Kuya Taho croons in the gloaming. His voice carries across the barangay, where it’s quiet except for the strays panting in the leftover heat.
Frankie peers out the window at the lavender dusk, at the man becoming a point in the distance. Remembers the warm-sticky-sweet of silken tofu, tapioca pearls, arnibal, drizzle of condensed milk catching in her throat.
By five the mothers of the barangay had all chased their children home, flip-flops slung on their hips like sharpshooters, calling Titoy-Popoy-Grace-come-home-or-the-police-will-eat-you. The siren will howl at seven, and the tanod will roll through the streets with their batons to catch curfew violators: drunks, drug addicts, teenaged couples and late-night hawkers still trying to earn back the day’s capital.
Frankie shuts the window between her and that world. Steps into the half-light of the room where the shrunken thing that used to be her lover sticks to a rattan armchair, hooked to a potassium IV. A thin white sheet drapes around its body, around its head, over its eyes, as if it were already dead. This, the death chair. This, the shroud.
This thing that used to be her lover. This thing that used to be Fern of the Bright Eyes, Fern of the Ridiculous Braying Laugh, in this climate-controlled room of no-time and no-place, smelling of cherry-flavoured cough syrup, painkillers and tranquilizers.
They used to be phone drones for a call centre; a concrete, fluorescent hive that buzzed all night with angry phone calls and dissatisfied worker bees. She wakes up in the middle of the night with that buzzing in her ears sometimes. Forgets, sometimes, that she hasn’t been a call centre agent in at least three years. Now she’s a medical transcriptionist who works from home in her underwear, who never has to listen to Americans/Australians tell her she’s stealing their jobs. Never has to time her bathroom breaks to the exact second.
The only good thing that came out of that call centre was Fern.
When Frankie met Fern she was Queen Bee of the Designated Smoking Zone, bathed in the light of boys crowded around her. Boys that all wanted to light her cigarette, that wanted to know how much she paid for her tits; if her new vagina from Thailand was ‘operational’.
It made Frankie’s skin prickle, the way they were talking, like they wanted to fuck or kill or both.
‘Hey, Fern, can I touch it? Hey, Fern, give us a sniff!’
‘Pay me,’ she said, voice like a whipcrack, flicking ash at their feet.
The boys, who are all one three-headed animal in Frankie’s memory, laughed and elbowed each other. ‘Go on, pay him!’
Frankie remembers thinking of lion tamers or toreadors. Fern of course looked up at exactly the right time, saw her across the blue smoke, and smiled.
Oh, Frankie thought, finally understanding what book people meant when they said somebody was sloe-eyed.
‘Hey there,’ she said, languid and smoky. ‘You look new.’ She shook her fan club off like so many ants, walked slow-mo towards Frankie, who remembers this all through a sultry Wong Kar Wai-red filter. Bokeh, saxophones, time lapse. Frank Zappa and an invisible choir. ‘Do you like taho?’
Frankie nodded, mouth dry.
Fern flicked her cigarette into the gutter, then threaded her arm through Frankie’s. ‘I know where we can get the best kind.’
Fern opens her mouth for a spoonful of pumpkin and rice, eyes screwed shut, afraid to look at her food. Frankie makes her drink coconut water for the electrolytes, wipes the dribble off her chin with a Good Morning sweat towel.
‘Good job. Ate way more than yesterday.’
But Frankie might as well be cussing her out, telling her how she hates the sight of her. That smell, too—that sour, stale reek of caked spit and half-digested food.
Frankie tries to smile. ‘They’re close to finding a cure for this, you know. Any day now.’ It’s a lie she likes to tell Fern. It used to cheer her up.
Now Frankie wonders if Fern can even see through the haze of drugs, hear anything through the pharmaceutical soup sludging through her veins.
A tinny, rattling noise pushes out from between Fern’s teeth. She grips Frankie’s wrist with fingers that remind Frankie of strangler figs. The parasitic ones, the ones that take all the sunlight and water from their host until the host is completely subsumed, becomes something else entirely. Frankie has to fight not to shake her off.
‘What is it, honey?’ Frankie says, softer than she needs to. Kneels down beside poor-Fern in her chair.
‘Hurts.’ Gluey breath hits the side of Frankie’s face, almost makes her gag.
‘Everything,’ Fern says. ‘Every thing.’
Frankie uncaps a pill bottle from the table, shakes out a white tablet. Two milligrams of clonazepam as needed for the anxiety. Two milligrams of haloperidol for the agitation. Ibuprofen for the pain. And, the doctors were very clear: don’t entertain the delusions.
Fern shakes her head. Says, ‘Don’t want it,’ through gritted teeth.
‘You want to get better or not?’
She turns her head, refuses to look at Frankie for the rest of the night. But that’s nothing new.
Frankie has to wear headphones to watch the news because last time she didn’t, Fern started freaking out. Could only be consoled by the clonazepam.
Frankie doesn’t blame her. The news sucks.
Platoons in tanks are rolling through the streets, gathering groups of the afflicted mushrooming up all over the city.
The screen flashes about 20 of the afflicted, maybe more, stark naked and barefoot in the middle of an intersection clogged with jeepneys. The afflicted all staring up at the sky, humming. A soft, electric hum.
The screen flashes EMTs in full PPE wrestling with a middle-aged woman, who’s apparently so strong it takes three full-grown men to hold her down. She’s screaming—‘Aguy! Ayay!’—babbling nonsense until someone jabs her with a needle and she crumples.
These people had people, once upon a time, who got sick of taking care of them. Who were either too weak or too selfish to see this thing through.
People are like that. People give up. They have no loyalty, no faith. Frankie is not like that. Not anymore.
We’re running out of first responders, the forums say. We’re running out of medicine, out of ambulances, out of food.
Where’s the UN? people write. Where’s the Red Cross?
Where’s the President, where’s the Pope, where is God?
Frankie crams her phone into the back pocket of her jeans. She has to be careful not to read too much, has to pace herself. Too much and she becomes useless, a pile of nerves and tears, of no help to anyone.
She has to stay sane. Has to put a time limit on the doomscrolling; has to be careful to stretch, to hydrate, to meditate. Stick to routines, the media says. Hug a tree. Stay in touch with your friends and loved ones. Remember that you are not alone.
She gets up to stretch her legs, looks outside at the empty street. From the window of their apartment, she can pretend that nothing is happening.
Frankie puts a pill on her tongue, knocks it back with a mouthful of beer. Rolls a clumsy joint, crams her earbuds in, tunes into Dinah Washington going Lord, what a difference a day makes. Waits for the Klonopin to kick in. Tonight, she’s getting takeout, watching reruns of old sitcoms until the edges blur and everything fades to a soft, velvet black.
They moved fast once they got started, did everything at breakneck speed. Their first date they kissed then went to bed together and stayed up almost 48 hours, touching and talking. They pressed their tongues and fingers together, then into each other, like they wanted to be part of the other’s body.
Two weeks later, Fern asked Frankie to move in.
‘Aren’t we going a little too fast?’ she asked.
‘I guess. But I don’t know. The rainforest is on fire. The bees are disappearing. We get two super typhoons a year. We’re kind of running out of time here, if you ask me.’
They were sharing a cigarette, drinking petrol-tasting coffee from the Jollibee on their three a.m. lunch break. Fern brushed the backs of her fingers against Frankie’s.
‘I just want to make the most of the time we have left. Don’t you?’
So Frankie moved her books and clothes into Fern’s apartment, and for a while they made a world with just the two of them in it. Made a home with tchotchkes: cheap art prints and bobble heads and stuffed animals from the internet. Filled their four walls with everything they could get their hands on. Movies, yes. Music, yes.
And Fern’s laughter—that big, braying laugh that pushed every bad thing away. Better than sage for bad vibes.
Frankie got her transcriptionist job, Fern got a promotion, and suddenly they had a lot of money, not a lot of time.
When they were together, they got high and drunk and ate takeout on the couch. Watched TV. Watched a lot of TV, then watched their phones and the TV. Then one night Fern put her phone down, switched the TV off and said, ‘This must be what it feels like.’
Frankie blinked at her. ‘Huh?’
‘To be dead, I mean. This must be what it feels like to be already dead. We’re dead, Frankie. We’re ghosts.’
Fern was wound tight for weeks. Suddenly Frankie was high too often, drinking too much, saying too little. She had no hobbies, Fern told her. Her friends were bad for her. She had to get out more, get a life, get a real job, a career, some ambition. A goal, for fuck’s sake, Frankie, have you never heard of a goal?
‘Are you sure you’re not an addict?’ Fern said one night, just after they’d taken a bong rip each and were lying on the floor. ‘You know weed is addictive, right? I mean, you can get addicted to basically anything, so are you sure you’re not an addict?’
‘Maybe. Maybe you’re addicted to fighting,’ Frankie said. Fern laughed; a measured, cold ha, not a real Fern-laugh, all warm brown sugar cackling.
‘So we’re both addicts.’
Then the silence yawned between them and above them. Frankie buried her face in her phone. Swiped up and up and up. Read the news on her friends’ Facebook pages: so-and-so actress thinks people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to Hell. So-and-so influencer is in trouble for tax evasion. The airport is closed. The city is on lockdown.
‘Fern.’ Frankie’s tongue was fat in her mouth. All her spit had dried up.
‘What?’ Fern snapped. ‘What do you want?’
She put the phone in Fern’s right hand. Watched Fern’s expression tighten, then fall. ‘What?’ she said. ‘What? Again?’
They huddled in front of the TV that night, letting the light and the sound wash over them. People in hazmat suits moonwalked across the screen, and a tense Karen Davila in an air-conditioned studio told people to stay calm. Stay home. Stay safe.
In the dark Frankie could be anyone, any version of herself, from any timeline. In the bathroom when she squats over the toilet, she closes her eyes and imagines that she is in her mother’s old house. She can almost hear that house creak, imagine her mother in the bedroom squinting at Bible verses.
She doesn’t let herself think too hard about her mother. If she starts thinking, she’ll start thinking about all the things she could have done. She could have come home that weekend. She could have called sooner. She could have stayed home and taken care of her diabetic mother. But she was selfish, and weak, and she ran away.
Frankie doesn’t like that version of herself. She shakes it off, tries to be Frankie from two years ago. The Frankie that Fern thought was worthy of love.
Patient is a 23-year-old male. Symptoms include hallucinations, seizures, generalized pain. Complains of ‘feeling the animals’ when he eats meat. Complains the water is ‘full of needles’. Prescribe antipsychotic medication and psychiatric care.
The calls Frankie had to transcribe were getting weirder by the day.
People complained about smelling blood on their clothes. They said they couldn’t eat. They could hardly drink.
The afflicted flooded naked out of their homes, humming and electric with the pain they said was everywhere, was everything. In the summer, the heat brought a spate of suicides. The afflicted fell from the sky, from bridges and rooftops and flyovers into oncoming traffic.
The ones that didn’t die from dehydration went insane. They were attracted to each other, started flocking in the streets like messed up flash mobs.
Mass hysteria, the media said.
The End Days, said the Christians.
A hoax, said the conspiracy theorists. Either that or Some One had put Some Thing in the tap water. Genocide, they said. A culling.
Fern and Frankie huddled in their apartment-turned-bunker, turned the music up, did their hair and nails, waxed their legs, plucked their eyebrows bare. Made their own taho from scratch. So much taho, buckets of taho, until the walls smelled like brown sugar and tofu.
They stopped fighting. They kissed more, had sex almost every day—that sex-and-death thing. They laughed loud, long, much. Frankie doesn’t want to say it but maybe they were the best three months of her life.
Then one night once more in front of the TV, Fern said her head hurt.
Her hands hurt.
The TV was too loud, the music too much.
‘I can’t eat that,’ she said one day about the lunch of canned corned beef and rice.
‘You said you wanted corned beef?’
‘I can’t eat that.’ Fern crossed her arms, gripped her shoulders like she was trying to shield herself from the piles of neon red beef and soft white rice.
‘You think it’s gone bad?’
‘No.’ Fern rubbed her face. ‘It’s—it tastes like…’
Frankie ate and her mouth tingled with MSG. ‘Tastes fine. You okay?’
Gagging, Fern got up. Marched around the apartment opening all the windows, all two of them. Stuck her head out of one. ‘It stings. Can’t you smell that, Frankie? Don’t you taste that—hear that—smell that?’
‘I can’t explain,’ she kept saying. The more she tried, the more she panicked. She started pulling at her clothes, picking at her skin.
Frankie held her hand to stop her. ‘It’s okay, baby,’ she said. ‘I’ll throw it away, okay? No more corned beef.’
Frankie laid out dozens of plates with small bites of food. Taho. A macaron, a piece of salmon sushi from the supermarket, a square of dark chocolate, a sliver of butter, some brie, a strawberry, a floret of broccoli, a stalk of bok choy cooked in garlic, a thin slice of ham, a boiled egg, a spring bean. Frankie made notes in a notebook with four columns: Yes, No, Bad.
The butter, the sushi, the brie: No. The strawberry and the floret of broccoli, too. The bok choy: Yes. And the spring bean. The macaron, too. And the taho, Fern? Oh, yes, Frankie, the taho is good.
Frankie started thinking they could do it, could deal with it, could live with this thing until Fern got to the chocolate and she started screaming so loud Frankie was afraid the neighbours would call the police.
‘It’s going through me. It’s digging.’ She lifted her shirt up, scratched at her bellybutton. ‘There’s a hole.’
‘There’s no hole,’ Frankie said, trying to hold her.
‘It’s digging into me, Frankie, goddamn it.’ Which was when she slapped Frankie for the first time and Fern—crying, snotting, saying she was sorry—went to the hospital, only to be sent home with pills. No room, said the nurses, shaking their egret heads.
Outside it is a beautiful morning, hot and bright, all the birds causing a riot. The sun is like molten brown sugar. The clouds are silky tofu and tapioca pearls. Her stomach groans. She forgets for a moment who she is, where she is, when she is, until a nerve twinges in her neck and a whining starts in her ear, bringing her crashing back into her body.
Frankie rolls out of the couch, knocks over a small forest of empty brown beer bottles.
The air conditioner hums. She walks from the living room to the bathroom to empty her bladder, and it hurts. Like something’s twisted up inside her, trying to claw its way out.
And what is that noise, who is braying so loud so early in the morning?
She stands, catches herself on the wall. Drags her heavy, aching body from toilet to living room to bedroom. Nothing there but the empty sick bed, the empty chair, the IV swinging in the breeze coming from the open window. Frankie sticks her head out of it, out into the arnibal-sweet air.
There is naked Fern in the naked day. Three others have come to form a half-circle around her: a woman with caesarean scars on her belly. A boy hardly older than 20. An old man who has Elvis tattooed on his thigh. And more drifting toward them, drawn to the sound of Fern’s laughter.
It buzzes in Frankie’s ears, makes her vision swim. She closes the window, shuts the curtains, crawls into the bed that still smells like sour, medicated sweat. Her clothes burn her skin, her joints crawl with invisible nails and teeth. Her head pounds with her pulse; she feels last night’s dinner squirming inside of her, feels its death fill her body. It-and-she are together in a hot, cramped space, the stench of death and antibiotics in their nostrils.
There will be clonazepam for the anxiety, ibuprofen for the pain, haloperidol for the agitation. Frankie will fill herself with them, eat and drink until the edges soften and the world blurs.
But for now, she will lie here. For now, she will feel it all—the magnificent pain blooming red behind her eyes. She will listen to the humming outside of her window, and Fern’s laugh ringing in the bright, cruel day.