“You ready?” Mike asked as he finished drawing the circle in the dirt, about three feet in diameter.
“You should be asking yourself that.” Lucy smiled as she produced her bag.
“May the best team win,” Gabe said, opening his own bag and spilling his marbles into the circle.
“Oh, we plan to,” Bubba sneered. He poured his marbles in with Gabe’s. Lucy and Mike added their own marbles to the mix.
To say that the marbles were stunning would be a gross understatement. Many of the marbles glowed with a vibrant array of gold sparkles, blue or crimson ribbons, clouds of black or green or orange or silver, swirls of purple or tints of pastel hues.
“Same rules as always,” Mike said. “Lucy and Bubba versus me and Gabe. Teams alternate turns. We won yesterday, so you start.”
Lucy nodded, leaning forward and studying the marbles. Lucy took her sweet time, seeming equally interested in each individual marble and carefully weighing the options.
Gabe groaned. “While we’re still young!”
“Don’t rush perfection,” Lucy retorted.
“I’m not rushing perfection,” Gabe muttered. “Doesn’t matter how long you study the map, it won’t change your lack of skill.”
“You’re just too dim to appreciate my finesse.” Lucy hunched over the circle.
“You know you have to shoot from behind the line, right?”
“Yes, Gabe,” Lucy sighed. “We’ve literally been playing forever. I know the rules.”
Finally, Lucy got down on her knees, holding her shooter in her index and middle fingers with her thumb tucked behind. She brought her hand within an inch of the circle and shot a sidelong trajectory. Her deep scarlet shooter knocked into three marbles before rolling out of the circle. The first two marbles, one obsidian black and the other marble white, shot out of the circle. As the white one crossed the line, it rolled over, revealing a thin crimson line swirling through the white. The third marble rolled to the edge, but didn’t quite make it out of the circle.
“Smart,” Bubba said as Lucy gathered the marbles.
“Yes, I know,” Lucy agreed. The marble that hadn’t made it all the way out was Gabe’s, so Lucy and Bubba hadn’t lost anything by failing to get it. Lucy’s shot claimed one of her own marbles as well as taking one of Mike’s.
Mike said nothing, betraying no sign of disappointment. He simply leaned over with his blue-and-gold-ribbon shooter and took a quick yet calculated shot, knocking out three easy marbles. His shot left the shooter in the middle of the circle, surrounded by other marbles.
“Ooh, you’re dead now, boy,” Bubba jeered.
“Don’t go for his shooter,” Lucy advised. “Too risky.”
“Yeah,” Gabe added. “You know couldn’t make that shot.”
Lucy threw a sour glare at Gabe as Bubba leapt at the bait. He hunched over and took the shot, but his black-glitter shooter barely nicked Mike’s.
Mike grinned. “Thanks, bro. ‘Preciate it.” He leaned over and picked up his own shooter, as well as two marbles of his choosing. He picked Gabe’s marble that Lucy had almost knocked out, as well as a dark grey one from near the middle.
“Since when did we implement this house rule?” Bubba snarled.
“Uh, let’s think,” Gabe said with fake serenity. “Oh, yeah! Since, like, Day Six. If your shooter stays in the circle and the next player tries to hit it, and they fail, you get two marbles. If they succeed–”
“–Then they get the marbles,” Bubba cut him off in a mocking impression of Gabe’s voice. “I know. Get on with it.”
Gabe nodded, flashing a gloatful grin as he leans over. “I’m not aiming for your shooter, Bubba.” Gabe’s pearly white shooter clinked against one other, and both marble and shooter rolled out of the circle.
“Gotta step up your game,” Gabe whispered as he collected the marble. He looked up at Bubba apologetically. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I say that out loud? I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Bubba clenched a fist, but Lucy’s quiet voice stopped him. “Knock it off.”
She studied the board with such intensity that, when she finally took aim, there was no doubt that she would hit where she wanted. Her shot knocked four marbles out of the circle.
Mike and Bubba took their shots, each claiming one more marble. Gabe lined up a clear shot. His shot would earn him three marbles, putting him and Mike in the lead again. As he flicked, Bubba sneezed violently, knocking into Gabe.
“What the devil?” Gabe jumped up. “Watch it, maggot!”
Before Mike or Lucy could stop him, Gabe laid into Bubba with a fast right hook. Bubba rolled and jumped up, fists balled. They circled each other, each throwing a couple hesitant jabs.
Finally, Bubba went in for a real blow, slugging Gabe in the gut. Gabe doubled over, but was fast to retort with a series of quick jabs that Bubba struggled to block.
Mike and Lucy eyed each other, both wary of joining the confrontation.
“Whenever you’re ready to stop acting like children,” Lucy chided, but neither contestant listened.
Bubba and Gabe exchanged a few more blows before Bubba swung low, socking Gabe in the crotch. Gabe doubled over, gasping in pain. Bubba capitalised on the opportunity, raising his foot to kick Gabe square in the face.
Mike jumped up before Bubba could land the blow. He grabbed Bubba’s foot and threw him back. Off-balance, Bubba fell to the ground. “That’s enough!” Mike thundered.
Lucy jumped up, glaring daggers, but Mike stared at her evenly. “Sit down, Lucy.”
“I said, sit down.” Mike stood his ground. “We’re here for marbles, not a brawl.”
“Tell that to your friend,” Lucy snapped.
“Yeah, he started it,” Bubba added.
“And you took it way too far,” Mike said. “You know that. Now sit. Down.”
Lucy finally dropped to the ground. “I think we deserve a marble for that,” she said.
“Oh hell no!” Gabe stormed. “Bubba sneezed on purpose–”
“–And you’re saying you should be rewarded for that?”
“You know punching is against the rules,” Lucy shrugged.
“So is interference!” Gabe shouted.
“It was allergies,” Bubba said simply.
“Don’t give me that crap.”
“How about a compromise?” Lucy suggested.
Mike sighed. “Oh good heavens, what do you want?”
Lucy grinned. “We get a marble of our choice, and Gabe gets to shoot again. Seems reasonable, don’t you think?”
“Sounds fair to me,” Bubba added.
“Of all the–”
“Deal,” Mike said, cutting Gabe off.
“Gabe, drop it.”
“Someone’s getting cranky,” Lucy muttered.
Mike ignored her. “Just take your shot again.”
After a moment, Gabe spat at Bubba. “Fine.”
Bubba grinned, taking one of the three marbles Gabe had been aiming for. His perfect shot ruined, Gabe had to settle for only one marble. Distraught as he was, his shot was a little sloppy. He won the marble, but his shooter stopped just inches from crossing the ring.
Lucy giggled. “Oops! Tough luck.” She casually tossed her shooter, knocking Gabe’s out of the circle.
“Oh, sorry if that was rude,” she said, almost as an afterthought. “Can’t expect to win if you keep your head in the clouds.” She took two marbles, one red and orange, and one blue and white.
Mike took his shot quickly and quietly, gaining two marbles.
Bubba took aim, and Gabe muttered a string of insults under his breath. Bubba simply laughed and took his shot, knocking a single purple marble out.
Gabe took his turn, gaining one marble.
“What’s the score?” Lucy asked, looking at each of their winnings.
“Eleven nine,” Mike said. “You’re winning.”
Lucy nodded, more than a little smug. They continued for six more rounds before pausing to count the score again after Lucy’s turn. Twenty-nine for Lucy and Bubba; twenty-four for Mike and Gabe. Seven marbles were left in the circle, and Mike hunched down to take aim.
* * *
Trish sat down at the table across from Alan.
“What’ll it be tonight?” Alan asked, flipping through the Silver Cross menu. “Fish and chips?”
“Uh, sure,” Trish said, staring down at her hands. “Sounds marvellous.”
Alan frowned, folding his menu down on the table. “Not too enthusiastic tonight, my sweet. Is something the matter?”
“No.” Trish hesitated before answering.
“Had a rough time teaching the children today?”
“School board, overbearing parents–”
“Al, I’m fine.” Trish looked out the window, fidgeting with her necklace.
Alan smiled gently, reaching his hand out to take hers. She looked at him, her eyes full of sadness. “You can’t honestly tell me you’re okay with all this.”
“No, Alan. I’m sorry–” she pulled her hand from his “–but I’m married. You know that. My–my husband deserves better. I can’t keep doing this.” She shoved back, her chair legs scraping against the ground.
Alan jumped up, but she pushed past him. “Goodbye, Al.” She walked out of the restaurant without looking back.
An hour later, Alan got in his car to drive home through Westminster. He clearly wasn’t in a positive state of mind, and the combination of teary eyes and one glass too many of wine did not help.
He had texted her before he left the Silver Cross, but she hadn’t responded. He decided he’d call her when he got home.
He had thought that he and Trish had reached an understanding. She liked him and he liked her. Her green-gold eyes, her perfectly scented hair, her soft lips… And they had fun together, in restaurants and pubs, in conversations, in bed. So she was married. That didn’t mean anything these days.
If there was anything he could say or do to get her back–
He didn’t see the lights changing until it was too late.
The sound of a horn, the jerk of a wheel, the harsh crashing of bumper, hood, and engine colliding with lamppost–
Nancy pulled the car door open, shining a light on the man. Lots of blood. She shut the engine off and unbuckled him. None of his limbs were trapped, so dragging him out of the car and onto the stretcher was easy enough.
“Take him in!” Nancy ordered her two coworkers as she opened the back of the ambulance. She hopped in alongside the stretcher and studied the man.
“I.D. him,” she said to one of the paramedics as the other closed the doors and ran to the cab. With the flick of a switch the notoriously deafening sirens shattered the street’s relative quiet.
She quickly scanned his body for the worst injuries. Bleeding temple, bleeding arm, stomach, and leg–the leg. The leg was nearly gushing. She grabbed a cord and started to apply a tourniquet.
“Drivers license and business card: Alan Buckley, aged thirty-four, shift manager at Barclays,” her coworker said.
Nancy nodded, half-listening. She moved from the tourniquet to wrapping his arm in gauze. She looked at his temple as she wrapped; luckily, the head wound was very shallow, not serious.
“Bandage his head.” Nancy moved to his stomach. A shard of metal was stuck in the wound. She grimaced. She couldn’t do anything about that without the risk of making it worse.
Moments later the doors opened. The paramedics grabbed the stretcher and ran it to the operating room.
The surgeon took one look at the injuries then turned to Nancy. “Good job,” he said. “You may have saved his life.”
* * *
Mike’s shooter knocked the green-gold marble with the red stripe out of the circle. As it crossed the perimeter, the marble’s red stripe seemed to fade. Bubba studied the remaining six marbles, then knocked out the cloudy grey one. When the shooter hit the grey marble, a few crimson specks, like blood, flashed from inside the grey cloud. Gabe knocked out the pale blue-and-white marble.
Lucy studied the remaining four: one glittery black; one dull, lifeless brown; one silvery blue; one a swirl of colours twisted together with intricate interlace.
Lucy selected the most colourful one and shot it out of the ring. Its red and orange hues seemed to deepen.
At this point, little technical skill was involved: no shot could hit more than one marble, and as experienced as they were, no player would miss. It was only a matter of choosing. Mike studied the three marbles for a moment before selecting the dull brown one. Bubba took the silvery blue one, and Gabe, the black, glittery one.
* * *
Nancy walked down High Street on her way home from the emergency room. She felt exhausted now that her adrenaline had left her, but weariness did nothing to dampen her spirit. She saved a life tonight. That’s what she always wanted to do since she was a little girl. She smiled and her step grew lighter.
A teenage girl–probably from Imperial College–brushed past her.
Clarissa pushed past the woman that seemed wrapped in her own thoughts. She was on High Street now, almost to the so-called “meeting point.” She was nervous, yes, but more apathetic than anything. She finally came to the designated alleyway.
“Didn’t think you’d show,” a deep voice said from the shadows.
“Well, I’m here.” Clarissa produced twenty pounds from her pocketbook.
“You won’t be disappointed.” The man handed her a brown paper bag. “Cheers.”
Clarissa took the bag. She had experienced a lot of firsts this year: first breakup, first move, first day of college, and now first taste of crack.
Daren pocketed the twenty pounds as the young girl left. He grinned. She would come again, he knew. Nobody stopped immediately after their first try.
Still, dealing had been a bit slow lately, and he needed more money.
From his vantage point in the alleyway, he could see both entrances without being seen. He decided to wait around a bit, and luck was on his side. It wasn’t long before a middle-aged woman turned down the alleyway. She seemed preoccupied; she was probably just trying to take a shortcut somewhere.
Daren stepped out of the shadows and cut her purse off her shoulder.
“Get out,” he growled. With a frightened squeak the woman ran, nearly falling over her high heels.
“Let’s see what we got here.” Daren reached into her purse. The first thing he pulled out was a bible.
He scoffed, nearly tossing it into the rubbish heap behind him, but something stayed his hand. He looked at the worn leather book. Its edges were torn in more than one place. It had been well used, well loved.
He frowned. What was it about this book that drew so many people? In some ways it might be even more potent than strong drugs.
He flipped open the book and read the first verse he saw: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, for the Lord himself goes before you and will be with you.
Brenda ran from the alleyway, crying and scared. A hasty explanation and apology to the bus driver and he let her on without her Oyster card. A few stops later and she was walking across the London Bridge toward her apartment. She was, of course, so distraught from her run-in that she didn’t notice the teenage boy leaning over the guardrail.
Henry stared down at the reflection of the moon on the Thames. That water would soon be his grave. Not a bad one, at that. There are worse places, worse ways to die. This way, he would die on his own terms.
Get on with it, the voices in his head said. She doesn’t want you, so there’s nothing left. Your other “friends” only hang out with you to be polite. You know that. And you know you’re doing the world a favour.
Henry leaned forward, feeling the cool, misty wind against his face.
Just a little farther. It’s easiest this way. It’s best this–
A different voice cut through his thoughts. Just the one word. But the voices in his head were gone.
He stared down at his shaking hands. What was he doing here? He had never been this close to sealing the deal before. He’d made some halfhearted attempts. The scars under his shirtsleeves showed that. But nothing like jumping.
He couldn’t do this anymore. He needed help.
He pulled out his phone and sent a message to Joseph: Hey man, I need to talk.
* * *
Mike gathered up his marbles.
“We win, baby!” Bubba reveled. “Thirty-two to twenty-eight!”
Gabe ignored him, dejectedly collecting his own.
Lucy took her sweet time counting her marbles before she nodded, satisfied. She stood up with Bubba and turned to leave. “Thanks for the game, Michael. Gabriel. Same time tomorrow?”
“We’ll be here,” Mike said. He stood and offered a handshake. “Until then, Lucifer. Beelzebub.”
They disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving Mike alone with Gabe.
“We lost,” Gabe said.
“That’s a matter of perspective.” Mike clapped Gabe’s shoulder. “We’ve won some and we’ve lost some, but that’s not the point.”
Gabe looked up at Mike, and Mike said, “Focus on what we won. Nancy is building self-confidence. Trish ended her affair. Daren has that bible now, and he’s intrigued. Henry is getting help. You can’t look at that and tell me we lost.”
Gabe grinned, but he wasn’t quite convinced. “But Brenda? Alan? Clarissa? They won thirty-two today.”
“Win is a relative term,” Mike countered. “They may have ‘won’ this game today, but the cosmos was won when He died. Or more accurately, when He rose.”
“You’re right,” Gabe admitted. “Still. I don’t want to see Clarissa hurt. And Alan, and Brenda–”
“Neither do I, Gabriel. That’s why tomorrow, we’ll play again.”