Three days. In three days, I’d turn seventeen. I don’t usually celebrate my birthday but this one’s different. I hope Saturday would come fast! Okay lang sa akin na hindi kami maghahanda ng kahit ano dahil sabi ni Nana ay pupunta kami sa Batara, a country next to ours. You see, sa ilang taon ko nang nabubuhay ay hindi pa ako nakakaalis sa city namin, well, except that one time. My grandparents were strict. Kahit sa field trips, hindi nila ako pinapasama. It’s dangerous, child, they would always say. I admit, nagtatampo at nagagalit ako sa tuwing nangyayari ‘yon. May isang beses nga na mismong teacher ko na ang nagpaalam para sa isang out-of-town trip dahil kailangan naming pumunta sa museum for our World History subject pero hindi pa rin ako pinayagan . . . unless I’m with Tata. Halos nasa katabing city lang namin ang museum kaya imagine how embarrassed I was when I was the only one who went with a chaperone. Simula noon, lagi na akong inaasar ng mga kaklase ko, saying I was still babied by my grandparents. Kaya naman noong sinabi nila na magbabakasyon kami sa weekend para i-celebrate ang birthday ko ay naiyak ako sa tuwa. Imagine, not just a region or city within Hallim, but we were going to another country! Nang matapos ang klase ko ngayong araw ay agad-agad akong nagligpit ng gamit. I was too excited for tomorrow! “Victoria, umuwi ka nang maaga para maaga rin tayong makaalis.” Naalala ko ang bilin ni Nana kaya nagmadali akong umuwi. I-che-check ko pa ang inimpake ko kagabi dahil baka may hindi ako nadala. Sumakay ako ng jeep papunta sa street namin nang makalabas ako ng school. I thought the students waiting in the shed with me would also get in, but they remained standing there. Meanwhile, two guys boarded the jeep after me and they didn’t look like students. They were wearing hoodies and caps despite the scorching heat. Ako ang naiinitan sa suot nila. One of them suddenly glanced at my direction and I immediately averted his gaze. Lumapit ako sa bandang driver dahil medyo natakot ako. Inabot ko ang bayad pero napatigil ako nang makita ko ang expression niya mula sa salamin. He narrowed his eyes as he accepted the coins and I flinched when our skin made contact. It was too cold. Suddenly, I felt something odd and eerie. Gusto kong bumaba ng jeep pero parang umurong ang dila ko at natatakot na rin akong gumalaw dahil pareho nang nakatingin sa akin ang dalawang lalaki sa bandang dulo. They sat on each side as if they were sealing the exit. Then, the one on the right slowly approached my direction. “M-manong . . .” I pleaded, looking at the driver for help, but he only smiled at me. Sa sobrang lakas at bilis ng tibok ng puso ko, pakiramdam ko ay lalabas ‘yon sa dibdib ko. I felt the danger I was in and it intensified when the jeep halted. The two guys were now both approaching me. “We finally found you, Stryzyga,” one of them hissed and I had the urge to cover my ears because his voice sounded like someone was scratching a sandpaper. “You need to die,” the other one said. “Your death will be our triumph.” They both lunged at me and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Right. I’d be dead before I could even turn seventeen. Parang nag-flash sa utak ko ang buong buhay ko, gaya ng sinasabi ng mga taong nasa bingit na ng kamatayan. I silently called to whoever who could save me, but I knew it wouldn’t make any difference. With my eyes closed, I waited for my death . . . . . . but it got quiet all of a sudden. Slowly, I opened my eyes and I could feel my body trembling. The next thing I knew, the two guys as well as the driver were already unconscious. I saw a shadow moving around and I yelped when someone appeared right in front of me. “No!” I screamed, pushing the person away but he grabbed my wrist and I flinched when I realized his skin was as cold as ice . . . just like the driver. “Are you okay?” he asked in a gentle tone. That moment, I realized I had been holding my breath for so long. My body was still trembling in fear. I drew a shaky breath as my tears fell uncontrollably. He reached out his other hand that was holding a white handkerchief. I was still scared, and I didn’t trust him, but I accepted the handkerchief. Fortunately, he didn’t do anything besides staring at me as I wiped the tears off my face. Nang kumalma na ako kahit papaano ay napatingin ako sa dalawang katawang nakahandusay sa keep. “S-sino sila?” I asked, my voice still shaking. “Sino ka?” “I’ll explain all of these but we need to get out of here first,” he said and I was relieved he didn’t sound like those guys with their creepy voices. He offered his hand but I was hesitant. “Please trust me. I won’t hurt you like they did. I am not your enemy. In fact, I’m here to help you.” I stared at his hand but my gaze shifted to his face and I suppressed a gasp when I saw his eyes. They were gray, just like the color of ash and stormy sky. He was wearing a black leather jacket, scarf and black jeans that covered his entire body. He had a very pale complexion and it felt like he would disappear in my sight anytime if I stared for too long. Napailing ako at tumingin ulit ako sa kanya. If I were to choose, I would like to run away but my knees already gave up on that idea. I had no other choice since he might hurt me if I try to escape. I heaved a sigh before placing my hand on his. He picked his cap from the jeepney’s floor and held my hand. I was about to stand but he suddenly pulled me closer to him. “T-Teka—” “Hold on to me tightly.” Itatanong ko pa lang sana kung para saan at bakit pero bigla na lang umikot ang paningin ko. It felt like the whole world was spinning so fast and all I could see where blurred, colored lines. Bigla naman siyang huminto at napahawak ako sa tiyan ko dahil pakiramdam ko ay masusuka ako sa kung anuman ang nangyari. I pulled my hand from his and collapsed on the floor, but I suddenly felt a sense of familiarity with the place we were in. I looked around and I realized we were in our house, but panic rose into my throat when I saw its state. Our things were strewn all over the floor, furnitures were destroyed, as if a storm wreaked havoc in our place. Halos lahat ng gamit namin ay sira-sira na at lalo akong natakot nang ma-realize kong sobrang tahimik. “N-nana? Tata?” I called but the house was too quiet. “Where are you?” I could hear the dread in my voice and my body began to tremble again when nobody answered. Where are they? What have they done to my family?