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11. Backstage

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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?

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