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…

It Must Have Been That Gary Guy Down the Hall

I wasn’t sure if I dialed the right number. But I tried and tried until I was finally able to get a hold of the local police. I frantically gave out a description of what happened that night. I told the operator that I heard some strange noises and that I was really scared. There were some low screeching noises in the walls. The sound that it was making were cold, of tormented voices which can be simply described as hoarse and scratchy all the same. “It must be Gary, I really think it’s him!” I told the woman I spoke with. I was fidgeting and twisting the spiral cord of the payphone in the hallway.

There is something about the rain that calms me. There were nights that I wished that it would not let up and it would just spray like that forever — slanting, almost sideways, so in that way I would know that the wind was carrying it, like how my memories would carry my chest adrift.

But there wasn’t a single drop for months.

At midnight I would randomly call friends to relieve me of my self-inflicted agitation. And they would say that Susan – my made-up girlfriend– did not deserve me at all.

They said that I should just simply forget her and they gave me a fine lesson on how I should start anew.

I wrote to my folks to lend me some money because I spent most of what I had on cheap evening companions and prescription drugs. Of course, I didn’t tell them that. I used the excuse that I was struggling, coping in the big city.

I always felt that I was different compared to those low-life addicts. I separated myself from their filth but I also wouldn’t call myself anywhere near special. I guess the only difference was that I knew there wasn’t an escape, nor a commiserated vindication if there was an end to any of these.

A guy who lived down the hall dropped by one night and brought some drinks to share.

He lifted his foamy beer and drank, and used a plastic fork when he pinched and chewed on the fried tofu. As if harnessing holy powers from this, he told me — in a forlorn way — about his prevocational wisdom.

“We don’t really get fixed. We just think we do and go on by, mending until we’re all done for.”

I guess he’s right. The world is not equilateral after all.

“Until we’re all done for.” I repeated the line to myself and stood up to get us fresh beers from the fridge.

“Do you like horror stories?” I asked him while balancing myself on a chair with its two back legs.

“I suppose.” he answered coolly.

And I read him something that I wrote and asked him to critique:

He was lying on his side facing her. It’s been days now since he got admitted for an illness he still wouldn’t believe he’s got. And he stared at her and wondered on, in those kind brown eyes that seemed like bathing in a midsummer night’s moonlight. He knew what she did, all of her secrets.

There was shortness in his breath. There was also shortness in the nights that ensued.

“Can you talk about the house again? Just enough to get me to sleep.”

She indulged him and told him about their dream house as he would have wanted it. How they’d wander in and about the halls and the walkways together to the garden in that perfect warm morning sun.

It was just a matter of time she reassured him.

Then one of the evening shift nurses came in and administered a dose of penicillin through a syringe and gave him something for the pain.

Then he asked to be moved to face the windows. But there was a bricked wall that blocked the view.

After reading him the first lines, Gary gave a huge laugh and told me that I should seriously consider switching genres.

Flushed and rather ashamed, I told him that I was going for something more.

Sometimes, the easiest decisions are the hardest ones to make. I wanted to stop using, but the thought of strangling him seemed more plausible.

I knew exactly what he came for.

Then I switched my gaze towards the lock of my door and thought about the shortness in his breath.

Cats Smoked the Souls of the Dead

At the funeral of a friend, he saw her helping out, handling over cold tetra packs of juices and repacked green peas and peanuts to the guests. His relationship with her was as dead as the one lying in the pine casket by the electric candles. He thought about saying hi but hesitated and felt it was completely inappropriate to do such a thing. It wasn’t the place or the time to rekindle with old romantic acquaintances, even though what he only wanted was to ask her one question after all.

It was a cool and damp night. She was wearing a comfortable-looking knitted cardigan over a strapped blue top and a pair of her usual outfit, a square pants and worn down sneakers. It was close to midnight but it was still quite a work finding his way through being noticeably visible. When he was young, he was made to believe that funerals are big farewell parties every time a relative died. “And that cats feed on the crematorium smoke, that’s why they have many lives” His uncles would tease the kids. But it wasn’t the case when his dad went when he was only eleven.

He thought about what happened between them. There was that problem she one day declared to him, turning the other way as she sat in the passenger seat. It was all a blur to him, but he can remember very well the humming of the car engine while she was at it. He wasn’t worried, she still had the seatbelt on.

What could have been said more often was reduced to mere incidentals, and what should have been felt as something natural eventually became a matter of opinion. A cause, and a consequential effect to put it simply. In the movie Interstate 60, James Marsden was told that all relationships were a reaction of the previous ones we had. It wasn’t the point of the scene, but that was the message that stuck. That night she just left in his sleep without saying goodbye. He always thought she’d come back for her stuff in his place, but still hasn’t.

“I almost couldn’t believe my eyes, I thought I was seeing the wrong ghost.” There was a soft chuckle when she said this after many of the guests left. “I was surprised to see you here.”

The night was filled with stars, there were only a few thin sheets of clouds scudding across. The wind was cool, it was such a good night for a long drive to the coast, what he truly wanted to say. “It was such a beautiful service.” He said after a while.

“I’m just glad it was over, peaceful. You know?” She replied without looking.

A week after he was at the door in front of the house, feeding a stray cat with milk and a corn-flavored cereal. Then it hit him, cats didn’t feed on the souls of the dead. They rip them apart until they were completely gone.

It Was Like Catching Flu

It’s late in the night when we took a cab ride around the outskirts of town. We picked up some supplies on the way at the local 24-hour convenience store near the bay and paid extra on top of the fare. He was sorry about waking me up, but he didn’t know who else to call at the time, he explained. Of course, I didn’t mind one bit.

We watched the smoke lingered in the air under a street lamp. It was like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This made him forget for a little while, which relieved me in a way, for I was putting on a terrible performance consoling him.

We didn’t talk about it much really. I didn’t know how. The ebbing of the tides in the moonlight did all of that for us.

I guess that was all he ever needed, what both of us did.

“I don’t think we could ever prepare for these sort of things.” He started.

“You’d know if it’s good when it’s scarce.

All the good ones are.”

I didn’t say anything.

We waited until dawn before heading back. He wanted to catch both the last light of the night and the first of the coming day.

At the end of it, he knew that profanity is the cheapest means of revenge.

“Think about something else. “ I urged him finally.

“Like what?”

“The good days.” I knew I was doing worse I wanted to puke.

“I want to see that try bring down all the xenophobic ideas in the world.”

Then the warm rays glimpsed upon us suddenly with the breeze blowing from the direction of the sun.

And it went on in my head. I could still trace him.  My son’s scent on the pillows.

I think it’s painfully blissful, sometimes I couldn’t stand it.

It was like catching flu in the rain.

The Lack of Inhibition to the Less Critical Heart (or the overabundance thereof)

The Termite

It was as clear as a summer night’s sky that later he exhumed the details of the incident. But at that moment, all doors were shut tight and nobody seemed to know what answers he wanted to hear. He looked at the tenants scornfully, at their undiscriminating speculations, he could not stand it.

He was just making matters worse, they said to him. There was nothing else he could do and thought better of it. They could be right, of course. But he could not ignore the stench of apathy in his nostrils.

In the end, he decided to retreat to knit a constructive point of view. It sounded old-fashioned, it made him shudder. But it has always been an effective antidote to the poisoned heart.

He used charcoal briquettes to take out the smell, along the wooden panels and throughout the gaps.

But it was the sight of chloroform that interested him.

 

The Hermit

Once there lived a hermit living an ordinary solitary kind of life. All he ever needed was the sands beneath him, and the salts of the ocean to preserve. He stayed in the shallow reefs near the shoreline, along the coast where he had access to food and a few leisure. He rarely travels to the land, and only went when he had to. It was just a little corner of the world what he had, it was not much but it was his corner, nevertheless. He had it all.

Sure, he got a few friends at work, but he doubted if anyone would ever stick his head out for him when the time came. Not that it was necessary really, but sometimes, it was just comforting to think that one’s well-being is of some value to others.

He continues to scuttle through the sands of the beach.

 

The Old Dog

I read about the incident in a newspaper while waiting for my clothes to finish at a local laundromat. I barely knew Lisa, but it saddened me, nonetheless.

She must have been dead for three days by the time her body was discovered in her apartment. She just got old- basically, it was what the news read.

It was a pivotal experience, she was the closest friend I ever had.

And now that she is gone, the more I am tucked away from ever existing.

Lisa was 77, twelve in dog years. Her famous person left for Siargao to catch some waves.

She looked good in her two-piece bikini on her Instagram post.

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The Hostess on Romulo Street

The lady at the front desk was dressed in a traditional kimono with western jewelry jingling on her wrist.  Its intricately carved stone was of bright ruby that glistened when she handed over my key.  “You’re all set sir, room is at 801 and breakfast is served at six.”  It was too bad I told her.  I usually have trouble sleeping in strange places I rather want to start my day ahead.  She recommended trying out the bar instead.

A bleeping sound was made when I tapped the card on the door panel.  As I entered, I was greeted by a citrus scent that suggested that the room was clean, and it was.  Everything was spotless, this I attributed to the reputation the place has.  I started placing my bag on the luggage rack, retired my shoes under it, and sat on the corner of the bed in front of the television.

By the awnings, I watched the blanket of the night that slithered below.  The moonlight shone over the rain-soaked pavement—it coated the foams of the clouds white, sailing across overhead.

As a matter of habit, I first unpacked the clothes I was going to wear, hanged them all in the closet and lined up the toiletries neatly on the lavatory before changing to head out.

It was getting late, and the hallways waned in the darkness as I waited long enough for the elevator before realizing that it was not working.  I decided to use the fire exit since the bar was just four floors down.   At the end of the hall the exit sign glowed as if an enticing invitation was calling upon me.  In the dark, I trailed the narrow glimmer of green neon light until I reached and pushed the heavy door.

Two flights down I heard a murmuring from below.  I stopped, startled of this irregularity.  Guests were not supposed to loiter around these parts and I suppose the management does not allow employees as well.  But the voices grew louder as I approached and caught a smell of stale cigarettes in the air.

As I climbed down the stairs, placing most of my weight on my heels, I came about a huddle of men on the landing.  Some of them were on their knees, one was sitting on the railings, and a few were standing with their hands either propped on their thighs or on the wall.  A flashlight was directed to the ground where playing cards were laid down with the pot money in the middle.

With their loud response, I do not know how many of them shrieked in surprise.

Standing so close to them this time, I reckoned that they were a good ten at least — some bore old tired faces, some were foreigners whose skins were as pink as salmons adjusting to the heat, and women smoking with only burnt tips visible.

“The bartender does not know what he is doing” A man complained to me and reached up and offered his drink.  “Right here we like it clean.”

“Thanks comrade” And downed the drink in a gulp.

There was a voice that loomed from the lower landing.  It was the receptionist, but she is out of her uniform now.  “You’re 801, right?”

At first, I could not make out who she was, but I remembered when I heard the jingling of her bracelet.

“I guess I am” I tried responding coolly.

“What are you doing here 801? Are you lost?”

“Your elevators do not work.  The lights led me to the stairs.”

“Is it now?”

“Are you not going to fix it?”

“Everything gets broken around here anyway, why bother? Besides somebody from maintenance will find out sooner eventually, stay for a while, and care to play will you now?”

I declined politely.  I would rather take my chances at the bar I told her.  It is one of the few places I know is fair.

She asked if she could tag along. I did not know why she did that, but it was probably because she suspected me of ratting them out.  It took a bit of an effort, but I convinced her that I was not.

“But it was not about that at all” she assured me.

“I thought you would rather go to a better place to drink. I owe you that”

We walked two blocks to this place she knew.   She had one round and another.  She was a terrific hostess until around two when she left me in peace.

But peace is a just another word thrown around so carelessly these days.  What we have is silence in the shade of a world set ablaze.

Paperback Series

It was nearly the end of the hour, most of the customers have already left the counters and those who remained were the regulars playing a few more rounds of pool before calling it quits. On a napkin, she drew a Martian cat holding a flag and a pint, folded it in half and inserted it in my phone casing.

I was feeling light, tired. She said it might have been the lateness of the night; we were not the same as we used to be. We were different then, but in a way, have not changed much.  Probably we were both.

It was my turn to buy the next round. I was running thin on beer money, but the night was still asking.

It was a mistake, but who’s counting nowadays? The world is full of it. Everyone has drums and boxes filled with it.

“Where were we?”

“Back to where we used to be, in a place we ought to be” She insisted.

“But you’re moving back to California.”

“A tourniquet.”

“The moon was fuller the last time we were here. Your hair longer and I didn’t have this limp.”

“You were dashing” She chuckled.

I returned some myself. “Eight years of alcohol does a lot to you.”

The container trucks lined up overhead, stuck on a flyover across our window.  The stream of orange highway lamps traced the roads with broken lines and asphalt.  She wrapped her head as it rested on her upper arm and continued,

“Will you cook me breakfast?”

“If you still like over easy with burnt hems.”

“I always thought it was perfect.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep.”

Sometimes I go to this place in my head where I recounted this sequence over and over. There were nights when I’d just look up in the sky and hope for a chance.  I still keep it with me, her dog-eared paperback copy of The Trial, protesting, one unused bookmark at a time.

Photo by Biankitty