In the Cards
Nica Coelho


"Can Angelica and I be excused yet?" I whined. The clatter of cutlery silenced, and our two mothers glanced at each other over the splendid turkey dinner.

"Well, I suppose, if you finish your mashed potatoes, James," my mother decided, as she helped herself to more cranberry sauce.

Angelica and I locked eyes. Success.

You can probably remember being nine-years-old, an age where nothing matters except what you're going to do after supper and how early you have to go to bed.

I visit home every now and then. My university studies have kept me busy, but I can only go on for so long without the familiar voice cooing, "Robert dear, I cannot believe we have a twenty-three-year-old son," and feeling the overall warmth of our small bungalow on Farmington Avenue.

Mom has always adored making care packages for me when I return to the dorm, and for some reason, she has tucked in an extra amongst the fresh laundry, food, and magazines. In the box, I find my old family photo album.

I don't know it's relevance, but perhaps Mom has something she wants me to remember. Or maybe Mom is being sentimental again . . . nonetheless, avoiding my essay just a little longer, I flip through.

The green-covered album is in the same worn condition it was in the last time I examined it, but it does seem a little larger. I skip ahead, past various bathtub pictures and poses with Santa Claus juxtaposed with Mom’s creative cutouts of rubber ducks and candy canes , to the newer pages at the bottom portion of the album. I reach a new page, where an old playing card has been sealed in amongst the photos. And on the new page, I see her.

* * *

"James, move in closer to Angelica. Angelica, will you smile? Ah! Much better!"

The camera flashes, and the shutter clicks. Mr. Andersson, Angelica's dad, is finally satisfied. Angelica and I sigh with relief, and walk away from our annual Christmas tree photo shoot in the living room, choosing to stand in the dim, candle-lit hallway instead.

"Why are we forced to do this every year? How many pictures do they need of their children standing in front of a fireplace? You should see my parents. They flash these pictures around like parents of a newborn. ‘Oh, this is our dear daughter Angelica, and this is the son of our friends, the Drakes.’ It's going to drive me nuts!" she rambles with frustration.

I nod silently. I'm supposed to be the quiet one.

"James, things are going to be even worse from here. They're going to torture us. I know they're going to make us wait another two hours before we can open our presents. We have to do something in the meantime, or go crazy. They cannot win. We will entertain ourselves!" Angelica shouts dramatically, waving one hand in the air as she speaks, and running the other through her long black hair.

I laugh. Angelica is extremely creative, so I'm not sure of what she'll suggest we do.

"Just don't make me play Monopoly or Uno. They take too long. Oh, and none of your ‘pretend’ games. I got in a lot of trouble for letting you use Mom's makeup!" I reply.

"Pretending is for eight year olds. I'm so over that. We need something simple. Do you have a deck of cards?"

"Yes. They're in the den," I inform her.

Together we walk into the room. It's not a big space, but it's cozy. Christmas cards adorn the mahogany bookshelves. Angelica thinks the den is the best place in the world; I caught her saying something to herself like, "So many stories in one little room," as she stared at all of the books one time.

I quickly sort through the cluttered bookshelves, rummaging to find the brand new deck. Angelica sits impatiently on the carpet, singing a song, creating the words as she goes along. She has a beautiful voice that is smooth and clear. I don't know what her song is about, but it sounds nice.

"Ah! Here we go! It's a brand new deck. I got it on my birthday!" I exclaim, tossing her the package.

"Neat! I like the sorcerers and stars on the top," she comments, impressed. "Mind if I shuffle?" she adds, and begins without waiting for a reply.

I don't mind. I can't shuffle.

"We're playing a card game?" I ask.

"No, we're going to build a house with cards," she corrects me.

"And you're shuffling because . . . "

"Because I feel like it. Because it's fun!" Angelica answers, snapping the cards in my face.

I begin to wonder if Angelica has had just a little too much sugar.

"See, James? It's easy. All we have to do is push the cards into the carpet for a base, and from then on, it's just stacking. Now, you take half this deck, and we'll start!" she chirps like a robin in spring.

Angelica is terribly excited, and I can't quite comprehend why. After all, it's simply a deck of cards. Reluctantly, I extend my hand, and she neatly places a pile of cards in my palm.

"Can't we just play Crazy Eights?" I ask quietly. Angelica ignores my suggestion.

"I left one card out," Angelica admits with a wry grin. "The Queen of Hearts, she's the best, so she has to go on top."

I ponder for a moment about how this house will look. If we are successful enough to reach a ‘top’, we will have witnessed a miracle. But it's Christmas, and anything can happen.

Angelica begins, pushing a card sideways into the carpet, and applauds herself as it stands. I copy her, and soon we have a base that looks much like a warped square.

We glance at each other with pride in our collaborated effort. Soon, there are odd moments, where structure becomes critical.

"If you don't move that, we'll never be able to build a roof!"

"Make that base stronger, the mighty Queen's going to have to stand on that!"

"Angelica, no offense, but if you put any more cards down in that direction, we'll never cover the top!"

There are cards used as supporting beams in the centre, which Angelica and I carefully use to lay the roof. It takes all of the cards we have to finish the top layer.

"Oh good! It's time for the Queen to take her throne," she whispers with anticipation, speaking softly, as if to protect the cards.

"How do you suppose we do that? There are no other cards to help her stand up!" I insist, forgetting that Angelica has the answer to everything.

"We cheat!" she replies, grinning like a madwoman. "Do you have masking tape?" she asks mischievously.

"It should be right in that drawer over there," I direct, pointing at the desk beyond her left shoulder.

"Got it!" Angelica shouts as she tosses the roll in the air and catches it.

Skilfully, she removes two strips of tape and attaches the pieces to the bottom of her Queen. Moments later, the Queen of Hearts stands proudly on her platform of cards, like Lady Liberty welcoming the ships of New York Harbor.

"Voila!" Angelica cries, presenting her final touch.

I stand up and bow in appreciation.

"Ange, James, PRESENTS!" my dad calls from the hall.

"We've survived our torture, King James. Now please escort me to the festivities, if you will," Angelica says for some silly reason in her finest English accent. She’s nuts, but she’s fun.

"But of course, Queen Angelica." I reply, taking her by the arm to the living room, leaving our kingdom of cards behind us.

* * *

Angelica made that the best Christmas ever, I recall as blaring electronica beats pulse into my room from a stereo across the hall. Quiet only lasts for so long in a college dorm. I close the old album, and tuck it carefully in the storage beneath my bed. I move my research books and stretch out on my bed. I look up to the stuccoed ceiling, trying to block out the noise, trying to think of how I ended up here in Akademia where building card houses is no longer regarded as such an achievement.

My family hasn't heard much from the Anderssons in recent years. "It's natural for that to happen, James," my mother says.

Once and a while, my parents mention Angelica. They say she's out in Hollywood, going to auditions and getting by. The other day, I was told she landed a role on a soap opera. "She plays a woman who has three husbands at the same time!" my mother chuckled.

I just smiled knowingly. Angelica always was destined to become the Queen of Hearts.



Copyright (c) 1998 Nica Coelho
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