Replacing the Boy
The first time it happened, I was secretly pleased. I was out with friends till way past my curfew. Everyone was asleep; only Manang Rose woke up to open the door for me. She looked a bit confused when she saw me. “I thought you’d been home hours ago,” she asked, rubbing her eyes awake. I softly apologized for waking her up before going up to my room, carefully navigating the stairs to avoid making noise that would wake Mama up. In the morning it was a quiet breakfast. Not a single question regarding the time that I got home. Mama asked about how I liked my new school. I said I couldn’t think of going anywhere else. She nodded while reading the morning paper. Manang Rose hovered silently.
When it happened again, I was thankful and relieved. I was too hung-over to go to school that morning and as I was retching into the toilet I remembered my final exam. In Calculus. The one subject I was close to dropping because of my poor grades during prelim and midterm. Missing the final exams would surely put me in a dangerous position. Failure would mean I wouldn’t be able to enroll in the second semester, which would set me back another year. That afternoon I went to my professor to ask for consideration. My innards were in a tight knot. But she was all smiles when she let me in her office. It was as if she was expecting me. “I’d like to commend you for your efforts, Mr. De Guia,” she began. “I have checked most of the tests of your class and so far you have the highest score. See what happens when you put your mind to something? I’m glad we’re not having the talk that we had weeks before.” I couldn’t say anything. “Now,” she asked, “why did you want to see me?” When I told Manang Rose, her face was inscrutable.
On the third time, I felt bothered—but only slightly. My school friends had been complaining that I was avoiding them. A not entirely un-true sentiment, but something I didn’t have the guts to say straight to their boring faces. All they wanted to do was study and when we’re not studying, we’d do things that would presumably make studying fun and easy. I liked my new friends better: they’re not afraid to do what they wanted, even if it other people didn’t like it. And because I’d been spending a lot of time with my new friends, I didn’t see my school friends except during class. When the new semester started, I was surprised by their cold treatment when I showed up at our usual hang-out. After a few attempts at conversation I gave up. I wanted to ask them why they were treating me that way but I didn’t. Why bother, I thought. As I made my way out of the campus one of my classmates mockingly said, “You got some nerve for going to them after what happened!” He looked ready to either give me a hug or hit me. “What are you talking about,” I asked him. He appeared amused at my apparent but false modesty. “You gave them a nasty and very public telling off during enrollment! Have you forgotten? Are you high or something?” Manang Rose looked at me with alarm when she learned this. “Try to do the right thing all the time,” she said.
A week ago, Emily called me and said she was delayed. I thought she was behind her tuition payment or something. I almost laughed when she explained it to me. I was glad I didn’t because she was almost crying. It left me wondering, though. “What are we going to do,” she asked me.
“What do you mean,” I asked back. “And why are you telling me this?”
“If I’m pregnant, this baby is yours!”
“Are you serious? I never touched you! At least, I haven’t!”
She began to sound angry. “Are you drunk? We’ve been doing it since the Christmas break! How many nights have you spent here?”
“Maybe you’re drunk too! Are you sure it was me?”
She hung up on me. What the heck was wrong with her? I haven’t even gone to second base with her and yet she’d spring that news on me? Manang Rose told me not to get too upset. “There’s probably a good explanation why Emily said what she said.” I was upset because if that information reached Mama, then I’ll be truly screwed. Manang Rose looked more troubled than I did. She’d always been very kind to me.
Last night I had the weirdest dream. I woke up very thirsty. So I got out of bed, out of my room and went down the stairs. When I opened the wing doors to the kitchen I saw that someone beat me to the refrigerator. It was open and someone leaned into it, appeared to be looking for something inside. I heard bottles being moved. The guy’s back was to me but I noticed he was wearing one of my shirts. And my pants as well. I heard a soft exclamation, like something I’d do when I found something I really liked. When he turned it was like I was looking in a mirror. He had my face! Shit, we could be twins, if not for his exaggerated macho stance—feet wide apart, hips thrust forward. And that un-settling smirk.
“Who are you,” I asked. The question came out of me less forcefully than I intended.
“Who else do you think,” he asked me in return, his tone challenging.
Before I could answer he leapt from the floor, like some overgrown frog, towards me.
Then I woke up.
“Can I ask you something,” Manang Rose turned to me.
“What is it?”
“Do you still pray? I mean, like every night before you sleep?”
“I can’t say that I do. I mean, when I remember, sure…”
“Don’t forget to pray.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you were a young boy, I taught you to pray for all the people you love, including yourself, right?”
“You should start praying for protection.”
“Someone—or something— is after you!” She spoke firmly but softly, as if she was afraid others would hear; when we were alone in my room. “It wants you. Or rather, your life. It’s been doing things for you in the past. Covering for you. Don’t you remember?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about…”
“It’s been after you for a long time. You were born premature. And because of your weak lungs, you seldom cried. When you were a baby, I would sometimes see you in the living room when I was sure you were in the nursery. And when I’d check, I’d find you in your crib, and almost always you needed to be fed.”
I didn’t say anything.
“It stopped when you turned five. That was when the doctors finally gave you a clean bill of health. Your parents were so happy. I was so happy. But it has started again. You should be careful!”
“Okay, Manang Rose, I will be careful. Whatever that is you’re talking about, it won’t let it get me. Promise.”
She was somehow comforted by my words, and eventually left my room. If I had my way, I would’ve taunted her with my comings and goings till the day she died but I don’t need to do that now.