The only house rule was to be back before sunset and never to step outside until the sun rises again, and Jake couldn't even follow.
Aurora held the doorknob as she watched the sky burn behind the rocky Mount Tanglad. She looked at her digital watch every other minute as if looking at it would bring Jake back from wherever he was. Where has he been, by the way?
They came back to the house at around three in the afternoon after the day's work, and Aurora took a nap. When she woke up after an hour, Jake was nowhere.
She clucked her tongue and shut the door at precisely six twenty-eight. 'Screw you, Jake.'
She locked the only two windows of the house and lit up the improvised kerosene lamp that served as the dining table's centerpiece.
She headed to the tiny kitchen. The cauldron sat on the roughly cemented sink, housing bloated rice from the previous night. She scraped the mushy rice and threw it on the cheap plastic bag. A sickly sour smell filled the air.
She washed the grains and filled the cauldron with water, a quarter of the finger higher than the top of the grain - that's how you make good rice, use your finger to measure the water. She placed it on top of the improvised stove - a dice steel frame that housed burning wood underneath.
Aurora sat on the bamboo dining set and stared at the butotoy, an improvised lamp made of a soft drink bottle half-filled with kerosene and with a piece of cloth as the wick. The thin black smoke rose from it like a lady in a slow rotating dance.
The usual question for missing people would be, where could they be? But in this case, it didn't matter where Jake was. What mattered was what will become of him? So why was it not allowed to be out of the house after sunset in the first place? Aurora was in the village for almost a month already. But she never thought of that house rule until that night. And it scared her. What she didn't know scared her.
The entire village was so quiet that Aurora feared the sound of the boiling water coming from the rice might attract the attention of whatever was lurking in the dark. She took the lid to allow the bubbles to evaporate so the water won't overflow. She washed two eggs and dropped them in the cauldron. After fifteen more minutes, her dinner was ready - steamed rice and two boiled eggs.
She ate dinner slowly as if that would kill time. And time does play with all of us. The clock ticks slower when you are in a hurry.
After dinner, she sat on the bamboo bench beside the door. She waited there in case Jake comes running and banging the door. At least she could quickly open it before anything happens to him if anything happens.
Aurora could hear the slightest movement from outside. The purring of stray cats from a distance. The flapping of bat wings. The call of crows. But she couldn't hear a human sound. As if nobody talks. As if darkness equates to silence and that nobody should talk at night. She remembered a picnic by a river several summers ago. She dipped her toe, and it created a ripple on the still water. She was ready to jump into the river when her mother warned her. 'Be careful. Deep rivers run quiet.'
She closed her eyes and carefully listened, as deep inside; she hoped to hear footsteps. She hoped to hear Jake's footsteps. But, instead, she heard water slowly dripping from a bit of a distance, mesmerizing, satisfying to her senses.
When Aurora opened her eyes, she saw lights slithering through the thin gaps of the window. There were loud drum beats and laughter outside. She checked her watch, and it was eight in the morning.
She suddenly remembered Jake and quickly went out. She searched for Kapitana, the village's chairwoman and the house owner, where she and Jake stayed.
'Kapitana,' she called and waved to the plump, middle-aged woman laughing with the other women.
Aurora ran to her. 'Kapitana, Jake didn't come back before sunset yesterday.'
The chairwoman smirked.
'Do you think anyone might have seen him? Or might he stayed in someone else's house?'
The chairwoman smiled and raised her eyebrows to a man who passed by then looked at her. Her smile faded.
'No one saw him.' The chairwoman started walking.
Aurora followed her. 'Kapitana, I need help. I need to find Jake. What am I going to tell our company who sent two people for fieldwork and only one came back.'
The chairwoman stopped and faced her.
'What was the house rule Aurora?'
'Stay indoors after sunset. And wait until the sun rises before going out.'
'And what did your friend do?'
Aurora sighed and looked at the ground.
'But I need to find him Kapitana, please help me.'
'We cannot help people who do not follow even the simplest house rules.' The chairwoman started walking again, greeting the villagers standing in front of their houses, some sweeping the leaves, some gossiping. Two men were still beating the drum. Children were playing.
'But Kapitana, actually, why can't we stay outdoors after sunset? What's there? What happens if we stay outdoors?'
Kapitana stopped and stared at her with those deep, terrifying eyes. She stepped back. 'Today is the rain festival. The villagers are preparing for a feast. Be in front of the hall for lunch. We prepared delicate food for the gods.' Kapitana smiled and walked away.
Aurora headed to their work area, hoping to see Jake. But no trace of him there or anywhere else she passed by. She checked if anything from their tiny cabin office was stolen, but everything was intact. It's the same as they left it yesterday. And if Jake came back and stayed the night there, she would know because he would mess things up.
She needs to report to her superior that Jake was missing, but there's no electricity, let alone phone signals. And that's why the company sent her and Jake there to work on installing electric wires. Sending mail was also not an option. Walking down to the city wasn't an option either as it will take her a week, that's if she'd reach the town alive.
She wouldn't be able to leave until after two months, once her superiors send the company vehicle to pick her up and send her replacement.
She headed to the hall, and while walking, she randomly asked other villagers if they have seen Jake. She was either answered by silence or a dialect that she couldn't understand. For the first time since her stay there, she felt alienated.
The hall was loud with drumbeats and laughter and songs in a dialect she could not understand —a contrast from the dead silence of the previous night. The women danced, and the kids played and ran around. The aroma of the grill reminded her of town fiestas and Lechon and street foods.
The chairwoman waved at Aurora and gestured for her to come. She handed her a plate with corn on the cob and grilled meat with gravy on top. Aurora's stomach, which only had hard-boiled eggs and rice the previous night and nothing for breakfast, was clawing at her.
The corn with slightly burned edges was juicy and sweet. The meat was crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, flavored with savory gravy. She took another slice from her plate and flipped it to check the skin. She loves crispy skin where you can hear the crunch in every bite.
Aurora wondered why there were dark spots on the skin and looked closely.
The dark spots resembled letters. Emily. In typewriter font. That was the name of Jake's wife tattooed on his left arm.
Aurora threw up. The entire village stopped and looked at her, and there was pin-drop silence.