Mariko Lees (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
It began with a coin toss, with rock paper scissors, with rhymes and songs and dances. All innocence, right? As children he was competitive while I was indecisive, and together we tended towards fatalism. We idolised the higher power that dealt our hand—for, with the flip of a twenty-cent piece, our lives could be forever changed.
My childhood was a blur until he entered it, until our friendship became the focus. I barely remembered Dad, who’d been ejected back in Lithgow, and we didn’t have a fixed address until Mum took us to where she grew up, on the South Coast. There she dumped me and my little brother on our Nan, and ditched us for the final time in favour of her deadbeat boyfriend When I found out she was gone I hacked into my hair (which Mum had just taken us to get cut in preparation for the new school year) with Nan’s sewing scissors. On the first day at a new school, already small for my age and now half-bald, I was easy prey. The other boys had me backed up against the toilet block when James appeared. Even at the age of eight James knew that unpredictability was the best defence. When he charged at my tormentors with a glass-shattering cry and a huge stick, they scattered in fear.
James lived with his dad who was more interested in whiskey than in raising his son, so it wasn’t long after we met that he started coming to our place every day. Nan said he was one of “her boys” now, and always welcome.
We stuck together in primary. We defended each other from the biggest kids who liked to kick you in the shins behind the canteen at lunchtime, and soon we picked up Zoran, a chubby boy prone to hysterics who lived in the same street as us. He needed more protection than both of us combined, and we liked him because he always had money for lunch as his mum was on disability. We robbed him, but at least we didn’t beat him up as well.
He tried his best to join us in our dares, but he was too nervous and the results were pretty disastrous. One day he dared James to lift up Karen’s skirt at lunchtime, and James turned it back on him, told him he had to do it instead to prove himself to us. Zoran protested, as he had dared James first but I stepped in, whispering in James’s ear:
“Play for it.”
I nodded to Zoran in false reassurance, and James relaxed, leaning against the metal fence that surrounded the playground.
“I’ll call it.”
I took a deep breath and started the rhyme, my finger pointing from Zoran to James on each beat.
“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo—”
Zoran’s lips twitched.
“Catch a tiger by the toe—”
My voice grew louder and louder in anticipation as James watched me.
“If he squeals, let him go—”
Sweat was glistening on Zoran’s forehead; he looked pale and ill.
“Eeny, meeny, miney—”
I pointed to Zoran as I spoke the word. He hiccoughed.
Zoran didn’t complete his dare. Karen, who all the boys wanted to go to out of bounds with, had a pointed face and a cruel tongue. She called him ‘porkosaurus’ when he approached her and Zoran got so flustered he pushed her into the monkey bars and she broke her arm. The teacher on duty dragged him off to the principal while James and I collapsed in laughter that Karen had finally gotten her due. She saw us, though. And she never forgot that day.
Nothing much changed once we got to high school. The dares continued, but the stakes were higher. We started hanging out at the park in town on Thursday nights, taking solace from our boredom in alcohol. Macca, a rough guy too old to be hanging around teenagers, used to supply the booze and hold court at the picnic tables. He never gave us any; instead James would raid his dad’s stash and cop the consequences later. We weren’t Macca’s preferred guests. Whenever he roared up in his Charger and spotted us lounging on the swings with our spiked Coke bottle he’d shoot us death stares. The girls who came to the park would do anything for a Blueberry Vodka Cruiser, and he didn’t appreciate the competition. Their uniform: a denim skirt that revealed everything and a too-tight boob tube, with lashings of inexpertly applied eye makeup. They were good practice for James.
I always picked our quarry of the night—sometimes one of the stragglers, but more often a favourite of Macca’s. His face would purple as James charmed her with his smile. Once they were intoxicated enough he would lead them behind the playground equipment while I waited; it never took longer than one cigarette. James would return with a look a little harder than before, like each conquest chipped away at him—like he was slowly being poisoned by it all. But there was nothing else to do. We made our own fun in those days. And, with a smirk from him I would crush my cigarette under my heel and follow him home.
I remember our excitement when James got his learners, six months after I did, and together we transformed our fours into ones with a Swiss Army knife of his dad’s. A few careful scratches and we were as legal as two sixteen year olds in a pub can ever be. We went to the bowlo and pumped fifty dollars through the pokies in about ten minutes—James won, of course— two hundred dollars, and we bought beer to celebrate his windfall and our freedom.
It took more now to get our fix—we started frequenting pubs in town, tapping one-cent bets on the pokies and checking out the talent. James would pick up a girl and take her back to his dad’s and I would follow, bursting into his room at the final moment with my black hoodie obscuring most of my face, terrifying the girl and putting James into fits of laughter. I was a great jealous boyfriend, or so he said.
James decided to hold his eighteenth at this abandoned house up the escarpment. It was the size of a mansion, but no one had lived there for over twenty years. We once found a possum, completely mummified, in one of the back rooms. It smelled damp but it was known to be the best place to hold a party—far enough from any other houses that no one ever made noise complaints.
The place was packed when I arrived, kids everywhere, music blaring from portable CD-players. I pushed my way through the crowd, trying to find James. I spotted him through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor, talking to Karen on the balcony. I knew she’d been after him for ages; it was common knowledge after all, I’d seen her watching us across the oval while we played cards at lunchtime, but I was surprised that he was encouraging her. I walked over to the sliding door and peered out at them.
Karen was standing with her arms crossed, head cocked at James, and she flicked her hair over her shoulder as she spoke. “You’re all talk.”
He laughed in her face. “Really?”
James launched himself at the brick railing that edged the balcony, climbing it and standing there, swaying from alcohol. I sucked in my breath. Karen watched him with narrowed eyes. He kneeled down and stared straight at her.
“Dare,” James said. “If you kiss me, I’ll jump.”
Karen snorted and looked away, and when she spotted me in the doorway her eyebrows raised spitefully. I saw her lift her hand and move it towards James, as if to push him—
I jumped forward in terror, grabbed James’s arm and wrenched him from the railing. He landed on the hard concrete of the balcony and grunted in pain.
“You fuck!” I yelled, my terror now turned to fury. “You could’ve killed yourself!”
“Sorry, Mum…” He lifted himself to his feet. Ignoring me, he let Karen take his hand and lead him back into the house.
He wouldn’t play our games with her.
We didn’t see each other much after that. Karen made sure of it. I took it hard at first but with school over Nan couldn’t stand me moping around the place, so I got a job on the bar at the local and kept my head down. Without James as my focus, what choice did I have? At least I could pay my way and look after Nan.
Karen and James were together for a while. I heard when they split up, from Zoran, who worked with James on the Water Board and liked to drink his paycheck. But I didn’t get details until years later. How she had tormented him, then dumped him for Macca and broken his heart. He wasn’t working anymore. He wasn’t doing anything much.
James told me this when I found him again, hunched over a beer in the courtyard of the Oxford, his eyes bloodshot and purple-rimmed, his face rough with stubble, and his dead-eyed stare barely registering my existence.
It was as if he was waiting for me.
I have tried to forget that night, to drown it out with every substance imaginable but it never fades, doesn’t even blur at the edges. Everything crisp and constant and impossible to escape.
James didn’t really want me to come with him. I can’t imagine how I’d feel now if I hadn’t been there. If I hadn’t walked into the pub that day and seen him again. To be apart for so long, and then to find him at that exact moment? I struggle with the synchronicity of it all. I guess I could revert to cliché and think ‘when you live by the sword, you die by the sword’.
No, I don’t really mean that.
What I mean is that we were building up to this for years. We planted the seeds in childhood, and one thing leads to another and another and eventually your options run out. Too many doors close. You’re down to your last dollar, your last chip, your last valuable and it’s all riding on this moment… you hold your breath, you cross your fingers and you fucking beg the universe for one more chance to turn your life around.
Place your bets, gentlemen.
It was raining when we left the pub, and James was already a little unsteady on his feet, but he went into the bottle shop and emerged a few minutes later with a bottle of bourbon. He joked with me as we walked to my car and I felt hopeful, glad that we were together; that with my influence James could pull himself out of the hole he was in.
We drove out to the old abandoned house, James falling silent as we approached. The rain had turned from drops into a mist that gave the road an eerie look, with the streetlights reflected on the glistening asphalt. I pulled into the driveway, past the trees that hid the house from view.
There were two other cars parked in the yard. One was a non-descript station wagon, the other a souped-up Valiant Charger that put my Torana to shame. I didn’t have to guess at its owner. “That fucking Daptoid?” I hissed at James. He didn’t respond. The back room of the house was lit up, though someone had put curtains over the floor-to-ceiling windows.
As we walked across the wet grass I saw that James was playing with his Zippo, running his thumb over the barrel compulsively. His face was unreadable in the dim light, and I felt my stomach tighten in concern and fear.
James jumped the step and strode to the door. He knocked, and after a moment the door slid back an inch or so to reveal Zoran, peering out at us.
From inside, I heard a familiar voice. “Who is it?”
Zoran glanced at me. “James,” he answered, then, “and his friend.”
A laugh was the only response. Zoran pulled the door open further and I followed James inside.
A small card table was set up in the middle of the room, and a poker game was in progress. Most of the players were people I had never met before, but one face I wouldn’t forget. Macca grinned at us as we entered and I heard Zoran titter at my side. I tried to keep my face impassive, but nothing could prevent the rise of hatred and my ensuing scowl when I saw her lounging on the couch.
Karen took a long drag from her cigarette and pointed at me with the neck of her Breezer bottle. Her face was pure poison.
“Brought your girlfriend, James? How sweet.”
She swept her long dark hair over her shoulder and ignored us. We went to sit on the other couch, opposite the table, and Zoran pulled a beer for me from the esky. I stared at Zoran as he passed the drink over, looking for an explanation. He avoided my gaze.
James cracked open his bourbon and took a mouthful, his attention now entirely on the poker game. I leaned back and watched him, and as each minute ticked by my feeling of unease increased. What was he doing here? James was almost catatonic as he watched the game, only breaking his focus to light cigarettes—everything else, whether it was a swig or a drag or dropping his butts into an empty beer bottle, was done without a sideways glance.
After an hour or so, James found his opening. One of the other players lost everything and was dealt out, staggering to the door with only a soft mutter of disappointment. Macca looked at James and gestured to him.
“Get over here, James—”
And then I saw him hesitate. His cigarette was halfway to his mouth, ready to take another drag, and I saw a flicker of the old James cross his face. It startled me, and my heart beat faster as I crossed my fingers and hoped he would refuse.
“Unless you’re too pissed off that turkey…?”
James bristled at the challenge, then stood and strode towards the table. As he sat down I saw him glance towards Karen, who tilted her head at him.
“I’m never too pissed.”
Macca smirked in response. He nodded to the dealer beside him, a dark-haired criminal type with a number two crewcut. “Deal him in.”
James emptied his wallet and traded it all for the chips the dealer held. The cards flicked out across the table quicker than the eye could see. Zoran moved from his position near the door and sat on the arm of Karen’s couch, nursing his beer in one hand. I saw a stool in the corner of the room, near the stairs, so I grabbed it and pulled it up beside James’s chair to watch the game unfold.
James lost the first hand. The cards were so bad not even a professional could have made a go of them. His luck, his ever constant blind luck, had deserted him.
He kept losing, again and again and each hand took a little bit more of his confidence, until James was beyond consolation. He chain-smoked and the bottle of bourbon went from half-full to quarter-full within an hour. Karen hovered around Macca, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. I resisted the urge to slap her.
James had a finger of bourbon and three chips left at the final hand. The other two players had long since departed and Macca was dealing now. A sheen of sweat glistened on James’s forehead, and I saw him ignite his lighter on his arm as the final cards were dealt. The flame burned brightly as he held it under the table and his fingers trembled. With his free hand, James downed the last of his bourbon and surveyed his cards.
This time they weren’t so terrible; not fantastic but he had two pair, queens and nines, a chance to win at least. Macca made his bet and James retaliated in kind, pushing his final few chips into the centre of the table. They stared at each other, and Macca nodded to James to show his cards. James dropped them to the table and we waited. Macca kept his expression blank, and I held my breath as he revealed his hand, snapping each card down deliberately, and finished with a laugh, pulling all the chips towards him. Three of a kind, aces without the spade. Karen clapped her hands in glee and kissed him, slobbering all over him like a dog. I heard a click as James closed his lighter, the flame extinguished.
As Karen pulled away from Macca, James reached out and grabbed his wrist. “One more game,” he begged. His face was flushed and his eyes were glassy. “Please.”
Macca narrowed his eyes. “You’re cleaned out.”
“I need this.”
With a grunt, Macca threw off James’s grip. “Do I look like a charity? Fuck off!”
From the corner of my eye I saw Zoran, looking green, bolt outside to throw up. Macca cackled. “And don’t come back, you fucking lightweight!”
“Double or nothing.”
Macca’s attention diverted back to James. I could see his shoulders tense at the gravity of the bet. Karen leaned over to whisper in his ear, encouraging him, and Macca seemed to relax. He stretched his hand across the table to James.
“Double or nothing.”
James exhaled as he shook his hand. Then, Macca stood and pulled from the back of his jeans a tarnished pistol, which he rubbed as if to polish it on his singlet.
“Nice, eh?” Macca held the gun up to the light, turning it over so we could view it from all angles. “Fucking beautiful—it was me dad’s. I nicked it when they changed the laws, before he could hand it in. He thought me little brother had taken it. Beat the shit out of him.”
He pointed the gun at me and I could not hold back my instinctive gasp. Macca laughed.
“Fucking beautiful…” James echoed. He was transfixed by it, this ultimate dare which could confirm his immortality or destroy him. I watched him watch the gun and grasped his arm, trying to turn him away from it.
He pushed my hand away. His face was bright and desperate, his eyes glassy with intoxication. “I know what I’m doing, Emma.”
Macca pulled a bullet from his front pocket and loaded it into the gun. He spun the barrel, locked it into place, then put the pistol on the table. It sat there like a bomb waiting to be detonated. James leaned towards me, and I felt his breath on my cheek as he whispered: “I want the money, not the simple life, honey…”
My teeth chattered as James took the gun into his hand. Karen was watching him with morbid fascination. I heard James laugh, and it was tinged with hysteria. The bullet rattled in its chamber. James met Karen’s eyes, then grabbed my face and pulled me towards him. I clutched at his forearm as I shook my head, trying to reason with him one more time.
And then he kissed me; he kissed me as he raised the gun to his temple and I dug my fingernails into his arm. I wonder if he knew then. I wonder if he realised that this was what I always wanted, but that it had happened in the worst way possible. Be careful what you wish for.
He pulled the trigger.
Zoran told me later that he was outside on his knees, coughing up the last of his vomit, when he heard it. He had leaned back against the wheel of my car, lifted a cigarette to his lips, pressed down on the wheel and as the gas ignited instead of the pop of ignition—there was a shot. He described it as a cracking sound. To me it was an explosion.
And then he heard the scream. I’m pretty sure it was mine. He has a much better memory of what happened afterwards than I did. For me, it was just the ringing in my ears, the throbbing in my head, the hoarseness of my throat. And the red. Everywhere, red.
Six-to-one. The gambler only recalls the odds when the game is lost. I lost my nerve that night, with the game gone too far. I lost my instinct. I lost him.
I don’t think I want to remember any more.
Mariko Lees is a writer from Wollongong currently undertaking a Masters of Creative Writing at UTS. She works in publishing, spends her down time either binge watching trashy TV or binge reading classic literature, and wishes she could keep a pack of puppies in her tiny apartment.