost his Joy.

But he refused to let her memory slip into the dark crevice so many other painful pasts resided. He refused to let her end up like Evan—a forgotten friend and brother who slipped effortlessly down the memory hole to the whim of the Authorities and Community.

Oh, but remembering wasn’t weakness. Forgetting wasn’t strength. Joy had taught him that during their first meeting—their first game of checkers.

While the first birds of the season chirped proudly from the edge of the woods, Aaren sat beside the ashy Community fire pit, wet from an early rain, as he examined the checkerboard he’d spent so many sleepless nights creating. The temptation to hurl it against the woodpile was almost too great, but his vow to remember Joy always quenched the desire. Instead, he found himself running his fingers along the sanded edges, sliding the game pieces along the stained squares, and imagining what move Joy would make next if she were playing with him.

“Whatcha doing?”

Aaren glanced up at a young boy, bow in hand, standing over him quizzically. He looked to be about the same age as Joy . . . and, come to think of it, he looked a lot like Evan had.

“Just . . . playing a little game,” he muttered, rolling his shoulders defensively.

The boy plopped down across from him and the board. “What’s it called?”

“Checkers.”

“I’ve never heard of checkers before,” he said after a moment. “How’d you get it?”

“I made it. It . . . it was a Christmas gift for a friend.” A burning in Aaren’s chest made him pause, as he realized it was his job to give the boy what Joy had given him: memories. He smiled. “I can teach you how to play . . . and I can tell you about Christmas, too, if you’d like.”

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