Royal Flush: House of Hearts Chapters 1-3
“No matter what life deals you, take what you have and make the most of it.”
Words my grandfather instilled in me when I was only a kid; back when I was ignorant of the reality of this screwed up world. Words I had to repeat over and over again. Every time I was close to slipping away into the darkness of my thoughts, I had to recite those words to anchor myself.
But let’s be real. What’s worth holding onto in this world when everything else becomes out of reach?
Gramps slept soundly in the hospital bed across from me. Right now, he would want me to focus on what’s ahead rather than what’s happening now. But I don’t know how to move on when he’s the last thing I can throw my anchor towards.
I heard a knock at the door, and it slid over a bit. An eye met with mine and after a moment it opened completely. My Mother stood, having trouble picking an emotion whereas I sat comfortably with mine.
“Nice of you to finally show up.” I said, my annoyance amplified by the sight of her.
“I know, there was no parking at all, I had to go several blocks up.” She closed the door slowly behind her so not to disturb the silence in the room. “How is he?”
“The doctor gave him some medicine to ease the pain. Outside of that,” I shrugged. “Nothing they can do, except make him comfortable.”
I could see the breath escape her body in one forceful shot. Clearly speechless, I decided to interject. “I mean, is it really that big of a deal? People come and go. Besides, Dad will have some company, now won’t he?”
With that one statement I managed to pull out the little bit of air that she managed to recover. I gave her a second to recollect herself. “Look, I understand that you and I have…issues, that need to be addressed, but now’s not the time to do that.”
“There’s never a time to address it. There hasn’t been a time to address it in the last two weeks, since you suddenly popped up out of nowhere after ten years.”
“And believe me I want to tell you where I’ve been but—!”
“But what? No calls, no text, e-mails, heck not even a postcard! Just something, to let me know where you were! Believe me when I say you can’t pretend that we can make up ten years of no communication just like that.”
My Mother got quiet again. I could see her wanting to bust out in tears, but I didn’t have the patience to entertain her. I pushed past her.
“Where are you going?” she turned back.
I closed the door behind me, ignoring her question. I headed back down to the lobby of the hospital, bought a coffee from the Starbucks there, and headed out into the cold night outside. I didn’t intend to be out here long, in case Gramps woke up, but just for a moment I had to be away from her.
So, I stayed under the awning as rain started to come down from the night sky, standing against the wall, sipping my coffee and watching as people went inside to escape the impending winter downpour. The scene was almost nostalgic, in a rather dark, twisted way when you think about it. Even so, it didn’t bother me much. Over the years, I became rather familiar with darkness. It wasn’t as scary as they would lead you to believe. Whether or not this is what Gramps meant when he said to make the most of a situation, fact was that after everything that’s happened, I had to embrace my sadness and despair if I ever wanted to move on from that night ten years ago.
To this day, I never gave my Mother the satisfaction of telling her what really happened to Dad that night. While I don’t remember every single detail, I do remember key facts from it: Dad and Gramps broke out into an argument just after he came to come pick me up. Dad stormed out, taking Gramp’s saxophone in one hand and me in the other. And for whatever reason, my Dad began to head towards the Verrazano Bridge instead of home like he said we were going. My six-year-old brain didn’t know how to make heads or tails of it. Or what was about to happen afterward…
My phone vibrated in my jacket pocket, prompting me to take a look at it. I took a glance at it, seeing it was a text from my Mom, that I wanted to ignore. But against my better judgement I checked it anyway.
Grandpa Theo is awake. He wants to see you.
I didn’t reply to it. Instead I stuffed the phone back into my pocket, took one huge gulp of my coffee and tossed the cup into the nearest can before making my way back inside. One could only wonder what’s in store for me.
I made it back upstairs and retraced my steps back to his room. I opened the door and saw Gramps and my Mom lost in their conversation. Both had serious looks on their faces, and when they noticed me, they cut their talk short. My Mother quickly left the room in a hurry, but like before I didn’t bother to care as to why. I turned back ahead, and Gramps laid propped up.
“Was I interrupting something?” I asked him as I got closer to the bed.
He shook his head. “You’re just the man I want to see.”
I took my seat from earlier and sat patiently. “So, what’s up? How are you feeling?”
Gramps smirked. “I have tubes covering my arms, I’m back and forth between naps, and I’m making the most of every second I have left. You tell me.”
“I much rather not say,” I waved it off, laughing a bit. I took a breath and let a moment of silence set in before I said anything. “So, this is really it?”
Gramps was also quiet before answering. “I’m afraid it is,” he said with reluctance. “That being said, its only right that I use whatever time I have left to tell you the truth.”
“The truth? About what?”
He didn’t want to answer me right away, but he didn’t have to. “Your mother and I feel that now’s a good a time as ever to explain everything. What happened to your father, why your mother left, and you came to live with me all this time. Everything.”
I couldn’t find the word to describe how that made me feel. “What?”
He turned to me and the tear that escape his eye grabbed my attention and locked the words in my throat until he explained himself.
“I’m sorry, CJ. In order to find who killed your father, I told your mother to leave you in my care so that she could do just that.”
I sat silently in that chair for a good minute. My Grandfather waited for a response, but I wouldn’t utter a syllable.
“Yeah, of course you do.” I cut him off. “Of course, you know. You know what ripping a six-year-old from his mother would do to them. You know keeping something like that from someone for ten years would do to them. YOU KNOW, whatever you told my Dad that night to have him run out the house and into whatever that was that killed him…! All of this. You know it all. You know what you were doing and not for a second did you think of the repercussions.”
My Grandfather let me rant a bit more before I ran out of words to shout at him. Eventually I plopped back in the chair and let tears and sobs symbolize my anger.
Gramps turned his attention to the ceiling and licked his lips, pondering how to go about the next few words. I looked at him, tears blinding me, thinking to myself how screwed up all of this is.
“Do you remember, that old story I used to tell you when I would put you to sleep at night? About the knights who saved the world?”
“What about it?” I couldn’t care to give a more serious answer than that.
“Tell me what you remember.”
I scoffed. “Don’t try and change the sub—”
“I said tell me what you remember!” He cut me off.
I got silent. It was rare for Gramps to snap like that, so I swallowed what I wanted to say, and did as I was told. “During medieval times, a comet struck Earth, granting humans the ability to control elements like fire, water and so on. Along with that, these shapeshifters known as Apex came down to Earth to destroy humanity. Knights who were imbued with the powers of the comet banded together and beat them, sealing the leader of the group in a crystal pillar. Legend has it that the descendants of these knights have survived to modern day and that they still operate in secret…” my voice trailed. “…in case the Apex were ever brought back.”
“You remember more than I thought you would.” Gramps said.
“Don’t tell me…” I started. “Mom leaving, Dad getting killed, that star shaped pendant you always avoided telling me about…all of that’s connected isn’t it?”
“You always were a smart boy CJ.” He said proudly.
“And you always were playing jokes on me.” I said with a sarcastic smile. “Good to know your sense of humor is still intact.”
“Believe me when I say that I’ve wanted to tell you for so long.”
“You sound like Mom now. Christ, it’s like no one in this family knows how to tell the truth.”
“In our line of work, it’s lies that keep everyone safe.”
“From what? Some imaginary boogeymen from some fairy tale? You know what? Okay cool, if there’s ever a case where my kid needs to learn that he’s gonna be some knight or whatever it is, I’ll be sure to drop him off at Aunt Georgia’s doorstep while I galivant to god-knows-where, just so I can avoid having an honest conversation with him. Thanks for the advice. Tell Dad I said ‘hi’ when you see him.”
“CJ, I need you to understand that I’m telling the truth!” He exclaimed as I got up and made my way to the door. He suddenly let out a violent cough, but it wasn’t enough to make me turn back.
“Ha, right. No sympathy points for waiting until the literal last minute.” I opened the door and he let out another one.
“CJ…get…help…” he coughed even harder and that’s when I turned back. He was bent over, trying to catch his breath but he couldn’t. Without thinking a second further I tripped out of the room and beelined it to the nurse’s desk. Seconds later his primary doctor and a pair of nurses flooded the room, while one of them forced me out. Before I could even get a word in the door slammed in my face and I was left with a sense of hysteria that I tried to contain. Questions were hitting me at mach speed and scenarios were formulating in my head like I was some conspiracy theorist. The noises around me grew louder and I eventually stumbled back into the wall behind me and just dropped onto the ground, holding my head steady.
The one thing that was holding me down was about to disappear. And I didn’t know how I was gonna make the most of it.
I felt like a husk sitting inside my mom’s Camry. Gramp’s jacket sat in my lap, my arms wrapped around in it and my hand tucked inside the pockets where his medal sat in. It felt as if letting go of it meant I had to really say goodbye. My brain wouldn’t stop repeating my last words to him. I should’ve listened. I should’ve let him talk. Maybe if I did that…
My mom got inside the car and took a deep, shaky breath. She was trying to be strong for the both of us but watching her do so was irritating.
“If you’re gonna cry just do it.” I said without looking in her direction.
“In my own time.” She answered me, starting the car.
I sighed heavily. “You’re so irritating.”
We started to drive off. The rain stopped just before we left, leaving the streets glistening from the streetlights as we drove under them. The car ride itself was quiet. Neither of us were talking. I was too lost in my own thoughts to really address the awkwardness.
“I’m sorry…you know, for not telling you where I’ve been all these years.” My Mom suddenly said as we pulled up to a red light. I ignored her, trying to ignore the awkwardness a bit longer. Didn’t stop her none from continuing to talk. “Not a day went by when I wanted to call or write or text you. But if I did, then there would be no telling how much trouble I would’ve put our family in.”
“Why did he tell you to leave?” I asked, not caring for what she said.
She picked up on that. “Self-reflection.”
“For ten years?”
“And some training.”
“For what’s to come.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I’m apparently the descendant of knights who can shoot fire out of their hands and kick mountains up out of the ground. I don’t believe much of anything right now but here we are.”
My mother started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I narrowed my gaze towards her.
“Nothing; that was just an oddly specific deduction.”
“In what regard?”
“Because, I can shoot fire out of my hands, and your father could kick mountains up out of the ground.”
I turned my attention back to the window. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Not, in the slightest.” She smiled. “Now come on, this is your chance to ask me anything.”
Her sudden attitude shift was questionable, but not so much that my curiosity would simply dismiss it. Truth be told I don’t think I would get another chance like this.
“Gramps reminded me of that old fairy tale he used to tell me as a kid about the knights and the Apex. All of its true, huh?”
“Yeah, believe it or not. I couldn’t tell you how many people in the world have abilities like this, but I do know for sure that each of them know about the existence of the Apex.”
“Sounds like something out of a Loot Shooter video game.”
“Yeah well they were given that name because they had the ability to shapeshift into just about anything. Typically, they would figure out which species was the deadliest and integrate themselves within, before striking and causing chaos. Countless worlds have fallen thanks to their lust for destruction.”
“And the people like us—like you, I mean. What are you guys exactly?”
“Knights. More generally, we’re called Meisters, aka people who have inherit the abilities to control elements. Four of which, are native to the Western Hemisphere. Those would be Fire, Water, Earth and Air. On our own, our bodies can convert stored energy into our respected elements thanks to our genetic makeups, but its limited to our own strength. That’s why Cardinite, fragments of the meteor that crashed on Earth all that time ago, are used to amplify our powers like batteries.”
“And have you had to use these powers on anyone?”
“From time to time. Since I was about your age, as a matter of fact. I discovered my powers just before graduation from high school and that’s when I met Ken Harrington.”
“Wait, Harrington as in Harrington Pharmaceuticals?”
“That’s the one. He and his wife founded both the House of Hearts and Diamonds respectively.”
“House of…okay you’re losing me.”
“I know, it’s a lot to take in, but I don’t expect you to accept all of this in one night. Just know that your grandfather left you a huge responsibility that he was going to hand you at one point or another.”
“What’s that’s supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. As his heir, you are now the new Joker.”
“And that means…what? I can shoot fire out of my hands…? Walk on water? Fly?”
“It means that you have a huge responsibility to keep the balance in the world, just like your predecessors.”
“So…as a king?”
I scoffed. “Okay, that’s where I draw the line. Last thing I’m ever doing is sticking my neck out for a world that gets off on making my life miserable.”
My mom was quiet. “Unfortunately, it’s because we have this gift that we don’t really get to dictate our positions. Like it or not, we were born with this responsibility.”
“I wasn’t born with anything. I’ve been lied to for most of my life and you expect me to just go along with this?”
“Yeah, I do actually.” She raised her voice a bit to match mine. “It was a bad idea to bring this up now after all…”
“No, it wasn’t.” I said. “Because I refuse to go any further without learning about everything you kept from me, so keep talking.”
She didn’t respond right away. Instead, she signaled and pulled over on the side of the street.
“Why are you stopping?” I demanded.
“You’re right. You need to know everything.” She said. “Starting, with the idea that you think you can get out of this.”
“That’s not what I—”
“There’s no getting out of this. Period. You are the new Joker. You are a Monarch. End of story.”
“And what happens if I decide to say, ‘screw all and not bother with any of this?’”
“Then everyone dies!” She snapped. “Period.”
There was a long pause between us after she said that. I looked down at Gramp’s jacket in my lap and I could see her look at me from the corner of my eye, expecting a reply from me. I undid the seatbelt and unlocked the door.
“Where are you going?” She asked me.
“Screw all. I’m not bothering with any of this.” I replied, pushing the door open.
I threw the jacket back inside the car and slammed the door, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and started walking down the street. My Mother’s voice echoed from behind, but I ignored it, jumping onto the bus that happened to pull up to the bus stop nearby. I slid into a booth seat, turned my phone off and laid my head against the window as the bus drove off. My thumb ran across the diamond on Gramp’s medal, my Mother’s words haunting me as I held onto it in my pocket.
With everything going on, I sat and wondered how much more I could take at this point.
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