Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood



Two years later

Easton is smart, because she lures me out with the promise of free boba. But she’s also dumb, because she doesn’t wait till I’m sipping my chocolate cream cheese foam bubble tea before saying, “I need a favor.”

“Nope.” I grin at her. Pluck two straws from the bin. Offer her one, which she ignores.

“Mal. You haven’t even heard what— ”


“It’s about chess.”

“Well, in that case . . .” I smile my thanks to the girl holding out my order. We went out twice, maybe three times last summer, and I have vague, pleasant memories of her. Raspberry ChapStick lips; Bon Iver purring in her Hyundai Elantra; a soft hand, cool under my tank top. Sadly, none of said memories include her name. But she wrote Melanie across my boba, so that’s okay.

We share a brief, secret smile, and I turn to Easton. “In that case, double no.”

“I’m short a player. For a team tournament.”

“I don’t play anymore.” I check my phone. It’s 12:09— twentyone more minutes before I need to be back at the garage. Bob, my boss, is not exactly a kind, forgiving human being. Sometimes I doubt he’s even human. “Let’s drink this outside, before I spend the afternoon under a Chevy Silverado.”

“Come on, Mal.” She glowers at me. “It’s chess. You still play.”

When my sister Darcy’s sixth- grade teacher announced that she was going to send the class guinea pig to a “farm upstate,” Darcy, unable to ascertain whether the farm really existed, decided to kidnap him. The piggie, not the teacher. I’ve been cohabitating with Goliath the Abducted for the past year— a year spent denying him scraps of our dinners ever since the vet we cannot afford begged us on his knees to put him on a diet. Unfortunately, Goliath has the uncanny ability to stare me into submission every single time.

Just like Easton does. Their expressions exude the same pure, unyielding stubbornness.

“Nuh-uh.” I suck on my tea. Divine. “I’ve forgotten the rules. What does the little horsie do, again?”

“Very funny.”

“No, really, which one is chess? The queen conquers Catan without passing Go— ”

“I’m not asking you to do what you used to do.”

“What did I use to do?”

“You know when you were thirteen and you’d beaten all the other kids at the Paterson Chess Club, then the teenagers, then the adults? And they brought in people from New York for you to humiliate? I don’t need that.”

I was actually twelve when that happened. I remember it well, because Dad stood next to me, hand warm on my bony shoulder, proclaiming proudly, I haven’t won a game against Mallory since she turned eleven a year ago. Extraordinary, isn’t she? But I don’t point it out, and instead plop down in a patch of grass, next to a flower bed full of zinnias barely hanging on to life. August in New Jersey is no one’s favorite place.

“Remember halfway through my exhibition matches? When I was about to pass out and you told everyone to step back— ”

“— and I handed you my juice.” She sits next to me. I glance at her perfect eyeliner wing, then at my oil- stained coveralls, and it’s nice, how some things never change. Perfectionist Easton Peña, always with a plan, and her messy sidekick Mallory Greenleaf. We’ve been in the same class since first grade but didn’t really interact until she joined the Paterson Chess Club at ten. She was, in a way, already fully formed. Already the amazing, stubborn person she is today.

You really enjoy playing this crap? she asked me when we got paired for a match.

You don’t? I asked back, appalled.

Of course not. I just need a wide range of extracurriculars. College scholarships don’t win themselves. I checkmated her in four and have adored her ever since.

Funny, that Easton never cared for chess like I did but stuck with it much longer. What an odd love triangle the three of us make.

“You owe me for the juice box, then— come to the tournament,” she orders. “I need a team of four. Everyone’s either on vacation or can’t tell the difference between chess and checkers. You don’t even have to win— and it’s for charity.”

“What charity?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course. Is it for a right- wing think tank? The next Woody Allen movie? A made-up disease, like hysteria or gluten sensitivity?”

“Gluten sensitivity is not made-up.”


“Yes. And the tournament is for— ” She taps furiously on her phone. “I can’t find it, but can we cut this short? We both know you’re going to say yes.”

I scowl. “We know no such thing.”

“Maybe you don’t.”

“I have a spine, Easton.”

“Sure.” She chews on her tapioca balls, aggressive, daring, suddenly more grizzly bear than guinea pig.

She remembers ninth grade, when she talked me into being her VP as she ran for class president. (We lost. Overwhelmingly.) And tenth grade, when Missy Collins was spreading gossip and she recruited me to hack her Twitter. Eleventh grade, too, when I starred as Mrs. Bennett in the Pride and Prejudice musical she wrote and directed— despite my better judgment and my half-an-octave vocal range. I probably would have agreed to something moronic during senior year, too, if things at home hadn’t been . . . well, from a financial standpoint, less than good. And I hadn’t spent every spare second working at the garage.