The past few days had drained my physical, mental and emotional energy. It was hard to approach Mom but I kept my promise. Kapag nakikita ko siya ay niyayakap ko siya kahit na minsan ay tinutulak niya ako palayo. It was even harder to deal with when Czanelle kept asking why Mom wasn't talking to her.
"Is Mom still sick?" she asked, pouting.
"Yes," I answered and I immediately felt a lump on my throat.
Nandito sina Czanelle at Clark sa kwarto ko dahil natakot sila sa malakas na ulan kagabi. Ang aga niya ring nagising dahil alam niyang aalis kami mamaya. Kuhanan kasi ng report cards nila at kakausapin din ng teachers ang parents about sa performance ng mga anak nila sa class. Since hindi pwede ang parents namin ay ako ang kailangang pumunta.
Clark began mumbling something as he climbed on my lap.
"What is it?" tanong ko habang pinipisil ang pisngi niya. Based on his expression, it looked like this midget wanted to eat.
Dahil hindi rin ako nakakain kagabi ay bumaba kaming tatlo para mag-breakfast. Sakto namang naghahain na si Nanay Meling nang pumunta kami sa dining table.
"Ang aga ninyo ngayon, ah?" she commented.
"It's their fault," sabi ko naman.
Sakto namang bumaba si Daddy mula sa kwarto niya at tumakbo agad sa kanya sina Czanelle at Clark. He looked like he aged a lot after taking care of Mom and our business. It felt weird. Few months ago, I was still resenting both of them because they abandoned me for decades but this time, I was begrudging myself more. If I had forgiven them sooner . . . if I had understood what was going on . . . if I had not clung to my pride too much . . . maybe the situation would not lead to this.
We all ate in silence and it was hard not to think about Mom. Now that I think about it, hindi pa kami nakakain nang sabay-sabay as a complete family. And that might not happen anymore.
"Chloe," tawag ni Dad matapos niyang mag-breakfast.
Iniwan ko naman sina Clark at Czanelle kay Nanay Meling at sumunod ako kay Dad sa labas. We quietly walked toward the garden and I could only vaguely remember the time he built that hut when they were still here.
"I have to leave this afternoon," he said.
Napatigil naman ako sa paglalakad. "Back to Singapore?" tanong ko.
"Yes," he replied with a heavy sigh.
Lumingon siya sa akin pero napaiwas naman ako ng tingin. I thought he'd stay for a while since Mom was here but it turned out he wouldn't.
He went inside the hut and I followed. Umupo ako sa harapan niya pero hindi ko pa rin magawang tumingin sa kanya. Even though we had sorted things out, we were still kind of awkward with each other.
"You're wearing it," he suddenly muttered after a minute of silence.
Napatingin ako sa kanya at doon ko na-realize na nakatingin siya sa kamay ko. He was talking about the ring I was wearing. The one he gave to Mom when they were dating. I immediately covered it with my other hand due to embarrassment.
"You might think I'm a terrible husband and father since I'm leaving this early," he said and I could see the pain and discomfort on his eyes. "If only it is easy to live without thinking about the future."
I already knew what he wanted to say. Some people would fantasize about a rich man or woman giving up everything for the person he or she loves. Yes, that would be a sweet and touching moment but in reality, that would be an absurd decision.
"I understand," I replied, thinking about how hard this must be for him. "The company needs you."
"Yes," he added. "Besides, I don't want to waste years of your Mom's hardwork and sacrifice just to leave our companies in the hands of those board of directors."
Napangiti naman ako nang marinig ko 'yon. Being the sole provider of our family and the CEO of our group of companies would give him a greater burden. I wanted to comfort him but I didn't know how.
"Here." He slid a small box to my direction. "A gift."
I looked at him, confused. "For what?"
"I wouldn't be here on your birthday. Sorry."
Ah, right. I have completely forgotten about that. Sabagay, yearly ko namang hindi naaalala at nare-remind lang ako kapag naghahanda sina Nanay Fe at Nanay Meling.
"Uhm, thank you," I mumbled while looking curiously at the box. This was the first time he personally gave his gift to me.
For some reason, it made me sad because I'd probably never receive any gifts anymore from my mother. The ring I was wearing was the last and I was glad that Jazer found it when I lost it that day.
"Chloe," he called. I looked at him and my heart sank when his expression softened. "Take care of your mother and siblings."
"I . . ." My voice cracked and faltered. "I will."
"Take care of yourself, too," he added and I couldn't hold back my tears anymore.
Yumuko ako para itago ang mukha ko pero naramdaman ko ang kamay niya sa likod ko. The next thing I knew, I was already crying on my father's arms. He didn't say anything, just like the time he told me about Mom's condition.
"Sorry for forcing you to be strong," sabi niya habang hawak pa rin ako. "But you have to. We have to. Because the people dearest to us are depending on us."
Tumango naman ako at pinipilit kong pigilan ang pag-iyak ko. I promised I wouldn't let anyone see my tears anymore but I kept failing. This time, I needed to be the pillar . . . to be their source of strength.
Pagkatapos kong kumalma ay naglakad na palayo si garden si Dad. Kailangan niya pang ihanda ang mga gamit niya at for sure, marami rin siyang ibibilin kina Nanay Meling at Kuya Larry regarding Mom. I was staring at Dad's back when Jazer suddenly appeared. Nagulat naman siya nang makita niya si Dad.
"Good morning po," bati niya.
"I need to talk to you," he said which made Jazer's shoulder tense.
Na-curious din ako kaya naman umalis ako mula ro'n sa kubo at tumakbo papunta sa kanila.
"Dad," tawag ko. "Why will you—"
"Because I am your father," he said, as if he already knew what I was going to ask.
He just gave me a quick smile before the two of them went outside. I didn't get it but whatever. Bumalik na lang ako sa loob ng bahay at nagpalipas ng oras.
After an hour or two, nag-prepare na ako para pumunta sa school ni Czanelle. Binihisan na rin siya ni Jazer pero ako ang pumili ng isusuot niya dahil baka kung ano pa ang maging itsura niya. Dinala ko na rin ang bag ko para diretso na sa university at mukhang gano'n din si Jazer.
Paglabas ko ay naabutan ko silang pababa na ng hagdan kaya sumunod na rin ako. Dumiretso na rin kami sa labas dahil naghihintay na ro'n si Kuya Larry.
"Didiretso na kayo?" tanong niya nang makapasok kami sa loob ng sasakyan.
"Opo," sagot naman ni Jazer.
"Sige, ihahatid ko na lang kayo saka kami didiretso ni Czanelle pauwi."
"Okay, Kuya, thank you."
Tahimik lang ako habang nasa biyahe habang kumakanta naman si Czanelle ng nursery rhymes. I was surprised at how good she was with the lyrics. I mean, I thought she wouldn't be able to memorize and say some of the words but she knew a lot of songs.
She was singing Ako ay May Lobo and I didn't expect to hear her singing Filipino songs without any accent. However, she got confused with the vegetable names while singing Bahay Kubo and that made us laugh.
"Ay, makatawa siya o," Kuya Larry said while looking at me on the rear-view mirror. "Sige nga, kantahin mo nga."
Sinamaan ko naman siya ng tingin at ang isa pang bwisit ay nakisama na rin sa pang-aasar. They were persistently urging me to sing it to prove that I know the song. Czanelle, on the other hand, continued singing but she stopped at sitaw. I tried singing it in my head but it felt wrong. Tss. Stupid song.
Pagdating namin sa school ay ako ang unang bumaba para tumigil na ang dalawa at sumunod naman si Czanelle. She reached for my hand and I held it as we walked toward the school grounds.
"Ate, will Mommy and Daddy be here later?" she suddenly asked. "Teacher said our Mommy and Daddy should come."
I heaved a sigh but tried to smile at her. "No," I admitted. "They can't. Don't worry, I'm here."
She pouted and I could see that she was trying to hide her disappointment so I held her hand tightly. I promised Mom and Dad that I would take care of them and I would never break my word.
Pagpasok namin sa isang room ay nandoon ang teachers nila at agad namang tumakbo si Czanelle papunta sa side nila. I was glad to see that she was close with her classmates and teachers, something that I did not experience.
"Hello, are you . . ." the teacher-in-charge paused, as if trying to remember where she saw me. "Ah! You are Czanelle's sister, right?"
"Yes, I am."
"And . . . your boyfriend?" Napalingon naman ako at nakita kong pumasok din dito si Jazer. I thought he'd stay in the car. Bakit siya nandito?
Czanelle ran to his direction and some of the kids started to play with him. He was like a magnet to these kids.
"Czanelle is an enthusiastic girl," the other teacher commented while looking at her. "Matalino rin siya at nakakasundo niya ang mga kasama niya sa klase."
"But there are times when she seems down," one teacher added.
"For instance, during lunch o kaya kapag uwian na. Halos lahat kasi sila ay dinadalhan ng food at sinusundo ng parents nila. It has something to do with that, I guess?"
Hindi ko naman alam ang dapat i-react o sabihin. Being affected by the absence of our parents was too early and too much for her. She was just a kid.
"Here," sabay abot ng teacher ng report card niya at kahit papaano ay napangiti ako dahil puro outstanding at satisfactory ang assessment sa kanya.
Tiningnan ko si Czanelle habang buhat-buhat siya ni Jazer sa balikat niya. She looked happy but my heart ached knowing that Mom's condition already had an effect on her behavior.
"Let's go," sabi ko sa kanila at nagpaalam naman silang dalawa sa mga bata.
"Ate!" she called while her outstretching her hand. Inabot ko naman 'yon at ngumiti sa kanya.
"Anong sabi nila?" bigla namang tanong ni Jazer kaya napabuntong-hininga ako.
"I'll tell you later."
Tahimik kaming bumalik sa sasakyan at mukhang napagod si Czanelle sa kakalaro. Sabagay, maaga ring nagising ang isang 'to kanina.
Pagdating namin sa university ay may naramdaman akong kakaiba. I was used to receive stares and glares from everyone but this time, it was different. They were staring at Jazer, too.
"Seems like the rumors are true."
"For real? How could they?"
Lalo pang lumakas ang bulungan ng ilan at nagsisimula na akong mainis. What the hell was their problem? Hindi ko na sana sila papansinin dahil may mas iba pa akong problemang kailangang intindihin pero biglang may mga humarang sa daan ko.
"So the bitch became a slut, huh?" the girl who looked like a hag with distracting make-up said.
"You mean you?" I countered and it seemed like she wasn't expecting that. Confronting me with that kind of attack? Lame.
"Shut up, bitch. We already know your secret." Bigla naman niya akong tiningnan mula ulo hanggang paa.
"Ano bang problema n'yo?" singit naman ni Jazer.
"Let them bark," I said. "That's what bitches do, after all."
"You slut!" sigaw ng isa. "Bata pa lang malandi ka na, kaya nagawa mong itago ang anak mo!"
Hindi ko alam kung tama ba ang narinig ko o may problema lang sa pagsasalita ang isang 'to. I was about to ask what they were talking about when one of them showed her phone to us.
That was probably the only time I broke my façade. The video that was playing was taken a while ago. It was the time Jazer, Czanelle and I went out of the school looking like a . . . family. I tried to grab her phone but she quickly pulled it back.
"Your face says it's true," the hag scoffed.
I felt Jazer's hand on mine and I could tell that he was restraining me, as well as himself. I could've let this go but seeing them using Czanelle's face just to humiliate me was something I would never forgive. My hand was ready to slap their faces as hard as I could but something unexpected happened.
The group of girls shrieked when something fell from the second floor. It turned out to be a variety of food which was probably the menu in the closest cafeteria. Enraged, they looked up and yelled at the person who did that.
"Oh my god! I'm so sorry! I swear it wasn't on purpose!"
Maging ako ay nagulat nang makita ko si Queenie ro'n. She started to cry, insisting that it was an accident. She stared in horror as the food she bought ended up on the girls' heads, down to their faces and clothes. She deserved an award for that acting.
"Oh, hi," someone's voice said. "What happened to you, Heidi Gomez? Wait, Anna Asuncion? You're Vicky Nuesca, right? And you're Mercy Wilson?"
Paglingon ko ay nakita ko si Katrina habang iniisa-isa niya ang pangalan ng mga babaeng 'yon. Huminga ako nang malalim para kumalma at kinuha ko ang phone ko mula sa bulsa. I dialed Dad's number for the first time and after two rings, it got connected.
"Hello? Chloe? What—"
"Dad, can you tell me the companies where the parents of these people are working? Heidi Gomez, Anna Asuncion, Vicky Nuesca and Mercy Wilson. I need it as soon as possible."
"For what? What is happening, Chloe?" He sounded confused and worried but I didn't budge.
"I just need to teach some people a lesson. I'm doing this to protect myself and her, someone you told me to take care of."
He was silent for a few seconds but he finally said okay. After that, I ended the call. Their horrified expression wasn't enough to simmer down my rage. I wanted to see their downfall.
"You already know that I'm unpleasant," I said as calmly as possible, "and definitely not a saint. Fine. Assume all you want. I won't say things in return. Instead, I'll watch your families suffer."
"Y-you . . . how dare y—!"
"No, how dare all of you. You want it to be personal, right? Then, I'll get personal, too. This bitch is tired of playing a kid's game. Face me like your lives depend on it because the likes of you will never bring me down."
My eyes were starting to well up but I held back my tears. Dad said I have to be strong for the people I want to protect. I don't care if I would look bad. I would not allow anybody to talk ill about my family.
"And just like some puny little ants who had the gall to bite a human . . ." I sneered while pressing my thumb and index finger against each other. "All of you shall be crushed. And I swear I won't stop until your own families blame you for what you have done to their lives."
After declaring those words, Jazer held my hand tighter and pulled me away from them. Away from everyone. He was my shield, but this time, I held the sword to protect someone. And I would point my sword to everyone if that was the only way I know to protect the people I treasure, even if it meant receiving all their attacks.
I never thought that the people I once hated—my family, Jazer, Queenie and even Katrina—were the ones who protected me and the ones I'd gladly protect in return.