A roof overhead, a warming fire, coffee, and a chessboard—thus Julian was ensconced in a warp of time. Two nights had come and gone unnoticed. The snow had deepened. But like the hourglass on the hearth, internal time, for Julian, had settled to a quintessential halt.

He was not inactive, however. True, there was a stillness akin to meditative states, a harmony, a oneness. This, however, was balanced by intensive mental diligence in the form of concentration on the game, the games. He played himself, ego vs. alter ego. It was a schizophrenic exercise he had developed as a child when his talent had outclassed all of the competition's. The challenge lay in each mind's knowing everything about its twin, and move by move inventing ever-escalating schemes—to outmaneuver Black, to hoodwink White. The discipline required to keep from favoring one side over the other was, to understate, immense. Yet that was steadfastly the rule. He never broke it. Though often it was tempting—especially when the split had gone too far. He had read a story once about a man who had done just that, allowed his dualistic play to usurp his sanity. That challenge lay there, also, for psychological stability was every bit as crucial as one's knowledge of the game. Control! Self-mastery, trumped twofold! The stakes were high, but so were the rewards. For when he could hold his own against himself without a nervous break, the game was indescribably exhilarating. When not, he forced his arm to clear the board.

On occasion, he had slept, dreamlessly. For the first time since the nightmares started, he had been unafraid to close his eyes. The bed, so fragrant from the pine, had enveloped him as with a Lethean calm, delivering him afresh upon each waking.

It was what? Sunday morning? The logs with which he had fed the fire were spent. He had stubble on his cheeks. The kettle needed heating. He scratched his head with both hands vigorously, stretched and yawned, then shivered from the unchecked cold. Wood, more wood.

He looked for his sneakers. They stood turned out before the fireplace, tongues gone rigid, laces stiff, in a comic state of lolling rigor mortis. At least they were dry. He broke them to his feet, put on his sweater, his dark glasses, and opened the cabin door. A drift of snow, conforming to the threshold, held its flat-faced windswept shape. The scene beyond was dazzling, blindingly so. Even with his glasses on, Julian had to squint. The sun was making prisms of the icicles, rainbow colors splayed across the snow—virgin snow, pure, the whitest white, spreading out in all directions like a knee-deep frozen topping. The path he had shoveled to the outhouse once again lay buried, a gentle swell to either side indicating his toil.

He felt a playful urge to be the first to mark the untrodden plane, leave a wake of carefree tracks for other, less courageous souls to follow. Except it would help to know which way to head. He reviewed his predicament. Firstly, they would be looking for him. Three days AWOL was bound to have drawn attention. And after everyone expressed relief that he had managed to survive, he knew the reprimands would rain hot and heavy.

He would worry about that later. The chief thing was to find his way. With the landscape's blizzard-changed appearance, and without his former footprints as a guide, that would not be easy. The drifts would make it even tougher. At least he need not start out unprepared. He could take some food, matches, a blanket maybe.

He checked the sky. This break in the weather might not last. Perhaps he had best make ready to take his leave.

 

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