by Joyce Ann Isidro
Recto Avenue is eerily silent. The roads, which usually filled the air with the roaring sounds of cars, buses, and jeepneys trying to make their way out of the traffic, is unusually empty; the train stations, which used to swarm with people even on weekends, had no trace of even the slightest human activity that it looked like a scene straight out of a horror movie. As the winds blew over Celia’s weak, skinny body, she felt a shiver run down her spine, though she wasn’t sure if it was because of the weather or the ambience of an empty place which used to buzz with life. To her, it seemed as though the world had completely stopped revolving abruptly.
The door of the convenience store she was staying in front of suddenly swung open, revealing a boy who tripped over her foot, almost spilling the contents of his fat plastic bag all over her.
“Hesusmaryosep, tumingin ka nga sa dinaraanan mo!” Celia yelled. The boy looked startled. At first, he looked angry, but when he saw her, his eyes suddenly softened. She wondered how she must’ve looked to him, skin and bone and covered in soot, trying to breastfeed a malnourished baby cradled in her frail, skinny arms, even though not a single drop of milk came out of her breast. A measly, torn-up piece of sack covered both her and her baby’s weak bodies in a pathetic attempt to shield them both from the weather and whatever the hell all those other people are protecting themselves from. She looked at the boy—sure enough, he had one of those blue masks covering his face. This one even went the extra mile to wear gloves over his hands.
“Anong tini-tingin tingin mo d’yan?!” The boy flinched. “Kayo talagang mayayaman. Gan’yan ba kayo lagi kapag lumalabas kayo? Akala mo naman makakalanghap ng kanser sa hangin.” She scoffed, pointing both at his hands and his face. The boy blinked rapidly.
“Pasensya na ho kayo.” Feeling guilty, the boy started ransacking his big bag of grocery goods. Finally, he fished out a small bottle of alcohol and brand new pack of blue masks, which looked just like the one he’s wearing. Looking into her eyes, he handed them over to her. Celia was confused. Why on earth would she need a bottle of alcohol? She could think of a thousand things she and her baby needed—a bottle of milk, food, a blanket large enough to protect them from chilly nights—but she definitely didn’t need a pack of masks and a bottle of alcohol.
“Anong gagawin ko d’yan? Mabubusog ba kami ng anak ko d’yan?” She retorted, realizing that she’s being a little too harsh on him. Sitting next to her on the cold pavement, he let out a huge sigh.
“Manang, alam niyo po bang may pandemic ngayon?”
They spent the next few hours with him trying to explain what a pandemic is, and why the streets are empty—she learned that it was because of a disease called korana virus or something. Apparently, even though it seemed just like a simple cough or cold, it was deadly to babies and the elderly, especially when they already have underlying conditions. And it can very easily be passed from person to person, which she realized was probably why he winced whenever she coughed or sniffed.
“Kailangan niyo ho ito. Tanggapin niyo na ho, iyan lang ang kaya kong itulong.” The boy pleaded, trying to hand her the masks again, but this time, he was also trying to give her food. He looked like he’s about to cry.
“Kaya pala.” Celia sighed. She looked around her—she noticed how the towering condominiums behind the slums looked like a predator looming over a helpless prey. At that moment, she envied the people living in both. She looked up at the sky. It all started to make sense. The empty streets, the people wearing masks everywhere they go, strangers kicking her hand away whenever she reached out to them to ask for loose change. Right now, she felt like she could sacrifice anything for a home for her and her baby.
“Boy, naniniwala ka ba sa Diyos?” asked Celia.
“Oo naman po.” He replied. “Naniniwala po ako sa kapangyarihan ng pagdarasal.”
“Pero araw-araw naman akong nagdarasal. At sa araw-araw na ‘yon, kahit na gaano kalakas ang mga panalangin ko, parang wala naming dumarating na milagro.”
Celia closed her tired eyes. As she did, a single tear fell down her face. She felt it burn her cheek as it fell.
“Minsan hinihiling ko na lang na sana kunin na lang ako ng Diyos, kaso paano naman ang anak ko?” she looked down on her child, at her peaceful smiling face. Sometimes she finds herself wishing she could be back to being as oblivious as she is, but at the back of her mind, she felt sorry for the child and the life she might never see.
“Maya-maya, malamang may pulis na darating at paalisin kami rito. Hindi ko na alam kung saan kami tutuloy. Simula nang maubos ang tao sa daan, unti-unti naming dumami ang kapulisan. Bawat sulok ng Maynila, paligid-ligid sila. Nakikita mo ‘to?”
Celia pointed at a wound on her forehead—it looked old, but not healed—the blood was so dried, it looked like chipping paint.
“Pinaalis kami ng pulis habang natutulog kami sa bangketa. Pinauwi kami. Nagmakaawa ako, sabi ko wala naman kaming bahay na mauuwian. Sabi nila aarestuhin nila kami ‘pag di kami umalis. Nang tumanggi ako, pinalo ako ng baton sa ulo. Sa takot ko, kumaripas na lang ako ng takbo at ‘di na bumalik doon.”
After she’s done talking, she looked at the boy. He’s crying now, but he wasn’t crying out of anger or sympathy—he was crying from anger, she realized, when she saw him clenching his fists.
“Ano ‘yong sinasabi mo? Home—home kwaranten?” He nodded. “Paano ako mag-kukwaranten kung wala naman akong bahay na mauuwian. Paano ako bibili ng mga mask at alcohol na ‘yan kung pambili nga ng pagkain eh wala kami. Hihintayin na lang ba namin kung mauuna kaming patayin ng gutom o ng virus na iyan?” Celia shivered, though it wasn’t cold, and the sun was high up in the sky.
“Salamat,” Celia smiled for the first time since they started talking.
“Pasensya na ho kayo. Ito lang ang kaya kong gawin.” To Celia, the boy looked sorry. Inside, he felt helpless. He wanted to do more, to really help her, but he knew he could do nothing more than give her a handful of masks and canned food.
“Ginawa mo nang lahat ng makakaya mo. Ilang taon ka na ba, boy?” She asked.
“Ay, bata ka pa pala eh. Basta’t mag-aral ka nang mabuti, para mas makatulong ka pa sa mga katulad ko sa susunod.”
When the boy finally stood up to leave, he wanted to hug Celia, but he couldn’t. Out of fear or out of shame, he wasn’t sure.
He looked back as he’s walking out, and Celia’s smiling face was the last thing he saw of her.
The next morning, carrying a bag of food, the boy went back to the place he met Celia. She wasn’t there anymore. When he asked around about her, no one knew who she is or where she might’ve gone.