A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Elliott was talking to her over the phone when that happened in the province. He supposed this fact made meeting with her in person a necessity. She needed an explanation. Soon after his summer trip ended, they agreed to meet in Makati City.
Natasha’s now-red hair fell over her shoulder in a loose braid. Any other day, he’d have joked about how the color made the freckles scattered across her face look like a side-effect of an allergy. He smiled at her instead, knowing this was not a good time to pretend she wasn’t scowling at him. “They’re not handing Nicky over to me,” he said. “Not yet. Or maybe never. But Nicky told me he’d like to stay with me until college.”
She leaned over the table. “Elli, you may be great with caring for spoiled children—“
“You weren’t spoiled, Nash,” he said.” You were bossy. Rich kids are prone to be bossy by nature. And you’re not bossy now anyway.”
“So you’re saying I dropped the attitude because I became broke?”
“I was bitchy at twelve, admit it. And any sane eighteen-year-old would’ve dropped me off in the middle of nowhere to go make out with his girlfriend,” she said. “Dad would’ve believed you had you told him I ran away. The guy trusts you. But you didn’t drop me off in the middle of nowhere. And now you want to be Nicky’s legal guardian? I was like that because I was ignorant. He’s like that because he’s in pain. He’s way worse than I was. I see it in your face every time you mention his name.”
He’d heard stories from his cousins, but the enormity of the responsibility hadn’t occurred to him until he came by the house to fetch Nicky. The end of March, hot enough to scald his lungs with each inhale, only signaled the start of the Philippines’ hottest summer. Worries about heatstroke and insufficient ventilation in both private and public schools forced the Department of Education to end the school year one week early. This, for Elliott, meant begging his boss to transfer his leave to an earlier date.
He sat slouched on the torn couch, listening to his elder cousins gasp and make exaggerated remarks on their experiences with Nicky. The three dysfunctional electric fans, accompanied by the heat and the house’s claustrophobic ambiance, amplified his escalating horror of spending a two-week vacation with Nicky.
Apparently, the ten-year-old boy couldn’t last a day without making one person cry. This talent of his knew no age limit. Both adult and toddler fell for his defiant attitude, which he defended was his innocent attempt at making friends. Based on the stories Elliot heard in the past two hours and sixteen minutes, though, Nicky was more likely making enemies.
Elliott’s cousins, however, couldn’t give him up to social services. Their financial troubles certainly called for it, but they loved Nicky’s parents too much to be so cruel. Besides, he suspected they enjoyed the financial support all their relatives sent them for Nicky’s sake.
As they were complaining about Elliott’s infrequent visits to their nephew, their uncle’s pick-up truck pulled up in front of the house. He stood to help, but the eldest of his cousins told him to stay put. “This is routine,” she told him while fanning herself with a dog-eared bridal magazine. “It’s simply one of the many things guardians have to cope with. I can’t believe Uncle Jackie is taking him away from us to shove into your arms! You’re only twenty-seven!”
Defending his maturity made him worry of sounding like Natasha, so he merely returned to his spot on the couch and answered with a smile. With all their complaining he was surprised they weren’t treating him like a savior.
“I’m home!” The crutch tips entered the house first, then his braced leg, followed by the rest of Nicky. “Uncle Elliott! Tang ina! Am I leaving today?”
“Excited?” he asked.
“Hell yeah!” He grinned at his aunts. “Finally!”
Uncle Jackie put a stop to the brewing commotion simply by entering the house, leaning against the front door, and lighting his cigarette. From the angry aunts to Nicky, his gaze travelled to Elliott’s face and rested there. His tired eyes reminded Elliott of bad days. “Clean up well at his parents’ house, will ya?”
After much reprimanding and chaotic packing, Elliot managed to place Nicky in his car and drive towards Batangas. Remembering the energetic waving of his cousin’s hands as they said their goodbyes made him smile as he glimpsed Nicky from the rearview mirror. He’d never know for sure whether they wanted this kid or not.
Nicky maxed the air conditioning system and lounged on the backseat. “When are you adopting me, Uncle Elli?”
“I’m not really adopting you, kid. Your aunts and uncles—the good ones—simply want to transfer you to my care.”
“The good side of the family.” He pressed the flat of his good foot against the window. “Why?”
“They want you to stay with someone you like. Please put your foot down.”
He didn’t. “I like you?”
His high-pitched voice made Elliott laugh in spite of the traffic in Edsa. “They assumed that’s the case. That isn’t the case?”
“That isn’t the case,” he said. “You didn’t even attend my birthday party. I was stuck with stupid children my age and adults who don’t really care about me. Where were you?”
His girlfriend had phoned him that day to take her to the hospital. It wasn’t spotting, she insisted. She was having a miscarriage. Of course, he couldn’t tell that to a child. He had no choice but to lie. Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to punish his boss.
One question rolled in after another. What was the name of his boss? What did he even do for a living? Sell cars? Did that mean he had twenty cars of his own? If so, he’d like to live with Elliott. How about Elliott’s girlfriend? He had one, didn’t he? A single drive to the province gave him sufficient time to retell his life story, excluding private matters like his car accident at eighteen years old, his girlfriend’s personal dilemma, and even Natasha. For some reason, mentioning her to anybody made him feel as though he was acknowledging a part of his life he’d rather keep to himself.
The sound of rain against the car revived his awareness. The sky had switched from solid blue to a mix of pink and orange. Low, grey clouds swept in to blur the dividing line between day and night. The car traversed the narrow and muddy road to Nicky’s old house. The silhouettes of trees lining their path appeared to bend low in acknowledgement of Nicky’s return. The swaying electrical lines and continual flashes of light from nearby houses seemed to do the same for him.
As the house’s caretaker—an old man covered in a neon pink raincoat that obviously belonged to his daughter—dragged the bamboo gates inwards to let them through, Elliott held the steering wheel still for a moment to glimpse Nicky. The boy had fallen asleep and was now drooling on the seat cushion.
Elliott told him what a damn lucky boy he was.
Nicky opened one eye and then the other. “Do I look funny, Uncle Elli?”
“That brave face? Funny? Of course not!”
“Why are you smiling like that?”
“You just remind me of someone.”
That someone. He’d only seen Natasha once after their first encounter, at a restaurant while he was having lunch out with his colleagues near her college. She’d been with three other girls on a queue to the right of his queue, and just as they had the first time they met after eight years, they caught each other’s eye and Elliott approached her.
They might’ve exchanged numbers afterwards in a promise to keep in touch, but neither had sent the other a message in the months succeeding their second encounter. He supposed that was why he hesitated before answering her call while he and Nicky were having lunch of salted eggs, tomatoes, barbeque, and rice.
Elliott licked his fingers clean and debated whether or not he should risk staining his new phone. He put the call on loudspeaker. Nicky simply looked at him over his food, waiting for the caller to speak.
“Elliott,” she said. “Lukas is planning to buy a car and I told him I’ll ask your opinion.”
The lack of polite but awkward greetings took him aback for a moment. “Men who say they’ll buy a car are usually sure of what they want. Unless, of course, it’s a family car. Then yes, he’ll need expert advice.”
There was a hissing on her end. “Your jokes, they’re—how should I say it without hinting how much I want to chase you with a sharp object?”
Elliott laughed for Nicky’s sake. The boy had been somber since waking up in his hometown. One of them needed to act normal. “Romantic?” he said.
“Where are you?”
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“I’m serious about asking your opinion on cars. My boyfriend is an impulsive buyer.”
“We can talk about it over the phone. My hands are tied right now. Chaperoning my nephew—just to be clear. You’re on loudspeaker.”
“Where in the world are you chaperoning?”
“Batangas. The sea is a fantastic view in the morning,” he said, wiping his hands on his wet swimming trunks and putting the phone next to his ear. “Is everything okay with you?”
Her voice muffled and disappeared as the call got disconnected altogether. A local fishing boat appeared from the sea’s horizon, stealing Nicky’s attention. The laughter of children with sandy hair and deep brown skin echoed from the shore in front of a green-fenced property owned by a politician. The squawk of a bird and the shifting of the floating hut as it rode the waves reminded him this wasn’t the best place to hold phone conversations.
After their conversation earlier that day, he realized his father wasn’t lying when he said real friendships didn’t rust in the face of time and distance. That he’d experience such friendship with the girl who used to be only as tall as his elbow was beyond him. It seemed the years, combined with their current financial equality, made it easier to relate to one other.
Perhaps it was too obvious that he was thinking about her, because the soonest he and Nicky finished shopping (or he finished shopping while Nicky sat with the house’s caretaker in his vegetable stall) in the dry market and buckled themselves in the car, Nicky said, “Her voice is like mom’s.”
“You leg hurts?” He lowered the radio to hear him above Up Dharma Down’s “Oo.” “Stop scratching under the splint. It’ll—“
“I said ‘her voice is like mom’s!’”
Elliott gawked at him while he tried to recall which among the many women they encountered that day he was talking about. Exposure to eccentric phrases such as ‘anla pa’ and ‘ano ga’ also made it more difficult to put names on faces.
Nicky hit the back of the driver’s seat. “The woman on the phone!”
“Mom’s voice was like that,” he said, suddenly solemn. “Quiet. And kinda hoarse. Just like your friend’s.”
“Yeah. Now that I think about it, your mom’s always been softspoken.” He reclined the driver’s seat and stretched his arms overhead, tired from lifting heavy bags of groceries. Turning, he saw Nicky watching him. ”Hey, you’ve been a little down since we arrived at Matabungkay. Are you sure you’re all right with being back in your old house and packing your parents’ stuff? Just tell me and I’ll take care of it on my own for you.”
“I’m okay.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ve got to give them their stuff when they’re back, right? But I don’t understand why Dad’s selling our house. Where will we stay when Dad’s back from Kuwait and Mom’s back from London?”
“…we’ll have to think about that when they’re here, won’t we?”
“Does Dad even know you’re going to be, like, my new father?”
Elliott’s lack of response prompted him to continue.
“Because if he doesn’t, we have to tell him. I don’t care if he’s busy with his other family. So does Mom. She has to know I’m transferring to another relative again.”
Elliott wondered if Nicky’s parents even cared to know. Theirs was a classic case of abandonment. No warnings, no explanations. They simply transferred money to Uncle Jackie’s bank account and gave him instructions to care for their son.
The month prior to vacation, he and Elliott had stayed up late drinking beer and discussing Nicky’s situation. Uncle Jackie admitted he tried to stop them—sterner on Maria than Romeo—from working abroad. He was sure they were simply looking for a way to escape the mistake of their youth and the resulting obligation that bound them for years.
“That’s a good thought,” Elliott said. “I’ll give them a call once we return to the city. Sounds good?”
“That’s good enough. Now let’s go home fast. I’m starving. Cook a delicious dinner for me, okay?”
He set up the living room and prepared the couch for Nicky before heading to the kitchen. Nicky’s cast was due to be removed in five weeks, but he didn’t like to take chances. He plugged in one of Andrew E.’s movies and annoyed Nicky when he blocked the television while slipping pillows underneath his broken leg. Amidst Nicky’s complaints, Elliott reminded him to take plenty of rest and to call him for anything he may need. The boy, eyes suddenly wet, grimaced and muttered, “Fine.”
Elliott experienced his first nightmare that night.
Natasha returned to the armchair across from him and slipped her phone into her pocket. Curling on the chair, she pulled the cuffs of her knitted sweatshirt over her hands and motioned to his coffee. “Two things: don’t waste my money, and that’s good coffee.”
“Sorry.” He took a sip, noting how he distorted the coffee art of a bicycle in the process, and transferred his gaze to the downpour outside. It was a storm similar to this one that reunited them eight months ago. “We have a thing for storms, don’t we?”
“You’re only catching up on it now?”
“I’m guessing by your frown that your conversation with Lukas didn’t end well.”
“It did,” she said. “Doesn’t give me enough reason to be happy, though. Anyway, what were you telling me about that nightmare?”
He refrained from asking her if she was okay and instead followed her lead. “Logically, it wasn’t a nightmare.”
Natasha drank her coffee and switched to water. “Why’d you call it a nightmare?”
“I suppose it scared me enough to deserve to be called a nightmare.”
“Did you dream about having ten children, all of whom were crying in one nursery while a woman who’s supposed to be your wife is giving birth to twins?”
“Family jokes, huh?”
“Family jokes,” she said with a smirk, proud of herself. “C’mon, spit it out already.”
Elliot turned his hands palm-up and leaned back on the armchair. “It was just about me walking in this building that I know—for some strange reason—I built. The corridors are carpeted and the end of the hall has this boring square window. Fish paper instead of glass. Very traditional-looking. And the doors are blue with peepholes and silver three-digit numbers on them. And while I was passing by, I was memorizing who lived in which room. Relatives. Friends. But there’s this room at the end that doesn’t have a number or… an owner. A tenant. Whatever that person should be. I woke up parched and just feeling dry and stiff but at the same time like I was sinking in some part of the sea. I thought maybe I took warnings against the summer heat too lightly. But that was my only available time for Nicky and we had to sort his parents’ stuff. I thought of too many things at once. I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
Natasha held the rim of her cup against her lower lip. “That’s a… cute nightmare. Blue door, dry spell, sinking Elliott? Maybe it will help to pinpoint which part really got to you?”
“I thought it was just the effect of leaving the city. But I wasn’t convinced. That’s why it’s frightening,” he said, rather loudly. “Because I can’t pinpoint which part of it frightens me.”
If he were to guess, though, what frightened him most was its effect on him.
Their itinerary for their second day consisted of eating nothing but grilled meat, and listening to Nicky’s playlist of strictly screamo songs while they sorted out his parents’ belongings. Uncle Jackie planned to sell the furniture along with the house, which narrowed their task to exploring closets and drawers for private possessions.
The first closet they opened contained Maria’s clothes. The dust made him turn away to sneeze. He wanted to leave Maria’s things for last, but Nicky eyed the dresses with such longing that he couldn’t close the closet on his face.
He helped Nicky sit on the bed. “Your mom’s my best cousin—” tugging the dresses free from the hangers and piling them on his left arm. “—she stormed into my house the second she found out my mom left me and my father, and she embraced me and cried. Until now I can’t understand why your mother was so sad. So I cried with her, because I thought it must’ve been that bad that my cousin had to cry for what happened to me and Pops—my dad. I call him Pops.”
“Pops? That’s lame.”
“It makes you sound sentimental. Like a girl kind of sentimental.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s my way of showing Pops that I love him.”
Nicky folded the dresses Elliott put beside him. The boy’s sullen expression made him regret ever mentioning anything about his parents. Elliott unzipped a brown travel bag and dropped some of the folded clothes inside. “Did your aunts teach you to fold clothes? You’re pretty good at that.”
“Uncle Elli, why’d your mother leave you?”
“She and Pops didn’t get along well. The one wanted adventure, the other wanted stability.”
“Which one stayed with you?”
“Stability did,” he said. “Pops did.”
“Neither stayed with me.”
He tossed a dress to Nicky’s face. “We stayed with you. Your aunts, uncles, and cousins.”
“But that doesn’t change a thing,” he said, head bowed and fingers fumbling the buttons of a polka-dot dress. “Everybody’s been avoiding talking about her since she left me. And I really miss her.”
“Why didn’t you say so much earlier?”
Nicky blinked at him, looking torn between throwing a fit and crying.
Elliott chuckled and ruffled his hair. “I spent a lot of time with her as a child. I have plenty to tell you.”
They spent the entire afternoon going from room to room, opening drawers and packing clothes left in termite-infested closets while sharing what they remembered of Nicky’s parents. Cruel as Maria and Romeo had been to Nicky, Elliott felt the need to give him something to hold onto while he was young. The years would smear their distant images, similar to the way the image of Elliott’s mother had smeared in his memories. The lack of talk and photographs did nothing to help the rising ache of Elliott’s curiosity. Or was it the pang of betrayal that hurt him? Because he remembered Maria but couldn’t even tell if his own mother had straight or curly hair.
The second nightmare happened that night. He’d been lucky not to have hit Nicky when he jolted, especially because the boy had been curled up next to him on the bed. The banging of the balcony’s wooden sliding doors worsened his headache, so he decided to leave them open wide enough to lessen the noise.
The moon glowed faintly behind the clouds. The crash of each wave intensified the pulsating in his temples, and the whisper of the water’s retreat lugged with it his calm. Elliott closed his eyes and tried to overpower his panic with the sound of traffic—of cars zooming past the street below his apartment—and of footsteps and keys echoing in the corridor. But the province’s silence blocked the formation of these familiar images and sounds. It kept dragging him back to his dream, where this time he was standing in front of the vacant room’s door, knocking, expecting the nobody that was somebody to answer.
He didn’t start calling people until the following morning, when he and Nicky were back on the floating hut. Elliott had covered Nicky’s cast with two plastic bags and brought pillows to let the boy rest on the built-in wooden bench.
A hut owned by a family of eight floated past theirs. They waved and offered plates of liempo, paella, and sinigang. Elliott traded their packed lunch of menudo and grilled chicken and shared a bottle of beer with the older men in the family.
They asked about Nicky, who chose to hide his face in a book about school jokes, and kept his cast propped on pillows. With the chances of him interacting with strangers being slim, Elliott made up an excuse to push their hut back to shore and return home earlier than planned. The last thing he wanted was to divulge strangers with confidences. He knew how awkward it could get when people questioned the absence of a parent or—in Nicky’s case—parents. Just the idea of putting logic in abandonment was suffocating.
He felt outright suffocated by the time he was watching an animated series with Nicky. He excused himself and dialed his father’s number first. The conversation was brief: how are you? How are you coping with Nicky? To his father, he asked if the family he was driving for treated him kindly. Somewhere between comparing the families Pops had drive for in his life, they segued to Natasha’s family. That was when Elliott admitted to having encountered Natasha late the previous year. He hadn’t asked about Natasha’s father, Sir Edgar, but he promised to ask for Pop’s sake. Pops loved Sir Edgar like a brother. Elliott felt guilty for telling him about Natasha without news of Sir Edgar.
He scrolled down his phone’s contact records. Next he called Jake, his college friend. They discussed Elliott’s decision to resign from work and take the bar exam. “Get a license. You’d be better of working as an engineer than a car dealer. Everybody knows you’ve been unhappy with it for a while. Although, they do remember to mention you’re good at hiding it. Which is bullshit, because it’s not a compliment, Elli, it’s an insult.”
Much contemplation and sweating came with the effort to call Adrienne two days later. She answered the call on the last ring and said, “Yes?” Elliott made a final attempt to change her mind about their cool off. No, he didn’t mind that she had had a miscarriage. He didn’t mind that she cheated on him while she was on a business trip in Hong Kong. It hadn’t even occurred to him to ask if the baby was even his. He kept on repeating that he understood. He swore he did. Adrienne ended their argument with a request he’d heard before: leave me alone.
They spent their first two weeks there maintaining this routine. They got up at ten in the morning, settled in their floating hut, ate brunch of salted eggs, grilled meat, and fruits, and read books until one in the afternoon. Before pulling the floating hut back to shore, Elliott would swim to the coral reef to take in the view of the rest of the sea, and swim back to carry Nicky home.
Both naturally tan, they weren’t surprised when they took a picture to send Uncle Jackie and received a comment an hour later that they’d both gotten so much darker they could be mistaken for charcoal. He and Nicky laughed at each other’s sunburnt faces afterwards, having failed to notice this change for themselves due to their preoccupation with the paperbacks Nicky’s parents left behind.
Elliott took this opportunity to ask Nicky why he preferred to spend his summer this way.. Nicky merely picked his nose with a scowl, moving his pinky finger as though picking through his brain, and answered that his parents always spent summers doing the same thing day after day. “It’s never been exciting living with them, so I guess that’s why they wanted to start a new life somewhere. Can people just do that, Elliott? Will you ever do that to someone?”
He smiled at him and asked what he wanted to do for the remainder of the summer. “You’ll get bored, eventually, and we still have two more weeks to go.”
“Eh? I thought you had to get back to work soon?”
“Nah. I like it here. And this will be our last chance to enjoy this place before it gets sold.”
He called Natasha at sundown. While he listened to the endless ringing, he closed his eyes to push back his nausea. Last night’s nightmare progressed to the point that the blue door of the vacant room had parted, and he’d seen there was a nobody inside.
Natasha greeted him with a story of how her illustration for a children’s book won an award at her college. The prize money was five digits. She’d have enough to pay her electric bill. Elliott congratulated her and expressed his amusement at problems he never thought she’d have. Somewhere between cutting her short to tell her about his mother and her inquiries about his aloofness, the image of the sky and the sea before him blended and turned into night.
“Nicky saw me collapse. He tripped a number of times on his way to the caretaker’s cottage to get help, which got the both of us hospitalized for two days. Uncle Jackie and Pops weren’t happy about it—who would be? Nicky and I were like helpless children.” He lowered his cup of coffee as he laughed at the memory of them in the hospital. “Nicky’s broken leg got worse. He blamed me and we got into a fight and I made him cry. Imagine me making a ten-year-old boy cry! I surprised even myself! Doctor said I was fatigued and stressed. Pops thought it was heat stroke. I was lucky I only had a rat-shaped bruise on my upper right shoulder from colliding with a chair. I realized if I hadn’t hit the chair, I could’ve cracked my skull on the edge of the nearby table instead. It was a blessing in disguise. Gave me a good reason to slack off my responsibilities, too, and spend the rest of April idling on the beach. One time, Nicky actually thanked me for just fainting. He ran because he thought I was dying. Apparently, he knew the entire time that I’d been having nightmares.”
The rumblings of the thunderstorm and the chatter of faceless customers filled the gaps where Natasha’s jokes and Elliott’s responses fit. They stretched that gap by staring at each other for a while, quiet.
The café lost electricity. The customers groaned and threw complaints at the café staff. As the generator kicked in and the light flickered and an old Tagalog song blared on and off the speakers, Natasha finished her coffee, put her cup down, and said, “You still miss your mother, don’t you?”
Anais Jay is a 20-year-old freelance writer residing in the Philippines. She produces content for clients in America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and contributes fiction and non-fiction works to both local and international publications. Her goal in life is to shoot people with words and endless outbursts of mad art. Visit her at PapelKo.