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18. Under the Big Top

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The night wore on and Jekt drank himself to oblivion as expected. There was one person I really wanted to see before I got out of Dodge. Riley had disappeared from my life after the incident, scarred and broken. I was too wrapped up in my own pain to find her or speak to her. I felt like a fool for turning my back on her, but I would have only made things worse, which I had to accept. Before I could ask Irish about it, she answered for me.

“Go find her, you know where she is. If anybody gives you an issue, you send them to me. Understood?”

I nodded, thanking her profusely, and set off at a run for the underground. I hadn’t seen her since I skipped town, and I didn’t know what people did or didn’t tell her. More than anything, I just wanted to apologize. I was going through a responsible shift in my life and I needed to make amends on all points of failure in the past. My family was one of my most significant failures.

I reached Dusk’s familiar doorway, knocking as evenly as I could. There was some rustling around, and then finally he came out, looking tired and bleary eyed. It took a moment for his eyes to focus, for the familiarity to take effect. A sort of confusion took over, while he debated what I was doing down here, on whose authority, and what possible trouble I could be unleashing upon him. Surely he was considering how to explain to me what my sister was doing down here as well. I saw through his act, as wisdom had allowed me more foresight than he’d ever understand.

“She awake Dusk?”

He considered lying to me for a moment, before smiling warmly. “Not quite. We had a busy day yesterday. She helps me with the show now.”

“Not trying to retire now are you?”

He seemed to consider his options. “We all have to grow up sometime don’t we? Come on in and sit down, I’m sure we can wake her up.”

I stepped past him, finding the room as conservative as I remembered it. There were some photographs and poems scattered around, nothing too impressive. He had a shelf with a small book collection, the most significant among them the photocopied editions. I sat myself down carefully, looking around.

Riley was curled up in his bed, buried under a mass of blankets, sleeping soundly. I thought back to a time when we’d gotten along, when we could exist together so peacefully. I looked back to Dusk, whose eyes were still slightly confused.

“What brings you back?”

I considered my answer slowly, not wanting to give too much way. “I had some old odds and ends to take care of.”

He nodded. “With Irish? You could only be down here with her permission.”

I smiled again, realizing there was nothing he didn’t know. “With…several people. I don’t think I’ll be coming back after this trip, and I wanted to make sure that everything was well looked after.”

In the back of his mind, I could feel the gears turning. He needed to convince me that he was the right guy for the job. That he would guard my baby sister for all time, and to trust me. He wanted to tell me that he would love her entirely, as he had loved me. And since I had not allowed him to love me, he will replace his affection for me with her to clear the gap. All the things he wanted to tell me, without making it seem like she was a replacement, a second place winner – a silver medal. He didn’t want her to feel like the lesser attraction that we all knew she was. He was with her initially to spite me, but it had turned into something more, as it typically does in overly complicated relationships. I respected his integrity to a degree, but I also couldn’t allow him to lie to me.

“Dusk, don’t make excuses, or promises. I just want her to be…” and my voice stopped. My eyes shifted to Dusk’s familiar desk, the one where he’s spend hours on end conspiring his tricks and taunts. Laid out neatly were all the tools of my old trade, instantly recognizable. Syringes and straws, the powdery dope remains barely visible, but just present enough to make out. My eyes narrowed and I rose from the chair in a single lithe motion, grasping him by the shirt and tossing him outside to talk.

“Wait, wait, Deacon…” he muttered, hands locked around my arms, but I didn’t care. I was beyond negotiation.

“Explain. Now.” I kept my tone level, betraying nothing, though my fury was obvious in my eyes. I released him with a toss, allowing him to slam backward against the wall. He got his balance and stood to face me.

“You weren’t the best role model you know,” he started, with a malicious sort of glee. I took a stride and leveled one solid punch to his jaw. He staggered, but remained upright.

“Not what I wanted to hear. Don’t tell me what’s done – tell me what you’re doing to make it better. And don’t expect me to be sympathetic.”

He cleared his throat calmly. “When Brie died…you know…well. Damnit Deacon, you just abandoned her, you abandoned us all. You locked yourself away for months on end, venting it all out on your own, you never considered what you were doing to those around you.”

I pulled back my hand and hit him again in the face, the rage shivering through my entire form. “Don’t you blame me!”

“She watched a girl die, Deacon. She’s not a demon like you or me. She wasn’t raised for this, and she couldn’t be expected to handle it like any of us. You locked yourself away and your brother washed his hands of it all to save his reputation. She only had the few of us to talk to, most of us too desensitized to understand her grief. She couldn’t sleep or function anymore. It’s like you both shut down, but in entirely opposite ways.”

“What happened when I cleaned up?”

“We tried to explain to her that you needed help, and time, but she couldn’t wait that long. If it was good enough for you, it was good enough for her, she reasoned. I don’t know who she bought the drugs from or how, I swear to you. But once I found out I’ve been doing everything in my power to wean her off and keep it contained.”

I shivered for another few seconds, contemplating another strike, but there was no use. Her decision was her own, as was mine. There was only so much anybody could do for her now. She would have to want to be better. She would need to fight to be stable.

“Who did she buy from?”

His eyes shifted for that split second, a hesitation. He did know. He was doing everything in his power not to tell me, but he knew. I don’t know who he was protecting or why, but I would have answers, one way or another.

“She never told me.”

“Dusk, don’t waste my time. Who’d she buy from?”

“Deacon, I don’t…”

I leaned in and hit him again. He muttered excuses repeatedly, so I kept swinging. I kept swinging until my arms were tired and my body ached from the cycle, but I would not relent. He would give me my answers, or I would…or I would what? Would I truly kill him? The single source of happiness in Riley’s life? I stood over his form, curled up on the floor, taking the hits in stride, fists dripping blood. And I found myself more frustrated than when I started. I turned on a heel to clear my mind, and found Riley there. Standing in the doorway, watching it all. She stepped forward slowly, her eyes traveling between Dusk’s battered face and my bloody knuckles.

“I thought it was you. I heard your voice, in my mind. Far away and different, but you were always there, weren’t you?” Her voice was broken, a sort of child like whisper, confused and destroyed. I stepped away from Dusk, moving closer to her slowly, trying to form a proper approach to this moment. She stepped back slowly, her eyes still following the blood drops on the ground.

“Riley…I’m sorry I left. I had to help myself before I could help you…” my voice was lost in the tunnel, a senseless echo of pointlessness. Her eyes narrowed, suddenly alert and intent.

“Help? No, you never helped. You only hurt, it’s what you do Deacon. You locked us all away. You let us bleed and die for you but you were never there to bleed for us, were you? No. No more. And now you want to make it better, tie up the happy endings? It’s a bit late, and you know that. You can’t beat the answers out of people all the time. You can’t answer insecurity with violence. You can’t…”

She collapsed to her knees, the tears streaming down her cheeks. I suddenly felt villainous, vile and evil. I had failed her in every way possible, without a shred of conviction or conscience. All I wanted to do was break the arms of whatever monster was giving my sister drugs, a faceless fiend that neither would name. I couldn’t even bring myself to hug her, covered in blood as I was. An utter disgrace to the protector she needed so severely.

“Riley, I…”

“Don’t apologize anymore!” She got up with a start and took steps towards me, her back straight, arm outstretched accusingly. “Don’t make excuses, you’re too late. You were so sure it was always about you, weren’t you? Never once considered those around you and the cost they were paying on your behalf. I’m free now, and as happy as I can manage. Leave it alone.”

I took a step forward, the anger rising again, my pride on my sleeve. I balled my hands into fists, prepared to make the same bad choice again to get the answers necessary. I felt my body jerked back in one clean motion, my arms pulled and locked behind me. I jerked and squirmed, but got nowhere.

“As the drugs were your first enemy, your rage is your new foe. You cannot let it destroy you. Let go Deacon.” I stopped fighting, finding myself locked in Dacien’s iron grip. Riley stared on intently, watching the anger seep from my eyes slowly.

“Family never gives up on each other.”

“You did that long ago Deacon. It’s time to move on and allow new families to arise. And for what it’s worth, I gave her the dope.”

The struggle started again as I pulled and fought against Dacien’s grip, as her fingertips twisted into my arms to grip me against her. I would not allow her to continue her control of this family – I would do whatever was necessary to break the cycle. Riley crept closer as I struggled with my warden, going nowhere fast. She tilted her head slightly, the ever-curious child, and landed a punch to my face not unlike my assault on Dusk. And as my rage had known no bounds, hers too came to life, wailing on me as I stood helpless in Dacien’s grasp. When Riley’s arms became weary, like mine, she settled on the ground to her knees, staring up as blood poured from my mouth. I was let free and I dropped with a tired thud against the gravel, looking over to where Dusk had propped himself into a sitting position.

“The vicious cycle perpetuates itself, children,” Dacien began evenly. “Violence only begets violence. I allowed Riley a way out, a temporary solution, until she found her feet. Controlled and monitored, she will be free of chemical influence before the year is out. Unlike you, I trust Dusk absolutely. His loyalty to me has been unwavering, and I trust that he will extend the same to Riley. Do you understand Deacon?”

I nodded, the rage slowly subsiding.

“Riley has had her chance to vent in the old Burton family way of violence, now she will recover in a more civilized manner. But her pain should have come before your own, long ago.”

I coughed a few times, turning to stare up at Dacien. “More lessons? More morals? Don’t you ever stop!” I got up from the ground with a lunge and attacked her, swinging wildly and hoping to hit bone and flesh. I connected a few times, but not before I was ripped back with an urgency and force entirely unexpected. An arm clamped around my throat, another pulling backwards, I felt another familiar voice in my ear.

“Christ, I leave you alone for ten minutes and you’re trying to kill everybody. Seriously Deac, is there anything you touch that you don’t aspire to destroy?” Irish’s grip was firm, her breath in my ear matching my own erratic patterns. I was pulled back another few feet from the scene, locked in place yet again. When Dacien was back on her feet, I was released. She took a few steps to me, considering a counterattack. I saw her arm lock up and the fist prepare…but it released, calmly, after a few seconds.

“Deacon, you’ve always been the voice of reason in your family. Your brother has been self-serving for some time, but you are capable of so much more; you were lost in your own pain for so long that you allowed great things to pass you by. I have allowed you numerous second chances to prove your worth, and you continually surprise me. But here, in this issue, you still fail. Your sister should have been your priority all along, which you failed to see. Now she has a new family to protect her, a family that will be loyal and true to the end, despite its methods. You must respect that.”

I smiled slowly, her words sinking in. “Are you banishing me again?”

“I am,” Irish joined in – her tone neutral and unfeeling. “Blood is a bitch to wash out and I’m a bit old to be chasing you young hooligans around anymore.”

“And I think it best for you to abandon what’s lost. Family is family, to a degree. She’ll be safe. Trust me.”

The last words echoed in the tunnels like a forgotten hymn, bouncing violently off the walls and assaulting our ears. Trust was such a foreign concept to any of us, especially coming from someone as mysterious as Dacien Ransom. I nodded slowly, realizing the futility in this fight. I could walk out, or be carried out. What would I choose?

The answer seemed simple to me at the time.

I started to turn away, leaving behind the only sister I’d ever have, abandoning the saviors who had kept me safe for so long…but stopped. I wheeled around on a heel and landed a punch to Irish’s jaw, much to her surprise and amazement. She staggered, but did not fall, which would have disappointed me. I locked eyes with Dacien and stepped closer.

“I’ve never trusted you, and that’s something that goes beyond you or me. And if you want to remove my sanctuary from a place where I always belonged, to a place that I gave blood and service for the past few years, you’re going to have to carry me out, because I’m not going to leave like this. Riley and I should at least be granted the chance to talk, to allow our differences to sort themselves out. Our blood laws supersede that of any adopted family of sorts down here, any bonds of friendship, and any loyalty to purpose. Either you allow me time with my true family, or I take it from you.”

Dacien seemed to contemplate the odds. Myself, already battered and injured, against the four of them, assuming they all were up for this fight. Dusk could make due with some rest and I couldn’t envision Riley standing toe to toe with me. That left Dacien and Irish – both very formidable foes. During this entire negotiation, I had my eyes locked on Riley’s, unsure of my decision, but realizing that taking the chance was more important than giving up right now. I had to show her I could try, that I wasn’t afraid to commit to her, and give it everything I had. But Dacien knew something that Irish and Riley did not. We were both carrying children, so this battle could end badly on more than one level. Would she take my bluff, or would she back down? Dacien Ransom never backed down, never gave in, and never admitted defeat. Weakness just wasn’t a word in her vocabulary. She was pleased with herself for one reason or another, as a smile snuck across her lips.

“So be it.”

From there, I took a hard blow to the back of the head immediately, landing on the ground. I rolled over as quickly as I could, hearing the object slam down again mere inches from my head. Irish was swinging what appeared to be a pipe, calculating each attack slowly. The first blow had thrown off my balance, making quick doubles of the participants, but I had to carry on. I rolled up and attacked her full on, attempting to wretch the pipe from her hand. The moment it came loose though, I heard steps behind me and realized Dacien had joined the fray.

The first few seconds were a series of successful dodges, weaving between the two to grab a few good hits from time to time. The longer I fought though, the harder it became, as they started to land more and more hits on me. I remember Riley’s voice ringing out, though what she was saying I didn’t know. I took another painful shot to the head and hit the ground, though I remember attempting to get up from there. Seconds dragged on into painful minutes, blurred by blood and pain as I tried uselessly to find my feet. I could see a third figure joining the group, which by voice I knew to be Riley, but what she was doing I couldn’t be sure. The last image I could make out before my eyes closed was Riley trying to pull Irish and Dacien away from me, both of them decently bloody but still victorious. I blinked a few times, trying to regain focus and failing miserably.

You can walk out, or you can be carried out. I choose to go down fighting.

And I don’t regret it for an instant.

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