This side of brightness

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Barangay Captain Osorio finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma.He has an angry mob outside, ready to tear the suspect to shreds, and he’s afraid of having blood on his hands. On the other hand, every minute he spends stewing in this indecision, the chance of finding the suspect diminishes. So what about the dead girl? What about justice? What about biting the bullet and doing his job?

“What about my fucking coffee?” Osorio snarls. And Max, his trusted aide and the barangay security officer, quickly rips open a packet of 3-in-1 instant coffee and pours its contents into a waiting mug, whose previously steaming-hot water has now cooled down to an unpalatable tepidness. But Osorio gulps it down just the same. It’s almost four in the morning; he hasn’t seen his bed and wife for more than 24 hours. It has been a terribly busy time throughout the barangay, preparing for the Feast of Santo Niño and all that. It was a weekend he’d have been glad to sleep through, but his political position demanded he’d stay in certain uncomfortable situations. It wasn’t easy playing referee to the town’s two rival political families, each of whom had been trying to beat the other on who spends more lavishly for the people—no aspect of the fiesta was too trivial to not be a point of contention: the banderitas, the public entertainment at the town’s little plaza, the invited showbiz personalities, the street parlor games. It was insane.

And now this: the crime of the decade, no, the century. As far as he could remember, there had been no other crime as gruesome as this ever committed in their little town. It must have been the drugs. Or the unemployment dipping below 30 percent. Or just terrible luck.

Max gets it too, but he’s smart enough not to offer an opinion. He knows this is a volatile moment; he has known Osorio for years, and he knows when to just shut up and give the man some space. The CCTV footage is clear enough to show what they need—the identity of the suspect is undeniable. Osorio makes a few mouse-clicks and the video repeats, just to make sure their eyes aren’t fooling them: the video shows the street dance party they had just that afternoon right in front of the barangay hall, where kids and their mothers danced to that popular Willie Revillame song. The camera pans and hits a scene in which the now-dead girl stands amid a bunch of other dancing kids, inflating a white balloon. And what a coincidence: the suspect they know as Dante is in the background. Nothing suspicious there: Dante’s one of the barangay tanods, although not the most reliable one. He’d been among a team assigned to manage the crowd during the festivities. But there’s something strange, and now noticeable only because of what eventually happened: Dante listlessly moves in the background: he leans against a wall, he half-dances to the silly music, he squats, he smokes a cigarette—all the while staring at the girl inflating that balloon, like a predator circling around his prey. The girl is oblivious—she’s having fun, tossing the balloon up in the air, a vision of innocence. Osorio massages his temples; the girl was only five, goddammit. Why her? Osorio’s angry and tired and interminably sad; he has a daughter, too.

But he soldiers on, making a few more mouse-clicks to review the really damning video, the one that strongly connects Dante to the murder. There he is again, the suspect, the little girl in tow. This time it’s night. Time stamp: 10:23 PM. He’s wearing the same thing—white t-shirt, maong shorts. Barangay Captain Osorio gazes long and hard at the black-and-white CCTV footage, wondering if there had been a way to sense what a man was about to do, a precognition, then precious lives would have been saved, and he would have been sleeping soundly in his bed right now, Carol beside him. Back to the footage: the two figures walk along a dimly-lit sidewalk. But they pass under a light post, and for some reason, Dante looks up, giving the CCTV camera—a fairly recent installation originally intended to deter theft—a chance to record his face for posterity. Dante walks hand in hand with the girl; he seems to be in a hurry to reach God-knows-where. The girl looks behind her a couple of times, seemingly worried. There’s something about her walk—a kind of a hesitant shuffle—that breaks Captain Osorio’s heart: she’s afraid, he realizes. She has a vague inkling of impending doom—she knows—yet she’s helpless. She lets this man drag her to what they now know to be that strip of grassy lot right beside a junk shop. The video represents the last moments of this girl’s life, and it’s eerie and heart-breaking to watch it. In about two hours after this video footage had been recorded, a little past midnight, a boy from the junk shop would stumble upon the girl’s body. Barangay Captain Osorio grinds his teeth in renewed outrage, yet he freezes once again in indecision. If it were up to him, he’d love to slaughter this monster right then and there, he’d love to hack him to death the moment he sees him—and there’s the rub: Osorio knows the angry mob outside will also have the same murderous impulse the very moment they bring in Dante for questioning. Osorio is unsure if his tanods would be able to stop the mob consisting of the girl’s uncles, distant kin, and other relatives and friends.

Osorio massages his temples. “Don’t open that door yet,” he says. Max turns the doorknob to ensure it’s still locked. Outside the barangay hall, conversations at times turn into screaming matches until cooler heads prevail and it all calms down, then the cycle repeats. And this will continue, Osorio thinks, until the mob’s demand for answers is sated.

“What do we do now?” Max says.

Osorio stares at him. “How do you eat a whole carabao?” Osorio opens a drawer and takes out a gun and tucks it in his waist. “One spoonful at a time.”He stands as he begins thumbing on his mobile phone. Someone at the other end of the line must have done something right because Osorio sighs in a good way. From the snippets of that conversation, Max understands what Osorio is trying to arrange—a safe passage for the suspect, a kind of misdirection, possible only with the help of some people Osorio has trusted over the years. Osorio’s instinctive understanding of how things work—the bigger things, and not just individual events existing on individual minds—is the reason why he has been barangay captain for two consecutive terms, and Max admires him for that. Even if Osorio’s obviously deeply troubled, too—his bloodshot eyes, the quiver in his voice, the way he says, “We’ll announce that Dante’s just a possible witness that could lead to the suspect” betrays an emotional implosion he’s just trying to contain. If it were up to Max, he’d just go crazy; he’d probably stop functioning.

When Osorio finally puts down the phone, he stares at empty space for a long time. He sighs. “They have found him,” he says. “He was slurping goto at an eatery near the wet market, can you imagine that? Like nothing’s happened.” Osorio’s almost teary eyed, but he tries to compose himself as he opens the door. “It’s time we addressed the huge bleeding elephant in the room.”

The moment the door opens, a cacophony of voices detonates, all demanding for blood and answers. One of the dead girl’s uncles, a tall, balding man with bags of dark flesh under his eyes, says, “So who is it? Did you get the sonofabitch?”

Osorio shakes his head solemnly, hoping his calm demeanor would have a mitigating effect on the crowd. He swallows saliva and catches Max looking at him uneasily, as if waiting for a cue, whatever that is. “No need to be too excited. We have found a witness, not a suspect. We’re inviting him for questioning.”

Somebody spits loud enough to sound like a viscous projectile of insult hurled at them. A man from the back yells, “That’s bullshit! The camera must have seen everything!” The rest of the mob respond with verbalized outrage, the kind of thing you normally hear at a tupada. Osorio holds his palms upwards, like the Pope, a wordless gesture that says We’re doing everything we can, and will you please back down? Max shakes his head; Osorio’s pushing this façade of cool benevolence too hard that it’s having the opposite effect. But before Osorio could speak, a group of barangay tanods arrive, one of them has his protective arm around the shoulder of the man of the hour: Dante. The crowd fall silent, eyeing the new-comers with hawk-eyed suspicion, especially Dante. The moment Dante sees those who are waiting for him, fear quivers in his face.

The same balding uncle of the dead girl smiles as he puts an arm on Dante’s shoulder, as if in a welcome greeting. “Did you see anything? Can you help us?” He pauses and looks around his kin then he looks back at Dante, whose face is filmed with sweat. The fake smile dries up. “Or are you the one who raped and killed our Maricel like a fucking animal?”

Somebody screams, and a fist lands on Dante’s face, sending him sprawled on the ground. All hell breaks loose. The barangay tanods scramble to form a protective phalanx around the suspect, but the mob’s anger is inexorable. Somehow, in the frenzied blur of arms and fists, against a backdrop of screams and wails, Osorio catches the sight of Max diving into the maelstrom, desperately using his body to shield the bloodied pulp at the center of it all. Suddenly, Barangay Captain Osorio chokes on a surge of panic—he pictures Max, his ally, his trusted aide, his friend, dying an ugly undeserved death as collateral damage in a riot he could have controlled—and Osorio whips out his gun and, hoping against hope, fires many, many shots in the air.

  *  *  *


The child’s hand is now clammy with sweat, yet Dante holds it firmly in his grasp. He doesn’t even look at her; he stares ahead, always ahead, swatting the tiny voice of reason away from his mind like one would at pesky flies. They hobble along dark alleys and backstreets supposedly in search of a still-open store selling rubber balloons. But it’s already late in the night, and this day being a feast day, most of the stores didn’t open for the day, anyway.

“Uncle,” the child whimpers. “Uncle, I wanna go home.”

“We’re almost there,” he says. “There’s lots of balloons there. Red, white, blue balloons. Lots of balloons.”

The girl is no longer convinced. Earlier that afternoon, fresh from the street party, Uncle Dante had approached her with a cone of ice cream. She was so happy—it was ube, her favorite ice cream flavor. But she had yet to finish the ice cream when the balloon she had tucked under her arm exploded. Thankfully, Uncle Dante came with another cone of ice cream and offered her the possibility of getting more balloons—he knew a place where they sold balloons in different colors. Her heart jumped in excitement—what a wonderful day! She had ice cream in both hands, and soon she’d have more balloons. Uncle Dante even waited for her to finish eating before they got up and started walking. But it has been a long walk. A very long walk. Her legs are growing tired and numb, and walking along dark, mostly empty streets has sapped her eagerness for balloons. She tugs at Uncle Dante’s arms, begging him to bring her home.

“Ssshhhh. Take it easy. We’re almost there.” Sweat trickles down Dante’s face. He hasn’t decided what he wants to do. He just knows he’s thrilled—aroused—holding hands with the girl. There’s something about her that has always appealed to him—her innocence, her perpetually tussled hair, the curve of the back of her neck. And whenever he’s drunk, like now—a few shots of hard liquor always did the trick—his desire intensifies. He had always wanted to be alone with the girl, and now that he has his moment, he refuses to let it be over so quickly. So he meanders around the alleys without a distinct direction in mind—he just wants to prolong the moment. But the liquor swishing around in his head turns the streets into wobbly tunnels tapering into the distance, and when he looks at her, she seems to have magically aged a few more years. Each time she tries to yank her arm from his grasp, begging to go home, she looks like a petulant princess just trying to tease him. He loves and hates her; he wants to consume her, but the impossibility of his desire pushes him over a cliff, down into an abyss of self-destruction. But all this confusion is largely unarticulated; Dante is a simple man, and he has no words for many of his black feelings.

And so they walk, and walk, and walk. With every step, the child becomes more and more whiny. Finally, they chance upon a grassy little spot—perfect for a picnic, he thinks—and he decides to rest there. But the girl has other ideas—she doesn’t like the place a bit. It’s dark and the grass makes her legs itchy. She’s tired and hungry and scared. Dante looks at her—in his liquor-addled vision, she looks even prettier in the dark. When he touches her down there, his paws groping, caressing, the girl starts crying. No, Dante whispers, it’s alright. But the child does not stop. She’s crying, she wants to go home. She’s not interested in balloons anymore. She wants to go home. She begins sobbing loudly. No, Dante whispers, it’s alright.But the child does not stop. In panic, he covers her mouth with his rough calloused hand. The child struggles, but her puny arms are like straws against the hardwood strength of Dante’s hands. A blinding instant—a blanket of blackness wrapping its wings around his mind—and Dante shoves her down the ground. Before she could struggle to get up, Dante is upon her, his hands around her throat, squeezing it tighter and tighter. Ssshhhh, he whispers, it’s okay, don’t worry, it’s okay. He loves her, he hates her, he wants to consume and destroy her; his hands, finally, decide which of these confusing impulses must find fruition. Her eyes, gazing up at the sky, slowly, gradually turn glassy. Ssshhh, he whispers, even long after she stops moving. Ssshhhhh. Afterwards, Dante sits there in that darkness, trying to exorcise that silly dance song from his head, that song from this afternoon’s street party. There’s a huge, gaping hole in his heart, into which he desperately stuffs the word “NO!” over and over and over. He holds on to the day’s memories—of sunlight, of song, of a little girl’s smile. He feels exhausted, as if all care has left his soul. He wonders if his wife’s eatery is still open at this hour. Maybe he could grab a bite—a bowl of goto would be great—and maybe the girl could come along with him. If only she’d wake up.

   *  *  *

Much Earlier:

When the balloon pops, Maricel is at once shocked and confused: how could that be? She had tucked it under her arm, while she was trying to finish off the ice cream with her other arm. She had been dancing to the beats, waiting for the next round of games. She’ll get the prize this time. Trip to Jerusalem. Sack race. Egg and spoon race. Peanuts. She’s nimble; she has a strong feeling she could win in the sack race, at least. She eyes the stack of “mysterious” gift-wrapped prizes on a table. Maybe there’s a Barbie doll in one of those. She imagines the intensity of trying to reach the finish line, waddling in a used rice sack, when the balloon explodes in his arm, sending the other kids into a frenzy of renewed excitement: they laugh and dance around her, teasing her, singing along to that Willie Revillame song. It all happens so fast and so sudden Maricel is on the verge of tears.

But thank goodness Uncle Dante swoops in, swats away the other annoying kids like the pesky insects that they are, and offers her another cone of ice cream—how great is that? “Thank you, Uncle Dante!” She smiles.

Dante smiles at her. “We can get more balloons if you want,” Uncle Dante says. It makes her eyes round with excitement. “Really?”

“Yes,” Uncle Dante says. “We’ll get more balloons once you’re done with the ice cream.”So Maricel starts licking her ice cream faster, while Dante watches her intently. Such a kind man, she thinks. Today’s really a wonderful day. Totally the best day of my life. G


Joe Bert Lazarte
Joe Bert Lazarte
Joe Bert Lazarte is a 46-year-old communications professional who currently serves as senior manager for a local integrated resort. In 2001, Likhaan published his story, “The Folly Parade.” In 2006, his story, “Blind Spot,” won the 2nd Prize at the Philippines Free Press Grand Literary Awards. And in 2017 and 2018, two short stories and a one-act play won at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.


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