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CHAPTER TWO: DEAD AIR (Scene 3)
Santi had come home from the United States for his annual vacations back in the Philippines. It was the first time he and Maya crossed paths. And, perhaps, it would be relevant to note that it was the first time he crossed paths with one of the largest, fiercest dogs he had ever seen, one that unfortunately chased him to a dark, deserted alley.
He would not have gone there at all had his car not chosen to break down at such an ungodly hour in such an unsafe place. It broke down right after he swerved trying to avoid a drunk crossing the street. Just his luck, his cellphone battery died on him, too. Santi had no choice but to look for a payphone while keeping on the lookout for passing vehicles. Back then, convenient stores didn’t have recharging stations, while all the establishments near him were already closed.
He wished he had stayed home rather than party with old friends who did not seem to have mentally matured. They still tried to live it up and live off their parents’ riches and it made him wonder why he was still friends with them. On the other hand, maybe going to the party was not a bad idea and staying there would have been wiser. There were still some interesting and tolerable people at the party. There was, in fact, a particular young woman that interested him.
A morena, with lovely Asian features and nice, dark, curly hair. She was a rather smart and funny conversationalist, quite the type he would go for. She exuded a rather mysterious aura, too, and he hoped it was not all for show, after all, Santi was well-aware she was as interested in him as he was in her.
Santi was tall and well-built enough, with dark and yet somewhat-mestizo features. He was not a bad-looking fellow at all and definitely not new in the art of flirting. When he asked what the woman did for a living, though, she told him she “earned a living in the evenings” and then laughed. Santi took it as a joke. She seemed too sophisticated to be in the oldest profession known to man.
They left the place but not together, although they did manage to exchange numbers. Flirting or no flirting, Santi was not in the habit of taking advantage of women. He liked to know them better first before going to second base, if he thought they were ready. So they drove separate cars and went separate ways. He regretfully wondered, maybe if he stayed longer, she would have stayed longer as well and he would have learned more about her rather than gotten stranded in God-knew-where!
So there in that dimly lit place, Santi’s car brought him, the car that seemed to have ran smoothly much earlier only to conk out on him at such an hour. He was still mulling over his lost opportunity when he saw the dog—black, snarling, the size of a grown person. “GRRRR!!!!” it growled angrily with its eyes fixed on him. Santi, dog-lover that he was, knew that dogs would not normally attack unless provoked. However, this one was huge! It seemed eager to pounce the second any movement was made. True enough, no sooner had Santi taken a step back that the dog leapt and attacked, sending him running for dear life!
Santi ran and ran, trying to lose the dog that kept on coming. He ran and ran pass streets and corners, but the dog kept closing in. “Help!” he yelled as he passed a few vagrants, but no one helped or they were too stunned themselves to do anything. There were no police stations nearby. No patrol car passed by either.
The dog was too intent on chasing him until Santi found himself alone and cornered somewhere he did not even know. Was this how he was going to go? How he was going to be remembered? ‘The doctor mauled to death by a dog’?!!
Santi frantically looked around but kept alert should the dog made its move. No, he was not going down without a fight, not this way. There had to be something, anything. He was not exactly planning to hurt the animal, but hopefully, he could find something to frighten it with. Maybe there was a stick he could throw that could send the dog running away from him. Unfortunately, all around, he could only see trash thrown about.
Papers? No, they would not do, not in bits and pieces. What was he to do, threaten the animal with paper cut? And even if it was possible, there was still the matter of closing the distance between them with also the possibility of getting devoured in the process. Cans? Hardly useful. Staring at the dog, Santi thought that throwing cans that would cause moise would probably anger it more instead of sending the dog away with its tail between its legs. So how, how, HOW???
Santi watched it walk from side to side as if keeping sentinel. Its sharp, scary teeth were snarling and, to Santi’s surprise, its eyes seemed unusually red and angry. And wow, was it big! It was not even a St. Bernard! I need a stick, he prayed, please, please, please! Give me one. Now! If he could hurl one, maybe the ‘nice’ doggie would go fetch?
When—SWOOSH!!! A long stick indeed flew out from nowhere and threw the dog hard on the ground.
What the—?!! Santi barely had a second to grasp what happened when there was another surprise. The stick boomeranged back into the hands of its owner! How could a long, straight stick boomerang?
And yet it was possible for some reason, as evidenced by its owner, the hooded figure standing meters away from behind the dog. Santi had failed to notice him until then; he was too preoccupied with thinking of ways to escape. He tried to get a closer look at the figure but the light against his eyes only allowed Santi a silhouette. Besides, to his disappointment, the dog recovered quickly and stood up, facing its new enemy, angrier, fiercer.
“Run!!!” he shouted at the figure, forgetting for a moment that he, too, should try and escape. Still, that would have been useless. There was nowhere to pass through except the way blocked by the dog. What if it didn’t run after the culprit? Then he thought, what if it did? “Run!” he shouted again. He was not going to have another person mauled to death because of him.
The figure, however, did not budge. Instead, he took a fighting stance, pointing his stick at the dog, as if offering a challenge.
“What are you doing?” Santi could not believe his eyes. “Are you crazy?” What was the guy playing at, a sick version of fetching sticks? Never mind that Santi thought about the same thing a while ago. That was entirely different. Santi watched in horror as the dog attacked the other man. Oh, God!, he cursed and wanted to close his eyes but could not. It seemed like time went in slow motion as he expected to see it sinking its teeth into human flesh. Oh, my God…!
Three hard, calculated blows. Perhaps there were more, but everything went so fast. It seemed like three blows with the stick and the large canine fell once again on the ground.
Santi gasped. How…? He expected it to recover quickly once more but unlike earlier, the dog did not move to stand. It kept still on the ground. Slowly, Santi cautiously attempted to see if it was dead. It wasn’t. It appeared to be stunned, its now glazed-looking eyes and mouth open, yet it seemed hardly breathing. Santi became more bold and touched its chest to check its heartbeat. If there was any beat at all, it was too faint even for him to feel. Poor dog…Despite the danger he was in, he could not help but feel pity for the animal. Surely, there were other ways? Like running away from it?
He turned to face the dog’s assailant, but only in time. Knife attack! The sharp point glinted pass Santi’s eyes. “HEY!” He fell sitting on the ground.
He was wrong, though. The knife, a fan-knife called balisong, hit its target, the dog’s heart, dead on, killing it for good. Not contented, the killer sliced through its chest and down to its stomach, causing spurts of blood. Having witnessed such act mortified Santi even more. He had hoped to escape the dog, but not like this. Enough was enough! He did not care if the man saved him. That was, in more ways than one, an ‘overkill’.
“Was that even necessary?!! You had it down already! Isn’t there a law here that prohibits animal cruelty? Are you out of your—Oh…!” Santi exclaimed. “Oh.” What he witnessed was a total departure from what he thought he knew. A transformation was quickly taking place in front of him. As he watched, the animal on the ground turned into a full-grown, naked woman, and then everything dawned on him. The figure standing before him did him a favor—probably did a lot of people a very big favor—by putting down the monster that lay near him.
Santi stared down at the dead woman, his eyes unbelieving. She was young and beautiful, brown-skinned, and with dark, curly hair…And he knew her! She was the same girl he just had a great evening with, the same girl whose number he got, whom he wanted to date and get to know better. What was her name again? ‘Marie’? ‘Ma…-something’…? His genius memory failed him this time due to trauma. Did his wish just come true in some twisted way? Not only did he get to know her better, she almost ate him alive! So that was how she ‘earned a living’ in the evenings…!
The immensity of this realization made his head spin. He was a man of science, but never had he witnessed such a thing, ever. “I met her at the party earlier. I thought we connected. I never…” Does anyone ever…?
Santi looked up and was then more able to view his savior. Loose, black sweatshirt and blue jeans, rubber shoes, a bag pack from where an end of the ebony stick now protruded, joining its partner. But he could not see the face hidden conveniently under the hood, so much like a masked, modern-day superhero. The figure bent down to take back the knife, seeming to take care of keeping his face hidden. He straightened up to leave, bringing the young doctor back to his senses.
Santi scrambled to his feet. “W-Wait. I haven’t thanked you yet. Thank you for saving my life! And—uh—I’m sorry I yelled at you and said all those things.” The figure stopped for two seconds, nodded to him, then began to walk. Santi tried to follow but he was not as fast, add the fact that he was still in a little state of shock. “Please, wait!…I mean, well, it’s embarrassing, but please. I don’t know this place and clearly,” his eyes swept their surroundings, especially at the dead body, “it’s not the best place to be eaten.”
But the figure would not stop. Santi’s brows furrowed, observing the retreating figure, his mind racing, boggled for a moment, until he remembered his plea. “Uh, wait, please. E-Excuse me…Hey…Hey, MISS!!!” Santi’s superhero stopped. He could tell he said the magic word to make the figure listen, finally.
It surprised Santi a bit to hear a voice coming from under the hood. “How did you…?” She sounded young. It felt good to hear her voice. It felt good to hear any voice!
“Your hips. Well, pelvis, to be exact. I was looking at it and—”
“Wait!” The girl suddenly turned around to face him. To confront him, it seemed. “What? You were looking at my—? Well! Isn’t that just typical of a guy? Ogling at women at times like this. Maybe I should teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”
“Huh? Wha—? Oh, no, no! I’m sorry. You don’t understand. I-I didn’t mean…I’m a forensic anthropologist.” The girl put her hands akimbo and tapped a foot, a silent demand for a more elaborate explanation. He could feel her eyes boring through him. How could he tell her things like that came to him automatically, that it came with the territory? “Uh, I’m the kind of doctor who studies bodies. Bones, actually. But even with your clothes on and all, I could still imagine—er—distinguish your gender. When we have to identify skeletons, the pelvis tells us whether it is male or female…Uh, here, I have a card.” He went closer but carefully as he produced a company card from his suit’s inside pocket and handed it to her. It was from his job abroad but that should do it.
The girl studied it for a while. He wished he could see her expression if only for a bit. “So! Dr. Rivas,” she finally addressed him again, and he was glad to detect amusement in her tone. “Did you really find out I’m a girl just by ogling at my swaying female hips? That gave me away?”
“I told you, I wasn’t…,” he started defensively then stopped. Did he just hear her snicker? Perhaps that was her way of apologizing. “Yes, that gave you away…aaaand the pink shoelaces.” This time, he did not only hear her snicker. He heard a wonderful, little laughter. After such a harrowing experience, he needed to hear something as beautiful as a girl’s laughter. Especially since he just met Ms. Could-Have-Been-Perfect that night and got heartbroken in a matter of hours because it became apparent, she was after his heart.
“True. Though I do prefer teal, that’s my favorite color. Do you know that color? It’s a specific shade of blue and green. You know, it’s that the certain blue-green shade that is often the color of vehicular plate numbers?”
“It is? Oh. I will have to check that out then.”
“Well, a lot of times, they don’t get the exact color shade…You know, if not for the pelvis, I could have been a guy who happened to love pink,” the girl bounced back to the topic.
The brief exchange was followed by an awkward silence. Santi could not think of anything more related to say. There was one thing that came to mind, but he did not know how she would take it if he told her his first-ever clue of her possibly being a girl: the whiff he got of the sweet scent of her girly perfume when she bent down to retrieve the knife.
“Oh, wait.” The girl pulled out a marker from her pocket and picked up a large piece of carton to write on. Having done so, she went back to the dead woman and placed the sign on top.
It read: “PUSHER. ‘WAG TULARAN.” A warning to all to not follow the woman’s drug-pushing way of life or else.
Santi’s bewilderment did not escape the girl’s notice. “What?” she asked matter-of-factly, as if killing monsters and placing such signs on them were but natural hobbies. “Do you think all those ‘salvage’ victims you see on TV are really tortured to death just because little signs like this imply so? Many have been victims by this woman’s kind. Signs like this just throw off the scent from them, to keep humans from guessing what is really happening so they can operate more easily. This is my own way of keeping people safer. If they knew aswangs were real, then monsters like her would know they know, so what would there be to hide anymore? It would be one giant fiesta with people making up the menu and the aswangs trying out everything on the table.”
Santi’s stomach wanted to turn but he controlled it. He did not say a thing. She was the expert in that particular field, not him. He could explain to her all about forensic science and bones, but to attempt to explain aswangs?
“Sige,” the girl bade goodbye and began to walk away again, sending Santi on his toes to match her fast pace.
“I’m serious, Miss.”
“Don’t leave me here.” Oh, wow, I sound so pathetic, like a scared fool. Which I am, at the moment. “I mean, I know about self-defense. I’ve worked with the FBI. But this? I don’t know how exactly to handle this. I don’t know how I can handle an…,” he tried to find a more appropriate word. There was none.
“Aswang,” she filled in the blank for him.
“It sounds so weird, hearing that word in a conversation that I am actually a part of. But yes, an aswang. If I knew how to handle it, maybe I’d be reacting differently, like how you reacted, except maybe I wouldn’t be that great at it. I was already practically helpless being the intended victim. That’s embarrassing enough to admit.”
“Nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s a normal reaction. All the people I’ve helped got too scared as well.”
“Okay, again, I admitted that already. I’m not exactly proud of myself right now.”
Santi could feel his face getting all red with embarrassment. He guessed she guessed right. He was a typical man, too typical to admit he was not tough enough and too proud to accept a girl saved him instead of him being the savior. “Yes, well, I don’t know how you did it—I mean, I saw how—but, I did not expect it. Even so, I’m thinking I’d be safer with you. So, I’m asking if I can stay with you? Even just until we find busier streets, then I won’t bother you anymore.” There, I said it. Hard to accept, but mature people always said that what made a better man was his humility and ability to admit his weaknesses. Santi wished she would see it the same way. Her silence appeared to be a sign that she was contemplating it.
There was hesitation in her voice when she spoke. “Aaaal-right,” she said, stopping to face him. He was glad because he was getting a bit flustered trying to follow her, plus he had been running as fast as he could not so long ago. He appreciated the break.
“Yey, thank you!” The pounding of his heart was beginning to normalize. All that running and those new-found bits of incredible information kept his adrenaline pumping. He was glad to feel a bit more normal again, and he knew that part of it was due to relief gained from knowing she was taking him with her. “Do you have a car parked somewhere?”
“The only wheels I have are roller blades which I don’t even have with me right now, sorry. I get by like any other commuter. Would that be a problem?”
“No, no. Walking would be fine with me.”
“Actually, I run, jump and leap. Have you ever heard of Parkour, what they call ‘the art of movement’?”
He had, but the idea of it was not so inviting to him. “I just wish my car had not broken down. We could get away from here faster.”
“You didn’t say you have a car!” she exclaimed.
“It broke down so it’s useless.”
The girl thought for a while but he had no idea what was in her head. He could not even see the face! “Then I guess you really have to go with me. Judging from your surprised expression earlier, you did not know the dog was the woman, so I’m guessing she did not ride with you. I’m guessing you told her where you’re heading, or maybe gave her your card, too. Then conveniently, your car broke down, not too far from where you came, but far enough to get you stuck in this horrid place and not be able to get help…She was not alone.”
Santi’s heart leapt. What did she mean? There was at least one other aswang out there that could be watching them right now? The girl laughed and punched him on his shoulder (it hurt a bit but pride did not let him complain).
“Relax! Breathe! I was just scaring you…Well, actually, that was true. She had an accomplice to take care of your car while she worked you up. They knew fully well what would happen to the car. Ha! Even they have their modus operandi now! These days, even the aswangs have to help one another to survive…Hey, you’ve turned pale. It’s funny the way you keep jumping from pale to flushed.”
Maybe it’s because you and your aswang buddies keep springing surprises at me?
“But don’t worry. Whoever’s been helping her is long-gone by now or there would have been another attack.”
“Maybe you scared him. Or them.” But he wasn’t ready to believe that and he looked around. If anything, this girl seemed to have encountered more monsters than necessary that she could already tell how they did it. Santi thanked God that he did not let the monster inside his car or he would not be there still breathing.
“Come on, let’s find your car,” she began and he followed.
“B-But it’s not working.”
“I can probably make it work.”
“Oh, you know how to fix cars?”
She smiled at him. He could see her smile from under the hood. “No. But I know how to hot-wire them.”
Santi gave a nervous chuckle. “I’m not going to complain. Anything to get out of here.”
The two of them set out to find his car and found it parked in a corner. True enough, the girl proved to be an expert in hot-wiring. She knew what to do—only two sparks and the engine roared to life. He didn’t know exactly how his car was sabotaged but it was not important anymore. Santi could not help but be impressed. Dubious of her character, but impressed.
Soon, they were on the road with Santi on the wheel. He was pretty shaken up but driving became a bit therapeutic for him. He did drive like a lunatic the first few miles that could have earned him a driving ticket. He was to drop the girl off somewhere and then he could go home to his warm house, eat his warm food, sleep in his warm bed, and then by morning, he would find out the previous evening was all a bad dream.
“Hey,” the girl said after a while. “I’ve been thinking. You did say you study bodies and bones, didn’t you?”
He corrected, “Mainly bones. Why?”
“I could use your help.”
“What? H-How? Why?” Was there no end to this nightmare?
“The what and how, I’ll explain later. The why is you sitting here beside me, alive and driving, because I saved you.”
Santi thought about it. He did owe her. Perhaps she was not going to ask for something big. Maybe she would only like to see how a forensic anthropologist worked. “Okay, fair enough.”
“Good. Then, since I’ll be helping you, can I at least have a name I can call you by? I mean I could call you Darna or whatever you want, just tell me. If we’re going to be communicating, wouldn’t a name be important? You have to at least give me one.”
The girl gasped. “I thought you had one already?!!” Santi stared for a moment and then, getting her meaning, laughed. “There you go! I was beginning to think you had no sense of humor. Are all scientists that serious?”
“I’m sorry, really. I do have a sense of humor. Many of the scientists I know are quite funny. It’s just that it’s not everyday that you go through what I went through. Of course, I don’t exactly mean you by ‘you’.”
“Maya.” Huh? What did she say? Was that a word? A sound?
“That’s my name, Maya de Alano.” With that, the girl took off the hood of her sweatshirt and looked straight into his eyes.
For the nth time that evening, Santi’s heart leapt, and the car dangerously swerved to the curb. He cursed out loud and tried to get his bearings together. “Oops! Sorry,” he apologized, taking another glance at the sweetest face he had ever seen. Not the prettiest, but something about her…And those eyes!
“No problem. That was new, at least. No one’s ever cursed upon seeing my face before.”
“Oh. No, I didn’t mean to. I was just…distracted. I thought I saw something on the road…” He felt a warm flush on his face again and he could tell she could tell.
“Hmnn,” Maya hummed, squinted her eyes and crinkled her nose, studying his face more closely as he tried hard not to swerve again like a drunk idiot. He wished she’d keep still! Maya smirked and sat back contentedly on her seat, looking ahead. “Did you know that blushing is exclusive to humans alone?”
“It often starts at around the age of ten although it can also start as early as five. Teenagers blush the most, perhaps due to their high level of self-consciousness. But adults are capable of blushing as well. It has no particular use but can be extremely uncomfortable in certain situations. I think it’s cute.”
Santi felt he had never blushed so much in his entire life. Right then, he knew he could never be the same Santi Rivas ever again. No one had ever made him blush like that. To him, that amounted to something: a lot.
*morena – mocha-skinned or of light-brown complexion
*mestizo – bearing (normally) Caucasian physical features
*“PUSHER. ‘WAG TULARAN.” – “ILLEGAL DRUG DEALER. DON’T EMULATE.”
*’salvage’ – in the Philippines, the word’s meaning has evolved into practically its exact opposite due to bad and popular media hype. A ‘salvage’ victim now means someone who had been tortured and killed
*fiesta – feast
*aswang – Philippine folklore’s mythical creature considered to be the equivalent of the West’s vampire. It is the general term for various monsters, which are called by other names, depending on the regions. They are said to be generally evil carnivores feeding on human flesh and believed to be able to change into normal human and animal forms
*“Sige” – “Alright” or “Okay” in the context
*modus operandi – Latin for “method of operation”
*Darna – a Filipino superheroine