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4. The House Always Wins

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I am a statistical impossibility.

That is my explanation of myself. My theory, you could say. It made sense if you really thought about it. Jack was my best friend in the world. I’ve never done drugs, never drank, I don’t fuck around and until recently, I didn’t smoke. Being raised primarily by my father was rough enough, the stress of school added to the flame. All things considered, I turned out pretty well. Honest, reliable, intelligent – I beat the odds. It was somewhat comforting to me anyway. Maybe I’m just weird.

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Darius and Raine still insist that someone accompany me to and from work. I liked Syn the best. She was dark and foreboding, but on amazing character. She loved Pike, or seemed to. That’s the thing with Syn – she was neither good or bad – she was always indifferent. She had emotion, but nothing extreme. I doubt that she ever cried or screamed, her voice was low in itself; she seldom spoke at all if she didn’t need to. Most people thought she was a mute. I loved her though, her cynism toward things was hilarious. But she was cynical without being truly bitter. It was kind of…well, you’d have to know her. Syn’s personality just didn’t make sense.

Then there was Pike. Pike was content with life as well, but he was more social, he could handle people simply without preparing for days. There were stories he told off the top of his head, truly amazing stories. He was one of those freaks that everyone thinks is only going through a phase. He was typically even tempered, yet he was with Syn. They were perfect for one another, but it wasn’t supposed to work. Their personalities should’ve clashed, but it never happened. They were the ones that broke the rules; they rewrote the book to suit themselves. It was kind of interesting. But there was a difference between Pike and Syn and the Drakes. When you saw the Drakes together, you’re swept with an overwhelming joy and peace of mind. They’re so perfectly devoted that they affect their surroundings. With Pike and Syn, it was sweet, but not quite fully matured. Not quite.

The house always wins. If you play long enough, it’ll take you, it takes everyone. People like the Drakes or Pike and Syn were the few who’d take the house, leaving nothing but ash in their wake. That’s how things are. Together, they were unstoppable. Even alone they were barely vulnerable. I admired them all greatly. I wished that I could explain it to them, but I couldn’t. Words all fell tragically short of the truth. Most of life is tragedy, but they went through it and came out on the other side, and they came out better.

I made it a point to write a bit here and there, at least something a day, whether it be organized ranting or disorganized raving. Either way, I wrote. I spoke to Jack less and less; he kind of sits in the corner and watches me work. He’s a quiet one, but he gives opinions from time to time. Jack’s like a brother to me; he’ll always be there to take care of me, always. I trusted him with my life – he’d never failed me. Never, in all that time, not once. That’s a pretty impressive track record. He’s standing now, watching curiously. He doesn’t smoke or anything either – imagine that. Two statistical impossibilities finding one another, how improbable indeed. Sometimes, funny things happen. Only sometimes though. If funny things happened all the time, nobody’s notice, they’d get bored. Just a little variety is sufficient, no use getting carried away with it. You know?

That’s my point to living, sometimes. I’m in search of the routine, the typical, the ordinary. Once my life falls into that groove and I’m absolutely positive that there’s no chance of salvation, that’s when I’ll know that it’s over. It’s a dangerous arrangement, but it’s mine. We’ve all got our arrangements, our ideas, principles or motives. That’s life. Poor Jack, he thinks I’m slightly bizarre. My beliefs aren’t really…conventional, but that’s what keeps things…interesting.

Work’s the same, everything’s calmed down a bit. Darius came in at one time. She sat herself down and stared at me. I didn’t hear her right away, but I could feel the burn of her eyes. She looked at me curiously.

“How’d you do it?”

“Do what?”

“You’re still alive, it’s been a month or two. How’d you manage that one?”

I smiled, “No faith in me?”

She shrugged, “More like no faith in him just letting go.”

I don’t know where my sinister side came from, but I crept my way over to her and spoke very slowly, slightly above a whisper. “But he did, what’s your excuse? You were mistaken. The killer of killers is nothing more than a baby tiger.”

She got up, surprised, not truly annoyed, but shocked. She was on her way out the door. “My excuse? I’ve got years of experience. And even though the tiger’s young, he’s still fgpt fangs and claws. Don’t be a fool kid. The killer of killers has it in his blood.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s Cicero’s baby brother, the illegitimate, the prodigal son.”

With that, she left. She left me there to ponder the facts and figures, to solve the problem. It didn’t add up. Cicero had an older brother, he was the reason Lyric was dead now. He had a younger sister, I forget her name. But Vincent? Vince would’ve been a newborn when it all happened. Maybe…everyone knew the family history. Some people believe that Cicero killed his father, those who know better know that Lyric did it. She avenged her love; she could rest peacefully knowing that he’d burn in Hell. For all eternity. Everybody knew the story, the tragic tale of downfall. The story was legend, twenty years had come and gone, yet the legend endured. True love lasts forever. And ever.

The family name was Merrick, the father’s name was Jasper and the mother’s name was Erika. His brother’s name was Magus, his sister’s name was Elysium. And Cicero, and Vincent. Jasper Merrick married his wife and had the kids young. At the time, he was a good man and they loved each other. But when times got bad, he couldn’t take the heat. He snapped, started drinking, became abusive. And his wife hung in there in the hopes that he’d change. Of course, he wouldn’t. He fooled around too, hence Vincent. It took a bit of research to help put all the details together. To give a brief description of the chain of events that would lead to collapse.

Erika threatened to leave, he’d beat the hell out of her. Magus stood up and got himself killed. While this was going on, a woman named Julie was tending to Vincent, the son that Jasper refused to claim. Her brother was set to have a “talk” with Jasper on her behalf, but she held him back. One night, he left regardless. That particular night was when Lyric avenged Magus and left Erika to think on her crimes. Erika broke down and sat in the bed, abandoned, crying her eyes out. It was like this that he found her. And he held her and listened to her cries and he told her his news. And she couldn’t bear it anymore. He comforted her until she calmed down a bit, then he called the cops. He helped them commit Erika, the first step in rectifying the years of damage – irrevocable damage. And as Lyric put the gun to her head, paramedics were working on Jasper. He lived for a few agonizing hours. And Cicero was settling in with his new family, Elysium as well. She never liked it much though, it wasn’t for her, and it corrupted Cicero absolutely. And Vincent fell between the cracks. Through mishaps, he became a ward of the state, constantly moving. He never knew family, but when he got a bit older, he began to question. Then he began to look. He resembled Cicero and Magus; the story was legend. Finding his origins was just the matter of asking. And then he found his mother. And he got the truth. All of it.

She told him everything, and I mean everything. She told him that he was a mistake and she’d been young. She couldn’t handle a child and her brother forced her to put him up for adoption. He wasn’t even a year old when it’d been done. Well, he didn’t take well to the truth. He’s the undertaker’s son by adoption, and it was the undertaker who’d helped him cover up the murder of his mother and uncle. They were his first. The dear undertaker loved the boy so much that he’d do anything to protect him. Artemis Tyme, that’s his name. Drowning in denial, that one, drowning. No chance of freedom once you’re in that deep. No chance at all.

The Merrick family history and the tale of Lyric go hand in hand. They’re told for all manner of purpose, whether it be to inspire, to warn or just to entertain. I loved them, every detail, even the dark parts. And Vincent…I owed my life to him as he owed his to me. He got tense when I hugged him because he’d never known affection. He was born of anger and malice and from it, he learned well. Vincent was exceptionally good at what he did; he was bred for it from birth. Could you imagine being bred for one purpose alone, just one single idea? Vincent came into this world broken, that’s probably how he’d leave it as well.

I thought the entire saga was truly amazing. Honestly, truly…I don’t know. Words fall tragically short. It was horrendously dysfunctional, but it was mine to hold near and dear. Most of the characters were dead now – Erika hung herself in the hospital. Jasper, Magus, Lyric, Julie, her brother, even Cicero was gone. Sketch and Madison were gone, so was Syrius. I knew the stories to them as well. Everything has a story behind it, only some are actually worth telling. These were worth telling. The Drakes handled their stories; Syrius and Madison were taken care of, preserved for eternity. But the Merrick family destroyed itself before they could record everything significant. It was left for the witnesses to hold and protect, despite all else, and continue for eternity.

That’s the funny thing about stories; it’s an art to tell them, but it’s a blessing to know which ones are worth saving. The best kept stories aren’t locked away in books for the garish light to fade. They’re locked away in our hearts and souls. We take care of them, we hold them near and dear, we cherish them despite their faults. A good story is good, no matter what. You don’t have to know why, a good story explains itself. It was a tragedy, the way it all worked out, but it was crucial to my life. I kept the warnings of the saga in my heart. I was in love with the characters though, Lyric especially. Her entire persona, I loved hearing about her. Her mannerisms, expressions; I would stare at the pictures of her at work for hours. It was addictive. The house always wins.

All of life is a game of luck; great things are accomplished only by willingly taking the leap common known as “risk”. Risk is scary though, the prospect of jumping without a net is terrifying. But it’s necessary, as most great things are. Some are minor, some are momentous. I loved the idea of risk, the point and purpose. It was highly admirable. Most people refuse the unfamiliar – they don’t know what they’re missing. Oh well.

I would sit for hours and consider the history of the Merrick family. On occasion, I’d visit the cemetery and stare at the names all in a row. There’s a sick uniformity in death. Think about it, when you were born, the hospital kept babies in those little plastic tubs to stay until they went home. The containers were in neat rows – names printed visibly somewhere. In death, you get your little rectangle plot with your name etched in stone. The difference with death is that it’s forever. Once you’re in that little plot, you’re done. Chips in, cards on the table, it’s done, forever. Forever’s a hell of a long time, or so it seems. Death’s a scary concept as well because it’s the ultimate risk, the everlasting “What if?” and it has survived and will continue to even if forever comes to an end. Death lives, its’ legacy is our vocation. Always.

So the days came and went, lived and died, and I adjusted myself accordingly. Work was constant, it usually was. My 17th birthday was in a week or so; I’m psyched. My father gets all “emotional” when I get older, he’ll usually talk about Mom. She died over a decade ago, but sometimes you just can’t let go. Her name was Faith; her maiden name was Nolan. Our family name was Riley. I would carry the name with me, I had no intentions of getting married, and if I did, I’d keep my name. I never really spent time planning things like that. You can’t depend on tomorrow; technically, you can’t even count on today.

Mom was something else. I don’t remember much of her, but the light in my father’s eyes when he talks about her tells me that every word is true. When he went blind, he cried for days. He said that seeing the world was insignificant; the torment of never seeing his family again was beyond damnation. Yet, he pulled through it. I had other family I didn’t see much – Uncle Declan and Aunt Hope, Aunt Melissa, and my grandparents on my father’s side. My mother’s family was primarily deceased, most of which occurred during her young teen years. Poor Mom. I’d be seeing my aunt and uncle for my birthday. They had three kids, can you imagine? Deklyn was the oldest at 19, Rook was my age, I was older by mere months, and Salem. The names don’t tell much of gender – male, female, male. Salem was 15, going on 16, all very close in years, close in features as well. They were the notorious Nolan kids. They never went looking for trouble, they had it on speed-dial.

One of the interesting tidbits of my family history is that I have godparents. My father ranted to me about them without giving names. From the way he spoke of them, I decided to just let it lie. And my birthday crept closer, mere days. I took Pike up on his offer, deciding to tattoo, “If love proves real,” on my left wrist. As promised, he would do the deed on my birthday exactly, and not a moment sooner. After a bit of harassment, it was planned for 12:01 that morning. He’s such a sweet guy if you really know him.

I’m not one to make a fuss over getting older, actually, it’s kind of depressing. But at 17 I’m one year away from being trained as an artist. And if some strings were pulled, maybe I could start sooner. Maybe. I could talk to the Drakes.

School’s annoying. My work is usually vandalized or it simply, “disappears;” I’ve got close to nothing to show for my efforts. The classes are boring and repetitive – ultimately useless if you really think about it. Or maybe I’m the only one that really thinks.

Vincent was around, every now and then. Sometimes I’d stop and talk to him, if he was alone. His…friends scared the hell out of me, after what I’d seen, trust was out of the question. Assuming, of course, that there ever really was a question, maybe just an answer. There was something about Vincent though, he was a freak, but to an extreme. He had handcuffs on his pants most of the time, like a trademark of sorts. He was interesting. Jack warned me about him, but I’ve been talking to Jack less and less these days. I know that he’s only trying to help, but I can handle myself. I’m not a child.

It was the day before my big 17th birthday. I was at home, sitting, writing. A knock at the door startled my hands’ continuous motion – I quit my task to answer. My father couldn’t answer the door; we had a sign outside to explain that any sort of visits should be rescheduled. We didn’t know many people, so a knock at the door was uncommon. So I got up to answer. And naturally, there he was – Vincent, waiting patiently. I didn’t quite know what to do with him. So I went out in the hallway to speak with him.

“I don’t get invited in?” He seemed confused, bordering on insulted.

“What do you want?”

He kept taking steps toward me, I kept backing away. He kind of grinned to himself. “I wanted to see you.” He seemed serious, content, relaxed.

I didn’t realize I was backing away until my back hit the wall. He was still there, carefully in step in front of me. He held me in place, I could feel my heart stop. And he bent down and kissed me softly.

“Why, you’re shaking, kid.”

Something started and ended right there. I’m not quite sure how or why, or even what it was, but it was something. I couldn’t move, I could hardly breathe. He was still there, holding me close. After half of forever, he let go and backed away. We had to pry ourselves apart, being as how I found myself clinging to him. He was content with the confusion he’d caused. Silence became an old friend as we just stared in silence. I don’t know what had possessed him, but I didn’t mind.

“What just happened?”

‘Love’s a fickle son of a bitch.” He moved to leave, stepping away slowly.

“Love?” I whispered.

‘Happy birthday, Dek’s on his way up.”

“How do you know?

He smiled, stepping close, whispering, “Because I always know where my boys are.” He kissed me on the cheek, then turned and walked off, hands in pockets. “A fickle son of a bitch,” he said simply as he moved off.

“Love…” I repeated to myself. My body slid down the wall until I was curled up on the floor. I put my head in my hands. I heard the footsteps approach, but I refused to look up until the steps stopped. Dek stood there, he bent slowly to meet my eye level. Then he turned and sat with me.

Deklyn is my uncle’s namesake. He was the family protégé, but he was a disappointment. Trouble followed him naturally; at times he seemed dangerous and highly abusive. He dealt in all manner of illegal activities; I think that he’s a drug dealer. But I loved him regardless. And he might have cared about me as well. He sat down and lit himself a smoke after searching through countless pockets for the pack. Unable to find a lighter, I lent him mine. It took a while for him to put two and two together. He got around to it eventually, just without words. I took the pack from him and lit up for myself. He didn’t bother.

“How long?”

He let smoke out, watching it quietly. “How long what?”

“How long have you worked for Vincent, been in a gang?”

“Aw, c’mon Harv, don’t start now. How about you, when did you start smoking? You’ve been around with Vince too.”

I sat in silence, quietly watching the smoke shift. I looked over at him. “So what are you doing here?”

He seemed to have forgotten himself. “Here.” From the depths of his coat, he brought a package. It was a bit on the heavy side, I took it, eyeing it curiously. Dek watched contently, taking longer pulls. “Open it.”

I carefully opened the box, its’ contents were nearly arranged. A handgun was tucked inside – a few clips nestled beside it. I just stared in awe. It was gorgeous, yet I was afraid to touch it. Dek coaxed me into picking it up.

“It was made especially for you. It’s…it’s the same as the one she used,” his voice trailed off. I knew what he meant, but…how would he know about my obsession? And why was he giving me a gun, loaded, with rounds to spare. I put these thoughts to him.

“It’s a tough city, kid, you’ll need to be able to protect yourself. Just take it, don’t tell anyone about it, this’ our little secret. It’ll help me sleep at night if I know you’re able to handle yourself.”

“You might get more sleep if you were alone,” I punched him in

the arm jokingly.

“Maybe.” He grinned that devilishly charming grin of his. Darius was on her way to me when he got up. I closed the box abruptly, keeping it carefully tucked under my arm. The two were introduced before Dek made his way home. Darius looked at me questioningly, but shrugged off her suspicions.

“Ready to go?”

“Been waiting.”

“Hopefully not too long.”

“No, not long at all. Only half of forever.”

She smiled a bit and we set out. We’d all meet up at the shop so the deed could be done. I told Dad that I was going to be gone a while. He let me go, being I was getting older. We walked quietly, the streets were calmer now. A certain kind of people come out at such late hours. Darius was unafraid, she seemed oddly at home. I still had the box clutched in my arms. I held it as if my life depended on it. A jackhammer couldn’t pry it from me.

Jack was home, asleep. He was frustrated with me, and I can’t say that I blame him. I haven’t been paying him much mind lately, he doesn’t agree with my insanity. I’ll have to sit and talk with him for a while. He’ll understand, I’m sure of it. He always does. Jack’s just that good. The poor deprived child. Whatever will we do with him?

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