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art by Jason Stirret

Rubies and Tangled Webs

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. Go to DailyScienceFiction.com and type "Drayden" in the search box to see her other stories for DSF.

Anthony Nance glares at me like my hair is on fire and I've got worms coming out of my ears. I toss him a smug grin, then stir my finger around the stale ice cube melting in my glass of Bombay Sapphire and Diet Orange Shasta.
"That's an abomination," he says.
I suck my finger clean then tap it on the burgundy felt of the card table. "Just deal, Ant."
It's been a few years since I've seen him, but it's good to know that there's still nothing that'll get Ant's hackles up more than ruining perfectly good gin. I need him distracted right now, and a little bit of frustration goes a long way towards bringing out someone's tells. His forearms tense beneath the rolled-up cuffs of his shirt, the ink of his tattoos blending into his smooth, black skin. It's rare that anyone notices his ink--a horde of spiders ranging from the size of a pinhead to that of a silver dollar. No one but me has ever noticed them move.
"Last hand for me," says Brett Fleming, the new guy, former fullback for the Sale Sharks and cocky as hell. Came to Santa Barbara after marrying the heiress to a chain of sleazy budget motels. The guy's face reads easier than a fifty-foot billboard, as evidenced by the pitiful stack of poker chips spread out in front of him.
"Oh, come now, Brent," Ant says. "The night's just warming up."
"It's Brett," Brett corrects for the fifth time this evening, pale skin flushing at the cheeks. "My wife will have it in for me as it is. No need to keep her waiting up at all hours."
Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot for a guy to lose, even for an old rugby pro with a blown-out knee. Hell, fifteen thousand dollars is more than I can afford to throw away, but in the end, it's only money. From the look in Ant's eyes, though, that's all about to change.
"Well, how about we raise the stakes?" Ant says, stroking the coarse stubble of his goatee. "What do you say, Jared? This guy okay?"
Still not too late to back out of this, I remind myself. And yet I keep my calm and nod. "He's cool." A guy who used to ram his head into other people for a living has got to be up for taking a few odd risks.
Ant juts his chin across the table to Steven, our fourth. His face is a fortress. Money, memories. Makes no difference what we're wagering. He's in this to win.
"I'm down," Steven says, syllables perfectly neutral.
"Okay then." Ant pulls out a small leather satchel and sits it on the table in front of him. Brett's eyes bulge in their sockets as the zipper zags open, revealing a silver cylinder decked with blinking LED lights. Ant sets it in the middle of the table with a thud that knocks over a tower of his chips.
"What the hell is that?" Brett asks. "Looks like a rubbish disposer."
I can't help but laugh. Ant shoots me another glare. This is his show, same show he's been scamming me with since we were kids. I grit my teeth as I top off my gin, then fetch another ice cube from my basement freezer as Ant explains the device. A "memory catcher," he calls it. Takes the memories straight from your brain and implants it into someone else's. Simple as that, but Brett balks at the idea. I scurry back to my seat. Don't want to miss the demonstration.
Ant flips the toggle. The machine begins to whir. "Okay, Brent. What'd you have for breakfast this morning? Just a one word response, please."
"Pancakes," Brett says, clenching his jaw.
"All right. Now I'm going to take that memory, if that's okay with you."
Ant always asks permission. Not that he has to. He could take every damned memory in Brett's battered little head if he wanted, and no one could do anything about it. But I'm pretty sure Ant enjoys the thrill of the chase more than the quarry itself. I call Ant my best friend, but sometimes I wonder if it's worth it having a friend who's so hard set on screwing me out of the best moments of my life. My high school valedictory speech, my intramural soccer championship in college, the first kiss with my wife.
I look at the "memory catcher" with disdain--a fifty-dollar garbage disposal from Home Depot studded with scraps of a build-it-yourself robotics kit found in the clearance bin at Radio Shack. It was a fake, of course. I'd helped Ant slap it together nearly a decade ago now, when we'd first started having these poker nights. As lame as it looked, people accepted it a lot more readily than the chilling truth behind Ant's ruse.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a black fleck jump from Ant's forearm and skitter across the card table. It's a spider, one of the pinhead ones, and even that was overkill for the task. I keep my gaze on the memory catcher, not wanting to draw attention to the spider crawling up Brett's arm, over his shoulder, dangling from his earlobe, then finally disappearing inside his ear.
Oblivious, Brett scratches along the path the spider made across his neck. "This is a load of bollocks," he says, sitting back in his chair.
"Perhaps you'd like to tell us again what you had for breakfast this morning?" Ant asks, the spider on its return trip now, its once black abdomen now dotted with flecks of gold.
I've always found it odd that Ant used spiders to do his bidding instead of ants. One time, ages ago, maybe seventh or eighth grade, I'd asked him about it, suggested that maybe if he was insistent upon using spiders that I should just call him "Spider" instead. He'd called me a dumbass, and gave me an open-handed smack to the side of the head. I hadn't questioned him about it since.
"Pancakes," Brett says testily.
"With syrup or honey? Butter?"
"Um--" Brett says, then scratches his head.
"Eggs on the side? Bacon?"
Brett's brow furrows, futilely searching for the memory.
"Orange juice? Milk? Coffee?"
"I don't remember, damn it."
"Are you even sure you had pancakes? Or is it a fringe memory--just you remembering saying the word pancakes from when I asked you before?"
"What's the point of all this?" Brett finally asks. He's angry, yet intrigued.
Ant flips him a hundred dollar chip from his stack. "How much are your memories worth to you, Brett?"
I take a sip of gin and Shasta, and my cheeks warm in anticipation. The real game is about to begin, and I've only got one shot to make this work.
Shannon stands in front of me in all of her seventeen-year-old awkwardness. She pushes puffy sleeves down over her shoulders, revealing pale, freckled skin. I sit on the edge of the bed, hands clenching at the musty motel's bedspread, awful shades of teal, pink, and brown. Her prom dress plunges to the filthy floor, and she steps out of it, perhaps trying to be seductive, but all I can see is her alarmingly white skin stretched across sharp hips and shoulders. I want to cringe, but Brett's eyes focus on her strapless bra. She steps closer and he cups her left breast, the saliva so thick in his mouth.
"Jared!" Ant says, voice crisp enough to break me away from my newest memory. I'd won the last hand--Brett's prom, Steven's son's first steps, and Ant's sixth birthday party, the one with the real live cowboy. I'd missed that one because I'd had a bad cold, and Ant had never let me forget the great time I'd missed. I grin at him, the memory of his mother's triple-chocolate cake so sweet on my tongue.
From across the table, Brett stares at me with a vengeance familiar to my heart. I imagine all the holes in his memory now, dwindling away like his poker chips had.
"I'm out, guys," Brett says, a firm finality in his voice this time.
"Oh, come on," Ant begs. "Don't be put off by Jared. It's just that he's never been with a white girl before."
My jaw drops. "I have too ..." My brow tightens as I search for her name. Sat a row ahead of me in Anthropology 206. But when I try to remember her face, all I see is a clouded smudge.
"You're thinking of Trina?" Ant offers.
That's it. Trina.
"Puerto Rican," he says, returning my grin. He smacks his lips, and his eyes drift off in memory. My memory. I can only wonder what he sees, but I get the point. It's impolite to gloat.
"Sorry, Brett," I say. "It won't happen again."
Brett shakes his head. "No worries. I'll be ready for you next time." He pushes his chair back from the table, crosses his arms over his chest, and begins studying the rest of us, probably trying to figure out a way to win back the memory of the hat-trick he'd scored in the Super League's Grand Final. I hold back my smile as I look at him. I don't want him getting the wrong idea, but he's a solid guy, and I'm glad he's one of us now.
I'm on fire. I'm a maniac making a killing four hands in a row, but when Ant deals out this hand, I realize this is the moment I've been waiting for. The ante builds quickly. A two-week vacation in Singapore, a first solo flight in a Cessna, a threesome in Vegas. Our eyes shift back to Steven's face, stoic and unreadable.
"The birth of my son," Steven says.
I squirm in my seat. I don't do well in hospitals, and frankly, I know Steven's wife, and I'm not particularly interested in getting to know her like that. But it doesn't matter what the value of his memory is to me. It's what it's worth to him that's important. Steven's a family man, and a damned good father. He wouldn't risk a memory like that unless he had the cards to back it up.
I try to keep my head in the game, keep a strained gaze focused on Ant. I try to read him, and he's doing the same, searching for ticks and twitches and giveaways. Maybe these three years we've been apart will be enough to at least blind him to my intentions. Still not sure if I want to go through with this, but I can't let my indecision show now. I take a shallow breath and sweeten the pot.
"I'll raise you my wife."
"Your wife's what?" Ant says, curious. He's always had a thing for Kryss. An unhealthy obsession, if you ask me. Three Super Bowls ago he'd tricked me out of the memory of our wedding night. It was partially my fault, I know. But Ant can be so damned charming sometimes. I'd cut him out of my life that day, swore him and the Patriots off forever in one breath. For three years we hadn't spoken a word, right up until last week when I'd invited him and his damned memory catcher back into my house.
"My wife. All of her. Every single memory."
"Jared," Ant says to me. "I think you've had too much." He nods toward my drink, ice cube merely a sliver in orange-tinged gin.
I scowl at him. Can't help myself. Then I take a long, bitter sip. "My wife," I say again. "Put up or shut up."
I watch him closely and notice the spiders skittering across his skin in anticipation. "Okay. But I'm not sure I've got a memory that--"
"The memory catcher," I say, then roll up my sleeves so that he knows what I'm really talking about. He eyes my forearms, a lighter brown than his, but I've got enough arm hair that the spiders could blend in without much notice.
Ant is silent for a long moment. We study each other across the expanse of the card table. The stakes are high, but win or lose, I've been swindled by Ant for the last time.
Something ominous writhes beneath Ant's sleeve. It makes its way down toward his elbow. Hairy black legs wriggle themselves underneath his cuff, one by one by one. The spider perches upon Ant's forearm, big as my open hand, two sets of expectant eyes aimed in my direction.
No one notices but me.
That night I crawl into bed with a stranger. Kryshondra is her name. Kryss. Ant had given me that much at least. I huddle up against her, breathe her in, the back of her neck smelling like a field of jasmine. I hope for it to trigger something within me, some residual memory, but the gin is clouding up everything that Ant hadn't taken.
"How was your poker night?" she says with a rasp, half asleep.
"Pretty good," I lie. I can only imagine her anger if she learned the truth.
"How much did you lose?"
"Who says I lost anything?"
"I've been married to you for eight years, Jared." Irritation in her voice now. She turns over to face me. Skin flawless, big brown eyes I could get lost in, glossy, full lips I couldn't help but want to kiss. "How much?"
"Just a few memories, that's all." I shudder at the thought of that spider, how heavy it had been as it jumped down onto my shoulder. Its abdomen had shimmered like a bejeweled brooch, sapphires, rubies, emeralds.
"You," I admit.
Kryss stumbles out of the bed, stares down at me furiously. I scramble across her side of the bed, pleading with her. She crosses her arms over her faded red t-shirt ... my Intramural Soccer shirt from Stanford, I realize. She's practically swimming in it, hits her mid-thigh. I've never seen someone more beautiful.
"But I'm the winner," I tell her, trying hard not to slur my words. "All Ant has is a few memories. I've got you."
She rolls her eyes. "So I'm some kind of trophy? Is that it?"
I pat the sheets and bid her to join me. I might not remember her, but I've been a man long enough to know how not to answer that question. "Please, Kryss. Don't be angry. They're just memories. You can tell them to me. Maybe you can make me remember."
She sighs. "That damned Ant. When are you ever going to learn?" She slips beneath the covers and pulls my heavy head into her bosom.
"So, tell me about how we met," I whisper.
She sucks her teeth at me, but I stroke at her lower back, almost out of reflex. Maybe it's how I soothe her.
"Fine," she says, and then takes a deep initial breath, like that of a storyteller. She begins to paint a picture with her words, leaving no detail unturned. I curl myself into the fetal position, my legs entwined with hers. My drunken mind wants so badly to fall asleep in her arms, but I must hear these stories. I must try to make them a part of me again. She tells me of our first date when I brought her a dozen yellow roses and she sniffled through all of dinner before admitting she was allergic. She tells me of our first apartment, a little downtown hovel with moldy carpet, leaky pipes, and the view of the side of an adult video store. I remember that some, but still nothing of her.
As my eyes begin to drift shut, I ask her of our first kiss. She's quiet, so quiet the sound of my ragged breathing begins to grate my ears. "Our first kiss," I mutter again. "What was that like?"
She shifts beneath me, reaching for something on her nightstand. I hear the frantic shuffling of index cards, one after another after another. Kryss finally lowers her voice and says, "Um, I don't think you gave me that one."
For the first time in months, I wake up without tearstains slick on my satin pillowcase, but it's impossible to enjoy the moment the way my head is throbbing. The bedroom door creaks open on worn hinges, the sound like jackhammers going off inside my brain. She peeks her head inside. I'm not quite sure if she's as beautiful as she'd seemed last night, but she's wearing too much makeup now either way.
"You awake?"
"Close enough to it," I mumble, then rub the crusted drool from the side of my mouth.
She comes in, sets a tray down on the bed. She's fully dressed in her own clothes now--impractically high heels, impossibly tight skirt, plunging neckline that accentuates breasts that some talented plastic surgeon had gotten to defy gravity. I catch a whiff of her and she no longer smells like jasmine, just the sickly-sweet grit of a call girl.
I stare too long, and she smiles. I shift my gaze down to the metal serving tray. Coffee, toast, a smattering of runny eggs. And a small box covered in metallic purple wrapping paper.
"Your friend Ant dropped that off this morning," she says. "Said you were an ass for not telling him about your wife. He also took the keys to your Beamer. I tried to stop him, but he said you owed him more than you would ever know."
I stare wordlessly at that little box, imagining the brooch spider inside. I can't open it. Won't open it. Not after all the trouble I'd gone through to erase Kryss from my mind.
"So all of that memory swapping hocus-pocus was for real?" she asks, wriggling herself into the sliver of bed next to me.
"Yeah." Pawning off the memories of my late wife was an asshole thing to do to someone I'd once called my best friend, but I didn't have a choice. There was no way he would have taken those memories if he'd known what I'd been through. I'd hoped I could keep some trace of her, erase all the bad times, and replant the good ones, but secondhand stories recited by a wannabe actress turned prostitute did nothing except confirm the extent of my desperation.
"So I guess we should settle up, then," she says. "Five thousand."
I fetch a roll of hundreds from my wall safe and hand it to her. "Twenty-five hundred," I tell her. That memory is still clear in my mind.
She stashes the roll in her cleavage, then kisses me on the cheek. "I put on a good performance, didn't I? I hope I gave you what you were looking for." There's genuine compassion in her eyes. No, not that. Pity. Her hand has slipped all the way into my pants, handling my cock, before I realize what she's angling at. "I bet it's been a while for you," she whispers.
"I think it's probably best that you leave now," I tell her.
She sighs, then gives me a weak hug. "Sorry about your wife," she says before slinking back out the door. The stench of her perfume remains, entrenched into my clothes, my skin.
The box. I start to doubt my decision. I feel numb inside, and in some ways the numbness is worse than the pain. Inside my head is a mess of tangled webs, fringe memories of Kryss still haunting me. Arguments with her doctors, flashes of the gaunt figure in a hospital bed that my mind refused to recognize as the woman I'd married, the feel of cold, wet earth between my fingers as I kneeled at her gravesite.
I shake my head. It's just not worth it.
I can get used to the numbness. Maybe. In time. I pick the box up, intending to stash it in the wall safe, but the lightness surprises me. It couldn't possibly be the brooch spider that landed so heavily on my shoulder. But if not that, then what?
Against my better judgment, I open the box. I instantly recognize the spider though it'd been over a decade since I'd last seen it--small, with a lone teardrop shaped ruby on its abdomen, the deepest shade of red. Before I can close the lid, the spider skitters out. I rear back, but it makes a jump, lands on my arm, scurries up my sleeve. I shake my head and cover my ears, but the spider zags, takes a quick detour over my lips and up my left nostril.
I scream for it to leave me alone, but it is too late.
My heart has never pumped so hard in my chest. I scale the bleachers, two rows at a time, the scraping of cleats against metal setting a chill along my spine. The crowd is sparse, the congratulations few. Intramural Soccer semifinal games don't tend to draw huge audiences, especially when it's drizzling like this. But I have all the fans I need sitting midway up the bleachers. Ant and Kryss wave at me--Kryss wrapped up in a see-through poncho, Ant too cool to worry about the weather.
"We did it!" I yell at them. My thoughts are feverish as I imagine our team photo displayed on the Wall of Champions in the bowels of the Rec Center for prosperity. This ridiculous dream of mine might actually happen. We're so close. All we have to do is win one more game.
I wedge myself between my two best friends. "Seriously, I don't think I could have done it without you guys cheering me on." I talk fast, giddy as a schoolgirl. My nerves are on edge. I don't know what gets into me, but I turn and plant a kiss right on Kryss's lips. A hard kiss, definitely platonic, though perhaps it goes on a second too long. I don't think twice about it until I catch the sour look Ant's sporting, raindrops tracing across the contours of his face.
"What? You jealous or something?" I ask him, then lean over and give him a hard peck, too. He grins and shoves me away.
"Jeeze, Jared," he says. "You smell like the ass end of an ass."
"Yeah," Kryss laughs, then nudges me in the ribs. "Please tell me you're going to burn that shirt once the season is over. I think it's about to take on a life of its own."
"What you two are smelling is the fragrance of win," I boast. And with that, I hang an arm over each of their shoulders and pull them in tight. Ant and Kryss groan in unison. The faint scent of jasmine graces her skin. I'm suddenly aware of the bittersweet taste of her lipstick on my lips, and how good she feels under my arm. Ant quickly wriggles free, but Kryss lingers. She looks up to meet my eyes.
"That was amazing," she says to me, barely a whisper. She smiles. My skin goes cold all over, gooseflesh from head to toe. Of course it's entirely possible that she's talking about my game performance and not our kiss, but in that moment I know there isn't anything I wouldn't do to keep her in my life.
The memory ends so abruptly that I pitch forward and fall to my knees. The foil box rolls in front of me, and a small piece of folded paper tumbles out.
I unfold it with the urgency of a drowning man gasping for breath, but my fingers feel bulkier than bricks. Anger wells up within me. How could I have given her up like that? Her laugh echoes around the corners of my mind, flitting like a butterfly with nowhere to land. I wonder how many times I'd heard that laugh. How many times she'd found me worthy enough to grace me with that wondrous smile.
Finally, I get the paper open and press along its creases.
Poker Night, Next Saturday, 7pm, My Place.
It's Ant's handwriting, a tear smudge through the ink of the word Night. A dry smudge. Not one of my tears. I envy Ant. This numbness is unrelenting.
Next Saturday. I will win her back.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 29th, 2013
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