Saturday, 14 October 2017 12:14

The Memory Gambit by Beth McCabe

The Memory Gambit by Beth McCabeThor falls off the coffee table and rolls under the couch. I scootch down, dig the fragile piece out of the dust bunnies and popcorn, and set him carefully on the coffee table.

Dana moves her Valkyrie a few spaces toward my Odin. “You are so screwed, Rocky,” she gloats.

Even though I’ve been out of chess competition for a year, my big sister is still the only one who can beat me. Dad tried grooming her for grandmastership a few years ago. But Dana has other plans. She’s going to be one of those scientists that combine two scarily difficult things, like astrophysicist or neurobiologist. She doesn’t have time for endless rounds of chess practice, club meetings, and tournaments.

I was Dad’s consolation prize. I’m not as straight-out talented as Dana, but I love the game, and I don’t care if that makes me a geek. When my brain lights up with a series of moves it’s like tiny alternate universes playing out inside my head. The world just makes more sense when I’m playing chess or even thinking about it.

At least, it did until about a year ago.

Dad’s truck rumbles up the driveway just as Dana puts me in check. But the reprieve is not entirely welcome. The Norse Gods set is one of the fancy ones Dad gives me every birthday and Christmas. “These are not to play with,” he always cautions me. “These are collectors’ items.” I try to appreciate his gifts, but I can’t help wishing I’d get Celtics tickets or a new gaming console instead. So sometimes I play with them anyway.


Dana sweeps the glass pieces into their sack and shoves it under the couch along with the chiseled stone board. “Put it back in the display case later,” she whispers. “He’ll never notice.”

On her way out she pauses to give Dad air kisses. He smiles and hugs her. I’ve got to figure out how she does that, because when he sees me, the smile drops off his face. “Why aren’t you ready?” he says.

“Hello to you too.” I remember why he’s home early: my weekly appointment in Manchester.

“We have to pay for the hour even if we’re late.”

“I know.” I grab my sweatshirt and follow him out.

I can’t figure how seeing Dr. Foss every week helps me, but Dad makes me go. It’s not just that he has his Jockeys in a knot over my quitting chess competition. I have to admit that over the past year my grades have gone in the toilet. This is not hard to understand, since I’ve been spending most of my time in my room playing Counter-Strike and reading Neal Stephenson. My friends have gotten tired of asking me to hang out since I usually make some lame excuse.

I know Dad’s worried about me, especially since Mom is away on one of her mega-month marine biology trips.


“How are you feeling, Rocky?” Dr. Foss asks.

“I feel fine.”

He does his silent thing for a while.

“How’s school?”

“Not so good. I could be failing English. Also Spanish.”

“You haven’t been able to return to more productive study habits?”

“Can’t concentrate.”

“Rocky, are you…” Delicate pause. I know what’s coming. “…using substances to help you feel better?”

“No.” Has he met me? Chess and video games are my self-soothers. But when he looks at me expectantly the truth comes out in a rush.

“Last night I dreamt about the tournament again.”

Dr. Foss emits the tiny puff of air that is his version of a sigh. “If that’s what’s on your mind, that’s what we’ll talk about. Why don’t you describe your dream?”

I settle back into the chair and close my eyes. “Dad and I are at a hotel in Boston. I’m really hyped up because if I win this tournament, I’ll be pushing up against the top New England Junior rankings. We go into the big room where they have business meetings. My first opponent is Henry Peterson. He isn’t creative or analytical, he just memorizes a lot of famous games.”

“OK. What do you see?”

“Tables with timers. Water pitchers. Officials. Parents. Although they’re not hovering over us like they used to. They’ve been herded off to the other side of the room because of the cheating that went on a couple of years ago.”

“What happens next?”

I pause. I’ve never told Dr. Foss how good Suriya smelled when she brushed close to me on her way to her game. Or that I can’t remember what color sari she was wearing that day, no matter how hard I try.

Some things are not meant to be shared.

“I use the Hapsburg opening,” I continue. “It usually rattles a player like Henry because he expects something more common, Kasparov or Fischer. The first few moves go fine, but then he goes off in a whole new direction. He’s a step ahead of me every move. I press my attack too fast, and pretty soon, it’s check and mate.”

“But you’d lost chess games before.”

“Yes, but I shouldn’t have lost this game. I’ve reviewed my game notes over and over and I can’t figure it out.” It doesn’t help that Henry is still winning, according to the Federation’s Facebook page. It also doesn’t help that he’s a jerk. His mother is the CEO of a hot gaming company in Cambridge. When he’s not bragging on how she was a Grandmaster in her teens, he’s going on about all the cool Virtual Reality gear she brings home.

Dr. Foss takes a hit of coffee from his pottery mug. Or, considering the fact that he deals with teenagers all day, maybe it’s vodka. “We’ve talked about obsession, Rocky. At some point you have to put things behind you and move on.” He pauses. “I may have found something that can help.”

I sit up straighter.

“I’ve just been trained in an experimental new therapy called AM. It stands for Augmented Memory.”

I’m not sure I like the idea of being a shrink’s guinea pig, but I’m getting kind of desperate here.

“Go on.”

“Some researchers in New Zealand have identified the neurons that play back memory. With electrodes attached to your skull”–he sees me grimace–“painlessly attached–we may be able to stimulate those neurons and get a particular memory running intentionally.”

“What’s the point of that?” I yell. “I play that scene back too often as it is.”

“Because we’ll give you control,” he answers calmly. “Your sight and hearing will be enhanced, and you’ll have a pair of sensitive joysticks. You can speed up, slow down, zoom in and out, and hear whispers from across the room.”

“What?” I say stupidly.

“The brain is an amazing sensory recorder. Lots of details that you don’t recall on your own are stored in there. Not so long ago they used hypnosis for things like this, but the results were less than scientifically sound. Now, as they say, we have the technology.”

“Just to be clear, I can’t change the outcome,” I say. I look up hopefully. “Can  I?”

Dr. Foss laughs. “No. Contrary to science fiction, we can’t go back and change the past. But the researchers found this procedure very effective in helping people escape obsessive thoughts. Once you review the event with some measure of control, apparently, it’s easier to let it go.”

“Sounds expensive,” I say. Dad’s already spending a fortune on Dr. Foss. He tells me not to worry about the money, but I do.

“I’ve gotten you and a couple of other patients in for free as part of the research study, if it’s OK with you and your Dad.”

I smile for the first time in a long time.

Dr. Foss chats with Dad when we’re done with our session. I know Dad will approve the procedure, but just to be a pain in the keester I wait for him to bring it up on the ride home.

“So, it sounds like this new therapy might be pretty interesting,” he says super casually. Maybe he’s afraid I’ll think it’s child abuse or something.

“I agree. I’m tired of being stuck.”

“OK,” he says. “That’s good. Pizza or Thai for dinner?”

I’m starving, but I have one of those rare moments when I realize my parent is an actual human being. “Dad,” I say, “why are you so anxious to have a chess champion in the family?”

He shrugs. “I dropped Chess Club for football when I was your age, and I’ve always regretted it.” He glances at me. “I just don’t want you kids to waste your gifts.”

I don’t bother telling him that I’m in no immediate danger of being recruited for the Windham High football team. “Let’s get Thai,” I say. “Dana’s on a curry jag.”


We’re at a clinic outside Boston. I’m lying on kind of a comfy dentist chair. There’s a helmet on my head that took Dr. Foss and his staff forty minutes to get me into, what with gels and electrodes and all. That part is not so comfy. My hands are set into controller gloves. And I’m hooked up to a bunch of beeping monitors to make sure I don’t croak or something right in the middle of this.

“Remember the training, Rocky?” asks Dr. Foss. “Right hand slows the action, freezes it, or speeds it up. Left hand controls your enhanced senses.”

“Yup. Tap thumb for vision, pointer for hearing. Can you see what I see?” I ask.

“No. It’s a closed loop from your memory center to your visual cortex. But we can tell a lot from monitoring your brain waves. And you can come back out any time. Do you remember how?”

Maybe I’m nervous, because I don’t have any idea how to exit other than yelling “Abort!”.

“Just squeeze either hand,” he reminds me.

I’m glad Dad and Dana are observing from another room, because I don’t know what it will be like once I go under. I just hope Dad doesn’t lose his nerve and pull me out too early.

Dr. Foss says a few words to the technician.

“Ready?” he asks.


The technician tells me that they will start by stimulating endorphins to alleviate anxiety. So at first I just feel a calm sensation, like slipping into a warm bath. Dr. Foss’s voice is distant and a little garbled, as if it’s coming over the intercom at school. “OK, Rocky,” he says. “I want you to picture yourself entering the hotel where the tournament took place.”

That’s easy; one of the reasons I’m good at chess is I have a pretty accurate visual memory. I start by picturing Dad and me parking in the underground garage and heading up into the Marriott Long Wharf, with its striped awning and funny slanted front.

Then suddenly I’m seeing us walk into the hotel. Not just remembering–it’s like I’m there, both in my body and observing at the same time. However, I realize quickly that I can only see and hear what my brain recorded. No slipping away to another room to get a virtual Coke or anything.

“Try out your speed controls.”

I move my right hand slightly to the left and we back into the elevator. I tap my index finger and we stop in the garage. I move my hand two clicks to the right and we go back into the lobby, double time. I tap my finger again to stop.

This is very cool.

Dr. Foss must see on the EEG monitor that I’ve completed this step, because he prompts me again. “OK, try your sense controls. Keep the action still while you get used to them.”

When I tap my left thumb I see each person in the lobby in minute detail–hair, clothes, expressions. I notice dirt gathered in the seat cushions and in corners of the floor. Even my own hand looks strange, with every fingernail whorl and tiny hair in crazy high def.

Next I tap on enhanced hearing. Regular stuff isn’t much louder; it’s more like I can hear things I wouldn’t normally, like in a spy movie where someone’s earpiece lets them eavesdrop on people across the room. When I tune in to the conversations around me it’s really distracting. For example, I remember that hot girl in a preppy blue dress talking to a gray-haired business dude. At the time, I’d assumed it was her dad. But now I hear that they’re making a date–with payment terms.

I try not to imagine what that’s going to look like and tap enhanced hearing off. I’ll turn it back on inside the ballroom.

Dr. Foss’s voice floats in. “You’re ready, Rocky.”


At the entrance to the ballroom we are frisked, but we knew to leave our electronics in the car. Years ago, there was an outbreak of cheating. People taped cell phones to their legs, wrapped battery packs around their waists, and used earpieces to get moves from someone outside with a computer and a chess app. That’s also why observers are no longer allowed to watch the play. (And why they check the bathrooms for phone stashes before every tournament.) The officials even stared into our ears. Just your standard wax, I could have told them.

I find my spot among the rows of game tables set with boards, pieces and timers. Dad goes over to his side of the room. I’m sitting with my back to the door, but I remember exactly what happens next.

I don’t need super-smell to recognize Suriya’s perfume: lemons, cinnamon, and a hint of coconut. With my right hand control, I slow time. I turn, just as I did that day, and watch her float in, a nerd’s dream with her long dark hair in a bun and brainy black-rimmed glasses. Her sari is a deep ocean blue, like the water shining in the sunlight outside. With my enhanced sight I see little gold threads running through the blue. I also spot a tiny mole on the glorious two inches of skin between her sari and the stretchy thing she wears under it. Talk about distracting.

As Suriya passes me she leans down to whisper something in my ear, but I can’t make out what she says–something else that has tormented me all year. Then she goes to her own table. I’m about to turn on enhanced hearing and replay, but just then Henry sits down across from me.

“Hey, loser,” he says.

I’ve got to focus now. That’s why I’m doing this, after all. The mystery of Suriya’s message will have to wait.

Henry’s mom, who’s a little scary, is standing at the edge of the parents’ section and frowning. She’s wearing her CEO power suit; her eyes are hidden behind a pair of designer shades. He gives her a thumbs-up and she nods. I hate looking at his smirk and already knowing that I’m going to lose.

The first few moves go as I’d expect, just as I told Dr. Foss. But this time I see things I was too absorbed to notice that day. For example, Henry usually moves impulsively, but now he’s taking a lot of time for each move. I also see his eyes constantly skimming back and forth over the board. That’s weird because there are only a few moves to consider at each juncture. And he’s pulling at his left ear every few seconds, like our dog when I forget to change her flea collar.

It doesn’t take long to reach the point when his moves stop being predictable. Panic wells in me all over again. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I think. I don’t feel any more in control. If anything, I feel worse. We keep playing; time is running out. Sweat drips down my face and back.

Then I remember to turn on my super-hearing. Suddenly the air conditioners overhead are muted fighter planes. Chess pieces land softly on boards all around me like a hundred tap dancing elves.

On the other side of the room, the parents’ murmurs separate into distinct conversations. Some curious phrases start to jump out.

“Queen to F4.”

Oddly, Henry makes that very move. I let the memory flow take me through my responding move.

“Knight to B5.” It happens again. And again. Then I hear, “Damn it, take his rook, Henry!”

Sometimes it’s a good thing to be a nerd who gobbles up gaming blogs and science fiction. Because I get it now. Henry’s mom is using some experimental VR gear to sub-vocalize, like a ventriloquist. Maybe she has a tiny microphone pinned to her blouse. Or maybe it’s a bionic implant; they’re doing some crazy stuff these days. I’d bet Henry also has a receiver in his ear so miniscule that it wouldn’t be detected during a standard pre-tournament search.

So now I know that Henry is getting tips from a grandmaster. But how can his mom see our board all the way over on the other side of the room? If Henry were subvocalizing back, I’d catch it in an instant.

On a hunch I freeze the action. I detect a tiny ray of light reflecting off one of his eyes, but not the other. Looking closely, I see a bright circle of color on his pupil. It’s something I would never have caught without my bionic sight: a single contact lens acting as a camera, projecting a picture of our board onto his mom’s glasses.

And that closes the loop.

I start to squeeze my hand to come out of the session, but I remember I have one more thing to do. I back up to Suriya walking toward me. When she bends down this time I hear her whisper clearly: “Text me. We can hang out.”

Now my happiness has nothing to do with machine-induced endorphins. I shut down the session.

“Hey, Rocky,” Dr. Foss says gently. “Come back slowly. You OK?”

“Oh yeah.” I am wicked dizzy, though. They crank me up into a half-sitting position, give me crackers and juice, and proceed to remove my nest of wires.


When I see Dad and Dana I can’t wait to tell them. “Guess what? Henry cheated!”

I explain to the three of them what I observed with my Augmented Memory superpowers.

“Rocky,” Dr. Foss says, “I think you’ve just made an advancement in neuroscience.” He thanks us. We thank him. Now that I know what happened that day, I believe his work here is done.

On the way home Dad asks me if I want to file a complaint with the Chess Federation. It’s tempting. Who knows where I’d be in the rankings now if I hadn’t lost that game?

“We can’t really prove anything after the fact,” I answer. “Anyway, a smart guy once told me you can’t change the past. But if I go back into competition, there’s no way Henry or anybody else is going to get away with this again.”

“If? You’re not sure you’re going back?”

“Not completely, no,” I say. “I kind of liked hanging out in my room and playing video games. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe I’ll try out for football.”

Dad doesn’t answer, but the look on his face makes me feel bad for teasing him.

“Just kidding,” I say. “Totally ready to get back in the game.”

“You dork,” Dana says.

“This brilliant commentary brought to you by the girl with the genius I.Q.”

Woman, dork. The woman with the genius I.Q.”

Dad gives me a weak smile. “I get it, Rocky. This this is your life, not my do-over.” As if that wasn’t touchy-feely enough, he adds, “I hope you know I’m proud of you, whether you win at chess or not.”

We’re quiet for the rest of the ride. To be honest, I’m not thinking about Dad or chess. I’m just wondering how to explain to Suriya why it took me a year to send her that text.


Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Beth McCabe recently moved from New England to Washington’s South Puget Sound. McCabe is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program, where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in Liquid Imagination, Blue Monday Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Highlights for Children, Luna Station Quarterly, and other publications.

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