“Why don’t you spend the day with uncle Seng?”
In the days and weeks following Sinbad’s death, that was what Samira’s mum told her. He returned from Bridgeport and had a job to do. How great for Samira, though! She trotted off to tag alongside him with glee, and often drag Julian with her. He’d take the kids to school and make sure they were entertained afterwards.
It was early in that setup, one February 20th. It started like any other Thursday. Samira, once school let out, knew to meet Seng at City Hall. Julian ended up meeting his mum. For Seng that day, it was just prep work for a trial that following week, but he still got out during the winter sunset. That still didn’t phase Samira much, as she prepared one big snowball to throw at her cousin Nicky’s face.
“Saaa-aam! We gotta get you home,” Seng called out.
“But it’s not even dark!” She called back.
“I know it’s not, but I have something very important to do in the capital.”
He chuckled. “Alright, you little peanut. Youa had a baby on Sunday and finally I get to visit. So I should get you home first.”
“I wanna come too.”
She looked up at him, with her darling grey eyes. “Home’s been really weird…you’re not.”
“Well, there’s a reason for all of that.”
“Can I go, uncle Seng? Can I?”
“Okay, you can come along, but you gotta be on your best behavior,” said Seng, raising a finger at her. “Youa and Benji are really exhausted from this, and you have to be careful with babies.”
“I will be!” But she said yes just to ride in the front seat of Seng’s Cadillac. No one else let her do that. It made for such a better view out the window, and she would get to have control of the radio! It was worth it for dealing with Benji, whom her older brother loved to complain about. He was a mean young man a smug face and a nasal, grating voice. Or so Franco told her. Samira didn’t remember much of Benji at all.
They arrived at the complex. Samira asked a ton of questions on the way up to Youa’s floor. “Why don’t they have two floors?” “Why does this place smell so much?” “Does the dad really put his penis in there to make a baby?”
The answers from Seng: spending money on school instead, a gas leak, and “shit, my parents wouldn’t tell me that ‘til I was 13.”
Youa and Benji lived on the ninth floor of their building, and Seng walked her into their flat. The whole thing, excluding the bathroom, was about the size of the Waverlys’ living room. It wasn’t much bigger than Samira’s bedroom. And it marveled her how they could fit a kitchen, a dilapidated telly, and supplies for a baby in such a space.
The baby woke up and Benji bent down to scoop her up. Little Mari Tshiab Kindle, who looked more akin to a toy from Samira’s vantage point. She had a generic baby’s face and tanned skin like her parents. But Benji seemed enamored with her, and snuggled Mari close to his chest.
“She’s just the perfect baby,” Benji said to Seng. “No offense to this purple muffin, but my sister and I used to watch her all the time and she was…interesting.”
Samira plopped herself on the couch and started looking for the remote. Seng started gushing and cooing at his new little niece.
“Hi there little one. I’m your uncle, your dab laug. And you’re just so cute! So much better than your cousins.”
“Are Dia’s kids really that bad?”
“I’m just sorry for them most of the time. You lucked out, you little mung bean.”
Benji looked at Samira, as she crammed her hand between the cushions. “You have to use the dials on the telly,” he said. “And it’s only basic cable. And keep it down for Youa, m’kay?”
“Okay.” She walked up to the TV and switched on Channel 8. Volume went below 10 out of 50. It was one of the local ones for Falls Harbor, and broadcasted college basketball! All the local station in Twinbrook had were religious propaganda and adverts. They wouldn’t have been able to afford a Div. 3 basketball game.
Terrebonne State’s Fightin’ Herons led Our Lady of Knock’s Peaceful Irish by six points. Mari lay cradled in her dad’s arm in a blissful, listless rest.
“…I mean, I’m just a criminal lawyer. I dunno if I can help you with a birth certificate…shouldn’t you have one?”
“It’s more difficult for home births.”
“But I was one-”
“No midwife, no birth certificate. You really think we can afford a midwife? I…for fuck’s sake, you could make Annette less despicable and ask her what she did. Her kids were born alone in a tub…”
Oh, that was nice to hear. And the Fightin’ Herons got a penalty shot.
It was hard to concentrate on basketball with the volume kept down. And it was hard to peek into Seng and Benji’s conversation as they kept it low for Youa too. But sometimes, the refs had to break and make a call.
“…like, my mums chose a donor based off how ambiguously-brown he looked. Of course the Hmong in her takes center-stage, what else would…”
It was funny when they cut to the mascots.
“…uh, I’m gonna have a tough night if I don’t ask what’s up with her.”
“I wish I knew too.”
Oh shoot, three seconds left for the Herons!
“…like, some of it might just be cramping. It happened to my sister and…I can’t do it. It hurts seeing her like this. She always hugs my pain away and…I can’t!”
“And I don’t want to lose someone like her this way again.”
Benji gave a slow, pained looked to Samira. “Oh…how are my Herons doing?”
“Bummer. You mind sitting tight for a bit? Your uncle Seng and I need to talk like adults outside.”
It got boring fast, when she couldn’t eavesdrop and snoop. Halftime commercials played, and they were all crappy local ones. Youa moaned in pain, trying to muffle it with her pillow. Mari…what was that little thing doing? She fussed a bit, all alone in her cot, but that was it.
Samira lowered the crib’s rail and leaned over to get a better look. Mari did not do much. For a moment, she seemed to look Samira in the eye. Hers were big, a lot like her dad’s! And brown, like her mum’s.
“Benji and uncle Seng are being boring adults, and you’re just laying there with nobody!” said Samira. “You don’t even have commercials to watch.”
She lowered her eyelids and smirked. “But you have Samira. Or you will, once I…”
Samira then remembered that she had never held a baby.
“Uh…” She tried scooping Mari up with one hand, but she flopped and wasn’t rigid at all. Plus, she was heavier than, say, a fabric or plastic baby doll. She weighed almost as much as the sacks of flour that mum bought, but with such an awkward shape. She had limbs and a head she couldn’t keep up on her own. She started to cry with Samira’s mishandling.
“Uh…how did Benji do it?”
Maybe it had to do with supporting her head and legs.
With two arms, Samira had Mari in a more secure hold. She lolled around, and her delicate baby fingers were curled into a ball. She closed her eyes and started to cry a little more.
“Hey, don’t cry! Your dad’s only in the hall…or something,” said Samira. “Do you need to be fed? Mum says that I need boobs for that first. Sorry Mari.”
The fussing turned out to be little more than just some aimless whimpering. Samira’s arms grew tired of holding Mari, though. She was a heavy seven pounds for a young girl to hold, no matter how much cuter her face got with each moment.
So she took a seat on the floor and propped Mari up. Samira still put a supportive hand to the back of her neck and head.
“There, all better,” she said. The little wisps of infant hair tickled Samira’s fingers. And she smelled so good, like fresh linen and only a little bit of poop. “No wonder your daddy likes you…wonder why he called me interesting.”
“…I’m just hoping you can break this in her. But…I mean, I wish brothers could do everything for their sisters. I don’t want this to fail miserably like it did for me-”
Ah, right through the wall.
“How about I talk to her, and you take Mari and Samira off for…I dunno. Whatever you can do with kids in the city at 8 at night.”
“With a newborn?! I am not doing that to my…ugh. Yeah, I guess it’s just gonna happen next week when they want me back as an intern. First suggestion out of Rita’s mouth was ‘bring your baby to work!’ I guess she did it some years back. You have to spot me for this. We’re broke.”
The door opened.
Benji crouched down in front of Samira, right as she started to try and lift Mari close to her.
“She really likes you,” he said. “…I’m glad.”
“Pretty good for my first baby held ever, right?” Samira grinned as she said it.
“What do you like the most about her?” Benji asked. It was like all of Franco’s complaints about him melted away. He was kind and his voice wasn’t nasal or grating at all! “I haven’t been able to answer that for myself.”
“She’s like a moving doll! And I don’t really know anyone younger than me. All I see are adults.”
“So why not leave most of these boring adults behind, and we’ll get some ice cream? I just have to get dressed and feed this little thing first.”
“But you don’t have boobs!”
He laughed. It was the kind of laugh where he sounded like he had to hack up phlegm at the same time. “Oh kid…you just don’t change. But this is all up to you.”
She looked over at Seng and Youa. He sat at the edge of the bed with her.
“…I dunno, man. It’s like there’s a huge chunk of my mind missing.”
“Can we go to…uh…that place my mum gets her special ice cream at?” Samira asked.
“Define…okay, what is special about it?” Benji asked back.
“It’s yellow and smells funny!”
“Oh god…I don’t think I can eat that flavor again…yeah, I love Sunday Splits.”
That was the night that Samira first learned about infant formula. Mari didn’t drink much at a time, just a couple of ounces. And Benji got himself ready in flash, tying his wavy hair back in a clean bun and throwing on a scratchy blue sweater. He got a twenty dollar bill from Seng, and a promise to beg Annette for something to keep them afloat.
With a backup of baby supplies on, he led Samira down to the street below.
It started snowing while they were inside the flat. Big flakes flittered and fell to the ground. Skyscrapers rose up into the night sky. Annette never took Samira to the city at night. Sometimes she would take her while she got special ingredients and more-special ice cream. But they would always get back to Twinbrook by sunset.
She took a big whiff of the cold winter air. “You get to see this all the time?!”
“One perk of living on the ninth floor here,” said Benji. “Of all the nights to introduce my baby to the world.” He ended up stuffing Mari inside his sweater and holding her to his chest, to keep her protected. A bit of her face stuck out of his neckhole so she could breathe.
It was warmer inside Sunday Splits. There was more than enough money for Samira to get a big cone of black cherry ice cream. It was her favorite whenever Annette took her there, as durian weirded her out. And her mum’s real favorite of pear was too bland.
Benji splurged on a medium coffee for himself, taken as strong as they could make it. He set up the collapsible carrier and lay Mari down on the cushion.
“You’re not even getting ice cream?” Samira asked, before taking her first big lick of her cone. “Why would you go to Sunday Splits and not get ice cream?”
“It’s more important to stay awake, and I never get any coffee for home these days,” said Benji. “But I take it you like it here.”
“Yeah, mum always…I forgot sprinkles?!” And she paid for sprinkles! Samira trotted off to the counter, balancing her ice cream all the way.
It was not a huge shop, though, and anything happening at that corner table was within earshot.
“So you think you can do that to my kid, huh?”
Benji gave a suspicious smirk to a blond woman. She was otherwise unremarkable, but saw Mari dozing in her carrier and immediately picked her up.
“Is it a boy or a girl? They’re one cute little angel,” she said.
Samira got back to the table as the fight started to erupt. She had a mouth full of ice cream. Benji snatched his daughter back, cradling her with one arm while wildly gesticulating with the other.
“I just thought it needed some love-”
“You wouldn’t know loving her if it kicked you in the cunt!”
The blond woman scampered off, even though she had a cup of ice cream at the counter. Benji was hyperventilating.
“Oh darling, it was just one person,” he said, bringing Mari up for a close snuggle. “Dad’s here.”
“Are you allowed to say that? My mum hated it when Sinbad used that word,” said Samira. She finished her ice cream, cone and all, before taking a seat. “She says she got called it all the time as a girl.”
“I…well, I shouldn’t say it around either of you. Not like Mari will remember this, but one day she’ll be talking and repeating everyone she hears,” he said.
“She looked like she was gonna pee her pants!” Samira said, in a chirpy tone.
“Father’s have to take a lot for their kids. Never thought I’d do that so fast,” he said, adding a small chuckle at the end. “But…well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I gained some respect for your dad after he took a shot for you.”
“My mum tells me that story all the time.”
“Is that bad?”
“No, I think it’s cool,” she said. Her face melted into a warm, stupid smile as she thought of her dad, or whatever memories remained. “He did it to save my brother and I!”
“Hey, it was a great thing,” Benji said. “It’s just a shame it eventually killed him.”
Samira’s face went cold.
She then tried to warm up, with an unsure pout. “Wait, but…I mean…how did he die?”
Benji’s whole face was warm and flushed and contorted with shame. “I…shouldn’t have said this. You’re too young…I mean…it’s just a difficult thing to say to you.”
He put his fingers together and forced out a wide smile. “Listen, Sam. Sometimes…well…sometimes people are in so much pain, that nothing can help them. If they have a choice to die, sad as it is, they take it. And your father made that choice.”
“Mum always told me that I was all he lived for…I wasn’t enough?”
“Uh…Sam, you oughta bring this up with someone else. Your mum should’ve told you. I’m just a kid trying to raise my own kid.”
She bit down and picked at the back of her head, at the stem of her twin braids.
“I guess…thanks for not lying.”
“I’m…I can’t do it.”
“I…uh, did he talk about working out something better with your professors?”
“We’re also out of rice.”
They got home to pick up Seng. Samira couldn’t hide her moody face from him.
“Did everything go okay?” he asked her.
“I…he made me think about stuff,” said Samira.
It was late by the time the two of them arrived home, so Samira changed into her pajamas as soon as she could. Annette folded up a fresh set in her top drawer while she was away. Combined with fleecy dog slippers, Samira was ready to sleep through a cold February night.
Her cozy purple bedroom had a lot of childish knick-knacks decorating it. Toys, drawings, a dog lamp, and a Cookie Cat poster near the door. But on top of her dresser was also a plain brown picture frame. And inside was one photo of her and her dad.
Of course, she didn’t remember that day as an infant. She didn’t remember much of Bill at all. It amounted to one day when he chuckled at her grabbing at Franco’s cheeks. She couldn’t even remember why she did that, but maybe that made her an “interesting child” to him too.
“You must have been cool back then,” she said to the photo. Samira’s face lit up like Bill’s did in the picture. All gooey over his baby girl.
“What did you think of me?” she asked it. “Did you always think I was funny?”
Samira then wanted to cry into her sleeve.
“So what did I do wrong?”
A/N: I probably should have made this note earlier, but Hmong is a beautiful language that has a less-than-beautiful romanization.
So, Hmong is very tone-based, and any consonants on the end of words in the Hmong RPA are to indicate tone. So “tshiab” doesn’t have a b-sound at all. The b indicates a high tone, but I doubt most Americans reading her full name out give a damn about tone. 😛 Here’s a handy reference table.
Though it should be pretty obvious that Seng and Youa’s names are not written in that system. A lot of Hmong names have a more English-friendly spelling. Because “Thao” is a lot less intimidating than “Thoj”.
It also makes for a double-meaning! It’s a legit name but it also means “new”. While it means that it’s a pointless middle name the moment Mari gains a younger sibling, but when I have a new PoV and a lot of changes for everyone, this chapter title remains relevant. 😉
“Dab laug” is “uncle”, but specifically for your mother’s brother. Father’s brothers have different terms depending on if they’re older or not.
And for anyone asking why Benji’s a lot nicer, think less about bad intentions and more “gee, we’ve mostly seen him through Franco’s biased PoV.” Plus, I think he’s 100% sincere about his loves and fears. While Samira is rather close to Franco, it’s hard to be mad at her sweet purple face.
I was worried about switching over to Samira’s PoV, but I hope for it to be a semi-regular thing. I wasn’t planning on it at first, but Samira fit all my strict requirements for who can get a PoV chapter, and it was becoming less and less justifiable to not include her.
Oh! And while I usually do everything to control what happens in my shots, that woman picking up Mari was out of my control. It helped because I wanted something a little combative in that scene.