Consolation Prize

By Cory L Calcutt

"Your move."

Hannah Lawson blinked. Her dark eyes were feeling heavier and heavier, and the chessboard was no longer in focus. Looking over at the timer, she saw that she had less than twenty seconds to make a move. Hannah deftly picked up the white pawn and moved it forward.

"Nice." Her opponent chuffed a little, as though the move were a joke.

"It's early yet." Hannah coughed a little and then raised a glass. A tall, dark-complexioned man came forward--he had introduced himself earlier as their proctor for this second round of play. "May I...?" she asked.

"Of course." A clear crystal pitcher appeared in the man's dark hands, and soon Hannah was taking in the refreshing liquid in gulps. "You have ten seconds, sir," the proctor added as he moved steadily out to the small room's only door.

The young man chose the queen's knight. "Not a lot of time to think."

"I think that's the point," Hannah replied. "Especially this late."

A giant yawn escaped her opponent's lips. Hannah moved another pawn. "Careful, aren't you?" he remarked, a sad sort of smile crossing his face.

"You're not." Hannah's eyes traveled over to the side of the man's chair, where a hand hung limply, one side wrapped in bandages.

The man shrugged. "Sometimes you lose..."

"Yeah. Tell me about it." Hannah lost her king's bishop. "Damn," she murmured, picking up her hand to rub the sleep out of her eyes. "I can barely keep my eyes open." Hannah retaliated by castling and slamming the 'stop' button on the timer.

"There will be a two-hour break after this round is finished," the voice of the proctor called from an unseen corner of the room. "Until then..."

"We know, we know," the young man sighed. He started working on a defense Hannah hadn't seen before. "What's your name?" he asked, his voice dropping to a whisper.

"We're not supposed to..."

"So?" Auburn hair shook slightly on top of a round head. "Live a little."

Hannah looked deep inside the man's jade-green eyes. "I'm Hannah."

"I'm Cole. Pleasure."

"It would be, under better circumstances." Hannah attacked, taking his queen's knight.

"True." Soon Cole had feinted, taking a pawn instead of Hannah's queen.

"What are you doing?"

"Playing. Your move."

"Are you insane?"

Cole shrugged. "I'm already down by one."

Hannah took a pawn. Her legs were stiff. "God, I could use a break."

"Keep playing like this and you'll get one soon enough." Cole moved his queen just into the reach of Hannah's king's knight, and she pounced. "You see?"

"I can play, you know."

"You wouldn't be here otherwise, I'm certain." A sad but impish grin fluttered along the corners of the young man's mouth.

"Do you honestly realize what you're doing?"

"More than you do, I'm afraid. Focus, Hannah. The others won't be as kind as I am."

Thick dark hair hung limply in Hannah's face. Angrily, she shoved it to one side and took Cole's castle. "I never asked for this."

"None of us did, I'm sure. I know I didn't." The bandage on Cole's hand was black along the edges, and it was heavily stained.

"Does it hurt?"

Cole picked up his injured hand and wiggled it. "Could be worse."

The thought of him playing like this chilled her to the core. "You don't know me," Hannah pointed out as she hit the timer. "Why would you...?"

"Silence, please," the proctor called out. "The rules state there is to be no conversation during game play."

Hannah swallowed thickly, moving a pawn up a square. It was warm in the little room, and the heat was starting to become oppressive. As she toyed with the notion of asking to remove her sweater, Cole moved his king's bishop up a square, leaving his king vulnerable. "Check," the young woman called out, moving her castle within striking distance.

Long fingers pulled the king back towards a square near the corner. Two pawns were placed haphazardly near the prize piece, and Hannah noticed the bishop would be ineffective in mounting a defense.

"Check," she called again, moving her bishop to cover her castle.

Cole studied the board for a minute. Then he tipped his king. "Congratulations," the man offered, but with no joy in his words.

"I'm so sorry," Hannah said.

"There is a winner?" the proctor asked, studying the board. "Miss Lawson advances," he said finally, pulling Hannah's chair out and helping her out of it. "Congratulations." Hannah took no comfort in them.

Suddenly the smell of roasted meat and fresh bread began to pull Hannah towards the small room's exit. She couldn't remember when she'd eaten last. The last thing the young woman heard was the report of a pistol being fired, offering her opponent his consolation prize.