Nineteen was supposed to be my lucky number. Today it only ensured that my kaleidoscope of coloured chips were clawed away from me. They represented everything: thirty years of work, two marriages, my house, my car…absolutely all I had.
Yet the only thing I could think was – thank God I’d already put my kids through college! In that single moment I had only messed my own life up – no one else’s. Nobody else would have to suffer for my mistake…
“That was a risky move,” a woman next to me whispered in my ear, “shame it didn’t pay off.”
I watched wordlessly as the dealer pushed a few of my chips in the woman’s direction.
“Always bet on black, babe,” she said with a wink. “It’s much safer that way.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, before sipping on my drink. “I wish I had…”
“We live and learn. Here, take this.” The woman opened my palm and placed a single fifty-pound chip in it, its gentle blue colour seemed to emanate a sense of security and calm. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one, place it on red.”
“I thought you said I should always bet on black?”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” she said with a smirk. “Which of us has the stack of chips here?”
Without another word I obeyed the woman’s command and placed the single chip on red. A moment passed before the dealer called for no more bets and dropped the ball into the roulette wheel. It was a strange sensation, knowing that not five minutes beforehand my stomach had dropped to unfathomable depths as I watched that wheel spin. This time I didn’t really care, it wasn’t my money – I literally had nothing left to lose.
“Twenty-three, red,” the dealer called to the entirety of the table.
I felt my cheeks glow; I suddenly felt indebted to this stranger and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should do next…
To my surprise the woman then turned to me and said confidently, “Jackie.”
Jackie outstretched her hand and I immediately grabbed and shook it.
“I’m Bill. Thank you, Jackie.”
“Not a problem, Bill.” She smiled broadly. “I can tell a sincere man when I see one.”
“I should give you your money back,” I said, holding out one of the two chips to her. “Here…”
“It’s fine,” Jackie replied, pushing my hand gently away. “I don’t need it, I have enough.”
“No more bets,” the dealer suddenly announced.
“Seems we missed that round,” Jackie said absently, as she watched the ball roll around the roulette wheel as though she were a cat stalking its prey.
“Maybe it’s for the best?” I replied, looking at my meager couple of chips.
“Never good to miss an opportunity, Bill,” Jackie began, “no matter the risk.”
“Twenty-six, black,” the dealer called to the table.
“Though in this case,” Jackie said quietly, “I’ve avoided a loss…”
There was something about the way Jackie said the word ‘loss’ that reminded me of what I had just done…It was if I could feel myself evaporating, dispersing ash-like into the surrounding air – completely burnt out. A hundred pounds was all I owned now, and half of that was a gift.
“I’ve made a horrible mistake,” the words were practically breathed out of my mouth before I even knew I was saying them.
“Sometimes you have to let go of everything to start something new,” Jackie whispered as she softly stroked my hand.
“How on earth did you know?” I whispered back.
“I told you, I know a sincere man when I see one.” Jackie smiled at me warmly. “I could see the fear in your eyes and the tension in your face, you must have bet everything.”
“I did,” I mumbled, my eyes cast down at the table. “It was a stupid mistake, one I’ll be paying for the rest of my life.”
“Maybe,” Jackie began, “but then again, maybe I never would have started this conversation with you if you hadn’t?”
I didn’t reply, I just returned Jackie’s warm smile and placed my other hand on top of hers.
“Come on,” she whispered, before holding my arm and helping me off my stool. “You must be famished, I’ll treat you to dinner.”
“You’re being too kind to me,” I said softly.
“You’re fond of that word, aren’t you?”
“It leaves room for chance,” Jackie said with a devilish smile, “and what fun is life without that?”
Laurence Sullivan has been runner-up in the Gregory Maguire Award 2016 and Penguin Random House’s ‘Borders’ competition. His fiction has been published in Londonist, The List, Amelia’s Magazine, Crack the Spine and Drunk Monkeys among other places. He became inspired to start writing during his studies at the Universities of Kent, Utrecht and Birmingham. His website can be found here.