Perpetual Friction

by Michael John Otanes

(This piece first appeared in the Roots section of Rambutan Literary.)

When father died inside our house, mother
muttered neatly-folded words to him so
they would spark, like fireworks, in his heart.
For almost every day in three years,
mother had been hoping for his resurrection;
and so she decided not to cremate
his body. In truth, she enshrouded him with
white blankets (to turn him into a pupa,
she told me), hang his corpse in the
ceiling of her room—and she would sing hymns
and dance around it. Then on her
knees, and with her head up and closed eyes,
she would pray in silence and in devotion while
rubbing her hands against the cold
thing, so hard that, sometimes, it got warm.
He’s alive! she would chant. He’s alive!
But father has not gone outside even once. Months
later, grandmother paid a visit to us one fine
day, and said she saw father being nestled
by another arms, in an open field. Mother’s
brows met. As soon as she uncovered
the pupa very carefully, and saw nothing
inside it but ashes, she broke down to tears. Like
stars, she noticed, she could not reach
the ashes. Then she reached for my
hand this time, said sorry, and whispered
that, at last, she knew now why father
died, just as she untangled the
rope tightly looped around my neck.


We are Careful

by Michael John C. Otanes (Poetry)

We are careful: when his eyes meet
mine in the crowd we would put walls
between us to stop the fire. It is only
in the darkness where our bent
bodies meet. There, without exchanging
words, we would make a ritual only
we can understand: I would sit on
the bed and gaze up at his eyes;
then he would spit nectar inside
my mouth, and then a cobweb in my
lips so they are shut.
Language dies
when it is not used, but it is in
silence that we preserve ours. We do
not speak our new jargons and
slangs outside: we fasten them
atop our tongues so securely, afraid
that, should they be blurted
out of the caves by any accidents,
graves will be born.

Gravitational Pull

by Michael John Otanes (Fiction)

Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of nature—but the weakest, actually—that pulls things toward one another. In the universe, all physical objects have gravitational pull since gravity gives weight to them. The more mass an object has, the stronger it attracts things. Take, for instance, the sun. Because the sun is so huge than any other planets in the solar system, it has greater gravitational pull, making the planets orbit around it.

Like gravity, he is weak in many ways, as his classmates would often say. He lags behind his peers when playing ball games. He can’t even solve a simple Math problem. When asked a question in class, like ‘How will you define Algebra?’, he would often stutter answering one, which makes his classmates burst into laughter. Once, he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, “I wanted to be the best rock climber in the world.” With his, his classmates laughed at him again. “But you’re fat,” they said in chorus. “Very, very fat.”

Which is a fact that he can’t deny. He knows he’s fat, and he realized this when, looking at the mirror once, he saw himself far different from other people. At the age of fifteen, he weighed sixty-two kilograms. When he turned seventeen he gained ten kilograms. Now that he is eighteen, he weighs seventy-nine kilograms. From time to time, he starts liking heavy meals and begins on eating four times or so in a day. He has developed breathing problem, as a result. This interrupts his sleep throughout the night, and causes him to be sleepy during the day.

Such as now: as he gazes at the blackboard—beside which is the teacher discussing about the nature of gravity—through narrowed eyelids and half-closed eyes, he immediately pinches his thigh to fully wake himself up. “Gravity—I know what gravity is,” he says to himself. “Gravity causes things to fall down to the ground, instead of up.” Then his eyes turn outside the window, at the lone tree—perhaps a hundred meters away from their classroom—standing in the middle of the plain, situated before the mountain. He doesn’t know its name but he loves the sight of it. There, sometimes, he would sit under the shade of the tree (facing the stem—away from the sight of the mountain—instead of his back against it) to recharge his battery, when utterly drained from school activities. Back then, he could climb the tree and perch on one of the branches, unafraid of falling; but now, because of his weight, he could no longer reach even halfway up the first branch.

His eyelids start to feel even heftier, so he pinches his thigh again, rolling his eyes upward, like he’s stretching them. Then he stares at his chubby hands for a moment, and then lifts his head up, his eyes wandering around at his classmates. The difference, he thinks, is so obvious with just one glance. “Something’s wrong in me,” he says. “Something’s wrong, and I’m nothing.” Three minutes later, gravity yanks his head down onto his desk.


LAST NIGHT, he and his friends played Buwan-buwan in front of the covered court, in their barrio. It was nine in the evening, and the full moon was up in the clear night. Tado was the it in the game, and he had to touch one of the people inside the circle, without having to enter it. But during the game, though, he ended up constantly revolving around the circle, like a planet orbiting the sun. The circle, he complained, was too big he could not reach them.

“That’s game, Tado,” Lina said. “Be sport.”

“The circle, it’s just too big.”

“You’re too big, too. Remember?” She snickered. “You’re just actually the equal size of the circle. It’s fair enough.”

“That’s hyperbelly.”

Hyperbole,” Jordan corrected.

Tado repeated “Hyperbole” under his breath. Then he sat on the ground, drew his knees up, and embraced them with his huge arms.

“And may I remind you?” continued Lina. “You’re the one who drew the circle this big.”

“Did I?”

Lina nodded and looked from side to side, at her friends.

“Right,” Tado hesitated. “You’re right then.”

“What’s your weight?” Biboy interposed.

Tado pondered over this. Fifty-six? Sixty-two? Sixty-five? He wasn’t sure, really. How come he didn’t know his own exact weight? “Ninety-eight kilograms,” he lied.

“And your height?”

“Five flat, I think.”

“See?” said Jordan. “That’s also an issue. Your chance of touching us is dependent on your speed and your stride.” He stared at Tado from head to foot. “Since you’re—“

“—too fat,” Biboy finished.

Jordan nodded. “Yes, toooo fat. That means your weight lessens your speed. And since you’re short-legged, you can’t—of course!—chase us because you can’t stride wide enough like how we do. You see, you’re just nothing….but” —he rolled his eyes— “Tado.”

Then they ran off as fast as they could, laughing hysterically this time, saying dumb out loud from a distance. Tado remained from where he was sitting, his chin now on his knees, glaring at the spot where his friends had once stood, examining the circle for a moment. He picked up a rock—nearly the size of his fist—from behind him, hefted it to his chest, and gripped it so hard, while listening to the sound of the moving bamboos being swayed by the breeze. The sky darkened even more, and the moon was obscured by the dark clouds. He feared rain; he always feared rain. “I have to go,” he said to the ground.

When he arrived in their bahay kubo at nine, he immediately laid on the rattan sofa, his fist—with the rock still crumpled in it—resting upon his chest. It was partly dark inside, and the candle was already half consumed; Tado knew the flame would soon burn out. They had no television inside. No radio, nor phones. They had no electricity, either.

His parents were already sleeping on a handwoven mat, spread across the floor. From outside the open window, the stars twinkled in the sky, and Tado stared at them in a state of awe, wondering what would it feel like to grasp them with his hands, instead of the stone he had been holding. The quietness reigned inside for quite a long time, broken only when he sneezed out of nowhere and accidentally dropped the rock on the bamboo floor. Both his mother and father’s eyes popped open; then they propped themselves up on their elbows. His father asked him if he was fine. Tado said, “Yes.” Then he was asked to get inside and lie between them. As soon as he did his mother said, “Are you okay?”

When his father had gone back to sleep, Tado nodded.

“So how’s the night with your friends?”

“Terrible!” He turned his head away. “Nay, am I too fat?”

“Of course not,” his mother said softly. “You’re just big-boned, you know.”

“Euphemism for fat: big-boned. It doesn’t make any difference at all.”

“Does it really matter, say, if you are?”

“It does. You see, I’m being bullied because of my body. They told me I look like—I look like a pig. They treat me like I don’t belong here. I’m nothing, Nay. I’m nothing. I don’t exist. I have nothing special inside me. I’m just..…Tado.”

“They tease you because of what they see, not because of your actual weight. Nak,” his mother whispered, running her fingers on his hair, “you must know your weight better than anyone else.”

 How can I if I don’t even know my exact weight? Tado thought. He took a deep breath. “I’m huge Nay,” he said, “that’s my weight.”

“Yes, of course. You’re huge. See?”

“You don’t understand.”

“People sort things out into categories and create meanings out of them. Look around: the world is full of definitions. But no one can define your weight. That’s why you have to make your own.”

“I did. I lied to Biboy. When he asked me what my weight was, I said I weigh ninety-eight kilograms.”

“But you lied,” his mother sighed. “You don’t understand, do you?”

He was speechless; he kept looking at the night sky. At this moment he no longer heard her mother saying something. It was when he turned to her—on the verge of asking, What do you mean?—that he realized she had fallen asleep. He didn’t want to wake her up. He knew his mother was drained from the work. Maybe tomorrow morning, he thought. But he had overslept the next day, and he was already late for school. His unasked question remained a mystery.


“RIGHT, TADO?” his teacher says. Tado is sitting near the window, his temple still pinned on the desk. Ms. Carisma slips in front of Tado and thumps the textbook on the edge of his desk. She says, “Tado!” No response. “Tado!”

Tado’s head tilt up, his eyes full of wonder. “Wh-what? he says, wiping the saliva streaming down his left cheek.

“Have you heard me?”

“Uhm.” He stares at the floor then glances up. “What—what was it again?”

“That Newton discovered gravity when he saw the apple fall from the tree.”

Tado nodded. “It must be, uhm, painful to be hit by an apple in the head.”

“Perhaps you need an apple to hit yours to realize that the apple didn’t fall right straight on Newton’s head.” Ms. Carisma walks back to her desk and sits cross-legged on the top of it. “You’ve been sleeping in my class almost the whole time, Tado,” she says. “The next time you do it, I’ll call your mother straightaway.”

Tado lowers his head. He feels his classmates’ words and laughter snaking behind his back. He feels hefty.

“Juan Tamad—you’re like him,” Ms. Carisma continues. “You recognize him, do you? Be like Newton, Tado.”

Tado knows about Isaac Newton and Juan Tamad. Newton was the scientist who discovered gravity when he observed an apple fall from a tree. Juan, on the other hand, was a lazy boy who had come upon a guava tree and spotted a ripe fruit hanging on one of its branches. Too lazy to climb the tree and pick the fruit, he laid down, instead, beneath the tree, and let nature’s gravity do the work. There he waited for the fruit to fall into his gaping mouth.

Ms. Carisma faces the class. She says, “Any question?”

Three of the students raise their hands.

“Lina,” says the teacher, and Lina says, “Can you repeat the explanation why planets don’t go away from the sun?”

“Like I said,” Ms. Carisma starts, “gravity is a force that acts between two objects with mass. This force is always attractive: meaning it always pulls things closer together. The sun has stronger gravitational pull than the planets in the solar system—and this explains why planets keep on revolving around it, without flying away.” The students listen well. Mrs. Carisma turns her head right. “Yes Jordan? I saw you raise your hand.”

Jordan stands up with his arms crossed. “Do you know that Jupiter” —he looks down at Tado— “is the biggest planet here in this solar system.” Everyone roars into a series of laughs. “Do you, Tado?”

“Sure he does,” Ms. Carisma says, walking in the middle of the classroom. “But do you know there’s a recent discovery that Jupiter doesn’t actually orbit the sun?” Everyone gapes their mouths open. “The reason is because it’s so huge. In fact, it’s three-hundred eighteen times the size of the Earth; and it has two-point five times the sum of all the other planets in our solar system. It’s big enough that the center of gravity does not reside in the sun, but outside, just above the sun’s surface. Jupiter’s size causes the sun to revolve around this slightly off-center point.”

Jordan claps his hands once. “Wow,” he says as he sits on his desk. “That’s so huge. You mean, like Tado?”

“Jordan!” Ms. Carisma snaps. “That’s rude. Sit on your chair. Now!”

“I’m just telling the truth.”

“That’s still rude. Say—“

“Why would I? Lina, how long does he take to revolve around the sun?”

Lina says, “Eleven…point…six…years.”

“Imagine? Slow as a turtle.”

Ms. Carisma narrowed her eyes. “Even though the planet Jupiter revolves around this slightly off-center point once every eleven point eighty-six Earth years,” she resumes, her voice spiky, “it spins on its axis so fast. It completes one rotation on its axis once every nine hours and fifty-five minutes, and it has the fastest rotation of all the planets in the Solar System.”

So even though Jupiter, Tado thinks, is the biggest planet in the Solar System—and takes eleven point six years to revolve around this slightly off-center point—it is the fastest planet to spin on its axis. He shivers in his chair.  It spins rapidly on its axis.

It starts raining outside, and the cold wind blows some of the windows open. A chalk falls from Ms. Carisma’s desk to the floor. She doesn’t notice it herself, and neither does the students. Tado remembers how last night his father and mother were awakened by the rock he accidentally dropped to the floor (it was a huge rock, almost about the size of his fist.) But why does the chalk’s impact to the floor left unnoticed by the ears? he wonders. He picks a book out of his bag and drops it to the floor from above his head. No one sees and hears it, but the teacher does. Ms. Carisma shoots him a puzzled look. “Yes, Tado?” she says. “Any question?”

“All objects have mass, and it’s the gravity that gives weight to them.” Tado buries his freezing hands in his pocket. “What if there’s no gravity at all?”

“Without gravity, we’ll be weightless,” Ms. Carisma says. “Everything would definitely start to float. The atmosphere would drift away into space, and so would the ocean, rivers, and lakes. Then what’s next? We’d all die.

“However, the absence of gravity is very impossible. The Earth itself has a mass, and it causes to have gravity within it. The more matter an object has, the stronger is its gravitational pull. Therefore, everything succumbs on Earth’s gravitational pull, keeping them to the Earth’s surface.”

“So gravity only attracts and never repels.”

Everybody listens. Behind Tado, Jordan and Lina roll their eyes.

“Exactly,” Ms. Carisma assures.

“Does distance affect the gravitational attraction between two things?”

Ms. Carisma nods. “The closer the distance, the greater the gravity; and the farther, the weaker.”

Tado drags his chair in front of the classroom—one meter apart from his classmates—and sits down on it, cross-legged. “What about the size?” he says. “Does size matter when it comes to compelling an object?”

“Of course.”

“Then how can scientists measure a planet’s mass?”

“Astronomers measure the distance between the planet and its moons, and how long—and how fast—it takes for the moon to revolve around the planet.”

How can scientists accurately measure a planet’s mass just by basing the objects’ rotational period around it? Tado thinks. Scientists themselves once thought that all planets orbit the sun; now they’re wrong. Then he says, “What if a very huge object can’t compel small objects around it—is it possible?”

“Of course not,” Ms. Carisma laughs. “Small objects are always gravitationally attracted to larger ones.”

He remembers the chalk that had fallen from Ms. Carisma’s desk, and the book he had dropped from above his head. Heads, he concludes, didn’t move after all. That’s it, he thinks. He then picks his body up, stands on his chair, and looks around. Everybody looks up at him. Lina says, “Look how big you are, Tado.”

“And how dumb,” adds Biboy.

“Get down, Piggy,” says Jordan. “You might break that chair; you’re too heavy for it.”

Tado isn’t listening outside, but inside. He hears his voice and his mother’s words, whispering in his ears. For a brief moment he closes his eyes, inhaling deeply through his O-shaped mouth. Then he leaps into the air, then lands on the floor with a dull thud, slightly on bended knees. Biboy cups his hands around his mouth. “That’s what we call Big Bang,” he yells. The whole class burst out laughing again, this time uncontrollably. Ms. Carisma’s face turns bloody red. She shushes everyone—nothing happens. She slams the book against her desk—nothing happens still.

“You’re huge,” Tado mutters to himself. “You’re huger than you think.” He feels his huge body drowning in a tub, water rising up to his ears as he stands up straight and exhales the wind out of his lungs. When he opens his eyes he screams, “Eureka!”  He stares outside the window, at the tree positioned in front of the mountain. He smiles and laughs to himself. He then storms through the door, out of the classroom, runs as fast as he can towards the tree, saying Eureka repeatedly, leaving the voices behind him, instead of circling around them. For once he turns around—while still running, raindrops streaming down his face—and sees his classmates from afar peering over the window, like planets stuck in one side. When he arrives in front of the tree, gasping for breath, he faces the mountain without turning his head away from it. He feels lighter. You should know your weight better than anyone else, he remembers his nanay saying. You’re huge. No one can define your weight. “No one!” Tado screams to the mountain. There’s no apple in the tree about to fall on his head, to discover something. There’s no waiting for the guava to fall into his mouth, either. Just within a minute he climbs the tree with all might, and this time gravity is no longer pulling him down.

Swollen Lymph Node

By Michael John Otanes (Fiction)

Alex tries all the home remedies that he can—garlic, salt water, apple cider, honey, castor oil. Four days later: “Ineffective,” he tells himself. The swollen lymph node behind his left ear has even doubled in size, seemingly splitting in two. Sometimes he thumbs it, massaging it to and fro, and sometimes he squeezes it hard, but it remains fixed and immovable underneath his skin.

Lymph nodes, his father tells him through the phone, are essential part in the immune system. They are located throughout the body, and enlargement is due to excessive exposure to viruses and bacteria, or some serious illness and injury. A swollen lymph node shrinks, though, after a few days. If not: “A doctor is needed,” says Mr. Santos. He’s a doctor, a physician in particular, but Alex doesn’t tell his father that he has the swollen lymph node. Nothing would change if he told him.

Even though they live in the same house, the distance between Alex and his father has lengthened over the years. He has always wanted to fix their relationship, since he knew that it was primarily his fault: his mother died in a car accident in search of him because he had gone barhopping without asking permission from his parents. His mother and father were strict, and he knew they would be mad. But he was already eighteen, said his friends; and that meant he could do whatever he wanted to do. That night he had his first drink, he had his first sex, he had his first smoke, he had his first lap dance with strangers. He tried almost everything, even drugs. He said it was his best night ever. His friends were proud of him.

At first light on the next day, Alex was jolted awake by the phone ringing wildly inside his pocket. It’s his father. “Something terrible happened,” said Mr. Santos on the other line, his voice breaking. “Your mother—” And without letting his father finish the words, Alex cut him off, saying where are you where are you, tucking his polo in, the phone cradled between his ear and shoulder.

George, his childhood friend and the guy he slept with, drove him from Fatima to the Mindanao Medical Center. He felt tense; he could feel his arms and feet swaying like jellies. As soon as he set foot in the hospital, he was convinced that he should have not left the house the previous night. I should’ve spent the time with them, he said to himself. He thought of excuses he could give to his father, but before he could decide on one, he saw his father standing at the center of the lobby. Alex’s arms, including his back, automatically straightened. He saw wrath in his father’s eyes, and it pained him. Even more so when a weighty hand landed on his face.

Without saying a word to his father, Alex darted to the hospital desk to inquire. Room 105, said the front desk receptionist. He rushed up the stairs to the left. He was still looking for the room when its door swung open, and one of his cousins came into view. Alex asked how his mother was. His cousin answered that his mother did not survive. Her spine was badly broken, and so was her head. Later that afternoon at the clinic, his father told Alex it was his fault. Alex could not say anything in reply, so he went home instead.

A wall so high propped up between them, from that moment on.

* * *

Mr. Santos has two clinics in General Santos City, one of which is located at Pioneer Avenue—merely a five-minute-walk from his house—the other at Queenies Love Village; he uses the former more often. By night, when he gets home from his work, his son, Alex, is already, usually in his bed either playing sudoku or reading a book under a lampshade. By day, when he wakes up in the morning, Alex is still sleeping like a log, his snore so loud you can hear it a thousand yards away. They seldom see each other inside, even on Sundays, even if both of them have no other appointments. Alex does not come out.

Right now, Mr. Santos’s eyes are fixated on the TV bolted to the wall, in front of him. He’s watching news. Headline: Attacks in Paris. One-hundred thirty people are dead and hundreds wounded on mass shootings and suicide bombings. The attacks, accordingly, are the deadliest in France since World War II. There are more threats from ISIS. The next attack will be in Asia.

He takes the remote control out of the drawer and pumps up the volume. Suddenly the door opens. His son. He watches Alex sit on the chair opposite him, between them a wooden table, upon which documents have been piled up according to their colors. “Paris is under attack,” says Mr. Santos nonchalantly, and Alex swivels his head around, behind him, then glances up. Both of them watch the news for minutes without exchanging a look. Finally Alex says, “This is awful.” Mr. Santos nods.

Less than three minutes later, a commercial pops up on the screen. “So what’s the occasion?” Mr. Santos says, which automatically makes his son’s head turn around. He feels a bit awkward at first facing Alex, but he eventually manages to retain his composure. His son, Mr. Santos notices, pays too much heed at the ballpoint pen standing aslant inside a pencil cup.

“Just passing by,” Alex says without meeting his father’s gaze. “It’s been a year or two since the last time I’ve been” —he peers about— “here.”

“Three,” Mr. Santos corrects.

Alex swallows. “Three then.”

For a time there is silence. Then: “I’m here for a question, actually,” Alex continues. “Uhm, about swollen lymph node. Again. You know, when curiosity kicks in.”

Right, he received a call from his son earlier this morning asking what a swollen lymph node really was. It was strange. The last time they talked through the phone happened years ago. He can’t recall the exact date, or the exact year. The only exact day he can remember was when he told Alex about the car accident of his wife. “There must be a reason,” Mr. Santos says. “Sure you have none?”

A nod—a confident one. “Of course,” says Alex, his voice becoming much firmer and deeper as he sits up straight. “I’m always healthy.”

“And who has it—your friend George?”

“Uhm, no, no,” Alex says. “My friend Trish. He has it. I mean, she has it.”

“Then you should’ve brought her here. She needs medical checkup. Is her swollen lymph node big? Is it nontender?”

“Yes, about an inch maybe. It’s nontender and it’s painless.”

“Is she always tired?”

“She was,” Alex says, moving his head downwards, “and she still is.”

“Having one means something’s not right inside her. Where is it located?”

Alex’s head tilts up a bit. “On her neck, behind her right ear.”

“Behind her right ear,” Mr. Santos repeats. “That’s posterior auricular lymph node. It can be associated with an infection in the ear, infection around the scalp, infection in the eyes, or other serious condition related to upper respiratory infection. It can also be an early symptom of cancer.” A pause. “Do think you can bring her here?”

“Maybe? Is it really that serious, Pa?”

Pa. Mr. Santos has never heard this for quite a long time. Back then, when Alex was just a kid, he would say “Pa” softly. Mr. Santos taught him how to say it in a deep-toned voice, and Alex, naturally an obedient kid, did so extremely well. From time to time, Alex followed what his father had told him. Like going to a sport event, going on a road trip, going to a cockfight—with him. Once in the department store Alex said, Pa, I want to study physics. Mr. Santos asked why. Because I want to be a physician.

Mr. Santos chuckled. Son—

Like you, Pa, Alex interjected. Just like you.

Mr. Santos nods. “If it stays there for two months or three, or worse, a year, then it certainly is. That’s why she has to see a physician.”

“I see,” says Alex. “So after her illness—if ever she has—is diagnosed and then treated, the swollen lymph node will shrink back to its original size?”

“Certainly. In rare cases, bigger ones are operated.”

“Okay,” Alex says, standing up, “I’ll bring her here.”

Mr. Santos agrees.

* * *

It is past midnight, the complete silence in the house apparent in every corner. His room is just next to his son’s. Through the wall he hears a hum. It is a high-pitched but soft falsetto. Has he heard this before?

He presses his ear against the wall. He hears a song.

* * *

“I don’t understand why suicide bombers would do that,” says Alex the next day. “A lot of people give up the good life and become terrorists, killing people and dying for—what specifically? They can have a good work, a better life, even a perfect family.”

George sits upright on a couch, his legs splayed open, and crosses his palms at the back of his head. They go deeper. “An act of terrorism has deeper roots, and we will never understand some,” George says, glancing down at Alex. “Terrorists do violent things in the name of a cause.”

Just then, the door of his father’s room creaks open. Heads tilt, eyes adjust, mouths open—at the same time. Mr. Santos is standing in the doorway; then he takes a couple of steps forward, his both hands balled into fists. During this hour his father is supposedly working, Alex thinks, swallowing hard. He should be in the clinic by now.

Finally: “Oh,” Mr. Santos says in a sarcastic tone. Then, without saying another word, he hurries to the backdoor, with Alex trailing behind him. Alex, in a rather deep-toned voice, says, Pa pa pa, and then blocks his father’s way. For the second time a hefty hand rushes past Alex’s cheek. He feels it again: the pain. He touches the left side of his face, locking eyes with his father, then steps aside and so Mr. Santos can pass through.

Which his father does a moment later.

Alex’s legs start to numb, his arms start to pain. With his head down, he touches the swollen lymph node behind his left ear.

* * *

When Mr. Santos returns home at night, very drunk and exhausted, his son is nowhere to be found. He buries his body on the couch, in the living room, and stays there for an hour. Then he pukes acid on the floor and wipes remnants across his chin with his backhand. His son’s door, he notices, is left ajar. He gets up from the couch and examines the room: its darkness, its total silence, its strangeness. He walks in, closes the door behind him, and turns on the light.

Inside: shirts everywhere, a messy bed, a clumsily folded rug, an empty built-in closet. The room is wallpapered with brown leaves, in the middle of which, just beside the study table, is a family tree made from colored paper. It looks so shabby: its roots are rotten, and its only branch is bent. Mr. Santos and his wife’s pictures are in the stem, side by side. His son’s, however, is not included in the tree.

On top of the bedside table is a radio cassette. It is huge, surely a heavy thing to carry. Has it been there all the time? He doesn’t know. Curious, he checks it out, running his fingers on it, and finally presses the Play button. A familiar song drifts around the room. He doesn’t remember the title, but it’s on the tip of his tongue. With the music on, he lies down on his son’s bed, the other side of his face glued on the pillow, and then closes his eyes. There, he remembers Lila: her voice and her way of saying, “Where’s Alex, our dear little Alex?” while panicking because she could not find him elsewhere, one fine day. He remembers the day when all the three of them used to go fishing together. He remembers every little thing, mostly the silly ones, they had done when they went to Cavite for a vacation.

Slowly now, he hears the silence so loud. As he opens his eyes, he says, “I have to find my son.”

* * *

For three straight days, he has been dialing his son’s cell phone twice or thrice every four hours, yet Alex has never answered the call even once. Mr. Santos begins to worry. How can he find his son now?

George—Mr. Santos knows where he lives. His son went there sometimes as a kid. He believes Alex is with George, presumably because they were together the last time he saw them at the house. But George is no longer living in his house when Mr. Santos goes there. He just moved yesterday, one of the neighbors says. Mr. Santos asks where. The neighbor tells him the exact location.

Mr. Santos finds the door open when he parks in front of George’s new abode. He is still inside the car, waiting for someone to come out. And then someone does: George—pulling out three bin bags from the house to the front lawn, near a tree. Mr. Santos gets out of the car and approaches him. He sees George’s face tensed. Mr. Santos says, “Where’s Alex?”

George swallows as he looks down at the grass. “He’s not with me,’’ he says.

“I know he’s here,” says Mr. Santos. He walks past George, over to the open door. Inside the house, so many boxes are scattered across the floor. He roams into the living room, into the kitchen, and into the bathroom. “See?” George says, now standing beside him with his arms crossed.

Mr. Santos turns to George. “Where is he?” he says, his voice rising.

“I told you, he’s not here.”

Mr. Santos goes to one of the boxes, atop it are T-shirts owned by his son. “And what do you mean by these?” he says, heaving up some.

“Okay, he was here. But he went outside, you know. And you have to understand that.”


“What difference does it make if I say it to you?”

No answer. “Please,” says Mr. Santos. “Where?” His face softens when he jerks his head away. “I just want to have a word with him. And about it.”

George pauses, seems very hesitant to speak something. A minute later: “He went to town for a checkup,” he says dryly.

“Is he with Trish?”

George shakes his head.

“I’m asking you a favor,” says Mr. Santos, his hand now on George’s shoulder. “A huge one.”

* * *

So many people are packed inside the bar, and the ceiling disco lights are the only ones that illuminate the place. Although the sound from the speaker is loud enough to make everyone deaf, Alex manages to say, clearly and reasonably, that he wants another beer, when the one he is drinking is almost empty. But George shakes his head as he clutches Alex’s right arm.

Behind him, Alex senses another hand, resting over his shoulder. It is a soft hand, one that is familiar. “Alex,” says a voice. He whirls his head around to see who it is. Then his eyelids flutter and his lips twitch. He glares at George. George mouths I’m sorry and gets up from his seat, and then gestures Mr. Santos to sit right beside Alex.

Somehow Alex feels betrayed. Had he known earlier about this setup, he would have rejected George’s invitation to go barhopping. Of course, he knows what his father is up to. But of all places, why here? “You see,” he starts, his voice trembling a little, “I’m already outside.”

There is one thing drawn across his father’s face: a knowing look. Mr. Santos glances over his own shoulder at George, who is sitting on a chair—about four meters or so away—behind them. “I know,” says Mr. Santos, “and I understand.” This time he faces Alex. “How is it?” he adds.

Does he know? Alex thinks. If so, how come? “What do you mean?”

“Your swollen lymph node,” says Mr. Santos, staring at the tip of Alex’s ear every now and then.

“How come you—”

“Of course,” Mr. Santos interposes, “I’m your father.”

His heart leaping like a frog, Alex looks down, saying nothing at all. Right, he had printed photos of swollen lymph nodes he got from the internet, and hid them under his bed, in his room. He supposes his father has gone inside. “Dr. Lim has a suspicion that it’s a lymphoma,” he confesses. “So he will have to check for cancer by removing the lymph node.”

“I can lend you a hand.”

“But you’re a physician, not a surgeon,” Alex reminds his father. “There’s a line between the two. A physician diagnoses illnesses by examination of the symptoms, while a surgeon acts to correct them.”

“I correct things, too,” Mr. Santos says. “Let me get you out of this, this time.”

Alex hears shouts and thumping of feet outside. Perhaps a riot, he thinks. Or people having fun, shouting at the top of their lungs, like how he often did when he was young while happily being carried on his father’s back. He turns to Mr. Santos. “But you can’t carry me, Pa,” he says, his voice soft and low. “I’m heavy.”

An explosive-like sound reverberates around the bar. People notice this because they pause, too, listening, as though anticipating for more.

And there is: this time a gunshot.

A man six feet tall then erupts through the double doors, holding two guns: one assault rifle in the left hand, and a .45 in the other. He is wearing a knee-length white coat and a black mask, which covers his face except his eyes. One moment, he is only moving his head sideways; the next, as he inches forward, he starts shooting people, randomly. One after another, like a domino, they fall on the floor face first, pools of blood gushing out of their bodies.

People start running here and there. From the speaker in one corner of the bar, near a broken jukebox, Alex and Mr. Santos rush to the exit door. George follows them right away. “It’s locked,” Alex says, pulling and twisting the doorknob. “This is bad,” says George. They crawl, instead, at the back of the leather banquette situated behind them, duck their heads, and sink their knees on the floor. It is George who realizes that Mr. Santos is not at their side.

“Maybe he’s hiding somewhere else,” Alex whispers, “somewhere safer.” He is about to add something, but before he can, George motions him to stay still and silent. Slowly, George lifts his head over the banquette. Everywhere across the tile floor: corpses, destroyed equipment, broken glasses, tiny rivers of blood. There is only one thing left untouched by the bullets: the disco music.

“The gunman,” he says to Alex, “he’s nowhere on the dance floor now.”

Through the noise, moments later, they hear a scream from the girl’s comfort room, followed by a gunshot. George lowers his head, his temple affixed against the back of the banquette, and pays attention to the sound of footsteps creeping towards them. He puts his finger over his pursed lips to signal Alex not to make a sound. When their heads twist around to the sound of heavy breaths, the footsteps, they realize, are of Mr. Santos’s. He is facing the exit door, his back at them, holding a stainless steel pipe; then, in the next second, strikes the doorknob with it, over and over, the sound loud enough to be heard even from a distance. George regards this as a bad idea. He knows they will be caught any moment now. Tense, he sprints next to Mr. Santos and grips his forearm. “We should hide,” George insists, his voice shaking. “There” —he points his finger to the front bar— “behind the bar die.”

Police car sirens are rumbling outside. “No more hiding, George,” Mr. Santos says, still striking the doorknob repeatedly. He glances over his shoulder at Alex. “You two must go out.”

“But George’s right,” Alex says, standing up straight. He lifts his chin up. “We have to hide.”

“Do you think it’s safe to hide? Eyes are everywhere, Alex.”

Alex says, “That’s the only thing we can do now.”

“Hide behind the bar die—until the gunman finds you there and shoots you in the head?”

“Then what do you suggest?”

Mr. Santos keeps on beating the doorknob. “What do you think I’m doing now?”

“But—” Alex starts to speak but falls silent.

In the next minute there is a sound of footsteps in the hallway. The gunman then appears on the dance floor, with a gun in his hand. Alex’s eyes widen. “Pa,” he mutters. As soon as Mr. Santos turns around to face the man, he opens his arms wide, as though he’s some male animal guarding his cubs. He then inches backward to the threshold, his arms behind him encircling George and Alex. When his right hand reaches the mangled doorknob behind him, he secretly snakes his fingers around it. He’s ready to open the door at any moment.

“Take one more step,” the gunman says, pointing the gun at them, moving it from left to right, “and I’ll shoot your heads off.”

The three of them pause; no one dares to move. Alex feels his father’s hand twisting the doorknob bit by bit. He thinks of warning him, but he can’t blurt something out. When he turns his head to look at the doorknob, the gunman roars, “Told you!”

A bullet hits Mr. Santos’s lower leg. He howls in pain, and then he stares over his shoulder at Alex and George, who are shaking in terror. Instantly, with all his remaining strength, he pulls the door half-open and thrusts Alex and George through it, outside the bar, so hard that their bodies fall to the ground.

Ominous black clouds cover the sky; there are no stars, no moon. A gust of wind sweeps past them. Alex stands up and tries to yank the door open, but it remains shut, until he hears indistinct, mingled voices inside. Then the roar of gunshots, and then his father’s.

Alex swallows hard, choking back tears. “No, no,” he cries, banging his fists against the door. “Open the door, Papa! Open the door!” George grabs Alex by the arms, leading him away from the door, afraid that it might open again, but Alex keeps on struggling from George’s grasp, shouting let me go! let me go! let me go! without a pause, his tears now crawling on his cheeks. Only when they reach the pack of policemen—some of whom thundering through the entrance door of the bar—does Alex cease from blurting out those words.

They pause; they listen to the sound of the clattering noises inside. George asks Alex if he is all right. “My feet,” Alex says, shaking his head, “they are tingling.”

Inside the bar, the noise sounds like a hammer drill, and the lights flicker on and off, like fireflies. Then there is silence at last, just as the gunman comes into sight, being muscled out of the bar—his hands handcuffed behind his back—by the two policemen. He is halfway to the patrol car when he pauses and lifts his gaze up at the lamp post near the driveway, beside which are Alex and George standing next to each other. “Look,” George says. Alex straightens up, shoots the man a nanosecond glance, and then jerks his head away, without noticing what “the gunman” is holding behind him: a curved, bloodied steel pipe, one that his father used to destroy the doorknob.