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Wallflower (1 of 2) No explosions.

My heart calmed as I looked over to the expanse


of green and blue that was Central Park. The
sky had finally darkened from purple to blue and
New York, 1999
I left the window. I flicked on the Tiffany lamp my
youngest daughter Angelica had bought me
I woke up to the sound of explosion.
from one of her shopping trips.

My eyes snapped open and I jumped from my


The yellow light blended with the soft red coals
couch, shaking off the remnants of sleep. I admit
that radiated warmth from the fireplace opposite
that I wasn’t as spry as the boy I used to be—so
the couch. I leaned back against the cushions,
my jumping to my feet was about as graceful as
my eyes straying to the glass case above the
a hippo in a Broadway production of Swan
mantel. I counted the items behind the glass
Lake.
until I felt myself drifting again.

I surveyed the room, and then hobbled as fast


When the explosion came again-- this time
as I could to the open window without stumbling
followed by a volley of gunfire-- I ducked and
on my favorite cane. I didn’t hear another blast—
hugged the carpeted floor. Suddenly, it was
so it could have been my imagination. At my
1943 and I was lying flat on Philippine soil again,
age, I sometimes even mistake my wife’s voice
listening to the seeming thunder of weapons
to a barking dog’s—though I don’t tell her that.
being emptied to human flesh. The hot sun
burned down my exposed back, and I inhaled
The red velvet curtains of my study were half-
blood and gunpowder as the Japanese raised
drawn and I hastily pushed it aside. Below me
their voices in a war cry.
was the same big city traffic I’ve lived with for
the last few decades-- cars and cabs huddling
“Why are you lying on the floor, Grandpa?” a
close as its occupants rushed for home and
small voice cut through the rising wave of chaos.
office; people on the streets laden with shopping
Gunfire and bombs and pained yelps dwindled
bags, coats and scarves wrapped tightly as they
into an echo as I looked up to my
challenged cold December gusts. The day was
granddaughter.
almost over; I could just make out the faint
remains of the sun as it disappeared behind
“Didn’t you hear the bombs, dear?” I asked
various high-rises and buildings that crowd this
breathlessly, reaching slowly for my cane.
area of the Upper East Side. Lights began
blinking in every window.
“What bombs?” Mei asked, frowning. She
extended her little hand to help me up the floor.
Really, with the bomb I heard seconds earlier I
“I don’t hear anything.”
did expect the people below to run blindly in a
panic, like those in that new monster flick my
The blast came again. “THAT explosion, dear,” I
grandchildren were always chattering about. I
told her urgently. I tugged her onto the floor with
have four grandchildren; and even though they
me. “Cover your ears.”
drove me up the wall and onto the ceiling with
their sass and practical jokes, I still loved them. I
“Grandpa!” Mei protested. “Those aren’t real
always try to remember the ‘love’ part coz half
explosions! It’s the TV from the other room. The
the time; I wanted to throw them off my 12th
boys are watching the Terminator again.”
floor window.
My ears perked, and sure enough I caught just
But I don’t tell my wife that—it’s just the weird,
enough of Sarah Connor’s voice to know that it
affectionate grandpa talking.
was true. My study’s door opened and Cherisse,
my other granddaughter walked in.
As always, when the past dashed back to bite
“What’s Grandpa doing on the floor?” she asked me in the ass, the room blurred and flickered,
aloud, running a hand over her long braided like one of those odd mirrors at the carnival. The
hair. “Are you guys playing a game?” wall behind the fireplace suddenly morphed into
gray stone walls. In a second, when I blinked, it
“No,” Mei giggled. “Grandpa thought the bang became the same wood paneling of my study
from the TV’s real.” again.

“Oh, Grandpa. You really are getting old,” said Cherisse very carefully opened the glass case.
Cherisse as she and Mei assisted me to the
couch. I sat back and they both huddled close to “Take your pick,” I told her. “There are three
me, giggling. more stories to tell.”

“You kids,” I said, making it sound like a growl. “Get the shiny gold mug, Cheri,” Mei said behind
“How dare you laugh at your poor old Grandpa!” us. She was jumping up and down the couch. “I
They laughed some more and tugged at my always wanted to know the one about the gold
white hair, which somehow fascinated them. I mug.”
still remembered when they tried to pull it off by
the roots as toddlers. “It’s called a goblet, honey,” I told her, chuckling.
“But it’s Cheri’s pick.”
“We’re sorry, Grandpa,” they said. “It’s a bit
funny.” Cherisse cocked her head to the side. After a
moment, she said, “This one.”
“Funny? I’ll show you funny!” I began tickling
them and youthful mirth filled the room. They She reached inside and took out a long silk
were still laughing and wiping tears from their ribbon. It was old and brittle but it still retained its
eyes as I got up and placed another wood into color—a bright Chinese red. She closed the
the fire. It sparked and snapped merrily as I casing and I lowered her to the floor. We all sat
nudged it with a poker. back on the couch again. The two girls touched
the length of the ribbon.
When I turned around to the kids, I saw them
looking at something above me. I followed their “It’s so pretty,” Cherisse said, pressing the
gaze to the gleaming glass case on the mantel. I ribbon against her cheek. “Where’d you get it,
sat back down between them and Mei asked, Grandpa?”
“Another story, Grandpa?”
I stared at the ribbon, and in a split second saw
She smiled at me and pointed at the four items the mass of curly hair where it was once tied.
mounted inside the glass. “Well, it once belonged to a girl I met in the
Philippines, back in the war days,” I started. “I
Air, Fire, Earth and Water. gave it to her as a gift.”

“Yeah,” Cherisse echoed eagerly. “Tell us “Who was the girl, Grandpa?” Mei asked. She
another one; like the one with the Uzi bullet.” had the ribbon now and holding it up to the light.
“What’s her name?”
I gave them an indulgent laugh feeling the cool
rush of the past envelop my old rattling bones. I “And why do have it?” Cherisse added. “When
took Cherisse by the waist and lifted she was you said you gave it to her as a present?”
close to the glass case. Though I lacked the
grace, I still had the strength of a war veteran. I didn’t answer; just pulled the ribbon gently from
Mei. Then I took Cherisse’s right hand and Mei’s and float aimlessly under the moonlight.
left hand. I tied them securely with the ribbon.
I could think clearer then. And I could cool down
They laughed. there when the older soldiers badgered me that
night, or pissed on my boots again. They didn’t
I glanced around me and realized we weren’t in make things easier for me;
our study over bustling New York anymore. We
were still on my snug sofa; but we were in the It was a lonely life; a dangerous life when
side of a broad dirt road. I heard chirping birds slanted-eyed enemies could shower us with
flitting from every tree branch; felt the midday steel anytime, cutting down every man or
sun hanging nonchalantly on the cloudless sky; woman, American or Filipino. Bullet-ridden
breathed in the warm tangy Pacific air. I bodies, bloodshed, rape, bombs. A nightmare in
recognized this place all too well from my past. real time.

The Philippines, year 1943. But that week, when I met Maria, there was a lull
among the two camps. No Japanese soldiers
Across the road stood the fireplace and the marched down the paved streets to impose their
glass case above it, pasted against a long gray will; and I, along with my fellow uniforms didn’t
wall of stone and vine. Sitting on the wall was a raise our guns to defend our base.
girl of twelve, wearing a white summer dress.
The silk ribbon on her hair shone like a chain I had just left my shift as patrolman, walking with
spun from rubies. rifle on hand, down a wide dirt road that led to
the sea. The woodlands started on one side of
“Tell us the story, Grandpa,” my granddaughters the road; the other side had a long stone wall,
were saying in unison. about six feet tall, gray and choked with vines. I
wanted so much to watch the ocean again; I was
The girl on the wall smiled. She gave me that weary and missing my life in New York.
familiar little wave.
My penthouse suite in one of Dad’s hotels, the
I felt my lips stretching into a grin. buxom maid serving me canapés and
champagne if I wished it, my girlfriend I fought
with because of a puppy—I wanted to name it
Bataan, 1943 Dean, she wanted it to be Smoochie, which was
stupid—it all seemed a lifetime ago.

I was nineteen back then, new into the ways of The sea sparkled in the distance and I instantly
war. Me and the rest of the American troops felt energized. I didn’t even mind the sun beating
were stationed in a small town in Bataan, with down my back. Maybe I could find a quiet corner
orders from the General Douglas McArthur where I could imagine nude girls opening
himself to lay in wait for the Japanese. themselves to me, moaning for me to—

The town was San Fernando, named in honor of “Why are you smiling like that?” a curious voice
its patron saint. It was a pretty place; a small asked.
gem of Spanish civilization still, with a cathedral
on a hill that shone a stunning silver when the I turned around for the source, couldn’t see
light struck it. The hill overlooked the sprinkling anyone.
of stone houses and the humbler wooden huts in
its outskirts. All around it were thick woodlands “Up here,” the voice was amused now.
that led to the sea. There were nights when I
would follow this little footpath to the saltwater I didn’t see her at first; the leafy boughs of a
large mango tree beyond the wall hid most of she had a book on her lap.
her.
“Hello there,” she said, smiling.
“Who’s there?” I called out, my face reddening. It
was a bit embarrassing that somebody would “Hi,” I said. My hair was still wet from my swim at
see the evidence of my desire so I discreetly put the beach and my old green shirt clung to me.
down the rifle at an angle that would cover the
bulge in my pants. “Can you tell me what this word means?” she
asked. Before I could ask ‘Say what?’ she was
The leaves parted to reveal a girl of about already looking into her book and spelling the
twelve. She was small-- tanned and pretty as word to me. I backtracked a little.
she sat primly on the wall, wearing a flowered
sundress. Thick curly hair fell down to her waist. “Ah, melancholy.”

Her large brown eyes watched me with interest. She nodded at me. “Yes, what does it mean?”

“You are American,” she told me in accented I thought for a moment.


English, her small pink mouth ending the word
with a pout. “Well, it’s just another word for sad,” I told her,
asking myself why I was being chummy with this
I looked up at her. “I sure am,” I said. young native.

She nodded. “Why are you smiling like that “Oh, I see,” she said. “Thank you.”
earlier?”
I noticed that the sun was already setting.
Well, this was awkward. I could have continued
my stroll down to the beach but I found myself “You’re welcome.” I turned to leave.
saying, “I was just thinking of something.”
“What’s your name?” she asked behind me.
“Is it something nice?”
I stopped, turned. The sun was disappearing
“Er… For me, yeah it is.” behind her, bathing her in warm orange light. It
almost looked like she had a halo.
“What are you thinking about?”
I told her my name. “What’s yours?” I asked,
She moved a couple of inches to the left so she trying to be polite.
could see me better; and I her. And since I
couldn’t very well tell her about sex with “I am Maria Juana Gomez,” she said, beaming
imaginary nubile girls in various positions, I just at me. “I live in the house behind this wall.”
shook my head.
It was the start.
“I see,” shrugged the girl. But she was frowning.
I could always find Maria sitting on that gray wall
“Why aren’t you at school?” whenever I go to the beach. She’d always try to
talk to me but I would usually ignore her. I’d
“It’s war,” she said a matter-of-factly. keep on walking without taking my eyes from the
sea ahead. I was on that phase when talking to
“Okay. See ya,” I told her as I continued on my someone younger was a pain.
way. About an hour later, when I walked down
the road again, the girl was still there. This time, Her presence there was almost creepy, sitting
as still and calm as a cat. She’d only move when
she saw me passing below her. That was when “Because I want to be friends,” she said, her
she’d greet me and I would ignore her. black shoes dangling merrily against the wall.
Curiously, she never got tired of that routine.
“What if I don’t want to be friends?” I took a few
Sometimes, the Filipino guys at the base would steps closer until I was directly below her.
tell us the local mythology. They’d spin tales of
ghosts and creatures that plagued this area of “You’ll come around eventually,” she told me,
Bataan; some of them saw those creatures still with that sunny smile. “I’ll just wait for you.”
themselves and though I didn’t believe most of it
—kind of—it was entertaining stuff. I wondered, I glanced left and right to see if there were any
as I lay on my bunk one night if Maria was one other people. “You don’t know me,” I said,
of those creatures. If she were an aswang, she menacingly.
would’ve attacked me already. But then again,
the guys said aswangs transform to their horrific “I know.”
forms at night, during a full moon. I always see
Maria during the day. “What if I drag you down here?” I asked,
reaching out to seize her by the leg.
She could be a white lady, but if that were the
case, how come she could wear red, green, blue “You won’t,” she said softly, looking down at me.
and everything; aren’t white ladies supposed to
wear white? “What if I drag you down here and hurt you?” I
snarled.
She could be one of those mangkukulam. But I
couldn’t imagine Maria sacrificing a black cat “You won’t,” she repeated calmly.
under the moonlight, or dropping lizard tail
harvested while dancing a waltz-- or fish scales I gave the leg a testing yank. She didn’t flinch.
lined with lipstick-- into a brewing potion. Apparently, my scare tactic wasn’t working.

I reminded myself to ask Carlito, one of the “How would you know?” I asked her.
guys, more about it. Then I just shook it off. If I
asked, it would just be one more reason for the She just shrugged. “I just know.”
older guys to make fun of me.
I let go of her leg and took a few steps back. I
At most, I decided that Maria was just a lonely was shaking my head the whole time.
twelve-year old without any friends.
I looked up at her again.
One afternoon, I was ambling back to the base
again when, as usual, she greeted me with a “Besides,” she said, reaching for something
cheery, ‘Hello!’ This time, I stopped and looked behind her. “If I’m wrong, I have this.”
up to her.
The long curved knife glinted under the sun. It
She was smiling. looked sharp and wicked.

“Why are you always sitting there?” I asked I began laughing then. I sat down on the middle
impatiently. of the dirt road.

“Oh, I’m waiting for you,” she said. “All right, all right,” I said. “Let’s be friends.”

“Why?” ***
“I didn’t say you aren’t,” I said, tousling her hair.
Maria became a little sister and best friend for “I’d figured you want to grow up a doctor or a
me. lawyer or something.”

Many a time when I wasn’t on duty—I realized She shook her head, her eyes still retaining its
that there was still war going on; it was kind of glint of ambition.
hard to remember because of the respite—we’d
talk about anything and everything. She’d sit on “No,” she said. “I’m going to leave this town and
the wall, like a doll with her colorful dresses and never come back. I want the fame.”
I’d be under the tree shade cast by the mango
tree beyond the wall I told her about my life-- my “If you say so. Go for it, then.”
parents, my friends, some funny stuff when I
was still in school. “Tell me again about Central Park,” she said.
“Tell me about the Statue of Liberty…”
She listened to my stories attentively, asking me
for more details. ***

“Tell me about your trip to the Grand canyon


again,” she’d ask me. And I would repeat the One day, she asked me if I had a lover back
story again, her eyes widening with wonder. home.

Tell me about the food they serve at your It was the first time I sat with her on the wall; we
father’s hotel. were side by side, the dirt road behind us. From
where we were sitting I could just make out
What is caviar? Maria’s house. It was of the same Spanish style
as most homes in this town but it was
Tell me about the snow at Christmas. considerably bigger. It has big open windows
and freshly-painted. Flowering shrubs and fruit
Is it true that no snowflake has the same trees, most of which I didn’t recognize thrived
pattern? just beyond the clearing of the big house.

Tell me about your butler from England. “Not really,” I told her.

Tell me about your high school; your teachers, Two brown puppies of indeterminate ancestry
your class. frolicked on the grass. A granite driveway, lined
with cypresses, winded to our right and ended at
But most of all, “Tell me about New York; the a high iron gate.
sights, the sounds, everything!”
Obviously, Maria’s family was rich.
It was her favorite.
“What does that mean?” she asked. “Not really?
“Someday, I’m going to be famous,” she told me Tell me.”
with determination. “I’m going to be a movie star.
I’ll be in the cover of every magazine; be on I launched into a narrative about the girlfriend I
film.” always fought with.

I laughed. “She wasn’t my type anyway, “I was saying. “Her


face is a cosmetic store all by itself.”
“I’m serious,” she snapped at me.
“So you left with your car and she had to walk
home by herself?” she asked me incredulously. She scooped the puppy up. As it licked her
hand, Maria purposefully climbed the mango
“Well, I’m not proud of it, but yeah,” I said, tree and onto the wall with the same elegance.
sheepishly. She sat beside me.

“You’re kind of a jerk,” she told me, shaking her I scratched behind the puppy’s ear.
head.
“How about you?” I teased. “Any lucky boy?”
We heard steps coming from the dirt road
behind us. We swiveled on our narrow seat as a She turned to me with gleaming brown eyes.
girl about Maria’s age passed below. She looked
up to us as she limped slowly on the dusty path. “Nobody special,” she said, smiling
She was pale and thin, her dirty black hair tied in enigmatically.
a ponytail. Her dress hung on her frame like a
blanket. ***

“Good morning, Sarah,” Maria called out to her.


She was telling me how she could play music
Sarah flushed and shyly greeted back. With a with a mango leaf.
small nod, she continued her slow way to the
beach. “How?” I said, a bit mystified. I tried to learn the
guitar when I was a kid; and I was pretty
“Is she your friend?” I asked Maria. We turned horrible. The strings actually unraveled
back to watch the house again. themselves when I tried to play.

“No,” she answered cryptically. “But she will be.” “Like me teach you?”

Before I could ask her about that, she asked if I “Sure,” I said, watching her pluck a leaf from the
fancied any local girls. tree. She seemed to favor her arm.

“There is Linda,” I told her. “She lives by the That was when I saw the bruises.
beach.”
“What’s this?” I took a closer look. “Where’d you
“Oh, her,” she snorted. “The one with the mole get it?”
the size of the moon.”
She looked deep into my eyes.
“There is Anita,” I told her. Anita was this curvy
girl who sold fruit at the local market. “The truth?” she asked and I nodded.

“I see,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The one who “I walked into a door.”
looks like a goat, with the smell to match.”
Liar.
I just laughed and shook my head.
“No way,” I said.
One of the dogs wandered to us. It wagged its
tail, looked up in interest and barked. Before I “I did.” And that was the last thing she would say
could tell her to be careful, Maria had slid down about it.
from the wall. She landed on the grass with a
cat’s grace. ***
She went still, her eyes suddenly darkening. She
turned her gaze to the house.
It was the end of February. We received a report
that Japanese troops had been spotted heading “There’s not really much to tell,” she said in a
west of San Fernando. We waited with bated cold voice. “My father owns a bank in Manila. He
breath for the enemies, our rifles ready for the comes home every other weekend, bearing
ambush. presents.” She fiddled with the gold pendant on
her neck. “He’s a good man, strong and steady;
There was none. a good father. He provides for us well. People
always tell me I’m lucky to have him as a father.”
“It was a relief, actually,” I told Maria three days
later. “I wasn’t hankering for another killing. We Her eyes took on a faraway look, and I could tell
just lost seven comrades weeks ago.” that what she saw wasn’t all rainbows and
candies. I was looking surreptitiously if she had
She wore the long silk ribbon I’d bought her from bruises again. There appeared to be none.
one of the Chinese merchants two miles from
our base. It was red, glittering on her curly hair “My mother is beautiful and smart,” she
as the light struck it. Of course, the guys had continued. “But she lives in his shadow. He
teased me so brutally I had to punch one in the crooks a finger, and she’ll come running. He’ll
nose. tell her to jump, and she’ll ask, ‘How high?’ She
does everything she can to please him.”
She’d received it with such joy it embarrassed
me. I nodded slowly. “And your sisters? Where are
they?”
“Thank you! Thank you so much!” she’d cried.
To my surprise, she hugged me. She shifted. “My sister Selita is in college. She
studies at a well-known university in Manila. She
“Uh, wow,” I’d said, patting her back with wants to travel the world; and she said she’ll
discomfort. The ribbon, though pretty was take me with her.” Her eyes brightened but then
actually cheap. In fact, the gold pendant she’d clouded again.
been wearing cost a gazillion times more.
“Alicia died last month during childbirth. She’d
I’d told her so but she’d just shaken her head. gotten pregnant and she wouldn’t tell us who the
“This is the best thing ever.” father was. My parents assumed it was a local
boy.”
And she’d worn it everyday since.
“But you knew who it was,” I said. She turned to
“You say that as if you’re not part of this war,” me and nodded.
Maria was saying now. “I think there’s more to
you than just a soldier. I think you have a special She was about to open her mouth when a girl
role in this battle.” ran toward us from, calling for Maria. She came
closer and I recognized her as Sarah, Maria’s
She raised her eyebrows at me. I shrugged. would-be friend.

And because what she said hit close, I changed “So you two are friends now?” I asked Maria.
the subject.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Hey, you don’t say much about your family,” I
said. “Tell me about them.” Sarah stopped below us. She was paler and
thinner than ever, looking like was about to
topple to the ground if you blew on her. But
except for that, her appearance was an “I promise I’ll grow up as quickly as I can,” she
improvement. She was wearing a blue cotton said, desperate now.
dress and white slippers. Her wavy hair was
cleaner too. I suddenly understood. And it was awkward.

“Maria,” she said, gasping. “Your father’s calling “Well, I…”


you. He says it’s time for supper.”
And then her hands pulled me to her; and she
“Tell him I’ll be there, Sarah,” Maria said. “Why kissed me, full in the mouth.
don’t you go on ahead.” It wasn’t a question.
Sarah nodded at her shyly, ignored me and In a second, I gripped her shoulders and pushed
walked back to the house. her gently from me. And then, without a word, I
bounded from the wall.
“You know what, she looks a bit like you,” I said.
“I’m sorry, “I said. I was still red in the face.
“Yes, she does,” Maria said. There was a
definite mystery in her voice. “Except I don’t She stared at me, eyes glowing faintly in the
have cancer.” gathering twilight.

“She does?” I turned and walked away.

Which did explain the weak aura surrounding That night, a fire erupted at Maria’s house.
Sarah. She was dying; the poor girl.
I saw the smoke and the glow as I was turning in
“She’s dying,” said Maria, as if she read my for the night. The other guys had paused to
mind. “Cancer in the pancreas. Her doctor told stare. Carlito, who was a local said, “I think it’s
us so; he’s a good friend of my father’s.” coming from the Gomez’s property.”

“Where’s Sarah’s family?” Without thinking, I ran.

“She lives on our property with her grandmother. “Hey man, where you going?” I barely heard one
They help clean the house and the yard.” of the guys shout. The wind was cold that night
and it whipped me as I stopped by the high gate
I asked her about the parents. “Dead,” she said. that marked Maria’s house. Through the fancy
“They got caught in crossfire when the Japanese ironwork, I saw the blaze devouring the walls,
attacked a small town in Bicol. They were on the clouds of smoke trailing up the night sky. I
their way home.” watched the people give up on defeating the
flames that licked the walls; they stood just a few
There was a silence as we watched the sun go feet away, shaking in resignation. The heat was
down behind the trees. I sighed. so intense it reached the place where I was
standing.
“I better get going,” I told her. I twisted to the
side, but Maria stopped me. But I was shivering as the house burned to the
ground.
“Promise me you’ll wait for me,” she said
suddenly, clutching tight on my arm. Her tone The next day, I would receive news that a
was urgent. twelve-year old girl, Maria Gomez has died in
the fire. I would walk down the dirt road and stop
“What?” by the stone wall, bearing flowers. As I lay those
blooms at the base of that gray wall, I would
catch a flash of red.

I would look up to see the red silk ribbon tied on


a tree branch.

End 1 of 2

The Haunt is on. Join me.

Jose Arispe Edma Jr.

leifhaunt.blogspot.com

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