My name is Gemma. I was born in Makati Medical, during Typhoon Yoling. There were two of us born that night, but I’m the only one people see.
My mother accuses me of making up stories.
She says, “Hija, I had one of those, too. When I was a little younger than you. My imaginary friend meant everything to me. Her name was Sharylyn.”
“Sharylyn?” I ask. “Like my Tita Sharylyn?”
“Yes,” my mother says. “Sharylyn, like your aunt. Only, this Sharylyn had long hair. And she was pretty.”
Then the maid comes to tell my mother that someone’s on the phone.
But I’m not talking about an imaginary friend. I can actually see her, touch her. Even in school, my Other is there. I can feel her touching my arms.
I wish I could be alone, sometimes. But I am never alone.
I see a doctor named Dr. Gamboa. His office is on the 6th floor of the Yuson Building on Paseo de Roxas. Most of the other patients are girls, my age or a little younger. I wonder what happens to the older ones. Do they just disappear?
I see Dr. Gamboa once a week, on Monday. At first I was scared of him, especially when I saw he had such hairy arms. He would ask me questions about school and about friends. Our sessions last an hour. He doesn’t speak much, only write things down on a yellow ruled pad.
I have only one friend at school; her name is Connie. She likes blue and yellow yarn ribbons and ties them around her ponytail. Connie says she can see spirits, too. She says she’s been seeing them since she was two years old.
Hers are a little different than mine. Hers are duwende, dwarves. She says they live mostly in her kitchen. They are playful: they make the pots and pans spin in the air. They play tricks on the cook, and that is why the cook keeps dropping things and why, every few months, Connie’s mother has to find a new cook.
Once, the duwende pestered a cook so much that she dropped a pot of adobo as she was carrying it from the stove to the dining room. Luckily, it just missed the Siamese cat, who was lying curled around a leg of the kitchen table. The maid had to leave that very night.
Now, Connie’s family has a cook from Antique. The new cook says spirits don’t bother her. In her village, Connie tells me, the spirits walk around all the time, even during the day. Connie tells me that in Antique, everyone knows how to tell spirits from real people: the spirits have no groove between their nostrils and their upper lips.
Connie can see the future, I can’t. She says she knows when a girl is sick: a gray aura surrounds her head, like a halo.
She says she sees a lot of bad auras around girls in school. There’s one girl in particular who has a deep violet aura. It’s like a wound, or like the inside of a wide-open mouth. Connie tells me to stay away from that girl. “She’s sick,” Connie says. I don’t know what that means but I listen and do my best to avoid that girl.
I think on the scab on my right thigh. The wound came several months ago, but still hasn’t healed. I’ve been hiding it from my yaya because I don’t want her to tell my mother.
A lot of the other girls stare at us. They give us hard, suspicious looks. No one ever asks to join us at lunchtime or at recess.
One day, Connie says, “She is gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked.
“I mean,” Connie says, “that she’s gone. “The bad people took her. The ones that live in the balete tree on her street.”
The bad people have horns. I ask Connie if that means they are devils, but she looks at me scornfully and says, No. The bad people have dark, shaggy hair growing on every part of their bodies. At night, they climb trees and stay there, waiting for the right moment to snatch their victims.
On Connie’s street, the balete trees form a dense screen of green. They are so old, no one can remember who first planted them. All the houses beneath them, including Connie’s, are matted with a green fur. Grass doesn’t grow; there is only moss.
“How do you know she’s gone? Maybe she had to go somewhere for a while,” I said. “Didn’t she have a brother in the States?”
“No, no,” Connie says. “She is gone.” Connie takes my hand and holds it tight.
“Lesbians,” someone hisses from a few feet away. I look back; it is Bianca. She sticks her tongue out at me when she catches me looking. I drop Connie’s hand. My palm burns. I can still feel Bianca’s eyes on my back.
At night, I hear scratching sounds against my window.
I tell Connie, “I think it’s tree branches.”
Connie says no. She tells me spirits are trying to get into my room. After that, I never want to be alone in my room. I ask my yaya, Prima, to sleep next to my bed, every night. I can see she doesn’t really want to, but she knows if she doesn’t I will report her to my mother or, worse, my father. She kisses the crucifix of her rosary whenever she enters my room. She wakes at dawn and rolls up her mat so silently that when I see morning, I’m always alone. Once, when I couldn’t sleep and spent the whole night staring at the window and waiting for it to get light, I watched her. She got up when the sun was a thin crack at the edge of the curtains. I watched her stretch, sleepy-eyed.
“Prima,” I asked, “Do you ever hear noises here, in this room, at night?”
She jumped as if it wasn’t me who had spoken, but some kind of ghost. She clutched the rosary she wore around her neck. Quickly she collected her slippers and padded out of the room, pretending she hadn’t heard.
“There’s a little girl,” Connie says. “She calls me Mama.”
Connie says the girl spirit is looking for her home, but when Connie asks her where she used to live, she says only that it was an island, very green, with big trees, and that it was very hot. So hot that the people who lived on the island went around almost naked.
“It sounds as though she lived a long time ago,” I say. “And maybe in another country.”
Connie says, “Maybe Africa?”
There is no way to tell. The child doesn’t know what Africa is. She says she thinks her country sounds like Macbar.
“Why is she here?” I ask Connie.
Connie says, “I don’t know. She got lost.”
Connie tells me she thinks it runs in families, because her great-grandmother, too, saw spirits. Her great-grandmother’s name was Paz.
I tell Connie, I’m afraid, I’m afraid.
It’s a curse. I can’t sleep. I wake with shadows under my eyes. I look old, I think. Older even than Sister Fe who teaches religion, who taught even my mother.
I don’t like my room. Something stares at me through the windows. Something wild. More than one. Women. A child. No, children. Shadows behind the glass.
Connie tells me she knew I could see spirits, even before we became friends.
“Do you ever smell something funny?” she asks.
I admit that I do.
“What do you smell?” she asks.
“Candles,” I say.
Connie tells me that seeing spirits is like being shown a puzzle. A puzzle you can’t solve.
“Who lived in your house before?” Connie asks.
I tell her, “No one. We lived in Dasmariñas until I was six, and then we had the house built here, in Magallanes. No one lived here before us.”
I remember my mother taking all of us to the vacant lot, after school. We watched her pick her way through the tall grass. We watched workmen lay the foundations. We watched the concrete walls go up.
“What I mean,” Connie says, “is that while it was a vacant lot, there must have been something there before. A village, maybe, that disappeared.”
Connie says she is waiting, always waiting.
“For what?” I ask.
“I don’t know what,” Connie says. “All I know is that I’m waiting.”
“The spirits I see don’t like me,” I tell Connie.
“I know,” she says. “The spirits I see don’t like me, either.”
“So maybe we can put up a barrier,” I tell Connie.
“To defend ourselves,” Connie says, and nods.
“Maybe we can keep them out,” I say.
“Yes,” Connie says again.
“Maybe we can shut them up in a closet. Or a box.”
“Yes,” Connie says. “Oh, yes!”
“Let’s try,” I say. “Let’s lure the spirits into a box.”
“Maybe I can sleep over at your house one night,” Connie says.
“Yes,” I say. But I realize I don’t want that.
“What’s wrong,” Connie asks.
“Nothing,” I say. I suddenly feel as if I am drowning. Like I am seeing Connie from underwater. Her face moves and becomes blurry. Her cheeks start jumping, up and down, and I don’t know if she is laughing or shouting. I think of a lizard’s throat, when you can see its heart beating there. The lizards wander across the ceilings of our house, but only at night, when it is cool. I like to watch them and sometimes the clicking sounds they make help me forget that I am afraid.
I can’t look Connie in the eye. I wonder if she can tell I want to get away from her, as fast as possible.
“Are you mad at me?” she finally asks. “Did I do something to you?”
I don’t answer.
That’s when I see. Connie sees that I know from my face.
I wonder if it will feel like a touch.
“It will come from behind,” Connie says.
“I’m sad,” I say.
“Don’t,” Connie says. “Stop feeling sad about things you can’t change.”
I stop sleeping. My mom asks Dr. Gamboa about sleeping pills. Doctor Gamboa says I am too young. “We should try behavioral modification,” he tells my mother. “Behavioral modification is best. Have her listen to soft music. Don’t let her watch TV in the evenings.”
“I feel like I’ve failed,” I hear my mom telling someone over the phone. It sounds as if she is crying.
My younger brother, Pepito, is only eight. His life is very different from mine. He plays tennis and is good at it, so good that my parents talk of trying to get him a scholarship to an American school. He, too, steers clear of me, avoiding my eyes as if he knows.
I’m awake all night. Waiting. Listening to the lizards and the beat in my throat.
Gemma. My name is Gemma.