The cousins were all asleep when the call came in, its ringer piercing the early morning quiet. Eloise let it ring a few more times before finally opening her eyes and reaching over for the avocado green phone on Mama’s night table. In the back of her sleepy mind, she knew it was the call she had been expecting for the last few days, yet hoped would never come.
“Lola has gone home to Papa Jesus,” one of the Titas said when Eloise finally answered with a tiny “hello.” She didn’t know exactly which Tita it was, but it felt as if someone had thrown sand in her eyes, and her tummy did a flip-flop.
“No!” she said, feeling a tiny hole poked in her heart that grew bigger by the second.
“Shut up! Let us sleep!” yelled her cousin, Timmy, throwing a pillow at her. Timmy, 11, was eight months younger than Eloise, and had always been annoyed he hadn’t been born earlier. If he had, he would’ve been grandchild number one, and the big boss.
“Get dressed and we’ll see all of you at church,” the Tita said, and hung up. Eloise stared at the receiver that now resonated with a loud dial tone, and twisted the coiled cord around her finger.
“What happened, Eloise?” asked her little brother Jorge, his eyes barely open, from the other side of the big mattress on the floor, on which all four cousins had all spent the night.
“Lola is dead,” Eloise said, quickly realizing how blunt that sounded, and regretting she had not used the gentler phrase Tita Whoever had used.
There was a long silence as the news set in, and then the blubbering started. Timmy, who liked to pretend he was a grown man, and who was quite tickled that his voice had been slowly deepening, wailed the loudest of all.
Back in the summer, on one particularly sweltering day, the cousins had gone swimming at Lola’s house. Well, not quite swimming, since they didn’t have a real pool, just three inflatable polka-dotted ones that the driver, Mang Pepe, had set up under the shade of the santol tree, and inflated all by himself.
“Marco!” Timmy called out, his eyes closed, his arms reaching out to grab whoever he could.
“Polo!” the cousins called out, splashing in and out of the pools, as Lola watched happily from her lounging chair.
“Marco Polo… freeze!” said Timmy, as he stumbled about.
Mica, Timmy’s sister who back in December had received her First Holy Communion, made the sign of the cross twice, to escape his scrutiny.
It didn’t work. “Mica, do not use the sign of the cross in vain,” Lola called out. “Papa Jesus will not like that.”
“You’re it, Mica,” said Timmy.
“But I don’t want to be it,” said Mica. “Lola, join us so you can be it,”
“No, no, it’s too hot, and I just came from the parlor,” said Lola.
“Please, Lola Pola,” asked six-year-old Jorge, running out of the pool and pulling her by the hand.
Lola could never say no to her youngest grandchild, the same way she never said no to her husband, for whom Jorge had been named. Lola hesitated for a few seconds as she touched her newly coiffed hair that had been teased, combed, and lacquered with a good amount of hair spray, and then shrugged as she stepped into the biggest of the pools in her floral housedress. Eloise watched as the pink flowers on her grandmother’s duster turned blood red as the water seeped in.
“Let’s play zombies!” Jorge said. “You’re the queen zombie, Lola. You’re dead.”
“That doesn’t sound like a fun game,” said Lola. “I don’t want to be dead.”
“But we’re all dead, Lola,” said Mica. “You’ll be the Queen of the Dead.”
And so Lola became the Zombie Queen, sticking her arms out and shuffling after her beloved zombie grandchildren in her ruined hairstyle, on that hot, sticky day.
Afterward, everyone had ice candy made from coconut milk and sugar put in deep freeze.
The cousins’ teeth chattered as they bit into the ice candy, the cold shooting through their flushed skin till they felt quite like the zombies they were emulating.
Summer days were always fun at Lola’s house, when the cousins were sent over to visit every day while on school break.
Mornings were spent playing piko in the driveway, habulan in the garden, or shaking the mango tree and collecting salagubang that fell to the ground. They removed the insects’ legs and tied them with string, so they buzzed around like the cheap plastic birds on a stick sold outside church on Sundays.
In the afternoons, when Lola said it was too hot to play outside, the cousins stayed indoors and played jackstones, Touch the Queen, and Mother, May I? in the long hallway upstairs, while their yayas read komiks or watched grainy old movies on a black-and-white television set.
One special summer a few years back, Blackie the dog had four babies, so each of the cousins got to choose a puppy. Kids and puppies romped about the whole summer, and all of them, two-legged and four-legged creatures, ended up with lice. A horrified Lola scrubbed them all down with pungent smelling shampoo and watered-down gasoline, and the next day they were all frolicking together again.
But Lolo didn’t like the idea that his grandchildren had kuto—what if the neighbors found out? What would they think?—and so he had Lola give the puppies away. Lola had no choice, she always followed what Lolo told her to do, even if it broke her heart. The cousins cried for days, till school started again, and they stopped going to Lola’s house every day, till they eventually forgot about Blackie’s offspring.
Summer now seemed a lifetime ago as the cousins sat in the freezing chapel that reeked with the scent of stargazer lilies, as a never-ending stream of people filed past a bronze casket holding a dead person the grownups claimed was Lola.
It didn’t look like Lola at all, that waxen figure with the sunken cheeks and salmon colored lipstick attempting to hide grayish lips. And that turban. They had never seen Lola in a turban before. It made her look like a genie, a scary one.
Four days earlier, Mang Pepe and Lola’s helper Corazon had picked up Eloise and Jorge in Lolo’s old Mercedes after school.
“Where is Mama?” asked Eloise.
“She said she had to do something and asked us to pick you up,” said Mang Pepe.
In the car, Mang Pepe told Corazon about an old lady who was very sick in the hospital. Her hair had been shaved, he said, and she had a hole in her head. It helps to have lots of money, Mang Pepe said, or she would already be dead.
“Is the old lady a zombie?” Jorge chimed in.
Mang Pepe immediately stopped talking and started tut-tut-tut-ing to himself, and Corazon down looked at her calloused hands.
“Who is this woman you’re talking about? Eloise demanded. “What happened to her?”
She did not get a reply.
That evening, a very tired, red-eyed Mama sat Eloise down in her bedroom and told her that a blood vessel had exploded in Lola’s brain earlier that day. She was in a deep sleep at the hospital. She was not in pain at all, Mama assured Eloise.
“When will she wake up?” Eloise asked.
Mama bit her lip and looked away.
On the rainy day of Lola’s funeral, just before they lay her in the ground at the cemetery, the attendants opened the casket one last time.
The glass was removed and Lolo bent down to kiss Lola’s rouged cheeks.
“Meding, why did you leave me?” he cried as he embraced his wife of over 40 years. “I should’ve gone ahead of you. Now who will take care of me?”
Mama and her sisters wept silently beside their father and patted their mother’s legs. Eloise and Timmy, the oldest of the grandchildren, awkwardly stroked them too. They were hard as logs.
Then Lolo trained his tired eyes on Eloise and Timmy.
“Kiss her goodbye,” Lolo said quietly.
Eloise and Timmy exchanged horrified looks. Kiss a cadaver? Surely, Lolo couldn’t be serious?
Eloise felt grownup hands pushing her forward. No one ever defied Lolo.
But this time, this one time, surely they could say no?
“You heard what your Lolo said. Kiss your Lola,” Timmy’s mother said under her breath, glaring at her son. “Now.”
Eloise watched as Timmy squeezed his eyes shut and bent down slowly toward the bloodless hands clasped forever in prayer, holding a rosary of crystal.
“Kiss her,” his mother repeated, pushing her son’s head down suddenly so his lips and nose pressed hard against Lola’s pale knuckles.
When he stood back up, Eloise saw his wide eyes filled with terror, the end of his carefree days of childhood.
“Tim, don’t be ridiculous!” his mother whispered loudly, yanking him away from the casket as he retched violently. Mang Pepe suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and lifted a sobbing Timmy by the waist to take him away.
Eloise’s heart pounded so loudly she was so sure everyone else could hear it. She made the sign of the cross twice, the way Mica usually did, swallowed hard, then leaned down toward the lifeless shell of the once vibrant woman they had all loved so much. Her lips brushed the frigid, clammy fingers of the dead woman, this would-be zombie, Queen of the Dead, and she, too, froze inside.
It was never going to be the way it was again.
Yvette Fernandez was previously the editor in chief of Esquire Philippines and Town&Country Philippines. This story is part of the anthology “Growing Up Filipino 3,” edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, published in the United States by the Philippine American Literary House, and in the Philippines by UST Publishing House.