The worm wends its way through the loose cement of the city. The end which it has decided will be its head is colored silver and metallic, stained by the grime and the dust that has embedded itself in the concrete; the end which it has decided is its bottom tapers to a point, worn into the shape of a snake's tail by the rocks and sharp cracks of the city's walls.
The worm's body is stained with blood. Passersby who see segments of the giant creature peeking out of big holes made in the cement of foot bridges and sidewalks can never tell if it is worm blood or human blood or crimson spatters from road kill mown down on the dirty streets studded with potholes big as craters.
The city's men and women – never born in the city, but always immigrants – see the worm and call it beautiful in spite of its insipid colors and textures, the constant groaning of its movement beneath the city floor reminding them that their tiny, broken down world could split at any moment, exposing the worm in all its ghastliness, the rotten earth below it ready to swallow them whole. These people are powerless because the worm is all they have ever known.
Alone. The worm is always alone, but it knows many secrets that seep down through the cracks. Sometimes it whispers, but no one ever hears past the groaning. Everyone is terrified to listen past it. They are either staying alert, listening for the final break that will send them flying into the worm pit; or are lethargic and oblivious, having heard the groaning for longer than they can bear. There are few who listen, even fewer who hear. The worm is content with not being heard; it is content with its stagnant slithering.
"What was that?" Elise is a young girl who always wears baggy pants and ill-fitting tank tops. She owns one pair of sneakers, flapping open at the toes when she walks, showing off the holes in her socks. Some days, she doesn't have any socks – she only owns one pair.
"Wala. I didn't hear anything," Bert murmurs under his breath. He is a teenager, a few years older than Elise. They are step siblings but love each other more than a true sibling could love the other. Bert is always in basketball shorts and is shirtless and barefoot most of the time. His feet are covered in rough, whitened calluses. His soles are tough; they almost never feel pain anymore.
Elise whips her head around, her hair dragging on the sidewalk, grazing past the rusted bottle caps piled within a ring drawn on the ground. Elise's hair is never combed and never free of tangles, but it is always soft, at times emitting a dull shine, indicating how young she actually is. "I definitely heard something. Like a crack or…"
"Or a gunshot?" Bert's teeth are crooked when he grins. His smile has a gaping black hole where one of his front teeth used to be. One spot on his gums is black, just underneath his golden tooth – a gift from a benefactor he hasn't seen in three years. He always has bad breath; nevertheless, he feels rich because of his gold tooth. Bert picks at his underwear, which has lodged itself between his buttocks after he has been squatting for over half an hour.
"Don't tease me," Elise whines, pushing her hair behind her ears and concentrating on the makeshift game board they have drawn on the sidewalk with black coal. She flips her red bottle cap in the air with her thumb and forefinger, expertly catching it in her small palm when it comes down. "The loud noises always remind me of gunshots. I just hope Papa is—"
"You always worry about Papa."
"But he has not been home." Elise's eyebrows are knitted now; she is always anxious when she doesn't see her papa after a few days.
"You know what he does." Bert tries to assure his sister, but even his eyes do not seem to be able to meet hers. "You know he has to stay away sometimes. He just wants – "
"To keep us safe." Elise finally launches the bottle cap from her hand, aiming at her brother's on the sidewalk. The blue cap skitters across the pavement. It is about to scrape past the black, powdery circle when a thump comes from deep beneath the earth, stopping the bottle cap in its tracks.
"A-ha," Bert crows softly. "Bad drivers and potholes are always on my side." He smiles and straightens proudly. "Safe."
The worm emerges from the craggy cement painted white. It peeks through the high fence of a house. The top of the fence is riddled with broken glass, discouraging any intruders from entering late at night. But it is day, the sun is high and hot, and the elderly couple inside the house are taking their afternoon siesta.
Blearily, the worm blinks and spots one man lugging the white garden set arranged across the thick, green lawn to the fence. Outside, another man waits. The glass barbs are useless against the thick rope they use to haul the heavy, steel chairs over, away from the owners who will never see their beloved furniture again.
One of the men is Alberto. His loose, sleeveless shirt is stained with sweat and soil. The burly arms that emerge from the sleeves shine wetly beneath the sun, twinkling as sweat drops drip from his shoulders and trickle downward. Alberto huffs and grunts loudly when he hauls up the chair using the rope. His accomplice, Tony, is inside the gate. He assists Alberto, lifting the chair until it is steady against the grilles of the fence so that it makes no noise as Alberto pulls it up and over. On the other side, Tony slowly inches the chair down once it is on Alberto's side of the fence. The rope burns both of their hands, but no blood is shed. Their palms have been hardened by many heists like this; their dry skin is as tough as the rope they are using – perhaps tougher.
The afternoon remains quiet as the men go about their deed. The intruders are professionals; and the rest, like the elderly couple, are lying down for their afternoon siesta.
The worm burrows back into the cold, hard dark; he has more interesting things to witness.
"Papa!" Elise runs to her father as he enters the metal shanty that they have made their home. It looks like he is appearing out of the darkness; they can spot no stars from their little tin house – only the city lights below which burn all night.
"Eli," her father rumbles warmly, kissing her on the cheek and wrapping her in his arms. "I have a surprise for you."
"What?" Elise is excited, her eyes shine like they always do when her father comes home. His presence is a pleasure big enough for her.
"We were able to sell some very nice chairs today," her father says, keeping her in suspense.
"Everything went well, then, Abe?" Elise's stepmother asks. She is standing, skinny, oily and sweating, in front of the broth she is cooking for dinner. The daster she is wearing is tattered, its pink flowers laced with grey dust.
"Like usual," Elise's father replies, presenting from behind his back a chocolate Crunch bar. "Sayo, Elise. Share it with your Kuya Bert."
Elise's mouth spreads into a wide smile, exposing all her misshapen teeth, and the spaces where her teeth are missing. "Salamat po, Pa!" Her cry of thanks is filled with extreme joy, and she skips outside to the back of their shack to show Bert what their father has brought home.
Bert is husking coconuts underneath the tree that grows into the concrete behind their house. He has managed to make a nice pile of white coconut flesh.
"Kuya, Papa brought this for us!" Elise cheers, running up to her brother and waving the chocolate bar in the air. "Crunch!"
Bert stops scraping and approaches Elise, quiet and calm. "Salamat."
He takes his share and goes to the broken cement blocks they use for sitting. Behind the makeshift bench, the soil falls steeply, ending in a smooth, asphalt road where dirty trucks and speeding cars often pass, beeping their horns noisily. But it is night now, so there is some quietude. Bert and Elise can hear the faint buzzing of traffic in the distance.
Elise goes to sit beside her brother but trips. "Oh no!" she cries after her chocolate flies from her hand and tumbles down the cement wall, onto the street below. Elise's eyes fill with tears as she looks forlornly down the steep incline.
"Don't cry, Elise," Bert soothes his sister, taking her hand and leading her to sit next to him. "I'll share mine with you – hating kapatid. Here."
The breaking of the chocolate bar is soft, barely heard. Elise sniffs and dries her eyes; a small smile comes to her lips. Her eyes are still shining, but she is happy now. "Salamat, Kuya."
Below, the worm smells the sweet scent of the chocolate. He dives for it, but stops. He is not hungry; he does not need to eat yet. He tramples over the soiled chocolate as he passes, making his way up through the concrete jungle that he has traversed time and again, and into open air. His journey stops at the end of the flyover. The project has been standing stagnant for months. From the half arch in which he is embedded, the worm gazes over the busy street below, polluted by lights and honking and smog. He cannot move from here, and so he burrows back into the concrete, taking the shape of a crooked U.
Nina sits in her car like a princess, legs crossed, back straight. She holds her cell phone to her ear, patiently listening to the rings. "Hello!" she booms into the phone once the ringing stops. Nina's driver is jolted a bit, but he retains his composure. A slight blush comes to his cheeks; he is embarrassed at being surprised.
"Ella, I'm in need of a new driver." Nina takes down a piece of paper and a pen from the car seat organizer she has in front of her. "Do you know anybody? Oh yes, yes… This is for my parents. My dad has such a temper, I need a driver who already knows the roads… He's your maid's brother? Oh, they come from the same province, yes, okay. Tell him to meet me at my house on Monday for a test drive. All right? Okay. Thanks."
"So your daughter is…?" The clerk at the desk is wearing a dress that stresses her wideness and her sweatiness. Her forehead glistens when she turns it up to look at Elise's stepmother.
"My step-daughter is nine years old," murmurs the old stepmother.
"Hopefully, she'll fit in well with the other students."
The high school is dilapidated and dusty. Its basketball court has been fashioned into a lunch hall, and the classrooms are gathered around it like little ducklings flocking around their mother. There is more chalk dust on the blackboards than there is in the chalk drawers, and the tiny rooms are filled to the brim with wooden seats. Third graders are taught alongside sixth graders in one classroom, and they make friends with one another. Every day, during the lunch hour, the ice cream man comes with his cart, but only a few buy – the ones who still have a few coins to spend.
"Make sure she comes in correct uniform on Monday," the clerk reminds Elise's stepmother as she stands and exits through the doorway of the office, which opens onto a dusty, yellow street lined with sari-sari stores.
"Of course. Thank you."
The worm knows it is a Monday. After a long sigh of weekend, with buses cutting across the roads and people rushing to get home, the city is back to business. He hears the silence morphing into chaos. The screeches of the jeepney horns and the beeping of the SUVs urge the worm to burrow deeper into the soil for its nap. It shoots past the pipes and the cement and the compost piles filled with rotting food. Steadily, it digs its head in an almost vertical line down into the earth, into the sudden dark emptiness. The worm is lost. It shakes its head; it must find its way, and so it burrows haphazardly in all directions. Above, the streets are crumbling.
A soft rumble makes its way across the city.
Elise is playing with her new friend, Hannah. They have drawn a circle about themselves with chalk and are playing jackstones. Elise feels the ground slide left, then abruptly right. The ball they are using bounces on a crack and ricochets away. She asks her friend, "Did you feel that?" Hannah stares at her blankly.
Alberto is in the car. It is a beautiful SUV, black and sleek, made for rough terrain. It is supposed to stick out like a sore thumb in the city, but it does not. Everyone drives the same vehicle, as if the city itself were a jungle, the SUVs trampling over earth, grass, and tree roots. Alberto feels strange drivingan automatic; he is used to driving a manual car. After a few minutes on the road, though, he is turned pro – driving matik begins to feel like play.
"Turn left here," Nina instructs from the back seat. She is vigilant when it comes to hiring new drivers. She is always terrified of automobile accidents. "Ano yun? What was that?"
The entire car shakes, and a deep groaning is heard from far underground.
Radio and TV blare a warning message. There is an earthquake. The citizens should take caution on the roads, in their homes, in the schools. Slowly, the crack lengthens, traveling between building and wheel and grass and tree. The city is being ripped in two.
The worm beneath hears the collapsing, the grinding, and the falling. It coils around itself and begins to sleep.