The mosquitos were out and thick as I walked to down the path to the big shack. The lights were on and a crackly old radio was playing. I paused on the path. Shadows moved around behind the windows. There was laughter. Around me the dark of the forest was pressing in. I could feel the fractured eyes of a mosquito on my back. A chill danced up my spine and all the little hairs on my arm stood at attention. I didn't want to get needled so I quickly walked to door and knocked loudly.
The laughter went away.
"Who's there?" asked a deep voice.
"Uh, Jack," I said. "We met earlier today. You said it would be cool to come round tonight...So here I am."
"Oh yeah," said the voice. There was some hushed whispering. Furniture scraped across the floor.
"Ask him how much he's got," said another voice.
"Yeah, all right. How much you got man?" said the deep voice.
"Uhm, I gots a hundred. It was payday."
"You ain't got a good job if that's your payday!" There was assorted laughter from inside.
"Well, I got rent...Look can I come in or not? I don't think these woods are too safe."
"You got that right!" More laughter.
"Yeah, yeah," said the deep voice. The door unlocked and swung open. It was Dauphin. I met him earlier in the day down by the bank. He stood much taller than me, missing a mid-leg (the war he said immediately upon meeting me, without specifying which one) and his antennae twitched, which I took was the cockroach version of a grin. Our kind seldom mixed so I was rather ignorant about their ways.
"Why, it's a man!" exclaimed someone behind Dauphin. He moved aside as a cockroach wearing a pink silk neglige sidled up behind him. She reeked of cheap perfume and gin. "Well aren't you a looker...for a man," she purred. She ran a mid-leg up and down the edge of the door and her mouthparts fluttered.
"This is Juniper," said Dauphin, "she's quite a handful!" He burst out into sonorous guffaws. Juniper flicked his head with a foreleg and receded back into the shack.
"Where are my manners," said Dauphin when he recovered. "Come on in!" He motioned me into the shack, which was really just one large room. The ceiling was clouded with a thick layer of cigarette smoke. I walked in and he closed and locked the door behind me. In the center of the room was a large round table covered in green felt and card game was in progress. Seated around it were two other cockroaches, much smaller than Dauphin, more my size, a jack rabbit half my height, and a morbidly obese squirrel I'd seen around town a few times. Juniper sat down in an overstuffed leather chair in the corner next to the radio.
"Let me introduce you," said Dauphin cordially. "This is Pinkers," he indicated the nearest cockroach. "You watch him, he likes to cheat."
"I don't cheat!" exclaimed Pinkers. "You're just a bad player. Besides, you can't tell that to a new player!"
"Forgive me," said Dauphin, bowing towards Pinkers. Then he leaned into me, his stale breath assaulting my nose as he quietly breathed into my ear, "He cheats."
"Uh, thanks," I said. "Nice to meet you Pinkers." Dauphin stood up and pointed to the next cockroach over.
"This is, uh, what is your name?"
"You've known me for years," said the cockroach, his antennae suddenly standing up tall.
"Yes...but it's just slipped my mind you see. You wouldn't mind tellin' our new friend your name would you?" The cockroach's antennae buzzed back and forth rapidly.
"Frome. My name's Frome." He quickly looked back down at his cards.
"Nice to meet you Frome," I said.
"And this is Javier," said Dauphin, pointing to the jack rabbit, who stood up rapidly, knocking the table.
"Watch it!" yelled the squirrel and Pinkers together.
"Sorry, sorry," said Javier. "So nice to meet you, so nice." He cocked his head, licked his massive front teeth and held his paws together. His big ears twitched.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
"Sit down you dummy," said the squirrel, and Javier did, knocking the table again.
"And this is Dan," said Dauphin pointing to the squirrel. He didn't look at me.
"Nice to meet you," I said.
"Pleasure's all mine," said Dan in a long measured cadence. "It's your play Frome."
"Yeah," said Frome slowly.
"Well, get on with it," said Dan impatiently.
"And this is Jack everyone," said Dauphin. "Won't you sit down?" He motioned to an empty chair next to Dan's overspilling rolls of fur. I sat down.
"We can deal you in on the next round," said Dauphin, sitting down next to me. "Could you put you're money on the table? It's not that we don't trust you," he chuckled lightly, "but we need to know that you're serious."
"Oh, I'm serious. I've been wanting to do this for a long time," I said. I took the wad of cash from my pocket and slapped in onto the felt.
"That's nice," said Dauphin, his forelegs tentatively reaching towards the cash. "You don't mind if I count it now? Do you?"
"Not at all," I said.
"Excellent," said Dauphin. He quickly snatched the cash and licked the end of one of his legs, and started counting quickly.
"So what's the name of the game?" I asked.
"Knave's Aces," said Javier, his whiskers twitching.
"How do you play?" I asked. Pinkers chuckled.
"Better wait til the next round begins," said Dauphin. "Oh now you done it, I forgot what number I was on! Have to start all over." He put the cash together again and counted afresh.
"Would you like a drink?" asked Juniper. She was now slouched down in the chair, bobbing her head slightly to the beat of the music. She had in her own hand a glass with melting ice cubes in a clear liquid. She swirled cubes around with the end of her leg, then licked the wet end. Her antennae curled up and down.
"Uh, maybe an iced tea. It is awful hot," I said.
"How about a whiskey?" asked Juniper.
"How about an iced tea, ma'am..." I said.
"Ma'am..." muttered Juniper. She got up and walked to a grimy refrigerator in another corner of the room.
"I'm surprised to see one of your kind in these parts," said Dan, shifting his weight on his creaking chair. "Oh for the love of God Frome, would you lay down a card? We're going to be here all night."
"We're going to be here all night anyway," said Frome. He flicked a leg across his hand of cards, and patted his wad of cash with another.
"I don't see what harm it is for us to interact." I said, tapping my fingers anxiously on the felt. "It doesn't hurt nobody."
"Some folks think it's wrong," said Javier.
"How can it be wrong to be friendly with one another?" I asked.
"You don't mind if I light up, do you son?" asked Dauphin. He held a hand-rolled cigarette in his fore leg.
"No, no. This is your house," I said.
"Some of your folks get bent out of shape if I just walk down the sidewalk in town," said Dan. "But that's why I let myself get big." He slapped his belly. "Ain't no human who wants to mess with an four hundred pound squirrel!" Dan started to laugh heartily until tears formed in his eyes.
"Yeah, they don't think we're proper folk," added Javier.
"Here you go, Jack," said Juniper, placing a half-full glass of iced tea in front of me.
"Thank you," I said.
"Would you...like some sugar?" She lowered her voice an octave when she said this.
"Uh, sure," I said. She leaned over and stroked my cheek with a foreleg. The little hairs on the leg made my neck shiver. With another leg, she poured sugar from a bag into the tea, filling it almost to the brim. Then she dipped a leg into the sugar, pulled it out with a dusting of crystals clinging to it, then wiped it through her mouthparts.
"Mmmmm, sugar," she said, gazing into my eyes.
"Uh, thanks," I said a little uncomfortable. She left and put the sugar away.
"Better give her a fiver or she'll be bothering you all night," said Dauphin.
"Uh...I'm good, yeah. Just want to play the game," I said, watching the sugar slowly melt into the tea. I was afraid asking for a new tea would be impolite.
"Finally!" bellowed Dan as Frome carefully laid down a card, a ten of diamonds. Javier quickly followed with the queen of hearts, then dan slapped down a jack of diamonds and an ace of hearts. "Knave's Aces!" he exclaimed.
"Dammit!" said Pinkers, throwing his cards down and wiping his antennae with a foreleg.
Dan reached over the table and scooped up the pot of crumpled cash in the center of the table.
"That's a hundred all right," said Dauphin, handing my cash back to me.
"I don't think I've ever heard od Knave's Aces before," I said.
"I don't think you're kind would have much opportunity to come across it," said Dan.
"Except in the war," said Dauphin. "I played it there with man soldiers. Not much else to do in that dusty place and they didn't seem to mind my company much."
"I'm sure they just tolerated you Dauphin," said Dan.
"What war was this?" I asked.
"I have my manners," said Dauphin, buzzing his antennae with indignation. "One of them said he even liked me."
"I think you tend to embellish things," said Dan, shuffling the deck of cards. "Get that card up here Pinkers!"
"What card?" asked Pinkers.
"That one you have stowed inside your wingcase. I can see the corner poking out. Get it up on the table here before I come over there and shake it out of you."
"Lord knows what else would fall out," said Dauphin. Pinkers reached back with a mid-leg, pulled out the card, and flicked it across the table towards Dan. They glared at each other for a moment.
"Which war did you go off to?" I asked again.
"You look like you could relax," said Juniper. I suddenly realized she was standing right behind me. She stroked the back of my neck, then my pushed the tip of her leg into my hair.
"As I said, give her a fiver and be done with it," said Dauphin.
"How about a ten?" asked Juniper.
"A five will do you!" exclaimed Dauphin. He took a five from my stack of cash and handed it to Juniper.
"No," I said.
"Don't worry," said Dauphin, "she's pretty good."
"Pretty good? I don't know why I stay with you Dauphin if you treat me like this," said Juniper, her antennae twitching. She folded her mid-legs across her thorax.
"Hush now," said Dan. He started dealing out the cards. "We're starting a new round."
Juniper knelt down beside me and started unbuckling my belt. I stood up, being careful not to knock the table.
"Could I have my fiver back?" I asked nervously. Dauphin stood up next to me, and came in close.
"You're not a bigot now, are you?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Don't you like to treat our kind just like your own kind?"
"Well yes, but--"
"Then let Juniper give you a proper welcome," he said, threateningly. He laid a leg across my shoulder and pushed me back down into the chair.
"Don't worry," said Juniper. "You'll be back for more after this."
I clutched the edge of the table and dug my fingers into the felt as Dauphin stared at me. No one else at the table seemed to care. The rules of the game were probably explained to me but they didn't really sink in.
"Bid is twenty. Throw in twenty son," said Dauphin as a fresh card sailed my way, landing face up. My fingers were still glued to the table. "Here, let me turn that over for you," added Dauphin. Frome snickered. Dauphin also slipped two tens from my stack into the pot in the middle of the table. I missed what happened next. When I was able to pay attention, it was Frome's turn to lay down a card again. Dan sighed deeply. Juniper reappeared and picked up my glass of sugary tea. She drank deeply from it.
"How 'bout I get you that whiskey now?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said quietly. I looked at Dauphin, who chuckled.
"We're not all as sinful as this pair," said Dan.
"I'm not sinful," said Javier. "I've even been to church once."
"You've got plenty of vices Javier. Besides, church don't make you good," said Dan. "Good comes from within, whether man, beast, or bug. You remember that Jack."
"It ain't sinful to feel good," said Dauphin. "That's why folks come here to our little shack anyway."
"It's sinful to force it on a young one such as our new friend here," said Dan. His fur seemed to puff up. "It ain't very welcoming." Dauphin's antennae stood straight up and the two stared at each other.
"I think you've said enough, beast," said Dauphin acidly.
"I don't like it very much when a friend calls me beast," said Dan, baring his teeth. "I think you value your own greed over friendship."
"Easy for you to say, beast, your kind has had it easy compared to us."
"That's a false assertion, friend, or should I call you bug?"
"How dare you..."
"You disregard the fact that we share the same lack of equality to men."
"Your kind was never forced to walk a minefield. I can't tell you how many of us I saw blasted to bits out there," Dauphin was shaking and speaking progressively louder. "And it was men that done it to us!"
"I think I'd like to leave now," I said quietly. Dauphin put his mid-leg down on top of my stack of cash.
"The boy came to play," said Dauphin, still staring at Dan. Pinkers and Frome were buzzing their antennae and Javier was twitching his whiskers. There was a long silence.
"Are we playing card or not?" asked Pinkers.
"Are we?" asked Dauphin.
"Let the boy leave if he wants to," said Dan.
"I uh...you can keep the money," I said. Dauphin turned and glared at me for a long moment. He looked down at the cash under the end of his leg.
"If you're not gonna play, I don't want you coming back here," he said. I stood up slowly and buckled my belt. "Don't you be bothering us with none of your nosy police."
"No sir," I said. "I can leave?"
"Yes, you can leave," said Dan. I immediately lunged for the door, unlocked it, and ran out in to the cool night air. I could hear the murmuring of the mosquitos in the woods as I started running down the path towards the road to town. Peels of laughter followed me.