March 8th: What happens after death?
Game Piece
, by Christopher T. Werkman

Buck sat in the long wood paneled hallway savoring the perfect lack of noise. Even his tinnitus was absent. After a long sequence with nearly constant sound, the lack of audio was like a pull of cold water on a hot day. When a latch clicked, the sudden noise was so large against the soundless backdrop that he startled.

The office door across from him opened, and a woman who looked like a young Diane Keaton stepped out carrying an electronic notebook. “Player 21265234? William Buckholtz?” she said.

“Just Buck.” He positioned his hands on the arms of the chair and boosted himself to his feet.

She waved her hand. “No. No, I just came out to let you know it will still be a few more minutes.” She smiled. “Didn’t want you to worry we’d forgotten you.” She pushed a finger against the screen and walked back inside. When she closed the door, the click of the latch echoed.

Buck eased himself back down and felt his face crease into a smile. He remembered sitting like this, outside a principal’s office when he was in elementary school, scared shitless. Now he had butterflies, but they were in anticipation, not fear.

He looked around. The hallway held a haunting mix of familiarity and surprise. Sunlight splashed through a window, placing him in a warm portrait-like rectangle. He shifted his feet. His boots slid easily on the polished wood plank floor, but pain yiped through his battered legs. When are they going to shut that off, he wondered, trying to relax against the severe angles of the wooden armchair. He was eager to shuck this game piece and move into a new one.

He peered down the hallway. There were several others seated outside similar doors. Buck assumed they were also awaiting scores. He didn’t know any of them, and there wasn’t much chance he would, unless he had a rider when his last sequence ended in a high-speed crash on his Harley.

He could recall the whole thing, now. It occurred just before he found himself in the Sequence Appraisal Center feeling like an actor with large-scale stage fright and no clue as to where he was, why he was there, or even who he was. The fog cleared slowly, the way memories of dreams surface in front of the yawning toilet bowl at three in the morning. As though he was watching a movie clip of shattering glass running in reverse, broken pieces of his last sequence came together to form a complete recollection. The cops were hot on his ass, he went into a curve too fast, and it all ended badly when he hurled into a cluster of trees. He was waiting for the sequence to be assessed and points awarded.

A brass plate on the office door Buck faced was engraved with the name “Stewart.” Below that was inscribed “Game Office Director,” then “Section 6.” In his new level of clarity, Buck could even remember what his director, most players just called them GOD, looked like. Skinny and pencil-necked, his round-frame glasses magnified his deep green irises. A labyrinth of turquoise blue veins pushed like shallow roots against the surface of his papery pale skin, which glowed with a strange translucence. Stewart always looked exactly the same. There was no time on this plane, which made the readjustment difficult for Buck after a fifty-two year sequence on the game board.

The door opened again and the Diane Keaton ringer stepped out. “I’m so embarrassed. I should have introduced myself.” She tucked the notebook under her arm and extended her hand. “Nora,” she said. “I’m new since your last assessment.”

“Decided to sit out a game?” Buck asked.

She made a face as though she’d tasted vinegar. “Yes. My scores the last couple sequences were really lousy.” She cupped her hand and whispered. “I was so humiliated; I’m taking some time to regroup.”

When he was between sequences, Buck often didn’t know how to interact with non-players. Nora was disarming. He said, “I hope you don’t think I’m forward. You remind me of–”

“Sarah Palin,” she cut in, drawing into a smile. “I get that all the time, lately.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Buck said, enjoying the disconnect. He stepped ahead into the outer office, wondering if Nora had ever seen Annie Hall.

“Stewart’s expecting you,” she said, pointing at the door. Buck nodded, walked over and grasped the shiny knob. It was very warm, almost hot.

Stewart looked just as Buck remembered, but he’d forgotten the huge polished desk that loomed in the middle of the room and made his GOD appear child-size by comparison. Stewart didn’t look up from his laptop, but swept his frail arm toward an overstuffed chair positioned a few feet from the fortress-like desk. Buck shuffled over and stood in front of the chair, waiting for Stewart to look up, or officially invite him to sit. “Hi, Stewart. Could you possibly shut off the pain?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Stewart typed a series of keystrokes and the discomfort vanished. “How do you think you scored this time?” he asked, before Buck could thank him for the relief.

Buck decided Stewart wasn’t going to invite him to sit, so he just plopped into the chair. “Thanks for shutting off the pain,” he began. “I think I played a terrific sequence,” he said, smiling. “I screwed up here and there, but I hope I scored pretty well, overall.”

Buck looked forward to his post-sequence assessment. It was like negotiating a deal on a car. The main difference was there was no “manager” in the back that Stewart had to confer with. As Buck’s GOD, Stewart had the final word. Of course, some bargaining was expected. And, if a player ever felt he was mistreated or underscored, an appeal could be filed, but that was rare. Most GODs were fair—appeals reflected poorly on them, putting the GOD in risk of a review.

If ever there was a perfect poker face, Stewart had it. Buck never knew if the next thing out of Stewart’s mouth would be positive or negative. Buck figured it was a tactic to keep him off balance. “The serial killer thing was priceless,” Stewart said. “I told a couple of the other GODs and they split their guts laughing about the way you sprinkled Cheerios on the bodies.”

Buck savored the compliment, but tried to conceal his satisfaction. “I enjoy a good joke, and I figured some humor would catch better headlines and piss off the cops. Figured they’d try harder to catch me and boost the degree of difficulty.” He leaned forward and nearly put his hand on Stewart’s desk, but drew back at the last second. “That had to have been good for my point total, right? I mean, when I crossed state lines and the FBI got involved, well, I felt like a pretty girl in a biker bar. They were all out to get me.”

Stewart tapped the keys. “That did pump up the difficulty factor. With that multiplier, I figure you walked with an easy ten thousand five hundred points.”

“Ten five?” Buck couldn’t hide his disappointment. Successfully killing eight women before law enforcement even recognized a serial pattern, then goading them on with Cheerios and running the total to twnty-three before being identified was anything but easy. He believed the degree of difficulty should have put him in the fifteen thousand range. “Oh, come on, Stewart. Even after they ID’ed me, they couldn’t catch me for years. And look at the victims. Most serials do the homeless, or prostitutes, and other easy pick-offs. I worked the upper crust. A lot harder to get to socialites, but I positioned myself. Who the hell suspects the smiling tanned guy in tennis whites? I’d say thirteen grand for the serial killer segment, minimum.”

Another thought occurred to him. “Damn, Stewart. My victims will probably get that many points. Getting murdered is always a points bonanza.” He smiled. “Come on, shouldn’t I make out at least as well as my victims?” Buck thought he detected a flicker of something cross his GOD’s face. He hoped it was agreement. Or capitulation.

Stewart nodded. “The tennis pro aspect helped.”

“Helped? I had those women eating out of my hand. And I was smart enough not to kill any club members.” He winked, but Stewart wasn’t looking. “I just got A-listed into parties where I could meet their friends. I became over thirty socialites’ dirty little secret, before I was done.” He grinned. “Then I made each of them into my own.

“Getting myself to the top of the tennis world should earn me some big points, too. I mean, if I hadn’t peaked at the same time as Aggasi and Sampras, I’d have been a major force in pro tennis. Years of practice and sacrifice, then not being able to beat those guys? I should get extra points for turning club pro and making the best of a bad situation, too.”

“You drive a hard bargain.” Stewart shook his head. “Okay, how many points are you talking for both the tennis and serial killer portions?”

This was Buck’s moment. He needed to be realistic. If he went sky high, it would jeopardize his credibility and he could lose more in the long run than he ever hoped to gain, short term. Still, he had to ask for more points than he expected to get. He wanted to avoid feeling foolish again, the way he did several assessments ago when Stewart readily agreed to his first figure, meaning Buck bargained too low. He took a breath. “Twenty-eight thou for both.”

“Twenty-eight?”

“Sure. Like I said, thirteen for the serial killer deal, fifteen for the tennis. The killer part was prettier, but for sheer effort and difficulty, elevating myself into play–”

“Would you settle for twenty-five even?” Before Buck could speak, Stewart began to type.

“I honestly believe that’s fair, Stewart.” Buck waited until Stewart finished entering his score. When he looked back at Buck, probably figuring the assessment was over, Buck played his ace.

“What about the biker gang years? We haven’t discussed that.” Stewart rolled his eyes, and Buck knew he’d blindsided him. Often, that was good. Sometimes, it was not. “Going underground with the Pride of Lions bought me another eight years of freedom. And if you think being a biker is easy, let me tell ya…” He let his voice trail off.

Stewart actually smiled. It was thin and barely detectable, but he hadn’t done anything close to that since Buck made the lowball points offer two sequences ago. “Okay,” he said, pressing a key Buck assumed to be the delete. “I’ll add seventy-five hundred. Fair?”

Buck smiled back. “I like even numbers. Can we make it eight?”

Stewart scratched his neck. “Okay. Total for this sequence is thirty-three thousand points, player 21265234.” Apparently anticipating Buck’s next question, he pulled out a calculator. “That puts you at one-hundred seventy-six thousand after eight completed sequences. Two more will finish this game, and you are sitting in,” he slid his index finger down the list on his computer screen, “third place behind players 1554900 and 34552560.” He shook his head. “That sequence when you were a possum in downtown Detroit really hurt you.”

“I still think it had real degree of difficulty potential, but when my mother got hit by a bus, I died out of that sequence too quickly.” He shrugged. “I hung in as long as I could, but its hard to roll up any kind of point total when you’re too young to survive alone, and die in a lousy two days.”

“Things like that happen to all players, Buck.” Stewart sat back in his chair and was obviously ready to conclude the assessment. “Have you given any thought to what kind of game piece you want to go in as for your next sequence?”

“I really need to roll up some points to catch player 1554900, the leader. Was that by any chance the woman I killed in Maui?”

Stewart raised his hands like he was being arrested. “You know I can’t confirm or deny that. Knowing wouldn’t help you, anyway.” He rotated the computer screen so Buck could see it. “Look at what’s available and decide a game piece you want.”

Buck studied the list. A few situations looked like high-difficulty possibilities, but one jumped out at him. Buck pointed at listing number sixteen. “The female born in Darfur.” He nodded. “That should be a gold mine. Genocide and civil war. Rape. I should be able to score like crazy. I’m convinced victims get the overall highest point counts.”

Stewart clicked on Buck’s choice and hit print. “Your name will be Abok. Give this to the Assignment Officer,” he said, lifting the sheet from the printer tray. “If you don’t mind my saying it, this one’s going to be pure hell.”

Buck smiled, stood and offered his hand. “Yes, but when the sequence as Abok is over, I’ll be sitting here negotiating with you, again.”

Stewart shook his hand. Buck actually felt affection for Stewart and decided he would miss him, until the sequence began, at which point he’d have no memory of Stewart or any of this. “You were very fair. I look forward to seeing you in, well, as many years as I can run up in this sequence.”
Buck let himself out, taking his last steps as Buck, a game piece he was able to score well with. He thought back on the sequence and how exciting it was. Tennis pro. Serial killer. Gang member. He would miss tennis. He grew to love the “pock” a well-hit ball made against his racquet’s strings. The killing unnerved him. He wasn’t certain he knew, or wanted to know what part of his psyche harbored the ability to slay women. And, he would miss the wind whipping his hair and the pipes roaring when he rode motorcycles.

As he walked to the Assignment Center, where he would become Abok and be born into a new sequence as a screaming infant in Darfur, he thought about how much like tennis games these sequences were. In tennis, the court became his entire world. Everything outside the boundaries of the side and base lines ceased to exist until that instant when the point was decided. In a short time, he would slide out of his mother’s birth canal and into a new sequence. Once it began, he would be a little girl enduring what she must to survive for as long as she could, with no memory of being a player desperate to score high on his ninth sequence. A player harboring hopes of winning the game and being assigned a section of his own and the title of Game Office Director. A GOD, with the power to award points to players such as himself. Like Stewart.

Buck felt a smile draw into his cheeks. Well, maybe a little less geeky than Stewart.

*

Christopher T. Werkman completed a thirty year career as a high school art teacher in 2000. He still paints, but his primary passion is writing fiction. He lives on a few acres outside Haskins, Ohio, with is partner, Karen and too many cats. He plays golf in the summer, indoor tennis all winter, and rides his motorcycle too fast whenever the climate allows. His short fiction is published in numerous literary journals including, Litro: Stories That Transport You and 5923 Quarterly; and in anthologies: Penduline Press’ Seven Deadly Sins Anthologyand Hannibal’s Manor.


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