Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, addresses and situations are just made-up. This is a work-in-progress so please bear with me.
CHAPTER 1: LIFE BEGINS AT 40
February 3, 2017. I took a leave of absence from work because today is my 40th birthday. Life begins at 40, they say. But I don’t feel like living my life the way I dreamed it to be. In college, my professors said that I would go places because they saw that I was driven and dedicated. I had nothing much to worry about then. I came from a conservative middle-class family in Pampanga. I aced the entrance exam in UP and Ateneo but my father thought that I would not survive the fast-paced life in Metro Manila. So at the last minute, I found myself sitting in the car with my family on board, we were going to Baguio for my enrollment.
“Make sure that you packed your jackets and cardigans,” my mother said.
It was the 4th week of May 1994. Three years earlier, Mt. Pinatubo erupted and caused damages to lives and properties. The significant amount of ashfall that fell on the grounds and bodies of water resulted in floodings. Travel time from San Fernando, Pampanga to Manila became longer from the usual one hour and thirty minutes to four hours. Frankly, I could not understand the logic behind choosing Baguio City over Metro Manila if travel time was the only concern of my father. San Fernando, Pampanga to Baguio City travel time was six hours as compared to Manila’s four hours. I assumed that they just fell in love with Baguio and thought that studying there was more conducive than in Manila.
“You would love it there. The climate would be good for your skin. You would definitely bloom like a flower,” my mother teased me.
“But no boyfriends first,” my father glanced in my direction.
I was not in the mood to ask for more questions, confirm or deny their opinions because deep inside, my separation anxiety was slowly building up. It was my first time getting separated from home and I was not sure if I would make it away from home.
We reached Sison, Pangasinan at around 4:00 PM. We parked our car at the traveler’s stop-over to buy something cold to drink. We had more than enough food because my mother preferred to bring our food during long travels. A group of teenagers went out of the Victory Liner bus and posed for a group picture. One of them waved at me and when he realized that my father saw him, he immediately went back to the bus.
“There would be admirers, there would-be suitors. But always remember that your goal is to finish college. No more, no less,” my father kept on reminding me until I realized that we’re now driving through the Marcos Highway.
“Hurry up. It’s getting foggy,” my mother interrupted my father.
I opened the window of the car to feel the foggy highway. I felt the fog touched my skin, it was refreshing. The mountains were also a sight to behold. I had never been too close to a high mountain as San Fernando was mostly plain land. It took us 45 minutes to drive through the Marcos Highway because of my heavy luggage. We reached the city at 6:00 PM and asked the nearest gasoline station where South Drive was.
It seemed like the caretaker was already expecting us because she was sitting on the small terrace. When my father honked, she ran in our direction and opened the grill gates.
“Hi, my name is Linda but Madam Yumi wants some sort of formality so I am Ms. Linda to the students,” she slightly bowed her head as a sign of respect to my parents.
My father parked the car and asked us to get out of the car. Ms. Linda grabbed the luggage to help. I told her that I could manage.
“Are you sure? It’s heavy,” she smiled at me and I smiled back at her.
“Is this your first time here? Oh, welcome to your new house!” I nodded. I wasn’t exactly in a friendly mood because of the long travel. The house had an old Baguio vibe, the kind that you’d see in the 80s movies. There was a fireplace on the left side of the living room. The pieces of furniture were made of pinewood according to Ms. Linda.
“Where are the other students?” I finally asked.
“The other girls will arrive by next week. They are also new tenants so that means that since you are the one who arrived first, you can choose the best for you,” then she winked at me.
There were two bedrooms on the 2nd floor and 1 bedroom in the attic. Ms. Linda’s room was on the 1st floor near the kitchen. The master’s bedroom was locked and reserved for Madam Yumi’s family. Madam Yumi was my mother’s classmate in High School. She inherited this house from her parents when they passed away years ago. I opened the bedroom and found it spacious for two persons. I looked out of the window and saw nothing but vast greeneries. It made me feel isolated.
“There’s another room in the attic,” Ms. Linda whispered to me.
I didn’t expect that the stairs going to the attic would be good. The stairs were not as wide as the second-floor stairs but they were not scary. The angle or slope was not too steep for a usual attic. Ms. Linda went up to the attic first and unlocked the bedroom door for me. She turned on the light and there I saw two beds opposite each other. The room was smaller compared to the one on the second floor but I fell in love with its style. The triangular shape of the roof provided a unique design for our ceiling. I opened another door and found a small corridor leading to the walk-in closet, a separate study area, and a restroom.
“You see, the bedroom might be smaller but your overall territory is larger,” Ms. Linda teased me, and then she went back to the living room to entertain my parents.
The study area had no curtains and the glass panes were transparent so I assumed that people could see me from the outside. I opened the glass window to let the cool air in and pressed my body against the rails. I closed my eyes, not moving; I just wanted to feel the Baguio air. When I opened my eyes, I saw a guy standing in front of the grill gates, looking at me. I was surprised to see someone invading my private me-moments so I ran towards the bedroom. Then I slowly peeked through the side of the window and found out that he was gone.
At dinner time, Ms. Linda prepared chop suey and a local delicacy called pinapaitan.
“Linda, you’re such a good cook!” my mother exclaimed.
My father teased me that I should start learning how to speak Ilocano. He added that though I was raised in Pampanga, it was a pity that I never got to learn the language because all of my nannies were Tagalog. My parents were from Quezon province and they moved to Pampanga in the 70s to start a business they were not fluent in speaking Kapampangan but they could well understand the language.
After dinner, Ms. Linda prepared the water for our warm bath. She asked us to use the bathroom near the kitchen because it would be easier for her to bring the large kettle over there instead of going up to the attic. By 9:00 PM, we were all set for bedtime. My parents shared a bed while I occupied mine. I was beginning to feel separation anxiety because I knew that they would leave me early in the morning tomorrow. For the first time in my life, I felt so alone.
CHAPTER 2: Devotion
February 4, 2017.
I woke up a little late today, dazzled by the sun. My husband opens his eyes a little and continues sleeping again. I look around the room for any signs of a birthday present but found none. I pick up my mobile phone and proceed to the living room to check if the present is there. I sit down on the soft brown sofa to read my Facebook messages. A few of my friends sent me a private message to greet me on my birthday. I intentionally did not specify my birthdate on my Facebook profile to see if friends would remember my special day. True enough, only a few of them remembered. What is more heartbreaking is my own family forgot about it.
“Mom, you woke up late today so I went to school hungry,” Catherine, our only child, said. She inserted an angry emoji face on the last sentence.
I feel bad for letting my daughter down. She is our only child. Because of this, she is very much into extra-curricular activities in her college. Every Saturday morning, she goes to school to practice with the Glee Club. I’ve always been a hands-on mom. Despite my status as a working mother, I see to it that Catherine’s needs come first even if it means a slowdown in my career. On the contrary, Chris, my husband has a very good career. I was only 21 years old when I had Catherine. My early journey to motherhood allowed me to explore the joys and pains of being a mother and a wife at a young age. It was my decision to be a hands-on mother until Catherine was old enough to stand on her own. I was not emotionally ready to let her spread her wings but when the arguments became a staple in our mother-daughter relationship, I knew it was time to do so. At 10 years old, Catherine beamed with pride when she came home from an educational field trip all by herself. After that, she asked her father if she could take the school bus instead of me driving her or collecting her from school. Her father agreed, promised a raise in her allowance and Catherine looked at me with a naughty smile on her face.
“This set-up is a win-win. At least, you can have time for yourself now,” she said.
“Alright. So that means I don’t need to wake up early to prepare your breakfast,” I said.
“That’s not what I mean,” Catherine rolled her eyes and walked out.
I flushed with anger and turned to my husband.
“Did you see that?” I said to Chris but he didn’t show any reaction. He was busy reading the newspaper.
Catherine adapted to her more independent routine in no time. One day, she left her lunchbox so I needed to bring it to her.
“Mom, I intentionally left my lunchbox…I’m a big girl now.”
I was left trying to figure out if I would scream or keep my cool. As expected, I controlled my emotions and thought of my daughter’s insensitivity as one of our mother-daughter petty fights. I ate the lunch that my daughter rejected and then spent my time driving around the city. While I was stuck in the traffic, I saw a job post printed on a small tarpaulin in front of an old building. I parked my car at a nearby Jollibee store and went to the old building to inquire about the job.
“Good afternoon, Manong. I was driving around when I noticed this job ad… I wonder if the job is still available?” I asked the security guard on duty.
He looked surprised but answered me anyway.
“Please inquire inside. The office is located on the 3rd floor.”
“Thank you, Manong.”
The insides of the building looked gloomy. I headed to the stairs and prepared myself for my inquiries. I opened the glass door and proceeded to the receptionist.
“Good afternoon, my name is Leona. I read the job advertisement on the tarpaulin that was posted outside. I wonder what the qualifications are?”
“Hi, Leona. I’m Susan. Do you have your resume’ with you?”
“None…I just wanted to…”
“No problem. Just fill out this form and once you’re done, give it back to me. Do you have a ballpen? Oh, let me lend you mine.”
I looked at the job application form and felt a little uncomfortable about filling it out. I’m a woman in her early 30s with no job experience yet. It took me 20 minutes to finish it. I gave it back to the receptionist and thanked her for her assistance. I was about to go when Susan called my name.
“Leona, the team leader, and the manager are here. I suggest that you take your time first while I submit your application to them. If you are qualified, then at least you will know within the day. Is that okay with you?”
Susan gave me a pack of biscuits and a cup of brewed coffee. I couldn’t believe what I was getting myself into. After finishing my cup of coffee, I excused myself and went to the restroom to fix my hair. Then Susan led me to a small meeting room for the interview.
I expected the team leader and manager to be wearing some corporate suit but instead, they were just in their shirt and jeans. They explained to me that their company engages in marketing research.
“We’re a third-party marketing research company. We cater to start-up businesses and entrepreneurs. We need a market research analyst to fill in Joana’s team,” Ms. Montes, the manager, said.
“To be honest, I don’t have work experience yet. I focused on raising my family and now that my only child is all grown up, I just feel that it is the perfect time to explore and make use of my education,” I said.
The interview went fine (at least, from my perception). Ms. Montes and Tricia (the team leader) ended the interview by telling me to expect a call any day of the following week. I thanked Susan and Manong Guard before walking out of the building.
It was almost 5:00 PM. I drove home while singing “Skyline Pigeon” on the radio.
“Leona, I bet you’re daydreaming again,” Chris said.
I was busy thinking about the good old days, I didn’t notice that he was up already.
“I’m sorry…Pancake or rice?”
I put a big pancake on a plate and laced it with maple syrup and butter. I served it to Chris with a cup of brewed coffee. He started scrolling the messages on his Facebook as he normally does every morning. I sat across from him and waited for him to at least finish half of the pancake before I said what I was thinking.
“Do you remember the first time we spent the Panagbenga together?” I asked.
He put down his phone and looked at me wondering what I was up to.
“Yes, that was our final year in college,” he said.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am just trying to remember the sequence of activities of the Panagbenga. Am I making you nervous?” I teased him.
He did not respond. My husband has always been the type who will go silent if he is not interested in the topic. I looked at his face when he was busy reading something on his phone. His handsome face is still the same as when we first met in college. I glance at my reflection on the cabinet behind him to check how I looked.
“Maybe I look awful…,” I whispered to myself.
“Are you saying something?”
At last, I got his attention!
“I said, I’m going to Baguio tomorrow.”
He put down his phone and checked if I was joking or not.
“Is this an office activity?”
“No, I’ll go there by myself.”
“You can’t drive that far.”
“I’ll take the bus.”
“Does your boss know about it?”
“Of course! I seldom go on vacation leaves in all my seven years of employment.”
“Who’s gonna cook for Catherine?”
“Oh, she’s all grown up. She can take care of herself.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. It was too uncomfortable so I went to our room to prepare my things for travel. Oh, yeah. Life begins at 40!
Chapter 3: Baguio After Two Decades
February 5, 2017. Sunday, 7:00 AM, I am busy doing my last-minute check on my luggage when Catherine barges into the master’s bedroom.
“Mom? Daddy said that you’re going to Baguio for a vacation?” she looked half-worried and half-pissed off.
“Yes, daddy’s right.”
“I don’t know. Maybe a week or two.”
Catherine slumps on the white floor, trying to figure out what is going on.
“Mom, last Friday was your birthday! Your trip is a birthday gift to yourself! Belated happy birthday, Mom!”
I wink at Catherine to acknowledge her belated greetings. She goes out of the room while singing an unfamiliar song. I pull my luggage out of the room and find my husband in the kitchen, preparing two cups of brewed coffee.
“Chris, I’m ready to go. Wish me well.”
Chris looks at the wall clock.
“Want some coffee before you go?”
I am a little surprised. I did not expect that he would prepare coffee for me, not in our 18 years of marriage.
“I’ll take a sip. In case you forgot, I don’t eat or drink anything an hour before I travel. I have the worst case of motion sickness.”
“Bring with you some Bonamine tablets then.”
“Yes, they are in my pouch. Anyway, got to go. Catherine? Catherine!”
Catherine comes to me running like a small child again. She hugs me and whispers “Belated happy birthday.”
I smile at Chris and go outside to wait for a taxi. Because it is a Sunday, taxis are in demand. I look at my wristwatch, it is 7:45 AM already.
“Mom! Mom!” a familiar voice shouted.
“We’ll take you to the bus terminal,” it was Chris inside his car.
Chris gets out of the car and carries my luggage to put it inside the trunk. I sit on the back passenger seat, unbelieving that my husband and daughter could do such an act of thoughtfulness. There is an uncomfortable silence for the first few minutes. Good thing, Catherine turns on the FM radio so each one of us has a diversion. When was the last time that we three were together inside our car? I could not remember because that was ages ago. Occasionally, I caught Chris looking at me through the rearview mirror. I wonder what he is thinking?
At last, after about half an hour, we reach the Victory Liner Bus Terminal. Cars are not allowed to stay longer in the unloading area so Chris quickly unloads my luggage. I wave at Catherine and then tap Chris’ arms as my way of saying that I would be going. Chris gives me a quick hug, I am unprepared for that! I smile and wave at them and then I proceed to the ticketing area.
It is 8:30 AM and I am feeling the Bonamine’s effect. I am starting to feel sleepy so I take out a wet tissue and wipe my face. The bus conductor puts my luggage in the compartment area while I proceed to my assigned seat. Thank God, it is a window seat! I squeeze some orange peelings and inhale the scent. The old lady next to me looks at me and realize what is going on.
“No, not yet. I am just doing some mind-conditioning,” I replied with my eyes closed.
“You should chew some mint gums.”
“I’m okay with the orange peelings.”
“Going there for the Panagbenga?”
“Your husband and daughter did not go with you?”
I opened my eyes. How did she know that I have a husband and a daughter?
“I’m sorry. That must be too personal. I just happen to saw them waving at you earlier.”
I smile to assure her that I didn’t mind at all. I did not answer her question though. I want my peace and space.
I am getting more and more sleepy as the bus traversed through the NLEX (North Luzon Expressway). The old lady beside me started to sleep as well. Sometimes, I would wake up to the sound of the other passengers’ laughter. I didn’t mind it at all, at least I could keep track of where we were at the moment. The old lady wakes up and sees me awake.
“Where are we now?” she asked.
“Pozzorubio Exit,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s fast. We’ll be there in two hours.”
“Are you a tourist?”
“No, we have a house in Guisad. But I spend most of the time in our house in Quezon City. I just want to see the Panagbenga.”
I smile. I am in the mood for a conversation, at last.
“I also live in Quezon City but I grew up in Pampanga. And yes, that was my husband and daughter who waved at me earlier at the bus terminal.”
“And you are going to Baguio alone? Work-related?”
“No, birthday treat.”
“Oh…happy birthday, dear!”
I spent the next two hours talking with her non-stop. She offered me something to eat but I refused. I told her about my motion sickness and how, after all these years, it affected my travel plans. I told her that I realized that being 40 years old felt like opening a braver chapter of my life. While talking to her, I kept my eyes busy by looking at the Marcos Highway (or also known as Apiras-Palispis Highway). I remember the first time I saw Marcos Highway in 1994 as a young college freshman. Train of memories flooded my thoughts. A lot had been changed in the highway structure but it was still the same Marcos Highway that I remembered.
“Ay, thank God we’re here. It’s 2:00 PM, we could have arrived an hour earlier but it’s okay, we’re safe.”
The old lady is pertaining to the moderate traffic situation in Marcos Highway. Twenty-three years ago, it took me 8-12 hours to reach Baguio from Pampanga. The new super-highways made it possible to reach Baguio in just 4-5 hours now.
“I have to go now, by the way, my name is Leticia. You can call me Auntie Let. You can search for me on Facebook, just type “Auntie Let.”
Auntie Let taps me on my shoulder.
“Sure, Auntie Let. My name is Leona. I will search you on Facebook later.”
I let the other passengers get off the bus ahead of me. When it is my turn, the cold Baguio wind welcomes me. The familiar pine scent is still there but not as strong as it was two decades ago. The bus conductor hands over my luggage and then I walk in the direction of the taxi waiting area.
“South Drive, Manong.”
The taxi driver looked surprised. I understood why.
“Sorry, Ading. South Drive?”
The taxi driver in his mid-20’s nodded and helped me to load the luggage inside the trunk. I laughed at myself for that minor mistake. How could I say “Manong” to somebody who could pass as my son? What was I thinking?
“Manang, I think this is the address that you mentioned.”
“We’re here already?”
The taxi driver unloaded my luggage. He did not leave me immediately even after I paid the fare. I told him that I was just waiting for the caretaker to read my text message.
“Okay, welcome to Baguio, Manang! Enjoy the Panagbenga!” then he left.
My heart is racing. I am standing in front of the house where I spent my college years. What makes me more sentimental is the way the house looks exactly the same as two decades ago. The owner makes sure to maintain it the way it has always been. I remember the first time I set foot in the vicinity with curiosity. I remember my parents and Ms. Linda talking. For the first time in 18 years, I feel like a child again.
Chapter 4: Return to South Drive
“Manang Leona! You’re here!”
I turn around to see a young woman in her early 20s.
“You must be….”
“Dina. I’m the caretaker after Manang Martha left.”
Dina opens the gate and offers to pull the luggage for me.
“No, it’s okay. Your hands are full, I can manage.”
“I bought some pan de sal and soda for you. Manang Martha never forgot what you wanted after a long trip.”
She smiled while closing the gate.
“How is Ms. Martha, by the way?”
“Still undergoing therapy. My cousin takes her to the therapy center twice a week. We’re planning to move her from Atok to La Trinidad once she gets better. We don’t want a second stroke.”
There is sadness in her voice. I learned that Ms. Martha was the longest caretaker of this property. She was forced to retire when she suffered a stroke a year ago.
“Do you have any news about Ms. Linda?”
Dina placed the soda and pan de sal on the table and then looked at the ceiling as if trying to recall.
“Ah, Manang Linda! I heard that she’s doing well in La Union. After she left this house, she started a small piggery in La Union. Yeah, she’s doing well for the past years after being a caretaker here.”
“I’m happy to know about Ms. Linda’s good fortune,” I said while washing my hands.
Twenty-one years ago, that was in September 1996, I was on the same spot washing my hands when Ms. Linda cornered me. But unlike her previous treatments with me, her voice was cracking and her eyes were filled with tears.
“Leona, I would lose my job if you insist on telling Madam Yumi that I am stealing money from the students.”
I looked at her straight in the eye and found my courage to answer back.
“Okay, if you were not stealing, where are our payments? Tita Yumi asked my mom if I have been forgetting to pay my monthly board and lodging fee. Of course, Mom would be surprised because I always pay on time.”
“But you know that no stealing occurred! It just so happened that my children needed money so I used your payment first to send it to them.”
“Ms. Linda, that is still stealing. If you only asked Tita Yumi for a loan, for sure she wouldn’t mind lending you money. And for your information, I have talked with her over the phone early this morning. She knew about the missing payment. You spoke to me a little late. Oh, you would only speak to me when nobody else would.” I turned my back on her.
I heard a faint cry. I went to the attic and found Clara, Jenny, Marie and Joy in the room. It seemed like they were waiting for me.
“Here she comes,” Marie said then rolled her eyes. I rolled my eyes in return.
“Leona, you should have been more considerate about Ms. Linda’s case. You know and we all know the truth that she’s not capable of stealing money. Whatever came into your mind to report her to Madam Yumi?”Joy softly said.
“There’s no use to that, Joy. I heard her talking with Madam Yumi over the phone and nothing can stop her from firing Ms. Linda,” it was Marie again.
“How’s our breakfast tomorrow?” it was Clara.
“How’s dinner tonight?” it was Jenny.
“Ay sus, Apo! You are all getting dramatic just like Ms. Linda! How come none of you reprimanded her when she was bullying me for the past two years?” I replied angrily.
“You know, she liked you at the beginning for being that sweet and naive provinciana. But when you gained friends and admirers later, you became a swell-head! You’re not even helping us do the chores!” Marie would not stop.
“Let’s go now. Just talk when heads are cooler,” said Joy.
Joy, Clara, and Marie went out of the room. Jenny was lying in bed.
“Jen, don’t you think that Marie is over-reacting?”
“Both of you over-reacted,” she chuckled.
I threw a pillow at her and she did the same. Oh, the boyish Jenny never failed to make me smile. We disagreed on a number of things but she always made sure that that wouldn’t affect our friendship. We were friends first, and then roommates. The same could not be said with the emotional Marie who was two years our senior. She frequently went into dramatic arguments about politics. That was the topic that she was most sensitive to because her father was a politician in their province. On the other hand, Clara was neutral while Joy was the peacemaker.
“Manang Leona? Uy, Manang Leona? Are you okay?” Dina interrupted my trip to memory lane.
She waved her right hand as if awakening me from deep hypnosis.
“Sorry, I’m just tired. Let’s have a snack together before I rest.”
Dina gave me a tall glass of soda. I spread some butter on the pan de sal.
“Manang, I have cleaned your room in the attic. The key is inserted on the lock,” Dina said in between munching.
I smiled at Dina. Ah, after all these years, Tita Yumi knew that my favorite room would always be the room that sheltered me for four happy years.
Chapter 5: Amami
I am awakened by the sound of my ringing cellphone. It was 6:30 PM.
“Mom, how are you?”
“Ahh… just fine. I arrived here at 2:30 PM… then, I fell asleep.”
“It must be the effect of the Bonamine,” Catherine giggled.
“So, how’s everything there?”
“Dad cooked afritada for lunch. For dinner, I think that would still do. He was always checking his phone for your messages so he asked me to call you.”
“You think so?”
“It was his idea to check on you.”
“Wow, what a nice gesture.”
It is starting to get dark so I switch on the light. I go to the corridor leading to the study area to switch on the lights, too. From there, I can see the garden and the road through the transparent glass panels. I sit on the coffee table to have a more comfortable phone call with Catherine. The attic is well-kept, thanks to Dina. Catherine keeps on talking about how her day goes on without me as the usual homemaker. Then, somebody catches my attention. Somebody is standing in front of the grill gates and seem to be looking at me.
“Mom? Mom? Are you listening?”
“Catherine, I need to help Dina prepare dinner. I’ll catch up later.”
I looked at the figure again, he was gone. I went to the kitchen to help Dina and to have a small conversation with her, too. It must be lonely being alone in a big house with nobody else to talk to. I knew it, I’ve always felt isolated at home. Either Chris was too busy to talk with me or Catherine’s tantrums turned me off to start a nice chat.
“Manang, how do you like the way we cook papaitan here?”
“Oh my! Dina, that’s one of my favorite dishes here! Did Tita Yumi inform you about it?”
“Ay, no, Manang. I assumed that since you spent four years of your life here, then you must be a fan of papaitan, too.”
“Actually, I thought that I could help you around with cooking. I didn’t expect you to cook this early. Now, what else could I do to keep me busy?”
“Ay, Manang. You’re here to enjoy, not to do some household chores. Besides, that’s what I’m being paid for,” Dina smiled at me.
“You’re so hardworking! Hmmm…are you expecting somebody or a delivery earlier? I thought I saw somebody standing in front of the gate a few minutes ago.”
Dina shook her head.
“No, Manang. I don’t think it’s a neighbor, too as people on this side of Baguio typically do not mind their neighbor’s business. If somebody is in trouble, either they would call the barangay or the police station.”
“I must be dreaming. Oh, wow! This papaitan tastes so good. Coincidentally, it was the dish that I first tasted the first time I came here more than two decades ago. It was Ms. Linda who prepared it.”
“What a coincidence, indeed!”
“A lot of things have changed in Baguio but this house still remains to be the way it is.”
“Madam Yumi wanted it this way. It reminds her of the old Baguio that she knows. Have you heard that the Laperal Mansion in Leonard Wood Road had been bought by SM?”
“The White House?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“It’s a haunted house, anyway.”
“I don’t believe that rumor. Maybe they wanted to drive away curious people from entering the house.”
“What a clever idea! It was even featured in the horror special of Magandang Gabi, Bayan.”
“I suggested that idea to Madam Yumi when some naughty college students trespassed this property a year ago. I was out of the house to buy a gift in Tiong San. When I returned, the gate was open and three boys were sitting on the bermuda grass in the garden. Madam Yumi thought that my idea was funny!”
“Oy, you’re loyal to Tiong San, ha. Don’t you want to try buying in SM?”
Dina let out a disappointed frown. She chews her food and swallowed it before answering me.
“Tiong San is a novelty and so are the other Baguio stores like CID. For the restaurants, we have the Rose Bowl in Harrison. These establishments are the face of the old Baguio and I feel that we need to support them to continue their existence in the business world. But of course, I also go to SM for items that are not found in these stores.”
I understand where Dina is coming from. Her support for the original Baguio stores is not out of sentimentality but out of business perspective. She is one of the very few who knows what to support and when to do it. And she could be right, why would anyone forget the hard works of the past when it is them who are part of the group that brought glory and fame to Baguio?
“Manang, if you’re done with dinner, I’ll start washing the dishes. I know you want to help but it is my pleasure to give you a relaxing vacation.”
Dina stood up and started gathering the plates. I smiled at her and thanked her for her hard work. I went outside to feel the cold winds. The garden lights were already up and graced the patio like a scene from a Disney movie.
“Amami nga adda’t sadi langit
Madawdayaw koma ti nagan Mo
Dumteng koma ti pag-ariam…”
I stopped speaking Ilocano as soon as I finished college. My Ilocano was very basic, anyway. The only Ilocano song that I learned from the heart was the Amami or The Lord’s Prayer. There’s something therapeutic about Amami and singing it assures me that no matter what, the Lord above will be there for me. The fog started to cover the grasses in the garden so I decided to get inside to keep myself warm. I lock the wooden sliding door. Dina is inside her room, watching something on her cellphone. Before I go upstairs, I glance at the spacious living room where Jenny, Marie, Joy, Clara, and I used to hang out after dinner. The once noisy house is now resting in solitude. For the first time, I miss them.
CHAPTER 6: RUPERT & LEONA
February 6,2017 6:00 AM.
“Good morning, Dina.”
“Good morning, Manang. Wow, what a nice jogging attire!”
I turned around like a sixteen-year-old girl to acknowledge her praises.
“I want to feel the cold Baguio morning again. I’ll jog around the neighborhood. I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t wait for me, I know it’s your market day today.”
“Okay, Manang. Enjoy!”
Dina’s voice faded as I jogged out of the vast compound. My warm breath formed a smoke around my mouth area merging with the cold air. Twenty years ago, this part of South Drive was secluded so we were forced to get home earlier than most of our classmates whose dormitories or apartments were within General Luna, Magsaysay, Aurora Hill, Trancoville, and even Brookside. Among my housemates, it was Marie who often initiated our jogging activity. My first jogging left me with a bad cold for two weeks but as soon as I got well, I was back in our routine again. I imagine the five of us jogging again at this very hour: Marie and Joy in front of us, Clara behind them, and Jenny and I in the last row. Whenever Joy became busy with her thesis and could not go with us, Clara jogged alongside Marie to keep her company while Jenny and I remained as jogging partners. Whenever Jenny’s laziness attacked, Clara, Marie, and I would jog together but on a single file formation. Jogging had become our routine so even when Marie and I had a big misunderstanding at some point, we still jogged together but we were not talking to one another.
When I was not busy at school, I spent my Sunday afternoon with Rupert riding on his bicycle. I was in freshman when I met Rupert. My first impression of him was a lunatic stalker who spent his late afternoons standing in front of the grill gates while staring at our attic. He was that anonymous stalker that would disappear the moment he felt that we were after him. Ms. Linda deduced that the anonymous stalker was after me because I was the only one who loved to stay in the coffee table area of the attic where people from the outside could see me through the glass panels. Ms. Linda lent me a pair of binoculars to help me identify the anonymous stalker once he came around again. But he was smarter than we thought because the moment he noticed that I raised my arms, he sped away on his bicycle. Jenny said that catching him was easy, she asked me to pretend that I was busy reading the magazines while she would hide in the bushes to surprise him.
Just as we predicted, the anonymous stalker parked his bicycle on our driveway and then stood in front of the grill gates. Because he thought that I did not see him, he became relaxed and spent more time looking at me. Unknown to him, Jenny left the gate unlocked so when he held into the grills, he was pushed inside. Jenny quickly got up and used her martial arts skills to pin him to the ground. With his arms at his back, the anonymous stalker was helpless. Ms. Linda and I went to help Jenny.
“Manang Linda! Don’t hurt me, it is me!”
“Tell us your name or I will use this baseball bat to crack your head!”
“Manang Linda, it’s Rupert!”
Ms. Linda went to the other side to see his face. Her eyes grew big in surprise.
“Rupert! Is that you? Get up. We’re sorry, we mistook you for someone else.”
Jenny and I were confused.
“So, you know each other?” Jenny asked.
“Rupert lives nearby. He used to trim the grasses here…for free.”
“So he stopped trimming the grasses because it was free?” I asked.
“No, no. Madam Yumi bought a lawnmower so I could do the trimming anytime. This boy is in college now so he would have less time to help us around… for free.”
Ms. Linda smiled and winked at Rupert. Jenny shrugged her shoulders and offered her right hand to Rupert as a sign of peace. Rupert shook hands with Jenny. I remained standing, unconvinced about the “goodness” of this stranger.
“My name is Rupert. Rupert Bautista. I’m sorry if I scared you…?”
“Jennifer Dizon. You can call me Jenny.”
Rupert looked in my direction, waiting for my turn. I looked away and made him feel unwelcome. Jenny probably felt my disappointment so she tried to break the ice. Ms. Linda tapped Rupert on his shoulder and then went inside the house to continue what she was doing.
“Rupert, this is Leona. She’s really upset because for the past four weeks, we’ve been trying to pin down her anonymous stalker and I guess, we’re back to square one. You are not her stalker, right?”
Rupert let out a burst of soft laughter, then looked at me. His expressive eyes seemed to be questioning Jenny’s statement.
“Why would you assume that she has a stalker?”
“And why would you think that we’re over-reacting?” I replied in an irritated tone.
“I’m sorry. Let me just explain… just because somebody is looking at you doesn’t mean that he means any harm. What if I tell you that I am that guy who regularly goes there to catch a glimpse of your presence? Will that make me a stalker?”Rupert said with a boyish smile.
“If you’re threatening my peace and space, then you are a stalker!”
“But I didn’t do anything bad! I didn’t break the law. I didn’t even try to disturb you. If you really wanted to get rid of me, you could have asked Manang Linda to provide a curtain to cover the attic,” then Rupert sat on the garden chair, feeling victorious.
“Why would I cover the attic just to discourage sick people like you from looking? You should see a doctor and have your head checked!”
“I am just kidding. I suck at being cool and now, you’re mad at me. I’ve been wanting to tell Manang Linda to cover the attic because some crazy guys might be tempted to break into this house and harm the ladies. I’m sorry if I offended you in any way, Leona.”
I raised my right eyebrows and left him and Jenny in the garden. I could hear Jenny’s giggles followed by some comforting words for him. Joy, Clara, and Marie stopped talking as soon as they saw me approaching them. Ms. Linda must have told them about the incident in the garden. I sat on the couch, pouting and harshly turning the pages of the magazine.
“BEEP BEEEEEEP BEEEEP”
The gray Montero cut my daydreaming. It was my fault, the events that happened two decades ago consumed me that was why I didn’t notice that I was already jogging in the middle of a busy road. I realize that I am now standing in front of the property where Rupert’s house is located. The stone masonry fence is full of mosses but the grasses are still well-trimmed. The trees have grown bigger and taller and created an umbrella effect on the porch leading to the bushes. With my heart pounding fast, I opened the gate and left it unlocked. Given the cleanliness of the place, it’s safe to assume that somebody else is still living in the house at the back of the bushes.
I walk slowly and occasionally stop to check for any alarm or dog presence. Rupert and his family never owned a dog in their life. Who knows who’s now occupying this place?
“Tug. Tug. Tug.”
I can’t figure out what that sound is all about. It doesn’t sound like coming from a piece of mechanical equipment like a generator or a water meter. I’m careful not to create any sound. A pine cone dropped on my head and I let out a soundless scream.
“Tug. Tug. Tug.”
I am now in the middle of the property. I can stop walking and run towards the gate or I can continue walking and satisfy my curiosity. What will I tell the new owners, anyway? That I was the ex-girlfriend of the original owner and I just wanted to look around and think of the good old days? I would sound absurd, if not crazy!
At last, I am now standing in front of the cabin-style house where some of the most wonderful memories of my younger self happened. It seems like yesterday when Rupert and I collected the pine cones to create beautiful Christmas ornaments. I can still see Clara helping Tita Sally prepare the barbecue for grilling while Joy and Marie take turns in cooking pancit or spaghetti. I can still hear Jenny complain about being tired of being the errand girl to the nearest sari-sari store. For some reason, I miss Rupert’s loving gazes as he guided me through cutting vegetables or peeling fruits. Rupert’s parents, Tita Sally and Tito Mon welcomed us in their home long before Rupert and I became an item. Rupert had a sister who died when she was ten years old so the family lived alone in this huge property. Despite being known in their place, the family lived a low-profile life and was always been within reach by their neighbors. My final year in Baguio as a 4th-year student consumed most of my time. In addition to that, those were the days when Rupert and I seldom saw each other. It is for these reasons that I could not remember well what happened to Tita Sally and Tito Mon. Did they finally decide to follow their relatives and start a new life in Australia? What happened to Rupert? Is he now happily married? Why would I even care when I was the one who ran away from them?
Finally, I found the source of the sound. A shirtless man is busy chopping pine woods. His shirt is hanging on the bench. He is sweating profusely because of the hard labor. He is still wearing his denim jeans though. I can’t see his face and I find it a little awkward on how to catch his attention without appearing somebody like a trespasser.
“Good morning, Sir?”
The man stopped chopping woods. In an instant, he turned around to see me.
Oh, my! I’m in trouble!