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Against The House

    Community service.
   Patrick breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, your honor.”
   The judge continued to explain the seriousness of the situation, but Patrick’s mind was racing. 400 hours was a lot, but no jail time. Even more important, no fine. Just pay back the money—no issue there, since it had been taken back on the spot.
   Still, there was no job to go back to, and no reference to show for the last three years. His manager had made it clear that she understood that it was just a momentary weakness and almost understandable given the circumstances, but her hands were tied. The supervisor who had left the cash envelope on the counter had also been let go.
   He reflected that the job wasn’t a huge loss—money had always been tight, and there was no chance of moving up. Every raise he had ever earned had been wiped out by the latest minimum wage hike. Even the teenagers, recently hired as seasonal workers over Christmas, were making the same amount as Patrick.
   The courtroom was quiet. Patrick snapped back to attention. The judge looked at him, expecting a response. Patrick hung his head and nodded, making a sound halfway between “Sorry” and “Yes,” hoping it was appropriate for the situation. He had apparently satisfied her, as the judge stood up to leave. Patrick bowed and walked out of the courtroom, avoiding eye contact with the gallery.
* * *
   Back at the apartment, Sharon launched into the same questions as usual, but with even more, court-sanctioned, vitriol. “How do you expect to support us if the only work you do is for free? I might as well go back to my parents if you can’t afford the baby. They always said you’d never be able to support me.”
   “I’ll find a way,” Patrick promised. “And since when are you all about the money? You said love was enough.”
   Sharon scoffed. “That was when you still showed some semblance of ambition.”
“Something will come up before the baby’s born.” He had no plan, but he knew that, if she went back home, he would be out of the baby’s life forever. Sharon’s parents had looked down on him from the first time they met. They refused to give them a cent while she was living with Patrick but had already offered cover all of her expenses if she moved home. They would pull every string they could find to keep their grandchild away from him.
   Days passed, and Patrick sank into a deeper depression. No job. No hope. Inevitably, soon enough, no family. Sharon walked in the door with the same disdainful glint in her eyes that had been present for months, but with more energy in her step. “Hey, if someone offered some help, do you think you could go a few hours without stealing a wad of cash?”
   “I didn’t steal it. I mean, I thought about it. I took it. But, if I’d been given a chance, I probably would have turned it in.”
   “Because you’re so loyal to the store you complained about every day?”
   Patrick ran his hands through his black hair, pulling it tight in frustration. “Of course I complained. The job sucked. You know that. But they were good to me.”
   “If they were good to you, you wouldn’t have to steal.”
   “The money was never good, but they cared about me. It was like a family.”
   “If that’s how you treat family, I hope my father never leaves his wallet lying around. Anyhow, I was just talking to him. He wants to help, if you promise not to do anything stupid.”
   “He’s hated me since the first time we met. And now he’s going to help us?”
   “No, he’s going to help you. He can get you some volunteer hours through his position at the gaming commission. But you can’t let anyone know you’re related. He says that stupid stunt of yours would have ruined him if the press knew you were dating his daughter.”
   Patrick was amazed. Despite the condescending tone, this was the first time her father had ever shown interest in helping Patrick. “Sure, what does he have in mind?”
* * *
   Friday night found Patrick at the Viking Bingo Hall. He walked into the office. “Hi, I’m supposed to be volunteering here tonight.”
   The manager’s eyes narrowed. “The community service guy? Yeah, get out there and find something to do. Empty some ashtrays or clear some glasses. No cards and no cash.”
   The next month was the same. Fruitless search for work all week, then back to the bingo hall every Friday. Cleaning tables, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms. The hall clearly had no regular maintenance, he reflected as he wiped a thick layer of dust from the top of the soda fountain. Everything about the concession stand indicated a health hazard. His bad leg, injured in an accident years before, throbbed almost nonstop.
   On the fifth night, the manager called him in to the office. “You’ve been doing alright. One of the usual staff is sick, and I need you selling cards. We count the cards at the beginning and the cash at the end. If you’re even a dollar off, you’ll be back in court by morning.”
   Patrick grabbed a pouch and tied it around his waist. A supervisor counted out a stack of cards, and Patrick walked to the tables. A worker in his early twenties stopped him. “We’re selling to these tables. You take the other side.”
   Patrick had seen workers arguing about tables before. The smoking side tipped less, and those tables went to the newest staff. They bought more cards, though, and Patrick was soon back to pick up a second stack. The manager waved away the supervisor and counted Patrick’s money personally. He appeared disappointed to see that it added up.
   On his second round with the cards, Patrick saw Kara. He couldn’t think of anyone he wanted to see less—or, at least, who he wanted less to see him. They had dated for a year and had later ended up working at the same store. They remained friendly, but their past made every conversation awkward. And then she had seen him led away by the police. Talk about rock bottom.
Fortunately, Kara was just as nervous. She hid her cigarette under the table—he had never seen her smoke before—and greeted him too loudly. “Patrick! How’s it been going?”
   “Well, I’m working again,” he lied. “Bingo hall’s not the dream job, but neither was the last one. At least it’s money, though.”
   “So…the note was from you?”
   “Note? What note?”
   “Oh, nothing.” She blushed but continued to look at him strangely.
   “Come on. What are you talking about?”
   “Well...I found a note in my locker at work today. It just said to meet here and then invited me out to dinner afterward. I heard that you were working here, so I thought maybe...”
   “I haven’t been near the store since...well, since I left.”
   Kara gave a sympathetic nod. “Oh. Well, sorry to make assumptions like that. Are you and Sharon still together?”
   “Yeah, and the baby’s due next month.”
She smiled, but her eyes didn’t show it. “Anyhow, you should probably keep moving. It was great seeing you.”
He started to walk away.
   “Hey, Patrick?”
   “What’s up?”
   “I just wanted to buy a couple of cards. You can keep the change.”
   When he ran out of cards again, the manager was waiting to count the money. He held up the extra $5 from the tip. “What’s this?”
   “It’s a tip.”
   “Not for volunteers. It can go into the staff fund.” He placed it in his pocket.
   “You’re going to take away my only tip?”
   “Employees earn tips. You earn service hours.”
   Patrick tried to avoid Kara’s section, but he couldn’t stay away all night. She put out her cigarette when she saw him coming. Still, a little smoke rose from the ashtray. She smiled and pulled her long brown hair back into a ponytail. “I’ll take another couple of cards. You can keep the change.”
   “Nah, the manager took it the last time.”
   “Well, just hide it, then. It’s not like he’s going to search you, as long as the rest of the money adds up.”
   “Okay, I guess.” As he made change, he purposely dropped the cards onto the floor. While picking them up, he slid the extra bill into his sock.
   It was no use. As soon as he got back near the office, the manager demanded, “Let’s count that money, including whatever’s in your sock.” The place must be covered by cameras, Patrick reflected.
   “Anything more like that, and you’re finished here,” said the manager, putting the five dollars into his pocket. “Now, get out of here, and make sure you’re on time next week.”
   “But I need the hours,” Patrick pleaded.
   It was no use. Fortunately, he didn’t have to explain his early dismissal to Sharon, who was at her parents’ house for the evening. When she didn’t return the next day, Patrick called Sharon’s phone.
   “I’m staying here. You’re clearly going nowhere.” She paused. “Maybe Kara can support you.”
   Patrick’s heart sank. “What do you mean?”
   “My dad stopped by the bingo hall last night. Any guesses who he saw you hanging out with?”
   “She was a customer. I sold her a couple of bingo cards. We even talked about you and the baby.”
   “You can save your stories. I had a good talk with my parents, and I need to do what’s best for the baby.”
   She hung up.
* * *
   “That sounds rough,” Kara told him, as he sold her a couple of bingo cards. “Tell you what, I can’t give you a tip, but I’ll buy an extra card. If it wins, I’ll split the money with you.”
   “I’d better not,” he replied. “The last thing I need is to be accused of gambling during my shift.”
   “I guess you’re right,” she smiled. “Hey, Patrick. You’re going to be okay.” It sounded more hopeful than confident.
   As Patrick turned away, he heard Kara’s voice, softer than ever.
   “Oh, sorry. Did I forget to give you the cards?”
   “No, it’s not that. I don’t know how to say this. I guess I have to tell you that I’m the one who turned you in at the store. I never thought that—”
   “Yes, but—”
   “Save it. There’s nothing you can say. I thought you were the only one who had my back, not the one who stabbed me in it.”
   “Just listen to me, Patrick. Please!”
   The manager walked over. “Hey, Patrick. Phone call for you. Sounds urgent. Pick up line one in the break room.”
   “I’ve got to get this. Sharon’s due any day now. This could be it,” Patrick told Kara.
   “Right,” Kara sighed. “I hope everything’s okay.” She lit a cigarette, making no effort to hide it.
   There was nobody on the line. Patrick panicked. What if she had been rushed to the hospital? He needed to let the manager know he had to leave.
   Before he could leave the room, Sharon’s father walked in.
   Patrick rushed toward him. “Mr. Durham! Was that Sharon calling? Is she having the baby?” he asked.
Mr. Durham pretended he didn’t hear. Instead, he turned back to the door. “We’re in luck, officers. It looks like our suspect is still here.”
Patrick’s eyes widened. “Suspect? What are you talking about? I got a phone call. I thought it was Sharon!”
Mr. Durham raised his hand. “Please don’t interrupt a police investigation.” He turned back to the police. “Now, officers, the manager reported that a substantial sum of money—$5,560—went missing tonight, and I was hoping you could help me with my search. Given this young man’s troubled legal history, I recommend we start with his locker.”
Inside, they discovered Patrick’s cell phone, his wallet, and a stack of cash.
   “$5,560. The exact amount reported missing. I’m afraid we’ll need to take you in for some questioning,” an officer told Patrick.
   “I don’t know how it got there. I just came in here to take a phone call.”
   The officer shook his head. “With your record, this doesn’t look good for you.”
   They led him outside. He heard Kara call his name, but he kept his head down. As mad as he was with her, he couldn’t stand the thought of Kara seeing him like this again.
* * *
   The next court visit didn’t go nearly as well as the first. Accused of a second felony, Patrick was held on $50,000 bail. There was no chance of raising that much, so he waited in a cell for his next court date.
   Three days later, a guard informed Patrick that someone was waiting to see him. “It must be Sharon with the baby,” he thought, and hurried to the visiting area. He was shocked to see Kara.
   “I just need you to hear me out,” she told him.
   “I heard everything. You reported me at the store, and—”
   “Because I love you.”
   “I had hoped for years that you and Sharon would break up. When I heard about the baby, I figured it would never happen. Then I saw you with the money at the store, and I thought it might break you two up if you got caught. It was stupid. I didn’t think it through.”
   Patrick was silent for a minute. “You got me arrested and got my baby’s mother to break up with me…because you love me? That’s idiotic.”
   “I know. If I was thinking clearly, I wouldn’t have done it. It was a stupid decision in a moment of passion and panic.”
   Patrick fumed, “Sharon’s gone. I might never see my baby. You had me arrested. The only person who hasn’t turned on me is Sharon’s dad, and that’s only because he hated me all along. It’s like playing against the house—I don’t see how I can win this one.”
   “Don’t worry about that,” Kara whispered, her eyes glinting. “When I got home that night, I found a lottery ticket in my purse. I hadn’t bought one, but I checked it, and it’s worth $100,000.”
   The shock overcame Patrick’s anger. “It just came from nowhere?”
   “I can’t explain it, but here’s what I was thinking—what if I paid your bail and hired a lawyer?”
   “You’d do that for me?”
   “I just want to make things right. I can’t sit back and watch them throw you in prison. I know I messed things up. I always hoped we would end up back together, but I got everything wrong. Please let me try to fix at least part of this mess.”
   In spite of his anger and confusion, Patrick had to smile. “Thanks.”
   Two days passed with no news and no bail. On the third day, Patrick was excited to hear that he had another visitor.
   His heart sank when he entered the visiting area and saw Sharon’s father. Mr. Durham smiled. “I thought I owed it to you to tell you that Sharon and the baby are fine.”
   Patrick’s eyes lit up. “The baby’s born? Is it a boy or a girl?”
   “Don’t you worry about that. With your record and my connections, the courts will give Sharon full custody. Not that you’ll be getting out anytime soon, anyway.”
   “Unless I can post bail.”
   Mr. Durham laughed. “Right. That was the other thing I came to say. I thought I should let you know that I tied up one last loose end.” He showed Patrick a newspaper headline: Local Woman Claims Lottery Prize; Arrested for Stolen Ticket.
   “You mean that you—"
   “Yes, Kara got her wish. She ended up with you after all. Just not the way she had hoped.” He turned to leave. “Remember, Patrick—the house always wins.”
Kevin Hogg is a high school English and Law teacher in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains. He holds a Master of Arts degree from Carleton University and is a longtime Chicago Cubs fan. Outside of writing, Kevin enjoys Lime Pepsi, grapefruit juice, and lemon tea. His goals for the future include solving a Rubik's Cube, visiting Walden Pond, and meeting television star Gabe Kaplan. His website is
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