David S. Wills
Two men sat over a little blue plastic table, staring for a moment at a withered old piece of paper. Tired from folding and the wear and tear of life inside too many pockets, the paper was thoroughly worn around the edges, along the seams, and yellowed everywhere else.
There were eight stickmen marked on the paper – four distinctly kept to one side, and four to the other. Etched in blue ink, black ink, and a soft lead pencil, each jumped off the page, belying the excitement of his creator. It is a wonder the paper never ripped under such enthusiastic scribbling.
One of the men – a tall, skinny foreigner of about thirty-eight, or perhaps even forty, who wore a cheap suit but remained unshaved, unwashed and looked exhausted – grinned at the other as he withdrew an orange biro from his breast pocket. He held it up, gloating, as his friend stared at the paper, trying not to look at either the pen or the smug grin.
He silently brought the biro down with his left hand and pressed it into the soft paper. He pulled it around and then down, before drawing lines in four opposing directions.
“That’s five for me, buddy!” he said, proudly.
His friend grunted something affirmative.
“Oh, you’re just sore because you’re losing.”
There was no reply. The other man – who looked maybe a decade younger, but was dressed much the same in a cheap suit and stubble – opened his mouth to speak, but said nothing.
“You weren’t upset when you were one-nothing up. Or two-one. Or three-two or four-three, for that matter. But now you’re being a little bitch ‘cause you’re losing? Shame on you.”
The man was still grinning. He wasn’t entirely serious – just goading his friend out of his silence, not wanting this opportunity to disappear.
“It just doesn’t feel right anymore.”
“Because you’re losing…”
“Because it isn’t right and it never was. These are human lives. People just like us.”
“You’re such a drama queen.”
“We’re playing god.”
“Oh, come on!” He was laughing now at his friend’s sorrow. “Please! Let me gloat, buddy. It’s the first time I’ve taken the lead! Don’t try and weasel out of this one.”
“Congratulations, man. Truly, sincerely, you’ve done better than me. But I’m no longer proud of my four – and not because you have five – but because four lives turned upside down is disgusting. It keeps me awake at night.”
“’Lives turned upside down!’” he snorted. “Can you believe that? You’re such a little drama queen…”
“Whatever, man, I just don’t wanna play anymore. Ok?”
“Ha! Seriously? You know that means I win, right? We’ve been at this two and a half years and you’re just gonna quit?”
“Yeah, man, it ain’t right.”
“Fine. Ok. Whatever. I win, you lose; that’s the end of that.”
They both sat back in their blue plastic chairs. The winner was no longer grinning. He sneered and held the paper up to his face. Five stickmen on his side. Four on the other. Victory, but an empty victory without the chance to rub it in.
The loser couldn’t hold his tongue for long. “You know what each stickman represents, right? You know how much we hurt those people?”
“We brought them here. We opened their minds and gave them chances that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. If they didn’t like it, fine. Whatever. No big deal. This place isn’t for everyone.”
“We knew they wouldn’t like it and we deliberately misled them. We made them pawns in our game.”
The winner laughed a hard, callous laugh. He folded the piece of paper and pushed it into his breast pocket, alongside his orange biro. “’Pawns in our game’? Lord… You know I’m gonna have to find someone else to play this with. And that bugs me, man, ‘cause you played tough. You were a good one.”
“I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. And that doesn’t matter to me. You guys can do what you want. I’m ashamed I was callous enough to play.”
“’Callous!’ I told you, buddy, it’s not callous. We’re giving them opportunities. We’re exposing them to possibilities.”
“Did you see the last one? When she left, did you see her? What we did to her? What you did to her?”
“So shit, buddy. She didn’t like it. This place ain’t for all of us. Some of them took just fine. If it was as bad as you say, we’d be looking at more than nine stickmen.”
The loser looked down at the blue plastic table, saying nothing. He was beyond arguing.
“Listen, you’re not happy here, are you? Neither am I. We get along alright… it could be worse… but we don’t really like it. We get by and we do what we need to. But tell me this – and answer me in all goddamn honesty – Aren’t you glad you came here? You can leave at any time and the things you’ve seen and done, when you weigh them up and move on and look back, will all make it worthwhile, right?” The loser nodded. “And you’re gonna be a little bitch and quit the game, whining that all these others got such a raw deal?”
“Yeah, man, I’m out. I’ve had enough. You go ahead and replace me. Do what you need. But I’m out.”
The loser stood up and calmly pushed the blue plastic chair under the blue plastic table. He sighed heavily, then turned and walked off into the madness and chaos of the street.
The winner pulled the piece of paper back out of his pocket and placed it on the table. He unfolded it to reveal the nine stickmen, and he smiled. Then shifted about in his seat and removed a black wallet from his back pocket. From behind his Alien Registration Card he pulled another piece of yellowed paper. This one was bigger, older, and more worn at the edges. There was a small piece of Scotch tape keeping two flaps together, and a few other spots could have done with the same treatment.
He unfolded the second piece of paper to reveal dozens of stickmen, all lined in careful rows, almost filling the page. He removed the orange biro from his breast pocket and proceeded to draw nine stickmen on the second piece of paper.
David S. Wills is the editor of Beatdom magazine (www.beatdom.com) and an occasional travel writer. He currently lives in China, where he works as a professor of literature and rescues badly behaved cats.