The dim light of day blackened under a bruised sky. Clouds swirled and clashed, rumbling the heavens. He sat at the kitchen table and slowly shuffled a deck of cards in the soft light from a kerosene lamp. She emerged from the bedroom, wearing his loose fitting clothes and holding another lamp. She sat down across from him, placing the lamp between them. She looked softer, more approachable, in the dim light. Almost cuddly, he thought, wearing the extra-large clothing.
“Do you play?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you play cards?”
“How about Tell?”
“I don’t know that game.”
“It’s easy.” He placed the deck in front of her. “Deal.”
“As many as you want?”
“That’s a weird way to start.”
“There are no rules to this game.” They stared into each other’s eyes for moment. He smiled, daring the butterflies in his stomach to take flight.
“I’ll take as many as I can get, then,” she said.
She picked up the cards and dealt the entire deck. “This is like War,” she said.
“Dealing the whole deck.”
He gathered his cards and said, “We throw down the cards one at a time. You can throw them down from anywhere in your hand. But, you can’t change your throw.”
She turned over her top card, revealing the jack of hearts, then threw it down. He threw down the ace of spades. “I win,” he said. “Now, you must tell me something about yourself. Something I don’t know already, which is almost everything.”
“I just tell you something, you don’t ask?”
“No, that would be truth or dare, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t either.” He gently tapped her wrist. “Tell.”
She sat back, pulling her hand away from his, thinking of something to say, then leaned forward. “I was born in another state.”
“That’s too vague.”
“I was born…” She placed a finger to her forehead and said, “In a place far from here.”
“Still too vague, but I’ll let it pass.”
He threw down his top card, the jack of spades. She threw down the ten of hearts.
“You win again. Are you going to win all the hands? I bet you are. I bet these cards are rigged.”
“You dealt them.”
“But you shuffled them.”
They stared at each other. The wind slapped the side of the cottage and she turned toward the rattling windows. Heavy rain pummeled the tin roof. Shadow silhouettes came in through the windows and danced across the floor, looking like animals invading the house. “Storm’s peaking now,” he said. “It will calm down soon.” He took her deck and pulled a card from the middle of the pile. It was two of clubs. He pulled another card from the deck, four of clubs. Finally, he pulled the ace of hearts from her deck. “There, you see? You have an ace.”
“Now, you tell me something,” she said.
“All right. I was born here, on this island.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. I was born here during a bad storm, just like tonight. My parents were here for the day, but got stuck in the squall. In the middle of the night, my mother went into labor and had me right here, on this table. I was a week early.”
She leaned back and laughed. “This table?”
“I swear.” He held up a hand and they laughed.
She ran her fingers along the top of the table, feeling the raw edges of the wood. “You know what I think? I think you cheat at this game, and I think you lie”.
He stared at her, not liking being called a liar, then smiled. “Your turn.”
“Okay. All right. Let’s play,” she said, shuffling her hand.
“You know you can’t re-shuffle. Once it’s set, that’s it.”
“You cheat. I cheat. It’s the rule. Rule number one.”
“Oh, is it now?” he asked. “Go ahead, throw down.”
She tossed a card from the bottom of the deck. It was the queen of clubs. He tossed the king of clubs. She took a deep breath and looked up at the celling in exasperation. The wind threw rain loudly across the roof, seeming to reflect her response.
“Tell me something good, this time. Something I want to know,” he said. “Like, your name.”
A small tree branch hit against the side of the cottage. The slight pink hue drained from her cheeks. She got up and looked out the window. After a few moments, she turned to him and said, “They’ll be coming for me soon.”
“I can’t tell.”
“Can’t or won’t? I deserve to know what’s going on.”
“You’ll know. You’ll know when they come.” She walked to the fireplace and sat on the sofa. He shuffled the cards a few more times. “I’m playing as your proxy. You’re getting your ass kicked. Tell me your name.”
He smiled. “Jane. Jane what?”
“Just plain Jane.”
“Plain Jane, from Pudden Tane?”
“Yes, that’s right. I was born here, on the kitchen table.”
“Tell me Jane, who’s coming for you, should I be worried?” Rain gusts rattled the large windows on the windward side of the house. Gusts pelted the tin roof more loudly than before. “Is it the boogeyman? Should I be afraid?”
She looked at the ceiling.
“It’s the roof,” he said, raising his voice over the din. “It’s tin.”
She walked back to the kitchen table, took the cards from his hand, and threw down the joker.
“What does that mean?” She asked.
“It means you lose. You have to tell me your story, who you are, everything. I’m afraid I’m headed for trouble having you here, with people coming to get you. I want to know what’s coming.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“That’s right, you don’t know, do you? Well, we have that in common, Jane.”
“Look, I don’t remember my name, or anything else, is that so hard for you to understand?”
“I’m a little thick. He’s thick-headed, they used to say about me.” He stood up. “They called me Rocky because of it. My head’s like granite.”
“I can’t say.”
“Why? Why can’t you?”
A thunder clap shook the hill. Lightening lit up the sky. The trees surrounding the cottage swayed violently. She ran into his arms, resting her head on his chest, and sobbed. He gently patted her back. “It’s okay. You’re all right. You’re safe here.”
“Help me,” she said, softly, and buried her head into his chest. They stood like that for a while, until she stopped shaking, then he pulled himself away from her, and held her in front of him. She looked down at the floor.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you, if that’s what you mean. Not in my home.”
“It won’t matter. They’ll come and…” She looked up suddenly, as if remembering something, then backed away from him.
“What?” he asked.
Another violent thunderclap rattled the cottage. She backed away further, looking frighteningly up at the skylight, as if somehow the lightning would illuminate her through the glass, and give away her secrets. After the rumbling thunder sounded, she walked slowly to the sofa, her hands clasped in front of her chest. She laid down and buried her head in the pillow.
Growing exasperated, he walked over and stood in front of the fire. They listened to the storm and the wind. After a few minutes, she looked up from the pillow.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“That’s a tough way to be. Nervous like that. You should relax.”
She smiled. “I’ll try.”
“Good.” They watched the fire for a few minutes, then he said, “I’ll make up the couch. You can stay in the bedroom for the night.”
“No, I want to stay near the fire.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want, but the sofa’s not very comfortable after a while. The cushions are old and – ”
“No, this is good. I’ll be good, here.”
He looked at the decanter of whiskey on the mantelpiece and said, “Do you want a drink?” She stared at him, but said nothing. “There’s whiskey, if you want.”
“Do you want some?” she asked.
There was nothing he wanted more than to pour himself a glass of the aged Kentucky Bourbon. He wanted to smell it, to see it pour over ice and savor its cool bite. He wanted its warmth in is belly, the gentle fire that ran through his guts and calmed him, the fast lift of the alcohol running through him and making his blood hot, energized and crazy. Right now, those old feelings felt fresh and exciting, wrapped in fancy new paper and sitting in a box under the tree. He thought of how after having a few, the whiskey would start to go down like water, and he’d go into a blackout and say and do things, and not remember most of what happened, and regret it all the next day. Then he remembered the puking, the pain in his gut, the hangover headaches and dizziness, his injured and sore body, and not being able to walk a straight line. How his words would come out so slurred, he’d have to think of them as he spoke. He didn’t miss the hangover or waking up in the strange doorways, or the doctors, with their curt manners, telling him he was killing himself, but he liked having the whiskey near, and looking at it in the fine decanter.
“It’s for guests,” he said, and turned and walked to the bedroom to get blankets and sheets.
After they made up the couch, they locked eyes for a moment and his stomach turned over again. He thought of what it would be like to be with her, then pushed it out of his mind. She smiled, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile back.
“I hope you’re comfortable,” he said.
“I’ll hang my clothes in front of the fire, if that’s all right. They should be dry by morning.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Good idea.”
The wind died down, and a steady rain tapped on the roof. The only illumination came from the fireplace, and a kerosene lamp by the sofa. In the kitchen, he took the other lamp and walked into the bedroom. He turned and looked in her direction, but saw only the couch where she lay, and beyond that the clothes hanging from the fireplace screen. He wondered what time it was. It felt very late, but he sensed that it was still relatively early. It didn’t matter. They were both tired.
“Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” she answered, her small voice barely audible.
He turned and shut the door.