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The isolated pawn casts gloom over the entire chessboard.

I spun myself around in the wheeled chair at the sound of footsteps, feeling like a TV mafioso. Ivan was there, just as I had last seen him. There wasn’t a chance anyone else would show up. The entire street was deserted, left for the festival across town. “Hello, Ivan.”

“Rutherford.” He spoke curtly, wanting to get this over with. On the other hand, I wanted to drag it out and make him suffer for what he’d done. “What are we doing here?”

“I am going to kill you today.” He laughed.

“You’re going to kill me?”

“Well, I’m going to engineer your death.”

“How?”

“You’ve survived fire.”

“Yes.”

“Bone-crushing impact.”

“Easily.”

“A death-grip chokehold from an insanely huge python – I still don’t know how we got into that one.”

“Yes.”

“And perhaps most shockingly,” I said, trying to resist laughing, “bullets!”

“Yes.”

“Now, I’ve done some thinking, along with some research, and my conclusion is that there is, in fact, one force on Earth that can rid me of you once and for all. It is a force so powerful, so indifferent, even more than nature itself, that perhaps you would be better off dead in the first place rather than have to face its wrath. But I am going to let its wrath envelop you, because I have come to hate you for what you’ve done.”

“We were friends, were we not?”

“Yes. And maybe we still are. But I hate you.”

“You have found my demise, you say.”

“I have.”

“There is nothing on Earth that can even damage me. Not while I have the Master to protect me.”

“No, no, that’s not right. There’s nothing of Earth that can hurt you. But there’s something on Earth and not of it, right now, and it’s coming here, to kill you.”

“Spit it out!”

“Oh, I think it speaks for itself, really.” With that I ducked under my ruined and ashy desk. The piercing tendril of darkness shot out from behind me over my head, wanting to impale me, and finding, yes, a fleshy target to eviscerate. But this time, it would not be an innocent caught up in this mess. It would be Ivan.

“M…Mast…ter…” he croaked. Slowly he slid to the ground, gutted, bleeding like a stuck pig. The monster that was his former Master retreated, thinking it had destroyed its target – me. Ivan had been hidden from sight ever since he tried to convert me to his Master’s service. The beast never knew it had lost a faithful servant. I tucked a bookmark into the crack between Ivan’s skin and his mask, and went along my way, whistling.

Just as I had expected, all those I had lost were returned to me. Chance, Phoebe, Lee, everyone. I threw myself into Phoebe’s arms and wept until I knew that they were real, and not a figment of my overactive imagination. I could hardly believe I had gotten them back.

&

And Death turned the board so that the white pieces were in front of Erik.

The doorbell rung. I wasn’t expecting anyone, least of all Phoebe, so it was quite a shock when I flung open the door and there she stood, tears in her eyes, threatening to spill over and ruin her beautiful visage. She looked exactly as she did one week ago, but for a burn scar on her hand and a long gash down her neck and shoulder.

“Is anyone here?” she asked, frantically, wet eyes darting back and forth around the hotel room.

“No,” I said. I was still taken aback that Phoebe was here. I couldn’t think of a reason that she would be, but I was certainly glad for it. “I’m just waiting out the storm here – I couldn’t get back to my house…”

“Good.” She brushed past me and immediately began searching for the liquor. I could tell by the way her hands were shaking, the way she licked her lips. “Cabinet to the left over the fridge,” I said. She nodded, as if not trusting herself to speak. She uncorked a bottle of wine. I went to another compartment and pulled out two glasses, but she lifted the bottle to her mouth and chugged. “Ruth -”

“Sh,” I said. “Just drink. Talk when you’re ready.” She nodded again and rocked back and forth on her heels, cradling the bottle. Within mere minutes the thing was empty but for a few dregs. She set it back down on the counter.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I needed to be with someone.”

“So why are you -”

“I wanted to be with you.” I looked up into her face and she’s looking into my eyes, searching for some sign of approval. I took her by the uninjured hand and we sat on the couch, because she had begun to look unstable on her feet. “Phoebe, it’s not safe for you here.”

“I don’t want safe, I want you. I want to hold you and smell you and kiss you, because I can.”

“Because you can?”

“Because there are dead people, Ruth, there are these people we know that are dead and I don’t want to be and I’m not yet, and I want to make the best of it.”

I’m still processing the situation, weighing the consequences against her clearly deteriorating mental state. I take into account my own feelings for Phoebe. I know that if she stays she could be in great trouble when Ivan arrives for the deal we arranged. But I also know, deep down, that I had made my decision the minute she showed up at the door.

I took a breath. “Phoebe, you’re half-drunk and I don’t want to take advantage of you. You know I do like you -”

“Then kiss me.” And before I can respond, her lips are on mine. I throw caution to the wind and circle my arms around her, holding her close, running my fingers through her hair, letting myself be pressed against her supple frame. But something stops me.

“Phoebe, I really really need you to leave. Now.”

“Ruth -”

“You have to go. Ivan’s going to be here soon, and if he -”

“Ivan?”

I know immediately I’ve said the wrong thing. Her eyes are now dry and glare at me as if I’ve betrayed her somehow. “Why is Ivan coming?”

I take another breath. I feel as if I’m too high in the sky to breathe, that there’s not enough oxygen. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if I had gotten a nosebleed. “I made a deal with him.”

“You didn’t join them, did you?”

“No, nothing like that, I…it’s complicated.”

“Let me give you something simple.”

She’s on me again, clawing at my chest and peppering my face with kisses. Out of all the things I knew that night, all the things I realized, one thing raised itself above the others: I knew from my condition that I wouldn’t be seeing Phoebe again for quite a while.

&

A pawn, when separated from his fellows, will seldom or never make a fortune.

The slag heap must have been a few hundred feet, but from my position at the bottom of the pile it seemed like miles. Regardless, I began to climb. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Unfortunately my feet were bare – I had not noticed my attire yet. I wore only a colorless, shapeless robe.

Despite the jagged footing and immense height of the slag heap, it took but minutes to reach the top. By that time my hands and feet bled and I was panting from the thin air. Luckily I was rewarded for my actions. As soon as I stepped into the tall grass growing on the flat plateau my wounds were healed. In the center of the mountaintop was a tall yew tree, branches extending far outwards. What I expected to see – a lady in white, playing a harp – was not there. Instead, at the base of the tree, lay a skeleton, clutching an instrument of bone. I would have thrown up if I had had anything in my stomach.

I walked towards the skeleton. Resting next to it was a short blade, a ritual athame. Jewels were encrusted in its hilt, and a tiny skeletal dragon head opened its mouth in a silent roar at the pommel. As soon as I reached out and grabbed it, the skull a few feet away from me jerked itself towards me. Those empty eyes bored into mine. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stepped back out from under the tree, and looked up.

The leaves were all gone. The tree itself had become skeletal. No; it had become him. Its branches – his arms – extended and slammed themselves into the ground. I was trapped. I glanced at my hands. My knuckles were white from their vice grip on the athame. I turned and ran to the edge of the slag heap and attempted to cut through the wooden, the iron, the otherworldly bars. Nothing. I turned; the skeleton and her harp had disappeared. The tree had become him entirely. I saw faces. A thousand faces. All the people I have met, all the people I have seen, but most prominently, all the people I have hurt. Ivan. Phoebe. They solidified into their whole selves and walked towards me, hand in hand. They reached their hands out to me. I was about to grab them when they disintegrated into skeletons, themselves. I looked away, down at myself. I was only bone. Bones, bones, bones, everywhere. The slag heap, even, was completely made of bones, bones sharp enough to cut, to kill.

I screamed. I knew how to escape the prison. I took up the athame and stabbed myself. Though I was only bone I felt the blade sink into my chest and pierce my heart.

Then I awoke.

&

“I’ve been quite looking forward to this little game,” and he took Death’s other castle.

Ivan is right. I am tired. I am tired of being attacked mercilessly. I am tired of seeing the people around me torn down. I am tired of being flung about through space. Most of all, I’m tired of being flung about through time. I can see every portion of my life at once. I know when checkmate will be. I know when my story will end. But that also gives me a kind of freedom. I can’t die until certain things come to pass. And when they do, I’ll be able to do whatever I want for the last few hours of my life.

Then again, I’m also dead. My life does not just flash before my eyes. My life is piled on me all at once. I am dead and I am alive, and I’m graduating high school and being conceived all at once. It’s a strange feeling, but it also gives me a certain insight into death.

You may think dying is something sweet. You may believe in an afterlife. You may think that it’s endless nothingness. You may think that the energy that makes you up is released and brought back in something else. You may believe in past lives.

When you think of dying, you may be picturing the friend you lost or martyr you worshiped. You may imagine them, as I sometimes did, turning their head over their shoulder, face split into a smile, their last laugh ringing through your head.

The truth about dying is that it’s just a verb. That’s it. Every day, millions upon billions of poor people are starving. Every night, insomniacs everywhere are staring out their window, cursing at the moon. Verbs. And yet scientists and theologians don’t spend their entire working lives trying to figure out what happens afterward.

But you don’t care about that. You don’t care about dying in and of itself, though it might be something to be concerned about. In fact, I’d be more concerned with dying than death. That’s what people care about – death. The state of being dead. Of being no longer alive. I don’t mind that bit. It’s fun, really.

If there’s an afterlife, then you don’t need to worry about death. You’ll be more or less alive anyways. And if it’s just nothing – then you don’t need to worry about it. Because by the time it comes around, you probably won’t even remember it.

&

The pieces scattered upon the crags.

“What?”

“Dead.”

Ivan’s body language did not suggest any kind of glee at delivering this news, but I suspected a sick smile behind his mask.

“Dead. Dead?”

“Dead.”

“Who? How many? Dead. What?” I was at a loss. I couldn’t comprehend his words at all. It seemed too unreal.

“All of them. Everyone.”

“Chance.”

“Dead.”

“Janine.”

“Dead.”

“Derek.”

“Dead.”

“Lee.”

“Dead.”

“Svenja.”

“Dead.”

The last name was too painful to say at first. I swallowed my despair for a moment. “Phoebe.”

“Dead.” He gave a prompt reply, and his voice was completely empty of inflection.

“He killed them.”

“Yes.”

“You killed them.”

“Yes.”

“They’re dead.”

“But they don’t have to be.”

“What?”

Ivan reached up as if about to remove his mask, but instead only adjusted it on his face. He began walking in a circle around me, pacing, slowly, as a predator closing in on its prey. As a dog, patting down the ground before laying itself to sleep.

“The Master could bring them back.”

“At what cost?”

“Loyalty.”

“Whose?”

“Yours. Theirs. You would be a valuable addition to His ranks.”

“Would I, now?”

He paused in front of me. I had refused to look at him as he went about his circle, but now I gazed into the darkened eyes of the disguise. Slowly, I began to laugh. A quiet, insane laugh. One from a man who knew he had lost it all, but kept betting anyway.

“Come with us.” He reached out his hand.

“What if I refuse?”

“Then you die.” Simple. Easy. An obvious answer.

“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” I whipped my hand out of my pocket, where I had hidden the pistol. I aimed it level with his head. “Hands up, Ivan.”

“You tried that once already. With a shotgun, no less!”

“Hands. Up.”

He chuckled, as I had. He raised his arms. “What now?”

“Now I shoot.” This time, I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as I had before. With my eyes trained on his masked face, I pulled the trigger, once, twice, three times, until the only thing that resulted from it was a clicking noise. Ivan’s torso was riddled with bullets and he was bleeding badly. One shot had ripped apart his mask and another had gone straight into his neck. He would die, and I would be at peace. Ivan staggered backward. His heel slipped on a loose rock, and, arms flailing wildly, he fell off of the cliff. I turned and walked away.

“HELP!”

It was a trick. A ploy. I wouldn’t fall for it.

“HELP ME, PLEASE -”

I lied to myself, silently repeating, Won’t turn, won’t turn, won’t turn.

I turned. I rushed back to the edge. He was there, holding on, barely. “Help me, please -” One of his hands slipped. He followed it with his eyes as his body swung above the rocky death that awaited him below. “Please, it’s me, it’s Ivan, I’m your friend -” His other hand was sweaty. Slowly sliding away. I grabbed him by the wrist.

“Thank you -”

And I threw him off the face of the cliff.

I searched my pockets for a bookmark to leave. There was only one, burned and charred. It was little more than a cinder. I dropped it anyway, at the place where Ivan had last stood. I jogged back to my car and drove away at speed. After I had gotten a few miles away from the place, Ivan’s voice spoke from beside me, as if he were sitting in the passenger’s seat.

“You have made a grave mistake,” said the voice. I swiveled my head; there he was. I’m imagining it, it’s survivor’s guilt, it’s a hallucination – he slapped me across the face and I redirected my gaze to the road. There he stood, the Gentleman, the Businessman, the Duke, there in the middle of the street, wavering as if a mirage. I swerved, crashed, flames licked my face and I closed my eyes. My tears evaporated as soon as they began to run down my face. Ivan’s laugh rung in my ears.

&

No pawn exchanges, no file-opening, no attack.

“And lead us not into temptation…”

We stood in the rain, the four of us. Janine, Phoebe, myself, and Ivan, reading the usual prayers. It was, of course, a quiet funeral. Nobody had known the deceased, Cherry Hewcott. We three had come at Ivan’s request. Rumors had reached us of a remaining family member, but though we each searched as hard as we could we couldn’t find any evidence of them.

“But deliver us from evil.”

“Amen,” we said in unison. Ivan dropped the book into the grave. It’s something he always does at funerals. Perhaps it is rude, but he’s the priest, not me. I don’t ever question him about it. The gravedigger came and began his work. With each thump of earth on wood, I flinched. Internally. Then Janine stepped a little closer to the edge and dropped in a small, shining thing. She noticed our looks; “A charm,” she said, “for a charm bracelet. A cross.” I nodded. Phoebe immediately stepped forward and dropped in a cherry stem, tied in a knot. I wondered briefly where she had kept it and why; then I begin digging in my own pockets for a gift. As I did, something caught my eye; a leaf, floating into the hole. It was quickly covered by dirt; the gravedigger was a little shortsighted, and had not thought to stop while we paid our last respects. From the way he stood, it was obvious Ivan had thrown it in.

I coughed. “Finally,” I said theatrically, “a, um…shit.” Janine and Phoebe giggled. I pulled from my lint-filled pockets my wallet and a fleur-de-lis bookmark. Seeing as I needed the wallet, I gave Cherry the bookmark. Something, at least.

As we left the cemetery, a man rushed past us. Phoebe called to him – “Hey! Hey, where’re you going?” He stopped; turned. “To my sister’s funeral,” he said, looking rather suspicious of us.

“Cherry Hewcott?” she prompts.

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

We were just there, I thought silently. But nobody said anything more, not immediately. We looked at each other, frantic, nervous glances. Then I come forth. “We were just there. Ivan, here,” – he waved – “said the prayers. We dropped a few things into the grave, and…now we’re here.”

“Oh,” he said. “Cool.”

“Were you very close?” asked Phoebe.

“She was older by seven years. She always helped me. With everything.” The man began to sob.

“Come on,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Chance.”

“Chance?”

“Yeah.”

“Chance. That’s a good name.” Ivan smiles warmly at him.

“So give it a chance, Chance,” I said. “Eventually the pain will pass.”

“No,” said Ivan. “The pain will not pass. But it will be bearable.”

He smiled. I reached out my hand, and he took it; we went to the movies, then dinner, and finally we parted ways. Sure, Chance hurt. And so did we. But we shared the hurt now. It didn’t hurt as much anymore.

When you share your love, you only get more love. But when you share pain, it slowly starts to fade away.

&

Looking over the crag, he saw the checked board floating on the wild waves below.

I picked my way through the scorched beams. The only remnants of Phoebe’s possessions were the ashes beneath my feet. I scooped up a handful and watched as it trickled through my fingers; the end of an era, small enough to fit in my palm. I heard crying. It sounded like Phoebe. I turned and went back out the doorframe, practically the only thing left standing, and there she was, a fireman comforting her. He backed away when he saw me.

“Phoebe? It’s okay.”

What?! My house just burned down and you’re telling me it’s okay?” Tears streamed down her cheeks, leaving a clear impression of her rage.

“Maybe not so okay. But there’s a silver lining to every cloud.”

“Yeah, right.” She turned away, throwing off my hand as she did.

“Come on, Phoebe. You’ve got somewhere to stay, don’t you?”

“If you think I’m going back to live with my mother you can sure as hell go -”

“No, I only meant…you can stay with me if you’d like.”

Her shoulders stopped shaking, though when she turned the wetness was still there in her eyes. “Really?”

“Sure. A favor to a friend. Easy.”

Really?”

“Really.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you thank you thank you!” She practically tackled me.

“Easy, tiger…listen, I think I found something you’ll be glad to see.”

“Huh?”

I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out the small circle of glass there. As soon as she saw it, Phoebe burst into fresh tears.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing – that…that was just – I can’t, I’m, I’m sorry…”

“No, it’s fine. I understand. There’s got to be a lot going through your head right now.” I took the glass back from her and slid it back into its hiding place.

“Now, Phoebe -”

Just then a policeman interrupted us and led Phoebe aside. With a backwards glance at me I was assured we’d talk later, but I was still uneasy. It was at least a little important. I decided to listen in on their conversation.

“Tell me, do you know who might do this?” asked the officer, a rather portly man I’d had dealings with before.

“No, no, I’m not involved in anything, anything at all.”

“Really? You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Can you think of any weird things you saw?”

“No, not anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re totally sure?”

Phoebe looked at me again. I smiled. From the looks of it, she tried to smile back, but the best she could muster was a twitch of her lip. “I think there was a weird guy.”

“Suspicious-looking?”

“He was, like, really tall. He might have worn a suit. A hat. I saw him waiting by the trees when I got the call at work and biked home.”

“Anything to describe him at all?”

“I guess he looked kind of pale. Deathly pale. Like a ghost.”

“Thank you, ma’am. We’ll be sure to let you know if we get any more information.”

“No, thank you…”

Their frenzied chatter devolved into asinine, endless babble. I was suspicious myself, of the cop, though not of arson. As soon as he was done talking I led Phoebe to my car and nearly stuffed her in. She was glad because of me, and that’s more than I could ask for.

&