She stood alone in the rain, her perfectly straight almost-black hair made even darker in the downpour. She appeared to be waiting for a cab, but as the yellow cars slowed to a crawl near her, she didn’t bother to look up. In her hands was a piece of paper, with the handwriting on it melting away with the teardrops from above.
The large man watched her with his binoculars from just inside the casino doors. Arnie was one of those men that was almost impossibly large; his hulking form approached seven feet and his girth made every inch of that seven feet look like a wall; the startling contrast of his almost albino skin against his black suit added to the effect.
The woman had left the resort six hours before, checking out without a single belonging and paying for her visit entirely in cash; that alone was enough to raise some initial alarms in Arnie’s mind. He had personally searched her room, sweeping it with the utmost care for signs of something amiss outside of the usual drugs and booze he would often find in abandoned rooms. But her room was in a pristine state, almost as if no one had ever stayed there at all. The only thing out of place in the room was a faint smear of something grey in the bathroom sink. Arnie ran his index finger through it, sniffed the substance, and gently tapped his tongue. Ash.
The large binocular eyes focused in on the woman. Her black dress, soaked in the rain, had almost melted into her form, and the rain was pouring down so hard he could hardly see her. But she stood there, all alone.
Arnie headed downstairs to the security compound and began to look through the checkin-checkout records for the last several days. After a few minutes of clicking with a mouse, Arnie found what he was looking for: room 3322 had been occupied by a David and Susan Nordstrom for the last two days; they checked in at 4:22 PM on Tuesday.
He went to the security tape vault, which kept all tapes from all the security cameras for a period of three months, and requested the hotel registration desk tape that would show the timeframe when she checked into the hotel. After a moment, the machine began to play footage from Tuesday afternoon from a vantage point above the desk.
He rolled the tape forward to about 4:17 PM and then began to watch carefully. Sure enough, the woman in the black dress strolled onto the screen at about 4:19 PM. She was apparently accompanied by a tall and almost impossibly thin man with short, light hair, but at the desk, she did all of the talking and the receptionist seemed not to even glance at the thin man across the counter.
Arnie rewound and rewatched that piece of tape several times until something else caught his eye. At one point, the thin man glanced up at the camera, then appeared to remove something from the pocket of his jacket and hold it up towards the camera for just an instant; he did this in a seemingly casual fashion, but the two events were very close together in time. Arnie went through that five second segment of tape several times, frame by frame, and when he realized for the first time what exactly the man had removed from his pocket, his jaw dropped in surprise. For a man who had seen everything in the last five years as chief of security in one of the largest casinos in the world, this was something new even to him.
From his pocket, the man had pulled a particularly unusual 1989 Topps football card. The card had a picture of Arnie himself in a Los Angeles Raiders uniform on it.
Arnie’s sole mission in life through his first twenty three years was to play pro football, preferably for the Raiders. During a game in his last year of college football, he twisted his ankle and was never able to live out that dream. He was never drafted to play pro football, and he never got to put on that Raiders shirt. Instead, he wound up as a security guard, and after a number of years, managed to climb the ladder to the top of that profession instead.
On the elevator ride back up to the casino floor, the small black-and-white image of that football card embedded itself deeply in his mind. He thought back to a particularly warm afternoon in the fall of 1987, crouched on a gridiron in Ann Arbor with seventy thousand screaming fans all around him. He felt the fire burn in his ankle again, his body twisting in an angle man wasn’t meant to bend. And he saw that blue October sky, his eyes looking up through a ring of people around him, and knowing for the first time that the dream was over.
When the elevator gates opened, he strode out with a purpose straight toward the front door, stopping only long enough to grab an umbrella at the coat check room. He walked out into the rain, popping open his monstrous umbrella, and strode across the parking lot toward the woman who might somehow have the key to a dream that had laid dormant in his mind for years.
She stood there, still all alone in the pouring rain. As he got closer, he realized she was looking upwards into the rainstorm. He came up behind her, cleared his throat, and said, “Ma’am?”
She sighed and looked down. “Ah, Arnold. It’s about time you came out here to escort me from the rain.”
He was at a loss for words once again, but his thoughts came back almost immediately. “I have some questions I need to ask you, ma’am, if you’ll just come with me.”
She walked under the cover of his enormous umbrella and looked up at him with bright blue eyes.. “Let’s go to the casino for a bit, first, Arnie. I have a few things to take care of, and then after that I think you’ll have some questions about me and the thin man.”
She opened her hands to show him the rain-soaked piece of paper. It was an envelope with some blurred writing on the front, and inside was a stack of chips amounting to about a thousand dollars in value. She walked to a trash container to discard the envelope, but Arnie pulled it from her hand. On the envelope, it said “Play these however you’d like after you meet hin” in the blurred blueness of rain-soaked pen strokes.
Arnie stuffed the envelope into his pocket and looked at the woman. She looked back at him with her amazingly blue eyes. “I knew you would do that. Keep the envelope.”
He looked back down at her, utterly baffled at this woman and the events of the last ten minutes. “I have no reason to keep you from entering the casino, Miss Norstrom...”
“Nordstrom. With a d.” She looked up into his eyes with an inquisitive presence.
“Ah, yes, Miss Nordstrom, but we do need to talk about some matters.”
She laughed and started to walk toward the casino, almost leaving Arnie behind. He followed in her footsteps. When the pair entered the casino, he dropped his umbrella off with a bellhop and hurried on behind Susan as she quickly walked into the casino.
Susan walked to a roulette wheel with her $1,000 in chips in hand. Arnie watched her as she checked to see if he was watching, then placed the entire stack on the number 28.
On some level, Arnie knew what was about to happen, and he knew that part of his job was to prevent anything that might swing the odds in favor of the gambler and away from his employer, yet he somehow needed to watch it, to see it for himself.
The ball entered the roulette wheel, spun around a bit, and bounced onto the 28 slot.
Susan took the $35,000 in winnings and moved the original $1,000 to number 18.
Again, the ball bounced onto slot 18. Another $35,000. With this one, the pit boss and a handful of gamblers milling nearby began to pay attention to the situation, yet Arnie stood back and watched.
Susan quickly placed the original $1,000 in chips onto number 7, and then most of the people around the table began to put chips on number 7 as well, totaling up to about $11,000 on the square. The wheel spun around again. Number 7.
The befuddled roulette dealer looked up at Arnie with the look of a scared deer in his eye. The pit boss came over and tapped the young man’s shoulder with a livid look on his face, but Arnie stepped in and told the pit boss that the young man had played the game perfectly. With a look of undying gratitude, the young man walked away from the table, and Arnie turned to look at the woman who had just pulled $35,000 out of the casino’s pocket three times in a row.
He pulled her chips from the table and glared at her. “Let’s go.”
She smiled back at him with her blue eyes twinkling and rainwater still soaked through her dress and said, “May I have my winnings, please? Then we can talk about things.”
Arnie took her to the payout room, made her sign a few waivers, then cut her a check for $106,000. She took the check, folded it in half, and then seemingly made it disappear in front of his eyes, but after a moment he realized she had slipped the check into a pocket somewhere.
The room filled with silence for a moment, and then Susan laughed. A bright, tinkling laugh that made Arnie even less sure of the world around him, one that he thought was as steady as granite yet was crumbling around his feet.
Until ten minutes ago, Arnie believed that everyone has a set path to follow in life, with ups and downs. Arnie believed that some people were destined for great things, that others were just destined to be cogs in the machine, and that people really couldn’t do anything about it.
Then he looked at the woman in front of him, and thought about that football card, and he wondered.
“It’s already in your mind, isn’t it?” she asked him, snapping him from his train of thought.
He looked back at her with the iciest glare he could muster, and after being a security guard for almost two decades, he could muster an intensely stern look. His gaze had literally made men weep and make them admit to things. Even the most honest men couldn’t hold his gaze for long. But her eyes met his, and they stared at each other for what seemed like hours.
Suddenly, she said, “I don’t even need to tell you. You already know.”
And somehow he did. The path his life had followed folded out before him, not like a straight line across a piece of paper, but as a tree of amazing complexity, with different choices and moments creating branches everywhere. And his life was just a fruit on this tree, one of many.
“Somehow, when that one moment in time comes and you see the branches laid out before and behind you, when you stand at the real crossroads in life, something is there to help. Is it God? I’m not sure. All I know is that what I needed was in an envelope, as was what David needed, and so is what you need.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope she had been about to throw away in the parking lot. It had mostly dried in the time that had passed, and as he looked at it, he realized that somehow, folded up inside the envelope, was that football card.
“That envelope is hope, Arnold. It’s everything that everyone believes isn’t possible anymore, and when you hold it in your hand and burn away that container and breathe in and believe… things happen. This morning, I woke up, David was gone, and these chips and this envelope were by my bedside. As soon as I touched the envelope, I knew that all I had to do was wait for you, and then everything I wanted would come true.
David and I both believed we’d never find the things we wanted, and then one day we both caught glimpses of what might be, and somehow before us it all unfolded. The possibilities of life, Arnie. And we found these envelopes, and now David and I are passing this on to you, as it was passed to us.”
She looked at him for a moment. Arnie just sat there, lost, but somehow believing what she had just said. The silence filled the room, and somehow as that moment passed, Arnie believed in something new. And she somehow knew it, too.
She stood up and produced a lighter from a pocket with just a flick of the wrist. “Light the envelope, Arnie. Break the bond.”
He took the lighter, and raised the flame to the envelope. It caught fire quickly, and Arnie dropped it to the table, but the whole thing incinerated before it hit the table. A puff of smoke came upwards and somehow, Arnie just breathed in automatically. And as he looked down into the smoke, he felt just a touch dizzy, and he swore he could see a football jersey. And a thin white man pulling something out of his pocket ... and maybe something else, just out of sight.
When Arnie faded away, Susan swept the ashes from the table into a trash can, then stepped out of the payout room and looked around. She wasn’t entirely sure, but the place seemed just a touch worn, where before it had seemed utterly sparkling. “No matter,” she thought, “that’s all I really need to know anyway.”
And far below her, the chief of security at the casino watched the lady leave. He folded his small hands together and wondered why she was alone in the payout room, but he didn’t go check. She walked toward the hotel rooms and as she strolled down the hall, she bumped into a bellhop and he looked directly into her eyes.
Somewhere else, Arnie opened his eyes and realized it was warm outside. He breathed in deeply and smelled grass around him. And without a hesitation he knew where he was.
And he knew that when he walked off the field in Ann Arbor, there would be an envelope in his locker with blue writing on the front.
And what was inside that envelope?
He couldn’t wait to find out.
I hope you enjoyed this story. Let me know if you enjoyed reading it and thinking about it as much as I enjoyed writing it.