Dust and Drizzle

By Gian Carlo Licanda
Fiction

Something I can never understand whenever my mind wanders back to Marco is why he left the way he did. I often imagined that when whatever that we had was going to end, there would be lots of crying, of explaining why it hadn’t worked out, of whispering assurances between sobs that everything was going to be okay. But when he left, no words were spoken. I just woke up one morning alone in the bed that still bore the creases of his shape—arms spread as if they were welcoming my arrival, as if letting myself fall on the bed meant that he would hold me and never let go.

But in my unguarded moments, when my mind takes me back to him, I often wonder: Why did he leave me?

It might have begun on the morning of Marco’s thirty-second birthday. I woke up half an hour before he did that day, remembering that his wife and children was arriving from Davao to celebrate with him. If he had told me this the other night, I wouldn’t have come over. I didn’t want Agnes to find me in bed with her ex-husband. It was doubtful if this would matter to her, who would probably just think that I was just hanging out with Marco at a bar downtown last night and was just too wasted to go home. But it did matter to me.

Marco and Agnes had separated a year before. I didn’t exactly know the reason behind, but I knew that it had something to do with Marco’s proclivity for gambling. When he called me on the day Agnes and he separated and she brought the children to Davao with her, he was crying. I didn’t think twice about coming over to keep him company. He was my best friend since high school. And more than that, I had always loved him. It pained me so much to see him devastated over his family—and the life he always dreamed of having—crumbling right under his feet. That night, we drank bottle after bottle of beer until we winded up kissing and undressing each other in bed. And that unexpected turn of events spiraled out of hand and brought me to that day a year later, on the same bed with him, in the same room that smelled of cigarettes, beer, and after-sex musk.

When I woke up that morning, I did not spring up at once. I lay on the edge of the bed in the wash of morning sunlight that was coming in to the room in a slant through the glass window. My mind went over the ingredients I was going to buy at the grocery store on the way home from work. I was going to cook his favorite Mexican casserole for dinner. We planned on heading out to the beach on the night Agnes and the kids had gone back home.

I should be moving, but instead, I stared at the tiny flecks of dust in the ray of light and thought about how they had always been there in the room with us just floating about—unseen, silent, and in secret. Then my eyes darted onto Marco, and I thought about how we were just like the dust. But I didn’t mind. If this was the only way to be with him.

When I was done getting dressed, I bent toward his sleeping figure and kissed him on the cheek.

“Happy birthday, love,” I whispered.

He stirred but didn’t wake up.

* * *

Maybe it began when Marco arrived at my apartment a little after six that day. I had just finished cooking and had not taken a shower yet when he announced his arrival with a honk of his car. I went to the gate still wearing an apron. I thought that that might have infuriated him. He always hated it when I became unconscious with the time. Sitting next to him in his car on the way to the beach, he was very silent, and was monosyllabic and noncommittal when answering questions.

“How was the day with the kids?”

“Fine.”

“Where did you take them today?”

“Just around.”

“Did Agnes come with you?”

“Yeah.”

The conversation went on and on that way. I kept on talking to lighten up the mood, to lighten him up.

“This is going to be a perfect night. Have you read the papers? There’s going to be a meteor shower tonight. And what better place to watch it than at the beach? Plus it’s your birthday!”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, are you okay?” I reached out and squeezed him on his shoulder. “You seem . . . off.”

“Sorry. It’s just . . . ” He hesitated. “I’m just tired.”

“From last night?” I said. That made him chuckle, and I was glad it did.

I looked out ahead of us and noticed the fine drizzle through the beam of the headlights, and the glowing insects flying along the road, probably looking for some bush for cover from the rain. My heart sank. I really wanted us to watch the meteor shower and hoped that the drizzle wouldn’t turn into rain.

The rest of the ride I spent contemplating about how our relationship were like the dust and drizzle. We were unseen unless exposed in a certain slant of light in the bedroom, or a passing car’s headlight shining on the road. I wondered what was going to happen if one day we woke up and what we had was exposed in the light. The thought didn’t help, not with Marco’s dismissive attitude at the moment. So I cleared my mind and tried my best to fall asleep in the midst of the engines revving.

Had I known that it was going to be the last time I would be with him, I would have held his hand in the car throughout the ride. But we were just humans, with no knowledge of what tomorrow held. I was just living in that moment with him, oblivious that in Marco’s mind, he was thinking of ways to leave me without hurting me. Of words to say so that the ending wouldn’t hurt me. That much. But being left behind is always going to be painful. And of all people, Marco should know that.

On that last night we spent at the beach, I was sure it was a prelude to something so great to have in this lifetime—to have someone, to love someone, and be loved in return. I was certain he loved me. Of course, he loved me. Although he hadn’t told me so yet, I was so sure of it. I believed that what we had went beyond the affirmation needed through words, that what mattered were the actions. I felt it with the way he looked at me, with the way he kissed me, and most especially when we kept each other warm in bed at night.

Thinking about it now, maybe that was just all I was to him—someone to keep him warm whenever he got lonely at night.

Over dinner that night at the beach, Marco was still strangely silent, and it was making me uncomfortable.

“How was the food?” I asked him, beaming.

“It’s delicious,” he said without even looking at me.

“What is it, really?” I asked. I was beginning to lose my temper. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I just . . .” His voice trailed off. “I told you, I’m just tired.”

I didn’t know why, but it scared me. I couldn’t even bring myself to ask him what he was tired of. I was afraid that if I pressed on, he would say that he was tired of me. Of us. So instead, I told him that I wanted to watch the meteor shower that would begin in a few moments.

And tonight, I thought, tonight I am going to tell you I love and that I want us to be together. Out in the open.

* * *

I didn’t actually quite get what Marco meant when he said one time that some words were so hard to speak out, they tangled themselves in your throat in an almost choking manner. It was probably him exaggerating things again as he often did, I thought. He loved taking things up a few notches than what they actually were. Like how one time, when we were huddled in our favorite spot in a corner table at Starbucks, he insisted that it was my new hair color, ash gray, that was giving him a headache. I thought he meant it figuratively. But he then proceeded to explain how the color hurt his eyes, that the pain traveled through some nerves and manifested in his head. I mean, how can a mere hair color give someone a headache? How can words choke you?

But that time, I understood what he was saying as the words got caught up inside my throat.

We dressed up and went outside to the fishnet hammock underneath the coconut trees where we could get the best view of the night sky. Before midnight, the meteors began to appear. Our conversation was continually broken by exclamations of “There’s one!” and pointless attempts to point the meteor as the other tried to find the fleeting flash amid the myriad of silver dots of light. Then I took his hand in mine. He darted his gaze away from the sky to me, smiling, and at the same time arching his eyebrow in wonder.

I looked at him in the eye and opened my mouth to speak. I wanted to ask him what we were. I wanted to ask him if he really loved me. But the words wouldn’t come out. I felt my chest tighten, and unconsciously, I was holding my breath. I closed my mouth and opened it again, but still, the words wouldn’t come out. I was suddenly not sure of everything that was happening between us. The words were held back by uncertainties and fears of rejection. The act was painful, as if my words had suddenly took a physical form and they laid there unmoving inside my throat, blocking my airways, choking me to death.

We never saw the stars the other people in the beach saw, focused as we were in our own patch of sky. After a while, I just kept my sightings to myself, making each meteor mine, while he kept his, too, both pretending the shooting stars had simply stopped.

I was happy with what we had, so I told myself that whether I told him I love him or not didn’t matter. What mattered that moment was we were together.

* * *

There are so many moments in this lifetime that I wish I could relive. But one thing that haunted me the most is the sight of him lying beside me in the hammock, smiling and running his fingers on my cheeks. In that moment, basking in the glow of his eyes, I felt one with the shooting stars.

I regret not taking the chance in that moment. Many years later, whenever I try to relive that moment, I like to imagine that this is what happened: When he looked at me when the stars rained down from the heavens, I told him I love him, and he said it back to me. Then he took me in his arms, and we went back to the room and made love once again. When I woke up that morning, he was there beside me sleeping, not just his shape imprinted on the bed that had gone cold in his absence.

* * *

The weeks that came after that event were torture. I came to his apartment only to find him gone, along with his possessions. I tried to reach him in every way imaginable, to no avail. At last, when I had mustered enough courage to call Agnes, pretending to check on the kids, I found out that they had gotten back together. It turned out that on his birthday, they had a talk. Agnes was thinking that it was best for the kids that they got back together and urged Marco to come live with them in Davao.

“I’m glad you’re back together,” I told her over the phone. I was glad I didn’t cry. I was glad my voice wasn’t breaking at the news. But my heart did. “I really am.”

“Me, too. I thought a year away with him would do the trick. But turns out the heart wants who it wants.” I could almost see her smile in her voice. “So I’m giving him another chance. I just wish this time it would work out. You know. For the kids. For us.”

“Of course it will.”

“Hey, thanks for looking out for him when we were away.”

“Anything for my best man.” I laughed a little, which sounded awkward, so I punctuated it with clearing my throat.

“He’s here. Wait, I’m giving him the phone.”

“No, it’s okay.” But it was too late. Marco was already on the other end of the line.

“Hey,” he said in an almost broken whisper.

I did not say anything. I hung up.

* * *

Years later, when the wounds had healed and our paths crossed once again, I could still feel regret that I didn’t tell him that night at the beach what I had always wanted to tell him. I don’t know if it would have changed anything. The feeling of regret jolted out from me when I saw him in a fast food restaurant. But time had dulled the feeling.

I couldn’t sleep that night, so I had decided to go out and read the night away at McDonald’s. My eyes kept on darting from the pages of the book to the glass doors whenever someone came in. For some reason, I was suddenly thinking about Marco. It was almost like before, when we would hang out here until dawn to read or talk or both, over cheeseburgers and fries. I remembered in particular the way we shared fries. Although we were not saying it, we were making sure that we got one alternately. And one time, when there was only one left of the fries, he picked it up, dipped it in the catsup, and darted it towards my mouth. I bit the half, my lips barely touching his fingers. And he said, laughing, “Fair is fair.” And then I laughed along with him because I was happy, too.

And as if the universe felt my internal recollection and wanted to mock me, I saw Marco coming in through the doors. He passed by me and took a table right in front of me. All of a sudden, more memories that I had buried deep down came rushing to the surface. And the surge of emotion was so overwhelming that I couldn’t even begin to single out one. I watched him through the corners of my eyes. Through the blur, I made out his familiar contour and self-possession—the way he sat, like he was leaning in to listen. It was him. It was both overwhelmingly sad and relieving. After a long time, finally, I saw him.

I found myself arguing if I should stay inside the restaurant or just go, but then decided that this night had to happen, so I stayed. I calmed myself.

When he turned, he saw me. I watched him from the corner of my eyes watching me, and I knew I had to turn. When I did, we stared at each other for a moment. He was surprised and was obviously uncomfortable. I gave him a weak smile and looked away. I gathered the books I had laid on the table, and stood up to leave.

He followed me outside, and I let him walk with me on the street. We were silent for a time, feeling the awkward air hanging around us. I hugged the books on my chest, for the night had gone quite cold.

“It’s getting cold.” He finally broke the silence.

“Well, it’s almost Christmas again.” I took the opportunity for a closer look. His jet-black hair was now dyed a dark brown, though still tousled as if it had been caught by a wind. He had a pimple or two on his cheek, and dark circles around his eyes, probably because of spending too many nights playing his online game, again. Or gambling?

As we walked, I began to feel more at ease, and I just kept myself from saying that this was the first time we had seen each other after many years.

We walked a few more steps in a companionable silence. Then in a self-conscious voice, he began to tell me about Agnes and the kids, his life in Davao, and about how he was so thankful he got his family back together. I also decided to tell him about my life—about leaving the city and living in the country, about my work in a public high school, and about the book I was working on. Often, he gave me that inquiring, childlike look of his that I so loved.

After close to half an hour, when I was well aware that we had already walked more than halfway to where I was staying the night, I told him I had to go.

While hailing a tricycle, he said, “I think of you often.” Amid the drones of the vehicles that were passing by, I could hear the loneliness in his voice. And although I had wanted it for so long, I never asked the reason for his leaving me. For some reason, I felt that I did not need an answer anymore, but a closure. I needed us an ending.

There was a question in his eyes. He wasn’t asking for forgiveness but something more—something, maybe, to gauge the extent of his own delusion. Forgiveness, I had given him months before. But his look, his lingering, angered me as silent expectations often did. I managed to hide this with a smile, and to assure him, I held his hand, and squeezed it, just like the old days.

“I loved you, you know.” I told him.

This had the most unbelievable effect.

Standing there on the sidewalk among the passers-by, he gave a sudden cry, and he covered his mouth. His chest shuddered, and his eyes filled with tears. He was aware of the looks the people were giving us.

I took his hand again and said, “I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why I said that.

He kept on shaking his head. He looked ready to speak but said nothing.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to answer me. You know, some words are so hard to speak, they choke you.”

I offered to walk him back to McDonald’s, but he refused. When he felt better, he raised his gaze to look at me with that same unaskable question. Then he leaned and kissed me fully on the cheek. His lips were cold, and somehow they suggested the ending I needed, that we both needed.

“I loved you, too, Miguel,” he said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be with you. But you knew that, didn’t you? I loved you, too.”

I stared at him. If you had loved me, I wanted to say, and if what you are saying were true, then before you leave right now, look at me and tell me why you left me that way. Tell me how a person can love someone and at the same time see him unworthy of explanations why he was left behind. Tell me all the ways and words for goodbye until my ears tire of hearing them, until there’s nothing left to say in this lifetime, which would have been everything that mattered to me when we were still together though breaking apart. Tell me.

But instead, I just nodded and smiled.

Then he walked away. But before he disappeared around the corner, he turned to look at me one last time. I couldn’t remember how long it was. But this time, it seemed to me like he took all the time in the world to leave me.

Advertisements

It Comes at Night

By Angelo Serrano
Fiction

Daddy had to go out for the evening. I did not know where he was going, but I knew that Mommy was upset about it. She handled the dishes with little care, and I was worried they might break. The clinking of plates was just as loud as the gushing of water. She didn’t want him to go out again.

I was seven at the time.

Before he left, Daddy gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Be good to your mommy, OK?” he said. He tried giving Mommy a kiss as well, but she jerked her head away. Daddy closed the door behind him, and then it was quiet in our small house. Mommy placed a red kettle on the stove.

I spent the evening playing. Cheap plastic Power Rangers were fighting against Batman. Batman was winning because Batman always won. Daddy told me it was because he was brave. “We are both brave,” he would say. I admired Batman for that, and as a kid, I wanted to be just like him.

Just when Batman was about to beat the last Power Ranger, the pink one, Mommy told me it was time for my half bath. I resisted for a while because what child would let a bath get in the way of play? Mommy, however, asserted her authority. “One . . . two . . .”

She poured the steaming water from the red kettle into the pail and turned the tap on to mix it with cold water. She undressed me, then left me alone in the bath. I was old enough to bathe myself, and I was proud of it.

The water was at just the right temperature. It didn’t sear my skin and didn’t give me chills either. It was comforting and warmed me to my core. Mommy always knew how to find that balance. I scrubbed away the afternoon’s dirt while playing with the water and swirling it around with a dipper. Mid-bath, I panicked because of a cockroach. Mommy slapped it down with her slipper and took it away by its antenna. I did not enjoy the remainder of the bath, afraid that there might be more of them.

Once I was finished, Mommy patted me dry with a soft towel, and made me wear my pajamas. She made me a glass of warm milk, and I chugged it down. Mommy gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek for drinking it so quickly, and I felt proud of myself. Soon we were off to bed, and the lights were turned off.

At the time, my parents and I had to sleep in a mattress on the floor because we didn’t have a bedframe yet. I didn’t mind, really. All that was important to me was that it was comfortable. The mattress was soft, and I had my favorite pillow, so everything was fine. The only complain I had was that you could sometimes hear the monsters lurking outside. Whenever we heard them, Mommy would hold me close, and I would feel much safer and loved.

Sometimes, the monsters would be able to enter the house, but never our room.

That evening, another monster got inside. I did not know what time it was, but I woke up to the front door opening and slamming shut. Then I heard it taking a glass and turning on the tap. I heard its heavy and irregular footsteps, just outside our bedroom. It was singing to itself, terribly. I did not understand what it was saying, or what it was singing, but I was scared. The darkness in our room did not help, but Mommy held me tight, as if to say she wouldn’t let anything happen to me.

A few minutes of more singing and bellowing from the monster passed. Without warning, it uttered Mommy’s name, and it sent shivers down my spine. The voice, deep and wobbly, was right outside our bedroom door. How did it know Mommy’s name? I wondered. Does it know my name? Will it get into the bedroom?

Mommy ignored it. She tried sleeping through it, but the monster kept calling her name. It wanted her to join him outside. I was afraid that she would. What if she did? Will she leave me here alone? I was glad that Mommy made no sign of wanting to leave, but I was still afraid.

I couldn’t imagine what the creature must’ve been like. I was afraid that it was hulking. I was afraid that it was covered in thick black hair. I was afraid it had sharp teeth and red eyes.

For the briefest moment, it stopped calling Mommy’s name. I was glad. And then I wasn’t.

It was calling my name. It was telling me that since Mommy wouldn’t go out, I should be the one to do so. I was terrified. Why does it want me to go out? Is it going to eat me? Why would it eat me? I haven’t been naughty. I do what my parents ask me to do, and I don’t complain about whatever on my plate is. Why does it want me?

I embraced Mommy tighter, and she did the same. She kissed my forehead, told me to stay in the room, and then left. Part of me wanted to go out with her, if only to not be alone, but I knew she was going to face the monster, and that scared me more than being alone.

She opened the door, letting the light from outside leak in, then closed the door. It was dark again.

Minutes passed, and I heard a plate breaking. I heard shouting. I heard something hit the wall. I was alone in the dark room, holding my pillow ever tighter, afraid of the monster Mommy had to face. I had to stop myself from crying because the monster might hear me. I did not know when I fell asleep.

When I opened my eyes, it was morning. Soft sunlight was shining down on me from the window, and I could hear a boy yelling, “Pandesal!” I rubbed the eye boogers away, and was still too sleepy to remember anything from the previous night.

When I opened the door and stepped out, Mommy was facing the stove. I could hear sizzling and smell the Spam. Rice and scrambled eggs were already on the table, still warm. Daddy was snoring like a beast in the sofa. He smelled like beer, and Mommy always told me I wasn’t allowed to drink beer because I was too young. I was curious, and I partially resented that.

Mommy turned to serve the Spam on the table. I was already seated for breakfast. I noticed Mommy had a black eye, like those boxers on TV. Her neck was red, too. She smiled at me. “Good morning.”

I suddenly remembered the previous evening. How a monster got in. I remembered something broke, and something hit the wall. Yet the house was clean and orderly. I remembered shouting. I guessed that Mommy had to fight off the monster while Daddy was gone. I opened my arms wide to give her a hug, and she knelt down to hug me back. It was warm and loving.

I was hesitant to do so, but I asked her anyway, “Why don’t we leave so that the monsters can’t find us?”

She gave me a cup of rice, an egg, and two slices of Spam. She didn’t say anything. I felt how bad of a question that was, but did not know why.

I was halfway through my breakfast when Mommy placed a mug of warm Milo on the table for me. “We don’t have to leave,” she said. “If your father stopped leaving at night, the monsters wouldn’t come anymore.”

I guessed that the monsters were too scared of Daddy. He was brave, after all. Like Batman. He said so. I wanted to be just like him.

A Tale of Two Candles

By Jed Reston
Fiction

They stand less than a foot apart, unmindful of each other’s presence.

In that exact moment, no one and no other thing exists in the whole world for both of them except for the deepest desire of their respective hearts.

They know what they want, and they are beseeching the heavens to grant them their wishes.

They are from the opposite poles of life but had enough things in common between them that they could have been good friends had they met under different circumstances.

One is a forty-two-year-old successful businesswoman. The other a sixteen-year-old student. Both of them are madly in love.

The businesswoman has companies based abroad. She has always dreamt of having a family, but she has been too busy making money. She has finally made enough money and can now afford to fall in love, but she still cannot afford a man’s fidelity.

She will suffer her biggest heartbreak in a couple of years. She just doesn’t know it yet.

The student also mostly gets her money abroad, from her father who is a truck driver in the Middle East.

Her mom has cancer and will die in a couple of years. She just doesn’t know it yet.

She’s just found out that she qualified for a scholarship that she had applied for. Her boyfriend saw her name online and texted her this morning.

They stand less than a foot apart, unmindful of each other’s presence.

The candles they’ve lit are inches away from each other, dancing to the same wind and burning for the same reasons.

Both of their candles are lit not for their loves but for their lives.

One of them is praying for a baby, the other praying that she is not pregnant.

In the next couple of years, one of them will come back, pray, and light a candle in the exact same spot where they now stand. We just do not know why yet.

The Days and Nights of Claire

By Zaira Mae Calub
Fiction

I opened my eyes and, once again, found myself alone in my room. The shutters were partly drawn, and some of the morning sunshine slipped through it to become thin strips of light on the floor.

I sat up, feeling the stickiness on my naked body. The stickiness that came from the bodily fluids we had shared the previous night. I could also feel the pain in my breasts, which he had squeezed and pinched so hard, and the raw pain in between my legs from his playing with me all night.

I didn’t want any of it, but there was nothing I could do. He dominated me.

I got up and saw how messed up the bed was. Along with the tangled sheets were the things he had needed to heighten his pleasure. The “toys” were there. I didn’t even know how many times they had been used on my body. Along with these toys were photographs and a handkerchief. They were hers. The girl he was obsessed with.

Pictures of her he had taken from her social media accounts and a handkerchief of hers he had somehow gotten hold of. He would look at the photographs while using my body for his lustful needs. The handkerchief he would put over his nose from time to time.

He was crazy, I knew, but so was I for letting him stay in my life.

I got into the bathroom to take a shower, the memories flashing in my mind as the cold water consumed my body.

I could still remember when I was a helpless little girl. My parents died, and I had to live with my aunt, who abused me. Nobody knew about it. At first I was clueless about what she was doing repeatedly to me. I got older and learned that it was hideous. However, there was no one I could talk to about it, and I didn’t see what the point was, so I just let her do it whenever she wanted.

I never liked it. I hated it. I hated her.

I was twelve when he showed up. I always thought of him as a strong boy, ready to protect me.

When my aunt and I were waiting for the traffic light to turn red so that we could cross the road, he just showed up from nowhere and pushed her in front of a speeding truck. She died immediately. There were no other witnesses.

That was the day I was freed from her, thanks to him.

However, since the day my aunt died, he never left me. That psychopath. He’d be there from time to time, dominating my body while I couldn’t do anything but let him. He had killed my aunt and taken over.

I got dressed and went out for a walk.

I brought some of his money. He always had money, and I didn’t know where it came from.

I had no money of my own. I didn’t work. I wanted to be a nurse when I was little, but since I was molested, my self-esteem was shattered. I didn’t have the courage to apply for a job. I didn’t even like talking to people. Money was another reason why I was dependent on him.

I walked down the suburban road out of that house he called home, or at least based on the Home Sweet Home doormat that must have never been washed since it was laid down on the front doorstep.

I could feel my legs ache a bit in every step, but I managed to hide it.

I didn’t really know where they would lead me, until I passed by the university where she was studying. I guessed that because of the uniform she was wearing in some of the pictures.

It was peaceful, or perhaps it was the morning. I still found schools and universities quite inviting. It had been a long time since the last time I sat in a room filled with people my age. Lately I had been only doing it in my imagination—joking with others, building friendship, learning with them, growing older with them. In reality, the only person I had grown older with was he.

I slipped out of my daydream and entered a coffee shop. Here I would have my pancake, coffee, and anything I could pick up from the magazine rack. The rest of the morning I would spend here until it was time for lunch, and by then I must move to a fast-food restaurant.

But fate had other plans.

As I was finishing my pancake, the door of the coffee shop burst open, the chimes tinkling.

It was a woman my age, wearing a white shirt tucked in her tight jeans. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her face was frantic. Her eyes were scanning the room, and they stopped at me. “You!” she said.

I was scared. She rushed to me.

“Ma’am, please do not disturb our customers,” a waitress told her.

But the ponytail girl was already face to face with me, her eyes wide and pleading. She held my hands. “Can I have some of your time, please?” she said. “Do you have free time, an hour or so, Miss? Please please pleeease . . .”

I was so anxious that instead of saying what I should, I said the truth. I had time. “Y-yes.”

“Yes? Yes! You’re perfect!” She pulled me out of my seat, and before the waitress could complain again, she was already dragging me out of the coffee shop.

I didn’t have time to think clearly. I was suddenly taken away by the ponytail girl, the girl whose beautiful hair fell nicely to her shoulders on the pictures.

* * *

“You can open your eyes now.”

When I looked, I was in awe. Half of my face looked like a night sky spiraling with stars. I was like a galaxy.

“What do you call this?” someone asked, an old man with huge glasses.

“Day and Night,” she answered, smiling widely.

The old man nodded and proceeded on studying my painted face.

After the judges returned to their respective seats and the scores were tallied, the host of the program spoke again. “And the winner is . . .”

She had a genuine smile all throughout even if she didn’t win. She winded up second, but for me she was the best.

“I really want to thank you,” she said as we walked away from the crowd. We were heading to the restroom so I could remove the paint on my face. It would be a waste though. I wished I hadn’t have to erase it.

“No, I thank you,” I said, not stuttering at all. She didn’t know how alive I felt with her. I even forgot about him, who could just show up anytime. “It was fun, I didn’t . . . I didn’t know I could be this happy in my life.” I was all smiles.

“We don’t even know each other’s name, for heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed, and we laughed. She stopped to face me. I stopped too.

“My name’s Bella,” she announced, offering her hand, jokingly standing stiff, trying to look like an army general or something. On her other hand she was still holding the paintbrush and the palette, the paint stuck on the wooden frame even if it was held upside down.

“My name is Claire,” I said, grinning—naturally, I believe. “Nice to meet you, Bella.” I shook her hand.

“Nice to meet you too—”

A rumbling sound cut her off. It was my stomach. Her eyes widened. “Oh no, you haven’t had your lunch! It’s already one-thirty PM. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s OK.”

“It’s not OK! C’mon, I have an idea. We’ll eat at my apartment unit. I’ll cook.”

“No, really . . . There’s no need to.”

But she was already pulling my hand. “Come on. You don’t have anything to do tonight, don’t you?”

“Uhm, yes. But . . .”

“Someone’s waiting for you?”

“No. No one. I’m just . . . shy.”

She chuckled again. “Cute girl. You’re coming with me.”

“Now they’ll look at me. OK, let’s go.” It was my turn to laugh.

She took my hand, and we ran and laughed like crazy kids on an afternoon.

When we were outside her apartment, I wanted to stop myself. I knew I shouldn’t be doing this. But as her warm hand pulled me, her smile so inviting, I could not help but just put my anxieties away. I wanted to stay happy even just for a day. Please, I don’t want this to be ruined, I told myself. I’ve been alone for too long.

Inside her unit, after washing our faces, she let me pick from some of her clothes so I could change in her room. I chose a gray sweater and some shorts.

After I had changed, she let me sit in her couch to watch television. A few moments later, she got out of her room wearing something like a black shirt that had sleeves that she had cut off. It was quite large for her, and her shorts were much shorter than what I was wearing. Her outfit revealed more of her smooth almond-colored skin.

She said, “You see, people get attracted with the good things we do, with our good half, and if someone loves our other half—the messed up and fucked up half—then that someone is what makes us perfect.” She smiled at me and winked. “Please don’t underestimate my dish. Like what I am telling you, there is more to this than what you see.”

While eating, I couldn’t help but stare at her and wonder, Where did those thoughts come from? Has she fallen in love? Did she lose him?

I looked at the only painting hanging on the wall: two hands holding each other. The one which looked like a man’s hand was done in charcoal, while the woman’s hand was painted with colors. The combination of two mediums made it unique.

“He was also an artist,” she suddenly said. “He uses charcoal in his art. He’s the best, if you ask me.”

“What . . . happened to him?”

“He died.” The words seemed so hollow and empty.

I didn’t want to push it any further. “I-I’m sorry . . .” I stood up and was about to go.

“No, Claire. It’s okay.” She held my hand.

I took it back. “No, you don’t understand. I should not be here. I’m sorry. ”

“OK. Just wait a minute.” She rushed to her room.

Moments later, I could hear the tack-tack-tacking of a typewriter. I peered through the open door of her room. She was typing on a small typewriter. After that, she got the paper out of it and used a cutter to remove most of the paper. What was left was a small piece of the paper. She rolled it on her palms. It was half the size of a cigarette stick.

She gave it to me. “Take care, Claire.” Her smile was as warm as ever.

I opened the rolled strip of paper when I got back home, in my own room.

Hi, Claire! Just call me if you need a friend, it said in typewritten letters. Under it was her phone number, and under the number was her name.

“Bella Mendez,” I whispered. I have to burn this. If he sees this . . .

I hurriedly made my way to the door, afraid that he might get here anytime. That was when I tripped from the top of the stairs. The last thing I could remember was the world spinning around me, beating me up in every turn, and then everything went black.

* * *

The breeze was cool that afternoon. The sun was high, but the warmth was comforting to the skin.

The paper bag I was carrying was already making my arm ache. When I was in front of the door, I reached for the keys deep inside my left pocket and slipped it into the doorknob.

With a click, the wooden door creaked open to the dark living room. I put the bag on top of the kitchen counter, and though it was dark, I knew every step going up to my room.

The door of the room was slightly ajar. I could see some light that could only be coming from the lampshade on the bedside table.

When I opened the door completely, time stopped. My heart skipped a beat. My breath was taken away, and my eyes widened. “Bella . . .”

My mind didn’t know how to respond. Bella was lying naked in the bed, her hands bound together and tied to the headboard, her legs wide open, her ankles tied to the opposite corners at the foot of the bed. Her mouth was gagged with a piece of cloth. Her eyes were filled with horror and sorrow as they stared at me. I saw her tears when they reflected the light.

The toys he had used so many times on me were scattered there in the bed with her.

I felt my own tears well up as I stared at the helpless image of her. My knees lost their strength.

How long have I been . . . This can’t be . . . He . . . he raped her. And it’s all my fault. I was crying on the floor. This is all my fault. He used me . . . to get her.

On the floor, I could see the rolled piece of paper I had failed to get rid of. Why? Why should I bring her this kind of misery?

I could feel her helpless stare from the bed. They cut like knives inside me. I wanted to help her, to reach for her. I wanted to explain, but it was already too late. The harm had been done.

I ruined everything.

I stood up and wiped away my tears. This must end today. I must kill him, end him, now. I fished out my phone from my pocket and called the police. I described the situation. They said they would come immediately.

I pulled open the bottom drawer. Inside was the gun that he had been keeping for years. I gripped the handle. It was cold. I cocked the gun, ready to pull the trigger.

I turned to her. I was crying again, harder this time, and with every sob, I could see her eyes fill with tears. Those eyes could be speaking so many things right now, but all I wanted to hear from her was forgiveness.

“I’m very sorry, Bella. It wasn’t me. Believe me, it wasn’t me.” More tears fell from my eyes. I pointed the gun at my left temple.

And pulled the trigger.

* * *

Images flashed in my mind as I felt the cold steel bore through my skull.

I was back in her couch, eating the omelet she had prepared for me, and then I was up the stage, her face so close to me, I could feel her breath. The vision was erratic, like a television constantly changing its channels.

I could see the days and nights I had spent being myself. Random things I had done in my share of time within this body while he lurked at the back of my mind. Simple things that made me feel free, even for a while.

And for another time, the images twisted around me, and I found myself being that child again, lying in bed with my aunt naked over me. I knew every scene. She liked to be addressed as “Master.” She liked being referred to as a man, and I was the helpless little girl she liked to rape. I blamed her for torturing me. She was the root of all this. She gave life to my split personality. She gave life to him.

For one last time, the world spun around me, and I found myself lying on a patch of green grass. The scene seemed so familiar. A big hand touched my shoulder, and when I looked up, I saw a familiar face, smiling down at me. “Dad?” I spoke with a child’s voice. “Daddy?” Tears fell down my cheeks.

“Hey!” He chuckled. “Don’t cry now, my princess.”

His strong arms lifted me, and I saw my mother approach us. Her smile was always caring.

She put her palm on my head and kissed me on the cheek.

“Hush now, baby. You’re safe now.”

The last thing I heard was the distant sound of sirens approaching.

No. Bella was safe now.

White Sikad

By Renaizza Sheen D. Fuentebella
Fiction

Sweat was trickling down my face when I reached Centro, the settlement right outside the immense campus of Mindanao State University. The walk was tiring, but I had chosen not to ride a habal-habal because I had to save money. I still had to ride a sikad, a lighter type of tricycle, to get home from Centro.

While I was seated inside a sikad, waiting for another passenger to fill it, someone caught my attention. It was an old woman, standing beside the electric post on the side of the computer shop where many sikads were parked.

The woman’s gray hair, which was tied into a bun, complimented her off-white dress and brown slippers. She was carrying a green knitted bag on her right hand and a black umbrella on the other. It looked as though she was waiting for a sikad to stop by and give her a ride, but none did, even the driver of the sikad that I was riding.

The sight wrenched my heart, so I decided to ask the driver to give the old woman a ride, but just as I was about to do it, a white sikad stopped in front of her.

The driver, a man in his fifties, peeped above the roof of his sikad and smiled at her. “Pauli na ka?” he asked.

Her face lit up. “Oo,” she answered. She put her things inside the sidecar and then climbed in.

Since then, I would notice the sight every time I rode a sikad in that area. The old woman would be waiting, and the white sikad would show up and take her home. I wondered if it was just a coincidence.

When I asked the other drivers about the woman and the sikad, they told me they didn’t know her either. All they knew was that whenever they offered the woman a ride, she would decline and wait for the white sikad.

For a couple of weeks, I was not able to go to that area because school often ended late due to one activity or another, and my father had to fetch me from school instead with his motorcycle. One evening, when my father couldn’t fetch me, I decided to walk from school to Centro. The rain was pouring hard, and I was soaking wet, but I had no choice but to continue walking.

I finally reached Centro. I went to the spot where I used to ride toward home, but no sikad was in sight. There was only the old woman standing in her usual spot.

She was under her black umbrella, but it was not enough to shelter her from the cold wind. She was shivering. I felt pity for her, so I approached her and asked her to sit beside me on a wooden bench under the roof of the computer shop.

Ngano wala pa man ka nakauli, Nay?” I asked her when we were seated.

With a worried look, she replied, “Ginahulat nako siya moagi.”

Katong drayber sa puti nga sikad?

She didn’t respond. She stared at the water dripping from the roof. “Asa na kaha to siya? Ganiha ra ko nahuman og pangompra para sa panihapon. Gigutom na jud to si Jun-jun didtoa.” She sighed.

It dawned on me that the driver of the white sikad must be her husband.

Several minutes passed, and I was starting to get worried not only because it was getting late but also because of the old woman’s situation. She remained sitting beside me, staring at nowhere. The white sikad finally arrived.

The driver got off his motorcycle and came to us. He was wet, and I could see from his eyes that he was exhausted and worried. He bent down to look at the old woman. “Pasensya kaayo kung nadugayan kog anhi,” he told her. “Lapok man gud ang dalan.

She stared back at him. Her eyebrows furrowed. “Kinsa ka?

The driver froze. I stood there speechless, not knowing what to do.

Tears formed in the corner of the man’s eyes, but he wiped them off and then went back to the sikad. His head had been bent down for a while before he peeped above the roof of the sikad, like he always did. He smiled at the old woman and asked, “Pauli na ka?

Her face lit up. She walked to him and said, “Dali na kay gutom na jud to karon atong anak nga si Jun-jun.”

The old woman got inside the sikad. The driver offered me a ride home in appreciation of my staying with the woman. I hopped in.

The driver opened the U-box of his motorcycle, took out a jacket, and draped it on the old woman’s shoulders.

She suddenly grabbed the driver’s hand and looked at him. Her eyes glowing, she smiled. “Sukad siya nawala, ikaw na ang gasundo sa akoa,” she said. “Salamat, Jun.

Tears welled up in my eyes.

Barefoot Bulayan

By Mary Ann Ordinario
Fiction

The following piece is the text of the picture book Barefoot Bulayan: A True-to-Life Story of a Bagobo Boy who Does Not Like to Wear Shoes, published by ABC Educational Development Center in 2018 with illustrations by Bernadette Solina-Wolf.

 When Bulayan leaves his village and goes to school, he carries his shoes instead of wearing them.

All the teachers, parents, and students give a sharp stare at Bulayan’s feet when he stands during flag ceremonies.

He walks barefooted inside the classroom. His classmates chant, “Bulayan has no shoes! Bulayan has no shoes!” They think Bulayan looks funny without his shoes.

“Bulayan! Please wear your shoes! You are inside the room!” his teacher asks him. But Bulayan just shakes his head and grins.

Only when the teacher becomes really angry at him does Bulayan wear his shoes.

Everybody thinks Bulayan is different. Maybe he does not like his shoes. Or maybe the shoes do not fit him.

Then as soon as nobody sees him, Bulayan slowly and carefully removes his shoes again.

So his teacher gives him a pair of colorful shoes. But later, the teacher sees Bulayan jumping and dancing on the green grass of the playground. Barefooted.

A parent gives Bulayan shoes that light up at each step. He taps the shoes on the table and enjoys watching the different lights. But during the school program, Bulayan dances. Barefooted.

A classmate gives him black school shoes. But Bulayan gently keeps the shoes inside his bag.

Finally, the school principal gives him a pair of sandal slippers. But Bulayan simply leaves the sandals inside the room and goes home.

This became a problem in school. Not a single person can ask Bulayan to wear shoes.

Then one day, a student shouts, “Look! Look at the plastic bin! There are so many shoes inside the bin. Bulayan has kept all his shoes there!”

This time, Bulayan’s teacher sternly tells him, “If you don’t wear your shoes, you will not be allowed to go to school again. Ever!”

The principal and Bulayan’s teacher agree to visit Bulayan and talk to his parents.

As they walk to Bulayan’s village, they see a young girl pass by. Barefooted. And an old woman and a boy. Both barefooted.

As the principal and teacher look around, they see the different villagers. Barefooted! There are no shoes at all! And Bulayan is there playing with other barefooted children.

When the principal and the teacher knock at the door of Bulayan’s house and his father opens the door, to their surprise, both Bulayan’s mother and father are also barefooted!

Then the principal and teacher understand why Bulayan hates wearing shoes.

From that day on, Bulayan goes to class, and plays on the grass of the playground. Barefooted. Without being scolded. Or laughed at.

At the school festival, Bulayan plays the kuglang. And together with his classmates and teachers, they all enjoy dancing barefooted.

The World Keeps Spinning

By John Gied Calpotura
Fiction

Raindrops aren’t the only thing that’s falling this moment. Tears too. Vivien’s black dress is soaked from the rain as the priest says his final prayers before they lower down Beth and go home.

The funeral is not crowded, and it is really uneventful. Only fifteen people or so came. Three of them didn’t even bother wearing black. Some of them only came for the food after the funeral. But that’s not why Vivien is mad. She’s not mad that her uncle is dozing off while Beth is being buried down to be decomposed. She’s not even bothered that her cousins are actually glad for Beth to be gone. No. She’s mad because the world has kept spinning. She’s mad because the world has not even spared them a sun to shine, giving them gray clouds and wet grass to mourn with. She’s mad at the cars passing by, carrying on with their own businesses, while Vivien has just lost her only model, her only friend, while her mother and father scream at the top of their lungs, breaking everything that can be broken, including the innocence of their children.

But aside from being angry, deep down, Vivien pities the world. They have not gotten the chance to see Beth’s smile that beat the beauty of the moon or hear her diamond voice—sweet and soft but loud and clear at the same time. Beth never sang in front of anyone. She would only sing when she was in the shower, and Vivien would stick her ears to the door and close her eyes, letting her sister’s voice carry her to timeless lands. It’s sad that no one got to know her outgoing personality, how she would push Vivien when she was feeling unproductive, saying, “Tardiness only leads you to Strip Class!” with her best impression of Mrs. Herrera, their English teacher, but cried herself alone at night when she thought no one was watching. Because that was how she was; she didn’t want others to focus on her dramas, letting them focus on their achievements instead.

“Your dreams are more important than my tears,” she once said to Vivien. Beth was seventeen then, while Vivien was thirteen, it was the first time she caught her crying.

“Do you have dreams?” Vivien asked.

“Once,” Beth said, her eyes shining with wonder and loss. It was so strong that Vivien can actually feel the nostalgia. “But it’s useless. A dreamer does not live in a nightmare.”

Vivien didn’t understand what Beth said back then, but everything has been clear since Beth pulled the trigger.

Twenty-three. Beth was only twenty-three years old.

She still had so much to do, so many songs to sing, so many smiles to show.

But then, only Vivien knew these things. Only she paid attention. That’s why the world has kept spinning, the time kept ticking. People never knew her story.

For Beth is not worth remembering.

And the truth shatters Vivien more than anything.