One night, Yna Santamaria watched a pineapple truck hit Lola Monina, vaulting the old lady to the neighbor’s driveway. It was a very simple incident, consisting mostly of a sizeable white bulk whipping past the screaming Santamaria family at eye level, followed promptly by one sharp tire screech and a De Dios Farms decal—a ring of whole pineapples, like a green-rayed sun—trembling hurriedly away.
Yna’s father ran up to Lola Monina’s motionless mass and, grunting from the rare and sudden bout of physical exertion, lifted it up from the Osorio’s freshly flattened birds of paradise. Yna’s uncle did his part by bellowing one solid obscenity after another into the already empty street, and then griping out loud over pineapple trucks that weren’t supposed to be in gated communities but were thanks to particular families of particular fresh produce empires living in said communities which was a fucking stupid excuse because this fucking place was fucking private and had no need for fucking trucks full of fucking fruit. Yna’s mother did her part by yanking Yna to her chest and holding her tight, placing a hand over her little ten-year-old’s eyes as Yna’s father carried Lola Monina indoors, as if Lola Monina had become a raging, rabid harpy on impact.
Trapped in the hollow of her mother’s hand, which was very dark and secreted a heady, sweetish warmth, Yna decided that she would kill Francesca De Dios at school the next day by throwing her into oncoming traffic.
Yna pondered over the Death Plan for Francesca right through all her lessons, from the tai chi session after flag ceremony, to the instant when the final strains of the Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck madrigal blended with the dismissal bell, calling a quite harmonious end to Dutch Music Appreciation class and yet another day at Canterbury International Grade School of Alabang.
She eyed Francesca as the girl handed her slumbook over to a classmate and asked her to answer it. Such a futile custom, this collecting of people’s personal information and insights into a broad spectrum of topics to be insightful of, such as Love and Your Future and Your Celebrity Crush, and all as some form of friendship. Only Francesca would see the point in it, as her idea of friendship was simple. Everyone could be her friend. Writing down your Chinese Zodiac Sign, Favorite Dog and Motto in Life made you her friend. Not much was complicated when your family’s income was made; with the country’s biggest and greatest number of orchards and the human race’s eternal need for fruit, the De Dioses didn’t seem very convoluted. Their young surely were not.
In fact, ever so silently, Francesca had already set herself above and apart the very first time she entered class—the complete set of pink-and-white school supplies; the perfectly parallel pair of gleaming white hair clips; the white, bone-dry face towel snuggled neatly against her pink, powdered back. She was such a symmetric, sanitary little thing. She wasn’t the one to worry about.
In truth, the largest obstacle in Yna’s way was Francesca’s yaya, a stocky, sturdy specimen who, unlike the other yayas who whiled their hours at the waiting stations reading pocketbook romances or starting their own with the drivers, sat static at the edge of the bench nearest the exit, eyes fixed on the iron gates, ready to pounce for her ward amidst the screeches and stroller bags of dismissal.
Yna decided that the best way to go was to fake a threat. She and her uncle liked to spend most weekend nights in their home’s audio-visual room, making full and calculated use of its modern machinery. They would load up the DVD player with the latest action movie, switch on the surround sound, and just drench themselves in the black and rank and highly flammable oils of Vengeance. One of the many, many things that Yna had learned from these screenings, besides the directly proportioned relationship between impeccable grooming and villainy, was that threatening people always worked, one way or another.
She yanked out a sheet of bond paper and scribbled:
go to the gym tomorrow after dismissal or we will blow up your house!!
As Francesca returned her textbooks to her cubbyhole across the room, Yna slipped the note discreetly into Francesca’s pink-and-white lunchbag, right in between the thermos and box of De Dios Dried Fruit Mix. The yaya would most likely see the note while unpacking the bag later that afternoon, and she would most likely storm the gym herself the next day to foil any plans (her thin, grim lips and chunky calves seemed to cue her avenging, protecting proclivities), most likely telling Francesca to stay put this won’t take long some faces just need tearing off okay pangga?, most likely leaving the poor girl all alone for Yna to deal with. Exactly how she was going to push Francesca into the lethally busy street and make it look like an accident was still uncertain, but at least she had the first part of a plan mapped out. An idiot would have overlooked the yaya in the first place.
When Yna made her daily dash to the front door (it had been three months since Mang Toby was let go and Yna was made to take the school service, but she still felt the grave disgrace of communal van use quite deeply), she did not expect to find Lola Monina reclined on the sala’s daybed, the bands of gauze twisting around her temples, thick yet frayed, not unlike the white, fleecy nest of her hair. The blurry red spot at the very center of her bindings made her look like a Japanese martial arts instructor, ready to kick major ass after her power nap. Yna shut the door too hard, stunned as she was by the sight of the woman she thought Death had already karate chopped, and startled her awake. The woman snarled.
Yna burbled her sorrys, rushing to Lola Monina’s side and telling her to go back to sleep. Instead of closing her eyes, however, Lola Monina stared at Yna with a strange and burdensome expression, as if nauseated by the girl practically genuflecting before her on the carpet, and then switched her gaze to the ceiling fan and its whirring, cracked capiz blades.
Yna felt like dirt. She was sure she loved Lola Monina more than anyone else did. The old lady she knew was a very happy human, who did nothing but celebrate the utter luck that was her life, and made sure her granddaughter also rejoiced with her. Lola Monina could have inherited much prime peso in the 30’s, were it not for her parents who decided to liberate their daughter from the crusty, crystallized shackles of their generations-old tawas deodorant company, sparing her from the hassles of inheriting lots and lots of money, so she could pursue her true passions, whatsoever they may be. That, and a college degree.
Fortunately, Lola Monina met Sixto Santamaria, the non-disowned heir of Santamaria Sweets, at an inter-college school soiree and dropped school altogether. She liked telling Yna that the second she and Lolo Sixto met, they clung to each other like hard candy in the hot summer sun, her soul and his assets melding into one rock-hard ball of smooth, sugary love. Still, she had acquiesced to their own children requiring college degrees—business strategies had changed some in the succeeding decades—though she also made sure to inculcate as much of her own knowledge into them as she could. There was one crucial, life-and-death thing, she told her little granddaughter proudly, that she knew how to do exceptionally well: to be rich, and to be so magnificently.
Yna could never fully grasp what her Lola Monina was always clucking about, but she enjoyed being with her nonetheless, because Lola Monina was such a positive person—happy to buy her shiny, fluffy objects; happy to feed her rich, buttery foodstuffs—just happy to indulge in Yna, and to make her understand that pleasure must always be had. Delightful old woman.
But the one straggled on the daybed was not.
Yna asked her if she would like some tea, sensing the need to be sweet and granddaughterly. She could tell Jobeth to make her some.
“Jobeth’s doing the laundry,” Lola Monina said sharply.
“But Annabel does the laundry.”
“We let Annabel go. Jobeth does everything now.”
“So Jobeth can make you tea.”
“I hate tea. Go away.”
Yna slunk up to her room with a strong, cold sting in her chest from all the loss she had to process.
Her mother was screaming in the foyer. Yna looked up from the map she had made of Canterbury’s grounds, fashioned from cartolina left over from her Beginner’s Architecture elective. Francesca’s yaya, represented by a curious cube of a rock Yna had found in Boracay, was already positioned within the Crayola’d confines of the gym, but she (a chocolate-covered macadamia nut) and Francesca (a cotton ball) had yet to find their place.
She had gotten used to tirades echoing around the house. She knew Lolo Sixto’s death almost a year ago would provoke much sorrow and anxiety among the Santamarias, but the strain had seemed to escalate over time, and this just didn’t seem right to her at first. Due to her insatiable appetite for action movies, she had first come to believe that people, whether through heady, elaborate schemes involving car chases/rappelling/time bombs/jiu-jitsu, or through the stark simplicity of old age, died. Moreover, she had also believed that grief could only last so long; there would come a time when loved ones would have to get up, dust themselves off, maybe sever their ties with the sleek, corporate spy service they work for to join a grubby, renegade band of freedom fighters (or not), and Move On.
But the adult Santamarias had failed to get over Lolo Sixto’s fatal fling with prostate cancer. It seemed that the longer Lolo Sixto stayed dead, the more they howled and bawled at each other, and Yna had come to understand that certain sorrows just maintained their pain forever.
She opened her bedroom door a crack, cocking her ear to the foyer two balconies below. Her mother’s screaming had expanded into the standard group tantrum, her father’s and uncle’s boisterous baritones having joined in on bemoaning the great dearth Lolo Sixto had caused. To virgin ears, their ruckus may sound like an ugly disagreement, but Yna, over the months, had come to hear the utter opposite. In fact, their yelling had a harmony to it, and could ring strong with consensus. They agreed, once more and with much vitriol, that they deserved Lolo Sixto’s wealth way, way, way more than the four hospitals that did get in on his gains. The hospitals were made to split the spoils, supposedly, because the dying Lolo Sixto was suddenly and severely hit—with a force accumulated from an entire lifetime of indifference—by the need to be charitable to his fellow Filipinos. Of course, even little Yna knew that this was bullshit.
All the Santamarias knew about the Great Poisoning of 1989. Yna had learned of it via bedtime story, when her mother had run out of the fairytales she knew by heart—a small sum to begin with, considering Lola Monina was always busy at night telling other folks anecdotes at salas or poolsides or verandas a village or two away. The fairytale went like so:
Once upon a time, there was a big, big grey building the size of fifty houses.
– You mean like our factory?
Sure. Like our factory. And in it, there lived thousands and thousands of trolls.
– What are trolls?
Tiny people. Stop asking questions.
Now, all the trolls in this big, big building loved chocolate chip cookies a lot. So they worked together everyday to make lots and lots of chocolate chip cookies to make them happy. But one day, there was one troll named Ronaldson who decided he didn’t like chocolate chip cookies anymore because his sister troll died from eating many of them. Ronaldson blamed the cookies for killing his sister troll, but it was really Ronaldson’s fault because he was a bad, bad brother troll, refusing to acknowledge his sister’s diabetes and failing to monitor her food intake properly. And because Ronaldson was so poor that his Mommy Troll and Daddy Troll failed to raise him with a proper sense of ethics, Ronaldson decided that everyone should stop liking chocolate chip cookies too. So, he poured bottles and bottles of evil poison into the cookie batter and made everyone very, very sick, and the sick ones started telling everyone else that chocolate chip cookies were evil and that nobody should eat chocolate chip cookies anymore. Fortunately, the king of the building, who was a big, giant polar bear with six eyes, ate Ronaldson and told the rest of the trolls that they should make a different kind of cookie instead to make them happy. So, the trolls replaced chocolate chips with rainbow sprinkles in their recipe and everyone was so happy again and things were going to be okay forever and ever and ever. The end.
– Did our candy make people sick, Mommy?
-Mommy, it’s okay. Lolo Sixto fixed it. Is that the moral of the story? I mean, ‘cookies’ is a code word, right? Right, Mommy? You used a code word?
You’re right, Yna.
Now go to sleep. Mommy needs her night swim.
Lolo Sixto, certainly not one to scrimp on excess, had given the hospitals the biggest tip he could and would ever give in his life—the biggest, fattest thank you (after a regularized string of big, fat thank yous over the years) for keeping mum on the 40 or so rotten candy cases that had saturated that one summer, an incident that could have soured the sweet virtue of his name. Each child who had writhed his way to treatment, or at least his parents or legal guardians who were, of course, just as ornery in their own way, had received a single, satisfactorily sumptuous payment of hush money. But the hospitals, Lolo Sixto had feared, would require more to not squawk about the whole thing in the name of all that is good and just and bright and shiny, hence their surprise inheritance.
The gripe Yna’s mother made most often dealt with the sheer nitwittedness behind Lolo Sixto’s betrayal. She highly doubted that the hospitals would have cried foul in the first place; for one summer, Santamaria Sweets had become a major source of their revenue. Alas, the old man was just too selfish to grasp this, so much so that the only thing able to fit and fester in his mind was saving his own hide.
“We can help you,” someone said.
Yna opened the door a little wider, brows furrowing. This was a completely new, male voice that had slipped in with the reverberations, although this one wasn’t so much frustrated as pitying, its softer volume booming more respect and sincerity than any sound that had ever bounced off the house’s pearl-white walls.
“We should,” yet another voice, a woman’s this time, added with conviction.
“What’s this patronizing shit? Of course you should,” Yna’s mother cried. “You are not doing us a favor.”
Yna scuttled over to the balcony. She peered down at the group of people standing stiff, each keeping at least four frigid meters apart, and grimaced at the sight of the odd couple out.
Although she had only seen their silhouettes behind the creamy black tint of BMW windows in the past, she knew they were Francesca’s parents. They sported that same sheen of perfect precision—with that extra patina of precise perfection—that Francesca did. The freshly-polished leather in the father’s large, pointy, lace-up shoes; the silver in the oval belt buckle resting snug against the mother’s flat stomach—they glinted all the way up at Yna, as if to signal to the child not to bother for, yes, they were indeed impossibly impeccable, and she really didn’t have to double-check, but thanks.
“There was an emergency shipment. A very urgent, last-minute thing from one of our biggest distributors; first time it ever happened. I insisted on seeing a supervisor of mine first before all the trucks were deployed but I didn’t know he’d actually come in one of them. I’m very sorry. It was so late in the night. You know your street is the quickest way back to the guardhouse. We didn’t think Mrs. Santamaria would be there, but I have already suspended the supervisor and the driver, if this makes you feel any better in any way. I am all about solutions, definitely; I promise we will fix this fast. We’ll cover all her hospital bills, succeeding medications and any other damage we may have done to your property,” Mr. De Dios stated firmly.
“And a little extra for all the stress,” Mrs. De Dios chimed in.
Yna waited for her mother to have a fit.
“A little extra?” Yna’s mother exclaimed. She then proceeded with a tantrum so ferocious that Mrs. De Dios’s right hand jerked up and made a swift Sign of the Cross. Yna watched the small gesture intently, feeling more and more incensed as she realized the De Dioses’ utter insensitivity towards her family’s grief.
The De Dioses should have imparted a better semblance of understanding. Hadn’t they ever worried about themselves? Didn’t they hold family business meetings over Sunday lunches too, and shovel callos into their mouths with such haphazard haste so as to speed up the unhappy proceedings? And weren’t their Christmas afternoons just as wrought with rivalry, too, with their matriarch and/or patriarch the target of one offspring’s pricey bequest after another—flat-screen TV trumps ergonomic buckwheat pillows; 3-day vacation at Punta Fuego trumps hefty e-gift certificate for all Ayala Malls—and amidst a blitz of hugging and kissing? Didn’t Francesca’s chest tighten a bit each morning too, just as she is being driven up to Canterbury’s main drop-off area, for fear that her car would pull up behind one of a noticeably newer make? Surely they all felt something similar someway somehow?
Yna nudged away from the balcony. However heated she was by the De Dioses’ icy countenance, by their decision to just stare at Yna’s panic-plagued mother with barely guised horror, she would have to conserve her ire for the next day, when her Death Plan for their darling daughter—whatever it was—would come to fruition. She returned to her room, closed the door on the ruckus, and glared hard at the cotton ball on her map as if this could set it ablaze.
Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon is not sure if she will be employed by the time this story comes out. Nonetheless, her priorities remain with her fiction, the Filipino Freethinkers, and preventing her apartment from falling into squalor.
This story was first published in the Philippines Free Press in 2010.