It was midnight when I slammed the front door of my condo, although I knew my best friend and roommate Amy was sleeping. I heard her get out of bed, and visualized her putting on her robe and slippers. I prepared myself for another heated discussion.
“I lost two thousand bucks tonight,” I announced as soon as she walked into the room.
“Carrie! What were you thinking? You don’t have that kind of money!”
“Well, duh! I put it on my Discover credit card.”
“But you already have ten thousand on your Mastercard,” Amy said, “and nearly five thousand on the Visa.” I didn’t really need her reminder since that had been bugging me all evening, though not quite enough to quit gambling.
Amy was my best friend. We’d met in college where I’d studied Finance and she’d earned a PhD in History, planning to teach. She wore drab, conservative suits, and kept her room and most of the condo neat as a pin. We were almost total opposites; I preferred jeans and tee-shirts, and avoided housework whenever I could.
“You’re over thirty,” Amy went on, figuratively shaking her index finger at me. “When are you going to grow up? I know I’m not your mom, but I feel some responsibility for you.”
Her disgust was tempered with a grudging affection for me. She went on. “You should quit gambling entirely. It’s not enough just to stop playing blackjack, or the poker machines, or craps; you need to stop completely. I’ve told you this before, and I know telling you again really doesn’t mean anything to you, but I have to keep on hoping.”
I crossed to the bar to fix a gin and tonic, but Amy came up behind me and took the bottle away. She grabbed my elbow and pulled me over to the sofa where we both sat. “I know you know gambling is a disease,” she said, as if she’d never said this before. “You need to go to some group like Gamblers Anonymous; they can help you get over it. I know you know gambling is a dead end.”
“So you keep telling me,” I said, and then nodded. “In my head, I do know that.” I was disappointed in myself. I’d been raised to believe that gambling was a disease. “But it doesn’t seem that way when I’m sitting at the table and a friggin’ blackjack shows up.”
I had never been a gambler until a few weeks after my ruined wedding day. Just before our rehearsal dinner, Jake told me he didn’t want to marry me since I was “kinda boring.” He’d decided that he wanted some excitement in his life. He’d been seeing a sexy tattoo artist, he was going to buy a motorcycle, and there was just no room for me in his life now.
I’d been quiet and reserved until then, and he’d been only the fourth guy I’d dated seriously. I’d felt contented with the life I foresaw with him until he dumped me, and when he did I was dumbfounded; I just couldn’t take it in for months.
Then, about a year ago – four years after my broken engagement – I’d gone with a blind date to a casino and gotten hooked on gambling. My date didn’t call me again after I spent the entire evening playing poker machines, which didn’t bother me much. After that, I started spending most of my evenings and some weekends in the casino. I’d learned blackjack, and now it was my favorite game.
“Your obsession’s got to stop at some point.” Amy sighed heavily. She leaned over and hugged me, and I really felt like I wanted to stop. I knew she was right, but it was so hard! I’d tried to stop dozens of times, but whenever I got a little bored, I found myself driving up to the Indian casino a few miles from my condo.
“Well, how about a boyfriend?” Amy said.
“Oh! You know, I did meet a nice guy tonight,” I admitted. “He sat next to me at the Hungry Dove when I went in for some pie. His name is Chuck Mueller, he’s 32, a widower with two young kids, and he has a good job as a high school English teacher.”
“A teacher, eh?” As a teacher herself, Amy believed that the profession was a healthy one. “Well, that sounds promising.” She grinned and settled back on the sofa. “Is he a gambler, too?”
“No. He says he only comes to the casino once a month or so. I really don’t think he’s much of a gambler.”
“Well, he sounds like just what you need.” Amy smiled, and I knew she was really just expressing her concern for me.
“Yeah, I know. We talked for a while and he told me all about his family. He asked me what I do for a living, and he was impressed that I’m a banker. I think he has the idea that being a banker means I have respect for money, so he figured I couldn’t be a gambler.
“When he asked me what I was doing at the casino tonight, I told him I was waiting for a friend.”
Amy shook her head and rolled her eyes. “So you started this relationship with a lie. But this guy sounds like he might be a winner. Could you agree not to gamble for a while so you can at least work towards a good relationship with this guy?”
I nodded slowly; I thought that I could do that. Then Amy and I discussed some of my previous hookups, and she warned me again to take it slow. “You know you tend to leap in feet first,” she reminded me, “and then find out later the guy was no good.”
I had to agree – she was so right. I promised I would try and curtail my gambling, but I could tell she didn’t really believe me. I wasn’t sure I believed me.
I climbed into a jasmine-scented bath and spent the next hour wondering just why I kept gambling, and what I really wanted. I thought all I needed was a good reason to get up in the morning – a better job, a good-looking boyfriend, a great apartment, beautiful clothes. I knew I was dissatisfied, and that I wanted more – but more what? For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was I really wanted.
At work the next morning, I found myself sleep-walking through my tasks. I’d lain awake for hours, thinking about my life. As a junior branch manager, I didn’t have all that much to do, but every time I found myself about to make an error, I had to stop and focus. Just before lunch Sandy Wilcox, the assistant manager sitting at the next desk, noticed my hand trembling. “Are you okay?” she asked.
She was a nice person and I didn’t want to lie to her, but I said, “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just that my blood sugar’s low; I need to get something to eat.” She bought it, and I took a long break and went to the café next door. A cup of coffee and a ham sandwich did go a long way toward waking me up, and my afternoon went much better.
I left the office that evening fully intending to grab another sandwich and go home to a book I’d started, but I found myself driving back to the casino instead. It really was a beautiful place, a white stucco palace set amid green hills. And inside it was so exciting! Bells were always going off, the lighting was flattering, all the waitresses and dealers smiled when I walked by; I could never stay away for long.
As I walked in, my favorite blackjack dealer, Artie Flanders, was at a nearly empty table. I greeted him with a smile and he winked. There were two older women at the table, and I sat down on the end stool.
Putting two chips into the circle, I waited for the usual rush as the cards were dealt. The dealer showed a 4, and my cards were an 8 and a 5. Thirteen; should I stand, since the dealer might bust on that hand, or should I try and hit it? Thirteen was not a good hand.
I took a deep breath and called for a card; Artie tossed down a 6. Nineteen! Not bad. Then he turned over a 7 as his hole card. He dealt himself a 10, of course!
I had lost. I was dejected at the loss, but the next hand might be better. I pushed two more chips forward and Cindy, one of the cocktail waitresses, brought me my usual screwdriver. I looked at my cards and saw that I had a Blackjack. Then my eye was drawn to a puff of smoke right behind Artie. A weird man-like figure emerged out of thin air. I could feel my eyes popping and I know I gave a small screech. No one else seemed to notice the creature, or thing, or whatever it was, even though it was horrifying. Artie and the two old ladies at the table turned toward me when I gasped, and I wondered why they weren’t staring in shock and disgust at this apparition. Artie paid me, and went on dealing.
The creature was just tall enough to look at me over Artie’s shoulder, and its eyes staring into mine were completely black and rimmed in red. My heart started beating frantically and I began to feel nauseated just looking at it. I could feel myself beginning to pant, and I wanted to slide off the stool and run like hell.
I accidentally met its eyes, and it said in a low, hypnotic voice, “Hello, Carrie.” It knew my name! I was stunned, and then for some reason the terror began to recede a little. The creature went on, in a slimy but seductive voice, “My name is Mammon, and I’m a demon. I’m here for you.”
Alright, it was here for me. I was going to die! If my heart didn’t stop, this creature would reach out and touch me, and that would surely give me a stroke. I looked around to see if anyone might come to my rescue, but no one else had observed this creature. I shook my head in disbelief and sat still, waiting for the end. But it didn’t come. Instead, the creature leaned over the shoulder of the elderly woman beside me and put its claws on her shoulders. She didn’t even seem to feel it, and the thing grinned at me, as if we were in cahoots.
“I told you, Carrie,” it said. “I’m here for you.” As the terror slowly began to fade, I decided I must be hallucinating. I decided to ignore the creature, but suddenly it was standing beside me, whispering in my ear, “Go on and bet ten chips, Carrie. You’ll win big, I promise.”
The voice was now almost mesmerizing, and I nearly grabbed a pile of five dollar chips to bet, but stopped myself just in time. I shakily set down my usual bet of two chips, and the demon shook its head sadly. Before the next hand was dealt, it said, with a sweetness to its voice that totally confused me, “All you need to do, Carrie, is agree that I can have your soul when you die. You’ll have no need of a soul when you’re dead, right?”
I had won that bet, and again bet my usual, trying very hard to ignore the creature. The so-called demon grinned as if it knew how hard it was to disregard it, and said, “If you do as I say, I’ll grant you all the luck you want.”
Despite my fear, I couldn’t help but giggle. I said quietly, “You’re such a cliché!” Ignoring the stares of the others at the table, I went on in a whisper, “I think you’re just a figment of my imagination.”
I continued to gamble as usual, and slowly built my stack up to $450. This was quite a bit more than I usually won, and I thought seriously about taking the money and applying it to my credit card debt. But the cards continued to call to me, and I stayed where I was.
The demon tapped my pile of chips and said, “Go on, Carrie, bet everything. You’ll win, I guarantee it. All you need do is agree to sign over your soul. It’s not hard, just nod.” I still didn’t believe in demons so I continued to snub it.
“I can get you some of those fashionable clothes you love, and even a new home. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
I shook my head slightly in an effort to dislodge the hallucination, and played for a few more hours, continuing to ignore it, and after a while it was gone. Eventually, of course, I began to lose. But I told myself that my luck could turn at any time as long as I kept on playing. But during those next few hours, I lost all that I had won plus another thousand dollars I withdrew from my emergency credit card.
I went back to my condo furious with myself yet again, and wondering what would have happened if I’d listened to the hallucination.
When I got home, there was a phone message for me from Chuck, the guy from the casino. The next morning, I called him from work.
“Good morning, Carrie,” he said with a smile in his voice. “I called to invite you to lunch today. We have a school holiday, and I know a nice restaurant not far from your bank.”
I felt myself responding as I pictured him. He was a few inches taller than me, and his eyes were sapphire blue. They seemed to sparkle when he laughed, and he laughed a lot. His mouth was generous, and his lips were full – definitely kissable. He reminded me a lot of my father, who I had loved immeasurably. My dad was always joking and hugging me and my mom, and I’d always been delighted at their obvious love for one another. I thought Chuck might be the same way, and I agreed to go to lunch with him.
At lunch at a quiet restaurant I always enjoyed, I said nothing about my debts. But when he asked what I liked to do for fun, I did say, “One of my favorite pastimes is playing around at the casino. Do you ever gamble?”
“I like to play around, too. That’s the way I prefer to gamble,” he said. “But I play only with what I can afford to lose.” Oh, how I wished I could say that, too.
He went on. “My favorite pastime is playing games with my kids. You’d like them, I know.”
I really thought I would. But as we ate, the demon, Mammon, walked past and winked at me. It was back; I hadn’t lost it. I ignored it again, but I was a bit unfocused with Chuck for a while until I decided that I just needed to get more sleep. I’d heard about people who, when deprived of sufficient sleep, had waking dreams – like hallucinations – and figured that must be what was happening to me. I was certain there were no such things as demons, so this was the only explanation that made any sense at all.
After lunch I went back to work, and then drove to the casino. The next day was a Saturday so I decided it was okay to stay late, and it was 2 in the morning when I finally woke Amy, when the door slammed.
She shook her head as she met me and followed me into my bedroom. “This isn’t gonna end well,” she said. “How much did you lose today?”
“I had lunch with Chuck,” I told her, hoping to delay the argument. “And I went to the casino after work. I wasn’t going to stay long, but . . . .” I had been about to tell her about the demon. Yeah, that would have gone over good.
At breakfast with Amy the next morning, I told her I had a date with Chuck for a picnic that afternoon, and would be meeting his kids.
“Oh, good!” Amy exclaimed. She was thrilled for me. “Are you excited?”
“I’m excited and happy,” I told her, and realized I was indeed more excited than I’d been before any date with a guy since I’d been dumped.
“You know,” Amy said, “if anything comes of these dates with Chuck, you’ll have to tell him about your gambling problem at some point.”
I avoided a meaningful response to this, and just said I would tell him, but not just yet. “I can’t tell if this is going anywhere,” I said with a smile, “and telling him that might just drive him away before he’s good and hooked.”
I was sure that Chuck wouldn’t want to keep seeing me if he knew about my problem, so I wasn’t going to tell him until I had overcome it. Or at least until I had it under control.
During the picnic that afternoon, I really bonded with Chuck’s kids and we had a great time. He asked me to attend “movie night” with them that night, but I lied and said I had another commitment; it was gambling that I was committed to, and when I thought about it, I wondered at my stupidity. I really liked Chuck and his kids, and thought we could have a long and happy relationship, if only I wasn’t a gambler.
After Chuck dropped me at home after the picnic, Amy pleaded with me to stay away from the casino. An image of myself with Chuck and his kids came to me, and I promised. But after she headed off to bed, and I saw there was nothing on TV, I snuck out and drove to the casino. I avoided thinking about the fact that I’d had to sneak out of my own home; I was an adult, living on my own, and yet I had to sneak out of the house to gamble. That most definitely should have told me something. But I guess I just wasn’t ready to see it yet.
At the casino, the waitress, Cindy, greeted me and brought me a drink. She told me she’d seen that the blackjack table run by Artie Flanders was paying pretty big, so I sat down there and bought fifty dollars worth of chips. I picked up two five dollar chips to bet and the demon was suddenly there, startling me so I dropped the chips. It muttered, in its silky, seductive voice, “You can buy a new car and pay off your debt, and even quit your job if you’d just sell me your soul. And what about that man you just met? I can make him fall madly in love with you.”
I lost that hand and got up. I went into the Ladies room, knowing the demon would follow me, and confronted it. “You’ve got to leave me alone!” I told it, gritting my teeth. “Why the hell do you want my soul, anyway?”
Mammon grinned deviously. “Yes, why the Hell? Well, Carrie, yours is what I call a ‘sticky’ soul.”
“What’s that?” I asked. I’d never heard of such a thing.
“It is unusual,” the demon admitted with a devilish grin, “and if I can get it, it would bring along four hundred other souls, which I definitely need in Hell.” I decided not to ask what it needed them for; I really didn’t want to know. But the demon told me anyway.
“You see,” it said slyly, “some of my ‘customers’ bring along several generations of ancestors, even if they’ve already gone to that other place. And I know of four hundred of yours.
“And you know you won’t need a soul when you die,” it said. “I’ll see to it that you live a good long life, and even have a great marriage and a wonderful home. And all you have to do is nod.”
I was surprised to find myself vacillating; on the one hand, I didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell, or in life after death, so signing over my soul shouldn’t really be a problem. But on the other hand . . . well, I still wasn’t willing to give up on the beliefs I’d been raised with. And I kept thinking about Chuck and his kids. If I signed over my soul and the demon brought me a great love life with him, it might mean I’d always have to wonder if he only loved me because the demon made him.
Back at the blackjack table again, I played several more hands and lost quite a bit. I wasn’t really focused and, feeling a buzz, had Cindy bring me coffee. Mammon sat down on the vacant stool next to me and whispered, “I’m going to give you one more chance. But you need to start betting bigger.”
I thought I might as well try it out, and it wasn’t long before I had about $8,000 in chips in front of me. Artie kept looking at me strangely, and finally Fred Christenson, the pit boss, sauntered over. He stood watching the play for a while, and finally came up beside me. “I’m sorry, Carrie,” he said. “You’re gonna have to leave. You’ve gotta be counting cards, and you know that’s not allowed.”
“But I’m not counting cards!” I protested, but to no avail. I thought about telling him about the demon, but I knew he’d think I was crazy. He put a hand under my elbow, lifted me off the stool and walked me to the casino entrance. “I’ve gotta ban you from returning,” he said sadly. I looked around for the demon, expecting a sly, knowing grin, but at the same time wondering how it was going to get me out of this fix.
I just couldn’t help it; I resisted Fred’s propelling me, and turned around to push past him, back into the casino. Arguing with Fred, and screaming at him, did me no good at all, and very soon two big guys from Casino Security showed up and I was shoved unceremoniously out the door.
Furious, and a little drunk, I stood for a long moment and then leaned over, picked up a rock and threw it through the glass door, setting off alarms and bringing the cops.
Amy arrived at the police station early Sunday morning to bail me out. “You’ve got to stop gambling before you lose everything,” she told me. “You’re more than fifteen thousand dollars in debt now, and after your behavior last night I can’t help but wonder if you’re thinking of embezzling from your bank to pay off your credit cards.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “What the hell are you talking about? I’d never do that. I’m not a criminal, and I’d never embezzle money!”
“Well, then,” Amy asked, “how do you expect to pay off your debt? Especially when you go out every night and lose even more money?”
I tried to pay no attention to her and sat close to the passenger door, looking out the window, until we reached the condo. When we got inside, Amy said stiffly, “I wonder if it might be a good idea to call Chuck and tell him about your problem.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked, stunned that she would make such a threat.
“That might bring you to your senses,” she said. “I just don’t know what else to do. Maybe I should call your mom; she might be able to talk to you.”
Mom and Dad were on a cruise they had planned for years. “Don’t you dare call Mom!” I shouted, and ran into my room, slamming the door and throwing myself down on my bed like a little kid. Why was I, a full-grown woman, continually acting like a child?
“Is this how you want to live your life?” Mammon was back, and this time the demon was in my room, not just on the casino floor. “You wouldn’t have to put up with that old maid’s nagging if you would only sign over your soul.”
I said nothing, and the demon went on. “All right, if you don’t want all the goodies I can offer, maybe I’ll have to try out a teensy-weensy bit of blackmail.”
“Blackmail?” I exclaimed. “You can’t blackmail me!”
“Mm-hmm. If you don’t sign, I’m afraid that Heaven won’t want you anyway. Remember when you cribbed Raymond Clark’s answers to that test in sixth grade? And how about when you ‘forgot’ to pay for that makeup case you and Livvy Martin took when you were in ninth grade.”
Shocked, I exclaimed, “But those weren’t sins! They won’t keep me out of Heaven – if there even is such a place! They were just childish antics.”
The demon scoffed, and grinned again. “Maybe. And there’s also the time you lied to your pastor when you were 15. You told him you were most definitely still a virgin. And you weren’t.”
“But . . . ”
“And how about your gambling? Don’t you think that’s a sin? What would your pastor say if you confessed that?”
Despite knowing that Amy would hear me, I yelled, “Back off! If I decide to do it, you’ll be the first to know!”
All the next day I thought about Mammon’s threats and promises. Amy dressed up and left with a date at 7, and I decided I really had to try to get my money back, despite the demon’s intimidation and Fred’s prohibition. I knew Fred would have Security throw me out as soon as he saw me, so I would just have to avoid him.
I disguised myself in Amy’s conservative, dark clothes, and wore a pair of her old glasses. I put on my lowest heels and wound my hair into a bun, changing my facial features. Big dangling crystal earrings finished the look, and in front of a mirror I tried to change my walk.
At the casino, I drew out the last hundred dollars from my account and sauntered, with my new walk, to the roulette table. I usually avoided it as I wasn’t sure I knew how to play, but I wanted to play something besides Blackjack. As I laid down a twenty dollar chip on black 13, my heartbeat sped up and I closed my eyes; if I couldn’t play Blackjack, maybe this would be my next favorite game. Then the demon Mammon showed up beside me and, as the dealer started the wheel spinning, it whispered that I could win.
“Just keep betting black 7 for the next six spins,” it said, “and I’ll do the rest.” I ignored it for three spins, but the wheel kept stopping at black 7, so I finally put all my money there. If it had been right for the first three, it would probably be right for the next three. And my heart beat faster and faster every time it landed there. I won, and then Mammon whispered, “Bet it all on black 11.” It won. I wondered if this meant I had agreed to its demand.
But the demon didn’t seem triumphant, so I figured I had still not committed myself. Then it told me, “Bet it all on red 16, then all of it on red 20.” Each of them won, so after that I had well over $81,000 built up. I told myself I should definitely quit at that point. But Mammon said, “Now, agree to sell me your soul, and you’ll win even bigger.”
I shook my head angrily and kept gambling with just my own intuition until I’d lost it all yet again. At that point, I realized I was so heavily in debt that my condo, my car, and my job were all in jeopardy from my obsession.
As I stood at the roulette table and seriously considered Mammon’s offer, Chuck walked by. He stopped beside me and smiled, obviously seeing through my disguise. He put his arm around me and glanced at the chips in front of me and frowned. He asked, his voice puzzled, “Are you gambling?”
When I nodded, he sighed. I heard what I thought was disgust in that sigh, rather than his usual sparkle, and he turned and walked away. Watching him go, I realized that I was never going to win him if I continued to gamble. I was so far in debt that I might never get out, and I was sure I couldn’t stop. Had Amy been right – that I would soon be stooping to embezzlement, or worse?
Where had Mammon gotten to, I wondered; I hadn’t seen it for some time, and couldn’t help hoping it had left for good. Maybe it believed it had won, that I had nowhere else to turn. I thought about its promises, and about its threats. It seemed that I had just two choices now – I could agree to sign over my soul to the demon and get everything I’d ever wanted, or I could give it a final NO, and live with the consequences.
It just went against the grain to allow a demon, even if it was a hallucination, to have such control over me. I moved to an empty table and sat down to ponder some more. If Mammon really was a hallucination, maybe it meant that I subconsciously wanted to quit gambling, and had chosen this method to convince myself to stop. Or maybe it was a vision sent by God to show me how badly I was fooling myself. But whichever; did I really want to sign my soul over to the devil and have everything I wanted? If I did that, Chuck would be lost to me. I hadn’t known him long, but I felt strongly that he was the man for me.
On the other hand, I knew if I tried hard I could get over Chuck, and I’d enjoy life without all the stress of my credit card debt and that boring job at the bank. And I could buy as much jewelry as I wanted. It was definitely tempting.
But even though I didn’t believe that Heaven and Hell existed, I could be wrong. And if the devil had my soul and there really was a Hell, would it be worth all I might have while I lived? And another thing; all the stories I’d ever read about someone signing their soul over to the devil had resulted in the signee defaulting on the contract, losing everything, and ending up in Hell anyway.
I stood up and ran through the casino after Chuck, to beg his forgiveness. Before I reached him, Mammon was there in front of me. I slid to a stop, and realized this was the demon’s last chance to lure me to Hell.
“Let’s throw away your credit cards,” it said. “You can have all this.” It held out a chest filled with jewelry and casino chips. Now I knew it was a hallucination. I was never much into jewelry, and God would have known that.
I shook my head and raced on, catching up with Chuck just as he was exiting the casino. “I’m really sorry I lied about my gambling,” I said, pleading. “I am done with it, I promise.”
He looked deep into my eyes, and I knew he could see the determination there.
He smiled, and I felt my confidence return. He didn’t hate me; he was going to help me.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll give you one more chance. I know it’s difficult, but we can spend more time together so there’ll be less time for you to gamble.”
I grinned at him. As he took me in his arms, I knew this would indeed be my last chance, but in my heart I was sure that I was finally doing the right thing.
We spent our honeymoon on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, and even though I’d brought along several gowns, we never once set foot in the casino on board. Chuck’s children and Amy had all attended the wedding in my hometown church, and I knew things were going to be wonderful for us in the years ahead. I knew I was over my gambling obsession – and I had Mammon to thank for that.
HARRIET DARLING lives in the small town of Lodi, between Stockton and Sacramento. She is 75, a retired Executive Assistant, and works part-time as a transporter (driver) for foster children.
Her short fiction (The Wedding Fairy, The Power of Music, Erin’s Necklace, and The Disease) has appeared on the Aurora Wolf website, and the first two were published in anthologies by Aurora Wolf. She also published several technical reviews in InfoWorld,
Her children’s novella, The Wizard’s Key, was published by Fountain Blue Publishing in October 2014, and the books Omni, An Outer Space Adventure; The Triggams: Jennifer’s Journey; The Alabasters & Other Stories, and The Last Dragon, a short story collection are available on Amazon. Her website is at www.darlingbooks.com.