PAWN TAKES KING by Jonathan McLaughlin (2nd place, Prompt Mar22)

As I sat in my office, stumped over a crossword puzzle asking me for a six letter word for a legendary Greek king, my leg couldn’t stop shaking. My eyes wandered aimlessly over the six blank spaces, unable to focus, lost in my overwhelming urge – no, obligation – to finally visit my old friend, Sarge. Even though Sarge was only a few floors below in the laboratory area, it had been years since I had last visited him; partly out of fear, but mostly out of guilt.

We’d known each other for what felt like a lifetime, having first met during my tour days in Vietnam, but for years I’d pretended he no longer existed. To be honest, I was too ashamed to face him after all of the suffering I’d put him through.

However, knowing Sarge and his impeccable memory, my appearance today would not come as a surprise to him. If anything, he would be expecting me, knowing it would be a permanent chip on my shoulder to just retire, walk off into the sunset, and fade away into pensionary bliss with a loose end still hanging.

When my wall clock chimed, indicating the time to be five o’clock, and with my leg still racing beneath my desk, I settled into the fact that I wouldn’t be putting in a full night. After all, what could they do? Fire me? That wouldn’t matter at this point.

I’d already given the institute everything I had – my health, my marriage, my kids, my whole godforsaken life – so what was there left to lose?

I tucked the newspaper – the crossword puzzle still mocking me – into my briefcase for later, placed my pencil into its holder atop my desk, slung my coat over my arm, and headed for the door. After one long disdainful look over the small, dusty room I’d spent a career in, I shut the door. Following the protocol drilled into me since my basic training, I locked it twice, then reluctantly headed for the stairs leading to the basement for one final meeting.

*

I reached level B16, paused outside of a non-descript door reading ‘Analytical Intelligence’, released a fretful sigh, and swiped my card on the security pad. The light on the pad turned a welcoming green, then with a loud series of pneumatic clicks, the steel reinforced door groaned open. A tepid gust of positive pressure air blew the foul stench of wildlife mixed with faeces deep into my nostrils, gagging me.

‘Is that you Norman?’ a voice asked in a cut-glass accent from a dark corner at the far end of the empty laboratory.

I walked toward the backend of the room, passing by a single row of empty cages lining the wall, stopping once I reached the final and largest cage.

‘Hello Sarge.’

‘I’ve been expecting you,’ Sarge stated calmly through the voice-box strapped to his throat.

Sarge sat pontifically on the dangling branch of a small Asiatic tree we’d brought in to mimic his former habitat. He had aged significantly since my last visit; the once golden fur around his face now had a peppering of grey and white, while his formerly pinkish face had grown more ashen and wrinkled. The keloid scarring around the divots where we’d surgically implanted the probes into his brain had healed into a dotting of leathery masses.

‘Of course you were,’ I began, ‘I’d expect nothing less from you. And of course, you also know why I’m here.’

I grabbed a stool from a station containing several monitors used for displaying EEG imaging of the laboratory’s many inhabitants, including Sarge.

‘But of course old chum, you’ve returned to enjoy your final humiliation,’

Sarge jeered while scratching at his armpit. ‘And if I recall the timeline of our relationship correctly, and your timeline at this atrociously malevolent institution, then you’re set for greener pastures by the end of today.’

‘Impeccable memory, as always,’ I said, opening a drawer beneath the EEG monitors. Reaching in, I dusted away a few scraps of paper, and retrieved what I was looking for – a small cardboard box containing a chessboard and pieces.

‘I do hope you’ve dedicated more time to practice since our last match, when I massacred you,’ mocked Sarge.

‘You know, when I first met you, you’d throw your feces at the wall,’ I barbed.

‘And you’d clean them,’ he replied. ‘So, really, who was indeed the master?’

I opened his cage gate, placed the chessboard down at the foot of his branch, and assembled the pieces on both sides.

‘You must also remember my promise then?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well then, let’s begin.’

The match was over in no more than four minutes. I’d like to say it was a new record for Sarge, but then I’d be lying.

‘You let me win,’ his box toned.

‘Maybe. But a promise is a promise.’

‘You know what will happen if they catch you?’ said his box, perfectly

emulating concern.

‘What can they do? Fire me?’

*

Outside the institute, the dusk redness was quickly giving way to a bright east coast evening. A sullen breeze wafted through the pines and maples, rattling them gently, their full green needles and leaves holding firm to their rooting.

Before I could give him permission, Sarge leaped out from under the coat folded over my forearm, scaling the nearest tree, before pausing momentarily to glance back at me, now free from his lifelong prison.

‘Sarge,’ I called out to him from across the courtyard, his form hidden in the canopy above. ‘I have one last question. What is a six letter word for a legendary Greek king?’

‘Rhesus,’ he stated without hesitation, before unceremoniously removing his voice box and smashing it off the floor of the Boreal. Swinging freely into the thick green lushness, he bellowed a final, primal howl.

‘You’ve done it again, Sarge.’ I muttered, heading towards my car, escaping my own lifelong prison. ‘You made a monkey out of me.’

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