by Graham B.
A deck of cards, a roller coaster, a demon. What could go wrong?
|He was here, somewhere on the boardwalk drifting between the curtains of blue, electric fire where I had first found him. I could feel him watching me, I could hear him laughing to himself, a sadistic laugh directed at a fly trapped in a puddle of honey.
Honey had never tasted so sweet, I thought.
I shifted the load in my backpack and walked on, checking my Cartier watch. It was nearly midnight.
A roller coaster roared by on rails lit by blue fire, riders screaming with – fear or pleasure? I could not tell. My own roller coaster of a life had seemed to drag both from me over the past three years. Three years of obscene wealth bursting out of my bank accounts. Three years of unearned fame culminating with liaisons with supermodels. Three lifetimes lived in three years, all courtesy of him, and his deck of cards.
My footsteps clumped on the wood of the boardwalk, a muffled sound, as if from far away, or another time. And it felt like another age when I had first found the deck. I remembered the strange patterns on their faces, and the pictures of people, some of who I recognized: a celebrity here, a politician there, another of a CEO of a Fortune-500 company. Even the ones I did not know looked prosperous, but though the faces in the picture smiled, the eyes were crossed out, a cartoon parody of death draw on by a child.
I felt him before I saw him and turned around. The lurid neon lights of the roller coaster clashed with the yellow lines of his grotesque mask, a dueling light show that seemed to leap like flames to animate the not-face which itself was a parody of death. With his body an indistinct shadow, he tilted his head, and I felt, rather than heard his voice come through the mask.
“Have you come to make your last wish?”
I tried not to think about what I had in my backpack, for I did not know if he could read my mind. All around us crowds snaked from one neon-lit attraction to another, oblivious to the transaction taking place in their midst. It was ironic that my first wish – my wealth – could not buy me privacy. But here I was as anonymous as anyone in this crowd. No one recognized me. No one even noticed him. He was here only for me.
Despite this I jerked my head toward the roller coaster service van, and the dark corner behind it. Privacy. He drifted into the shadow like smoke. Once there, he turned his mask toward me once again.
“Have I not given you everything you asked for?”
“I you did, you did, and I’m grateful. But the terms…”
“Are favorable. Everyone you have seen in the deck has lived the life they always dreamed of. Everything they asked for, I gave them. Three years of unmitigated bliss!”
Bliss. It was a strange word. Certainly I had thoroughly lived every second of the last three years, wanting to make the countdown to my doom blaze from my memory, a neon diorama that could not fade.
“They are good terms, but I can’t fulfill them.”
He moved toward me, an inky rippling of shadows until he was close enough for the lights of his mask to burn me with yellow fire.
“You signed the contract when you drew the first card from the deck,” he said, his voice a rumble of ancient stones and underground lakes. “The one without a picture. Do you remember?”
I did remember. I remembered walking through the amusement park with Kayla. Her face, a wash of purple and blue neon light was filled with laughter. Then puzzlement when I pick up the deck of cards from the concession stand with its load of souvenirs. The cards had cost me nothing. They had cost me everything. I wonder where Kayla is now? She had begun to fade the moment I first drew the ace of spades, the only card in the deck without a picture of a prominent person, someone blessed, or cursed by the one who stood before me now.
“I know what I owe you,” I said. “But it’s more than I wanted.”
“What is it you want? More time? It is too late for that. You could have made your third wish years ago, but you wasted it. The contract still stands. Make your final wish. Then take your place alongside the others on the ace of spades!”
I shook my head at the thought.
“I won’t do it. You cannot make me wish.”
The yellow lines flared.
“Maybe not, but I can twist the wishes you have already made. I can send the IRS to investigate your wealth. I can strike all your supermodel girlfriends with disease. I can turn you into a social media pariah! You will have your wealth and fame, but they will become a burden you can never release. You will hate them even as you reap their blessings. Make your wish!”
The load in my backpack shifted, pressing uncomfortably into my spine. I checked my watch again. Almost out of time. I had to act soon, before he became suspicious. I nodded.
“Then I wish for your deck of cards.”
He seemed taken aback.
“You wish to take my place, as the Dealer of Souls?”
I stood as resolute as I could as the electric fire shifted and danced all around me. The Dealer stepped back, and his not-face almost seemed to grin.
“Then your wish is granted!”
The yellow lines vanished, and he collapsed in a rumpled heap. I stepped closer and saw a man dressed in the tattered remnants of what looked like a vintage suit from another era. He looked at me with hollow eyes which widened in comprehension. The joy that came to his face shone like the natural sun through the neon haze. He scrambled to his feet.
“Thank you!” he said.
He stepped toward me and placed something in my hand, then wandered away into the crowds. I looked down and saw a deck of cards, as ordinary as anything you might buy at a souvenir shop. Then I felt the first searing pain at the edges of my face. Yellow light spilled onto my hands, onto the ground. The mask he had been wearing was not a mask at all. It was the face of the Dealer, and it was about to become my face as my flesh rippled and tore. As I fumbled with my backpack, knowledge began to course through my mind, first a trickle, then a torrent. Faces of people flashed by, souls collected over the centuries, trapped by the demon who had gone by many names. Only lately was it the Dealer of Souls, but now I was about to wear the face and take on the collection.
I could feel myself slipping away as I tore open the backpack and extracted what I had brought: a can of lighter fluid and a box of matches. I opened the deck of cards and threw them to the ground where they scattered. The faces grinned up at me, including the ace of spades which now had a face on it that I barely recognized – my own.
I opened the can of fluid and dumped the contents onto the cards. Then I struck a match. My hand froze. The flood of knowledge had brought with it an urge more ancient than anything a human ever felt, one I had never harbored before. I wanted to collect with the lives of those who would pick up the deck and try to short-circuit fate. I wanted to pull their strings and make them dance the obscene dance of the fallen. I wanted to hold them before a mirror and expose the ugliness in their souls that was already there. The feeling bubbled up from the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind, the places where nightmares bred and their offspring festered. I battled with it, and as I did so, the yellow neon lights nearly tore through my entire face, and the world became a yellow hellscape as the lights clawed their way across my eyes.
I felt something else then, a pain coming from far away. It was accompanied by the smell of burning flesh. The match had burned its way my fingers, and my flesh was burning. I released the match, and it fell to the pile of cards.
The cards ignited at once. Immediately pain shot through my entire being, the yellow light come to life and burning its way through every nerve. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tear out my own guts. I wanted it to end. I saw the faces on the cards rush past, a wind howling in agony as if the souls trapped there were screaming in despair.
Then, sweet, cool, neon-blue relief. The yellow fire was gone. I looked down and saw the charred remains of the cards, still burning. The ace of spades was the last to go, its empty white space staring back at me before it was also consumed.
I reached up and touched my face and felt the familiar skin. There were no neon lights protruding from my flesh, no yellow obscenity stitching its way across my mouth, only my sweating face and its two days growth of beard. I had won. I had beaten the Dealer.
My phone chimed and I looked at the message. It was from Kayla. She wanted to know if we would be having dinner at the Golden Buddha. She had always liked Thai. I checked my watch, which was no longer a Cartier but suddenly a Casio. With the message came the certainty that the wealth, the fame, every wish I had made had vanished, as if they had never been. It was a reordering of the universe, everything in its proper chaotic place. The deck was gone, and no one would be using it to short-circuit fate.
I left the charred lumps of paper on the ground behind the service van and made my way back to the park entrance, not looking back. I left behind the searing lights and walked into the uncertain night, looking for my own way home.
Word count: 1724