Short Story

The Year I Last Saw Kel

It was one afternoon in 2019 and I was sitting inside McDanold’s, Espada. Under the fluorescent glow and incessant Love Niya ‘To Pero ‘Di Ako tune, I dunk fries into a sundae nearing its soup stage. In front of me, Kel, who I’ve known since high school, plunged a plastic fork into the McChicken’s meat. He tore away a chunk with his mouth, hardly chewing it before gulping it.

Now, we were in college and had no direction but to eat McDanold’s after class. I stared at Kel who has gone pudgy over the years with his unkempt stubble and hair in a soppy mess like the McSpaghetti children spin over and over on their forks. Our uniforms, passable white polos and black pants, reeked of sweat. Kel’s tummy was asking for freedom. It bulged against that one button doing its best to keep it together.

A pair of fingers snapped in my face.

“You’re not listening.” He said, his mouth filled with chicken and rice.

“What?”

“I said I thought I saw my dad sitting there. He waved at me!” He pointed to an empty seat behind me.

“No one’s there… You’re sure it was him?”

“What?” He looked back at the seat. “He was just there a minute ago! I’m sure it was him – well, it looked like him…”

“Maybe it’s just someone who looks like him. This is your third chicken for today.”

“I see no problem with eating more chicken.”

Kel took out his iPhone 6s from his pocket. There was an extra coating of grease on the screen. He was silent as he scrolled through the barrage of messages on the notifications tab. His eyes began to well up. He held in a sob which might as well have been a dying goat’s bleep. He put his phone down.

“Dad’s in the hospital.”

After that meal, we rode a jeepney waiting on the sidewalk. Although the hospital was located in the same city, it took us more than an hour to arrive outside the emergency room. His older brother, Ken, was there waiting for him. Ken was somewhat taller than Kel. They almost looked alike except Ken was thinner and he had his hair shaved off in acceptance of his looming baldness.

“Kel, they say he’s not gonna last long.” Ken wiped a tissue on his forehead.

“But why? What’s happening to him?” Kel asked.

“We found him unconscious. Mom was calling him for merienda, he wasn’t answering so I searched for him. I saw him facedown on the carpet in the bedroom.”

“I thought he was okay, he was in McDa earlier!”

“You saw him? You’re sure it was him?”

“Well, it looked like him… He was sitting near us – He even waved.” Kel shrugged.

Ken turned to me.  “Did you see him too?’

“No, the seat was empty.” I shook my head.

“It’s starting.” Ken dabbed his head with the tissue again. “I don’t know how to explain this.”

“Can you just tell me what’s happening?” Kel asked.

“Kel, you better see him before he goes. It’s not my place to say.”

The brothers disappeared into the emergency room. After a while, Kel texted me to go home since they will take all night. I said I’ll see him tomorrow in class. There was no reply. Maybe he needed some space.

Compared to our travel to the hospital, my ride home was smoother than usual. For once, I didn’t have to chase after a jeepney nor did I have to sweat out a gallon before I reached the street where my house was. It was an unusual evening. Everything was quiet.

Kel didn’t attend class the next day. I texted him during lunch time and to my surprise, he replied immediately with news of his father’s wake. They were having it at home. Instead of going to McDanold’s like the usual, I spent the afternoon commuting to Kel’s place which was located at the edge of Pasag.

The living room was packed with people on monobloc chairs when I arrived. They all faced an open casket as if they were hoping for Kel’s dad to become the next lord of salvation. A large candle was next to the casket. Its flame languidly danced as the wax dripped by the hour.

The chandelier’s light washed over the room. The shadows seemed to divide and grow under the chairs. It was almost impossible to determine who were people and shadows at that point. A figure separated from the group and as it got closer, I saw Kel wearing a black polo and pants. He had his right hand stuck inside his pocket. There was an attempt at being clean shaven but there were thistles sticking out from his neck and chin. His hair was in a ponytail but still stuck in sweaty clumps on his face.

“Oh, how was class?” He said so normally as if his father wasn’t in a casket behind him.

“Still the same. We just have an assignment due tomorrow. You coming tomorrow?”

“Nah, I have to be here until the end of the week.”

“How do you feel?”

“I don’t know… It feels surreal. So many people!” He said.  “I didn’t even know dad was this famous.”

Ken entered the room with their mother. They brought with them small cups of coffee and ensaymada in shrink-wrap which they handed out to everyone. His mother was a small woman who wore a plain black dress. Her dark hair was cropped short. She smiled at the visitors despite the gloomy reception in the room. Ken was dressed in a polo shirt a little big for his size. His eyes betrayed his stoic movements. They were red and he wiped them occasionally with a handkerchief.

“Come see dad.” Kel said and I followed him.

We passed by the people, half of them appeared bulky with either undercuts or buzzcuts. They were like thugs people would avoid in bars. Although old age had gotten to them already, they were greyer and seemed smaller in stature. They all had an insignia of a boar’s face burned into the back of their hand. One of them saw me staring at it and I walked faster, making sure not to lose Kel in the crowd.  

I realized how tall of a person Kel’s dad was. The casket was huge up close. It was similar to carved out ivory angels delicately placed on a pedestal in churches. His hands were on his chest. His hand on top of the other bore the same insignia as his visitors. On the casket, there were different books and pamphlets. They were brown and crispy. If anyone would touch it, they might crumble like graham crackers in a sad mango float.

“My condolences.” I uttered to Kel and his dad.

My stomach growled as an afterthought.

“You should eat.” Kel chuckled.

“Uhm, I feel fine. I’ll leave in a while.” I clutched my bag for emphasis.

“We have too much food in the kitchen. You can go to my room and I’ll bring food.” He said.

Kel’s bedroom door lurched whenever someone opened it. It was obvious when someone comes in and out even when he slept. Being a random guest for so long, I’ve gotten used to it. But when I entered his room, there was a different air to it. Not because it was dusty and there were probably fungi growing on the walls or because the aircon was on for god knows how long. I couldn’t explain it myself. But there was a presence in it.

I dropped my bag near the door and began looking around. His poster of an anime girl was hanging by one corner. Any moment now it would fall down. Polos and pants were strewn to a side. His bed was a disaster of comforter and pillows thrown around randomly. The only sound came from the hum of the aircon and the whirring of his computer. I sat down in front of the desktop. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except for some books stacked behind the monitor. I plucked one out.

There were countless words I could not understand on the page. But one sentence was lazily smudged out by an eraser: The current host must choose an heir from his offspring.  I flipped through to see more before a snap made me drop the book.

The poster had fallen to the ground. I walked closer to the wall it once stuck to. The boar’s face stared back at me. I picked up the book, expecting to find an explanation about the boar but it was pages and pages of words. The book was maroon and had no title. As I opened it, I heard the lurch of the door. I turned around and saw Kel holding a plate of rice and cordon bleu. We looked at each other. He placed the food on the desk and moved to speak but I cut him off.

“What’s all this?!” I pointed to the insignia then the book.

“Why did you touch my stuff?!”

“Uh… it was lying around.”

“Behind the monitor!”

“Look, it was too obvious of a spot. What did you expect?”

“I didn’t want you to see it.”

“Find a better hiding spot in this mess.”

“You should go home before they find out.”

“Who is ‘they’? The people downstairs?”

“Yeah. You’re not supposed to know. You would be dead if they found out.” He lifted the back of his hand and showed me the same insignia. The wound was fresh, still pink and swollen.

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. Just eat your food then leave.”

He snatched the book away from me.

I didn’t say another word. I took the plate filled with rice and cordon bleu. I pushed aside the pillows on his bed before sitting down to eat. Kel fished out the other books behind the monitor. There were at least five of them, all in maroon. The other books had yellowing pages and not a single one had a title in them. Kel seemed different. Confident and strict, in fact. Although he still looked and smelled like a slob, he was making an effort to be a new person.

He set the books on the floor and sat at his computer idly clicking on a game filled with anime girls. Their tiny voices filled the room. People might assume we were watching hentai but who cares, right? That was a better scenario than what he was implying earlier.

“So what’s going to happen now?” I asked, chewing the last of the cordon bleu.

“I don’t know. Just don’t tell anyone what you saw.”

“Okay then…” I stood up.

His attention was still on the monitor. Slowly, I walked backwards. I took in the whole view of the room. It felt larger, dangerous even. Maybe if I stayed a longer, I would find out but there was this urge to just go. I casually slid the topmost book from the pile and then got my bag. He didn’t notice anything. His face was still glued to his game and the crowd of anime girls screaming on it.  I held up my bag and hid the book behind it.

“I’ll see you next week then.” I said along with the lurch of the bedroom door.

“Hey.” He said.

I froze. Did he notice?

“Be careful, okay?”

I nodded then closed the door.

I opened my bag and wedged the book between my papers and other books. I went down the stairs. The visitors were still seated in front of the casket. They were conducting a prayer in a different language. Their chants resonated through the living room.

Ken stood from his seat and met me at the base of the stairs.

“You going so soon?” He said.

“Uh-huh… Don’t wanna be home late. We have class tomorrow.” I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, my condolences.”

“You take care, okay?”

“Take care of yourself too…”

Ken stopped at that statement but he was able to muster a wave. In order to break out of the awkwardness, I hurried out the front door.  

When I got out of the gate, I ran towards the main road and got on the first jeepney that stopped. The only thought that I had was to see this book. Whatever it was, I had to know. Why did Kel sound so grim? Why did Ken react that way? Nothing is making sense.

In bed, I opened the book. It was different compared to the other one. This was older and the spine needed some support. There were more images. It was a mix of languages and there were only a few which I recognized like English and Tagalog. The rest was a blur even as I tried to understand the Spanish parts. The boar was on every page. It looked like it came with the words on the page like a commander and his legion of the damned.

The sketches made a little more sense as I progressed. From what I understood, there was a small boar and he grew into a large beast. He lived in the forest until one day a man found him and burned him and his home. A drawing of a green blob represented his self. He found the man and pushed himself into his mouth until he successfully possessed him. The man would go on killing sprees during certain times in a year.

On another page, it showed the man with a family. The boar transferred to his child and the man was dead afterwards. After the sketches, there were more text than images. I couldn’t make out what it meant anymore.

I blacked out.

I was absent in first period. When I entered the classroom for the next subject, people were so shocked to see me.

“Oh my god!! You’re alive!” One classmate said.

“We thought you were dead!” Another one said.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know? There was an explosion at Kel’s house ah!” She said.

“That’s not true, I was there yesterday.”

“The news said it happened at midnight.” She brought her phone to my face.

 The headlines showed Kel’s house in ruins.

Family and visitors at the wake did not survive.

I had to reread that line.

Something heavy in my gut started to form and I rushed outside. In the restroom, I stared at myself. Did Kel save me? Did Ken know what was going to happen? Was it an accident? I don’t know anymore.

I skipped my classes for the rest of the day. I found myself in McDanold’s, observing my sundae become soup and dipping all the fries into it. Kel and his family were gone. And it all happened at his father’s wake. If I had stayed there, would I have been able to stop it? I sighed and took the book out from my bag. When I flipped it open, the pages flew out from the spine and crumbled on the floor.

In front of me, there was no one.

Just an empty seat.


JULIENNE MAUI CASTELO MANGAWANG finished BA Asian Studies at the University of Santo Tomas. She is taking up her MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines — Diliman. Her poems are published in 聲韻詩刊 Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, ALPAS Journal, Inklette Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus. Her interests include esoteric practices, Japanese studies, and Jungian archetypes. She likes sleeping but sleeping doesn’t like her. At the moment, she is tending to a garden in Makati — anticipating vegetables to be harvested soon and for the hydrangea to be, once again, in full bloom.

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