Note: This is a first draft. I will continue to update the story on the site as I edit it!
How the hell did I get myself in this mess?, Brian repeated to himself. Brian continued to battle his fears of splitting his pair of 8’s for another $30,000. He rubbed his hands over one another, dirt from his poorly-paid, blue collar job still permanently embedded in the crevices of his prints. The rubbing produced a dry scratching sound.
That night, Brian’s gambling bug was the worst it had ever been. I’m going to have a big night, he thought. I’ll save up a bunch of money, win big, and that’ll be the end of it all. So far, steps one and two were complete. But Brian couldn’t bring himself to walk away yet.
At the night’s start, Brian decided he would gamble $5,000 at blackjack----4-weeks pay----and see what happened. And boy did he like what he saw. He was hot; he couldn’t lose. If Brian needed the dealer to bust, he would bust. If Brian didn’t need the dealer to bust, he would bust anyway. Two hours’ passing saw Brian’s 5k jump to 60k.
Okay, one more hand then I’ll leave with my winnings. Brian told himself that precisely fourteen times. This time, though, he believed it. I’ll risk half. 30k. With my luck tonight, I’ll win. Then I’ll walk away for good.
A bony, wrinkled finger entered Brian’s vision. It pointed at his abysmal hand.
“Sixteen,” came the deep, stern voice of the sliver-haired blackjack dealer standing on the other side of the table. There were three other people playing at the table with Brian. There was a young Indian couple, dressed sharply, laughing and enjoying a few martinis. And then there was Mao, a statue of a man both in the sense of age and stillness. Mao was more regular at the Sunset Casino than Brian was. So, clearly two of Brian’s table mates had no gambling problem; they played the table minimum and actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. Mao certainly had a problem, but he had reconciled it and was determined to head to the grave a gambling man. Then there was Brian, carrying the problem plus all the hauntings that came with it.
“You going to split those?” the dashing Indian man asked Brian, smiling, with an arm around the waist of his lover. “It’s a huge bet you have there.”
Brian didn’t mean to be rude, he literally didn’t hear the comment. His brain was running a mile a minute, and within him two voices were snapping back and forth at each other about the $30,000 decision to split. Brian had no room for external perception.
I just need to beat the dealer. Simple. I’ll split the 8’s, then I get two chances to win. Worst comes to worst, the dealer beats one of my hands and I break even. What would I even do if I didn’t split? 16 sucks… I would hate to take another card because then I’d likely bust and look like a fool. But I can’t just stand on 16 either and let the dealer decide my fate. Doing that is handing him the noose. And if I give the casino that opportunity they’ll graciously take it. Right now, I have 16. But imagine having two 8’s to play. And if I end up winning both? My God… I’ll be a hero. I’ll make my family proud. I’ll turn my life around. I’ll quit gambling forever and erase all the money I’ve lost. I have to do it. I’ll be a hero. I’ll finally be a hero to them.
With an unsteady hand, Brian reached beside his belly to grab the other $30,000 stack at its base. He shook so bad as he moved it toward the dealer that it toppled, and he fumbled to rebuild it again.
“Ooh you are a brave man, my friend!” said the Indian man, clapping. His partner put her small hands to her mouth and grinned wide. Even Mao turned to look at Brian and tapped the table twice to wish him good luck. Once Brian had righted the stack, the dealer took control of its movement. He slid it slowly towards the first one, stopping beside it so that the two stacks of chips gently kissed. It was a $60,000 kiss.
Brian isn’t a religious man, so he surprised himself when his first instinct after parting with his remaining stack was to bring his hands together in front of his face. Please Lord, please. Let me be a hero.
“Splitting 8s,” the dealer monotonously announced. He looked apathetic; a polar opposite to the emotionally disturbed Brian. Just as the dealer was separating the two stacks of chips and, subsequently, the 8s, Brian took a shaky deep breath and closed his eyes.
I just want all this to end.
Brian opened his eyes. The pool of brown liquid before him was still. The nutty aroma of freshly roasted coffee greeted his nostrils and beckoned his taste buds. Brian lifted his mug to his mouth and took a tiny sip, careful not to scald himself. Let the feast begin, Brian thought. His eyes swept over the array of food, ogling four slices of bacon, six mini breakfast sausages, a bowl of hash browns, and two slices of toast. The scan stopped at a golden plate of scrambled eggs. Brian smiled, thinking the plate of eggs was his own tiny version of the sun. I need this sucker on the table today; it’s the only sunlight I’ll get! Brian forced a smile. He was only able to hold it for a few seconds before he felt uncomfortable. The fake smile felt the exact same as telling a well-crafted lie. He craned his neck to see behind him, outside the tiny kitchen’s windows. All they displayed was a lifeless gray. What a terrible sign in the morning… I hope it doesn’t mean I’ll lose today.
The Ripples’ kitchen was designed as a sort of half-octagon, with three casement windows along the three back walls. The counters, drawers, and cupboards alike were all made of cheap wood painted white. In the focus of the half-octagon sat a round table. The retro diner-style table was small to allow enough maneuvering space for the chef of the day (almost always Brian’s wife, Martha). The space was far from ideal but admired by the Ripples----it was the home they had come to know and love.
Brian glanced to the top of the staircase which led from the bedrooms. Seeing the space vacant, he sighed and picked up his fork, assessing it. Another bent one. I’ll have to add that to the book of things we need to buy. Shaking the thought, Brian dug into his meal.
A few bites in, Brian heard the signature groaning of the stairs. His daughter Casey was trotting down them in her high-school uniform. Her adorable dimples and small teeth were fully presented as she smiled wide for her father. Her chestnut hair, usually in a ponytail, was free-flowing past her shoulders.
“Morning, daddy,” she greeted.
Casey slid a chair out from the table and placed her backpack around its back. Her fruity perfume battled the aroma of Brian’s breakfast.
“Quite the meal you’ve got there,” Casey observed. Brian figured that Casey’s radiant skin and pearly smile had replaced his plate of eggs in the position of “fake sun.”
“Well, you know breakfast is an important meal. I have to start my day off right.”
Casey cocked her head and winked. “That’s right,” she agreed.
“There’s some still left in the pans if you want.”
“Sure, thanks daddy.” Casey sprung up from her chair to go make herself a plate of breakfast. “Where’s mommy?” she asked.
“She’s still getting ready.”
“Can you drive me to school then, daddy?”
Brian observed himself. He was still wearing his navy-blue pajama bottoms with matching slippers, and his favorite gray night t-shirt; the one with three holes in it. “Uh… Sure, but I’ll need some time to get ready,” he replied. Casey unleashed her high-pitched, quick laugh.
“Oh, don’t worry. We don’t need to leave for another twenty minutes. You’ve got time; finish your breakfast.”
Casey rushed back to the table with her modest plate of eggs and one slice of toast. “Oh, and I made a decision about college.”
There it is. She’s so hopeful and excited, but she also deserves to know the truth. Just be honest, Brian. Tell her about the situation and she’ll understand. Oh… my little Case. I can’t tell her… it’d crush her. I want to tell her, but I can’t be the one to wipe that smile off her face and douse the glimmer in her eye. Where the hell is Martha when I need her?
Another fake smile. For his daughter, though, Brian held this one a little longer.
“That’s awesome, Case.”
Casey threw her hands up into the air and then parted them as she spoke: “Picture it. California State, Fullerton. over 40,000 students and three different biology buildings, and one of them is even completely dedicated to biochemistry! Their labs are huge and their graduates are going on to change the world. I could change the world, daddy!”
“Sounds awesome, sweetie.”
Before Brian had Casey, he would have sold all four of his limbs to instill the level of self-confidence in his child that Casey had in herself. Brian had no doubt that Casey wholeheartedly believed she could change the world. He had no doubt that she could change the world too. That’s what killed him.
“I know, right?” Casey enthusiastically responded. She was beaming. “Plus, this one’s only $7,500 a year!”
Brian felt a twinge of pain in his heart. He figured the pain would normally be associated with cardiac arrest. Not in his case. He knew it was from his heart breaking. He couldn’t help bringing his forehead to rest in the nape of his thumb and index finger out of worry. Casey’s smile instantly vanished at seeing her dad’s reaction.
“I know it’s still a lot, but I want this more than I’ve wanted anything else. Plus, I’ll probably get some scholarships too, so it won’t actually be this much. I’m going to work as hard as I can this year!” As Casey’s plea progressed, she gradually re-motivated herself. She took a bite of her breakfast, but Brian’s went untouched. His head was still perched in his hand and he was forcefully rubbing his forehead. He looked up through his fingers to meet his daughter’s gaze. Casey wasn’t just giving him puppy-dog eyes, she was giving him “puppy-dog gracefully playing with a laughing baby in a field of flowers eyes.”
“P-Plus, you and mom have the whole year to work and save up money,” Casey added. “Do you think you’ll have enough money to be able to send me?” Casey’s voice quavered a bit. Brian’s demeanor exuded hopelessness and it was transferring to Casey. Still, she was trying her hardest to maintain her happy attitude. Brian stayed silent. Casey waited patiently for her dad to address her question. After a few moments, he spoke:
“Case, you know we’ve talked about this before. We’re not sure, and I don’t think you can rely-”
“Pretty please, daddy! I’ll work super hard this year; harder than I’ve ever worked. And once I graduate and get my research job I’ll make sooooo much money, I’ll be able to take care of you and mom and you won’t have to worry about anything!”
The emotional distress was drowning Brian.
A voice in his head was screaming, over and over: THIS IS YOUR FAULT! THIS IS YOUR FAULT!
It was drowning out all of his other thoughts, exacting its sole purpose to make Brian feel as guilty and as bad about himself as possible. At that point, Brian was sweating and his face was red.
“Case…” Brian started, “it’s going to be tough for us. We’d really have to be careful about our money.”
Casey didn’t let a sliver of a second pass before she responded: “don’t worry about and Christmas or birthday gifts then, and we’ll stop going out for food, too. We’ll cook ever meal! I’ll cook if you need me too!” Casey was bouncing in her chair in anticipation of hearing a “yes” from her father.
It’ll be fine. I’ll stop gambling as much. I’ll only go once or twice a week and only bring a few hundred with me when I go. I can do it. For my daughter. For my beautiful Case. I can do it.
THIS IS YOUR FAULT!
“Okay,” Brian assured, “consider it done.” The voice quieted.
“Yay! Thank you so much daddy, I love you. I promise I won’t let you down!” Casey quickly clapped three times and raced out of her chair to hug her dad, who weakly returned it. As Casey sat back down to resume eating, the clouds outside began to part, doing away with the gloom and letting in a small ray of sunlight.
“I’ll talk with your mom and we’ll come up with a plan to save money all year.” Brian hoped that hearing the words leave his mouth would convince him that it was possible. He wasn’t convinced. Casey gave her father a wide, genuine smile. It even looked as though she might shed a tear.
“Thank you, daddy,” she said, sweetly. “Trust me, this investment will pay lifelong dividends!” Casey laughed, and Brian let out a nervous chuckle. “I’m sure you’ll fall in love with Fullerton too when you and mom come with me for the tour.”
“I’m sure I will.” Brian tried to hide a sigh, and then breakfast eating resumed for both parties.
The voice returned. This time not to scream at Brian, but to admonish him. Look at her. You just made her day, you degenerate prick. Now don’t let her down. You’d better not let her down!
“I won’t,” Brian said aloud. Casey looked puzzled.
“What?” Brian repeated.
“I just asked you what you were doing at work today, and you said ‘I won’t’.” Brian shook his head.
“Sorry Case, I meant to say that I’ll just be packaging, as usual.” Casey looked to the ceiling and laughed.
“Okay, that makes way more sense.”
For the next minute, the duo ate in silence. Now, not the newfound sunlight nor the enticing aroma of the slowly cooling breakfast feast permeated Brian’s new fixation: the need to change. The need to get his gambling under control; to stop pissing away his family’s money. Not just for him, not just for his wife, but for his intelligent and wholly innocent daughter.
“I love you, daddy.”
Another concealed sigh.
“I love you too.”
“You can split up to a maximum of four hands and double once on each hand,” the dealer continued.
From across the casino, everyone at the table heard the guttural yell of what sounded to be a large old man. Mao knew that it was a winning yell. He had more than enough experience to be able to tell. The Indian couple were unsure, however. The man, in a black suit and crimson dress shirt, whispered to his girlfriend that someone must have won big. The girlfriend, boasting a sparkly, ruby-red maxi dress, was convinced the man had lost a big bet. Either way, they both knew the man with the $60,000 bet was about thirty seconds away from producing a yell for one of those two reasons.
The dealer, in an attempt to build up suspense and excitement for a man who clearly couldn’t handle any more, stretched his actions enormously. Brian stepped back from the table and spun around in a circle, stepping back to the rail. He was in literal agony, sweating profusely and unable to keep still. He wanted to faint, but he knew he needed to be awake to see the result of the hand. Brian stared at the dealer’s left hand as it craned across the table to the shoe which held the unrevealed cards. The pale, bony forefinger latched onto the topmost card and began to slide it back across the felt. It seemed like an eternity to Brian, who had more riding on this very moment than he did at any other singular time in his life. He was past the point of logic, figuring that channeling his energy into the card about to be revealed could guarantee it to be a 2, 3, ten-value card, or an ace.
It’s a good card, Brian assured himself. I will win. I will win. Then I’ll stop gambling. I’ll win and then it’ll all be over. My journey will be complete. I’ll end on the best night I’ve ever had. Brian began to repeat the mental chant faster and faster as the card got closer and closer to his eight of diamonds. Right before the reveal, he was screaming at himself in his head. He had no idea that his thoughts would eventually break their mental barriers and transition into vocal pleas, but they did.
“COME ON!” he screamed at an outrageous volume. The Indian couple jumped in surprise, and Mao and the dealer stayed still and silent, seemingly not bothered. Hurry up, before I have a heart attack!
The dealer flipped the card over and laid it over Brian’s 8, overlapping at the corner.
It was the King of spades.
“YES!” Brian screamed, pumping his fist in the air and flexing his arm muscles to their full capacity. Eighteen against a dealer ten wasn’t the prettiest hand, but it gave Brian a good shot. The dealer might bust, in which case Brian would win his hand. If the dealer had a seven with their jack, then Brian would still win. With an eight, Brian would tie, keeping $30,000 of his money. Brian exhaled and shook violently, releasing some of the stress the last few minutes had created.
I’m far from out of trouble yet, but 18 is a really good hand. I’ll win this hand. I know I’ll win this hand! Casey can go to college. My Case. I’ll be able to send her to college.
“Eighteen,” the dealer announced, pointing to the hand and inciting further action from Brian. Brian waved his trembling hand over his eighteen to signify that he no longer wanted to add cards to the total. And, just as soon as the tension was released, it began to build again. Brian still had a second hand to play. He took a deep breath and prepared himself to receive the next card. This time, the dealer acted much more quickly. He grabbed the card and hoisted it into the air such that Brian couldn’t see the card’s face. The dealer held the card in front of his chest but looked past it, straight at the distraught gambler. After a few seconds of stillness, the dealer brought the card down towards Brian’s eight of clubs to be revealed to the table.
“2,684?” asked Brian.
“Yep, it’s right in front of you.”
Brian glanced up to meet the sharp, green eyes of his wife, Martha. Her square-lensed reading glasses rested low on the bridge of her nose, as she usually had them. That way, she could simultaneously correct her hyperopia and give death-stares.
“We can’t pay this,” Martha continued. “Care to explain why?”
Brian was feeling unusually warm underneath their thin, green blanket with a worn floral pattern. He closed his football book over his left thumb (so he wouldn’t lose his place) and shifted his legs apart in an effort to slow his sweating. Brian tried to formulate a reasonable lie to his wife’s question, but he was distracted in visually tracing the crow’s foot by his wife’s left eye. One of the claws came within a millimeter of reaching the mole on her cheek. Perhaps another year or so would do it----contact would be made. But Brian wasn’t sure she’d be around that long to see it, unfortunately.
“Nevermind, I don’t even know why I’m asking you that,” Martha lamented. She picked up the bill and brought it back to her side to join its brethren, returning her gaze to the laptop screen perched on her legs.
Brian had half a mind to reach for Martha’s hand, but they were sitting so far apart that he could barely reach it anyway. Like Brian, Martha was a stress-eater, although her body had taken it a little better than his. Still, she had become more heavy-set in the past few years, which is why she almost exclusively wore her black silk robe which concealed her bodily changes so well. In fact, as a freelance business consultant, she only ever changed her attire for meetings with her clients. Right now, Martha was stranded in a sea of bills. It garnered a fantastic visual for Brian: he must quell the bills in order to rescue his wife and rebuild their relationship. If he had the desire to do so, that is.
“Honey, I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Brian lazily assured.
Martha looked back at Brian, chin down and eyebrows high. “’We’ll be fine?’” she questioned. “This is the most certain I have ever been in my life that we will not ‘be fine’.”
Brian gave a sheepish frown.
“Today,” Martha angrily continued, “I once again checked the balance of our bank account, which seems to be a magician. All our money disappeared.”
Brian clenched his book tighter, feeling the peak of his forehead become soggy with sweat. Again he stayed silent, not wanting to peeve his wife any further.
“So, then, let me pose my question to you in a slightly different way, Mr. Magician’s assistant. Where did all our money go?”
That’s the same question, Brian thought. He also know, though, that if he wanted to be able to stay in the house tonight, he needed to start talking. Hopefully, he would stumble his way into a sufficient lie.
“Well…” he began, “I’ve barely gambled anything this week. I’ve hardly gone, you know that.” Martha maintained her stern, unblinking stare. “That new washer and dryer cost a lot. And we just went grocery shopping. Check the withdrawals; they should all add up.”
Brian knew that Martha kept a hawk’s eye on their money. His wife already knew exactly how much money was unaccounted for that week. Still, Brian hoped with all his might that by some miracle his wife would accept the excuse and they could go to bed without any further conversation on the subject.
“We’re in luck, then. It just so happens that I have checked the books!” Martha bent forward and unsheathed a sheet of scrap paper with a few hand-calculations on it. “Four consultations this month netted $4,368.88 after tax. Adding that to your bi-weekly pay which was deposited last Thursday, that makes $5,955.77. After expenses, we should have $3,755.75 left. We have zero, Brian.”
Martha tossed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and let her arms drop loosely to her sides. She imparted her most effective “cut the bullshit” look in years. As irritated as she was with her husband, hints of sorrow and fear were beginning to leak through her expression. She looked to be on the verge of tears, and Brian picked up on that. Almost more than lying to Casey did lying to his wife break his heart. Brian sighed.
“Okay. You want to know the truth?”
Martha snickered. She didn’t even look at Brian as she responded. She just shook her head while staring at her laptop screen and said: “Hun, I’ve wanted to know the truth for years. But, I have a strong suspicion that today won’t be the day I get to hear it.”
Brian sat up from the tower of pillows he had built to support his back as he read. He threw his hands up in frustration. “Honey, you can’t just say shit like that! I’m trying to be honest with you and you’re making me into a joke.
Martha had 1001 ways she could retort and start an argument, but she selected passivity above all of them. They’d had the same argument countless times, never resulting in any sort of positive outcome. She was exhausted, anyway. Her roots were extra-gray today, which meant she was too tired to have an argument with Brian.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, “go ahead. I’m listening.”
“Thank you,” Brian overemphasized as he cleared his forehead of sweat. “There isn’t any money left in the account because I loaned the rest to Jason and Doug from work.”
“Oh? And what could Jason and Doug possibly have needed four grand for?”
Okay, this is good. She’s hasn’t shut it down yet, which means I have a chance.
“Well, you know Jason is trying to get enough to put a down-payment on that house.” Martha didn’t agree, but she didn’t object. That was good enough for Brian to continue: “And Doug… Well, I’m not really sure what he needed it for, but he sounded pretty desperate when he asked. Practically begged me for a grand.”
Martha pressed the palm of her hands to her temples. She still hadn’t turned to face Brian, who was looking at her intently, as a child would look at his mother to approve his request for an ice-cream cone.
“So, you’re doling out our money to your friends like we’re the fucking Bank of America while we’re struggling to pay our own bills and can’t even send our daughter to college!?” Martha’s sentence gradually grew in volume. At the end of it, she turned to face Brian. When she looked at him this time, tears were streaming down her face. Her bottom lip was quivering. Brian was appalled by the sight of his distressed wife and grimaced, deciding not to respond to her question. Martha took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her face. “I just don’t believe that, Brian. That might even be dumber than having gambled that money away.”
More stupid, yes. But Brian knew she would still prefer the lie to be true. Jason and Doug wouldn’t ask for money forever, but gambling was perpetual.
Brian tried to make his tone as sombre and convincing as possible. “I know,” he said, “I just wanted to help out my friends in need. I have a problem. I’m too quick to loan people money when they ask for it because they’re my friends.”
Again, Martha had a bevy of responses that wanted to rush out of her mouth. Instead, she maintained self-control.
“And when are your little work buddies going to pay you back?”
“Doug said he could in about a week.” Brian would deal with that lie in a week. “Jason might take a little longer; maybe about a month.”
Martha took a few deep breaths, each time expelling the air quickly through her nose like an angry bull. “So help me God, if you’re lying to me,” she warned.
“I’m not honey, I promise. I’ll even give you their numbers if you want. Call them, they’ll have to problem telling you what I just told you.”
“No, it’s fine. Just keep on their asses every day for that money. And for the love of God, stop lending it out!”