I kid you not. Arvid Bergfalk had asked Mac to let him challenge me, Xifeng Jin the Chess Goddess, to a game of chess.
“If she wins,” Arvid pointed a thumb toward me, “then she and her little human boyfriend get to go free. But if I win,” he paused, rubbing his fingers together with a greedy expression, “then I get to torture them both. Slowly.”
Mac’s face stretched into an eerie smile. “Bring us a chess set!” he demanded to Lennie the mullet-boy, who appeared minutes later with a chess set.
I sat down, glaring at Arvid. He knew that he had never once beaten me in a chess match. Now he was going to just let me win, then let Aksel and me go free? It seemed too easy.
Arvid narrowed his bug-like eyes and gestured toward the board. “Ladies first,” he said. I snorted, then reached across to pick up a pawn. This was going to be a piece of cake.
Next thing I knew, I was staring at the chess board, mouth hanging open. “Checkmate?” I said in horror. “How on Earth?”
“Well you see,” said Arvid, “we’re not on Earth.”
I’m not sure what was worse – losing a chess match to Arvid Bergfalk, or getting tied up and tormented by him a few minutes later.
“Please just let us go,” I begged as he held the sharp tip of a sword to my chin. “Please, Arvid. Our girls need us.”
Arvid’s voice was quiet. “Our girls? There is another?” He backed away from me. “Where are they?” He stepped behind Aksel and raised the sword to his neck. “Tell me now!”
“No!” My voice quaked. “They’re in hiding! We found a spaceship. They – we were going to go back to Earth.”
“You found my ship?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, feeling sick. Now he knew. Even if by some miracle we got out of this alive, he would hide the ship again, and we would never get home.
“Good,” he said, his voice even quieter. Good? I blinked. “The ship has just enough fuel to get back to earth. It will guide you there. I’ve used my sword to cut through your ties. When I turn my back, just pull, and they should break free.”
“What’s the catch?” Aksel’s voice hung with suspicion.
“Take care of my little girl,” said Arvid. “Raise her well. Raise her to be strong, like you, Phoenix.”
“I will,” I said.
Arvid turned toward the crowd of Bixsians, who were too busy laughing and dancing to notice Aksel and me as we broke free from our restraints and escaped into the night.
We didn’t stop running until we were halfway up the mountainside. By the time we reached the Place of the Sun and the Moon, where the spacecraft was hidden, I had a stitch in my side, and my coal-burned feet were screaming in agony.
“Mom!” Meiying called out. Then both girls came running toward us, flinging themselves into our arms. Our little family was together again, safe and sound.
But our joy didn’t last long.
Aksel inspected the spaceship then returned to me, his face etched with worry. “It’s not going to work,” he said. “There’s not enough room for all four of us in the ship.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. “There has to be a way! We can squeeze in tight.”
He shook his head. “It will be a tight squeeze for three people. But look.” He placed a hand on my arm. “You take the girls and go back to Earth—”
“No!” I shook my head furiously. “No, I can’t—”
“I will stay behind.”
“Aksel, no!” I couldn’t breathe. My eyes spilled over with tears. “Don’t ask me to leave you.”
“It’s the only way to keep our family safe. And besides—” Aksel stroked my cheek with the tips of his finger. “You’ll come back for me some day. I know you will.”
“Of course I will.”
And so, I did the impossible. I embraced the love of my life until he gently pushed me away. Then I climbed into the tiny spaceship with our daughters, strapped us all in, and powered it up. I took one last, long look at Aksel, who lifted his hand in farewell. Though he couldn’t hear me, I gave him my best Terminator impression, “Ah’ll be bahck.” Then we took to the skies.
Okay, I won’t bore you with the details of the trip back to Earth, which was kind of long and involved a lot of gross freeze-dried food packs and games like, “I’m going to the moon, and I’m bringing carrots, bananas, and apples.” Which is harder than it sounds, because my daughters had never seen a banana.
But anyway, we made it home. No, not to Finland. We went home to China, where my now-much-older parents and grandparents welcomed us with open arms and even a few tears. And that’s saying a lot, because Chinese families aren’t into displaying that much emotion.
“What is wrong with this one’s ears?” asked Nai Nai, frowning at Jia.
“Nothing.” I tucked Jia’s otherworldly ears under her hat, thankful that something in the earth’s atmosphere had caused her green skin to fade to the same soft peach color as her sister’s. “Lots of people in Finland have pointy ears.”
And so, the Jinn-Arild-Bergfalk family became Chinese. The girls began attending a Chinese school and learning the Chinese way of life. They quickly became fluent in Chinese, though they often interchanged it with Finnish.
And me? Well, as soon as I could figure out a fuel that would power the little spacecraft, I was planning to make a beeline straight toward the planet of Bixsi to rescue Aksel and bring him home. Even if that meant bringing along a stack of Run DMC and LL Cool J albums to barter with Mac. It was a crazy plan, I knew. But I was being very smart about it. I had even gone back to school to pursue my old dream of becoming a real, bona fide astronaut. Yeah, I know. Kind of late in life. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is this: it is never too late to begin again.
(Coming soon — The Phoenix Music Video!!)