Bury The King
Brandon T. Madden
I know exactly where I buried the king.
It’s in a time capsule 475 paces northeast from the main doors of the school and 115 paces south of the convent. Or more precisely: it’s at the corner of St. Ignatius field, under six feet of dirt, in the shadow of the spruce tree that used to be small enough for the nuns to reach its upper branches with their strings of colored Christmas lights, right near that boulder where Jimmy O’Flannigan was shoved and gashed the skin over his left eyebrow. The nuns I knew are all dead now, of course, and the rock is gone. But Jimmy’s scar is still there. I remember him pushing his hair back at our fiftieth reunion—the last one we all attended—and showing off the unsightly, jagged mark. Everybody laughed over the old story, everybody remembered the boulder, how it had a bloodstain on it for days. But when I mentioned the time capsule buried next to it, nobody recalled anything about it. We were all there—fifty years later and somehow everybody made it back—and nobody, nobody remembered the time capsule. Only me.
But I am not anywhere near the time capsule. I am standing on the playground at the other end of Ignatius field: the farthest point I can be from where it is buried. It’s the only way onto the property. You have to cross the road that borders the school, a road whose name I cannot remember and whose sign is, to my cloudy eye, little more than a smear in the gray nonlight before sunrise. The playground, too, looks different to me. Strange contraptions whose purpose of play I don’t understand have replaced the old familiar structures transforming the area into something incalculable and unnavigable, and it isn’t until I see the shadowy outline of the tetherball pole sticking out like some unassimilated neighbor that I find my grounding. And when I grab the ball and feel its shape, underinflated but still leathery as ever, I breathe a little easier.
I give it a smack. Then another. Although I have a hard time following its arc in the gloom, my body motorizes with instinct and memory, inching forward as I wait to hear it strike the aluminum before I quickly step away and avoid its return. It’s a skill that comes back to you, if you’ve learned it right. It’s something I had to teach Tommy, something he had to learn the hard way. Sometimes that’s the only way one can learn: you’ve got to give the ball a good spike so it whips toward him fast enough to build up his reflexes, make him actually hit back instead of only dodging or throwing his hands in front of his face. The tetherball was always more of a little kids’ game, but I guess even back at that age Tommy and I must have been friends, because I remember whenever the ball would hit his back or his chest or even—often—his face, I would take him under my arm and steer him away from the other boys, leaning in close like I was coaching or strategizing with him. Which I sort of was. I was telling him not to cry like a baby, to toughen up. Since I was his only friend, there was no one else to teach him these things. But still, looking back, we couldn’t have been that close at this point, because we hadn’t started playing chess. That came later, after Tommy had broken both his glasses and his nose in a single tetherball game, taking him out of school for a week. I remember being surprised that he was gone so long—the injury wasn’t really that bad—although I guess, in hindsight, maybe it wasn’t just the injury that caused Tommy to stay away from school. In any case, when he came back that next week, he brought the chess set with him. By this time most of our classmates had left tetherball behind for other games, like football and baseball, other sports where you could play little league and win trophies. But Tommy was not interested in those games and I—although I never would’ve admitted this—was not athletic enough to be any good. So in the end it worked out well that Tommy got hurt and came back with that chess set. Because it turned out I was good at chess.
I don’t remember when kids started calling me a chess master and Tommy my protégé. It must have been sometime in second-maybe-third-maybe-fourth grade, before everyone moved from the playground to the field because there were still plenty of people standing over us, watching the two of us play. They wouldn’t stay long, just kind of check over our shoulder to see how badly I was beating Tommy, and it must have made an impression because, again, I distinctly remember people knowing me during that time as the-guy-who-plays-chess-with-Tommy and after the thing between Tommy and me as the-guy-who-played-chess-with-Tommy, although years later at our first reunion I had just become the-guy-who-played-chess. But at that time it had been a big deal to me and Tommy. Our games dragged on, often taking up the full recess period, sometimes stretching across multiple days—I remember having to pack up the chess board when the bell rang and then, the next day, trying to reassemble it exactly how we left it. Tommy would squint his eyes and then carefully lay out the pieces in the positions they’d occupied the previous afternoon. It was like he had a blueprint of the board in his mind. To be fair, the layout of our games was pretty simple. Tommy would cluster all his pieces around the king, and I would attack them over and over until there were none left. It was this defensive style of playing—building his fortress around the king like a landmine of countering chain reactions—that made it difficult for me to win. In the end, however, the conclusion was the same. The king would be alone, exposed on a single square, pacing in circles until there was nowhere left to move. I don’t remember how or why I asked Tommy about his playing style—maybe it was at one of our houses during a sleepover or maybe it was when someone was bullying him and I felt the same instincts from tetherball come over me and took him into my confidence—I don’t even know how I phrased it, but I do remember how his voice sharpened with an edge that caught me off guard when he answered. The point was to protect the king, the king was the weakest piece on the board and it could never be abandoned, ever. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what he meant. I figured Tommy was just stupid or stubborn, or maybe I was so good at chess he was afraid to do anything except delay my inevitable victory. Looking back, and knowing how it all turned out, after the thing with me and Tommy, I’m not sure that was the right conclusion. But by the time this thought had entered my mind, it was too late to ask him again.
I never hear the ball hit the pole. In fact, when I look around, I am nowhere near the playground. My feet have carried me forward, soaking my slippers with dew. They seem to move on their own power source, an urgent energy bypassing my own commands and my body’s fatigue—a fatigue fueled by age and the night’s journey, but also by a recent surgery that I haven’t fully bounced back from—toward the final destination. But I’m not there yet. Where I am is the center of the field standing on a patch of scarred land that has never fully healed. This crop circle of dust, whose life was stamped out by generations of shoes, marked a turning point in my friendship with Tommy. It is a moment that has replayed over and over during my adult years on sleepless nights and in daydreams when I sat in my cubical. I’m not sure when exactly the fighting began. I guess it must have been around the time just before middle school when Mr. Dagget got hired as our gym teacher. I remember him standing a ways off at the edge of the grass, watching two boys fight it out on the patch of dirt. The time I’m thinking of was the first fight—the first real fight, between David Smith and Stan Kowalski—although of course there were others, worse ones, far more gruesome, that came later, like the O’Haras with the rocks, or when Mike Gillespie drew a switchblade. But Tommy was gone by then, because if he’d been there I’m sure I would have glanced over to gauge his reaction. This fight I’m remembering, the Smith/Kowalski one, it was just a scuffle, really. I remember David punched Stan during some game we were playing in gym, and Stan tackled David, with David clawing at Stan’s arms as they fell to the ground, ripping his sleeves, cutting into his flesh. But mostly what I remember is the look on Tommy’s face. It was this mutable look, which started first with a sort of gaping shock, a searching gaze that was basically just a plea for help. But as the fight went on and it became apparent that no one was going to intervene—not Mr. Dagget, not any of us standing a few feet away on the boundary—his look shifted inward. His face grew resigned. I guess we probably all looked like that. Or maybe that’s too generous. Maybe my instinct to give us the benefit of the doubt is something formed through the softening of time and distance. But for that first fight, anyway, it can’t be too far off, because I remember how silent everyone was, whereas later, during the other fights, the crowd got rowdy, chanting and egging on the fighters like fans of competing sports teams. I wasn’t really looking at people’s faces at that point. So what sticks in my head is that image of Tommy’s expression, how it slid almost imperceptibly from one emotion to another and then, finally, settled into a sort of distant glaze. I never asked him what he was thinking that afternoon, and afterwards things moved so fast that I never got a second chance. But I know that fight affected Tommy, because when we picked up our next chess game a few days later, something had changed in him. I could tell.
It wasn’t like one of our ordinary games. By this time, we’d moved our chessboard onto the field—I guess because we didn’t want to be left behind on the playground with the younger kids, but maybe it was so our classmates could still watch over our shoulders while they killed time in their imaginary penalty boxes. But that’s not why this game sticks in my memory. It was the way Tommy was playing. Or to be more precise: it was how it almost seemed like I wasn’t playing against Tommy at all. I was playing with a stranger. Someone who saw two, three moves ahead, who disarmed my every attack, whose pieces evaded me at every turn. I made a few mistakes during that game, that I’ll admit. If I’d been able to slow down, been able to calm down, I could have played smarter, could have put up a decent fight, but Tommy had me on my heels from the opening move. Even then, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. There was no stopping him. If the game had reached its conclusion, he might have won without losing a single piece. It was utter humiliation. A small crowd of onlookers began to gather—that’s how much of a bloodbath this game was—to the point where, rather than endure the embarrassment, I had to scoop up my few surviving pieces in one hand, stuff them into my pocket, and walk off toward the basketball courts. When I looked behind me, the other kids had dispersed but Tommy hadn’t moved. He was staring at the board, almost as if he could still see my pieces there, standing on their abandoned squares, holding the empty space until the game could continue.
But it never did. I don’t remember when exactly the thing with me and Tommy took place, but it must have been around the time of that game, because after the rumor about Tommy came to light, I decided to keep my distance from him. Everybody did. One week we were playing chess, and the next I had slipped into the line-up for flag football teams—not as a captain or anything, not even a top or middle pick, but still. I adapted. Tommy, on the other hand, became a ghostly presence on the sidelines, roaming up and down the length of the chain-link fence. I spent a lot of time watching him from the other side of the field as he batted the tetherball around its pole and let it unravel, or wandered back to the playground, where even the younger kids ostracized him and laughed at him. There was a lost look in his eyes. In hindsight, maybe it was similar to that look he had when the fight broke out. Or maybe it was completely different. I never came close enough to see. I used to wonder if Tommy knew that all of this had come from me, that I was behind his sudden isolation, but he never approached me to ask. It was like he was waiting for me to come take him aside and explain everything, to pull him into a headlock and coach him on what to do next. And maybe I was waiting too, for the rumors to blow over, for time to scrub away what I’d done. But even if that was true, I didn’t get the chance to pick up where we’d left off, because a few months later Tommy was gone.
I feel a wet trickle down my leg as I reach the place where the king is buried. I’ve either soiled myself, or my stitches—from a surgery I had not expected to survive—have begun to pull apart. Blood or urine, I ignore it and turn my face to the sky. A whiteness has seeped into it, as if marking the dwindling of my remaining time. It’s light enough now that I can see the school: a dormant silhouette that will soon come back to life once the faculty and then the children emerge with the rising sun. The ground below my feet is cold, and the dirt is packed hard. I kneel and pull up a clod of grass with numb fingers.
Before Tommy’s departure—he moved to another state with hardly any warning—he found me in the parking lot after school and, before I could react, pressed a sharp piece of plastic into my palm. Into my other hand he passed the chess set in its torn cardboard box. The only words he spoke were to ask me to protect the king as he cradled it in my hand for a moment. And then he disappeared into the chaos of the school pick-up, and I never saw him again. It was this departure, this strange event that must have only taken a few brief seconds to occur, that I believed marked the beginning of the slow unravelling of our class. I brought the chess set out to recess every day. The other kids had left their sports behind and fractured into smaller groups who loitered at the far reaches of the property, like islands broken off from a larger continent, forced apart with the dragging of time. I do recall one time, though, when Eric Peterland offered to play a game of chess with me. This must have been after we buried the time capsule, because I remember laying out the pieces on Tommy’s side of the board—I don’t remember why I chose to use that side, but I only did it that one time—and the king was missing. I didn’t tell Eric that I’d buried it in the capsule. Instead, I told Eric we could just memorize the location of the king. I assured him I would be able to keep track, that I wouldn’t forget. I got the feeling he didn’t really trust me, though. The bell rang after only a few moves, and the next day, I spotted him off with a group on the slope near the street. Nobody else ever played with me. Nobody trusted me to keep track of the empty space. Not exactly. Maybe there were other reasons—I don’t know. The splintered fragments of my class never really cohered, only in the event of a big fight could you have mistaken us as close. Otherwise, everyone kept their distance.
Even the thing about Tommy was never discussed. The rumor that had once rippled through us like electricity and served as a constant topic of conversation in our early years of middle school seemed to naturally pass away with age. But I guess pegging it to age isn’t exactly right, because there were, during that final year, a handful of times when I overheard somebody whispering about the Tommy thing—often a kid from another year or somebody who hadn’t been near the center of it—and whoever was nearby would just glare at them. Like they’d broken some unspoken rule, a collective taboo that nobody could really articulate, but everyone respected. I’ve tried to figure out how this happened. What changed. My theory is that, at some level, everyone had realized how wrong it was, what we’d done—it was that brief moment of regret that bristles inside you when your fingers release the queen only to discover that you’ve left her vulnerable and exposed. I believe this regret rippled through us much in the same way the rumor did: without author, without conscious effort, something natural and impossible to ignore. I’m convinced of this, largely, because of how, even after Tommy had disappeared entirely from St. Ignatius—not even his name was mentioned—you could still see him. I’d see some younger kid blowing bubbles in his strawberry-flavored milk and I’d glance at one of my classmates, and I could see the thought pass over their features like a shadow skimming beneath the sun: Tommy used to do that. Even years later, at class reunions—for some reason, our class was really dedicated about our reunions—people would reminisce about old jokes or funny quotes, and I’d think to myself, That was Tommy, that’s what Tommy used to say, but his name never came up. Occasionally I’d challenge people. I’d say, “That’s Tommy you’re remembering, it was that day in art class, in fourth grade—” but the other person would say, “Tommy who?” and a sort of chill breeze would blow through the group, and everyone would take a sip of their drink or check their watch, and then somebody would bring up another anecdote and it would be like the thing with Tommy had never come up. It feels to me now as if everyone except me had made some kind of pact, as if forgetting would allow them to be forgiven, as if the past could be buried. Funny enough, the one thing everybody genuinely seemed to forget about was the time capsule. There Tommy’s chess piece lay preserved alongside all our other precious memories, waiting for some future society in the next millennium to recover it and try to make sense of our skeletons. You might say that by burying the king I was trying to shrug off the responsibility I felt for what happened to Tommy, but in reality it’s exactly the opposite: it was the only way I could keep my promise. To protect the king from the overwhelming cruelty of the world. At the time, I’d believed this was the right thing to do, but now I’m not so sure. It feels like all I’ve done is abandon him.
That’s why I’m digging at the roots of a tree whose body has long since been cut down, behind a convent that was demolished and paved over a decade ago, next to a bloodstained rock that was pulverized into dust and scattered like ashes, like Jimmy O’Flannigan who died in a war—I don’t remember which one—and asked for some of his remains to be sprinkled on the home turf at St. Ignatius field. Our class has never been able to shake this place. I’m no different. I’m just the one who remembers. But a millennium is a long time to preserve a memory, and what scares me is the thought that the king may lie here forever, never reclaimed, never redeemed. I’m scared that our time capsule was unearthed during some bygone landscaping project and shoveled into a landfill, or looted by a classmate with skeletons and shame of his own. I’m scared that my friend has been lost permanently, that I’m too late, that forgiveness has drifted out of reach. Am I wrong to feel this way? Maybe you can tell me.
I can feel you watching me, keeping to the shadows even as light breaks over the school. I can hear you whispering to each other, sharing quiet glances, shifting as you hover at the boundary while I continue to dig and dig, my hands soiled and cracked with blood. You don’t have answers for me, I know. You’re as young as I once was. I don’t need to look at you to know what you look like. How you look at me. It’s the same distant gaze, the same resignation to fate, that I’ve seen on countless faces just like yours. But I’ll prove to you—not only to you, but to Tommy, to myself, to all of us—that my promise is still unbroken, that the king is here, that I can find it if I keep digging. Someone will come to take me away soon, but for now, we are all still here.