States of Play
by Mehreen Ahmed

            1,2,3,4, the bishop moved 4 places. Backstage, was the space, where gods played a game of chess.

            Eliza stood in front of her bathroom mirror and squeezed the end of a nearly empty tube of toothpaste. Between her thumb and the index, her fingernails turned an inconsistent color of white pink, the plumpness of the tip of skin diminishing. Breathing short and tight, her lips were thinning like hard-pressed dry petals, she tried to push up some paste through the nozzle. It slid in and out, light and white, tantalizing the bristles of her hand-held toothbrush.

            A decent amount came out after much effort and fell over the tip of the brush, leaving almost all of its bristles dry. She brushed her teeth, rinsed her mouth, and washed the toothbrush under the running water tap. She put it away in a glass by the sink and came outside into the garden with a scowl.

            A bird chirruped. It sat on the clothesline and pecked at the clothes, looking for food in the wrong place. A few bats hung down-under from saggy, mega-jumbled electrical street wires. A few cotton masks airing on the clothesline had clown-heads printed on them. One got unpegged and flew away in a sudden blast. Eliza looked at it but didn’t catch the vital mask. It landed on a morning’s bloom of an unfurled petal’s dew-drops.

            The dawn had broken beautifully, but she sensed an ending closing in. She decided to visit her mother’s grave. The graveyard wasn’t far. She took a stool and walked over one block. She found the grave among hundreds, and sat down on the stool close to a grassy patch; her legs had splayed. She had a séance with her every morning; the good spirit silently absorbing her spilled words like a ghost-diary. 

            This morning, she was telling her, how she’d been implicated in a vicious office politics which cut her out of a dream job she’d applied for. A promotion, she knew she would have certainly bagged. For she had far surpassed everyone in qualifications, with all the experiences for that position, but no, she didn’t get it. “Mother,” Eliza spoke, “at the interview, they asked me all the wrong questions, and after the interview, a few days of deliberation, this rejection letter arrived. I’m not sure, how to take this, but the job was snitched, I think, by a mere 24-year-old, without much qualification; she got it.”

            Eliza finished with a sigh, catching a dot of a potent black fly, mid-air, which had just pinched her nose on its tip; it itched as it flew away. No matter, she would not give up; not so fast.

Although she moped, she also hoped that bosses would come to their senses. They would smoke out the snitch; that they had made a mistake in selecting the girl. That she was not worthy of the position. They would then ask her to leave promptly, position freed up for Eliza to fill in. She waited for the moment and counted her days. The numbers were perfect. They never deceived. No calls came.

            1,2,3, the horse galloped and took the Black Queen.

            After the séance, Eliza went to work. No one else had come in, yet. She was rummaging through her things on the table. Her coffee mug sat by the computer, she picked it up and walked into the kitchen to make herself a short black. She heard shuffling sounds coming through the back office file room, adjacent to the coffee machine. All ears on the closed wooden oak, she heard the shuffle grow louder from behind. The full mug of coffee in one hand, her other, held the noddy knob, as she opened the door with a thrust. It had a squeaky hinge and a few character marks.

            The room was large and it was semi-dark; on the far side, she saw something zap past like a flash of light through the back door. Knuckle-white and petrified, she stood a few jarring moments. She looked around the room and saw a filing cabinet, a drawer of which was slightly ajar. Her fingers clutched onto the mug like wet clinging hair, she took a file out, labeled higher management position. The file only had a few hands full of papers relating to the job’s description.

            Staff chats had alluded to the fact that there were others, more deserving, better-qualified candidates. But Eliza hadn’t paid heed. She’d treated them as gossip memes, fantasy, churned out of a lame factory. 55 years of wait, Eliza had been inching towards this dream, loading her resume with experiences and qualifications. There were no age barriers as far as she knew for this position. In the fine print of the contracts, implicitly stated, every aging staff was a tarnished statistic, who came with an expiry date, regardless of the staffs’ mettle. Only, she hadn’t considered that this expiry date was applicable for this job as well. 

            Indeed! A 24-year-old girl’s resume would have looked pretty scarce compared to those of the others. The ghost was alerting her to something plush, information that was perhaps quite obvious, only she didn’t see it. 

            The white rook, the horse, and the bishop stood their places closing in on an imminent checkmate of the black King. In the meantime, all the lowly pawns, a rook and a horse on either side fell, clearing the way for the winning King.

            A fresh day was issued, another mask flew away in the bluster. She saw it on her way to the séance but had not picked it up. She sat on her stool again at her mother’s grave and told her about the incident. How someone or something, a ghost was leading her to the secret filing cabinet? But she found nothing there. She wondered what was going on.

            Back into the office, she went early as usual. She heard the same shuffling of papers from the file room. She entered and walked up to the cabinet. The ghost lingered in the dark awhile. This time, Eliza, turned on the light and opened the drawer all the way. She felt something touch her hair and give it a strong ruffle. The drawer slid all the way out and down on the floor, nearly, she caught it and placed it gently. She found another folder here, but it was unlabelled. A shiver ran through her; a thin line of sweaty beads sat on her upper lip. She opened this secret file. It held all the staff’s biometrics which was super confidential. 

            There was a commotion outside of the door. Eliza quickly put everything back and came out. The office had gone into a snap shutdown. A senior staff, called Jane Rushmore, had become ill. An ambulance was waiting downstairs to take her away. Eliza remembered her from the interview panel. She stood in the passageway, and let her through being wheeled out in a chair; an oxygen mask on her face. Eliza saw through Ms. Rushmore’s glassed office walls, the 24-year-old snitch going through her belongings. It looked suspicious, however, since there was a lockdown, the staff rushed out of the office block.

            Eliza heard, that after being taken into the hospital, Ms.Rushmore’s condition worsened and she had not made it through the night. But she was not the only one. Whoever had come in contact with her, all fell ill. Many of the younger staff had survived because of age, the many elderly others had not. The snitch’s job now hung in the balance, she’d raged when she had engaged the staff in a zoom meeting, held the next day.

            Bodies were buried straightaway, Eliza, lamented while at the séance. Those who grieved for the departed, couldn’t perform a proper ablution. They could neither be purified nor readied for divinity. Some were mass-graved in caskets. Others burnt in hollow baskets. Eliza described how a towering inferno rose over each funeral pyre; long firewood, group-hugged each body within their crumbling prickly chips; in the throes of it, dismembered bodies, as though at the behest of a medieval Queen. Out of the ashes, some bones looked rock-solid, as ashes were taken and spread across gardens and oceans. A ballpark figure of deaths was reported. No one stood tall but death; the formidable Queen of the heretics had drawn a trump and had aced, “mother dearest,” which was what Eliza had called her when she was on this living plain.

            At night, she continued to commune. Her mother stood at the foot of her bed, looking down at her. She looked grim, slightly nonchalant. The spirit revealed lights, too trite of the foul play on the planet earth. A portal had opened like a hologram; on a unique sphere called the 4th dimension, all earth’s departed souls woke up. Eliza saw her bosses, too. Biometrics danced before her eyes through Artificial Intelligence, Data from Star Trek. Disjointed glimpses, were random and they often faded.

            The disembodied somersaulted in colored Borealis; in a primordial whale song, the lyrics of the deep blue seas, they spoke about what was unheard of. That after death the first thing the sprits did was to stare at a seemingly innocuous globe. They watched the manifold plays, of playing and being played, continued to be hatched and staged under a blue canopied sandpit. The sprites then left without a trail.

            Such reflections, in séance, were handmaiden to unveiling unsolved mysteries. Mother dissipated in the night sky, readily. Eliza thought how, time had eluded the players of all times, of its own sly endgames; that it was deployed to play everyone big time; who played whom, in these games, the mundane bickering, spun out of the threads of life, largely controlled by the unseen Moirai; who won in this life and who lost determined by gods through their earthly judges, they had anointed.

            Existence after all was a passing reality. Who wrote this narrative? Billions of years in processing, these metamorphosed fossils; an illusion, a conundrum of plays, full-on deadly swings of lies, of lures, and of profiteering; love giveth and taketh away in death. Only the blind seers had perceived; never the Queens nor the Kings of the day. Alas! When was a full moon ever sighted from the surface of the moon itself? Only from this mortal world, did its beacon glimmer; Hamlet had caught the King’s conscience in his play. 

            What came out of the séance was the half-formed pensées, the machine-character Data, and the biometrics. She had to flesh it out, the alleged crime, to do herself justice. Why would that file be hiding there? Why was it removed in the first place and not put back with the others? Why would someone try to hide the biometrics of valuable data? Ah yes, Data the machine, triggered a thought - a data manipulation rort? How and Why? All these questions buzzing in the head. They had to be really good hackers to do so digitally as well. The records there were well protected by strong passwords for the almighty precious intel. Unless someone was trying to use the threat to an end. Maybe of a data breach? That was it! Which led to the fact that blackmail was a possibility for money, or for something else?  By far, the girl’s missing links, the puzzle pieces fell right in place to secure the job, she had not deserved.

            The snitch, had perhaps, stolen all the staff’s biometrics, and hid it there, so no one could ever find the file. Worst case, file misplacement only, without any hint of theft or forgery. Clever, she then blackmailed the panel for a serious data breach, or perhaps, she may even have found additional information about some of the interviewer’s secrets, tantamount to bribery or perjury, threatening to go public if police were to be involved. That was how Eliza worked it out in her mind. Up to her now, how she wanted to expose this rotten play; go to the police or give the girl enough rope? A play within a play, the stars twinkled and had their say, concluded that a celestial play had always been at play. Either way, this surely made Eliza’s day.

            The white Queen moved 2 places. Checkmate.

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Mehreen Ahmed is widely published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. Her short stories are a winner in The Waterloo Short Story Competition, Shortlisted in Cogito Literary Journal Contest, a Finalist in the Fourth Adelaide Literary Award Contest, winner in The Cabinet of Heed stream-of-consciousness challenge. Her works are three-time nominated for The Best of the Net Awards, nominated for the Pushcart Prize Award, and twice nominated for Aurealis Awards.