Image by Benjamin Lambert, remixed by Alexander Lionel
The Oz Casino
by H. Roth-Brown
The alley, you would have sworn, is empty. Blank concrete walls and a narrow, colorless door, likely out of use for years. You’re turning your head to say it’s a bust when the light blazes into existence, catching the corner of your eye, flooding the door and the whole lane with blood-red light: a bent-neon sign and the words THE OZ CASINO.
Jess got her wish — this place is about as back-alley Vegas as you can get. Your sister gets final say for being the bride, and after an hour of vodka slushies and penny slots on the Strip, she’d declared that what she really wanted was “one of those little casinos, like where you crawl through some dark alley and play blackjack with a mob boss.”
The narrow door gazes at you from the end of the lane, daring you forward. Jess strides right up to the door, and the other bridesmaids, hanging disconsolately to the back, let out whoops and cheers. You’ll give it to your sister: she has always been game.
You must have missed the sign before, that’s all. Someone flipped a switch. You’ve had a couple of drinks yourself, trying to drown out the noise of this bridal party, most of whom you’d never met before tonight. You’ve been taking it easy, though, not going too hard, wanting to be a good companion. None of them seemed to share that compulsion.
Your sister knocks. The rest of the bridesmaids hover behind like a line of disoriented, drunk ducklings, all probably secretly hoping no one will answer, that they’ll be allowed to go back to Circus Circus in peace. And then suddenly the woman beside you, bleach-blonde and drunk and very annoying, grabs at your arm and nearly drags you to the ground.
The shriek she lets out, agonized and despairing, silences the group for just a moment, and they all turn. She is crouching on the pavement, pulling you into a bow, clutching her nude pump and howling. “These are Dior!”
The heel of the shoe hangs limply by a few threads of leather. A few of the girls giggle. You try to help her to her feet, and the woman — Jackie, you think, that’s her damn name — leans all her weight on you like she’s been mortally injured.
“Evening, ladies!” calls a deep, musical voice.
The narrow red door has opened, and in front of it stands a man in a matching red suit, smiling a giant smile and sporting a waxed moustache. Vegas through and through.
“Oh, he’s cute,” says Jackie. She’s still hanging on your arm.
He bows. “At your service. This far from the city’s main attractions, I would venture to say that you are in search of a little adventure.”
“I’ll have an adventure with you right now —” but Jackie is quickly quashed by her more sober friends. Jess steps forward.
“We might be,” she says. She may have her faults, but like you say, she’s always been game.
“Can I get your number?” Jackie yells, irrepressible.
“Roger is my name,” he says. “My number might cost you a few turns at the Wheel of Fortune.”
A chorus of ooohhs and suddenly you’re nearly shoved to the ground as everyone pushes through the door.
Inside is a wonderland. You really never could have guessed from that dinky building and narrow red door just how big this place was going to be. The usual assortment of slot machines and themed games, poker tables, Wheel of Fortune, craps. The weird thing is just how full the place is — you’re nearly a quarter mile off the Strip, in exactly the dark alley Jess was looking for, and yet there are easily two or three hundred people in sight. That Roger must be good at his job.
Speaking of Roger, he’s followed you in. He’s beaming and showing you around, parceling you all off at different tables, until the group is mostly dispersed. You and Jackie end up at a cash-dump game from the 80s themed after Godzilla. There are even glassy-eyed waitresses bringing free drinks to the players, like any big name casino. You seem to be situated right at the intersection of two different servers’ jurisdictions, so as long as you order quick and gulp it down as soon as it comes, you can get twice as many drinks. This is helpful for being stuck with Jackie.
An hour or two goes by like that; it’s hard to say how long, really. There are no clocks in here, and your phone (you realize when you go to check it) is dead.
At some point, you see Roger again. He’s leading Jess. You stand up to follow. It’s not really a conscious thing. Your parents and teachers always used to call you two magnets. Where one went, she pulled the other along. Like when you went horseback riding for the first time as a little girl and she trailed after you on foot, terrified of horses herself but unwilling to let you go on without her. And when the horse reared up and threw you off its back, she had screamed louder than you and thrown herself forward to break your fall. You’d collapsed together in the grass, snapped back in place by your polar magnetic forces. It’s less like that nowadays, but still, without thinking, your nine free cocktails and counting have brought you right back to that place.
Jackie trails along behind you. What a sight you all must make. But when Roger notices, he just beams, shouts, “The more the merrier!” and — pulls back the wall.
You blink and you can see it now, where the façade was, the clever overlay of fabric patterned like wallpaper. A curtain. A curtain, and another red door.
Strong commitment to theme. Nice. What a weird place.
The three of you and Roger enter the next room. He must be off his doorman shift. You wonder if Jackie is ever getting his number. She’s pretty trashed now, so it’s unlikely she’ll remember to ask. Who are you kidding? You’re pretty trashed, too. Enough that you’re even starting to like her.
The next room is smaller than the first, but it can’t be by much. Maybe half of a ballroom? And there are people in here too. Plenty of them. This room is full of tables, and the people at the tables are playing cards, though everywhere you look, they seem kind of frozen. Like they’re right in the middle of a move.
“Where are we now?” you ask Jess, but she isn’t listening to you.
“Welcome to the VIP lounge,” says Roger, and he shows you his white teeth. How much, you wonder, is this going to cost Jess? For a couple of elite poker games?
Roger leads you to one of the tables. You all sit.
After one round of Texas Hold ’Em, you withdraw. You always hated this game. Jess stays in, so does Jackie. Five hands later and Jackie is out of cash, but Jess is actually doing all right, chips weaving between her and Roger from round to round, never piling in one place.
Her luck holds out for exactly three rounds more, whatever unit of measurement that translates to in this place without time. Then she starts to lose. And lose badly.
She’s got that dumb stubborn look in her eyes, that solid Jess look, the one that’s always told you There is nothing I’ve ever met that could stop me. Is it an older sister thing? The first time you ever went bowling, she insisted on no bumpers. She’d heard they were for babies. She rolled nothing but gutterballs all night. You on the other hand, you actually did pretty well for a seven-year-old, rolled a few spares and even a handful of strikes. It had been down to the last round, and she had grinned at you, spoken the words that echo in your ears now, almost two decades later.
“Double or nothing?”
Roger raises his eyebrows, and smiles. He deals.
You see the moment when she loses it all. Not just loses it all, but overdraws herself, since she was down and out before this round. You see it in her eyes, which have been bright and eager all night, glittering with that Jess certainty; you see the way it drains away, leaving something dull and empty behind.
When you were kids, at the bowling alley, she had not lost. She had drawn herself up to her full power and rolled a perfect strike, and you’d pouted and whined, but somewhere, deep in the bottom of your heart, you’d been relieved. Your big sister could salvage anything. No matter what, she could dig herself out.
Roger sweeps the chips onto his side. He smiles widely.
Jess stares back. There’s no color in her voice. “Well, I guess that’s that. Where’s the ATM?”
Roger waves it off. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s on the House.”
“You can’t be serious,” said Jess.
“I am. And if you would, I would like to invite you to another inner room of the Casino.”
“An even VIP-er VIP lounge?” you ask, trying to sound sarcastic. For no reason at all, you shudder.
“Something more intimate,” says Roger.
Jess deliberates. For a moment, you can almost read her thoughts on her face. She thinks it’s weird, too. But the thirst for adventure is back, filling the gaps of the gambling loss. She jumps up.
“I’m in,” she says.
You went. Of course you did. What else could you do?
Even if something about him was starting to skeeve you out — the teeth, the not-right, subtly mechanical movements.
You went to see what would happen next. To have an adventure. But really, you went because Jess went.
A momentary lapse in memory. You’ve had a lot to drink. You remember the third red door, opening to darkness.
There is no transition. One minute you’re behind Jess, and Jackie behind you, and then you’re all alone in the pitch black.
The light comes suddenly. Like opening your eyes. Only it isn’t your eyes, it’s a hulking neon sculpture of an eye, hanging on the wall right in front of you.
You jump. The same feeling as when you catch sight of yourself in a mirror you didn’t know was there, frightened by your own presence.
And the eye, it just keeps gazing into you.
You try yelling for Jess. For Roger. For Jackie, for anyone.
And the eye.
It’s hard to explain. It comes in flashes. The time you locked yourself in the basement when you were nine and you screamed yourself hoarse but no one came home for hours and hours, and the part of you who is still there, who will always be there, is staring back at you.
The things you think about when you can’t sleep. The color red, drowning you in all its merciless hues. The ceiling fan in your room when you were thirteen and bedridden with a high fever, lulling you with its gentle cycles that got faster, more dangerous, and it was getting closer and closer —
You think of the possibility that everything and everyone in the world is a delusion of your own mind, that you are only really here with the eye. In your true state. Alone.
You think of the worst thing you have ever done, the thing you can’t even speak of, won’t even name, and you wonder if it is unforgivable.
Another door. You’ve been so hypnotized by the eye that you didn’t even see it. Red, gleaming like salvation. You grab the handle and pull it open, drag yourself into the light. You can hear sobbing, and it takes some time to realize it is your own.
The light is almost blinding. You’re in a large theater now, and everyone is drinking champagne. You hear a familiar voice and catch a glimpse of Jackie, double-fisting two flutes of prosecco and shrieking. You think it is with laughter.
Someone grasps your hand and turns you like a dancer. You always used to love that when you were a kid. A second later he turns you to face him: Roger.
“Did you lose something?” he asks, and all you can see are those gleaming teeth.
You break away and head for Jackie. She’s in the corner, hanging off the arms of two other women you’ve never seen before. “Where’s Jess?” you yell. God, it’s loud in here. Loud enough to rattle in your brain. Jackie just looks at you without comprehension.
“Jess!” you shout. “The bride! My sister!”
The other women, the strangers, crowd around you. “Did you lose something?” they ask. “Did you lose something?”
And then, like an echo, a mocking voice over the PA system: “Did you lose something?”
You learned about fight or flight in middle school. Your body’s natural response to extreme stress, completely divorced from the rational modern world. Something ancient and primal, something protective.
It’s like crawling through a swimming pool full of Jell-O. Something you’ve never done, for the record, but that’s the only frame of reference you have. You can still hear them. It’s like you’re suffocating on their voices. Their voices are what you’re crawling through. And right as you’re about to just give it up, you burst through the surface. Through the veil. Whatever. You tumble out, breathing air again, not words, and you hit the cold ground.
You wake up on the floor, tangled in sheets. It’s cold. No one told you the desert would be so fucking cold.
There’s a banging on the door. You try to get your bearings. Where are you? Some hotel room. Who is knocking? You go to the door. Housekeeping. Okay.
“Checkout was at nine,” she says when you open the door.
“Right,” you say. Then you double back. When did you come here? Did you pack a suitcase? There’s nothing of yours in the room.
“Did you lose something?” the lady asks.
In the lobby, you see a few of the other bridesmaids. Annie, Sarah, Jackie. She seems to have found a replacement pair of shoes.
“This is the worst hangover of my goddamn life,” she says.
“I’m headed home,” Annie says. “I’m coming down with something, and they let me change my flight.”
“Me too,” said Sarah. “I need to get back. Family stuff.”
“Where is Jess?” you ask.
They all look at you, like you’re the asshole here for making them strain their memories. Annie says, “I think she said she was just going to drive the rental back to LA.”
“She was plastered,” you say. “You let her do that? Anyway, she wouldn’t. I know her.”
Do you, though?
“She probably just got a different hotel room,” says Sarah. “Call her?”
But the line rings and rings, and no one picks up.
“Oh,” says Jackie, pushing a bag at you. “I found your suitcase in my room.”
It’s colder on the Strip than it was last night. Vegas by day is surreal. All of it fake, gleaming, a theme park for adults. Everyone in on the joke.
You go inside a themed diner and order a five dollar black coffee. It’s not good, but it soothes the nausea in your belly. You order a plate of eggs and potatoes. In for a penny, in for a pound. You dial Jess’s number again.
It rings and rings, no voicemail. Why do you bother? You know where she is.
You’re thinking a lot this morning about courage. You keep coming back to this memory you have of Jess in the coastal canyon where you used to play as kids. You’d found an old toboggan and were sledding down the icy plant-covered canyon wall, completely destroying everything in your wake. Jess was always faster. One of those times, you flew through a thicket of cacti, landed hard, and broke your ankle.
And that sister of yours, she hardly even blinked. She waded through that forest of spines and spears and she got you on her back, used a stick to whack her way back out, and dragged you up the hill. By the time you were home, you both had cactus spines all over, but Jess had seen the brunt of it.
As you remember it, it had barely hurt at all flying into that thicket. The impact hurt, sure, and you hurt all over for days after and the months it took for your ankle to recover. But really, the whole thing had taken you by surprise, so there wasn’t much time to anticipate anything. But for Jess, it had hurt. That’s what it really takes. When you know what’s waiting for you and you go anyway.
The red door looks strange in the light of day. You found it by accident on the walk to where you thought it was. You could’ve sworn it was at least three more blocks — but then, you had been drinking.
Knocking yields only dead silence. The kind that says not only is nobody here, but they never have been and never will be. Go away.
You stop knocking and start kicking. The door flies open on the second try.
The panic is hard to keep down as you walk inside. That red door is a trigger, and suddenly your heart rate is up, your breath shallow. It’s dark. A few games are buzzing and flickering, but most of the machines are off. Oh, God, what happened to you here? There is so much you can feel but not quite remember, and it comes in flashes and images, not words.
You force yourself forward. You keep walking through the dark. The light from the half-open door behind you grows fainter.
You jump. And yet, it feels almost as if you had been waiting for him.
He’s sitting there, to your left, in a metal folding chair. Still wearing that red suit.
“Hello,” you say back.
Roger looks different. Like catching someone half asleep or undressed. He’s not put together. He’s the backstage version of what you saw last night.
“I’m looking for Jess,” you tell him.
A smile. He lifts his hand in what is supposed to be a casual gesture, but it is too sharp a movement, too sudden. Like a marionette being jerked around by a bad puppeteer. “Who?”
A chill, like the room just dropped ten degrees.
“My sister, Jess. She was here last night.”
“Can’t recall.” His eyes are so focused on yours.
All your hair is standing on end, and you’re losing your patience. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know what you are, or what happened to us last night.” Something about his eyes is drawing the words out of you. “All I came for is to find my sister.”
“And so you returned here,” he says. “You are, I think, the first.”
You can’t help yourself. “What is the Oz Casino?”
“Wish fulfillment. A world of worlds. A fun night out.”
“The eye room?”
“Something more intimate.”
You don’t know what to say to that. A lone fluorescent lightbulb over your head flickers and turns on.
“Look at that,” says Roger. “You’re lighting this place right up.”
“Where’s my sister?”
“She’s in private consultation,” he says. “Meeting the boss. I know that you will ask me about the boss. Unfortunately I am not able at this time to discuss the boss. He is very busy…”
He keeps going on like that, words tumbling out of his mouth, eyes still locked on yours. And the words, they mean absolutely nothing. It’s like hitting a talking doll over and over as their best catchphrases burst out and interrupt themselves. You don’t notice yourself walking toward him until your hands are on his shoulders, shaking him as hard as you can. You shake him and shake him until his whole body goes stiff and upright in your hands and he falls silent. He’s still staring straight at you through those wide-open, bright blue eyes.
You leave him sitting in the metal folding chair and you keep walking.
You must have circled the whole casino four or five times before you find the place where the wallpaper-patterned curtain pulls back and reveals the second little red door. The sight of it catches something in your throat, but you don’t give yourself time to think. You grab the handle and open the door to the VIP lounge.
You see her at the blackjack table. Stiff as Roger was when you left him, staring straight ahead. You run to her.
Something is wrong. It’s like looking at someone in a coma. Or maybe someone frozen in time, at just the moment she lost the game last night. You touch her skin. It’s cold, but not cold like death. You know the difference.
“SHE’S BUSY,” a voice says over the PA system, and your heart skips.
“I’ll be right there, Jess,” you say in her ear, and behind her, the third door opens on its own.
You take a breath, walk through, and you don’t look back.
You pass through the room in darkness. The eye, you think, must be closed now. Nocturnal, maybe. Or maybe it’s already dredged all the good stuff out of you. You find the door by asking for it, and it appears.
When you open it, Roger is waiting for you in the theater room. You don’t bother to ask how he got there first.
“Where is Jess?” you ask.
“I must caution you,” he says. This time, there is no movement at all. His puppeteer is bored, or distracted.
On stage, the red curtains draw back and a spotlight shines on a young woman. It’s Jess. She looks out over the empty audience and beams.
“That isn’t her,” you say.
“Are you so sure? You already left one Jess back there. How much of her do you presume to know, anyway? If it came right down to it, who are you to tell Jess which version of her is real?”
“I’m her sister.” But even as you say it you know it’s a child’s answer. The Jess who crawled through cacti to save you isn’t any more real than the one who’s getting married, just because you loved her more.
It unsettles you. And you wonder at yourself. What right did you ever think you had to keep Jess, anyway? To preserve her on a shelf like a beloved toy? There isn’t just one of her. There isn’t just one of you, either.
You leave Roger behind and go up onstage.
Immediately the theater falls away, and you know you have crossed the last threshold into the inner room.
You are standing at the entrance to a hedge maze. The hedges grow all the way to the ceiling, too dense to see through, and they are overgrown with strange, spiny plants and flowers you have never seen before, and a few that you have. Sunset-colored roses, white night-blooming jasmine, stinging nettle, every kind of honeysuckle. The light coming from the same fluorescent ceiling fixtures illuminates everything, makes you feel like a cricket under a magnifying glass. The whole place is a claustrophobic, too-bright, garish labyrinth of plants and — you notice as you begin to walk — discarded personal belongings. Gloves, a CD collection, a pair of glasses, a pillow. You keep walking. You can hear voices as you approach the center. Not a maze, then — you haven’t been faced with a single choice in direction. A spiral loop. A spider’s web.
You hear her voice, a low, monotonous laugh, before you see her.
And then you have reached the center, and she’s there. Really there. Somehow she makes the others seem like paper cutout Jesses in your memory. She’s sitting at a poker table, cards in hand, only a chip or two left in front of her. Across the table is Roger.
No — not really Roger. You can tell immediately. The Roger you met was a paper cutout too. Where Roger was less than human, this one is more. Where Roger stared and jerked like a doll, this one moves imperceptibly fast, more fluid than a dancer. He is barely moving now, just laying down cards, taking his chips, but even so, it’s obvious.
As you approach, they turn to look at you. Jess’s face doesn’t change.
“It’s wonderful you made it,” says not-Roger. “Jess here has just run out of chips.”
You move closer. “What are you playing for?”
“Oh, she’s all in,” says not-Roger. “I’ve got her childhood fear of horses, her will to live…I’d just won her college diploma when you showed up here.”
You look at the table. The chips are mounded up in front of him, so many you can’t count. All of the little pieces that make up this person who is your sister. Who holds so much of your life tangled up in hers. You touch one of the chips and see yourself reflected there in the memory, a hot July day running through the sprinklers. It’s like looking into a funhouse mirror, this version of you only Jess could ever know or evoke.
You could leave now. Retrace your steps, abandon your sister, abandon the you that belongs to her, tucked away in that pile of chips sitting on the table.
You sit down. “Deal me in,” you say. Not-Roger smiles at you, big and snarling with his bright white teeth.
“What will you bet first?” he asks.
“My first cradle,” you say without thinking. “And how I learned to read.”
And so it begins. You should’ve expected it, but not-Roger is very, very good. You’re almost sure he’s cheating, but his movements are too subtle to catch. Soon, he has a sizable pile of your memories and motivations.
“Can I ask you something?” you ask.
“Naturally,” says not-Roger, playing an ace and taking your trip to the bowling alley, all those years ago.
“What do you do with us?” You gesture at the chips. “All of us.”
“Well,” says not-Roger, and he flips a poker chip like it’s a coin, “you just wagered me three hours in a bowling alley, yes? Now, to you, that’s just a memory. But those were hours. Emotions. Time. And Time is complex. There is a part of you that will always be there, in that endless little eternity, hitting your first strike. And that part of you is here now. Part of this place. Many rooms in this House, you see. Many little eternities.”
“I see.” You ante up: your first breakup. “Still, that room must be awfully small. Really, out of Jess and me, how many rooms could you get? We’re ordinary people. It would hardly be enough for a single storey of your House. But imagine. What if I didn’t give you a thousand little worlds? What if instead, I gave you a whole self?”
There is almost a flicker of movement from Jess. Almost.
“A huge ballroom,” you go on. “You’d never get it otherwise. I’d cut it all up into these little poker chips first. Wouldn’t you like a whole ballroom of who I am?”
Not-Roger is watching you placidly, but you know that poker face now. There is a gleam of hunger in his eyes.
“And then,” you say, “you would let us go. Me and Jess. And you’d give her back all of those little rooms.”
“You would never be the same,” he says. “Do you think anyone can walk out of the Oz Casino the same person who entered it?”
“That’s the best part. I could never really give you everything I am. I wouldn’t know how. But I can tell you who I think I am now. And then I’ll find a new person to be. And maybe someday I’ll come back. Just think of how many more rooms that new person would have.”
Not-Roger holds your gaze for a long while. Then, finally, he pushes back the piles of chips to the middle of the table.
“Deal,” he says. “So give it to me.”
“You’re not asking the right question,” you say. “The right question is, who are you? Or maybe, who did you always want to be?”
“All right. Who are you?”
“I woke up today, and I had to think about that question a lot. But I’m here now. So I guess the kind of person I am is whatever kind would step back into hell. If she had to. If someone really needed her.”
Not-Roger’s face stretches into a wide smile. “That was a good answer.” He hands you a velvet sack. “For your winnings.”
You pile all the chips but one into the bag and you take Jess’s hand. A red door appears in the hedge brambles. You look back at not-Roger. He is holding that last chip, the one you just conjured out of thin air, gold and shimmering. It’s so beautiful and hopeful it hurts you to look at it. Naive, too, in a way. And you have to leave it behind.
“I do have one question,” says not-Roger. “What makes you think there is anywhere to go?”
“I don’t catch your meaning,” you say.
“I’m being perfectly clear. What makes you think that you have not, in fact, stumbled upon the epicenter of your world, and all others? What makes you think that if you go ‘back’, you will ever, truly, be out of my House?”
You answer slowly. “I guess I don’t know that.”
He twirls the golden chip on one finger. “Plenty of time for another game.”
You’re not afraid anymore. You laugh.
“There’s plenty of time for everything,” you say. You open the door and lead Jess through, into the long afternoon shadows of a back-alley Vegas side street. You feel different, empty, in a way that feels like having puked your guts out all night. But maybe that’s all in your head.
“Wow,” says Jess. “Oh, my God, how drunk was I?”