Aphelion Issue 229, Volume 22
June 2018
 
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The Gamble

by Jeff Dosser




I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do for him. The words reverberated through my mind as I walked down the antiseptic halls of Children’s Memorial Hospital, my footsteps ringing hollowly on the tile floors, my body numb.

Before Victoria died, I swore nothing would happen to Kyle. A promise I intended to keep. A promise I couldn’t foresee ever being broken. Years passed and like all children, Kyle grew. I did my best to protect him, to teach him the ways of the world. As a robbery detective, I spent many nights working. Without a mother, I’m sure there were things I missed, but I did the best I could.

I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do for him. I turned and looked back at the Oncologist’s door feeling like Alice stepping into the rabbit hole. What of my promise now, what could I do for my boy?

“Detective Jacobs?”

I turned and stared into the chocolate brown eyes of a nurse. It took a moment for her face to register, for her smooth mocha skin and curly hair to sink into my consciousness. “Nurse Harjo,” I said. My face cracked into a polite smile the action feeling unnatural, forced. “You can call me Mike.” I cleared my throat. “What can I do for you?”

She stood for several heart beats looking up at me. She was a petite woman, no older than twenty-three but with kind hands and a warm heart; wise beyond her years. She’d been Kyle’s caretaker during his treatment. I could see in her eyes she’d heard the bad news.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes. “Kyle’s a great kid.” She smiled and rubbed a finger at the corner of her eye. I could feel my own eyes water but I’d sworn I wasn’t going to cry, at least not here.

“He is,” is said, “and I know he loves you. You’ve been so kind these last few months.” My voice cracked. I closed my eyes and took a breath, started over. “You’ve been so kind these last few months. I don’t know what either of us would have done it without you.”

Her lips twitched into a rueful smile and she dabbed at her eyes. I could tell she wanted to say more but couldn’t.

“Well.” I adjusted my coat. “I’ll see you in the morning.” I turned to walk away but she laid a hand on my elbow.

“Detective Jacobs.” Her eyes glanced up the hall then returned to mine. “Mike. My grandmother, she’s a very powerful woman. I know it’s a long shot, but she may be able to help.”

She turned my hand over and laid a card in my palm. I held it up. The card was tattered, yellowed with age. On the front was an outlined image of two back to back crescent moons. Beneath this was printed :

Potions Spells Advice


“Is this a joke?” I sneered, “are you after money?”

She stepped back, clearly hurt. “No, no. I don’t want your money. My granny, she doesn’t work for money.”

“Code two, room 405, code two room 405,” blared over the hospital speakers.

She glanced over her shoulder as two nurses rushed past. “Look, Detective Jacobs, I’ve got to go.” She took the hand holding the card in both of hers and pressed it to my chest. “I know you don’t understand, don’t believe, but my granny can do things. Amazing things.” She let go, the warmth of her grip lingering on my skin. Then she was gone.

By the time I pulled into my driveway, a light sleet had begun to fall. It chittered on the roof like fist fulls of sand, a biting north wind ripping at the last winter leaves. I poured myself three fingers of scotch and collapsed onto the couch. I drained the amber fluid in one gulp, the ice cubes tinkling at the bottom of the glass.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do for him.” I said the words aloud, as if their utterance could somehow free me of their meaning.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do for him,” I shouted, flinging my glass against the fireplace, silver shards exploding in flashing arcs.

I fell to the ground and wept. I’d failed my son. I’d failed my wife. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a tissue, the yellowed card butterflying to the floor. I hadn’t noticed before but an address was written in fresh ink across the back. :

503 Franklin Rd. Thunderbird Falls


Doctor Sikes advised me to check Kyle out of the hospital tomorrow. Take him somewhere nice for a few days, he said. Then check with hospice and get his room prepared. I stared at the card, rubbed my thumb along the raised impression of the crescent moons. So what were my options? Go see a crazy old woman? Gamble on a miracle? Or get my son’s room ready for his death?

I poured myself another glass and walked to the window, stared out. The road and lawn were flecked with white, the sleet having turned to a fine white powder that drifted down in swaying sheets. That nurse probably preys on the weak and desperate I told myself. She plays the loving caretaker then sends you off to granny to be bilked out of your savings. I took a drink smacking my lips against the icy bite. What did I have to loose I thought? I was desperate.

I grabbed the keys and my coat and stared up the car. The address on the card was on Franklin Road in Thunderbird Falls. It would normally take half an hour to get there. With the swirling snow and slick streets it took me twice that before I was pulling into her gravel drive.

The house was miles in the country, her only neighbors a forest of oak trees and an abandoned trailer across the road. The home itself was simple, a plain wood frame, most of its tan paint worn away to reveal faded wood siding. The ancient roof was a patchwork of shingles giving the place a gingerbread house appearance. The only evidence of habitation was a thin stream of smoke rising from the chimney.

I mounted the steps to the front door and knocked. At first there was no answer, then I heard slow footsteps shuffling across the floor. I wasn’t sure who I expected to open the door.

Kyle’s nurse made her sound like some sort of witch doctor or voodoo queen. The smiling old crone who cracked the door and stared out seemed more likely to whip up a batch of cookies than a potion.

“My granddaughter send you didn’t she?” the old screen door screeched on its hinges as she opened it. Without hesitation I stepped inside, almost as if I were drawn in.

“Did she call and tell you I might come by?” I asked. The interior of the house was as unexpected as the old woman. There was only one large room, the kitchen separated by an island cobbled together out of huge wood blocks, the bedroom was hidden away behind folding wood partitions on the opposite side. A fire cracked beneath a massive stone mantle and I could feel the heat radiating onto my cheeks.

“No, Jasmine never told Granny who be comin’. Granny El, she just know.” The old woman hobbled into the kitchen, returning with a mug in one hand and a whistling teapot in the other.

She upended the streaming pot into the mug then returned to the kitchen.

A chimney of vapor poured off the mug, the aroma earthy and inviting. Then she wandered back in a checkered woolen shawl thrown over her tattered sweater. She groaned as she dropped onto a faded red couch beneath a curtained picture window.

The old woman’s eyes met mine then she glanced at the mug and nodded. I looked at the mug as well. “Is this for me?”

“Earth tea,” she said. “Drink up. Granny El made it specially for ya.”

I picked up the mug, the hot ceramic comforting against my frozen fingers. I took a tentative sip, reminded for a moment of how tired I was. It had been almost three days since Kyle’s first seizure. I’d been napping on the couch in his room ever since. The aromatic concoction seemed to flow into my limbs like sap through spring branches.

“This is good,” I said, holding up the mug. “Thank you.”

She gave me a gap toothed grin, her sparkling eyes almost disappearing in a field of wrinkles. “So what is it Granny El can do for ya’?”

For a long moment I considered what I was doing here. What could this mad old woman do for me? Would she temporarily sell me back my hope in exchange for an emptied wallet?

I stared down into the half empty mug. “My son is dying,” is said. “He’s got leukemia. It’s metastasized to his brain.” I looked at her over the lip of the mug. “Doctors say there’s no hope.”

The old woman stared at me for a long while, the fire beside us crackling happily. If this were another time, another place I could imagine Kyle drinking cocoa in front of that fire. Imagine Victoria and I snuggled together while the flames cast dancing shadows across us.

“You’ve lost much,” she said. “I feel a deep sadness… and great anger.” She paused for a moment, her gaze never leaving me. “What do you want Granny El to do for you?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. I want my son back? I want Victoria back? I want my life like it used to be before God shit all over it?

“I…I don’t know.” I looked up suddenly realizing the mug was empty. I set it down on the table and stepped to the fire holding my hands out to the heat. “I want Kyle to be healthy. I want him to grow up, to fall in love, to have kids.”

I turned and looked at her. “I want him to live.”

The old woman’s head bobbed in understanding. Then she stood and shuffled into the kitchen. I heard jars clatter, cabinet doors open and close before she made her way back to the couch. In her hands was an old cardboard cigar box the writing on the sides faded to gray.

She pressed it into my hands.

“Take this down the road,” she said pointing a crooked finger towards the west wall. “It’s ‘bout three mile. They’s a cemetery there. The Falls Cemetery.” She turned and took two halting steps before dropping back onto the couch. Her face was drawn, the color washed from her wrinkled cheeks. “They’s many a restless spirit at The Falls. Some’s for good, some’s for evil. But maybe you can summon one ta help you an’ your boy.” She sighed and knitted her fingers in her lap. “The spirit you want is a bit of both.”

I glanced at the box. Lifted the lid. There was nothing inside but dirt. “What do I do with this?”

“When ya get to the cemetery you need to find a grave marked, Thomas E. Fike. Beneath the name it say, ‘The Gambler’. When you find that grave, empty the insides of that box ‘crost the top.”

The old woman’s chin bobbed on her chest. It seemed she was falling asleep. I slapped down the top of the box. “How much you want for this?” I demanded.

She looked up, a smile creasing the corners of her thin lips. “Granny El don’t want nothin’. She just do what she do.” Her chin slipped back to her chest and she began to snore loudly enough to compete with the crackling fire.

I stood for several heartbeats with that box in my hands. Then I let myself out and started up the car. What a waste of time. I shook my head and studied the contents of the box, ran my fingers through the fine silt. It was sandy dry soil as fine as sand. I flipped the box onto the passenger seat and headed back to town, back to the hospital.

What was I thinking coming out here? Desperation? That was all it was; desperation.

Then a sign caught my eye. I slammed on the brakes then backed along the road. A rusted, rectangular, bullet holed sign the size of a notebook read:

The Falls Cemetery


1 Mile


An arrow beside the word ‘Mile’ pointed to the right. I took a breath and ran my fingers across the coarse top of the box. What did I have to lose?

I spun the wheel and in two minutes I was standing next to a wrought iron gate, the frayed cardboard box in my hands. An iron archway opened into a vacant lot populated with headstones. Interwoven into the arch were the letters: T H E F A L L S

I stepped through the gate the rows of stones fading into a darkness lit only by the dim reflection that seemed to radiate from the snow itself. At the far end of the open lot, shadows of giant oaks loomed like guardians to the gates of hell. I pulled out my phone and flicked on the light moving from headstone to headstone.

Few of the deceased were buried more recently than 1970, most well before that. As I moved further into the lot, further from the road and closer to the trees, the darkness around me thickened. The snow fell in a heavy curtain that allowed me to see no further than the stones to either side.

Then I shown my light upon a squat, brown marker no larger than a loaf of bread. The grave caught my eye not because of the headstone but the grave itself. There was no snow covering the site, no dried grass. The flakes melted away as soon as they hit the packed dirt surface. The stone was etched deep, flecks of frost nestled inside carved letters.

Thomas E. Fike

The Gambler

Jun 13, 1845 b

Oct 13, 1911 d

One mighty oak tree hovered over the grave, gnarly branches groping down like arthritic hands, hoary roots delving into whatever venomous depths lay below. I jammed my phone into my pocket and opened the box. I scooped up a handful of dirt and tossed it across the grave.

Each grain from that strange box ignited like an ember as it left my fingers, floating to the ground with the flakes of snow, melting away as they hit.

When the box was empty, I closed it and stepped back.

“What do you want?”

The mellifluous voice drifted out of the darkness with the snow. It was low and resonant, without direction. I reached into my pocket to retrieve my phone and determine who had followed me into this forsaken plot.

“No light,” the voice said. There was a long pause and the question was repeated. “What do you want?”

I peered into the drifting curtains of snow but saw now shadow, no indication of who was with me. “I came..,” I stuttered. “I came to save my son.”

The wind whipped through the graveyard, the skeletal branches of the oak bobbing up and down like grasping fingers.

“What will you gamble?” the voice asked.

I spun in a circle in that dark blizzard, the looming mass of the mammoth oak my only foothold.

“I don’t understand,” I shouted, the growing tempest swallowing up my cries. “I want my son cured.” I raised my arms towards the cloud tossed skies. “I’ll give anything. I give my life!”

The wind eased. The voice, like a vibration from the ground itself, resonated around me. “And how shall you gamble?”

My fingers moved unconsciously to the .38 snub-nose holstered at my side. I’d carried the piece since moving to detective division and relinquishing my Glock. With a snap, I undid the holster the piece heavy in my hand. Then I flipped open the cylinder and emptied all six shells into my hand.

“I’ll gamble my life with this. Roulette.”

The resounding silence was my only answer. I slid one brass shell into a chamber. Then another. Then a third.

“Stakes accepted,” the voice boomed.

The wind was gone, the snow drifting down in peaceful waves. I flipped the cylinder closed and gave it a spin.

Then lifted the muzzle to my head and pulled the trigger.



THE END


2018 Jeff Dosser

Bio: Award-winning author, Jeff Dosser is an ex-Tulsa cop and current software developer. When not writing, Jeff spends his days working for the man and cycling through the Oklahoma hills. Jeff’s short stories can be found in magazines such as Iridium Zine, Tales of Terror, Shotgun Honey, Bewildering Stories, and Down In the Dirt just to name a few. He's also been published in the Deadman’s Tome, Mother’s Revenge, Hindered Souls and Bringing It Back anthologies. His upcoming novel, Neverland, was the 2018 Oklahoma Writer's Federation 2nd place winner for best new horror. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Writing.Com Quill award for best short fiction. When not writing, Jeff can be found wandering the woods behind his rural home pondering the mysteries prowling the darkness. Find out what Jeff's been up to on his website, jeffdosser.com, or follow him on Twitter @JeffDosser

Website: Jeff Dosser

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