San Cristobal is a quiet old municipal near the seaside and at the foot of a watchful mountain. Houses along the streets were decades old, many dating back to the Spanish period where the town had seen its glorious days. But now, San Cristobal is just another place where commuters pass by as they go to the more busy and industrious cities. Only a few notice, much less give interest, at the rich heritage and history this place holds.
In one of the ancestral abodes, built along a quieter street going to a public elementary school, lived an old gentleman whom the locals call Mang Ernesto. The old man lived alone in a house that looked both neglected and haunted. No one really knew much about this old resident, as Mang Ernesto was known to be a recluse person, disdaining visitors and any type of conversation. Each morning he was seen sitting at his second floor patio on his rocking chair, keeping a stern watch over the street below him and every passerby who would dare cross his flashing eyes. Some say that he kept his house derelict to scare people away. With his sour attitude and his house, he found much success among the adults.
But the children gave him problems. Because the school was just nearby it was inevitable that boys and girls would pass his house. Many had the sense to increase their pace when they reached his rusted gates, but there were also many among the older kids who would throw insults at him and stones at his worn roof. A few he had caught trying to trespass in his property – mostly for the fresh and ripe mangoes from his lush tree in his front yard – and who would just scamper away laughing, knowing they couldn’t be caught by a slow old man who spent his time in his rocking chair in front of his decaying house. But no one knew that behind those moldy walls, Mang Ernesto kept his dark secret.
He was an inventor, and his house stored many of his gadgets that he had made from scratch. But instead of bringing good, all of these brought mischief. And the recent inventions he had made targeted the pesky problems he had with the youngsters but all ended in dismal failures.
Once he created a weather machine so it could rain all day long, forcing the children to be kept indoors. Only problem he had was that he had forgotten to have his roof repaired and it cried droplets of rain, flooding the inside of his house and destroying his invention.
Next he invented a machine that spurned nightmares, hoping to frighten the children in their sleep. Unfortunately, it affected the adults as well, including him, and after suffering a night of horrible dreams he shut the machine down.
He had an array of inventions that either went back to the drawing board or backfired. Nothing seemed to work against the kids.
“Why do these kids misbehave?” he growled when he went inside his house after enduring another round of teasing and insults. He took something from his worktable (a metal bowl that he tried to use to communicate – or more precisely to order animals and insects) and threw it towards the defunct nightmare machine. “Why can’t they act more like civilized adults?”
Mang Ernesto paused and realized what he had just said. His lips curved upwards in a sly smile as another diabolic idea was forming in his head.
It took weeks of brainstorming, formulating, scratching of plans, sketching, hammering and soldering, scratching of plans once again, revising and more hammering and soldering and other manual work as he completed his latest project. Then one day, he took a step back and admired his latest invention.
“At last. It’s done,” he wiped away a tear with his oiled finger. And with that same greased finger he pushed down a large red button. The machine gave a low whine as it came to life, lighting and blinking with its numerous bulbs.
“My troubles shall be soon over,” he sighed with contentment. “Now those brats will get what they deserve.” He rubbed his hand together and grinned. He can’t wait for tomorrow to come.
The following day would have started as any other day, but the parents were surprised to see that their children had woken early without their prodding and nagging, and without any complaint. They then proceeded to do their chores and prepared for school.
At their classes, the teachers were mystified that their students were well-behaved and participated in class and schoolwork with unexpected diligence. When classes were over, the children proceeded to do their chores and assignments at home. There was no more room for playtime or friends. When their behavior had not changed after three days, the teachers and parents started talking and asking.
“We need to study hard and get good grades,” answered one the naughtiest boys. His teacher fainted at his reply.
At first, the grown-ups were pleased at what was happening to their children. They even congratulated themselves for bringing up responsible boys and girls. But days passed and they noticed that the children looked tired and stressed, just like an adult. Their parents encouraged the kids to give themselves a break and play with their friends. But the children refused and continued to study and do chores.
The parents worried for their children’s behavior and health. This was not normal. But worry became hysteria when the children started to look older as each day passed.
San Cristobal was in an uproar. Parents were crying and begging for help. The mayor announced a state of emergency and called for specialists to diagnose and cure the epidemic that affected the children. It created a fuss from the national media and the mayor got his share of air time in television, although it was not the type of attention he wanted. The specialists were baffled and gave contracting diagnosis. Parents cried, the mayor wanted to take a flight to another country, and the children continued to study and do their chores, unmindful at the commotion they were causing.
Only one person in town was gleeful at the chaos. For days since he turned on his invention, Mang Ernesto enjoyed the mornings that were free from jeers and teasing. His roof had found peace as well.
“At last, no kids to bother me anymore,” he smiled smugly one morning as he closed his eyes for an early siesta on his rocking chair. No one will bother to check on him or his house. Why would they? He was just a queer old man on a rocking chair who cared nothing about the world outside the fences of his property.
“Hello?” a timid voice called, breaking his savored silence and nap. Mang Ernesto’s eyes flew open, almost falling from his chair. He gazed down and saw a young boy, probably age seven or eight, looking up at him from the end of the stairs.
“Can I come up?” the boy asked. Mang Ernesto was up on his feet and charged down towards the intruder. He ignored the flare of pain on his knees.
“Who are you? Don’t you know I could have the police bring you to jail for trespassing?” he threatened when he reached him. The boy was unmoved and unfazed at his tirade, which unsettled him.
“Who are your parents? You’re going to be in big trouble,” he said, wagging his finger in front of the boy’s face.
“Not as big as you will be if you don’t stop this,” was the boy’s casual response. Mang Ernesto dropped his hand and felt the strength of his knees flee. He gripped the broken concrete railing to keep himself from falling, his palm pushing on to the exposed iron bar. Sweat trickled from his bald forehead. Did the boy know his secret and his involvement of San Cristobal’s predicament?
Don’t look guilty! He berated himself. He forced to calm down and regain his composure. It’s impossible he could have any knowledge of my invention.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. But go away now before I’ll call the police and your parents. There’s enough trouble in this town and doesn’t need to be added because of troublemakers like you.”
The boy shrugged his shoulder. “You could end the trouble right now, before someone really gets hurt.”
He knows! The old man took a step back, as if regarding the boy as an apparition. For the first time he noticed the boy was holding something behind him.
The boy took advantage at his hesitation and dashed upstairs.
“Hoy!” he chased after the boy. But the boy was fast and Mang Ernesto was old. By the time he reached the open door the boy had already gone inside. Ignoring the ached on his legs and back he began to scout for the young culprit.
“He’s not here,” he said when he searched most of his house. There was one place left he had not combed: his workplace where his inventions were stored. The ticker in his chest was pounding and beating like a crazed caged animal. It was a heartbeat of a guilty man soon to be caught.
He went down the stairs towards the first floor of his home. The wooden stairs creaked and he heard wood dust shower beneath. He was gasping by the time he had reached the bottom. He grabbed a chair and leaned against it. Looking up he could see his glorious invention, still blinking and humming. The walls of this part of his home were made soundproof with foam and egg trays and the windows were boarded up. No one from the outside could see or hear what he was doing down here, so how did the boy found out his invention?
The room seemed empty, but a moving shadow from the farthest corner reeled Mang Ernesto towards it.
“You,” he gasped. The boy ignored him and was studying an old contraption he had invented many years ago that was leaning on a wall. Mang Ernesto was trying to say something else, but his voice got stuck on his throat when he noticed what the youngster was carrying.
“Where’d you get?” he finally stammered. It was a board with bulbs, wires and buttons. At the center a steering wheel was latched.
“I made it,” the boy answered.
“I-impossible,” Mang Ernesto said. He knew what the device he was holding. He had made it a long time ago. The boy looked at him and smiled.
“Breathe,” he said. “Breathe and relax.” He then placed and locked the board at an empty slot of the machine on the wall. The lights on the board blinked alive.
“No!” Mang Ernesto cried, but the boy had turned the wheel. A flash of light blinded him and he fell back as a wave of warm air smothered him. His ears were filled with his screams of pain and terror as his back hit the hard floor. Then there was darkness and silence, then nothing.
The first thing he remembered after passing out was a something warm caressing his face. He opened his eyes, blinking as it adjusted from the brightness. With difficulty he got up and leaned on a pillar as he rubbed his back where it was sore from his fall. Then he straightened up, startled at what was before him.
Piles of coconuts were stored around him in large baskets. And a few chickens had come inside to scavenge some food. The late afternoon sunlight was streaming down from the windows, the same sunlight that had awakened him. He looked around, wondering where he was and why he was not at his home yet at the same time feeling everything he saw was familiar. That’s when he saw the steering wheel on the wall connected to his old invention. Mang Ernesto took a step back, fearing the device. It was one of his inventions that he had created although he could not recall now what it was for, and the steering wheel was the key to activate that machine. He thought he had lost it during the Second World War when they had to abandon their home for a while.
Home. Was this still the same house he had lived? Then why were the windows weren’t boarded? Where were his inventions? And why were there coconuts stored here instead? He had not seen coconuts in this place since his family had stopped operating their business and that was a long time…
A sharp creak made him turn and he saw the boy had opened one of the large double doors that had long been torn down and covered in bricks by Mang Ernesto to avoid any snoopers. But there it was again, with tendrils of smoke coming from the outside, the odor of burning husks and wood permeating his nostrils.
The boy looked outside and smiled before turning back at him. “Come on,” he waved Mang Ernesto towards him. Still confused, the old man obeyed. He squinted from the bright light when he reached the doorway and gazed after his eyes adjusted.
“Oh no,” he muttered, realizing and rejecting what had just transpired. The perimeter fence was gone and the once paved street which was bustled with activity and people was now a dust road with only a few people and a hen and her chicks walking along it.
Eyes wide, Mang Ernesto walked slowly out to the street. Farmlands replaced the homes of his neighbors. Even the bakery owned by the annoying noisy baker beside his house was gone, as if the unfinished building had been plucked from its place leaving a land bare and unmolested by humans. A few ancestral houses remained, but they looked decades younger.
“This can’t be,” he gulped.
With trembling legs, he slowly swiveled towards his estate, reluctantly checking if it too had been transformed. His jaws, which had always seemed to be locked on his forlorn expression, unhinged and dropped. Gone was his awful and haunted home. In its place was an abode of his childhood, though three generations had already lived in it, the house was in its pristine condition.
“H-how…” he faltered. His already weakened knees gave way and he would have slumped on the ground if not a pair of hands gripped his arms and broke his fall. Looking down, he saw the boy was supporting him.
“Come with me,” he said, leading the old man by the arm. Too weak and rattled to argue, Mang Ernesto obeyed.
As they walked on the street, Mang Ernesto met a few familiar faces. There was Aling Minda, a neighbor of them and a friend of his mother. Her silver hair was tied as she cleaned the fallen leaves on her yard. She did not regard them as they passed. Not long, they saw Mang Pepe slumped under a tree, face red from drinking and snoring so loud that his father always joked that it was the sound of a hungry boar.
The boy led Mang Ernesto into a small path between arcs of bamboo. Mang Ernesto recognized this place, but like most of his life, he had let it fade from his memory. In a distance, he could hear the enticing sounds of a stream flowing and laughter.
After zigzagging along the path they finally reached a creek and children dipping on its waters. Mang Ernesto gazed at the glistering waters. The creek had dried up ten years ago but is now flowing again with life-giving waters.
“Hey, here’s Erning!” A half-naked boy shouted. Mang Ernesto froze. He knew the boy who used his nickname. It was Francisco, or Paco as he fondly called him, his only best friend in his childhood. They might have been still best friends in adulthood if he hadn’t died during the war, when a Japanese soldier stabbed him with a bayonet when he tried to stop them from taking his father away because a manwearing a bayong accused him as part of a guerilla.
“What’s wrong, Erning? You look like as if you saw a ghost,” Paco laughed.
“P-Paco…” Mang Ernesto trembled. He felt a tug on his arm. Looking down, the boy gestured him to remove his shirt.
“I’m too old to swim,” he barked. The boy groaned in exasperation.
“Come on,” Paco called. “The water’s great.”
“But Paco…” he said.
“Come on!” he called again before dashing with the rest of the kids on the water. This was their favorite game, a race on the stream. He had never won, but Paco would always encourage him that he’ll win the next race.
An irresistible urge pulled Mang Ernesto after the children. He pulled out his shirt and handed it to the boy then waded into the cool stream. At first he limped after the children, and then as if the waters were reinvigorating a hidden strength he had lost long ago, his pace quickened until he was running. Not long he was able to catch up with them.
“Go! Go!” He heard Paco cry. Mang Ernesto pumped his feet, his eyes blurry from the strain of the race but he refused to slow down. He was nearing a boy who was leading the race, and they were closing in to the finished line – a fallen banana trunk. Forgetting everything and focusing the win, Mang Ernesto dashed and outrun his competitor and leaped over the trunk. He collapsed as he landed with a splash, laying face up on the water as he gulped for air. He then gave out a victorious yell and a grinning face appeared on his sight.
“You did it!” Paco said. “I told you that you would win this race.”
Mang Ernesto smiled and Paco helped him up to his feet.
“Thank you,” Mang Ernesto gasped, still trying to normalize his breathing. Paco nodded and gave him two playful pats on the shoulder, their signature gesture to each other. This brought Mang Ernesto back to his senses. He was in the past. His best friend was already dead. And he should be feeling the aches and pains from all the running.
The same instant he had regained who and where he was, Paco and the rest of their playmates disappeared.
“Paco?” he called. A sad feeling of loss swept him and tears once again threatened to pour from his eyes. Mang Ernesto jumped when a voice behind him piped, “That was an exciting race” It was the boy once again, holding his shirt out to him.
“Who are you? And why are you playing these games on me?” he said in anger. The boy remained calm and tossed him his shirt. Mang Ernesto caught it by the sleeve.
“Come with me,” he said and walked away. Mang Ernesto was tempted to stay instead of following the youngster but the boy was his only link back to his time. With a disgruntled sigh he put on his shirt and trudged behind his guide.
He found himself on a familiar road, walking past again on familiar places and faces although there was a difference he could not pinpoint.
“Ernesto,” a boisterous voice called out. The old man turned and rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
“Victor?” Victor was his classmate in his grade school, a son of a rich merchant who had transferred from Manila. But this was two years after the war ended, three years after Paco met his cruel demise. It was then he realized that time had moved forward.
As usual, the heavyset boy was surrounded by his peers, all looking smug as if being part of Victor’s company made them important. Mang Ernesto disliked Victor and his gang and was usually ignored and occasionally humiliated because of his small stature. But this would be different right? He was an adult now and Victor would want nothing to do with him.
The stout boy continued to approach him with his followers trailing behind. Mang Ernesto looked at the boy that had led him here but he nowhere in sight. Mang Ernesto cursed under his breath. Not long he was looking down at Victor.
“Ernesto, want to join us?” Victor asked. Mang Ernesto was puzzled. It seems Victor wasn’t troubled that he was looking up at an old man instead of a smaller kid. Then he remembered that Paco still treated him the same as when they were kids.
Victor rolled his eyes and sighed as he waited Mang Ernesto to answer.
“S-sure. What are we going to do?”
Victor shrugged. “Something fun, I guess.” His peers behind him snickered. Mang Ernesto felt uncomfortable but did not say anything. The old man followed the group, passing the convent beside the old church and the people who congregated in it for mass. They passed a few kids who were in his neighborhood. Mang Ernesto lifted his head a bit higher, taking pride that he was part of Victor’s group. His disdain for Victor and his gang was actually envy and he had wished he would be invited to join them in their ranks. They then followed the road he had passed earlier and soon they could hear the rumbling snores of Mang Pepe. The irony was that this homeless man had survived the war and kept his drunken habit as if nothing had happened.
Victor craned his neck towards him with an impish grin. Mang Ernesto gulped at his expression. He picked a stone on the road and thrust it towards the old man. Then with his lower lip he pointed towards the sleeping drunk.
Mang Ernesto stared at the stone. The rest of the boys surrounded him, waiting on what he will do. The old man struggled a bit. Despite of himself, he always wanted to be friends with the popular Victor, although his reputation was not his parents were fond of. He looked back at the stout boy. His face was grave and he nodded at him when their eyes met. Without hesitation Mang Ernesto grabbed the stone.
The boys gathered behind him as an internal debate battled in his mind as he lifted the stone at the level of his ear.
Should I hit him directly or just aim at the clumps of grass nearby to startle him? Feeling the eyes at his back, Mang Ernesto gulped and let the stone fly. His shot lack the strength but it landed on the shoulder of the sleeping drunk. Mang Pepe snorted and his red eyes flew open. Mang Ernseto could hear feet scrambling behind him as they flee away from the crime scene. Mang Ernesto turned to follow them, hoping that Mang Pepe was too drunk to chase or recognize them.
“You! Why did you throw the rock at me?” he heard him slurred. Mang Ernesto did not reply but run away from the angry drunkard.
“Come back here,” Mang Pepe cried. Mang Ernesto thought he was too tipsy to chase him but as he glanced back his heart fell. Mang Pepe was yelling curses as he pursued him. Red with both shame and exhaustion, Mang Ernesto slipped and turned to lose him off his track but Mang Pepe kept trailing on him, the distance between them becoming precariously close.
Mang Ernesto knew he will fall in the hands of Mang Pepe, and whatever punishment the he will inflict him in his drunken stupor. As his legs neared at the edge of their diminishing strength, a hand suddenly appeared and took one of his. Mang Ernesto’s head flung back as a boy pulled him away from Mang Pepe’s raging path. The boy’s speed almost dragged him as he barely kept pace. Mang Pepe, out of shape and exhausted, had slumped beside a guava tree, muttering curses at the culprit before falling back to sleep.
Mang Ernesto and his rescuer kept running until they were back at the road going back to his home. The tired old man slumped beside a small irrigation canal, resting to catch his breath.
“Thank you,” he said, turning to his rescuer. He was surprised that it was the mysterious boy who saved him from Mang Pepe. He was also panting from the chase.
“You’re welcome,” the boy replied and smiled at him. Mang Ernesto chuckled and for the first time, smiled back at him. They spent the next few minutes staring at the lush green rice fields under the late warm yellow sun.
“You kids are really rascals,” Mang Ernesto remarked. His companion raised an eyebrow.
“Kids? You were the one who threw the stone at him,” the boy said incredulously.
“But that’s because Vincent wanted me to.”
“But you could choose not to,” the boy countered.
Mang Ernesto shook his head. “This is why I invented that machine. Children like Vincent were mischiefs.” He then turned at him with a quizzical look. “Why weren’t you affected like the other children?”
The boy did not reply. Instead he said, “Weren’t you a child once before? And were you more innocent than Vincent was or the kids who treated you unkindly?”
The boy’s words stung him, but he was too tired to feel or react in anger. “I was different,” he mumbled.
“Remember when you and Paco took Tito Atong’s kalabaw and hid it in the woods from him?” the boy said.
“How’d you know that?” Mang Ernesto said. No one had caught them for that act, and it was a secret he and Paco promised to keep beyond their death. So far, Paco had kept his promise and he had no intention to break his.
“How about when you took and dirtied on the mud Manang Celia’s duster from her sinampay on Vincent’s dare?”
Mang Ernesto cringed at the memory. He was given ten lashes at the buttocks by his father because of the deed.
“And when you ate nanay’s gata that was reserved for her guests-” the boy continued.
“Enough! I was a child then!” Mang Ernesto exclaimed. The boy flashed a victorious grin.
“My point,” he said.
Mang Ernesto’s shoulders dropped. Who was this boy and why did he knew so much about him? The boy stood and dusted his shorts.
“Come. We have one last stop to go before night comes,” the boy said.
Mang Ernesto tried to stand but his body and mind was weary. A dull ache weighed his limbs.
“Come on,” the boy encouraged him. Mang Ernesto got up and hobbled behind the boy as the sun continued to set.
The way was a bit long and the light was waning. Nocturnal creatures were getting ready to meet the night, like the bats that flew above them and the crickets rubbing their bodies to produce a choral of buzz; a musical greeting to the upcoming darkness.
“Here we are,” the boy announced. They were back in Mang Ernesto’s house. Once again it stood regal despite its simplicity but compared how Mang Ernesto took care of it in the future… Mang Ernesto just looked away in shame.
“Come in,” the boy said, pushing the double door open. Mang Ernesto entered as instructed.
“Wait here,” the boy said and he climbed the steps going upstairs. Mang Ernesto had no more strength to follow him, and he was glad to sit down on a wooden stool. His eyes gaze around at the piles of coconuts and other items. Everything was familiar but also different. He tried to analyze what was happening, but the more he thought, the more his mind swirled. He rested his head on his hands, giving up on whatever was happening to him.
He heard footsteps coming down from the stairs again. He looked up, expecting to see the boy. “I hope you got some water. I’m really thirsty right now.”
“Ernesto,” a different voice spoke. His limbs trembled at the sound of her voice. He knew who she was but he buried his head back to his hands in shame. If he wasn’t so exhausted, he would have ran and hide from her, as he had done before when he knew he was in trouble. How could he have forgotten his mother was still alive in this time? He felt her warm hand on his shoulders, and the warm tears streaming down on his palms.
“Is something troubling you, Ernesto?” she asked. Slowly, he let his head rise to look at her. She was smiling at him, his mother. Her face was the same as her own old photograph he had kept hidden in a box. And like the photo, her image was ageless, as if far-away from the last time he saw his mother.
“What’s troubling you, Ernesto?” she asked again gently. Once again, Mang Ernesto broke down and hugged his mother, as he had always done before as a child. His mother stroke the back of his head, patiently hearing him as he told her everything – between sobs – from the mysterious boy and his time travel, his race with Paco, to giving in to the pressure from Vincent, and finally confessing what he had done to the children of San Cristobal.
When he had emptied himself, he dared not look at his mother’s disappointed face. But her gentle touch did not cease caressing his head.
“What you did was wrong,” she said, her voice absent of indignation or reprimand. “And you know you must correct it.”
Mang Ernesto pulled away from her. “But the teasing will start again!” His mother smiled.
“Yes, they will,” she put her hand on his cheek. “But remember that once you were a child as well; as naughty and playful as they are now. Don’t steal their childhood from them.”
Mang Ernesto did not say anything, but after a few seconds he nodded. His mother smiled again and stood up.
“It’s now time,” she said before walking to the panel where a wheel was attached. Mang Ernesto looked confused. Then the boy appeared and stood at the opposite side of panel from his mother.
“Remember, Ernesto, I always love you,” his mother said as the boy grasped the wheel.
“Bye!” The boy smiled as he turned the wheel. Mang Ernesto finally recognized him.
“You’re…” he gasped as a flash flooded the room and enveloped him. When he opened his eyes, gone were the baskets and coconuts. His old stuff was back where he had left them. His mother and the boy disappeared as well, along with the wheel from the panel.
“You’re me,” Mang Ernesto finished. He was still for some time, until a bird flattered from the outside. He looked up and saw it was almost dark. Slowly, from both physical and mental fatigue, he climbed up the stairs only to stop after a few steps. His invention was still blinking, unmindful at what had happened. Or did it really happen? Then in his mind he saw Paco, Vincent and his gang, his other playmates at the river, his mother, and the boy he once was.
Don’t steal their childhood from them, his mother had said. He looked back at the machine he had created. He took a deep breath and stepped back down. He approached a working table and took a wrench. He looked at his invention and started walking towards it.
The following day, the town folks were surprised and relieved when they saw their children looking and acting normal again. Many attributed it as a miracle while the poor mayor and the astonished specialists tried to speculate an explanation to all what had happened. In the end, the children could not remember the time they acted like adults and their parents were just happy that they had their sons and daughters back.
A few weeks had passed and the mystery wrought by Mang Ernesto was almost forgotten. The children went back to school, complaining about homework and chores and the adults passed the incident as a nightmare. Mang Ernesto could still be seen on his patio, staring sternly at those who pass-by his house, especially at the boys who teased at him and threw rocks on his roof.
But no one could see the subtle change on the old man. A small smile formed as each boy or girl passes by his house, even those notorious teasers of his. Sometimes when he saw kids running on the street, he imagined his younger self and Paco racing with them.
He was once a child like them, and he would never try to take their childhood again. He promised it to his mother, a promise he’ll never break for the rest of his life.
He looked back at his house and his smile widened. Of course, that didn’t mean he would stop inventing.