Valley of Darkness, by Matt Nagin
Sam Sheperd, a degenerate gambler, was in debt $80,000 to a loan shark, $10,000 to a mobster, $5,000 to his girlfriend, and he had a wife and kid who looked only marginally better than those starving villagers on “Save The Children” commercials.
Sam tried to take it all in stride; to look philosophically on his plight; but he’d get freaked out, now and then, by what his debt collectors might do to him.
He’d leave his apartment and look both ways, fear gripping his beer belly. A burly waiter would provide desert specials and he’d wonder if the guy was going to take him behind a dumpster and break his legs.
He had absurd dreams; in one he was a leprechaun, singing Irish ballads, dancing merrily beneath a rainbow, when a wolf consumed him in one ravenous bite. In another he floated aimlessly through space until he collided with an asteroid, his husky frame breaking apart, his spirit crying out for assistance in the mystical dark.
He’d awake in sweats, his wife, Matilda, kicking his shin, his baby, Lucy, crying maniacally from the crib. He’d pick her up, rock her steadily, all while hyperventilating. Damn the loan sharks! To hell with the mobsters! He had rights, damnit!
Sam couldn’t quit. He’d abstain a month or two. He’d burn his old racing forms, attend Gambler’s Anonymous meetings, stop watching football, pledge in church that he’d never go near another den of iniquity.
But soon enough the itch would return. He had plenty of fulfilling hobbies—
building model airplanes, rehabilitating Arriflex cameras, whittling birdhouses while watching the Mets. He had a family that appreciated him and friends he could rely upon.
No matter. He’d trade it all for a bet. Lousy, idiotic gambling! The house had every advantage. Gambling was more menacing than a furious tide; wade in too deep it might just grab you, toss you, put you permanently in the muck.
And yet, at times, Sam seemed to enjoy the troubled waters, the undertow, the storm; for it was a kind of shelter from the tedium of his prosaic existence. Perhaps, too, given how depressed Sam was, it was secretly comforting knowing that he might—financially speaking—drown.
Sam bet on jai-alai, dog races, coin fly swatting contests, even speeches
by The Pope.
Sometimes the bets really became absurd. He once wagered a friend $5,000 he could drink a bottle of hot sauce. Lost too. Fell to the ground, his insides heaving, his tongue licking the grass like a dog.
When he couldn’t pay he ended up getting his pinkie shoved in a blender. The next night he was at the craps table, rolling with the bandaged hand. The odds had to even out. He’d lost the tip of his pinkie. He’d lost enough.
Sam had never been in worse financial trouble than six months after he’d tried to go straight. He’d put together the little funds he had left and opened a print shop. Sadly, in a matter of months, this, too, went bust.
To get the business off the ground he’d borrowed 80k from Jimmy Veruzio, one of the most ruthless loan sharks in Northern New Jersey—the kind of guy who drove around with the bloodied arm of a delinquent gambler in his trunk.
Now, with the print shop in chapter eleven, and his three jobs barely covering his family’s expenses, he needed to pay Jimmy back. So he was heading back to the tables, to Atlantic City, to the house of forbidden dreams. He’d destroy 54 days of abstinence. He’d spend money he didn’t have.
Yet he couldn’t resist the dance with disaster, the foray into nothingness, a meandering along the edges of the precipice. He was desperate to swim once more in his favorite crooked ravine.
Sam revved the engine as he zipped through the Pine Barrens on The Garden State Parkway. The thought of what awaited him made his heart pound frenetically: luscious craps tables, resplendent blackjack, mystical roulette wheels and a Pai gow poker bazaar. It all radiated intensely; seemed otherworldly; he honestly felt like those weirdoes who trekked to Peru to ingest a couple of pounds of ayahuasca on This Is Life with Lisa Ling.
Headlights zoomed into his windshield; blue and white; suddenly he was on the side of the road walking the old straight line.
“Have anything to drink tonight?”
“Where you headed?”
“You were swerving.”
“If you say so.”
“Stop at the next rest area and get some coffee.”
“YEAH,” Sam said.
“YEAH,” Sam repeated. “I HEARD YOU.”
There was a long silence. The cop studied Sam’s license and registration. At last he shook his head, and, with a groan, told Sam to carry on. He’d practically begged the bastard to throw him in the slammer. But the protector of stale order and puerile conformity let him off easy. It was lucky he was Caucasian, he thought, or he might have gotten a beating.
As he raced back onto the highway he imagined he’d soon be swimming in Olympic-sized pools filled with hundred dollar bills. Money popping out his ears. Money swimming out his mouth. Money disco dancing to The Bee-Gee’s.
He remembered an old high school friend of his, who, after seeing Sam play $200 worth of scratch-off-tickets, insisted money was an illusion. ‘Money,’ he claimed, ‘would never fill the void in Sam’s soul.’
Overly-enlightened clone! He was going to have enough money to build a palace. A goddamn marble palace! With gorgeous models popping out of every suite and precious jewels lined up like soldiers! Was that an illusion?
That evening Sam went up $9,000 on a brilliant string of cards. He walked along the dilapidated boardwalk, feeling the ocean breeze, inhaling the cotton candy scent, playing games of skeeball to control his nerves. This is it, he told himself. When he went back to the craps table he experienced the kind of miracle normally reserved for preachers who speak in tongues.
The shooter rolled and Sam pressed all his bests…a four-hour Xanadu. He hit twenty-three points before crapping out. It was the kind of roll that could get a casino manager fired. The kind of roll that not only got Sam out of debt, but put him up another $85,000.
Sam danced the Macarena. He bought twelve strangers double-decker corn beef sandwiches on rye. He kissed a blackjack dealer on the lips…a 93 year old man with prehistoric dentures.
But did he stop?
Of course not. The casino offered him comped meals and lavish hotel rooms and he indulged himself. He ordered lobster tails. Hired call girls. Did blow on the nightstand through tightly-rolled hundred dollar bills—the large denominations offering the ritual a kind of totemistic power.
By the fourth day he was very nearly tapped out. He stayed another week, sleeping in his car. Brushed his teeth in the parking lot. Subsisted on beef-jerky and icy Pop Tarts.
He played blackjack, craps, poker, baccarat and the fruit wheel until he could hardly see straight; until the games merged; until he was talking to the guy next to him in what resembled Farsi.
Before long he’d pawned his father’s Rolex. Then he begged his friend to wire him a grand. When that ran out he gave some weird perv a handjob in the bathroom for a measly sixty bucks.
By the ninth day his wife was texting and calling on the hour. He didn’t answer. He was too focused on his own problems, and, besides, there was nothing, really, to say.
On the twelfth day he picked up the phone. “Working late tonight honey,” he told Matilda, slot machines roaring in the backdrop.
“SAM? Is that you?”
“I’m covering Jim’s shift.” Jim was his co-worker at a sales firm that pitched ‘revolutionary products’ to every last dental office in the tri-state area.
“Sam, it’s been two weeks since you’ve been home. This is what you have to say for yourself?”
“I’m working another double.”
“Sam, I hear the slots! This is ridiculous!”
Lucy kept crying in the background. She’s just a cartoon character, he told himself. Still, he couldn’t quite block out how bad he felt, nor how much he wished she was in his arms.
“I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”
“Tonight? Oh thank god! I’ll make a pot roast.”
The slot machine on the other side of the room erupted in cacophonous beeps and sparkly lights. The lucky bastard’s friends congratulated him. Sam thought about how badly he needed a hot streak.
“Look, forget the pot roast. I’ll be home soon though, okay?” Silence. “Okay?” More silence. “Okay?” Further silence and a dial tone. She’d hung up.
As the dusk began to settle and throngs of patrons hurried to the bus station, Sam sat in his car looking glum. He bit his wrist, leg twitching, fear rising in his chest.
The whole time he’d been at the tables it seemed like a dream. He’d gone through the motions, thinking his existence some optical illusion, some preposterous mirage. But now he was face-to-face with reality: he’d lost yet another grand (that his second cousin had wired him). Not a soul would lend him a dime.
It was all so insane. He could have been spending the past two weeks with his family: on picnics, at museums, flying to Paris goddamn first-class. Or, even better, he could have been providing for them by working his three jobs, which would have been far more savvy. Now where was he? Where?
The cellphone rang.
“Sam…Lucy’s in the hospital.”
Sam removed his dirty socks.
“That’s all you have to say? She’s got 104 temperature. Pneumonia.”
“She’ll be okay.”
“How would you know? You haven’t come home in weeks!”
Sam furrowed his brow.
“You’re right. Look I—I—lost it all.”
There was a long pause.
“Sam, honey, we’ll figure it out. Please just come home.”
“If I come home you’ll just rub it in how I should have been there
for Lucy when she was ill.”
There was another long pause before Sam whispered, “Oh god. Why?” All
alone, in his car, two hours later, in a lot that felt like an arctic tundra, he was still repeating this question to himself. There was no answer. None.
Examining himself in the rearview mirror Sam noticed that he gave off the impression of a man hounded by defeat. He had thick bags under his eyes, greasy hair, and a bald spot that seemed hideous—as if he was dying from leukemia.
What a total failure! It wasn’t just that he’d lost the money. He’d had a chance to offer his wife the easiest thing of all, a bit of sympathy, and he’d failed at that too.
He thought of the .44. magnum in the glove compartment. It called to him…that door to less torturous realms.
A pungent smell wafted toward him from across the lot as a wino pissed on the hood of a Honda Accord. He heard the moan of an ambulance zipping down the block. Considered the gun once more. How much hocus-pocus was possible!
No. Time to stop slithering endlessly towards the exit. He needed to take action from a place of strength. He would go and speak with Jimmy.
The next two days he slept in his car under a pile of filthy sweatshirts. Every time a car whizzed by he jumped up, clutching his chest, sure that it was the end.
Earlier that evening he’d kept picking up the phone, dialing Jimmy, and then hanging up. Now he was deep in REM sleep, confronting a monster, a behemoth version of himself. It laughed sadistically, spitting up half-digested organs while reciting strange aphorisms. “Your spirit grows as you inch towards death,” it said. He awoke to find a security guard tapping on the windshield.
“Hey, pal, you’re not allowed to sleep in your car.”
Sam wiped his eyes, righting himself. The security guard repeated himself.
“Sorry,” Sam replied.
“This isn’t a hotel guy.”
Sam nodded. It certainly wasn’t. Not even close. Sam moved his Buick from the parking garage at The Taj Mahal to the garage at Bally’s. Then he fell back asleep.
The next day Sam convinced his girlfriend, Aliza, to come visit. Told her he was up 300k.
When she showed up and saw he couldn’t afford a crummy room at The Motel 6 she was less than pleased. But, after sweet-talking her, they humped in the backseat, Jefferson Airplane blaring as the sweat and heat fogged the windows. The car shook violently, the headlights flickering on and off. He made love to her with all the fear inside; all the sadness; all the dismay that had been crushing him for so long; they really went at it until her eyes went white and she seemed to speak in tongues.
Problems started to arise, though, when he couldn’t pay her bus fare back to Wayne, New Jersey. She said she wasn’t a cheap whore. Called him a fat, useless scumbag. Threatened to tell his wife the real reason he’d missed all those family picnics—these past two years—was he was too busy nailing her at a Hampton Inn.
Cursed the day she met his pervy dumb ass. Finally, she tried to beat him senseless with a blow-dryer. Other than that she was a real gem.
The very next day Jimmy’s goon found him snoring in the car. Rocco, the head bodyguard, dragged Sam out the backseat by his ankles.
Be calm, Sam told himself as he was thrust into a white Cadillac. It’s like Pacman. They’re just tiny, harmless ghosts. But his heart went ticktockticktock; his left hand wouldn’t stop trembling, and his vision began to blur. He kept imagining The Grim Reaper handing him a twelve-page bill. At the bottom of the bill would be FINAL DUE and in the all-important box EXISTENCE. ‘No,’ he thought. ‘Anything but that!’ By the time Rocco knocked on Jimmy’s front door Sam wished he could just pass out.
A tall, lanky gangster with a pockmarked face answered. He wore a leather jacket, gold chains, and gel oozed from his slimy auburn hair.
“Wonderful to see you again Sam,” Jimmy said, chewing a toothpick. He put a warm hand on Sam’s shoulder and invited him to sit. He made Sam a drink, whiskey, no ice.
Sam gulped it down and asked for another—a request that no one heeded. Jimmy sat across from him, chewing on that toothpick with a glorious smile. Jimmy looked at Sam, his shadowy face making him seemed possessed by demonic spirits.
“I-the thing is—I really—I meant to show up with it,” Sam said.
“Of course you did,” Jimmy replied. “It’s fine. Isn’t it Rocco?” Jimmy asked his bodyguard, a three-hundred and fifty-pound muscle machine.
“Very fine,” Rocco replied.
Sam swallowed hard.
“So instead of earning it back you were losing more in Atlantic City. Why would that bother me?” Sam felt as if he was caught inside the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. Such calamitous energy radiated out of all this hell.
Rocco put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and he tensed up, his leg twitching fervently.
This couldn’t be how it was all going to end! He had places to visit! A daughter to raise! A wife to cherish! More girlfriends to hump surreptitiously! Couldn’t these brutish goons see that?
Rocco eventually fixed Sam another drink and he downed it gratefully. Jimmy, meanwhile, seemed cordial, almost distinguished, until his pitbull-rotweiler sniffed his hand eagerly. Suddenly, Jimmy punched it in the head.
“We’re very understanding here,” Jimmy said as the dog squealed. It was a two-hundred pound beast, a mean son of a bitch, and it foamed at the mouth, desperately.
“Look, I need another week,” Sam said. “And I-I-appreciate that—this has not been easy on you. But…but….”
Jimmy kicked the dog so hard it fell over.
“Twenty-four hours. Or you’ll wish you were that dog.” The dog squealed. Squirming, on its belly, it writhed helplessly.
Jimmy took out his gun and shot the dog.
“He didn’t suffer too long.”
“Thank you…yes…” Sam said as the dog keeled over and died. “Very um compassionate move…”
“If you don’t pay on time, though, YOU WILL.”
Sam hitched a ride back to his car, and, immediately, drove like a lunatic. There was no time to think of moral consequences.
He had to kidnap Lucy. It was his child too! Matilda didn’t own that baby. Sure, she’d given birth to it. But he’d paid the bills. He’d supported it these long sixteen months.
Lucy! Oh Lucy! Lucy my dear! Lucy my salvation! He drove faster, not stopping once at Roy Roger’s, not even checking the odometer, flooring the vehicle, swerving haphazardly, utterly zonked on the idea of using Lucy in a grisly financial transaction.
The front door was chain locked. He knocked fiercely.
“Sam, is that you?”
“OPEN UP! HURRY!”
He threw his shoulder into the door, grunting repeatedly, at last hurling it open. Matilda was stretched out on the couch, a hot towel on her head.
“What are you some kind of animal?”
He raced into Lucy’s bedroom, seething, his eyes roaming to the point where they became vultures. His reason for needing Lucy was too difficult to explain. He’d never imagine he would compromise his morals to this extent. But he knew a place for those in his situation—a so-called Baby Pawn Shop—and couldn’t hesitate now.
The baby would be okay. They fed it and changed its diaper. Kept it in a high-end cage. Put straw in there. And a bowl.
Of course, if you didn’t pay them back, the owners sold the babies to the highest bidder in a weird kind of baby auction.
Sam told himself no one would touch a hair on Lucy’s head. It would only be temporary. A quick fix, really. He’d heard about the place from a fellow gambler who’d raved about their cleanliness and professionalism.
He could visit her once a week and bring piles of baby toys. At such a young age she would hardly remember her confinement. It would be a chance to befriend other babies with parents who enjoyed the pleasures of Atlantic City. The important point was to look on the bright side!
As Sam rummaged through Lucy’s bedroom he recalled that it wasn’t so long ago he’d graduated Suma Cum Laude from Rutgers. An Anthropology Major. Wrote a tremendous thesis on the relationship between sex and symbolic power in Papa New Guinea. He’d had so much potential.
He looked under the crib. Ripped the blankets off the mattress in the guest bedroom. Cleared every last shelf in the closet.
“Where the hell is she?”
“You’re not taking her Sam.”
Sam shook Matilda fiercely.
“I SAID WHERE!”
He raised a fist above his wife’s head. It trembled fiercely. Her eyes followed his clenched fingers with almost holy awe. She began to laugh.
“You don’t even remember? Ha. So hilarious Sam. So frekn’ hilarious.”
“WHERE? GODDAMNIT ANSWER!”
“I told you—she’s at Englewood Hospital. With pneumonia. Her temperature finally went down to 102, but they’re keeping her under observation.”
“Oh,” Sam said. And like that he was out the door.
Matilda arrived at the entrance to the hospital moments after Sam and chased him through the parking lot.
“How much did you lose?”
“We’re broke. You disappear for two weeks, put us further in debt, and now you’re telling me to calm down?”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“Control my ass! Your parents were right. I never should have married you. You’re not just gambling your money Sam. You’re gambling our future. Goddamn you-you selfish bastard!”
She threw a giant purse at his head.
“Oh, and I know all about that floozy Aliza,” she continued. “She told me all the gritty details!”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Cut the B.S. you freak!”
“This Aliza—whomever she is—is obviously psychotic.”
“No. You’re psychotic. You….you stupid bastard. I want a divorce!”
“Fine.” Sam tried his best to smile. “But I’m taking Lucy.”
She screamed like a mad woman and soon they wrestled in the parking lot, her scratching his neck, him kneeing her in the chest. Finally, he pinned her down, put a fist up to her head once more and threatened to bash in her skull if she didn’t shut her trap. She spat in his eye. Without missing a beat he punched her in the face.
Two minutes later he ran out the hospital with Lucy in his arms. She cried hysterically. Too bad. It was his child too! He had rights damnit!
The Baby Pawn Shop emerged out of the heavy fog and seemed to beckon towards Sam like a church choir might to a repentant sinner. Despite its rather insidious name it looked rather humdrum: a grey farmhouse, with a silo, a pigsty, and a horse stable. There was no sign identifying the place and the property was a quarter mile from the entrance to the road.
Still, the normal vibe one got driving by was deceiving. For inside, lined up in cages, were three dozen babies, all wailing away, collateral for the degenerate gamblers headed to Atlantic City.
The whole way over Lucy cried hysterically. Sam didn’t have a car seat, so he’d just tossed her in the back and quickly tied the seatbelt twice around her legs. Still, she wouldn’t shut up. So he’d bought a carton of milk and force-fed her. It wasn’t quite a baby bottle. But she was getting nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, and other shit he couldn’t remember.
At one point Lucy looked at him accusatorily. What? You got a problem, girl? Let’s see how you handle it when you’re 80k in the hole to Jimmy Veruzio. Wipe the smirk off your face. What makes you so high and mighty? Huh? Answer me. I said answer me!
Al, the owner of the place, pointed a shotgun at the baby. “Password?”
“Amber Alert,” Sam said.
“Password changed recently.”
He thought back to the time the cop had let him go. How lucky he would have been had he only gotten arrested? How much dough he might have saved!
“No worries,” Al said. “The old password’s good enough.”
Sam sighed. Perhaps his luck was finally turning.
Sam entered with a pronounced strut in his step. He was master of his domain again. Ruler of this subterranean zone.
He’d learned a baby could get you $25,000. It was enough to get Jimmy off his back for a couple of days.
“Know how this works?” Al asked.
“Well, just so you’re clear, you’re pawning your baby. We own it. But we’re not gonna sell it….at least not for sixty days. After that, well, hey, you had your chance.”
“That seems reasonable. Sixty days is a lifetime in our modern economy.”
“The truth is we want all babies to go back to their original owners. It’s more secure for us as investors. The problem is some owners are not able to repurchase their child. In that case you leave us no choice but to sell your baby to the highest bidder. We hope those investors will make decent guardians, but we can’t guarantee it.”
“Makes perfect sense,” Sam said. “Lucy is a great girl, and, if for some reason she gets adopted, I’m sure she’ll have terrific parents.”
“Some aren’t parents so much as owners. We really want to impress upon you that new owners can do whatever they want with their baby. Sell it into child prostitution. Make it a drug mule. Or God knows what else. I’m just saying if I were you I’d really make an effort to pay us back in a timely fashion.”
Sam gave Al two thumbs up.
“Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that some owners, who can’t pay on time, think of reporting the operation to the police.”
Al removed a photograph book with dozens of pictures of a murdered man and his baby. They were ghastly images; faces clotted with gore, guts spilling off the page.
“A rat,” Al said. “Very sad. I’m only mentioning it for your own safety.”
Sam nodded, thinking about this was nothing compared to what Jimmy would do to him if he couldn’t pay.
Al went into his safe and took out five stacks of cash and loaded them into a plastic bag. “So we’ll pay you $25,000 for your baby and you buy it back at $35,000, assuming you return here within sixty days.”
“VERY REASONABLE given that we need to feed, diaper, and, in certain cases, rock your baby to sleep.”
“I appreciate it. No, seriously, it’s a better deal than day care.”
“May I ask you one final question before you go?” Al asked.
“Is she a healthy baby?”
“Absolutely. Lucy hasn’t been in the hospital since the day she popped out her mother’s womb.”
“Good. Because if she gets sick, Bob here, a plumber, will do his best to treat her. But he’s not exactly an expert at dealing with medical crises.”
Bob wiped his mouth, just then, with an oil-stained handkerchief.
Sam nodded, handed Al the baby, and, as he walked out, cash in hand, added, “Thanks again. Really, this means the world to me.”
At this several babies joined Lucy, now, and began to cry.
Sam drove towards Jimmy’s place, thinking of giving him the $25,000 and begging for mercy. It was the decision any sane individual would make.
Yet there was another option, a way to turn this $25,000 into $150,000 in a couple of hours. The glow of Atlantic City radiated in the distance. He told himself forget it. This was how he’d gotten in all this trouble in the first place.
But there it was…the bejeweled city of prayer, the palace of glittering possibility, pumping him filled with desire. What would it hurt to gamble $10,000? Even $15,000?
Quick as a fly landing in a bowl of soup he was at the craps table. This was for Lucy. Lucy was a born winner! Lucy was destined to bless him with good fortune! He couldn’t lose. Sweet Lucy, the thing in this world he valued more than anything, would save him from himself!
Sam rolled with all the passion of a Hare Krishna banging away at his drum. He was the worshipful, the eternal believer caught in his own hypnotic spell. He kept raising his bests, hitting points, rotating the money, going all in on all the hardways, betting come bets and pass lines, keeping it humming. There was a natural flow; a subterranean harmony. Sam wasn’t a loser; Sam wasn’t a degenerate; Sam was getting out of the worst trouble of his life.
The money kept rolling in. He had all four rows in front of him filled with black 100$ chips, and another row filled with orange $500 chips. He was an eagle soaring above a debris-field, a grizzly bear tearing through a verdant forest; crowds formed, time slowed to an eerie crawl.
This was for Lucy; it was for Lucy that he rolled like he was having an epileptic fit; it was for Lucy that he didn’t get distracted when they told him to hit the back wall; it was for Lucy that right before he rolled he kept crying out “watch out for the smoke!”; it was for Lucy, too, that he drank and cursed and screamed until his voice went hoarse.
And, of course, it was for Lucy that he acted like this was run-of-the-mill as he got back to even. For her that he watched the chips fade as he had in the weeks before; for her that he kept at it until he didn’t have enough cash left to buy a pack of gum.
It was for Lucy that he bumped into the same perv, gave him another bathroom handjob, and was only paid $20. It was for Lucy that he called his wife and pleaded for her forgiveness, weeping to the sound of the dial tone. IT WAS ALL FOR LUCY.
Sam hurried into the parking lot. Damn you Lucy! Damn your purity! Damn what you made me become!
He couldn’t call his parents—they’d given up on him. He couldn’t go to Jimmy—for he’d experience the kind of punishment normally reserved for the damned. There seemed no reasonable options.
He could hardly stop shivering. He had lost—again. How was it possible? How?
He texted his wife the address where she could find their baby. Cocked the gun. Fists pounded on the glass windshield. Blue and white lights.
He heard Matilda’s voice. Heard Jimmy too. His parents. The arrogant friend who insisted money couldn’t buy happiness. His pet hamster, Bob, squealing. A childhood hymn his mother used to sing.
He heard his baby cry. That terrible cry. That desperate cry. The cry of the damned. He put the gun in his mouth.
Everyone he’d ever known was right behind him, calling to him, crying out to him; they called and called desperately; soon they faded from him, grew distant, until, eventually, he was floating, liberated, all alone.
He heard the ringing, the distant echo. Saw Lucy before him, smiling, kicking her little feet.
She was begging for his help. Right there, right where he needed her. Yet he couldn’t reach her. She seemed a billion miles away.
He’d done all this for her and now he needed her to save him. Please! Sweet girl! Darling angel! My prayer! SAVE MY DEGENERATE ASS! HELP! OH BABY! OH SWEETHEART! I NEED YOU! I DID THIS FOR YOU! SAVE ME! PLEASE GODDAMNIT! OH YOU STUPID BEAUTIFUL BITCH SAVE ME! I’M BEGGING! I DON’T WANT TO DIE! OH PLEASE! LUCY, MY FUTURE! LUCY, MY HEART! SAVE ME! PLEASE GODDAMNIT HELP!
He glanced in the rearview mirror and realized he had screwed up. The bullet had grazed his scalp, causing a significant loss of blood, but he would most likely survive.
He would go on. Be a decent father! Love his child properly! Go to Gambler’s Anonymous Meetings! Apologize to his wife! Work six jobs! Make a deal with Jimmy!
A hand broke the windshield.
“Nice try,” Rocco said. “But you ain’t getting away that easy.”
They tortured Sam to the point where he wished they’d killed him. In the end he hardly recognized himself. His nose was mangled. He had a collapsed lung, a severed tongue, dozens of holes drilled into his ankles.
He got into his car and drove off. He could recover from this all. But that would all, now, seem like part of a broader charade.
He pulled into a Walmart parking lot. The shadows had encroached and were ready to consume his soul. Darkness had spread falcon wings over Atlantic City.
He took the gun out of the glove compartment. Stared at it. Waited, patiently, before turning it on himself. A shot rang out like poetry, like rain, like a thousand prayers falling desperately from a bereft sky.
Freedom was just above. He reached out and grabbed it, letting it take him into an ethereal realm, a place without winners or losers, a place he never imagined so close; for a brief second he experienced a bliss he’d forgotten was possible. Then he closed his eyes, his head fell, and he entered a vast, eternal sleep.
Matt Nagin is a writer, educator, actor, filmmaker and standup comedian. His poetry has been published in Antigonish Review, Dash Literary Journal, The Charles Carter, Grain Magazine and Arsenic Lobster, among other markets. His first poetry collection, “Butterflies Lost Within The Crooked Moonlight,” was released in 2017, and has obtained very strong reader reviews on Amazon. More info at mattnagin.com.