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Have you ever wondered what you would do if you had the luxury of knowing when you were going to die. Some people say they would not want to know the time of their own death. The idea behind that is these people could continue on in blissful ignorance and live without a looming fear over them that a clock is ever ticking onward. The problem with this is not knowing when you die does nothing to prevent the actual event. Some people would say that they would like to know when they are going to die, because it, in a way, frees them. It allows them to live without fear of their own demise, until that one fateful day of course.
At this moment, I have neither of those luxuries. With every flip of every card, every bet I placed in this horrid game, I held my life in my hands, and I could feel it slipping further and further away from me. By now I had played seven hands of blackjack, using chips seemingly tied to my very life’s essence. The woman taking the role of the dealer, the thing to put it more appropriately, seemed happy as could be, lost in an inebriated euphoria. Myself, I was down to five remaining chips, half of what I started with. There was a rattle to my breath; my clothes were covered in hair that had withered from my scalp. I was having trouble keeping myself upright in the stool I sat in. At least one of my hands had to stay on the table at all times to help with the balance. I had by now quit trying to wipe away the dark crimson that dripped from my mouth and nostrils.
A couple hands ago, the woman began to dissolve the very casino hall around us in order to force me to keep playing. What started as a pinprick in the very center of the high ceiling had eaten its way through the second floor and had started its approach on the walls of the ground floor we were on. The blackness crept onward slowly making its way to us. As the walls came down, the endless nothing on the other side became more and more apparent. Before the cards went out I fell into that void trying to escape the woman, in all her monstrous horror. She had a habit of turning into her other form when I tried resisting anything she set in motion.
She stares at me, drunk and hungrily, as I push two more chips to the betting area one at a time. There was no way by now I could pick up the chips. They had become too heavy with the weight of my life, and I too weak to adequately hold them. Again, with a dancer’s grace the cards are dealt once more.
“Mr. Reynolds, you seem to have gone quite. Feeling down?” She giggles
I give her whatever defiant look I could muster. “Play…the…damn…game” I wheeze in a hushed voice.
“I only say this because you stopped asking me questions. Remember the little arrangement we had?”
Truth be told I still wanted to know why this was happening to me. As she dealt cards I saw for this hand I was looking at a soft eighteen with an ace and a seven, the woman showed a nine.
“You want to know why all of this is happening to you. It must feel like you are the unluckiest person on earth. You could also look at it the other way, if you win that is. I promised you a second chance to make your life better, the means to go back to school.”
“Hit” I tell her. Without missing a beat she gives me another card, a king. “Stand”
She flips her own card to show an eight, making her total a seventeen. My balance returned somewhat as the blood flow stopped from my nose. I heard a clack as two chips returned to my pile. I pulled one of two in front of me back to the pile with a refreshed strength.
“Seems you have gotten the hang of this rather quickly, good for you Mr. Reynolds.” She smiles at me. “It is not surprising though. You have been doing this your whole life.”
“What do you mean?” I say, finding it a bit easier to speak.
“You have spent the majority of your short time on this mud ball of a planet allowing your life to be lived for you. Every time you gave up your right to control an aspect of your life, be it school, standing up for yourself, or making your own decisions about what you want to do with your life, you gave control to chance. You gave your life to me.”
“I never wanted any of that” I yell. I see the walls have now been eaten away completely by the encroaching dark. “Deal the hand”.
“My, aren’t we touchy now. You may not have wanted things to turn out like they are Mr. Reynolds, but they did.” She dispenses cards as if they floated on some unfelt breeze. A six and a seven land in front of me. Her face up card was a ten. “I know why you choose to give up the direction of your life to fortune, it was easier Mr. Reynolds, and you were so afraid. I do not understand fear Mr. Reynolds as it is something I cannot feel. A few moments ago you were squirming like a worm under the hot sun. Even as you are behind in this game now you seem more focused. Is it because you have accepted what has become of you, or do you finally understand the importance of choosing to actually be involved in your own life?”
“Play the hand and I will answer your question. Hit me.” I tell her. I almost smile at her, but there was too much at stake for me to feel that bold. She throws me a card, quickly and flatly, absent of her graceful motion I had become accustom to. It was a jack, I had busted. The chip dissolves as my head begins to pound and the red leak in my nose begins again. I had gotten too used to this by now to let it slow me down.
“I am still afraid, I don’t want to die. There isn’t really a choice here for me any more. I either die or I go on now. It’s more of an acceptance.”
“It is the same acceptance you have had since your mother died. That your life can be over in an instant. That was the day you lost the motivation to decide for yourself what to do with the time given to you.” She then turned that familiar shade of grey as her voice came at me from all sides, as if the void itself was howling in my ears. In her sunken green eyes I saw a loathing older than anything I have known or will ever know. “I am eternal, I will never die and yet the most important power in existence was given to such a pathetic creature as you and denied to me. The power to decide where to take your life. You threw that away as if were meaningless. That, Mr. Reynolds is why I am here. I offered you the choice to throw your life at chance again or walk away and make something of yourself, on your own. You let me in, that is what your acceptance has given you.”
Only a small platform of the once large hall remained. It continued slowly fading away as I stared at the pile of chips that remained. In order to win I needed to come out ahead with at least eleven chips.
“All in.” I say, and at once the pile moves itself to the betting circle for one last time. It seemed as though time were slowing down to a crawl. I felt every pounding heartbeat and the very blood flow through my veins like tiny rivers, laced with what adrenaline I had left. I could hear the micro fractures of the remaining floor beneath me cracked and fall into the abyss around me.
The woman mouths something to me that I don’t pay attention to, couldn’t even hear over the pumping blood flow from my ears. There was a strange vibration coming from the table that was in synchronization with my own heartbeat. Before the cards came out I had a thought that it may have been the chips themselves, a reflection of my own life.
Cards flow to the table once more. My first card is sent out to me, a queen. Her facedown card is placed on the table. Suddenly I feel myself begin to fall and I cling to the table. The floor around my stool had given away and the void lays waiting beneath me, silent and patient. I think I scream as I just try to hang on, already weak from losing too many hands before. I don’t even hear myself shout, the pounding is too loud. A third card is played. An Ace. For one moment I forget about the strain of keeping myself clung to a table that may only have moments itself before it too falls away. I stare at the Ace as if it was the most beautiful thing in world, and at that moment it was.
I look up at the woman, wanting to smile. The only thing that greeted me was her own smile, slightly sinister. She was pointing down at her own cards. I look over to see she had just placed her own face up card, an Ace of her own. Even if I could hear her I wouldn’t need to be told what would happen if her down card was a ten.
I close my eyes in disbelief. I am pulled away from the table, my legs no longer having anything to kick and scrape against to stay up. When my eyes open I find myself being held, hovering about the table. An elongated claw-like arm holds my midsection as another snakes its way back and forth across my neck, leaving small scratches even though very tip of the point was lightly grazing my skin. Something wet caresses my left ear and I out of the corner of my vision I see the monstrous grey face of the woman, mouth wide open.
“Turn it over” She whispers. I outstretch my right arm. Every muscle fiber is already like taught piano wire, it creaks with every inch I push it forward. As my own hand closed in on the down faced card, her claw took up position beneath my right ear. My fingertips touched the card, her own pressed in painfully to my skin, waiting for the call to tear my throat apart.
I shut my eyes hard and cry out as the card is over turned.
“Sir?” I hear a woman’s voice call out to me and I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?” My eyes open to see a waitress standing over me with a concerned look on her face. “Why did you start screaming?”.
My head turns to my front. I was back in the diner, the walls were intact, and there were people around again. In fact, they were even staring at me like I was a mad man. I still felt something in my hand, a playing card. A seven card, with a black back to it feeling grainy in my hand with roman numerals on the front to signify the value was in my hand. A breath forces its way through my throat and makes a sound similar to a cough. An ocean of relief welled up inside my core and as it made its way to my head the coughing noise increased with frequency and my eyes watered. It was like the memory of how to laugh had faded away, and was slowly returning.
The waitress took a couple steps back and began talking quietly to another server. I didn’t care how I must have seemed to those other people. I lost myself in my tears as the coughing reformed itself into more recognizable laughter one breath at a time. When I got myself under control again and wiped the hot tears from my face I found the card in my hand was gone.
I stumbled to my feet and sped my way to the restroom. In the bathroom mirror I saw that my hair had returned, my face unbloodied. There was a floating feeling in me, like anything that had ever troubled me I was now far away from. That feeling continued to stay with me as I left the casino, past the bouncers that were made aware of the scene I made at the diner. I laughed as they looked at me like they were two seconds away from getting a hold of me, but I just strolled past them towards the door.
The night air was cool with a mild breeze. The stars above me were brilliant and wonderful to me, everything was, even the trash in the gutter of the parking lot. My free feeling dropped a bit when I got to my car to realize I did not have my keys. The vivid image of watching them tumble into the unknown returned to my mind. Things like losing my keys used to upset me as it would anyone, it didn’t seem all that important to me anymore. I took out my cellphone and called my roommate to bring me a spare set I kept at our apartment. He seemed pissed at me when he showed up, but puzzled at how I was just sitting by my car, staring up at the night sky, still enjoying the air.
I decided to surprise my father with a visit early the next morning. To tell him how sorry I was, and that I planned to try to put myself through college, to get it right this time. It was his day off so I knew he would be at his house. I pulled in to see his truck parked in the driveway. That floating feeling, that renewed sense of my own life stayed with me even as I slept the night before and woke this morning. It stayed with me as I rang the doorbell and waited to see my dad. I even didn’t care he wasn’t coming to the door soon enough. I tried calling his phone, no answer. I go inside anyway.
“Dad, are you on the toilet or something?” I call out. No answer. The cloud nine feeling began to ebb away. I looked around the living room, nothing. Something does catch my eye though, a familiar object on the key ring holder nailed to the wall by the door. It was my car keys. The same ones I lost in that nightmarish place that only last night I somehow escaped from.
“Dad!” I began screaming and rushing through the house. Nobody was in the bedroom, or the bathroom. As I entered the dining room I saw my father with his back to me, sitting in a chair looking like he was about to eat something. “Dad!” I call out again. He doesn’t even move let alone answer me.
I move closer and shake him. His body was cold and the normal softness of another being was absent. That’s when I saw it, the lifeless look in his eyes. I kept shaking him, not knowing anything else to do, and screaming as I continue on. His body falls out of the chair but maintains its position. I remember something I heard about rigor mortis once. He had been dead since last night.
A giggling noise comes from behind me. I spin around sharply to see the woman standing not five feet from me. “Hello Mr. Reynolds” She smiles. I scream once more as I back away. I didn’t realize how quickly I had moved till I was surprised by the feeling of the wall slamming against me.
“Is that any way to greet a friend?” She says whimsically, still with that drunken smile.
“Why! Why did you fucking do this?”
“Me? I did not kill him. Your father had a heart attack last night. You see, as it turns out, your father’s doctor failed to diagnose a genetic heart condition your father had. He went on unmedicated for some time. His death was just very unfortunate” She laughs madly.
No more words were coming to my mouth. I just sat and cried, helpless. I was supposed to have a second chance, to make things right not only with me, but with me and him. I had beat her at her game but she couldn’t let me win it seemed.
“I won; you said you would give me a second chance”
“You did, and I have. As luck would have it, you are the sole benefactor on your fathers will. He was a high end attorney wasn’t he? Lots of money there, things to sell off or keep for yourself to help you do as you please. You could go back to school with it if you wished. It does not matter to me; our business for now is done.”
I never wanted it to turn out like this. My dad didn’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve his money. I couldn’t move. I started to wish she had just killed me. The only thing that snapped me back into the moment was the woman, her form changing once more.
“Jake, get up. Call the police, take the money and move on with your life. You have your second chance to come back from all of this. Not many are so lucky to get that choice.” She smiles a wide toothy smile “Or don’t, it would be fun to play with you again. I will be watching.” Just like that she was gone, vanishing before my eyes.
An hour had past as I sat there on the hardwood floor of the dining room, gazing at my father’s corpse. I spent that hour mulling it over in my head. In the end I came to the conclusion that my father would want me to keep going on, to follow through with the new goals I had set for myself. I did call the police, I did take the money. I went back to school, but this time to be an EMT. The job felt right for me somehow. Helping people just felt like something I needed to do, giving a second chance where I could.
It was hard going sometimes, but it no longer bothered me. The memories stayed with me. The vision of my dead father, the memories of my mother, and the card game that changed my life forever kept me going through the hard parts. I got a job with the local fire department, even got married and had a kid. My little girl is five years old now. I love hearing her voice greet me when I get home.
Life isn’t all good though, I don’t think it ever is completely for anyone. I still feel the woman sometimes watching me. I hear her laughter as odd occurrences happen around me every so often. Like my car wreck a few weeks back, I heard her voice over my radio. Every time I meet somebody with green eyes I can feel the back of my hair being gently brushed, she’s never there when I turn around.
I can keep going on with my life and say it’s a good one though, because I finally have a hold over it. I can roll with whatever fate and fortune want to throw at me. Never again will I give up my power to decide what I do with myself.
A smile of my very own comes to my face as I turn the doorknob of my house after a day at work. I stop at the doorway and start taking off my boots, expecting the sound of my daughter happily calling to me as I walk in. The first noise I do hear is a scattered rolling clacking coming from my dining room.
“Sweetie, I’m home” I call out.
“Hi daddy! Come and meet my new friend, we are playing a game. Say hi to my daddy.” I hear my daughter say.
“Hello Mr. Reynolds”
I freeze, not even finishing taking my second boot off. My ability to think goes out the window as I rush to the dining room. There she was, the woman in the expensive black dealer uniform. She was sitting at the table across from my daughter, smiling up at me like an old friend.
“Daddy, say hi to Miss Fortune.” My daughter says as she takes a handful dice on the table and rolls them. The clacking sound of the dice echoes through the still room.
Credit To – Author Mike Gilbert. Special Thanks to Bob Vetter and Eric Garcia for their input.
**This is the third and final entry in the Miss Fortune Series.