“Maybe,” said Antonio, voice trembling, “we could keep them. There can be strength in weakness.”
Coach Brunt stood up and marched right up to him, her hate-filled green eyes staring, first at him, then at the squirming bundles in his arms. Antonio stopped talking. He always hated those eyes. They saw how Antonio jolted nervously, and beneath the friendly Southern demeanor lay a dangerous woman who wanted to watch the world burn. With his children and him in it.
Suddenly, her massive left hand struck him across the cheek so hard he stumbled back and fell on his knees. It would probably leave a mark, but that was not what worried him. The babies began to cry, first Beaumont and then Estrella, and at that moment, he wanted to cry with them.
Crouching to his level, she began to speak. “There’s weakness in weakness,” she spat, “they are mistakes and must be taken care of.”
Antonio snapped his eyes shut, holding back the dam of unsaid things about to burst. “We could take care of them. With your guidance-”
She slapped him again and he went silent, instead focusing on comforting the young ones. He held them in a grip that assured their safety while shielding them from the woman before him. He would have liked to see her try. They weren’t mistakes, not to him and not to Jean-Paul. He would not let VILE take them away.
Then Jean-Paul’s appalled and angry voice rang out toward the entrance of the faculty room. “What is the meaning of this?”
It was hard to believe it was only a few weeks ago that everything happened. The accidental creation of their children. Running away with nothing but the bare essentials. Learning that VILE had a bounty on his family’s heads.
Most of all, he could still hardly believe they were parents now. They’d always played with the idea like young couples in love would do sometimes, but the idea had always been unlikely, out of reach. VILE, as Coach Brunt so generously made clear a month or so ago, did not want operatives to have children, especially after Black Sheep.
Antonio could never understand why she left…until now, that is, when he had to do practically the same thing she had. Carmen had more foresight than he could wish to ever have. He’d always thought it was just some rebellion, because if he knew Carmen, rules didn’t matter. Morals did. But no, Carmen saw through the loving, familial facade and had the courage to leave before it was too late. He wished he could see her again, apologize, maybe become friends again.
For now though, his focus was on his children. The situation was overwhelming, staying at a motel in California until they scraped up enough money to find a flat someplace. The place they stayed in was small but clean enough and affordable, but that didn’t stop them from having to try to find work. Jean-Paul worked nights while Antonio worked day shifts. The money their friends had stolen from VILE could not last forever. They desperately needed cribs, bottles, and food on the table, and it was getting increasingly hard to do so. It broke Antonio’s heart. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not for his own children. The circumstances reminded him too much of his own childhood. He didn’t want them to live like this, a life lived hand-to-mouth and unstable.
Jean-Paul wasn’t faring much better. Never, even on missions that were long and didn’t allow him to get normal sleep, had Antonio seen him so exhausted. He kept a brave face up like he always did, but it would unravel eventually, just like everything else seemed to be doing. They comforted each other and the newborns when they could, but between both having a few odd jobs lasting hours, they seldom saw much of each other.
“You know,” whispered Jean-Paul to him when they had the time to once, “the worst part about VILE was that I felt the highest that I ever had. That was their game all along. They make you feel like you need them. If you leave, one way or the other…”
“...it all goes downhill.” A solemn silence fell between them. VILE had developed codependency among their operatives. They needed them, for disguises, money, shelter, and more. That, they thought, would create unquestioning loyalty. They were nothing without them.
Antonio perked up. They hadn’t gotten to him or Jean-Paul and they never would now. At least, he hoped so. “But you know what, mi amor?”
“The best part about downhill is that there is nowhere to go but the path we are on.”
He saw Jean-Paul genuinely smile for the first time in what felt like years. He pulled Antonio closer, kissing him on the cheek. “I needed that, cher, thank you.” With that, he leaned over to brush his fingers over the children’s heads and was off.
Antonio scooped up the twins, sleeping peacefully on one of the beds. He looked at them, really looked at them, for the first time in a while. He was taken aback by how strong the resemblance was.
Stella was a strikingly lovely girl, with dark fuzz covering her tiny head except for a small patch on her front left side that was silver. Just like Antonio’s. And it seemed she had inherited Jean-Paul’s height, for she was a few centimeters taller than Monty and would probably grow taller as she got older. She also smiled a lot, and her grin, while toothless for now, was radiant. Whenever she smiled like that, both men were reminded of why they named her Estrella.
On the other hand, Monty did not have the streak, but he was a petite baby. He was a quiet child, but he always looked up at his parents with those large doe eyes that always appeared to look for an answer for everything in that inquisitive look some children have. Antonio joked to Jean-Paul once that he always seemed to look up at the mountains. He had the rounded shape of the Frenchman’s face and Antonio’s sharp nose.
The siblings were spitting images, mirrors, yet also complete opposites. Rather, he thought to himself, like Jean-Paul and me.
There is an emotion new or expectant parents feel at least once during preparation or post-child periods. A deep, horrid dread that you can never shake or predict to sneak up on you in the first few months of parenthood. It is this feeling, the type you could never put a name to, that struck Antonio at that very instant.
All at once, he began to sigh, feeling the weight of life settle in once more. He decided to tell them a story. The story he wasn’t so proud of. “So, mijos,” he said quietly to the twins he knew neither heard nor understood what he was saying, “I suppose I should start from the beginning. Your papá and I met at a very bad place when we were eighteen years old. Now, you may not understand this now, but he and I had nothing to lose. Estrella, Beaumont, I hope you never in your lives experience what that is like. When those gunshots took my brother…”
Antonio paused, feeling a familiar mist of tears already flaring up. He chuckled as he wiped them away in a motion he knew too well.
“Anyway,” he continued, “your father did not have an easy time, either. His papá… was not a nice man. Maybe one day he can tell you everything, but that is the gist of it.”
He stared contemplatively into the distance of the room. “We thought the bad place was the answer,” he said, and his voice came out broken, “a way to escape the awful lives we had. It was not right, but we were young and after all, where did the right path ever lead us?”
Antonio huffed. “The truth is, novios,” he choked, “we were terrified after joining. It all seemed like the perfect family at first and then it all crumbled before our eyes. Our friends slowly began disappearing. The rules tightened and punishment was severe. That is why I always went with your papá. We could not bear the thought of losing each other, at least not while the other…didn’t know what was happening.”
At this point, Monty began to squirm. His wide doe-like eye fixated on him, but they did not judge. They questioned, egged him on. Stella arose soon afterward, not crying, but almost as if she were listening. Antonio grinned gently and picked both up again. “I do not know if you are destined for romance. Maybe you’re not, and that is okay, but that is what your papá and I have for each other. I want you to know that it is not the only love that exists,” he murmured, kissing Monty’s forehead first, and then Stella’s, “there is a family love. And that is the love your papá and I have for you. Never forget that you always have that.”
Monty’s eyes still blinked slowly up at him, and Stella had a small, curious smile upon her features. “So you want me to finish the story?” He nuzzled them gently, signifying he would. “Okay. One day, one of the evil people, a scientist, accidentally made something good for once. You wanna know what it was?”
He ran his fingers through the backs of their heads. “You. You two were the best things to happen to us in a long while. The bad guys couldn’t stand having nice little children like you and wanted to take you away to do evil things to you and to us as punishment.”
Stella cried out, and Antonio swore Monty reached out his chubby baby arm to hold hers. “Do not be afraid, my dear Estrellita,” he cooed soothingly into her ear, “this story does not end here.”
“Even though we thought we would not leave the bad place ever again, something else happened. The bad place did not mean there were all bad people. And those few special good people were also our friends. They didn’t want this story to end badly either. One day, I will tell you all about them. They have different stories for different days.” He hoped they were all still alive; Tigress, Dash, Mime Bomb, Widow, even Paper Star and Siren didn’t deserve to keep suffering in that greedy, selfish wasteland of shallow relics with no appreciation for the humanity behind them.
“I cannot say I was a hero in the story,” he breathed regretfully, “in fact, I was the bad guy until you two came along. I’m not even sure I am now.”
Antonio looked at the sweet faces and they looked back. They’re so good, he thought with a swell of pride. He could barely believe that his life, this messy, imperfect story, led to these two amazing, remarkable new lives with what he hoped to be a happier beginning. “I’m going to level with you,” he told them, “I am sorry. I know it seems like I’m not acting like a new parent should act, and I cannot excuse that. The truth is…”
There was a pause as he searched for the words. “...I am still afraid. I always have been. I was afraid only for myself at first, when I had no one else to worry about anymore. When I started having friends at the bad place, I worried for them. That never stopped bad things from happening. I was especially terrified of losing your father, that I’d slip up again and lose him one way or the other.”
Antonio didn’t know it, but he held them tightly, protectively, just like when he faced Coach Brunt so many weeks ago. “And now,” he said, beginning to cry, “I am afraid for you. I am a bad person, so why not a bad father? What if you two get hurt because of my mistakes? What happens if the bad guys find out where we are? Will they win?”
He didn’t even try to pull himself together now. Without a sound, he put them down. He laid down, buried his face in his hands, and let the tears flow. The sunset of California had long passed, leaving the room illuminated by the large lamp in the corner, not that he could see it now. Antonio hopelessly tried to stop.
Hopelessness, it seemed, had become his constant companion for the longest time.
At last, he regained his composure, and when he did, the babies were asleep again. However, there was a change in position he hadn’t noticed until now.
Stella nestled against his arm while Monty was tucked into his chest. He held his arms around them, returning their closeness in kind. With the tender moment came the first moment of peace Antonio had in what had perhaps been forever. Antonio took a deep breath, at peace with himself. It was such a big change from the barrage of emotions earlier, and he found that he didn’t mind.
“I bet you wanted to know the end.” He smiled softly, looking down at the sleeping figures. Tonight had been a rollercoaster, but he knew what to say now. “Honestly, I don’t know either. That’s for you to find out. What I do know is that it is too late to rewrite the past. What it is not too late for is to change now and rewrite the ending. I can’t change who I was, but I can change who I am. And I will. If it means you can have a story of your own, a happy one, I promise I will.”
He kissed them softly, closed his eyes, and waited for the courage, for the hope, for the morning to come.
They made it. As Antonio looked at his now not so little children, he could not help thinking it with joyousness mixed with a tinge of relief.
Beside his daughter was his new daughter-in-law who, as fate would have it, was none other than Sydney Sandiego, the sole child of the friends he thought he would never see again.
Graham and Carmen Sandiego sat across from him at the table, and they were no longer friends. They were far, far more. You could not have seen a more harmonious relationship between in-laws.
They sat together often in each others’ houses, eating and talking and laughing, the past finally behind them. Antonio noted with a touch of pride that Stella was holding Sydney’s hand underneath the table. He knew that love too well, for his own sweetheart Jean-Paul sat beside him as well, leaning his still taller frame upon Antonio’s. He had started graying and growing out a small goatee, something Antonio begrudgingly accepted. The lines around Antonio’s own eyes were from the many smiles the years had brought him. Nonetheless, they were still truly, wholly in love after almost thirty years. In the corner of the table was Monty, who had recently accepted a job as a math professor at a prestigious university. He still had that doe-like, curious sparkle in his bespectacled eyes.
Yes, the memory of VILE and all the pain it caused was naught but a distant memory.
Antonio was content. Because this story, despite all its cliffhangers and flaws, had a happy ending at last.