Patrick had promised himself that today was the day he’d finally stand up to his mother. He gripped the steering wheel tighter, thinking about how he’d tell her she was being irrational for believing his older brother’s spirit was contained under the kitchen floorboards.
Never mind that it was taking longer than necessary to reach his childhood home—traffic on the South Luzon Expressway increased threefold each time he drove on it, and Waze was a terrible estimate. Then, as the lanes on either side of Patrick loosened, the cars crept forward. He honked at the stationary car in front of him, causing it to churn to life and allowing him to follow.
Patrick was thirteen when his brother Philip died. He had slipped on canola oil spilled on the kitchen floor and hit his head on the hard tiles. Philip ended up in a coma and died eight days later. Their mother, raised on imaginary friends and angelic guides more than her own parents, had insisted it was because his spirit was stuck in the kitchen, where he’d first lost consciousness. When the doctors announced Philip was dead, she had flipped them off.
“You didn’t let me bring him back to the kitchen!” she spat.
Back then, Patrick was willing to forgive his mother’s absurd claims. As he eased back into school, he thought her being distant and ghost-like was her method of grieving. That was until he began frequenting the kitchen…
After the death of her nineteen-year-old wunderkind (online businessman at fifteen, valedictorian of his high school class, a full ride to attend the local college, an internship at a big corporation), Marjorie neglected to feed her other son. So Patrick ventured in and out of the kitchen to make his food. While pulling an all-nighter one Saturday night, he came down in the darkness to fix cup noodles. Stepping inside, his bare feet came away sticky.
Patrick turned the lights on, and saw that the floor was coated with maple syrup. He’d narrowly missed two CD-shaped pancakes occupying a tile each. They sat on the exact spot where Philip’s head had lain, a few steps away from the stove, home to the infamous bottle of canola oil.
Hunger for cup noodles now forgotten, Patrick wiped his feet on a kitchen towel. Climbing upstairs on the tips of his toes, he hollered for his mother.
“Did you make pancakes, Mom?”
The master bedroom cracked open. Two fingers pushed the door frame wide.
“Those are Philip’s, don’t touch them.”
Patrick hadn’t known what to say, swallowing a clot of saliva. He nodded dumbly and went back to his room, where he wiped at his feet until they gave up the sugary stench of syrup. In the morning, the tiles were empty and clean. He told himself it had been a dream except it hadn’t.
As the years went by, in the dark of night, Patrick found varieties of food splayed out on the kitchen floor. He stopped inviting friends over for sleepovers and avoided going into the kitchen. Omelets, pretzels, fried chicken, wonton noodles, even a slice of Patrick’s birthday cake—one he’d marked as his in a Tupperware container—ended up on the floor.
He had moved out two years ago, moved on from his mother and her secret midnight rituals, into the big city. In Makati, he roamed about his entire apartment barefoot, worry-free. He made cup noodles in the dark. He called Marjorie once a week, five minutes taken from his Friday lunch breaks.
This was why the phone call from his aunt surprised him. Tita Lisa, had called him last week, her phone number was a haze of digits flashing on his screen. She’d introduced herself impatiently, begging Patrick to come back home.
“Even just one night,” she’d said. “One night.”
It was enough for Patrick to understand that Marjorie was still feeding her antics. He promised Tita Lisa he’d be there, resisting the urge to ask her what concoction she’d discovered in the kitchen.
Patrick reached for the cup of iced coffee resting on the car’s cup holder. The ice cubes clinked as the car steered sharply to the right, onto the expressway exit. Just a few more minutes and he’d be home.
The town Patrick had grown up in was a pitstop for most. He knew the names of everyone who lived there. Those he didn’t were distressed tourists, begging for directions to reach the lousy theme park thirty minutes away. Freed from the oppressive traffic, the car’s engine whirred to life as it cruised down the thin, unpaved streets. Stumpy buildings came to view and, turning a couple times more, he reached Amorsolo Street.
The street’s shadows remained untouched by time: thick mango trees, glass shard-topped fences, termite-bitten porches. Reaching the house on the corner, Patrick pulled to a stop. He killed the engine and eased his breathing. He grabbed his duffel bag that had been tucked under the passenger seat and climbed out.
The family house beckoned him with a twisted, aching nostalgia. There were faded chalk lines in the empty, an open garage for hopscotch, and twin bicycles strapped to its ceiling. Iron bars ribbed the second-floor windows to chase robbers away. Patrick peered into the wooden door’s glass window which was heavily shielded by a white curtain and knocked.
Though Marjorie knew he was coming, there was no response. He’d been wrong about the time as it was nearly midnight, but his mother knew enough about traffic to expect that. Patrick knocked again, then tried the door. It screeched softly, muffled by his palm.
The hallway was dark, lit with fading bulbs and rank with must. Patrick’s nose scrunched up instinctively.
“Mom?” Patrick called, closing the door and locking it with its rusting deadbolt.
He bounced on the tips of his feet, snug in his ugliest, most beaten-up sneakers.
Marjorie was sitting on the kitchen floor. Not sitting, Patrick corrected himself as he neared, dropping his duffel bag on the foot of the stairs… She was lying down.
His mother lay curled up against the tiles, eyes shut, fluttering lightly. Her nude lips mouthed words silently and her wrists were pressed flat on the floor. Her hair was fanned out, ratty and greasy.
Was this what Tita Lisa had seen? It’s no wonder she’d called Patrick.
“Mom?” Patrick’s voice came out panicky.
“Shh,” Marjorie chastened, wrinkles deepening. “Come here. Your brother’s here.”
Patrick was ready to haul her up, shake the foolishness out of her, but his mother opened her eyes.
“Come here,” she repeated, fixing him with a beady, commanding gaze.
Following his mother’s command—the last, he promised—Patrick folded himself down, onto the floor. Ignoring the stiffness of driving, he mirrored his mother’s position.
“There’s nothing, Mom.”
“Listen,” Marjorie said, reaching out and pressing Patrick’s head firmly onto the tiles.
It came in a flash, the cold shock that snaked up his jaw, ear, and temple. After it waned, the tiles warmed by the side of his face, Patrick heard it—there was soft but ragged breathing.