Loser by Riley Passmore

Jeffrey Rhodes, the actual quarterback for the Detroit Lions, punches me in the face with everything he goddamn has, and I puke all over my Levi’s. I mean, he really lets me have it. By the time he pulls away his fist, I see stars and the face of God.

“How do you do it?” he snarls, his fist held high for another blow. He’s tied me to a folding chair, and has my collar wrenched up in his other hand. He’s angrier than Bigfoot.

“Do what?” I ask. Vomit dribbles down my shirt. My jaw doesn’t want to move.

He punches me again, this time even harder. His fist arcs across my vision like the meteor that took out the dinosaurs, and hits my left cheek. This high-school dropout, this roided-out psycho, he’s got one hundred pounds on me, maybe more. A world-class athlete. My face doesn’t even feel like my face anymore, but numb. A Halloween mask. I’m starting to black out.

“You know what the fuck I mean,” he says. Even though I can barely see, my eyes swelling shut, I can see the hate in his eyes. “The games,” he says. “I know you’re fixing them. How?”

I spit up blood, a half-cough. “You need to get your head checked,” I say.

He roars, and hurls his right hook above his head like a cannonball. A haymaker. This time, though, I don’t even feel him hit me. I’m somewhere else. And then, when I snap-to, Jeffrey’s roaring. He’s pacing around the abandoned warehouse, or wherever the hell he’s taken me, ranting and raving like a madman. Poor Jeffrey – he’s completely lost it.

“That’s not what everyone else is saying,” he says, spit flying out of his mouth. “They’re saying you’re fucking magic or some shit. That you’ve got goddamn superpowers.” He gets in my face, his wide-eyes barely millimeters from mine. They’re surveilling my soul.

He says, “They say you get to decide who wins and who loses. Not us. Do you know how much shit I have to shoot into my body? Do you have any idea how much shit I have to eat? I’ve been training for this job since I learned how to throw laces-out, and…none of that matters?”

I chuckle, another half-cough. My blood splatters his face.

“I just make people lucky,” I say, and smile a shit-eating grin.

He roars, and then grabs my shirt with both of his battleship hands and lifts me into the air, chair and all. We’re eye-level now, and my feet dangle like I’ve been hanged.

“You know what?” he says, unblinking. “How about this: how about I don’t give a fuck what you do to these teams. You work for me now. Make me a fucking winner.”

“And if I don’t?” I ask.

“Then I beat you to death with my bare hands,” he says. He drops me, and I land still-seated in the chair. “And trust me: I’ll make it hurt the whole time you’re dying.”

*          *          *

Three days earlier, before I had even heard of Jeffrey Rhodes, I’m in the tunnels under the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. I’m under who-knows-how-many tons of dirt and concrete, and yet, even from here, I can still hear them. The fans. Their roar’s a low hum in my chest, a contrabass clarinet, a fuzziness in my skull. They’ve come today to not only see their team win, but witness the impossible: somehow, someway, the New England Patriots have had a second undefeated season, and are well on their way to their seventh Big Game win.

That somehow is me.

“Hey, Boss,” my bodyguard says, peeping out the door of the Patriot locker room. “They’re ready for you.” He’s big and Black and built like a refrigerator.

“Thanks, Reggie.”

He swings open the door and I duck under his arm. Inside, the entire roster of the Patriots awaits, with each player sitting in front their own cubby bolted into the fake wood wall behind them. Like always, they’re as still as the trophies in their trophy room, and just as quiet. Some even look like they’re praying, or somehow embarrassed. Like they’re ashamed. The head coach, meanwhile, stands in the middle of the room, in a sea of gray carpet. Assistant coaches stand on either side of him, and at their feet, on top of an enormous Patriots logo, lie three black duffle bags. Like the rest of the team, they too are silent – the coaches. This is serious business, what they’re doing.

“You ready?” I ask the coach.

He nods. “I am.”

“And the money?” I ask.

He nods to the assistant coaches, and they bring over the duffle bags. They look heavy as hell, and that’s because they’re full of cash. If the Patriots are giving me what I asked for, there’s three and a half million dollars at me and Reggie’s feet, maybe more, a tip for good service. This may sound like a lot of money, and it is, but it’s nothing to a professional football team.

“Is that everything?” the coach asks.

Reggie pulls a scale out of his jacket, his jacket big enough to swallow three of me whole, and weighs the duffles. After checking the numbers, he gives me a nod.

“Yeah,” I say. “We’re golden.”

“Good,” the coach says. “Then let’s get to it. The coin toss is in fifteen minutes.”

The players stand, and from the back of the locker room, the Patriots’ quarterback emerges. He walks toward me with that Mick Jagger swagger they all have, that ego hot enough to last a whole winter and feed a family of four. When he arrives, he holds out his hands, palms up, and I take them in mine. Like a lot of the players I work with, they’re cold and clammy and gross.

I close my eyes, and take a deep breath. I summon all of the sincerity I have, and when I open them, I look into his eyes and ask, “Am I a member of your team?”

Without hesitation, he says, “Yes. You are a member of my team.”

I take another deep breath, and then, in the next moment, the lights in the locker room begin to flicker. The red EXIT sign above the door in the back glows hot, burning brighter than it should be – it’s a spotlight. My tongue goes numb, my feet go cold, and around me, everyone in this locker room feels the same thing. A pressure. It builds behind our ears like we’re diving together in an official, Patriots submarine, as though the weight of the entire Pacific is bearing down on our skulls.

And then, pop – it’s over as quickly as it began.

“Who’d you see this time?” I ask the quarterback.

He pulls away his hands. He’s disgusted.

Sometimes, when I luck people, they see things. Sometimes these things are scary, and other times these things are weird – deceased loved ones, monsters, old girlfriends. Even cartoons.

“It was the Care Bears again, wasn’t it?”

The quarterback shoots me a look. He says, “Get the fuck out of my locker room.”

The coaches intervene, and Reggie grabs the bags. “That’s enough, fellas,” they say.

Just like last week, and the week before that, the Patriots are now good to go. They’re winners, guaranteed. But before I leave, before I follow Reggie out the back door to my “Midnight Sapphire” Rolls Royce Phantom, I tell the coaches and everyone else in the room the same thing.

I say, “Hey, guys. Good luck out there tonight.”

I smile, proud of my little joke, but let me tell you:

No one ever, ever laughs.

*          *          *

Ever since I popped out, I’ve been lucky. Lucky is just what I am. No matter what happens, no matter the circumstances, I always come out on top. Whether I’m rolling for the right number to land on Free Parking in Monopoly or playing gas station scratch offs, I always win. This has made me extraordinarily wealthy, but I definitely didn’t start this way. Before my Roll Royce, before my body guard and my three and a half million dollar fee, no one knew me as lucky.

They knew me as a cheater.

My folks on boardgame night, my middle school chess club, the kids playing tag on the play-ground – they knew that whenever I came to play, they would lose. And it never took long for anyone to notice, either. If you’re ten undefeated rounds of Uno deep in a single night, or able to beat your school’s chess coach without ever having played, people notice. People get pissed.

And they start making accusations.

They start pointing fingers.

They look for cards stashed up your sleeves, and check your pockets for extra pieces. They pat you down like they’re the TSA or the Mob. And when that doesn’t land anything, those pat downs become beat downs. Those “How do you keep doing this?” become screams.

Everyone was sure I was cheating, they just couldn’t prove it.

The thing is, I never had to cheat. Even when I tried to lose, I couldn’t. The universe, or God, or Lady Luck, or whoever, wouldn’t let me. My winning was as sure as the sunrise, as solid as the fifty-ton columns of concrete holding up Gillette Stadium. But that didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter until my freshman year of high school, when my football coach realized that even when I sat out, even when my cleats never even set foot on the field, we won.

I was a cheater, until I wasn’t.

*          *          *

We leave Gillette Stadium right as the first quarter starts and the cheerleaders do their thing. By the time we reach my Rolls in the stadium’s private parking lot, duffle bags in hand, the whole place shakes. The Patriots have already scored their first touchdown, and are well on their way to their next big win. By this time tomorrow, there’ll be think pieces all over ESPN and interviews on every major network in the country. This time next year, there’ll be book deals and sponsorships and talks of the Hall of Fame. They’ll be the New Gods of America, just because they’ve won.

“Where to next, Boss?” Reggie asks. I pop the trunk with my key fob, and we throw the duffle bags inside. They weigh more than fifty pounds apiece, but the Rolls doesn’t even move.

“The hotel,” I say. “And in the morning, the bank.”

I go to slam the trunk, wanting to spike it like a celebratory football, but before I can even grab the lid, some gigantic motherfucker in a ski mask pistol whips Reggie in the back of the head. I’ll never forget the noise – a sickening, meaty smack, like a sledgehammer tenderizing gristle. Poor Reggie drops instantly, and slumps over the duffles in the trunk. Ski Mask then locks me in a chokehold, and forces the muzzle of his gun into my right kidney. Judging by the size of the barrel, it’s fucking huge, a goddamn handcannon, but in Ski Mask’s leather-gloved excavators, it feels like a toy.

“Aren’t you gonna ask me who I am?” the man seethes into my ear.

Like I have a choice. “Okay, sure. Who the hell are you?” I ask.

Me?” he snarls, bringing his shark eyes into the light. “I’m Jeffrey Rhodes, the actual goddamn quarterback of the Detroit Lions, and we’re going for a fucking ride.”

*          *          *

I’ve lucked every kind of team – Olympic swim teams, major league baseball teams, women’s volleyball teams, even the Jamaican bobsled team – and that’s made me a lot of enemies. Remember: if I make someone win, that also means, by definition, I make someone lose. And in my thirty year career, I have made a lot of winners out of losers, and a lot of losers out of winners. In fact, I can tell you this: I’ve helped your favorite team win at least once, and many of these teams, the really big ones, even have me an office in their multibillion dollar, taxpayer-funded stadiums.

I’m an open secret, is what I’m saying.

It’s not exactly hard to find me – hence, Reggie.

If you spend enough time online, enough time scrolling through official sports forums and social media, you’ll come across me eventually. Pictures of me and Reg’ leaving games, the addresses of hotels where we’ve stayed. If someone really wanted to find us, hurt us, it wouldn’t be that difficult. Hell, the leagues themselves have certainly tried.

There was this regulator guy back in the late 90’s, back when I first started: Duane McClure. At the time, he worked as an official for USA Basketball, the highest American basketball authority in the land. I, on the other hand, had just spent the last eight years sending the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, and making Michael Jordan more money than God.

Anyway, despite the millions in endorsement deals, merchandise sales, stadium sell-outs, and publicity I had helped both the NBA and USA Basketball win, this guy Duane started making a stink. He said I was “betraying the spirit of the game,” that I “wasn’t playing fair.”

The thing is, nobody really cares about “fair.”

In fact, people hate fair.

The Bulls didn’t want to give up their edge, and the other teams, once they realized I could be their edge, didn’t want to give me up, either. Even if that meant losing in the short-term.

So a couple of the coaches got together to come up with a plan. They figured I was lucky, right? Well, what if I lucked a couple of hired guns and sent them hunting for Duane McClure? They could rough him up, they kidnap him – hell, they could even kill the poor bastard, and they’d never be found out. They may even get lucky, and find him in the first place they looked.

Anyway, that’s how I met Reggie.

*          *          *

Jeffrey Rhodes, the actual quarterback of the Detroit Lions, stares at me with eyes so sharp they’re like drill bits. He just threatened to beat me to death with his bare hands, and now he wants me to make him a winner? Okay, I can make him a winner.

“I need your hands,” I say, my breaths shallow and weak. I can barely hold up my head, and the room is spinning hard. Lurching. That, and my Levi’s still reek of puke.

“My hands?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “This is how it works.”

“I ain’t untying you, little man.”

“Okay, then,” I say. “That’s too bad. No Lombardi for you.”

He groans. “You better not be shittin’ me,” he says.

He steps behind me, and undoes my rope handcuffs. When I pull my hands around, they’re still purple from the rope cutting off blood, and my wrists are already black and blue. It’s weird: they feel like they’re missing, but also like they’ve been crushed under a semi-truck.

He presents his hands.

They’re so beefy and bloated, I’m surprised he can bend them.

I take a deep breath, struggle to sit up straight, and take his hands in mine. I close my eyes like always and try to find that luck within me. It glows like a lightbulb in the darkness of my mind, the source of all my power – wherever it comes from, whatever it is.

I look him in the eyes and ask, “Jeffrey, am I a member of your team?”

He clenches his jaw, maybe thinking that I’m messing with him again – and I am, make no mistake – but I urge him on with a nod, and he relents. His face relaxes, maybe for the first time in a long time, and the old lights in the warehouse begin to flicker. One even bursts – a glass-shattering explosion – and sparks fly. The laws of probability are bending, buckling. About to break.

“Yeah, little man,” he says. “You are a member of my team.”

The remainder of the lights explode in a storm of glass, my tongue goes numb, the pressure builds, and then Rhodes’ eyes grow wide. He sees something, I can tell. Something, maybe, from another world, or maybe something from his past. His lips try, in vain, to mouth out the word on his tongue, but he cannot speak. He looks as though he’s trying to call out for his mother.

But then, in that very same instant, the pressure pops and a Rolls Royce Phantom flies through the loading door to my right, bringing with it fragments of the warehouse itself – brick, mortar, and glass. The car collides with Rhodes head-on, hitting him as though a tractor ploughing through a cow. His hands are ripped from mine and he lands, motionless, twenty feet from my seat, the gun in his waistband clattering to the floor. The Rolls, meanwhile, comes to a screeching halt, its million-dollar brakes stopping on a dime, and the smell of burnt rubber fills the air.

“It’s okay,” I say to Jeffrey. “Everyone’s first time is a little weird.”

Reggie rolls down the window, and looks out. He’s got a bloody, monogrammed Rolls Royce towel wrapped around his head in masking-tape, the same we use to wrap up the cash.

“About time,” I say.

He stares at me from the driver’s seat, the look in his eyes pained and pissed and scared. I’ve worked with him for nearly thirty years, and I’ve never seen him like this before.

“Yeah, Boss,” he says, finally. “Look. We need to talk.”

*          *          *

Reggie quit on the way to the hospital, cussing me out the whole way there, and honestly, I can’t say I blame him. In the past, he’d only ever needed to protect me from scrawny bookies and desperate gamblers, not full-blown meat tanks like Jeffrey Rhodes. Getting pistol whipped and thrown into a trunk – even a velvety, Rolls Royce trunk – wasn’t exactly in the job description, either.

It’s a shame, really. Three decades of friendship, and he’s gone like that.

I’m really gonna miss him.

Him, and my three-and-a-half million dollars.

My Phantom’s totaled, and I don’t have insurance. On me, or the car. My Rolls is totaled, and I’m looking at months of facial reconstructive surgery, maybe even physical therapy. And that’s not even counting the fact that they cut out my fucking spleen.

When Reggie hauled-ass through that door to take out Jeffrey Rhodes, he took out more than just the actual goddamn quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He took out our entire operation.

“Is that all?” the cashier asks.

I’m at a convenience store down the street from the hospital, three days after Reggie had driven me and Jeffrey to the Foxborough ER. Before letting me go, the attendings were kind enough to wire shut my fractured jaw, and I needed a dinner I could drink.

“Yeah, man,” I say, gritting through my teeth.

He scans my pack of cigs, my Campbell’s soup cans, and my Colt 45. That’s when I catch sight of the game on the TV above the hotdog roller. It’s the Lions versus the Patriots, and despite Jeffrey Rhodes lying up in the same hospital I’d just left, the Lions are winning.

“Actually,” I say, my mouth full of metal, “grab me one of them scratch-offs. One of those ‘Big Money Spectaculars.’ I wanna show you something cool.”

The cashier – this boy who looks big enough to be a bouncer – he shoots me a look like I’m crazy. How could a man with a broken face win anything, anything at all?

“Sure thing, Boss,” the boy says. “Whatever you say.”

Riley Passmore (he/him) is a speculative fiction writer, essayist, and game designer in Tampa, Florida. His work has appeared in Barnstorm Journal, Five on the Fifth, and Sweet: A Literary Confection, and has been anthologized in Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine. He teaches college-level English composition and literature in New Port Richey.

Twitter: @RDPassmore