It was the same dream that I’d been having for as long as I could remember. The only difference was that I knew it was a dream.
The hardwood floor felt cold against the little cotton nightgown that I was wearing. My hair was still wet from my bath and my mother had braided it to the back of my head. I could feel the tears falling down my cheeks right before they fell down to the puddle forming on the floor. My little heart was beating so fast and the only thing keeping me safe was the fact the he didn’t know I was there, under my bed. As I clung tight to my teddy bear, that was missing an eye, I heard my mother screaming, followed by loud sounds of smacking.
“Please, Joe, don’t do this.” She pleaded with the last ounce of energy she had to defend herself.
Another loud slam and then a thump. “It wasn’t my fault, I swear.”
Smack. “Lies, all lies. I’ve heard this all before.” His deep voice made my heart race faster.
I heard her hit the wall as she cried and continued to plead with the man.
My mother’s body finally came crashing down on the wood floor in the hallway in front of my bedroom. I could see the top of her head as she tried to get up. Her loud sobs made me hold onto my teddy tighter. I wanted to help her so she didn’t have to cry all the time, but she always made me run and hide from the bad man.
I couldn’t see the bad man, in fact, I never could see his face, but I saw her body tightening up as she took each blow of his boot. “This is what happens when you lie to me, bitch. This is what you deserve!” He continued to kick on her legs.
I opened my eyes, because I had to know she was still okay. My mother was crying, but looking right at me. She brought her finger to her mouth to motion me to be quiet. I gave her a quick nod and leaned my head on my teddy, while covering my ears with my hands. I kept them closed, still able to hear the muffled sounds of my mother’s pain.
I only opened them when I felt the floor vibrating.
He was coming into my room.
I was afraid to look, but I had to. “Charlie? Where are you hiding?”
I opened my eyes and his boots were at the foot of my bed. Out of fear, my body began to shimmy further back until my feet hit the wall. My teeth were chattering and I knew I was going to see his face.
Please don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me.
I could hear the creak of his back when he started to bend over. His hand grabbed the dust ruffle and moved it to the side.
This was it.
I could see his chin.
Where was my mother?
I put my hands over my ears again, closed my eyes and screamed as loud as I could.
When I sat up in my bed, the clock read three in the morning. My cell phone was blinking with a text message and the cat was curled up on the pillow next to me. I grabbed him into my arms and started petting his black coat, before looking over at the teddy bear that was still missing one eye. It was the only thing I still had from that life. The only thing that reminded me to never forget how far I had come.
Just like every time I had been woken up from the nightmare that continued haunting me, I couldn’t fall back asleep. Before my parents were killed in a house fire, they used to let me sleep with them and hold me tight whenever I had a bad dream. I’d been dealing with them for ten years now and not even therapy or sleeping medication was keeping them away. Since I’d started at the university, they’d gotten even worse.
My therapy sessions hadn’t really shown progress, considering that I was still dreaming of the man named Joe that was coming to find me under my bed. His name had haunted me for as long as I could remember, but I still had never even met anyone by that name. It just made no sense.
Luckily, my roommate was never around long enough to discover all of the ridiculous things about me. She was your typical sorority pledge. Mechelle, or Elle, had beautiful blonde hair that was professionally styled. She’d never had to do a chore in her life, because her butler or nanny did them all for her. Aside from her obviously being from a wealthy family, she was also dating the school’s hottest bachelor. When I first met her, I had the biggest stereotype about Elle. I mean, she represented everything that I never had. I wanted to hate her.
There was no way I could ever have the time to pledge or make friends with anyone other than Elle. I mean, after being shifted from one foster home to another, I didn’t really have the means to fool around. Although, I hadn’t had a stable life since I was ten years old, I’d managed to always do well in school.
I wouldn’t say it was always easy for me. There was one place that I lived where I had to wear the same outfit to school all week, because the family used my government money to serve their heroin addiction. They didn’t buy me clothes as I outgrew them, or make sure I had something to eat every day. Another family I stayed with seemed perfect from the outside, but late at night, the man of the house liked to “Play with the kids”.
School was always my escape and I excelled at it because of that. I didn’t know another kid that reached achievement, because she was afraid of being anywhere other than school. I signed up for every before and after school program. I played field hockey and soccer. I wrote for the high school paper and even joined the debate team for something to do on the weekends. All of that was just a reason for me to be away from what waited for me at my homes.
After my mother and father died is when the dreams really got bad. Of course, I didn’t receive the proper mental care and it wreaked havoc on my mind. I would end up studying all night long instead of getting a good night sleep. Although, sometimes, it was good to be able to see my mother, even if she was part of a bad dream. I missed both of my parents, but my mother the most. She was my everything and the only person who had made me feel safe in my life.
I will never forget when I applied to colleges. The wait was nerve-racking, but the outcome unforgettable.
I got my first acceptance on a Friday afternoon. I came home to a cabinet with one can of tuna fish and a jar of peanut butter. My foster mother was sleep with a burned out cigarette still in her hand. Since my parents died in a fire, I wasn’t too keen on people that smoked. Fire scared me.
Anyway, I opened my can of tuna and ate it with a fork and I opened up that envelope. I was sweating and shaking profusely knowing that the words I was about to read could change my life.
I ended up being accepted everywhere I applied. I shouldn’t have been nervous. I was valedictorian and had gotten straight A’s since I was in first grade.
Moving out was easy. I’d been taking care of myself for as long as I could remember, but being able to cope with it all, was a challenge. Elle did whatever she could to try to coax me into the lifestyle she was accustomed to. I think she was finally realizing that I was more of a challenge than she had assumed.
I had problems opening up and that caused a strain in our friendship from the beginning. Never being able to count on anyone had made me put walls up. It prevented me from ever getting close enough to someone for them to hurt me. I’d lost everything I loved and had to live in horrible conditions just to survive and get where I was. I was bound and determined to finish with school and never live that kind of life again.
Still, it didn’t stop her from trying to drag me places and force me to be more sociable. She and her boyfriend, Tommy, kept trying to hook me up with people they knew, but after a few dates that ended miserably, they had finally stopped pushing as much as at first.
My only other friend was actually someone from my past. Zach Miller was put into the foster care system the same week that I was. We were both placed in a temporary home together and the same age. Zach’s parents didn’t die like mine had. He didn’t know his father and his mother was put in jail for drug possession. We spent four months together, before she got out and regained custody of her son, leaving me all alone.
I hadn’t seen Zach in almost ten years before starting college. Each time I was sent to live with a new family, I always hoped that I would someday see him again, but it never happened. I will never forget walking into my English class on my very first day. I was running late because I am terrible with directions and ended up coming in when role was being called.
I dropped my bag as the door slammed on my ass and a very handsome guy came and helped me pick up my things. I should have recognized his smile, but I was too embarrassed to pay attention. He offered me the seat next to him just as they got to my name. I raised my hand and got myself situated in my chair. When I heard the name Zachary Miller, my eyes shot up and looked to the guy next to me, who was raising his hand.
At first I thought he didn’t remember me, until he reached over and squeezed my hand. I have to admit, I didn’t even remember anything the professor talked about, because all I wanted to do was talk to Zach. We passed notes during class and when it ended, we spent the next two hours catching up. Since that day we had been inseparable and he was my very best friend.
For the next couple of months I fell right into college life. My courses were rough, but I managed to stay on task and do well. Zach and I hung out and studied together as much as we could. He wasn’t that strapped to maintain a grade point average anymore. His mother married someone with money and got her life together. He had new siblings and a happy life, nothing like I had live.
I should have known that my life could never be perfect for long. Everything changed when I got the letter from the attorney’s office. I will never forget that day that everything I knew came crashing down over me.
The people I played changed from day to day, but the game always remained the same. For as long as I could remember I’d been playing pool, or billiards if you want to get technical about it. What went from being a hobby with my friends had turned into an easy way to make a buck, or in my outlook, a way to break away from my family.
They weren’t that bad, but had always insisted I follow through with being a part of the family business. Since I was no good at school, and I had no intention of working alongside of my family, I left when I was seventeen and never looked back.
My friends and I used to hang out in the back of this local restaurant. They had two pool tables and the owner was pretty cool about us being there, instead of getting into other kinds of trouble. Baltimore City wasn’t exactly the safest place to bring up a kid. Since I was still alive and not in jail yet, I would say I was a success story. Don’t get me wrong, I know places like John’s Hopkins and major banks were located in the city, but for the most part, where I came from only consisted of lowlifes and panhandlers.
My parents had run a strip of businesses right off of Baltimore Street that consisted of a deli, a cleaners, and a check cashing establishment. They did well for themselves and even gave back to the community, but my father wasn’t always a straight businessman. He lied to my mother about things and when I discovered it, I wanted nothing more to do with him or what he was involved in.
It broke my mother’s heart, but it was better than telling her she was married to a liar. She was a kindhearted woman that thought the world of him. Far be it from me to take that away. I’d much rather her assume I was the fuck up instead.
When I left, right before my eighteenth birthday, I had saved about five hundred bucks. My plan was to take my beaten up Honda Civic to Pennsylvania and play in an Amateur Tournament and win big.
I got my ass handed to me in the first two matches and was eliminated. After just one day, I was just down to under four hundred bucks and knew that it was the only thing standing between me being independent, or going back home to my father.
After going outside and kicking the hell out of a few trashcans, and smoking a few cigs, I went back and watched the guys play that beat me so badly.
I knew I was a cocky guy, but I had honestly believed that I was pretty damn good. The men and even women in this tournament, blew me away. There was no way that I could shoot at the level they were.
That’s when I met Joker.
I was walking around, watching a few people play on a couple practice tables when he approached me. I recognized him right away as the second guy that handed me my ass. He tapped on my pool case that was hanging over my shoulder. “Where’d you get that stick kid?”
I hated being called kid, but since I’d lied about my age to get into the tournament, I knew I couldn’t argue. “Pawn shop.”
“You mind if I take a look at it?” We were in a crowded place and it wasn’t like he could take it and run. Still, since I had traded my stereo and all of my baseball cards, I wasn’t very keen on taking the chance.
“Why do you want to see it?”
He smiled and crossed his arms. “I noticed when you were shooting that the ferrule seems cracked. It can affect the way the tip hits the cue.”
“Yeah, kid, it’s the white part of the tip. You going to let me take a look or what?” After watching the dude play pool and now hearing about his knowledge of the stick, I reluctantly got my stick out and handed it to him. The stick unscrewed to fit in the case and he only needed the top shaft part of it. I waited patiently to hear what he was going to say. “It’s definitely cracked.” He showed me where. “Don’t you hear the difference when you take your shot?”
I shrugged. “I guess.” I really didn’t notice. I shot the game, but had no knowledge of sticks really.
“Look kid, my friends call me Joker. I have a shop about an hour from here and can get this fixed for you for about fifty bucks. If you want to improve, you need a stick that can shoot properly. I can take it and drop it off to whatever hotel you’re staying at, if you want. I’m coming back tomorrow.”
Hell no, I wasn’t leaving my stick with this stranger!
I grabbed the shaft out of his hand. “No thanks, no offense, but I don’t really know you.”
“I understand, listen if you change my mind, here is my card. I don’t have to shoot again until tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by and I can fix it up for you.”
“Yeah, maybe I will.”
We said our goodbyes and he went on his way. After watching a few more matches, and getting even more discouraged, I headed out to find a hotel room. To my dismay, they were all booked due to the tournament being in town. I was going to have to sleep in my car and it wasn’t exactly comfortable. Since I knew I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to spend any money, I skipped dinner to go and have my stick repaired by the man they called Joker.
I plugged in the address on my phone and was soon sitting in front of a bar. After walking all the way around the building and not seeing another entrance, I walked inside. An old man was shining a glass behind the bar. “Can I help you, kid?”
What was with everyone calling me kid?
“A guy named Joker told me to come see him about getting a repair done.”
He shook his head. “Sure he did. Another charity case, I see. Take the hallway until you come to a set of stairs and go up. Knock three times and he’ll let you in.”
After finding the stairs and standing at the old beat up red metal door, I was reluctant to knock, but I had nothing better to do and I wasn’t about to let that old man downstairs laugh at me.
Joker answered the door promptly and smiled when he saw it was me. “Hey, kid, come on in. I was just cooking some dinner. You hungry?”
I followed him into the open studio type apartment. The smell of something cooking filled my nostrils and I realized just how hungry I was. “A little.”
He laughed and shook his head, while he grabbed an extra plate and sat it at the bar. After eating one of the best steaks I’d ever tasted, he got up and grabbed my stick, before taking it into another room. I finished eating and followed behind him. The room was set up with a couple machines. A few sanders were on one table and a bunch of long pieces of light wood were in a bin. “You make sticks?”
“Yep, as a hobby. It keeps my mind off of things when work’s slow.”
I walked around and looked at some of the finished sticks. The wood grain was amazing and I’d never felt a stick that was so smooth. “These are great.” I saw a price sticker and almost threw up my steak dinner. “Holy shit, this stick is two grand?” I put it back where it sat and backed away from the display case.
Joker shook his head and kept working. “You probably don’t want to know how much the other ones are. They can run you a pretty penny.”
He was staying on task and never looking up at me being so nosey. “You got a place to stay kid?”
I shook my head and looked down at the equipment. “Not really, but I was thinking about going home. I shot like shit and there’s nothing left for me to do.”
“I could use a hand around here. If you’re interested, I got an extra room in the back. It ain’t much, just a mattress on the floor, but it’s yours if you want it.”
This man was a stranger and aside from being really awesome at pool, I knew nothing about him. What I did know was that I wasn’t about to go home and face my father after failing so quickly. Did this guy know how desperate I was? I could be running from the law or something. While he slept, I could rob and kill him This was real life. “Why are you helping me?”
He smiled and shook his head. “My life had revolved around this game, kid. Let’s just say that if I could go back and change things, I would. Now, I just try to do the right things whenever I can. If I’m wrong about you, then don’t take offense, but I’m throwing you a bone and you can decide if you want to take it.”
After thinking about it for only a few seconds, I agreed to be Joker’s assistant, but in doing so, I had no idea that the man was going to change my life.
For the next year I worked alongside of Joker and learned how to make pool sticks during the day. At night, we’d shoot pool for hours and he taught me everything that I never even knew about billiards. I threw myself into my new lifestyle and learning how to get better. Eventually, I stopped talking to my friends and family and focused only on the game and my training. Even though there was the occasional times that Joker would have people over and older women would end up in my bed. Not that I ever complained about that. It was always no strings attached and even they had things to teach me.
Joker was also like a second father to me. Aside from him basically taking me in and giving me a job, he’d take me out to meet other pool players. He played high stakes games involving a lot of money. Some would even last over twenty four hours. Coffee became my best friend and the game was my infatuation.
There was so much more than making shots to the game. It took precision and being able to maneuver each and every shot in my mind. I learned about positioning the ball after every shot and lining myself up for safety’s and hard combinations.
Joker insisted on me not playing for money the whole first year that I lived with him. Since he had taught me so much, I respected his decision, but when Valley Forge came around again, we were both registered and I was ready to show the world of billiards my improvements. It was my second chance at redemption and I knew if I failed again, that I wouldn’t want to continue on the path I was headed. I loved the game, but had been humiliated before and I just wasn’t about to have it happen again.
I was so nervous when the day came, but managed to make it to the fifth round. Joker was still in the tournament as well, but he was waiting to play his next match and was acting as a coach for me. While the other guy I was playing was hiding my next shot, making it impossible for me to see my ball, I stood to the side contemplating what I was going to do.
I looked around the large room full of people. They were watching my match and I could feel the beads of sweat running down my forehead. I was nervous and this shot was going to determine if I won something, or nothing at all. Sure, I’d come far from how I shot the year before, but I wanted the candy pot and first place was where it sat.
Joker came up behind me and told me a shot I needed to take, but the idea of him making that decision pissed me off. I’d played the whole match without his help and I wanted to finish it that way too.
I went against his advice and tried a kick shot that was impossible to make. The cue ball missed the object ball within inches and the guy I was shooting ran out the rest of his balls like he could have done it with his eyes closed. The crowd of people cheered for the man that won, but all I could hear and see was Joker shaking his head and cussing at me.
I knew I should have listened, but I was too damn stubborn to do it.
When we got back home he screamed at me for having an attitude and blowing my chances of ever doing good. I was so pissed that I grabbed my things and left. I should have gone back, but never had the balls to admit that I was wrong.
I started traveling around, playing at bars for money and getting better with each game. The lifestyle took over and with only maybe three people that I called friends, I found myself thinking back to the man that helped me get where I was.
After five years, I was standing in front of the little bar owned by the guy that taught me everything I knew. I was ready to apologize to the man; to maybe have a clean slate with our friendship. It was something that I knew I needed to do.