“QUIAPO, Kalaw, Vito Cruz!”

A hoarse, strained voice could be heard amid the dizzying maze of huge unfinished pillars, dug-up sidewalks, gaudy signs, decrepit theaters, colorful vehicles and a myriad of people which made up this portion of Cubao. It was pure chaos. The sudden and modest downpour transformed the dusty atmosphere into one wet and even more cluttered scene, like a bland abstract painting full of greys and browns suddenly put into giddy motion. One could imperceptibly smell the gradual decay of concrete walls into mere eyesores that complemented the baleful mood of the skies.

It was only seven o’clock in the morning but the narrow streets already hummed with harried activity. Many were walking in their morning best, careful to avoid the puddles that formed on every passable space. Arguably, it was a typical day one would loathe. The wetness and gloom of the surroundings seeped into the fresh, newly-ironed clothes and probably, into the soul, leaving the lazy Juans and Marias longing for the dry comfort of home.

These dreary thoughts ran through Trish’s head, as she made her way through the throng of commuters, tiptoeing anxiously to avoid those damned puddles, clutching her umbrella closer to her jacket-clad body. She sighed disconsolately, as she noted how dirty her black leather shoes had become. Not that she hated the advent of the rainy season. In fact, she was relieved to have a respite from the summer’s sweltering heat. But now, as she felt the sharp stings of a few stubborn raindrops on her face that defied the umbrella’s protective dome, she wasn’t that sure.

Everything seemed to go wrong today, she mused resignedly to herself. She had trouble rousing herself up from the warm burrow of her soft bed to go to the bathroom. She hated the sight of her school uniform as soon as she took it from the cabinet because it reminded her of the monotonous routines she had gone and would be going through again for the next three years. What would it bring her in the end? She felt like she could study forever but still learn nothing.

Her life was crammed with drab procedures flowing too slowly after the other—waking up to the irritating buzz of the alarm clock, looking decent enough to be a human being, listening patiently to the philosophical sentiments of cranky professors and candidate-for-cum-laude classmates, eating the usual fastfood lunch from styrofoam boxes, sitting through lectures, getting stranded in the horrendous Manila traffic, then finally, sleeping fitfully until the alarm clock’s buzz penetrate her foggy brain the next morning. She felt like she was doing these things only to fill up the empty hours. So that someday, say that, at least, she had done something, even though it was just the same chore over and over. Nothing ever changes. And today, it was anything but different.

At last, she reached the terminal after a seemingly endless walk through muddy sidewalks, and got in the nearest jeep. There were other passengers who looked like they felt the same way as she did—drowsy and a bit resentful at the general hustle going on. Trish took her seat, then meticulously reduced her dripping umbrella into a neat, two-fold tube.

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The Taft-bound jeep was just half-full and the driver, obviously eager to increase his day’s earnings, dawdled, maneuvering the vehicle near the busy sidewalk as he tried to woo more passengers in his loud baritone voice: ”Come on in, there’s lot of space! Taft, NBI, Harrison Plaza!”

He waved to the faceless multitude outside with an outstretched muscular arm, greasy fingers bearing a neat, fan-like arrangement of dirty, frayed bills of tens and twenties. He managed to lure two more passengers before a stern-looking policeman prodded him to move on.

The shrill whistle gave way to an impatient bellow of “Move it!” Shaking his head good-naturedly, the driver obeyed and gave a salute with a brisk “Sir yes sir!”

At the intersection of EDSA and Aurora Boulevard, the vehicle stopped again for the red light. The driver avidly resumed his passenger-calling, much to Trish’s vexation. Seven-thirty already. Clearly, she was going to be late again for her eight o’clock class and Miss Santillan would give a sermon again on the definition of F.A., or failure due to absences. She would be out of breath from climbing four flights of winding stairs, her head would be humbly bent to the ground while murmuring the usual “Good morning, Ma’am,” and “ I’m sorry, Ma’am, it’s that traffic at EDSA.”

At present, a pregnant woman climbed in with much difficulty, and the slick office guy at the tail end of the jeep had to guide her arm to steady her.

She sat beside Trish after an excruciatingly leaden heave of her hips. One could not help but stare at her pale, sweaty face with those pursed lips and those chubby arms clutched then rubbed her enlarged abdomen in meticulous strokes, as if these would ease the pain and discomfort reflected on her flushed features. Apparently, she did not have any umbrella, for her faded maternity dress clung stubbornly in most parts to her generous curves.

“Here’s my fare,” she said in a barely audible voice. Trish felt the clammy palms press against hers lightly as she took the coin to give it to the driver.

“Where are you headed, Misis…?”

-“PGH,” she croaked, then, paused, “ I’m sorry, Manong, I don’t have enough money to pay the fare. She broke off as her face constricted in pain and her hands clutched compulsively at the sides of her tummy. Trish could only stare at her in pity and horror, wondering how anyone could leave a hapless creature alone in the midst of all her suffering. Where could her husband be? Didn’t she have anybody to be with her? Did the child know what awaited its awakening into this world? This thought depressed Trish even more. If she were that unborn child, she wouldn’t wish to be born at all, not in these circumstances. She wouldn’t want to know how cruel this world could be.

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A desire to help in any way filled Trish. She wanted to stroke the distressed woman’s back or pat her arm to assure her that everything would be all right or wipe her moist face and neck— anything just to comfort her—but Trish could not do it. She just stared quietly at the woman, now panting torturously, her half-closed eyes brimming with cold tears.

“Please tell the driver…Manong …please help…is PGH still far away? I need help…I think I’m in labor…Manong…please…” Her low, grief-stricken tones came out in prolonged but broken gusts. It was the loneliest sound Trish had ever heard in her whole life. Those half-whispered pleas implored more than pity alone. It evoked the deepest of the senses for it was not only the beleaguered woman crying out for help— the little voice inside her, too, wept and pleaded for salvation.

The jeepney darted in and out of the traffic with all the meager speed it could muster on the slippery road.

“Is PGH still far away?” she asked again, and the middle-aged man in front of her replied in apologetic tones,” Unfortunately, Misis , it is, with this traffic and the heavy rain.”

True enough, outside, the skies were more emotional, as the landscape became more disagreeably wet and murky. It made the transparent canvas covers of the rectangular windows flap a noisy staccato against the metal sides of the vehicle. A sizable amount of rain had streamed in, much to the dismay of the passengers. A gaunt old woman in a flowery dress was shaking her head, irritated that something interrupted her quiet recital of the rosary. Trish could hear her exasperated mutters of “Lintek!” as her gnarled, bony fingers skimmed the length of the glass beads with a nervous twitch of a loose wrist.

At one corner, behind the driver’s seat, a handsome college boy wiped his wet arm indifferently while his skimpily clad girlfriend fretted over him with so much misplaced solicitude that left Trish thinking amusedly that the girl must be worried her beau could be allergic to water.

Amid all the fuss, the pregnant woman still gripped her belly and uttered low plaintive sounds. She was plainly unmindful of all the slight ruckus around her, having her own to think of.

“Can I have my five-pesos back please? I have to get off. I’m in a hurry! My baby’s going to come out soon. I will take a taxi. I’ll just plead to the driver.” As she spoke, all the passengers stared at her unabashedly, almost reluctantly acknowledging her presence. It was as if most of them had seen her just now. Their faces mirrored an impassive and almost shy mix of curiousity and compassion at the spectacle of misery now unfolding before them.

Moved as she was by the predicament, Trish could do what her conscience had been persistently telling her—to act. But she was not sure what or how. Maybe she could accompany the woman, make sure that she’d reach the hospital in one piece. But the catch was, she was deathly afraid of hospitals. For as long as she could remember, she had always felt faint seeing and smelling the ghastly goings-on common to such a sickplace. There was no chance she could stand a minute there. Couldn’t anybody else offer help?

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“But you couldn’t get off here. Maybe we could call a taxi for you…”

“PGH’s so far away. You could go instead to Delos Santos Medical Center.”

Suggestions now flew fast as the pregnant woman became quite persistent to get off. It was still raining hard. A handful of the passengers dug into their wallets to share whatever they could.

Trish still remained in a quandary. She really wanted to help. But how? As she pondered on what to do, scenes flashed crazily before her— the poor woman slipping slowly, dark crimson spurts of blood staining her wet dress.

The pregnant woman was becoming more and more adamant that she should get off. She was babbling quite incoherently. Now and then her lips crumpling into an obsidian grimace, “Manong, I have to get off…”

Don’t let her! Trish pleaded silently. Don’t let her get off! She could get hurt!

But the driver seemed too eager to please the lady. As the jeep rolled to a stop, the orange and yellow trademark sign of a gasoline station stood out with a stark clarity against the hazy trickle of the rain against the windows. Trish could only watch as the poor creature got up on her feet precariously, looking like she might fall into a clumsy heap anytime. And in a moment, she was out there, trudging on the sidewalk, the wind playfully skittering underneath her dress and the rain deftly soaking her. Her lumpy legs moved in heavy deliberate strides, arched back blending into the distance and the blanket of rain.

Trish continued to look with unsquinting eyes at the disappearing yet still distinct solitary figure braving the harsh and mournful elements. She did not know how long she stared, deep in muddled thoughts as a strange cloud of regret and depression hung over her. She could have done something, but did not.

Now she and all her lousy troubles seemed too trivial, everything had become unreasonable—overrated expectations. Her eyes roamed the interior of the vehicle—from the driver intent on the cloudy road ahead of him, to the cuddly couple behind him, the puckered face of the old woman still concentrating on her prayers, the construction workers, Mr. Office Guy, college girls in prim uniforms, then finally, to the empty area where the pregnant woman sat in pain just moments ago.

Trish must have looked strange sitting there with head craned to the left, eyes unblinking, but she did not care. She was too distracted by the pungent, fleshy odor that emanated so strongly from the now vacant space beside her.

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