A Game of Keys, Stage 3 – ch. VII

“I… don’t?” I carefully stood back up to get a better look at my father’s hologram.

“You don’t.”

I gave my father a blank stare. What was he talking about? Of course I knew that father loved me! Though reserved and very strict most of the time – usually towards my four elder brothers and I, he had been a good father to each and every one of us!

“What do you –?”

My father did not let me finish my question, and said, “You are most precious to me, Connor, much more than you realize.” He gave me a penetrating look, but then he lowered his eyes and continued what he had been doing before he had been distracted by C1 and me.

While working, he seemed to hesitate momentarily, before making a decision and speaking, “I adored your mother very much, Connor. She was the most important woman in my life… and when she died, the last thing for me she left behind was you. That’s why, on that day, I vowed to myself that I would treasure you as my most beloved son. I vowed to give you all the happiness that you longed for.”

“I…” What was I to say to that?

“No one can ever replace your mother, Connor, she’s a very special person,” father continued. “However, I realized that you needed a devoted person to take care of you, and I, who had to take care of Dowers Inc., could not be that person. So, I hired Sarah to be your nanny…”

“And you fell in love with her,” I said.

“Yes, I did,” father agreed. “Sarah is a hardworking person with a great heart. She’s taken care of you ever since your mother died. Despite that it was only her job, she had always treated you as if you were her own child, and I admired her for that. But I had never consciously thought about my own feelings for her until then, because back at that time, my thoughts had still mostly been centered on your mother. However, on that faithful day, that incident happened.”

The incident. On that cruel day, my stepmother was raped by a security guard, and consequently, she gave birth to Cuán.

“After that, I finally came to the realization of what she meant to me and how I felt about her.”

“You loved her like you did mother,” I stated.

“No Connor.”

I blinked, confused. He did not?

A small smile tugged at the corner of father’s lips. “I do love her, but she can never replace your mother. Your mother will always be the first woman in my heart, and Sarah knows this. She loves me because she knows the extend of my love for your mother. She calls it… a ‘devoted heart’, or something like that.”

Father gave me a cheeky smile. “You know how she always goes on and on about me being a good and devoted man, but if only…”

I grinned back. “Yeah, yeah… if only you turned that devotion to God, but you don’t.”

“Nope,” father chuckled. “We both know that I’ve never found that stuff to make any sense.”

Father’s look turned grim after he said that. “Indeed, despite my love for her, there are many things about Sarah that I don’t understand. I’ve never made sense of Sarah’s belief in a God. I also never understood why she forgave that man who had done that to her.”

“It’s good that she did it and very strong of her,” I said. “It’s not good to hold a grudge against people.”

“Perhaps…”

It did not surprise me that father seemed hesitant to agree with me on this. He always had seen things differently than Sarah and I had.

As I regarded him, a coldness slowly made itself visible in father’s gaze. I felt a shiver run up my spine. I don’t remember having ever seen this kind of look in father’s eyes before, except for that one time, now more than fifteen years ago. Beside me, I felt Cuán lean closer to me, scratching his navel, and shivering just enough for me to know that he too was scared. I suppressed the urge to comfort him, though I could not help leaning slightly back into him. I quickly squashed my upcoming guilt and made a mental note of Cuán’s neurotic scratching of his navel, which was not a habit I’d seen from him before. Did the pressure from the clones and now father’s intense stare have anything to do with the development of this new habit?

Father continued speaking. “Sarah may have forgiven him,” he said, “but I am not like her. I will never forgive that man.”

“But father –” I tried. I was quickly silenced by the hardening of his steel eyes. He narrowed his eyes. They fixed upon Cuán.

“My grudge is against him… and all his blood.”

***

Blood? Against all his blood…? But that could only mean…

Slowly, I turned to look at Cuán, who had been silent this whole time. As I looked at him, I noticed the rigidness of his form. He was standing deathly still next to me, rooted to his spot, like a marble statue. All color had left his face, making it seem ashen pale, the color of someone who was sick. But then, would I not be sick too, if such a revelation were made to me?

“What are you trying to tell me, dad?” I heard Cuán carefully say the words that I myself had wanted to ask.

“You know very well what I mean, boy, the charade is over,” father said, “There is no need for us to act anymore, so you can quit calling me that.” His eyes were so cold, just like they had been back then, when he had first discovered that Sarah had been violated. This was a side of him that I had never learned to know, a look that had never been directed towards me before, and never would be directed towards me in the future. The coldness was unnatural, so unnatural, it almost made him seem as inhuman as C1. Almost. To see this look now directed towards my little brother, I felt a part of me dying inside. Why? Why, father?

Cuán, however, acted as if he had expected our father to direct all of his hatred towards him in that one look. There was no surprised or questioning look to be detected on his face, and the fear he had held just moments ago was also abandoned, as was his obsessive scratching. All that was left was a great sadness which I felt clinging around his heart and soul. But even though I wanted to reach out to him, I did not. He remained silent, so father continued talking.

“I know that you understand the implications of my words. You’re much smarter than you’re being given credit for, boy. You may have fooled Connor into thinking that you have the insight of an average child, but you cannot fool me. You were the blue print of the C-project. You provided the genes to C2. That means that his intelligence and yours are on par. What C2 can do, you can as well. That’s why I know that, despite the stupidity act you put on in front of my wife and children, you do have a competent brain inside that little head of yours. Your clone would never have been capable of planning this entire kidnapping scenario, if not for you, the donor.”

“I do understand your words,” Cuán said. “But I’ve always wanted to believe that I was wrong. I wanted to believe that I was a part of -”

“You’re not!” father cut him off. The muscles of his face seemed to have become stiff, and his eyes held a hatred so intense that I felt as though they would burn through Cuán. “You, who carry that man’s filthy blood! You, who dared to cause pain to my wife! – and to my son! How dare you even suggest that you could be a part of my family!”

Father!” I pushed Cuán behind me, though I knew I could not shield him from the onslaught of hateful words that I feared would come. “Father, how dare you say that to Cuán! You and Sarah raised him!”

My father scoffed. “I tried to talk sense to her. I tried to tell her to abort that abomination, but of course she would not listen. And you…!” Father bit his lips, then quickly averted his eyes. “You,” he continued, “you fell in love with that boy.”

I stiffened upon hearing that and swallowed difficultly. Father knew of my feelings?

“I knew as soon as I saw that look on your face,” father said, as if he had read my mind somehow. He continued, “The moment Sarah told you that you would be getting a little brother, the moment she asked you to name it… you smiled and glowed – a look of pure happiness.”

A queasy feeling settled in my stomach. Father was implying something even I had not thought of. I had been just ten years old back then… that could not possibly have been the moment I fell in love with my little brother? Cuán had not even been born yet! I distinctly remember when I became aware of my feelings for him. It had been on Valentine’s day, on that day I had given him that ear piercing. He had kissed my cheek.

“You’re thinking that it wasn’t that moment that you had fallen in love with the boy,” father said, reading my thoughts. “You’re thinking that the correct timing should be the Valentine’s day following your fifteenth birthday. But you’re wrong. You were a mere child back then. How could you possibly have known what those feelings you had meant? Only when you were older, on that Valentine’s day, five years later, did you truly start to understand what your feelings for that boy entailed.”

“You’d known before I even…”

“If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be cloning him, now would I?”

I frowned. Father had just alluded to his reasons for making those clones. Yet, I still did not comprehend what he really meant, what his true reasons were. “I don’t understand,” I said. “Why?”

Father gave me a long assessing look, then glanced behind me. “Why don’t you explain to him, boy?” he ordered Cuán in that same hateful tone that he had been using against him ever since C1 had made a connection between our glorified computers.

I turned to give Cuán an expectant look.

“Da–” Cuán hesitated, then bit his bottom lip and started over. “Your father hates me, as you should have noticed by now.”

Why!” I balled my hands into fists. “I’ve only ever seen father doting on you! How can he possibly hate you!?”

“An act to keep you happy, Connor.” Cuán gave me a look of so much pain. Pain that I never knew he had been holding inside himself. Had I really been so blind? How could I not have noticed any of this?

Cuán took a deep breath and continued. “I really wanted to be part of your family, Connor. The name that I carry… mom told me that you had thought of that name, and I wanted to believe that this name could bind me to you. That it could make me a part of your family.”

I had always known that Cuán treasured his name. I had abused this knowledge and ridiculed him countless times. All this behavior I had excused by reasoning that it was done in order to distance myself from him. Yet now, with the knowledge of the reason for his insecurities in the back of my mind, my past behavior, as I reflected upon them, made me feel disgusted with myself. Father had hated Cuán and he had always known this. That was why he felt so insecure about the position he occupied in this family. That was why he clung to his name. And I ridiculed that and trampled upon his feelings just so that I did not have to confront my own. I sacrificed him for my own sake.

But I still didn’t understand. I didn‘t want to understand it. I was not ready yet to face this inevitable truth. Thus, I tactically stalled for time, a mere few seconds, but long enough for me to accommodate to the new situation. I did this by asking for confirmation from Cuán.

“Are you saying that father acted as though he loved you, when in reality he hated you?” I asked him. “And did you play along with him?”

A dogged but foolish and short lived hope fought for survival in my mind. Deny it, Cuán… I silently begged him, though I knew he wouldn’t do it.

Cuán closed his eyes and turned his head away to look at anything but me. “Your father loves you. As he just told you, he wanted to give you all the happiness you wished for. He believed that you loved me, so he pretended to accept me. And I…” I noticed Cuán quiver ever so slightly. Then, he wrapped his arms around his body, as if to protect himself from me. One hand went down to scrape at his bellybutton again. He looked so small right now, even smaller than his height normally already makes him out to be. “I played along because I didn’t want you to know that I was not wanted in this family. You seemed to hate me so much, but then you… you held me close…” The last part was barely above a whisper, but I heard it very clearly. He was referring to the times that I had run after him into this very basement in which we were currently locked. Our ceasefire moments. My weak moments.

In the faint glowing light of the holographic projections I noticed the blush on his face and then became keenly aware of the fact that he was still naked. I felt my own cheeks heating up as well and quickly averted my eyes. To distract myself, I went through my memories of Cuán and father. All memories were of him doting on Cuán. Buying Cuán expensive goods. Indulging Cuán’s whims. But as I went over the memories, I came to the conclusion that Cuán and my father were telling the truth. Despite the pleasant words and gestures, there had always been something tense and stilted in the atmosphere whenever the two interacted with each other, which – I now realized – didn’t even happen all that often. Father had indulged all of Cuán’s material wishes, but on an emotional level, he’d hardly ever paid attention to Cuán. It was almost the opposite of how father behaved towards me.

And all of this was an act for my sake. Probably for Sarah’s sake as well, I thought grimly. And I had wanted to believe that it had all been true. I had wanted to believe that father was the perfect man: faithful to his wife and loving to all his children. He had been the prime example of the kind of man I had wanted to become. I realized that this was the reason why I had never noticed – or rather, had ignored – the underlying tensions between father and Cuán. Because I loved them both, I had wanted them to get along. And they had conformed themselves to my desire.

“Connor had every right to hate someone like you.” Like lightning, father’s words cut through my dark thoughts. “You were hurting my son!” he raged. “Because of you, he became the laughingstock of social gatherings, and consequently could not partake in Dowers Inc. Because of you, he felt as though he were committing the worst possible sin, causing him to grow up a young man full of self-loathing. Because of you, he left home. Because of you, he began picking up those filthy little whores on the street that all looked like you. You, abomination! –why do you have to exist!”

“Father! –stop it!” I cried out. I rushed over to Cuán and pressed my hands over his ears. He did not need to hear any more of my father’s verbal abuse. “You know very well that the reason why I became the butt of all jokes is because of my own social incompetence.”

“And whose fault was it that you became socially incompetent?” my father barked back. “Whose fault was it that you lashed out at the President’s daughter? That you embarrassed Miss Eva so much that time that you could never show your face around another decent woman again!”

“That’s –!”

“Was it not for his sake? For the sake of that abomination you’re holding in your arms!”

I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to hear this. Couldn’t bear to hear my father say those hateful things about the person I loved most! This was not real! It was just a nightmare!

“Abomination!” my father continued, spitting out the word as though it were poison. I wanted to turn away, but I could not remove my gaze from the sight of his eyes. His pupils were dilated, as though he had finally lost it. “Hurting my son! Hurting my wife!”

“Shut –up!” I shouted as I pressed Cuán against me, shielding him as best as I could from the onslaught coming from my father.

His tirade continued, “Abomination! One day, I’ll replace you!”

***

No more! I could take no more of this! I balled my hands into fists within Cuán’s hair. Enough of this! Heaving a deep sigh, I pressed the boy against me, drawing for comfort and strength. When I found it, I let Cuán go and lifted my head to face my raging father.

“Abomination!” The holographic projection, the image of my father, kept going at me, shouting like a madman. Next to it, the hologram projecting C1 showed a small boy who had covered his own ears, flinching in fear.

“I will replace you!” my father continued, “I will replace all of your filthy blood! You bastard child! Demon spawn! Monster!”

Balling my hands, I pulled back my right hook, and slammed my fist right into the middle of the hologram projector, shattering the image of my father. A crack. The light coming from the beamer dissolved and the sound of my raging father abruptly ended.

Darkness. Silence.

I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.

“Connor, are you sure about this?”

“Let me tell you something, Cuán!” I snapped, turning around to glare at Cuán, my eyes adjusting to the darkness once more. “I am your brother. I will not have you think otherwise of me, no matter what father may think of you.”

No matter what I may think of you, I added cynically in my mind.

Cuán averted his gaze from me. I sighed, my anger quickly dissipating from me to be replaced by a sense of weariness. “I didn’t mean to be angry at you, Cuán,” I tried to apologize, “I was just so – I mean, after just now with father – I just couldn’t… damn it, man!” I ran a frustrated hand through my hair. This whole experience had been wrong on so many levels, I didn’t even know how to express it.

“I understand.” It was a soft whisper, barely audible.

I eyed Cuán, whose eyes had dropped to the floor, and I knew that, despite the composed demeanor he had been displaying thus far, he was only barely holding on. And who could blame him? I bit my bottom lip as I thought of what I could do right now to help him. Reassure him. I had to be there for him!

“Cuán…” Slowly, I walked up to him, and placed my hands on his shoulders. I noticed that blood was dripping from my right hand onto his bare shoulder, but I ignored it for the moment. Lowering myself, I knelt down in front of him, until I was looking up at him. “Whatever may happen, Cuán, I am always your brother,” I told him, gripping his shoulders tightly. “Nothing will change that.”

That’s right, nothing will. Not my father, and not my own feelings. Cuán had been hurt enough by us, and I would not let anything like that happen again. If I had to tie down both my feelings and my tongue, then so be it. God help me, I would make Cuán happy from now on.

I knew he was still uncertain, but he seemed to brighten just a bit by my words.

Standing up, I said, “Let’s find something to cover you up with– ” I hesitated for a moment, but then quickly added, “ –before you catch a cold.”

I heard him chuckle lightly and I blinked. “What?” I said, giving him a questioning look.

Right then, his lips formed into a small smirk. Sinful. “I didn’t know you’d become so worried about me catching a cold,” he joked, “but maybe you could help warm me up a bit?”

The temperature inside the basement must have suddenly increased a few degrees. I clenched my fists and abruptly turned around. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said and scowled. I stomped towards the other side of the basement, where the bed on which Cuán had been bound still stood, and angrily ripped one of the sheets from the mattress, all the way cursing softly underneath my breath while I was doing it. What the hell kind of question was that!

Stomping back to him, I barked, “Shut up and cover yourself!” and threw the sheet over his head.

He pulled the fabric off of his head and wrapped it around himself. “But are you okay with this?” he asked me.

Was he trying to piss me off? “Of course I’m not okay with this, damn it!” I yelled. “Do I look like I’m okay with this? Would anyone be fucking okay with this?!”

“I- I didn’t mean…” He shrunk back upon my outburst.

The movement made me stop. Damn it, was I breaking my vows as soon as I made them? I had to learn to hold my tongue once! I heaved a breath to calm myself. Still shaking slightly from all the emotions rushing through my body, I sat down onto the laminate floor.

“I wasn’t talking about your feelings for me,” I heard Cuán mumble. There was irritation present in his voice, as if a little of his bratty self was returning to him.

“Oh,” I said.

I didn’t feel any better about his words though. The fact remained that I had the wrong feelings for him, and that was more than enough to make me feel disgusted with myself. I had no energy left to say anything more to him, so I remained silent, waiting for him to continue with whatever he had been planning to tell me.

“What I wanted to say was – are you okay with destroying the Dowers Generation CX?” Shuffling over, he went to sit beside me, but he was conscious about leaving enough room in order to not invade my personal space. “I mean, not only was it our only link to the outside world, it was also one of the keys to unlock this basement. We may have needed it to make progress in the subsequent stages of C2’s game.”

“It’s just a glorified computer,” I replied. “Besides, C2 is dead.”

“But his game is not.”

Shit. Cuán had been right again. The game was still continuing. We were still locked in this basement. How could I have been so stupid as to…? Why did I have to lose control again!

Biting the inside of my cheek, I clamped down those anxious thoughts. They would have to wait. Right now, more pressing matters were at hand. “What can we do now?” I turned to ask Cuán. It was better to ask him first. I now knew that the little brat was most likely a whole lot smarter than me. But the look he gave me crushed what little hope I had invested in him.

“We wait,” he replied. “We have zero options.”

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