Chapter 3 - The Family

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Grandma Stella placed the gun back in the bottom drawer and they returned to the dining room. Their friends were waiting to start the poker game. Explaining why it took so long to retrieve the cards and pennies, Stella mumbled something about needing Johnny to move a piece of furniture, and no one gave it a second thought.

They played several hands of Texas hold ’em until everyone around the table had a chance to deal. The game was a favorite, since it was quick to play and you could keep it short or continue for hours, depending on the mood and the situation. Johnny brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies that Stella had baked the day before, her famous special recipe with oats, brown sugar, and dark chocolate morsels.

“Stella, don’t let me touch those cookies,” Millie urged. “I have to watch my blood sugar.”

Stella nodded. Millie was a diabetic who had a hard time resisting sweets, especially when she was caught up in the action of a poker game. They’d all played cards together long enough to know that if Millie reached for a cookie it was a surefire sign that she was bluffing.

Stella, on the other hand, was a master poker player who kept her emotions in check and expertly hid her intentions. She never tried to flaunt her skill among friends, but they all knew her talent, and Johnny had seen her in action a few times over the years during family vacations in Las Vegas.

“You have to be aggressive, Johnny,” his grandmother advised. “You can’t sit there and be passive. If you do that, the other players will take control and get the upper hand. Just try to read the other players. Everybody has a tell. The tell shows you what they’re really thinking, not what they want you to believe.”

Johnny still couldn’t get his mind off the gun in the dresser. Remembering Stella’s poker tips, he wondered if her words carried a double meaning. Maybe the daring his grandma displayed in card games was quietly applied to other, hidden parts of her life where the stakes were higher.

He knew a little about his grandmother’s past. She grew up in some old steel town back in Pennsylvania that Johnny had never visited. Her husband ran the neighborhood pizza parlor and was shot dead in a robbery one snowy Friday night as he was closing out his cash register. Johnny’s father, Frank, was just a boy when the tragedy occurred.

As a young widow, Stella moved her son across the country to start a life in California. There she met Millie, who helped her get a job at the supermarket, and she saved enough money to buy the house on Mariposa Street.

Johnny always knew his grandmother had a tough streak, but the discovery of the gun proved that it ran deeper than he had ever guessed. The characters in his comic books also had two sides to their personalities. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent could lead ordinary lives and transform into superheroes when necessary. Johnny couldn’t help but wonder whether his grandmother had bit of superhero inside her as well.

“Millie, dear, that’s a tell!” Stella yelled. “Put down that cookie. We know you’re bluffing.” She laughed as her friend froze, with a fresh cookie in one hand as she pushed twenty pennies into the pot on a pair of face cards.

“Ah! You got me,” Millie realized. She blushed and dropped the cookie, raising both hands in the air like a thief who’d been caught. Turning over the hidden cards, she showed there was nothing underneath to help her face cards. Sometimes it seemed like Millie just got one bad hand after another.

It was getting late, so they wrapped up the game and the guests began to leave one by one.

Stella went into the kitchen while Johnny and Millie cleared the table. On the television, the Channel Nine anchorwoman, Brenda Sugarland, reported the latest local business story.

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