Part 1 – click here to read
* * *
The safe house is dirty, cramped and right next to the sewers, but so is Imee’s old home.
RSP (Revolutionary Society of Philippines) is only a public front in forms of protesting students and anti-government publications. Or so it seems in the beginning. They do have a theme colours though – black & red – to signify the bloody revolution that they hope to instigate someday.
She, too, will become a part of the revolution, promises Mr. K. All Imee wants is to have her book collection back, to keep learning no matter what it takes.
The RSP teaches her and the rest of the kids in the safe house because no one is allowed to go outside without special permission. They teach her a lot of things that are different from the books: from the class struggles to the dependency of each leader to another ‘higher power’. The other kids gobble it up… Imee only takes small bites and tastes the flavour on her tongue to verify the spice*.
There is something wrong with it, she thinks.
Her brother may be gone, but not the things that he taught her. The people to avoid, the people to trust – the radicals, the recruiters, the kidnappers who sell you to pedophile rings.
Don’t trust those who offer you food, shelter, clothes and all the things you need. They will ask for your life in return, he once explained.
Her mother is active in RSP (whether it was because of money or something else, Imee doesn’t know). However, Tala is more future-focused now. She uses Isko’s money stash that she was able to retrieve from the crime scene to buy more books for Clara to learn.
“They need smart girls like you,” her mother says, referring to the RSP. “Look at what your younger brother has become!” Jejo, not even able to go into high school, is now deployed in the mountains, never to be seen again.
Isko’s voice rings in her head, again, like a silent warning: They will ask for your life in return.
Once she’s finished the high school equivalent in the organization, she tells them that she wants to study overseas, see the world for what it is. They nod and let her go. Too easy…
The next thing she knows, she has a fake diploma in her hands and all the documentation she required to go abroad.
The papers push through and her scholarship is approved. She will start her political science course at the California State University. Her name is Clara Zender now.
* * *
When she arrives in America, she hears from her mother that Isko was killed in a jail cell, after he had allegedly fought against the police with a gun.
A gun? In a jail cell?
Clara sees the face of the police officer again on TV as he explains what had happened in front of the camera. He is the look of pure professionalism and innocence, the Pontius Pilate, who washes his hands and tells everyone that he doesn’t know – a gun, in one of our jail cells? Don’t know, didn’t know. We’re still looking into it.
Clara calls him a liar and smashes the TV in her dorm room.
* * *
She starts America on the wrong foot.
Clara doesn’t mean to be aloof and difficult to get along with. Her brother is dead and there’s radio silence from her mother or RSP. Clara can’t even go visit the Philippines in fear that her scholarship might get revoked. There’s a lot of things going on, and she’s just a small girl struggling to pass her courses.
She fails some of her courses in the first trimester because all she hears – the snickers behind her back. They stare at her left hand like an attraction or a freak show, then back to her whole figure to sneer. Her left hand might be the oddest thing to see in this campus, but Clara’s skin and hair colour fuel the hate also.
Clara tries not to get it to her head. Tries. At most days, the rumours about him – the murderer, the Evil – circle her like annoying flies. Other times, it hits her like a baseball ball traveling at 100 kph.
Whenever it gets too much, she goes by this secluded bar near her campus. She orders a bottle of beer, maybe two or three more, and drinks. She doesn’t need company most of the time, only needing to get shit-faced.
That’s when she meets Him.
It’s not love at first sight… no. That’s only reserved for fairytales and telenovelas. Rather, she’s intrigued. A guy tells her that he loves her work, that she’s one of the people he admires in his political science class. Clara admits that flattery is a cheap tactic, but it works. She’s hooked – and not before long, she’s at his dormitory, pressed into the couch.
Make me forget, she wants to scream. Make me forget about everything – my brother, my family, my hand, RSP, classes. Instead, she moans his name and tells him to go harder, which he happily obliges.
When it’s done, John snuggles right next to her despite the sweat and not knowing each other’s life story. “Stay, please, don’t leave,” he says, before drifting to sleep.
Clara knows that she shouldn’t stay; this is a one-night stand. As far as she knows, people involved in one-night stands don’t stay for breakfast. It’s just sex. Breakfast means offering something more, and she’s not ready for more.
As she sits up on the couch, readying herself to leave, she glances at John, studying his sleeping face and – … she stays.
* * *
John turns everything upside down. He’s like a rainbow after the storm, plus, he is smart, funny and not afraid to speak his mind. But most important of all, he’s ready to take Clara’s emotional baggage.
John gets to know her past through bits, pieces and rare slip-ups. He learns about Clara’s brother and a story of her left hand when she says it out of the blue; he learns about the safe house in the not-to-be-named organization. He doesn’t press for details and asks his questions in a non-invasive manner. As soon as Clara clams up, he shuts his curiosity, too.
But, John is not perfect. Almost, but not quite there.
By their third month of dating, John reveals himself to be an activist, which Clara doesn’t have a problem with until she learns he’s part of the dangerous and secret group (anarchist front). It’s like meeting Mr. K. all over again.
Still, Clara overlooks that trait of his, because she loves him. Loves him enough to ignore the protests and the violence, the propaganda materials and the gun that’s hidden in his bedside drawer.
She ignores it all!
* * *
Clara meets William for the first time in one of the general assemblies.
She knows better not to be involved with people like that, but her awesome boyfriend is so damn fun, and his invitation is something that she can’t refuse. The general assembly is okay, but unified chants, hate and the discourse is something that reminds her too much about home. So, in the middle of the assembly, she gets up and excuses to leave.
Professor William, adviser of the group, finds her by the railings.
“You must be Clara. I’ve heard so much about you,” William says. Clara has heard about him, of his numerous academic achievements. She can’t get how a person like him could be involved in a measly dark organization.
“I do hope those are positive comments, I mean… about me.” She look at him.
The lines at the corner of his eyes crinkle as he smiles. “Oh, they are. Tell me, you’re graduating this semester, right?” William says, to which Clara responds with a hesitant nod. “Found any work yet?”
“No. I’m thinking of moving back to the Philippines, work there for the time being.”
Or the rest of her life.
“Oh, that won’t do! A talent such as yours, it will only go to waste in your home country,” then he quickly adds. “Not that I am insulting your country, of course.”
“It’s fine, I know that.” The most she can get from her country would be a worker at the government or a corporate officer at a bank. Neither have good prospects.
“What if I tell you that I have a job proposition for you. Something worth your time and intellect?” he says. “I offered it to John too, and he already accepted. I was thinking that his girlfriend might appreciate working in the same company.”
“That’s…wow, thank you.”
So good timing, too much of a good timing.
“If you’re interested, let John know. He will be happy to assist you.”
When Professor William goes back inside, Clara remembers her brother’s words: They’ll ask for your life in return. They are not like the RSP, which is as subtle with their intentions as a hungry dog staring at a dinner plate like it’s his dinner. This group moves like a snake, quiet and calm until the right moment to strike…
* * *
Graduation is nearing; her time to think things over is getting thin.
“They’ll take care of us, they’re very nice people,” John says.
Clara wants to stay. John clasps her hands in between his and stares at her with his gentle green eyes.
“I can’t do it without you. Just one project – and if you don’t like it, we can leave. Let’s try it, together. Ok?”
Clara knows that she should’ve voiced out her concerns. What project? Why me? Why is this so ambiguous that you don’t have a social profile? But what her mind remembers are the warmth of his hands and the last word of his sentence – together.
No one is going to love her as much as John does. She can’t handle being apart from him.
“Okay,” she says, ignoring her brother’s reminders. “I accept.”
The project is very simple. They go to the Philippines, meet some politicians and charities, donate some money, and …leave. But not without making sure that a branch of their ‘group’ could be entrenched into the country. John will do the talking – Clara will do the translating. It’s very easy, but they have to be careful.
They make their preparations – the bookings, the reservations, the meetings. William sees them off and keeps in contact as they’re on their way to the Philippines. It takes a day for them to reach Clara’s home country: she is half-elated and half-nervous to see her city again.
As Clara exits the plane, he sees a group of people by the airport – the presidential candidate. He is surrounded by his bodyguards, but his stance is welcoming, open and even excited by their arrival.
She remembers him. The clean-shaven face, the soft eyes, the glasses on the bridge of his nose. Her brother’s killer. The destroyer of her family. John shakes hands with him…and she does the same.
A few days later, John is found in a ditch by the streets of Tondo. Clara returns to USA alone. Professor William only offers words of consolation.
* * *
Clara’s drifting mind returns to the present when one of the losing presidential candidates congratulates Mang Chapo on his win. He’s still the same as Carla remembers, with his smooth face and gold-rimmed glasses, but his eyes are hard from his loss in the Presidency. He deserves that, Carla thinks. She lost so much because of him.
The reports zoom into him, taking his insights and thoughts over his loss in the Presidency. Of course, he takes the rejection in front of the media with stride. He always knows how to act in front of the media. As he tells about his relentless campaign and hope for the new President, blood splatters all over the screen as a quick hole gets bored into his head.
Everyone screams, but the media feed doesn’t get cut off.
Mang Chapo hurries by his head, calling for help. Don’t worry, Chapo – Clara knows better. Her bet has done well to secure the seeds of their group in her home country and pull off a spectacular show of guts and glory to the audience, to her. Clara cannot help the smile that forms on her lips.
After a few minutes, the show snaps to static. William stares at the screen before casting a horrified expression at Carla. She is guilty as charged.
“Y-Y-You…planned it all.”
“You only said that I needed to finish John’s mission – and I did. What you saw was a token of appreciation to our little organization.”
“Clara,” William starts. “You can not make such decisions on your own…”
“Really? You know what – I don’t give a damn. I am Left Hand Clara… and this is how I do things around here,” she reiterates. “My country is my turfs, my rules. Unless you don’t want a Southeast Asian branch in my country, you might as well kick me out.”
William doesn’t answer.
“Well, I thought so.” Clara smiles.
She watches the returned broadcast on screen: it shows the blurred remains of the person who killed her brother and her love.
William stands from his seat and leaves. The rain continues ‘sing’ outside. Clara takes a glass and pours herself whiskey for a job well done…
Next post – “The Pearl Territory”, ch 19 – #privatejournal Trotta