The four of them – Cedric, Brian, Emily and Cleofe – would gather in Cedric Placido’s house, two blocks away from the town memorial park and surrounded by empty lots and trees. Little children gravitated toward the area because it was a perfect place to play hide-and-seek, and every day they’d have to make a quick stop in Cedric’s backyard to shoo the children away before entering the house. The four of them would bring chips and fish crackers and, if Cleofe happened to be in the mood, a container filled with her mother’s macaroni salad, and Cedric would break a six-pack of root beer (or sometimes real beer, if they were up to it), all of which they’d dump on the living room carpet while they dissected perennial topics like, Why The Theater Club Should Stop Staging “The Tempest”, or Will Brian Obina Ever Flunk Algebra? Brian would only shrug at the second and laugh at the first, which always made Emily want to drown him in the toilet bowl. Emily was a member of the Theater Club and tended to think that “The Tempest” was a brilliant production, even though most of the actors couldn’t remember half of their lines and they had turned the
character of Ariel into a girl.
But it was dreams they loved to talk about.
“Once,” Emily said, “I dreamt it rained needles all over Sto. Niño.”
“Needles?” they asked.
“Yes.Sewing needles. I was sitting in my bedroom in my dream, and when I looked outside the windows the sky was dark and it started to rain. I thought it was just ordinary rain – I mean, it looked like it – but I realized the drops sounded funny when they hit the roof. They sounded like tiny kettledrums, and they bounced off the houses. I tried to close the windows, but it rained harder and needles started to pour into the room. It looked like they were going to flood the floor so I just walked over them and closed the windows. There were needles poking out of my arms. My feet bled.”
“Wow,” Cleofe said.
Brian said, “I’ve had nothing but transformation dreams. You know, my father turning into a spider, my mother turning into water.”
“Your mom turned into water?” Cleofe said.
“For two weeks I couldn’t look her straight in the face.”
“I wish my mom would turn into water,” said Cedric.
Cleofe sighed. Cedric’s parents were separated. The Placidos were originally from Manila, but Cedric and his mother moved to Bulacan after he finished elementary school. According to Cedric, Mrs. Placido had a new Cebuano boyfriend. She practically lived in Cebu. She’d leave Cedric alone in the big house for weeks on end, sending him money through his ATM account.
“Your turn Cleo.”
“I haven’t had dreams in a while,” Cleofe said.
That was in April.
A month later, Ann Guillermo’s body was found sprawled in front of the Virgin Mary on the church patio, one white arm and a foot hanging over the side, her head resting on the lap of little Bernadette. She had been raped – brusquely, according to the reports – and then killed by a blow to the side of the head. Ann was found by an old man who swept the church grounds at four in the morning. She’d been dead for almost three hours.
Ann belonged to a different section, but she was their age. Seventeen.
Suddenly the Theater Club’s deterioration and Brian’s genius and their strange dreams seemed unimportant.
By June, all they could ever talk about in Cedric Placido’s house was murder.
“I wonder what kind of dreams that murderer has,” said Emily. “I’m already having bad dreams as it is.”
“Really?” Brian looked genuinely worried. Realization danced before Cleofe’s eyes. She knew something was up. She knew there was something between the two. Brian and Emily now ate lunch together.
“I bet whoever killed Ann has horrible dreams,” Emily said. “He’d be so guilty.”
“If he’s still capable of feeling guilt,” said Cedric.
He would, thought Cleofe, who still believed in the goodness of man. They were showing Mr. Guillermo on TV. He’d see the interviews and finally see Ann as Ann, as human. He’d realize that he had killed someone with a soul.
A mass of gray clouds had formed by the time they got out of the house to throw the trash into the compost pit. The sky grumbled, making Cleofe glad that she had brought an umbrella.
The compost pit was a hole six feet in diameter on the second empty lot from the rear part of the house. It had been there years before the Placidos moved in, back when the town mayor plundered the garbage collection funds and the people got tired of pleading with the barangay captain. It used to be used by the entire street, the neighbors said. Now Cedric was the only one who was trying to prevent it from turning into a deadly crater.
They made their way to it. The winds were strong last night, sending about three inches of leaves and branches to the ground. Cleofe thought they resembled undergrowth. The leaves that were still fresh cracked beneath their shoes, turning the soles green.
Cleofe knew they were not supposed to throw non-biodegradables into a compost pit, but Cedric seemed not to care anymore. So in went the potato chip wrappers, the empty beer cans, the plastic spoons they used for the macaroni salad. Cedric picked up the shovel he kept near the pit for the purpose and shoveled dirt into the hole to cover their garbage.
“What if someone fell into that hole?” Cleofe asked. She had been telling Cedric to at least put up a makeshift fence around it for the longest time. She remembered the children they would find playing on the lot. They would stay near the road, but they’re just children, little children. They might wander deeper into the lot and –
“He’d die,” Cedric said. He looked puzzled.
Cleofe shook her head while Brian and Emily smothered their laughter. They walked back into the big house to get their things.
Rain fell when they got out of the gates. Cedric watched them go. Brian and Emily shared Emily’s umbrella. It was pink, with Hello Kitty smiling at each corner. Cleofe’s was big and brown and lumpy, like an old woman’s. Brian and Emily crossed the street. Cleofe thought they were holding hands. She turned away, heaving up the plastic bag containing her mother’s Tupperware. She could have hailed a tricycle, but she decided she might as well walk. She needed to think.
Her house was two streets away, far enough to give her time to convince herself that she shouldn’t be jealous of Emily. Emily was a friend. She wouldn’t rub it in, she wouldn’t slap it to her face.
She wondered how it started. She wondered if Cedric knew. She somehow felt betrayed, even though Emily never knew that she liked Brian.
The rain had calmed to a drizzle by the time Cleofe reached her street. It was only six, but the place already looked deserted, the houses looking dead and empty. Ann’s rapist and murderer had scared everyone away from the streets. Sto. Niño was supposed to be a simple, quiet barangay, not home to a crime bad enough to earn a news spot on TV. They had only had one other murder, where a storeowner was killed with a hammer, and that was before Cleofe was even born.
Emily found out on Monday that almost half of the costumes for their “Tempest” production needed mending. She sought out Cleofe, and after Chemistry, their last subject, they trooped to the theater with thread and needles borrowed from the Home Economics department and attacked the skirts in Storage.
It had been raining on and off the whole day, and it began raining again while Emily and Cleofe were stitching the hem of Ariel’s white chiffon gown. It was a fresh downpour, hard, the sheets of water making everything else invisible outside.
“I suppose this was what my dream meant,” Emily said. “It’s raining outside, and I’m holding a needle.”
“So what, you’re Sybil now?” They laughed.
They folded the costumes into the boxes. “You want to get something to eat?” Emily asked. “I’m starving.”
“Aren’t you going with Brian?” Cleofe said without thinking. Then she realized that Emily and Brian didn’t eat lunch together that day.
“Oh,” Emily said. “Why would you say that?”
“Well, aren’t you two –“ Cleofe stopped, also realizing that she was on her way to making a grave mistake.
“Were we that obvious?” Emily chuckled lightly. “Hey, look, Cleo, it’s fine. I’m sure even Cedric knows.” Then the laughter faded from her face, and she was not smiling anymore. “Brian and I had a fight.”
“Oh.” They placed the boxes inside Storage. Cleofe felt unnaturally glad, and was ashamed.
“Um, Emily, how long have you been –“
“A year,” Emily prompted, not looking all too happy.
“Wow,” Cleofe said, thinking, A year.
“Snack?” Emily said. “I’d like a burger.”
“Sure.” They grabbed their umbrellas and walked slowly down the wet steps.
Cedric and Emily both bought cheeseburgers from the canteen. Cleofe got herself a bag of chips. Brian was sitting inside with his Math Club pals. Emily quickly darted away from the counter. Cleofe followed, but without first seeing that Brian was looking longingly at the back of Emily’s head.
They ate inside an empty classroom. It was an okay thing to do, as long as the janitor didn’t catch them. Unfortunately, they had to eat in darkness because the lights didn’t work. Even the wooden chairs were cold to the touch. Wind blew into the room, howling.
“Do you know we already have a Chemistry project to work on?” Cedric said.
“Really?” Cleofe said. “I didn’t hear that.”
“Of course, you didn’t. You two were too busy talking about some air spirit’s ruined gown.”
“Airy spirit,” Emily corrected.
“Whatever. Anyway, we have to pass a Chemistry crossword puzzle. Can we be group mates? Brian already said yes.”
“Sure,” Cleofe said.
“Why not?” Emily said.
Cleofe munched on a chip. Emily didn’t sound too enthusiastic.
Cleofe dreamt of Emily that night. Emily was wearing the white chiffon gown they had stitched together, and she was dancing. Emily was Ariel, the airy Spirit, though in the play she played Miranda. Emily danced in her dream, whirling like a ballerina, the white skirt billowing around her heels like clouds.
The rain worsened as the week progressed, and so did Brian and Emily’s mysterious cold war. Cleofe, for the life of her, couldn’t think of what they could have possibly fought over, and couldn’t bring herself to ask. Once, she caught Emily sobbing inside a washroom cubicle.
On Saturday afternoon, Cedric invited them over to the house to work on their Chemistry crossword puzzle. They plopped down on the living room carpet as usual, spreading the white cartolina on the glass-top table, and tried to figure out how to connect ALCHEMY (2 Across) with ALUM (2 Down) when there was not supposed to be a “U” in ALLOY (3 Across).
“This is stupid,” Cedric said. Brian and Emily, both unnervingly quiet, were busy cutting up black squares from a pad of art paper. The wind was very strong outside; they could hear the windows rattling in their frames.
“Did anyone bring paste?” Emily said.
Silence. Cedric slapped his forehead and stood up. A gust came screaming through the trees and banged a door upstairs.
“The art paper isn’t enough, too,” said Brian. “I think.”
“Might as well go out.” Cedric unfurled his jacket from the floor. “I need to get food.” The fluorescent lights dimmed and brightened. He sighed. “And batteries for the flashlights.”
Cleofe remained seated. There was a riddle here, a riddle that needed to be answered. She looked at Brian and got it.
“I’m coming with you,” Cleofe said.
Both Brian and Cedric stared at her in astonishment.
“What the – are you insane?” Cedric quickly put on his jacket and zipped himself up. “It’s raining like crazy out there. You don’t even have a jacket.”
“Yes I do.” Cleofe had been wearing hers and, as proof, lowered the hood over her eyes.
“No, no,” Cedric said. “You stay here. Brian can come with me.”
Cleofe stood up and stretched her legs, one after the other. “Do you think I’ll get blown away by the wind?”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” Brian asked her.
“Of course. I’ve walked in weather worse than this. Let’s go, Cedric. Or do you want me to go alone?”
Cleofe didn’t give him time to get even a word out. She pushed Cedric toward the icy front porch and slammed the door behind her.
The wind was so strong Cedric and Cleofe had to hold onto each other’s arms to prevent themselves from walking backwards. When they reached the cemetery, a piece of wet bond paper hit Cedric smack in the face. Cleofe could have laughed, but she was too busy covering her face with her arm. The wind was liquid; it brought rainwater with it, and it hurt her eyes.
The grocery store was virtually empty when Cleofe got there, so she had no trouble moving about the shelves. She took four Coke-in-cans, chips, several varieties of canned food, and a chocolate bar for herself, hauling all of this onto the counter.
The cashier was elderly and wore what looked like a self-knit gray sweater over her uniform. “Business is slow,” she said as she rang up the items. “You’re one of the few the rape-slayer didn’t scare away.”
“Maybe they’re just afraid of the storm.”
The cashier scoffed. “Houses here get submerged in floodwater every year. They’re used to storms. It’s murder they’re not used to.”
“But I don’t think whoever killed that poor girl lives here.”
“Really.” Cleofe hadn’t heard this theory before.
“Truck drivers from Divisoria and Quezon City drive through Sto. Niño every day. Rough men, catcalling girls and such. That’ll be two hundred and four.”
Cedric was already waiting outside when Cleofe got out, a small package tucked under his arm.
“You go on home,” he said with a sour face. “The store doesn’t have a double-A batteries, can you believe that? Anyway, I made them wrap that thing twice in plastic. No trouble with the art paper.”
Cleofe shoved it into the plastic bag she was carrying and looked at Cedric for a very long time.
“Why do you think Brian and Emily are mad at each other?”
“I don’t know,” Cedric said, promptly enough, but the set of his face told Cleofe that he did know and would not tell.
“Okay.” Cleofe walked into the rain. It was so dark it might as well be midnight. “See you at the house.”
When Cleofe reached the Placidos’ gate, she wondered if Brian had done what he had planned to do and finally made up with Emily.
The wind blew, sounding like one prolonged scream. Cleofe turned the knob and stopped. She realized that it was not the wind she was hearing.
It was Emily.
Brian and Emily were having a very loud fight. Cleofe tried to understand the words, but they rode with the wind. Cleofe pushed the door open, and saw Brian push Emily toward the wall.
Brian had his back to the door. Over his shoulder, Cleofe saw Emily’s face as her head hit that sharp corner where the two walls met. Something cracked. Emily’s eyes glazed over. She sank to the floor, leaving a bright red spot on the wall where her head hit.
Cleofe dropped the bag. A can of Coke rolled across the carpet. Brian turned to her, wild-eyed, shocked and mute. Something inside Cleofe had plunged to an unknown depth, and she couldn’t scream. Brian fell to his knees. “Emily,” he said. Emily’s eyes were open. “Emily?” Brian began to cry.
When Cedric arrived, Cleofe was sitting on the floor near the door, shaking. Cedric first saw the spilt bag and said, “What’s this mess on the carpet?” before spotting Emily.
Cleofe bawled and covered her eyes.
“I didn’t mean to,” Brian said. “I was just trying to push her away. We had a fight. I didn’t mean to.”
Cedric sat on a chair. The minutes ticked away.
“Okay,” Cedric said, to himself, but didn’t move. Ten minutes later he said “okay” again and stood up and went upstairs. When he came back, he was carrying two old bed sheets. He was wearing big black leather gloves that were probably his
Cedric placed one beside Emily’s left side. He pushed the couch away and squatted on her right, the other bed sheet draped over his arms.
“What are you doing?” Brian wailed.
“Shut up.” Cedric inserted his arms gently beneath Emily’s body and lifted her from the floor. He placed her on the first bed sheet, tugged on the second one, and draped it over her face.
Cedric wiped the blood from the wall and the floor with a large wet rag. Brian called his name five times during the process. On the fifth time, Cedric turned to him and shouted, “Do you want to go to jail? I’m cleaning your own mess, so shut up!” and continued to wipe.
When that was done, Cedric put plastic bags over Brian’s hands and ordered him to grab one end of the bed sheet. Cleo was to hold the flashlight. They were going to throw Emily into the pit.
“Cedric,” Cleofe said, the first intelligible word she finally managed to get out since Emily fell. “Cedric.” It was all she could say.
The flashlight Cedric gave her was big and heavy, and it cut through the gloom like a white knife, bouncing with her every step. The downpour was harder than ever, the water drenching the bed sheets and washing Emily’s blood to the ground and washing it away. Cleofe looked at her in agony – Emily, Ariel, the airy Spirit dressed in white.
“Cedric, please,” Cleofe said.
“Then what do you suppose we do, Cleo?” Cedric’s eyes are hooded. “Tell the truth?”
Everyone knew Cleofe’s father was a cop. “We’ll call the police and say she slipped! I can call my father! I can – ”
“Do you think they’ll believe that?”
“We can try!” she said, and realized that the blood had been wiped away.
“They’ll never find Emily here.”
“Cedric, I never meant to do this to her,” Brian said. “It was an accident.”
Mud and rainwater oozed into the pit. Cedric positioned himself at the edge.
“I can’t, I can’t,” Brian said. “I want to see her face.”
“Just let her go, Brian,” Cedric said.
They let go. Emily tumbled into the pit like a sack of rice. Dried leaved danced up, fell back, covered her. Cedric picked up the shovel and threw piles and piles of dirt onto the foliage. Emily was invisible in no time.
“Emily, I’m so sorry,” Brian said. “I’m so sorry.”
Cleofe was standing on unstable land. The soil broke away from beneath her feet, and she skidded down. Cedric called out her name. Brian caught her and pulled her up. Cleofe cried. It felt as if Emily wanted to take her with her, pull her into the bloody bed sheet, into the pit, with the rainwater and the mud.
Somehow they were able to muster the energy needed to return to the house. The house was dark. Cedric tried the lights, but they wouldn’t come on. A major blackout had apparently swept Sto. Niño while they were swinging Emily’s wrapped body between them near the pit. Up and down Cedric’s street the houses converged into a shapeless darkness.
While Cedric lighted the candles, Brian bumped into the couch and crumpled to the floor like an empty sack, right on the spot where Emily had died bleeding. He wouldn’t get up. Cleofe, tired and drained to the point of fainting, got sick of coaxing him from the floor and sank on a chair.
Cedric placed the flashlight on the glass-top table, its beam pointing to a spot above Cleofe’s left shoulder. “I’ll call your parents, tell them you’ll stay here for the night.” He took off his jacket. “You can’t go home looking like that.”
Silently, Cleofe agreed and protested. Agreed because they looked destroyed; people from the street would immediately be able to see that they had done something unforgivable. Protested because she wanted to be with her parents and sleep in her own bed. She wanted to get away from Emily.
“Hello po?” Cedric said into the receiver. “Yes, this is Cedric…It’s raining really hard, so I thought it’d be better if Cleo sleep here…Yes…Yes, ma’am, we have food…you want to talk to her?” Cedric glanced back, and Cleofe steeled herself. “She’s in the bathroom. But I’ll tell her to call you as soon as she gets out…po?…oh, yes, the project. Almost done. Okay, goodbye.”
Cedric said the same things to Brian’s mother. Then he dialed another number.
“Hello? May I speak with Emily, please?”
Here it goes, Cleofe thought miserably. Here it goes.
“Oh, she’s not there yet?…Opo, si Cedric…No, she’s not here…She left an hour and a half ago, said she had a headache. Brian and I offered to take her home but she…When she left, the rain’s not so hard, but it’s blowing…I don’t know, ma’am. Do you have medicine at home?…Then maybe she bought some…Yes, yes, of course…I’m sure she’s all right, ma’am…Yes…Goodbye.”
Cedric lowered the receiver and stared at them both, daring them to say something. When neither of them did, he sat on the couch and buried his face in his hands.
None of them moved for an hour or so. The rain continued; the wind hurtled things and garbage across the street. Cleofe thought she’d never be able to eat after what happened, but the hunger pangs came naturally. She glanced at the Mercury bag on the floor, and looked at Cedric.
“Don’t talk to me,” Cedric snapped, head still in his hands.
Cleofe bent over and slowly placed the canned goods inside the plastic bag. She took one large, lighted candle and shuffled to the kitchen. In the dim yellow glow, she measured three cups of rice and four cups of water and placed the kaldero on the stove. On a pan she sautéed garlic and onion, and emptied two cans of corned beef. When that was done and the rice was cooked, Cleofe placed all of it on a tray and took the food to the dining room.
“Are you guys hungry?” Cleofe whispered from the dining room door. She saw Cedric lift his head, and felt relief when he stood up and walked over to her. She couldn’t stand being alone; she kept seeing Emily’s white face peering through the windows.
“How about Brian?”
Cedric grunted. “He’ll eat when he wants to.”
And so they ate, just the two of them. Wordlessly, as though both of them had planned it a long time ago, they went back to the living room after dinner to continue work on their Chemistry project. Cleofe cut up the black squares; Cedric pasted them. When the sky dissolved into true black, Brian stirred beside the couch and walked into the dining room. Soon they heard the clutter
of china, spoon and fork. There were no snide remarks, no jokes.
They heard him gathering up the dishes from the dining room table; they heard him washing them in the kitchen. There was the soft whoosh of the dish rack cover hitting the lid, and then Brian was with them again, writing the clues on the bottom of
the cartolina with a black felt-tip marker, the letters and his face swaying in the dancing light. Cleofe stood up once to call her mother, and was surprised at the calmness of her own voice, at the ordinariness of her mother’s questions: Have you eaten dinner, Is it dark there, Do you feel cold, etc. etc. Yes. No. Not really. Etc. etc. At ten p.m. Cedric announced that the crossword puzzle was done. They accepted this in silence. At midnight, the phone rang, with Emily’s crying mother on the other line, saying Emily’s still not home, where could she possibly go, the barangay tanod couldn’t start a search because of the storm, can you please tell me what happened again? And so Cedric did, adding more details, weaving verisimilitude into the lie. Emily’s mother said thank you and hung up. Cedric offered them the guest room, but Cleofe and Brian refused, and so they ended up staying in one room together, in Cedric’s room, on the floor, on separate mattresses.
Brian and Cedric didn’t sleep before Cleofe; she was listening to their breaths. When she finally fell asleep, she dreamt of Emily again, Emily and her chiffon gown, Emily dancing, but this time her gown was gray and torn, and there was sand in her hair. She was surrounded with dust, and with her every twirl Cleofe could hear the painful sound of dried leaves, cracking like skulls on the ground, like so many tiny bones.
Sunday morning was clear, and not wanting to waste time, the barangay tanod and a few men of Sto. Niño – Ann Guillermo’s father included – started the search for Emily. Cleofe heard about it when she returned home that day. The search did not start until after Emily’s parents had called every single acquaintance their daughter might have had, every single house she might have stayed in for the night. When the task proved futile, the men set out, pretending they were looking for a living, breathing girl but knowing fully well that the only thing they could ever find, if they’re lucky, was a body.
They searched the church grounds, the schools, the marketplace, empty lots. They searched around the Placido house, but did not think of digging into the pit. Cedric had told them that they had intermittently thrown trash into the pit throughout the night, and did not see anyone. The search team looked glad enough to leave that hole behind.
The police joined them by noon. The church bell rang for the four o’ clock mass, and it was offered to Emily.
It went on for two, three weeks. The girl was still missing. Emily smiled from photocopied papers posted on walls and doors.
Eliza Victoria lives and works in Makati. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several online and print publications, including the Philippines Free Press, The Pedestal Magazine, Stone Telling, Story Quarterly, High Chair, Kritika Kultura, Expanded Horizons and the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series. Her work has received prizes from the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards. Visit her at http://sungazer.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter (@elizawriteshere).
The above image is from here.