***

". . . and that made you special. To me, you are special."

Those words haunted me for the rest of the night. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang pumasok sa utak ko kanina para sabihin 'yon pero sana ay wala siyang narinig. I mean, with all those noise, maybe he didn't hear a thing. I hope.

I remembered everything clearly. After I said that, I wanted to cover my ears and run away. I was scared to hear his response. Yet, I couldn't move. It felt like my feet were cemented right where I stood.

My heart was pounding loudly and it was getting harder to breathe. We were silent for several seconds, unsure of what to say or do. Right at that moment, the kids surrounded us while giggling and jumping excitedly. Czanelle and Clark hugged each of my leg while Jaden and Jylliene pulled Jazer's arms.

That was my chance to get away from him.

"Let's eat," sabi ko sa mga bubwit at tumango naman sila. I held their hands and we went back to the house.

Nakahanda sa papag ang mga niluto nina Jem at Nanay Fe kanina. Those were the same foods that they cook for me yet it felt different. Seeing several people around me reaching for what they wanted to eat, asking if that particular dish is tasty, and talking to each other while eating made me realize that celebrating Christmas is better this way. It was unfamiliar yet heartwarming.

Inilaan ko na lang lahat ng atensyon ko sa pagkain at sa mga kapatid ko. Maybe that way, I could forget about him for a while. That way, I could escape this prison of emotions.


***

Our week-long vacation came to an end.

Nahihiya na rin ako kay Nanay Fe. Isa pa, gusto ko munang lumayo kay Jazer. After what happened the other day, we couldn’t look at each other anymore without getting awkward.

“Can’t we stay one more day, Ate?” Czanelle pouted while raising her index finger.

“No,” I firmly said. “We need to go home.”

“How about Jy? Jaden? Can they go with us?”

“No.” Napabuntong-hininga naman ako. She was close to crying and it seemed like she really got attached to Jylliene and Jaden. “They can’t leave. They have to stay with their family.”

“Then, can we stay with Mommy and Daddy?”

Para namang lumubog ang puso ko nang sabihin niya ‘yon. She wiped the tears off her eyes, trying hard not to cry, and her melancholic expression stirred something inside me.

“Come here,” tawag ko at lumapit naman siya sa akin. “Do you miss them?”

“Mmm,” she mumbled with her pouting lips and furrowed brows.

“They miss you, too. As well as Clark. So be a good girl and wait for them. Okay?”

She ran to me and buried her head on my lap. I patted her back in return. Several months ago, this kind of proximity bothered me. I didn’t want to get close to my siblings because I envied them. They were with Mom and Dad while I suffered alone. I couldn’t even remember when I started opening my heart to them.

“Chloe,” tawag ni Nanay Fe kaya pareho kaming napatingin ni Czanelle. “Hindi n’yo ba hihintayin si Jazer para may maghatid sa inyo?”

“Ah, hindi na, Nanay Fe,” sagot ko naman.

“Sigurado ka ba?”

“Opo. Alam ko naman na kung ano ang mga dapat sakyan para makauwi.”

Kinuha ko naman si Clark na karga-karga ni Jem habang hila ang maleta namin. Czanelle cling onto the edge of my shirt since both of my hands were already occupied.

“Sure ka bang kaya mo, Ate?” tanong ni Jem.

“Yeah. I can manage.”

Agad naman kaming lumabas sa bahay nila dahil baka maabutan pa kami ni Jazer. Umalis kasi siya kaninang umaga kasama si Jessa para mamili.

Hinatid naman kami ni Dante, ‘yong nag-drive ng kuliglig dati, at matapos ang isang oras ay nakarating kami sa sakayan ng bus. Five to six hours later, we arrived at home and it felt like I went back to the reality I was running away from. The week we spent with his family made me realize how empty our home was. It wasn’t even home.

Days passed and I still couldn’t forget that night. How stupid of me to say those words. I just made everything more complicated.

Dumaan ang New Year at nanatili lang kami sa bahay. Pumunta sina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry noong nakaraan para lutuan kami ng pagkain for New Year at nakipaglaro sila kina Czanelle at Clark. Ako naman, nilunod ko ang sarili ko sa series na matagal ko nang gustong panoorin, para kahit papaano ay ma-distract ako sa mga iniisip ko.

The sound of the simultaneous firing of fireworks scared the kids and they both entered my room to hide under my bed sheet. Hindi ko tuloy alam kung matatawa ako o maaawa. Napatigil naman ako sa panonood nang mag-vibrate ang phone ko. Pagtingin ko, nag-message si Shang ng Happy New Year kaya nag-reply agad ako. I was about to let go of my phone when I saw Jazer’s name.

He sent me messages after we left their house. Hindi ko pa rin binabasa ang mga ‘yon pero ang naka-display na huli niyang message at ang tanging message na nakikita ko kahit na hindi ko pa ino-open ay ‘see you next week.’

Maybe it’s time to read them, I thought.

Huminga ako nang malalim at saka binuksan ang messages niya.

Bakit hindi mo sinabi na aalis na kayo? Ganito rin ang ginawa mo last time.

May gusto akong sabihin.

Chloe?

See you next week.

I felt more anxious after reading the second message. What did he want to say? Something about that night? Did he hear what I said? Oh my god, sumasakit ang ulo ko sa kakaisip.

Nagulat naman ako nang biglang may tumawag. I thought it was him but Queenie’s alias came into view.

“What?” salubong ko.

“Hey, Witch, are you free this weekend?”

“Why?” tanong ko naman. She sounded drunk.

“It’s my birthday, so slumber party!”

“Are you sure that’s a party? May friends ka ba?”

“Duh? Huwag mo akong itulad sa’yo.” This drunkard is getting into my nerves.

“Why don’t you invite, Iñigo?” I teased.

“I already did. Pfft. We’re already back together.”

“What?!”

Wait, for real? Pero sabagay, noong huli ko silang nakita ay sinusuyo siya ni Iñigo. How about Katrina? Okay lang kaya siya? I mean, alam na kaya niya?

“How about you?” biglang tanong ni Queenie. “Did the witch’s feelings finally reached the prince? Or she cursed herself instead?”

“Whatever.”

I heard her chuckle. “Aww, poor witch.”

“You’re annoying. Bye.”

Hindi ko na hinintay ang susunod niyang sasabihin at in-end ko na ang tawag. Bwisit na babaeng ‘yon. Wala nang ibang alam gawin kundi inisin ako.

Napaisip naman ako sa sinabi niya. Her birthday, huh? That would be the same day Jazer would return. I guess running away is the thing I do best.


***

Dumating ang weekend at maaga akong umalis sa bahay. Dahil bumalik na sina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry ay may nagbabantay na sa dalawang bubwit. Ayaw ko ring maabutan si Jazer doon pagdating niya kaya dumiretso ako sa malapit na coffee shop.

Nilabas ko naman ang phone ko at tiningnan ang gallery. There were a lot of candid photos I took last week, mostly Clark and Czanelle when they were playing. Then there was that photo . . . the one I took when he was sleeping outside . . . that time when he searched for my ring. Looking at his photo made me miss him.

Am I selfish? I revealed my feelings to him yet I immediately ran away, afraid to hear his thoughts. Pero umiwas din naman siya. Pinili niya ring tumahimik dahil alam naming pareho na kami pwedeng bumalik sa dati.

Bago pa ako lumubog sa sarili kong bangka ay tumayo na ako at dumiretso sa mall. I bought a pair of snake earrings as a gift for that bitch. Nang dumilim na ay nag-book na ako ng taxi papunta sa bahay nila.

Pagdating ko ro’n ay sumalubong agad ang malakas na music. There were several guys and girls, some were my classmates in some subjects, and they were already drinking and playing games. Karamihan ay barkada ni Iñigo  pero may ilan ding mga babae na nakikita kong kasama dati ni Queenie. Maybe those were the ones who stayed after her issue. Anyway, some of them were already drunk but it was kind of funny since they were all wearing pajamas.

“You’re here, witch!” sabay palo niya sa akin sa balikat kaya sinamaan ko siya ng tingin.

“The heck are you doing?!”

“Oops. Sorry,” she said in a sarcastic tone. “Anyway, magpalit ka na!” sabay tulak niya sa akin papunta sa comfort room.

Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako at bigla akong napaisip kung bakit ba ako um-oo sa kanya. Dahil nandito na rin naman ako ay hinayaan ko na lang. Uuwi na lang ako after an hour or two.

Dumiretso ako sa balcony sa table kung saan nakahain ang pagkain at kumuha ng barbeque. Hindi ako lumapit sa mga grupo dahil hindi ko naman sila ka-close. Pumunta na lang ako sa balcony habang dala ang plato ko. The night was chilly and stars covered the sky with their silver lights.

“Bakit dito ka kumakain?”

Napatingin naman ako sa nagsalita at tumabi si Iñigo sa akin. Binalik ko naman ang tingin ko sa langit at panandaliang katahimikan ang bumalot sa aming dalawa.

“Too noisy,” sagot ko at narinig ko ang mahina niyang pagtawa.

“Thank you sa pagpunta. And thank you for being her friend.”

“We’re not friends,” I retorted but he just smiled and it felt like we were back in high school.

Come to think of it, we never really had the chance to talk like this because of our own issues. I avoided him after he said that he likes Queenie. Lalo pa akong nainis sa kanya dahil sa ginawa ni Queenie dati nang pagselosan niya ako.

“So you chose to be with her despite what happened,” I said and he looked at me with curiosity.

“I never thought I’d hear those words from you,” he said, chuckling.

“Nang-aasar ka ba?”

“No, no, sorry. It was just amusing. Pakiramdam ko ibang Chloe na ang kausap ko. Both of you have changed. Anyway, kumusta naman kayo ni Jazer?”

Muntik na akong mabulunan nang bigla niyang ‘yong itanong. Tiningnan ko siya nang masama at lalo lang akong nainis dahil halata namang pinipigilan niyang ngumiti. Bwisit.

“Do you like him?” he asked and his question flustered me for a second.

“No,” I replied, trying to hide the panic building in my chest.

“Your words and expression do not match,” he retorted.

I sighed in frustration. “You and Queenie are both annoying.”

Natawa naman siya. “Masarap ka lang talaga minsang asarin.”

“Tss. What a stupid couple,” I muttered.

Natigilan naman kami sa pag-uusap nang bigla naming narinig ang pagsigaw ni Queenie sa loob. Bumalik kami ro’n para tingnan kung ano ang nangyari pero napatigil ako sa nakita ko.

“Whoa! Pumunta ka!” she beamed as she welcomed the late guest.

“Sorry, hindi ko kasi kabisado ang lugar na ‘to.”

What the hell? How . . . wait . . . huh? Bakit nandito si Jazer?! At kailan pa sila naging close?

“Hey, witch!” sigaw niya nang makita niya ako. Oh, god. “Your pri—!”

Hindi naman na naituloy ni Queenie ang sasabihin niya dahil tinakpan ni Iñigo ang bibig niya at saka inilayo kay Jazer. That bitch! That was close!

“Kain ka muna ro’n,” sabi ni Iñigo at itinuro ang corner kung nasaan ang mga pagkain.

Our eyes met each other but I immediately averted his gaze. Lumayo ako ro’n at pumunta malapit kina Iñigo at Queenie. Damn it, why did she invite him? Wala na, hindi ko na ma-e-enjoy ang gabing ‘to.

“Hey, let’s play!” sigaw ni Queenie at naghiyawan din ang ilang bisita niya.

Sumama na lang ako ro’n para makaiwas kay Jazer kahit na may involved na alak. We played King’s Cup and that stupid couple was targeting me. Hindi ako familiar sa laro at medyo nalilito pa ako sa meaning ng cards kaya naman ako ang napagdiskitahan. I had to drink a couple of times and I was starting to get lightheaded. Once in a blue moon lang naman ako uminom kaya hindi sanay ang katawan ko. At kung mamalasin ka nga naman, I drew the first King.

“Whoo! Bottoms up!” they cheered as I fell in despair.

Iba-ibang liquor ang laman ng King’s Cup kaya naman nang inumin ko ‘yon ay umikot ang sikmura ko. My face was burning and everything was spinning. Damn it, the alcohol had kicked in.

Few rounds passed and when it was my turn again, they were hoping I’d pick a King again. Huh. No way I’d be that unlucky.

“Show us!” they demanded and I cursed loudly when I saw the card I had pulled out.

It was a King.

“Damn all of you!” sigaw ko habang patuloy silang nagtatawanan dahil sa kamalasan ko.

“Gusto mo ba consequence na lang?” tanong ng isang lalaki. I forgot his name.

“Ohh, pwede!”

“Kiss someone!”

“Shut up! I’m going to drink this!”

Wala naman akong choice kundi inumin ‘yon. I was already tipsy but whatever. Might as well get drunk and forget all my problems for a while.

I was about to drink it when somebody held my arm. The next thing I knew, Jazer was already drinking the King’s Cup and the people around us was shouting and applauding him. He finished it in seconds and stared at me with a serious expression.

“Tama na,” bulong niya. “Lasing ka na. Pagagalitan ako ng Dad mo ‘pag nalaman niya ‘to.”

“Huh? I’m not yet drunk!” I grumbled. “I’m just . . . half-drunk.”

Narinig ko naman ang pagtawa ng mga tao sa paligid namin. Tss. Why are they laughing? May nakakatawa ba? Those idiots. Pfft. Maybe they are drunk.

“That girl is already drunk,” someone said. Huh? That voice was familiar. That bitch . . . I wasn’t drunk! “Second floor, last room. You can use it.”

“Thank you,” Jazer replied.

Bigla naman niya akong hinatak kaya napatayo ako. Wait, nag-e-enjoy pa ako! Anong problema niya?!

“What are you doing?!” I complained while trying to break free of his grip.

“Magpahinga ka na.”

“Let me go! What are you, a babysitter?! Ano ba!”

Hindi ko na makita ang paligid dahil lalo lang umiikot ang paningin ko pero nagulat ako nang bigla na lang akong buhatin ni Jazer. I thrashed and twitched, hoping he would put me down but he was strong enough to endure my attacks. Saka niya lang ako binitiwan nang wala na akong marinig na music at doon ko na-realize na nasa loob na kami ng isang kwarto.

“What the hell is your problem?!” sigaw ko matapos niya akong ibaba sa kama. “Why can’t you let me enjoy things for a while?!”

“Hate me all you want pero hindi ka aalis sa kwartong ‘to hangga’t lasing ka,” he said but I couldn’t see his expression clearly anymore. “Dito ka lang,” sabay upo niya sa tapat ko.

Seeing him after a while triggered my emotions. The frustration and worry I kept inside me after I learned Mom’s current condition and after what happened that night finally exploded.

“Do you think I’m drunk? Huh?” sabay duro ko sa kanya. “Then why do I still feel worthless? Why do I still think about Mom? Why does it still hurt?” I confessed as tears streamed down my face. “Why can’t the alcohol wash away my suffering? Why can’t I forget these tormenting thoughts? Why?”

“Chloe . . .” I cut him off by drawing an imaginary line between us.

“I’ve had enough. I’m just . . . tired. Of everything. Of everyone. I don’t want another piece of despair,” I admitted. “And this line between us . . . I crossed it once but I came back because the place beyond it was not for someone like me. I don’t want to cross it again, so please, walk away. Push me back if you—”

I was hoping he’d push me away, instead, he pulled me into his arms. “Sorry, I can’t do that,” he whispered and for a moment, it felt like the world had stopped moving. Everything fell silent. Except us.



***