Dying Game

The three survivors at the table watched as the guards dragged away the corpse of the freshly deceased man. A wide and thick streak of blood trailed the body as it was taken away. Just an hour ago, this bloody path would have contrasted strikingly against the pristine whiteness of the room. At this point in the game, however, it just disappeared into the numerous other puddles, streaks and splatters of bodily red that marred the white surfaces.

The three survivors – Dallas, Amy and Gazza – surveyed the five ominous empty chairs that sat alongside them at the large circular table. Whilst the empty chairs were could be seen as memorials to those that had already lost the game, they also seemed to mock the three remaining players. The departed ‘losers’ were now safe in the reassuring certainty of eternal death. The survivors, on the other hand, still had to embrace the chaos of the truly ‘fair’ game they had each been mad enough to play.

Amy’s upper lip quivered and she dug her nails into her palms. Gazza, meanwhile, maintained an ice cold serenity as he retreated into the ‘inner Zen realm’ that he had constructed after smacking his girlfriend one too many times.

Ash, for his part, both felt and looked incredibly weak. He now regretted leaving his pain medication at home. The decision to do so made sense at the time. After all, what was the point of pain medication when you were about to play Russian Roulette? A part of him actually relished the prospect of never having to take those damn tablets ever again. He rested his arms against the cool table surface and sighed, hanging his head.

“You alright mate?” Gazza asked. “You don’t like great, if you don’t mind me saying”

Dallas appreciated the sincerity of Gazza’s concern. He wondered whether his parents would have shown even more empathy had he ever told them about his terminal condition.

“Yes….yeah I’m fine. Just a bit worn out” Dallas said. Each word felt like coughing out gooey syrup.

“Can someone get him some water or something?” Gazza asked the three armed guards in the room. All three of them remained in position, seeming to not register Gazza’s request. Of course, there was also no expression to gleam from the sad theatre masks each of them wore over their faces.

Amy bowed her head, obviously trying to distance herself from Gazza’s casual request to the three machine gun-wielding men. She braced herself for the expected deafening gunshot and splatter of blood.

Instead of another bullet, however, came a deep voice from the tannoy. “Refreshments and drinks will be served shortly” the voice said, sounding like a bored air steward.

“He needs more than booze and biscuits. Can’t you get him some…I dunno, medicine?” Gazza asked the ceiling. Embarrassment tainted the question as he neared the subject of Dallas’s illness. He tried to avoid looking the other man in the eye when making the request.

Dallas, however, found the entire request rather amusing. The idea that a criminal outfit that runs an illicit Russian Roulette game would also pack HIV medication as a precaution put a smile on his face.

“Gazza, it’s alright. Really, I’m fine to carry on” Dallas told him, trying to convince him with a weak smile that made him want to vomit.

“Are you sure, Dal? You haven’t looked good since we got here” Gazza said.

“I still look better than the other five” Dallas replied, feeling like a prick before the sentence even left his mouth. Gazza gave him an encouraging but awkward laugh in response, still not quite comfortable in meeting his gaze.

“Oh god…” Nina grimaced.

The lone door to the room opened up and a woman wearing a red vintage air stewardess uniform stepped inside. She wore a gas mask that looked as if it had seen service in World War One. She pushed a kart that complimented her air stewardess look. It was bedecked with a small selection of drinks – both alcoholic & non alcoholic – and various snack items.

“Would anyone like a refreshment?” the gas mask woman said. Even her voice was spiked with the plastic polished cheeriness of a stewardess at the start of a flight.

“Do you have a sparkling water and paracetamol?” Nina asked, rubbing her temples.

“Of course!” the gas mask woman beamed. With smooth and easy precision, she gathered and handed to Nina a tall plastic cup of fizzy water as well as a small palm sized metal dish holding two red capsules.

Nina immediately downed the tablets and water with no thanks or acknowledgement to the gas mask woman. Through the fog of discomfort, Dallas still felt annoyance at her rudeness towards a service worker. However, he quickly dispelled those feelings after rationalising that the gas mask woman had the certainty of going home after the game.

Whilst Dallas had come to enjoy Gazza’s laid back and bubbly manner, he found it difficult to build any kind of empathy or rapport with Nina. In his mind, she seemed like the kind of person who would consider their middle management job at a going-nowhere company a mission from god. He could not for the life of him comprehend why someone like her chose to participate in what was essentially a suicide game.

“And for you sir?” the gas mask woman asked Gazza.

“Do you have any tap water?” Gazza asked.

“Oh no, I’m sorry. We only have bottled water available. It is all complimentary though?” she replied, without any trace of sarcasm or annoyance.

“Ah ok, never mind. I’m fine, thank you….” Gazza started, before debating the proposition with his own mind.

“Actually, you know what, you only live once. Can I have a Mars Bar?” he finally said.

The gas mask woman giggled like an anime character. “Sure!” she said, handing Gazza a large bar and a napkin.

“Thanks babe” he said, shooting her a wink. He took the bar and began unwrapping it with boyish anticipation.

“Can I have a Red Bull and Vodka please?” Dallas asked.

“Jeeesus Dal, you’re going all out ain’t ya?” Gazza said, half the Mars Bar already devoured. “And I’m still eating a Mars Bar!”

“You’ll shit yourself” Nina blurted out.

Gazza reacted to Nina’s sudden interjection as if she had just given him a static shock. He considered her with eyes as wide as bowling balls. Dallas was also distracted by her sudden gutter mouth, unaware that the waitress was dutifully preparing his drink.

“What?” Gazza asked, chuckling nervously.

“If you die, your body shits itself automatically. As in you’ll lose control of your bowels and-”

“Oh ok, stop. Stop!” Gazza said, tossing the remainder of the melted brown Mars Bar aside. “Can I have a double Whiskey on the rocks please?” he asked the waitress. She dutifully poured him the drink and placed it in front of Gazza. Dallas held the cup in both hands as if he were holding a large mug of hot chocolate.

“So what then?” Gazza asked Nina.

“What?” Nina asked.

“So what if – if being the important word- what if die here and shit myself? And if I am gonna die here anyway, how’s chocolate gonna make it much worse?” Gazza asked.

“Gazz-” Dallas asked, trying to mediate before Gazza cut him off.

“No, I wanna know why I shouldn’t just have a Mars Bar on what might be my last ever day” he said.

Nina narrowed her eyes and glared at him with the venom of a rattlesnake. She had already downed the tablets and water.

“I guess, to you, it wouldn’t really matter how much you shit yourself after you die. The rest of us, however, do not want to smell that sticky sugary poison for the rest of the game”

Gazza glared back at her in silence. He was searching for a cutting comeback but could only muster “Like I said, why the fuck would I care?”. He knocked back his whiskey in one go.

“Just seems….pathetic to sully your final legacy on earth by staining the remainder of this competition.” she replied, scrunching her face.

“So that’s why you’ve been on water and fruit juice this whole time?” Dallas asked.

“Yeah, she literally thinks her shit don’t stink!” Gazza quipped.

The waitress was still in the room and placed another metal disk in front of Dallas. Instead of holding red pills, the surface of this disk held two precisely straight lines of a white powder and a very short paper straw.

Dallas looked at the white lines in front of them and then back up at the gas mask looking down on him.

“Uh….sorry, what is this?” Dallas asked the waitress.

“Cocaine, sir. Compliments of the house” she said.

“Christ” Gazza said, unknowingly licking his lips.

The waitress announced that the three of them would have five minutes left until the next round as she left the room with the trolley.

Dallas was left staring at the cocaine in front of him, still caught in two minds as to what to do. Despite taking part in a game that was illegal in multiple ways, he still had a gnawing feeling that the offer of cocaine was a set up. He looked up at the other two for some kind of direction.

He caught Gazza at the very end of licking his lips as at the sight of the drugs. Nina looked like she had sucked on a lemon.

“What should we do?” Dallas finally asked.

Gazza sniggered. “Wrong questions mate. By we, you really mean you” he replied.

“I cannot believe they just gave you that…” Nina muttered.

“What, the suicide for sport is fair game but suddenly magic is too far?” Gazza said.

“I don’t do drugs!” Nina scoffed. “I’m just surprised they’re serving that kind of thing like a party snack…”.

“Good thing they didn’t offer some to you then, isn’t it? Gazza hit back in a mocking tone.

Nina sent daggers at him from her eyes.

“Does anyone want this?” Dallas said, weakly pushing the disk forward.

“Oh no, no, no…” Gazza replied, holding his hands up as if confronted with a gun. “As much as I’d love to take that off your hands, it’s all you man!”

“B-but I don’t want it….” Dallas protested weakly.

“Maybe you don’t want it, but it sure looks like you need it. Mate, you don’t look good way. Not good at all” Gazza said, some sincere concern bleeding back into his voice.

“It’s just that I’ve, uh, I’ve….”

“Never done magic before?” Gazza prompted.

“Huh?”

“Cocaine” Gazza said, grinning.

“Uh, actually, I’ve never done….any drugs…before” Dallas finally said.

Gazza gave him a slack jawed, wide eyed stare that made Dallas squirm in his seat. Nina also looked at him with a hint of pity that made Dallas want to smash her face into the table surface.

“Really? Never?” Gazza asked.

“Yeah” Dallas sighed.

“Oh shit, mate…” Gazza replied, struggling to continue the sentence. Now he too had some pity in his face and voice.

“Well, now’s a good a time to start. Honestly, it looks like you’d struggle to lift the gun to your head in the next round ” Gazza continued.

“I don’t know…” Dallas hesitated.

“Oh come on man, live a little -” Gazza started before hitting the brakes on himself. His face turned bright red in embarrassment. Even Nina shot him a dirty look.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I’m being a dickhead-” Gazza went on.

“No, it’s fine…” Dallas said. He tried to wave off the comment but could already feel it burrowing into his psyche like a parasite. The truth was that Gazza was. Dallas had spent so much of his life hiding and playing safe that he barely lived any life at all. Now he would soon be at the end of the line one way or another.

All three players went silent. Nina could not look Dallas in the face and instead focused no her empty cup. Gazza wiped his brow.

Dallas pulled the plate of cocaine closer. Of course, he’d seen people snort the drug plenty of times on movies and TV shows. It seemed simple enough. Snort the powder up one nostril whilst pressing the other nostril shut. Then enjoy being superman.

However, that was just fiction. An empty and stylised version of the real thing designed to make cocaine use look as easy and glamorous as possible. He could very easily try snorting it only for the powder to spout back out again because he did not snort hard enough.

As sad as it seemed, embarrassing himself like that in front of these two strangers filled him with an existential dread that overshadowed the prospect of putting a bullet in his own temple.

“Do you need help?” Gazza asked, sensing Dallas’ discomfort.

“Yeah, I think I do” Dallas replied, relieved and slightly ashamed.

“No worries Geez…” Gazza came to Dallas’s side and crouched down as if Dallas were his son who needed his dad to cut up his food. “….there’s nothing to it. Just stick the straw up one nostril, which ever one you like….”

Gazza proceeded to explain to Dallas how exactly he should snort cocaine. He described it in a similar manner to a doctor explaining to how a rectal exam would work to a patient.

To Dallas’s surprise, Gazza’s explanation was not too far off from what he himself had imagined. He just needed the wise guidance of the Essex boy to get him to the promised land.

In the end, he snorted both lines in quick succession to get the deed out of the way. At first, he could not pin point what the obsession with this drug was all about. It irritated his nostrils so much that he had to rub his nose as if suffering from a cold.

“Yeah boi!” Gazza cheered, slapping Dallas on the back. “You’re an animal!”

Gazza held his clenched fist out to Dallas, who eventually obliged to bump it with his own fist. He took a childish joy in sharing the moment.

“You must be feeling pumped!” Gazza said, sliding back into his chair and staring at the half eaten Mars Bar with contempt.

“To be honest, I don’t feel that much. My nose itches but that’s it. I thought I’d get all hyper and manic straight away?” Dallas replied.

“Oh don’t worry, mate, you will soon enough” Gazza said, giving him a wink.

The door to the room slid open once more and through it walked the umpire. As before, he wasbedecked in a black vintage pinstriped double breasted suit and a Terrier Dog mask over his face. He carried the same mahogany wooden box from the previous rounds, its lid open to show the revolver and single bullet cushioned snugly within the blue velvet lining inside.

The momentary respite the three players enjoyed during their break was now smothered to death by the thick air of tension that followed the umpire into the room. The gun – a black snub nosed revolver – looked like a severed finger pointing at each one of them simultaneously. A ballistic version of the Mona Lisa. All their eyes were glued on the gun as the umpire accompanied it behind the privacy screen.

They could hear the clicks as the umpire loaded the bullets into one of the six empty chambers. He then spun the cylinder and locked it back into place. The sound of the entire process was actually quite soothing, Dallas thought to himself. He wondered if there were any ASMR channels dedicated to the sounds of firearms being loaded & unloaded.

The three players were so tense and distracted that they had not realised the Gas Mask waitress had re-entered the room and swept all their empty cups, wrappers, disks and straws into a metallic basket. It was only as she was leaving with the waste that Gazza realised it was too late for him to finish the Mars Bar. His face aged ten years at the thought.

“Are we all ready to commence?” the umpire asked in his discount Sean Connery accent.

“Do we have a choice?” Nina asked, raising one eyebrow at him.

“At this point….no” the umpire replied, his final word void of any energy.

“Let’s do this” Dallas said, ready to get this over and done with. Gazza smirked at his newfound courage.

The umpire approached the table and placed the revolver slap bang in the middle. The barrel was pointed in the space between Dallas and Nina. He then proceeded to go to each person, handing out a small silver chalice. They took turns picking out the strip of card at random.

“As before, the number you pick determines the order in which each of you shall play during this round” the umpire explained. “The player who draws the smallest number shall go first, then the player who drew the second smallest number and so on. You may now open your card to view your number”.

Dallas unfolded the strip of red card and immediately saw the number ‘1’ in thick black ink starring back at him. Perfect.

“I’m number one” he told the umpire and his fellow players. He was surprised at how chipper his voice was.

“I’m number two” Nina said, holding up her card to the umpire as evidence.

“I’m guessing you don’t need to know my number?” Gazza said.

“Cards back in the chalice” the umpire said.

All the cards had been returned and now there was nothing else but the gun on the table.

“You may now commence, Mr Dallas” the umpire said, taking a step back from the table.

Dallas took a deep breath and picked up the gun. He could feel his heart pumping much faster than the last few rounds.

His brain soaked in a cocktail of excitement and trepidation as he slowly lifted the gun and pointed the barrel to his temple. He was sure he could feel the residual warmth of the metal from when it was fired in the previous round. To his relief, he could not feel any sticky or crusty flecks of blood from the loser of the previous round.

Dallas looked over to Nina and Gazza. Nina was biting her lip and obsessively scratching the surface of the table. Gazza, for his part, kept his eyes downcast and fixed on the table surface. He did the same thing whenever one of the other players had their turn to play. Dallas was not sure if this was because he was genuinely turned off by the sight of potential suicide or if it was just another one of his techniques to keep calm and focused.

Another wave of adrenaline hit Dallas like a tsunami. The force was so strong he felt as if he may fling himself out of his chair. Any remaining hesitation was swept away and left him with a single resolution.

Pull and be damned!

Dallas shut his eyes and clenched every muscle in his body. He pulled the trigger with crazed purpose. The click of the metallic trigger jolted him and, for a fraction of a second, he could have sworn the bullet had started its journey to the centre of his brain.

However, he quickly realised that an actual bullet in the chamber would not have given him time to think about the bullet getting inside his head.

Gazza sighed in relief, which Dallas found touching. Especially since Dallas’ temporary survival had cut diminished Gazza’s chances of doing the same. Nina looked mildly irritated. She had also turned a ghostlier shade of pale.

Dallas put the gun down and slid it back to the centre of the table. The inanimate piece of equipment – once so menacing – now seemed to him a pathetic and defeated animal. His heart was now pumping faster than ever. He felt unbeatable and was intoxicated by his momentary victory over the firearm. A sick and sad part of him, deep down in his dying soul, actually wanted to try again just to prove his contempt in the face of death.

“Ms Nina, you may now take your turn” the umpire instructed.

Nina scowled at him. “I thought I told you before, it’s Mrs

“Please pull the trigger” the umpire said. He maintained his cold and blunt professional facade but Dallas could sense a buried lust to see Nina’s blood gush out from her head.

Nina held the gun in both trembling hands. Once again, the atmosphere in the room grew thick with collective tension. Although the armed guards remained stationary, everyone could sense their increased vigilance the moment Nina’s flesh touched the gun.

Dallas could not imagine why the people running this ‘game’ were afraid that someone could overpower their entire security set up with one single bullet in a revolver.

Nina took a deep breath, closed her eyes and pointed the gun barrel to her temple.

Gazza, once again, lowered his head and closed his eyes to re-enter his monk like trance. Dallas leaned forward slightly in his chair. It felt like every inch of his skin was buzzing.

Nina pulled the trigger. The metallic click of the trigger preceded Nina’s relieved smile. She breathed a sigh of relief and placed the gun carefully back on the table. She could now stew in her temporary self assurance.

Dallas felt a heavy weight at the pit of his stomach and yearned to say some words of comfort to Gazza. Any potential comforting words, however, were smothered to death by his own inherent awkwardness. All he could do was look solemn.

What could he actually say to Gazza? The odds of him now getting the bullet had now been slashed right before his eyes. Though there was still a decent chance he would survive this round, it was a lot closer to fifty-fifty following Dallas’ and Nina’s escape.

“Mr Gazza, you may take the gun” the umpire instructed.

Gazza was still deep in meditative breathing. He continued in this was without moving for what felt like an eternity. Nina looked at him with a raised eyebrow and tsk’d. Dallas was sure that either the umpire or one of the armed guards would grab the gun and force it into Gazza’s hands.

Dallas was about to ask Gazza if he was OK when the man opened his eyes, which were now clear with steely conviction. He grabbed the gun, stuck the barrel to his temple and pulled the trigger.

The hail of blood, brains and bones exploded like a firework. Dallas had about a second to take in the spectacle before the sound of the blast knocked him back. No matter how many times he heard it that day, the violence of the sound against his ear drums was still too much to take.

Most of the gore was sprayed onto the adjacent white wall, covering a section of clean white that had survived the previous rounds. It looked as if a spoilt child had flung there spaghetti dinner at the area.

However, some specks of blood did fly far enough to give Nina a horror movie facial. She stared dumbstruck at the punctured head of gazza as his body tilted sideways and fell off the chair. She then slowly wiped her cheek with the tip of her fingers, drawing two rich red lines across her face like tribal war paint.

She looked at her blood stained finger tips in shocked silence for a moment. Her eyes soon widened in recognition and she let out a scream that gave one the sensation of being skinned.

“Noooo!” Dallas screamed, knocking his chair back as he jerked up onto his feet. He could see Gazza’s face, now now resembling a deflated tyre, looking back up at him from the floor. Although his expression was blank and his eyes empty, they still seemed to plead to him.

At first, Dallas had not noticed the guards had now encircled him the moment he leapt to his feet. He only became aware of them when they had their guns pointed at his body. Dallas instinctively raised his hands up in the air. His whole body shook and he sniffed uncontrollably. In the distance, just beyond his immediate attention, were Nina’s screams.

The faint sound of a male voice trickled through the cocaine and shock-based mental barrier.

“W-what?” Dallas asked no one in particular.

“Please. Retake your seat. Mr Dallas” the umpire said, enunciating every word like a snooty waiter scolding a slob customer.

Dallas heard the words but was incapable of processing them into actions. The dead, bloody face of Gazza still looked up at him. He was powerless to look away, fearing it would somehow be an added insult to the Gazza’s memory. His whole body felt like a concrete cell trapping his discombobulated mind.

Nina’s screaming got louder. She too jumped up from the table and backed away until her back thudded against the gore splattered wall behind her. She desperately tried to rub the blood off her hands and face.

“Get this off me. Get it ooooof!” she screamed, visibly repulsed.

“Ms Nina, I appreciate that the game can be traumati-”

“Oh fuck off!” she bellowed.

“Please calm down” the umpire said, bored and frustrated.

“Do. Not. Tell me to calm down you fucking idiot!” Nina shrieked.

The umpire looked to one of the armed guards and tilted his chin in Nina’s direction. The guard dutifully approached Nina with graceful speed and drove the butt of his gun right into her stomach.

Nina gasped and wheezed air out of her lungs as her body folded in two like a strip of paper. She fell to the floor, curled up and clutching her stomach. Her face turned violent red and tears streamed down her eyes as she struggled to breath.

The assaulting guard and umpire both looked down on the terrified woman. They had the air of scientists researching a poor wretched pig that they were testing a new line of cosmetics on.

“Please send in the cleaners” the umpire sighed, still looking down at Nina. Dallas thought he could detect the slightest trace of satisfaction in the man’s voice but could not tell for sure.

“I-I can’t do this…” Dallas whispered, still shaking from the cocktail of coke and shock.

The umpire rotated to cast his masked gaze upon Dallas.

“Yes….you can, Mr Dallas. You can and you must” he said.

The two men stared each other down. The jolly expression on the umpires dog mask seemed to be filled with gleeful menace.

“What if I don’t want to carry on?” Dallas spat out, already knowing the response.

“Then Ms Nina here will be declared the winner and, you, Mr Dallas, shall be….eliminated. Would you like to be eliminated?” the umpire asked.

Nina was still writhing and squirming on the floor. However, a small part of her perked up at the idea of winning the game – and the lucrative prize money – by default. Through tear soaked eyes, she watched the jittery Dallas, hoping to find kernel of conscience within him that would spell her victory.

Fuelled by cocaine, Dallas attempted to do the calculations and scenarios in his head.

“No….I’ll play. I’ll keep playing” he swiftly replied, lowering his hands.

“Fuck” Nina whispered to herself.

A quartet of waitresses wearing identical air stewardess uniforms and gas masks entered the room and proceeded to remove Gazza’s body on a rolling guerney. One of them also cleaned flecks of flesh and brain from the table, though left most of Gazza’s remains splattered elsewhere.

Eventually, Nina gained a second wind and the guard who knocked the first wind out helped her back into the chair.

“Thank you” Nina murmured with resentment. The guard gave no acknowledgement to her words and returned to her post.

Nina and Dallas now sat face to face at each end of the table. Two unlikely finalists at the end of this game. Dallas wondered how much of the watching audience had money on either one of them to make it to the final two.

“You will now have another five minute break before the next and final round commences. Refreshments will be served now” the umpire announced as he took the gun and left the room once more.

Gazza’s absence felt like a giant eraser had been taken to the room itself. All that was left of the cheerful man were puddles and smatterings of blood, bone and flesh. The faint smell of gunshot residue hung in the air. There were even the faintest wisps of smoke where Gazza’s head used to be. However, these too died and disappeared soon after.

Dallas tried to remain detached, as he had done for the previous rounds. Although he felt sympathy with the other deceased players – as one naturally would for a fellow human being – he maintained his emotional distance given that they had all agreed to participate in this game.

The sheer force of Gazza’s bubbly personality, however, had poked holes in Dallas’ nihilistic resolve. It seemed silly to think about, something as simple as sharing a joke and showing concern was enough for Dallas to feel some kind of bond. Even though he knew one of them would have to die if there other were going to win the prize, Dallas had obviously not been ready to see Gazza fall.

The saddest thing, though, was that Dallas still had no idea why Gazza had volunteered for this death duel. Why would this obviously happy and content man throw his entire life away on a game designed for desperate souls?

“Oh jesus, no, no, no…” Dallas whimpered. He could still feel the rush of the cocaine in his system. However, he felt powerless to channel his newfound energy into anything other than an impotent display of grief.

“Why are you crying?” Nina asked.

Dallas lifted his head to view her with bloodshot eyes and bared teeth. “Are you serious?”

“What, did you consider him your friend?” Nina asked, her breathing still laboured but with a renewed scowl on her face.

“Fuck off” Dallas muttered.

“What did you say?” she said.

“I told you to fuck off” Dallas repeated, bored of speaking to her.

“Ah I see, I guess you won’t cry like this if I die next then?” she hissed, lacing the word cry with extra venom.

The familiar sound of the door opening heralded the re-emergence of the waitress. She was pushing her trolley, which had been restocked.

“Some more cocaine sir?!” she asked, her voice as cheery as a sunny day.

Dallas looked up at her mask, his face red and eyes puffy.

“Really?” he asked.

“I never lie about refreshments!” the waitress purred.

He looked at her, his eyes blinking rapidly. Dallas wanted nothing more than to grab the back of the woman’s head and smash her face against the table until the mask was a crumpled heap and blood leaked through the eye sockets.

“I want three lines” he sighed.

“Right away!” the waitress beamed. With slick professional efficiency, she emptied a small satchel of the white powder onto another metallic dish and cut into into three precise straight lines.

“Enjoy!” she beamed, placing the dish in front of Dallas.

He immediately snorted a line the way Gazza showed him. Whether he won or lost, he just had to get through the next round and needed anything to suppress the wave of regret that began engulfing him.

Nina tutted, shaking her head. She frowned like an owner who just found their pet dog rolling in shit.

“Can I have some more sparkling water, if you don’t mind?” she asked the waitress. Nina gave her the faux warm that Dallas assumed was reserved for service industry staff whom she deemed beneath her.

“Coming up!” the waitress said, her sunny disposition impenetrable.

Dallas snorted a second line of coke. It now a field of shrapnel was lodged in his nostril. He rubbed his nose hard but could not expel the sensation. He took comfort in anticipating the coming explosion of energy that would engulf his body.

Nina glared at him from across the table, her grey eyes casting judgement on the freshly minted drug enthusiast. She sipped the sparkling water through tight puckered lips. Dallas was infuriatingly felt that her hollow eyes were sucking away any new energy from the cocaine.

“What are you looking at?” Dallas asked, rubbing his nose again and feeling jittery.

She considered him for a moment, before smirking to her self. It was a toothy smirk that revealed rows of perfectly straight pearly white’s.

The cocaine and rising vitriol formed a venomous cocktail that flowed through Dallas’ mind. For however long he had left on Earth, Dallas now had one singular purpose. That was to watch this woman die in front of him.

He pictured himself dying from a self inflicted gunshot wound. For a few horrifying seconds he also imagined seeing the self-satisfaction and triumph on Nina’s face as he died.

It felt strange for his remaining life to actually have some kind of purpose. As pety as it sounded, spiting a woman whom he had first met barely an hour ago was his new life mission. Perhaps even his first life mission. It was a mission that he now took up with fervour and was committed to seeing out right to the end.

It seemed like a psychic connection had ignited between them and Nina sensed the erupting malice within her opponent. It momentarily threw her off guard before she steadied her thin face once again.

Dallas kept his eyes glued to hers as he snorted the final line of coke. He took several mini snorts and rubbed his nose just after that, taking care to ensure that every single molecule was in his system.

Nina, actually looked mildly impressed and amused by Dallas’ new found intensity. Whilst she kept it hidden behind her well rehearsed stone-like expression, there were still ripples of admiration bubbling just below the surface.

The waitress cleared the dish and glass from the table whilst the two players stared at each other in silence. She even refrained from throwing out one of her usual cheery customer service platitudes.

Just as the waitress and her trolley of treats left the room, the umpire and his revolver stepped back in. He paraded the gun in the same velvet lined box.

“Are we ready to commence the final round?”

Nina and Dallas never broke eye contact. Each seemed to wait for the other to voice their consent. After an awkward moment of silence, the umpire looked back and forth between each of them.

“I said….are we-”

“Yes” Dallas and Nina both said in tandem.

“Outstanding” the umpire droned.

Dallas sniffed and rubbed his nose one more time. His heart was pounding like a jack hammer. Nina pursed her lips so tight it looked like they had disappeared from her face entirely.

The umpire diligently loaded the revolver with a single bullet and gently placed the gun down in the centre of the table.

Then came the bowl with the folded cards. The umpire gave Nina first pick, after which Dallas took his card and kept it folded in his palm for a few seconds.

Nina whimpered. She had unfolded her card to view the number inside and, judging by the look on her face, Dallas assumed that she had been chosen to pull the trigger after him. The umpire leaned over her to look at the card.

“Number two. Mr Dallas to take the first attempt” the umpire said.

Dallas looked at Nina with a boyish defiance. He took a deep breath and tried to consciously embrace the cocaine rush. He imagined a magical swarm of white powder speeding through his body right to his brain.

Dallas quickly pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger, refusing to give his brain time to resist the actions. The empty click of the trigger vindicated his drug fuelled confidence. He opened his eyes and let out a stilted laugh from his throat. It was too stilted to be completely down to relief.

Dallas slid the gun to the centre of the table and smirked at Nina. “Your turn” he said, feeling proud of himself.

The umpire cleared his throat in annoyance. He picked up the gun and placed it onto the exact same spot but with more grace and care. The niceties and procedures were all important in this game where strangers commit suicide for money.

Dallas was on the edge and straining to jump off. He had only begun considering magnitude of his actions that day. A man – if he could even be called that – who had spent most of his life cowering from life was now flipping a coin with death without a shred of care. It was glorious to embrace the freedom of certain death.

He kept his eyes glued on Nina, who in turn had her eyes glued on the gun. He wanted the woman to look at him, to look into his eyes and see someone liberated from the bondage of caution. He wanted her to see that all the risk was stacked on her side of the table.

“Please take your turn Ms Nina” the umpire instructed.

“It’s Mrs Nina” she replied.

“Please take your turn” the umpire repeated, allowing the implied so you can fucking die to go unsaid.

Nina took a deep breath and picked up the revolver. Although it was the same gun they had been using throughout the game, somehow it now how looked bigger and more canon-like. It seemed to dwarf Nina’s slim hand.

Nina looked at the object in her hand with trepidation. She looked to be falling into a trance as she stared at the weapon that may kill her.

“Miss Nina” the umpire said. It was statement rather than a question.

Nina shut her eyes. Trembling, she held the gun pointed at her temple. Dallas leaned forward in his seat, feeling the slightest shred of shame at his excitement and anticipation.

She pulled the trigger. Both her and Dallas simultaneously flinched at the sound of the trigger click. An image of Nina’s opposite temple bursting open like a volcano briefly flashed in his mind. It took him a few seconds to realise that both of Nina’s temples were still intact. In fact, her entire being was still intact.

It took Nina slightly longer to fully realise that she was still alive. She was frozen in place with the gun still pointed at her head. Her eyes were wide in shock and mouth wide open, through which she was hyperventilated. The umpire even approached her with caution, concerned that she may accidentally pull the trigger one more time.

“Please put down the weapon, Miss Nina” the umpire said.

For another fleeting instant, it felt as if Nina might sacrifice herself by accident and hand Dallas the win. The thought crossed not only Dallas and the umpire, but also the guards, who slowly pointed their weapons at her. Dallas clenched his teeth and hunched up to make himself smaller in anticipation for the hail of bullets.

The tension of potential execution was dashed, however, when Nina suddenly broke out of her trance and placed the revolver back in the middle of the table. Her hand shook like an old woman with arthritis.

The umpire, once again, placed it gently in front of Dallas, its barrel now pointed directly at his chest. Dallas could not work out whether that was intentional or just by chance. Neither explanation would have surprised him at this point.

“You may now take your turn, Mr Dallas” the umpire said.

Dallas picked up a gun with all the enthusiasm of a man admitting himself into a hospice. Whilst he still felt the buzz of the cocaine, the confidence begun to wane. Trickles of fear began dripping into his brain and flushing out the imaginary invincibility. It was dispiriting to realise that just one set back could drag him back to his lifetime’s worth of risk averse cowardice.

Even after his terminal prognosis and all the death he had witnesses in this game, Dallas was still afraid. Afraid of losing and missing out on however many month of slow dying.

Dallas pointed the gun at his temple once again. This time, however, it was not with the quick and intense purpose of earlier. In the time it took Nina to dodge death, it felt as if Dallas had aged a decade. His hand shook as he lifted the gun to his head. The weapon itself now felt like a boulder that he was condemned to lift with one arm. His head spun and his vision blurred as the initial onset of panic took hold.

It felt as if the barrel of the gun was digging a hole in the side of his temple. Nina was obviously looking at him but Dallas could not tell if she was smirking, scowling or pulling any of her other trademark sour expressions.

The umpire inhaled as he was about to give the now mandatory prompt. In his fit of nerves, Dallas pulled the trigger in a knee jerk reaction to the umpires voice.

Dallas was still alive. He could not quite believe it at first, assuming that he was experiencing his last throes of consciousness before descending into the darkness of death. He was not even aware of still holding the gun against his temple. It did not dawn on him that he would need some life left in him to hold the weapon like that.

It was Nina’s face that roped him back into the present. More specifically, it was her look of exhausted disappointment that triggered his conscious awareness. Somehow, he had survived the gun once again. It still seemed like a practical joke just waiting the pay off. As if the bullet was laying in wait within the chamber for Dallas to lower his guard before it penetrated his skull.

However, he soon realised that his tortured suspense would continue at least for a while. He had literally dodged a bullet and would now have to endure another round.

He lowered the gun from his head and placed it on the table. His fingers, though, remained wrapped around the handle.

Nina sucked in gulps of air and tried to smother rising sobs. The odds were now staring right in her face and laughing at her plight. Dallas knew that he should have taken at least some satisfaction in her distress. Something about her had rubbed him up the wrong way from the very beginning. It was her prickly mannerisms and snide communication. Now, however, he felt no triumph. No relief. No anticipation. The self assurance of certain death which he carried into the game had now decayed into a worthless puddle. Now debilitating cowardice – his lifelong friend – had returned with a vengeance to stand on his shoulder.

All notions of odds and probabilities evaporated into thin air. These were now incomprehensible concepts. Despite his recent escape, he could still see no future other than Nina’s smug face being his dying vision.

“No…” Dallas mumbled to himself, shaking.

The umpire took half a step towards Dallas. The guards eyed him through their gas masks like hawks training their sights on prey.

“Dallas? What are you-” Nina begun before stopping. She saw the crazed and desperate impulse bubbling in her opponents eyes.

In a quick, frenzied motion, Dallas picked the gun up and pointed it at Nina. He pulled the trigger once, which yielded another empty click. He immediately pulled again, which this time emitted a thunderous roar and muzzle of light. Nina sat slack jawed when the bullet penetrated her throat and unleashed a fountain of blood.

At almost exact same moment the bullet left the revolver, there was a series of other deafening cracks and flashes of light. These came from the guns of the three guards in the room. One bullet pierced Dallas’ left eye and burst it open like a grape. The second bullet got him right at the base of his neck, which let air and blood out of his throat like a damaged tyre. The third bullet burst into his chest and burrowed itself deep into his lung like a tiny metallic parasite. He was dead before his forehead slammed down on the table.

Dallas’ shot knocked Nina’s petite frame out of her chair. She landed the floor, sprawled out spread eagle and choking on her blood. Her vision blurred and waned. Two figures emerged in her rapidly failing line of sight to look down upon her. One of them had a face enveloped in a pitch black haze. The other figure’s face was contorted in strange and disquieting angles that was barely human.

Her final conscious connections told her that it was the umpire with one of the guards.

“Oh for fuck sake!” the umpire said. “Not again…”

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