Devoured: A short story about gambling addiction
"Seriously? Are you really going to take it?" whispered the tiny voice of my True Self. I hesitated, heart pounding, mouth parched, staring at the 1.6 carat brilliant cut solitaire diamond set in an 18 karat gold band.
Family legend has it that Grandpa worked three jobs to gather the money to buy the engagement ring way back in the early 50s. It was a grand and expensive gesture, I'm told, a symbol of Grandpa's eternal love for Grandma. Because, as everybody knows, diamonds are forever.
Huh, just another lie they sold me. Diamonds, like love, can in fact be chipped and shattered. Or incinerated to ash.
The ring had stayed on Grandma's left hand until the day Grandpa died of cirrhosis of the liver. It was passed on to Ma—and returned around the time my parents violently decided to divorce. Too heavy for Grandma's withered hand and heart, the diamond had languished these past few years in a dusty old jewellery box, deprived of light and sparkle, a treasure squatting amidst the worthless rhinestone and nickel mementoes of a hard and mostly loveless life.
Till now. Now it sat glittering in my grubby mitts.
My question was a lie; my hesitation a last pathetic grasp at decency and self-respect. The decision had already been made. The Devourer demanded it. And besides, the ring was rightfully mine. My inheritance! I wasn't stealing it. I needed it. It was my chance to make things right.
I slipped the ring into my pocket, made sure everything was in its place, and slunk from my grandma's house, shivering with guilt… Or was it anticipation?
* * *
I shuddered as I stepped into the pawnshop—as desperate as any damned junky frantic to fund his next fix. I made a beeline for Ben. The jeweller had a rep as an honest appraiser. He'd do me right.
"Justin!" Ben greeted me. He knew me. They all knew me. Practically everything I owned was in hock, after all. "What can I do for you, lad?"
I brought out Grandma's ring and slapped it down on the counter. "How much'll you give me for this?"
"Hmmm, let's see what we have here," Ben mumbled as he bent over his loupe to examine the diamond.
"It's nearly 2 carats," I insisted, defensive, angry. As always. "Ma had it appraised when I was a kid."
My first visit to a pawnshop, that. Ma hadn't gone through with it though. She'd never pawned it, not even the numerous times we'd faced eviction.
"A nice piece this." Ben looked at me sharply. "Family heirloom?"
"It's mine!" Calm down. Play it cool! "Look, man, just tell me what you'll give me for it! I'm in a hurry, okay?"
"Okay, Okay, hang on a minute, son. Just let me take a closer look and do some calculations out back."
The Devourer growled as Ben left with my diamond.
Come on, come on, come on! I shuffled from foot to foot, unable to stand still. The day was wearing on. Others could beat me to it. My litany was the only thing that stopped me vaulting the counter. Comeoncomeoncomeon!
Not soon enough, Ben reappeared. "Nine, lad. It's the best I can do."
"Nine—" I choked on my disbelief! "Nine hundred? But Ma said it was worth nearly five thousand!"
The old codger was full of justifications. Went on about half the Rappaport value, less forty per cent for a loan, plus the cost of storage, and resale value if I didn't pay up. But I could barely hear him through my panic. It wasn't enough! I could haggle, get more, but there was no time!
"Look, lad, I can see you're having troubles..." the old man began.
Oh no you don't! Don't you bloody dare go there!
"There's… uh… there's counsellors for this sort of thing."
"JUST GIVE ME THE DAMNED MONEY," the Devourer roared through me, as some part of my screwed-up soul whimpered at the shame of it.
All compassion fled Ben's face. In clipped tones he detailed the terms of the loan agreement and instructed me to sign. While I did so he checked my 100 points of ID, then handed me the pawn ticket and $900 cash.
I grabbed the money and fled his judgemental frown.
I'd show him! I'd get grandma's ring back. I'd get everything back. Yeah, and I'd get the sharks off my back too, now that I had my stake…
* * *
With a Bundy and coke in hand, and eighteen $50 notes in my wallet, I approached the Queen of the Nile, excited as a kid at Christmas.
Even at eleven in the morning the place was packed. Poor fools probably cursed with the same predilection as me. Work, family, bills, life; none of it mattered. Nothing compared to the siren calls of the casino; the bells, beeps and chimes, the jangly, jubilant music, the flashing of celebratory animations and the sound of coins crashing into the hoppers. And… oh my God… the heady mix of chance, opportunity, risk, reward, fate, and luck, and the buzz of alcohol, and the nonstop, hypnotising spin of the reels…
And the chance to win. To feel like a winner. To be a winner!
God! I existed only for the thrill of it!
My hands shook such was my frenzy to put in the first few $50s. The machine devoured note after note, racking up the credits. Racking up the chances to win the biggest jackpot in the casino's history.
I chose the highest bet, all 20 lines, and pushed the spin button.
Aaahhh ... The relief!
Safely enveloped in my zone, I pressed the button repeatedly, enraptured by the whirling, whirling, whirling of the reels.
* * *
Light flared in the living room. "You think I wouldn't know?"
I threw up a hand, blinded. Blindsided. Still stupefied.
0.00 credits. How?
"Your grandfather gave me that ring 60 years ago, Justin!"
A black, sinking feeling wrapped itself around my heart as I blinked at Grandma. She stood there glaring, the epitome of a banshee with her dishevelled white hair and long white nighty. A true harbinger of doom.
"Yeah, and the useless git won it at a poker game three years after you were married. Some 'engagement' ring."
Deflection. Denial. Anger. Lies. Manipulation.
These were the tools of the Devourer. But worse, they were the last bastions of my True Self. For without them she would see the reality of Me. The shredded soul. The shamed self. The shattered man, whose life and worth had been devoured by addiction.
I couldn't bear it. And so I railed at her. Brought up everybody's sins but mine. I blamed Da who gave me my first taste of alcohol. I blamed Ma who left me in the car alone for hours on end while she played the pokies. And I blamed Grandpa, the sanctimonious prick who had caused it all with his drinking and gambling and rages. Oh, the things I said to deflect her.
"Yes, your grandfather was an alcoholic!" I could hear it in her voice. Ice. I'd gone too far this time. "And yes, he gambled nearly everything we owned. But not my ring, Justin. Never my ring."
But I had. I had.
Crippling shame brought me undone. I fell to my knees, wept, wailed, and pleaded; confessed my sins and self-loathing. "I'll win it back for you, Grandma. Just give me few bucks. Please. I'm due a win. Just give me a chance."
"A chance?" She stared at me for an interminable moment. "Fine."
And she walked to the side table and picked up her purse.
My God! She was going to do it. She was actually going to give me—
"Heads or tails."
"What will it be, Justin?" Grandma turned to me with a 20c piece in her hand. "I can't decide, so I'll let fate decide."
The Devourer's ears pricked up. True Self quailed, sensing a trap.
"Heads: I pay off your loan and get my ring back. While you, Justin, you go into treatment, stop gambling, quit the drink and pull your life together. Or tails: I go to the police and report the theft of my ring, they'll trace it to the pawnshop and you go to prison."
Shit! She meant it. I could tell.
Grandma never did have much of a poker face.
In that suspended moment, the coin caught the light, flipping head over tail, deciding my fate…
Fictional short story written by Caroline McNally © 2016 Caroline McNally