Ana felt out of place. She stared at the huge grey ball of salt in the middle of the dining room table, a part of it soaked in oil and broth. Grains of white rice were stuck on parts of it. She sat next to Tori at the round table, and she watched her friend pick up the salt and dip it into her bowl of tinola soup. A large chunk of salt fell into the soup, making Tori gasp.
She and Tori didn’t have time to change into cleaner clothes. She could smell the professor’s drink on her while Tori reeked of alcohol.
“Why is your shirt inside-out, Ana?” Tori mumbled to Ana.
“Long story,” Ana said with a sigh, remembering the crazy afternoon she had and the responsibility that suddenly befell her.
While Tori was fishing around for the chunk of salt in her soup, her mother, Trinidad, entered the dining room with a plate of steaming white rice and set it in the middle of the table. The maids followed her light-footed steps and laid the other platters of food, including a second bowl of tinola on the table in front of the family. They quietly retreated to the side of the dining room awaiting orders from the mistress of the house. Trinidad moved gracefully, flitting about the room like she was weightless. Her smile was bright and unusually unmoving no matter what she does. Even when she lightly burned her fingertips on the hot bowl of Tinola. She was definitely beautiful with her long straight hair and morena skin, physical attributes that she does not share with her stepdaughter nor Ana.
“What’s for dinner?” Antonio, Tori’s father, said as he entered the room and loosened the knot of his neck tie. He sat next to his wife. Antonio was the exact opposite of his wife. He was big and bulky and hard on the edges. Only his pale skin gave way to any softness that he may possess. He spoke loud, and his presence demanded undivided attention. Like right now in the dining room with his family.
“Tinolang manok, guisadong repolo, and tocino del cielo for dessert,” Trinidad said, taking the seat next to Antonio. Smile, unwavering. Voice, sing-songy. “Tinola, Tony?”
“Yes, please!” he answered, scooping up heaping spoonfuls of white rice onto his plate while Trinidad ladled reddish chicken tinola soup into the bowl next to his plate.
Ana spun her spoon in the clear broth of her own soup. She was grateful for the family that adopted her when she was young, but she never really felt like she belonged in this big old house or with this family. The Santiagos were generous but incredibly proud of their heritage. They were old money. Their ancestors were the richest sugar hacienderos in prewar times—they still are rich.
Ana looked up at the resplendent dining room. The walls were covered in shelves of expensive China and paintings of farmers in rice fields. A big window on one side was overlooking the wide garden outside. It was so wide, that the walls surrounding the sprawling Santiago property were barely visible.
“Ana, are you alright? You’re not eating. You don’t like tinola?” Trinidad asked, looking at Ana in her motherly way.
Ana looked up at her and smiled. “Oh, no, Tita Trini! I like tinola...” Ana said, scooping up a spoonful of hot clear soup into her mouth. She squirmed in her seat and whimpered when the soup burned the insides of her mouth.
“Careful, dear! It’s hot!” Trinidad said, handing her a napkin. “Try it with rice.” She scooped rice onto Ana’s plate before putting rice into her own. She ladled more thick reddish soup into her husband’s bowl and then into her own.
“What about you, Tori? Anything to report from the first day of college?” Tony cheerfully asked, turning all attention in the room to Tori.
Tori looked up from her own plate of repolo and to her father. She had a guilty look on her flushed face.
“Nothing, Tatay. Just regular school things…” Tori turned her attention to her plate again.
Tony looked at Ana and then turned back to Tori.
“You don’t smell like you did regular school things, dear” Tony said, his voice sounding more dangerous, his gaze darker. He speared a piece of red chicken meat with his fork and put it in his mouth. He smiled.
Ana looked at Tori who didn’t dare look up from her food, which she pushed around with her own fork. Trinidad spoke up to quell the growing tension in the room.
“Oh, Tony, don’t exaggerate! We’re having dinner!” she said, licking her spoon clean and then scooping up red tinola soup into Tori’s bowl with it. “Here you go, honey. The soup will make you feel all better.”
“Thank you, Tita Trini--”
“Op, anak! I’m Mommy Trini! You’re welcome, dear daughter.”
Ana took Tori’s hand and gave it a light squeeze. “Tito Tony… It’s me. I didn’t have time to change before dinner.”
Tony looked at Ana skeptically and then squinted at Tori. Ana held her breath and took Tori’s hand in hers. “Okay,” Tony said after a few minutes of tense silence.
“Well, Tony, how was your day?” Trinidad butted in, drawing her husband’s attention from the two girls. “Busy day at city hall, dearest?”
Ana breathed a sigh of relief, and she felt Tori squeeze her hand back before letting go to drink water. Tori looked at Ana and mouthed “Thank you.”
“Remember that pregnant woman who was found dead in her bed…” Uncle Tony started.
“Yeah! The one killed by the asuang?” Trinidad asked, slicing a piece of red chicken with her spoon and fork.
“Nonsense! The husband admitted to the crime. Says the child isn’t his so he killed his wife…”
“Oh dear! How very… very…. wicked!” Trinidad said, her high pitched voice echoing in the room. “That poor baby! That poor girl!”
“That’s not all!” Tony said. “He said he lost control over his body, like he was being controlled! The story people tell themselves! Ha!”