“What the fuck?!” was what my oldest brother had said when Link first came to our house, carrying with him a pathetic bouquet of wilted, dead-colored flowers and a basket of grocery items wrapped in a crumpled clear plastic cover.
It had seemed fitting how he seemed like he was about to attend a wake than someone who was asking for his bride’s family for supplication. Behind him were his sisters, twins, and his mother. They had all looked irritatingly handsome despite the sickly thin bodies similar to mine and my two brothers, as well as every other single person who lives within a five mile radius. Weirdly enough, only his and my family had the same blonde hair whereas everyone around us are dazzling brunettes.
Sucks when you’d been living in a trash community because your appearance just scream white trash and there was no way around to hiding it.
Mother had died in a freak accident at the factory she was slaving at to feed the three and a half mouths she was left with. Well, lucky us that and a half had also succumbed to malnutrition and a severe fever not long after so it hadn’t been as too much of a burden to the eldest son. Unlucky for us the toddler died two weeks after its mother so we’d had to pay for two different funerals instead of hitting two birds with one stone.
I had been to impoverished and out of my own damned mind confused and hurt and feeling sick, that the memory of both burials had been nothing but a passing blur to me. My mind had only been able to remember until to this day how Victor had held my hand in his, while Vincent had his fingers moved soothingly on top of my head.
What I also remembered were the ugly feelings. I was thankful they’d been gone so I can have more share of the tasteless porridge Victor brings home from work every night.
Everyone in the subdivision had known how my father had bolted the same as Link’s had. May it be because of poverty, the suffering, the screaming children who were always hungry. Maybe it was even because of another woman. Point was, once they were out, they never looked back. Can’t blame them because once Link and I were married, we’d done the same. And not even the news of his mother’s death nor the life-threatening illness of one of his sisters got who had stayed there made us go back.
He’d been the breadwinner of their little family, supporting the girls and his mother since the early age of twelve. That might be the single thing that I’d first admitted that I liked about him.
Strapping my blossoming chest with cloth and safety pin and choosing to rough house it with the boys my age if not close to, instead of playing it dainty with the girls was what had made everyone think that any romantic relationship with a guy would be impossible for me. Not paying any of their advances was also a clear indication that I wasn’t into anything more than platonic of the roguish type of friendship. And it also wasn’t that I had shown interest to girls romantically.
It’s just that when you’d grown up fighting for your life, to survive and scavenge and feed your always hungry stomach, there wasn’t much room for caring and feeling feelings to other people outside of your own family. That’d be the last thing on your mind having been born in a hellish home.
However, I always got teased because of my nature, quite often. Of course, I would retaliate but when violence had proved to be useless I foolishly one day changed tactics and had decided to just go with the flow.
Biggest mistake of my life. Huge.
Because when I made up my mind that I would not give my stupid ass friends the satisfaction of seeing me being irritated by being pushed to the tall, lanky, timid boy, I had sealed my fate.
What the fuck, indeed, I had screamed inside my head when ever so suddenly, the comment that I’d made the day before about agreeing to marry him had came back around and struck me in the stomach like a physical blow.
He couldn’t have had thought that I was serious.
Somehow, I’d inadvertently promised myself to him and he’d come to make true of it, had come to claim me.
No one could’ve convinced me at age eighteen that I was to live the life I have been living for the past fifty years. Not even me. For when Victor had given us his blessing and Vincent had helped us settle to our new place two towns over, I hand’t believed that Lincoln and I would ever truly escape the stench of where we both came from.
I was shell shocked to discover he was willing to leave his family for me, but the assurance that my brothers were there and had sworn to help them and his mother had been enough. And soon, those two girls married as well and one even got out like we had.
As for my brothers, well, they both had found their own release when they decided to pack up their shit and take their chances living in the mountains. Just Lincoln, the weird, shy, spindly boy choosing to start a new life with me, because he knew that’s what I’d wanted the most in the world, was enough for me to fall a little bit in love with him.
And I hated it.
I was so used to the suffering that I felt mediocre every time I felt happy. Lincoln took blow after blow that I’d given him. The nagging and complaining. He only accepted and listened. It was those times that I missed my family the most. How I wished they were with me as I started to feel happy and loved in the arms of this man who had been once nothing but a stranger.
Still, it was true that I had married a decent man, become the mother of three beautiful children, and watch my grandchildren grow to young adults. I had a good life.
During those times of brutal desperation and sinking realization that I might be trapped in hell, I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d be where I sat right now, on an expensive sofa hand picked by my daughter-in-law in the living room of the house my son has recently purchased, watching my grown up children play with their own children a game my husband and I used to love playing the most.
Never would I have thought that I’d be a widow, either. That my husband would die before me, and that it’d hurt more than I let on. When I was younger I was reckless, stupid, and free. I guess most teenagers are. The very idea of a man tying me down and being obliged by society or god or the marriage union to bear babies had always brought a deep resentment in my bones. I had yearned to escape out in the open, free of any ties, free of the life I was born into.
When Lincoln came and swept me away, I thought it’d be the end of my hopes that turned into mere pipe dreams, and that I was destined to live another life of pure misery like it had been thrusted to me like an ongoing cycle that I wouldn’t be able to escape from in this life or the next. Oh, how wrong and foolish my indignant heart had been.
But my husband Link had been the opposite of my father, may his dark soul Rest In Peace, wherever it may be. Link came from the same dirt poor world as I did and not much different from me where we stood in life. Yet he possessed a quality no other man from the squatters’ area we were born in.
I detested him, I despised him, hated him.
I cared about him, I worshipped him, I loved him.
And I had seen it in his eyes, the way he loved me even a little more than I do him, when I gave birth to Louisiana. It was the state she had been conceived after all.
Having lived in a choking prison cell of our compound and staying there for the worst earlier years of our lives, Link and I made it a point to travel when his income got better and I was able to chip in a little money with my part time jobs. We saved money for our dream house with a simple picket fence and enough rooms for us and perhaps two to three more additions to our family. Somewhere in the suburbs will be more than good enough, somewhere where our children would grow up not having to experience what we had. We also saved for cheap travels.
The thing with my husband and I, we didn’t collect things. We collect memories. It doesn’t matter that the motel was a bit suspicious and the food as unappetizing as the ones Victor could only afford to feed me when I was with him and Vincent. The most important thing was that we were together.
It was the best damn experience I’d ever had prior to giving birth to my three rascals. Because that’s what those three were when growing up. At least Louisiana and Kentucky were. They were the two who were closest in age. They always bicker and I remembered how I used to be when I was young. I’d seen myself reflected in my daughter’s eyes, bright and clear and smart. Ken had taken on my personality as well, albeit a bit tamer.
Perhaps, being the middle child, he had acquired half of my strong will and Link’s calm demeanor. He had been a good boy and never caused any problems for us whereas, it was a natural occurrence when Louise went back home from school with a few scratches or bruises, and it would’ve been the same reason as the days before.
When Link and I decided to name our children after the places most special and dear to us, we hadn’t thought of the consequences. We were selfish and only thought of the happy times we wanted to relive over and over again, the main reason why we did what we did. It didn’t cross our minds that our children wouldn’t not be outed not because of our previous history and being called white trash but because of something entirely superficial and stupid which was their names.
So when, one late afternoon, Ken had opened the door and ducked his head and headed towards his room upstairs without his usual cheery greeting, I immediately knew something was wrong.
Michigan had just started attending the same school as his and Louise’s after her previous year at a nearby kindergarten, and they were both ecstatic in the morning. While Louise went with her friends, Ken had insisted on going with his little sister. Both Link and I were loaded with work, after all just another one of our kids had started school and we could use all the money we could earn and more. He left early to his office and I was about to drop Michie off when an urgent request from a neighbor came. I was needed to babysit a baby while her mother went to the hospital after her husband had a heart attack. Everyone else in our little community had left for work and it was known that I work freelance, without a nine to five job. I had cleared my morning schedule so I could take care of Michie’s first day at school.
Ken had been my cutest superhero that day and the proud glimmer in his eyes made me want to tear up. When Michie was born, he was fascinated by her. His little baby sister had been the apple of his eye since the moment I urged him to carry her in his arms as Link supported her weight. His overprotectiveness over her only grew in time, something that wasn’t even as unbearable at times when it came to Louise, and we adored him even more because of it.
However, while I was glad that he was learning to take responsibility at a young age, him acting like a grown up having to care of his little sister stirred a memory in me of my own brothers doing the same thing and I can’t help but be afraid for my dear baby boy. I didn’t want him to grow up too fast and I would do anything so he and his sibling didn’t suffer the way Link and I did.
I’d convinced my self that by accepting the babysitting job, I’d be working hard so my children’s present would stay as it is and not follow the same path as mine and Link had, and that their future will be even brighter than what we were lucky enough to have now.
I had been correct for there is nothing better in this world than being with my family right now, seeing them all together. It just didn’t feel like it that day when I saw Ken with a cut lip for the first time. Michie came in after him, eyes in tears, and when I’d asked her what had happened, the dam broke and she wailed aguishly pointing her finger behind her brother’s retreating back.
“He’s not looking at me!” She cried on my shoulder. “He’s not talking to me!”
Snot and tears and saliva mixed and pooled on my dress, soaking it in seconds. Our little ray of sunshine Michie could really stir up a storm when she was upset.
Turns out, Ken defended her when one of his classmates made fun of her name. The teacher who was watching during recess when it happened had told me that Ken had always ignored the bullies when they teased him but when he came to feed Michie and they followed him only to tease her as well, he retaliated. Not that Michie had understood that she was being made fun of but my heart clenched to know how my boy defended his sister.
When Callie was that age, she looked so much like Michie that my eyes watered and my mouth gasped at the uncanny resemblance. Maybe that’s why Ken had always looked at his niece so fondly. I’m sure he remembers his little sister when he looks at her, the same way I do. I laughed as I realize how similar his protectiveness towards Michie was with Harrison’s towards Callie. I loved seeing how Ken was with Michie, the obvious love they have for each other, the immense trust. While Louise has always worked on her own, those two have always been together.
Louise made me proud of being independent and self sufficient. Ken and Michie made me proud for being able to rely on and helping each other. Seeing Harry treat Callie the same way, it was like watching a reincarnation of my children and it was like a deja vu. A really satisfying one at that.
I smiled at my granddaughter Ane’s slight fumble with the blue velvet pouches as she set up the board game. A few seats beside her where Harry and Callie should be were empty. Moving my gaze to another spot on the sofa, I noticed Abe’s absent, too.
That boy… I always want to sigh every time I see him. He was nothing but trouble when he was younger and though it was dismissed by his parents, saying that boys are just like that - energetic and hyper and insensitive - I’ve always had an unsettling feeling about him.
Ken had never been like that. Neither was Harry. In fact, he seemed to have taken more from Ken than his own son did and not just from looks. Abe has always been just… different.
And wouldn’t you know. Now, he’s grown into… that. That thing that he did to the table… It was violent and terrifying. I can’t help the sigh from leaving my lips and from beside me, Louise’s eyes slid to me with concern.
“Just full,” I whispered to her, and I was thankful that she was the one who moved closer to me so I din’t have to move or raise my voice. She smiled and nodded, patting my hand that rested on the armchair.
If I didn’t promise my husband that I’d look after the little felon… How Lincoln could be so enamored by that boy was a mystery I’d never unravel.
How I wished time hadn’t moved so fast and Lincoln was still alive and I could watch those little rascals again, when they were still innocent and I could perhaps have done something so one of them wouldn’t turn out to be the wya that he was right now, playing and teasing each other lightheartedly, seeing the love in their eyes. It had since dan on me that I’d do anything to keep this family safe and together.
Watching my baby boy Ken right now as a grown man sitting beside his lovely wife, caress the underside of his daughter’s arm as she leaned in to distribute the tiles to each of us, I forgone my worries and silently thanked God and whispered in my heart, Link, darling. We did good. My mind involuntarily steered back to the dark haired young man once again, the only person in my family I feel wary of, and my eyebrows furrowed. Well, mostly.
Maybe there’s still a chance that I could salvage the troubled boy. Alas, if I can just close my eyes for a moment. And later, later I promise to pull him aside and maybe talk some sense to him. I do care for the boy, all this time. And this was my family, it was my responsibility not to let any one of them fall down under. I am going to live the life I've always wanted to live and I want the best for my family.
“What the fuck?!”
The voice sounded surprised. Pained, panicked. Hurt. It was loud enough that I jolted even before my eyelids even flutter close and I witness everyone in the room tense. It came from outside the house, but close enough. Ken and Theodore quickly jumped to their feet and dashed towards the door while Louise caught my arm as I stood up.
Ane hurriedly swiped all the tiles back to the pouch with a shaking hand, her mother keeling beside her with her arms on her shoulders. Michie was struggling to move the curtains.
“Easy, mom. No need to rush,” Louise told me in a calm firm voice. Always the strong, sensible one. She stepped behind me so could stand beside Michie and helped her so we could see out the window.
Together we adjusted our eyes to the dark and the moment I spotted the cause of the commotion was the same time as she did because just as my heartbeat stopped, I heard her gasp.
There was no salvation for the devil, after all.
Hi everyone 🤗
How have you all been doing? Long time no see 😅 I want to apologize for always being MIA. I got COV*D-19 and initially, I thought I'd be able to have time to write a lot because I'd be in quarantine, but physically, mentally and worst of all, emotionally, I just wasn't up for it.
During those times, I just idled around and even after I got better, I sought comfort in reading books and distracting myself. I have been writing this chapter for so long and I'm sorry it took a while. I guess in a sense, this chapter also reflects a part of myself and that's why it was a bit difficult for me to finish.
This chapter is Valerie's chapter, the matriarch of the Cristo family. She's Harry, Abe, Ane, and Callie's grandmother. Valerie's children are Louise (Harry's mom), Ken (Abe and Ane's dad), and Mich (Callie's mom). Instead of dividing this chapter into two, I decided to upload it as one because it only made sense to know Valerie's history in one narrative rather than sectioning it. Also, it might take away from the present happenings from the previous chapter but I promise that it has a purpose to the story 🙈
I really appreciate all of you for being so kind and understanding and patient through everything that's going on. I'll say it. By now you guys should know that I love you all so much and what I do, I also love because of you 🥰 so thank you so, so much ❤️
Please stay safe everyone and take care of yourselves 🌹