***

"Sorry I can't do that."

Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe this was just the effect of alcohol. But if this was just a dream or a hallucination, I hope it would last for a long time.

This wasn't the first time that he hugged me, but we both know there was something different. Something had changed. And I don't know if that was a good thing or not.

"W-why?" I sobbed, still confused about his actions.

Narinig ko naman ang malalim niyang paghinga. He was caressing my hair with his right hand while his left rested on my back. He was warm.

"Mukhang kalmado ka na," he whispered. Bumitiw naman siya sa pagkakayakap at tiningnan ako sa mga mata. "Lagi ka na lang umiiyak kapag tayong dalawa ang magkasama," he added as he brushed the tears off my eyes and cheeks.

His delicate touch made my skin tingle. The way he looked at me with worry was enough to make my heart flutter. Mas lalo lang akong naiyak dahil sa ginawa niya dahil hindi ko alam kung tama ba ang nararamdaman kong 'to.

"Kailan ba kita makikitang nakangiti?" he asked, a melancholic smile pasted on his face.

Napayuko na lang ako dahil hindi ko na naman mapigil ang pag-iyak ko pero natigilan ako nang bigla siyang gumalaw at akmang aalis na sa kama. The next thing I knew, I was already holding his right hand tightly, afraid that he'd leave me alone.

"Where are you going?" I asked while looking at our hands. Don't leave, I wanted to add but I was scared to hear or see his response.

"Hindi ako aalis," sagot naman niya.

"R-really?"

"Yeah."

My cheeks felt hot because crying, alcohol and embarrassment. The silence was filled with tension but it wasn't uncomfortable. In fact, I was relieved that he was here, even though I was indirectly telling him to go away a while ago.

"Gusto mo ba ng tubig?" tanong niya pero umiling ako. "Sigurado ka?"

"Mmm."

"Then you should rest. Ang dami mo nang nainom."

"I'm . . . I'm not drunk," I retorted.

"Yes, you are," he countered. "Bakit ba kasi ang dami mong ininom? Halos nakalimang shots ka at hiwalay pa ro'n 'yong dalawang malaking cup na puno."

"Because I want to get drunk." Naalala ko na naman tuloy bigla si Mom. "I want to forget everything for a while."

"Your Mom?" he asked and I nodded.

The tears I was holding back a while ago streamed down my face upon hearing that word. I still couldn't accept her condition. Hindi ko lubos maisip na pag-uwi niya ay wala na siyang kahit isang alaala tungkol sa amin. It would be like facing a completely different person. A stranger.

"Ang daya, eh," I sobbed as I tried to choke back my tears. "She can't say sorry anymore for the years she spent away from me. She can't feel guilty about the pain she had caused. She can't create any memories with me anymore. And I can't apologize, too, because she doesn't know anything. I don't know what to do or feel. And I don’t know how to explain this situation to my siblings."

Iniisip ko pa lang kung ano ang magiging reactions nina Czanelle at Clark sa pagdating ni Mom, sumasakit na agad ang dibdib ko. What would I say? How could they understand something so complicated? How would I let them know that our mother had forgotten everything about us without hurting them too much?

I was silently crying for several minutes and I was thankful that he didn’t say anything. He was just there, holding my hand and listening. After some time, he tapped his right shoulder and gently rested my head on it.

“Now it’s my turn to shield you from the world,” he softly said. “Iiyak mo na ang lahat hanggang sa gumaan ang pakiramdam mo. Hanggang sa mapagod ka. Sasamahan kita.”

My heart fluttered after hearing those words. He was always there in my vulnerable moments. He knew what to say and do to calm me down. I couldn’t control my feelings anymore. He was giving me reasons to fall even deeper.

Hindi ko alam kung ilang minuto kaming nanatiling gano’n. I was emotionally drained and my body couldn’t handle the liquor inside my system well. Ang alam ko lang, nakatulog ako habang nakasandal pa rin sa kanya.


***

For the first time in weeks, I had a peaceful sleep, but I almost shrieked when I saw Jazer sleeping beside me. I tried to remember what happened last night but memory was kind of hazy, though I already had a feeling that I did something embarrassing or stupid.

Tinitigan ko naman ang mukha niya habang natutulog pa siya. I already said it last time, but he really looked kinder and untroubled when sleeping. The agitation I felt earlier upon seeing him beside me turned into yearning. I wanted to look at him as long as I could. My fingers hovered just above his face, but I didn’t dare touch him.

"Kailan ba kita makikitang nakangiti?"

Bigla naman akong napangiti pero agad din ‘yong Nawala. A surge of memories flooded my mind after remembering that line. Hindi ko alam kung ilang minuto akong nakatulala habang unti-unti kong naaalala lahat ng nangyari kagabi.

Oh, god. Did he really hug me? Did I hold his hand to prevent him from leaving? Wait, were we both drunk? Damn it, anong pinaggagawa ko? Nakakahiya!

I immediately got up, feeling mortified with my actions last night. Lumayo ako sa kanya para kalmahin ang sarili ko pero parang biglang may pumukpok sa ulo ko. Medyo nahihilo pa ako at parang umiikot ang sikmura ko. Damn it, I shouldn’t have drunk too much.

Napatigil naman ako nang gumalaw siya. After a few seconds, his eyes fluttered open and his gaze landed straight at me. He was confused for a moment, then sprang up after realizing the situation.

“Sorry,” he muttered while rubbing his eyes. “Nakatulog na rin pala ako kagabi rito.”

“Well, obviously . . .” My voice trailed off. I couldn’t even look at his eyes because I already remembered what I did last night.

Agad naman siyang bumangon at nagligpit ng higaan. Tumayo na rin ako pero dumiretso ako sa sofa sa gilid dahil ang sama pa rin talaga ng pakiramdam ko.

“Let’s go home, please,” I requested. I wanted to take a bath and sleep in my own bed.

“Okay. Papaalam lang ako.”

Lumabas naman siya ng kwarto habang hinanap ko ang phone ko. Dumapa pa ako para makuha ‘yon dahil nasa ilalim ng kama at hindi ko alam kung paano napunta ‘yon doon. I booked a car and after some time, Jazer returned with my handbag. Where did he get that?

“Tara?” aya niya kaya tumayo ako.

Paglabas ko ng kwarto ay kita agad kung gaano kalasing ang guests ni Queenie. Some doors were open and several people where sleeping on the hallway, as if they just passed out before they could enter their rooms. We had to tiptoe across their bodies to avoid unnecessary noise since it was just six in the morning.

Pagkarating naming sa living room ay nandoon na ang isa sa caretakers at sa kanya na lang kami nagpaalam. Sakto namang paglabas naming ay dumating ang binook ko.

We were both silent during the ride. It felt awkward. And that discomfort intensified when our hands brushed against each other. Napatingin kami sa isa’t isa pero agad ding umiwas. I thought he’d keep quiet but he suddenly asked a question.

“Bakit parang ang init mo?”

“That’s the normal reaction of my body to alcohol,” I responded. “I mean, I get hot and rashes would appear after some time.”

“At uminom ka pa rin kahit gano’n ang epekto sa’yo?” Nagulat naman ako. His tone was kind of different.

“I already told you my reason, didn’t I?” I retorted and the thoughts I had when I was drunk resurfaced.

Lalo lang kaming naging awkward dahil doon at pareho na lang kaming tumahimik hanggang sa makarating kami sa bahay. Pagpasok naming ay nagluluto na si Nanay Meling habang nagkakape naman si Kuya Larry.

“Uminom ka na naman nang marami, ano?” bungad ni Kuya Larry kaya sinimangutan ko siya. “Ayan, sige, namumula na ‘yang buong katawan mo. Maghapon ka na namang mainit at nagsusuka.”
“I’ll be in my room,” sabi ko na lang para tumigil na siya. “Padala na lang ng coffee saka food, please.”

Nagmadali akong umakyat para hindi ko na marinig ang panenermon niya. Minsan, mas malala pa siyang mangaral kaysa kina Nanay Meling at Nanay Fe.

Dumiretso naman ako sa banyo at agad-agad naligo dahil amoy na amoy ko ang alak sa katawan ko. Muntik pa akong makatulog sa bathtub dahil sa antok at pagod. Pagkatapos no’n ay nagsuot ako ng PJs dahil paniguradong dito lang naman ako sa kwarto mags-stay.

Sakto namang pagkatapos kong magbihis ay may kumatok kaya binuksan ko ang pinto pero napatigil ako nang makita ko si Jazer na may dalang French toast at coffee. Pumasok naman siya at inilapag sa bedside table ko ang dala niyang pagkain. Akala ko ay aalis na siya pagkatapos niyang gawin ‘yon pero bigla siyang tumayo sa harapan ko.

“Ang pula mo na,” sabi niya habang nakatingin sa mukha ko.

I already saw the large rashes appearing on my body and I got flustered when he pointed them out. Why did he have to see me looking like this?

“I know,” I muttered while trying to hide the red marks using the end part of the towel wrapped around my haid. “Umalis ka na nga. Bakit ka pa ba nandito?”

I was expecting him to chuckle, like what he always does whenever I’m annoyed but his face suddenly turned serious, which was quite nerve-racking.

“W-what?” tanong ko dahil hindi pa rin siya nagsasalita.

“Tungkol kagabi . . .”

Pagkarinig ko no’n ay agad na bumigat ang pakiramdam ko. I knew we would talk about this sooner or later but I didn’t expect him to open this matter now. My heart pounded painfully against my chest. I was scared to hear the next words. I wanted to run away. But I couldn’t.

“These past few days, lagi kong naiisip kung ano ang nagbago. We got closer and distant at the same time.” He looked at me with a melancholic expression. “Hindi ko alam kung totoo ba ang mga sinabi mo noong gabing ‘yon at kagabi. I was thinking if I just have a different interpretation or you’re just confused with your emotions.”

Para naman akong bumalik sa estado ko kagabi. But this time, the impact of his words felt sharper. This time, I was sober. Huminga naman ako nang malalim. Siguro ito na ang tamang oras para sabihin sa kanya lahat.

“You are special to me. That’s the truth,” I said. “And it’s becoming scary because it may turn into something deeper. That’s why I told you to push me away because I know you like someone else. Because every heart-fluttering action you make gives me a little hope, even though I already know it’s just your nature. I am not confused with my feelings. I just don’t know if I should take the risk or not.”

But in the end, I would still get hurt either way, I wanted to add.

I had to choke back the tears that were threatening to come out after confessing my feelings. Gusto ko na lang matapos ‘to. I was tired of holding back. I wanted to be free from these worries.

“Last night, I decided not to. So tell me, why did you pull me back?” tanong ko kahit na natatakot ako sa magiging sagot niya.

Ilang segundong katahimikan ang pumagitna sa aming dalawa pero nakatingin pa rin kami sa isa’t isa. Pakiramdam ko ay manghihina ang tuhod ko sa oras na bumukas ang bibig niya.

“Mahalaga ka rin sa akin,” he answered. “Nakita ko kung paano ka nagbago, lalo na bilang kapatid at anak. You showed me your strength and vulnerability. I admire your bravery yet I also want to protect you when you’re defenseless. I realized you have become a huge part of my life. Your existence is precious to me and sometimes, I wonder if I’m allowed to feel that way.”

Bigla namang tumulo ang luha ko nang sabihin niya ‘yon. That was the first time someone made me feel special. All my life, I was treated like a bother or a problem and I became used to that kind of impression.

“Kita mo, umiiyak ka na naman,” sabi niya at saka niya pinunasan ang pisngi ko. He flashed a bittersweet smile before hugging me. “I didn’t expect you’d feel that way for someone like me. Sino ba naman ako?” Naramdaman ko naman ang paghigpit ng yakap niya. “I . . . I sincerely appreciate your feelings, Chloe. I really do . . . but I don’t think I deserve you yet.”

I already expected to get hurt. I already knew this wouldn’t end the way I wanted to. Yet his words still stung. It was still painful to hear.

In the end, the same armor that protected me, the one I wanted to wear for a long time, was too heavy and ended up hurting me.



***