This game is not new. It certainly isn’t one we can call ours, either. But it’s one my brother and I have played every time an occasion calls for it: when our mother died, our sister, my brother’s best friend, Mike, and so on. Though I have to admit, it feels less and less like a game the more we play it.
The first time—when Ma died—we were in our basement. I was sixteen and John was eighteen. We sat opposite each other on stools at an old fold-up poker table. A bottle of Crown Royal was the centerpiece. I hadn’t had very much, but John was about six shots deep. I could smell him. I sensed the stupor he’d fallen into, like a kid slipping off the end of a dock into deep, dark water. The whiff of his breath just about caused the boot in my stomach to kick up anything and everything I’d eaten that day.
“You ready?” he stammered. The sound of his shot glass coming down on hard plastic snapped my brain like a slingshot. I considered for a long, hard moment what my answer should be. After all, this was the first time we’d played.
“Yeah,” I said, steeling myself, “I am.”
I saw the quick glint of silver as John slid the gun off the table—our father’s .357 Magnum. Smith and Wesson. Hell of a gun. Dad only let us fire it a handful of times out on the shooting range in Albion.
“Cameron,” my Dad would say to me, “hold that thing tighter. It’s got a kickback. Don’t fuck around.”
I’d look back at him to affirm with a “badass” sneer. “Okay,” I’d say.
When John first proposed that we get shitfaced and play Russian roulette, to “commemorate the dead”, Dad’s voice ricocheted off the walls of my skull. “Don’t fuck around.” The words lingered like wisps of smoke, dissipated, and I told John I was ready. Ready to twist the cylinder, to rest my teeth gently on the barrel, for that rush of adrenaline as the hammer either ends you, or frees you. I was ready to fuck around.
Since there were just two of us, and the gun could hold seven rounds, our rules were this; one bullet, two turns each. The rules haven’t changed.
The first time we played was nine years ago. After John took the bullet out of the gun, I was pretty pleased with myself that I’d beaten the odds. I was happy for John, too, of course, but as we’ve lost people, the odds have increased. And they’ve only increased because the people we’ve lost aren’t as close to us. They aren’t family or friends. Sometimes they’re just people that John has read about in the obits. If I’m in town and John’s in the mood to get really drunk—which he usually is—somehow he’ll convince me to play.
But this evening we’re not in a basement. We’re outside at Colby’s campus, up on one of the hills behind the track field, tucked out of sight. This is a popular spot for immigrant girls with glamorized perceptions of American boys to smoke weed and take risks. A popular spot to gamble.
John is taking swigs off a small flask full of something, probably rum or whiskey.
“Cam?” He offers me the drink.
“No thanks,” I say.
I look up at the clouds rolling by before us. Little tufts, like acid pink cotton balls are sweeping out in rows. I don’t think John notices them.
We sit there for a few hours, not saying much, as the sky turns ink black. No one will see us up here. John is sitting a little ways away from me, fiddling with the gun and probably loading its one solemn bullet.
I hear the snap of the cylinder locking into place. A pause. Then the click of the trigger, the hammer. I hear John exhale.
“You didn’t even say we were starting,” I say, agitated.
He takes another swig off the flask and hands me the gun. “Your turn.”
I spin the cylinder and pull the trigger. Click. My exhalation of relief isn’t as smooth as John’s—it shudders a little as I hand him back the revolver. He immediately starts his turn, but I stop him.
“John, why do we still do this?” I’m not really expecting a solid answer. “We’re not stupid kids anymore. We didn’t even know this woman.”
He sips his drink. “I just like an excuse to play, I guess.”
“For fuck’s sake, John!” I look over at him, his silhouette in the thick night. He doesn’t say anything.
“John, stop, listen to me!”
My heart pounds against my ribcage as I hustle over to him on my knees, ready to wrestle the gun away from his hand. As I’m struggling to get hold of it, click, he manages to pull the trigger two more times. Click. I’m about to yell, when I realize he’s taken seven potential shots. But there are no shots. No blood. Nothing.
I hear him pop the cylinder open; he holds the gun out to me like an offering, catching his breath, and in the faint moonlight through the clouds I see its contents. It’s empty.
I roll off of him, exasperated, like I’ve just scaled a cliff. I breathe and stare up at all the darkness—all the stars, like hundreds of little pinholes that have been poked in black construction paper. They’re vast, glistening, and they’re as plentiful as all of our chances, our opportunities—our odds. I look over at John, and I think I hear him crying, softly.
I wonder if he started counting them all.
Jonathan Vanzant Stevens is a twenty-two-year-old writer and musician living in Maine, though he’d rather be in Australia. This is his first published story. Currently, he does many odd jobs and is also hard at work on a novel about disconnection.