“Hey, man. So glad you guys invited me to this thing,” Topher Ross said, dipping a tortilla chip into a vat of melted cheese. He flipped his long blond hair over his shoulder. “There’s never anything to do around this stupid town.”
Topher had just moved to New York from California the year before, and all we really knew about him was that he lived in one of the biggest houses in town and was absent from school at least once a week. Which, of course, made him mysterious and therefore coveted by all the ladies. He’d already dated most of the hottest chicks in school, which meant most of the guys hated him. But his obvious wealth qualified him for the game, and now that he was here for the game, he seemed like a pretty cool guy. I was actually kind of surprised Marcy hadn’t set her sights on him instead of Dominic freakin’ Thomas.
“I know,” I said. I leaned back against the wall, clutching my cold soda. “Life around here is so mundane, we figured it’d be cool to try something new. It’s gonna be fun.”
I said this as much to convince myself as him. Now that we were all here, ready for the seminal high-stakes game, my heart was having a major fit. In fact, it had been palpitating all morning, ever since I had drained half my bank account so I could buy in and still have more money to play with.
“Damn right it’s gonna be fun,” Ian said, slapping me on the back. He took the wad of cash he had already collected and placed it inside the safe in one of the cabinets. I could practically see the dollar signs reflected in his eyes. “ Initiating this game was the best idea you’ve ever had, Riley,” he said over his shoulder as he locked the door.
“Uh . . . that’s okay,” I said, holding a hand up as he tried to give back my drink.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I’ll get ya another one.”
Then he loped off toward the side table where the soda bottles and ice bucket sat, cutting through the rest of the crowd that had gathered in Ian’s basement. All the wealthiest guys in school were there, bringing with them a preponderance of designer clothes, overpriced cologne, and state-of-the-art cell phones. Not to mention attitude. These guys had attitude coming out their ears. The decibel level was already staggering, and it only seemed to grow louder with each passing moment, as one guy after another vied for the attention of the group.
“Okay, I’m starting to think that maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” I said, glancing at the door behind me.
Ian’s eyes widened. “Are you intimating that you want to leave?”
“Not intimating. I’m saying it flat out,” I replied. “I think I should go.”
“I’m perplexed,” Ian said, a wrinkle appearing above his nose. “Wasn’t this your idea?”
“I know, dude,” I said, rolling my neck around. “It’s just . . . ever since I took that money out of the bank this morning I’ve been kind of nervous.”
“Don’t think about the money.” Ian placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed, turning me to face the room. “Think about your total poker hegemony the other night. Think about how great it felt to knock those guys off their pedestals. You are going to demolish these suckers, relieve them of their extraneous cash! And it’s going to feel good!”
“I don’t know . . . ,” I hedged.
“Besides, you heard what Topher said. We’re performing a public service here,” Ian told me.
I looked at him doubtfully.
“We’re saving these guys from their ennui!” Ian announced.
I laughed. “You have a point there,” I said. “But E, you know how hard I’ve worked to save up all this money. You know all the sacrifices I’ve made. Do I really want to risk losing half of it?”
“Okay. How about we prescribe a limit, then?” Ian suggested. “You can only bet half of what you brought with you.”
I bit my lip and stared across the room at the verdant felt atop one of the poker tables. Ian’s proposal did sound reasonable. Of course, I would be the one who would have to control myself. Something that was never all that easy in the heat of the game. But I had always managed to be responsible in the past. Now that there was more money on the line, I would just have to be more responsible.
“Come on. We’re in this together, man. It wouldn’t be the same without you. What do I have to do to dissuade you from leaving?” he asked.
“You could stop sounding like a used car salesman,” I quipped.
“You’re staying, aren’t you?” Ian said.
I grinned. “Yeah, I’ll stay.”
“All right!” he slapped my hand just as the noise in the room reached a crescendo. The natives were getting restless. “Let’s get this party started,” Ian told me. “Get out there and work that poker prowess.”
“I’ll try,” I said with a shrug.
Ian leveled me with a serious stare. “Do or do not. There is no try.”