Travelers Welcome

Travelers Welcome

Monday, January 17, 2011

Connect Four

by Justis Mills

I don’t know what his parents do for a living, but they come to the lounge weekend nights. They set up their kids on the TV in the corner, and sell food to the students. The dad wears tight shirts and looks calmly concerned, like a nurse. The mom is skeletal, but otherwise healthy. The sons are small, brown, and beautiful.

Today, the eldest brought a game: Connect Four. Someone is challenging him, probably stoned, but twice his age. She keeps laughing at how quickly he moves; his mouth smiles back while his eyes stare her down. He mocks her between moves, tells her up front how he’ll win.

I stare at his thin smooth wrists, the dance of his fingers. I notice the length of his face, his long eyelashes, the clownish pout of his two-toned lips. I remember a girl, the scar below her mouth. He looks just like her, except for that. I take a piece from the table, then my seat.

If I swung hard enough, the tiny grooves on the little black circle would bite into his skin. It might leave a mark, running down his chin, like dried nectar from a too-sweet fruit. I make my move, another, and try to match his stare. I lose within a minute, and join the growing ring of spectators. His mother watches from the corner, proud or amused, shaking her head with a hand on her hip.

Everyone is talking about this kid; people stream to see him win. He doesn’t disappoint, or flinch under pressure. He says clever things for the crowd, laughs, keeps his eyes on the foe.

There’s a lull in challenges, and my roommate Jim steps in. His face is blank as always, greasy bangs down to his nose. The kid tries to get a read on him, but has no luck. His taunts are met with straightforward replies, serious strategy. I’ve never seen Jim think so hard. When he wins, the corner of his mouth curls to a smile.

The crowd is gone instantly, and Jim with it. The mom walks to the sink, and her son wanders over to the TV. I try to walk over, to tell him it was a match well fought, but I can’t make the connection.

As soon as I leave, disappointment sets in. We were all part of something large, the aura of a prodigy. Each challenger was a sacrifice to the young master, condescending, worshipful. I find myself angry at Jim, angry that he dared break the streak, a single red light in a perfect escape. Or maybe, just maybe, that it hadn’t been me.

I get back to the room and he’s sitting on his bed, staring at his hands. I ask how he got so good at Connect Four and he says he used to play Go with his mom, which is similar. This whole time he’s still staring at his hands, eyes concealed, and I ask if he’s going to tell her about today. He says no, she’s dead. I ask since when, he says last month.

I give him half my taco, lean in shock against the wall. I congratulate him for the win, and he nods behind his hair.

1 comment:

  1. Superb turnaround and manipulation of reader's expectations and assumptions