***

“Where is Kuya?” Czanelle pouted. That was her fifth time asking the same question.

“He’ll be back later,” sagot ko.

“Yey!”

Tumakbo naman ulit siya sa sala kung nasaan si Clark at naghabulan silang dalawa. Three days na lang ay simula na naman ng sem kaya balak kong bumili ng gamit ngayon pero hindi naman ako makaalis sa bahay. All the adults had their own schedules so I was stuck with these kids. Mom went to her specialist while both Nanay Meling and Kuya Larry spent their week-vacation with their families.

Tumayo naman ako at pumunta rin sa sala. I sat on the couch while watching those two wasting their energy. Mag-8 A.M. pa lang kaya medyo inaantok pa ako. My body clock was ruined after pulling off sleepless nights, binge-watching series, but these kids invaded my room a while ago because Mom left and I had to watch over them. I should still be sleeping but thanks to them, I only got four hours of sleep. I already felt drained and my menstrual cramps was worsening my condition.

Naramdaman ko naman ang pag-vibrate ng phone sa bulsa ko kaya agad ko ‘yong kinuha. Pagtingin ko, may notification sa isang messaging app at napangiti ako nang mabasa ko ang pangalan ni Shang.

Some board members sided with us. You should’ve seen the look on Mr. Yu’s face.

Nag-reply naman agad ako sa kanya.

You should’ve recorded it. I want to see that geezer’s horrified or maybe annoyed expression.

After our encounter in Singapore, we kind of became each other’s confidant, especially regarding company matters. He was my eyes and ears and I was thankful for having him as an ally.

Humiga muna ako saglit at pipikit na sana ako nang marinig ko ang pag-iyak ng isa sa kanila. Agad naman akong bumangon at nakita ko si Clark na nakadapa sa sahig. Czanelle was helping him get up and she was about to cry, too, so I ran toward their direction.

“Shh, it’s okay,” I said, trying to comfort Clark, as well as Czanelle. It would be hard to deal with both of them having crying bouts.

Binuhat ko si Clark at hinawakan ko naman sa kamay si Czanelle. Pumunta kami sa couch kahit na hindi ko alam ang dapat gawin. Hindi naman ako marunong magluto at ubos na ang pagkaing iniwan ni Mom kanina para sa amin. How should I pacify these two?

I opted to use my trump card—cartoons. Binuksan ko ang TV at nilipat sa isang kiddie network. That got their attention. They were still sobbing but they gradually focused on the show and stopped crying. Nakahinga ako nang maluwag at napasandal sa couch.

“Kumusta?”

I let out an inhuman screech when I saw Jazer’s face above mine and I heard his suppressed laughter. Ni hindi ko naramdaman na sana likuran na pala namin siya.

Ibang-iba naman ang reaksyon ng dalawang bubwit dahil nagmadali silang pumunta kay Jazer habang ako ay hindi pa rin makapaniwalang nandito na siya. I didn’t expect him to arrive this early.

“Kuya! Kuya! You’re back!” Czanelle beamed as she did a celebratory dance for Jazer’s return. Clark copied her movements and he looked like a hyperactive penguin.

Na-realize ko na kaya siya nakapasok agad ay dahil binigyan siya ni Kuya Larry ng spare key, in case na walang tao rito sa bahay. Dahil masyado akong naka-focus kanina sa pagpapatahan sa dalawang bubwit ay hindi ko narinig ang pagpasok niya.

Tumingin naman siya sa direksyon ko at saka ngumiti. As usual, lumabas na naman ang dimple niya. He looked like he was in a good mood. Huh. Maybe something good happened while he was in the province.

Inirapan ko naman siya at saka tumalikod sa kanya.

“Uy, sungit,” he called but I didn’t answer.

Naiirita ako ngayon at hindi ko alam kung dahil ba second day ko ngayon o dahil sa lalaking ‘to. Pumunta naman ang tatlo sa couch kaya tiningnan ko sila nang masama. Those two were still clinging to him and I furrowed my brows when they kissed his cheek. Did they really miss him that much?

“Bakit di ka kiniss ni Ate?” tanong ni Czanelle at nabulunan ako nang marinig ko ‘yon. Jazer couldn’t answer her immediately as he was also caught off-guard by her question. Nagkatinginan naman kami at hindi ko alam kung paano i-e-explain kay Czanelle ‘yon.

“We’re adults,” sabi ko naman. “We don’t do that anymore when we miss someone,” I said and I didn’t have any idea where I pulled that crap.

“But Mom and Dad kiss when they miss each other,” she innocently retorted.

“Iba sila,” sabi naman ni Jazer. “Uhm . . .” Tumingin siya sa akin pero tumayo na ako para tumakas.

“Kaya mo na ‘yan,” I muttered as I hastily walked away from them.

Dumiretso naman agad ako sa kusina at napabuntong-hininga na lang sa nangyari. That kid’s curiosity would be the death of me. Ang aga-aga, gano’n agad ang mga lumalabas sa bibig niya. Kumuha ako ng tubig sa ref at uminom para kalmahin ang sarili ko. Pagtingin ko sa sala, kinukulit pa rin si Jazer ng mga bubwit.

I felt my heartbeat getting faster and I realized this funny feeling was already getting out of hand. The thing that I dreaded the most was happening and knowing that I had no control over the situation scared the heck out of me.

For the past few weeks, it felt like something wasn’t right. I didn’t want to admit it at first but without him, this place seemed empty.

“Tapos ka na?”

Nagulat naman ako nang marinig ko ang boses niya sa likuran ko. Masyado bang malalim ang iniisip ko para hindi siya mapansin na naglalakad papunta rito? Damn, I almost screamed again.

“What?” pagalit kong tanong.

“Pahiram,” sabay kuha niya sa hawak kong baso.

Hindi agad ako nakapag-react. I just watched him as he refilled my glass with water. He drank it quickly and washed the glass right after that.

What the hell was that?

“Okay ka lang ba?” tanong niya at gusto ko siyang batukan pero tinitigan ko lang siya.

Okay? You just used my freaking glass! Pwede namang kumuha ng sa kanya, bakit kailangan ‘yong sa akin pa ang gamitin?!

“May dumi ba ako sa mukha? Bakit ganyan ka makatitig?” sabay punas niya pa sa mukha niya pero napatigil naman siya at tumingin sa akin nang seryoso.

“What?”

“Na-miss mo ba ako?”

Hindi ko alam kung ilang segundo akong nakanganga dahil sa tinanong niya. Ang nakakainis pa, mukhang seryoso siya dahil nakatingin pa rin siya sa akin. But I held my ground. I shouldn’t get flustered with his statement.

“Hah. Baka ikaw ang naka-miss sa akin,” I countered and that made him smile. Damn it, stop smiling.

“Syempre naman,” he said and he suddenly ruffled my hair. “Na-miss ko kasungitan mo.”

Pagkatapos niyang sabihin ‘yon ay bumalik siya sa sala habang ako ay naiwang nakatayo ro’n. I think I need another glass of water.


***

“So, you like him?”

“Gee, thanks, Captain Obvious.”

“Then tell it to him. Are you an idiot?”

I heaved a sigh to control my temper. Bakit ba kasi itong babaeng ‘to pa ang kinausap ko? Wala namang kwentang kausap. Nakakairita lang.

“Do you think everything is simple? This is why Iñigo left you,” I hit back.

“Hey! He didn’t leave me. It’s because of that woman.”

“Yeah, whatever you say, bitch. Thanks for the useless advice. Bye. Don’t call me back.”

Pagkababa ko no’n ay binato ko ang phone sa kama at humiga na lang. Calling that woman was a mistake.

I just wanted to ask for some advice because I was getting more and more confused. Ang problema, sa tatlong tao pa lang ako nakakapag-open sa buong buhay ko: Jazer, Iñigo and Shang. Wala naman akong girl friend . . . well, I considered Katrina before but she had already changed and it wouldn’t be a good idea.

Habang nag-i-scroll ako sa messages ko ay nakita ko ang isang unknown number. Saka ko lang na-realize na kay Queenie ‘yon dahil sa message niya about  Iñigo. Last July pa ‘yon at hindi ko alam kung bakit hindi ko dinelete at binura ‘yon. In the end, siya ang tinawagan ko pero wala naman akong nakuhang kahit ano. Nabwisit lang ako.

However, hearing it from another’s point of view just confirmed that speculation. Damn it, so I really like that guy?

Bumangon naman ako at nag-prepare para umalis. Tutal nandiyan naman na siya para bantayan ang mga bubwit ay makakabili na ako ng mga gamit for next sem. At para makalayo ako sa kanya. Hindi ko pa alam ang dapat kong gawin at lalo lang akong maguguluhan kung nakikita ko ang pagmumukha niya.

After an hour or so, I went out of my room and saw the Mom together with those three. Dumating na pala siya.

Napahinto naman ako nang tumingin siya sa direksyon ko.

“Chloe? Where are you going?” she asked.

Nakahinga naman ako nang maluwag nang marinig ko ang pangalan ko. Ever since I learned about her condition, I would always worry whether she would remember me or not. Natatakot akong dumating ang araw na hindi na niya ako tatawaging Chloe. ‘Yong araw na hindi na niya ako makikilala. I felt relieved that that day wasn’t today.

“Mall,” sagot ko naman. “I’ll buy school supplies.”

“Oh, then, you should go, too,” sabay tingin niya kay Jazer.

“Ah. Babantayan ko pa po sina Czanelle at Clark. Bukas—”

“Ako na ang magbabantay sa kanila,” sabi naman ni Mom. “You should go with her.”

“Mom!”

“Why? Hindi pa rin ba kayo magkasundo?”

No, that wasn’t the case. Nakakainis naman, kung kailan gusto kong mapag-isa!

Sinunod naman niya si Mom at pumunta sa direksyon ko habang dala ang backpack niya na nandoon pa rin sa sala. Dahil nakapang-alis pa rin siya ay hindi na siya nagbihis. We went out of the house and waited for the taxi I booked earlier.

There was an awkward silence between us. Maybe because we didn’t see each other for three weeks. It felt like we had deviated from our previous connection. Something had already changed.

“Umuwi si Katrina,” bigla niyang sabi pero nanatili akong nakatingin sa harapan ko at gano’n din siya.

“Oh. So have you rekindled your relationship?” I asked, hoping that he’d answer ‘no.’

“No,” he replied. Huh. Good.

“Why? Is it because of Iñigo?”

“Hindi rin,” he said with a melancholic smile. “Mukhang nagbago na talaga siya.”

“Well, people change,” I remarked. “And sometimes, you won’t even see their past selves anymore.”

Hindi naman siya umimik pagkatapos no’n at saktong dumating ang taxi kaya sumakay kami agad. Tahimik lang kami pareho hanggang sa makarating kami sa mall.

Pagpasok namin ay didiretso na sana kami sa National Bookstore pero pareho kaming napahinto nang makita namin si Katrina kasama ang new set of friends niya.

“Oh, look who’s here,” one of the girls said while looking at me from head to toe so I did the same thing, with a nastier expression.

Nagkatinginan naman kami ni Katrina at wala siyang kahit anong sinabi. She didn’t even smile like she used to. Her gaze landed on Jazer and when I looked at him, he seemed distraught.

He was always there whenever I needed help. He had saved me from embarrassing situations before and this time, I wanted to help him, too.

I held his hand and pulled him away from them. Hindi ako tumigil hanggang sa makarating kami sa National Bookstore. Good thing was he didn’t resist.

“Well . . .” Humarap ako sa kanya at tumingin naman siya sa mga mata ko. I couldn’t read his expression and that was the first time I saw him with that kind of face. “We’re here, so . . .”

I was about to let go of his hand but he suddenly clenched mine.

“Thank you,” he softly said and he showed me that smile. Again.

“You did the same thing back then,” sabi ko naman at naalala ko noong hinatak niya ako palayo sa cafeteria dati. “We’re even.”

“Mukhang pati ikaw, nagbago na rin,” dagdag naman niya. “Tara na.”

We went inside the store but he didn’t let go of my hand. That moment, I felt delighted and scared at the same time. I wasn’t used to this kind of situation . . . this kind of feeling.

When you’re used to loneliness, temporary joy is frightening.



***