Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara

By Rogelio Braga
Novel Excerpt

Bahagi ang sumusunod ng unang kabanata ng nobelang pangkabataang Si Betchay at ang Sacred Circle: Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara, na inilabas ng Balangiga Press noong 2017.

Madaling araw ng Lunes nang ipinatawag ni Ma’am Soraida ang barkadang Sacred Circle sa McDonald’s. Halos hindi pa lumalabas ang araw nang unang dumating, tulad ng inaasahan, si Baloy, na siyang pinakamatanda sa anim. Napansin kaagad ni Ma’am Soraida ang itim na kotse na naghatid kay Baloy sa harap ng McDonald’s sa kanto ng Tandang Sora at Commonwealth Avenue. Nakasuot pa ng sunglasses si Baloy nang pumasok sa McDo.

“Good morning, Ma’am Soraida,” ang bati ni Baloy. Hinubad nito ang sunglasses at napansin kaagad ni Ma’am Soraida sa mga mata ni Baloy na tila nahirapan itong gumising sa madaling araw para sa ipinatawag niyang pulong ng Sacred Circle. “I can sense the urgency. I wonder ano na naman ang case na ito, Ma’am Soraida.”

Magkasabay na dumating sina Anna at Azalea. Mabilis silang naupo sa harapan ni Ma’am Soraida. Binati kaagad ni Azalea ang belo na suot ni Ma’am Soraida. “Blue,” panimula ni Azalea. “I think this is going to be a very serious discussion.” Tumayo si Anna at lumapit sa counter para bumili ng kape para sa kanilang apat.

Sumunod na dumating si Hamida. Sukbit nito ang malaking bag na gawa sa katsa, naka-jeans, rubber shoes, at dilaw na belo. Bumati ito ng assalamu alaykum kay Ma’am Soraida at sa grupo.

“Girl, bakit yellow ang hijab mo?” bati kaagad ni Azalea. “I thought Monday is green day?”

“Hindi natuyo kahapon ang iba kong mga kumbong. Bad trip nga, e. So, ano ang meron sa atin?”

“Meeting,” sagot ni Azalea, nakatingin siya sa labas sa mga dumaraang tao. “I hate yellow in Monday mornings.”

Bumalik na si Anna sa mesa. Naglabas ng lipgloss at nagpahid sa mga labi. Naglabas din siya ng foundation at naglagay sa magkabilang pisngi. Nagsimula na ang kanyang araw.

“Girls, we have to wait for Betchay and Jason,” panimula ni Ma’am Soraida sabay higop ng kape. “This is going to be a serious discussion. Ayaw ko nang ulitin pa ang details matapos kong ipaliwanag. Baloy, can you check nasaan ang dalawa?”

Naglabas ng cellphone si Baloy at tinawagan si Jason. Walang cellphone si Betchay. Wala rin siyang Facebook, Twitter, at Instagram. Email lang ang mayroon si Betchay at telepono sa bahay nila.

“Girl, where are you, kasi ten centuries na ang lumipas?” banas na tanong ni Baloy. “As usual, late na naman kayong dalawa ni Betchay. Bilisan ninyo. This is serious daw.”

Kalahating oras pa ang dumaan bago dumating sina Jason at Betchay. Tumayo muli si Anna para umorder ng kape para sa mga bagong dating. Magpinsan sina Jason at Betchay at nakikitira si Jason sa pamilya ni Betchay.

“Nakakaloka naman ito, Ma’am Soraida,” bungad ni Jason. Nakasuot siya ng green na polo shirt at kahel na pantalon. “Bakit kailangang alas-sais ng umaga ang meeting na ito? Tingnan po ninyo, wala pang masyadong jeep na bumibiyahe sa Tandang Sora.” At humikab si Jason na sa sobrang lakas ay nakaagaw siya ng pansin ng mga tao sa kabilang mesa.

“Betchay,” panimula ni Ma’am Soraida. “Ikaw na ang magpaliwanag sa kanila.”

Tumindig si Betchay pero nanatili sa tabi ni Ma’am Soraida. Hawak niya sa kanang kamay ang kapeng nag-aasó pa. Huminga muna siya nang malalim bago nagsimulang magsalita.

Nanatiling nakatingin sa labas si Azalea.

“Nagkausap na kami ni Ma’am Soraida kagabi sa telepono,” panimula ni Betchay. “Sacred Circle, prepare yourselves, we are leaving for Negros this afternoon.”

Napanganga sa gulat ang Sacred Circle. “Well… Negros! Bongga! Bongga, di ba?” si Jason lang ang tumugon sa grupo matapos ang halos isang minutong katahimikan.

“For me, this is going to be a vacation,” si Baloy ang unang nagpahayag ng pananabik. “I’ve never been to Negros.”

“I’m always ready,” sabad naman ni Hamida. “I am always ready.”

Napatingin ang lahat kina Azalea at Anna, naghihintay ng kahit anong tugon mula sa kanila. Nagkatinginan ang kambal at sabay na napaoo, “Sige, game kaming dalawa.” Mahahalatang hindi na naman nagpaalam sa mga magulang nila ang dalawa. Sila ang pinakabata sa grupo, halos labing-anim na taong gulang lamang. Pero nahinuha kaagad ni Ma’am Soraida na wala na naman ang mga magulang nila dahil malaya silang nakalabas ng bahay sa madaling araw. Smuggler ang nanay nila na palaging nasa labas ng Maynila at tanyag namang computer hacker ang tatay nila na marahil nagtatago na naman sa batas o nasa labas ng bansa.

“Actually, Sacred Circle, you have no other options but to go. I have your tickets na,” paniniguro ni Ma’am Soraida na may ngiti na sa mga labi. “Consider this as your vacation. Na-aarange ko na lahat pati ang titirhan ninyo roon. May kaibigan ako sa Negros and she will accommodate you. She is our client. Medyo weird ang gig na ito pero alam kong masasakyan ninyo. Aren’t you all excited?”

“We are excited, Ma’am Soraida,” diin ni Betchay na siyang lider ng Sacred Circle. “We’ll accomplish everything at hindi kami babalik dito hangga’t hindi nabibigyan ng kasagutan si Mrs. Weil.”

Ibinaling ni Azalea ang tingin niya kay Betchay. Nang nagtama ang kanilang mga mata, inirapan niya si Betchay.

Si Betchay ang unang kasapi ng Sacred Circle. Labingwalong taong gulang siya at siya ang kanang kamay ni Ma’am Soraida. Makulay ang kabataan ni Betchay na siyang dahilan kung bakit ganoon na lamang ang pagtitiwala sa kanya ni Ma’am Soraida. Napulot ni Ma’am Soraida si Betchay sa isang liblib na komunidad ng mga Blaan sa Sarangani. Napadaan doon ang grupo nina Ma’am Soraida nang tinatakasan nila ang isang platoon ng mga sundalong Filipino na humahabol sa kanila. Sunog ang lahat ng bahay sa komunidad at ang tantiya nina Ma’am Soraida at ng mga kasama niya, kagagawan ito ng mga sundalo. Madalas kasing pagkamalan ng mga sundalo ang mga lumad na umaanib sa New People’s Army. Freedom fighter pa noon ng MNLF si Ma’am Soraida at estudyante sa kolehiyo sa Cotabato City kung nasa siyudad naman siya. Narinig niya ang iyak ng isang bata mula sa isang sunog na dampa. Sinundan nila ang uha at natagpuan ang isang sanggol sa sunog na dampa. Wala itong kasama. Marahil isa sa mga bangkay na nakahandusay sa lupa ang ina nito, pero maraming patay, hindi bababa sa singkuwenta.

“Alhamdullilah!” Napasigaw si Ma’am Soraida. “Buhay pa ang bata! Buhay pa ang bata!”

Ibinaba ni Ma’am Soraida ang sukbit niyang AK-47 at nilapitan ang sanggol. Nandilat siya nang mahawakan ang sanggol. Malagkit itong tila nababalutan ng madulas at kumikintab na balat—kaliskis. Dali-dali niyang dinampot ang kanyang armas na nasa lupa.

“Bakit Soraida?” ang tanong ng isa niyang kasama.

“Jinn…” ang naisagot lamang ni Soraida. Nanghihilakbot na itinuro niya ang sanggol. “Anak iyan ng mga tonong.”

Lumapit ang mga kasama sa sanggol, nakatutok ang kanilang mga baril. Biglang tumawa nang malakas ang sanggol. Tumawa nang tumawa na parang may kalaro. Nang lapitan pa nila ang sanggol, nahinuha nilang kaliskis ng ahas ang nakabalot sa katawan nito. Anak ng dambuhalang ahas ang sanggol na Blaan. Dinampot ni Soraida ang sanggol, inalis ang mga kaliskis na hindi naman pala bahagi ng kanyang balat, at kinarga niya sa dibdib na parang sariling anak. Dinala ni Soraida ang bata pababa sa Gensan. Dinala niya hanggang lumuwas siya ng Maynila para ipagpatuloy ang pag-aaral ng kolehiyo sa Philippine Normal University para maging isang guro. Ipinaampon niya ang sanggol sa kanyang kababata at matalik na kaibigan na noo’y may asawa nang doktor pero walang anak. Itinuring nilang anak si Betchay pero hindi nila itinago sa bata ang katotohanan tungkol sa pagkatao nito. Itinuturing ni Betchay na ina niya rin si Ma’am Soraida. Madalas din siya sa bahay ng guro at palagi siya nitong isinasama sa Lanao kung bumabalik si Ma’am Soraida sa kanila sa Marawi. Tulad ng lahat ng kasapi ng Sacred Circle, marunong din si Betchay ng basic combat at sa paghawak at pagpapaputok ng iba’t ibang uri ng baril.

“Mrs. Weil?” Si Anna, habang hawak ang eyeliner. “Who is she?”

“Kaibigan ko. She will accommodate you sa Silay City,” sagot ni Ma’am Soraida. “Tulad ng nasabi ko kanina, siya rin ang client namin. Nagbigay na siya ng advance payment, at kung maresolba natin ang kaso—malaki ang makukuha nating bayad and we can go on vacation.”

“Kakaiba ang pangalan niya. Imported?” Palagi, si Hamida ang mausisa sa mga pangalan ng mga lugar, tao, at pangyayaring bago sa kanyang pandinig.

“No. Filipino si Mrs. Weil,” pagpapaliwanag ni Betchay. “She is from Negros.”

“She has a weird name. I do not trust people with weird names,” salo ni Baloy habang patuloy sa pagte-text. Ipinahahanda na niya ang mga gamit na dadalhin sa biyaheng patungo sa Negros.

“Yes—and she has a weird problem, too.” Malayo ang tingin ni Betchay. Alam niyang isa na naman itong mahirap ngunit kapana-panabik na kasong reresolbahin ng Sacred Circle. “I’m sure magugustuhan siya ni Azalea,” biro ni Betchay.

“Shet! Bakit mo naman nasabi iyan? Is she a lesbo, too?”

“No, Baloy. She is a Marcos loyalist!” sagot ni Betchay.

“My God!” bulalas ni Jason. “Punyeta! Naaalibadbaran ako sa mga loyalist ng mga Marcos, Ma’am Soraida. Hindi pa ba sapat na may kasama tayong lesbiyanang apologist ni Marcos? I can’t!” Si Azalea ang tinutukoy niya.

“Putang ina mong bakla ka. You should know your history—”

“Excuse me, iha, you should know your history!” Hindi pa man natatapos si Azalea, sinagot na siya ni Jason.

“Palibhasa, maka-Aquinong dilawan ka!” Ibinagsak ni Azalea ang baso niya ng kape.

Tahimik lang ang grupo. Ayaw na nilang makisalo sa pagtatalo ng dalawa. Minsan na nilang pinagtulungan si Azalea at nauwi lang sa pagdadabog at hindi pagpaparamdam ng ilang linggo ng kaibigan. Ayaw na ring makisalo ni Anna dahil halos araw-araw na silang nagtatalo ni Azalea tungkol kay Marcos.

Itinaas ni Ma’am Soraida ang baso niya ng kape bilang pag-anyaya ng toast sa grupo. Ito na rin ang paraan niya upang basagin ang namumuong tensiyon kina Azalea at Jason. Itinaas ng anim ang kanilang mga baso at sabay-sabay na nagsabing, “Cheers sa Sacred Circle!”

“Never again!” habol ni Jason. “Never forget, mga bakla!”

Hindi na nakasagot si Azalea habang nakataas ang kanyang kamay.

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Migo

By Bernadette V. Neri
Short Story for Children

Assalam mu alaykum! Ako si Migo Dagbusan, Tausug mula sa Cotabato,” bati niya sa sarili habang nananalamin. Unang araw niya ngayon sa Paaralang Elementarya ng Barangay Sentral kaya hindi siya mapakali sa pag-eensayo ng pagpapakilala. Bukod sa sabik siyang makabalik sa pag-aaral, sabik din si Migo na magkaroon ng mga bagong kaibigan.

“Aba! Handa na ang utoh ko,” nakangiting sabi ng kaniyang ina.

Biglang nag-alala ang mukha ng bata, “May makipaglaro po kaya sa akin?”

Marahang yumuko ang nanay upang suotan siya ng kupya, “Tiyak akong marami kang makikilala.”

Magdadalawang buwan pa lang sina Migo sa nirerentahan nilang kuwarto sa Maynila. Noong una, ayaw niya sa bago nilang tirahan. Masikip ang kalye papasok sa looban. Dikit-dikit ang mga bahay kaya napakaalinsangan. Ibang-iba sa kinalakhan niyang lugar.

Maliit lang naman ang kubo nina Migo sa probinsiya. Pero di niya ito dama dahil buong baryo ang kaniyang palaruan.

Manggahan nina Mang Turing ang paborito niyang tambayan kasama ang mga kaibigan. Madalas silang maghabulan sa mga pilapil ng bukiring sinasaka ng kanilang mga magulang. Nagpupunta rin sila sa ilog para lumangoy o kaya’y mamingwit. At tuwing nais niyang magpahinga, nahihiga siya sa duyang nakasabit sa punong bayabas sa harap ng kanilang tahanan.

Malawak at maaliwalas ang pinagmulang bayan ni Migo sa Cotabato. Gayon man, hindi ito nakaligtas sa nagpapatuloy na digmaan sa Mindanao.

Hindi makapagsaka at makapangisda ang mga nakatatanda. Nahinto sa pag-aaral ang mga bata. Ginawang kampo ng militar ang mga eskuwelahan. Nababalot ng takot ang buong pamayanan. Kaya tulad ng iba pa nilang kababayan, napilitang lumikas ang pamilya ni Migo.

Gustong-gustong makabalik sa pag-aaral si Migo. Nais niya muling magbuklat ng mga libro, gumuhit ng mga larawan, at magsulat ng kaniyang pangalan. Kaya kahit masikip at mainit, ang lagi niyang iniisip, “Dito, walang putukan.”

Kabadong tumayo si Migo sa harapan ng kanilang silid-aralan. Wala siyang nakita ni isang naka-kupya at turung kaya inayos niya ang abaya at huminga nang malalim. Pagkatapos ay ngumiti siya at nagpakilala.

Pagdating ng rises, pinili ni Migong umupo sa lilim ng punong malapit sa palaruan. Tumunog ang kaniyang tiyan kaya inilabas niya ang baong dalawang piraso ng pandesal.

“Naaamoy ninyo ba ‘yon?”

Napalingon si Migo sa boses na mula sa likuran. Nginitian niya ang tatlong batang nakatingin sa kaniya. “Nakagugutom talaga ang amoy nitong pandesal,” sabi niya. “Gusto ninyong tikman?”

Biglang inagaw ng kaklase niyang si Dana ang mga tinapay. “Masarap nga!” sabi nito matapos kumagat. “Pero,” kumunot ang kaniyang ilong, “may naaamoy pa rin akong hindi maganda.”

Sininghot-singhot ni Dana ang bagong kamag-aral, “Naligo ka ba, Migo?”

Gitlang sinundan ng tingin ni Migo ang mga bata. Nagtatawanan ang mga ito habang lumalakad palayo kain-kain ang kaniyang baon. Hindi niya maipaliwanag kung bakit pero magkahalong takot at hiya ang naramdaman niya.

Kinabukasan, nakita ni Migo si Dana na nag-aabang sa tarangkahan ng paaralan. Iiwas sana siya pero agad siyang nasundan.

“Pakopya ng assignment,” utos ni Dana.

“Wala ka bang nagawa?” pag-aalangan ni Migo.

Nanlisik ang mga mata ng batang maton, “Kokopya ba ako kung meron?”

Biglang naalala ni Migo ang mga mata ng mga unipormadong nagkampo sa kanilang paaralan. Nag-umpugan ang kaniyang mga tuhod. Hindi makagalaw ang kaniyang mga paa. Napilitan si Migong iabot ang kuwaderno na agad namang kinopya ni Dana.

“Lagot ka sa akin kapag nagsumbong ka,” banta ni Dana bago nagmadaling pumasok sa kanilang klase.

Nagpatuloy ang gayong gawi ni Dana kay Migo. Araw-araw siya nitong inaabangan para tuksuhin, utusan, o kaya ay agawan ng baon.

Minsan, hinablot ni Dana ang kupya ni Migo. Araw iyon ng pagsamba kaya naka-kupya at abaya siya.

“Hindi bagay sa iyo!” pangungutya ni Dana.

Iba ang nadama ni Migo sa pagkakataong ito. May kuryenteng gumapang sa kaniyang mga paa paakyat sa kaniyang ulo. Hindi siya nakapagpigil.

“Ibalik mo ‘yan,” madiin niyang sabi.

Nagbago ang mukha ng galit na si Dana. Nagmistula siyang tangkeng malapit nang sumabog. “Kunin mo kung kaya mo!”

Hindi natinag si Migo sa kabila ng kaniyang takot. Pinilit niyang abutin ang kupya. Dahil mas malaki si Dana, kahit anong lundag ay hindi niya ito maagaw.

Buong-lakas na itinapon ni Dana ang kupya sa lupa. Tinapakan niya ito nang pupulutin na Migo at sinipa palayo. “Huwag mo na ulit akong sisigawan!”

Naluluhang pinulot ni Migo ang kaniyang kupya. Pero kahit anong gawin niyang pagpag at punas, naroon pa rin ang bakas ng sapatos ni Dana.

Mabibigat ang bawat hakbang ni Migo pauwi. Hindi maalis sa kaniyang isip ang mga panunuya ni Dana.

“Bakit ba ako palaging tinutukso?” tanong niya sa sarili.

Naalala ni Migo ang kaniyang mga kaibigan. Ang bahaginan nila ng baon tuwing rises, pagtutulungan sa paggawa ng asignatura, at ang paglalaro o kaya’y paghuhuntahan kapag uwian. Pero tulad niya, nagsilikas din ang mga ito dahil sa giyera.

“Kamusta na kaya sila?” bulong ng bata.

Napansin ng nanay ni Migo na wala siyang ganang maghapunan. Sinubukan siya nitong pasayahin, “Sa susunod kong sahod, anak, ang paborito mong pianggang ang iluluto ko.”

Inah,” mahinang sabi ng bata habang tinitingnan ang dumi sa hawak na kupya, “Wala pa rin po akong kaibigan.”

Sa pagitan ng mga hikbi, ikinuwento ni Migo ang mga panunuyang nararanasan niya sa eskuwela.

“Gusto ko na pong umuwi, Inah,” bulong ni Migo. “Kailan po ba matatapos ang giyera?”

Tinabihan si Migo ng kaniyang nanay at marahang niyakap. “Hindi ko alam, utoh,” buntonghininga nito. “Nagpapatuloy ang digmaan dahil may mga nais mang-agaw sa ating mga lupang ninuno, at dahil may mga matatapang na nagtatanggol para sa karapatan nating mga katutubo ng Mindanao.”

Nanatiling tahimik si Migo.

“Mahirap pa itong unawain sa ngayon, utoh, pero pakatandaan mong walang mali o kulang sa atin. Mabubuti at mararangal tayong tao,” paliwanag pa ng nanay. “Kailangan lang tayong makilala upang maunawaang lahat tayo’y magkakapantay.”

Inabot ng ina ang kupya sa kamay ni Migo at marahan itong nilinis gamit ang laylayan ng kaniyang saya. Pagkatapos ay isinuot niya ito sa ulo ng anak, “Utoh, huwag mong kalilimutan kung sino at saan ka nagmula.”

Naging resolbado si Migo na magpakilala kay Dana. Kinabukasan, inabangan niya ito sa bungad ng kanilang paaralan.

“Magandang umaga, Dana!” bati niya. “May assignment ka na?”

“Nasa iyo, di ba?” sutil na sagot ng bata.

Lumapit si Migo dala ang dalawang kopya ng asignatura para sa araw na iyon. Iniabot niya sa kaklase ang isa.

Agad nabura ang ngiti sa mukha ni Dana dahil listahan lang ng mga tanong ang nakasulat sa papel. Pagagalitan dapat niya si Migo pero bago pa man siya makapagsalita ay nauna na ito.

“Madali lang ito,” bungad ng bata. Ipinaliwanag niya sa harap ni Dana ang mga sagot na kaniyang isinusulat.

Nagtaka si Dana sa asal ni Migo. Hindi na rin niya mabakas ang takot sa mukha nito. Gayon man, sinimulan na rin niya ang pagkopya. Pero sa pagkakataong ito, nauunawaan na niya kung bakit gayon ang mga sagot.

Kinahapunan, sinamahan si Migo ng kaniyang Inah kay Teacher Mira, ang guidance counselor ng paaralan. Naniniwala kasi siya na tungkulin din ang eskuwelahang pangalagaan ang mga mag-aaral. Hindi sila nabigo. Ipinangako ni Teacher Mira na kakausapin si Dana at ang mga magulang nito upang maunawaang mali ang pangungutya.

“Huwag kang mag-alala, Migo,” sabi ng tagapayo. “Sabay namin kayong gagabayan ni Dana para hindi na ito maulit.”

Kinahapunan, pinanood ni Migo sina Dana habang nagpapatintero. Matatapos na sana ang laro nang magpaalam ang isang bata. Agad lumapit si Migo at nagboluntaryo.

“Bawal ang lampa rito,” ismid ni Dana.

Ngumiti si Migo. “Subukan ninyo ako,” hamon niya.

Dahil ayaw pang mag-uwian, isinali siya sa grupo nina Dana. Hindi nahirapan si Migo. Sa kanilang baryo sa Cotabato, siya ang pinakamaliksi at matulin sa pagtakbo.

“Ang galing mong umilag sa patotot, Migo!” bilib na sabi ng isang kalaro.

“Maliit pero mabilis!” hiyaw ng isa pa.

Tiningnan ni Dana ang batang Tausug. “Bukas ulit, ha?” sabi nito.

Lalong naging masigasig si Migo sa mga sumunod pang araw. Tinuruan niya si Dana sa paggawa ng mga asignatura sa matematika. Tinulungan naman siya nito sa mga proyekto nila sa agham.

Unti-unting nagdagdagan ang mga kasama nilang nag-aaral bago mag-uwian. Kapag walang asignatura, sama-sama rin silang naglalaro ng patintero, taguan, o kaya’y habulan.

Minsan, habang nagririses, sinubok ni Migo ang memorya ni Dana. Tinuturuan kasi niya ito ng ilang salita at pahayag na Tausug.

Maunu unu ra kaw?” pangungumusta niya.

Marayaw da,” sabi ni Dana habang iniaalok kay Migo ang nilagang saging na saba. “Ikaw, maunu unu ra kaw?”

Marayaw da,” masaya at puno ng pag-asang sagot ni Migo habang inaayos ang kaniyang kupya. Naisip niyang hindi lang pagkakaroon ng kaibigan ang natupad sa araw na iyon. Nakilala at naipakilala rin niya ang sarili bilang kapantay ng iba.

 

Sa Likod ng Ngiti ni Joy

By Ralph Jake T. Wabingga
Flash Fiction

pagkatapos ng isang guhit ng isang nakangiting batang babaeng Tboli

Mataas na ang sikat ng araw ngunit hindi pa nakaalis ng bahay si Aleng Lolita dahil tulog pa rin ang anak niyang si Joy. Espesyal ang araw na ito dahil isang malaking kasiyahan ang idaraos sa bayan at maraming dayuhang turista ang pupunta upang makita silang mga katutubong Tboli.

Sa isip ni Aleng Lolita ay dapat maganda ang kaniyang anak sa pagdiriwang na ito. Kaya kagabi, inilabas niya mula sa maingat na pagkakatago ang isang kasuotang Tboli na isinusuot lamang tuwing may mahahalagang okasyon. Espesyal na hinabi ang kasuotang ito para lamang kay Aleng Lolita noong dalagita pa siya. Ngayon, maisusuot na rin ito ng kaniyang anak sa kauna-unahang pagkakataon.

Ginising ni Aleng Lolita si Joy, na bumangon at naghanda na sa pagkakataong ito. Napansin ng ina na nakasimangot ang kaniyang anak at alam niya bakit. Ayaw ni Joy na pinagpipiyestahan siya dahil sa kaniyang suot at ayos. Hindi ito pinansin ni Aleng Lolita at nagpatuloy sa pag-aayos sa anak.

Ipinasuot ni Aleng Lolita ang isang blusang may magagarang palamuti at makukulay na burda. Makikita rito ang maliliit at kumikinang na tatsulok na ibinurda sa harap ng blusa. Sa mga manggas naman ay may mga hugis-tatsulok ding may iba’t ibang kulay—pula, bughaw, at dilaw.

Ipinasuot pagkatapos kay Joy ang palda na gawa sa hinabing tnalak at inilagay ang makulay na sinturon paikot sa baywang niya. Ipinasuot din sa dalagita ang dalawang malalaking kuwintas at isinabit sa kaniyang tainga ang dalawang mahahabang hikaw. At upang makompleto ang kasuotang Tboli ni Joy, inilagay ni Aleng Lolita ang salakot na binalot ng pulang tela at may makukulay na dekorasyon. Sa wakas, handa na si Joy para sa kasiyahan!

Nang marating na ng mag-ina ang bayan, nakita nila na hindi mahulugang karayom ang plasa sa dami ng tao. Sa gitna ng plasa, may entabladong kinauupuan ang iba pang dalagang Tboli na nakasuot din ng kanilang katutubong kasuotan. Pinagkakaguluhan sila ng mga turistang kinukunan sila ng mga larawan.

Pinaupo na rin ni Aleng Lolita si Joy sa entablado at sinabihang ngumiti sa mga kamera. Hindi ngumiti ni Joy at tiningnan niya sa halip ang iba pang mga dalagang nasa entablado—masaya silang nagpapakuha ng larawan sa mga turista.

Sinenyasan ulit ni Aleng Lolita si Joy na ngumiti ngunit umiling ang dalagita. Pinagtitinginan na sila ng mga turista kaya inirapan na ni Aleng Lolita ang kaniyang anak. Dahil sa halong takot at inis, walang magawa si Joy kundi sundin ang kaniyang ina. Dahan-dahang pilit na ngumiti si Joy sa harap ng mga turista.

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.