From the author: When new guys keep materializing at a poker game being held ... somewhere ..., the group realizes they all have a certain cocky, grinning friend in common.
So we were all sitting around playing poker, which is pretty hard to do when your hands mostly pass through the cards. I mean, you have to really concentrate to pick them up. Hell, you have to concentrate just to project them into existence, or what passes for existence here.
In other words, dealing takes frickin' forever.
It was Goose's turn to deal, but his head kept lolling over. He'd broken his neck when he and the pilot he RIO'd for ejected from an F-14, and he had to keep putting down the cards to straighten up his head. I got tired of waiting, so I leaned over and asked the new guy how he got here.
"Beats me, mate," he said. He had an Australian accent, and that leathery skin that comes from too much sun and too many cigarettes.
"I'm thinking that slash across your throat might have something to do with it, pal," I said. "I'd tell you to look in a mirror, but you probably wouldn't have a reflection yet, seeing as you just got here."
He didn't seem like he cared much; he just shrugged and asked, "Can a guy get a beer around here, mate?"
"Or maybe you drank yourself to death," I said. Jeez, I was in a mood.
"Jeez, you're in a mood," Goose said. "Lighten up, will you?"
I stood up and stalked away from the table. Goose's constant cheeriness was annoying, but he was right; there was no point taking it out on the new guy.
After a couple of minutes or hours, I went back to the table, where Goose was finally laying out the last few cards. I started to pick them up -- I was pretty good at it, compared to the newer guys -- when Goose spoke and broke my concentration. My cards fluttered back down to the table.
For once, I held my temper. "What'd you say, Goose?"
"I said, this here is Doug. Doug, this is. . . well, we call him 'John.'"
"Doug, huh?" I said, narrowing my eyes. I was impressed in spite of myself, because most new arrivals are confused for a while. I’ve been here longer than any of the guys, and I still can’t remember my name. But it wouldn't do to let on I was impressed. "Well, Doug, seeing as we don't have anything much to bet with, the rule is that the first player to go bust has to tell a story. Not just some made-up thing, but something real, something that happened to you before you got here, see?"
"No worries, mate," Doug said. He didn't seem to get much worked up over anything.
Which was good considering that he promptly lost several hands in a row. I guess hold 'em poker wasn't his game. Before long he was out, so he started to tell us his story.
"It's pretty simple, really," he said. "I was a bartender in New York City, just minding my own business and getting along day to day, and along comes this kid looking for a job, so I hire him. He’d never bartended before, but there was something about him. So I took him under my wing, tried to wise him up a little.
"Well, we had a bit of a falling out, and I hadn't seen him for a while. In the meantime, I married a pretty little rich girl, and I figured that was the perfect time to look up Brian again. He was bartending down in Jamaica by then, so me and the missus went down there on our honeymoon. Brian and I fell right back into the old routine, best mates again. But my wife was a little too friendly, with Brian and everyone else, if you know what I mean, and then I lost all the money her old man had given me, so...." He shrugged, unwilling to say it.
"Oh man, you killed yourself," Goose said. He always was one for stating the obvious. But his sympathy was sincere.
Doug smiled ruefully. "Yeah, well, I'd got myself in a spot, hadn't I? Besides, Brian was about to screw things up with this little blond chippy he'd fallen in love with. Once I was gone, he realized he'd better straighten himself out. So they got married and they’ll live happily ever after now.”
Just then, another new guy walked in -- okay, okay, materialized. Jeez, we were turning into Grand Central Station. Good-looking, athletic young black guy. He was a little confused, of course, but I could tell he'd be full of piss and vinegar once the confusion wore off.
"Did we win?" he said, blinking.
"Win what?" Goose asked.
"The game," he said. "Monday Night Football! I just made the most amazing catch and blam! here I am." He looked around. "Uh, where am I?"
"Uh oh," said Goose.
The new guy frowned at Goose, and took a step towards him. "What do you mean, 'uh oh'?" he said, looking threatening. "You better not be telling me ... Look, bud--"
"Goose," I said. "His name's Goose."
"OK, look, Goose," the new guy said. "If you're saying what I think you're saying, I'm not supposed to be here. My wife just had a baby, and this game's gonna make my career. My agent, he's stuck with me through the rough times and I've stuck with him, and together we're gonna--"
Something was fishy here. "Your agent, huh?" I said. "Tell us about this agent of yours."
"My man, Jerry," he said enthusiastically. "Oh yeah, he was the hottest sports agent in the biz, but then he grew a conscience and all his clients dumped him. All except me. The Rod-man ain't nothin' if he ain't loyal! And it's a good thing, too, because he was all screwed up about love and his career, and I was setting him straight. Funny thing is, he's already married the love of his life, he just hasn't figured it out yet. He just needs to grow up a little."
"OK, that's it!" I said. "There is definitely something fishy going on. Rod, you said your name was, right? You're helping your man Jerry through his little life crisis and then you get sent up here from a football tackle? Doesn't that seem a little strange to you?"
"Well, yeah," Rod said. "Kind of pisses me off, but at least now Jerry might realize what's important and get his act together."
"And you, Goose," I said. "Remind me about that pilot of yours?"
"Well," Goose said slowly, "he's a great guy, the best of the best. Mav, we called him -- that was his callsign. Mav was fighting some demons, all right. He had the shadow of his old man hanging over him, so he always wanted to prove himself and sometimes it got him in trouble. And I know he loved me like a brother, but he had to let me go before he could really find his way."
"But what about you?" I asked Goose. "Didn't you have a wife and a little boy? What about your life? What about finding your way?"
"Well, yeah, I miss the wife and kid," said Goose. "But once I died, Mav really turned it around! A couple weeks later there was this situation with some Russian Migs, and Mav was the big hero. Isn't that the important thing?"
"Maybe for Mav," I said sarcastically. "Anyone seeing a pattern here?"
"What?" said Goose. "I don't get it."
"Doug kills himself, and then his best friend Brian shapes up and lives happily ever after. You die ejecting from your plane, and your buddy Mav finds his cojones and becomes a hero. And Rod here -- jeez, who the hell ever heard of getting killed in a football game? All so his friend Jerry can realize he loves the woman he’s already married to? What a load of crap!"
They were silent for a moment, and then Goose spoke. "Well, yeah, when you put it that way.... But it's gotta be coincidence, don't you think?"
"There's only one way to tell," I said. "Goose, show us your buddy Mav."
"Okay," said Goose, sounding uncertain. He straightened his head with both hands and started to concentrate. It was kind of like visualizing the poker cards, but harder because it wasn't a group effort.
A misty head and shoulders began to materialize on the center of the table. At first all we could see was a flight suit and a blurry face with dark hair, but then the guy's features came into focus. He was good-looking and he knew it, with a real shit-eating grin.
"Hey," said Doug. "He looks an awful lot like--"
"Your Brian?" I asked.
"Yeah," Doug said.
Goose's Mav disappeared and Doug started to concentrate. The effort made some blood drip from the gash in his throat. It took him a long time, but eventually we could see that Doug's Brian was a dead ringer -- no pun intended -- for Goose's Mav.
I turned to Rod.
"Hey, man," he said. "I don't know how to conjure up a picture of Jerry. But that's him all right. What the hell is going on?"
"Gentleman, I'll tell you what's going on," I said. "Whoever this guy is, calling himself Mav and Brian and Jerry and who knows what else, he's a fraud. He's been tricking guys into dying for him to make his life better. What, he can't grow up, and stay grown up by himself, without leaving a huge body count behind?"
I took a breath. "Well, I say we fight. Rod, you just got here, so you're our best shot. I say we send you back, put you right back there on that football field before anyone even realizes you're gone. What do you say?"
"Hell, yeah!" Rod said. "I want my life back! I want my wife and my kids and my football career!" He was nothing if not enthusiastic.
"Okay, guys, we can do this. Rod, visualize the football field, the big catch you just made. Doug, Goose, try to see what he sees, and then visualize it yourselves too. And, well, we'll just will Rod right back down there. C'mon!"
We were silent as we concentrated. We pictured the stadium full of subdued fans, hushed while they waited to see how bad Rod was hurt. We pictured the lights and the players and the cheerleaders, and Rod lying there in the end zone, very still. Then we pushed.
Suddenly, down-on-the-field Rod twitched.
"Harder!" I cried, keeping my eyes closed.
Up-here Rod slowly faded away, while down-on-the-field Rod opened his eyes. Then he sat up, grinned from ear to ear, and jumped to his feet. The crowd went wild. Here they were, thinking Rod had a broken neck and was maybe even dead, and suddenly he's leaping around like a madman.
We'd done it. We didn't have to push anymore, but we kept watching, enjoying Rod's antics. And then I saw him -- Jerry, I mean. Or Mav, or Brian, or whatever the hell his name was. He was on the sidelines, and he looked ecstatic, watching Rod jump around to a standing ovation.
So, maybe this Jerry guy could grow up on his own, without needing his best friend to die. And maybe he couldn't.
But that was his problem.
My problem, now, is what to do about Goose and Doug. It'll be harder to fix things for them, because they've been here longer than Rod was. But what's time in a place like this, anyway?
And once I get them squared away, I'll see if there are any other throwaway sidekicks up here that need a hand. And maybe, just maybe, I'll figure out where I came from, and fix that too.
- End -
This story originally appeared in QuarterReads.