Four hours earlier in something that used to be a Motel 6, Linda towered over me, smiling sideways. She wanted to celebrate my winning Powerball ticket and this was the nearest place handy.
She drank up my groans as she gyrated gently atop me. Her green eyes ensnared me, not that I wanted to break free of them.
“Trust me?” she said.
Then she slid forward and back like the world’s slowest metronome. Tick…tick…tick…tick.
You’d think after a month, the novelty would wear off, but there I was, sacrificing myself on the altar of her will. Again.
“How do you do that?” said a voice that sounded vaguely like my own.
“I’m a magician, baby.” And then she slowed down and I stopped thinking.
Good? Evil? I didn’t care. A sound I’d never heard before escaped my mouth as she denied my desire to release myself to her.
* * *
I’d known her from the day I got to Laughlin, the little Las Vegas that sprouted up on the Colorado River, just north or where Nevada, Arizona, and California meet. I’d come from Vegas, short on luck and hoping a change of scenery would help my finances. It did. I hadn’t cleaned up the all damage I’d done playing in Vegas, but I was close.
She sat at a bar nursing a Scotch-rocks. Her jeans were tight enough to stop blood flow and she wore a black shimmery top with lose short sleeves and a bottom cut like a triangle that formed just low enough to make you want to see more of her ass.
We wound up commiserating about how the cards fell over drinks. I ran into her again two days later and from there it became ritual. If things went well, we’d meet at a casino bar. If not, one of the lesser bars. One day, things went so poorly, we had to meet in an abandoned parking lot behind the In-N-Out, where we shared a couple burgers, a bottle of cheap-ish hooch, and complaints about our shared lifestyle. That happens when you gamble to pay the bills.
She talked of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she grew up and never wanted to return.
“It’s cold and small and miserable. There aren’t a lot of ways to make money and the heat’s not free in the winter.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke and seemed like she didn’t want me to look at her.
I did, though. Couldn’t help myself.
“I didn’t like making money the easiest way, so I learned to play cards.”
I handed her the bottle—a knock-off vodka that tasted like whipped cream. Her choice.
“The skill set’s the same, you know?” She didn’t wipe the bottle before she took a long drag from it. Clearly, I’d be driving her home.
She shrugged. “When you’re with a guy, like with a guy, you gotta build the experience for him—except it’s really for you. If you let on, the whole façade crumbles and neither of you believes it. And you both lose. Like cards. You can never let the façade crumble. Never let them know what you’re thinking.”
That was before we became us. She never spoke of it again.
I drove her home and after we both lingered awkwardly at her door. Her eyes were glassy and I knew if I asked to come in, she wouldn’t object. But I liked her. Laughlin isn’t that big and the desert’s enormous. It’s easy to feel little. If I ever got to being big in her eyes, I wanted it to be for more than twenty drunken minutes.
I decided to go home.
That went on for three months—playing at the casinos or whatever pick-up games seemed okay. Then meeting to compare notes. We were both good enough to pay the bills with a little left over most weeks, but neither of us would ever get rich on it. You’re always a bad streak away from oblivion.
Three weeks ago, after we’d played against each other and both of us crapped out, she stared at me until I had to work not to look away. We were outside, in a little city park that overlooks the Colorado River. It was quarter to one in the morning and the empty swings swayed in the gentle breeze. The breeze held a chill so she slid into me and moved my arm so it was draped over her shoulders. She smelled like cherries. I didn’t move, for fear I’d spoil the moment.
At that time of night, you’re either playing, working to support those who play, or home sleeping. A lot of the people live across the river in Bullhead City. You could almost see a life that takes place outside a casino from our bench. We shared a bottle of peanut butter whiskey, my choice.
She took a drag and held it out to me. “If this whiskey sucked, we wouldn’t be friends anymore.”
She shrugged. “Guess it’s good for both of us it didn’t suck.” And there was that smile. “What do you think it’s like over there?” She nodded across the river. “You know, having dinner, then watching TV before bed? Taking your two-week vacation and getting health insurance that doesn’t cost a fortune?”
I closed my eyes to push the memory of it back. I’d had that. Once. “I think it’s like you imagine it. Mundane. Familiar. Safe.” I remembered Dianne when she said she wanted a divorce. Those were the words she’d used. I’d just bought her the Jeep she’d always wanted. It had been a very, very good month. Apparently, not good enough.
It’s never about the Jeep.
“I can’t play against you.”
Linda’s words pulled me from my regret. We weren’t a thing, so why did this feel like it had with Dianne?
She didn’t quite meet my gaze. “I can’t concentrate on the game.”
“You had a bad day. We both did.” Damage control. It hadn’t worked before but…
She leaned in and kissed me, almost nibbling on my lower lip first, then plunging her tongue into my mouth. It had been a long, long time since anything like that had happened. My arms encircled her and she leaned into me.
She tasted like peanut butter whiskey, which isn’t a bad thing.
Though her eyes sometimes had a wall I couldn’t get thought, it had always come down if I waited. Now, as she pulled back from the kiss, they had a force of gravity I yearned to give into.
She stood up, taking my hand in hers. “Come on.”
“You sure?” It was a stupid question.
She nodded and pulled me along with her. “If we stay here, one or both of us’ll need bail money for lewd and lascivious. ‘Sides, I heard jail sex is vastly overrated.”
She bought a room at the Colorado Belle with points. She made me get into bed and turn the lights out while she underdressed in the bathroom. I almost said I wanted to see her, but decided to let her lead. She ran across the room into bed, which was the last coy thing she did that night.
Just to prove I wasn’t a total free-loader, I bought breakfast the next morning.
* * *
Since that first tryst, nothing was mundane. Even on this rough bedspread, it was amazing. I moaned again.
“Not yet, baby,” she said, slowing her movement more and pumping her eyebrows. “I’m not done with you.” And then she flashed the smile.
The heat within me built and it took effort not to speed things up.
I reached up, compelled to touch her. She swatted my hands away, then tucked them under her knees, pinning them to the bedspread.
I let her.
She smiled again, leaned forward and did something with her mouth, and I couldn’t stop myself. We bucked and shuddered against each other while time stopped just to give us this moment.
Then it was over and she collapsed on me, her body damp and cool against mine. Outside, it was 102 degrees and a world away.
“I could stay like this forever.” I pulled the other side of the bedspread over us. Then enclosed her in a hug as she snuggled against me.
I felt her lips move as she smiled, her face pressed against my cheek. “You hit Powerball last night and said we should leave before you gambled it all away. If I’m running away with you, I have to tie up some loose ends.”
She propped herself on an elbow and silenced me with a firm index finger against my lips. “Just a couple hours, then you’re stuck with me.”
As if I had a choice in the matter.
She nibbled my ear as she got up. “Remember that and you’ll be fine while I’m gone.”
She washed up, put her hair up, then let me watch her as she dressed.
It was the first time she’d done that. For all she could do in bed, she seemed self-consciousness when she was naked and you looked at her. She blushed a little as she slid on her underwear, but she didn’t turn away. She even smiled—not the crooked smile–as she her bra put and reached behind to fasten it. Then two hops as she put on her jeans, followed by the top and the sandals.
“I’ll text you. Shouldn’t be long.”
She leaned over and kissed my cheek, letting her lips linger there a few seconds extra before laughing silently and standing up. This laugh was different. Normally, her laugh had an edge to it. Not this time. This was like…it was like joy.
“If I don’t leave now, we’ll be here forever.”
I’d have been okay with that, but she turned and left, sneaking in a sly smile as she pulled the door shut behind her.
Only the smell of her remained, and that was enough for the moment.
* * *
Four hours later, in an old metal garage in the middle of the desert, she towered over me again, her scent a mixture of sweat and desperation. The green eyes weren’t placid. There was no metronome. No crooked smile.
Nothing was familiar. Or safe.
We were on a concrete floor surrounded by cobwebs and the crap you find in an abandoned building. My own sweat fused my shirt to my torso and the hot desert air made it seem hard to breathe. She knelt between my knees as a guy named George stood impatiently across the dust-scented room, not exactly aiming his gun at us.
George was the guy I won the ticket from, before it was worth $54 million.
Her face filled my field of vision. “Come on, babe. I need the ticket.”
I heard George shift behind her.
“You have to give it to me.” Her gaze hardened as she begged, as if she commanded me. “I need you to trust me.”
“It’s ours,” I said. Though for the moment I wondered if there was an us to share ownership of something. Or if she’d built an experience for me.
She shifted forward and I felt her breath on my face, heat on top of heat. I let my eyes close and tried to get back to that moment in the motel, but that was a fiction.
When I opened them again, her eyes, which had controlled me just a few hours ago, seemed to plead. It wasn’t like her to lose control.
She reached for my forehead, then pulled back. “He’s gonna take it, babe.”
I wanted to stand, protect myself. Protect us. But there was nothing I could do. George had the gun and it was all up to her. Whatever she did would determine our fate. My fate.
I heard him move behind her. Aiming the gun, maybe.
She’d told me to meet her here, so we could leave together.
She’d opened the door and I saw something in her eyes, almost like she didn’t want me there. I noticed the tear in her shirt, the tousled hair, now down, and the beginning of a bruise on her right cheek.
Then I noticed George.
“Get the hell in here.” His voice seemed guttural, like an animal warning growl.
She took my arm as he aimed the gun at me, his arm rigid, the dark hole of the barrel seemingly endless. He told me to walk to the other side of the room. Linda walked with me three steps, then let go. There was nothing in her eyes.
“On the ground,” he said.
I turned and faced him, then kneeled.
“On your back. Harder to get up.”
He was close enough to hit me with as many shots as it took. A mile outside the edge of town, no one would hear.
George nodded at Linda. “Get my ticket.”
She glared at him and came over to me.
I knew I’d die. My fate had been sealed as soon as they drew the last number.
“What did he do to you?”
She let out a slow breath. Her eyes were lifeless. “Nothing. He just…he wants the ticket.”
* * *
He gave up the ticket three days earlier in the back room of a bar across the river in Bullhead, when he lost to my two pair. He couldn’t cover his bet.
“There’s always his car,” one of the other players, a guy named Sid, said. He seemed to relish saying it. George had been around a while. None of us really had friends, but George didn’t have many acquaintances.
Sid, in particular, didn’t like him.
“I need my car.” George’s voice seemed harsh, too harsh for what we were doing. You don’t yell at people you’re playing; it’s not done.
Sid looked at me, his eyes gleaming as he spoke. “Watchya gonna do, Slick?” He liked to call people Slick, and to stir the pot.
George had a reputation for making life difficult if you pissed him off. I was just about flush and didn’t need the hassle. He’d pulled out a Powerball ticket when he got out his cigarettes.
I nodded toward it. “You’re two hundred short. Give me the money in the pot and the lottery ticket. Then we’re square and you keep your car.”
He glared at me as he flipped the ticket out into the pot. “Asshole.” Then he got up and left.
“Sign of weakness, boy. Shoulda taken the car.” Then Sid cackled as he got up and shuffled across the room.
* * *
Back in the abandoned building, my words were harsh as I responded to Linda. “I could’ve left him with nothing. I did him a favor.” I let him hear what I said. “That ticket’s mine.” The gun was his. I’d lose this hand. The question was how much it would cost me.
“Trust me.” Under her ripped shirt, she wore no bra. She leaned closer and the cherry scent washed over me again.
I pushed it away.
“Time’s up,” George said.
“You kill me, you’ll never get it.”
I lied. The ticket was in my right hip pocket.
“Check his wallet,” George said.
As she reached into my back pocket, she leaned down into me. The physics were the same as in the hotel room, except with several layers of fabric, a gun, and impending death. She got my wallet. Her lips moved, but I didn’t catch what she said, couldn’t read her as she sat up again.
She leaned back and looked through the wallet, then turned to George and shook her head.
“Pockets. For your sake, it better be there.”
She checked my left pocket.
“You gonna kill me if it’s not?” I tried to sound brave, but my words were small. Scared.
He laughed. “I’m gonna kill you either way. Question is what I do with her.”
“Trust me,” she mouthed. No bra. And a bruise. What had he already done to her? What had she done to him?
“Maybe I’ll bury you both in the same hole, not all the way. Let you both bake to death.”
I nodded toward the right hip pocket. No reason not to at this point. Maybe if he had the money, he wouldn’t kill us. Then again, players come and go, and people don’t tend to notice. The desert’s a big place, with plenty of options for hiding bodies.
Her hand formed a fist as she reached in and pulled it out. Her eyes lingered on me and for an instant, I thought they were the same as in the motel, or on that bench that night.
She stood. As she’d taken the ticket from me, her shirt had untucked in the back. She tucked it back in, fiddling with it as if it wouldn’t tuck right. Odd time to make sure your shirt’s tucked in.
Then she stopped. She looked down as she opened her hand, then turned to me. The slow, sweet torture that seemed so real in the motel was a mirage. In its place, her eyes bulged with anger and fear.
“You fucking moron.”
Her tone hurt. She’d never spoken that way to me. Then again, I guess she’d been building an experience.
She held up the ticket. It was black.
“I told you not to leave it in the glove compartment. I took it out and gave it to you. It’s a heat-printed ticket. You stupid fucking dumbass!” She kicked me hard in the leg. Hard enough to hurt. A lot.
I kept the damn thing with me, tossed it on the nightstand at my place and stuck it in my jeans after checking the numbers at breakfast with her. While we celebrated our new fortune in the shitty hotel room, it stayed in my pocket.
George’s arm drooped. He looked like I’d just killed his dog. Or taken his car in a poker game. His voice was an inhuman growl. “You ruined the ticket. You…”
His mouth opened, then closed. He grabbed it from her hand. Flipped it back and forth. His face convulsed as he crumpled it and threw it to the floor. Then he slapped Linda hard enough to drive her to the ground next to me.
Blood ran down from Linda’s lip in a single scarlet line.
He raised the gun toward us and she slid back next to me.
“Killing us over millions? I get that. Over nothing? Four other people were there. They’ll know. You’re not that stupid.”
I think she wanted to sound confident, to push him. In reality, her voice gave her up. She was afraid, like me. She was on the ground in a hot shithole facing death, and she was playing her weak hand as hard as she could.
He fired. About a foot to the right of my head. In the enclosed building the sound couldn’t escape and all of us jumped, even George. A shard of concrete bit into my cheek and I felt blood.
He glared at us, then his arm collapsed to his side. He screamed and threw the gun at the wall. I started to get up, to go after the gun, but she grabbed my wrist. Her grip was firm, but not harsh.
“No,” she mouthed.
He walked over, picked the gun up and left, slamming the door behind him. His car started and we heard stones shoot across the ground as he gunned the engine in the car I’d let him keep.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the ticket. Perfect. Worth millions.
“You palmed a different ticket.” I wiped the blood from her lip. “The ticket in my pocket couldn’t have been ruined. It was in my pocket the whole time.”
“You gotta build the experience.” She rolled over onto her stomach in the dust and kissed me. “He had one in the cupholder, told me he plays every drawing, but his luck is for shit. He was waiting for me—said he’d been to your place and you weren’t there, so he came after me. He was waiting when I got there. Told you I’m a magician.”
I looked at the tear in her shirt.
She looked away. “He hit me.”
She stood and held out a hand. I took it and stood, though I could’ve done that on my own.
I kept her hand in mine and she let me, using her other hand to dab at the blood on my cheek. I dropped her hand to open the door and she slid it into my back jeans pocket. I put my arm around her, putting her head on my shoulder.
I was hers, for as long as she wanted.
© 2021, Chris Hamilton. All rights reserved. Any rebroadcast, retransmission, or other use of the pictures, descriptions, or accounts of this short story without express written consent of the commissioner’s office is prohibited. So there.