The Gambler’s Dice (Perception Check)

I can see you following me. 

Yeah, you. With the slanted cap and the dark flapping coat and the Metallica t-shirt. I’ve known since Ashdown Street that you’ve been darting behind alleyways and storefronts and abandoned carts on the side of the pavement. It’s nearly funny, really, how slick you believe you are. Is that what you do? Bump a stranger off in the corners where the street lights can’t wash over. Oopsie, an accidental slip of a knife. Unless a piano wire cuts twice as sharp. I also want to ask who sent you but – between the two of us – I think there is an agreement that it’s a bit redundant, yeah?

Maybe you are good at your job. Too good.

But here’s the thing, see – I’m better.

I suppose I’ve got the dice to thank for that. Blessing or curse, you decide. I’ve got nada on deciding what it actually is. Or maybe I’ve learnt too much of what it is. What it does. 

Colin was a former schoolmate of mine. He was always getting himself into trouble. He was a goddamned magnet for it. It was as if the world specifically had a grudge and everyone just watched contentedly as if merely spectators to an accident waiting to happen. Four broken – not including the fractured bits, I’d wager a guess – bones between the start and finish of that six-year boarding school term, all thanks to the great genius of his idiocy. An ill-advised climb up the crumbling belfry in the cordoned section of the grounds. Scaling up the side of the building to cut time to get to class. A tripped cartwheel down the corridor and straight into the trimmed rose bushes, only to come back out bleeding as red as the blooms he had squashed. 

My point. He was trouble. 

Endearingly stupid, if you were into that sort of thing.

I think he saw me as a friend. I also think I let him believe that because it was just downright pitiful. Or maybe I just didn’t have the heart to correct him. I flew back to my hometown that weekend after a small promotion at work, when as fate would have it, we ended up at the same MacDonald’s outlet. He saw me first and then came bounding over with a flashy grin. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he looked different somehow. I mean, besides the limp, the dark patch on both the patella areas of his jeans and the bags that hung like the moon beneath his blood-shot pupils. I chalked it up to him being his usual self.

He insisted I catch up back at his apartment over a beer or two. And then proved he still remained enough of a bastard to snag a handful of fries from my tray.

I had nothing else to do that Friday night. 

So I said yes.

His place was small. Depressingly identical to mine. One of those brick-ugly buildings that sprung up like tumbleweeds or rashes across town. He pushed open the door and slid the key back into his pocket. I followed his lead, ducking past the coat rack at the front. The television was plugged in, but switched off. Two mismatched armchairs stared down the other in a standoff; the cleverly grey slate of the wallpaper was well-versed in concealing the mildew patches. Everyday necessities shuffled like stage props – unsure of even the script of which it existed upon. 

I mean, what else is there to say?

There was no beer.

Instead, he launched into a whole spiel about how there was this new game that he was just dying to play with a friend. Like I said, I guess his options would have been pretty limited. And then here I was – probably to him, an unsuspecting little lamb to wrangle into that vacant position of camaraderie. He pulled out this box. It was wooden, hinges sliding the wrong way, with crude, spidery designs sprawled across that front. Inside, there was a folded slab of equally sickly and untreated wood that looked like the board. He kept a possessive hand on it throughout.

And then he asked if I had brought any dice. 

Well, obviously not.

He smiled like he’d just won the goddamned lottery.

And then he gave me a set of his.

You know, I don’t remember much of playing. But I did. I think at some point, Colin must have started the radio up – it still digs like earworms into my ear canals, the echoing strains of those lazy, fat and pulsing notes. Maybe, maybe he didn’t even actually unfold the board. Yet I could swear that all I know is the clink-clink-thump of the two D20s as it tumbled ashenly onto the mould-ridden filth of the wooden floorboards. The dripping from his stupid leaking kitchen faucet. The radiating warmth cupped like the embers of a fire within my reddened palms, as I played, roll after roll, as if in mindless ecstasy. 

I knew the moment it happened.

When the dice became mine.

And I think Colin knew it too. His face went lax, crumbling, like loose earth over the side of an open grave. No shovel. No sun. Just a shuddering moment of freedom from that dark thing behind his eyes. He awoke, from that endless dream. The drifting lucidity, as if a boat out at sea rocked by its own incessant loneliness. And then he saw me. And I knew he did not care one ounce. 

He showed me to the door without another word.

Maybe he thought that was the last time he would see me. 

He would be wrong.

I’m not the gambling sort. I grew up in what you would call the typical suburban nightmare – mommy’s acting again, sweetheart, smile for the neighbours, daddy’s drinking. Usual crap, right? When senior went for the poker chips and bundled wads of greasy cash and cards, I was busy trying not to get my hide tanned right off. So yeah, maybe it left more than a sore spot in my life. This… is not it.

I’ve been making notes. Pulling together the spider strings of connection in my mind.

Whenever I rolled, if the score on the ivory dice was higher than the verdigris one, things would happen. I guess you could call it good things? Not the sort that means a dollar on the sidewalk or a job promotion or extra coupons in the grocery store, though. No, the only difference was with me. I would notice so much more. See more. Understand more. It was as if I had been stumbling blind in a corridor all this time but now there were so many doors available to pry open. 

I knew the right words to say. The precise way to pace down the street, to catch the taxi almost instantly despite the rush hour. The correct strings to pull, sentences to coax, hand gestures to soothe and manipulate. The expressions and emotions of every other person were an open book – and more than that – I held the pen in my hands. Every single thing I wanted, I could have by my own strength. All I needed to do was follow the voice of that pair of dice. It was instinct. A hunch. A simple yes.

Colin was a fool to give his fortune away so easily.


For that catch, I suppose.

If I rolled low, I still had that taste of dizzying power within my hands – that ability to pluck the strings of the world around me. But now it has become poisoned. It showed me all the bad things. The bad, ugly things that were the sort that people would have gladly plucked the eyes out of their own sockets as mindlessly as grapes to escape the reality of. The first time I landed on a 6 and 19 respectively, I learnt that the sun had a voice and that it had never once ceased screaming. The vacuum of space was gone. In desperation, I looked into the sky of boiling plasmas and burning iridescent clouds, and it- it- looked back. 

(It still watches me-)

I tried to undo it. To reroll. But I was just plain unlucky, though.

I can’t sleep anymore.

There are things behind my eyelids. I think to myself, does it have a face? Or does it have too many? The single lone lightbulb flickers, pale yellow eye awash with taint and rot, a canvas blank with static. The man in the hotel balcony next to mine is a conglomerate of empty eyes and teeth the length of knives; a face and eyes and nose and mouth, blond and deceptively angelic. The rope of the balcony hisses – golden and vile – as it snakes up the carpet to meet its terminus. It coils its scaly flesh through the stanchion of the door’s entrance, clipped to stop my escape.

It digs, cuts, whines, festers, hungers. It starves.

So goddamned messy.

By the time my insides tried to leak out, black blood and thick ink through the nostrils and mouth, I decided that I had enough. After weeks of life finally going my way, it was what? Going to try and kill me? After all, I had done for it. After everything I had sacrificed. The ties to my life that I had cut. Perhaps this was going to be the whole punchline to the whole stupid joke. Dice. Die. Singular form. Alone. Abandoned. Trapped. 

I held the dice over the drop of the balcony and threatened to let go. It was angry with me. It burnt the flesh. Scorched down to the marrow.

But, by god, it worked.

I rolled again. This time, I was luckier.

I walked out of that hotel room within the hour with my bag packed and the dice sitting snugly within the breast pocket of the suit. No worse for the wear. I had my sight, my sanity, back. And this strange cursed thing more than made up for that lapse by following through on weeks of plenty of good rolls. I’d like to think that I had taught it a lesson. But, nah. I’m not that dense. It was toying with me, I guess. Manipulating. But as long as I could play the farce of the dumb, arrogant fool, then it didn’t really matter in the end. 

I’m still here, you know.

Still drawing breath into pustule-filled lungs.

Look, I’m not a selfish bastard. I shared plenty of that luck around. Some good. Mostly bad. That can hardly be my fault though. Depends on their own luck, see. I’ve attracted more than a fair bit of attention. I know their eyes – hungry and straining and greedy – peering from every crowd. The nooks and crannies have ears. The hedges have teeth. And I continue to tread between these places on that balancing act of a tightrope. S’okay though. As long as I know my steps. The rhythm of that balance. How to use that damned dice against itself.

There are the subtlest hitches in the melody that drive like a bloody corkscrew into my mind. I’ve learnt to be adept – to taste its excitement, its glee, that interest whenever I’m on the verge of rolling a bad set. It is the faintest trickle of ozone and copper and festering moss and squirmy little worms. If it’s a good day, then it becomes honey and iron and crystal and pricked warmth down the spine. 

It’s a clever little thing though.

Sometimes, there’s no warning. It withdraws. It doesn’t tell me what comes next. 

The human itch of curiosity just always wins out this battle. 

Just one more, I say. Just one last roll before I stop, but it never is.

Losing and winning is a vicious cycle. Maybe there never is an end. All I have to do is ride the momentum and hope to hell that today won’t be the last. I won’t stop. I can’t. Not when I have never been so alive before, having one foot across that threshold between something finally beyond this mundane, limited scope of existence. The divine and the hellish tangle themselves together in one Gordian knot, but I have touched the edges of this great consciousness.

I saw Colin again on the bus, once. The husk of a man. He saw me too. Resignation and anger crashed across his face. He was the same as ever. Pathetic and unlucky. I owed him. I despised him. I had taken the seeds he had thrown to the soil and cultivated it far more beautifully than he could have ever hoped to dream of. He didn’t exchange a nod of recognition or give any other indication, but when I disembarked at the stop nearest to the beach, he joined me. For a moment, we just stood there. Separated by the walls of our own thoughts. Still inexplicably bound. 

The cool ocean air rustled his tangled mess of curls. The sea glass expanse glistened like pooled verdant gemstones beyond. He didn’t seem to pay attention.

I offered him a cigarette. 

He shook his head.

I smiled, mirroring the expression of his own nearly a year prior – an emotion that I now understood as cruelty – and then gave him the dice. He gave in so easily. Caved to it, like an addict seeking reprieve. I could read his thoughts. He yearned for it. What if. What if? And then the whispering croon of the dice. One last time, it called. Just one more, old friend. I held it out, so tantalizingly close. His skin was fever-bright hot as his fingers brushed against mine, accepting that bargain. That offering.

That death-sentence. 

He ended up with two perfect zeros. 

I didn’t even think it was possible to get that terrible of a score. For a moment, he just looked at me. Blank and afraid and uncomprehending. Perhaps that last bit was a mercy. He couldn’t even scream. 

I simply watched as the sun bent down and then ate him. 

As his pupils melted like runny eggs from its sockets, buckling under the strain of what it could never contain. As the layers of subcutaneous fat beneath the skin sizzled and evaporated in an instant. As his organs cooked themselves from the inside out as if a barbeque served for the slaughter. The soft, raw underbelly of his flesh tearing to bristles and glinting bone and rust-tinted slabs of meat. His veins were left strung and pooling across the white sands. The melody yielding to a conductor’s stick held like knives and teeth, moving in perfect unison as it satiated itself.

And then it was done. He was gone. 

I suddenly knew that this had been the right thing. That I had fed my patron well, and for a while, it would return the favour. 

For a split second, I contemplated throwing the dice into the sea.

Decided against it.

And then went home. 

Everyone has crap luck. Some people’s just catch up sooner rather than later. 

I’m just waiting to see how long mine holds out.

Written by: Trishta

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