We are the Monarchs

 

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Antonio

There’s no rewind button. There’s no universal remote that’ll make the sun descend when it should rise or make the earth revolve in a clockwise direction rather than counterclockwise to the moment where Antonio lost all feeling in his legs. He’s lived with the burdens that come with being a paraplegic: the headaches, the heart attacks, the dizzy spells when exerting too much force. He received Facebook comments on how he’s so brave, how he’s such a great guy, how through the face of adversity, even after his father’s death, he managed to smile. The only problem is that Facebook isn’t real life. Antonio’s smile only hid the perpetual sadness that couldn’t be derived.

Anyways, he felt like he was the third wheel, the extra nuisance that felt belittled and insignificant under people who could walk upright. They looked down on him with quick glances of pity or self-realization that they could walk, and he couldn’t. So, when his sister invited him to join her family at the Carnivale Palace, he was beside himself.

“No,” he simply stated. He took a sip of his coffee and winced.

“Tony, it’s a beautiful July day. Clear skies and everything. You want to stay cooped in this house all day?” Antonio looked at his sister Veronica, the woman with long raven hair, hazel eyes, and a husband who spoiled her and their daughter nonstop. On her wrist was a new Apple Watch.

He sighed. “Well, why don’t you ask our mother to join you? I’m sure she would like that.” He wheeled himself over to the sink and placed the empty mug in the dishwasher Veronica had installed for him.

“Oh, I did dear brother. Know what she said?”

“What?” His sister cleared her throat and mimicked an elderly woman, wagging her finger in her brother’s personal space.

“You need to get that brother of yours out of his funk. He’s acting like an eighty-year-old man on the brink of death. You know, I love your brother Veronica, but he’s starting to suck.”

Antonio smiled. He always admired their mother’s honesty; how forthright she was to her two children. When it was prom and his sister chose a shimmering green dress with a slit that revealed her inner thigh, their candid mother told her, in a casual coolness as she was reading the paper, that she looked like a crack whore. Talk about a prom memory.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. I do suck. And your impressions are horrible.”

She crossed her legs and the violet skirt she was wearing shifted. “First of all, you don’t suck. Second of all, my impressions would make Dave Coulier look like an amateur.”

“In a different state on Venus, yeah.”

Rolling her eyes, she stood up and placed her mug in the dishwasher as well. With both of their backs to the kitchen sink, Antonio looked up at his sister. The morning light bounced off her purple blouse, sending a semi shade of violet across the floor.

“So, what do you say, big brother?”

Antonio bit the inside of his cheek. The two-story house with four spare rooms could leave one feeling lonesome. He used to have Veronica’s family over all the time to keep him company when he didn’t have to work at Holmes Pages, the bookstore five blocks down the street. Their visits slowed steadily after the incident two months ago. He was in the bathtub, rinsing off the final traces of soap that clung to his skin. When he arose from the water, the slipperiness of the marble tub made him fall over and his head hit the floor before he could get a grip on the sink counter. Luckily, it was his off day and Veronica rushed in to her brother lying on the floor, naked and ashamed.

Since then, the visits became more awkward. His sister’s husband Vince, a neurosurgeon, always insisted on helping him around the place so he wouldn’t strain himself. Antonio knew he meant well. He was the one who drove him to the hospital and stitched his forehead where the impact had occurred. He was the one who comforted his sister afterwards and even carried him up the stairs, refusing to let him use the stairlift.

“Look, I respect you Tony. Just say the word and if you want to stay here, I’ll understand, okay?”

Antonio sighed and ran a hand through his hair that needed combing. He scratched the back of his neck.

“Alright, alright. I’ll go.”

He smiled, but wearily. Veronica knelt down on her heels and hugged her brother. “You’re a brave guy, Antonio. I want you to be happy.”

It was a good thing they were in an embrace, thought Antonio, because if she saw the tears forming in his eyes, if she knew her brother was truly terrified of stepping outside his permeable shell, if she knew that he couldn’t stand the thought of not having a child of his own, she would’ve stayed there all day until the sun hid behind the Earth.

***

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Zwayna

“Where are you going?” The angry mother leaned against the doorframe, with her arms crossed and her head cocked to the side.

The seventeen-year-old girl kept her posture while looking over herself in the mirror.

“Out.” She shook her head so her black curls fell around the back of her neck.

The mother let out a tired sigh. “With Jarrell. Zwayna, you have some nerve to still be around that boy.”

This shit again, she thought. “Well, I’d rather have him around than being around the house.” The truth was that her boyfriend was equally as condescending and bitter about the situation. She didn’t live with him, so his judgement didn’t aggravate her as much as her parents, but still made her face hot and her stomach double over. She was five months pregnant. At the beginning, Zwayna was frightened, ashamed, and most of all angry. She no longer sang at The Singing Souls where she was adorned by elderly couples and twenty something aged people and a man in a wheelchair who hung out until closing. She no longer wrote songs in her journal decorated with lyrics of her favorite R&B artists: Ella Mai, Sabrina Claudio, and many other contemporary or classic vocalists. She was too overwhelmed with uncertainty, flooded with doubts about herself as a mother and how the child would grow up. If she wasn’t arguing with Jarrell on one of their drives, she would stay in her room viewing herself in the full body mirror, paralyzed that she would be in the arduous state of motherhood in three months.

From the first month of pregnancy to now, as if she wasn’t already full of self-hate, she was ridiculed by her parents, her mother mostly. Malik, a sensible man, but with a quick temper that came with his job as police chief, avoided his daughter whenever she set foot in a room. At breakfast, he would read the paper while she tried to peer over the sports section to meet his eyes and the it would be repeated through lunch and dinner. While her father was more passive, Rochelle was more offensive. She yelled and scream at her daughter the moment she found out she was pregnant, which would’ve been understandable and a normal reaction if she didn’t degrade her daughter afterwards, calling her God’s mistake and that she get an abortion. She refused. Rochelle would kick her out of the house on her eighteenth birthday. Three days from today.

After applying dark blue eyeshadow, Zwayna headed upstairs to her room, her mother following after her. She grabbed her purse, her wallet, and house keys.

“Three days, Zwayna. Then you know what happens.”

Zwayna pulled on her black combat boots, rolling her eyes. “Really? I didn’t even notice.”

“We didn’t want to do this.”

“Then why do it?” She pushed the curls from her face and got a good look at her mother. Straight black hair, brown skin, and a likeliness that she found frightening.

“Why? Because you let yourself be tempted by the Devil. You spend all that time at the club singing about romance and fairytales that you let it get to your head. That’s not reality, baby girl.”

The Singing Souls was a special place for her, a safe haven against the outside forces that encroached the seventeen-year-old girl. It was the only place in the world where she felt free, to drop reality at its doorstep and sing her heart out to the guests sitting at tables with lit candles. She was surrounded by illuminated faces, hypnotized by the runs and range of this beautiful black songstress.

Her phone buzzed on the nightstand. Jarrell was outside.

“I have to go.”

She squeezed past her mother and trotted down the stairs.

“Better savor today and tomorrow while you can.”

Zwayna was out the door before she even finished.

***

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Antonio

It was 12:00. Meeting his family in an hour at Carnivale Palace, Antonio brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and shaved his beard at the kitchen sink until it was stubble. Luckily, phones came with those front facing cameras, so he was able to set it in his lap while he removed the excess toothpaste and shaving cream. He rode the stairlift upstairs and rolled into his bedroom. A simple t shirt and jeans would do. He eased himself from the chair onto the bed and with his legs stretched out in front of him, his feet at the foot of the bed, he leaned to his bedside dresser and picked out a bland white t shirt and blue jeans.

Putting on the t shirt was the easy part, but the jeans he knew they would provide him a little struggle. He grunted and let out huffs of air as he flopped on the bed like a fish out of water inching his jeans upwards until the band was around his waist.

“Got it.” He patted his legs, insensitive and indifferent. He grabbed his wallet, his car keys, some Advil, and a Berkley University hoodie. It may be cold out, you never know. Heading back downstairs he paused at the front door and looked around his house, this two-story castle with its wooden floors, peeling yellow wallpaper, and photographs of his family. Was he making a mistake? I should text Veronica, he thought, and let her know that I came down with something. My migraines came back? My spine felt irritated? I had another panic attack, where the same reverie played over and over again of my head hitting the floor and the river of blood that escaped from my cranium coiled around my body like a snake?

Antonio weighed the options heavily in his mind, but he knew he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t turn down another family event for his own torment, to subject himself to the whim of his own deformity. Trip to Six Flags. Bailed. His niece’s graduation from eighth grade. Bailed. When he did decide to venture out of his house, it was only to attend to his father’s funeral. Tired of the pity, the realization that he lost the only man who didn’t look at him as a helpless paraplegic, he drove himself home before they even placed him under the Earth three years ago. He hasn’t visited his grave since.

He opened the door and rolled out into the July sunlight, gripping the wheels for dear life.

Carnivale Palace was a new attraction. Antonio pictured an indoor style grand palace with ancient architecture and gargoyles keeping out evil spirits. On the inside, there would be games that required tokens, a jump rope game where you had to hop over a flashing trail of light or a ski ball game, where you hardly beat the high score, and the eating area would consist of long Harry Pottery style tables with candelabras proving a lambent glow of the polished silverware and glassware. In actuality, when Antonio pulled into one of ten large parking lots, it was an amusement park. Over the green fence, he made out the high point of a rollercoaster, a ride where chairs where sent flying around and around in a circular motion, and a chair lift.

After opening his side, he reached over to the passenger seat and caught hold of his folded chair. He pushed himself farther into his seat as he tried to slide it over his lap. It honked the horn, scaring a family of three and one of the handlebars scraped his cheek.

“Damnit,” he hissed. He touched the tender flesh. No bleeding. With his chair on the outside, he slid down and proceeded among the vast number of Mercedes, Camrys, and Toyotas to the entrance where he was to meet Veronica. When he got there, his expectations were dropped when instead he saw his brother in law and his niece. Thirty-eight years old and a sight for sore eyes, Vince held a confidence about him that made even the brightest senators and politicians seem like timid children muttering a presentation. He wore khaki shorts and a light blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up that showed off his sculpted arms and legs. Why does he have to be so goddamn amiable, thought Antonio. He saw why his sister married him.

“Tony! Hey, good to see you!” The sun behind his head sent beams around him. A halo for the angel.

“Hey Vince.” Antonio shook his hand.

“Hey Tony,” Miranda half-heartedly lulled. She was dressed in blue jean shorts and a white sleeveless vest. “Good to see you.”

“You too, sweetheart.” Just as he was about to ask how she was enjoying her freshmen year, she automatically plugged in her headphones to her new phone.

“Veronica wanted to wait for you,” Vince said, “but she insisted that we stay behind while she went ahead. She’s secured a table near one of the concessions, so we could plan out the day.” Clever move, sis. Making your husband and I have some bonding time.

“Well, should we head in?”

“Let’s do it.” Vince let the ticket master know the party was all here and the three ventured inside. For what seemed like a mile or two, Carnivale Palace was a sea of bodies, an infinite number of friends and families sipping slushies, munching on popcorn, and carrying ridiculous sized stuffed animals. Farther inland, screams could be heard from the roller coaster as well as other thrill-seeking rides. When they reached the low point of the carnival, there was a steep inclination that would require Antonio to wheel more excessively than normal.

“Here, let me,” Vince said, hurrying behind Antonio.

“I’m fine, Vince.”

“Miranda, hon, stay close to me. No, I got you buddy.”

Irritation pricked the quiet man’s skin. He didn’t want to argue, not in front of his niece. He allowed himself to be wheeled like some elderly person who couldn’t think for himself. As they moved upward, people gave them more space than necessary.

“I just don’t want you to strain yourself, Tony.”

“I know, Vince. I know…alright?” He didn’t mean it to sound cold, but it did. He could feel his throat swell. He tapped his knuckles on his lap. Whatever anger he felt that stained his voice, Vince didn’t stop in reconsideration. He silently pushed him up the hill.

They reached the line of concessions. Food ranging from deep fried Oreos and ice-cream to hamburgers and hot wings with more sauce than necessary nearly caused Antonio to gag. He never smelled a mélange of odors so pungent. He swallowed down the bile. He didn’t want to clean it from his lap, knowing he’d need assistance. Veronica sat with her heart shaped sunglasses over her eyes. She kept the same skirt she wore this morning but switched from her blouse to a purple tank top.

“Well, you made it after all,” she said. She hugged her brother. Vince and his daughter sat on one side while Veronica splayed out a map sitting on the other side. Antonio was at the end.

“Guys, my friends are here. Is it okay if you take off the parental lock and let me loose?”

“Miranda,” Veronica said, lifting her shades, “this is a family outing. You’re staying here.”

“How will it be a family outing? Not all of us can get on the rides.” The words stung Antonio and he looked down onto his lap, keeping his tears at bay.

“Miranda!” Vince shouted. “Apologize! Now, young lady!”

“I’m going to get some food,” Antonio said hurriedly. He needed to escape, to distance himself.

Veronica stood. “Antonio, she…”

“C’mon, I haven’t eaten all day. I’m gonna need my energy for today, right?”

He didn’t let his sister protest because he wheeled himself away back down the inclination, going as fast as his arms could move. Instead of going to the concessions, he stopped at the booths where prizes could be one and tucked himself between two of them and placed his head in his hands.

“Fuck me,” he said in between breaths. “Oh, fuck me.”

His stomach turned inside out as he struggled for breath. Okay, he thought, remember your breathing. A heart attack is not what he wanted. Placing a hand on his chest, he closed his eyes and tried to synch his breathing with his heartbeat. It was working. While his eyes were covered, he could hear the children screaming, the music of the carousel, and the pops of balloons from the booth beside him.

“Hi there.” The voice brought him from his mental attack. Opening his eyes, he saw a young girl. Nine years old it seemed. She had a purple crochet beanie with a flower stitched onto it. A yellow t shirt hung from her shoulders, hiding her shorts and exposing her collarbone. Her skin. Antonio could practically see the distinct purple veins across her arms and legs against the sunlight.

“I’m sorry…who…who are you?”

The girl smiled a subtle smile.

“Emma.”

***

Zwayna

 

Zwayna and Jarrell sat opposite each other at the eating area. Her bracelets shimmered on her wrists as she fidgeted with her hands. He sat quietly, eating a hotdog with too much ketchup.

“I’m keeping him,” the young girl said.

“What?” Jarrell asked, looking up.

Zwayna swallowed. “I said…I’m keeping him.”

“No, uh uh.” Jarrell took a sip from his cup. “You’re not keeping it.”

The girl looked to her left, focusing on a family of three with a map sprawled over their table.

“You don’t think I thought about it? We made a mistake, babe.”

“No, no,” the mocha skinned man pointed a finger at her, “you made a mistake. Being stupid enough to not wear a condom.”

Zwayna gripped the edge of the table, the splinters pricking her skin. Her voice trembled.

“You…didn’t wear one either, Jarrell.”

“You started kissing on me first. You didn’t even give me time to consider it!” The surrounding tables looked their direction, then back at their own affairs. “You brought us to this dumbass amusement park for what? To help forget? To help forget that my parents are fucking mad at me? To help forget that your parents are fucking mad at you? To help forget that next year, I’ll be known as the guy who left behind his girlfriend to play for state in Arizona? You better wake up girl and hear me when I say this.”

Jarrell leaned into the teary-eyed girl. You’d think they were kissing, spending their final moments together before parting ways. “I’ll give you to the end of the day to think this through. If you choose to keep it, I’m leaving your ass.”

The young woman’s vision blurred, and Jarrell became a smudge of brown and blue and black. She thought he would take it back. She thought he would apologize for being an ass and console her, to go along with her plan to forget their worries for a day. He didn’t. He went back to his fries and hotdog. Zwayna stood up from the table and walked briskly towards the carousel, feeling detached from the world around her as her boots stomped on the pavement.

***

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