Chapter 5:

The House Always Wins

My Autistic Brother Reluctantly Finds a Job

“Yes!” I threw up a peace sign as the last strokes of paint flew onto the wall. It had taken a few weeks, but I was finally done. Stepping back to the door, I snapped a quick selfie and sent it to my friends. Their immediate replies consisted of congratulations and sassy jokes. I giggled and continued to type my own sarcastic comments. The smell of paint lingered in my nose, and I opened the window, inhaling the fresh air.

One of the girls mentioned the lack of decorations, and I glanced around the room. The dresser and end table sat almost touching the left wall. A small bookshelf rested opposite them, filled with baskets of board books. Without a crib, though, the room felt empty. After two minutes of conjecture, we had set into motion plans for a girl’s day on the town.

I took a quick shower and put on something comfy before realizing my favorite t-shirt didn’t cover The Bump. I plucked at a stray hair on my arm, awaiting dread and anxiety, but the happiness of a day out with my pals destroyed the grief. I shimmied into one of Nathan’s Super Ricario shirts. It was snug around the middle but allowed enough room for me to move freely. Plus, it was super soft and smelled like my husband’s aftershave. Victory!

Once again, I did not see my car in the garage, just another pile of wood and a dark cloud storming over Nathan’s head. This cloud was so huge, I swear I could see little people and cows running for shelter. He held his head in his hands, and his lips mumbled as if he were chanting. I didn’t want to, but I had to ask. “You okay, Nathan?”

Just like that, the storm disappeared, and a ray of sunshine broke through. “I’m great! Not upset at all.” He flashed an enormous grin and pumped his fists in the air. “How are you, sweetheart?”

“I’m good. Uh, is that the crib?”

“Yep, sure is! Ready to be put together. Every. Last. Piece!” That final word and his cracked voice sealed the deal. This excitement was forced. The last time I saw it, he was working on completing the achievements for his Dragons and Wizards game. He spent a full month on the last collectible, only to find out it was a hairbrush with no abilities.

“Are you about to take Cale to work?” He grinned as he asked, but I could see frustration brimming in his eyes.

“Yeah, but I’ll also be going out with the girls for some shopping!” My exuberance couldn’t be disguised. It had been months since I had seen my friends. Between their children, my job, and everyone’s busy schedules, we had barely met up since college. Taking extra time off to prepare for the baby reminded me just how busy I had been, and still was.

“Oh. Awesome.” He grinned and turned toward the mass of lumber. His fingers fumbled open the instruction manual and grabbed the little baggy of screws.

The garage fell silent. That’s when I noticed a shuffling behind me. Cale was pulling on his shirt, trying to straighten it. I held out a thumbs-up and exclaimed, “Looking good, Cale!” He had dressed himself in his Sunday best for the new accounting internship at the bank.

“I won’t have enough clothes for church,” he mumbled.

“This is why we talked about staying at your job for more than one day,” I reminded, placing a hand on my hip, “Money, bud. You have some saved from your other jobs, (I rolled my eyes and added) somehow, and you need to use it to get some clothes.”

“I can’t buy clothes.” The response was immediate but expected.

“You mean you don’t know how. We’ll show you, but right now it’s time for work.” I reached a hand into my pocket and turned off the buzzing phone alarm. Lately, I needed an alarm to remind me of everything. “That button-up shirt looks great on you.”

“Thank you.” He blushed as we proceeded to the car.

Moments later, Cale stepped into the local bank’s front door. He shuffled from the foyer into the main room where a couple of tables with chained pens stood on either side of the carpeted space. The counter was set against the far wall, and two ladies sat with their noses down, scribbling and chatting about their shows from last night.

Cale stood there silently until a door slam from behind spooked him. He let out a quiet “eep” and alerted the ladies of his presence.

“Hey, sugar! You Cale?” The first woman had a powder white perm and thick country drawl. Cale nodded and twirled his wrists at his side. “Well, come on back here. Let’s get you started!” She pointed and walked toward a door on the side wall, which led into another room. She huffed as she walked, and Cale thumped beside her, going out of his way to avoid touching anything. The plump lady unlocked the door and motioned for him to enter. He shuffled around her and stood with his back against the wall and his head down.

“This is Marsha. You’ll be helping her today.” With that, the old lady vacated the room, leaving Cale alone with a young woman. Her face was slightly plump, complimented by her long, bouncy hair. Her faint perfumed aroma reminded him of Elizabet, and his face turned beat red.

Marsha glanced up from her computer and flashed a smile. “Hi, Cale! How are you today?”

“I’m fine,” he replied.

“Excellent. Well, if you come over here, I’ll show you what accounting is all about.”

Her office was laid out in a way people could walk around her. She was surrounded by file cabinets, and her computer balanced on two tables in the center of the room. It looked more like a communal space than a personal office. Cale perched on the corner of the table a few feet from her, as far as he could get while still seeing the computer screen.

“Accounting is all about keeping the paperwork and numbers in order,” she explained, opening some tabs on the desktop, “It sounds boring and meticulous, but it’s good work. Right now, I’m taking care of some deposits and charges for Bread N’ Bag-Em, making sure all of the books reflect the same amount.”

Cale stared at the table and heard the chatter of voices. Dice tumbled and clacked. They stopped on a three and a four. People around the table erupted in cheers. A hostess with bright pink hair and pigtails raked in the chips and moved them over to a large man in a white suit and a long white mustache. He rubbed his hands, and dice rolled between them. He blew on them and said, “Put it all in. This time, it’s mine!”

“Right away, sir!” The hostess threw a peace sign over her eyes and moved all of his chips onto the red square labeled 27. She took her marble ball, began spinning the table, and dropped her marker. It rolled and rolled and rolled, twirling closer to the numbers. The crowd grew quiet in anticipation. Just when it seemed the ball found the right slot, it bounced and landed into the black 28.

The crowd rustled and booed, and the mustached man was no longer wearing his big grin. Chips were moved over to Cale, now wearing an elegant black suit and sunglasses. His hair was slicked back, and a well-procured goatee covered his chin. He smirked. “The house always wins.”

“Just like that, very good!” Marsha praised him as he finished filling out his second deposit information form. “After this, your job is all done. The computer takes care of updating and notifying the customer.”

“I’ve never seen so much money in all my life,” Cale commented. He held his hands like puppets as his eyes scanned the zeros on the forms. There was nowhere near this much in his piggy bank. He tried to calculate how many video games and anime DVDs he could buy with that much money, but his hands sagged. The sum was too great for him to calculate on his own.

“The numbers can be daunting at first,” Marsha confided, “We’ve all accidentally misplaced a zero or a comma. But we have each other's backs and pay double attention to every receipt and slip. I usually check my numbers three times before submitting them.”

“It must be hard dealing with greedy people.” He wrung his hands as he spoke.

Marsha nodded and filled in some information on the paper forms in front of her. “It can be. Most attitudes are hard to deal with. But the really bad ones are stopped by our procedures.”

“Stealing money is wrong.”

“You are absolutely right, Cale.” She handed him some more deposits to enter. “Alright, remember how to get into their accounts?” He nodded and cracked his knuckles.

Again, customers flipped their cards, and the numbers were over twenty-one. “House wins,” Cale muttered. The players in front of his counter left, disgruntled. Yet another day at the blackjack table.

The young dealer was about to leave his post when a slender man with smooth dark hair sat down and cashed in a large sum. His wardrobe was completely silver, from his necktie to his shoes. “Let’s see what the house’s got.” He smiled and leaned back in his chair. Confidence oozed from his body like sweat.

Cale shuffled the deck, and he noticed the man lean toward him, paying close attention to the cards. His eyes shuffled as it kept up with the placement of each card. After everything was settled, the man tapped the table for another card. Before that card touched the table, he tapped again. He held up a hand before a fourth card flipped. The total added up to twenty.

“Nice.” Cale picked up the cards and reshuffled them. As before, the man stared intently at them with a smirk on his face. Cale glanced at his pink-haired assistant and winked. He laid out the first batch. The man motioned faster than the dealer could put down cards. The total came out to twenty-one – Jack of Spades and Ace of Hearts.

Two others sat at the table, not paying attention to the man in silver. The game continued, and the interesting man never stopped looking at the cards. He didn’t bother with the other people beside him, even though the chatter remained. His focus was as sharp as his dress, allowing him to win many games. He was never disappointed with any move he made.

After a solid hour, the silver man seemed satisfied and began to leave with a large amount of chips in his possession. The pink-haired hostess approached with a deep red leather bag, and he accepted her help with a grin. After all the chips were inside, she pulled the ropes, sealed the top, and hoisted the bag over her shoulder.

Cale approached from behind him and put a hand on the shoulder of the man’s silver suit jacket. “We need to talk.”

“Whatever for? For playing a game? And why is your help not giving me my chips?”

The young man shrugged. “Come play my new game.”

“A new game, you say?” The man sounded intrigued.

“No one can beat me.” He held his forearms up to his chest and stuck out his hands at ninety degree angles from his body. The posture looked like he was either praying or requesting someone give him an offering. It was supposed to be a shrug.

The silver man rubbed his hands together. “Well, do lead the way, House.”

Elizabet stood in front of her full-length mirror. A hat stuck to a headband bobbed on top of a head full of curls. She wore a simple polka dot romper over a pink tank top, and her feet were adorned with paint-splattered canvas shoes. Two wires hung down from her ears, and she inhaled. “You can do this.” A pause while she listened to the next line. “You are good enough.” She nodded and stabbed at her reflection with an index finger. “You can follow your dreams.”

Her finger hung limp, and she ripped the earbuds from her head. “If only it were that easy.” She tapped the phone and paused the recording of the motivational seminar. It was from a few years ago, when her cousin was trying to psych herself up to lose weight. Elizabet had gone as moral support back then, but now she was the one who needed to psych herself up.

When she collapsed onto her bed, something sharp stabbed her in the back. “Ouch! What the heck?” A book peeked out from the sheets. She flipped the covers from the mattress, and four books tumbled onto the floor with a crash. How to Get What You Want in Life sat on top of Following Your Dreams. The others were about dating and social skills.

“You can tell a lot about a person by what they read. And my book list says, ‘Wow, you’re pathetic.’” She gathered the hardcovers in her arms and dumped them on the bottom of an overflowing bookshelf at the foot of her bed. “Maybe Christa will enjoy these. Speaking of Christa –”

The young woman thumbed open the messenger app on her phone and noticed Christa was still offline. “I wonder if she’s heard the news.” Absently, she tapped and scrolled until she found the article she saved earlier. The headline read, “Humble Hero Saves Man’s Life at Local Urgent Care.” This was not anything new or sensational, but Eliabet was amused by the subtitle, “Doesn’t Stick Around to Take Credit for It.” Something about it reminded her of Cale. She bookmarked the page, intending to show it to his sister.

“Wait a sec.” She never noticed the blurry photo accompanying the article. Her fingers slid across the phone screen, zooming in and pixelating the picture even more. “That looks like–” Her eyes skimmed the caption, and she read aloud, “Nurse snaps cell phone photo of our hero leaving the scene.”

She pulled the screen so close to her face that her eyes crossed. “Ohmygosh, it is! That’s Cale!” Impulsively, she kissed the phone before leaping to her feet. “If he’s famous now, I have to work even harder if I want him to go out with me.” She returned to the mirror and continued her pep talk with renewed vigor.

The woman with the white perm entered and noticed Cale typing on Marsha’s computer. “Has it already been a week since you’ve been here?”

“Yep,” he said without looking up.

“My goodness, Marsha tells me you picked up on everything so quickly. She says she can almost leave you by yourself. You could even have her job.” She chuckled.

Cale failed to recognize the joke, asking instead, “What procedures catch the greedy people?”

“Discrepancy checks,” she explained, “It’s mostly done before deposits or money gets here. Checks need signatures, and deposits require proper routing numbers. We also check to make sure the signatures match up. It’s a lot of moving pieces.”

The idea of signatures caught Cale’s attention. He remembered seeing something odd from all the deposits and checks from that grocery store he was working on earlier. He pushed the new blue-light filtering glasses further up his nose, and they gleamed in the fluorescent glow.

Within a private room in the casino, he and his opponent sat in plush seats. Cale removed a cloth, uncovering a glass case between them. Underneath the case, a glass chess set gleamed in the lamplight. Gold embroidery was etched along the board, and hints of green stones had been stuck onto some of the pieces for eyes.

“My my,” stated the skeptical man, “This is certainly a surprise. What a pretty penny this must have cost.”

“It was just a gift.”

“I thought you said no one could beat this game?”

Cale’s voice rumbled, “No, I meant no one can beat me.”

“Is that right?”

The dealer’s eyes narrowed, and he sucked his lips into his mouth before speaking. “You’ve been counting cards. That’s cheating.”

“You have no proof.” He folded his arms over his chest and crossed his legs.

“The House decides what to do with its customers.”

“So you’re going to rat me out? Beat me up? Send me to jail?”

“No. Play chess.”

The man paused, then chuckled. “I’ve never been familiar with this kind of interrogation.”

“You win, and you can just leave.”

“What about if I lose?”

His arms rose in that ninety degree shrug, and he smirked. “Lose it all.”

“Quite the gamble, House.”

“You agree?”

“Who wouldn’t? With the penalty being a slap on the wrist? Challenge accepted!”

They began a very straightforward battle where the previous actions seemed reversed. Before the gentleman finished placing his piece, Cale moved his own and leaned back to watch the board. The silver man knew this was a game in his favor. With the odds stacked against the opponent, it’s a wonder anyone was victorious at all. But losing seemed a small price to pay. His attention was split from strategizing to admiring the pieces. Their feel was smooth, every edge rounded. The glass was so clean you could see right through it. Each piece was heavy; it felt criminal to place them down on the tiles for fear of scuffing.

The game continued for what felt like days. (In actuality, it was days. Cale huddled in Marsha’s office, hunched over the keyboard.) Each lost piece felt staggering. Each piece taken felt overwhelmingly positive. Neither man’s demeanor faltered. Until –


As if coming out of a trance, the man shouted, “What!?” He looked at the board. Complete annihilation before him. The truth gradually dawned on him. He had watched the left side of the board completely and unequivocally, so much so he forgot there was a right side.

“Y-you –”

“Good game.” Cale offered a hand to shake. His opponent stepped back and realized he had only lost, nothing more. His mouth twisted into a sinister grin. He could still walk out with the chips. His hand reached into his jacket and produced a pistol, aimed at Cale. The dealer slowly put his hands up, but his face showed no fear. “Not afraid? You must get this all the time.”

“Yep. I like the next part- that’s my favorite.” He hummed a bit to himself.

Before the villain could twitch an eyebrow, a mighty force collided with his face. He felt a wall broadside him and heard a whoosh of air. A glass wall burst apart as his body crashed through it. He waited for the ground to break his fall; instead, he was caught in the arms of a buff man in all black. His silver suit ripped, and he fell unconscious when a heavy red bag pummeled his head.

The pink-haired assistant threw the bag of chips back over her shoulder, sighed, and tossed a loose bang back into place. “When will they ever learn to stop bringing guns to a chess game, boss?”

“I don’t believe it!” Marsha sighed. She was staring at the unbelievable evidence of an assistant manager embezzling funds from his own grocery store. It was a clever trick, pulling small increments every now and then, but they became too consistent. Just enough for her to see it.

Actually, only Cale noticed. He was there when Marsha called the manager and explained the situation. The bank was grateful for his help and scheduled a celebration.

He never showed up. Marsha found a note on her desk the day of the party, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t work here. I can’t stand people being too greedy.”

Cale had been so focused on the job and catching the crooks that he didn’t notice the nursery makeover. Christa’s new curtains and pillows livened the previous empty space, adding more color to an already bright room. A crib sat in the center of the room. At least, Cale thought it was a crib. Its ends came together in a triangle like a teepee. He tilted his head and stared, trying to figure out how a baby was supposed to sleep in that.

A second later, he shook his head and passed the nursery and the bedroom with his brother-in-law and sister napping. He closed their door while keeping his head turned. His feet thumped to the smaller bedroom. Most of his stuff was still packed and stacked in the corners. He laid on the mattress and removed his filter glasses, sighing, “It’s cramped in here.”

There was nothing he could do. The house always wins. He pulled out his laptop and started searching for cheap apartments in the area.