There are shadows on Sta. Rita Street.
It’s funny, because nobody else seems to see them except me. On the outside, our street looks like any other street here in Congressional Village. Black gates, maroon gates, concrete fences, fences that consist mostly of metal wires with a latch attached somewhere. Squat, dull-colored houses with windows that look like dead eyes staring at you, sitting side by side with spanking new houses gleaming bright in the sun, with brown-tinted bay windows smiling cheerfully upon the street. Neatly trimmed hedges and manicured lawns thrown in with cars rotting in garages and garbage bins puking their contents all over the sidewalk.
Yes, it’s that kind of neighborhood.
Most streets have their own shadows, but they’re usually smart enough to stay huddled underneath rocks or behind the trees until they are driven out again by the need to expose the light for what it is. But the shadows of Sta. Rita are stupid, fearless things. They sit at the corner stores or linger around the kiddie playground, watching people move among them with wide grins and vacant eyes. Sometimes, they even leap at you as you walk down the street, absorbed in your own tiny universe, and they laugh at you while you reel about in shock, witnessing the death of yet another one of your complacent certainties.
You didn’t, two years ago. You had just moved into the house opposite ours. You, your mom and dad, your older brother, and your baby sister. The truck came to deliver your furniture and your expectations to this new place, and you were all smiling as you went about with the business of moving in, calling out “this is my room” and “don’t put the TV there” and “it’s my turn to take a bath.” The neighbors came out to watch you, and you shook their hands and passed around puto and kutchinta, and soon you had them smiling and offering to help you, just like that.
I thought it was kind of funny at the time, seeing the neighbors look so amiable. It was like watching a TV show through my window. There was Ate Charo, who I sometimes saw slapping her baby around because he didn’t like the watered-down condensed milk she’d give him. And Kuya Boyet, who had once nearly burned his house to the ground because he’d been careless with a burner during a pot session. And Mang Narding, the accountant who’d been caught embezzling hundreds of thousands of bucks from his employer, who still hadn’t gotten around to having him arrested. I watched that scene intently, because I wanted to remember seeing the neighbors that way. Just for laughs, you know.
The shadows were there, but you didn’t see them. You couldn’t. Not yet.
And I watched you that first afternoon you took your bike out for a ride around the neighborhood. You didn’t look any different from Jake and Kuya Boyet and the other boys on the street. But I sat completely still as I watched you, listening to the pounding of my heart in my ears. The way you smiled at Ate Charo, the way you spoke to your mom, telling her where you were going, the way you picked up your sister for a hug. It was…it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
I was watching you, too, the day you saw the shadows of Sta. Rita for the first time. Mang Ago, the plump tabloid writer who’d given your dad a bottle of Fundador, had shot his live-in girlfriend and her two sons before running out into the street waving the gun about. Then he turned the gun on himself and blew his brains out. Triple murder, and a suicide as well. The cops were all over the place. They carried the bodies out, and days later you could still see the stains on the sidewalk where Mang Ago’s body had fallen after he shot himself. It was all over the papers the next day, a perverse source of pride for the inhabitants of Sta. Rita. Look, we made the headlines again.
I saw the look on your face that day. White and shivering, you found yourself pressing forward to get a better view, as full of morbid curiosity as the others. Then you glanced back at where your family was standing, and I could almost read the thoughts running frantically through your head.
Welcome to the neighborhood, and all that jazz.
Me? I’ve been seeing the shadows ever since I was a child. They came with a vague, choking feeling, as if somebody had laid a hand against my throat, followed by cramping pains in the midsection. I was terrified of being alone; the shadows became tangible things when you had nothing with which to keep them at bay except the thin walls of your mind. Those things never seem to last very long.
When I was four, we lived in this run-down apartment building in Cubao. My mother worked nights as a waitress in one of those sleazy nightclubs along Edsa. Before she went to work, she would dress me up in a blouse and jumper skirt, bring me to the apartment next door, and hand me over to the lady who lived there. After a brief exchange, Aling Nelia, the lady, would pull me inside and lock the door behind me with an ominous click. Since then, my nightmares always began with doors shutting behind me, leaving me alone to face whatever monster lurked in the room.
Aling Nelia smelled of onions and bleach. Her hands were rough, and her stare made me want to hide under the table. She had a son though, a twenty-three-year-old man named Carlo, who always greeted me with a smile, always had candies and little toys to press into my hands. But Aling Nelia never stayed home for long. An hour later, she’d don a brightly-colored dress and yell at Carlo to watch over the brat while she went to the neighbor’s to talk business. Again, the shutting of a door behind me, leaving me alone with Carlo. Tall, good-looking Carlo, who had the smile of an angel. And me in my blouse and jumper.
I learned about the shadows from those nights with Carlo and Aling Nelia. They were always there, scuttling about like rats in a sewer. And when my mother quit her job to move in with her boyfriend, Tito Rey, I found that the shadows were there, too. I remember sitting up gasping for breath one night, feeling the slimy things crawling all over me. I got out of bed, and found Tito Rey coming after my mother with a two-by-four.
Everywhere I went, they were there. In a mall, in school, in the street where I lived. Usually, they would keep out of sight, shrinking against the walls to hide from the daylight. But then something would happen—a woman filching a blouse from a store, a pair of men sweet-talking a girl into going someplace she didn’t want to go, a murder, a suicide—and the shadows would be all over the place, lunging and snarling like wild animals. Eventually, I became used to it. It was just another part of my life that I had to deal with, that’s all.
There were others after Tito Rey. We’d live with them for a year or so, then something would happen—he’d be cheating on her or stealing her money or he’d get arrested for drug-dealing—and we’d move back into a hole in the wall, until the next boyfriend came along. My mother soon lost her curvy softness, growing harder and thinner, like a knife blade. I learned the tricks of an alley cat—how to snatch what you can before somebody else does, how to skulk about in corners and lie low, and how to fight back. After Carlo, nobody ever touched me again.
Then my mother met Tito Bernard, a police sergeant at the CPD. A large, silent man, he courted my mother with the same grim determination he displayed when chasing down criminals. Three months later, we packed our belongings and moved in with him at his house on Sta. Rita Street. After a life spent hopping from place to place, the chance to settle down with this man who treated my mother like a queen—albeit in his own stolid way—and have a normal kind of life was almost too good to be true. But a year passed, then another year, then another. We’d been living with him for four years before you came. As a whole, it’d been a pretty good life.
Except for the shadows, of course. They’re always there. And Sta. Rita, for all its picture-perfect ordinariness, was so thick with them that I sometimes wondered if my mother and I weren’t safer living somewhere else, after all.
But then you came. You, with your wonderful, normal family, and your sweet, open smile and your warm laugh. You were like this photograph held up to my face, the image of what life should be. And I’d watch you from the window of my room on the second floor, the way a flower would watch the sun. Every morning, I’d look out to see you in your uniform, shaking the water out of your still-wet hair, yelling at your brother to get his ass moving or you’re going to be late. At school, I’d wait impatiently for classes to end, so I could go home to watch you jump out of the car and jog through the front door, then come back out again to play basketball with the guys at the plaza. Without quite understanding why, I’d set the rhythm of my days to match yours. Now, I can close my eyes and imagine you wherever you are at that moment with perfect clarity. I have no idea what it is about you that fascinates me so; it’s enough that you’re there for me to be fascinated with. If it means I’m obsessed with you, then so be it.
I hope you don’t mind.
But I’m not here to waste your time with things you probably don’t want to hear about right now. I’m here to tell you about the shadows. That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it? The reason why you asked me to be here with you right now.
I just…I just wish you wanted me here with you for a different reason.
Did I just say that? Haha, well, don’t worry about it. I’m kidding, of course.
Do you remember the first time we met?
It was that day Mang Ago shot himself. I was standing at the edge of the crowd of gawkers when I saw you go pale and stumble out of the crowd. It couldn’t have been the sight of blood on the sidewalk and three dead bodies being carted out on their way to the morgue. Most people survive such things without looking as if they were about to collapse, the way you were. You wandered back somewhat unsteadily toward your family, then after a while walked toward the corner store.
I followed you, and I more or less introduced myself to you. You seemed a bit surprised; I told you I was Maritess’ daughter, and you thought that Maritess was Tito Bernard’s wife, which should logically make me his daughter, but I looked nothing like him. I was charmed by your confusion, and the way you tried to mask it by being carefully polite. Your naiveté was something rarely seen in Sta. Rita—or practically anywhere else, for that matter.
We talked about what happened to Mang Ago. You were so upset by it, asking over and over again how he could have done it, when he seemed like such a nice guy. He didn’t even have the decency to leave his girlfriend and her sons alone if he was going to kill himself anyway. And I saw in my mind’s eye the way the shadows had swarmed all over the place, covering half the street in writhing black. Caught up in your emotions, you leaned forward and asked me why things like that had to happen to people…
And I couldn’t answer, even if I knew what to say. It was the first time I got to look into your eyes, and it was like falling into a pool of the clearest, most crystalline water. There was no hint of darkness or malice or deceit in your eyes. Nothing but innocence, and a sweet sort of kindness. I had never seen anything like it, and it frightened me more than the sight of the shadows. I shivered and looked away, and you must have realized the awkwardness of the situation because you blushed and stammered something incomprehensible. I mumbled something just as inane, made an excuse and left in a hurry.
Nevertheless, we became friends after that. I’d still watch you from the window, but it felt so much better watching you now, knowing that any minute you were going to look up and wave at me and ask me to join you. We’d hang out at the store, or I’d watch you play basketball, or we’d sit around outside and talk until evening. And you gradually grew accustomed to the way of life in Sta. Rita Street. You learned to take in stride stories like how a suitcase full of shabu was discovered in Mrs. Cruz’s house during an NBI raid. And how everybody knew that the “dirty ice cream” man was really an undercover cop staking out an illegal weapons’ syndicate. And how Atty. Cruz’s daughter had gotten herself pregnant twice—with a different man each time—all before her twentieth birthday. And how the explosions we’d heard at three a.m. were gunshots from a shoot-out between two men who’d found out they were sleeping with the same woman.
Things like that.
Sometimes though, I’d think to myself, hey, maybe there’s a chance you like me, too. Maybe it wasn’t just me. Whenever you smiled at me and I smiled back, whenever we walked down the street and our arms brush against each other, whenever I sneaked looks at you from beneath my lashes only catch you staring at me, too…Maybe you felt the same way I did. Maybe you were just gathering up the nerve to tell me, to ask me if you could court me, the way the other girls were being courted. I’d drift off in rose-tinted fantasies that never became anything more than that. But that’s okay. We were friends. That’s what mattered.
I never forgot about that first time I looked into your eyes. That incredible clearness, and the shock I’d felt. It didn’t happen again; the next time I looked, your eyes were as normal as the next guy’s. Still, it puzzled me for months.
Just a little while longer. Let me stay here beside you a little while longer. Let me say what I need to say, and I’ll tell you about the shadows. And if you smile at me again, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.
Tito Bernard loved my mother. They’d been together for six years. After a long string of losers and relationships never lasted past the first year, my mother finally found a man she could trust and rely on. She didn’t mind the way Tito Bernard tended to be a bit unemotional, even indifferent, at times—considering the things the others did to her, Tito Bernard was a saint. And I was heartened to see some of the old softness return to my mother’s thin face. She was happy; that’s what counted.
I didn’t know how he felt about me, though. He and I treated each other with courteous tolerance; once in a while he even became a bit sweet toward me. He’d given me a room of my own, after all; that was a big deal to me. But from the very first, we’d silently drawn the lines marking our spaces, and wordlessly agreed to maintain the delicate balance between us, for the sake of my mother. I would have done anything to protect that balance, and protect the joy my mother had found. Besides, my life was more precious to me now, now that you were in it.
By the time I turned fifteen, I began to notice the way his eyes followed me. I would walk into a room, and his gaze would settle upon me, watching my every move with a vacant expression in his eyes that frightened me more than if he’d openly leered at me. At first he didn’t do anything but look; I solved that by becoming scarce, leaving for school early in the morning, staying out until late in the evening, and locking myself in my room otherwise. The looks eventually stopped, and I silently breathed a sigh of relief.
I should have known from the shadows. They had been gathering slowly, swirling around the house like a noxious mist. But there were always shadows in Sta. Rita. Sta. Rita was drowning in darkness. How could I have known? It’s been six years. Six years since the shifting blackness that only I could see meant anything to me or my own. Six years of relative safety.
Safety always dulled the senses. Sometimes it was better when you were afraid. You kept your mind alert and your reflexes sharp, and you survived day after day on your instincts alone. But I wasn’t an alley cat anymore. I was a fifteen-year-old high school student, whose biggest problem was how to get the boy she liked to like her in return. Just an ordinary girl.
How could I have known?
It was a Sunday afternoon, one of those heart-of-summer days, with the kind of heat that could kill. My mother had gone to the mall with some friends. Feeling dull and drowsy, I slipped out of my room and padded down to the kitchen for a glass of Coke. There must have been some kind of noise or movement, because my body suddenly tensed. Calmly, I put the glass down, reached for one of the kitchen knives in the rack on the counter, and turned around.
We didn’t say a word. What was there to be said? The shadows whirled around us in an unseen hurricane, and he stood there with his hands loose on his sides, wearing only a pair of jeans and that terrible vacant expression in his eyes. I stared at him coldly, my grip tight but steady around the knife handle. We both understood what was going to happen: he was going to take me, and I was going to fight him, and we both knew who was going to win.
And then the doorbell rang. A familiar voice, unnaturally loud in the unmoving heat, began to shout my name. Again and again, with increasing anxiety. Then the jarring sound of somebody banging on the gate with both fists. Tito Bernard’s cheek twitched, but the shadow-storm had already begun to subside, and he turned around and walked away not long after. Feeling as if I was about to faint, I slid the knife back into the rack and ran to the gate—
And found you there, barely dressed in a pair of shorts and a wrinkled tank-top, looking confused and annoyed and terribly worried. You asked me if I was all right. I said yeah, I’m okay. You looked at me as if searching for something, and I gazed back, willing you to find it. Then you asked if I’d like to hang around your house for a while and watch videos. I said sure, why not.
Then I leaned my head against your shoulder and cried.
Later, you asked me about the shadows. We were lying side by side on the grass in your backyard, sipping iced tea and staring up at the night sky. Your question startled me so much I spilled my iced tea all over my front. Then you told me about how you first saw the shadows the day Mang Ago died. How one moment you were staring at the bloodstains on the sidewalk, full of fear at the thought of what could have happened to your family. The next, it was as if somebody had plucked out your eyeballs and replaced them with bionic ones that made everything look all different and dark. Since then, you’d been seeing them at the edge of your vision, sneaky sons of bitches that grew bigger whenever something bad happened. Earlier that day, you’d woken up from an uncomfortable nap, feeling as if something cold and bitter was trying to slide down your throat. And the next thing you knew, you were running toward my house, terrified that something bad was happening, but not really sure what it was.
You turned to look at me then. Just what the fuck were those things, anyway?
And again, I couldn’t answer. I was staring into your eyes, stunned by the change in them. They weren’t clear anymore, but clouded with confusion and dread. I could see the memories of what you’d seen, and the awful realization that deep down, you know what the shadows are. And instead of fear, I felt a sense of familiarity in your clouded eyes. I saw the same thing in my mirror day after day, after all.
I understood then what the shadows were. But I didn’t tell you. Stupid, selfish coward. I should have told you then, I should have tried to ease your confusion and fear in any way I could. But I didn’t. My regret will be my punishment.
I’m sitting here beside you now, holding your hand and talking to you. Talking, talking, talking the way I should have done before. Can you hear me? In this cold, sterile silence, where I hear nothing but the hum of the air-conditioner and the sound of my voice gradually getting hoarser, can you hear me somehow, wherever you are?
Do you remember what happened? I do. Every time I close my eyes, I see it happening, over and over again. The angry shouts some distance away. The warning cry. The single gunshot splitting the thick summer air. The sight of you falling forward, your blood spattering against my white uniform blouse…
And the shadows, dancing between us.
The doctors say it’s a miracle you’re even alive. The bullet had merely grazed your head. But you have been unconscious for five days now. They say head wounds are unpredictable. You could wake up tomorrow, completely normal. Or you could remain like this for months or years, then wake up not knowing who you are. Or you could not wake up at all.
But you’re alive. And I know you’re here. You just need to remember how to come back. Come back. Please come back.
Things have been happening so quickly back home. Do you remember the “dirty ice cream” man? He really was an undercover cop after all. So was the man selling taho, and the man tending the barbecue stand near the church. It turns out the gun you were shot with was an unlicensed weapon. The guy who shot you squealed at the police station, and identified the man who has been supplying the neighborhood with unlicensed guns. That night, the cops came to the house with a warrant for Tito Bernard’s arrest.
It all happened so fast. My mother and I are still staying in Tito Bernard’s house—it’s not like we have anywhere else to go. Maybe we can find an apartment somewhere in Project 8. I can get a job as a waitress or a saleslady somewhere. Don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.
My mother’s, well, surviving. She said she’d been having suspicions about Tito Bernard all along. I’m not sure how much I believe her. Sometimes I catch her rubbing her hand wistfully over the sheets on the Tito Bernard’s side of their bed. Sometimes I hear her crying in the bathroom. Sometimes, all I can do is put my arms around her and rock her as if she was the child and I was the mother. It seems to help, somehow.
I’ve been coming here for the past five days, just to talk to you. Your brother said he thought he saw your fingers move last night, so there’s hope. Oh, what am I saying? There’s always hope.
As for the shadows, they’re gone. Not completely, of course. There’s no way to destroy them, not as long there are human minds to create them. But it’s just a matter of choosing what you want to see. There’s light, too, everywhere. Beautiful lights that make you feel warm and loved and glad to be alive. I know because I’ve seen it, and it’s wonderful. I can teach you how to do it, too. We only saw the shadows before because we learned to see out of fear, and that fear has tainted us. But fear is just one small thing, not everything. There are other things, too.
There are shadows in Sta. Rita, but Sta. Rita is so much more than the shadows. So much more than what we thought it was. You can see it if you want to, my love. All you have to do is open your eyes.