Cleaning Up

By Lorena Osorio (Class 2021)

Photo by Lorena Osorio

It only took two sharp raps on the plywood door. She had just set her bag down on the bare cement when the door swung open and the man inside the apartment unit gave her a small smile. He looked to be in his early twenties, and was struggling with his necktie. This must be Mr. Sergio.

“Sergy,” he corrected her, removing his tie. He stepped aside to let her in. “Sorry to text you on such short notice. My usual had a family emergency or something.”

“That’s all right.” She gave his rather cramped space a once-over, immediately noting the jumble of shirts and shoes on the floor. She put her bag down on the plastic chair by the dining table and turned to Sergy, who was facing a mirror and trying to put his necktie back on between mutters of expletives.

She pursed her lips. “Sir, if you’ll let me–“

He gave her the offending piece of clothing without hesitation. She finished tying the necktie faster than he could breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said, moving on to pack his bag. “Now, all you need to do is a quick tidy-up, nothing fancy. I’ll be having my buddies over for drinks later, and while I don’t want them thinking I don’t have my shit together, I don’t want the fact that I paid someone to clean too obvious either.”

“Okay. What time will they be around?”

“Well, how much time do you need?”

She looked around once more. “Two hours, tops.”

“You got it.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder. “I’d better be off. It’s sure to leave a bad impression if I show up late to the office party.” He handed her three hundred-peso bills. “Help yourself to some juice in the fridge if you want. You going to be okay here?”

She nodded. “Enjoy your evening, sir.”

“All right, thanks.”

As soon as the door closed, she heard her cell phone ring. The muffled ringtone of “How Deep Is Your Love?” meant it was her husband. She put him on speaker.

“Hello.”

“Leon’s thirty-seven-point-nine again.” He sounded tired, irritable even.

She began picking up the shirts on the floor. “You should give him antibiotics, I think. Grace gave her son that after a week of fever. I think it’s called a–ame–“ She strove to recall. “Amoxicillin. That’s it. I think it’s over-the-counter.”

A sigh. “I’ll drop by the drugstore later. What are you doing over there?”

“Cleaning again. A bit sudden, but doable.” She tucked a pair of sneakers in the shoe rack.

“This time of night again? What were they thinking?”

“You know I don’t get to choose the schedule.”

Another sigh. “Are the mangoes ripe yet?”

She paused. As a child, she used to climb the huge mango trees in her family’s backyard to pick the sweet yellow fruit. This had been before her father got the improvised pamingwit, and long before the trees were cut down for road widening. Before the national highway existed, she and the neighbors’ children had had all the space they needed for hide-and-seek, agawan base, ice-ice-water, and langit lupa. Now nothing but ugly smoke-belching vehicles passed the bare blacktop.

She folded up the last of his shirts and put them in the closet. “No, they’re not ripe yet. Don’t get all worked up.”

“But you’ll be home tomorrow? The kids miss you.”

She smiled. Lucas, Lanie, and Leon – her three angels, her reason to keep going. “Yes, I’ll be home tomorrow. Tell them to do their homework, okay? They tend to do those minutes before leaving for school.”

Her husband laughed. “Okay. Love you. Bye.”

“Love you.”

After making sure nothing was left on the floor, she did a quick sweep and was pleased to find that there weren’t too many dust bunnies under the bed or behind the fridge. She took out a rag, fixed her hair into a bun, sprinkled dots of lemon-scented shining coat on the floor, and got to work.

This cleaning-lady racket was the latest in a long line of in-between jobs. She’d told her husband it would not be long before she got her old job back as a receptionist in that four-star hotel downtown. That promise was two months old now. Times must have changed, she’d said to him.

Her husband, a worker in the bakery a few blocks away from their house in the province, had not been impressed. You’re a college graduate, damn it, he’d said. You should at least get this maid agency of yours to treat you well. No late-night cleaning, for instance. It isn’t safe.

Of course he hadn’t understood it then, but he did now. The agency had been very accommodating when she’d been broke and needing a sideline right away, and they always paid a cut above average compared to other agencies. Of course, the receptionist job paid better, but she did not have much choice now. Besides, it was almost the end of the school year, and she still had installments – one for each of her children – to pay for. Until she had a more financially secure position, she would do better to stay in the agency.

She wiped the top of the drawers and stopped upon seeing a framed photo of a teenaged Sergy, his arm wrapped around someone – a friend, perhaps. She lifted the frame to wipe off the dust underneath. One of the neighbor’s kids had been a good friend of hers too, back during those mango tree-climbing days. They’d known each other’s favorite hiding spots and told each other their most embarrassing crushes. Lanie – she’d named her girl after her. They’d done the same things together. She liked to think the two even shared the same smile.

She cleaned the bathroom last. Fortunately, it was relatively cleaner than majority of the other apartments she’d been to. She splashed diluted bleach on the floor and walls, and scrubbed the grime between the tiles. At least this was never a problem at home. Lucas, her eldest – lanky, bespectacled, bright Lucas – loved to keep everything tidy. He always spent at least thirty minutes in the bathroom everyday: the first fifteen for taking a bath, and the next fifteen for cleaning the bath. On the other hand, Leon, young and happy and careless as only a six-year-old could be, was the complete opposite. And precisely because he was six years old, he was forgivable.

She hoped Leon’s fever would go away soon. Five days was a long time, especially for temperatures as high as his. Hopefully it wasn’t dengue or malaria or whatever new disease there was. She wasn’t sure they would have enough money for a hospitalization.

She stood up and wiped the sweat from her face with her sleeve. Heaving a sigh, she checked her watch. She was early by ten minutes. Enough time to pack up.

She looked at her watch again. It was one of those bulky fancy ones, the kind that had both the hands and the digital screen. It had been a birthday gift, three years ago. Her children had saved their extra lunch money for a year to buy it secondhand. It was Lanie’s idea, her husband had said. But of course, she thought, stuffing the polisher in her bag. Trust Lanie to come up with the more excessive, needlessly selfless plans.

She checked her watch again.

It was after she’d wrapped the last of the rags that she heard it – three loud knocks on the door of the unit next to Sergy’s, a hoarse “Open up! We know you’re in there,” and a thud. And another. The knocker must be trying to kick down the door.

She quietly peeked out of Sergy’s door and blinked. She hadn’t noticed the corridor lights were so dim. Her eyes landed on two tall men, garbed in all black and wearing motorcycle helmets, standing in front of the apartment to her left. They appeared to be preparing for another kick and did not seem to notice her as she gaped.

She blinked again, trying to make sense of what was in front of her, when the door opened and an annoyed-looking man frowned at the dark figures. “What the hell–“

The shorter of the black-clad men stepped back, pulled something out of his belt, and pointed it at the man. It was a semiautomatic, its barrel extended by the length of a silencer, gleaming sinisterly in the dim corridor light.

She was too exhausted to make a sound.

Chk chk.

The man toppled backward, eyes wide and glassy. The two men retreated, not even sparing her a glance as she ran over to the body. He lay on his back on the cold floor, his limbs sticking out at odd angles. His face, hardly identifiable by the blood dribbling out of it, was riddled with two bullet holes – one by his left cheek, and the other between the eyes. For a split second, she simply stared.

There was a rumble of a motorcycle, and then nothing.

She heard the opening of the apartment door beside her, followed by a female scream. She looked up at the woman, who was wearing hair rollers and looked like she was about to throw up. “Call an ambulance! The police! Anyone!” she yelled.

The woman gawked at her, as if noticing her for the first time. “B-but who – who shot–?”

“Do it!”

The woman nodded dumbly and withdrew to her apartment, leaving her alone with the body.

She hastily looked around one more time, her heart aflutter. Then, after making sure her gloves were still secure, she took out a clear packet of white crystal and carefully tucked it in the pocket of the man’s cargo shorts. Then she took his right hand – which was still warm – and pounded the knuckles on the floor, hard enough to bruise. Nanlaban.

As she silently returned to Sergy’s room to retrieve her things, she briefly wondered if the knuckle-hitting was necessary. The gunmen did not identify themselves as police, after all. But she was in no position to question protocol. She was already thankful the pen-on-cardboard stunt had fallen out of use. It had been too crude and redundant.

She removed her gloves and noticed that one of them had a small spot of blood, probably from the man’s hand. Oh well, it wouldn’t matter now. It took her eight seconds to slip the gloves in her bag, put on a cap, lock herself out of Sergy’s unit, and make her way out of the apartment building. A vehicle would be waiting for her two blocks away. She kept her head down to avoid possible overhead security cameras, and held her bag close. The dark road and low clouds obscuring the moon made it difficult to navigate, but fortunately there was no one else in the street as far she could see or hear. Still, it was the longest brisk walk of her life.

Then– “Oof!”

A body slammed into her, almost knocking her over. She snapped out of vertigo to find a pair of wide eyes staring back at her, black pupils gleaming in the streetlight. It was a girl, perhaps nine or ten, and she was panting.

“Sorry,” the girl mumbled, and ran off before she could react.

It was an accident. She told herself this again and again, heart slamming against her ribcage, as she regained her composure. No one’s out to get me.

She loosened her grip on her bag and took a deep breath. Lanie used to pull tricks like this on her back home. Whenever the house would get too quiet, her daughter would sneak up on her from behind and slam into her, and together they would tumble onto the sofa, laughing.

As she finally calmed and took a step forward, she felt a rag begin to slip out of her bag. Looking down, she realized in horror that her bag had a slash on its side. She rummaged through her things, her hands trembling, and found that the girl had not taken anything of value. She looked at her wrist and found her watch still there. She shook her head, trying to ward off the shock, and her eyes landed on something on the ground. Holding her breath, she picked it up. It was a glove – her glove. She held it up against the blinking streetlight. It was light blue, crumpled, and spotless. Then that meant–

She dug into her bag again. Rags, polishers, and scrub brushes spilled to the ground. It wasn’t here. It wasn’t here. She looked in the direction where the girl ran off. There she was, still running, a stone’s throw away.

She tried to think of something to shout to her, something to make her stop, but quickly realized that she did not know what to do. This had never happened before. She’d had no instructions for a situation like this.

And there it was – the single yellow light of a motorcycle, blocking the girl’s path. A dark figure, his arm outstretched.

“No!”

Chk.

It was the sight of the small girl lying on the black asphalt that made her freeze. Lanie, two years ago, motionless and painted with red and blue and black, on the newly opened highway. The smell of burnt gasoline and the iron tang of blood. The motorbike, speeding past as if nothing had happened. She remembered running to her, calling for help. She’d caught the license plate, she’d told the police. Fifteen hours in the ICU, until Lanie had given out. Too much blood lost. A week had passed, the body had been buried, and the cops had forgotten about the incident.

She hadn’t noticed that the men on the motorcycle were already in front of her until one of them shoved the bloodied glove into her clammy hands. “Go to the car if you don’t want to be arrested,” he growled. “The cops are here.” Then they sped off.

You shot a child! she wanted to scream after them. You shot a child! A child!

She could hear sirens now. The police must have gotten the call from the apartment. If they saw her, they would question her. The woman from the next apartment would ask why she’d run off. They would search her things and see the gloves. And then they would see the girl.

Her own children – Lucas, demure and perfectionistic, face bright red when he’d given a rose to the girl he liked on Valentine’s Day. Leon, with his destructive tendencies, but could multiply two-digit numbers in his head if asked. And Lanie, her only girl, a disaster in the kitchen, but could weave words into poems, climb trees, share just about anything with her. Or could have.

She dialed her husband, who picked up after a single ring. “Hello?” he said.

“The mangoes are ripe,” she said. “Please, please keep yourselves safe.” She hung up before he could reply. Then, running towards the girl, she called an ambulance.

 

————

 

Author’s note: This piece was written in December 2016, when the current administration’s war on drugs was at its peak and was still perceived as “brutal” and not “normal”. Almost two years have passed, and time has a tendency of making people forget about the thousands of lives lost to this war. Then again, we’re all too familiar with this curse: 46 years have gone by since the declaration of Martial Law, yet its injustices continue to fall to neglect and ignorance. Time does not heal this wound; rather, it makes the wound fester and rot. Never forget.

 

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