Jay counts out her regrets in the grooves of one-dollar casino chips, spends half of them at the blackjack table with the lowest entry and loses the rest at poker. She doesn’t know how to play poker. Her fingers twitch across the felt surface, over and over in increasingly tighter circles like water swirling down a drain, or the lines of a snail’s shell, or a woman wandering, not remembering where she is, until she’s just barely moving, scratching at the surface.
The man one seat over jabs her in the side. She tells him she doesn’t have any more money and gets up, tipping the wooden chair over and nearly spilling his beer. She’s got terrible luck, anyway. Her mother should’ve named her Jinx instead.
On the walk home, the city moves. The lights flash. People smoke cigarettes. She doesn’t see.
This is how she grieves: with her eyes closed and her pockets empty. By scrounging for quarters under the paint-splattered cushions and the tiered shelves of dead plants in her apartment. Phee hid them everywhere before she left. On days when Jay is angry, when her guts twist into knots and food is flavorless and music is an electric needle in her brain, she thinks that maybe Phee did that on purpose, to give her something to do. So she’d spend her life literally picking up the pieces.
She’s probably right, too. Jay is angry most days, and Phee loved metaphors almost as much as she loved art and hated plastic, which she decided is hollow and empty and not artistic at all. Hence their ruined furniture.
She was a person with religious dedication to the strange. Jay could not explain her to anyone that asked, and Phee liked it that way. She hid things to purposefully forget where they are, bought plants to watch them wither. On their first anniversary, she got Jay a rabbit. The sound of the wrapping paper being torn from its wooden crate nearly stilled its heart from fright, but no. That came later.
“This is art,” Phee told her, all smiles, their hands wrapped together around the handle of a too-small knife. It took three tries before the rabbit’s legs stopped jerking like a fish on a line.
“Life is beautiful because it ends.”
Even on days when Jay isn’t angry, she can admit that Phee had been out of her mind.
She should’ve seen it coming, then, but that’s always easy to say after the fact. Above everything else that Phee loved – fireworks, the texture of acrylic paint, the smell of anise – she adored endings the most. That’s all anything is, she’d said. Life is like a string of firecrackers, and those moments of violent, reckless sensation that end the moment they start are the most valuable of all. Nothing means anything until it’s over.
But you never really expect someone to kill herself for art.
She made it a spectacle, her body slick with gasoline and set aflame in the steel matrices of unfinished construction work, a living inferno bright enough to see from the highway two miles south. It made the papers. Phee would hate that now, if she knew. She’d wanted to disappear without a trace – there are no notes, no videos, no pictures. She’d never given a gift that could be kept, not once. She wanted an ending, and if she could’ve taken every piece of her, every desiccated vine and spray of paint and hair from her brush, she would’ve. It’s only because Jay had been home that she hadn’t.
Now, Jay thinks she should probably just finish the job. The arm of the couch is digging into the back of her skull and she doesn’t remember lying down. The whole damn house should burn, and everything in it, herself included. She’s sort of surprised Phee hadn’t killed her first to take the memories with her, too.
There’s a reason we count down our lives in little endings, second after second, over and over again. Anything that lasts is worthless. That’s what Phee said, before she burned herself alive to prove it.
Jay knows she was crazy. Now, existing in the gap between start and finish that Phee left behind, she also thinks she was right.
She doesn’t have the same conviction though. Instead, she chips the colors off their walls, stays in most days, leaves sometimes to wander casinos on the west side of the city. She never gambled before Phee died. The first time came two days after on a whim, when she stared tight-lipped and rigid on the stool in front of the slots, pressing the button until she’d run out of money and the machine reminded her in blinking san-serif, “GAME OVER,” “GAME OVER,” “GAME OVER,” every time she tried to repeat the bet. Does that mean something? She’d wondered. Phee would’ve thought so.
But Phee has ended, and Jay is just stuck.
It’s nine in the morning. Someone’s car is smashed in an intersection, the windshield left fragmented on the pavement, and the traffic is abysmal. Jay watches the drama unfold until the SUV is towed and the backs of her eyelids are imprinted with the kaleidoscopic lights of the ambulance.
There’s a woman sitting on the curb when the wreckage is cleared. Two black mittens are forgotten at her side in favor of bare hands. She rubs her face and pushes the heels of her palms into her eyes for a long, long time.
When she finally looks up, Jay is already walking away, disappearing into the double glass doors of the casino. Her arms are numb with cold. She’s stopped wearing jackets on the short walk between her apartment and here. It’s too difficult to keep track of that many pockets in the face of too many grasping fingers.
Her feet drag against the gaudy red and gold carpet, and she finds that only the more expensive tables are open. The other regulars eye her wearily. After dozens of games without making a single dollar, most of the card players that recognize her see a walking black cat, or an open umbrella, or a ladder just waiting to step over them. The blackjack tables clear out before her butt can even hit the stool.
Today, though, she only has thirteen dollars, so she goes for the penny slots and sits behind a machine themed by some amalgamation of Asian cultures. The music is an insultingly stereotypical blend of synthesized bamboo flutes and guqin. She plays the lowest bet and taps the button. Dragon, lotus, dragon, gold. Nothing. She does it again. It takes two hours to burn through half her money, and a little over ten minutes past that to notice there’s someone standing behind her.
There’s no reason to think the woman from the car accident would’ve followed her, but Jay is somehow not surprised. The resignation in her posture had been complete, and telling. Miniscule flakes of glass still glitter on the polyester of her coat.
She doesn’t speak, though, just takes a seat at the machine next to her and stares at the flashing screen. Eventually, Jay hands her a dollar. They play in silence.
The woman’s name is Marie and that car had been the only thing she owned. It takes nearly ten days to find out that little bit of information, not that Jay made it a priority to do so. She ran out of money, as usual, and went to grab the bottle of complimentary water and take her leave when Marie dropped a wad of bills in her lap. After being handed two hundred dollars, Jay felt it only polite to ask her name. That’s when she told her about the car.
“Insurance paid out,” she explains. “Six thousand.”
“But don’t you need it?”
Marie just shrugs.
Bewildered, Jay stays for another hour before gathering enough of her wits to stand. She does so slowly, hoping to make it clear without having to say so that she’s only heading to the blackjack table and not trying to make a break for it. Marie seems to understand. They maneuver through the narrow aisles, and when Jay sits, the other patrons stand, grumbling under their breath. Marie doesn’t ask. She watches the game until Jay is fifty dollars down, and then she takes the seat on her left, sliding a couple of five-dollar chips forward.
She’s luckier, or maybe smarter, or maybe both. By the time Jay loses half her money, Marie has won it back. She wordlessly refills the stash like the ocean around a capsizing ship, Jay hauling water and Marie flooding it just as fast so that by the time the evening crowd starts to wander in, too many people for her liking, they’ve both broken even.
They walk out together. The wind is cold enough to steal their breath for a moment.
“Where are you staying?” Jay asks when Marie has followed her nearly home.
Again, Marie just shrugs, so Jay holds the door open for her when they reach her apartment.
Time is passing. Or at the very least, things are changing.
The first week Marie lives with her, it’s like she doesn’t. Things are mostly the same. She sleeps on the couch and wakes when Jay does, following her out the door to the casino. They return each night with the same amount of money, with the same expressions on their faces, like the day hasn’t happened at all.
In the middle of the second week, Marie hits a small jackpot on one of the twenty-five cent slots and buys them cheap beer that she drinks like mouthfuls of cough syrup. They only stay for a few hours that day, and then the alcohol weighs down their eyelids and draws yawns from their mouths.
Marie grimaces when she swallows the last half of the bottle in one go.
Jay catches the look and doesn’t ask, but Marie says anyway, “I hate beer. It reminds me of my sixteenth birthday.” When Jay doesn’t answer, she looks like she’s about to explain, her mouth parting, and Jay flinches like she’d lifted a hand to strike her.
It’s not that she doesn’t want to hear it, she says, it’s just that she doesn’t want to know, so they walk home in silence. Jay sways unsteadily at points until she’s guiding herself along the brick walls of fast food chains and office buildings by touch rather than sight. She falls asleep fully clothed.
When she wakes the next morning, achy and feeling like she hadn’t slept at all, there’s a plate of pancakes on the kitchen table.
“They’re a little flat,” Marie explains, “because there isn’t any baking powder in the cabinet.”
And then she resumes her meal without another word. Her eyes are determinedly fixed on a weathered novel borrowed from the bookshelf in the living room.
Jay is paralyzed in the doorway with one hand white-knuckled around its frame, pissed. Now there will be dishes in the sink, and she’ll have to buy more of the coffee she never drinks, and the kitchen will smell like food. Stiffly, she takes a seat and can’t put the words she wants to say into a coherent chain. She’s not sure if she can instill the sensation with any meaning, the one pinching at her from the inside like a nagging child; in fact, she’s fairly certain it doesn’t make any sense at all. After fifteen minutes, Marie stands and opens the window, washes the dishes, and goes out to buy coffee and baking powder.
Jay stares at her food and tries to wrap her fingers around the anger singing her nerves into stillness, but it keeps slipping from her like a fistful of smoke, the remnants of charred remains, and she can’t find a reason to complain, even though she wants to, so she eats the pancakes. Marie returns hours later. She looks ten years older and too tired for a trip to the store, but neither one mentions it.
More time passes. More breakfasts, more money spent. Coffee becomes a daily occurrence that Jay can’t find a reason to fight about. Outside, the air gets colder, enough to frost the sparse grass in the medians. The sun sets as if it’s grown impatient watching their daily comings and goings, lives measured in time passed rather than used, and the early darkness is like a magnet, pulling in more and more people to engage in gambling and drunkenness and debauchery until their time spent at the casino dwindles with the daylight hours. The bodies multiply. At four in the afternoon, Marie wins a hundred dollars and hands it to Jay, who leads her out the door. She spends it on cheap wine and one-dollar scratch-off tickets that they scrub clean with Phee’s quarters. The carpet is littered with aluminum colored flakes of latex that neither of them cleans up.
Jay, predictably, wins nothing. Marie tallies twenty dollars by the time they’re a third of the way through. She switches half their tickets, stacks of paper as thick as a deck of cards, and yields the same result.
“You must be cursed,” she laughs.
At the bottom of a second bottle, they’re both drunk enough that Jay laughs, too. “It certainly seems that way.”
Marie swaps part of the stack again, shaking her head in wonder.
“If we ever go to a racetrack, remind me to bet against you.”
Jay doesn’t answer. She wishes she hadn’t said it. Her smile wilts, but she finishes the wine and the scratch-offs anyway before stumbling to her room, closing the door behind her only to nearly slam it into Marie. She stands there, anesthetized by alcohol and confusion, staring at her for quite a while until the other woman merely ducks under her arm. Marie slips into the room and nearly trips when she simultaneously tries to pull off her socks.
“What are you doing?” Jay asks through gritted teeth. Marie does not look concerned.
Then she slips under the navy comforter, turns over, and does just that.
“Get out,” is what Jay wants to say, but the words are all sticky as syrup and jammed in the funnel of her constricting throat. If she opens her mouth, she doesn’t know which pieces will untangle from the knot of frustrations and doubt and whatever else is in her, coiled and burning like a fuse, to escape her, so she leaves the door open and goes to the couch. Her eyes won’t close, though. She’s just staring at the ceiling and trying not to see the tickets on the floor, or the empty wine bottles, or the long black strands of hair that have stuck to the cushions, but it’s all there just the same. The couch no longer smells like paint. Marie’s shoes are by the door. The last dregs of coffee are still in the pot.
Life has moved around her, and she’s still stuck in this open space, standing on a sand bar in a shifting ocean. She could walk one way or the other, but that would mean having to choose, so she doesn’t. Jay throws the blanket off of her and goes back to her room. She curls in on herself at the very edge of the bed and tries to pretend that if she doesn’t move, nothing else will, either.
A month later, the dead plants that Phee left behind are decomposed to mush. Marie has started to keep a large pot of boiling water on the stove to temper the dry winter air, and the humidity leeches into the rotted tissue until the stems and leaves melt into each other like Dali’s clocks.
Not even the smell of orange peels and cinnamon can cover the stench. One morning, Marie disappears as she habitually does, leaving Jay to wander the casino alone, and she returns home to find the plants are gone. This is when she puts her foot down.
Jay stands in the living room, shouting at empty air as Marie wanders past her in circles, unbothered, wiping the dust off the shelves and picking up dirty glasses to throw in the dishwasher.
“You can’t just do this!”
Marie doesn’t even look at her. “Why?”
“Because – the plants! They’re –“
“They’re supposed to be dead,” Jay argues lamely, arms dropping to her sides. “And they weren’t yours to throw.”
She wants to catapult Phee’s words from her mouth. She wishes she could explain the aesthetic beauty of finality, the value in catastrophe and resolution, but it won’t make sense coming from her, and she knows it.
She listens to the click of the dial and the heavy thunk of machinery as the dishwasher starts. Marie takes her time circling back to the living room, and when she at last does, she stops in the doorway with her hands on her hips like a mother who’s lost patience with her child’s tantrum. Half-moon contusions darken the skin under her eyes to an ashen purple. They look like thumb prints. Her clothes – Jay’s clothes – no longer seem to touch her body at all. They just drape there like shirts on a hanger.
There’s a newspaper in her hand, the one Jay keeps folded and jammed between her old college textbooks on the shelf. Marie holds it up.
“They weren’t yours either,” she says, and no sooner is the last word out of her mouth than Jay is lunging at her, snatching the paper and pivoting on her heel to face the living room window behind the couch.
The city is still churning, and from this vantage six-stories up and overwhelmed into a thoughtless stupor, Jay can’t help but watch it. The evening traffic crawls in the graying light. The radios are probably on. People are hitting the horns of their cars, talking to each other, but that, at least, Jay ignores. Her hands are pressed firmly over her ears.
“Get out.” Her voice is mercilessly loud over the blood rushing in her ears.
She waits, shoulders hunched and motionless, for a long time, and when she finally lets her hands drop from her head as cautiously as if she’d been holding it together, checking to see if the glue would hold, she listens.
The dishwasher has stopped running. After another minute, the heater clicks on, breathing warm air from the vent over her head.
Jay sells her phone and pays the cable bill for the first time in three months. She stares unblinkingly at re-runs of old sitcoms, bad TV movies and mind numbing infomercials late, late at night. When the sounds stop battering her brain in a meaningless cacophony, switching from senseless jabber into whole, identifiable words, she mutes it. The silence makes her fingers drumming against the keys of her laptop agonizingly loud. Her paycheck comes in ten days later, and she glares at the number in her checking account, higher than it’s been since the first day she went gambling, and goes to a 7-11 fifteen blocks away to buy lottery tickets.
She dumps them on the kitchen counter in a haphazard pile and leaves them there. The next day, she does it again, and then again, piling scratch-offs and Mega Millions and Powerball into a heap on the granite like a dragon hoarding fool’s gold. By the end of two weeks the pile is spilling onto the floor.
At three in the morning, after staring at her bedroom ceiling for an hour, Jay rolls out of bed like her mattress has turned to hot coals. The restlessness is like sitting in an oven, feeling the temperature rise minutely with each passing second. She scrambles with unexplainable urgency to find one of Phee’s hidden quarters. Her fingers grasp around cold metal underneath the dresser, and then she races to the kitchen to grab the first scratch-off that catches her eye.
The quarter makes one long, neat line across its surface before she stops, whatever exigent force possessing her dispersing as suddenly as it came.
They’re all losers. She knows that already.
If Marie had gotten them, maybe they wouldn’t be, but Marie is gone. Really gone. The only signs of her having been there are in the absences she’d left behind: no shoes by the door, no dead plants, no more wet coffee grounds in the trashcan. Jay puts her elbows on the counter, some of the tickets rustling to the ground and quietly scraping against the tiles, and then she puts her face in her hands and laughs, because it’s funny, she thinks, that Marie is better at endings than Phee had been.
And Jay, meanwhile, is where she’s always stood, stuck between forward and back, unable to start anything, let alone finish it, but she finds herself staring into her closet and reaching for her coat, and she thinks that she must be crazier than Phee had ever been, for assuming these things have really been her choices to make.
The security guard at the casino recognizes her instantly and smiles, mumbling something about “it’s been a while” that Jay acknowledges with a half-hearted pleasantry. Inside, things are just how she left them. The loud techno-pop and synthesized beats still blare from the slot machines. The same people still work the tables, the same regulars give her the same looks. There are no windows and no clocks on the wall, purposely obscuring the hour and the turning of the world around them. If Jay wanted to, she could sit down and merely pretend that nothing has happened. She could convince herself that it’s been only two days since Phee died and there had never been a car crash on the corner of 3rd and L Street.
She doesn’t, though. Instead, she navigates between one end of the floor and the other, over and over again, searching until she spots the maroon shade of a parka and the spill of long, dark hair over the back of it, getting thinner and thinner. The top of her head is partially covered now by a knitted hat. Marie is draped over one of the machines. Her mittens are gone and Jay thinks they must’ve been stolen. Two cocktail waitresses idle nearby, waiting to intervene, but she waves at them and they wander off at the sight of her familiar face.
“Hey,” Jay shakes her gently. “Wake up.”
Marie, her forehead still pressed to the machine top, rolls her head slightly to the side and cracks an eye open. Her fingers are trembling, the muscle in her jaw quivering unsteadily when she flexes it. The rings under her eyes seem to have distended halfway down her face. She hadn’t really been sleeping, Jay understands immediately, she’d just been too exhausted to move.
The comprehension is not a burst, or a flare, or an explosion of emotion. It blooms deliberately from the seed planted months ago when Marie first disappeared and returned with the posture of a weary soldier, because Jay can’t help knowing things, like how Marie takes her coffee in the morning, or how she avidly avoids autobiographies, or this, an ending in slow motion, even if she doesn’t acknowledge what any of it means. No one can will things into nonexistence.
Marie opens her mouth, preparing to speak and waiting for Jay to stop her, but she doesn’t.
“I’m dying, you know,” she says mildly.
The words are like the flat of a knife sliding along her skin. It doesn’t hurt yet, but it will, eventually; for now, though, the sensation is so jarring that it makes Jay laugh.
“Aren’t we all?” She giggles nervously, feeling like an idiot.
Marie can’t find the energy to answer, but she manages to smile at the terrible joke. Jay hits the “Print Voucher” button and helps her from her seat. When they pass the cashiers at the front, Marie tugs at the sleeve of her coat weakly, but she keeps walking.
“Tomorrow,” she promises. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after, or maybe the day after that, and if they make it to the spring, Jay thinks, maybe they’ll start a garden.
Serena Johe is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in speculative fiction. Some of her other work can be found in Chantwood Magazine, Schlock!, and The Horror Zine.