A Way to Win
by Charles C. Cole
Two of the same kind, OLD HAND and NEWCOMER, suggested by identical clothing, are alone in a desert, around a campfire at night. They have only just become conscious. They are strangers to each other. OLD HAND observes NEWCOMER sleeping.
OLD HAND: (Looking heavenward) Don’t make me do this again. You’ve got the power to stop this. It’s all entertainment to you. You’ve reduced me to this. (He gives up, throws some sand at NEWCOMER, causing him to wake.)
NEWCOMER: Where am I?
OLD HAND: The middle of nowhere, I suspect, based on all available evidence. I really wouldn’t know; I’m not a geographer.
NEWCOMER: But we’re not here by choice, certainly. I don’t remember arriving.
OLD HAND: I think we’re in the same predicament, yeah, except that I woke up just early enough to catch the gloaming before the darkness.
NEWCOMER: I don’t know you. Who are you?
OLD HAND: The original “you,” I choose to think. I was the first one awake, ergo I was “here” first, ergo I hate you.
NEWCOMER: What? Why?
OLD HAND: Look at yourself. Because of you, I’m not unique.
NEWCOMER: Ah. An uncanny resemblance to be sure.
OLD HAND: Exactly!
NEWCOMER: But is it really important, with everything else going on?
OLD HAND: It is to me.
NEWCOMER: I apologize. At least I’m company. It think it would be more unnerving to wake up alone and friendless out here in the elements. Am I right?
OLD HAND: Why don’t you wander off in the desert and die?
NEWCOMER: I’m sorry? First off, I don’t know how to do that. Can you be more specific? Secondly, I just opened my eyes; I’m a little confused. This place is unfamiliar. Do you have any other clever ideas?
OLD HAND: One: should I get desperate in the extreme, I’d like your permission to cannibalize you for food.
NEWCOMER: You mean if I die? You don’t have a knife, do you?
OLD HAND: No, but I’m very resourceful.
NEWCOMER: I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I’m not the enemy.
OLD HAND: How do you know?
NEWCOMER: Because we should be teaming up against whatever’s put us here. (Looking about) That’s a beautiful sky. You’ve got to be away from the city to really appreciate it, don’t you think?
OLD HAND: If you mean because it’s not going to bring any rain tonight, then yes.
NEWCOMER: I meant the stars. They’re so bright and there are so many of them. It’s like a chain-link fence covered with tiny, sparkling lights.
OLD HAND: I suddenly feel like a junkyard dog at Christmas.
NEWCOMER: I mean, it could be worse.
OLD HAND: I’m famished. Sick from it. It’s like a parasite, gnawing at me from the inside.
NEWCOMER: Look, I could go find help. Why don’t I? Remove the temptation. I’m restless anyway. Just because we woke up here doesn’t mean we have to stay here.
OLD HAND: Which direction would you go? Just out of curiosity.
NEWCOMER: Towards the glow on the horizon. It’s got to be civilization.
OLD HAND: Alone? Without a light? A bit dangerous for these parts.
NEWCOMER: I’ll manage. If I find anyone, we’ll come back for you. With food, of course. Anything you want?
OLD HAND: How would you find me, by leaving a trail of belly button lint through the wilderness? We have nothing, if you haven’t noticed.
NEWCOMER: I didn’t want to notice. (Beat) I just decided: I like white lies. The things we tell ourselves to get through awkward situations.
OLD HAND: Awkward, like when there aren’t any “right” words.
NEWCOMER: Or when you know the right words but using them isn’t helpful.
OLD HAND: I think the right words are like “thought bubbles” in a comic strip: obvious to some, oblivious to others.
NEWCOMER: What would the right words be now, in your opinion?
OLD HAND: Honestly? “And then there was one.”
NEWCOMER: We’re in a pickle, all right.
OLD HAND: On that, we agree.
NEWCOMER: Do you think there’s more wood for the fire? That’s not going to last long.
OLD HAND: More importantly, who collected it and why? And where are they now?
NEWCOMER: I feel like this is some sort of psychology experiment. Don’t you? And they’re watching us, or at least recording these events.
OLD HAND: Are you suggesting we’re not alone?
NEWCOMER: Or there’s a camera set up nearby, while they’re someplace warm and cozy and far from here.
OLD HAND: I wish I were far from here.
NEWCOMER: I wish that for both of us. I think we’d like each other more if we weren’t so on edge.
OLD HAND: Why? Just because we look alike? That’s a sophomoric thing to say.
NEWCOMER: I was giving you the benefit of the doubt.
OLD HAND: (Suddenly) We should give them their money’s worth. Maybe they’ll reward us for it.
NEWCOMER: What do you mean? No! I guess that’s my cue. (Standing) I’ll return, eventually, unless I don’t. (Exits)
OLD HAND: I like you, you’ve got grit.
NEWCOMER: If you mean sand in my pockets, then, yes, I’ve got plenty, and in my shoes.
OLD HAND: (Immediately scared) Wait! Come back! I’d rather have human company than human food. Truce? I’m not going to hurt you! Hey!
(NEWCOMER cries out.)
OLD HAND: Are you all right?
NEWCOMER: Twisted my ankle. Nothing broken. I think we should all grow up on uneven floors, then we’d be better prepared for walking on uneven ground.
OLD HAND: It’s nice to be right sometimes, even in a crisis. I mean about it being dangerous out there.
NEWCOMER: (From off-stage) Do I have your word about playing nice?
OLD HAND: Mostly, being completely candid.
NEWCOMER: (Entering) I bet there are coyotes, hungrier than you, who are nonetheless a little more subtle with their intentions.
OLD HAND: They can afford to be subtle, to be patient; they have better tools for sustaining themselves: claws and teeth, not to mention a pack collaborating toward a common end. I have only desperation and anger versus some dull ache to do the right thing.
NEWCOMER: I think if we want to see tomorrow, we need to work together.
OLD HAND: Are you in charge now? That won’t work for me. I’ve been told I’m anti-authoritarian.
NEWCOMER: (Favoring his ankle) It hurts more than I’d like. I don’t like feeling fragile; it’s undignified.
OLD HAND: Guess you’re stuck with me, in spite of your survival instincts.
NEWCOMER: (Sitting) Don’t get any carnivorous ideas.
OLD HAND: No new ones anyway. (Standing and picking up a big rock) No hard feelings.
NEWCOMER: Let’s be civilized, shall we? It’s the only way to win.
OLD HAND: Do I know you? I mean, except for having a vague resemblance, we’re total strangers. I think it would be altruistic, even Christian, of you to help me through this.
NEWCOMER: I could be your brother. Could you live with yourself if you hurt me?
OLD HAND: Could I live through the night if I don’t?
NEWCOMER: You don’t have to kill me.
OLD HAND: True. You have a point. That’s what the last guy said. He only lasted a few days. Maybe you should blame him. Not a lot of meat on the bone, that one. You can probably just make out a little of what’s left of him on the underside of this rock.
NEWCOMER: Why did you even wake me if this was your plan all along?
OLD HAND: The ones in charge: it was their idea. It’s part of their game. I hoped you’d talk me out of it, but you didn’t. It’s your own fault; you should have tried harder to stop me.
NEWCOMER: (Thrusting a hidden knife into his enemy’s belly) Like this? They warned me. They told me to give you a chance to change first, to maybe find a different solution.
OLD HAND: (Dying) You didn’t have a knife before! Was it out there, waiting for you? Why did they help you? That wasn’t fair. I was their champion. I did what they wanted. And this is what I get?
NEWCOMER: I guess this time they wanted something different.
Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole