Nanowrimo 2009 Entry: Surviving Manila: Risen Threat
There were hundreds upon thousands of them, moving down the narrowing section of the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue as if in silent protest against the corrupt regime of a debilitated government. No banners were raised in this march of the masses this time however. No music-interwoven insults were chanted. No stage was raised at the foot of the massive metal madonna whose outstretched hands held immobile beams of concrete hope.
This was no revolution unfolding upon the main road known as EDSA.
It was well past the third hour of the afternoon and the sun hung closer towards the horizon. A comfortably chilly November such as this would typically be punctuated by the blare of car horns, the groan and rumble of privately-owned buses and the self-serving sirens of the escorted public officials whose cars (regardless of whom rode in them) were given priority and enforced passage through the traffic slowed streets. Instead, there was an ominous lingering silence. The uneasy peace of quiet blanketed the area was reminiscent of ghost towns and movie cities that had been ravaged by the hordes of the undead or the undiscriminating touch of plague.
And that was quite an apt comparison.
For indeed Manila was infected with plague.
A plague of the hungry and the walking dead.
Ricardo peered through the pair of binoculars that hung from his neck and carefully surveyed the area ahead of him. While his eyes attentively noted the presence of any body, moving or not, that could be seen currently upon the tracks of the no-longer functioning Metro Rail Transit, Ricardo felt a painful stabbing sensation on the arches of his feet. He ignored the pain, having learned from the last few days the importance of keeping your eyes well-trained towards possible threats on the road before considering matters of comfort or shame. It had all begun quite unexpectedly. It merely took a matter of days for things to take a turn for the worst. And Ricardo was among the lucky few to have survived this long so far.
The Metro Rail Transit was an electronically powered railway system that carried people up and down the entire stretch of EDSA for the past ten years. Made of a single line that served a number of key stations along the length of almost 20 kilometers, the rail system has long been a means of transportation that provided both easier access to nearby shopping centers as well as an alternative to the typically traffic-heavy roads. Every station consisted of a raised concourse level which contained shops and restaurants, a platform level where the passengers would be able to gain access to the trains, and escalators or stairwells which then allowed them access to the street level or nearby commercial structure.
While their efficiency in relieving the heavily congested road remains debatable, no one would be able to deny how instrumental the stations and line have been in helping keep the survivors alive.
The narrow points of entry and closeable fare gate areas allowed survivors to seal off entry into the MRT itself. The raised stations and roofed concourse and platforms allowed for a higher degree of protection from both the elements and the carnivorous undead. And the length of the line itself allowed survivors to traverse much further with a greater degree of relative safety.
Safety from the dead, that is.
For sad but true, as it has long believed to be a very Filipino trait, the "crab in a bucket" syndrome was quite evidently present even at these trying times. In the mad rush to survive and strengthen one's chances of protecting oneself, factions began to quickly form. And these said factions eventually gained control and self-proclaimed ownership of a station or two. In the spirit of ensuring their own protection, such cliques quickly closed off free passage between stations and required those who wished to pass to pay a fee of recovered goods or useful weapons.
The MRT line had become a privatized highway, whose ownership was contested by a number of cliques that had no intentions of merely combining their resources to help each other survive. While the inherent mistrust was seemingly present from the start, the unfortunate loss of both the Buendia and Ayala stations (both of which had platforms at street level height) pushed the paranoia far too high for any possible cooperation to happen again.
Ricardo carefully inspected the route ahead of him and realized there was a makeshift shelter built upon the loose gravel between the north and southbound tracks. In the shelter, a man kept watch. Ricardo noted the frayed straw hat that the man used to protect his face from the sun. He noted the heavy patched up denim jacket that the man wore over his bloodstained rust-colored sando. The man was armed with an Armalite, the kind of rifles typically used by the local military. Ricardo could not see if the man wore military-grade boots as well. He knew, however, that he was approaching the watchpost of the next clique.
Rolling onto his back, Ricardo slid the binoculars back under his loose cardigan. Though the sweater was less sturdy than a denim jacket, its material allowed him to remain cool on warmer days and warm in much less forgiving cold nights. Ricardo's jeans looked new, a recent aquisition from a suitcase he had found abandoned close to the fire exit of the last station he was at. The size matched him perfectly and that in itself was enough reason to ditch the old worn and torn slacks he had worn the past few days. It allowed him some semblance of feeling a bit cleaner, even with the dried blood, stale sweat, and rotting bits and pieces of meat in his hair and clothes. He knew the lookout at the watch post would regard him with caution. Ricardo was certain his appearance would intimidate the guard, being a tall man just an inch shy of six feet. His body was well sculpted from years spent working out at the gym, swimming and running. There was a point in time Ricardo had dreams of joining a triathlon. Now, his diligence in keeping fit had become a major factor that kept him alive. Atop the cardigan sweater, Ricardo wore a black photographer's vest. The vest had many pockets and velcro straps and both have proven tremendously helpful in his daily trials to survive. Inside the pockets were the tools to his survival; salted crackers, a bottle of alcohol, a lapad of gin, a lighter, a small bottle of mineral water and a few plump tomatoes. He had a serrated knife strapped to his left thigh (stolen from a dead body on the road) and a pair of sharp heavy scissors in his pocket. He also had a pistol tucked in his back underneath his belt, but had run out of bullets and merely carried it in case he found more. Lastly, he wore an orange scarf around his neck which surprisingly has saved his life on more than one occasion. The scarf was wrapped around his neck and part of it covered his nose and mouth, acting as a adequate lightweight filter against the elements.
He knew he had to get past the Shaw station.
And this watch post was the first he had to cross.
"Tao po!" Ricardo called out towards the shelter and raised both hands upwards. His left hand had the thumb and pointer finger raised outwards to form the letter L while the rest of his fingers were clutched closed. His right hand held the fore and ring finger outwards to form the letter V. It was an odd position to hold, but it was clearly one that required conscious effort to hold. Ricardo recalled his grandmother that moment. She used to tell him that the expression, "Tao po!" was popularized back during a time when belief in monsters was strong. The dreaded aswang was believed to be a shape changer and used its ability to mimic forms to lure unsuspecting victims into a false sense of security before striking. It was said that such creatures, however, could not lie and verbally declaring that one was human by saying "Tao po" became the expected greeting between people to ensure it was not an aswang outside one's door. Ricardo smirked at the thought that the phrase once again seemed to finally regain its original purpose.
The man at the watch post raised one hand to the level of his eyes. Ricardo knew the man was eyeing him carefully now. He felt his pulse quicken in anticipation of possible trouble. He felt his hands moisten with sweat.
"Tao po!" Ricardo called out again, "I just need to get through Shaw. Just passing through."
Ricardo waved both hands in the air again, as if it would help the man watching him see how he held them in those two positions. There was a time when the L-shape and the V-shape hand formations represented two warring political sides. Today, they represented a Filipino survivor who was still intelligent and not overcome by the desire to devour human flesh.
The man brought his raised hand down in front of him and held all fingers outwards. Ricardo easily understood it to mean he was to stop. The man took a tentative few steps forward and kept his other hand clutched tight around the Armalite's grip. A sudden gust of wind from the north blew and dust swirled around them both. Ricardo fought the instinct to close his eyes, unwilling to risk exposing himself to danger. Pain was preferable to death. The man stopped in his tracks as the wind buffeted him. His straw hat was blown off his head and rode off with the now passing gust of wind. Ricardo saw the man's bald head was bleeding. Three vividly red lines had been scratched down from his scalp to his forehead, ending just shy of his eyebrows. There were soft groaning voices in the air. Ricardo wondered if there would ever come a point in time when the zombies would gain back enough intelligence to navigate better up the staircases or worse clamber up steel fences. A few shots could be heard being fired in the distance. A car alarm began to cry its shrill mechanical cry.
“Just need to get through,” Ricardo repeated and waited for the man to respond.
The man was wiping his face with his free hand. He padded his hand against his bloodstained sando, then brought it up to wipe his face. Another lighter gust of wind blew and dust stung into his eyes. The man cussed softly, spat onto his fingers, and used them to rub his eyes clear. It was a moment he was clearly vulnerable and unprotected, but it was a moment Ricardo realized he had best play to show he can be trusted. Ricardo kept his distance and waited for the man to recover.
“Where are-“ the man began but felt his eyes sting once more. Ricardo realized he would need more than spit to clear that out.
“Pare, I will just pull out a bottle of water,” he called out to the man, “Okay?”
The man actually let go of his rifle, allowing it to hang uselessly on the strap around his shoulder. He brought both hands to his face and tried to rub his eyes enough to generate tears. Ricardo took his lack of a response as an uncaring version of a yes and brought both hands quickly to his vest. He found the pocket which held the bottle and slowly drew it out. He took one last long drink from it, then called out to the man again, offering it.
“Use this to wash it out!”
The man forced one eye open and saw the nearly empty bottle of water that Ricardo was holding. He nodded and waited for Ricardo to throw it. Ricardo raised the bottle up and then stopped, having decided against throwing it. He walked towards the man now, keeping his other hand clearly held up with the hands evidently empty. The man did not argue against him and actually stepped forward as well, eager for the water to help clear the pain.
“Salamat… salamat,” the man already began to mutter as he took the bottle and twist it open. He took a swallow of water, then spat out a smaller amount to moisten his eyes. He was quite obviously thirsty. Ricardo regretted losing the other bottle of water he had to trade away for some bread. The bread he purchased was stale and dry. The water would have been a much more precious commodity. For now, thankfully, the water in his fingers was enough. The man cleared his eyes and saw Ricardo still waiting in front of him, a good two yards from where he stood. The impression of trust was formed. “Thank you for the water,” he told Ricardo and left his Armalite hanging. It was a clear sign he had trusted Ricardo at last. “Where are you headed?”
“Paranaque,” Ricardo replied giving an uneasy smile. Small talk seemed to suggest the nuances of a friendly exchange. The topic, however, was not of a cheerful one. “I have to check on my parents. I don’t know how they are faring.”
“Are you serious? After everything that has happened? You plan to look for your parents?”
“We were still in touch until the phone lines stopped working. They were actually doing okay. The house… their house was actually built with a few steps leading to the front gate. Just enough to keep the zombies off balance when they try to crowd the door.”
The man nodded thoughtfully. Most of the earlier victims were the squatters who slept along the dark alleys and in shanties that were sardined together with other illegal houses. One bite was all it took, after all, for the infection to spread. And sadly, many of those who were bitten resisted the plague long enough to be brought back home. Or rushed to the hospital.
“Garage?” the man inquired.
“Still holding from what I last heard. Tall steel solid metal gate,” Ricardo replied, “It was damaged by a drunken neighbor some months ago, so they replaced it with something sturdier. From the last time I spoke with them, it was still holding.”
“What about food,” the man asked as he closed the plastic bottle and threw it aside. Ricardo scowled at the action and made to follow the bottle to pick it up. In such trying times, having a resealable container of water was very important.
“They were managing. I guess they found a way to get supplies better. Or maybe they found a system that works. The houses in our area were-“ Ricardo stopped as he reached down to pick the bottle up. He realized it wasn’t wise to talk of his parents’ place as being too ideal lest he rouse interest in others to check the place out. “- they were mostly bungalows, so maybe they used the rooftops to cross. Once I get to them, I guess I’ll try to bring them back with me. Find somewhere else safer where we can live in. Maybe even try a station.”
The man nodded, then turned his head to look for where his straw hat had been blown to.
“How is your family,” Ricardo then asked as he brought the bottle back into his pocket. He noticed something on the loose gravel a bit ahead of him. It glinted against the sunlight. Ricardo glanced upwards and saw that the man was still focused on finding his hat. Ricardo leaned forward, resting his weight on one hand, and tried to scoop up the thing on the floor.
It was a fingernail.
Polished purple, with a small false rhinestone on its center.
Ricardo pulled his hand back, the horror of it still affecting him.
“They’re gone,” the man sighed and found his hat at the far side, past the center gap, close to the eastern wall of the line. He motioned to Ricardo and saw him on his knees on the ground and decided Ricardo would have trouble breaking into a sudden run. The gift of water reminded him Ricardo could be trusted. “I was out drinking with some friends at the pier when it all began. I got home to find my family already dead. I thought they were murdered. Salvaged. Or maybe that it was some addicts.”
Ricardo noticed the stones seem to have been somewhat cleared in a certain way from the fingernail. It was almost as if something was dragged from it. Ricardo’s gaze followed the direction hinted at by the rocks and realized it pointed straight towards the shelter.
“I sat down in the living room, staring at all their dead bodies. I knew I should call the cops…” the man’s voice trailed out. A laugh broke through his calm demeanor. He had just realized the absurdity of what he just said. There was no point in calling for the police that morning. They wouldn’t have known what to do either.
“They were dead?” Ricardo replied, unconsciously echoing the man’s last words the way one might carry a conversation disinterestedly.
“Yes. And I was too shocked to do anything. I just kept my eyes closed and prayed. I just kept praying. We were born again, you see. My family was. I.. I was too.”
Ricardo began to realize the muffled moans were not coming from far away. The muffled sounds he heard were not from the zombies that littered below the railway. They were coming from inside the shelter.
“I asked the Lord to be kind. To forgive me for still drinking. For my women. To take me instead. They always went to hear the preachings.”
Ricardo noticed at the foot of the shelter was a shoe. It was a rubber shoe. Slender than his own. The laces were still in place. The ends tied in a knot. But it was empty.
“To bring them back.”
The shoe of someone who lost it in a struggle.
“And the Lord did,” the man picked up the hat from the ground. He stopped in his stooped position as tears threatened to fall. He recalled how he saw the bodies began to twitch. He recalled how he saw his wife’s eyes slowly open. He recalled how he at first felt overjoyed that the Lord answered his prayers, then recoiled away in panic as he realized they had been brought back to punish him. The man’s wife and his two children were risen from the dead but they were not brought back to life. He remembered the hunger in their eyes.
The wind blew again. This time it blew in the opposite direction. The northbound wind came and carried with it the sweet soft scent of sampaguita.
The shelter’s covering was lifted a bit by the gust of wind. Ricardo peered in and saw a woman who was tied up and naked, while another man pleasured himself with her. He saw her hands that were tied above her head with duct tape and wire. He saw that she lacked a fingernail. Ricardo felt the disgust transform into anger.
“Do you think the Lord is doing this to punish us?” the man asked only to turn and see Ricardo already running straight towards the shelter. Ricardo pulled out his knife and held it ready as he kicked the shelter’s side. The wooden booth broke open and the tarp covering the top blew free. The fragrant smell of sampaguita stood in clear contrast with the evident act of rape that was happening before his eyes.
The man reached for his Armalite.
Ricardo plunged the knife into the other man, whose sweaty body was still pushed against the naked woman’s flesh. She stared at him with horrified eyes as Ricardo pulled the man off her while keeping the knife embedded into his back. Ricardo spun around in time just before the Armalite was cocked in his direction.
“Potang ina! What are you doing!?!” the man cried out but Ricardo was lost in his anger. He pulled the knife out and wrapped the knife arm around the naked man’s chest, leveling the blade to his throat. The naked man struggled to breathe but was in terrible pain. His blood was staining Ricardo’s cardigan sweater and pants. The man with the Armalite held the gun towards them but realized his friend was still alive.
“Drop the gun,” Ricardo barked.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Drop the gun! Or he dies!” Ricardo growled and pushed the naked man a step forward with him. The naked man grunted in pain as the movement caused more blood to gush out from his back. Ironically, the man’s phallus remained erect, the excitement keeping his blood pressure high and pumping.
“I am the one with the gun!” the man yelled back, “I’m the one you should follow.”
“Then watch your friend die,” Ricardo spat out and pushed the blade against the naked man’s throat. The metal bit against skin and a red gush ran down his sweaty skin. The blood zipped down his beer belly and coiled into the dark mesh of his public hair.
“Wait! Wait wait wait…” the man cried out and twisted his arms to bring the Armalite down. But in a foolish attempt to feint, the man suddenly twisted the weapon back up and opened fire at Ricardo’s direction. The short burst struck the naked man twice, bursting his stomach open and allowing his coiled intestines to slide out.
The man’s face turned pale in realization of what he had done.
Ricardo wasted no time in using that shock to his advantage. He pulled out his pistol and cocked it at the man. “Drop it!” He yelled and allowed the knife and the dead naked man to fall on the tracks. Blood crept outwards from the exploded belly and painted the rocks a glistening red. The man with the Armalite stared at his dead friend, still horrified at what he had done. The rifle wavered in his hands. “Drop it!” Ricardo yelled, knowing rushing the man with a knife was just unlikely to work as threatening him with his unloaded gun. But if there was anything Ricardo knew for certain, it was the fact that intimidating others was a skill he had honed well. His large frame coupled with his booming voice helped push forward any attempts to make others do what he wanted.
The man, in his confusion, dropped the rifle.
Ricardo rushed forward, using his gun to motion the man to step back. The man took a step back and felt the waist high wall barrier of the line behind him. A quick glance revealed the hordes of starving things that gathered below, drawn by the sounds of their voices.
Ricardo reached downwards and pulled the Armalite up, holding it aimed at the man. He pocketed the empty pistol as he silently thanked whatever God up there helped him. The gamble had paid off and he was alive. And even better, he had a working rifle.
“He’s… he’s dead…”
“Yes, thanks to you,” Ricardo snarled and backed up slowly til he reached the shelter. He quickly positioned himself to be able to see the man by the wall and the tied up woman in the same angle. Kneeling, he dug out the scissors from his pocket and began snipping away part of the duct tape that was forced over her mouth. Thankfully, he was proficient in using the scissors with either hand. Small useless talents back before all this had happened. Now, they were talents that seemed to mean the difference of life and death.
“He’s… he’s going to come back…”
“Probably. Probably not,” Ricardo snipped away the last of the tape and the woman quickly took a deep intake of breath. She held the air in her lungs and calmed herself down. Breathing out, she now pulled herself up to a seated position, maneuvering her body with the help of her legs. Her eyes studied Ricardo curiously, uncertain why he had chosen to help her. Strangers don’t often help other strangers if the help placed the other in too much danger.
Or required too much effort.
In many ways, that was the reason the outbreak had happened so quickly in Manila. When the sickness began to spread, too many people treated it off as some urban legend. Most were content to spread the warnings away through text messages, blog entries and Facebook updates. But few were actually following the things their own warnings reputedly were saying. No one was actually rushing to hospitals to get any unsightly wounds or injuries checked. No one was actually reporting and strangers walking aimlessly outside their homes. And definitely no one was reporting if their sexual partners had seemingly begun getting interested in kinkier sex that involved biting and breaking the skin.
And the few that did, promptly forgot to keep vigilant in the following days.
“Thank you,” the woman replied as Ricardo continued to snip away, this time, loosening the duct tape that had been repeatedly wound around her wrists. The wire entangling them would have to wait. That would require both his hands free.
“Thank me later. I’m not quite sure yet how this is going to end,” Ricardo mumbled back, realizing even if somehow that man was removed from being a danger, he and the woman would most likely have trouble ahead waiting at the Shaw station. Some stations had created small systems to inform the gate guards if the arrivals were given permission to pass. The distance between stations have required small methods such as bringing a token showing they were cleared for passage, or perhaps a marking on the body denoting they paid the necessary toll. Such procedures were often changed to ensure security of a station. Ricardo considered forcing the man to give them whatever constituted as the token, but realized how too easily the man can claim anything else to be a token of passage and lure them to be captured or worse, used as zombie lures. Some stations would use their dead, or undesirables as lures to bring the zombies away from the fenced gates, long enough for them to have a group enter or exit the gates. It was the quick-thinking Pinoy ingenuity in motion, only for less socially-acceptable purposes.
“The sampaguita,” the woman muttered back, “The sampaguita is their gate token. At least for now.”
Ricardo turned to her, surprised she would willingly share the information as well. She could have concealed what she had known as a resource to trade for a weapon. Or freedom. But he decided she could sense he truly wanted to help her. So she helped him in return.
“He’s moving!” she gasped and Ricardo looked back upwards to see the man making a break for the station. Though they were far too distant from Shaw station, he knew all he needed was the inner watch guards to see him for help to come quickly.
“Shit!” Ricardo pulled the Armalite up and took aim. He released a short burst but watched in dismay as the concrete walls revealed each missed shot. He hated guns. He was never a good shot with them. Playing first person shooters hours on end did nothing to better his aim with an actual firearm. While he understood the specifics needed to make a proper shot, he lacked the skill to translate it into physical actions. “I don’t know how to use this! He’s gonna get away!”
“Untie me!” the woman hissed, “Hurry! The wire! Get the wire off!”
Ricardo dropped the Armalite and the pair of scissors beside them and quickly pulled on the wires with both hands to untangle them from her wrists. She grit her teeth as the wires initially were pulled tighter against her skin, but the moment some slack was gained, she began to squeeze and twist her hand in hopes of loosening even just one in time.
The man with the scars kept running. Each step took him further from the two and closer towards help. The wind once again stole away his straw hat, but this time he was smart enough to keep running.
“Damn it, this is-“
“Just keep loosening it!” the woman snapped back at him and began pulling back her left arm. She felt the wires loosen enough to allow her wrist some wiggle room. She pressed her right wrist against the wire and tape, and began to pry her left arm free. The duct tape stung as it slowly gave way, the adhesive tearing from her skin.
“Hoy!” the man began to cry as he ran, hoping the distant watch would notice. “Over here!”
“Hurry!” the woman gasped as her hand wiggled free. She shook it a few times to quickly get her blood circulating once more. “My gun! Give me my gun!”
“You’re left-handed?” Ricardo asked.
“Just give me the damned gun! It should be there, on the floor somewhere nearby! Hurry!”
He obeyed. Looking at the area near her. He saw a .40 Smith & Wesson pistol on the floor close to the stack of nearby sampaguita. He grabbed the pistol then handed it to her. With a quick fluid motion, she switched the safety of the weapon and brought it up to eye-level.
She took a deep breath then took aim. The man was a few shy of being 100 yards away. Ricardo wondered if the pistol was the wisest choice of a weapon to use.
The gunshot cracked into the air.
The man fell, blood spouting from a dark hole on his back, just slightly closer to his right side.
“Wow,” Ricardo stared, only now ever seeing someone use a pistol that effectively at such a range. He had seen enough unthinkable things happen in the last few days to actually inspire him to form a mental list of other unthinkable things to expect. But seeing a tied up woman shoot a moving target down at a range of almost 100 yards with a pistol in her left hand was something that wasn’t even on the list. One that was, however, was helping someone out who who then hold at gun to his face. That was exactly what he saw next as he turned to talk to her after seeing the man hit the ground.
“Easy,” the woman told him, “Just tell me who you are.”
Ricardo looked into her eyes. They were cold. Focused. He knew better than to bluff or lie to her.
“Ricardo,” he replied. His eyes focused on hers. Better there than the barrel of the gun.
“Ricardo,” she repeated and finally loosened her right hand from the wire and tape. His hand were empty. She reached for the Armalite and pulled it away from his reach. “Ricardo what?”
He hesitated. He didn’t think she’d kill him, but he wasn’t sure if she leave him unharmed. What if she was crazy?
“Ricardo what?” she asked again, and this time, reached down for the pair of scissors. She flipped them over, holding now the sharp ends, and reached forward to return them to him. Ricardo sighed, realizing too easily what was to come next. “Reyes. Ricardo Didomenico Reyes.”
His hands took the scissors, but she did not release them. Instead, she kept a hand on them as she pulled her pistol back and held it to her side. “Ricky Reyes, huh? Explains why you’re good with the scissors more than the gun then.”
He smiled, finding her expected joke less irritating than he thought it would be. “Ricardo. Stick to Ricardo please.”
“Thank you,” she told him and released the scissors. “You’re a good guy, Ricky… Ricardo. Sorry about the pistol. Just had to check. It sounds stupid, but I could always tell when someone could be trusted if they told me their name while staring at my eyes.”
Ricardo nodded, and pointed to the Armalite.
“Keep it,” she muttered, “I don’t like using rifles. To heavy. It isn’t exactly the same as using a gun.”
“You were pretty good at it,” he complimented her, and she looked up at him as she bent down to gather the shreds of her clothing that were still on the floor. Her panties were torn up, the fabric ripped apart during the rape. Her jeans were luckier, and these she slipped on with some degree of effort. Ricardo noticed her purple polished fingernails. Each one had a fake rhinestone on them. Only her right hand’s pointer finger lacked a nail. Instead it had a bloody fleshy hole where her nail used to be. He grimaced, imagining the pain.
“My father was in the military. He used to take me to the shooting range every week. Called me his Lara Croft.”
She saw his expression. She looked down at her injured finger and snapped the buttons of her jeans closed. Reaching down with her right hand, she zipped it closed and kept her fingers clenched to hide the nails from his view. “It doesn’t hurt as much anymore. The pain was worse when I was losing it. But now, it feels pretty numb.”
“Your name,” Ricardo forced himself to look at her face now. She was attractive, but in no means anything close to Angelina Jolie who had played Ms. Croft for the Hollywood adaptations of the Tomb Raider video game. Her features suggested a touch of Chinese influence, giving her eyes a slightly narrower angle. Her skin was pale white, the envied shade that had launched a hundred skin whitening product commercials, and her hair was cropped short and barely reached her nape. She had small breasts but in no means were they unattractive ones. Ricardo guilty knew she was also a woman who trimmed herself, but it was a guilt more out of learning it without her consent than anything else.
“Julie,” she replied and held up the remnants of her bra. The garter was intact but the cups were ripped open. She slung them on anyway, and began putting on the black shirt that was slung over an empty recycled plastic bottle. There was a time that bottle held soda that reminded people to “Always Coca-Cola!” The shirt was too large for her. Ricardo realized quickly it used to belong to one of the men.
“You don’t mind wearing something they owned?”
She looked at him. Her eyes were cold. Not a hint of tears. “No. Besides, I need them more than they will.”
Ricardo left it at that.
“I’m making my way to Makati,” she told him, “We can help each other out until we get to Buendia station if you want. I have a friend at Guadalupe station who can make it easier for you. But I would appreciate some help getting through Shaw. “
“As you just saw, a lone woman moving about tends to get unwanted attraction. I guess the Philippines headed down the damn drain isn’t enough for some people,” she replied, and Ricardo wondered where the last part came from. He reached for the Armalite and slung it around his shoulder. Julie grabbed a few sampaguitas and wrapped it around her wrist. She dug through the other things in the shelter and found her sling bag among the dead men’s other things. “There’s a few canned goods here you might want to get. But if it is okay with you, I’d want to keep this for myself.” She lifted a portable cooking stove that she found among the men’s belongings. It had a tiny butane tank underneath the low-pressure propane burner casting, with a tiny air shutter and its own electric igniter. The whole thing was small enough to fit in her bag.
“Sure,” Ricardo muttered and reached a hand out towards her to help her get up to her feet. “On both offers.”
Julie smiled and found her other shoe. Sliding her foot in, she shifted her weight a few times to make the fit comfortable, before approaching Ricardo with a few more sampaguitas in hand. She took his left wrist and wrapped the flowers around them. Ricardo saw her smile was still there and felt the urge to smile as well. “Let’s get through this then, Julie. Let’s get home.”
“Home,” Julie mumbled softly, and had Ricardo been a bit more observant he would have realized she didn’t exactly say it to mean she agreed.