War Makes Me Sad

By Mary Ann Ordinario
Fiction

The following is the text of the storybook War Makes Me Sad: The Thoughts  of a Child about the War in Mindanao published in 2000 by ABC Educational Development Center. It was declared Best Short Story for Children at the 2003 Catholic Mass Media Awards.

When we hear strong explosions, I see the worried face of my mother with tears in her eyes. Father hurriedly prepares to bring the chicken and goats from our backyard.

We run and I don’t know where we are going. We ride in a cart pulled by a carabao. Sometimes in a tricycle, jeep, or Ford Fiera. Or just hop in any vehicle that passes by so we can be far away from the explosions.

I hear people say, “There is war.”

What is this war? Whatever it is, it makes me sad.

I know it will take a long time before I can play again. We will leave our small hut, my kite, ball, and books. I wonder will I still see my doll when I come back.

I just watch and stare blankly. There are soldiers and rebels. Like a movie or just like in the television. They have guns and move in tanks. For sure after a while there will be bombings and we have to run again.

Sometimes I cry. I remember my friend Kahlil, who lost his arms. They say, “The war took it.” Will he still go to school? How can he use his pencil and crayons again?

Because of war we hide for a long time and try to go to the next town. My body aches. We try to find a place or a building for us to stay. And usually these are schools. There are so many people. We sleep together inside the classrooms. We stay together even if we don’t know one another. There are many mosquitoes. We don’t have a blanket, a mosquito net, or even a mat. I lie down in concrete floors very cold against my back. Father and Toto sleep outside, with coconuts leaves spread out as their mat.

Oftentimes when asleep, I wake up frightened because of the strong explosions. Sometimes, Mother shakes me and I hear her say, “Wake up my child, you are having a nightmare.” I tell her I dreamed of a huge gun. It was chasing me. I had to run fast so I can hide.

We can’t change our clothes and we don’t have any belongings. We can’t even take a bath because there is no water. Maybe that is why so many of us get sick. I even saw a mother gave birth but her baby did not move. They said that there was no doctor to take care of her.

Because of war my stomach aches. But we don’t have food. Not even a piece of bread. Sometimes I don’t eat breakfast or lunch. Though there are people who drop by and bring some food like noodles, dried fish, sardines, or rice. I hear them call these donations. They are not even enough for everyone.

I see people get wounded or killed. People panic and scream! Some stumble, some cry, and some don’t move at all. Mother holds my hand and pulls me. I get bumped and stepped on by anybody. I have to run and take a step, even if I am barefooted.

What scares me even more is the thought that Father, Mother, Toto, or Nene might be gone one day. What if they get sick? That is why I hold tightly onto my mother’s skirt.

Will there be no silence? When will the bombings stop? When will the war end? I have too many questions but Father could not give me the answers.

I want to go home. I want to rest, play, eat well, go back to school, laugh, and be happy again. So I pray that God, the most powerful, who loves children like me will take pity on us.

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I’ll Be Home for Christmas

By Erwin Cabucos
Fiction

This short story first appeared in Bayanihan News and was included in the author’s out-of-print book The Beach Spirit and Other Stories.

“Renato,” Rebecca whispered, tapping me on my shoulder.

“Yeah.” Half asleep, I opened my eyes slowly, squinting. “What?”

“Look.” She was pointing out the window of our taxi.

“Look what?” My brows knitted together. I shook my head a little, trying to figure out where we were. We were on our way to the hotel we had booked for a night before travelling on to my parents’ place in the province. I looked around at the queues of cabs, buses, and jeepneys waiting for the traffic to move. The clock in the taxi said six o’clock.

“There’s a child outside, singing. He’s been there for a while. He seems to be waiting for something. He’s following us. I thought you heard him.”

“No, I was half asleep.”

“What are those things clipped to the tip of his thumbs and fingers? Castanets, that’s it! He’s hitting them as he sings.” Rebecca turned to the boy. “Look at him. I don’t think he’s going to stop.”

“He wants some money for his Christmas carols.”

She dug into her jeans’ pocket. “I have a peso here. This’ll do, won’t it?”

“One peso?” I snorted. “You have to give him more than that. Don’t you feel sorry for him?”

“How much, then?”

“Give him a hundred-peso note.”

“What!” Her eyes popped. “That’s too much!”

“Why is it too much? It’s what you’d pay for a junior burger in McDonalds in Sydney.”

“But compared to the cost of living here, it’s a lot, isn’t it? You told me a meal here might only cost fifteen pesos.”

“It’s all right.” I bent my head towards her and smiled.

She took out the hundred-peso bill from her wallet, wound the window down, and handed the note over to the boy. The child ran to the woman selling cigarettes and candies further along the street and passed the note to her. She waved at us, smiled, and caressed the little boy’s head.

The taxi slowly crawled along with the other vehicles. The traffic cleared gradually and we crept towards the open wide road. We heard the car accelerate and saw the child leaning on the lady, who was sitting on a stool beside the road. As we drove further, their image blurred and was slowly replaced by the blinking lights of billboard ads. The car stereo was on, tuned in to Cebu Mellow Station playing Jose Marie Chan’s “Christmas in our Hearts.”

I broke the silence. “I used to do that when I was young.”

“Really.” She faced me. “Did you get lots of money?”

*

We had agreed to meet at the front of Mrs. Villegas’ general store. We thought it was the perfect rendezvous because the light there was bright thanks to the fluorescent tube that hung on the top of the post. The light was a public display of Mr. Villegas’ ingenuity. He had climbed the post the previous week, spliced the live electrical wire that ran through our whole street, attached the thin wire of the fluorescent tube, and his store’s front yard became what looked like the center of our little community. He was a hero to us for bringing us light after the town’s only power company rejected our request.

The fluorescent light attracted a lot of mosquitoes, and several kinds of moths were hovering around it. The light lifted the energy of young men in our street in the afternoon, as they played basketball into the iron ring attached to the trunk of the dying santol tree. The crowd, composed of younger women, mothers with their toddlers, and grandparents minding their young grandchildren, settled around the playing teams, cheering.

Mrs. Villegas was inside her little shop, picking off tiny horseradish leaves for her fish soup dinner while keeping abreast with the competing scores of both teams. Her eyes moved between the leaves on the plate, the sweaty basketball players a few meters away, and me, her customer, muttering that I would like a pack of Marie biscuits. It cost me twenty-five centavos. I liked the nutty taste of the Marie biscuits. They would tide me over at night if we did not have anything for dinner, or if we only had rice, water, and salt.

I was waiting for Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin to arrive. They knew they had to come early so that we could cover a lot of houses that night.

The santol tree trunk was just about to collapse but no one seemed to worry about it. As long as it could still support the thuds of the ball, why worry? Poor tree. I used to climb it when it was still full of fruit. It was a nice variety of santol—a Bangkok one, they said. The fruit had had thicker flesh, thinner seeds, and was more flavorsome. Although we were told not to swallow the seeds, I did anyhow. It was the last school vacation, after we finished third grade. We climbed the trees in the school orchard. The seeds had slipped smoothly down my throat.

“What, you swallowed the seeds of Bangkok santol?” Gideon’s eyes had nearly popped.

“Yes. Why?”

“Renato, you can’t do that. They could grow inside you and you would die, you know,” he said warily.

“That sounds like Jack and the Beanstalk.” I simply lifted my eyebrows. “I’m still alive, though.”

“I’m serious,” he said.

The guys were still not here. They might still be having their dinner. I went back to Mrs. Villegas and spent another twenty-five centavos on some cold water. I tore the plastic with my front teeth and sucked the icy cold water from it. I could be luckier tonight if we came home with lots of coins. Then I could buy boiled eggs from the sidewalk vendors and munch them with rice on my way home. I wished my father earned lots of money again and was able to buy us nice food every night. I wished I had some toys like those of the kids in the movies. I wished that the santol tree would bear fruit again. I wished we also had a glittering and singing Christmas tree. I wished the airport would change its decision to remove all the porters from inside the building.

My four brothers, three sisters, and I used to know that my father had had a good day if he came home with boiled eggs or barbecued chicken. Usually, it was because lots of Filipino overseas contract workers had arrived in the airport that day. In ten years of lifting suitcases for these highly paid domestic helpers, seamen, and bar entertainers from abroad, my father, to attract tips, had mastered eye to eye contact, suitable gestures, and well-chosen words.

He had been doing it for so many years that it was a big shock when, one afternoon, he was told that he was no longer allowed to work inside the airport building. Only selected porters, the ones who knew someone in management, were allowed to work inside. My father did not know anyone in the office so he was stationed outside the gate, asking passengers if they needed cabs to go around Manila. He was disappointed, because the money was not as good. Everyone thought he was a con man. I did not know how to help my father. I wished I could. I now wore some of his porter work shirts, as he did not need them anymore. My two younger brothers wore them to school, too.

“Where is everyone?” Gideon asked as he came out of his mom’s shop, holding his ukulele in his right hand and a flashlight in his left.

“I’m the only one here,” I said.

He handed the flashlight over to me as he tried a few strums. I envied his ability to play an expensive instrument like that. I placed the flashlight under my arm and shook a piece of wood with flattened Coca Cola caps nailed in it as I tried to do a little jam with him. We saw Ricky coming with two spoons. Darwin was coming in the opposite direction with a triangle and a money tin.

We did not waste a moment. Our first house was the Santos’, who we knew had lots of money because they ran the only newspaper shop in town. We positioned ourselves on the leaning trunk of a jackfruit tree from where we could see Mr. and Mrs. Santos’ silhouettes behind their windowpanes, as he read and she knitted. The jackfruit tree was actually bearing fruit underground. We could see one fruit breaking the ground and smelling like heaven.

Before we started, we looked around to make sure that their dogs were not off the leash. It looked like everything was safe.

“Gregorio,” said the wife, “I think there are people outside. Can you check who it is?”

“It could just be kids from our block, caroling.”

“Just give them some money now so they can leave early. After all, that’s the only thing they want.”

“No, let them sing.”

“As if you really want to listen to them.”

“Let them sing, anyway.”

“But they’re just going to make a noise.”

“OK, give me the coin and I’ll give it to them later.”

We were happy when we heard the word “coin,” a guarantee that we would be getting something in the end. Gideon strummed the ukulele, Ricky banged the back of the spoons together, I shook the Coca Cola caps, we looked at each other, and together we sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King.” We looked at Darwin and his triangle and wondered why he was not hitting the instrument. He smiled, because he had forgotten the rod which he used to hit the triangle. We continued singing while he bent down, looking for a stone to use instead. Towards the middle of the song, we heard his triangle and we sang louder.

Suddenly, we were surprised to see two Dobermans racing towards us. The dogs must have broken loose from their leashes. The other three ran as quick as a flash. I was behind them, catching up. I had only one slipper on. For a moment, I thought I might leave it behind so that I could run as fast as possible, but I remembered it was the only one I would have until my mother could buy me another pair in a few days’ time. I was limping, when I saw the two vicious dogs right behind me. I still tried my best to push myself forward and I could feel my heart pounding hard. The dogs howled behind me. I closed my eyes and ran as fast as I could.

We reached the bright front yard of Villegas’ store, puffing. Gideon, Ricky, and Darwin were laughing at my pants nearly dropping, the elastic busted. My Coca Cola caps were no longer in my hands and my slipper had also disappeared from my foot. Oh well, at least I was safe.

We rested for a while until we were ready to go on to the next house.

We got to the Tolentinos’ front yard; it was covered with young guava trees. They were the new variety of guavas called guapple, a blend of the guava’s citric taste and the apple’s succulence. We knew the Tolentinos had lots of money, because he was a high school teacher and she was a midwife. We always saw their daughters at school eating delicious sandwiches at recess. Most of the time I had nothing. To pretend I wasn’t hungry, I used to play marbles and holes while my friends were munching banana cue and cheese snacks. When I got home, I used to get angry at my mother. Why did she not give me any money to buy food?

The Tolentinos’ living room was brightly lit. It had a nice maroon couch which blended with their exquisite hardwood furniture. In the corner stood a tall, fully decorated Christmas tree with statues of Jesus in the stable and Mary and Joseph and the Kings and the shepherds. The Tolentinos were having dinner. The strong aroma of chicken, soy sauce, and coconut vinegar made me hungrier.

Gideon started to play his ukulele. We all went, “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” Because I no longer had my Coca Cola caps, I picked up two small rocks from the ground and hit them together in time with the melody. We finished the song energetically and then we started another one. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child.” We sang and sang until we were tired but no one came out to give us anything.

Suddenly, Mrs. Tolentino’s head poked out of their screen door: “Hoy, here’s a peso. Now go home and stop disturbing us. You were here last night, weren’t you?”

“No, that was a different group,” Darwin answered, stepping closer to her.

“Anyway, here’s your money,” she said quickly.

“It’s not enough, Mrs. Tolentino,” Darwin protested.

“You should be grateful that I’ve given you something.”

“OK, then,” Darwin conceded, scraping the two fifty-centavo coins off her palm.

She quickly turned her back and slammed the door.

We then sang the Merry Christmas tune with revised lyrics: “Thank you, thank you, tight-ass people are you, are you? Thank you, thank you, thrifty clan in hell will land.”

Darwin dropped the coins into our money tin; I heard them hitting the bottom. It would have been nicer to hear some jingling of pennies inside. We left that hideous family and continued walking towards the next house. We heard dogs barking—the Santos’ two Dobermans were still wandering free in our street. We screamed and ran back to the lit electrical post again, yelling, “Mr. Santos, your vicious dogs are out in our street. Mr. Santos!”

*

I stared at the decorated pine trees in the middle of the road and my mind returned to the face of that little boy, how his lips stretched and his cheeks lifted when he felt the paper money in his palm. I wished I had experienced the same feeling twenty years ago. I wished I could gather Gideon and the guys again to go caroling. We would sing enthusiastically once more but, this time, I would not be asking for people’s money.

“So, did you get lots of money?” She leaned her head over my shoulder.

“Sometimes.”

“How cute.”  She spoke softly. “We don’t have that in Sydney.”

“No, we don’t,” I sighed.

Black and White

By Mariz Leona
Fiction

“Cheers to our success!” I said as I raised my wine glass. Indeed, it was a fantastic night for all of us. The exhibit I spearheaded was surprisingly a big hit for beginners like us.

“Your paintings were really a work of art, Francis, literally and figuratively speaking,” Dina, one of my dearest friends, said. The tinkling of glasses made her voice sound romantic, or maybe it was just my personal judgment.

“What do you mean by ‘literally and figuratively,’ Dina?” I asked back, of course. I couldn’t just leave her hanging. I couldn’t just leave myself hanging.

Bebot laughed at my sing-song voice, mocking me perhaps.

“Literally because it was literally arts,” Dina said. “Oh come on, Francis! Do I really need to elaborate it to you?” She laughed.

Oh, good lord! I thought. Blessed I am for hearing such a wondrous sound—sweet and appealing.

“Cut it out, Francis!” Bebot’s teasing voice roared in the room. “Seriously, you’re like puking rainbows and hearts!”

Oh, for whoever’s sake! Do I really look like some asshat lovesick puppy?

“No! But you look like a chapped drooling old maggot,” Bebot whispered, but I heard it clearly because the idiot whispered it right in my face. Did I just say it aloud?

“And that too,” he chirped while filling his empty glass.

I gave the dumbass my fiercest killer look. It just faded when I heard again Dina’s melodic laughter. I turned my gaze to her, mesmerized by her angelic face. We locked gazes. I suddenly found myself holding her waist while dancing in a song I could barely understand but to the melody of which I swayed. My room, which had been messy earlier, had turned into a grand hall with glitter balls above us. I wondered where Bebot was.

Sweet atmosphere covered the room. I tasted cotton candies and chocolates, but Dina was the sweetest. We danced closely until our feet hurt. With a heavy heart, I let her sit and gave her a bottle of water. It was a mystery, though, where I had gotten it. It was magical. My feelings too.

I woke up in my bed without a memory of how our night had ended. Did it really happen, or was it because I drank too much? And one more thing: how did I end up here in my bed? Where are my friends and Dina? I was flooded with my own questions. Tired of them, I got up my bed and took a shower.

I entered the kitchen and smelled adobo. Oh, my favorite dish.

“Good morning, Pa!” a little kid chirped while spreading her arms as if asking for a hug.

I hugged and kissed her good-morning as I felt I was expected to do it.

“Look! Mama cooked my favorite adobo because I got stars yesterday!” The little girl sounded really happy.

“Honey, you told her yesterday you would take her to the mall as a reward.” A woman with a sweet voice entered the kitchen. She had a sweet face too with a bright smile. Maybe I looked flustered because her face contorted. “Have you forgotten?”

I stumbled to find words. “Of course I haven’t! Let’s eat now and prepare to go to the mall.” I gulped the coffee in front of me. Words just came out of my mouth as if it was meant to be said.

I held the hand of the little kid as we strutted inside the mall. “Papa, I said yesterday that I wanted you to buy me a paintbrush,” she said and led me to a bookstore. She let go of my hand and found her way to her paintbrush. I stood still, confused about everything, until someone tapped my shoulder. “Hey, Francis! I am asking you if you want this.”

My eyes went frigidly wide because Dina was in front of me holding a paintbrush. “What?” She sounded irritated.

“Of course I want it. Thank you!” I smiled at her, but my hands were shaking. My body, my soul, was shaking. “Have you seen a child?” I asked.

“What child?” she asked back, confused.

“The child I was holding a while ago. She said I am her papa.”

Dina stared at me with mocking eyes. “Don’t start with me, Francis! Please leave your story madness at your house, you geeky artist!” She laughed as she linked her arms around me, and then she pulled me to the queue of customers.

I found myself lying in my bed while a kid was jumping beside me. She noticed that I was finally awake. “Good morning, Papa! It’s Sunday today!” She kissed me and led me to the bathroom. Does she want me to take a shower? “Faster, Papa! We will be late,” she shouted outside the door. I did what I should do.

I was formally dressed, the kid too and the lady who was smiling at me. I smiled back, and she held my hand tightly. They were listening to a homily that I couldn’t understand. Someone grabbed my hands and kissed me on the cheeks. I was flustered. It was Dina. Dina again. What is really happening? Have I gone crazy?

“Thank you, honey! I really like your painting,” she said. Happiness was evident on her face. “I also have a gift for you.”

I returned her smile. I was confused, but her smiles told me that it was okay, that everything was normal. “Where is it?” I asked.

“It’s not where, it’s what,” she answered.

“What?” I asked.

“I am pregnant!” Her face was blushing, and she was smiling widely.

“Wh-whaaat? Who’s the father?” I asked, disappointed. I couldn’t smile back. I just couldn’t.

“Of course it’s you, my husband. You silly!” She laughed so hard as she hugged me tightly.

It doesn’t make sense! Everything doesn’t make sense! But contrary to what I was thinking, my body responded happily. I hugged her back. I felt my eyes swelling and then my tears flowing. I was happy—no, beyond happy.

*

She watched him stomping on his brushes and paintings. She didn’t notice that she was already tearing up with just a view of him. He was now miserable. Her loving artist was now miserable. Was her love for him not enough? Was their love for him not enough? She closed the door silently and went to the kitchen.

She saw her angel eating her favorite adobo happily. Her bright and innocent baby. “Mama! Eat! Eat! Eat!” she chanted while raising her spoon.

She went to her and caressed her hair as she continued eating heartily. She watched her eating. A smile crept out of her lips as she realized that it had been ten years since she came out of her womb. She carried her for nine months with Francis by her side. He cheered her always, provided for their needs, and filled their house with his love, not to mention pampering her whenever she had tantrums. How cruel life was for destroying their happiness—his happiness.

She heard a loud bang coming from his room. She ran immediately with a thudding heart. She opened the door and saw that he had stumbled, his face on the floor. “Francis!” she yelped and helped him to the bed.

“Have you seen Dina? I need to give her my painting,” he mumbled.

She looked at him right through his eyes, without blinking. She kissed him on the lips. “I love you,” she whispered. He closed his eyes, and a smile formed on his lips. She tucked him into bed and got out of the room.

“Did he do it again?”

She looked at Bebot who was standing outside the room, holding a bouquet of her favorite flowers—red roses and lilies. She just nodded and tiredly smiled.

“Leave him,” he said seriously, which made her disgusted and furious. “He lost his life!” she shouted at him.

“He just lost his arms,” he said. “He is overreacting.”

“He is a painter,” she said. “A famous one, Bebot.”

“I love you.”

“You’re unbelievable. You’re his best friend!” She is mad, so mad at him. She looked him straight in the eyes. “I love him,” she said with conviction and left him there.

“But he is now a good-for-nothing crazy asshat. A psycho. He can’t even remember you, Dina!” Bebot’s frustrated and angry voice filled the house.

She heard it clearly, and she knew it. She knew it all. “I love him still,” she murmured to herself as tears fell down her face.

Something Sad

By Boon Kristoffer Lauw
Fiction

They had her surrounded.

Men clad in drenched black clothes and driven by their outrageous humanly desires.

She was panting. It had been a while before they finally had her cornered, and it was raining hard that day. All efforts were doubled as she and the men treaded through the wet and sticky ground. It was a long chase, but it had come to an end.

One sure step after another, they took their time crossing the soft ground while making sure she had no way out. They were grinning.

A cry for help, a final call, a desperate pleading—whatever it was or it had been—it was defeated by the sound of heavy rain crashing down on mud and earth.

He watched.

He watched as she was forced down onto the wet mud by vicious men. They had her limbs pinned down—both arms and feet, sometimes even her neck. She struggled. The wet mud never made it easier for the men ganging up on her, and their grip kept sliding from their hold as they came across soft wet earth instead of her rosy skin.

His love was surrounded by malicious beasts, and yet there was nothing he could do but watch behind steel gates he could not budge.

She squealed.

He screamed.

But all that was heard was the song of heavy rain beating down onto the yielding earth, the usual ballad of love’s hopeless defeat in the face of an overwhelming, opposing force.

The men tied her up. Ruthless in their manner, they bound her with rough ropes that bit into her skin. It was evident through the red line that had already begun to cut its way around her limbs.

But despite her cuffs, she never ceased to fight back. The men had to carry her all together to put her on the back of their truck. Although without meaning to, she was placed in a way that she was able to see her lover eye to eye one last time. She saw him staring from in between bars, screaming, but she could not hear.

He beat himself up on the hard steel that separated him from her.

It was a strange love they shared. If it wasn’t true love, then what is?

Their parents never supported the love between them. Not even anyone from their family would have imagined of such love be possible. Perhaps this was the way their gods had decided to punish them for the insolence of their forbidden love. It was the heaviest punishment all right; it broke her heart seeing him break underneath the rain, from in between bars.

Her voice came to a soft croak as tears subbed her callous throat. It was then that he finally heard her. The glisten from her tears had been able to pierce the thick curtain of rain. It was the light of lost hope: gradually dimming, leaving no trace of ever being there.

Seeing the light in her eyes dying down, he threw all of his weight, all of his strength, all of his love, and all of his anger towards beating down the heavy steel that kept him from reaching her. It broke his shoulder and a few more in his body, but it was worth it. The gates finally gave way, and let him through.

He ran.

On limping limbs he ran. The revving up of the truck’s engine rumbled across the ground. Then he knew it was only a matter of time before there was really no hope left. He forced his beat-up body into a canter, then into a glorious run.

He was only a few meters away and the truck started to turn. It was heading for the highway. If it reached the highway then he might never see her again.

Pushing his body to the limits, he finally reached the truck just in time before the men rammed the gasoline hard. He leapt and slammed his body hard on the back of the truck. It gave the car a thunderous tremor—the result of his anger bearing fruit.

He quickly gnawed his way into the ropes that held his love captive. He could not do it with his hands; they were both beaten up, nothing but decorations weighing him down. But the ropes were too tight and too frigid for his teeth. Racking his brains up, he decided to push them both down from the moving truck. And he did.

They both fell down hard, on muddy earth underneath the piercing shower. He saw her eye to eye now. There were no words enough that could be shared between each other. The smiles on their faces said it all.

Underneath the rain, on the muddy dirt, they found comfort in each other.

But it was all for naught. Their joy was short-lived as the truck came to a screeching halt.

They took her back.

This time she did not cry nor fight back, while he was no longer able to move.

She was already happy beyond her wildest dreams.

It was not that she had given up. It was more of a feeling of contentment.

He had come for her.

Amidst the heavy rain, the sticky mud, and the solid bars that kept them from each other, he came.

Lying on the ground, he howled like a wolf as he watched the men put her back up the truck, even if he knew he was no wolf.

The day grew long as the sound of rain drained his cries of grief and resentment. Love was never an easy thing, he realized. It was as if the world strove to break apart everything that is drawn to each other by the force called love.

A bit more rain and his consciousness finally wandered into the unforgiving silence.

The next day came even as he continued waiting for her to come back. Wishful thinking as it was, he didn’t know anything else he could do. He was useless, and she was gone.

Sometime during midday, his wish came true. But it was not as he had expected.

She finally returned to him—on a silver plate.

It was the saddest reunion ever written.

He had guarded the house and the family in it for years, and this was what they gave him in return. It was by far the cruelest and most twisted joke. He could not believe that he had been spending his days watching over the people that had offered him this plate. His heart broke into a million pieces, each one shedding a tear for his lost beloved.

He dragged the plate into a hole in the soft ground he had dug earlier and put her there in peace.

The gate was open now. He walked through it without restraint and never came back.

For he was a dog and she was his pig.

Lights of Different Colors

By Erwin Cabucos
Fiction

This piece first appeared on FourW28 Anthology.

Christy dabs her eyes to dry her tears with the flannelette sheet as she pulls it up to her neck, tucking herself in tightly against the creeping chill of Hong Kong’s winter. From her space under the laundry bench, between the washing machine and the refrigerator, she can see the kaleidoscopic glow reflected on Kowloon Bay, especially if she tilts her head up from her pillow. She inhales the peace of the moment, disturbed only by the intermittent whirring of the refrigerator motor, but she has learned to love the noise as a symbol of where she is and what she is doing for her family.

When she started work five years ago as a maid for the Chen family, on the twenty-ninth floor of a building in Admiralty, the refrigerator noise used to rob her of sleep. But it’s become a symbol of the importance of her job, of her ability to feed her family back in the Philippines, to send her daughter to study nursing at the Davao Doctors College and to save money so she can send her son to a university soon. She has learned to accept the things she used to hate.

She yawns and rubs her feet together for warmth as she does every night before she falls asleep. Then she makes the sign of the cross—something she’s done all her life—as she thinks of the people she loves and prays for their safety.

Finally, she looks at the picture of her family on her phone. It is the last image she wants imprinted on her mind as she closes her eyes. As she outlines the faces of her loved ones with a finger, the latest FaceTime messages from her daughter Melody pop up: I love you, Mang. Indi lang magkabalaka sa amon diri kay okay lang kami. Don’t worry about us, for we are fine here. Mag-capping na ako sa sunod bulan. We’ll our capping ceremony next month. Love you man daw siling ni Papang kag ni Jun-Jun. Didto ko kaina sa Carmen. Papang and Jun-Jun also send their love. I was at home with them earlier today.

“I love you too, Melody,” Christy whispers. She feels her eyes start to water again. But before the flood of tears can come, she stands to get some cold water from the fridge and gulps the liquid down, staring at the shimmering lights that filter between the buildings and the bay. The colors that pierce the darkness give her a sense of triumph, knowing that, despite their poverty and her having to work as a domestic helper far from home, she is able to pay the expensive tuition fees and textbooks needed for her daughter’s education, which only the well-to-do can afford in her hometown. Holding the glass, Christy leans on the washing machine and stares at the city, hoping that one day her hard work will pay off and Melody will be the one to send her brother to college. Then, at last, she and her husband will be able to retire with a little help from their two children.

She sighs at the thought that beyond the array of buildings, a two-hour flight from this island-city, her family is also going to sleep. She wishes she were there now to advise Jun-Jun, her sixteen-year-old son, to stay away from bad influences, especially drugs.

The knock on the door jolts her. Christy puts on her slippers and slides her jumper over her shoulders as she walks through the kitchen and lounge room to get to the front door. She thinks it must be Kwok Wei, Chen’s only child, who always ignores his parents’ instruction to study hard and to come home on time. He’s always been a concern for Mr. and Mrs. Chen and was even suspected of having been involved in illegal drugs last year, at the age of only fifteen.

The teenager’s body rolls on the floor as Christy swings the door open. “Kwok Wei, are you okay?”

His eyes are half-open. He struggles to stand, and then he braces himself with one hand as he sits on the floor.

Before Christy finishes her sentence, a pinkish goo escapes from his mouth, spilling on his shirt and onto the carpet. Christy’s eyes go wide. “Ay, yudiputa nga bata ni a, pakuskusun pa gid ko sang carpet,” she curses at the prospect of de-staining and deodorizing the carpet, one of many things she hates about this job.

“Sorry, Auntie Christy.” He grabs the side of the door to pull himself upright and wobbles towards his bedroom.

Mrs. Chen appears, trembling in anger. “Could you be any more stupid? Drinking at fifteen is not only illegal but extremely dangerous. You could have died!” Her high-pitched voice pierces Christy’s ears. Mrs. Chen’s hand flies onto her son’s head; his face twists from the impact. “Clean yourself. You are grounded! No more internet. No more games. No more pocket money . . .”

Christy starts to sweep up the slime, trying not to gag from the smell.

“M-ma, it was only because of my friend’s request. I couldn’t reject him. He only turns eighteen once,” the teen mumbles. He slips to the floor, leaning on the side of his bed.

Mr. Chen comes out in his boxer shorts. “All right, listen,” he says, pointing at his son. “This should be the last time I see you drunk. None of this stupid thing from now on, do you understand?”

Kwok Wei nods while looking down.

Mr. Chen shakes his head. “It’s probably bad influences from those friends of yours. Stop hanging out with them kids. They don’t do you any good.”

“It’s not about his friends, lóuhgùng. I know their families.” Mrs. Chen scuttles towards the teenager, avoiding the spot Christy is trying to clean. She stabs his head with her forefinger. “It’s his stupid head!” She crosses her arms and breathes rapidly. “Christy, can you also help him clean himself? She asks in a way that makes it an order. “He’s a mess!” Mrs. Chen hurries back to their bedroom, muttering and cursing at why, despite the other things she has to worry about, what with the budgeting and forecasting she has to submit to her company tomorrow, the heavens also saw fit to give her a child that brings hell into her life.

“Get your act together, son!” Mr. Chen says as he follows his wife to their bedroom.

After drying the floor, Christy now sprays the spot with a carpet deodorizer. She hurries to the bathroom and turns on the water before going to the teenager’s bedroom to undress him. She pinches the hem of his shirt, pulls it up, and throws it in the washing basket. Kwok Wei stands up, holding on to the side of his bedroom door, and pushes his jeans and underpants down. She hasn’t helped him undress or change for years, but tonight is different, confirming the fact that parenting teenagers do bring unpleasant surprises at times. She cannot help but notice his uncircumcised penis on the patch of black pubic hair he has grown since she last saw him naked, and she hands him a towel to cover himself. When he was young, she would wrap him in the towel, but now the teenager snatches it from her fingers, realizing the awkwardness of exposing himself to her. As she follows him to the bath, Christy recalls her son and the time she has lost in not being there to care for him, and perhaps to get angry with him when she needs to, like most parents do when their children misbehave. Why, she asks herself, does she have to lease her love to others to show its genuineness?

Kwok Wei hands the towel to her and dunks himself in the bath. He stretches his legs while resting his head on the tiles, letting out a groan as the warm water soothes him. He closes his eyes and cups some water in his hands to pour on himself. Steam bellows to the ceiling. Christy lets some air in, conscious not to open the window widely. She squirts liquid soap onto a sponge and hands it to the boy. He simply dangles it, dripping soap over the edge of the bath. She takes it and rubs it on his chest, neck, and face. He closes his eyes and moves his chin as she scrubs his skin.

“Thank you, Auntie Christy.” Kwok Wei’s voice is still slurred. He lifts his hands and wraps them around Christy’s shoulders, wetting her blouse as he pulls her close. “Thank you very much. You’re always here for me, more so than my mother.”

Christy sees the redness and the brimming with tears in his half-closed eyes. She is touched by the words of her employers’ son who she feels could easily be her own over the years she has spent helping bring him up. “Don’t cry, Kwok Wei. That’s what I’m here for. Your parents pay me to do this. Wipe your tears.” She stands up to get his toothbrush and squirts some toothpaste on it before handing it to him. C’mon, brush your teeth before going to bed.”

“You may just be doing your job here for money, but what you do goes far beyond what Ma’s and Pa’s money could buy.” He pours some more water on his chest. “You’re more than that. A-and, thanks for being here.”

“That’s okay, Kwok Wei. I guess your parents are right. Don’t drink. You’re too young for that.”

“You know my friends didn’t really force me to drink. You have no idea how much I hate my stupid life! I don’t think there is any purpose to it.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I left the party and walked and walked, feeling sorry for myself and thinking about ending everything. You know . . .”

“Oh, Kwok Wei.”

“I called my friends, but they were busy.” He splashes some water on his face and sweeps it down with his palm. “I didn’t realize I was walking along the busway at Harcourt Road. I was beeped at. I thought I was going to get run over.”

“Really?”

“I was pulled over by the police near Admiralty. Luckily, they didn’t arrest me. Then I paid someone to buy me some beer, and I sculled a few more bottles of San Miguel on my way home.”

“You know my son is roughly the same age as you. He wants to be a police officer after hearing that our new president will increase the salaries of the police.” She wipes the boy’s feet but looks at his face. “If you want, you can come with me to the Philippines during my next holiday. But it’s very hot there.”

“I like being in warm places.”

“Not only that, we are also poor. Our house is very poor. You know—no flush toilets, no hot water. We only have hard beds made of bamboo.”

“My teacher said it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. What matters is you’re happy. Are you happy, Auntie Christy?”

“Yes, Kwok Wei, I’m generally happy. I feel sad too, but more happy than sad. I’m happy because I can support my family in the Philippines out of poverty. At least they have something to eat.”

“That’s really good. I’m sure your kids are really proud of you, and your husband, too.”

“Yep.”

“And you shouldn’t worry about being poor then. You know what you ought to do in your life. You make others happy. Really, you are doing things that make you happy.”

“I guess so. I guess that’s life.” Christy smiles and breathes in deeply.

“I don’t know what I want, Auntie Christy. What do you think I should do? I am pretty good at math.”

“You have plenty of opportunities, Kwok Wei. Your parents have money, your country is rich, and you have access to good education. Use these things to your advantage, to make good future. Stop thinking of negative, nonsense things.”

Christy mentions about possible courses he should consider, and she makes him agree to see his school counselor the following day. Eventually, she tucks him into bed and turns the lights off before walking back to her narrow mattress.

She hears the tell-tale moans of pleasure from Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s room at the far end of the apartment and thinks about her husband, and how she wishes she could be with him right now. She wraps herself once more with the flannelette sheet before spreading the quilt on top of her and ducks her head under the covers before checking the photograph of her family one last time on her phone. It’s 1:50 AM. In four hours she has to get up again to make her employers breakfast before they go to work. She thinks about what she will wear to take Kwok Wei to the school counselor. Perhaps she shouldn’t go for a motherly look, just jeans and a white top—the one with undefeated printed on it that Melody sent her last Christmas. Kwok Wei’s words to her tonight are like a balm that massages her aching back and feet, giving her warmth and strength in the isolation from those she loves.

Unexpectedly her phone vibrates softly and a text comes up. It is her husband, Lando: I miss you, Chris. I love you, palangga.

She presses the auto response button that returns her usual message to him—her love. She hugs the phone to her chest and closes her eyes.

She is already asleep as the image of her family fades from the screen. Streaks of Kowloon light reflect on her face from the side of the fridge as its motor runs once more, unnoticed in the night.

The Road

By Rossel Audencial
Fiction

There is a checkpoint ahead.

“Expired akong lisensiya,” mutters the driver before he swerves the tricycle to the right, away from the waiting men in uniform along FilAm Avenue of Brgy. Fatima. The passengers are silent. It has been raining hard since that early afternoon and most of us are drenched from the trip downtown. Good thing, I brought a jacket with me.

Even before the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, checkpoints already scattered in relative areas along the major roads in General Santos City. Blue or Yellow Boys wave at tricycle or single motorcycle drivers to stop at the roadside and examine faces, licenses, and vehicles.

I am sitting at the two-person back seat to the right. In front of me is a woman in her late twenties who keeps on swiping and tapping her cell phone. Beside the driver are two teenagers my age, male and female, their hands intertwined.

The tricycle continues to a two-lane cemented street with residential houses along the way. This street leads to the former public cemetery which has been privatized. Light posts stand in a distance from each other. The lights only cover a little area around their posts. The houses are cast into shadows.

After continuing on a straight road for a while, the driver takes a turn to the left. A woman stands alone beside a light post, its light only a faint glow above us. The driver stops for her. She whispers something before embarking at the back and sitting opposite me. We leave the cemented street and move on to a narrow dirt road. At first, the way is illuminated by the bulbs of the houses we pass by; fences enclose us on both sides. I feel the tricycle strain as the driver navigates it through mud holes, moving to the left or to the right as the road allows, the tires squirting mud. Single motorcycles overtake us and speed away. Another tricycle tails us for a while but it turns to a lone street. Gradually, the houses thin as we go on until we arrive at a crossroad. All we can see are tall grasses on both sides of the two roads. The driver takes the one on the right, and if it wasn’t for the headlight of the tricycle, we would have been plunged into complete darkness. I also notice that we are going uphill as the engine seems to roar louder.

And we turn to the left. We reach level ground and we are now travelling on sand. The tricycle seems heavier. There are no more houses in this part of the road, just more grasses and darkness. I have never been in this area before. I never knew that there are still unoccupied lands within the barangay where I live. The drone of the tricycle echoes through the night, blending with the constant chattering of the crickets.

Another turn to the right. The beam of the tricycle’s headlight only reaches to a few meters of the way. No other vehicle is following us at the back. It’s like we are alone in the vast darkness. We follow the curve of the road as it comes to us through the light, not really knowing where it leads.

We turn to the right again. I feel like an hour has already passed without sign of a house or the highway. I’m starting to feel uneasy. I should have not listened to my friends. They said we won’t stay long when they invited me to have dinner with them after we roamed around the malls the whole afternoon to try dresses for our upcoming Junior’s Prom. Mom will surely get angry at me again. For a week now, I have been going home at almost midnight.

“Katuod ka asa na ni, Kuy? Mura’g kaganiha pa man ta galibot-libot.” utters the woman who is directly behind the driver, her cell phone in her hand.

“Gasunod ra pod ko sa dalan, ‘day,” the driver answers with his eyes locked on the road. We hit another curve. Only tall grasses are visible.

To the right again. The road continues on straight then curves to another crossroad. It is pitch black all around us except the front. The woman behind the driver has her head turned towards the front, too. The woman beside her has her head bowed, perhaps sleeping.

The driver turns to the right. Again. I do not know where the crisscrossing roads lead to. And it hit me, the idea that we are lost. Lost inside a dark maze with no way out. But mazes have traps. What if?

“Balik na lang ta?” the same woman asks, her voice on edge. We all look at the driver.

“Dili na makaya sa akong gasolina. Duol naman ‘guro ta sa highway.” he mumbles in a low voice. The rest of us remain silent, but a palpable tension is starting to build inside the tricycle. The lovers in the front seat huddle closer to each other.

The tricycle follows another curve and – a loud bump. The engine sputters and stops. The front light snuffs out. A surge of blackness envelops us all of a sudden that no one reacts except the driver who pushes the starter as swiftly as he can. One. Two. The engine comes to life again together with the front light. We catch our breath in unison. And we move on through the night.

The driver takes on a narrow pathway and is too late to realize that the puddle ahead is deep. We are stuck. The tricycle can’t move forward, its wheels grinding and splashing mud all over. The driver tells us all to step out. He and the male teenager shove the vehicle away from the watery mush.

“Gabii na gyod,” says the woman who was the last one to ride with us. She is standing a little farther from me. Her voice is clear enough for me to hear despite the loud whine of the tricycle. Her face is turned towards the darkness behind us.

“Lagi, kasab-an na gyod ko ni Mama ani,” I say, looking at her. Whoosh. A chilly wind sweeps through us. I feel it creep through my bones although I’m wearing my jacket. She seems not to notice the cold and continues peering at the dark void.

“Sayo na lang unta ko niuli, magkauban pa unta mi ni Mama. Kamingaw diri,” she says.

Her words arrest my attention. I’m about to ask her but the driver calls us at the other side of the wide puddle. We tiptoe at the grassy side of the path to avoid the mud and jump across to dry ground. One by one, we return inside the tricycle.

When we are all settled back to our seats, the tricycle begins to move again. I look at the woman but her head is bowed again. I wonder what she means.

The road goes straight this time until we pass along small huts amidst the grasses here and there. Then come walls of concrete at both sides of the way, and out into the familiar highway. A few vehicles parade before us in quick succession before we touch the cemented ground. For the first time, I’m glad to see the four-lane concrete Fil-Am road again. I feel relieved to know that its sure point of destination is the General Santos City International Airport. But Mom will surely castigate me; it’s already 11 pm. I’ll just face her wrath when I arrive home.

The lovers are the first ones to leave. I transfer to the front seat. Next is the woman with her cell phone.

“Pag-renew na sa imong lisensiya, Kuy, ha,” she says as she hands in her fare before stepping out. She stands at my side of the vehicle.

“Oo, ‘day,” he replies as he gives her change in front of me.

We continue through the highway. The whole span of it is bright because of the tall light posts at each side street. The establishments at both roadsides are closed, but their incandescent lights are on. But now I know that the darkness is out there, far beyond the artificial brightness. Always there with the grasses and the crossroads. I shiver at the thought of being there earlier.

“Asa man ka, ‘day?” the driver asks me.

“Didto lang sa may Julie’s bakery.”

“Hay salamat, makauli na gyod ko.” The driver smiles.

“Naa pa man ka pasahero.” I stare at him. He must be joking.

“Ha? Ikaw na lang man nabilin.” He looks at me, questioning.

What about the woman? I turn my head around to look at the back seat.

It’s empty.

Dead Lazy

By Hope Daryl Talib
Short Story

Nineteen-year-old Mitch Cabrera was lying in her bed while waiting for the day to end. It was a beautiful day, she admitted to herself, with bright blue clouds and flowers blooming everywhere on the street, but she was too lazy to go outside, even to move, for that matter. She had even hired a personal assistant to prepare her clothes, comb her hair, and even to brush her teeth.

“Lina!” Mitch shouted. “Turn the TV on!”

Lazy ass! Lina thought as she rushed to Mitch’s room. She can’t even turn the TV on herself. She did what she had been ordered to do and then handed the remote control to Mitch. “Here!” Lina said louder than she had intended.

“Wow,” Mitch said. “I think someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. I would’ve slapped you, but it takes too much effort.”

Mitch was unaware that a stranger was watching her closely from a window. Lazy, lazy, lazy. Why are you like that, Mitch? You might regret it someday. Who knows? It might even be today.

Mitch dismissed Lina with a wave of a hand so she could watch TV alone. She turned it to Star Movies and settled in her bed, watching one of her favorite movies, Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Mitch had dropped out of college so she could spend more time watching TV and eating cheese puffs with cold mayonnaise. School was too much work for her. All the writing and moving was too much. Finishing the drink with one loud gulp, she threw the can of soda somewhere, knowing her paid hand would clean after her.

She watched TV and ate cheese puffs for the rest of the day. Not much happened in the house, and she didn’t have to worry about money either, because her parents, who had died a month ago, had been rich enough to provide for her. Now Mitch just had to mooch off her inheritance and never had to lift a finger. Mitch got money, Lina, and the entire house. What more did she need?

To live, thought the stranger watching Mitch. To totally live her life. Not just to exist.

“See you tomorrow!” Lina told Mitch before leaving her. As soon as Lina closed the door, Mitch sighed and continued watching a TV series and feasting on pepperoni pizza that her assistant had ordered for her. The TV later showed a boring documentary about starving children in Africa. Mitch wanted to change the channel, but the remote was too far from her. I’ll get it later, she thought, and she continued to eat. Why is chewing so tiring?

Little did Mitch know that the stranger watching her was already pouring gasoline around her house.

“Hurry up!” Mitch shouted to the TV. “I’m trying to watch my soaps!” The documentary was taking forever, and she didn’t give a rat’s ass about the subject. What am I supposed to feel? Pity?

The stranger lit a match and dropped it into the gasoline. Fire instantly ignited, swallowing Mitch’s house in flames. If she moved, she could live. If not, she would be a human barbecue. Mitch coughed and looked around her house, with red and orange flames surrounding her. The only exit was the window.

But Mitch couldn’t get up. Or she wouldn’t. Whatever her choice was, the stranger left her there to decide.