Estimated reading time — 38 minutes
At some point, everyone asks themselves how different their life would be if they had been given a second chance. It could come in any form you like. You could have been one number off of winning the lottery. Maybe you’re one of those people who wondered what would have happened if that ex of yours had taken you back. Whatever it is, at some point you think about those things and you notice people who were given those opportunities and it seemed to work out all right for them, on the outside anyway.
Take it from me; I used to be like that. I used to kick myself all the time for letting myself miss out on some opportunities I was too dumb at the time to follow through with. Then I started loathing the people I saw who were better off than me, and sometimes I would curse at god for picking them over me. I know better now. I don’t think God has much to do with how things like that get chosen. I think now that things all really come down to luck, and our choice as to what to do about it. At least I hope we have a choice when it comes to our own lives, that luck doesn’t rule that too. What I more importantly learned is that sometimes you are better off doing the best with the cards you get dealt, and not trying to change your hand.
The day that I learned this left me looking over my shoulder ever since. Sometimes at night, I can catch a glimpse of a faint glow of green eyes watching me. They are never there when I turn around. Whenever I find money on the street, or lose a sock laundry I can feel those eyes staring at me. I was in a car wreck a week ago, a cat ran out in front of me and I swerved to avoid it, hitting the road barrier. As I got out I could swear this chilling giggling came over the radio. The sound was all too familiar to me now. I know it is waiting for me. It’s waiting for one more shot at me, toying with me as time passes. It toys with you too. With everyone.
It all started for me one night at a local casino…
What was that count again? I thought to myself as I stared down at the table. Was it up two or was it three? I doubled down on the last hand and I was so thrilled to win it I didn’t see the last two cards the guy to the left of me was dealt. The dealer is showing a three so my best bet was to play it safe with my twelve and stand. The old dealer makes a hand gesture on the table and flatly tells me good luck before he moves on to the guy to my left. I only recently learned to count cards, but I had never actually done it at a casino before. It’s easy to do at home on your coffee table quietly saying the numbers out loud, but when you are actually there if you are too obvious about what you are doing it’s an express lane ticket to meeting the pavement outside.
I’m here again tonight. The last time I came in I won some decent money. Not really enough money to do anything meaningful with, but enough to make me want to come back. This time I came prepared with the counting system I learned watching YouTube videos and gleaning what I could from various internet sites. This system is supposed to improve my odds at winning in the long run, but I guess that’s why they call them odds and not surety.
For a moment I look up and stare at the other gamblers on the floor. There are some people around the roulette table, the usual old women parked at their nickel and penny slots, and the other blackjack players. I look in the direction of the high roller area and see men and women in suits and nice dresses throwing money around like it was a game of monopoly. This resentment builds up in my gut so I look away. I was really just pissed at myself.
There was a time when I could have been like that. If I hadn’t dropped out of law school the previous year I could have stuck it out. I could have done something meaningful. I guess I still can, I’m still fairly young. The issue with that was I kept a dead-end job at the moment. My father used to help me out financially while I was in school. He was a high-end divorce lawyer for people unlucky enough to fall in love with the wrong person. Needless to say he did very well. We had a huge fight when I told him I dropped out of school. My mother had died in a car accident when I was thirteen so I didn’t have her to run to. He said I gave up too easily. I won’t admit it to him, but I know he was right.
I guess I don’t really hate those rich people over in the high roller corner of the room. I’m just angry that I couldn’t cut it to make it like they did. I hate myself for giving up, and blowing what I had away. I saw gambling as an easy fix for how I felt, and maybe, just maybe I could eventually get good enough to turn it around just enough to go back to school and try again.
I glance back at the cards to my left slightly and change the count accordingly. Statistically, at this point, the dealer should bust. The old man throws the other player a card and then goes back to his own hand. He flips over his down card to show a seven. There is a voice in my head somewhere that goes “Are you kidding me?” He hits and gets a queen of spades.
“Twenty, sorry about that, son,” the old dealer says in that flat rehearsed voice.
“It’s alright, not like I was about to break even or anything” I try to be cool about it.
“Tough break” goes the voice in my head.
“Tough break” I hear somebody say behind me. Almost in unison with the thought I had. I turn my head to the side as this small sinking feeling hit my lungs. It was the kind of jarring feeling you get at weird coincidences like that. To my right was a blonde woman who looked to be in her early thirty’s wearing a dark expensive looking dealer’s uniform. A moment ago the seat on my right side was empty. She was looking at me with these green eyes. It was a strange look she was giving me, almost like she was noticing something nobody else could see. Sometimes you hear people use the term piercing gaze, that didn’t even begin to describe the vibe I was getting from her. Then she smiles at me, slowly, revealing every white tooth at her own pace. The lips hover over her canines slightly and for a moment I almost expected to see a pair of vampire fangs.
“I’m not that pretty” She laughs slightly. I turn my head slightly back to the table. I must have looked stupid staring back at her like that. Normally I would have blushed staring at a woman like that but for some reason I wasn’t getting the blood to my face fast enough. Instead there was this drained feeling.
“Sorry, didn’t see you sit down was all” I tried to brush it off.
“I forgive you….for now…” Out of the corner of my eye I see her smile that vampire’s smile again.
The dealer interrupts her and asks how many chips she is going to buy. She tells him five dollars’ worth.
“Ma’am, it is a five dollar table but are you sure you don’t want any more?”
“Five dollars will be just fine”
The cards get dealt again and see I have a fifteen total for this hand. I realize I had completely forgotten the running count I was keeping. The moment that thought crosses my mind the woman turns her head towards me and says “It all comes down to luck anyway” in a quiet voice. I’m not sure anyone else at the table heard that.
I might have thought she was with the casino, catching card counters, but she was playing like all the other people here. Still she had my attention as we played. I have never said this about anyone else I have ever met but she was eerily fascinating to watch. She was pretty of course, but not the kind of pretty you would see on television or in a fashion magazine, more real to life features, she wasn’t thin (not by today’s standards anyway), but I would not call her fat either. She wasn’t tanned at all but not really pale either. What drew my attention the most was how she played.
It was like watching a child playing a game of go fish. She was just kind of doing things, hitting, standing, doubling down, not really looking like she was considering anything. I would have thought she was just another dumb blonde girl except she was winning…every hand. At first I just blew it off as dumb luck, then after about five hands I started getting angry. I was playing to basic strategy, modifying my bets and my play as I thought the count was going, and I was slowly losing. In contrast I had woman sitting next to me seemingly without a care in the world never losing her smile, making ridiculous plays and having them pay off.
By the tenth hand I was just awestruck. This woman had a hard nineteen for a hand and she picks up her chips and places them by her bet and says “Double down”. The dealer was staring at her incredulously, as was I, and asked her if she was sure. She only giggled at him and nodded her head. She had this look on her face almost made me want to swear she was drunk, but she didn’t have a drink, didn’t even smell of booze. The dealer sighed a bit as he took the next card out of the shoe and placed it next to her hand. There was only one card that would help her, and there it was, a two. The guy to my left roars with disbelief and the dealer laughs. I just keep staring, not even caring about my losing streak. She didn’t seem surprised, or happy, just this look of drunken contentment. Calmly she picks up a five chip and pushes the rest to the table and stands up. The dealer asks her what she doing with her chips and the only thing she says is “Easy come, easy go”.
She turns over to me and says “Hungry? I was just about to go over to the diner if you are interested.”
I was dumbstruck at the sudden offer. The only thing I managed to say was “Sure”. I didn’t even really think about it. As I was cashing out what little I had left I had a short conversation with myself. Maybe she was an elite player who got kicks out of impressing new players; she did catch me counting cards…didn’t she? Maybe she worked for the casino, her outfit does resemble a uniform, but I had never seen any like it before, black with golden trim and silver buttons.
I caught up with her as she entered the diner adjacent from the casino floor. She placed a small handbag on the table and motioned for me to sit at the chair opposite her. It was a nice looking place. It was a hotel diner and casino, not like Vegas or anything but definitely cared about, well furnished and well kept. There was even decent rock music playing overhead at just the right volume to still hear the people at your table. A waitress came over and asked us what we would like to drink. I checked my lightened pockets and I asked for water. The woman only said “No, thank you”
“Normally I’m the one who has to ask somebody out” I joked. She only stared at me with those green eyes of hers as we sat down, her smile no longer present. She reached over the table offering me a handshake. I clasp her hand, noticing an expensive looking ring she was wearing.
“I’m Jake, and you are…Mrs.?”
“Sorry I thought you were married” She looked down at her ring.
“Well, in a way I am. I’m married to my job” She lets go of my hand.
“What is your job?” As soon as I say this I can hear the beeping and whirling noises of a slot machine hitting a jackpot. At the sounding of the slot machine the woman’s eyes slowly close and she gave a contentious smile as the intoxicated look returned to her face.
“Miss, are you okay?”
“I’m wonderful” she giggles a bit as her eyes open again. I admit this woman made me a bit uneasy, but I was too drawn in by everything I had seen to just walk away now.
“Do you work here at the casino?”
“Today I am. Why don’t you ask me what you really want to ask me?”
“What do you mean?”
“At the card table. You want to know how I did what I did”
“How did you do that? It was like you knew what card was coming next” at that time I thought she might be one of those people you see on the news sometimes who have superhuman memory. I thought she might have kept track of where all the cards were. It was a far-fetched explanation I know, but I was at a loss for anything else rational.
“I didn’t know. It was luck”
“Luck…” She must be playing with me.
“So why did you win all that money if you weren’t going to keep it”
“I didn’t win anything I just moved it around a bit is all. It was fun”
“Do you keep everything you have ever gotten? Every dollar you earn at your job, does it sit in a bank somewhere or do you send it elsewhere?”
“Well everyone spends their money, but I don’t see how that has to do with your casino chips”
“So it’s not really yours then?”
“Are you talking philosophically? I guess in that sense nobody really owns anything”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, ultimately you can’t really keep anything”
“And that is my job.” She smiles that drunken vampire smile of hers again as she closes her eyes and rolls her head.
“I’m still not getting it…is something wrong?” She ignores me, seemingly lost in something I can’t quite grasp.
“Somebody here just lost two thousand dollars at the roulette table” As I hear her say that, I can hear aggravated yelling in the distance. She has to be putting me on, I thought to myself. Whatever this woman was on she was really feeling it now. It was like waves of euphoria were washing over her as her body quaked slightly. Her giggling turned to laughter. I felt uncomfortable like people were starting to stare at us. Her laughing died down a bit as she tilted her head down towards her lap. She still had that smile on her face with she slowly brought her head back in my direction. Those green eyes opened as her tongue came out and licked her lips.
If this were any other woman I would have thought I was being hit on. This woman however made me feel like I was a deer staring a wolf in the face. A sudden instinct kicked in somewhere inside me, to run. I wanted to be far away from this woman as possible. I think the only thing that kept me from doing that right then and there was the fact we were in a public place. I would look stupid running away from a pretty girl in front of everyone. I always thought there was some irony about mankind being at the top of the food chain for our intellect and yet so fucking stupid to be able to ignore those kinds of voices.
“So tell me, what is it that you would want if you could have anything” She came to instantly and stared at me with that gaze. I didn’t like it, I wanted to look away from her eyes but I found that I couldn’t. This feeling entered my throat that worked its way down into my chest. At once I found myself talking without meaning to. I told her about how I dropped out of college last year. I was going to law school to become an attorney like my dad. I dropped out because it got too hard and I just gave up. I saw it as years of my life spent on something that may or may not work out. My dad was helping me with the tuition and when I gave up he cut off financial support completely. I told her all of this, every personal detail I wouldn’t tell anyone. I told her about how bad I felt letting my dad down, about how he tried to raise me on his own after my mother died.
“I guess if I could have anything, it would be the money to go back to school”
“So what you want is a second chance?”
“You could say that” I admitted. My control returned and I found I was breathing a bit heavier than normal. I didn’t want to sit here with this woman anymore. I tried to tell her I had a movie date with my girlfriend and I started to get up from the chair. What I heard next made me sit back down.
“You don’t have a girlfriend Mr. Reynolds”
I never told her my last name. She was right though, I didn’t have a girlfriend.
“How did you…” She interrupts me
“I’m going to make you an offer Mr. Reynolds. I can give you that second chance you want”
“What do you mean?” I hate to admit it, but I was curious.
“All you have to do is play your favorite card game again” She says this as she reaches into her handbag and pulls out an odd looking single deck of cards. The backs of which had a black and gold pattern to match her uniform. “The game is blackjack, rules are the same except you cannot surrender hands, and you play to ten hands before you cash out. It will be a game you won’t be able to walk away from once we begin”
“I don’t even have money to bet with”
“Its alright, you have ten chips to start out with” She pulls a handful of solid black poker chips from the handbag and pushes them towards me. “All you have to do is come out ahead at the end of ten hands, and I make sure you get your second chance”
“What happens if I don’t come out ahead” I didn’t fully believe what I was hearing but I just couldn’t pull myself away.
“You will never be able to get another chance again, at anything” She says this as I touch the chips pushed over to me; they were smooth, cold to the touch, and lackluster. As soon as I touch them the woman smiles again. “It has begun”
“What? I didn’t say I wanted to play.”
“You touched the chips, at the tables they make you touch chips that aren’t originally yours before you use them. You touched them, you play.”
I noticed my throat was dry and I looked around for the waitress. I hadn’t gotten my water yet and that’s when I noticed the waitress was gone, in fact the only ones in the diner were myself and this woman. I could no longer hear the music playing either. The air in here had suddenly just gone still. I couldn’t even hear the noises of the casino coming in from outside.
“Where is everyone?” I was definitely on edge now, looking around the room for anyone. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up as gooseflesh appeared on my arms. I stand up and start calling for the waitress.
“Waitress? You and I are right here” She giggles at me as if I asked a silly question. “Sit down Mr. Reynolds. We have a game to play.”
I step outside the diner and back into the casino floor. Nobody was there, not a single person, no security guard checking IDs at the front, no dealers, and no gamblers, there were not even any old women putting pennies into slot machines. Some movement caught my attention out of the corner of my eye but it was only a roulette wheel still spinning, slowing down as the marble clacked into a slot. As I stare around a bead of sweat rolls down my cheek.
“Mr. Reynolds” I spin around to see the woman at one of the blackjack tables standing at the dealers spot, the black and gold deck in a dispenser. I never saw her get up from the diner, or heard her move. She points at a solitary stool at the opposite end of the table.
“Sit down” She orders me. I started walking hurriedly to the front doors. I pulled out my car keys instinctively. I was half expectant of her to start chasing me; I even took glancing looks behind me. She was still standing at the card table, smiling at me as I made away from her.
I start speed walking in the opposite direction of her, passed rows of slot machines. The machines are dead and lifeless. Then I see her again, the smiling figure between the rows of machines, moving in step with me but always standing there. I can’t see her move but she is right there keeping pace beside me. I go off into a full sprint. I’m zig zagging through the maze of machines; I start to hear the whirling sounds as one by one the slot machines kick on as their reels spin madly. Some spew coins onto the floor like waterfalls as I pass.
I turn the corner, trying anything to shake her. My feet catch a pile of coins on the floor and I fall. As soon as I hit the ground I spin to my back and look up. Nothing is there, nothing but the machines kicking on and off. This sensation touches my right ear and brushes my hair. I spin painfully hard on my tailbone to see her standing over me. This thing resembled her. The out stretched hand had elongated itself and her fingernails took on a sinister sharpness to them. Her jaw was off its hinges and gave way to a wide gait revealing edged teeth as those green eyes sank into the skull, darkening as they went into a faint glow.
“I know you want to play with me” It said.
I scrambled up, nearly falling again as I took off straight for the exit. A couple of my fingernails bent painfully as I scrapped the ground as I got to my feet again. My hands plunged into the jeans I was wearing, frantically searching for my car keys. I had them out as I collided with the door release bar. I had a split second to grab the door again as I drop my car keys, holding onto it for dear life.
When I collided with the door it did indeed give way to the outside. As to what outside I was peering into, to this day I am not sure of. I was looking at nothing. To say there weren’t any cars would assume I was looking at an empty parking lot. To say I was looking at an empty lot would mean I was still looking at a field, at ground, dirt with a sky over it. I couldn’t see any of that. I saw nothing, nothing but a black void giving way to infinity. It was a sickening feeling peering into it, watching my car keys tumbling downward, their jingling swan song fading as I lose sight of them.
“Mr. Reynolds” I hear her voice behind me. My head turns to my back as I see the same horror now half an inch from my face. Through that terrible mouth came a scream that sent a shock through my stomach and the blood racing through my veins like fire. I jumped.
I could not tell you how far I fell, or how long I cried. Failing wildly as I screamed my throat raw. I do remember starting to drift off into my own thoughts as I finally was able to shut my eyes. I remember thinking to myself I would be lucky to finally hit the bottom in my sleep. Sometimes, I wish I would have.
“Mr. Reynolds” I hear the voice of the woman say sweetly. I open my eyes meekly and the smiling figure of the woman is there, behind a card table I find I’m sitting at. Her features were normal again, as if the horror behind that sweet face never existed.
“It’s time to play” She giggles.
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.
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: Michael Gilbert
Author’s Note: Special thanks to Bob Vetter and Eric Garcia for their input.
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