Checkmate, a short story by Pauline Milner at



written by: Pauline Milner



Shannen Taylor kicked a stone along the dirt road as he made his way toward the asphalt that would be teeming with heat as the temperature was already in the low nineties. Soon the stone was transformed into Bettle’s head and Shannen stopped to mush it into the dusty sand. It only made him feel better for a moment. Shortly after he arrived, Bettle would likely be at his desk with the perpetual mocking or ridiculous antics that often started his day.
As Shannen reached the street, he quickened his pace. He had been running a bit late this morning and did not want to miss his bus into the city. When the bus came the usual driver, Hal, was again not driving, but Shannen still took his seat just to the rear and right of the driver. Hal and Shannen had formed a kind of friendship over the last couple of years and their talks spanned many topics. Shannen appreciated that Hal was philosophical and enjoyed their discussions.
Yesterday, when Hal had failed to be driving the bus for a fourth straight day, Shannen inquired as to his health or circumstances with a simple, “Is everything okay with Hal?” Responding in a gruff manner, the bus driver said, “I don’t talk about other employees and you should mind your own business.” Shannen was taken aback by the answer and had since ridden in silence. Today, he simply took out a couple of wet cloths in little packets and used them to clean the dust off his Oxfords.
After making his way to his destination, Shannen quickly went to his desk. As he was getting himself seated, Bettle appeared. He set a coffee cup balanced precariously on the top of where the two cubicles came together. Bettle said, “Well, good morning, S-h-a-n-n-e-n.” He always drew out the name Shannen as if it were its own sentence. Shannen glanced at the cup before meeting Bettle’s eyes. He continued, “Did you do anything special last night? My wife and I went to a party given by Supro. Surprised we didn’t see you there. Oh, I forgot. It was for couples only.” Bettle sneered, used his forefinger to gently tip the cup of coffee, turned, and walked away. As it was falling, the top flew off and his entire desk got covered, including him being splashed on his bare arm, where it immediately started to sting.
Shannen wanted to rip Bettle’s head off at that moment but knew he would not give any response to the gesture that made sure his day began as miserably as possible. Little did Philip Bettle know, but Shannen had more than a girlfriend, he had a beautiful fiancé named Julia. In fact, he did get an invitation from Supro, a large client of their firm, but never even mentioned it to Julia. He would under no circumstance have brought her to mingle with his co-workers for he knew they would definitely take the opportunity to embarrass him in front of her. Also, they did not need any more fodder for their office roguery.
Making his way to the men’s room to fetch some paper towels, he could hear the teeheeing going on in the cubicles. Surely, news of Bettle’s early morning tomfoolery was making the rounds. His arm stung from the burn so he rinsed it under some cold water. It was red but thankfully the liquid had not been hot enough to cause blisters to form.
As Shannen returned to his desk, for the first time he showed a half smirk to the co-workers that were watching him while gathered around the water cooler. He knew he would only have to put up with their shenanigans for a short while longer.
Shannen made quick work of getting rid of the mess then surveyed his cubicle, the four walls he saw for eight hours a day, five days a week. He was thankful that he soon would not ever have to stare at the temporary office structure again. Their projects were all done individually, though other co-workers had good camaraderie and found time throughout the day to visit with each other.
As a structural design engineer who had reached a near-expert level in AutoCAD and Autodesk, Shannen was usually finished with his assigned projects early. In his current position, he knew that seeking a more responsible job at PRUDO Engineering was futile. Those that occupied the offices along both sides of their cubicles were not going anywhere soon. After completing his current task, which was not due for two more days, Shannen sat back in his chair and let his mind wander.
Beginning in kindergarten, Shannen had also been the proverbial ‘mark’. It started on his first day and continued until he graduated high school. There, he had been bullied by Billy Parker and his little gang of torturers.
First came the name calling but it soon escalated to knocking books out of his hands and the occasional slap on the back of his head, which he never saw coming. In those early school years, Shannen would not stick up for himself and instead, he initiated building his defense mechanism which would serve him well the older he got. When he was younger, he would cry when Billy and his gang surrounded him while he was taking a shortcut home along the baseball field. When Billy would shove his head into the fence it hurt and Shannen could not stop the tears from coming. When their abuse was over, Shannen would gather up his belongings and sit in the woods for about an hour, which was enough time to calm himself before continuing on his way home.
Shannen worked on training himself to show no emotion, so when Billy stuffed him into a locker and dunked his head in the toilet in middle school, the expression on his face never changed but at least the crying had stopped.
In high school, he spent most of his time hiding in the library. Though he loved to read, he had to admit that he was just tired of the bullying and wanted to get through to graduation as unscathed as possible. He did the same in university, but had a small bunch of friends he liked to hang out with. Though they did not talk about it, they were the bullied ones too.
After finishing university, which was only a four-hour drive away, Shannen moved back in with his parents and got the job with PRUDO Engineering. Thankfully, two of his friends from university had jobs nearby and they did get together for the occasional drink after work. Shannen secretly wished they would run into people from his office, if only to prove he was not the recluse he was accused of being, but it hadn’t happened.
Tragically, his parents were killed in a small plane crash on their way home from a mountain retreat. Shannen was an only child and took a couple of weeks off work to handle their final affairs. When he came back to work, there was a card on his desk signed by everyone in the office but not a word of condolence was said and things simply continued the way they had been. Shannen had briefly considered selling the house and moving to another city but knew his track record as ‘the mark’ would continue so he didn’t bother. Plus, he was able to save a good portion of his earnings with no mortgage to pay or expensive downtown parking rates since he rode the bus. Then he met Julia.
Shannen was sitting in the park reading when a shadow came over him. He looked up to see a beautiful woman standing a few feet away. She inquired if she could sit and he answered, “Of course.” That was the beginning of their relationship.
He was startled out of his walk through his past by his boss who was standing at his cubicle. Jacob Ross had a loud and vibrating voice that exuded dominance but not unkindness. Ross said, “There is an issue with the ERT file. Would you have time to take a look at my notes?” Shannen sat up straight in his chair and replied, “Certainly, Mr. Ross.” He left the file he was carrying and said he would email Shannen before the end of the day.
Having set his emails to audible notifications, Shannen continued to think about Julia and how she had unknowingly given him the strength to work his way around always using his defense mechanism, which he had many years to practice. Shannen was a master at not showing his feelings. No matter whether he was being bullied or introduced to a new client, his face remained stoic. He knew this was not the person he wanted to be but he would never give the satisfaction to anyone who thought they would give him a rough go. Unfortunately, he had perfected it so well that it filtered into any social situation in which he was involved, all that is except for when he was with Julia. He had immediately felt at ease with her and let his delight show whenever they were together.
As their relationship grew, Shannen had introduced Julia to his small group of friends for he knew they would be kind and welcoming. However, he still had to dodge questions about when she would meet his co-workers. He had finally said they did not socialize together and stuck to that excuse.
Shannen knew he had to overcome his societal issues if a long-term relationship with Julia had any chance of success. He had to protect the fact that he had been the chosen mark for the entirety of his life. He signed up for two online courses, ‘Building Your Self-Confidence’ and ‘Bullied? You Can Turn it Around’ and worked on them diligently on the nights when he and Julia were not together. Somehow, he had to practice his new found skills so when Julia invited him to dinner with her parents, he willingly agreed.
Surprisingly, Shannen found himself strangely self-assured and the evening was a time of laughter and stories. It seemed Julia’s dad had fun embarrassing his daughter with tales from her childhood and her blushing responses only made him love her more. Since Shannen only had an aunt, uncle and cousin who he barely knew as family, he could not offer much in the story department except a few tales from his own childhood and he helped to keep the conversation flowing. Later when he asked Julia how she thought things had gone, she hugged him and declared, “My parents love you!” After finding success with Julia’s parents, he finally agreed to meet some of her friends, professing that he had been working on not being so shy in terms of socializing. He found that he was accepted into her group of friends and, while he gave credit to the courses he had taken, Shannen had to give Julia the most gratitude for she inspired him to change.
Shannen had also made another huge decision in his life. After determining that his projects could be done at home, he resolved to open his own business and work from a home office. This was a short while before Christmas and Julia, who was a special events planner, was thrilled with the idea. She had moved in with him a couple of months earlier and had been busy updating the house. She suggested the attic would make the perfect location for his office since there was plenty of space and lots of natural light. He agreed and figured all he would need would be the desk from the spare bedroom and a chair to get started.
While he was lost in thought, Shannen’s email notification went off. He quickly brought himself back to the present and got to work on the changes to the project as requested by Mr. Ross.
As he was working, Tricia passed by his cubicle and, being nosy, saw the file open on his desk. She spouted, “What are you doing with my file?” Shannen, knowing he would soon be rid of this bunch and bolstered by his new found self-confidence, blurted back, “It is not your file. It is a project file for PRUDO and I am working on it for Mr. Ross.” Not likely expecting his forthright reply, she continued past his work area in a huff. Shannen smiled. He was proud of himself.
On his way home, Shannen thought about how he proposed to Julia. They were going to her parents’ home to spend Christmas Eve. Before they left, Shannen had suggested they open the stockings they had made for one another. Julia said she would rather wait until they got home. Shannen, thankfully, won out and they each looked in their stockings. When Julia thought she had finished hers, she found one more package shoved into the bottom. It was a small box. She started crying before she even opened it. Shannen laughed and teased, “Why are you making such a fuss? You know it could be a gag gift!” When she unwrapped the box, her hand was shaking so Shannen helped her open it. He still remembered the lights from the Christmas tree shining on her tears and the smile on her face was beautiful as she looked at the diamond he had spent hours picking out for her. He got down on one knee and asked her to marry him to which she threw her arms around him and gushed, “Of course. Yes! Of course I will marry you.”
When they arrived at her parents’ house, Julia had not even taken off her coat before she was showing off her ring and announcing their engagement. Her parents and gathered family and friends were thrilled. Shannen had never felt so fulfilled in his entire life.
That evening, Julia had a surprise waiting for him. She led him up the stairs to the attic to see his new office! Shannen knew she had a few days off, but did not know she had spent that time making the perfect place for him to work. He was, however, curious how she had managed to get the new office furniture up the attic stairs. She giggled and told him her father and uncle had been all too happy to help.
Shannen was in a good mood as he made his way to work the next morning. He knew that a week from today would be his last day at PRUDO but he had kept that information to himself.
When he arrived at his cubicle, he found the likely reprisal for his reply to Tricia the day before. His desk was plastered with sex toys of all shapes and sizes. He was silently happy that his co-workers had spent so much unnecessary money merely to get back at him. As he was gathering the garbage and putting it into a bag, Bettle made his presence known with a smart remark, “Oh, S-h-a-n-n-e-n. I see you are bagging your toys to use at home. Too bad you will have to adapt some of them so you can use them alone. Although your blow-up-girlfriend should come in handy.” Bettle laughed as he walked away. Shannen thought about replying but decided it wasn’t worth it. He would soon be rid of the buffoon.
Thankfully, the next week was uneventful. Since he would no longer be taking the bus every morning, Shannen was pleased that Hal had returned to his regular place in the driver’s seat. It turns out that he was only on holiday, which made Shannen wonder why the substitute driver had felt the need to be so nasty. He had already told Hal about his future plans, and they exchanged cell numbers so they could stay in touch.
On his last day of work, Shannen decided not to brown bag it. He would go out for lunch, primarily to give his co-workers something to converse about that afternoon. He found a cafe close by and savored every bite of his Caesar salad wrap. He was most stoked about the fact that he thought of the perfect way to end his employment with PRUDO. He had planned to simply put his resignation on his boss’s desk, which stated that he was leaving immediately in lieu of two weeks’ notice; he would forfeit two weeks’ pay. However, this little addition to his plan was perfect.
When his workday was almost finished, Shannen stepped away from his cubicle and left the building. He returned a few minutes later and proceeded to Mr. Ross’s office and left a white envelope on his desk as his boss was out of the office for the day.
Next, he approached Bettle’s work area and held the large coffee he was carrying on the top of the partition. Bettle looked up, obviously surprised to see Shannen standing there.
Shannen stood silent while Bettle voiced, “Well, well, S-h-a-n-n-e-n. This is new. What the hell do you want?” Shannen simply tipped the coffee cup. As it went tumbling toward Bettle’s desk, Shannen smiled broadly and uttered, “Checkmate.” He then proceeded to walk out the door without looking back.

Latest posts by Pauline Milner (see all)