FOREWORD: One of my latest shorts, "Undefeated" is a piece of flash fiction that deals with a risk taker who remains nameless. It deals with a form of mental illness that I'm not sure has been discovered, but I have often thought I had. Gambling is a compulsive behavior that can have major negative circumstances, but what does it mean when you are the bettor and the house? What possesses a man to follow through when he loses to himself? This story is about a man who does just that. It is one of the few stories I've ever finished, re-read and then had a simple one-word response, "Jesus."
Sometimes gambling is better left to those who know what they can afford to lose. It’s a rush, though. I’ve learned that betting on something can make the experience of watching the events unfold so much more thrilling than they could possibly be otherwise. Sports and games of chance are a natural for the gambling crowd. I’ve sat and watched a basketball game and felt a jolt of adrenaline with every drained three-point shot and missed free throw, counting the seconds down in a game that I would typically not care about whatsoever. In fact, I hate basketball. It’s the worst game I can think of. Dreadfully boring. But when there are a few bills riding on the outcome, you can be certain it is anything but dull.
But it was later that I recall betting with myself for the first time. It started out simple. If I can finish this three-mile run I’ll let myself have a piece of that cake mom made. It’s a challenge to yourself to get something done. And there is nothing wrong with that. But what about when it veers off into a place where the task you’re challenging yourself to do is no longer a good thing with a positive consequence if you succeed? It turns from an “If you can…” into an “If you don’t…”
If you don’t finish this three-mile run in the next 15 minutes you don’t get to watch the game tonight. Silly – yes. But still harmless. Then you take another step. Make it more senseless and less pleasant, and then wonder why you do it and why you always follow through with the consequences. If you can’t hold your breath until you get all the way to the top of the third flight of stairs, you have to slam your fingers in the door of the apartment. Why? Just to have action? With yourself? This is how I began playing the game “I Bet Me.” I still have a disfigured finger from not being able to hold my breath to the top of the steps. My strategy was flawed. I should have walked up gently, using less oxygen instead of trying to sprint. But I have a bad habit of just going for it.
When I accidentally gasped for breath with four steps to go I immediately unlocked my apartment door, inserted my left hand and slammed it. I broke four bones in my hand – one for every step I came up short. And when I found that out in the x-ray room, I laughed, thinking it made sense. You win some. You lose some.
Perhaps this should have broken my habit, but the incidents became more common and more reckless. I was addicted to it. Not the winning. There was no reward for completing the challenges, really. I was hooked deep on the rush I felt when I almost blew it and pulled off the task just in time before the harsh consequences got me. Rolling down the interstate in my convertible with the top down I recall betting myself that I couldn’t keep my eyes closed while driving for 20 seconds in heavy traffic. At 19 seconds I heard a horn blast and I fought off the urge to open my eyes for one more second. When I did, I had just enough time to slam on my brakes and avoid rear-ending the 18-wheeler that was slowing in front of me. He was laying down on his horn trying to warn me to slow down as he saw me approaching at 70 miles per hour in his mirrors. But if I had given in, I would have had to put out my cigarette on my tongue.
So began the long string of dangerous car bets I made with myself and the equally long string of close calls that I continued to win. I became convinced that I couldn’t lose. And I never did – not really. I managed to avoid cutting my own wrist open with a circular saw once by letting go of the steering wheel for 60 seconds. I avoided pulling out a toenail with pliers by making it to the next overpass before the end of the Metallica song that was on the radio. Oh yes. Racing to a landmark on the horizon was a favorite bet of mine. And I always made it. Sometimes with mere milliseconds to spare.
Now this. The clock read 4:27pm on the car’s radio.
“See that oak tree at the top of the next hill?”
“Yeah. With the mailbox next to it?”
“That’s the one. How far you think that is?”
“Maybe a mile?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
“What about it?”
“I think I can make it from right here, past that tree before the clock hits 4:28”
“But how long ago did it turn to 4:27?”
“I dunno. That’s the fun of it. If I don’t make it – I’ll plow head-on into the tree.”
“That’s a big tree.”
“Killer big tree.”
“Go for it.”
And I stepped on the gas. To the floor. As quickly as I could make it through the low gears and get into the top end, I did. It was beautiful. I didn’t know if there were 50 seconds left before the clock turned or if there were less than 3. And I didn’t plan to look until decision time, whether to stay the course or veer into that big sonofabitch and wrap this machine around it in a bloody fireball. This was the big bet. Fuck it.
At the halfway mark I couldn’t resist. I had to glance. Yes! The clock still read 4:27. With 3600 rpm reading on the tach, the car was kicking up a dust trail on this paved country road. The tree was so close now I cold read the house number on the mailbox next to it. 1162. I glanced at the clock knowing that if it read 4:28 I would jerk the wheel right and if it read 4:27 that I was going to make it. At the last moment, I looked…
Still undefeated. 4:27… blink. 4:28 – just as the tree whipped by in my peripheral vision. Heart racing and beads of sweat streaking back into my hair off my forehead from the wind through the windows I let out a scream. Pure joy. And when my scream stopped I could hear another scream in the distance.
I hadn’t even heard the thump, as I was moving in excess of 130 miles per hour and the roar of the wind was deafening. But in the rearview I saw the tumbling carcass of what appeared to be a small child. A woman, presumably the child’s mother, standing on the side of the road, dropping to her knees in agony I felt my head begin to pound, the sweat begin to pour more profusely and my heart race even faster than it had already been.
I slammed on the brakes and cut the wheel in a loud screech. The car came to an abrupt halt and I could hear the woman howl even louder now. And I saw her trying to pick herself up and move toward the disfigured youngster in the middle of the road. I could see a river of crimson slowly rolling across the dusty pavement from the child’s body. Then I locked eyes with the woman as she glared at me and tried to get to her feet.
I paused, not knowing what to do for a moment. Then, as I rolled the car slowly back into the direction of the woman and child, I shifted the car down into first gear and revved the engine.
“I bet if I can run this woman down before anyone else notices, I’ll get away with this.”
“Go for it.”
I slammed the pedal to the floor and worked my way through the gears with a fury… still undefeated.