17

Amidst the birds' chirping, the bells resound, heralding the cermony's end. Some leaves rest upon the pavement, lightly tustling under the brisk breeze as the churchgoers walk out the archway's steps.

Among them, Lil can still taste the soapy sweetness on her lips. It was a really big bubble they've blown earlier, and it burst in a splash which covered everyone with 'holy' residue, oh my. Her hair tustles in the wind..

I should attend church more often. It's so much fun.

"What'll we have for lunch?" Pino asks, hopping along in her pink-and-blue attire. "I want some more Spaghetti-Os! Vince makes 'em taste soo nice-"

Lil once tried frying some meatballs on her own – somehow, she ended up with fireballs. It was not pretty.

"Let's get take-out, shall we? I hear Spachiini's making some good pasta." She'll save rehearsing her culinary skills for another day.

"Lil?"

It's Julius. Looking like he's spent himself on a basketball court, he wipes his brow.

"Hey," Lil goes, while Pino wanders off by the flowerbeds.

"You're still new to our neighbourhood, and I want to take this time to tell you how much we appreciate your presence here. Your daughter Pino is so well-mannered."

"Thanks." A glance at Pino, pulling out her dolls and it makes her blush. "I've been really enjoying myself here."

"It's part of our great tradition. If you're not having any fun, you won't know God."

The bells have struck their last.

While everyone else has gone, there is Nowe, waiting by a nervous distance from the two of them. Should he step in now to warn her? It's a matter of life and death for this beautiful lady he once fought over with Vincent – but he feels anything this important would need her full, requited attention. Especially because he's been the unlucky one who's still a stranger to her, by virtue of pure chance. He can wait..

"What's at hand is Fate itself," Julius goes. "You've arrived here to live a new life with your lover. Little did you know, you may have vindicated our many years of waiting.."

Lil stares at him, unsure.

"I've looked you and Vincent up in the news: he was once a poker champion, you were a model. An unlikely pair. If I may be so bold, you have.. fallen for him – both posing as characters beset by evil men, placed on a mission where your paths have intertwined.. only for you to see past each others' facades and when you've least expected it, found love."

How does he know that? She looks as if she's just had her clothes ripped away.

"Jonas 2 : 45."

Her eyes flutter. ".. you think my daughter is your saviour!?"

"Lil—" The hand Julius rests on her shoulder is of little comfort to her. "Life – your life isn't by blind chance; it has a purpose. The soul which inhabits your body strives for fulfillment. You've already found it in meeting Vincent.. and now, your daughter bears us all a wonderful gift. In her stout heart, the gift of hope!"

Lil glances at Pino, with the newfound shock of revelation shooting in her mind. It can't be. She's not going to be some pawn who's been played into this sick prophecy – there has to be something else! There must!

"You're lying! Who the hell are you to tell me who my daughter is going to become-"

But Julius hushes her, and in her silence, it dawns on her the overall sense of confusion with all the events which has led her to Vincent, and up to now. As if there had been an inexplicable, magnetic pull, which she obeyed and it brought her to this point.

"It's not something we expect you to accept right away. Sooner or later, you must be told this great news. Now, you can take the time to reflect upon what you've gone through, and if you sincerely believe we've made a mistake, that you're not anything except a mere extra in this tale, you can feel free to town-top again. Maybe you'll find better welcome than what we've offered you. But when you've come to decide what's right for Pino, we'll await you both with open arms."

The breeze envelops the two of them, and the chill dives deeply into her nerves, as the leaves are blown clear from the pavement.

"Just leave me alone, please.."

Julius departs – looking upon her gazing away in thought, feeling satisfied that the idea is planted in her mind, already taking root. The bells ring again, hollowly echoing in Lil's chest.

..

Pino has her petite fingers wrapped around her two dolls. There's Agatha, who has a raspberry beret and likes her tea dabbed, not stewed. Tea-time is especially nice when you're under the sunflower bed. Then there's Ricky, who has a fluffy basketball that's attached to his hand by a little spring. If you wind his turn-key up, the basketball ricochets back and forth, and you can make him do a slam-dunk anywhere he goes.

"Do you want more tea, Miss Eggy?" Pino goes, a slight British accent, lowering her voice to suit Ricky's gentlemanly nature.

"With as many orange peels as you can plop in my cup!" (high-pitched)

"Consider it done!"

She dabs Ricky's basketball – it's orange – into the little porcelain cup (dab dab dab!) then gets him to lay the cup nicely onto Agatha's lap. It's a really cute scene, which Pino plays out under the sun. But a shadow crosses upon her, creeping on the delicate facial features of the dolls..

Since being shot and knocked into a coma, Nowe's shortened his mullet into a sharper, slicked-back haircut, with the fleur-de-lis signet on his lapel a recent addition to his wardrobe. He can still feel a deep, chafing ache in his chest from where the pellet had struck him, especially if he arches his shoulders forth.

"My name is Nowe – you must be Pino. I've seen you blowing bubbles with the other girls on stage. You must be truly blessed, indeed."

In a polite bow, his hand is outstretched, and Pino shakes it giddily.

"Nowe! I like your name."

"I knew your mother from the other town.. she's still the beauty I've always remembered her to be." He shakes his head, as if brushing aside a silly impossibility. "Never mind. You are in danger, Pino. Your mum and dad especially. You must find someplace to run away."

"W-why? D-don't say such scary things!" Pino says, huddling her dolls closer. "We're not in danger. There are no spiders here!"

As if needing to say things which go beyond words, Nowe lurches forth, reaching his inner pocket. The collection of photos unfurl in his hand. Black-and-white snippets of Antonioni's underlings, who have been caught planning the re-capture of Lil and Vincent, down to their address pinpointed on the map. Nowe has taken great pains, ingratiating himself with the rivaling Spaccatelli family for the sake of finding out what's happened since the party.

All of this would have been lost on little Pino, as she doesn't recognize any of the faces. Only that these photos look eerie, with all of their faces sharing in common that same sullen look, the pruned cheeks sunken over the skull from being all too used to inflicting submission, at any cost.

"Not spiders.. from these wicked men."

Already, Pino is looking to turn away back to Lil, at a total loss over this newfound intrusion into her life whose darkness falls past a child's comprehension.

"Pino!?" Lil rushes by her daughter's side, picking her up. "What are you doing with her?!" The funny feeling she's had in the sermon hall, now bears a deeper foreboding as she finally sees the source of her worries. A faint ember of recognition stirs in her though, where his face which has now lost most of the hallmarks of youthful innocence. But this gets lost on her though, when she sees Pino crying.

"Mommy, I'm scared-"

Nowe stands, dignified. "I don't have time to introduce myself again, but if you're to save yourself and your family, you must do what I say. There's not much time – the Familia are already on their way here.."

Lil shakes her head, only half-listening as she carries Pino away. She's heard enough crap for the day, and she's not about to have any more of it – not from this oddly well-dressed weirdo, anyway.

The more Nowe protests, the more Lil dismisses his ravings as that of a lunatic, as she tucks Pino in the safety of the Jaeguar's passenger seat. She jerks the ignition, thanking the reliability of whirring to life in an instant after all these years, and hauls away back home, wheels screeching. The figure of Nowe shrinking in the rear-view mirror, still standing with an outstretched arm, as if in a last, desperate pleading for her to turn back..

Lil's fingers tremble over the steering wheel, as she fights the urge to cry with Pino around. Her thoughts reverberate, as if she's juggling what to really believe about the metaphysical dilemma they're in, now that the illusion of total happiness has been irrevocably shattered. Or what she should tell Vincent when he gets back home.. if she should even tell him as he arrives, bearing this half-tired look in his eyes where he only wants to relax his exertions away by the open TV.

I don't know what to do..

As she stops by an intersection, she plugs the radio – drumming her hands on the wheel, humming along to the Southern Freeez. Anything to distract from her newfound fugue state.. how about some ice cream.

From her pocket, Pino pulls out one of Nowe's photos. She's nabbed it as it slipped from Nowe's hand when he'd been distracted by Lil. Now, holding the glossy print in her little hands with the same wide-eyed novelty as the clover necklace's dazzling green hues. On TV, they'd play these spooky detective serials.. that's what Pino can try out! Ricky can play the detective, and Miss Eggy can be the poor victim whose beautiful clover treasure has been stolen!

She looks out the window. The car isn't going the usual way home..

/

One of Lil's favourite flavours is strawberry, with a whipped vanilla topping. She gets Pino some fudge chocolate at the counter also.

The chocolate is gooey and delectable, and it makes Pino so happy, while the drive leads them both to a new neighbourhood they haven't been before, with one-storey flats and rows upon rows of trees, entwined with electrical poles. Entranced, Lil drives, obeying an autopilot without a destination.

Soon.. a clearing where a playground awaits in its solitude, when the residents are out from home. Lil parks the Jaeguar's wheels somewhat too close to the curb.

The grass concedes under Lil's heels - the tall strands caressing her nyloned feet.

"Let me push you," she whispers. "Here, I'll help you onto the swing."

Pino wiggles her legs into the sockets, before Lil passes her back the half-melted fudge cone. She licks some of the melted chocolate off from her fingers, briefly sharing the same joy with Pino in its sweetness.

"Are you ready?" Pino nods back at Lil, and the smile her daughter gives dissolves what remaining grief lies in her heart. "Make sure you don't drop your cone!"

And from the playground's forlorness, tenderness. With each swoop of the swing, Pino's giggles get carried by the wind, as Lil dutifully settles into a rhythm, bearing a faint smile which is all she could muster against that looming uncertainty.

"Mama," Pino goes, after finishing her ice cream, "why were you sad?"

The pushes stop.

"Because—" Lil's breaths go in a shudder. "I love you so much.."

She takes Pino back up, and holds her.

"I don't know what's about to happen," Lil goes. "But I won't let anyone hurt you. No matter what, you're my little dear angel, you'll always be my angel, Pino. A part of me – a part of Vincent, will always be.. here.."

With a finger, Lil touches Pino's chest. Right away, it's as if Pino is whisked away in Vincent's arms again, in the air flying among the clouds, and she closes her eyes in Lil's sweet embrace, knowing how much she is loved.

/

From the giant furnace, the molten steel showers into the casket, in an inferno of sparks and steam. The heat wave is massive and unbelievable, shimmering the air into gyrating distortions. Vincent, in his mask and full-body suit, is soaked in sweat.

Among Pablo and his other co-workers, who work with a particular grace under the enormous pressure of delivering today's quotas, Vincent helps prepare the last batch of the alloy. Noting the casket's pressure level on the kiosk's gauge, he strides along the catwalk to the valves, where he spins his arms, feeling his joints ache from the chronic stress as the casket's sluice gates slide open.

From out the hatches, the molten alloy is funneled along a network of troughs, sludging forth into the confines of cylindrical processing units. They'll process the steel into buttery-smooth slabs and billets, accordingly, where they'll then be shipped off.

As Vincent stretches, he's poked from behind. He turns; Pablo is taking advantage of the slight pause in the workflow to re-enact the dance with the others. Though Vincent has been concentrating hard for the entire day, it's a much-needed moment of light-hearted relief, as he only thinks of going home – bearing the satisfaction of overtime pay, and extra vacation hours.

As well, on the up-town road, a limousine revs, its piercing xenon headlights leering forth over the hill, before the car shirks back – a stalker who contemplates its prey before once more dipping into the cowardice of obscurity..

..

"Dios mio!" Pablo goes, walking with Vincent out to the pick-up zone. "When I be gettin' home, I'm going to be taking the longest, most satisfying shit of my whole life – gawd-damn!"

Even after all these days working, Vincent could never get over hearing the after-ringing of such a noisy environment. The clanging, the shrieking, as if he's grown a permanent indentation of the industrial soundscape in his eardrums.

"We should celebrate, meng," Pablo says, while Vincent waits for the omni-cab. "I gotta take you out for some Paella, and you're gonna come home to wifey – she'll be begging you to take her for a ride, just one night.. another night, another dream it's always you.. it's gonna feel so good."

Vincent chuckles, while emitting a hint of a scoff. "Not tonight, I'm afraid. I gotta make it up to Pino for missing out on her baptism. A rain-check on your offer, though!"

"Damn meng, the boys were really hoping you'd show."

"Sorry to disappoint."

With the sun disappearing behind the mountains, the clouds blanket everything in that meditative transition towards the night. From up on the road, the omni-cab arrives. Its headlights pour over the pallid fences and detritus, arriving for Vincent to take home.