A gentle knock corrupts Bennett’s desperation as he glares through the aged, single-pane window. He’s watching a white, frosty blanket as it further embanks his car to the side of Whisper Lane. Knowing no one in this bed and breakfast, or even in the town, he hunches slightly and walks to the door.
He opens it to a wide crack and sneaks a glance at the intruder just long enough to note his countenance. He maintains an anxious, insistent stare behind the door as the gentleman speaks.
“Sir, most of the patrons are down in the den listening to the weather and playing cards. There’s hot tea and light snacks. Would you care to join them?”
“Not at this time, thank you.”
“Perhaps in a bit?”
“Very well, sir. My name is Tom. If you need anything, I will be downstairs. Do join soon sir—it will help to pass the time.”
“Thank you, Tom. I-I may; just not right now.”
Tom stands there, which causes Bennett to feel impolite for not making eye contact, so he glances over at him before the steward turns and walks away.
“Everything ok?” He types into his phone and then stares at the screen as a voice bubble blinks ellipses back at him. “OMG” she responds and the phone begins to vibrate, showing her picture as she calls, then the screen turns black. Trying everything possible to turn it back on, he panics as the device remains unresponsive.
He resumes his spot by the window to brood and wait an ample amount of time before trying again.
Nearly piled to the bottom of a tire swing in a neighbor’s yard, the endless drifts relentlessly entrap Bennett while his mind nags him with wonder about his wife. The painful scene becomes darker and filled with more static from the billowing flakes that seem to grow larger every moment. Still unresponsive, the phone sails onto the bed with frustration and over the side onto the wooden planks of the ancient floor.
Another knock skewers Bennett’s anger, transforming him with embarrassment. Tom has returned with a tray of tea and some scones that appear homemade.
“I brought you some refreshments, since I gather you may be up here awhile.”
“Oh, yes, thank you.”
Bennett reaches for the tray, but Tom does not relent.
“Do you mind if I bring it in? I’ve never had much luck passing trays of this magnitude.”
“Of course… I’m sorry, I didn’t want to keep you.”
“Where could anyone possibly go in this mess, sir?”
“Yes, I know. I wouldn’t want to presume that I could address you by first name without permission.”
“Well, it’s fine, Tom. Thank you, I appreciate that.”
Bennett enjoys Tom’s attention to geniality.
Accepting a cup of tea from him, Bennett senses he is being rude by not striking up a conversation.
“Have you been here long?”
Laughing slightly, “Forever, sir. Really.”
“Well, you must have experienced this type of thing before, I suppose”
“Oh, yes. This happens every year. If it isn’t the snow in the winter it’s torrential spring showers or summer storms. Patrons are always getting stuck here.”
“Must be good for business,” Bennett replies—blushing slightly at his attempted humor.
“Indeed,” Tom chuckles.
“I guess you stay pretty busy tending to such a large house…”
“Yes,” Tom replies as he bends down with a grunt to retrieve Bennett’s device from the floor. “I control everything in this place.”
“Thank you. It stopped working earlier. I don’t know what’s wrong—it’s fully charged.”
“That’s technology for you, sir. If you need to make a call, feel free to use the house phone. The service here is quite formidable.”
“Really? Thank you so much. You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll leave you to your refreshments and give you some privacy. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Okay. You have been more than hospitable—I will stay out of your hair,” replied Bennett with an instant pang of regret, assuming that it sounded like he was implying he wanted to be left alone.
“Very good, Sir.” said Tom, exiting promptly.
Bennett, placing a scone in his mouth to free a hand, sits next to the antique phone and takes the earpiece from its cradle. Forgetting at first that he needs to enter a one before his wife’s number, he starts over, spinning its rotary dial.
After several attempts, the phone no longer produces a dial tone. He sits on the bed and stares at the old contraption, thinking about where his wife might be, and wondering if she’s safe. He begins cursing himself for not leaving a couple hours earlier that morning and ruminating his troubles.
A light tap on the door rouses him from grim meanderings. He knows it is Tom again and hurries to the door.
“Hi Tom. Have the phone lines been affected, do you know?”
“Not to my knowledge. They rarely fail us here. Were you cut off during your call?”
“No. I couldn’t get her on the line, but then it went dead.”
There is a flat wooden box in Tom’s hands. It is covered in a black and white checkerboard pattern.
“Do you play chess?”
Bennett just stares back at him, puzzled by the man’s invitation.
“Yes, I suppose,” he mutters with a shallow breath. “I’ve never been very good at it.”
“That’s alright. I’ll go easy on you,” Tom says through a smile.
“Tom, I’m afraid I’m not much in the mood for games and…”
“Most of the other visitors have retired, Bennett. I’m afraid you’re my only hope. Perhaps some company will help you take your mind off of your wife’s predicament. Not to sound callous, but we are powerless against all forces outside of this house.”
Feeling that to resist now would appear outright rude, Bennett accepts Tom into his room and accompanies him to the table where there is still some tea and scones.
“I am quite good at the game, but it is rather dull to play without a challenge, so I’ll coach you a bit; for, it’s also uninteresting to play against someone to whom you are not an equal match.”
“That’s very kind of you. Let’s just play and we’ll see how bad I am first.” Bennett shrinks at his own audacity, but puffs back out quickly to hide his lack of confidence.
“I enjoy your spirit. Here—you can play white. You’re turn.”
Bennett pulls a pawn out two spaces ahead of where it sat in front of his queen.
“Ah yes, it seems only natural to play the peons first, doesn’t it? I’ll follow.”
They continue with innocuous moves, maintaining light conversation.
“How long have you been married?
“Long enough to feel loss when we’re separated.”
Tom looks up at him.
“I’m sorry. Ten years this coming March.”
“I appreciate privacy, Bennett. You don’t have to reveal much to me.”
“No, it’s not that I—“ Pausing to gather his thoughts, “I’m just concerned about her is all.”
“I understand. It’s your turn.”
“Do you mind if I try calling her again? You can stay here; if she doesn’t answer we’ll just resume the game.”
“Of course. Try her again. I’ll pour us some tea while I wait.”
Bennett rises and walks toward the phone, noticing the storm had settled a bit.
“Don’t let it deceive you, son. There are many unpredictable patterns to these events.”
“Yes, I suppose. I guess I’m just hoping to get through.”
Bennett pulls the receiver and raises it next to his ear but there’s still no dial tone, just incessant silence creating the effect of howling winds.
“It sounds like the storm has moved into the phone line.”
“It’s dead. No dial tone.”
“Well that’s unusual, but not unheard of. I do apologize.”
“Whose turn is it? Wait. How have you gotten me into check already?”
“The most common cause of being a poor chess player is not paying attention.”
“I’m paying attention, I just went to use the phone.”
“Yes, and while you were asking about using the phone I moved my rook into position to place you in check. Now, all is not lost, but you may lose your queen if you’re not careful.”
“Okay. I thought I was… I didn’t notice your positioning here.”
“Well, I know I’m not coaching you on this round, but I must say, one should always note their opponent’s positioning.”
Tom’s delivery of such admonishment is so gentle and fatherly that Bennett can’t help but find it endearing. He crouches over the board and examines his options.
“You travel often, don’t you?”
“Yes, how can you tell?”
“I observe things, is all.”
“To determine that I am travelling is one thing, but how do you know I travel frequently.”
“I know many things about you that you have yet to fully reveal.”
“That’s a bit unsettling, Tom.”
“I only mean that when you serve people most of your life, you learn the characteristics of types.”
Bennett looked down at the board again.
“Most people who stay here do so for the conviviality. I could tell you were out of your element by the way you stayed upstairs, though I beckoned you to come downstairs. How you’ve situated yourself here, speaks volumes about your personality.”
“Really? How so?”
“Before I came on here I was quite reserved, as you are. I was very much like you.”
“Well, you may not believe this, but when I first came here I was a guest just like you.”
Bennett looks up at him, puzzled.
“I too travelled often for work, granted not as far or as fast as you, but I was constantly moving about—always leaving my wife at home.”
“It’s terrible isn’t it? I wish I were there now…”
“My wife hated it, and I didn’t care for it either.”
“So, what? You loved this B&B so much you bought it and moved your wife here?”
“God, no. My wife never came here… Check.”
Bennett is very intrigued by this odd revelation but doesn’t let on too much.
“Go on,” Bennett pries, then, noticing the game, “Man! How are you doing this to me?”
“Positioning, son. You must mind the board.”
“So, how did you end up here?”
“Alright, alright. I didn’t frequent boarding houses during my travels either. It’s been so long I am not ashamed to admit that I often just camped outside of towns.”
Tom spits a little tea at this.
“Camped! Wasn’t that dangerous? Were you ever robbed?”
“No, of course not. It was a very different time then. The towns were much smaller and most of the people were too occupied with their own lives to care about what I was doing.”
“You talk as if it were the nineteenth century or something. How old are you, Tom?”
“Oh, I stopped aging long ago. The years simply pass me by now, leaving no effect.”
“Well, lucky you.”
“Hardly. I got stuck here one night, much like you are now, because of a terrific storm.”
Bennett stared at him in disbelief as Tom examined the board, planning his next move.
“Stuck here, huh?”
Convinced he was being led on, and though he felt bad for casting doubt on the old gentleman, Bennett couldn’t resist asking more.
“I told you, you must play with detail and examine all angles of the game.”
“But, I was…”
“It’s gotten late, Bennett. I’m afraid you must retire. Clearly you are not at your utmost wit at this time”
“Wait! Tell me about your wife. Why did you stay here? How come she couldn’t join you?”
“I’ll explain in the morning. Don’t worry—you’re going to be here for quite some time, from the looks of it. You can explore every avenue of this conundrum tomorrow.”
“Well, it will be quite difficult to get to sleep after this.”
“I bet you’ll be asleep before your head hits the pillow. You look exhausted. I’ll leave the game as it is so you can examine your calamity with fresh eyes tomorrow.”
Tom gives him a wink and, without another word, walks to the door and lets himself out. Bennett, wanting to try his wife again, picks up the earpiece but is met with the same chilling sounds as before. Without replacing the device to its cradle, he lies on the bed and its whispering sounds settle him into a deep slumber.
A gentle knock awakens him in the morning. He notices he’s still in his dress clothes from yesterday. Another barely audible knock at the door springs him to his feet.
Without looking up, feeling groggy still, he opens it.
“Good morning, sir. I hope you’re feeling well rested.”
Tom’s voice is uncanny. Bennett looks up at him to find his face is smooth and youthful.
“What’s going on, Tom? You look incredible!”
“You’re going to find things are quite different today. C’mon, follow me downstairs.”
“Tom, I just woke up. I’m not—“
“Well, Bennett. I have to go, so I suggest you follow me or you’ll feel quite lost.”
Bennett scowls as he slips his shoes on. He closes the door behind him and follows Tom downstairs.
“Now, during your stay here, there’s things you must remember. Everything will be as it once was when you leave—which is unfortunate for you, considering that blizzard.”
Tom stops and turns to look Bennett in the eye. The patron is put off and finds Tom’s odd talk disturbing.
“Listen carefully. You will know you’re relief when he arrives. Do not doubt yourself or you’ll risk extending your stay.”
Bennett stares back at him, mouth agape.
“That’s all, friend. Oh, don’t be concerned with the others; they cannot see you.”
With that, Tom completes the walk downstairs and begins to open the door.
“Wait! What are you talking about?”
“Bennett, look… study the chessboard. Examine all its corners and learn every move I made. You’ll find you can really maneuver this old place.”
He smiles at the new overseer and says, “It’s yours, for now.”
Tom turns and opens the door. The sound of a horrendous thunderstorm blazes from beyond the front porch. Tom walks through, closing the door behind him. Bennett rushes to fling it back open but no one is there. The snow is gone, his car is gone—there’s only rain flooding what appears to be a dirt road. Panicked by this, he attempts to walk through but stops immediately, unable to tell if himself or some other force is holding him back.
He runs upstairs, into his room, and looks out of the window with a forceful glare. The tire swing is gone, all of the buildings are smaller, and everything is drenched with rain.
He walks over to the chessboard and sits.