a space for youth writing & mental health discussion
a space for youth writing & mental health discussion
“We’re almost out of popsicles.” My daughter, Cassie, rooted languidly through the freezer.
I wiped sweat from my forehead and flipped through the mail, the paper going damp and soft in my hands. “I’ll get some the next time I go out.”
The crackle of a wrapper and the thud of her footstep responded for her.
She paused at the bottom of the stairs, gaze bored and diffuse. “What.”
“Any flavor you want?”
“Just get whatever.”
The stairs creaked as she climbed.
“You’re not going out with your friends today?”
Her brow crumpled and her mouth twisted into a grimace, the most expression I’d seen from her in a week. “It’s too damn hot. Everyone’s staying home.”
I stared at the mail as I straightened, then restraightened it. By the time I looked up, Cassie had almost disappeared into the second floor. “Why don’t we hang out today, then?”
She paused mid-step. “What?”
“We can, you know, talk, watch TV, play some games.” I rolled the corner of an envelope between my fingers, watching the paper crease until it came apart. “Like we used to.”
“I have summer homework, Mom. I should start it.”
“Just one game then. Chess. Remember how much you used to like it?”
Cassie had come down a few steps, but she sighed. “I don’t think I even know the rules anymore.”
“I’ll help you. You’ll definitely remember soon enough.” I tried to make eye contact. “Hey, maybe you’ll even win.”
She walked down the stairs with slow, heavy steps, lifting each foot then dropping it. Like its weight was a burden she didn’t want to carry.
The chessboard—hinged into a box, latches trapping pieces inside—squatted at the bottom of the bookshelf. I slid it out, dusted it off, brought it to the dining table. The pieces rattled restlessly with every step. Once freed, they poured out with a clatter and rolled across the table like soldiers rushing into battle. A few fell to the floor. I scrambled to pick them up, clutching them as I crawled across the carpet. Cassie watched from across the room, popsicle in hand, face a mask of amused boredom.
Once the pieces were sufficiently stilled on the table, I exhaled. Air whooshed out my lungs, sending a few more pieces rolling. One fell. “Cassie, come, sit.”
She trudged to the table and plopped into a chair.
“Should I explain the pieces?”
A tilt of the mouth. A shrug.
“Okay, then.” I showed her each piece as I set the board up, explaining their lines of movement.
Cassie stayed silent through my explanation and walked to the kitchen when I finished. A block of lead nested itself in my throat. I should have known. I looked at the worn chess pieces, saw her going to her room to call her friends or surf the internet, face suffused in the screen’s artificial glow. The trash can swung open, clanged shut.
Cassie reappeared and sat across from me, no popsicle stick in hand. “Whose move?”
I blinked. “You’re white, so you go first.”
Cassie stared at the board, chewing her lip.
“Remember, try to take control of the middle.”
She moved a pawn two squares forward.
“I’m not a little kid. Don’t treat me like one.”
Silence filled the room. It crept into the cracks in the table’s veneer, sank into the plush of the carpeted floor, punctuated only by the soft clicks of moving pieces.
I cleared my throat. “So, summer homework?”
Her finger ran across her rook’s parapet, pushed it forward. “Yeah.” My pawn fell, slain.
She glanced at me, then to the board. I made my move. Eyes narrowed, she studied the pieces. “Physics, English, French. Mostly French.”
“Need any help?”
“I’m good, thanks.” She slid her bishop into position to capture my queen, not noticing how it moved into the range of my knight.
“Careful, Cassie. Maybe rethink that move.”
Her fingers tightened on the piece. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
Though quiet, her words struck me across the face. “Excuse me?”
She lifted the piece and slammed it. The clack! resounded like a clap of thunder—a summer storm in the dining room. “I can make my own decisions.” She stared hard at the board. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“I wasn’t trying to—”
“Do it. Take the piece. I know you can.”
I moved my queen out of the way.
Cassie glared at me, eyes flat. She took a deep breath. Reached toward the board. Withdrew her hand. Her arm sliced through the air as she knocked the pieces away, every last one flying off the table. One crunched against the wall. The others rolled silently between our feet.
I opened my mouth, throat dry. “Cassie—”
“I’ll clean it up.” She knelt and began gathering the pieces in a pile, scooping them to the table. “Sorry.”
I stooped down to help. Moving around the room, I picked up pieces that had rolled out of her reach and passed them to her. We worked in quiet tandem, two parts of an assembly line collaborating to a common end. The air filled with the rustling of knees on carpet and the clinking of wood on wood. I found a king laying against the wall, its delicate cross snapped off and splayed out a few inches away. When I passed it to her, Cassie ran her finger over the break, then set it aside. We arranged the retrieved pieces into rows, counting as we went. Cassie tapped each one as she accounted for it. One, two, three.
Thirty-two wooden figures watched as we surveyed them. The wordless quiet—once occupied with the sounds of our cleaning—stretched like taffy.
I turned to Cassie. “Want to try again?”
A quiet scoff burst from her throat. “I don’t think chess is for me.” She swept the pieces into the board, latched it shut. “I can help with lunch, though?”
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.