Lips slightly parted, I gazed at the ceiling where blue stars of diverse proportions sat. They gleamed, shedding light in that dark room. Unlike the first time I saw them, there was no awe or wonder. There was just pain in my chest and a feeling of strange emptiness. I took a deep breath and wandered my eyes across the ceiling. I couldn’t remember how many times I counted those stars but I knew that each time was different from others. I stretched my right arm towards the most luminous one, then closed my fist as if catching it, convincing myself that everything was going to be fine. It was useless.
Extremely dejected, I let my hand fall. I pulled a pillow to my face but my body refused to rest. Time decelerated with exaggerated slowness. Each tick of the clock accompanied the heavy beating of my chest as if they were on the brink of stopping. I gasped− my hands pushing the pillow harder, my lungs beginning to ache as I suffocated underneath. When my senses accelerated to normal, I threw the pillow below my feet, breathing heavily. The stars resurfaced. I averted my gaze to the clock, all its hands pointing to Roman numeral twelve.
I knew the countdown was over.
For a second, everything went quiet and the following moments happened in a flash. It was a recollection, a re-enactment of all the things I've been trying so desperately to forget. I rolled back over, my eyes tightly shut, both hands on my ears.
A cold hand strangled my neck, so powerful that I had no breath in my lungs. I tried to look at the face of the man in front of me. It was devoid and dyed in ebony, the darkness within darkness. My body trembled, despair and fear consumed me. In that instant, he disappeared but his iced fingerprints lingered on my skin, they were tattooed on my neck.
Sobs escaped my lips as I blinked through a searing waterfall. They grew louder with each pounding of my heart. I thrust my face on the pillow to contain them but there was an overwhelming pain in my chest like I was being stabbed, over and over again. I was there, lying on the bed, weeping for hours, withdrawing all the painful memories as they repeatedly played in my head.
At three o’clock, I left my room and descended the stairs. A shadow slightly faded in the lamplight disappeared in the kitchen. A flick sound echoed and the room brightened, followed by the sound of gushing water. I walked towards the direction of the light and held the door frame with my right hand as I gazed at a skinny figure who busied herself with a few dishes in the sink. Mom didn’t seem to notice that I was there.
When it dawned on me on the occasion of that day, I hurried to the toilet and pressed my palms in the mirror. My reflection scared me: dark bags hung below my eyes, evident against fresh-faced complexion; cornea reddened from crying; and hair looked stiff and wild, almost unmanageable. I splashed some water on my face and repeated it a few times but nothing had changed. I took a cold shower, shampooed, and soaped myself longer than usual to relax my nerves. Before leaving, I peeked again in the mirror. A smile curved my lips. My hair looked smooth, and my eyes were not as red as before.
I returned to my room and wore old pants and a gray polo shirt. “You ready?” mom asked behind the door as I wore my shoes.
“Almost. I’ll be out in five minutes.” As the sound of her footsteps faded, I opened a drawer beside my bed and took a watch I received during my fourteenth birthday. It was from my grandma, the last gift I received from her before she passed away. My gaze paused in the few visible scars in my left wrist when I put it on. I took a deep breath, then dashed out of the room.
“Happy birthday, Ian,” mom said as soon as I approached the dining table. She was smiling but her brown eyes brimmed in red betrayed her every emotion. “I can’t believe that you’re seventeen already, I used to carry you in my arms but now, look at you, you’re bigger than me.”
“Mom, can you please stop saying embarrassing things?” I grunted. She laughed, such an oblivious and innocent one, then she offered coffee, bacon, rice, and fried egg with a star on top of it. I loved stars but that’s the only thing she knew.
“Why don’t you go back to sleep? It is still early,” I asked as I put a spoonful of rice in my mouth.
“No, I will go back to sleep after you leave.”
“Just sleep. You can’t be pushing yourself too much. You know your health has plummeted lately,” I insisted.
She slammed the table and my plate rattled a bit. “Stop that Ian! I’m your mother, not your sister.”
“Sorry, I’m just worried.”
“I know. But my health won’t stop me from being your mother.”
I returned it and nodded. “Anyway, where’s dad? Did he come home yesterday?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah, past twelve. He said he had a few drinks with his friends.”
‘Few, really?’ I thought but pushed away from the idea. After finishing the meal, mom walked me to the door. “I should be going then,” I said and hugged her goodbye.
Few lampposts lit the streets and I could count on my hands the stars above when I left. The morning air had a biting edge even though it was only the third day of June and the rainy season had just begun. My body shivered immensely, my feet numbed. I rubbed my hands to ease the cold but it wasn’t enough, so I ran to the waiting shed where I waited ten minutes before riding an ordinary bus.
It took three hours from my town to Magsaysay Grand terminal. As much as I wanted to get a bit of sleep during the whole ride, it was impossible. There was a strong odor of tobacco and the faint smell of piss in the air, litter was thrown all over the place and the engine was roaring as if it had been used for decades. After immediately leaving the bus, I rode two jeepneys for another two and a half hours before reaching the town of San Carlos.
My heart raced as I threaded down in front of a blue gate. It pounded even faster when I heard a sudden boom of thunder. I took a deep breath and hoisted my gaze. The sky was dark, the sun hiding above the thick layer of clouds. Then, my eyes shifted to the sweeping cursive letters on top of the gate reading, Tuazon University.
“Finally!” I whispered to myself as I excitedly trudged inside.
The sky continued to roar as I turned around, familiarizing myself with the new environment that unfolded before me. Each end of the university, which was more or less a mile across, was far beyond my eyes with many infrastructures spread in the area. A hallway was connecting the gate to the closest building that was also connected to all the buildings in the vicinity. It was an elevated ground with low roofing and had no wall, designed like an elongated arched canopy, providing students with transportation during rainy days. The arterial concept of chained pathways was brilliant, knowing that it was raining almost all year round in this town.
Many people were walking in the hallway, sheltering themselves from the sudden downpour of the rain. I was still on my way to the nearest building when someone poked my back. I made an acute turn and saw a girl, her long blonde hair lightly covering her face. She wore slightly fitted long sleeves tucked under high waist jeans that complimented her tall and slender frame that was like mine, five feet, and seven inches.
“Excuse me,” she said as she brushed the strands of hair on her face, revealing a beautiful image. It blended naturally with her chocolate brown eyes. I tried to look away but failed miserably, she was so beautiful, the kind that would make any guy take a second glance at her. “Do you know where the Department of Medicine is?”
I nodded and gave her the directions as I had memorized them from the map while trying my hardest not to stare. She said thank you a few times and bowed her head a bit as I finished giving her the directions. She was about to walk away when she turned to me again. “Sorry, I’m honestly bad with directions. Can you-” she hesitated for a moment. “Can you, at least, repeat the direction again?” she smiled awkwardly. “But it would be fine if you don’t. I can guess that I’m taking so much of your time.”
I took a deep breath. “Maybe it would be better if I tag you along. I’m headed in the same department.”
Her rosy lips parted, her eyes twinkled. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver.” She stretched her hand over. “Anyway, I’m Althea.”
“Ian,” I replied and shook her hand.
Althea was bubbly and energetic. As we walked together to the department, she kept me in the conversation even though she did most of the talking and I only nodded or shook my head most of the time. As she chattered, I did my best to avoid eye contact with her like I always did with everyone else. It was one of my weaknesses. Whenever I looked into someone’s eyes as they spoke, I got dizzy, my head spun and I couldn’t grasp what they were talking about. I was glad that she didn’t mind it which made it easier for me to keep up.
“We’re here,” she said when we saw a five-story building with a large sign on top of the first-floor reading, Department of Medicine I.
It was big and brightly lit inside. There were three glass doors with different signs: Front Office, Dean’s Office, and Faculty Room, and a flight of stairs. A long queue, around thirty students, had piled up around a large open window beside the Front Office door. It was probably where we would have to submit our assessment papers and get a registration form.
“So what course will you be pursuing?” she asked as she lined herself backward in the queue. “I would guess, BS-Nursing?” She lifted her left hand, a finger slightly pointing at me.
I shook my head, following her lead. "No, BS-Md."
Her eyes widened, her face filled with surprise. ‘Is it that unbelievable?’ I thought.
"BS-Md? Oh my god! I was also taking the same course." She exclaimed with much excitement in her voice. It was loud enough that some people around looked at her, though she did not mind any of them.
“Althea,” someone suddenly called out. She turned her head, my eyes following her gaze. A short-haired guy was approaching who looked almost identical to another girl closely behind him. The only differences were his boyish features, the length of their hair, and their height. He was tall, about five feet nine inches while the girl was a few inches shorter.
The girl looked at me as they walked behind me. “Who’s this Althea?”
“This is Ian,” Althea replied, lifting her left arm, palm open, pointing at me. “He’s the one that showed me the way in here.”
The guy beside her heaved a sigh. “Just as I thought, you dragged other people again to help you.”
Althea frowned with his comment, her forehead crumpled a bit. “Yeah and that’s thanks to certain people who can’t arrive on time.” She rolled her eyes. “God, I was waiting for more than thirty minutes. I would have been soaking in the rain if I had waited longer than that.”
“Well, it’s not my fault.” The guy shifted his gaze to his sister, as I assumed his companion to be. His eyebrows were knitted together, his lips curved down. “I know you’re well aware of just how much time she spends putting make-up on. But today was unbelievably longer,” he said as he looked again at Althea.
The girl glared at him. “That’s bullshit! We would have saved so much time if you let me use the shower first. Stop blaming me!”
“Why would I? Do you even realize what a slowpoke you are? Everything you do, you’re doing it slower than anybody else!”
“Slowpoke? Coming from you? What the fuck. Do you even realize how long it took when you shave this morning? God, I thought you’re already doing miracles in the bathroom!”
I spun my body forward and faced Althea as the two continued to hurl at each other. She snapped at her forehead and looked at me. “Sorry about these two. They’re always like that, arguing even for the most trivial things.” She said, shaking her head, before turning her back on me.
The two kept on arguing over whose fault it was that they were late without realizing that many people were already peering at them. Their voices were loud so it was hard not to listen. I learned that the two were actually twins. Their names were Kristian and Krishna though I especially noticed Krishna who loved to cuss a lot. As in a lot, every time she said something, there would always be a curse word in it.
By the time it was Althea’s turn to submit her papers, the two - to my surprise - said sorry to each other, saying that it was their fault. I looked around, many people who witnessed what was going on were also bewildered. Their lips were slightly parted with ‘what was going on?’ painted on their faces. When I shifted my gaze to Althea who just slipped her brown envelope inside the window, her expression was unfazed, like she already anticipated the turn of events.
After receiving our registration forms from the front office, we left them in the dean’s office for signature, then took an early lunch in a cafeteria about a hundred meters away from the department. As much as I wanted to decline Althea’s offer to eat with her and her friends, and finally have peace with myself, she kept on insisting that I was forced to accept it.
The lunch with them was quite the event. The twins, Krishna and Kristian, were arguing over the pettiest things like where to buy, what food and drinks to buy, and even where to sit. Whenever I looked at Althea, she didn’t seem to be bothered by them anymore, like it was a normal thing to see. But, of course, it bothered me so much.
Even though I was just there beside them, sitting, nodding, or shaking my head as they tried to have a conversation with me, it was tiring. I didn’t have the energy to follow what they were saying or having this ‘play friends’ thingy. I couldn’t do it with these many people around, especially when the twins were hurling at each other.
When Althea mentioned going to the restroom, I knew that it was my only chance. As the twins exchanged a series of hot words, I picked up my tray and readied myself to leave which they didn’t seem to notice. I grinned to myself, though there’s lingering guilt over me, before sneaking out of their sight.
By four-thirty, I left the University after completing the enrollment process. To my relief, there was no problem with my papers and I didn’t bump into Althea or any of her friends for the rest of the day, or else, it would be very awkward. It was easier going through enrollment without anyone around that I had to entertain, I could just blend into the background, thinking or listening to some music. As always, I was better off being alone.