This time the games were deep in the vacant Carnival casino, four blocks off The Strip, and the cover charge was a swift punch in the gut. I doubled over and nearly vomited. Beyond the doorman, my escort began her journey inside, forcing me to follow while still catching my breath, or else I'd lose her in the dark.
Slumbering slot machines dotted the main floor, and glimpsed with the escort's bouncing flashlight they seemed like 1950s-era robots awaiting activation. Hallways were blocked by stacks of sheetrock. Elevator shafts were open throats with no elevators inside them. Farther off the path: Door frames, brightly colored in fun-house themes, missing actual doors, beckoning entry into a darkness twice black. I tried to remember what stopped the casino's construction, six months before its unveiling, but my memory had been unreliable since last night's round.
Painted ceramic statues flanked the hallway to the game room, staring at me through plastic sheeting: Jugglers, clowns, acrobats, fire breathers, and further in; the more macabre beast-man, and the three-armed woman. Their eyes followed me. I kept close to the escort.
The game room was lit with work lamps on generators and the occasional candle, in what would have eventually been the Carnival's high-stakes arena. My stomach burned from the doorman's gut-punch, but I tried to stay upright. It was already less crowded than last night. No doubt some gamblers didn't want to risk losing more, and the rest got scared off by the addition of a cover charge. That left the serious addicts and the ones with nowhere else to go. This was it. Last Vegas.
I loitered at the ad boards near the entrance, to see if anything new had been circulated. The back-lit kiosk cycled through different poster-sized ads. For the casino, this would have been used for restaurants, Carnival games, and cirque shows. Now, it displayed the Prizes, in vibrant illustrations. Immortality. True Love. Precognition. Each Prize was depicted as one of the Major Arcana: Death. The Lovers. The Star.
The Prize that got me in the door last night was still on the menu: The Fool, standing proudly atop the world. "Rewind the clock," a headline read, and underneath: "Relive your own life! Ever want to change something in your past? Haunted by regrets and mistakes? Go back as far as you want, make new choices, and change your history!"
I pulled a crumpled photo out of my jacket pocket, and tried to straighten the dog ears. In the photo, I stood holding a little girl with freckled cheeks, the two of us bent over a birthday cake, seven candles brightly glowing. Wide smiles, both of us. I looked younger in the photo, maybe a few years, maybe more. The room was a dining room, with a bay window looking out to a back lawn where a swing set stood in profile.
I didn't recognize any of it. Not the house, not the girl. Some part of me clenched when I stared at her, and it made the pain of the gut-punch more acute. I stuffed the photo back in my jacket and moved for the open tables.
The main pit had the games for the first-nighters and the folks who didn't get the joke the first time. You show up here, drunk on the promise of a Prize, and you start spending your currency in a game of your choice. All the classics were in action here. Roulette. Blackjack. Craps. Keno. The camaraderie room-it's you against the house. But you can't win here. You bleed out over the course of the night, clutching to those precious moments at the start of the evening when you were way up. Early wins are the free samples the pushers dole out.
I wasn't interested in house games, anyway. I don't trust money I can't see on the table. My plan was always to get to the loser bracket and play the tourney. No limit Texas Hold 'Em. A shootout. Enough currency to win a Prize. Maybe the only way. I'd lost enough last night to put me in the running, but not so much that I had no more currency to pull tonight. Some gamblers donk it all on night one and end up with nothing left to withdraw.
At the cage, the cashier smiled at me, but it was a smile that lingered too long, and it didn't match the glare in her eyes. "Welcome back, Charlie."
I read her nametag. "Hello, Nora."
"Will you be needing some chips tonight?"
"What's the buy-in for the tourney over in the Crying Room?"
"Five hundred. But you don't use chips there. You use your own currency."
This took me by surprise. "My own? It'll mix with the rest? How will I know... I mean, the denominations-"
"All currency is stabilized. A one-to-one ratio."
But that wasn't what made me nervous. I didn't like the thought of my shame out for everyone to see. For paws to touch and fondle. To keep. "Does everyone have to cash it in at the end of the night? What happens to it?"
"They are winnings. Players may do with them as they please."
My temperature dropped a few degrees. This added more risk to the game than I'd expected. Part of me always thought I could come back and scam the house out of my currency on my own. But if some nit could walk off with it...
"All right. Let's do five hundred."
"What will it be tonight, Charlie?"
"What did I pull last night?"
Nora reached down under the cage's counter, stood up again with a large glass candy jar full of marble-colored sours. The number printed on the lid: 450. "Come back with your currency plus four-fifty in winnings and you can buy this back."
I stared at the jar. I knew what was in there; it was on the tip of my tongue. I'd come in just last night and given it up. But the longer I tried to recall, the harder it got. "I'm sorry, those are...?"
"All the memories of your daughter."
My stomach clenched again. Tremors shook my hands. I couldn't find my voice right away. I was a father. Somewhere in that jar, I was holding my girl and telling her to smile for the camera right before she blew out her birthday candles.
Nora smiled that smile again. "What'll it be tonight, Charlie?" I swallowed and stared down at my ring. "My wife, I guess. That should be enough."
Nora stepped to the back room for a moment and returned with the device. She handed me the mask portion. "Put that on." The mask looked like an abandoned cosplayer's idea; a fighter pilot's helm and aspirator, with the goggles blacked out and everything painted bright silver. A tube ran from the mouthpiece to a metal canister that emptied out into a glass jar like the one holding the candied memories of my daughter.
I donned the mask, felt the cold metal against my temples, and heard a distant vacuum power up. Bluish amoebic shapes danced in my peripheral vision. My head felt weightless. I closed my eyes for a moment. I opened them as Nora pulled off the mask.
"You're all set, Charlie. Got quite a few years with Hannah, so she's not all gone. This is five hundred." She pushed the jar at me, fresh with assorted candy sours. I wondered what she knew about Hannah. I'd dated her for maybe three months, way back when I was fresh out of college. I guessed Nora had her names mixed up, but I kept my mouth shut.
I took my jar to the Crying Room and circled around the tables. Ten of them, five each to a table. A shootout here meant two elimination rounds, and then a face-off against the final opponent for the whole bang. Maybe it would happen in one night. If there were a god, none of us would have to come back again.
I settled on one table with players I'd watched from the rail the night before-fish who lost quickly and brutally. I wanted a solid, quick win at the opening round, to start my momentum. Patience could come later. In the first deal, I found myself absently fondling
a ring on my left hand. Couldn't recall why I had tried to con my way in as a married man, but it came off easily enough, and I used it as a card protector.
Touching the ring made me twinge. Like holding a guitar close to its amp. That bothered me. I pushed it out of my mind and focused on the cards. This was it.
By the third ante I had a good grip on the other players. The two I had to worry about were the 'tag' and the 'lag'-a teenage boy, maybe twenty at most, who played a tight aggressive game, and an older Japanese man who shucked when the kid jived, and constantly toyed with his stacks.
The kid's currency was a set of tiny, stoppered vials filled with sand. He kept it in medical drawers like egg cartons. I took a closer look at one when I won a hand. Imprinted in a small, sans-serif font on the stopper were the words "ONE YEAR."
The Japanese man played with what I first mistook for Mah-Jongg tiles. Ornate hand- crafted symbols decorated their faces. I couldn't figure out what his currency was.
A round-faced woman who played at my left finally asked the question. The man replied first with a grunt. When that wasn't enough, she pushed more. His answer was swift as a sword strike: "The honor of my ancestors." The kanji symbols represented victories and medals his family had won before him.
The woman made a dismissive sound, as if she were disappointed with a game show contestant's answer. For a long beat, the Asian man stared into her. Then he picked up one of her pieces of currency he'd won; a little porcelain tchotchke that resembled a lamb. Whether it was from some Mary Bo Peep collection or a Nativity Scene, I couldn't tell.
"That tile you hold is from when my great-great grandfather helped slay an emperor's son gone mad. It was earned with blood and steel. This little piece of shit here? It is what you have sucked into the vacuum of your life, so it's all you have to wager. Without your dust magnets you are just a fat, hollow woman with a TV set."
I held up a palm. "Hey. Don't tap the glass." Meaning, don't rile up the fish. She was the worst player at the table and no threat to either of us. He shrugged me off.
The woman flipped him the bird and started to get up, but once you sit down at a table in the game, you can't walk away. Instead I had to listen to her sniff into her sleeve next to me for the next two hands, until she lost it all with just a pair of pocket eights. She had to be pulled away from the table, screaming obscenities at us the whole time.
Her thick hands left sweat-prints on the table's oak railing. It took forever for the prints to evaporate.
As the play continued, the kid looked more and more gaunt. Soon it was just me, him, and the son of a samurai left. The little glass vials all clinked together when the kid finally shoved them all-in with a strong sign of having trip queens.
I thought about doing the thing. It was too early for the thing.
I folded, but the Japanese man called the kid out. He sat for a moment after seeing the kid's trip queens, head bowed, his black hair hiding his face, muttering something in Japanese. When he looked up again, his face and neck were criss-crossed with old scars, and his eyes were red from withheld tears. He got up, nodded at the kid, nodded at me, and left without a word.
Just me and the kid. On the very next hand, the flop and turn were nothing special, but the river was an ace, and with that ace I went all in. The kid looked at me skeptically, still a bit high from getting all his sand back, wondering if I really could have gotten a solid hand right after his queens, or if I was bluffing with trash. He figured I was taking advantage of his recent high, and he was half right.
He challenged me, deciding not to give me what was in the pot. Everything went in the middle: sand vials, porcelain figurines, wooden tiles, and other flotsam from the early dropouts. Moment of truth time.
I showed him my double A's. It was a luckbox hand, but he shouldn't have been so ready to test me. His face fell when he saw the cards and revealed the trash in his own hand. Then, as I scooped up the currency, he reached out and touched my arm.
"My mom has cancer." I stared at him a beat. "I'm sorry. I don't..."
His eyes darted to the pot. "I overdrew tonight. I had to. I go out now, I won't have any years left with her. I'll drop. She still needs me."
I knew what he was asking, and what Prize he'd hoped to win. "How long does your mother have?"
"Two more years," and then a quick shift of his eyes, "maybe four. Probably four." He was grabbing for a little extra, but I didn't mind. I had a soft spot for kids, not sure why.
I handed him four vials of sand. "Don't spend it all at once."
He hugged me. It scared the hell out of me at first, and then suddenly I felt like crying. Like all I wanted was to get hugged by her. By her? The name vanished before I could reach it. My head hurt, the way it does when you've overslept.
The dealer gave me a tray for my currency, and I did my best to stack them. I kept most of them in the packaging they came in: A wooden cigar box for the tiles, a tacklebox with felt pockets for the figurines, etc. I wanted to change it all out for chips, or cash. Anything but what it was. But that was part of the price for the tourney. You carried the markers of your old opponents.
The other tables began winding down at the same time. I hung on the rail for one, and watched a tall man blistering with muscles. He had a lot of energy and a loud voice, but he played a very tight game. He didn't bother with sunglasses. His eyes went everywhere, bouncing around in their lids.
His name was Kale, and his currency was a collection of body parts from plastic dolls. He had a bucket full of little arms, legs, torsos, and decapitated heads with vacant eyes. Some were tan, some were pale, others had what looked like dirt stains on them. I picked up one Barbie head with blue eyes and face paint of a butterfly on her cheek. Kale slapped it out of my hand with a snarl.
He looked me in the eye, then. And I had the gall to look right back. The world got very still for two breaths, and although Kale didn't speak above a whisper, I heard him say to me, "I'm coming for you."
Two hands later, he won the table. His opponent-a pudgy Italian with a lazy eye- offered a handshake. Kale told him to fuck off.
And then there were just ten of us. The dealers had us draw numbers, and put us at two tables for the semifinals. Thankfully, Kale was not at my table.
My opponents this time included a woman again-rare in normal tourneys, but more common in Last Vegas. The difference this time was that all of us recognized each other as peers, or at least as serious competition. We'd all taken a table on our own. We had five times our starting currency. Rolling TV carts were parked next to each of our seats, where the bulk of our stacks could be stowed.
I was curious about what these players had given up; what they brought to the table. I figured it would be whatever currency they pulled from last. I wouldn't know what their vices were until they were already way down. Instinct suggested you play your winnings before you ever play your own coin. That was my plan, at least.
The early game started fierce and full of fire. I noticed an interesting effect of other people's currency: Players were looser with it. Had we been using casino chips, it would've still looked and felt like money. But in this game, it felt like a collectible garage sale. The trinkets had no emotional value to a player. It was easy to forget that the little memento in my hand was worth the same as a memory in my jar.
Big spenders in the early game found themselves suddenly down to twenty percent, digging into their own currency to keep going.
The leader at the table was a balding man with a pair of glasses that kept sliding down his nose. His name was Robert. Between hands, I asked him what he did for a living.
"A rider? Like on horseback?"
Robert shook his head. He mimicked typing.
"Oh, a writer."
Robert glanced at me, then looked back to his cards. I studied him; when he pushed his glasses up and when he didn't. I wasn't sure if he had a tell in there somewhere.
The chatterbox at the table was a man in an exterminator's cap named Barry, and it turned out Barry was in fact an exterminator. He lasted an hour before he was digging into his own currency, and it halted the game for a moment when we all saw what it was.
Insects. Not live ones, but plastic models. They were all the same size, their crooked little legs chain-linking and clustering them together. Spiders, ants, termites, wasps, mud daubers, bed bugs... He had an army of them.
Robert picked one up and examined it, after winning the pot in a harsh ante. "What doves this bug rip present?" Barry and I stared at Robert a moment. Barry asked, "Why are you talking like that?" Robert shook him off, holding up the plastic spider. "Bug."
"One of my kills. This is the bulk of my career. You ever have that dream where the spider you killed in your kitchen comes back to get you?" Barry chuckled, then he looked at the swarm of plastic insects nested in front of him and he shifted in his seat.
Robert dropped the spider as if it were alive.
The game dragged on. I peeked at the photo in my pocket. The little girl was the prettiest thing I've ever seen, all smiles and freckles. I noticed tan lines on my ring finger and frowned. The jar of candy sours sat on my cart. I wanted to open the lid and devour them all. And part of me didn't want to remember, which scared me. Part of me wanted to remain numb and unaware. It was like being drunk.
Barry lost it all with a low straight, beat out by Robert holding a boat. I nearly went down with Barry, but got cold feet two raises before the big push, down to half of my starting currency.
Robert and I were the last ones standing, and he had an enormous lead. His plan was simple: Whittle me down by pricing me out of the trash hands and raising the pot every turn. He knew my only way back was to keep risking it all.
I had to do the thing. My plan had been to save it for the final game, but it was clear I wouldn't make it to the last table without a miracle.
The door card dropped. An eight of clubs. I advanced, and Robert met me, neither curious nor afraid of me. He feigned disinterest in the game by grabbing a velour pouch from his stash of currency. While I wrestled with the raise bet, he pulled out a word on a magnet, like the kind you see on some hipster's refrigerator. Robert silently mouthed the word, trying to make sense of it. He set it down and reached in for another.
The word he set down was "season."
The rest of the flop came down, all trash, followed by the turn; the king of hearts. Another round of raising and calling. Then finally the river: the four of diamonds. A straight was out of the question. Too much of a mixed classroom for a flush. The king was the only show in town.
I focused on the cards, and tried not to think of what Robert had been using as currency. I'd already established a habit of cupping my hands over my cards and slowly peering at their corners underneath. I did this again, moving my thumbs where no one could see them, my sleeves loose at the wrists, and in an instant I had two kings.
Robert pushed a little on the final raise, studying the little magnetized word "strength." I went all in. His gaze went from the cards to the pot. If I won, he knew it would add another fifteen minutes to the game, minimum. But he was under that spell one gets when they don't color up, surrounded by what feels like an embarrassment of riches.
He took the bait, and revealed another eight as his pair. My three kings walked off with fifty-two hundred, and I was climbing back out.
The pit boss stepped up to the table. His olive skin and stocky build made him of questionable ancestry. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored glasses, but I could feel them studying me. Had I alerted security? My eyes flicked to the ceiling, where black domes perched among the circus-tent mosaics. They couldn't be watching, could they?
Robert and I slogged through another two dozen hands, and I kept to my best behavior. Slowly, I rebuilt my stacks. Half an hour later, we were dead even on currency, and Robert became almost entirely absorbed with the pouch of magnet words.
The other table finished loudly, jolting me from my raise on the flop. Kale stood proudly, his chair keeling over, and bellowed to the two other players he'd bled dry: "Suck it, I got mine!" One player slumped on the table and wept like a child. But the young black man
stood quickly and postured at Kale with a fire in his eyes. Bouncers were waiting and descended on him like a storm front, holding his arms back. The black man kicked, he thrashed, and he screamed at Kale; a switch had flipped and he'd gone feral.
I watched Kale, who reacted calmly, smiling, his hands facing outward in a gesture of acceptance. He kept repeating something to the bouncers, but I couldn't hear him the first few times: "It's okay, really, it's fine, let him go, let him come at me. It's okay."
The bouncers dragged the young man out the back door, where his screams were silenced so abruptly you'd have thought it was a recording.
Kale stepped over to our table, still smiling. He carried his bucket of doll parts with him, leaving the rest of his winnings on the table.
"You kids are still going?" Robert glanced at him. I ignored him.
Kale dropped his bucket on a chair and crossed his arms. "Go on, then. I wanna watch you two go at each other's throats."
Robert began sweating, muttering under his breath.
I gestured for the pit boss. The man stepped close and nodded at me. "Get him out of here," I said. The pit boss and Kale engaged in a staredown that lasted longer than my last hand against Robert.
Kale finally broke off when he heard the bouncers returning. "I'll see one of you girls tomorrow night."
I looked at the time, then. Nearly three in the morning. The Devil's Hour. No two ways around it now. The finals would be tomorrow night.
The reality of this fact hit me hard, but Robert took it harder. He fumbled with his stacks and revealed his tell to me: He didn't touch his pouch of words when he was bluffing. On the river card, I pushed hard, expecting him to fold, but he pushed back just as hard. I didn't know if he'd gotten impatient or panicked. Either way, I took him with two pair.
The game was over at that point. It was just a matter of me taking my time, drawing out each hand whether I had the cards or not. I felt his legs bouncing under the table. His ante, raise, and call were all on a hair trigger. He tried to mask it as aggression, but you can't put cologne over desperation.
He was down to his last hundred magnetized words when the flop gave us a ten, jack, and queen. A sadness came over him. His shoulders slumped. Had he not been propped up on his elbows, I would've expected him to lie down.
I raised him a hundred. He didn't make a move. He just stared at one of his words. His lower lip trembled. With pleading eyes, he showed me the word: Home.
"Speak it." "Home." "Hone?" "With an 'm.' Home."
"Ohm. Moan. H...hole." Robert began to cry. I took a long breath. Winning got harder and harder for me. He stared at the word some more, running a finger across the type, as if it were Braille. He locked eyes with me again. "What doves it bean."
"I'm sorry?" He showed me the word again. "What doves it bean?"
"What does it mean? It means... home. Where you live. You know. A place where you belong."
Robert sucked in a breath. The pit boss loomed over Robert like a prison guard. He bulldozed the last of his currency to the center.
The turn and the river came down, and I showed my Broadway. Robert had a pair of jacks. I'd never felt so sick to my stomach with a win before. Robert just stared at the table, unsure what to do next, possibly unsure where to go.
I grabbed a fistful of his magnetized words and put them on the table in front of him. The one stuck at the top was home.
"Keep those," I told him. "Don't let the house take them. It's my tip."
Robert looked up at me as I stood. I couldn't tell if his expression was one of gratitude or surrender. He picked up home, held it between his pressed palms, and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, and unfurled his hands, the word was gone.
"Home," he said to himself. "Yes, of course. I knew that." I left the table as he picked up another word and prayed to it.
The cashier pushed my cart full of winnings back to the cage, where I could claim it the next night. I was given a receipt with my total, plus the location and start time for the shootout against Kale.
By the time I reached the parking garage I was shaking like a leaf. I couldn't remember the last time I'd eaten. I felt untethered from reality. I put the wedding band back on my finger and fumbled for my car keys.
A stark realization struck me then. I was going back to an apartment I might share with my wife, if I were really married. How could I fake that kind of familiarity? For the next day, I had to operate under the lie that I still had nearly a thousand memories of my wife and daughter. I had one photographic clue to the identity of my girl, but my wallet gave me nothing more. Who was I that I didn't have a photo of my wife in my billfold?
On my way to my car I passed a van that buzzed like a dozen fluorescent lights. An eerie organic stench leaked from the vehicle. I stepped back to read the sign painted on its side. Bug Zappers Extermination. Barry's van.
The front windshield was nearly white with spider silk. A hundred spiders crawled and spun web inside, covering the glass. I peered in through the foggy driver-side window and saw Barry's body slumped across the seats, covered in a carpet of insects, his flesh bloated and red with stings and bites. The source of the buzzing: A swarm of wasps angrily flying circles around the interior of the van.
I backed away and ran for my car.
A minute later I'd found where I parked, but my hands were still shaking. I got in and practiced my breathing, like I did on nights before I knew I was going to do the thing at a high-stakes game. I sat there alone in my car long enough for the dome light to wink off.
As I reached for the ignition, I heard a door slam nearby. Across the lot from me, Kale stepped out of a weathered RV, wearing sweats. I watched him jog over to the sidewalk. He spent maybe a minute with stretching exercises, then pressed a button on his watch and ran north, toward the bright lights of the Strip.
My nerve endings vibrated in warning: Stay away. Something is wrong with that man's brain. But a voice in my head nagged at me, reminding me I had to defeat Kale tomorrow night, and I now had an opportunity. Research. Reconnaissance. In and out before he got back from his four-in-the-morning jog.
I climbed out of my car and approached the RV, eyeing the other dormant vehicles in the lot. No sign of life. At the RV's door, I looked over my shoulder one last time and pulled on the handle.
Locked. I tried it once more, but it wouldn't budge. Quickly, I moved to the back of the vehicle. No sign of a back door. The license plate was caked in mud, making it impossible to read. An aluminum ladder led to the roof. I climbed it.
On the roof, I found a skylight hung open at a wide angle. Big enough for me to squeeze through. I peered inside. The midsection was furnished like a 1980s double-wide living room. Darkness saturated the place. It smelled faintly of mayonnaise. I could hear the refrigerator's condenser gurgling softly.
I dropped inside. The noises of the RV were suddenly silenced, as if the vehicle became alerted to my trespass. With a weak pen-light on my key ring, I began a quick sweep of the place, looking for anything that would help inform me about Kale's tell.
Kale kept a clean house. Nothing felt out of place. Plastic cups stood in perfect formation in the kitchenette cabinets. Cereal boxes lined a pantry shelf, all facing the same way, with line segments crossing the side facing me, at various levels. Like you'd do for a wall of a house, marking a child's growth. I picked up a box of bran cereal and looked inside. It was still one-third full. Then I looked again at the horizontal mark and realized: He drew lines to show how full each box was, just by looking at it on the shelf.
The driver's compartment was a little messier. His passenger seat was stacked with a cooler of energy drinks, and tucked under the glovebox was a laundry basket he used to collect his empty bottles. Kale always drove alone. No one sat up front here with him.
I made my way to the back, toward the bedroom. The door had been shut, and it gave me pause. He lived alone in the RV. Why leave the bedroom door closed?
Cautiously, I stepped inside. The mayonnaise smell was stronger here, and the room felt like a tomb. He'd covered all the back windows with foil and duct tape, blocking out all exterior light. The bed sheets were a tangled mess, the deep blue blanket wrapped around the white linen like a cotton tidal wave crashing against the foot of the bed.
The side walls had been papered with a strange pattern. When I shined my light on them, I realized it wasn't a wallpaper pattern, but rather a series of postcard mailers, the kind you get in the mail with Tuesday coupons. In cheap blue ink, every postcard asked the same question in its headline: "Have you seen me?"
The grainy photos were of girls, all aged from eight to fourteen. Kale had blacked out their names with magic marker. They were just faces. Dozens of faces.
Among them, I saw a young girl who had been last seen at the Carson City State Fair, last May. Black ink hid her name in the subhead, but I found mention of her first name in the small type of the copy. Linney. Her parents had released the photo of her taken that same night, half an hour before she went missing. She'd just been to the face-painting booth, and sported a butterfly on one cheek.
Just like the one on the doll's head from Kale's bucket of parts.
I knew it in my gut. Kale had taken Linney. Like he'd taken other girls. He was waging their bodies. Maybe he was betting with future victims as well. That's why he was in Last Vegas. The Prize he coveted was Immunity. So he'd never get caught.
No one answered the door when I knocked at my apartment. I let myself in and walked through the rooms. No lady's clothes in the closet, no spare bedroom. It was barely big enough for me. So, I was living alone. This made sense, in some part of my brain. At the same time it made me profoundly sad.
My phone had collected two voicemails. I played them at the breakfast table while I ate cereal with a beer. The first was the voice of a woman who sounded like Hannah. Like an overtired, resigned version of herself.
"Hey. You missed another one today. I think you finally did it, Charlie. You've passed the point of no return. I don't even know where you are... Don't call Tess. She won't talk to you."
The second message was from a teenage girl. "Are you out gambling again?" A long pause, and then at the tail end of the voicemail: "I hate you."
The machine asked me if I wanted to save or erase the messages. I begged some god for forgiveness, and erased them both.
The next night, the games were held in the Carnival's aquarium restaurant, and the cover charge was a tooth. I paid the doorman twenty dollars for the right to choose which one he pulled.
The escort led me down to the basement level, through an abandoned shopping complex, past the food court with its graveyard of bolted chairs, and into the Jules Verne. The walls of the dining room were aquarium tanks that began waist-high and rose to the ceiling. They'd been filled with murky water and lit with a few hundred glow-sticks tossed inside. One of the tanks leaked slowly onto the carpet from a hairline fissure that hadn't been properly sealed. The house didn't bother fixing it. We would be gone by morning.
I walked to the cage with my receipt, passing the large center table that would be my home for the next few hours. My mouth throbbed, stuffed with cotton balls. None of the first-night games were down here; this was just for the final round of the tournament. Just when I thought the room felt vacant, something thrashed inside one of the aquariums, and I realized there were things inside all of them. What, I couldn't tell. Maybe fish.
Nora greeted me at the cage. "Welcome back, and good luck."
I gave her my receipt and she checked the numbers. "Okay. Do you know about the new values?"
I frowned. "What new values."
Nora placed two candy jars on the counter: The one containing memories of my daughter, and the one of my wife. "Each of these is now worth ten. This removes the clutter of twenty-five thousand pieces of currency at your game. You get both of your jars, plus a little under three hundred notes from your bank. Any currency you prefer to use for that final three hundred? You can choose any of the ones you won last night."
It took me a moment to catch up to her math, and another to understand her question. Last night I began the tournament with 500 of my own memories, and won my table with a total of 2,500. I then went on to beat the second table, bringing my total winnings to 12,500, minus the small amount I gave away in tips. Rather than playing with all those disparate pieces of currency at the table, the house was changing the rate, so each candy sour was now worth ten in exchange.
Because I had a total of 950 in memories, I needed another 300 to balance my books. After a minute of consideration, I chose the Japanese tiles. Perhaps the spirits of the man's ancestors would bring me luck in the game.
Nora filled my order and gave me a tray to carry my currency to the table. I turned around and discovered Kale had already taken his seat at the table, choosing his spot before I could.
I sat down across from Kale. A thin line of blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. He smiled wide at me, and his teeth were slick with blood.
Kale had his bucket of body parts and a set of medical drawers holding vials of blood. Finally, he rounded out his stacks with a dozen or so samples from every one of his opponents last night. He lined them up in front of him like trophies.
The dealer and the pit boss took up station around us. The pit boss flipped a coin and had me call it. I lost the call, and so Kale made me the starter.
The first hand was dealt. Right away I could tell this was a custom deck, with ornate backs full of religious iconography. I peered at my two cards. The spades smelled like burnt coal, and the hearts carried the metallic stench of freshly-spilled blood.
The betting began. He played a very tight game, unafraid to back out of hands he didn't like even before the river card dropped. I looked for every opportunity I could, but the pain in my mouth drove me to distraction, and the constant thrashing in the aquariums put my nerves on edge. Kale began to wear me down, a little at a time.
I don't remember when I ran out of tiles, but I remember pulling the lid off one of the candy jars and scooping out my ante for the next hand. Kale won the pot on that hand, suddenly aggressive on the flop, and he gathered up the currency with both arms, exaggerating his win. "I'm gonna need a bowl," Kale said to the pit boss, "for all this sweet candy. Go fetch."
The pit boss moved toward the kitchen, his face unreadable.
Kale stared at me as we awaited the next deal. He examined one of my memories between thumb and forefinger. "I got a sweet tooth."
"You didn't have that one pulled?"
"You're one of those funny guys, Charlie. Aren't you."
I didn't answer him.
Kale stuck out his tongue and tasted the sour. "Wow. It's real candy."
"Don't touch it."
Kale eyeballed it again. "Is that how you get it back? You eat it?"
"I don't know how the memory works, it just does."
"Memories. That's what they are. I've been curious."
Kale popped the sour into his mouth and bit down. I felt blood rush into my head and I stood up so fast I knocked the table. "Spit it out. Now. Right now."
Kale closed his eyes and made noises of satisfaction. The pit boss returned with a bowl. "He's eating my currency. That's a forfeit of game."
The pit boss looked from me to Kale, and back again. With a flat, even tone, he spoke in broken English. "He can spend his winnings if he chooses."
"But the game is still on." "Sit down and play," the boss said. "Your bet."
I returned to my seat, but the damage was done. Kale got what he wanted. Adding insult to injury, he began describing the taste to me.
"That was good. Like, I could see her in bed. I tucked her in. Made sure she had her stuffed unicorn. You want the night light on, Tess? Ohhh, her name is Tess!"
My head buzzed and my vision narrowed. I wanted to reach across the room and crush his windpipe with my thumbs. It took all my focus not to scream at the top of my lungs.
I lost the next four hands. I tried to regroup, gather my nerves again, and won back a hefty pot with the fifth hand, but then Kale picked another sour from the bowl and ate it. This time it was Tess's first swimming lesson. And then a third one, of Tess as an infant, struggling to walk across the carpet in the old rental home on Cherokee Lane.
He pushed that button, and I lost the hand. I kept losing. I was unhinged. Dark shapes thrashed in the water. My jaw pulsed in pain. Kale described furniture from the memories and judged me for it. He stumbled upon the darker ones, too, and shared how I spent my daughter's entire college fund on a weekend bender at the Silver Spur's high-stakes room. How I hocked Hannah's jewelry for more gambling money, and lied about it. Kale sent me spiraling out with every candy he ate.
I called for a break. The pit boss nodded and said, "You get ten minutes."
Kale leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. "I think I'll stay here, and keep snacking. Maybe I'll pop one for every minute Ikea Charlie is gone."
He didn't want me to rally. He wanted me to break. I took two minutes away from the table and tried to find my center of gravity again.
I returned to the table. Kale sat chewing loudly, a big grin on his face.
As I eased into my chair, I asked casually, "How was the state fair last May?"
Kale's grin vanished. "The what?"
"The state fair. Outside Carson City. Did you get to go on any of the rides? Or did you leave as soon as you took Linney?"
He stopped chewing, and sat forward. "I don't know what you're talking about." "Linney Johnson. Age ten. Little butterfly painted on her cheek-" "I don't know that name." "Her name was Linney Johnson, from Liberty Lake. I looked her up." "Stop-stop saying that name."
"What, Linney Johnson?"
"That's not her name they don't get names!" Kale slammed a fist on the table, suddenly breathing hard. In the pause that came after, he realized all eyes were on him now, and he tucked the rage back inside, smoothing out his stacks before him.
I'd found his button and pushed it. And he knew it. He silently retaliated by popping another memory in his mouth, but I had something against him now.
The next two hours were a slow crawl back to ground level. Kale refused to bet with my currency, instead feeding me Japanese tiles, raffle tickets, military medals, and strings of colorful beads. His frustration allowed me some big wins, but by the time we were evened up again he was back to his tight game.
Now and then he bounced in his seat, anxious. I knew it was a tell, but I couldn't figure out what it meant. The first time I noticed it, he laid down a queen and king of hearts, against trash. A bluff. Later, he had a low straight with red cards. Not a bluff. Finally, after he won with a flush of hearts, it hit me: Kale wasn't reacting to the strength of his cards, he was just getting buzzed off the smell of blood.
The next hour was a game of tug-of-war. Neither of us let the other gain too much ground. I began showing my level of exhaustion. I took longer to bet. I looked at my cards at least twice each hand. Kale picked up on it.
Finally, the moment arrived. Two black tens on the flop, and the ace of spades. Kale stared at the cards impassively, but I could hear his leg thumping. I watched him shift in his seat. He had hearts. My guess was, the ace of hearts. Already he had two pair, and he was hungry for the rest. Or maybe he had a ten of hearts, and felt happy with three of a kind before a fourth card hit the table.
My suspicions were confirmed when he checked, pushing the bet to me. He didn't want to scare me off. I raised a small amount, which he called, and we went to the next card.
The ace of diamonds. Now we had two pair showing, and I'm sure Kale had a full house. He raised modestly, because checking with two pair on the table would've sent the signal he was holding a monster hand already. I called his raise, and the dealer put down the final card: The queen of spades.
Kale grinned and pushed his bucket and his medical box to the center. "All in." I let out a long breath and shoved my candy jars to the middle. Kale flipped his cards, revealing two red tens. "Four of a kind. It's over."
I showed my two cards: The jack and king of spades. "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I believe this makes a royal flush."
The blood drained from Kale's face. He stared at the cards, then up at me. "You tricked me. This is a trick. We had the king of spades three hands ago. You're cheating!"
The pit boss leaned over the table and took my cards. He examined their backs, and sniffed their faces. Gave them to the dealer. "They're legit."
I nodded. "You're right, the king showed three hands ago, right before the shuffle."
I didn't do the thing. For once in my life, I played a straight game the whole night.
Kale intercepted me on my way to the cage. He pressed his face close and whispered to me. "You go get your Prize, Ikea Charlie. I'm gonna get one tonight, too. I'm gonna get Tess tonight." He shoved past me and marched for the doors. For a moment I stood waiting for security to rush in. Then it occurred to me I wasn't in a real casino. This was Last Vegas. It had its own rules.
Nora exchanged my currency and gave me a carry-bag for the two candy jars. "Those are yours, free and clear. Your balance... Well. You have just enough for a Prize. Congrats."
She pulled a panel on the wall behind her to reveal a line of oversized Tarot cards. They were all there. My whole reason for stepping foot in this transitory place... The Fool beckoned me. "Relive your life! Go back and choose a different path! Fix what cannot otherwise be fixed, avoid breaking what won't ever heal, and love all over again!"
I struggled to speak. It was so clear earlier. So simple. I wouldn't ever gamble. I wouldn't spend Tess's college fund in the Silver Spur. I wouldn't sell Hannah's necklace and lie that it got lost. I would be the better man, this time. They wouldn't look at me that way anymore.
Nora asked, what must have been for the third time: "Which one will it be?"
The path back to the surface was dark, and the escorts had all gone. As I crossed the food court with its tombstone chairs, a voice called out to me. "Little Charlie. Took you long enough."
Kale rose from a chair at the edge of the seating area. Blocking my exit. Something glimmered in his right hand: A knife. Long, and serrated. Something you'd use to carve a Thanksgiving turkey.
"What are you doing here?" "Waiting for you. I just had to know. Was it worth it?
He advanced, navigating the chairs. I took a step back and glanced over my shoulder. The doors to the restaurant had already been shut and possibly locked. Only a handful of spare glow-sticks offered light in this urban cavern. "Was what worth it?"
"The Prize. Your big second chance."
"Why do you care?"
"Because I want you to know. You may disappear on me any moment. You may alter your own timeline. But no matter what, I am coming for your daughter. And you will wonder in your little suburban house with your little suburban wife, Why did this happen to me? Why us? And the funny thing is, you'll never know. But I will."
He made a gesture with the knife. I stood my ground.
"You're right. I would have been the fool. But I didn't pick that Prize."
"What did you pick?"
A small voice echoed in the catacombs; a girl's voice. "Daddy?"
Kale stood rigid, frozen in place by that voice.
The shuffling came from all around us, and more voices added to the chorus, all of them asking: "Daddy? Daddy? Daddy?"
Then I saw them. Children with stitched-together arms and legs. Heads sewn on. Eyes wide and glassy, unblinking. They were his victims. The ones he'd lost in the game, and maybe the ones he hadn't.
Kale dropped the knife and clamped his hands over his ears. "Stop! Get them to stop!"
I spoke loud enough so he could hear me. "The card I chose was Justice. Keep it. Consider it a tip."
The cadavers descended on him with unnatural strength. I found my way to the exit stairs, humming to myself to cover Kale's screams as they tore him limb from limb.
I sat in the apartment that morning with the news on mute. I sat and stared at the jars of memories before me. Nine hundred and twenty-eight sours. The good and the unforgivable all tossed in the same jar. No way to tell which was which. Some part of me knew that once I started, the tears would flow, and I wouldn't be able to stop it.
Somewhere in there was her seventh birthday. Somewhere in there, I picked her up and we blew out the candles together.
I opened the lid, took out the first piece of candy, and I began to eat.
About the Author
Eric Heisserer doesn't gamble. Maybe he did, but he lost those memories the last time he was in Vegas. Eric would like to thank poker enthusiasts Irene Turner and Joe Rand for their help with the more technical aspects of the game.