by Icy Sedgwick
Kate looked at the clock, impatient for her shift to end. Noon; still two long, boring hours left before she could go home and relax in front of daytime television. As usual, the small café was almost empty. Only one young man sat in the shadows at the back. Kate could see his wavy white blonde hair over the top of his newspaper. Punctual to the extreme, he came in every day at 11:30am on the dot. He always ordered a slice of blueberry cheesecake and a small white coffee with pouring cream instead of milk. “It’s absolutely heavenly, like having clouds in my coffee”, he’d say, smiling that broad, easy smile. He always cheered her up.
Kate polished the coffee machine for the seventeenth time that morning and returned to mentally cursing the funereal silence in the café. Located on a narrow, quiet lane just off the busy town square, Kate was surprised they did enough business to stay open. Whole mornings would pass without custom, and the few customers that did drop by certainly didn’t spend the amount of money that Kate imagined the café needed to balance its books.
She asked Tom why they couldn’t play music, or advertise their whereabouts, but he just replied that “it wasn’t what my father would have wanted”. His father had been dead for nine years, but Tom inherited his fear that modernisation would turn the café into a noisy free-for-all. He did everything he could to stop the café becoming like the trendy coffee chains that sprang up throughout the town centre overnight.
A rustling roused Kate from her thoughts. Hoping to see a customer at the counter, she looked up. Disappointment set in when she saw that the café was as empty as it had been all morning. She looked around the small room, taking in the tiny floral displays on each table, the mini trays of condiments, and the rustic charm that seemed to beguile its regulars. All she really saw was the man in the corner put down his paper and glance impatiently at the clock. 12:10pm. She was late.
The old woman was normally as punctual as the young man. Kate guessed that she was in her late seventies from the way she shuffled into the café at the stroke of noon. She’d order black tea and a Belgian bun before spending the next two hours playing chess with the young man. Kate assumed she was the young man’s grandmother; she had never known her to be late. She hoped nothing had happened to her.
Just then, the silence broke as the chimes over the door jangled cheerfully and the old woman tottered in. Kate wondered if her eyes were playing tricks on her, but the old woman looked better than usual. Her usually ghostly pallor now a rosy-cheeked glow, she seemed to stand straighter, and fewer wrinkles clustered around her dark hazel eyes.
“Hello! How are you today?” asked Kate, smiling with relief.
“I’m feeling very good, my dear!” replied the old woman, her voice stronger than ever. “Better than good!”
“Will it be the usual today?” asked Kate, instinctively reaching behind her for the jar of tea bags.
“Not today, dear. I’ll have a coffee instead. And a slice of that carrot and walnut cake, it looks divine,” she replied, throwing a glance at the young man in the corner.
Kate turned to make the coffee and fetch the cake. When she returned, the old woman already held the correct change in her outstretched gnarled hand. Normally she spent five minutes fumbling with the catch on her old snakeskin purse before tipping an assortment of paperclips, buttons and old coins onto the counter as she searched for money that was still legal tender.
She watched the old woman head over to the young man, whose cornflower blue eyes were hazy with annoyance. The newspaper was gone, the familiar chess set taking its place on the table.
“You’re late.” Kate heard the young man spit at the old woman.
“Oh hush, you knew I was coming. Don’t be so picky”, said the old woman, tucking into her carrot cake. Kate noticed that the young man’s cheesecake remained untouched, and he didn’t look at all well. He normally radiated an air of cool composure, but today he looked distinctly ruffled.
“You know a lot is riding on this.”
“I know, I know, it always is! And it always has!” exclaimed the old woman, setting aside her empty plate. “But I think today might be different!”
The old woman looked cheerfully mischievous, but the young man turned a very nasty shade of green. As the game got underway, Kate went back to polishing kitchen appliances, uninterested in the power struggle playing out in the corner. She felt a little sorry for the old woman, who lost every day without exception. Kate often wondered why she continued to play, but she supposed that she enjoyed the game more than the outcome.
As she worked, Kate began thinking about her life. She had only intended to take the job over the summer to earn some extra money before she went to university. When her mother died, she’d chosen to stay at home to help look after her two young brothers. At times, she really regretted the decision. Her friends were all off having the time of their lives, and she felt trapped. By the time her brothers could be left to their own devices, she’d be too old to live the student life. She cursed her father for never being there. His job took him away from home a lot, and she thought it was more his responsibility than hers to make sure her brothers were looked after.
Kate suddenly realised she was crying as she cleaned. She looked around to see if anyone had noticed, but the two in the corner were too engrossed in their game. She wiped her eyes on her apron, and glanced at the clock. It was only 12:30pm, and already the old woman had taken most of the young man’s pieces. She hoped they would hurry up and leave. Kate just wanted to sit on the floor behind the counter and cry her heart out.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so despondent. Stealing a glance at the young man, he looked as if he shared her pain. Anxiety clouded his handsome face, and worry lines creased his pale forehead into deep furrows.
A sudden crash pulled Kate back into reality. Thunder rolled around a bruised, purple sky torn open by a jagged fork of dazzling white lightning. The door flew open with a clatter as two young women dashed inside. The first drops of rain began to fall, sizzling and spitting as they hit the cobblestones outside. A second bolt of lightning parted the clouds, and the downpour began.
“Storms weren’t forecast for today!” exclaimed the woman nearest to Kate. She dug around in a handbag so small if looked as if she’d borrowed it from a doll.
“I know! I would have worn different shoes if I’d known it was going to rain,” replied the other young woman. She gazed forlornly at her open-toed pink suede sandals.
Ignoring their vacuous chatter, Kate pressed up against the window to get a better look outside. The lane was already awash with water, with scraps of litter caught up in a dizzying dance by the whirlpools in the gutter. The sky darkened by the second, as lightning tore open the clouds with a terrifying enthusiasm. She turned around to see one of the young women checking her lipstick in a handheld mirror. The other jumped around waving her mobile in the air, attempting to get a signal.
Kate turned to see how the chess game progressed. The young man’s face contorted in sheer desperation as he stared at the board, trying to out-manoeuvre the wily old woman. She grinned broadly as she idly played with the pieces she’d already captured, turning each glass figure over in her knotted fingers. Overcome with a desire to help him, Kate longed to rush over. She hesitated, as she knew nothing of the rules of chess, and doubted that her input would be welcome.
The door burst open again, and another tall young man strode in. Dressed in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, he wore his long coppery hair in a ponytail. If the blond man was handsome, this guy looked as if Michelangelo himself had sculpted his features. Still, despite his beauty, his amber eyes were full of trepidation as he looked past Kate towards the chess game. Kate watched the girl with the mirror as she noticed the handsome newcomer, suddenly fluffing up her blonde hair in case he turned to see her. Kate knew that he wouldn’t.
The blond man looked up, and Kate spotted a glimpse of relief in his eyes.
The blond man smiled broadly at the newcomer, who bent to whisper in the blond man’s ear. The old woman looked less than impressed by Michael’s arrival, and sat back in her chair with her lips pursed in an expression of displeasure.
“Now, now, that’s not fair. If I’m not allowed help, then you’re not allowed it either. Or do you finally want to be exposed to the world as a cheat?”
“Hold your tongue!” cried Michael, glaring at the old woman. “How dare you speak to him in such a disrespectful manner!”
“I’m winning, so I’ll dare to do as I like, thank you very much,” replied the old woman.
“As I see no reason for argument, I shall let your accusation slide this time, but don’t you dare ever call me a cheat again, unless you have evidence to back up your claims,” said the blond man sharply.
He stared intently at the board, trying to plan his next moves in the face of the old woman’s increasingly certain victory. Kate looked back outside. Black, oily clouds covered the sky and brought an early night to the town. Hailstones the size of her fist smashed into the cobblestones outside, while a fierce gale howled like a banshee down the narrow lane. She could hear a baby crying in the flat upstairs, an unearthly wail rising above the roar of the storm. The two girls who had taken refuge in the café looked scared, desperately searching Kate’s face for answers. She had none.
“One move left, and then you’re history!”
Kate whirled round as the old woman cackled. The blond man cried openly now, luminescent tears rolling down his pale cheeks. Michael paced up and down like a restless father awaiting the arrival of his firstborn. Kate could feel in the pit of her stomach that there would be more arrivals in the café before too long, but they wouldn’t be of a joyous kind.
“How do you know I only have one move left?” asked the blond man, his voice trembling.
“I’ve got most of your pieces, there’s not much else you can do,” replied the old woman airily.
Kate suddenly realised she was crying again. She wished that she hadn’t been so abrupt with her father on the phone yesterday, and that she’d been kinder to her brothers last night when they wanted to stay up late. She hoped that they all knew how much she loved them.
“Hang onto that, Katherine. Never let it go.”
She felt a strong hand on her shoulder, and she realised that Michael was speaking softly into her ear. The old woman rolled her eyes and the blond man smiled weakly. She returned the smile. As she did so, she felt something tickle her hand. She opened her palm to see a pure white feather lying along the life line. She looked up into Michael’s amber eyes.
“You won’t need love, dear. Not where you’re going,” spat the old woman. “Not where you’re all going!”
She moved her final piece into position on the board, and a peal of thunder crashed around the sky with a sense of brutal finality. It reverberated through Kate’s entire body; she thought her teeth would vibrate loose from her gums. As the vibrations faded away, Kate noticed the silence. The hail stopped beating its endless tattoo on the cobblestones. The wind stopped screaming, and the baby upstairs was quiet.
The door opened, ringing the small bell, and four tall strangers entered the café. Kate wanted to think that they’d walked in, but when she thought about it, it was more as if they’d glided. They were all cloaked with heavy hoods drawn across their faces; she couldn’t make out any faces.
She looked out of the open door behind them. Shock registered when she saw that the hailstones hadn’t stopped falling completely; they simply hung suspended in midair. They were interspersed with litter that had been torn through the air by the wind, and a bottle froze in mid-crash against the wall opposite. Time itself had stopped outside the café.
“No…no…it can’t be….” The young man turned white. Michael backed up slowly towards the back wall of the café. The old woman grinned. Kate stole a glance at the two women who’d sheltered in the café. They cowered under a table beside the window, hugging each other and crying.
“Yes, I’m afraid it is. It’s checkmate.”
The blond man let out a scream that sent ripples of fear racing down Kate’s spine.
“I’ve done it! I’ve finally done it! I’ve beaten you!” cackled the old woman.
The first stranger suddenly took on form, gathering substance to himself like moths to a flame. His cloak was a dark shroud so black that it hurt Kate’s eyes to look at it. Kate looked at the young man and felt empty as she saw his indescribable glow fade. He looked tired, and his eyes were dull. The old woman turned to the four strangers, looking past the black figure to its three companions. The middle figure was cloaked in a red so rich and dark that it resembled blood. Golden eyes gleamed in the depths of the hood.
“Come on then! It’s your time now. Do your thing!” commanded the old woman. Irritation flashed across her features as the red figure shook its head.
“We need not be present for these times,” it said, its voice a low rumble that reminded Kate of the cannon fire of the civil war re-enactment day.
“Why not?” asked the old woman, petulantly. She had won, and now she expected to be obeyed.
“As we did before, we have stalked this earth for centuries. We gather here now as our work is done.” The figure cloaked in a bright, oozing yellow spoke in a voice that sounded like hundreds of flies.
“So what now? You just have to turn it all over to me?”
“You don’t command them, Lucifer; I never did. You beat me, but you did not win,” said the young man wearily.
“Are you trying to cheat me again, Jehovah? This really isn’t on,” snapped the old woman.
“Hush your bickering. Come now, come to me,” said the black figure. His voice sounded cool and inviting, like a shaded forest pool in the height of summer. He handed his scythe to the purple-clad figure behind him and held out two bony hands. Jehovah stood up, sighing with resignation as Michael rushed forward to intervene.
“Stop, Michael. This is how it was always intended to be”.
“How, my Lord? All of this is yours; you are our Father…how can you have allowed this?” asked Michael. He clutched at the blond man’s arm. The blond man looked down at his hand before raising sad eyes to Michael’s face.
“Question not my ways, Michael. I knew this would one day happen, and it cannot be undone. It is over.”
“This is nonsense! Absolute rubbish! I won, I get to rule!” screeched the old woman, standing up with such force that she knocked over the table, sending chess pieces flying.
A sudden silence fell in the café. Michael stood with his head bowed, tears flowing freely down his face. The two girls under the table stopped sobbing and watched the scene before them in a state of complete shock. Kate felt despondent, but she understood what was about to happen, and she concentrated upon the love she felt for her family. The young man reached out a hand toward Death, just as Death’s long cold fingers settled around the old woman’s wrists.
The world froze; Kate’s love would last for eternity.
Icy Sedgwick has been writing for as long as she can remember, but she was first published last July. She has had work on SilverBlade.net, in Gloom Cupboard, The Salt River Review and Bending Spoons, among others. She loves video games and is currently learning Japanese.