Here’s what I managed to do by the time Saturday afternoon rolled around:
- Make breakfast.
- Do the laundry.
- Get the twins to clean their room and, since we shared the other bedroom, get Ziggy to clear out the heaps of toys, clothes and comic books surrounding the bottom half of our bunk bed.
- Make lunch.
- Clean the bathroom.
- Make a tossed salad to go with the pizza, because I was not about to let the boys pig out on piles of grease without something healthy to make up for of it.
On the other hand, I also managed to:
- Burn the toast so Daniel had to go out and buy another loaf.
- Put too much laundry soap in the washing machine so that the suds spilled out like a flood of frothy whipped cream.
- Get into a shouting match with Dante over whose standards of cleanliness would prevail, although to be fair, this sort of incident was fairly normal.
- Accidentally put shampoo instead of liquid detergent into the cleaning solution, giving our bathroom floor extra volume and shine, as well as a fruity fresh fragrance.
- Make a mess all over my own top bunk where I piled up almost every bit of clothing I had, searching for an outfit worthy of being worn on a date—or at least of being worn by someone claiming to be female—while at the same time giving no indication that I was going on a date or anything, just an ordinary night out with a friend, you know.
Honestly, the only time I could remember feeling this kind of restless energy was when I was a kid waiting for Mama to come home for Christmas. This, though, was a great deal more confusing. On one hand, I was dreamy and distracted, floating the hours away on a rosy cloud with thoughts of Markus keeping me constant company. On the other hand, I was also gut-churningly anxious, fending off a swarm of what-ifs—what if he changed his mind, what if this was a mistake, what if we ended up disappointing each other and making things awkward between us forever. On the other other hand, anticipation and excitement sent my mind into tailspins, and I often found myself pausing to touch my lips or clasp my hand to my chest, chasing the memory of Markus’ touch—to the detriment of whatever it was I was doing at the time. On the other other other hand, I was wracked with guilt and fear, unable to shake off the barbed thought that I was taking advantage of Markus somehow. He was my little brother in all but blood and name, no matter what he said. I should be taking care of him, not manipulating him into satisfying my own prurient curiosity. The idea that was I using him left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I also knew that if people found out what we were up to, this was exactly how they’d interpret things.
Which was why I hadn’t told anyone about Markus asking me out on a date. Instead, I told Dad that I was going to Abby’s house that night to help her sort through our photos of high school that we’d contribute to the yearbook and the exhibit during the graduation ball. And Markus, who would just so happen to be hanging out at home at the time, would pretend to bring me to Abby’s house or something. I’d texted Markus about it and he responded with an ok, which I took to mean that he was on board with the whole “let’s keep our sordid affair under wraps” plan. I admit, though, that as cover stories went, this one was so questionable it was just sad—I had never stayed at anyone else’s house until late for one, not even when there was a project more important than sorting photos. Fortunately, Dad had been too busy watching basketball on TV in the den to notice how flimsy my excuse was, and since his only response was to nod and tell me to fetch him a beer, I figured I was in the clear.
Fooling my brothers had been a little bit more difficult, especially since they’d already been speculating over what bizarre impulse had led Markus to hand over to Dante enough money to pay for our family’s pizza dinner that night.
“It’s not even his birthday, you know?” Dante had said as they pondered over the wad of cash sitting in a napkin holder on the kitchen counter. “I’m telling you, that guy’s been acting downright weird all week. Maybe something’s happened with his family again.”
“Maybe it’s a girl. It’s usually a girl, with Kuya Markus,” Ziggy piped up.
“Nah, can’t be. He’s already given all the girls he’d gone out with before the clean sweep. He hasn’t met anyone new, so who else is left?”
“I think Zig’s right,” Daniel spoke up.
“I am?” Zig said, brightening.
“It’s a girl, definitely,” Daniel went on in a thoughtful tone. “And this time, I think he’s finally gotten serious. Hey, Ate, what do you think?”
I dropped the basket of dirty laundry I was carrying, then tripped over it. Instead of answering Daniel directly, I just scowled at them as I righted the basket and picked up the scattered clothes, hoping the strands of hair straggling out of my bun hid the worst of my blush. “What I think is, you three have better things to do than stand around gossiping about people behind their backs. Go bring your dirty clothes to the laundry area and sort them already.”
Dante grinned. “What? But that’s your job, woman.”
I straightened and fixed them the Glare of Doom. “Bring your dirty clothes down and sort them, master, or I will personally turn every white article of clothing you own baby pink.”
That got them moving, albeit with much shuffling of feet and grumbling of “jeez, you don’t have to go that far,” while I heaved a sigh of relief. I didn’t know how my brothers would respond to the idea of their best bud dating their unappealing, tyrannical older sister, but I was willing to bet it wouldn’t be pretty.
By a quarter to seven, I was dressed up in my favorite pair of jeans, a pair of sandals, and a white, off-the-shoulder top with the words “Parental Advisory: Explicit Contents” printed on the front. I left my hair hanging loose past my shoulders, swearing to get the limp, brown locks trimmed and styled as soon as possible. I’d also dug through the boxes of unused lipsticks and makeup Mama had bought for me over the years in the hope that I’d transform into a radiant butterfly of pure girly-girlhood someday, but since I didn’t have a clue about putting on makeup—and since any amount of makeup would look suspicious given that I was only supposed to be going to my friend’s house—all I could manage was some rose-tinted lipstick. And even that much looked entirely outlandish on my plain face. I grimaced at the bathroom mirror and washed the lipstick off, then brushed my teeth again to remove the lipstick I’d smeared on my teeth. I finally settled for strawberry lip gloss and a level of oral hygiene that would make a dentist weep with joy. I wanted to make kissing me as pleasant as possible for Markus, after all, so as to encourage him to repeat the act, if he was so inclined.
And I hoped oh so much that he would be so inclined.
By ten minutes past seven, everything was ready. The tossed salad was waiting in its bowl in the fridge, as were the bottles of soda and ice cubes. Dad was ensconced in front of the TV with a beer and a bowl of pork rinds in hand, and only a major earthquake or a fire would remove him from his spot. The computer was already on and running in its place of honor in the living room, ready in case Mama Skyped in—that is, if she could somehow get through with Ziggy playing Dota 2 on it.
The doorbell rang at exactly seven-thirty, causing my heart to nearly burst out of my ribcage. But instead of Markus, what filed in was another complication, this time in the form of Arianne and Shelly, who came in with more brownies and apparently every intention to spend the night. As it turned out, the twins had invited the girls over for pizza—I supposed two 18-inch pizzas were more than enough to feed the entire Demolition Crew plus Dad and me—and the girls had decided to make a slumber party of it. The sight of Arianne made my stomach churn some more. I’d completely forgotten about her crush on Markus. The thought of how hurt she’d be if she found out that the big sister she trusted was making a move on the boy she liked added another layer of guilt, and I knew telling her that it was all just some kind of experiment for Markus and me, with no tender feelings involved on either side, would only make things worse. It made me even more determined to keep our deal a secret.
Twenty minutes past eight, and still no sign of Markus anywhere. Dante dismissed the worries Arianne had hesitantly voiced out loud, saying that his buddy had probably just been distracted by some hot girl he met along the way, and earning glares from both Daniel and Shelly for his trouble. While Shelly and Dante traded words over his lack of delicacy, Daniel laid a comforting hand on Arianne’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, he’ll turn up soon,” he said, then just when I was beginning to think that at least one twin had gotten the sensitivity gene, added: “He paid for the pizza after all. He won’t miss this for anything.”
At this point, I decided to step in. “Listen up, everyone, let’s just go ahead and order the pizza, okay? Dad’s getting hungry and Markus can catch up later.”
While Shelly and Dante traded words over what kind of pizzas to order, Arianne crept over to me on the pretext of arranging her brownies on a platter. “Ate, what do you think is taking him so long?”
“I don’t know, but you can grill him later when he arrives. Besides, it hasn’t been all that long,” I replied bracingly, praying she wouldn’t notice the way my hands were shaking. Honestly, Markus? You’re going to flake out on me now? I fumed.
“You’re right. He has been late before,” Arianne said with a sigh. Then she looked over at me. “Um, aren’t you running late yourself? You’re going to your friend’s house, aren’t you?”
Before I could choke out some lame excuse for lingering at home, Shelly came running into the kitchen, her phone in her hand and a look of alarm on her face, with my brothers at her heels. “There’s trouble,” she announced breathlessly. “I’ve got Jessie on the phone, and she says her sister saw Markus in the supermarket parking lot a while ago with a bunch of guys, and it looked like they were picking a fight with him. One of them was pushing him around when Jessie’s sister and her mom left the parking lot.”
Arianne gasped, while Dante and Daniel exchanged grim looks. “It’s gotta be that thin-faced douche. He and his buddies have been tailing Markus for days now.” Daniel slammed a hand against the kitchen counter. “I knew that Jenalyn chick was no good.”
Dante cracked his knuckles. “Come on, it’s time we set those assholes straight.”
“Awww yeah!” Ziggy bellowed, looking altogether too eager at the prospect of a fight.
At my command, my brothers halted in the middle of storming out of the house like a miniature barbarian horde. “What’re you idiots gonna do, go racing around town looking for him?” While my brothers sputtered out protests, I shoved aside my own fear and turned back to Shelly. “What time did Jessie’s sister see him? And Zig, hand me the phone.”
Shelly told me, and I spent a few minutes calling Markus’ house, then the local barangay and police station, then the emergency room of the nearest hospital, to confirm that Markus wasn’t there. The relief at learning that he wasn’t locked up in jail or laid up on some gurney bleeding from a stab wound turned my knees into jelly. Finally, I put the phone down, stuffed my phone, my wallet and a first-aid kit into a tote bag, then went out to the laundry area and came back with a lead pipe.
My brothers gaped at the pipe in my hand. “Ate, are you planning to kill someone?” Dante wanted to know.
I might, if I ever meet those guys who hurt Markus. My brothers’ eyes widened as they read the thought in my eyes, then nodded in understanding. “Let’s go,” I said. “I think I know where he is.”
“I’m coming, too.”
I speared Ziggy with a look, pinning him in place. “No, you’re not. You’re staying here. You and the girls pay for the pizza, and don’t tell Dad where we went. And if Markus shows up here, give us a call.”
“Ate Sienna…” I glanced back at Arianne, who gave me a tremulous smile. “We’ll save you guys some pizza, okay?”
“You better! We’re gonna be hungry when we come back,” Dante hollered over his shoulder.
“You said you know where he is?” Daniel asked as I flagged down a taxi.
I shrugged. “He’s not at his house, and he’s not at ours. Where else would he run to if he’s in any kind of trouble?” And to the taxi driver: “To the high school, please.”
I change my mind, Markus, I thought as I watched the lights stream past through the window. You can forget about our date and flake out on me all you want, just please, please be okay.