Four of a Kind – A strip poker story

Five cards stared up at me while the implications of
their configuration suffused my being. Four queens, the
heart suit carefully arranged on the left, followed by
her sisters, each card a mirror image of the previous
except for the suit. The last card, the ace of spades,
broke the pattern, but served to complete the hand in
mocking simplicity.

I never played much poker, wasn’t the gambling type, but
I knew enough that this hand, the one I held between my
trembling fingers, was rare. I had never seen a natural
four of a kind, and I likely never would again. Some
people spend their entire lives gambling and don’t see a
hand like this.

I sighed.

Somehow, we’d all become four of a kind on this lonely,
rainy, dark holiday.

The day was dark and dismal, October rain clouds
tumbling across the sky like dirty cotton, whipped by a
frigid wind that chilled to the bone.

I shivered and pushed the battered old suitcase into the
trunk of the idling Ford. I slammed the cover and
straightened, wrapping my arms about me, shaking as the
wind tore through my light jacket.

“Petie, my friend, sure you don’t want to go home?”

Bradley stepped around from the passenger side of the
car. He wore a sensible parka, complete with fake fur
lining the hood, and cowboy boots.

“Don’t call me Petie,” I said glumly.

Brad stopped beside me and cocked his head to the side.
His normal wisecracking visage crumbled into a more
serious, thin- lipped frown.

“You need to tell her,” he said seriously.

I nodded my head. Yes, I needed to tell her. And if I
weren’t such a goddamn coward, I would have climbed into
the Ford with Brad, travelled the four hours to Apsley,
and talked to her like I should have months ago.

“Bradley! We need to get going!”

Bradley’s mother leaned out the driver’s window, her
hair billowing in the wind, flashing us both an
impatient look. Bradley turned towards her, and
shrugged. She slipped back inside, furiously cranking
back up the window.

“I’ll be there in a minute, Mom.” Then he turned back to
me. “There’s still time, you don’t even need to pack.
Come back home. It’s Thanksgiving.”

I bit at my lip, tempted, but then shook my head. Brad
sighed and moved forward to embrace me. I stiffened for
a moment, then gave in. I felt his palm smack my
shoulder, then he straightened.

“If you won’t go see her, then you should at least call
her.”

Brad shook his head in dismay. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

“I know,” I whispered.

Brad nodded, as if he understood me. Without another
word, he turned and rounded the car. I heard the
passenger door slam, and with the spinning of tires on
the pavement, the Ford pulled away.

I stood and watched even as its headlights disappeared
down the curve in the road, turning left at the stone
gates of the University.

As far as I knew, Brad had been the last of my few
friends to leave the school, rushing towards feasts of
turkey and parsnips set on long dining room tables,
laughter and warmth surrounding them all. I turned and
stared up at the empty dormitory, its harsh white cinder
blocks reminding me more of a jail than living space for
twenty students.

I mentally corrected myself. It was entirely possible
that for this Thanksgiving holiday, I was the only
student left who was foolish enough not to escape this
place. Holidays were the hardest — school slowed down
enough to give us time to think.

The first drops of October rain spattered to the
pavement, dotting its surface like a complicated jigsaw
puzzle. After a few minutes, the moisture had trickled
into my hair and down my neck. Shivering, I trudged up
the path towards the dorm, watching my sneakers until I
passed back into the relative warmth of where I now
called home.

I stared out the window at the clouds tumbling over each
other like cats chasing their tails. Streaks of water,
like tears, trickled down the window, obscuring my
vision. Trees bent and twisted in the wind, multi-
coloured leaves whirling in mini-tornadoes across the
manicured lawns and footpaths across the small campus.

We’d kissed for the first time on a day like this:
stormy, dreary, rain pattering against the basement
windows. Karen and I had been friends as long as I could
remember — she had lived next door, and we had spent
our childhood together. It had been an October day,
around Thanksgiving, sitting around the television
watching Gilligan’s Island, or something else inane.

“Have you ever kissed a girl?” Karen asked quietly from
her end of the sofa.

I shook my head, watching the Skipper smack Gilligan
with his hat for the zillionth time. Suddenly, she was
close, her hands resting entwined against my shoulder. I
turned to her, her face hovering only centimetres from
mine.

Without thought, without considering what it might do to
our easy friendship, I kissed her. It was as simple as
that, lips touching, her warm breath taking away the
pattering of the rain outside.

Oh, I loved Karen in my own way, but something was
missing. She wanted different things out of life — a
family, maybe a farm. I wanted to reach the stars. She
was there, but we rarely talked any more — the easy
friendship dissolving in kisses and petting. A typical
high-school romance.

We sat together quietly, watching the sunset, fingers
entwined in easy familiarity. It was the end of summer,
not cool, not hot, autumn approaching. There were subtle
tears filling her eyes, but none had spilled, yet.

“Do you really have to go?” she asked.

I nodded as the sun began to touch the horizon over the
lake. Mist spiralled upwards from the water, shrouding
the molten ball of orange.

“You know I do, Karen.”

I wanted to tell her then. I’ve hated myself ever since.
I loved her, but not in the way she wanted me to. And I
couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t as she looked up at me,
losing me to the big world outside of hers, trusting
that I’d come back. Instead of telling her what I felt,
I kissed her, telling her what she wanted to hear.

“I love you, Peter,” she said simply.

I should have told her then. I should have. I should
have.

I should have.

I swallowed, and said exactly what I shouldn’t have.

“I love you, too, Karen.”

I could still feel her lips as they brushed my cheek,
her breasts as they pressed into me as she embraced me
before I left her.

“Come back soon,” she had whispered as she stood by and
watched as I climbed into the car, on my way to
University and a new life, leaving her standing by
herself on the curb. I didn’t even look back as the car
moved away from her and towards the beckoning unknown. I
don’t even know if she waved.

I stared out the window at the rain, the campus awash in
what had begun to look like the great flood. The
footpaths had become swollen rivers, the manicured grass
sodden and empty. My heart ached in indecision.

Sometimes, I still hated myself.

The dorm was unusually quiet. Only the quiet laugh track
kept me company as I sat in front of the television.
Gilligan’s Island had transformed into more cerebral
humour for me. M*A*S*H graced the magic box, where the
antics of Hawkeye, Trapper and Hot Lips ignored the
general dreariness outside the large windows behind me.

Not many dorms these days were co-ed, but this white-
washed cinder block structure housed twenty of us.
Twelve girls, eight guys, all living together in
controlled chaos. At this time of night, there usually
would have been four fights for control of the only
television, while four of the guys would be playing
Euchre on the old battered card table in the corner.
Sometimes, for money, mostly to pass the time.
Sometimes, they would be playing Hearts, and
occasionally, when they could find four people who knew
how to play, Bridge. All in all, a happy community, if
not the quietest in the world.

Today, as most of them were travelling to distant homes
where relatives and girlfriends and boyfriends waited to
greet them, the dorm fell into an almost eerie silence
around me.

I glanced out the window during a commercial. The rain
continued to pour over the world, cleansing it, and
drowning it simultaneously. I sat at the end of the more
comfortable sofa in the common room — a luxury that was
rare for me. The phone hanging on the wall stared
accusingly at me. Brad’s words haunted me: “Call her at
least.”

I think sometimes I tell Brad too much. But I think he
might have sensed it anyway. He was right, of course. I
missed Karen terribly. I missed her laughter and her
easy friendship, and I desperately wanted to call her. I
should have called her. I wanted to love her. I
couldn’t. Life wasn’t fair sometimes. I tore my eyes
from the instrument, and returned to watching the antics
of the 4077th.

A new episode of M*A*S*H began with the haunting theme
music.

Suicide is painless. Uh, huh.

Somewhere down the hallway, towards the female section
of the dorm, a door slammed, and I sensed, more than
heard, a whisper of feminine giggling. Presently, the
entrance opened to my right, and two girls entered.

The brunette, Alison, was familiar — tall and lanky,
wearing blue jeans and a bright blouse. The girl beside
her, Claire, was only a little shorter, laughing, with
her blonde hair drawn back in a braid.

There were rumours circulating around, as rumours
normally do, that these two girls might be a little more
than friends. They came from the same all-girl Academy
directly to our little University. They seemed
inseparable. Personally, I didn’t believe the rumours,
but even if they were true, I didn’t care. If they were
happy together, what else can one ask for? It would be
far better than a fractured lie of a relationship that
is more ‘typical,’ whatever that means. Rumours get
started over the silliest things. Girls tend to be more
affectionate than guys, that was all.

“What’s up?” Alison asked me.

I smiled and motioned them to make themselves
comfortable.

“Watching re-runs, you want to watch something?”

Truthfully, I was surprised that anyone else was still
here, but I didn’t mind if they wanted to watch another
show. I wasn’t stuck on the sitcom. I was barely
watching it.

Alison settled into the far sofa and Claire stretched
out yawning onto the sofa nearest the phone, cradling
her head on her hands.

“M*A*S*H is good,” Alison offered, settling in and
turning her eyes to the screen. Claire sighed, and
shrugged, doing the same.

In the first commercial break, Claire pushed herself up
and approached the phone. I closed my eyes and looked
away, not even wanting to think about the damn
instrument.

She dialled and spoke quickly into the phone, her voice
lost amongst the blaring commercials. I thumbed down the
volume for her. After a moment, she covered the
mouthpiece and turned towards us.

“Cafeteria is closed for the weekend.” Alison and I
groaned together. Claire smiled. “What do you want on
your pizza?”

We couldn’t decide, so Claire ordered two, one with
anchovy, the other without. Alison shrugged, willing to
eat either.

Turning away from the television, I glanced out into the
downpour. While the sun wasn’t visible through the cloud
cover and the rain, its light became decidedly more
distant as the invisible sunset approached. Twilight
filtered through the clouds, turning the world outside
grey and featureless.

I squinted. A flash of pale colour moved near one of the
footpaths. I wiped at the condensation on the window,
ignoring the dampness coating my palm. I peered out.

A girl moved through the downpour, her head down and
unprotected in the rain. Taking each step carefully, her
boots nearly disappeared in the wash of water flowing
down the paths. She carried something in her arms,
clutching it to her chest. I couldn’t tell who it was or
what she was carrying.

“Who is that?” I asked, my finger pressed against the
glass.

In a moment, Alison was leaning on my shoulder, her
clean feminine scent washing over me, her brunette hair
tickling my cheek. She peered through the small cleared
patch beyond the streaked rain. I shifted to give her
more room. Alison blinked, and then bit her lower lip.

“I think it’s Carole,” she murmured. “Silly girl out in
the rain like this. She’s crazy, you know.”

Alison straightened and wandered back to her perch. I
continued to watch the girl struggle through the
downpour, ignoring the television. Once, the girl nearly
slipped and fell, and the crazy urge to laugh descended
on me as I watched her retrieve whatever it was she was
carrying from the water saturated ground and wipe it off
with a bare hand.

The urge to laugh fled as quickly as it had come, and I
mentally chastised myself. Instead, the thought was
replaced by a vision of myself, a knight in shining
armour racing through the rain to help the girl up. I
shook off the image, convinced that it would have been
the knight, not her, who would have needed rescuing. I
continued to watch her slow journey.

Carole was a strange girl. She wasn’t mean, or cruel —
only strange. She kept to herself, never joining the
rest of us in the common areas. As far as I knew, she
didn’t really have any friends, nor did she seek to have
any. She was a loner, happy and content to be by
herself. From everything I heard and saw, the girl
studied, and slept, and really didn’t do much else.

On the other hand, I’d also heard that she was a genius
level intellect — that she didn’t even need to study to
breeze through the courses she took. Thinking about it,
I realised that I had no idea what she studied, nor what
she majored in. Though I always tend to resist blind
belief in rumours, the one concerning her intelligence I
did believe, though why she attended this University was
beyond me.

If the rumours were true, she could have attended the
best schools on the continent, or throughout Europe, if
she chose. Even if she wasn’t a genius, certainly she
was far beyond my limited mental capacity. One only had
to look at my borderline grades to understand that.

A typical eccentric genius should wear librarian glasses
and dress in baggy clothing. While Carole didn’t fit the
stereotype, she also didn’t seem to place much emphasis
on her appearance, almost deliberately toning down her
tall, blonde stature. Some days she’d appear in jeans
and sweatshirt that almost hugged her body, her blonde
hair swept up into an easy ponytail as she breezed
through on her way to class.

Other days, she’d appear in baggy sweats with nothing
tucked in, socks mismatched, her hair unbrushed across
her features. I don’t ever recall seeing makeup on her
or nail polish on her fingers. A book of one sort or the
other always clutched in her hands, she was always in a
hurry, never stopping to talk, and on the rare occasions
that someone cornered her, never talking about herself.

Carole was a bit of an enigma, but she didn’t bother
anyone, and nobody bothered her. The dorm was like that.
We accepted peculiarities, because underneath, we were
all peculiar in our own ways.

Yes, Carole was a strange girl, but despite Alison’s
announcement, probably not any more crazy than the rest
of us. I watched as Carole purposely and carefully
placed one booted foot in front of the other, like a
robot, moving steadily, if slowly, splashing through the
river of a footpath towards the warmth of our dorm.

Carole appeared, following a bluster of wind and
dampness as the door opened and shut. She pressed the
door closed and stood dripping near the entrance. I
glanced up.

Her eyes seemed a little vacant, her golden hair
plastered in tangles to her head. Across her chest, she
clutched a stack of library books that looked as if they
had been dropped multiple times in the mud. She wore a
light jacket, a windbreaker, that hadn’t protected her
from the rain, its surface stuck to her like a wet suit.
Her pants mirrored the jacket, clinging to her like a
second skin.

For the first time, perhaps, I noticed that underneath
her clothing stood a body that rivalled Alison’s or
Claire’s. Of course, now, Carole more closely resembled
a drowned rat, or a lost c***d, unable or unwilling to
care for herself. She shivered uncontrollably as she
stood in the entrance, her eyes slowly taking in our
presence.

Studiously, she bent and pulled off her boots. I was
sure that water would come pouring out of them as if
she’d stepped from a cartoon tempest. She straightened
again, still shivering, her teeth now chattering. She
didn’t move from the entranceway, almost as if afraid of
trailing water through the common room.

I swallowed, not knowing quite what to say. What finally
emerged sounded inane and stupid, even to me.

“Shouldn’t you be home for the weekend?”

Instead of ignoring me, as I thought she would, Carole
shrugged, her thin shoulders pushing her soaked clothing
upwards. Unexpectedly, a melancholy look crossed her
fair features, and she lowered her eyes to study her wet
socks.

A quiet voice dragged my stunned attention from Carole.

“Jesus,” Alison whispered. I watched as Alison pushed
herself off the sofa and approached Carole. Gently,
Alison extracted a few of the wet books from Carole’s
arms, and then took her elbow, guiding the girl towards
her room.

Numb, I watched them disappear into the gloom of the
hallway. When I turned back, Claire shook her head and
shrugged, turning back to the mindless sitcom on the
television.

The petite girl delivering the pizza wore a sensible
yellow slicker, and a baseball cap that proclaimed
“Domino’s” in tall red script. She stood under the
overhang, huddling away from the downpour.

Her car idled, spewing exhaust in a cloud that fought
for supremacy with the rain. She looked damp, but far
less so than Carole had. She held out the two covered
boxes that looked far too small to be large pizzas. I
grasped them and placed them inside out of the rain.

“Crappy night,” I said, fishing in my wallet for cash.

“Not a night suited for man or beast,” she replied with
the hint of a smile. “Not even Dragons would be out in
this.”

I shrugged, and passed her two twenties. I couldn’t
really afford it, but I told her to keep the change. I’d
overtipped her, but as far as I was concerned, she
deserved every penny. She smiled radiantly from beneath
her cap, and then turned to disappear into the storm. I
watched her go, a latent desire to be that knight
emerging again for the anonymous delivery girl.

The girl slipped into her car, and drove off, driving
far faster than might be safe considering the weather. I
sighed, picked up the pizzas and trudged into the common
room, thankful for the warmth and the light there.

Claire helped set the steaming boxes on the card table,
helping herself to a couple of slices and settling into
the sofa, her attention back on Trapper and Henry Blake.

Moments later, Carole and Alison reappeared, walking
together into the common area. Alison made for the
pizzas, while Carole stood awkwardly near the entrance.
Carole looked more dry now, her skin almost scrubbed.
She wore a pair of Levi’s and a t-shirt, far more
fetching than the clothes she normally wore. Her hair
remained wet, plastered to her head, but the strands
bore the easy streaks of a brush or comb, the tangles of
the storm faded into straight, if limp, tresses kissing
her shoulders. The shoulders of her shirt bore damp
patches where her hair had transferred water.

I motioned Carole over. Given her solitary nature, I had
no idea if she even ate pizza, or if she was a militant
vegan.

“Have some pizza, Carole. The cafeteria is closed
tonight, I understand.”

I gathered up some pizza and returned to my former seat
in the comfortable sofa. After a few minutes of
hesitation, Carole walked gingerly over to the food and
extracted a single slice of the plainer, anchovy-free,
pizza and then settled into the only free chair in the
room.

A commercial came on selling used cars. I muted the
television and turned towards Alison.

Between bites, I shrugged. “So, what’s your story?”

Alison swallowed daintily, and turned her brown eyes
towards me.

“Story?”

“Why aren’t you driving into civilisation?”

“You want to know why I’m here on Thanksgiving?”

I nodded.

She sighed, and took another bite. After swallowing
again, she nodded, pursing her lips.

“Okay. I’ll tell you.”

“When my parents had me, I think that they were
expecting a boy. Don’t get me wrong,” Alison murmured,
“they loved me, and they still do, but I really don’t
think that they knew quite what to make of me. Instead
of ‘Mommy’, I think my first words were ‘Nanny’. I
didn’t really mind; I suppose I have an independent
streak.

Maybe it’s because I had to develop that way. I don’t
know.

Doesn’t matter.

“For high school, they sent me to Laurier Academy for
Girls. I liked it there well enough, but what it really
meant was that they didn’t need to deal with me. Claire
and I were roommates there.”

At this point, Alison flashed a smile at Claire, and I
was reminded of the rumours surrounding the two girls. I
shrugged, and continued to listen to her voice.

“I don’t think I remember a single time that the family
ever got together for holidays. Either Mother and Father
were traipsing over the globe, or Father had
‘commitments.’ Even before school, my Thanksgivings
consisted of turkey, and if I was lucky, I got to eat in
the kitchen with my Nanny and the maids. I didn’t mind,
it was as close to family, I suppose, as I got.

“So I called them two weeks ago. Surprisingly, Mother
was home and talked to me. I mentioned that I was
thinking of coming home for Thanksgiving, and she
agreed, saying that she was looking forward to it.”
Alison sighed, and for a moment, I thought I saw a tear
forming, but then it was gone. “Two days ago, she called
the school, told the Dean that she couldn’t reach me but
to extend her apologies. Father and her had to go to
Hawaii for the holidays.”

She shrugged, but didn’t really look at any of us.

“C’est la vie, I suppose.”

Claire cleared her throat, and perched on the sofa near
Alison. The girls held hands, and again I was reminded
of the rumours. Bullshit. I felt terrible for Alison,
and I think if I were seated beside her, I would have
held her hand, too. Alison composed herself and bit off
another piece of pizza.

“I didn’t want to bring the party down,” Alison said
easily. “I’m used to it, but you did ask.” She f****d a
smile to her face.

Claire cleared her throat again, and tilted her head to
the side.

“I’m here because I didn’t want Alison to be alone on
Thanksgiving. When I’d heard that she was going home, I
made plans to go home, too. Then Alison’s plans fell
through, and,” she shrugged, “my family understood, even
if Alison begged me to go.” She shifted herself away
from Alison, and leaned back into the sofa. She shifted
her feet to lie easily across Alison’s legs.

“I thought that we’d be the only two in the dorm.”

Claire flashed me an easy smile.

“We spilled. What’s your story, Peter?”

I couldn’t tell them about Karen, the real reason that I
was sitting here listening to the rain with three girls
I barely knew. So I settled for half-truths, none of
them lies, exactly, but leaving out the single-most
important reason that I didn’t want to go home.

I inhaled deeply, and began.

“Did you ever have an uncle that drank a little too much
and then talked too loud? At every single family
gathering?”

Claire shook her head with a small smile, answering the
rhetorical question.

“Yeah, I had to fight off his hands every single time.
He was too drunk to be a real threat, but it kind of
grossed me out.”

I laughed lightly, even while disgusted. Claire didn’t
seem to be overly upset about her offhand revelation,
either.

“Well, mine doesn’t try to molest me, but he is
obnoxious. He smokes, and he drinks, and he tells the
most off colour jokes…”

Claire interrupted. “Tell us some,” she laughed.

I turned to her. “You want to know why I’m here, or
not?”

Claire somehow managed to look abashed, and nodded.
“Tell us the jokes later, then, you big baby.”

I shot her a look, and continued.

“Anyway, it doesn’t make for the greatest holidays, and
Mom and Dad insist on inviting him. Not surprisingly,
he’s not married, and really doesn’t have any other
family.”

“You didn’t go home because your uncle is a pain in the
ass?”

I sighed, realising that I was going to have to
elaborate. I felt like I had been suddenly drawn into an
escalating game of Truth or Dare.

“Truthfully, no. That’s only part of it.” I put on a
fake sheepish look. “I’m a little behind in my classes,
and if I want to be here next semester, and keep my
scholarship, I need to study this weekend.”

Claire laughed again. “So you watch M*A*S*H reruns. I
like your studying technique.”

I shrugged. I’d get to studying eventually.

A small voice behind me and to the right saved me from
further interrogation. I swivelled in my seat to face
Carole. The girl sat in the single chair, her feet
resting against the legs easily, her elbows on her
knees. Her hands cradled a half-eaten slice of pizza. I
could make out small teeth indents where she’d nibbled
the tip.

“There is no Thanksgiving for me,” she whispered. Her
voice filled the room, the light from the silent
television flickering across her nose and lips. This one
sentence was probably more than I’d ever heard her speak
since the semester began. “Not any more.”

We all shifted quietly to regard her. She didn’t look at
us, but lowered her eyes to her own toes, or perhaps the
floorboards underneath.

“I used to love Thanksgiving — the turkey, the hams,
the laughter and the closeness. It was like Christmas,
but without the presents. An early Christmas.”

She paused for a moment. I couldn’t see her face, but I
thought maybe that she would leave it there. I half
expected Claire to prompt her, but perhaps Claire felt
the same as I. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the rest,
a heavy feeling suffused my stomach. Whatever hadn’t
been spoken by the quiet girl would be far worse than a
noisy uncle, or neglectful parents. I shivered, even
while the room was warm. Rain pattered against the
window, marking time until she whispered again.

“He’d drunk two bottles of rye, and twelve beers on a
dare,” she said. I had to strain to hear her words.
“Then he climbed into his Cherokee, and drove ten
kilometres without meeting another soul. Somewhere, on a
dark side road, fate finally caught up to him. Maybe my
parents’ headlights were too bright, and confused him,
maybe he simply lost control of the damn jeep, maybe he
fell asleep at the wheel. I don’t think I’ll ever
know…” her voice trailed off.

The lump of lead expanded in my stomach, creeping into
my chest. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to
continue. I could see her shoulders shaking, her body
quivering, her hair trembling beside her downcast
cheeks. Even so, I don’t think tears fell, but I
couldn’t see her face.

“So, you see,” she finally whispered, “There is no
Thanksgiving for me. Not anymore.”

Stunned, I could only watch as Carole wearily pushed
herself to her feet, her socks whispering through the
silence. She looked at me for a moment, her eyes shiny,
but tears still unshed. Then she lowered her eyes and
walked over to the nearly empty boxes. Carefully, she
placed the remainder of her single slice back into the
box and lowered the lid.

I watched as the girl disappeared down the hallway, like
a ghost into the night.

“Oh my God, should I go to her?” Alison whispered.

Both Claire and I shook our heads slowly. I found my
tongue before Claire did.

“She’s lived with it for a while. Let her be. She’ll
come back when she’s ready.”

Alison nodded, though she kept glancing back at the
hallway as if expecting Carole to stride back through.

I’d thumbed down the volume of the television in an
effort not to disturb Carole, wherever she was, and
whatever she was doing. Alison and Claire had curled up
on the opposite sofa, but they seemed to be watching the
mindless drivel as much as I was. I saw pictures flash
by without meaning or thought.

The only slice of pizza that remained was Carole’s half
eaten piece that lay lonely by itself in the box.

We all looked up as Carole entered. Her hair still
looked damp, but the strands no longer clung to her head
like wet fur. Her eyes were a little red, but her stride
seemed more steady and sure than it normally did.

The obvious question died on my lips. Her face broadcast
for anyone who cared to look that things weren’t all
right for her — what was the point in asking stupid
questions? But she seemed in control of herself, and
that was more than I was expecting.

Outside, the storm seemed to pick up intensity. A
lightning bolt lit up the room like a camera flash. The
lights and the television flickered, but didn’t
extinguish.

She smiled and held up her right hand. Grasped between
her fingers was a deck of cards, a diamond shaped red
pattern gracing their backs. Carole swallowed twice, as
if wondering if she should even be here. She seemed to
come to a decision.

“Anyone know how to play poker?”

We set up the battered old card table near the window.
Claire wandered back to her room and returned with a
silver can of pennies that jingled as she walked. I
faced the window with Carole across from me, Alison to
my left and Claire to my right.

Claire counted out piles of pennies for each of us,
until we each had a dollar or so in a stack in front of
us.

Gambling wasn’t allowed on campus. Of course, for all we
knew, we were the only souls stirring on campus. Even
the dorm proctors had left for Thanksgiving. Didn’t
really matter. The pennies were really only symbolic.
There wasn’t real risk involved, and I thought that this
was how the girls wanted to play. A quiet diversion,
nothing else. Something to occupy our minds.

Outside, the storm howled around the building, lightning
occasionally crashing, the world reduced to a black
sheet of water outside the windows. I thought I saw
Alison shiver once as she glanced out beyond the glass.

The first four hands played out uneventfully. Claire won
two pots, Carole won one and I won the other.

As Carole prepared to deal the fifth hand, a bright
flash burned across my retinae, leaving multi-coloured
bands where the girls should have been. Only a moment
later, the building shook as if an earthquake had
dislodged it from its foundations. Dimly, I heard Alison
and Claire scream beside me, though Carole seemed to
take the sudden crash in stride.

The lights flickered once, then again, then finally
plunged us into complete darkness. Alison laughed
lightly, but shakily.

“Guess it’s bedtime.” Then after a pause. “Claire!”

After a few seconds, the emergency halogens washed away
the complete darkness replacing it with dim pools of
light along the two hallways that leaked into the common
room. I squinted, but couldn’t see the cards in my hand,
though I could make out the silhouettes of the girls
still seated at the table.

Claire pushed herself up.

“Be back in a minute,” she said. We all watched as she
disappeared down the hallway only to return a few
moments later with candles in her right hand.

She lit each in what seemed to be a blaze of light,
dripping wax onto the table and setting each candle into
the makeshift puddles and allowing them to harden. When
she was done, a small flame burned at each corner
shedding only enough light to read the cards.
Candlelight flickered over the girls, and for a while, I
simply watched them.

We played two more hands.

Unfortunately, poker without risk is like riding in a
flat roller coaster — there really isn’t any point. For
me, I was enjoying the company in the blackout, but I
really wasn’t surprised when Carole leaned back in her
chair. For a moment, I thought I saw a glint of impish
joviality there, something completely unexpected,
especially given the revelations of earlier this
evening. However, if the game had taken her mind off her
grief, even for a while, I was glad to see the sparkle
of life there, even if I didn’t really know her all that
well.

Carole dropped her cards on the table and leaned in
conspiratorially.

“Do you want to make this game more interesting?” she
whispered.

I had been expecting her to suggest using real money
instead of the penny markers that we’d been betting
carelessly up until this point. I stared at her,
actually unsure that she’d uttered the words. This was
Carole, the quiet, nerdy, super intelligent, weird girl.
It was difficult to shake the image.

I repeated her words incredulously.

“Strip poker?”

She nodded her head.

“None of us can afford real money, right?”

I certainly nodded at that.

“Why not, then?”

“Strip poker?” I said again. “You’re kidding.”

Carole cast me a cock-eyed glance in the candlelight.

“Are you afraid of something?”

I swallowed. “Afraid? Of what?”

She hesitated, gauging how far to push me. She shrugged.

“Afraid of losing to three girls? Are you embarrassed
about something?” She glanced meaningfully through the
table to where my crotch would have been. I flushed.

This was the same girl that we’d watched struggle
through the rain carrying a stack of library books as if
they were a lifeline? The same girl that barely said two
words to anyone unless severely pressed?

“You want to play strip poker.”

She nodded. “I don’t think I’ll lose.”

I glanced at Alison and Claire. They weren’t any help.
They merely smiled and shrugged. They were willing if I
was.

Carole spoke again, her voice animated.

“We’ll still play with the pennies. One article of
clothing buys you a dollar’s worth of chips. Ten cent
bets, maximum. No cheating. Pants, socks, shirts are the
only items that you can use — oh, and underwear of
course.” Carole glanced at me and shrugged. “Girls get
an extra piece of clothing if they are wearing bras,
unless there are objections.” She paused. It didn’t seem
fair, but being outnumbered, I didn’t object. Carole
leaned back in her chair.

“Anyone can chicken out at any point. Fair enough? If
you don’t want us to see your… thing… you can bow
out before you lose your shorts, Peter.” I flushed. If
anyone was going to bow out, assuming that I agreed to
the game, it wouldn’t be me. But it seemed fair enough,
except for the bras counting as clothing. She clicked
her tongue, staring up at the ceiling. “And if anyone
loses all their clothing, we agree that the loser stays
naked until morning.”

She lowered her head, staring at me. I didn’t know why
she was challenging me directly — it seemed that the
girls to either side of me might object more so than I.
However, Alison and Claire remained silent, their lack
of objection implying consent.

I swallowed once. Poker without risk was like riding a
flat roller coaster. I raised my eyes slowly and
captured hers. I don’t know why I agreed, but I did.

“Okay,” I murmured.

Because of the nature of the game, someone always
remains clothed at the table. Sometimes two people,
sometimes even three if the pots are shared equally, and
the loser is literally losing her shirt. More often, one
person is lucky, and rakes in the pots, and over time,
the three others dwindle.

I sat comfortably, four stacks of pennies rising in my
pile. I tried not to stare, but it wasn’t easy. The
candlelight flickered easily off the girls’ skin, giving
them an ethereal beauty as they gazed at their cards.
Not one had complained beyond the expected groans as
Claire or Alison had to trade an item of clothing for
chips.

Alison’s jeans and socks lay neatly folded near her bare
feet. Claire’s shirt, jeans, and socks lay crumpled on
the ground. She wore a dark coloured bra that matched
her panties. Claire seemed unfazed at her condition,
unembarrassed and still betting as if she were still
fully clothed. Carole sat across from me. A string of
bad luck had claimed only her socks, one at a time. Her
bare toes dug into the floor as she concentrated on her
cards.

I dealt the cards one at a time. No wild cards. No silly
rules. Straight poker. We all tossed in the ante before
lifting the cards. Claire groaned as she picked up the
hand. Alison, still to my right, sighed. I’d been able
to read Alison and Claire pretty much all night, calling
their bluffs and understanding the difference between
pairs and three of a kind merely by the set of their
frowns.

Carole had been much harder to read. As Carole picked up
her cards, her eyes widened a touch, then settled back
into her more normal poker face. Carole shifted her
weight, peering at her hand, never raising her eyes to
mine in an attempt to read deceit.

Claire folded, a noise of disgust passing her lips. The
cards fluttered to the table. Alison tossed ten pennies
into the pot, looking apprehensively at Carole. Carole
called, as did I.

Alison drew three, Carole drew one, and I drew three. I
swiftly sorted my hand, my eyes widening. The pair of
twos I held were joined by another two, and a pair of
jacks, both black. A full house, lately, had been very
difficult to beat. Alison’s face fell as she sorted her
hand. Carole sat across from me, watching me
impassively.

“Carole?” I said. It was her turn to bet.

Carole glanced at Alison, then at me, and licked her
lips.

“Want to make it even more interesting?”

“Hey, we had a betting limit,” Alison cried and glared
at Carole.

Carole merely shrugged, staring at me. Butterflies
flittered in my stomach. This seemed like a poor idea.
If it was a bluff, it was a hell of a bluff.

Resigned, Alison shook her head and dropped her cards on
the table. “I’m out,” she whispered, crossing her arms
under her breasts.

Carole stared at me, her eyes shiny in the candlelight.

“I want to bet four dollars,” she repeated.

I heard Claire clear her throat gently to my right.

“Carole…” she whispered.

Carole carefully fanned her cards out on the table, face
down, and leaned back into her chair. Her eyes
unfocused, and she seemed to be peering into a realm
that was beyond our ability to comprehend. I suddenly
knew that I didn’t want to hear what she was about to
tell us.

“I called my boyfriend last week,” Carole murmured
towards the ceiling. Alison’s jaw fell, and I wanted to
reach over and close it for her. But her reaction was
exactly what I felt. Carole had a boyfriend? “I called
him to wish him a happy Thanksgiving, even if I no
longer celebrate it. It rang a long time. A really,
really long time.”

She paused here, staring at the ceiling where rings of
flickering light danced.

“Beth picked it up.”

“Beth?” Claire whispered.

“Beth. She’s my best friend. Was my best friend.”

Carole paused again.

“I thought I’d dialled the wrong number. She seemed out
of breath as she said ‘Hello’, her voice husky and low.
But I recognised her. ‘Beth?’ I said. I was about to ask
her if I had dialled the wrong number.” Carole closed
her eyes here, her shoulders hitched once, but she
didn’t lose control. “She said she was sorry, so sorry,
and then hung up. I stared at the phone for a long time,
then hung it up as the dial tone changed. I didn’t call
him back.”

Carole fished in her jeans without looking down. Between
her fingers emerged a worn scrap of paper that looked
like it had been folded and unfolded many times. She
passed it to Alison who held it as if it was made of
crystal.

“I know what this is,” she whispered.

“It arrived two days ago, in the mail,” Carole
whispered.

Alison passed it unopened to Claire, who passed it to
me. The paper was still warm from Carole’s body heat.
Slowly, I opened the paper. Within, a masculine hand had
scrawled a quick note. In the flickering of the candles,
I could make out most of it, though I didn’t want to.

Dear Carole. Three months. Beth. Sorry. Forgive me.

There were more words than that: explanation, regrets.
Didn’t really matter. It was over for Carole, and had
been for a while, even if she hadn’t known it.

I swallowed and refolded the letter along the worn
lines. Wordlessly, I passed it to Alison who laid it
atop Carole’s cards.

“He was sleeping with her for three months and didn’t
tell me.” Then fiercely. “I had to call him and catch
him.” She paused for a moment. “He was having sex with
her even while he was telling me that he didn’t ‘feel’
like it with me. He didn’t call me once since I moved up
here.”

Carole swallowed hard. Apparently I wasn’t the only one
that had hidden reasons for avoiding home on the
holidays. She lowered her eyes and watched me
expectantly.

“I want to bet four dollars,” she whispered.

I glanced at Claire and then at Alison. Alison nodded
almost imperceptibly, and I slowly turned back to
Carole. Gently, I pushed four stacks of pennies into the
pot where they stood like four skyscrapers between us.

Carole nodded and quietly picked up her Dear Jane letter
and returned it to her pocket. Then she slowly pushed
her remaining pennies into the pile. The understanding
was implicit. She still wore a t-shirt, her jeans and
presumably a bra and panties underneath. Four more
dollars in clothing.

If she won, she raked in the pot and bought back her
socks putting us pretty much on even footing again. If
she lost…

Carole picked up her cards again, squinting at them and
swallowing heavily. When she looked back at me, her eyes
glistened with unshed tears again. This time, she didn’t
run from the room. I had the uneasy feeling that Alison,
Claire, and I were the only human beings on the planet
to share in Carole’s life. And suddenly, perhaps a
premonition of what was to happen, I didn’t want to be
there.

Carole slipped a forefinger into the neckline of her t-
shirt, tugging gently before realising what she was
doing. Her face remained impassive except for the shiny
wetness coating her eyelids.

“Call,” I whispered.

“One,” Carole said grimly, pushing her discard across
the table past the skyscrapers. I closed my eyes. Dear
God, she was drawing to an inside straight. I stared at
my full house and shook my head. I drew nothing.

There was nothing left to bet — not for her — so all
Carole did was raise her eyes, still shiny, to regard
me, watching for anything to give away my hand. It
simply didn’t matter any more.

To her credit, Carole maintained her composure as Alison
and Claire shifted uncomfortably watching her and then
me alternating like they were watching a match at
Wimbledon.

There was no hint of discomfort or fear in Carole’s
voice.

“Whatcha got?” she whispered.

I swallowed heavily, and fanned out the full house in
front of me. Jacks over twos. I watched as her face
crumbled for a moment. I’ll give her credit for acting.
For a moment, I thought that she was going to fall apart
in front of us.

A bright flash of lightning lit up the room, and after a
few seconds, a deep rumble rolled over us. Carole didn’t
flinch, but Alison and Claire did.

“Better than me,” Carole whispered staring at my hand.
She dropped her cards face down in front of her. The
cards lay in a neat fan.

“Carole,” I began, “you don’t have to…”

With a grim smile playing across her lips, Carole pushed
herself to her already bare feet and stood.

Without any hint of embarrassment, Carole unhurriedly
began to remove her clothes. Mesmerised, I watched her.

In one fluid motion, she drew her t-shirt over her head,
her hair falling in a loose cascade over her shoulder.
Carefully, she smoothed the fabric and folded it,
leaving it on her vacant chair. Her jeans slipped down
her legs, and she stepped out of them, bending to shake
them out and fold them to join with her top.

She reached behind herself, and fumbled for a moment
with the clasp to her bra. Alison and Claire shifted
uncomfortably, watching Carole, a morbid fascination in
the girl.

Carole hesitated, drawing in her breath. To me, it
didn’t seem as much embarrassment as steeling herself
for an arctic wind to kiss her chest. I almost missed it
as she leaned forward and allowed the underwear to drop
away from her breasts. I couldn’t breathe.

I glanced at Alison. The brunette sat nearly stunned in
her chair, her mouth slightly open as she watched
Carole. I returned my eyes to the nearly naked girl
across from me.

Carole inhaled audibly, then let her breath out as she
pushed her panties to the floor. She left them there,
only kicking them aside with her foot. Instead of
covering herself with her hands, as I’d expected, she
lowered her hands to brush at the sides of her bare
thighs. She stood proudly, defiantly, her nudity
exposing who she really was. She had nothing to be
ashamed of.

She broke the silence.

“Four dollars,” she whispered. “We’re even.”

Carole reached forward and plucked one of the candles
from the corner of the table. Its light played over her
bare skin and hair, flickering, kissing, caressing. In
its light, she looked like an angel — innocent and
ethereal.

Then Carole straightened, though she didn’t raise her
eyes to capture any of ours. The silence stretched.

I thought that she might sit again, even though she was
out of the game, but instead, she glided forward, her
bare feet silent against the floor. Only the pounding of
the rain outside, and her soft breathing, filtered into
my consciousness.

I felt her touch before I realised what she wanted. I
shook myself, expecting her touch to be cold and damp
and sad. Instead, her fingers against my hand were warm
and soft. Almost in a daze, I pushed myself up, her
fingers guiding me. The candle flickered between us, her
skin pale, my shirt feeling coarse against my chest. Her
scent, feminine, reminding me vaguely of baby powder,
rode above the gentle scent of candle wax.

Two chairs clattered back. Carole ignored them, her eyes
tracing my chest. I lifted my eyes past Carole’s hair.
Alison and Claire stood awkwardly behind Carole. Alison
touched Carole’s bare shoulder.

“It’s late,” Alison whispered. “Thanks for the game.”

Carole turned and nodded once. Quickly, Alison bent and
retrieved her few items of clothing, and Claire mimicked
her. Together, they disappeared down the hallway,
carrying their clothing. I heard a single door close
quietly somewhere, and then silence returned, except for
the rain and Carole’s breathing.

A tug to my fingers set my feet in motion. Numbly, I
followed Carole into the dimness of the hallway. I
glanced back once. Carole’s clothing lay neatly about
her chair, lonely. I turned away, hurrying to catch up
with the small pool of flickering flame.

Her hands seemed remarkably small and delicate against
my shoulders. She didn’t push with any real force, but I
willingly fell where she wanted me. Her bed was small, a
standard single issue that we all had inherited upon
moving into this place. I lay half on and half off the
bed staring up at her as she stood in front of me, still
no attempts at covering her nudity.

“I can’t dress ’til morning. Rules,” she whispered.

“Carole…”

She shook her head slowly. “Peter. I don’t want to be
alone. Not with the storm. Not tonight. Please?”

I swallowed heavily, staring up into her eyes. Her eyes
radiated warmth, even while they reflected the
flickering light of the candle as pools of molten
liquid. I pushed myself up until I sat on the edge of
the bed, my toes digging into the floorboards. Carole
stepped back a single pace. I stared at her bare feet.
For some reason, her feet, devoid of covering while the
rain lashed her window, seemed to emphasise her strength
and her vulnerability at the same time.

“Carole… I have a girlfriend. Back home. Her name is
Karen.”

I paused, and whispered the name again. “Karen.”

I thought she’d throw me out right then and there. I
would have deserved it. Instead, Carole sighed softly
and turned on her heel. For a second, I thought that she
was going to pull open a drawer and extract some
clothes. Instead, she simply lowered herself into a
chair, still naked, and crossed her arms under her
breasts as if she were cold. She watched me for a moment
as I fidgeted. When she finally spoke, her voice wasn’t
much above a whisper.

“I had a boyfriend back home, too,” she whispered. Her
eyes lowered to watch her bare legs. When she raised her
eyes again to mine, she refused to let me go. “Do you
love her?” she asked.

Such a simple and damning question. Did I love Karen? I
swallowed, knowing the answer to that. Brad knew the
answer, and even, I suspect, Karen herself knew the
answer.

I couldn’t tear my eyes from Carole’s. I should have
been drinking in her body, losing myself in her curved
breasts, her toned legs, her flat belly. Her eyes held
mine, adamant and searching. I couldn’t speak.

Slowly, I shook my head. I was no better than the
heartless slob that had broken this girl’s heart. Lower
than snails. Lower than dirt. I didn’t love Karen, at
least not as she wanted.

Carole finally lowered her eyes, and relieved, I let my
eyes drop. I didn’t ogle her. I stared at a single board
in the floor near her left toes, the oak shimmering in
the faint light of the candle that still graced her
fingers.

“Peter,” Carole whispered. “You aren’t a coward. You
have to tell her.”

I knew. God, how I knew.

The spot on the floor I was staring at disappeared as
her body slipped through it. Tears filled her eyes as
she fell to her bare knees onto the floor and shuffled
across the room.

For a few moments, she knelt near her bedstand, the
flame of the candle flickering crazily across the walls
and her bed. Then it stabilised, and she turned. Silent
tears dripped down her cheeks, and she made no attempt
to brush them away.

Slowly, she moved on her knees until she knelt between
my thighs, her hands warm through the denim. She rose
up, her skin close and soft, her bare breasts touching
my shirt.

She kissed me, her mouth warm, inviting, and soft.
Without thought, my arms encircled her, and she
stiffened for only a moment as my fingertips brushed the
softness of her back. Her tongue flicked across my lips.
I ached. All over. I ached for her.

She broke the kiss, and an emptiness filled me.

“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” she whispered.

Outside, the tempest raged on, pattering drops of water
against the glass of her window. Thunder rolled across
us, and lightning pushed its way through the closed
blinds to light up the room like camera flashes,
temporarily overpowering the single candle.

I closed my eyes, the flickering of the candle still
visible, even while her image faded. My hands slipped
across her back, light as a feather, brushing her sides,
and finding her breasts. Carole gasped once, and then
pressed herself against me, her lips hungry and
insistent.

She paused, hovering over me, her naked body reflecting
in the light of a single flame. Her fingers held me
upright, throbbing between her legs, ready to impale
herself upon me. She swallowed, breathing heavily. Tears
still ran unchecked down her cheeks, but it seemed right
somehow — to try to comfort her unthinkable. She cried
unabashedly, even while she made love to me, somehow as
cleansing for her as the act itself.

She raised her eyes to the ceiling, and gently lowered
herself onto me, engulfing me — warm, moist, and full –
– in a single motion of her body.

For a while, I enjoyed her slow rocking, one body where
there had been two before. I watched her beauty as she
slowly moved above me, gently, but insistently, stilling
my own movements with guiding touches. I didn’t mind,
and let her find her own path.

Gently, I reached up to her, fingertips tracing her
nipples, her breasts, her belly, her thighs, her knees,
as she moved achingly slow. Up. Down. Rock. Up. Down.
Rock.

She sighed as my fingers found her clitoris. I could
feel her motion, her rhythm, unlike any woman I’ve ever
been with. Tears coursed down her cheeks like ancient
rivers.

With my fingers guiding her, she increased her rhythm.
As unstoppable as a hurricane, I felt her tremble; my
fingers stroked her skin, her clitoris, her being.
Thunder crashed around us, the building trembling in the
storm’s fury.

Her lips parted, and she cried out softly — not a
scream, but nearly a sigh, encapsulating freedom,
pleasure, and release mixed together in harmony. Her
muscles contracted around me, and my own eyes closed to
the image of her climax as orgasm rushed over me, a stab
of lightning followed by thunder, my voice mingling with
her sigh.

A bright ray of light woke me. Disoriented, I refused to
open my eyes, listening for the sounds of last night’s
storm, or the familiar ticking of my ancient alarm
clock. Neither were present, but I became aware of an
unfamiliar softness pressed against my left side.

I opened my eyes. Sunlight streamed through the crack in
Carole’s blinds, striking my face in a painful glare. I
blinked.

She lay naked beside me, her head cradled in the crook
of my arm, her golden hair fanned out across my chest,
the softness of her breasts pressing into my ribs. One
delicate hand lay across me, the fingers encircling my
nipple.

I blinked again, gently lifting her arm and slipping out
from under her. She snuffled, and turned over,
presenting the curve of her bare back to me, the curls
of her spine meeting her bottom somewhere under the
sheets.

Silently, I rose and gathered my clothes from the floor
where Carole had tossed them last night. The candle had
transformed into a useless pool of wax with a blackened
tip of wick emerging. The puddle of wax stood on her
bedstand, presumably flickering out sometime in the
deepest night. I pulled my boxers over my legs, and
leaned down, hopping quietly to slip my jeans over my
feet.

“Whatcha doing?” Her voice whispered dreamily from the
bed.

I nearly fell as I turned, my jeans half up my thighs.

She’d turned back over, curled up, her hands under her
cheek. The bright sunlight slashed across her cheek, but
she’d positioned herself so that the beam didn’t
intersect her eyes that remained closed. Her bare
breasts peeked out between her arms, the sheet covering
her only to her waist. Her body rose and fell as she
breathed there.

“Dressing,” I said simply. My voice sounded hollow and
empty echoing through her small room.

“I can’t,” she said.

For a moment, her words puzzled me, then the ‘rules’
flooded back into my memory.

“It’s morning,” I said. “You’re allowed.”

She smiled without opening her eyes. I wanted to see her
eyes.

“I don’t want to,” she whispered. “And my clothes are
out in the common room.”

“Surely…”

She shook her head sleepily. Truthfully, I didn’t want
her to dress anyway. I pulled my shirt over my head,
settling it around my waist.

I knelt beside the bed. Memories of her moving forward
on her knees, naked, and kissing me made my chest ache.
Gently, I leaned over and kissed her forehead. She
murmured something that I couldn’t make out.

“I have a phone call to make,” I whispered.

Carole still didn’t open her eyes. She only nodded.

Alison sat easily in the corner of the sofa, a red terry
bathrobe engulfing her. Her hair lay in tangled layers
about her face, but she looked awake and happy. As I
entered the common room, she glanced up from the campus
newspaper and flashed me a smile.

“Good morning,” she said. “Or should I say afternoon?”
If she was surprised that I’d emerged from the direction
of the female wing, she didn’t allow it to touch her
face. Sunlight streamed in through the window to cover
her like a blanket. She reminded me of a cat stretched
out in a favourite sunbeam.

“If you’re looking for the showers, Claire has a
monopoly on them. Even kicked me out. She’ll probably be
done soon.” She grinned evilly. “I’m next, though.”

If I didn’t know better, I would have said that Alison
had that just-laid look about her — something about the
set of her body. She glowed somehow. I probably did,
too, but it’s different with guys. But if she had been
laid… who? Again, I wondered about the rumour,
dismissing it for the zillionth time. I probably just
had sex on the brain.

“I-I… have to make a phone call,” I said dumbly.

Alison nodded, as if she knew what I was talking about,
and waved towards the phone sitting like a beacon on the
far wall. Alison returned to the newspaper as I
determinedly stepped across the room and lifted the
receiver from its cradle. The dial tone greeted me with
a muted buzz.

Trying not to think about it, I pressed the buttons in a
pattern with which I was far too familiar.

Karen’s voice issued tinny and far away from the
earpiece. She sounded happy.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”

I swallowed and gripped the handset.

“Karen?” I whispered into the phone.

“Peter? Is that you?”

I paused again. Alison glanced up from her paper, and
pushed herself up. Her bare feet whispered across the
floor, and she bent as she approached where I was
sitting. The terrycloth about her shoulders looked warm
and soft.

Alison bent and kissed my forehead.

“You’re doing the right thing,” she whispered in my ear.
Her breath was as warm and sexy as Carole’s had been. I
had no idea how Alison might know who Karen was, even if
she’d overheard my only contribution to the strange
conversation.

With that, Alison straightened and stepped soundlessly
towards the hallway. Dimly, I heard a shower cease
somewhere down the hallway. I stared as Alison dropped
the robe near the common room entrance where it pooled
near her feet like a fiery puddle. I watched her naked
back as Alison walked out of sight around the corner,
calling out to Claire as she moved.

“Peter?”

I shook my head, tearing my eyes away from where Alison
had disappeared.

“Peter? Are you still there? Peter?”

I gathered in my breath, and closed my eyes.

“Karen? We need to talk,” I whispered.

“I know, Peter. I know.”

I sat alone where Alison had been, her newspaper
crumpled beside me. The sun streamed in to fall across
my rumpled jeans.

The storm had left the world looking clean and
refreshed. A light breeze stirred a few coloured leaves
across the green lawn below. In my memory, I could see
Carole fighting through the downpour — the strange,
blonde girl who until last night none of us had known at
all.

I wasn’t sure that I knew her either, even now.

For a long time, I stared out into the sunshine.

The fan of cards lay like a talisman, beckoning me,
calling me.

I pushed myself up off the sofa and approached the card
table. The three remaining candles had burned themselves
into the same puddle as the one that stood on Carole’s
nightstand. Probably a fire hazard, but we were all
still alive. The proctor would have had a fit.

Carole’s clothes lay innocently across her chair, except
for her black panties and socks that stood sentinel near
the base of where she’d sat.

I glanced at the entrance where Alison had disappeared.
No naked girl greeted me — neither Alison nor Claire
nor Carole. Gently, I picked up Carole’s shirt, bringing
it to my face. I inhaled deeply.

Oh, it smelled exactly like her. Feminine. Soft. Strong.
Vulnerable. Sweet. Musky. And a hint of woodsmoke.
Sheepishly, I lay it back on the chair, smoothing the
fabric.

My eyes turned to the last hand that we’d played. The
hand that had lost Carole her clothes, and gained her
something that I wasn’t sure that I’d ever fully
understand. Five cards lying innocently in a fan, placed
there by her fingers.

I picked up the cards, even while my mind screamed at me
to let them lie where she’d put them. Somehow, I knew,
even as my eyes widened.

Five cards stared up at me while the implications of
their configuration suffused my being. The queen of
hearts, fully visible, smiled at me, followed in turn by
her three sisters. The ace of spades sat lonely on the
end, mocking me with its uncomplicated simplicity.

Four of a kind. We were four of a kind here, alone but
not, this Thanksgiving.

I replayed the last hand in my mind. Carole only ever
drawing one card — to an inside straight that wasn’t.
There wasn’t a mistake here. I stared at the five cards
for a long time. A natural four of a kind. Impossible.

And she’d tossed it on the table as if it were a bluff
hand, high to the king. Maybe.

I blinked once, my mind wandering from Carole, to Karen,
to Claire, to Alison, and back to Carole.

Then I gently returned the cards to the table, carefully
fanning them as she’d dropped them.

I didn’t know if she’d want them, or whether she’d even
want them delivered by me. Without real thought, I
gathered her jeans, her t-shirt, her socks, her panties
and her brassiere into my arms. Her scent suffused me,
rising from her clothing like perfume.

I turned at the door, staring at the five cards that
held a secret lying innocently upon the card table. I
shook my head, returned to the table and picked up the
top card. I placed it face down upon the stack of her
clothes, smiling. Then I returned to the hallway, and
headed back towards her room.