By Michael John Otanes (Fiction)
Alex tries all the home remedies that he can—garlic, salt water, apple cider, honey, castor oil. Four days later: “Ineffective,” he tells himself. The swollen lymph node behind his left ear has even doubled in size, seemingly splitting in two. Sometimes he thumbs it, massaging it to and fro, and sometimes he squeezes it hard, but it remains fixed and immovable underneath his skin.
Lymph nodes, his father tells him through the phone, are essential part in the immune system. They are located throughout the body, and enlargement is due to excessive exposure to viruses and bacteria, or some serious illness and injury. A swollen lymph node shrinks, though, after a few days. If not: “A doctor is needed,” says Mr. Santos. He’s a doctor, a physician in particular, but Alex doesn’t tell his father that he has the swollen lymph node. Nothing would change if he told him.
Even though they live in the same house, the distance between Alex and his father has lengthened over the years. He has always wanted to fix their relationship, since he knew that it was primarily his fault: his mother died in a car accident in search of him because he had gone barhopping without asking permission from his parents. His mother and father were strict, and he knew they would be mad. But he was already eighteen, said his friends; and that meant he could do whatever he wanted to do. That night he had his first drink, he had his first sex, he had his first smoke, he had his first lap dance with strangers. He tried almost everything, even drugs. He said it was his best night ever. His friends were proud of him.
At first light on the next day, Alex was jolted awake by the phone ringing wildly inside his pocket. It’s his father. “Something terrible happened,” said Mr. Santos on the other line, his voice breaking. “Your mother—” And without letting his father finish the words, Alex cut him off, saying where are you where are you, tucking his polo in, the phone cradled between his ear and shoulder.
George, his childhood friend and the guy he slept with, drove him from Fatima to the Mindanao Medical Center. He felt tense; he could feel his arms and feet swaying like jellies. As soon as he set foot in the hospital, he was convinced that he should have not left the house the previous night. I should’ve spent the time with them, he said to himself. He thought of excuses he could give to his father, but before he could decide on one, he saw his father standing at the center of the lobby. Alex’s arms, including his back, automatically straightened. He saw wrath in his father’s eyes, and it pained him. Even more so when a weighty hand landed on his face.
Without saying a word to his father, Alex darted to the hospital desk to inquire. Room 105, said the front desk receptionist. He rushed up the stairs to the left. He was still looking for the room when its door swung open, and one of his cousins came into view. Alex asked how his mother was. His cousin answered that his mother did not survive. Her spine was badly broken, and so was her head. Later that afternoon at the clinic, his father told Alex it was his fault. Alex could not say anything in reply, so he went home instead.
A wall so high propped up between them, from that moment on.
* * *
Mr. Santos has two clinics in General Santos City, one of which is located at Pioneer Avenue—merely a five-minute-walk from his house—the other at Queenies Love Village; he uses the former more often. By night, when he gets home from his work, his son, Alex, is already, usually in his bed either playing sudoku or reading a book under a lampshade. By day, when he wakes up in the morning, Alex is still sleeping like a log, his snore so loud you can hear it a thousand yards away. They seldom see each other inside, even on Sundays, even if both of them have no other appointments. Alex does not come out.
Right now, Mr. Santos’s eyes are fixated on the TV bolted to the wall, in front of him. He’s watching news. Headline: Attacks in Paris. One-hundred thirty people are dead and hundreds wounded on mass shootings and suicide bombings. The attacks, accordingly, are the deadliest in France since World War II. There are more threats from ISIS. The next attack will be in Asia.
He takes the remote control out of the drawer and pumps up the volume. Suddenly the door opens. His son. He watches Alex sit on the chair opposite him, between them a wooden table, upon which documents have been piled up according to their colors. “Paris is under attack,” says Mr. Santos nonchalantly, and Alex swivels his head around, behind him, then glances up. Both of them watch the news for minutes without exchanging a look. Finally Alex says, “This is awful.” Mr. Santos nods.
Less than three minutes later, a commercial pops up on the screen. “So what’s the occasion?” Mr. Santos says, which automatically makes his son’s head turn around. He feels a bit awkward at first facing Alex, but he eventually manages to retain his composure. His son, Mr. Santos notices, pays too much heed at the ballpoint pen standing aslant inside a pencil cup.
“Just passing by,” Alex says without meeting his father’s gaze. “It’s been a year or two since the last time I’ve been” —he peers about— “here.”
“Three,” Mr. Santos corrects.
Alex swallows. “Three then.”
For a time there is silence. Then: “I’m here for a question, actually,” Alex continues. “Uhm, about swollen lymph node. Again. You know, when curiosity kicks in.”
Right, he received a call from his son earlier this morning asking what a swollen lymph node really was. It was strange. The last time they talked through the phone happened years ago. He can’t recall the exact date, or the exact year. The only exact day he can remember was when he told Alex about the car accident of his wife. “There must be a reason,” Mr. Santos says. “Sure you have none?”
A nod—a confident one. “Of course,” says Alex, his voice becoming much firmer and deeper as he sits up straight. “I’m always healthy.”
“And who has it—your friend George?”
“Uhm, no, no,” Alex says. “My friend Trish. He has it. I mean, she has it.”
“Then you should’ve brought her here. She needs medical checkup. Is her swollen lymph node big? Is it nontender?”
“Yes, about an inch maybe. It’s nontender and it’s painless.”
“Is she always tired?”
“She was,” Alex says, moving his head downwards, “and she still is.”
“Having one means something’s not right inside her. Where is it located?”
Alex’s head tilts up a bit. “On her neck, behind her right ear.”
“Behind her right ear,” Mr. Santos repeats. “That’s posterior auricular lymph node. It can be associated with an infection in the ear, infection around the scalp, infection in the eyes, or other serious condition related to upper respiratory infection. It can also be an early symptom of cancer.” A pause. “Do think you can bring her here?”
“Maybe? Is it really that serious, Pa?”
Pa. Mr. Santos has never heard this for quite a long time. Back then, when Alex was just a kid, he would say “Pa” softly. Mr. Santos taught him how to say it in a deep-toned voice, and Alex, naturally an obedient kid, did so extremely well. From time to time, Alex followed what his father had told him. Like going to a sport event, going on a road trip, going to a cockfight—with him. Once in the department store Alex said, Pa, I want to study physics. Mr. Santos asked why. Because I want to be a physician.
Mr. Santos chuckled. Son—
Like you, Pa, Alex interjected. Just like you.
Mr. Santos nods. “If it stays there for two months or three, or worse, a year, then it certainly is. That’s why she has to see a physician.”
“I see,” says Alex. “So after her illness—if ever she has—is diagnosed and then treated, the swollen lymph node will shrink back to its original size?”
“Certainly. In rare cases, bigger ones are operated.”
“Okay,” Alex says, standing up, “I’ll bring her here.”
Mr. Santos agrees.
* * *
It is past midnight, the complete silence in the house apparent in every corner. His room is just next to his son’s. Through the wall he hears a hum. It is a high-pitched but soft falsetto. Has he heard this before?
He presses his ear against the wall. He hears a song.
* * *
“I don’t understand why suicide bombers would do that,” says Alex the next day. “A lot of people give up the good life and become terrorists, killing people and dying for—what specifically? They can have a good work, a better life, even a perfect family.”
George sits upright on a couch, his legs splayed open, and crosses his palms at the back of his head. They go deeper. “An act of terrorism has deeper roots, and we will never understand some,” George says, glancing down at Alex. “Terrorists do violent things in the name of a cause.”
Just then, the door of his father’s room creaks open. Heads tilt, eyes adjust, mouths open—at the same time. Mr. Santos is standing in the doorway; then he takes a couple of steps forward, his both hands balled into fists. During this hour his father is supposedly working, Alex thinks, swallowing hard. He should be in the clinic by now.
Finally: “Oh,” Mr. Santos says in a sarcastic tone. Then, without saying another word, he hurries to the backdoor, with Alex trailing behind him. Alex, in a rather deep-toned voice, says, Pa pa pa, and then blocks his father’s way. For the second time a hefty hand rushes past Alex’s cheek. He feels it again: the pain. He touches the left side of his face, locking eyes with his father, then steps aside and so Mr. Santos can pass through.
Which his father does a moment later.
Alex’s legs start to numb, his arms start to pain. With his head down, he touches the swollen lymph node behind his left ear.
* * *
When Mr. Santos returns home at night, very drunk and exhausted, his son is nowhere to be found. He buries his body on the couch, in the living room, and stays there for an hour. Then he pukes acid on the floor and wipes remnants across his chin with his backhand. His son’s door, he notices, is left ajar. He gets up from the couch and examines the room: its darkness, its total silence, its strangeness. He walks in, closes the door behind him, and turns on the light.
Inside: shirts everywhere, a messy bed, a clumsily folded rug, an empty built-in closet. The room is wallpapered with brown leaves, in the middle of which, just beside the study table, is a family tree made from colored paper. It looks so shabby: its roots are rotten, and its only branch is bent. Mr. Santos and his wife’s pictures are in the stem, side by side. His son’s, however, is not included in the tree.
On top of the bedside table is a radio cassette. It is huge, surely a heavy thing to carry. Has it been there all the time? He doesn’t know. Curious, he checks it out, running his fingers on it, and finally presses the Play button. A familiar song drifts around the room. He doesn’t remember the title, but it’s on the tip of his tongue. With the music on, he lies down on his son’s bed, the other side of his face glued on the pillow, and then closes his eyes. There, he remembers Lila: her voice and her way of saying, “Where’s Alex, our dear little Alex?” while panicking because she could not find him elsewhere, one fine day. He remembers the day when all the three of them used to go fishing together. He remembers every little thing, mostly the silly ones, they had done when they went to Cavite for a vacation.
Slowly now, he hears the silence so loud. As he opens his eyes, he says, “I have to find my son.”
* * *
For three straight days, he has been dialing his son’s cell phone twice or thrice every four hours, yet Alex has never answered the call even once. Mr. Santos begins to worry. How can he find his son now?
George—Mr. Santos knows where he lives. His son went there sometimes as a kid. He believes Alex is with George, presumably because they were together the last time he saw them at the house. But George is no longer living in his house when Mr. Santos goes there. He just moved yesterday, one of the neighbors says. Mr. Santos asks where. The neighbor tells him the exact location.
Mr. Santos finds the door open when he parks in front of George’s new abode. He is still inside the car, waiting for someone to come out. And then someone does: George—pulling out three bin bags from the house to the front lawn, near a tree. Mr. Santos gets out of the car and approaches him. He sees George’s face tensed. Mr. Santos says, “Where’s Alex?”
George swallows as he looks down at the grass. “He’s not with me,’’ he says.
“I know he’s here,” says Mr. Santos. He walks past George, over to the open door. Inside the house, so many boxes are scattered across the floor. He roams into the living room, into the kitchen, and into the bathroom. “See?” George says, now standing beside him with his arms crossed.
Mr. Santos turns to George. “Where is he?” he says, his voice rising.
“I told you, he’s not here.”
Mr. Santos goes to one of the boxes, atop it are T-shirts owned by his son. “And what do you mean by these?” he says, heaving up some.
“Okay, he was here. But he went outside, you know. And you have to understand that.”
“What difference does it make if I say it to you?”
No answer. “Please,” says Mr. Santos. “Where?” His face softens when he jerks his head away. “I just want to have a word with him. And about it.”
George pauses, seems very hesitant to speak something. A minute later: “He went to town for a checkup,” he says dryly.
“Is he with Trish?”
George shakes his head.
“I’m asking you a favor,” says Mr. Santos, his hand now on George’s shoulder. “A huge one.”
* * *
So many people are packed inside the bar, and the ceiling disco lights are the only ones that illuminate the place. Although the sound from the speaker is loud enough to make everyone deaf, Alex manages to say, clearly and reasonably, that he wants another beer, when the one he is drinking is almost empty. But George shakes his head as he clutches Alex’s right arm.
Behind him, Alex senses another hand, resting over his shoulder. It is a soft hand, one that is familiar. “Alex,” says a voice. He whirls his head around to see who it is. Then his eyelids flutter and his lips twitch. He glares at George. George mouths I’m sorry and gets up from his seat, and then gestures Mr. Santos to sit right beside Alex.
Somehow Alex feels betrayed. Had he known earlier about this setup, he would have rejected George’s invitation to go barhopping. Of course, he knows what his father is up to. But of all places, why here? “You see,” he starts, his voice trembling a little, “I’m already outside.”
There is one thing drawn across his father’s face: a knowing look. Mr. Santos glances over his own shoulder at George, who is sitting on a chair—about four meters or so away—behind them. “I know,” says Mr. Santos, “and I understand.” This time he faces Alex. “How is it?” he adds.
Does he know? Alex thinks. If so, how come? “What do you mean?”
“Your swollen lymph node,” says Mr. Santos, staring at the tip of Alex’s ear every now and then.
“How come you—”
“Of course,” Mr. Santos interposes, “I’m your father.”
His heart leaping like a frog, Alex looks down, saying nothing at all. Right, he had printed photos of swollen lymph nodes he got from the internet, and hid them under his bed, in his room. He supposes his father has gone inside. “Dr. Lim has a suspicion that it’s a lymphoma,” he confesses. “So he will have to check for cancer by removing the lymph node.”
“I can lend you a hand.”
“But you’re a physician, not a surgeon,” Alex reminds his father. “There’s a line between the two. A physician diagnoses illnesses by examination of the symptoms, while a surgeon acts to correct them.”
“I correct things, too,” Mr. Santos says. “Let me get you out of this, this time.”
Alex hears shouts and thumping of feet outside. Perhaps a riot, he thinks. Or people having fun, shouting at the top of their lungs, like how he often did when he was young while happily being carried on his father’s back. He turns to Mr. Santos. “But you can’t carry me, Pa,” he says, his voice soft and low. “I’m heavy.”
An explosive-like sound reverberates around the bar. People notice this because they pause, too, listening, as though anticipating for more.
And there is: this time a gunshot.
A man six feet tall then erupts through the double doors, holding two guns: one assault rifle in the left hand, and a .45 in the other. He is wearing a knee-length white coat and a black mask, which covers his face except his eyes. One moment, he is only moving his head sideways; the next, as he inches forward, he starts shooting people, randomly. One after another, like a domino, they fall on the floor face first, pools of blood gushing out of their bodies.
People start running here and there. From the speaker in one corner of the bar, near a broken jukebox, Alex and Mr. Santos rush to the exit door. George follows them right away. “It’s locked,” Alex says, pulling and twisting the doorknob. “This is bad,” says George. They crawl, instead, at the back of the leather banquette situated behind them, duck their heads, and sink their knees on the floor. It is George who realizes that Mr. Santos is not at their side.
“Maybe he’s hiding somewhere else,” Alex whispers, “somewhere safer.” He is about to add something, but before he can, George motions him to stay still and silent. Slowly, George lifts his head over the banquette. Everywhere across the tile floor: corpses, destroyed equipment, broken glasses, tiny rivers of blood. There is only one thing left untouched by the bullets: the disco music.
“The gunman,” he says to Alex, “he’s nowhere on the dance floor now.”
Through the noise, moments later, they hear a scream from the girl’s comfort room, followed by a gunshot. George lowers his head, his temple affixed against the back of the banquette, and pays attention to the sound of footsteps creeping towards them. He puts his finger over his pursed lips to signal Alex not to make a sound. When their heads twist around to the sound of heavy breaths, the footsteps, they realize, are of Mr. Santos’s. He is facing the exit door, his back at them, holding a stainless steel pipe; then, in the next second, strikes the doorknob with it, over and over, the sound loud enough to be heard even from a distance. George regards this as a bad idea. He knows they will be caught any moment now. Tense, he sprints next to Mr. Santos and grips his forearm. “We should hide,” George insists, his voice shaking. “There” —he points his finger to the front bar— “behind the bar die.”
Police car sirens are rumbling outside. “No more hiding, George,” Mr. Santos says, still striking the doorknob repeatedly. He glances over his shoulder at Alex. “You two must go out.”
“But George’s right,” Alex says, standing up straight. He lifts his chin up. “We have to hide.”
“Do you think it’s safe to hide? Eyes are everywhere, Alex.”
Alex says, “That’s the only thing we can do now.”
“Hide behind the bar die—until the gunman finds you there and shoots you in the head?”
“Then what do you suggest?”
Mr. Santos keeps on beating the doorknob. “What do you think I’m doing now?”
“But—” Alex starts to speak but falls silent.
In the next minute there is a sound of footsteps in the hallway. The gunman then appears on the dance floor, with a gun in his hand. Alex’s eyes widen. “Pa,” he mutters. As soon as Mr. Santos turns around to face the man, he opens his arms wide, as though he’s some male animal guarding his cubs. He then inches backward to the threshold, his arms behind him encircling George and Alex. When his right hand reaches the mangled doorknob behind him, he secretly snakes his fingers around it. He’s ready to open the door at any moment.
“Take one more step,” the gunman says, pointing the gun at them, moving it from left to right, “and I’ll shoot your heads off.”
The three of them pause; no one dares to move. Alex feels his father’s hand twisting the doorknob bit by bit. He thinks of warning him, but he can’t blurt something out. When he turns his head to look at the doorknob, the gunman roars, “Told you!”
A bullet hits Mr. Santos’s lower leg. He howls in pain, and then he stares over his shoulder at Alex and George, who are shaking in terror. Instantly, with all his remaining strength, he pulls the door half-open and thrusts Alex and George through it, outside the bar, so hard that their bodies fall to the ground.
Ominous black clouds cover the sky; there are no stars, no moon. A gust of wind sweeps past them. Alex stands up and tries to yank the door open, but it remains shut, until he hears indistinct, mingled voices inside. Then the roar of gunshots, and then his father’s.
Alex swallows hard, choking back tears. “No, no,” he cries, banging his fists against the door. “Open the door, Papa! Open the door!” George grabs Alex by the arms, leading him away from the door, afraid that it might open again, but Alex keeps on struggling from George’s grasp, shouting let me go! let me go! let me go! without a pause, his tears now crawling on his cheeks. Only when they reach the pack of policemen—some of whom thundering through the entrance door of the bar—does Alex cease from blurting out those words.
They pause; they listen to the sound of the clattering noises inside. George asks Alex if he is all right. “My feet,” Alex says, shaking his head, “they are tingling.”
Inside the bar, the noise sounds like a hammer drill, and the lights flicker on and off, like fireflies. Then there is silence at last, just as the gunman comes into sight, being muscled out of the bar—his hands handcuffed behind his back—by the two policemen. He is halfway to the patrol car when he pauses and lifts his gaze up at the lamp post near the driveway, beside which are Alex and George standing next to each other. “Look,” George says. Alex straightens up, shoots the man a nanosecond glance, and then jerks his head away, without noticing what “the gunman” is holding behind him: a curved, bloodied steel pipe, one that his father used to destroy the doorknob.