Looking back, I’ve begun to doubt whether I ever really had a choice in what I was going to become. No matter how many times I think about it, it just seems inevitable that one day I’d end up here.
“Alfonso Anastasio… as a child, you were baptized with water by your parents. Is this correct?”
“Yes.” I responded without hesitation. Sure, maybe I’d be a few years younger or older if I’d made a few different choices. Maybe in a few years I’d be doing this for myself, or maybe I would always have a debt to pay. Doesn’t matter. Every road I take seems to end up here.
“Well that’s good. Makes you an honest man. But today you forget about that. Because today, we’re gonna baptize you again. Welcome you into our family. This is a new stage of life for you, Al.”
The man who spoke to me from across the candlelit room was Marquis Allesandri, the youngest capo of the Allesandri family, and the illegitimate son of the Don Frankie Allesandri. I’d been a friend of his for more than ten years now. We’d practically known each other since we were both snot-nosed brats, but I’d always known even back then there was something special about Marq. Something that gave his name a little panache, a reputation. How even when we were kids, everyone knew better than to fuck with him.
Marq made a little nod at me, telling me in our own little way this was the part where I was supposed to step forward a bit and hold out my hand. I did as he asked, and this pasty-lookin’ motherfucker with a knife stepped forward and grabbed my hand, pricking me with a knife until I bled. Something in me didn’t like the way he looked at my hand as it ran like it was Marq’s allergies acting up. Now I don’t wanna sound racist or anything, but I’m pretty sure I knew right then and there what he was.
I yanked my hand back. Marq told me, “This blood means we are now family, Al. You see this gun I got here in my back pocket?” I nodded. “You see that knife Sostene just gently, lovingly stuck you with?” I nodded again. Sostene, then. Marq smiled. This was his favorite part. “From now on, this gun and that knife are your life. You’ll live by the gun and the knife, and if we tell you to, will you die by the gun and the knife?”
That would’ve been the time any normal person would’ve felt some kind of hesitation. But I didn’t. Not a thing. I just nodded my head and said yes.
Marq stood, worked his way out of the comfy chair he had parked in front of his desk. I’d always envied that chair. That thing was a nice piece of fucking work. You could tell just by looking at it that the guy who sat in that chair was someone you respected. That was a chair that from the moment it was made was destined to cradle the ass of someone with more power and respect than he should have ever deserved. You don’t see many chairs like that one anymore. I’ve tried, believe me, but I just can’t find ‘em.
He handed me a card with the picture of a saint on it, pushed it into my hand and rubbed it around until it was smeared with my blood. He took a lighter, and told me to hold out my hands while he set the card on fire, and then he told me to hold it as it burned. I tried putting in a half-hearted effort into juggling it for theatrics’ sake, but I just didn’t have it in me to pretend. Burns were nothin’ new, I had about a half-dozen reliable poultice recipes I could slather over ‘em and be just fine by tomorrow. So I just stood there and took it.
“As burns this saint so will burn your soul if you ever betray us. Everyone in this room is now your brother, your sister, your father, your mother. We are all family now. And if you ever betray that family-”
“May my flesh burn like this saint,” I finished.
“Baptism by fire, and the shedding of new blood symbolizes your birth into this family. We are one until death.” His smile widened. “Congratulations, Al, you’re one of us now!”
Marq hugged me like a brother hugged you. This was a big a moment, for both of us. The youngest capo and the youngest made man of the Allesandri family. Two brothers in soul had now become two brothers in blood. He kissed me on each cheek and laughed, practically overjoyed that I’d finally become one of the family.
“Come on guys, don’t be shy! This is a happy moment! Let’s give Al a proper welcome, eh?”
Sooner than I’d hoped, everyone was lining up to hug and kiss me. It was just sort of how things went when you became part of a family. I didn’t like it. Could never really bring myself to say I ever would like it, ‘cause of how awkward it felt to me. Marq was an exception, but I’d never really liked people touching me. It’s why I wore gloves.
Most of ‘em were sweaty and a little bit fat, and there was really only one person I looked forward to getting a hug from in the room, the fine-looking doll with the thistle-hair and thin-cut suit. But when it came time for her turn she barely touched me, a quick grab-and-release that didn’t really feel like a hug at all. Can’t lie, I was kinda disappointed.
Then it was the big man’s turn, Sostene. His hug was practically bone-crushing. I was a little nervous, armed with the knowledge of what he was that felt less like a gun in my hand and more like a stiletto. Or a toothpick. He treated me much more kindly than she had, and I felt a bit of admiration for him in spite of myself. For someone like him to be this close to fresh blood without freaking out, well… it was an amazing thing. Marq had some amazing people working for him.
Finally, all the hugging and kissing stopped, and the ceremony was over. I felt like I could barely breathe, but I was glad. This was gonna be the answer to all my problems.
“Al.” Marq put his hand on my shoulder. “You did your job well today. Better than that. I knew from the day I met you that you’d be the best of us one day. I can’t tell you how happy I am to not be disappointed. Now go home. Get some rest. Your first day as a soldier starts tomorrow. I don’t care what you do with your time until then, but meet me back here eight o’clock sharp tomorrow morning. Look for Sostene, he’ll show you how to get here.”
I don’t care what you do with your time until then… It was about then I realized what everything that just happened to me meant. I was made. No one in this city could touch me now. I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I had only one boss, and he couldn’t give a damn about what I stole, or who I killed, or anything else inbetween. In a lot of ways, it was freeing, knowing I would never again be held accountable for anything I did outside the family. But it was frightening in a lot of other ways.
Y’know, when I really think about it, all of this was that damn doctor’s fault for not giving me a job on account of me bein’ a medium. Anastasia always wanted me to work in a hospital. She said that because she knew she was sick, I think. Even back when we were kids, I’m sure she knew.
What’s an older brother to do when his little sister asks something like that? I mean the American Dream is great and all, and I’m sure it looks real nice on paper. But not everyone can be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a politician. Some people just aren’t born with those things in the cards. I shoulda known that when the first thing I did the day I met the spriggan was get high off of her herbal blends. But hey, who leaves that kind of stuff out where a kid can find it? I mean who does that?
Anyway, back to the real story. When Anastasia told me she wanted her big brother to be a doctor, I started hanging around our neighbor in the tenements, the spriggan. She was this nice old broad who’d let me watch as she mixed her salves and poultices together, and she never got mad when I touched her stuff. She didn’t really have much of a choice, I think. Even when she could, she didn’t move around much, so she knew she didn’t have the energy to stop me from messin’ around with her stuff.
That’s where it all started for me. The spriggan. I watched her every day, mixing, mashing, brewin’ and stewin’ her herbs and plants together. I learned everything from her. She never taught me of course, she didn’t have to. I was a smart kid, I could figure it out for myself. And because I’m a medium, I got something that the doctors call “eidetic memory”, whatever the hell that means. It means I don’t forget nothing. It also means that when I applied for a job at the clinic, I got turned down and they gave the job to an elf instead. Fuck that guy. Fuck him and his pointy ears.
You mighta guessed, but my promise to Anastasia didn’t really fall through. Even when I’d studied enough herbal medicine to beat the test scores of all the other guys lined up at the clinic, they still gave the job to that unnamed someone. It kinda goes without saying these days, but I’m pretty sure the reason was I’m what they call a demihuman. People who ain’t quite people. Demigods, succubi, werewolves, dwarves, fairies and all the rest of ‘em. Guys like Sostene, who I was dead sure was a vamp from the moment I met him. Some of us have it better than others, but we don’t get many nice looks when we go out for our walks on the town. Surprising how the targets of racism shift when you get a whole new group of people to hate. Blacks and whites working together in perfect harmony to put the kibosh on fur and fang.
But that just ain’t fair, is it? I’m not the one who needed that money, I couldn’t give a damn about it. Anastasia’s the one who needed it, and she wasn’t like me, she was completely human! One hundred percent. But just because someone in the family wasn’t like the rest of them, it was no job for me and an off-the-books hike in medical expenses for her. Suddenly her radiation therapy got almost twice as expensive, and I’m sure they woulda charged more if they could’ve.
I was outta options at that point. So I lied. Told Anastasia I’d gotten the job, even though I didn’t have a cent to my name and no insurance to pay her bills. That’s when I met Marq. He showed me a whole new world where I could put all that anger and desperation to use making some serious clam. Suddenly I had more money than I knew what to do with, and all I had to do to keep making it were some… slightly less than legal errands for Marq and his family. It was like a dream come true. The answer to my prayers.
Imagine my surprise when Marq told me it was just the tip of the iceberg, that there was more where that came from if I just kept doing him and his folks some favors. And one day, he would see to it that I’d become one of them, and I’d be bringing home enough bacon to pay Anastasia’s bills five times over. I couldn’t be happier.
So that’s how it was for the next ten years. I’d do Marq some favors, and maybe if I was feelin’ a bit ballsy I’d do some stuff on the side, just for me. Nothing too drastic, no dead bodies or barrels of gunpowder. Just a little bit of larceny and vandalism, maybe some assault and battery if I was in a nasty mood. I’d collect tribute from the local business and other goodfellas that worked for Marq and his folks, then I fucked up their shops and their cars if they didn’t pay up. I left messages, intercepted deliveries, got to know the guys that worked for Marq.
I immersed myself in the life of a ne’erdowell, a delinquent, and I’d never been happier. I led a double life, and the only ones who were any the wiser were Marq and the spriggan. I never told her, but I didn’t have to. She wasn’t a maroon, she knew the only place a kid like me could get that kind of money was with the mob. She never said a word though. Never lectured me or told me stop. I think she wanted me to figure that out on my own. Too bad I never did.
Anastasia though… the innocence of a child is really something. She never once doubted I was a nurse’s assistant or whatever promotion I told her I’d gotten to justify all the money I was bringing in. It hurt me at first, to just look her in those big brown doe eyes and lie right to her cute little face. It hurt me more than any of the beatings from the cops, or the guilt I felt sometimes when I passed by people whose stuff I’d wrecked. But then I remembered the little passenger riding in her gut and the medicine I was paying for to get rid of it. I remembered the machine they used to pump her full of rads, and the poison water they made her drink to help her get better. That made me forget the lie real quick.
We’d both been keeping on like that ever since. I’d go out, make some money for Marq and get some in return, then I’d spend it on medicine, come home and give it to Anastasia, then lie to her about where it came from. It wasn’t a perfect life, but it was the life I was managing. Me. Only I could keep it together and keep her alive. I’ve never forgotten that, not once. Not even on the day of my induction into the family.
I passed the door to the spriggan’s apartment. I still visited her occasionally, although she long ago lost the ability to move once she began settling her roots into the tenement walls. We don’t really talk. I just help her mix and brew. And every time I visit, I ask her if she’s thought of something we can make together that would help Anastasia. She’s stayed silent every time.
With a bag of Anastasia’s medicine in one hand, I jammed the rusty key into the door of our apartment. The door opened, and I walked in to say hi to Anastasia, to lie to her face and give her the medicine I bought with blood money, just like I always did.
She heard me close the door, and turned to give me the biggest smile she could manage. She was so pale, even her silky black hair that used to make her look like a princess had grown dull, lacking sheen. But I still thought she was beautiful. My little alabaster doll.
“Welcome home, big brother. How was the hospital today?” She saw me frown a little. “Don’t tell me Dr. Smith is still giving you a hard time about those errands you were supposed to run?”
“Oh, you know how it is, Anastasia,” I said, steeling myself for the lie I’d told so many times. “You do what you have to do to put food on the table.”
“Yeah, I guess… well if there’s any money left over, do you think you could buy me some new books? I get tired of laying here just staring up at the ceiling.”
“Come on, I just bought you some last month. You can’t have finished all of ’em already,” I said with a smile, tussling her hair. “Why don’t you just try rereading some of them?”
“I can’t do that! Then it’s just same old, same old!”
“But same is good, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, same is good, I guess. Even if it does get a little boring…”
I tried consoling her. “Tell you what. I’ll pick a few up for you tomorrow. But only enough to last until the end of the month, got it?”
Beams of light practically radiated from her every expression, and I couldn’t help but feel happy in spite of myself. Same is good, huh… The phrase bit into my tongue. Now that “same” was the one thing I was never going to be able to get her.