March 15, 2002
March, month of passage, a chronological obelisk that marks the end of another phase of life—it is the time when children grow up and walk through the rough road of adulthood—in short, graduation. Mortarboards tossed and black gowns worn then undressed, all in memory of a time in life that had gone by, a time in life some would argue to be the best time of their lives. High-school had just ended for most teenagers. Some of these teenagers would continue taking higher education; some would take their chances on getting a job; some would get pulled over the edge of reason.
In a city far north of the capital region, close to the northern edge of this tropical country was a well-established school. This particular academic institution was fenced in by fake red brick walls surmounted with rust-colored bars and beautified by rainbow gardens nestled on knolls near the gates. The main buildings within the perimeter had facades of pebbles and riddled with water stains that somehow added to the beauty of the structures. Not only was the whole institute physically appealing, its educational system was well merited—it was the best in this northern city.
It was an early summer morning, the sun slowly sailing towards the highest point in the sky. The warmth of the air was well pronounced that even the stillest of men would be victims to profuse sweating. Summer insects were buzzing endlessly and would no doubt do so even through the late hours of the night behind the cover of canopies. The sight of frozen delicacies, fans, umbrellas and towels was common just to counter summer’s wrath.
Exiting the school’s premises was a young man, a fresh graduate. He was decked in the casual round-neck shirt and blue jeans fading at the knees; his dark brown hair brushed up to reveal his brown eyes. He had just visited his alma mater, probably for the last time just to collect some documents he would need for college enrollment. The papers were already in his hand.
The graduate had a friend waiting by a nearby shed, a young man of the same taste in fashion—jeans and all.
“Took you long enough,” he sarcastically nagged.
“‘Sup Pip, the eternal loser,” the graduate replied with a friendly jab.
The graduate was a young man who went by the name of Charlemagne McKinley, Charlie for short. His father was of the country but his mother was a foreigner; a Westerner. He was born in his mother’s homeland but had moved to the country two years back as per request of his father. The reason why he was sent was still unclear to him, nevertheless, young as he was he obliged. Much time had passed since then and now he was old enough to make decisions on his own. His diploma was a partial proof of that. One of his first and most important decisions was to study in the capital region, the Metro.
“To think that two years ago you were struggling with the local dialect,” said Charlie’s friend. “Has the north been nice to you?”
“North? We’re below the equator. Where I used to live was quote-unquote ‘north’,” answered Charlie.
The two friends began walking their way back to Pip’s house which was conveniently just a few blocks behind the school. It was a long concrete road with patches of erosion. The walk was like a morning version of their past after-school walks—nostalgic. The long dusty, non-cemented sidewalk had barely changed over the past two years. The blackened, hollow block walls enclosing this particular side of the school were part of the sight as well. The black cover was once verdant moss that decorated the wall but ran dry and in a sense fried under the summer heat.
Crossing this way back to their homes had become somewhat of a tradition for the two. This time however, Pip begged to ask a question. “What course were you taking again?”
“I believe this is the twenty-fourth time you asked the question, and for the twentieth time I’ll answer ‘philosophy’,” Charlie remarked with a sarcastic tone.
“Whatever happened to the other four questions?”
“I didn’t answer them because I felt like a broken record.”
Halfway through their short journey, Charlie stopped to pick up a stone on the dirty side of the road. The stone was covered with a dull yellow almost white dust. He thought of removing the dust but immediately conceded. The young graduate turned to the corn field to the right of the dirt-covered road; the field behind the school. It was the sight he always looked at when his mind suffered from the vapidity of daily afternoon class. Charlie always chose to have a window-side seat, and always gazed outside to see the sea of maize gently swaying in the afternoon breeze. The crops were always reposing to watch. The golden color of the maize always inspired him to think, to imagine, to want.
“Do you think there’s more to life than just this?” Charlie asked his friend as he threw the dusty stone into the undulating field.
“Aside from stones?”
Charlie looked to Pip with a placid look on his face and replied in a calm unsatisfied tone. “Aside from studying, earning—“this”.”
“Why ask me? My grades barely got me through school,” Pip answered with a rare appreciative voice. He unnecessarily gestured his hands with his declamation, perplexed with the sudden change of mood. “Life is a mysterious cycle. Existence is a mysterious thing. The limitations of our understanding give life its mystique and meaning.”
Charlie looked at his friend with a surprised look. “For a guy who barely got through high-school you sure say some insightful things.”
“Crap!” Pip cussed with a raised brow. “You made me say some crazy stuff, you instigating conspirator!”
Charlie laughed and immediately after Pip did as well. The two gave out a generous amount of laughter to the earnestness of their conversation. They never imagined themselves talking about those kinds of things. It was both weird and comical for both of them.
After laughing their heads off, the two went on their way. They passed the field of corn and the two friends arrived at Pip’s house in just a few minutes.
Pip’s house was a humble abode; a small front terrace made of treated wood, a flower garden at one side, a vegetable garden of trellises and wires not far back and just one floor. Pip’s parents had only average income but it was enough to support their family and put Pip through school and finish.
The heat was still unrelenting upon the two’s arrival so Pip asked if Charlie wouldn’t mind taking a short break. Charlie agreed as he planned to walk all the way back to his house and a bit of rest would surely do him some good. Pip knew Charlie’s home was quite far from school. He knew Charlie would have to take the long suburb road, cross over a bridge, and then walk another lengthy concrete-covered route.
“It’s as hot as hell today you know,” Pip appended as he left Charlie by the terrace to get some drinks.
In the recess of the conversation, a young girl, four years the boys’ junior appeared from behind the wooden balustrade, springing out like a meerkat from its hole. The girl was in a plain gray ponte dress, short-sleeved and appropriate for the weather, matching her wooden-soled wedges with its black and white straps. The girl was Pip’s younger sister, Nadine—a soon to be freshman in high-school.
Nadine greeted Charlie with a lively clamor. “Congratulations!”
“Saying the same things over and over again is in the family, isn’t it?” Charlie jested as he recalled Pip’s same-question-spree.
“I’m nothing like my brother!” argued Nadine with a childish pout.
Charlie just smiled and patted the girl in the head. It was awkward as she wasn’t that small a child anymore, though she was kind of short for her age. Puberty had yet to kick in for her.
“You should congratulate yourself too. You’re a freshman next school year,” Charlie stated, still wearing his happy smirk.
“Thank you!” replied Nadine. She wore a grin so filled with happiness just for the recognition.
As his sister and Charlie had their conversation, Pip came back not only with the drinks but with a boggled mind as well. There was something bothering him, something trivial. Pip was the kind of person who became perplexed over simple matters. Thinking over things usually derailed him from his normal train of thought causing him to go idle for considerable periods of time. The confused young lad distributed the refreshments along the top of the porch balustrade then sat on one of the empty wooden rockers. There was a dumbfounded look on his face, a result of the paralyzing venom known as thought process.
“Why freshman?” Pip asked out of the blue, interrupting the conversation of his sister and his friend.
Charlie and Nadine went silent. Pip’s question was so ingeniously misplaced that the two did not know how to react. Nadine pivoted her head to the right trying to understand what her brother was trying to say but no matter how she tried she could only think of her brother as some little green man from some faraway planet where logical thinking was foreign. Charlie on the other hand quickly grasped the situation in a few seconds. He knew Pip well enough and knew how to proceed.
“What do you mean ‘why freshman?’” Charlie retorted. He knew what was going on and knew exactly what he had to do—make a fool out of Pip. “You’re thinking too much again. Your undeveloped brain will writhe in pain if you think too much.”
Despite Charlie’s efforts, Pip’s face refused to unwrinkle. His facade was so zombified that Charlie blew up in laughter.
“Seriously? Why freshman?” Pip insistently asked with a serious mug.
“He’s lost it—” Nadine asserted with a sigh. She shook her head before sipping more of her drink.
It took a few moments for Charlie to catch his breath after his laughter. The glimmer the sunlight made through his glass of soda was blinding him as if telling him it was time to get serious.
“State your question clearly, as well as the reason behind it,” said Charlie.
“You called Nadine a freshman but she’s a girl? Why?” Pip indubitably importuned.
Both Nadine and Charlie were taken aback. They asked themselves; what kind of question was this that it was so trivial, so boring, so undeniably stupid? The answer to it was probably simple; so simple that it wasn’t worth searching for.
Charlie reclined on his rocking chair, forcing it to begin rocking. He drank what was left in his glass before stating his mind. “He’s lost it.”
“Told you so,” concurred Pip’s little sister.
After his brief stop at Pip’s abode, Charlie headed right on home. He had planned it all out since yesterday evening, a long nostalgic walk home. He wanted to take in the scenery one last time. Pip did explain that the road was long and the day was irritably warm, but Charlie insisted to take this walk. He felt he had to.
The concrete road ran further down the route he took and it was sparsely inhabited. It had potholes at random places exposing the stones used to pave the gray path. Dust covered a great portion of the road, a blanket provided by the sandy sidewalks beside it. There was nothing but sand, stones and shrubs at either side of the pavement. Vehicles rarely drove over the road due to the numerous potholes and the dust ruining their windshields. Only the summer breeze flew over the road, punctual and never absent, picking up the yellow grit from the sidewalks and onto the concrete path.
Charlie kept walking beside the road until he reached a fork. Unlike the earlier part of the path, the fork had local residencies around it. They were single floor houses built beside one another, their perimeters shared to save on materials and space. Gardens of tall untended hedges and large-leaved plants lined the road, their leaves blanketed in the same dust that covered the road. There was also a covered multipurpose hall nearby which was the only prominent landmark in the secluded area. Having nothing to do with the place, Charlie fleetingly glanced at the area then took the left route and continued walking.
The scrubland-like roadside gradually turned into a bamboo forest. The tall greenery swayed to the gentle wind. The wrath of the sun was weakening as its rays could not break through the towering reeds. The air became a little less warm with each second further in the forest.
Charlie carried on until he left the forest and entered another section of the pike. This section had a huge field of corn and patches of tobacco plants to its right. This was Charlie’s favorite spot in this route. There was always a beautiful sunset over the maize but it was currently too early in the day to see it.
Despite the lack of a beautiful landscape, Charlie saw something else, something peculiar. There was a girl sitting at the edge of the road, a part where the sidewalk was eroded making the concrete appear raised. She was watching the fields dance to the symphony of the summer breeze.
“Someone else is here?” Charlie thought.
This wasn’t really his private property but for all the times he took the route, he rarely encountered anyone let alone someone seemingly globe-trotting.
The girl wore a red hoodie, maroon leggings of seemingly expensive material and a pair of dust-covered sneakers. The ankle-high, cotton, white socks peeking out of her sneakers made it looked like she had cat paws as feet. She had dark brown hair of shoulder length partially bunched up with what looked like a lacquered chopstick. Her getup was truly out-of-town.
Charlie tried to pass by carefully, not wanting to startle the girl. “She’s definitely a tourist. Should I greet her or not? Maybe I shouldn’t.”
Suddenly the girl turned around and cheerfully greeted Charlie who was trying his best to avoid her. “Good morning!”
“G’morning to you too,” Charlie replied with an improvised burst of hospitality.
The young man found himself staring at the girl’s face a bit too long. It couldn’t be helped for a teenaged boy, she was of more-than-modest beauty after all; a light blush upon her cheeks and tinge of gloss on her lips reflecting the sun’s light. Putting all adolescent urges behind him, Charlie still found it hard to either ignore or not ignore.
“Are you from around here?” asked the girl, a cordial smile decorated her visage.
“A pre-emptive strike?” Charlie thought. He was psychologically snared and had no choice but to answer. “I guess you could say that.”
The girl got up from the concrete and dusted off her buns. It became apparent to her that she had ruined her leggings for sitting on such a coarse seat, though in the end she disregarded the matter. She turned around to properly face Charlie who was riskily staying at the center of the road.
“Don’t you think it’s dangerous to be in the middle of that concrete?” the girl said, still wearing her dangerous smile.
Charlie walked towards the girl, slowly, carefully. Despite being strangers, the girl spoke with confidence. It wasn’t that big a deal for him to talk to girls, so he did not understand why, for some reason, he instinctively wanted to keep away.
As the young man was just a pace away from the girl he stopped to inquire. “You’re from out of town aren’t you? Tourist?”
“My relatives are from this region but I didn’t grow up here,” the girl serenely replied then bubbly added. “Oh! I’m sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Ingrid.”
“It’s okay, I’m Charlie. Ingrid—that’s quite a name, especially around this part of the world.”
“It is! It is!” Ingrid said with childish glee.
“So...how can I be of assistance?”
“Oh yeah,” Ingrid returned, almost forgetting what she called Charlie’s attention for.
The lass pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. The paper was crumpled but wasn’t that creased enough for what was written in it to be unreadable.
“I need to find this place,” the girl stated.
Charlie took a glance at the little parchment. The paper was pretty easy to read. The cursive text was pleasing to the eye and easy to understand, it curved exquisitely to the wrinkles and was in no way distorted.
Charlie courteously pointed at the direction of Ingrid’s destination. “I’m not sure where exactly, but it’s in the Santa Katarina area. It’s just straight down this road.”
Even having said that, Charlie thought it wasn’t enough just to tell her. “I think its best I accompany you there, at least.”
“How gallant; thank you very much!” Ingrid replied with a knee-weakening smile.
Charlie couldn’t help but simper in return. It was like a battle of who could show the whitest teeth, who could blind the other with the shine of their pearly whites. It took several seconds before Charlie realized they were getting nowhere with their grins. A quick cover of the mouth followed his earlier actions. He did it more to hide his smile than to expose himself ruminating.
Finally, Charlie bobbed his head to the direction to where their destination was and then began trotting to it. Of course, Ingrid followed right behind him. It was a normally awkward situation, but Charlie felt no tension from it, no secret agenda, no hidden intentions, he acted natural. There was this nagging feeling in his head but it wasn’t enough for him to disregard the tourist.
“This feels like a role-playing game,” Ingrid said all of a sudden. “You’re the leader!” she added with a laugh.
Charlie doddered his noggin bearing in mind how playful the girl was. He could not possibly think she was a raging sociopath disguised as a kind-hearted, innocent, young girl waiting to jump him. However, she was also far too childlike that it was explicitly suspicious.
With the game topic brought up, Charlie decided to add to the conversation even with his mind a mess.
“You play video games?” muttered the young man.
“Yeah! I like games by this company,” the girl answered cheerfully, boasting a plushie of what appeared to be a little snow man with a blue cap—the mascot of the video game company Ingrid liked.
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Charlie said with a tinge of disappointment. He couldn’t relate as he had never played a single game from the company. The conversation had to be pulled somewhere else.
“Really? I thought they were pretty famous,” said Ingrid. “What games do you play then?”
Charlie gave it a little thought. He used to play a lot of stuff before but ever since his last final exams in high-school he hadn’t played a single game. He remembered having a pile of games on queue but he couldn’t conjure up any of their names. The last role-playing game he played was something from a more famous company but even that he forgot. He was so caught up with graduation and college that it just slipped his mind.
“I’ve played a lot of games but I don’t really recall their names,” Charlie said with a shrug.
Ingrid shrugged her own shoulders. She was bit thwarted by Charlie’s game-name amnesia. It could be clearly seen in her asymmetrical yet undeniably dainty pout.
It was nearing midday but for some reason the weather was getting cooler. Charlie and Ingrid came to a rather sharp curve on the road. The bend was there because of a hazardous slope down into a river that cut through the landscape. With the river nearby it meant that the bridge Charlie had to cross was near as well. The two strangers were about to part ways.
“We’re nearing the Santa Katarina area,” Charlie warmly stated as he pointed at an arc not far away.
“That’s it?” Ingrid said with child-like astonishment. Her eyes were sparkling just gazing at the Romanesque arc of stone and cement painted with reflective white paint.
Soon enough they arrived at a two way intersection; one way lead straight into the west—where Ingrid was headed—and the other to the south—where Charlie’s house was. The westward path was preluded by the milky white arc of Santa Katarina, the monument that reminded everyone who came by that this was where the municipality began. At the southward path was a bridge made of steel built upon the ruins of an older wooden bridge and upon that the ruins of an even older asphalt bridge both of which were devastated by past typhoons. At the center of the curb was grotto to Saint Katherine, patron of the municipality Ingrid was about to venture into.
Ingrid took her time staring at the grotto while sauntering towards the arc. The grotto had an effigy of Saint Katherine, the Great Martyr. The grotto was surrounded by rows of red and white flowers and at the three corners of the monument had each a flag that bore the name of the Great Martyr. It was a beautiful sight that emanated an aura of sanctity but it wasn’t exactly their destination.
The girl and the boy proceeded until they arrived at the municipality’s arch.
“Well—” Charlie said and paused.
Ingrid’s attention was snagged by the large archway that hung over her. Charlie looked at her and found something was missing. Somehow, he felt that the person standing before him was someone else, someone different. Despite his reservations, he tried to see Ingrid as the person he knew minutes ago.
“I guess this is where we part,” Ingrid suddenly declared, her smile missing. She put on her hood to hide her eyes from the sun then began walking westward into the municipality.
Charlie watched as her back grew smaller and smaller in the distance. With every growing yard, the air grew warmer and warmer to the point that Charlie was sweating just standing there and watching the girl walk away.
There was a confused look on Charlie’s face. “How did she know that we’d be parting ways here?” he asked himself.
The young man thought of accompanying Ingrid all the way to her last stop but for some reason he just couldn’t say it or do it. It was as if the world was pressuring him not to make a move. Soon he found himself crossing the bridge home; the time and distance from the arch to the bridge had seemingly vanished.
He glanced at the rushing waters below then shook his head. “That was…weird.”