Monthly Free Story!
Hey, folks. This is the deal. Every month I’ll feature a story here. It’ll be free to read, here on my website. If you prefer mobi, epub, or PDF, subscribe to the blog and I’ll send you the links each month. Or check the blog manually, if you prefer.
I’m not putting the stories up anywhere else, for now anyway. At some point I may think of a way to use them that appeals to me. But I like writing short stories (I also love reading them!), and I’m going to do this regardless of whatever logic might recommend. I mean, screw that noise. Right?
The first story, good here till July 2019, is Thursday Night Game. Enjoy!
THURSDAY NIGHT GAME
(Author’s note: My sister tells me this one is a Twilight Zone episode. I guess I can live with that. I think of it more as a lucid dream that morphed into a nightmare.)
If my grandmother’s version of our family oral history is to be believed, a Civil War POW camp has more in common with Vegas than you might think—but you still won’t find God there.
Well, to be honest as a good Georgia girl she never calls it the Civil War. And the bit about finding God in such places is more her opinion than history, oral or otherwise. Personally I’d say both POW camps and Vegas probably inspire a lot of prayer, if not actual faith-development, but for her it’s probably a matter of good taste. Religious conversion ought to be based on something more transcendent than survival or financial welfare, or it just doesn’t count. Apparently. Besides, it would be hard to get into one of the camps these days to test the notion, wouldn’t it? Sometimes I wonder if she actually believes she’s living in the 19th century.
Oh, the comparison? Apparently some Southern Gentleman of an ancestor found himself playing poker in one of those POW camps for pieces of rats. Actual rats, not military slang for rations, though I guess they served the same purpose. Gram claimed she’d once had letters this poor fellow had written to his wife, promising that all was well and he’d be home directly, but the interesting bits were in another set he’d sent to a cousin. Given that my ancestor never quite made it back after contracting an unspecified disease in that camp, I’d say the thing about the rats is marginally more likely to be true than it would otherwise seem. But only marginally. Gram’s stories seem to improve over time, with new details and twists she simply forgot to mention before. I used to hate that one in particular, and wished she’d shut up about it. Over the years, though, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not sure why.
But none of this really explains why I play poker every Thursday, does it? And it was at the Thursday Night Game that I met Beatrice, so I should probably begin there. The rest of it ought to fall into place somehow.
* * *
We were playing Texas Hold ’em at Clark Boswatch’s place because the game had become popular on TV and suddenly you couldn’t find any other kind of poker on a bet. Just my little joke. I’m always looking for a new audience for it.
Hold ’em was my favorite anyway, ever since . . . well, since a while ago, but until the television thing happened I could only play it in Vegas or at Red’s pot-limit game on Sunday afternoons. Red had died of complications from a bee sting back in ’92, and I could generally get to Vegas only once a year, so although I don’t watch TV myself I guess I’m grateful to it for that one thing.
The game was five-handed until she came in with Sammy Keegan. Given what he’s like, all the whining, I figured he must’ve paid her for the evening. But I was too busy just then to give her the look-over that went with the supposition. Clark, that syphilitic toad, had just check-raised me for all I had on the table. Maybe three hundred or so. I had the second-best flush available, with no full houses possible, and was reaching for my chips to call when she tapped my shoulder.
“You should fold,” she said. Calmly, as if she advised me on such things all the time.
I was looking at Clark. He got mad, then went blank. So I figured she might be right. But you can go all night looking for a hand as good as mine in a big pot like that one, and I wasn’t ready to give it up yet. Besides, what if he had the third-best flush, or something close to that? He’d like it pretty well, wouldn’t he? So even if she had a good read on him, it didn’t mean she was right.
And she’d just come in, and she hadn’t seen my hand any more than Clark’s. Where’d she get either the information or the gall? I tapped my cards with my right index finger, still looking at Clark. Then I turned around, keeping my finger on my cards. “What the hell are you talking about?” Normally I’m polite to women, at least to start with, but I figured she was either insane or a miracle—and in either case I ought to stake out some ground.
Sammy put a hand on her shoulder and gave me an apologetic grimace. “Honey,” he said to her, “this is a man’s game. I’ll show you where you can wait—I won’t be more than an hour or so.”
It was just after ten and Sammy has never in living memory left a game as long as at least one opponent would sit with him. In this game, that meant sometime the next morning was a lot more likely than an hour. But it led to an obvious question: If Sammy was paying for her time, why would he want her to wait? Maybe she was his sister. If so, given their respective appearances, Sammy had been just as unlucky in the genetic crapshoot as he believed himself to be at poker.
“If you fold,” Beatrice told me, “you’ll save your money, and you can use it to buy me a coffee.”
Clark’s upper lip twisted. “Coffee? Lady, that’s over three hundred bucks. And what do you know about it? Do you even know how to play this game?”
Well, that did it. He was a good player and could usually sit there like a champion among stumps. But he was a lousy actor. He would never even try to fake that level of irritation. Also, the pot was more like seven-fifty. Calling it three hundred meant he figured the rest was already his.
I tossed in my cards face-up, told him I wanted to cash out but he might as well hold the money till next week because I had a pressing appointment, and offered Beatrice my arm. She told me her name on our way to the door, though she had to lean close so I could hear it over Clark’s shouting.
Sammy didn’t object when we left. He was counting out his chips, eager as always to lose his money, and may not have noticed us at all.
* * *
She drank her coffee black, even at Starbucks, which I hadn’t seen coming. With her build and poise it should’ve been a mocha. I don’t know why; I just notice patterns and she didn’t fit.
“So how’d you know?” I asked when we’d found a table.
“Know what?” She smiled at me and gulped her coffee without blowing on it first. What was she, an alien?
“How did you know,” I asked patiently, “that I should fold?”
She shrugged. “Maybe I didn’t. If you’d folded and I was wrong, you’d have had to pretend you were going to do it anyway or the other guys would laugh at you forever. If it turned out I was right, I’d get coffee with you instead of waiting for Sammy in some back room or something.” She hesitated, then touched my arm. “Really, I didn’t know it was that much money. It was just chips on the table and I thought we were only talking about a few dollars. I mean, you guys looked pretty casual. At first, anyway.”
I shook my head in admiration. “Oh man, that’s clever. Kind of coldhearted and manipulative, but clever.” But she’d been dead serious. More than a few dollars’ worth. “Only I think you knew something. What was it? And how did you know it?”
She set her coffee down. “Maybe he was certain and you were just hopeful. That’d be enough. Anyway, does it matter?”
“It sure as hell does, especially if you can teach me how to do it.”
“Nope. It’s a special kind of trick. You have to be a girl to make it work. Hey, we started in the wrong place. I’m Beatrice, I told you that. Most people call me Bea. And you are . . .?”
“Jack Radney. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Supergirl.”
“Hi, Jack. Do people say that to you often? Probably not on airplanes, at least not anymore. And no, I’m not her, though I don’t blame you for the mistake. What do you do for a living, anyway? I’m pretty sure it’s not poker.”
“Me? I set up and finance kidnapping plots. Usually the target’s a small child. It’s easier to get rid of the bodies when there aren’t so many big awkward pieces to start with. What the hell do you mean you’re sure it’s not poker?”
She was shaking her head. “Hey. That’s not funny.” She straightened up and I wondered if she’d leave.
“Yeah?” I started to make another joke anyway, thinking she was just being politically correct and after the crack about airplanes she shouldn’t even have tried. Besides, you can’t let people start limiting you that way or you’ll be forever worrying about it—but her face had gone white. “Hey. I touched a nerve, didn’t I? I’m sorry. I can be a jerk sometimes when I’m trying to be funny. Well, lots of times. But I don’t mean anything by it.”
She shook her head, glared at the wall beyond my left shoulder, and let out a controlled sigh. “No. It’s not your fault.” She smiled, or tried to anyway. “Do you mind if we walk around instead of sitting here? Or do you want to get back to your game?”
“What game? Let’s definitely wander, and while we’re at it you can tell me how you read minds.” Wasn’t wandering sort of indefinite, though? Oh, never mind. Caffeine makes me nuts.
She walked out. I followed, wondering if I’d set her off again, but about thirty feet outside she turned to look me in the eye. “It’s not mind reading. I could see his hand. It’s a trick I know, seeing around corners.”
I slowed; stopped two feet away. No way she was joking, not with her eyes so focused on mine. Of course she could be crazy, or lying. Or both. “So. Why’d you tell me to fold?” I thought for a second. “And why are you telling me this? What if I just figure you’re nuts? Is that what you want?”
She shook her head, giving me a skeptical smile. “You believe me, all right. I told you because I couldn’t see around you. It spooked me, so I moved over to the left and checked out the other guy’s cards, just to see if I still could. You had no way to win. But I couldn’t see your cards until you’d moved your finger off them. That’s never happened to me before. So tell me, Jack. How do you do it?”
Well. That put polka-dots and finger-paints on the proverbial horse, didn’t it? Though I guess I mean it put things in another perspective, and from a technical standpoint those techniques seem a bit too primitive to start introducing perspective. Which isn’t my best thing anyway. “Um. I don’t know?” And I really didn’t.
Or, well, not exactly. I’d never met anyone like her before. But I liked being the exception, for something other than the usual reasons. Maybe she’d hang out with me until she figured it out. Worse things could happen.
She shook her head, then resumed walking. So I followed her some more. But I should have known better. Giving up the initiative like that is almost never a good choice.
* * *
I had some things to do with Gram the next week and showed up late for the poker game. Clark failed to notice me at all, which apparently led to his further irritation when it clearly gave me nothing but pleasure. Of course, he was faking the whole grudge thing. He’s actually a pretty good guy. I just help him pretend otherwise because it makes him happy.
Oddly, for me, I wasn’t interested in poker so much as information. Which made me glad to see Sammy sitting at the table, possibly the first time I’d felt that way except for purely financial reasons.
Still there was no sense letting him know he had something I wanted, or the price would go up. I joked and played cards for nearly an hour before somebody, I think it was Glen Raymond, asked me a question.
“Hey, Jack? What’d you go and do with Sammy’s cousin anyway? You should have heard him whimperin’ about it before you got here. I think he was supposed to be her babysitter.”
I glanced at Sammy, who was ostentatiously busy calling Clark’s raise and pretending not to hear. “Babysitter, huh? Well, it’s not a bad job. As for me, maybe I put her to bed for him. Hey, Sammy. How much do you get an hour for that?”
Sammy looked right at me, the first time I remember seeing him do that. In ten years. In a totally flat voice he told me I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was and maybe I should stay out of things that weren’t my business.
It surprised me. Maybe he was even right. So I shut up about it, then hung out until five o’clock when the game broke up.
I followed him outside. “Hey. Is Bea okay? I only saw her the once, Sammy, but I liked her a lot. And you spooked me in there. Did something happen?”
Sammy glanced at me, shook his head and put his coat on. He answered by getting into his car and driving away.
Huh. I’d been wondering why she hadn’t called. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken her to my apartment so soon? I pictured a scandalized Sammy holding a shotgun on me during a civil “ceremony” in a drab office at City Hall, and tried to laugh.
* * *
There was no Beatrice Keegan in the phone book, but that proved nothing because I didn’t know her last name. I hadn’t asked.
Nor had I asked for her phone number. I’d just thought everything had gone well, and even though she left while I was sleeping I’d assumed I’d hear from her again.
But she wasn’t the first to blow me off, and she probably wouldn’t be the last. I decided not to worry about it. She could find me if she wanted, and if Sammy had something to say to me he would get around to it sooner or later.
Yeah. Except I was already half in love with her.
* * *
A month later I saw something interesting on the six o’clock news.
Some tourist with a video camera had taped the aftermath of a failed bank robbery. The police were chasing a guy on foot, and he had just rounded a corner when an upstanding citizen clubbed him over the head with a rock.
The citizen’s name wasn’t given in the news broadcast. But I knew who she was. Supergirl, I’d called her.
I thought about calling the news station to see if I could finesse her name out of them, but decided there was no point to it. She didn’t want to see me, or she would have contacted me by then.
* * *
She showed up at my front door two weeks later.
She had a bloody nose and what looked like it would be one hell of a shiner. Some of the blood had leaked onto her pale blue cashmere sweater.
I stepped forward and she flinched, looking like she wanted to scream.
“Bea? I’m not going to hurt you. Look, I’ll stay over here. What happened? Did somebody . . . do this?”
She looked startled, glanced down at herself, then laughed. “Oh God. It’s not what it looks like. But it’s almost that bad. Look, Jack, can I come in?”
What was I going to say? I stepped back and followed her into the kitchen, where she started cleaning herself with paper towels at the sink. I put some ice in a plastic bag and set it on the counter, careful not to get too close.
“Can you tell me about it?” I asked.
She nodded. “I have to. But you have no idea how good it feels to be here right now. Just give me a few minutes, okay?”
Maybe I did know. I nodded and fixed a couple of drinks, then left hers with the bag of ice and went into the living room to wait.
She came in and sat down, leaving the drink behind. Too early, or did she think she needed a clear head to deal with me? I could see she didn’t know where to start. “The beginning,” I suggested, and she smiled a little.
“Okay, Jack. The beginning. You know about my little trick.”
Sure. That one little thing.
She waited for my nod, then continued. “Well, it’s the only one I’ve ever had. But my whole family is sort of . . . weird. You know Sammy is rich, I guess. Do you know how he got it all?”
I hadn’t known he was rich. Just that he called too many bets, and kept coming back. The same thing, maybe, but I hadn’t thought about it that way. “No.”
“He’s a doodlebug. A dowser. He found a bunch of oil wells.”
“Sammy found oil wells? Where?”
“In Oklahoma. It was years and years ago. He has so much money he doesn’t bother to do it anymore, but he’s still got the talent.” She grinned a little. “It works best when he’s so drunk he can barely walk.”
In ten years, I’d never seen Sammy take a drink. Strange, to understand him so well, for so long, at the poker table—and then have my nose rubbed in the fact that I knew nothing about him. “What else can your family do?”
She shook her head. “Lots of things, but most of them are pretty useless. Look, it doesn’t matter. I’m here because ever since we went to bed I’ve been having these weird dreams.”
Me too. But probably not what she meant. “Weird how?”
“Really it started while we were . . . you know. I got all these images, Jack. Places I’ve never been, and this incredible sense of age. It was as if I were looking into the mind of some spirit that had been around nearly forever. I thought I might be getting in touch with my ancestors or something.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I focused on what I was increasingly feeling to be the main point. “Is that why you left before I woke up?”
“What? Oh.” She had the grace to blush, if only slightly. “Yes. Partly. I freaked out. It felt good, but it scared me. Afterwards.”
We sat in silence for a moment, then I sighed. “Okay, Bea. What else has happened?”
It took her a moment to get the words out. “I started seeing things in the daytime. They aren’t like the dreams at night. I started seeing what was about to happen, just before it did. Little flashes, ten seconds or less. Usually it happens when there’s somebody nearby I can help.”
Or hit over the head with a rock. “Uh huh. Bea, what happened to you today?”
She took a deep breath. “That’s why I came. The dreams, at night? They’re getting worse. Darker, bloodier, just awful. And now . . . now they’re leaking into what I see in the daytime. All my daylight visions used to help people. Now some of them are nightmares, or show me things I can’t help with at all. Or both.” She fell silent, and didn’t raise her eyes from the floor.
I was suddenly very much afraid I knew what had happened. If I was right, it was my fault. And there was nothing I could do to help her. I tried for a light tone. “So, who bashed in your face today?”
She glanced up, then down again. “I did. I thought I saw a man in front of me blown in half by a—a cannonball, I guess. I ran forward to save him and hit a lamppost. When it happened I thought I was running from a clearing into the woods.” Her voice shook, a little. “I was downtown, Jack. Ten minutes from here. There aren’t even any trees between there and here.”
She looked at me. “You have to tell me what’s happening. It started with you! I couldn’t see around you, or anything you were touching. And your apartment? Everything’s . . . hidden here. My trick doesn’t work at all. Because of you. And I see these visions in broad daylight, and some of them are helpful but some are . . . I’m wondering if I’m losing my mind. Jack, what’s happening to me?”
“I really don’t know, Bea.” I raised a hand when she started to argue. “Wait, hear me out. Yes, it may have something to do with me. But I don’t understand myself, much less how I might be affecting you. I don’t have any special tricks, I’ve got no hidden talents I know of. If you’re being affected by me . . .” I really didn’t want to say it. “If that’s what this is, maybe you should just stay away.”
Her eyes had a strange light in them. “But it’s not all bad, is it, Jack? If I could just get the good stuff and find a way to deal with the rest, maybe I could . . .”
“Help more people?”
“Maybe I could.”
Supergirl, all right. But I’d been afraid of this kind of kryptonite for a very long time. “I don’t think you should be here.”
“Or,” she suggested, sliding over closer to me, “maybe I should stay. Until whatever this is runs its course.”
I stood, and backed away. “You don’t know what you’re risking.”
“Neither do you! Come on, Jack, it’s my choice.”
But I did know. Or I thought I did. I stared down at her, trembling and trying to hide it. Was that a smudge on her forehead? Or a bruise? I hadn’t seen it earlier. “No. It’s not.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m sorry, Bea. If whatever’s happening to you ever calms down, if you get control of it . . . no. Not even then. You need to leave. If you come back, I’ll move out and you won’t find me again.”
“Goodbye, Bea. I’m sorry.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it and left. I stood there for a long time, thinking, wishing I could make it all go away. Myself, too.
Finally I went to take a shower, then got a surgical mask and did the best I could to clean whatever she might have touched.
Later I changed my mind and decided to get rid of everything in the apartment, including the carpets. I’d rent a truck and take it all out to Gram’s place over the weekend, then burn it where nobody would care. Until then I would stay in a hotel. And buy new clothes.
* * *
Sammy found me a couple of weeks later at the Vatican, my favorite bar on Tuesdays. It was good to have a schedule, to stay in control. But I hadn’t realized he knew about the place.
I stood to leave when I saw him come in, but he blocked my path. “Jesus, Jack. What did you do to her?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. Nothing I could help, anyway. You gonna let me get by?”
He stayed put and shoved his hands in his pockets. “She’s getting worse. Hallucinations. I was supposed to put her up for a while after her idiot husband got himself and their daughter killed in a car crash in Ohio. But she keeps asking for you.”
“Sammy. I’m leaving. There’s nothing I can do for her.”
He nodded, then sighed like a punctured balloon that hadn’t had much in it to start with. “You have to.”
“Maybe a therapist could do something—no, never mind. Hell.” What if it was contagious? From her to normal people?
“You have to come.”
“I have to go, Sammy.”
“Jack. I didn’t want to tell you this. But I have to.” He swallowed, then said something irrevocable. “She’s pregnant.”
* * *
We got to Sammy’s place while she was still spreading the gasoline. It wasn’t much of a house for a wealthy man, but Sammy never did go for flaunting his money.
He started for her, but I grabbed his shoulder when I saw she had the lighter ready. “Get out of here, Sammy. I’ll handle it.” It was my fault anyway.
He gave me a frightened look, but stopped trying to run right at her. I let him go and he started to circle around to the left.
I faced Bea. “Honey? Let me help. This isn’t any kind of answer.”
“The eyes!” she screamed. “The teeth, the eyes!”
Her skin looked dark, mottled, diseased. I motioned frantically for Sammy to leave, but he kept moving closer to her. She saw him and crumpled forward, somehow scuttling back without losing her grip on either the gas can or the lighter. She spilled more as she went.
I’d noticed two more cans in the entryway, and from the smell I guessed they were both empty. If she lit anything, the place would be an inferno in twenty seconds.
“Bea?” Sammy asked. “What about the baby?”
She looked surprised, and straightened a little. Then she dropped the gas can and clutched her belly. She looked at me, gave a little nod of recognition . . . and flicked the lighter.
“Bea . . .” I sighed. But maybe, God help me, she was right.
“No!” Sammy shouted, running toward her. I’ll always remember that, that he ran toward her rather than away. I just stood there.
She dropped to the floor and lit the gasoline.
* * *
Several hours later, once I judged the curious would have had time to get bored and leave, I began digging myself out of the wreckage. I still had a broken arm and a couple of cracked ribs, and of course I hadn’t been able to breathe for a while. My mouth tasted awful. The pain had been pretty bad this time. It wasn’t always.
I broke into a dark house down the street and stole some clothes, because mine were mostly gone and what was left of them wasn’t worth saving. When I realized the house was actually empty I took a shower. Then I decided to walk the ten miles to my hotel. I wasn’t ready to socialize with anyone, even a cabdriver. And my wallet was gone anyway.
On the way my bones knit themselves together, but my arm was a little crooked. I probably should have splinted it. But Gram would break it again for me later if I asked. She’d had enough practice.
* * *
The next day I helped Gram in the basement as usual. We took him food, which he wouldn’t eat, and cleaned him up. Later she would come back down and read to him for a while. She’d start with newspapers, then maybe a bestseller. It was always something current, in case he could hear.
In case he came back to us someday.
I stood there for a while after she went upstairs. She’d given me a searching look, nodded, then left me alone with him. Gram understood me, even though I hadn’t told her what had happened yet.
We might need a whole new level of security in the basement. We already used masks and wore special clothing, and had a shower rigged up for entry and exit. But what if that wasn’t enough anymore? Though we still didn’t know whether Father was contagious, to us or others, by himself. Sort of a hereditary condition, only backward, since you could apparently catch it from your kids. Or your mate, maybe. All we could do was stand guard. And bear witness, as Gram says.
I’d been careful, with the condom. Bea shouldn’t have been able to get pregnant. But nothing’s infallible. Now that this had happened—you can see where it left me afterwards, can’t you? Well, I’d have get used to doing without girls. I should have known better anyway. My fault, no excuses.
Yeah, well. I’ve never known if the story about playing poker for rats was true. But anyway, my ancestor hadn’t died in the camp, not really. His mind was gone, though. His skin had oddly shaped bruises all over, though they should have healed in seconds. Sometimes they did, but he just got new ones. He was shrunken, twisted, from breaking so many bones over the decades. He was stronger than Gram and I together, and splints didn’t hold very well even when they were possible. You can’t splint a broken cheekbone, or a rib.
I stood looking at the dark, shriveled, gibbering thing that was—and as far as I knew, always would be—my father, then went upstairs to help Gram pick out a book.
We don’t know why we’re the way we are, or how he came to be the way he is. We just go on, and on. But whatever’s wrong with him, whatever happened to him in the War, now I know it’s gotten into me too. Or maybe I just carry it with me, from caring for him or from being his son. Either way.
I don’t know about Gram’s notion that God’s not watching anymore. She seems to be saving up evidence of negligence, as if she’ll be able to produce it and force a reckoning someday. I don’t challenge the notion; perhaps she’ll do it. My most-frequent suspicion, though, is that God’s been here all along. This is the way he wanted things to be. Judge not, lest ye be judged.
I don’t leave often, or stay away too long, because it’s not fair to Gram. We’ve been doing this for quite a while now, though, and I can handle it. Of course we can handle anything. Mostly.
I wonder what Bea’s baby would have been like, if it ever could have had a chance. I’d never dared to have a child of my own before. Not since we noticed, Gram and I, that her descendants are all, so far, stuck here the same way she is. It’s always seemed sacrilegious to make more, even if God did do this to us himself. Which I admit I sometimes doubt, these days, in spite of myself. We might just be some sort of accident.
I saw Bea’s charred body on the way out. So she’s definitely gone.
But suddenly I wonder whether Bea’s baby—our baby—actually died in the fire that burned the clothes from my body but couldn’t quite get inside.
I mean, what do I know? It might have died, at its age. On the other hand…maybe I should go check on that after a while. I think I’ll tell Gram what happened first, though.
There’s no reason to hurry.
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