Pat loves her Papa so much, she follows him everywhere.
When her father goes to the living room to watch the evening news, she sits in his lap and leans on his chest. She loves it when her Papa carries her to bed when she falls asleep. She is not afraid of monsters under her bed because she knows her Papa is still awake and is just one cry away.
Whenever she becomes thirsty in the middle of the night or wants to pee, she carefully walks her way to the bathroom near their front door. Nerves set in when she reaches the stairs but she becomes calm when she smells the familiar smoke. It’s her father smoking in front of their house. Pat thinks that her father has been guarding them from monsters and thieves.
One night, she opens the door and runs to her Papa. He quickly sways his hand with a cigarette away from his daughter and asks, “Why are you still awake?”
“I’m thirsty,” she replied.
“Get some water and then go straight to your room, okay?”
“Do you mind if I stay here with you for a while?” Pat asks him.
“I’m sorry Pat, but get back to sleep now or you’ll stop growing,” he puts his cigarette stick on a flower pot and opens the door for Pat.
She enters the house disappointed, but turns around anyway to say, “Goodnight, Pa. I love you.”
“I love you too, Pat,” he picks up his cigarette stick and begins to smoke again.
Pat stays on the other side of the screen door and observes her father. She wonders why he wants to be alone at night and why he always smokes.
Her mom wakes her up in the morning and they pray together. She helps Pat fix her bed and before going downstairs, she combs her hair and puts her favorite clips. They walk to the dining table for breakfast where there is always coffee and a newspaper for her Papa. Sometimes he gets to read this, sometimes he just rushes to work.
“Where is Papa, Ma?” She stares at the stairs hoping to see him.
“He’s gone to work early,” her mom says coldly.
Pat knows her mother is not in the mood for talking because of how she looks away whenever she starts asking about things. So Pat just goes outside and plays in the yard.
Day after day, she just plays in the yard. Morning after morning, she asks her mother about her Papa. She gets the same answer. She becomes afraid now. She refuses to pee until her stomach hurts because Papa isn’t there to protect her. She watches the evening news even though she can hardly understand it.
One day, while playing in their yard, she sees an unused cigarette stick in the middle of two flower pots. She looks around and makes sure that nobody is watching. She grabs the stick and puts it in her pocket. She hurriedly goes inside their house and thinks of a hiding place.
She goes to the bathroom and tries to put it behind the mirror.
“No, mom cleans the bathroom every day, she might see this.”
She rushes to her room and covers it with her pillow.
“No, I might crush it. Papa won’t be able to use it anymore.”
She glides to the living room and sees a vase and peers inside it.
“No, it’s too dusty.”
She gets tired while heading to the kitchen, but she knows she can’t move slower because her mother might finish the laundry already. She needs to decide, and just as she runs out of ideas, she sees the fridge.
“Mama never saw my candies whenever I put it them underneath the egg rack.”
So she opens the fridge and squeezes her tiny hands to reach the bottom of the rack. She rolls the stick in and closes the fridge as silently as she can.
“I hope Papa comes home soon before Mama finds out.” She sighs, and although she feels a little bit afraid that her mother might scold her, she goes back to the yard.
Pat checks out the stick every day, and when she reaches for it, she feels it getting colder and harder. She washes her hands every time she touches the stick because she doesn’t like the smell of it. She wonders why her Papa likes it.
The time comes when the cigarette stick becomes stiff like a twig. This alarms Pat, who doesn’t know what to do. “It needs fire. Teacher said that cold things need heat to keep them warm.” So she gets a matchbox and tries to light the stick. Her first swipe is too strong and the second is too gentle. She becomes more determined so on her third try, a little spark appears. It surprises her, and she drops the match. She remembers how her mother warned her that fire is dangerous. Since then, she promises not to try it again.
Pat’s mother is grilling pork in their yard. It has been five months since her father left them. A car stops in front of the gate, and they both look at it curiously. A man steps out of it and it is her Papa, looking thinner than the last time they saw each other. She runs to him like a pony eyeing the finish line. He crouches down and meets Pat with a tight hug. She drags him towards her Mama like a huge present and giggles. But her mother just says, “Hi,” and her father replies with, “How are you?”
They don’t talk to each other. After lunch, her father picks up a silver case in his pocket and excuses himself.
“Where are you going, Papa?” Pat also stands from the table.
“Don’t worry, Papa will be back in a minute.” Her mother holds her arm and motions her to sit back down. She can smell her father and the smoke like burnt dried leaves soaked in water. She realizes that she has missed the scent.
Her father comes back and the three of them fix the table. While her mother washes the dishes, her father arranges some papers in a box. Pat approaches her father and asks, “What is this box for, Papa?”
“Nothing, just work,” he says without even looking at her.
“I have something for you,” Pat whispers.
She opens her palm and gives her father see the frozen cigarette stick.
“Where did you get that?” Her father reacts angrily.
“I kept it for you. I thought it would make you happy.”
“No. I don’t want to see you holding cigarettes ever again. Do you understand me?”
Pat’s mother comes out from the kitchen and clutches her daughter, asking, “What’s going on?”
Pat’s father explains what happened and they start to argue. Her mother tells her father that he can’t just come home and shout at people, especially Pat. She also says that if he can’t be a loyal husband, at least he can try to be a good father. They keep on fighting about things that Pat hardly understands. So she cries until her father hurriedly grabs the box and drives away.
Her mother hugs her and gives her water.
“I’m sorry, Pat. You don’t deserve this,” her mom tells her.
“Mama, I’m sorry if I kept Papa’s cigarette stick. I just thought that it will make him happy, and that if he’s happy, he’ll stay,” she adds.
Pat’s mother hugs her so tight that it makes her say, “I can’t breathe, Ma.”
“Pat, can you promise me never to touch cigarettes again? Mama doesn’t want you to get sick.”
“Okay Ma. But is Papa coming back?”
“I don’t know when, but he’ll visit you for sure. Don’t worry, even though he’s not here, I’ll be here for you.” Her mother kisses Pat on the forehead.
Pat sees her mother cleaning their yard later that day. Her mother sweeps the dried leaves and the cigarette butts into the dustpan, and then dumps them into the bin.
“I miss Papa,” Pat says to herself, “but I’d rather miss him than see them fight.”
She then runs to the yard and hugs her mother.
Czarina Nicole Lara M. Lanes is an incoming 4th year BA English-Creative Writing student of the University of the Philippines Mindanao.