Once upon a time, there was only Olga and me, as well as our old dog, Boji, in a big house we inherited from our parents, whose food we had slowly been poisoning in a span of at least a year. Our parents blamed their “chronic illness” on inclement weather, on the “heathens” who played rock music next door, sometimes on “cursed” and “possessed” appliances and furniture.
Mama, who once hurt Boji for barking too loudly, even asked a priest to sprinkle holy water all over the “cursed” old-fashioned sofa in the living room. She believed holy water would drive away whatever evil spirits were lurking in the rundown folds of the sofa. The Imarflex toaster in the kitchen, she insisted, was also “harboring demonic entities in the heating coils.” And so the priest, wearing a tasseled purple garb made of shiny fabric, self-importantly went about his monkey business of spritzing holy water on the toaster, electrical wiring be damned.
On his deathbed, Papa, we decided, ought to be spared from the brutality of the truth, including the real cause of his frequent illnesses and eventual demise. Our insufferably domineering mother had long ago emasculated him, already gutted him and had his bones picked cleaned before spitting out the rest of him as a shell of what used to be a person. We thought that his miserable life was already punishment enough. As for Mama, Olga and I leaned closely and whispered to her as she, weakened at last and short of breath, was lying on her deathbed, “Not demons, not evil spirits, but us, Mama. We added drops, a little at a time, of the floor cleaner, sometimes lemon-scented bleach, into your soup, your smoothies, your coffee. Made you sick, didn’t it? And soon you will be dead. And when all of you are dead, we live. We live.” Her eyes bulging with rage, her pale hands clawing at her chest in an effort to breathe or perhaps scream, her last hours where she stared knowingly at us but powerless to do anything, not even to save herself from the damnation she herself had brought to life and nurtured with her torturer’s pale hands—these were cherished moments that Olga and I would relive and talk about for years to come.
And so they died—Papa first, then Mama two days later. At the wake, Olga and I looked the right kind of morose. Olga and I were quick to shed some tears to garner sympathy from the out-of-town folks who attended the wake because that was what community was for: to be at the side of those contending with the loss of their loved ones, even if such a loss was merited.
No one paid attention to Olga, however. People acted as if she were invisible. People kept hugging only me—never her—and they kept telling me to call anytime if I needed anything. It was such a relief that Olga was a good sport that day.
In the weeks that followed our parents’ burial, people from around town kept dropping off pancit bihon, biko, and macaroni salad in clear microwavable containers. True to form, they did not bring enough for the two of us. They kept forgetting about Olga. But that was all right since there was always enough food to go around. One time, we even let Boji indulge in a deliciously rich pasta dish from Mrs. Cárdeñas, the widow who lived in a small beautiful house at the end of the block. Mrs. Cárdeñas’s home was a cottage house festooned with orange and mauve bougainvilleas. All in all, we took what we could get, took pains to never tax, to never strain the generosity and goodwill extended to us by other people. Olga and I also made it a point to remember to repay them all someday.
Aunt Andrea, Papa’s younger sister, stayed with us for a week after the funeral. Although she could be annoying at times, Aunt Andrea genuinely cared about us as far as we could tell. It was becoming a habit of hers to look flustered—with an odd, panicky look on her face—every time I mentioned Olga. I had to constantly explain Olga’s absence because she tended to oversleep for some reason every morning that I spent chatting with Aunt Andrea over breakfast.
We pretty much left Aunt Andrea alone as she went about prowling the rooms of this great house, where she could browse through valuable heirlooms and pocket whatever she liked. Olga and I let her take as much as she could carry in her wheeled luggage, especially items that we could classify under “acceptable losses” in the insurance policy. We also let her have all of Mama’s jewelry, as well as an early painting by a famous artist who Olga and I figured had shit for brains—what with his insistence on calling his artworks “protest art” even as he allowed them to be placed in museums and auctioned off for display in the mansions of hacienderos and sugarlandia’s fat-assed barons.
With Aunt Andrea around, Olga and I resolved not to take off our masks for a while, thinking that not doing so would help us blend in and avoid scaring off our lovely aunt. She was, after all, still our flesh and blood. And had circumstances been different, she could have learned to love us as her own. Love, that idea that meant so little yet required a lot.
Olga also told me to warn Aunt Andrea about spending so much time in the master bedroom. A giant spider the size of a floor-to-ceiling wardrobe closet appeared in the master bedroom whenever it sensed intruders.
And so I told Aunt Andrea, “But don’t worry, the giant spider is harmless as long as you don’t look it in the eye. It does not matter which eye because it has many eyes. They shine like black pearls— but prettier than pearls. Pearls are not sentient and can’t see through you, can’t judge you, unlike the giant spider’s eyes. Anyone who looks at the giant spider in the eye will free the soul inside it. And because nature does not allow a vacuum to exist for long, the person who frees the spider’s soul is bound to give up something to redress the newly created vacuum. That person has to give up his soul to live inside the giant spider until the next one comes along to look at it in the eye again. Just don’t go inside the master bedroom, Aunt Andrea. That’s all I’m saying. I like you very much, and I appreciate what you’ve done for me and Olga. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
Aunt Andrea looked as if she was about to cry. She covered her mouth with her hand and did not say anything. I figured I had effectively communicated the urgency of the matter. I thought she got the message and would steer clear of the master bedroom from then on. But when we woke up the next day, we were surprised to see her gone. Her wheeled luggage was gone too. She left behind the antique silverware, although we told her to take as much as she could carry.
We hurried outside to look for her, calling out her name. All that greeted us was the bench across the street with three upright men in a sitting position. All three were busy diddling with their phones as if there were salvation there. The next-door neighbor was playing rock music again, and there was Boji rolling across the grass, lapping up the early-morning sun.
There was also movement, a commotion maybe, in the house across the street. It was hard to make out what was happening through that house’s drapes. Olga and I felt like Plato’s cave dwellers who were doomed to wonder for all eternity, And what would we look like to those dwellers deep inside the cave as they gazed at the shadows on the wall?
Later that morning, we were munching on dragon fruit when a man came by. He wore a short-sleeved barong and was acting so businesslike that it hurt when we finally had to take him to the giant spider upstairs. “Hello, Olga,” he said when we opened the door, fake cheer and fake sympathy in his eyes. “I’m here to talk about your father’s estate, plus I have paperwork for you to sign.”