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How she hated this room. All of them together, huddled so close a flinch rippled across the space from one to another and the next. A bellyful of her mother's cheap perfume, vainly masking the stink of hot Manila streets and the bus she rode, then the cooking and the cleaning. Pretending to sleep against the sounds of an older brother secretly playing with himself in the grip of some wanton fantasy. And the antics of the younger brother, the night owl, restless and uncontrollable in the nimble fits of a seven-year-old's body. Oh, and the indifference of the older sister, self-centered and boy crazy;  never were sisters who shared a mattress so distant. The older sister who defied all the rules and was, of course, out past her time on this night of all nights. Their last night together.

But so it was, this, the last night Princess Mae Alcordo Bajar would have to hate this room. The last night she would feel the ripple of flinches; the last night she would be among the only family she had ever known. A piece of canvas luggage near the door, packed and tagged with her name and a place some 28 hours by plane; a place she tried to imagine with all her might, but could not. The canvas stained from those times the rain would flood the river and muddy water would seep under the door and cover the tiles. In the luggage were her best clothes and the few trinkets she had managed to salvage through fourteen years of life.

Tomorrow was the day that had been many days in coming. Tomorrow was the reason they had gone  to the embassy and waited for hours in chairs, before being cozied into offices where they fussed over stacks of paper; trying to make a denial legitimate. Tomorrow was the day that started so many months before in a hospital bed. Just one of the many bad days that sprout like chickweed for children of single mothers in Muntinlupa. 

On that day, Princess Mae and her younger brother Leonardo had gotten very ill with unchecked pneumonia. First they tried the public clinic, but the remedy did not work and their mother thought they could die. So, she made the difficult decision to take them to a private clinic for additional treatment. The two children spent several days in a hospital bed attached to machines and masks. All day long the nurses would bring them pills and stick them with needles and take their life signs.

The cost for this treatment had exceeded 20,000 pesos for each. Wilma Alcordo worked overnights in a call center in Manila and earned barely 16,000 pesos per month. This sum did not come close to covering the costs of the bus, the rent, the food and the bare necessities of four children. It could never cover the cost of fixing pneumonia in a private clinic.

Often they were hungry; always mending clothes, or buying clothes which did not need as much mending. They were always imposing on the generosity of titos and titas, lolos and lolas. At other times Wilma Alcordo would routinely beg by texts and Skype for money from the three men who had fathered her four children; and sometimes they would send it by Western Union.

Princess Mae's father lived in America and he had stopped sending money some years before. Victor Bajar had abandoned them after kindling an old flame in an online affair. His former lover had moved to America where she worked as a nurse's aide; their hastened marriage got him a visa and a ticket to that place of plenty, where he fathered two children with his wife Jinky.  Things had to be especially desperate for Wilma to call Victor. And they were.

Wilma sent Victor a photo of Princess Mae in the hospital bed, all hooked up to the machine, pale and spent. This did not spark a reaction. Then she attached a picture of the hospital charges and Victor especially did not respond to this. He had come to know her calls were only to remind him of the burden he bore in this child; a child he had neither curiosity nor affection for. Then she typed a message saying she had no choice but to contact his family, here in the Philippines, and tell them of his neglect. To this Victor responded.

"How dare you threaten me," he told her on the video call. "My family knows what kind of woman you are. You have children with three men. Only a slut and a whore and a woman of low morals and no self control has that many children without being married. My family will spit on you when you call."

Wilma tried, but could not bridle the tears. They rained down across furious cheeks as she spoke in desperate bursts, "And how dare you!... You said you loved me!.... And then it was only because you begged!... You promised we would be married!.... And then you promised I wouldn't be alone with this baby. You're such a liar! And your daughter knows you're a liar... Even sick in this bed, she can see how you lie?"

"Why should I pay for this?" he asked. "You never let me be a father. You threw me out and sent me away. You did everything possible to keep us apart."

"Yes, I threw you out. You were lying to me all the time and already with that other woman. Do you think you could just come and use me as you pleased?"

And he said cruelly, "A woman like you should be happy with half a man. No man would ever marry a pig like you."

Broken, she added, "I never kept you from Princess. You alone deny her. I pray every day that you be a father to your daughter. And someday you will have to explain this to God."

She pointed the phone at Princess Mae, so he could see his daughter wilting at the strife. It was not enough to be abandoned and unloved by the half of you, but to be despised in this way illuminates your soul and her broken soul was broadcast to the far side of the world.  Victor saw the broken soul, twisted and sickened, and even he recognized  half the soul was his.

Now exposed and called before God, Victor thought he could intimidate Wilma with a proposition, "Okay, I'll pay for this. But it's clear you can't take care of this girl. I want full custody of Princess Mae and I want her to come with me. I'll pay for this and you swear on the souls of your children that you'll send Princess to me, in America."

Wilma was shaken and trapped. She would never give her daughter to a man without love. She believed this to be a bluff and thought by calling it, he would just pay the money and never send for Princess Mae. So she told him, "Sure, it's okay. You can have custody. I'm glad you've finally decided to act like a man. Send me the money Western Union."

"Yes... And I will send you the papers and the plane ticket, too. You've sworn before God now and I expect you to live with it."

And when Wilma called his bluff, Victor called hers. So it happened, Princess Mae had one more night in this room she hated, before she would leave behind those who loved her, and go to those who didn't.




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