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When you wake up from a nightmare there is a brief moment of lingering fear. You open your eyes and look around your bedroom. Everything seems to be in the same place as it always was. The blankets, sheets, and pillows comforting you as the terrible memory of whatever monstrous thing you were dreaming about fades away until you may be only able to recall one or two key things about the dream. After all of that you get up and go about your day or try to fall back asleep and drift off into better places.
For me, this was not one of those times. A moment ago I was falling into an infinite void of utter nothingness, praying for an end to it. Hoping that at least death could free me from whatever I had stumbled into. Now, I am sitting in a stool in front of a blackjack table in a nearly empty casino. I say would say it was empty if it weren’t for me and woman standing at the opposite end. The woman wearing the high end black and gold dealers uniform and a smile that eerily resembled a vampire’s smile. When I first saw her smiling at me and thought of vampires crossed my mind I almost wanted to laugh at the thought she could be one. Right now however, I am not so sure I wasn’t too far off.
I slowly bring my hands up and place them on the edge of the table, griping the cushioning. They shook violently and I squeezed hard to try to get them under control. This sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and labored breathing told her I was afraid. That’s when I saw the fingers on my left hand were bleeding. I remembered scratching the floor trying to run away from her, it still hurt so I eased up my grasp on the table.
“I see I have your attention now. Mr. Reynolds, place your bet” She said softly, taking the black deck in hand. With a flawless grace the woman begins shuffling the cards, her movement captivating. Movements such as these would be practiced but it all just seemed to flow so naturally to her. Every card seemed to know where it was going as it slid alongside one another, barely making more than a whisper of a noise in the hall.
The black poker chips had been set out in front of me. I place my right hand over the stack and I felt a warm sensation emanating out of them. My hand shook less at the feeling. The warm traveled up my arm and washed over me. The sickly feeling I had numbed a bit.
“Wh-what is going on” I stammered.
She tilts her head to one side and gives me a curious look as if I had just asked something really obvious.
“We are playing blackjack. What does it look like? Didn’t I already explain that?”
I could only stare at her blankly. The memory of her other form was still very fresh in my mind. The vivid image of the teeth, claws, the graying skin, and those eyes faint and glowing deep in her skull was still fresh in my mind. She could kill me if she wanted to. What was she waiting for?
“Like I have already said, this will be a standard game of blackjack with a few rule modifications. You are not allowed to surrender a hand. As you have already seen, you can’t walk away from the table” She laughs as she finishes that sentence. “We play to ten hands or until you are out of chips and lastly, all you need to do is come out ahead at the end of those ten hands to win”
“What happens if I lose?”
She only sighed at the question and her smile fades. “Mr. Reynolds, you will find I don’t much in the way of patience”. Her skin began to grey again, her eyes slowly retreating into her skull. “I will make you a deal, for every hand you play I will answer one question if it makes you feel better.”
I might have thought about running again, but I didn’t know where I would go. For all I knew the entire building was floating in an endless space. The only option I had was to play. I picked up one of the black chips from the stack; it was heavy, far heavier than a simple chip should be. I set it down on the betting area indicated by the white circle in the table cloth. It plops down as I let it go, hitting the table with an ominous thud that echoes through the empty halls, the sound reverberating in my chest.
“Cut it” She says with a cold tone while offering me the freshly shuffled deck. I didn’t want to touch it for fear some other horrible thing would begin happening. The hesitation I felt was noticed.
“Do you really want to leave it to chance, or is this where you want to have some say in what happens to you?” It sounded like a challenge I was being issued. I outstretch my hand timidly taking the cards. The deck, like my chips, was smooth, but unlike the chips these cards irradiated a mixture of feelings. One moment I felt this sensation of comfort and I had a single hopeful thought I may get out of this place and see my apartment again. As soon as I place the other hand to cut the deck, the sinking despair I was feeling returned with a reinforced sensation. I quickly cut it close to the bottom and put it back on the table.
The woman’s smile returns to her face as her skin regained its color and the eyes protruded to their original place. Gracefully she deals the cards from the deck in regular blackjack fashion. Two cards were placed in front of me; face up, two cards she placed in front of herself, one face up and one face down. My cards I observed were a jack and a six. The cards were different than any deck I had seen or played with before. The symbols and numbers appeared to have a grainy texture to them, the colors vibrant. The six card had roman numerals in the corners instead of a regular six to represent the value. The jack was displayed on the card in a medieval art style. His facial expression was stoic, cold and disinterested with a hand on the hilt of a sheathed knife. The art style was an old one, but the cards appeared in excellent condition. The card in front of the woman revealed a three.
When I saw that the game we were playing with had only one deck I started to feel a bit better. It would be easy to keep track of which cards were being played. Like a distant memory, the things I learned about basic strategy and counting practice I had done came back from a far away place in my brain. It was in my favor to stand this hand and hope she would bust in hitting.
“Stand” I say.
She flips her down faced card to show a seven. She draws another card from the deck and reveals a five. I notice her look of drunken contentment returning to her face, the same look she had playing next to me when I first saw her. Drawing another card from the deck she calmly places it down to show another three. I had stood on a sixteen; her hand gave her an eighteen.
With that same look on her face, never missing a beat she easily picks up the black chip, held it between two of her fingers and I watched at it begin to vanish particle by particle into thin air until nothing was left of it. As I watched the chip dissolve, my eyes widened and started to water. This shooting pain coursed through my heart and I choked on something unseen. I coughed violently and came off of my stool, held up by my right hand clinging to the table and my left holding onto my chest. A few moments like this and the coughing fit dies down and I slowly rise to compose myself. One final cough expels a spurt of crimson onto the hand I had been dealt. I continue staring at the blood I stained the cards with as red seeped into them, and strangely vanished altogether, never tarnishing the card’s mint condition.
“What happens if you lose Mr. Reynolds?” She says whimsically. “You die”.
I look up at her to see her giggling at me, mocking me. I would have been angry at the mockery if I hadn’t been so terrified. My gaze turns to my remaining nine black chips. It became obvious to me that my life was now tied to those remaining chips. If I was ever going to get out of here, I was going to have to win. I looked back at my hand and what I saw made me take a step back. The picture of the jack had changed. Now the jack held the knife to his mouth, tongue licking a spot of red from the tip of the blade, his eyes closed.
“What are you?” I say, after trying to swallow the remaining blood traces in my mouth.
“One hand, one question Mr. Reynolds” She says sweetly while tapping the betting circle. “We have at least nine more hands to go.” She wipes the table of the cards previously played and collects them in a pile she places to her right.
I regain my breath and pick up another of my chips. It was a bit heavier this time than I remember, but only just. Were the chips actually gaining weight or had I gotten weaker after losing the first one? The woman sees me looking at the chip in my hand and she gives me this look like she seems to know what I was thinking.
“Thinking of changing the question you want to ask me?” She smiles again.
I don’t respond but only put the chip down in the betting ring in a defiant manner. The deep thud of it echoing once more through the building. She laughs at my facial expression. “Whatever helps you cope with this Mr. Reynolds” she giggles.
The cards get dealt again with that same graceful style and drunken expression on her face. I almost smiled myself as I saw that my cards this hand were a five and a six, the woman’s a seven. Not many ten cards or aces had been played yet so that told me I had a good chance of getting one.
“Double Down” I tell her as I move another chip to the betting pile. As I placed it down with another deep thud the muscles in my arm relaxed in relief. These chips were definitely getting heavier.
My decision seemed to excite her, she giggles at seeing the increased bet. At once she draws another card and places it next to the hand, showing another three. My heart skips a beat. She taps the table and says “Good luck”. It was either sympathy or mockery. I didn’t care anymore; I only wanted to see her cards. It was the only thing that mattered anymore.
Flipping the down card to be yet another three it made her total to be ten. Almost knowing what the total would be she draws another card, not missing a beat. The next card was a queen; the image displayed had the queen with her head on top of her interlocked hands, elbows on a surface. The queen’s facial expression, again apathetic as the jack was.
“Sorry darling” The woman coos, collecting the cards and adding them to the discard pile. Leaning down till her upper half is parallel to the table she blows gently from her lips to the chips on the betting ring. As the air billows over them they disintegrate just as the last one had. The black particles rise and rush past my face, I was in mid breath as the flowed over me. Some of it flew into my throat and again I choked.
I clenched my throat and tried to cough. I couldn’t get the air through my lungs to clear it. I could feel my face go red and I shut my eyes in pain as I felt a blood vessel pop. I slam down on the floor, dizzy and suddenly my throat clears. I gasp like the air itself was life. As soon as I feel decent enough I try standing. My legs nearly buckle again and give way as I scrape my head on the edge of the table. Something wafts downward as I pull my head back away from the table. It was a tuft of hair. My hair.
“What am I Mr. Reynolds?” She says flatly as I tilt my head up towards her. “I am not entirely sure of myself. I just exist; I have for quite some time. I have a job to perform in this universe, and that job is ensure the wheels of the machine you call life keep turning. I am the driving force behind what you could say is chance or luck.”
I gave her a weak puzzled look. There was no way to be sure I had just heard her correctly. “Are you telling me, you are god?”
She begins laughing hysterically at me. “Oh my no, I didn’t create anything. I don’t have a divine plan, I simply exist to move things around, keep things happening, moving forward. I don’t profess to really understand it myself. I am the money you find on the street, the medication that was labeled incorrectly because both bottles looked the same, the iceberg that sank the titanic, and I was the locked engine in your mother’s car the day she died.”
There was silence as she finished that sentence. I did not want to believe what I was hearing. I didn’t want to believe anything that was happening to me. “You killed her?” I finally said in a hushed, cracked voice.
“I did not exactly kill her. It is a more accurate thing to say that I facilitated her death. Chance, luck, fortune, these things come into play every day. It comes at everyone constantly, changing seemingly without whim. I am the harbinger of fortune. Your mother’s fortune just turned sour that day. I still remember the rush it gave me, the ecstasy of her life force ending, filling me up, your life forever changed by bad luck”
I could only stare at her, my mind a blank. I felt a slip of sanity at the thought this woman, this thing in front of me, was responsible for the shaping of all of history. Of my life.
“Jake” She finally says. “I don’t intend for anything to happen to anyone, I am simply compelled to be where I am at any given moment. I have an innate need to change the flow of occurrences one way or the other. There is no rhyme or reason to what it is I do. I simply must. Invoking chance fills me with a feeling greater than anything you could imagine. It is an eternal addiction I cannot switch off even if I wanted to. I do what I do simply because that is how things are for me. I do not have a choice”
When she says this I could almost swear I felt a note of sadness to it. Did she pity herself? It was a thought I couldn’t begin to understand. I am losing my mind, and my life bit by bit and she feels sorry for herself?
“Why Me? Why are you doing this to me?”
“I think I thoroughly answered your last question. Time to live up to your end of the bargain and play another hand” Her smile comes back.
“….No…” I say. It was the only thing I could think of. The one little bit of power I had over her. She needed me to make a call or she couldn’t deal. If I die here, I wanted to know why.
“Look at you, pretending to be brave” She giggles. “I know for a fact this is not the kind of man you are Mr. Reynolds. The Mr. Reynolds I know would rather let the world decide what to do with him, rather than take a stand.”
“You don’t know a damn thing about me.” I raised my voice. She was right though I wasn’t brave, but maybe I didn’t care anymore. After everything I had seen, the fall, that monstrous self of hers, feeling my own life slip away piece by piece as I lost hands in a fucking game of blackjack.
“You dropped out of school because it required more effort than you were willing to put forth. At your senior prom you didn’t show up because you couldn’t get a date. The reason you were dateless was that you didn’t want to risk rejection in asking a girl out, none of them asked you out. In elementary school you always got pushed to the back of the lunch line by a bully. You thought risking getting the smaller piece of dessert cake was worth not pushing back or getting a teacher. I know exactly who you are.” Her voice became booming and terrible as she talked, I even heard the building’s support beams move and crack as the lighting dimmed.
Then I saw something as I hurriedly looked around the hall. A black spot at the very top of the white marble colored ceiling. Bits of the surrounding structure flying upward through the hole, little by little the spot grew bigger. The woman saw me staring at the unnerving sight. Only her laughter broke my gaze.
“I can’t make you finish what we have started, but I can give you incentive” She smiles almost politely.
I quickly pick up another chip; I almost need both hands this time to move it. The blood is pounding in my ears so hard I don’t hear the thud this time. The cards go out once more. I see I have been given a three and a five. The woman’s down faced card was an eight. I stare at the three hard. I may not have been in the best state of mind but I could swear I had already seen four threes played. I look up at the woman and she only nods at me, confirming what I was thinking. By now I shouldn’t have expected anything, for all I knew this deck changed at a moment’s notice every hand we played. It meant most of my strategy was meaningless. Hell, the game could have been rigged for all I knew. Maybe, just maybe, it all came down to luck.
If that was how we were playing than I did not see how anything I did really mattered. I felt dead already. To this day I couldn’t tell you what possessed me to do this, but I lifted another chip over to the betting area, not caring about how heavy it was to move.
“Double Down” I shout.
“Now we are really playing” She says excitedly. She swiftly deals me a card. I take in a breath I didn’t even know I stopped breathing as I see the ace displayed on the card. The woman looks at it too. I can’t be sure but there was the smallest moment of pause from her. Then still smiling, still with that expression of intoxication, she flips her down faced card to reveal a king.
“You finally won a hand” She says as she gives me a soft golf styled clap of her hands.
I hear a click as my pile of chips move a little. Two more black chips have appeared on my pile. This warm sensation washes over me, diluting the pain and weakness only a moment ago I had been suffering. I still did not feel quite right, but then again I was still down by one chip.
The thought this game was stacked against me, that I was doomed from the beginning may not be true. The woman tilts her head to the side as she taps the table, clearing her throat.
“Excuse me Mr. Reynolds, but we have seven more hands to be played. Also, you are on a deadline” She points upward. I look back up at the ceiling to see much of it had faded away into the blackness that was slowly replacing it. The void had almost reached the walls of the second tier in the grand hall.
“This game is far from over” She says softly.
Whatever small hope I felt from winning the last hand now escaped me. I place my right hand over my remaining chips. Their warmness licks my flesh like a candle flame. My only light in an unending nightmare.
Credit To – Author Mike Gilbert. Special Thanks to Bob Vetter and Eric Garcia for their input.
**This is the second entry in the Miss Fortune Series, which will be published one entry per day from Nov 14-16.