Chapter six: Regrets
After the death of Capt. Santos, the man now known as KaQoH could not find it in himself to visit the bereaved family. Having been one of the good friends of the late captain, Jalton Oserno was referred by the family as Tito Jal. It was a nickname that showed how much attachment they felt for him, but it was that same attachment and closeness that made the idea of being close to the family after Captain Rodolfo’s death harder.
Jal had fond memories of those days.
The Santos’ were very accommodating. It was the early dawning of the eighties and Jal, like many others, was still wrapping his mind around the vast potential that lay before the Philippines. Other countries such as Singapore, Hong kong, China and Indonesia all looked up to this growing tiger in their midst. Breaking free from the chains of Martial Law, the Philippines was set to rise from captivity as a new leader and economic power in Asia. The United States showed great support towards Filipino talent and ingenuity. The peso and dollar exchange rate clearly showed the Philippine market had growth and stability. But it was also during that time that many decided to take their chances in Manila, leaving the comfort and familiarity of their rural homes. Jal was one of them.
Jal first met Captain Rodolfo a year before Julie, Rodolfo’s only child, was born. Rodolfo was with his brother Lito, who worked for what was now known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was handling the reforestation of one of the mountains of Malaybalay,Bukidnon. There for a week, Rodolfo found many sights and experiences to enjoy, having timed his visit to coincide with a celebration called Kaamulan, a festival of looking back where one has come from. The streets were colorful, with plastic and Chinese paper banderitas hanging from rafters and windows. Bamboo instruments and percussions raised the city itself into a frenzied fever of dance and laughter.
Jal was in Bukidnon in hopes of finding direction. Having been working long in their family business, Jal was hoping to break off and start his own. He had considered becoming a supplier of some goods for a Manila-based business, but had no direction nor contacts on whom to approach regarding this. All he knew for certain was that he had to break free. Already nearing his thirties, Jal knew he had to find a way to have his own business running before he felt trapped in his parents’ business for the rest of his life.
They met under the light of the moon, with the sounds of disco music faintly in the background. Though the festivities were still ongoing, the mood had shifted from frenzied cultural dancing to much more modern disco hits. People were now gathering to eat and drink and share stories and gossip of the quaint humble city. Jal was serving himself a plate of dinuguan and puto, when he noticed a beautiful woman having trouble choosing which part of the lechon to try. She was poking her fork in the chopped meat, struggling to identify the parts she held to her face.
“You’d want the crispy skin,” he suggested to her, “But some people say if you want to stay thin, you better avoid the lechon altogether.”
She smiled, then after scooping a few pieces onto her plate, motioned to the side. Jal glanced and saw she was pointing at a handsome man in a checkered poloshirt. The man was with some friends, laughing and drinking under the moonlight.
“My husband,” the woman began, “Prefers his lechon dry. A Cebu thing.”
“Ah,” Jal cursed himself for hitting on a married woman. He did not realize, however, that she did not even see it as hitting on her.
“Why don’t you join us,” she told him as she smiled. “There are lots of chairs and most of them, my husband just met today as well.”
“Only if you’re certain it is okay,” Jal quickly defended, “I would not want to overstep myself.”
Jal realized she was staring at him. He felt self-conscious all of the sudden, being in his simply white tee shirt, dark blue jeans and slippers. Though his hefty frame filled the shirt nicely, he couldn’t help but compare himself to the well dressed husband not too far away. He had arms that easily betrayed an active lifestyle. Dark skin and a short crop of hair betrayed either a military or labor occupation.
“I am sure my husband wouldn’t mind. We’re just here for a few days so he wouldn’t mind meeting new faces.”
“Jal. Jalton Oserno,” he reached out to shake her hand. She took it without hesitation.
“Pleased to meet you. Come on, let me introduce you.”
The two walked up to the group and introductions were quickly exchanged. Jal learned the couple was only here til the end of the week and the two learned of his dreams of a business that reached Manila. Manila. Everyone seemed to be looking towards Manila.
“I don’t understand,” Rodolfo muttered before taking another long swing at the bottle of beer in his hand, “Why does everyone thing a business can only be successful if it has links to Manila.”
“It is where all the money goes now,” Lito shrugged, and everyone else started to join him as he laughed. Jal noticed Rodolfo’s wife head for the table to get more pulutan. There was far too much food for the group to finish.
“Seriously though,” Rodolfo tried to pull the conversation back towards a more serious level. He tapped Lito to focus on what he was saying, “Manila is just the Capital. But it doesn’t mean it is the only place one can do business. Eventually, everyone will want to expand and when that happens, places like Cebu or even Bukidnon can become prime grounds for new industry.”
“I think the best our places can become are just suppliers,” Lito shrugged, “And that is why I decided to stick to government.”
Jal could see Rodolfo wasn’t amused. He glanced at Gaby, Rodolfo’s wife, and saw she too shared his realization.
“Guys,” Gaby called out, “It is getting late. Maybe it is time to get some rest. The captain and I have to head home before our baby wakes up.”
“Baby?” Jal sounded surprised. He did not realize Gaby could have been a mother. Her figure did not seem to fit that of what he thought a mother would have. Gaby returned with a plateful of chopped lechon and handed it to Lito. She then walked up to Rodolfo and began massaging his shoulders, “We really have to get some rest.”
“But it is still too early,” Lito whined.
“Tell me that when you finally get married,” Gaby retorted, and everyone broke into another round of laughter. Rodolfo eased himself off the chair and turned to his wife. She smiled, knowing he appreciated her pulling him out of the conversation, and tried to guide him to his feet. He tripped.
Jal was quick to catch him.
“Easy,” he grunted as he took Rodolfo’s weight. The captain was having some trouble standing. His breath reeked of beer and a sourness Jal thought had come from the food.
Gaby came up to the two and tried to take Rodolfo’s arm. Knowing she wouldn’t be strong enough (and that Rodolfo wouldn’t be sober enough), Jal maintained his grip. “I got him. Let me walk you two to your car.”
“Stay a bit longer,” Lito once again whined.
“No,” Rodolfo forced a smile to rise on his face. He could feel his head spinning. “We are heading home.”
“Lito gave us a ride,” Gaby quickly explained to Jal. The two of them combined their efforts to start guiding Rodolfo from the table. Lito waved them away and muttered to his companions, “They’re staying at the hotel. They’ll be fine.”
“I can give you a ride,” Jal offered, thinking he had nothing better to do. He had a jeep, and it wasn’t like his parents would be wondering where their almost thirty year old son was at this time of the night. Or morning. “Come on, my jeep is this way.”
Rodolfo grabbed Jal’s arm tightly, pulling him close. He looked at Jal’s face and smiled. “You. You’re a good guy.”
“Salamat,” Jal muttered and hoisted him back properly to his feet.
The three made it to the jeep. Jal sat Rodolfo at the back, then started the engine. Gaby returned, having gone back to the table to say one final goodnight, and had two plates of food with her. In typical Pinoy fashion, the revelers demanded she bring home some food.
“Here, you can have this,” she handed Jal one of the plates. “Everything is in there. Lechon. Puto. Dinuguan. Pancit.”
“You didn’t have to,” he grinned, then stepped on the gas.
And they were off.
“The door is locked,” Ando informed the group as he peered at the closed doorway leading into the remains of Boni station. Otaku and Doc remained focused on the sides, eyeing the many zombies that now watched the group with hungry anticipation. Both were aware of the rare climbers and kept careful watch for any signs of one being among the horde.
“Can you open it?” KaQoH asked, getting impatient. He was tempted to draw out a gun and shoot the door open, but he knew better than to waste bullets. Especially when ultimately their prey was among the living. The dead could easily be outsmarted. Hiding out of sight was more often than enough all one needed to do to get rid of the zombies’ attention. Living targets, however, would require every bullet one had.
“Give me a few minutes,” Ando reached into his belt and drew out one of the butterfly knives. Sliding it open, he peered into the gap between the door and the opening and slid the blade inside. The blade was thin enough to make it through. “The door is heavy, but the lock is just a latch. Probably two of them. Whoever built this anticipated having to unlock it from this side.”
KaQoH watched as Ando clamped both hands on the knife handle. Planting his left foot a bit further back, he then pushed upwards, applying as much force as he could in an upward motion.
There was a slight grinding sound as the knife slowly crept upwards, shoving vertically with it the heavy latch.
“Good thing they didn’t use typical locks,” Ando mused.
Yeah, a good thing, KaQoH thought and noticed the dead zombie on the ground nearby. He walked up to the corpse and wondered why the thing was naked save for its now dirty white underwear. He noticed the intricate tattoo on the body’s right side, just past the rib cage and down to the waist. He leaned close, curious to what the design was, and saw it was an image of an eagle with its wings outstretched. Underneath the black line art tattoo were the words ONE BIG FIGHT.
“Atenean?” KaQoH wondered aloud and heard a metallic clang. He looked up to see Ando now working on what was perhaps a second latch on the door. He tossed a glance at Doc and saw the big man focused on the zombies on the southbound lane of EDSA. He could not see it from his vantage point, but Doc had singled out a zombie that was shifting past the others and approaching the MRT fence. Doc suspected it was a climber. KaQoH then turned to Otaku and she seemed content to watch the zombies in the northbound lane without fear. She kept shifting her focus down the road, occasionally mumbling to herself another quote.
“What is the price of eternal life? To be unable to talk in the sun ever again – part with complete finality from the world in which you’ve lived all your life never to return for all eternity?”
“Quite melodramatic, Otaku,” KaQoH complimented her only to have her stare at him in confusion. A single tear drop slid down her cheek.
“You are not Riho,” she muttered in response.
KaQoH was beginning to regret bringing her along.
Ricardo tumbled backwards as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. His makeshift torch had fallen to one side and the flickering flames caused the shadows to dance. It was like trying to read a sign under a strobe light. He stared at the figure he had just shot at and began to realize in horror that he had shot a living person.
Or at least, he had shot someone who wasn’t one of the undead.
“Oh god,” he lowered the gun and tried to see the quivering body clearer. It was a woman, although he could not see her face too well. Julie. Was it Julie? She was the only woman in the train. Or had Nonito’s missing wife suddenly made a comeback?
The cloth by the door behind Ricardo rustled again.
He spun around, once more, turning his focus on the cloth. He recalled the possible zombie baby and while it sickened him to his stomach to imagine having to kill such a monster, he knew such things were at times even deadlier than most zombies. Zombie babies never seemed to stop wanting to eat.
Ricardo recalled the messy events of the past, back when he was still all the way north at Cubao station. A group of other survivors had just arrived. The group had walked the length of the LRT and arrived at Cubao, hoping to find shelter. What the group did not know was, one of their number had been bitten early and concealed it well. Worse yet, the woman was pregnant.
She turned on them as they entered the metal gateway, catching the security almost by surprise. Three of the guards opened fire immediately, with two stray shots killing two other survivors who just happened to be standing too close to the infected. The woman dropped dead, her head oozing thick blood from the peso sized hole through her forehead. The other survivors all called out, claiming not to have been bitten. Unwilling to take the risk, the guards had the survivors strip. Ricardo was walking nearby and found himself unwillingly drafted to help the inspection. He was convinced (at gun point) to go over each refugee and search their body for bites.
While Ricardo hated having to touch naked complete strangers, sliding his finger between their thighs, or feeling their armpits for any signs of infected wounds, he knew it was far much worse and demeaning for the refugees being checked. Not even prisoners had to be shamed in this manner. Their inspections were in private rooms. These refugees found themselves being stripped in front of everyone within eyesight.
Ricardo signaled that they were clear, but the gate manager remained unconvinced. He walked down the line, stopping at the more attractive refugees, and ran his hands over them. Ricardo could clearly tell the manager was not checking for bites, but could not find the courage to tell him to stop. Not with all the other armed guards who were at his beck and call. Finally satisfied with having fondled or groped the more attractive ones present, the gate manager motioned to the refugees to get dressed. The gate manager gave the go signal to head inside. But as the refugees filed their way through the gate’s turnstile, Ricardo heard one of the guards yelp out in utter disgust. From the pregnant corpse’s belly, a tiny cherubic hand tore through. The thing had yellow eyes, no teeth, and a blood curdling roar.
And it was clearly hungry.
Nonito felt a wellspring of hope surge within him.
He had his doubts at first when he seeing the newly wed couple crawling towards the station. The woman, though pretty, seemed younger than her face suggested. The man, though armed with a rifle, seemed meek. While he understood that some women had stronger personalities than men, the idea that the wife could be the stronger one in the relationship was foreign to him.
Nonito was raised in his time to understand that men were expected, nay, responsible for keeping women obedient and docile. Nonito was taught very young that women were supposedly innately flirtatious and untrustworthy. To allow one’s woman to speak freely, to step outside the home, or to travel independently was to invite their feminine wiles to surface. They were all temptresses that required constant supervision and disciplining.
But now, after seeing how the woman stayed behind. How she aimed her pistol at him while he moved ahead to clear the way, these for Nonito clearly showed that she still deep down needed him to face the unknown dangers first. Nonito was absolutely blind to how wrong he had read them both.
Nonito thought back as he made his way back towards the furthermost train segment that faced Shaw station, remembering how his father would tell him of his mother’s own licentious ways. He would tell him of how before Nonito was born, she would flirt with all the other men at the marketplace, touching their hands and wooing them with her eyes as she purchased meat for their meals. She would laugh her seductive laugh as they weighed the bigas or wrapped the vegetables. He would tell Nonito of how he would watch them, the poor misguided men, as they would stare at her, share lustful whispers of her and throw her thinly disguised innuendo. And always, after each story, Nonito would ask his father, “What did he do?”
And the tales of how he had beat her would then follow. Only in his words, the beating would be called discipline. The insults, reminders. The physical blows, moments of wrath which she herself had “made him do to beat the devil out of her.”
Nonito regretted ever having married one.
But he knew it was his place in the world to have one. A man, after all, must have a wife. Such were the way of things.
The sound of metal scraping against metal came again.
Nonito reached the last train segment and saw the shine of a knife slipped between the makeshift gate and the train entrance. While the rest of the glass windows at this segment had been boarded up, the door was dutiful reinforced with the metal latches by previous survivors. Nonito wondered if the original builders of the door had finally returned. Drawing the sledge hammer up to his shoulders, he positioned himself to the side of the door, ready to strike if need be.
This was his home now, after all.
And just as a man was tasked to keep his wife pure, it was his second task to keep his home safe.
Jal watched as the door closed and wondered if he would ever see them again. On his drive home, he felt a strange understanding that the night was to be a significant one in his life. There was something about that unassuming meeting at the fiesta that held a strange aura of significance. With the world a blur of nothing but shadows and light around him, Jal decided to take the longer route home. He could still hear the distant sound of laughter and music and sensed that the couple he had just met would someday play a greater significance in his life.
It wasn’t until the fated events of 1991 that he would meet them again.
After laying dormant for more than half a century, a volcano located in the Cabusilan mountain range came to life. Thousands of people were evacuated as Mount Pinatubo erupted as the massive ash plumes brought the dangers of ash deposits and pyroclastic flows. The eruption was deemed the second greatest to occur in the 20th century, and its effects were actually felt worldwide.
Jal was in Manila by then.
His attempted business, as a supplier for arts and crafts materials, folded within two months of its beginnings. Unwilling to return home to his parents and unable to find a break in the city, Jal found himself walking the streets of Makati on the day of the eruption.
He watched the twirling slow descent of ash from the sky and found himself wondering if this was what snow was like. The gray ash moved gently in the air, dreamlike in its peaceful tumble towards the ground. Jal felt a speck land in his eye and cried out from the sudden pulse of sharp pain.
“Jal,” the voice sounded familiar. Jal rubbed the area with his fist, hoping the intent squishing would somehow dislodge the painful intruder from his eye. He turned to see the speaker and accidentally elbowed the man in the face.
“Jal, that is you,” the man laughed and moved into view. With a hand clamped over his own cheek, almost mirroring Jal, Rodolfo beamed a welcoming smile and introduced himself, “Rodolfo. You remember me? We met some years ago. Malaybalay, Bukidnon.”
“Captain!” Jal exclaimed in genuine surprise, “I am so sorry. I couldn’t see well. The ash-“
“I know. I saw. Gaby saw you standing out here at the sidewalk. We were just over there,” he motioned at a nearby glass window. It was some fancy restaurant with a name that sounded French. Or at least something foreign. Jal could never tell.
“Did you feel that?”
“Reports say it was Pinatubo. It finally erupted,” Rodolfo took Jal by the arm and lead him towards the restaurant entrance, “You shouldn’t be out here.”
“Captain?” Rodolfo answered with a mock question. Jal grinned.
The two reached the restaurant and saw Gaby already waiting for them by the door. She had a table napkin and a glass of water in her hands. “Here, get your face clean a bit,” she suggested and handed them both to Jal.
“I think it would be better he go wash up in the bathroom. Running water. That ash might be dangerous.”
“Wetting it might be dangerous,” Gaby countered but her words failed to reach Jal. Jal stepped into the bathroom and stared at his reflection in the mirror. His shirt and hair were covered in specks of ash. His eye seemed swollen. But he had a smile on his face. It was a smile of man who remembered that late night drive home back when he was in Bukidnon.
“Ando?” KaQoH was getting impatient. The door was taking too long to open. He saw the zombie Doc was focusing on and realized the threat the climber posed. Doc maintained his gaze on the nimble thing, waiting for the right moment to strike it down. As KaQoH raised his Armalite towards the zombie only to have Doc wave him to lower his weapon.
“He’s mine,” Doc licked his lips in disturbing anticipation.
“Almost open,” Ando grunted as he tried to shove the second latch upwards. This one was proving to be tougher than the first.
“Otaku,” KaQoH was getting impatient, “Help him.”
“People have the strength-“
“I said help him!” KaQoH yelled at her and she gave out a tiny shriek. Quickly moving to Ando’s side, she stuck her tongue out at him and found a place to help him push. While the first latch, the higher of the two, was easier to hoist upwards, this second one was giving Ando more trouble than he expected. Being lower, Ando was having trouble finding a position to get the best leverage. Otaku slid her hands to support his, one hand clamping over his hands at the balisong handle, and the other pressed against the gate to carry her weight and give her enough leverage to push upwards. Muttering between exertions, she continued her quote, “-to overcome.. their obstacles…everyone can.”
The metal groaned. The latch began to give.
“..everyone can!” Otaku cried out as she gave it her all. Her scream was like a spark of light in absolute darkness. The climber broke into a frenzied gait, shoving past the other zombies with gluttonous determination.
“Damn it!” KaQoH raised his gun, but Doc this time stood in his line of sight.
“Mine,” Doc growled and waited for the climber to leap for the fence. The climber kicked off the ground and propelled itself in a forward arc, clearing a foot off the ground. It wasn’t much, but for a zombie, it was definitely a notable distance. In response, Doc whipped the meat hook at the fence, sliding the hook inside one of the fence’s loops then impaling the zombie from the side of the head, before ripping out its right cheek and stopping just an inch from reentering the fence’s perimeter. A walking zombie close by lunged for Doc’s arm, which was now pressed against the fence, but he stomped his foot hard against the metal and pushed the thing backwards.
A heavier slam resounded from the metal gate.
Otaku screamed as she felt Ando suddenly shoved downwards towards her. Ando’s elbow smacked into her chest and flung her backwards. Otaku hit the gravel painfully, her face shoving into the loose stones. Otaku could not know how lucky she was to have been thrown backwards. Ando had it worse. The balisong continued on a downward path, scraping free from his hands, then chopped downwards into his right foot. The handle too wide to break into his shoe and slice his toes off, but was sturdy enough to jab into the rubber and snap the metatarsals of his foot. Ando screamed from the immense pain.
Another climber leapt onto the fence, this time from the northbound side. KaQoH fired a short burst at it, and a few bullets tore into the zombie’s arms. The climber fell, still dangerous but now made less mobile. KaQoH considered finishing it off, but realized with the horde out there, a climber that couldn’t climb was not any more dangerous than the rest. Until the fences were breached, the walkers were stuck.
“What the hell happened?”
Otaku pushed herself back to her knees and spat out the stones that got into her mouth. A chaotic mesh of gashes marked her face. Blood oozed from her nostrils. Ando was still screaming, struggling to block out the pain long enough to pry his foot loose. It remained pinned under the basilong handle.
“Shut him up!”
Doc unlatched his hook from the fence. He scanned the perimeter quickly and saw two other climbers already making their way upwards along the fence far behind them. He gave the climbers around fifteen more seconds before they became an actual threat. He glanced the other way and saw a gap on one of the larger boards that covered the main rear window of the train.
KaQoH saw another climber already over the fence. This one had clambered up close to the rubble. He raised his rifle at Ando, once more telling Otaku, “Shut him up now! His screams are calling them over!”
Otaku lifted the shotgun from the ground. Ando turned to her, still convulsing from the immense pain. He tried to say something but the words were overwhelmed by the white heat of pain that tore its way outwards as an endless scream.
The shotgun roared.
Nonito felt the gate shudder as a shotgun was fired at it. He saw the sudden pool of blood that welled underneath the door and realized the man he had luckily pinned must have been shot to shut him up. He saw the knive blade and carefully positioned himself to use the hammer to slam it downwards with the use of it and his own weight. Had the knife been of less quality, the blade would have simply snapped.
But instead, it dragged down the person holding it, and crushed something of that person when it reached the ground.
Nonito heard the muffled voices outside. He noticed the female voice as well. They sounded confused. Out of control. Not what he expected of the ones who fortified this station. They were intruders. Enemies. Thieves.
He did not, however think that the intruders outside were crazy enough to do what happened next. With the splintering sound of wood, one of the panels blocking the largest window suddenly ripped outwards. Just as Nonito was hoisting the hammer up a second time, a curved metal hook emerged from the torn opening, clamped down on another plank and pried it loose.
They were destroying the walls! They were not here to hide from the zombies.
Nonito positioned himself to be able to swing at however was using the hook but before he could launch his own weight into the attack, a gunshot resounded. This time, it was from far behind him where the other train segments lay.
“The newly weds,” Nonito gasped.
Ricardo tried to shake off the memory but disturbing ones were rarely easily forced away once remembered. The hungry thing that was once a child ripped itself free from its mother’s womb and began pitifully struggling to crawl towards the nearest living person. It had strength, that was clear, but the lack of clear motor coordination had it stumbling over itself as it tried to move. While the instinct to feed was there, the understanding of how legs were used was not.
It squirmed uselessly in the ground, mouth agape for the food that never came.
The gate manager motioned to Ricardo to deal with it, but stopped him when he asked for a gun.
“Just use your shoe,” the gate manager told him, “Best save the bullets for climbers.”
Ricardo felt the twisting in his gut rise to his throat. The urge to vomit began to grow.
But whatever experience he had bringing his heel down upon the thing that was once a child was lost. There was a hole in his memory. A black moment replacing the terrible necessary killing. Just as in great moments of trauma like car accidents some people forget the actual moment of impact, Ricardo discovered he could not bring back memories of crushing the thing’s tiny skull.
He wasn’t looking forward to having an encore tonight.
“You… you shot me,” the voice came from the fallen body. Ricardo backed up away from the cloth and moved to see the body better. Julie lay on the ground with a tiny fountain of blood trickling where her belly button should be. Only, when the fire flickered again, Ricardo realized it was merely the trick of the light and saw it was someone else.
The woman clutched her hands over the gunshot in a valiant attempt to stem the blood that was flowing out of her. Her face was barely visible from her ill kept hair. Her clothes were tattered rags. There were white pellets that clung upon her chin and neck. Ricardo realized amidst her stench of feces and sweat, there was another distinct smell.
“You shot me,” she repeated.
Julie crawled into view, sliding through the same crawlspace Ricardo had come from. She was surprised to see the woman on the floor, and even more so the moment the woman gave out a struggled gasp for air.
“Who is that?” Julie asked, keeping her pistol trained at the body.
“I… I thought she was you,” Ricardo admitted, his hand still holding the rifle towards the cloth in the distance.
“So you shot her?”
“No! I mean, I thought I had shot you,” Ricardo shook his head, “But instead it was her.”
“Why would you want to-“
“Please,” the woman gasped again, reaching out towards Ricardo’s position. “Please..”
“I didn’t want to,” Ricardo tried to explain but Julie wasn’t making it easy.
“So what did you want to do?”
“Julie shut up for a second!”
“Please… before he comes back,” the woman cried out. The cloth shifted again and a soft gurgly giggle . It was like the thing recognized her voice. “You have to help me. Both of you.”
“Are you his wife?” Ricardo finally asked.
“No,” the woman let her tears fall. She could barely feel her legs. “But he insists I am. And he has all these rules. I need your help. Please.”
The cloth shook more violently.
“I can’t do this,” Ricardo looked up towards Julie, “I am so sorry but I can’t. Not again. I can’t go through this again.” Ricardo stared at the woman and reached down to lift her. The woman, however, pushed him back.
“My baby..” the woman gasped, “He was bitten. The old man found out. He told me to throw it away. My baby. To throw away my baby.”
Julie walked towards the cloth and used her foot to uncover what lay beneath it. The mass of quivering rotting meat tried to turn to her direction, but instead fell against its own weight. The baby’s mouth was blackened. Its ears were gone, perhaps having fallen days ago, and all that remained were holes that marked their absence. The thing squirmed like a worm that desperately sought to find soft earth where it could burrow into. From its teethless maw, the thing suckled at the air, seeking for anything to sate its hunger.
“But you-“ Ricardo was about to ask but the horror of knowing the answer to his unspoken question struck him the moment the woman pushed away from Ricardo enough to fall onto her own back. Her blouse had slid open revealing worn ragged breasts. Her nipples had been gnawed and fresh clotted blood could still be seen around its sore edges. “…You have been feeding it.”
Ricardo spun away from the woman, no longer able to hold his composure stead. He vomited onto the side seats, expelling from his stomach the congee that he had just earlier swallowed.
“Ricky,” Julie called for him.
“Let’s,” Ricardo answered, and brought the Armalite down towards the woman. He wanted to kill her. He wanted to spare her from all her misery. He wanted to bring her rest. But all he could see was a woman who was too desperate to hold on to her dead child.
There came a sound not unlike the popping wet sound of a watermelon that had been dropped against the floor. The woman wailed, knowing too well what had just happened. Her words were replaced by agonized screams that barely formed any coherent sounds.
“Julie, you didn’t…”
Julie did not turn to acknowledge his questions. She merely twisted her right foot a few more times, making sure the thing she had stomped was definitely no longer moving. Ricardo could not look away. He could not turn back to face the mother of the thing that was once a child. He began walking, leaving the wailing woman, and did not even slow down for Julie. Julie felt the heat of Ricardo’s makeshift torch flutter past her head. Without a word, she too began walking, following his lead.
Behind them, the woman pulled herself up to a sitting position. Her hands cupped over her face as she wept for her undead child. Her sorrow was great enough to have her ignore the loss of blood from Ricardo’s accidental shot.
The three fast grew into friends.
Rodolfo and Gaby found in Jal a like-minded person who shared their determination to make the most of their young adult life. Various business alternatives, financial options and small risk rackets were discussed each time they would meet. The couple felt Jal had a lot of new ideas to offer. Jal felt the couple treated him with respect, actually showing interest in the things he had to say. Their friendship grew with each passing meeting and by the end of the first week, one would find it hard to believe there was a time the couple hardly knew Jal.
In time, the couple and Jal found themselves attempting many business approaches, and while many failures came with the attempts, new insight was born from each recovery. Rodolfo remained part of the military, leaving on some occasions to fulfill obligations in defending the country. Gaby and Jal would push the business forward, eventually finding profit in reselling local goods to an international market. The friendship even went as far deep as Gaby admitting to Jal her fears of losing Rodolfo during his military excursions, Rodolfo fearing for the future of his wife and daughter if anything were to befall him, and Jal admitting the embarrassing secret permanently marking his chest. The secret seemed small, trite even, compared to those of the couple, but for Jal it was a shame he had to live with, and until now never felt the need to share.
On the day Jal learned of Rodolfo’s death, he did everything in his power to help Gaby and their daughter Julie. He maintained the business while Gaby tended to the necessary papers following her husband’s demise, making sure that money would at least not become a problem in the years to follow. He would tell the growing girl Julie stories, of how he and her parents had first met one cool night in the festive streets of Bukidnon. He would tell her of how they were to find each other again, years after, with their reunion announced to the world by the roaring of the volcano, Pinatubo. And at one point in time, he amused her with the story of a man he claimed was a foolish friend of his. The man, Jal narrated, was a foolish drunk of a man who had a foolish tattoo placed upon his chest. And Julie would laugh. She would laugh at how the man had now been forever stuck with that tattoo, and how the word KaQoH would be spelt if one were to read only the top letters and how the lyrics went to that oh so popular song.
But Jal would have to stop.
He would have to eventually stop being there for young little Julie. He would have to eventually stop working alongside lovely kind Gaby. He would have to leave. To vanish. And to begin life anew.
Because of that one fateful night when he found himself watching over young little Julie, he held her steady as she sat on his lap. And there, while she read from the books that her kind uncle Jal had brought her, he found himself running his coarse fat thumb against the smooth creamy skin of her thighs.
He felt the rise of unwanted urges.
He felt the burning of an unacceptable inner flame.
And just as he was about to pull his hand away. Just as he was about to stop. Young little Julie complained that it tickled, and Gaby looked down at them to see where his hand lay.
And he never ceased to regret the events of that fated night.