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Friendship Drama Crime

It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. The boarded up windows gave the impression that the buildings lining the street were not habitable. Katie smiled and nodded at the curious eyes peeking out from the slats of wood as she passed them, knowing that her blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair complexion got the locals excited.

This old motel strip in the seediest corner of Metro Manila, Philippines had been both a place to hide and recuperate, and the best venue for secrets. Why she went back was as much a mystery as it was a marvel. It was hard to imagine that after all the craziness that happened in the past, she would want to come back and look for… something. Perhaps it was closure that she was after.

The street was only wide enough to accommodate two motorcycles side by side, or one motorcycle with a sidecar. She took neither, even if she had been offered a ride several times at the opening of the alleyway. It was a short 50-meter walk to a non-descript metal gate with a tiny door.

She fished out a one peso coin from her jeans pocket and used it as a knocker. The metal surface reverberated as she struck it with her coin.

“Ka-ta-rin!” shrieked the woman who opened the door after a brief moment of shocked awe passed between them.

Nanay Nita looked the same, but older. The sense of familiarity must be related to Nanay’s grip on her shoulders, which was as strong and warm as it had been when she left.

“Come in! Kamusta? My God! You’re very beautiful now,” the older woman said, planting her cheek on Katie’s.

“I’m great! It’s great to be here again, Nanay Nita,” Katie answered, laughing at the woman’s candid assessment of her appearance. At 19 years old, she must have looked so emaciated and sunken to be considered more beautiful at 44. And with the reminder, some of the memories started to flood back.

“Is Tatay Junior…?” she asked hesitantly, stepping inside the threshold and letting the smells sights of the small make-shift home assault her senses.

The house used to be a garage accommodation in a motorist hotel; a basic studio apartment built on top of a garage. The room had since been partitioned into two small bedrooms with a common bathroom, and the garage had been converted into a living area with a small kitchen. An electric vespa was parked beside a beat-up videoke machine. 

“Oy!” boomed a man’s voice from the back. Tatay Junior shuffled forward as fast as his atrophied legs would go, but he was too slow for Katie, who rushed toward him and gave him a bear hug. She felt his frailness, which wasn’t there before, and she hugged him tighter.

“Calm down, my girl, my bones are not as strong as before,” Tatay said cheerfully, clutching the backrest of a chair for balance.   

Nanay Nita had prepared a scrumptious meal of boiled greens and fermented fish sauce, which went perfectly with the roasted chicken bought from a roadside rotisserie. It was a special dinner filled with small talk and good vibes. Katie glanced at the small pantry cabinet next to the refrigerator and smiled. The canned goods she’d sent a month ago along with the letter announcing her imminent visit were lined up on the top shelf, a place of honor.

Tatay and Katie sat on the table in silence while Nanay washed the dishes. He sipped his after-dinner gin on the rocks, while she stared at the ceiling lost in thought.

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Bangkok

She quickly sat up from her sleeping mat and stared hard at the window. It was too dark to be early morning, yet too quiet to be happy hour. She didn’t hear anything from the open door. Their handlers must have ventured out to catch the dregs of a wild rave or two in the main red light districts of Bangkok. It took her a minute before she noticed anything that was out of the ordinary.

It was the absence of snoring that alerted Katie. Of the three inhabitants of the room, Phan snored like a truck driver, and tonight, she wasn’t snoring. Katie padded over to Phan’s mat, careful not to jostle Tony, who had rolled over onto her mat.

“Phan…” she gently shook the other girl’s shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“Finally…” came the faint reply “I been trying to wake you for five minutes–” she paused to cough.

“Weren’t you with Roon just now?” Katie felt a surge of anger at their male handler who regularly hit on Phan when his wife wasn’t around. The last thing she remembered before she passed out last night was Roon fondling Phan in the hallway as soon as the lady of the house went out to transact with some people on the busy street.

“I got the key,” Phan replied, wheezing. “You have time now, they just went out. Hurry.” She pushed a cold piece of metal into Katie’s palm.

Shit, Katie thought, staring at the girl for two seconds before running across the hallway to the other room. She quickly removed her t-shirt and tied the sleeves.

Heart hammering, she opened the drawer of the only desk in the room and grabbed two dark blue passports, two wallets, one smartphone, and several wads of cash secured by rubber bands. Not hesitating, she scooped up all the jewelry and coins scattered in the drawer and shoved them into her makeshift sack.        

Tony was stirring when she went back to the room, topless with her contraband under her arm. She grabbed the two backpacks shoved in the corner and started filling them with clean clothes along with the valuables. She threw on an oversized hoodie and tossed another to Tony.

“Tony, we have to go. I got our passports and some cash.”

“Go where? What about Phan?”

“She’s a local, she’ll survive,” she glanced at Phan, who was lying on her mat facing the wall. “Go down and be on the lookout. I’ll say goodbye to Phan.”

With Tony gone, Katie bent over the prostrate girl and touched her neck, searching for a pulse. Phan’s eyes were staring and foamy spittle was running down her chin. Katie suppressed a scream, as she pushed the girl's lids close.

“Thank you. I’m sorry.”

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Manila

“The US embassy is along this route. I will take you there.”

The taxi driver was an older man who was very articulate in English. Too articulate, in fact. It took Tony and Katie only several minutes of interacting with the locals in the crowded airport to appreciate the fact that they really weren’t in Thailand anymore. They took a random flight out of Bangkok that evening at 11 PM and landed in Manila, Philippines four hours later.

“No, sir. I—” Katie glanced at Tony beside her. He was as pale as a sheet and trembling. “We would like to go to a cheap motel, if possible. The cheapest. We don’t have much money on us.”

She tried to sound apologetic to hide her nerves. She suspected that the taxi driver knew something odd was going on, as he had been staring at them on the rearview mirror the whole time.

“Alright. if you say so.” The taxi veered to the right and entered a wide street. They passed by several clubs that were still open at 5 am. In front of one club, a police car was ostentatiously parked, it’s red and blue lights flashing. Tony shrank in his seat, and Katie moved back from the window. The driver noticed.  

Finally, he dropped them off at a side street after giving instructions to ride one of the waiting tricycles and ask to be taken to one of the motels in the area. He glared briefly at Tony who was shaking so badly that he could hardly move from his seat.

There was one tricycle waiting. The driver was lounging on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette.

‘Sir, can you help us? We need to go to a motel quickly. My friend, he is–“ Katie stopped short when Tony suddenly lurched forward and vomited all over his clothes.   

The man was there, holding Tony up and helping him into the small sidecar.

“Are you sure? I can take you to a hospital now.”

“No! No hospital! Please!” Katie's panicked voice sounded shrill in the lightening gloom.

“Ok, Ok. But I’m taking him to my wife first. No motel will accept a sick person.”

The man introduced himself as Tatay Junior and his wife Nanay Nita. Katie vaguely noted the look of alarm that she exchanged with her husband when the two Americans stumbled inside their small home smelling of vomit. She quickly got them out of their clothes, which were soaked with sweat, and into dry ones. She had Tony lie down on a narrow bed and covered him with blankets. Katie was given a cot beside him.

For a time, the only sounds in the house were Nanay Nita’s voice issuing curt orders, which her husband followed without question. She was back with a plastic pitcher of water and two cold tablets.

“Drink this then sleep,” she said, her kind face crinkling as she smiled. “I will wake you up at lunch.”

As soon as she closed the door behind her, Katie felt Tony’s hand on her back.

“Katie, are we safe?” he whispered.

“I think we are, Tony.” Katie whispered back before drifting to sleep.

Katie and Tony sat across the old couple at lunch, still looking slightly dazed that they were in another country, in another house, and having lunch with people other than the ones who enslaved them into prostitution for half a year.

They timidly accepted the pork broth and rice and ate ravenously without speaking. The man and woman in front of them observed in silence, occasionally standing to get cold water or table napkins.

“What are your names?” Tatay asked when Katie finally put down her spoon. She knew the question was for her because Tony had slumped in his seat, his head resting on the small bucket that Nanay surreptitiously placed on his lap.

“I’m Katie. Katherine Smith. And this is Tony Roy. We just came from Thailand…”

Her voice trailed away, but the man nodded in encouragement. Haltingly at first, she began talking about being befriended by some locals while staying in a hostel. She and other backpackers partied along, one rave after another, for a week, and then their new friends started offering hard drugs. Before they knew it, they were hooked into selling themselves to afford their new lifestyle.

“They made us call our parents to say we decided to work in Bangkok and we’ll be there for a while. So that they won’t call the embassy and ask where we were, you know.”

Nanay Nita gasped. “How terrible! But how old are you? You can’t be more than 15 years old. You are so thin!”

“I’m nineteen. He’s twenty.”

“Phan’s eighteen.” Tony interrupted hoarsely. “She’s the other girl with us. We left her behind. She’s Thai.”

Katie drew a deep breath. It was time to tell him.

“Tony, Phan’s dead. She probably OD’d on the cocaine that Roon made her take before he bedded her. She gave me the key to the drawer right before she slept. I checked her before we left. She had no pulse.”

Tony’s face became even paler as he digested this news. He hid in his bucket and sobbed heartbrokenly. Soon, he was retching again, and Nanay Nita was gently talking him into resting in the bedroom upstairs, leaving Katie with Tatay Junior to finish her story.

“We tried to escape many times, but they had our passports, so we could go no farther than the outskirts of the city. And Tony couldn’t last a few days without needing a fix again.” Katie looked pointedly at Tony, who was walking up the stairs very slowly. “He’s going on drug withdrawal.”

“I can help him with that. By weaning,” Tatay said matter-of-factly, “I can supply him less and less until he can function normally without it. We did it with our son when he was on withdrawal.” His tone changed as he mentioned his son.

“What happened to him?”

“Our son ran with the wrong crowd even after he got clean. He got into an argument with his business partners and was shot on the chest. It was a long time ago.”   

Tatay pensively blew smoke rings towards the ceiling, seeming to have forgotten about Katie. After a while, he pushed the pack of cigarettes toward her. “You’re not going on withdrawal, are you?”

“Not yet, I think.” She answered, lighting up. She always suspected that the drugs affected her less than they did the others. She had tremors for an hour or so, but there would always be something that distracted her from sinking deeper into withdrawal. She could go for weeks without needing a fix.

The next couple of weeks flew by without much incident, except for Tony’s occasional outbursts and Katie’s short bout with the flu. They gave most of their cash to the old Filipino couple, who also pawned the jewelry Katie stole from their handlers, some of which yielded enough profit to cover their keep and the price of their plane tickets back to the states.  

Katie was the first to go, because Tony needed more time to be fully weaned from his addiction. She promised Tony that she would email him when she arrives, and he promised to do the same when he’s back in the mainland. After much hugging and tearful goodbyes with Tatay and Nanay, Katie was off.

Not a single email was sent by either Katie and Tony to each other.

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Manila, 24 years later.

“So, you never spoke to Tony again?” Tatay Junior stared disbelievingly at Katie. “Why wouldn’t you? After all you’ve been through together.”

“That’s just it, tatay,” Katie answered, somewhat defensively. “After all the traumatic experiences we shared, we didn’t want to be reminded. And somehow, speaking to each other again would dredge up all those memories. Besides, he never made an effort to contact me, too.”

“You’re both strange, you are. Because you’ve separately been keeping in touch with us, we simply assumed you also kept in touch with each other.”

Tatay glanced at nanay meaningfully. She went upstairs and came back down with a small packet in her hands.

“He made us promise to give this to you in person, if you ever come back to the Philippines,”  tatay said as he handed Katie the packet, which contained a letter and several faded photographs.

Katie stifled an exclamation as she recognized the faces of the people she partied with in the backpacker’s street. In one photo, black-haired Phan had her arms around Katie and Tony, who were resplendent in their touristic garb. Phan’s wide brown eyes was sparkling. They had just finished watching street performers and were relaxing in a café.

Seeing their faces so innocent and unaware of the evil that was going to devour them in a few days was oddly cathartic to Katie. She expected the trauma to come back, but instead, she felt grateful and relieved. Thank you, and I’m sorry, she said silently to the face of the girl who saved their lives.

She opened the letter, which she knew was from Tony. She felt an odd excitement at seeing his penmanship, especially the way he signed his name. She had also forgotten that his real name was Anthony.

Dear Katie,

If you’re reading this, you must be in the Philippines again.

This past year has been a nightmare to both of us, and all I want to do is forget about it. But before I do that, I want you to know that I could never have survived without you. You were the reason I never quit, because you never quit on me, Thank You. I don’t expect to hear from you again, but please contact me when you’re ready. I will be waiting.

Sincerely,

Anthony Roy

Katie folded the letter and gave a shaky laugh as her tear-filled eyes met Tatay’s and Nanay’s.  

They survived. And that was all that mattered.

November 20, 2020 19:41

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2 comments

Carole Cobos
13:30 Mar 20, 2021

I adore your writing style. Nothing sounds awkward and chunky- and I've been doing this recently, but I imagine it's a webcomic! And everything fits together perfectly. -and when you read it out loud it is clean. I know this sounds like weird praise but I really like this story.

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Ruby Galvez
23:39 Mar 20, 2021

Thank you for this! <3

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