Low Pair

Harsh light filled his eyes; stale, sweaty air his nostrils. The hum of voices, the jangling of slots, the rattle of a roulette wheel blended to batter his ears, a roaring wind. Focus was gone; cards in all suits and ranks scattered across his brain.

He fumbled for an inner calm that stayed just out of reach. Maybe the struggle itself kept calm away. Did it matter? It was time and past time for him to leave—he was losing his edge. Had lost his edge. That last hand, with the Kid sitting there smirking when a lucky card—no, push it aside.

Poker was no place for emotion.

He forced his breathing even. He was only down seven hundred. Leave now, and he could stop it there. Find the calm, come back tomorrow, make it up then.

The cards scattered; the light glared. Wind roared.

Steady breaths. It was his inner calm, that cool emotionless core, that made him a winner. He just had to find it again. Steady breaths and a moment to center. He could get his edge back.

A flicker of motion to his left. The cards were being dealt. He should get up. Get up, go home, sleep it off.

Lose.

Across the table, the Kid looked at his cards and smiled.

He stared at his own cards, face down on the green felt surface. Looking was dangerous. If he looked, he might bet.

He steadied his hand, brought the first card to his chest. He leaned back in his seat, tilted the card just far enough to see. King of spades.

He should get up. Leave. Not even look at the second card.

Across the table, the Kid raised.

He reached for his second card; looked at it sideways. Ace of spades.

Ace-king suited. Second best hole cards in the game. Cut the number of players in the pot down to two or three, and he should win. Maybe win big.

He looked up, face showing nothing. Not the bright white light that burned his eyes, not the wind that screamed at him.

The bet to him was thirty. Thirty barely qualified as a raise. He pushed seven tens forward. Seventy would make some of them think twice.

A fold, and a fold, and the Kid was up.

Everything about the Kid screamed amateur. The casually backwards baseball cap, the cheap sunglasses, the nervous way he looked around whenever he placed a bet. The playing style. The Kid had the math right, but he didn’t know people. He would’ve been wiped out long since, if not for that luck that protects idiots.

The Kid shoved ten chips forward. A hundred.

Still and steady.

Three more folds, and it was back to him. He stared across the table at the Kid. The Kid was still smiling, almost smirking. He had to have something good—good, not great. King-queen unsuited. Queen-jack suited, maybe. Anything better, the Kid’d be pissing himself with joy.

His hand was better than the Kid’s. He could feel it in his gut. For a moment—the briefest span, an ephemeral second—he touched the edge of the calm, nearly had it.

The moment passed, the wind returned.

He shoved all his chips into the pot. Three hundred fifty, plus his earlier seventy. Four hundred twenty total. All-in.

The Kid didn’t look at him, or the others at the table, or even stop to figure pot odds. Just smiled and shoved in his own chips.

He took a second to stare the Kid down, just to show him how it was. Then he flipped his cards. Ace of spades, king of spades. Someone, blurring at the side of his vision, whistled in appreciation.

The Kid flipped his. Three of clubs, three of hearts. Low pair.

Someone coughed. The Kid went pink and stared down at his cards.

Professionally oblivious, the dealer leaned forward, burned one, dealt the flop. Jack of spades. Seven of diamonds. Eight of clubs. The jack was nice, but wouldn’t help unless he hit runner runner. The rest was trash.

The dealer burned another card, dealt the turn. Ten of spades. Another whistle.

Hot damn. Any spade now would give him a flush and the win. Any ace, king, or queen would win it, with a pair or a straight. And the queen of spades, the black lady herself, would give him a royal flush.

He’d never seen a royal flush. He didn’t know anyone who’d ever seen a royal flush. But he was about to see one, he could feel it in his gut.

He leaned forward. The Kid leaned forward. Everyone around the table leaned forward.

Everything slowed. The light dimmed, the wind stopped, the slots and roulette wheel fading into silence.

For one instant, one eternity, all was stillness.

The dealer burned another, turned over the final card.

It was black—a spade! No. A club. The five of clubs. Nothing. Garbage.

It was over.

“Pair of threes wins,” said the dealer. The Kid pulled the stack of chips toward him.

The Kid was staring at him. The dealer was staring at him. He was standing, fists clenched in front of him. His hands shook; his whole body shook. Wind shrieked in his ears.

For a moment, he was falling.

And then he hit center.

He felt nothing. The wind was gone, the light was gone. The anger, the emotion, the tilt was gone.

He would come again tomorrow.

Tomorrow he would win it all back.

One thought on “Low Pair

  1. Originally written: March 2008. Actually, this may be the first short story I ever wrote. I’d written plenty of partial novels over the years, but no short stories up until this one.
    Edits: fairly heavy. Added a few quick details to avoid the “white room” problem, moved the introduction of the conflict to the beginning, smoothed out the prose, removed a lot of repetition. The broad outline remains the same.
    Group theme: “An Unlikely Pair”
    Inspiration: probably my brother Ronan’s poker playing. :)

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