Death and I play chess every Sunday.
Not for my soul or extra time. It’s not like that. It’s just a friendly game.
At 6 AM I gather my chess set, fill a thermos with coffee, and head to the park. Sometimes I grab something like a couple of danishes or muffins on the way. I’m to the park by 7, where I set up the board and fill two cups with coffee. At five minutes past, almost on the dot, the air around my table goes cold, and a shadow fills the seat across from me. Then I ask the question I ask every Sunday.
“White or black?”
“White,” the shadow might say, “I want to go first today.”
It might seem strange, I suppose, playing games with Death when life isn’t in the balance, but we’ve been doing it for a few years now. I guess I’ve just gotten used to it. Death didn’t talk a whole lot at first, but I don’t think conversation was something Death was accustomed to. That’s changed a little bit since we started, but Death is still a very quiet person. Well, not a literal person, but you know what I mean.
We met a couple years ago, when Death came to reap my neighbor. He was a bit of a jerk.
When Death came for him, he was screaming and yelling and swearing at the top of his lungs. Death kept trying to keep things quiet and civil, trying to explain that Death wasn’t actually killing him. 40 years of chain smoking and a high fat western diet was what had actually killed him. Still he yelled and hollered and was really abusive right up until Death was tired of trying to console him and sent him on his way. I caught up to Death in the hall, to ask if everything was ok. I work in retail, so I know what it’s like to sit there and take abuse when you’re just doing your job. I think Death was surprised that I came out (through it can be hard to tell).
“I..I am fine. Thank you,” Death said when I asked.
“That was super rude of him. I’m sorry about that,” I said.
“Oh, it’s quite alright,” said Death, “It was hardly the worst I’ve ever heard.”
“That sucks. You’re just doing your job.”
“That’s what I always tell them,” Death said, sounding exhausted. My heart went out to the specter.
“Hey, I’m not busy. You wanna grab lunch?” I asked on impulse, “I mean, if you’re not busy. I understand if you are.”
“I am. Very busy,” said Death, “Where shall we eat?”
We’ve been hanging out once a week ever since.
Death is always busy, of course, but we make some time Sunday mornings and we sit and play and talk. Death won’t answer any of my big questions though.
“What happens after we die?” I asked once.
“I don’t know,” Death said moving its bishop across the board.
“But aren’t you Death?” I said, staring at the board. Death’s bishop was going to take my rook, but the only way to stop it would lose me my own bishop.
“Indeed. What is your point?” Death said, the shadow easing back in its chair while I considered my move.
“Shouldn’t you know then. You’re Death, so you should have a good idea what happens when things die,” I moved my knight. Death could still take my rook, but if it did, I’d have an opening to threaten Death’s queen.
“What happens after you?” asked Death.
I paused. “Well…Lots of things.”
“Describe them. Exactly,” Death insisted, taking my rook.
“Well, my body would decay. A funeral would happen. Some people might be sad…”
“How sad? Will it affect decisions they make?” Death asked.
“I…I suppose it could. It might also depend on how I die,” I admitted.
“And will those decisions affect other decisions?” Death continued.
“I guess they would, that’s how it works.”
“So I ask you again: what happens after you?”
I paused again, moved my knight to threaten Death’s queen, and shrugged.
“I don’t know. Anything could happen,” I said.
“It’s the same for me. Not the dying and decaying part of course. But if someone dies, I come to collect them, and after that…” the shadow seemed to shrug. Death moved its other bishop, “Check, by the way.”
Our conversations tend to steer clear of cosmic import these days. Death is super into games though. Like hardcore complicated euro games. Death tried to sell me on playing something called Agricola, but I’m not ready for something that big. Still, it did convince me to pick up Pandemic.
“Pandemic? Why am I not surprised Death plays a game about people dying?” I laughed.
Death chuckled. “It’s not like that. You and your friends play on a team as the American Center for Disease Control. You’re trying to save people.”
“Oh. So how do you win?”
“Mostly you don’t,” said Death, “Check in three.”
“Sounds like a bad game then,” I joked.
“It is hard, but that’s what makes it fun. You lose 9 games in 10, but you play for that 10th time. That game where everything comes together perfectly, and you get to save everyone,” Death sounded almost wistful.
“Sounds pretty intense,” I admitted.
“It can be. I really enjoy it.”
“I’ll give it a try,” I moved my rook, “I think that’s check mate next turn.”
I play Pandemic with some coworkers now a couple times a month. I really dig it. Death and I still play chess though. Tradition is a powerful thing.
Death knew a lot about me already, but I did get the chance to educate Death on musicals. Death was aware of musicals of course, but being as busy as it is, Death only ever gets to see snippets of them when Death has to collect someone at one.
Death had never heard the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar, my absolutely favorite rock opera.
“Bits and pieces only,” Death explained.
“Tell me you’ve heard all of Judas’s song at least,” I started fumbling in my bag.
“The one that opens the play right. No. Just the opening guitar chords.”
“Oh man. I’m not even religious and I’m telling you it rocks. Here,” I set my ipod down on the table, “Give it a listen.”
Death took the earbuds and sat quietly listening for a few minutes.
“Very interesting,” Death said nodding, “Not accurate, but very good music.”
“What do you mean?”
“Judas. He was not like that. I remember.”
“How would…Oh right. Duh. Sorry,” I laughed and Death did too.
I let Death borrow my ipod for a week. In the end, Death decided musicals weren’t really its thing, but thanked me for lending it.
Today though. Today was a bit different. We had been playing for awhile, and I was winning. It’s not like I never win, but usually it’s a major uphill battle for me. Today it seemed too easy.
“You doing ok?” I asked Death.
“Hm?” Death responded.
“Are you alright?” I asked again.
“Oh, yes. Apologies. I’m a bit distracted today,” the shadow across from me seemed to shake itself.
“Sorry. Anything you wanna talk about?” I offered.
“No. Not yet,” Death said as it began to move its bishop, then stopped. “Do you want to do something else today?”
This surprised me. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. Do you want to go see a movie? We could do anything I suppose.”
“What brought this on? You’re not saying this just because you’re losing are you?” I joked.
Death gave a half hearted chuckle, “No, it’s not that. Just something I’ve wanted to try for awhile. Now seems a good time.”
The shadow stood.
“Why not?” I asked, gathering my things. It wasn’t until we started walking out of the park together that I realized why.
“Today’s my day isn’t it?”
The shadow seemed to avoid my gaze, “…You never asked before,”
“It is though.”
Death nodded, “Yes.”
“Aneurysm. There was no way for you to know,” Death sighed, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said, “You don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to. I’ll be ok.”
“No. I want to. Besides,” the shadow looked down to the pavement, “It’s my last chance to see you as well.”
“What should we do then?” I asked
“Let’s start with a movie. After that we’ll see.”
And so we left the park.
I wasn’t angry.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to go than to have a friend right there with you at the very end.