The cold bit cruelly as Julian strode across the common. He ignored it. The match, the Royal Game, had taken precedence again—its outcome imminent. He knew this next move was likely to be the last—if only he could steel himself to see it. No seizures now. His senses must stay absolutely clear. The pills! His step faltered. Had he taken them?… Yes, swilled down with his morning coffee. His brisk pace resumed.

Melanie, having returned from lunch, was going through her drawings. She had them carefully arranged—her farewell gifts—all around the room: Sisters Zoe, Dana, Deborah, and Morgan, Mrs. Lowry, Mrs. Soames, and Mr. Jimmy, her six self-portraits crowned by various coiffures, the sketches of Julian in all of his guises, and finally Benjamin—the Miniature Man—Benjamin, her long-lost friend.

Odd that he had come back into her life. He had owned the shop beneath their old apartment in the city, before she and her family had moved away. The hours the two of them had spent together, the wondrous fun! All her fondest childhood memories seemed drawn from times with him—dear, sweet, gruff, old Benjamin. Then one morning he was gone—died in his sleep, her parents told her—though, at the time, she found their explanation unconvincing. For Benjamin had promised her that he would be her friend for always. "For always never ends or dies," he had said.

"So you’ve revived."

She spun around.

"Julian!"

He was standing in the doorway staring. Her first reaction was to cover up her work. But that was useless; he had already seen. In fact, he stood right beside the drawings she had done of him. She might as well just let him look, let him choose his present for himself.

Then she saw what he was holding.

"Hey, that’s mine!"

She rushed to reclaim her journal.

"Here."

He gave it back.

"How could you!"

"Easy; you weren’t here."

"And so you stole it?"

"Borrowed. I haven’t even read it."

"Ha, I’ll bet."

She turned the pages, as if scanning them for his fingerprints.

Meanwhile, he continued his sidelong appraisal; she seemed strange. Something in her nature betrayed a subtle alteration. What? A sketch arrested his attention before he could decide.

"This is wonderful."

Melanie stopped her fussing.

"What is?"

"You’re quite good."

Stunned, and not a little flattered, she put aside her journal to join him, as he made a pensive tour about the room. His focus was divided—half directed to the work, half to its author. He paused.

"Who’s this?"

"That’s Benjamin. You don’t know him."

He studied her closely.

"Hm. The gatekeeper?"

"Who?"

"The whatdidyoucallhim, the Miniature Man?"

"Uh huh."

She seemed unfazed. He had read her journal, every last word of it—just as he had memorized her file. More than that, the dream had taught him (in upsettingly grim detail) about the rape. And toward his own ends, he had used it, used it all, regardless of its impact on this girl—whose gaze was now a mirror for his… whose mind, at last, had shed its austere guard… whose heart was opening, reaching out, inching closer, closer, closer. Mentally Julian wrenched away; physically he did not move. The portraits on all sides seemed to hold him prisoner. From the corner of his shielded eyes he watched their faces watching… mute indictments… The Game, his precious Game, the crime of which he stood accused.

Then, eerily, the charcoaled lips began to mouth reproofs:

Julian.

Julian?

J u l i a a a a a n.

The portraits called, each voice a breathy whisper.

You’re very clever, Mr. Papp. But are you bright?

You’re evil, Julian. Evil.

What gives you the right to yell at me?

Of what are you afraid?

… evil, Julian. Evil.

People who make fun of other people are just covering up for what they don’t like in themselves.

Don’t let conceit deprive you of a helping hand; we all can use one every now and then.

… evil, Julian. Evil.

I’ll beat you at this game some day.

You’ll never beat me, Marcy.

Why do you want to end your life?

You’ll never beat me…

… evil…

The smears of black and white increased their contrast—blacker, whiter—then formed ranks, straight rows of alternating squares. Figures crept from left and right and took up their positions, as pawns, Rooks, Bishops, Queens, and the rival Kings—the Knights stood clear, as did six pawns, four white, two black—the early casualties—expendable—in a contest wherein victory was all. The seconds ticked. The board revolved… upon its pedestal… above the void… an empty plane… or a plateau that stretched to infinity… or rather to the horizon—sun-bleached, shimmering, vaguely visible in the distance, not so distant, drawing near, revealing earth and grass and tree and leaf and cloudless sky… wind breathing soft gentle meadowscents and meadowcolors walking (touch me touch me) passing through the air   molecules of air   pulsebeat footfall time adrift (Melanie) yes (touch me hold my hand) the meadow smiling as we walking floating reaching touch to touching palm to palm two palm prints pressing lines whose fates conjoined inscribe the way so clear so clear so clear

Of course.

17. Qg3!............

 

1.e4           
2. Nf3
3. Bc4
4. b4
5. c3
6. d4
7. 0 - 0
8. Qb3
9. Nxc3
10. Nd5!
11. exd5
12. Nxe5
13. Bb2
14. h4!
15. Bxg7
16. Rfe1+
17. Qg3!
0e5          
0Nc6
0Bc5
0Bxb4
0Ba5
0exd4
0dxc3
0Qe7
0Nf6?
0Nxd5
0Ne5
0Qxe5
0Qg5
0Qxh4
0Rg8
0Kd8
0

If Qxg3 then Bf6 mate. Otherwise, White captures the hapless Queen.

"The Game is won; Black has no choice. Zoe must resign!"

The girl looked puzzled.

"Julian? What are you talking about?… Julian?"

His mind returned.

"Let go; that hurts."

The two were standing face to face, and (at Julian’s instigation) hand in hand.

"Where is that place?"

She had not released him. He stopped resisting.

"Place?"

"That meadow."

It now was Julian’s turn to look puzzled. His aura? Shared? He shut his eyes… meadowscents and meadowcolors walking (touch me touch me)

She lifted his glasses. His eyes stayed closed. He spoke.

"You’re there." His eyes opened. "And you’re here… And I’m not shaking from a seizure or an aura?… You’re actually here?"

She pressed his hand to her cheek.

"Yes, Julian. I always have been."

He staggered back. She did not, could not know the implications—"the only un-lonely place I’ve ever known… a presence… feminine… something I carry with me when I go back to the game… beyond even winning." Winning. The Game! His hand broke contact. He had seen the move. Would it pass the test? Had he really won, or was the girl’s recovery merely temporary?

Melanie sensed his shift in mood and grew wary. His eyes suddenly looked ruthless. She tried to reestablish contact, reaching for his hand again. He veered.

And then she winced in anticipation as Julian lowered his dark glasses.

"Stan. Pauly. Elmo."

He spit the names. She saw the rapists. The insect sounds arose… then swarmed…

But Melanie withstood their shrill attack.

Then she slapped Julian, very hard, across the face.

 

The slap still ringing...

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