Fate’s Game – Short Story
A tawny colored hand, slim and poised, reaches out and tugs a slim red tie down into a firmer knot.
“Mom!” Ryan coughs and reaches up to where his starched, white collar is flared up, touching his chin. His mother laughs but brings her other hand adorned with various rings and matching gold bands to loosen the simple knot she had just taught the rapidly panicking Ryan.
“You worry too much, remember what we’ve taught you and you are going to do great.” She finishes by pinching the remaining baby fat of his cheeks, but he stays still and allows her prodding through careful practice.
Looking away from his mother’s face crowned by long brown hair in the ornate gold mirror and meeting his own eyes, Ryan breaths out tersely.
“That’s right, everything’s been leading up to this,” his eyes drop to the monogrammed cufflinks sitting on the wardrobe before him, “I was made for this.” Confidence follows rehearsed words, and he’s been doing the breathing exercises his father had shown him all morning.
“That’s my baby boy, not so little anymore though.” Her voice trails off as she smiles sadly, and suddenly Ryan feels every bit the fresh faced fifteen-year-old he now is.
“I’ll always be yours, Mom,” his cheeks gain a red tint as he grins brightly at her reflection. “But now I’ll be…” his forehead bunches in confusion as he trails off, not fully comprehending the weight of their family’s ceremony.
“You’ll be a big man in the family business.” She finished with a full smile, but Ryan catches the strain on her lips and her eyes don’t crease. Nibbling on his bottom lip nervously, he shoots what he hopes to be a ready smile and grabs the old cufflinks with a trembling hand schooled moderately steady.
As his great grandfather droned on in his slow, gravelly voice, Ryan couldn’t help but think the black stone basin was colder than he was expecting. The dark room was only dimly lit by a few golden chandeliers complete with half melted, long red candles burning steadily. With only one entrance into the small square shaped room built securely underground and with no windows, Ryan would have expected the bowl to be as humid as the stale air surrounding four generations of his family. All first born, like him apparently, but without the foreknowledge Ryan wouldn’t have been able to tell each progressively older and more wrinkled men apart.
“And under the watchful eyes of our one true,” and despite all the assurances he gave his mother that he wouldn’t, Ryan can’t help but tune right back out. There were too many questions storming through his mind. He’d been prepped for this ceremony every birthday since he could remember, but his youngest sibling was always there with him. The oldest living first born would say the prayer, then swear Ryan into a guild of righteousness, and then he would hold Dean and his parents and younger sister would clap.
But the real thing was different somehow. The stone basin in-between him and the rest of his family made him feel isolated, small, and not at all the independent man this ceremony was supposed to make him. All it made him so far, Ryan bit his bottom lip and focused on his great grandfather’s surprisingly clear hazel eyes, was nervous.
“Do you understand that your fate has been set,” Ryan swallows before answering.
“Yes, sir.” The old man’s drooping eyelids lower further to scrutinize his worth, his loyalty.
“And do you swear to live as but one of Fate’s arms, doing as she decrees must be?”
“Yes, sir.” His voice is softer as he feels the weight of God’s expectations on his shoulders, pressing his feet into the concrete floor and rooting him in place.
“Are you ready to see time as she has meant it?” A brief pause, and his great grandfather’s eyes open wide and pierce Ryan. He feels his mouth hang open and dimly notices the vibration in his throat as he answers.
“Yes, sir.” The room goes cold and the hair on the back of his neck raises with his nerves. He begins to hear the steady thumping of people entering from behind him and he knows before even seeing him that Dean was there. The few bodies enter without noise, then start right to follow the wall until they hit the center of the room where Ryan stands, but he doesn’t get the chance to glance over before the old man continues.
“To see the plans of Fate, one must first grasp time’s power. The inherent energy of finality. Of humanity’s ability to end, to be ended.” A deep breath does nothing to quell the churning motions his stomach starts to pull. Ryan isn’t able to hide the flinch he gives hearing one of the new voices chime in from behind him.
“Time is life. Life is power.” Ryan instantly recognizes the speaker, his aunt June. A less often but hearty staple at Sunday family dinners, he hardly has time to relax upon recognition before the words send his pulse racing. June steps into his view as his grand grandfather continues.
“And power,” Ryan almost doesn’t see Dean’s small body swimming in the long red draperies laying across June’s forearms, “is blood.” Standing across from Ryan, the same half step away from the black stone centerpiece, June meets his nervous eyes and gives an encouraging smile complete with a playful wink. She gives the next command, and moves in tandem when he follows.
“Step up.” Just a hand away from his kid brother’s still face, “Bring your hands up.” Both hands a finger length from Dean’s closed eyes. As his great grandfather’s voice cuts through the chilled air, Ryan’s ear begins to ring.
“Take Fate into your own hands.” Somehow, as screams echo in his mind he keeps moving. With his shaking right-hand, he takes the cold glass knife resting in the basin now just under Dean. But upon nearing a small brown face, his motion stops dead. Mouth falling open, releasing an unsteady breath, Ryan takes his left hand and cradles his little brother’s smooth cheek.
Freckles testify hours spent under the sun, scarred knees scream rough housing gone too far, wavy hair just barely reaching his chin remembers the impromptu haircut that landed both of them grounded for weeks and peanut butter permanently barred from their pantry.
“This is all happening for a reason.” His mother’s cheery voice encourages him from where she stands poised at the wall. “You know that everything happens for a reason, right Ryan?” She chides him lightly.
Moving hazy eyes from Dean’s peaceful face to the crowd of supportive faces, Ryan finds no strength to lie.
“I don’t know what you want me to do here.” His voice warbles as his bottom lip wobbles in fear of disappointment. He wanted to be a good son, a good first born. To really become what his parents and family wanted from him, to be who he was meant to be.
Fate has a plan for you all, a comforting deep voice like his father’s thinks in a smooth purr that strokes his brain in just the right way.
That’s right, Ryan joins in to reassure his uneasy mind and turns his focus back to the peaceful face of Dean for what he knows to be the last time, this is all Fate. I’m just…the means.
Hazel eyes gain sudden focus as Ryan’s mind is repeatedly onslaught with the image of a job completed.
He knows what to do, and tightening his hand until nails break the soft flesh of Dean’s cheek and small beads of blood begin to run towards his small chin- he does it. The wave of blood hits wide open eyes, washes over his soul, and seeps into his mouth.
Copper swells on the back of Ryan’s tongue and the smell of freshly baked bread teases his nose as he opens aching eyes to greet the same white popcorn ceiling he’s woken up to for thirty years now. Rising slowly, stretching long arms up towards a simple gold chandelier, Ryan starts his day.
Mechanical movements keep thoughts from straying too far. Keeps him from thinking about what today was, what pieces would be moved. His thumb fondly rubs well used cufflinks as he slides them into place, then lets a deep breath out.
Creaking down dark wooden stairs, keeping one hand on the smooth handrail, a wave of warmth washes over Ryan as he steps down onto the main floor and heads towards the large kitchen. Several black industrial ovens set just against a long brick wall are humming with heat and the smell of fresh bread seeps put. An older woman works kneading a large lump of dough over a large kitchen island. Flour cakes light brown skin, set into the wrinkles of her face and all down her red apron. She spares a glancing look at Ryan as he crosses the from hardwood to white tile, his leather dress shoes tapping as he goes to the large double doored fridge. Cracking open a stainless-steel door to a wave of cold air, Ryan begins searching the top shelf for his name inscribed with sharpie on a small brown paper bag.
“We’re out of butter.” His hand lightly grasped onto the crinkled top of his daily packed lunch; he pauses at the sound of her voice. The corner of his lip twitches downwards, and he tightens his fist before replying.
“I’ll pick some up on my way home.” He tersely answers. Swiftly closing the fridge door and moving towards the front door, he doesn’t risk a look her way. Instead, he keeps his eyes down and watches his feet move in long strides. Just a few more steps, he thinks approaching a red paneled door with a simple golden handle, then I’m in the clear. His pace quickens as he nears his salvation, and he reaches an eager hand out.
“Thank you.” Her voice stops his hand dead just before the handle. Taking a second to rub his thumb over the first knuckle of his left hand, his jaw tightens in frustration. But he pulls stiff lips into a smile and open his mouth to give the response he knows she wants. “And happy birthday.” Ryan’s face freezes and he fails to recover his voice before the steady thumping of her kneading continues behind him. Clearing his throat with a small cough, he goes for the door handle once more and gives a hurried response.
“Thank you, Mom.” Ryan lets the door slam behind him and pretends it helps with the pit in his stomach.
Fluffy gray clouds begin to split above a small neighborhood park. Light wood chips cushions a blue jungle gym with three tiered floors, an orange plastic slide spiraling from the top floor towards the ground. Parents begin to call out for young kids and toddlers to get ready to leave as a slow drizzle begins. Three children fail to move from the small park, staying under the bright orange roof covering the jungle gym. Artificial blue light reveals the oldest child’s pale face with blue eyes firmly scrolling through what ever cheap entertainment hogs her phone. The youngest plays with revolving blocks set into the wall just before the entrance to the slide, three down and three across each lining up to paint an exaggerated and brightly colored animal. He giggles as he uses both of his small hands to spin them as fast as he can, but clumsy hands stop and start unsteady motions repeatedly.
Ryan meets the eyes what he could safely guess was an eight-year-old boy with long blonde hair staring out from between blue bars making one of the walls up. Must be the middle child, Ryan’s lips curls in displeasure and notices blue eyes dart down to track the movement before rising to challenge his stare once again. Seeing the boy’s gall surprises Ryan, but he can’t help the grin it forces out of him. With the smell of rain hitting earth and the happy sound of pattering surrounds him, Ryan feels his eyes slip shut as he takes a deep breath through his nose. He lets himself enjoy the freedom of the storm, of being outside. Not just outside, but completely outside of his family’s sprawling grounds and cameras. Of their control. Opening his eyes just enough to peak at the still staring boy, Ryan’s smile dies at the reminder of what’s to come.
What Fate wants, wistful thoughts worm their way to the forefront of Ryan’s mind, I get. Approaching the three children waiting in the rain, Ryan gives a toneless-
“Woof.” And bites the inside of his mouth as his cynicism swells. Heavy feet scraping the ground as he trudges towards his duties makes the oldest raise her eyes, and recognition flashes before her polite smile does.
“Mister Ryan!” The youngest turns at her excited voice, and an excited squeal sends the small kid scrambling to climb down soft steps towards a familiar face. Nostalgia wells within Ryan as he crouches down and flings long arms apart with a smile.
“Come here monkey!” He lets out a weary groan that the kid meets with a happy sound as he wraps warm arms around him in a tight hug. Lifting his small body and spinning to the kid’s delight, they’re both laughing as the two older children finally come down to meet them. “You guys ready? Todays the big day, huh?” Ryan addresses the fifteen-year-old girl who blushes at the attention.
“That’s right,” She confirms with a small smile, before pushing the still wary boy towards Ryan who give a stale smile. “Josh this is Uncle Ryan, Dad’s friend. He was at my birthday party last night, remember?”
“Good to finally meet you, Josh.” The boy purses his lips and turns his face away, much to the teenager’s ire and Ryan’s genuine delight. Seeing his loud personality reminds Ryan of an equally as opinionated little boy. He remembers running happy hands through wavy brown hair in approval when he finally managed to convince Dean to greet extended family. I miss him, Ryan thinks as he looks at Josh with appraising eyes and a rapidly souring tongue. “Let’s go,” He roughly commands as he stands with the youngest still in his arms, “don’t want to miss your ascension.” Turning abruptly and trusting the two children to follow Ryan makes to return to his ancestral grounds.
“I thought Mom was supposed to pick us up.” An accusing voice cuts out from behind him, but Ryan continues walking.
“She is.” He waits until the sound of sneakers scraping the pavements gets closer to continue, “She’ll be meeting you at the gates and you’ll both go with her then.”
“Just us?” A concerned sister asks, making Ryan grind his teeth as he relives the feeling.
“Yep!” He doesn’t have the strength to pull a happy face, but his voice is plenty cheery as he assures her. “This little man and I,” pausing the tickle the toddler growing sleepy in his arms much to his delight, “Will meet you there.” She hums in relief. Ryan feels his mouth go dry as he shifts the happy bundle in his arms to one side to use his other arm to point the older two children towards a lone woman is an elegant red dress dawdling by the entrance to the park. “There she is, go on now.” His voice wanes to a whisper, but the kids hardly need anymore instruction before they’re racing off to warm hugs and excited greetings.
Ryan watches them embrace, the oldest point towards him and their mother wave a familiar hand in thanks towards him. He only nods at his aunt June as she begins to corral the kids down the street and towards the basement. He waits until they disappear around a corner to reach his free hand into his pocket and grasp a lone syringe.
Turning weary eyes down towards the boy’s small face, Ryan begins to mourn already.
“Sorry kid,” Confused eyes meet his in time to go wide in surprise at a small pinch, then loose their focus and let heavy eyelids drift down. His face goes slack and pitches forward until his forehead meets Ryan’s firm chest.
“Fate has a plan for you.” He whispers. Then Ryan bites his bottom lip, and starts walking.