Are you satisfied? Ma asks. Her palms are dusted with speckled snow, finely-grated grains that sit heavy on the hand. I am not. My stomach sits like the extracted egg yolks simmering in rose-flavored wine, acidic in its neurotic nature. Molding mooncakes should come easily to people like us, people who massage the dirt for gold, palms unfamiliar with paper’s grimy edges. I knead the dough. Await the eclipse. There are crescents lodged under the whites of my fingernails. Ma has a look of waning distaste, forehead wrinkled into the raised ridges of calligraphed characters. A permanent stamp. Her arms are sore from years of labor, grinding lotus seeds into a sticky paste, plowing until ragged lines grow dark with age. She tells me I’ll be like that, too. It must be trouble-free living on the moon, golden goddess with a pet hare, and I find myself dreaming about a home in a crater. Dream-me lives in a marbled manor with silk tapestries, drinking out of a stolen goblet of elixir. But our East Coast suburban neighborhood isn’t that. I live in a floating box, not like the moon with her pulsing vocation, but a car that steers through the I-86 without an ending. The popcorn ceiling reeks of mold, the four-seat sedan is too cramped, and I want to fly on a spaceship. Ma is right — I sit in a vehicle sinking in salt waves.
On the first night, Margot calls her parents from the balcony. The evening is warm and its moonlight softer than the fluorescence of her new room. Back home in Gothenburg it is still dinner time, and her mother asks excitedly about her roommates, her friends, the thread count of her sheets. Through the glass door of the balcony, one of her roommates is already asleep, or pretending to be, and hasn’t moved from her bed since Margot arrived. Another is off somewhere, her unmade blankets prickling the back of Margot’s neck with an unfamiliar anxiety—how does she have a place to be already? She was not expecting a slumber party, but she wasn’t expecting this, either; this mundane disinterest that has settled into their room. Their fourth roommate will arrive in the morning, and Margot finds herself wishing that this one will be hers, as if it is already too late for the others: as if after these four indifferent hours on campus, the other two have somehow slipped out of her reach.
She tells her parents that everyone is amazing but jetlagged, and everything is fun but a little overwhelming. She reassures them that winter break is right around the corner and she’ll be seeing them in no time at all. The reception on the balcony is poor and the voices of her family are staccato, warped, sounding very far away. When the call disconnects, she does not move inside to call them back, even though she can picture her mother and father and her sisters crowded around the small kitchen table. It is the farthest phone call her sisters have ever made, maybe the first time they ever talked to someone outside of Sweden. Margot isn’t sure they even understand there is a world outside of Sweden.
The balcony rail is square and wooden, rough against her elbows as she leans on it. When the older students helped carry her luggage from the bus, they kept telling her how lucky she was to have this balcony, that any of them would have killed to be assigned to this room. From here she can see the silver reflection of the football field, the soft fuzz of the wildflower garden, the edges of the town further back. A bead of sweat drips down her temple, snaking across her cheek and falling onto the railing beside her hand. Margot is suddenly aware of the way her shirt is clinging to her body and the damp itch of her hair against the backs of her ears, of the soupy heat that seems to weigh upon the balcony. Between the mountains that frame her view, the moon is closer to full than not. Margot wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. She stays outside for another moment, then she turns back to the silent, unmoving beds.
Dalia is almost out of new activities to suggest to her roommates. She has already tried temporary tattoos, poker, and karaoke, and none of those have bonded them together in the way that she had imagined they would. Only Margot, tall and long-skirted and smiling, is still enthusiastic after those first drawling weeks.
Now the two of them are sprawled on the balcony after lunch, painting their fingernails with Dalia’s favorite eggplant-colored polish. Margot sits with the tip of her tongue poking out of her mouth, serious concentration on her face, and Dalia is flushed with an immense gratitude for her, for the companionship, even if it might not quite be friendship yet. Margot is not like any of her friends from her old school in Beirut and Dalia is trying not to engineer their relationship, trying not to manually recreate all the experiences that birthed her previous friendships. Today they had smuggled a bowl of grapes from the dining hall and now try to eat without smearing their nails, using the pads of their fingers like talons to grip them one at a time.
The sun is high overhead and slanting into their eyes, and the backs of Dalia’s thighs are warm against the wooden floor. Margot is playing music from her phone’s tinny speakers, something Swedish and bubbling, and Dalia doesn’t really like the sound of it, but still thinks that it is wonderful.
“Coloring was never my best activity,” Margot says sadly, holding up her hand. Purple has spilled over the edges of her cuticles like a burst grape. Dalia takes a cotton swab, dipping the end in remover and reaching for Margot’s hand.
“We can edit it,” Dalia says, dabbing around Margot’s nails. “This might corrode your skin, but at least they’ll look pretty.”
Glancing over Margot’s shoulder, Dalia realizes can see into the back window of the dining hall to a table overflowing with students. They are laughing and jostling and never staying still, like a shifting pattern of silent noise through the green-tinted glass.
Dalia tries to swallow down the violent wave of envy that swells inside her, dense with guilt. In this moment she is absolutely sure that she would do anything to be at that table instead of on this skin-frying balcony with Margot.
Then Margot accidentally eats a nail-polished grape, coughing and spitting it over the side of the railing. The bottle spills, purple pooling on the wood, speckling her shoes. She turns back to Dalia, wide-eyed, unembarrassed, and with a ridiculous contemplative expression on her face begins to describe the grapes-avec-polish like it’s some kind of French delicacy, the purple bringing out the umami flavor, the subtle notes of toxic chemicals, that rubbing alcohol undertone…
Dalia is laughing so hard that their other roommate—Dofi, who still rarely leaves her bed and even more rarely speaks—comes and closes the door to the balcony, giving them a scathing look before slinking back to her corner. Now Margot is laughing too, grabbing her stomach. There are streaks of purple all over her white shirt.
The noise in the room is insufferable. Dofi’s bed is across from Xiaoxiao’s, who is usually never in the room long enough for the door to close, but tonight she has a gaggle of friends packed into her corner. Dofi can’t see them across the curtain that Xiaoxiao has strung between her desk and the dresser, a little fortress of flower-print bedsheet, but every few minutes a high-pitched shriek erupts from the chatter, trailed by a cacophony of laughter, which hushes back into chatter. Dofi hasn’t seen Dalia or Margot since dinnertime, but she wishes one of them were there to tell Xiaoxiao to be quiet. She wishes one of them were there at all, even if just to commiserate.
So now Dofi is on the balcony, despite it being past curfew, when Xiaoxiao’s friends are not allowed to be in the room anymore. Dofi thinks they would probably leave if she asked them to, but she also thinks she is not physically capable of drawing back that curtain and enduring a dozen disappointed, annoyed eyes on her. Instead, she’s on her bedroll in the open autumn air, the room sealed tightly behind her.
Lying back, she can see a patchwork of stars to her left, cupped in the stretch of sky between the mountaintops and the sharp edge of the roof. She wishes the balcony were uncovered. Margot has complained loudly about how the bright lights around campus blot out the stars, but Margot is from a farm in the countryside and grew up spoiled by the Milky Way belted across the sky, horizon to horizon even when the moon hangs like a wiry toenail clipping. The sky outside Dofi’s window in Accra is never quite black, except for maybe directly overhead, if she cranes her neck out and straight up. Instead it’s kaleidoscoped in the purple, red, and green haze of the nightclubs and hotels, and the glow of the golden streets latticing the city.
This self-imposed exile is actually the first time Dofi has taken a proper look overhead at night. At first she is bored by the lack of color, but after a moment, the gradations of white in the stars carve a depth into the sky that Dofi has never seen before. It’s like those worn Magic Eye puzzles her school nurse kept in a bin, that accordioned into three dimensions if she looked at them for long enough. She shifts so that her butt is directly against the railing, her legs sticking straight up in the air, and she knows she must look absurd if Xiaoxiao’s friends could see her through the window.
Dofi wonders how anyone ever imagined the Earth was flat, lying like this. Her legs aren’t sticking up but hanging down, off the belly of the Earth, swinging against the expanse of black and white and shades of silver. She grips the bars of the railing so tightly that the corners slice into her palms. She tries to convince herself that this grip is the only thing keeping her on the balcony, that if she lets go, she’ll drop into the sky and spin until she falls into some other planet’s gravity and never escapes.
Dofi tries to feel this. But the silhouettes of the mountains and the edge of the roof are blotting her view, and the floorboards are hard even through the bedroll beneath her. The sky is not enough to forget that she’s lying on her pillow outside with a fat pair of mosquitos whirring next to her ear.
There is a sharp rap on the glass door behind her, and she turns to see Dalia’s face pressed up against the glass. Dofi lets her feet fall back down, pulling herself into a seated position as Dalia slips outside, closing the door behind her.
“What the hell, Dofi?” she asks. “Did they kick you out or something?” Dofi can’t tell if she’s making fun of her or not. There is mascara smudged on the corners of Dalia’s eyes, and her cheeks are already flushed.
“No,” Dofi says, “they’re just so loud.” Even on the balcony, she can hear the rhythmic thumping of Xiaoxiao’s music, punctuated by shrieks of hilarity from her friends.
“It’s your room, too,” Dalia says, crossing her arms across her chest. “You can tell them to leave.”
“I can’t kick them out,” Dofi says, but she doesn’t think that Dalia could understand what she means. Dalia crouches down in front of her, reaching out to grip Dofi’s shoulder. Her breath is warm and sweet, the edges of her lips stained the color of the pomegranate wine sold in casks down the street.
“You need to be assertive, okay? You need to stand up for yourself.” She reaches out to grab Dofi’s other shoulder, wobbling unsteadily on her toes. Dofi doesn’t want her to faceplant so she cups Dalia’s elbows to steady her, and now they are both just squatted and squeezing each other on the floor of the balcony.
“If you didn’t notice, I’m not so assertive,” Dofi says. Dalia rolls her eyes.
“That is so stupid,” Dalia says, and Dofi feels a pinprick of hurt in her chest, defensiveness welling up like blood. But Dalia tightens her grip on Dofi’s shoulders, as if she could shock the willfulness into her, or maybe transmit a fraction of her own through her fingertips.
“I will be the party killer tonight,” she says. “But next time, you come with me.”
Dofi nods, still holding Dalia steady. She can feel herself smiling, at Dalia staring at her so intently, like this is the most important thing in the world: like she is on a divine mission to teach Dofi how to tell teenage girls to quiet down.
“Okay,” Dalia says, using Dofi’s shoulders to push herself up. She holds a finger up to Dofi, then steps back inside the door to the room.
Dofi leans back against the railing. The nights here are still warm and the hair on her legs prickles. She closes her eyes, searching for that falling feeling she almost caught a few moments ago. Before she can find it, the thump of music inside suddenly cuts off into silence.
They’ve been at school for over two months and Xiaoxiao cannot believe that this is only the second time she’s doing her laundry. Her basket is heaped dangerously high with most of her closet, still dripping wet, seeping through the wire mesh and darkening the wooden floor of the balcony. It’s early morning, the sun still rising over the crest of the mountains, and the driers in the basement have a reputation for charring delicates, so Xiaoxiao is hanging her damp clothes on a line that she’s strung across the balcony. Her roommates are still asleep. Most of the campus is still asleep, she thinks, except maybe for the singular jogger she saw slip out of the dorm and disappear down the path into town. Xiaoxiao hasn’t felt this much silence since arriving to school, and it scratches uncomfortably at her skin. She’s never been someone who needed much time alone, always found comfort in the Tianjin cacophony surrounding her apartment, but now it’s almost intolerable to be by herself. It’s why the laundry never gets done. Carting the bag down to the basement, dragging it back up, taking the time to hang each piece—it snatches her out of real life for too long. It’s one, two hours in which the world carries on without her, and she knows it’s irrational but she can’t help but feel like if she’s gone for one second, she’s going to miss out on something monumental. Some kind of catalyst that bonds everyone to each other, closes their ranks, and Xiaoxiao will be stranded on the outside. But it got to the point where yesterday, she ran out of underwear and wore bikini bottoms under her skirt, and that was a wake-up call. She needed to wash her clothes or else soon she’d be wearing her Speedo racing suit as a bra and panties in one.
But right now, there’s no time for introspection before people start waking up, and she’s not even halfway through hanging. The line sags under the weight of her closet.
Her roommate Dalia has a dress that Xiaoxiao would love to wear before the weather tips into winter and she’ll be forced to hide beneath her puffy coat for a season. But Dalia has always felt so unreachable, she and Margot this impenetrable unit. Every time she talks with them, it feels like there’s a second conversation between eyes and expressions that Xiaoxiao can’t understand, this language of best-friendship over her head. Maybe she could ask sometime when she’s alone, maybe when Margot is off with her second-year girlfriend that Xiaoxiao isn’t supposed to know about.
She drapes a pair of jeans over the line, but as soon as she lifts her hands, the knot at the end slips and falls. The neat row of pants falls to a heap on the floor of the balcony, a gray wool sock slipping through the bars. A startled gasp floats up from where the sock disappeared.
“Hello?” Xiaoxiao peers over the edge and Margot is lying in her sleeping bag on the grass below, a book open across her chest. She’s pinching the sock above her head and frowning, squinting up at the windows above. “Raining socks?”
“Sorry!” Xiaoxiao shouts. “Laundry accident.”
“Laundry? That’s a milestone.” Her voice is light and teasing, and even if Xiaoxiao couldn’t see the smile spreading across her face, she’d be able to hear it.
“I know. We should have a celebration,” Xiaoxiao says down to her. And then, just because she can’t help but ask, “Margot, did you sleep down there?”
“Of course,” she says, sitting up, the sleeping back still wrapped around her. She looks like a giant orange worm that’s nested below their balcony.
“You are so strange,” she says, because it’s true, and she hopes that Margot can feel the smile, the fondness, in her voice. Xiaoxiao has never slept outside one night in her life.
“Can I join you next time?” she asks, in the same moment that Margot says, “You should try it with me.” They laugh. Margot balls up the sock and throws it back on the balcony, where it lands in the rest of the pile of wet clothes. Xiaoxiao realizes that the longer she waits, the more dirt will cling to them.
“Go back to bed,” she calls down. The sunlight is still just foaming over the edges of the mountains, and there will be another stretch of silence before the wake-up bell fills the valley.
“Congrats on the clean clothes,” Margot says, but her eyes are already closed, blonde hair pooled around her head and snaking out into the grass.
Xiaoxiao stoops to find the edge of the clothesline, struggling to remember which knot her grandmother always used to fasten it. The pile of wet laundry soaks into the hems of her pajama pants. She’ll have to change before the others wake up.
The wooden floorboards are so cold that Margot can’t tell if they’re actually frozen solid, or just well on their way. She’s wearing Xiaoxiao’s socks, the ones with inch-thick cow-print fur, but she’s still worried her toes will stick to them like a tongue on ice.
The pizza box is in the corner where she left it, the cardboard lid damp and sagging. Since the first frost, they’ve been using the balcony as a walk-in (or was it walk-out?) refrigerator, tossing fruit, leftovers, even ice cream bars if the night would dip below freezing. Now she is bent down, stiff fingers fumbling for the pizza box, when she hears the door crack open behind her.
“You’re going to freeze!” Dofi says, and Margot looks to see her swaddled in the quilt from her bed, breath already frosting the glass as she pokes her head out. Margot turns, her bulky coat making her movements jerky.
“Only my nose!” she says. “It’s already numb, so don’t worry.” Dofi huffs a laugh, the air pluming from her nose like the snort of a dragon. Margot realizes it’s the first time she’s heard Dofi laugh while not on the phone with friends from home. It’s higher pitched than she was expecting. She opens the pizza box and displays it like she’s a game show host, waving her fingers in front of it. She feels a little ridiculous, but she wants to see if she can keep drawing out the smile that’s ghosting over Dofi’s face.
“Step outside to my restaurant, young lady,” she says, “it’s the finest pizza on campus.”
“It’s the only pizza on campus,” Dofi responds, but then her slippers are padding onto the wood beside Margot. The pizza is a couple of days old and stiff as a board, and Margot is choosing to believe that’s only from the frost. It cracks in half and it’s too cold for her teeth, so she tries to warm it by cupping her hands over it and breathing warm air.
“This is so gross,” she says, “Exhaling all over my food.”
“Gross together,” Dofi says, and she’s sandwiching the pizza between her palms, trying to transfer some body heat into the crust. They both laugh. Margot feels a small flicker of pride in her chest, at this moment solidifying between them. She has often been content to let friendship come to her in its own time, but it feels good to reach out, to shape it, for once.
Over the rail, the field and the mountains behind shine in the low morning light, the frost not yet consumed by the mid-afternoon sun. Eventually, the pizza thaws enough for them to bite it without icing the insides of their mouths. Margot hops from foot to foot, shaking out her toes to get some blood rushing back into them. Her nose is so cold she thinks it could snap off, and she can see Dofi’s cheeks flushing dark with each breeze. Still, they stay on the balcony until the last bite is finished.
For the first time, they are all four on the balcony. Their suitcases are already swollen beside their closets, and tomorrow they will leave for the one-month winter break. They aren’t allowed to leave any food in the rooms, because apparently the mice become tenants each year while the students visit home. The girls are pooling their snacks and sweets, feasting on a last supper. Dofi dumps a whole bag of kiwis onto the pile of chips, cheeses, and candies encased in the circle of their legs.
“I can’t even eat them,” she says sadly, “I wanted to be adventurous, but they make my tongue itch.”
“Try everything once,” Xiaoxiao says, mocking Dalia. She has taken to nagging them with that phrase when she wants to do something stupid, but doesn’t want to do it alone.
“Try everything once, including a severe allergic reaction,” Margot adds on, and Dofi laughs that high laugh. Margot has learned how to draw it out when she wants to, unspooling it like a ball of yarn.
Dalia is rolling her eyes but also smiling, working with a knife to peel the skin from the kiwis in one long, thin curl that falls to the floor in a spiral. She opens her mouth to Margot, who pops in another of the gummy candies sent by Xiaoxiao’s parents, but which only cleared customs last week.
The sun is balanced on the mountain ridge as it sinks, a pool of amber-colored light oozing up and spilling into the valley. Purple, pink, and orange slice through the bars of the railing and fall on them. Margot’s hair catches all the color; it looks like it could burst into flame at any moment.
Xiaoxiao opens her phone to play some music. It’s not her favorite playlist but it’s one she knows the others will like, and the sound weaves through the stripes of sunlight and shadow. Margot lets up on Dalia and turns her teasing to Dofi, and within minutes they are laughing loud enough to drown out the music, anyway. The door to the room has swung open, and a draft of frigid December air rustles through the crack, threatening to freeze anything in its path. No one complains, though—the room is empty. The girls on the balcony are wearing their coats.
The girl on the bike was crossing the road, One painted stripe at a time; She’d pressed the button, the lights had adjusted, She crossed seven stopped cars in a line. Her helmeted head looked forward with glee, As she reached the other side; I watched her, parked at the barrier’s shoulder, Curious at her pride. She looked past the bushes, And what did she see? A swimming pool, grey and alone; It was then that I noticed the suit on her back, It was then that she turned to go home. Never as sad of a face did I see, That cloudy and blustery day; Never so droopy a juvenile posture, Which peddled, peddled away.
The homely smell of Joseph’s excrement transports Maribell back to breakfast. She swallows the milkfish in front of her. It’s all routine.
His family’s home changes every visit. What was two mattresses are now proper beds. His breakfast much better than the plain rice she first ate.
His mom says, “Joseph, eat as much as you want. You are like our fishermen ancestors.” She smiles, before glaring at his father.
It’s the joy in giving them charity that makes this foul heat bearable—what is just a meal out for Maribell is worth more what Joseph’s father makes each week. She could be under her freshly laundered flannel sheets, air-con cranked up to the max, reading some refreshingly depressing fan fiction. But this feels more real— in a place that her family doesn’t know exists.
She leads Joseph’s body to the main road. As she walks, she notices a scar on his ankle, and uses his small hands to reach at it. There’s a stain on his blue shorts. It’s funny how it’s the same shade as his skin.
The rusty corrugated iron slums stand ready for a Caritas ad. The odor of roof rot lingers when she breathes through her mouth. A cat brushes against her. She holds back a scream. In the candlelight of the last typhoon, her mom prayed a rosary for all these squatters.
Next to the school, the barangay police station has one of those sixties’ concrete façades—a ruin of when Manila had a future. Somebody must have pocketed its renovation budget. Maribell finds Imboy at his cubicle: his big nose asks for Maribell’s pity.
When she calls him, he makes a sign of the cross and asks, “Maribell, what happened?”
Imboy has been summoning her back in time for three months. Tonight, in the old future, Imboy texted her the details to tell his morning self. She then called Joseph to meet off the highway. Using Joseph’s stool to repeat the day in his body, she now relays who they will stop from being assaulted, robbed, or whatever.
In the last weeks, Maribell and Imboy stopped two women from being kidnapped, but this time, it’s the first minor.
Maribell says, “Life is so cheap here. Isn’t the fine for hitting someone with a car only eight thousand pesos?”
He scratches his neck, “It’s not that low.” He adds, “If a kid peddling sampaguita flowers were run over by a car, the rich would be happy. One less person to bother them. I grew up here. I care about what you see as a disgusting helpless mess.”
About two weeks into their arrangement, Maribell and Imboy passed a police squadron commanding the masses to go home. Peeking between the crowd’s gaps, Maribell saw a pulled-up undershirt and a pool of blood. A face hidden by torn cardboard, in thick marker: “drug pusher.” She couldn’t tell if the fermenting garbage smell was from the body or the crowd. She forced back her vomit. It could have been anyone. Before she could say anything, Imboy pulled her away to attend to their business: stopping a stabbing nearby.
Their current victim will be last seen at the wet market next to that drug pusher killing. The market grows like a parasite street by street, with only the chronically congested highway blocking its spread. Festering below electrical wires that tangle between the buildings like pancit, it feeds off the chaos of people who wear their backpacks at their front. The heat of the concrete forces the construction workers to roll up their tank tops into crop tops. The damp garbage waits for nobody to collect it. A banner welcomes you to barangay hundred-and-something, with a mustached politician posing with his son. They both smile over their domain of knick-knacks and kickbacks and the street children making money too young. The only verdant thing is the squalid shirt she wears.
The bell of the squat Spanish church chime nearby: noon mass.
Imboy turns to her, “Let me buy you something.”
He comes back with balut. “Have you tried this?” He asks.
“Of course, no.”
He pushes the somewhat-developed duck egg into her mouth, she stumbles back, falling into a mangy askal lying in the trash. He laughs and cracks the balut for himself. He gives her money to buy something else. She comes back with a banana.
She sees the Facebook profile of the victim off his phone: seventeen, studying to be a nurse, her big eyes sweeten her plain face. If she becomes an OFW1, she’ll find a foreign husband.
“I’ll call her. Tell her that a kidnapper is out for girls like her,” Imboy says.
“But we don’t know if the guy will go after someone else. It’s been a month now of these kidnappings. When you sent me back, you had no idea who the perpetrator was—no idea if it’s one guy. It’s on a random day. No suggestion of anything sexual.”
She continues, “We’ve stopped crimes in your barangay, but what about your neighbors? What if criminals see how peaceful it is here and decide to pull your barangay down with them? I can’t help you forever. It’s like how they say Filipinos are like crabs in a boiling pot. Instead of helping each other escape the water, Pinoys will pull each other down. So, you’ll all die together.”
Imboy laughs, “What are you then? Not Pinoy?”
She looks at the people flowing past, saying, “It’s about time we catch this guy. We could let her be the bait.”
“But what if we don’t stop him?”
“Everyone we save could be another that he goes after instead.”
“Okay, I’m game.”
Imboy checks in for them at the motel that faces the market. A stifling lavender spray masks the outside stench. When the clerk asks for how many hours, Imboy resists looking down at his police badge. He says that Maribell is his son and that they are staying for a full night to visit family.
Juice boxes line the counter. Imboy asks for two. He drinks on one and passes the other to Maribell. The juice corporation is her family’s business, so she has drunk refrigerators of this stuff since she was little. She can’t wait to get out of Manila and visit one of their plantations.
“Don’t want it?” Imboy asks.
“I’m not thirsty.”
Maribell said the same thing when they first met. A taxi driverhad drugged his air-con to knock her out. But the taxi’s tire hit a nail, so they ended up at a vulcanizing shop. Barely awake, she struggled out of the car, and with all her strength, screamed out at the gutter kids, “I’ll give three-hundred pesos to whoever can get me human poop first.” While all the other kids ran around, Joseph pulled down his pants. His stool was like a worm fasting for Lent.
She knew she could use a whiff of her own excrement to go back to the meal after her last visit to the bathroom, but she had never considered trying it on another human. Opening her eyes to see Joseph’s family at breakfast, she was set on getting home.
Doing his patrol on the main road, the morning before the kidnapping, Imboy asked her, “Child, are you thirsty? Why aren’t you at school?”
She claimed she didn’t need anything, but Imboy insisted. After drinking a whole water bottle, she explained everything.
Imboy offered his phone to stop her past self from taking that taxi, and when Maribell asked him if he wanted any compensation, he told her to give money to Joseph’s family. He then added that she could help him clean up the area: help the people the police could not protect.
By ten p.m., they spot the victim at home after class. Her name is Jhemmalyn: so tacky, so Pinoy. Half-watching the half-whites on a teleseryes with Imboy, she looks outside. The wet season’s rain pulls used shampoo sachets and other plastic towards whatever’s left of Manila Bay. How much longer until she’s out of here? Somewhere like Canada or Australia, where she’ll take her master’s.
A hooded man enters the girl’s building. She calls over Imboy.
They head downstairs. When the guy comes back out with the victim, her hands are tied, and a cloth covers her head.
Imboy races at the kidnapper. Maribell can’t keep up. The guy laughs and fumbles out a gun to hold to the girl’s head. Maribell makes out more of his face and shudders. It’s worn-out and almost familiar. But, it’s just the rain. Her legs are too short. She’s still far away.
Imboy aims his gun at the two bodies. “I’m a good shot,” he bluffs. The man hesitates. Imboy shoots. The girl falls, her shoulder bloody. The kidnapper kisses a scapular around his neck and runs away. Catching up to him, Maribell shouts at Imboy to call for backup. He props the girl’s body on his lap, then removes the cloth and tape on her mouth.
She screams. Imboy says, “It’s okay, just flesh. We’ll catch him another day.”
Maribell says, “No, I swear I’ve seen him. Maybe, today in the market. I can try to go back twice. I need to find someone new.”
Before a crowd can assemble at the noise of the gun shot, she spots a little girl behind a telephone pole. Her skin almost as dark as the corner she hides in. Imboy says he will pay her for poo.
She whines a few times, then holds it up for Maribell to breathe in.
Maribell nostrils flare and her face contorts. Imboy looks into the blank eyes, as tears—almost concealed by the rain— stream down. Gasping for air, the newly conscious Joseph whimpers, “Where am I?”
Imboy still wonders who Maribell is. He only knows that she’s young and from a rich family. If he told his mother about her, she’d ask the parish priest to bless their home again or for the healing priest to see Imboy.
Imboy digs into the balut that reminds him of his grandmother. She always bought it for his meryenda when he was a boy in the province, where the sea breeze crashed into the mountain cliffs. Most of the family moved to Manila after his grandfather commanded his kids to not die with a plow in hand. Imboy’s dad likes to mention how he honored his father when Imboy’s older siblings ask to move out before marriage. Imboy’s dad retired from the PNP2 years ago, so his kids’ salaries are his pension.
Imboy sits at the street corner with Joseph or Maribell. He has seen this four-foot body as two people. Joseph hangs around the other bowl-cut kids that smell like the sun. But, Maribell stands alone, one hand on her hips. Her eyes dart around like an askal looking for something to eat. Imboy has to wait to hear Tagalog (Joseph) or English (Maribell) to know who it is.
Today, it is Maribell.
He can hear a buzzer from the basketball court, where he plays with his friends after work. And, despite it being early afternoon, there’s music from a karaoke machine. The market vendors haggle with mass-goers, who buy anting-anting to ward off evil spirits. The new mayor’s photoshopped billboard blocks the sound and fumes of the highway. Underneath is a notice for a town hall on a cannery to be built over the squatter area. The mayor says that they are so close to the seaport that they’ll lose out on their future if it’s built somewhere else. The squatters have no right to live in their homes, but the barangay is putting up a fight.
For Imboy, it’s about keeping the peace. Maribell asks him about what he’s been up to. They talk about the new high-rises in BGC and Makati. “It’s like Manila’s Pudong,” she says.
A little girl in an oversized pink shirt scuttles up to them. She hesitates before tugging at Imboy’s tucked in shirt. She says, “Imboy, Pudong is the business district in Shanghai.”
She then explains that she is a future Maribell.
“You dropped your balut,” Joseph-Maribell says to him. The Maribells whisper to each other. Joseph-Maribell asks Imboy for money and walks home.
The girl says, “We’ve decided to have a sting with the kidnapper, right?” Imboy nods. “Basically, you shot the girl and let the guy get away. You asked me to try to go back twice.”
“Let’s check into the motel then.”
Imboy can barely pay for the whole night, but Maribell will give him money next time. He says they are visiting family and picks up two juice boxes from that cannery plant company, a token of goodwill for the people of the area. When they get up to their room, Imboy asks Maribell for more details. She says that around ten p.m., the guy will come for Jhemmalyn Baquiran, a girl he knows from mass. Imboy can take the kidnapper once Maribell identifies him.
She points at the alleyway where Jhemmalyn lives. It’s there where he confronted the police chief of the barangay station about that extrajudicial killing months ago. He knew that the PNP were as corrupt and bureaucratic as the government, but these were officers of his barangay. The old family friends told Imboy to buckle up because there was nothing to do about a drug pusher. When he asked if any police were involved, they said, “Leave it up to God.”
Maribell watches TV for hours. All these mestizos in these cheesy teleseryes. He’s only seen people like this in the nice parts of Manila or the children of island souvenirs and their white husbands: Twenty years older or kilograms fatter than normal.
Maybe one of the actresses is Maribell—with fair skin, a sharp nose, and wavy but not curly hair. And she’s from one of those gated villages. The ones with the pleasant-smelling tree-lined streets, guards, and tall fences. Where they have their Toyota HiAces and sports cars ready for all days of the week.
Maribell rolls over from her side of the bed to ask Imboy, “Can we go back to the station? I want to search up someone who might have been there.”
“I can just call them.”
Imboy gets another officer on the phone, “Can you check out the name Manuel, D as in ‘Dog,’ Javier, also goes by ‘Tato.’”
“Yes, I have a Manuel D. Javier from this area. But I don’t know if it’s D as in ‘Dog.’”
Imboy puts the phone on speaker, they say that he has been in jail for kidnapping a decade ago, assault two decades ago.
“What about three decades ago?” Imboy asks.
“He was a teenager.” Imboy laughs, says thanks, and then hangs up.
He asks Maribell, “Who’s Tato?”
“He’s a guy who works with my family. The kidnapper looked like him. I didn’t know he has a record.” She looks away.
“You know Imboy,” Maribell says, her voice more confident, “If I were from an area like this, I know how hard it would be to rise up, but nowadays, there are so many jobs in Manila. We have all the call centers, all those tech jobs. But, you know, it’s really like the Wild West out here, too. So many people move here from the provinces, working for a better life but get lost and can’t reach it.
“I don’t know if I told you this—my family’s business really helps people, but it can get dangerous for us. We have a factory that was taken over by the communists near Tacloban—they killed two guards—and the government didn’t do anything. We had to pay the ransom. We’ve helped people send their kids to university—to other countries. I’m glad I was born into my family.”
Imboy nods. It’s not worth asking how many times the company has had to pay off politicians or asked for forgiveness when smaller businesses would ask for permission.
She looks out at the market, “Sometimes, I feel like the upper class has to assume the burden of morality for the Philippines, for the poor and the drugs. Lead the Philippines to the first world.” She pauses, “What we’d be if we were still in the US.”
Imboy glowers at Maribell. She bites her lip. Imboy says, “It’s more like you rich decide what’s moral. You have the ear of government and the church and tell us what to do, what to think. You tell us to fry ourselves in our own fat.”
“I don’t know. All I can do is try to get out of here and contribute my bit. Only thing I’m certain of is that it’ll rain soon because of this little girl’s shit.”
On cue, the rain falls hard. It’s the familiar downpour of the wet season that comforts Imboy. When he was little, he hated how it forced him to return home—how his mom feared the dengue of dusk. But now he feels like the rain’s purr is only for him. Cooling the city into the night. Sure, rain could mean a typhoon, but typhoons—and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes— will forever define his country. A car horn interrupts him. He rejoins Maribell in the teleseryes fest.
One hour passes.
It’s almost ten p.m.
“I think he comes by in twenty minutes,” Maribell says. “I’m hungry, can I go down to a convenience store?”
“You can just go to that sari-sari store,” Imboy points with his mouth. “The owners keep it open until they sleep.”
“My Tagalog isn’t that good. It’s easier at a convenience store, even if they shoo me out.”
He looks at his watch and asks, “Want me to go with you? He may come earlier.”
“He’s still in awhile. I can’t go out alone in my own body. I’ll come back if anything happens.”
He watches Maribell walk down the street, as the white noise adds to the percussion of the rain. The lights of the countless billboards reflect onto the puddles around Maribell. They advertise diets, food, and clothes for those on the highway. He thumbs over the rosary he keeps in his pocket, when he spots a little girl coming back down the alley. It’s Maribell.
She beckons a hooded man a few steps behind. He matches the description of Tato.
Maribell watches at the door as the guy enters. Imboy runs down, shouting at Maribell.
“Keep your voice down,” she pleads. “It’s not worth saving her. I’m protecting you, just go home.”
He grimaces and pushes her into a puddle. He checks his pistol and sneaks up the stairs to Jhemmalyn’s apartment. Through the open door, Tato ties up Jhemmalyn. Imboy tackles Tato from behind—Tato’s head slams onto cold cement floor.
Jhemmalyn tries to gasp for air. Imboy rips off the hood and tape covering her mouth. She asks, “Kuya,3 did they come after my parents too?”
“They are organizing protests against the cannery.”
“Your kidnapping must be to scare them off.” He unties her arms, “But you’re all good now.”
Imboy pushes Tato down. Jhemmalyn speaks to someone behind Imboy, “Hey, go home, child. This isn’t safe.”
Imboy turns around a second after Maribell snatches his gun from its holster. She backs away, aiming at him. In the confusion, Tato pulls out his gun, and aims it at Imboy. Surly yet composed, he commands Imboy to sit next to Jhemmalyn, both with hands in the air.
Maribell says, “It was going to happen either way.” She walks to the window. “God, I hate the rain.”
She asks Tato, “Can you take this for me?”
He reaches for the gun Maribell holds with disgust.
At that moment, Jhemmalyn charges at Maribell. Imboy follows and rushes Tato from the side. Tato fires. Imboy feels no pain and grabs at Tato’s gun.
Clutching her side, Jhemmalyn lies on top of Maribell. Her blood drips onto Maribell’s hand. Jhemmalyn uses all her strength to throw the gun to the end of the room. Maribell wriggles her way out, but Imboy has already handcuffed Tato.
“I know it’s not pretty, but we are making your lives worth something.” Maribell points at herself, “So she won’t have to live like this —rummaging through the tr…” Before thinking, he pulls the trigger of the gun.
“You demon!” He screams, but Maribell has gone back to the new future she created. The body collapses. The leg streams with blood. The little girl wails. Like ants, people appear out of nowhere and crowd outside the door. Imboy cradles the girl, calling for backup with his radio. Her cries soften.
“Child, what’s your name?” Imboy asks.
“Gabriella, po4,” she says.
“You’re so brave, you’ve stopped crying already.”
“It doesn’t help, po,” The girl replies mildly.
He can’t help his tears for this girl. Taking off his shirt to apply pressure to the wound, he feels her arms gently hugging him. Back and forth, he rocks her. Jhemmalyn groans behind him. She reaches for the cloth that she wore minutes before and ties it around her torso. She glances at the girl, saying to Imboy, “She’ll live. I don’t know about the leg.”
A cop carries the girl away. More arrive with a stretcher for Jhemmalyn. They joke that she could remove the bullet out of her own body.
One officer pats Imboy’s back saying, “Imboy, we’ll figure this out for you. Go home, your parents are worried.” Imboy gets up, and the officer adds, “I think you’ll be happy to receive a bonus from the mayor—for your troubles. I bet your dad needs surgery—how old is he now?”
One after another, old women under umbrellas whisper, “Susmariajoseph.” Imboy makes his way home. From one shack, he can hear a family praying. From another, he can smell garlic and hear a high-pitched man yelling. A bullfrog ribbits from the creek nearby. He can see the tree that marks its end. Plastic bags hang like parols, choking the branches.
A boy shouts behind him, “Kuya!”
“What’s wrong?” Imboy asks.
“I know you’re upset that the girl lost her leg. But you need to understand that my and so many people’s future requires my family. And your future—your family’s—relies on what you do next. Does that mean anything to you?” He grabs at her, but her eyes close, and the body falls towards him.
Imboy grunts and changes course towards the police station. He shortcuts through the piss-smelling alleyways lined with floodlights, erected last year to deter crime. The old shadows have darkened. He looks up to the night sky as the rain clears. The lights of the megalopolis add haziness to the smog. He sees no stars.
1 Overseas Filipino Worker
2 Philippine National Police
3 Older brother
4 A sign of respect, like “sir” or “madam”
After centuries, after the time and tear, I’m worn away from this job I bear. Void of flesh, I’m stripped down to the bone. Ghosts for company; I’m perpetually alone. Overwhelming responsibility, I’m forlorn as my reward. Souls come and go, and yet, I’m stuck here abhorred. There’s no winning this game; I can’t spare everyone. Death’s a necessary evil And it’s my job to get it done. After this I wonder if you’ll remain ever so headstrong, choose not notice your denigration by condemning me as wrong. You want me to pick favorites. You all want this or that. But did you ever consider why fate threw your name into my hat? I follow my duty, and I set aside my heart. To be frank, I might not even have that costly part. Still, no one sees me! Nor my actions of love, how I send partners — if I can, to the skies up above. You’re blind to the bigger picture and distracted by your reflection. If you looked beyond yourself you’d see the sphere that needs protection. The world contains billions which increases by the day. Now consider what would happen if Death wasn’t around to play. Now go, be grateful, as you take your next breath. And pray I stay merciful. Sincerely, Death
Coward in a cloak, thief in the night, infamous chair, perpetual plight. You stole what was mine, Took them all away from me. Left me not even a ghost, just how heartless can you be? Ruthless, you robbed me of my future, my life; my family gone with a swipe of your scythe. Their blood now stains Your jagged edge. So blame yourself When I get revenge. How did you decide their value? — Just who are you to judge? I pray the tables turn, Then it’s you who’ll have a grudge. I’m at my wits’ end, I’ve nothing left to lose. I’ll hunt you down, Death. Till you pay your dues. Face me, coward, feel the fury behind my eyes. Come up off your throne of bones so I can taste your sweet demise. Speak for your crimes, your crippling destruction. Repent for your sins and mass soul abduction! I truly can’t wait to meet you and avenge those suffered souls. So swing away and save my seat to your Death upon their bones.
Two basketball courts, double rims. Stout water tower down the slope. Ball would bounce against the barbed wire on a miss, if it bounced enough. Yeah, here is good. I remember. And she’s been talking shit for weeks. That H.O.R.S.E. wouldn’t end my way, and she’s a shooter (she’s not). Two hand release, pushing off one leg, a half jump, land on one leg. Arched back. Line drives off the front rim, backboard, fence. It’s summer and sticky heat hangs from our shoulders, our fingertips, our lips. Humidity pulls my body and her body down into the concrete court, dragging into tree roots and acorns and scraggled grass, into the dirt of the earth. I want to eat your lips and swallow you whole and “you’re too far apart, standing all the way over there” “I’m right here.” “It’s too far.” She bricks another and laughs. Throws her arms up, pushes Spalding away, loose crop top rises up the sternum, to her collar bone. Flounces down quick, no breeze to hold it. Now I’m shirtless. Her replacement too long and worn. Heat smothering air, sunlight catching dust suspended on the court, lighting the Carolina pines, like a wall between us and everything else. We run and hide in the halflight. And if I knew then, what I knew later, I’d stay on that court forever. Puddle and melt into the cooked concrete, our arms around each other.