1. Albert didn’t like coffee shops. He didn’t like malls. But here he was, at Figaro at the Power Plant. JB, his cousin, had insisted they plan the theft at a place as far away from their Baranggay as possible, and wanted to watch a movie as well. So Albert sipped his chocolate shake and tried to avoid eye contact with the aristocrats around him. They were just about finished with their project, and JB had gone off to piss. The pictures and the sketches were snug in Albert’s back pack.
Albert turned around and saw a fat old man with a flowing beard. "Yes?"
"Would you mind sharing your table? I can't find a seat anywhere." The old man had a newspaper tucked under his armpit.
Albert grabbed his backpack and stood up. "Take it. I was leaving anyway." Before the old man could answer Albert turned around and walked away. His heart danced inside his chest. He knew he wasn't doing anything wrong, that he and JB were going to steal but would be committing no crime. But still he couldn't look anyone in the eye. He took his cellphone and texted JB. He decided to visit the toy shop he saw on their way to the cinemas. A coloring book or two or five for his sister, that was the solution!
At the toy shop he bought ten coloring books and got a text message from JB. Albert sighed and went to sit at a bench. JB claimed to have diarrhea, and was asking for thirty more minutes. "He'll probably crap all over the money," Albert whispered to himself. He chuckled, and, not having a chocolate shake to stare at, scanned his surroundings for untrustworthy old men. What he found, standing beside a plant, leaning on the mall's railings, was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Or, rather, the back of the most beautiful woman in the world.
She had curly short hair. She was wearing a white blouse and a yellow bra. She was in a green skirt and black shoes. It was the bra that did him in. The fact that it was yellow. It was what made him fall in love.
He was jobless, planning a robbery, sweating, and he found himself walking towards her. And half a meter away he said, "Excuse me." He coughed, then said, "Excuse me."
The woman swirled to face him, then backed away. She still had big eyes and a sad smile. "Albert?"
"June," he said. She was the only woman he knew who wore yellow bras. "June. It's good to see you."
"I see the years have been unkind."
Albert wanted her to slap him. Albert knew she wouldn't. "I'm sorry, I--"
A girl of about six years ran from the toy shop and pounced on June's leg. The girl was holding a laser sword. "The monster is coming! The monster is coming! Mummy!"
His love of children overriding common sense, Albert opened his back pack and was about to bring out his balisong when June touched his arm and with her snout pointed to their right. The monster, it turned out, was a very tall salesman with acne.
The girl, the monster explained, had asked for the laser sword and then ran away. In short, she was a thief, like Albert.
June was all professional. She calmed the girl down with a Snickers bar, gently took the laser sword and gave it back to the monster. "Close your bag, you fool. And close your mouth too," she told Albert.
He zipped up his back pack but kept his mouth open. "Your daughter? You're married?"
"What do you care?"
"I'm sorry, I just--"
"June?" The voice from the coffee shop. "Is there a problem?"
He turned around and saw the old man, this time without the newspaper. Albert was about to speak when June spoke.
"There's no problem, Doctor. The young man was simply asking for the time."
The "Doctor" nodded, took out a golden chain watch from his pocket, flicked it open and said, "Six. Sharp." To June he said, "And Marie? Has she been any trouble?"
"An angel as always, Doctor."
"Then we had best get going." The old man offered his hand. "Angelo Gumegenal. You didn't give me a chance to thank you for the seat."
Albert shook Doctor Gumegenal's hand. "It's--it's no big thing... sir. I was," Albert looked away, "I was leaving anyway."
"Still. Thank you. And goodbye." The old man turned to the girl. "Let's go sweetheart." The girl waved goodbye to Albert, took the Doctor’s hand, and together they walked away.
June followed them with her eyes. "My daughter, Albert? Are you an idiot? Marie is seven. We haven't seen each other for five years."
"Four years, nine months, two weeks, five days."
"Go find a sixteen year old to fool, fool." She turned his back on him. "I have another life now."
"And I have none."
June took three steps. "The abortion," she said, "it was the right thing to do." She turned around to face him. "And it's three weeks, four days. And four years, nine months."
Albert walked towards her. Half a meter away she slapped him. For a few moments he lost his hearing.
"I'll call you," she said.
2. She didn't call. A week passed and she didn't call. The day of the theft came and she didn't call.
"We watched a movie, you know."
Albert and JB were inside a van with a fake plate number. The van was JB's, the license plate they stole two days ago. "We watched a movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
"Before the abortion?"
JB pat Albert's shoulder. They were both sweating. "That's crazy, Bert."
"And is this any saner, Salvador?"
When JB shook his head, his hair covered his eyes.
Albert sighed. He caressed the amulet his sister had given him yesterday. It was made of safety pins. It was cold on his chest. Her gift to him, in return for the coloring books.
JB's plan was actually quite simple. For the past two years he had been observing a man who took such a long time at the ATM machine in front of the post office of their Baranggay. It was because this man, who wore glasses and a really dark moustache, was withdrawing ten thousands of pesos from hundreds of ATM cards. Dark Moustache was an usurer, government employees loaned money from his gang, in exchang they gave him their ATM cards and PINs. The situation, when JB told Albert about it five months ago, reminded him of the grail slaves from Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
Slaves. "You know what we should do," Albert had said, "we should steal the cards and the list of PINs."
"And the money!" JB had laughed.
"We'd be stealing from a thief! That's called justice. We'd be heroes." Albert had just quit from his call center job and they were drinking in celebration.
Three months ago Albert's sister was diagnosed with leukemia. He didn't even have to try to convince JB. They were going to be heroes.
"How was it?" JB's voice returned Albert to the present.
"The abortion? Fine, I guess. I don't know. It was all very professional, the clinic was clean. It was somewhere near Teacher's Village. Very polite nurses."
"I mean, how was the movie?"
"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?"
"I've never watched it. I watched the first movie, was so disappointed I didn't even allow myself to see the trailers of the next three."
Albert shrugged. "I don't remember. June was crying."
JB was picking his teeth. "Because of the abortion?"
"Because she knew we were going to break up."
"It must've been tough. She was a freshman after all."
"It was the right thing to do. A baby would've destroyed her future." Albert closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them he said, "There he is."
"Dark Moustache, idiot!" The man, the usurer, the slaver, was at the ATM machine. From the window Albert could see the black bag at Dark Moustache's foot. It was soon going to be full of money. Money that was soon coming to them.
JB grinned and nodded. "On three. One, two, three." They proceeded with the plan. JB got out the van first. He closed the door behind him. Albert watched his cousin approach the ATM machine, stop for a while a meter from Dark Moustache's right, then turn left, go up the post office's stairs, turn right and stop once more, this time a meter from Dark Moustache's left. In front of Dark Moustache was the ATM machine, at his back was a wall. Albert would soon move to Dark Moustache's right, and then the slaver would find himself inside a box.
It was five thirty in the afternoon. The post office was empty, and just as they had observed for the past two months, the guard was conveniently conducting a security sweep. Albert was to count to one hundred, put on his stockings mask, swoop down with his balisong, and with JB grab the money, the ATM cards, and the list of PINs. JB was going to Iraq in four days. JB's mother, Albert's mother's sister, had agreed to sell the van to help Albert's sister. With the money from the heist Marie, Albert's not June's, would soon be up and climbing trees again. She was six years old.
Albert put his stockings mask on and opened the van. He walked towards Dark Moustache.
Dark Moustache turned towards him, and cursed.
Dark Moustache was holding a gun.
Albert took out his balisong and stabbed Dark Moustache in the chest. Seven times he stabbed him. Albert took the stack of ATM cards, held together by a rubber band, and the black bag of money. Blood was splattered all over the PINs list, but he took that as well. "We'll leave the gun," he said.
JB nodded. No grin now.
They returned to the van and sped towards Batangas. JB drove. Midway they stopped at an empty lot and changed their license plate. Alcohol, fortunately, could still clean up the blood in his hands. Albert then drove while JB shaved his head.
When they entered Lipa, Albert asked, "Your buyer, can we trust him?"
JB grinned. "As they say in Bicol, 'An matakot sa doron, daing aanihon'."
"We're in Batangas, JB."
"We're heroes, Bert. Batangas or Bicol, we're heroes."
3. "You skipped school?"
"You're not in your uniform," Albert said. "It's not a Wednesday. You must've skipped school."
June sniffed her frappe and said, "I don't go to school anymore, Albert. I dropped out the year we broke up."
"But the white blouse, the green skirt?"
June smiled her sad smile. "That's my uniform all right." She wore a white blouse. And a blue bra.
"But not in school?"
"No. It's my uniform at the Doctor's." She tapped her nose with her pointing finger, twice. "All of his maids dress like that."
"You're a maid?"
"Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Oh. No. No. None at all." Albert looked at his slice of chocolate cake, thought for a moment, decided against eating, and said, "So you've been his... employee... all this time?"
"Two months after the abortion."
Not knowing what to say, Albert remained silent.
"Oh, don't be like that." June put her hands over his. "I'm all right. You're all right. Enough with self-laceration. And don't pretend to be stupid. Or attempt to be funny. I agonized for a month, you know, I didn't know whether I should call you or not. But I did, and now we're here. Let's just put the past away. See what the present's like. Maybe even take a glimpse of the future." She caressed his hands. "What do you say?"
"I betrayed you, June. I--failed."
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
"You already have. And I've already forgiven you." June squeezed Albert's hands. "I'm sure she forgives you too."
"She... was a she?"
"Oh no. No. The fetus didn't have a sex yet. But it makes me feel better to think of it--her as a she." June shrugged. "It's a girl thing."
"June... I love--"
"Do you want to visit her grave?"
"Her grave, do you want to see it? You know, where I buried the fetus."
"You buried her?" He stood up, his fists shaking.
"I thought about eating her, but realized that was too much like incest."
"How could you talk about her like that?" Albert was shouting, the people in the coffee shop were staring at them.
"What do you want me to do? Cry?" June chuckled. "I'm not that stupid little person anymore. Now, sit down or I'll leave."
Albert sat down.
"Good. Do you want to visit her grave or not?"
Outside the wind howled and threw garbage at them. June hailed a taxi. Albert saw that the driver had a moustache and zoned out. He didn't hear June giving the driver directions, he didn't listen to her talk about working for the Doctor. One moment they were coasting along Commonwealth Avenue, the next June was punching his left shoulder. "We're here," she said. "Get out."
Albert got out. Out was at the foot of a hill. Dying grass everywhere. "Where is here?"
"Grass dying. But rains will come soon." June nudged him forward. "You don't remember? This is the back of the Doctor's facilities."
There was thunder in the distance. Lightning stabbed in the sky. Albert stood still. "We're at the Teacher's Village?"
"Teacher's Village? That must be some other girl, some other abortion clinic." June grabbed his arms and pulled. "We're at Novaliches."
"Just walk, okay? The cemetery’s at the opposite foot of the hill."
They walked, hand in hand. June hummed and Albert whistled. For a few moments it was like five years ago. Before the nights they spent in each other's arms. Before the child. Before the abortion. They climbed up the hill hand in hand. For a few moments he was no murderer. For a few moments Albert was innocent again.
Then he saw the hundred tombstones. He fell to his knees and started crying.
June let go of his hands. "Oh, God, Albert. I'm sorry."
He couldn't answer. He just kept on crying. The thunder claps grew louder. Rain clouds covered the sun completely, and lightning lit up the sky. It started to rain. He just knelt there, and June stood beside him. It rained and rained and soon the water rose to his waist. Albert stood up and saw that the cemetery was completely submerged. He turned to June. "Let's go?"
She put a hand on his shoulder. "Not yet. Just a few more minutes."
Albert stared at June's face. Her smile was no longer sad.
A few more minutes passed. It continued to rain.
"Now. Now look."
Albert turned to the cemetery once more, and saw hundreds upon hundreds of fetuses. They were standing over the waters, waving at him.
Sunday Times Magazine
August 19, 2007 and August 26, 2007