Warning: This is not a happy story. Sorry Gary.
"Let's check out this house," I suggest, drawn to the bright colors rippled by curling, peeling paint. It is the largest house on the dilapidated street, and I see no reason not to explore. My friend shrugs.
We walk up the front steps and pull open the tattered screen door, screen hanging loose like peeling flesh, just as you would expect. The hallway is dark, musty, but not as dirty as one might have thought. I walk on the boards, confident they will not fall in.
"Not bad," I say, turning around to my friend. He is sillouetted by the bright, diffused light outside. I see two other sillouettes move behind him, flanking, blocking the doorway. I suck in my breath.
"Perfect," says one of the shapes, a woman. My friend spins around, I'm sorry I couldn't warn him.
"We needed two more," says the other, a young man. "So glad you could join us. Did Javier send you?"
"Javier? I don't know a Javier," I reply, my heart slowing as I think I see a way out of this. "We just wandered in. But we'll be going now."
I can see the woman shake her head, though I can't see the features of her face, backlit as she is.
"No, we need two more players. You'll have to come with us. Follow him."
"But," I start to protest.
"Follow him," she growls. My friend hops away from her, and follows the young man, who has opened a door and is walking downstairs. Lost, I do the same.
The basement is lit with yellow light, eminating from a few camp lanterns. In a corner, eight people sit in a circle, some reclining on pillows. The yellow light leaves strange shadows on their faces. The woman we encountered above shuts the door behind me, and, with a firm hand on the small of my back, guides me to take a seat. The room smells sharp, not the dull moist basement smell I would expect, but a pointed, harsh smell, like an auto repair shop. Like metal on metal, I decide as a sit. My friend is sitting across from me, and we exchange wide, nervous glances.
A man sits to my right, ramrod straight and solemn. He pushes his shaggy brown hair from his eyes and surveys the group.
"I think you know the rules," he begins, but then his eyes fall upon my friend and I. "Ah, newcomers. Well, a review is in order then. It's very simple. Keep your cards facedown. Play a card by turning it over in the center. Do what the card says. If it's a zero, you die. That's it."
I stare at him, certain he's joking. Mistaken. Something I've imagined. He narrows his eyes at me. He's fairly young, in his thirties probably. He looks strong under his thin grey t-shirt.
"I'm not dealt in to this game," I try to explain. "I think we should go."
The man lifts an eyebrow. "Oh, but you are," he says, gesturing to my side. I see a messy pile of cards, about 10, with a faded, gold diamond pattern on the back. "You are in," he intones. A sick smile spreads across his face. "And it's your turn."
Trembling, I pick up a card and throw it into the center, flipped to reveal its underbelly. The card was originally blank, without spades or hearts, and had a few words written in black marker. Sighing with relief, I don't even read the words. Not a zero. The next person goes, so I assume there is nothing for me to do.
The card throwing circles around, silently. The leader laughs, often before each card is revealed. I wonder if he knows, from the top sides, what the bottom says. No zeros. He smiles, relishing the tension. The rest of the faces are expressionless, captivated, perhaps, by the game. I glance at my friend. I can see the vein in his neck throbbing, casting a tiny undulating shadow as fear fills him.
"I need to use the bathroom," I venture. To my surprise, the leader nods and flicks a hand.
"That way," he mutters, pointing back up the stairs. My back is to the wall, facing the stairs, so I step across the circle. My friend gets up to follow me. No one objects, and we walk to the doorway. I glance back, as I open the door to the stairs, and I see someone else getting up. I hurry to open the door, and walk up as quietly as possible. At the top, behind my friend, I see two more people following us, at the bottom. I can tell, from the angry look in their eyes, that they are not hoping to use the bathroom as well.
The front door is shut, bolted and locked with a key, from the inside. I turn and run down the hall. My friend follows, I think. The house creaks and betrays my movements, and I can hear little else.
There are no exits. I see no large windows, no back doors. Panicking, I throw open a door. It leads to a closet of a bathroom. Above the toilet, about 10 feet from the ground, is a window.
I jump onto the toilet and struggle to force the window open from below, barely reaching. It budges and, as I pull myself up to the ledge, I force it open further. I can slide myself out on my stomach, sliding sliding. The cool outdoor air kisses my cheek, a blessing. I am about to pull my hips through when I feel someone grab my ankles. They pull, I pull. I'm slipping back through the window, freedom evaporating. Suddenly, the grip weakens. I scramble to pull myself out, and tumble down onto the grass. It hurts, it was a hard, jarring fall, but I hardly notice. I'm out. I run.
I run and run. No sign of my friend, and my stomach churns for him. But still I run. I'll find help. Surely there is a house that is occupied, somewhere here.
The dilapidated street streches into countryside, and I run alongside the road. I see a house ahead, a prim wood frame house, and I allow myself to slow. No one is following, I can let myself breathe.
I knock on the door, a man answers. Wearing a worn sportscoat and jeans, he looks friendly. I try to explain. He ushers me in, not believing me, but solicitious.
"Now, now, just sit here and rest a moment." He shows me a tidy, bright sitting room, facing the street. "No one's chasing you, I'm sure."
I don't believe him, I look outside. Empty, green meadows. But I still don't believe him. My friend isn't with me, I didn't make this up.
"Now where were you again?" he asks.
I look out the window again, and then I see them. The messy-haired man, confidently leading a column. I see my friend, and sigh, for some small relief. But the woman, the woman who first found us, she is not there. Dead, I think, although I could not justify it.
"They're here," I breathe to my host as the column turns towards the house. I jump up, hesitate like a scared rabbit, and run. Hide, hide, is all I can think. Like a child, I run to hide in the first room I can find. A workroom, with a large table. A blanket underneath. Stupid, scared, I throw myself under the table and try to hide my bulk with the blanket.
Footsteps come soon.
"Don't be silly, my pet," the leader's voice chides. "You are a part of the game now, you cannot leave before we've finished playing."
His large boots stop in front of the table. Without hesitating, without even a shred of consideration for my hiding place, he reaches down to drag me out. "There we are," he says, standing me up. I see the rest of the group standing behind him. Blank-faced, except my friend. Who looks scared. Seeing his face, my lungs clench up and my head pounds. I flail, and grab something hard and cold on the work table. In a rush, I lunge at the smiling man's throat.
The razor blade knife cuts the side of his throat. I shudder, feeling the resistance of his skin, his vein, and then the give of it before the blade. Taking advantage of his surprise, I grab his arms from behind. He is larger, but I have a knife against his throat. Half of his neck is becoming slippery with blood.
"We have to end this," I say, not knowing what I'm saying, to the gathered group. "This is a madness he drives us to, to sacrifice ourselves."
"I am not the killed," he whispers. "You are. Quit this foolishness." From behind him, my face in his blood and his straw-dry hair, I can hear the power in his voice, whisper not withstanding. I look over his shoulder and plead.
One of the group grabs the razor blade from my hand. I gasp, and stagger backwards. Fear clouds my vision. But no cut comes. A moment later, I see the leader staring down at his bloody hands. The razor blade is passed to another, and another stroke comes.
"We must all kill him," someone says. "So no one is guilty."
I hardly follow what happens, so much movement, but so little sound. Finally, I see the man stumble back into the hall, turning for the first time to face me. He is a torrent of blood, agony.
"Zero," he utters, and collapses. Someone, quicker thinking than I, grabs him and pulls him towards the back of the house. We follow. The body thumps down the back door steps, not leaving too much blood. A creek flows swiftly, deeply to the right of the house. Two people drag the body across the long grass and throw it in. The water rushes to meet its burden, to carry it away. We shuffle through the grass, exhausted. Free. Or perhaps not.