When Emil Rodriguez woke up to find a beautiful woman sitting on the foot of his bed, his initial thought was that, for the first time in the entirety of his miserable existence, his luck had finally changed. Upon closer inspection, however, he realized that life, at least for him, was and never will be, quite that simple.
She possessed a stunning figure, made apparent by the fact that she had not a single stitch of clothing on. Instead, her body was awash with colour and symbols representing the sun, moon, stars, and sky. Her straight, inky-black hair flowed behind her. Long bangs accentuated her golden, fox-like eyes. Eyes that regarded him curiously, with her head tilted just so and no trace of a smile on her perfectly formed red lips.
“Who are you?” he managed to rasp.
“Nothing. Everything. It matters not to you.” Her voice was deep and sultry. Like the night.
She crawled up closer to him, unnerving him even more.
Beads of sweat trickled down the sides of his face. “Why are you here? What do you want from me?” he choked out.
She pressed her lips gently against his forehead. “To remember.”
San Juan, Quezon City
Emil Rodriguez’s life was the epitome of all that was unjust and unfortunate. He was born to a poor family, made all the more poorer by a drunken, abusive brute of a father and a petty, flighty mother who would do anything for a spot of cash or a pretty little trinket. Their marriage was explosive at best and they looked to the marriage bed to settle all their disputes. They added no less than a dozen street urchins to the overcrowded tenement housing where they lived.
Out of this pitiful family, only three children made it to adulthood. Emil lived for his sister, Nene, and his brother, David (named so after their mother discovered that he had fair skin). Nene had always been shy and a bit slow. She made a modest living washing clothes and kept the house for her two brothers. David, in turn, had been cursed with a weak constitution since birth and required constant – and expensive – medication. Thus, it fell to Emil to provide for them.
Emil had managed to attain a position within the police force, but his meager earnings were not enough to cater to all the treatments David required to survive. Eventually he learned to turn a blind eye and accept a couple of bad deals in exchange for money. For a while, it seemed that Emil’s problems had finally come to an end.
When he was caught and subsequently dismissed, he realized his problems were just beginning.
It was sheer desperation that made him take several bad turns in the course of his life and prior profession. It was this same sort of desperation that made him contemplate the gun on his bedside table after David’s latest attack.
I just need the money. No one will get hurt. Just for the money. He had been repeating this mantra for the past hour.
“Emil?” He turned his wild-eyed gaze towards the sound of his sister’s trembling voice. “David’s getting worse.”
A sudden calmness washed over Emil. “It’s going to be all right,” he said. “You just watch over David. I’ll take care of everything.”
She nodded, smiling. Thus far, her big brother Emil had never failed her. As soon as she left the room, Emil stood and pocketed the gun.
No one will get hurt. I just need the money.
ABC Building, Estrada St., Manila
“I’m sorry, hon.” Pauline Santos’ vision blurred as she struggled to type while cradling her phone on her shoulder. “Yes, I know it was a great performance, how could it not be, with you as the star?”
She gave up, closed her eyes, and leaned back on her chair with a heavy sigh. “Darling, you know I would have given anything to watch your play, but mommy had to do some overtime. Auntie Aimee was there, though, right? I’m sure she took lots of photos and… you know what? Why don’t we go out tomorrow and celebrate? Yes, yes, anywhere you want… let me just…” She switched the phone to speaker mode as she dropped the receiver to pick up her organizer. “Oh, dear, I have an urgent presentation tomorrow, maybe…”
“I HATE YOU, MOM! I WISH AUNTIE AIMEE WAS MY MOTHER!” her 10-year-old boy screeched into the phone.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Pauline turned off the phone and laid her head on the table.
“Rough day?” her co-worker, Lynne, said.
“All in a day’s work for a single mother,” Pauline said. “He’ll understand when he’s older where his schooling, clothes, shoes, PlayStation, and latest i gadget comes from.”
“Hmm,” Lynne chewed on her bottom lip. “I hate to break this to you seeing as you’re having a bad day, but…”
“Spill it. Can’t get any worse.”
“Roger… that guy from Accounting? Finally took the hint and asked me out tonight.”
“Aww, that’s great!” Pauline exclaimed with a wide grin. She was genuinely happy for her friend. Her smile faded as she realized Lynne’s concern. “Oh.”
“That’s right, I won’t be able to give you a lift home tonight and everyone’s already gone home for the day,” Lynne said. “I feel terrible. I should really cancel…”
“No, no,” Pauline said. “Don’t be silly. You’ve been waiting for this for months. You go, girl. I’ll just commute, the same way I used to do it before I became some snobby marketing executive with the fancy car that can’t be used on Fridays.”
To minimize traffic and conserve energy, the Philippine government decreed that all vehicles should follow a coding system wherein those with plate numbers ending in specific digits could not be used on certain days of the week. Thus, Pauline and Lynne carpooled on days when their respective cars fell under coding.
“I’ll be fine,” Pauline said. Her home was two jeepney rides away. No big deal.
The jeepney was an open-air mode of transportation that originated from the US military jeeps left over from World War II. Since then, it had evolved into the Philippines’ trademark, public transportation vehicle known for its colorful, flamboyant designs and efficient (typically overcrowded) seating system that had passengers seated face to face with knees bumping one another’s.
“If you’re sure…”
“Yes, yes, now go!” Pauline said with a laugh. It would be an unglamorous ride throughout the dust, grime, and smoke in one of the most polluted cities in the planet, but she could suffer through it for one night, for Lynne’s sake. “If I’m going home alone, I better wrap this up quickly.”
Quickly turned out to be several hours later. It was nearly midnight by the time Pauline had locked up and exited her office. Jon would have fallen asleep by now and will likely not speak to her for the next week or so.
She was simply too weary to care as she strode down the street towards Taft Ave and boarded the first jeepney that came her way.
NetWorks, Taft Ave, Manila
Two levels up and a rare new weapon to boot. Life in the virtual world was good.
Kevin Isidro smiled in satisfaction. He was about to log off when a name flashed on his chat window. He immediately bent over the keyboard once more.
keisi153: hi! u playing?
GamerGirl03: m on mobile. school practice running l8. rly boring
GamerGirl03: u bc?
keisi153: no, wl kp u company
GamerGirl03: cool, tnx J
Three hours later, the sales clerk of the internet café tapped Kevin on the shoulder.
“Sorry, we’re closing in ten minutes.”
Kevin rubbed his eyes. Midnight already? This was going to cost him. And how long was her school practice going to run anyway?
keisi153: gtg rly sorry
GamerGirl03: ok, np
So how about you and I meet up for lunch sometime?
Uhm… you in the mood for some coffee?
We’ve been chatting for several months now and I was wondering…
Can I add you as my friend on Facebook?
keisi153: bye. Happy wkend!
GamerGirl03: u 2. Tc!
Kevin banged his head against the monitor. He’d very nearly blown his whole weekly allowance and for what? The off-chance that he and GamerGirl would finally take their so-called relationship to the next level? The real world level?
He met GamerGirl in one of his favorite MMORPG jaunts and they have been gaming buddies ever since. They shared everything – adventures, rare items, gossip, problems, success stories, funny stories, anything and everything under the sun – except their real identities.
He threw his cash on the café counter with a little more force than necessary. Where did he think this was going? She had a boyfriend. More than once she had pushed him to pursue the mysterious ‘girl of his dreams’. Ha. If she only knew…
“TGIF,” he muttered as he exited the café and waved down a jeepney.
San Juan University, Taft Ave, Manila
Indecision marred her features as Gabrielle Tan stared at her bubblegum pink iPhone.
So… um… my boyfriend dumped me this morning. Can you give me a lift home?
keisi153 signed off.
“Well, that’s that,” Gabrielle muttered as she pocketed her phone. Just as well. He might be living in Siberia for all she knew.
The practice for Monday’s video shoot had finally wrapped up. It was the kind of project where the high profile kids on the dean’s list and the other grade crunchers did most of the work, but required the rest of the class to be in attendance in order to get their chunk of the proverbial grading pie. Gabrielle was content to stay in the background, especially for an extracurricular class such as this, but she did not think it would stretch all the way to midnight!
“Hey, Gabby! Wanna bunk in the dorm with us?” her friend and classmate, Mitzie, asked.
“Can’t, sorry,” Gabrielle replied. “I have to go home. The whole family’s leaving at dawn to go to the province for lola’s birthday.”
“At this hour?” Mitzie frowned. “But…”
“It’s cool. I’ll be fine. See you on Monday!” Gabrielle gathered her things and left before Mitzie could question her further.
Mitzie would most likely assume – as did everyone else, including Gabrielle’s mother – that Gabrielle’s steady, reliable, and responsible boyfriend, Jed, would be sure to see her home safely. This morning at breakfast, when he had dropped by their house to give her a lift to school, Gabrielle had believed this as well. Instead, he had stunned her with the news that he was breaking up with her. No sooner had they arrived at the university they both attended, he had given her a customary kiss on the cheek, patted her on the back, and sent her on her way. By lunch break he was already chasing after some younger, flirty freshman.
Gabrielle straightened her shoulders. She could do this; how hard could it be? She only had to take things one step at a time. A jeepney ride to the bus station and she would be that much closer to home.
Still, she could not resist making the sign of the cross as she climbed aboard the lone jeepney that came down the dark, empty road.
Remedios St. cor Taft Ave, Manila
For the first time since celebrating their golden wedding anniversary (perhaps even long before that), Nat and Rosa Lim went on an actual date. Alone.
It all started during breakfast when their teenage granddaughter steered Rosa out of the kitchens, insisting that she could prepare the morning meal herself. Rosa’s offers to help and her insistence that she will not forget to turn off the stove this time around fell on deaf ears.
Nat was likewise rebuffed when he suggested a game of checkers with their youngest grandson. His grandson politely declined and spent the rest of the day glued to his PSP. The yaya, Janice, suggested that Nat relax and watch TV while she kept the young ones occupied.
Nat did not want to watch TV. He’d been doing nothing else for the past decade.
The clincher came late in the afternoon when their only son, Richard, called to say that he and his wife would be taking the kids out to dinner with some of their friends. Nat and Rosa could look forward to a cozy dinner followed by more TV.
Nat stole a glance at his wife, who was trying to sew despite being unable to go past two stitches given her poor eyesight. At that moment, he reached a decision.
“Let’s go out for dinner.”
Rosa glanced up in surprise. “What?”
“Just you and me,” Nat’s weathered face broke into a smile. “Like the old days; what do you say?”
She laid down her sewing project and stood up. “Let’s go,” she said, drawing a laugh from him. She frowned then. “But how will we get there? You haven’t driven in ages.”
“No license, either,” he admitted with a glance out the window, towards the garage, where three shiny cars were parked. “We’ll commute. We used to do it daily, we’ll get by.”
She took his hand and allowed him to lead her out of their room, out of the house, far from their humdrum existence. “Do you suppose that old ramen house is still there?”
It was, but the Japanese noodle shop was in such a dilapidated state that the old couple decided to forego it. An Indian restaurant had opened nearby and suited their purposes just as well. They had so much fun reminiscing about days gone by that they failed to notice the late hour.
“Richard and Abby will be frantic by now,” Rosa said. Neither she nor Nat bothered to carry a cellphone as they did not know how to use it.
“I know,” Nat said. “We should do this more often.”
“Oh, you!” Rosa was still laughing as Nat helped her up the jeepney they flagged down.
Taft Ave, Manila
Mang Domeng felt a slight tightness in his chest and attributed it to his full stomach. He should not have driven after eating such a huge meal. Then again, he shouldn’t really be driving at all at his age. Unfortunately, despite loving his family as much as he did – or likely, because he loved them too much – he’d be the first to admit that their biggest blessing – and curse – was the ability to procreate and proliferate like rabbits. Already he had trouble identifying all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Continuing his noble profession of driving the family jeepney seemed the right thing to do in order to pull his weight and help keep the kids in school.
He fished out a cigarette from his pocket in order to calm his nerves as he drove on.
Taft Ave, Manila
Emil had traveled a long way from home, just as he’d planned. He was calm now, more confident in his plans. He knew the area well, having been assigned to patrol the streets during his first few years on the force. Nothing much had changed in the past decade and he was unlikely to be recognized given the late hour. Still, he was careful to position himself under a broken street lamp, taking extra comfort under the shroud of darkness.
Emil’s eyes quickly took in the passengers of an incoming jeepney. An old couple, two teenagers, a woman, and an old, frail driver – this was it.
The vehicle slowed as the red light flashed on intersection’s traffic lights.
He pulled down his mask and jumped onboard just before the lights changed.
The woman and the girl screamed as he pulled out his gun.
“Quiet!” he barked. The woman immediately clamped her mouth shut, but the teenager’s shrieks were endless. “Shut up!” he railed, swinging the gun in her direction.
The boy beside her immediately clamped his hand over her mouth. She was reduced to whimpers, though tears started flowing down her cheeks as she stared at Emil in wide-eyed terror.
Emil ignored the grinding feeling at the pit of his stomach. He had to do this. For David’s sake.
“There’s no need to hurt anyone,” the old man said calmly. He had his arm around his companion, holding her close. “Just tell us what you want.”
“I said shut up!” Emil snapped as he watched the roads. He noted a few cars up ahead. “Take the flyover!” he ordered, gesturing at the empty overpass.
The driver was quick to comply.
Emil took out a knapsack. “Wallet, cellphones, jewelry – just place them in the bag and I’ll be on my way and no one will…”
The jeepney suddenly swerved, knocking him off balance and causing him to fire his gun.
“QUIET!” he bellowed amidst the screams and shouts. He cursed as he scrambled to the front of the jeepney. “What are you…?!”
The woman seated nearest to the driver gasped. “I think he’s having a heart attack!”
The driver tried to regain control of the wheel with one hand. His other hand clutched at his chest. With a muffled groan he slumped over. The jeepney spun out of control and went over the railing.
Time stopped. The jeepney hung suspended in the air, still poised for a deadly crash. Its occupants stared at each other in confusion.
In the middle of the vehicle, a light shimmered. A woman appeared, her ethereal features enhanced by the soft glimmer of light. Her body was covered with markings depicting day and night. She eyed them with golden eyes. Her hair, dark as night, flowed down her back.
“Everyone gets a death wish before they die,” she said without inflection.
Still they stared at her, dumbfounded.
“One wish,” she continued. “Voice it and I will let you know if it is within my power. You may wish for anything except to escape this death, for that will nullify your wish.”
She turned to the Nat and Rosa first.
“Only that our family would not grieve so much,” Nat said. “We’ve lived our lives to the fullest and have no regrets.” He turned to his wife, who nodded.
“Done.” The creature faced Pauline next.
“I don’t know…” she said, flustered. “I’ve taken so many precautions, gotten so many insurances to ensure Jon will want for nothing in case… this happens. I’m sure Aimee will care for him, likely much better than I ever could… I… Oh, God…” A tear rolled down her cheek. “He doesn’t need me.” she said, stunned by the realization. “He is so used to me not being around… I… I only wish that he won’t h… hate me!” She broke down and buried her face in her hands, weeping.
The strange woman turned towards Gabrielle, who was shaking her head.
“This can’t be happening!” she cried. “I’m not ready for this! There’s so much I have to do…”
The creature shrugged and looked towards Emil as Kevin struggled to calm Gabrielle’s hysterics.
“You may voice your wish now.”
“Why him? He doesn’t deserve one!” Rosa bit out.
“Everyone gets a death wish,” the creature repeated tonelessly.
Emil swallowed hard. He looked at the accusing faces of the driver and his fellow passengers and fought to steel himself. He’d come this far. He knew his deepest wish.
“I wish I never picked up the gun this afternoon.” His eyes widened as the words tumbled out of his mouth.
The woman hesitated.
“Wait, doesn’t that nullify…?”
Kevin’s words faded away as the woman closed her eyes. “Done.”
JAM Transit Bus Terminal, Manila
Gabrielle was this close to breaking down in tears. She had survived the scary jeepney ride through the dark, near-empty roads only to arrive at the bus station with nothing but a thousand peso bill in her wallet. Not the kind of thing she wanted to flash around at the bus station in the dead of the night.
“Need some help?” a voice asked.
She turned to see the other student who alighted from the jeepney. He held out his ID to indicate that they were from the same school.
“Kevin,” she finished. “I know. You’re in my Philosophy class.”
Kevin blinked in surprise. The university administration, for some odd reason, had opted to mix the Liberal Arts and Computer Science students for one class on Philosophy. He figured it was some sort of social experiment, given that they were the first and only class to be subjected to such a mix. As expected, the students from each college kept to themselves and he had assumed that she did not know his name. He flushed as he realized he didn’t know hers. He’d seen her often enough – it was hard not to notice someone as pretty as her, but she’d always been flanked by friends and a guy he’d assumed was her boyfriend.
“If you could spare me fifty pesos, I’d really appreciate it. I just need enough for a bus ride home.”
“Where do you live?” He winced as she mentioned a place at least two cities away. “You’re going alone? Where’s your boyfriend?” He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
Her face flushed in sudden anger. “It’s none of your business! Will you lend me the money or not?”
“I’ll take you home,” Kevin said, surprising them both.
She started to back away. “That’s really not necessary…”
“Look, either we pass the time in friendly conversation on the bus, or I sit apart from you. It doesn’t matter. Bottom line is – I’m following you. And not in a creepy way!” he added. “I just can’t let you go home alone at this late hour. It’s just not right.”
“OK,” she said, surprising him even more. “Let’s go.”
“I’m Gabrielle, by the way.”
His entire allowance was officially depleted, given that he lived in the opposite direction, but Kevin’s steps lightened as he accompanied Gabrielle onto the bus. There were, he decided, worse things than spending a night in the company of a beautiful girl. He couldn’t wait to tell GamerGirl that he’d finally taken her advice and grabbed an opportunity.
Gabrielle was still smiling as she cut a sideways glance towards her companion. Not bad looking and every bit the gentleman. And boy, would she have a story to share with Keisi during their next chat session!
Jon’s bed was empty.
Frantic, Pauline bounded down the hallway to Aimee’s room. She wrenched the door open without bothering to knock. The sight before her gave her pause. She leaned against the doorframe, breathing heavily.
Jon was curled up on the bed next to his aunt, hugging her as he slept. His rumpled hair and tear-streaked face was telling.
Pauline rubbed her face. Sometimes she forgot why she was pushing herself so hard; who it was she was really working for.
She took out her cellphone and set the alarm for 6:00 AM. She had to wake up early if she was going to cancel all her weekend appointments.
“Of all the… you leave without a word to anyone… you come home past midnight… and you didn’t even have the sense to call for a cab???” Richard ran his hand through his hair. “Whatever were you thinking?!”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man,” Nat said. “I’m still your father.”
“Richard,” Abby murmured, silencing him. She gentled her tone as she addressed her father-in-law. “These are dangerous times, Dad. It’s not safe for you and Mom to be out at night.”
Nat snorted. “Lived through martial law; I daresay we’ve had our share of bad times.”
“In any case,” Rosa interrupted before Richard could continue his tirade. “Nothing happened. And we are sorry we worried you. We’ll be sure to let you know where we’re going next time.”
“Next time???” Richard exclaimed.
“Better get used to it, son,” Nat said. “Us old folk have discovered we need a night out every once in a while to keep the blood flowing. What say you, dear? Same time next week?”
“For the love of…”
“I’d love that,” Rosa said, cutting off Richard once more.
Abby glanced at her husband, an amused expression on her face. Richard smiled. “At least let me drive you next time.”
The first thing to catch Mang Domeng’s eye as he entered his house was a large bag of chicharon bulaklak on the center table of his living room. A note was taped on it.
To Lolo… Love, Cynthia.
Mang Domeng eagerly opened the package. Just the kind of little pick-me-up he needed after a night’s work! He plopped down on the couch, exhausted. He had a few more hours before he had to deal with all his rowdy grandchildren. Time enough to eat before he went to bed. He felt a slight twinge of pain on his chest, but forcibly squelched it as he popped one of the oily bits of deep fried pork intestines into his mouth. Bless Cynthia! He’d always had high hopes for the girl – his smartest grandchild and a nursing student to boot.
He was so busy enjoying his treat that he failed to notice the two shadowy figures lingering by the staircase.
“When will you tell him?” Gladys whispered to her elder sister.
“After he eats,” Cynthia hissed, laying a protective hand on her belly. “Then maybe he won’t look too badly on the idea of another great grandchild.”
San Juan, Quezon City
Emil closed his eyes as a fresh wave of guilt and frustration assailed him. “Yes, I remember now,” he rasped. “Instead of taking the gun, I took a long trip to our aunt’s big house in Cavite and waited all through the night until she returned from her mahjong games. And for what? So she could spit in my face and insult my family. I came home no richer than when I left and it no longer mattered because it was too late… David was… is… forever lost to us.”
He covered his face with his hands. “Why have you come to torment me? For days I’ve been wondering what would have happened if I had gained the strength and will to pick up that gun. Would I have raised enough money in time to save David? Now I recall what had happened and it’s ten times worse! I’m an even bigger failure than I thought was possible!”
He dropped his hands and fixed his gaze upon his tormentor. “I could have wished for David to be healed,” he whispered. “To live the kind of life he’d always wanted. That was the wish I wanted to make! Not the other one!” Emil’s face twisted in anger. “Why did you accept that wish, anyway? The boy was right! It nullified the death wish, didn’t it?”
For the first time, the woman’s mouth curved in what may be constituted as a smile. “Finally, you ask the right questions,” she said. “There is a reason for my visit. The same reason you made that wish and it was granted.”
“You see, just before you voiced your wish, your brother, David, had a death wish of his own…”
Light shimmered around her as she began to fade away.
“…he wished for his brother, Emil, to be at peace.”
chicaron bulaklak: crispy pork intestines
coding: also known as coluor coding or number coding; a scheme by which cars are not allowed to be driven in Metro Manila on certain days, depending on the last digit of the car’s plate number
jeepney: trademark public transportation of the Philippines, famous for its flamboyant design and seating efficiency
mahjong: a gambling game of Chinese origin played by four players with 144 tiles of various designs
MMORPG: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game; a role-playing game on the computer played by thousands of users on the Internet
ramen: Japanese noodle dish
Illustration by Alan Van Every
About the Author:
Maria Melissa Obedoza is a twenty-nine year old freelance writer from the Philippines who enjoys reading and writing fantasy, light science fiction, and good old-fashioned romance. In 2011, her short stories have been accepted for publication by Pill Hill Press for their Dark Heroes Anthology and by Daily Science Fiction.
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