Joshua looked up at his grandmother’s house. It had been years since he last visited; more than a decade since his family had migrated and his summer visits had stopped.
The house looked very different from the last time he was there, so much so that he did a double take at the sight of it. He wondered if it had indeed changed over time or if his memories were colored by childhood.
In his mind, his Lola’s house was a mansion. A beautiful structure filled with expensive furniture and exciting secrets, hidden nooks and crannies that became entrances to different worlds in the mind of a lonely but imaginative child.
His mother had sometimes referred to her childhood home as a dump and now, looking at it through adult eyes, he could see why.
It was a midcentury bungalow built in what was then an affluent neighborhood that over time had degenerated into lower middle class. His maternal grandparent’s house had once been the street’s jewel, and it was obvious to this day, despite being in what could kindly be called a state of disrepair. Parts of it needed patching up and all of it needed a paint job.
The front lawn, immaculately trimmed in his memories, was overgrown with weeds that were tangled with debris. Small trees that had fallen over in one typhoon or another lay gently rotting, waiting to be cleared.
Joshua’s lola lived alone, but she wasn’t helpless. Much of their extended family still lived in town. It would have been easy–and not unexpected–for her to call a relative to help with the maintenance. Even if there was no one to help, Joshua’s mom would have gladly paid for a helper or a handyman, but it was always, “No, I’m fine, I’d rather you come home and help me.”
Even at a young age, Joshua understood it as a form of emotional blackmail, even if he couldn’t articulate it as such. He pitied his Mom, who was constantly mad to feel guilty about being unable to care for a stubborn, aging parent because she had moved away to give her family a better life, and couldn’t visit for health reasons.
Joshua’s visit had been the middle ground. He had just graduated from college from a course he was lukewarm about but would at least probably maybe offer financial stability and his parents thought that a trip to the Philippines would make a good graduation present because it would help him rediscover his roots and appease his grandmother.
Joshua had not objected.
Now, staring at the house he had built up so much in his head for the decade he had been away, he wondered if he had made the right choice.
He rang the doorbell, now hidden under an overgrowth of vines. He had found it from memory, and had prematurely flinched as he pressed it just in case he accidentally got electrocuted, then laughed at himself for assuming that the electricals would be faulty just because the house was in a bit of disrepair.
He heard the bell chime inside, then waited. He could have just called his lola and told her that he was outside, but he was feeling nostalgic. As a child, he had demanded that he be the one to press the doorbell even before he could reach it.
It was a while before the front door opened and his Lola stepped out. The sight of her took him aback. She seemed smaller, somehow. Frail and slow. She smiled when she saw him, letting out a shout of delight as she walked as fast as she could to let him in.
“Ijo!” she said as he entered.
“Kumusta po?” he asked, leaning down to kiss her proffered cheek, the nostalgia of him having to reach to kiss her momentarily washing over him. For a second, he was a little boy again, reaching up to greet his grandmother. The smell of powder on her skin brought back memories of all the summers spent being doted on while his parents enjoyed a respite from the city.
“I wish your mother was here,” she said, looking him up and down. “But I’m glad you made it. Look how you’ve grown! Binata na!”
This was a script he heard from every Filipino relative, so he knew to nod and make noises of shy agreement. He was ushered inside the gate and escorted into the house. They passed the lawn, Joshua eyeing the overgrowth and the random junk left among the slowly rotting plants to be disintegrated by the elements.
His Lola opened the front door, talking about dinner as she did so. She entered, Joshua following suit. He paused. The house’s interior was dim and tight, darker and smaller than he remembered it, its numerous windows obstructed by the amount of items that cluttered the house. There were boxes, old furniture, piles of magazines. It was as if his grandmother spent the last decade buying things and never throwing them out.
“Watch your step,” his grandmother said, “Do you remember where your Mom’s old room is?”
“Yes, Lola,” Joshua said.
“Go freshen up. I’ll let you know when it’s time for dinner.”
Joshua found the three steps that led to the door that opened to the hallway that led to the rooms. He had never understood why the house was so compartmentalized: doors led to hallways that contained more doors. Even here, things leaned against the walls, making the already narrow hallway even more troublesome to cross. Dust gathered on the piles and a viscous liquid oozed out from under some of them, staining the wooden floor.
The clutter also trapped moisture, warping the wooden floors and walls and making them smell musty. Only the spaces around the three doors that lined one side of the hallway were free. He entered the last one, his mother’s old room, and was surprised to find that compared to the rest of the house, it was relatively junk free. His mother’s room was a time capsule. There was a desktop computer that used what his mother had explained were mini discs, the item pictured in the “save” icon. Her bookshelf was filled with teen romance novels and notebooks adorned with photos of actors who were teen heartthrobs in the ’90s, but who Joshua recognized as parents who starred in advertisements for laundry soap and milk formula. Posters of those same actors were still taped to the walls.
There were stuffed toys, shoes, handbags, colorful accessories, and schoolbooks. Joshua’s parents had slept in the twin bed while Joshua slept on a mattress on the floor whenever they visited, so he was familiar with his mother’s childhood room, but seeing it again after a decade and through the eyes of an adult made him wonder what his mother was like growing up. What was she like to other people? How did this girl who did regular girl things grow up to become a nurse who married, had a son, and moved abroad?
He pulled out his phone.
“I’m here,” he texted his mom.
“Your room hasn’t changed.”
He waited for what seemed like an eternity for the message to send, cursing the country’s famously slow internet. He waited further for a reply, and when none came, he figured she was asleep or indisposed because of the time difference and put his phone away.
He opened a cabinet to see if there was room for his things, then pulled his hand away abruptly. A translucent liquid lined the edge of the cabinet door. It looked like the same viscous liquid that he saw seeping out from under the junk that lined the hallway.
He was about to rub it on his jeans, but decided against it. It smelled like and had the same consistency as coconut oil. Was his grandmother okay? Was she spilling oil all over the house? Was this some sort of religious thing? His parents were religious but seemed fine that he wasn’t, though they had told him many times before he left to respect whatever his grandmother was doing. “Catholicism is different there,” his mother had said, “I’m sure you remember.” Joshua didn’t.
There was an opened box of tissue probably older than he was on one of the cabinets. He took out a sheet, wiped the gunk off his finger, then tossed the tissue into the trash can. He considered wiping down the edge of the entire cabinet door but decided against it. He would look for a rag and do it properly later. He would also ask his grandmother if she needed help moving her stuff out. He might as well be of use while he was here.
He put his bag on the only chair in the room. His Lola had placed a bath and a face towel on the bed for him to use. He took out his dopp kit, picked up the towels, and headed to the bathroom next door to freshen up.
He ducked into the hallway, moving as fast as he could to get to the communal bathroom next door. He didn’t understand why the house he had spent so much time in suddenly felt alien, uneasy. He chalked it up to not having been back in a long time.
Thankfully, the bathroom was clean, though the hanging shelves were stuffed with numerous half-used bottles of bath products, some of their labels peeling and blackened with age, and decades-old reading material. Joshua leafed through them after washing his face and brushing his teeth. Most of them were older than he was. Some of them were even older than his mother! He wondered if they were in good enough condition to be collectibles or if everything was just destined for the junk shop.
He didn’t know he was holding his breath until he was back in his mother’s room.
He checked his phone. His Lola must be making dinner by now. He had liked watching her prepare meals, and since the whole point of this trip was to wallow in nostalgia, he decided to accompany her.
It was all he could do to get to the end of the hall as fast as he could.
He wove around furniture piled on top of each other and covered with sheets, unopened boxes of the sort of items only found in home shopping networks, and outdated exercise equipment. They were piled up surprisingly neatly, with just enough space for a person to walk through. Maybe his Lola had asked a relative for help, after all.
The feeling from the bedroom hallway followed him. It was obviously claustrophobia. Here and there he could see dark stains, probably from the same liquid that coated the edge of the cabinet door. He wondered if it was some kind of fungus, and if they would have to call in an exterminator as well as a junk dealer. He wondered when his grandmother last had a checkup. Mold could be dangerous.
These kinds of thoughts were automatic to him. Moving to a place where you had no one to rely on but your immediate family meant that he had to grow up quickly. He had to get used to life without household help, something that caused some friction with his parents at first, but that he had eventually gotten used to. He realized that he enjoyed the administrative part of running a household—paying bills and general upkeep—adult stuff. It gave him a sense of control and accomplishment, especially since he didn’t feel like he excelled in anything else. His parents were only too happy to let him take over that aspect; they had too much on their plates already.
He walked into the kitchen where his grandmother was preparing merienda. The kitchen, too, was stuffy, filled with appliances old and new, the vintage refrigerator he remembered from his youth joined by a modern two-door model, the older one wrapped in clear plastic, practically opaque underneath a heavy layer of dust. And in between the nooks and crannies, bits of dried black ooze.
What wasn’t occupied by a blender or a mixer or a food processor of some type contained either canned goods or fresh ingredients, the latter, thankfully seeing use; his grandmother may be loath to dispose of material things, but she wasn’t one to waste perishable items. He wondered how she even managed to cook.
“Just in time,” she said cheerfully, handing him a tray with two porcelain coffee cups perched on matching saucers, dainty teaspoons lying beside them.
Joshua took the tray to the dining table, setting the cups and saucers down beside a thermos of hot water and small containers of instant coffee, white sugar, and evaporated milk.
His grandmother followed with a tray that held two plates of newly toasted ensaymada. She waved away his attempts to take the tray from her, bidding him sit instead. “I do this every day,” she said as he obediently took his seat to the right of the head of the table, where his grandmother took her usual seat.
She grilled him on life abroad, asking for the upteenth time why his parents couldn’t come, saying for the upteenth time that she was glad that he was visiting. Joshua remembered enjoying filling his grandmother in on his life. He remembered loving the way she raptly listened to every story, no matter how trivial, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world but today, it felt different. Weird. Off.
His grandmother hung onto his every word in the same way she did a decade ago, but it felt wrong somehow. The ensaymada felt like cotton in his mouth; the sweet, milky coffee left his throat parched.
The dining room, like the rest of the house, was filled with junk: odds and ends from various lives throughout various eras. Assorted tableware were crammed into the glass cabinets that lined the walls of the dining area, the boxes that once housed the fragile items stacked in between them. The clutter seemed to take on a life of its own, looming over them, distracting him so that he couldn’t concentrate on the conversation, their shapes casting shadows in a room that seemed a little bit too dark despite the afternoon light that filtered in from the frosted windows.
He felt a tap on the small of his back and turned around. There was no one there.
“Bakit, ijo?” his Lola asked.
“Nothing po,” he said, trying to hide the surprise in his voice. He had probably leaned back wrong and hit a part of the chair by accident.
“Finish your merienda so I can prepare dinner.”
“Can I help?”
His grandmother brightened at the suggestion. “Of course, ijo. I forgot you liked to watch your Lola in the kitchen.”
His Lola made adobong manok. She took out a container of raw chicken marinating in soy sauce, vinegar, black peppercorns, vinegar, and a dash of pineapple juice.
Joshua prepped the garlic and potatoes while his grandmother washed the rice and put it in the rice cooker. He watched as his grandmother made the adobo, trying to remember how it felt to do this as a child, but his mind kept going back to the tap on his back, the clutter that filled the house, and the ooze that seeped out from in between spaces.
“Lola,” he asked tentatively.
“Yes, ijo?” she answered, busy blanching some vegetables.
“Since I’m here, do you want me to help you with the house?”
She looked at him, her face scrunched up in confusion and concern. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Joshua was suddenly embarrassed and unsure. “You know, move stuff, maybe dispose of things.”
The word was uttered with so much force and horror that Joshua was taken aback. He had never seen this side of his grandmother. She stared at him with an intensity that made him uncomfortable.
“Don’t touch anything.”
“Stop it, Joshua.”
He looked down and saw his grandmother’s hands resting just beside the stove’s open flame.
“Lola, your hand!” he yelped.
His grandmother stared at him incomprehensibly for a second. Then her expression changed and she pulled her hand away with a small scream, shaking it to get rid of the pain.
“Let me see,” Joshua replied, examining her hand. It was red and swollen and very slightly burnt.
“I’m fine,” his grandmother said.
“But your hand—“
“I said I’m fine,” she said, pulling her hand away. She scanned the kitchen until she found a spot where some of the translucent substance oozed and wiped the affected part on it.
“Lola!” Joshua yelled.
“It’s okay, ijo,” she said. “It’ll make it better.”
Joshua set the table while his Lola finished dinner. He checked his phone. His Mom had messaged back. “So glad you arrived safely,” she said. “How’s Lola?”
“Has anybody been checking up on her before I arrived?” he asked. When it refused to send, he put his phone away, but pulled it out again and texted, “Please call.”
He only knew one relative, in the barrio, Tita Remy, his mom’s cousin, and only through social media because she liked to comment on everything. He messaged her as well before returning to his grandmother, not bothering to wait and see if the message got sent successfully.
He returned to the kitchen, ready to dress his grandmother’s wound before taking her to the hospital, and found her still cooking.
“You shouldn’t do that,” he said, gently reaching for her hand, which held the slotted turner she was using to check the adobo’s doneness.
She let him take her hand, though she kept protesting that she was fine. He searched her hand for the burn, but found nothing. Not even a bit of the residue she had smeared on it.
“I told you, I’m fine,” she said, taking the kitchen implement from him and shooing him away. Joshua settled on washing the dishes while his Lola finished prepping their meal, wondering what was going on.
Dinner was uncomfortable, at least for Joshua. His grandmother chatted merrily as if nothing had happened. Joshua had no appetite and could only utter monosyllabic answers. He could feel his shoulders involuntarily tensing, waiting for another tap on his back that he was sure was imaginary.
He snapped back to attention, unable to catch what his grandmother was saying.
“What po, Lola?”
“I said are you feeling well, ijo? You look pale.”
He mentally took a deep breath. His parents liked to joke about how stubborn he was, how once he set his mind to something, he wouldn’t stop until he got answers or results. They weren’t wrong.
“Your burn, Lola,” he ventured.
“It’s gone now, right?” she said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I told you not to worry.”
“How is that possible?” he asked.
“My guardian angels take care of me.”
Joshua knew to tread carefully. His parents had told him to stay away from the topics of religion and politics, and his grandmother was very religious.
“Guardian angels?” he repeated.
“I live alone, forgotten, no people to care for me,” she said. “How do you think I survived?”
“Mom and her siblings send you money and some relatives check up on you,” Joshua said, repeating what he had heard his mother say many times.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be old,” his grandmother replied. “People forget you when you aren’t useful. Nobody remembers an old woman.”
This answer frustrated Joshua, who felt as if his Lola was determined to feel sorry for herself. Still, he was just as determined to make the best of things. “I’m here right now,” he said. “It’s not for long, but I can help.”
“And then you’ll go away like everyone else,” she said. “Only my guardian angels have stayed.”
For some reason, these words sent a chill through Joshua, turning his irritation into foreboding. He fingered his phone in his pocket, hoping his messages had gone through.
“Tell me about your guardian angel,” he said.
“We all have one. They watch over us, coming to us during our greatest need,” his grandmother replied.
“Is yours male or female? What do they look like? Do they have a name?”
“My guardian angel shines like the brightness of the sun.”
“Will I be able to meet your guardian angel?”
She paused. “Maybe,” she said before changing the subject.
Joshua cleared the table and washed the dishes while his grandmother watched her soap operas. He made plans to find Tita Remy the next day. His message boxes remained silent, even though they had finally registered as sent to both his Mom and his aunt.
His phone rang, the sound so unexpected in the silence he didn’t know that he had come to associate with the house that it jolted him. An unknown number. He answered it.
The signal in his grandmother’s house was bad, so he could barely hear the other person on the line. He walked through the house, turning on frustratingly dim lights as he moved through rooms, weaving around mounds of stuff to get to the front door, hoping that the signal would be better outside.
“This is Remy. Your mother gave me your number. She can’t reach you.” The line was choppy, but he thought he could also hear street noise and the sound of a vehicle on the other line. “I’m on my way there. Don’t tell your Lola. Wait at the gate.”
There was an urgency in her voice that cut through all the noise. It chilled him, made his heart beat hard in his chest. He did as he was told, making sure the front door was unlocked before closing it gently, then making his way to the gate.
A tricycle stopped, and Tita Remy, who he recognized from her photos, got out, carrying a big rectangular bag, the kind made of plastic straw people used for travel. This one had tiny Spongebob Squarepants on it. She seemed anxious and annoyed at the same time, hurrying through everything from telling the tricycle driver to wait to telling him to move faster and open the gate.
“What’s happened?” she asked as she thrust the surprisingly heavy bag at him and they briskly walked to the front door. “Your mother said you never ask to call, so it must be an emergency.”
“When was the last time someone checked on Lola?” Joshua asked.
“It’s happened again, hasn’t it?”
The comment shocked Joshua. He stopped in his tracks. “What do you mean it’s happened again?”
This annoyed Remy even more, who roughly pulled at his arm so they could continue to the door. Joshua followed, though his legs felt like lead. The contents of the bag clinked together, making muffled sounds as they moved. He couldn’t believe the conversation he was having, but then he couldn’t believe what had just happened, either. He hadn’t even been here a day!
“Your Lola gets lonely,” she said. “She doesn’t like empty spaces, so she fills the house with things. And sometimes, even that isn’t enough.“
“She says she has guardian angels,” Joshua finished.
“So it really is happening again,” Tita Remy said, sadly. “I’m here every week and I didn’t see it. I blame myself.”
They were at the front door. Tita Remy grabbed the bag, opened it, and pulled out a triangular bronze medallion that Joshua recognized as an anting-anting and a vial that had “holy water” written in black marker on it. She closed the zipper and gave the bag back to Joshua.
“How are you so calm about this? What do we do now?” Joshua asked, trying to keep what felt like rising hysteria out of his voice.
She looked at him kindly. “You’re not from here anymore, so you wouldn’t understand,” she said, holding the anting-anting and holy water in one hand and grasping the handle to the front door with the other. “At some point, you get used to these things. Just do what I say. She’ll be all right.”
She opened the door. Inside, a searing, blinding brightness.