By Rossel Audencial
There is a checkpoint ahead.
“Expired akong lisensiya,” mutters the driver before he swerves the tricycle to the right, away from the waiting men in uniform along FilAm Avenue of Brgy. Fatima. The passengers are silent. It has been raining hard since that early afternoon and most of us are drenched from the trip downtown. Good thing, I brought a jacket with me.
Even before the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, checkpoints already scattered in relative areas along the major roads in General Santos City. Blue or Yellow Boys wave at tricycle or single motorcycle drivers to stop at the roadside and examine faces, licenses, and vehicles.
I am sitting at the two-person back seat to the right. In front of me is a woman in her late twenties who keeps on swiping and tapping her cell phone. Beside the driver are two teenagers my age, male and female, their hands intertwined.
The tricycle continues to a two-lane cemented street with residential houses along the way. This street leads to the former public cemetery which has been privatized. Light posts stand in a distance from each other. The lights only cover a little area around their posts. The houses are cast into shadows.
After continuing on a straight road for a while, the driver takes a turn to the left. A woman stands alone beside a light post, its light only a faint glow above us. The driver stops for her. She whispers something before embarking at the back and sitting opposite me. We leave the cemented street and move on to a narrow dirt road. At first, the way is illuminated by the bulbs of the houses we pass by; fences enclose us on both sides. I feel the tricycle strain as the driver navigates it through mud holes, moving to the left or to the right as the road allows, the tires squirting mud. Single motorcycles overtake us and speed away. Another tricycle tails us for a while but it turns to a lone street. Gradually, the houses thin as we go on until we arrive at a crossroad. All we can see are tall grasses on both sides of the two roads. The driver takes the one on the right, and if it wasn’t for the headlight of the tricycle, we would have been plunged into complete darkness. I also notice that we are going uphill as the engine seems to roar louder.
And we turn to the left. We reach level ground and we are now travelling on sand. The tricycle seems heavier. There are no more houses in this part of the road, just more grasses and darkness. I have never been in this area before. I never knew that there are still unoccupied lands within the barangay where I live. The drone of the tricycle echoes through the night, blending with the constant chattering of the crickets.
Another turn to the right. The beam of the tricycle’s headlight only reaches to a few meters of the way. No other vehicle is following us at the back. It’s like we are alone in the vast darkness. We follow the curve of the road as it comes to us through the light, not really knowing where it leads.
We turn to the right again. I feel like an hour has already passed without sign of a house or the highway. I’m starting to feel uneasy. I should have not listened to my friends. They said we won’t stay long when they invited me to have dinner with them after we roamed around the malls the whole afternoon to try dresses for our upcoming Junior’s Prom. Mom will surely get angry at me again. For a week now, I have been going home at almost midnight.
“Katuod ka asa na ni, Kuy? Mura’g kaganiha pa man ta galibot-libot.” utters the woman who is directly behind the driver, her cell phone in her hand.
“Gasunod ra pod ko sa dalan, ‘day,” the driver answers with his eyes locked on the road. We hit another curve. Only tall grasses are visible.
To the right again. The road continues on straight then curves to another crossroad. It is pitch black all around us except the front. The woman behind the driver has her head turned towards the front, too. The woman beside her has her head bowed, perhaps sleeping.
The driver turns to the right. Again. I do not know where the crisscrossing roads lead to. And it hit me, the idea that we are lost. Lost inside a dark maze with no way out. But mazes have traps. What if?
“Balik na lang ta?” the same woman asks, her voice on edge. We all look at the driver.
“Dili na makaya sa akong gasolina. Duol naman ‘guro ta sa highway.” he mumbles in a low voice. The rest of us remain silent, but a palpable tension is starting to build inside the tricycle. The lovers in the front seat huddle closer to each other.
The tricycle follows another curve and – a loud bump. The engine sputters and stops. The front light snuffs out. A surge of blackness envelops us all of a sudden that no one reacts except the driver who pushes the starter as swiftly as he can. One. Two. The engine comes to life again together with the front light. We catch our breath in unison. And we move on through the night.
The driver takes on a narrow pathway and is too late to realize that the puddle ahead is deep. We are stuck. The tricycle can’t move forward, its wheels grinding and splashing mud all over. The driver tells us all to step out. He and the male teenager shove the vehicle away from the watery mush.
“Gabii na gyod,” says the woman who was the last one to ride with us. She is standing a little farther from me. Her voice is clear enough for me to hear despite the loud whine of the tricycle. Her face is turned towards the darkness behind us.
“Lagi, kasab-an na gyod ko ni Mama ani,” I say, looking at her. Whoosh. A chilly wind sweeps through us. I feel it creep through my bones although I’m wearing my jacket. She seems not to notice the cold and continues peering at the dark void.
“Sayo na lang unta ko niuli, magkauban pa unta mi ni Mama. Kamingaw diri,” she says.
Her words arrest my attention. I’m about to ask her but the driver calls us at the other side of the wide puddle. We tiptoe at the grassy side of the path to avoid the mud and jump across to dry ground. One by one, we return inside the tricycle.
When we are all settled back to our seats, the tricycle begins to move again. I look at the woman but her head is bowed again. I wonder what she means.
The road goes straight this time until we pass along small huts amidst the grasses here and there. Then come walls of concrete at both sides of the way, and out into the familiar highway. A few vehicles parade before us in quick succession before we touch the cemented ground. For the first time, I’m glad to see the four-lane concrete Fil-Am road again. I feel relieved to know that its sure point of destination is the General Santos City International Airport. But Mom will surely castigate me; it’s already 11 pm. I’ll just face her wrath when I arrive home.
The lovers are the first ones to leave. I transfer to the front seat. Next is the woman with her cell phone.
“Pag-renew na sa imong lisensiya, Kuy, ha,” she says as she hands in her fare before stepping out. She stands at my side of the vehicle.
“Oo, ‘day,” he replies as he gives her change in front of me.
We continue through the highway. The whole span of it is bright because of the tall light posts at each side street. The establishments at both roadsides are closed, but their incandescent lights are on. But now I know that the darkness is out there, far beyond the artificial brightness. Always there with the grasses and the crossroads. I shiver at the thought of being there earlier.
“Asa man ka, ‘day?” the driver asks me.
“Didto lang sa may Julie’s bakery.”
“Hay salamat, makauli na gyod ko.” The driver smiles.
“Naa pa man ka pasahero.” I stare at him. He must be joking.
“Ha? Ikaw na lang man nabilin.” He looks at me, questioning.
What about the woman? I turn my head around to look at the back seat.