Play to Lose

in story •  8 months ago 


It was a real sucker's lottery, and Will wasn't going to be a sucker. He was making money and trying not to die or wind up in prison before he had a chance to spend it. On that cold morning he woke up in the back of his van to the sound of someone pounding on side of it.

“Get up, get up!” shouted Freddie from outside.

Will sat up with cold steam on his breath and a shiver. He wasn't wearing a blanket. Brianne was curled up next to him, her bare shoulders peeking out from Will's coarse woven blanket and her clothes piled in the corner. A poorly colored butterfly tattoo graced the top of her left arm.

Will pulled a folded shipping blanket out of an alcove made by the wheel well and the boards used to anchor ratchet straps. He unwrapped the package as if holding a newborn and removed an ancient Webley Enfield service revolver. Freddie was still shouting outside.

“Jesus, is that a gun?” said Brianne.

Will's head spun around. The woman, maybe no more than twenty, was now seated and pulled away from him as far as she could get in the van. She hugged the blanket as though it was the most precious object she owned. Will sighed.

“It's not even working. Look at it.” He held it out, but Brianne returned a stiff head shake. “Ok. Well, don't tell anyone. I didn't think you were awake.”

He secured the pistol to his ankle with some self adhesive gauze and pulled his pant cuff over it.

“What are you going to do?” said Brianne.

Freddie jumped on the hood and peered in. He wore a thin goatee and a Detroit Tigers hat. He hooted when he saw that Will was with a girl and slapped the glass. Brianne tried to find a spot behind the driver's seat and pulled her clothes on.

Beyond that grinning face stretched the thick forest of trailer homes on an expanse of disused pasture near Amity Pennsylvania. The locals called it Dick Town because it was nothing but dudes. Where Dick Town ended the steel oil well towers began, their line of lights rising against the orange morning like amusement park rides.

“It's my grandfather's pistol from World War II.” said Will. “You can't leave stuff like this laying around so I carry with me. Like I said I don't think it works.”

“It's worth money?”

“Yeah of course it's worth money.”

Freddie trotted around the van and popped open the double doors. Will produced a wallet and handed Brianne a wad of folded twenties. She murmured some kind of thanks and jumped out. Heads turned and swiveled back. Sure, there was a chick in Dick Town. That would only be odd if she stayed past seven in the morning, or if she left without money.

“Never seen you with a hooker before.” said Freddie as the pair walked toward the rigs.

“It's kind of a celebration.” Will said. “Been saving every dime from the last three years and now I'm getting out. This kind of work pays well but no one can do it for long.”

There was a long silence. Will was worried about this. He hadn't mentioned any of it to Freddie. His friend could talk, and that might fool you into thinking he was popular, but the truth was that Will was the only one listening.

“Well not all of us have the chance to leave.” His voice had an edge of anger, almost betrayal. “I always thought you'd stay, you know because of what happened.”

Freddie was the only one he'd told about getting busted for possession the day after his eighteenth birthday. His mom had used all her money to put up bail and he’d taken off. Working as a mucker on a shale oil fracking drill three states away was one way to stay low. People think because the energy companies are huge that every employee was your standard tax payer, but the shanty towns were full of illegal workers hired through contractors.

“I never thought I'd go home.” said Will. “Thought maybe it was best for everyone if they could just pretend I didn't exist, but you can talk yourself into any damn stupid idea if you want to. Now I can pay mom back and still have some left over. Just gotta figure out how to stay out of jail.”

“I don't get that. You really have that much?”

“It's the stock market, Freddie. Anyone can open an account online anywhere in the world. I made one in my little brother's name.”

“Oh.” Freddie lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his coarse red hair, as he did when he was thinking. “You know I always wondered. The news says stuff like stocks are seven million and two thirds or whatever. Isn't that a rounding number? Why don't they just say seven million?”

Will laughed. Freddie was trying his best to change the subject away from Will leaving. When the man got flustered, he had a way of coming up with odd questions. People snickered. They said Freddie was dumb. After all, he'd tried to join the army and couldn't pass the cutoff on the ASVAB, otherwise known as an IQ test.

It seemed there was a gray area when it came to smarts. Only the biggest dick makes fun of some kid with Down, but if you're just smart enough to graduate high school and not enough to join the military - well you're Freddie and your life sucks. Now your only friend is leaving.

But it was time. Winter was approaching and the work was getting tough. Will's hands were already marked by a row of ragged skin along his knuckles that always bled. Plenty of guys who thought they were tough enough to be muckers had gone to work in town after their first winter out on these oil flats. Will had somehow survived, despite being no thicker than a coat hanger.

“I couldn't tell you.” said Will. Could anyone, really?

They and the other shift workers rigged up a puzzle of pipes and pumps that shot thousands of gallons of high pressure fluid miles into the ground. The pumps were humming for half the day when something went wrong. Someone shouted a warning about pump seven. It was overheating. It had to go offline.

It never made it. Pump seven caught fire. What the hell? The pumps never caught fire. Will saw Freddie's shadow in the smoke and ran in to pull him away. His friend was choked up but otherwise okay. There was a strange look in his eyes though. Something Will couldn't place.

The supervisors shut it all down and sent the guys home. For a lot of them, that meant showing up early at the bars in town. It was Friday after all. Freddie and Will drove the van to Dodger's Roadhouse.

It wasn't downtown. It was an isolated outpost off Route 19. This wasn't exactly a white linen establishment, but it wasn't some kind of biker dive from a bad movie, either. It just a place to hear a decent cover band.

“You know I should file for comp.” said Freddie. “People get it all the time; they just call the lawyers on tv. Bet if I'd been really hurt I could get millions.”

The way Freddie was mixing his past and present tenses was something that bothered Will. He shrugged it off. Will got pretty drunk and feeling ok when the thing happened. Brianne was standing at the bar. Some guys recognized her from when she'd leapt out of Will's van. Because they were lit up and she'd sold herself at least once, the vibe said it was okay to start rubbing crotches on her. He stepped in and drew her away. People respected Will and so they left him alone.

“It's alright I've got my girls.” she said.

He looked around. She had no girls. She was here alone. Will had hired her through a guy who arranged these sorts of things. A pimp, he guessed, though the word just seemed dumb out here. The point was that Will had never seen the girl before. She stared off in the distance and seemed a bit unsteady.

“I'll leave you be then.” Will said.

“It's fine.” she sighed, as if she wanted to appear annoyed bFreddie trying too hard. “Maybe I'll go somewhere else. Downtown's just up the road apiece. I can walk.”

Up the road apiece. Will had thought he'd heard her trying to suppress a hint of a Maine accent and sometimes failing. Did girls her age still say things like that? Guess they must. With those words Will slid right into her head for a minute and saw her sitting by a makeshift fire pit outside some run down ranch house in Brewer.

That image seemed benign, but it was hiding something. Will knew the kind of place that flung people like him and Brianne far away, only to land on some other hard earth. And there was that discolored butterfly tattoo. Brianne's shirt covered it now. Maybe she always kept it covered if she could. Will realized that the butterfly was there to obscure a cigarette burn.

“I've got to pee.” said Will. “Will you wait here?”

“Sure.” she said, pretending to sway to the music.

He went to the men's room to donate his proceeds to charity. He was feeling a little nervous. Will liked Brianne and thought maybe there were some things they shared in common. Then again, maybe it was a huge mistake to make a move on her. It hardly mattered to him now. He was good at running if he needed too.

The sounds of a fight came from the bar. Will burst out of the bathroom to find Brianne on the floor. The guys who'd been harassing her before were kicking her now. Will rushed into the fray and this time whatever he respect he used to get wasn't helping. He found himself struggling.

Freddie joined with his arms swinging. He was mad, going nuts. That's when the cops showed up. Freddie reared a fist to club a guy who was on Will, but he hit the cop behind him instead. That was then end of that. Ten minutes later, Dodger's was shut down like the oil well and people were piled in the backs of cruisers. Freddie was one of them.

“Sir, step back.” said a cop as Will tried to explain what happened. “I know he's your friend and I'm sure to you he's a good guy, but he did assault an officer.”

Will was going to protest about the assaulting an officer bit when the part about the good guy registered.

“What do you mean to me he's a good guy?” said Will. “Did someone else say he's not?”


The cop wasn't going to say, but Will knew. The police had shown up real quick. Will remembered the odd look on Freddie's face after the fire and the stuff he was saying about lawsuits and worker's comp. It was only a coincidence they'd found a fight. They had already been on their way..

“Aw you idiot!” he shouted at the man in the back of the cruiser. “You idiot, did you set the fire?”

The cop put his palms up. “Step back.” No please.

Then Will saw another cop with his grandfather's service pistol and noticed the absence of it on his leg.

“Did you find that on him?” he said.

The cop gave him a look that was almost pitty, saying, “You don't always know people. Your buddy sabotaged a rig and walked in here with a gun. Could've been a massacre.”

Deflated, will returned to his van. He caught sight of Brianne and ran after her. He cornered her by a fence between the building and the woods.

“I don't know.” she said as if she'd been accused of something. She was crying and shouting the way people do when they're that drunk. “You said it was worth a lot of money. Why'd you think I came down here? I asked around; I'm not dumb. I played you.” She pointed an unsteady finger at him.

“So how'd the cops end up with it?”

“Dumped it in the trash when they showed up. If they say it's his well that part's not my fault.”

He wanted to scream at her about all the ways this would ruin Freddie's life. Yes, if he'd set the fire then he was an idiot. But if the cops were looking to put together a picture of some loose screw with a death wish then that is what they would do and there was no way a guy like Freddie was going to get out of this.

Instead of the lecture, Will walked up to Brianne and slapped her. Maybe he could talk himself into thinking she deserved it, because you can talk yourself into any damn stupid thing. But he was still seething. He closed his fist and punched her. Blood trickled from her nose. She stared at him, stunned.

“You're no different.” she said.

“Maybe not.”

The only consolation Will could offer himself as he walked away was that he felt horrible. He'd lost his best friend and his most prized possession, but he hadn't lost the ability to feel guilt. It was something. It had to be. It was all he had now.

image courtesy of pixabay

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