My lola always told me that if I had bad dreams I shouldn’t tell anyone about them. Talking about them meant spreading the seed, sharing the terror. And I wouldn’t wish that on any one, would I? That would be just mean. My dreams were vivid things too, especially the bad ones. The images were sharp as if they played from a digital movie reel, one that I was inside of. Only the hollow echo of the voices, and the blurred outlines of the scenery, together with this underlying knowledge that I was, in fact, in a dream, reminded me of what it was. Lola said that when I woke up from these things I should go to the guava tree in our backyard—any tree, actually—touch its trunk and murmur the nightmares to it. Only then will the dreams stop visiting me each night and leave me alone.
I had a bad dream five nights ago, and true to lola’s advice, I didn’t tell anyone about it. But I didn’t pass it on to our backyard tree either. I didn’t want its aged bark and its lush leaves to take this one dream away. Because in that dream Miguel was still alive. My Miguel. He was in the dream, and he spoke to me.
Miguel and I talked about death once. We talked about many things, much like any two children who grew up side by side—literally, because their house was propped up beside ours in our little town of Hagonoy, Bulacan, and figuratively too, because he was one of my closest friends. I don’t remember when we started talking. Other people had these vivid romantic stories of how they first met the person they loved. I just remembered that we were already in the middle of it, of being important to each other. We took the tricycle to school together, we shared lunch (he was in charge of Fried Chicken Fridays, I was in charge of Hotdog Tuesdays), we swapped homework, and when we were 13 we shared our first kiss.
It was in the fire exit near our third floor classroom. We were crouched on the steps, listening to my Parokya ni Edgar tape as it spun inside the cartridge of his bulky stereo. I had hurried up when I heard the bell ring, terrified of tainting my perfect attendance record. I pulled him up. The old stereo’s weight, or his leg gone numb from sitting down for too long, or maybe some mischievous Cupid, titled him off-balance, and his lips crashed against mine. It was kind of painful to be honest, that kiss, because the bridge of his nose collided with my cheekbone when our lips met, and he had a sharp nose. But when we pulled apart we stared at each other for what felt like two full moons and a summer holiday. Then we kissed again, and again. I forgot all about my perfect attendance that day.
The days after that felt brighter, wider, as if my eyes had opened up to something that I didn’t dare reach out for until then. From then on Miguel and I walked to school with hands knotted between us. We shared lunch and then merienda too, taking turns treating each other to Aling Nena’s bottles of Royal and bowls of ginataan (special, with langka). We still talked about everything, even more so. One hot sticky afternoon a year later found us talking about death.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, close beside him.
“It’s okay,” he said stiffly. He stared at his hands as we sat in the front porch of their house, one he shared with his parents and grandparents.
“It’s not okay. He’s your lolo.”
“I didn’t know him.”
He didn’t like him. That would be more precise. Miguel’s lolo was a man of threats that was followed through with leather-belt-and-wooden-stick punishments, and Miguel was a hard-headed boy, often disregarding curfews and other rules upheld by his lolo. They didn’t get along much. But when the old man died so suddenly of cardiac arrest, I thought it would be normal to feel sad. I watched his lola weep soundlessly at the wake, his mother and her siblings stare unseeingly at the coffin. To me it was impossible to not be covered by that shroud of grief too, just by being there.
“Where do you think he is now?” Seeing death that way made me wonder if it was really a state as finite as the word implied.
Miguel sneered. “You might not like my answer.”
“Be nice. He was a good man.” That was what they kept saying at the funeral. That he was a good man.
“He went to church every Sunday, even volunteered as a lector loads of times. We showered him with novenas, masses, and rosaries all five days of his wake. So I guess he will see God in Heaven.”
With prayers and good deeds as his currency.
“But what will he do in Heaven? What happens to him now that he’s dead?”
“He’ll have everything his heart desires,” Miguel said, his gaze overcome by a bright glow. In a split second his face darkened to a scowl again. “Stupid, lucky old man.”
The first night I saw Miguel in my dreams he was scowling too. That was enough to convince me that I was in a bad dream, seeing that menacing look on his face, if the tight feeling in my chest and the dark clouds hovering above my line of sight weren’t adequate enough signs. It had been only a month since he died.
In the dream, I was walking through what looked like the street outside our house. It was quiet and cold without the beating rays of the sun and the usual riot of tricycles. Miguel—it looked like him, very much so, my Miguel—was standing in front of our house, frowning at the gate.
He turned his head and looked straight at me. “You,” he breathed.
“You too.” I should be crying, but I couldn’t. I heaved out my breaths and my shoulders shook, but no tears would come. Maybe my body in the waking realm was the one crying.
“I died,” he said plainly.
“They keep telling me I’m dead.” He looked around, and glared up the flat charcoal clouds, muttering more words. He returned his gaze to me. “They didn’t tell me what happened.”
“An accident,” I choked. “A petty crime.” I stepped forward, one slow step after the other, praying he would not disappear. “A robber hijacked your tricycle. A hold-up, he’d cried, sticking an ice pick to your side. You jumped out. Your head hit the cement curb.”
“I lost consciousness and never woke,” Miguel finished his own death tale. A part of his face cleared, but there was a shadow there that remained. I could see its dark shape as I moved closer to him, obscuring the light in his eyes that I knew so well.
“I’m sorry.” What a stupid, useless thing to say. I was standing in front of him now, close enough to touch him, and I ached to, if only to offer some semblance of comfort.
“Dead at 17 years old.” His lips twisted into a smile. “I’m never going to college. Never going to be pilot. Never going to be the one who took you away from this tiny, smelly town to see cities and mountains, amusement parks, oceans, and shopping malls as big as islands.”
“It’s okay.” I reached out a hand to cradle his face, my heart jumping when I was able to.
He rested his cheek on my palm. He was cold, and rigid as stone, but I knew it was him. There was no mistaking it. “It’s not okay,” he said gruffly. “We wanted to have everything.”
I woke up from that dream crying, my chest filled with heat so vast it crippled my breathing, and made my limbs useless appendages that lay limp against my body. I cried until I had nothing else to give, then I lay on my back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. That still counted as a bad dream, even more terrible than the others I’ve had before it. Because even though I saw Miguel there, a Miguel who talked to me and knew me, that wasn’t the whole of him. He was a ghost. A shadow. An imprint that couldn’t come with me the moment I opened my eyes to the morning.
I didn’t tell the tree, or anyone else when I woke up, despite lola’s clear warnings. If you do not whisper your nightmares to a tree they will not stop haunting you. They will come back for you every night.
But lola, I thought as I inched out of bed, out of my room, to see lola’s smile welcoming me to breakfast. That’s exactly what I want. For Miguel to come back to me every night.
He was in my dreams every night since then. It was always the same thing. I would walk down the deserted street and find him standing in front of our house. I thought it was a little strange that he would linger outside our gate instead of theirs, outside the house he had grew up in. But it never bothered me enough to ask.
He knew that I would be back for him every night, that we would be together in this realm for those few hours that I was asleep. But every time I arrived there was the same scowl on his face, each one growing more bitter than the last.
“I loved you, did you know that?” he told me on the fifth night.
“I love you too.”
“I wanted to do everything with you. I wanted a lot of things. A job. An apartment in the noisiest, biggest, most polluted city I could find. I wanted my own car, my own bills to pay. Maybe even a dog.”
“We have this now,” I said, opening my arms to the gray oblivion around us. I hoped that came out soothingly. There was not much we could do to change things.
“We can have more,” he insisted. “Do you want to be with me?”
“Of course. I miss you every day.”
“Then stay here. Will you do that? Stay here with me.”
I woke up from that dream terrified. I didn’t understand what he meant. What it meant to stay with a dearly departed. Did he mean to stay in that dreamland every night? To keep him my secret, nightly nightmare? I relished every second spent in that limbo with him. I did. But those trips were taking a heavy toll on my waking hours. I would wake up every morning crying, with the same leaden weight in my limbs, as if my body was not granted any rest the entire time I was asleep. Sometimes I would wake up with bruises on my arms, scratches on my legs, and Miguel was never able to explain why or where they came from. For days, I felt weak, and I felt myself growing weaker. My soul was growing weaker. I didn’t know how I could say that. It seemed so melodramatic. But that was the closest way to describe that feeling of deep exhaustion that worsened with each night spent with him. I didn’t know how many more nights I could take.
On the sixth day, the day after that conversation, I went through the daylight hours with the familiar gaping hole in my chest, from the part of my heart Miguel had filled when he was alive. I felt each throb of the jagged edges moving in time with my pulse. For a month now my mornings and afternoons were spent missing him, and the bitter misery of it overpowered even the fatigue of my restless nights.
Right then I decided it could be simple. It already was. Being with Miguel again was as simple as falling asleep.
Tonight I arrived in the dream to see him standing in front of our house, as expected, although this time he was facing me, his mouth ripped open into a wide smile. Maybe he knew what I was going to say, or he read it from the way I smiled back at him.
“I’m staying here with you,” I told him right away. “You don’t have to be alone. I will dream about you each night.” If staying in this nightmare was the only way for us to remain together, I will take it. I could survive the exhaustion of the mornings. That was better than the pain of losing him completely.
“I knew you would.” This was the first time I had seen Miguel smile since his death, since I met this ghost. He was always brooding, his entire being drenched in anger, or sadness. He gripped my shoulders and shook me. “But you have to do something for me. Or else the dreams will stop, and I will disappear forever.”
“You know how it feels when you’re about to wake up? That feeling that you’re floating, that you’re being wrenched into the light?”
“Yes, yes, I know it.” That was how I woke up. Heat would slither around my limbs, pulling me into consciousness on the other side of this veil.
“You have to fight it,” Miguel said. “You have to refuse the light. Hold on to me and stay longer than you usually do. That’s the only way.”
I sighed out my relief. I expected something worse, some test or enchantment, to let the powers that be know that I wanted this dream in my life forever. This was easy. Do not go into the light. I chuckled. There’s irony in there somewhere. But Miguel had taken my hand, and leaned his cheek on my shoulder, that I didn’t feel like bothering with worries anymore.
That night, we talked like we used to. We talked about how I go to school now chauffeured by my mother who worried too much about me. We talked about how I didn’t like to eat anymore, but my friends made sure I did, one bite of hotdog or fried chicken at a time. We talked about how hard it was to do my homework, to care about anything related to the future. Because the future wasn’t going to be the one we planned it to be. But every day I tried. Dammit, I did. I looked over college applications, and aimed for the universities in the dirtiest, biggest cities, as far away from our smelly town as possible. I was going to have a future of my own, and then nights like these, a limbo of suspended past and present with Miguel. It wasn’t everything we wanted, but it was a good compromise, and the only one we had.
It felt like only minutes later when heat started crawling up my legs, my arms, pulling me into the familiar white, welcoming glow. I always thought it was the light of the sun, and it felt natural for me to let go of Miguel’s cold grip and allow my body float into its warmth. But tonight I didn’t, as promised. I grabbed his hand, his fingers icy as death, and felt him press me closer against him. After a few breaths I felt the heat dissolve, snake away, leaving nothing but numbing cold on my skin in its wake.
Miguel pulled away from me, and with a wild look of concentration on his face, jumped over the low wall into our house. He made it to the other side, feet on firm ground, and as he straightened up his mouth opened into the widest of leers, a roar unlike any I’ve heard exploding from his throat.
“Miguel?” I tried to follow him through the gate but I couldn’t. Something I couldn’t see—a barrier, a wall of static—was keeping me where I stood. “What’s happening?”
“You refused the light.” It wasn’t his voice anymore, not a sound I’ve ever heard before. He sounded elated, thrilled, but also feral, menacing. “You refused the light. So I took it.”
“I don’t understand.”
As I said the words I saw flashes of heat and light snake around Miguel’s arms, his torso, saw them weave through his hair and caress his face. Terror gripped my heart, as cold as the icy wind wrapping around me as comprehension dawned in my muddled brain.
“Why?” I was terrified, but still the tears would not come. I knew they would never come now. “I love you. You love me.”
“I do love you. I did.” His voice was a fading echo, much like the rest of him as the light continued its dance around him, embracing him where he stood. “But you know how we wondered what happens after death?” There was a last flicker of darkness in his eyes, then the shadow was gone, and I was looking at the eyes I’d known for years. “I know what happens. Nothing. Nothing happens. There is only nothing. And I don’t want that.”
The light was blinding as it swallowed him whole, but its heat didn’t reach me. In my next blink, he was gone, and I was alone in my nightmare.
He wanted everything. He always did.