Sand, Crushed Shells, Chicken Feathers
By Eliza Victoria
The streets were still wet from the heavy downpour of an hour ago, and already it was starting to drizzle again, the sky getting ready. Zachary looked up and was greeted by an empty screen. No stars, no moon, nothing but black. In the distance, some darker spots that could be clouds, or maybe just his eyes playing tricks on him. It was midnight, the cigarette in his mouth was starting to die, and he was pissed because today was his third overtime of the week and he didn’t have an umbrella and he had to wade through ankle-deep Ortigas flood just to get on a bus. He put the hood of his drenched jacket over his eyes, spat out the stick between his lips, and lit himself another cigarette. The feel of the flame against his cupped palm reminded him of how cold he was. This is what you get, he thought, for living in a different city, for still living on-campus, for being too lazy to go house-hunting.
The apartment building where they lived stood a block from the University bookstore. The bookstore was the only well-lit building on the street, and from the light coming from it Zachary could see a shadow standing by the gate to the apartment. Zachary walked on, taking a drag from his cigarette as he did, and coughed in surprise when he saw that it was John.
“Zac!” John said when he heard the sound. His eyes were red-rimmed. He had been crying. And from the looks of his hair and his jacket, it appeared that John had also been standing in the rain for some time.
“What’s the matter?” Zachary said. “What are you doing out here?” He wondered if something had happened to John’s parents. His father. That heart attack John had been worrying about ever since Emma died.
“They took my cell phone,” John said.
“What?” Zachary said, and stepped closer. He looked over his shoulder, scanning the area. Waving trees, the puddles on the ground glinting in the dark like teeth. He took a deep breath and felt his lungs fill with ice. He looked his friend over. “Are you hurt?”
John had been talking but he wasn’t able to hear. “John,” Zac said.
“I said, it’s not like they snatched it,” John said, shaking now. “I was trying to dress one of them, and it was in the pocket of my shorts, I hope—“
John was crying.
Zachary clutched his arm. “John.”
“I just hope they figure out how to use it.”
“John,” Zachary said, nudging him. “John, you’re not making sense. Who are we talking about here?”
“Them!” John shouted. “Aren’t you listening? There were two of them. They panicked when they saw themselves. I don’t know where they went, I’ve been trying to look for them for hours—“
Zachary liked John. They had known each other and had shared an apartment ever since they were college freshmen, but he was getting tired of playing nurse. “John,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm, “why don’t we get inside. We’re both drenched, and it’s going to be pouring soon. Let’s figure it out in the morning.” Zachary glanced at his watch and saw that it was morning, just ten minutes past twelve.
John wouldn’t budge. “I have to find them,” he said. “This is my fault.”
“For goodness’ sake, John,” Zachary said, and let his arm go. John’s arm plopped against his side, and he staggered back. “I don’t know what this is about. Is it a girl? Is this what you’re trying to say? Did she take something from you?” Zachary sure hoped she didn’t take anything from him.
His phone rang. John looked wide-eyed with hope. Zachary pulled his phone from his jeans pocket, flipped it open. John’s name was on the screen.
“Well, will you look at that,” Zachary said. He pushed a button and put the phone to his ear. John was quietly saying Please, please, please. “Hello?”
A rush of wind. Someone was breathing hard on the other end of the line.
“There’s a wall here.”
It was a girl’s voice. Her voice came to him hollow and tiny. She must have been shouting, but was holding the cell phone away from her mouth. Zachary wanted to punch John in the face.
“Who is this, please?” Zachary said, glancing at his friend and shaking his head. What?, John mouthed, then said, “Are they saying anything?”
“There’s a wall here. We can’t get through it.” Zachary almost dropped his phone. The girl had suddenly placed the phone next to her mouth, the tail-end of her sentence reaching his ear as a frightened scream. “I don’t understand why this place won’t let us go.”
* * *
John heard voices in the apartment. All sorts of voices. He confided this to Zachary when Zachary wouldn’t quit urging him to go to the doctor about his headaches. “It’s just these voices,” John said. “They’re too loud.” Zachary must have looked at him a second too long. “I’m not nuts,” John insisted.
“All right, then,” Zachary said. “What are they saying?”
“I don’t know,” John said. It was junior year, finals week. John was lying on his side on the bed, facing the wall. Zachary was sitting on the floor, surrounded by bags of chips, soda cans, photocopied readings, all of these illuminated by John’s gooseneck lamp.
“I don’t understand them,” John went on. “It’s like they’re speaking a foreign language.”
Zachary pulled a sheaf of papers toward him and studied them. “Well, aren’t you taking French 1 this semester?”
John lifted his head a little and glanced at him. “I knew I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Zachary laughed, then stopped. “Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “John.”
A beat. “What.”
“Do they scare you?”
John thought for a moment. “No.”
John sat up, joined Zachary on the floor, and began sorting through his readings, stacking them in neat piles. From time to time he would pause and cock his head, as though listening to something, waiting for advice. “No,” he said again, too strongly, as though someone was contradicting him.
* * *
John was fascinated by the supernatural. He would gravitate toward the films, watch the documentaries, read the books, even talk to people about it—a habit which, depending on the setting, proved both beneficial and disastrous to his relationships. He played bass for a University-based goth band till their sophomore year, and seemed to be the only member in the band who actually believed in the lyrics of their songs.
Zachary, on the other hand, didn’t buy any of it. The supernatural wasn’t completely foreign to him; his grandmother came from Cagayan Valley and whenever she came for a visit she would tell him of the many times she had fallen victim to kulam. That time her back itched, and whenever she scratched her skin her fingernails would come away filled with sand, crushed shells, chicken feathers. In that story it was a scorned lover’s revenge, the problem of her itchy back solved by an albularyo’s counterspell. In the other stories she’d tell him of boils, limbs temporarily frozen and worthless, the handiwork of jealous neighbors, disinherited relatives.
The stories were interesting, all of them, but Zachary wasn’t there when sand (and shells and feathers) seeped through the pores of his grandmother’s inflamed skin, so Zachary didn’t buy any of it. He found John’s enthusiasm hilarious and immature, the goth band’s music horrendous. “But at least,” he told John once, “I’ll always have someone at hand whenever my date needs to re-apply her eyeliner.”
John didn’t find that funny at all.
* * *
One weekend during their senior year, John failed to come home to the apartment. Zachary didn’t even realize he wasn’t home until John showed up at the door on Monday at two in the morning, slightly bleeding from a gash on his forehead, his arms filled with cuts. John looked as if he had just pulled himself out of a foxhole. Zachary sat him down on the couch and went into the kitchen to get some paper towels. From the corner of his eye he saw John reach up—
This was the part where his memory broke down, every time he told himself this story. At this point he would remember that he saw John reach up and pull a piece of white cloth from thin air. That was impossible of course, so he would try recalling that moment a second time, and this time he would see John opening his bag, taking out a towel to hold against the wound on his face. This version was more logical, and therefore more acceptable.
“Is that clean?” he had asked John that Monday morning, and John had said, “As clean as it can ever be.” John came back somewhat changed after that lost weekend: quieter, more pensive, more susceptible to panic. After graduation they applied as copywriters to the same ad agency and got accepted, and Zachary saw that John got along well enough with the other people at the office. He was okay, same old John, just more silent. So Zachary never stopped to ask, Where did you go during that weekend? Why did you come back with cuts on your arms?
* * *
Emma was John’s sister, four years old. Zachary met her only once, two weeks into the new job, when John’s folks came over for a visit. She zipped across the room like a tornado and hung onto his leg, saying, “Hello, Kuya!” Kuya Zac, she called him, after John told her his name. One school day she sat on a defective swing at the playground, pushed herself up, and fell, tangled up in rusting chains that broke off the swing’s frame. She hit her head upon impact and died instantly.
Emma’s death silenced the other voices in the apartment. Now all John could hear was Emma. One afternoon after the burial Zachary found him sitting in the living room. The TV was on, the volume turned up high enough to be heard in the other apartments, and yet John continued pushing the button, watching the green bar fill the bottom of the screen. Zachary took the remote control from him and switched off the set.
“You want to talk about it?” he told John.
“Emma’s crying,” John said. “She misses Mother.”
“Why won’t she just come visit your mother, then.”
“She said they couldn’t hear.”
Zachary didn’t know what to make of him. Sometimes, when he felt generous, he’d coax John out of the building, and they would play ball, watch a movie, waste time playing online games inside a coffee shop. People have different ways of dealing with grief, but he was starting to think that maybe what John was going through was something clinical, more serious, something that needed a prescription pad and pills—plenty of them, and quick. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Whenever John’s parents called to ask how their son was doing, Zachary could only say, He talks about Emma a lot.
* * *
“What is this about, John?” Zachary said. The girl was still on the line; sooner or later the battery would run out, the cell phone would die in her hand, and perhaps tomorrow after the storm the guards would find her half-naked on the soccer field, wasted and deranged, but Zachary was losing his patience. He thought he deserved to waste a few more seconds.
They were indeed wasted. John just stared at him. He seemed about to lose his mind—from panic or unnecessary medication, Zachary could only guess.
“Just stay where you are, miss,” Zachary said into the phone, staring hard at John’s face. “What’s your name?”
He was answered by a sob.
“Just stay,” Zachary said, enunciating the words carefully, “where you are. We’ll go get you. Did you see where she ran?”
This question directed at John. “No,” John said.
Zachary clucked his tongue and looked about. “She said something about a wall. I could only think of a dead-end.” The street they were standing on ended at a cul-de-sac. “Come on.”
They started walking, away from the light of the bookstore, pass the apartment building where dry clothes and a cup of coffee awaited. He didn’t hang up. He had placed the phone inside his jacket pocket, and he could hear the girl crying. Zachary took a deep breath to steady himself. The last time this happened they were still in college, John still wore eyeliner, and it was only pot.
“This isn’t just pot, is it?” Zachary said. The rain was coming down harder now. Zachary swore and threw away his cigarette. To their left, an empty lot, trees, grass. To their right, a professor’s house. The professor must have been on vacation because the house was completely unlit—normally they’d leave at least the porch lights on—and the orchids and flowers on his front yard appeared to be dying. The rain hammered against them, pushing them deeper into their pots.
More empty lots. A lonely lamppost, which too quickly disappeared from their view as they moved forward. More trees. To their right, an old one-story building, an abandoned kindergarten, the doors and windows shuttered. Zachary was on the side of the street closer to it and he bristled at the sight of decaying wood, the broken glass. Kuya Zac, he imagined hearing Emma. He imagined Emma standing beside that closed door, luminous in her school uniform, waving her hand.
It was too dark and Zachary was starting to get frightened and he didn’t like it. “You said there were two of them?” he said to John. “Two girls?”
“The other one’s a guy,” said John.
Zachary had to stop walking for a moment. “What?” He didn’t know John was into that sort of thing.
“It looked like a guy.” John had stopped walking as well. Zachary took his upper arm and pushed him forward, and they fell in step with each other once again. The kindergarten fell behind. Zachary fought the urge to look back.
“My God,” he said. “What in the world did you guys take?”
“Zac, it isn’t like that.”
“Talk to me when you’re not high anymore, okay. Jesus.”
They had run out of pavement. In front of them was a wall, but there was nobody there.
“Great.” Zachary took the phone out of his pocket. “Hello? Are you still there?”
“They won’t let us go,” the girl said.
“Can you describe your surroundings to me? Can you see a—can you see a building? Some sort of landmark?” Zachary started thinking, What if they’re not on-campus? What if they’re not even in the damn city?
“There are people here.”
“They’re surrounding us. They won’t let us through.” She sounded out of breath. “They’re just staring at us.”
Zachary held his head. “What did you take?” he wanted to ask John, but John had disappeared. He swung around and found him sitting on the ground, his back to the cement wall, crying into his bent knee.
“John,” Zachary said, screaming down at him. “Come on—what did you take?” Zachary was thinking acid, some party pill, but where would John get that? He wondered if they had a pusher at the office.
John wouldn’t answer. “Miss?” Zachary said. “These people. Can you describe them to me?”
“They’re just staring at us. They’re surrounding us. They won’t let us through.”
“What do they look like?”
“They change,” the girl said. “The shadows fall on them, and they change.”
“Have you tried speaking to them?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Just try, all right?”
There was a silence, then: “Hello? Hello?” The girl’s voice came through so clearly that even John looked up. “Hello? Please, let us go. We don’t understand anything.” Pause. “They’re not answering.”
“Well, that’s because they’re not real,” Zachary said, unable to help himself. “John, I swear—“
The girl said: “Why are they staring at us?” It must be a slight change in the tone of her voice; somehow Zachary could tell that she wasn’t talking to him this time.
The voice that answered her was male. Zac could hear him faintly from the other line. “Because they can see us.”
“We need to get away from here,” the girl said to him.
“No!” Zachary shouted. “No! Just stay where you are!”
Either John’s phone had finally died, or the girl had hung up.
“John,” Zachary said. He was so tired he felt as if his legs would finally give in. “John, get up. We need to go to the police. Do you know their names? First names, at least?”
“I don’t know who they are,” John said. “I don’t know what they are.”
John was crying like a child—loudly, shamelessly. His jacket didn’t have a hood, so the rain fell directly on his head, plastering his hair to his skull, the water rolling down his face. Zachary felt sorry for him. He helped him to his feet and kept his arm around his waist, guiding him gently away from the wall, the dark cul-de-sac, the abandoned kindergarten.
They were nearing the lamppost when John said, “I was trying to materialize Emma, just Emma. I was trying to make her appear in flesh from thin air. I don’t know who they are.”
Zachary moved away from him with a jolt, as if John were live wire. “What are you talking about, John,” he said, but the moment he said it he saw John pulling cloth from thin air, telling him, It’s as clean as it can ever be.
“They’ve got to be people,” John said. “Right? They’ve got to be people before. Zac, I don’t know who they are.”
“Where’d you get the drugs, John?” Zachary said, and John turned away from him in distress. “John, just tell me. I won’t say anything to your parents.”
A girl was coming from the trees behind the lamppost, running toward them, toward light. She was wearing one of John’s old shirts, and a pair of shorts that sagged because they were too big for her. She was barefoot. There was blood on the front of the shirt, her bare arms. They couldn’t tell for sure, but the blood didn’t seem to be coming from her own skin.
The rain was washing off some of the blood, and Zachary could see that she was holding John’s cell phone in one of her hands. There’s something wrong with her skin, Zachary thought. That faint glow. He decided that it was just the lamppost, his eyes playing tricks on him, this crazy night.
“Where’s the other one?” John asked her. Her eyes and mouth were open and she was pushing her arms to their faces, as though showing off the blood, daring them to touch her. She cried. She said a name with a sound they would remember, but would never be able to pronounce.
Zachary snatched the phone from her hand. “Let’s go, John,” he said, pushing John back.
“We can’t leave her here.”
The girl was looking at her arms. She touched her skin, pulled at it, and let out a frightened shriek, as though horrified it wouldn’t come off, that she was inside it, that it was too much a part of her. She fell to her knees. The shriek turned into a scream, and even John moved back.
She was looking at John as she tugged at her arms. Please, she said. But what does she want? Zachary thought. She was still saying Please even as he grabbed John by both arms and dragged him away. The apartment building was silent. Zachary frantically looked for the keys in his bag when they reached their floor, only to find out that John had left their door unlocked. When Zachary flicked on the lights John rushed past him, almost tripped on a chair, but reached the bathroom just in time. Zachary peeled off his jacket and sat outside the bathroom door, listening to John retch and cough, throw up something liquid. John heaved air, then fell silent. “John?” he said. “I’m fine,” John said, and appeared by the bathroom door. “I need to lie down.”
Zachary walked into the room with him and took off his shoes, the now-soggy socks, threw him a blanket. Zachary sat in the living room and turned on the TV. He told himself he was just waiting for the sun to arrive.
The rain poured in heavy curtains the moment John fell on his bed. It continued for three hours, then stopped, that silence after a bath, the faucet switched off. The sudden hush unnerved Zachary, and he increased the volume of the TV set. The morning news started at five a.m.; at a quarter to six the footage started rolling in one of the networks. A young man was found dead on a lot behind the abandoned kindergarten on the University campus. He must have tripped on something, fell on a broken beer bottle. Someone probably stumbled upon the body, the newscaster said, because when the young man was found he seemed to have been turned over, maybe even touched. They pointed at the blood stains on his clothes. Everything was shown in black and white.
On the other end of the campus, a dead girl was found in front of the Social Sciences building, a thirty-minute walk from where the boy lay. She didn’t have any wounds, except for the cuts on her legs and the soles of her feet, but those cuts weren’t fatal. It’s possible that she died from the cold, walking in the rain from God knew where, without an umbrella, without a jacket.
Zachary remembered how strong the rain fell that early morning, and shivered. Why didn’t she stop? Why did she keep walking?
And he thought, I was able to take John’s cell phone, thank goodness. But the boy was wearing his black shirt, the one with the print he liked. He might even be wearing his jeans, too.
When John finally got up the shows were already showing fluff: film reviews, interviews with celebrities, the morning workout. Zachary was in the kitchen, convincing himself that the police couldn’t possibly trace those clothes back to them. They weren’t special, or expensive; they could’ve belonged to anybody.
Zachary took bread from the cupboards, a block of cheese from the refrigerator. “They’ve shown anything about them yet?” John asked when he sat at the kitchen table.
The news footage wouldn’t be replayed for another hour. “No,” Zachary said. “Maybe they got to a shed?”
“I hope so,” John said. “Zac?”
Zachary sat down and cut up the cheese.
“It made them crazy, didn’t it.”
“What did, John?”
John didn’t reply.
“I’m making coffee,” Zachary said. “You want some?”
“It was supposed to be Emma.”
“Emma’s dead, John.”
“I know.” John placed his hands over his face and cried. Zachary placed the bread on a plate and sat staring at the table. He waited for John to stop crying.
* * *
John said that he dreamt of his sister. Emma was older in the dream, fourteen years old, fifteen, the high school student that she would never become. Pick me up here, she said, calling him through her cell phone, telling him the number of the building where she was waiting, the name of the street. In the dream, John reached the building, but his sister was not there. Where are you? Right here, Emma said. The building number was staring John right in the face. Well, I’m here, and I don’t see you. He walked away from the building. Can you see me? If I can, then I would have called out, right? Emma getting annoyed, then amused. Hay, Kuya, she said, laughing into his ear. Emma, John called, walking from one end of the street to the other. The street was deserted. He could not find his sister.
Sand, Crushed Shells, Chicken Feathers (c) 2010 Eliza Victoria. First published in the Philippines Free Press.