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12. Carousel

Layne and Serkis played with fire.

I led the show.

Pandora was a Riddle in herself.

Requiem was the true illusionist.

Cassidy – merely the obsessed fan.

And Gothik’s part? He was God.

Our family. The everlasting, never-ending, fully-functional, utterly devoted, insanely honest, contradictory, oxymoronic – Family.

What a ragtag bunch of freak show rejects. What a crew – when you’ve got enough freaks to start your own show, or, having the desire to start your own show – that might be alarming. So, where are we going? What’s the point?

There isn’t one, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll quit ranting.

Be there no method to my madness – I’m still mad, and that’s got to count for something.

The problem with Pandora was simple – she was a ticking time bomb. She came from a shattered home, born and bred to be broken. Yet, she was clean. Against all odds, she had no addictions. She fought too hard; too long for this. We put her back to work upstairs in the bar, leaving Cassidy to keep a close eye on her. We employed him to keep him out of trouble, provide an alibi…should he need one. Not that Mr. Cassidy Brogan would ever need one…but just in case.

She was the first to fall. Or maybe she was last.

Things resumed their usual state, with Pandora always on the watch. Perfect distraction.

Nobody called Requiem into serious question because she had Serkis-approval. They were identical in their morals for the most part, which were lacking on both sides. But Requiem’s silence hid it better. Both girls were trouble walking, but with Serkis you could see it coming from miles away. With Requiem, you wouldn’t know she was there until she slit your throat; even then, if she did it right, you’d never know. Ever.

And Requiem wasn’t the kind of girl to screw up. Screw around, maybe. But not up. Never. The price of failure is much too great, especially here and now.

In our game, all prices paid in blood.

All bets made in flesh.

When you got down to it, that was Requiem’s downfall –

Really. Bad. Luck.

I sat with Serkis once, smoking casually on the roof. She was lying on the edge of the building, an arm or leg dangling over. I picked up smoking because everyone else does; I’d rather give myself cancer than get it secondhand. She turned her head to see me.

“So kid, what’s doin’?” she asked simply. I sat with my back against where she lay, stretched out. She loved to flirt with disaster – she’d be screwed if it decided to flirt back. I shrugged.

“The usual.”

“Usual?” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re 18 soon, you’re growing up on me.”

“Aw, tear, tear.”

She took her foot and nudged me between my shoulders. “You brat. What would you like to do?”

“What do you mean?”

She laughed. “I don’t think I could be any clearer. You are turning 18 years old – you’ve existed on this damned planet in this horrible century for two years shy of two decades. And we’re going to celebrate, un-der-stand?” She spoke slowly, like I was a toddler, nudging me with the words at the end. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Ha! You’re alive. Oh man, laugh and everything – where’s a photographer when we need one?”

I nudged her back, careful that she wouldn’t go off the ledge. She wavered a little, nudged me harder, and smiled. “Beast,” she whispered. I growled at her.

“You might be rabid,” Serkis joked, sliding off the ledge to sit next to me. I felt better knowing that she was safe…or more safe than usual. I shrugged.

I’d honestly forgot about birthdays. Nobody seemed to get older…but me.

If you’re good enough at it – age merely becomes another illusion. Snap the cape, pull away in that infamous solitary gesture and… ta-da. The rules disappear.

We were masters of our art. Years of practice. Unimaginable experience.

If you only knew…then again, would you want to?

I’d ask you to attempt to imagine our mental state, collectively. But that would be irrational. You can’t know, you can only pretend.

Serkis looked at me casually, trying to hide the turning gears in her mind. “Well?” She asked.

“I want the day off.”

She frowned. “That’s it?”

I shrugged. “Should I want something?”

And she grinned, jumping up abruptly. She dusted herself off, dragging me to my feet awkwardly. She put her arm around me, her other hand gesturing broadly. “The world, kid, and nothing less.”

11. Backstage

Beneath the reaches of vulgar light – we’re home.

I couldn’t refuse my new family – my uncle died shortly into the process of setting up the show. He went to sleep and stayed that way. Cause of death? Unknown.

The bar was put in my name, on paper. Pandora was the one that made it work in the really real world. Legally, I signed it over to her, as co-owner. This way, it stayed with the loyal. To us, it was the gateway to the real show. This was my life.

Why didn’t I look into my uncle’s sudden death more carefully? Because there are rules.

The wrong question at the wrong time can get you killed.

My uncle didn’t have enemies. He was good, even-tempered, for the most part. Most people ruled it out as suicide. I knew better. Someone helped him. And got away with it. For now.

Your voice as an individual doesn’t have much moving power at 16. Wait, when I’m a political statistic, when I have people behind me. When the time’s right.

Salvation – postponed. Redemption – waiting. Try again in two years.

I was almost 17 at the time. Almost.

We set up the show the way it was meant to be. People started coming. We improved. Doyle covered all financial concerns, how he came through, nobody asked. I was sheltered. The rest of the family knew the truth. I was the youngest, the child.

They made it their business to protect me.

And I made it mine to push buttons.

They were great and wonderful, sure. I loved them – they were all I had. But there was something wrong with the works. It was kind of suspicious.

Maybe I’m just paranoid.

But it’s worth considering, right?

Family is a really funny concept when you come down to it. They are the root of most of your problems, inescapably so because you can’t choose who brings you here. But what would you do if you could?

Do you honestly think you could do better?

There are rules, standards. There must be stability somewhere. That’s family. Devotion is another part of it. It’s what should be the foundation but never is.

Devotion.

Necessity.

What’s the difference? Is there one?

Family. A familiar yet foreign concept.

At this point, it’s business. The illusion is all part of the show.

So I became accustomed to my new home, I learned to tolerate the people involved in the show with me. We were in a business – we provided an arena for suppression to breathe. Over time, operations expanded. And we provided for more than the emotional. Basic rule of success in business is expansion. We kept up with the changing demand.

I didn’t learn this until later.

Keyword – sheltered.

Doyle was the director of all financial affairs, though he was seldom around. Pandora controlled the bar. Art – reborn as Gothik, and Serkis ran the show. They pulled the strings, played the part of lowly sceneshifters and pretended to only be a name. The hierarchy was backwards.

They make it that way intentionally.

Nobody ever suspects what one can’t see – nobody blames the man behind the curtain.

Until the curtains catch fire and burn.

And in our game, playing with fire is just part of the show. An elaborate act – nothing more.

Actors – we lived our vocation proudly. My uncle’s death was mourned, but quickly dealt with. I couldn’t be broken by this.

The show must go on.

And it did. We took our roles – I at the center of madness. I had support, security, shoulders to cry on – everything and anything a girl like me would ever need.

I turned 17.

And with the passing of another year came the end of an era.

My childhood was over.

This sacrifice earned me respect. I was given more responsibility.

Ultimately? I was given a longer leash. But still a leash nonetheless. If I wasn’t careful, I’d hang myself with it. Maybe that was the point.

I stayed away from Gothik as much as I could, uncertain of his new self. Suspicion was part of my new self, but his presence was unsettling. He seemed bigger now, more…intimidating. His word was law; carefully orchestrated by Serkis. She pulled the strings – nobody pulled hers. She had the world in the palm of her hand. And she knew it too.

Family right?

Curious little crew we have here. But it’s mine. Or I’m theirs.

The truth – what was the big secret? What wasn’t I allowed to know? Why?

I was the baby – they were afraid I’d quit or be traumatized or something.

The truth was simple. We provided for the lost, the lonely, and the dependent. We harbored all, turning none away at the door. Out public service became a franchise.

Brothel. Drug Connections. Entertainment.

Not to mention the gang integration. The new street boss was a favorite patron.

Cassidy.

He basically was given the full run of the place, becoming an attraction in himself. He was the latest, greatest model in a long line. Whether he was a step up or down from history, I’m not sure.

Poke holes in the theory –

Why would Pandora allow this?

Because being young and running your own business is next to impossible. Everybody wins – the public gets what it wants, she gets her cut, and the world keeps spinning. Relationships were tense; Pandora was very close with Doyle.

There was love in the air.

Layne and Serkis. Pandora and Doyle. Requiem and Cassidy.

That just left Art and I. I feel so silly calling him Gothik.

Requiem was a study in herself. She appeared one day, a living ghost of Serkis’ memory, and took her place wherever she wanted. And Serkis let her. Or so it seemed. Their history was clouded, uncertain – the past is dead. It was only the present that held sway, and it was fairly entertaining along the way. The ongoing drama – in the end, it merely gave us more to work with.

She wandered in, her life over her shoulder, packed in a guitar case. She hocked it to get here. The price of being free.

We all paid a price, each in turn. Whether with trust, pride, sanity, innocence…or childhood, we all paid the piper. Time passed rapidly and we were taxed abruptly.

Word came from the waking – Draven and Vagrant would not return. The messenger is secret, but word came. Whether they were dead, incarcerated, hospitalized…nobody knew. Pandora locked herself away when word came. We could hear her tearing the room apart from the inside out, her frustrated screams echoed for hours. When she was exhausted from the stress, Doyle crept in. I’ll never forget that image in my mind, of him carrying her out solemnly, holding her cradled carefully in his arms.

She was barely conscious.

For three days, we didn’t see or hear from Pandora. Serkis stayed outside Doyle’s door, waiting intently for word. Family. The show kept on, but only half-heartedly. Doyle came back to us at midnight of the third night, a sleep deprived Serkis in tow.

“She’s lost her father. Her blood family is gone, all she has is us.” He looked tired and beat up, like he just walked off the battlefield to us. “We had to know that this would happen eventually. I have people trying to find him. But he’s very talented at disappearing.”

Looking for Draven would be impossible. He’d be found only when he wanted to be.

Draven Riddle was a particularly talented illusionist.

It runs in the family.

After all she’d been through, memories we couldn’t begin to comprehend, buried six feet shallow. If she wanted to scream and throw things, we’d be there to duck, or hold her down if need. Doyle bore marks, proving the struggle.

“She needs rest…without chemical assistance.”

“You drugged her?” I heard myself question. Attention turned to me, Art held my shoulder.

“It was necessary…” Doyle whispered, but you could hear the doubt in his voice.

I got up abruptly to pace around, feeling the warmth where Art’s fingers slid away. Cassidy wasn’t here, he was out asking around. Requiem was curled up quietly in her own corner. Layne sat, patiently restringing an old guitar – seemingly oblivious to the event. Serkis found a seat next to him, resting her head on his shoulder. He kissed her forehead, his hands working without visual confirmation. Art stood to match me, looking foolish by himself.

Doyle reached out to my shoulder, but I shoved him away.

“Why couldn’t you just let her vent? She’s too straight edge for you.”

He looked at the ground then rolled his coat off slowly. He pulled his shirt over his head. There were cuts of varying lengths, bruises of various colors, spanning his entire upper body. He looked at us each in turn.

“I could only take so much.”

“What does she look like?” Art questioned. Doyle smiled, pulling his shirt back on.

“Beautiful.”

And he slung his coat over his shoulder and left.

Fun.

Calling all cars – we even had Max on the lookout.

Have you seen this man?

10. Alliance of Standards

Time passed after the fiasco with Draven. Pandora stopped going home all together, living either with Doyle or I on rotation. She stayed well. Draven grew restless again and took off for a while. Nobody missed him. Except maybe Pandora at times. No one else.

Business stayed the same. My uncle got better over time; working more, drinking less. I don’t know what…or who, set him on track, but he was doing well. Max buried the issue with his son, warming up gradually. It was in such prosperous times that the idea was born.

Vagrant disappeared with Draven – story goes they had personal business to take care of. A long-lost vendetta. They say that they wouldn’t come back, or only one will stand. Who knows; Vagrant is fighting for damage long forgotten – its suffering victims were all dead by now. Draven fought for his good name and reputation. Or so they say.

I was working when Doyle sauntered in. It was one of the rare occasions that Art could stay. One thing led to another – boys will be boys – and there was a fight. I tried to pull them apart but found Serkis in my way. She shoved Doyle back, seeming to barely touch him. I held on to Art. Layne was standing on the sidelines with Pandora, both of them feeling useless. Serkis brought Doyle outside for a few words then sauntered back in to us. She crept over to Art.

“You’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Art coughed. Doyle was his size, but Art wasn’t used to fighting. Serkis smiled.

“Good. There’s something I want to talk to you about.” She wound an arm across his back and led him away, the rest of us staring on.

Pandora shook off the event and went back to work. Layne stood next to me, arms folded.

“She’s a bit weird, but I love her for it.”

“Shouldn’t you go get her?”

“Why? She’ll come back when she’s done.” He smiled. “She stays with what’s familiar.”

I nodded and sat down absentmindedly. There was work to be done. I didn’t care. Layne sat down with me. He waved over someone, ordered a fresh round of drinks, eying me.

“What’ll ye have?” he questioned. I shook my head.

“I don’t drink.”

He merely laughed, concluded his order, and smiled. “Yet. We’re celebrating.”

“Celebrating what?’

“The new business venture we’re instituting.”

“Which is?”

Layne smiled wider, letting no word pass until the drinks arrived. He handed me a glass that matched his own. He held his up, motioning for me to imitate.

Whatever makes him happy.

“Here’s to us, the great family, and a home for the lost. The circus’ come to town.”

And he downed his drink. I subconsciously did the same.

So much for being straight edge.

That was the most we’d spoken since he came back. Serkis crept in behind him, leaning over him to collect her own drink, which she also downed boldly.

“Celebrating without me?” she joked, sitting down with Layne. They kissed and forgot I was there – I took the opportunity to try and slip away. Serkis grabbed my arm as I snuck past.

“Sit. Stay.”

“I have work to do.”

She looked around, reassessing her surroundings. She smiled wide, a Cheshire sort of grin.

“I suppose you do. We’ll be seeing you I imagine.”

I nodded foolishly and slipped away. I felt Pandora’s burning gaze the entire time. I went back behind the bar, cleaning furiously under Pandora’s scrutinizing eye.

Art did not come back. He seemed to disappear for ages at a time. He was changing subtly over time. His appearance, his general character. Everything. His work was changing him. And all I could do was watch. From afar.

He had a new big project of sorts. He was too excited to sit still and tell me the details. In the meanwhile, Pandora warned that I stay away from Layne and Serkis.

“Trouble walking,” she’d mutter. I couldn’t understand her contempt. I blamed her father.

I should have listened. Hindsight is 20/20. Always.

Weeks dragged by. Business kept pace, the same old story. Day in, day out. The infamous and inseparable pair was always there, always with someone new each day. When they turned to me, I got nervous of all the attention. They knew they were being counterproductive – they pushed harder.

My uncle let Layne play a few nights – the guitar was almost as gorgeous as the sound that came from it. My uncle insisted that I join him, but I refused. With a lot of shoving and urging, they eventually got me there. By the end of the week, we had a full band.

Serkis played bass, and she could sing sweet as sin.

Layne and I on guitar.

And the drifter on drums. Requiem.

That’s how they got to me. How they sucked me in. Through music.

Layne took me on as an apprentice of sorts. Whatever I couldn’t do, he taught me. We’d stay in the bar afterhours specially, leaving Serkis with the drifter.

The drifter – Requiem. She could play most anything – whatever was needed. She was an old friend of Serkis, they had the same morals and methods. Almost. They were masters of adaptation.

Requiem seemed to wander in one day and simply never left. Pandora was uneasy of her as well. Most people were. But the band was good for business. We enjoyed playing and we got a decent cut. Everybody wins.

Time rolls around and Halloween comes. We decided to match – to create an atmosphere. Hours of planning and conspiring later –

We had a freak show. A living, breathing circus.

How was I to know that this was merely the rehearsal for the real thing?

Anything I knew was laced with uncertainty.

Art came back – he was decked to match the theme as well. He was beyond excited. We all decided to hang out after work. “We” being – Art, Layne, Serkis, Requiem and myself. Doyle joined us along the way, Pandora in tow. As soon as work let out, we marched bravely through a door long forgotten. And we emerged into our future.

My first impression was simply – What the fuck?

My second one never came. The entire group stood triumphantly, save Pandora, who merely yawned. I looked around slowly, spinning to make sure this was real.

“This is…a sewer.”

“This is our new home,” Serkis replied proudly. I turned to face her.

“What is all this?”

“This is home,” Serkis repeated. “This was a sewage line. Now it’s home to all things…well, home to our social niche. Our social group is shunned, ridiculed, mocked – we’ll give them something to admire. A safe haven for all. Always.”

“And what does the circus have to do with anything?”

“Where else are the freaks held in such high esteem? Safe.” Serkis’ voice was confidant, as if she’d rehearsed this. I looked at the rebuilt sections, rooms, light – the works.

“Who funded this?”

Doyle stepped forward. “I did. This gives the kids somewhere safe. The streets are a most hostile home recently. There must be salvation.”

“Why have you brought me here?”

Serkis crept closer, holding on to my shoulders, arms outstretched. “Every circus needs a ringleader.”

“But why me?”

I’d forgotten that the rest of the group was there, they’d wandered to admire the work, most of them smoking idly. Layne was taking drinks from a silver flask kept in his coat normally. Everything seemed to simply fade away.

Except Serkis. She was very real. As hard as I tried to blink this away, she was still here. She merely smiled wider.

“Because you are mostly pure. You know a little about a lot. You have the personality for this. People want to hear what you say. And you’re well-versed in the art of deception.”

“But this is your ambition.”

“Ours.” Serkis moved and pulled a tarp away, revealing shining letters on black background.

“Gothik-Serkis? Where’s your partner?”

She motioned half-heartedly to the group, wandering aimlessly. “My reborn artist.”

I looked around, considering our new group. Art was separate, suiting his darker appearance. Halloween did him great justice – he truly was born for this. I could merely smile at the excitement of the group – my new family. This would be my new home. A new life.

“What would you have me do?”

Serkis smiled, a hand outstretched to me. I put mine in hers and she pressed her other on top, closing me in. “Learn. Observe. Trust us.”

“I’m all yours.”

She held me close, rocking for a moment. The others watched – I felt their presence now. They were mostly approving. Except Pandora. She stood on the sidelines, arms folded. The next time Layne’s flask came out she grabbed it from him for a swig. He let her.

She moved to leave first, impatient to reach the surface. Doyle fell in step behind her. Requiem was the next to go. She didn’t feel at home – understandably so. This was a new element to her, in a sense. She had history with Serkis. You could feel tension between them, hidden artfully between wide smiles and forced laughter.

An object under pressure…

Left with Layne and Serkis, my nerves were shot. My return to the surface couldn’t come soon enough.

But there would be nothing to return to.

9. Familiar Territory

I was 16 when this started.

The introductions I’ve already made aren’t very helpful along the way. But they were written before…this, from the mind of a pure 16-year-old freak. Before all this. They were my honest opinions when I had them. Imagine that – I used to have a mind of my very own.

Mr. Krowley is my uncle. I talk about him as if he’s someone else because it’s just easier that way. Max is more of a role model. My uncle…he drinks a lot but means well. He’s not completely impossible to deal with. Family’s family. Until times changed.

And I got a new family.

Sit back. This might take awhile. To explain two years anyway.

Two years. The transitional period between 16 and 18 – when you decide exactly who and what you are. Or the choice is thrust upon you.

The only thing constant is change.

Summer job at the bar, dealing with the regulars, the typical mob. Every so often, the interesting sort came around. The freaks, the dark brooding forms. My favorites were Layne and Serkis. They were great, always nice to me, making idle conversation. Serkis more-so, but Layne warmed up eventually.

Time. Patience. Effort.

The key to dealing with anybody.

My uncle came and went. He left other people in charge, depending heavily on the other employees. Not many stayed long – there was just too much madness sometimes. There were a few good ones. My favorite bartender was Pandora. She was 18 then. She had connections of some kind, her father was close with my uncle – hence she had a job. A slightly illegal job, but what wasn’t slightly illegal about the place? Max, our resident cop, kept us legit as far as the city was concerned.

I couldn’t call it corruption.

Business is business.

Pandora was hired before I was; she seemed to belong there. She was the good kid, the shining angel amidst the shadowy depths. The bartender – and she was one of the most responsible ones around. She looked out for me, warning how close was too close. There was something more to her, hidden deep down. Pain flashing in her eyes. And there was always that glare of hers – reserved for Layne and Serkis.

Or maybe only Serkis. Maybe.

Let’s do this again in slow motion –

Myself.

Art – who would later give himself a new name. He spent more time in the bar since Layne brought Serkis.

Max, our resident cop. Routine, bent rules just so.

His son – Layne, and his amazing girl – Serkis.

My uncle – Mr. Edward Krowley. Current owner and primary operator of the Drowning Raven – the bar.

Pandora – our primary bartender and my uncle’s right hand girl.

That’s almost everybody. But for the record, a few names you’ll hear along the way, for reference:

Draven Riddle – Pandora’s father.

Doyle Merrick – retired street boss.

And there was Requiem; the outsider. Serkis’ fellow drifter of sorts.

All the parts, basically all the players, right up front. With some other interesting cameos along the way. The most recurrent of them being the great Vagrant Ransom. Back corner table, the seat furthest into the shadows.

In the end, we’re all drifters.

Everybody was opposite of someone else. Usually themselves.

You’ve got all the names up front. Now I can do as I wish.

Rules weren’t just made to be broken; they were made to be obliterated.

Looking at things in retrospect, the details are still kind of fuzzy. Here’s to moving backwards, it’s necessary to retrogress. It’s a vital part of the process.

Then again, as an accomplished illusionist, it might not be backwards at all.

I learned from the best. Case and point.

A cast of a dozen, mere names on a page for now. Until the show gets moving. Then the rules were changed. Whoever said that one event can not change your entire life was on some serious stuff…or they were never 16 and working in a bar.

Another name you should know – Hadrien.

My cousin, my uncle’s son. This place was his dream – my uncle merely provided the means. After his untimely death, and Morgan’s, my uncle merely drank more and depended on the staff heavily. The only person he abused was himself.

The legends are long gone – my cousins with them. But one must acknowledge that they existed, and due to their absence, I got a job. Ultimately, things worked in my favor. But the fact remains – never forget where you came from.

With death comes opportunity.

My uncle sat, oversaw operations, but mostly just drank and ranted. My denial-induced vision of him is no more. Yes officer, he’s mine. And I’m his. He’s just a very sad man.

It’s only human.

I can vividly remember the day that I met Serkis. Pandora watched her come in; Pandora didn’t miss a beat. She was drying a glass absentmindedly. We both stared as she swept past, barely out of Layne’s reach. He kissed her once then came to us for his order. He had to repeat it at least half a dozen times before we got it for him.

“You two okay? You look like ye seen a ghost.”  He had a subtle accent to his tone. Pandora coughed, handed him the glasses, and walked away. He shrugged and returned to his other half.

I went and tapped Pandora on the shoulder. She didn’t respond.

“Pandora? What’s wrong, you’re not okay.”

“Nothing.” She continued to clean glasses.

“That’s bull. Come on.”

“She just reminds me of someone I once knew.”

“Who?”

“An old friend, a legend long since dead.” Her voice grew softer, more reserved.

“What was her name?”

Pandora grew silent and walked away, left to her own thoughts. I let her go.

Sometimes you just have to let go.

I watched the two of them for weeks, oblivious to everyone else. Max’s tensions were impossible to ignore, at points not coming in at all. Our crowd changed the longer they stayed. They were going to take over. Eventually.

Sometimes you can feel greatness coming a mile away.

And sometimes they steal the chair out from under you to get your attention.

I tried to talk more with Pandora, but she refused. I kept at it for weeks, earning a little more each day. She started smoking; I did too so we could bond more.

There came a day when Pandora had a fight with her father and he hit her. She came to work, bruised and broken, silent tears streaming down her cheek. She started drinking.

“Pandora, I got this – go home.”

She ignored me, cleaning faster. I beseeched her further, but she heard nothing. I got someone to cover and dragged her into the back by an arm. She didn’t resist. Her skin was cold. It hurt to touch her.

“What the hell is wrong?”

“Let me go. I have work to do.”

“Pan! Quit this. The whole place sees a problem. Let it out. Why did you fight with your father? Please, give me something.”

She looked at the ground, her eyes focused intently.

“All you lose is you,” she whispered. And she went back to work. I stood in the back alone, helpless – useless. I heard steps but ignored their sound.

“There might be a riot if you don’t come out. That girl’s presence here is a sin. Her father’s here.”

“Well, it’s not my…” I shouted, wheeling around. Layne looked at me sincerely.

“Help?” he whispered.

I swept past him quickly, hearing glass shatter as I went. Pandora was on a table, yelling at her father, who was restrained by Max and my uncle. Serkis stood in the middle, debating her loyalties.

“Get the hell out, Father. Go on. Damage someone else. It’s all you know how to do.”

Draven grinned wide. He shook the men off him, straightening out. “You’ll see kid. You will. Your aunt wasn’t the saint you remember.”

“And you have a right to speak of her? Where were you?”

He lunged at her but they held him. “Whore!”

“Murderer.” The world rolled off her tongue smoothly. He stopped fighting and stepped away. The whole place watched his movements as he snuck out the door. My uncle followed him out.  The rest of us watched Pandora creep down. She smiled.

“Show’s over.” And she almost floated to the back. I kept pace behind her.

“What the hell just happened? The truth, Pan!”

She smiled ironically. “Your new friend, Serkis, she reminds me of my aunt. My father doesn’t like to talk about her.”

“Why?”

“He killed her.” She laughed. “Assisted suicide.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t expect you to.” She pulled her shirt up, showing a carefully made tattoo, centered on her lower back. It read simply –

“Raine & Darius: Always & Forever – If Love Proves Real”

She pulled her shirt back down, curling up on the floor. This wasn’t a recent issue – this was an ongoing dilemma. Pandora’s family history was long and complex – she never spoke of it until now. Everything I knew came from other sources. Second or third parties. It’s proper courtesy not to pry into people’s lives.

The right to privacy.

You have the right to remain silent.

Anything you say can and will be used against you.

I curled up with her. She held onto me, crying quietly. I stayed there the rest of the night with her – the bar had mostly cleaned out anyway. Max went off to take Draven home. My uncle drank a bit and trudged off, muttering about bad business. She wouldn’t go home. I told her that I’d go wherever she did. She got up, dusted herself off, and shot me a look.

“Well? We better go then.”

And we set out on foot. I kept my coat closed tight, shivering from the physical and emotional cold. I fell in step behind her, briskly keeping step for a few blocks. I almost lost her when she turned abruptly into a building and climbed the stairs. She trudged all the way up, knocking resolutely on the door. A man in his mid-twenties answered, obviously awakened by Pandora. He yawned, stretched, and let us in. We swept by.

“Hello to you too. What’s doin’?” His words were long, slow – muttered between yawns. Pandora waved an arm at me.

“Doyle, Harley, Harley, Doyle.”

Everybody calls me Harley now.

He nodded at me casually, watching Pandora. He stepped forward and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around. He held her face by the chin, using the light to see better.

“Now those are some hits. Daddy?”

She nodded while he examined her more carefully. She tried to pull away.

“You know how Daddy likes to hear about Aunt Darius.”

Doyle laughed. “You are something wicked, girl.” And she smiled her reply. He let her go and motioned to a room. “You two take mine, I’ll sleep on the couch. You know where everything is.”

Pandora nodded and we set off toward the bedroom. I looked around nervously, trying to feel at home. Pandora eyed me closely.

“This what you want, kid? To shuffle place to place? Stay straight.”

And we went to sleep – her in his bed though seeming too familiar for my mind, and I on the floor. Sweet dreams, right?

Or pleasant nightmares. Whatever came first.

Never follow blindly. You can get yourself into worlds of trouble by association alone. Some people are trouble from miles away. Others, like Pandora, hide it very well.

There seems to be a bit of that going around.

The apartment we were in belonged to Doyle Merrick, one of the first and only street bosses to survive his trade. And to live in retirement.

But like they say – no rest for the wicked.

And he was born wicked, through and through.

Born and bred. Fun right?

That takes talent – to live so long in this game, to retire from the streets successfully. Respect is involved as well. He still did business, the money won’t make itself, but he was perfectly clean to the observer.

All things considered – I couldn’t sleep regardless. I needed familiar territory, my own surroundings. But I told Pandora I’d come. And I’d stay.

My word is gold.

I crept from the room, pacing around quietly. Doyle stood at a window, smoking idly.

“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he said softly. His tone was natural and even, not condescending or arrogant. I shrugged my shoulders.

“Not tired.”

He smiled and stepped closer. “I bet I could find something to fix that.” He took a pull, looking me up and down. “Go sleep, you never know when you’ll have another chance.”

“Tomorrow.”

Doyle laughed loud. “When’s that? You must really be new to this. In life, there are no tomorrows. Ever. Go on, sleep,” he whispered. And I left him there, still chuckling.

8. Legend Personified

Serkis Draft.

The name reads just as you say it.

Where the hell he found her, nobody knows. But she was something else. She completed him in eccentricity. But she had the attitude to make it work.

This girl was pierced, tattooed – fearless. An accurate physical description would take time – considering all the modifications. She drove fast, ran hard, and never quit on account of rain. She did what she had to, preserving herself along the way.

She filed in at Layne’s side – never before or after him unless absolutely necessary. How a girl like her could be devoted to anybody was a trick – but there she was. There would be no doubt of her devotion to him, all things considered.

It was pouring rain the first day she crept in at Layne’s side. She was introduced to Max immediately, shaking his hand and gracing him with a smile. Honestly, I think he felt trouble coming a mile away.

Serkis was some kind of force of nature.

I never spoke to her unless absolutely necessary. Her and Layne were like gods – conversation constituted blasphemy. She was bigger, older; all in all, she was bizarre.

She must have been a drifter of some kind – nobody ever came looking for her. Serkis was also an artist. The funny thing was this – for someone on the move, you’d think that her work would be small and mobile. None of it was. Currently, she worked with random pieces of metal or glass. Her medium depended on what was around. Her work shifted with the environment, sometimes with weather as well.

She had ideas, motivations. With Layne, anything could happen.

She was ambitious.

Serkis was a dream of a nightmare. But she struck them all blind. She had power in her eyes alone that commanded forces of any loyalty.

Devotion. And defiance.

Her entire being demanded respect. She knew this. And she used it to her advantage.

She was a gambler – but only on things she couldn’t lose.

Serkis was the living reminder of another long-lost legend. In a way, we all were. Serkis Draft, what a name.

She had Hell in the palm of her hand, the gleam of her eyes – and the world on a leash because of it.

7. Plays With Fire

Max’s older boy came back at one point. He stayed just to piss off dear old Dad. Or so they say. The kid’s name was Layne.

And he was everything his father hoped he wouldn’t be.

And what’s more? He had a girl to match.

Story goes that he ran away – hence why I never saw him. He was a young 18, just turned. He had all of his father’s charm to boot. He came back pierced, tattooed, smoking – you name it. My uncle let him drink because Max consented.

Daddy’s always right.

So the prodigal son returns, and he’s got some excess baggage with him. She’s another story. Man, is she ever.

I remember the day he came back – they almost had to pick me up off the floor. He left here as the boy next door, typical jerk – I could only converse with him if I could prove temporary insanity. It was the same now, just with different reasons.

First off, the blonde hair was jet black. All hints of his previous social status were gone, except his physical condition. His eyes were the same transparent gray-blue that they’d always been – they gave him away. He came in like he belonged, trailing smoke as he moved. He spoke little and moved less – but when he did, it was absolute poetry.

Layne wasn’t exactly his father’s shining image. But he was respected that much more for his unique character. He knew everybody for everything; connections up and down the streets. He reeked of power and influence; you could feel it flood through the place when he came in. The return was set up beautifully; a few weeks later, he had a partner in crime.

Serkis. Like I said, another story.

So the boy came and went, staying only when he had time to kill. Meaning? He only stayed when he had the girl with him…and if his father was there. He came and went as he pleased and he was the best guitar player I knew. That was his staple talent. He seldom ever played though. Only when the mood truly struck him.

Story was that he learned from his father.

That boy is nothing but stories.

The King of Fictions.

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6. Fool

There was this one guy, sat in the corner all the time. All he did was drink, read the Bible, and talk to himself. He came from some sort of broken home and couldn’t help how he was. He used to be some sort of big shot lawyer or something. Over time, his conscience drove him mad. Hence, he’s come here to drown.

I never spoke his first name – he was simply Mr. Krowley. The regulars paid no mind to him, every so often trying to draw him into conversation. They never succeeded. He’d been there before I was born. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, even though he gave me the creeps.

There were tattoos all over his arms, which he kept covered on the hottest days. They reached to his hands, some present on his knuckles. This part was a mystery that I was sure I didn’t want to learn about. If he’d been a serial killer or a hitman, I sure as hell didn’t want to know it.

Why the man was obsessed with the Bible – no one knows. He comes in around the same night, has a few drinks, and leaves. He had the same drinks and read the same passages depending on the day of the week. Selections change for holidays and tragedies – nothing else.

He was fairly routine but every so often the cycle would shift. Whether he simply got bored or something happened, nobody knows. Why he came to us is another mystery on the list – there were tons of places to go. Maybe he felt at home with us.

His presence added that air of uncertainty to the place; he was good for the general atmosphere. Everywhere worth going to needs that little extra something. Mr. Krowley’s Biblical muttering was what we had, as well as other things.

I was always patient with him, despite his ever-changing moods. I figured that he was lonely or suffering some immense personal anguish internally. I assumed that it was best to let sleeping dogs lie – I was in no mood to be bit.

The place told stories, they made up their own reasons for the man’s…eccentricity. Seeing how the world works, I think he did it purposely so we’d leave him alone. Then again, I could be mistaken.

Maybe he wanted the attention after all.

Who knows – but certainly everybody cares.

Who am I to judge anybody?

Especially my own uncle.

After all, I’m only 16.

 

5. Reputation

Max was in his late-30s with a wife at home and two boys. He was the friendliest guy in the place; he’d also been around awhile. He’d worked here when he was younger, knowing the ins and outs better than I did. Max had a broad smile to match his laid-back character. His voice never rose above a loud cough and he didn’t know the meaning of angry. He was respected for his knowledge and decency.

What he did for a living…I forget. The basic blue collar shift though. He had a good sense of humor and only really came in because it was familiar.

He sat in the same place every night, drank the same drinks, and left at the same time. Max was so routine you could tell time by him.

When he was younger, he got himself into a few tight spots – but Max was a master of the art of negotiation. He could talk his way out of anything. Some people call it luck – I call it talent. Not all people are blessed with such convincing conversation skills. Max was something.

He was like a big brother to me, always over my shoulder to catch me. I couldn’t help but love him. Max was a teenager trapped in an adult’s body.

I went to Max if something ever presented itself that I couldn’t charm my way out of. Beware – he’s been known to provide foolproof alibis. If the man claims that I was at church at the time of the incident, I was – even if I was a self-proclaimed atheist. And what’s more, he’d have the priest vouch for my presence. He got a kick out of fooling people; it was what he did. He was the master of tricks. Some of his finer talents were passed on to me.

God help the world when his sons are teenagers. Could you imagine?

The boys were teenagers already actually, one was in my grade, the other was a year older. I never saw them much – they were always above me, socially. Max tried to make us all get along, but his efforts were wasted. There simply was no helping the truth. We were worlds apart. I hadn’t seen the older one in ages.

I could sit and debate anything with Max; he had a sharp mind with even sharper opinions. And he never lost. You could fight him until you were blue in the face – you’d never win. He’d smile coolly at you. And you’d quit.

He never lost ground. Max was definitely a man of talent.

Ha – I remember what he did. Max was a cop.

4. Reborn – Gothik

Art was my best friend. What his name was short for beats me – he was always Art. He might have been as bizarre as I was. We grew up in each other’s shadow, always in competition. He was like family.

He worked – but in his free time he was either with me or working on his latest big project. He was always coming up with something new – I was always the first to know. He would show up any time – day or night – to run his latest scheme by me. Art was a tad reckless, but always loyal. The best kind of friend.

I’d known him for as long as I could remember, which could be any amount of time, depending on the day. Then again, I could be crazy.

It comes with the territory – being an artist and all.

Art was the holder of my soul – he knew everything and anything that there was to know about me – as I did him. He was my age – my shadow and soul mate. In the insane world of fancy that controls us, Art was the unmoving beam that held me solid.

Through the years, we parted angry seldom – never a day passed without contact. Time was made somehow, schedules adjusted. There are no restrictions where family is concerned. Nothing is impossible and even the sky is in reach.

I was the musician primarily – Art was the sketch artist. He could transform simple pencil scratching into something wicked. Pencil to paint; sheet to canvas – nothing was beyond his reach.

Perhaps his name was Art for a reason.

He was born and bred for his craft, unlike myself. If he failed as an artist, the family wouldn’t be pleased. He was ambitious because he had to be – time wasted was life wasted. Or so he said.

Art doesn’t know what it is to quit. He can’t understand failure.

With someone like that around all the time, one can’t help but be inspired. His very presence was moving. Literally.

Clean cut, a bit dark but nothing too over the top. He was a freak, sure, but the friendliest sort you could ever hope to come across. With all the things he put up with, and always with a smile.

Thank you. Come again. Have a nice day.

He could smile the most beautiful “fuck you” I ever saw.

Good ol’ Art.