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Published fiction—weird fiction.
Short story published in the anthologies Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 4 (2009) and The Best of Philippine Speculative (2012)

by Jose Elvin Bueno
A burning mountain of refuse separates the town from the city, a fire from never-ending embers feeding on the forgotten and the discarded, the rotting and the dead, spewing smoke so black it seems to smudge the night sky as it balloons and billows heavenward.

Under the moonlight thats made paler by the blaze stands Lukas, the boy with a mango tree growing out of his stomach, bearing fruits on branches that have sprouted from both his ears. Asleep on the road is Luna, the girl with a thousand winged lice in her hair that can fly and transport her anywhere, except to the city.

While Lukas is grateful that the nearby fire hides the stench of decay, it also deceives him about the passage of time; its dancing flames and waving fumes rob him of a proper view of the sky, casting everything in an orange glow. Lukas has no idea whether the sun will be coming out soon. Already, he's getting hungry and the weight of the tree in his stomach doesn't help. He remembers their last meal, and when his mouth waters he pushes the thought out of his mind in shame, although he doesnt understand why.

Luna stirs in her sleep and Lukas sits by the asphalt and rubs her shoulder with his left hand. He uses his other hand to comb her long hair where a few lice flutter their wings. Lukas hopes that she's dreaming. In a moment, he, too, sleeps until the first few rays of the sun have pushed back the shadows. The road to the city beckons but he stays still, not wanting to disturb Luna.

We are the last ones, he tells himself. We might as well wait just a little bit more.
* * *
The earliest talk about the city came in hushed tones.

Lukas learned about it in the kitchen, well after the first time he experienced hunger. There's always food, I heard some say, and we dont need to ever hunt or plant. Lukas's mother forced the words out in between short, labored breaths. The fruits on the kitchen table were as wrinkled and blemished as her face, while the smoked meat was as loose as her sagging skin.

Eat your share, his father commanded, when he noticed Lukas paying more attention to the conversation than to the food. And when he stood up and walked away, Lukas could see that he was still stooping—the posture of a blacksmith bent like the metals hammered on his forge—as if he couldn't wait to rest in the earth below.

Lukas then ate his meal, including the few pieces his mother dropped from her plate onto his. She always did that no matter how scanty their food was, telling him that he needed it since he was growing a mango, stroking the young branch protruding from his left ear. She held his face in her hands, tracing his wide forehead down to his narrow eyebrows and eyes, fingers kneading his cheekbones, memorizing the contour of his small nose, and finally cupping a palm over his thin lips.

Do you want more? his mother asked, and because Lukas knew that there wasn't any more until the next harvest, if
there would even be a next harvest, he lied that he was already full.

Outside, he could still hear his parents whispering about the new land as he played with his
kapre, whose fragrant tobacco stirred his hunger once more. Lukas sat on his lap until he fell asleep, the kapre blowing circles of smoke toward his ear to help the mango grow.

* * *   
They met each other the day Lukas's parents went into the city.

Since dawn, Lukas had been following his father and mother on the road until they reached the dump site where they saidt heir goodbyes. By that time, he was still crying even though tears no longer fell. He pleaded in a hoarse voice, screeching out of his raw throat for them all just to stop and go home.

We'll just be a minute to see it and we'll be back before you know it. His mother was already fixing her sight on the road ahead.

We'll bring you lots of food, and we will never go hungry again. Take care of your mango and wait for us. His father was looking up at the thick, sluggish smoke as it lazily tainted the blue sky. Lukas wailed and the tears flowed once more.He tasted salt and snot on his lips, and when he wiped his eyes, he saw that his parents were gone.

They won't ever come back.

Lukas saw a girl younger than himself sitting by the roadside, face masked by grime, with big, shiny eyes that betrayed the doom she had just pronounced. She smiled, flashing her buck teeth,and Lukas thought of a rat, and he laughed and cried and laughed again like a lunatic.

My parents never did, the girl continued, and Lukas wailed louder. She left him for a few minutes, walking underneath the gate of smoke, testing the limits of the invisible border between their old town and the strange city. Unmindful of the burning offal that assaulted the nose, she jumped once, twice, thrice, each time going higher into the air but always landing gracefully. When she hopped back to him in a single stride, Lukas saw that she was getting some help.

Luna, with my thousand winged lice, she introduced herself.

LuLukas, he sobbed.

Luna then begged to go with him, saying she didnt want to sleep on the road again for the third night. The two orphans went home, Luna carrying Lukas in the air across three rivers, seven rice fields, and nine hills.
* * *
According to Luna, the first to disappear were the

Her very own
aswang, the one that had taught her lice to fly as soon as they sprouted wings, suddenly vanished one night when murmurs about the city started to circulate.

That was even before the hunger came, so we just assumed that she had some accident. Or that maybe she ran away with a mate. They were sharing their first meal in their first moonfull. She peeled a papaya, still green with barely a hint of orange, and divided it three ways.

How about you,
Kapre? Will you ever go? she asked while handing him the biggest piece, not for his appetite but because he risked his hide to bring food to the table.

What would be the need? The city is already coming to our town. People are now chasing me with their
bolos for a couple of fruits, imagine that, he bellowed, the smell of tobacco filling the kitchen.

And you, Luna, will you go? Lukas paused, leaving his share untouched despite the rumbling in his stomach.
Aside from each other, all we need is five meals a day. So why would I do that? And she caressed his two fruits that had just begun turning yellow.

Unsure of what her answer meant, Lukas bit into the unripe fruit, his tongue searching for sweetness that never came.

* * *   
The hunger started to spread when, after the a
swangs and the tikbalangs, the kapres and the manananggals had disappeared, the farmers and the fishers started to go to the city.

His parents started bringing Lukas along as they chased wild boars that were getting scarcer with every hunt. When the day came that nothing could be caught, they settled for giant frogs and baby salamanders hiding in the untilled rice farms.

That night, the unfamiliar land was no longer whispered of in the kitchen, as it had become as real as their empty stomachs. In between bites, his parents counted off their neighbors who were already gone.

The city is killing us. His father spat the word out with a bone from either the frog or the lizard, Lukas couldn't really tell.

After the meal, it took him awhile to locate his
kapre. Searching frantically in the moonlit darkness, Lukas was afraid for a moment that he had also left. A flicker of his lit tobacco revealed him in one of the highest branches of the acacia in their backyard.

What's that fire? Lukas asked, after he'd been pulled off the ground and they had settled on a lower branch.
Burning garbage, exhaled the
kapre, resignation mingling with the smoke. I heard the city produces a lot of trash.

Father said it will kill us. Will we die of hunger?

No. Not yet. Not until the songstress and the seers and the storytellers have gone.

* * * 
And then came the day when the new territory had lured everyone except the three of them.      

The rivers and the hills and the fields they had to themselves, but every yield amounted to nothing except snails foraged from the few rivulets still out of reach of the city's effluence.

Luna, high above with her floating hair as she scouted for wild animals, saw nothing each time but the emptiness and the smoke. Even the frogs and the lizards had gone away.

Kapre started to forgo his share, giving it back to them, finally leaving it on the table when neither Lukas nor Luna would touch it. He pretended not to hear their pleas to come down as he puffed his tobacco up in his favorite tree.

* * * 
Moonfull after moonfull was spent hoping rather than hunting.

On the way home, while crossing a paddy where grass instead of grains had grown in the cracks of the dried mud, they saw a
bangungot. He was wounded, resting his bulk on a pile of decaying rice stalks from one of the town's last harvests.

What happened? Were you able to come back from the city? They were torn between helping him first or asking their questions immediately.
Bangugot's gasps and moans prioritized the need for answers.

I... never made it... Lenor... he and he abruptly stopped, lips ready to drink the water Luna gave him from one of the rivulets that no longer irrigated the fields, pouring a mouthful from a coconut shell.

Lenor... the boy with the... the wound that spills his meals, 
Bangungot continued, only to interrupt himself as he vomited out the water.

What about Lenor?  Lukas prodded him, hoping that anotherboy like him might still be alive.

In the city... he stopped... dre... dreaming. I... felt it... dreamt it too... his intestines healed... his wounds closed... no... no longer Lenor.
Bangugot choked on every word.

Cradling his big, heavy head in her arms, Luna asked if he could make her a dream of the city.

It will kill him, said
Kapre, with no hint of caution or reproach.

I... can,
Bangungot replied, with what would be the last of his breaths.

* * * 
In Luna's dream, they are in the city.

They've always believed that the new place takes away everything that makes them who they are, so the two of them have started walking instead of flying, since they passed over the fiery border by the landfill.

Lukas is distracted by his fruits, always straining both eyes, willing them to turn toward his sides to get a glimpse of the mangoes that bob with his every step. Luna herself is half-skipping,half-walking with her hair bouncing lazily, and she wonders if, just like her one thousand lice, Lukas, too, gets to keep his two youngsters.

Maybe, just maybe, the townsfolk are wrong; maybe they can be in the city and still be themselves.
They arrive at what they think is the city center, where they find that everyone is grown up, busy, and always in a hurry.

They look around but see no children that could have come from the town. There are neither boys whose meals perpetually spill out of open wounds nor girls whose heads are forever covered with pots.

With nobody minding them, they roam the streets, scaling its steel and glass mountains, crossing its car and locomotive rivers, navigating its asphalt and cement ravines without noticing the sun until it is already getting dark; and while the people are nowhere near thinning, Lukas and Luna can feel their absence.

And then they get separated among the massof strangers, within the maze of concrete in the place they have yet to set foot in.

In the dream, Luna sees that she is trapped in a dark alley, forever going in circles; and when she tries to fly, all she can manage is to jump a few inches.

In the dream, Luna sees Lukas crouching down by one of the trash cans in hunger, and when he picks his fruits to eat them, the mangoes that he holds in his hands are shriveled and moldy.
* * *
True to
Kapre's words, the hunger starts to kill them when—without the songstress and the seers and the storytellers to remind them of who they are—they start to forget.

Luna can barely fly anymore, her lice no longer obeying her, their two thousand useless wings making her hotheaded most of the time. She has forgotten how to will them to take her where she wants to go.

Lukas's ripening fruits, now getting heavier and more yellow, seem meaningless and cumbersome. He has started wondering why he has a tree growing in his stomach.

Kapre has kept his distance from the two of them, silently smoking his cigar in a different tree far away from their backyard.

Their five meals a day have long since dwindled to a single meal, sometimes even less, and Lukas fears that they won't last until the next moonfull before they forget everything and head for the city.

* * *
Something wakes them from a dreamless sleep, the fitful slumber of the starving.

The feeble light of the moon, a quarter of it still hiding from their eyes, gives them a glimpse of something feral trying to force its way into their house. It speaks in snarls, circling them. Tobacco escapes its nose as it sniffs the air.

One of its long, hairy limbs grabs a branch of the nearest tree, propelling it out of sight; and for a moment Lukas thinks it has gone away, only to hear it land loudly on the roof.

Luna shrieks, her hair lifting her a foot or so as her lice flap and flail in panic before she slams down, falling on her knees.

A thatch of
nipa has been detached and the creature is already reaching for Luna with an open, salivating mouth. Lukas, having snatched up a hammer from his father's rusting forge, hesitates.

Something about the eyes of the hairy beast replaces Lukas's anger with discomfort, but before it can transform into recognition, Luna shrieks a second time and he swings the hammer upward with all his might, cracking open its skull.

* * * 
Without him ever leaving his town, the strange land has taken

* * *
For the first time in moonfulls, Lukas and Luna are certain that four other meals will follow their breakfast in the morning. And because they know that the meat they've just smoked will run out sooner or later, they agree to head for the city when that day finally comes. The things that they're not sure of are what they should do with Luna's one thousand itchy lice and Lukas's two ripening mangoes.

A story published in Philippine Graphics Magazine (2009)



Jose Elvin Bueno
A couple hunched under a small umbrella already being threatened by Habagat's wind braves the downpour.

Their gaits are syncopated, never quite falling into a cadence despite the distance they have walked. The man uses his bulk to shield the woman from the sheets of rain that make it past the useless cover and in the darkness, the frail woman almost blends with the shadows. Only the bundle she is carrying—a white cloth that used to be a flour sack—indicates her presence and despite being so weary and hurting, she considers the heavy rainfall a blessing. It only takes a deluge to loosen the grip of Martial Law and at this unholy hour she is grateful that they have not yet encountered any checkpoint controlled by the Philippine Constabulary.

A gust of wind hauling with it the stench of floating garbage from Pasig River and the smell of baking bread from Binondo slaps her, rain mixing with her tears and she doesn't sob for fear of waking her baby, instead, she keeps her blurred vision on where they are going, so very close now as she reminds herself that the last thing they need is unnecessary attention.

The same wind uproots the umbrella from the man's handand he lets go after a second's hesitation to run after it. Then, he guides her towards Quiapo Church and they walk a bit faster across the open courtyard towards the canopied entrance like lost strangers seeking shelter.

Lightning flashes and before their eyes can adjust to the momentary blindness, the deafening sound of thunder. An electric heaviness hangs in the air, the lightning has struck very near. In her arms, the baby wiggles and yawns.

Hurry, the patrol might pass by, the man whispers although he thinks that the police might not even be in the precincts at this weather with the Plaza Miranda Bombing already nine years into oblivion. The woman very gently lays what she's carrying in her arms onto the granite steps, unfastening a knot from a layer that exposes the baby's still bloody face and the man looks heavenward and fixes his gaze at the church's left steeple, straining his eyes to get a glimpse of the clocks.

The woman says nothing, whimpers her words away and in a moment, the baby cries and so she takes it to her bosom one last time until it falls asleep to the melody of her humming that is mostly stifled sobs.
The baby finally lets go and the woman places it once more on the steps of the church whose foundations were laid some four centuries ago, built by the brawn of newly converted natives under the sign of the cross and the sigil of the King of Spain.

She picks up one of the wax-smelling cardboard boxes littering the steps and props it beside the baby to keep the winds at bay and despite not being entirely religious, she crosses herself and mumbles a quick prayer before getting up. She looks back and sees Liwanag candles lettered on its sides and in the dark, she reads more of its hopeful significance than its manifest irony.

The woman then rests her thin frame underneath the arm of her companion and she lets him drag her away, past the only witnesses of their deed—the mute statues of the ever-watchful San Pedro and San Juan—into the piazza and finally towards Hidalgo Street where torrential tears fall once more to rival the fury of the rain.

* * *

Tuesdays are the deadest of days at Sa Guijo Café +Bar as its weekends are observed on Sundays and Mondays. Aptly enough, Tuesdays are Goth Night when bands slated to play have names with words like tears or wake or crimson or decay rendered with dark iconographies of candles, cauldrons, crosses, and coffins.

On Tuesdays, Sa Guijo Café + Bar—which reallyis neither a café nor a bar but two houses with its partition torn down to accommodate a low stage cramped with amps, speakers, microphones and stands, a drumset and an assortment of cables and jacks as well as the requisite eight tables—becomes alive with death's little fanboys and fangirls. This particular Tuesday at this nondescript place of two-story apartments tucked anonymously in the warehouse district of San Antonio Village in Makati simply called Sa Guijo by music lovers and alcohol worshippers alike, two strangers, neither of them quite Goth, meet.

Rafaela is the first to arrive and as she walks towards the rusty iron gate hinged on a concrete wall painted with the face of our national hero with his anachronistic Ray-Ban aviator shades and Bose noise-cancelling headphones, the indispensable sound check is blaring from the speakers. Tendrils of a guitars whine undulate with tentacles of a singer's wail as the two slither out the wooden door covered with stickers and posters promoting album releases, energy boosters, outdoor adventures, alcoholic drinks, subversive publications, filter cigarettes, and dubious charities among want ads for unsigned bands hopefully looking for a person to be one of these: bass, guitar, drum, keyboard, vocals as a final member to kick-start a dream aimed at securing a record deal and achieving superstardom; and a design house desperately seeking for a person to be all of these: illustrator, animator,graphic artist, motion director, web designer as an intern to help finish a huge, confidential project with an impending deadline. Both demanding ads conveniently forget remuneration, even in the fine print.

And while it is very early into the night with the sun still casting feeble rays that shone defiantly against the blackness already pockmarked by a few twinkling stars, the balding, black-clad bouncer slash waiter slash parking attendant everybody calls Manong is already manning the entrance, ready with the rubber stamp pad and complimentary drink stubs.

Rafaela stalls and sits down at the wooden bench that used to be a trunk of an ancient Acacia and lights a Camel after she realizes that the talismanic words I'm with the band will neither work tonight nor ever again. To clarify, she has never been with a band, the band or any band. But Marko, her ex, is a vocalist and he gets her to all of his bands shows. As he's the one who submits their guests, she's always in the checklist under assumed names such as Steven Segal, Chuck Norris, and Sho Kusugi. She would have settled for Cynthia Rothrock but he always insists on these male aliases and who is she to argue when she is nothing but... what? A groupie? That would be flattering both the band and herself, although what a groupie does is exactly what she is doing, fucking the band and getting in for free. So she has to pay tonight, debating herself on the practicality of spending precious pesos that she should be saving until her pay arrives. If, and when it arrives, she corrects herself, then she remembers that she got fired again from her last job. But because she knows that she must confront this place as well as every memory of Marko she decides that she might as well pay the cover for what it's goddamn worth. Every successful goodbye comes with a price after all.

Rafaela stares at the wall, artificially aged like a movie set with painted cracks and hints of bricks and vines dangling one-dimensionally from nowhere. Everything is pretense, she thinks and in the span of a single cigarette, she went through the whole five stages of grief all over again and acceptance only came when all the mental curses directed towards Marko and his shitty, stupid metal band has been unleashed. It was a victory this time with neither tears boiling up her eyes nor snot running down her nose so she decides to reward herself with another stick.

We really have a Goth scene here? A hoarse voice from someone who's been smoking too much or just unaccustomed to speaking. The really was spoken as a part of the sentence, not as a punctuation like yeah! and ohmygod! and ican'tbelieve! the entire arsenal of Ayala girls who can carry a conversation by just a permutation of all these. Rafaela, judging from the stranger's faded jeans, ratty shirt and well-worn Chucks, decides that this one, despite her painfully thin frame and Catholic schoolgirl face, is a grrrl.

Ooops...sorry it's my first time here, she adds with a voice a little lower as she unplugs her iPhone's white headset.

Rafaela can feel Jose Rizal staring at her through his UV shades as she stares at this chick who's now staring back at her. A face devoid of angles and corners but neither round nor chubby and her short hair parted in the middle accentuates the symmetry of her face, cheekbones beyond prominence, eyes, nose and mouth in all the right sizes and the right places and thin lips that double her charm whenever she smiles, no doubt about that.

It's my last time here, she somehow manages to say. Years spent behind fast food counters, parking lot kiosks, convenience store registers, and industrial coffeemakers hasn't taught her shit about carrying on a polite conversation, as do the time she's done onstage of a dozen strip bars, although she can do a trick or two with her mouth. Instead, what she's learned was not to suffer morons in a hurry with a bad temper. She smiles as she remembers when she hung up her bright barista apron and her little, frilly hat in the manager's closet of an office in the middle of a mall's after-office rush. Nobody knew that the last coffee she served, a cold cappuccino, got something extra aside from the whipped cream: her spit.

May I? The girl smiles back at Rafaela as she sits by her side fumbling inside her black, nylon backpack and Rafaela notices a wrist-scarred left hand holding a lighter as the unblemished right hand finally finds a fresh pack of Marlboro reds. Yes, she got the slicing right, parallel to the veins and all but Rafaela knows that the other would complete the story. A kindred spirit, she decides, praying that maybe tonight might turn out okay after all.

Sure. Oh, and I'm Rafaela. She then volunteers her name as an attempt at being civilized knowing that the girl is not actually asking for her permission.

Deirdra. The namerolls out of her tongue with velvety finesse together with the deep blue smoke she's just exhaled. The nicotine and her breath tease Rafaela's nose for a bit before being snatched by the smell of garlic, onions, soy sauce and pork fat wafting from the dirty kitchen whose door is always open, the aroma now disturbing and awakening the emptiness of her stomach.

 Like the Yeats play? Rafaela asks, remembering the time in the very distant past when she has books and CDs and a home plus a father and a mother too.

U-hum. Except that my name ends in an a. Someone made a mistake at the Municipal Registry and when my parents found out, it was already too late and they never bothered tocorrect it.

The sound check ends. To welcome the early crowd dressed in mourning clothes unfit for the tropics—Victorian garb complete with weeping veils, top hats, and walking sticks—someone had the brilliant idea to play a song by Frente! The remake about opening one's heart and letting the sunshine in.

I usually hate any other sound after work but I think I am going to like this place, Deirdra laughs.

When the bubbly song was abruptly euthanized, Manong tries to wave Rafaela in for free but she declines, ordering their drinks instead.

Red Horse? Still buy one, take one. Knowing her poison of choice, he directs his inquiry to Deirdra with a raised eyebrow. She freezes and frowns and after a few seconds she nods back and asks whether they have calamari.

Rafaela was already halfway on her first bottle but Deirdra seem to be content just looking at her beer, watching bubbles float to the surface and condensation trickle down the side. Twice she tried picking the bottle up only to put it down again. The first set starts as their second beer and the fried squid arrive. Electric guitar and drums that are mostly snares unleashing ten-minute grinds with no vocals and discernible intros, verses, chorus, bridges and refrains.

No wonder he never takes his headphones off, Dierdra reminds Rafaela of the national hero's portrait.

True! So, about what you said earlier? And Rafaela's already listing her guesses as to Deirdra's job: usherette at a cinema, teacher at a small multimedia arts school, IT at a hotel, photographer's assistant, triggerman of the New People's Army Sparrow Unit, webmistress and pro-blogger of a smut site, bitch of a corporate top dog whose kink is scrawny little chicks.

What did I say earlier? Deirdra again stops her bottle in mid-air. Worry spills out of her big eyes and her narrow nose twitches ever so slowly as if sorting out her puzzlement by sniffing it out.

About no other sound after work?

Deirdra catches herself then and she smiles broadly, thin lips rearranging her face once more to something carefree and very much into the moment. The beer finally finds her lips and after a long gulp, Of course I said that. Ah. What I mean is, I spend most of the time holed up in a studio and the last thing I would want to do after is listen to more sound... or noise.

Are you a musician? Genuinely interested now as Rafaela forages for the last bent stick of her stale Camels.

Excuse me, maam, any last order for Happy Hour? A waitress this time as Manong is busy at the entrance stamping in two cosplaying boys dressed in an exclusive school girl's uniform, Britney Spears but with shorter skirts.

Same of these, but make it two. Rafaela downs her bottle to the last drop and adds to the departing girl, So that's four but please bring it two at a time. Thanks.

Do you drive? From Deirdra as she lights another Marlboro.

No. And depending how the night goes, I might not have enough money for a cab, too. Anyway, so, a musician?

Engineer. I put some science to any sound before it hits the airwaves as records, commercials, mostly commercials, though I've done some films too.

Really? Sounds fun. And well-paid too, which Rafaela keeps to herself.

Trust me, it's boring. And you?

A couple of bottles arrive with their happy hour bill that Deirdra snatches before Rafaela can take a look.
Here. And we still have a round, right? Deirdra reminds the waitress handing her a crisp five hundred peso bill. Rafaela tries to shove a few twenties into her hand, but Deirdra shakes them off with a suggestion, no hurry, there's always the round after next.

A hush falls until all that's left is the muffled murmur of the crowd then a new set starts, a duo of vocals and piano and Rafaela makes a guess that it's a one-woman band. She excuses herself and takes a piss at the restroom inside the bar. The 50-watt incandescent bulb casts everything with a hepatitis glow including her face, which, to Rafaela, looks like someone older, what her real mother would probably look right now if she knew her. Hell, her mother would even look younger than her right now, she thinks, her tired, baggy eyes mocking her. Her upper lip that's a bit curvy on the left forming a permanent smirk morphs into a snarl and she stares at herself, wanting to win it. Don't even try entertaining these shitty little self-pities. Just survive the day and the next and the next after that as you have done before, she calms herself as she splashes tap water on her face. The cold water adrenalizes her and the snarl relaxes into a smile and she ponytails her hair feeling a bit younger despite what she sees on the mirror.

On the way out, she thinks of scribbling the line but I love music more to a doodle on the wall showing a penis with a thought bubble that reads I love pussy. After trying to carve the words with her lighter, she stops on the second letter and smiles. Its the thought that counts, she thinks. Then she questions herself, am I a deep thinker?

Coming out from the bathroom, Rafaela sees that it is indeed a lone woman on the keyboard and for a moment, the poster of Kurt Cobain with his guitar almost blends into her presence as if he wants to jam with her and she remembers that time onstage with the song Smells Like The Teen Spirit and how she drove the crowd wild and now she wonders whether the alcohol has started to kick in.

Finally, she wades her way out of the mass of morose androgynes, death's legion of fans in their make up and eyeliner only to find Marko drinking Red Horse by the door and holding the last thing she wants to see: a Nescafe jar haphazardly wrapped in a black plastic bag.    

* * *

Deirdra almost looked orward to being able to leave early this day compared to when she clocked out at 10 oclock in the evening yesterday, a monotonous Monday.

Half-day? Same question as always from the receptionist and creative traffic, this industry joke already losing its steam of irony and Deirdra smiles instead of answering, willing the silence of the recording booth to follow her.    

She pauses at the parking lot a few meters from the common hall of Mile Long Building, a whitewashed, green-gilded, three story corridor of concrete offices housing SounDesign among other businesses. Inside the car, she rolls down her window and lights a cigarette replaying the day in her mind: clocking in at ten thirtyish, coffee and cigarette before going inside the studio, office email, cueing the video ofa television commercial for voice-over recording, recording of two talents, dubbing of good takes on a CD, a phone call from a producer for a favor about cutting another version of an audio shooting guide A-S-A-fucking-P, a delayed lunch break, a laying in of soundtrack to another ad, a recording for a radio ad, another email check and then the voice whose timing, after all the years it has been absent couldn't have been more perfect.

Don't tell me you have forgotten me. Because I haven't forgotten you.

Deirdra hears the voice loud and clear and in the stillness of the empty studio where even the airconditioning unit doesnt make a sound, it is as chilly as the air, all around and everywhere at once even though she knows that it is just inside her head.

She remembers her pills and looks at the digital clock on the Mac monitor, how can it be four already and she washes her meds down, all four of them in different colors and sizes and dosages, with cold coffee that nearly spills on her Fight Club shirt.

Try harder, my dear Deirdra.

And she spills th ecoffee then, staining the graphic print of soap and suds and making its faded cloth a darker black, near freezing in its coldness but feels scalding on herskin nonetheless as it seeps through her shirt into her nipple.

Shuuuuuttt uuuppp! She shouts as loudly and lengthily as she could, confident in the double door safety of the recording booth.

Silence until she plays something on the speakers, royalty-free sound effects from the studio's library and a series of a hundred watt canned laughter assaults her, mocking her cowardice and she abruptly switches it off.

She brings her mug and heads for the washroom dabbing her shirt with warm water from the pantry and then she smokes in the parking lot, cursing the hot sun and Makati's anti-smoking ordinance. The studio has a well-ventilated smoking room for nicotine-dependent talents to steal a quick puff before they head off to the microphones but Deirdra doesnt want to take a chance with another roomful of silence.

Her hands finally settle after a second stick and maybe, she thinks, the damn meds are taking effect and now all she can hear are the faint beating of her heart and the engines of simmering jeepneys and cars in the late afternoon traffic at Amorsolo Street.

Inside once more and she squishes herself onto a bean bag at the lounge and stares at the muted TV tuned to HBO and she falls asleep for a moment but before the web of dreams involving octopi and squids can descend, loud laughter from someone at the reception wakes her. She walks groggily to her studio and plays a very faint Cinderella as she checks her email, hoping that a job order for an album recording would come in.

The song "TL Ako Sa Yo" plays and she wonders how Kitchie Nadal could fuck up such a beautiful song and she sighs as she logs in all her accomplishments for the day and sends the file off to creative traffic while watching a rerun of Anthony Bourdain on the flatscreen TV and surfing on the Mac.    

After a while, she forgets the voice and the time and when she looks at the Mac, the blinking colon declares it to be 6:49 PM and she logs out, shuts the machines down and packs her thing as the comforting hum of hard drives softly stops. She offs the thermostat and the lights and slings her backpack for the half-day joke at the reception area.

Now on her third consecutive cigarette at the parking lot on a busy Tuesday, she wonders whether it is a good idea to grab a drink or two after four long years of sobriety. Drinking never did stop the voice then, why would it stop it now? On the other hand, there would be the sleeping part to worry about and she can still recall where it landed her when the insomnia began, so many years ago. 

Deirdra locks theToyota, double checks it, and hails a taxi. Time for Happy Hour.

* * *

This one is a breeder. Will you let her get away?
Simultaneously, Rafaela asks Deirdra about something she has said earlier and all the happiness of the hour disappears with the two questions. She panics for a bit and while the alcohol is there to help, Rafaela clarifies what she meant.
A waitress interrupts her answer and Deirdra looks at the girl who, not so long ago looked snooty and dense, the kind that belongs in hotel lobbies or high-end malls, hanging out in prohibitive restaurants with the pretense of boredom that could only come from an imagined excess and a delusion of privilege. No, not this one who knew Yeats, and Deirdra decides that her earlier joke about running out of cab money is true, making a mental note of it including what she's wearing, an old shirt that's a bit big for her, and striped pants that are even older than her shirt, making her eight-eye Doc Martens sparkle.
Deirdra finally answers after the waitress has gone with their orders, carefully noting both her words and her hearing as the last thing she wants is to speak what the voice wants her to like some stupid dummy.
And fuck! The Red Horse never tasted so good.
Rafaela seems genuinely interested. Her eyes, despite the eyebags that break her angular face held proudly by prominent jawlines encourage Deirdra to tell more but she cuts her answer short. What could be more boring than an engineer?     
You might never get another chance like this.
And with Rafaela gone to the bathroom, the sound from whomever is performing seems very far away and Deirdra frantically looks for her headset from her jeans pocket. It has to be somewhere and when all she brings out are her keys and meds, she panics again, the alcohol in her stomach turning sour this early as it crawls up her palate, mixing with the heady smell of Kretek cigarettes a grieving widow and a dying bride are smoking near the gate.
Rafaela arrives looking more agitated than she is and Deirdra offers her a cigarette.
I have to go, and she leaves on the beer-stained and cigarette-burned bench the crumpled twenties she tried giving Deirdra earlier after thumbing one of her Marlboros. It's not enough, thinks Rafaela but what are newly-gained friendships for?
A lanky, long-haired man, every inch of him screaming stoner and as out of place as they are in jeans and shirt stops Rafaela and for a moment Deirdra is grateful that she's not the one to stop her. She finishes her beer and fidgets once more for her iPhone's headset as a domestic drama unfolds on the street.
Well just talk, okay?We can talk about this. The man's voice is calm without a trace of slur.
Talk? The way we talked the first time, the way we talked yesterday? You only talk with your—and before Rafaela can finish her sentence, all the calmness in the man's voice goes down with his gulp.
Here! Why don't youkeep our love child? Tossing the jar at Rafaela carelessly, about a foot short, and she half-stumbled to catch it.
I'm going home, Deirdra joins in, a little louder with her headset already blaring so even Rafaela and Marko can hear what she's playing.
Me too. From Rafaela who staggers closer to her.
Wolfgang, right? Marko points to his ears with both hands while looking at Deirdra. Arise?
Deirdra hesitates, debating with herself whether it's really be necessary to be polite, or to take sides, or would it be best to play deaf and dumb and be on her way but she sees the excitement in his eyes, curious eyes glazed by something organic and hooded by thick eyebrows forever frowning in a face half-covered in stubby hair. His big mouth slightly opens as if prompting her to reply.
Yes. And Deirdra heads for the corner. She looks back and sees Rafaela trailing her, a few steps behind and she stops as the voice makes her lose her footing.
That's it, take this one home and be done with it. This one is it. A breeder, too.
Deirda continues walking with a poise that only Red Horse can support and at Pasong Tamo, while waiting for a cab or a jeep, whichever would come first, she asks Rafaela what just happened to take away her mind from the voice.
That? We just broke up, nothing serious. It's done. Really. All he wants is to get me pregnant. And Rafaela laughs because thats'the first thing that came to her mind to stop herself from crying.
If you don't believe me, ask her to show you what's in the jar.
A moment of silence because Deirdra wants to avoid talking with the voice in her mind until a cab stops in front of them and when Deirdra offers to give her a lift, Rafaela begs off.
I'm just near Makati Cinema Square, I'll take a jeep.
Perfect, I live maybe four blocks away, as Deirdra waves the cab away, its acrid exhaust settling on them together with the driver's curses.
The next jeepney then, PRC-Pasong Tamo-MRT, and they exchange numbers when they get off at Don Bosco, Deirdra making sure that Rafaela's Sony Ericsson rings before saving it. Text me when you get home and call me if you need anything. Anything, okay? This, despite being sure that while Rafaela has a need too many, foremost on the list is a place she can sleep tonight.
Instead of an answer, Rafaela forces herself to smile before she walks away while Deirdra's gaze follows her as she traverses the road on a green light, an aimless walk towards the nearest street lamp like some cheap hooker on a slow night. Deirdra turns away then and gets a taxi because like Rafaela, she too lives nowhere in the area. She instructs the driver to go around the one-way block and when they pass by Makati Cinema Square again, she sees Rafaela inside Sinangag Express, a brightly lit, 24-hour tapa house, sitting by herself at the counter facing the road. Her gaze is fixed ather phone that she grips on one hand while the other grasps the jar.
Dierdra asks the driver to wait but after two red lights have come and gone he asks her whether she wants to get off or what, complaining that he can't meet his boundary with her sightseeing and the meter idling and so she tells him to go to where she parked her car.

* * *
Unlike her adoptive parents who went into hysteria, there is no shrieking involved when Rafaela first discovers her scar. Still a little girl and playing dress up using her mother's too big skirts and gowns and even her long pants, clothes that drown Rafaela when she steps into them, a maze of fabrics and finishes and a puzzle of straps and zippers, and she notices for the first time the faintest hint of fibrous tissue settled squarely at the base of her spine.
She touches it and looks at it through the mirror and sees something like her navel, only without the knot, just a stump really that feels hard to the touch.
During dinner with her parents that night Rafaela asks her mother about it, wanting to see hers too and all she gets for an answer is a serious talk about how decent little girls should not ask about such things and much more expose them. She's never seen them—this couple who came to Quiapo for a miracle after a decade of infertility and found one covered in spit and snot, sour milk and dried blood—this stern before and so she takes this lesson to heart, never, ever mentioning it again.

* * *
The fluorescent lights jab at Rafaela's retinas and already, she can feel a massive hangover assembling itself at the back of her skull. Any moment now, the throbbing will march towards her temples and settle in between her eyes and it would be like the end of the world again, only with vomiting and cursing in dimly-lit corners instead of a weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The smell of beef and oil makes her stomach rumble once again but she stays put on the hard plastic chair the color of bubble gum that's farthest from the counter. She strains her throbbing brain to remember the old man who, when he' the one on duty, gives her a meal on credit despite how many times she's failed to pay on time. Mang Goryo, she remembers now and the time dancing at D Boss two blocks away comes unbidden with the name and she wonders whether there are still some friends she could meet up with, fellow GROs—the greenhorns by the time she retired or was forced into retirement because as the madam once said, you are getting too old for a freak show—who for old time's sake might even let her spend whatever is left of the night. Another glance at the counter and of course Mang Goryo isn't there, instead, two teens are attending to the orders, including the one that gave her a suspicious look as soon as she walked in.     
She flicks her phone open, checking Deirdra's number once, twice, then settles on deleting Marko's messages, mostly stupid,vulgar jokes, and when a couple enters, she goes with them towards the counterand casually grabs the free soup by the condiments.
The warmth and the oil settle her stomach for a bit and she wishes that Deirdra was here. She corrects that thought and wishes instead that shes swallowed her pride just like the old times because she knows that swallowing one's pride almost always leads to swallowing warm food and so she stares at Deirdra's number again. Of course she just tried to be polite, Rafaela scolds herself before locking the phone and stashing it in her jeans front pocket.

Then the plastic containing the jar rustles—

 —and she flinches and lets go as if shes just touched something burning. Or something repulsive.

It's just the electric fan, she thinks, but after awhile, she pulls the knot of the bag tighter and keeps her distance a bit.
She takes a look at her surroundings, noting that the couple is almost done and she sees that the girl has two pieces of tapa and half a cup of rice left and she tells herself that yes, it has come to this once again and who was she fooling all of this fucking time. Years as a runaway before she became a dancer have made her survive on this, other people's leftovers, plated on food court tables on gooddays and plastic-wrapped in garbage bins on bad days. She gambles a furtive glance at the teenager behind the counter who meets her eyes like he has been watching her all along.
While waiting for thecouple to leave, Rafaela thinks of her parents, her real parents, her flesh and blood, the very same ones who conceived her and then later abandoned her the day she was born and, despite what happened earlier, she holds the jar tighter, unmindful of the rustling of the bag.    

* * *

Deirdra starts talking too early for a child her age. All the usual words, Mama and Papa, milk and sleep, poop and pee, at the unusual age of six months after she was born. She didn't go through monosyllabic baby talk, propelling herself to complete sentences come another six months, and for her first birthday, she is already joining the chorus that her parents were singing as she blows the lone candle on a very big cake.

Her mother is always extra careful of her language,vnever a curse even during her weekend card games with friends, watching not only what she is saying but of her fellow housewives' language as well, especially when the alcohol has been flowing for a bit. This, after Deirdra played back a sentence full of expletives at the dining table one night.

She has a gift for language, I must say. Her father accentuates his admiration of the talent of their only child with a laugh.

A year before preschool and Deirdra starts talking to herself, and both her parents assume it's just an imaginary friend, her being an only child and all.

Does your friend have a name? Her mother asks her after Deirdra's monologue dragged on for months. It's really getting into her, giving her the slightest of goosebumps every time she catches her daughter talking to no one in an empty room. Whispers in the night were the most difficult of all, especially when her husband is holed up in the office and she is left by herself to listen to her daughter's words, and so she politely asks her to be introduced.

There's no name and he... she... it is not my friend, either, Deirdra answers, looking at her with puzzled eyes, as if she might be a bit unhinged, asking stupid questions even five year old kids know the answers to.

Then who are you talking to? And a fear that she has already forgotten for so long now stirs in her mind,  a rumor in the family grapevine that someone in their bloodline has lost his or her mind, an aunt or some such distant branch in the family tree, but carrying their bloodnonetheless.

My guardian angel. Deirdra replies in three words, erasing all doubts about her sanity and restoring her innocence once more.

Oh, that's good, sweetheart. Now, what does the angel tell you?

It wants me to find a demon.

* * *

Two traffic violations later—speeding and beatingthe red light—Deirdra is at the tapa place where she finds Rafaela trailing with her eyes a couple who has just left as she spoons oiled saltwater with a lonely slice of spring onions. Grease and burnt beef and body odor mingle, a strong mix with the taste of beer still in her tongue and she orders two spicy tapa meals for both of them.

I was just about to call... Rafaela attempts an uncalled for explanation and Deirdra shushes her and they eat their meal in silence except for the heartfelt advices of Dr Love on an AM station played so low that they can hear the crisp, unmistakable sound of flies being electrocuted by the violet zapper located above the faded posters of Masbate cowboys wrangling bulls and posing in fences of ranches.
Another round of Red Horse? Deirdra asks over cigarettes.
Can we get some Red Bull first? Rafaell=a replies, already on her feet and cradling the jar with both hands.
On the way back to SaGuijo, Deirdra tries her best to sound as spontaneous as she could when she asks, what's inside the plastic bag. Rafaela keeps her silence and Deirdra doesnt know if she should be grateful or not, although the years of torment that lie ahead from hearing the voice again is scaring her shitless.
I guess I could show you... Rafaela's voice trails off when they've parked at the empty lot paved with gravel right beside the bar. She leads Deirdra towards the toilet near the gate holding her hand and letting her in first, ignoring the looks of two Goth chicks doing their best to get drunk on a bottle of Cerveza Negra.
Inside, when Rafaela finally opens the Nescafe jar, Deirdra averts her eyes after a second, resting it on the wall of graffiti instead, searching for meaning in the scrawled words fame makes you weak, to take her reeling mind off from what she has just seen.
Floating in formaldehyde inside the jar is a fetus. Curled up, big head, complete set of fingers and toes, closed eyes.

And an appendage that is undeniably a tail. A tail that ends in a spade.
Deirdra attempts a second look, and that's when she vomited until she tasted bile, already squirming inside her now empty stomach.

* * *

For years, after all the therapies and the pills,the restraints and the syringes, the basement of their split level house is where Deirdra spends most of her time. That it is another basement like the one in Makati Medical Center didn't matter anymore. She knows that there is no getting away from it all, from herself, or from the voice, but the confines and the quiet of the place is sometimes comforting. And the darkness, the total darkness when the night comes make it easy for her to pretend that she is sleeping. She's lost track of counting the days and the months since she last slept, since she last dreamt.
Her back is on a piece of dusty foam pulled from a crib containing a rusty training bike that has long been forgotten in a corner. It might have been her crib once upon a time although she doesn't really remember sleeping in there, wondering how she could have ever fit, if ever. Her only place is the unoccupied area thats needed so that the door can swing inward, giving her just enough space to fold her legs and brace it shut. The rest are strewn with junk crammed all the way to the walls and the ceiling that are the bedroom's floor. The fading light slices through the low windows that are leveled with the ground outside and with the weakening rays, Deirdra reads Dr. Seuss Horton Hears a Who, her latest treasure unearthed under stacks of vinyl records resting on a wooden AKA turntable. Deirdra can see specks of dust floating as she breathes and she wills her eyes to find which of these tiny little planet's is home to Whoville.
Deirdra hears av oice.

The voice mocks her and now she remembers this particular story and why this book got to be locked up in this junk room, like the main character Horton. 
Tell me again what is it that you want, Deirdra asks although she already knows the answer, has long since known what the voice has promised should she only give in to the whispers in her ears that's spoken by a voice in her head. But this time, she means the question. It is where her madness started after all and she wants to be reminded before she ends it.
I want you to find me a demon... the voice replies and goes on with what Deirdra should do when she finds one.
And do you promise to go away if I do that? Would you go away forever? The same question asked and answered a thousand times but the weight of the words Deirdra hears is comforting, a lullaby that cradled her to sleep, a recompense for all the sleepless nights she has suffered.
But when she wakes up, all that Deirdra could do to end it all is commit a half-assed suicide that leaves a shameful scar on her left wrist and nothing more.

* * *

The fresh air is a relief when she is finally able to stumble out the toilet. The last set is about to begin and Manong waves them both in, whispering to Rafaela like a co-conspirator that Marko has already left. They order their beers at the cash bar and listen to some unknown band trying to be Black Tape For A Blue Girl sing songs of longing and loneliness, regret and wretchedness and on this Tuesday that has already spilled into Wednesday, Rafaela wonders whether she should whore herself out to her new-found friend while Deirdra questions whether she should kill this stray and, in the words of the voice, be done with it.

I am not mad and I can silence the voice, Deirdra thinks, as she finishes her beer. She touches Rafaela with her icy hands and when their eyes meet, Deirdra wishes the angel won't forget what was promised.
Finally, the music exits with a whimper and then silence enters unannounced. When the last of the Goths have gone away with their costumes and affectations, Deirdra heads home with Rafaela asleep on her car just as the bells from Sacred Heart Church peal loudly from a block away.

The jar in the plastic bag rustles from the backseat and Deirdra tries her best to ignore it, focusing her mind instead on the sunbeams starting to chase the shadows and silhouettes at Sa Guijo Café + Bar after playing host once again to death's Tuesday group.