A Story for Dani

I’m lucky to have a little sister like Dani. Today, she turned 10. When she was born, my dad said that she would be the new and improved Patricia, just to annoy me. I rolled my eyes and scoffed then, but looking at her now, I can’t help but be amazed at how smart, creative, and self-assured she’s grown up to be. It doesn’t annoy me at all; it makes me proud.

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I know I’m supposed to be the ate and be the one who comforts her, but, most of the time, it’s actually the other way around. She gives me pep talks and says stuff like, “You are your own number one fan!” or “You’re the best artist/writer in the world!” without irony or sarcasm. I wrote a story months ago when I was sad, and I was pleasantly surprised to find Dani staring up at me from the pages, speaking in the main character’s voice. I shared it with her today and she said she liked it, even gave me permission to post it here. It’s a children’s story sprinkled with bits and pieces of ourselves – a kind of birthday gift for her and a reminder to myself of what it means to be a child and, more importantly, a good sister. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

Again, happy birthday to my brilliant sister, Dani!

Adventures in Ate’s Attic

Gela loved going to school. She loved waking up before dawn, the blossoming light creeping in as she wore her uniform and ate her breakfast. She enjoyed hanging out with her classmates and listening to her teachers. She took down notes like the others, but loved doodling mountains and little people and clouds outside the margins. She was not what you would call the teacher’s pet, but the little curly-haired girl would often stop by the faculty room during breaks to chat with her homeroom advisor. All in all, Gela thought that school was a blast, but the best part was still hearing the dismissal bell; it meant riding the school bus home, sprinting up the stairs, and visiting The Attic.

The Attic was where her older sister, Jeanie, lived. A full fourteen years older than she, Jeanie was already out of college and working as a freelance artist and set designer. Every afternoon, the young lady and her sister explored the world, the universe, and beyond, just the two of them.

Ate, what does freelance mean?” Gela had asked one sunny afternoon some years ago. She had just arrived from school, the sunlight streaming through the wide windows already turning an orange shade. “Why don’t you go to the office like papa, mama, and kuya?”

“Well, it means…I’m free!” Jeanie had exclaimed, throwing up her arms and spinning her chair as she did so. Gela giggled as she watched her ate turn and turn, then come to a stop with a cross-eyed look. The 23-year-old continued, taking on a more serious tone, but in a British accent, “It means, dear Gela, I can stay here at home to draw and paint and go on adventures with – can you guess who?” Jeannie raised an eyebrow at her little sister.

Gela feigned a look of surprise and pointed to herself. “Me?” she asked. “Indeed, you are, my dear Watson!” Jeannie said, after letting out a hearty laugh. “Now, where shall we go today?”

“London!” Gela squealed with delight. Her big sister nodded and reached into a giant chest sitting below her window. She pulled out a map, a bright red miniature phone booth, a magnifying glass, two cloaks, a funny hat, and some leather-bound books. They scrambled to wear their costumes and position the various props around the room. Then, snapping into character, Jeannie asked her long-time comrade, “What case shall we crack today?”

Gela came home excited each afternoon, rushing to her ate’s attic as soon as she passed through the front door. Sometimes the whole place would be set up: Jeannie in the middle of the room painting a few pieces for a project, like a play or a movie. Gela would jump in, all ready to take on a fantastic role – a mermaid searching for her precious, magical shells, stolen by a pirate who needed them to woo the moon. A space cowboy flying across the galaxy to lasso a rainbow-streaked shooting star. A time-traveling backpacker scouring medieval Europe for dragon eggs.

In the last one, Jeannie had played the backpacker, who was secretly a mad scientist trying to get hold of the eggs for a potion of eternal youth and glory. “Youth would be pointless without glory, don’t you think?” Jeannie had said, more to herself than to her sister. But Gela had nodded earnestly. She was the peg-legged assistant, a little clumsy but ever loyal to the master who had raised her all by herself.

Throughout the afternoon, they had scurried and darted behind hand-drawn trees and boulders, dressed in long robes and rubber boots. “Hurry, Kendra!” hissed the backpacker-slash-mad scientist Dr. Tiff Taffeta to her assistant as they neared the end of their quest. “Before the dragon wakes!”

Gela was on a stool, trying as best as she could to balance on one leg, but she wobbled this way and that before lurching forward. She stumbled to the floor and the eggs (chicken eggs from mom’s kitchen) went flying from her basket – cracking all over Jeannie’s rubber boots. They both shrieked and laughed as the slimy yolks slid to the newspaper-covered floor. Their mother had come bursting through the door, a mixture of worry, anxiety, and confusion painted on her face as she took in the ornate set-up and her costumed daughters. Jeannie had done her best to assure her that it was all in good fun and that Gela was all right. They were still giggling as they cleaned the mess under mom’s watchful stare.

There were days when their adventures would be put on hold. Jeannie loved to travel, spending a few days every month in faraway destinations. Gela would be sad as she stayed alone in the attic, which seemed smaller and hollow without her ate. But Jeannie always came back with pasalubong, curious items from her journeys: a two-stringed instrument that looked like a guitar (tufts of brown hair sticking out the edges), a tiny walis or broomstick that seemed built for a midget, or a moon-shaped dreamcatcher. She’d tell Gela her stories and together, they would reenact some scenes from her travels.

 

One day, Gela came home and, as usual, plopped her bags near the sofa in the living room before going up to the attic, taking two steps at a time. She held a brown paper bag in her hand, the items inside knocking softly against each other. When she opened the door, however, the room was silent. At first, Gela thought that her ate Jeannie was away again, until she saw the lonely figure on the chair by the window.

There were no props around her, no maps, figurines, or costumes – just her laptop resting atop a desk strewn with papers, pads, and pens.

Ate?” Gela took a few tentative steps towards her sister.

All she heard was a deep sigh. Jeannie was slumped on the chair, her head turned towards the wide window that took up almost the entire wall. She rested her chin on her left palm.

“What’s the matter?” Gela crossed the room and stood by her sister’s side, peering at her with wide-eyed wonder. She rarely saw her sister like this and she wasn’t sure what to do.

Jeannie let out another sigh and turned a sad face to her little sister. The golden afternoon light – the magic hour, her sister had called it, when everything transformed into gold – tinged the loose strands of hair resting on her face and reflected off her dark brown eyes. “I didn’t get the scholarship,” she shrugged, trying to muster a smile. “Again.”

Gela’s shoulders drooped and she held her ate’s hand. Although she was just nine, she knew how much Jeannie wanted to study abroad. She saw how hard her ate had been working on her application. After all their playing was done, Jeannie would always go right back to work, typing away into the night and putting together her portfolio (“All my artwork and projects so far,” she had explained to Gela once).

Jeannie shook her head as if to shake off a bad dream and reached towards her laptop to shut it down. Staring back out the window, a lost expression on her face, she wondered aloud, “You know, I’ve never asked you. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It didn’t even take Gela two seconds to answer, “A mini-Jeannie.”

Her older sister was taken aback. She waited for Gela to take it back and say something more sensible like “doctor,” “lawyer” (like their eldest brother), or “engineer,” but she didn’t. A smile spread across Jeannie’s face, now soaked in golden light, and a giggle escaped her throat. “That’s the silliest thing you’ve ever said! Are you serious?”

Gela gave a firm nod of her head and said, “I’ll be a freelance adventurer!” She stomped her right foot sideward and put her fists on her hips. The light made her glow, made her look otherworldly and older than she actually was; Jeannie thought it an incredible sight, as if her little sister were a character from one of their stories. Then, Gela reached out and dropped a paper bag on Jeannie’s lap. “For today,” she said.

“What’s this?” she opened it and took out the contents – three pastel-colored plastic eggs. Jeannie’s face lit up. Without a word, Gela hurried away from her side and ran to the closet. Her older sister watched with an amused yet wistful smile as she pulled out a cap, a pair of binoculars, a compass, two pairs of rubber boots, a bottle containing a special salve for burns (in case the dragon woke up), and a beautifully woven basket with straps so you could wear it like a backpack. She presented the items to Jeannie and said, “Let’s go find those dragon eggs.”

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