There are four of us in total. Our host is preparing a meal as we wait in emotion-charged silence around a well-decorated, rectangular dining room table. Three candles burn in the middle of a golden tablecloth laid over it, placed in careful alignment with the gaudy chandelier suspended high above. There are three doorways within the dining hall. One leads to the kitchen, the other to the lounge. The third door is closed shut and I find myself puzzling over where it leads. The walls are thickly armored with avid displays of artful paintings. I am particularly struck by the one of a well-dressed, old woman sitting on a red, cushioned sofa, smiling. There is something about her which draws me. Her lovely attire, or perhaps the warmth in her smile.
Staring at the paintings reminds me of my mother, who used to paint for a profit in her life. She died in a car accident when I was six years old. I was there. My father, the driver, survived, and so did I. My father did not cope well with her death and turned to drugs for coping. He eventually got arrested for drug-possession and child-neglect when I was nine, and I've been in a foster home since then. My life hasn't been easy, but there has been a consistent pillar which has kept me adrift through all of the experiences it dumped on me. This pillar comes in the form of our host and my personal hero, Amoray.
I've known Amoray since I was ten. She funded the foster home that used to be my dwelling and used to visit the kids there several times a week, making sure that all of us received proper treatment and provisions. Her visits brightened up my entire existence, and on the days that she neglected to show up, I would hold my breath and trust that she would return. She always did. As the days and weeks and months and years stretched out, so did her visits. That was until the shelter burned down and took nineteen others with it. There were only three teenage survivors, including myself.
I won't lie, that was an experience straight from hell. I was outside when it all began. I remember hearing a loud, booming noise. I hurried inside to a horrid sight of Mario and Viv, now dead, engulfed in combustive flames. The rugs on the floor and the furniture all around were alight, too. My attempts to quench the uncontrollable flames were met with resistant cackles, my desperation to save lives swallowed up by the scorching heat and suffocating smoke. If I persisted upon becoming a hero that night, my body would have also turned into ash among the pile of rubble.
The memory of the two screaming teenagers and the stench of burning flesh has stuck with me since that catastrophic night, the night when I witnessed my only real home crumbling to ruins before my very eyes.
My train of thought is interrupted by firm footsteps from the kitchen. "Celeste," Our host's hoarse voice calls out from the kitchen entrance. "Will you please come through and give me a hand? The food is ready."
My eyes land on the girl on my right. Celeste is pretty, but strange. We're the same age, but she's been in foster care for much longer than I've been. She always keeps to herself and hardly shows any emotion. Truth be told, the only time that I have ever spent any time with the girl was on the day of the fire. She was inside when it erupted and barely escaped with her life. The girl, just seventeen of age, has sustained a pretty nasty burn along the length of her neck, torso, arms and back. It took her two months to recover in hospital, but the tale tell scars are clearly visible underneath the clothes that she tries to use as tools of concealment. The dark girl with the pallid skin and the inky black hair, whose gaze was also lost in one of the framed works of art around us, looks up with a look that suggests that the place she visited was far, far away.
I am curious as to where the art took her as she mumbles her consent and follows Amoray into the kitchen.
At least the fire did not catch her face and hair. Those are still pretty, at least.
Don is sitting at my right. He's big and has a reputation for being aggressive. A deep scar runs across his right cheek. He used to have very long hair which was, unfortunately for him, consumed by the ravenous flames. The damage is not too bad, but he's bald now, and not very happy about it. In my private opinion, he ought to be grateful.
Don and I do not get along. We have gotten into many physical fights. His bulky body and uncompromising nature have always intimidated me, but I've never showed it. I usually reacted to his aggressive ways with more aggression. I fought back every single time. I've gotten my nose broken and my shoulder dislocated because of it, but he got a couple of nice, flashy bruises and a few delightful limps from my retorts. I was always strategic in our fights, making sure to consistently target his left shin to get him off my back. There was no way in hell I was going to turn into some bully's punching bag. I've experienced enough of that from my estranged father after my mother's untimely departure.
"Whose to say it was untimely?" Amoray once pointed out with a careful, calm voice during one of her visits at the foster home. "There's a time for everything, dear one. We all ultimately have to die one day, in one way or another."
If those words had come from anyone else's mouth, I would have been brutally offended, perhaps even violent. However, Amoray's words instilled a sense of fleeting comfort within me. I could understand that the occurrence was not meant to be personal. It was the law of nature for everything to eventually die, or transcend, or morph into something else. Nothing is everlasting, and that includes my mother. We all die in a manner that we are destined to, regardless of what, or who, we leave behind. I get it, but I still hate it. It's unfair. Where does Amoray's so-called God get off bringing us here only to have us suffer like this? Where's my happy childhood, my loving relationships, my mental sanity?
Screw life. I don't wanna live it anymore.
As though to veer my train of thought off track, the elegantly tall woman walks into the dining room holding two trays. Celeste follows right behind with the same, an impassive expression on her face. She reminds me so much of that one wolf girl in a series whose title I can't recall.
Don clears his throat and shifts uncomfortably. I think he's a little threatened by our host. Amoray is kind and understanding, but can be super firm and unflinching in her assertiveness when she needs to be. She's a leader of a church, you see. To be a leader, you need that skill. You need it in order to put people like Don and myself in their place. It works for me because I've never actually gone out to harm anybody, whereas Don has actively sought out to pick on me. I never understood what his problem with me is.
Anyway, despite our attempts to conceal our riff, Amoray appears to always pick it up. All she usually gives me is a rebuke which mentions something about refraining from fighting fire with fire. I don't get that. Am I just supposed to be a doormat?
Amoray is dressed in modest, casual clothes under a frilly apron. I'm used to seeing her in formal clothes and it feels strange to see her in a simple t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. I guess it makes sense, since this is her home. Her golden face carries a lot of discernment, and the shallow, almost imperceptible creases on her forehead give away her age a bit, otherwise to me, she looks a decade younger than forty, her actual age. Thick eyebrows arch beautifully over her dark brown eyes, always alight with wisdom and insight. When we make eye-contact, I feel like she sees right through me. I feel naked, but in a good way, because there is not the thinnest strand of judgement in her gaze. Just... love and acceptance.
The two females sit at their allocated seats once the dishes have been set down. A fresh plate of hot spaghetti bolognaise stares up at me, and my stomach growls audibly. The last time I checked the time, about half an hour past, it was 2:54 pm. I haven't eaten since 6am. I'm famished and I fight the urge to immediately dig in, just to be polite.
"I just had to fix a quick meal for you," Amoray begins with a smile on her face. Early in the morning, she gave all three of us a phone call to invite us to her home. After the fire, Amoray kindly arranged that we live in one house of hers which was conveniently unoccupied at the time. A three bedroom house with a kitchen, two bathrooms and a lounging area. It is small enough that the three of us regularly clash, but big enough that we can peacefully keep to our own private spaces if need be. We never really spend time together. We're the same old strangers, only this time, we're occupying a different house. But for the daily chores allocated to me, I usually just binge-watch a shitload of series and read comics.
"Thank you for the food," Don speaks for the first time in a while. He and I have a tendency of ignoring each other to the point of not even making eye contact. This time, however, against my default preference, I look at him. To my dismay, my gaze lands straight into his, and before the count of three, I look away. I don't really want to stare long enough to see what lies beneath those dark, beady eyes. Knowing that the boy hates me is enough. Digging up the depth of his hatred is pushing it. So I don't look into his eyes for long. Instead, I fix my gaze on Amoray. "When do we get to dig in?"
She's sitting across from me, and I revel at how easy it is to make eye-contact with her instead. "Since you're in such a hurry, why don't you say grace for us, then?"
I so badly want to say no, but I don't. Instead, a half-hearted mumble of thanks escapes my lips and a few seconds later, we're all eating. The food tastes amazing.
Amoray begins to speak.
"I'll get down to why I called you three here," she says after setting her fork down and folding her arms over the edge of the table. She's obviously not as famished as I am. "I have a story that I would like to share with you."
She alternates meaningful eye-contact between all three of us. "As a little girl, I used to get beaten a lot. For minor things, for major things, for all things really. I simply could never get it right, no matter how hard I tried. I had two other siblings, but for some reason, I was the only one my mother mistreated. My father saw what was happening and stepped in at times, until he didn't. My two sisters eventually teamed up against me because of that. We all went to school and back home together, but at both places, I was never treated like I belong. We went out as a family sometimes. It was in public that I got a bit of relief, because mama never really showed any preferences then. Under the glare of the eyes of many strangers, I stopped being a scapegoat.
"Fast-forward to my late teens, and I was an expect chameleon. I lived to please others and did not know why. I kept to myself a lot. I didn't speak to anyone unless I had to, and I was highly suicidal. I ended up in hospital twice from attempting to take my own life, and despite being notified each time, none of my family members visited me during my hospital stays. When I returned home after my second attempt, receiving no special acknowledgment whatsoever, I packed a few clothes and ran away, never to return again.
"The commencement of the second decade of my life was hellish. I bounced from place to place, from one kind stranger to another. Thank God I didn't end up in the streets, but that did not mean I stopped attracting dogmatic authority figures into my care. The kind strangers always revealed darker intentions with time.
My mother never reached out. I had no friends. I was alone in the world and no one came through to save me.
In my late twenties, I got into prostitution and fell pregnant. But it wasn't a paying customer's child. It was the child of a pimp who got under the roof he granted me for the exchange of my then-defiled body and raped me, the child that he later drowned in dirty bath water because I was making him lose his money. Nevermind that I was healing from a very complicated birth process. My daughter's name was Dayhila and she was only ten days old when her life was taken.
At twenty nine years, I was a crackhead and lived for nothing else but crack. I had no one and I had nothing."
Amoray stops speaking. The room is dead silent but for a few hesitant sounds of fork against plate.
Why the hell is Amoray telling us this story?
"I know that you look and me and think that I have a good life filled with great relationships and monetary comfort, but you need to know that I was once where you are. I was in a dark place out of which I never conceived to escape. The only difference between you three and my teenage self is that I didn't have anyone to make sure I was well taken care of. You do. I've always been there, since you were just children."
The silence stretches out as Amoray pointedly stares at us. "In the last few months since the fire, I haven't stopped visiting you and being that consistent guideline to how you should treat each other, but I am displeased by how you three have been wasting your opportunities to grow and become better people. I am utterly displeased and I don't think that in the future, I'll be so willing to keep you under my care if you carry on the way that you are. You are not little children anymore.
"Your current actions and behaviors make up your future. I'm willing to help you create those futures. I am and have been here as an example to follow. Follow that example starting today. The time has come for you to build your own relationships and stop clinging onto me as though I am the only human being that exists within your midst. You are roommates. You live under one roof. You have been brought together for a reason. Start getting along and while you're at it, consider carefully just how fortunate you are."
She pauses, then as if to lighten the heaviness of her previous statements, she adds softly. "Only when you begin doing that will your lives truly begin. Love one another, for God's sake. Just as I've loved you."
Suddenly, as if by some realization, I know who the old lady in the painting is. She's the lady who got Amoray out of her pit of hell. Through Amoray, she saved us, too.
Celeste, Don and are still silent, totally abashed, by the speech just dished out to us. We give each other wary looks, and say nothing still.
Amoray's story has kind of changed my perspective, and as I look at the two roommates on either side of me that I barely even know, deep, deep within the core of me, I begin to feel an openness towards them. An openness which will perhaps one day lead to the things I long for.
Opportunities to make long, solid relationships are right in front of me on a daily basis, and yet, here I am, holding on to the bitter past and worrying about all the things I don't have.
I realize now what Amoray is trying to say. I think we all do. She's telling us that if we follow her ways, then we're opening ourselves up to opportunities that will enlighten our lives and usher in all the good that is clearly evident in her own life. That we won't be doing anyone else but ourselves a favor by listening to the advice that she has to offer.
It really does change my perspective, to know that my life-long suffering was perhaps not in vain, and that I, too, stand a chance to get out of my hole if I choose to listen to my wise host.
I'll sure be returning to her for advice, that's a given.
As we prepare to leave, Celeste says the closing prayer.