Three weeks had passed and my attempts of not thinking about my birthday, my parents, and my inheritance had been futile. If I wasn't sleeping, eating, or otherwise preoccupied by schoolwork, I was thinking about my birthday that was a week away. My family had begun making more frequent visits to the shop after Beatrice showed up that morning. Uncle Vin brought Uncle Bobby and I pizza one night as an excuse to talk about my birthday and our plans for the day. I had been far too engrossed in my devouring of my favorite pizza, pepperoni, bacon, pineapple, and BBQ sauce, to really offer my own opinion on the subject. I'm not too upset about it in hindsight, as I really didn't want to discuss the topic. That wasn't something I brought up to either of my Uncles though. I had the feeling that Uncle Bobby knew I wasn't comfortable with the subject, so he didn't push it often.

Instead, the two discussed how many people would be attending the festivities, and where it would be held. "We could always hold the party in your apartment, Bobby." Vincent said through a mouthful of pizza. His hand was adorned with an assortment of gaudy rings, some of which fit him perfectly, others that slipped up and down his fingers with each movement of his hands. He wore a stained Boston Red Sox jersey with black sweat pants and a pristine pair of white Nike's tennis shoes. The overhead light of the kitchen shined off his combed over, receding hairline. "Ya know, move a few chairs around, put some tables together. It'd look real nice."

Uncle Bobby daintily ate his slice of pizza, chewing, and swallowing before responding. "Normally I would agree, Vincent, but the guest list for Arthur's party is a tad longer than those of our other events. Remember when we tried to cram nearly the entirety of Beatrice's family and all of her cousins into this space for my 35th birthday?"

Vin's face grimaced, "Yeah, I remember. My claustrophobia started acting up, and I, uh, took a bit of a tumble."

"If by a 'bit of a tumble' you mean you went face first down two flights of stairs and knocked yourself out onto the shop floor, then yes you took a bit of a tumble." Uncle Bobby retorted after dabbing his mouth with a napkin. "You should be lucky that Cassandra is excellent at first aid."

"Ah, that Cassandra Holloway. A bit nutty for me, but she sure knows her way around a suture."

Uncle Bobby grumbled under his breath, "And I'm still trying to get the blood stains out of the damn carpet…"

"You say something Robert?" Vin asked, grabbing another slice of pizza, and biting into it, his hands greasy from the past 5 slices.

"Oh, nothing of consequence," he said, "By the way, have you heard from Eustace and Agnes? Will they be in attendance? I never received their RSVP…" Bobby stroked his beard a few seconds. Vin was about to answer with another mouthful of pizza before Bobby raised a hand, "Please, Vincent, not with your mouth full."

Vin choked down the rest of his pizza crust, licking his fingers and savoring the flavor. Said sauce still glistened on his lips, "You're no fun Robert. Maybe if you'd get that stick outta your ass and lived a little you wouldn't be single." Uncle Bobby hadn't been on a date since he had taken me in. Aside from the numerous offers and attempts from Aunt Beatrice, he lived the life of a bachelor, but with an adopted son. "You know they're gonna show though. Them old timers wouldn't miss it for the world what with their grandson being—" Uncle Bobby interrupted Vin's spoiling of my inheritance by shoving another slice of pizza in his mouth.

My head perked up and I swallowed the remainder of my pizza in a hurry, "Their grandson being what?"

Uncle Bobby shot Vin a dirty look, who now looked quite embarrassed with himself. "Their grandson turning 14 is what he meant to say, right Vincent?" He glared at Vin, who replied with a frantic head nod.

"Sorry, Arthur, can't give anything away." Vin muttered out while cleaning off the splatter of BBQ left by Uncle Bobby. "Hey, can't we have the party at Beatrice's place? It's got plenty of room!"

"That would be a fine idea and all if it weren't for the fact that it's Beatrice's house and the last time we held a party there she became quite…inebriated." They both looked down and a cringe crept across their faces as if they were remembering something truly terrible. I had spent the night at a friend's house that evening, so I couldn't attend the party, but from Uncle Bobby's stories, it was less of a party and more of a slow-moving train wreck that one couldn't help but watch.

It was then that Uncle Vin's head shot up, an invisible light bulb appearing above his head. "I got it, you close the shop for the night and we can have the party here! Hell, I can even cater!"

"Well Arthur, how's that sound?" Uncle Bobby asked. "I quite like the idea; simple, cheap, cozy. Free pizza is the best pizza, after all."

It had sort of just hit me that my birthday was roughly a week away. During this conversation, I had managed to get the idea of my parents out of my mind while listening to my Uncles banter back and forth. I couldn't help being visibly bothered by the idea of my birthday, which brought up my parents once again. A wave of tension flowed through the air, connecting with my two Uncles who simultaneously noticed my being uncomfortable. Uncle Bobby gave him a look, like he was telepathically communicating with him, and with a nod of his head Vin began to gather his things.

"Glad you guys enjoyed the pizza, I'll see you in a week or so. Text me later, Rob, we can sort things out a little better then."

Uncle Bobby and I said our goodbyes, thanking Vin for the pizza. Once Vin was out of ear shot, Uncle Bobby saw his chance, "You appear troubled, Arthur." He set a concerned hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged it off. "Is this about your parents?"

"You call it an inheritance," I began, my mood worsening, "you only receive an inheritance when somebody dies."

"Not always, Arthur. Often somebody comes into their inheritance when they become an adult."

"But I'm not going to be an adult! I'm going to be 14!" Tears welled up in my eyes, "My parents are dead, aren't they Uncle Bobby." I lowered my head, hiding my eyes. Tears stung my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Just a moment ago I was enjoying my favorite pizza, now just the thought of it annoyed me. My mood had been soured. "I didn't want to think about it, but they're gone. I'm never seeing them again!" I was filled with despair. Years of pent up emotion and denial welled at the top of my soul and spilled over into the pool that was reality.

Uncle Bobby embraced me in a warm hug, "I won't lie to you, Arthur. I can't. The odds your parents are alive are very slim."

"Stop!" I yelled, pushing him away and getting off my stool. "You talk as if there is still hope. You talk as if there is still a chance. You know it. Beatrice knows it. Vin knows it. My grandparents know it, and I know it. My parents are dead. We don't know how, we don't know why, but they're gone!" My anger had taken him aback. He wasn't used to me acting this way, and neither was I. Suddenly I was filled with so much anger and rage. I grabbed at my head, feeling as if I were going insane. I felt the anger grow uncontrollably within me, like nothing I'd ever felt before.

"Arthur, please," he held out a hand that I quickly swatted away. "Arthur, you must listen. We don't know what happened to them. But you're right. We've all spoken about it behind closed doors, careful to keep you out of the conversation. It is most likely that your parents, unfortunately, are deceased."

"I wish it were you…" I mumbled.

Shock appeared on his face, "I beg pardon?"

I looked him in the eyes, anger in my voice and venom on my tongue, "I said, I wish it were you…"

My words tore through him worse than any bullet. His speech stammered, for the first time Uncle Bobby was lost for words. Pain clawed at his face and tore away his gentleman's composure, my words had struck a nerve harder than anything I could have ever done to him.

"Sometimes, I wish it had been me as well," he said while maintaining eye contact, the pain in his eyes visible despite his attempt to hide it.

"Whatever my inheritance is, I don't freaking want it. I want my parents." I left our kitchen, trudging off to my room for the evening and leaving Uncle Bobby to deal with the emotional bomb I let off in his face.

Lying in bed that night, I regretted my words. But I couldn't take them back, the look on his face was proof of that. He wasn't my father; he and I both knew that. He tried his best, but we both noticed the void that my parents left when they disappeared.

The next morning, very few words were exchanged between the two of us. He had prepared breakfast for us as per usual, but when I awoke he had already finished his and was setting up the shop. Remembering the prior night, I picked at my food, my appetite practically nonexistent as I choked back sunny side eggs and bacon. Afterwards, I found my lunchbox had been prepared for me. I looked inside where I would usually find some corny, endearing note about how he hoped I had a good day or him telling some corny joke he got from the newspaper. This morning, however, I found nothing. Just the usual turkey and cheese, an apple, and a bottle of water. A lunch without a note hurt more than anything. Uncle Bobby almost never forgot an item from his morning routine, which led me to believe that the lack of a note was intentional. And I deserved it.

I descended the stairs into the shop where Bobby was spraying down the counter-top as he was prone to do in the morning. He seemed to almost be in autopilot. His hand movements were slow, lethargic almost. His head was without his signature hat, instead his hair looked as if he lost his comb and was going for a just-out-of-bed sort of look. His shirt was incorrectly buttoned, and his vest was open.

I wasn't sure what to say to a man saying such awful things just the night before. "I'm sorry" didn't seem to cut it in this situation. I never meant it, but the words just bolted out. Never had I felt such an intense anger before that night.

He hadn't even noticed me coming down the stairs until I was in front of the counter. He raised his head slowly, "Ah, good morning Arthur. I apologize for my appearance." He looked down at his less than presentable attire, "I didn't sleep very well last night. Damn pizza really did a number on my stomach." He tried laughing it off, unconvincingly. "Either way, I must persevere! Have a good day at school."

"Thanks…" I muttered. I was at a loss for words. Shame filled my insides as I realized what a number I did on my Uncle Bobby with just a few words.

A little under a week passed awkwardly as neither me nor my Uncle wished to broach the topic of the night that I yelled at him. I had started going home later after school in attempt to avoid the conversation. Whether it be the park, the library, or just the local arcade. I didn't have money, so I was essentially just trying to waste time. My birthday was tomorrow, and I didn't know if my Uncle had called off the party like I had asked. My guess was that he had gone through with it anyways in hopes that I would come around to the idea. While I felt terrible for what I said to my Uncle, my opinion on my inheritance hadn't changed. I still didn't want it, even after coming to terms with my parents being gone for good. Something about it just seemed wrong now. It was no longer a present, just a cruel reminder.

Nevertheless, he was still my guardian, so I was required to text him if I was coming home late. Whether I was spending my day with friends at the arcade or reading comic books at a library he would usually reply with some politely brief variation of "Remember to check in hourly, otherwise I will be forced to assume the worst." As of recently, these texts never expanded into casual conversation like we were once apt to do. There was an awkward tension between us still, even a week later. I had nearly apologized a dozen or so times, but I always stopped myself. That night would play back in my head, filling me once again with shame. We rarely made eye contact, and dinners, for the most part, had become silent.

Today I decided to spend my day walking around the city with a few of my school friends; Alex Summer, a close friend since primary school, and Mayzie Leighton. There was a romantic tension between the two that was near palpable. Neither one wanted to admit that they had a thing for the other, but they still dropped the occasional flirtatious giggle or joke. I was often left as the third wheel of the group nowadays. You know when a group of friends are trying to share the sidewalk and the one must stand behind the other two? That was me. I didn't mind now though. My mind was far too preoccupied with my birthday, my inheritance, and my fight with Uncle Bobby.

It had become evening a few minutes prior, the sun setting in the distance, giving off a bright fiery glow across the sky. It reflected off the windows of the nearby houses and shops on the block. We had strayed pretty far across town. It was about time for me to head home but returning to my apartment meant confronting Uncle Bobby again, which then meant that the next day was my birthday.

I wanted this moment to last an eternity. The sunset on the horizon, spending time with my friends despite them not really paying much attention to me. I enjoyed their happiness, though. I never really took a liking to dating, let alone girls around my school. Seeing Alex and Mayzie happy together took my mind off my own troubles sometimes. But my moment, as much as I willed it, would not last forever.

"Hey, Arthur," Alex began, stopping in his tracks. It took a second for him to pull me out my head. "It's getting late, bud. So, I'm gonna walk Mayzie home."

"Will you be okay walking back?" Mayzie asked, pulling up on her scarf. It was near the end of March, but the weather still felt like it was winter. Despite the cold, I wore just a long sleeve shirt and jeans. "It'll probably be dark by the time you get home, Arthur. I could have my Mom drive you if you want."

Mayzie's Mom was…something else. A single mother, Mayzie's Dad having left before she was born, and she never let you forget these two facts. She somehow found every opportunity to mention how she was both a mother and a father or how hard it was being a single Mom. The few times she's met Uncle Bobby she flirted so much it put Aunt Beatrice to shame. He seems to have that effect on most middle-aged women.

"Thanks for the offer, but I think I could use the walk. Clear my head, ya know?" I replied, looking at the texts between me and Bobby in my phone.
"You two still aren't talking?" Alex asked, "It's been a week man. You should say something. I mean, you kinda messed up. No offense, ya know?"

"Yeah, but," I began. I couldn't explain the full situation to them. Not out of shame or embarrassment, but rather out of a genuine lack of ability to explain my feelings in a way that didn't make me appear to be an even bigger jerk. "Look, don't worry about it. I'll be fine. You two love birds enjoy your walk home." I gave a semi-convincing wink, trying to change the focus of the subject.

"I don't know what you're talking about! We're just friends!" Mayzie blurted out.

Alex immediately turned to her. He whispered angrily, "I thought you said we would talk about it!"

Mayzie blushed, whispering back, "Well, we can talk about it later. He doesn't need to hear about it!"

They continued to angrily whisper at each other. Before they could notice, I was halfway across the street, waving goodbye to them as I made my way home. My apartment lied on the west side of town and I knew a relatively straight forward route from this street to mine, but I wasn't entirely ready to journey back into the arms of stress and shame. I decided to take the scenic route, proceeding northeast through a collection of alleyways that would otherwise be extremely spooky had it been any later.

My jaunt brought me to a small park that was often void of visitors that weren't named Arthur, Alex, or Mayzie where we would often hold long conversations while sitting on the rusty, once blue swing set. Much gossip was spoken of on these swings, but not today. Today, I sat alone, wallowing in my own self-pity. I was the only 13-year-old actively trying to avoid his own birthday party.

I had just missed my 8'o'clock check in with Uncle Bobby by roughly 5 minutes when I was distracted by a hooded figure suddenly entering the park. Emory wasn't the smallest city ever, but it was still small enough that I'm likely to recognize most people from Alex and Mayzie's neck of the woods. I didn't recognize this figure whatsoever, but they didn't seem to really notice me. From the gate of the park, they made a B-line two swings over from where I sat. They simply sat there, not swinging their legs or pulling out a phone or book. They wore a black hoodie, over black sweat pants. Their feet and hands were clad in black boots and gloves respectively. Everything about this person screamed "I'm going through a phase" or "I really don't want people to know who I am."

I decided, in wake of the creepy newcomer, that I had spent enough time lounging on the swing and that it was time for me to return home and face my problems. Just as I got up from my rusty swing, the figure spoke.

In a deep voice they asked, "Would you happen to be Arthur Merlin?"

A chill ran through me. How did they know my name? Do I tell the truth, or lie? Or should I run screaming "Stranger danger!"

Before I could even reply, he simply stated, "Don't bother answering. I can smell it on you. That disgusting Merlin stench. A hint of Holloway mixed in. And.." he audibly sniffed the air, his hooded head bouncing around, "Robert Black? Lysol, cologne and— "

I didn't let him finish. I took off running, jumping the gate, and just barely clearing it with my messenger bag in tow. Anybody who could claim to know me by my smell was most certainly bad news. Not only that, he knew the name of my mother's side of the family and my Uncle Bobby. Right down to the cleaning product he uses, which was probably the weirdest part.

I took erratic turns, trying my best not to leave an easily followed trail. I sprinted through alleyways, jumped fences, jogged through the occasional backyard whilst apologizing for the intrusion. Even in a dead panic, I was polite. I had run for more than 5 minutes straight. My chest pounded, my lungs burnt, and I tore a hole in my pants roughly 2 fence posts ago.

Finding myself in yet another alleyway, I took a quick breather behind a dumpster that reeked of rotten apples and dirty diapers. My legs throbbed as I attempted to catch my breath amidst the pungent odor of garbage just behind me.

"Insert the boring, cliché line about how you can run, but you can't hide, or what have you." The voice spoke from the alleyway entrance just ahead of me. "I would say something like that, but it seems that you can't do either of those things." Footsteps came my way, kicking glass bottles and aluminum cans as he took his time closing the distance between us. I could now just barely see under his hood. Pale skin, a short stubby nose, thin lips, and bright green eyes were his more defining facial features. If he wasn't bald under the hood, his hair was extremely short.

I immediately shot up and attempted running in the direction I just came from. The dumpster I had been hiding behind, almost in response to me moving, lurched, and flung itself in my direction slamming me against the alley wall. The dumpster moved back, and I slumped to the ground, my entire body now in pain. I clutched at my sides, legs, anything that hurt, which was nearly everything from the sternum down. I hadn't the time to wonder how a dumpster attacked me, let alone why this dude was so hell bent on killing me.

"Stop making this so difficult," he began saying, now just a few feet away from me, "is what I would say if this were at all difficult. I'm actually having a bit of fun. It's like a cat chasing a very dumb, helpless mouse. Soon I'll be parading your body around as if it were a trophy. But first, maybe you should limp away some more."

Normally I'd refuse to listen to anybody trying to kill me, but just this once I thought maybe taking the guy's advice was probably the better of the two options I was given: stay and possibly be tortured, or limp away and die someplace that isn't a dirty alley.

I started crawling away, soon somehow making it to my feet and began quickly limping to the other end of the alley. I made it to the sidewalk just before the road when I felt the terrible smack of a glass bottle bursting on the back of my head. I fell onto the sidewalk, my head dazed and more likely than not bleeding from the glass. My vision was blurry, and I heard him speak from a few feet behind me.

"Oh man, you took that like a freaking champ." He sounded surprised that I wasn't dead or unconscious yet. I groaned in pain, crawling myself away as I slowly regained my vision. "You're 2 for 0 Arthur," he then yelled as if he were a baseball commentator, "but can he bring himself back?" He switched voices as if carrying on a conversation with himself. "I dunno, Bob, that was a nasty hit to the back of the head. I think he's gonna have to take a WALK!" With that he stomped into the small of my back, stopping my crawl.

"Why," I choked out, "why are you doing this?"

He stomped into me again. "You don't know? Come on, you gotta know!" He drove his boot into my ribs until I was on my back, my face to the sky. He crouched down, his face next to mine. "IT'S NO FUN UNLESS YOU KNOW!" He screamed into my face, his words spitting into my eyes and his breath rancid.

I coughed in pain. I was almost certain a few of my ribs were cracked, if not broken. I had never felt so much pain before now. I didn't want to die. I had to apologize to Uncle Bobby. Dammit, I was turning 14 tomorrow! And now I was about to become a statistic. A teenager murdered for an unknown reason found by the side of the road beat to death smelling like a dumpster.

He had torn off his hood, revealing close cropped brown hair, almost a military style buzz cut. He grabbed at his head, screaming either in pain or insanity, I didn't know. I hurt too much to care at this point. He had stoop up, shaking violently, and attempting to tear out hair that wasn't there. In this moment, I tried to get up and trudge away. I couldn't die here, I just couldn't. And if I did, I wanted them to know I didn't give up. The thought of Uncle Bobby finding my beaten and bruised flesh under a body bag at the coroner's office appeared into my head. I didn't want his last memories of me being that I wished he were dead.

I got to my feet, my body flaring in pain. I heard him turn about, "Stop trying to get away! Now it's just annoying!"

Before he could reach me, a loud engine came flying down the road, a red Dodge convertible screeching to a halt right beside me. A flash appeared out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly the pale faced psychopath was putting out a fire on his pants.

"Arthur! Get in the car, now!" The familiar voice of Uncle Vincent's Boston accent shot a surge of hope into me.

"Damn Merlin! I'll kill you too!" My attacker screamed.

"Get in line, ya schmuck!" Vin yelled. I managed to get both legs into the car before Vin put his foot to the floor and the car sped off before I could even close the door.