by Trevor Creighton
He should hold them but Carl hesitated. I always get three aces, he thought. This machine can’t be real. It must be rigged somehow.
But he kept on playing.
He’d thrown away a jack and a ten to follow the aces.
Of course, he thought, as he lost the hand.
Carl put more quarters in the poker machine and listened as they made their way into its machinery. They were gone now. Irretrievable. The radio announced a cool evening, two suicides, a boy hospitalized by bee stings, and half price printer ink. Carl’s ink had turned to dust long ago and his printer sat unplugged under magazines kept for their unread sweet dessert recipes.
When Paula and Jen had first moved to Hendercove, they had opened a pool hall with cash. They never said where they made their money and they never mentioned no family but they arrived and redid an old building on Main Street and opened their hall. Over the years, the pool gave way to video games and now the main room was a sort of tabletop gaming community bar. The girls had died over ten years ago but they’d left everything to Henrietta, a part-time employee at the time, who had stood up and kept the place running when Jen got sick, four months after Paula had left them. Whatever the rumors, and they were plenty, Henrietta now owned the joint, and if there had been any questions still lingering about the money it was washed in Jen’s death.
Carl was in the back room where the last arcade machines lingered. He played the poker machine. For hours. It passed the time. Passed his life. Passed, allowing him to pass also. No one noticed him. No one came in. Not regularly anyways. Not for long. No one played fifteen-year-old arcade machines anymore but the lights still flashed and Henrietta hadn’t decided what to do with that room yet. The tabletop gamers were pleasant enough, sipping their craft beers and rolling their dice, shuffling all kinds of creatures over imagined worlds to their deaths and glory. Now and then a few would wander back to the room Carl was in, bartering quarters for poker hands and sometimes needing to cash in before going home. They never stayed long but seemed to really enjoy what they called old school for the few minutes they spent back there. It reminded Carl of when folks would play for hours at a time. They’d practiced of course. Spent their lives in the arcade. But boy could they play.
His poker machine was one of the almost extinct versions that allowed a player to win money. He went up and down and played for long times out of the tray where the payouts fell but mostly he paid the entertainment fees and went home, happy some time had passed. Happy he too was passing. Life is a membership and all memberships expire but if Carl had been on a subscription plan it’s unlikely he would have renewed.
The building, The Fun House, had been part of a nunnery a long time ago that had been closed for medical malpractice. In the eighteen-hundreds they had experimented with limb transplants but their subjects had been alive and left in their care by families unable to support children with severe mental challenges. Limbs had been taken and explored and this had been developed into attempting to figure out how to reattach them and have them heal with the goal of eventually switching the children’s heads. The writings and log books explained the thought behind Sister Julienne’s vision. If the mind could filter its thoughts and blood supply through a different body, perhaps the mind would operate differently, and in the case of the insane, perhaps become sane. There had been nothing but carnage in the end. No medical breakthroughs and no protection from the church when their experiments were uncovered. We were doing God’s work they had said before becoming the charges of facilities similar to what they had been trusted with providing. More secure, more regulated, and more isolated facilities.
The machine Carl frequented was painted green over yellow. You could see the yellow leaking through where the metal was scratched showing the age of the game. The moves it had made. The history it contained. Carl had found one online once. He’d considered picking it up. Having it at home but somehow he needed to be out. He couldn’t exist all day, all at home, all alone. This place was solitary but he saw people. Walked past the stores. Got some air. And there was Hen.
He’d stopped by the dog shelter on the way there three days ago and had a look around. Back in the far corner, a mutt shivered in the corner of a cage.
“What’s that one?” he asked.
“Dunno,” the attendant replied. “You want him… or her?”
Carl lowered himself outside the fencing and beckoned the dog but it wouldn’t come. It pushed backwards against the opposite corner, risking pain and Carl didn’t want to terrify it.
“Is it alright?”
The attendant didn’t know. Carl wasn’t impressed. The attendant set down the paper he had been reading.
“Bob will be back later,” the attendant explained. “He knows the dogs. I just muck ’em out. Feed ‘em. Pet ‘em sometimes but this one don’t go near anyone. It’s been hurt maybe. Beat perhaps. They say a dog remembers that kind of thing.”
The other dogs yelped and yipped and climbed and jumped, trying anything to get Carl’s attention. Looking for the attendant’s hand. Anything at all to be touched. To be seen. To be loved. But Carl only had eyes for this shaggy, shivering thing that backed itself into a corner.
“When does Bob get here?” he asked.
“Later. All’s I know. After lunch, likely. He usually brings some leftovers. You hear about that boy getting hospitalized? They say he was stung more than a hundred times. A hundred. How does one survive that?”
Carl didn’t know. He sat by the cage ten minutes after the attendant had busied himself with other tasks and once, during his time there, the dog ventured a single paw toward him. Just a step but Carl’s facial movement must’ve scared it back. In time perhaps, it would come and sniff. Come and say hi. Come and discover all was safe but not today and he couldn’t drag it out of there. He’d talk to Bob. Bob would know what to do.
Henrietta had nightmares since Jen’s death. She’d wake in the night, around three, and go for a glass of water, sweating from the fear. As she filled the glass a spider raced up her arm and she felt every footstep it made. All eight of them, furiously moving toward her armpit. She dropped the glass and heard it smash as she brushed at her arm with her right hand. She was dancing backward, away from the faucet when she stabbed her soles on the freshly broken glass. She jumped involuntarily and slipped on the water, falling as the spider burrowed into her armpit. The blood spread quickly through the water and her legs found more of the glass. When she next woke, the spider was gone and she had a strange tickle in her throat. She didn’t remember all of her nightmares. Just that she’d had them and she seldom felt rested in the mornings as a result.
Two tens, two sixes and a seven. Carl considered the flush but held the tens. An eight, a five, and a four. All diamonds. Damn it, he thought and drew again. He’d been wondering about the rising sea levels. He’d been wondering why with all the technology in the world we couldn’t have some sort of device that could make water evaporate. It, or they… he imagined an army of them, all smart enough to not get too close to each other so fish and the like could still surface. They would need engines to reposition and GPS to know where they were but they would all take in a little water through holes and as it passed through it would turn turbines, charging the machine. It would close the doors once charged and heat the water till it became vapor, pressured enough to rise to the skies, forming clouds above. Carl figured this might, with enough of them, keep the sea levels under control and also create cloud cover to stop a lot of the sun’s rays making it through to the lower levels. He wasn’t a scientist of course, nor an environmentalist, not even an engineer, but this was what he was wondering about as his stack of quarters grew smaller.
I’m due a win, he told himself. I’m due a win, but he knew the machines always made money in the end and he was the only one that played it in any real sense. He trusted Henrietta not to be fixing things too much in favor of the house but he knew it was designed to only pay out a percentage of what it took in. Still, I’m due a win, he told himself and held two twos in hopes of four of a kind.
Carl lost forty dollars that day and considered it an alright day. He was sober. He hadn’t done any harm. No harm had come to him. He had food at home but how he dreaded that empty, quiet hole. He couldn’t understand why the dog hadn’t come to him. He was drawn to it for the dog was him only without the education. With different limbs. More fur. Just shivering in his corner and hoping no one would notice. Hoping no one would hurt him yet every now and then stretching out his paw. Thinking, maybe, he had found something different. Something more. It never lasted of course but why wouldn’t the dog come to him? They could take care of each other. He wouldn’t ever hurt it or let hurt come to it. The game room had plenty of room for them both and they could be happy moving between his one room at home and his other one room, taking care of each other. He might even venture into a park now and then. He paused by the gate to the shelter and tried to be there for the dog. His dog. If only it’d come to him. Bob would know what to do. A half hour he stood there, displaying his dedication the only way he knew how. His commitment. He felt crazy, then dumb, then determined, then proud. He was hungry. Then he left.
His one room was a fifteen-minute walk from the gaming rooms. The streets were lit but not bright and there was enough foot traffic to feel safe. It had been a snobbish, under the cap kind of neighborhood many years ago before becoming more affordable as people sprawled on but now it had passed through disrepair and danger to become hip again, reviving, hopeful, with young folk and more money than it’d seen in a long while.
One of Carl’s friends, John, lived a block off his route between the two rooms. The route had a single turn to make and sometimes he missed it, which was ridiculous of course but he hadn’t missed it in months. He got so wound up in his thoughts sometimes, walking past these homes in the evening, the golden warmth of their hidden insides leaking through the curtains, staining the twilight, and threatening to scar the dusk. He took a side street to the next block, three roads down from John’s and made his way to his house. He wanted to ask about the dog. How to coach it. He wanted to share a meal. He wanted to say hi but when his fingers could sense the cool of the buttons he paused long enough to feel awkward and then casually leaned by the entrance instead. He pulled out his phone and flipped it open. Phone. J. John. Call. He paused again. What would he say? How would he begin? So many times he had hovered over the call function. The one button he regularly stared at that didn’t cost him much money. I’ll text tonight, he thought. He’s probably busy. Besides, Bob’ll know what to do about the dog. I should get home.
Henrietta thought about Carl sometimes. Times like tonight when the gamers were busy. They were so involved in their worlds and rules and routines. Beers and drawings and paint and strategies. She had always liked table top games but had never been able to afford the different components. Then, when she could, she’d never really had the time. When she’d been part-time for the sisters, she’d had a full-time overnight gig, just to make rent. She could paint the basic troops and enjoyed making scenery and the like but who had the time with a business to run? Suppliers and repairs and customers and Carl. She’d often thought about how many Carls might have been devastated when the pool hall was converted to a gaming place. She’d kept a few tables of course but they weren’t in a hall anymore. More a room. A bright room, with a bar, and overpriced snacks she’d never known growing up, all neatly displayed on racks made from repurposed barn doors, old farmstead fencing, and abandoned beehive boards. The greasy spoon next door sold individual pizzas now, for three times the cost of a family sized pie, baked potatoes stuffed with avocado butter on sticks, and celery frames filled with fruit. She remembered the streets Carl had known with her. Before the business did better. Before the poker machine had been moved to the storage room. Before he’d asked about it. Before she’d opened the room. Let him in. Turned it back on and let him treat the space as his own. It was only a bunch of relics now. Two of them still with life.
Henrietta had seen a horse the day before she dreamed of one. It was out in a meadow, steam coming from its nostrils as its muscular body tensed against the morning chill. The sun was coming up and its glow became centered around a single flickering flame. A candle that dripped wax onto rat dung covered stonework. Forgotten, it had burned in the same window for three days now as the corpse that had lit it decayed below the window it sat in, covered with coal sacks from the abandoned warehouse adjacent. The horse was just outside now, in the street, laying on its side. Blood kept the children warm as they sliced palm-sized chunks of flesh to gnaw on, wrapped snugly in the hairy skin they had just removed and taken as clothing. The neck had a hundred stab wounds from them bringing it down and the steam rose from the blood keeping everything cozy.
She was thinking of this horse when Carl had asked her for change. She was trying to remember what color it had been in the meadow. What color it had been before the city. Before the dream. She supposed it didn’t matter much but she so desperately wanted to see it as it had been. As it was. Before. Before becoming what she knew and saw now.
“Just twenty, Carl?”
“Yeah, Hen. Feeling lucky today. I’ll have winnings to play with.”
“Want a Diet Coke? They’re expired. The rep said to toss them or take them home.”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Thanks, Hen.”
“Plenty more. Just ask.”
“Hen?” Carl accepted the bottle and stared at it for a moment.
“What’s up, Carl?”
“I was just wondering…” He turned the bottle over in his hands before looking at her eye to eye. He paused, then “Would you ever consider…it’s silly really.”
“Go on.” She didn’t care about anything else in that moment and he could tell. She wanted him to ask her. She cared about him and knew he was weighing his words carefully.
“Could I, I mean would you…it’s just…there’s a dog. I’d like to maybe bring a dog here with me. In the future. Not right away. But soon.”
“A dog.” Henrietta broke the eye contact and shuffled some flyers on the countertop. “Of course, Carl. So long as it’s trained. Got enough to clean up.”
“I’ll be sure. Thanks, Hen. You’re the best.”
She smiled at him and he nodded slightly before heading to the back room. She really did like him. He was somewhat from before. She couldn’t quite sense it right but every now and then she’d feel a connection. Like everything was fine so long as Carl was there. Bearable maybe. Fine. Another smile came. She’d wanted to bring him a Christmas plate the previous year. And she had. Made plates for all the customers but sent all the leftovers home with Carl. I’ve no room, she said. I do this for everyone, she said. I had a little extra time, she said. She’d wanted to invite him to a meal. She hadn’t wanted to push the issue. Hadn’t wanted to make it awkward. Draw attention to him sitting alone. Her rooms closed. Her alone too. She just wanted the holiday to end so they could get back to their routines again. And he seemed happy enough. Maybe he had plans. They never really talked about holiday plans. She could invite him for a meal some other time. It seemed silly for them both to eat alone.
Carl had never been a part of the evening crowd back when Paula and Jen had run the pool hall. He would stop by for a snack every now and then but he was always headed off to work. Sometimes he worked noon to midnight, sometimes eight to four in the morning, and every now and then, midnight till eight. Always at night though and so morning had become his evening. He prefered the eight till four as it gave him plenty of time to take care of some stuff and enjoy the morning as it arrived. He liked to watch as its sweet amber shards tore through what remained of the night’s decaying flesh. He could roam the stores or take care of business without long lines and stopped often, by the pool hall for a drink and a few shots or played some video games for a while. He’d started playing poker the last two years of his working, the sixth year Henrietta had been there. The machine was by the counter so they got to know each other over time. Slowly, with a counter between them, safely, till they were familiar and looked for each other when they were there.
Bob was busy mucking out a cage. Rooms they called them but it was just some fencing and straw with a small wooden shelter in a corner. Bob knew the mutt Carl was asking after.
“Doesn’t go to no one. I won’t be able to keep it much longer. Taking a place of one that might have a home. I can’t help those that won’t be helped.”
“I’ll take it.” Carl didn’t ask what would happen if Bob couldn’t keep it. He didn’t ask how much money might be involved. He didn’t ask how many separate cans of food that one shivering lump might be found in the following month.
“Why not take one that wants the company, Carl? Every dog in here would love to get taken home but that one. Every one of them. They’d do you well. Pleased to see you. Happy and playful. Some dogs just aren’t right. They don’t work. It’s no one’s fault, Carl.”
“I’ll take it Bob, but can it stay a while? I don’t want to force it. I’ll stop by and get it familiar. I think it’ll warm up. I can bring things. Maybe feed it.”
“You’ll have to pay lodging. We can’t keep a non lodged dog if it’s not up for taking.”
“I understand. How much is lodging?”
“Just twenty a night. It’s hows we feed them, mostly. Just about keep the lights on but that’s the game, I suppose.” He didn’t mention the other income. The cents per pound for those that wouldn’t get taken. That was how the bedding got bought. So much wrong to build such good. The angels that help often dirty their gowns and singe their wings, one of his buyers had said. Those that do great good could pass through hell looking native, she had went on, but Bob didn’t hold with that. He figured by then the works were good but they were side products of devilry. Devils can do as much good as angels can do harm. Good people were always bringing evil to the world so he figured if he was bad for what he did, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a force for good.
Bob swiped at a bee. “Damn things have been everywhere recently. I’ve never known there to be so many bees.”
“Just leave them be,” Carl said. “If you don’t annoy them, they won’t annoy you. When does he eat? Is it a he?”
“She. Already fixed and all her shots. Why not take another? One that wants?”
“I think they all want. Just some don’t show it as much.”
“You might be right. I started here as a volunteer, you know. Just walking and playing with them. Especially with ones like her. I’d lay in their rooms with them till they got to being playful but we had time back then. No one volunteers no more and it’s all I can do to keep them fed and to their appointments and clean enough for visitors.”
“You do great Bob. Maybe after, I can still stop by. Sit awhile with the shyer ones.”
“That’d be good Carl and if you took her in the end and needed to be off someplace we could keep her for free, if you’re helping out and all.”
“All right. Here’s a hundred.” Carl held out some notes.
“Just pay when you take her. Or weekly. Starting Monday let’s say.”
Carl nodded and noticed a bee crawling by the dog. “You see, Bob. See the bee. Just leave them be and you’ll be fine.”
Trixie, what Carl thought the dog might be called, just shivered in her shelter. Carl knelt in her room and put food by her door. She would sniff at him if he didn’t move for a while but she wasn’t going to be won over in a single feeding.
“Trauma,” Bob said as Carl left the room.
“Deserving,” Carl replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Henrietta dreamt of Carl taking Trixie home. He stopped by the register and got some change. He had a dog in his arms with a bright red leash. The dog licked him and struggled to greet her when she spoke to her. Then Carl was in the poker room. She could see the cards on the screen but knew she was still outside by the register. She was inside Carl and he was winning. She remembered three threes and then Trixie ran out of the room and there was a loud explosion. The lights went out and buzzing filled the air. Bees swarmed in, coming and coming and Carl backed against the wall. They were crushing against him. Thousands. Millions perhaps. He couldn’t move. He was waiting to be stung. Then she was herself again and Trixie had come to her. The dog set down a cookie and nudged it toward her before the bees came back from the storage room and forced her against the wall too. She couldn’t breath and they were entering her through her nostrils. Down the throat, flying around her stomach. They were up her skirt and filling every hole. Then they were gone and she sat against the wall in the dark. A hand reached out, luminous but she dared not take it. Dared not touch. It just hovered there. Waiting.
Henrietta wondered about the light in the dream. How she’d been able to see the dog if the lights had gone out. She hadn’t been concerned about Carl in the dream but when she woke, she wondered if he’d died or if he’d survived like she had. She’d heard that if you die in your dreams you don’t wake in this world again so maybe that was the hand. An offer of help. A way to stay there. Or this world inviting her back. She’d never know now. She watched the gamers rolling their dice, moving figurines across a board. Controlling their movements with carefully calculated chance. Some were painting in a corner. Creating colorful armies for future battles.
“Carl, sorry, I was miles away.”
“How’s that dog Carl?”
“Think I’ll bring her home soon. She’s been coming up and letting me stroke her. Climbing on me. Lets me walk her around the cage. Her room, I mean.”
“Great. You’ll have to bring her by.”
“Everyday if she likes it.”
“All right. Good luck today.”
He took a soda and left the dollar. He didn’t pay three dollars like the new ones did. There was something to be said for being where you belong.
Two queens and a king. Throw the three and four. Hope for something more. Two threes and another loss to the dealer. He’d played those machines that pay on your hand but this one played against an AI. Fancy term for the dealer. You had to beat the dealer was all cause there was only ever two hands in the game and Carl never dealt. Never chose the cards he would get and always played them as best he could but the dealer always won, eventually. The game, this game, his game, was rigged that way. Carl had been dealt great cards and felt confident, and he’d held poor cards and made the best of them but no matter what he tried the dealer was always there, waiting, lingering, daring him to settle. Just settle and walk away. Give it up. Stop playing. There’s no way to win in the end and eventually even the screen would go dark. Carl knew this but on he went, never seeing the dealer, always believing it was there, though his rational mind spoke of algorithms and percentages, chance, and logic. He knew the dealer was there. He was playing with a dealer and that’s the only way the game would ever make sense. The only way to continue with any sense of hope.
A poster had been hung between the bathrooms where a gritty cork slab was cut into the shape of a tree for public notices to be hung. Nothing obscene but generally anything went. The gents was to the left and the ladies to the right but above the corkboard a new sign encouraged folks to make use of whichever room they most identified with that day. The new patrons felt this was proper. The older ones didn’t understand. Carl used the room on the left but when it was busier he found himself wanting to use a cubicle. To not be seen. He felt like a Dodo bird when it was busy and he was using the left room. In line for extinction, following in the ways those before him had gone. Getting closer to the cliff. They observed him as a cashier observes a person buying condoms for the first time and he knew he was only a momentary distraction from their strategies and chatter of other worlds and the mythologies they existed within.
The poster board had a sign from the corner church, inviting all to a dinner, for friendship and connection. You could bring something if you wished but nothing was needed. Hen asked if he’d seen it.
“Yeah. Do you know anyone that goes there?”
“No, but the guy that hung the poster seemed nice enough. Probably a local. I never see anyone going in or out of that place.”
“It used to be full every week. I went to a few services, years ago.”
“So what do you think?”
“About the dinner?”
“Yeah.” She waited as his face muscled through different responses.
“Could be good. Aren’t you open?”
“It’s never busy, Friday nights. I’ll get the shift covered. Plenty of people looking for shifts.”
“Dinner then. Pick up here?”
She answered immediately as her body relaxed. “I’ll be here.”
Carl was hoping the dog, Mav he thought he might call her now, might enjoy a soft toy to snuggle with when he wasn’t there. It wouldn’t be long now till he brought her home. He arrived around four forty-five, a good forty-five minutes before Bob locked up for the evening. There was a police car by the entrance and Bob was talking with an officer and priest when he entered the office that separated the street from the lot. Another officer stopped Carl.
“I’m sorry. There’s been an accident. You won’t be able to come in right now.”
“What’s happened?” Carl asked, looking at Bob.
“Carl,” Bob replied. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what it is.”
Carl moved toward him but the officer stopped him again. “Sorry sir, we really can’t let you in just yet.”
“No he’s good. He’s the… It’s his dog.”
“My dog?” Carl asked. “Mav?” The teddy bear dangled from his right hand.
The officer nodded. “You’d best come with me then. We’re not entirely sure what’s happened. There’s a response team on their way. You can’t go into the cage but you’d best come and see. We’ll want to know everything the dog, Mav was it, has been fed and a record of your activities. Bob told us you’ve been with her everyday. Just him and you. No one else.”
Mav was lying near the gate, her body split in half from her neck to the anus, like a hotdog bun laid flat. One of her legs had been removed and sat, like a baseball bat, leaning against the fencing. Her insides were honeycomb and bees crawled all over her, going about their business, unaware their rebuilding work would not be left alone for long. Her head sat alone, detached, beside the body, liquid oozing over honey dipped tendrils.
“What is it?” Carl asked.
“We don’t know. There’s a team on it’s way.”
“But that’s a bee hive. And her leg. It can’t have just got there. Someone must have done this. She was walking. She was eating. There’s no lungs. No stomach. No blood.” He moved closer to the gate.
“Try not to touch it. The whole cage needs to be kept as it is.”
Carl looked at the soft toy. Its fur covering everything imagined inside. Mav’s head stared to the left. A bee came out of her nostril.
“It’s a room,” he said. “They’re rooms not cages.”
“We should go back to the office now.”
“Yes, ok.” but he just stood there, staring at the honey. The sweetness inside of his dog finally on display for all to see. Available for all to taste. Four numbers and a face card. Nothing to hold but fluff.
Trevor Creighton is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s M.F.A. program in Speculative Fiction. He received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University and an Ed.M. from Harvard University. He is working on a collection of short stories and is super excited the first to leave his nest will be dwelling at Post Road Magazine. Trevor currently teaches at Mercy College and you can find him in the twinkle of campfires, painting in the woods, or savoring bizarre conversations.