I was standing in the kitchen door to my grandma's house. The aged wooden floor creaked as I took a step in the outer room of the old structure built with bricks, wood and tiled roof. The familiar dusty, mouldy smell hung in the air. The tiny room looked just like I remember seeing as a child, dimly lit with the yellow light of a kerosene lantern which gave every piece of the ancient wooden furniture a golden sheen. This was my second clue that I was dreaming, since the house in question was demolished decades ago.
The first, of course, was the hooded figure sitting in front of the grand piano.
Dreams are interesting. It's very difficult to hold a conscious thought like "OMG! I am dreaming!" for over a second but it’s very easy to just know things without a shadow of a doubt. Kind of the way I knew that I was staring at the back of Death herself.
As I approached her cautiously, the piano had changed into a big black machine with slots all over it. Playing cards were popping out of random slots. Death was rapidly catching and feeding them back in the machine with dozens of wrinkled bony hands, filling the room with the soft clinking of glass bangles.
"You humans breed like rabbits nowadays," she rasped aloud just as I was about to try and creep close enough to see what was under the hood. She turned, shadows oozing out of her black robes and dancing on the discoloured walls with the frantic activity of her hands. Under the shadow of her hood, all I could see were two eyes shining like red hot coals. Cards kept flying all around the room.
Terror gripped me like it only can in a nightmare.
"Wh-wh-wh-what are th-those?" I managed to stutter. The room spun as she put the machine between us. Suddenly, she was a casino dealer, complete with a white shirt, black tie and orange waistcoat. She was now dealing cards over the machine, or was it the grand piano again?
"Souls, boyo, souls of your kind, overrunning the world." Despite the changed appearance, the voice was the same. Old, tired and raspy.
"I have a limited number of cards for every kind. These days I have to fill some openings in your department from the unused stock from the animal kind that you are bent on exterminating. Don't blame me if you have some wolves and hyenas running in human skins. We are only trying to maximize the utilization of available resources. Standard company policy, you know," she was explaining it to me, now as a typical HR employee, sitting in a meeting room just like the ones in my office, handing me some documents over the piano. They looked awfully like the notes we used to take in school.
"So I'm a card too?" Curiosity had replaced my fear by now. She started chalking equations on the blackboard in my old school classroom. "You are of the most common ones of the pack. The probability of..." She started explaining it like my maths teacher. My mother had once told someone that math scares me more than death. I don't think she thought I'd have an opportunity to do a direct comparison. Proving her right, I interrupted Death and asked, "Excuse me ma'am, but what card am I?" She scowled at me just the way my grandmother used to when I asked a silly question.
And we were back in the old house once more, with Death leaning over me as the machine hummed behind me. She was now as tall as the ceiling, only her blazing eyes visible in the darkness surrounding her. I took a step back involuntarily and heard glass crunching beneath my feet. I looked down to find the whole floor covered with jet black bangles broken in a million pieces. There wasn't any pain. Just the cold, dark fear gripping you in your chest till you can feel your heart hammering in your throat. Till you're suffocated. Till you're paralyzed.
She reached in the depth of her robe with one of those hands as I backed into the machine and pulled out a card and held it in front of me, face down. "This isn't you, boy," she rasped," You are in the machine now. This one is a housewife who recently... shuffled out." I pulled the card, turning it as I did.
It was the ace of spades.
I asked, confused," Didn't you say this was a housewife? Shouldn't an ace be for maybe, I don't know, presidents and kings and CEOs?" Death chuckled in her throat. "That's the potential of the card. But only if played right in the right game. In some, ace is the highest there is. In others, it’s just a lowly one, lowest of them all," she explained while taking the card and, with a flick of a wrist, tossing it behind me. The machine hummed and clicked as it dropped right into a slot. As I looked back at it, I realized that I could barely make it out with all the haze in the room. Or was the lantern giving out? The shadows lengthened around me, till I could barely see anything but the sparkling red eyes. The jingling of glass was so loud now that it was deafening. It started to sound a lot like my alarm clock.
"What does this all mean? What am I supposed to do?" I shouted over the din, struggling to keep the incoherent dream from falling apart.
The last thing I heard was her voice whispering to me, "Stop playing the wrong game."