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The engine revved, and the tricycle soon sputtered into the distance. The celeste gate was painted on sparrows in flight. Pauline’s work. I looked between the pickets to find two people giggling. A guy was showing something on his phone to a gal. Midges hovered in a cloud around a pillar lamp. The night air was extra crisp. I stepped into the light.


Tapping on a digital keyboard. A dude with a pompadour looked up from his phone.

“Hi Basti,” he said in a high-pitched nasal. “Oh my God, I love the Tapout shirt!”

Waks was the rangy guy who played volleyball. I remember doing kata a few meters from the university’s outdoor court. He spiked so hard, the ball cleared the net and careened towards me. Good thing I was slick and slipped from the line of fire. Waks ran off, as he should have. A choppy, underwater-sounding voice garbled from the phone. Waks giggled sweet nothings on-cam. I went to sit on the porch rail near the door.

The door swung open. On instinct, I leapt backwards into a stance. A woman leaned against the jamb. She raised an eyebrow. I relaxed and cleared my throat. “Ven.”

The cherub-faced chinita would’ve looked angelic, if she wasn't dead-panned all the time. Ven’s cheeks jiggled as she shook her head.

“Where is everybody, anyway?” I asked.

“Jo and the others are still looking for a butcher’s.” Pau squeezed past Ven. “For the barbecue.”

At a quarter to 9:00. “I told you we should’ve done groceries right after the exam. What about the juice?”

“Let's wait for everyone to arrive, so we can chip in.”

Out my wallet came a pair of yellow-faced Aquinos. “Guess who won a Kyokushin match and is about to make poor financial decisions?”

“Oh, wow. Congratulations!”

“There isn’t shit to do here, so I’ll look for a store. You know, secure the juice.”

“Wait a minute, tough guy. There’s been a series of muggings around here lately.”

“Nice of you to be worried… about them.”

“Strength in numbers. Facetime your boyfriend later, Waks. And don’t act like you’ve got something better to do, Ven.”

Ven had chains down her ripped jeans and was rocking Doc Martens. Knowing her, they were probably steel-toed. Her oversized hoodie looked especially KoЯny. I’m no wimp, but I didn’t mind having Buenaventura around. Despite the surname, she’s Hokkien on her mom’s side. Picked up Sanda and/or Choy Li Fut, some Kung Fu or another, from an uncle in the mainland.

“Muggers, huh?” Ven said. “Shame I left my dadao at the dorm. Say, Pau, wasn’t there a bolo in your kitchen?”

“Absolutely, not. Hey Bas, can you pick up Chan on the way? She lives right down the road. Refuses to go out by herself after sundown, with all the stuff going on. She’ll show you around the neighborhood.”

“How about you, sis?” Waks asked. “Sure you’ll be fine on your own?”

“Dad left me the key to his safe before leaving. That’s where he keeps his .38.”

“Oh shit.” My eyes almost popped out. “A’ight, then.”

I made everyone leave their phones. Having those around was asking for trouble. I shined the way using a tactical flashlight, jagged around the lens. We got to Chan’s and spent five minutes outside their gate calling for her. Finally, a sensor light on the front porch went on. A woman in a turtleneck and rectangular glasses stumbled out the door. She trudged towards us, adjusting her satchel.

“Where were you, sis? We were starting to think you died or something.” Waks laughed.

“Took a power nap.” Chan’s inverted bob cut swayed as she shut the gate behind her.

“Speak for yourselves,” I said. “I was starting to think the whole ‘won’t go out after sundown’ shtick was a false alibi, so nobody figures out that it’s Chan sticking people up.”

“Sure, Bas. ‘Cuz the amount of headshots you’ve taken will surely convince a jury.”

Chan led the way. All the stores on her block were dry, so we rounded the corner to the next.

Fixed to the interior of a wrought iron fence was a box made of plywood and corrugated roofing. Making up the façade, a section of pony wall mounted with rusty bars. A mesh screen behind them. Two of the pickets were bent apart. Don't know if it was intentional or not. A welded hatch between them prevented anyone from squeezing in. Rigged next to it was a bicycle bell. Rows of shelves and a beat-up fridge stood behind an equally beat-up desk. Chan scanned the shelved products while I hit the bell.

I rang a triplet. “They sell Tang?”

Chan squinted. ”What kind?”

Tang ina mo.”

She was about to yell at me when an overweight lady in a duster went into the store. I was going to ask for juice, the spiritual kind…

“Pepsi, please.” Ven paid for the bottle and practically deepthroated the thing.

“You got Redhorse?” I said.

They did not. No Tanduay or San Miguel either. Place was dry. Chan suggested we backtrack. Follow the street out of the neighborhood and walk along the highway to a minimart. Ven said she’s buying juice. Like, actual drink mix. Chan tells her to buy them at the other place.

“It’s cheaper here. One sachet of Tang.”

Just as the storekeeper turned to get some powdered juice off the shelf, Ven secreted the bottle into her hoodie. Everyone else saw the sleight of hand, though.

I went up to her and asked, “What are you doing?”

She burped my face and jerked her head sideways. I turned to where she pointed.


Three sleazies were hanging around a streetlight.

We idled, deliberating what to do next. Chan explained that this street led to a cul-de-sac. No other way out, except the one we came. Fucked around for ten minutes. They were still there. I wonder whose idea it was to leave our phones behind.

I rang for the storekeeper again, hoping she'd place a call for us. Out of the house. Into the store. Waks gave her Pauline's number, but she didn’t answer. Jesus Christ. Was she taking a shit? The plan was for Pau to have someone pick us up. With folks being on Messenger, nobody had anyone else’s number.

We figured the storekeeper would be worried that we’d run off with her phone. Probably wouldn’t lend it to us. No point calling the cops. Pigs were too busy oinking after some motorbike with an expired registration plate.

In the end, we took the chance that they were just a few unsavory-looking locals. With their dirty wife beaters and crumbling Marlboros. They just happened to really like that one streetlamp. Besides, me and Ven would body all three of them on our own.

There was only the dim moonlight to barely silhouette us. Cutting through the murky blackness was the shine of my flashlight. Apparently, the genius in charge of urban planning thought the best place to put streetlamps was wherever he felt like it. Halfway towards the bend, I glanced behind me to see if the creeps actually followed us. They did... and then some. Around a dozen figures now stalked us in a loose mob. No idea where these assholes materialized from. But I knew they weren’t pedestrians who just happened upon us.

Ven drifted over to me. Whispered, “If anything happens, we book it.”

“Saw those squammies chain-smoking earlier? No chance any of them will catch up to us if we bolt. Zero. But there’s twelve of them now. The odds someone gains on us, it’s quadrupled!”

“Four times zero’s still zero.”

“What I’m getting at is this. If shit goes down, these hands come flying. I don’t plan on beating everyone up. But I’ll at least stall them while you run off.”

“Shit. A’ight, I’ll back you up. You’ll need it.”

I switched my light to the brightest setting and shuffled leftwards. She took the right. Me and Ven started to lag some. I took another peek. The lamppost trio were coming at me in single file. Amateur hour. Footsteps power-walked towards me. My shoulder got yanked. It's go-time.

I let the force on my shoulder spin me into a hammerfist, thrown with the opposite hand. The one holding the flashlight. The first guy was nailed with the toothed bezel. Right in the temple. With 1K lumens straight to the eyes and a slick 1-2, the remaining two went to sleep.

“3:00 o’clock! Hard Rock Cafe, Kuala Lumpur!” Immediately turned right. I was caught up in the moment to register that it was Chan who shouted. Dude in a Hard Rock Cafe shirt was flipping open a balisong. He started swatting the air when I dazzled him a meter away. Glue-sniffer ate asphalt like it was unli-rice at a Mang Inasal. He never saw what hit him. I did. It was a 12oz bottle of Pepsi. Flew straight towards him. Its heel caught him in the hairline.

I checked my surroundings in case another iho de puta still wanted a beating. Including the ones Ven dropped, seven dudes dozed on the blacktop. The rest fucked off in the opposite direction.

“Let’s go!” Chan took my hand and pulled me running down the bend.

Next we knew, we were panting like dogs. I thought it was just adrenaline that got my heart pumping. Fucked my sense of time too. But it felt like we took longer than we should have. Five minutes to saunter down the store from Pau’s. Yet we were catching our breaths as if we ran for half an hour. Don’t know if it was just me, but I don't think we passed the bird-gate. Got complacent, running down a straight line. No one bothered to check where we were going. We just ran.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” I said, doubled over. “We socked those losers to buy you guys—”

“Where are we?” Chan said.

I stood straight and looked around. Didn’t pass here when I commuted to Pau’s. We were in the middle of a four-way intersection that ran through several houses. It was barely big enough to let a tricycle drive through. Spanish colonial houses formed the whole block. They wouldn’t have been out of place in Intramuros, were they not so… decrepit. Weathered stone made up the ground stories. Rotten wood made up the garrisons. Creepers sprawled up the unlit houses. A couple of shingles were inches away from skidding down their gable roofs. It looked like someone was playing SimCity and dumped a few nineteenth-century houses in a regular neighborhood. Plastered concrete walls surrounded the houses. Topped with shards of glass and heavily graffitied. Bolted onto one section was a basketball hoop improvised from rebar. Cars parked under electric street lamps. Garbage heaps on the asphalt. Protruding from one of them was a 2×4. Stuck out like the femur of some mangled roadkill.

“Shouldn’t you know where we are?” I asked Chan.

“This isn’t part of the neighborhood.”

“Maybe it’s an adjacent one?” Waks asked. “Like Masigasig or Felicidad?”

“I’ve passed there enough times to know what they don’t look like. If they looked remotely like this, I would remember.

“Classy place,” Ven said. “Patch it up some and you’ve got a decent tourist trap. Surprised we’ve never heard of this joint.”

We held off asking for directions. Except for that one cul-de-sac, Chan said all the roads here led back to the highway. Might even come across a tricycle on the way.

We picked a random direction and walked beside a section of the wall. The row of street lamps ended. The moon was gone. Probably hidden behind clouds. There was a gap of darkness between us and a speck of light in the distance.

I nearly jumped when I turned on my flashlight. “Shit!”

Faces covered almost every inch of the wall posters. Some prankster had painted red over their eyes.

“This can’t be right.” Chan examined them. “It’s a small town. If just one person went missing, everyone would hear about it”

“Whatever. Let’s keep going.”

“You scared, Bas?”

“It’s getting late. We’ll miss the barbecue!”

The streetlights soon came into view. We walked until…

I stopped in my tracks. “We didn’t walk in a circle. Did we?”

Same colonial houses. Same basketball hoop. Same trash heap.

“Could be a housing project,” Waks said.

“With historical buildings?”

Chan took a handkerchief out of her back pocket. It had a beckoning cat on it. She walked under the hoop and threw it over top. It fluttered down and draped over the rebar, the cat facing us. The fabric was probably just discolored with age. Still, those eyes looked jaundiced. Chan told us to get a move on. We went east.

Ended up at a similar-looking juncture. Chan had gone pale as she stared at something. I turned where she was looking.

Yawa. We walked in a straight line. But there it was, glaring with jaundiced eyes a maneki-neko.

“It's encanto leading us astray!” Wak said.

Encantos live in the boonies,” Chain said.

“Just figured out what’s wrong with this place.” Ven said. “Hong-sui’s off.”

“Guys,” I said. “You seeing this?”

I pointed to a large tree towering above a shard-lined wall. The leaves were blowing like there was a gust of wind. But there wasn’t.

“That’s it.” Ven power-walked to the garbage.

She rummaged with her foot until she found a crumbling sheet of yellow paper. Folding it into four, Ven asked Chan if she had red lipstick on her. Chan pulled a stick out of her satchel. She scrawled on the paper using the lipstick and blew it dry. Finally, she chanted in Hokkien. Gave each of us a piece as she divided it neatly. I checked mine before stuffing it in my pocket. Had some Chinese characters on it.

Nothing left to do but ask the locals. Aside from directions, they might also have an explanation for whatever anomalies we thought just happened. I approached one of the pads. Just me, the rest keeping a couple of feet back. Wouldn’t want the homeowner to get spooked by a bunch of randos late at night. I called out. Nobody answered. Took a minute or two before I turned and suggested trying another house. Chan jerked her head up. Wheeling around, I barely caught a second-story window slide shut.

“We are definitely bothering them,” Waks said.

We turned to leave. Then the creak of the door tipped me off. That and a split second of really bad vibes. Barely dodged the knife. I moved out of the way, and it went skidding across the pavement.

Hoy, gago!” I grabbed the knife. I stomped towards the porch, planning to wave the blade in the fucker’s face. Give him a taste of his own medicine. Got a couple of steps from the front door and…

I froze.

There was a presence radiating from behind the door. Ven had to pull me away. Waks was wailing about how that was illegal as we ran to another house for help. Something on the second floor made us stop. It took a second, but I realized what that faint outline in the red was. It was a humanoid… thing. Vague in the glowing red of its eyes.

“Look!” Chan screamed.

Red-eyed folks were closing in from all sides. Their stare shone like headlamps. I took Chan’s hand, since she was the one nearest to me. We ran down fuck-knows-where before we came up a wall.

After helping her up, I scaled the wall myself. We dropped into a courtyard. The opposite wall was too high to climb and topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Approaching footsteps made us reconsider going back the way we came. Waks and Ven got separated at some point.

“We've got to hide,” Chan said.

Place looked like it’d been a scrapyard since the 1800s. A steampunk-looking boiler was surrounded by trashed mid-century turntables, walkmen, flatscreens, and the like.

I pulled Chan to a multicab parked in a corner. The moonlight could barely illuminate how rusty and overgrown it was. We went up to it and found the driver’s seat dimly outlined. But the passenger’s seat was merely a void. Removed for whatever reason.

Chan climbed in first. Picked up a tire iron near the front wheel before going in after her. She squeezed under the glove box while I sat facing the driver's seat window. The passenger's side was against a wall. If the red-eyed fuckers found us, I'll make my last stand here. There was a sheet of tarpaulin on the driver’s seat, which I covered us with. I thought about joking that this is our last chance to confess our feelings towards each other. To ease the tension.

But something was shuffling outside. It came closer. Closer. My fists went pale around the iron. The tarpaulin crinkled against inhuman fingertips. It's go-time. But I couldn’t move.


The footsteps went away. Disappeared into the distance. We waited. My asshole was clenched tighter than my fists. Hers too probably. We waited. Until, by some miracle, we fell asleep.

“He's coming to…”

The first I saw was a pudgy morena bitch Jo. Me and Chan were lying in a king-size bed. The door was opened to Pau's kitchen. Jo said she was on her motorbike when she found us unconscious on the asphalt.

“You look like shit,” Jo said.

“Got into a fight. But we KO’ed them. Not the other way around! Me and Ven. Speaking of…”

“Pau and the others are looking for her. Waks too.”

“You've got dirt on you.” Chan sat up.

“You're one to talk,” I said.

She reached into her front pocket.

“Hey, Jo.” Chan went white. “Have you seen my handkerchief?”

“Nope, why?”