I am in a basement.
My legs rest awkwardly in the folding chair; the table in front of us, too, folds, but for the moment it is upright, with our tiles scattered across it.
The game begins.
I would stare my opponents down, to intimidate, but they fidget as often as I; their minds beg to focus on the task at hand, beg and receive little.
Still: we play.
There are a hundred tiles in all, and as each round begins, we divvy thirty of them up among the three of us.
Ten each; ten seconds to form a word; ten rounds.
I see LUST first and push the four tiles forward, only to see TAXES and SALTY a split-second later.
No matter; what is done is done.
The henchman to my left slides forth DISDAIN, but I keep my face firm. The second henchman plays MAIL.
The first henchman collects all thirty tiles, shuffles them in his hand along with the other seventy, and we begin a new round.
The second henchman jumps in first with JOKER.
I see PAIN first, but I follow with CHEAP; we are both defeated by HONESTY.
The first henchman gathers the tiles, re-distributes them.
I am missing the Y for IDIOCY, missing the E for COPED, missing the T and the N for CAPTAIN, and in searching for what I am missing, I have also missed the opportunity to play first; the first henchman spells out SLICK. The second henchman can only eke out GAB, and I finish with PAID.
The first henchman lets a smile slip as he collects the tiles, and I am suddenly aware that the music continues to blare upstairs; I only notice it again because his arrogance is so jarring, drawing my attention the the universe outside of the game. He recognizes his mistake, however, and returns his face to its normal state.
I focus and see that I missed GOAD, and BIOPIC; I blink heavily.
Finally, I catch a break. I see FRAME and RENEW, and almost leap for one of the two, but then:
The first henchman can only offer HALF, and the second henchman follows meekly with RIFT.
My seven-point play begins a wave of confidence: over the next six rounds, I push forth PICKET, HANDLE, and even a nine-point VIRILITY.
By the tenth round, the best either of the henchmen has played is NUISANCE, and even that isn't enough to take my lead away from me.
I shake both their hands, glance at their boss, sitting above us, ever stoic, and leave the room swaggering.
Our final game takes place a few months later.
Anymore, whether we are playing the game for sport or for their boss' appeasement, I cannot be sure.
Each of us rustle more than usual, writhe in our chairs even before the tiles are distributed; we struggle with each round. Their boss simply sits and watches, atop the bookshelf, obese, silent, placid. His face is barren, but his body is a scalpel.
The plays have been pedestrian as of late: VOLATILE landed on the table a month earlier, but nothing of merit since.
The first henchman opens with MATURE; the second henchman slides forth GLIB.
I see HOAX first, then LYNCH, but surprise even myself when I play HALCYON.
Even so, there is no exhilaration, no pride. If anything, threads of indifference flicker across me.
We trudge through the rounds; no one is acquiring any more than seven points, and I have a series of lazy plays: ROLL, TAMED and GUT, the last of which should be disappointing but isn't.
I am about to lead the eighth round when the first henchman's reflexes release an uncharacteristic spurt of energy, and GHOST appears before us. The second henchman follows with YOUTH, but the extra time has allowed me to discover DISMAY, and I play it instead of MAIDS to win the round.
I collect all of the tiles, and am shaking them absentmindedly in my hand when the bass kicks in, the song that is playing upstairs rattles the walls, and I have not noticed the music for so long that I let out a gasp and drop the tiles, they clink clank clatter against the metal legs of the table and my chair, rattle against the floor, disperse.
Nobody dares move.
The henchmen look at each other first, then their eyes turn to the man above them.
The silence suffocates.
Finally, the first henchmen speaks:
"It would be in your best interest to find and gather all of the tiles."
All three of us already know this, but hearing his audible words compel me into motion.
I begin the search.
It takes me over an hour to collect ninety-one of them. The henchmen stare at me: their mouths flatline, their bodies exude worry. We all know what must occur if I do not find them all.
After another hour, there are still three tiles missing; my hands keep grasping and straining but I am discovering only empty air.
I turn my back on the henchmen and their boss.
In a moment of desperation, I let out an exasperated cheer.
"My task is complete," I announce. The henchmen's corpses unclench when I hand them the bag; they pat me on the back and nod solemnly. Their boss' face remains blank, and whether or not he knows of my deceit, whether or not he knows as well as I that there are only ninety-seven tiles in the bag, I cannot tell, but when I leave the room, no one stops me.
I know that I have barely escaped with my life.
Upon leaving the room, the music I had previously ignored is all I can hear. The stomps of the partygoers shake the walls. The entire house vibrates before me.
I try to find another room, I need a place to catch my breath, I must forget what has just happened, but instead, I slam into someone.
I take a step back; it is a young policewoman, her lips grave.
"What are you doing here," she states.
I do not answer; after all, I do not have to answer to her, and she knows this, but she remains before me.
She is searching for something, proof of illicit acts being committed, and she interrogates me, questions my actions, but I am as silent as the henchmen's boss, who I am sure at any moment will discover what I have done and send the henchmen after me, to kill me, to carry out the assassination I had postponed for far too long.
When she attempts to frisk me, finally, I speak, explain that I am but an innocent guest here, searching for my briefcase, and that last part is true; my briefcase is somewhere in this basement, but I do not know where, and although I am aware that there is nothing within my briefcase to aid me, I must find it, I must.
She sneers at me, and moves on out of sheer disgust, her back hunched, and she continues to search for corruption along the languid hall.
The bass kicks in above me again, compounding the shakes.
I find an unlocked door: the laundry room.
A bed rests next to the water heater, the washer and dryer; boxes and boxes of storage loom behind.
I breathe; close my eyes.
I have to leave this house.
When I open my eyes, I notice the pile of dirty clothes on which I am standing. Underwear, a ratty t-shirt, blue jeans, a handful of dress shirts, dress pants, a blazer, a ragged sweater, a cane; under it all, the corner of something else.
But I do not breathe any more slowly, for spotting the blazer has reminded me of my own blazer, and that I am no longer wearing it, and instead a black coat belonging to one of the henchmen. The separate pieces of outerwear look nearly identical, and in my hurry to escape them, I must have taken it by mistake. Any moment now, they will discover my disinformation, and then add burglary to the charges against me.
I have to leave this house.
I take off the blazer, leave it on the bed. I rustle my hair, put on my glasses, change into the ratty t-shirt from the pile, anything to make me less recognizable; I do not bother looking through my briefcase. I repeat to myself, there is nothing within it to aid me.
As I am in the process of pulling on the blue jeans, there is a lull in the music, and I hear the conversations of the partygoers above me through the air vent.
A precocious young girl is telling someone that she is stoned out of her mind, and a woman replies, "Those'll numb you the fuck up every time."
The woman's voice is my wife's.
I am in my own home.
This is my basement; this is my party; these are my clothes.
I collapse onto the floor, onto the pile of dirty laundry, the jeans only up to my knees, my face in my hands, and I begin to weep.
My wife is pregnant, and there is nothing I can do to save her.