Today marks the publication of the second of our top five stories in the 9th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest, Ilian Medarov’s “The Price of Luck.” The theme of this year’s contest was “A Roll of the Dice,” and Ilian’s story embraces the concept by taking us on a wild journey through time. Along the way, we meet gangsters, gamblers, and even Death itself! Our judge, Laurin Jefferson, commented “I very much appreciated the way you time traveled in “The Price of Luck” and managed to pull off a kind of plot twist. The way you oscillate between past and present utilizing multiple modes of writing was well done.” We hope you enjoy it!
The light creeps through the blinds, making its way up my bed till it hits my shut eyelids, sending alarm bells through my head.
“Time! What time is it?” I immediately glance towards my clock, “6:40. I’m fine.” I let out a yawn and began my routine. I struggle for 5 minutes before sliding out of bed and showering, with only a slice of toast to sate my hunger; I’ve never been a cook. My name is Matt Stone, and I’m beginning work as a field archaeologist (ironic, right). It’s my first job that uses the skills I spent so much time in college to accumulate. I can’t wait! I try to force my feet into my shoes, but they fight back, being a size and a half too small. “I’m gonna buy a new pair of shoes when I get my paycheck,” I mutter. I glance at myself in the mirror, slick back my hair, and walk out the door to the parking lot. I stop for a few seconds to stare at my brown 2003 Volkswagen Jetta, not the kind of car I want, but the type my mother did. I appreciate her gifting it to me, but I can’t help but imagine the dealership’s prices down the road. Looking at my car and little apartment in Leeds, I look forward to getting a well-paying job like this. I try my best to start my car, but it forces me to wait 2 minutes to get it on with the key. “Listen here, this is a two-hour trip; you better not break down on me,” I whisper to the car as if waiting for an acknowledgment. It’s an unnaturally gloomy day for the middle of summer; flocks of crows swarm like leaves, traveling wherever the winds take them. Clouds move before the sun, showering the earth in a dull gray. The view bums me out, so I turn on the radio.
“Thirty minutes ago, an inmate at the HM Prison Leeds ran away after breaking free from an officer escorting him, and we believe he is making his way through a neighborhood staying out of sight. Stay inside and lock your car and house doors. He may be dangerous and unpredictable,” a reporter says.
“Well, that didn’t help,” I groan as I change the channel. Well, not that it matters; I’m here. I make my way up a long dirt road and find a small parking lot with at most seven spots. Pulling in, I see a man looking down at a clipboard. He spots me and walks over, signaling me to roll down the window.
“Are you Matt Stone?” he asks in a gruff voice.
“Yeah, that’ll be me,” I respond.
“Thank goodness, I’ve already had three people today pull into here thinking it was the road to the nearby lake. It gets infuriating after some time,” he sighs. I let out a chuckle as I got out of the car. “Sorry for the informality, my name is Kraust Derichs, and I am the site surveyor, but I will also be helping as a field archaeologist,” Kraust explains, “today won’t be anything complicated. We have a pretty surface-level dig site over here from no older than the 1700s. Today all you will be doing is excavating. Follow me, and I’ll show you where we are working right now,” I follow him to a hole in the ground, only 5 or 6 feet deep but at least 20 feet wide in diameter.
“Have you found anything of interest yet?” I inquire.
“No, no. So far just lots of broken bottles and a pocket knife. Nothing interesting whatsoever, but there will be something here. Our reports say there may have been some building above this spot. We have found some jagged gold pieces and think it may have been some early casino or bar. That’s what we’re here to find out anyways,” He tosses me a shovel,
“Here. You should already know this, but here’s the procedure: you dig with this, and if you hit something or see something of potential value, swap to the trowel, then finally the brush, got it?”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks,” I respond, immediately digging. Hours go by, and nothing. I found three wine bottles, two coins, and a spoon. These could be important if they were from before the 11th century, but they’re only from the 1700s, giving little value. When I was ready to lose hope, I hit something hard, not like a rock but more like wood. “Hey, over here! I found something!”
“What is it?” He yells from his spot across the hole.
“Not sure, but it seems to be some piece of wood,” I reply,
“Then it’s probably just a piece of wood, keep digging,” he yells back.
“Just a piece of wood, huh,” I mutter as I swap to the trowel to start digging around the mass. I find the edge of it through trial and error and start following it to trace the object. I find that it is large and symmetrical. Not just some piece of wood. Finally, I swap to the brush, getting all the excess dirt off of it, but find that whatever it was, the top has collapsed inward. The wood is rotten but in much better condition than expected from the 18th century. I find something hard as I keep brushing away at the contents inside the wooden object. As I brush away at it, I see something I don’t expect, “What is that!” I yell, throwing my brush.
“Hey, what is it? Are you ok?” I hear Kraust yell as he runs toward me.
“It’s a skull! I think I just uncovered a coffin!” I responded, still shaken. Kraust bursts into laughter,
“Yeah, finding a body can be scary the first few times! This find could be big, though, the first potentially important thing we’ve found. You found it; I’ll let you uncover it. Unless you’re too scared,” He remarks, sending me a sly smirk.
“Shut it,” I counter, grabbing the brush I threw during my hysteric episode. I get to work, starting with the part that scared me the most, the head. As I make my way down the skeleton’s body, I notice a few scraps of cloth, what’s left of this person’s clothing after the bugs and elements ate away. I eventually make it to the feet, uncovering the last part of the skeleton, this person’s body seeing the sunlight for the first time in three centuries. As I get up, I notice another hard object stuck in the dirt beside the body. As I uncover it, I realize it is a small wooden chest, intact from the struts of steel reinforcing it. It is small enough to grab, and I bring it out of the hole. Upon observation, I realize it has no lock, but the lid is seemingly pressing down, airtight. As I force the rusty hinges open, trying not to damage them, Kraust notices what I’ve found.
“A chest, huh? Seems promising. It’ll probably have some jewelry or other valuables from the person’s life. Ooh, or maybe some real money!” He comments. I pay no mind to his rambling, too focused on slowly opening the chest. I finally get it open enough to see inside, and to my surprise, I see a book! I keep opening it and notice two more objects, a pair of black and gold 6-sided dice and a gold pocket watch. My attention gravitates toward the journal, however. Completely intact, with little signs of wearing. I am amazed at its condition after all the time that has passed. Undoubtedly, it was thanks to the excellent seal on the chest. “You should read it,” Kraust whispers, looking over my shoulder.
“Should I? What if I damage it? I don’t want to ruin the pages!” I complain.
“It’ll be fine! I do this sort of thing all the time. Bring the chest to this picnic table over here, be careful, and all will be well!” He reassures me as he grabs the chest and begins walking, with me following suit. I sit at the table, open the journal to the first page, and read.
March 17th, 1723
Greetings, my dear reader. ‘Tis I, Perrito Territo, born in the quaint village of Gangi in the Province of Palermo, Sicily, on the 17th of September, 1695. I am 27 years of age, and it has been five years since I arrived in the Kingdom of Great Britain. Through the aid of a nearby church, I have acquired the ability to speak and pen the English language. They said that journaling was a practice of great men who wished to leave behind a legacy. So, with that in mind, I purchased one for 8 shillings. Once I make my fortune and die famous, future readers will recount my life’s story in these pages.
As a young lad, I was keen on games of betting and luck. Often, I would sneak out of my home in the village to play cards with the other lads and always emerged victorious. However, my forte was dice, a simple game of chance I would win even when the odds were against me. My dice of choice were a pair of black steel dice with gold etchings, a precious inheritance from my late father. I would spend hours gazing at their beauty, for they are my pride and joy and embody my passion. I always carry them in my pocket, for they are my lucky dice, my dice fortunato.
My father was a great man; he understood me better than anyone else in my family. He did not belittle me or my passions. These small dice were all I had left of him, so I treasured them as if they were a family member. As I grew older, I gambled increasingly, winning quite a sum for my family. Despite the profits, my family disapproved of my pastime and eventually barred me from it altogether. They gave me an ultimatum, either live under their restrictions or carve my path. I chose the latter, knowing that the Kingdom of Great Britain had a thriving gambling scene where I could make my fortune. And so, with my donkey, Olivo, and a small bag of belongings, I set out towards the famous port town of Genoa.
Along the way, I was able to get by on a popular route, buying provisions with my gambling winnings. Olivo proved to be a loyal companion, becoming closer to me than any man could. Though I often worried about making it to the next town, I would take out my dice whenever I felt fear, and the feeling would subside. After two months, I arrived in Genoa, but my journey was far from over. I could purchase a cheap passage to Liverpool on a Merchant ship for 50 pounds if I taught the crew games to sate their boredom. Although I lost all my money, I made it to Liverpool, and the most challenging part of my journey was over. From there, making money was a breeze.
I have been traveling from casino to casino for five years, amassing a considerable fortune. I have enough money to return home to my family, but I cannot resist the allure of these casinos. I must keep pushing my limits to make enough money for my descendants to live like kings. However, to do that, I must stop playing like a fool. Although I adore my dice, every time I get intoxicated, I risk a substantial sum of money on a game of dice. Yet, why should it matter? I always win. A fellow in the casino I frequent is a member of the Mohocks, a London-based gang. I know he possesses a tidy sum; I must relieve him of it. I vow that this shall be the final time I gamble such a grand amount on a roll of the dice. Whether or not I shall continue writing here in the future is uncertain; only time will tell.
“Finish up already! I got a fortune to win!” The gangster yells at me. I stick the quill in the ink vial and close my journal. I down the last of my brandy and reach in my pocket for my dice’s cold but rigid comfort. I’m doing this for you, father. I walk over to the man and sit across from him at the table. He’s bulky, with wild, greasy black hair forming large clumps over his face. His eyes strike my soul like daggers, added to by his devilish grin. I can’t deny his appearance sends shivers down my spine, but these are the people hiding jackpots. The buzz also helps mellow out my fear.
“A game of dice, alright? I’ll be using my fortunato,” I say, reaching into my pocket and showing him my dice. He matches my actions, reaching into his pockets to reveal his set of basic dice. That’s strange; typically, we’d share my dice and both roll it, but what does it matter?
“100 pounds,” I hear him declare.
“Pardon?” His words are not registering in my head.
“Loser pays 100 pounds. I wanna make it big tonight.” he states.
“You can’t be serious! That’s absurd!” I complain. One hundred pounds is far too much. I don’t have that kind of money on me! I only have fifteen pounds; I can’t possibly accept.
“You’re the one that challenged me. Imagine what you could do with that kind of money. Come on, let’s gamble!” he retorts. One hundred pounds could last me months! This is serious money we’re talking about.
“Let’s do it.” I put on my best poker face to at least put up a facade that I am not the terrified little boy I am on the inside. “Let’s keep it classic. You roll your two dice, then I roll. The highest number wins. You start,” I recommend.
“Fine by me,” he immediately responds, letting go of his dice. Come on, low number, give him a low number. Everything around me slows to a near stop, making each bounce of the dice feel like an hour passing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this nervous about gambling. I can even feel the sweat trickling down my forehead. The first dice finally lands on one of its corners, sealing the dice’s fate between a six, a five, or a one. Please land on one. It’s a five. My attention moves to the other dice, ready for it to light. It too lands on one of its corners, prepared to fall on a five, a one, or a three. It’s five too. This isn’t good. I need either two sixes or a six and a five to win. Those are bad odds; I can acknowledge that, even with my luck.
I hold my dice tightly, close my eyes, and press them to my forehead. Please, my dice fortunato, father, don’t fail me now. I open my palm, letting the cold, steel dice roll out of my hand onto the tabletop. Despite the cacophony of noises surrounding me — the clinking of chimes in the wind, the obnoxious laughter of men at the adjacent table as they sipped on brandy, and the snickering of the gangster seated across from me — my heartbeat eclipses them all. It synchronizes with every bounce of the dice, linking me to them. I spent years building my life here, which can’t end here. The first dice hits, and it’s a six. I feel my face light up at the spark of hope in front of me. I can win! The last dice lands on its corner, ready to fall between a five, a three, and a one. It’s a one-in-three chance, and it needs to count. I need that five. My heart drops into my stomach. It’s a three; I lost. The gangster lets out a big belly laugh.
“Whelp! Time to pay up. I wanna party tonight!” He exclaims as he slams the table. I nervously glance at my dice and the large knife around his waist, contemplating my decisions. I see three other men eyeing me, probably other gangsters. After two seconds of thinking, I made my bold decision. I quickly lunge forward and try to swipe my dice, but my shaky hands cause me to swat them onto the floor instead. My mistake forces me to decide, run to the door or…. I choose to lunge toward my dice. I can’t give up on my dad as he didn’t with me. I clasp my hands over the cold dice, the sensation lighting up my eyes despite the circumstances. As I spring off the table, ready to run, a sharp pain causes me to fall over, releasing my dice. Come on; I’m 27. I’m too young to have cramps like these. I clutch my side, but the terrifying sensation of damp cloth shakes me to my core. I bring my hand back into my field of view, confirming my worst fear. Blood bathes my hand in a deep red, a sight I stare at for an eternity. I feel each heartbeat weakening, fading into the noises of men yelling around me. I see a pair of legs walk into my field of view and crouch beside me. “What a shame,” I hear the gangster mutter beside me, dangling his bloodied knife in front of me, “To think that you’re about to lose your life over a pair of loaded dice.” He lets out a deep laugh. The dice were loaded! They were loaded! I want to cry; I want to scream; I want to laugh. My dreams and aspirations will die here on this wooden floor with me. My dice, where are my dice? I frantically look around with the limited mobility my head has, but they are nowhere.
“No! No! Where are my dice? My dice Fortunato! Father!” I cry out, begging for an answer. Wanting someone to place that cold sensation into my hands so I can die happy, but nobody answers my pleas. The pain begins to fade alongside my vision. Please, somebody, help me.
Black, everything is black. Where am I? I look down, and I am standing. I can see my body and am not injured, but I see no ground. I look around, but everything is an unending black, except for something I spot in the distance. A silhouette of a man in an oversized cloak holding some long stick. He is approaching me.
“Who are you!” I yell at the man, but he does not acknowledge my question, continuing his trek toward me and staring at the ground. After around twenty seconds of approaching me, he is under 5 meters away. As I closely observe him, I realize his stick is no stick. It is a long wooden pole with a long sharp piece of metal. It is a scythe. This realization makes me notice how pale and skinny his fingers are. Despite these uneasy details, I can’t help but feel tranquil, a comforting aura coming from the man.
“You asked me who I was,” a deep and scratchy voice answers, “Well, I am Death,” he replies, lifting his head to meet mine. Yet a head is not what he has, but a mere skull is what remains.
“No, no. You’re not real,” I reassure myself, staring at it in astonishment.
“Perhaps you’re right. Maybe I am merely a figment of your imagination, or perhaps I am the true embodiment of death; one may never know,” He replies, slowly circling me. “Nevertheless, I am here to escort you from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Close your eyes, and follow me,” he explains.
“No!” I protest. I can feel tears welling up. Dying on a casino floor; this can’t be how it ends! “Please! I refuse to die. I’ll gamble for it! It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, so let me gamble for it!” I practically scream at him.
“I’m not sure you know what you’re doing. I’ve spent thousands of years mastering every art and skill. You can’t beat me,” he states. But he doesn’t say it to mock me. He truly believes every word he says.
“I see. Then the only way to do this is through a game of luck; care for a game of dice?” I ask.
“This is a contract. If you go through with this and lose, your soul will disappear, never to set foot in either the land of the living or the dead again, but if you win, I won’t bring you to the land of the dead. Are you certain you accept those terms? Will you bet your eternal soul on a roll of the dice?” he asks. I don’t even think about what he says.
“Yes,” I blurt out.
“Then it is settled, we both roll dice, and whoever gets a higher roll wins,” he explains.
“I have one condition,” I explain, “Let me use my dice….” I interrupt myself with a sudden realization; my pockets are empty. “No! No! My dice, where are they? I don’t have them on me! My dice fortunato isn’t here! I need them to do this!” I cry.
“You’ll have to settle with these,” Death says as he grabs a pair of regular white dice out of thin air. I blink, and a table appears out of nowhere. It’s as if it had always been there. Has it always been there? Death walks to the table, releasing the dice. The dice bounce around, seemingly unwilling to land. I hold my breath but hear no heartbeat this time. Both dice land at the same time, both on fives. I begin to feel woozy as the deja vu hits me. Death’s empty, black holes for eyes stare at me. “Your turn,” he states in an unapologetic tone. I struggle to pick up the dice, the two plastic cubes now heavy as anvils in my anxious hands. This roll of the dice will determine my fate. I relieve the weight in my hand by releasing the dice onto the table, allowing them to bounce around as if taunting my anxious mind. The first dice lands, showing me a six. My worsening deja vu outweighs the high number’s benefits. The last dice lands on its corner, deciding between a five, a three, and a one. The one-in-three chance I had lost earlier had come back to haunt me once again. And down the dice landed; a five. I had won the game against Death. I can’t move. I stay and stare at the dice, mouth agape. Death says nothing but turns his head to face mine. He extends his scythe’s handle out to me and says two words in a strangely comforting tone, “Thank you.”
“Matt! Matt! Wake up! Are you ok?” I feel a hand shaking my shoulder.
“What happened?” I mutter to Kraust.
“You passed out while reading the journal. You had me worried! That was enough for today, you go home and get some rest, or can I even trust you to drive?” he scolds me.
“I’m not sure what came over me, but I’m sure I can drive. Thank you for everything, Kraust,” I reassured him.
“Ugh, it’s no problem. Drive safe, and I’ll contact you later about details for tomorrow.”
“Sounds good, goodbye,” I mutter as I walk toward my old car. Luckily as soon as I get in, it starts on the first turn of the key. It’s only 5 PM, but I’m ready to sleep; digging is exhausting. I pull out of the tiny parking lot and descend the dirt road. As I drive, I hit a bump and feel something shake in my pocket. I reach in and feel two cold objects. Pulling them out, I realize they’re the dice I found in the chest. How did they get in my pocket? Once I get home, I must put them somewhere safe so they don’t get damaged. For now, I’ll keep them in my pocket. I make my way to an empty intersection, but the light is red, so I take it as a chance to turn on the radio.
“Breaking news! The prisoner escapee is in a high-speed chase with the police right now! He is going 120 miles per hour down A643 and sees no signs of stopping! He is in a red Audi vehicle!” I turn off the radio. I don’t need to be hearing more about that. As the light turns green, I accelerate through the intersection. In my peripherals to the right, I spot a red car coming down the road from a highway exit. As the pieces click together in my head, I turn my head to get a better look, and indeed, two police cars are tailing the red car. I step on the gas to get out of the way, but it is useless. I hear a loud crash as our vehicles collide.
I wake up in a void, darkness surrounding me in all directions. The only distinguishable thing is a silhouette in the distance walking towards me. I stare at the shape, eyes wide and mouth agape. It has a scythe. It is Death! Right after I finally got a job, I died. I had to live all those years in poverty of school debts, and I never got to use the education from it for anything. I can’t find it in me to make a noise. As he approaches, his skeletal features become clear, confirming my fears. But what I don’t expect is what comes out of their mouth.
“You finally found it!” they exclaim in a scratchy but excited voice. I am confused. Found what? I feel a strange sensation in my right pocket: the dice. I pull them out, catching the figure’s gaze. I can finally muster out a few words.
“What are you talking about? Are you Death?” I yell at him. But he ignores me entirely. Instead, he takes his scythe and points it to my right hand with the dice.
“You found them. My dice fortunato!” he says, approaching me, “You are a soul saver, my amico.”