by Myles Abroad
A winning streak would be surreal, something to fill our hearts desires. Or would it?
Word Count: 2000
Damn it! Ain't never had much luck. A scorching breath of air swirls through the pickup's open windows as I pull from TransCon's Motorpool. I swipe my sopping forehead and grit my teeth. Only June and the AC packs up! Taking a right on Sunset, I leave work behind. The same route for the last twenty-five years, the same rut with its permanent diesel oil stench and grease-lined fingernails. Course, Linda always says, Janus Polska, you're a lucky man--nice house, steady job, beautiful daughter, and we got each other. My wife's right, but why does it have to be so damned hard to make it?
As I turn onto Old Creek, the small two-lane country road shimmers, cutting a path through endless golden cornfields straight home.
And to Linda.
Clenching my jaw, I slap the seat. "Friggin' poker tonight. Why the hell didn't I tell Finn I couldn't go."
God knows I can't afford it, and I promised Linda I wouldn't--not with Dawn's wedding coming up. Not every day, our daughter gets married. Huh! All we need is for me to lose a wad of cash.
Still--my only night out with the guys. I roll my eyes. If I'd only win once in a while. Aaah! Strangling the steering, I yell, "I'd give anything for a lucky streak!"
I drift past an old rusted Chevy parked on the shoulder with its hood raised. In the rear-view mirror, a woman in a long flowing yellow dress leans over the engine. Sighing, I make a U-turn and park in front of her.
Middle-aged with long raven hair, the woman's olive-skinned face breaks into a smile when I ask if I can help. Clasping her hands, she stands aside, leaving a cinnamon scent in her wake as I look for anything obvious. Apart from an old motor's rust and grime, nothing seems out of place. I turn the engine over, and it fires, belches, and stalls. When I pop the distributor cap, I grin in satisfaction. A corroded rotor. Once I clean its contacts, I ask her to start the car. The engine roars to life.
After I shut the hood, the woman steps from the car and grasps my hand. Her dark eyes sparkling, she says, "Thank you, Meester Janus. I bless you with good fortune, may the price be small."
My eyes widen. "How..." When her eyes flick to my breast pocket, I smile. Course. My name's sewn on my shirt.
With only the dashboard's soothing orange glow keeping me company on the dark country road home, I holler The Gambler's lyrics as a warm humid breeze washes over me. Stroking the roll of cash bulging in my pocket, I chuckle. The disbelief in my pals' eyes when I cleaned them out. Janus never wins. Ha! Well, Finn-the poker king-sure got his ass handed to him.
Like dark shadows against the moonlit sky, the stand of elms dominating our lot marks home, where our single-story clapboard house nestles under the trees. The living room's soft yellow lamplight shines from between the tree-trunks and my stomach tingles. Linda's waiting up, and she was raging when I left. I'm such a stubborn fool. Before sliding from the truck, I take a deep breath and scoop a box of chocolates from the passenger seat, steeling myself for some late-night groveling.
The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee calms me as I step inside the living room's dimmed light. Curled on the couch and wrapped in a pink terrycloth robe, Linda nurses a cup of joe while watching the Late Show. Dark bags hang under my black-haired beauty's eyes when she throws me a slight smile. Relief sweeps through me.
I ease onto the couch beside her with a tentative, "Hey, Linda," before setting the chocolates on the coffee table. "Just somethin' to say I'm sorry. Not still pissed, are ya?"
"Nah." She takes my hand. "Sorry I said them things. Just hard to know how we can pay for everythin'."
I pull my winnings from my pocket and dump the roll of bills beside the chocolates. "That oughta help."
Linda bolts up, sloshing her brew. "What?" Her eyes balloon as she turns her open-mouthed stare on me. "You won?"
A smile plasters my face. "Yup. 540 bucks."
She grabs my arm. "That's gotta be the first time." A grin spreads across her face, those brown eyes glittering. "We'll have enough for Dawn's reception. I was dreadin' tellin' her we'd have to cut it back."
My head's nodding in harmony with her happiness. Whipping a card from my shirt pocket, I lay the ace of clubs in her lap. "I was dealt that card every time. Couldn't lose if I tried. Even bluffed the last hand and still cleaned them out. I'm gonna frame it." Giddiness grabs me, and I drag my bemused wife from the couch to waltz her around the room until headlights glare against the window. Before we pull apart, Linda gives me a breathless kiss, giggling like a teenager caught smooching.
Dawn pushes through the front door, dumps her bag, and freezes, staring at her grinning parents. My height and slender as a rail, our daughter thankfully inherited her mother's shoulder-length, wavy black hair, and soft Mediterranean features. Her hazel eyes twinkle with mischief as a grin transforms her face. "What are you guys doin'?"
Her mom links my arm, saying, "We're just practicing a waltz for your wedding." I give my baby girl a wink, and Dawn closes the distance to hug us. "You know, Nick and I'll be happy with a small do in the backyard."
"We know that, Honey," I say. "But, we wanna do this for ya."
She plants a kiss on our cheeks and says she loves us. Breaking away, she yawns. "I'm beat. I'll head to bed." At the door, she pauses. "You guys still going to the county fair tomorrow night?"
I grin, pulling Linda close. "You bet. Just like ol' times."
Smiling, she leaves, saying, "Great. Nick said he'd show up in his new Firebird."
As though pummelled in the gut, my smile collapses. Thank heavens, Dawn never noticed, but Linda did. Facing me, she whispers, "Nick's a good kid. You've gotta get used to him 'cause our daughter loves him."
"I know," I say, sinking into the couch. "It's hard not bein' the main man in her life. Know what I mean?"
Linda nestles beside me. "I do, Jan. The cost for bein' close. You're a good man."
Changing the subject, I tell her about fixing the broken-down Chevy. I furrow my brow and lean forward. "Say, you don't think winning had anything to do with what that lady said?"
A smile dimples my wife's cheeks. "Nah. That's just nonsense, Jan."
Like a drunken spin, the county fair swirls around me. Red, green, yellow, and blue traces score the night sky, imprints of the carnival rides in blissful abandon. Faces appear, then vanish. Bells ring, people laugh, sirens blare, and vendors yell, "step right up" and "we have a winner". In my mind, the ace of spades tumbles, end over end. Luck drunk until the spin stops. In the calm, the sweet, sickly taste of cotton candy, the smells of popcorn and grilled meat nauseate me...
"I can't believe your luck," Dawn yells. In between Linda and me, she links our arms, laughing. "Mom. First place for your peach cobbler and a fat $300 prize. And Dad. What the hell? You hit every target. It didn't matter if you were shooting, throwing a dart, or a basketball. I ain't never seen that."
I glance at the huge teddy bear tucked under my arm. I'm stunned. I even stopped trying and still won. A chill climbs my spine. Something's wrong. In this world, nothing's free. Even Linda lost her smile.
A thin kid, with a ponytail and spider-tattooed arm, emerges from the crowd. I grind my teeth. At least Nick shaved. The poor kid gives us a nervous grin, and I force a smile. Dawn runs into his arms before he pecks my wife's cheek and throws me a greasy smile.
"Hey, Mr. Polska," he says, offering me a trembling hand.
"Nick," I say, dumping the teddy bear in his arms. "I won this for Dawn."
His eyes round, and he shares a look with Dawn before giving me a quivering smile. "Uh-thanks."
Dawn links her man's arm and beams us a smile. "We're gonna hang out a bit, and Nick'll drop me home."
We wave goodbye before I take my bewildered wife's hand. "This day's been a bit weird. Let's go home."
She gives a mirthless chuckle. "I'll say." Nodding at a large round, crimson tent, she says, "Palm reading. How about I try that before we go?"
Shrugging, I follow her into its cinnamon-scented, candlelit interior where a veiled woman, shrouded in a purple robe, sits opposite a table. About to hand over $10, the woman lifts her shroud, shaking her head. "No pay Meester Janus. For you, nada."
My jaw drops, and Linda raises an eyebrow at me. "Oh--Linda, this is the lady I helped yesterday."
"Lucky woman, Meessees Janus," the palmist says, reaching for my wife's hand and shrieks when a blue spark arcs between their fingers. Linda screams, recoiling before fleeing through the tent flaps. After one look at the horrified seer, I chase after my wife.
Kneeling on the grass, she cradles her face and sobs. I drop before her. "You're okay, Baby, I'm here--"
Terror-stricken, she pushes me away and stands. "You don't understand," she balls. "I saw us die."
"I got some sort of vision," she claws her face. "God, it was so real."
I grip her wrists. "Linda, slow down. Tell me."
She swallows a breath, closing her eyes. "It's dark and raining. You know that plantation style house we're always admirin'? Well, just outside it, we overtake a white pickup and drive over the hill. When we enter that busy junction, tires shriek, and I turn to see a semi about to plow into us. Everything goes black, and I know we die." She collapses against me, weeping. "It's tonight, Jan. I don't wanna die."
"Easy. You're not gonna die. It's nonsense--"
Linda grabs my shirt and screams. "It's not!"
"Okay! Even if it isn't, we know what's comin', and we'll make sure it don't happen." My heart heaving, I lead my lady through the parking lot while fat raindrops begin to hammer the cars.
Fighting panic from my voice, I struggle to soothe Linda, who wails her hysterical mantra, "Please, just let me see my baby wed." As I squint against the oncoming traffic, glaring the rain-streaked windshield, my headlights catch the plantation house's majestic white colonnades. Linda points, screaming, "There it is."
A white pickup looms ahead, traveling at half our speed. I swerve to overtake it, and my stomach drops. Stomping the breaks, I pull in behind the truck and start laughing. "Linda, don't you see. We didn't overtake him. We won't be at the junction when the semi blows through it." I fist-pump the dashboard. "Hah! It was a gift to cheat death."
My wife stops keening and stares at me, understanding dawning on her face. "We won't die," she whispers.
I pat her thigh. "That's right, Dear. We'll be at Dawn's wedding." Headlights flash in the rear-view mirror before some nut overtakes me. As a Firebird draws alongside, it beeps, and my heart thunders. Dawn waves from the passenger window before they pull in front of the pickup and race up the hill.
I gun the engine, streaking past the truck, while Linda finger-punches her phone, shrieking, "Oh, God, no!" Dawn's number rings.
"Mom?" My precious girl's voice echoes before her scream pierces my heart, searing my soul to never be whole. The winning streak's price--paid to overflow.