Excerpt from Midnight by Jon Aylward

In the darkness, the white noise of political feuding can be heard: border disputes, missile tests, religious banter about the end of the world. As the lights come up, a WOMAN in a white dress sits at a table. On a nearby corner table sits a digital clock; the display reads 11:13. As she sets out pieces on a chessboard, a MAN in a black suit enters with a phone in hand. Seeing the woman, he stops checking the phone and appears solemn.

 

MAN

That time again, huh?

 

The woman sighs. Approaching the table, the man sits and helps with the remaining pieces.

 

MAN

I had no idea how late it was.

WOMAN

     That’s hardly surprising. Time flies, I suppose, when you toy with the fates of others.

 

The man glares at her.

 

MAN

If you insist on making it personal

WOMAN

It’s always personal.

MAN

     (Pausing.) Yes. Well, just because it’s personal doesn’t mean it can’t be civil. As you’ll recall, the last time things got heated the nuclear arms race got started.

WOMAN

     Things haven’t really cooled down since, have they?

MAN

I thought the Cold War was nice and frosty.

 

The woman glares at him.

 

MAN

Well, it was. We didn’t play again until Reagan got elected.

WOMAN

Close game.

MAN

     And yet somehow, I feel this one will be even closer.

 

The board now set, the woman begins to ponder her first move. She picks up a pawn, then puts it back down. She picks up another; same result. As she mulls over a third move, the man gets annoyed.

 

MAN

There’re only so many

 

She gives him a look, silencing him. Finally, she selects a pawn and moves it forward. As she hits the timer, the readout on the clock jumps ahead a minute (11:14). The man doesn’t hesitate, moving his pawn and hitting the timer (11:15). The woman wastes less time now, following up with a second move (11:16).

 

MAN

(Scoffing.) “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”

WOMAN

You think it’s a gift I’m offering you?

MAN

Well, isn’t it?

 

She raises an eyebrow, challenging him. Smiling, the man accepts the gambit and plucks her pawn off the board (11:17). The woman appears to second-guess herself as the man sets the pawn down on the table. As she stares mournfully at the game, the lights flicker and a bulletin about prisoners of war being executed fills the room.

 

MAN

That one’s on you.

WOMAN

     (With difficulty.) It’s a part of the game.

MAN

     You don’t seem to take much comfort in that.

WOMAN

     Every game requires sacrifice. I know it and they know it. I also know that with a bit of faith…

 

She picks up one of her bishops, scrutinizing it as if it might serve to support her musings.

 

WOMAN

You can overcome anything.

 

The man picks up the captured pawn and gestures with it.

 

MAN

And do they know that?

 

The woman hesitates, reappraising the piece in her hand as though no longer knowing what to do with it. The man stands and drifts slightly away from the game, still motioning with the pawn.

 

MAN

    Remember how we used to play? Those were the days, weren’t they? No politics. No compromise. No

WOMAN

Rules?

MAN

     We had our own rules, rules that were easier to follow.

WOMAN

     Easier to break, more like.

MAN

     If anybody juggled those dice, it was you.

WOMAN

     I never juggled

MAN

     The French Revolution? Ring any bells?

WOMAN

     (Hesitantly.) I did a few things I’m not proud of.

MAN

     Shame. I liked you better back then. You didn’t mind bending a rule once in a while. Shame you lost your nerve.

WOMAN

I didn’t lose my nerve

 

The man starts back toward the table.

 

MAN

     You lost your nerve and you know it. You couldn’t leave it to chance anymore. (Motioning to the board.) No, there had to be decorum. There had to be structure. (Picking up his king.) And in my mind, that makes you no better than this guy.

 

There is a pensive silence as the woman considers what he’s said. The man re-seats himself, straddling the chair backwards.

 

MAN

     Can you move already, please? The wait is killing me.

 

The woman hesitates, picks the bishop back up, then moves the piece along several spaces. Finally, she hits the timer (11:18).

 

MAN

     Well. Faith’s got to start somewhere, doesn’t it?

WOMAN

     You think you’re so wise.

MAN

Wise enough.

 

The man moves his queen and hits the timer (11:19).

 

WOMAN

     (Gravely.) Oh God…

MAN

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

WOMAN

Oh no

MAN

     Take all the time you need. I mean it.

 

The man returns to swiping his phone, waiting while the woman frets over her next move.

 

WOMAN

     You’re loving this, aren’t you?

MAN

     You already know how I feel about game night. 

WOMAN

     Stop calling it that!

 

The man looks up from the phone. For a moment, her outrage appears to have registered with him.

 

MAN

Can I suggest something?

WOMAN

No.

MAN

Look, you can still

WOMAN

     I have to do this myself.

 

After some deliberation, she finally moves her king out of harm’s way (11:20). The man returns his attention to the game, tapping the phone off the table in contemplation.

 

WOMAN

Who do you talk to on that thing anyway?

MAN

No one.

 

The man makes a move with one of his pawns (11:21) and goes back to checking his phone.

 

WOMAN

Then why do you have one?

MAN

     (Irritated.) For moments like these!

 

She appears irritated, then considers him. He looks completely preoccupied with the phone.

 

WOMAN

Let me guess, then.

 

This time, the woman makes a move that claims one of his pawns (11:22). The lights appear to brighten this time as she sweeps his piece from the board. A foreign correspondent reports on the pope comforting a child following the death of his soldier father.

 

WOMAN

Minesweeper?

 

The man double-takes, abruptly realizing that he’s lost a pawn.

 

MAN

You look pleased with yourself.

WOMAN

     Shouldn’t I be? The world needs a little good news every once in a while. 

MAN

     (Putting the phone down.) It’s not over yet.

 

The man fixes his chair and studies the board intently, now giving the game his undivided attention.

 

WOMAN

     Take all the time you need. I mean it.

 

He glares at her but says nothing. After a brief moment, he moves one of his knights (11:23).

 

WOMAN

     (Anxious.) Throwing down the gauntlet so soon?

MAN

     (Anxious.) Desperate times.

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