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The Coin's Decision
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4
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Three Face Flip, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

Drago feverishly optimized an algorithm with a stub of splintered pencil and a profound erection. It was noon.

He was hunched over his desk, standing in his underwear, a perfectly functional ballpoint pen tucked behind his ear and therefore lost. His scrawny body still carried the imprint of the bedsheet's pressed folds, two dimensions of its dream-tossed topography tattooed in pink across his pale back.

The pencil broke. Drago swore.

He patted where his pockets would be if he were wearing clothes, then swore again. He spun to face his roommate. "You have the penicil?"

Guillaume looked up from his desk wearily, his handsome features broadcasting from their every inch a profoundly Gallic depth of contempt for the half-naked Serb. "You need antibiotics?"

"No, penicil! Penicil for to write!"

Guillaume shook his head with cruel languor, gesturing at the annotated books open around him. "Mine's more or less in use, I'm afraid." He paused, scratching the side of his jaw with the mechanical pencil, watching Drago's eyes track its motion desperately. "Say," he continued, "would you consider putting on pants? I mean, honestly. It's pointing right at me."

"This is more important than pant! Please, let me to borrow it one minute only, the penicil?"

Guillaume snorted. "I'm studying."

"I give it back quick like nothing. Okay? You need break, probably. Please, Gome."

"My name is not Gome."

"Please I'm sorry. The penicil?"

"Why don't you cover up your own penicil? Have you no shame, man?"

Drago threw up his arms with an exasperated grunt, then hugged his own narrow shoulders and paced in circles. Too much time was passing -- he was on the verge of losing everything he'd gained in his dreams...

When Drago had been small he lived in a displaced persons camp with his mother and his sister. His sister was deaf. She had been standing too close to a mine when someone stepped on it. She was very beautiful apart from the scars. Drago and his sister played chess, using pieces found, stolen or improvised. In time, their games became complex. In time, Dragana learned to speak to Drago through her moves. They had whole conversations that way.

Drago had loved her inappropriately: when she died he came to know that too keenly. He missed her like a lover. His heart baked and peeled. Forever after in his dreams Dragana spoke to him through chess. He always awoke enlightened and hard as a stud horse.

"Penicil!" he cried, balling his fists.

Guillaume looked on with indifference, but his expression changed as Drago vaulted over his rumpled bed and started thrashing around in his infamous tool box. "Oh no," started Guillaume, standing up from his seat, "no, Drago, not again -- we'll lose the Shah his deposit!"

"If there is no to be writing I can to do it with carving," said Drago, eyes roving the room for wood as he held aloft his chisel. Under his breath he muttered something about a bishop.

Guillaume had already suffered to have his antique bed-posts and the legs of his desk hacked into rude sculptures of chess figures in the name of Drago's unorthodox mnemonics. More often than not the sculptures were bafflingly eroticized, sporting engorged labia, upthrust breasts, towering cocks. Their surfaces were unerringly inscribed over every nook and cranny with bizarre and nonsensical chess notations -- angled, angry and tightly packed.

Similar etchings could be found gouged into the baseboards, the door frames, the kitchen counter, the toilet seat.

Guillaume cursed the Shah of Anwar. He cursed the man whose special scholarship to the Sorbonne he had accepted along with well-appointed but shared room and board -- he cursed the man who had never fully explained to him why Drago was called "the Mad Serb."

The Mad Serb had now seized upon Guillaume's antique humidor.

Guillaume threw aside his books, surged across the room, and smacked the chisel out of Drago's hand as he bellowed, "Enough!"

Drago watched sadly as his chisel sailed out through the open window. It tonked solidly on the sidewalk below, the impact echoing off the faces of the buildings. Somebody outside yelled, "Hey!" indignantly.

Guillaume and Drago both rushed to the sill. Nobody was hurt. The chisel lay in the gutter, its handle turning as a stream of wash water coursed over it toward the drain. Drago grabbed Guillaume's shoulders. "Please Gome, the penicil!"

Guillaume batted Drago's hands away and retreated into the room. "Here's a proposal," he said as he reached into his pocket and extracted a Euro. "Heads, I'll loan you my pencil; tails, you go chase your chisel. That's sporting, isn't it?"

"Why do not you just to lend me this penicil? I need forty seconds only."

The coin sang as it spun, bimetallic face flashing in the sun. Guillaume smacked it down against the top of his opposite hand. "Aw," he said, clucking theatrically. "It's come up tails, I'm afraid."

"Tails you give to me penicil?" asked Drago hopefully.

"No, tails you do me the enormous courtesy of fucking off for a spell."

Drago's face fell, then hardened.

He tugged and fought his way into a pair of grey track-pants and then put a burgundy Sorbonne T-shirt on backwards, the university's crest crumpled between his sharp shoulder blades. He tucked a pair of socks into his pocket, whispering about rooks.

"I be right beck," he said, whirling around in place as if in search of some final ingredient.

"Take your time," suggested Guillaume darkly.

After the door slammed Guillaume looked down at the Euro still resting on the back of his hand. It had come up heads, of course.

He got up and locked the door.

Drago shuffled down the steep, narrow stairway in his bare feet as he tried to commit bits of the refined mathematical description to memory, frowning and fretting as he felt more slip away. He'd been watching the Olympics in the cafe last night over dinner: he had dreamed about the shot put.

He emerged onto Rue de Trevise. He stopped short, running a hand through his bramble of black hair as he struggled to remember why he was outside. The ballpoint pen dropped out from behind his ear, but he didn't notice. It cracked when somebody stepped on it. The stream of pedestrian traffic bubbled with profanity as it diverted around him. "Idiot!"

The road was a border between informal districts. Drago's side of the street was upscale and quaint but the buildings it faced were dingy, cluttered and ramshackle. Drago only crossed to buy tools at Cecil's or fruit at M. Tang's. He didn't feel hungry so that left...

"My chisel!"

He plunged into a knot of pedestrians and they scattered. He came to his knees at the gutter just in time to watch his chisel clang against the tarnished sides of an ancient drain, spin under a gush of swill, then vanish.

His cry was forlorn. The pedestrians gave him a wide berth.

The sun slipped behind the first of a fleet of wooly little balls of cloud. Drago shivered. He spotted a small, jagged stone broken free from the cobbles and picked it up. Experimentally, he scratched it against the sidewalk. It left a clear white line. Drago grinned. "Penicil!"

He started scratching furiously, leaving a trail of chess notation weaving in rough parallel to the curb. He read a few symbols back from those he was engaged in writing: it concerned the spin style of putting the shot by a left-handed athlete, and the synthesis of his initial description of the event with the one Dragana's ghost provided while he slept.

Glass broke. Drago looked up. The street was busy.

He sat back on his haunches, rubbing his hand. He'd scored his knuckles against the pavement. They were pink and threatened to bleed. "White knight to early pawn, knight squared..." he mumbled absently, eyes back on the sidewalk. "Hyper-bishop. Mirror-queen."

Horns honked. Someone shouted. Drago looked up again. A brown man in colour-splattered coveralls was pursuing a taxi as it tried to nose into impatient traffic. The man took a flying kick at the bumper, then brought his fists down against the trunk and yelled again. They were getting closer.

Crazy people made Drago uncomfortable. He shifted protectively over his notes, clutching the stone. He was trying to decide what to do. His mother had instilled in him two basic responses to trouble -- it was either, "Run, Drago!" or "Put your head between your knees, Drago!"

Unwilling to abandon the algorithm, Drago chose to put his head between his knees.

He smelled smoke.

So did the passersby. They stopped to point to the column of hot soot erupting from a window in a decrepit apartment house down the block. They gasped when they saw flashes of flame. They wrinkled their noses when they detected the funk of burning linseed oil in the air. They hemmed backward nervously when they saw how quickly the inferno seemed to be spreading, window after window joining the roaring chorus.

The angry brown man in the painted coveralls had stopped in the middle of the road. He twisted to look behind him, then grabbed his own head and shook it with despair. He screamed an unprintable word.

Drago had seen people respond to fires that way before. It usually meant they had lost something important. It made him sad. His heart went out to the crazy taxi-chaser.

Several windows in the burning apartment house simultaneously popped, raining broken glass down upon Rue de Trevise. A dozen cars slammed on their brakes, unwilling to risk their paint jobs. People scrambled under shop awnings. A greasy cloud blossomed between the buildings.

Drago looked down in time to recognize that he was about to be run over by a red and white Taxi Parisien. Connection was inevitable. It was burning rubber as its brake-locked tires ground across the stones directly toward him. The man behind the wheel had a look on his face as if he were passing a baby. The grille flashed as it loomed.

Drago squinched his eyes shut and cried, "Heads! Heads! Heads!"



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