The recess bell pierced through the hallways like a needle puncturing a piece of soft velvet. Students threw back their chairs and stampeded towards the classroom door. I grabbed my leather jacket and stepped into the unfamiliar corridors. Alone, I walked down the deserted hall.
It all started when my dad got fired from his job at the post office. My mom had to work two jobs at a time just to feed us. Our family had to rent out our house to strangers for extra cash. We couldn’t afford private school after that, so we decided to start fresh and moved to Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Being a transfer in the middle of January made it ten times harder. Especially on your first day.
I burst through the doors and onto the recess yard. There were kids dribbling basketballs, playing on the monkey bars, reading, drawing, and playing tag. I spotted one of the kids from my math group, the only class I had taken so far at this new school.
“Hey,” I said as I walked over to the boy. “I’m Tanner. I came here from Connecticut.”
The boy looked up at me and walked away.
I scanned the horizon for any other place to sit. That is when I saw the chessboard.
I strode over to the chessboard. Before saying anything, I took in the atmosphere. There were four kids clustered around the board. They all had a somewhat intense vibe. Two of the kids were engaged in the game while the other two kids watched intently. One of the players had darkish brown hair and piercing blue eyes. The other kid had thick, black glasses.
I watched as glasses kid slid his rook onto A-5; not a very good move. It opened a hole in his castle. Blue-eyes immediately slammed his queen down onto H-2.
“Checkmate,” said Blue-eyes.
“Good game,” said the glasses kid as he reached his hand across the board. The victor shook it.
“Hey guys, can I play?” I questioned.
“Do you even know how to play?” asked the winner.
“Yeah…” I said. “It’s my favorite game.”
“Sure,” said the blue-eyed kid. “You probably won’t win though, so don’t get your hopes up too high,” he warned. “My name is Dexter. You can take a seat right over there.”
I sat down on the smooth, wooden bench.
“So,” began Dexter. “Hand me all of those black pieces.”
“Actually, can I be black?” I pleaded. “It’s my lucky color.”
“No,” said Dexter. “I am black and always will be. Now hand me those pieces.”
I ignored him. “Can’t we at least flip a coin?” I tried.
Dexter thought for a moment. “Sure.”
* * *
I handed all of the black pieces to Dexter and set up the white pieces on my first two ranks. A few kids gathered around the table, waiting anxiously to see who the victor would be.
“Go,” Dexter snarled.
The buzz of the playground slowly blurred around me, leaving Dexter and me as the only ones in focus. I took a deep breath in and slowly let it out.
I instinctively moved my king pawn up two spaces. The casual opening move. Dexter glared at me hard before copying the king pawn move. I slid my G-1 knight to F-3. This time, Dexter advanced his bishop, pinning my queen pawn. I squinted at the board, trying to catch an early threat. I decided to try the Fried Liver Fork, to test how good he was at reading attacks. I moved my bishop into attacking position. Dexter didn’t see the threat. He pushed his queen pawn one space. I continued my tactic, moving my knight into position.
One of the kids sitting next to Dexter leaned to the side and whispered something into his ear. Dexter’s face lit up as he thwarted my attack. He gave me a smug look.
Pretty stupid, I thought as I saw he could’ve taken my knight. I quickly moved it into a safer position.
I zoned out as Dexter prepared his next move.
What if I lose this game? I thought. Will I still be an outsider? Will kids like me more if I win? Or maybe they’ll think I’m a show-off, trying to be smug and cool. Maybe the…
“Your turn,” said Dexter, interrupting my thoughts.
Dexter had castled, leaving himself in a great defensive position. My palms began to sweat as I scanned the board for a good offensive move, looking for a weak spot in his lines to attack. There. His king pawn was completely unguarded beside the king.
If I could set up a Roman Blitz right on that spot, I could end this game, I thought.
I decided to try it.
As the minutes passed, more kids accumulated around the table. They were watching with a little dash of pity for me, knowing that Dexter would come out victorious. Dexter still had that smug look on his face, like it was plastered there. I looked behind me, just to see how many supporters there were on my side. Not one soul stood behind me. I turned back to the game.
After several intense moments, one of Dexter’s supporters pulled out a chess clock.
“You guys are taking too long. Recess ends in twenty minutes. We’ll give you each ten minutes to start out with,” the kid with the clock said as he wound the numbers to ten.
The clock thumped down on the metal table with a clang.
“Go,” said the clock boy.
* * *
The sounds were getting to me. Each time the clock ticked, it felt like a small chisel was digging into my skin. My heartbeat matched the clock’s ticks perfectly and beads of sweat dribbled down to my eyebrows. One kid was gently drumming his fingers right next to my hand. My quick, angry glance in his direction made him stop.
My king was stuck. Trapped by my own pieces. That was exactly how I felt. Stuck in this new world, away from my old life. This chess game was what ranked me in this new territory. Win, and I might be a leader in this unknown world. I might be the Dexter to other kids, someone to look up to, under pressure to do perfect things, never mess up. Lose, and I might be a simple follower, submerged below the radar, just like Dexter’s cronies, forced to go along with what he says.
Both lives are not for me.
This was the deciding moment. The endgame. Where one mistake could decide your entire future. This was it.
Dexter was in a terrible position. After making a mass attack with my queen, I had left his forces crippled. It was down to the wire. Dexter’s smug grin was wiped off his face. He looked scared. Dexter had two minutes left on his clock and I had one minute left. I had a mate-in-one. Glaring in front of me like a piece of silver. Dexter moved. I still had the mate.
Ten seconds left. My hand wavered over my rook, the checkmate piece. Five seconds. I closed my eyes, made up my mind, and…