It was on the fifth day that Cal saw her. Sunbathing in a red and white trim bikini on the building across the street, looking like a raptor on downtime.

He remembered it was the fifth day of the quarantine because on the first night of the community lockdown, he had gotten The Gig. Part of the acuity of the memory was also because the sight of her had struck his synapses like a freight train: he’d never seen anything so beautifully visceral or as achingly erotic as a young woman in a surgical mask, alone on a building’s penthouse rooftop 

The Gig was a writing contract for a new music service that would be appended to an app. Said app was confidential, on a need to know basis and Cal simply didn’t need to know. He was elated when he got the headhunter’s email that not only had he passed the test, they’d be welcome to giving him deadlines that he was most comfortable with, as long as it was within reason. 

“It’s a great client, flexible and works around your schedule,” said Sissy, the woman in Berlin that handled writing contracts for the Asia Pacific. 

Though the German gal was the front for finding talent to localize content for the popular and indigenous sounds of the Asian countries of the project, the editors and his paycheck would come from Warsaw, an LLC of a famous Polish videogame company that had made their success with a fantasy gaming franchise. He’d still be paid in U.S. dollar, or USD. And three times at that for the same kind of work locally. Which is to say that he, Cal Salazar, 27-year-old freelance writer was set for the next six months of the likely lockdown year. 

When he got the contract and the NDA, from Sissy, he jumped and writhed his limbs in the air in front of his laptop, shouting like someone in an exorcism or at the height of a hymnal at a Pentecostal church. 

He’d gotten laid off seven days prior, from his sucky job as a marketing writer in a middle-of –the-road agency that seemed to perpetually acquire second-tier clients. Class A knock-off sex toys, libido enhancement powders, and the occasional push for a Swiss electric kickscooter—always really popular every time communities went under quarantine lockdown. Said former agency had anticipated another spasm of the economy with the new viral strain and management, in their infinite foresight, had fired five of them a working week before the Philippine government had frozen all domestic and international movement. 

Three creatives had gotten the boot. Two from admin. As Cal had gathered his things and his boss handed him his separation check (another sign they’d been planning the boot), he had resisted the urge to stomp his trainers on the old man’s nethers. It was a mighty resistance. He’d spent the past three years trying to please this Boomer, who usually got migraines just trying to open his Gmail, with website and social media content that had both flair and technical jargon. It was like talking to a Neanderthal about forging swords when the man was still stuck banging rocks together to make arrowheads. Pointless.     

After he filled out the forms and emailed them all to Germany he called Miko, his old pal at the marketing agency. 

Miko picked up. “I got in,” Cal said. Though Cal had been the one who’d been headhunted, Sissy had mentioned they did need one more person for the Philippine localization team and so he had wasted no time recommending Miko.

“Got what where? I didn’t send you anything,” Miko sounded like he’d just gotten up, though it was already 11 a.m. “Wait, is your building delivery dog malfunctioning again? I told you don’t call to tell me those things. I was fucking serious. Robots creep me out, Cal!” 

“What? No, no, no, man. That was so last week,” Cal said. He picked up one of his shirts on the floor with his toes and tossed them up so he could grab it in mid-air, smelled it, and with pronounced that it reeked sour enough so he threw it to his hamper. Doing laundry would be necessary within a few days, but not yet. “I mean I got THE GIG.” 

“No way. Fuck you, do you mean I didn’t pass? Wait, wait, shut up so I can refresh my email.”

Cal paced around his apartment, a condo unit he was house-sitting for an aunt who was perpetually in Holland or in Hong Kong, shopping her retiree ass off with her rich, softdrink magnate beau. This property was one of several she’d purchased on discount and spruced up. Lucky for Cal, she was fond of him, doting on him ever since his mother passed on, so this modest studio in a semi-rural area that was all of Cal’s. it had been that way for five years now and would be until his aunt could remember she actually owned this one and kicked him to the streets.   

Cal and Miko had both taken the same content test that Sissy from Berlin had sent and now the defeated sigh from the other line said that Miko had not gotten a reply. Which meant no job, no contract, and an uncertain work-from-home employment for his friend. Cal didn’t have space enough to pace long, his apartment was just 27 square meters. 

“Nothing?” Cal said, looking at his unshaved face in the bathroom mirror, feeling no urgency to get rid of the five o’ clock shadow there. 

“Nothing,” Miko said. “But, hey, I’m glad you got the job so quickly so I can borrow money and don’t die of poverty.” 

“Screw those people at ZootWays!” Cal said, trying to pump up his friend by bringing up their shared hatred of their old agency, which the employees secretly called ShitWays. “Don’t worry, Miko, I know you’ll find another gig besides this music project.”

“Meantime, it’s back to repairing the neighbor’s laptops and troubleshooting their torrent clients for the latest Netflix series,” sighed Miko. “Or maybe just once a nubile young thing will knock on my door and ask how to fix her router because PLDT screwed her over like it did me.” 

“Hey, at least I know who to turn to when my lappy crashes from all the porn.”

“I don’t think I can stand to see all your files about seniors getting it on with Ben Gay. It’s a serious disease, Cal. Porn addiction is real! You need to stop and look at hot teens just like normal folk. Maybe talk to a specialist?”

Cal’s phone beeped with another incoming call. “Hold on, Miko. It’s the lobby guard,” he said, and picked up the other line. 

The guard from the building lobby spoke up “Sir, Caloy. Ok, there’s a package here for you. Looks like food, ok? I’ll send Bantay up to you. Ok, sir, good, ok?”

Cal agreed, dropped that call, and then switched back to Miko. “Sorry, Miko, got to go. My dinner’s coming up.”

“I swear, one day that dog is going to kill you. And it’s not even a real animal.” 

“You can weep over my beautiful corpse, fuckface. Seriously, I gotta go.” Minutes later, his doorbell rang. Cal put on his facemask as a precaution but it was just paranoia, largely unnecessary. When he opened the door, on the other side was Bantay, their in-building delivery robot. Come to think of it, it only really resembled a canine very superficially. 

“Delivery for Unit 707,” said the friendly, neutral but distinctly feminine voice that emanated from Bantay’s tinny speakers. “Please hold still for identity verification.” 

Cal held up his right hand and unfastened his mask, letting the robot scan his fingerprints and face. His dinner was on the tray basket on Bantay’s back, perfectly balanced at all times by powerful internal gyroscopes, no matter how the robot dog moved or slid. At three-feet high and six feet long, Bantay was colored white with yellow trim. 

“Identity verified, please take your package within the next five minutes,” Bantay said and did the robot equivalent of a dog lying down, folding its four limbs under it and tucking them away into its aircraft-grade carapace like a tortoise going into its shell. The tray’s cover locks popped open. 

Cal picked up his bento ramen box and liter of Pepsi from off the tray. He watched the robot stand back up and walk away down their building’s stairwell, its rubber-covered paws clacking softly on the tiled floor.  

The first Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 killed millions around the world and thousands in the country in the first year before a vaccine was mass manufactured. There were two more outbreaks since then, the first eight years later and then the next five years later. Both times popularly known now as The Re-Infections. The most recent one took a lockdown way longer than the one before that before a vaccine had been produced, while mutations of the first original virus became deadlier. 

Covid-19Y had a proven mortality rate of anything from three days to a week. Subsequent autopsies of the infected dead revealed a discoloration of the alveoli, its red and black mix prompted media to call it the Oxblood Strain. You coughed up a brownish and dull red fluid from your lungs, like you were throwing up bronze medals.  

Earlier this year, Covid-19Z had already claimed 9,000 lives, mostly at the new hotbeds of industry and tourism in Cebu and Davao, before the lockdown had been announced four days ago by the president. 

Cal ate his tonkatsu and watched the news of the community quarantine for Covid-19Z unfold. Why were politicians always tardy on the uptake? And why did Filipino lives always pay for such grievous mistakes? Cal had lived through Covid-19Y as a child and, looking back now, he always applauded how the community quarantine was something his parents had played off as a chance to play house and do cosplay for their only child. Masks, hand washing, social distancing, and all the other accoutrements of a quarantine against a disease became a game and were now, to Cal and his generation, a familiar and even comforting memory. For Cal, it always brought back good moments of his deceased folks.  

As he ate his pork, Cal shrugged at what seemed like normal events during a crisis and looked forward to getting to work on his brand new writing gig.  

He had spotted The Girl five days later because he’d taken to filming the empty streets at noon by going up to their roof deck, 13 levels up from his own floor. 

His new-ish phone had an extremely high telescopic capacity and at 4x the visual zoom, he was on that day filming the skyline and the other buildings for the Gram when he caught her tanning between huge ferns and assorted potted flora. Her building was a hotel-slash-residential building he’d thought had gone under and condemned when business went bust during the last lockdown. 

Yet there she was, bronzing out, face up on one of those foldable beach lounging chairs. He had almost missed her among all the plants, huge retro sunglasses shielded her face as did a surgical mask the same color as the blue, cloudless sky and a sleek—from what he could see on his phone—small breasted and decidedly very leggy frame with feet dangling at the edge of the chair. Beautiful. And exactly what Cal had needed at that point of the lockdown.  

In the days leading up to Friday and the sighting, Cal had already gone through most of what he called The Stages of Quarantine Shakes, mostly culled from the symptoms of mental stress he’d seen his mother and father go through during Covid-19Y. He’d fought with his bank on the app and also shouted them down on a phone call. Gotten irate at the white folks he rode with on the elevator, commonly old white men who wore masks on their chins. Went on a very ill-advised food-buying spree online and stocked up too much on artisanal ice cream. Gotten bored on a vid call with his older brother and three nieces. Broken down during a touching insurance commercial on YouTube and wept himself to sleep for no apparent reason. And he raged and shook his fist at news of policy mismanagement inevitably made by politicians both on a national and local level as the new pandemic strain sent their stupid asses on a tailspin. 

Cal liked going up at noontime, the hottest part of the day, just before he had his lunch. It doubled as his exercise and a time for his pasty complexion to actually get some sun, the challenge being he’d try to climb as far up as he could on the stairwell and when he finally stopped, wheezing like an asthmatic, he’d give up hoofing it and take the elevator. On good days he’d make it through seven of the 13 floors. On really bad days, he’d manage only five. 

On one of those bad days, Bantay had come up the stairwell and caught him coughing his lungs out into his mask. Bantay sidestepped him easily. The robot bleeped an “Excuse me, sir 707” as it went by, delivering what looked like somebody’s new microwave on its tray. Before the dog could completely pass him, Cal caught Bantay’s “tail” near where the tray was—actually just a handlebar on one end, since the robot could change its front and back at will—and used the dog’s forward momentum to haul himself to his feet. Bantay stopped for a bit at the added weight and, for a moment, the spikes on its paws temporarily came out to steady it, preventing it from tipping over. The spikes were a feature of its “rescue mode” for steep inclines and dragging heavy weights (like unconscious bodies), maybe even on almost vertical climbs. The momentum was enough for Cal to stand up and, as he removed his hand, the dog registered the return to stability, retracted the spikes, and climbed up the stairwell without any further bother. Cal took the elevator the rest of the way to the roof deck.      

Since the sun was at its highest point, Cal usually had the top floor alone. Nobody but the building’s own plants for company, finding his usual sunning spot between the aloe veras and giant bonsais.     

As Cal filmed, The Girl sat up and looked behind and around her, checking if she was indeed alone. Then she took off her surgical mask, picked up what looked like a bound notebook beside her and tucked the mask inside it. More of her face was then revealed. Cal saw a cleft chin and a button nose, barely flat where her sunglasses balanced. Then she took her shades off, too, and picked up a small mirror as she lay back down, the mirror now reflecting the sun up to her chin and neck for an even tan. All that movement of hers scattered some nearby pigeons into flight. 

She flexed her legs, scissoring them in the air in a stretch with toes curled like some predator bird clutching at prey, then she lay back down and crossed them. Jesus. H. Christ.  

Cal recorded her on video bronzing for a good 20 more minutes under the sweltering sun doing nothing more interesting other than taking a few selfies. He surrendered when his nape felt like it would crackle like lechon skin. Then he reluctantly backed away into the shade, remembering to save the video, unconsciously waving a small goodbye with his other hand to The Girl as he tried to tamp down his lust with sheer will. 

Suddenly Cal was very aware of and very conflicted with his erection denting his boxers and shorts. He frantically looked around and spotted the two cameras he knew recorded activity on this floor, such a publicly surveilled place.  

Cursing under his breath he jogged down the short flight to the elevators as fast as his slippered feet would allow. Pushing the DOWN button and then cursing again that he might share the ride down with a kid or one of the seniors, he changed his mind and made a beeline for the stairwell instead. 

He ran down 13 floors until he reached his unit, noting that the exertion hadn’t diminished his boner one bit, now actually damn painful from all the chafing of the run. Fishing his keys and awkwardly trying to push it into the lock, he failed once and then got it right, finally stumbling inside. Locking the door behind him and throwing himself on the bed, barely getting his bottoms off, Cal rubbed off what felt like the weight of the plagued world into sweetness. Video of The Girl played beside him with the sounds of a windy, empty noontime city.       

Decades after the first Covid19 pandemic, drones patrolled the streets at curfew. Just like on the last lockdown. Commercial and health applications of robotics had experienced a sudden, unprecedented spike in demand, not just for hospitals and medical facilities but also for private use. Anything to minimize human contact. 

Mass manufacturing of robots became cheaper, more affordable. The price drop and resulting boom meant every city hall and barangay could now purchase their own squad of surveillance bots with a trained drone operator written into the municipal budget. 

Patrol drones both flew and crawled on four legs. Like Bantay (admittedly at the bottom of the bargain bin of robo dogs, poor old girl) almost every decently run condo now had its servitor for deliveries. Unlike Bantay, the enforcement patrol dogs surveilling the streets of Makati looked like Bantay on steroids. Made of lightweight bulletproof armor, equipped with pepper spray, a stun gun, and an actual robotic claw. It also boasted an IP66 rating which meant you couldn’t short it out with a bucket of water if you tried. Which people did. Flying drones were faster, but easier to damage. Cal had actually run from one of those as a teen, drunk and coming home way past the time from a party, eluding a curfew ticket by covering his face (almost crashing him into the pavement, that) and ambushing the damn Phantom XX model with a well-placed stone from a slingshot when it rounded the alley. His teen barkada nicknamed him Tirador for weeks after that heroic act of drunken defiance, even as Cal was embarrassed and lived in anxiety for months, convinced that it was only a matter of time ‘til the pigs came through their door.  

The cops never did batter down his door but Cal felt the same now, already hearing the lobby guard’s gossiping voice at how he had viewed the surveillance footage “Sir, Caloy. uy, you so naughty, ok, didn’t know you had that kind of big, big package, ha, ok? You so naughty, ha, ok.”

When the real call came, it wasn’t even for the running down stairs with ludicrous boner but for grabbing Bantay on the stairwell. “Sir Caloy please don’t do it again, ok, ha?” said Eddie, the upbeat yet way too curious lobby guard usually on shift when he woke up ‘til he got to bed. Cal got a short lecture reminding him how much of a pain Bantay’s constant repairs and upkeep already were and how the building kids kept trying to do joy rides on the old girl, taxing its weight carry limit. All this since only their security guards could access Bantay’s safety protocols through their fingerprints and was thus charged with the dog’s maintenance and hygiene. Cal apologized sincerely and felt such remorse that he had added to Bantay’s litany of daily abuses. Later that day he went down and gave the put upon Eddie half of his gourmet burger as a peace offering. 

“And you say you almost got caught on the stairwell jacking off to this beauty?” said Miko on a video Zoom call later that same day. 

Cal had sent his friend the footage of The Girl two days later. He hadn’t gone out since then because just the thought of stepping out his door made his face turn red. “She’s so beautiful. I’m in love,” Cal sighed. 

“You know what I say?” Miko wolf whistled as he looked at the footage again of the part where she was scissoring her legs and flexing, “I say thank God for 4x zoom tech ‘cause I’ve already popped five times on the love of your life.” 

“You fucking bastard.” 

Miko cackled. “You know it! If it was me Cal, I would’ve jacked off right there and then. Nobody around except the security cams capturing a tender and intimate moment with your new girlfriend. The guards would’ve gone apeshit but I come too fast on the sunflowers and petunias, anyway. Seriously, though, I need new footage, dammmit! Swallow your pride and go up there now and get me more of this hottie across the street. Why, is this new Polish gig keeping you too busy?”

“No it’s not that. It’s actually pretty easy. Tomorrow I’ll do it. I’m not ready yet to face my neighbors!” 

Miko scoffed, “Man, nobody cares if you ran down the stairs with a raging erection. Your security has probably seen the white oldie sex tourists doing their whores on the stairwell for all you know. The kinky fucks.”


“Get a tripod or turn on the anti-shake feature, Cal!”  

As he climbed the stairs to the roof deck at noon the next day, making sure he wore tightie whities instead of loose boxers, an email for the Polish company notified him that the content localization he was writing for now had a name: Project STB, for “Sight to Behold.” 

Because he hadn’t had much exercise, Cal reached only three floors before he was wheezing into his mask. He took the elevator the rest of the way and read the whole email. He was still reading as he stepped off the elevator and into the empty roof deck, walking right up against the railing when he finally looked up and squinted against the sun. 

There she was. He could see her from here, a series of small white and red dots against a tanned body. 

Cal hurriedly turned on his camera and zoomed as far in as he could, this time with the anti-shake feature rendering things with less blur. With it he saw that she was actually standing, a bathrobe hanging loosely down her arms, her hair tied up in a bun whose arrangement reminded him of a fighting cock’s comb raised for combat. Surgical mask and sunglasses on. 

She was looking through a pair of small binoculars. Bird watching? People spotting? The Girl turned her sight slowly towards Cal and passed him, gazing left. Then her binoculars swiveled back again slowly and stopped. She was looking right at him. Or seemed to. There seemed to be a couple standing behind her, but otherwise she was alone. Involuntarily, Cal waved. 

He caught himself then felt stupid for stopping and waved again, this time with more zest, trying to actually catch her attention. On his phone, she dropped the binoculars and shaded her eyes from the sun. Then she brought up the binoculars again at the waving Cal. And she waved back. 

Cal’s heart leapt. He continued to wave, now with added enthusiasm. He pulled down his mask and smiled, like she was just across the room instead of a whole city block separating them. She pulled down her sunglasses and raised her eyebrows.  

She stopped waving and held out her hand in front of her as if in a STOP gesture. Then she bent down and disappeared from view. She resurfaced a few seconds later with her notebook, definitely a leather-bound journal Cal was now sure, and a pen. She wrote something on it and then showed it to Cal. He tried to keep his phone steady as she kept the page aloft. The Girl turned her head as if answering somebody Cal couldn’t see. Then she put her shades back on, waved goodbye, and walked off as she put on her bathrobe. 

Cal’s phone beeped, it was Miko. “Found your girl” the message said and Cal sat up right away, his microwave clocked 2 a.m. atop his ref.  

For the following weeks, Cal had been busy trying to find @LeykaStigini online when he wasn’t writing. He had assumed that what the girl had written was a social media handle so he had checked all the usual sources and found nothing. He then asked Miko, who had nearly all the current and hip dating apps to check there but still he came up empty handed.  

All this while Cal religiously went up to the roof deck and waited for his lady love. There was nothing for weeks in the Girl’s building, aside from a middle-aged, salt-and-pepper bearded man who came outside in a hoodie. Nobody in that building for hours except the plants and pigeons. Even as his performance got praised by the Polish company’s editors, Cal slowly slid into a glum mood that steadily darkened as the monsoon season approached, light drizzles coming down at midday. 

Since he couldn’t sleep and even the assorted videogames he’d bought (among them a robo dog simulator that actually looked like the current program for servityors) held no joy, he had ordered a bunch of extra strength GoodNite sleeping pills his sister-in-law had recommended. Those helped K/O him out except he was groggy most of the next day. Cutting the pills in half was an easy solution.   

It was with glee that Cal received Miko’s DM with an attached link to one of the more obscure dating apps that bordered on soft porn. 

The dating app was called QUARAN10. As its name suggested, it was formed shortly after the last pandemic’s quarantine. Many couples suddenly found themselves separated then. So some smart geeks made the app to enable couples to meet online, those who wanted to make their romance into more intimate avenues. Features included the ability to woo the socially distanced beloved with not just romantic music piped through the other person’s gadgets if you granted your partner temporary access but also a range of sex toys that could be pneumatically synced to each other’s movement even as the app blocked out others from using its video and audio. An Oculus style helmet was one of the more expensive options, but these and others worked only on a consent basis, only if both individuals rated each other a 10. “Keep Your Love Alive under Lockdown” was the motto of the app.  

On @LeykaStigini’s profile picture was unmistakably the girl on the roof deck, just wearing more make-up and a younger version than what was on Cal’s phone videos. But definitely her. She with her cleft chin, a welcoming and warm smile, large lacquer moist eyes, and slanting eyebrows and forehead that reminded him of an avian predator’s beak, something vulpine and deadly but mysterious. To his chagrin Cal found he could only view her profile if he signed up. As he hurdled the signup and eventually got in, he found out she had around 8,000 private followers but only throw-away public updates of food and cat memes until he got to the latest one. There was one post with a video, dated a day after he first saw her. From the time stamp it looked like she had taken it only a few hours after his embarrassing run down the stairwell. It was just a video of her gorgeous, long and tanned legs, then of her getting up, grabbing her things, including the journal he had written her handle on, and walking to her apartment unit on the same floor. Once inside, she was caught on a mirror for a brief moment before she turned off the phone. That was the latest post and nothing else since then.  

Cal ran back the 20-second video post and watched it several more times. He then froze it on her blurry reflection in the mirror, naked-faced sans mask and shades, still pinkish from the sun.

Cal felt that this insane infatuation with Leyka was the best thing that had ever happened to him. What he really wanted, though, was to see her private posts, the ones only her friends and followers could see. He closed the browser and downloaded the QUARAN10 app on his phone, requesting a follow from her, even as he subscribed to her feed. This way he would get pinged if she posted anything new and public.          


Was that name Italian? Some form of half-Russian mongrel from one of the newly liberated East European Stans? Heck maybe she wasn’t Asian at all? These were what occupied Cal as he watched a documentary, something about the skin-walkers of the Native Americans and a mysterious ranch near Utah that had stories galore about the Yee Naaldlooshii and other creatures of Seminole folklore. 

The Herzog-ish narrator of the documentary sounded comforting, and in the dream when he dozed off, Cal was running upwards in what looked like a very steeply inclined stairwell, a cleaner version of his building’s own. The top was always just out of reach. When the incline became too steep, his wrists sprouted spikes like Bantay’s that helped him clamber up. He could almost see her though, the figure of Leyka at the top silhouetted by the noon sun. Her gentle, melodic voice whispering, beckoning “By means of it, it goes on all fours and then flies.” As Cal finally reached the top floor and burst out on to a roof deck of tall trees and pigeons scattering in slow motion, Leyka was standing on the ledge with her arms open like outstretched wings. She fell backwards before he could grab her hand and with zero reluctance he jumped off and chased her down, their bodies colliding in mid-air. Or rather she caught him and then bore him up in her embrace as her arms became wings and her long legs became claws that raked his bare butt and back. He felt her beak cracking open his skull and feeding on his brains, the intensity of their love amid the air currents a shrieking delight, a raptor triumphant with its prey.  

Cal woke up from the dream to a real digital shrieking that was coming not from the TV but from out on the street. Someone was running away from one of the police Patrol Dogs, it looked like, as Cal stepped out on to his balcony and leaned towards the sound. If curfew violators actually tried to escape a patrol dog, it would chase them down and stun as it pinned down the escapee to the asphalt with 200lbs of jet-grade metal. Then it would scan your face, issuing a digital ticket on your record in lieu of a violation.

It was a delivery rider who’d been caught past the 10 p.m. curfew. It was midnight now, at two months into the lockdown. As Cal rubbed his eyes, the dog with the flashing police lights on its back easily caught up with the motorcycle right down their street. 

The tank-like, hulking Patrol Dog pulled up alongside it at twice the speed and with a colossal shrug, shoulder bashed the two wheels sideways to the curb. The rider screamed as he flew forward and to the side, colliding against a house’s gate. His helmet saved his skull from caving against the impact. The Patrol Dog then pinned down the man with one of its legs. As the man begged the dog to stop, removing his damaged helmet, the dog never acknowledged his cries, only asking him to please hold still and don’t resist as his face was scanned and the violation filed away. 

Cal heard the murmurs and he looked at his neighbors also standing on their balconies and quite a few of them filming this incident. A woman carrying a baby to his left, someone he didn’t recognize or had never seen before, looked him in the eye and shook her head. Cal scratched his head and went back in, sparing himself the rest of the nauseating event. 

He checked his phone. Nothing from the QUARAN10 app. He popped a whole GoodNite pill and laid down to wait for more dreams of his Leyka Stigini. He remembered her words: “By means of it, it goes on all fours and then flies.”

When the ping from the app came the next night, he was thankful he hadn’t taken a sleeping pill and was still working on his backlog for Project STB. He ignored the sound and finished a whole paragraph since it wasn’t a familiar one, before he glanced at his phone and saw the QUARAN10 logo. Then he stopped all pretense of work. 

Leyka was the only one he was subscribed to and now she had finally accepted his follow request. This post was a private one, visible only to her close followers, and contained only a blurry, dark picture of what looked like someone in a hoodie about to enter her apartment door and one word in caps: HELP! 

Cal stood up and paced. It was now 9:50 p.m., curfew would be in 10 minutes. What to do? He called Miko. Pick-up, pick-up. It rang for five minutes then got to a busy signal. “Stop jacking off, goddammit!” Cal sent him a message instead: JUST GOT THIS FROM HER SHE’S IN DANGER WTF DO I DO?!!! Then he appended the latest post’s link. 

Cal looked at the photo again and noted new details as he turned up his phone’s brightness, like what looked to be her toes under a blanket and the mirror beside the door. Then he realized this hoodie invader looked like the same guy who was at the rooftop after Leyka disappeared. Thus, fucker then must be some stalker, the kind who’d taken it too far and was now going to desecrate his girl before he had even gotten to meet her in the flesh. 

Cal punched his bathroom door, fortunately made out of soft wood so his hand remained intact and only his knuckles bled. It was clear what he needed to do then, he needed to get up to Leyka’s building and beat the hoodie invader to a pulp. He’d never get past the building’s security, though, even if Eddie would probably give him a pass for letting himself out their own door at curfew time. 

That Seminole folklore documentary he had watched a few nights ago eventually fueled the inspiration. Depictions of the lupine creature had them scaling houses and church walls with ease, busting into high windows and killing the Christian whites within. See, to take Bantay and make it operational, Cal needed Eddie the lobby guard’s thumbprint and the robo dog’s controller. If this slapdash plan’s first step worked at all, then Cal would take it as a sign to proceed or can the whole catastrophe altogether. But when he went down again, an hour later, Eddie was fast asleep and snoring on his table behind the circular central lobby desk that held the security cameras and Bantay’s controller. 

Those two GoodNite sleeping pills ground into the chocolate drink he’d given the poor guard did not disappoint. He knew Eddie had a sweet tooth and he knew where the man kept Bantay’s controller as well as the keys to the lobby doors. Cal couldn’t do anything about the surveillance cams capturing every bit of this definite criminal act that would no doubt reach his aunt and make him homeless and likely get Eddie fired. But he’d deal with all the fallout later. As Cal put the KO’d Eddie’s thumb on the controller, that looked nothing more like a huge cellphone sandwiched between a garden variety gaming console’s two joysticks and buttons, Cal had no trouble booting up Bantay. The dog detached from its charging console and walked right up to him awaiting orders. Cal navigated the features sans problem, after all those hours logged into the simulator game he’d been playing he could probably use the dog way better than any of their security as he slaved the dog to his movements in a “follow” capacity. 

The controller had a heavy duty lanyard that enabled Cal to put it around his neck as he used Eddie’s keys to unlock the doors of their building. Stepping outside into a light drizzle, Cal heard his phone suddenly ring. It was Miko calling him. He thought about it for a second, then rejected the call. “Too late, friend, we are now committed,” Cal said to the dark and empty streets. He started jogging in the direction of Leyka’s building as Bantay followed.  

Shuttered bars and storefronts greeted him along his block as he ran even as the gentle rain made him shiver. He should have worn a jacket, then realized he wasn’t wearing his mask. Laughed and found it comedic that he was worried about getting arrested for violating the masked-at-all-times rule when here he was out violating curfew. 

He stopped at an intersection, the next block should have Leyka’s building, the Saint Jones Residence and Hotel, which he could already see the blue and white façade, a starkly colored pillar against the moonlit sky. 

His phone beeped a message, then another message. Cal was slightly out of breath, anyway, so he checked them as he wheezed into the crisp air. The first one was from Miko: “Dude, call the police!” which Cal quickly deleted, scoffing. The second one was from work, it was Sissy from Berlin, informing him that it could now be revealed that his writings for Project STB would be appended to the reformat of the QUARAN10 Romance App. “Do give the app a try and send five free songs to your beloved as a token of our thanks for your work!” 

Cal wanted to cackle. He would have if he could just catch his breath, but from the corner of his eye he saw flashing lights. Patrol Dog.  

Since the Patrol Dog was still walking, he hadn’t been spotted yet, but Cal ran as fast as he could, hoping the rain and wind would confuse the heat and infrared sensors. Bantay followed on his heels. He dodged into a dark alley just a few meters away from Saint Jones and looked back. No police. 

His phone pinged him, the now familiar sound of the QUARAN10 app. It was Leyka, now with a DM:“Yee Naaldlooshii.” What? 

Cal didn’t have time to puzzle out this message since the flashing lights were rounding the corner and definitely coming down this street. “Oh, shit,” Cal said, knowing there was no way he could evade the Patrol Dog and make it to the building undetected. “Fuck it, c’mon girl,” Cal ran as he activated Bantay’s “rescue mode,” which would allow it to take more weight on its back than under normal delivery missions. 

Cal ran and, as expected, the Patrol Dog spotted him right away and started to accelerate its run. But Cal and Bantay already had a big head start and they were at the side of Saint Jones in no time, the paint off the side of this building peeling, all of the lights turned down so it looked empty and decrepit. Leyka was up there, though, needing his help, needing him. Cal ordered Bantay to climb even as the Patrol Dog approached, its hulking body sounding like a juggernaut coming at him. The spikes on Bantay’s paws came out and she was now vertical, enabling Cal to hang on to her handlebar with his feet on the delivery tray, backpacking on her like a monkey as her gears groaned under his weight, definitely more than the carry limit. 

“Here we go.” Cal pushed the up button and they ascended, Cal almost slipping from the sudden movement so he hugged Bantay and hung on for dear life. Looking down momentarily, he saw the Patrol Dog where they’d been looking up at them. Then it deployed two needles of its stun gun that would have reached and punctured Cal’s shoes if he hadn’t lifted his legs up just in time. Cal whooped and he’d have given the Patrol Dog the finger if he wasn’t so busy hanging on. Soon even the flashing lights went dim as they began their long ascent.       

Bantay started wobbling by around the 12th floor and by the 16th the old girl had had enough and refused to go on, the tinny female voice asking him to “Please disembark. Shutdown imminent.” Cal still had four more floors to go but he also didn’t want to be plastered all over the street so he moved Bantay over to the nearest window and he climbed on to the ledge, hauling himself up on to the balcony of one of the 16th floor units. It was dark and with any luck deserted. 

He was reaching for Bantay when the robot shut down and its spikes detached from off the wall. He watched her fall into the foggy street and felt a huge pang of guilt. Sniffing back his tears, he berated himself that Leyka was still up there. As he removed the lanyard and Bantay’s controls off his neck, he turned into the apartment and slid open the glass doors into the dark. The place was empty and devoid of furniture. It looked like it had been abandoned for some time as his sneakers left tracks on the dirty, dusty floor. 

He found the front door and stepped outside, the corridor’s bulbs reacting to movement and lighting up. Though he tried the buttons on the elevators, they were dead so he searched for the stairs “Hey, who the fuck are you?” said a disembodied voice from out of nowhere. It took a moment for Cal to realize this was the building security talking to him. 

“Oh, thank God! Listen, sir, there’s a woman on your top floor who’s in danger!”  

“This is a private building. How the hell did you even get up here?” security replied. 

“I need you to hear me, sir. On the top floor, someone is going to be raped and possibly killed!”            

“What are you talking about?” the security guard sounded incredulous. “I’ve already called emergency services, I know we all get crazy during lockdown but it’s still a pandemic, okay? There’s a Patrol Dog right outside that must’ve clocked you and trust me you don’t want me to let it in here so can’t you just come on down? I’ll turn on the elevators for you. What do you say?” 

Cal found the stairs and started climbing. “You don’t understand I need to get to her! He’s already up there!” 

The voice followed him to the stairwell. “Hey, what did I just say? I told you to come down. Listen I don’t want to get infected but I don’t want to kill you either, and those Patrol Dogs are real killers.” 

Cal ignored him. He was already on the 19th floor. “Goddamit, okay you asked for it. I’m letting it in!” And as he burst out on the 20th floor, Cal frantically tried to remember the floor plan from Leyka’s video and tried multiple doors as the corridor lights followed him like luminescent ghosts. When he finally found her door, it was locked. He banged on the wood, calling her name. Nothing. 

The elevator to his left came alive and he saw that the security guard and likely the Patrol Dog were both coming up fast. Cal started kicking Leyka’s door, hurting his foot and leg right away. This move always seemed so easy in the movies but he kept on kicking as dust and wood splintered as Cal thought his leg was going to break. 

The door finally gave way and he shouldered it open just as the elevator announced in a happy and upbeat tone that it had arrived on the 20th floor and the roof deck amenities. 

Cal ducked in and found only an empty bed and the dusty mirror. Through the light from the corridor, he saw an object on the bed, he grabbed it and realized it was her bound notebook. Opening it, her discarded mask was still inside. Cal put on her blue surgical mask and breathed in. He exited her unit, seeing the Patrol Dog with its flashing lights come out from the elevator and immediately run towards him. The security guard followed quickly behind, screaming something Cal was now deaf to. The Patrol Dog was fast but it was a damn long corridor. 

As Cal ran to the open roof deck, past the withered plants and the lounging chairs, her journal in his arms, her mask and breath on his face, there came a deep understanding of Yee Naaldlooshii—she who by all means goes on fours and then flies. 

To be together in the wind and the city emptied by the plague, what did it mean? All that was needed, that had ever been needed of Cal was to follow, to step off the ledge and into the air, into the arms of her trust.


Karl R. De Mesa
Karl R. De Mesa
KARL R. De MESA is a longreads journalist and photographer who has reported on stories in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Singapore. He is the author of the books of horror, News of the Shaman and Damaged People, as well as the non-fiction collections, Report from the Abyss and Radiant Void—both shortlisted for the Philippine National Book Awards for journalism and non-fiction. His latest book is Calling Out the Destruction. He makes music as Dark Horse (Ph) and is a certified Muay Thai instructor and medalled grappler. Updates on his works are on https://linktr.ee/karlrdemesa.


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