Episode 12: The Chess Board

Note: I'd originally planned on a 12-episode series but cut one episode to keep a better flow. Instead, I'm taking a swing at a standalone episode that pertains to the plot of Walk The Line but isn't integral to it. Think of this as what Epitaph One was to Dollhouse, just set in the past rather than in the future.


The hand gripping tightly around her wrist was tight and uncomfortable so the young girl walked faster, moving as quickly as her little legs would take her. No matter how fast she walked though, it was never quite quick enough to keep up and she heard her plastic jellies shoes scraping on the pavement as she was pulled along. They weren't new by any means but they were the only shoes that purposely showed her toes, unlike most of the other pairs of worn footwear she owned. She wanted to keep them for as long as she could before they went to shit like everything else in her short life had.

"You're going too fast, grandma," she complained. She tried to shake her arm free but the hand gripping her wrist just clung tighter.

"The bank ain't gonna be open forever, babygirl," the woman replied blankly, her eyes wild as she concentrated on navigating them across the busy street.

A yellow taxi screeched to a halt to their side, just narrowly avoiding running right into them. The woman faced the car and momentarily let go of the little girl's wrist to bang her hands palm-down on the hood. The driver opened his door and started to get out but the woman had the little girl by the wrist again and was hastily pulling her the rest of the way across the busy street.

The little girl looked up as they finally reached the sidewalk and stared at a nondescript building. She was used to these kinds of places by now and she knew without a doubt that it wasn't a bank. Sure there was money inside she'd seen her grandmother get a handful of it a few times but there were no nice tellers with pretty hair who gave her candy and smiled at her. Those were a thing of the past, she had a feeling. Things had definitely changed since her mom had left . . .

"Stop thinking about her, Renee," the woman scolded her, not sparing the little girl a glance as she fixed her own rumpled clothing and smoothed down her messy hair.

"I wasn't," the little girl lamely defended, staring up at her grandmother with a frown on her face.

The woman continued to fix herself up, too distracted to look down at her granddaughter. Luckily for the little girl, it was something she'd gotten used to by now.

"You can't hide things from me," the grandmother continued, her blue eyes bright yet distant. "Haven't I told you that before? When you feel happy, I know. When you feel sad, I know. And when you feel sad, you're thinking about her. It's a waste of time, kitten. She ain't ever coming back."

"You don't know that," the little girl said, openly pouting now.

The grandmother slowly stopped fretting over herself and looked down at her feet, then over to the little girl. She made eye contact for the first time in what felt like weeks. The little girl felt her pulse quicken, though in fright or excitement, she wasn't sure.

"I do know, Nay Nay. Your momma told me she was leaving and not coming back, and I felt the truth when she said it. She wasn't lying, or if she was, she'd convinced herself that she wasn't."

"She'll be back. She loves me, she told me she does!" the little girl said defiantly, yanking her wrist free so she could cross her arms over her chest.

The woman laughed and for the first time the little girl saw something in her that she hadn't seen before. Tiredness. Age. A frailty that she'd never imagined possible in the usually strong-willed fifty year old woman.

And that's when the little girl felt it for only the second time ever. A hum. A brightness that grew inside her head, letting her see through her grandmothers eyes and to what was on the inside. It wasn't all blood and guts but rather a swirl of emotions and colors that at six years old she'd never seen but somehow understood.

"You're tired, and you're sad. You're very, very sad," the little girl said, her eyes focused so that she could see inside but not on the surface. "But is it because you miss mommy, or because you're getting sick?"

A silence fell over them as the woman stared back at her granddaughter, her eyes shining with unshed tears and her bottom lip trembling. The little girl continued to stare but refocused her eyes so that she was looking at her grandmother's eyes and not behind them. The woman opened her mouth and tried to speak but instead she could only take in a quick breath. A single tear rolled down her heavily made up cheek and she swiped it away quickly with the back of her index finger.

She wanted to say something, that much was clear to the little girl, but instead the woman sniffled and straightened up her back. She took a deep breath and grabbed the little girl's wrist again.

"Now we can sit here and we can wax poetic about your momma all night long or we can go in there and get us some money," the woman said, completely disregarding what the little girl had asked her.

She tugged her along through the blacked out glass door of the building and made her sit down in an old wooden folding chair just outside a small office. The little girl sat there swinging her legs back and forth, bored by the lack of anything for her to see or do. The conversation about her mother should have upset her but instead it made her happy. Maybe her grandmother was sure that she wouldn't be coming back but the little girl was sure she'd see her again.

How did she know that?

Well, when her momma had said goodbye, the little girl had had a strange feeling wash over her. By the time the feeling faded and went away, she knew that her mother would be back. It was the same feeling that she'd just had with her grandmother on the sidewalk, and she knew from her grandmother's reaction that she'd been right. That what she'd felt had been true.

Now all she had to do was sit pretty and wait for her mom to come back for her.

Nearly ten minutes passed before the grandmother appeared through the suddenly opened office door. She was upset and was still yelling back into the room at persons unknown.

"That's bullshit, Carlo. You know I'm good for my debt!" she yelled.

She grabbed the little girl by the wrist and yanked her up as she passed by. The little girl grumbled with discomfort but didn't make any effort to pull away. In fact, she willingly stepped behind her grandmother and peeked around her to see a tall man with slicked back hair and a dark gray suit step out from the office.

"You ain't been good for your debt going on a year, Niecey. Maybe if you started working again; we can get you back on the casino floor . . ."

"How do you expect me to work when I have to take care of Jane's kid?" the grandmother asked, tugging on the little girl's wrist and yanking her forward into view. "You think I can afford to pay for a babysitter on the pittance you pay me?"

"Hey, that's not my fault," he said defensively. "If you'd pay back your debt like you should've, I wouldn't have to take it out of your salary every week. And if you're really struggling . . ." he gazed down at the small girl and leered, "we can always put the kid to work. Maybe she's talented like her mother and grandmother. Does the scam run in the Keller family?"

"You keep your filthy hands off this girl," the grandmother said, moving in front of the little girl again. "She ain't gonna live like we did. She's gonna make something outta herself. She's gonna have a name, and she won't have to hide in the shadows like we did!"

With that, the old lady turned around and pushed the blacked out glass door open, ushering the little girl out of the door in front of her. Once they were outside, she started tugging the little girl behind her again, not stopping until they were two blocks away and passing a small fast food restaurant. She stopped and took a seat on one of the colored plastic benches and buried her head in her hands. Her fingers grasped and pulled at her hair and the little girl watched on, wondering what the heck had just happened.

"Grandma?" she asked.

The woman looked up, her eyes red-rimmed and wide.

"You listen to me, Nay Nay. The worst thing you can do is become invisible. The world's not here to mother you and there's nothing it'd like more than for us all to disappear. You don't let that happen, you hear me? No matter what, you fight. You stay where everyone can see you, the bright star that you are. Do you understand me?"

Her hands clasped onto the little girl's upper arms and the little girl winced, unable to respond to her grandmother while she was in pain. The grandmother seemed to notice this and she loosened her grip.

"Grandma?" the little girl asked again.

"Just promise me, Renee. Promise me that you'll never fade away."

"I won't" the little girl said after a moment and watched as her grandmother visibly relaxed.

"Thank you, babygirl," the grandmother said with relief. She took several deep breaths and shook her head, then put on a smile that the little girl knew didn't reach her soul. "How bout we go inside and get the number two special? I know it's your favorite."

The little girl smiled and nodded her head and they made their way inside.

"Number two, up!" A young man called out and Camryn looked up from the small window she'd been staring out from the booth she was sitting in.

She smiled over at the boy - an obvious new employee judging by his state of frazzlement - and walked over, gratefully taking the tray that he was holding out for her. He was studying her face intently and when a spark of recognition light up his face, Camryn couldn't help but smile again. This was happening all too often these days.

"You're Camryn, aren't you?" he asked, smiling.

"That I am," she said modestly.

"I watched you at Spearmint Rhino a couple weeks ago. You're amazing!"

"Thank you," she said, smiling politely. She handed him her credit card and he took it from her, unable to keep the huge smile from his face.

He ran the card through the machine, then frowned as he got a good look at it. "Renee Keller? Is that you?"

Camryn's smile fell just a little bit and she nodded. "Yep. It sure is."

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