Kung Di Mo Na Kaya

Ni Rustom M. Gaton
Maikling Kuwento

 

Sa unang pagkakataon, nakita kong maayos ang kuwarto ko. Nakatupi ang kumot, tama at walang yukot ang bedsheet, nakapuwesto ang mga unan. Wala na ring laman ang laundry bin, at wala ring nagkalat na damit sa itaas at ilalim ng kama.

Maging study table ko sa gilid ay nailigpit ding maigi. Nakasalansan ang mga papel, at nakasilid lahat sa garapon ang mga bolpen at lapis. Ang nakatuping papel sa gitna ng mesa ay maayos rin ang pagkapatong.

Maayos na sana lahat kung wala lang ang malamig kong katawan na nakabitay sa ceiling fan at ang nakatumbang monobloc chair sa ilalim.

Dapat talaga masaya ako ngayon eh kasi sa wakas ay naayos ko na lahat. Naiwan ko na lahat ng pagod ko. Hinihintay ko na lang ang liwanag na kukuha sa akin.

Ang tagal. Parang dinudurog ang puso ko sa paghihintay. Sino ang mag-aakala na maaari ko rin palang kaawaan ang sarili kong kalagayan?

Tinitigan ko ang nakabitay kong katawan na ngayon ay wala nang kabuhay-buhay. Ang putla na nito. Kulay kahel na rin ang mga labi nito. Gayunpaman, mukha lang mahimbing na natutulog ang bangkay. Tila ba wala itong dinadalang anumang pasanin sa buhay.

Napansin ko ang mga daliri ng katawan. B-bakit kusang gumagalaw ang mga ito? nausal ko sa aking isip, at mas lalo pang nanlaki ang mga mata ko nang makitang unti-unting nabubuo ang isang ngiti sa mga labi ng katawan. Dahan-dahan ding bumuklat ang mga mata.

Napaatras ako sa aking nakikita. Bakit nabubuhay ang aking bangkay?

Umangat ang mga kamay ng katawan at hinawakan ang taling nakapulupot sa leeg nito, pilit itong kinakalas. Maya-maya pa’y nakawala sa tali ang katawan at nahulog sa sahig.

Bumangon ang katawan. Halatang labis itong nanghihina at paminsan-minsan pang umuubo.

Kinuha nito ang nakatumbang monobloc at pinatayo sa likod ng study table. Umupo ito at sumalampak ang ulo sa mesa.

Patay na ba siya ulit? Paano nangyari ’yon? Natutulog lang ba siya? Ako pa ba ’yan? Labis akong naguguluhan habang pinagmamasdan ang katawang natutulog sa mesa. May paminsan-minsan pang pumapatak na luha sa mga mata nito.

Halos isang oras din akong naghintay bago nagising muli ang katawan. Iniangat nito ang ulo mula sa mesa at pinahiran ang mga natuyong luha. Pagkatapos dinampot nito ang nakatuping papel, na naglalaman ng isinulat kong pamamaalam.

Hawak ng dalawang kamay, binasa nito ang nakasulat. “Hindi ko pala kayang gawin ito,” sabi nito maya-maya.

Kumunot ang noo ko. Ngunit nandito ako. Nandito pa ako sa labas ng katawan ko.

Pinunit nito ang papel at itinapon sa basurahan. Tumungo ito sa aparador at kinuha ang paborito kong kulay abong jacket. Isinuot rin nito ang bunny slippers ko na pink bago tuluyang lumabas ng silid.

Naiwan sa loob ng kuwarto na naguguluhan.

“Sabi ko na eh, susuko ka rin,” narinig kong may nagsabi sa likuran ko. “Mahirap talagang kontrolin ang babaeng iyon. Masyadong matigas ang ulo.”

Kaboses ko ang nagsasalita.

Lumingon ako, at sa sobrang gulat ko, napaatras ako sa aking kinatatayuan. Isang babae ang nakatayo sa harap ko. Mata-sa-matang tumitingin ito sa akin.

Kilalang-kilala ko ang mukha niya. “B-bakit kamukha kita?” nausal ko na lamang.

“Gaya mo, minsan din akong nasa loob ng babaeng iyon,” sagot nito. “Gaya mo, nasawi rin ako.” Inangat nito ang isang kamay, at nakita kong may hiwa ito sa pulso.

“Hindi pa tayo kinukuha ng liwanag dahil hihintayin pa natin ang kamatayan niya.” Isa na namang pamilyar na boses ang nagsalita. “Hindi pa niya oras.”

Tiningnan ko ang pinanggalingan ng boses, at nakakita ako ng isa na namang babaeng kamukha ko. May butas na gawa ng bala sa noo nito. Sa likuran nito, nakatayo ang marami pang babaeng kamukha ko.

Marami na kaming sumuko?

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Diin na si Simó?

Ni Allan Ace Dignadice
Sugilanon

 

Mahilig si Simó maghampang sang loko-loko kabayo. Kahampang niya pirme ang iya duwa ka magulang nga lalaki, kag sa adlaw-adlaw nila nga pagpanaguay, pirme gid mapirde ang agot nga si Simó.

Isa ka udtong adlaw, samtang gapangita sang palanaguan si Simó sa ila balay, nakasulod siya sa isa ka kwarto nga amo pa lang niya nakita. Kay sin-o ni man? pamangkot niya sa iya huna-huna.

“Pernando nga tulisan, panago kamo tanan!” singgit sang isa niya ka magulang.

Nagdali-dali sa pagpanago si Simó sa isa ka dako nga aparador. Ginhawa niya ka hinay-hinay plastar ang iya lawas upod sang mga bayo kag sapatos. Mabatian niya ang pagkudog sang iya dughan kaupod sang iya madalom nga pagginhawa. Ginakulbaan siya nga basi ma-bong siya sang iya magulang.

Nag-agi ang pila ka minuto. Wala.

Daw madaog na gid ko sini! Namalakpak sa iya hunahuna si Simó.

Sang pipila pa gid ka minuto ang nag-agi, may nabatian na si Simó nga mga tingog. “Hoy, Simó! Diin ka timo?” singgit sang isa niya ka magulang.

Gusto lang ko sina nila ma-bong, gin-isip ni Simó. Indi takon maggwa.

“Simo? Ginapangita ka ni Manong mo,” pagpanawag sang iya iloy.

Abaw, gamiton pa nila si Mamang para mainto ko! Wala gihapon naggwa si Simó sa iya nga ginapanaguan.

“Simó! Bakulon ka gid ni Papang kay wala ka nanyapon!” pagpanghadlok sang isa pa niya ka magulang.

Gabangisi sa sulod sang aparador si Simó samtang gapinanawag ang iya pamilya sa iya. Ginaisip na lang ni Simó nga nainggit lang ang iya mga utod kay amo pa lang siya nadaog sa loko-loko kabayo. Ti man, nakabalos gid ko!

“Simó? Simó!”

“Diin ka na timo?”

“Simó, gwa na da. Pamahaw na!”

Daw wala lang sa bungog ni Simó ang pagpanawag sa iya.

“Simó!”

“Simó? Simó.”

Wala sa gihapon naggwa sa aparador ang agot. Sa iya huna-huna, Ahhh! Kun maggwa ko, hambalon lang na nila nga naka-seb si Manong. Indi takon!

Nag-agi pa ang pila ka minuto.

Kag inoras. Kag mga adlaw.

Semana. Bulan kag mga tinuig. Asta nga daw nalimtan na lang sang panimalay nga ginapangita pa nila si Simó. Nadula na ang mga pagpanawag, pagpaniyagit, kag pagpakitluoy. Nagtinong ang bug-os nga balay, kag wala na sang may naghampang pa liwat sang loko-loko kabayo kay asta sa sini nga mga tion, sila nagapalamangkutanon: Diin na si Simó?

Muwang

Ni Doren John Bernasol
Dagli

 

“’Nak, ibibigay ni sir lahat ng gusto mo,” panghihikayat ng ina. “’Yong bike, maraming chocolates, at iba pang mga laruan. May ipagyayabang ka na ulit sa mga kaklase mo. Di ba gusto mo ’yon, ’nak? Gusto mo ’yon?”

Diniinan ng ina ang hawak sa balikat ng bata. Tumango ang bata.

“Basta huwag kang iyak ha?” dagdag ng ina. “Sumunod ka lang sa gusto niya. Tulad lang ng ginawa mo dati kay sir.”

“Siya pa rin ho ba, Nay?” tanong ng bata.

“Di na, ’nak. Mas mabait ito siya. Kausapin mo. Marunong din siya ng konting Tagalog.”

Kinatok ng ina ang pinto.

Tumambad sa mag-ina ang maamong mukha ng matanda. Nakangiti. Walang balbas, puti ang buhok, at may kalakihan ang tiyan.

“Please be careful with my son, sir,” ang Ingles ng ina.

“Walang problema,” sabi ng matanda, sabay abot ng bayad. “As agreed. I added some.” Pinapapasok nito sa silid ang bata at isinara ang pinto. Umalis na ang nanay.

Umupo sa kama ang matanda at kinandong ang bata. “My dear, what’s your name?”

Di marunong mag-Ingles ang bata, pero natanong na ito sa kaniya dati. Sinagot niya ito ng buong pangalan at edad. Ito ang turo ng nanay niya. Matapos nito ay nagtanong ang bata, “Sabi ho ng nanay ko, bibilhan mo ako ng bike, chocolates, at iba pang laruan?”

“Oo naman,” sabi ng matanda. “Basta sundin mo ako.”

“Ay, hindi na lang ho ’yon.”

“Toy na lang? Tell me ano’ng toy gusto mo.”

“Puwede po bang huwag ni’yo na lang akong ibalik kina Nanay?”

Hindi tumugon ang matanda. Pinag-isipan nito ang gagawin habang akap ang bata.

It Comes at Night

By Angelo Serrano
Fiction

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

I was seven at the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Candles

By Jed Reston
Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bagyo

Ni Gwyneth Joy Prado
Maikling Kuwento

Isang bagyo na naman ang namataan sa loob ng Philippine Area of Responsibility. Inaasahan na tatama ang bagyo sa ating bansa sa darating na Biyernes, Setyembre 14, 2018. Maging handa at alisto tayong lahat.

“Ale, heto po ang bayad ko para sa biskwit,” ang sabi ko sa nagtitinda, sabay abot sa kaniya ng sampung pisong barya mula sa bulsa ng luma kong paldang pang-eskwela.

“Ineng, kulang ka ng dalawang piso,” sabi ng Ale.

“Babalikan ko na lang ho mamaya,” tugon ko.

“Sige.”

Tumalikod ako at sinimulang kainin ang binili kong biskwit. May paparating na namang bagyo. Mag e-evacuate na naman kami ni Tatay neto. Binilisan ko ang lakad upang sabihin sa kaniya ang narinig kong balita.

“May bagong bagyo. Sana malakas para masuspende na naman ang klase natin. Ha-ha-ha!”

“Oo nga. Nakakatamad mag-aral. Sana nga wala tayong pasok.”

Dinig ko ang pag-uusap ng dalawang dalagang nakasalubong ko sa daan. Imbes na magalit, ipinagwalang-bahala ko na lamang ito at ipinagpatuloy ang aking paglalakad hanggang marating ang munti at tagpi-tagping barong-barong na tinitirhan namin.

Binuksan ko ang pinto. Sa lakas, muntik ko pa itong masira. Agad akong humalik sa pisngi ni Tatay. Ibinahagi ko sa kaniya ang masamang balita na aking narinig kanina. Nag-impake na rin ako kaagad upang maging handa sa parating na sakuna.

Binasag ko ang alkansiyang kawayan na limang buwan ko ring pinag-ipunan. Binilang ko ang laman at umabot ito ng P583. Bumalik ako sa tindahan. Binayaran ko ang kulang ko kanina at bumili ng mga pagkain.

Kinabukasan, pumasok pa rin ako ng paaralan kahit basang-basa ang sapatos ko. Umulan kasi ng nakaraang gabi, at may butas pa ang bubong namin. Bawat sulok ng paaralan, bukambibig ang paparating na bagyo.

“Umulan nang malakas kagabi. Sana hindi na lang tumigil nang sa gayo’y wala tayong pasok.”

“Sana bumaha hanggang bewang para masuspende ang klase.”

“Sana umabot ng isang linggo ang bagyo para isang linggo ring walang pasok.”

Kahit punong-puno na ako, ipinagwalang bahala ko na lang ang ulit ang mga naririnig ko. Hindi kasi nila naiintindihan ang kalagayan ng isang tulad ko.

Bumuhos na naman ang malakas na ulan, at heto na naman ako, tinatakpan ang mga butas ng aming bubong. Dahil sa lakas ng ulan, umidlip lang ako sandali. Malamig kasi at napakasarap matulog. ’Yon nga lang, maingay dahil sa mga kulog at patak ng ulan sa yero.

Nagising ako sa ingay na nanggagaling sa labas ng aming barong-barong. Bumaba ako ng kama at nagulat dahil lagpas beywang na pala ang tubig sa loob ng aming bahay. Napasigaw ako sa gulat. Agad ko namang hinablot ang aking bag at tumungo sa pinto ng aming barong-barong.

Pupunta na sana ako sa evacuation center nang maalala ko si Tatay. Kinuha ko ang kaniyang litrato sa itaas ng aking kabinet. Niyapos ko ito at hinalikan.

“Hinding-hindi na ulit kita bibitawan sa mga ganitong sakuna, Tay,” bulong ko sa litrato, at sabay naming sinuong ang malakas na hampas ng ulan, ihip ng hangin, at lagpas beywang na baha sa gitna ng gabi.

The Days and Nights of Claire

By Zaira Mae Calub
Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got dressed and went out for a walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But fate had other plans.

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

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

I was scared. She rushed to me.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

“You can open your eyes now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice to meet you too—”

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

“No, it’s OK.”

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

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

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

“Uhm, yes. But . . .”

“Someone’s waiting for you?”

“No. No one. I’m just . . . shy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What . . . happened to him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ruined everything.

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

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

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

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

And pulled the trigger.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hush now, baby. You’re safe now.”

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

No. Bella was safe now.