Franco was not a real prodigy. He spent four long years in college like any regular youth. But when I asked him for the most relevant tales, almost nothing took place at school. He said so much more about those sporadic visits home instead.
This one took place right after he finished his third year. Although Franco still spent much of his summers in Bridgeport too, Annette always nagged him about that. The best way to escape was to relent. For relenting, he’d get his old bed back, and a Sagebear to warm his feet. Plus, it meant time with Hannah in a comfortable setting, even with her mother just down the street.
On the other hand, he had to bring Seng.
In a twist, it was Seng who insisted on coming along. He claimed that he had business to attend to with Annette. Or was it helping Youa move into a new flat? She tired so much of the dorms at Terrebonne State. Conveniently, Benji was fed up with his old roommates too. And wouldn’t he get beamed back anyways? It sounded like at least a nine-day stay in Twinbrook for Franco.
As much as he wanted a Seng-free week, Franco relented there too.
Seng had not spent much time in the Waverly house. But like any newcomer, he was won over the most by Sagebear.
After getting his face licked, Seng found himself as the center of attention. Annette and Amy fawned over the young man, treating him like an adorable puppy. If adorable puppies then got asked about their law prowess and thieving skills.
Then Franco wondered where Hannah wandered off to.
He would have found his way to the kitchen anyways. Annette always had the best leftovers waiting for him. And Sagebear’s food bowl was in there, and he often was the one to feed her. Or watch her eat, just because she was so cute when doing anything. But he found himself there when looking for Hannah, and found her anyways.
It made more sense for her to sitting on the counter and stifling a tear, instead of eating. Especially with furry little Rose cleaning herself right next to her. Hannah always did her homework in a similar setting, crying included. But this was supposed to be a break! A time for them to return home and make love without worries!
He had an obvious question to ask: “Are you okay?”
She slumped over. “Just my mum. And…you know, I still have to pay for college somehow.”
“Which is why you have us,” said Franco.
“And making my boyfriend’s family pay thousands and thousands a year for music school? I’d feel horrible.”
He reached out, to try and stroke her gorgeous face. Hannah’s slender cheeks and delicate Thai and Filipina features never grew old for Franco.
“Look, I’ll only stay for as long as I need to,” she said. “It’s normal to feel this way…do these things…appease whoever you can.”
“I wouldn’t say normal-”
She ducked and ran out before Franco could get another word in.
And so he was alone in the house, though he hadn’t searched for everyone yet.
Franco knew that his stepfather had become a mild-mannered bore in his older age. Annette laughed and complained about how he switched to boring activities. Reading, childcare, and even saying “I’ll pass” to sex parties every now and again! He went from being a rugged bad boy to…well, to being the exact role model Franco always wanted.
If only he knew where the old man was.
Franco didn’t check the garden out back until the rest of the house turned up nothing. He could hear Samira’s whoo! of delight once he stepped outside. He forgot that his mum revamped the garden to make it fun for kids. He would have killed for a swing set when he was a child! But rarely did either of the kids go unsupervised with Sinbad as their father. So where there was a Samira, there was bound to be him.
Even as an adult, Sinbad didn’t breach the weight limit for the swings. But instead of flying in the air, he stayed grounded in a chair. He and Julian were in a tight race to win a game of Parcheesi against each other.
Franco snuck up behind Sinbad. “You know that I’ve been home for hours, right?”
“Yeah, I guess your mum said something about that this week,” said Sinbad. He didn’t avert his eyes from the board for a minute. His dice roll allowed for a strategic blockade, or moving just one piece forward. “Welcome back. Is this only because everyone else is busy?”
“Well, Hannah is,” said Franco. “And I don’t like spending time with Seng.”
Sinbad crossed his arms and groaned. “Lemme just guess where he is. Your mum just gushes about him all the time. Not to say I wouldn’t, but goddamn. All it takes is being a cute Asian with a law degree in the works and she just forgets everything.” He took a look at a startled Julian. “Sorry for using that word, Jules. You still shouldn’t say it.”
“I’m sorry too,” Franco said. “It’s my fault you know him at all.”
“And you…you need to stop beating yourself up.”
“I don’t appreciate it being called that.”
“So, we can restart the game and add a third player,” said Sinbad. “Judging by how this was going so far, the winner is…obviously Julian.”
“That’s not what I’m here for,” Franco said. Sinbad got up out of his seat, and quirked up an eyebrow.
Franco nervously looked towards the ground. “I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about this yet, but something happened in Bridgeport back in February. It’s…something beyond our world that mum wouldn’t say anything about.”
“You’re a lucky kid,” said Sinbad. “I might have everything you need.”
“Julian, hold that game while we’re gone.”
Sinbad led him to the greenhouse. Franco had been in there before to fetch pears or cucumbers for his mother, but only twice had he ever had to go to the cellar. And always, that was Annette’s thing. Sinbad was a human who shouldn’t have even thought about going down there without an escort. Let alone building his own reading room there.
“Does mum know about this?” Franco asked.
“She can’t erase memories or anything. I’ve been there,” he said. “Plus, most of what she uses the cellar for now is storing dildos.”
“Dad, what’s a dildo?”
They both turned to find Julian sitting on one of the steps down to the greenhouse. He had a sweet smile, even a confident one. Maybe he moved all the Parcheesi pieces to look like a true winner.
“Kiddo, it’s one of those things where you’d scream at me if I explained, and then throw up in disgust. It’s…it’s one of Annette’s things.”
“Can I go downstairs?”
“I’ll…eh, why not?” said Sinbad. “Fun is fun, and I’m already showing one of the other kids it.” He then turned towards Franco and lowered his voice. “Samira probably gets all this stuff as bedtime stories anyways. We can leave her on the swings.”
“All alone out there?” It took a while to dawn on Franco, and the afternoon was growing later and darker.
“Your mum will find her.”
They descended the cellar stairs. “I picked the lock to this place ages ago.” Sinbad punched his other palm. “Well, it was right before…uh…Franco, you can figure it out.”
“Trying to be nice to a kid for once?”
“I’m trying to change.”
It was a room at the end a long corridor, and a heavy door guarded it. Sinbad stood cross-armed and proud at his little nook. “I started to scout out free book grabs while you were away, so this place filled up fast.”
Although still having the bare stone walls of the foundation, the room was otherwise cozy and decorated. A Cambodian rug, two posters of Arabic calligraphy…mirrors? Not to mention seating and three bookshelves.
And best of all, a big furry toy reclined on the floor in the corner.
Sagebear must have raced down there before them. Somehow. The cellar door was closed, and the dog had no thumbs to even grasp the handle. But she had enough time to make herself comfortable. She sprawled her tan legs out and gave a small whimper.
Franco was about to ask if Sinbad had any books he might like for himself, but the dog was a more pressing issue. Especially as Sinbad just gave her a warm wave.
“Does she always do this?” Franco asked. “I knew something was up with that dog, but-”
“Knowing what I know, Sagebear is the least of anyone’s concerns,” said Sinbad. He whistled to the dog to rouse her off the floor. “Uncle Sinbad wants to see his little dog-baby too!”
He went over to scratch her behind her floppy ears. What a change. Sinbad almost never interacted with the pets while Franco was still a kid. He even once remarked how he wouldn’t touch a dog that was older than him. And the story of how he threatened to burn Shark’s cats sickened Franco for a while.
Outside the door, Franco found their human stowaway. Julian crouched down on the floor, with a sour look on his squishy, childish face.
“Uh, you can come in if you want,” Franco said. “It’s just Sagebear.”
“Mum’s gonna kill us for this,” said Julian.
He scowled. “Whenever daddy goes down here, he and Annette get into a huge fight. I don’t like those. I don’t wanna fight with mum for this.”
Julian offered two surprises. Annette was strict about something, and Julian saw her as enough of a mum to call Mum.
“Did you think that daddy was going to do something different?” Franco asked.
“They talk about building a ‘fun room’ down here, and dad said this would be fun. I thought it would be that.”
“I…doubt you’d like their kind of fun much.”
Franco came back to find Sinbad deep in his bookshelf. “So I kind of forget where it is.” He scratched his scruffy chin as he searched. “It’s been awhile since I picked it up. Something about going from my dad being a prick to his partner to my dad being…uh, how close is Julian right now?”
He shuddered. “I remember you talking about the first thing…a while ag.”
“Probably back when you were in high school. We were definitely on-and-off with reading it. Life gets in the way of reliving the past. For better…and usually for better.”
Sinbad then grabbed a red, hardcover journal. “Should’ve guessed that I put it at eye-level,” he said. “But if I skip past the nasty stuff, there are some accounts in here that might match yours.”
“Well, let’s just say that I think there’s a reason why your mum and my dad met and bonded.” He looked over his shoulder, to make sure that the door was closed. “Like a goddamn prophesy.”
“Does it get icky?” Franco asked. “I had enough with the weird rapey final projects some kids make at the college.”
“Not in the part we’re concerned with. And I don’t need to dig up my dad’s pains just to make you feel bad for him. I’m sure your mum and Shark made you feel that way already.”
They both took a seat on the floor. Sinbad was beaming when he opened the journal again. “I’ve been itching to show you this,” he said. “It might just be a part of your history.”
He flipped through. “So it was in 1997…wait, shit.” Sinbad’s face contorted into a puzzled look. The dates jumped from 1996 to 1999 in one page. And some loose, torn threads escaped from the binding. “Fine, there’s stuff in 2002.” Another skip. From getting a haircut in 2001 to moving to Beirut in 2003 and befriending a stray cat there. A corner of a torn-out page remained stuck inside, but it was blank. The torn threads were numerous, and there was a gap between the two pages. As if more than a year was ripped at once.
“Fine, this better work the third time. 2016…fuck the world, fuck this all-”
Sinbad’s eyes went wide. And Franco noticed even more damage in the book’s spine.
“Okay, this got censored,” said Sinbad. “No big deal, it’s just…I guess someone can’t handle the truth about her species.”
They got up. “There’s no other reason to keep you down here,” Sinbad said. “I thought I had a lot of answers that I just don’t because of some…you know how your mum can be about secrets.”
Sinbad groaned in disgust. He held his forehead in his palm and groaned further. “Aaauurggh. I thought I could be a cool stepdad for once and give you something no one else thought of, but…I failed. I really fucked up with both of you.”
Franco pouted. He had never seen Sinbad like that before. When he left for school, the man was a hard-ass. And even the “softer” Sinbad never said he was a fuck-up, at least not to Franco’s face.
“Well, there’s something you could help me with,” he said.
His brilliant green eyes lit up in an instant. “Is it that time already? Of course I’ll help you steal a ring for her.”
“No! I mean…you really thought I’d be jumping in like that?” Franco asked. The question was on the tip of his tongue. How do you love someone who hates herself? At least Hannah and Sinbad had backgrounds worth comparing.
“Are you kidding? You guys are everything I want to be…sometimes. Sometimes I just wanna be a poly slut like your mum.” Sinbad gave Franco a thumb-up, just to double his approval. “And you treat her baggage with so much respect. Wish everyone I knew did the same…your mum does a fine job.”
“Oh, if you say so,” Franco said. “I guess you’d know better than I do.”
Sinbad opened his arms, for a hug. “Come’ere, kid. I know I can’t be your real father, but it’s been great watching you grow up so…uh, you didn’t cook meth. Five points for that.”
Franco gave him a wide grin. “Well, you’re someone’s father.”
His stepfather’s hugs were a rare gift, so Franco cherished it. Even if he did fear crushing him too. And Sinbad could see through bullshit like it was hiding only in cling wrap. If Franco was having problems with accepting the ups and downs of his abused girlfriend, Sinbad would be the first to tell him.
“Now Julian, what did I tell you? It’s okay to lie to your mums sometimes. You can even lie to me.”
“That’s not what mum and mummy would say!”
Franco was about to exit with them, as soon as he put Harwood’s journal away. Sagebear dogged him around with every little step. And she curled up on his feet when he sat down again.
He felt a small mass towards the center of the book. It closed unevenly, and if nothing else, he wouldn’t want to put a book away in that condition. Whatever it was, it fell into his lap when he shook the pages. The piece of old, yellowed cardstock had two fading Polaroids taped to it.
“I wish she’d die. She’s a real cunt, like, in the American sense.” – Troy
Franco put it back in the book. It wasn’t old enough of a volume to fall apart with a couple of photos snuggled in the center.
The basement acted as a great barrier to smells. If it smelled like blood and violent sex, or like a corpse down there, no one could tell from above the ground. And if it smell like lasagna in the kitchen, no one reading books in the cellar would know.
Franco found a pan of lasagna in the dining room, and a stack of clean plates. He also found sweet little Samira, and one beaten-up-and-down Hannah.
“So all you have to do is get punched in the face, and you get a teddy bear?” Samira asked.
“Yeah, that’s about how it goes.”
“Sam, the adults need to talk,” said Franco. “And tell Hannah you’re sorry. It’s not cool to get punched in the face.”
“I just want a teddy too,” Samira said.
“Mum will buy you one if you ask,” said Franco. “But I would like to have dinner with Hannah.”
“I made sure to leave you plenty,” said Hannah.
He took a seat, with a modest slice on his plate. “I see that went poorly.”
“I know. But I hardly feel it,” Hannah said.
“What’s with the bear?”
She bit her lower lip in disappointment. “Consolation prize. It’s cute and stuff, but…I get that there’s nothing like what you go through-”
“Mum doesn’t punch me.”
“Fine…true…I miss when dad was able to scare some sense into her,” she said. “I dunno. Maybe I can get Sinbad to do it, but then I’d be scared for him…” She trailed off into a sigh. “But I guess even when I hate myself, you do the opposite.”
He stared off at the wall.
“Yeah, I sure do.”