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Chapter III

Maria
Ansonia, CT – June 2038

Maria stares at a photograph on her dresser from her first birthday, the only photo where both her parents appear together. Each time she looks at it, she thinks of the first time she asked why the three of them aren’t in the same house like a normal family. Her mother had said that it was for the best. Maria shakes her head now at how simple and naive the answer was. The two just aren’t in love the way parents should be.

Staring at this photo as she’s done so many times before, Maria can’t help but wonder what drew her parents together in the first place. Her mother, without the years of stress aging her pale face, has the kind of innocent beauty that few take notice of. Her father, on the other hand, has a face few would consider pleasing but a rich, deep skin tone to make up for it. Although she is thankful she gets most of her looks from her mother, she wishes she looked more Italian. Her heritage is one of the few things she’s proud of.

“Maria Lee Thomas, are you even listening to me?”

She looks away from the photograph to her exasperated mother. “Not really,” she says, rolling her r. When she’s home or with her father or immigrant nonni, Maria often tries to mimic their accents; anything to make her feel closer to her heritage.

Her mother’s voice raises half an octave, but Maria still doesn’t listen. This isn’t the first time she’s been caught with marijuana, and this isn’t the first lecture she’s heard. Nothing her mother says about the drug-sniffing dogs always patrolling the streets, or the fact that even one little nanogram would get the two of them, plus her grandparents, sent to prison for life is new to her. The omnipotent police force has made these laws plain and clear; they can be heard from one of the many speakers located around town.

Instead of listening to her mother’s tired rant, Maria flicks through the messages on her standard-issue phone, thankful for the hacks that block the government’s ability to tap into the device at any time. If they heard this conversation, they’d be busting down the door right this minute. Why can’t her mother see that she has everything covered? The phone modifications she and her boyfriend have programmed, the odorless variant of marijuana, the code names…

As she scrolls through the messages, she notices a new one from a blocked number. Before she can open it, her mother snatches the phone from her hands, forcing Maria to finally look at her.

“You’re becoming more and more like your father every day,” her mother says before instantly shutting her mouth.

“And what’s so wrong with Pappa?” Maria asks as she stands. This isn’t the first time some bullshit comment like that has slipped from her mother’s lips, but she still fails to see what is so wrong with her father that warrants her unable to live with him full-time. In her eyes, he cares about her far more than her mother does. “Just because you don’t love him, it doesn’t mean I don’t,” she snaps before grabbing her phone and pushing past her mother.

Anna-Marie grabs her arm. “Maria, do not leave this house.”

“Why not?” she asks as she yanks her arm free. “I’m like my father, and since he’s not here, maybe I shouldn’t be either.”

Before her mother can respond, Maria is gone. She doesn’t know where to go, so she wanders Ansonia. The heat of a summer afternoon in Connecticut embraces her, and she takes her time with each step. Every single officer of the dozens she passes watches her, but she ignores their scrutinizing eyes. In her mind, she has done nothing wrong in possessing that small bag of marijuana; she’s just surviving. If she didn’t have drugs to calm her, she believes she’d have gone on a rampage by now. When an officer walking a dog passes, however, she is thankful that there are no drugs on her person now. The dog glances in her direction, but if there’s a scent of marijuana on her, it’s too faint for the German shepherd to care.

Everywhere she looks, houses are on the verge of collapse, but she knows they’re not abandoned. What little money people have now is put towards food and clothes, not the maintenance and repair of their homes. Unemployment may be lower now with Robert Graham in office, and at least entire families don’t have to live in one crowded house anymore, but America isn’t the way they envisioned, typical of the government to not deliver on their promises. If she could, she’d do something about it.

Maria wanders down Main Street, looking at the various stores and restaurants. None are locally-owned, but at least there are stores inhabiting these once-empty spaces. A loudspeaker attached to a streetlamp a few yards away broadcasts a friendly reminder of the most commonly violated laws. Maria ignores the enthusiastic female voice as she sits on a bench outside a pizzeria. She inhales the scents of garlic and dough, reminding her of baking calzones with her nonna. Her nonno is said to have bragged about Maria’s culinary prowess once to relatives back in Italy.

She smiles at the thought, leaning back in her seat, resting her elbows on the back of the bench. Looking around, she notices an officer with unusually long hair, his head angled towards her. She knows he’s watching her, but the fact that he pretends he’s not is what catches her attention; officers are usually very obvious in their surveillance.

Come at me, she almost taunts, but she keeps her mouth shut. No need to be thrown into prison over nothing. To distract herself, she pulls her phone out and finally reads the message from the blocked number.

You might want to ask your mommy and daddy about the past, it reads.

Bothered by both the cryptic message and being watched by a peculiar officer, she stands. Her first reaction is to go to her father, but given the emphasis on him in the message, his name written in italics, she heads to her boyfriend’s house instead.

Knowing Evan is alone at this time of day, Maria knocks twice, casually kicks the door, then knocks once more: code to let him know it’s safe to answer regardless of his current state of mind. When he does, she quickly enters and locks the door behind her.

“Hey, you,” he says before pulling her close for a kiss. “What up?” he asks, still holding onto her.

Leaning into him and looking up at his eyes, she smiles. “Can we have a drink?” Using her American accent now, she keeps her voice down, not wanting to alert any possible officers passing outside.

“You can have anything, babe,” he says before letting go. He leads her past the living room and into the den where his bum uncle sleeps. The room, void of any sunlight or fresh air, smells of body odor and cheap candles, and the mattress in the corner has numerous stains on it. Very little disturbs Maria, but this room gets to her. She stands in the doorway as Evan digs through the closet, lifting several bottles before grabbing one in particular. As she follows him to the kitchen, bright despite the closed curtains, she sees that he chose peppermint schnapps.

After he pours two shots, she lifts her glass and brings it to her nose. Its minty scent brings a smile to her face. “I’m surprised you have this,” she says. What really surprises her is that he already knows this is her favorite drink after only a month of dating.

After they down their shots, Evan shrugs. “My uncle has his ways, I guess.”

“Bless that man,” Maria laughs as she slides herself onto the counter beside the glasses and bottle.

“Why are we day-drinking?” he asks, leaning against a chair at the table across from Maria. His tone is light-hearted, but Maria can hear sincerity in it. “Did you hear back from UConn?”

She shakes her head and forces a laugh. “Like, my grades senior year were bomb, but not so much the other three years.” She shrugs, pouring what looks close enough to half a shot for herself. “My grandpa seems to think I’ll get in because of how I turned my grades around or some shit, despite the late application.”

“I think the fact that you actually applied means you’ll get in. You and the other, like, nine applicants,” he laughs. “What would you even study there?”

“Political science.” When he laughs, she gives him a look. “What’s so funny?”

The smile not fading from his thick lips, Evan shakes his head. “I’m surprised you wouldn’t go for software engineering or development. So, what’s the occasion, then?”

Maria is silent for a moment. Her relationship with guys has always only been physical; none have cared why she did what she did. She eyes the twenty-year-old beside her with his dark eyes and skin and fuzzy black buzz cut. Even the way he looks at her screams that he’s different from the others, and she isn’t sure she likes it. Instead of answering the question, she drinks the half-shot in her glass.

An eyebrow raised, Evan watches her. “Need to talk?”

“My mamma flushed the bag I just bought,” she says as she pulls out her phone and shows him the cryptic message. “Also, this. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” she asks.

Evan crosses his arms. “Have you asked your parents about it?” He looks up at her. There’s genuine concern in his expression.

Maria snorts, setting the phone on the counter. “They’re both so weird about the past. I’ve asked them about the day I was born and the day they met and little kid shit like that, and they’re always so vague about it.” Saying this aloud, she begins to wonder if there really is something neither of them is telling her.

Reaching for her phone, Evan looks over the message. “That’s some quality hacking,” he mutters. “‘Daddy’ is italicized.” Handing the phone back to Maria, he adds, “I’d go to him first.”

She stares at the phone in her hands. It’s been a few weeks since she’s seen him; even if she gets no answers, it’ll be worth visiting him. As she stands and slips the phone back into her pocket, Evan stands with her and wraps his arms around her. “Do you have a BlocLoz?” she asks after a kiss.

Nodding, he slips past her and disappears down the hall. While he’s gone, she rinses out her glass, fills it with water, and drinks it. As she places the empty glass back onto the counter, he returns with a small baggie containing several red cough drop-sized lozenges. She takes one of the cherry-flavored alcohol scent-blockers, kisses him once more, and leaves.

Although the walk from Ansonia to Derby is less than half an hour, Maria is impatient and heads for the bus stop around the corner from Evan’s house. Not five minutes later, she’s on the bus, paying with a tap of her phone against the receiver beside the driver and taking a seat towards the back. By the time she gets off at the Mobile beside her father’s house, she’s gone through about a thousand explanations for why her parents have been so vague. As she heads up the outside stairs of the two-family house and lets herself into the upstairs unit, she decides she’s not leaving until she gets the truth.

“Pappa,” she calls while shutting the door behind her. Barely realizing it, she’s shifted back into her faint Italian accent. Dante appears in the doorway of the living room, and she wraps her arms around him.

“Hey, kiddo,” he says, his accent thicker than hers. His voice is warm, as is his embrace. It’s different than the warmth her mother gives off; it feels less natural, but far more comforting. Maria has always attributed it to their genders. “What brings you here?”

She half-throws herself onto the couch against the wall facing the street, kicks off her flip-flops, and pulls her knees to her chest. “Can’t I just come see my pappa because I love him?” she jokes.

An uneasy look washes over Dante. “You could,” he starts, sitting beside her, “but I know you better than that.” He studies her for a moment. “What’s up?”

Sitting forward, she puts her feet on the freshly-vacuumed carpet and rubs her toes over the course fibers. With a deep breath, she pulls out her phone and shows him the message. He stares at it for a long while before shaking his head slowly, his thumb and finger pinching the bridge of his nose. “The bastard,” he mutters under his breath.

Maria sits forward in her seat, leaning slightly to get a better view of his face. “What bastard?”

He shakes his head again and stands, then faces Maria. As he looks at her, she stares into his eyes, wondering if the pain she sees there is real or just a figment of her imagination. He looks as if he’s on the verge of tears, and it makes her heart feel like lead.

“Pappa?” she pleads, unsettled by his reaction.

As she says this, he looks away, and she swears a tear falls from his eye. “Maria, you know I love you more than the world,” he says as he sits back down. His hand rests on her cheek before he pulls her into his arms again.

“Pappa, you’re scaring me,” she whispers into his chest.

He holds her at arm’s length and looks into her eyes. “Whatever happens, I want you to know I mean that, and I always will.”

Scooting away from him, she furrows her brows. “What is going on?”

Dante takes a deep breath and looks away. “There are things about your birth that your ma and I never thought you’d have to find out about.”

As he says this, Maria suddenly feels as though the air is in short supply. “Why is ‘daddy’ italicized?” Her voice is barely audible. Of all the things she imagined about what the message could mean, this is turning into the worst of them.

When he looks back at her, his eyes are red and the pain is obvious. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but no words come out.

She stands, her hands at her side. “You’re not…” she tries to say, but her voice fails before she can finish. Dante stands and reaches for her. As much as she wants to run into his arms, she takes a step away with her heart in her stomach.

“The message, the bastard,” she says after a moment, trying her hardest not to cry. “Is that my father?” She chokes on the last word, and a single tear trails down her cheek. He’s one of the few people who have seen her cry, but now, she doesn’t want to feel so vulnerable; she doesn’t want this imposter, this stranger, to see her like this.

Dante shakes his head. “It’s someone against your pa.”

This is definitely not what Maria had been expecting. She just stares at the man she once called Pappa, trying to make sense of what he just said. “Who is he, then?” She pauses a moment. “Who’s my birth father?”

“An old friend. He was sick, going from one addiction to the other.”

“So you just took over?” she interjects, anger clear in her voice.

Dante holds his hand up in defense. “Maria—”

When he says her name, something clicks in her mind. She’s not actually Italian. “What—” starts, but clears her throat before continuing, this time without the slight accent. “What, did you name me, too? Give me an Italian name, and I’ll just be half Italian?”

“Maria,” Dante repeats, his voice louder and stern. She closes her mouth immediately, but her glare doesn’t falter. “You know where your name comes from.” He pauses a moment. “Lee, though…” he adds, defeat in his voice that only grows as he continues. “Lee was his middle name too.”

Slowly looking down, Maria registers what he says. I have his middle name, she thinks, a smile slowly spreading across her lips. As she thinks of her own name, another thought comes to mind, and her smile quickly disappears. “Why are you on my birth certificate?”

“That was not my plan,” he answers quickly. “I would have been a father to you regardless of my name being on that line. Someone your pa knew just thought it would be easier for you this way.”

Maria crosses her arms. “They thought it’d be better to lie to me than to tell me the truth that my real father didn’t want me.” She chokes back a sob; saying the words aloud makes the truth hurt more. In her heart, she can’t blame the man before her; he’s more of a father than the sperm donor who gave her up. “If you loved me so much, why would you lie to me?”

Dante takes a step closer, but she turns away. “Is Mamma my real mom?” Her voice continues to rise in hysteria. She doesn’t actually doubt this; she only asks to make a point.

Dante’s shoulders drop and his brows knit together. “Of course, Maria.”

“Then why—” she starts, but tears mumble her words. Swallowing hard, she forces herself to continue before breaking down. “Why would you—why would she do that to me?” She’s on the couch, doubled-over. She can no longer hold the tears back, and the person that usually can set her world right is the one that turned it upside-down. Dante sits beside her and places a hand on her shoulder, but she immediately shies away from him.

“Maria, I’m so—” he starts, but she stands again.

“No. Don’t even,” she cries and hurries out of the apartment. Nearly tripping over herself, she runs down the stairs and out onto the street. She doesn’t stop running for the full twenty minutes until she’s at the doorstep of the small house she and her mother share with her grandparents—her only real grandparents, she realizes. Her legs and lungs burning, she stumbles up the steps and finally collapses in the foyer after slamming the door. Her body shakes as she gasps for air between sobs.

Her heart tries to tell her that it shouldn’t matter, that Dante is no less a father to her now than he was an hour ago; her mind, though, knows that her world has been shattered and she has no idea where to go or who to turn to. As she sees it, everyone in her life who was supposed to be there to support her has been lying to her. She feels stupid for believing it all. At this point, the only thing that can calm her is the marijuana her mother likely already flushed.

Just seconds after her entry, her mother and grandmother are at her side. Anna-Marie pulls her into her lap, but Maria pushes away. “How could you do this to me?” she cries, looking into her mother’s eyes. When confusion washes over her mother, Maria sits up. “Dante—you and Dante,” she gasps, unsure if she’s even comprehensible. “Both of you have lied to me my whole life!” Her sobbing shakes her body and mars her words so much that even she can’t understand what she’s saying.

Maria’s grandmother pulls her to her feet before pulling her into an embrace. Directing Maria to the living room, she glares at Anna-Marie. “Lied about what?” the woman slowly asks. She’s never been one to console Maria in anything, but Maria welcomes the comfort. The woman may be cold, but at least she’s constant, and as far as Maria can tell, she hasn’t lied.

“Mom…” Anna-Marie tries, then sighs. Brushing something off around her grandmother doesn’t happen, and Maria imagines the woman’s harsh glare as she silently demands the truth. She’s seen her mother buckle under it several times growing up.

“Dante isn’t her birth father.” Anna-Marie’s voice is small and resigned, and Maria hates her for it. She sounds as if it’s painful to admit; Maria wishes the rugs could be pulled out from under her feet instead.

As she sits on the couch with Maria, her grandmother is silent, a first for a woman who has an opinion about everything.

Hearing the words aloud make them all the more real. Sitting up, Maria looks back into her mother’s eyes. “Who is my birth father?”

Anna-Marie sighs as she sits beside Maria. “His name is Dylan.” Her grandmother scoffs, but Anna-Marie ignores it as she continues. “He wasn’t as ready to be a father as he thought he’d be. Dante was like a brother to Dylan. It was just natural for him to act as a father for you.”

“Why is Dante’s name on my certificate, then?”

Her mother plays with the hem of her blouse. “The campaign manager Dylan was working for said it would be best for you.

“Easier for me!” Maria exclaims as she stands. “Bullshit. It was easier for you and P—Dante.” She makes her way to her room, pulling out her phone as she does so. Of course, there are two messages from Evan. The first: What happened with your dad? The second, sent about ten minutes later: Hey, Mamma Nina’s has a new pizza flavor. We should go try it!

Although it’s worded slightly different each time, Maria recognizes the code: the government has quietly sent out a security update to mobile devices. She knows she should be on the computer, updating the modification she and Evan developed to keep their phones relatively private from the government, but she has no energy left to care. Instead, she sends a message back to Evan.

Dante’s not my birth father. Does Mamma Nina’s offer delivery?

She sets her phone on the nightstand beside her bed. Not only has her world been set upside-down, but she doesn’t even know who she is. Dylan could be of French or German ancestry for all she knows, and she should have grown up eating snails and baguettes or calling her parents Mutti and Vatti. She could have grown up taking pride in looking like her father, instead of wishing she looked more like him.

She shakes her head. Even if she had grown up knowing Dante wasn’t her biological father, would she really have pushed away the only man willing to fill the role? She wonders if she would still have grown up calling him pappa and his parents Nonna and Nonno, or if she would still make a pepperoni roll her nonni would be proud of.

Maria rolls over to face the dusty rose-colored wall. If she had grown up knowing the truth, she would have accepted it. Now, she feels as though it’s too late.

Her phone goes off, but she ignores the notification for an hour. When she rolls over to grab her phone, she can’t decide if she had fallen asleep. I’ll grab a couple slices and be over in an hour. Don’t do anything stupid, the message reads.

Placing her phone back on her nightstand, Maria mulls over the second part of Evan’s message. He could be referring to the fact that the modification that protects her phone from the government’s ability to tap into it is now out-of-date; he could also be worried about the fact that she self-medicates with drugs when her emotions become too stressful.

October 2013

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