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"Okay, so, as you can see, the deck has been fully shuffled. In fact, you shuffled it yourself. You picked the cards at random. You placed the cards in the deck. You shuffled the cards again."
I nodded, watching intently. I was always in awe whenever my friend Joshua pulled off these card tricks.
"So, after all that, wouldn't it be amazing if your cards were the only ones face up in the deck? Not only that, the other three cards of the same value of your selections are somehow to the right of your cards as well."
I stared in bewilderment. This trick was easily his best out of all the ones he had shown me.
"How about we play cribbage now?" I asked, "since there's nothing to do in this town."
"Alright, fine. I was thinking we could walk to the store or something and get some energy drinks and try to pull an all nighter, but you're pro-"
"What the hell? Dude, the nearest building is about five miles away. It's about fifteen degrees out. I understand that you are built like some sort of supernatural polar bear from Neptune, but normal people like me cannot walk that distance in this temperature without suffering some sort of health problem."
Joshua nodded in agreement. We spent the next few hours in the basement playing cribbage, garbage, and a few hands of poker. He was never the type to lose. In fact, I really did not feel comfortable with him shuffling or dealing the cards because I was quite wary of his skills with cards and sleight of hand, and knew that he would most likely attempt to stack the deck when he started losing. He was obviously doing it tonight, for I don't know any other cribbage game in which one player can get 5555(J) with the crib, 4456(6), and 10JQ5(5) with the crib, all in a row. Needless to say, he double skunked me in that game.
Despite the frustrations of losing to a card magician, the night was going very well. I hadn't seen Joshua in a few years and was eager to catch up with him. In reality, it is my fault we lost touch; I had gotten too caught up in my girlfriend, other friends, family, and college life to remember an elementary/grade school friend.
I felt horrible. He seemed lonely, he never had a lot of friends, and not many people want to make the long journey to his house, especially considering its desolate location. He seemed to be occupying himself well, though.
He became very well versed in the ways of card magic, manipulating a simple deck of cards in manners that I never thought possible. He was also reading a considerable amount, especially encyclopedias and non-fiction titles in order to, as he says, "increase his knowledge about the planet around us." He was now a walking Wikipedia.
"You know, the playing card originated in Ancient China. The first examples of playing cards date back to the Tang Dynasty, somewhere in the 800s," Joshua explained, "and they were spreading throughout the Asian Continent by the turn of the 1100s. The playing cards we know today were known as the Mameluke cards, with 52 cards, except the suits were polo sticks, coins, cups, and swords. Oh, and by the way, that was misdirection. Here are four aces."
Damn it, fooled again. No matter how many times he explains stuff to me and then pulls a random card trick out of nowhere, I fall for it. Every. Single. Time.
The conversation slowly shifted to our family life. In all honesty, I do not remember much of his family. Whenever I would come over in my youth, we would always go straight downstairs to hang out. I was never sure why, and whenever I brought up the subject, Joshua just shook his head and said not to ask. I think his mother might have been mentally ill or something because she was always looking down and never said a word to anybody. I don't think I have ever heard her talk. Maybe she just didn't like me. I'm not sure.
Which was unfortunate for him, because whenever we were at my house, my mother would greet him with open arms. My father would ask him about his day, play football with us, and play cards with us.
Sure, my older brother teased us a bit, but that is expected of older brothers. Most of the time, he played with us as well. I could tell that, at times, Joshua was extremely depressed at my house. I could only assume it was because of the fact that he wanted what I had, a family that seemed to be involved with their child. I would try to talk about his sadness at my house as well, but I would be brushed off much in the same way as if I asked at his house.
"So, is your dad still really into football, man?" Joshua asked.
I replied, "Yeah. Him and the Chicago Bears... I swear he purposely tried to run over somebody wearing a Packers jersey once. I'm slightly worried for the man, to be honest."
Joshua laughed as he dealt another poker hand. 2-7 offsuit. No wonder. I thrust my cards onto the middle of the table in frustration. Joshua glanced at me with a peculiar eye before looking at the cards to shuffle them.
"Don't look at me like that, Josh. Let me guess, Ace King of diamonds or some crap like that. You are definitely hacking the cards."
Joshua rolled his eyes and said, "For the last time, I am not doing anything to these cards but shuffling them. Just because I can do card tricks does not mean I cheat in every card game. This is why being a magician sucks at times, no one trusts you when you touch cards."
He put down the cards after shuffling, at which point I grabbed them. Just as I thought, two jacks in the second and fourth position in the deck. The same round in which he was supposed to deal to me first. How convenient. At this point, I began shuffling the cards. Joshua sighed as the cards flew everywhere. What can I say? I am no card master; I barely know how to shuffle. But hey, at least I had a chance of winning now. Maybe. I guess. Probably not. He will still hack the cards even though I'm shuffling them. He has done it before, after all.
I looked at Joshua and asked, "So, how's your mom doing?"
He looked up and glared at me. I stopped shuffling the cards, quickly becoming aware that I probably shouldn't have asked that question so quickly. I apologized for asking and continued shuffling. He stared at his lap, fiddling with the zipper on his worn leather jacket. His breathing slowed down as his lips cocked to the side of his face, almost as if he was trying to stop himself from crying. He quickly glanced to the wall on his left before returning his stare to the bottom of his jacket, as if to throw a tear off of his face without me noticing.
I put the cards down. Feeling like I just killed somebody, I asked, "I'm really sorry man. Do you wanna talk about it? I know we haven't hung out for a while, but we were like best friends throughout grade school. You were there for me, I was there for you. I still have your back man, I haven't forgotten you."
He looks at me and says, "Then how come you never called me? Or messaged me? I was right here the entire time."
He started laughing and shaking his head. "I was always here. It was me that was here. The guy that was with you throughout elementary and grade school. Remember? It was me, man. Your family was great, and mine was fucked up. But I sucked it up, and was happy for you. Despite the fact I was dying inside. Because I loved you man. Remember? We were like family. We were family. We even told each other that in Mrs. Reiney's seventh grade algebra class, remember? The last class of the year? When I saw you crying after you got rejected by that girl? I cheered you up, and you said I was a brother to you. Since when does family abandon each other? Family never leaves each other man. Ever."
I was the worst friend ever. I could see the pain in his eyes; I could see my friend trying as hard as he could to fight back his tears. I left him alone after all he did for me. We were family, I was his brother, and he was mine. I was his only brother, and I left him...
He started laughing again as he pulled out a Marlboro Red 100 and lit it.
"You smoke?!" I shouted.
He just nodded and smiled. His emotions raging, he continued chuckling and smiling as he sat back in his chair, placing his feet upon the table. He beckoned for the cards, I gave them to him. He began fanning them, shuffling them, and doing all sorts of shuffling tricks with the cards as he took intermittent puffs of his cigarette. He never so much looked at me; he seemed fixated on the wall. Eventually, he took a glance at me. He still had that same smile on his face, shuffling the cards, smoking his cigarette. When his cigarette was finished, he dropped it on the floor, stomped on it, picked it up, and flicked it into the next room.
Joshua looked at me for a second. He nodded at me, raised one finger as if asking me to wait, got up, and walked into the next room. After a minute, he came back to the table with a medium sized black bag. It was clear that there was something in it, but I wasn't sure what.
Joshua continued staring at me with this unsettling smile as he fumbled around in the bag. I became anxious as the bag started making clinking noises. Joshua looked inside the bag, shrugged his shoulders, and gently put the bag in the middle of the table. He began laughing again, this time louder. He slowly pulled down the bag, unveiling its contents.
"You drink?" Joshua asked, as the bag revealed a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass.
I sighed in relief and shook my head. Joshua removed the cap of the bottle and took a massive swig. He set the bottle and shot glass to the side, clasped his hands, and placed his arms on the table.
"I'm sorry man. You don't deserve this, I know I'm acting weird," Joshua explained, "and it's my fault. But, you gotta understand. My mother died recently."
My eyes widened. "When?" I inquired.
Joshua sat back in his chair. "A few weeks ago. I just saw her foaming white stuff at the mouth and there was nothing I could do. She was suffering from some illness; I can't remember what it was. The important thing is, she was prescribed a medication that she happened to be severely allergic to. It killed her."
I looked into his eyes with empathy. "I don't mean to ask this, but... Was that why she was sad all the time?"
Joshua laughed a little more. He reached over for his whiskey and poured a shot for himself. He drank it quickly, after which he offered some to me. Refusing once again, he took another swig from the bottle. He pulled out another cigarette, lit it, and explained, "No man. She was sad because I was messed up."
"What do you mean?" I asked, "You seemed like a pretty happy kid."
Joshua took a long drag of his cigarette. "The senses deceive the mind, my friend. I started becoming very irritable, impulsive, and violent. I started forgetting who I was. I didn't know what was happening to me, so I had to stay close to my mother. I couldn't leave her alone. At school, I secretly had lockets of her hair in my pockets at all times, to make sure she was still with me. You actually helped me deal with all this stuff, even though you never really knew what was going on. But, the fact of the matter was, my mother could not take it. Whenever she tried going to the store without me, I would hold on to her leg and not let go. I would dig my nails into her leg so there was no way she could shake me off.
"Heh, I remember the first time she brought a man she was dating home... I pulled a knife on him. I remember her telling me I would have to eventually move out when I was older... I started punching her. I had to be with her at all times, no matter what. Nobody was going to get in my way, not even her. Why do you think I never had friends? They didn't like me, the crazy kid. I was depressed at my mother's house because it seemed like she didn't want to be with us, and I was depressed at your house because my mother wasn't there. That's why my mom never said a word. She was avoiding an episode from me."
My eyes were in an unbroken gaze with his. Learning this information was giving me an unusual feeling. It was giving me the answers I was looking for about his family life for all these years, however, if what he is saying is true, then I could have almost gotten beaten up at any moment in time when I was young.
Joshua took another drag of his cigarette and continued, "Eventually, my mom had enough. She took me to a psychiatrist to talk about what had been happening to me. I was excited, because I thought I might be able to convince a professional that my mother needed to stay with me forever, that I was an unfit person or something. Instead, after a couple visits, I was told that I had a severe case of borderline personality disorder with some antisocial features. Apparently, I was crazy. They tried putting me on all these medications, but none of that psychotherapy pill crap worked. Whiskey does, though."
He took another swig of whiskey and laughed. "Eventually I ended up going into a mental hospital. This was the first time I saw a lot of my family members. Well, remember seeing them anyway. Maybe I saw them as a baby, I don't know. But I started liking them a lot. Like, really, a lot. I wanted them in my life.
"I figured, if I act normal, they will stay. If I say what they want, they will stay. So, as soon as I got out of the mental hospital, I acted all normal and happy and, as a result, I built a relationship with my family. I had a family that, hopefully, would never leave. Oh, and don't worry about the time frame. All this hospital stuff happened after you walked out, buddy."
Great, he keeps bringing that up. Brushing the snipe off, I inquire, "Do you still talk to the rest of your family?"
The smile disappeared from his face. He put his feet down as he slammed the chair legs against the ground, glaring at me. One of his eyes seemed to be twitching, but I couldn't tell. Beginning to feel intimidated, I started thinking of excuses to leave. I looked at the time, and quickly thought of something.
I widened my eyes and explained, "Damn it! I have to be home in like two minutes, my girlfriend said she would be over to watch a movie. I might get laid, so I don't want to miss it. She's kind of anal about timing, so if I'm not on time she'll be pissed, and I'll just be stuck watching the Titanic while having blue balls. I gotta go, dude."
"Well, you gotta help me first. You can't leave yet."
"Dude, I gotta go."
I got up to leave. As I was walking away, Joshua grabbed my shoulder and whispered in my ear, "The doors are locked, brother."
I looked at him with pleading eyes, begging him to let me leave. Clearly he had too much to drink and he needed to sober up, I really don't like dealing with drunken people. Plus, if his past really happened and there is alcohol in his system, I don't want to be around for the aftermath.
"Just help me out, man. We're family, remember?" Joshua smiled, inviting me back into the basement room.
I agreed, hoping that, if I helped him out, I would get out more quickly. He began shuffling the cards again, looking back and forth at the walls. He stared at his feet for a few seconds, and then looked back at me. Turning his gaze back at the cards, he laughed once again.
He smiled, quickly raised and lowered his eyebrows, and threw a playing card into the next room. The card struck an old chest. It got stuck in-between the lid and the rest of the chest. Joshua nodded triumphantly, gleefully shouting, "Score! You see, I have been practicing that for years! Not only am I a magician with sleight of hand card placement, deck manipulation, and card counting, but I can throw the damn things too! Now isn't that impressive, brother?" Joshua beckoned towards the card, instructing, "Can you go get that for me? I'd like to try again."
I nodded. I walked over to the chest and tried to pull the card out. It was quite well jammed in the slit of the chest, I couldn't seem to get it out. Joshua was good. I looked at him, shaking my head at the fact that I cannot get the card out.
"I'm better than I thought!" Joshua laughed, "Just open the lid then."
I wrestled with the latch and finally got it off. Upon doing so, the lid of the chest jumped up an inch. Startled, I threw open the lid of the chest in order to avoid any further surprises. The playing card fell to the outside of the chest, but I was unable to grab it, for I was paralyzed by the fact that a decaying corpse was crumpled up within the chest.
Joshua came up behind me, placed his arm around me, smiled, and told me, "You see, my mother never actually left. She's always here with me. She always will be. I love her, man. I love her so much."
He went upstairs. I'm not sure what was worse, the stench or the appearance of the corpse. I could still see the white foam caked around her mouth. He came downstairs with a tarp. Carefully, he laid it by her side,
"Be careful moving her, I'm not sure how fragile the bones are; usually I don't keep them above ground this long." Joshua saw the shock on my face, and continued, "Don't worry, you'll see."
He gently picked up his mother and placed her on the tarp. After wrapping the tarp around her, he instructed me to pick up one side. I stood there, frozen. He simply cocked his head to the side and smiled, insinuating some sort of threat that I couldn't even comprehend. I quickly grabbed the end of the tarp.
Joshua gestured me to calm down, at which point we hauled the wrapped corpse to the backyard. Joshua went back in the house and came back out with two dirty shovels. He went into the yard, thought a moment, and stood on a specific spot, pointing to the ground.
"This is the spot, right here. I think, I'm not too sure. I haven't done this in a while, so I won't be mad if you hit a skull bone or foot or something and break it. Just be careful, though. We're trying to avoid accidents here." Seeing my look again, Joshua explained, "It's my family. My family can never leave me. I'm happy with them here. I love them."
I took a shovel and walked over to where he was standing. I don't remember making the first few incisions into the ground; I was in a complete trance. I only remember what Joshua said to me as we were digging.
"It's kind of cool, you know. Two brothers, bonding. This is what the movies talk about. Two bros, doing stuff that they have in common. You love your family, you love spending time with them. I love my family, I love spending time with them. And here we are, coming up with a creative way to share that ideal with each other. With each shovel-full of dirt, I can feel my connection with you getting stronger. I know you're always there for me, no matter what. Whether it be defending me against someone who is making fun of me, helping me out in a financial bind, or helping me spend time with my family. You should come over and spend more time with my family, I think they really like you. Especially my mother. You are the only friend to ever touch her in her entire lifetime, do you know tha-"
"Shit. Sorry. Judging by the skull... Yeah, that's a hole made by a .22 right there, so that seems to be Uncle Ray I believe. Yep, that's him. Don't worry, he's not mad at you. He'll get over it in a few minutes; he's always been hot tempered. Ah, well."
Joshua gently rubbed the skull.
"I knew this would be a tight fit, but it's the perfect place. This is where my mother and I hugged all the time. This is where I held onto her and wouldn't let her go. This is where I showed her how much I love her. This is where I gave her the cyanide to help her with her illness. This is where I showed her my eternal love, and made it so we can spend eternity together. This spot. I was saving it for you, mom. And I'm sharing the moment with you, my brother. We are a family. All of us. Hmm... And, I think this hole is deep enough now."
Joshua grabbed the shovel from me and gingerly placed his mother in the grave. He covered the grave with the freshly dug dirt, made the ground even, kissed the dirt, and embraced it for a couple minutes. He then looked up to me from the ground and offered to show me around. I obliged, terrified of what would happen if I refused.
Joshua pointed to random spots in the ground, painting a picture of his family tree as he did so. He pointed to his Grandma Eleanor, who he loved because of her cookies. She was buried by the fence. He pointed to his Aunt Sandy, who was buried three feet to the right of her. He loved her because of her stories. He pointed to his Aunt Misty, who was buried four feet to the left of Uncle Ray. He loved her because she taught him to play cards. He pointed to Uncle Ray, whom had been hit earlier. Joshua loved him because he had taught Joshua how to fight.
He continued pointing to random spots on the ground for another few minutes, counting about another nine graves. He finished by pointing to another spot by the door, however, he didn't say anything.
He started reminiscing about the past, telling me, "I remember when we first met. We had to work on some sort of coloring project in the first grade for Ms. Aeron, remember? I mean who colors in first grade? You said that, I remember it so fondly. I remember playing basketball in the third grade. We sucked, but we beat the two notorious athletes. It was the best day of our lives, nothing could get us down. I remember how, in Mr. Talcarney's fourth grade class, we both got 100 on a history test while everyone else got 80 or something like that. You remember that? Everybody thought we cheated. We really weren't good students, were we?"
I shook my head.
"But we were good friends. Best friends. We stood up for each other. We were there for each other. We loved each other. We were brothers, day in and day out. From the day we met each other. No matter what. Always. We always will be. You will be the best man at my wedding, as will I be yours. What college do you go to? I'll be your roommate. We'll do all this stuff together man. That's what brothers do. We have this connection now. We did this together. You are a part of my family, they know you, they recognize you. They love you just as I do, they know that you are my brother. They know how we just danced like idiots in the middle school dances because we were afraid of girls talking to us. But you got that one girl, and I was so excited."
I smiled nervously.
"But you didn't get me one. That needs to change. Brothers share. You have a girlfriend? Does she have a friend? Or a sister? Well, you should hook me up. If she doesn't have that, then maybe we can share her. Love triangle kind of thing. Or maybe you can just give her to me and you can find another girl, I don't know. We'll figure it out, this is all brainstorming, brother. Whatever you decide, I'll be behind you. As long as you stick by my side, because you know I'm gonna stick by yours. Because we're brothers."
He grabbed my shoulder and held me as close as possible to him. He kissed me on the cheek and smiled. Looking at him, I shuddered at the enormous grin he had, as well as his beady eyes reflecting the moonlight.
"I don't want to hold you back from your girlfriend anymore. Go to her. Tell her about me. Tell her you have your family back, once and for all. This is a joyous occasion, brother! Spread the good word! Come back tomorrow and tell me about your experiences with her!"
I took a deep breath and replied, "I can't come ba-"
Joshua's eyes became enraged. "Brother, of course you can! Families spend all day together! They live with each other! I understand we cannot do that yet, so we have to just see each other every day as much as possible for now!"
I started backing away. Joshua started advancing forward in a calculated manner. He lowered his voice.
"Brother. I understand that it might not be possible to see me every day, or make me your roommate, or get me a girlfriend, or share everything, or become complete brothers like I ask. I understand. But there is an alternative. You could always join the rest of my family. That's what I was pointing to earlier; it is an empty spot, especially reserved for you, so we can be together forever."
Joshua put a hand on my shoulder and laughed again.
"Like you said in the seventh grade, we are brothers. We are family. Either way, you will be with me forever. For tonight, you are free to go. Just know that you have made me the happiest man in the world. I love you brother, and I am glad we can share in this life together now."
As I was walking away, Joshua called out to me.
"Please don't disappoint me again."
Written by Achnatohn