Written for school. The prompt was to write about somebody being misunderstood. I enjoyed some of the things I wrote here, but I wasn't really sure how to end it. Let me know if you have any ideas for how I could improve... loosely based on interactions I've had with my little brother.
Daniel watched the door close. The door was heavy and thick, resonating with a deep thunk as it was pulled shut. Daniel walked up to the door and stood on his tiptoes, trying to peer through the tiny peephole. He rocked back on his heels at the sound of a car rumbling to life - his parents' car. A flash of headlights winked briefly in the window and then faded as the car drove away.
Dan sighed. He supposed that his parents didn't really go out that much. His best friend, Francis, was left with a babysitter six nights a week. At least Dan had parents half of the time. Maybe it was even a good thing. Daniel could relax more when his parents were out, and he needed time to relax.
Things hadn't been that relaxed at his house lately. There was always yelling and screaming and crying. Dan tried to avoid most of that.
"Dan? Are you in the front hall?" a voice emanated from the living room.
"Yes," Dan replied, taking one last glance at the door. "Coming."
His feet were quiet on the soft carpet as he strode down the hall. For a moment Dan hesitated, wanting to remain in the gentle quietness of the hall.
"Come on!" the voice insisted. Dan pushed forwards, entering the bright living room. The room was large and open, with a high ceiling and a polished wooden floor. On the side opposite the hall, the living room opened up into the kitchen and dining area.
Dan sat in an armchair. Opposite him, on the sofa, was his sister. Maya was tall and slender, with a long curtain of reddish hair framing her angular face. She smiled at him, her dark eyes twinkling.
"I was thinking that we could play chess!" she suggested, gesturing at a wooden chess set laid out on the glass table between them. She had already arranged all the pieces on the board.
"Um, Maya… I'm a little tired today. I don't really feel like thinking about chess strategy…" He trailed off as Maya's face fell. Even though she was three years older and burdened with the unbelievable load of work that signifies junior year, Maya had never stopped playing chess.
"You don't want to play? When was the last time we played together?"
"I dunno… just, maybe we could play a different game? One that requires less brain power?"
"Like what?" Maya shot at him, scowling.
Maya slumped, deflated. She leaned against the edge of the couch, letting her long bangs swoop over her face. Dan suppressed a groan. What was so wrong with checkers? He didn't half to play a game with her at all.
"I don't want to play checkers. Please, just play one game with me? Just one?"
Daniel looked at his sister, considering. Could one game of chess really hurt? Of course Maya would beat him, just like she did every time they played. But she wasn't playing for the joy of winning, just for the satisfaction of doing something smart. With all the teen drama going on between Maya and their parents, she didn't have much opportunity to feel smart.
"I guess, just one game. I'm not going to play again if there's a draw."
Maya sat up slowly, her face still drawn. She pulled her hair back behind her ear, not looking directly at him.
"You act like it's a chore. Like you'd rather be doing anything but this. Don't you like hanging out with me? Ugh, why do you even bother if you're just going to hate me for ever second of it?" she muttered sulkily. Daniel gazed at the chess board sadly. What was he supposed to say? She didn't want him to leave. Wasn't he doing the right thing by playing with her? He couldn't pretend to love it. Maya knew he preferred checkers.
Maya seemed to be waiting for him to do something, but Dan couldn't tell what. After an awkward pause, she sighed loudly and nudged the chess board with her fingers.
"Fine. Let's just play."
"I'll be black, if you want," Dan offered.
"No. I like being black. You go first."
Glancing apprehensively at his sister, Daniel slid a pawn forwards. Maya stared at his pawn for a full minute before making her own move. Gradually, the game gained momentum. Maya started to smile a bit. She took his bishop. He took two of her pawns and a knight. They went on, casually exchanging moves.
"So. Do you want to talk about anything?" Maya asked, sliding her rook forwards.
"Um…" Daniel stared at the chessboard, pretending to be contemplating his next move. He tended to avoid talking with Maya. He often ended up offending her, or not caring enough about what she had to say. Dan had seen Maya very upset over a simple conversation before.
"I don't really have anything to talk about," he said.
"Really? What's going on at school?"
"Nothing much… it's pretty boring, I guess."
"Hmm…" Maya fidgeted. Daniel knew that restlessness was building inside of her. He probably should talk about something to alleviate the tension, but a conversation with Maya was like a stroll through a minefield.
Daniel moved a couple pawns further across the board. Maya started arranging her bishops and rooks into a complicated pattern that he couldn't understand yet. Undoubtedly it would turn out to be some sort of ingenious trap. Daniel couldn't think that far ahead. Complicated traps could be easily shattered by an opponent's oblivious move, in his experience. Dan preferred to use pawns.
Eventually, both of them lost their queens. This made Maya very unhappy. Daniel knew that she considered herself above loosing a queen. He couldn't suppress a tiny smidgeon of pride at taking her favorite piece.
That pride was dashed when Maya, now scowling with frustration at herself, made the final move on her large trap. His king, having sat in the same starting position for the whole game, was pinned to the first row by a rook, put in check by a distant bishop, and guarded in that position by a knight. Dan sighed. It had only been a matter of time.
"Wow. You win. Good job," he congratulated her, trying to sound sincere. Apparently, he was unsuccessful.
"You don't sound happy," Maya whined, pulling her knees up to her chest. "Was it really that painful? Don't you enjoy playing with me at all? You could have talked to me about something interesting if you'd wanted to. I just thought that if we did one game you would like hanging out with me…" her voice trailed off. Maya stared at her knees, her eyes pulled down at the edges like they did when she was sad.
Daniel took a deep breath. What should he say?
"Look, Maya… hanging out with you is fun. I'm just not that into chess. I'm not unhappy though," he said, trying to shrug it off.
Maya seemed to be struggling with a thought. He could see the conflict on her face, and he knew that a part of her was realizing that she was being unfair and hating herself for it.
"I mean, you don't want to play checkers with me. You just aren't into it. That doesn't mean you don't like me, right?"
"You're always nagging me to play checkers…" Maya grumbled.
"Yes, but the difference is I actually decide to play chess with you when you nag me, but you don't play checkers with me when I nag you." Dan wasn't sure if this was a good thing to say. Maya suddenly seemed very distraught, but no longer angry at him.
"I guess…" she trailed off, fiddling uncomfortably with her hands. "I guess, yeah… I'm a bad sister to you a lot of the time, aren't I? I won't play games with you, I only make you play games with me. I just… I don't want…" her eyes filled with tears, and her voice faded to a low mumbling that he couldn't understand.
Dosomethingdosomethingdosomething. The chant rang out in his head. A good brother would obviously do something nice to Maya right now. But what would that good brother do? Daniel couldn't predict what would make Maya happy and what would make her explode.
Before he could decide what to say, Maya stood up, not looking at him.
"I guess I'll be in my room…" she muttered. "I'm sorry that I was a jerk." Maya started walking towards the hall, but she tripped on the corner of the glass table and fell to the ground, clutching her leg. From down on the floor, she started to cry, not trying to get up.
Daniel picked up a pawn and examined it, his fingers twitching tensely. He was like a pawn in these situations, only moving one space at a time, blindly grinding forwards. Maya was like a knight. She could jump wherever she wanted to, and Dan could never predict where. He didn't like knights. They were so confusing…
Suddenly, Maya sprang up from the floor, glaring at him, her face red from crying.
"What are you doing?" she shrieked. "I'm lying here on the floor crying in pain right in front of you! Were you going to try to comfort me at any point?"
Daniel's brain froze. He just didn't function in situations like this. This is the point where he would leave the room when she fought with his parents. His face automatically closed into an impassive mask. Inside him, alarm sirens wailed.
Maya lashed her arms jerkily against her side, looking for a place to shove her anger.
"Do you care about me at all? Doesn't it bother you to see me upset?"
Dan placed the pawn carefully back on the board. "Yeah, it does…"
"But you don't want to do anything about it?"
Daniel grabbed a chunk of his floppy bangs and tugged on it, pulling the sandy hair over his face. Just focus on the hair, he told himself. This will be over soon. She'll go to her room. You can survive. Just focus on the hair. Everything will be fine. When you're an adult, you probably won't even remember this moment. Wait it out. Focus on the hair.
He realized that Maya was saying something. He glanced at her, then hastily shifted his gaze away. His sister was glaring at him, her face flushed and glazed with tears.
"Fine," she muttered after a long silence. "Fine. Fine fine fine fine. Fine. Thanks for the chess game." Without another word, Maya trudged from the room. Daniel heard her quiet steps fading down the hall, then the creaking swing of Maya's bedroom door.
For at least a minute, Dan was absolutely still. He couldn't hear any noise coming from Maya's room. The only sound was the thumping of his pulse in his neck. Slowly, he pulled his legs up against his chest and leaned back into the chair. His stomach was twisted in a knot. His brain felt like a car that had overheated and needed a good deal of time to cool down before it could be used again.
Daniel's eyes wandered the room and landed on the clock. It was still early in the evening; his parents would not be back for many hours. He was probably best off using the time to complete his physics essay… but Dan didn't feel up to concentrating on thermodynamics. What little brain power he had retained after school had been severely depleted by the chess game and the conflict with Maya. He needed to recharge. There was still plenty of time to write the essay later that night.
Instead, Daniel moved pawns up and down the chessboard, allowing them to capture each other when it was convenient. There were no knights, there were no queens. Just pawns, doing what pawns do. The pawns didn't have to think for themselves. They didn't have to react to things. They just moved in straight lines and nobody was judging them for that, because that's what pawns are supposed to do.
The sky soured outside the broad glass windowpanes of the living room. The last strands of sunlight were tugged sternly beyond the horizon and the clouds curdled with dusk. Light bled away from the sky. Daniel felt his eyes begin to droop, soothed by the rhythm of the pawns…
He was yanked out of his meditative state by the sound of Maya's door. Instantly, he tensed, his back tingling with nervous energy. Had she come to yell at him some more? Maybe she had expected him to come and comfort her in her room. Maybe he'd found yet another way to disappoint her.
But Maya didn't say anything to him. She didn't even look at him as she entered the room. His sister glided past him, her hair obscuring her face from view. Maya drifted into the kitchen. Daniel saw her stop by the sink and heard the squeal of a drawer opening, but the granite island in the center of the kitchen blocked his view of the drawer itself.
Maya rummaged in the drawer for a second before shutting it. She strode through the living room, past Dan, and into the hallway. Daniel could hear the clomping of shoes being retrieved from a basket. Suddenly nervous, Dan rose from his chair and paced down the hall after Maya. She was kneeling on the marble floor under the coat rack, fiddling with her shoelaces. Her long hair was now tucked gently behind one ear, but loose strands spilled over her cheek.
"Maya…?" Dan spoke, hesitantly. Maya stood sharply. She faced him, but would not meet his eyes. Daniel waited, but she didn't say anything.
"Are you… going somewhere?" Maya took a deep breath. Her face was pale and her eyes had reddened from crying.
"I… yeah," she muttered, her voice low and hoarse. "I'm just going for a walk."
Daniel scrutinized her. Maya often went for walks to calm down, but generally not so late at night. "A-are you sure? It's pretty dark out there…"
Maya shook her head. "I'll be fine."
"I'm sorry for making you upset earlier."
"Yeah. I'm sorry too."
"I guess I'll see you in a bit?"
"Yeah. In a bit."
"Okay. See you later, then."
"See you." For a long moment they both stood there in silence. Maya looked like she very much wanted to do something, but couldn't quite remember what. Finally, she turned away.
The door opened. A wave of cold, brisk air swept over Dan. He shivered violently, but Maya didn't react to the frigid temperature. She stepped onto the front path and swung the door to kiss its frame behind her. Her hand seemed to linger on the knob, and Daniel had a sudden urge to grab it. But her slender fingers slid from the tarnished metal and the door swung shut for the second time that evening.
Daniel felt sick. Worn out. There would be no essays on thermodynamics tonight. Moving like a zombie, he brought himself to bed. He would do his homework in the morning. He would talk to Maya in the morning too; maybe he could figure her out a little more. Maybe she could explain how everything he did - or didn't do - translated to an offense in her eyes.
Yes, he thought in his last conscious moments. Tomorrow I'll ask her.
The sounds of the night wove around him like a lullaby. A gentle tune of electronic hums, cricket chirps, and a faint ambulance siren. Soothed, Daniel drifted off to sleep.