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A Death in the Family

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"Wait a minute," Whizzer said. Something felt distinctly weird -- apart from the hospital bed, the trays of hors d'oeuvres, the yarmulke, and the Bar Mitzvah in progress. The little room was full of people he could only think of as Family; who else would visit when he looked like hell and felt like shit? They were an ill-assorted, high-strung, sharp-edged group, but they were definitely Family.

But someone else had his attention, someone who hadn't been invited to this party. The pretty girl in black standing in the doorway wasn't one of them, and she wasn't one of the nurses. He knew her from somewhere, though he wasn't sure where. Maybe she was someone's ex-girlfriend.

She said, "Hi," and smiled, and then he recognized her.

Nobody in the Family turned and looked. They wouldn't want to admit she might be looking for him, today of all days, but she was looking straight at him. Her smile was so beautiful and so sad.

He said, "Hi," and got out of bed. None of them noticed that he was walking around, or that he was breathing normally for the first time in months. "Well, damn. I was expecting someone more tall and dark, if not necessarily handsome."

She spread her hands. "It's just me."

"Yeah. I figured that out." He sighed. It was a relief to be able to sigh without gasping. "Shit. Already? Can I challenge you to a game of chess or something?"

She laughed. The weirdest thing about her laugh was that it made him laugh, too, smoothly and naturally. There was no eldritch overtone, no edge of disturbing unreality. "I don't do challenges, but I'll play chess with you."

"Jason beats me pretty regularly," he admitted, "but I guess I don't have anything to lose, right?"

"I haven't played chess in a while. Come on." She went out the door, past a nurse who was hurrying into the room. He followed the girl.

Instead of the hallway, he stepped into a messy apartment. There was a goldfish tank under the window and a coat rack covered with a wide assortment of very silly hats.

"Nice place you've got here," he said, and she laughed again.

"Thanks. Here's the chess set."

There were two tables with chess sets, both ornately carved and painted. The chessboards were marble, with grey squares and shining black. The pawns were about an inch tall, with rounded tops and broad bases to show their color. As he watched, faces flickered over the tops, showing ancient smiles and infants' tears, men laughing and women singing. The longer he watched, the faster the faces went.

The rows behind the pawns were more static. Each figure seemed to be hand-carved in the shape of a person, realistic enough that they seemed about to step off of their bases. The Kings were grey-robed, armed not with swords but with books, and marked apart only by the color of their books. The Queens were dark-haired beauties, modeled, certainly, on his hostess, wearing the same symbol – Egyptian, maybe, or pagan -- one silver, one jet and almost lost in the texture of her clothing. The King's Bishops were burly men who reminded him of conquistadors in petticoat-breeches, except with red hair, brandishing crosses that seemed sharp-edged. Even in miniature, the red-haired Bishops' expressions bordered on the feral. The Queen's Bishops were tall, thin men who wore dark cloaks and spiky black hair, and were differentiated by the edge of their capes. They had chips of some brilliant-cut gems for eyes, and every time he glanced at them they dazzled him a little.

The Queen's Knights were slender girls in pink dresses, their expressions blissful and innocent. One rode a white horse, the other a black, and both wore crowns of flowers in their flowing hair. The King's Knights were girls with multicolored hair, sitting astride poppies as if they were broomsticks. The Queen's Rook was a slim, androgynous figure in a white or black suit. The King's Rook was a squat, dumpy, naked woman with a rat on her shoulder, who seemed entirely out of place in such an elegant assemblage.

One of the sets had a game already in progress: the White Queen's Bishop, his cloak tugged close around his slim figure and his gem-eyes seeming defiant, was threatened by both the Black Queen's Bishop, his mirror-image down to the long, pale fingers they both had, and the Black Queen's Rook, lovely and sexless in what might be a dark men's suit.

He could see that a few moves would get White out of its predicament, sacrificing only pawns rather than the Bishop, but he did not realize that he was reaching to help until she said, "You probably shouldn't touch that one."

"Were you playing with someone else?"

"My older brother. The game has gone on -- oh, a long time." She pulled over a chair and set it by the board that was lined up neatly. "Here, play White. You want something to drink?"

"I'll get stuck here, like in fairy tales, won't I?"

"There's always a way out."

He nodded. "Okay, then. I never did get much of the champagne that Trina brought."

She closed her eyes a second like someone trying how to remember to do a party trick, and when she opened them again, she had a champagne flute in each hand. She handed him a glass and raised one herself. "To Jason's Bar Mitzvah."

He raised his glass, although he found that his hand trembled. "To Jason's Bar Mitzvah. You're not going back there, are you?"

"No. I just came for you."

His hand stopped trembling, and he made his opening move. Even though the faces on the pawns kept shifting, they felt like normal chess pieces -- a little cold, but smooth. The champagne was definitely the stuff Trina had brought; however bizarre the Family was, at least they had good taste in celebratory beverages. "It's not exactly fair, is it?"

"It's perfectly fair." She moved a pawn. "One life, one chance, same rules for everyone. Just like chess."

"It didn't seem like enough." The bubbles from the champagne tingled his nose, which made him wonder whether he still technically had a nose, and if not, what was tingling. "So what now? Do I get wings?"

"Do you want them?" There was something conspiratorial in her smile.

"Not as such, but everyone kept telling me I was going to – well – in the other direction." He shivered.

Her smile went away. "You could do that, too. Do you think you should?"

He thought about all the times he'd done little stupid things and big stupid things, hurt people for a moment or a year, made them wince or cry. And the people whose lives he'd torn to shreds: Trina, who came every weekend and brought him shiny, shallow magazines; Jason, who taught him how to really play chess and told him stupid, stupid jokes that made him laugh until he couldn't breathe; Marvin. Marvin, whose hand he could still feel, or imagine, clasped warmly in his own, whose voice he could hear, promising love, calling him friend through all the pain and the betrayals of the flesh.

"I think I'm really okay, actually."

She smiled again, so brightly that he had to smile back. "That's good to hear."

He sipped his champagne again. "Do you really want to play chess?"

"It's up to you."

"Oh. I guess it was kind of my last request." He heard himself choke up on the words and cleared his throat.

She chuckled. "Something like that, yeah."

"Okay. Let's finish the game, then." He bent pensively over the board before making his next move. "Do you fulfill a lot of last requests?"

"Sometimes." Her voice was soft and gentle.

"Why me?"

She smiled again, and the heart he almost certainly didn't have anymore skipped a beat. "Why not? You're a nice guy."

He shrugged, but she didn't say anything for the next few moves. After a while, he ventured, "Do I get to ask what happens next?"

"You can ask, but I don't know. I only know what happens to everyone and everything, eventually."

"Okay, so what happens then?"

She raised her eyebrows, like it should have been obvious. "I will."

"Oh. Right." He bit his lip, or the memory of his lip, and made a move. "Check."

"Hey, good one." She tapped her fingers on the edge of the table for a while, thinking, before she made her move.

He finished his champagne. "So was that." The next move was a risk. He wondered whether Jason would know the name of it, and whether he would ever get to ask. "Is this really the end, then?"

"It's like chess," she said gently, sliding a piece into position. "When you start a game, you know someone's always going to lose."

"Yeah." He studied the board. "And what do I get if I win?"

"You get to see what happens next."

He considered this for a long time before his next move. "Checkmate."

"Well done." She grinned at him, and he had to grin back. She stood up and offered him her hand over the table. "Congratulations."

"Thanks." He took her hand, and heard the sound of wings.