Short Stories

The Dinner Table

Mother left us when I was nine years old. The first morning of her absence, father acted like nothing happened. He gathered all three of us in his office, together with my little brother Joshua, and my sister Lizy, and he gave us his speech with a strict military devotion and a cold expression that made his face seem like a plastic mask on top of his real one.

«Your mother has lefts us,» he said. «From now on you are all gonna be equally responsible about the house and taking care of each other».

His goatee beard would extend thick and wholesome like an inner fluid that had crusted and stabilize there forever, and his grey-wool suit was straightened out at all angles with no sign of wrinkle or anomaly in all parts.

«I want no fights between you, no disputes, and no messing around in any way till we find someone who can support this house and everything else you might need. This little incident might bring change in our daily lives but with everyone’s cooperation, I’m sure we’ll manage just fine. Are there any questions?» he asked as he folded his hands behind his back and looked expectantly at each one of us.

Joshua took a half step forward and raised his voice.

«What happened to Mom? Can we look out for her?»

«I’m afraid that is not possible. Your mother chose to continue her life separate from us and unfortunately, that is something we need to respect and live with for the time being. It might be hard in the beginning but it will come easier with time.»

«Lies, mother would never choose to leave us like that,» yelled Joshua. «Something must have happened to her. I don’t believe you.»

Father bowed down and touched the back of his head.

«I know it’s tough my dear. I understand how you feel. But we’ll get through it eventually and everything is gonna be just fine. I promise you.» he said as he hugged him.

We never saw mother again and neither did we try to come in contact with her. From what I learned she started a new family with a man that she had a relationship with and they lived together in some obscure part of the world that nobody can put his finger on. But we never talk about her or bring up her name in any way around the house and it is strictly forbidden to mention anything in relation to her or you might find your head swooped around, disjointed from the rest of your body, and nailed in a long spike for everybody else to see. It’s sort of an unwritten rule we made and we all preserve it implicitly but I can barely stop myself from thinking about her every time I set foot back to the house.

Right now it’s the time of the year that we all gather back to our home place and spend the holidays together as we exchange gifts and catch up together in our standard family tradition. I get to walk back to the little house I grew up in and the room I lived in for 18 years of my life, 9 with the mother and 9 with random attendees that would interchange each other every few months while we were trying to make it by like nothing happened.

The rooms are all compacted with ornaments and pictures that decorate the walls in every available space, and big sculptures of fantasy figures and historical characters are located on the sides of the corridors, as they stand on top of a wooden podium. I can feel the thick threads of the carpet, succumbing under my feet as I walk towards my old room. Nieves, a short, Filipino lady that has been appointed as the housekeeper for the last few years, walks right in front of me with proud big steps and an air of a sumo wrestler, as her torso is laid straight backward.

«You can rest in here, sir, while I notify the rest of your arrival,» she says as she bows and extends her hand showing the way to my room.

I step in and place my baggage on the side of the wall as I put out a little respectful nod to Nieves who makes her way out. My old room still has been mostly intact besides the 8 years I’ve been away, having all of my old little things and books I had left it with when I was 18. I still see the posters of old favorite superheroes and movies that I had diligently gathered through the years and the library is filled with the old rusty books I used to have on comic collections and science fiction relics that I always liked to read.

I take off my shoulder bag and leave it on the desk as I take a long-lasting swirl around the place letting all the associate emotions of a past self gather back to me as if immersing into the life of a different person. That’s how the young boy that lived here seems to me now anyway, where it feels more like a distant person than my own personal past. Outside the window, there is a large garden that expands all around the house like a fortress that surrounds it with long tall trees and slick cut grass as it disperses with little stone-pathways in between.

Everything in the house has been built from the vast fortune of father’s business that seemed to always be in a position to make the right calls to bring the most profit out of anything. Being the number one iron and steel producer in the country allowed him to expand his business to other countries and eventually the whole world, dashing him straight at the top of the country’s wealthiest people. Yet what many people conceive as a warm-hearted, good-will man is mostly a show that is meant for the general public and has nothing to do with the strict, cold reality we had to face all those years.

«I see you finally found your way back home. I thought you would never come.» says a female voice.

I turn around and see Lizy standing right on the doorstep with her hands cocked to her waist, and her head leaned sideways, as her curly red hair fixate downwards like huge metal screws.

«I’m always keen to come back. You know I would never miss it for the whole world.»

She straightens her posture as she leans forwards, approaching me with slow steps. She seems angry and her red-tone make-up on the top of her cheeks together with the red hair and the red trousers make it seems as if she is fuming with rage.

«Yes, but you weren’t here to stand by us when the papers were scolding about father’s business. And you certainly were not here when your little brother was diagnosed with agoraphobia.»

She paused in front of me as squeezed her lips together.

«Look Lizy, it’s been tough these last few years but, I tried my best and it wasn’t easy for me to do anything while being away…»

My words stumble the moment I spotted the little sign in the angle of her mouth as the little chasm on the right side makes a clear subliminal recess as she tries to hide her sneer.

«You are shitting me aren’t you?» I ask as she jumps over me giving a tight hug which swirls both of us by the window.

«Oh you dump brother, I missed you so much» she exclaims as
she stands back down and leads me to take a seat over the little desk. Lizzy was always the most ebullient and cheerful person in the family, always having some sort of mischief or joke going on to shatter things up. She was the middle child in the family and although older than Joshua, we always made sure we cater to everything she might need.

«You look great,» I remarked. «How are things with you and the family?»

«Well, pretty much the standard stuff,» she utters as she extends her neck. «I’m still trying to make it as a dressmaker in a stupid TV channel, but trust me this shit ain’t easy.» she exhaled some air.

«I’m sure you are making a great job,» I smile back.

«Joshua is still struggling with getting out of the house. Over the years his agoraphobia somehow got stronger and stronger and doctors say that..» she raised her eyes to meet my gaze, «it all began since mother’s disappearance that lead him to develop this fear for the world.»

«Is he still on med?»

«The whole list,» she replies with a nod, and I cannot help but bring my mind back to the day we learned about mother. Joshua was only 6 years old at the time, he left the house in secret and we only learned about it when a neighbor managed to recognize it was him after the police had brought him into the hospital. The doctors said it’s some form of a panic attack that can even happen to small kids when they perceive some sort of threat or trauma.

She shook her head as if refusing to accept the situation and raised her hand to cover her mouth which took a sad expression.

«Somehow he continued to associate bad events with being outside which only just made his situation worse with time passing,» she said with a head tilt. «Instead of getting better over the years he only got worse while we never paid attention to what he was really going through,»

«Lizzy, don’t blame yourself over this,» I said as I touched her hand. «Joshua needs his time and all we have to do at the moment is to make sure we stand by his side and help him get out of it.»

She nodded as she hesitantly put out a little smile on her face. Joshua was always most closely to Lizzy throughout the years and especially after mother left, the two of them got inseparable with Lizzy acting like a second mother to him.

«But father is doing great,» she responded with fake excitement. «Since his remarriage to Darna, he seems happy and invigorated, so much so that you can track him smiling sometimes.»

«That doesn’t sound like father at all,» I responded making her chuckle.

«No, it doesn’t. It’s hard to imagine him like that really. He used to be all about work and rules and discipline…ugh» she resented shaking her head. «Now he is all honey melting over his little sweetheart.»

She put her two hands in her heart as she darted her eyelashes mockingly.

«What’s this Darna like really? Is it true she used to be a hospital nurse?» I ask.

«She used to be a nurse, and help people like an angel that came down from the sky. And everything she does is so so good and her food tastes delicious and she is amazing in all aspects..»

I sneered as I let her finish her sarcastic comment.

«Oh I hate her so much,» she utters. «She plays nice to everyone and acts like she watches out for father and the family but I doubt if she cares about anything more than money. She is a monster dressed in a sheep’s clothing thinking she can fool everybody, but she can’t,» she uttered as she squeezed her eyes. «Father may be blind enough to bite it but I am not.»

«Maybe,» I shrugged, «but maybe he understands where he is getting himself at and he still chooses to go with it,»

She stutters as she stands back in her chair when a voice comes over from outside the door.

«That must be the great sketch artist I have heard so much about, isn’t it?» the woman said with a sweet voice as she bowed outside the door. «It is such a pleasure to finally meet you, everybody has been talking about you with the kindest words.»

I walk up to her and hold her hands as I reciprocate her greeting. Lizzy passed right beside us with a storming force but we both acted as we didn’t notice.

«Darna that is so nice of you, thank you so much. I was dying to meet you as well,» I reply.

«You know you can say I’m sort of your biggest fan out there. I’ve been following your work for many years now, even before I met your father, and I loved every little piece of it.»

«You have kids of your own?» I ask, trying to defer her flattery which seems overwhelming. My sketch work was directed for small kids, aged between 3 and 6 years old, which means that she probably used them when her kids were around that age as well. It is the first time I meet her yet there is an apparent reason for how she managed to win over my father who is one of the hardest people one can please. She has a striking resemblance with mother in the ways of her facial expressions and characteristics but they can be elusive in their nature. Her hair is dark and rich in their curve as they stop gently above her shoulders. Her eyes blue and hawkishly sharp with an ever knowing brilliance as if encompassing everything that stands in front of them. Her short height and fragile body are all structured in the same way as mothers. Yet all this resemblance was never apparent to me than now that I stand before her face to face for the first time.

«Two of them, and they can be as naughty as the devil.» she replies as she passes her hand over her mouth like sharing a secret. «they are in their teenage years right now so their hormones can get quite crazy which is something everyone that gets close to them should know. Luckily they spend the holidays with their father which can bring some peace over this house.» she extends her neck as she bounces her head back and forth twice.

«Anyway, dinner should be ready in just a short few hours so we’ll catch up back then?» she asks winking at me as we greet each other out.

I stand back as I watch her move downstairs as I contemplate about her once again. Her strong resemblance to mother is like a strong magnet that attracts the completing counterparts and opposes the ones with the same magnetic field. I take my jacket off and get ready to move on to the rest of the family. But before I get over to father I take a right turn and head over to the last room of the corridor. The one where Joshua’s room is placed.

I knock on the door twice and slide the door open slowly as I protrude my head slightly from the chasm.

«Josh? Are you in buddy?» I ask as I hear the door creaking open like a swinging gate. He has his huge headphones on his head as he is immersed in a video-game that seems to consume his focus totally. His room is dim-lit and somewhat messy. Crumpled clothes thrown here or there and a musty smell of staleness makes its way around the room as it seems he is spending most of his time inside here with almost no ventilation.

I approach him and tap over his shoulder gently as he hesitantly twists his head and ejects from his chair the moment he gets a glimpse of me. He throws his weight on me and almost got me rolling over to the ground before I manage to stand my ground with a backward step.

«James! I didn’t know you were to come so early» he exclaimed with his big joyous smile. «You look great, please have a seat,» he says as he points to the chair opposite to him.

He has long thin dark hair that reaches the level of his jaw, and his facial bone structure is prominent and evident of his strong physic. We catch up for a little while as he describes to me the new job he has been taking on working remotely for a financial firm and how he gets to spend his time talking to the phone all day and joining video calls. He describes to me the progress he is making with Dr. Adams and how much Darna has been helping him by taking daily walks around the square and making sure he has everything he needs which is something that catches my interest immediately.

«Darna? What kind of person is she? I have only met her for a few seconds and I would hate to draw the wrong conclusions.» I exclaimed trying to sound indifferent.

«Oh, she is great, truly magnificent. She makes us breakfast every morning and she cares about anything that is going on and tries to help everybody. You are going to love her, you will see.» he says pointing at me. «Plus father seems so much better off now that they got together, I mean he seems somewhat softer and more approachable than what he used to be.»


«So what’s up with you and your work with sketches. Still going hard at it?»

«As hard as it gets,» I say jokingly, but try to hide the fact that I haven’t make any progress with any new books or editions for a while now and have already slacked the schedule for the year that was supposed to have a new book coming a few months back.

«That’s great, we are always very proud to talk about your work here. It makes everybody smile,»

I nod as I discern a little doubt on his face as his harsh eyebrows frown.

«Was everything OK with you this year? There were some people here asking questions a couple of months ago but dad said it was nothing we should worry about.»

«A few people?» I ask as I realize that this was probably handled internally by father with his usual way of bribing as he never mentioned anything on me.

«It was two of them. They said they were police officers but they were dressed informally. I only noticed because I was the one to answer the door but Dad said it was nothing important.»

«Oh yeah, that was probably for the book rights I was trying to handle a while back but it was sorted out anyway. Nothing to worry there buddy,» I say as I slap over his knee and raise up from the chair.

«So see you down for dinner in a few minutes?» I ask as I put out a big smile.

«Sure James. It was nice seeing you,» he said with a slight nod.

I took out of the room slowly but was nervous for something like that to be hidden from father who always likes to take matters on his hands without acknowledging them to anyone else. I walked across the corridor and moved downstairs where his main office was located on the right part of the house right next to the library. The doors were full-blown white with golden handles that shined with their delicate curvy design. The hall right outside was a polygonal center room with little bench sittings glued on the sides as many times people would find themselves at this central part of the house that was the midway point to the rest of the rooms. Right opposite the office it was the kitchen, where Darna and Nieves are probably located making the dinner preparations, and then there is the living room and a number of other ones that lead to the office that I face on my right.

Right across me, there is a big hand-drafted portrait of mother, standing glorious in the middle of the wall, as she brings out a dauntless and beautifully audacious sneer as if daring to challenge you to something. It always impresses me to see mother in this photo as this is barely the way I remember her at all. She was rather receptive instead of bold and more sensitive than she was dynamic. Yet this side of her always struck me as a part of her that was always there hidden from hindsight and still flickering into life in ways we could barely realize.

Her image of the long curly hair and everlasting, benevolent joy took shape and form as her figure materialize right in front of me with a sudden gasp of time. She ducks in front of me and touches my hand with her palm as she guides the pencil I hold in my hands.

«Always keep the image you want to draw in your mind, James.» Her whispery and crispy voice leaves an imprint as if there are frolic plastic bubbles bursting out as she pronounces the words.

«Keep the picture alive and just let your hand slide on its own. Straight from the heart.»

She would always give out these puzzling and obscure lessons that would stick with you as you would try to defer their meaning. Being an excellent painter herself, she transmuted her love for art and painting to me from a very young age and it was always a secret desire that I would someday grow up to be good enough to win her over with my work.

I walk straight up and knock on the big white door as I make my way in, catching my father by surprise as he raises up to greet me. He has a short-trimmed beard that greys out and fades on the center as it accumulates to the little goatee that he still holds. His eyes poignant and rigid he brings himself with overwhelming confidence that always gives the impression that he knows more than you do. The room is spacious and beautifully arranged, as it is minimally filled with a couple of dark-wood chairs and the big central desk at the back of the room. Although it has a number of libraries and books placed at the walls, everything is optimally located to be well-positioned and in order with everything else, which is a sign of the high need for neatness father always displayed.

He points to me to seat down on the chair and gets straight to the point as he takes his seat behind his oak-tree desk.

«So how is your job going with the sketch-books? Still working on your next issue?»

«Still do,» I reply trying to defer the conversation to a different direction. «Some things will never change I guess,»

He repositioned his head as he leaned towards his left side.

«Strange..because I heard you haven’t delivered the issue for a few months now,»

«What? How do you know this? You are not supposed to..»

«Save it,» he demanded as he raised his hand on me. He stood up and walked over the window as he glazed outside with his hands on his pockets.

«A father owes to attend matters of his offsprings as if they were his own. It’s how nature works I’m afraid.»

«You shouldn’t snoop around on my issues without notice. I can handle everything on my own just fine.»

«I’m not snooping around on anyone. I’m just making the right amendments before things go astray.» He turned his head scoldingly on my side. «’You can handle it on your own?’. Is this really your impression on how you’ve conducted things so far?»

«Father I don’t need your help and I never asked for it. If it ever comes to the point that I require it I will let you know.»

He turned around and leaned over to his office as he folded his hands around his chest.

«So you think that a publishing house like Wileys, would be OK with you delaying your drafts for over six months now? Or that they would be patient enough to keep promoting your work with the number of sales they are making as of now?»

«What? You have no right to talk to me like that?» I say as I attempt to rise from my chair but he stops me as he directs me to seat back down.

«I have every right in the world to care about your doings and work because you are my god damn son. And you’ll understand what I’m saying once you have kids of your own but as of now you can just take my word for it.»

He coaked his thumbs on his trousers and walked alongside behind his desk thoughtfully.

«You think that talent alone is enough to get you ahead in these days? Well, you better think again because you don’t understand shit about how things work. The Wileys wouldn’t even think twice before snapping out the next sketch guy that is waiting in line to publish his life’s work and neither they would care to even pay attention to you if it wasn’t for me in the first place. Now I assume you know better than ‘just don’t mess with my stuff’ attitude you putting out on me.»

He expresses his words with an extra mocking attitude that stumbles me with his forthright style.

«I told you you would be better off if you had stayed here with me taking a job at the family business that I worked so hard to create in the first place.»

«You mean the factory?»

«Yes, I mean at the factory. Your mother put those crazy-ass artists’ ideas in your head and you got a little bit overambitious with it all, that’s what happened. You could have stayed here and you would have nothing to worry about. But unfortunately, you never listened to me.»

«Father, that is not the life I envisioned.»

«Shit, that is not the life you envisioned and now I have to make sure that you won’t stay out of job and that the police won’t press matters investigating your ass.»

I froze by the sheer boldness he is displaying but I try to hide it.

«What happened with the police exactly?»

«What do you think happened? They came over to my office asking questions on that sketch nemesis of yours ‘Oliver Brown’. Somebody said he saw you at the scene before he was found beaten to death by someone outside the bar he was hanging out.»

«He wasn’t beaten to death. I barely touched the guy and he got knocked down by a heart attack.»

«Well that doesn’t matter very much now, does it? Everybody knows that you two were sworn enemies and even the slightest evidence of you been there would be enough to drag you into a legal battle over this.» He placed both of his hands over the desk as he scrutinized me. «Now you may not consider it much, but if it wasn’t for me to verify that you were in the house at that time and speak to certain people, things might be quite different for you as we speak.»

I let my lungs exhale as I put a little grin.

«You know, you always like to put the blame on others for their mistakes but you never think about anybody else than yourself. You can preach on me all you want but at the end of the day you are the one that got to live his life while Joshua was going through a nightmare all on his own.» I raise up and approach the door. «So spare me with your life advice cause I think I had enough already.»

«You are upset and I understand it,» he replied, «just make sure you get it together before tonight’s dinner. I don’t want to bring any of it over to anyone else that just tries to have some good holiday time.» He scolded bouncing his shoulders as I made my way out of the room.

The dinner took place at the big center table in the living room that was consisted of the most luxurious and delicate parts in the house. Every painting in the wall, every pallet, and shaft of lighting was carefully chosen and all furniture were drawn to match the place that most of the house-guests would first find themselves in when they would visit the house. At the table, there were already a number of dishes and little delicacies that could cater to any possible taste and quirk a person might had and I took a seat alongside Joshua as Lizzy sat right across us. Father with Darna took the two main seats along the sides of the table and immediately set the tone for the rest of the night.

«Let’s propose,» exclaimed Darna as she raised her glass over the table.

«I want to dedicate this special night to all of you that managed to make it here again this year, James, Lizzy, and Joshua.» He nodded. «From the very few things that still remain intact in our lives and are always there to support us in every moment we go through, whether it’s a good one, where we get to share our joy,» he grasped the hand of Darna, «or getting out of difficult situations and trying to pull it all together,» he glanced back at me, «family is always there for us and we are all each other have really. So let’s embrace this little gathering and appreciate that we still have each other and let’s enjoy this special bond because it is truly one of the last things that remain true no matter what happens.»

We all raised our glasses filled with golden wines as the noise of chatter and plates covered the whole room with their continuing buzz. I looked over at father and contemplated for a while about his constantly complacent attitude. There was nothing in the world capable of shattering his dauntless feelings and somehow I wondered if the secret to his tranquility was the fact that he didn’t really care much about anything.

Lizzy turned her attention to me with a little tingle of her hair.

«James I just had a look at your latest work again and I just realized that the John character in your sketches resembles Joshua. I can’t believe I never recognized that so far.»

«Well it’s not exactly Joshua but you can say it’s..inspired by him,» I replied as I glanced at him on my right smiling. «What? all artists are allowed to be inspired by their real lives aren’t they?» I joked as we continued our dinner for the next couple of hours sharing stories and having a good time all together. At some point throughout the night, Darna stood up from her chair and announced the grand surprise.

«A masterpiece cake is awaiting that I made with my own hands,»

We all howled in celebration as she grinned a little smile. I volunteer to help her out, so we both walked over to the kitchen where she opened the little oven door to reveal a huge round cake that took a good chunk of effort to get out unscathed.

«Let me just say, this looks glorious,» I exclaimed as I leaned it over to the table carefully not to make any mess.

«I’m glad you can appreciate it, honey. And I’m sure as hell that you are gonna love the taste of it as well. I made sure to add some extra chocolate in it just to keep everybody happy,» she said as she joyfully squizzed her whole face together. She turned around, took a big spatula on her hand, and started cutting the cake into pieces as she places them in little platters.

«Darna, when you said you used to read my stories to your kids and appreciate my work, did you mean it?» I asked.

«Oh, sure I was darling. I loved to read your work honestly,» she turned around and soothed over my arm as she leaned sideways over the table.

«I always found that your stories worked amazing with kids, they were full of sparkle and fantasy and it would take hold of their imagination. They just never failed to win them over every single time I used them.»

«Thank you Darna, that means a lot.»

She leaned closely on me as if examining my expression.

«What is it? Don’t tell me you have doubt over your work because that would be just unfathomable,»

«No, not exactly» I exclaimed. «It is just that I only learned how to sketch when I was still under my mother’s veil and I never really had the chance to get her feedback once I got to publish my work to the world.»

I glanced downwards.

«Sometimes I wonder whether she would approve my work or scold me for not following her rules like she used to do,»

She chuckles as she takes a seat right on my side placing her hands in between her legs.

«James, I’m sure your mother would be proud of you. What you have accomplished so far is simply amazing. There are very few people that could make that claim really. Trust me I have read the rest and most of them are not even close to how good yours are,»

Her comment makes me burst a little laughter.

«It’s nice of you to say this. I just hope she was here some times just to show it to her and just win her back somehow. As if the reason she left was because of my bad sketches,»

«James,» she exclaimed as she caressed my cheek with her hand, «I know how hard it must feel for a kid to lose his mother so suddenly in such an unexpected way. But this has nothing to do with you or your sketches or anything other than her really. It was just a decision she made herself and I think you just need to find the courage to forgive yourself and just let it go. Don’t you think?»

I raised my eyes and nodded as she stood in front of me. Her calm, loving eyes shaped into two mirrors that somehow I saw the figure of mother in them taking her characteristics and speaking to me the same way they used to do when I was a kid. I leaned and kissed her as I hold her head with my hand as the spatula in her hand left over and fell to the ground bearing a loud noise over the room. She stood back shocked as she straightened her dress getting an austere expression.

«I think we should get back to the room,» she exclaimed as she grasped the disk with the five little plates and carried it over to the main area. I joined the table after a while as I took my seat back and immersed in a conversation with Joshua. I tried to act like nothing happened but my mind was still focused on Darna and her reaction who seemed to have neglected the matter as if it never happened. And although we never spoke of it again it felt as if it was an incident that put a closure to something inescapable to me, something that was troubling me for a long time. A closure to a wound that was refusing to close on its own.