by Alex Puncekar
It’s poker night and I’ve watched my friends die.
“This one’s the last game,” the Dealer says. “Winner take all.”
There were more of us. Four are dead, their heads turned to mush the second they thought of their cards.
Oh God, even Q.
People watch from the edge of the smoky bar. The bartender forgets to take his break. The pool tables haven’t been touched, the fabric free of chalk marks.
The Dealer hands us cards. C takes her hand. Looks at them. She’s thinking of diamonds, the ones her ex-fiancé gave her as a wedding present. A hint of a smile on her face. She’s probably reading me right now. I let her. Let her see what I think of her.
“That’s not very nice, L,” she says.
I don’t want to look at my cards. Don’t trust myself. I think about leaving.
“Not done yet,” the Dealer says, snapping his fingers. An onlooker hands him an IPA. The Dealer thinks about the beer, how it’s going to cool his throat.
“I know,” I say. I pick up my cards and look at them.
Queens. That’s what I think about. Elizabeth. Victoria. Mary, Queen of Scots. Keep my mind off the cards. The others thought about their cards for a split second and the Dealer killed them. Imagined turning off their brains with his own and boop. Lights out.
I turn my eyes to C. She smokes a Camel Light. She brushes aside her brown hair and stretches her arms. She thinks about her yoga class in the morning, how she’s going to feel so good about winning this ten-thousand-dollar pot.
She tosses in her skyscraper of chips. She’s been building them all night. “All in.”
I don’t think about the cards. I’ve been losing chips all night. They’re in a jumbled pool of rubble and ruin next to me. Down to my last couple hundred bucks.
“This has been fun, yeah?” C looks at me. Smiles. “Gotta love it when we have these nights.”
I look down at Q. Guy owed me money, but, Jesus, he didn’t deserve this. He’s on the floor, blasted backwards by the Dealer, his mouth wide open and traces of blood dribbling from his nose.
“Just a beer, maybe a cigarette or two, our thoughts,” C continues. “Our good friends.”
I’ve lost people before. To this game. There was B, one of the first guys I ever met with abilities like mine. Met O at another bar like this. Hooked up with her. Broke up with her. Then came P. Set me up with the Dealer. Told me I could make some money playing a dumb game with friends. I didn’t know that the Dealer was one of us, too. Didn’t know he had these special rules about thought and cards, that it was more about playing poker without even thinking about your cards, about what you had in your hand.
He’d make us come back after the first game. Said he’d fry our brains if we didn’t play. During my first game, when N didn’t show up, the Dealer took a minute to think, his mind finding N’s. Next day, they found N in a motel in one of the Dakotas, his brain pudding.
“You calling?” The Dealer looks at me. The Dealer is a different sort, a type that I had never met before. He’s got a blocker or something. Keeps people from messing with his mind. Maybe he trained himself to keep people out. You can read his mind, sure, but you can’t get into his head like everyone else. Can’t switch his off to stop all this madness. I thought that being in a group of others with similar abilities meant something.
Now, it’s almost like we’re being picked off, meant for extinction.
The Dealer’s face is blank. He knows what I’m thinking. Disagrees, probably. He doesn’t think of it as extinction. To him, it’s more like survival of the fittest. The strongest minds survive.
“Call,” I say. Folding would be an automatic disqualification this late in the game. I toss in the chips to match C’s. I pop another sad, abused Marlboro out of the pack in my pocket. The Dealer offers me a light.
Don’t think about the cards.
The crowd watches us like we’re zoo animals. I think about cages.
Can’t think about my hand.
The Dealer lays out the flop.
A three of clubs. An ace of hearts. A ten of hearts.
C says, “I like that.”
I look into her mind. She thinks of money. Shit.
“Thought you had me, L?”
“I did.” I sigh.
The Dealer draws another card and sets it on the table. The turn.
“Jack of hearts,” he says.
I don’t think about my cards. I think of finishing this cigarette.
C frowns. Now she’s thinking of her divorce.
“Ready for the river?”
C thinks yes. I think no.
He lays out the card.
“King of hearts.”
C scoffs. “Shit,” she says, then tosses her cards away. She’s thinking about a red hot fire that burns inside this bar, killing everyone inside save for her.
“L?” The Dealer eyes me. “Let’s see ‘em.”
I grab the cards and flip them over, not even looking at them. The Dealer peers down at them, smiles.
“Congratulations,” he says, pushing the pile of chips towards me.
The crowd starts clapping. I hear somebody ordering me a shot of something foul.
The money in front of me…it could get me out of this place, maybe find someplace outside the city.
Get a nice house.
No more conning people with mind tricks.
He keeps pushing the pile towards me. The evidence of a queen of hearts slowly gets covered in the avalanche of chips and I think about—
Oh shit oh shit oh fuck.
The Dealer frowns. Tsks.
The clapping stops. C watches, grinning.
I see a twinkle in the Dealer’s eye, then—
Alex Puncekar is a graduate assistant and composition instructor at Youngstown State University, where he is finishing up his MFA. He is also an intern and interviewer for Lightspeed Magazine. His fiction has appeared in Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Jenny Magazine.