by Alex Shvartsman
Joe stepped through the door and found himself in a cramped, smoke-filled card room. The players paused their game and turned toward him, five and a half pairs of eyes studying the newcomer.
Seated around the green felt table were a robot, a witch, a vampire, an alien Grey, and a fairy. And looming behind them was a pink mass of scales and tentacles topped off with a bowler hat. It regarded Joe thoughtfully with a single bulging eye the size of a dinner plate.
“Hey there, new guy,” said the fairy. Despite her two-foot frame her voice was sultry rather than tinny. “And what are you supposed to be?”
Joe tried to answer and realized that he couldn’t. He remembered nothing of who – or what – he was, except his first name. He felt strange, empty, as if someone had sucked everything out of his head through a straw.
“I know that look,” said the witch. “Everyone has trouble with their memory in the first few hours. It’ll go away. Unless you’re an amnesiac spy, that is. But we already had one of those.”
His memory problems were selective, Joe discovered. He recognized the sounds of a Frank Sinatra recording crooning in the background, yet couldn’t recall a reason for arriving at this place.
“You aren’t anything obvious,” said the fairy. “If you figure it out quickly, don’t say! I’d rather guess.”
“Well I’d rather play poker,” said the Grey, the kind they usually depict abducting cattle and probing things indiscriminately. This one was dressed in a three-piece suit, and his almond-shaped head was topped off with a cowboy hat. He caressed a large stack of chips with his three long fingers. “It’s your turn to deal,” the alien said to the fairy.
The fairy pouted.
“We do nothing but play cards,” said the witch. “Let her have her fun.”
The fairy fluttered her wings and displayed a huge grin. Her mood changed so quickly, Joe couldn’t help but wonder if Little Folk were susceptible to bipolar disorder.
“Are you a superhero out of costume? A serial killer? A werewolf, perhaps?”
“Mangy curs,” the tall, striking brunette with fangs sniffed the air. “I can smell those a mile away. He isn’t lupine.” She looked Joe up and down. “This one may be a tasty morsel, even if he’s a bit ordinary looking.”
“Watch out, friend,” announced the robot in a stage whisper. “She means that literally.”
“Your guesses are as good as mine,” said Joe to the fairy. “My name’s Joe. Beyond that I can’t remember… well… anything.”
“I don’t need to learn your name,” said the alien. “You won’t be here long enough.”
“Grey makes a terrible first impression,” said the witch, with a sideways glance at the alien. “And it doesn’t improve much once you get to know him, either.”
“I’m sure that underneath the fifty shades of his cranky gray exterior beats a heart of gold,” said Joe. “Or hearts. However his physiology works.”
The alien stared at Joe down his pair of flat holes that passed for a nose and went back to counting his chips.
“Don’t you pay any mind to that meanie,” said the fairy. “Have you got any super powers? I hope you aren’t a mind reader, because we couldn’t let you play then. Telepaths only get to watch, like Howie over there.”
The pink monstrosity bobbed its head and made an assenting noise which sounded like the mewl of a tipped-over cow.
“Who are you lot? What exactly is this place?” Joe turned around, but the door he had entered through was gone. There was nothing but solid wall covered in pastel wallpaper, peeling with age. “How do I get out of here?”
“Oh, sweetie, you’re here to stay,” said the fairy. “We all are.”
They watched with varying degrees of amusement while Joe searched frantically for a way out. He circumnavigated the room, studying the ceiling, floor, and walls. There was no sign of an exit.
“This is impossible,” Joe said.
“Enough already,” said the witch. “Let’s bring the new guy up to speed and get back to the game.”
“Hard-boiled private eye? Secret agent? Mercenary?” The fairy chimed in with another flurry of wild guesses.
“What you need to understand first,” said the robot, “is that we aren’t people.”
“That’s kind of obvious,” said Joe. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t discriminate against metal-based life forms.”
“By we – I mean you too, genius,” said the robot. “We’re figments of people’s imaginations. Zeitgeists of popular culture. Tropes. Avatars, brought to life by a hundred thousand dreamers reading the same novel or watching the same film. Whatever’s the flavor of the day finds its way into this room, at least temporarily.”
“Computer hacker? Terrorist? Ninja pirate?”
Joe shook his head. The fairy pouted again.
“At least he isn’t a prepubescent wizard or an emo glittering vampire,” said the witch. “We suffered a plague of those recently.”
“A terrible embarrassment to my kin,” declared the vampire. “I would have liked to kill them all and drink their blood, if it weren’t so diluted with Prozac and Cosmopolitans.”
“They were rotten card players,” said the robot.
“Their one redeeming quality,” added the alien.
“What happened to them?” Joe asked. “If there’s no exit, then where did they go?”
“They faded away,” said the vampire. “Some tropes are much longer-lasting than others. Broomhilda there,” she pointed a razor-sharp red nail at the witch, “has been around since the Roosevelt administration. And she isn’t saying which Roosevelt. Those self-pitying pretenders? Not so much.”
“I don’t much like the idea of fading away,” said Joe.
“Can’t blame you one bit,” said the witch. “But people’s fancies are beyond our control. Be content with the fact that enough of them thought you up, and that you exist at all. Even if existence around these parts is nothing but a never-ending card game.”
“Toreador? Clown? Astronaut?”
Joe shook his head again.
“Whoever you turn out to be, the important question is: do you know how to play Texas Hold’Em?” asked the alien.
“Yes,” said Joe. “I think so.”
“Pity,” said the alien. “I prefer easy opponents. It’s your turn to deal,” he reminded the fairy. “Scoot over and pass the new guy his chips.”
“Ghost whisperer? Colombian drug lord? Pet detective?”
The fairy made increasingly unlikely guesses but, in truth, Joe was no closer to figuring out his own identity than she was. So he played cards and studied the room and its inhabitants.
They played for several hours straight. Joe surprised himself and his companions by being rather good at the game. He quickly learned that the robot never bluffed, the witch fingered a large wart on her nose whenever she had a strong hand, and the vampire always over-bet low pairs pre-flop. The fairy played badly, but made up for it with copious amounts of luck – she often caught just the right card on the river. The alien was the shark of the group – his playing style was tight but aggressive, he changed his strategy all the time, and his gray, emotionless features made for a perfect poker face.
Very slowly, Joe built the modest pile of chips he started out with into an impressive stack that was second only to the alien’s. He searched for an opportunity to take the lead, but the wily extraterrestrial kept eluding his traps.
“Why is this place so run down?” he asked, noting the dilapidated carpet and patches of the green felt on the table worn so threadbare that they were practically bald spots.
“It is the nature of tropes to be well-worn,” said the robot, looking up briefly from his hand of cards.
Not long after that there was a lively round of betting which resulted in a large pile of chips building up at the center of the table. The alien placed his bet after the flop and Joe raised the stakes, sensing an opportunity. The other players groaned and folded their cards one by one.
The Grey studied Joe intently, looking for any kind of a tell.
“Take your time, ET,” said Joe, staring right back at the alien, “and while you consider your move let me compliment you about the crop circles. If I traveled to some faraway planet a gazillion light years away from Earth, I would totally mess with the natives’ minds that way, too. Oh, and what’s up with the cowboy hat?” Joe grinned. He was trying his best to throw the alien off his game, but the Grey didn’t appear to be fazed.
“That was an aggressive bet,” said the alien. “But you’re being bold out of ignorance rather than skill. Your new so-called friends conveniently left out a crucial detail. The game we play is more than a mere diversion.” He leaned in toward Joe. “These chips represent your influence and relevance in the outside world. Win some, and you might stick around a lot longer. Lose it all, and…” the alien snapped his fingers. “Poof.”
“You asked about the cowboy hat earlier. Its previous owner liked to bet aggressively, too. Nice enough chap, if a bit unrefined.” The alien pushed a large stack of chips into the center of the table, almost doubling the pot. “Raise.”
Joe pursed his lips and fondled the clay chips as he processed the new information.
“Well,” he finally said. “Isn’t that an interesting tidbit? Thanks very much for omitting that factoid when you invited me to play.” He looked around the table. The other players wouldn’t meet his gaze. “The fairy has been trying to guess what trope I represent this whole time, and I’ve been mulling it over, too, and I’ve finally figured it out. I’m everyman.”
The players stared at Joe, waiting for an explanation. Even the fairy kept quiet.
“There’s a thin line between a trope and a cliché. I believe all of you have crossed that line, on occasion. I think enough people out there are tired of that. They’re interested in stories about a regular guy. No super powers. No martial arts training. No preconceived notions. A regular Joe who thinks and acts like a person, who can be cautious or reckless, malicious or kind, unpredictable, yet realistic. They want a sort of character who won’t fade away, but always remain fresh by reinventing himself.
“Cowboys and Indians make room for little green men, who get replaced by gumshoe investigators… the tropes come and go. But everyman is always going to be around, for as long as people tell stories, no matter how the cards are dealt.”
Joe shoved his entire remaining stack of chips forward, doubling the pot again. “All in,” he said.
The players reflected on his words in silence. Only Howie the Lovecraftian horror hummed along to the Sinatra tune.
“Fold,” the alien declared after a long pause. He regarded his much-diminished horde of influence chips, then got up and stomped away from the table in frustration.
Joe smiled and collected his winnings.
“What did you have,” the robot asked.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said. “I don’t remember.”
Joe discarded the two of clubs and the seven of hearts he was holding face down and shuffled them into the deck. He decided that he was going to like it here. He had finally figured out what trope he represented and was confident it would take the others a while to get up to speed.
Which was just as well, because he could use all the chips he could get out of them. Card sharp was not, on its own, a very powerful trope.
About the Author
Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 90 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2015 and 2017 Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent were both published in 2015. His website is www.alexshvartsman.com.
About the Narrator
John Meagher is a graphic designer and voice-over artist, who started writing Tales of the Left Hand as a side project to give himself practice narrating longer pieces of work, such as audiobooks. The demo he put together using excerpts from Book One has led to a number of professional narration jobs, now available on Audible. But he also discovered that Left Hand had taken on a life of its own, and there were more stories in the Frees to tell than could be covered in just one book.
He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife (and is about to add fatherhood to his job description in early December) and two cats, satisfying the minimum required feline ownership for fantasy writers.