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13. Between Black and White

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The family dealt with itself, leaving behind most of what we had left. Most of us were orphans anyway, either by choice or fate, that’s where we ended up. Layne still had family though, he had blood on his side; we weren’t all that shocked when his little brother joined the act. Introducing Grey Solace, baby brother to Layne Solace; both being the…pride and joy of Max Solace. Nobody asked about the boy’s mother, nobody saw her or heard from her. After awhile of this, people began to catch on. They called it into question.

She was gone – she’d been gone for ages. Ever since Layne left.

So hence, Grey stumbled into our able hands. Layne taught him all he knew, and then some. Bright kid, I’d been in school with him forever, I knew him since I was knee high. He was always weird, always eccentric, so his turn to us wasn’t that surprising. What took him so long to get here was his own concern. He had to know about us, word was spreading fast. Why the delay? Why not come when we started it?

Because Doyle delivered him to us. When the cops were after him.

That boy was all kinds of trouble. He’d been working back and forth for Doyle and Cassidy, moving between the operations. For those of us playing the at-home game, Cassidy worked under Doyle. He was the name and face for the public to associate with, but Doyle still pulled the strings. He would pull the trigger if he had to, no matter how much he liked Cass, if he ever forgot his place. He’d knocked him around a few times to cement the idea in his mind. He was good at what he did though, he could go anywhere in the dark and get away with it. In the light of day, it was debatable. But he was the ideal creature of the night. Perfect street demon.

Grey joined the crew and we made room, as we were obliged to do, being real blood family after all. Sometimes you just have to make exceptions. He was part of the group on the sidelines for a while by association, but now things were in stone and legit. He was really a part of it. His presence only added to the tension though. He was Layne’s brother and we saw him as such for most of his first time with us. He would always be Layne’s smaller shadow, though he was the furthest thing from an accurate representation of Layne himself. Serkis was the one above all to know this – it wasn’t that hard to see. He was family, sure, but he could never be what Layne was. Never. Now that’s got to be frustrating.

He got by, and we all did. But tensions grew, as were expected. He knew things that Layne had locked away, forgotten intentionally or chose to neglect. And he was eager to make new friends, a little too eager to share. And he couldn’t hold things down too well, drugs and alcohol anyway. He was a kid, as we all were at heart, but he was too young for this game. Then again, weren’t we all? I came into this young and here I am, two whole years later. And still kicking. But was I too young? Too foolish. Was I ready for this? Is anybody? How can you prepare for things like this anyway? They just kind of come up on you and you handle it or you don’t. Do or don’t. Live or die. That’s how the game’s played. Because in the end, that’s all this is. A game.

An act. A show. Welcome to my world. You can take a seat down front.

We’ll be starting shortly.

There are a few things that can’t be done alone.

Playing Russian roulette is one of them.

The game is simple – one bullet, spin the chamber, put it to your head – pull the trigger. And then, it’s up to Fate. Whether you live or die is up to where that solitary bullet lands.

Why is an audience necessary?

Intimidation. For the sole purpose of psyching out the individual.

Fear is easier to succumb to in the presence of others – sometimes. If you’re strong enough.

Only the weak allow their conscious self to be controlled by the vulgar mob.

And it should be a rule that gamblers can’t play; real gamblers never quit, even when the chips are low and time’s short. You pay with your life in this game.

Then again – this is comparable to life itself – the ultimate game and gamble.

And never take your instrument of destruction from someone else. Always set up your own downfall. Trust no one – you’re always best at ruining your life.

I would know – then again, secretly, don’t we all? The truth is learned early on, as a child we came across various lessons that we lock inside, reserved for later use. Free will is the key – cause and effect. Decision and consequence – it all comes down to simple yes or no. Action or inaction? Reaction?

Pull the trigger – play the game; or punk out, guarantee at least a few moments more of feeble existence.

Live. Or die. Yes, or no?

Now, or later?

It’s up to you, ultimately. No one else will make this choice for you.

Click…no. No today, not now. Another time, my friend.

You can only escape death for so long. I’m sorry, friend.

Get up – you’re wasting the day. It won’t wait for you.

Grey played the game according to his own rules. He was a gambler though; he took unnecessary risks and played all the hardest games. But he always came out on top.

 He sauntered in like he owned a piece of the place, which, in his mind, he did. He had stories to tell and connections on all ends – he knew everybody from the outside. Now he was in the inner sanctum, he was secure. He had protection on all sides. Forever.

Devotion never ends – it never comes to an abrupt halt at some point. It just keeps going, even after the mortal reaches have been exhausted. Family’s always family, even when the blood’s been drained from the last member. Always.

Grey was working around; we were both out of school by now. I was used to having him around, he didn’t have the lurking presence that the bigger boys had. There was something very unsettling about Art ever since the change. We learned to deal. Grey would hang out with me most, being closer to his own age and all, he could seem to relate to the eccentricity of the times. I learned most of the truth from him – the rest came in time from the rest of the family. In time. When it was deemed appropriate for me to find out. When the whole clan could decide as a unit. In the meanwhile, he kept me briefed.

I was off on my birthday, as promised. The family threw a big to do about it, which I snuck away from halfway through. They were all too stoned or drunk to notice…or care. The show went on as planned, I can’t imagine how. I had gone off on my own, enjoying the effects. The feel of it consumed me – the air was congested with the smoke and chemicals. I could feel myself smiling without feeling. I was sitting out in front of the bar, smoking idly. I was leaning against the building without thinking. I saw Grey coming, watching his even steps. The closer he got, the harder I tried to convince myself that he was someone else. When did he get so much older? When did he get so much bigger and tougher? I couldn’t figure out what I’d missed, where, how…and why.

“Hey kid, growin’ up a bit, huh?” He smiled at me when he got to where I was. I smiled back at him stupidly, not saying anything. He tilted his head, pulling his pack out and lighting up. He looked at the sky crookedly.

“Looks like rain.”

I nodded.

“Storm’s brewing.”

“Might be,” I muttered. He merely smiled wider, put an arm around me and led me back inside.

“You might want to know where to be for it.”

And I laughed foolishly because I didn’t care. I had the day off, I was buzzed from the party, and nothing mattered. I was 18 – nothing could take it away from me. I was legal and everything. And so was he. We all were, no more kids anymore. No more.

You lose your childhood without realizing the cost or importance until it’s much too late. I wanted to cry. I wanted to kick and scream in his arms. I felt the tears slip out, but reaching up to catch them, found nothing. He held me closer. I looked up at Grey, for warmth, for comfort, for sympathy.

“You should question things more, you know. It would be good for you.” He led me over a bit, my eyes fixed on the ground. I felt myself being passed into another set of hands – a larger more dominate set. “Take care, kid. It’s your night. Enjoy.”

And he was gone. He delivered me to where I had to be, and he let it go. I looked up into Art’s eyes, seeing he was no longer Art. Art had died long ago and Gothik reigned supreme. I knew without knowing, I could see it without seeing. He was here to stay, this was our new “always and forever,” there was no denying the truth. He wrapped his arm around my waist and led me upstairs. I went with him because…I had to. I had no choice. Or so it seemed.

People are tricky. A certain look or gesture and you’re out. Game over – no point in trying. It’s just…weird. I felt possessed, like I had no voice of my own or life in my body when I was around Art. No. Gothik. I couldn’t feel anything anymore; everything became numb. He had ideas and he wanted to move forward, but I was kept sheltered – for my own protection. He was so busy protecting me that he couldn’t love me for what I was. I had to be his, in his own way and definition.

What’s worse – I was willing to be. I’d let him do anything and have anything, as long as he’d keep me. As long as he’d love me. I didn’t care. I had no life, no dreams or ambitions. I was a child in his arms – he held everything I could be. Or had been. And he could do with it as he pleased without my consent. I had no opinions when it came to him. And the more time I spent, or was required to spend with him, I wondered if I ever had. Was I ever free, or had I always been in his hand, under his shadow, and sheltered by his wing? Was he always older, bigger, faster, stronger? He’s a guy. In my mind, he had to be.

I was led away, sat down and given something to drink. I can’t remember the rest, not that I’d really want to. I woke up in his arms. And I stayed there. All I could feel was cold. Then again, the more time went on, it became a welcome feeling. Cold was better than pain. It would eventually numb. Eventually.

I stayed there with him in silence for a long while. This had become my life, this not feeling and not caring. He had what he wanted. Did I? Was this my own choice? I don’t know. I was here, with him. I couldn’t say how much he cared for me anymore, if at all. I couldn’t honestly say if I loved or hated him. But there was something. I don’t know what. I think he was asleep for the most part, and I wasn’t going to go out of my way to wake him up. It had been a long day and night of work and partying, and he’d come home with me and all was well in his mind. Or it should have been. And here we were. Or here I was. He belonged here. Did I? I don’t know and I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to. I couldn’t remember, I don’t know why.

He was still asleep when I heard footsteps. I was barely awake when Grey’s form came into shape. And I almost fell off the damn bed when the hand clamped over my mouth. I blinked at him stupidly, seeing him come into focus. He was smiling wickedly, a finger to his lips. He let go and motioned for me to get up. I slipped out from Gothik, taking a sheet with me, stumbling around as gracefully as I could manage. Grey was standing in the doorway, watching quietly. I crept over to him – he pulled me outside by a shoulder so we could talk.

“Go back inside. Get dressed. We’re going for a ride.”

“Are you insane? He’s going to be pissed.”

“We’re going for a ride.” He had a tight hold on me. “I don’t think you understand. Go. Change. Now.” And he let go of my shoulder, pushing me back through the door. I stood there, frozen in place stupidly. Deer in the headlights.

The room was dark, but I was able to find my way in the dark. I pulled on clothes, not being able to discern in the dark what was mine and what was Gothik’s. I’m not sure I cared. I had my own boots, I had my own pants, but everything else was debatable. Anything that made noise was clenched in my fist as I crept back out towards the door, boots in my other hand. I closed the door with a quiet click, hearing Gothik’s movements as I left. He was awake. And he watched me go. I collapsed on the floor outside, tying my boots haphazardly, emptying the contents of my fist into my pocket. I straightened out and looked at Grey. He was laughing as he put an arm around me and led me off.

“You forgot your coat,” he whispered, when we were well out of distance of returning. I’d have to deal. But it was proof that I’d been there. And that I was gone.

I was led outside, helped into the car, and told to buckle up. Grey had a car of sorts, not the best thing in the world, but it got place to place. He slid in all types of quick, started up, buckled up, moving in swift motions, and we were off. It was some obscene hour of the morning, and still, cars were moving. Grey drove slow and calm through the city, waiting until he’d hit the slower roads leading out. He drove through lazy suburbs and quiet towns. He drove until there was nothing but long stretches of road. Let me explain.

Miles. Pure driving. No stops. Nowhere to stop. You just drive this stretch of road. And there’s nobody in front of you. Nobody behind. For as far as the eye can see. And there might be someone on the other side of the road. About every five minutes. It’s boring. And the limit’s all types of high. You could drive as fast as you want and get away with it. And Grey did. Not a word was spoken – he didn’t look at me once. He just sped up. I watched the dial spin – I felt the car lurch. And not a word passed.

“You’re a bit young for this game, aren’t you?” he asked me quietly. His eyes never left the road. I nodded to myself.

“Aren’t we all?”

He nodded his reply and revved the car harder. I curled my fingers around wherever they were, bracing myself for impact. He was swinging around the corners like a madman, changing between the two lanes without a care. The road was empty to begin with. He was distant, merely nodding to himself. I sat there in silence. He sped up until there was traffic on the other side. He sped up until there was a break in the guardrail. And he jumped sides.

We cruised against traffic, against blaring horns and flashing lights for minutes, which felt like years. I didn’t yell. I didn’t scream or kick or cry. I just sat there, paralyzed. I couldn’t feel it. I wasn’t there. Grey took his eyes off the road to check on me. Here, there. On the road, then off and back again.

“You okay? Can you take this? Can you? You want this? Can you feel this?”

I remember shaking my head, but I couldn’t tell you whether it was from left to right or up and down. There was a truck headed dead on. Grey sped up. The truck was blaring its horn, the rest of the road was clear. Grey was locked to the steering wheel. After the night with Gothik, I didn’t care. I couldn’t feel. I deserved this.

We were only a few feet away when Grey slammed the brakes and sent the car into a spin. We spun around and ended up on the shoulder, kissing one of the guardrails. How he pulled this off without hitting the truck, or him hitting us, I’ll never know. But he did. I was there. He shaved a good few years off of my life doing that. I couldn’t breathe. Grey let go of the steering wheel shut the car off, and reached over to pat me on the back. I could feel the tear slipping down my cheek when he touched me.

“Welcome to the family, kid.”

And he sat back, pulled out a smoke, and was on another planet in his mind.  I took one from him absentmindedly, lighting it in shaken gestures. Eventually he had to hold my hands and guide them. I would inhale the smoke and forget to let it out; Grey would hit me to signal me to exhale. After a few pulls, he took it from me, finished it himself, and threw both butts out the window. I was still staring at my vacant point in space. He leaned back in the seat and looked at me. I was still shaking.

“Wanna drive?”

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