“I don’t believe this. Tell me you’re kidding. Please just tell me you’re messing with me.”
I sat there on the end of my bed and watched as Winter stood up and started to pace. After much circumlocution, I had finally managed to tell her what I had done and how her brother had reacted. I had wanted to confess before Gray had a chance to tell her and exaggerate the seriousness of my crime. But seeing Winter’s reaction, I knew that what I had done needed no exaggeration to be deemed utterly reprehensible and that it could possibly even be the final blow to our already delicate relationship.
“You used me,” she said, turning an accusatory glare on me.
“I didn’t,” I replied automatically. “I just—”
“Came with me into my house and planted a deck of cards in my bathroom so that you could cheat my brother and his friends,” Winter pointed out, summing things up concisely. “What would you call that?”
“Oh my God! Do you even hear yourself?” Winter cried, pushing her hands through her hair. “What do you expect? Do you expect me to tell you that I endorse this kind of thing? That I wanted you to win by whatever means necessary?”
“No! But you did give me certain assurances about how bad they were at poker,” I said. “I mean, you did want me to win—”
“But not this way!” Winter replied, impassioned. “Do you even know who you’re messing with here? Screwing over my brother and his friends is sheer lunacy. They’re not patient people, Mike. They’ll kick your ass and ask questions later. If they even bother to ask questions. My brother lives for his reputation as a firebrand.”
Yeah. No duh. I had found that out the hard way. “I get that now. Trust me.”
Suddenly, her entire face changed. She sat down next to me as if the wind were knocked out of her. “Oh, God. They don’t think I was in collusion with you, do they?” she asked, her eyes wide.
“No. They don’t,” I replied. “Why? It’s not like your brother would hurt you,” I said, then gulped. “Is it?”
“No,” she said with a sigh, looking relieved. “But if he thought I helped you it certainly wouldn’t enhance my quality of living.”
“I’m really sorry, Winter,” I told her, contrite.
She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, and I knew she was wondering what to do—wondering if I were worth all this trouble. Suddenly I felt a wave of panic pass through me. I had already lost everything. If Winter left me I didn’t know what I would do. But I did know that I wouldn’t blame her for going. What reason had I given her to stick it out?
“Do you see it now?” Winter asked. “Do you see how corrosive gambling is?”
I blinked. Winter had never said anything like this to me before. She sounded like Ian. For a split second I felt my ire flare up. She was censuring me too? But then I realized that after everything that happened, she had every right to accuse me. The banality of my situation was abundantly clear. I was a cliché. One of those kids you hear about on the news—a “victim of the poker trend.” One of those losers who get entangled in a web of debt and can’t pull himself out. One of those kids I always pitied.
“I know,” I said finally. “I’m an idiot.”
She didn’t disagree with me. “What’re you going to do? I mean, I know Gray’s gonna make you pay him back, but did you at least ask him for a deferment? Maybe he can wait until you get your part-time job in the winter. Maybe you guys can do some kind of payment plan or something.”
I almost laughed. As well as she seemed to know her brother, she apparently thought he was a little more compassionate and reasonable than he was.
“He made it fairly clear that immediate repayment was essential,” I replied. Essential if I wanted to continue to breathe, I thought with a shudder. “So I came up with a plan . . .”
Winter regarded me with concern. “What kind of plan?”
“You’re not gonna like it,” I told her.
She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, pulling her leg up on the bed so she could face me. “Hit me.”
So I told her. I told her all about the plan to throw the Dorchester game, and although Winter had always been rather ambivalent when it came to both football and school spirit, she flinched when I divulged the details. By the time I was done she was staring at me as if she were ready to make the call to the nearest asylum. At that point, I would have gone willingly. A few days of peace and quiet and four drab walls was probably exactly what I needed. Plus, I’d be safe from Gray and his cantankerous goons.
“Mike, you can’t,” she said slowly. “What about your future? What about the other guys on the team?”
“I know. It’s not as if I didn’t think about that,” I told her. “Believe me. It’s all I think about. But I have no choice. It’s either this or your brother kicks the crap out of me.”
She knew him well enough that she kept her mouth shut at that, which did not make me feel better. But at that point I think I was beyond feeling better. I had gotten myself into this horrible situation, and there was only one way to get myself out.