I opened the door and heard the sound of a wind chime. I walked slowly towards the reception area, but nobody was there.
The light above the desk was pale orange, verging on red. To my right was a dark hallway, at the end of which shone another pale orange light.
There was a strange, humming or droning sound in the room. At first I thought it was the sound of the air-conditioning unit, but it was a bit melodious. I heard the rhythmic sound of a tin drum, and the shrill voice of a woman. “Hey, hey, hey,” she seemed to be singing.
“Hey,” a voice said behind me.
I turned around. A girl was standing in front of an open door.
“Sorry to startle you. Can I help you?” she said.
“Uh, yes,” I said. “Yes, how much for a massage?”
She motioned towards the counter and took out a pad of paper from the desk. “It depends. For a foot or head massage, it’s 150. For a body massage, it’s 250.”
She waited for my reply.
“Okay, I’ll have a body massage.”
“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. She took out a pencil and wrote down something on a piece of paper. Then she walked towards the hallway. “Right this way, sir.”
I followed her. Apparently, I’m the only customer here. My footsteps were heavy; I could barely hear hers.
“Right this way, sir,” she said again. This time, her voice emanated from my left. I turned left and took a few hesitant steps.
“I can’t see a thing,” I said.
“One moment, please.” I heard a clicking sound and an orange light revealed a small room. In the middle of the room was a small bed. The sheets were made up, and a white pillow laid at the top of the bed. The girl turned and faced me. I hadn’t realized until then how pretty she was. But there was something a little off about her.
“I’ll be back after 10 minutes, sir. Or sooner, if you’re ready. Just press this button over here and I’ll be right over.” And she pointed at a button beside the door frame, above the light switch. “The robe and slippers are over there.”
I closed and locked the door. I undressed. I placed my shoes beside the bed and hung my shirt and jeans inside the closet.
There was a scent in the air. It’s not aromatic oil. Maybe it’s perfume. The smell was bitter but light. I tried to look for its source, but my nose failed me. The more I sniffed for it, the fainter it became.
There was an oval mirror at the corner of the room. Below it was a metal sink. The faucet looked rusty.
There were cracks on the wall. I could hear the strange music again.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and laid face down on the bed. There wasn’t any hole at the top of the bed, so I turned my head sideways, facing the door.
“Are you ready, sir?” she called out from behind the door.
“Yes,” I said, my voice muffled by the pillow.
“Are you ready, sir?” she repeated.
“Yes,” I replied in a louder voice.
I heard her enter the room. She placed something at the edge of the bed. A basin, perhaps. I heard the sound of water.
“How do you like it, sir, soft, medium, or hard?”
I thought about her dainty hands. “Hard. Thanks.”
She began humming a tune. “Where are you from, sir?”
“Oh, I’m from Bacolod.”
“Is this your first time in Naga?”
“No, I pass this place all the time. It’s part of my route. But I’ve never stopped here before, especially at night.”
“Is that so? Well, isn’t that nice?”
“I’m glad you came.”
I’m glad you came. I think those are the very words for the song in the background.
I’m glad you came, baby, and I’m not letting you go. The lyrics are more distinct now.
I closed my eyes and tried to doze off. I thought about my home town, Silay, and its ancestral houses. I thought about farm lands and ancient trees. I thought about rivers and waterfalls and trans-central highways. I thought about beaches, oceans, barges, and late night driving. And I thought about Naga City. Or is it Naga town?
I felt her hands on my shoulder. I had to open my eyes. Her fingers were ice cold. I stared at the blank wall. The door was no longer there. She started kneading my shoulders. Her grip was strong. I felt my muscles loosen, then contract. She held my nape and started kneading it, too. I cringed at the temperature of her palm.
“Do you believe in aswangs?” a colleague of mine asked me once.
“No. Don’t tell me you do,” I answered him.
“Don’t you? I hear stories about it all the time, especially from folks from the smaller towns.”
“They’re just stories. Don’t be naive. This is the 21st century. Nobody believes in those things anymore.”
“Have you heard about what happened in Naga, recently?” He asked, but I tuned out of our conversation.
“Am I doing it right, sir?” she said.
“Yes,” I said nervously. “Thank you.”
“Are you a religious, man, sir?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Why?”
“I noticed the crucifix around your neck.”
“Oh, my necklace. Yes, I guess I am.” I tried to rise. “Listen, I think I must be going now. It’s late, and I want to get to Cebu before midnight.” But I couldn’t push myself up. This time, she traced a finger along my spine. I couldn’t see her.
“Be still, sir, this won’t take long.” She was humming the tune again, and I felt her fingernails prick my skin.