The only sound came from the hearth as the flames danced between the logs releasing embers into the air. It cast its glow onto the boys as they sat quietly in anticipation. Their faces threw disfigured shadows, changing with each flicker. Simon opened his hand to show the dice.
“This game is called Dead Man’s Die,” he said. “Playing it comes with a risk. If the dice choose you, you will win a fortune or you will die. The other thing to remember is, if we start the game, we all must finish it. If we don’t then we will all lose our lives.”
He studied each boy’s expression waiting to see if any of them would crack. He wanted to scare them on their last night of their summer holiday. He had heard his drunken father tell stories about this game, about how he lost his best friend to the Dead Man’s Die. It was one of the few intelligible conversations he had had with his father in-between beatings.
“Christian. Are you willing to put your fate in the hands of the dice?” said Simon.
“Yep.” Christian was Simon’s best friend. They would jump off a building for each other. As Simon had little support at home, Christian was the much needed stability in his life. He encouraged Simon in all his harebrained ideas and gleefully accepted the fallout.
“Mark. Are you in?” said Simon.
“I — I dunno. Sounds a bit stupid,” said Mark.
“Come on you pussy,” said Keith as he punched Mark in the arm.
“Fuck you Keith,” said Mark.
“Stop it, both of you. This is serious. You can’t make this decision lightly.” Simon hoped the added drama would get one of them to break. He could sense the fear level rising.
Mark was slight of build and very susceptible to peer pressure. He was the youngest of three brothers, mollycoddled by his mother which didn’t endear him to his siblings. He wanted to please everyone all the time, unsure of his place in the world.
“OK I’ll play,” Mark said.
“Keith, you’re playing then?” said Simon.
Keith was the lout of the group. His bravado in everything was inspired by his ignorance. Simon could just have easily suggested a game which involved piercing their testicles and Keith would be there with a nail gun trying to prove his mettle.
“That leaves you Pete. Do you agree to play?”
Pete looked at each of them in turn. They stared back unsure of which way he would go. If Mark was doubtful, then Simon was expecting Pete to baulk. Pete was the youngest, the most innocent of the lot. He was the only one brought up in a stable family, reasonably wealthy too. His affiliation to this rowdy crew was his way of rebelling against his parents, just as long as he was home by his 9 pm curfew.
“I’m in,” Pete said. His voice shook with fear.
Simon was surprised and secretly impressed.
“Everyone stand in a circle.”
They all moved into position. The floorboards creaked with every step and the added groans from the weary abandoned warehouse helped Simon to set the mood. It was working better than he had hoped. The boys’ faces were starting to tell the truth, the nerves were beginning to show.
Simon pulled out a stick of chalk from his rucksack, the same rucksack he had thrown on the floor when they first arrived. He drew a circle on the floor around the boys. He then drew a pentagram, making sure each boy was stood on a point of the star.
“Now sit down inside the circle. Stay on your bit of the pentagram and do not break the circle until the game is over,” said Simon.
They all did as he commanded.
He placed a die in the middle of the pentagram and held onto the other. “We start the game by repeating three times the words ‘Seal my fate with the Dead Man’s Die’. The die will roll itself. Whatever number it rolls is the person it’s chosen. As I’m holding the other die, I am number one. Christian you’re two, Mark three, Keith four and Pete five. If it rolls a six then we are spared and the game is over.”
Simon paused, waiting for a reaction but they all remained silent, hooked on his words.
“The chosen one then rolls this die I have in my hands. If it’s an odd number that means you will die. If it’s an even number it means fortune. If you do get an odd number the die in the middle will roll by itself again. It will be the number of hours left until your death.”
Simon sat back and watched his friends. He was making it up as he went along. His father had only told him about rolling an odd number, Simon’s imagination had come up with the rest. He was expecting one of them to break ranks at any moment, but they all stayed put.
“On three we all say ‘Seal my fate with the Dead Man’s Die’ three times. OK?” They all nodded. “One, two, three.”
They repeated the phrase in unison and stared at the die in the middle of the pentagram. Everyone held their breath, even Simon. The flames roared causing them to look at the fireplace. It was behind Simon so he turned his head. His eyes widened and his breathing stopped when he heard the die roll along the floorboards. They all turned round to see the number five had been rolled.
“Keith was that you?” said Simon. Keith shook his head. His bravado had deserted him.
Everyone else shook their head. Pete gave out a whimper.
“Erm, Pete you’re number five. Roll the die.” Simon opened his palm and offered the die to Pete. Pete hesitated, staring at the sweat-soaked die. He picked it up, exposing the imprint in Simon’s palm.
Pete cupped the die in his hands and began to shake them. He closed his eyes as if he was saying a prayer and threw the die into the middle of the pentagram.
“Fuck,” said Christian.
“It’s odd,” said Mark.
“Am I going to die? I don’t want to die,” said Pete. He started to cry.
Simon began to feel bad. He wanted to scare them all but not to make any of them cry. Before he could say anything the other die rolled itself across the floor. There was no question of someone playing a trick, it had moved itself.
“Fucking hell,” screamed Keith. He got to his feet. He was about to step out of the circle but remembered about the game needing to be over. “Are we done, is the game over?”
“Yes. The die has rolled,” said Simon.
Keith grabbed his coat and ran out of the room. Mark followed.
“Erm, Simon. Erm I’ve got to go. I’ll speak to you tomorrow,” said Christian. He gave Pete a look of pity and ran off.
“I’ve got two hours to live,” said Pete.
“It’s all bollocks. Pete, I made it up, don’t worry. I was joking.”
Simon was trying to convince himself more than Pete but he wasn’t doing a good job.
“Come on, I’ll walk you home. You’ll be okay.”
They collected their things and went home. They never spoke on the way to Pete’s house. Simon watched him from the pavement as he opened his front door. He gave Simon a despairing look before he went in and closed it behind him. Simon felt a moment of paralysis, as he considered his stupid made-up game may have sentenced his friend to death. He ran home crying.
Simon’s father was drunk, lying on the living room couch when Simon burst through the door.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you boy?” his father managed to cobble together. He hadn’t drunk enough to be harmless, he was in his angry phase. “You been gettin’ into trouble? Eh? Oi shithead I’m talking to you.”
Simon wanted to get away from him as soon as he could but he also wanted to know more about Dead Man’s Die.
“Dad, is Dead Man’s Die real?” said Simon.
“What? What have you done?”
“Is it REAL?”
Simon’s shout seemed to sober his father for a brief second.
“Of course it is. You haven’t played it?”
“You stupid little shit. You wasn’t chosen?”
“No it was Pete.”
“And he got odds didn’t he?”
“What have you done? You’ve killed him.”
“I didn’t think it was real.”
His father got to his feet. He was around six foot tall, skinny, the kind of skinny that looked like something was eating away at him, something nasty. He lurched towards Simon and started to slur a rhyme.
Dead Man’s Die is a game for five,
A game to see who will survive.
Sit in a pentacle to start the game,
Wait for the die to call your name.
The keeper is the one that’s last in line,
The last of the numbers to define.
Get a six for the keeper to choose,
Which of the five lives has to lose.
The chosen’s fate is a roll away,
If you get an odd it’s too late to pray.
You better hope the next roll is high,
’cause that’s the end to Dead Man’s Die.
Pass the deadline and don’t adhere,
The die will choose to take someone near.
Simon backed away as his father approached. He didn’t remember hearing the rhyme before but it had some familiarity.
“I used to sing that to you when you was in the cradle. You weren’t a waster then. No backchat, none of your lip.”
He hadn’t made the game up. As he processed the words they hit Simon like a battering ram. He stumbled backwards and fell over an empty bottle of beer. His father was fuming. He started throwing full and empty bottles around the room. Simon got to his feet and ran up the stairs to get out of harm’s way.
His father lunged for him clipping his heels. Simon fell on the stairs throwing his rucksack in front of him.
“Come here boy. You need to learn a lesson.” His father started to undo his belt. Simon got back to his feet and ran up the final few steps kicking his bag as he passed. His father prowled up the stairs, his eyes demented, fixed on Simon. Simon looked at his watch. The deadline was due. He realised he was the last in line, he was the last to be defined. He was number five not Pete.
He watched the dice fall from his rucksack onto the stairs. His father wasn’t expecting it. He slipped backwards head first, bouncing down each step until his head wedged into the corner with an almighty snap.
It was one minute past the deadline. Simon could hear his father’s voice sing:
Pass the deadline and don’t adhere,
The die will choose to take someone near.