(this is a short story about a chess game and a memory)

The sun was bright, but not hot. It was how I liked it. The bright light made the sky a shimmering shade of blue, and the grass a vivid green. Even the pawns on the chessboard before me seemed almost radiant in their creamy whiteness.

Late in the afternoon, after all my classes were done for the day, I was sitting in the grass in the Park Blocks, across the board from my friend, and current opponent, Jim. There were a decent number of people in the park around us, casual pedestrians and people relaxing on benches, reading or chatting. I didn't notice them much, as I was fairly engrossed by the game. We were playing slowly, taking the time for deeper calculations and more thoughtful play, a change of pace from my normal mode, which was quick and light.

This speed suited Jim, as he was a careful and methodical chess player. You would not think that to look him; with his somewhat shaggy blond hair and his cheerful eyes, he was not the typical image of a slow chess player. I suppose my looks are in contrast with my play as well. While I am normally the quiet and thoughtful type, my moves on the chessboard show flair, even recklessness.

We were a few moves into the midgame. Jim's hand hovered above his knight, and then clutched it firmly. He moved the chess piece slowly, although by that point, he certainly must have made up his mind over what move to make. Perhaps he came to this realization as well, as he briskly put the piece down on its new square and hit the clock. His eyes showed the uneasy contentment of anyone who has made an irreversible decision.

That made it my move. As I enumerated in my mind the possible responses I could make, my hands idly pluckedgrass from the ground and let it fall lightly through my fingers.

There were two main possibilities. I knew this almost instinctively, from years and years of play. I could move my rook, sliding it along the back rank to a file where it would shore up my position in the center. This was a solid defensive move. Or, I could move my bishop, part of a more aggressive strategy whose ends I could not see clearly from the current position.

I looked away from that confused tangle of colored squares and wooden men to clear my mind. A few sparse blades of grass fell from between my fingers and alighted on my shoes. As I watched this small cascade, a memory came to mind. It shot through me from beginning to end in less time than it took the last blade of grass to go from my hand to my foot.

Spears of grass fell through her fingers as it fell through mine. It tumbled onto my chest, and slid down my side, dropping back onto the ground. Celia continued to sift through a handful of plucked green grass, divesting it in a small pile on my arm.

It fell off when I moved my arm to touch her, resting my hand on her knee and squeezing gently. She was smiling, I think. I can't remember precisely how everything looked. I know that Ceila was wearing her hair cropped short that summer, and she must have had on shorts and some sort of t-shirt, but specifics did not spring readily to mind. Still, as I sat in the park playing chess with Jim, I could remember how her skin felt so plainly that it was as if it were all happening again.

Remembering the feel of Celia's skin did not help my chess game. I was distracted, and I swiped at my bishop and moved it into position, as if I were swatting an annoying insect. I had not thought out the move fully, but I knew that it was in line with the kind of game I liked to play.

Jim considered my move. I could see in his expression that he was turning it over in his mind, figuring out what the move meant and how it changed the situation, and then slowly working through whatever process it was that caused him to come up with good moves on the chessboard. In my own mind, unwillingly, the sensation of kissing Celia was slowly seeping into my thoughts, interwoven with calculations regarding the movements of chessmen.

Mostly I remembered how it felt. The sun was hot, much hotter than today. My hands beaded up with sweat. Her lips felt soft and malleable, and my whole body thrilled when I touched them with mine. We had walked home, not saying much, and I kissed her again when she got on the bus to get back to her house.

Is it odd that I would think of that in the middle of a chess game? Not so odd, I suppose, compared to the myriad thoughts that a person must think over the course of a day. Sometimes I imagine that my mind is a gigantic tangle of string, decorated with pretty beads, like a necklace factory imploded. If you pull on a string, the beads rattle. I pulled, and a small, smooth bead slid down the string and dropped into my hand. Look, it's a little piece of my mind, something I saw that passed through my eyes and stuck somewhere in my mind.

This bead was nice, a warm red color, neither dull nor shiny. It was a moment in time, one where I sat on my living room floor watching television. It was memorable, of course, because Celia was there with me; we sat there with my arm around her and her head resting on my shoulder. We didn't say much, just leaned into each other, interlocking: head, head, shoulder, shoulder. There must have been more to it, but so little gets packed into one bead; just one sensation, one sight, one phrase of memory. If you want more than that you have to follow the tangle of strings.

Moving from one abstract world to another, my chessmen were entangled as well. Things were not going well for them, as promising attacks turned fruitless, and left defenses in disarray. I'm a fairly good player, but Jim had the definite edge in slow games. It might have made me anxious, slowing down my decision process, but today I felt at ease. There must be something about resting outside in this warm weather that makes one amenable to longer periods of sitting and contemplating. I was losing the game, but it was a small margin at that point.

Unfortunately, the awful thing about taking several minutes for each turn is that it allows one to see all the possible ways in which one's position is weak, in which things could go horribly wrong. This sensation bore down on me as I gently slid a pawn forward one square. It was a move that would buy me some time. I saw attacks that I wanted to make, but they were not at hand, my pieces were just not set up correctly. Long minutes passed as I visualized the different moves I thought Jim might make. Some of them looked rather dangerous. In my mind the position progressed, leading to innumerable possibilities, very few of which turned out well for me. Gradually, from looking at so many possible moves that would favor my opponent, I began to see Jim as a master player, an immovable object that would repulse my attacks before I even started them. This is not a good way to play chess.

In my pocket there was a deep red bead, scarlet like an army's banner. I lay on my bed, naked, and Celia sprawled over me. The day's heat had not yet faded, and her body stuck to me, heavy and warm. I didn't mind. Her hand cupped my shoulder; we breathed together in that captivating, sultry air. Her bare back was smooth and beautiful under my hand. I closed my eyes and time stood still.

For want of a pawn... When one thing in your game goes wrong, it opens the door for other things to go wrong. An early attack of mine fizzled out, and when I looked at the board I saw no good moves. My men stood in their black and white garden, dumb. It was as if they were throwing up their hands, angry at me for putting them on such useless squares. Jim pushed forward, his moves narrowed to a point. I glared at the board, taking whatever glimmers of hope I could. Finally the inexorable march of progress lost me a knight. I conceded some moves later.

When I walked home the day's light was just starting to fade. It must have been quite late. I miss those long summer days.

end.

There was something wrong as I boarded the 8:15 bus into town, and I couldn’t place it. That was bothering me. I knew that there was a problem because it was there, gnawing on the back of my mind like an animal, but I couldn’t figure it out.

The bus had been a few minutes late getting to my stop, but that wasn’t it. The bus driver had shorted me three dollars when I accidentally fed a five into the box instead of a one, but that wasn’t it either. Annoying, sure, but it didn’t explain this dread that had settled over me.

I sat in an open seat toward the back of the bus, hardly glancing at the stranger next to me, and brought my book out of my backpack. I got three paragraphs into the chapter before I put it down again, frowning to myself and collecting my thoughts. What was it?

The passenger next to me cleared their throat, catching my attention. I glanced over again to see an old man staring at me pointedly. His lips parted to reveal age-yellowed teeth. “Excuse me, son, do you have the time?

I pulled my jacket sleeve back to expose my watch. “Eight twenty-six,” I said, showing him the watch face. He peered at it for a moment before his eyes drifted back up to meet mine. He had an intense gaze that wasn’t helping to calm my nerves.

“Right. About time then, wouldn’t you say?”

I was about to ask him what he meant when someone in front of me screamed. And then the bus exploded. Or rather, something exploded into the bus. If you’ve ever been in an automobile accident, you know that the sound of metal and metal striking and then crumpling is one of the worst sounds in the world. Every instant is an eternity, and yet it all happens in the blink of an eye.

I saw it like I was in a dream. The midsection of the bus gave way to whatever had hit us, collapsing and bending. Forward motion all but stopped as we were swept sideways. Glass was everywhere. And then we lurched, tipped, everything from the left side of the bus thrown violently to meet the right.

It all stopped. Holding on to the seatback in front of me with a death grip, I turned my head to see a girl, maybe my age, maybe a little younger, in the process of being tossed into my lap from the seat across the aisle, splayed out in midair like a puppet on a string. Her eyes were tightly shut, she had a gash across her forehead, and blood on her mouth from where she had bitten cleanly through her lip in the impact. In midair, but not moving at all.

In fact, nothing was moving. None of the passengers, none of the traffic outside, nothing. Shards of glass were still suspended in midair. For some reason this was more dumbfounding than the floating girl next to me, or the man a few seats up who had been resting his head against the window when the Mack truck, which I now had time to see, hit us. I looked away, stomaching churning, resisting the sudden urge to vomit.

I released my grip on the seat back, sliding down the empty seat to curl up next to the aluminum siding. Shaking like a leaf in the complete silence, I could only—wait, empty seat?

“None of this is necessary, you know.”

I shouted involuntarily, twisting around, hands in front of me defensively. The old man was standing casually in the center aisle of the bus, as though it wasn’t tipped at a forty-five degree angle. He cocked his head as he stared at me, furthering the angle so that his head was almost upside down in relation to mine.

“Wh... I... what?” I stammered.

“Come now,” he said reproachfully. “You’re intelligent enough for this, son, that’s why we picked you.”

“I don’t understand.”

He sighed. “You’re here – on Earth that is, in this life – to learn lessons. Everything is a lesson. From the time you were born until the time that you die,” at this point, he glanced bemusedly toward the passengers at the mid-left section of the bus. My stomach lurched again. “you are constantly learning lessons. It’s the nature of things.”

I was completely bewildered, and my face must have betrayed my confusion, because he sat down next to me so that his face was near mine, and continued. “Sometimes the lessons are too important to be left to chance.”

“Then why not just tell me? Why do... why do this?” I waved my arm about listlessly.

“That’s not how we work, son. There are rules that have to be followed.” He shook his head. “No, I’m not allowed to come out and tell you, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t pound it into you over and over until you finally get it into your thick skull. That’s why I do this.” He swept his arm out dramatically over the bus.

“So what am I then, your pawn?” I retorted angrily. “I have to play your game and maybe I’ll get it right before someone dies?” To my surprise, he actually laughed, a booming, head thrown back laugh.

“They always say that, and I’ll never understand it. Pawn? I’m not some mysterious puppetmaster pulling the strings, son. I’m trying to help.” He sighed, mirth gone as suddenly as it had come. “If you were going to understand, you would have gotten it by now. That’s unfortunate. We’ll have to try again.”

“What, a car accident tomorrow? Plane crash next week?” I slammed my fist into my palm. “You can’t keep doing this, these are innocent people!”

“Next week?” He stood up. “You think too small, son.”

“What—“

There was something wrong as I boarded the 8:15 bus into town...

It's the Season for Graves Cracking: The 2006 Quest for Fear

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