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“Hoy, nakikinig ka ba?”

“No.”

“Witch.”

Sinamaan ko ng tingin si Queenie pero wala na akong energy para patulan pa siya. These past few days had been physically and emotionally tiring for me. I wanted a breathing space. Away from all the worries. From all the responsibilities. From all the heartaches.

“Si Jazer,” biglang sabi ni Queenie kaya napalingon ako. I don’t want to be in the same place with him right now. “Oh, it’s a different guy. So it’s because of him, huh?”

Tiningnan ko ulit siya nang masama dahil sa pantitrip niya. “Bitch,” I swore but she just laughed it off.

After that failed confession, I couldn’t look straight at him anymore. On the other hand, he was acting as if nothing had happened. Binabati niya pa rin ako, nagtatanong tungkol sa subjects at tinutulungan akong alagaan sina Czanelle at Clark. Iniisip ko tuloy kung wala lang sa kanya ang nangyari.

Maybe, I thought. He already said he doesn’t deserve me.

I sighed dejectedly. Idagdag pa na darating na sina Mom and Dad two weeks from now. Hindi pa ako handang harapin ang katotohanang ‘yon. Pakiramdam ko, ayaw talaga ng tadhana na sumaya ako. Maybe this was my karma for constantly rejecting my family for years.

“So, what? You’re back to being a coward again?” Queenie taunted and for a second, I wanted to punch her so she’d shut up.

“Better than getting hurt,” I retorted.

Tiningnan naman niya ako na parang may sinabi akong mali. I shouldn’t have told her about that night. Bakit kasi sa lahat ng tao ay siya pa ang naisipan kong tawagan no’n? Bwisit.

“You already got hurt,” she added. “Besides, may pag-asa pa naman.”

“Don’t give me false hopes. He already said he doesn’t deserve me.”

“Alam mo, minsan, ‘di ko alam kung masyado ka lang in-denial o sadyang tanga ka talaga.”

“Wow? Akala mo kung sinong marunong kung makapagsalita.”

“Duh? At least marunong akong magbasa ng body language ng isang tao at mag-read between the lines.”

“Congratulations, then. You want a medal or something?”

“Oh, god, ang sarap mong i-umpog sa pader,” sabay irap niya.

“You’re so—”

“He said ‘yet,’ right?” tanong niya at natigilan naman ako. “He’s my classmate in one of my general elective subjects and she talks about you a lot. Clearly, he has feeling for you, but he opted not to pursue you yet because of, I don’t know, personal reasons maybe?”

“What—”

“Ang problema sa’yo, ang bilis mong sumuko. Because you feel like you don’t deserve to be loved. That you are not loved. Try to think positively, witch.”

I was quiet for a few seconds. I didn’t expect that she’d throw those words to me. Hindi ko tuloy alam kung dapat ba akong mainis o matawa.

“Huh,” I snorted after her lengthy pointers. “What are you, a love guru?”

“Well, at least, I’m better than you in that field.”

“Kadiri ka, bahala ka nga diyan,” sabi ko sabay tayo dahil malapit na ang next class ko.

“Oh sure, crybaby. Call me if you’re going to cry so that I can record it again.”

“Bwisit ka.”

“Aww, so sweet.”

Napailing na lang ako at nag-martsa palabas ng library dahil sa babaeng ‘yon. Pasalamat siya wala ako sa mood patulan ang mga pang-aasar niya.

I attended my classes and I focused my attention on the lessons. Buti na lang at tungkol sa Strategic Analysis in Business kaya naging interesado ako. I was distracted from my problems for a while. After that ay balak ko na sanang umuwi pero napatigil ako sa paglalakad nang makita ko kung sino ang nasa dulo ng corridor. We stared at each other and she flashed a quick smile after a few seconds.

"Hey," bati ko kay Katrina.

"Hi, Chloe," she greeted back.

It's been a long time since we last saw each other. Well, I saw her talking to Jazer during that vacation but I doubt she knew about that.

Halata naman sa mukha niya na may gusto siyang sabihin. Honestly, I also wanted to talk to her before but I didn't have the courage.

"Gusto mo bang mag-coffee?" aya niya.

I breathed deeply, thinking about the consequences of this encounter. "Yeah. I'd love to."

"I know a great place."

Tahimik naman kaming naglakad palabas sa main entrance. We booked a taxi and went to the cafe two blocks away from the campus.

Siya na ang nag-volunteer na um-order kaya naman ginamit ko ang time na 'yon para mag-research tungkol sa kanya. I stalked her social media accounts and some university fan pages. Doon ko nalaman na dumarami na rin ang 'haters' niya. Mayroon ding ibang confessions na nagbabalik-loob sa Queeñigo nang nalaman nila na sila na ulit. Some started to call her disgusting names because apparently, they now see her as an attention-seeker and relationship breaker.

Nakita ko naman siyang pabalik na sa table kaya in-exit ko lahat ng social media apps sa phone ko.

"Here's your coffee," she said while placing the caramel macchiato in front of me.

"Thanks."

Umupo siya sa harapan ko at lumipas ang ilang segundo na tahimik lang kaming dalawa. The awkwardness was starting to consume me so I chose to speak first.

"So, how are you?" I sincerely asked since the last time we spoke to each other was months ago.

She tried to smile but I could see the sadness in her eyes. "I'm fine. Medyo busy nga lang kasi ang hirap ng dalawa kong majors ngayon. And . . . yeah . . . I'm okay. Ikaw ba?"

Hindi ko alam kung maiinis ba ako o maaawa sa ginagawa niya. She was the first friend I had. I felt her sincerity the first time she approached me but everything turned horrible because of certain variables.

"So your so-called friends ditched you, huh?" I retorted and she was visibly upset.

"I guess this is my karma," she muttered while stirring her coffee obliviously. "I . . . I did the very thing that destroyed my family. And now, I've lost everything."

Nagsimula nang tumulo ang luha niya pero agad niya ring pinunasan ang pisngi at mga mata niya.

"I . . . I'm sorry," sabay ngiti niya. "I didn't mean to be so emotional."

"You don't need to be sorry," I replied. Somehow, I could see myself in her. "It's okay to be vulnerable for a while. It's okay not to be tough when you're so close to breaking."

"Oh," she chuckled while trying to hold back her tears. "Si Jazer ba 'yang naririnig ko?"

Hindi naman ako nakasagot agad. I was taken aback when I heard his name and I didn't realize I said the words he told be before. Napainom tuloy ako bigla sa kapeng in-order ko.

"But I really want to say sorry," she continued. Napatingin naman ulit ako sa kanya. "You're right. Nagbago ako. Alam kong nakwento na sa'yo ni Jazer ang nangyari sa akin. I wanted to escape from my past. I wanted to be loved. And because of that, I was consumed by my greed and my desire to be in the limelight."

Right. She was from a broken family. A child who was abandoned by her parents. A girl who wanted attention and love because her parents couldn't give it to her. I know how that felt but we took different paths to cope with it. Unlike her, who chose to accept everyone's affection even if most are just superficial, I opted to close mine from everything.

"Hindi ka dapat sa akin mag-sorry," sabi ko naman at saktong narinig ko ang pagbukas ng pinto ng cafe. "Sa kanya." Lumingon ako at nakita ko si Queenie kaya itinaas ko ang kamay ko. She was already walking toward my direction but halted when she saw someone else.

"What the hell?" bungad niya. "I'm leaving."

"Hey, wait!" tawag ko at agad naman siyang lumingon. Oh, damn. She looked really pissed.

"What?"

"Uhm . . ." Katrina tried to say something but she was stopped by her glare.

"No, I won't talk to this leech." She started marching away but I clutched her arm. "Stop, you wit—!"

"Queenie."

Maski ako nagulat sa sarili ko dahil 'yon ata ang unang beses na tinawag ko ang pangalan niya. I think. Thankfully, that caught her off-guard.

"You two should talk," I said while looking at them. "Sort out your problems with each other. And . . . don't call me. Bye."

Hindi ko na pinakinggan kung ano pa man ang pinagsasabi nilang dalawa at umalis sa cafe. What I wanted to say a while ago was that they were the few ones I treat as . . . friends. Damn, that thought made my skin crawl. Anyway, both of them are brutally honest in their own ways so I hope this would go well.

Bumalik ako sa campus at nagpasundo kay Kuya Larry. As expected, nandoon na rin si Jazer na kasalukuyang nagbabasa ng photocopy ng readings sa isang subject. I sat on the right side of the backseat while he was still absorbed by his readings.

Bigla namang umubo si Kuya Larry na halatang sadya at tiningnan kami sa rear mirror ng sasakyan.

“Ang tahimik n’yo yatang dalawa ngayon?” he commented and that made the uncomfortable atmosphere worse. “Sabi ko nga, tatahimik na rin ako.”

Hindi ko alam kung paano ko na-survive ang twenty-minute ride na ‘yon. Pagkahintong-pagkahinto ng sasakyan sa garahe ay agad akong lumabas at tumakbo papunta sa kwarto ko pero nagulat ako nang maabutan ko ang dalawang bubwit doon.

“Ate!” Czanelle beamed.

“Aahhhya!” Clark babbled.

Was it weird that all the worries I felt before entering this room suddenly melted into thin air when I saw their faces?

Nilapag ko naman ang gamit ko sa tabi at saglit na nag-shower. After that, dumiretso ako sa kama kung nasaan sila. Czanelle was busy with her coloring book while Clark got cloaked with my comforter and he was trying to figure out how to get out of it.

Umupo ako ro’n at niyakap ko si Clark habang nakabalot pa sa kanya ang comforter at ulo niya lang ang nakalabas. Tinanggal ko ‘yon mula sa kanya at bigla naman siyang humarap sa akin. He was looking at me with his big, curious eyes and I was surprised when he suddenly hugged me. Shortly after that, Czanelle followed and sat on my lap.

“Since when did you become so clingy?” I asked and they answered me with their giggles. Maybe that was also a question I wanted to ask myself.

Ilang minuto akong nakadikit lang sa kanila. I never thought I’d feel this kind of warmth again. I had been treading a cold and forsaken path alone for several weeks that this kind of feeling felt strange.

Saglit muna akong umalis sa kwarto para pumunta sa room ni Mom. They would be arriving in two weeks and this room, for sure, would feel unfamiliar to her. After all, she had already forgotten about us. Still, I always find myself going here whenever I think about her.

Pinaayos ko na ito kay Manang Meling pero hindi ko pinagalaw ang mga gamit na iniwan niya. Pumunta ako sa bedside table at nakita ko ang isang sketchbook. Written there were names of her family member which she tried to write over and over again. Seeing her struggles made me feel worse.

Aalis na sana ako pero napansin ko naman ang pinakababang drawer na hindi nakasara nang maayos. Sinilip ko ‘yon at wala namang laman pero napahinto ako nang Makita ko sa pinakagilid ang isang flash drive. Kinuha ko ‘yon at nagdadalawang-isip ako kung bubuksan ko ba o hindi. In the end, I decided to look at its content.

I brought my laptop and plugged the flash drive into the USB port. When I opened it, only one file was present—a video.

Binuksan ko ‘yon at halos hindi ako makahinga nang bumungad sa akin ang mukha ni Mom. She was just staring at the camera for the first ten seconds but when she started talking, I instantly lost my composure.

“Hello, anak. Chloe,” she called and my tears streamed down my face. “Sorry, I had to do this. I’m afraid I won’t have any chance to say these words anymore. My mind can’t wait any longer.”

I had to cover my mouth to prevent myself from sobbing. Hindi ko alam kung ano ang dapat maramdaman. It was weird to hear her saying my name again.

“Sorry for being a bad parent . . . for being a useless mother,” she confessed while trying to hold back her tears. “I’m sorry that we left you alone. I know this would sound like an excuse but we thought it was for the better. We had to consider your future. Your Dad and I . . . we were both disowned by our own families because we chose each other. And there were consequences. We were just in our early twenties when we had you and we were afraid that our decisions would affect your future. After several years, we fortunately built a company that could save us. We have wealth. We are secured. But that, too, has its consequences. You. We have neglected our responsibilities as parents. And maybe this is my karma for that. Now my own mind is eating up the few memories I had with you,” she said, her voice cracking and my heart sank upon seeing her pained expression.

“Mom,” I whimpered.

“I’m sorry, too, for not telling you about Czanelle and Clark. You know, after having them, I was reminded of the happiness I felt when I had you. I always tell them that they have a sister that will definitely love them with all of her heart. But the truth is, at first, I was afraid that you’d hate them, too. Then I realized, after seeing the three of you together, that you are just as pure as them. Now I’m not worried anymore because I know you’ll take care of siblings. Not because you know how it feels not to be taken care of, but because that is your nature. You have your own ways to show someone you love him or her.”

She went silent for a couple of seconds and shortly after, she smiled warmly, as if she knew I was watching.

“And just like what I have told you, love fearlessly, anak. Protect your heart but do not close it off. It’s okay to get hurt. Because after that, you’ll learn a lot of things. I can tell that he’s special to you. And I know that he feels the same way, too. Don’t live a life full of regrets, anak. Don’t follow the path I have chosen. Even if one day, I can’t remember you anymore, I can always be your hiding place. Your ally. I love you, Chloe,” she sobbed. "I . . . I just wish I can hug you more."

I couldn't breathe properly anymore yet I wanted to hear more of her words. I wanted to hug her, too. I should've done that before. I shouldn't have let my pride consume me. Now, it's too late.

"Can you promise me one thing? Can you hug me even if I can’t remember you anymore? Can you do that for me? Thank you, anak. Thank you for being my daughter.”

After that statement, my heart broke into million pieces. And I never felt more raw, more exposed and more vulnerable. Because this time, the wound was right into my soul and I had no armor.



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