Emily’s last English teacher is a tiny, withered woman, dull-eyed and half-swallowed by her heavy grey sweaters that ought to be far too warm for the weather.
She keeps the class quiet, or almost quiet; sleepy breathing, droning flies, the occasional snore – tolerated when subtle – form the only background to her half-hearted lectures.
“And why might the speaker say she doesn’t object to being a pawn?” she asks, surveying the class. A few stare blankly back, hands drooping by their sides like dead wildflowers, while the rest consult the middle distance. A normal day.
One hand near the back stretches hesitantly up – only halfway, easy to miss, except that the dying fluorescent light catches on the cobalt bracelet. The teacher blinks.
Emily blushes blotchy and hot, only a few shades pinker than the ink that coats every paper she has ever handed in. She isn’t sure whether the teacher is more surprised that she has thoughts on symbolism or that she knows anything about chess, but she does. Brendan taught her.
It was a week after she first kissed him, actually. He told her she could drop by his place after school, with the awkward detached brusqueness that she was just starting to suspect was his way of being shy, and evidently he’d really hoped she would, because he opened the door for her just as she started knocking. (He’d helped her off with her jacket, too, which she hadn’t expected at all.)
She caught sight of the board, half-set-up, as they shuffled their feet in the living room door, and asked “Is that chess?” mostly for something to say.
“Yeah,” he said, sounding surprised. “You play?”
“No,” she confessed, feeling stupider than she had before. He looked disappointed, or at least she thought she did, and she blurted out, “But I’d like to learn.”
“I can teach you,” he told her, and she realized that she did like the idea.
She perched on the edge of the chair he offered her, ankles crossed – ladylike, Emily, her mother’s echo whispered, and something about Brendan made her want to listen – while he dropped the pieces into her hands and explained how each one moved.
“Practice game?” he offered once she thought she had them all. She nodded, and he was already sliding the pieces towards her.
“You can take black.”
“Black goes second, right?”
“Yeah. So for this time you can see how I start.”
It was interesting, she discovered, trying to catch out his pieces without getting her own wiped out. Hard, too. She was just sliding one of the pointy ones – her bishop, she reminded herself – three squares towards him when he caught her wrist.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” he warned her, his fingers – callused, rough – gentle against her arm. “Go there and I’ve got a clear shot to your queen. You see?” He tapped out the squares with his other hand – simple enough to see, that way.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No need. Easy mistake for a fresh player.” He dropped her hand, thumb brushing lightly against her palm as he did, and she bit her lip. She definitely liked him.
Two days and five chess matches later, she ducked around a shelf in the school library and found the Brain waiting for her at the table she’d been sharing with Brendan, the one with the chessboard in the tabletop.
“Hey. Brendan’s cutting class today, staying out of sight until something with the bulls blows over. Nothing serious. He said to tell you hi.”
“Oh, um, thanks.” She glanced around, clutching at her bag for reassurance, and he gestured at the opposite chair, a chess piece flashing in his hands. She sat.
“Brendan said he was teaching you to play,” the Brain elaborated, dropping the piece in front of her. It was the queen.
“I’m not very good,” she protested halfheartedly, pushing it a few millimeters to the right, centered on the square. He shoved a handful of other pieces over to her.
“Practice makes perfect.” He left the pieces in a heap in front of her, instead setting up his own. She watched him carefully to double-check that she was setting it all up correctly – Brendan usually did it for them – but she found she had it pretty well. The Brain leaned back and steepled his fingers together, eyes steady behind his glasses, and hesitantly she folded her own hands.
“Your move first,” he said.
“I know.” She hovered over the right-hand knight, stopped, and started with a pawn.
After he won, he explained to her what he was doing, and they set the game up again. She picked up a lot of strategy, both that day and the next, when Brendan was still gone. Still not a great player – the Brain wiped her pieces out every single time – but she got better.
A week later, she watched Brendan’s hands increasingly familiar hands slide over the pieces, watched two avenues to his queen open up with one move of a rook, and realized that he was letting her win.
She didn’t tell him that she’d noticed. She did start to find chances to play the Brain again, guilty but liking it quite a bit more. Once she took his queen and spent the rest of the day smiling, victory – or the nearness of it, since she still lost the game – tingling under her skin. Brendan asked her why, and she just shrugged.
“It’s a nice day,” she said, and kissed him again, enjoying the way he clung to her. As if he thought she’d melt or disappear, transform away like a cursed girl in a fairytale.
Not that that has anything to do with the potential symbolism of chess, though. Emily clears her throat, re-orienting herself in the dull grey classroom, the boring poem that she doesn’t think she understands any more than she understands the subtleties of the game. Still, the basics might be enough to raise her grade a little bit.
“Um, maybe she doesn’t mind being a pawn because pawns don’t have to stay pawns? I mean, in chess, you can make a pawn another piece if you can sneak it all across the board. Everything else has to stay the way it starts.”
The teacher’s eyes widen again; the surprise stings. “That’s an excellent thought, Emily. Thank you.”
“And you can win with just pawns too,” she babbles awkwardly, twisting her hair around her fingers, remembering how she lost last week. “It’s easy not to think about where they’re at, because there are so many and they can’t do as much as the rest, but if nobody’s paying attention you can sneak them around to checkmate.” More tricks that the Brain taught her.
“Another interesting interpretation. I’m impressed, Emily. Keep it up.” She smiles the same smile she levels at Brendan, at Laura Dannon and Katie Mycroft: the bright shining-eyed grin she gives to the smart ones, when she stumbles across a bit of thinking that she doesn’t expect to find in this town.
Emily curls her fingers tight, hanging onto the warmth settling over her.
It’s the only time she ever sees that smile.