Morning came with a bitch wind–the kind that carried dirt and muck that stuck on the skin and never washed out. The wind screamed for blood and pain.
Adam Delgado shivered. Dammit, but it was cold. And the coach wanted them to start putting in more practice hours now for the citywide inter-collegiate tournament opening game next week.
He walked to the door of the main building’s basement. It was only nine. The prized player’s first class started at ten and now he was most probably in his lair, practicing those magic dribbles that brought tears to the eyes of the rival coaches.
As team captain, it was Adam’s job to secure the gear and inform the prized player about the practice.
God only knows what possessed him to turn down the position of captain. I came only as the second choice.
The door had been left unlocked. Adam stepped inside the basement, which housed an extensive collection of old school appliances and relatively new sports equipment. He walked into the smaller room, once a huge storage closet for old paints, tools, and chemicals. This was the prized player’s bedroom.
There was nothing in it except a bare wooden cot and an equally drab three-legged table.
The team helped him load back the equipment only last night. Knowing him, he wouldn’t move out of this place–it’s his lion’s den, after all.
Adam had gone into the basement to get equipment many times before and knew that the prized player had some stuff around, like dartboards, target posters and sketches of some wild, exotic birds. They were all gone. Nothing was draped on the makeshift clothesline.
He stood there and assessed this new information. Then, Adam retrieved two new basketballs from the storage racks and kicked the basement door closed. He had better tell the coach that Aragon had gone AWOL.
He gingerly lowered his lanky, sun-burnt body onto the lopsided stone bench. His muscles, if he ever had any worth showing, ached.
Pain contorted his dark face. Not an audible sound escaped his lips. He never liked sounds.
The campus was still cloaked in darkness. He looked around. He had been running for more than an hour, but the sky still resembled a blue-black canopy strewn with darker masses of clouds. Not a ray of sunlight breached his limited view of the horizon. The air was thick and heavy, and sullied by city dust. Rain was coming. He felt a remote perverse satisfaction.
A female voice had said his family name. People knew him by that name. Aragon. A name full of history, bloodshed, and pain. His place of birth was far enough away, but he could still recollect the smells of gunpowder, the crisp click of a gun’s hammer, the echo of death cries. They all came with the Aragon heritage.
His well-trained eyes made out her silhouette. The lighting in the campus was sparse, and the few functional lampposts badly needed a replacement of bulbs.
“Jerann.” As always, she was dressed in a white shirt and her baggy jeans. Her hair was black, thick, and wispy–the humid wind played with its unruly strands. She carried her black duffel schoolbag, the size of which dwarfed her petite frame.
He felt his chest tighten, his heartbeat accelerate. “What are you doing here? How did you get in the campus?”
He watched her place the bag on the concrete pavement and take a seat beside him on the stone bench. Her deep-set eyes flickered in the darkness. “I had to see you,” she replied simply.
“How did you get in?” he pressed. He lived on campus, in the main building’s basement. He had first lodged in a boardinghouse, but he hated the noise and the activity. He wanted to be by himself. The coach had allowed him to hole up in the storage room, where the sports teams kept all their equipment. The older man could not refuse the simple request of his prized player.
“The fence is only about seven feet, max.” There was a smile in her voice. “Sleep wouldn’t come, as always–and I figured you would be here.”
“Yes. I couldn’t sleep either. And, as always, the best option is to run.”
He opened his arms and she snuggled into them. Once upon a time, she had told him how much she loved the way his bones cut into her flesh. She pressed her face to his chest, not minding his sweat-soaked shirt.
“You should eat more,” she said out of the blue.
“Uh-huh. I don’t know where you get the strength to jump so high into the air–and dunk a basketball, even.” She giggled, but it seemed like a broken and distant whimper to his ears. Her breath whispered through the worn material of his shirt. “Don’t you know that some people call you ‘Human Bamboo’?”
They both lapsed into silence. In the darkness, she reached for his hands. He felt her delicate skin brush against his scarred and callused palms. Even though they were much, much closer than people expected them to be, he had never once stopped marveling at how he and Jerann appeared to be so different from each other.
She was the epitome of charm and intelligence–those who knew her liked her. She always had that ready smile and the time to listen to anyone’s problems. Nearly everyone in school believed that sleeping wasn’t on her busy schedule, that Jerann Castelo would rather stay up talking to someone in her trademark high-octane and witty manner, organizing events that went beyond the ordinary student’s academic concerns.
He was popular in another fashion–the star basketball player who never gave away much about himself. The name Aragon struck fear in the varsity teams of colleges all over the region. Ever since his freshman year, he had brought the university an unprecedented steady stream of basketball championships. However, he had not been raised to become an athletic achiever. His training had aimed to accomplish more serious ends. Deadly serious ends.
During his first year in the university, he and his blockmates went on a class trip up the mountains. While everyone lugged bags of canned goods and other packaged foods, he just brought clothes and minimal camping equipment. Evening at their campsite, the teacher asked: “Where’s the dinner you’re supposed to bring for yourself?”
“It’s right behind you, sir.” He threw his hunting knife, the blade whizzing a mere inch above his professor’s head.
A wild chicken, an ilahas, squawked and crashed to the ground in rapid succession. He then had an entire roasted chicken for his dinner, served hot. No one shared his impromptu meal, or spoke to him for the rest of the trip. The teacher gave him a grade of 1.0. After that, everyone dealt with him very cautiously. No one would dare to test his temper. He liked it that way.
Only Jerann had dared break through that wall between him and the rest of the world. During a school disco, she had asked him to dance, locating him amongst the shadows of the auditorium. He had been standing at a corner, nearly undetectable by the senses. He was fond of honing his stealth skills, but she had made him realize his abilities that time were rather rusty.
Jerann Castelo, one of the most popular girls in school, was actually standing right there and asking him to dance with her. The varicolored strobe lights of the darkened building had accentuated the spark of recklessness in her eyes.
He had been very flustered. “I don’t know how to–”
“Aragon, if you turn me down, I will kill you.”
She was the first girl to speak his language. That very moment, he fell in love with her.
That was seven months ago.
Nobody knew anything about what went on between them, except perhaps Lexie, Jerann’s loyal friend. It just didn’t make sense to tell anyone.
“The first time I saw you, you were practicing alone in the court,” Jerann was now saying. “You were wearing this exact same shirt. It was kind of new then.”
He smiled in the darkness. Only very few had seen him smile.
She felt the slight chuckle rumbling through his chest. “What the hell are you so amused about?”
“You.” He pulled her closer. Jerann’s small frame fitted his embrace perfectly, snugly. “Why do you always have to be so perfect? You remember, know, and do almost everything.”
Her breathing seemed to stop. It took moments before she could answer. “I was raised to be like that. I’m the only child. No one could make up for my mistakes, should I have any. That was my first lesson in life.” She paused, as if gathering momentum. “When I was little, they had my tutor slap my hands when I couldn’t spell a word correctly. Or sometimes they wouldn’t let me have dinner unless I could recite an entire declamation speech without any mistakes. Then I got good at all of it. Then better. By the time I was twelve, there was no more need for such discipline. I delivered everything they wanted.”
The words had a bitter edge. He could taste them in his own heart.
“It gets exhausting. I’m doing a great job at it, though. There are so many people expecting so many things. And I had to do those things. I feel guilty when I couldn’t. Sometimes it’s like digging your own grave. But you feel the need to do it anyway.” Her voice now sounded raspy and strained. “And, at some point, the need becomes a want. It becomes a part of you.”
The first few raindrops fell. He felt them on his arm. Then he realized they weren’t from the sky. The droplets were her tears. In all the time he had known Jerann, this was the first time he had seen her cry.
The Aragon rage bubbled inside of him. It was a part of him, his lifeblood. Although he had vowed never to take a human life again, he would change that for her. He would kill someone to spare her from the hurt. But there was no one entirely responsible for that sort of torment. Just like no one had to pay for his past, except perhaps he himself.
“I’m sorry…” His voice trailed off, and he felt lame and helpless. “I shouldn’t have said–”
“It’s not your fault. Sometimes you just couldn’t help remembering things like that.” She bravely swallowed back her sobs. He gently wiped her tears away, careful so his calluses would not scratch her smooth face. “I had it coming. I had it coming all these years.”
He waited for her to calm down. She could so easily collect herself, and he loved her all the more for it. “I was raised to be the best, too, you know. And I became the best.”
Jerann’s tearstained face had a look that showed the struggle to comprehend his words.
“When I was in high school, I was known as Cain in the underground. My father chose that name for me. I was born with a twin brother, but it seems like my cord was around his neck when we were cut out…I choked him to death in our mother’s womb.”
“I didn’t know…” She was groping for words.
“There are four of us. All boys. I’m the youngest, but I could outshoot all my brothers. I was faster and stronger. All the high schools offered everything from bribes to scholarship packages to my parents so I would go their place, just so they could get all the basketball titles, even a Palarong Pambansa medal. My father then said that the mantle of the Eagle-Eye had to be passed down–he had hit fifty and it was about time. All my uncles–all the Aragon clan–wanted me to take it. I was thirteen. The Eagle-Eye tattoo meant…the world.”
“That explains the eagle mark on your chest.” Jerann placed her hand over his heart. “It’s more than just a tattoo.”
“It is a memento of my past. I belong to the most powerful vigilante family in Mindanao. The Aragons have been around since the 1700s. We were loyal to no one, except our own blood and kin. That’s how we had roots. The Eagle-Eye is the best of the present Aragon generation. He was entrusted to carry out the most dangerous missions.” He said everything without any pride. Then again, there was nothing to be proud of.
A series of frozen frames flashed in his memory. He drew in a sharp breath. “My initiation rite was to kill a priest who sexually abused a younger cousin of mine, his sakristan. It was three-thirty in the morning…the priest was walking to Church to prepare for the misa de gallo. I got him with one shot, right between the eyes. Christmas of 1993, I became the seventh-generation Eagle-Eye. That’s when I got the tattoo. ‘You will be Cain now,’ my father said.”
“There are twenty-seven others on my list; two of them were very young, like five or six years old. They were the children of a druglord. They saw me shoot their father. Leave no witnesses. That was in the rules.”
“You are a killer.” Her voice was toneless. Not angry, afraid or accusing, just clear and audible. He knew she would never look at him with the same eyes again, ever.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” He suddenly realized that she had not broken out of his embrace. “I left Surallah thinking I could somehow lose that part of me. I bargained for four years so there’s time to think about it. No matter how hard you try, that side of you stays right where it is. If you try to get rid of it somehow, it will eat you up alive. You could shed your skin, but not your blood. You wouldn’t have the strength to survive.”
He felt her back heaving. Before he could say anything, she turned up to look at his face. Her cat’s eyes were glazed with unshed tears, but he could see the clarity behind the sheen. The clarity that his pain was hers, too. “I love you, Nick. Nothing can change that.”
Nick. His Christian name was Nicholas, but no one called him that. It was always Aragon to everybody else. Only Jerann called him by his first name. She was the only person who accepted Nicholas for himself.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about, Nicholas Aragon.” This time, her voice rang with certainty and strength. “You may be a killer, you may be the most feared vigilante in the whole world, but I love you for what you are. I found in you a part of myself that I thought I would never find in another person, much less someone my age. Don’t you know how good it feels to finally hear you talk about your past?” Her right hand left his chest and settled on her own belly. “And I love you for being the father of this child.”
He felt all the air leave his lungs. Then a sudden glow began to form in the pit of his stomach. It was a warmth he had known only when he met Jerann. “You are…” His voice trailed off.
“Yes. For maybe six weeks now. A doctor who doesn’t know my family confirmed it yesterday afternoon. That’s why I had to see you. I could no longer keep this a secret.” She clutched at his arm. Her face, so beautiful to him, was a study of mixed emotions. “I had to tell you.”
“I’m going to be a father,” he said slowly, as if tasting the word.
“And I’m going to have this baby. Our child.”
This time, the first real drops of rain fell down on them. A droplet fell on his lips. He tasted sweetness and coolness. It bore none of the acid and rage of the tainted air. A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, followed by a muffled rumble of thunder.
By silent mutual agreement, neither of them suggested to take shelter in the nearby classrooms, which were left unlocked all the time.
Ever so vibrant, Jerann jumped to her feet and spread out her arms, turning up her face to the incoming downpour.
Nicholas realized that he was still absorbing her news. Then his head cleared, as if someone had vacuumed away all the cobwebs of time. He stood up as well, slightly amused at the fact that his six-two frame towered above her.
“Jerann…” He caught her small hands. “I love you. And we will have this child. That’s a vow.” He placed her palms over his heart, on the very same spot where his body bore the Eagle-Eye brand. “An Aragon vow.”
“Let’s do this right. For the first time in our lives, we will not do the perfect thing.” She reached up and touched his face, a face that had looked Death in the eye and never crumbled. “We will do the right thing.”
“Who ever said we were different?” he replied, more to himself than to her.
“If they only knew.” Jerann’s smile gleamed with shared secrets.
The rain fell harder now. It came down in sheets. It roared, but it wasn’t angry. It came down with the force of a youth’s passion.
He fixed his gaze on Jerann.
She was looking straight back at him, the way she had the night of the school disco. The night when she unwittingly opened the door to his heart’s freedom.
Right here in the rain, we will be free.
For the first time in his life, Nicholas Aragon took a girl in his arms and slow-danced in the downpour. There were no sounds except the crash of falling water on concrete, earth and galvanized iron. Somewhere inside them played the music. It had a new tune.
Alexandra Magullado worked for the campus publication, and it had been her habit for the past two years to drop by the newspaper office every morning to check on the mail and the writing assignments.
A note was tacked to the door corkboard when she arrived. The familiar roundish script read:
My dearest Lexie: I’ve held on for years to what I thought I am. But I learned I was beginning to become the puppet of my own expectations. This time, however, Pinocchio already has body fluids and a DNA helix. The fairy would have no use, too, considering. “Real?” Hah! This is as real as it gets. And there’s always the time, that moment of decision, when you just want to shout “Leave me the hell alone!” to the world. I just did that. Goodbye. Take care. And always smile.
She stared at the signature. Like her bestfriend’s personality, it had an inimitable flourish.
For a long time, Alexandra’s attention was directed at the unlit space of the office, her brain trying to cope with the news.
There’s nothing else to do but hope and pray for the best.
She composed herself, went through the publication’s memo slips on the assignment board, and headed for her next class. Along the way, she stopped by a waste can and purposefully tore the letter to tiny shreds. There was a smile on her face as she watched the pieces fall, confetti-like, into the assortment of trash.
“Be happy, Jeri,” Alexandra whispered into the cold air. “I’ll miss you.”
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