EPISODE FIVE: New Ventures
Xavier knocked on the classroom door three times but no one responded. He checked the number on the door, then glanced at the number on the paper in his hand again.
Room 212. Chess Club. 4:30-6:30.
He was in the right place, and it was already 4:30. Why wasn’t anyone answering?
Well, at least you can say that you tried.
Xavier didn’t want anything to do with the Chess Club, but his father was convinced that he still needed friends, and this, according to him, was the only way to make any.
“Maurice doesn’t count as a friend. He’s your tutor, and he won’t allow friendship,” his father had said, handing him the Chess Club flier. “This club, on the other hand, is full of young kids like yourself, who are more than willing to accept a new friend.”
“How do you know anything about them, Dad? They could be crazy, for all we know.”
Xavier’s father had shrugged at the question, refusing to answer it. He had also refused to let Xavier argue against him.
He was about to turn away when a boy opened the door.
Xavier swallowed. “My name is Xavier. I’m looking for the Chess Club. This flier said you guys meet in here.”
“Yep, that’s us. Why don’t you come inside, Xavier? It’s been a while since we’ve had any visitors.”
He swallowed again and stepped inside. So far, so good. The room was spacious enough for a classroom, although only five people, aside from himself, filled it. Two girls and three boys, if he guessed correctly. They were all dressed in school uniform, although the girls looked much more comfortable than the boys. They all stared at him as he walked in, but it wasn’t one of those intrusive stares. It was more of a curious stare than anything else.
“Guys, this is Xavier. He’s here to join our club.”
“Hey, Xavier,” said one of the girls. “My name is Alice. Nice to meet you.”
One of the taller boys with blond hair reached out to shake his hand. “I’m Dylan.”
“My name is Rich,” the other boy said, following suit. He was the only male in the group with a beard.
“You can call me Jamie,” said the other girl. She looked older than the rest. Xavier guessed she had to be a senior. Or maybe she’d been held back before?
“And my name is Ethan, and I’m the leader of this merry group.” The boy who had opened the door for him patted him on the shoulder. “Welcome to the Chess Club.”
“So, Xavier, what made you want to join us?” Jamie stood up from her chair and made her way over to him.
“Well,” he hesitated. He didn’t want to tell them that he was only here because his dad wanted him to make friends. That would make me sound too desperate. “I thought about learning chess. Is this a good place to learn?”
“Is it ever!” Rich crossed his arms and stroked his beard with his left hand. “I am the best player here, and I’ll have you know that I knew absolutely nothing about chess before I joined this club.” He pretended to give Xavier a death glare. “I’ll teach you everything that I know, but you will never beat me. I won’t let a rookie dethrone me.”
Xavier laughed. “Thanks for the offer, but if I’m going to learn from you, you’d better believe I will get better than you.”
Rich grinned. “This kid has a little bit of fight in him. I’ll take him.”
“No, no, if anyone gets to claim him as an apprentice, it has to be me,” Alice said, pouting. Her voice was high pitched and whiny. He guessed she might be a tenth grader. “I’ve been in this club for almost two years,” — I guessed right! — “and every time someone new shows up, you guys always take them.” Alice grabbed Xavier’s arm and pulled him to one of the desks. “This time, I want to claim him as my own.” She smiled at him. “I am way better at chess than any of these guys. The only one better than me is Jamie, and she isn’t interested in making apprentices.”
“Hey, I introduced him to the group, and, as leader, I should get final say on who gets to apprentice him.” Ethan pulled out a chess board. “Who says we battle for him?”
“A fight to the death!” Dylan took the board from Ethan and set it on the desk. “I will challenge anyone for the opportunity to train this young man in the art of chess playing.” He glared at the others. “Who dares battle, to the death, for his soul?”
Alice loosened her grip on Xavier’s arm and rushed to the board. “Prepare to lose, good sir,” she said, rolling up her sleeves. The others crowded around the board. Xavier made eye contact with Jamie, who now sat a few seats away from the match.
“Is it usually this lively in here?” He asked, sitting next to her. She smiled.
“This is a rowdy bunch,” she said. “I see they love you already.”
Xavier shrugged. “I think they just want someone they can claim as their apprentice.”
“No, they love you,” she teased. “For as long as I’ve been in this school, and for all the clubs I’ve been a part of, the Chess Club is, by far, the friendliest.”
Xavier laughed. “I can see that.” He watched Dylan and Alice frantically moving pieces on the chessboard. If for nothing else, he wanted to learn how to play chess so he could settle scores much easier. Oh, you want to watch this movie? Well, I want to watch another movie. Let’s have a chess battle to decide who gets to watch what!
Why did his father have to be so smart? How did he know that the Chess Club would be this accepting? This friendly?
Xavier leaned back in his chair. I wonder if Jenna would like these people?
“Hey, Xavier, are you going to come hang with us after this?”
It’d been almost a week since he joined the Chess Club, and they still wanted to hang out with him. Xavier didn’t think he was a bad guy. He didn’t think he was uninteresting, or unworthy of friends. He just thought it strange that these five wanted to be his friends so badly. They created opportunities to hang out, and they really tried getting to know him. It was unlike anything he’d experienced before.
Xavier leaned back in his seat. He studied the board in front of him, pretending to be fully concentrated on his next move.
“Come on, Xavier, did you hear what I asked?” Alice grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. He held back a smile.
“Trying to pay attention to my moves here,” he said, shaking her off. “I want to give Rich a run for his money.”
In the battle for his soul, Rich had emerged victorious. Xavier enjoyed learning from the older boy, although he wasn’t sure if he’d ever beat him. Rich was, indeed, the best chess player in this club. No one, neither rookie nor experienced vet, could dethrone the master.
He made a move on the board and smiled confidently. “Check.”
Rich raised an eyebrow. “Don’t smile too soon, young padawan.” He lifted a piece from the board and set it down. “Checkmate.”
Xavier felt his face grow red. He hadn’t expected to win, but he thought he’d at least give Rich some kind of challenge. Instead, Rich had destroyed him in a matter of minutes.
“That was a good game, Xavier,” Rich said, standing up and shaking his hand. “Your skills will only grow as time progresses. Who knows? You may even get good enough to fight in our championship game.”
Xavier shook his head. “I’m not good enough for any competitions yet.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, Xavier,” Jamie said from her seat by the door. “Our Chess Club was the least likely to succeed in any competition, and we’re heading out in two weeks to contend for the state championship.”
“Yeah, all it took was some hard work and knowing a few judges,” Ethan said, rubbing his hands together. Everyone laughed.
He’s gotta be kidding, right?
Ethan must’ve noticed his uneasiness and put a hand on his shoulder. “But, in all seriousness, we worked hard and proved everyone wrong. You can do the same.”
Xavier crossed his arms. “As much as I enjoy playing with you guys, I don’t have as much time to devote to chess as you do. I don’t want to play in any championships anyway.”
“Don’t worry about that, Xavier,” Ethan said. “Our championship team only has three slots that can’t be changed. Once we chose who was going to play, that was it.”
Xavier nodded. He realized they were only trying to encourage his growing fondness for chess. He smiled and stood up.
“Alright, Alice, where did you say you guys were going after this?”
Light poured into the darkened hallway as Xavier made his way back to the Chess Club room. Someone had left the light on and the door ajar before leaving for the evening.
I guess the janitors trust the teachers to turn the lights off before they leave.
He had forgotten his bookbag in his rush to hang out with Alice and Dylan. He hadn’t noticed that it was missing until his father had already picked him up from the restaurant.
“Can we please go back, Dad? It’s super important,” he had begged after they had already pulled away. “I have a test in a few days, and I left all my notes in my bookbag.”
His father had frowned. “I appreciate you having new friends, Xavier, but if you can’t be responsible, then I’m going to have to limit the amount of time you get to spend with them.”
“Please, Dad, I’m really sorry,” he had said in response. “It won’t happen again.”
And he wouldn’t let it. His father wasn’t the kind of person he wanted to disrespect or mess with. He also wasn’t the kind of person to listen to begging. The fact that he’d turned around and driven back to the school was enough for Xavier. He wouldn’t let his friends, old or new, make him any less responsible.
I’m my own person, aren’t I? My friends don’t have to change who I am.
And he didn’t have to change himself for them, either. They accepted him exactly the way he was, no questions asked. That was something he hadn’t experienced often in his school days. He never had trouble with bullies or anything like that, but people usually don’t like hanging around people who didn’t have an outrageous personality, or who weren’t overly friendly or extremely funny or insanely popular. He wasn’t any of those things, and, yet, these kids were so quick to befriend him.
Xavier started to push open the door to Room 212, when he heard some voices.
Someone is still here?
He opened the door a little more and peeked inside. He could see the outline of a few people huddled by the teacher’s desk. He focused a bit more, and recognized the back of Jamie’s head. And isn’t that Ethan? But who is the third person?
Xavier was about to enter the room when they began to speak again.
“I don’t know how I feel about this.”
“What are you worried about? We’ve got everything under control. Do you think I would try to do this if it wouldn’t work? If I thought we could get caught?”
Xavier swallowed hard. I don’t like the sound of that. They were both whispering, so he couldn’t make out who was saying what. Either way, it didn’t sound like they were planning a nice after school get together. It sounded pretty serious.
“Listen, the two of you.” The third voice came in strong and loud. This guy didn’t seem to care if he was heard. “I’ve been doing things like this for ages. In fact, we’ve already done it three times with your little club, so I don’t understand why you’re so worried.”
“But things are different this time around. There’s a new guy…”
“There’s always a new guy. Why do you keep inviting them into your club if you don’t want them to know what you’re doing?”
Xavier wanted to bang the door open and demand to know what they were talking about. He wanted to tell them that whatever it was that they were planning was wrong, and they shouldn’t do it. But what if it isn’t anything bad? What if they’re just talking mysteriously, like they always do? What if they’re just being dramatic? He didn’t know what to do.
“The new guy we’ve got, he’s a safeguard.”
Wait— that’s me they’re talking about.”
“If we need to use him as a scapegoat, he’s ready.”
“Well, then. I guess I came to the right school, huh? You guys are pretty tough, and you aren’t afraid to use whoever you have to in order to get what you want.”
“That’s how you survive, isn’t it?”
Xavier couldn’t listen any more.
But I have to get my bookbag! If I don’t, I’ll have to tell Dad why, and he won’t let me walk away from this.
He looked inside the classroom again, but this time, the occupants were starting to move. He dashed across the hallway and found a staircase to hide in. He peered around the corner.
Three figures moved slowly down the other direction of the hallway. Xavier held in his breath and ran for the Chess Club Room. He tried the door — it was locked!
What am I going to do now? I can’t tell Dad what I heard…right?
He hadn’t told his father what he overheard, only that the door was locked and he wasn’t able to get his bookbag. His father had been a little upset over the wasted trip, but his anger didn’t last that long.
“You’ll just have to call Maurice or Vicki,” he had said. “They’ll help you out.”
Xavier sat on his bed, phone in hand. He couldn’t call Vicki. She would be too busy daydreaming about Maurice and their supposed life together. Even if Maurice had admitted to him that he liked her, the guy wasn’t making any serious moves. He was keeping things at a nice distance, which was cool. Maurice shouldn’t rush into anything as crazy as Vicki without spending a few months thinking about it. Xavier realized that now.
Why did I ever even like that girl? Uh, because she’s super pretty and…
He punched in Maurice’s number and waited. It felt weird, calling his tutor. He knew that Maurice would help him, but their growing friendship wasn’t something he’d expected.
It was a young girl’s voice. That’s probably his sister. He’s talked about her before.
“Hi, my name is Xavier, I’d like to speak to your brother.”
“I’ll get him.”
He grabbed a few sheets of paper and a pen from his desk and set it on his lap.
Xavier laughed. “You sound just like your sister, Maurice.”
“That’s encouraging.” He didn’t sound very amused. “What do you need this late at night?”
“It’s kind of a big favor I need to ask you, Maurice.” Xavier swallowed. “You see, I was with the Chess Club today—”
“The Chess Club. I’m not leaving the Study Club or anything like that,” he said quickly. “My father just wanted me to try something new.”
“I don’t mind,” Maurice said. “I just hadn’t heard what you said. What happened with the Chess Club?”
Xavier paused. Should I tell him? He wondered if it would do any good. Maurice was a well-behaved student with connections to every single teacher, staff member, and administrator. He probably had the Board of Education on speed-dial. If he did tell him, Maurice would tell him to report them. But isn’t that the right thing? Isn’t that what I should do anyway?
Maybe I should tell him, Xavier thought. He’s smart and has good opinions. It wouldn’t hurt to get his input.
“Yeah, I left my bookbag in the classroom before we went out to eat,” he continued, “so I went back a few hours ago with my father to go get it, and there were some people in there,” — Xavier closed his eyes — “two of the club members, plus some other guy. They were talking about something that seemed really shady.”
Maurice cleared his throat. “What were they saying?”
“They said they were doing something that might get them in trouble, and that they would use me as a scapegoat, just in case anything went wrong.”
The phone went silent on the other end.
Why did I even tell this guy? He’s probably switching to the Principal’s personal phone line, telling him that the Chess Club is plotting something. But why am I afraid of that? Isn’t that the right thing to do anyway?
“Do they play in tournaments?”
Xavier blinked. “Uh, yes, they do. How did you know?”
“That guy was most likely a judge. I’ve heard of clubs doing things like this all the time. Most of these club members have large egos. They don’t want to waste time playing any lowly matches. They pay off a judge to rig a few games for them, so that they can win the last rounds by themselves.”
“Now that you mention it, I did hear something about them knowing a judge the first time I went to the club. I thought it was a joke at the time, but now, I’m not so sure.”
“Who was the judge? Was he someone from our school?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t recognize him. But he did make a comment about coming to the right school.” Xavier gasped as a new thought registered to him. “What if it’s that Claudio kid?”
“Who?” Maurice asked on the other line.
“Claudio, that super rebellious kid everyone’s always talking about. He used to tie up hall monitors by their shoelaces and hang them upside down in the stairwells.”
Maurice laughed. “That’s an urban legend, my friend. I’ll agree with you that this Claudio guy is bad, but tying people upside down?” He laughed again.
Xavier felt his face turning red. “Maurice, you can laugh all you want, but they were doing something bad, and I’m pretty sure he was involved. They say he just transferred to that school, so it’s possible.”
“Well, I’m not too sure about that, but I won’t discredit the idea entirely.” He paused. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t report something that you aren’t entirely certain of yet, but you shouldn’t just sit on this information. Telling it to me doesn’t count.”
“I could confront them.” The minute he said it, he knew he would never have the guts to do it. “They’re just so nice. If I’m wrong, I don’t know how they would take it.”
“You said they were nice. They’d probably forgive and forget.”
“But they were so kind to me. They accepted me into their group without a second thought.”
Maurice cleared his throat again. “Well, if what they said in their little rendezvous was true, they only did that to use you as a scapegoat. If that’s true, then these people are not your friends.”
Xavier sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“So is this what you called me for? I’m sorry, but I have to continue preparing dinner for my sister.”
“No, I wanted—” Xavier stopped himself. He knew he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on any studying, not with this on his mind. “It’s all right, I don’t need anything else. Thanks for your time. You have a good night, Maurice.”
Xavier set the phone on the bed beside him.
Why did I even get involved with this club in the first place? Oh, that’s right, Dad wanted me to make some new friends. Well, I did it, I made new friends, and they’re crazy.
He closed his eyes and leaned back on his pillow. He’d figure out what to do in the morning. But, for now, he needed to sleep.
They were all there, sitting around a chess board, discussing strategies and afternoon plans, and not a single one of them was real. They’d lied to him, convinced him that he could be a part of their group, when they only wanted him in the event that something went wrong. He’d never experienced betrayal before, and it bothered him. To have blindly trusted and thought the best, and then to have that trust violated…
Xavier shuddered as he stood in the doorway of the Chess Club room. This wasn’t even something he should be thinking about. He deserved better than betrayal and manipulation. He should just walk away from these kids; he didn’t owe them any explanation.
But what about forgiveness?
A strange thought wandered into his mind. Does forgiveness apply in this situation? And if he forgave them, did that mean he had to remain their friend? Could he forgive them and move on with his life? Could he do that?
Xavier cleared his throat, alerting the room of his presence. Five pairs of eyes searched for the noise, eventually landing on his own. Four smiles broke out – Rich had returned his focus to the board – and they beckoned him to enter. He took a step forward.
“We were waiting for you, Xavier,” Alice said, getting up from her seat to welcome him. “I’ll get a game started.” He lifted a hand to stop her.
“I’m not here to play, Alice,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. This time he got their attention, and kept it.
Rich cleared his throat. “Why not, apprentice? Playing consistently is the only way you can get better.”
Xavier almost laughed. They were still trying to make him feel welcome. Ridiculous.
“I came back to this room last night, after hanging out with Alice and Dylan. I’d left my bookbag in my rush to go out with them.” He studied their faces for any hint of nervousness. Their faces remained blank. He continued. “I ran into a few of you in here, talking about some interesting things.”
“You didn’t hear anything at all, Xavier,” Ethan said, standing up. “There was no one in here last night.”
Xavier raised an eyebrow. “I see you’re no stranger to lying to people, Ethan,” he said. “Or have you not told everyone in here your plan?”
Ethan gritted his teeth. “Would you like to discuss this outside?”
Xavier shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
Ethan glanced at Jamie, who nodded. “Let’s go outside.”
He walked outside with the leader of the club, careful to make eye contact with the remaining members. Alice and Dylan looked surprised and confused. Jamie kept her eyes on the ground. Rich had returned his focus to the chess board in front of him.
Ethan closed the door softly. “Now, I don’t know what you think you heard—”
Xavier held up a hand. “I’m sorry, Ethan, but I’m the one who wanted to talk to you. I have a few things I need to say first. I heard enough to know that you are planning something with Claudio, and that you intend to use me as a scapegoat if something goes wrong. Did I hear all of that correctly?”
“So you were here last night.” Suddenly, his demeanor changed. He stood up straighter and crossed his arms. “Well, you’re right, we are planning on using you as a scapegoat. But this thing about Claudio is off. He’s not involved in any of this.”
“What are you planning, Ethan?”
The boy laughed. “Do you plan on reporting me? We’ve bought the entire competition, Xavier. Why waste our best players on entry level matches? Once we win this competition, we go on for a state championship. That is where I want to spend the most of my energy.”
“It doesn’t bother you that this is all…wrong?”
Ethan shrugged. “Who says that it’s wrong? You?” He laughed. “You have no place in all of this. We’ll never get caught, so we don’t need you.”
“This isn’t about getting caught, Ethan. It’s about right and wrong. This has got to be against the rules.”
“We own the rulebook, Xavier,” Ethan replied. “We own the entire thing. We’re playing in it for kicks, but it isn’t real.”
“What about all the other kids, the ones who are actually playing the game? You’re wasting all their time and energy, all their talent, just so you can win a championship you guys probably aren’t ready for.”
“Is this conversation over?” Ethan asked, sighing. “Are you coming back inside?”
Xavier crossed his arms. “I’m not going back, Ethan. I’m going to report you all—”
“And you’ll learn that no one is listening.” Ethan reached for the doorknob of the Chess Club room. “You stepped into something much deeper than yourself, Xavier. You can keep your mouth shut like all those kids in there and enjoy our friendship, or you can walk away. Either way, it doesn’t matter to me.”
“I think I’ve made my choice already.”
“Suit yourself.” Ethan opened the door. “It was great knowing you.”
Xavier stood outside, watching the door close on the strangest week of his life. He watched the door close on five people who’d confused, tricked, and manipulated him into thinking they were his friends. And he watched the door close on his need for friends. Not that he’d give up the ones he had or that he wouldn’t make any more, but he realized he had been desperate for them. His father must’ve noticed. That’s why he kept pushing him to various clubs, including this one. And that’s why he hadn’t noticed any warning signs about this little group.
He turned away and found a staircase. There was one group of people he really wanted to see right now. He pushed open the door to the Study Club room and smiled. Maurice stood at the board, working out a math problem while Vicki watched, head in her hands, mind in a far off land of love, or wherever she went when she was daydreaming.
Yep, this is where I belong. These are the ones I need to worry about.
Xavier shut the door behind him and took a step forward.