***

I slept for 15 hours after that tortuous four-day trip to Singapore. Iyon na yata ang pinakamahabang tulog na nagawa ko pero paggising ko ay inaantok pa rin ako. Pagtingin ko sa oras, 4 A.M. pa lang. I wanted to sleep again but my hunger won this time.

Lumabas ako sa kwarto at pababa na sana pero may narinig akong ingay sa kwarto nina Czanelle at Clark. I carefully opened the door and peeked inside. Czanelle was clutching the comforter and she looked like she was having a nightmare because of her troubled expression. I approached her and was about to pat her when her eyes suddenly fluttered.

"Ate . . ." she whimpered while looking at me. Dahil baka magising si Clark ay pinabangon ko siya at bigla naman niya akong niyakap habang pinipigilan ang pag-iyak niya.

"Shh. Okay, don't cry. Let's go."

Binuhat ko siya at lumabas kami sa kwarto. She was hugging me tightly and for the first time, I didn’t flinch. It seemed like I became accustomed to this kind of proximity with my siblings.

Pagbaba namin ay dumiretso ako sa kusina. Nilapag ko siya sa upuan at tiningnan ko kung ano pa ang pwede kong makain dahil gutom na talaga ako. I was about to open the lid of the pan when I heard footsteps shuffling toward our direction.

“Chloe?” the voice called and I froze when I realized it was Mom’s.

I didn’t see her when I returned yesterday so I assumed she had an appointment with someone, maybe her doctor. After I learned her condition from Dad, I couldn’t approach her the same way I did before. It felt like the wall I built between us had thinned and weakened but I still couldn’t break it down completely.

Lumingon naman ako sa kanya at nagpabalik-balik ang tingin niya sa amin ni Czanelle.

“Mommy,” Czanelle feebly called and Mom immediately carried her.

Nagkatinginan kami habang buhat niya si Czanelle. For a second, I thought she had forgotten me since she wasn’t saying anything but when she smiled at me, I suddenly felt embarrassed so I turned around.

“You haven’t eaten anything yet, right?” tanong niya at naramdaman kong papalapit siya sa akin.

“Yeah,” mahina kong sagot.

Narinig ko ang pagkalansing ng plato at kung anu-ano. Nanatili akong nakatalikod sa kanila dahil pakiramdam ko ay namumula pa rin ang mukha ko sa hiya kaya naman kinalma ko muna ang sarili ko.

“Kumain ka na,” she said. Muli akong lumingon at pagtingin ko ay nakahain na sa mesa ang kanin at ulam. “I . . . I don’t know if you like—”

“It’s okay,” sabi ko naman. “I like adobo.”

Ngumiti siya sa akin at mukhang nakatulog na si Czanelle habang karga niya. Dumiretso siya sa sala at naiwan naman akong mag-isa rito. I heaved a sigh after that awkward moment. She remembered me but her eyes seemed hesitant and distant.

Huminga ako nang malalim para kalimutan muna ‘yon. Nagsimula akong kumain at napatingin ako sa gilid. Most of the time, he would be there, flashing a teasing smile or eating quietly. Ngayon ko lang na-realize na nasanay na ako sa presensiya niya rito sa bahay. Damn it.

Umuwi rin kaya si Katrina sa probinsya nila? He still likes her. For sure he would be delighted to see her in the place where they had shared many memories.

Napatigil naman ako bigla sa pagkain. Wait, was that jealousy? Oh, God, did I really feel that toward Katrina? Napailing na lang ako at mabilisan kong inubos ang nasa plato ko. Pagkatapos no’n ay dumiretso ako sa sala kung nasaan ang dalawa. They were already asleep.

I sat on the opposite side and stared at them. Their faces were calm, as if they had no problems to think about, and somehow I wished for that to be true. Kung pwede lang na hindi ko na lang nalaman ang sakit niya dahil ayaw ko ‘tong nararamdaman ko ngayon.

Bago pa ako maiyak ay umalis ako at umakyat papunta sa kwarto ko. Kinuha ko ang phone ko pati na rin ang comforter at saka bumaba ulit. I shrouded them with it and took a photo of them as they sleep peacefully.

Dahil ayaw kong magising sila ay lumayo ako sa kanila. I went to the kitchen and made a hot chocolate. Lumabas ako sa bahay para doon muna tumambay. It was still dark and the wind was chilly but I marched toward my favorite place outside the house. Pagdating ko sa kubo ay nilapag ko ang inumin ko at binuksan ang maliit na ilaw ro’n.

I just stared at the sky, waiting for the sun to show itself but my mind wandered into its darkest side. Naalala ko ang mga nangyari sa Singapore at sa pagitan namin ni Dad. Binuksan ko ang phone ko at balak ko sanang tingnan kung may hindi pa ako nababasang messages.

And I was right.

Para naman akong tanga dahil kinabahan ako nang mabasa ko ang pangalan ni Dad. Dahil tulog ako buong araw kahapon ay ngayon ko lang ‘to nakita.

Thank you, Chloe. Please take care of your mother for me.

I thought I’d cry after I read his message but I didn’t. I guess after crying a lot in that place, I already mastered holding back my tears. Huminga ako nang malalim at sinimulang inumin ang hot chocolate ko.

I hated him. I hated my father. However, after spending four days around him, I realized our personalities were quite the same. He was the kind of person who would take all the burden even if that meant being the bad guy in the eyes of the others. He wouldn’t easily trust someone and would do his damn best for the people he treasured.

I hated him because he didn’t give me any attention. He wasn’t the kind of father I wanted to have. He was the first guy who broke my heart. But in the end, he gave me something only him could give.

Pride. He told me I was his pride and that was the best thing I received from him.

Napatingin naman ulit ako sa screen dahil may nag-notify na bagong email. I got excited for a moment but when I saw that it was from my professor last sem, my mood went down the drain. Was I expecting it to be from him?

Ugh. Nakakahiya. Damn that guy.

Hindi man lang siya nagpaalam o nagsabi. Well, he wasn’t obliged to that but still . . . or did he do that to get back at me?

Bigla naman akong napaisip. Ang dami na niyang alam tungkol sa akin pati na rin sa pamilya ko pero wala man lang akong nakuha mula sa kanya. Ang alam ko lang ay mayroon din siyang mga kapatid at tulad ko ay panganay siya. Wala nga rin akong idea kung taga-saan siya.

I remembered something I saw from his phone before. Someone named Jem texted him. Maybe his younger sibling’s name?

Pagkatapos kong maubos ang hot choco ko ay hinintay ko ang sunrise. Around 6 A.M., the sun started to paint the sky with colors. Nag-decide ako na mag-jog sa subdivision para mabuhay ang kaluluwa ko at mawala ang mga bwisit sa isip ko.

Pumasok ulit ako sa bahay at tulog pa rin sa sala ang dalawa. Umakyat ako para sana magpalit ng damit pero napahinto ako sa tapat ng kwarto ng mga bubwit dahil narinig ko ang pag-iyak ni Clark. I went inside and saw him getting up. He was still whining and quite groggy but upon seeing me, he extended his little arms, as if he wanted to be carried, and pouted.

“You awake?” Binuhat ko naman siya at sobrang higpit ng yakap niya sa leeg ko.

“Mamam,” he mumbled.

“What?” I asked but he just tightened his hug.

“When will you speak, bubwit?”

Hindi naman na siya sumagot at sinama ko siya sa kwarto ko. Mukhang nagising na ang diwa ng bubwit kaya naman nilapag ko muna siya sa kama. Mabilis akong nagpalit ng pang-exercise saka kami bumalik sa kwarto nila para siya naman ang bihisan ko. I decided to bring him with me since both Nanay Meling and Kuya Larry went home to their respective families.

Buti na lang at hindi pa mainit noong lumabas kami. Nabago na ang plano ko dahil kasama ko ang bubwit kaya imbes na tumakbo ay pinanood ko na lang siyang maglakad. He was still walking like a penguin but it seemed like he could already balance his body better.

I was about to call him when a cat suddenly passed by. He almost tumbled but I managed to hold his shirt. I guess my reaction time also improved in the process of looking after these toddlers.

“Woooh,” Clark mumbled excitedly while pointing at the direction of the cat, as if it was something extraordinary.

“That’s a cat,” I said and his eyes twinkled in awe. He started producing high-pitched giggles as he walked toward the cat but it ran away before he could even reach half of the distance.

Mukha siyang excited na penguin habang patuloy niyang hinahabol ang pusa kaya naman nilabas ko ang phone ko at kinuhanan siya ng pictures at video. Sinundan lang namin ‘yong pusa at napahinto ako nang nakita ko kung saan na kami napunta. We were in front of the gazebo where Jazer and I got stranded before.

Bwisit. Lahat na lang ba ng lugar at bagay, maaalala ko ang lalaking ‘yon? Ngayon ko lang na-realize na sa tagal kong naging mag-isa, siya lang ang nakatagal na samahan ako.

We hadn’t contacted each other after he left. His last email was that video but I didn’t give him any reply. Ang tagal na rin kasi no’n at ayaw kong nauunang mag-message, unless kailangan talaga.

“Mamam!”

Halos mapasigaw ako nang naramdaman ko ang pagkapit ni Clark sa binti ko. I was spacing out that I didn’t notice he already gave up his chase. Hindi ko na rin makita ang pusang kanina niya pa hinahabol. Dahil sumuko na siya ay bumalik kami sa bahay pero bago pa kami makarating ay naramdaman ko ang pagkulo ng tiyan ko. Nagulat naman ako nang tumunog din ang tiyan niya at saka siya tumawa. That made me smile. His giggles were too radiant and I felt warm just by listening to them. I guess a kid’s laughter could really lift anybody’s mood.

Balak ko sanang maglakad na lang papunta sa café sa labas ng subdivision pero dahil kasama ko si Clark ay mahihirapan siya at kung kakargahin ko naman siya ay baka sobrang pagod na ako pagdating do’n. I was about to book a taxi but I almost dropped my phone when someone honked at us.

“What the h—!”

“Good morning.”

Napatigil naman ako nang nakita ko ang isang babae na sumilip mula sa loob ng kotse niya. She seemed like a middle-aged woman but younger than Mom. I realized she was the owner of the house few meters away from ours. Nakikita ko siya minsan pero hindi naman kami nag-uusap. In fact, wala naman akong kinakausap sa subdivision na ‘to kaya nagulat ako sa ginawa niya.

“Are you going outside? Tara, sabay ko na kayo,” she offered.

I was doubtful at first but she seemed sincere and I was really getting hungry so I gave in. Pumasok kami ni Clark at umupo sa likod.

“Chloe, right?” tanong niya habang nakangiti at tumango naman ako. “I can’t believe you can smile like that. You look more beautiful that way.”

Hindi ko alam kung ano ang nagawang expression ng mukha ko pagkatapos niyang sabihin ‘yon. Ang alam ko lang, natawa siya pati na rin si Clark at nag-init naman ang mukha ko. What the heck was wrong with this middle-aged woman?

“W-what?”

“I saw you grew up as a fine lady but I always thought you’re kind of . . . lonely?” Napatingin naman siya kay Clark. “Having siblings who are a lot younger than you must be hard,” she added. “But you know, that’s better than being alone. Your siblings will always stay by your side no matter what happens. Don’t you think?”

I wasn’t able to answer her. Buti na lang at nakarating na kami sa tapat ng café kaya naman lumabas na kami ni Clark.

“Thank you, uhm,” sabay tingin ko sa kanya.

She smiled at me for the last time. “Miel,” she said.

“Thank you, Miel,” sabay ngiti ko sa kanya.

Pinaandar niya ang sasakyan niya at nakatingin lang ako ro’n hanggang sa tuluyan na ‘yong nawala sa paningin ko. Humigpit naman ang yakap sa akin ni Clark at napaisip ako sa mga sinabi niya.

“Will you really stay?” I whispered and I was glad he couldn’t speak coherent words yet because I was afraid to hear his answer. After all, Mom and Dad, who promised they would stay with me, left when I was just a toddler.

“Mmm,” he mumbled as he grinned at me and for a second, I thought he could understand me.

“Silly. As if you understood that.”

“Mamam!”

I breathed deeply and pushed that thought at the back of my mind. Pumasok kami sa café at agad na umorder ako ng caramel macchiato at waffle. Buti na lang at may cottage cheese at fruits kaya naman ‘yon ang sinabi ko para kay Clark.

Pumunta kami sa isang bakanteng table at tinanggal ko na ang sapatos ni Clark dahil kanina niya pa ‘yon gustong gawin. Bigla naman akong natigilan nang nakita ko kung sino ang naglalakad sa side namin. I immediately covered my face and looked at the other direction, hoping that they didn’t recognize me a while ago.

“Oh, look who’s here.”

Goddamn it. They saw me. Those Queeñigo tards who were in the same class with me noticed me.

“Pfft. Don’t tell me you’re a babysitter?”

“Hah! What a loser.”

“Pareho kayo ni Queenie. Losers.”

“Let me take a picture. This will be a—”

I was about to throw Clark’s shoes into their faces but someone suddenly snatched that swine’s phone and threw it on the ground. The three of them stood in shock as that someone stomped hard on it.

“Oops,” she said with a nonchalant expression. “Natapakan ko.” Pagkatapos no’n ay ginawa niya ulit ‘yon at saka siya muling tumingin sa kanila. “Oops. Natapakan ko ulit.”

“Y-you—!”

“Queenie!” the phone’s owner yelled in frustration.

“Oh, nice shot,” sabi ko naman kaya napunta ang atensyon nila sa akin. The look of horror on their faces was satisfying as they watched me recording their expressions. “Should I post this? Hmm but you look ugly here. Would people watch this?”

“Stop that!”

“Walang hiya ka—!”

Napatigil naman sila dahil sa pagtawa ni Queenie. Agad siyang huminto at napalitan ‘yon ng ngiti—that angelic smile of her that she used to put on show before. Even I, who knew her true colors right from the start, got chills after seeing that.

“Scram, pigs,” she said and the three ran away as if their life depended on it.

Nagkatinginan naman kami at tinaasan ko siya ng kilay. Her eyes shifted on Clark and he grinned at her, as if he enjoyed what she just did. Nagulat naman ako nang umupo siya sa tapat ko at papaalisin ko sana siya pero bigla siyang nagsalita.

“So you have a child?” tanong niya at hindi ko alam kung mas malala pa ang expression na nagawa ko kaysa sa sinabi ni Miel kanina.

“Go aw—”

“Then the father must be that Jaz—!” Bago pa niya matapos ang sinasabi niya ay binatukan ko siya. “What the hell are you doing, you witch?!”

“Shut your mouth, you bitch!”

Bigla naman kaming natigilan dahil napatingin na sa amin ang mga taong malapit sa table namin pero ang hindi ko inaasahan ay ang marinig ang pagtawa ni Clark matapos ‘yon. We both relaxed but still glared at each other after that exchange. Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako at saka umupo.

Damn, I just wanted to eat and all of this happened. So much for a peaceful breakfast.



***