More or Less

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2014

Sammy Westfall

This story includes some words in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. See the glossary at the end of the story.

Today, Lina didn’t wake up from hunger, thirst, or the heat like she usually did. Today she woke up from the sound of voices. She looked at the rusty alarm clock on the shelf above her: 4:45 A.M. It was too early for voices. Tatay should still be at work. Lina looked over to her little brothers and sisters who lay sleeping on the floor beside her. Standing up, she tiptoed toward the voices, the old bamboo floors creaking with every step. Lina leaned up against the thin wall and listened.

“I know, but they wouldn’t listen,” Lina’s father said loudly, not quite shouting, but almost.

“But why you? Why did they fire you? You only missed three days! Tatlo!” You were sick!” her mother exclaimed, firmly holding up three fingers.

“I know it is not fair, but it’s the way things are. I’ll find a new job, I promise,” her father assured her.

“No, Miguel. You need to rest. I will find a job.” Her parents embraced each other. Her mother’s eyes filled with tears.

“Mahal kita.”

Mahal kita higit pa. I’ll check on the children. I hope we didn’t wake them,” her mother said. Lina quickly ran back into her room and pretended to be asleep, just as her mother peered in.

Lina thought about everything she just heard. She knew that the next few weeks would be even tougher than usual. Her dad had lost his night job as a jeepney driver. He didn’t get paid that much, especially for their family of eight. Most of the money was spent on rent, the rest on food, which usually meant a cup of rice or soup. The food was barely enough to keep them alive. Lina’s family was interminably hungry, like everyone else in their village.

Lina never said it aloud, but she always thought about money. She prayed every night that their family would be rich. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. They could move out of the little shack, out of the slums, and into a beautiful house. They would replace all their rags with real clothes. Insufficient meals would become colossal feasts. Life would be easy.

*          *          *

Hours later, after the sun rose, Lina heard the door open. It was their father.

Magandang umaga, children. How did you sleep?”

“Fine, Tatay,” all six children lied. They didn’t sleep well at all. The noise from the passing jeepneys outside was too loud, it was too hot, and the floor was too hard underneath them.

“Nanay is out today. She will be back soon, but I’ll stay with all of you today, OK?”

The children nodded and didn’t question their father. He loved them, and Lina knew, whatever decision he made was the best for them. If he said things would get better, they would.

Nanay arrived later that evening. “I’m home! I have so much to tell you!”

The children ran to the door to welcome their mother with big hugs. She continued, “I got a job as a house-cleaner in the middle of the city. The house is huge, like a castle!” Nanay exclaimed.

Lina’s eyes opened wide. She could already imagine it, though she had seen houses like this only in her dreams.

“And guess what, Lina? You can help me clean tomorrow and you can see it for yourself!” Lina was ecstatic. She hugged her mother tight and fell asleep to dreams of the house she’d soon see.

*          *          *

The next morning, Lina woke early and joined her mother on her commute to the city. Lina looked out the window of the jeepney and caught a glimpse of the huge mansions that lined the road. Wow, Lina thought. She was no longer in her village, that was for sure. Lina and her mother walked up the smooth, paved road until they both turned the corner and found themselves facing the biggest, most beautiful house of all. Lina had to tilt her head up in order to see all of it. The awe-inspiring mansion towered over her and glistened in the sun. It looked like something from the storybooks her mother used to read her.

“Just wait until you see what’s inside,” her mother whispered.

They ambled down the stone pavement leading to the massive white front door, and her mother pressed a strange button at its side. A loud ringing noise filled the house from the inside and the door swung open.

More or Less girl inside a big house

She wished her life could be like this. She envied it all

“Hello,” exclaimed a woman with peculiarly light-colored hair as she extended her hand out to both Lina and her mother. She was taller than anyone Lina had seen before. Her skin was so light, not like the usual tanned skin she was so familiar with. Lina didn’t realize how closely she was examining the woman until she started talking once again. “I am Ms. Barker. You must be Lina.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lina replied politely. The woman smiled and led them inside.

Lina looked around and found herself in an enormous cream-colored room that seemed to glow in the light that overflowed from the large rectangular windows that dominated the walls. The floor wasn’t hard and creaky like Lina had been so used to; rather this floor was covered in an ancient-looking carpet that welcomed her feet with every step she took. A grand chandelier hung from the ceiling, making the room even more imposing. The room alone was bigger than her entire house.

These people must be really rich, Lina thought to herself. She tried not to be, but she couldn’t help but feel jealous. She wanted to live here and have this much money. She wished her life could be like this. She envied it all.

“I’ll show you what needs cleaning,” Ms. Barker said, looking over to Lina, who was busy admiring the room.

“Yes, of course,” Lina said, trying her best to respond in an American accent like Ms. Barker. For some strange reason, Lina found herself trying to fit in with the woman she just met, who was so different from her.

Ms. Barker continued, “This is the living room. To the right is the kitchen. Can you cook?” My mother nodded politely. “Great. I bought chicken for dinner. We eat at eight.” She pointed to the staircase. “Upstairs are the four bedrooms. My daughter is there.” Looking to Lina, she added, “She’s about your age.”

“Claudia, please come downstairs!” Ms. Barker shouted up the staircase.

“No, Mom, I’m busy!” an irritated, high-pitched voice responded from upstairs.

“Claudia, come down now,” Ms. Barker yelled once again.

“I don’t care! Stop it. Leave me alone!” the voice from upstairs called back, sounding even more annoyed than before.

Her daughter is so rude. How dare she talk to her own mother like that, Lina thought. Ms. Barker didn’t even seem to get mad at her daughter for being that inconsiderate. If Lina had spoken to her mother with those words, with that tone, she would be in big trouble. Not that she ever would though, she wouldn’t even think of it.

“Sorry, my daughter can be a little impertinent sometimes,” Ms. Barker said. Lina didn’t know what that word meant but guessed it meant something along the lines of rude. “Sometimes it is better to leave Claudia alone. I usually do,” she sighed.

“Where should we start cleaning?” Lina’s mother asked, hastily changing the subject.

“You can start down here. Lina, you could help by feeding our dog, Max. His food is in the freezer.” She pointed to the silver dog bowl in the corner of the room. Next to it sat a small white dog, covered in perfectly groomed hair that fell to the ground.

Lina entered the kitchen and, in a huge refrigerator, found a container labeled “For Max.” It contained at least three pounds of ground meat. Lina stared at the food in confusion. Fresh meat for the dog? This tiny dog is better fed than anyone in my whole village! How can this be possible? With a hint of anger, she scooped the meat into the bowl and left the tiny dog to devour the food on his own.

I wonder what is up that staircase, Lina thought, staring at the majestic marble staircase. She quickly decided to find out. She slowly climbed up, step by step, until she reached the top. The second floor was even more beautiful than the first. In the hall, she passed a slightly ajar door. Lina could hear faint pop music coming from inside. She peeked inside, finding a girl her age sitting on a large pink bed, talking on a cell phone. Lina couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

“I know, right? My mom is so annoying. She refuses to buy me the new iPhone! Like, seriously? I am the only one without it. I hate her. Why couldn’t I have stayed with my dad when they got divorced? I can’t wait to move out for college.”

Lina couldn’t listen any longer. It was beyond rude—it was insulting. How could she say that about her own mom, who, Lina just found out, singlehandedly raised her? She was shocked.

“Dinner time!” Ms. Barker called from the dining room, as she placed a big roast chicken on the table. Lina was surprised to see what was sitting at the side of the table. Wow, a television! Lina was bewildered by the television, as she had never seen one before. Ms. Barker and her daughter both sat down for dinner while Lina and her mother swept in the other room. Claudia switched the TV on and flipped through several channels before stopping at one she was content with. The Barkers served themselves, neither looking at nor talking to each other. Lina was so used to loud dinners with her family full of stories and laughter. Here, dinner was completely silent. The Barkers just sat there staring at the television blankly. It was foreign to Lina. The Barkers seemed to ignore each other. It was uncomfortable and almost sad to watch. This family was so broken.

More or Less Family gather in the dining table

Lina knew she had everything she’d ever need

When Claudia finished eating, she got up and ran back upstairs without any words. Ms. Barker sat there by herself, finishing her plate, then stood and brought her leftovers toward the trash. Lina’s mother stopped her.

“Excuse me, ma’am, can I please bring the extras home… for my dog?” my mother asked.

“Sure! There is a ziplock there,” Ms. Barker replied, pointing to a drawer.

Wait, Lina realized. We don’t have a dog. Lina quickly shot a puzzled look at her mother. She looked back at her, looking downcast. And at that moment, something in Lina’s mind clicked. All of a sudden she knew what they would be having for dinner back home.

The whole jeepney ride home, neither of them said anything. Nanay just held Lina’s hand tight. At the end of the ride, she whispered, “Lina, I love you so much, never forget it.” Lina could only nod.

*          *          *

When Lina arrived home, her house looked smaller than before. But at that moment, she really couldn’t have cared less. She ran in and hugged her dad and her brothers and sisters.

“Mahal kita,” she said to everyone, making sure all of them knew. Of course they did.

As they gathered for dinner, Lina’s mother unpacked the leftover chicken and placed it on the table. The children’s eyes glowed.

Salamat, Nanay!” they said cheerfully.

Their mother smiled. “Lina, can you say the prayer today before we eat?”

“Opo,” Lina said. She bowed her head, closed her eyes, and started to pray. “Dear Lord, salamat for this day. Thank you for everything you have provided to us. You give us everything we need, Lord, and we thank you. But most of all, thank you for our family who I love so much. Amen.”

Lina opened her eyes. She could see her mother’s eyes starting to get teary. Lina smiled because she knew just what her mother was feeling. Some people can have so much yet have so little, she thought, and some people can have so little yet have so much.

Lina knew she didn’t have a lot, but she looked around at all the faces around the table, joyfully talking and laughing, and knew she had everything she’d ever need.

Glossary
Jeepney = a small bus
Magandang umaga = How did you sleep?
Mahal kita = I love you
Mahal kita higit pa = I love you more
Nanay = Mom
Opo = Yes
Salamat = Thank you
Tatay = Dad
Tatlo = Three

More or Less Sammy Westfall

Sammy Westfall, 13
Nantucket, Massachusetts

More or Less Olivia Zhou

Olivia Zhou, 13
Roselle Park, New Jersey

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