You'd think at some point I would have stopped being surprised at how thoroughly our parents managed to let us down every single time. You'd be right, but it took a while. Even years after Shaun noticed what exactly we were to them and I stopped being able to lie to myself (I've never been good at it), I'd still occasionally fall prey to the hopes that maybe, just maybe, my parents were interested in spending time with me because I was me , not just because of what I'd do for their ratings.
Dad was better at it than Mom. Mom was so different on camera that I could always tell, even when she tried to hide that she was filming. If she hugged me or even smiled, I'd know something was up. Dad didn't hug me much off camera either, but he wasn't as likely to "spontaneously" hug me for a photo opportunity either. His on camera persona was enough like his off camera persona that sometimes I could almost believe it wasn't all a lie.
Take the rainy fall day shortly after we'd turned thirteen. Everyone was in a bad mood that day. Mom, because she'd wanted to take us out on some ill-advised trip to one of the last few functioning amusement parks in California, but they weren't dumb enough to stay open when rain made the possibility of outbreak-causing accident all too likely. Mom and Shaun might have liked that, but it was still a lawsuit waiting to happen, and they wanted to stay a functioning amusement park, so the trip had to be put off.
Shaun was in a bad mood too because he hates having to spend the whole day inside where there's nothing interesting to poke with a stick, and Dad and I, who were more happy to stay inside, were in a bad mood because being stuck in one small house with two bored Irwins is a special kind of torture. Shaun and I had started playing a card game that had pretty quickly turned into war, by which I mean throwing cards at each other, until Mom got fed up and sent us both to our rooms.
Our separate rooms. We were still getting used to that.
I didn't really mind. I had homework to do, and I could hear Shaun moving around in his room. It wasn't like I was really alone . I opened my book, sat with my back to the door between our rooms, and started reading.
I was still reading when Dad knocked on my door half an hour later. I bookmarked my place and slipped my sunglasses back on before going to get the door. "What?"
Dad smiled at me. That probably should have been my cue to slam the door in his face, but I was curious. Ah, the innocence of the young. "I have a surprise for you, Georgia. You're going to find this fun."
I followed him back down to the dining room. He pulled out a chess board. "My dad taught me to play when I was about your age," he said. "It's all about strategy and outthinking your opponent. I think you'll be good at it with a little practice."
I nodded, intrigued, and watched as he set up the board. I hadn't really played many strategy games. The only person I played anything with was Shaun, and it wasn't that he was bad at strategy. It was that he could rarely sit still long enough to finish any game. Since I was just as happy sitting at my computer or reading, when we did play something I was fine letting our games tilt towards entertaining him rather than actually trying to finish. They generally ended in wrestling or throwing things at each other. So sitting through an actual strategy game with someone who actually wanted to play was a novelty. I paid close attention while he explained the different pieces and rules. Then we started playing.
I managed to hold my own well enough that we only managed two games in the hours that we played. I was having a good time, enough that I was actually grinning when I got him in checkmate during the second game. He laughed, and reached over to pat my arm affectionately. "That's my girl," he said voice filled with pride, and for a whole thirty seconds I was pleased.
Then he pulled out his phone and added, "The live feed got decent numbers considering we didn't advertise it at all. We should make this a weekly installment."
My smile froze. "You were filming?"
"Of course," he looked up at me, bemused. "I thought it would get good ratings."
"You didn't think maybe to ask me first?"
He shrugged a shoulder, ignoring by my obvious displeasure. "I was sure you'd be okay with it."
Liar. But before I could respond, Mom and Shaun came through the door carrying paper bags. "We brought Indian food!" Shaun called. I pushed my way out of the chair. It took all my willpower not to run to the door. Shaun stopped smiling as soon as he saw my face. Mom didn't notice anything, of course she didn't, but I could never get anything past Shaun even if I'd wanted to. I shook my head before he could say anything. I'd tell him later.
Dinner was quiet. Mom had taken Shaun to the shooting range while Dad was teaching me chess, and while I'm sure that was just as filmed as everything else in our lives, Shaun seemed to have had a good time. It's not like they could talk about anything but shooting while they were there. Dad told them about our chess game, pride I could almost believe filling his voice as he talked about how excited he was to make this an ongoing feature. I picked at my food and didn't say anything. Shaun didn't either, though he kept stealing worried glances. When we went upstairs, he followed me into my room instead of going over to his. I wasn't surprised.
"Dad didn't tell you he was filming, huh?" he said, falling onto my bed.
I considered snapping at him for it, but dismissed the idea. I didn't actually mind him sitting there, and he wasn't the person I was mad at. Just an easy target. Sometimes that was enough, but fighting him wasn't going to solve my problem. "We had fun. I should have known he was filming. We never just have fun."
Shaun didn't argue or try and tell me it was okay, and I appreciated that more than I could put into words. He just sat up, looking at me with more focus than most people would think he's capable of and asked, "Want me to punch him?"
It got me to smile, both because of the mental image and because I knew he was absolutely serious. I would never say yes, but if I did, I was entirely sure he'd run downstairs and slug Dad right now. But it would get us into way more trouble than it's worth. Our parents could still make our lives hell, and while anything done behind closed doors wasn't as bad as things done on camera where we would shame the family name, punching Dad would cross a line . I shook my head and sat on the bed next to him. "No. But I don't want to play in his stupid weekly series either."
Shaun wrapped an arm around me. "So what'll you do?"
I leaned on his shoulder and let him pull me close as I thought about it. I could try telling Dad, but he'd have advertised it already by now. Getting it down would be more of a fight than I was willing to take on without more planning.
Besides, I knew how to hit him where it really hurt. Right in the ratings. I looked over at Shaun, slowly starting to grin. "I have an idea."
A week later, I sat down at the dining room table, sunglasses in place. I'd been able to have fun and even laugh a little last time. Now I knew exactly what was going on, so I had my favorite camera face on. The one that made Shaun affectionately call me a robot. If Dad noticed how completely unenthusiastic I was, he didn't say anything. He just set up the pieces.
"Are you ready?" he asked, giving me a grin that was probably meant to be encouraging and challenging. Last week, it might even have worked. "We'll see if you've got what it takes to beat your old man, huh?"
"We'll see," I said flatly.
I moved a pawn out. Dad moved one of his. I moved a second pawn.
He shook his head, chuckling in mild amusement as he moved his queen to the directly exposed diagonal. "Checkmate. Sorry, Georgia, rookie mistake."
"Whoops," I said tonelessly. "My bad."
Dad probably should have figured out I was up to something at that point. The Fool's Mate is well known for being the fastest way to win (or lose) at chess. No one moves that badly unless they're seriously a moron. Both of us knew I wasn't a moron. Had Dad stopped to think about it, he might have gotten suspicious, but he just chuckled and moved our pieces back. "We'll just call that a warm-up game."
I nodded. I'd expected it would take more than one round to make my point. I moved a piece out.
It's very easy to lose at chess, it turns out, and I'd done my research. I read up on all the big blunders to avoid and made sure to make every single one of them. Shaun had helped me, staying up late into the night as we practiced, getting me better and better at losing. Playing with him was actually fun, even if I was playing very specifically to lose. By the time we were through, I was an absolutely terrible chess player.
It was almost fun this time too, but in a much more vindictive way. He has a very specific way he wanted this to go. I wasn't letting it happen.
The Fool's Mate had been a statement of intent. I couldn't play it again without being obvious, but I knew a thousand different ways to lose. It took Dad four games to start frowning. After the fifth one, he finally called it and stopped the recording.
"Georgia, what are you doing?" he asked. "You were playing better last week, and that was your first game ever."
"Must have been beginner's luck," I said, raising an eyebrow behind my sunglasses.
He squinted. "Or you're doing this on purpose."
"Maybe I'm just really bad at chess."
He shook his head. "Well, if you can't take this seriously, I'll have to call off the series."
I stood up, shrugging blithely. "Or maybe I just really don't like being filmed without being asked first."
I reached over and knocked over his king, then stalked out of the room. He could have tried to make me play again. I was ready. I would lose as many times as it took. He couldn't call me on it on camera, and he couldn't make me play better. He could have tried to make his game worse to stretch things out, but his very intelligent viewers would be a lot more suspicious about him sucking at chess than me. He never brought it up again. And I got a little better at remembering not to trust him.
Check and mate.