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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.

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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.

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“I do not need you to call me!” said Erik, and he took Death’s bishop.

“Shut your ugly little mouth,” my mother growled. “You despicable little shit. Get the fuck out of this house. Go on. You heard me.”

“But, mommy -”

“I said SHUT it!” My gaze shifted to her upraised hand, ready for discipline. I shrunk away from it. Though I had only the faintest memories of him, I imagined my father’s voice in my head; I heard it clear as I could hear my mother’s horrible slurs. “Come, Sally, the boy’s only nine.”

But she did not respond. It was that day I learned that thoughts are much less powerful than any other thing that defines humans. Weaker than any other thing that defines life itself.

My mother took my stillness as an excuse to swing. I couldn’t get out of the way in time. I didn’t have the reflexes I will attain. Her painted nails dug into my cheek and left marks that I still have. I felt my cheek. No blood. Not yet. Tears, though, were quick to come.

“Oh, quit crying, you whiny little…Look, I’m sorry. Maybe I’ve had too much to drink.”

I nodded at everything she said, however little of it I can remember. It was all I could do. If I made one wrong move she was bound to hit me again. If she hit me again I was bound to begin bawling. If I began bawling she was bound to hit me again, and it wouldn’t take long before she would be picking me up by the throat and heaving me out the door. I stood from my corner and she patted my head.

“Look, it’s okay. Go to sleep now.”

I nodded. I lurched towards my room. I heard my father’s voice again. “Happy birthday,” he said. Birthday. I remembered with a shallow nod the date. The best present I had gotten all day was the imprint of my father’s voice. I couldn’t even know if it was truly my father, but it seemed to fit so wonderfully with my built-up image of him that there was nobody else it could be. When I reached my bed, there was something on the pillow.

A fleur-de-lis bookmark.

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To the Wall

The hardest part of chess is winning a won game.

At the water cooler, where all great ideas come forth, was Beatrix, Phoebe Beatrix. She was quietly sipping at the paper cup, holding it with both hands and looking worried. She did not see me, nor make any kind or sort of acknowledgement to my presence. It took a hard rap on the shoulder before she snapped up with a jerk, spilling her water down my front. I waved her hands away; there was obviously some more pressing matter at thand.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s – it’s Ivan.”

“What of him?”

“Well, have you seen him?” She turned away, to the wall.

“I suppose.”

“He’s so – distant. And almost sadistic, sometimes.”

“His wife says he leaves the light on when he sleeps, and that he’s making strange markings around the house.”

“Do you think – do you think he’s joined a cult?”

“That of Cthulhu or the Westboro Baptists?”

We shared a forced laugh. Ivan was our friend, a very sensitive and often susceptible man. If something serious had gotten to him it had gotten to him deep.

“Well…will you keep an eye on him? For me – and for all of us? For him?”

“Of course.”

She fidgeted, but did not go. I waited; eventually Phoebe brought something out of her purse and handed it to me.

“What’s this?”

“Someone wanted me to give you this note.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. He had a hood over his face.”

I opened it; all it said was, “MCDXXVII-33”.  I nodded and tucked it into my pocket. “Thank you.”

She dropped the cup into the trashcan and left. As I watched her short locks bounce away, I had a sudden urge to break something, to hurt someone, to find the nearest living thing and hit it.

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The most powerful weapon in chess is to have the next move.

Why WordPress? you might ask. Why not Blogspot or Tumblr? you might add. To me, WordPress has always felt more…refined. Like a good book you have just opened for the umpteenth time, yet its pages are still crisp and clear as ever.

Who are you? you might ask next. I highly doubt your name is actually “Ampersand”, you could continue. I don’t like games, and I don’t want answers, nor do I have any to give besides these two, so I shall describe three men, and you can pick whichever one you like best for me to be.

Jon Oackley Hargrave, born August tenth, nineteen-fifty. His hair is receding, but he presses forth with a brave combover. Jon knows four languages including Pig Latin and English, and despises automobiles of any kind. He always rides his bike everywhere, except on cross-country trips, where he takes a plane or boat if possible. Jon made it to college but not out of it, and has only ever worked at a factory for airplane parts.

Rutherford Smith-Manhattan, born February seventh, nineteen-eighty-four. Fresh out of law school, Babe Ruth (as some of his closer friends call him) is an avid baseball fan and, in his spare time, horror novelist. He’s tried art of many kinds, but the best he could do was a stick-figure comic. Luckily for him, he got a rather generous sum of wealth from his parents’ inheritance, who both died long ago: his mother in a plane crash and his father – well, nobody really knows where his father went, so it’s entirely possible he’s still alive.

Adolf Chernov Threbi, born November eleventh, nineteen-seventy-seven. Adolf is a father of two who generally is the stay-at-home side of the family, thanks to his cursed name. When he isn’t raising the kids, he either is running his Internet business – an general-help phone line – or woodworking. They live on the river, you see, and he promised to bring his children out on a boat, which he has yet to make, though not for lack of effort. He simply hasn’t had the time or money to get all the materials he needs, but Adolf keeps trying, because he is a very loyal man and always keeps his promises.

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