Jul 9, 2009

Sample pages-A Profusion of Want

Click here to read the query.

I was sixteen years old the first time I met Grey Koniges, at a high school chess tournament in a crappy gym on a dreary day.

The bleachers were less than a quarter full, only the most tenacious of parents and contenders staying to watch the championship match. They shifted constantly under the fluorescent lights, searching for a comfortable position on the hard benches. Many stifled yawns, and a few grandparents and small children were asleep. One father’s pockets bulged with cash he’d gotten from selling the puzzles in his sudoku book to other parents for five dollars a piece; but all of the puzzles had been solved hours before and now all there was to do was wait, and watch. The only sounds were the recurring sniffle of a child with a bad cold and the light patter of rain against the roof and high, grimy windows.

Down on the main floor, folding card tables were arranged in a neat grid across the lines of the basketball court. All except one were laden with finished games, pawns discarded, queens attacking, kings fallen. Abandoned battlefields.

It had been a long day.

I wasn’t particularly good at chess. I had the potential to be, since I was intelligent enough and had been told—both by people who liked me and those who did not—that I had an aggressive and cunning mind. However, I lacked the interest or the patience. Protracted battles weren’t my thing. The only reason I was there at all was to get a few points extra credit from my math teacher, Mrs. Mendez, which would push my grade from a tenuous B- to a solid B.

Before the tournament, Mrs. Mendez had pulled me away from the chess team, whose pimply, super-intelligent members were somewhat skeptical about my participation, to reassure me that I wasn’t expected to win and that I should “just try to have a good time.”

Mrs. Mendez was new to the school. She didn’t know me well. She didn’t know that I didn’t start things if I thought I would do poorly in them, and I never, ever lost.

It was the last round of the tournament, and I was winning.

My opponent was a boy several years younger than me, small for his age, with thick glasses and thin limbs. I’d forgotten his name, but he looked like a Simon.

Simon had obviously skipped a few grades. As Mrs. Mendez had told me in an excited whisper, he’d blown through all of his previous games more quickly than was strictly polite. I, on the other hand, had won my previous five rounds through sheer determination and the occasional lucky guess.

Simon’s face was pinched as he examined our board, contemplating his next move. I had fewer pieces left than he did, but while most of his were pawns, most of mine weren’t. Finally he reached forward, setting one small hand on his queen, the beginnings of a grin on his face that I did not like at all. I could practically hear the audience take a collective deep breath.

“I’m going to win, you know,” I said, tapping one of my murdered pawns lightly against the edge of the table.

Simon blinked and pulled his hand away. The audience exhaled. “Oh yeah?” He tilted his head and squinted at me suspiciously.

“Yeah,” I said, leaning back in my squeaky chair and crossing my arms over my chest. I ignored the ache in my back from sitting in one position too long. “You know why?”

He twitched, his eyes darting from my face to the board and back again. “Why?”

I smirked. “Because I know exactly what you’re going to do next. You’re predictable. It’ll be all too easy.”

Come on, kid. Mess up, I thought intently.

“We’ll see about that,” he blustered, but now his forehead was furrowed and there was fear in his eyes. He reached for the queen again, his hand hovering over her. He stayed like that for almost a minute before he let out a put-upon sigh and moved his remaining bishop instead.

I smoothed a hand down my face to conceal my grin. Whatever Simon had been about to do with that queen would have been bad for me, I was sure. Even better, now that I’d made him flinch once, I knew how to do it again. A studied slouch to my posture, a certain gleam in my eye at the right time, and he was lost. Five moves later, Simon used his stubby pointer finger to tip over his king, then slumped back in his chair, staring at the board and wondering when, exactly, things had gone so wrong.

The moderator, who’d been struggling to stay awake while watching the progress of the game from a chair a few feet away, didn’t realize at first what had happened. It was only when I stood to shake Simon’s hand that his eyes widened and he leapt to his feet. He cleared his throat and announced, “Shale Peterson is the winner!”

The audience burst into a smattering of applause. Most of the parents headed eagerly for the exits, their disheartened children by their sides. A few came across the gymnasium floor to offer their congratulations, Mrs. Mendez foremost among them. She seemed to bounce with each step, beaming with astonished pride.

“I can’t believe it,” she told me, near tears. “I’m so proud of you, Shale.”

She seized me by the arm, her hands like pincers, and pulled me toward the mob of well-wishers and enthusiasts. They congratulated me and shook my hand and used a lot of chess terms I didn’t know.

“However did you think to set that trap for his knight?” one man asked.

I shrugged. “Intuition?”

They all laughed.

“Well, I knew all along that she would go far,” Mrs. Mendez kept saying, arm around my shoulders. “One of my best students, you know.” She winked and tapped my forehead with one long-nailed finger. “Mind like a steel trap.”

I didn’t much care for public attention—that wasn’t the reason I was so competitive—and the approbation from my fans quickly became too much. I tried to step back but found myself held in place by Mrs. Mendez’s iron grip. She was conversing so enthusiastically with a young man holding a notepad—a news reporter, perhaps—that she didn’t seem to have noticed my attempt to move.

Finally I smiled awkwardly and told the group, “Excuse me, I need to grab a drink of water.” With a twist of my body only possible because I was a tae kwon do student, I slipped out from under Mrs. Mendez’s arm and made my escape.

The water fountain was in an alcove out of sight of the main floor and for a few minutes I just leaned against the sticky wall with my eyes closed, feeling oddly tired. I could hear the murmur of voices and the squeaks of tennis shoes against the laminated wooden floor. After a moment I realized that I really was thirsty and held down the round metal button, only to watch in annoyance as a dribble of water seeped half-heartedly from the spout.

“Some might say that that was bad sportsmanship.” The voice came from behind me, and was rich and deep and sounded like it should have had a British accent.

I jerked with surprise, banging my hip painfully against the fountain as I spun around to face the man who had spoken. He was very tall, and handsome in a way-too-old-for-me kind of way, with a firm jaw and a full head of thick black hair that had a hint of white at the edges. His suit looked expensive, not that I was any kind of judge. A half-smile played along his lips. He had the most extraordinary grey eyes—piercing and intelligent and unsettling.

Suddenly chilled, I rubbed my arms, feeling goose bumps.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, leaning away from him and setting my chin in that stubborn way my mother hated. “I never broke the rules.”

I wasn’t sure why he made me feel so uncomfortable. We were in a public place; if I raised my voice there was a crowd of people who would rush to my aid.

“I never said you did,” he said. “Nor am I chastising you. That was well done.”

Oh. That was unexpected. And didn’t make me any better. “Thanks.” He seemed to be waiting for me to say something else, and at last I blurted, “Are you some kind of chess talent scout or something? Because I’m not interested.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I’m a scout, of sorts, but not of chess,” he said.

His hands were empty, but he gave his right hand a little flourish and suddenly he was holding a business card between his index and middle finger. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. I was a little too old to be impressed by magic tricks. He held out the card and I took it, tucking it into the pocket of my jeans without looking at it.

“I’m Grey. Grey Koniges,” he said, keeping his hand out.

The name sent a strange little tingle down my spine. It felt like a warning.

I hesitated. In most situations I didn’t go around giving my name to strangers. Of course, that caution seemed silly given the way my name, in bold, capital letters, was currently being pinned at the top of the tournament chart for all to see.

“Shale,” I said, taking his hand, which was pleasantly warm, and making sure that my grip was as strong as his.

“Interesting name,” he said.

I nodded, extracting my hand from his. There was the briefest moment of resistance, as if he didn’t want to let me go.

“Isn’t it, though. It was nice to meet you.” I shoved my hands in my pockets and began to walk away.

“Weren’t you going to have a drink?” he called after me.

I turned back, my eyes narrowed. “The fountain doesn’t work.”

“Oh?” He leaned over the water fountain, pressed the button, and took a long, slow gulp as sparkling water arched from the spout.

6 comments:

Rick Daley said...

Regan,

As with your query, I was drawn in right away. Your writing is very tight. I will be astounded if you don't find success in the near future.

Suzan Harden said...

All I can say is-WOW!

Bane of Anubis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bane of Anubis said...

Regan, nice chapter - nice ending.

You set up atmosphere/environment nicely (two things I don't do at all well, so I'm envious :)

A few minor nits:

The father w/ cash in his pockets from selling sudoku puzzles seems out of place (giving them out seems a bit more neighborly b/c you don't want to be seen as the avaricious chess parent, IMO - but if you've seen such things, by all means keep it in -- though I think he'd put the cash in a wallet :).

'It had been a long day.' -- Probably okay to tell us what you just showed fairly well, but unneeded, IMO.

'I wasn't particularly good at chess' -- 'good' might not be the correct word b/c she obviously just swept through the competition -- 'good' works okay, still, IMO, b/c we get the gist, but there's a better word out there, IMO.

The grade (B- to B)strikes me as odd -- if Shale is this bad-ass who can instantly win chess tournaments, I'm thinking she'd be going from an (A to A+ -- also, why would the math teacher want Shale to participate in Chess if she's a middle-range student?) -- I realize you're trying to paint the slacker persona somewhat (or at least that's what I think you're doing), but if she's in that vein, she wouldn't care about EC and wouldn't do it via a day-long boring chess tournament, IMO.

The Simon characterization is nice, but a bit cliched... yeah, I know, most chess team members are like that, but I think it'd be kinda cool if 'Simon' were a bit non-stereotypical.

Finally, I think you can get rid of some of your adverbs (e.g., thought "intently" -- the whole tag can probably go -- squinted at me "suspiciously", banging my hip "painfully" etc.).

Anyway, these are all minor things. The flow and voice of the chapter are good and the ending builds nicely.

jbchicoine said...

I’m not the least bit interested in chess, but I had no problem slipping right into the scene. “in a crappy gym on a dreary day” says a great deal in a few words. Your prose is smooth and a pleasure to read. I was a little distracted, not knowing until near the end, what gender the main character was, but overall, I loved it!

Julie said...

This is really interesting and grabs me right away. I love that it's so action packed but you still managed to slip in little bits of back story without losing the interest of the reader.

I can't wait to read the whole book!