By Chef IsisIssa
For me, life was a whirlwind of lights and smoke, music and men. I lived in a beaten up shanty close to North Edsa, crammed in a closet-like room with a bunch of other women. We slept on mats on the dirt floor and shared the space with mange-infested dogs, flea-bitten cats and cockroaches. My wardrobe consisted mostly of skimpy skirts, tank tops and the cheapest high heels you can buy in Quiapo.
After a hard night at the bars of dancing and exposing myself, sometimes spending time in a back room with a heavily drunk man and my eyes like a dead fish staring at the ceiling, I earned enough cash to go to the thrift shop. The weather in Manila had become chilly at night, and I needed a sweater.
I took a walk down a few streets that smelled of garbage and human urine mixed with the smog from jeepneys, tricycles and trucks that never ended. It wasn’t long before I found a street lined with second-hand clothes, undoubtedly from American charities but somehow grabbed by greedy merchants looking to make extra pesos.
The sweater was like a pearl in murky waters as it lay neatly on top of a bunch of tattered, motley clothes. Wondering how someone had not yet bought it, I quickly took it in my hands and studied the richness of the fabric. It was as soft as a rabbit’s fur and just as warm. Across its front was a large pouch where you could put your hands into for warmth, and that’s where I found the note on a crumpled piece of yellowed paper. It smelled like the section of a library where ancient books could be found. Dust and dank. On the paper where scrawled the words:
Where: 67th Banawi Street
Pay: One thousand pesos a night.
Job: Lie on the bed. From 11pm to 3am, keep your eyes shut. Never open them. Past 3, your money will be on the dresser.
Banawi Street. The note did not say which city, but I recalled the name of a street in Quezon that one of my roommates used to visit for a client. It was where the more upper class people lived.
I stuffed the note in my pocket and paid the merchant. Only thirty pesos, not bad. The sweater was wonderful on my skin and made me glow like a snowflake. I felt like one of those young starlets on our local Kapamilya TV network. And in my pocket was the promise of an easy, high-paying job. Those came so rarely. I must admit that, even if the job seemed sketchy, the promise of a thousand pesos a night was tempting. I could get myself out of my situation. Maybe go to college. Find a real job.
After a lot of asking and searching, I found the house that night. 67th Banawi Street was in desolate condition, even if it was in an upper class neighborhood. A single story house surrounded by a short wire fence. Yard unkempt, weeds stuck up like tousled hair. Boards molded, loose, shingles chipped, paint faded. Windows cloaked with dust. Still it was a hundred times better than the shanty I slept in. The light of the patio was on as I approached, and when I knocked, the door opened as if ajar.
I called hello. No answer. The interior smelled aged and sour, like wet laundry left in the wash for days. I stepped inside, leaving the door slightly open so the light from the patio could illuminate my way. The floor felt as if it might give way beneath my weight. I felt the walls pressing in on me, heavy and damp. The place reminded me of a body they had found in the sewage canal close to where I lived. Bloated and bruised, deteriorated. I passed the dark living room. There was a TV, a battered couch. A coffee table with an ashtray and some empty cans. The room reeked of cat urine and dried feces. No one there. I attempted to turn on some light switches but found them useless. I turned away and headed down a hallway, noticing a pale light glowing beneath a closed door.
I called again. Absolute silence. I clasped the handle and pushed, ignoring the greasy residue it left on my palm. I found a single bed covered in drab sheets, one dresser beside it with a digital clock. It illuminated the time strongly through the darkness.
Feeling disturbed, I might have turned away. The house was empty. I admit I thought the job was just going to be another man looking for a quick fix, but now I was curious. It didn’t seem that way, and the uncertainty of it unnerved me. But still, one thousand pesos was too good to pass. I needed to find out if it were true.
I lay on the bed with the note in my hands, facing the glow of the clock.
I listened. The house made no sound. Muffled as if a hand lay over it. I felt afraid but excited.
My heart throbbed from my chest, through my throat, in my head. I imagined the ticking of a clock, tried to match my heart with its beat.
I shut my eyes. Waited.
11 came. I knew with my eyes closed because the change in the atmosphere was immediate. I was not alone. My eyes were shut, yet I felt it. So close to my face, the minute hairs on my forehead tingled. It breathed. Tight, stressed, as if forced to breathe only from its nose. I felt the air warm the area just above my lips. I smelled it. A sour smell, like pickled gums, and there was something else. Pungent, thick, sweet. The smell of blood.
I resisted the urge to gag. Seconds turned to minutes, and still the presence lingered against my face. My body suffered, paralyzed with fear. I felt every strained breath. In. Out. Slow, afraid. I felt the slightest itch on my body. Prickles against my legs, bites up my thighs, behind my back and neck. Sweat creeping, crawling, brushing upturned hairs and begging me to scratch and move. I didn’t. Bones ached, muscles wept. My heart. My heart struggled like a sparrow caught in someone’s hands.
The presence continued its steady closeness to my face. My forehead glittered with sweat and now began to throb. My nose pricked, twitched. I wondered if it saw that. Even my eyelids sweated, my eyes behind them stiff, shot, scared. Hiding behind lids like frightened children in a closet.
The smell relented. My lungs resisted its entry, asking for me to turn my head away, escape from such a foul smell. Yet I could not. Every part of my body was frozen so long as the thing stared into my face.
Never open them.
My hands still clutched the note. As long as I kept my eyes closed, I thought, nothing could happen to me.
I analyzed the letter in my mind. Repeated those three words. Never open them. Again, ten times. Uncountable times. Stealing myself to start my next move.
I breathed. A long inhale. Sourness and the sickly smell of blood swamped my lungs. I gagged. Coughed. And then I turned. I turned away into the bed, curled myself, fetal-like, eyes clamped shut like vices. And when I relaxed, I felt it. Still there, a hair’s width away from my face. It was hovering, floating! How could the thing have moved with me? I did not feel any weight on the bed during the transition, any sign to suggest that it had crawled over me, moved beside me, refocused itself against my face.
I allowed a few minutes to pass before I tried again. I moved, slowly, deliberately, sensing it against my face. And it moved with mine, smoothly, soundlessly, until I was completely on my back. My face, eyes shut, staring straight up. The thing looking down upon me, relentlessly. I grimaced, knit my brows, sweated. I wanted to bat at it, but I could not. I was too afraid. All I could clutch on to was the promise that this could end. I waited, ached. Sweated, prayed. It stayed with me. Always there. I could not sleep.
The digital clock alarmed, and just like that, I was released. The thing that had looked on at my face for four hours was gone. I did not immediately open my eyes. I waited until the sweat on my brows became cold and dry. I listened to my body unlock, one by one, like a warden walking through a prison, releasing the prisoners cell by cell. I could breathe again. My heart pumped, bold and strong. I felt my fingers, the warmth on my skin. I yearned to stretch and let life sizzle through every part of me.
I opened my eyes. One thousand pesos lay on the dresser. One thousand pesos for the horror I had endured. I took it and did not look back as I left.
A week had passed since the night I spent there. Although my money was gone now, spent over things I can’t even remember, the memories from that night had not. Not a moment went by where I wasn’t thinking of the thing that had breathed so close to my face. Could I have been imagining it? Perhaps my fears had been so strong, my mind had created something to justify it. But my senses could not have been tricking me. I smelled it, blood and sour rank. I felt it, warm breath on my face. Who had left the money? What was the presence I felt? And, the question that caused me the most dread: What would have happened if I had opened my eyes?
My return to the house was no longer just for money, but answers.
The evening I returned, I noticed that nothing had changed. The only difference from the first time I had been there were the bed sheets, still crumpled from my use. The effervescent light from the clock was resolute, like a statue’s stern gaze, almost punishing as I lay on the bed.
Just a few seconds before 11pm, I shut my eyes.
The thing appeared close my face exactly on the second. This time my fears were replaced by a studious curiosity. I noticed that right before it arrived, I did not sense anyone walk into the room. Its appearance was fluid, soundless, as if it had materialized from thin air. The thick smell of blood and sourness were consistent with the first time. I turned my head slowly left and right, and every movement was mirrored perfectly by it. Like studying yourself in a mirror, your reflection so close to your face, you could fog it with the breath from your nostrils.
I dared to do the one thing I had not the last night I was here. I brought my hands up to my face, cautiously, feeling my bones creak beneath the tense muscle and cold skin, the sweat building on my frightened palm and fingers. As my hands reached close, they stopped. Protested. Hesitated. My heart banged like wild mice in a cage. I grimaced, summoning all my courage, eyes sweating behind the lids, temples pounding. My hands moved again. The unseen presence continued its breathing, steady, undaunted. Unmoving.
My fingers touched something. I stopped. Every part of my body froze. I could not breathe. The blood on my face swelled as I choked on fear. The breathing from the thing changed. It grew raspy, excited. Its putrid breath hit my face more powerfully. I could not tell my fingers to move. They stayed where they were, paralyzed, touching it. The length of time that passed after, I could not recall, my mind too swamped in fear. All I could remember was that, at last, the lock down of my mind had subsided enough for my fingers to try and comprehend what it was touching.
Hair. Sticky and cold.
My heart banged. My fingers moved, slightly. I felt the firmness of a scalp beneath the hair. The thing continued to breathe as if enthused. Somehow I had managed to detach myself from the paralyzing terror of my body, and now I was moving my fingers like a puppeteer would to his marionette. They followed the curve of the scalp, lowered until I felt skin. The skin felt torn and jagged, and the sticky fluid was thicker there. My fingers passed the broken skin, and now I was palpating what felt like flesh. The flesh of chopped beef parts in the market, sticky and soft.
I lowered my hands. My heart thumped so hard, I thought I might die of heart failure. I was too scared to continue the investigation. It felt like… like I had been touching a severed head.
Again, I waited until I was relaxed enough before opening my eyes. Like before, one thousand pesos lay neatly on the dresser. My hands, still paralyzed from what they had felt earlier, were clean. I thought they might have been soaked in blood, but there was nothing.
I ran from the house, terrified. Perhaps a ghost was haunting the building, and I promised never to return, no matter how much I needed the money.
But that was a month ago. My roommates and I had taken a turn for the worst. Town officials were cracking down on businesses like the one we worked at, and required to show proof that we were tested, just to make sure we weren’t spreading any… diseases. But lab tests required money. The bar managers I worked for were snapping up only those girls who could give him the negative tests quickly, and space was limited. In spite of the fears I felt, the promises I had made to never return, the need for money was greater. After all, hadn’t nothing bad ever happened to me while I was there?
The demonic presence returned. I grimaced my eyes tight, determined not to let it scare me. I told myself, the job was easy. Keep my eyes closed from 11 to 3, and I will be paid. Handsomely.
I suppose I had gotten used to the presence, for only a few hours into the night, I found myself fighting the urge to sleep. The rhythm of its breathing lulled me. In. Out. In. Out. Its sour, fetid breath mixed with the sickly sweet smell of blood, perfuming me to sleep. I tried hard to fight it. I failed, and soon sleep’s heavy hand had successfully pressed down on my weary mind.
The girl in my dream was pretty. Slim body, short. Hair long and straight, as dark as the skies in the province. Eyes deep and shadowy. She watched me as I slept. So close to my face… I could place a hand to her cheek and ask why she was there.
“Leave,” she whispered. “Leave.”
Her face grew distorted, and then she started making choking, gagging sounds. I sat up with horror and watched as her skin turned to a ghastly blue. Her eyes bulged and turned red. She was trying to scream, say something, but all I could hear were the hoarse, ragged breathing sounds that watched me… Watched me as I—
And I was awake. By some miraculous reason, I had not opened my eyes, but the room was filled with the same choking, gasping noises I had heard in my dream. The floors shook as if there were some violent commotion happening in the room with me, and then… Silence. Only my beating heart banged in my ears. Still I did not open my eyes. Not now. Not until I could hear the alarm so I can safely take the money and leave. But it did not end there.
The next sound I heard sickened me more than anything I had ever experienced. A rhythmic, moist sound, like someone carving flesh with a saw. And then dripping. A thump as something heavy hit the floor. I heard footsteps, heavy and slow, headed my way. Every inch of my body screamed to open your eyes! Run! I was shaking, sweating, so fear-stricken like a bellowing animal held upside down before its throat was slit. The footsteps kept coming. Breathe! Breathe! I couldn’t! I needed to run! But I couldn’t! I was afraid. I’d lasted for too long keeping my eyes closed. I couldn’t open them, no matter how insane it sounded.
The footsteps stopped, right next to the bed I lay on. The thing was once more pressed close to my face, breathing, gasping. It felt like my muscles would snap under the tension. My fear was like a thousand knifes angled toward my body, the slightest move threatening to kill me. Minutes stretched on, slowly, cruelly. I wanted out. Out of everything. The room. The need for money. The nights with strangers and terror of it all. Call girl. I wanted out. Out. Out!
And then, a blessing like the sun after a typhoon… The sound of the alarm clock.
I opened my eyes and found myself in an empty room. There was nothing there. Nothing on the floor where I had heard someone screaming and their body being carved. The money on the dresser, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t even grab it. I fled out of the house like a beaten dog.
I could not sleep for the rest of the night. The next morning I sought out some answers to the house I had been visiting. The town captain believed my story that I was sent by a wealthy family to find out if the house was for sale and check if there was any history behind it.
“Years ago, a wealthy man once lived there. He was quiet and kept to himself, seemed to cause no harm to anyone. Every once in a while he took in a call girl to keep him company for the night, but many men did the same. Not much to be suspicious about… until the neighbors smelled something foul coming from his home. They found him in his room with the headless body of a girl on the floor. Who knows how long he had been there with the body, maybe days. He was standing still, like an upright coffin, and in his outstretched hand was the girl’s head. He wouldn’t put it down. Just held it out, so steady and still, his expression dead. They shot him right there.”
The captain opened a drawer and drew out a file. “This is a photo of the girl they believed was killed. She was an orphan, only sixteen. Probably did what she did for the money. The other girls who worked with her said she had been with the man two other times; it was on the third night when he killed her. Here, take it.”
She was the same girl from my dream, but what chilled me more what the sweater she wore in the photo. White and soft. The same one I had found in the second-hand store with the note in the pocket. I thanked the captain, barely able to let out the words.
When I returned to my shanty later that day, I discovered that the white sweater had disappeared from my closet, and so did the note. When I asked my roommates if they had seen or taken it, all I got was the answer no.
I gave up working as a call girl and found a job as a caregiver for an elderly couple. Although the work was hard and slow, I persisted and saved up enough money to start college. Sometimes I pass by the thrift store where I had found the white sweater with the cursed note. I remember the three nights I had spent with the dark presence and how insane I had been, returning even after so much fear. For money… for curiosity. That’s what a call girl’s life did to you. You become jaded to the dangers you repeatedly put yourself into. Sleeping with strangers, potential murderers. Returning for the money and thrill of it. I tried to stuff the memories into the dark cracks of my mind. Forget it. But still I wondered… What if I had opened my eyes?
A few years later, I came upon an article in the news. A small one amongst a few other murders. They always wrote these stories with such detail, and my blood curdled.
The body of a call girl had been found, her head severed.
The girl’s eyes were wide open.