***

Their house was a bungalow style and almost the size of our living room. The walls and floor were cemented and the windows were built with wooden jalousies. Hiwa-hiwalay rin ang mga bahay rito kaya naman parang bakuran na rin nila ang labas. We were surrounded by shrubs, trees and bamboos that swayed as the wind blew. There was also a huge, wooden low table outside.

Busy si Nanay Fe sa pag-aayos ng mga gamit namin habang kalaro na ng dalawang bubwit ang batang lalaki na kapatid ni Jazer.

Napansin ko naman na nakatingin sa akin ang isa sa mga babaeng kapatid niya. She looked cute with her silky hair and deep dimples. Only her and Jazer seemed to have that trait, however, she's got them on both sides.

"Ayos ka lang ba?"

I flinched when I heard and saw Jazer beside me. Hindi ko siya agad napansin.

"Yeah. I'm fine."

Lumapit sa amin 'yong kapatid niyang nakatingin dito at kinalabit ang kuya niya.

"Kuya, sinong mas maganda sa kanila ni Ate Katrina?" tanong niya at biglang naubo si Jazer.

“Jessa!” sabay akmang sisipain niya ang kapatid niya.

“Bakit? Nagtatanong lang naman,” she retorted with that innocent face of hers. Tumingin naman siya sa akin. “Mas nagagandahan ako kay Ate.”

“Beauty is subjective,” sabi ko naman. “No need to compare us. Pero ililibre kita mamaya.”

She gave me a quick smile and Jazer just shook his head at us though I could see his subtle smirk. Sinundan ko siya ng tingin hanggang sa kausap na niya ulit si Nanay Fe. Doon ko lang na-realize na may kulang. Hindi ko makita ang tatay nila. He never mentioned anything about him either so I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to ask. In the end, I decided not to.

Dahil busy pa silang lahat at ang dalawang bubwit ay nakikipaglaro sa dalawa pang mas batang mga kapatid ni Jazer ay lumabas na lang muna ako. Looking at the surroundings, I finally understood why he said he missed his home. I grew up in the city where you breathe in smoke and different pollutants; see skyscrapers and establishments; hear noisy engines of vehicles and the busy streets; and get frustrated by the crowd of people everywhere you go. However, this place made me feel at peace. The air was fresh and the fragrance of the grasses, streams and flowers got more apparent as I breathed. Leaves scattered on the dry ground, rustling, as the wind lashed against the trees around us. It felt like I was embraced by nature—alone yet comfortable.

“Ngayon ka lang ba nakapunta sa probinsya, ate?”

Napalingon naman ako at nakita ko si Jessa na nakaupo ro’n sa mababang table. Maybe she saw my expression and noticed how I furrowed my brows at that furniture so she told me about it.

“Ngayon ka lang din nakakita ng papag?”

“Papag? Hindi ‘yan table?”

Umupo ako sa tabi niya habang ini-inspect pa rin ang ‘papag’ na ‘to.

“Pwede rin,” sagot niya. “Pwedeng gamitin as table o kaya higaan. Pwede ring tambayan.”

“Oh, I see.”

Nalaman ko naman na lima silang lahat na magkakapatid. Jazer was the oldest; followed by Jemimah, sixteen, who was busy helping her mother; Jessamine, this girl who was with me was only twelve; Jaden John, nine years old, his only younger brother who was playing with Czanelle and Clark; and Jylliene, five, the youngest. Kahit magkakapatid sila ay magkakaiba ang first impression ko sa kanila. They looked a like but definitely have different personalities.

Isa-isa naman silang nagsilabasan habang may dala-dalang mga plato. Tumulong na rin kami ni Jessa dahil dito raw kami sa papag kakain. There were two dishes in front of us—fried tilapia and one with a lot of vegetables. I forgot its name. Was it dingdong? Oh, whatever.

Nakihugas na rin ako ng kamay dahil lahat sila ay magkakamay. Saglit akong napangiti dahil ngayon lang ako makakakain sa ganitong setup. It was a bit chaotic but heartwarming.

Si Nanay Fe na ang nag-asikaso kina Clark at Czanelle. Tinutulungan din siya ni Jemimah habang si Jazer naman ay naka-focus siya younger siblings niya. I already knew he’s affectionate when it comes to kids but it was still fascinating to watch.

“May matutunaw mamaya,” Jessa muttered while innocently drinking from her glass of water.

Agad naman akong umiwas ng tingin at nag-focus sa pagtatanggal ng tinik. Buti na lang at masyadong busy ang lalaking ‘yon sa pagpapakain kay Jylliene. Pati mga kapatid niya, ang lakas mangbwisit.

After that ay nagligpit na sila at maya-maya lang ay nakatulog na sa papag ang tatlong bubwit. Naglabas na lang ng unan si Jazer para ilagay sa ulo ng tatlo. Buti nga at malilim dito dahil sa dami ng puno kaya kahit tanghali ay hindi ganoon kainit. Sabagay, December na rin naman.

Nasa loob sina Jazer at Jemimah para tulungan si Nanay Fe habang kami naman ni Jessa ang nagbabantay sa mga bata. Medyo nakakaantok din ang panahon. Hindi rin naman ako makapag-internet dahil mahina raw ang signal dito. Kailangan ko pa raw pumunta sa dulo ng daanan na ‘to dahil doon ka lang makakapag-internet. Nagpatugtog na lang ako ng playlist ko.

“Ah, 1:30 na,” Jessa muttered. “Sige ate, mauna na ako.”

Itatanong ko sana kung saan siya pupunta pero mukhang nagmamadali siya. Nakita ko namang lumabas si Jemimah, ‘yong mas matandang kapatid niya at tumingin sa direksyon ni Jessa.

“Jessa! Saan ka pupunta?”

Napahinto naman si Jessa. “May contest sa bayan, ate.”

“Ayan ka na naman—”

“Mamaya mo na ako pagalitan, male-late na ako. Bye.”

Pagkasabi no’n ni Jessa ay agad siyang tumakbo palayo habang nakatingin sa relo niya. Hindi ko alam kung tama ba ang pagkakarinig ko pero mukhang may contest siyang sasalihan. What kind of contest would that be?

“Pasaway na bata,” Jemimah muttered under her breath.

Napatingin naman siya sa direksyon ko pero agad ding umiwas. I suddenly remembered Jazer’s words before. He caressed my head in attempt to comfort me that time.

"Sorry, ganito kasi ang ginagawa ko sa kapatid ko 'pag umiiyak siya."

"And you think I'm the same as her?"

"Medyo. Pareho kayong masungit at laging galit."

Maybe he was talking about Jemimah. Somehow, I could see myself in her.

“Is there any problem?” tanong ko sa kanya kaya lumingon ulit siya sa akin.

She was silent for a few seconds before answering me with, “wala.”

Papasok na sana ulit siya sa loob pero sakto namang palabas si Jazer kaya nagkasalubong sila sa may pintuan.

“Nakabusangot na naman ‘yang mukha mo. Akala ko ba mamamalengke kayo ni Jes—”

“Lumayas!” she yelled.

Napatingin naman si Jazer sa daan kung saan kanina tumakbo si Jessa. It was quite a sight because he was holding a sponge. Siya kasi ang inutusan ni Nanay Fe na maghugas.

“May contest na naman bang sinalihan ang batang ‘yon?”

“Lagi naman. Hmp! Bahala siya!” she ranted while marching inside their house.

“Ano na naman kayang iuuwi niya mamaya?”

He was thinking aloud that he didn’t notice I was staring at him. It was quite a sight since he was still holding a sponge covered in bubbles. Saka niya lang na-realize nang mapatingin siya sa direksyon ko.

“Anong meron sa contest?” tanong ko nang nagtama ang mga mata namin.

He didn’t answer my question and just fled inside. However, after a few seconds, he appeared again and this time, he wasn’t holding anything anymore. Mukhang binanlawan na niya rin ang mga kamay niya.

“Ah, ‘yon ba? Malamang educational contest na naman,” sagot niya.

“Educational contest?”

“Yeah. Siya ang pinakamatalino sa amin kaya madalas siyang sumali sa gano’n at laging nananalo ng cash o kaya naman appliance.”

“Wait, isn’t she just twelve?”

Napangiti naman siya. “Oo. Choice naman daw niya. Kaya malaking tulong din sa amin kapag nananalo siya.”

Whoa. I thought she was just a kid who likes to tease everyone despite that innocent face of hers. I didn’t expect her to be this mature and reliable.

Our eyes drifted to Jemimah, who was still grumpy after Jessa ditched her. She was holding two relatively large, colorful, woven bags and she glared at our direction.

“Ikaw lang mag-isa ang pupunta?” tanong ni Jazer.

“Kung gusto mo ikaw na lang,” sabay lahad niya ng bag at wallet kay Jazer.

“May gagawin pa ako at magbabantay rin ng mga bata. Magpahatid ka na lang kay Dante kung mabigat ang dadalhin mo.”

Inirapan naman niya si Jazer kaya kumunot ang noo niya. Mukhang handa na siyang pagsabihan ang kapatid niya pero pareho silang napatingin sa akin dahil sa sinabi ko.

“I can accompany her,” I said and they both gave me a confused expression. “If she wants.”

Wala rin naman akong magawa rito. I was getting bored, so might as well wander through this place.

Siguro ay ilang segundo silang nagkatinginan sabay balik ng paningin sa akin dahil hindi sila makapaniwala sa sinabi ko. I was ready to take back my words since it was getting embarrassing when she said okay.

“Tara na,” sabi niya sabay abot sa akin ng isang bag.

“Mag-ingat kayo,” pahabol ni Jazer habang naglalakad kami palayo.

“Sila ang mag-ingat,” sagot ko naman.

Tahimik kaming naglakad papunta sa sakayan ng tricycle. Actually, pwede kang maglakad sa gitna ng kalsada dahil madalang lang dumaan dito ang mga sasakyan. Jemimah and I kept our distance. Unlike Jessa and Jaden who were quite easy to be with, she was careful and always on guard. The silence between us was awkward but bearable.

“Si Jem, oh!”

Pareho naman kaming napahinto nang marinig naming may tumawag sa kanya. Pagtingin ko sa kanan ay may grupo ng mga babaeng nakatambay sa gilid. They were seating on a tree trunk that was made into a bench.

“Kumusta si Mario?”

“Sinagot mo na ba?”

“Panigurado. Mayaman, eh.”

They laughed in chorus as they continued making fun of her. I don’t know who they were talking about but that topic was making her uncomfortable.

“These kids,” I muttered, ready to retaliate but she clutched my arm.

“Hayaan mo na, ate,” she said. “Wala lang magawa ang mga ‘yan.”

Dahil mukhang ayaw na niyang palakihin pa ay hinayaan ko na lang din at nagpatuloy kami sa paglalakad. But those kids kept on goading her. I was amazed that she could still keep her cool despite those insults.

“Huwag mong gayahin nanay mo na nagpakasal sa mahirap—!”

Huwag na huwag n’yong idadamay ang nanay—”

Hindi na natapos ni Jemimah ang sasabihin niya dahil sa pagsigaw ng mga babaeng ‘yon. It wasn’t my fight but I lost my cool when they derided Nanay Fe.

“Gusto n’yo pa?” tanong ko matapos kong ibato sa kanila ang ilang coins sa wallet ko. Two of them got hit with my coins and I smirked when they looked at me with their annoyed expressions.

“Sino ka ba?!”

“A rich passerby. Want more coins, peasants?”

Binato ko ulit sila ng natitira kong coins at saka ko hinatak si Jemimah palayo pero tumakbo naman sa direksyon namin ang isa at hinila ang braso ko. She was stronger than me but I still tried resisting. Inabot ko ang buhok niya at lumambitin habang patuloy niya akong pinapalo at kinakalmot. I gripped her hair tighter and pulled harder until I heard her crying.

“Ate! Tara na!” sigaw ni Jemimah at doon ko lang na-realize na papunta na rin sa amin ang iba niya pang mga kasama.

She grabbed my arm and pulled me away from that bitch. Tumakbo kami palayo hanggang sa makakita siya ng tricycle na agad niyang pinara.

“Bayan, manong!” she told the driver and I looked back at those kids who were throwing curses at us until we couldn’t see and hear them anymore.


***

The trip to the market calmed me down. It was my first time so I got weirded out by this kind of environment where all vendors kept on yelling, trying to get customers to their own stalls. Ngayon ko lang din ako nakakita ng ilan sa mga gulay at prutas na tinitinda nila. But the highlight of that trip was the wet section. I didn’t know that fishes in the market were sold alive! I would never go to that place again.

Pag-uwi namin ay pinadiretso namin ang tricycle sa tapat ng bahay nila dahil baka inaabangan kami ng mga bruhang ‘yon sa daan. Luckily, wala na sila roon at buti ay hindi sila nagpunta mismo sa bahay nila para gumanti.

Nakita ko namang nakaabang si Jazer sa labas at agad niyang kinuha ang mga pinamili namin. Dumiretso siya sa loob habang naiwan kami ro’n ni Jemimah.

“Sorry,” she said while pointing at my arms etched with nail marks, “at salamat.”

It was getting dark so I wasn’t sure if she was blushing or that was just the sun casting its colors on her face. I let out a quick smile. That was the first time her expression softened.

“They were annoying,” sagot ko naman. “I just did what I had to do.”

Lumabas naman ulit si Jazer at huminto sa harapan namin. I was about to ask where Czanelle and Clark are when his gaze landed on my arms and it was already too late when I realized he saw those red marks.

“Anong nangyari?” seryoso niyang tanong.

“I fell,” sabi ko na lang pero agad siyang tumingin kay Jemimah.

Nag-usap sila sa Ilokano kaya hindi ko maintindihan pero agad pumasok si Jemimah sa loob at hinatak naman ako ni Jazer papunta sa papag. Bigla naman siyang napahinto at lumingon sa akin. He looked at my hand, the one he was holding, and furrowed his brows.

“’Yong singsing mo,” he said and I realized it was gone.

I didn’t know what to react for the first few seconds. Hindi ko alam kung saan ko nawala o kung ano ang nangyari. My mind just went blank, followed by a surge of guilt. That was Mom’s graduation gift, along with the news that devastated me that time. I never wore it until that day—the day she had forgotten us. It was the only gift I received from her that I didn’t store away because, according to her, it was the same ring Dad gave her when they were dating.

And now, I lost it.

Napaupo na lang ako sa papag habang kinakalma ang sarili ko. Inisip ko ang mga ginawa ko ngayong araw para ma-track kung kailan at saan ko nawala and then I suddenly thought of that fight. Damn it. That girl must have pulled it from my finger by chance when she was desperately hitting me.

Tumayo ako at balak ko sanang bumalik doon sa lugar na ‘yon pero pinigilan ako ni Jazer.

“Saan ka pupunta?”

“I’m going to find my ring.”

“Madilim na—”

“But I need to find it!”

Pareho naman kaming natahimik nang nagtaas ako ng boses. I didn’t mean it but I was getting distressed. I need to find my ring.

“Hanapin natin bukas,” he said with a calm yet serious tone. “Sasamahan kita.”

“But . . .”

“We’re going to find it. Promise.”

His words somehow quelled the panic rising in my throat. I let out a dejected sigh. He was right. Hindi ko rin naman mahahanap ‘yon kung palubog na ang araw. Sana lang, walang makakuha at mahanap din namin agad bukas.

Hinawakan naman niya ang magkabilang balikat ko at saka niya ako pinaupo ulit sa papag.

“Saglit lang,” sabi niya at saka siya naglakad papunta sa kalsada. Sinilip ko kung ano ang ginagawa niya pero hindi ko na siya makita mula rito.

Makalipas ang ilang minuto ay bumalik din siya habang may hawak sa kamay niya. Pag-upo niya sa tabi ko ay saka ko nakita kung ano ‘yon. He was holding those familiar small, red flowers that we once saw around the gazebo in our subdivision.

“Heto muna ang isuot mo,” he said while placing a makeshift ring around my finger.

Nakatitig lang ako sa kanya habang ginagawa ‘yon. No matter how hard I tried to suppress these feelings, he could kindle my emotions by doing these kinds of actions without any warning. Things that could make me restless. And reckless.

“You’re doing it again,” I muttered as I looked at the flower ring.

“Hmm?”

When his eyes met mine, those words just came out from my mouth naturally.

“I like you . . .” I muttered and I realized what I just did. “Y-your flower ring!” I hastily added while raising my hand where the ring was. Napatingin naman agad ako sa kanya at kita ang gulat sa mukha niya. “And the bracelet you did before. They’re cute. Uhm. Yeah. Thanks!”

Agad akong tumayo at pumasok sa loob. I cursed myself for saying those dumb words. Damn it, Chloe! You’re such an idiot!

And in that moment, I realized I did something I would regret someday. I knew I was already stepping on the line I drew between us. And what scared me more was the thought that sooner or later, I might really cross that line.



***