Copyright 2015 Ann G. Luna
Cover Design by Jee Ann Guibone
Published by Ann G. Luna at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition License Notes
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Table of Contents
In a small barrio in Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, 2000
Vanessa slapped the back of her neck. When she drew her hand back, she scrunched up her face at the spatter of blood on her palm and the crushed body of the mosquito – fat, and big.
“You okay?” Jorge asked, hauling her backpack on his muscled shoulders.
“Define okay,” Vanessa said. “Your mosquitoes here are as big as cows!”
He chuckled. “Stop exaggerating.”
She folded her arms and followed him up the rickety bus. She didn’t dare touch the rusty rails, its paint peeling off like a snake changing skin under the hot May sun.
“I don’t understand why your sister had to marry in your hometown when she’s already living in Manila.” Although Vanessa liked her boyfriend’s older sister, she wasn’t up for traveling by air, then by land to a remote town where people’s houses were a mile away from each other. “They could have the wedding there!”
Jorge led her deeper into the small bus, where two seats remained vacant. He stepped aside to let her take the window seat. She didn’t flash him a smile, however, when she swept passed him. He plopped down beside her, placing their luggage between his legs.
“Couldn’t you have booked tickets on a better bus with an A/C?” she muttered, looking over Jorge’s head at the old woman and her boy on the seat beside them. The boy was fidgeting, constantly yapping and talking about everything under the sun.
Jorge laughed. “I didn’t book tickets.”
Vanessa stared at him, bug-eyed. “What? But –“ She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Right. I forgot we don’t do that here.”
Jorge flung an arm around her shoulders, and pinched her nose, a habit he never got tired of, and one that was already starting to annoy her.
“Plus,” Jorge said, squeezing her with his sinewy arms, “the only buses here are small and old. Anyway, you’ll love the landscape.”
She pouted, but settled closer to his chest, watching the dingy terminal. The small bus started, its engine as noisy as the calls of the vendors shoving their wares near the windows. Bottled water. Hard-boiled eggs. Small oranges. Even calamay, the brown and sticky delicacy housed in coconut shells. She hated how it would stick to the roof of her mouth, but it always reminded her of provincial life, something so quintessentially Filipino.
Her jacket vibrated against her waist. She took out her phone. Speak of the devil…
“Your sister’s asking if we’re close.” She snorted. “Really? She expected faster transport? Congested streets in Manila, delayed flights, and long lines in the terminal. It’d be a miracle for this country to speed up.”
Jorge pinched her nose again. “Ay, my pretty little New Yorker. Relax and just enjoy the ride. Tell Anita we’ll be there in a few.”
“A few what, days?” But she sent Anita a text message anyway. There was a sting on her arm again, despite the dry heat of high noon. She slapped on her arm. “Damn bloodsuckers.”
Jorge’s voice could wake up the entire town. No wonder he decided to be a radio host, Vanessa thought.
But it was as if the entire town was coming to meet them, young and old, men and women, clothed and naked toddlers alike, rushing out of their houses.
“They’re here!” a plump woman screamed, with the intensity of new mother giving birth. “It’s Jorge and his girlfriend!”
“Is she the one from America?” another woman asked. “She doesn’t look American.”
“Tita oi!” A young woman frowned at the woman who was apparently her aunt. Whether by blood or not, Vanessa wasn’t sure. Everyone here was someone’s aunt or uncle.
The young woman made her way towards Jorge and Vanessa, divesting them of the small bags. “Sorry ‘bout them,” she whispered to Vanessa.
“No problem, Anita,” Vanessa said, eyeing the people who looked at her openly. “My parents are like that whenever I return home for the summer. It’s like a fiesta.”
When the people had finished gawking at them, they returned to their homes to chat or listen on their radio. It was a small barrio, where everyone knew each other and was privy to everything going on in another household.
A frail woman with a large bun on her head ran to them. She flung her stick arms around Jorge’s shoulders. When she had finished accosting him with kisses on his face, she turned to Vanessa and pinched her cheeks. “Oh, look at you, Nessa! You’re quite the lady now, aren’t you?”
Vanessa couldn’t help grinning. Jorge’s mother, Emilia Santobal, looked like a weak breeze could knock her out, but there was strength beneath that withered skin. Once, the woman faced down a drunkard running amok with a bolo, the long knife that many farmers use. But of course, Vanessa had only heard it from Jorge. He wasn’t one to exaggerate though, so she took his word for it.
“Nice to see you too, Tita Ems.”
They tramped down the uneven road, their shoes kicking up dirt and dust in the air. Little children ran beside them, pushing and giggling. Vanessa wondered how they could hail a cab from this place. They were far from the city and she hadn’t seen anything but small minibuses, motorcycles, and the occasional tricycle powered by mere pedaling. Were they going to have to travel to a hotel for more than an hour?
“We’re here,” Jorge’s mother exclaimed, gesturing with her hands toward the nipa hut that stood against a viridian backdrop of several young palm trees, and patches of cogon grass.
They shook their footwear off and left them at the foot of the wooden stairs, before climbing to the landing.
“It’s wider,” Jorge said, a smile on his face.
Vanessa cringed. Wider? It was maybe the size of one high school classroom! How small was it before?
“That’s true,” Anita said, placing their luggage on a bench to the right of the door. “Come in, come in. Ma and I were just making some snacks.”
Vanessa grinned, the scent of something sweet and warm wafting in the air. “What’re you making?”
“Puto,” Anita said. She opened a small rattan door that revealed a wooden ladder to get to the kitchen, where a clay pot was already emitting smoke.
“Puto,” Vanessa echoed, bathing in the sweet smell. It had been a long time since she’d eaten that delicacy – soft and chewy, sometimes with cheese on top.
“Anita’s going to sleep with us,” Tita Ems said, laying a rainbow-colored mat on the floor, “so we might be a bit cramped tonight.”
Vanessa raised a brow at Jorge. “We’re not staying at a hotel?”
Jorge chuckled. “There are no hotels here for miles. Plus, the wedding’s tomorrow. It’s better for us to stay in one roof.”
“Jorge will be sleeping in the kitchen,” Tita Ems said, laying a hand on her arm.
“But the mosquitoes!” Vanessa remembered the damn insects from the terminal. Even now she could see the bloodsuckers buzzing around.
“I’ll use a mosquito net,” Jorge said, brushing strands of hair away from his eyes. He winked. “I’ll be fine.”
“Of course he’ll be fine,” Anita called from the kitchen. “Even an aswang wouldn’t dare approach that ugly mug!”
“Like you’re one to talk!” Jorge threw back with a chuckle.
“Aswang?” Vanessa scratched her arm, feeling the phantom bite of insects. “Like vampires, right?”
Tita Ems scoffed. “Vampires have nothing on an aswang! An aswang can turn into a black dog or a wild boar.”
“It can pass for human and isn’t afraid of the sun.” Jorge widened his eyes dramatically.
“And they’re not afraid of holy water or the crucifix.” Tita Ems immediately made the sign of the cross as if expecting one to appear right then and there. “They eat human flesh and if you eat any food they offer, you become just like them.”
Vanessa shivered at the intensity of the older woman’s gaze, her dark pupils dilating. She forced a chuckle out of her mouth. “I think I remember my mom telling me about them when I was young.”
“Just superstition,” Jorge said, then clamped a hand on his mouth to suppress a yawn. He failed. “Ancient folklore. Myths and Legends.”
“You shouldn’t dismiss it, though,” Tita Ems said, frowning at her son. “Every legend began as truth.”
“Right.” Jorge raised a brow at Vanessa who shrugged. It’s not like they didn’t expect to hear old wives’ tales in rural towns.
Vanessa pressed her lips. She was more worried about not staying at a hotel than fictional monsters. The shower. TV. Dinner!
But her protests died in her throat when Anita summoned them for some afternoon snack, where the freshly baked puto dashed away thoughts of luxurious accommodations.
Vanessa turned on her right, hoping that this side would be softer. No such luck. The mat dug into her arms. She didn’t even bring a pillow, so she had to use her backpack under the flimsy pillow that Anita had given her. Because it was summer, even the nights were hot and sticky.
The mosquito net kept most of the insects out, but Vanessa couldn’t help scratching her arms and back. She sighed and switched on her phone. It vibrated. A message from Jorge.
She grinned. So, he couldn’t sleep either. Yeah. U?
Keep me company?
She tossed her head back on her hard pillow and bit her lip. She pocketed her phone and slipped outside the net. In three steps, she was at the door that led to the kitchen. She opened it, but it was too dark to see. Was he playing with her?
She sat on the stair landing and took out her phone. I cant c u!
Vanessa looked up, but there was no sound. No light that signaled a text message. What was he playing at?
Then she felt something cold grip her leg.
She screamed and immediately kicked, falling on her back, her phone skittering across the bamboo floorboards.
A light focused on her face, and instantly, Jorge was beside her and hugging her.
“Ness, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Somehow, she had made it back inside, her legs safely pressed to her chest, as Tita Ems and Anita emerged from their slumber.
Her breathing erratic, she tried to make out the words. “S-something gr-grabbed me.”
“What happened, Jorge?” Anita asked.
“She said something grabbed her.”
“Touched my leg.” Vanessa gulped, her heart thumping painfully in her chest, the thudding so loud in her ears. “It – it grabbed my ankle.”
Anita and her mother shared a look.
“Jorge,” Tita Ems began, “help me make Nessa a cup of hot cocoa.”
“No!” Vanessa grabbed the hem of her sleeveless dress. “It’s down there. It’s down here.” Her eyes widened and she stared at the floorboards, where spaces as wide as an inch, showed only darkness. “Omigod, was it a thief?” She pressed her face against Jorge’s neck, her heartbeat thumping out the sound of his.
“It’s probably gone,” Tita Ems said. “Don’t worry, we’ll find whoever it was tomorrow.”
“You scared it away,” Anita said, rubbing circles on Vanessa’s back. “It’s fine. You’re safe now.”
“It’s because you didn’t answer.” Vanessa sniffled into Jorge’s shirt as he rose to follow his mother back to the kitchen.
“What’re you talking about?” he asked.
“You didn’t answer my text and I couldn’t see anything in the kitchen!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “I lost my phone earlier and I still haven’t been able to find it.”
“What?” Cold shivers ran down her spine.
“We’ll find out who it was.” Jorge went to the kitchen, leaving Vanessa with Anita.
Four people on one mat, in one mosquito net made the night hot. But Vanessa refused to let Jorge go. He slept on his back beside his mother, while Vanessa was sandwiched between the women. How they were all able to sleep despite what happened only heightened Vanessa’s fear.
She hadn’t moved in the last few minutes. She turned to her phone and lit it up. 2 AM. Just three more hours, she told herself and Tita Ems would be awake to start the day. Just three more hours and it would be dawn.
Vanessa closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
Until she heard the scratches.
Her eyes flew open, darting around the hut. It stopped. But Vanessa couldn’t close her eyes now, not when –
Scratches again. This time, it was long, like something sharp dragging against the wood. Dragging, dragging, dragging…
Vanessa eyed the space between the top of the walls and the eaves of the roof. She imagined someone peering at her from that height.
She crossed herself. Tomorrow, she and Jorge were getting a hotel. She didn’t care what the others would think.
The scratches continued, and Vanessa kept her vigil.
It wasn’t until the first ray of light shot between the bamboo walls, and someone shifted on her right, that Vanessa allowed herself to finally go to sleep.
She’d brought her entire make up kit for the wedding, but nothing could hide the prominent circles under her eyes.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Jorge asked for the fifth time, placing a piece of crispy, reddish brown skin of roasted pork on her plate.
She looked down at it, her stomach churning. She hadn’t had lechon in a long time, but she didn’t feel like eating much at the reception. Even if it was the salty, slick, and still hot pork.
“Want me to get you a bottle of Coke?”
Vanessa nodded. When Jorge left, she found a chair, and pressed her eyes. Tears sprung from the stinging heat behind her eyelids. She was so tired.
“Want a cake, dear?”
Vanessa looked up, blinking the sun away. A woman in a plain brown dress stood before her, her hand holding something covered in paper.
“N-no, I’m full, thank you.”
The edges of the woman’s eyes wrinkled as she smiled. “It’s all right. You’ll like this one.”
Vanessa waved her hand and showed the woman her plate, filled with spaghetti, puto, rice, chicken, and lechon. Even though Vanessa said she didn’t eat much, Tita Ems insisted on a mountain of food on her plate. And since it was Anita’s wedding, Vanessa couldn’t refuse. Not even when the reception was just held outside the house.
“All right,” the woman finally said. She pocketed the “cake” and walked away.
Jorge returned with a chicken sandwich and a bottle of Coca-Cola. Although Vanessa had sworn off carbonated drinks in Manila, she knew she could do with a dose of caffeine right now.
“So we’re gonna look for a hotel later?”
Jorge nodded. “If it’ll make you feel better.” He bit into his sandwich, his eyes lighting up. “Chicken sandwich taste’s good. Wonder who made it?”
At least one of them was eating with gusto. Vanessa forced a smile on her face and started taking small bites from her chicken. “Did Tita Ems say anything about the intruder last night?”
Jorge sat on a plastic chair beside her. “Not yet, but it’s probably just some kid playing a prank.”
“In the middle of the night?” She spat out. She nearly had a heart attack! “And don’t tell me he was still at it with the scratches till dawn.”
“Scratches?” Jorge chuckled. “You probably heard some wild boars. Or chickens on the loose.”
“Scratching on the wood? On the walls?”
“Or maybe you just imagined them. You hardly got any sleep.”
“Yeah, because of the scratches.” Vanessa turned away from him, her chest heaving. “As long as I get to sleep on an actual bed tonight, I’ll be happy.”
“All right, all right. Just eat your lunch.”
Thunder rolled by. And lightning split the sky as the rain washed away the muck from the streets and trash left from the wedding celebration. It also washed away any hope of getting to a hotel.
“It’ll be all right,” Jorge said. “This way, you know no one’s gonna pull pranks tonight in this rain. Everyone’ll be inside their houses.”
It might’ve been comforting had there been more of them in the house. But Anita was staying at her new husband’s house, which left Tita Ems, Jorge, and Vanessa in the hut.
“Time to sleep,” Tita Ems announced. She doused the kerosene lamp and shuffled towards the mat and pillows.
It amazed Vanessa how the woman was able to adjust immediately to the darkness. But then again, she had been living like this for decades.
Vanessa slipped beside Tita Ems, as Jorge flopped down beside his mother. Vanessa would’ve wanted time alone with her boyfriend, but certain norms could not be ignored.
She draped a shawl around her shoulders. Anita lent her one a few hours earlier when the rain started.
The scent of wet earth comforted her, knowing that there wouldn’t be anyone prancing around in the rain tonight.
She closed her eyes.
Not soon after, Vanessa jolted awake. She blinked the sleep from her eyes, her head still groggy, and cobwebs of slumber still clinging to her mind.
She switched on her phone and groaned when she saw the blinking battery icon. She hadn’t brought her charger, and it wasn’t like she could charge anywhere in the house anyway. It was still 1 AM.
Great, just an hour after midnight. Her phone would be dead come morning. Then, she’d have nothing to do on the bus. She settled her head back down on her pillow sitting atop her bag, when it began again.
Vanessa closed her eyes. Just chickens. Wild boar. Some insect she’d never heard of before.
But this time, it sounded – closer.
Vanessa took her phone and looked around, its dim light doing little to dispel her fears.
Then Vanessa’s eyes and light flew to that small space between the wall and roof.
Large red eyes stared back at her.
She shrieked and flailed her limbs, practically waking everyone up in the barrio.
“Ness! Ness, calm down!” Jorge drew her to him. “It’s okay, it’s okay!”
Vanessa pointed to where she saw the red eyes. “Over there! Eyes, Jorge, red eyes!”
But of course, they were gone.
Then, they heard a loud scream from outside.
Vanessa looked around. It was still dark, and the rain was still coming down. But Tita Ems wasn’t with them.
“Omigod, Jorge! Tita Ems! Your mom!”
“It’s okay. I told you, it’s okay.”
Vanessa looked at him. “Wh-what? What?”
He sighed. “I think you’ll need to see for yourself.”
He took her hand and led her outside the house. Vanessa pulled against his hold. “It’s raining! Jorge -!”
But Vanessa froze at the sight outside the house.
Tita Ems was standing over a fleshy, red something on the grass. She held a bolo in her right hand.
“Jorge!” She glared at her son.
“She needs to see it, Ma.”
“What is that?” Vanessa took a small step as Jorge tugged her forward.
As she took several more steps, Vanessa saw a dark lump.
It was an arm.
She gasped and tumbled backwards, but Jorge held her tight, the rain pelting their faces and weighing down their clothes.
“It’s fine. It won’t hurt you anymore.” Jorge caressed her wet hair.
“What’re you talking about?”
“It was an aswang,” Tita Ems said.
“You’re crazy.” But it was a weak argument, memories of red eyes, a cold, vice-like grip flooding her mind.
“Sometimes they turn into animals. A boar. A black dog,” Jorge explained. He turned to his mother. “Who was it, Ma?”
“’Yna’?” Jorge frowned. “She was talking to Vanessa during the reception.”
Tita Ems looked sharply at Vanessa. “Did she give you anything? Food? Drink?”
Vanessa glanced at Jorge, who merely looked at her with a fierce look in his eyes.
“She wanted to give me a cake, but – but I didn’t take it.”
“That probably wasn’t cake.” Tita Ems nodded. “When an aswang offers you something, don’t eat it.”
“It’ll have human flesh in it, and if you eat it, you’ll soon become like them,” Jorge said.
“Monstrous creatures who crave human flesh,” his mother continued.
“It won’t be bothering us anymore, though.” Tita Ems took the arm and disappeared behind the house.
“Where’s she going?” Vanessa asked, turning to Jorge, blinking as the rain hit her eyes.
“To do her job as guardian of this town,” he murmured. “C’mon, let’s go to bed.
It was finally morning. Vanessa couldn’t wait to get back to Manila. She stood outside the house, taking in the earthy smell of dew on the grass, on the ground, and on the wood.
Jorge was still talking to his mother and Anita, who had joined them for breakfast.
Vanessa scratched her arms. It was still six in the morning, but as soon as the sun was up, Vanessa wanted out.
She jumped at the voice and spun around. Before her stood a young girl wearing a sleeveless floral-patterned dress. Clean but faded.
“Oh, uh, good morning.”
“Didn’t you like the sandwich?”
“My mother cooked chicken sandwich for the wedding party yesterday.” She smiled, her yellow teeth making Vanessa cringe.
“Uh, that’s nice.”
“Everyone ate a piece, except you,” the girl continued.
Vanessa bit the inside of her cheeks. Was this girl going to keep talking? Vanessa wanted to get going. She looked over her shoulder at her boyfriend who was still talking to his sister.
“My mother offered you a cake, but you didn’t take it.”
“What?” Vanessa turned her head so quickly, it hurt.
But the girl was gone.
“Ready to go?” Jorge called, slinging an arm over her shoulder. He grinned at her, teeth glistening in the early morning sun.
“You better get going,” Tita Ems said, materializing beside them. “You’ve still got a long bus ride.”
“Finally some time alone,” Jorge said, raising his brows at her.
Vanessa hardly heard what he said over the din of her frantically beating heart.
“Right, Vanessa?” He kissed her forehead, his lips a stone-cold touch. “Wow, you smell nice.”
Vanessa looked over her shoulder as Jorge practically dragged her to the street, where they had to wait for a minibus.
Tita Ems and Anita waved, their grinning faces looking sharp and menacing in the glow of the sun not yet a bright yellow.
And beside the house stood the little girl with a toothy smile on her face.
About the Author
Ann G. Luna lives in the Philippines and grew up with stories of the strange and uncanny, of monstrous creatures that lure people into the darkness or fantastical realms. She writes stories of fantasy and horror, paranormal and mystery, and the arcane and otherworldly.
Her first novel, Magnum Opus, about a strange house with artworks that come alive on Halloween, will be out on January 2016 next year (or Christmas if she doesn’t get drunk on the Yuletide spirit).
Learn more about her at
Follow her lunacies at
Vanessa wanted something better to do for summer, but her boyfriendâ€™s sister is getting married in a little barrio in the Philippines, and she couldnâ€™t say no to the invite. After hours of a torturous bus ride and cruel mosquitoes, Vanessa finds more than just a quiet little town when she starts seeing and hearing things going bump in the night. Because in the Philippines, there is a lore about strange creatures that eat human flesh, prowling under wooden houses, and looking for prey.