The bartender had a lover, a woman full of surprises, whose worst quality was to say, no matter what, “I can take it.” Often, she wouldn’t say it out loud, but the bartender could see it in her face when she was thinking it. And the bartender always thought, in return: but you shouldn’t have to.
One night, two men came into the bar. One with a glint in his eye and the other with a way about him that made him seem like he might turn to smoke at any moment.
The glint-eyed man said to the bartender, “Let’s make a bet,” and because the evening was so slow and because they were her only chance at tips before closing, she said, “Okay.”
“I bet,” he said, pulling out three cards, “that you cannot tell me which of these cards will be the king of hearts.”
“I bet I can’t, either,” the bartender said, laughing. “You think I don’t know three-card monte?”
“Wait,” he smiled. “I won’t even touch the cards. You put them down, you move them around, and you try to turn over the king of hearts.”
“That’s the bet, that you won’t turn the king of hearts. Go ahead, try it.” And so she did, again and again, three cards in front of her, three cards only she could see, three cards rearranged and, when she went to choose the card that she knew had to be the king of hearts, it never was.
When her lover showed up at the end of the evening, she was still trying to figure out the trick.
“Darlin’, come see this,” she said. Her lover watched, her eyes opening wide. This was no sleight of hand and the glint-eyed man was no huckster.
Her lover grabbed the glint-eyed man by the face and turned him towards the light. One eye watching; one eye wet. The lover recognized him and her hand shook, almost imperceptibly.
“Go home to your wife, old man,” the lover said. “Before someone gets hurt.”
“I’m not done here,” the glint-eyed man said. “We haven’t even placed our bets.”
“Make it with me,” the lover said. “What do you want? I’ll wager.”
“No,” said the bartender, “Wait. What? Do you know him?”
The glint-eyed man looked at the lover, “You think you can beat me?” He waited for her to consider. That look crossed her face. And when she sneaked a glance at the bartender, a shiver of fear passed between them.
“What’s going on here?” the bartender asked.
The glint-eyed man stepped over to the lover, leaned in so close to her she could feel his whiskery cheek on hers. He said one word, so quiet she whispered “what?” before he could finish it.
“Wolf,” he said. And he was.
His legs bent and his mouth full of sharp bone flew open. The lover stumbled away from him, and tripped over a barstool. She hit the ground, hard, and he leaped onto her.
“Bear!” she screamed. “Bear!” and she was, her massive paw swinging across his snout. He flew across the floor.
“Bee,” he said, and he was. He flew at her face, stinging her nose and the soft corners of her lips.
“Wasp,” she said, and she was.
Just as quick, he said, “corn,” and he was.
“Hen,” she said, and it was a mistake, almost giving him nine months to hide.
But before she could eat him, he said, “Fox.”
She said “Shotgun.”
He said, “Myself” and he picked her up and cracked her open and the lover screamed in pain, a woman again, on the floor of the bar.
“Clever,” the glint-eyed man said.
His friend leaned over the bartender and said, “He’s going to kill her, you know that’s how this ends, right? That’s how he wins.”
And then it all happened at once. The bartender yelled. The wisp of a man grabbed and held her back. The glint-eyed man said, “Knife,” and the lover closed her eyes and said, “Bone.”
The knife plunged between two of the lover’s ribs and broke against the concrete floor.
After a long while, the glint-eyed man said, “God,” and shook his head to clear it.
But the lover said nothing. She stayed bones in a pile on the floor.
“Bring her back,” the bartender insisted. “Bring her back right now.”
“It’s not how it works,” the glint-eyed man said. “She has to call her own move.”
“Is it over, then?” asked the wisp of a man.
“I’ve never seen one of them do this before,” the glint-eyed man ran his hand over his mouth and down his long beard.
The bartender sank down next to the skeleton of her lover. “You have to do something.”
“If she comes back from this, that’s a trick worth learning,” the glint-eyed man said. “Put her in your backpack,” he said to the wisp of a man, “let’s take her home and see what happens.”
“No,” the bartender cried, “Oh god, no, don’t take her,” but their minds were already made up.
“Then,” the bartender said, “at least let me pack her.”
The wisp of a man opened his backpack and the bartender slid every last bone of her lover into it, every last bone, except one, which she slipped, instead, into her pocket.
Every day, she hopes to find that it has vanished, but so far, it has not.
Betsy Phillips (website) lives in Whites Creek, Tennessee. She writes for the Nashville Scene’s blog, Pith in the Wind. She has a garden, of which she is inordinately proud, even though it is usually quite weedy.