|Little Italy, Toronto, 1993
I knew something bad had happened the minute I saw Uncle Tony’s black limousine pull up outside the school gates.
Ma never wanted any fussing over us and always said that even if we were Tony Mancino’s nieces, we were still Luigi Mancino’s daughters who could walk to school like everyone else.
“Hop in, Valentina,” Calogero the driver said, his face mostly hidden behind a pair of huge reflective shades like the ones the police wore on TV. But even if he wasn’t a policeman, I knew he had a gun because I saw it under his jacket once. “Your uncle Tony wants you at his house.”
Now, it’s not that I didn’t trust Calogero, who’s known me since I was a baby and has even taken us to the park, but Ma’s words rang through my mind. “Only trust your family, Valentina…”
So, when I hesitated, he picked up the car phone and punched in a number, passing it to me through the lowered window. “Here, talk to him,” he said.
I’d never spoken into a car phone before. It was very heavy. “Hello?” I said.
“Valentina.” The sound of Uncle Tony’s voice made me feel better instantly, but it was weird, like he’d been running – or crying. I swallowed hard.
“Listen, I need you to be a good girl and let Calogero bring you and Lucy back to my house, okay?”
“What happened?” I asked, and suddenly had to go to the bathroom. “Where’s Ma and Dad?”
Silence. “Sweetheart, your mom’s…in the hospital. She fell. And skinned her knee. Daddy and I are with her.”
“Is she okay?” I squeaked as Calogero got out of the car and took my school bag and lunchbox from me, my heart skipping a beat.
“She’s fine, sweetie. Just go and pick up your sister. Maria will make you a snack when you get home.”
“Okay, Uncle Tony,” I said obediently, and crawled into the huge back seat of the dark car, my chest hurting as if someone had sat on it.
Lucy was the last one out, waiting by the door next to Mrs. Njong, her favorite doll tucked under her arm. Calogero showed the teacher a note as he spoke to her, but I couldn’t hear a word. Why did grownups always talk to each other like that?
Mrs. Njong covered her mouth with her hand and nodded, tears filling her eyes. I swallowed, my face feeling awfully tight, like someone pulling on it from all sides.
“Val, what’s he doing here?” Lucy whispered in her baby lisp as I bent down to hug her. Calogero’s reflective shades always scared her, but then he’d take them off and twirl them around to show her he had eyes just like everybody else, and she’d laugh. Every time. Lucy liked to play around a lot.
“Mummy fell and hurt her knee,” I said. “Daddy took her to the hospital.”
Lucy searched my face and I forced a convincing smile, stroking her cheek like I always did when I needed her to do what I said. When she was satisfied I wasn’t keeping anything from her, she smiled back, assured everything was okay, that it was only a tiny scratch.
I swallowed back my fears that it might be something really bad and tried to act normal, while Calogero saw us into the back seat again and drove off, Lucy waving to Mrs. Njong.
Last year, I fell and skinned my elbow, but I don’t remember any ambulance coming for me. So, it couldn’t be good. And then I started imagining the worst – both my parents lying dead in the hospital and no one at home to greet us, no one to help me with my homework or tuck Lucy in at night. Uncle Tony and his staff would take care of us, I knew, but, as loving and generous as he was, he wasn’t Ma or Dad.