So, after the first round of 20 stories I was a little tired of reading about young love, suicide, and daddy issues. With that mentality, I set out on my second story to write something completely and utterly different from what I had been reading. This was also around Halloween when I was preparing my Professor Plum costume AND when I was in the throes of a turbulent existential crisis that is just now starting to wear off. So, without further ado, here it is.
The GameThe four men met at a circular table in the center of a dark room. A single light hung from the ceiling, illuminating the green felt surface and the four stools placed around its edge but not quite arriving at the walls beyond.
They appeared in unison, materializing out of the surrounding darkness, and took their seats. Mr. Wood unbuttoned his blazer, exposing a grey cotton shirt. Benjamin removed his suit jacket entirely, slinging it over the back of his chair, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar. B.W. produced a deck of cards from the pocket of his worn denim jeans and faced the group with a grin.
“What’s the game, boys?” he asked.
“Hold ‘em,” Ben, the fourth, and barely visible from the darkness in his black shirt and dark denim pants, replied in a gruff, dismissive tone. “What else?”
B.W. smirked and looked around the table. “Wood, you mind dealing?”
“My pleasure,” Mr. Wood replied, taking the cards. He was slightly older than the others, or at least the graying of the hair at his temples and his posture suggested an advanced age. With the deck in hand, he split the cards with the silent precision of a surgeon, tapped the halves against the felt with two staccato strikes and folded them into one mass with a singular, flawless flick of the wrists.
B.W. let out a long and high-pitched whistle. “You’re getting good at that Woody.”
Mr. Wood smiled without looking up. He quickly dispatched the cards to each player and laid the flop down on the table.
“You’ve got the small, Ben,” B.W. said. Compared to the others, B.W. had a boyish quality about him. His hair was clean cut, but received no other attention than what gravity and a drying towel would provide.
The four men had met in college, thrown together haphazardly by fate rather than pure choice. Years had passed since those days, but they still met from time to time. For tonight’s first hand, the flop held little comfort: a jack for a tease and the 8 and 4 of diamonds. Ben popped the cap off a bottle of Guinness Stout against the table’s edge and let it fall to the floor, sending a tinkling echo through the quiet, empty darkness. He took a long, slow draught and wiped some foam from his lips.
“Not much love on the table.”
“Yeah, Wood,” B.W. said, “you deal pretty but you still give me the same crappy cards as always.” Mr. Wood chuckled and arranged the cards in his hand. “Then again,” B.W. started again, “you never played much with us back in the day. All you ever wanted to do was read.”
“And all you ever wanted to do was drink,” Mr. Wood said.
B.W. laughed. He sat back in his chair and looked upwards as if a film of their lives were playing overhead. “Yeah, that’s about right,” B.W. said, then sat silently for a few moments while the betting rounded the table. “But once you got that girlfriend of your’s, you really disappeared. What was her name? The brunette? Jane?”
“Janet,” Ben cut in without lifting his gaze from his cards.
“Bullshit,” Mr. Wood said with mock offense, “it was you three who disappeared.”
“Janet, that’s right. Whatever happened to her?” B.W. asked.
The room fell quiet with a forceful silence. Most of the men did not move but Ben, ever so subtly, stole two quick glances; first at Mr. Wood, then at Benjamin.
“She met me,” Benjamin said, leaning slightly forward and bringing his pale face into the light, “and didn’t come around much after that.”
Benjamin clicked a lighter and drew a cigarette to his mouth. He inhaled, sucking his body forward through the breath and coming to rest with his elbows on the table.
The game progressed in silence. Bets were placed with only the slightest gestures to move things along. Shortly after the turn, the betting came to Benjamin. “I’ll raise,” he said, sending a cascade of chips onto the pile.
Ben slapped his cards down on the table. “Really? You’re gonna’ have us chasing that much money on the first hand?”
Giving no heed to the outburst, Mr. Wood calmly tossed his chips onto the table, Ben followed with a grunt and lastly B.W with a quiet chuckle.
“I call,” B.W. said leaning back and folding his arms across his sweater.
The three men looked at Benjamin, who gave a nod of his head and smiled, showing his teeth. Mr. Wood reached out and set one card aside, then placed the river down on the table: jack of hearts. Each man straightened up, adjusting the cards in his hand. Benjamin scanned his friends over the top of his cards, extended his hand and knocked on the table, passing his bet.
Mr. Wood stopped, ran a hand over his goatee and pushed a pile of chips into the center of the table. “I’ll raise,” he said. Ben and B.W. folded their hands in quick succession.
Benjamin turned towards Mr. Wood with a purposeful shift. The attention of B.W. and Ben were fixed on Benjamin, waiting for some unknown but anticipated action. Mr. Wood, meanwhile, remained slowly scratching the hair on his face and staring fixedly at his cards.
Benjamin adjusted his tie, reached into his slacks and produced a small pistol. He raised his hand, aimed at Mr. Wood’s temple and fired.
In a single, fluid movement Mr. Wood toppled over into the darkness. A faint trickle of smoke curled upwards out of the gun’s extended barrel, which Benjamin soon matched with a puff of smoke from the cigarette in his mouth. He returned the gun to his pocket, took a long drag on the cigarette and flicked it away over the now-empty seat.
B.W. stared at Benjamin wide-eyed. Ben took another swallow, seemingly indifferent to what had just taken place.
“Was that necessary?” B.W. asked, annoyed.
Shrugging his shoulders, Benjamin began collecting the pot. “He was bluffing.”
Ben grabbed the deck and placed it roughly down in front of B.W. “Deal,” he said, demanding, then sat back and folded his arms across his snug-fitting T-shirt. B.W. looked shocked for a moment, then shrugged it off and took the cards.
“No sense letting that ruin a good game.”
B.W. dealt out a new hand to the three men and placed the flop down on the table. Ben opened another bottle of Guinness and hastily pressed it to his lips.
“Do you guys remember when we started playing?” B.W. asked as chips starting landing in the center of the table.
“Junior year,” Ben said in his customary monosyllabic style.
“Right, but it was after you stopped waiting tables.”
“Right,” Ben said, more in a guttural noise than an actual word.
“He didn’t stop,” Benjamin said. There was a melody in his tone and both his mouth and eyes had a hidden gleam. “He was fired.”
“I quit,” Ben said, suddenly animated. “I told that asshole off and walked out the door.”
Benjamin didn’t respond, he merely took a drag on his cigarette. He folded his cards and Ben, with a sigh, did the same. B.W. gave a soft “woo-hoo” and began collecting his winnings.
“Well, well. Don’t mind if I do,” he said.
“Shut up,” Ben snarled.
B.W. dealt out two cards to each man and laid out the flop: 2, Queen, Ace. “Oh, that’s more like it,” he said, flipping a chip onto the table. “I’m always lucky with a lady on the table.”
“Shut up, man,” Ben said, noticeably agitated.
B.W. shot him a sideways glance and returned to his cards, tsk-tsking in disapproval. “Can’t say if this is the one, though. I don’t like what I’m seeing here,” he said, then turned to Ben with a big, sloppy grin.
The blow came suddenly. B.W. was still smiling like an idiot when he was struck just above the right eye, sending him over the back of his chair and into the darkness. A soft thud registered the contact of his body with the floor.
Ben withdrew his fist and began rubbing his knuckles with his other hand. “Wrong game, asshole,” he muttered under his breath.
Benjamin chuckled and placed his chips on the table. Ben took a swig of Guinness and matched the bet.
Both men stopped, eyeing the deck of cards sitting lifelessly in front of an empty seat. Then, in unison, their gaze left the cards and fell on each other. After a moment passed, Benjamin broke the silence.
“Relax,” he said, flashing a blinding smile of sharp white teeth, “I’ll do the honors.” He set one card aside and then placed the turn down on the table: 2, clubs. With an exchange of glances, neither man raised the stakes and Benjamin moved on to the river: 10, diamonds. Five fingers clutched a pile of chips and sent them crashing onto the table. Ben responded with a loud snort.
“You keep betting like that and we’ll only have two or three hands,” he said.
“You know what? You’re right,” Benjamin responded, and leaning forward pushed the remainder of his chips into the center of the table. He sat back, leaning his chair onto its hind legs, interlocking his hands behind his head and taking a long drag through upturned lips. The two men studied each other. There was a slight shake in Ben’s fingers and a soft glow began to show on his brow.
“Tell me,” Benjamin said, taking the cigarette from his mouth and speaking slowly as though the words were slipping through his teeth, “what are you going to do when this is all over?”
“It’s never over,” Ben said timidly as though the words caused him some physical pain. “You know as well as I do we’ll all be back here in a couple of days.”
“Maybe not. Maybe this time, finally, when I shoot you, you stay down.”
Both men sat frozen, then in one motion Ben clasped the edge of the table, flung it across the room and dove across the space. Benjamin pitched forward, reaching his hand into his pocket but was too late, he was struck and the two men toppled backwards into the dark.
For a few brief moments there was the sound of rustling, quick-drawn breaths and the muffled thuds of contact on flesh before two shots rang out of the darkness and brought a hushed silence.
A minute passed with nothing but a single light suspended in the air and illuminating a circle, empty except for 4 stools sitting askew. Slowly, a shape materialized. Two arms reached down and placed an upturned stool on its feet. A hand reached out, took hold of a jacket that was slung over the backrest and, tossing it over the white shoulder of a collared shirt, reached up and took hold of the gold chain hanging down from the light. Then with a sharp click, there was nothing.