Decide for yourself. Your life is your own.
Let others do the same.
(Condensed version. From the Collection of Short Stories: Scream At Will)
He kept running, the mud continuously splashed on him as his shoes stamped hurriedly on wet soil. No one seemed following him though his inner voice warned him of personal injury if he stopped.
An hour ago he passed by the well-lighted cemetery as late visitors began to vacate the premises. His routine has not been broken once since he discovered the short cut from his classmate’s house back to his place. The long way added another hour to his journey and the lateness of the hour did not sit well with his parents.
“Why go home so late?” his mother asked, worried for his safety. “You know it’s dangerous walking at night.”
“Ma, I have to use a computer. You know I need it but we can’t afford to buy one.”
“Your father is working overtime. Just wait, please.”
“I understand, Ma. It’s a sacrifice I have to bear. I want to finish high school like the rest. I have dreams.”
His mother could only sigh. She could not do a thing except pray for his son’s welfare.”
“Are you sure you can take care of yourself?”
“Don’t worry, Ma,” he smiled to allay his mother’s fears. “I always carry my lucky coin.”
Ahead, the big branches of an Acacia tree were the perfect cover for some rest. His lungs could burst if he continued his pace. All he needed was a minute to collect his thoughts and to plan his escape.
He heard the unmistakable sound of flapping wings descending as if ready for a landing: there were no birds at such unholy hour. It had to be the creature following him.
“You can’t run this time,” the ghoulish voice called out to him. “You’ll be like me.”
“You are not real!” Paul screamed, hiding in the shadows of the tree. “You’re a wretched spirit!”
The terrifying laughter sounded more like screeching tires, prolonged for its desired scary effect.
“Oh, yes! I am real. You will see once I get you.”
“Never!” he shouted as he automatically broke into another sprint.
The sound of flapping wings neared him, quickly closing the gap. His legs could no longer match the aerial speed of his pursuer.
Suddenly, he felt the air brushing him from behind, then sharp claws tried to hold his shoulders, ripping his shirt in the process. It was very close miss that slightly wounded him, but he was free.
Still, he ran, taking advantage of adrenaline flowing through him.
Another swoop and the creature successfully planted its claws on his waist, ready to lift him up like a captured prey. The creature screeched, its sound not of laughter but disappointment. It could not lift him as if he weighed a ton.
He was loose once more, running, giving his all to decrease the creature’s chances of another attempt.
Paul saw the small plantation with rows of year-old mahogany sampling, his natural allies where the flying predator would have much difficulty swooping down on him.
He entered it: he slowed down, catching his breath.
“I will get you,” the creature followed his path. “You’ll be mine!”
He was too tired to run further. A few hundred meters more and there would be another clearing. He would be defenseless unless …
The creature circled above waiting for his next move. If he stayed where he was till sunrise, he could fall victim to other creatures of the night, venomous and similarly deadly.
“You have to kill me first before you can get me. I am useless to you, dead.”
The screeching laughter came once more.
Paul picked a round piece of broken branch from the ground. Like a baseball bat, it became his crude weapon to fight back.
Calmly, he walked out of the plantation and into the edge of the clearing. He was prepared for the creature’s immediate attack.
From his left side, it came, like a seabird diving fast. He was ready, a man at bat waiting for the pitch.
He did not hit a home run but a wicked foul ball, the creature’s head receiving a hard whack, its loud agonizing screech painful to the ears.
It fell hard on the ground, dazed, its body like a downed spread eagle, wings temporarily immobilized.
Paul rushed to it without fear, watching it helpless like any ordinary human, injured.
From his pocket, he took out his lucky coin and pushed it in the creature’s open mouth to swallow. With a follow up blow to its face, the coin would not come out again.
“I don’t need that anymore,” he shouted, looking down on his vanquished foe. “It’s yours!”
The creature’s face displayed fear, his existence uncertain.
“What have you done?” the creature tried to vomit, trying to flap its wings. “I can’t fly!”
Paul’s derisive laughter was something the creature has not heard of before.
“Come sunrise, you don’t need to.”
“He’s at my place. Too much to drink, I guess.”
Sarah listened patiently to what Jimmy reported, his words came haltingly clear: her husband turned to the bottle because of their spat.
“Since he is not here, I think you should eat what I cooked for him,” she said without showing any other emotion. “I think you’ll like it. It’s his favorite dish.”
Jimmy saw what’s on the table: the food was absolutely enticing. His hungry stomach growled as if commanding his brain not to let the chance pass.
“But you have to fetch him,” Jimmy insisted, his eyes stared at the plate of spaghetti.
“Eat first,” she said firmly.
- o -
Larry has already emptied his first plate of spaghetti while Gemma watched him without a sound.
“I think Jimmy needed a friend to confide his problems. He drank too much and won’t go home until you fetch him at my place.”
“He can sober up and walk by himself,” she replied. “He cannot sleep in another house except in his own bed.”
“Really?” Larry was surprised with the information.
“Really,” she repeated and added, “I think you two are overdoing this charade of yours.”
“What charade?” his eyes widened.
- o -
“You know I received a call this afternoon,” Sarah revealed.
“Why are you telling me about it?” Jimmy kept poking at the yummy rice bun.
“My cousin told me something that I should be aware of.”
“And?” Jimmy stopped chewing.
- o -
“Her cousin told her about your plan,” Gemma related.
“You mean, you and Sarah talked?”
“Yes. After you and Jimmy left for work. It was so spontaneous.”
Gemma laughed while she recalled their hours of fun.
They did not notice that Jimmy and Sarah had entered the house. He carried some of the food that was supposed to be Larry’s.
“You are right, dear,” Sarah interrupted, approached her husband and gave him a light smack on the lips. The spaghetti sauce left its mark on her cheeks.
“Hey, I should get one, too!” complained Jimmy.
Gemma was already near him when he reacted so in seconds he got what he deserved.
“What’s with the food? Don’t tell me you both cooked spaghetti?”
Sarah nodded to Gemma so she could explain.
“When her cousin called, who fortunately you invited for a drink, we decided to cook and promised each other to play along with whatever you were planning. It’s as simple as that.”
“Larry does not drink that much so Jimmy made that mistake of saying so,” Sarah said, smiling.
“And you did not tell me that you cannot sleep in other people’s house,” Larry added.
“Of course,” Gemma nodded.
“Hey, everything was part of my plan.”
“What plan?” they chorused, curious of Jimmy’s explanation.
“I told Gemma her garden sucked so I told her to ask Sarah for help. I know Sarah was great with plants.”
“What if I did not go?” Gemma postulated, grinning to show how correctly her husband read her mind.
“You don’t want to lose face. You are the only housewife around here who has no garden to speak of.”
“That will change, I promise you,” Sarah comforted Gemma and held her hands.
“How about our plan? Our talk this morning?” Larry could not stop laughing.
“That’s plan B,” Jimmy confessed. “When I saw Gemma’s cousin, I wanted him in to our secret.”
“And you’re sure he would squeal,” Sarah concluded, clapping with much enthusiasm.
“Bingo!” Jimmy exclaimed, exchanging high-fives with Larry.
“We’re on the same boat.”
Larry walked with a heavy heart. It was long ago that he and Sarah had a major quarrel and that was about her quitting work. He won that time. This time though, she would win. No doubt about it.
Another pair of hurried footsteps came from behind. He imagined everyone was in a hurry to go to work like him.
“Wait a second,” Jimmy shouted, rushing to get in step with his neighbor. “Care for some company?”
“Be my guest,” Larry replied, grinning sheepishly, masking his inner sadness.
“I am sorry for the early noise barrage. I could not stop Gemma. I was tempted to turn the house safety box off.”
Larry laughed. His wife would love to hear what Jimmy had just confided.
“I think it’s me who need to apologize. I could not stop my wife from buying all those stuff.”
“Neither could I,” Jimmy agreed without reservation.
They decided to walk further on: they skipped the first bus terminal.
“Any ideas on how we could make them friendly with one another?” Larry asked, striking out from his mind his first option of a party.
“How about a game of pretending?” Jimmy suggested. “If they do not know about it, we could get them together without them knowing it.”
“Listen,” Jimmy began his proposition with a short word, “Acting.”
- o -
Sarah got out of the house, angry at her husband who did not kiss her goodbye. In her mind, he should have tried harder before leaving the house.
“That’s a lovely flower you got there!”
The sudden intrusion in her privacy startled her. The feminine voice was not only familiar, it was her envy especially when it was used for singing.
“It’s a gift from my husband,” Sarah replied, somewhat uneasy to be friendly. “Do you like it?”
“Yes,” Gemma smiled, no guile but a genuine display of appreciation. “You have a great garden.”
Sarah’s guard fell down immediately. When her gardening skills were admired, anyone saying so could be her friend.
“If you need some help, I would be glad to give assistance.”
“Really?” Gemma gushed out loud, the twinkle in her eyes was encouraging.
Then, a silent pause came between them. It seemed the air would be getting fresher.
“I apologize for being so childish,” Sarah admitted. “I really do not mean to hurt your feelings.”
“It is I who should ask for your understanding. I am sorry for keeping you on the edge. It’s wrong.”
“I had a spat with my husband this morning when he asked me to patch things up with you. I was mistaken not to have listened to him much earlier.”
“You are not alone,” Gemma confided. “I gave my husband too much financial headaches which should not have happened if I listened to him. He did not want me to compete with you.”
They were overpowered by their deep emotions that the eventually tight embrace followed. It was a beginning of a true and lasting friendship.
“We should have a party,” Sarah suggested. “The four of us. Out of here.”
“There’s a quiet garden I know. That would give us more time to bond.”
Over enthusiasm overwhelmed them both that their morning was spent talking about women stuff. They even discovered that they were too much alike.
(to be concluded)
“Is it Holy Week already?”
Sarah’s contemptuous remark elicited laughter from her showering husband. Inside the bathroom, while she brushed her teeth, she could still hear what she specifically considered as lyrical chanting.
(During Holy Week, part of the the local Christian traditions is reciting passages in the Bible pertaining to the life and passion of Christ. It took various forms, from the original hymn-sounding to the more creative interpretations using other genres.)
“It’s not that bad,” Larry commented, whistling the same tune to provoke her further. “I could imagine the original singer is right next door.”
“Hmmph!” she disagreed without espousing her negative view.
Larry wiped himself up with a large towel while he watched her covering both ears. Her act was a bit comical because she could not stop the melodic sound, noise if she was asked, that penetrated their thick walls.
“You can turn on our sound system and belt out a song or two,” he suggested.
“I have a sore throat,” she lamely reasoned out. The truth was that her singing corresponded to the sound of a bleating goat, as her husband remarked not too long ago.
“Ready to call it quits? Your contest, I mean.” Larry prayed that she’d be first to stop the foolishness of it all. Jimmy’s wife would surely follow suit.
“She might be a better singer but I am more fluid with my movements,” she hinted that her prowess with dancing was unmatched. “I saw her a while back and she’s hopeless.”
Larry pondered for a while as his toothbrush stayed longer in his mouth, the foam formed a white moustache that made him looked older. He discovered an opening on how to make his wife and Jimmy’s to reconcile their differences.
“Let’s have a party,” he said, the germ of an idea beginning to take shape. “We’ll invite our next door neighbors.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Sarah reacted angrily. “You’ll let that woman enter my house?”
“Come on! You’re being childish.” His ‘oops’ was too late because she pounced on it immediately.
“Is that so?” she said, hurt somewhat. “Kiss your kiss goodbye. You won’t get any until you apologize. Me? Childish?”
He could only watch her leave the bathroom, stomping her feet as she left, more or less like a child throwing tantrums.
Larry scratched his head harshly. His choice of words was notoriously suspect. He’d be lucky if she continued cooking for him. She knew his weakness too well.
“Honey, I am sorry.” he called out from outside the bedroom door.
No reply came. The door was locked.
“Honey, I need to go to work. I need my clothes.”
There was audible rustle inside the room, a bit of banging and some gibberish language.
The door opened slightly; his hopes rekindled.
But it was not so. His personal belongings came out one by one, not by their own volition. They were thrown out by motivated hands.
“Honey, please. I said I am sorry. You’re being …”
She showed her face for him to see, “What?” and completed what he was about to say, “childish?”
(to be continued)
“Jimmy, are you awake?”
He slightly opened his eyes and saw it was still dark. The lack of enough sleep plus the memory of yesterday’s fiasco was still fresh in his mind. He disregarded the query and continued his slumber.
Again, Gemma shook him gently: she had no sleep at all. Her mind revolved on Sarah’s challenge and how to beat her without buying the same equipment. Her husband’s patience would not permit the competition progressing to another level.
He grunted: all his fantasies vanished, back to the real world.
“If I did not answer, you should stop asking questions. I could not hear you because I am asleep.”
“You snore a lot,” she complained, rehashing her constant argument for being awake.
“I do,” he admitted but added, “like most people I know, you know who.”
She let the reference to her passed. It was undeniably a fact.
Noticing that his wife seemed out of character, he changed position and turned to her: she stared at the ceiling, perhaps plotting her next moves.
“What’s the matter? Do you want to buy something?”
She pinched him on his side. The teasing was uncalled for.
“I am a good singer,” she stated, waiting for his affirmation.
“Are you asking me or telling me? There’s a big difference.”
“You said so when you first courted me, remember?”
“That was a long time ago,” he tried not to uncover the past. It would get messy.
“So you mean to say, at present I am not?”
Jimmy stood up, keeping his wife’s question hanging in the air. He did not relish an early morning discussion about something mundane.
“Let’s have breakfast. I’ll cook.”
Gemma followed him out the bedroom. But instead of joining him in the kitchen, she went straight to the living room. In front of the TV, she turned the sound system on, reached for the microphone at the top of the shelf and connected it to the karaoke machine.
Jimmy went looking for her when she did not appear: he thought she still sulked in bed because he intentionally denied her of what she hoped for.
“This is a bit early, don’t you think?” he asked, admitting to himself that his question was futile: she has made up her mind.
“Cook whatever you want. Just let me be.”
She deftly pushed the right buttons on the remote control, turned the volume at full blast and waited patiently for the song’s intro.
“You are a good singer,” he said finally. “Turn the set off and eat something first.”
“Too late, dear!” she motioned him to go away.
“You’ll wake up the neighborhood.” Jimmy tried to steal away the microphone which she held tightly. Forcing it out of her would create a marital row so he relented.
“I’ll show her who’s the best,” Gemma’s conviction showed in her eyes.
When Jimmy saw the video on the screen, he sat down in front of her and watched.
“Do you remember this?” she asked him.
(to be continued)
“Can you turn the volume down?”
Besides shelling out a hefty sum for the state-of-the-art sound system, Larry thought his wife’s investment was another reason noise pollution was getting worse in the neighborhood. Karaoke machines and plain stereo players competed almost daily, their owners outdoing what each of them wanted: be the loudest.
“Just this song,” she yelled to be heard.
When it ended, she tapped the microphone several times: the feedback squawked.
“Good night friends!” she calmly announced before turning the set off.
(to be continued)