I grumbled at the voice, rolling around and enveloping myself with the blanket more tightly. I felt an impatient tugging at my foot.
“Gimme five more minutes…” I muttered almost unintelligibly.
“You said that five minutes ago.”
“Oh? Gimme…ten minutes then.”
I felt something—fingers—grasping both my ears, and before I knew it, I was being dragged out of bed. The pain came sharp like an electric shock and I shrieked, yanking Gabriel’s hands away. I threw him one of my most dangerous death glares and he contested that with an insulting one-sided smile.
“Good morning, Miss Ellimere.”
I huffed. “Yeah, good morning. I only have an hour of sleep after a day full of endless nagging from mom when I put toothpaste on the cake instead of icing, after the very day I lost my MP4 and found it clogging the toilet bowl, after that big stray cat sneaked into my room and scooped Fondant and Nougat out of the pudding basin where I put them while I was cleaning the aquarium, and then my ears would be pulled away from my face—yeah, good morning, maybe it’s the best morning in my life.”
When I finished the sentence, I found myself panting. Apparently, Gabriel was shaking with hidden laughter.
“Whoa,” he gasped mockingly, his irritating grin widening. “That’s a machine gun of a mouth.”
I groaned, scratching my hair in a flurry of soot-black strands, reached to grab the nearest pillow and flung it to him. He caught it in a one-armed embrace while saying, “You’re still so childish.”
“And you’re still so irritating. Why are you here anyway?"
I bit my lower lip, feeling its chapped surface as I regretted what I just asked. Why are you here anyway? As if he’s not gone away for so many months. I let my heavy lids fall to shield my eyes from whatever my words might produce—a hurt face of an angel, staring with disbelief. And feeling as if I need to cheat now, one of my eyelids flipped open out of flexes, and I was glad to see an ever-smiling celestial creature.
He hugged the pillow with both arms as he regarded me with his coal-dark eyes. There was always something so mysterious with those eyes. They were not bright—in fact, they looked like just holes bored into his sclera. But if you would look a little longer, you will notice something so intense, something so alive, dancing in the cold vacuum of his pupils. The same old eyes I remembered so well.
His stare became more unnerving, and it sent a shiver down my spine. His smile was still there, but not with the natural bliss. It was manipulated, and that just added to the annoying atmosphere.
“What?” I asked, irritated.
It’s as if my words never reached him. I shrugged, pulled a stuffed bunny from my bed and threw it to him. It bounced from his face and it somehow broke the thickening hush with his involuntary “Ugh!”
I laughed when he threw the bunny back with a mischievous smile.
“Come on. There must be a reason for you to barge in here and wake me up so early.”
I studied his reactions carefully and drew an inward groan as I realized he had learned to control his facial expressions during the past few months he spent away from the town. Now, I couldn’t seem to figure out what he was thinking about. In the past, I already know what he would say because every single word was painted on his face. All I could see now was an expressionless countenance with black embers in his eye sockets.
He sighed, a few wisps of his bangs puffing an inch from his forehead then settling down again.
“Just as I’ve guessed. You’ve forgotten.” There was an edge of bitterness in his voice.
I shrugged, crinkling my nose. “What is it?”
“Ellie,” he said, a few lines creasing his brow, “it’s the end of the month.”
Squinting at the morning sunshine spilling from the open blind just behind him, I wondered out loud, “Aside from New Year’s eve, I can’t remember anything to be celebrated today.”
“Exactly.” He said curtly.
“Exactly, there’s nothing to be celebrated today aside from New Year’s Eve?”
“Exactly, you can’t remember it.”
The rest of the morning was spent with me annoying him about the other thing aside from New Year ’s Eve.
“It was a promise,” he said finally when after hours of coaxing him for a clue.
Oh, I thought. “I’m sorry about that. I’m really forgetful. What did I promise you, anyway? Was it some kind of amusement park treat or I’m-it-tonight at the theaters? I’m sorry but officially, I’m broke today and—“
“It’s not you who promised,” he cut me out icily. “It’s…me.”
His last two words were too cold for the warm approach I gave the conversation. I shifted uncomfortably on my seat. He hadn’t touched his bowl of ramen; he’s just playing with the chopsticks, tapping them against the wooden table with an irregular rhythm. We were on Toru’s, the nearest Japanese restaurant from my residence.
“Hmm,” I moaned and prodded the swirls of my own noodles with the chopsticks, toying with the bear-shaped fried egg in my bowl. I poked little eyes on it, and wished that I didn’t, for they just reminded me of his unsettling stare. So it was him who promised, I thought. But why does he sound like it was my fault?
“Hey, do you want California maki instead?” I offered when after some more minutes he just tapped and tapped and tapped there like an idiot, staring into his noodle soup with an expression like it was a cesspit of smelly hogwash. “They make the best of maki here, much, much better than the convenient store-rolled ones.”
He stiffened, as if considering my offer. “The mangoes are tart.”
Silence succeeded, then after getting that he’s slowly warming up again with the talking, I snorted and shrugged. “You can remove them. I always love the mangoes. They make the dish a bit tastier, you know. Without them you’ll feel like just eating rice with artificial crabmeat.”
“It’s not that I don’t like sour things,” he whispered almost soundlessly. “They just remind me of your face.”
My eyes widened at his statement. “Oh yeah?”
“Oh yeah.” He gripped his chopsticks in one hand and began idly stirring his ramen, like a witch preparing a weird draught. He was actually preparing some kind of potion in his mind, ready to prescribe it to me so that it would wash away all the sanity left in my head.
“Your face is sour,” he strongly stated, a smile curving his lips. “Actually, your whole self is sour. It kinda tells me that even though I’ve got a sweet tooth, it doesn’t mean that I won’t enjoy tarts, too.”
“What do you mean?” This time I really twisted my face so that it would apply to the situation. Sour.
“You’re different,” he said. “Uh, let’s take a bag of confectioneries for an example. There would be too many sweets in there, you know, lollies and caramels and butterscotches. Overtime, I will have to stop eating them because I’ll get severe toothache. But with sour candies, I can always have them—and I can display my funniest and ugliest expressions when I eat them. Just like you, Ellie. I can always have you around without worrying about anything, and I can display my ugly personality without any anxiety.”
“Absurd,” I commented after a minute of dead air. “Now just tell me, you want maki or what?”
“Sure, sure,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck, covering his face with his bangs that were not long enough to conceal his flushed cheeks. Our order arrived minutes later, and we ate in silence, once again sulking in the deep abysses of our own thinking.
It was me who ate the whole tray of California maki.
He said he doesn’t want to eat anything today. I thought he was sort of dieting, but he has already shed the baby fat to give way to his chiseled features. He has…grown up.
And he’s grown up way too fast. I mean, I still have the characteristic childish roundness even after I turned seventeen. It made a slight revulsion in my system, but I clamped it down so that he wouldn’t have to ask me what’s bothering me. He always knows it, from my…sour expression alone.
We took a stroll under the broad daylight—a weird hobby we always do together when we were small. I coaxed him to tell me about the ‘promise’, but it’s like I’m just talking to a wooden statue. I even felt like I would rather talk to a real statue, for it wouldn’t have to look me straight in the eyes with hollow seas of
shadow. I shivered at his stare, felt the need to look away and tried to savor the last hours of this year.
It still felt like the last New Year’s Eve. Shivering in our jackets as we walked side by side, we adored the colors in the huge canvass of the sky as the day surrenders to the evening, the stars winking at us with premature fireworks. In the distance, we could hear the din of excited small firecrackers and the laughter of the street urchins.
The reddish shine of the ending day was too precious, especially today. I breathed in as the wind blew, sighing as it kissed my cheeks. We have no direction in mind, but I realized we just made our way to the woods. The trees loomed above us, their monstrous shadow falling on us with a certain kind of weight. I almost imagined them as real monsters, trunks twisting to expose a face a thousand times more sour than my own, branches stretching to wrap our bodies and squeeze us like a toothpaste tube. I gulped and suddenly noticed that he was extremely silent. No matter how much I want to tug at his arm and urge him to talk so that my attention would be diverted from the trees, I forced myself to shut up and wait for him to open his mouth without telling him to. I knew better than to talk to him. He never liked it when people distract his quiet times.
I forgot the tree-thing altogether as we reached a certain part of the woods, nostalgia kicking in. He wordlessly pointed somewhere a large, moss-covered rock stood against a white flower-bearing tree that I couldn’t identify what. I thought at first it was that tree he was pointing at, but I noticed something else a few feet away from it.
Standing against a backdrop of dark trees was a small mock shrine, its off-white walls now browning with age. It was reclining with the crab grasses, the rust-caked roofs halfway detached from the mushroom-ridden ceiling. The barbed fences were down now, frail with tarnishing. Chalked vandalism, mostly of stick figures scattered around a false hopscotch, adorned the bamboo flooring. Outside, a voodoo doll-like figure stood as a security guard, black button eyes gazing at them like accusing them of irresponsibility. I recalled christening him “Lt. Cottoncloud” as we advanced towards it.
“The shrine,” I whispered, dumbfounded. “I never knew it was still…alive.”
Gabriel chuckled. “It wasn’t properly preserved, but at least it lasted up to this date.”
I stooped to arrange Lt.Cottoncloud’s wig, which was made from a floor map head we thieved from the locker room when we were in elementary. “It was still special. But I thought it was destroyed after the typhoon that hit the town when we were seven. I remembered I refused to go to this place because I cannot bear to see what it looks like.”
Gabriel stooped too, only to dishevel the wig of the little lieutenant I just arranged. “Way to go, Lt. Cottoncloud. You did a good job in protecting our refuge.”
He hesitated for a while, then spoke, “I’m sorry. I can’t restore it to its original state. The first time I saw it today, it was semi-recognizable. I’ve tried my best to make it look as if nothing happened. As if time didn’t pass by and worn it out.”
I let out an abrupt gulp of laugh, tapping him on his shoulder.
“Gabby, our shrine’s still alive. You made it stay alive. That’s what is important. But you tell me—when you said the first time you saw it today, it means you saw it before we even went here? I mean, you’ve been in our house so early.”
He sighed. “Ellie, today doesn’t start at seven in the morning.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“That you’ve come here even before the sun wakes up?”
“I passed this place first before I went to your house.”
“I know, but Gabby, it was prohibited to go into the woods until it’s morning. It’s too dangerous here; a lot of people who go in here vanished and they were never seen again.”
“But I’m here. I didn’t…vanish.”
“Yeah, and you’re not caged in our community jail. Local cops were guarding the place, you know, and lots of foolish teenage boys were already caught. Sneaking into the forest to expose whatever kind of courage—or craziness they want to expose.”
“I’m here,” he firmly stated. I couldn’t find a word to say anymore, not after he paralyzed me again with that stare. He sighed, advanced towards me and flashed a sad smile—the kind of smile that was double-edged. It made a part of me lighten a little, but there’s still a part of me that was pulsating in a indescribable ache.
“When we were still little brats,” he began, eyes still glued to mine, “I used to leave you in this shrine, with a promise that I would return. I’d keep my promise, but I was always too late. It’s either you were crying because it was already dark or you were already asleep after hours of waiting for me.”
I giggled. “Oh. Yeah. It was good to reminisce those moments. Yes, you would return too late, but I always feel better because you’d bring me a handful of bonbons and a bottle of fireflies. You’d give me a piggy back, and we’d—“
My smile perished when I sensed some pressure in the atmosphere. “Something wrong?”
“Ellie, I hope you could forgive me.”
Confused, I tilted my head to one side. “Forgive you for what?”
He didn’t answer directly. He moved closer, clasping our hands together. I felt the little earthquake in his system, all condensed into his palms. His voice didn’t deny the shaking, too. “Before I left this town…exactly a year ago when the clock strikes twelve tonight…I promised that I’d be back before the year ends. December thirty-first.”
I scrunched my eyes close when I felt a beating pain in my skull. I swallowed hard, focusing the reply that I would give him. “You always make promises—they were too many of them. I don’t effort to remember all because I know you won’t let anything unfulfilled. I don’t care if it’s wrong or late or anything. What’s important is that you are here. Now I know why I can’t recall that promise you’re talking about. It’s because I don’t care about it, and it won’t matter anymore. Because you’re here. With me.”
“B-but.. You see, it’s… uh, how do I put this…”
I angled my head aside in slight amusement though there was still a dull pain. “Is there any problem? Don’t think too much about it. Anyway, you’ve fulfilled it—December thirty one today. New Year’s Eve. I don’t think we should have issues about that.”
I pulled my hands gently out of his and heaved a heartfelt sigh as I secretly struggled to maintain the tingling feeling his skin contact left from mine. “Hmm.. don’t you think it’s getting darker?”
He nodded. “You should be going home now.”
“Won’t you come with me?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
There was something in the way he was acting that there was some kind of a terrible secret he was going to continue to hide after nearly blurting it out.
“You ought to go home now, Ellie. I’m sorry if I can’t accompany you home.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, nothing.” He nodded to the direction out of the woods. “Go now. Please be safe.”
Without saying anything, I turned on my foot and started to march on, waving him goodbye. I struggled hard to zip my mouth shut; there’s a wave of words that needs release, but I think I still have another time to set it free. Not now, I told myself.
I stopped in my tracks, throwing my head back.
“Please come back here before the clock strikes twelve. I’ll be here. I promise.”
I fled from the house easily, as everyone was busy with Media Noche, with the radio turned on full blast with the song “Auld Lang Syne” playing.
Harder to avoid were the dancing firecrackers on the street and the jumping children swaying glow-sticks in the air. They reminded me of the Star Wars movies. Soon, the air was thickened with smoke.
It was quite a relief when I reached the woods, because there, both the noise and the smoke were being warded off by the thick clumps of trees.
But when I saw him, the relief on my chest vanished, the stillness building up a prison that I thought would have no escape. My whole body shook with utmost disbelief. I told myself that this was one of his practical jokes, but my heart told me well enough that it was true.
He was standing there, next to our self-made refuge. Right in front of him, tucked in Lt.Cottoncloud’s wig, was a brownish paper folded and tied with a red ribbon. I struggled to walk forward with my legs wobbling like jelly. I fell to my knees, my trembling fingers disobeying my command to wrestle the sudden weakness I was feeling. I tried again, and I was able to life the paper.
I unfolded it with the remaining strength I believe I have. Before my eyes tumbled the neat writing of Gabriel I used to envy back in high school. It was a letter.
It was quite disrespectful to talk to you like this, but it’s all that I can do.You know I cannot afford to break any promise that I made with you. But, just as I always say, I’m always late. Everything in my life seemed so untimely.
I’m very happy to meet you. Do you remember the first day I met you? We were only five-year-olds then. You have your face pressed against the display window of our candy shop and I went out to give you a confection. I told you that it was sweet, but it wasn’t—it’s sour. You tasted it, your face wrinkled, and you said, “Whoa. You’re right, it’s sweet. Let me have another one.”
That’s very you. You can make yourself believe something IS, even though it ISN’T. I guess this will be a bit hard for you, but I still suggest you don’t effort to make yourself believe IT’S NOT TRUE. Because it IS.
I won’t forget you. I can’t. Always with me are the images of the young girl who’ll rather talk to her paper dolls than the other kids, the girl who loves fireflies and butterflies, the girl who loves life. The girl who eventually became my life.
But I guess I’m not qualified to be with you. You know all too well, destiny is so cruel. It caught me—its manacles too tight that I was left bruised. I’m sorry for giving up. Please forgive me.
Minutes from now, the clock will strike twelve. I guess I cannot wish you anything but a New Year, a new beginning. Don’t think that I will not be there for you. Just remember the first day you learned to tie your shoe, I’ll be with you. Just remember the short-lived glow of the fireflies in the bottle, I’ll be with you. I’ve always been and always will be with you.
Continue to live, to grow. Continue to love.
This is so untimely. Please forgive me.
I reread the letter more than thrice, and before I even knew it, my cheeks were flooded with tears. I found myself catching my breath as I sobbed. Slowly—very slowly—I turned my face to his direction. I paid my wristwatch a quick glance. Deliriously, I started breathing a countdown: “Four…Three…Two..One…H-happy New Year, Gabby…”
He was standing right next to our little lieutenant, cold and unmoving. There was a bundle of withered chrysanthemum at his foot, and his shadow under the fireworks-lit sky makes a long cross that towered over our shrine. Written on him was:
BORN: October 19, 1990
DIED: December 29, 2007
I learned from his relatives that he died of brain cancer. He had it even before he left the town, and kept it secret from me. On Christmas, he knew he was going to die. He was fighting for too long now. That night, he became outspoken on his ‘pending’ death. He requested to be buried next to our shrine, and wished not to tell me until January 1.
He came back to fulfill his promise to me.
He always makes promises—they were too many of them. I don’t effort to remember all because I know he won’t let anything unfulfilled. Not even death.