Bored. Tired. Feeling cheated. All of these things went through my mind as I slipped into my leather jacket and headed out the front door. This was the worst party I had ever been to and I was done. It was time to go home. Fortunately I only lived a couple of miles away, across the mountaintop. Fall was here but it was still nice enough to walk. So I did.
The night air felt good after the stagnant party air. The road was rough under my boots but I’d made the walk a hundred times before. Only a hint of moon hid behind wispy clouds. I’d either drank more than I thought or just wasn’t paying attention.
Soon enough I was across the street from the old Civil War cemetery that hadn’t seen a new soul in more than a hundred years. Mist clung to most of the old tombstones. There was nothing special about it but tonight it felt…different. I paused, staring into the graveyard. I couldn’t place where the odd feeling came from.
I froze, furtively looking around for the sound of the voice. There wasn’t anyone nearby. My heart quickened. A puzzled look crossed my tired face. Someone was playing a joke on me. Hiding in the darkness. “Who’s there?”
Again, “Hey boy, come over here.”
The harder I looked the less I saw, until the alabaster form of an ancient skeleton came into view. The mist parted just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of him. I’d never seen the like. My stomach churned, threatening revolt. The old skeleton was sitting in a rickety old rocking chair, gently rocking back and forth.
My first thought was someone was playing a joke on me. Halloween was only a few nights away so it made sense. Then I saw the skeleton’s jawbone open as it called me over. I don’t exactly recall what made me do it, but I soon found myself ambling over.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked, dumbfounded. Then I realized just how dumb that question was.
The skeleton grunted. “Don’t see no one else around here do you? Folks must’ve gotten dumber since I died. Course my eyes ain’t been too good for some years now.” He broke out in quiet laughter. “Sit down boy. It’s been a spell since I had company.”
I had trouble accepting the fact that I was standing in a graveyard talking to a skeleton. Maybe my brain had finally tipped over the fine line between sanity and straight up crazy. Who knows? I wondered what size straight jacket I wore. Internal deliberations aside, I had nothing better to do so I sat down in an empty chair that hadn’t been there a moment ago and patiently waited for the skeleton to get on with what he meant to do. I didn’t think I was drunk, but the possibility of the beer being bad certainly entered my mind.
Just as I was about to explore all of the logical and illogical possibilities the old skeleton reached under his rocking chair and produced a deck of beaten up playing cards. Seriously? They looked three times as old as he was.
“You and me are going to play a little game. You win, you get to go home,” he stated matter-of-factly.
I swallowed hard. “If you win?”
“I take your body and you stay here.”
How did he know I wasn’t any good at cards? His deal was all but a nail in my coffin. I knew there was no way I could win, even against a dead man. Unspeakable malice radiated off the bones, forcing me to realize I had no choice. Reluctantly, I agreed.
He laughed again as daftly began shuffling the deck with his bony fingers moving so fast I was pressed just to pay attention. This wasn’t going to end well but I didn’t see any way out. When he finished he slapped the deck against his knee and handed it to me with what I interpreted to be a broad smile. Nervous, I reshuffled just to be on the safe side.
The five cards slid from my hand faster than I wanted but Fate seemed to guide my hand. He picked up his. I picked up mine. I’d watched poker on television and heard all about tells and what not. What sort of tell did a skeleton have? He didn’t have a face! I began to wallow in misery. Then I looked at my cards. All I had was a miserable pair of sevens. Crap. I was going to die.
He laid three cards down, as did I, and I gave us each three more. Without any money, the hand went fast. He slapped his knee again and laid down two pairs. Fives and jacks.
Leaning forward, he said menacingly, “Beat me.”
I stole a peek at my cards before laying them down. A king, a three…and three sevens. My eyes popped wide. The skeleton growled and knocked the small table over. I did it. I won! I jumped up and raised my hands to the star filled sky. I won!
The skeleton rose. His bones grinding in an unholy sound. I thought for sure he was coming for me, but instead he tipped his head and turned away. Was this a trick? Did my eyes deceive me? No. He walked back to an old cross shaped tombstone and disappeared. The mist evaporated and I was alone in the cemetery again.
It’s been years since that incident and I still have trouble believing any of it really happened. But then again, it’s not up to me to believe. It’s up to you.