Actions

Work Header

Unshackled

Work Text:

 

Gathering all her hair into one hand, Raquel tied it into a ponytail. The clear sky, the warm sea breeze outside had been calling at her to go out for a good long run. Dressed in her gym wear, she took a few moments to stretch her limbs around. She hadn’t even realised how much these jogs had started to mean to her. These little moments all to herself, her AirPods on, with the wind in her face had become a recharging element in her daily life. A solo activity that Raquel looked forward to every day, without a trace of guilt. 

Out in the living room, she put on her sneakers, bending down to tie the laces. She could feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins, simply at the prospect of running through the woods, by the shore. She was already mildly sweating after her stretches and couldn’t wait to get messier during the run. While pulling one end of the lace into a loop, Raquel heard Sergio’s footsteps coming out of their office room. Good. She could give him a quick kiss before heading out. 

Everything was perfectly fine until he spoke. 

 

“What do you think you are doing?” he blurted out in an unusually high pitched voice. 

That made Raquel snap her eyes up at him. When she got back up to her feet, the sight she met left her perplexed. Sergio looked like he had never seen anything remotely as horrifying in his life. He stood there, frozen to his spot, his eyes wide, ears red as if sirens were ringing in them. Raquel had no idea what she could have possibly done to evoke such a reaction from him. It often felt like a daily game of quiz trying to ascertain what could be going through his complex brain, the game a lot of the times being plain frustrating, the other times just daft.

“I’m going out for a run, cariño. I’ll be back before breakfast.” 

“You’re going out for a run?” Sergio’s voice choked, his face contorting in fright and he fought to get the words out, “You are kidding me, right? Right?” 

Although he seemed terrified for his life, Raquel found it a tad bit amusing. She was just tying her shoelaces for a run, for god’s sake, not declaring war on the government, though Sergio Marquina of all people shouldn’t be scared by even that. She had long ago concluded that she was living with a highly intellectual man who at times could be just as highly incoherent and bizarre.

“I am really not,” Raquel said, eyeing his now almost comical face.

Sergio, on the other hand, could believe neither his eyes nor his ears. His nightmare was getting worse by the minute. Raquel was actually planning on going for a run. This can’t be happening. He felt frustration substituting the fear in his mind as he hurled his words at her, “Are you insane ?”

“Excuse me?” Her eyebrows shot up in shock and indignation, her mind preparing for combat at a moment's notice.

“You’re going out to go jog when people are dying out there?”

“Dying? Wait what?” Raquel’s attacking front defused as fast as they had come, “You mean from the virus?”

She had not given the virus much thought thus far. It hadn’t come up in discussions with Sergio either. The world around them was changing but its paws hadn’t yet reached their island. Raquel wasn’t prepared for Sergio to grow this concerned with it.

“Yes. I mean from the sars-covid-19 virus,” he muttered, his annoyance peaking, “You are quite privy to the news.”

“Of course, I am. But they are getting sick in Europe, Sergio and the last time I checked I had crossed the oceans to settle down in Asia with you ,” she nudged him in an attempt to lighten the mood. 

“Is that your whole argument? Because let me tell you,” he shook a finger at her, like he often did during a heated debate, “It’s a very poor one.”

“I’m not trying to pick a fight. So don’t tempt me. I’ll be back soon,” she reiterated before turning on her heels to leave.

Sergio grabbed her elbow at once, “You’re not going anywhere.”

Did he just grab her arm to stop her? The fucking nerves. The days of Raquel moving according to the whims of men were long gone. Sergio should have known better.

“If you think you can stop me, think again,” she hissed, jerking her hand free from him.

Something shifted in his eyes and the next time he spoke he was pleading with her, “Raquel, don’t go. It’s not worth the risk.”

Exhaling, trying to rein in her frustration, she reminded herself of an unspoken rule of negotiation: let the other side be heard. Rubbing her palms on his biceps, she said evenly, “No cases of the virus have been reported in Palawan yet. There’s no reason to be paranoid about this already.”

“But people here could already have it and just haven’t been tested. You can never be too sure about these things. A single virus could destroy you, just one droplet. You could run alongside a stranger for a couple of minutes and you could be affected. From you Mariví could get it and then Paula. We’re not sure how good Paula’s immunity will stand up against this virus and…”

Hearing his words this time, Raquel bent down to open her shoes and kick them to the side. Jogging wasn’t in the cards today. She could never go out to clear her mind while leaving a worrying Sergio behind. He was still blabbering on when Raquel simply took his hand in hers and led him to the kitchen. She knew his points weren’t baseless but she had her opinions as well. If she let him go on a spiral, there would be absolutely no coming back from it.

“If you really don’t want me to go, then fine, I’m not going today. But you can’t desist me indefinitely.”

A sense of immense relief coursed through him. But she had an uncanny ability to turn the wheels in her direction when he did one of his signature babblings of facts and worries, the ones that sometimes screwed even with his own head. He realised she had done just that yet again and in such a casual way that he might not have noticed if it wasn’t for years of living with her and studying her. 

But the pit in his stomach made him try to theorise his points again, this time with lesser words, “That’s just for…”

“Oh please, do not say it’s for my safety.”

“But it is.” He shook his finger at her again, before nudging the glasses up his nose. “We need to be cautious. We can’t take this virus for granted.”

“I agree.”

“You don’t understand, Raquel. It’s more vicious than...” he stopped abruptly and narrowed his eyes at her, “Did you just agree with me?”

“I did,” she said, giving him four eggs to fry and proceeding to cut the bread herself, “We cannot take it for granted. But does that mean we can just shun the outside world and live in a cave until it's over?”

“If that’s what it takes, then yes.”

Raquel shook her head, her eyes downcast. Just because he used to be a loner, had spent most of his life alone with his nose buried in his book didn’t mean Raquel, Paula and Mariví could forsake fresh air just like that. She was not going to go down without a fight. 

“That is absurd. We’d all go crazy in a week. It’s really no way to live.” She threw up her hands in the air.

Turning the eggs on the pan, Sergio said with unfailing determination in his voice, “That’s a very small price to pay. You going out doesn’t only put you at risk, it puts others in danger as well. Do you really want that? I believe the authorities would impose restrictions on us soon anyway.”

“Fuck,” she was losing this battle and the truth was she wasn’t entirely convinced with her arguments either. She was just not ready to face these rapid changes. Funnily enough, having upended her life to live with a fugitive now didn’t seem as dramatic for a movie script as being holed up to prevent a deadly contagious virus from getting to them. She let out a wry chuckle. 

Looking a problem in the eye and facing the music had been her life motto ever since she had gathered the courage to leave her abusive husband behind. She did not cower in a corner in fear anymore. Although the situation felt eerily similar to cowering, she also realised the right thing to do in this time was to act smart, even if it meant taking shelter. Sergio was right to be concerned, especially considering Mariví and Paula’s vulnerable ages and immunities. Raquel knew she was whining but couldn’t help herself, “But I’m going to get sick if I have to sit at home with you three... all day, every day. You guys will get on my nerves, you especially.”

Looking at her helpless, desperate stance, Sergio softened his tone. Smiling, he said, “Without a speck of doubt. I would make you so mad. But…” he gave her a rare smirk, “I’ll make it up to you by making you so flustered in private… numerous times.”

“Is that so?” Raquel inched closer to him, her eyebrows raised, her nerves charged at the prospect of making him flustered.

“Yeah..” he stuttered, Raquel’s unbelievable strong hold on him already making his stomach flutter, he tried to hold on to his composure in vain, “Yes. Undoubtedly.”

As the gap closed between them, Raquel swooned in the glory of both having made him sweat and the impending delicious acts from him that would make her sweat just as much later in the day. When they encircled their arms around the other’s body and their tongues grazed against one another, the world in despair, the horror of the disease felt like a distant nightmare to Sergio, one that could never touch him or his family. Having been able to make Raquel understand his concerns appeared to be such a big victory that he completely forgot that there was a girl even more stubborn than Raquel in the home that needed convincing. Their daughter.

 


 

With her hands on her hip, eyebrows furrowed, totally pissed at the situation, Paula’s little figure almost scared Sergio. He thanked the heavens that Raquel had let him take a seat behind her at the porch table while she herself had proceeded to explain the situation to Paula and Mariví. Paula might be young but he definitely did not want to be in the way of her wrath when she was being told that she won’t attend school or meet her friends for an indefinite time. He loved his life a bit much for that. 

“I can’t see my friends for weeks?” Paula narrowed her eyes at Raquel.

“Yes, honey, I’m sorry. It could even be longer,” Raquel was not going to sugarcoat a situation such as this. Paula deserved to get the facts laid straight to her. 

“How much longer?”

“We don’t know yet…”

Tapping her feet on the ground, simmering in her anger, Paula seemed to be weighing her options before she spoke again, “So if I can’t meet my friends, can’t go to school,” her voice was suddenly coy, “Does that mean I can pack my school-books up in the shelf for that long too? No studying at all?”

Raquel was surprised at how easily negotiation came to Paula, like she had inherited it the first thing from her. But Raquel wasn’t about to bargain with her daughter. She exhaled a breath before responding, reminding herself that she had promised to herself to take it slow with Paula, “Sorry to disappoint you, but that isn’t going to happen. Sergio and I will homeschool you until your school comes up with alternative ideas.”

“But… Mom…” Paula wanted to whine but the prospect of more classes with Sergio and her mother was too enticing to decline. Both of them together had a weird power of explaining hard things in a simple way, with funny examples that Paula just couldn’t give it up. She reluctantly said, “Okay. Fine.”

“Fine?” Raquel had not expected to win her over this easily. She snapped her eyes back to Sergio who gave her a confused yet pleased shrug. Turning to her mother next, Raquel wondered if she’d find some friction there but she got none. Mariví only offered a small smile, reassuring Raquel that she was content wherever her family was safe and happy. 

“That’s.. That’s great,” Raquel blurted out eventually.

“But what would I do all day, every day at home, Mom?” Paula then countered, unknowingly mirroring her mother’s reactions from earlier that day.

“We will bond better as a family. It seems like a perfect opportunity for that,” Mariví chipped in. She always enjoyed seeing all her family together in one room. This ‘quarantine’ thing that Raquel had been explaining seemed only like a blessing in disguise to her, more opportunities of pulling Sergio’s leg, teasing Raquel with sex talk and playing around with Paula. Mariví felt giddy.

Paula was sceptical at the idea of family bonding. That sounded so cheesy and meant for old people like her parents. She pulled a face, “That sounds kinda boring.”

“You are mistaken, my dear,” Raquel cooed, she had come prepared for the occasion, “You’ll see.”

Not understanding any of her mother’s words, Paula kept glowering at everyone in the room. Although her mouth swoon fell open when Raquel put a vinyl record on Sergio’s gramophone lying in the corner, tapping her foot to the music. Paula’s own feet were tempted to tap along with her mother. 

Gonna be a transformation
In your heart and soul soul

Van Morrison. Her mother did like that man’s songs a lot, Paula remembered. She was still mulling over the implications of this new set of rules for the virus, wondering what ways she could skip breakfast, all while Raquel kept dancing around in slow steps, inviting Paula to join in. Paula didn’t give in yet.

There were more surprises to come. Nothing had prepared Paula to witness what she did next.

Sergio joined her mother in dancing, without prompting. Sergio was dancing . He was doing his signature awkward twists, the ones that always made Paula giggle until her belly hurt, but he was dancing nonetheless. Paula could not believe her eyes. There were only two days in the entire year that Sergio danced without any coercion: Paula’s birthday and the day she knew was the anniversary of when her mother had first arrived on this island. 

It was none of those days and Sergio was still dancing. Paula let out a giggle, much to the delight of her parents and joined in on the dance, twirling around with Mariví. She was still not sure about this whole virus thing or what it meant for her life in the next months but right now it didn’t seem too bad. If she squinted her eyes hard, it almost seemed... fun.

 


 

The homeschool lesson for the day was Spanish colonialism over the Philippines. Sergio, Raquel and Paula sat at three sides of the table in their office and all discussed the aftermath of such oppression. 

Paula, though aware of the colonial history of the world, was still shocked to find out that the country she was born in had occupied the Philippines. In the last few years, she had become quite attached to this country and this new knowledge hit a nerve in her.

“But why did our Spanish people want to control others?”

Raquel said in a solemn voice, “Power is a mighty thing, honey. The more power and money one gets, the more they want to exploit it.”

Humming his assent, Sergio chimed in, “Controlling others, leading them by their noses are a great source of pleasure to very many people even now.”

“Then why didn’t the Filipinos do anything about it? Why didn’t they shoo the Spanish away? They didn’t belong here.”

“The Filipinos did the best they could with the resources they had,” Sergio said, a hint of pride in his words, “They even fought back against America later on, coming out victorious in the end.”

Raquel knew about Sergio’s growing affection for the island and its people. He always had a soft spot in his heart for people who rose up against injustice, who took the matter into their own hands and overturned unjust and corrupt governments.

“Yes, they formed a resistance against these oppressors. The kind of resistance Sergio and I believe in.” 

Paula perked up at the hint of getting to learn more about her parent’s values and morals. They had talked with her often about not bowing down to bullies, to systems that were inherently flawed and when they told her these things, they had never underestimated her as just a child. Paula had been considered a big girl and was taught the significance of banding together to form a resistance. 

“That is how you met Mom, didn’t you, Sergio? While putting up a resistance?” Paula asked with eager eyes, placing her elbows on the table.

A shy smile spread across his face as he mumbled, peering at Raquel, “Yes, yes, I did.”

Raquel beamed at him. The days of the heist, the uncertainty, the dread yet the joys of newfound love amidst the chaos flashing past her eyes.

“You know, Paula, that Sergio had very distinct masks for his team? It was inspired from paintings by Salvador Dalí, a symbol of resistance itself.”

“Masks?” Paula tilted her neck, “Like the ones we wear to not get covid?”

Smiling, Raquel said, “Well, not quite, but that is one good thought. We could make Dalí masks to fight covid.”

“We can?” Sergio was amused.

“Oh, yes, you will see.”

Raquel quickly arranged for a number of spare masks, some of Paula’s paints and brushes and got down to work. In no time, the spotless office room turned into an art workshop. Raquel picked up red and black paints to demonstrate to Paula the design of Dalí masks. She drew them onto the mask and held it up for Sergio and Paula to copy. Sergio tried his best to imitate the patterns but they soon found out he didn’t have much talent for painting. 

Paula, however, surprised them with her skills. Her fingers traced the patterns with ease and soon she had a mask with a Dalí’s design in front. Blowing air on the paint to get it to dry faster, she put it on and muffled, “I’m never going to wear any other mask. Ever.”

Sergio’s eyes twinkled with content. “You would be the face of resistance, my dear.”

Paula was not wrong when she had thought that quarantine was a good thing as it gave her more chances of lessons with Sergio and her mom. This, right here, was one of the best lessons on history and social studies she had ever had. 

“Does that mean I can be a part of your banda?” She asked, her face elated in glee.

“You are already a part of my banda,” Sergio declared and witnessed both Raquel and Paula’s grin widen. He added, “Oh, everyone in the banda including your mother has a code name. The name of a city. What do you think yours would be?”

“Umm.. a city?” Paula wasn’t too impressed.

“Yes, do you like Florence? Or Agra.. or.. maybe Hanoi?”

Raquel smiled quietly at the sneaky hint of Hanoi from Sergio, trying to bring their place of romance back into their girl’s life. But Paula was still not convinced. Raquel watched on, with paints in her hand as Paula took a minimum of fifteen minutes to decide her name. She should have known her ambitious little girl was never going to be content with just a city name.

“Asia.” Paula declared resolutely, much to Sergio’s amusement at seeing another rebellious woman in his life, owning an entire continent, “I’ll be Asia.”

 


 

Plan Valencia was great for throwing off the police but not for the morale of the hostages. Keeping the team in the dark about Plan Chernobyl which eventually led to Tokio threatening Berlin at gunpoint and her being later thrown outside the mint might not have been a great tactic either. Raquel made several notes around it. This was one of her favourite mental exercises she did by herself, picking up flaws in Sergio’s plans and later on discussing and advising him on them. The good thing was Sergio had now progressed to see these notes with an open mind, giving way for healthy debates. 

Raquel had several blueprints and notebooks spread around the living room centre table. She liked working in the living room rather than the office. Here she could hear the faint sound of Paula’s online classes and also Sergio and Mariví talking about plants and fertilizers as they nurtured their small garden on the open porch. After an hour of continuous deductions and theorising, Raquel rubbed her neck to get rid of the tension in her muscles. 

Paula had started online classes just a week before. Truth be told it had been a mixed bag of emotions around the house. Paula wasn’t as excited for online classes as she was to study with Sergio and Raquel, but she was gradually warming up to it. Some teachers had a really great ability to hold the student’s attention even through the screen and Raquel could sense those days just from the pumped-up tone in Paula’s voice.

However, when Raquel walked up to Paula’s room and took a peak, she realized it wasn’t one of those days. Paula was almost dozing off while trying hard to keep staring at the screen. Subtly clearing her throat, Raquel called Paula’s attention to herself. Startled for a bit, Paula raised her eyebrows in confusion. 

Raquel mouthed and gestured with her hands: ‘The beach, after your classes’. She saw Paula’s face brightening up at the words and her rubbing her eyes to concentrate more fully on the class now. Pleased with her decision, Raquel went off to Sergio and her mother to give them the news. None of them had been to the beach since they started their self-quarantine even though the ocean was right in front of them. Fear can have so many cruel implications and Raquel didn’t think it wise anymore to not even go to the beach because of the virus.

Mariví was in the middle of a detailed lecture, telling Sergio all the benefits and drawbacks of making a waterbody of plants when Raquel walked in on them. Sergio had always been an avid listener of Mariví, often consulting with her on planting, cooking and housekeeping tricks, as well as discussing the state of the world. Somehow, by God's grace, Mariví’s mind always seemed to be crystal clear when sharing her wisdom with Sergio. The fact that he truly appreciated her input had a miraculous effect on her health. 

After taking a moment to soak in another beautiful moment between her partner and her mother, Raquel kneeled down beside Mariví to whisper in her ear. “Mom, we are going to the beach today. Do you want to go and get changed for it?”

Mariví beamed, nodding at Raquel and went inside the house to get her things. They had all been cooped up in the house long enough. Though it had just been a few weeks, it still felt like an eternity to all of them. No matter how wonderful she felt in her home with her people, she needed to feel the ocean waves at her feet just as much.

Raquel braced herself for the battle to come. “Today is a beach day,” she declared to Sergio.

His hands full of wet soil, his face sweaty in the heat, Sergio looked up at her with a hint of alarm on his face, “Since when?”

“Since I told you so. Get up, wash your hands and join us at the shore, alright?”

“No it isn’t alright,” Sergio hurriedly got to his feet. He couldn’t believe Raquel was still being this careless about covid, all while the news was covered with growing rates of infection and fatality. 

Raquel gave him a tired sigh. He was so obsessed with keeping his family safe that if it was up to him, he would lock them all up and live a joyless confined life until every last person in the world was tested negative for covid.

“Uh-huh,” she tutted, getting down from the porch and onto the sand, crossing the illusory border line, “I’m not hearing any of your excuses this time. I gave up jogging, have been sitting ducks at home for days. Do you really want to test my mood by keeping me inside any longer?”

That dissuaded Sergio considerably. He sure as hell didn’t want to see a metaphorically tied up Raquel coming to the surface with all of her infamous fury. Weighing his options, he insisted again, unaware of when he had started following her to the beach as well, “The sand could carry the virus, even the water could. There’s a reason all the beaches are closed right now.”

Raquel gaped at him in disbelief, “This is our private beach, for god’s sake! And the sand could carry the virus? Really, Sergio? You need a swim way more than I do. Those depressing news are messing up with your head.”

“No, they are not,” Sergio shook his finger, pressing his lips together to let Raquel know how much he did not agree with her. 

He was not even finished talking when Raquel grabbed him in a flash and threw him into the water with herself, both of them still fully clothed. Salty water invaded his nostrils as he gasped for air, having lost momentum at the sudden contact with water. But Raquel kept him grounded with her arms, helping him float with her. 

She had taken a huge risk doing what she did and she expected nothing less than a scowl and his brooding frustrated face to materialize anytime, as they both found their balance in the water. Instead, a smile spread across his face, like the morning light seeping in through the crack on a window. Next thing she knew, he was cradling her face and pressing his mouth to her. Raquel smiled against his lips, revelling in her reward. She had won the battle of the day.

Raquel was still in his arms, her soaked body grinding against his, his hand on her lower back when Sergio heard hoots and whistles from the land. Without a doubt, when Sergio turned around, he found an ecstatic Mariví and Paula clapping at them. He considered letting her go, his ordinary self would have. He’d have floundered in embarrassment, but today had already gone way off track. So be it. 

Holding her tighter in one arm, getting a delighted smile from her in return, Sergio beckoned at the other two women to join them. Where the rest of the afternoon went, he couldn’t tell amidst all the delighted squeals. But at the end of that day when he dozed off in Raquel’s arms, he dreamt about a paradise where he saw Raquel gardening and pruning away covid parasites from the flowerbeds. It was the most exquisite garden he had ever been to.

 


 

The grocery list was long. They needed tons of toilet paper, soaps, shampoos, vegetables, snacks and whatnot. Raquel had volunteered to do all the shopping by herself and stock it all up for days to come. The lockdown was rather strict in their area and the last thing she wanted was to get into petty arguments with the authority. Masked up, sanitizer in her pocket, Raquel drove to the market in silence. 

The island that she had known and come to love in the last few years seemed drastically different these days. Barricades had been made at several crossings. The roads were almost deserted, even in the middle of the day. The sun was shining in its full glory, but no one was there to soak it in, no tourists making their way to the beach, no locals running off to their work. She had sometimes craved for the Philippines to get a bit quieter, less crowded, but this was not the way she had wished for it to happen. As bizarre as it was, driving around the city, she missed the bustle.

Raquel grimaced looking at the local market. There was a strict time slot for it and she couldn’t take her time to look through anything properly. She rushed to the aisles, avoiding other people, getting frustrated with people who weren’t wearing masks, took the things she needed and hurried to the next aisle. By the time she arrived home, she was sweating and was in desperate need of a shower. 

Rules had been laid down by Sergio beforehand that required her to drop the things at the back door where they’d soon be sanitized by him, then sanitize her own hands and feet before proceeding to the common restroom, take a shower, change into fresh clothes and only then be allowed into the house. He was apparently not going to permit a speck of virus to be carried into the house even through her clothes or her loose hair. Raquel followed all the instructions diligently. The cold shower on her skin was a welcome respite, washing away the gloom of having witnessed the changing world, a world that had to chain its inhabitants into their homes as an only way to keep them safe. 

When she came into the house, she could hear Paula’s teacher speaking through the laptop. Raquel peeked into her room to give her a quick wave. Smiling, Paula waved back, indicating to Raquel that it was one of the more interesting teachers who was holding that day’s class. Glad that Paula was set for the day, Raquel made her way to the kitchen where she found a hunched Sergio putting the new washed vegetables on the counter top to let them dry before they can be put into the fridge.

“How was your trip? Did you face any troubles out there?” he said, eyes glued to his work at hand.

“No. Not really. It was really different though,” Raquel mused, “It felt like a place out of a fantasy book where people have been wiped out of the surface of the Earth by a deadly battalion.”

“A fantasy book?” Sergio looked up in amusement, “Why Raquel? I never considered you to be the imaginative, poetic type.”

“Oh such is the way of the World,” she flailed her arm in the air, sighing dramatically, which was followed by both of them cracking up in low laughter. They couldn’t disturb Paula’s classes with their noise after all.

“Hush,” Sergio reminded her, still laughing himself, glad to have found some humour amidst the sad state of humankind. He quipped, “At least the vegetables are fresh.”

“Oh yes, I was surprised to have found them too,” she said while moving closer to his side. Raquel brushed her index finger along the hem of his collar, tugging on it. Standing on her tiptoe, she craned her neck towards him, her mouth parted, intention clear.

Her low breath was grazing on his neck, making his stomach flutter in anticipation and it took all he had in him to push her away. His hand held up between them, he took several steps back, leaving a gaping Raquel standing across from him.

“You cannot kiss me, Raquel.”

“Excuse me?”

“You just came from a full market. You can’t kiss me after coming back from the market.”

What ?” Raquel’s jaws hardened at this new dramatics.

“It’s simple really,” he nudged up his glasses, seemingly oblivious to the tinkering rage inside Raquel, “You went outside and now you could be a carrier of the virus. You see you can contact the virus even through your eyes. The mask only lowers the risk of infection, doesn’t diminish it. So we have to wait until at least forty-eight hours to let the virus either show symptoms or die on its own soon.”

“Are you fucking kidding me ?” Raquel growled, her teeth clenched. Not this again .

“Not.. not really.. ” Sergio squirmed in his spot, knowing he was playing with fire, “We.. can never be too safe during these times.”

“Go away!”

Sergio was not sure he heard her correctly. So he waited for her to repeat herself, not even having the courage to ask her what she had said.

“Go away, Sergio. Get out of my eyesight,” Raquel exclaimed, her face reddening in frustration. 

That made Sergio hurriedly leave the kitchen without another word. Raquel punched her fist on the countertop. This was utter bullshit. She had been following all his list of rules and regulations, his annoying little instructions to the t and this is what she got in return? It might be a good time to show him to the couch at night. Wondering what other ways she could punish him, Raquel came up with nothing. The man was a germaphobe and a strategist. Not a great combination for the current situation. Raquel understood, although bitterly, that not having backup plans for something as new and uncertain as this virus and its deadly consequences were making him panic, leading him to take drastic measures.

She groaned. That was not going to stop her from concocting plans to get back at him for turning her down. Raquel sat at the kitchen table and wondered for minutes on end, trying to come up with vicious plans. In the end, still having come up with nothing viable, she picked up an apple from the counter and started munching on it. She had been famished. 

As Raquel was just about to go up and check on their laundry, Sergio reappeared in the doorway with such a sheepish look on his face that Raquel was ready to forgive him on the spot. He, however, stood there scraping his toe on the floor, clearly unsure of where to begin.

Raquel rolled her eyes, less in frustration, more in eagerness, “Do you have anything to say?”

He looked up at her, struggling to maintain eye contact, he shifted his gaze from her to the wall, then back to her again, “I..” he stuttered, “What I’ve to say is… I need a kiss.”

Raquel forcefully suppressed her snort and raised an eyebrow at him, “Oh really?”

Sergio nodded.

“Weren’t you pushing me away half an hour ago?”

“I was an idiot,” he mumbled.

“Oh? And what was it that helped enlighten your brain?”

He didn’t answer. Swaying on the spot, Sergio seemed to be pondering over something in his brain. Raquel cursed herself in fear that in her wish to get back at him, she might have pushed too much and now he was going to change his mind again. That would mean forty-eight wasted hours. Raquel didn’t know if it was the whole deadly virus situation or the holed up with her family that made her this desperate to get into his pants. Either way, that man could turn her on even when he was being utterly insufferable. 

Sergio seemed to have made up his mind when he straightened his back and suddenly looked even taller than before. As Raquel waited for him to leave her hanging again, he made his way to her in long strides and drew her in his arms before she got a chance to retort something at him. 

Hovering over her, his gaze intent on her eyes, he murmured, “Can I tell you what enlightened me after I got that kiss?”

“Hm.. Are you in that miserable a situation?” she couldn’t resist the urge to tease him, especially not when he was this close to her lips, their noses grazing against each other. 

“Oh it’s worse than you think,” he said and in the next moment their lips met midway, kissing and sucking, neither having realized how much they had really needed it. She pulled on his collar and deepened the kiss in a frenzy. If she had been famished for the apple earlier, the craving for this one by far exceeded that. 

He drew away from her for a brief moment and breathed, “I was in the office and my calculations were suddenly all wrong, none of it added up, none of the theories made sense either. You see I haven’t ever turned you down before. That’s what enlightened…”

“Yeah, yeah, alright,” she cut him off mid-sentence and pulled him to her, her fingers tangled in his hair, her mouth all over his.

When Sergio snaked his arms around her waist and resumed their kiss, he knew she was too good for her. She had forgiven his theatrics, adapted to his overbearing house rules, and was still letting him hold her and kiss her. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she had ordered him to sleep on the couch for the next week, but here he was holding her, the sweet smell of her jasmine shampoo infiltrating his senses. 

But damn him, he had more to say, he pulled away again, “I’m so sorry I said no earlier. I failed to understand that if the virus is already inside you, it would only grow and not die in forty-eight hours, so there’s no point of…”

Raquel both wanted to shake him and kiss him hard for pulling away from her yet again. Truly insufferable. She just nodded her head without even trying to discern what he was babbling about and crashed her mouth against his again. 

“Stop.. talking..” she said while proceeding to open his shirt buttons in a hurry and sliding it off his shoulder.

Getting rid of his shirt, he picked her up by her ass and mumbled between the kisses, “Right.. Right.. But maybe... not here?”

Raquel had completely forgotten in her hurry that they were still in the kitchen where her mother or daughter could walk in on them at any given time. Although she always found it rather amusing to see Sergio fumble and stutter when such incidents happened, Raquel wasn’t too keen on getting interrupted right now. She let him put her down on the floor and dragged him towards the bedroom right away.

“But my shirt…” Sergio tried to stop her but immediately shut his mouth seeing her glare.

Once in the bedroom and doors closed behind them, their hurry gave way to a slow languid kiss, truly appreciating the moment of being just with each other. He could swear that every time he said something stupid, made Raquel mad at him and they reconciled afterwards, credit to Raquel’s ability to forgive him quickly, she somehow looked even more tantalisingly beautiful, tasted infinitely more luscious.

Slowly backing her towards the bed, he took the shirt off of her, kissing her again at once. Her cool strong arms encircled his neck, reminding him once again that she had just had a shower. That made his stomach tingle and he took one breast in his hand, caressing it with soft touches. Raquel groaned between the kisses and pushed her breast further into his hand. How she could make him shudder with those sounds while he was the one doing the acts was beyond his comprehension.

Sergio pushed her onto the mattress, their lips and tongues still in a mesh. He slowly made his way downwards, sucking on her neck, making her tangle her fingers in his hair. Kissing and sucking alternatively he gave his attention next to her ever so glorious areola, then her ribs and her navel. Raquel had thrown her head back into the pillow, her breathing starting to get heavy. 

Such was the trance he had put her in, Raquel did not even realize when her pants came off but she was sharply brought back to her senses when he pressed his warm mouth against her core without any prelude. He took a long stride along her labia next with his tongue and that did it for Raquel.

“Oh fuck!” she yelped, entirely forgetting that other members of the house could hear her.

“Hush, Raquel,” Sergio reminded her with a crooked, satisfied smile from between her legs. 

Raquel would have liked to wipe that grin right off his face if she wasn’t too eager for him to repeat his actions several times over. She was just about to bark that order at him but he didn’t need any prodding. His teeth were already nibbling at his clits and Raquel let out another growl, damn his warnings. 

Encircling his hands around her thigh, Sergio kept licking her clit and waited for Raquel’s breathing to calm down. It was only when she started getting adjusted to his steady licks, that he pushed two fingers inside her and it had the intended effect. She gripped his hair and pushed her hips towards him. The years of studying her intently paid him off well. His own arousal made him feel so heady. Curling his fingers inside her he rubbed against her, never stopping the nibble on her clit. 

She had wanted to hold onto these sensations for so so long, to feel him being smug with his mouth, he was so hot that way but she came before she could stop it. She came before she could keep herself from shrieking his name over and over again. Her palms gripping the bed sheets, her chest heaving, her cheeks flushed, she came in waves, in glorious waves. 

Sergio held on to her trembling legs, his name now coming in low moans from her mouth were music to his ears. He licked her folds one last time to memorise her taste before moving to put featherlight kisses on her thigh. Ever since he had rejected the kiss earlier, everything had gone to hell. He was feeling terrible anyway, but when his work desk failed him too, that’s when he knew there was only one cure to his woes. Thanking heavens for Raquel’s patience with him despite his bizarre ability to get lost in his own convoluted acts, he turned his face to her other thigh, grazing his nose against it, smelling her in. He had been doing all these freakish things to stay safe from an unknown danger, having forgotten here is where his safe haven had always been.

Propped up on her elbows, Raquel peered at Sergio, with his head still blissfully buried between her legs. Beaming, she called his attention to her, “How much have you been wanting to do this?”

He looked up at her, he still had his glasses on and that broadened Raquel’s grin further. How on earth he could go down on her with his glasses on and still manage to do it so wonderfully was beyond her.

“You have no idea!” he answered, the sheepish twinkle reappearing on his face.

“Come on up here and get rid of your pants,” she urged him, beckoning him to her arms. He complied with ardour, blushing, his lips glistening with her cum.

The kiss was hot and needy, his mouth was pressing hard against hers, yet there was a gentle passion into it that reconnected their souls to each other. In a world confining its people, restricting them, they felt liberated in each other’s arms, glowing in a sense of amazement, of gratitude. 

Raquel reached down and guided his erection inside her, bucking up her hips, setting the tone to make it fast. She didn’t want to make him wait any longer. His thrusts were rough and haphazard as he groaned into her shoulder, her legs wrapped around his hips, drawing in him closer. 

Her nipples grazed against his chest. Her voice saying sweet things to him, coaxing him, rang in his ears. He knew he was close, he knew he needed only a few more pushes, just a few… but all he could do was to stop midway to lock his eyes with hers, palms on either side of her face, just to witness the same degree of passion being reflected in her eyes. She parted her lips and he exhaled, hovering over her mouth. They shuddered together. It took only one more push then for him to come undone, his mind going void, his senses all consumed by his affection for her. His safe haven. 

He was still lying heavily on top of Raquel, his dick still inside her when there was a loud knock on the door. Startled, they looked at each other and then towards the door. 

“Shit,” Raquel muttered under her breath, then yelled, “Who is it?”

“Mom! I’m hungry!”

Raquel exhaled in relief. Maybe Paula hadn’t heard them and was just looking for food. “I’ll be right out, honey.”

They hurriedly got dressed again, swearing they wouldn't do this in the middle of the day again, not during quarantine. But right before opening the door Raquel gave him a side look that conveyed to Sergio that they would most definitely do it again… quite often in fact.

Paula peered at them as if she could see right through them and Sergio fidgeted under her scrutiny. “Why were you two screaming each other’s names when you were in the same room?” she asked with a frown.

“I… we…” Sergio stammered, looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

“Ice cream!” Raquel came to his rescue, bribing her daughter despite her better judgment, “We’ll have ice cream for dessert.”

She scurried Paula away from Sergio mouthing to him ‘you are cooking’ over her back.

 


 

The entire house sometimes looked nothing short of a carnival ground to Sergio and he would have it no other way. There were art supplies scattered around the living room floor, baking ingredients often left forgotten in the kitchen after use, there was always music playing in one of the rooms. Models of planets and stars were standing by their indoor plants, models that Sergio and Paula had made as part of their homeschool classes. Paula had insisted on occasionally continuing their homeschool even after her online classes had begun in full swing. 

Having opened two coconuts, he took them outside to the porch where he knew he would find Raquel gazing lazily at the ocean shining in the afterglow of the sunset. And for sure, he found her sitting on the daybed, hugging her legs to herself, her chin resting on her elbow. 

As soon as Sergio took a seat beside her, handing one coconut with a straw to her, he knew something was amiss that day. Her eyes hadn’t brightened up seeing Sergio appear by her side, the soft smile that Sergio was so familiar with hadn’t emerged on her face. Although most of the time he intuitively knew how to approach Raquel when she appeared dejected, there were still times when he felt utterly useless.

Raquel took the coconut from him and sipped in silence, her eyes veiled with an unknown sorrow. Whilst Sergio still had no clue what he should say that wouldn’t be even more painful for her, he knew he had to show up either way. He had to take a leap of faith for her sake.

“Are you feeling alright, Raquel?”

“Huh.. what?” She turned to look at him as if she hadn’t even realized he was there. 

“You don’t seem so well. Is everything alright?”

“Oh,” Raquel hummed, “Everything is perfectly fine.”

Sergio didn’t catch any hint of sarcasm in her voice which was no help to him in understanding the situation. Even more disconcerted than before, he pressed again, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, “Everything doesn’t appear to be fine though. Something is clearly bothering you. I am here, you know, if you want to talk.”

A wry smile appeared on her lips. “I am fine, Sergio. Everything is fine, actually, everything is great. And that is what feels wrong.”

He tried to not take it to heart and gave her space to continue.

“My life is a thousand times better now than the previous one,” her voice shook ever so slightly, “But… but somehow, today, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the what if-s. What if I hadn’t been able to get out of that life, hadn’t been able to get away from Alberto? I felt fucking scared even sitting here... after all these years, imagining having to stay stuck in the house all day everyday due to quarantine. I felt scared for my life!”

Tears spilled onto Raquel’s cheeks without notice, as Sergio sat there hearing her words with rising alarm, blood boiling in his veins. He felt so powerless in moments like these and the first thing he wanted to do was make up a false case and arrange for that bastard to be thrown straight to prison. He should have done that already, a long fucking time ago. That man didn’t deserve to breathe fresh air like a model officer of the law. 

But Sergio’s priority at the moment was Raquel. Not sure if he should touch her right now, but really wanting to give her some support, he placed their coconuts on the table, then hesitated for a brief moment before resting his arm around her slumped shoulder. 

“But you are here, Raquel. Your bodyguard in glasses is right here to protect you.”

Raquel leaned into his side, smiling despite herself. But her earlier terror took over her yet again and this time she couldn’t suppress her nauseating emotions. She pressed her face on Sergio’s chest and weeped , tears of fright for those horrifying moments, moments when she had thought she wouldn’t live to see another day, tears of joy for having stood up against Alberto. 

Sergio held her in his arms firmly, saying sweet things of affirmation. Dusk settled in around them as the panic started to subside from Raquel’s mind and Sergio could feel it with the way her muscles relaxed against his body. 

Her head still lying on Sergio’s chest, Raquel found her words again, “Sometimes I feel so selfish for living as perfect a life as this. Like I don’t deserve this,” she felt Sergio brushing his fingers through her hair, “I know the truth though. I know I deserve all of it. But I think what makes me feel this way is knowing that I could escape Alberto while many people just cannot. They are forced to live with their abusers day in and day out. I’m terrified to even think about what quarantine has brought into their lives.”

Raquel was right in apprehending the worst for victims of abuse. He felt his own heart going out to all those people who are suffering through it while confined in their homes, without any resources to prevent the abuse. “They would have nowhere to go,” Sergio didn’t try to hide his rage and remorse, “They would have to live in their own houses waiting for the next blow to come. We should do something, Raquel. We have to do something .” 

“Well we can’t go outside,” Raquel sat up straight and mused, her brain getting into action in full force, “But we can set up hotlines specifically for abuse victims. We can fund volunteering services to equip them with best possible resources, to set up camps in cities and towns where victims could turn to if needed. We need to give the victims an option. They need the assurance that there’s an option, a place for them in need. Often even that simple knowledge had given me a ton of strength to not give up.”

“That’s… that’s great,” Sergio pushed his glasses up his nose, “We should get started on the planning right away. The sooner the better. We can start locally and then move further. I’ll make calls to my contacts and see to it that they set up these services at the earliest.”

As they left the daybed and proceeded to their office space to take more concrete steps towards their goals, Raquel took one last look at the sunset and then peered adoringly at Sergio’s back, the first man who had believed in her torment and continued to do so with compassion and solicitude.

Covid might have put shackles on people, tying them down in unsafe homes with abusers and oppressors but that virus wasn’t strong enough to withhold nature, its soothing presence, the virus and the harassers were not nearly potent enough to withstand the united power of those who have suffered for long in silence. They would rise, Raquel knew and Sergio and she would be right there to back their revolution. 

 


 

“No mobiles at the dining table, Paula!” Raquel grunted in frustration, “How many times have I told you that?”

That screech from Raquel had zero effect on Paula who kept gazing at the screen as if the rest of the world did not even exist, her food left forgotten on the plate. It had become a near-daily occurrence at the house these days. Paula would finish her online school before lunch, but would stay glued to the phone, chatting with friends, playing nonsense games for hours afterwards. It had first been tackled by Raquel and Sergio with candid discussions with Paula on the negative effects of the use of the screen and social media for a prolonged time. When that went to deaf ears they tried persuasion, then even against their wishes they attempted negotiation and manipulation, ultimately giving way to shouts and reprimands. Yet nothing fucking worked.

“Paula!” Raquel cried again, “I’m talking to you. Look at me. Paula?”

“What?” Paula looked up at her reluctantly with tired irritated eyes.

“We are all eating here together. You need to put the phone down and talk to us,” Raquel gestured to Mariví, Sergio and her. While Mariví only solemnly shook her head at the interaction, Sergio sighed, knowing this was going nowhere.

“Oh god,” Paula, all of ten years of age, exhaled, as if already tired with the world, “You guys are so boring, Mom. Can’t you just chill? Why are you so hyped up all the time?”

Sergio tensed up beside Raquel, he knew a bit too well that this couldn’t end on a good note. No one told Raquel to chill and got away with it, not even Paula.

Setting aside the initial disbelief at Paula’s choice of words, Raquel spoke in a low yet firm voice, her eyes fixed on her daughter, “I am enough chill, thank you very much and it’d be a good time for you to keep that phone down,” she put pressure on each word, “And eat your food.”

On instinct, Paula knew when to accept defeat. Although it didn’t stop her from rolling her eyes while muttering ‘whatever’ under her breath, she did resume eating after that. Sergio and Mariví exchanged a look of relief. Not a word left Paula’s mouth after that fiasco. She ate in silence, her eyes sternly directed anywhere but at her mother, she finished her chores and went off to her room for a nap without greeting anyone.

That was not the way Raquel had intended for things to go down. Paula wasn’t supposed to grow even more indifferent to them. She was supposed to be interactive and playful. Raquel knew there was cause for concern. While cleaning the kitchen she told as much to Sergio. 

Sergio was on the same page with Raquel on this one. Shrugging he said, “She is just frustrated, Raquel. We knew these online classes, being cooped up in a room for months, online projects and tests were going to take a toll on her.”

“But haven’t we been doing our best to guide her through this? Helping her cope?”

“We’ve been doing our best, yes,” Sergio mused while wiping the dishes dry with a cloth, “But what appears to us as enough, might not be good enough for her?”

Raquel had not thought of it that way. She had assumed her best efforts were what Paula needed, that she’d navigate Paula to the best of her ability and it would be sufficient. Years of parenting, yet some things sprung in front of her at completely unexpected times, from a supposedly amateur Sergio. The learning trajectory came today with a lesson on self reflection, patience and deeper understanding of not only what she thought is the best for her child but also what Paula needed to cope with a situation that was beyond anyone's control.

Raquel sought help from Sergio this time, “What more do you think we should do?”

They had been doing many things for Paula in the last months to help her through this life in quarantine. But Sergio knew in his heart that it was still a bit much for Paula who had been uprooted from her hometown once, placed in a secluded island and then again been dissociated from her social life when covid came around. It was as overwhelming for a child as it could be. For several moments though Sergio felt completely out of his depth when Raquel asked him for his input, what could they do to help when Paula was not ready to communicate her feelings with them, when she thinks her parents are just boring old people.

“Hey…” Sergio hummed, a thought had suddenly crossed his mind, “You remember when Paula was all into the camping thing last year? We never got around to doing it, did we?”

“Camping? No, we didn’t,” Raquel wasn’t sure what ideas were brewing in his mind, “But where can we go camping in this lockdown?”

“Just here...” He shrugged.

“Here as in..” Raquel asked to make sure she had heard him correctly, “On our beach?”

“Yes. I don’t see why not. Paula would love it! And Mariví…” Sergio drew Raquel’s attention to Mariví who had just reentered the kitchen, “How would you like it?”

“How would I like what, dear?” Mariví was caught off-guard with the question.

“How would you like camping tonight?”

“Is that something we do?” She tried hard to remember if and when all of them had gone camping and concluded with, “Yes, yes, I think I would like it.”

Sergio was now boiling with excitement, “No, don’t worry, we haven’t done that yet but we would tonight,” he turned to Raquel, “Right?”

Raquel was amused to see the barely hidden glee on his face to have come up with an idea that would possibly cheer Paula up from her monotonous routine. It was close to impossible for her to say no to that face anyway. 

She nodded her assent which earned her a few spontaneous delighted kisses from Sergio much to the surprise of both Raquel and Mariví. Breathless from their impromptu kiss, she even let Sergio wake Paula up early from her new habit of afternoon naps. Paula, though reluctant at first, gradually gave in to Sergio’s enthusiasm as well. She told him she was not even grumpy anymore and had excused him for waking her up from her sleep. 

Raquel and Sergio spent the afternoon carrying supplies outside, while Paula sat at the stairs ordering them around and occasionally moving a few snacks and bottles as a voluntary work of service. On other days, Raquel would’ve made it a point to make Paula do her part but there was no lesson on chores today. She decided the only lesson Paula needed to learn today was how a family showed up to brighten the mood of a member if that person wasn’t feeling up to it. The lesson was to sympathise, emote and perceive, the lesson was to let Paula see what her family, the world had to offer beyond her laptop or mobile screen. 

As evening rolled in, all four of them gathered on the beach and sat around a stack of woods that Sergio had assembled for their campfire and they lit it. Marshmallows were taken out of packets soon after, then roasted and savoured in minutes. The fire cast playful shadows on all their faces and all of them sat there, aglow in the bliss of nature, their hearts full with mirth.

“I love camping,” Paula held up her hand to declare within half an hour of lighting the campfire.

Raquel felt her heart swell up at those words. Sergio had been right. They had needed to get out of the house and unwind. For someone as stubborn with his rules as Sergio, he broke them way too often for the people he loved. Raquel snorted, mumbling, “Wait until the mosquitoes get to you.”

Paula, however, was in an indomitable spirit that evening. Getting up from her spot, dusting the sands off of her, she looked here and there and found a spare can that would fit her purpose. “I am going to give a performance.”

She thus began without waiting for anyone’s approval. 

“These stars… these pretty pretty stars that are hanging in the sky,
And the coconut trees standing over our head so high,
I’m loving you all, oh my, oh my...”

The adults fought hard to keep their laughter in as Paula turned and twirled like her toddler years, making up a song on the spot, dancing in her own rhythm. 

“Bravo! Paulita, bravo!” Mariví cheered her on. 

As Paula finished with loud applause, it fuelled her spirits to carry on her performance. She went on to narrate a thriller story that she had recently read that contained fire blazing dragons and murderous bats. It was one of those moments when Raquel witnessed her hidden potential surface, compelling story-telling and oratorical prowess was definitely one of them. 

Her voice was gravely one moment, shrilly in another. Paula went back and forth, hand going in different directions, arching and bending forward in an attempt to dramatize the plot. All until Sergio crawled around Raquel, out of Paula’s eyesight and slowly crept up behind her. He put a finger to his mouth, indicating to Mariví and Raquel to not utter a word to Paula about his little act.

Paula was in the middle of building up one of her suspense scenes, when Sergio all of a sudden yelled, “Boo!”

Screeching, the narrator of a horror story herself panicking, Paula yelled, “Sergio!” 

Reddened in embarrassment, for having fallen for Sergio's cheap prank, Paula went running after him to shove him to the ground. They ran in circles around the fire, laughing, shouting, with the wind in their faces. Raquel and Mariví joined in the chaos, sprinting with them, throwing sand at each other, liberated from the worries of the chained quarantined world for one blissfully ignorant night. 

 

Settling down on the sand again, they talked about everything under the sun. They reminisced about winter in Palawan, which was just a bit less hot than summer, Mariví and Raquel recounted their early lives in the outskirts of Madrid and Sergio told them bittersweet stories about his days in the hospital. They went on to talk about the hopes and dreams that they had as kids.

“I wanted to be a chef,” Raquel deliberated.

“A chef?” all three of them said in unison. Sergio quipped, “You burnt an omelette just this morning.”

“That was not my fault, Professor!” Sergio had gotten sneaky with her ass. That was the sole reason she had screwed up those eggs and he had the nerves to bring that up here. “I cook very well. Don’t you three dare laugh!”

“Alright, alright,” Mariví held up her hand to declare a truce and turned to Paula, drawing her small frame into her arms, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It didn’t take Paula long before she answered, without hesitation, “A nurse.”

Mariví craned her neck to look at her grandchild’s sweet face, “Oh, not a doctor, honey?”

Paula shook her head. “Doctors only give medicines, they help you with your body. But Abuela, I’ve seen on the news, how nurses are helping the people with covid. Nurses talk to you, tell you stories and you won’t even know when they give you the injection. They did that when I went to take my tetanus injection.” She went on, oblivious of the adoring eyes on her, “Nurses take care of your heart.”

Sergio straightened his back, hearing Paula. As a kid who had spent the majority of his childhood in various hospitals, he realised better than anyone else how truly insightful Paula’s words were. What a kid wanted to be when they grew up was such a simple question, often asked without much thought, the person asking expecting an ambitious or a funny answer. Yet this kid right here had taken that simple question, reflected on it and enlightened all of them with her deep sense of wisdom. 

“Nurses are nothing less than warriors, especially during times like these.” His heart swelled up in pride and the privilege of getting the opportunity to motivate his daughter; he smiled gently at her and said, “If you set your mind to it, we know you’ll be a great nurse!”

Paula beamed at Sergio, thrilled at having made him proud of her. It was another thing in her long list of why she thought Sergio was a pretty cool addition to her family. That he was always on her team, no matter what. That he always gave her a chance to explain herself rather than jumping to conclusions if she ever made a mistake. That he always believed in her potential, no questions asked. 

 

The tarps that Sergio had put up to use as makeshift tents were left forgotten as Paula fell asleep under a palm tree, insisting that camping was all about sleeping under the stars, not before mentioning how she would like to go camping at least once a week from now on. Mariví turned in soon as well, under another long palm tree, content with life.

The cold beer that Raquel handed him, helped soothe Sergio’s nerves. The bitter taste gave a welcome rest to his overzealous body. They drank in silence with arms around each other, the campfire dwindling beside them. Sergio sealed that moment in his mind as another one of those precious gifts that life had offered to him that he often thought he did not at all deserve. He probably didn’t, but he had it, he had this wonderful life, these beautiful women and a sense of peace that made him gratified beyond measure. 

They laid down on the sand eventually, with Raquel’s head in the hollow of his shoulder. They talked in hushed tones about all the beautiful stars adorning the sky that night. It made him acutely aware of how much life had changed ever since lockdown had begun yet nothing had changed much for him at all. He had been overly anxious, obsessed with keeping his family safe, taking extraordinary measures at times. But what hadn’t changed was Raquel’s unwavering presence beside him, grounding him, not letting him go nuts.

Kissing her hair, he murmured, “I wouldn’t have been able to do the entire quarantine thing if it wasn’t for you.”

Raquel took a peek at his face, both amused and flattered. “I think I’d have sucked too. When have I cared about rules anyway? Pretty sure I’d have been too reckless.”

“Good thing we had each other then,” Sergio whispered just before capturing her lips with his. They kissed at a leisurely pace, engaging in tasting and teasing each other, her arms in his hair, their minds just a bit inebriated. His fingers sneaked inside her shirt to roam over her breasts, eliciting a low moan from her. Raquel intended to protest, to tell him that her mother and daughter were just a little distance away but her words remained unvoiced, her heart beating faster in her ribs. 

There was no telling where that little act could go but out of nowhere a drop of water fell on Raquel’s eyes making her squint, another dropping on Sergio’s nose. Before they knew it, it started to drizzle. Sergio quickly brought his hand out of her shirt, running to get the pillows and blankets inside, just as Raquel dashed to get Mariví and Paula. The rain only grew as the drowsy figures grunted and rushed inside, cursing the rain. Having packed what felt like a village's worth of supplies in the rain, completely drenched, both Sergio and Raquel snorted at their missed chance. They couldn’t help but laugh under their breath at the bizarre new routine that life had fallen into that somehow also made complete sense in the even strange state of the world. 

 


 

One morning, about a month later, when Sergio woke up with nausea and mild headache, Raquel immediately knew something was wrong. She told him to stay in bed for the day and offered to bring his food there but he declined all of that. 

“I am fine,” Sergio declared, walking off to the bathroom in slow steps, “See.”

Raquel was not fooled by that. The usual jaunt in his manoeuvres wasn’t there, he seemed off and she was worried. Fuck. She was so worried. The first wave of covid was gone and so had the fear surrounding it. All of them had started to slacken their cautions a bit. The goddamn taste of freedom after months had been sweet. They were using less sanitizer here and there, going to take the mail without masks sometimes, meeting neighbours and talking about the weather. 

And now Sergio was sick. The very thought made Raquel want to throw up, that he could get sick simply because she had started enjoying the lift of bans. 

“I am not sick,” Sergio reappeared from the bathroom and interrupted her chain of thoughts. Shit, he must have read her whitened face right away. 

“And how do you know that?” she countered, folding the sheets.

“I know that because I don’t have any fever, I am not even feeling out of breath.” 

“This disease can have forty different symptoms, for god’s sake,” Raquel uttered. Sergio was clearly not willing to admit to himself that he could have covid. But she couldn’t just let it slide, “Please let me just call the health centre to get you tested.”

“Oh, Raquel. Let’s wait and see for a few days, it could be just a regular cold.”

“A few days? Are you insane? If it is the coronavirus, it could grow inside your body by that time and threaten your damn life!” Raquel cried out, her sickening worry starting to take over her.

Tilting his head to the side, Sergio took several moments to gaze at Raquel, in a completely new light. He realized with shock and adoration, that she was scared. After almost a year of cohabiting with this deadly virus around them, trying to rein in Raquel’s soaring soul and restricting it in their home, her continuous adamancy and stubbornness later, here they were. While he was laid-back about the whole thing this morning, she was anything but. The tides had turned. 

He knew he shouldn’t be giddy in this situation, but he just couldn’t help himself. It was an inexplicably pleasant sensation seeing Raquel fuss over him. He relented, “Alright… Only because you are so scared.”

“I am not scared ,” she scoffed. But when their eyes met, Raquel knew she had nowhere to hide, “Alright, fine. I am. Can you blame me?”

Shaking his head gently, Sergio stayed glued to his spot and started doing some mental calculations. A while later when he spoke, his headache had grown just a notch. He didn’t know if it was the virus or just his despair, “If your assumptions are correct…” he said slowly, “I should move out to the outhouse until we get the test results. I can’t be around you three till then.”

“What?” In her worry for him, Raquel had completely forgotten how highly contagious this thing is, “No! No way.”

“But Raquel…”

“No way. No way,” she shook her head, unwilling to listen to any logical theories he might present to her. She was not going to let him out of her sight when he was getting sick.

“I can’t put all of you at risk.”

“And I can’t let you be all by yourself when you’re…” She choked on her words, cursing internally. It was in these moments that she realised the depth of her own feelings for him. The feelings that cracked right through her hard shell, the feelings that made her unable to even consider making sound decisions. She had become hypersensitive in these few years by his side and she so wanted to hate him for that. 

“I’ll be alright till the results. Trust me.”

Raquel took a step towards him, negotiating her way through it, her best weapon, “I know you’re concerned about Paula and Mom. I am too. Tell you what, we let them stay here while both of us move to the outhouse. That way they would be totally safe and you won’t have to die out of boredom.”

Sergio took a step right back, maintaining the distance between them, “That is dense and you know it.” He nudged his glasses back up his nose, “And in any case, I don’t really need you to quench my boredom. I’ve been by myself almost all my life.”

That caught Raquel off-guard. She stood there with her eyes vacant, unable to form a response. He didn’t need her. Huh. What could she even say to that? And here she was desperately trying to find a way to stay close to him during these uncertain times. 

“That is not what…” Sergio backtracked seeing her dumb-founded expression. Of course, he had fucked up again with his infamous inability to articulate his feelings into words. He tried again, “I cannot put you at risk either. Please understand that.”

Gulping down her hurt, Raquel replied in a dry voice, “I could already be infected since we spent last night in the same bed, fucking for hours you see.”

“All of us need to get tested then. Raquel, my love, I’ll be back here as soon as the results come back negative. Let me go for now. Don’t you understand the guilt I’ll be feeling if I let any of you get infected?”

Moments went by when both of them stood in their bedroom, six feet away from each other, with only the clock ticking on the wall. The impending separation prickled at their skin, their hearts getting heavy. A decision needed to be made and neither was truly ready for it, no matter how short a time it might be for. 

After what felt like an eternity to both of them, Raquel said, barely above a whisper, “I understand.”

 

Standing motionless in a corner of the room, Raquel watched him gather his pillows, covers, clothes and books. Nothing made much sense at this point. He scratched his now red nose a few times, his body looked sullen or maybe Raquel was just imagining the worst. Maybe he was in perfect health, maybe he would be behind his desk, hunched over his books and plans by tomorrow. Maybe it will all be alright. Maybe. 

Paula and Mariví were still in bed when Sergio noiselessly made his way to the outhouse. Turning around one last time from the porch steps, he saw Raquel arrive at the doorway, her face giving nothing away as if she was in a trance. He could not remember if he had ever seen her like that before. It was so bittersweet, to have someone so much in love with him that she could be in this kind of pain for him, yet not being able to hold her in his arms to relieve her of her worries, to assure her everything would be alright.

There was no good-bye kiss, no last-minute hugs. Only two people looking at each other from afar, uncertainty and fear gripping their senses. Raquel nodded first, trying to don a brave mask, reigning in the agitation in the pit of her stomach. 

Sergio nodded back and walked away before the urge to run back to her overtook his mind.

 

The house seemed unusually quiet and unnecessarily large when Raquel walked back into it, as if it had grown twice its size that morning and each corner of it felt emptier. Each corner reminded her of the little quirks of Sergio, his brooding face, his shy smile. It was definitely not the first time that they’d been separated, yet this one felt so different, so much more miserable.

She gave the news to the two other women when they woke up which brought on a series of queries that she had neither will nor knowledge to answer. She didn’t know if he was really that sick or if he would be back for his evening milkshake time with Paula. She had no answer for Mariví as to when Sergio would be available for their next chess match. All she wanted to do was scream at the top of her lungs that she knew nothing, that she was sure of absolutely fucking nothing.

It only took Mariví a few more moments to totally grasp the situation and she got down to work immediately, throwing orders at Raquel and Paula. Raquel gave her mother a silent thanks for keeping her mind occupied. They soon made breakfast and lunch for Sergio, packed it and Raquel dropped it off outside his temporary abode with a little knock. Back at the main house, the three women ate absent-mindedly, a heavy silence hanging in the air. All of them tried coming up with small subjects of conversations but nothing clicked, not when Sergio wasn’t there to chip in with his little anecdotes.

A few hours later, a medical representative dropped by to take all their samples. Paula observed the whole thing with curiosity and asked her mother later, “Do you think she liked poking in my nose?”

That made Raquel chuckle for the first time that morning, “I doubt it, honey.”

“She has a very strange job,” Paula commented.

“That I agree.”

 

Next came the waiting game. Each passing moment felt like an added pressure to Raquel’s anxiety. She paced around the house, sat down to read a book at Sergio’s table but got up almost immediately because it was simply too much. Folding the bedsheets again and again, she threw them to the side of the bed in frustration, cursing the lab technicians for not being fast enough. Taking a shower, eating a meal, finishing her chores all felt like a hazed tangle, the more she tried to untie her emotions, the more complex it became. As evening set in, the darkness in her heart only deepened. She asked herself over and over, at what point could Sergio have contacted the virus, was it one of those times she asked him to fetch something from the market, were Mariví or Paula infected too? What if Sergio and she were the ones infected, who would take care of her mother and daughter then? She wanted answers. She needed answers.

Walking out on the porch, she called Sergio’s mobile and waited for him to come outside. 

“Hi, Raquel,” his voice sounded tired. Raquel wondered what he could have been doing alone all day that made him tired, before it hit her hard that he had been sick all day, that the fatigue was setting in his body. Was it not a regular cold? It had to be a regular cold. It should be good old cold.

“Hi, cariño. What have you been up to all day? Enjoying your own company much?” Raquel tried her best to be snarky.

“Ah, I wish! I have been in bed,” Sergio said while slowly walking out onto his small balcony and waving to her. He continued, “I couldn’t even read anything, my eyes hurt.”

“Take all the rest, you can now. You overwork your brain anyway,” she snorted. “How was the lunch? Paula helped in making it, if you know what I mean.”

“I totally do know what you mean.” He chuckled, imagining the mess that must have been made in the kitchen this morning, “The lunch was fulfilling. Though I’ve to say it was a bit bland than the other times when Paula had ‘helped’.”

“Bland?” Raquel asked, shocked. She distinctly remembered adding extra spice in the food, to make it more delicious for Sergio in his cold.

“Yes, I couldn’t get much taste of anything…” Sergio stopped midway, looking straight at Raquel.

Oh, shit. Shit.

Raquel asked slowly, “You don’t have any sense in your taste buds, do you?” 

“I… I don’t think so…” Sergio took a deep breath in, expecting to smell the usual salty smell of the ocean and its wind but there was nothing, “Raquel, I can’t smell anything either!”

“That might mean nothing,” Raquel urged, “We lose our taste in regular cold too, our noses get blocked. It could be just that.” 

The rising panic in Sergio’s face that Raquel could see even from that distance, sent chills down her spine. It was the first time Sergio had looked remotely worried about this thing. Raquel had to assume charge in this situation. They couldn’t both break down simultaneously. 

“You are going to be just fine. Go get some sleep now. We won’t get the results until tomorrow anyway,” She paused before adding, “I love you, Sergio.”

It felt strange saying that. Raquel knew she didn’t say it often enough to him, had probably never said it to him over the phone. But at this moment it felt so right. She needed him to hear it, she needed him to hold on to it that night.

“And I love you,” he said softly, hoping she would hold on to these words that night.

 

Restless sleep is all she got. The bed felt foreign and her head kept pounding. In the middle of the night, Raquel sat up in her bed and leaned her forehead forward in the air, imagining Sergio’s forehead against hers, drawing in strength from him. She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep but when her phone rang in the morning, it felt like a sharp bite to her nerves. 

It was the health centre. Raquel picked up the call and listened to their words. After hanging up, still in a daze, she walked up to Mariví’s room and sat beside her in the bed, her head downcast.

“Is something wrong, my dear?” Mariví drew her daughter into her arms on instinct.

“The results are back,” Raquel said quietly.

“Which results?” Mariví was not sure what tests her grown daughter was taking, or what was the grading system for it.

Raquel’s eyes were forlorn when she looked back at her, as if her sadness had been multiplied, but Mariví’s brave girl powered through it in a trembling voice, like she often did, “The doctors had taken our samples yesterday to test it for the covid-19 virus, the one that’s causing this whole pandemic.”

“Oh, I see and how are those results?”

“Not good, Mom,” Raquel barely kept in her tears, “Sergio has tested positive like I knew he would. I knew it.” She was angry at him, illogically she knew. But god damn she was angry and wanted to put him in his place, wanted to yell at him ‘I told you so’. 

But he wasn’t there to listen. He was alone in an outhouse, confined with his misery because his family needed to be selfish and save themselves. “The rest of us are negative though. The silver lining,” Raquel sighed.

“Sergio will recover very soon. I’ve no doubt about that.” Mariví assured her, “He is so strong.”

Still in her mother’s arms, Raquel felt as if she couldn’t breathe, her voice quivered. “He is not that strong, Mom. He was very sick when he was a kid and who knows how that sickness would affect this covid. It could count as co-morbidity. That is really not good. Really not good.”

Stroking Raquel’s hair, Mariví kissed the top of her head. There was not much that she could say now that’d help soothe her daughter’s heart. Her partner was suffering all alone. Nothing sufficed in front of the guilt that even Mariví felt in her heart. Sergio had become the son she never had, he had found a spot in her heart ever so slowly, with a shy smile always plastered on his face. There was undeniable guilt in being well when her son was in pain. 

“He’d be fine because we won’t let anything happen to him. Because we would pray for his good health. He would be back home before you know it. You’ll see.”

Raquel wished she could believe that. But all she wanted to do was to tell her mother to stop giving her false hope. That she didn’t want to build a castle in the air. She didn’t even want to consider that he could get better soon. Because if she did, if she entertained the thought of his recovery and he didn’t eventually recover… she won’t be able to take it. The pain would be unfathomable. Raquel had lost many things in her life and in time gotten over them. Sergio was not one of those things, would never be one of those things.

“What do you need me to do?” Mariví asked when she didn’t get any response for long. 

There were lots of things that needed to be done, responsibilities, chores. Though her willingness to do any of it was practically nil at the moment, Raquel sat up, sighing, rubbing her eyes. She couldn’t run away from her duties just because she was sad. That was not how she was built.

“Can you start making the breakfast while I inform Sergio about the result?”

“I sure can,” Mariví said. As Raquel was about to leave the room, she called her back, “And honey? I might not always know what to say to console you but you can come to me anytime. You are allowed to be sad.”

Tears in her eyes, Raquel nodded. She was allowed to be sad, even hearing that was enough. No matter how hard the next few weeks were going to be, there was an undefinable comfort in knowing that she didn’t have to keep her emotions hidden, that she could be in despair, that she could grieve yet not appear weak.

 

Sergio was in a daze, his head felt heavy as he heard Raquel deliver the news to him. Not that he was surprised but it still felt like a punch to his guts. He was sick, uncertain of the degree of sickness, yet all he could think about was the weeks next that he wouldn’t see his family. That he wouldn’t see Raquel. Still in bed, he turned to the other side, wishing he would see Raquel’s face there. But of course, there was none. Raquel was still on the phone with him, telling him that he would be alright and back home soon. But when all was said and done, he was still alone in the outhouse. 

“I think I am going to sleep some more,” he told her.

“You do that,” came her voice, “The doctor would come to visit you soon and I’ll also come over to give you the food…”

Sergio dozed off before he could hear her finish her words.

The next time he woke up, the sunlight blinded his eyes. He felt too weak to go up to pull the curtains close yet no one was there to help him out. In a moment of sickening despair, he felt his eyes watering. The loneliness started to creep into his mind. He did not want to be alone, didn’t want to stay lying on the bed without a soul in his vicinity. His chest ached just for a simple touch on his forehead, the way he knew Raquel would have done to check if he had fever if he was still at home now. But he wasn’t. 

 

Sergio vaguely registered when a doctor came around to check on him in a hazmat suit. His pulse was taken, then came the oximeter. He heard the doctor saying something akin to his oxygen level being close to fine. Sergio wanted to ask him why he didn’t feel like himself then, but he could not gather the strength to. 

It was only because he was starving that he trudged himself to the door in the early afternoon and collected his food, wrapped neatly in several containers. There were also various antibiotics with instructions on when to take them written in Raquel’s handwriting. The note had a heart drawn at the corner that Sergio wasn’t sure whether it was from Raquel or Paula but he didn’t mind either. After the food, he was fast asleep again without the chance to even call Raquel.

 

The sole thing that had kept Raquel going that day was the advice the doctor had for her. He had informed Raquel that Sergio was not in any life-threatening situation, that his Ct value was high, that he was going to be sick and lethargic for at least a week now but it shouldn’t get any worse than that. He had put Sergio on antibiotics, had taken some blood samples and said that he was going to be back in a few days.

Raquel had quickly arranged for those medicines and was writing a note to him when Paula peered over her shoulder.

“Is that going to make Sergio all good again?”

“These are going to take him close to being good,” Raquel tried to be tactful with her answer. 

“Can I draw him something to cheer him up?”

Raquel agreed, thinking Paula would make a big elaborate painting on her chart papers. Instead, she pulled the note Raquel was writing in and scribbled a heart at the corner. Simple and sweet.

“Do you want to write something too?”

“No. That’s enough,” Paula declared. 

 

Dinner that night was finished in near silence. Raquel debated a long time while lying in bed, whether she should give Sergio a ring. Getting upset with him one moment for not calling her, telling herself that he must be too tired in the next. As she hovered between sleep and consciousness, her mind still agitated, she heard the bedroom door opening.

The bed dipped as a little frame got into it and came to lie by her side. Raquel threw an arm around her daughter, wondering if Paula had sensed her sadness and had come over to help her sleep. In the moment just before she fell asleep, she felt both at peace for having Paula by her side, for being able to take in her smell to calm herself down and also terribly selfish for enjoying that solace when Sergio had no one to give him an ounce of comfort. Raquel fell asleep feeling both grateful and miserable.

 

The next morning was just a notch better. Sergio could sit up on his bed, eat his meal without a searing headache and even read the paper. He called Raquel as soon as he was finished with his food. Having wasted almost one full day without talking to her was bad enough.

“How are you feeling, Raquel?” He asked without much thought.

He heard her dry chuckle, followed by a sniffle. “What matters now is how are you feeling?”

“I’m still nauseated and fatigued but definitely a bit better than yesterday. I guess the antibiotics are kicking in,” he informed her and added in a gentler voice, “But what you’re going through is nothing less than my pain. I can’t begin to think what I’d have done if you were the one falling sick.”

Raquel only let out a low sob in answer. 

“You know you’re allowed to kill me if I die, right?”

“Stop trying to make me laugh,” Raquel whimpered through her sniffles. “I wish I was stronger, cariño. I was supposed to be stronger.”

“Oh, but you are. You are stronger than anyone I’ve ever known but you don’t need to carry all the burden on your shoulders. I might be physically weak at the moment but I can still take a share of your pain.”

After several long beats, her voice came through, firmer than before, anguish imminent in it, “I just wish I could be there for you. At least check up on you, maybe read you stories. I wish I could do something more. Anything.”

“I wish that too,” he confessed.

“And.. and..” Raquel stuttered, “And I wish I wasn’t so stupid and had followed all your rules more carefully… It’s probably all my fault that you’re sick and alone…”

“Oh. No, no, no,” Sergio urged, his head starting to feel dizzy again,  “You are not going to even entertain that thought. You kept us all sane and smiling. If it was left to me, everyone would have gone crazy in just a week. So no way are you blaming yourself for an unpredictable disease. We did all that we could.”

A few more protests came from Raquel that Sergio shot down at once. 

“I need you to get better and come home soon. Is that understood?’’ Raquel half ordered, half pleaded with him. 

“Duly noted,” he responded, feeling a little out of breath and hung up to lie down again.

 

Life settled into yet another new routine, a tedious anxious one, one where all Raquel could look forward to was the occasional calls from Sergio. She felt as if she was on autopilot. Life rolled past her but she couldn’t take notice of any of it. Nothing seemed to last, neither joy nor pain. Every part of every day felt so vacant, so hollow. 

Dropping foods and medicines at his doorstep three times a day, finishing her chores and eating her food, Raquel did everything that she was supposed to do but nothing seemed to satisfy her. She wanted to do more, be more proactive, be more useful. Yet all she could do was feel the helplessness eat away at her, frustrations turning her stomach inside out. Sergio gave her regular updates of his pulse, temperature and oxygen level and Raquel clung to them, each variation sending her into a frenzy of despair.

She tried so hard to cheer up for Paula, to keep the mood of the house light but her heart was heavy and she knew Paula could sense it so well. One morning, Raquel went to Paula’s room and nudged her to look up at her from her homework. 

“Are you feeling alright, Mom?” She asked, her brows furrowed in concern. 

That simple question pierced right through her heart. She had already noticed the dread in Paula’s eyes in those few days. One of her parents was sick which had, in turn, made her hyper-aware of Raquel’s health. Raquel should have been the one taking care of her child, yet here they were where Paula was more concerned about hers. Raquel exhaled, reminding herself she deserved ease too, that she needn’t carry all the burden by herself either.

“I am feeling alright, honey. How are you doing? I haven’t been able to check up on you with everything going on,” Raquel brushed her hair, revelling in that small touch, yet again aware of how lucky she was to have that contact.

“I am fine,” she shrugged.

Paula hadn’t seemed fine. She was agitated like the rest of the house was, she had been talking less, been smiling less. She had not complained about anything, even once, since everything went sideways. In a matter of just a few days, it felt like her little girl had grown years in age.

“You know, you can go swimming in the ocean sometimes. Just don’t go too far into the water.”

Paula shook her head curtly, “I don’t want to,” she mumbled, “It doesn’t feel the same without Sergio.”

Raquel pinched her eyes shut, hit by the force of Paula’s words and drew her into her arms. Nothing did feel the same without Sergio.

 

During his days in the outhouse, sickly, worn out, Sergio often reflected on something he had said to Raquel on his last day in the main house. He had told her that he had lived most of his adult life all alone and that had apparently trained him to not need anyone to accompany him.

He told her he did not need her.

Lying in bed, an arm over his eyes, a single drop of tear escaped his eyes at his own stupidity. The realisation prickled at every inch of his body that he needed Raquel. That he had let her think otherwise. He needed her for every goddamned moment of his life yet he was so fucked up in his head, he made her stand in their bedroom and listen to his crap. 

He had tried reading several books, tried enjoying the solitude that he never got to have in the home yet every single thing had felt meaningless, lacking in colour when his women weren’t there with him. Nothing, absolutely nothing made him feel remotely at peace in that outhouse. The loneliness was suffocating, it ate away at his agony and Sergio could do nothing but to let it. As tears kept streaming down his cheeks, he wanted to scream and tell Raquel how much he needed her, how much he wanted to return home right that moment, that he couldn’t care less that it was juvenile of him to want to run to her arms. He needed her there with him and there was only so long that he could deny it. 

 

That evening Sergio started having trouble breathing. Drinking water, trying different sitting and breathing postures and lying down, nothing helped. He checked his oximeter and when it showed a decreased number, Sergio was dutybound to call Raquel, though bothering her with a negative update was the last thing he wanted to do. 

As she picked up and asked him for an update, Sergio cursed at himself before mumbling, trying to sound better than he felt, “Uhm.. I am feeling.. a little worse.”

“What?” Raquel blurted out, probably planning to rush to him at that instant, “What is happening? How worse is it? How much worse?”

Sergio gulped a chest full of air and winced at the pain, “Just a little trouble breathing...”

“A little? What does that mean? You need to get admitted to a hospital. Sergio, right now!” Raquel begged him.

“Oh, no. I don’t need a hospital,” Sergio said, panicking, which made him gasp for some more air. He stammered, “I.. It’s not that bad… at all.”

Raquel had rushed out to the porch, hearing his worsening condition. No way she could sit still any longer. Her heart constricting, she urged him to come to terms with her, “Stop being so stubborn.” Raquel gazed longingly at the outhouse, pleading, “Please, not now.”

That made Sergio snort. Raquel, the woman who could defeat all the world with her stubbornness, was telling him not to be stubborn. Sergio slumped down on the bed, his nerves hyperalert with the lack of oxygen, he paused, took a shaky breath in and whispered into the phone, “I’m already away from you, Raquel… Please… don’t send me further away…”

That was not fair. Raquel wanted to shout at him that he was not being fair with her. He didn’t get to make such requests, not when his health, his damn life was involved. Raquel fought a million battles in a matter of seconds inside her mind. Her mind vehemently wanted to send him straight to the hospital but she had known well how terrible an impact that betrayal could have on Sergio’s health. 

“I’ll arrange for a doctor to visit and for an oxygen cylinder right away,” Raquel said quietly, suppressing the voice that screamed at her that it was the wrong decision. 

“Thank you,” was the last thing he said before hanging up abruptly.

 

The next things happened in quick succession yet in slow motion as Raquel called the emergency services, waited for what felt like an eternity when all she could feel was that Sergio was gone, that she had lost him. She knew she was shaking and sobbing, sitting on a chair but had no control over herself, nor any feeling in her limbs. Mariví came out on the porch with a blanket and waited with her, holding her in silence. 

They were mute spectators as the doctor and the oxygen arrived, as the lights turned on in the outhouse and as the doctor came out later, leaving an attendant in place to monitor the oxygen supply. Raquel wondered for the umpteenth time why she shouldn’t do the work the attendant was doing, she was capable enough. As those intrusive thoughts brought another wave of sobs to Raquel, Mariví shushed her saying that she was too close to this, that she would get plenty of time afterwards to take care of him, that they needed to trust the experts for now.

Despite many requests from Mariví, Raquel absolutely refused to leave her spot on the porch. She fell in and out of sleep in the armchair, huddling inside the blanket, her mind going in all kinds of terrible directions. Tears dried up on her cheeks but she didn’t move for a second, gazing at the outhouse as long as she could until her eyelids got heavy, her mind numb. 

Paula came by in the morning with breakfast and hugs, her face just as solemn. Unlike Mariví, she didn’t ask her mother to come inside. Sitting by her side, Paula spent the entire morning telling her numerous stories, very much aware that Raquel couldn’t focus on any of them. Paula still kept a brave face on, at the face of the storm and kept going even though all she got in return was vague smiles and vacant looks. 

The only times Raquel left her spot was to use the restroom. In one of those small breaks, she found Mariví in the kitchen, making lunch and couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Mom, thank you…”

“For what, dear?” Mariví looked up, surprised.

“For everything. For keeping this house together.” She knew she’d have fallen apart at this time if Mariví wasn’t here to take care of both her and her child. It was a miracle how every time Raquel needed her mother, she showed up, lucid as ever. 

“This home is as much my responsibility as Sergio and yours. So the last thing you need to do is thank me.” Her voice got tender,  “I had told you, you’re allowed to be sad and worried, hadn’t I?”

“You had,” Raquel gulped down another sob, her eyes moist. “I’m going to go back to the porch then…”

“You do that and do not worry about the home. I’ll keep all of us alive.” Mariví winked at her.

 

The morning gave way for a solitary afternoon as Raquel stayed seated on the armchair, knees drawn to her chest, her eyes stuck on the outhouse. She received regular calls from the attendant, it did nothing to quell her worries but she was still grateful for those little bits of information. 

Sitting there on the chair, a hundred thoughts ran around in her mind. She thought about that one time during the quarantine, when Raquel had chained him up against the bedpost, with a tie around his mouth to suppress his screams and fucked him hard, all while Paula was across the hall attending school. A rueful smile came and vanished from her face in quick succession. The memories of hiding his glasses with Paula and seeing him fumble around for it flashed through her mind, so did the argument she had with him about leaving his wet towel on the bed. Out of his perfectly organised life, that was the singular messy habit he had and Raquel had to pick it up every damned day. What she wouldn’t give to get to pick up his towel again!

A stray thought crossed her mind that night that sent a chill through her spine. What if Sergio didn’t make it? In all that chaos she hadn’t entertained that thought so far. Not really. But in the deafening silence of the night except for the sound of the ocean, the blackened porch taunting her, Raquel couldn’t shake off that inevitable thought this time. 

Sergio and death. 

She felt sick to her stomach. She was not ready for this, was never going to be ready for this. But that thought kept nagging at her, tearing into her soul, tormenting her with… he could die… he could die . He could be gone and Raquel won’t even get to hold him, kiss him, hug him one last time. He would have to go into the night alone. Grief was isolating, Raquel realised that night. Grief was evil, selfish. She wanted to mourn him if something happened… Yet all she could think about was how she would cope if he was gone, how she would go on living in this house that had Sergio’s footsteps all over it. 

She remained dry-eyed that night yet her heart was in tatters by the time the moon set over the horizon. 

 

Two days passed after Raquel had last talked with Sergio. Two days since she had taken a seat on the armchair, barely touching any food. It was starting to take a toll on her, wearing her down emotionally. Raquel felt the world was revolving around her yet her world stood still in that outhouse. That outhouse stood there, giving her hope all while resting with the possibility to shatter her heart any moment. Any moment that attendant could walk out and tell her he was gone… forever. 

Two whole days, Raquel wondered how much agony had Sergio been going through in that time. Pain that he had no family to share with. Only a stranger who just kept a check on the oxygen cylinder. He could be going in and out of sleep, hanging on the verge of consciousness, pondering about his fate. He could be in acute need of a person reading stories to him, telling him he would be amidst his family in no time. 

Raquel was lost in wondering about what Sergio could be feeling at that exact time that she didn’t at first hear the phone ring. When she came to her senses, she hurriedly picked it up, dreading the worst once again.

The attendant’s voice came through, “Madam, Mr. Sebastian has been taken off the oxygen this morning.”

“What? Why?” Raquel was bewildered.

“There is nothing to worry about, Madam. It’s all good, in fact. I believe that he has recovered from the virus. We will still run tests and if it’s negative, you can take him to the home by tomorrow. For safety measures though, you’d still need to maintain distance and wear a mask around him for a week.”

Raquel heard each word, she knew she did. Yet nothing really made much sense. Sergio had recovered. Sergio had recovered . She told herself over and over again until it felt real. When it still didn’t, Raquel threw her blanket aside and ran inside the house. 

Mariví and Paula couldn’t make out one word Raquel said as she panted, talked in a frenzy, shaking her head in disbelief. She looked upwards, her eyes moist yet again, thanking God for the first time in her life for being kind and considerate. The girls joined in with Raquel in chortling as realisation dawned on them soon. 

Paula demanded to talk to him right away as they calmed down. Trying to dissuade her, Raquel told her how Sergio must be exhausted from all his suffering the last two days. But Paula didn’t take no for an answer. 

 

Sergio had very little strength left in his body after being attached to numerous pipes for days. But when his phone rang, he picked it up on the first call. The squeaky voice that came through was worth all of it. He could even hear faint protests from Raquel in the background, telling Paula to keep it short. 

Paula, however, charged on, “Did you get the cat, Sergio?”

“Cat?” Sergio didn’t know what he had expected Paula to say to him after a long separation but this was definitely not on the top of the list. 

“Yes, I found a cat sitting outside my window after you left. I sent it to you to bring good health.”

A chuckle escaped his mouth before he knew it. Sergio could feel the heaviness start to leave both his heart and his body, as he replied, “I think I did see two green eyes looking at me through the window one night.”

“Oh great, I’ve trained him well then,” before hanging up Paula added, “Mom was really worried, Sergio but I always knew you would be just fine. See you at home.”

Paula had known and Sergio believed her. That girl did have extraordinary healing powers. 

 

Sergio returned home with slow steps and the mask tied to his face. He moved into Raquel and his room while Raquel said she was fine sleeping with Paula for those seven days. None of it felt right. But complaining was not in the cards anymore, not when he had gotten the chance at life again.

On the very first day, both Raquel and Sergio decided that he just needed a haircut. Sergio had been obsessed with protocols at the beginning of quarantine, then Raquel had been worried sick when things turned upside down with Sergio. Yet neither of them could stand the distance for even seven more days. Both of them were aware of how the haircut was just an excuse to get a bit closer.

Putting on her own mask, Raquel met Sergio on the porch, with a cloth around his shoulder. She had arranged the whole thing, yet when she walked up to him, she found it hard to look him in the eyes. It still felt like it could all be gone again in a matter of seconds. If she even looked at him, it’d all become real. She felt her sweet dream would be broken anytime and she’d find herself sobbing on the armchair again. 

She began trimming his hair, gliding the comb and scissor with expert fingers. Cutting Paula’s bangs had given her much-needed experience over the years. She started from the nape of his neck and moved towards the hair over his ears, hyperaware to not graze her fingers against his skin even by mistake. She knew very well that as soon as that happened there’d be no going back, that she would want to crawl into his lap and stay there for an eternity. 

But it happened nonetheless. Her finger scraped against his neck and his breath hitched, his mind going numb for a second. It took him a herculean effort to not draw her into his arms right this second. If he had thought staying in the outhouse was hard earlier, nothing compared to this.

Raquel moved to face him, to cut the front of his hair. Their eyes met with a kind of deep underlying pain that had the potential to knock both of them off their feet. But somehow, they kept on looking at each other without making an advance. Patience, Sergio reminded himself, was a virtue. 

Trimming his hair, eyes flickering between the scissor and his eyes, Raquel started rambling through her mask to distract herself, “Paula has drawn a big welcome back poster for you. She even chose the bedsheet this morning. Mom has made a long list of things to discuss with you as well…”

“And you?” Sergio asked her quietly, his voice muffled in the mask.

Raquel looked at his twinkling eyes and snapped it away again, “I just planned a haircut.”

“Right,” Sergio smiled, relaxing for the first time, relishing in having made Raquel flustered for once. 

Raquel smiled back, though neither could see each other’s full face. Life seemed just a tinge sweeter than it had in weeks and weeks.

 

The next few days moved at a snail’s pace. They still could not eat together, so they settled for sitting across the hall with Sergio at his bedroom door and Raquel, Mariví, Paula at the living room table, facing him. Jokes were thrown around and laughter ensued but something still felt off. 

Paula would often walk by Sergio’s door, trying to chat him up and would be told to move back and maintain distance. Nothing diminished her spirits though. She would simply take a few steps back and chatter on with equal enthusiasm. 

Each night was harder than the one before. Raquel would come by to greet him good night. Sergio was still weak and recovering slowly and all her being wanted to stay there by his bedside but she held back, pushing down her wants. Sergio would stay half seated on the bed, wishing her sweet dreams, assuring her he was just tired but not sick anymore. Raquel would lean against the doorframe and try to believe in his words. 

It would take minutes on end every night before Raquel could tear herself away from the spot. It would take an even greater effort for Sergio to see her walk away. 

So close yet so far.

Every night.

 


 

Sergio waited by the shore, as the sky prepared to welcome the sun. The sun, the sign of hope, sign of new beginnings peaked as a red dot over the thrifty clouds. The calm waves, the tranquillity of that dawn washed away all the despair that had been hanging heavy on his heart and his body for the last few weeks. It felt nothing less than reincarnation. 

He had not even been that sick, his life had not been on the line, not really, but the one thought that had never left his mind was what if he could never hold her again, kiss her again, brush his knuckles against her cheeks again. What if he never again got to see her put a pencil through a bun while telling him new strategies, what if he never caught her glaring at him again, what if… He could have lost it, all of it. He could have lost the opportunity to see Paula grow up into a strong inspiring woman, the chance to talk with Mariví about society, its people, and nature. 

As morbid as it was to comprehend the ultimate truth of life, they were all mortals in the end, no one could tell for sure if they’d live to see the light tomorrow. Yet Sergio had spent over forty years of his life without ever stopping to appreciate the beautiful things life had given him. He had Raquel and his family in Palawan for several years now, he had been immeasurably happy, yet he hadn’t really seen those treasures, hadn’t paused to relish his luck. He had not been that affected by the virus, but he could have been and he’d have been gone without having told his family what they meant to him, how much he wanted to live for an eternity in their midst, soaking in their chaos and laughter. How much even eternity would not be enough. 

It was only when Raquel’s arms encircled him from behind, did he become aware of her presence. Sergio had wondered for nights on end, lying alone in his bed how it would feel to have Raquel touch him again, how her breath would feel against his skin, if it would be electrifying or if it’d be awkward and shy. Yet when she first touched her chin on his back, kissed the spot and then rested her head on it, there was no other emotion coursing through his heart, than just belonging. He had recovered for this exact moment, to share this stillness, this calm with her.

“Seven days are over,” Raquel whispered.

“I know,” he whispered back.

“You can’t keep me away anymore,” Raquel’s voice trembled ever so slightly.

Life had not always been gentle to Raquel. She had been through hell with an abusive husband, a corrupt government, a sexist society. It had hardened her, cast an iron shield around her heart and mind that she used to hold onto for the sake of her sanity. It protected her from letting other people toy with her heart, from others trying to manipulate her life, from being hurt again. She had learnt how to guard her soul the hard way, an extremely painful way. But she had achieved that nonetheless.

All until Sergio Marquina had entered her life, breaking down her well-protected barriers one by one. While she would like to believe she was the one penetrating his hard emotionless self, bringing love and light to his orbit, the truth was he had done nothing less to her, cajoling her to come out of her illusionary cave, to see the sunshine the world still had to offer, to regain her faith in love. And he had done all that in silence, effortlessly, just by peering at her with admiration, with devotion. 

That light in Raquel’s life, her anchor, could have been gone. She could have lost him to this virus. Raquel could have lost him without having told him how much she was in love with him, how much his mere existence brightened up her spirits. She herself hadn’t been aware of the hold he had on her, how much her entire world could fall apart in his absence and to think that they almost hadn’t met if she hadn’t found those postcards, to think that they had spent weeks apart unsure if they’d ever be close again. She was not afraid of much of anything in life but having experienced the scare of losing him had been ghastly. It had been cathartic.

She held onto him tighter, his palms coming to rest on hers. Raquel tried holding her tears in but it was fruitless. She had found her joy again, those tears were long overdue.

Having sensed the wetness of her tears on his back, Sergio turned around and cradled her head in his head. When their eyes met, he did not need words to convey to her that he was never going to push her away again, that he never had kept her away. They were apart, they hadn’t been able to touch but their hearts had been right here, seeking this serenity all along. He brushed his lips against her, it felt so foreign yet just the same. He felt as though he had returned after a long strenuous journey and his home had been the same to welcome him, yet it felt so alien, ready to be discovered afresh.

Standing on her tiptoe, Raquel pressed her mouth further against his, unbridled tears spilling onto her cheeks. She greeted his return to her realm with fervour, with delicate, unhurried manoeuvres. The fear of losing each other hung heavy between them, coming back in waves as they kissed and clung to each other in the light of dawn. There was nowhere to hide those fears anymore. It was here and in the first ray of sunshine, the scare seemed raw, the wound fresh. 

Their steps were brisk, noiseless as they made their way to the bedroom. It was unnerving to enter their bedroom together after weeks and weeks. Nothing felt the same. Raquel peered at his frame, holding on to his hand. There was a kind of dread in uniting with him again after being made brutally aware of the cycle of life that she just could not comprehend in her mind. 

His moist eyes had so many unspoken questions in them, that Raquel could answer with only a nod. She might be frightened beyond belief at the prospect of losing him ever again but in that moment of time, she wanted nothing but to be close with him, with all her heart and soul. She reached out and touched his beard with feather-light touches. Closing her eyes, she began jotting down the sensations in her mind from scratch as her fingers brushed over his cheeks, his lips, his biceps, his bare chest. 

Sergio stood there without moving a muscle, letting every pore on his body come alive under her fingers drawing several glorious paths on him. Her touch both burning and soothing his skin, he closed his eyes and exhaled a long blissful sigh. Her fingers had travelled those paths so many times before yet it felt nothing short of their first time. He was starting a new life with her today, one overflowing with gratitude.

It wasn’t very distinct to him at what point his fingers started roaming on her skin or when his mouth found hers again, but all that he was aware of was Raquel’s overwhelming, affectionate, strong presence all around him, inside out. He heard her sigh, he felt her heartbeat get faster in her ribs, he smelled her jasmine essence, he got lost in her and found himself again right amidst that beautiful madness.

 

Raquel laid on top of him, with his erection inside her, as she skimmed his hairline with her fingers, gazing at him with fond eyes. The initial fear of reunion had gradually given way for a soothing alliance, with soft smiles and gentle touches. 

“I have missed you,” Sergio said softly, following her finger with his eyes, as it traversed towards his hair.

“Oh cariño.” She held her tears back with considerable effort this time. They started rocking together in an unrushed rhythm, going back and forth in their own synchronicity. In this moment that Raquel stealthily borrowed from the universe, she felt she had all the time; all the time to love this man, to cherish his irresistible charm, his infuriating rules and regulations. 

Raquel came moments before Sergio did. The weeks of pent up tension finally caught up to them. Exhausted, content in his arms, she laid her head on his chest, relishing his caresses on her lower back. It had been a long tedious wait and none of it had gone in vain. They had found their way back to each other not with champagne and fireworks, but with silent nuzzles and embraces. Sure, it had been bittersweet, but it had been just as magnificent.

Kissing the top of her head, Sergio nudged her arm, asking her in a coy whisper, “How much have you been wanting to do this?”

That bastard. He was going to make her fess up. Raquel bit her lip to suppress a smile, not even considering any smart comeback and going straight for the truth.

“You have no idea!”