It was already eleven-thirty when I returned home. The house was dark and most of the lights were off. “Happy birthday,” mom and Eris greeted as soon as I switched the lights on in the living room. My younger sister was holding a small chocolate cake with a candle on top of it.
“Make a wish,” Eris demanded. I closed my eyes and whispered something to myself before blowing the candle.
“Where’s dad?” I feigned a bewildered expression.
“Drinking with his friends.” As soon as Eris said those words, my expression lied again. I heaved a huge sigh and pouted my lips a bit. Dismay showed on mom’s face.
After a while, I curved my lips, a bright one like I had already gotten over it. “It’s fine. Let him have fun sometimes,” I said.
“But today’s your birthday, he should at least come home,” Eris complained.
“It’s fine, he already called and greeted me,” I lied again but my words were like knives piercing my chest. It hurt that my life depended on a lie, a big fat lie.
Mom smiled and hugged me. Eris did the same. They led me to the dining room where they prepared some of my favorite foods. Mom served palabok which was my favorite since I was young. Lumpiang Shanghai, buko salad, and Leche-flan were also decked out on the table.
“Aw, that’s really sweet, Mom,” I said and looked at my mom with a thank you gaze. She beamed while Eris pouted.
“That’s unfair, kuya, I also helped in preparing these things.” I turned to Eris and patted her hair. She giggled and hugged me again. This little girl was already in her second year of high school yet she still loved being spoiled.
After we ate, we left the dishes in the sink since all of us were too tired and the night was getting deeper. My body fell on the bed when I reached my room. But exhaustion still didn’t help, sleepiness never visited. Then it all came back to me, memories forced their way in my head again, like a streaming waterfall.
A cold hand grasped my neck, so powerful that I had no breath in my lungs. I tried to shout but the sound wouldn’t come out, air was choking my throat. I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep, convincing myself that it was a ghost. The ghost pressed his weight against my chest, his breath touching my cheeks. Heart pounding, my ears studied every sound: the tick of the clock, the whistling wind, and his rapid breathing. I opened my eyes slightly and traced the silhouetted face of the man in front of me. His body jerked away, moving his free hand. A sharp metallic object shone between my eyes through the faint light from the stars above. My body trembled, fear consumed me. His moistened palms tightened. I blinked and he disappeared but his iced fingerprints lingered on my skin. Gross.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. I gasped, breathing heavily in between sobs. My chest hurt like I was going to burst so I thumped my arms on the bed, trying to release the swirling rage, helplessness, and fear.
“Aw!” I exclaimed when I struck something hard. I leaned my back against the wall and searched for it on the bed. Tears hindered my sight, making it hard to see. I wiped and tried to hold them back, then looked again. My gaze paused in a faint light beside my right knee. It was my phone. I stared at it for a while before picking it up.
“Hello?” The phone almost slipped from my hand when a voice spoke from it.
“Hello?” When I heard it a second time I knew that it was a familiar voice. I looked at the phone, hoping that it would read ‘Unknown Number’.
“Axle?” I whispered.
“Hello? Who’s this?” His irritated voice smacked me hard like a fist. The realization struck me. I knew him. I couldn’t be wrong. It was Yeren.
“Hello,” my voice cracked and it sounded like I was going to cry. Damn! I regretted saying a word.
“Ian?” I didn’t answer.
“Hey, Ian. Are you alright?” Yeren asked after a while. I sensed his concern. Damn it. He’s concerned about a stranger. All the tears I’d been holding back suddenly fell. I closed my eyes tightly and wiped my tears. Still, they wouldn’t stop.
“Ye-a-h” I replied but my voice betrayed me. My lips were shaky, sobs making it hard to say the word. He stayed silent. I thought he’d hang up. Who’d want to hear a seventeen-year-old guy crying in the middle of the night?
Yeren took a deep breath from the other line. “I don’t know what happened but you can cry your heart out. I’m here. If you want to talk, I’ll listen.” His words were a bit shaky. He’s nervous, I knew it. Despite that, he still chose the words that would light me up. Hearing his words made me a lot more vulnerable. I let my eyes cry under his jacket and my heart cried some more until my eyes hurt and couldn’t release any more tears.
“Better?” he asked but I didn’t reply. Instead, I laughed with satisfaction. No one had seen or heard me crying since I was eleven. I didn’t let anyone. Yet, there’s something with his words telling me that I could cry, that I could entrust my tears to him. And my intuition wasn’t wrong. I never thought that it was this good to know that I could cry, that someone understood even without giving him the reason.
“Thanks,” I said hoarsely. It sounded funny. Crying had taken its toll but it was all worth it. The reward was greater than the price.
“Don’t mention it. I just listened anyway.”
“That’s the point. It’s you listening that made it better.” I waited for a reply but he stayed silent. I only heard faint sounds of movement, then footfalls.
“Where are you?” he suddenly asked.
“In my room, at home,” I answered.
“I know. No, I mean. What’s your address?” My forehead furrowed. His question confused me though I gave him my address, nonetheless.
“Wait for me, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He said and the sound of a steaming motorcycle reverberated on my phone before he disconnected.
For a moment, I sat frozen, staring somewhere I couldn’t even remember. No movement. No blinks. Just slow breathing. I couldn’t bring myself to believe his words but deep inside, I knew, I hoped for him to come. I don’t know. It was two in the morning. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that even if he came from the town next to mine, it would still take about an hour.
Just when I shut my eyes, I heard the sound of a steaming motorcycle again. It stayed for a while and stopped, then, my phone rang. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I told myself when I read the caller ID and pushed the answer button.
“Get out of there, I’m here,” Yeren ordered. I hesitated so, instead, I got up and went to the window. My eyes stared behind it, skimming his presence. Someone was there, standing. I focused my sight but it was hard to see. Only the faint moonlight lit the surroundings.
“Is that you?”
“Are you expecting someone else?” he returned the question jokingly.
Heart racing, I silently got out of my room, slowly walked down the stairs, and sneaked out of the house. It was the first time I did it. I took a deep breath before closing the door. Yeren waved, his back a bit leaned on the motorcycle. When I walked to meet him, blood streamed to my cheeks. He wore the same jacket that he lent me, though in a different color. His was black, mine’s gray.
“It’s not even twenty minutes,” I commented, trying to hide my embarrassment.
“I happened to be near your house.” An impish grin curled his lips. His emerald eyes glittered in the darkness. “I know a great place. You’ll like it, I think.” He grabbed my hand by surprise. Sudden electricity flowed from where he touched. I didn’t realize that I pulled my hand from his grasp until he looked at me in confusion.
The atmosphere was too awkward and tense. I couldn’t begin to understand what was going on. After a while, both of us said sorry in unison. Another smile curved his lips. I turned away and snickered on my hands. We laughed at ourselves even though I didn’t know what was so funny about it. When we settled down, he stretched his right arm and handed me a helmet.
He put his helmet on and rode on his bike. I followed and rode behind him, leaving a huge space between us. Suddenly, he grabbed my wrists and pulled me closer to him, so close that my cheeks touched his back. He was taller than I’d seen, my forehead was barely above his shoulders.
“Hold on tight!” Yeren said. I hesitantly wrapped my arms around his waist, holding loosely onto it. My hands tightened, eyes closed when he started the engine and turned the piston. He drove the wheels so fast that each turn almost took my breath away. He laughed and accelerated, both my hands and eyes tightened still.
“You don’t have to be so scared.” He said and slowed down a bit. I loosened my hands.
He accelerated yet again and it was much faster than before. I clutched my arms around his waist, so tight that I pushed the idea that it might hurt him. My eyes shut so stiffly that my cornea ached. He laughed some more.
“Scared?” he teased in between his snickers.
“Yeah,” my voice barely above a whisper. He suddenly stopped laughing and slowed down. My eyes opened, relaxing my grip. Silence enveloped us. It wasn’t uncomfortable or awkward but his silence implied that he’s sorry. Guilt came on me in waves. This guy was trying to cheer me up.
“Do you know that stars die?” I asked, breaking the silence. I didn’t know where that question came from but that’s the only thing that came to mind.
“Yeah,” he answered. “And some stars we see in the sky may be already dead. But they’re so far away that their afterglow is still seen above. Some of them may seem glowing but they’re truly dead.”
I laughed. “You don’t have to spoil it. I’m trying to romanticize here.”
“Sorry.” He also laughed and silence pressed on us again.
“Where are we going?” I asked when we entered the town center.
“A good place.” His words confused me. What place could we go to at this time of the day? We stopped in front of a street full of stores and food stalls. Glittering lights illuminated the place. It was so beautiful like a night sky glittered with thousands of starlight.
“San Roque Night Market,” I read the text in the entrance, questioning myself why I hadn’t known that such a place existed in my town.
“You’ll like the food here. They’re so good.” Yeren said but I realized that I had nothing with me.
“I didn’t bring my wallet,” I whispered.
He grinned playfully. “Silly. It’s my treat,” he said. “What would you like? Sweet or Salty?”
“I’d love sweets!” I looked at him, eyes shining.
He laughed a bit and beamed an agreeing smile before leading the way. The crowd got denser and denser as we went in which made it hard for me to keep up. He looked back and took my left hand.
“Don’t get lost,” he said and my heart melted at the moment.
We stopped in front of an ice cream stall where he bought two large cups of rocky road ice cream and handed one to me. There was no fancy dressing but the ice cream looked good. I wasn’t wrong, when I scooped it into my mouth, I thought to myself, ‘It was the best ice cream I ever had in my life.’ Then I realized that Yeren was watching me, smiling.
“They say, food tastes better after you cry,” he said. “I guess it’s true. You’re eating a normal ice cream yet you look like it’s the best ice cream you ever had.”
“It is,” I said enthusiastically but he just laughed at me.
When I licked the last drop of ice cream from my lips, I realized that Yeren never touched his food. When he caught my eyes staring at it, he slid it in my seat.
“Dig in,” he said
“Can I? Really?”
“Go ahead. I ordered those two cups for you.”
“This is super good!” I declared like a kid, licking the last remaining drops of ice cream on my lips from the second cup.
“We’re only getting started.” He pulled my hand again to another store, one after another, from ice cream to cotton candies, cakes, pies, and many other foods that I didn’t even know the name of. We ate a lot like there was no tomorrow. I never enjoyed eating this much.
We got a can of soda and sat on a bench. “I never stuffed my stomach like that.” I laughingly said, holding my belly.
I nodded and took a deep breath. “Thanks. You saved me today.”
“I told you. You can call me if you ever need anything. Though, I didn’t expect you to call this early.”
“Well, honestly, I didn’t call you on purpose,” I said and he stared at me with a curious gaze. “Let’s say, I accidentally called you when I hit my phone.”
He drank from his can then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A mischievous grin marked his lips. “It must be fate then.” That made me laugh, his words sounded weird.
“Silly,” I replied.
At three-thirty, we agreed to go back since we’re both exhausted. The ride was silent but I liked it, we’re satisfied.
“Thanks for the ride. I’ll treat you another time.” I said.
He grinned. “Don’t mention it. Think of it as a birthday present and,” he paused. “Just keep the jacket.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
Silence pressed on us as I waited for him to start the engine. I stared at his figure, his right foot tapping the floor. Our eyes met and I realized that he’s also waiting for me to go inside. His expression changed.
“Go ahead,” he finally said. I turned my body and walked to the door. It was hard to fight the urge to look back. When I unlocked the door, I had to bite the back of my lower lip. I closed it and he started the engine. I waited for the sound to wholly disappear before going upstairs.
My body fell on the bed as I stared at the blue stars above. For the first time in many years, the sight filled me with awe and wonder. I looked at it like I saw it for the first time. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, hoping that I’d fall asleep. I saw Yeren’s face instead and my mind went blank. I could only see him, his playful grin, and his laughs. I rolled my body and pressed my face on a pillow. My heart pounded, so strong that I could hear the echo of my heartbeat in bed. I retracted his first smile again and everything went quiet.
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