“So, this is me,” Winter said as I pulled my used car into her driveway on Saturday afternoon. “ Quaint, isn’t it?”
“It looks entirely different than the last time I was here,” I said.
“I know. My mom completely renovated it,” Winter replied. “And not for the better.”
I stared out the window at the house, which was commensurate with my own. But that was where the similarities ended. Winter’s place was a flower-laden cottage with a white picket fence and a lush green lawn. Yellow and orange flowers lined the walk to the house, and flower boxes hung from each and every window. A floral wreath hung on the door, and next to the door were two huge corn husks and a fake scarecrow, undoubtedly laid out to celebrate the fall season.
“My mom is kind of a flower freak,” she explained. “Just . . . be prepared.”
“All right then,” I replied.
We got out of the car and she led me inside. I wiped the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand and told myself to chill. The fact that I was nervous wasn’t a surprise. I was always nervous when walking into the house of a girl I liked. But today my anxiety wasn’t over Winter’s parents and winning their approval. It was over the three decks of cards I had hidden in various pockets of my jacket and jeans.
Yes, Mike Riley, one of the most reputable guys in Northern New York, was going to cheat. And Winter, although she didn’t know it, was abetting my mission. That morning I had fed her a story about not wanting to be in my house—about how guilty I felt just being around my parents. Which was totally true. But I had only complained about it in the hopes that she would ask me over. And she had. And now I could execute my plan.
I felt guilty about using her, of course. But at this point my guilt was so compounded, I couldn’t even separate the causes anymore. And I had to do this. It was the only way to guarantee that I would win when I played her brother and his friends. It was the only way to guarantee that I could put an end to this nightmare and prevent my parents from losing all faith in me.
Winter opened the door to the house. “Okay, just don’t judge,” she said, her voice so low it was barely audible.
I stepped over the threshold and almost laughed. The floral theme outside was continued inside, but to a much greater extent. It looked like a flowerbed had thrown up inside her house. Pink-and-purple flowered wallpaper adorned the walls, and the living room was crowded with flowered rugs, flowered couches, and flowered pillows. The air was thick with some saccharine scent.
“Wow. It’s . . . different,” I said.
“Try not to heave,” she told me. “It’s a quotidian struggle for the rest of us.”
I smirked and followed her into the kitchen. Here her mother was working a more arboreal theme. On one wall was painted a mural of a huge tree, its leaves hanging down around the windows by the table. The table and chairs themselves looked as if they were fashioned from branches and twigs. Collages of fall leaves were matted and framed over the cabinets.
“It’s like A Midsummer Night’s Dream in here. Is your mother a wood sprite?” I asked Winter, leaning back against the counter.
“That would explain a lot,” Winter replied. “You want something to drink? A snack?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Okay, why don’t you go downstairs? It’s much more normal down there,” she said, opening the fridge. “I’ll be down in a sec.”
Downstairs. The basement. Most likely where Gray and his friends played their games. Normally I would have stayed and helped Winter bring down the food, but this was the perfect opportunity to carry out my plan.
“Where do I go?” I asked.
“Door’s right there,” she replied, gesturing over her shoulder. “Light switch is at the top of the stairs.”
I took a deep breath and headed down to the basement. The stairs creaked under my weight, and my heart pounded as I reached the cool cement floor. Old leather couches were set up around a trodden shag rug, facing a big-screen television. The walls were lined with built-in bookcases that were packed to the gills with old volumes, board games, and knickknacks. I scanned the room quickly and, much to my relief, found exactly what I was hoping for. Leaning against the wall was a folding table—strictly utilitarian, unlike Ian’s state-of-the-art poker table—and next to it was a sideboard that held all the poker paraphernalia. The chip box was right there, and next to it, right in plain sight, a deck of cards.
Hands quaking, I grabbed the deck and checked it over. Thank God Gray wasn’t using unique cards. They were a standard deck with blue checks on the back. I pulled out a royal and checked it against a royal card from the blue deck I had brought. A perfect match.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and I quickly dropped Gray’s cards, tucking my own back into my pocket. Then I grabbed the remote and flicked on the television. Winter appeared with a tray full of chips, salsa, and melted cheese and a big bottle of Coke, plus a brand new bag of Oreos.
I sat down on the couch, hoping she wouldn’t notice I was all flushed. “Wow. You guys really have all the amenities around here, huh?” I said as she placed the food on the coffee table.
“Mom may have been in charge of the décor, but Dad is the one who buys the snacks,” she said. “And when it comes to snacks, he does not mess around.”
“Is there a bathroom where I can wash up?” I asked.
“Yeah. Right back there,” Winter replied, stuffing a chip in her mouth.
Perfect. A bathroom accessible from the poker room. This was working out even better than I’d hoped. I walked into the small, antiseptic room and closed the door behind me. I just wanted to get this over with so I could stop feeling so tense and jittery. I needed a hiding space—someplace I could stash the cards until tomorrow night’s game. Someplace no one would disturb before then.
I thought about placing the deck at the bottom of the garbage pail, but it was half full and someone might empty it. I checked the tissue box, but it wouldn’t fit. I was just about to start panicking when I noticed a long, skinny door behind me. I yanked it open. Inside were stacks of towels and washcloths. This was clearly a guest bathroom. So unless they were going to have guests tonight, this was the perfect hiding place. I slipped the deck out of my pocket and tucked it back behind a set of lime-green towels—flowered, of course. Then I folded a washcloth over it, just to be safe.
I closed the closet up and was just relaxing when there was a loud knock on the bathroom door.
“Dude! What’re you doing in there?!”
It was Gray. This was not a good portent.
“I’ll . . . I’ll be right out,” I replied.
I ran the water quickly, dried my shaking hands, and stared at myself in the mirror. The light refracted off a flaw in the glass, making my face seem as if it were split down the middle—disturbing. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door.
Gray was bigger than I remembered. And he did not look happy. His blue eyes were narrowed in suspicion under his red baseball cap, and he looked down his nose at me, his hands tucked under his biceps. I’m a tall guy—there aren’t many people who could look down at me—and I found it more than a little disconcerting. Had he somehow seen me come in here? Was I so negligent that I didn’t notice someone else in the room? Could he have possibly known what I had done?
“’Sup?” Gray said.
“Hey, man,” I said.
“I hear you think you can get into my Sunday night game,” he said. “Little presumptuous of you, don’t you think?”
Practically shaking in my sneakers, I shot Winter a panicked look over his huge shoulder. She just rolled her eyes. Was this really a time for rolling the eyes?
“I . . . uh . . . didn’t. Winter said—”
Suddenly Gray broke out into a huge smile. “I’m just messing with you man,” he said, bringing a beefy hand down on my shoulder. “Of course you can get into my game. The guys’ll be psyched to have you.”
I was so relieved I could have collapsed. Gray jostled me out of the bathroom and into the common area.
“Now, let’s talk about that kickass performance of yours last night,” he said amiably. “You had Tony Odewale eating your dust. How the hell did that feel?”
I laughed as we all sat down on the couch together. Nothing like a narrow escape to make a guy feel very, very good.