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As he grew older, Wake became more and more interested in the stories he overheard from fishermen at the bar. The idea of exotic lands beyond the island poked and prodded his imagination. He daydreamed about the craziest things: spirit monsters, people living in the clouds, cities built entirely from ice. The list goes on and on. Using his favorite bamboo shoot, he constantly wrote about these daydreams in the sand. Aside from stories, Wake gathered other things from listening to the fishermen in the bar.
Most nights, he climbed the palm tree that overlooked the large hut. From there, he stretched out and grabbed onto the straw roof. Since the roof was thin, it didn't block out any noise, so he liked to lie down and look up at the sky while he listened to conversations. He found the wild stories and drunken banter equally amusing. Wake returned to his favorite spot on the roof when the nights were clear and pleasant, and sometimes he even fell asleep. The summer breeze lured him to close his eyes and rest, and before he knew it he was dreaming about the stories for real. The next morning was always a rude awakening as he jolted upright, breathing a sigh of relief that he hadn't rolled off the roof while he slept.
Aside from the stories, he learned quite a bit about the art of gambling. Through an opening in the roof he watched the fishermen play pai sho and mahjong. The men wore expressions of intense focus as they contemplated situations and took risks, but it wasn't all businesslike. Drunken laughter and classic sailor talk accompanied the games. Even though they technically competed against each other, the men enjoyed a warm sense of camaraderie. The Old Man always scoffed at them for playing stupid little games, but Wake saw it in a different light. At ten years old, the boy was as serious and mature as ever, but he certainly wasn't cold or calculating. He simply enjoyed more complex things than the average kid, things that include gambling.
By peeking through the slit in the straw roof, Wake observed the mahjong games and learned the rules. It wasn't really hard to do aside from understanding the tiles. It took awhile for him to learn what each tile meant in relation to the rest, but he eventually got the gist of it. The kid took a curious approach to life and learned as much as he could about anything; therefore, by the time he was ten years old, he could watch the games and whisper the correct move under his breath. He always smirked and shook his head when someone made a dumb decision. Without ever playing a game, he understood the ins and outs of gambling, when to bet, when to hold, how to bluff. To Wake, gambling was a game, just like writing stories, and the more challenging the game, the more he wanted to play.
That chance to play came accidentally. Wake climbed the palm tree as usual, hugging the trunk and pulling himself up sort of like a caterpillar, for lack of a better visual description. Also as usual, he stretched out and grabbed hold of the ledge of the roof. That day, however, a rather forceful wind blew some of the straw off the roof, and Wake didn't take that into consideration when he took his first step. What a graceful first step it was.
His right leg broke clean through the weakened straw, causing him to trip, and at that point it was over. The combined weight of his body completely smashed through the thin roof, and he landed twelve feet below directly on top of the mahjong table. The fishermen rubbed their eyes to make sure they weren't hallucinating. Yes, a tan skinny kid fell through the roof, obliterated the game of mahjong, and now sat in a heap of straw and debris in the middle of the table. Despite falling a considerable distance, Wake suffered no injuries and quickly dusted himself off. The night sky showed through the gaping hole in the roof.
"I can explain," said Wake.
"You ruined my roof!" yelled a fisherman who apparently owned the bar.
"You're gonna pay for this!"
"Yeah...that's actually what I was going to explain. I make money from fishing, so I can probably pay for the damages. How much should it cost?"
At the mention of cost, the fisherman smiled and glanced at his friends. This kid was in his debt, so he intended on taking full advantage. If the kid had money, he was going to squeeze out every last copper piece that he could.
"Well, considering the size of that there hole and the damages to this here table, I'd say you've got a pretty good debt on yer head. Why were ya climbing 'round on the roof anyways?"
Wake stood before them.
"Well, I like to go up on the roof to watch you play mahjong."
"Why didn't ya just come inside to watch?" asked the fisherman.
He had crooked teeth and his breath smelled of alcohol when he talked. He seemed to be the leader since the rest of them stayed quiet.
"Quite honestly, the smell in here makes me nauseous, and I didn't think you guys would let a kid into the bar."
The truth is, Wake was right. If he had ever tried walking into the bar, the fisherman would've laughed and jeered at him. A kid gambling with them? Even the thought of it was laughable.
The fisherman turned to one of us buddies and whispered something inaudible in his ear. Upon listening the man nodded an broke out into laughter. Then, the man with the bad breath turned back to Wake:
"Ya know what kid? I like yer spunk. Ya remind me of meself when I was a kid, gettin' inta trouble and whatnot. Since I like ya, I'll offer ya a deal. You've been watching us gamble, right? Well, how's about we see how good ya are. It's an expensive price to pay for that roof you just ruined, but I'll give ya a chance to walk out of here without paying a single copper piece. We're gonna play another round of mahjong right now. If ya win, ya don't pay anything, but if ya lose.."
He tailed off.
He had a sinister glint in his eye.
"If ya lose.....let's just say you'll be paying up to us for a long, long time."
"Sure, I'll play," Wake shrugged.
He didn't really care about money at all. He fished for the sheer enjoyment and the profit he made was just an added bonus. While the guy with the crooked teeth thought he was acting tough by proposing this double-or-nothing sort of deal, Wake actually found it amusing. He figured if he was going to gamble it would be more fun with higher stakes.
After retrieving the scattered mahjong tiles, Wake and the fishermen moved to a functioning table that wasn't broken. Unconsciously, they mixed the tiles in the middle and began to set up their bridges.
Customarily, each mahjong player makes his or her bridge, which is a wall of tiles that is around eighteen tiles long and two tiles high. Then, they link their walls together in a square, or sometimes a misshapen pentagon, depending on the number of players. At that point, the game is ready to begin, so the first player rolls the die.
Booze-breath handed Wake the die.
"Here ya go kid, start us off."
The little cube had sides ranging from one to six, a normal die. Wake rolled a four. Since there were four people playing, Wake received the duty of breaking the wall for the rest of the players, a process he had witnessed countless times. He began by separating the wall to his right. Separating really means dividing the wall into smaller walls with a four by eight dimension. He distributed these mini-walls to the other three players until each man had sixteen tiles. Making sure to conceal his tiles, each man organized and grouped them by type and set the bonus tiles aside.
Certain tiles are called bonus tiles and they don't have any value to actual gameplay, instead they are important when it comes to prize money at the end. These tiles are represented by beautiful designs of the four winds(East, West, North, and South), three dragons(red, blue, and green), four flowers(plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo), and four seasons(spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Since each player needs sixteen playable tiles to begin, they receive compensation for the bonus tiles they set aside.
The fishermen set aside their bonus tiles and motioned to Wake to deal them more tiles. The boy systematically dealt them new tiles from the end of the wall until they all had sixteen playable tiles. Now comes the part with a lot of confusing numbers. There are three categories of tiles: bamboo sticks, circles, and characters. Each category contains thirty-six tiles. Similar to a deck of cards, the tiles have values ranging from one to nine, and each value has four tiles. For example, there are only four "five character" tiles in a mahjong set; likewise, there are four "seven stick" tiles. Now comes the fun part!
Mahjong, in essence, is a matching game. A player wins when he or she acquires any permutation of five pongs and chows and one eyes. A pong is set of three identical tiles, and a chow is a meld of three suited tiles in sequence. "Eyes" is just fancy mahjong terminology for a pair. Knowing how to win is easy; actually doing it is a different story.
Wake viewed his tiles and organized them into characters, bamboo sticks, and circles. His stomach dropped when he saw the undesirable hand he possessed. Today wasn't his lucky day in more ways than one, apparently. No matter, he would have to work with what he had. He threw out the first tile.
The table of players shot glances back and forth, but nobody picked up the nine circles. Wake took note of this. The fisherman to his right moved next. He was a relatively quiet man, pretty unassuming and plain. He drew his tile from the wall and took a good long look at his hand. Then, he proceeded to replace one of his tiles with his draw and tossed the leftover into the middle.
"Pong," said the man to Wake's left.
He picked up the five characters and added it to his wall. To prove he wasn't cheating, he laid the three tiles face up and revealed his set of five characters. When a player takes a tile from the middle, they must show their pong or chow face-up to the rest of the players. Then, he examined the rest of his wall and quickly discarded a tile.
"One bamboo stick."
"Chow!" said Wake, a little louder than he expected.
He reached into the middle and picked up the tile, and then he showed the rest of the players his sequenced tiles: one, two, and three bamboo sticks. Getting a chow is more difficult than a pong for two reasons. First, a player can only pick up a chow from the player to his or her left. Secondly, if two players call pong and chow and the same time, the tile always goes to the pong. Luckily for Wake, nobody called pong and he began to feel better about his start.
"The kid wasn't lying. He's got some game," said the fisherman across from Wake.
He wore a faded headband that barely kept his messy hair out of his face. Other than that, it was hard to tell what he actually looked like behind his dirty locks. Wake wondered if he had ever cut his hair in his life.
The boy with the pitch-black hair already knew which tile he would toss.
Once again, nobody picked it up, as expected. Wake knew nobody needed that tile, so throwing it out wouldn't do anybody any favors, which is exactly what he wanted.
This process continued into the night. Players threw out tiles, picked up tiles, waited for a pong or chow, and tried to complete their matches to win. Mahjong requires the skill of subtle observation. Players must understand the flow of the game, and, at the same time, take note of what tiles have been taken and which ones are left. Wake learned how to count tiles as he watched from the rooftop, and this helped him a lot with his decision making. Due to this fact, he played his cards, tiles in this case, right and improved his initially dismal hand. But mahjong, like all forms of gambling, has an element of chance.
The element of chance: that's what interested Wake the most about gambling. He could control his decisions and pretty much predict the percentages of a certain tile turning up, but that element of chance always balanced the playing field. The reality that anything could happen made the boy's heart race.
As the game winded down, Wake found himself in an excellent position. He had three chows, one pong, and two eyes. He only needed a pong to win, and the eyes gave him two tile options that could fulfill those spots. Not to mention, a call for mahjong overrides all other moves, pong or chow. Now came the element of chance: the waiting game. At this point, there was nothing Wake could do besides cross his fingers and hope he drew one of his tiles or someone else threw it out.
Nobody took the seven characters, so the next player drew.
Nobody needed the three circles either.
Wake began to realize the other players were in waiting, too. A bead of sweat rolled from his brow. The game could end at any moment.
"Eight bamboo sticks."
The quiet man to Wake's right picked up the eight bamboo sticks and added it to his wall, and then he threw out a tile.
Wake's heart jumped, and his fingertips went numb. That was the final tile he needed to win! He opened his mouth to call the win.
Everyone looked to the left at the fisherman with the alcohol breath who had shouted the final words. Wake could only watch in horror as the man took the one character and displayed his complete matched set of three pongs, two chows, and one eye.
The fisherman smiled smugly.
"That's how it's done."
Wake's excitement vanished in the blink of an eye and left a hollow, uncomfortable feeling in his gut. He could've won.... He should've won, but at the moment of truth he choked. They were waiting for the same card and he wasn't fast enough. Chance didn't cost him the game; his own ignorance did.
"I'm such an idiot," he thought to himself.
"It's a shame," said the fisherman as he collected his winnings.
"I really thought you had a chance."
Wake sighed and looked up at the gaping hole in the roof.
"Ahh yes, the roof," said the fisherman condescendingly.
"What are we going to do about that?"
Losing sapped the energy out of the boy, so he sat sullenly and didn't respond to the taunts.
"Sad you lost, huh? It only gets worse."
The loss itself hurt more than whatever he would have to do to repay the damages for the roof. Unfortunately for the boy with black hair, this loss only marked the beginning of a long line of hardships he would face.
For the collective works of the author, go here.