Don’t gamble what you can’t afford to lose.
Jim rose up from the butt groove in his beloved couch as the quarterback on screen scrambled to his left, cocked his arm, and launched a prayer toward the end zone.
“Come on,” Jim slurred, his awareness bursting to life through the craft beer haze that’d kept him placid through the game’s first fifty-nine minutes and fifty-six seconds. The Wildcats were only down by four. A touchdown would give them a two-point victory, cover the one-and-a-half-point spread, and win Jim enough money to cover all of the gambling debt he’d racked up that season.
“Come on,” he repeated as the ball fluttered toward the end zone. “Come on, you purple bastards.” He’d always hated the color of the Wildcats’ uniforms.
A gaggle of athletic humans clustered together around the goal line, their eyes skyward as if watching an angel descend from heaven. Two of them, clad in powder blue, leapt too early. The rest moved as one, their gloved hands reaching desperately toward the rapidly descending pigskin.
Jim’s breath froze in his throat.
The ball struck fingertips and bounced upward, whirling end-over-end like a drunk falling down the stairs. That initial tip blessed one of the early leapers with a second chance. As the cluster around him descended, the Wildcats’ would be savior shoved himself upward once again, uncontested by friend or foe.
Aluminum crinkled as Jim’s grip on his can of beer tightened.
The ball struck the receiver’s left thumb, ricocheted sideways, bounced off his helmet, and came to rest on the field just outside of the end zone.
Time expired. Referees rushed onto the field, blowing their whistles and waving their arms.
The victorious coach cringed away from the cascade of bright orange sports drink a pair of his players dumped down the back of his sweatshirt.
“And that’s the game, folks!” the play-by-play man drawled. “Houston comes up short in the playoffs for the third consecutive year. It’s Bolts 34, Wildcats 30.”
Jim’s testicles retreated up into his torso. “Son of a bitch.” There was no way he was going to be able to pay the mortgage.
He leaned back into the groove he’d carved into his old couch in defeat. His eyes traced the suddenly claustrophobic walls of his basement rec room, lingering on the blank spaces and empty shelves that had once held his beloved collection of sports memorabilia. There was nothing left to sell.
He took inventory of the rest of the house. Julia’s jewelry and clothing had been the first thing he’d pawned. Their record collection had barely bought a week’s worth of groceries. Three appraisers had called his grandmother’s fine china worthless. Was there something in Jen’s room? He banished the thought; his daughter had so little, and her mother’s death had taken so much from her, and he refused to even consider asking her to give up more than she already had.
Maybe his brother could help again? Probably. Chris had his own money problems, though, and Jim couldn’t bare the thought of asking his big brother to take on the risk.
There was only one way out of this: he had to go straight to Lucky Lou and get out in front of it. Maybe they could cut a deal. They’d known each other since second grade, after all. Hell, Jim had even introduced Lou to his eventual wife. That had to be worth another couple grand.
Jim snagged his smart phone from the coffee table and whirled to his feet. His beer-blurred equilibrium rebelled against the sudden movement and he was forced to brace himself for a moment against the side of the couch. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, he thought, at least not in that condition.
He stomped up the unfinished staircase, the handrail rattling precariously in its mounts, making sure to skip the damaged tread three steps down from the top that he couldn’t afford to replace. The daylight streaming into the kitchen momentarily blinded him. Exiting his cave, as Jen had christened it, was always a shock to the system at the end of an afternoon of poorly lit football.
“The mighty brown bear emerges from hibernation,” his daughter teased from the kitchen table, smiling from ear to ear. With her brown hair pulled back she looked so much like Julia it hurt. A cup of tea and a plate of apple slices served as her study buddies.
“How’s it going over there, Einstein?” he asked with a nod toward the open text book on the table in front of her.
“Science this year is biology, Dad,” she replied, shifting within the gray sweatshirt she’d snagged from his closet. On her, it looked like a tent. “It’s making me miss physics.”
Jim crossed the room in two easy strides and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sure you’ll get it.” Jen’s grades were perfect—almost too perfect, he sometimes thought. She’d dove headfirst into studying after her mother’s cancer diagnosis a couple years prior. She seemed to have a social life and all that, but Jim still worried his daughter was overdoing it with school as a means of burying her feelings. Still, there were worse ways to deal with grief. He’d barely made it through high school himself, so seeing his daughter make use of the academic talents she’d clearly inherited from her mother made him proud.
“I need to run an errand,” he said, plucking the car keys from their usual home in the basket on the counter, beside the dog-faced cookie jar.
Jen pursed her lips. “Unless you’re trying a new cologne, you smell like you shouldn’t be driving.”
“It’ll be alright. I’m not going far.”
She took a deep breath, held it for a five count, and then slowly let it stream out through her nose. “You know, I’ll love you even if we have to live in the truck.”
His daughter’s insight stopped Jim in his tracks. Her ability to see right through his attempts to hide things from her continued to surprise and amaze—and he hoped it always would, because it made him very proud. “It won’t come to that,” he said.
She smiled at him. “I know, but I worry about what you’re willing to give up in exchange.”
Street parking was sparse at the end of Lou’s cul-de-sac, as was tradition on football Sunday. Jim eased his pickup truck in behind a string of family sedans and recent model SUVs. He loved his old pickup, but he always felt self-conscious leaving it around nicer vehicles. Those cars clearly belonged to men with well-paying jobs and large, stable families. Jim’s truck, meanwhile, belonged to someone they’d hire to do the sort of labor they couldn’t be bothered with.
He locked eyes with the wrinkled photo of Julia he’d stuck in the dash. His wife hadn’t minded marrying a landscaper. She’d encouraged him to pursue going into business on his own, in fact. She’d wanted to see him pursue a career that would make him happy, money be damned. Her own reliable income as a dental hygienist had certainly made that easier.
The engine rattled as he killed the ignition. Some mechanism groaned for lubrication as he swung the door open and lowered himself onto the dark pavement. He didn’t bother locking the truck. There was nothing in it anyone in Lou’s neighborhood would want.
“Jiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmm!” Lou hollered from among the gaggle of middle-aged men over which he held court in his driveway. Short, round, and very Italian, the man’s personality expanded like helium to fill any space into which it was injected. His obnoxiously pink plastic shoes slapped the pavement as he rushed forward to greet the new arrival. Beer sloshed out of a silver can and dripped down his the back of his hairy hand.
“Hey Lou,” Jim replied, stopping at the edge of the drive. He wanted a little privacy for this part.
“Here for the four o’clock game?” Lou asked with a crooked smile. He raised his hands to his lips and slurped up the bear foam clinging to his skin. Behind him, his friends had already returned their attention to the big screen inside the garage attached to Lou’s squat home. Jim knew most of them by name if not by reputation. Nice people, but not his crew. Too many polo shirts, too many golf stories, not nearly enough humility.
“We’re fresh outta dogs, but I can throw a few more on the grill for ya!” Lou continued, thrusting his chest forward as if to show off the streak of mustard staining the white number 7 on his blue jersey. “And the beer, as you know, flows wild and free like the mighty Mississippi!”
Jim stuck his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You happen to catch the score of the Wildcats game?”
Lou seemed to deflate. “Oh. Don’t tell me they lost.”
Heat rose in Jim’s cheeks. “They did. And…I don’t know how I’m going to get your five grand back. I was hoping we could work something out.”
The man re-inflated. “I think we can! I think we can! Come on inside and we’ll talk it out. Grab a beer from the cooler if you like!” He turned to his friends. “We’ll be right with you boys! If they put that smokeshow sideline reporter on, take me a picture!”
The yuppies by the garage hooted and hollered drunken affirmation as the pair crossed the lawn on their way to the front door. Jim wasn’t super comfortable following his debtor inside, alone, but he was pretty sure he could take Lou if it came to that. He had a good six inches and fifty pounds on the little guy. Still, he wished he’d thought to bring a weapon.
Lou’s foyer was packed tight with his family’s shoes and jackets. The two men slipped off their own shoes by the door, lest they incur the lady of the house’s wrath. “We can talk in the study,” Lou suggested. “Have you been in there since I redid the floor?”
“Don’t think I have.”
“Brazilian hardwood!” Lou crowed as he led the way forward. “Classy as fuck, and expensive too! But it really adds a certain panache!”
The study was inside an addition tacked onto the rear of the house a few years ago, through the kitchen. Jim kept his eyes on Lou’s back so he wouldn’t have to see all the expensive décor. Julia had always been a touch envious of Lou’s home. The floors never squeaked, the air conditioning was consistently set at a perfect temperature, and it always smelled faintly of vanilla. It was nice, Jim supposed, but not in a way that inspired feelings of warmth or comfort.
“Welcome to my lair,” Lou cooed as they crossed the threshold into the back room, pirouetting happily across his new floor. “Check it out!”
“That is some nice wood,” Jim said, and meant it. He admired the floor for a few moments to make Lou happy. The more he looked at it, the more he wondered if the rich brown grain was synthetic. It was almost too perfect to have come from a real tree.
The rest of Lou’s study felt similarly manufactured. Jim doubted any of the perfectly stacked books lining the shelves on the walls had ever been opened, let alone read. An abstract painting between the windows overlooking the backyard conveyed shapes and colors but little meaning. A small bar in the back corner held liquor in identical crystal bottles devoid of labels or any sort of identity.
New money, Jim thought. Things sure had changed for Lucky Lou Marzano in the seven years since his parole.
Lou settled into the big leather chair behind the wide desk in the center of the room. He leaned forward and rested his arms on the pile of papers threatening to swallow the desk whole, his can of beer held lightly between his fingers. “So, James, it seems we have a problem on our hands—although I appreciate the speed with which you’ve chosen to address the matter.”
“I want to do right by you, Lou. You’ve been good to me.”
The other man grunted. “So that last five grand brings us up to what…about forty-six K? That’s your wife’s funeral, the repairs for your mower, the new windshield for the truck, Jen’s therapy, and these last five bets that didn’t pay out?”
Jim shifted his feet. “Plus that week I needed money for groceries.”
“Consider that one a favor,” Lou said, wiping that relatively insignificant debt away with a wave of his hand. “So how are you going to pay me back, Jim? I hope you don’t think I’m going to float you the dough for another dumb gamble. Got any work lined up?”
“A little.” Jim swallowed in a dry throat, trying to work up the courage to say what needed to be said.
“I know no one’s hiring you. You’ve flaked on too many jobs already. Everybody knows it’s been hard since Julia passed, but people aren’t going to keep calling a landscaper that doesn’t show up.”
“I was hoping I could work for you,” he blurted out. He wished he could’ve taken the words back as soon as they crossed his lips.
“Just how many lifetimes do you think it would take to pay back that kind of money by mowing my lawn and trimming my hedges?”
“You know that’s not the kind of work I mean.”
Lou cocked one bushy eyebrow. “What kind of work do you mean, Jimbo?”
“You know.” He gathered himself. “I’m a big guy. I can be very intimidating.”
“No you can’t!” Lou said with a laugh. “You’re a big ol’ depressed teddy bear and it’s written all over your face. And besides which, I have so many lackeys, thugs, debt collectors, and dealers I can barely keep track of them all. My organization’s not hiring.” He raised a finger. “But a friend of mine is looking for an assistant.”
“I’ll take anything,” Jim said pleadingly.
At that moment a bright green light zipped past Jim’s right cheek and came to a halt just above Lou’s shoulder. The light settled down onto the local crime lord’s jersey and faded, revealing a tiny woman with gossamer wings, close-cropped blonde hair, and an intimidating scowl. She wore a Wildcat’s jersey the size of a doll’s over a pair of black leggings.
“This the guy?” she asked.
Jim blinked and shook his head, sure he was seeing things. Had he finally drank too much and broken something in his brain? Was all the stress causing hallucinations? And why had either problem manifested itself as a pixie, of all things?
“It’s him!” Lou said with a devious grin. “What do you think?”
Shit. Shit. Shit. If Lou was talking to the thing, did that mean it was real? What the hell was Lou doing with a pixie? Or was Jim’s malfunctioning psyche imagining that too?
“Lots of potential,” the pixie said, appraising him like a piece of meat. “Medical history?”
“Broken arm when he was a teenager, slight underbite, blood pressure and cholesterol both pretty standard for a man in his mid-thirties. Family history of Alzheimer’s. Hearing’s not great due to all the work around machinery and he’s destined for arthritis. Doctors think he might need to have his prostate removed later in life. Still fertile, if you’re into that.”
“Not too shabby.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Jim’s voice roared back to him. “What the fuck? How do you know all that? Who the hell is this?”
“My name’s Alfinatarinpelexinush. Fina, for short,” the pixie said. She hopped down off of Lou’s shoulder, flapped her wings a few times, and landed deftly on the desk. “I’m your new employer.”
“Lou, show him what he’s in for.”
“Fine. Steel yourself, Jim! This ain’t pretty—and not because I haven’t done a push up in ten years!” He set his beer down beside and Fina, took firm hold of his jersey with both hands, and pulled it up over his head.
Jim’s jaw dropped.
Some sort of glass orb had been inserted into the center of Lou’s chest, right where his breast bone should’ve been. The flesh around it bloomed pink and tender. Inside the orb, a male pixie stuck his tongue out at Jim and flipped him the bird.
Lou’s body shuddered, then went sort of limp. The man’s eyes softened and his head lolled to the side.”Jim,” he croaked, his voice tortured. “Run.”
“Will you stop doing that?” Fina barked. “Give your skin an inch of freedom and he’ll eventually take a mile.”
Lou’s form snapped back to attention. “It’s so much fun though!”
Jim began backing away. He really, really wished he’d thought to bring a weapon. “I won’t tell anyone,” he begged. “I promise. And I’ll get you your money.”
Green light twinkled around Fina as she flapped her wings a few times to lift herself off the desk. “Oh honey,” she cooed. “You certainly will.”
She snapped her fingers and Jim’s brain turned off.
Jim woke with a groan, tethered to his pillow with a dense strand of spittle. Everything hurt—especially his head. He’d become far too familiar with that hungover feeling the last few months. God, how much did I drink this time? Pain shot through his skull as he rolled onto his back.
Bits and pieces of his encounter with Lou flickered through his consciousness. A dream. The booze really had broken him this time. Or maybe he’d snagged one of those new CBD brews without realizing it.
No more, he thought. If his behavior was going to bring about such horrible nightmares, it was time to change.
He swung himself around sluggishly, wincing as his bare feet touched the floor. At least he’d taken his clothes off. There were few things he hated more than the feeling of waking up in day old jeans. He stood up, adjusted his boxers, and stumbled toward the en suite bathroom. Getting past the open door felt like a feat of true acrobatics.
Just gotta brush my teeth, he thought, then get some breakfast, apologize to Jen, and see what I got up to last night. He really shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel. Had he even reached Lucky Lou’s? He hoped not. Nothing good could’ve come from confronting that man in such an inebriated state.
He plucked his toothbrush off the pedestal sink, ran the cold water, and spun the cap off the top of the rolled up toothpaste. Somehow he managed to arm his weapon without incident. He stuck the brush in his mouth and straightened to watch himself in the mirror.
The pixie sitting in the glass orb in his chest waved.
Jim’s body went rigid. The brushing stopped. He tried to grope for the orb, desperate to try to pull it out, but his arms wouldn’t respond. His legs wouldn’t move. His eyes wouldn’t shut. His stomach flexed if about to vomit, but then even that reflexive movement was squelched.
His hand removed the toothbrush from his mouth. He hadn’t told it to do that.
Don’t worry about that drinking problem, Fina’s voice said in his mind. I’ll be putting an end to that.
“And we’ve got a lot of other things to do today as well,” his mouth said without his permission. His left eye winked at him. “We’ll start by saying good morning to this daughter I’ve heard so much about. Can’t wait to meet her!”