The room to which I was directed looked like a combination of a hotel lobby and my childhood living room. A lopsided couch sat in the center of the room before a dinosaur of a television. Disfigured armchairs, flanked by small tables, sat interspersed at a respectable distance from the couch, mingling with card tables. A scattered chess set sat on top of one of the tables in a far corner; I wanted to snag that table before anyone else did, even though no one else had come in yet.
I sat at the old piano benches, my back to the wall, deliberately placing the chess pieces in their correct squares. My brother and I had a system: the black pieces were always to be set up first, because dark always preceded light, and the pawns were always placed last, because, in Roger's words, "what's the point in protecting something if your enemy has no idea what you're hiding? They'll have no motivation to come after it, and the game's gone to dust!"
"Excuse me," a kind voice asked, pulling me out of my reverie. I looked up, beholding a woman before my square table. At first her amiable face and springy hair reminded me of my sister Amy, then other impressions seeped through. Almost instantly I could tell she wasn't a resident, but there wasn't a condescending air about her like the others here. A glint of academic fervor shone in her brown eyes, modestly veiled by her wire rim glasses, and her overall being radiated of science, knowledge, and reason. "Are you Connor, by any chance? Connor Steely?" she continued
"The one and only," I replied cheerfully, setting down the final white pawn with a slight flourish.
"Oh good, Doc Esco mentioned you in passing." She pulled up a rickety stool that might've been a counter stool in its past life. "Do you mind if I join you for a game?"
"Not at all. I was just about to go looking for someone." I made a slight adjustment to the black bishop's position, then smirked a little. "Although I think it's only fair to warn you, I have quite the chess game."
She raised her eyebrows in amusement. "Do you now, Mr. Steely?"
"I do indeed..." I faltered. "I'm sorry, but my reply would be greatly improved if I knew how to address present company."
My name request was first met by a smile that could only make me think of tiny drops of water on a perfect leaf. "Dr. Dimitrijevic," she replied simply. My tongue knotted at the mere thought of trying to repeat the pronunciation. "Although, most just call me Dr. D," she added hastily.
"Well then, let me go back and edit my previously attempted statement: why yes, I do indeed have the serious chess game, Dr. D." She seemed utterly amused by my mode of speech. I'm fully aware that my way of talking is a bit odder than the next guy, but I don't mind it in the least. "White or black?"
"I'll take black, if it's all the same to you," replied Doc D. I cringed in playful disappointment; my luck usually dipped a bit when I was stuck with going first. But the white half of the chess board is like a cloudy day to me, nothing to fret over.
We played in silence at first, trying to gauge the other's style of play. After we took turns downing a pawn or two, I struck up conversation.
"So," I began, pressing my fingertips around my knight, "Doc Esco's mentioned me in passing already?" I placed the knight within striking distance of her bishop.
"News travels fast around here," Doc D answered casually, sliding her endangered bishop out of harm's way. "Not as much goes on in here as one might think, really, especially when it comes to new arrivals."
"I see..." I was commenting on both her reply and the board's status, a sort of two-for-one comment. We played on in silence for a little longer until I got stuck. Unable to really see anything I tipped my head sideways to get a different perspective of the board. I gave a cry of realization, then swiftly captured one of her pieces.
The doctor gave a small jump of surprise. "Strange I didn't notice that before."
The way she said that made me think. "Like how I have yet to notice I'm insane?" I asked the board quietly.
"What do you mean?" Her delicate question was punctuated by the light wood-on-wood scritching as she slid her castle to the opposite end of the board inquiringly.
"Well, I know full well that I'm a very odd member of the human species," I said, my hand drifting towards pieces on my left, but I changed my mind as I continued, "but I never considered it to be a danger to anyone. Most of my neighbors, however, thought differently."
"Is that so?" asked Doc D gently, quietly replacing one of my pieces with her own.
"It is." I swiftly captured another of her pieces, muttering "check" under my breath. She was down to four pieces, I had been reduced to seven, none of which were in close checkmate position. She moved her king out of check as I went on, "I've been told that I'm weird, quirky, strange, however you want to put it, and I accept that, it's true. I mean, most folks don't have a whole white room who's sole function is as a splatter-paint canvas, and combustible experiments involving mercury and watermelon juice aren't household norms, I get that. But I can think rationally and coherently, for the most part, and overall I'm under the impression that my head's attached to my shoulders according to regulations."
We traded a few uneventful moves in the course of my soliloquy, when finally I saw it. The one be-all-end-all move of the game. Now if only the doc would cooperate...
"Interesting," she said, referring back to my tale of woe, but the way she said it made it sound like she was genuinely interested, unlike Dr. Esco's punctuating remarks thus far. She moved the critical piece into position absentmindedly.
"But maybe I'm deluding myself," I thought aloud. "Doc Esco seems to think there might be something amiss with me. He's probably been in practice for as long as I've been alive, so someone with that much experience must know what he's talking about. There's probably something crucial that he sees that I'm just not seeing." I slid my knight into position. "Checkmate, by the way."
She blinked in disbelief, examining the board. "Well! I certainly didn't see that crucial bit," she admitted. Giving a slight shrug, she said, "I guess this one goes to you."
I grinned. "But you sure gave me a run for my money. I think you and my brother are equally tough to beat; I probably just beat you this time by luck." I stuck out my hand. "Thanks for the game."
"My pleasure. Thank you for the game, and for the chat."
As she rose and walked away, I gathered up the chess pieces and thought. Although she was technically superior to me, I hadn't felt the slightest bit uncomfortable talking to her. Dr. D just seemed trustworthy to me, that's all. Trustworthy and caring. She'd actually given my words thought, I could tell. Something about her said to me that if she could she wanted to set my life upright again as soon as possible.
Then I thought of Dr. Escobar. His demeanor was cold and judgemental, no doubt about that, but maybe that was his working attitude. Perhaps it's how cases worked out for him in the past. Maybe, just maybe, under that critical facade, he wanted the same for me, that the harsh edifice was due to deep contemplation to try and find the best way to rework my head to get me back out into the world again.
My speculations seemed extremely optimistic, almost unrealistically so, but I could at least harbor some sort of hope.