NINES

NINES

by Eli LaChance

It was a quarter to four when the dealer arrived in Carrier, Wyoming.  High in the sky, the summer sun cooked concrete and metal while people and animals took refuge from its fire.  Gone were the familiar sounds of Sunday afternoon, instead of footsteps echoing through heat streaked streets, there was only silence.  There were no children laughing at playgrounds, no engines idling at stoplights, no notifications, church bells, or friendly chatter. The gentle sound of a cool summer breeze sewed a thread through the warm, dry silence extending down the lone highway.   There the silence was swallowed by the rumbling engine of a 2017 Toyota Camry, with a subdued, mechanical, purr.  

“God damn it! I hate you.”  Warren fumed at the driver.   As if on cue, a billowing puff of steam undulated from beneath the hood of the car, snaking its way into the heavens.  Warren drummed in impotent rage on the passenger dashboard and yelled again, “I really do. I really fucking hate you!”  Spit flecked John’s cheek as Warren barked at him through coffee-stained teeth. “Stop the car!”

John flashed his friend a self-satisfied smile.  He pumped his foot against the firm brake, tensing on the steering wheel.  An invisible string yanked one of his dimples upward, grinning at his friend’s overreaction.  It was a familiar routine, though this time the smile was soon erased by the black cloud of smoke that began flowing in place of the steam which he’d also carelessly overlooked.  As the smirk melted, he wore the same hurt look that every child wears after learning their parent’s warnings were valid. Like Icarus on wheels, John brought the car to a shaking sputtering halt. The dealer watched as the men rolled into town, signaled by the winding black cloud billowing into the sky.

“Did it overheat?! Shit!… FUCK!”  Warren held two fingers to his temples like a sorcerer trying to conjure a spell, though magic wouldn’t be enough to help them now.  The mechanical reality was already clear, the car was dead. “How long had it been running hot?”

“How can you tell?” John asked, hands up as if his friend’s eyes were loaded pistols. 

Warren bit his lip. A flash in the corner of his eye turned his attention, dancing orange waves faintly tickled beneath the hood. The car was on fire. “Get out!” 

Doors slammed as both men bolted to the sidewalk, gasping like swimmers who’d just hit land after the lifeguard yelled ‘shark.’  Flames consumed the engine as Warren spit the taste of metal onto the asphalt. They stood in funerary silence, watching their vacation die in a burning metal coffin.  Warren’s throat burned and his fists ached, but he noticed neither. Warren saw the consequences of stupidity, but John saw the comical act of a chaotic god.

“I’m sure insurance should cover it, man.”  John chortled in amusement. He turned his head to hide his smile, but only briefly.  “No service.” He held his cellphone high, mostly from habit. They both suspected the mountains would block the signal.

“Rental companies always find a way to fuck you.” Warren’s head bobbed with wide-eyed disbelief.  “Why the fuck didn’t you slow down?” His cracked and dry voice was barely audible through a sharp wheeze.  

“Cars don’t burst into flames for driving 80.  Is your phone working?”

“How do you do that?  How can you push this off like you did nothing wrong?”  

John shot a wounded look to his friend as if the accusation had been made with surgical knives.  “Look, I get I should have slowed down, but the car shouldn’t have gone completely Exorcist on us.  This isn’t my fault.” He tapped his chest with one finger. 

Warren sighed. He had to relent.  Friends can become family if you let them hang around long enough.  By this point, John was more of a brother and no matter how bad things got over the years, they always managed to stick together.  Sure, John was always good for a laugh, but he was also a timebomb of misfortune, waiting to set things from zero to clusterfuck at any given moment.  There was the time he got them both arrested for skipping subway turnstiles, the time he got dumped because his girlfriend thought John’s weed belonged to him, and there was the car… John had wrecked several cars over the years, this was not the first. Still, what could he do? Getting out of this meant getting along, and after everything, they’d been through?  He’d let it go for now.

Like desiccated mummies from a cheap movie, the men shambled into the lifeless town, struggling against the weight of the summer heat and fighting the stain of panic with their bickering.  Their voices bounced through empty alleys and deserted streets.

“Where the fuck are all the people?” John asked the obvious question first in his casual blunted tone. 

Warren swayed in the heat, drenched with sweat. “This is weird, man.  Really weird, even by your standards. Not only are we lost and broke down, but you stranded us in a modern fucking ghost town.”  

“You always want adventure, dude.”  John shook the door handle of a pharmacy, its hinges only creaked in defiance. 

An inviting sliver of shade up ahead had a magnetic attraction to the two stranded travelers. They made their way towards the canopy of a gas station.  Aside from the shade, there were cars parked outside, which was as good a sign as they might get in their situation. John swatted a vampiric mosquito from his exposed, sun cooked neck. They didn’t need to close the distance to see, the lights were out.  Nobody inside. In the middle of the street, Warren deflated like a balloon.  

“Shit!” he cried, but a small voice stepped on his words.  Dancing down the road on waves of vacillating heat, the voice landed in his ear.  In the late afternoon silence, it hit him like an Abrams tank. 

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

John tried to figure the child’s age as he spoke.  Was he three? Maybe six? Neither of the men had much experience with children.  

“Excuse us,” Warren cleared his dry throat and wiped the smoke stains from his sweat-drenched brow.  He attempted to muster a soft, velvety tone but it came out crushed gravel. “We need a little help.” 

“You’re not a ‘spose to be here.” As the kid spoke, John shot Warren a look with one eyebrow pointed at the sky.  “You’re not supposed to be in the street,” he repeated.

“Why not?” Warren managed to soften his voice this time, more sandpaper than rock tumbler.  

“The dealer is in town.”  The child spoke with stern conviction.  He would have had the same tone had someone asked if Santa Claus was real or if the sky was blue; of course, everyone knows.  

John let out a deep belly laugh, not in jest but as more of a signboard to Warren, advertising his perceived superiority over the locals.  

“What’s the dealer selling?  Cars? Boats?” John slapped two hands down on his knees and leaned to look at the kid while wearing a goofy Cheshire grin.

“John…” Warren groaned, placing a hand on his arrogant friend’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry kid we do need some help.”

“No, no,” John giggled, “C’mon Warren, I wanna know what he’s dealin’.”  

“Look, kid, you don’t have to listen to my friend, but…” The kid removed his hand from the hollows of his pockets and produced a red playing card.

“He deals cards, I guess,”  he said, with the sort of manner of fact tone that only comes from the innocence of childhood.

“Psshht,” the small of John’s chin receded into his neck as he laughed.  “Vacation ain’t over, Warren. We found us a casino!” He mocked the town with his best cartoon hillbilly drawl. 

The dry afternoon heat began showing signs of surrender to the cool evening air.  Warren tried to let it carry his irritation. He imagined his hot rage dancing away with the soft breeze when a bolt of ice shot up his spine. The pit of his stomach dropped in response to a stimulus he’d experienced but not yet processed.  He saw John’s neck snap around towards the sound, the scream. The sharp blast of noise hit like a volley of needles. It was a wounded howl; a woman’s voice, gasping in pain, terror, or madness and it was getting closer.

She ran towards them.  John recoiled on instinct as if he expected the approaching siren to smash his skull open.  Warren just stood mesmerized, dazed with heat, fear, or stupidity; whatever the enchantment, it froze him. 

“No, no, no, no, no…”  the woman choked as she charged between the men, falling to the ground with the little boy.

“Mommy!”

 She picked up the bicycle card and winced at it.  Spit collected in the corners of her mouth as she kept wheezing the word.  “No! No, no…” She scowled at the men then turned towards her boy. Clutching her son’s head she rocked back and forth.  “Okay,” she sighed. “Ohhh-kay,” she quivered and kept repeating, “okay, okay okay.” She drew one last labored breath and demanded, “It’s going to be okay.”  

“Ma’am,” Warren tried to get her attention, he spoke as if he approached a wounded animal.  “Ma’am, are you okay.”

“Who are you?!”  Her eyes cut Warren down instantly. “You need to leave!” She flashed a hot gaze of disgust at John, “now!”  She jerked her head towards the road.

“W-w-w-we,” Warren stuttered and spit, shaking.

“We can’t.” John finished. 

“You can’t?  Oh God that’s right, you can’t!” a hint of panic returned to her voice.   “Then God help you.” She grabbed her son and began walking back towards the houses where she came from.  

“Wait!” Warren yelled, “do you at least know where we could use a phone?”

The woman puffed and turned back.  She spoke in a short tone as she gestured with one disapproving finger.  “No phones, no one can call out.” Warren opened his mouth but she cut him off.  “No help is coming. You can’t leave but you can at least get out of the street. For your own sakes.”  She closed her hazel eyes to muster more words, her lip quivered as they rolled through her lips. “It’s a bad time to be in Carrier.”  She took up her son’s arm once more and stormed away.

“Well, that was fucking creepy,” John clapped his hands and smiled, intolerant of quiet.

“God damn it,” The words hissed out of Warren’s dry vocal cords, John knew the rest.  “I hate you.” Warren didn’t know why the phrase was always hiding, ready to roll out from beneath his bitter teeth.  “I really hate you.” He nodded.

Normally it made John laugh a little, but this time, it was fair.  “I know,” he hung his head, “it’s my charm.” His sarcastic armor was finally dented by the spectacular plight they found themselves in. 

The last time Warren and John knocked on this many doors was a summer when they’d canvassed for the Maslow County Democratic Party.   They were teenagers, young and riding high on that first shimmering wave of Obama hope. Most small towns, it seemed, weren’t keen on a black president, nor two hipster-looking boys on their doorstep trying to talk about him or any other bullshit down-ballot democrat baby killers. That was before they’d moved to the cities, back when they agreed on nearly everything.  It seemed like another life.

“Damnit!  Somebody help us!”  John’s knuckles stung as they met another dry door.

“Keep it down,” Warren yawned with exhaustion, “These people are nuts, wherever they are, I don’t wanna piss ‘em off.”

“You think strangers knocking on their doors is gonna cheer them up?”

“You ain’t botherin’ no one,” A strange voice boomed in a deep drawl behind them, like a great redneck Jehovah.  Warren jumped, “They’re just hiding scared,” the voice said.

“You startled us,”  John thurst his hand out, smiling.  “Do you think we could use a phone?” The coarse skin of the man’s hand slid from John’s grip.

“You’ve caught us at a weird time.  The cell tower is down, but if you didn’t have Sprint, that wouldn’t matter anyway.”  He waved his hand for emphasis. “Power is out, conveniently, and the phone lines are out, coincidentally.”  he coughed each syllable of the last word in staccato gasps.

“We’ve heard,” John threw his head back and whined.

“We’ve been looking for help.  If we can’t find it, we’re stuck here.” Warren’s lip curled in a defeated grin as he threw his hands up.

“Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re in trouble.  You are stuck here.”

“We’ve heard!” John tapped his head against a street lamp pole.

“Whole town of Carrier has gone crazy.  People got it in ‘em that a hundred-year-old superstition is somehow reality.”

“And you don’t, I take it?”  John scratched his sparse patchy stubble, and watched his feet.

“I don’t believe anyone can tell me when I’m gonna die.  It’s all bullshit. Some live, some don’t. That’s life, cards get dealt either way.  I’m not worried.”

John looked at Warren when the man said ‘die’ the same way Scooby looks at Shaggy when someone says ‘ghost.’  A heavy feeling pulled on him from the inside as he remembered the woman’s reaction in the street earlier. Die. The word’s cryptic power did nothing to make John understand. It wasn’t real for him but it gave him shivers all the same.  Sure, he’d known death. Like a distant relative that knows you but whose face and name you can’t even remember. He had friends, more acquaintances, pass long after they’d lost touch; highschool buddies, nice customers at work. But they’d all ‘passed’ and passing isn’t death unless you’re the one waking up one day with a void in your life where a loved one used to be.  The comforting blanket of ‘passed’ is ripped away every day when you go to make a call, lay down in an empty bed, realize the house is unusually quiet, or need their special advice or skill. When it came to his own life or the people he loved, he had no idea what death was. But still, she was there, like that distant aunt you can’t remember, the thought of seeing her made him squirm.  That’s the way for America, keep death hidden. Dress it up, hide it, shove it in the closet but whatever you do don’t leave it in the fucking living room for everyone to see. 

“Only thing worse than dying here would be living.”  John reinflated himself with another snarky comment. The stranger just smiled. 

“Would you knock it off!” Warren elbowed John in frustration. “I’m Warren, this is John.”

“I’m Henry,”  he nodded across the street, “how ‘bout a drink? Only one place we can go until morning.  “

“Well, we like bars.”  John gave a pleading smile to Warren as if to convince himself their fortunes had somehow changed. 

“I guess misery loves company,” Henry leaned back showing his white teeth in a smile. “This way,” he nodded as he walked down the sidewalk.

They followed Henry at a distance in awkward silence.  As a blanket of thick inky darkness fell over the town. Henry walked in a deliberate, determined gate.  They almost had to jog to keep up. Warren recoiled from dark canals of cross streets and alleyways as they moved towards their destination. John couldn’t stop thinking about what Henry had said.

“What’s the superstition?” John asked.

Henry just kept walking.  The darkness behind them gobbled building after building before they finally saw the bar, like a neon mirage in the hollows of night. It didn’t really have a name that John could discern from the outside, it just said, ‘BAR.’   It was the only place with any lights on. Henry bounced as he climbed the front porch, hurrying ahead of his two wayward followers. 

The door handle rattled like a muted can of coins as Henry struggled with it. As John and Warren caught up to him, he shifted his large body to obscure his actions.   Warren cleared his throat to yell over the guzzling drone of a generator, which likely powered the place. 

“Hey, it’s cool, man.  Looks closed.” Warren craned forward, trying to see.  With a loud snap, the door gave way and Henry stumbled through.  He waved an arm in invitation. Warren and John stepped into the raucous murmur of the crowded bar.  

Inside, a wall of wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces greeted them as the patrons fixated on the intruders.   

“Uh, you sure this is okay, man?” John whispered over Henry’s shoulder, the man grunted but gave no answer.  John joined Warren by the corner while Henry made his way to the bar.  

“Fred! What’s up?”  Henry’s lokian grin betrayed his intention.  This wasn’t a jovial greeting between two old friends, but a taunting jab, a deliberate provocation.  

Fenced in by spires of liquor bottles and beer taps, an old man scowled at Henry. “You bastard.”  His voice dripped from his lips in a jagged hiss.

“You’re not actually mad about that bullshit, are you?”  Henry coughed the words as he puffed his chest.

“Bullshit? Tell that to William Kent or Jerry Larson, or Anna and her boy; they got dealt earlier this afternoon.  They all had the decency to keep away.” He slammed his fist on the bar. “They didn’t break down my fucking door!”

“Nobody’s been dealt,” Henry’s voice echoed as it descended in pitch.  Bracing themselves for a coming storm, Warren and John inched further backward in the bar, bumping into a bald man who only grunted. 

“Have you checked your pockets lately?” The hushed bar grew quieter as Henry scrunched his face and waved his hand at the old man.

Waves of invisible spiders crawled over John’s arms as he scratched them nervously.  “Warren. Did you notice the way they’re lookin’ at us?”

“Like we just walked in with a live hand grenade?”  Warren inched back into the corner as he surveyed the crowd of strange, nervous faces. 

“Well, show me.”  Fred’s beady eyes narrowed as he focused on Henry and nodded.   “Check your pocket.” He wore a knowing smile.

“There’s nothing in my pocket, Fred.  I just want a drink.”

“Check your fuckin’ pocket.” The growl in the old man’s voice was wet with glass.

“I’m not doin’ that. ” Henry grabbed someone else’s drink and gulped.

“ Check it!” Hushed whispers began to hiss in the darkened bar as the barkeep’s voice echoed. “Now,” he demanded with the conviction of an executioner as he flashed the shotgun he kept behind the counter.” 

“A little overboard, don’t you think Fred?”  Henry bit his lip and hurled his hat down on the bar.  

The men stood on either side, eyes locked like they were playing a game of chicken.  Henry straightened his back and cleared his throat. “Fine,” he relented, “I’ll check my fucking pocket.” His head bobbed as he uttered the words.

From behind his back, the man revealed a familiar red bicycle playing card.  His Adam’s apple leaped then plummeted as he held the card in his hand. “This doesn’t prove anything.” He stared, still and defiant.

“You’re like a kid who got his toys taken away, I hope you’re happy.  I hope throwing your fit helped. You should have listened, but you can’t tell someone anything who knows everything.  I hope you’re proud. My granddad, you’re great granddad… they tried to warn us, but some people just won’t listen. You’ve killed some of us.”  

“How?” Henry recoiled from the accusation. “By not cowering in fear while nothing happens?”  He thrust the card in the air as he spoke. “It’s a bullshit superstition.” Patrons gasped at the sight of the card held high above Henry as if it were as ghastly as a severed human head.

The rumble of wooden chairs and smashed glasses turned Fred and Henry’s attention. Warren nudged John and nodded towards the bald man they’d bumped into.   His beady eyes were locked on them and he had a hand buried in his jacket pocket.  

“He has a card!”  In the back of the bar, a woman screamed pointing at her husband retreating as if he were made of leeches. “He’s here!”  Another voice cried out.

 “Let’s get out of here.” Warren nodded at the approaching bald stranger, distracted by the trembling commotion of the bar.  A moving mass of elbows and frightened screams swallowed the tables and chairs began to swarm and bottleneck at the front door.  Unable to see over the panicked living mass of horrified faces, the two men fought the waves of sudden panic. It was like running in place and getting the shit kicked out of you at the same time, as every soul tried to flee the place at once. When dust settled, Warren and John made their way to the bar with Henry, hoping their potential pursuer had been swept out with the crowd. 

“I outta kill all  three of you,”  

Warren turned to find the bald man still behind them, holding all three of their lives in the trigger of a cheap Wal-Mart pistol.

“Hey, ey-ey-hey.”  John didn’t think, he only moved, jumping between the gunman and his friends. With both hands up, he spoke sternly “We didn’t know anything about these damn cards.” 

A metal taste oozed through John’s teeth as he went reeling back.   Blood pooled in his hand as he held it to his face. The sting of the blow started swelling in his teeth when he realized what had happened.  The man hit him with his gun. He heard the hammer of the gun click back as he coughed a slimy pink glob of mucous. 

“John!” Warren’s strained voice hissed.  John tried to look up but only swayed on his knees.  “I really-”  

“I know, man.  I hate me too.” John cut him off.  He looked up and squinted, red currants running down his lips.  “Warren!” He coughed, blinded by the hazy suns that had taken place of the fluorescent lights above. “I’m sorry!” He yelled, “for all of it,”  his voice shrank back into a mumble. Blood spattered on the floor as he leaned back against a jukebox and closed his eyes. 

“Jim that’s enough!”  Fred could be heard from the bar, appealing to the gunman.  “They’re not from here,”

“But he is!” The man’s voice boomed as he turned his sights to Henry. 

“We’ll all get what we deserve tonight, Jim.  No more death. Go home, before you get your self dealt too,” Fred pleaded. 

“Too late.” Jim managed as the pistol fell from Henry’s gaze.  Gravity loosened its hold on John and Warren with each step the gunman took in the opposite direction.  He took a seat at the far end of the bar, all his hostilities whisked away like a feather on an invisible wind.  

“What the hell is going on?”  Jets of blood gushed through John’s teeth.  “I feel we’re owed an explanation at this point.”  

Neither the bartender, nor Henry answered A dead silence hung in the air, it was the kind of silence that provides shelter for dirty secrets, white lies, and terrible mistakes; the kind of silence that occupies physical space with still air and lets sins breathe.  Just before John could repeat his request, the revelation came from Henry in two words.

“Cards kill.”  He slid the card back into his pocket.  “That’s the story, ain’t it Fred?” He picked his hat up from the bar.

“Evidence just bit you in the ass and you still refuse to believe?”  Fred cleared his throat, turning to the outsiders. “The dealer comes to Carrier every hundred years.  In return for our,” he looked to the ceiling to find the word, “sacrifice.”  Taking a deep breath he continued. “We live in prosperity for the rest of the time.  When the dealer arrives, he goes wherever the cards have been. We don’t bring them inside,” He shot a dirty look at Henry, “and they never leave town.”  The old man slammed a whiskey as if he, like the other two men drinking, was trying to wash away his thousand-yard stare. “If he got out, he wouldn’t ever stop dealing.  By midnight, people will start dying. It will depend on what card you get.” He glanced at the clock. “He got my grandmother in 1920. He’s going to kill a few more today.  Maybe four, maybe eight, maybe more. Depends how many decks he deals.”

The bell at the door rang as an auburn-haired woman in her 40s with firm sun-cracked skin stepped through the door. With scorn, she waved a card. The barkeep gave a half-grin and waved his in return, his eyes rolled over in irritation.  “In 1920, this was a hiding place. I guess tonight it’s the morgue.”

“John, this is giving me the creeps.” Warren grew kinetic, pacing like a caged animal.

The door chimed again.  

“Let’s step outside slowly,” Warren whispered.  

Again the door sang its chilling two-note tune.  They tried to move closer but couldn’t get through.  The stream of patrons grew steady, almost single file. They walked in with long stares and sunken eyes as if they marched towards death. 

“We get to the first car we find,” he held his hand up and waved forward, “we just go.” Warren’s hands grasped the door as they turned to leave.  A familiar locking sound stopped him dead in his tracks. He knew the sound from movies and videogames; it was the sound of a cocked shotgun.

“Sorry, out of towners   I can’t let you leave.” The old man’s weapon froze them like Medusa’s gaze, their hopes of escape crashing around them. Fred gestured with the gun. With nowhere to turn, they surrendered to a table in the center of the room.  John took a deep breath and held onto it. He relished the gradual exhalation, savoring the warm air flowing freely through his nostrils. He made it last as long as possible, so as not to waste a single drop.

“This isn’t your fault, John.” Warren placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. 

“Yes it is, I did this. I was fucking around with the car and…”

“No…you didn’t.” 

John looked down at his cupped hands and nodded.  The dry snap of a cheap wooden chair called John’s attention as the crowd started to clamor around the cause.  A gurgling scream landed in their ears like Gabriel’s trumpet. A young man fell to the floor gasping for air, fracturing the crowd.  His fingers writhed like worms at his neck as he tried to take in painful gasps of nothing.

‘What’s his card?!” screamed one of the doomed patrons, as John locked eyes with the dying man.  A still nothingness washed over the man’s panicked face and for a moment there silence returned.  Warren shot John a nervous look and shifted. “Oh, God!” Another high pitched fear-stricken voice moaned in the crowd. The nervous kinetic sways of people died down as Henry tried to approach the man laying on the floor. 

With a crash, the crowd skittered again as a woman twirled into the room.  She doubled and wretched. She choked, her eyes lashed around in spasmodic fits before she met the floor. 

“Oh god, please…what’s her card?”  Similar refrains belted at random from the crowd as they clung like flies to the invisible glue of the small bar’s walls. 

A loud slam echoed on the bar. Warren’s eyes bolted back as did the crowd’s.  The old bartender’s shotgun lay alone on the counter but Fred was gone.

“Fred,”  Henry’s voice quivered. “Fred!?”  

“What card is it?” another voice cried. Three more people dropped and the diminished crowd turned riotous, moving in tornadic fits, desperate not to touch those whose luck didn’t mirror theirs. Each of them living in frantic denial that any moment, their luck could be different.

 Henry looked up as he fished through a dead man’s pocket and turned his attention to the door.  A silence fell as the door chime once again pierced the chaos. It was the woman from the street earlier entering the bar, Warren recognized her.  She was different somehow, moving as if she’d been hollowed out of flesh and muscle leaving nothing but bones and habit to keep her going. Tears gushed from her reddened face and foam tickled her lips as she gasped to speak.  

“It’s nines.”  

Warren touched his back pocket as she spoke. Her voice clipped in high pitched breaks as she forced it through clenched jaws. John swayed, in disbelief. “My boy had a nine.” She said. The room barely stopped to listen, frantic murmurs danced against the ceiling as the young mother’s grief fell on deaf ears. The only thing that mattered to every soul in the room was whether or not they held the cursed card. John looked to Warren who stood up and approached the back door. 

Henry took off his hat and sat on a stool.  He drummed his fingers against his thigh fighting the tears welling in his face. “Fred…I didn’t know. ’m sorry. I didn’t believe.”  he snorted back snot and exhaled a shaking breath. “We do what we must.” He stood, addressing the crowd his voice thundered. “We got seven dead, that means there’s probably one more. Maybe five.   I count close to forty in here and the number is always in fours. I’m thinking… two decks.” The man lit a cigarette before asking the question on everybody’s mind ” Now, does anybody have a nine?” He took a long drag pulling the white sheet of paper away from the orange ember.

Halfway across the bar, Warren placed each footstep with care as if he were on a tightrope. “Let’s go, run for it!”

“Warren, we can’t.” John choked back tears.

“And why not? This isn’t our town.  These aren’t our problems. This isn’t our creepy fucked up tradition.  Fuck this.”

“This has to stay here.  Think of your mom. Think of Mira.  All of the people we love could be put in harm’s way if we don’t look at this.”  He waved a card from his back pocket.

“No way.  I can’t.” the wet pools in his eyes started running down his cheeks.  “I don’t wanna die.”

“Gentlemen, this doesn’t end until everyone has seen their cards.” Henry’s voice shook the pit in Warren’s stomach.  He was speaking to them.

Warren paused for a moment and flashed his eyes back to the bar. In that instant knew what Orpheus must have felt, as his hope for escape evaporated.

“Check your back pockets,” Henry said, the boom of his voice itched up Warren’s spine. Warren moved first, his shaky, sweat-slicked palm produced the familiar red and white ornate pattern on the back of a bicycle card.  The dealer had visited him too.

“John…” he managed. “I can’t look.”  

“Wait!”  John jumped between his fear-stricken friend and the room.  He waved his card to John and bounced a little, hyping himself up. “It’s gonna be okay, man.”   John puffed out his chest and repeated, “It’s gonna be okay.” The room stared at them like dangerous beasts. 

“Wish it could be another way, boys.  Someone’s got that card. This has to end.”

“Maybe it’s fake, maybe it’s all a gag.  Maybe someone outside got the card and everything will be fine.”  John’s head crooked to one side as he wiped blood from his face.

“John, what if it’s not.” 

“Then we do it together.  Same time, okay Warren?”  

“Okay,”  Warren took deep breaths, trying to mask the panic in his chest.  His heartbeat thudded in his ear. His legs trembled with a desire to run.

“Same time…” Warren nodded, leaning into his friend.

“God damn it,” Warren started.

“I know…” John stopped him shaking his head, but Warren continued speaking over him. His voice came out forceful and clear.

“I love you man.” The words hung in the air and wrapped themselves around both men’s trembling shoulders, stilling their nerves and making them brave. Whatever happened next, for just another moment, everything was okay.

Copyright, Eli LaChance, 2020, All Rights Reserved

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