By Lily C. Fen
"You may have heard reports that monsters reveal themselves to students here at the Retreat House." Sister Fatima paced in front of the class in her lilac veil and aubergine-coloured skirt.
"This year's seniors, in your place last year, were sworn to secrecy here at the Baguio Retreat House. It is one of the reasons we have this spiritual recollection—a way of equipping you with information and protection."
Forty-five pairs of teen eyes looked back at Sister Fatima. Two girls in the back row swatted each other with a teddy bear and burst into fits of giggles that Sister Fatima stared down with her nun's gaze, a combination of arched brows and righteous harrumphs.
Alex ignored the noisy girls in the back row.
She had heard about these rumours Sister Fatima was discussing. Talk had swept through the school like flying cockroaches panicked from torrential rains. But that's all it had been so far—chatter—unfounded bits of pseudo-information racing across high school corridors.
"Fifteen is a crucial age, an important one," Sister Fatima paused in between rows for emphasis. "Your societal debuts won't be till you turn 18. But we at Sisters of the Assumpta stand between the realm of the living and the kingdom of spirits. Your junior year is your spiritual coming of age, hence this holy recollection.
"Who here is 15?" Sister Fatima came to a halt at the front of the group. There was a show of hands.
"Fifteen is the age when Whisper Eaters can smell you."
There was a gasp in the room. So it was true.
Alex leafed through the comic Sister Fatima had handed out to them. Her eyes were ready to pop out of their sockets, much like the Pop Tarts she bought at the exclusive Duty Free Shop whenever Mom and Dad came back from a trip abroad. She couldn't believe that this was real, more so than the horror magazines she had begun reading when she had turned 12. She got them at the fancy bookshop that carried American paraphernalia at the corner building of Magdalena Village. It was the furthest she'd ventured out of the house on her own.
Maybe she could write to the horror magazine about Whisper Eaters and get a reader's letter published. It could appear right next to a photo of Freddy Krueger. Maybe. But Sister Fatima had spoken about the need for secrecy. She had to wrap her head around the fact that her own mother, who wasn't good at keeping secrets, had told her nothing about this before.
"On page three, you will see that the 15-year-old girl is at her most vulnerable, when she begins to acquire the scent that Whisper Eaters can sense. Some girls can see them. They are known to be tall, shadowy figures, with broad shoulders and the height of a grown man.
"A tall man," Sister Fatima added, her voice sounding like wind chimes that were starting to make Alex's eardrums weary.
Alex leafed through the illustrated manual as Sister Fatima's voice sang on. Every girl was silent, caught up in the newness of the subject. They now had access to this forbidden spirit world. It was real and they had been invited in.
"Can anyone tell me who might be safe from Whisper Eaters at 15?"
The class was stumped and Alex looked up from the coloured pamphlet to gaze at Sister. She squinted, wanting to get the answer right. Was it a trick question? She heard a rustle of pages. Some of the girls had fast-forwarded to page 17 and there was a chorus of repressed giggles from the swim team and the cheerleading squad.
"Looks like Diane would be totally safe, according to this manual," one girl said. Sniggers rippled through the class and Alex hastened to the page in question.
Ah. A teen that was no longer a virgin was not attractive to Whisper Eaters. Of course. The spirits usually drank virginity and innocence from teenage girls. Without virginity, there was no chastity, and without that there was nothing to entice them. Girls tended to shed much of their incorruptibility by age eighteen, virgin or not. That was when Whisper Eaters lost interest.
"You have to understand, girls, that Whisper Eaters are not to be taken lightly. I assume all of you are virgins, as any proper young lady of the Assumpta should be." Sister Fatima advanced through the room-full of girls, her thin eyebrows arched in question. Some of the girls chuckled. Particularly Diane. Alex had always thought Diane was the rough-and-tumble sort, with her grunge accessories and pretty face. She didn't do well in class but was queen of the cool crowd.
Alex recalled her previous Assumpta retreat, which involved visits to a shaded room where the Holy Tabernacle was, just like in the Old Testament. Father Hans and the Sisters of the Assumpta had insisted that the Holy Presence of the Lord resided in that safe place, just like in the days of Moses. Alex had been sitting in the corner, enjoying her quiet time, all the while feeling removed from the veil of thick belief that God Himself resided in that box blessed by Father Hans.
He was a celebrity among members of the Catholic faith. He also liked hugging after confessions.
Alex did not consider herself Catholic. She thought she was on the progressive side when it came to religion. But she kept that part to herself and held on to the rosary when it was required.
"Oh my God, Alex, you pray so well," Isha, the class secretary had once gushed when a teacher had asked Alex to pray at the start of a lesson. The girls were used to memorised prayers mumbled under their breaths.
They said it was safe to say confession right in front of the Holy Tabernacle, among the shadows and black smoke that snaked from candle flame. Alex had been there when Diane had broken down.
"Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned," Diane had sobbed. "I had sex with my boyfriend at home when my parents were out for the weekend." Alex couldn't make up her mind. Was it the sheer scandal of it that got her? Was it true? Was Diane so trusting that she would say such a thing aloud here, in front of other girls in the room? Or was Diane lying?
"Whisper Eaters have an appetite for two things in particular. Who can tell me what one of them might be?"
Alex had no clue. But Melody, the one with the best grades in class, raised her hand. The class turned to her. "Yes, Melody?"
"They love the taste of virgin whispers," Melody said.
"That's right," Sister Fatima said. "They drink the whispers of virgins and catch the scent of young ladies once they come of age. The second thing they love to eat is electricity.
"But it is the 15-year-old virgin whose breath Whisper Eaters are most attracted to. If one gets too close and drinks of a girl the entire night, it can consume all her breath till it takes her life. Otherwise, it can feed on a girl for years, weakening her and sapping her of energy she needs," Sister Fatima said, adding a long pause to let her words sink in. "So be careful, girls. You don't want to be feeding such a Thing of the Shadows.
"I would advise you all to get an early night's rest. It's been a long ride from Makati, and we have a full day of activities tomorrow. Father Hans will officiate Mass and you know how important he is to the community. He will hear your confessions in the afternoon.
"Just because you feel safe here at our spiritual house does not protect you from Whisper Eaters. It is best not to provide whispers late into the night that might attract it. And turn your lights off by 10:00pm, when I call lights out. We don't want to give these creatures any more electricity to energise them.
"Are there any questions?"
Sister Fatima had stopped her pacing and had landed right smack in front of everyone in the class. Dozens of hands went up.
The girls slept in semi-private, partitioned cubicles that night, with ceilings fans whirring over their bunk beds. Curtains functioned as doors. Despite Sister Fatima's warnings, all the students, most of whom were 15, lay in their bunk beds sighing secrets into the darkness.
Alex could hear her classmates as she let herself wander away from wakefulness. Sandra and Angelica were right next to her space and the two murmured confidences to each other as night progressed. Other girls giggled over stories about their latest crushes, which boy at the last interaction had written them a letter, or which university they dreamed of going to as college freshmen.
Alex could not find sleep. She never slept well in a bed with which she wasn't familiar. Slumber remained a ghost within her reach yet slipped through her fingers like smoke.
The lights were off, but ceiling fans rumbled with electricity that radiated over the room. Innocence wafted up from the girls like sweet slices of cassava cake—young sighs that were delicacies to a Whisper Eater. One wandered into the dormitory and headed for the rickety fan above Alex. A long shadow drunk on virgin breath, it crawled on the ceiling like a spider and lapped up the meagre electricity coursing through the fan. A fuse blew. The fan sputtered and electrical wires flared and flickered. A chorus of voices rang out through the darkness as girls scrambled. "Sister Fatima! Help!"
Alex ignored the commotion. She preferred to stay at the doorway between sleeping and waking. She was the only one not fully awake. She warded off the shouts, wanting to remain in the shadows of her mind.
And that was where the spirit found her. It crept up to Alex, looking for somewhere to hide. Its shadow hands pried Alex's jaws apart.
Alex's half-asleep heart raced. She tried to ward the creature off but her body would not respond. The black thing crawled into her. It burrowed into one of Alex's teeth, like a cat snuggling into a shoebox.
Alex woke with a start that night, much later, after the commotion with the electric fan had subsided and been sorted out by Sister Fatima. That nightmare about a Whisper Eater crawling into her through her mouth—she shuddered as wisps of the dream followed her into waking. What had roused her was a toothache that was eating her alive, like a hand drill boring through her skull. But maybe she could will away the ache and skip a visit to the dentist.
The retreat in Baguio concluded and the girls, done packing, loaded themselves on the bus. Weeks in school passed, as did several sleepless nights when the pain continued. She felt her energy wane sharply on nights she stayed up cramming for a school project.
The tooth died. Then the throbbing was gone. She had willed it away! Perhaps she had been right to give inaction a try. But a gaping hole that she could trace with her tongue lay where pain used to be. Guess she did have to go.
"Hi Doktora," Alex said, hunching her shoulders (as if that would conceal the hole in her tooth) as she walked into the dentist's clinic. Dr Gonzales always had a bubbly smile for her whenever she visited. Alex wished she could be like that. But now was not the time for such things. It was about that deep hole that needed filling. Where the ache had been.
"Ay, this looks bad, hija," Dr Gonzales said as she took a look at the cavity. "I think you're going to need a root canal."
A pretty girl at church had once told Alex about her root canal. Alex thought that she could get a perfect smile like the other girl if she got one too. Not that Alex knew what it really was, but they made arrangements for the next weekend. "We will need to clean all the tissues out. Your tooth is dead. It's lucky you don't feel anything but that's because the nerves in your molar have died. You sure you didn't feel anything before?" Alex told Dr Gonzales about the soreness. The dentist tut-tutted her.
"Why didn't you come to me sooner? Such a shame," Dr Gonzales said.
"It will take some time for the root canal," Dr Gonzales said, warning Alex as she prepared to leave. She put a gloved hand on Alex's arm. Alex didn't know it, but the creature in her stirred as the doctor's warm hand brushed against her shoulder.
The spirit was in slumber when Alex stepped back into the dentist's the following Saturday. Dr Gonzales drilled into the dead tooth—the creature's current residence. She used tiny needles, each a different colour, to scrape away at Alex's molar. Red drops laced each needle as it came out of the cavity. Some pulp came with it, heavy with blood.
Alex held back her nausea at seeing the remains of her tooth but could not resist looking. She could detect the vague sensation of something grinding against her molar, but the anaesthesia around the area shielded her from the brunt of it. Her head and neck pressed against the reclining chair while the dentist leaned over, excavating a deep well.
It went on for what felt like hours until her jaw was aching. She had been agape for so long. Even Dr Gonzales and the assistant seemed weary. Needle after needle grinded into the heart of her molar.
After all the blood and steel instruments, it was time to conclude the surgery. A crown would be fitted on eventually, but not today. Alex was relieved that the rest felt like the closing up of a normal tooth cavity. Dr Gonzales applied the temporary filling into the cleaned crater.
A week later, when Dr Gonzales applied the glass ionomer and composite resin to seal the entire procedure shut, the light of the laser beam wedged the Whisper Eater to the very fibre of Alex. It fidgeted in Alex but could not break away from her. Dr Gonzales concluded her work with a fluoride varnish. The sour taste lingered in Alex's mouth as she left the dentist's.
"Mummmmm, can you switch the channel to Monster Radio?" Alex said from the back seat. She couldn't believe they had moved to Pasay City from Magdalena Village when it was practically impossible to get to from Makati on weekdays. Her stomach did tumbles at every lurch of the car.
Their car jerked forward again, from idle to twenty kilometres per hour, whenever the road opened up. She sighed and gazed out the window in an effort to find balance between her eyesight and her bewildered belly.
That was the precise moment the black Toyota sidled up to a scene that would change the course of events for Alex.
"Squatters," Mum and Dad called them, homeless vagabonds who laid out cardboard boxes like mattresses, bunking on any random space for the night. Alex groaned. Just what she needed. A reminder that she was forced to live in this neighbourhood during high school. Didn't her mum know anything? What would her friends at Assumpta High School say if they knew?
"Can you believe those squatters have the gall to tap into electricity illegally like that?" Mum said as they glanced at the alley on their right. Alex had also seen several homeless squatting in front of their family shop in the mornings.
A bedraggled teenage girl sat staring at a TV in the dimly lit alley. Her eyes remained glued to the glowing light of the variety show that was blaring from the set. Her father puttered around, checking that the rickety antennae got as clear a reception as they could. They had stolen the electricity from a lamppost that stood above them. Black wires that kept the energy flowing laced the grimy path.
"Hey, instead of saving a few pesos for a proper bed, these squatters get their hands on a TV set and steal the city's electricity?" Mum's manicured fingernails tapped the steering wheel with impatience.
The electricity embezzling wasn't new to Alex—her parents had done the same several summers ago, when the temperatures had climbed to forty degrees Celsius and the entire Magdalena Village household had been wilting. Mum had gotten their errand boy to do it, Alex wasn't sure how. But for the entire summer, Alex could keep the air-conditioning on at full blast. Mum had even been proud of it.
Alex looked away from the past and followed her mum's gaze into the back alley. Blue light flickered in the squatters' eyes—the teenager and her homeless father. They didn't look Alex's way.
Was it because the girl was about Alex's age that the Whisper Eater in Alex woke? Was it that the scent of the homeless girl was new and different? Or was it the bootleg electricity that excited it—that surge of energy rushing through haphazard black wires that traced over the father and his teenager like a great cobweb?
The Whisper Eater rose out of Alex, a part of it fixed to her. It was the first time she had laid eyes on it since that night at the retreat. Alex was certain she had only imagined the Whisper Eater the night Sister Fatima had introduced them to the beast's existence. It had just been a nightmare—it couldn't have been true. She would have seen it, would have known to ask for help. The creature stretched out of Alex as far as it could, its shadow elongating into teeth and claws made of darkness. It fed on the television's pirated energy, drinking it as if it were a stream of water from a fountain. Mental Escape hung over the grimy girl and her father like a halo. The Whisper Eater took a bite of that, too.
The road cleared and Mum stepped on the gas. But the Whisper Eater wasn't done and its hunger was so great that it pulled Alex to the car window until her face was plastered on the glass.
Her mother didn't have time to react. A force tugged at the car, pulling the vehicle back until it smashed into a lamppost.
The Whisper Eater scooped up the last dregs of the evening variety show that radiated out of the contraband TV. It inhaled the homeless girl's dazed spirit, emptying her like she was a glass of water. And then it turned to Alex. Mum was hurt, slumped on the steering wheel that bellowed their mishap to motorists who ignored the vehicle's wailing.
The Whisper Eater's gaze bore through Alex—right into the centre of her. A thought crossed her mind then—she had never gotten to kiss a boy. She had fantasized about that many times, but had neither the courage nor the opportunity to act on it. Hot and sticky blood trickled over her temple.
The Whisper Eater bent over Alex and yanked the remaining part of itself from her tooth. Her mouth throbbed where the beast pulled and she puzzled over why she wasn't already dead. Sparks of electricity and wisps of the homeless girl's soul dripped from the creature's mouth.
She wondered, then, as the Whisper Eater glided over her, if she would ever experience the embrace of a man.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 2 Apr 2019