The rumors spread like wildfire. I was the center of attention for days and people were still insisting that Czanelle was my daughter. The hags who started it halfheartedly apologized to me after I threatened their families but it was all too late. People who do dirty tricks to bring a person down do not deserve to be treated fairly.
I also learned that those losers were admirers of Queeñigo, and surprisingly, those who befriended Katrina when she rose in fame. In short, mga may crush kay Iñigo na kunwari ay sinusuportahan ang mga nali-link sa kanya pero ang totoo ay sinusumpa na nila.
“Stop harassing my parents!” the shortest hag demanded and the students who heard her glared at her. Served her right. We were in the library.
“Did I?” I mocked.
“Oh, someone’s calling.”
Nakatingin lang ako sa phone ko na nakalapag sa lamesa habang naka-display ang isang unknown number. Judging by her expression, she knew the owner of that number. I answered the call and pressed the speaker.
“Hello? Is this Chloe Esguerra?” the woman on the other line asked.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I . . . I’m Herlinda Gomez,” pakilala niya at pagtingin ko sa babaeng nasa harapan ko ay para siyang nakakita ng multo. “Your company’s representative said I should call you regarding this matter.”
“I just want to know the reason why your company and its subsidiaries pulled out as shareholders, investors and board members.”
I looked at the younger Gomez and flashed a smirk. “Ask your daughter, Mrs. Gomez. Maybe she knows the reason for that. Good day.”
Nang in-end ko ang call ay muli akong tumingin sa kanya at hindi na maipinta ang itsura niya. She clearly wanted to strangle me but that wouldn’t be a wise move. Their company’s future is in my hand.
“How can you do this?!”
I rolled my eyes at her. “Huwag kang magdrama sa akin. You started this. You made your move. I made mine.” Umayos ako ng upo at ngumiti sa kanya. “And you pissed the hell out of me. So be prepared, Heidi Gomez. I’m just starting.”
Hindi na siya nakasagot matapos kong sabihin ‘yon. She stormed off and made a scene before she could leave the library. Napabuntong-hininga ako nang mawala siya sa paningin ko at napapikit na lang ako sa sobrang stress. The days were getting tougher and I don’t know if I could keep this façade any longer.
Kinuha ko ulit ang phone ko at nagtingin na lang ng pictures. These past few months, my gallery were filled with candid shots of Czanelle, Clark and even Jazer. Seeing my siblings’ genuine smiles made me feel better. I never protected anyone except myself before. Funny how that changed in a matter of months.
“Stop following me, leech!”
“I am not following you. Stop being delusional.”
Napatingin naman ako sa direksyon ng dalawang pamilyar na boses at nakita ko ang dalawang taong nagpapasakit ng ulo ko ngayon.
“There you are witch,” Queenie greeted as she sat right next to me.
“My day is already ruined,” I muttered.
“Panira naman talaga ‘yan ng umaga,” sabi niya habang nakatingin kay Katrina na ngayon ay nakatayo pa rin.
“My god, hindi ba tumitigil ang bibig nito?” Katrina retorted. “Sabagay, only low-class people talk like that.”
I let out a sigh after hearing their exchange. Umupo si Katrina sa kabilang gilid ko at patuloy pa rin sila sa pagpaparinig. I didn’t even know how we ended up like this.
“What did Iñigo even see in you?” Katrina mumbled, however, loud enough to be heard by Queenie.
“Still bitter, leech?” she countered. “Basically, you’re not me.”
“A two-faced bitch?”
“A fabulous bitch.”
My god. It felt like I was babysitting toddlers. Mas malala pa sila kina Czanelle at Clark.
“You act like three-year old brats,” I chimed in and both of them glared at me.
“Wow, nagsalita ang two-year old crybaby,” Queenie snapped back and for a second, Katrina looked impressed.
Ang sakit nila sa ulo. Bwisit.
But their presence were definitely helpful. At least, hindi ko masyadong naiisip ang mga bagay na kumakain sa isip ko. They indirectly lent their support even though I didn’t ask for it.
“So, kumusta ang asawa’t anak mo?” Queenie suddenly asked and I wanted to take back all the silent praises I said about her.
Inirapan ko na lang siya at nagpatuloy sa pang-aasar ang gaga. Naisip ko naman bigla si Jazer. We decided not to see each other in the campus since it would only add fuel to the fire. Way na rin ‘yon para hindi na siya madamay sa mga tsismis na pinapakalat nila since hindi naman siya kilala ng karamihan.
“But really, I’m happy that Jazer finally realized his feelings,” sabi ni Katrina kaya napatingin ako sa kanya.
I always thought she’d be the selfish type when it comes to people who are dear to her but I was wrong. She sincerely wanted him to be happy. I didn’t know she’s that kind of friend.
Bigla naman akong na-curious sa kanya. Gusto kong itanong kung kahit kaunti ay may naramdaman siya for Jazer, more than just a friend, pero nahihiya ako.
Um-attend kami sa kanya-kanya naming mga klase at hindi ko na lang pinansin ang mga taong patuloy na tumitingin sa akin. Wala naman silang alam. Only fools would believe those groundless rumors.
Pagdating ng uwian ay mas naunang nakarating si Jazer sa sasakyan. He was asleep when I got inside and he looked tired.
“Matunaw ‘yan,” pang-aasar ni Kuya Larry kaya sinamaan ko siya ng tingin.
“Nakakarami ka na, Kuya Larry, ha.”
Tumawa naman siya habang pinapaandar ang kotse. Ang nakakainis pa, halatang hinihintay niya ang pagkakataong ‘to. He looked too excited.
“Aba syempre, ngayon ka lang naman naging ganyan,” pagpapatuloy niya. “Dalaga na talaga ang alaga namin. Na-fall na,” he teased and then he cleared his throat. “Alis lang ho kami sandali.” He tried to mimic Jazer’s voice and smiled at me playfully. Buti na lang talaga at tulog ang isang ‘to kung hindi ay kanina ko pa pinalo sa likod ‘tong si Kuya Larry.
Pagkaliko namin sa isang corner ay nadala rin ang katawan ni Jazer kaya napasandal ang ulo niya sa balikat ko. May naramdaman naman akong kakaiba. I placed my hand on his forehead and I almost panicked when I realized he was hot. His body temperature, I mean.
“He has a fever,” sabi ko kaya napatingin si Kuya Larry sa rear-view mirror.
“Naku, noong isang araw pa ‘yan walang maayos na tulog.”
Napaiwas naman ng tingin si Kuya Larry at alam kong may alam siya sa nangyayari.
He sighed. “Magagalit sa akin ang batang ‘yan, panigurado,” he muttered under his breath.
“Tell me. Please.”
“Nagkasakit kasi ‘yong bunso niyang kapatid.” Oh my god. Si Jylliene? “Tinapos niya lahat ng homeworks at projects niya para makauwi sa weekend.”
“Ang alam ko, kalalabas lang sa ospital. Ayos naman na pero kailangan lang bumili ng mga gamot.”
“Then that means he needs money. Did he receive his salary?”
“Next week pa.”
“Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Syempre may pride din ‘yan,” Kuya Larry replied. “Paniguradong hinding-hindi siya hihiram ng pera sa’yo.”
“But still . . .”
“Alam mo naman ang ugali niya pagdating sa ganyan.”
I know but this was an emergency. Why did he have to be mum about it?
Ginising siya ni Kuya Larry at tinulungan niyang pumasok sa kwarto niya. Mabilis naman akong nagbihis at dumiretso sa kusina. Kumuha ako ng baso ng tubig at gamot saka ako pumunta kung nasaan siya.
Naabutan ko siyang nagpapalit ng damit at napatalikod ako dahil shorts lang ang suot niya at nagulat naman siya nang makita niya ako. Damn it, why didn’t I knock first? Stupid.
“A-are you done?” tanong ko.
“Oo. Bakit ka pala nandito?”
Umikot ako at naglakad papunta sa direksyon niya. I could see the exhaustion in his eyes and he looked unstable. Binaba ko kaagad ang baso at gamot sa gilid at inalalayan siya papunta sa kama niya.
“Well, just so you know, you’re sick,” I stated.
“Okay lang ako,” he insisted. Sinubukan niya pang tumayo. “Kailangan ko pang—”
“No. Stay here,” I ordered and he looked afraid for a second. “You need to rest.”
Kumalma naman siya at wala siyang nagawa kundi humiga sa kama. Pinainom ko naman sa kanya ang gamot na dala ko at chineck ko ulit ang temperature niya. Oh god, 38.5˚C.
“Sorry,” biglang sabi niya kaya napatigil ako.
“For what?” I asked.
“Kasi naabala pa kita,” he softly said.
Kung wala lang ‘tong sakit ay kanina ko pa siya binatukan.
“You took care of me when I was sick.” And when I am at my weakest state, I wanted to add. “I’m just returning the favor.” Napaiwas naman ako ng tingin. “And I’m worried.”
I flinched when I felt his hand on mine. He looked vulnerable and his expression made my heart sink. He didn’t say anything but he held my hand tighter and I could feel the burden he was carrying alone.
“I can lend you my shoulder,” sabi ko habang nakatingin sa mga mata niya. Bumangon siya at bigla niya akong niyakap. He rested his head on my right shoulder and pulled me closer.
I realized I was too occupied with my situation that I failed to notice he was carrying the same burden. His responsibilities as the eldest son, their father figure and breadwinner must be too hard for him, yet he didn’t complain nor give up.
Naalala ko naman ang sinabi sa akin ni Dad bago siya umalis.
“Sorry for forcing you to be strong. But you have to. We have to. Because the people dearest to us are depending on us.”
He was right. But sometimes, strong people crumble on their own because they can’t show their weaknesses to anyone.
“Don’t worry, the world will not know,” bulong ko at napangiti ako dahil naalala ko ang panahon na ako ang kailangang magtago.
I stayed right beside him until he drifted to sleep.
Pagdating ko sa campus ay dumiretso ako sa library kung nasaan ang dalawang taong sumisira lagi ng umaga ko. They were bickering again. Umupo ako sa harapan nila at yumuko agad ako sa mesa.
“Don’t ask,” panimula ko kahit ‘di pa man nagtatanong ang dalawa. “I’m tired.”
“We’re not interested anyway,” Queenie muttered.
Napakunot naman ang noo ko nang marinig ko ang pagtayo nilang dalawa hanggang sa naramdaman kong umalis na sila sa table. Huh. Was I too rude? Hayaan na nga. Bwisit, lalo lang akong naiinis.
Gusto kong matulog pero hindi naman ako pinapatahimik ng utak ko. I wasn’t able to sleep last night because of two people—Jazer and Dad.
Nag-stay ako sa kwarto niya at hinintay siyang makatulog pero hindi ako makaalis dahil ang taas ng lagnat niya at baka may kung anong mangyari. Nakaupo lang ako sa gilid ng kama niya habang nakatingin sa mukha niya. His brows suddenly creased so I pressed the gap between them. He must be having a nightmare.
After a few seconds ay naramdaman ko ang pag-vibrate ng phone ko at nakita kong tumatawag si Dad. Sinagot ko naman agad ‘yon dahil akala ko ay kukumustahin niya lang si Mom. I never thought that I’d have a nightmare, too, that night.
Bumangon ako at tiningnan ang message ni Dad after that call last night.
Happy birthday, Chloe. And I’m sorry.
Birthday, huh? Kung hindi niya pa ako binati ay hindi ko rin maaalala. Okay lang, sanay naman na ako. However, I felt a bit sad this time. I was hoping Nanay Meling and Kuya Larry would prepare something like they did for the past few years but I woke up to nothing.
And what made this birthday more upsetting was Dad’s request because that was the worst gift I had received from him.