Chapter Two: Sera, Sam, And The Rest Of The Fam
Seraphina taught Sam to walk--a moment which Nina captured in a home movie. She taught Sam how to get the most out of his Halloween costume during his first outing trick-or-treating in their upper-middle-class neighborhood. "Hit the big houses first," she said, "the ones with the lights on and the decorations up. They'll be the ones with the good stuff--you know, the full-sized snickers bars and the big bags of m&m's." Nancy warned Seraphina, with a sardonic look and a half-smile, that two-year-olds didn't need to be eating full-sized snickers bars OR large bags of m&m's, but this did not deter Seraphina in the least from leveraging Sam's cuteness and her own never-give-up entrepreneurial spirit in order to procure the best candy.
Life continued on like this for several years. Sam turned five, and Seraphina turned fifteen. The two were inseparable. They went everywhere together and seemed an unstoppable team.
When Lucas Mitchell had bullied Sam on the fifth-grade playground, Seraphina snuck out of the house one night with the intention of scaring Lucas while he was in bed, and then threatening him until he promised never ever to hurt, bother or upset Sam, either on the playground, or anywhere else, thank you very much, but to her consternation, found instead that Lucas had discovered his Dad's adult tube account, which he was watching with both zeal and ardor. The next day at lunchtime, Seraphina snuck out of her high school campus and paid a little visit to the elementary school her brother attended, which happened to be practically next door, smartphone in hand, a smug, yet determined look on her face, as she marched up to Sam and dragged him only semi-willingly up to Lucas Mitchell, who, as it turns out, was very capable of crying and wetting his pants on the playground, in addition to having a desire to bully other children for much more minor infractions of the elementary school social code. From that day on, Lucas never bothered another soul at recess, and even became friends with Sam, although Sam was slow to accept said friendship.
Life was good for the Arrington-Wu family. Balance had been achieved, and they had, in Sam's colloquial terminology "leveled up" to the point that it seemed all of the families in the surrounding houses were jealous, at most, and admiring, at least, of the Smith-Wus.
But in the fall of that year, things, as they tend to do, changed. Seraphina thought she was used to change by now, but, as it turns out, change can reach out and punch people right in the gut when they are least expecting it. Nancy, it became clear, had found a lump. It wasn't a big lump, but it was cause for concern. One Thursday morning, Nancy sat the family down at breakfast. She was going in for a biopsy. Sure everything would be fine, Nancy and Nina reassured the children.
But things were not "fine," and Seraphina, as an almost-adult, resented being told that they would be. This was a point she would bring up often with both of her parents, but especially with Nina, who had reassured her to the point of repetitiveness that Nancy would, in fact, be fine. Nina's assurances, along with her confidences, however, started to crumble, and Seraphina's anger grew, while Sam seemed to spend all of his spare time with his Mom, cheering her up, reassuring her, and sending her videos, texts, and gifs to make her smile as she proceeded from surgery to chemotherapy to surgery to radiation treatment, and then back to surgery. Seraphina avoided spending time with Nancy. Seraphina was furious that Nancy had reassured her that everything would be okay when she knew it wouldn't. Seraphina even went so far as to reach out to her father, whom she hadn't talked to in years, to see what he could do to help. She expected to be met with ignorance, disdain, even derision. After all, she hadn't seen, nor talked with the man in many years--since he had moved away on business, but that was the arrangement he and Nancy had made, and he had built his own family. Seraphina, much to her dismay, was met only with kindness and understanding, which irritated her even further. Why was it, she wondered, that adults always told the truth to each other--talked behind their kids' backs, rather than telling them the truth upfront? Keith had not only commiserated with Seraphina upon the occasion of her first phone call to him, but he had, annoyingly, been video calling her on a weekly basis. He even dared to show off his family in these calls. Seraphina began to resent the sad looks his wife and children had when they sat with him or inconspicuously in the background during these chats. As Nancy's health declined, Seraphina stopped picking up the phone. She didn't need someone else pretending to tell her the truth. She didn't need anyone pretending to love her or spending time reaching out to her that they would probably rather spend doing anything else. Seraphina was nobody's burden.
And so, the days and weeks of this continued. Sam, at Nancy's bedside, Nina trying and failing to connect with Seraphina, Grandma and Grandpa Wu phoning in from whatever Pacific Island their retirement boat, the Megumi, took them to next.
And then, one day, Nina showed up at Seraphina's school, Sam in tow, sad look on both their faces. Had something happened to Mom? Seraphina wondered. And how was it that Sam had been told about this before she had? Adult always lied. It was, in Seraphina's view, basically their job. Nina held Seraphina's and Sam's hands as she told them they were going to see Nancy in the hospital. Things weren't going well, and Nancy had been in and out of consciousness that day. The hospital staff had said to come right away.
This, as it happens, would recur and recur more times than Seraphina could count over the next few weeks, with the hospital chaplain stopping in for a visit upon occasion, and the Rabbi from Dad's old synagogue even putting in a few appearances. It was chaos--an oddly predictable chaos, that Seraphina's family had been thrown into.
As the days passed and Seraphina's friends and teachers became more and more concerned, Seraphina grew distant, signing up for any job, title or activity that would take up time. Seraphina had always been a bit of an overachiever, but these were the acts of a person drowning in heartache and sorrow. Sera had to escape. She had to have an outlet.
As the weeks wore on, Seraphina stopped going with Nina and Sam when they would visit Nancy at the hospital. If Nina was so convinced Nancy would get better, Seraphina would just see her then, and then they would have it out about lying to her own kid--her partner-in-crime about important things. Before Nina and stupid Sam, they used to talk about everything. Why should that change now, just because Nancy was sick? Nina was inconsolable--even to Sam, who spent every extra minute with her, trying to keep her spirits up. Sam was such a little sellout, Seraphina thought, always wanting to be liked--loved--always wanting everyone to be happy. Well, Seraphina wasn't happy, and she didn't need any of that. She would deal with reality, take things as they were. She wouldn't sugar coat things and pretend everything was fine when it wasn't.
One day, as luck would have it, Nina and Sam turned up at school for a second time, without notice, asking that Seraphina be excused for the day. Seraphina's stomach dropped, but that initial reaction to this news, which couldn't be good, was outrage. How dare they come in here and interrupt her life AGAIN? Didn't anyone even care that this was the day of the student council elections? Did anyone even bother to check?
Seraphina told Nina and Sam the same, after storming into the principal's office to see them. "Go!" she said. "You don't care about me! She won't even know I'm there! I'll see Mom when she gets better." Rounding on Sam, "you don't even care about Mom anymore! Why don't you go comfort your precious Nina? Clearly, she needs a hand to hold. And when Mom, dies, maybe YOU can marry her!"
Seraphina stalked out of the principal's office, taking care to slam the door on the way out.
Feeling a little bit bad, and needing somewhere to go to calm down, Seraphina pushed her way into the nearest girls bathroom. To her embarrassment, she found Gretchen Silversen and her clique of vultures nested around one of the sinks, in mid-gossip.
"I don't know who she thinks she is," one of them said before any of them realized Seraphina was in the girls room, "she has like no friends. No one even knows her. I mean...wah, wah, her Mom's dead or whatever, but really--student council? Against me? How cliche?"
Someone else wandered into the girl's room a moment later, hitting Seraphina on the back with the bathroom door. "Oh," said the perpetrator, a girl Seraphina barely knew, but who was always nice to her in French class, "I didn't see you there. I'll be voting for you in today's election. Good luck!"
"At least one person will be voting for you," said one of the girls holding court with Gretchen replied waspishly, "everyone deserves at least one vote. The other thousand, however, will be going to Gretchen."
"Um," interjected one timid, ditzy girl in Gretchen's circle, "Gretch, I don't think her Mom's...like...dead or whatever."
"And?" Said Gretchen, "that means what, exactly? My point stands. She's a loser. Literally, no one will vote for her."
"Sorry," intoned the girl, whom Seraphina thought might have been named Jennifer, as the door closed with a thud.
For a minute, Seraphina didn't know where to go next. She had a moment of panic, wondering if Nina and Sam had left yet, wanting desperately and inexplicably to go with them. Then, she shook her head, thinking to herself that if even her family had forgotten about her upcoming election, she needed to show up so that at least she could hold her head high and not be the laughing stock of the whole school.