***

Hindi ako nakatulog nang maayos kagabi. Actually, these past few weeks, I was terrified to sleep. Another day would go by and that thought made me feel restless. At ngayon ang pinakakinatatakutan kong araw. Mom and Dad would be here this afternoon.

Nandito ako ngayon sa kubo sa garden namin. I was up early and I needed an open space to breathe. Nandito rin sina Czanelle at Clark at mukhang nag-e-enjoy sila sa paglalaro ng lupa. I guess being in the province made them appreciate nature more. Kids nowadays couldn't keep their eyes and hands off gadgets so seeing them playing with each other outside was like a breath of fresh air.

"Ate, look!" sigaw ni Czanelle habang puro lupa na ang damit niya. "Clark looks like Dopey!"

Tiningnan ko naman si Clark habang may suot siyang beanie sa ulo at sobrang luwang ng damit niya sa kanya. He definitely looked like one of dwarves in Snow White.

"Are you Snow White?" tanong ko kay Czanelle habang pareho pa rin silang tumatawa.

"No, I'm a dwarf, too," she giggled while putting one of my beanies, which looked oversized on their heads. "You can be Snow White!"

"Snow White is a princess," I replied. "I'm not."

Sakto namang lumabas si Jazer mula sa pintuan habang may hawak na dalawang bowl ng oatmeal. Kanina pa kasi tinatawag ni Nanay Meling ang dalawang 'to para mag-breakfast pero mas excited silang maglaro.

"Hindi pa ba kayo kakaing dalawa?" tanong niya habang nakatingin sa dalawa.

"Ah!" Czanelle exclaimed. "Kuya can be the Prince Charming!"

Nagkatinginan kami ni Jazer pero agad din akong umiwas. The awkwardness was still there. He sighed after the kids ignored his question while I started to panic because he was walking toward this place. Nilapag niya ang pagkain sa wooden table sa gitna at umupo sa tapat ko habang nakatingin sa dalawa.

Damn this guy.

We watched the kids in silence but the tension between us was too hard to ignore. Ilang araw na rin kaming ganito. I don't know if this was a good or bad thing.

"Ikaw, hindi ka ba kakain?" tanong niya.

"I'm not hungry," I replied as I turned to his direction.

The moment our gaze landed on each other, I instantly knew we missed the connection we once had before everything turned precarious.

Bigla ko namang naalala ang mga sinabi ni Mom sa video na 'yon. Do I really have the courage to allow myself to get hurt even more?

I held my gaze and offered a handshake.

"Let's clear this mess once and for all," I said, earning a confused face from him. "I know—"

Napatigil ako sa pagsasalita nang bigla niyang abutin ang kamay ko. However, instead of a handshake, he stood up and gently pulled me along with him.

Tiningnan ko pa sina Czanelle at Clark pero mukhang hindi nila kami pansin dahil busy sila sa paghuhukay. At kung minamalas ka nga naman, si Kuya Larry pa ang nakakita sa amin.

"Alis lang ho kami sandali," sabi ni Jazer habang palabas kami ng gate at ngumiti naman si Kuya Larry.

"Sige lang," he responded while raising his thumb at us.

This time, ako naman ang naguluhan. Nagpahila na lang ako sa kung saan habang nakatingin sa kamay niyang hawak ang kamay ko. Nang inangat ko ang ulo ko ay doon ko na-realize kung saan kami papunta.

I could still remember the first time we went here. The time he made me a bracelet of flowers. The time we waited for the rain to stop. We were back in the gazebo.

"Jazer," I called. Tumingin siya sa akin pero hindi niya pa rin binibitiwan ang kamay ko. I was standing on the gazebo's floor while he stopped on the concrete slab, a step lower than where I was.

Bigla naman siyang ngumiti. I missed that smile.

"Ngayon mo na lang ulit ako tinawag sa pangalan ko," he remarked.

"Minsan mo lang din naman ako tawagin sa pangalan ko," I retorted.

"Chloe," he suddenly said.

My heartbeat raced upon hearing my name. How could he make it sound so special?

"When will you let go of my hand?" tanong ko naman dahil nahihirapan na akong huminga. He was staring at me so intently that I felt like my insides were already melting.

"Let me hold it for a while," sagot naman niya at naramdaman ko ang paghigpit ng hawak niya. "Pakiramdam ko kasi, sa oras na bitiwan ko 'to, hindi na kita ulit maaabot."

Hindi ko naman alam ang dapat kong sabihin o maramdaman nang marinig ko 'yon. The truth was, I wanted to tell him that we should stay as friends at this moment. The timing wasn't right.

In fact, I started questioning if I was capable of loving someone during this time of my life. I was drowning in my own problems. I was too broken. How could I love someone when I couldn't even love myself?

"Let's stay as friends," I finally said. "I guess it's better that way. Just forget what I told you—"

"I can't," he interjected. "You're . . . you're more than just a friend."

Hearing those words stirred something inside me. I had to choke back the tears that were threatening to come out.

"You're making this hard for me," I replied, my voice cracking. "Stop giving me false hopes."

"I'm not," he softly said while reaching for my face. He wiped the tears off my face and looked at me earnestly. "These past few weeks, I realized that distancing myself away from you made me more incomplete than what I think I lack to deserve you."

Tuluy-tuloy nang umagos ang luha ko nang narinig ko 'yon. Pakiramdam ko, ako naman ang hindi deserving para marinig ang mga salitang 'yon.

"Naiinis ako sa sarili ko dahil pinangako kong pwede mo akong iyakan. Yet I wasn't there when you needed me the most."

Don't tell me . . . oh, god. He saw me that night.

Lalo lang lang akong naiyak nang ma-realize ko 'yon. The next thing I knew, I was already crying on his shoulder, his arms wrapped around me. I hugged him in return and for the first time in several weeks, I felt secured. I felt safe.

"Na-miss kita. Sobra," he whispered while gently stroking my hair.

"I missed you, too," I sobbed. "I really do."

And in that moment, I knew this day would be less frightening because I have him beside me.


***

Halos isang oras kaming nag-stay ro'n dahil ayaw kong bumalik na mugto ang mga mata. Bilang pampalipas-oras ay ginawan niya ulit ako ng santan bracelet. Nakakainis lang dahil kanina pa siya ngiti nang ngiti habang gusto ko naman nang lumubog sa lupa dahil sa kahihiyan pagkatapos ng lahat ng nangyari.

"Balik na ba tayo?" tanong niya.

"Mmm," sabay tango ko. "For sure, on the way na sina Mom at Dad."

Tumayo kami at sabay na naglakad pabalik. Nakaabang naman sa gate si Kuya Larry at hindi ko alam kung sina Mom at Dad ang hinihintay niya o kami dahil sa ngiti niyang nakakaloko.

"Shut up, Kuya Larry," pagbabanta ko.

"Wala pa nga akong sinasabi!"

Nagmadali akong pumasok sa loob ng bahay para maghilamos at i-check ang kwarto ni Mom. I put a lot of things in her room that could remind her of us—her family. Even if her mind was already a blank canvas, I hope we could still make memories together.

Hindi naman nagtagal ay narinig ko na ang busina ng sasakyan sa labas. I breathed deeply before going out of her room. Pagbaba ko ay nakita ko si Dad na nakaalalay kay Mom habang papasok sila sa bahay.

Para namang lumubog ang puso ko nang Makita ko kung gaano siya pumayat. She looked older than her age. As her gaze wandered around the house, I carefully approached them.

"Dad," tawag ko at tumingin naman siya sa akin.

"Chloe," he said and I could see the concerned look on his face.

"Mom," I called but she kept looking around. Everything must feel strange to her. "Mom," tawag ko ulit habang palapit sa kanila.

Her gaze finally landed on me and I immediately felt a lump on my throat when her eyes reflected unfamiliarity.

"Who . . ." sabay tingin niya kay Dad.

My eyes were welling up and I had to blink back these tears to keep a strong façade. Dad already said that this kind of degenerative brain disease would also affect her language capabilities, behavior and motivation, yet seeing it personally still came as a shock.

Dahan-dahan akong lumapit sa kanya kahit na alam kong hindi na niya ako kilala. I already made up my mind. I already made a promise.

"I'm Chloe," I said as I hugged her tight. "Welcome back, Mom."

Thank you for being my mother, I wanted to add but I couldn't . . . because she had already pushed me away.

"Mom . . . no . . . no . . ." she repeatedly said while shaking her head.

"Let's go," sabi naman ni Dad dahil nagsisimula na siyang mag-panic.

Tumango na lang siya sa akin at gano'n din ang ginawa ko. Tiningnan ko na lang sila habang naglalakad papunta sa kwarto niya. I drew a shaky breath and I was quite relieved that I didn't break down in front of them.

Nakita ko naman sa peripheral vision ko si Jazer at tumabi siya sa akin habang nakatingin din sa parents ko na paakyat sa kwarto nila.

"This is hard," I muttered as a stifled a sob.

"You did well," he said to reassure me but instead, his words broke my façade.

Looking at her frail figure, I realized it was time to accept the truth. She wasn't the mother I knew anymore, and I wasn't the same daughter she wanted to hug more before. My real mother died along with her memories and that woman was nothing but an empty vessel.

That was the reality I dreaded the most. The reality that I had to face everyday.



***