Phil sipped on his Coke. Counted his chips. One black, three greens. Handful of reds. Nowhere near the five hundred he started with, but he was trending up. He could get there. If he played right.
The dealer slid a Jack and a three across the table. Gave himself a nine. The crinkled printout in Phil’s wallet—which he had memorized but carried anyway—said to hit. So, he hit.
Tap, tap—another three.
Phil had a rule—no, a code—you only gamble with the wages of an employee you could fire. That way, if you lost, you’d have an out. No harm done. And if you won, you could buy your wife something nice, string it around her neck, and tell her it’s not an addiction. It’s math.
His wife knew he was no good at math. He was no good at lots of things. But he was good at this. Good enough to go to the casino three nights a week the past seven months, down just eight hundred bucks on the year. Good enough that the waitresses knew him by name and on Tuesdays gave him free drinks. Good enough that when he left the mountain for Cherokee Hills Casino, his wife begged him to come back.
Phil tapped the table again. Took another card. Bust.
His phone buzzed. His wife’s face flashed across the screen, smiling. Fourth missed call. Like with blackjack, Phil had a strategy chart—two or three missed calls were no big deal, but once you hit four, five, six—that’s when you get into trouble.
Leaving now, Phil texted. Then he took another swig of Coke and slid in his black chip. If this goes well, nobody gets fired.
Reed studied the kid—his bushy eyebrows, thick glasses. Forehead. He was short. Fat. Clueless, Reed hoped. But he didn’t know.
He crinkled a square of foil into a tight ball and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans. Reed’s routine was to make sure the bathroom was locked. Check to see the stalls were empty. Then sugar the boogers. Maybe he forgot to check? No, he checked. Maybe the kid’s legs were up. Maybe he was hiding. Little shit.
The kid blinked. Looked kind of dumb. There’s no way he understood what he just saw. No way. But he stared anyway as if waiting for Reed to confess.
Reed wiped his nose. Sniffled.
“Any requests for campfire, kid?” he said. “What’s your favorite song?”
Reed rubbed his soapy hands under the faucet. Wiped them half-dry on his jeans.
The kid said nothing.
Reed nodded goodbye then slid between the kid and the bathroom door. He tried to be discreet with the lock but it clicked anyway. Loud.
The kid’s eyes widened.
“What’s your name?” Reed asked.
“Matthew, you seem like a cool dude—what do you say we keep this a secret? Between us guys.”
Matthew squinted. “Have any money?”
Not much. Camp stipend comes the first of the month. A couple of days.
“One hundred dollars or I’ll tell.”
Matthew tugged on his sleeve like he was unsure—scared, even. Reed didn’t think Matthew would snitch, but he also knew better than to gamble with a kid. Kids are unpredictable, emotional, thoughtless. And if Matthew took money, they’d be in this together—indicted. Reed emptied his foil-free pocket. Unfurled his money clip. “How about forty-three dollars, and umm…”—he felt around his other pocket—“and this guitar pick.”
Matthew stared at the money, blank-faced.
“Please. It’s all I have,” Reed said.
The preacher at Monday’s campfire said that where your heart is your treasure is too, so Matthew thought maybe if he gave his forty-three dollars to Camila, he’d have her heart. And maybe, he thought, maybe she’d give him a kiss.
Matthew had never been kissed, but he also never had forty-three dollars. His grandma gave him a twenty when he turned nine, but forty-three? Matthew figured himself the richest kid in the whole camp. And his big brother taught him once—as he unwrapped a Double-Double from his job at In-N-Out Burger—girls like a man with money.
Camila blushed. Her friend Janie insisted she count the money, but Camila said that wasn’t necessary. She said she would have kissed Matthew anyway. But the money’s a nice touch. “Something to remember you by,” she said.
Then she took his hand and led him to the playground by the creek.
Janie held the money for safekeeping, tucking the bills beneath her armpit so nobody would see. She watched Camila and Matthew disappear into heavy shadows. Waited. Rubbed her thumb along the smooth face of the guitar pick and looked down at the shoes her dad bought her for camp—pink and white with heels that glowed when you took a step.
Camila returned first, then Matthew, dazed. Janie handed Camila the armpit-money, the sweaty bills sticking to her fingers. She kept the guitar pick for herself because Camila forgot to ask.
Later that evening, as the counselors scavenged wood scraps for the campfire, Matthew asked to sit next to Camila. But Camila had already settled at the end of a long pew next to the other girls from her cabin.
“There’s no room here,” Janie said, slouching heavy into the bench like a rock.
“Tomorrow, maybe,” Camilla added and blew him a kiss.
That night, Camila told Janie she couldn’t bring the money home. Her mom would flip out if she saw it, and her dad would do even worse if he found out she kissed a boy.
Janie remembered how the bills felt tucked underneath her shirt—like she had a secret. Like a queen. She wanted to capture that feeling, hold onto it forever.
So when Camila asked to trade forty-three dollars for Janie’s light-up shoes, Janie agreed. She stuck the money into the left side of her bra and imagined all she could buy. She imagined plucking off the Target rack the swimsuit she couldn’t afford, and she imagined getting her nails painted French-style like at Becca’s birthday party, and she imagined kissing Tucker Rodd.
That night while the other kids slept, Janie lay in her cot, awake. She fantasized about toys, clothes, games. She fantasized about strolling to the cash register and tossing a bill onto the counter, telling her dad everything was okay, that she would pay for herself from now on. This way he wouldn’t skip a meal after shopping to make the money straight. She imagined her dad buying shoes without looking at the tags, then stooping down and wrapping her in a big hug.
And as she thought about shoes, she wondered if by trading hers away she had betrayed her dad. Not his wallet, but his heart. She knew the price of her shoes; she knew the price of all her clothes. And at $29.99, she’d be able to buy them back plus more, maybe a meal for her dad. That would be nice. But she wondered, still, how he’d feel when she went home with bare feet.
She said all this to Camila the next morning—that she needed to break the sacred code of gift-giving and request a take-back, but Camila said their deal had no-backsies, and backsies, as everyone knows, were binding.
Janie sat alone the next campfire. Camila and Matthew sat two rows ahead—her leg wrapped behind his, feet clicking together, her light-up heels dancing to the praise-rhythm of the guitar.
The next morning, Janie flagged down one of the big kids—Sharon, a bully. Sharon had teased Janie when they were younger. Always gave Janie Indian burns and threw things at her. Always said Janie smelled like cats. Janie didn’t even have cats.
Janie pulled Sharon aside. Looked around. She flashed three tens and five ones, and she told Sharon Camila stole her shoes. She needed them back.
“I’ll pay extra if you make her cry,” she said.
Sharon stuck out a hand, “How do I know you’ll pay up?”
Janie stuffed the $35 into the pocket with the other eight. She pressed her thumb against the guitar pick so hard she thought it would break.
“If I don’t, you can beat me up…the way you used to.”
Sharon grinned. “What’s stopping me from doing that now?”
“The money. And I’ll tell Phil.”
The guitar pick slid across Phil’s desk. It spun around, pointed cockeyed at Reed. Reed stammered, twisted himself into a Thanks, I was looking for that.
“You’re fired,” Phil said.
Reed tensed. Made a fist. “What did Zach say?”
“Matthew,” Phil corrected, “was in a fight with a middle-schooler—a girl, Sharon. Protecting his girlfriend. His eye’s swollen. And Camila, the girlfriend, we found her bleeding from both ankles. Blood on her shoes too. She’ll be fine, though.”
“But what did Matthew say?” Reed asked.
The kid was desperate. Probably thought if he was smart, he could keep his job, but Phil knew about a dozen counselors—good, Christian ones—who could take Reed’s spot, no problem. You only need to know about three chords to play most praise music.
Phil had hired Reed against his wife’s advice. He saw something in him—potential, maybe. And Phil was naïve enough to think that maybe if Reed lived here all summer, if he worked the campfire each night, sang praise music, and listened to sermons, then maybe his rough edges would smooth away. Maybe he’d change. Like Phil.
“We both know you weren’t snorting sand,” Phil said.
Reed looked away.
“I’m going to let you play tonight—high-school camp only. But I need you packed and out of here by the weekend. Do you understand?”
“I can drive you to rehab if you need it,” Phil sighed. “I know a place about an hour from here.”
Reed sniffled. Wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I’m good,” he said. “Really.”
Phil knew what that meant. “If you need anything…”—he ducked desk-level to catch Reed’s eye—“reach out. I’m mad at you, but I’m not that mad at you. If that makes sense. Things will work out.”
“Actually…” Reed said. “There is one thing. Maybe I can have next month’s money—like severance. I don’t have a place lined up ’til September.”
“Sorry,” Phil said. “The stipend’s an advance, and money’s tight right now. You know, church work.”
“Then what about the money from the kids? You have the guitar pick, so I’m sure you’ve got the money too.”
Phil swiveled in his chair. “I don’t think the money rightfully belongs to anyone. So, I took those thirty-five dollars, and I buried them.” He slid the guitar pick across the table. “I figure this here is enough. Maybe you’ll keep it, and you’ll learn something. Maybe when you look at it, you’ll remember there’s someone out there who loves you. Or maybe you’ll throw it away—I don’t know. But the money’s gone.”
The money wasn’t gone.
It stayed in Phil’s wallet, wrapped around his crinkled printout of blackjack odds. It stayed there until his next trip down the mountain. Phil stopped at a gas station. Fed the amalgamation of bills to the ATM. Then he went online and bought a pendant for his wife. A way of saying thank you. And I’m sorry. And I hope we can be better.
And inside that ATM, those thirty-five dollars died. They became disembodied. No souls. No face. The fibers frayed, split along the eyes of the men printed dead center. The dollars reconfigured themselves into ones and zeros. Something new. Without weight.
Phil withdrew a fresh set of bills—wrinkle-free and without history—then he returned to Cherokee Hills. No matter what, this was his last visit. No matter what. He cashed in his bills for chips and tucked his wallet back into his pocket. The blackjack printout stayed there, alone. It became faded and tattered and old. And so did Phil’s wife. And so did Phil.
Greg Rapier’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Dream Pop, The Nervous Breakdown, Variety Pack, and Fathom. He has degrees in English and Film, and is working on his doctorate in Creative Writing and Public Theology (yeah, that’s a thing). He lurks on Twitter with the very factual handle: @revgregiscool.
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