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“Joy! Joy!” These voices echoed throughout her head. They belonged to Joan and her father and Dina, but they sounded so far away. Still, her eyes fluttered open once they sounded. Her head really hurt, and her nose was very sore. It felt like someone had taken a potato peeler and skinned the flesh off her forehead and nose. She reached up and touched them. The skin was still there, but was caked in dried blood and patterned in little scrapes.

She sat up, which made her aching head start pounding even harder. It felt like a mallet was slamming down on her brain. Then her vision cleared, and she saw where she was.

She was still in the forest, but not the same spot where she’d passed out. Where she’d been previously, there was a small but visible image of their car and the lights of the town. Now, it seemed like she was just in the center of the forest, because there was no sign of the town, only more trees. And she was sitting in a cradle made up of the largest tree roots she’d ever seen, with her coat laid out over her like a blanket.

She turned to look at the tree that had these monster roots, and was shocked to find it was the Balete. It was huge; much bigger than she’d imagined.

She could still hear the voices calling her name, but it was difficult to tell where exactly they were coming from. She looked around briefly. There was orange sunlight peeking through the leaves, and she guessed it must’ve been morning. How long was I out? And why didn’t they come looking for me right when they noticed I was gone? These thoughts came to a halt when she noticed something odd.

They looked like pink rose petals, set into some sort of trail. Who on earth would take the time to find that many roses, then set some kind of trail like that? An Agta maybe? She didn’t know, but chose not to question further. She slipped her coat back on and put the hood up, then stood up and followed the trail. She was expecting for them to lead to some creepy little cabin (which would probably belong to a Mambabarang or a Mangkukulum), but it didn’t. It also seemed that the more she followed this trail, the voices got slightly louder.

“Dad!” she yelled out when her father came into view. He turned to face her, then ran up and embraced her, picking her up and swinging her around. Joan and Dina came running up and hugged her as well. He then let her go, then started leading them back to his car.

He was quiet the whole trip back. After he dropped Dina off at her house, he started speaking. And he was certainly not pleased; he was angry. It wasn’t often to see him get this angry. He was genuinely pissed compared to the subtler anger mixed with disappointment Joy had seen before.

“What were you two thinking?” he demanded. Joy and Joan remained silent, pondering how to respond. “You know it’s not safe in the woods, especially at night.”

“W-we were trying to find the Balete tree,” Joan stuttered nervously. Their father looked at her briefly, then turned back to the road.

“At night? Why at night?” he asked. Told you, Joy thought, touching the scabs on her nose.

“It wasn’t my plan. It was Dina’s,” Joan said.

“And you didn’t question her on it?” their father asked. Joan quieted down. “And look at Joy. Thank God she’s okay. She could’ve been kidnapped by some pervert!” Now that idea didn’t occur to Joy until now, and she shivered at the thought. Still, she wondered how she even ended up near that Balete tree. Had someone found her and carried her there? And if that was the case, why didn’t they call the cops or something? Why take her to the tree? It made no sense.

Their father turned to Joy.

“You weren’t raped or anything, were you?” he asked. She really had no idea if she was or not, but shook her head despite herself. He nodded. “All right, then. Now when we get back, I suggest you scrub out those cuts and put ointment on them.”

“I’ll only be gone for about ten minutes. It’s just last-minute shopping for a family dinner party,” Mrs. Dilan explained. Joy nodded. She babysat Mr. and Mrs. Dilan’s toddler a lot, usually when Jake wasn’t around.

Usually? That’s rich; she hardly ever saw him at home.

She didn’t really mind, though; Jen was a breeze to take care of. She rarely ever misbehaved and was someone that Joy could sing in front of (toddlers hardly ever paid that much attention to anything, and if they did, they had no idea what was going on).

“Yes, ma’am,” Joy said quietly. Mrs. Dilan nodded with a smile.

“Very good. I will see you in about ten minutes,” she claimed, grabbing her purse and car keys, then leaving.

Jen was sitting quietly on the floor in front of the television, watching Batibot (some children’s TV series). Joy remembered watching the same show when she was younger. The characters were funnier when she was smaller, but now that she was almost an adult, they weren’t quite as amusing as she remembered. The characters would do things that were humorous for children, like sing about numbers and letters, or just do little shorts with random characters.

After a bit with Pong Pagong the Turtle, Jen turned and looked at Joy.

“I’m hungry,” she announced. Joy got up from her seat on the couch and went to the kitchen. Jen followed her in and took a seat at the kitchen table, watching as Joy got the ingredients to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “I want milk!”

“Okay, I’ll get you milk,” she chuckled as she spread the peanut butter on one slice of the bread. Even though she wasn’t much of a problem, she’d become somewhat of a brat when she was hungry.

She gave the finished sandwich and sippy-cup of milk to Jen, who started wolfing down the sandwich like an animal. That was how she always ate. Joy assumed her mother would eventually teach her how to eat like a lady, but for now, she’d continue to eat like an animal.

Jen looked up at her with jelly and peanut butter smeared on her lips and cheeks.

“I cam’t wait foh da festivah,” she exclaimed, her mouth full of sandwich. Joy giggled a little.

“Me either,” she agreed. She looked out the window as Jen continued to eat. It was a pretty clear day, perfect day for her to have her umbrella when outside. The tree branches of the Dilans’ mango tree rustled in the breeze, so much so that a couple of not-quite-ripe mangoes fell and split once they hit the dirt. It was funny, because she didn’t really remember there being a breeze at all, but assumed it was probably coming in now.

“Joy?” Jen asked, and Joy snapped out of her thoughts and turned to look at her. “Are you really gonna sing in the festival? Joan was talking about it.” Joy shrugged her shoulders.

“Well, that’s what the voicemail on my phone said,” she remarked. “I don’t think I could bring myself to get up on the stage though. All those people, watching and judging me. I’d probably pee myself.” Jen giggled at that last comment.

“You said ‘pee’,” she laughed. Joy smiled at her.

“Yeah, it’s a funny word,” she chuckled. “But seriously, I think Joan should’ve gotten the chance. She’s much braver and better than I am.” She blew air through her lips. “Still, I’ll find some way to do it.”

The sound of the front door opening and closing spooked Joy, who glanced at the clock. It’d only been seven minutes, but she assumed that Mrs. Dilan had come back from shopping early. Instead, Jake walked into the kitchen, carrying a plastic bag that she could see was filled with candy from the dollar store. He had his long, black hair tied back. That proved it was a hot day; when she did see him, he usually had his hair down.

“Hey,” he greeted. She waved back. Jen hopped down from her chair and reached into the plastic bag. She pulled out a lollipop.

“Jake, Joy is gonna sing in the festival,” she shouted, unwrapping the candy and putting it into her mouth.

“That’s cool,” he said. Joy shrugged when he looked back at her.

“I...I guess,” she stammered quietly. Jake put the bag on the table, then made his way to the refrigerator. “Not my wildest dream though.” He looked back at her as he pulled a soda from the refrigerator door.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he commented. She didn’t say anything else; her cheeks were burning up as it was. He pointed at the bag with the mouth of the soda bottle. “You can have one if you want.” She shook her head. He shrugged, grabbed the bag, and exited the room, where she assumed he’d probably head upstairs to his room. Jen was giving her a weird look.

“Why are your cheeks red?” she asked. Joy put a hand to her face.

“No reason,” she said. “Just kinda hot.” Even if it was a pretty warm day, it was actually pretty cool inside the house. Even so, Jen was a toddler and would probably buy it.

“I wanna go swimming!” Jen exclaimed.

“You should probably wait until your mom comes home,” Joy informed. “I can’t take you swimming without her permission.” Jen shrugged.

“I’ll go get Jake to take me then,” she remarked, turning and running out of the room. She could hear Jen’s little voice calling Jake’s name, and she smiled.

She was paid four pesos when Mrs. Dilan got back. Not a lot, but at least she was getting paid. Once she stepped out of the Dilan house, she found that there was no breeze whatsoever. However, it would’ve been nice to have one.

But, if there was no breeze, then how could the tree rustle like that? Maybe some birds or squirrels? Yes, that seemed likely. And since it was a mango tree, that was actually a very logical explanation. There must’ve been squirrels and birds fighting over mangoes.

Joan was chatting on the phone with Dina when she walked through the door. Their father was asleep on the couch. Joan gave her a little wave before going back to chatting with Dina. She waved back, then headed upstairs, back to her bedroom. She’d lay down on her bed and open a good book. Perhaps she’d continue reading that new book she’d checked out from the library. Yes, that was what she’d do. She just loved to read.

Upon opening her bedroom door, she was met with something she didn’t remember seeing on her bed. On her pillow was a yellow Gumamela flower. It was odd, because there were no Gumamela bushes near where they lived; they pretty much only grew around the middle school and in the park.

She approached the bed and picked up the flower. Yep, it was definitely a Gumamela, no doubt about that. It looked like it was freshly picked too. She assumed that Joan set it there as a joke. She’d mostly place her things in random places around the house, or would set random things around her room. Joy used to think it was a Dwende doing this, until she witnessed Joan stealing one of her books.

She set the flower on her nightstand, then laid down on her bed and pulled the book out from under it. This was where she’d keep her books; it was like pulling them from a secret safe in her mind. She opened the book to where she’d kept a bookmark to continue reading.

It was a book called Without Seeing the Dawn by Stevan Javellana. She loved it because it was so dark and tragic, mainly focusing on themes of war and the people who lived during it.

Sometimes, she wondered if she could be a writer like Stevan Javellana. She did have a large imagination (something her father said was a part of her autism), and would daydream random daydreams. She’d want to convert these daydreams to movies for people to see (and would sometimes daydream about doing this through some weird contraption). Maybe she could be a writer. It wasn’t creating a movie like she’d originally wanted, but it was close. Besides, most books got adapted into movies anyway.

As she was reading, she couldn’t help but get the feeling she was being watched. She looked toward her door; it was closed. She got up and opened it. No one was around. She turned toward the window. It’d be highly unlikely that anyone could see into her bedroom: her bedroom was on the second floor, and the bed was about ten feet from the window (and the curtains were drawn). Of course, there was their Narra tree, but it wasn’t extremely tall or that close to the house.

She went to the window and peeked out through the curtains. No one outside. She tried to peer into the tree. She couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, save for a sparrow. Satisfied that it was nothing but her imagination, she returned to her spot on the bed and continued reading her book.

After they’d eaten dinner, the sky had fallen from a peachy orange to a nightshade-violet. Some stars started peeking out, and Joy went outside and laid in the hammock. Stargazing was one of her favorite pastimes. Even though the Narra tree blocked some of her view, it was still nice to stare up at the heavens.

As the stars started poking out into view, a leaf from the Narra tree landed on her hand. Maybe she could play that song from that Pokémon movie about Darkrai. She liked Pokémon. She went over the Oracion tune in her head before putting the leaf to her lips and playing the tune.

She always looked forward to this tune whenever she watched Pokémon: The Rise of Darkrai. It was very soothing. It wasn’t until she was about eight or nine that she decided to learn how to play the leaflute. She’d called it the “leaf whistle” at first, until she found out it was more of a leaflute than a leaf whistle; she’d seen what a leaf whistle looked like and it definitely wasn’t like the kind in the movie.

As she played, she again felt like she was being watched. She looked toward the sliding glass door. No one. She assumed her father was in the sala (the TV was on, and it was turned to the soccer channel), but he wasn’t looking out the window or anything. She looked up at the second-story windows. Nope, no sign of Joan. Probably my imagination, she thought. Again. She went back to playing.

Now she was becoming aware of what sounded like a low humming, droning along to the tune. She stopped playing, and the humming went away. And there was something else along with the humming: the smell of smoke, like someone was smoking (perhaps Mr. Dilan was taking a smoke). It was hard to tell where exactly the humming was coming from, but it sounded like it was coming from the tree. She sat up and peered up at it. Nothing, except for one bright star that peered through the leaves. Strange, she didn’t know that Jupiter would be visible tonight. Also, it seemed much larger and brighter.

“Oh, hey Joy.” Jake’s voice made her jump and turn around. He was looking up over the fence, probably standing on a chair. She let out a low sigh of relief before waving. “What was that song you were playing?”


“The song you were playing just now,” he repeated. She didn’t realize he was listening. Maybe he was the one who was watching her, probably peering through the cracks in the fence.

O-Oracion,” she said nervously. How embarrassing. For him to find out she was playing a Pokémon song. She wanted to run back inside. But that’d be rude. They were in a conversation. She didn’t want to come off as rude; she didn’t like to come off as rude.

“From Rise of Darkrai?” he asked. She gulped and nodded. “I haven’t seen that movie in a while. I was just coming outside when I heard you playing. I just wanted to be sure that was it.” She nodded again. “Well, seeya.” Before she could wave, he ducked back behind the fence.

Good, now she could go inside. She hopped off the hammock and ran inside.

Her father perked his head up at her as she pulled the sliding glass door closed behind herself.

“Something wrong?” he asked. She shook her head.

“Nothing. Just cold…and tired,” she stammered. She gave him a brief smile before trotting up the stairs to her room. All she wanted to do was just sleep this night away. She hated embarrassment.

Once she got to her room, she almost jumped out of her skin before realizing the person on her bed was Joan. Joan was on her phone, probably surfing Facebook or playing some lame app. She didn’t care for apps; she only used her phone for calls and nothing else.

“Why are you in my room?” she asked. Joan turned her phone off and slipped it into her romper pocket.

“What? Your room has better air conditioning. And your bed is really comfortable,” she commented. Joy shrugged her shoulders.

“I guess,” she breathed. Joan smiled at her, rolled off the bed, and started for the door. Joy watched her walk to her own room before approaching her bed and collapsing into it. She slipped off her red Wellingtons and pulled the covers up over her head. She was just settling in before realizing she didn’t turn off the light.

Dammit, she thought. And I just got comfortable. She got out of bed and turned off the lights, then returned to her place beneath the covers. She didn’t bother changing into her pajamas. She’d slept in her clothes before and it wasn’t that uncomfortable.

Joan was right about one thing: this bed was comfortable. It was always warm and soft.

She still had that feeling of being watched, but she brushed it off as her imagination. She always had an active imagination. Right now, she wanted to sleep. Just to fall asleep and to forget this whole day. She closed her eyes and snuggled into her pillow, pulling the covers up over her mouth. The bed had never seemed more comfortable than it currently was, but she assumed it was because of how she felt at the moment. Nice things always seemed better when you were in a down mood.

The smell of the Gumamela flower that she’d kept near her bed smelled sweet (strange; she didn’t even know they had a scent). Outside, she could hear the reep-reep-reep of crickets, even though her window was closed. It made her room seem more soothing, like she was sleeping in a field of sweet-smelling flowers.

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