Tami Parker Fantasy Author & Other Duties as Assigned

Finish the Story: Cards

F

Join in for a lighthearted, no-pressure writing prompt. Leave your perfectionist at the door and follow a dangling story thread to see where it leads you.

I always post my story doodle in the comments, and I’d absolutely love to see yours as well if you feel comfortable sharing it!

“One more hand,” I agreed. It was a way to pass the time. More importantly, it was a way to avoid talking about …

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  • Harry shuffled the deck of cards and pushed it across the table. “Deal,” he said.

    “One more hand,” I agreed. It was a way to pass the time. More importantly, it was a way to avoid talking about the accident.

    We were playing War, a game I remembered most fondly for being one of the longest single-hand games a pair of bored cellmates could play.

    A simple game. Each person starts with exactly half the deck, shuffled. Each player lays down a single card — the player with the higher card takes both and places them at the bottom of their deck.

    In the case of a tie, both players keep laying down until there’s a tiebreaker.

    I pulled my first card — the King of Diamonds. I quickly scooped up his three of diamonds.

    He took the next two hands. I took the next five.

    The rhythm was a familiar one. I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t learned how to play War as a child. Who didn’t move with the assurance of long practice when tucking cards from a victorious hand at the bottom of their deck.

    Everything about it was smooth. Familiar.

    I spent a ten, cringing when I lost it to a Jack. Close.

    My next card was a seven. Harry’s face gave away no emotion, as usual. Not that I could blame him. He’d been here since before I arrived. No telling how many games he’d played with how many previous cellmates.

    He dropped the Queen of Hearts. Unbidden, a flash of her face, like a reflection in broken glass. Lips red with blood. Her shrill, shocked scream followed by the sound of the windshield wipers.

    Harry’s pale hand swept the cards off the table and he nestled them carefully at the bottom of his deck.

    I firmed my lips and threw down another card. A two. Focus on the game, I told myself.

    He took it easily, and we moved silently through the next few rounds without incident.

    Clubs, Diamonds, Spades, and Hearts. All familiar. Too familiar, some might say. I’d been a betting man on the other side of these walls. I’d done alright, I supposed. Never lost too much. Never got in too deep.

    Not till that last night.

    I threw the Four of Diamonds. He matched it with the Four of Spades.

    Excitement frissioned along my fingertips. A small sample of what I felt when I sat on the edge of that green-felted table. The game of War really only got interesting during standoffs like these, when the wheel of chance was fully engaged. The fate of more cards suspended in the balance

    My thumb coaxed the next card forward, fingers flipping to place it face-up on the table in a single practiced motion.

    The Queen of Diamonds.

    Again, that rush of memory, fragmented and sharp. A black felt pouch, filled with diamonds. A job, one last job to wipe my slate clean. Her face, smiling as she packed her bag and I slipped the little black lie into my suitcase.

    It should have been an engagement ring.

    Should have been a lot of things.

    The pleasure I should have felt at such a high card turned to bitter ash on my tongue. I didn’t want to touch that card ever again.

    Harry paused for one silent, theatrical moment before pulling his own card.

    The Queen of Clubs.

    Black. Blunt. Hard, like the backside of a pistol smashed across a broken nose.

    We were in a car. I didn’t know where they were taking us, but it was raining.

    She was crying. Pleading. The sound tripped across my memory like acid raindrops.

    “Your turn.” Harry’s voice brought me back to the present. The back of my hand was wet.

    I swallowed hard and pulled the next card with a shaking hand.

    A single red heart stared up at me, its bottom tip so sharp I could almost feel it prick along my fingers as I lowered it to the table.

    When I pulled my hand back, a thin line of blood welled up from my thumb and I stared at it without wiping it away.

    Moonlight on shattered glass. Her body next to me in the mud, unmoving.

    Harry’s arm seemed to move in slow motion as he played his next card and it took me a moment to identify the rushing, thudding sound in my ears as my own heartbeat.

    Ace of Diamonds.

    My heart stopped. This … this almost never happened. Sure, I played it often enough as a kid that getting a four-chain wasn’t unheard of, but even as children it was a magical moment. Everyone around stopped what they were doing and gathered in a loose circle around the worn cards spread out on the hot blacktop. The air filled with hushed whispers as everyone waited to see what would happen next.

    My heart raced. My palms sweated. My stomach tread the uncomfortable tightrope between nausea and butterflies. My sinuses cleared and my fingertips traced every tiny imperfection in the cards I held.

    Some players learned to count cards. A solid strategy, but mostly for grifters. Me? I loved the excitement. The randomness. The not knowing. Not to mention that most of the joints I’d ended up playing in didn’t just kick you out of the building for counting … they broke your hands for good measure.

    Every aspect of my being focused on that next card. Everything I knew screamed at me to reveal it. To see. There were already a lot of high cards in this War. If I drew too low, it would be over.

    I stilled my hands and looked at Harry. That wasn’t his real name, of course. Nervous and terrified when I first arrived, I asked him what I should call him. He’d shrugged as if he didn’t care. I said he looked like a friend I used to have when I was a kid. Or at least how he would have looked if he hadn’t died in that car accident with his parents.

    “This card. This is it. Game. If I lose this, I forfeit ….”

    Harry’s head moved as if to deny me, but I interrupted before he could speak.. “But if I win, she goes home. You do what you want with me.”

    A pause. His head tilted to the side as he thought about it.

    My heart stopped, a squeezing pain in my chest that felt nothing at all like it was described as in books.

    Finally, with the smallest nod of his head, he accepted my wager. “I agree to your terms, gambler.”

    In a rush, I drew my card and lay it on the table without looking at it, as if seeing it ahead of time was bad luck. Bride on a wedding night nonsense, but luck was its own magic with rules that changed all the time. Who was I to say it was foolish?

    The Three of Spades grinned up at me and my entire body shook as if from a physical blow.

    That was it. It was over. The likelihood that the card he would draw was a two or even a three? So small. Unrealistically small.

    I’d been a fool. Once again, I threw everything away on a wager, and I’d lost the only thing that mattered to me at all.

    Even though I’d already lost it, for a brief moment, I’d thought I could make it all right. I could ….

    It didn’t matter.

    Harry looked at his card, then at me. He placed it face down on the table.

    “You win,” he said, and even though that meant I lost, he was still right.

    I won.

  • Harry shuffled the deck of cards and pushed it across the table. “Deal,” he said.

    “One more hand,” I agreed. It was a way to pass the time. More importantly, it was a way to avoid talking about what was going to happen once the game was done. I shuffled quickly, the faint ruffling of the cards loud in the unnatural quiet of the bunker.

    Neither of us spoke for a moment as I dealt out the cards. Henry drew in his hand and scanned it quickly, switching the placement of a few of his cards as he organized according to his whims.

    I did the same, organizing my hand in ascending order to make it easier to scan at a glance.

    “I’m sorry it had to come to this,” Henry blurted out. The words were rushed and the flop sweat that suddenly popped out on his forehead let me know that he was lying.

    “That’s okay, Henry,” I said as I played my first cards, a pair of threes.

    “No, really, John,” he said. He leaned forward across the table, his voice earnest as he played on my threes without looking at them. “I feel terrible about it, but we flipped that coin, didn’t we? We flipped it and it came out heads.”

    The phrase had become a bit of a talisman with Henry lately. He’d repeated it often in the past two hours since the coin toss. As I played on his cards, I wondered if he was repeating the phrase more for my benefit? Or his own?

    “That’s right, it was a coin toss, Henry,” I said. I kept my voice calm, doing my best to keep it level as I played out more cards.

    “It could have been either one of us,” he said. “Either one of us, really. Fifty, fifty, right?”

    “That’s right, Henry,” I said. “Fifty, fifty, and I lost. Nothing for you to feel bad about. These things just kind of happen, you know?”

    “That’s right,” he said, sitting back, relief evident in his voice. “They do. It could have been either one of us,” He played a few more cards on top of my last hand. “Either one of us and it just happened to be you this time.”

    “It’s a shame,” I said in a neutral tone. “But what can you do, right?”

    “R-right,” he stuttered. He twitched slightly and the sweat beading on his forehead intensified. “Right.”

    “Are you alright, Henry?” I asked him.

    “Yes, I’m fine,” he said, dropping down another couple cards and wiping at his forehead. “Just not a lot of air in here, you know?”

    “Of course, Henry,” I said. Reaching out, I played my last few cards. “Looks like I win this round, Henry.”

    “Yep,” he said. “Sure looks like it. Too bad you lost the coin toss, right?” Henry laughed then, a short barking laugh that cut off abruptly, like someone flicking a switch. A guilty look crossed his features again and his eyes darted up and over my shoulder, at the hatch that led back up to the world.

    “Yeah, too bad, Henry.” I pushed my seat away from the table. “With me gone, you’ll have enough food and water in here to last you a while. Probably long enough to wait out whatever’s going on up top.”

    He was quiet for a while longer. There was an odd click as his throat worked up and down convulsively, but he kept his lips firmly shut.

    “Alright, Henry,” I said gently. “I’m going up now.”

    “Okay, bye!” He blurted. He was twitching violently now, eyes rolling, fists clenched at his sides, the skin white from the pressure he was exerting on himself to stay in place.

    I shook my head as I turned and made my way up the ladder to the hatch. Another failure.

    Opening the hatch, I stepped out into the cool antiseptic white corridors of the complex.

    Joanne looked up from her desk. “Any luck this time?”

    Making my way to her desk, I looked over her shoulder at the monitors that surveyed the interior of the bunker. Henry stood where I’d last seen him, twitching by the table, jittering and shaking.

    “See for yourself,” I said.

    Joanne shook her head. “I really had high hopes for Henry,” she said.

    “Yeah, me too,” I said as I snagged my lab coat from the back of the chair and shrugged into it. I felt better with it on, more like the scientist I was instead of the lab rat I felt like now and then.

    “You think we’ll ever get it?” Joanne asked wistfully. “We’ve been at this for a while with no real luck.”

    “AI’s a tough field,” I said as I swivelled my chair into place and worked the controls. “Filled with an almost infinite number of variables, it’s hard to say what it’s going to take to make it tick, but we’ll get there. We just have to keep at it.”

    “Self-sacrificing AI?” Joanne asked. “I sometimes wonder if we’re doing this more for our benefit or theirs.”

    “For all of us,” I said, looking over at her. “We don’t want them to make the same mistakes we did. If we can teach them to be self sacrificing…to give up their own existence to save that of another…just think of what it could mean. Think of the world they could build if they stopped acting out of only selfish motivations and did everything for the greater good of all?”

    “I know all that,” she said. Joanne tucked a stray strand of hair back behind her ear and looked at the monitor at the still twitching Henry. “I just feel sorry for them sometimes, you know?”

    I looked at the same monitor, where the retrieval team made their way into the bunker and shut Henry down, dragging his body into a hoist to get him into a bunker and dissect his electronic brain for clues as to how to improve the next generation.

    “Just like this test, Joanne,” I said. “It’s a sacrifice for the greater good.”

    “I know,” she said. “But do you think we’ll ever get there?”

    I thought back to all of the AI companions I’d lived next to in the bunker. I thought about what it would mean if we never succeeded, if all of those ‘deaths’ had been for nothing.

    “I believe we will,” I said at last as I ran through the commands to order a new mechanical body into creation. “I have to.”

Tami Parker Fantasy Author & Other Duties as Assigned

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