Singularity

I heard about this place somewhere south. So, I phoned to make a reservation and drove down ahead of time so as not to be late. According to the friend who introduced me to it, the dining experience is so intimate that only one guest is allowed at a time. I was lucky to even get through the line, he said, let alone make a same-day reservation: It was like winning the lottery. I wasn’t quite sure how they were able to sustain operating in such a fashion, but they’ve been around for a while now and their popularity has grown exponentially, in fact, the place is considered one of the most sought-after dining spots in the city.

I was greeted by a perky barkeep as if I was a long-lost relative that he was glad to see. Talk about customer service. He was already standing there behind the counter, facing the direction of the doorway even before seeing me walking by the glass window. Naturally, I was impressed. There was just one stool at the counter and it had leather upholstery. Of course, I took it. The barkeep was the only one inside the establishment. And as I was taking the seat, he told me that I didn’t need to mention what I was going to have, that it’s being taken care of.

“But I haven’t given you my order yet.”

“No worries, I’ll get you what’s in your mind, Sir, or your money back.”  He cheekily announced.

I didn’t dare to contend the gimmick or whatever it was that he was doing. Maybe, they conduct a background check as soon as the reservation has been concluded, looking up the patrons on the web or through their social media accounts, or in any means possible to give them an inkling of the personal preferences of their guests.

The moment I allowed things to happen, I immediately felt comfortable. It must be the air that stirred in the room, it felt fresh even though there weren’t any open windows. It felt as if the weight that I was carrying on my shoulders was lifted. Like there were these invisible hands giving me some backrubs of the sort. So, he went at it, conjuring what he had predicted I wanted to order. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing behind the tall bottles and beer glasses that stood between us. He maneuvered like a skillful athlete tossing around jiggers, oranges, and some bottles as if it was a performance. “Your favorite drink, Sir.” Slowly placing the heavy glass in a dramatic fashion in front of me. “So, it’s true then what they say, that you can read minds?”

“I can only speak the truth, Sir, nothing more.”

“Some trick. I’m impressed.”

“I understand if you’re skeptical about my abilities, which by the way is your prerogative, but then again, I can only speak the truth.”

“So, there’s no trick whatsoever?”

“Or your money back.”

There it was again, the repetition of his responses, the play of words. He whipped the fly that landed on the counter with his damp hand towel.

“I’d let you in on a secret.” He moved in closer as if it was a matter of life and death, then a long pause.

“What?”

“Go on ahead and look.”

“Huh?”

“Take a look at your drink, Sir.” I bowed down and saw that the drink turned into water.

“Wait, how did you do that?”

“It’s just regular hypnosis, Sir. All I did was serve you plain water. It was your mind that perceived it as otherwise.”

“But it tasted like the real thing?”

“Of course, Sir. Our nervous system is a powerful machine.”

“It’s weird that you refer to the brain as a machine.”

“The brain is just a part of an intricate web of wonder inside your body.”

“Wait, is that what you only serve to your customers? Just water?”

“I can only speak the truth.”

“Aha! But that’s not the truth at all, I deserve a refund you said it yourself, I mean should I ask for it.”

“If you say so, Sir. But it was real to you, was it not?”

“I guess so. How about food? What do you do for that?”

“Water is life.”

“That explains a lot about your costs.”

“For as long as we have access to clean water, yes, we’re in business. We can do a lot with just a glass.”

“That’s brilliant.”

“Thank you for saying, Sir.”

“You should branch out.”

“What do you mean, Sir?”

“There’s more to simulating human experiences than just food.”

“We haven’t thought of it that way. But our simulation is like looking at your reflection. We merely hold the mirror for you to see what your mind tells you. Mirroring emotions is a black hole, Sir. Everything breaks in its singularity. It’s a tricky business.”

“What made you decide to disclose your trade secret anyway?”

“It gets boring around here as you can see.”

“Do you also share this with your other customers?”

“Just with the regulars.”

“But I’m not one of them.”

“You’ll see.”

As I was downing my drink, a thought landed on me.

“We haven’t done that sort of thing yet, Sir. As I mentioned, we’re all about the dining experience, the tastebuds, perception, but not in that area just yet. But I guess we could make an exemption just for tonight.”

“No, please. Don’t mind me, I was just thinking about its possibility.”

“But you’re right, Sir. We should consider branching out to more than just serving food.”

“How many glasses of water do you think it would take to do it?” Completely indulging the thought.

“A few tall glasses would do the trick, I reckon.” The barkeep was absorbed in deep thought.

He went into the kitchen and has been gone for a while before finally returning. I was on the edge of my seat. My heart was pounding and beads of sweat began to appear on my forehead.

As I was waiting, I heard a voice behind me.  It belonged to a woman. It was my late wife, Sofia.

“Hey there, hon.” Even before I could turn to see, I knew it was really her. No doubt about that.

I couldn’t tell you how many drinks I had exactly, but she had a case of Pale Pilsen, in less than an hour. She was making up for the lost time she declared. It was the best time I had in years. The barkeep offered us the menu and said that everything was on the house to celebrate the milestone of the business. Of course, we feasted. We went along with how everything turned out that evening.

Sitting next to her at the bar, I told her everything I couldn’t tell her all those years. I left nothing behind. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake ever again. It was limited though, we only had less than an hour left in my reservation. We concluded the chat. I left a five-star rating on the survey sheet on the way out. Finally, I could move on with my life.

The next day I woke as if I was a completely different person. Or should I say I regained my old self? I immediately phoned my friend and told him all about the experience. “Really? that’s intense. Did they say how they were actually doing it?”

“The barkeep just told me that I was just hypnotized.”

“What a load of crap, I’m sorry I wasted your time.”

“Yeah, it was awful.”

I couldn’t understand why my friend said that. Of course, it wasn’t awful. I asked him to keep everything to himself and he gave his word. I was told by the barkeep that I couldn’t share with anyone what transpired that evening. But my friend wasn’t just anyone so I assumed that was okay. Especially that part with my late wife, since it was still on the beta stage, that it hasn’t been tested extensively, even though it worked with me just fine.

“We need more test subjects, I hope we can count on you about keeping things confidential for now.”

“Who is we?” I only thought about it when I was taking a shower and getting ready for work. I sat down at the toilet and did my business while I was on my phone skimming my emails. Then a weird thing happened. I heard my late wife’s voice beneath the bathroom floor. I was stunned. I had goosebumps.

It sounded that the voice was directly coming from beneath the toilet. I thought it was the hangover and decided it must have been that plus the sound of the flush when I pushed down the plunger. The phone in the bedroom rang.

It was the barkeep. His voice was shaking.

“I need to see you now, Sir.”

“What for?”

“No time to explain. Just head back and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

I did what I was told. I called up the office and told them that I’d be late for the day. When I arrived, the barkeep was standing at the front door.

“We need to talk. Please follow me inside.”

We went in and headed straight to the kitchen.

“There’s been a problem.”

“Obviously. What’s wrong?”

“We need to let it all out of you.”

“What?”

“All the water we used up for the apparition of your wife.” He was walking up and down the tiled floor.

“Wait, calm yourself, what do you mean we have to let it all out of me? What the hell is going on?”

“Plainly speaking, the water that you’ve consumed was contaminated. Apparently, there’s been a breach in our water supply. Have you noticed anything odd since you left the bar?”

“No, not at all. I’ve been feeling good since I left. But I thought I heard my wife’s voice this morning.”

“So it had started. We have to ensure that we let it all out of you. You know? Wring you of all the water you’d had from this place before it reaches full circle.”

“What would happen if we don’t?”

“Your wife takes full control. She’ll take over your consciousness, you could figure out the rest.”

The barkeep led my head to the sink. Shoved a rubber hose into my throat and pumped the contents of my stomach. I vomited everything I had in my gut. Or should I say I vomited every part of my wife? I could see parts of her in my puke. I vomited her eyes, bits and parts of her torso, her jaw, and the hardest was her limbs. And when I thought I had the worst, the barkeep gave me some laxatives. I had to stay with the barkeep for three months.

Night Duty

This is a true story. It was a windy night. The tropical storm was heading westward and what we were experiencing according to the weather report was the tail-end onslaught of the typhoon. It was supposed to be over soon, but it seemed like it was just getting started. There were just light rains thankfully, which meant lesser floods in most areas but the strong winds compensated for the lack of it. We were sleeping soundly in our condominium studio apartment my wife and I had just recently moved into when the storm got worse. Everything was going according to plan, it felt brand-new, starting a life together as a couple. It was quite a high finally landing on our own feet. You could say that we are still new to this sort of life even though we have been together for several years. I admit, however, that we were too eager about making it work. Sometimes it feels a little bit too soon. Either way, it had to be done at one point or another anyway. Nothing was going to stop us, we wanted nothing more.

The building construction was still on-going though. And there were only a few of us who were occupying the new structure. There were about eighty to ninety families or owners for all forty-four floors, which includes the penthouse, two commercial floors, and the three car-parking floors.

It was about past midnight when a series of loud banging noises woke us. My wife, being a light sleeper, complained about it first and couldn’t seem to get back to sleep anymore. I couldn’t as well, I don’t think anybody could. Apparently, the source of the nuisance was caused by the strong winds banging the doors of the unoccupied units. It was the storm, there was no doubt about it. And the barrage came mostly from the upper floors. And there were a lot of them since most units were yet to be turned over to the owners or were still up for sale. Unlike the other condominiums you’d normally find around the metro, the developers hand the property over to the owners bare. Meaning, there are no furnishings, fixtures, nor tiles, no paint jobs whatsoever. Just an empty concrete box and a door with no lock.

We just moved in, a little over a month give or take. My wife and I had lived around the city our entire lives there was no reason why we should be bothered about such a petty disturbance. But that night in the condominium was different. The booming barrage of noises was far worse than any thunderstorms we’ve encountered. Imagine, heavy doors made of hardwood banging constantly from different floors of the building one after another. It felt like a giant percussion in a full-length set. We thought that we were going nuts, it was torture. We work during the day and for us, a good night’s sleep was imperative.  At first, we tried to shrug it off hoping that the winds would tire down soon but it didn’t.  What’s bizarre was, when I went to the door and checked, I was the only one who was out in the hallway. “How can these people sleep, aren’t they bothered?” probably they are all used to it, probably they get a discount on the association dues for the trouble, or perhaps they have a state of the art noise-canceling padding installed on their walls. Either way, I just couldn’t understand how they were able to stand the entire thing. But I realized that maybe we were the only ones who there on our floor that night, maybe our neighbors (which were few) were out.

So I went to work. I could not stand another second of it. One way or another, I wouldn’t allow it to ruin what we had set out to achieve – a home. A little peace and quiet are hard to come by these days. We could talk to the building manager and file a complaint, of course, but that would happen no sooner than the morning after. I wanted to fix the matter up right away by taking things into my own hands. Besides, I’m an impatient man. My wife and I share that character flaw. We’re not proud of it but we get things done because of it. There’s always a way to keep things moving faster, we believe. You can coin it however you like, but it’s a principle that we carry.

I started with the doors on our side of the wing and carried on to the other. I was angry. I wallowed about the incompetence of the building administrators. “How could they miss this?” Since there were no available doorknobs at the vacant units, I tore off a generous portion of the carton box that I found and used that as a shim to keep the doors fixed in place. I closed the windows in the vacant apartments. I threaded carefully since it was dark in most of them. There were only the lights from the neighboring buildings illuminating my path. I tried the security guard on the ground floor, but couldn’t find him for some reason. I didn’t want to waste any more of my time so I went back to our floor to finish the job.

I boarded up the air-conditioning provisions with scrap boards and fragments of concrete blocks I found lying around. I was able to shut all the doors in-place on our floor but regrettably, it didn’t dent the impact of the noise at all.  It was overwhelming, I didn’t think this through I told myself. It felt like I was on the verge of caving in. But something must be done; I desperately mustered all the anger in my chest and turned it into pure will. I must admit, there was regret looming every time I felt tired and ready to give up. But I was not going to quit. Floor by floor, I went up through the elevator, doing the same things I did on ours: Shimmed the doors, closed any open windows, and blocked any significant openings with anything I could find useful. I was getting tired; I didn’t have the time with me, but I think I spent nearly two hours on all those doors. When I was near the top floors, I felt like fainting, I wanted to stop.

Even though I didn’t want to rest, I sat down on the hallway floor as I waited for the elevator to fetch me. I was on 43rd.  I was catching my breath and my throat was dry. By the time I entered the lift and was set to push 44, I realized that the last floor was off-limits it being the penthouse. I was relieved, it meant that the technicality concluded my quest for the night, finally.  But I noticed that there was an extra button just above it. “Another floor? That can’t be right?” I was sure that there wasn’t a 45th floor but it was there in front of me glowing in its LED light. I still have the condominium brochure and the paperwork, and it only mentioned 44 floors and not 45. I kept on staring at the number to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. And that strange button was on top of the penthouse which was kind of absurd. At first, I hesitated to proceed any further, but since I was there already, I ought to finish the deed I set out to do in the first place. But more than that, there was that unscratchable itch to know more about that mystery floor. I don’t know, I was just drawn to it, like it was calling me, like a long-lost friend beckoning for a chat. And without thinking too much, I went for it finally. Before long, the elevator doors slid open. That thin chime that nudged me that I was there echoed across the room.

It was dark and there was total silence. I noticed that there wasn’t a hallway, there was no wind at all but it was colder than any of the other floors I’ve been to. It was just a huge spacious dark room that seemed shapeless. Like a deep void or some sort of a vacuum.

I didn’t step out. I mean, why would I? I decided that there wasn’t any door that needed closing anyway. My task is done, I convinced myself. Leave now before you regret staying. I was scared, to tell you the truth. I never felt this alone my whole life. I was brought up in the slums but I never felt this perilous. I couldn’t move and I felt frozen all of a sudden. Everything was still, I couldn’t remember if I’d breathed at all. For all I care, I was a cold corpse. And before I was able to push the close button, the elevator seemed to have telepathically understood my will, as if it had its own consciousness. Then that chime had rung again to announce my departure. I was saved! A small voice in my head had celebrated in silence. But then, when the doors were about to slide back to closing, it struggled. It was like the doors were dragging itself to do it. It was as if someone or something was forcing it not to. But it continued on, slow but it was moving.

It was the longest five seconds of my life. And when the doors were finally about to touch shut, I swear I saw something between that narrow gap. I’ll try to describe what I saw to the best of my ability but I assure you that this description is nothing compared to what I have actually seen. What I saw between that narrowing vertical was a face. There was a glimmer of light, a faint illumination that shimmered in the darkness. It didn’t hurt my eyes, in any way, allowing me to see clearly.  Behind the light emerged a face, the feeling that it left me that night stayed on. The face had a very dark complexion. Its skin had a dry, cracked texture. There were thick scabs, in a quite unusual formation. It looked like one layer was sitting on top of another and another. It was sort of a miniature canyon after a volcanic eruption. I thought that the face was smiling, well it appeared as if it was. I don’t think it had lips on its mouth, just the skin around it. I couldn’t say if it had a body though. Or hair. Or anything else. It was just there facing directly towards me, just a few paces away.

It was gone instantaneously, almost at the same moment I saw it.

Of course, my wife and I went to the admin office as soon as their office had opened. I gave a brief narrative of what happened and expressed our frustrations about the experience.  My wife told me between the conversation as she whispered that I was calmer than she had expected me to be. I don’t know about that, I just felt exhausted after all. I didn’t share with anyone about the 45th floor, even to my wife. But I asked the official if there was a floor above the penthouse, but the building manager told me that there was none.

That very same day, we were informed that none of the occupants heard about the loud banging noises. Even the security guards who were doing the rounds that night didn’t hear anything at all. “But that was just impossible, that couldn’t be right.” My wife told the manager and his assistant at our door. “We wanted to get to the root of it, we even went asking around but even the other unit owners didn’t seem to have heard the noises. But we’ll check all the doors from now on just to be sure.” We thought it was weird. We were willing to bet that the noises we heard that night reached up to two blocks away.

It’s been four months now since the night of the incident.  And true enough, as the building manager had promised, we didn’t experience any of it anymore. It’s been months since I’ve written anything as well. Not to make any excuses, but I haven’t been in my element since the night of the incident. What’s troubling me was that the 45th button wasn’t there anymore but there is a dent on the control panel that hinted that a provision for a button was once available. I don’t know, it could be my imagination. I decided to let it go, but as of late, I couldn’t find my sleep for some reason. The wife returned to her routine which was more important. I am writing tonight to journal that night’s strange experience. There’s a storm heading our area. The biggest in years they said. I decided to trace my footsteps as I did that night, hoping to put a stop to all of this madness. I’ll be going floor to floor, simulating as I did then to get to that ominous floor. I’ll write a log soon about any further developments.

 

Vanishing Act

It’s turning out to be one of those strange conversations you’d normally only hear from TV shows or the movies.  The details were obscured or maybe it’s because I didn’t believe it was real at all. He claimed that he’s been getting frequent visits from aliens. I almost choked and fell from my seat when he shared that.  But with everything that’s been happening lately, who knows what exactly could happen next. Besides, he wasn’t the type who’d make up such a delusional story, he’s incapable of lying, too. I just couldn’t imagine him wasting time like that, that’s all. For him, life is too short for such empty rhetorics. 

I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it.  We’ve known each other since we were kids so I’d know, even if he’s pulling a well-orchestrated prank on me or if he’s trying to conceal something.  He was hesitant though. I mean, it was as if he’s pulling his punches with regards to the details. It felt like he’s sparing me from something, even his voice was different that afternoon.  I didn’t bother to fight it either, I mean, I didn’t want to get sucked into it.  Besides, I was lazy enough not to. And as obscurity would often have it, there wasn’t much to work on. The so-called facts were limited to the following: That the visits happened every Monday evenings, between ten and eleven o’clock, that there were bright lights flashing on his bedroom window, and silhouettes of the lanky visitors stood at the hedges communicating only with meek hand gestures.

I tried to chew on it. I tried to spot gaps in his narrative but he’s relatively consistent. It was a strange afternoon but we still sat there in our wicker chairs anyway, outside the cafe, puffing cigarettes while piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of his predicament.

The sultry afternoon breeze carried the remaining traces of that summer. I can still remember how incredibly hot it was. We’d have been dehydrated to death if not for the occasional mild ventilation from the passing air of the entrance door.

He wrapped up the matter in an abrupt manner as if prodded by the heat. He confessed, like the current state of things that summer, that he felt as though he’s all dried up on the inside, like an empty well in a desolate land.

“I don’t think there’s much left in me. Not much inside this draining well. I haven’t been sleeping since these visits had started to occur to tell you the truth. It feels like they take away a part of me each time.”

His voice sounded tired, impliedly soliciting for a benevolent recoil.

“Even if the well is full, I don’t think there’d be anyone wild enough to drink from it.”  was my response to cheer him on. 

“There were a few who deliberately did, as a matter of fact, you pompous prick.” He shot back with a burst of timid laughter.

I tried to employ my fully charged optimism to sustain the little progress we had ongoing.

“Whatever it is, aliens or no aliens, I’m sure you’d perk up in no time, maybe it’s yet to precipitate, you know? Like the rain after the drought.”

I sensed his eagerness to refute the last statement was rising up halfway to my point. But the sky suddenly lashed out an angry roar when he was about to.

We both looked up and referred to what we saw as a sign —

“We don’t want to be caught in this downpour.” He was getting up to leave, cramming to get his things into his pouch.

“I don’t want to rain on your parade kid, but you kinda want to.” This I exclaimed with a chuckle.

“So, we’re doing puns now? ” We got the check and drove to the bay.  We spent the remainder of the day watching the sunset where he was able to get some brief sleep at the backseat.

We were supposed to meet the following month at the same tired cafe for our routine catch up. It’s one of those things we tried to hold onto after I moved out of town. You could say it’s our own little way of preserving our history together. We could have agreed to do it more often but we both passed up the idea as proximity and real-life happenings weren’t exactly participative, to say the least. 

I was about to head out when I decided to give him a call to confirm the rendevous. There was no answer, apparently, the service has been discontinued. I showed up at the place anyway. I waited for four hours before deciding on calling it quits. I learned sometime later from a family friend who lives nearby, that he sort of moved out of his apartment, he didn’t leave a word. 

“He just stopped answering the door, according to his landlord.”  His things, everything has been completely abandoned.

I tried our common friends, since doing that would likely yield more results than contacting his siblings. And without surprise, I found out, that I was the only person who’s still in contact with him.

I still sat there at our table from time to time, hoping to bump into him somehow. But after a few days, I realized, I did it mainly because of my inability to break habits or it was born out of the protracted inertia if you will.

I was able to convince his landlord to lend me a duplicate key to his apartment,  provided that I settle the payment for the unpaid months left in his contract. I packed a few of my stuff, good enough for a few nights of stay, a ream of cigarettes, and a lot of snacks to munch on. I also brought a flashlight and a camcorder just in case.  I reversed my sleeping routine to stay awake at night, even decided to put a halt on drinking, too. 

I was ready to see anything if you want to know the truth.  Again, I’m no believer in such things but who knows what’s out there really.  Nothing happened during the first few nights, just random cars jolting here and about. It felt like a retreat of some sort in a weird way, staying in some strange place like that. There was that unexpected tranquility of being alone, there was this sense of oneself that was heightened.  Sure, I love the wife and the kids, couldn’t live without them, but there’s something about solitude that sets me down.  

On the 8th day, while on the phone talking to my wife, I heard a noise coming from the second floor.  I found it unsettling since the ceiling which was the floor of the master’s was made of concrete.  If it had been an earthquake, the whole house should’ve moved as well, but it didn’t.  

I felt my throat suddenly becoming dry, the same hot feeling I had the last time I was with my missing friend fell all over me.  My steps paced stealthily when I went up the stairs, on the way to his room.  I turned the knob, swung the door wide, but there was nothing there. Just a sad view of a flyover behind the neighboring apartments and hardbound books that were knocked over by the wind. The bed was made and all of his clothes were neatly ironed and in place. 

Maybe, I was overthinking it. I think he’s somewhere out there, safe. Maybe he just needed to go somewhere to be alone for himself, too, just for a while. Probably, he turned into vapor for a quick spin. Probably he’s up there, perched on a cloud, waiting for the end of summer, waiting for the right moment to pour in. 

I don’t know, it’s turning out to be one of those strange stories you’d normally only hear from TV shows or the movies.  These are strange times indeed. 

Derby

I couldn’t remember the last time we spent an afternoon like that. The benches were starting to fill as the Sunday crowd flocked around the cockpit.

Men in stylish shoes sat together with men in rags.

Men of power, money, and influence — mingled with minimum wage earners.

Men of authority in civilian clothing, men of vast lands, towering concrete columns, the strong men, the giants rubbed elbows with the little men —

The little men who live along the railways and by the creeks.

We could catch the scent of intensity, the smell of thin air belching out from empty stomachs, famished hearts, and unfulfilled dreams.

Of mixed warm sweat,

Dry, sticky sweat.  

Arriving, we could see the owners carrying their prizefighters on their sides as if holstered pistols in a duel. Stroking their red and white fowls — their coats like a lion’s mane.

Wagers were in, bets were called.

A few flaps and a lot of slashing.

Fleshes were ripped, blood splattered in the dusty ring.

In a half-chance, winner-takes-all gamble.

All for the pot money and some stiff-meat lunch the next day.

Badong – not a fighting fowl.

The Lost Tale of Johnny Slip-On

This happened when I was drinking in a bar a few years ago. It was on a weekday after a gruelling workday when I felt the need to have a few stouts. I don’t usually drink dark beer, but I guess, the occasion called for it. All I could remember is how upset I was about work and I couldn’t wait to go to the nearest place to unwind. Anyway, I finally found one. It was raining hard out and what’s worse, I wasn’t able to check the weather app before heading to the office. All I had was the day’s newspaper that I used as a shield. As I entered the bar, the bell in the doorway chimed, which prompted the barkeep to emerge from whatever he was doing underneath his station. For a moment there, I had a funny picture of him in my head that he spends most of his time down there, just waiting for the cue of the chime until his services are needed. Of course, I didn’t manifest any of this so as not to get in trouble and thrown out right away. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood to begin with. I ordered whiskey, neat, to shake off the cold. It took three shots before I got settled in, then I ordered beer. Only a few people were in the bar, it being a weekday, which worked for me fine since I could use a lot of quiet that evening.

I stayed as far as I could from anyone. I think most of the patrons there got that. The people who were there had that look. You know, that “leave me alone, unless you’re some hot chic or you can solve all of my problems” kind of look. I was soaking wet from the rain, I felt worse. I was literally dripping from my seat. I sat away from the door and the windows, which meant taking the center of the bar where it was warmer. Behind me, was the aisle and a few tables where customers sat and there was a pinball machine stationed at the south wall. I tried to light a cigarette but my lighter won’t work, so I asked the barman for one.

Half an hour had passed, and the door chimed again. This time, it wasn’t some shady, grumpy guy, soaked in the rain, but someone very different. The man who entered got the same look as I got when I entered, only he wasn’t a stranger. The barkeep told me that he considers it a phenomenon how that chime gets everybody’s reaction on a weekday but almost none when it is a lot crowded on weekends. “Even when the chiming goes non-stop, nobody would turn, believe me.” Then he laughed it off and waited for the man to make his approach.

“Hey, Johnny.”

“What’s up, Barry?”

“The usual?”

“Yes, the usual, please.”

I would have preferred to drink alone but he sat right next to me and downed his drink. I wanted to tell him off, or probably just move at the corner, but I was too tired to make an effort and I didn’t want to give up my warm spot. He was well dressed, he wore an expensive black suit; the linings looked sharp — not a lint on it — and it was tailor-fitted, probably Italian. Despite the heavy onslaught the rain was bringing, his hair still appeared to be in place. I thought he must have arrived in a car with a chauffeur perhaps, but it was highly unlikely since the bar was on a backstreet, there was no way a car could pass through. He sported a clean pompadour, like one of those haircuts mafia had during the prohibition. He was like a movie character who decided to step out of the film strip to have a drink.

The pompadour guy was a bit chatty though for my taste. He and the Barry guy went about a lot of stuff and they seemed to genuinely enjoy the conversation. When I unearthed the lighter from my pocket (to give it another try) I noticed something strange, something out of place — Johnny wasn’t wearing any shoes. He wasn’t barefoot, no, but what he had on was a pair of beach slippers. At first, I thought that his shoes were rain-soaked, but I didn’t see a drop of rain on him. He was completely dry. I must have been rudely staring at his feet that he began noticing me. When I sensed this, I immediately looked away and tried to act casual to avoid further damage of any sort.

“They’re pretty aren’t they, old sport?” He talked like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. He’s also beginning to look like him too, except for the choice of footwear.

“Yes they are, I mean, I didn’t mean to stare, I’m sorry.” This I delivered sincerely.

“Don’t beat yourself about it, old sport! I would do the same if I’m in your shoes — only, I won’t wear any.”

“Wh-What? Excuse me, I don’t think I follow.”

“Sorry, old sport. I thought you already knew. It appears that Barry here hasn’t been a very good host.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, I thought you wouldn’t come tonight.”

“That’s alright; I didn’t plan on going either.”

The barkeep then turned to me and said, “I was supposed to let customers know about Johnny’s choice of footwear before he comes in the bar. I mean if there should be new faces coming in, such as yourself.”

I didn’t know what to say. Then the barkeep continued, “He pays me for it. Adds more tip, I mean.”

“Why is that necessary?” Somehow, I regained the courage to ask a question.

“Simple, old sport, simple. So I don’t have to repeat my sorry tale.”

“I wouldn’t call that sorry, Johnny.” Said Barry.

“No, old sport, don’t worry, we’re good. Don’t feel bad about it, okay? Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve told anyone about it. You’ve done your job well, Barry.”

“Thanks, Johnny. That meant a lot” Relieved, Barry stepped back to resume his bar duties.

“Well, how about it, old sport?”

“What about it?” I replied.

“Do you want to hear the story?” He pulled out a cigarette case and lights a stick. He’s dashing with how he did the whole thing.

Obviously, I didn’t want to hear it. I was still hung up on what happened that day at work, but I also didn’t want to offend the Gatsby guy again.

“Sure, let’s hear it.” I lighted a cigarette myself. My trusty lighter finally worked.

“Well, I have this condition.” He started. “As you can see I dress up for the occasion, and I do it all the time, except of course I don’t wear shoes.”

I nodded to imply that I was interested and listening.

“You could call it a compromise. You see, I’m in sales — international trade if you will. For as long as I bring in the dough, I get to wear whatever I want.”

“I understand.” I readjusted my seat to face him. “But why not pick an attire that would match your… I mean, that.” I of course referred to his slippers.

“Well, old sport, my good friend, it’s because I want to wear suits! Besides, I don’t know anyone, or have heard of anyone having the same kind of style! I’m one of a kind.” He sips on his martini.

“If I may be frank, why don’t you wear shoes?”

“Ah! Straight to the point!” Gatsby guy slammed his hand on the bar top.

“Well, old sport, you know how we all have nightmares? Huh, do you, old sport?” He leaned towards me, it was extremely close, I thought he’d give me a kiss or something. I didn’t respond and waited for what he’ll say next.

“Well, old sport, what if I told you I didn’t wake up from mine? I mean, every time I wear a pair of shoes, it just takes me.”

“Take you to where exactly?” I lowered my tone to match his, we were almost whispering.

“Here goes, old sport. When I was a kid, I think I was in grade 3 at the time; I woke up late for school. My parents were strict as hell, about punctuality most especially. So I crammed and was trying to get dressed even if I was still half-awake. On the way, boarded the school van, I noticed something twitching in my left shoe. At first, I thought it was just a spasm or a throbbing vein from all the hurrying that I did. I was asleep during the second period when I felt the twitch again. But it wasn’t a spasm or a vein that was causing it for sure. I mean, I could feel something moving in there, in my left shoe. It was somewhere mid-foot beneath the arch. I was seated at the back row so the teacher didn’t notice me. It was a public school, and at that time, a class was comprised of forty to, sometimes, fifty students — so no teacher ever noticed anyone. I thought that my foot was rebelling against me, that it wanted to go back home and get the entire body a well-deserved sleep after the baseball practice the day before. So I tried to sneak up on it, I untied the lace, and gently pulled out my foot. Even with great anticipation, I still wasn’t ready for what I saw next. A rabid-looking mouse jumped out of the shoe! I screamed and my classmates did too. The mouse ran off around the classroom but it didn’t know where to go. Many of my classmates climbed up their seats and they were screaming non-stop in disgust. Nobody saw that the dreaded thing came out of my shoe, I would have been so embarrassed. But a bizarre thing happened. The mouse went back to my abandoned left shoe on the floor, to seek refuge, I think. It stayed there for the longest time until our teacher got the janitor to take care of the thing. Of course, the janitor had to take the shoe with him to avoid the further commotion. When he got back, he returned the empty shoe to me but I didn’t want to touch it anymore. I went home barefoot.”

“You were traumatized.”

“Yes, I was, old sport. But not because of the mouse.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s the wonder about kids, old sport. Things are just so much clearer to them.”

I said nothing.

“Sure I was traumatized about the whole thing, but it wasn’t because of the mouse. It was the janitor’s action that shook me.”

“So that’s the reason why you don’t want to own shoes.”

“What? I didn’t say I don’t own shoes. I said I don’t wear them.”

Dumbfounded, I drank what’s left of my stout.

“You see, old sport, after that day, I realized that the mouse treated my shoe as its shelter, its own home. And after a series of therapy sessions, the doctors and my parents tried out many ways on how to reverse the effects on me. You know, they tried to fix me. Well, you see, I didn’t need fixing at all. It took me a while, but I finally found a way to cope with it. One day, I placed a little piece of cheese inside of a shoe and eventually started doing it for all the shoes I had. And guess what happened next?

The Lost Tale of Johnny Slip-On

Snapshots

 

PA System

They plodded the aisle where the toiletry items were displayed. The smell of antiseptic calmed him down a bit from the argument they just had. The pushcart barely had anything in it; it was still light to swerve around. Then, there was an announcement from the PA system, the store is closing down in a few. The woman rushed to the liquor section and picked up a Jack and four packs of cigarettes. Two of each — gold and menthol. “Something to cool us down.” She said to him. There was still animosity in her eyes but it was beginning to fade somehow. He picked up a single toothbrush and threw it in the cart. “Okay, for as long as you’d share that toothbrush with me, then I’m good.” The PA system ran another round of announcements for the last call.

 

 

Buffet

He learned about Arthur when he was just a little boy during the days when he spent most of his time out in the sun, playing with the other kids his age. Excalibur and the weapons they had were makeshift swords made of wooden shafts, bamboo sticks, and illustration board cutouts. He has never read any of the books that were written about the valiant king and his knights — He still hasn’t. He picked up most of what he knew from watching a lot of cartoons thanks to the neighbor who had colored TV. With friends, he watched from the outside of the house.  He didn’t mind the cramps from the prolonged squatting nor the mosquitoes that saw him and his friends as buffet. For them, they had body armor, their skins were made of bronze and steel.

 

 

Makahiya

A car was moving towards their direction as he and a friend stood at the corner street. It ran slow as if waiting to be announced. The engine sounded like a quiet stream, it had heavy tint on all sides. As it was about to pass them by, one of its windows opened — a woman’s face emerged, surveying the numbers of the nearby houses. ‘There’s an empty house just farther ahead if that’s what you are looking for…” The friend yelled cheekily. As if a shy plant, its leaves folded, the woman’s face retracted from their view.  The tint of the window was even darker in that silvery gloom. The night was closing in and he wished nothing more than to see that face again.

 

Sex Tape

It was a sex tape.  A friend pulled me into watching it before I could ever find out who was in it.  Even if he told me right from the beginning, I don’t think it would stop me and do otherwise.  I wasn’t sure if it was curiosity or the hormones that drew us into it, but my friend’s persuasiveness definitely did not help.  We were intrigued; we haven’t seen anything like it before. Apparently, he was able to download the entire thing before it was taken down.  All he said was that we both knew the couple in the video.  In fact, they were classmates of ours.  We watched it over a dozen times. Probably four or five more times at home.  If there was ever a pop quiz about it, we’d ace it for sure. This happened during the time when smartphones were just beginning to be a thing, and a lot of people were doing a lot of experimenting with them apparently.  There was even a myth that service technicians can extract all of your files out of your phone even if they were deleted or your memory card is out.

Needless to say, it went viral.  It wasn’t even the term that we used then, it just went out.   Everybody in school was talking about it, I’m sure even the grown-ups did too.  It even reached a point when phones were banned inside the classrooms.  We talked about it tirelessly though during the morning assembly, during recess, even while classes were on-going.  It was such a hot topic that some students officially declared homeroom as ‘X and Y’

We didn’t refer to them by their real names to avoid being caught. We used X and Y instead. X and Y are the usual symbols we use for the numbers we don’t know yet in Algebra, in case you’re wondering. In short, to keep them anonymous.

We had fun talking and making jokes about it, heck, it even helped most of us understand the inner workings of that world. It opened our eyes to a lot of things. On my part, X and Y were ahead of their time, they were gods to me.  After the video came out, we didn’t see X and Y ever again.  We heard that they were sent away abroad, never to see each other again. Some even told us that they had their names changed because of the damage it caused.

Looking back, I felt terrible about how we behaved. Yes, it’s easy to say that we were mere children and that we didn’t fully understand what we did then.  But that also didn’t help X and Y at all.   Lately, I think about it a lot. I still see them as kids in my head. On how taciturn and quiet they are in their own happy world, on how contented they are in that shared bubble. I remember how nice and gentle X was; she was once a lab partner in Chemistry, and even if we didn’t speak to each other much, her warmth transcended to me. She helped me with a few school work and she was good at it too – helping others.  And it pains me even now how we all betrayed her, both of them.  We buried them alive, we took part in the murder. I know, saying this won’t do reprieve and penance, but I want nothing more in life than to go back and do better.

Birthday

He visited the woman and her fatherless child on the eve of his thirty-sixth birthday. They had a simple meal of pork tofu with rice, and some slices of ripe mangoes. He caught a whiff of his mother’s hands from the freshly cut fruit, it reminded him of the small farming land of home. At the back of a school notebook, he showed the child how to draw a flying kitten over a brown isosceles mountain. The child gave it a name, changed it, and finally settled with another eventually. After lights out, both adults stayed in the woman’s bedroom exchanging fond memories of their lives around the city. He lay on his side, propped his head on his arm, while the woman was stretched out in bed naked. The room was submerged by a drowsy light coming from the lamppost that directly stood across the window. Every single piece of furniture was caught in that soft gleam; Their complexion was the color of apricots the entire night. She then started talking about her previous inhibitions to allow herself to be with another man. She felt robbed all those years. There were some tears, but these were merely from the strain of letting it all out after all this time. He finally understood her mother’s demise, what drove her mad. At the stroke of midnight, he was reminded again of the same person, the one who gave birth to him on this very day. Her ghost just keeps on coming back like this every year. From her own world, the woman pulled herself out of the abyss and reached for his face. The woman was the first to greet him on his birthday, she made sure of that. They made love once again to forget. He tried avoiding the woman’s eyes, however, when he turned to the windows, the glare of the streetlights was too bright. But just overhead, a moth was fluttering about the room — its erratic movements perfectly matched his tentative gaze.

Always Leave the Exact Amount on the Dresser

“Two tickets please.” The lady behind the window tore two and handed him his change.  The movie wasn’t good, but he loved it all the same. The woman he was with disagreed. She thought that the dialogues were lousy and it bored her to death. He liked how opinionated she was. He gave his rebuttal and she cooly answered them. They had a good, intelligent back-and-forth.  But the truth is, she had seen it over a dozen times already for the past weeks. She had practice. The men who afforded her took her to the cinemas and always preferred they had debates like this at the end of it. Some men are strange, she thought. She always took the opposing view, no matter what side that was.

“The critics hated it.” The woman argued. But he cared less about what the critics wrote. He decided that he was too old for that. In fact, he doesn’t read any of their columns anyway lest it deliberately permits random people to just interfere with the story being told.

It was as good as it could get. Their conversations had flat-lined naturally when they found themselves necking all of a sudden while waiting for a cab. It did not seem to appall her, dating an old foreign guy such as himself.

“But how do you know when someone is being true to you?” He asked.

“Well, that’s easy.”

“Yeah?”

“I guess.”

“Please do tell.”

She sat back as if it drew her more power when explaining.

“At nights, you could always tell.  At nights, the whispers are the most honest thing there is.”

And one thing led to another. Before he knew it, he was being led to this shabby hotel down some dark alley where she was a preferred guest. After all, this wasn’t a real date. It was rather a business transaction.  But he had hoped that it could at least mean something to the woman while it lasted. As they approached their place of accommodation, he noticed that there wasn’t a working sign.  The hotel had none if you want to know the truth.  All it had on was the address number by the glass door which said ‘9316’ with the neons from a nearby KTV gracing light on its facade. He thought that she had probably chosen this place specifically to bury their whispers.

There were some light rains and it was cold. It was dark all around with only a few cars jolting by at the corner street.  He found some shade and waited outside while the woman took care of the room.  He stared blankly up into the dark sky and searched for the invisible source of this unending downpour and wondered like a child. The wind carried the slanted rain. There were soft glimmers each time they passed through the street lights. He thought it was a nice gesture, the slow rain paying their respects like that.

After a while, they went inside and got into a small elevator which barely fitted them. Their shoulders almost touched, he felt nervous once again. Under the bright light, he could almost see her underneath all of that makeup. He thought her dark skin was beautiful, apart from the fact that she looked tired and older. When they reached their room, the woman asked him to place the exact amount on the dresser, or else she would keep whatever he’d left there. She undid her coat while she went into the bathroom to freshen up. He took off his shoes and sat at the corner of the bed where the window was near.

He was shivering when he touched her. He rarely gets the chance.

While on her knees, she looked up to him and then smiled.

But he couldn’t tell if she was sincere or not.

She was preoccupied. She was not whispering, of course.

But he was convinced that she was, that she cared for him.

For as long as the money is good on the dresser,

For as long as she is down there.

It was a good view from the top.

Something inside him stirred, something primal.

This was one of the rare occasions wherein he felt good about himself.

No insecurities.

Right here, he was king.

He felt proud, dignified.

In this third-world country, he was living the great American dream.

He was old and wrinkly. He has halitosis.

But he has a good credit score.

And around these parts, that is all that matters.

High-Roller Suite

I tried to find my sleep but couldn’t.

So I popped some pills and waited for it to slither into my veins.

The rays of the sun were rosy, it shone upon us as it descended into the marsh of the thick plum clouds.

I was looking for the cowboy riding into the sunset.

There was no cowboy.

Only the sun and its entourage of plum clouds.

I remember how warm it felt when the rays touched my face.

Many of us turned to look.

Then the pilot swerved for a better view.

We peered through those tiny holes, sharing the small windows of the passenger seats.

Everybody was still.

Some of us bashfully held our phones and took at least thirty-three pictures each.

The sun hasn’t changed at all; she was as beautiful as ever, I thought.

We couldn’t get enough of her.

I guess I could never get over her.

Sanshiro and Mineko.

The two stray sheep by the stream.

I reached up for the attendant button and beeped to order a beer.  After the fiasco the night before, I still wanted one. I left the hotel room with my puke still warm on the floor and nabbed all the shower gels on the way out.

Some low life I was.  I was up there with the greats.

I put on my earphones instead and ran lines with Bill Murray on my phone.

Why can’t these days be just like in the movies?

No, it won’t work. For we’d all be the protagonists. Everyone would want to be the good guy –

The center of the fucking universe.

I looked around and saw only strange faces.

Tourists were visiting a third-world country for the first time.

The honeymooners.

The retirees.

The mothers.

The fathers.

With their oblivious children.

The left.

The right.

And all the politicians who’d love them all when the time comes.

The manicured men with their man-buns.

All the protagonists.

I looked around me and belched alcohol fumes with my cigarette smoke.

I couldn’t believe I just lighted a cigarette inflight. I wanted to put it out but it was too late.

And as soon as the trail of smoke reached full vertical, I then heard the smoke alarm went off. One of the flight attendants came up to me and asked me politely to put out my Marlboro lights but I wasn’t able to respond right away — I was in shock of my stupidity and I was also distracted on how she had still managed to put a straight face on.

I did what I was told. It was just an accident, I explained. My heart was pounding. The flight attendant pretended to believe me. It was nice of her to do so even though she obviously didn’t.  They informed me that they will hand me over to the authorities as soon as we would land.

I ran. They chased me. I made the evening news.

There was a hotel across the airport. I was flushed, my face was pale and at the same time pink when I saw my reflection in the lobby. I told the receptionist to quit the pleasantries and give me a room right away. This caused a bone on her right temple to twitch a little bit. This has also caused all the cheap rooms to be occupied all of a sudden.

I was offered the only room available that night which was the presidential suite.

The presidential suite.

I guess for the first time I was a high-roller.

A fugitive with the knack for self-indulgence under pressure.

There was no way I could afford it.

I asked the receptionist to just charge it but my card flopped.

I spent the whole night at the bar instead.

I was supposed to be the protagonist of this story.

The center of the whole fucking universe.

The Forest in the Mountainside (A Ghost Story)

This happened to me some years ago when I was still studying at university. On the way home, I decided to take the long way route around the mountainside so I could take photographs while at it. At first, I didn’t think it was a bad idea since I grew up around the area and I mostly knew the people who lived there at the time. If something went wrong, I could just simply go to the nearest residence for help. After all, there hadn’t been any incidents related to mugging or anything crime-related. So with this assessment, I carried on and readied the camera with me.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was just about to set. I thought the lighting will be just perfect by the time I start. I felt excited about it. Honestly, I couldn’t wait for my classmates to see what I’d have taken after this, and I could already imagine their faces when we meet that coming Monday. Looking back at it now, I guess I thought I wanted to brag about how much I had improved with my photography skills to land an impression among them. Besides, I had nothing to do at home, and I didn’t want to go back just yet.

I remember feeling rather bad that day. My parents had just finalized everything about their marriage annulment and apparently, they had been keeping the details from me up until that morning. They had decided that they would go their separate ways after the school year. I remember exactly how it felt even up to now when they broke the news to me at the breakfast table. It was my father who found the courage to explain to me first.

“We’d still be your parents, nothing will ever change you’ll see. For what it’s worth, we really considered all of the factors here, so there is no need to worry really, we’d make sure that you are taken care of.”

“Yeah… We really think that this will be all for the best, honey… for everyone.” My mother sounded unsure.

I remember seeing my grandfather arrive that day as well. I thought it was odd for him to travel all the way from where our family was from without a good enough reason, I mean, he rarely visited us when my siblings and I were a lot younger, but I thought that maybe he was just catching up for the lost time.

Soon after I realized the real reason for my grandfather’s visit, I tried to convince my parents to reconsider but things had already been finalized and there was no changing it.

My grandfather was a popular photographer during his time, so I was told, but I only saw all about it in newspaper clippings in the family photo album. My parents told me that it’d be probably good if I stayed with him for the summer — while both of them took care of things and made all the necessary arrangements, I could also learn a thing or two from him.

I didn’t have any choice. And what’s more, I barely knew my grandfather. He was more of a stranger to me at the time. I thought, how can someone you know so little about help you in this time of crisis?

To break the ice, he gave me one of his favorite cameras as a present when we met that morning.

There was nothing special about the camera. It was one of those old digital types that you’d just point and shoot with. But I guess he had memories with it, and he probably wanted to pass it down to me as an heirloom of some sort. I’ve got to admit, however, it helped take my mind off things for a while and somewhat made me feel better. I thanked him and decided not to think about it so much and went straight to school as usual.

I toyed with the camera as I went about the stroll around the mountain after school. It was on a Friday, so I didn’t mind strolling around so late.

Maybe I was too preoccupied with taking photographs that I didn’t realize that I had already wandered about deep into the forest. It was way farther than I have ever been into that the rice fields that you’d normally see around our small town were nowhere to be found. The tree branches sprawled above me as if they were locking arms with each other with their stares fixed down at me. As if conniving, the sun behind them cast dark shadows onto their massive trunks that all the more outlined their contoured figures around me.

At first, I thought, there was nothing wrong and that I should just turn back. But when I did, the pathway behind me vanished out of the thin air. I couldn’t see anything at all. There was just grass, and wild bushes, and strange-looking trees all around. They all look the same everywhere. I am lost, I am lost… I heard my voice crackle and at the same time, I was screaming hysterically inside my head. I was scared. The light from the dimming sun can hardly seep through the gaps of the branches and their thick leaves blotted out the light.

Just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, I heard a voice. At first, I thought it was some random animal, but when I walked closer to where it was, it got louder and louder — it became clear to me that it was much more like a human’s voice. Cold chills ran down to my spine.

Up ahead, between two crooked trees, I saw a boy curled up as if crying. There was little light but I knew I was right, no doubt about it. It really was a child! He had his back against me and he was muttering words I couldn’t understand. I froze on the spot. There was no way a child can get this far, I thought. And what’s more, he had no clothes and his back was filled with wounds, as if claw marks had caused it. When I tried to move in closer, I accidentally stepped on a twig. It was dry so it made a sharp snap when it received my full weight. I held my breath for what happened next. The boy’s crying suddenly stopped. This freaked me out. The boy fell silent and did not move.

“Hey kid… are you okay?” I tried to sound concerned.

There was no answer.

I tried to call him a few more times but the boy didn’t budge as if he was not hearing me. That settled it. That boy was not of this world.

I took a few steps back and tried to say goodbye as if asking for permission to do so. But when I did, suddenly, I saw it moved. Its head turned but its body remained in place as it was. I panicked. I felt all the hair on my body stood up. I tried to move, but my legs won’t give.

Finally, it heard me. Out of desperation, I thought that maybe I could talk my way out of it.

“Do you need help?” I started.

It stared at me and shook its head as if saying no. Its head appeared weirdly loose as if it was dislocated.

“Where are your parents? What are you doing out here all alone? I insisted.

It shook its head again but more rapidly this time. As I was saying all of these, I noticed something else… something sinister.

It was a feeling that somebody was watching me.

At first, I didn’t notice it. But it was there… A figure… I saw its face behind one of the crooked trees. Its face had a strange grin on it. I saw its front teeth — too many than it’s supposed to be. It was a dark figure, clad in black; it was tall; it bore no face at all except for its wide-opened eyes and its strange expressionless grin. It was as if it wanted to be seen. And when I locked eyes with it, it moved its face closer towards me, as if curious, as it peered behind a bark… I stood there just a few meters away from it — stunned, blood drained down from my body. I couldn’t move even if I tried to direct my limbs to do so. Somehow its stare had a grasp on me.

It wasn’t moving; it just stood right there, behind the bark. But the strange thing was, it felt it was getting closer and closer… I knew it hasn’t left its place behind the bark but it was definitely getting close. It was like a life-size photograph being zoomed in. And before long, I found myself standing face to face with its dark expressionless face. Its eyes were now wider than ever. Clear white and pure of malice. It felt like it desired something… Of mine…

All of a sudden it opened its mouth wide. It was dark and hollow. I’ve never seen black that way in my life! It felt I was drowning in the full darkness. I couldn’t breathe until I passed out.

The next thing I knew I was in the university clinic. Apparently, I was found by my grandfather when he went to fetch me from school. It was getting late so naturally, he was worried. When later I asked for the details, I found out that he had found me a little later after sundown, which meant that the entire experience only lasted just a few minutes, give or take, ten minutes tops.

“Huh? No way… I swear I must have been walking around those parts for at least two hours…”

Up until now, I couldn’t explain what had happened that day. I didn’t go back to our town nor the university and agreed to stay with my grandfather for good. After that day, I didn’t take photographs anymore. I was afraid that both the boy and the black figure will appear in one of the pictures, that they had followed me through it.

Even if my grandfather had asked me, I declined to take up photography, not even as just a hobby. When I was asked whatever happened to his old camera I just told him that I had dropped it in the forest where he found me. To be honest, I was glad that I lost it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it, to say the least. But I couldn’t help myself to wonder still… What really happened that night? And above all, why me?

I have a weird theory though. I can’t help but feel that both the boy and the mysterious black figure were manifestations of what I was feeling at the time. That somehow it was me who gave them life. The idea of that kept me awake most nights, I felt sick in my stomach. I don’t know, but I have a strong hunch that the boy was the sad and lonely part of me and the dark figure embodied all of my anger for my parents.

It’s been years now since I last saw my mom and my dad. I plan on taking a drive this weekend to see both of them in our old town. I’m also considering dropping by the university and to see the mountainside. I guess I will find out the answers then. Maybe…

Nice Guys Finish Last

I waved down a taxi and got in. We made an abrupt U-turn and almost hit the curb but we just drove on as if it didn’t happen. I told the driver the destination. I was surprised that he didn’t ask for extra as most drivers do. I thought I was lucky.

The backseat smelt of LPG. I can barely breathe. It’s the same kind of gas you’d find in a typical household kitchen, except we weren’t frying bacon and eggs that morning — it made my head hurt.

I was running late. I was attending a friend’s wedding. It seemed obvious enough to the driver since I was wearing my oversized white barong with a boutonniere flower pinned on.

He asked me if I was one of the groom’s men. I said no. Then he asked me if I was already married. I told him that I was somewhere in between. He asked me what that means. I told him I’d tell him when I found out for myself. He stopped asking.

“You seem like a nice guy,” The driver started. “But you know what they say about nice guys.”  He needed not to finish the line. I don’t know about me being a nice guy, but I know I’ve always finished last.  I had no response. We beat a red light.

The sky was overcast and a little later there were some light rains that sprayed.

I wasn’t able to make it to the exchange of vows, I wasn’t able to make it to the church at all. But I was just in time for the opening of the bar. I liked my scotch dry. I liked it with water too.  I ordered a round, and another, and another — it was like a well in a desolate desert more than a wedding reception.

There was a lady sitting next to me, I thought I knew her, but she reassured me that it wasn’t the case. We started talking, first about Bernie Sanders, and a lot of random things that I have already forgotten about.

She was alright. We slow danced to Death in Vegas’ Girls while expertly holding our cocktails. I thought it was perfect when they decided to tone down the lights. The indigo matched the mood.

“Do you believe in marriages?”  She pulled her head back and waited for my answer as if it was a test of character.

“You’re the second stranger who asked me about marriage today. Well, I think of it as a retirement package.”

“Wait, what? Like living off on a pension and taking vacation trips on cruise ships?”

“Yes, all of that. But don’t forget about prostate cancer too.”

There was some laughter.

“But seriously, I think it’s a lot of work. And you reap the rewards long after —

I think I believe in the integrity of its commitment.”  I retracted for a simpler answer.

“What do you do anyway?”  She asked.

“I’m a writer.”

“They say writers are difficult to live with.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I guess, maybe you’re overly committed to what you do.”

“No. I think it’s because we’re poor.”

I went home alone as usual. I went out for a nightcap at a local nightclub. As I sat at the bar I thought about Santiago in Hemingway’s book. I thought about his fish and the lions walking on the beaches of Africa in his dreams. I thought about the great Joe DiMaggio and the great games he played. On how good he must have felt winning. And the prisms, in the day, and the reflection of the countless stars on the surface of the sea at night. I thought about a lot of things in between those thoughts. And when I snapped back, I wasn’t anymore in the mood for watching the girls on stage. But there I was, still inside the bar, still draining the well.

I checked my wallet and there was almost nothing there.

But I drank like how rich men do. I felt like Bukowski. I felt like an entire world inside of me existed.

I drank like a millionaire.

The Color of The Ink Wasn’t Blue

In between semesters I worked in a furniture shop as a clerk. It was a rickety old place on Hickory Street between a hardware store and an abandoned building that used to be a prime commercial spot before the fifties. I worked there from day until nightfall. Even on weekends, when I was asked by the Chinese couple who owned the place to help out with the workload, I would show up. On weekdays, I would sort out boxes of supplies and carry them to the stock room at the back, and I would bring some out to replenish the display windows. I talked to customers, suppliers, and I was responsible for liaising shipments whenever the delivery trucks came in three times a week.

I lived with my older sister and her five-year-old daughter, Sabrina. It was just a small two-story apartment good enough for temporary living and it was near the market place and a chapel a few blocks away. There were two rooms, a bath, and a small living space, which was used for nothing really, with just a couch and a low wooden table placed at the center.  “Please don’t encourage her, Fred.” Was her reaction when I came home one day with a bar of strawberry chocolate wrapped in a tin foil and a fancy ribbon.

My sister was around six when the war ended. People refer to it as a world war, but for the likes of her, it was just simply war. She does not understand the distinction. There wasn’t any coherence to any of it as far as she’s concerned. She detested it. If there was one good thing she learned about human conflict, it would be that all interactions, forging relationships, or any sort of dealings, were always either based on mutualism, grab of power, or survival.

I was married once, many years ago. I was still very young at the time, I was nineteen. It was a decision made by our parents for us. It was customary then. Soon before long, we fell apart like how metal and wood on white glue would break loose.

There was a single-stemmed sunflower cutting in a ceramic vase between us. My ex-wife moved it aside since it was blocking her view of me when we talked. There were only a few words needed to be shared for goodbyes, but I felt she had hesitations about it. She was looking down most of the time. We parted ways on a Sunday of July. It was 1969. It was raining hard when I left our place by the river. I didn’t hear her cry – I wasn’t looking – when the door was latched behind me on the way out. The rain must have concealed it for us. I was at the doorway for a good period of time, waiting for the rain to let up, but it didn’t. I thought I heard a whimper after a while, but I dismissed that thought. It was better that way, I suppose. Oblivion is necessary sometimes. It was a good friend to me that day.

I played duckpin bowling at the arcade to pass the time. I drank beers with a third of my work money and I wasn’t concerned even if I went over it.

There were a few friends there good for conversations but it was the armadillo whom I felt the closest.  I merely used the time to get attuned to the universe. The neon lights attracted me most, and I could sit there at the corner in silence — looking at it through an open window, at its glaring, at its changing colors, with its electric lights and fluttering pulses that almost felt it had a life of its own.

After a degree in writing, I soon set out and pursued what everybody was after. I wore a suit and a pair of leather shoes, and a tie to go along with it. It felt like my marriage. I quit in my fourth month.

Down at the arcade, I downed glasses of hard drinks and confided everything with the armadillo. But it wasn’t the time for heartbreaks and soul searching. It was a quaint time to be daring. Hustlers used the armadillo as a duckpin ball to get the better of unsuspecting amateurs, who were willing to bet off their allowance money, their gold watches, and sometimes even their girlfriends. And the money was good. Soon, we agreed to be partners. With my skills with people and negotiation, I soon became his handler.

Before long, my sister grew quite concerned about the direction I was threading. And with respect to her wishes, I quit my racket and went back working for the Chinese couple full time. In return, I was allowed to read my books during my shift — It was my only concession. I found out that they couldn’t find anyone else who could manage their little store as thoroughly as I did. It was alright, I decided, besides, I grew fond of them, but I didn’t let them see that.

It was a quiet but unfulfilling life. It was what it was, and that’s what made everyone happy. There was a long period of peace, but really, it was just an empty silence that prevailed. Even Sabrina got the best of it. She looked up to me as her own father. I would take her to ice cream shops on weekends, and to the night carnivals whenever they were in town. I bought her pinwheels and pink cotton candies and she would scream in excitement every time as if it was the first time she had seen one.

At the bar, the armadillo was the wisest person next to the barman. “You’re so good with kids, why don’t you start your own family?” I didn’t know how to respond to the question I just shed a shrug. I thought about finally pursuing writing, I told him. I think that’s where my heart really belongs to. But all I could write about was women.

“What’s wrong with that?” The armadillo asked.

“All they do is suck your soul. I don’t think I want that. It’s the only thing I’ve got left.”

“Stop overdramatizing it. You’re no Fitzgerald.”

As the sun was setting, the static clouds were of different shades of dark blue until it was gone completely for the day. And the neon sign was switched on and I got the first glimpse of its life that night. I felt a glow warm up from inside of me once again as if resurrected. Like how it was the first time. The lights gave off an electric twitch every now and then. I thought it saved me. I thought that the universe was directly speaking to me. I thought about a dedication, an inscription. I wrote down the first line that dawned on me. It was on a table napkin amidst the hustlers and their victims and the background noise. The words that formed was for the drunks and the poets, for my older sister, and all the hearts that were breaking at that very moment.

A Warm Bowl of Ramen

“What is that exactly?” He pointed to the sky but I couldn’t make out what he was referring to. I asked him what he meant, there must be over a thousand stars up there. The cigarette smoke was clouding up my glasses. We were both standing outside a ramen place after we had a few drinks from a watering hole we found across.

It has been a cold February and we were having a great time.

“It could just be a satellite or probably just a glare you caught.” I finally responded.

Truth is, Ronnie has been developing a severe case of an optic nerve disorder or probably glaucoma. He wouldn’t tell me exactly. I think it’s progressive. I think it’s getting worse.

We ran a little magazine back then. Ronnie had all the connections in town and we used his place when we worked. He convinced me to run it. I was moved by his persistence and dedication. We asked independent writers with the right material to contribute but most of the stories were written by us. It wasn’t in any way prolific, we make just about enough, but in most days less, still, we felt we had our audience going and that was all that mattered.

It was a dying form – writing – and it was going away with his eyes, he told me. And that the ramen was delicious, it makes his soul happy. “If we keep it real like this godsend dish, we will never go out of business. That’s what I believe.” But we both knew we were going out of business. He was slurping a mouthful of wheat noodles and washing it down every time with an ice-cold beer.  I don’t exactly understand where he wanted us to go, but that’s how he saw things from where he sat.

Ronnie was a good writer. Problem was, he was all passion but rarely obeys form. He was all over the place. But then, maybe it was wrong of me to judge that. During our time together, I was helping him finish the stuff that he wrote but he always felt that it wasn’t good enough, or I was editing too much, that it wasn’t raw enough to publish.

On his best days, he would ask me to do what I do. He would apologize, but of course, I understood. I was in charge of copyediting and proofreading, basically making sure that he would finish his work. But I couldn’t not tolerate him. Of course, there was the women, and the self-inflicting defacing moments of isolation, and drugs, and the drinking. It was good for a period of time, however, real-life catches on and we missed deadlines and there were just too much unfulfilled commitments both to our writers and readers.

For what it’s worth it was a good run, we both agreed. It was those who did not try who really failed, as the wise would say. We both got married and had kids. I teach basic writing and he just enjoys early retirement and the riches his parents left to him. I heard he goes to the doctor every now and then, but it wasn’t for his eyes apparently. We see each other twice a year during the anniversaries of the magazine when it started and ended.

I took the time finishing my broth. It was warm and cozy on the inside that it deserved to linger in those moments. I took my time in a lot of things, it seems. This was probably just an excuse. I have always been a slow reader and it has been the same with everything else—I still hadn’t gotten over it. I lighted a cigarette and he asked me for one. And I looked into those eyes and I saw there was passion still. The same kind. They may be tired, damaged, a little frustrated perhaps, but the soul hasn’t departed yet.

I lifted my bowl and slurped to my heart’s content. And he was right. The ramen made our souls happy that night.

A Life with Joan Didion

She wanted to be exactly like Joan Didion. She basically patterned her life on her. She would even mimic JD’s writing style, except that she wasn’t as good. She would try, and a lot of her readers like what she writes, but for her, it wasn’t good enough. She would go at lengths, she would even refer to her boyfriend as ‘John’, and named her cat after Quintana — Didion’s late husband and daughter. She would dress up like her, and would always wear dark sunglasses, and would always prefer drinking straight from a large bottle of Coke first thing in the morning. Her favorite imitation of her, was a picture taken dressed up like the renowned writer — In a long-sleeved dress, with a cigarette pointing to the ground, leaning against a Corvette Stingray. She was particularly keen about matching every detail, except for the car, which was tough to find, so she settled with an old white Toyota Crown.

Her boyfriend didn’t mind. He even finds it amusing sometimes. He would even help her, giving her all the time she needed in writing, encouraging her to the aspiration. What he did mind, however, was when it got eerily weird when she wanted to talk about his apparent death, and as to the manner of which it would occur.

One time, after writing for nearly seven hours — locked up in her room — she woke him up at around three.  She asked him to comment about what she had written about, with an intense glare of excitement in her eyes. At first, he didn’t see anything wrong with it, in fact, he likes how driven she could get, but then, there was something in her look that night that wasn’t there before.

He sat up, opened the bedside lamp, and put on his glasses. She was holding what appeared to be a printed manuscript against her chest.  “Do you want me to heat your dinner, honey?” Asked John.

“No, just need to hear what you think, that’s all.” John read it, while she sat anxiously at the edge of the bed, waiting.

“I like it.”

“You do? That’s great!” She looked genuinely relieved. “What else, John?”

“Uhm, I think it’s perfect. I would read this over and over and never get tired.”

“And? How about the technical composition, the arrangements?”

“I think it’s great, honey. I really think it’s good.”

She smiled dimly and fell silent for a while and said:

“The real John would have been a good critique. Obviously, you’re not him. You could have at least pretended to be smart by going against it. How typical.”

“Because I’m not John, honey.”  Stunned, he almost yelled at her.

She collected the printed papers and went back to the study. The next morning when John woke up, she was lying next to him, still asleep. During breakfast, he asked her about the night before but she didn’t have a memory of it at all. He asked her about what she wrote, which she was able to recall, but the episode in the bedroom apparently didn’t happen as far as she was concerned.

In the weeks that followed, she’s been gradually moving out of their place, discreetly, until she was able to empty the apartment of all of her belongings. Of course, John noticed this but opted not to say anything.  She took some of John’s stuff — probably by accident — in exchange, she left Quintana. Besides, one couldn’t hang around with the dead that was just absurd.

At the bar, everyone is calling him by his real name, of course. Nobody knew that the name ‘John’ was just a pet name she once gave him. He spent most of the time in the university where he teaches in the mornings until late afternoons and took his night classes at the bar. The apartment was just a place where he sleeps. “It’s Quintana’s home now, I’m just a boarder.” He told the old man and the armadillo.

Weeks turned to months, thirty-two to be exact. He saw her doing an interview in some late-night show. She’s been doing great. Published four novels, and a book of essays, and a weekly feature column. Of course, she had to use her real name now. She goes by Mia S. Torres. But hearing this sounded distant to him. She will always be Joan to him. It was rather strange. But all in all, he was genuinely happy for her.

He heard so much about her. Especially from common friends. They say, that she was seen sometimes just driving around in a vintage car, a Corvette, sometimes in their hometown. That she’s been around artists, and other writers, and celebrities of her kind in loud music bars, smoking and drinking behind a cordoned-off area. His friends say that she is a lot nicer, despite of everything, and that she appears to be grounded still, a better person.  Of course, he knew, that this is just a dense assessment of her character confined in the limited quarters of their brief encounters on some random street somewhere.

But he knew that she has become all of the things she once wanted, and more. Again, he felt genuinely happy for her.

While he lived his life as is, just the same, he always remained consistent. He always preferred to be still and constant. To be reliable. To his students and on keeping the barkeep employed — Despite all that had happened.

After sometime Quintana, the cat died. “She just got old, I’m sorry.” He phoned to tell her about it.

“Was she in pain?”

“I think she passed on quietly. The vet was really delicate about it.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it a lot.”

“That’s not a problem at all. I’m happy to have called you.”

“Thanks again, Elliot.”

“No, I mean, you’re welcome…

But please, call me John.”

Ugly Men

They were in a shopping center along Taft Avenue. The old man and the armadillo were both standing in front of a mannequin. Just staring at it.

“I don’t think it’s going to budge, Fred.” Said the armadillo.

“Just wait. We’ve been here this long, why back down now?”

They had lunch at the food court. It wasn’t that good, but they had plenty of choices, plus, there was a lot of greasy food too.

A couple walked past them. The guy, whom they assumed the boyfriend, was carrying the bag of the woman he was with.

“I feel sorry for the guy.” Fred almost twisting his head following the couple.

“I don’t know about you, Fred, but I think she’s just gorgeous.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What then?”

“I mean him carrying that woman’s bag.”

“Why? Is it how he’s carrying it?”

“Especially that. The lady must not have insisted on it. But the way he wears that bag slung across his chest like that, just gets me.”

“Oh, I see.” The armadillo was admiring its newly polished shell.

“What’s the title of that movie with those giant, worm-like monsters in a small desert town? I just remembered something.” Asked Fred.

“What? Earthworm Jim?”

“No, the one with Kevin Bacon in it.”

“You mean Tremors?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“What about it?”

“Well, I had a young lady once. Pretty as hell. Like one of those beautiful college girls we go see sometimes.” Fred paused and picked up the plastic saucer and drank what’s left of the gravy. “Anyways, I just thought about that other thing she told me. Other than what she said about men carrying shoulder bags.”

“Why? Did she despise it too?”

“Quite naturally.”

“Have you ever heard about chivalry, Fred?” Refuted the armadillo.

“It’s not about that. But yeah, that too… Anyway, that’s not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“Tremors, buddy. Tremors.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“She prefers ugly men with little wieners, seriously, over those who are good looking but packing big guns.”

“For real? We’re ugly, we like to travel light. Well, that’s our department.”

“Yes. I really thought I finally found the perfect girl.”

“Have you ever.”

“Yes. I thought so too.” A busboy came over and cleaned the adjacent table beside them. They caught a whiff of detergent.

“I’m not sure how, but ever since she saw that movie she got nightmares non-stop.”

“So what happened?”

“You know, things.”

“Why don’t you get back with her? Obviously, you’re still hungover.”

“I’m in my late sixties. She’s probably dying or dead by now.”

“Probably.” The armadillo plainly responded. “Was she the reason why you were staring at that mannequin earlier?”

Fred did not respond.

“But one thing I don’t understand…” The armadillo straightened up from its curved stance. “Why that mannequin? We could have picked up a live one. I know just a place.”

“Well, it had no face.”

“You’re getting weird again, Fred.”

“No, it’s not like that, A.”

“Get to the point.”

“I’m getting there. Jeez.” Fred took a sip of tap water, then continued. “I’m an old bastard. And nowadays, I forget things, you know?”

“Right. Go on…”

“I mean, I still remember the details, but I couldn’t seem to remember her face, anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Fred.” The armadillo replied genuinely.

“That’s okay, I guess.”

“Oh. Like that Joey Albert song! Only in reverse.”

“Ha! Like that one exactly!” Both of them laughed.

Then silence fell between them. It was a thin one, but it was sincere.

“Something like that, huh?”

“Yeah. Something like that.”

Fred’s tone was a little somber. He then checked his hands and licked the gravy off his fingers. They’re now both looking at the direction of the crowd, where a street dance contest was about to begin.