Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

Chutes and Ladders

By Craig Evans

About Craig Evans

Craig has lived in the Bay Area his entire life. He attended Terman Middle School and Gunn High School in Palo Alto. He has spent most of the last couple decades working in the nonprofit world with organizations helping kids in the California foster care system. Recently, he decided he wanted to learn how to write fiction and he now spends most mornings writing and most afternoons reading "how to" books about writing. This was his first entry into a writing competition. He lives in Palo Alto with his wife, Diana, his 12-year-old daughter, Erin, and their 5-year-old dog, Scout.

 

Inspiration:
I thought it would be fun to write a story in which a father thought he had a good relationship with his daughter but finds out when he reunites with her years later that she had an entirely different perspective. Just before writing "Chutes and Ladders" I read a book of short stories by Richard Matheson; I think that gave me the confidence to have my story take the dark turn that it does.

 

Judge's comments

In a clever yet sad story of a family that could very well have been called "Just Desserts," a workaholic father who once intentionally lost games of Chutes and Ladders to his young daughter forgets how good that makes him feel. He abandons her and her mother after a divorce as he ruthlessly turns his corner of the San Francisco financial district into the Hunger Games. Too late, he remembers how to act like a father, like a caring human being. "Chutes and Ladders" doesn't let go of its grasp on the reader until the final sentence.
— Debbie Duncan

Michael Keller, on the last day of his life, arrived at the office at 6:15 and dropped into his plush leather chair. The Wall Street Journal and his mail sat on his desk. CNBC, muted, was on the TV, and the day's schedule was on his laptop.

A glance at the TV told him international markets were stable and US markets would open higher.

"Here you go," Bev said, entering with his coffee. She'd been with him for five years, and at sixty, was a decade his senior. "Need anything else?"

Michael picked up the Journal. "Isn't the quarterly report ready?"

She didn't respond but didn't leave.

He suppressed a smile and snapped open the paper. "Please bring it in."

"Yes, sir."

He called after her, "And go ahead and send them in -- no reason to drag this out."

He scanned the headlines and took a sip from his mug -- which had GREED IS GOOD written on its side. Adam Smith argued that people acting in their own self-interest were beneficial to society. Michael preferred Gordon Gekko's succinct wording.

Most of San Francisco was still asleep. The hotshots he'd hired -- fresh out of college and half his age -- struggled with the early hours. They'd stumble in, bleary-eyed, chugging a Red Bull, or some sugary coffee concoction. With their prep schools, prestigious internships and impressive letters of recommendations, they were true riches-to-riches stories.

His climb up the ladder started on the bottom rung. During his years at Foothill College, San Jose State, and UC Berkeley, he smelled of grease from fast food joints, sawdust from a lumber yard, and a noxious medley of odors that clung to him from driving a cab.

His MBA only got him a job as a penny stock cold caller, but he parlayed that into an entry-level job at his current company, Perkins and Wheeler, the second largest stock brokerage firm in San Francisco.

He finished the tepid coffee and looked across the room. The markets had turned and the Dow was down two hundred points. The talking heads were getting anxious.

While he reached for the remote, there was a knock at the door.

"Come in."

Bev entered, followed timidly by a woman and a man. He didn't know their names. Bev handed Michael the printout, while his employees stood facing his desk.

He was relieved they weren't the same gender. He wouldn't want this to get awkward. Now, which one of you is . . .

And he was glad they chose to stand -- no reason to get comfortable.

After a perfunctory nod he looked at the paper. The top name was Susan Ng.

"Ms. Ng, congratulations on an excellent quarter. You'll be seeing a $5,000 bonus in your next paycheck."

She exhaled audibly. "Thank you, sir."

That means, Michael thought, scrolling down the list, the bell tolls for . . . Arjun Singh.

"Mr. Singh, your services are no longer needed. Please gather your things."

"I understand," Arjun said flatly.

He felt no sadness or guilt at firing the low performer in their little office hunger games. He was a firm believer that everyone got what they deserved.

Half-way through his mail, he saw it -- a white envelope, no return address, no stamp. Just his name handwritten on the front. He ripped it open and unfolded the single page. It said:

Meet me at 2:15 at 1357 Bryant Street. Your Daughter, Caroline Foster.

Her last name momentarily surprised him. His wife must have reclaimed her maiden name. He vaguely recalled getting a few calls from his daughter, a year or two ago, but he was always too busy to return them.

His eyes went to a picture on his desk. Dorothy, his ex, was sitting on a towel on the beach, knees against her chest. She was looking straight at the camera with a wry half-smile, making you wonder what was going on behind her beautiful hazel-green eyes.

Michael leaned back, thinking about Caroline. He couldn't recall her birthday and guessed she was four or five when they split. The realization she was roughly the same age as his employees was disorientating. In his memory, she was still in preschool.

His clearest memory of Caroline was of sitting on the carpet with her playing Chutes and Ladders. In the game, if you landed on a ladder, you'd get to climb to a higher square. If you landed at the top of a chute, you'd have to descend to a lower square. One ladder showed a boy taking out the garbage and being rewarded at the top with a hot fudge sundae. The biggest slide, located only a few spaces from victory, showed a girl sneaking cookies off a high plate. At the bottom of the long slide, she's sprawled on the floor, with the plate shards and the cookies scattered around her. In the game, as in life, everyone got what they deserved.

The game sparked another memory. Once, Michael, near the top, flicked the spinner and saw he would land one space after the big slide, meaning he'd probably win on his next turn. As he moved his piece, he inexplicably stopped on the picture of the girl stealing cookies. He feigned disappointment, said, "Oh no," and slid his piece down the slide. Caroline, smiling, said, "Sorry Daddy," and took her turn. She won the game two turns later, squealed with delight, and asked to play again.

Throwing the game gave Michael an unfamiliar sensation -- he felt warm inside. Life, like work, was a ruthless zero-sum game and he hated losing. Oddly, his daughter winning brought him joy, and losing intentionally made him feel like a good person. Thereafter, Michael landed on the big slide every time he neared the top. Caroline would either smile or giggle, say "Sorry Daddy," then take her turn. She probably won thirty straight games before the divorce ended the streak.

Michael checked his schedule, pushed the intercom button, and said, "Bev, reschedule my 2:00. I'll be out from 2 to 3."

- - -

The Uber dropped Michael off at 2:10. On the large front window, under the name -- Just Desserts -- it said, cookies, cupcakes, pastries. He pushed through the glass door wondering two things: would he recognize Caroline, and, was a pastry really a dessert.

The quaint bakery had two tables in the center, four stools at a counter along the front window, and three booths on the right. At the back, under the counter, the desserts were displayed behind glass.

A black twenty-something woman was at one of the stools facing the street. Obviously not his daughter, but about the right age. Would Caroline invite a friend? He dismissed the thought since she didn't look up from her phone and because her small glass dish was down to crumbs -- she'd been here awhile.

The only other people in the place were a pudgy middle-aged man crouching down pointing at items in the display, and the young lady on the opposite side using tongs to put his selections into a bag.

Michael slid into the far side of the middle booth and checked his watch -- 2:13.

A minute later he watched the man exit, turn left, and cross in front of the woman, who was still engrossed in her phone.

The Just Desserts lady came up beside him and asked, "What can I get ya?"

With his eyes still on the door, Michael said, "Nothing thanks, I'm waiting for someone."

A couple minutes later a young woman -- blond, mid-twenties -- crossed the window, glanced inside, and approached the door. Michael sat up, surprised by his sudden nervousness. She entered, went to the woman on the stool, and touched her shoulder, breaking her phone-trance. They hugged and left together.

Michael exhaled and took out his daughter's note, placing it on the table. His eyes settled on it, with the door still in his peripheral vision.

His marriage had come at an opportune time. He'd climbed a few rungs of the corporate ladder, but his career had stalled. All senior managers and partners -- all men -- were married, and he wondered if a bachelor might be viewed with suspicion. Once the wives heard he was available, they enthusiastically offered applicants for the open position.

Dorothy was an ideal candidate. She was educated, well-mannered and pretty.

Michael considered himself a good husband. He'd had a couple one-night stands, but never an affair, and though he routinely worked late and on weekends, he seldom came home drunk. Most importantly, he was an excellent provider.

The return on the marriage was outstanding. Soon they were socializing with upper management and hosting dinner parties. A year after the wedding, Michael was promoted. Caroline was born soon thereafter, and three years later, Michael climbed to middle management.

As Caroline grew, it became clear that Michael and Dorothy had different agendas. She complained about his late hours and the dearth of what she called, family time. He wanted to make partner.

The divorce, like the wedding, was win-win. They agreed to a $1,000,000 alimony to be paid over twenty years. Dorothy was happy with the security of the future payments, and Michael was thrilled to amortize the cost over two decades, dramatically reducing its present value.

In the ensuing years his climb up the ladder continued, and next week, finally, he would be named a partner. He was almost at the top.

It was 2:40. He decided to give her a few more minutes.

The Just Desserts lady appeared with a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies. She placed the plate at the edge of the table, and the mug in front of him, on Caroline's note. "This is on the house. I know what it's like to be waiting for someone who never shows."

Michael looked up, but she had already turned away. "Thanks," he called after her.

The coffee was bitter, but he drank it all, while he watched people pass by outside.

Ten minutes later he picked up the note, folded it unevenly, and missed his pocket on the first two swipes, before tucking it away.

He pushed himself to the end of the booth. Something was wrong. Bad coffee, or maybe the flu? He tried to stand and a wave of nausea forced him back down. Hot and thirsty, he looked for a drinking fountain.

The Just Desserts lady was standing in front of the counter watching him. She had a fist pressed against her mouth and tears in her eyes. She was shaking. Her icy stare was unmistakable. Hatred.

Confused, he managed a single raspy word, "What? . . ."

She rushed to the door, locked it, and reversed the open sign. Then she walked over and slid into the opposite seat. Her lips were tight and her eyes, cold. After a few seconds her lip curled up.

She said, "Why didn't you call me back?"

He tilted his head, trying to concentrate. For the first time since entering the bakery, he looked closely at her. The fog receded and he recognized her -- the face, the hazel-green eyes.

"Dorothy," he said hoarsely.

She scowled and slowly shook her head. "Mom is dead. Because of you, Mom is dead."

He tried to focus. His mouth was dry, and his tongue, heavy. "Mom is dead," he repeated quietly. "Caroline? How?"

She glared at him. "A year ago. Lung cancer. They caught it early -- she was only stage one. She could have had five, ten years." Tears began to roll down her cheeks. Her eyes dropped and her voice softened. "But we had no money. She'd spent everything on my college. She lost her job and her insurance when she got sick."

His face numb, Michael couldn't feel the tears well in his eyes. His vision, like his mind, was cloudy. With effort, he whispered, "I didn't know. I could have—"

Caroline slammed her fist on the table, rattling the plate. "I hate you! I've always hated you. You left us alone . . . I tried to call you, dozens of times."

Michael's body was sluggish, his mind, torpid.

She said, "You did this to her. You could have helped her, helped us. She was in so much pain the hospice worker left morphine at our house. They thought I'd used it, but Mom passed in the night."

Caroline stared at the empty mug, and said, "They never asked for the vials back . . . It's just so unfair. She didn't deserve this."

Mumbling, he echoed, "She didn't deserve . . ."

Over several seconds he saw his daughter's fury dissipate, replaced by sorrow, and maybe, he thought, some regret. In a moment of clarity, he knew what would happen. He was going to die -- of that, he was certain. His daughter would go to prison, maybe for life. She hadn't planned this very well. Or rather, she hadn't planned for anything other than serving him the laced coffee.

Their eyes met.

She stared at him and gradually her gaze softened. Then, through tears, she said, "I'm sorry, Daddy."

It was the voice of a little girl. The voice of a preschooler sitting on the carpet playing a game with her dad.

Michael realized everything she said was true. He'd failed them. His wife, his daughter, didn't deserve this.

He slowly, deliberately, moved his hand to his front pocket. His fingers were numb, but he closed them on the note, retrieved it, and held it out to his daughter. She hesitated, then took it.

Laboring to speak, he said, "Burn."

She sniffled. "Yes, Daddy."

His voice low and raspy, he said, "Destroy . . . vials."

She nodded. "OK, Daddy."

Now the hard part -- getting rid of the body. With all his strength, he pushed himself to his feet. He grabbed the table for balance and his hand caught the edge of the plate, flipping it into the air, sending it crashing to the floor.

In a stupor, he stared at the plate shards and the cookies scattered on the floor. It sparked a memory from long ago, that he couldn't quite rekindle.

He lurched forward and stumbled toward the door. Caroline rushed past, unlocked the door, and held it open.

He grabbed the door frame and scanned the street. There was no one to see him leave.

Before he pushed off, he said -- possibly for the first time, definitely for the last -- "I love you."

He pitched forward. As he staggered down the sidewalk, he tried to normalize his gait, to not draw attention. He knew that every step made his daughter safer and if he fell, he wouldn't get up. His mind was muddled and only his will and inertia kept him going.

He made it to the corner before collapsing. He knew he was dying, but he wasn't sad. As Michael descended the long slide towards eternal sleep, he felt warm inside.

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