One-shot. Future-fic, and yes, I also hope this doesn't happen.
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away...
Hughes Mearns , "Antigonish"
The boy loves going to the park, but he especially loves this park. Every time they come to this part of the city, he begs his mom and dad to let him come to this park, just for a little bit, please? They always say yes, eager to encourage any sort of outdoor activity in their little bookworm of a son. Once they get there, park the vehicle, unload the stroller for his baby sister from the trunk, and finally start moving towards the park, it is all he can do to contain his excitement. He always goes to play on the slides and the merry-go-round and gives his other sister a couple of pushes on the swing first, but once his family members are settled in to their routin, he sneaks off to the side of the playground equipment and takes his usual seat at the chess tables.
Today is no different, and he is delighted to see that his usual opponent is already seated at the tables, waiting for him. He smiles as he approaches, sliding into his seat and making himself comfortable.
"We have lots of time today!" he says brightly, addressing the man opposite him. "My parents' friends from work came today too, with their families, and there are lots of little babies in group they'll be busy with so they won't even notice I'm here!"
The man before him, half-hidden behind sunglasses, ponders this a moment. "You never tell them you come over to the tables?" he says, a note of concern creeping into his voice. "You should always tell your parents where you are; even parks can be dangerous places."
The boy rolls his eyes. "You sound like my mom," he says. "Now c'mon, I want to play! I've been practicing on my dad's computer, and I've been getting a little bit better."
The boy has been learning to play chess from the man for a long time now, almost a year. One day he'd wandered up to the chess tables, bored already by the games of the other children, and he'd noticed the man sitting alone, sunglasses perched upon his nose, playing a game of chess by himself at lightning speed. He'd stayed to watch, mesmerized by the speed of his moves, the confidence in his attacks, and the way that he seemingly played the game as two entirely different opponents, as if there really were two people seated at the board.
"Would you like to come and sit down?"
The boy had been surprised to find the man addressing him, not even looking away from the board, continuing to play. He studied the man with a keener eye now, using the skills he'd picked up from his unsuspecting mother, analysing everything – the worn out shoes on his feet, the stain near the left knee of his faded corduroy pants, the tear in the sleeve of his button-down shirt. He wasn't quite unkempt, more absent-minded if anything, it seemed, but the boy still stayed back.
"I'll just watch for now," the boy had answered, keeping his distance.
It took another three encounters before the boy would even come close, and yet another four before he eventually sat down. But once he sat down, he knew he'd found what he'd been searching for, what he'd been missing on the playground. He'd overheard his parents talking about alienation, about the lack of contact between their son (him) and his classmates, his neighbours, his friends. To be quite honest, the boy thought that they were all perfectly nice young human beings, but they were just so terribly boring. So when he'd sat down and found someone else who thought and reasoned like himself, he knew he'd just found the best place in the world.
He's waiting now, waiting for the man to finish the game he'd been involved in as he walked up. He loves to watch the moves across the board, he loves seeing the strategy behind every move. He can see the patterns in his own head, mapping out the past moves and projecting the next ones into the future.
When the game finishes, the man looks up from the board to see a look of consternation on the face of his young companion. "What is it?" he asks, cocking his head to the side, intrigued.
The boy scrunches up his face, as if thinking something through. "You think one day soon we can play a real game? One where you don't coach me or let me win, one where we are real opponents?"
The man smiles. "I think we can manage that."
The boy opens his mouth to ask another question, gesturing to the board in preparation to quiz the man on the intricacies of chess strategy, but he is interrupted by a distant cry from a familiar vocal source.
"Henry!" the voice rings out through the park, from the other side of the playground equipment.
He groans. "It's my mom."
He is surprised to see the man react to this so quickly, standing up and grabbing his messenger bag off of the ground. "I'm sorry, Henry," he is saying, as he picks up his pawns and his bishops, pushing them haphazardly into his bag. "I've got to go."
Henry looks over at him quizzically. "It's just my mom, she won't mind, she's just probably upset that I didn't tell her I was over here and that I'm not playing with the other kids. Uncle Derek always tells me that I should be careful and to mind strangers, but I mean I didn't go very far and-"
A hand is clamped down onto his shoulder, stunning him into silence. He looks up to see the angry face of his mother staring down at him, eyes ablaze and blonde hair now askew from her sprint across the playground over to her son. "Henry, what have I told you about wandering off, you've got to stay in the par-"
"But I was just playing chess!" he interrupts her, gesturing to the man across from him, who has now for some odd reason stopped his frenzied departure and is standing, quite frozen, at the side of the table.
"I don't care what you were doing, you shou-" she continues, before stopping abruptly, mid-sentence.
And then everything goes weird.
Henry observes the next quick moments almost in a removed state, as if he was suddenly placed into a movie theatre and this was the show. His mother reaches out to the man, mouthing a name (Spencer, perhaps?), and the man flinches, pulling back from her touch and drawing his bag upwards defensively to cover his chest. Suddenly, his mother is crying, calling out that name louder now, and by this point the man is backing away, and yet Uncle Derek is running up from the other side, and his mom is begging the man (Spencer?) to stay, to talk to them, to just please stay a while, but the man just pulls his bag closer, whispers an apology, and quickly walks away. Henry looks up and sees that not only is his mother crying, but so is Uncle Derek, and now his Uncle is holding his mother close, telling her that there's nothing they can do, that they have to let him go.
That's when his father runs up, takes one look at his mother's distress, grabs Henry gently by the hand, and leads him away, leaving his mom and Uncle Derek crying by the chess tables alone.
That night, as JJ tucks her oldest child into bed, she decides to tell him about his godfather, a brilliant man who became very sick when he was still very young.
"How sick?" Henry asks, still confused.
"He sees men that aren't there," she answers simply.
"Oh," says Henry, not quite understanding.
A long moment passes. "Can we go back to the park tomorrow, Mom?" Henry asks.
"I don't think so," she whispers, knowing that Spencer won't be there again.
Something brushes against her hand, and she looks down to see her son's small hand pressing a black figurine into her hand. "Can you keep this for me then, Mom? The man left it there. I think he left it for you."
JJ chokes back a sob (no more crying in front of her son) as she takes the black knight from her son's outstretched hand. That night, as she falls closer and closer to the edge of sleep in her own bed, she clutches the knight against her heart and wishes with all her might that she could just see her friend once more.