Scars under Her Feet

By Angelo Serrano
Fiction

Sara woke up to someone gently shaking her. “Ma?” she groaned. A finger gently pressed against her lips followed by a shh sound. “Come on,” Mama whispered, and Sara was still too sleepy to protest. She wrapped a brown jacket around Sara and then very quietly led her out of the house. She carried a backpack with their clothes and led Sara into a car waiting outside. The sky was still dark, and it was drizzling. The clock on the car radio said 12:32 AM in red light, and Sara couldn’t see who was driving.

They drove away without Sara being able to kiss Papa goodbye. She was hypnotized asleep by the passing streetlamps, and then she woke up to the voices of Mama and the driver after a few hours. She didn’t understand what it was about, but she knew it was important. She knew in the way that children instinctively knew things. Mama and the driver shushed themselves when they noticed she was awake.

She stretched on the back seat, yawned, wiped her eye boogers away, and then squinted at the sunlight. She looked outside, and she wasn’t familiar with what she saw. There were no big buildings or traffic lights or other cars on the road. No crowds of people on the sidewalk, nor a sidewalk.

There were rice paddies on both sides of the road, with water that perfectly reflected the sky and plants above it. She had ever only seen them on TV or in pictures. There were farmers bent over with straw hats and worn-out clothes. They all stared at the car when it drove past. Sara realized that the woman driving the car was her aunt. The one that she only met every Christmas.

“Where are we going?” Sara asked.

Her aunt and Mama exchanged looks. “We’re staying with your Tita Mitchel for a while,” Mama explained.

“But I have school tomorrow.”

“Yes, but . . . don’t you want to spend time with me?” Tita Mitchel teased.

Sara made an audible hmm, and then she realized this meant she didn’t need to attend classes and bring back homework. “I do,” she gladly declared. They drove past a carriage being pulled by a carabao. “Isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“No, sweetie,” Mama said. “We can’t be with him for a while.”

Sara became a bit sad. She liked having Papa around. He always brought home double Dutch ice cream when she asked and often bought her the toys she wanted. Sometimes, he’d let her eat one too many cookies, and all she had to do was to make sure not to tell Mama about Papa’s visitors. Oh well, she thought to herself, even though deep down, she knew something was wrong.

They reached Tita Mitchel’s house, and it was surrounded by plenty of healthy trees. There were browned leaves all over, and the white paint of the house was beginning to chip away, revealing the aged wood underneath. An orange-and-white cat watched them from the very top of the house. Sara waved at it when they got out of the car, but it just looked away and yawned. When they reached the terrace, an old man greeted them. He carried a bolo, had completely white hair, and wore dusty work clothes.

“This is Totoy, he’s the grounds man,” Tita Mitchel explained. Totoy smiled at them, shook Mama’s hand, and patted Sara’s head. “He’s mute,” Tita whispered. Sara had never met a mute before.

They walked into the house. Mama and Tita Mitchel disappeared into one of the rooms and then carried bedsheets and pillows from room to room. Sara thought the house smelled old, but observed everything with deep curiosity. There were years-old photos on the walls, paintings of farm fields, and cross-stitched mountains. She regarded the decorations the same way she had regarded the exhibits when they visited a museum once. She knew they had history, but she just wasn’t aware of what that history was.

One frame had an old picture of a young woman holding hands with a boy who was about the same age as she was. Sara recognized the girl to be a much younger Tita Mitchel, before her hair became slightly gray and her face began to wrinkle.

“Mama.”

“Yes, sweetie?” Mama stood next to Sara and smiled fondly at the old photos.

“This is Tita Mitch, right?”

“Yes, it is.”

Sara felt clever, and then pointed at the boy. “Who is this?”

“Oh . . .” Mama pressed her lips together. “That’s Miguel. Your cousin.”

“He is? I’ve never met him before.”

“He’s . . . not with us anymore.” Mama bent down and spoke softly. “Let’s . . . make it a rule to not talk about him here, okay? Tita Mitchel isn’t comfortable talking about him.” She poked Sara’s small nose.

Sara nodded slowly. Part of her knew that Mama meant Miguel was dead, but she also didn’t really know what that meant yet. Still, it was rule, so she decided to never mind it.

It was a simple home, not too crowded nor too spacious. The floors were wooden and shiny, so the footsteps could be heard all over the house. Mama brought Sara to her room, and she thought that it wasn’t anything too grand nor too ugly. It was, for the most part, neat. There was only a bed and a nightstand and a closet, but neat. She almost took a step into the room, but felt something watching her. She turned to the room’s window and, in the way that people did, knew there was someone there. She also knew that if she told Mama or Tita, they’d only tell her that it was just her imagination.

So instead, she walked back to the living room and sat in the couch to watch cartoons on the TV, because what else would she do in the afternoon? When it turned on, Eat Bulaga blasted through the house. It was a bit grainy, and a single line of distortion moved from the bottom to the top repeatedly. She turned the volume down before flipping through the channels, of which there were only four.

“Don’t you have Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon?” she complained.

Tita pouted and seemed to be thinking to herself for a moment. Sara could tell that she was the kind of adult that only really watched the evening news on TV, and Sara wasn’t really expecting a helpful answer from her anymore. “Only on Saturday mornings,” Tita said. Sara slouched in the couch.

“Sorry, we don’t have cable TV here.”

“So what do you do for fun?”

“Well, there are always tons of books around the house,” Tita suggested. She took one from under the coffee table, blew away the dust, and then handed it to Sara. “Try this one.”

The cover showed a boy in an orange shirt, standing in the wavy sea, staring at a city while lightning struck from the gloomy clouds. Sara sighed disappointedly, and Tita Mitchel smiled as an apology. Sara couldn’t imagine how anyone could live without the colorful entertainment brought by Spongebob Squarepants, but she also realized she didn’t have a choice. She opened the book, and began reading.

Her eyes glided through the pages easily enough while her mind painted the teacher turning into a fanged and flying demon in her head and as the characters were attacked by a minotaur. She kept rereading the dialogue, trying out different voices for the characters. She was proud of the wise and hoarse voice she chose for the bearded centaur.

She kept at the book, and the sun slowly set outside. Sara didn’t notice the sun flood the house with yellow light nor the sun bleach the sky from orange to red. She didn’t notice the house lights turn on and the outside become dark. She only snapped out of the book when Mama called her for dinner. Only then did she hear the crickets outside. She stood from the couch she’d been on for the past few hours, and she realized that her butt and back were sore from sitting. Sara was already at the part of the book where the heroes traveled to meet Medusa, and for a moment, she was convinced she was with them.

She walked to the table, and the alluring smell of roasted pork caught her immediate attention. It was just the right brownness with only a few burned spots, and it looked perfectly juicy as well. There was a small bowl that had smelly vinegar, onion bits, and red and green pepper slices in it. The rice was still steaming warm, and there was a bottle of coke. Sara sat next to Mama, where a plate already had a cup of rice and sliced up pieces of pork. Across them sat Tita Mitchel and Totoy, who were scooping up the rice and taking large slices of meat for themselves.

“So how’s the house, Sara?” Tita asked.

She fed herself a mouthful before answering. The meat was so tender and savory that she thought that it was better than most of the restaurants back in the city.

“Mmm . . . fine,” she answered, only meaning the living and dining room.

“Are you okay with not having cartoons for a while?” Mama asked.

“Yes. Tita gave me an interesting book.”

Tita and Mama smiled at each other. “Wow,” Mama said, in the way that mothers enthusiastically spoke to their kids. “That’s good to hear.”

After dinner, Sara went back to her book, but was soon interrupted by Mama telling her to take a warm bath. She changed into her pajamas, and then Mama carried her into bed and tucked her in. Her bedroom had only an empty cabinet and a nightstand beside the bed and was on the second floor of the house.

“Can’t I keep reading?” Sara asked.

“Tomorrow. Okay, sweetie?” Mama kissed her forehead and said good night before she turned off the lights, and then she closed Sara’s door.

Sara closed her eyes, still picturing the events of the book in her mind. She soon fell asleep, thanks to the cool evening breeze from her window. After a few hours, she woke up to the sound of giggling. She groggily opened her eyes, only to find three insects above her.

She was about to swat them when she realized that they weren’t insects. She cupped her hands over her mouth and gasped. They looked like they were pieces of silk formed into small girls, with slightly too big heads and petals that bloomed to seem like dresses. Their skin was the soft green of seedlings, and they floated effortlessly on the breeze, occasionally flapping their wings to readjust themselves. One of them had a curly, red dress and wings. Another was blue and flowing. And the last was white and smooth. Their eyes were like little black droplets of ink, and only then did Sara realize that they were staring right at her, no longer giggling.

“She’s awake,” worried the red one. “She’s awake,” repeated the blue one. “Can she see us?” asked the white one. “Can she hear us?” asked the red one. “I think she can,” answered the blue one. Their voices were small and almost squeaky.

“I can,” Sara answered. She watched them intimately with wide eyes.

The three fairies gasped. “We’re in trouble,” said White, “She’s going to kill us,” Red agreed. “We have to put her to sleep,” Blue declared. The fairies started flying in circles, chanting something in a language that Sara didn’t speak nor know about but could understand. She knew they were casting a spell to make her fall asleep, and she knew she wouldn’t remember them afterward.

“Wait!” Sara interrupted, raising her hands at them.

The fairies stopped chanting and just floated above her, their heads tilted to the side. “Yes?” they asked in unison.

Sara thought of something to say. “Er . . . why would you be in trouble if I woke up?”

“Because we were told to only check on you,” White said. “But not to disturb you,” Red added. “Only to check, and not to disturb,” confirmed Blue.

“But why? Who told you to do that?”

Red and Blue and White exchanged looks, as if they all had something in their mouths.

“Well? Won’t you tell me?” Sara pushed.

The fairies flailed in the air, as if holding in their breath for too long. Finally, White became the first to open her mouth. “Salaya,” she said. “She ordered us to do so,” added Red. “But only to check, and not to disturb,” repeated Blue, who had become too bothered. They exchanged looks, as if they blamed one another for speaking.

Sara thought to herself for a while. What kind of young girl would not take this chance of adventure with fairies? She certainly wants excitement. She would want to be a hero on a grand adventure, just like in the fairy tales and books. “Take me to her,” she announced.

Red and Blue and White smiled at each other and then turned to Sara and nodded happily. “Come on,” they said in unison. They flew out of her window, and Sara watched them go. The moonlight was enough for her to see properly outside. The moon itself seemed much larger than usual, and the sky was littered with stars. She never saw a night sky like this before, and no one from the light-polluted city ever could. She got out of bed and slowly opened her bedroom door. The house was quiet and almost completely dark. At the very first step she took out of her room the floor board creaked.

She stood perfectly still, waiting for anyone to come out and check on her. She was glad that no one did. The next step that she took didn’t reach the floor. Instead, she saw the fairies flying in circles around her feet, and she began to float. She didn’t understand, but she had to keep herself from shouting from the fear of suddenly falling down. Slowly, she took hesitant steps on thin air, giggling to herself as quietly as she could. Soon, she found herself floating down from her bedroom window and onto the dirt below. She was still in pajamas and was walking barefoot, but she didn’t care. Now wasn’t the time to care.

Sara followed the fairies through the tall trees. The treetops blocked out most of the moonlight, but the little beams that made it through helped her enough to keep track of where the fairies went. She almost tripped on tree roots, and the soles of her feet got scratches from sharp rocks a number of times already, but she pushed through as much as she could.

Music from a flute resonated through the trees. But it wasn’t like the ones they were taught to play in elementary school, nor the ones they played on TV. This one had a much more natural sound. Sara stood still for a moment to listen as clearly as she could. The music was peaceful and calming and alluring. It was beautiful in all the ways that the sound of rivers and rustling leaves were beautiful. Sara had lost sight of the fairies, but she could follow the music on her own. As she slowly did, she began to notice more and more peculiar plants. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers.

She reached a clearing. Soft and glistening grass grew all over the ground, and there was a large dark stone in the middle. Balancing on top of the stone was a tall woman. She was turned away from where Sara stood. Her wavy hair reached all the way down to her ankles and was perfectly shiny. She was wearing a simple white dress and a flower crown made of mirabilis blooms. The three fairies swayed to the music around her.

Sara’s jaw dropped and was wide-eyed. She took careful steps forward, and she could feel the soft grass soothing her feet. It didn’t take long for all the pain from her cuts to fade away. When she checked her soles, there were only small scars. She smiled, fascinated in the way children would be whenever a magician pulled a dove from thin air, except this was leagues different. There was no secret to be unveiled, no tricks. It was truthful and real magic. She took another step forward and found that the tall woman was now facing her. She was still playing her flute and had smooth chocolate-colored skin. Sara thought that the wooden flute was taller than she was, and she was correct. The tall woman’s fingers danced on the holes of the flute with her eyes closed. The moonlight shined perfectly on her, as if the moon itself wanted listen to her play.

Then, when the music stopped, the woman slowly opened her eyes. They were large and seemed to have the entire night sky in them. She was beautiful. The flute had now never existed, and she stepped down from the stone to approach Sara, smiling sweetly.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Salaya. Glad to see you could join us.”

Sara was at a loss for words.

“Don’t worry,” Salaya reassured her with a smile. “I won’t eat you. Though I am surprised you’re here so soon.” She looked slyly at the fairies. Red hid behind Blue, and they both hid behind White. White only wanted to hide behind something as well, but couldn’t.

“No, please,” Sara said. “It’s not their fault. I wanted to see you.”

Salaya looked back at Sara, and the fairies sighed in relief. “Oh? And why is that?”

“Well . . .” Sara thought of a good answer, and decided to simply be honest. “I wanted to go on an adventure.”

Salaya smiled a wide smile. “Oh! How you remind me of when I was young!” She picked up Sara, swung her around, and then placed her on a cushioned chair that, to Sara’s surprise, had always been there.

Sara felt proud of what Salaya told her. She didn’t understand when the chair got there, or when the table arrived, but she didn’t complain either. Salaya sat opposite her. A covered platter was on the table.

“What would you like to eat?” Salaya asked. Her hand was already on the cover’s handle, ready to lift it up.

Sara wondered what she should have. She already had dinner, so of course dessert is the next best thing. “Double Dutch ice cream.”

Salaya lifted the cover, revealing two ornate glass bowls of double Dutch, each with a cherry on top that Sara didn’t care for. Sara smiled in the way that only incredibly happy children could smile, and took one bowl for herself. Salaya took the other.

When Sara was about to eat her first spoonful, she heard the fairies yelp behind her. She turned to look at them, “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Uh . . .” Red looked past Sara, at Salaya, who looked at them irritably in a way that said come on, say something. “We were . . . just worried,” interrupted Blue. “That maybe your teeth might go rotten,” continued White. “From too much sweet stuff,” explained Red.

“Nonsense,” Salaya declared. “Your teeth will remain the little pearly whites that they are, I swear it.” Sara, who was completely convinced by Salaya’s words, enjoyed her first spoon, and quickly moved on to the second. The fairies exchanged worried looks.

Salaya enjoyed the treat herself. It was her first time having ice cream. Her first time eating in a few years. Not that she needed to. The ice cream was perfectly sweet, with just enough chocolate and just enough nuts and marshmallows. It wasn’t too stiff nor too soft.

“So,” Sara said, with some ice cream still around her lips, “why did you want to see me?”

“We’ll discuss that later. For now, I simply want you to enjoy this evening.”

The fairies gave a sigh of relief.

Sara wondered but didn’t complain. She simply enjoyed her treat, and she began talking about the many places she’d visited and movies she’d seen, boys that Sara thought were cute in her class, and girls that pulled on her hair and called her names.

“You should show those girls that they can’t treat you like that.”

“I already told Papa about them, and he said he talked to the teacher, but nothing happened.”

“What’s this girl’s name? Her full name.”

“Patricia Chuy.”

Salaya looked up at the sky. She squinted, tilted her head, looked around, and then looked back at Sara disappointedly, who had no idea what she was doing. “I’m sorry, I can’t find her. All the lights of the city block away the stars.”

“It’s fine,” Sara said. She ate another spoon of ice cream. “Mama said I shouldn’t mind people like her.”

“Taking the moral high ground, I like it,” Salaya admitted.

Sara didn’t know what that meant, but felt proud of herself. “Now would you tell me why I’m here?”

“Not yet. You’re here for an important reason, and I hope you’d simply believe me when I say so, all right?” Salaya smiled in a way that Sara knew wasn’t genuine. “You wouldn’t want to be a bad guest to me, would you?”

Sara shook her head in the way that worried kids did whenever they thought they were about to get into trouble.

Next, it was Salaya’s turn to tell stories. She told Sara how the universe came to be, and who named the animals and the plants and who placed the moon in the sky, and who the Sun was. She told Sara why there were plenty of gods and goddesses of the same things, why different people spoke different tongues, and why they believed in different things. Sara, of course, didn’t understand plenty of these. Sometimes, she would suggest the version she vaguely remembered from TV, from a book, or the version her Mama told her, but Salaya corrected her and she just followed along. She did, however, feel wiser than she did if she had not heard these stories.

Sara tried and failed to stifle a yawn. Salaya smiled, took the bowl from her, and picked her up. She carried Sara out of the clearing and into the woods. Sara, despite only having met this woman now, felt safe. Maybe it was the ice cream. Now Sara was almost half asleep, lulled by the sound of Salaya’s feet walking on the forest floor.

She felt Salaya turn to the fairies. “I still need to punish one of you, but that can wait.” They failed to contain another yelp when they heard her, and Salaya brought her finger to her lips. “Shush, she’s sleeping.”

The following morning, sunlight from her bedroom window shined on Sara’s face. She stretched on her bed, and she couldn’t remember how she got there, but she could remember the night before. She remembered the ice cream. She remembered the beautiful music, the red and blue and white fairies, and the tall Salaya with eyes like the night sky. For the briefest moment, she doubted it all. Maybe it was all a dream. She checked her feet, glad to know that her little scars were still there. Mama knocked on her door. “Breakfast.”

Sara sat at the table, excited to tell everyone what happened. She could smell the warm coffee, which she knew she wasn’t allowed to have; she instead had a mug of warm milk waiting for her. The plate in front of her had warm rice and a fried egg with a still runny center.

“And she had this really long flute that played really great music, and—” Sara stopped herself. “Mama, are you listening?”

“Of course, I am,” Mama answered after taking a sip of coffee. “You were telling us about your dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream,” Sara insisted.

“Sara, finish your breakfast. Your food is getting cold.”

Tita Mitchel had finished eating and was already in her office dress. She kissed Sara’s forehead and hugged Mama before leaving for work. “Tell me more about your dream later, all right, Sara?” Mama also finished, and brought her plate to the sink.

Sara continued eating without an appetite. “It wasn’t a dream,” she mumbled to herself. Her food really did grow cold. She felt lonely for a moment, and then she noticed that Totoy was looking at her, expectant. His hand motioned for her to continue her story. She became excited, and she moved on to the double Dutch ice cream.

Sara spent most of her day continuing her book. Occasionally, while in the middle of a sentence, she’d daydream about going back to meet Salaya. She wondered how she’d reach the clearing again. Maybe the fairies would pick her up again? Or maybe she’d need to find it herself. But she didn’t remember the way.

She’d definitely bring her slippers, next time.

That evening, she only ate a small part of her dinner, saying she wasn’t hungry. After she had brushed her teeth and gotten into pajamas and was tucked into bed, she only pretended to sleep. She believed that the fairies would visit her again, and she wanted to jump right out of bed the moment they did. Her slippers were already set under the window. Now she just waited, occasionally peeking. Of course, having closed eyes, pretending to sleep or otherwise, would eventually bring anyone to sleep.

The next time she opened her eyes, it was because of two flowers tickling her face. One was red, the other was blue. She sat up, and the fairies only floated in front of her.

“You’re back!” She jumped right out of bed and wore her slippers. “I knew I wasn’t dreaming.”

She noticed a small figure on her nightstand. It was a white mouse, standing on its hind legs, examining her and the fairies. Sara tilted her head at it, and it did the same. She thought it was cute.

“Let’s go,” Red said. “Yes, yes,” confirmed Blue. They floated in silence for a moment, and Sara wondered. “Where’s the white fairy?”

Red and Blue exchanged looks. “She’s busy,” Red said. “Helping Salaya,” confirmed Blue. They waited for someone to add to their statements, and Sara stood puzzled. The fairies flew out of the window. “We must go,” said Red. “Salaya is waiting,” continued Blue.

Sara walked to the window then leapt out. The fairies swirled below her, and she floated gently onto the ground. She couldn’t help but giggle, and then she followed the fairies into the trees. The moon was just as bright as it was the previous night, and the mouse watched them from the window.

Sara lost sight of the fairies at some point, but she knew where she was now. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. She followed the music of Salaya’s flute and stood at the very edge of the clearing.

She took off her slippers to feel the soothing grass and walked closer to the stone where Salaya was standing. The fairies swayed to the music, and the moon came closer to listen to Salaya play. When she finished playing, she turned to Sara, and the flute never existed.

“Welcome back,” Salaya greeted. She stepped down from the stone, and brought her chest to her knees to level with Sara. She noticed that Salaya was wearing a bracelet now, made of black fibers and was decorated with small white flowers.

“Where’s the white fairy?” she asked.

Salaya looked surprised. “She’s doing important work, right now.”

“Is she all right?”

“Of course,” Salaya picked her up and sat her on a cushioned chair. There was another covered dish in front of them. “She did volunteer for it, after all.”

“Well . . . as long as she’s doing fine.” Sara tapped the table. “What will we have tonight?”

“What is it that you want?”

Sara thought for a moment. Her mind wandered to the food that she knew she wouldn’t find in Tita Mitchel’s house. “Those hotdogs with melty cheese inside them.”

Salaya looked confused, and then she lifted the cover to reveal a plate of still steaming, perfectly red hotdogs. Sara’s mouth began to water when the scent reached her nose. Along each side of the bowl was an ornate fork. The two of them took one for themselves, and when Sara took her first cheesy bite, she danced a little on her seat and couldn’t help but be cheery. Salaya inspected the hotdog, sniffing and wiggling it for a moment. She wasn’t entirely familiar with this, but still decided to give it a try.

When she took her first bite, she had to keep herself from vomiting. Her tongue could taste it all. The many pieces of cartilage and viscera and meats that had been shredded and minced and crushed together to become an oblong atrocity. She put down her fork and simply watched in confusion as Sara enjoyed herself. She’s much more resilient than I imagined, Salaya thought to herself.

“You shti’ didn’t te’ me shomefing.” Sara chewed her mouthful and then swallowed. “Why did you want to see me?”

“Ah, that.” Salaya shifted on her seat and crossed her legs and leaned in closer. “You see, there is something I must ask of you.”

“What is it?” Sara forked her second hotdog and bit into it.

“Well, it is something that only you could accomplish,” Salaya began. “You are, after all, stubbornly courageous with a good heart.”

Sara took another bite, but was listening closely to Salaya. She felt flattered, but also wondered. She chewed and swallowed and then spoke. “How do you know that I’m courageous and all that?”

Salaya smiled. “You left the safety of your home and ran through the dark forest all for adventure, correct? That takes courage.” Sara thought about it, and realized Salaya had a point. “And you refuse to step down to your bully’s level. That means you have a good heart.”

Sara finished her second hotdog and put down her fork.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked, excited. It was like receiving a quest.

“I want you to slay a monster for me.”

Sara blinked a few times and tilted her head. “A monster?”

“Yes, a monster. One with a long and slithering body, a wide mouth, and killer claws.”

Sara remembered her book. She remembered the heroes facing a monster with plenty of heads. It had vicious teeth, scaly skin, and also breathed fire.

“Does the monster breathe fire?” She wasn’t entirely sure about the answer she wanted to receive.

“No, not this one. This one carries ancient magic, the likes of which—”

“I’ll do it!” Sara declared. This is my chance, she thought. A quest! Images of heroes fighting lions and dragons and giants flickered through her head. She remembered these from the books and shows and myths, and she was excited to be a part of it all.

Salaya looked at her with wide eyes and failed to hold back her smile. The fairies were thrown aback as well. She picked Sara up from her chair and swung her around, sometimes tossing her into the air and catching her again.

“Oh! I knew I was correct in choosing you.” Salaya kissed her forehead before setting her down. “On your knees, Sara.”

Sara realized something. “Why can’t you kill the monster? Don’t you have magic as well?”

Salaya laughed, thinking that Sara was joking, as the rules should have been known by everyone. When she looked at Sara’s genuinely puzzled face again, she remembered Sara was still just a child. Her expression soured, and she sighed.

“It is a rule, Sara. I, and those like me, can’t bring any harm to the monster and those like him.”

“Mmm . . . that sounds like an unfair rule.” Sara thought that Salaya just wasn’t fond of doing work and preferred giving orders, like her homeroom teacher that always asked her to ask for chalk from the other class. That’s fine, she thought to herself. She felt proud about being chosen.

Salaya’s eyebrow twitched, and she took a deep breath. “Now, on your knees.”

Sara did as she was told. She thought she’d receive a blessing, a magical weapon and enchanted armor, and words of inspiration. She was excited in the same way she would be excited during the final seconds before she tore open her birthday gifts.

Salaya whispered to the ground beneath them in a language that Sara did not speak nor know about but could understand. The same language the fairies spoke when they tried to put her to sleep.

It was the first language, the first words exchanged by the first creatures. No one born during the last few thousand years spoke it anymore, and no one remembered it enough to speak it again. But everyone and everything understood when they heard. They knew what the words meant and heard it through ears they didn’t know they have.

The soil below Sara gave way to vines with dark leaves and an even darker stem. They crawled up her thighs, and she realized just how unnaturally cold they felt. She shuddered but resisted flinching. Be courageous, she thought to herself. Once the vines had reached her waist, they reached for her left hand. They tightened around her arm, and she gave a nervous smile to Salaya, who wasn’t whispering anymore. Instead, she looked down at Sara with her night-sky eyes.

“Sara Zambata.”

“Yes?” The vines got even tighter and began to hurt her.

“Be strong, for you are the only one who can defeat this monster.” Then, Salaya told her, in the first language, that she would receive a weapon, one that would slay any living creature, and all she had to do was get close enough to touch its skin.

At once, the vines detached themselves from the ground. Sara felt the skin of her palm tear open as the vines forced their way inside. The entire length of her arm ached and deformed as the vines wriggled inside of her. She couldn’t help but shout. Her right hand gripped her wrist, and she fell on her side to squirm on the grass. The sobbing and shrieking of a little girl became the only sound in the whole clearing.

She looked up at Salaya with tears in her eyes. She almost asked for it to stop, but couldn’t get her voice to say so. Something kept her from saying no to Salaya’s quest. The fairies turned around, unable to help her.

“Be careful,” Salaya said. “It could only be used once on the first creature you touch. Don’t waste it.” Salaya knelt down beside her and gently touched her cheek. “I’ll wait for your return, my champion, with the monster’s tongue as your token of victory.”

Sara woke up on her bed with cold sweat soaking her shirt. She quickly sat up and examined her left hand, and it felt perfectly fine. She took a deep breath, lay back down, and felt conflicted.

On one hand, she felt proud to be named a champion on a quest. On the other, she doesn’t understand why she would still want to help Salaya after what she went through last night. Maybe it was the hotdogs.

Mama opened her door and peeked inside. “Sweetie? Are you awake?” Mama found Sara pale and exhausted.

“I am.”

Mama entered the room and offered a hand to help Sara sit up. Sara almost reached for Mama’s hand with her left hand, but she remembered Salaya’s words and jerked her hand away and sat up by herself. Mama had a worried expression as she sat beside her.

“Bad dreams?” Mama asked as she embraced her. Sara nodded. Mama tried to stroke her cheek, but Sara flinched away. Mama smiled a worried smile in the way only mothers could. “Well, you’re with me now, safe and sound.”

Sara smiled back as warmly as she could. They left her room for breakfast, and Sara held on to Mama with her right hand. She felt better here, safer and warmer. But she also knew that she needed to finish her quest and help Salaya. Not only because she had said so, but because she felt that it would be the only way for her to no longer have to meet the tall woman again. A white mouse watched them leave the room while its nose twitched.

After breakfast, Sara just sprawled back onto her bed, looking at the ceiling. She didn’t feel like reading. She thought it was unfair how easily the heroes received their quest from gods or wizards and how confidently they accepted it. They received armor and swords as blessings with epic names, yet she received a nameless weapon that invaded her arm. Then Sara remembered she didn’t even know how to find the monster nor receive any words of guidance from Salaya aside from instructions. It wasn’t how she imagined being a hero would be like, and she wanted to back out.

She looked outside her window. It was sunny, and the trees swayed with the wind. She knew the monster was there. That’s where monsters always were, deep in forests where only lost people would find them, before they’d get eaten. She didn’t really think about why the monster needed slaying, because monsters always needed slaying.

The white mouse scurried to her window, looked at Sara, and looked at the trees. Then she remembered the cat from when they first got here. She thought the mouse was rather clever and stupidly brave to have survived the cat and still stuck around, scurrying around in broad daylight.

“I’m just as brave as you,” she told the mouse. “Salaya said so . . . That’s why she chose me, and blessed—” She looked at her left hand “Gave me this.”

The mouse tilted its head at her and looked outside again. Sara sighed to herself and made up her mind. Besides, little girls always pushed through in the stories she’d read. They always found a prince or became a queen after defeating an evil witch. That’s a rule that always seemed to have been followed.

That afternoon, while Mama was napping, Sara snuck out of the house, stole one of Totoy’s leather work gloves to wear on her left hand, and ran into the trees. She wandered aimlessly for an hour, stepping on crumbled leaves without realizing she’d mostly been going in circles. She listened to the chirping birds and swatted away bugs. She looked for clues on how to find the monster, maybe footprints or claw marks on the trees. Nothing.

She sat under a tree, sweating and dirty. Her chin rested on her right palm, and she pouted. She wasn’t any closer to finding the monster, but she has already been away for what felt like hours. She was glad the sun was still pretty high in the sky.

“I’ll start heading home when the sky turns orange,” she told herself. She didn’t have anyone to guide her back home if it became dark.

She found a beetle crawling beside her. It had a shiny black shell with tiny bits of fur. Two horns were set vertically on its head, the bottom one much longer than the top. She became excited because she only ever saw these on TV or in books about insects.

Her gloved left hand picked it up, and she inspected it with curious eyes. “A rhinoceros beetle,” she declared confidently. It flailed between her fingers before she set it down again on a dried leaf. It lifted up its shell, and its wings buzzed away.

It was Sara’s first time in a place with so many trees. She wasn’t even allowed to wander on her own back in the city. Once her mind wandered away from finding the monster, she began to appreciate her time here. She looked up at the leaves so far up above her, and down at the creepy-crawlies under the layers of rotten leaves and dead wood. Some bugs were pretty and colorful; others were brown and grey and dull but still fascinating. She watched a caterpillar munch away at a leaf, and wondered what it would be like as a butterfly.

She made sure to always keep an eye out for birds that weren’t just the regular brown sparrows she saw everywhere. A lizard with a green head and brown body made her shiver. She couldn’t climb the trees because she didn’t know how, but she made sure to appreciate the shrubs of flowers.

Then, as she kept walking, it took her a few minutes to find out that the trees seemed completely different from before. They were impossibly tall and had woody vines growing on them. They were wide and twisted with roots that flared out as far as the leaves did. She was surrounded by these trees, and she couldn’t find where they stopped growing or which path she took to get here. It was quiet, with no chirping or buzzing. Just silent trees that whispered to one another when they rustled.

Sara kept walking until she found a tree incredibly larger than those around it. She suspected that it was multiple trees that grew into each other. Small bright red lizards scurried along its trunk and branches, and Sara was wary about getting closer.

After wandering around the tree, she found an opening into the tree that sloped downward. It was just her size. Sara soon understood that if there ever was a monster, it would be down there. She hesitantly peeked inside. As far as she could see, it was completely dark.

Sara took deep breaths, and she began walking down the tunnel with her hand trailing along the damp walls. It felt mossy and wooden, until it began feeling like cold stone. The drip-drop of water echoed irregularly from somewhere in the cave. As she walked deeper down, Sara could feel the walls slowly becoming warmer.

Her eyes caught a small lizard crawling above her. It glowed red and radiated a peculiar warmth. It had oil-drop eyes that looked right at Sara before disregarding her again and scurrying up the tunnel. She eyed it with the same fascination she had with the fairies. She knew she was getting close.

The farther down she went, the more glowing lizards she found, until they illuminated and warmed the whole tunnel. It was the perfectly comfortable warmth she could have slept in.

At the very bottom of the steps was a wide cave with passageways leading toward every direction. Some could fit through; others were far too small or unnervingly large. Glowing lizards crawled throughout the whole cave, entering and leaving the tunnels.

“It’ll take forever to go through each one,” Sara complained. She wondered about just going back up. But a voice bellowed from somewhere deeper in the cave. It was ancient and deep and powerful and spoke a language that Sara did not speak but could understand.

My arms morphed

into wings. Gray

feathers ruffled through

Sara jerked herself through one of the passages, in the direction she believed the voice was coming from. Her footsteps echoed throughout the whole cave, receiving the glowing lizard’s very brief attention.

the breeze of polluted air,

as I dreamed

She soon found that the tunnel branched into two directions.

of a new day. Caged

She turned left after the voice. And in the way that poems did, the rhythm slowly embedded itself into her mind so that she could roughly begin to think about the next few lines.

in a mortal coil, I longed to be

where the sun resides—

The voice stopped, and so did Sara. The tunnel split itself into three paths. She waited for the voice to continue.

a place of warmth, eternal

She ran into the right tunnel.

mornings and no nights.

I soared high

The path split into five more parts.

above the clouds, glided

Sara ran through the middle path and found the end of the tunnel, which was completely dark. She looked behind her, and she realized that the glowing lizards were watching her, but they didn’t follow her into the cave. She heard the voice again. It came from something beside her.

with the wind, and went toward—

 “The blazing sun, abandoning”

By the time Sara realized she spoke out loud, the voice beside her already stopped. She grew nervous. It knew she was here. All she could have thought to do was continue what she began.

“a vessel below the ground.”

The voice spoke a single forgotten word, and the entire cave became illuminated by what looked like a supercluster of twinkling stars above, shining white but radiating reds and blues and purples and greens. The ceiling went on forever in darkness, with clouds stained in colors that the surrounding stars glowed. Sara marveled at the night sky that existed inside a cave. She smiled a confused but awestruck smile, the kind that made people seem like crying and laughing at the same time. Then she found a figure stuck along the cave walls.

It had opal scales that shined various colors under the starlight. Its neck and body was long and slithery and much larger than any other adult’s Sara had ever seen. It had two pairs of limbs along its body, with sharp claws that matched.

The figure was like an obsidian statue along the walls, except it was breathing and moving very slowly. It was longer than any bus Sara had ever seen and was wide enough to have swallowed a goat whole. Without moving its mouth, it spoke. “Tell me your name, little one.”

Sara took a step back, afraid and curious at the same time. She looked at its round ebony head, with snake eyes that stared back at her. Its forked tongue flicked for a second and was gone the next. This must be it, Sara thought to herself. She was convinced this was the monster that Salaya wanted her to slay. And it really was one; it was massive and reptilian and could kill her in an instant. Yet it fascinated her the same way that old pictures did, mixed with the sensation of being so close to a massive beast.

“You tell me who you are first.” Sara took off her glove and cautiously stepped forward.

“It does not matter, my name. It’s not something someone so young must worry about.” The monster’s upper half crawled down from the walls and slithered closer to Sara.

Sara thought of a name to give the monster. “Annabeth,” she said. A character from her book.

“Do not lie, little one.”

Sara grew pale. “That’s unfair.” Sara did her best to convince her legs not to run away. “I wouldn’t know what to call you if you didn’t tell me.”

“You have a point.” Sara felt its warm breath that smelled like the first rain. “Then you are free to refer to me as ‘the monster,’ for that is the name you’d be most comfortable with.”

Sara looked at the monster curiously and took another cautious step forward.

“Now tell me, little one. What is yours?”

She held back her tongue for a second. “Sara,” she admitted.

Something in her left hand twitched. She knew she had to, but couldn’t get herself to do so. I can’t be afraid, she thought to herself. I’m so close already. She also had never truly wrapped her head around the “slaying” aspect of her quest. She understood that she had to fight, but she couldn’t fully consider ending a life. She wouldn’t even have a duel with the monster. It would just be her touching his scales, and it would be over. So quickly and unromantically, without mercy.

“A lovely name, that one.” The monster’s head moved to her side and then behind her, his body following suit. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“No, I’m not.”

“There isn’t any need to hide it. Everyone becomes afraid of me once they enter my cave. Most run away. A select few stay long enough for us to have a chat.”

Sara was already shaking, but she stood her ground. She didn’t want to disappoint Salaya, who had called her courageous.

“Why did you come here, Sara?”

“I . . .” She scrambled for some sort of reason. “I was lost and j-just found your tree, and then I—”

“No one finds this place without reason, Sara.” The monster’s head was in front of her again as its neck and body surrounded her, not in the way snakes constricted their prey, but it felt like it. Cold sweat dripped from Sara’s brow, and she pushed her arms closer to herself. Something in her left hand twitched again. “Do not even think about lying to me once more. Why are you here?”

“I’m here to slay you, monster.” She looked at him in his massive eyes. She had to do it. She didn’t know why she was so convinced, but she had to. “Salaya sent me.”

The monster’s tongue flicked again. His eyes showed that he was disappointed, but not surprised. He turned away from her and slithered back onto the walls. As his body went past Sara, she noticed that he had a few scales that had fallen off, and some were no longer shiny. One limb was simply being dragged along.

“I am old, Sara. I have been old for the past twelve centuries. I would say that I am too old to bother with fighting you, and the rules disallow such an act, as well. If it is truly what you want, then so be it.”

Sara remembered Salaya’s words. That they are bound by rules not to harm each other.

“Why does she want you gone?”

“Because I refuse to let her change.” His head turned to her, and he flicked his tongue. “She and I, we’re both creatures of the first light. She wants to become an ancient of happy wishes and blossoming flowers and pleasant music.”

“Isn’t she already?” Sara was confused, and not only because she couldn’t truly understand what the monster said about what they both were. “She already is all that. She gave me ice cream, and she’s beautiful, and she plays beautiful music, and—”

“All a façade.” Sara grew silent. She didn’t, or simply refused to, understand the monster. “All so that she could lure children, like you, closer to her, so that they may eat from her table.”

Sara remembered the fairies yelping on her first night with Salaya, when she was just about to eat her first spoon of double Dutch. “What happens when I eat from her table?”

“As her guest, she must offer you food. As your host, you must fulfill a boon. Those are the rules.”

“Another rule,” Sara muttered to herself. Now she understood why it was so difficult for her to say no to Salaya. “Why couldn’t you just let her change? It sounds like she just wants to be better.”

“If you refuse, then she is granted the chance to harm you in any way she pleases.” The cave fell silent for a moment. Sara remembered the weapon entering her, and she wondered what else Salaya could have done to her. “The last child she sent to me—”

“Last child?”

“Yes. You aren’t the first she gave this quest to, and you wouldn’t be the last unless you succeed. They usually run away in fear, but sometimes, they learn the truth first before turning on her.”

Sara felt a pang in her heart. She thought she was the only one that Salaya had chosen. Hearing that she was just one among many victims, she began to despise Salaya. She suffered to receive the weapon, thinking it was just for her. She wondered if she wasn’t really courageous and kindhearted and was simply tricked into thinking so.

“What did she do to the last one?”

“She turned him into a mouse. Others, she turned into flowers or insects or birds. The ones she was particularly fond of became her floral fairies. And if you return to her without my tongue, she’ll turn you into something else as well.”

Sara’s eyed widened. She felt her heart pounding in her chest.

“What should I do then?” She grew frustrated. “All these stupid rules. I don’t even know about any of them, but I have to follow them?” Her breathing became rushed and irregular. She only wanted adventure. She only wanted to experience a thrill like those in storybooks and fantasy novels. She was supposed to find a castle with a prince or fight an evil witch. This was all so complicated and difficult, and she was caught right in the middle of it all.

“To break the rules, you must understand them.”

Sara looked at the monster expectantly. After the monster whispered something into the ground, a little plant began to grow on the dirt below them. It was a low plant with round leaves. Then, as it continued to grow, small red strawberries grew wonderfully ripe and plump.

“It may be a bit late for me to offer food to my guest, but please, take one.”

Sara remembered the rules, and thought that the monster had some sort of clever plan so that she wouldn’t have to use the weapon on him anymore. So she plucked a strawberry and chomped it down. It was very juicy, but it was rather tart. It wasn’t better than the ones at the grocery store. For a moment, she remembered Salaya’s food to be better, but then again, they were supposed to be perfectly delicious.

“Now hold out your right hand with the palm facing upward.”

Sara refused, afraid that the monster would hurt her like Salaya.

“I am not the woman, Sara. I won’t hurt you.”

She reluctantly followed, and then the monster whispered something to the night sky. A star flew down and buzzed onto Sara’s open palm. It glowed brightly and radiated a purple hue but was no larger than a cookie. She felt very tiny feet tickle her palm, and she was surprised at how light it felt, as it was barely even there.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Simply meet with Salaya once again. This time, with this littler one. And give her one of those little orange lizards as well. Be careful, they’re very hot.”

“Why? What are they?”

“Elementals, Sara. You’ll understand out soon enough.”

“Okay, but . . . What about . . .” Sara waved her left hand at the monster. The star took off again and simply buzzed around them.

The monster considered his words for a moment, but then chose to be blunt. “She will know if I have died or not. You will still have to slay me.”

Her heart sank down to her stomach. She thought she wouldn’t need to anymore. She looked at her left hand and then at the monster, expecting him to take it back. “No,” she told him. “I won’t use this on you.”

It wasn’t right. The monster didn’t struggle or fight back like the Hydra or the Jabberwock. He didn’t curse children or destroy castles. He just waited in the cave, reciting poems under the stars. She wouldn’t have felt like a hero for defeating the monster. She’d just be like Patricia Chuy, who once shouted at and killed a spider just because it was on her table.

“Sara, I am no longer supposed to be in this world. My prime was a millennia ago. I am simply waiting for my time, and I need not wait longer if you would simply give me this chance.”

“If you wanted to die already, why didn’t you just let all the other children do it?”

“They would have taken my tongue to her.”

“How do you know I won’t?”

“For I know that you are kind.”

Sara remembered Salaya the same thing. She thought that the monster was just using her again. “How do you know?! We’ve only met each other now!”

“Because even as you learned that Salaya has tricked you into doing something wrong, you had not wondered about using her own weapon against her.”

Sara stood silent for a moment. “You don’t have to die here.” She hid her left hand behind her. “I’ll bring the star and the lizard to Salaya, and then we could leave this cave and find you a better one.”

“That sounds splendid.” Its tongue flicked. “But I simply don’t belong anymore, Sara.” The monster’s head approached Sara, and she could feel his warm breath again.

Sara shook her head, and tears began streaming down her cheek. She was quiet but persistent in the way only children could get when things didn’t go their way. Despite that, the vines in her left hand twitched to touch the monster.

“Do not think of it as slaying me, little one. Think of it as mercy.”

Sara looked at the monster as she sobbed. “I’m ready when you are,” he told her. Slowly and hesitantly, her left hand reached to touch the monster’s snout. She felt the skin of her palm burst open as the dark and cold vines sprouted out and surrounded the monster. She could feel them leaving her arm, and her right hand gripped her wrist. She did her best not to make a peep. It wasn’t nearly as painful as when it had entered her, but it did still hurt.

The monster simply allowed the vines to engulf him, leaving only its head. He pressed his snout farther into Sara’s palm. “Thank you, Sara Zambata. You have fulfilled your first quest. Now fulfill your next.” Sara jerked her head up and down.

“I will,” she declared. She had accepted her next quest.

The blazing sun, abandoning

a vessel below the ground.

The monster’s eyes closed. The vines suddenly tightened, and she could no longer feel his warm breath. She felt sad in a way that she hadn’t felt before. It was a silent sadness that was heavy and unpleasant on the chest. She wiped away her tears and simply stood there. She didn’t know why, but it felt right to stand in silence just for a while.

The star flew and buzzed around Sara as she walked toward the tunnel. She reached for one of the glowing lizards with her right hand, but quickly jerked away. It was like touching still-hot charcoal. With her gloved hand, she picked up the lizard, and it curled peacefully on her palm. Her hand could still feel the warmth through the glove. Sara looked back at the creature in the cave, took a deep breath, and then headed out.

It was already nighttime when she had left the tunnels and got out of the tree. “Mama would be worried sick by now,” she muttered to herself. She just kept walking in the direction she believed to be her way back home. She couldn’t tell when, but all the large and twisted and silent trees just disappeared behind her, and she was surrounded by the same trees that she was familiar with. The star buzzed above her, and the lizard slept on her palm.

After a few minutes of walking, she heard small and almost squeaky voices.

“Sara,” shouted Red. “Sara,” repeated Blue. She turned to them, and they floated right up to her. When the star buzzed past them, Sara caught a glimpse of two girls, both about her age. They wore dresses that matched their colors and floated in the air.

“Is Salaya looking for me?”

“She is,” confirmed Red. “She really wants to see you,” added Blue. The star buzzed past again, and Sara noticed that they had patches of skin all over that had become cracked and woody, like tree bark. Their eyes were still bright and cheerful, but they were too shiny and seemed too unnatural.

Sara took a step back, and she remembered that she had not taken the monster’s tongue, but she was quickly able to think of something.

“Take me to her then.”

The fairies gave an enthusiastic nod, and they floated away. Sara ran after them. Once they disappeared and Sara could hear the music from Salaya’s flute, she stood completely still. Her heart was pounding, and her hands were trembling, which the glowing lizard didn’t like. She looked at it for a moment, and it looked back at her.

“You should probably stay here for now.” She took off the glove while turning it inside out so that the lizard was inside, and she placed it into her pocket. “And you need to turn off for a while.”

The star gave an unhappy buzz.

“She might suspect something if she finds out I brought anything else but the tongue.”

It gave a low buzz and landed on Sara’s palm. She felt the star’s tiny legs dance frantically before the light died down. A small purple beetle rested on her palm. Her mind went through a moment of brief confusion, and then immediate acceptance that stars are just glowing bugs. She wondered where to keep it for a moment.

Sara brought her hand to her shoulder. “Hide in my hair,” she told the beetle, and it simply crawled into her messy mop. She felt it crawl around for a few seconds before it settled. After a deep breath, Sara followed the music, which had seemed much louder than the previous nights. Listening to it now, after what she’d learned, she felt like a mouse being lured by the Pied Piper.

“When I call for you, do what you’re supposed to do, okay?”

There was a short buzz of agreement.

There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. Once she reached the clearing, she paused for a few moments before approaching Salaya, who was playing cheerfully on her dark stone. The fairies floated beside her.

The moon was still listening to her play, but it was now only half.

Once the music stopped playing, Salaya turned to her visitor with a very excited smile across her face, as if she were about to receive a supposedly surprise present but somehow found out.

“Do you have it, Sara?”

“I do.” She took out the balled-up glove from her pocket and held it tightly.

Salaya jumped from the stone. Her dress flowed gently around her, and she landed right in front of Sara gently, as if a breeze cushioned her feet. She bent down and presented her open palm to Sara.

“Well, let me have it.” She smiled such an obviously fake smile that Sara felt a bit insulted.

“Why? I thought it was my token?”

Sara could tell Salaya was simply holding back her frustration. “I need it child, more than you would think.” She moved her shaking hand closer to Sara’s. “Now be a good girl and let me have it.”

Sara took a deep breath. “I need you to grant me a wish first, as your champion.”

Her eyebrow twitched. Salaya sighed an annoyed sigh and stood properly with her hand on her hip. “What is it?”

“I want to have all three of your fairies.”

Salaya chuckled. “So he told you what I’d do if you came back empty-handed?”

“Yes.”

“And yet you still followed through.” She grinned. “You’re good at choosing sides.”

“Will I have them or not?”

“Ooh, such persistence. I like it.” Salaya turned to the two fairies. “Go with her then.” Red and Blue cautiously floated beside Sara.

“Where’s the white one?”

Salaya rolled her eyes, and then she unlatched her bracelet. She dropped it, but before it reached the ground, the white flowers bloomed into a white fairy that rushed to embrace Red and Blue, as if she’d been a bracelet for years.

“I have no use for them anymore,” Salaya remarked. She presented her open palm again, and her fingers motioned to have the tongue. “Now give it to me.”

Sara dropped the glove on her palm, and took a step back.

“Yes!” Salaya held the glove by her fingertips, and she felt something squishy and long inside. She then raised it up against the dark half of the moon. “After all this time,” she shouted at the night sky. “I have your power!” She laughed a satisfied and disturbingly witch-like laugh. “With this, I’ll finally be able to—oh, you’re still here.”

“Yes. I just . . . The fairies.”

Salaya smirked. “Just because I gave them to you doesn’t mean I’ll change them back.”

Sara frowned. “The monster was right. You really are ugly and rotten and all the bad stuff he said about you.”

“You little—”

Salaya raised her hand and was about to hit Sara, but she called out “Star!” before she was struck.

The purple beetle quickly buzzed from her hair and flew up. When it had everyone’s attention, it flashed very briefly but so brightly that it burned away the veil of magic that Salaya had so carefully woven over the whole clearing. Everything looked the way it truly was now.

When Sara could see properly again, she found that the fairies were now the ghostly children like they were earlier. The ground was completely barren, littered with what looked like rotten pieces of cloth and chunks of wood. The table and chairs that they had eaten on were now just splintery pieces of wood that were nailed together, and the covered platter was rusty and bent all over.

“You sneaky little twerp,” growled a voice.

The voice was loud and ancient and irritated. It sounded like countless other voices speaking in unison, and when it finished talking, feint groans from somewhere deep echoed.

“So you and the old goon had a plan, eh?”

Sara turned to face Salaya, but she didn’t find her. Instead, there was an old woman that stood crooked but was as tall as a house. Her skin was gray and wrinkled and scratched. Her eyes were jaundiced with deformed pupils. She was completely covered in rotting sheets of cloth in such a manner that only her face could be seen.

Sara turned away and ran away as fast as she could, the ghostly children floating behind her. A dark vine crawled out from under Salaya’s sheets of cloth and shot itself toward Sara. It caught her by the leg and dragged her back. Sara scratched at the dirt and flailed and struggled, to no avail.

“Help me!” she shouted.

The three children rushed after her, with White taking the lead. The three of them grabbed her hand and did their best to pull, which didn’t even slow her down.

“What’s next then? What did he tell you to do after? Don’t tell me that was it.” Salaya laughed a wretched laugh. “You can’t escape, Sara. I’ve never lost a child before.”

When Sara was close, limbs made of rotten and splintery wood protruded from the cloth. One of them smacked the fairies away, while the rest lifted Sara up.

Sara was brought face to face with Salaya’s excited and contorted smile. She was less than an arm’s length from the large and wrinkly face.

“Did you want to see me like this?” Salaya asked. “Do you see why I need that tongue? To truthfully beautiful as—”

Sara punched her yellow eye, and the massive woman flinched. She growled with only one eye open.

“I’ve never eaten a child before, although I’ve always been curious. But first, an appetizer.” Salaya tore the glove open with wooden limbs, and she was surprised to find a small bright red lizard plop out and scurried its way into Salaya’s sheets.

Like an adult approached by a cockroach, Salaya began to panic when the lizard reached her. The limbs dropped Sara, and they flailed uncontrollably while the old woman began coughing up smoke. The fairies cushioned her fall so that she landed on her feet, and then they ran toward the edge of the clearing. As she ran, Sara could hear Salaya shouting in countless voices, and when she turned, she found Salaya looking at her as well.

“Help me,” Salaya groaned. Small embers began to ignite all over her rotten sheets, which soon grew to slowly engulf her in a large flame and black smoke. Sara could feel the heat of the fire despite her distance, and she could smell the polluted odor.

Once all the cloth had been burnt out, Sara could only distinguish Salaya’s wooden frame in the fire. She was no longer coughing or shouting or groaning. Only the fire just kept crackling. Occasionally, a wooden slab would fall over, tiny embers flying. It was now just a massive bonfire. Sara just stood quietly for a moment. She felt like she needed to. Then she turned around and left the clearing for good.

“Please take me home,” she told the fairies.

The fairies led her back. Police sirens flashed red and blue in front of the house, and as soon as a policeman spotted her, he told everyone else and then spoke into his radio.

Mama and Tita Mitchel rushed to embrace Sara immediately. They both had been crying, and were both crying again. Sara didn’t realize how cold she felt until Mama held her as tightly as a mother ever could. “I was worried sick,” she said. “Where were you?”

Sara didn’t know what to say or where to begin. In trying to find her words, she simply began tearing up and sobbing as well. It was all over.

As she was brought into the house, the fairies stayed with the trees. Their eyes were once again like the eyes of children, and the bark on their skin began to peel off. They were themselves again, but their bodies had long since vanished. They’re simply ghosts, roaming and guiding children back to their home, as an apology for all the children they’d brought to Salaya.

Years went on, and the memories of Salaya and the monster and the fairies became simple dreams to Sara, a fantasy she would sometimes revisit when she would become too bored in class or dream about writing her own book, if only she could find the time. Mama never had to tell her what happened between them and Papa. She was able to figure it out on her own, in the way that teenagers figured these things out on their own.

She had a pet rat once, too. Maybe pet was too strong a word. It was more a visitor that she would sometimes share her food with. It had a white coat, and Sara often worried that, when it hadn’t visited in a long time, maybe a cat had gotten to it. She would always be overjoyed to see it again.

Sara hadn’t been to the woods on her own in a long time. Her left arm still ached sometimes.

Happy Hours Are for Happy Endings

By Innah Johanee Alaman
Fiction

It was searing hot outside when Babygirl had to go rush to the city hall unkempt, with no eyebrows on, wearing only her fitting red duster that squeezed her forty-year-old curves. Harried and desperate, she had been hailing vehicles for almost half an hour already, and her flailing arms were starting to hurt. Her lower back ached as the heels of her wedges pushed her butt up and outward. The old woman sighed as the tricycles sped past her, past the waiting shed where she stood, and past the concrete road before her that writhed under the lash of the noonday heat.

That sweltering summer noon in May, Babygirl had been massaging a bald man’s head in Boomtown club downtown of General Santos City when her entire place shook as the city’s demolition team dragged their crane and wrecking ball outside her property. A cloud of hot dust wafted through their broken door. Inside, the family’s picture frames, posters, curtains, wall clock, plates, mugs, and figurines trembled and jumped out of their places as the feeble walls quaked along with the floor. Everyone inside Babygirl’s run-down club stood wide-eyed in muted panic. She was about to storm out and bonk the crane driver’s head with a broken china, but an eviction notice held up against her face stopped her.

Department of the City Engineering Office

Dear Ms. Begonia:

In line with the city’s renovation of Pioneer Avenue, you are hereby ordered to terminate your residency at the property owned by the government of General Santos City. Willingly comply on or before the demolition time: 12 noon of May 1.

The reason for this eviction notice is: your failure to pay property tax due in ten years, interest included. A demand for payment was made every six months, in May and December, which you have refused forwarding the necessary amount accumulating to eight hundred thousand pesos (PhP 800,000) with the tax interest worth one hundred and fifty thousand pesos (PhP 150,000).

Signed by the City Mayor

And the Ling Xi Holdings Corporation      

It really had to be her, Babygirl thought. She had to be the one who’d leave their house atop the nightclub lounge at the mercy of heavy machinery downtown on Pioneer Avenue. The lives that depended on Boomtown: from the lives of the stray dogs and cats she took in to the girls she supported, their shelter, sustenance, and safety—all these depended on her. No, not Lolita, Recolita, or the younger girls like Chisska, Klowie, or Chilsea, but it really had to be her. Babygirl, the saucy and bold Boomtown club manager, had just turned forty this year. For years, she enjoyed her certain fame as the single mother who took in troubled women in Gensan.

When situation in their homes became dire or violent, girls fled and sought shelter in Boomtown, as it was never closed for a sister. Like how Virgie, raped by her own father in Barangay Calumpang at sixteen, left her home after her mother sided with her rapist father. Chisska came to Boomtown after being severely beaten by her husband. Recolita, the thirty-year-old woman left by her husband for being barren, also found her way to the club. Klowie, almost choked to death after refusing to kneel and go down on her boss, left her housemaid work in Koronadal. Kemberly stopped going to school when her boyfriend left her pregnant, and Babygirl, the now old matron, helped her raise her son. Their gay sister Milkita left Purok Malakas when the brothers she raised and sent to school stole all her money and ran off to gamble. All these and more were stories Babygirl knew by heart. Twenty years—Boomtown put up and stood against the rages of time, and still the stories were the same.

As a seasoned private entertainer, several men offered to buy Babygirl’s hand in marriage. Even the fairly young city mayor used to call her up at midnight during stressful nights at the office and at home. But for the past five years, Babygirl refused. She had more important things to do than fulfill Mayor Biboy’s desire for a mature woman’s paid service to his manhood. During midnight, Babygirl had to act as her own club’s bouncer to scare off the unruly drunkards. Only this time, Babygirl had to seek the city mayor’s attention again lest her family of girls end up sleeping on the streets by dusk. Worse, without the alluring lights on, no one might even pick her or the girls up.

Out here on the sidewalk, Babygirl raised her head high, sighed, and raked through her greasy hair. She wished her “Sirboy,” her once little boy, still cared for her.

“It doesn’t matter,” muttered Babygirl to herself, “all I need is to talk to Mayor Biboy and it will all be well.”

And it was true; one meeting with the mayor was all Babygirl Begonia needed to keep Boomtown to herself, as it was since the ’90s. The city mayor, yes! Old ties for the old realty blues, she guessed. She was his “’Te Babygirl” after all—the nurse who raised the mayor since he was a boy, the older sisterlike maid who served him well during his teenage years. She looked over her shoulder and stared at Boomtown. At the heart of the city center’s pioneer area, between a bank and a Chinese mall, Boomtown stood on top of a two-million-peso lot.

One meeting with Sirboy, and she could flick the demolition team away—flick their forehead with a wooden sandal or something. Most of these construction workers, along with the cops, were Babygirl’s paying patrons of “Happy Hours Are for Happy Endings” promo, customers of shave, massage, and pedicure. Even that obese crane driver availed himself of her foot spa and nail art services just a week ago. The old woman hissed in contempt. She could not believe them. Someone turned these men against her.

It was the Intsik in suits again, thought Babygirl, and their demolition threat. Their threat came in a graver form this time—with a wrecking ball.

Sure, she abhorred them, but Babygirl could not help but feel fascinated with how these men seized her lifelong property using only ink, paper, and money. Babygirl could not imagine acquiring so much wealth in a foreign country such as China only to kick out a poor family to put up a bodega. Babygirl spat on the concrete road. Out of the many unoccupied lots in the city, the Chinese investors chose her home—chose to develop Boomtown by destroying it. Sleek, shiny, and smooth, these men from the Ling Xi Corporation looked like plastic figures inside a dainty dollhouse, too flawless they almost looked fake. Of what originally used to be a dump site, Babygirl received this property in the ’80s as a gift from the mayor then, the father of current mayor Biboy. When his wife left him for an Afro-American foreigner, Babygirl remained to serve the household in unique ways: as a stay-in housemaid, unofficial wife and mother, and an on-call sex worker to both men. Up to this date, Babygirl never felt ashamed owning up to the arrangement as it earned her a two-hundred-square-meter lot in ten years. Born out of a political dynasty, the mayor’s late father had no problems giving away a parcel of land they controlled for decades.

That Biboy could not kick me out of my house. I campaigned for him at the club, at the market, at the church, at every curb, at every barbershop, and office downtown! So he could win! Even if no one wanted his gambling ass in the office! Babygirl’s nose flared.

People could talk, but Babygirl Begonia knew in her heart Boomtown was the ex-mayor’s payment in gratitude for her unpaid services. And truthfully, if it weren’t for the girls in her parlor who became their wives, the truck drivers and merchants in the ’80s would not have settled down in this sunbaked and barren coastal city. Only the thorny dadiangas tree thrived here, thus the old name of the city. But that was then, and this is General Santos City now. Boomtown became a part of the city’s old memory that the young Mayor Biboy wished to bury. To make way for the high-rise buildings, people, houses, and trees were uprooted like grass roots on a fine summer day. And the folks, not in their duster dress or ukay-ukay shorts, but those in their white-collar tux, those Ling Xi investors rich enough to sit on anyone’s land, owned their houses and properties. With only one hundred pesos in her pocket, Babygirl feared her chances were slim against the Chinese investors. Yet she could not let Boomtown slip away.

Now, Babygirl, standing by the roadside still waiting for a jeepney, worried no one even remembered, much less knew, about her home’s humble beginnings. No one knew how she built it from scratch, how she fought for it for years. Boomtown, the old unpretentious cathouse in the city, was her family of girls’ home since the ’90s.

“Do you even know where your clit is?” Babygirl Begonia used to ask the new applicant in the nightclub. The other listening girls would jeer laughing, hugging their still-shy new sister who would blush, unable to locate her lady parts. “Oh, learn your body first! Your vagina! Learn it! Own it!” She found out that most girls never knew what to find within their womanly flesh. “Locate your clit!” ordered the bodacious matron. “Don’t come here and expect that you can make a man or anyone happy if you don’t even know how to make yourself happy!”

In the morning, while the girls offered manicure and pedicure services, waited tables, tailored clothes, and continued their works as a saleslady, cashier, street food vendor, cook, and laundrywoman, Babygirl knocked on every establishment downtown to sell home-cooked meal during lunch. She also offered back and head massage to office clerks and drivers on their break.

Now if the nightclub was to be demolished, where would they go home at dusk? Where would the girls sleep? Where would they hold their karaoke nights? They couldn’t go back to their old homes. It would be far too dangerous.

“It doesn’t matter,” Babygirl huffed. “I will to talk to Mayor Biboy. He can’t resist me.”

Babygirl pulled up her low-hanging duster. She figured she might have to make a deal with the devil. Babygirl imagined herself casually flirting like in the old times, saying, Yes, still happily single, Sirboy, still taking care of the girls, sending their children to school. Right, she still loved shopping at thrift stores. But it wasn’t like she lost half a million gambling and buying guns for her collection display, like he always did. There was just a lot of stuff the girls needed to buy. Yes, reason why she was a little behind the lease, ten years.

The old woman held her breath and practiced faltering her voice into a sob. But the Chinese mall owner, Sir Biboy? He never stopped threatening the girls into giving up Boomtown. He made up lies about the gas leak, termites, and even child trafficking in the club. He wanted the lot so badly that now mad, the Intsik brought a wrecking ball with him. The old woman could fake a sob, but she could not deny that losing her home crushed her inside.

Who would help her now—Mayor Biboy? Her Sirboy? The old woman worried. Would he still care for his ’Te Babygirl, his old sister and nanny?

Bedraggled, sweating, and distraught, Babygirl got on the first jeepney that stopped in front of her. The driver did warn her, however, that his last stop was still blocks away from the city hall. Babygirl just nodded, without even understanding what the driver hollered at the front seat. She just felt grateful that a jeepney finally picked her up. Clearing the highways, tricycle drivers joined the protest-mass at the oval plaza. The demonstration was for the victims of the ongoing war against drugs, they said, of the lawless killings in town by vigilantes and policemen in civilian clothing. How long had it been since Babygirl stood there by the sidewalk—ten minutes? Her veined legs twitched no. It felt like an hour. She wasn’t sure. Babygirl would have joined the protest rally, but they weren’t just the innocent victims. Boomtown was about to be put down too. And her daughters needed her.

Sitting on the rear end of the jeepney, the aging woman looked past the sidewalk where Boomtown club stood. Construction workers and engineers in hard hats walked about Pioneer Avenue, ready to take down any grubby building. The old woman clutched the jeepney railings tighter. From afar, the downtown area was a blur of urban stalls. It took years of being in the city before Babygirl Begonia learned it—the paved Pioneer Avenue made way for the uniformed crooks to mix and compete with the lowly street crooks. Above, the lamp posts on the side of the roads looked like tall lean guards staring down at the people, watching in silence—the bleak city under their constant surveillance.

Ate Babygirl,” Kemberly, one of the girls, once asked her, “Will the Intsik take our home?” Babygirl used to always assure the girls saying, “Over my dead, sexy, and juicy body.” She’d laugh along with the girls, certain of her own words.

Babygirl wished she could still keep her promise this time.

Comforted by the shade inside the jeepney, Babygirl stretched out and leaned back, letting her eyes wander inside the rusty, sputtering jeep. Colorful tassels, pictures of Jesus and Virgin Mary, words like katas ng dubai, free ride for girls who can ride, beware of pickpockets, and in god we trust graced the interior of the jeepney. She fanned herself, yawned, and squinted at the diabolical sun outside. It relieved her to see that the sun was still at its peak. Babygirl only had until the afternoon to cover the lease, or make the mayor postpone the date of demolition at least.

Then it crossed her mind again. She pressed her temples, furious in remembering Chisska’s maddening recklessness that put the family into ruins. Chisska was this new girl in Boomtown—a wife of nineteen battered out of jealousy by her thirty-year-old husband.

“It’s not my fault I still have suitors even with a baby bump,” Chisska complained. “I never even cheat like he does.” When Chisska first came to Boomtown, Babygirl had to stay awake all night, guarding her and placing an ice bag against her bruised rib cage. Poor girl. But if it wasn’t for Chisska’s stupid decision not to open the eviction letter (thinking it was one of her suitors’ or husband’s letters again), the matriarch would have attended the tax evasion trial against them. Babygirl would have hired an attorney to explain why they were years late in paying the property tax.

Babygirl was sure the judge would have pitied them and understood the girls’ needs especially if that famous Judge Jamora were to work on her case. That woman fully understood how much nine women spent monthly on sanitary napkins alone—the mammogram tests too, Kemberly’s caesarian section, contraceptives, and the vaccines that kept the girls safe—everything. But no, Chisska, the brightest of them all, just had to throw the letters away before Babygirl had the chance to open them.

“What did I tell you, Inday Chisska!” cried Babygirl as she shook the young lady when they faced the final demolition notice.

“That tax collectors are pigs, that they take people’s properties, their hands only dirty at work when they wipe their ass and mouth full of shit,” said Chisska in all seriousness that struck everyone in horror. The men in polo shirts who handed the demolition notice sucked their cheek in contempt. The old woman Babygirl apologetically flushed in disgrace.

“No! Not that, amaw!” Babygirl bonked the beauty’s head with a backscratcher.

“I meant the part where you have to watch out for the tax collectors’ letters, you idiot!”

A bump on the road shook the old woman awake, taking her out from her reverie. She was about to ask the jeepney driver to drop her at the nearest police station by the city hall when she noticed that everyone in the jeep was staring at her. The passengers inside were old women in black, their gold rosaries gleaming as the sunlight hit them at the right angle. The jeepney was already off the road.

“Where are we heading?” whispered Babygirl to the old woman sitting next to her.

“To Uhaw public cemetery. Didn’t you know?” squeaked the woman in front of her. “Are you the mistress of Leopoldo?” she added. “The tokhang victim we will be burying?”

Babygirl shook her head no, heavily tapped the metal jeepney outside, and screamed, “Lugar lang,” to which the vehicle stopped and lurched forward like it was taking its last dying heave. She peered outside and it was confirmed. A funeral car was up ahead. Inside the decrepit jeepney were old mourning ladies paid to pray the rosary for the untimely death of Leopoldo. Babygirl Begonia’s red tight-fitting duster looked sacrilegious next to their black veiled dresses. Babygirl bit her lip as she realized she was now even farther from the city hall. She left, ran in her wooden wedged slippers, and hailed an empty tricycle.

“City hall, fifty pesos, please take me there,” she said, still catching her breath.

“Make it one hundred, since you’re alone,” the driver replied.

“Rip-off!” barked Babygirl, her mouth almost frothing. “I’m from Gensan too! Don’t fool me! I’m just as poor as you are. Why are you taking advantage of me? We both know it only costs ten pesos if I take a multicab!”

“Do you see any multicabs?” said the gaunt driver. “They’re out on a strike. You’re even lucky you have me. And fine, fifty. But we’ll take more passengers on the way.”

The summer sun already simmered down when Babygirl reached the stair steps of the city hall. A long line of people greeted her. She stood on her toes and realized that the line reached the parking lot. These were the people trying to talk to the mayor and to the public lawyers for free legal advice. Babygirl was given the priority number 86, to which she protested.

“But I’m old and sickly.” Babygirl faked coughs, cowered, and convulsed with half-closed eyes, looking as if she was in pain. The young assistant who received her hissed, shook her head, and led her to the senior citizen priority lane. There she thirstily gulped down three glasses—free samplings of the powdered guyabano juice advertised at the city hall. Babygirl burped and wiped off her mouth with the back of her hand after the promo boy refused to refill her cup.

She looked at the people beside her. Everyone was murmuring, looking miserable and sick—cheeks hollow and the corner of their dry mouths caked with faint traces of guyabano juice. Most of them seemed to have come from the poorer neighborhoods of the town. Faded hats, crummy slippers, tattered shirt, ripped shorts. Babygirl felt that, just like her, they were aching to be heard. She craned her neck and saw the wall clock strike three. She furiously fanned herself, vexed by the unmoving line.

“Where are the government officials, their workers when we need them! I need to talk to the mayor! My house—”

“They’re on a lunch break,” an old lady in rain boots said to Babygirl as she tugged her dress to make her sit down. “Mareng, here, have some of my biscuit.”

“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” Babygirl fumed in exasperation. “And what lunch! It’s way past their lunch break! Three PM! I need to talk to the mayor. I know him!”

“Ma’am, stay in your place.” The guard’s deep voice startled her. He blocked her way with his humungous body.

“No, I just need to see Mayor Biboy, and he will make time just to talk to me. I’m important to him, I promise.” A slight push from the guard’s hand made her falter and feel dizzy. Babygirl backed off. She had not eaten yet. A young female assistant led her back to her chair as she tried to regain her balance.

“It would be unfair if you would just barge in while these people before you waited,” she finally spoke. Babygirl shut her eyes tight, necessitating the immediate need of guardian angels to stop the desperate tears from brimming in her eyes. What she missed to see was how the younger women got past the glass door, into the mayor’s office, unhindered.

“I just wanted to see the mayor,” she whined. “He would love to see me and help me. He would love to do anything for me.” No one listened to her. Babygirl poked the leg of her seatmate sleepily waiting for her turn.

“You know, the mayor and his father loved me before,” Babygirl whispered to her, loud enough that the man in front of them turned his head to gossip. “Yes, both of them, they loved me, their housemaid,” continued Babygirl. “Ever heard of a woman ligated for her employer’s convenience?” She threw her head back, wiped the tears at the corner of her eyes, and laughed. “Silly, I couldn’t take it. I left him and his father.”

The people within earshot around Babygirl eyed her from head to toe. In response, she curled her feet to hide her dead toenail. They were trying not to look and listen to her, but Babygirl helped them by talking a little louder this time. “You know Mayor Biboy’s father loved me still even after. He bribed the barangay captain to side with me against the Intsik’s complaint about my business.” Babygirl’s seatmate leaned back and looked at her incredulously. Babygirl nodded and continued pouring out her troubles. “That Intsik got mad I sold women. I didn’t even get mad he sold expired food in his mall. Did I use the diarrhea I suffered from his noodles against him? No! I never badmouthed him, yet he used my girls and customers against me. And we only sold beer and karaoke songs!”

“Yeah, but it’s a nightclub,” replied the woman with a straight face. “And I’ve seen kids playing there outside in the morning.”

Babygirl’s face sank. “It’s only a nightclub at night,” she whispered to herself. “It’s a house in the morning.” After a beat, her voice sounded serious and faint. “God knows I never let the men touch, let alone see, the children. Never.”

The old and tired Babygirl raised her eyes and stared blankly at the mayor’s frosted glass door. Babygirl was afraid it was only she who knew the truth behind Boomtown. It was a place of refuge for men and women after a long day of labor. “Happy Hours Are for Happy Endings” she called that promo.

“Silly Intsik. I will never give up my girls’ home for him.”

The thought of her girls alone kept Babygirl going. She talked to the other people in line and learned that they camped out to meet the mayor, that seemingly higher being behind the giant frosted door. Babygirl learned that most of the people outside had lost their homes in the Build Build Project of the mayor. And suspiciously, fire broke out in many slum areas all at once. The burnt houses had to be ripped out from the ground, cleared immediately. It was not just Boomtown after all. The old woman felt her chest tighten, as if someone was wringing her heart from the inside.

“It does not matter,” Babygirl assured herself. “I just have to talk to him.”

Yet Babygirl could not deny the pounding in her chest as the line grew shorter and shorter, with every second of the clock ticking by.

Babygirl reached the end of the line in front of the frosted door by 6 PM. At the same moment, the mayor in his polo shirt and black slacks walked out of his office, as if in a hurry.

“Sirboy, it’s me! Ate Babygirl!” the old woman jumped out of her chair and grinned upon seeing her now grown charge. She wanted to kiss and hug him just like the old times, but he turned away and walked back to his office upon seeing Babygirl. She followed him. Inside, she saw two young women on the couch sleeping. They looked comfortable disheveled and covered in sheets. With the cold temperature of the room, Babygirl would have mistaken the room for a motel too.

“And your problem, ’Te Babygirl?” the mayor asked with his arms crossed.

Babygirl was about to say something rude, but she held back her tongue. She stiffened her wobbly knees and softened her voice instead. “Sirboy, the Intsik is back at it again. He will destroy my house this time. Please help me, Mayor, please. My girls are in danger.”

The thirty-year-old mayor, with his fly down, simply stared at her.

“You know it’s mine, Sirboy. It’s your father’s payment to me. You just never signed the legal paperwork that says I already paid the land title, like your father would have wanted you to.”

The mayor was not listening—his eyes were fixated on the sweaty shoulders of her ex-housemaid. At forty, Babygirl’s voluptuous curves spilled over her tight duster. Growing up with her, the mayor could still clearly remember the contours of her body.

Hoy, Sirboy! Mayor Biboy!” the old woman called out to him. “What are you doing to Boomtown? Do I have to beg to keep my own house? My own house?”

“On your knees?” snapped Mayor Biboy with a sidelong grin.

It took every ounce of control for Babygirl not to hurl the couch toward the mayor. He was not taking her seriously. “On my knees!” Babygirl seethed. “As every woman who needed your help here must—beg on her knees.”

The mayor rushed to the door and double-checked the lock.

“And what would the people say, Mayor Biboy? That every woman here that is not your mother must beg on your knees?” exclaimed Babygirl.

“’Te Begurl, calm down! The Ling Xi Corporation has already paid me plenty to have a place in my city. Go somewhere. You’ll find a new home, trust me.”

Trust you. Babygirl clenched her fist, wanting to swing it across his face. “You can’t do this. That was your father’s payment to me. Your payment to me.”

Babygirl’s wild auburn hair made her look like a lioness about to pounce on the mayor. Mayor Biboy felt this, carefully flinching away from the furious Babygirl. He hurriedly fished out the paper bills from his pocket and asked, “How much do you need?”

“Nothing! I want my home! Boomtown!”

“Really, ’Te Babygirl. How much do you need? So you won’t have to sell your body anymore.”

The old woman looked stupefied. It took a beat before she responded. “I did not raise you that way, Biboy. Now call that Intsik and tell them to pull away the crane.”

“Will twenty thousand pesos be OK?”

“Biboy, what has gotten into you?” Babygirl clasped her chest in disbelief.

The young mayor was testing her patience. Around this time, the girls on the couch woke up. They recognized the renowned matron in town. They scampered toward the bathroom door behind them.

“Come on, ’Te Babygirl,” the mayor said. “Name your price.” He was flicking through the wads of paper bills in his wallet. “Don’t tell me you’re too expensive to buy.”

And that was it. Babygirl grabbed his collar and spat. “Talk like that to your Ate Babygirl again and I will make an earring out of your balls, Mayor Biboy.”

The mayor blinked fast in fearful surprise. He cleared his throat and fixed his polo. “I was just joking, ’Te Babygirl. How much do you need?”

“Just Boomtown, Biboy. My house!”

The mayor swallowed hard. “Boomtown has been already been taken down, ’Te Babygirl. I’m sorry, but it was not your land.”

“And neither was it yours! Or the Intsik’s!” Babygirl breathed through her noise in sheer fury. She felt like tearing the room apart.

Silence. Much to her shame, her stomach growled in full volume.

The mayor stared and shook his head. He fished for his wallet, handed Babygirl half of the thick wad of the paper bills. “I’m sorry, ’Te Babygirl. I lost a bet to the Ling Xi man. This time he wanted Boomtown.”

A tear trickled down Babygirl’s cheek. She wiped it dry, wasted no time, and grabbed the money. The mayor stopped her. He pulled her arm to see her face one more time. After his father’s death, living alone in his house, Mayor Biboy always sought her Ate Babygirl’s company at night. Yet she always refused.

Babygirl knew he still wanted her. She reached out to him and clung to him. A sigh escaped from the mayor’s lips. She hugged him, and then drew back. With no signs of protest, she slowly felt him all over. Mayor Biboy simply stood in gratitude. She rubbed her left palm against his crotch, eyes locked with his. It was easy. The mayor immediately grew in size under her caresses. He could not take his eyes off her low-hanging duster. It squeezed her ample breasts. Sensing he was in a daze, Babygirl took the chance. She fished out the rest of the bundle of money behind the Mayor’s back. The bathroom door then swung open. The two girls now fully dressed scampered toward the door. Babygirl followed them, leaving Sir Biboy alone. She did not look back.

Her lips trembled.

Boomtown has been already been taken down, ’Te Babygirl.

The old woman wept on her way home. Back in the city’s downtown area, what once stood as Boomtown club had become a pile of debris. The young group of boys in the demolition team pulled scrap metals and wood, their brown bodies bent and flexed in unison under the faint orange glow of the lamp posts. One of them said sorry to Babygirl for her loss, saying the demolition workers had no choice. They were just doing their job. But they were sorry.

From the sidewalk, Babygirl saw Chisska brandishing aggressively an umbrella and a backscratcher. She ran after the construction workers, swatting them like flies. “I’m going to demolish your houses too! I will follow you home, all of you!!”

Kemberly, too, threw sandals and slippers at a plump policeman outside. “I will tell your wife you spent so much money on Happy Endings last night, you traitor! I will tell your wife you overtime here in Boomtown, tambukikoy!”

Will they leave her? Will her girls leave her? The old woman picked up the Christmas balls that rolled off from the heap of their properties.

They lost Boomtown. But it wasn’t the wreck that anguished her. What wounded Babygirl was seeing her daughters outside pick fights with every guy who looked like a construction worker. Under the pale lamps posts, the furious girls looked like street fighters. Each one of them had backpacks on, filled with their personal things, as though they were about to go. Babygirl wiped her face and cleared her throat, the paper bills still clenched tight inside her bra.

“Auntie Begurl, sorry.” Chisska dropped her bag and first ran to her weeping. “It’s all my fault, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Babygirl with a straight face. Chisska shamefully laughed and hugged the old woman. Babygirl squinted and then smiled, which sent the family sighing and laughing at their misery.

Carefully laid on top of a fading tarpaulin were the family’s belongings—their decors, kitchenware, chamber pots, beddings, figurines, and furniture. All the clothes the girls owned piled up into one giant heap, as tall as the low roof of their first floor.

Nightfall. The Boomtowm became nothing but a dark mess between a Chinese mall and a bank. Curious passers-by and drivers surrounded them. Onlookers also eyed their belongings and asked how much the furniture were and the beer cans altogether. What were they going to do with their clothes? The karaoke set? Were their ladders, tables, and chairs sturdy? Was their sewing machine still working? With this, they decided to keep a few appliance and personal things to start afresh. The old woman rummaged through the rubble, and grabbed a bucket, dipper, pillow, DVD, mugs, clothing, decors, and started selling their things.

At the top of her lungs, she cried out, “Tag-dyes, tag-dyes na lang”—ten pesos, the selling price of their belongings. As if something was breaking inside of her, the old woman’s voice first faltered when she screamed. “Tag-dyes, tag-dyes na lang,” she cried out further. Her cries cut through the bustling city noise at dusk. Almost wailing, she screamed, “Tag-dyes, tag-singko na lang.” Tears welled up around Babygirl Begonia’s eyes. More people came when she slipped and said “tag-singko.”

“Just for one night, we will sleep at the barangay hall,” said Babygirl to the girls. “We will sell, eat, and sleep tonight. But tomorrow we will fight. Okay?” The girls nodded and huddled closer. They still had a chance with Judge Jamora tomorrow. That attorney never turned down a case that concerned women.

The warm Sarangani Bay breeze gushed from the east of Boomtown, hushing the old woman’s howl. The girls busily picked up items and sold them. With the girls beside her, Babygirl did not falter standing this time. She stood on her ground, bracing herself as the warm summer wind blew her varnish-colored hair. Right then, she knew. This was what mothers were made of—peace in the middle of a desert storm. Babygirl knew that for her daughters, nothing could ever be strong enough to break her.

Barbie

By Allana Joy V. Boncavil 
Fiction

 In the solace of a narrow, cramped, and dark space, a kid holds a well-taken-care-of Barbie doll in his hand. He holds it near and dear to him as if someone was going to grab it away from him all of a sudden. He hugs his knees tighter as he rocks himself to and fro with a distant look in his eyes. The sudden slamming of a door in the distance makes him flinch.

* * *

101418
Case No. 0985
1 of ?

Josefina Cruz, aunt of the victim, called in for a short interrogation. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

Q: How long have you known Mr. José Alfonso?

A: Ever since he started courting my sister, which dated back from 1990—no, 2000, I think. I don’t remember clearly.

Q: When was the last time you were in contact with Ms. Alfonso? Specific year please, if possible.

A: Around 2014. She called me after her water broke and she couldn’t get hold of that [redacted] José.

Q: Please refrain from cursing, Ms. Josefina.

A: Ah—I’m sorry. I just can’t believe he could do such a thing! And for what? Over a damn toy? He should’ve let his son play whatever he wanted to play with! I—

* * *

The loud ringing of the telephone wakes up a huge, bulky man from his slumber in the living room couch. He groggily stumbles over to the kitchen counter where the telephone is located, knocking over several bottles of Heineken as he does. A loud sound echoes throughout the house, and as he walks back to the couch, he leaves a broken and unusable telephone behind.

* * *

101418
Case No. 0985
2 of ?

Maria Santos, friend of the victim, called in for a short interrogation. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

Q: So you’re a close friend of Ms. Alfonso?

A: Well . . . I was.

Q: Was? Please elaborate on that.

A: Teresa and I had been the closest of friends for years, until three or four years back. We drifted apart. She stopped answering my texts, and calls, and voicemails. Nothing. She just went completely off the radar. Just silence.

Q: Have you observed anything strange with Ms. Alfonso weeks or months before she cut off communication with you?

A: I really don’t know—but I’m sure her shady husband has something to do with it. I don’t know—he just sets off many red flags with the way he was acting when Teresa first introduced him to me.

* * *

It’s 3 AM. There are voices speaking in an almost inaudible volume. The boy didn’t mean to eavesdrop on his mom talking with someone over the phone, but the thin walls and his curiosity have pushed him to do so.

“Please help us, Tina. Please. We can’t do this anymore. He might really do it next time. I’m begging you. We—”

The door opens.

* * *

101418
Case No. 0985
3 of ?

 Kristina Baliente, friend of the victim, called in for a short interrogation. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

Q: When did the call take place?

A: It was literally just a few hours ago!

Q: What took place in your conversation with Ms. Alfonso?

A: I . . . it was all so sudden. She called me asking to save her from her husband, but I didn’t have enough context to go with!

Q: And what did you do after that?

A: Well, you know, I was busy with my laundry during that time, and I wasn’t being ignorant. I was just really busy because—

* * *

Ten years has passed. Yellow tapes stretch from tree to tree, and a crowd of students stand behind them.

“What happened?” someone asks.

“Some kid jumped,” comes the reply from a fellow stranger on school grounds, surrounding the grotesque scene.

Another stranger comes running through the crowd and slides right past the yellow tape. The police in the area stops him and asks him what his business is.

“That’s my friend!” he screams. He curses, resentfully so.

* * *

032128
Case No. 8325
1 of 1

 Rommel Corazon, friend of the victim, called in for a short interrogation. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

Q: What were the last things Mr. Alfonso had said?

A: A lot. I just . . . didn’t expect him to do this. He was doing very well yesterday. He . . . he . . .

Q: Concentrate, Rommel. What did he say that could be ruled out as the cause of the jump?

A: . . .

A: A [redacted] ton. If only someone listened. If only someone had the guts to speak up.

A: . . .

A: He just wanted to be with his mum a little longer.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Corazon. That would be all.

* * *

Two officers at the scene carefully carry the body on a stretcher, heading to the ambulance. Both of them can’t afford to look at the corpse, even if a white sheet has been placed over it.

“Such a young life lost,” one finally breaks the silence. The other nods in dismay and answers, “Heard it’s another case of passed-on family baggage.”

The officer shoots a look to his co-worker.

“These things are becoming awfully prevalent around.”

Silence ensues between the two officers as they shut the ambulance door behind them.

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.

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.