Death was the last thing on Laya's mind as the tricycle roared down the road, whipping her long wavy hair into a tangled froth. Two things ruled her thoughts: Anton, smiling and shy, as he handed her three red roses this morning; and her debut party tonight in her friend's sprawling garden.
Laya's phone vibrated in her pocket. It took a bit of contortionism before she managed to slip it out without letting the knapsack and roses slide from her lap. When she saw the message from Anton, a frisson of excitement ran down her spine.
See you later, Birthday Girl.
Of course they were going to kiss tonight. they had to. Once the party was winding down, Laya would manage some alone time with Anton to tell him that she liked him back. She could imagine the breath of silence as Anton's dark eyes focused on her. He would place a warm hand on the back of Laya's neck, his face coming closer and closer until his features pooled into a blur and—
The tricycle lurched to a halt, causing Laya's petite frame to pitch forward from her seat. she cursed, more afraid for the crushing of her roses than her safety. When she heard the screams, she jerked her head to the side.
The scene played out, framed by the rusty borders of the tricycle window. Within the complex of shanties that edged the road, angry flames licked at the sky that had darkened from smoke. the path leading to the fire was choked by a line of people passing on pails and drums of water that sloshed at their feet. In the distance came the wailing of sirens.
Everyone stopped to stare at the spectacle, so no one noticed that on the opposite lane, a roaring truck had sneaked out of the line of crawling traffic, impatient to get to its destination. At that exact moment, Laya’s tricycle driver decided that he'd seen enough, and gunned his engine before speeding off. When the two vehicles collided, the tricycle, the driver, and Laya were thrown into the air. For one breathless moment, they looked like seasoned trapeze artists—minus the trapezes. When gravity took over, they hurtled toward the concrete.
As she came to meet her death, Laya's life didn't flash before her eyes. Instead, the last thing she saw was the graceful ballet of her roses against the clear blue sky, gliding farther and farther away from her.
Death brought grief, but Laya learned that as the object of such grief, she felt nothing.
At her wake, an absolute numbness had taken over her, as if the thread that connected her to this world had been completely severed.
But when her mom, eyes puffy from tears shed and still to come, bent her head to kiss the closed casket, Laya felt a faint stirring within her. and when Anton came forward, his tall and wiry frame standing out in the crowd of mourners, the quivering inside Laya grew.
"Goodbye, Laya," Anton breathed before gently laying down three white roses on the casket.
The thing inside Laya loomed and darkened like a storm cloud, heavy, at first with longing, then with anger. “WHY?” she lashed out at the heavens. "What have I done to deserve this?" she screamed with everything she had, but the air seemed to soak up her words as soon as they were released.
"This is unfair!" she circled the room, yelling into people's faces. "You shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be dead!” When she reached Anton, she lifted her hand to his cheek. But her fingers felt nothing, and judging from his vacant eyes, he felt nothing too. Her dear Anton, whom she was supposed to kiss on the night of her birthday, was now here on the night of her wake.
How could she explain it, this need to start ambling along an unknown path, her legs moving of their own accord? it wasn’t a choice; it was instinct, like that of a moth flying to a light bulb. in death, time was an endless haze so thick, it could not be segmented into hours, minutes, seconds. All Laya knew was that she was wading through it toward something, somewhere.
She knew she had reached her destination when she found the small house—a bungalow made from light-colored wood, capped with a thin, slanted roof. Heralding it was a mango tree, its shaggy head of leaves shooting up past the roof.
As she walked up to the house, Laya had the strangest feeling of coming home. But before she could twist the knob, the door flew open and she staggered back.
"Welcome to the death department!" a smiling young man with slicked back dark hair, dressed in white, ushered her in. He handed her a card. "Please take a seat and we shall attend to your needs as soon as we can."
Mouth agape, Laya took in the huge room brightly lit with fluorescent lights. right across her stood counters with glass windows manned by white clad personnel. As classical music floated in the air, she took stock of the area where she stood, which looked like the inside of a Starbucks—except that the plush couches, chairs, and tables were all done in white.
Laya turned to see the beaming man, who even looked like one of those good-looking, confident baristas. "Is this heaven?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "Think of it as immigration. You need to go through here before crossing over."
Crossing over. Laya had heard of it, of course. But it seemed like a fairy tale then, the stuff told by people who couldn't explain what happened after people died.
Her gaze swept across the waiting area. This was where dead people ended up. Among fellow souls clutching cards with numbers, awaiting their turn. Some had their faces buried in their palms; others stared into space.
Sinking down into the couch nearest her, Laya rested the back of her hands on her knees, and studied her palms. She saw lines branching out like rivers, abruptly ending somewhere down the way, probably foretelling death on her birthday.
Then slowly she lifted them up, until they completely covered her face.
"Ah, Laya David."
The woman behind the desk stood up to shake her hand. Laya blinked up at the woman, hauntingly beautiful in a way that she looked neither old nor young. Her silver hair was pulled back into a severe bun that grandmothers favored; yet her face wasn’t marred by a single wrinkle. unlike the others, she was dressed in black—from the serpentine dress that clung to her slim frame, down to the stilettos that cradled her ankles.
"Please call me Ms. H."
"H?" Laya asked hoarsely as she sat down, head still spinning from the turn of events. earlier, when the girl behind the counter had clicked on her file, she requested Laya to proceed to the end of the hall. there, Laya found a door tacked with the gleaming nameplate of Director of Death.
"I expect people don't talk about me anymore." Ms. H's wine-red lips pursed into a frown. "They called me Hukluban, the goddess of death. I used to be a frightful sight dressed in a black shroud and a veil that covered my warty face. Of course, that drove souls away from the department." she patted her hair, shooting Laya a triumphant smile. "But after streamlining our procedures and renovating our building, we've had a higher success rate of crossovers."
Laya shook her head. "I didn't think this house would be huge. Outside, it looked so small."
"Oh, the death department looks different for everyone. the important thing is that it looks like home to whoever sees it, thus creating a welcoming atmosphere for the newly dead."
But the house she saw earlier looked nothing like the cramped apartment she and her mom were renting, Laya wanted to protest.
"It shows on your records that you died on your eighteenth birthday." Ms. H looked up from her laptop, her voice suddenly soft. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Sadness and anger mingled in Laya's throat, and she gulped them down.
"But there's a bit of good news for deaths like yours."
Laya felt her senses snap to attention. Maybe this was the part where Ms. H would tell her that this was all a bad dream. that all the goddess had to do was snap her fingers, and Laya would wake up in her familiar bed, sweaty-palmed and gasping for breath—but alive.
"You get to live again." Upon hearing those words, warm breath seemed to rush through Laya. an internal sigh of relief so immense that she felt almost alive again.
Ms. H held up a forefinger. "But only for a day." She paused. "And on a day that has already happened."
"It's a bonus we give clients who died on their birthdays. You can have a bit of fun, like meet Jose Rizal in person, or get to see yourself being born." Ms. H nodded briskly. "When your time is up, you return here, and we'll proceed to crossing over."
The warm thing inside Laya turned cold. A day wouldn't be enough for all the things she still wanted to do. She opened her mouth to protest—but froze in fear when, for the briefest of moments, she thought she saw Ms. H's eyes go completely black. No dark irises against layers of white—just unfathomable pools of absolute darkness. A glimpse, perhaps, into death's dark and uncompromising nature.
"Which day will it be?" Ms. H asked pleasantly, her eyes looking quite human again. On the table, she tapped the perfect arcs of her nails painted a deep red. As red as the roses Anton had given Laya.
The bitter memory of having had life pulled out from under her feet made Laya forget all about fear. Funny how anger could reduce her world into a single goal. she knew she deserved Anton's kiss, and she would rightfully claim it. Defiantly raising her chin, she replied, "The last day of my life."
Ms. H didn't look surprised. "Almost all our birthday clients choose to relive their final day. Unfinished business is almost always a detriment in crossing over." She tapped on her keyboard, and shot Laya a knowing look. "You don't want to be one of those souls that forever roam the earth, searching for closure. The pull of whatever material possession, person, or event that keeps them tied to the earth removes their desire to cross over. That's the explanation behind spirits—or ghosts as what most people call them."
Ghosts. It was the trigger that made Laya remember one of her mom's stories. she was three years old then, blowing out the candle on her birthday cake in her grandmother's house—the house she and her mom used to live in. Her mom said that Laya had jumped down from the chair and pointed to a dark corner of the living room, insisting that a man stood there, staring at them. and when Laya's mom asked her what he looked like, she formed circles with her fingers and held them up to her eyes like goggles. Her mom swore that at that moment, gooseflesh blanketed her arms. When Laya’s father was alive, he had worn eyeglasses.
"My dad," Laya blurted. "Did he cross over?"
"Let's see." More keyboard-tapping noises filled the air. "Ah, Marcus David." A pause. "I'm afraid he hasn't."
Laya didn't really know anything much about her father. He was killed months before she was born, back in the early 1980s. He was a human rights activist, her mom had explained, who joined rallies and spoke out against the dictatorship.
Sure, she had missed him while growing up, but it was in that vague, general way that a physically disabled person might miss a limb he had been born without. Missing, but not pining. But Laya had always taken comfort that her father's soul was at peace, after having sacrificed his life for his country.
"Can I convince him to cross over?"
Ms. H's forehead crumpled.n "It's your choice, but we highly discourage it. You have to go back to the land of the living, and the longer you stay there, the more difficult it will be for you to cross over." She shrugged, returning to her laptop. "Also, the department will forfeit your birthday gift."
So it all boiled down to this: choosing between the boy she loved and the man she honored. Laya closed her eyes, summoning Anton's face; but all she could see was her father's ghost, trapped somewhere in time and space, no longer real, but still yearning to be real.
But the chance to help him was real. If love wasn't selfish, then maybe she loved her father too. it took a while before she opened her eyes. "I've changed my mind," she said with a sureness that surprised her. "I'd like to go back to the last day of my father's life."
The road was deserted, steeped in a kind of darkness that was well into the night. Over her, lampposts stood guard, their feeble light giving Laya little illumination and comfort. She felt the silence breathing down on her, watching her every step.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the sound of a sputtering vehicle approaching. Finally. someone she could ask for directions. She waited under the thin light, ready to flag the car down.
The headlights loomed like two full moons above the slight incline of the road. But before she could raise her arm, something gripped her by the shoulders, pulling her back into the shadow.
She screamed, but the hand was clamped so tightly against her mouth that whatever sound she managed to make was drowned out by the approaching engine.
"Are you out of your mind?" the voice hissed into her ear.
The jeep was right in front of her as she was forced to crouch behind a pile of rotting plywood by the roadside. two men dressed in a drab color somewhere between green and brown got out—one of them adjusting the white dome helmet on his head.
"I could've sworn I saw someone out here."
The taller man snorted. "No one here."
"Do you think we should look around?" the smaller one checked his watch. "It's past midnight. Whoever I saw broke the law."
"You think you saw, you mean."
A quarrel ensued as the two men argued over the merits of double-checking, and returning to the precinct for a midnight snack. In the end, hunger won, and they drove away, leaving a cloud of smoke.
Laya turned to her—rescuer? Captor? Now that he was visible under the light, she saw that he was young, quite possibly her age.
"Have you forgotten about the curfew?" His eyes were round and wide, and Laya couldn’t help staring back at them. "Follow me. It's not safe out here."
Without question, Laya got up. She would follow anyone, even a stranger, to escape this waiting, watching, breathing silence.
Laya woke up, tummy grumbling and muscles sore from sleeping on the banig laid out on the cold cement. But she wasn't complaining. Feeling her body ache meant she was alive again. Last night had been exhausting as she followed her rescuer through uphill roads, and winding, hidden alleys before they reached the abandoned storage house. Which meant that she had used up precious hours of her temporary life sleeping.
She shuffled out of the room, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, then stopped short. the common area she had stumbled upon was dotted with men sitting on wooden crates. At the sound of her footsteps, all those faces turned to look at her at the same time.
"You're awake!" the boy from last night called out cheerfully before turning to the others. "This is the girl I rescued from the Metrocom last night."
"Good morning, hija." A silver-haired man smiled at her and gestured to the brown bag sitting on the crate at the middle. "Breakfast?"
Laya couldn't talk—much more, move. She stood stock-still, staring at another man who sat a foot from her, regarding her quietly with eyes beneath thick-rimmed glasses. How did one behave in front of a father she had never met? With her heart pounding in her ears, with her breath difficult to catch. Her father was looking at her expectantly, an encouraging smile on his lips.
"How do we know she's clean?" The sharp tone from the lean, dark man beside the boy made Laya start, breaking the spell. "Spies are everywhere."
"'Tay," the boy said in exasperation. "I don’t think any of his spies dress like that."
Once again, all those eyes were turned on her, and Laya blushed, forgetting everything else except embarrassment over what she wore: a long-sleeved polo shirt layered with a gray vest, and a short, pleated skirt that would’ve been scandalous if it weren't for the knee-high black socks. the school administration changed the uniform only this year—its odd way of welcoming the new millennium, while the whole world panicked about computer files being wiped out by the Y2k bug. Ironically, it was an outfit Laya hadn't wanted to be literally caught dead in.
"It's our school uniform," she said defensively, causing the suspicious man's brow to furrow further.
"What school has that uniform?"
"From..." Laya stopped herself, realizing that at this time, her school hadn't existed yet. "A school from Laguna. I came to Manila to visit my cousin and got lost." She shrugged, hoping to mask the slight tremor in her voice.
"Quit the interrogation, Sonny." hTe bespectacled man tapped his hand on the crate beside him, and nodded to her. "Come and eat. What's your name?"
Is any of this even real? Laya asked herself as she sat down beside her father. It didn't matter. Even if it were all a hallucination, she'd willingly go along with it.
"Laya," she murmured, studying him beneath quivering lashes. His eyebrows shot up—thick, defined things that sloped up then angled down like inverted checkmarks. His shaggy hair parted on the side framed full cheeks that grew even rounder when he smiled.
"Laya. As in freedom?" When Laya nodded, his delight seemed to have doubled. "A beautiful, noble name."
"I'm Marc," he said before nodding to the others. "That's Sonny and his son Junjun, whom you met last night. And over there is Ka Freddie."
Then her father passed her the bag of hot pan de sal, and Laya felt its warmth seep into her fingers, into her chest.
So this was her father's laugh: a trill of hi-hi-hi escalating to a falsetto before ending with a gasp. It was midmorning and they were riding the jeepney after visiting her fictitious cousin's house.
Earlier, when her father had asked where her cousin lived, Laya panicked and gave the address that came to her automatically—that of her mom's apartment. When they got there, they were greeted by a rice field—and a white snake that had slithered toward Laya. And right now, her father was chortling at the memory of Laya's reaction to the reptile, of her shrieking and sprinting away, nearly tripping over the tall cogon grass.
Rice fields in the city. Laya shook her head in disbelief. How different Manila was in the 1980s. Cleaner air. Fewer people on the streets. and jeepneys that looked grander, like fiestas on wheels, embellished with tiny steel horses and little flags that fluttered in the wind.
"I must have gotten the address wrong," Laya said, tugging on the loose shirt Junjun had lent her. His jeans, though, folded several times at the hems, were a snug fit. "I'll call my cousin later—not on your phone, of course," she added hastily, remembering their earlier conversation on reports of private phones being tapped by the government.
Her father looked out the window. The cap he wore was pulled low over his eyes, hidden by dark glasses. "I've forgotten how liberating it feels to ride a jeepney in broad daylight. I'd go with you to the pay phone, but I can't stay out long." He sighed. "It's been days since I last talked to my wife. She worries about me—and I worry about her." She heard the catch in his voice. "Especially now that we're having a baby."
The lump in her throat was the size of her fist, but Laya managed to push it down. "Congrats." She smiled. "You must be excited."
"I am." He grinned. "I still can't believe I'm going to be a dad!" The sun peeked through a gap between buildings, and the midday light shone on her father's face. Laya's breath caught. Her father looked so alive and golden.
"I've always believed that I fight for freedom because I love my country. But now, I think I'm doing it for my family." He turned to Laya, starbursts of light reflected on his glasses. "Because I want my child to grow up in a better place."
As she felt her face crumple, Laya looked away. She had to wait a long time before she was sure her voice was steady when she spoke. "You can write to your wife. I can deliver the letter for you."
His cheeks expanded to accommodate his smile. "A terrific idea. Thank you."
But just as quickly, his face darkened. "It would be dangerous for me to go home. I don't think they know who I am—Ka Freddie is the one they're after. But then again, one can never be too careful."
She was supposed to pretend to make the call on the public phone several blocks away, rush back to the storage house, and tell her dad she couldn’t reach her cousin. She didn't want to leave him, but he had given her a lengthy lecture on responsibility.
"These are dangerous times," he said. "Let your family know you're safe." As she got off the jeepney, he called out, grinning, "And get the right address this time!"
She was gone for a while because she got lost in the labyrinth of alleyways. When she got to the storage house, it looked uninhabited as usual, its grimy windows covered with newspaper.
But as she got back closer, the chill of unease crawled up her arms. something wasn't right. When she looked down, she saw them before she realized what they were: splatters of red like Rorschach tests, the biggest blob so dark, it was almost black. Laya followed the bloody trail, up until it disappeared completely a few meters from the house.
She ran to the door, opened it, and found no one—except for a mess of upturned crates, papers scattered on the floor, the bag of leftover pan de sal upended on one of the counters.
Heart in her throat, she turned. There stood Junjun, who had just emerged from the room she had slept in last night. His eyes and nose were red. Red, she thought insignificantly, was the color of the day.
"They got them." His voice shook. "Except Tatay. We went out to buy food, and when we got back..." He bowed his head and took a deep breath. "He left to tell the others. I stayed behind to wait for you."
"My da—kuya Marc?"
Junjun shook his head, fresh tears filling up his eyes. a snatch of a conversation Laya overheard this morning came to her now. "When we're caught," Ka Freddie had said. "We're as good as dead."
Laya sank to her knees.
But why was she still here? Her dad was gone, and she was still alive. It was worse than being in limbo. Here, there was nothing but pain—red-hot pain that refused to subside.
"I'm sorry," Junjun whispered as Laya sobbed against his chest. She wanted to die. Not in 18 years. She wanted to die now.
"Before all this happened, we were talking about happy things. Ka Freddie cracked a joke that had all of us howling with laughter. And kuya Marc said he had found a way to talk to his wife."
In his arms, Laya froze.
"He wrote her a love letter, and we all teased him about it. It's like oxygen for him and his wife, to say I love you to each other every day."
Her head felt as light as air, but Laya managed to get up on shaky legs. As Junjun watched, she rooted methodically among the papers scattered on the floor, the pile of clothes pulled out from a cabinet, under the slashed mattress the men had shared. Then her eyes fell on her school uniform, tossed in the corner of the room. She shook out the skirt, the white shirt, and finally, the vest. On the floor plopped an envelope.
Her mom had always been beautiful, but not like this, when her face was still unlined, and her thick dark hair fell in feathery waves on her shoulder. Laya willed herself to stand upright. "I have a letter—from your husband."
The woman's eyes widened, and she looked up and down the deserted street. "Come in quickly."
Inside were a small garden and a tall mango tree that went past the slanted roof of the house. Laya stared at its façade made of light-colored wood. She had seen this house before, of course. It was what the death department looked like to her. Over the years, Laya had forgotten that her grandmother's house looked like this.
Wordlessly, she handed her mom the letter. For a moment, the woman looked unsure of what to do. But when she saw the writing on the envelope, her face softened, and she immediately lifted the flap and fished out the sheet of paper.
Her lips moved as she read the words. If love had a face, Laya knew that it would look something like this: eyes filled with tenderness, a mouth that gently lifted at the corners, a face aglow with an inner light.
The woman looked up, smiling. "You're Laya? I agree with Marc. It's a beautiful name. We should name our child after you."
Laya's gaze flew to the woman's tummy, round, but not bursting yet. The life inside there was still busy knitting its bones and flesh. I love you, Laya found herself silently saying to that tiny version of herself. You are loved. Don't you ever forget that.
Then she met her mom's eyes again, the words tumbling from her heart. I love you. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.
She couldn't tell this woman that her husband was dead. Not now, when her mom's face was shining with happiness.
It would be just as her mom had recounted to Laya when she was old enough to understand. that her mom had found out about her husband's death through friends. They would tell her that his body was discovered in a ditch together with Ka Freddie's. Her mom would be devastated, and mourn for many, many days. But she would be strong for her baby because her husband would've wanted their child to experience the freedom that he had fought for. The freedom that would come years later, when people marched to the streets to make history, peacefully calling on the dictator to step down.
"Would you like to come in?" her mom gestured to the door.
Laya hesitated, and then nodded her head slowly. Squaring her shoulders, she followed her mom inside.
"How did it go?" Ms. H smiled. They were in a different room now, which was bare except for a white, chiffon veil that covered what seemed to be an adjacent area.
"I saw my dad. He died. Then I saw my mom." Laya shrugged, motioning to the school uniform she was wearing. "And I'm still dead."
Ms. H gestured to the veil. "Well, whenever you're ready..."
Laya took a deep breath and released it slowly. "So, that’s heaven?"
Ms. H tilted her head. "If that's what you want to call it. But if you're expecting angels plucking harp strings, I'm telling you now, you’ll be disappointed."
"What's it like?"
Ms. H’s smile turned sly. "Secret."
Laya resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "But one thing I can tell you." Ms. H nodded to the veil. "Your father's over there."
If Laya still had a heart, it would've stopped beating. "How—?"
Ms. H studied her fingernails. "He was finally able to let go of whatever's been keeping him tied down to the earth." She looked up and gazed at Laya with twinkling but shrewd eyes.
"Maybe someone was able to show him how to properly say goodbye."
Laya stared at her, unable to find the words. Maybe this feeling of gratitude, like a gentle stream flowing inside her—maybe, this was already her heaven.
Slowly, Laya walked toward the veil. a sweet-smelling breeze from the other side floated into the room, rippling the veil and Laya's hair. She breathed it in, buoyed by hope. this time, she'd introduce herself properly to her father. On a patch of green, perhaps, they would sit side by side, talking about the things they had missed about each other.
"Yes." Laya smiled and then brushed past the veil, thinking that there was a kind of happiness that was quiet—the kind that came from finding peace.
It had been a happy birthday after all.
Birthday Girl appears in Coming of Age, a collection of poems, short stories, songs, and comics about turning 18. Published by Summit Books, it's available in book stores, newsstands, supermarkets, and convenience stores nationwide for P250.