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The Tomato Plant Doesn't Grow Mangos

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January 3, 1993

Something was coming.

Ligaya jolted awake, straining to make out the sound that had wrenched her from sleep. At first, she couldn't hear anything over the thudding of her heart, beating like a dabakan drum. Then, it came again.

A thud.

Not from within her apartment, not yet. The sound seemed to come from the stairwell. She was the only tenant on the top floor of a five-story walk-up. No one had any reason to be approaching her floor in the middle of the night.

Another thud. Like coconuts falling on a tin roof back home.

Could it be coming from the roof?

Garlic! Her Lola had cautioned her to hang cloves of garlic by her windows and doors, but she hadn’t listened. Ligaya had a degree from the UP Manila School of Nursing - she was educated, not like the old women in the village with their horror stories about the manananggal - vampires that preyed on pregnant women and sucked out the heart of the unborn child. Ligaya knew the difference between folklore and reality. Besides, this was New York City, not a remote barangay in her native Philippines.

And yet… and yet...

Her baby stirred in her womb. Restless. But so tiny. Too tiny to be sensing her agitation. And Ligaya thought: How could I take a chance, with her?

She threw the covers aside and swung her legs off the mattress. She wasn’t going to cower in her bed. Her mind raced. Hide? Or find something to defend herself? She padded into the kitchen in the dark, debating whether to turn on a light.

THUD!

It was louder now. Closer. Almost outside her door!

Ligaya forced herself to breathe more slowly - to think! A manananggal had bat-like wings for a reason. It wouldn’t be trudging up five flights of stairs to lurk in the hallway. Don't panic, she told herself. Be calm.

She took a deep breath and unlocked the front door, leaving the chain securely in place. Then, as quietly as she could, she opened the door just a crack.

A strange man was hauling himself up the last steps to the landing.

The overhead light flickered. Nothing unusual in that; it happened all the time. Three of the four light bulbs had long since burned out, and the remaining one cast a pool of weak light directly below it, leaving the rest of the corridor in deep shadow. As the intruder moved to the top of the stairs, Ligaya shrank back. The man was as dark as the shadows from which he emerged – hair, coat, and scowling expression.

She glanced back at the glowing numbers of the clock on the microwave. Just past midnight. Taking one step away from the door, she turned toward the phone on the wall and 9-1-1 and help. A young voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Dad?”

She couldn’t help herself. She turned back.

The stranger stood directly under the single light bulb. She could see now that he wasn’t alone. He was leaning heavily on a skinny little kid about eight or nine years old, hand digging into the boy’s shoulder. Behind them, a slightly older boy struggled to carry two heavy duffels that seemed as though they might actually outweigh him. He dropped them by the door to the vacant apartment across from hers to fumble out a set of keys, and Ligaya realized that was the sound she had heard – someone setting the bags down on each landing before summoning the strength to tackle the next flight of stairs.

Something had clanged in at least one of the duffels. Clothing, Ligaya reflected, didn’t sound like that.

The boy dragged the heavier bag across the floor to prop open the door, and then stepped aside as the man and his pint-sized human crutch limped past him into their rooms. Was the man drunk? Hurt? Sick? Ligaya was a nurse, after all; should she…

Before she could finish the thought, she found a pair of bright eyes meeting her gaze. How did the boy know she was there, watching? How could he see her through the sliver of her open door, her apartment dark as pitch behind her?

Somehow, he did. His head dipped in the slightest of nods, and in a voice rough with weariness, he said, “It’s alright, ma’am. We’re your new neighbors. Go back to sleep.”

There was a low rumble from inside their apartment, and she could hear the boy answer, "Yeah, Dad. Gonna move the car right now." Then he closed their door and with a last glance in her direction, he trotted back down the stairs.

Ligaya started back to her room, but her inquisitive nature drew her instead to the living room window that overlooked the street. The boy hadn't looked old enough to drive a car. But sure enough, he emerged under the street lamp and got into the driver's side of a big black four-door sedan that reminded her of cars she had seen on 60's TV shows. Then, the car pulled away from the curb and disappeared down the street.

Huh.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Ligaya was happy to discover that the new neighbors were actually the new building super, John Winchester and his sons. It was such a relief, Ligaya thought, to have a handyman on the premises. The building was a crumbling old brownstone, and the nagpapalaki ng bayag landlord never set foot in it unless it was to evict someone. But someone had to be there to fix the boiler when it shuddered and died. Someone had to handle plumbing emergencies and collapsing ceilings. Someone had to clear and re-set the rat traps. That someone, in the winter of 1993, was named Winchester.

The new super went door-to-door through the tenement building the next day, introducing himself and his sons. Whatever had been wrong with him the night he moved in, he seemed to have recovered quickly. Or was able to hide it well, Ligaya thought, though she couldn't really imagine why one would want to, and how one would get practiced at that.

There were firm handshakes all around. The man oozed capability. The older boy was Dean, a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, dressed in a battered leather jacket like his father. He had his father’s posture, too: part military bearing and part poised on the balls of his feet like a boxer, ready for anything. Dean had restless eyes, studying each neighbor as if looking for trouble. The younger boy was Sam, and he was nine (“ten in May!”). His eyes shone with curiosity, and he had his father’s dimples.

Ligaya didn't know it then, but that introduction was the first and last time she would see John Winchester’s friendly smile.


January 24, 1993

Ligaya loved Sundays. She loved taking the train into midtown Manhattan in the morning, and attending Mass in the 100-year-old St. Francis of Assisi Church, tucked away in the Garment District. The mosaics in the church were beautiful, but her favorite thing of all was the new statue of Mary, gathering children of many cultures in the shelter of her blue cloak. At the centennial celebration, the statue was dedicated to all the people who'd found a new home in America, and it felt like a sign to Ligaya. A new country - a new baby on the way - it was a sign that everything was as it was meant to be. She looked forward to having their baby baptized at St. Francis, when Lorenzo's tour in Iraq was over and he was finally home.

She was smiling at the thought as she bundled up her coat to head outside, her pregnant belly starting to strain the buttons.

Making her way downstairs, more slowly now that she'd entered her seventh month, she heard the thundering of boots above her. She reached the third floor landing and pressed herself against the wall just in time. Dean came charging down first, brushing past with one hand on the newel post, but he took the turn wide. Sammy was right on his heels and tried to pass him on the inside, but Dean held on to the banister and clothes-lined his little brother.

Sam bounced backward, just barely colliding with Ligaya, and Dean took off with a triumphant laugh.

"Oh my gosh!" Sam's eyes were comically wide as he realized he'd bumped into a pregnant lady. "I'm sorry! Are you alright?"

"Yes, I'm fine," she reassured him. They reminded her of her rambunctious little brother back home. Not so little any more, she thought. "Are you boys -” she didn't think it was likely, but she couldn't help asking. "Are you on your way to church?"

Sam walked carefully by her elbow as they descended the rest of the way, ready to help if she needed it. "No. We're going to Staten Island!" He beamed. "We're gonna take the ferry and see the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty and everything!"

As they rounded the landing to the second floor, Ligaya could see Dean waiting impatiently at the bottom of the stairs. Sam lowered his voice conspiratorially. "It's Dean's birthday today! And I'm gonna treat him to an egg cream!"

"An egg cream, eh? Dean likes egg creams?"

"I don't know. We never had one. They kinda sound disgusting, don't they!" Sam's face scrunched up. "But my teacher, Ms. Strootman, she says everyone should find a soda shop and try an egg cream when they come to New York. And she says there's chocolate in them, so..." he trailed off, looking doubtful.

"You know, Sam, they don't really have raw eggs in them. Or cream either."

"Really? Oh, thank you!" Sam's shoulders sagged in relief, and his delighted smile was contagious.

She couldn't help but think of her brother Benny, saving up his pesos in an empty mango jar to buy her that giant wooden fork and spoon as a wedding present. She loved them; they were hanging now on her kitchen wall. "I'm sure Dean'll really appreciate you spending your allowance on him like this," she said.

"Allowance? We don't get an allowance." Sam's hand snaked into his pocket and he jingled the change there, a reassuring sound that his funds were safe. Then he glanced around, making sure no one else was in hearing range. "I won the money," he murmured. "Playing chess in the park."

Ligaya stifled a laugh. The chess tables in the city parks were a common sight; even in winter, they drew a crowd. She was pretty sure the matches weren't supposed to be for money, though. But she found she had no trouble imagining Sammy hustling some older, more experienced player who thought he might teach an overconfident nine-year-old a lesson.

"Dude. Come on!" Dean's hand flexed on the handle to the entrance door as they reached the lobby.

"I hear it's your birthday, Dean," Ligaya said warmly. "Congratulations!"

"Yeah, well." Dean tossed her a quick, suspicious glance and then he looked down at his shoes, restlessly pawing the linoleum. It made Ligaya a little sad that he had already learned the New Yorker creed of not making eye contact with strangers. And sad, too, that it seemed he had no interest in being friends with her.

"What about your dad?" she asked. "Isn't he spending your birthday with you?"

Dean seemed inclined to pretend she wasn't speaking to him and just take off, but Sam was happy to explain. "Dad had to go this cemetery... I mean, to a funeral," Sam told her. "He said he'd have to wait till spring to give Dean his present, because he's going to take us to a baseball game! Me, too! ‘Cause by then it'll be my birthday, too, so it will be a present for both of us! I don't know if we're gonna see the Mets or the Yankees..."

"She doesn't care about all that, Sam." Dean elbowed his over-sharing little brother through the door, and Sam reluctantly let it go. By the time Ligaya followed them outside, they were already half a block away.

She understood. It wasn't cool to be seen walking with a neighbor lady.

In the end, they wound up in the same subway station anyway. Ligaya couldn't help cringing a little at the dank and bitter smells. Early on a Sunday morning, the homeless people who took refuge there were still tucked against the walls, mostly asleep. One woman sat in the shadows, surrounded by ripped and swollen garbage bags. Her head was wrapped in a dirty scarf, and she was rocking back and forth, crooning to a naked plastic doll with coarse hair that she cradled to her breast.

Ligaya looked away as she passed, but she felt the woman raise her head and sniff. Maybe mocking her? Be kind, she told herself. She didn't like feeling disturbed by people who were less fortunate than she was. The woman probably just had a cold.

Sammy stared at the homeless people with undisguised interest, and Dean tugged his arm to draw him away.

Before the risk of unwanted conversation grew too awkward, they were saved by the blast of wind that sent loose trash and newspapers whipping past. The train roared into view and rumbled to a stop; doors slid open; bodies poured out. Always in a hurry, no matter where they were headed, no matter the time of day. Ligaya squeezed her way inside, hoping for an empty seat. When the doors closed, she realized that the Winchester boys had deliberately chosen a different car.


February, 1993

January rolled into February and her shift changed at Bellevue. It was always hard to adjust to different hours, but Ligaya welcomed the added income the shift differential would bring in. She lived in a crappy apartment for the same reason. Every cent she could spare was going home to put Benito through college.

It was still dark out when she left the hospital, at least dark by New York standards. The sky over New York was never truly black and filled with stars, not like it was back home.

By the time she left the dingy subway station and started her walk home, though, the sun was creeping over the tall buildings. Sanitation trucks rumbled down the streets. When she turned the corner to her building, she saw Dean and Sam unlocking the gate where the apartments' trash bins were chained, and hauling the cans out to the curb.

It was nice, seeing kids acting responsibly like that. Maybe John paid them for helping out now and then, since he didn't believe in allowances. She hadn't decided if her own little one would get an allowance one day or not. Plenty of time to talk it over with Lorenzo and decide that later. Idly, she wondered what the boys might be saving up for this time.

She never saw Dean or Sam in new clothes. No Air Jordan sneakers for them. What they wore looked like they shopped at Goodwill, and were bought a little big so they could grow into them. In this neighborhood? They fit right in.

Over the next few weeks, she came to know their routine. They left for school just after she got home from work, and they came home when she was just getting up. Actually, she wouldn’t have minded getting to sleep a little longer, but they weren’t exactly quiet, and the walls were thin.

Sometimes they apparently just decided to run up and down all five flights of stairs as fast as they could. For no reason. That was literally the answer she got when she stuck her head out the door one day.

“What are you boys doing?” she called as Dean tore down the stairs like something was after him.

“Training!” Sam jogged up the final stairs, dashed to his front door, slapped his hand against it, and turned around to chase his brother back down.

“Training? For what? Track team?”

“No! No reason! Just training!” And then he was gone.

Maybe that was their idea of fun. But they never had any friends over, she noticed. She never saw them playing in the park with other kids.

They seemed to make up their own games. Pretty odd ones, at that.

One evening she found find Sam on his knees in front of his apartment door, frowning at the lock with the tip of his tongue between his teeth. His fingers worked what looked like a straightened paperclip into the key hole.

"Sam? Did you lock yourself out?"

"Not exactly." He didn't look up.

"Pretty embarrassing," she teased, "if the janitor's kid lost his keys. Do you want to come over until your dad gets home?"

"It's just for practice," he said. "Dean's inside, timing me."

Ligaya huffed a laugh. "Just don't practice on my door," she said, jangling her keys at him.

"I got it!" Sam bounced to his feet and opened the door, then raised his skinny arms overhead in triumph. "How'd I do, Dean?"

Dean had a stopwatch in his right hand, but he glared at Ligaya instead of answering his brother. "Our dad's not a janitor," he said, and he pulled Sam inside and closed the door.

It was a week later that she had a chance to talk to them again, when she took her laundry down to the basement and found the boys had beaten her to the two washers.

Dean was shifting a load of whites (or used-to-be-whites-but-now-mostly-grays) from the dryer to a faded pillowcase. He glanced up to see who the intruder was, scowled, and went back to his task. He seemed to be favoring his left shoulder.

Sammy was sitting on one of the washers, drumming his heels against the metal front panel, nose deep in a book. Ligaya recognized the cover: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsberg. She smiled. She'd read it herself when she was a schoolgirl. It was what first gave her the idea of one day living in New York.

"Homework?" she asked, dropping her laundry basket on the folding chair sitting under the fuse box.

"Uh huh." The machine shuddered through the spin cycle's last death throes and fell silent, and Sam hopped off. "You're just in time," he said. "This one's free now!"

"Thanks, Sam."

Dean crammed the last of the sweat socks into his makeshift laundry bag, and as he was closing the lid to the dryer, the pager on his belt loop went off. He checked it and frowned. "I gotta get this," he told his brother. "Come straight up when you're done here."

"Duh, Dean. Where else would I go?"

Dean gave Sam a long, pointed look and Sam's chin dropped in the tiniest of nods. Then Dean hefted his bag over his shoulder like a sailor on leave, winced, and marched out of the room, without a second glance at his neighbor.

Ligaya gestured toward her own collarbone. "How did Dean hurt his shoulder?”

“Dodge ball.” Sam shrugged.

“He doesn’t seem to like me much," Ligaya couldn't help admitting out loud.

"It's not you," Sammy said. He set his book down, using a cracked playing card for a bookmark, and started transferring heavy wet denim and flannel from the washer to the dryer. "Dean doesn't trust strangers."

"I'm not a stranger - I'm your neighbor!" Ligaya reminded him, smiling gently.

"Dean says everyone is a stranger."

The smile faded.

Sam didn't seem to notice. He was examining a navy shirtsleeve that had an even darker splotch on it. "Hey, Miz Reyes?" He looked up. "You're a nurse, right?"

She waved a hand at the maroon scrubs she was wearing. "What gave it away?"

Sam grinned, and shoveled the rest of the clothes in the dryer. "I was thinking maybe you had some tips on how to get out blood stains?"

And as easy as that, she and Sam became friends. Even if she never saw John, and Dean acted like he never wanted to see her.

That evening Ligaya was settling in with her latest baby care book from the library when someone knocked on her door.

"Mrs. Reyes?"

"Yes?"

"I'm Mrs. Lee; this is Mrs. Cosby. We're with Child Protective Services."

Ligaya's thoughts immediately flew to the patients she'd treated at the hospital, trying to remember if she'd seen anything that would concern her. At the same time, her mind was countering with: Why would they interview me at home instead of at work?

Mrs. Lee continued. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about your neighbor. John Winchester. Have you met him?"

"Of course I have." This must be some mistake. "He's the building super. We've all met him. And his sons. They're good kids."

Mrs. Lee made a point of noticing the chipped and peeling paint in the hallway. She flipped open a notebook. "Does it seem as though he's neglecting his job?"

Ligaya frowned. "What does that have to do with anything?" You can't expect a man to fix what the landlord won't pay for, she thought in his defense.

"A man who neglects his job might be a man who neglects his children," Mrs. Cosby explained.

"We’re talking to people, just trying to put together a picture," Mrs. Lee added. "A lack of friends and relatives, avoiding social contacts, underemployment, suspected alcohol abuse. These are all indicators for potential maltreatment or child abuse, ma'am. Have you seen anything like that?"

Ligaya shook her head. "I haven't seen any problems," she assured them. In fact, she couldn't even remember exactly when she'd last seen John Winchester. Still - the apartment complex was better maintained this winter than it had ever been before. Clearly, no neglect there.

Her friend Zoriana, who lived on the ground floor, liked to say that Winchester was like Santa Claus. Or the Easter Bunny. Always showing up when he couldn’t be seen and leaving behind traces that he’d been there and done his job.

"Have you been inside his apartment?” Mrs. Lee asked. “Is it clean? Is there enough food?"

"Why don't you look for yourself?"

"It is our policy to inspect the premises," Mrs. Lee admitted. "No one's home."

That surprised Ligaya a little. As far as she knew, the boys always came straight home from school.

"Normally, of course, when no one is there we could ask the building super to let us in to assess the child's environment," Mrs. Cosby said with a thin-lipped smile at the irony. "But you can understand why that isn't an option here."

"We did call the landlord when no one answered the door," Mrs. Lee continued. "He agreed to come over and let us in." She turned her wrist to look at her watch and frowned. "But clearly that man has no intention of keeping his word. We can't wait here forever." She looked up at Ligaya. "We've already interviewed some of the other neighbors. If you could just answer a few more questions, we can be on our way."

"I’ve never seen any signs that John Winchester abuses his kids." The dodge ball injury didn’t even raise a doubt. If John was in the habit of hitting his boys, Sammy would have looked a lot more distressed about it.

She wondered who could have filed a report? She knew they wouldn't tell her if she asked. Someone at the school? Teachers were mandated by law to report any suspicion, she knew. Just like nurses were. They could go to jail if they failed to report their concerns.

"What about neglect?"

"I’m an RN - I've had the training, too," Ligaya told them. "I’m just as familiar with Section 1012(f) of the Family Court Act as you are. But have you met those two boys? There's simply no way their physical, mental or emotional condition is impaired."

"If you’re sure." Mrs. Cosby closed her own notebook with a snap. “We’ll be keeping the case open for now. And we'll be back if we hear of any more allegations. I trust we can count on you to call our office if you see anything suspicious."

She extended a well-manicured hand with her business card and after a moment's hesitation, Ligaya took it. After the investigators left, she ran her finger over the edge of the card and was on the verge of flicking it into the trash can when she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. It took her a moment to realize something was swaying outside the window. The telltale creak of rusty metal drew her to the ugly accordion-style metal gate leading to the fire escape. Sliding the gate back, she opened the window. The chill February air bit at her cheeks and nose, but she leaned out anyway.

She was just able to glimpse the boys' sneakers as they crawled back into their apartment window from where they'd been hiding on the fire escape.

Not playing. Not in this weather.

Hiding.

Ligaya truly hadn't seen anything that made her think there could be a problem. But the fact that the boys knew about CPS, could hear them in the hall, and had snuck outside in the cold rather than risk being there if the landlord had let the women in...

That was something to think about.

Sucking her lower lip pensively, Ligaya tucked the caseworker's business card under a magnet on her refrigerator.

Her mother and her grandmother used to say, "Ano man ang gagawin, makapitong iisipin." Before you do anything, think about it seven times first.

That night, she lay awake for a long time before she finally drifted off to a disjointed sleep that led to bizarre dreams. When she woke, she remembered only dissolving tendrils of the last one:

On her window pane, almost completely covered with ice crystals, a faint image of a handprint was forming. As if a small, delicate hand, with long, long nails, was pressed against the glass long enough to start to melt the frost underneath the skin... and then was silently withdrawn. 

 

March 14, 1993

In some parts of the east coast they were calling it the Storm of the Century, but in New York City, it was simply the Blizzard of 1993.

In the Philippines, growing up, Ligaya had never seen snow. Since arriving in New York City after college, she’d come to love the sight of it turning the sky to a curtain of lace. Loved when it fell heavier and settled on the massive shoulders of the marble lions at the New York Public Library like a regal white mantle.

But this? No, thank you.

Snow up to her knees and still falling. No visibility. And even if she hadn't already gotten used to thinking in Fahrenheit instead of Centigrade, she would have known that a wind chill below zero was reason to burrow in at home.

Inside was safe and warm.

Except that Ligaya woke up in the middle of the night, baby pressing on her bladder again, to realize there was no heat. The radiator felt like a block of ice. So did her fingers and toes.

She fumbled her feet into the warmest socks she had, slid her arms into a heavy sweater and wrapped herself in a flannel blanket. Then she shuffled across the cold hardwood floor and knocked on the super's door. Loudly.

And waited. Impatient, she put her ear to the door and heard - nothing. They couldn't have all gone out of town to another funeral, she thought. Those CPS investigators did have one thing right. If visitors were anything to go by, the Winchesters didn't seem to have any friends or relatives.

Finally, she heard several clicks, as deadbolts were thrown open, and she was just marveling at how quietly someone could creep across a room when the door cracked open. Ligaya saw the chain pull taut, and she glanced up and then lowered her gaze a little after all. The figure standing there was her own height. Not John, but Dean.

“Is your father here?” Even as the words spilled out, Ligaya was remembering when the Winchesters had first moved in. She'd wondered then if John was hurt, or if he'd just had a little too much to drink. And then those caseworkers had planted that damn seed in her mind and left her wondering now about alcohol or drug abuse.

Dean peered at her suspiciously, and not a little defensively. “Why?” The word came out in a puff of vapor in the chilly air.

“There’s no heat.” She hugged her arms tighter around her chest.

Dean blinked slowly, thinking, and unwittingly mirrored her action, tucking one of his hands under his armpit to conserve warmth. The other hand he kept hidden behind him. "Huh."

"Who is it, Dean?" A small voice came from the darkness. Too close to be from their bedroom; it sounded just a few feet away. From elsewhere in the apartment she heard a pager go off. Another tenant had no doubt woken up feeling like an icicle.

Dean didn't answer his brother; he just nodded at Ligaya. "Thanks for letting us know. I'll get my dad. He'll take care of it." And then the door was firmly closed.

Well, it was definitely too cold to just stand around the corridor waiting to see what would happen. Dean hadn't looked worried to her. Surely, John was there, just a heavy sleeper, and she would feel the heat pouring back into the rooms soon. Right? Teeth chattering, Ligaya shuffled back to her bedroom, grabbed her winter coat along the way and flung it across her comforter. Then she crawled under the layers and burrowed into her cocoon. Before she fell asleep, she heard the Winchesters' front door open and close, and footsteps start down the stairs.

When she woke again, the radiators were clanging with the rush of steam, and she found her covers had been tossed aside in her sleep, just like her unfounded concerns about the elusive John Winchester.

It was Sunday! The Lord's Day. The archdiocese had lifted the Catholics' obligation to attend Mass due to the blizzard and Ligaya, who genuinely enjoyed going to church, still felt exhilarated. Like she'd been given a present of extra hours in her weekend. What to do with this sudden luxury of time?

She wandered lazily into the kitchen, in no hurry this morning. When she looked up at the picture of the Last Supper hanging on the wall, she knew: she should show John Winchester her appreciation for the way he took care of the place.

Within days of his arrival, the graffiti was gone. And so were the used needles at the curb. The drug dealers in their hoodies that used to loiter by the empty flower boxes, offering free samples of weed to junior high kids on their way home from school? They were gone, too.

This still wasn't the neighborhood where she hoped to raise her child. Sometimes gunfire rang out, and sirens interrupted her sleep most nights. The homeless people camped out in her subway station still made her uncomfortable, although she hated to admit it. For now, this tiny apartment was all she could afford and still send money home to her family to put her brother through college. But when Benito graduated and Lorenzo came home from Iraq, then Ligaya would be able to make a new home where she wanted. Queens. Maybe Woodside.

Until then, she was grateful for the new super. And maybe she felt a little guilty, too, for suspecting him of neglecting his family and his job when clearly everything was okay. So she found herself in front of her stove preparing to fry up enough longganisa to feed a family of four. Better make it six, she told herself, reaching for a bigger saucepan. After all, she was eating for two these days, and if the Winchester boys had an appetite anything like her brother, well… good thing she had plenty of rice steaming in the rice cooker, too.

When all was ready, she arranged the sausages and rice on a big serving dish she'd gotten as a wedding present. As an afterthought, she grabbed a bunch of bananas to bring over for dessert, too, and started across the hall. Raising her hand to knock, she paused when she heard voices from inside.

"Sammy! What happened to all the peanut butter?"

"I told you, Dean! I used it up. In the rat traps."

"All of it?"

Ligaya froze, knuckles an inch from the door, and a chill crept down the nape of her neck. She had to have heard wrong.

"Jesus, Sam. The damn rats eat better than we do lately..."

Ligaya shuddered and forced herself to rap on the door, suddenly desperate to see that it wasn't what she thought. She wanted to see that the boys were just regular kids, sprawled in front of the TV, while their dad sat with his feet up, reading the New York Times.

Like last night, it was Dean who answered. This time, he unlocked the chain and opened the door wide enough for common courtesy. "There another problem, Mrs. Reyes?"

"Dean!" Sam's chair scraped back from the kitchen table as the boy scrambled to his feet, papers that weren't weighted down by heavy books fluttering to the floor. "She brought food!"

And that was all it took. Normally, Ligaya wouldn't be so brazen as to walk right in uninvited. But there was no doubt about it - these boys looked as ravenous as pair of wild dogs. She stepped right past Dean and into their kitchen.

"I wanted to thank your dad for getting the heat back on. And for everything else he's done for the tenants since he came." She set the platter on the table, where Sam had eagerly cleared a spot. "I hope you like Filipino cooking."

She turned around to find Dean practically tripping on her heels, not about to let anyone just traipse into his home. He glanced down at the steaming dish and there was a flicker of an almost-grimace, the reaction of a boy who'd rather have a thick All-American burger than something with exotic spices. For a moment, resentment and good manners wrestled together. It ended in a tie, with Dean admitting curtly, "Never had any before."

"It smells good, Dean!" It seemed Sam had the adventurous taste buds in the family.

Not that her longganisa was adventurous, by any means. Ligaya'd chosen a sweet rather than spicy kind of sausage. And it wasn't like she'd brought them stinky bagoong! Or balut, for heaven's sake!

"It's just pork and rice," she said, encouragingly. "Simple enough that you could make it yourselves."

"Dean's a good cook. Better than Dad," Sam said over his shoulder, already pulling chipped plates out of the dish drainer. He paused with a plate in each hand. "Will you be eating with us, Mrs. Reyes?"

"Sam.” Dean's voice was low, a warning. Dad said not to let anyone in.

It seemed the boys were trying to outdo each other in who could stare the hardest. Ligaya could read the unspoken language of indignant little brothers. Dean. She's our neighbor. She cooked for us! It's polite!

She had to get their attention before their faces froze like that. This was the perfect opportunity to ask: "Where's your dad?"

"Out."

"De - ean!" Sam actually put his hands on his hips, but then he slowly dropped them as he studied his brother. He was almost at that age, Ligaya thought, where Big Brother wasn't always right any more. But Sammy, still nine, wasn't quite ready yet to make that leap. She could see the doubt creep into his shoulders. If Dean didn't think they should welcome their neighbor, then Sam would follow Dean's lead. Sam looked at Ligaya, trying to see in her what Dean saw and didn't trust, and then he just shrugged.

It was pretty clear Dean didn't want her help. Ligaya didn't understand why Dean seemed to resent her. Maybe he thought this gesture was actually a subtle criticism of his dad. Then again, maybe it was like Sam had told her. Maybe he didn't trust anyone. Goodness knows, she remembered how scary a new big city could be on your own. And they certainly seemed to be on their own. Which reminded her. "Your dad's gone out? I'm surprised he was able to get out in this blizzard." Outside, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and snow whipped about in a blinding frenzy. The trains still ran underground, of course, but they didn't run door-to-door. No one in their right mind would be out in this weather trying to get anywhere.

"He got out before the storm hit."

"But - how? When - ?" She tugged her cardigan closer, thinking of the midnight maintenance call.

Dean grunted. But Sam's eyes shone, the way Benny used to look up at her when she fixed his scraped knees. "It was Dean who fixed the boiler last night, not Dad."

Dean shot him a fierce look, but Sam just shrugged it off. "She knows, Dean." Sam turned back to Ligaya. "I helped! I held the flashlight so Dean could trace the, uh, the uh..."

"Pilot assembly."

Ligaya raised an eyebrow, and Dean sighed, resigned to explaining. "That boiler down there is older than Dad! I was afraid it might be a bad thermocouple. And I can't fix one of those." His mouth tightened, like he thought heshould be capable of something like that. "But we lucked out," he added. "It's pretty drafty down there - I think the storm just blew out the pilot light."

Lucky, yes. Ligaya nodded. Lucky that an eighth-grader playing with gas and an open flame didn't blow up the building.

Dean nudged Sam to sit down and pulled a carton of milk from the refrigerator. Unscrewing the lid, he sniffed the contents, and then took two plastic tumblers with the prominent 'NY' Yankees logos down from the cupboard.

Two plates. Two cups. He was sending her a message.

But Ligaya had caught a glimpse of the nearly empty refrigerator before the door swung closed, and the cupboards apparently held little more than cereal, from what she could see. She was a mom - at least a mom-to-be - and she couldn't help being concerned. "When did you say your dad would be home?"

The boys didn't fall for it. Not even Sammy, who had seemed so friendly and trusting before.

"Dean's fourteen," Sam said. "He takes care of us when Dad's gone."

"Fourteen. I see." That must sound very mature to a nine-year-old.

"Dad'll be back tomorrow," Dean added, sounding confident. "We're fine till then." 

She felt dismissed. By a fourteen-year-old! It was a small victory that they'd taken the meal that she'd cooked, but she had to settle for that.

Ligaya spent the rest of the day fiercely scouring her apartment, as if she thought if she cleaned hers hard enough, it would miraculously clean the one next door, too. She thought back to watching the boys on trash day. The time she saw Dean answer a page. Just how long had those kids been trying to do the work of the building super, in secret, so no one would know their dad was gone?

Was it possible John had actually abandoned them? Who would leave two such great kids? And why? Dean's face had given away nothing. Sammy was more of an open book, but he didn't seem scared or worried.

Then again, these were apparently kids who took care of the rat traps in the alley behind the building. So - they weren’t easily scared.

Finally, she settled on her rocker and slipped her rosary out of the deep pockets of her robe. Her mother had pressed the rosary into her hands on the day Ligaya had left home for the great journey halfway around the world. The beads spilled across her palm and wove around her fingers, like so many islands that made up her native Philippines. She missed her mother. And her little brother. And Lorenzo most of all. She wished she had someone to talk this over with. But of course, she did. God would listen. And perhaps her path would become clear.

Sa ngalan ng Ama, at ng Anak, at ng Espiritu Santo. She was just finishing the rosary, making the sign of the cross, when there was the sound of feet stomping up the stairs. And laughter. And then a knock at her door.

She opened it to find Dean and Sam dripping on the landing, snow melting in their hair, cheeks red from the cold. Sam held several plastic grocery bags twisted together in his right hand, and propped two snow shovels in his left elbow. Dean balanced two large brown paper sacks in his arms.

Dean nodded at Sam, and Sam held out one of the plastic bags to Ligaya. "The stores are open again! We didn't know where to get Filipino food," he apologized, "and we didn't know if you liked American food. So we brought you some bananas to replace the ones we ate."

"Thank you, Sam!" She took the bag, wondering how far they had walked and if the bananas were frozen. "But you didn't have to do that. That meal I brought you earlier was a gift. A thank you."

"No, it wasn't." Dean stood eye-level with her. His mouth was set, determined. "Fixing problems in the building - that's our job. Dad's job, I mean. And mine, when I can help. We don't take charity."

This wasn't going at all how she'd planned. "No," she told them earnestly. "It wasn't charity." She'd hurt their pride. She wondered if that was something they got from their father.

"I could help you," Sammy said suddenly. "I mean -" he looked at her belly, swollen with child, and flushed a little. "It must be hard for you to carry your laundry or your groceries. If you let me know when you need help, I could carry stuff, to you know, pay you back for dinner."

Her voice caught in her throat. "I'd - I'd like that. Thank you."

Sammy flashed a bright smile, and Dean looked - well - it must be hard to feel indebted to someone you don't even like. But his pride was satisfied, at least. They turned back to their own apartment, dripping snow off their boots and shovels, and left her to her thoughts.

Clearly, they were self-sufficient kids. She had to give them credit for thinking to earn some grocery money digging cars out from the mountains of snow and ice they'd seen on the news.

Still. They were just boys. It wasn't normal for boys to grow up like that in America.

Or maybe it was just hormones tempting her to stick her nose in where it had no business being. She couldn't help it, she thought, as her baby yawned and stretched within her womb. She was a mom.


March 15, 1993

Something was outside her window.

Ligaya woke in a cold sweat. She lay still, scarcely breathing, and then she heard it: leathery wings just beyond the glass, beating like a giant bat. She groped for the switch on the lamp cord, and one hand flew up to shade her eyes when the light flashed on.

Two glowing eyes were studying her, shining like polished black pearls in a face that looked almost human. Long gray hair fluttered behind her, unkempt as a rat's nest. The face might have been beautiful once, but age had carved wrinkles in the dark skin, at the corners of her eyes and her mouth.

Ligaya stared in horror at the mouth. The figure outside smiled cruelly. Her lips curled; her mouth opened and a long tongue began to slither out. Longer and longer, like a snake uncoiling. Bony fingers reached for the window, there was the sound of breaking glass, and Ligaya shot out of bed.

Barefoot, she stumbled out of the room and then out of her apartment, hammering on the super's door without thinking twice.

A halo of light surrounded the door as the lights snapped on inside, and then the door swung open. "Your father! Where is he?" she gasped when she saw Dean, with Sammy tucked as close as his shadow behind him. Dean stepped aside to let her in. No matter what reasons he might have to hate her, she must have looked so desperate he couldn't turn her away.

"He's not back yet," Dean told her.

She stood still, shaking, until Sam took her by the arm and led her to an old Barcalounger that was probably their most comfortable chair. She lowered herself into it awkwardly. Dean swept a glance around the hallway, and then ducked back inside and shut the door behind him.

She could hardly believe she was explaining her panic to a pair of grade school kids. What was more surprising was that they took her seriously. She knew it was impossible for anything to be outside her bedroom window. They were five floors up, and the fire escape was outside her living room window, not her bedroom. But they didn't tell her she was crazy. Her heart almost leaped out of her chest when she saw Dean reaching for a shotgun propped against the doorframe.

"You can't go alone, Dean," Sam said, worrying his lower lip.

"I'm just gonna take a look. You stay here with Mrs. Reyes," Dean said. And before she could protest, he slipped out the door. She turned to see Sam moving behind her, drizzling a careful line of salt along the windowsills. With shock, she saw that he had a knife clutched in his other hand. It dawned on her: Dean wasn't asking her to take care of his little brother. He was telling Sam to watch over her.

This had to be a bad dream - a creature stalking her, children acting like soldiers. She knew that some women have very vivid nightmares in their pregnancies - that had to be what this was. But the pinch of the broken spring in the chair cushion tried to convince her otherwise.

For a minute, there was nothing but the faint sound of Sam pouring salt across the doorway. Then Dean came back. "Your bedroom window's broken," he reported. "Was it before?"

"No. I don't think so... I saw it, Dean. I saw it there. It was a manananggal."

"A - what?"

She laced her fingers together to keep her hands from shaking, and in halting words, began to tell them the Filipino legend as she'd first heard it in her village growing up. Creatures like ghouls or vampires; they looked like ordinary women by day. Manananggal, in her native Tagalog language, meant one who separates itself. At night, a manananggal could detach from its legs, and the upper body would spread wings and fly off in search of human blood. Especially, Ligaya said anxiously, one hand pressed against her swollen belly, they liked to suck out the hearts of unborn children.

"Does the lore tell you how to kill it?" Dean asked, as calmly as if he were asking for a family recipe.

Dice finely and fry with garlic until... dead? She fought back the rising hysteria and blinked stupidly. "What - ?"

"Our dad -" Sam stopped and looked to his brother. Dean nodded, and he continued. "Our dad's kind of an expert on stuff like this. It's what he does."

"We grew up around it," Dean added. "It's okay." 

"So. Your dad's ...what? A folklore professor? And he's moved here because - he's on sabbatical this semester?" Ligaya swallowed back a laugh. She'd had some pretty eccentric professors herself, but... Surely, he could afford to live somewhere nicer. Then again, she could, too, on her nurse's salary. She was living like this to send money home to her family. Who was she to judge?

"Something like that," Dean said neutrally. "So. How do we kill it?"

"I don't know. I never paid that much attention - I thought it was just a fairy tale to scare the children." She shuddered. "Lola - my grandmother - she always put salt around the doors and windows to keep them out." Ligaya looked around the apartment at the salt lines Sam had already laid, and he nodded sagely.

"Dad says salt keeps lots of bad things out."

"I'll call Dad." Dean brightened. "See what he wants us to do."

And he really did try to place a call. Ligaya watched him do it. But wherever John Winchester was, he never got the message. She could hear the recording that his voice mailbox was full.

Dean hung up the phone. "It'll be okay. You'll be safe here tonight," he reassured her. "When the library opens in the morning, me and Sam'll figure out what to do."

It was already nearly dawn. There would be no more sleeping that night.

But when the sun came up, and Ligaya looked at her tired, drawn face in the mirror, she thought – that figure in the window? It was just a dream! Sometimes people woke up from nightmares, and it took them a while to settle down, to figure out what was real and what was imagined.

It was almost embarrassing how badly she’d overreacted.

So she went to work in the morning as if nothing had changed. In fact, she spent the entire train ride convincing herself that nothing had happened. And if she happened to ask some other Filipino nurses at Bellevue about local myths they'd heard about, growing up, she did it with a self-deprecating chuckle about having a pregnancy nightmare. Most of them knew the legend. Everyone had a good laugh over her crazy dreams. They reassured her it was just nature's way of getting her used to interrupted sleep, so she'd be prepared for when the baby came.

It made sense.

More sense than believing in vampires.

As the day went on, she began to relax. Even when Rosaria, one of the nursing aides, told Ligaya that she'd heard rumors of local women miscarrying late in the pregnancy and that she believed they were really caused by amanananggal, Ligaya wasn’t alarmed.

Rosaria was a generation or two older than she was and not as educated. It’s just an old wives' tale, Ligaya told herself.

She wasn't really hungry when she got home, but she tried to convince herself to eat for the sake of the baby. She was frying up some thick slices of Spam for dinner when the Winchester boys arrived at her doorstep. Ligaya welcomed them in, invited them to take off their shoes, and over dinner they told her what they'd learned playing hooky at the New York Public Library.

"You really did skip school today?"

"Of course!" Dean looked surprised at the question. "Listen. We found out we can probably scare it off," he told her, digging into the meal with more enthusiasm than the last time she'd cooked for them. "They don't like salt or garlic. But if our dad was here, he'd say we have to find it and end it. It's evil. And if we don't kill it, if we just try to keep you safe, it'll take another victim."

"Kill it?" Her throat caught on the words.

"One book said a whip made out of a stingray's tail could cause serious damage." Dean looked really excited about that. "That would be pretty cool! Our dad knows some guys who go bow-hunting for stingrays. I think they even keep the tails as trophies." Then he sighed. "But that would take too long. We need something tonight. Our best bet's a dagger. Some of the lore says it can be stopped with a silver dagger."

Sam looked up from his notes. "Actually, that's how you’d kill an aswang</em> or a mandurugo. They’re kinda related to the manananggal. They say a manananggal is harder to kill, but we think spreading garlic on the dagger might help."

"And light," Dean added. "They apparently hate the light. That can give us an edge."

For one weak moment, Ligaya let herself be drawn back into her nightmare. "But you don't know for sure? There's no sure way to kill it?"

"The one sure-fire way to kill a manananggal is to find the lower half, and sprinkle salt on the severed torso. Or crushed garlic, or ash," Sam told her. "But we don't have any idea where to find her lair."

"So. Plan B. Don't worry - we're awesome at Plan B." Dean grinned. "And you know what? This is really good food, Mrs. Reyes. The only thing it needs, maybe, is some ketchup?"

Ligaya shook her head, wondering if Dean had caught the momentary fear in her voice and was just saying that to make her feel better. She did feel better. They were just like kids sitting around a campfire telling scary stories. It wasn't real. She got up, opened the fridge, and came back to the table with a ketchup-shaped bottle of a red condiment. The label said "Papa Banana Sauce".

"Seriously?" Dean asked. But he tried it and nodded his approval with a wide smile and his mouth full.

After dinner, Dean said that since he was about the same height as Ligaya, he should be bait, but she said no. It had been fun playing at being a kid with them, she thought, and she was very glad that Dean didn't seem to resent her any more, but it was time for her to be a grown-up now.

No more pretending that monsters were real.

The boys seemed honestly dismayed that she didn't believe them.

"This isn't our first hunt," Dean reassured her. "It's kind of the family business. Saving people. Hunting things. That's what Dad's doing now, over in Connecticut."

"If you're worried about us, you don't have to be. Dean and I can take care of ourselves," Sam added.

"Besides." Dean grinned impishly. "We aren't her type."

Still, she said no. She was firm. Nothing was coming for her in the dark. She was sure.

They couldn't change her mind. Sam made her promise to get them if anything happened. She said sure, she could do that. Then Dean made her promise to sleep in her clothes. Shoes, too, in case she had to run! Ligaya didn't even wear shoes in her apartment, must less in bed! But he looked so earnestly worried that she finally agreed to that, too.

She kept her word when she went to bed, feeling silly. And she wondered if their father's strange absences had caused them to develop such vivid imaginations, and if he even knew about it.

It seemed only a few minutes since she'd dozed off, but a glance at her watch told her it was just past four a.m. What had woken her?

Her unborn baby began to thrash as if it could sense the danger, and then Ligaya heard something slit the plastic Dean had taped over the broken pane. Her first attempt to scream came out like a terrified squeak, but the door was kicked wide open before she could draw breath for another.

"Now, Sam!"

A bright flashlight beam cut through the darkness like a spotlight, and Sam wielded it like a weapon, aiming for the ghoul's eyes. The creature howled and fled to the shadows in a corner of the room. Dean jumped on the bed between Ligaya and the manananggal, dagger held ready to defend her.

"We, uh, broke into your apartment and took turns keeping watch and sleeping on your couch," he confessed. "Sorry about that!" He grinned, unrepentant.

The manananggal attacked then, darting toward Ligaya, an impossibly long tongue unfurling and reaching out for her. Dean swiped at it with the blade; it dodged like a cobra dancing with a mongoose, and Ligaya smelled garlic.

"Dean! I know who she is!" Sam inched closer, trying to blind the creature enough that Dean could stab it with the dagger.

It hissed and changed targets, slashing at Sam with sharp claws.

"Sam! Get back!" Dean barked, and Sam dove to the ground, the flashlight knocked from his hand as the bat-ghoul made contact.

Ligaya tried to draw her knees up to her chest; the best she could do was flank her belly and curl her arms across the top to protect her baby. She felt Dean pushing the dagger into her hands, and then he leaped off the bed to help his brother.

Sam was trying to crawl to the flashlight. Dean slid an arm around Sam's neck and ribs, just as Sam's fingers skimmed the barrel of it. As Dean dragged him toward the door, Sam was trying to struggle to his feet. "I know how we can kill it!" he choked out. The creature's wings beat against the ceiling, drowning him out. "Dean! Listen!"

Ligaya couldn't follow what Sam was trying to tell Dean. She was mesmerized by the tongue of the manananggal growing longer still, snaking toward her now, grazing her navel. Fear for her baby drove everything else out of her mind. She poked at it with the blade and when the slimy proboscis recoiled, she rolled out of bed and bolted out to the hallway and into the small bathroom, knuckles white as bone where she clenched the dagger.

As she slammed the door shut, she heard the sound echo from her bedroom, followed by the crashing of a lamp. The bedroom door could only be opened from the inside - keeping the door closed from the hallway meant someone had to be hanging onto to the doorknob for dear life. Then she heard kitchen cabinets banging open and closed. It must be Sam trying to keep the manananggal trapped; she could hear Dean in the kitchen cursing and sounding out Asian food labels.

"Bot ngot... ajinimoto?... Hey Mrs. Reyes!" Another cupboard door banged. "What's the salt called?!"

"Salt!"

Ligaya sat on the toilet seat and stared at the dagger in her hands. Why on earth would they own a silver dagger? She wrestled with her conscience. She couldn’t leave those boys out there to fight her battles. But she couldn’t risk her baby either!

"Found it!" The bathroom door rattled on its hinges when Dean hammered his fist against it. "Mrs. Reyes! We know where its lair is! C'mon!"

She swung open the door and saw Sam wielding the flashlight like it was a light saber as the manananggal crashed into the living room. It shrieked and tried to cover its eyes with its wings.

"We gotta get to the subway!" Dean shouted. He grabbed the dagger back and propelled her into the hallway and down the stairs. Sam brought up the rear, backing down the steps and clutching the canister of salt in one hand, still waving the flashlight beam with the other.

There was no sign of the manananggal when they reached the ground floor. "Where are we going?" Ligaya panted, one hand pressed against her belly to try to shift the baby away from her kidneys.

"It's the old crone," Dean explained, shouldering the door open. "That creepy old lady that sleeps in the subway? Sam recognized her in your room!"

"C'mon!" Sam urged, and Ligaya felt his hand on her back. "We have to salt the rest of her body before she comes back!"

Ligaya couldn't run. She was eight months pregnant. She tried to waddle faster.

The subway was three blocks away.

Where was the manananggal? Was it lurking in an alley to ambush them as they passed?

Had it given up? Gone in search of more defenseless prey?

Or were they too late? Had it already merged; was it disguised as human again?

There - finally! Ligaya saw the black sign with the white letters - SUBWAY - on the iron fence, just ahead! She tried to hurry and stumbled; Dean grabbed her elbow and steadied her. "Keep going!" he yelled, adjusting his grip on the dagger. "I'll cover you!"

The steep stairs disappeared into a cavern-like darkness. Ligaya made her way down them cautiously, clutching the rail like a drowning person clings to a lifeline. Sam skipped around her, leading the way now, flashlight compensating for the inadequate MTA lighting. Running on ahead, he ducked under the turnstile while Ligaya scanned the subway platform for anyone who could help.

It was the middle of the night. They were alone.

"Hurry!" Dean shouted from above. "It's here!"

There was a shrill, pained howl as Dean's dagger no doubt made contact. Ligaya could hear wings beating frantically against the walls of the stairwell as it tried to force its way past Dean. The creature seemed to have inhuman strength and razor-sharp talons, and suddenly Ligaya wondered if it might drink the blood of a teenager as hungrily as it did the blood of an unborn child?

"Found her!" Sam's voice came from deep in the subway tunnel. His voice echoed like he was on the tracks, not the platform.

And then the sound that filled the underground station was a cacophony of awful noise.

Dean's yell as the ghoul fought to get past him, and the sound of Dean's body thudding down the stairs. The inhuman scream from the top of the stairwell as a canister of salt was emptied on the distant disembodied lower torso of the creature. And finally, the deafening roar of a subway train as it clanked through its final turn and then screeched to a shuddering stop in front of her.

Ligaya couldn't breathe. She couldn't look. Then she felt a tentative touch on the back of her hand.

"Mrs. Reyes?"

It was Sam. "Oh my God, Sam!" She grabbed his arm. "I was afraid you were back in the tunnel! On the tracks! When the train..."

"No. no. I'm here. I'm fine." She could see him trying to look over her shoulder. "Dean? DEAN!"

She turned and saw Dean limping toward them, rubbing his temple. "I'm okay." He grinned crookedly. "You should have seen it! That ghoul went up like a roman candle!" The smile he shared with Ligaya told her that whatever hostility he'd held toward her was finally a thing of the past.

She reached a hand to his face, already noting the beginnings of a bruise. By tomorrow, it would be as purple as halayang ube.

"I'm okay," he repeated, shying away from her touch. "Let's get out of here."

They made their way back up the dark stairs, Ligaya's back cramping from all the exertion. After half a block, she stopped them in front of a bodega, dark and forbidding, still chained up for the night.

"Dean. You know that Child Protective Services has a file open on your family, don't you."

All triumph drained from Dean's face. And she realized, then, that this was why Dean had always kept his distance from her these past weeks. He was afraid that anyone who looked at the family too closely might report them.

She held up a placating hand, the other still pressed against the small of her back. "It wasn't me. I promise. I don't know who filed a complaint. But someone apparently thinks your dad... well, someone thinks there's a case of neglect here."

"Our dad is here when he can be!" Dean was immediately defensive. "You know what he does. Why he has to be gone sometimes. There's more - things - out there than just the manananggal."

"I'm not neglected," Sammy piped up. "Dean takes care of both of us."

"I know." Heaven help her, but Ligaya understood. And she honestly didn't believe these kids would be better off in the foster care system, maybe even separated, than they were now. Maybe if she could just talk to their father. But in the meantime - "I'm worried about CPS," she told the boys. "Dean's going to have a shiner by tomorrow." She stopped, sucked in a pained breath. The cramp was shifting. "Skipping school," she went on, panting a little. "That black eye. Those social workers will be back."

"Dean? What are we gonna do?"

For the first time, despite rats the size of chihuahuas, despite blood-sucking Filipino ghouls... for the first time, she saw Sam Winchester look scared.

"It'll be okay, Sammy." Dean squeezed his little brother's shoulder.

And then her water broke.


March 20, 1993

It was too soon. But in the end, the complications weren't serious, and in less than a week Ligaya was able to bring her baby home. She couldn't walk up five flights of stairs, but Zoriana was happy to have mom and baby stay with her until she was stronger.

Zoriana paid the taxi driver while Ligaya scooped little Isabel out of the infant seat in the back of the cab. Then Zoriana unhooked the car seat and carried it into the apartment building, pausing in the lobby to collect Ligaya's week's worth of mail.

Ligaya stood there waiting, happily nuzzling the soft fuzzy head that smelled so sweet tucked under her chin. She slipped her little finger into her baby girl's palm and had to drag her attention back up when Zoriana finished and turned to check her own mail. That's when Ligaya noticed the flyer posted on the bulletin board above the mail slots.

Looking for a full-time live-in super. Keep building clean and running. Be able to paint and plaster as well as respond when called. Super will receive a free apartment and more. We give all paint jobs and minor renovations to you, which allows you to make more money. Starts immediately.

She grabbed Zoriana's arm. "What happened to the Winchesters?"

"Don't know. Rumor has it, they were just gone one day. Without a word, and no forwarding address. I just hope whoever the new guy is will do as good a job. Winchester was the best super we ever had." Zoriana locked the mail slot back up and fished out her own apartment key. "Now - let's get you inside so I can have a turn holding the baby!"

Ligaya trailed after her friend, illogically thinking: But... but they never got to go to a baseball game for Dean's birthday!

In fact, Ligaya never saw the Winchesters again. But she never forgot them.


November, 2009

Isabel Reyes was a typical American teenager. If there was a TV, an MP3 player or a phone in the room Isabel was in, she would be using it. And she always left whirlwind traces behind, too - school papers, hair scrunchies, library books, abandoned shoes...

Sometimes Ligaya just shook her head at the chaos, but she wouldn't trade it for anything. She never forgot that she almost didn't have this wild and messy little treasure at all.

Whenever she thought that, she remembered the Winchester boys and sometimes wondered what had ever become of them. Dean, so calm and competent in a crisis, charging up and down five flights of stairs, and she thought - yes. He'd have made a good firefighter one day. And Sammy, who once sat with her in a laundry room and told her he wanted to work in the New York Public library and explore the secret underground stacks and deliver books on roller skates all day? Well, whatever Sammy ended up choosing would probably surprise both of them.

She wondered if John had ever settled into something more stable. And if so, had it been in time to give his boys a real childhood, or was it too late?

"Mama! Mama!"

It was excitement, not panic, in Izzy's voice, but Ligaya hurried into her daughter's room anyway. "What is it?" Then her face fell. "A tabloid, Izzy? Really?"

Izzy pulled out an insert, her eyes bright, and passed it to her mom. Ligaya recognized the face on the front page - it was the same tanned, intense face with that adorably quirked eyebrow that adorned the posters on her daughter's wall. One of the top ranked tennis players in the world - Rafael Nadal.

Izzy was pirouetting in delighted circles in the middle of her room. "I knew it! I always knew it!"

Ligaya sank down on her daughter's comforter and unfolded the World Weekly News section of The Sun. "Knew what?" she asked, scanning the text.

"The reason why Rafa's always hurt at the US Open! Every year! You remember that interview, when he lost in the semis this year?" Isabel pretended to hold a microphone in her hands. "To what degree did your stomach injury affect you today and in this tournament?"

Then she crossed her arms, tugged at a sleeve, scratched her shoulder, and slipped into her favorite Rafa impression. "Well, first thing." She shrugged and then pointed at an imaginary reporter and smiled. "I going to repeat: He played much better than me. For that reason, he beat me. No? Because - later, always sounds an excuse, no?"

Ligaya smiled indulgently. "I remember."

"So!" Isabel tore the newspaper from her mother's hands and opened it to where the article was continued inside. "Some fanatic hired a brujo - a sorcerer - to cast a spell on Rafa, so that he's always injured when he plays in New York! See?!" Her finger stabbed at the story and tiny photo on the page. "Witnesses reported that a couple of men found the sorcerer's lair and destroyed his hexes." She looked up at her mom. "It says here it was the same sorcerer who put a curse on Christiano Ronaldo, too!"

"Who?"

"Mother!" Isabel rolled her eyes, and went back to the article. "Anyway," she added, "you know my heart belongs to Rafa. Look - here's a picture of the two guys who caught the brujo."

Ligaya squinted. It was a fuzzy paparazzi photo. The men weren't clearly identifiable; she couldn't be positive, but she thought she recognized the car. How many cars like that could there be? She snatched the newspaper back from her daughter. "Does it say who they are?"

"Who cares? The important thing is that Rafa's healthy! Or at least - if he's hurting next summer, it'll be from winning the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back, and not due to any curse." Izzy grabbed her cell. "I've gotta tweet this!"

Ligaya left her daughter to her squeeing and returned to the kitchen, remembering a proverb her mother and her grandmother both used to say. They were wise women, and the older Ligaya got, the wiser they seemed to her.

Ang gawa sa pagkabata, dala hanggang pagtanda. What one learns in childhood, he carries into adulthood.

She smiled, remembering a more colorful proverb: The tomato plant doesn't grow mangos.

The article hadn't named the men who'd stopped the brujo. She would never know for sure. But she liked to believe that the Winchester boys had survived their childhood and were still together, protecting people. Just the way their father had raised them.

Tonight, she thought, opening a cupboard. Tonight, she was in the mood for fried Spam for dinner. Maybe with banana sauce ketchup on the side. She hadn't had that in years.

~ end ~