Burning Bones

Steven’s finger hovered over the “Accept” button, the soft green light of the ATM lighting his face. He hesitated and looked at his watch, as if the time wasn’t displayed prominently on every wall and every television. 6:52. He checked the nearest wall. Yep, it still had the right time. He looked behind him, stalling. If someone was standing behind him, waiting to use the ATM, then he would have to make a decision right there. He could hit cancel, take his empty wallet and mostly empty bank account home, and even get there in time to tuck his kid into bed. But there was no one behind him, no one waiting.

His finger pressed the button. “Thank You For Allowing Us To Serve You,” the machine flashed, as his money started spitting out. Twenty dollar bill after twenty dollar bill, three hundred and forty dollars total. “Would You Like A Recipt?” The machine asked him in glowing green print. He stabbed at the “No” button. He didn’t need a piece of paper to remind him of the two dollars and fifty seven cents that were in his bank account. Besides, first thing tomorrow morning, it would all be back before anyone knew it was gone. All of it, and all the rest, and more. A big one was coming. He knew it. Not just a big one, but The Big One. His bones were burning, as his dad used to say whenever he felt a hot streak coming on. His bones were burning, and he was ready to walk out of this dingy place a winner.

The dive Steve was in had a bar along the wall filled with cheap liquor and lights above the tables that managed to keep everything in the dark. A large TV lined each wall, illuminating everything in front of them in pale iridescence. Each of the screens showed the same thing: a dirt track, crowded seats, and a ticker along the bottom running through the previous races and the odds for the next one. He watched the odds go along the bottom and did some quick math. With the money in his hand, and considering how much he had already lost tonight, and how much was needed to pay back the rest of the money he owed, he needed… he worked through the calculations quickly as the names of the horses scrolled by. There! That one, that had to be it. The one horse with the best odds of winning and leaving here with his bank account, his pride, and maybe his limbs, intact. He had always been good with numbers, able to do calculations quickly in his head. It was just his luck that was rotten.

There weren’t many others in the room with him. A bartender, a couple strangers drinking by themselves, and Jerry in the corner. Jerry was not drinking, but there was a large cigar in his mouth, and the beady eyes under his hat watched Steve intently. Steve gripped his money. Three hundred and forty dollars. Briefly he considered what that could get him if he took it home. He could make sure the electricity didn’t get turned off. Maybe feed his kid something besides macaroni and hot dogs. Or, he thought, or he could go home with a lot more. Forget paying the bills, with this win he could get the capital to eventually move them out of that sweatbox entirely. Get the kid a whole new wardrobe so he could stop wearing hand-me-downs. He didn’t notice how his walking changed, from a shuffle to a confident strut as he approached Jerry, but Jerry noticed. Jerry noticed everything.

“Feeling good on this one,” Steven said as he stepped up to Jerry. Sitting on his stool, Jerry looked at him expressionlessly. Jerry knew Steven’s hard luck story, but he had known a lot of guys, with a lot of hard luck stories. In the end, they were all the same, and only one thing mattered. He mentally counted the bills in Steven’s hands. He pulled out a small notebook from his back pocket and a short stubby pencil.

“Who ya got?” he asked. “Race starts in just a few minutes.”

Steven smiled, confident in his pick. “Number 5. Unlikeable Midnight,” he answered, his mind already on what he would do with his winnings. Heck, maybe they could even take a vacation. Treat the kid to Disney World or something. “That horse is going to win me the big one. The start of something good, I can feel it.”

Jerry scribbled in his notebook. Steven placed the wad of bills between Jerry’s stubby fingers, and Jerry counted each one, examining them closely. Satisfied, he ripped a page out of the notebook and handed it to Steven. “You know the drill. Take it up to Remy at the bar after the race.”

Steve clutched the receipt tightly in his hand, careful to not lose hold of it, but careful to not smudge the words and numbers written on it. He stood in front of the bar, eyes on the television as the horses lined up. His heart pounded, each beat throbbing in his veins, his eyes never blinked, afraid he would miss something. There was his horse, ready to go. Ready to win. Ready to make him a lot of money. The starting gun fired, and they were off.

 

In his pretend life, August Baker is a retail monkey who channels anger and loathing into something vaguely resembling literature. In his real life, he is a Space Pirate.

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