Tell us. Just tell us what you see out there. But don’t tell us about the missing fourth floor just yet. There’s time for that later. Now, tell us what you see when you peep through the devious, imperceptible slit the curtains of your apartment’s sole window make each time you part them. For sure, you have names for every single person in this building. Inside unit 54 is alyas Dodong Lazarus and his long con, the sale of fake life insurance plans. He almost always looks contrite, his head bowed, as if there is such a thing as absolution, as if the dead can forgive. Unit 55 houses Alfonso Gato, the landlord’s son, still hunched cold and spiteful in his bathwater as the day he was born. Romina Dansel, nimble and fair weather girl for TV5, twice good-looking without her makeup. Stairwell-facing apartment 46 belongs to Wesley Mapa, who will die of lung cancer complications in two weeks. Wesley’s the poster boy for abject finality, the true face of Marlboro man: cyanotic skin, tar-coated teeth, murky greenish abscess-riddled gums, labored breathing reminiscent of a phased-out air-conditioning model chugging its last remaining Freon. Unit 56 used to be leased by Anton, the one who got away. Down the hall is Jill, whose last name you can’t quite recall at this moment, even though you get to chat with her at least once a week. Jill works at Avenida General Hospital and has been telling you about Karl, who may be a ghost in a bus. Jill will arrive with a reusable canvas bag filled with groceries fourteen minutes before six tonight, and you will intercept her by the hallway with your pretense that involves acting concerned about a rusting fire-escape ladder outside Jill’s terrace and then acting concerned again about Jun Krusnaligas and his girlfriend, who just moved in next door to Jill, their fat cats in tow. Of course, you will seamlessly steer the conversation towards Karl, who may be a ghost in a bus.
Five o’clock is announced by night shift workers shuffling their feet as they scurry down the building’s staircase because the broken elevator should have been repaired four years ago. Night shift workers, all in a rush to meet the 5:15 train stop at Boni station. You can set your clock to this uneventful event from Mondays to Fridays.
Night and day, the snatches of conversation, necessary untruths, and profanities: the jaded putangina, the fuming putangina, the panicky putangina, the breathy orgasmic putangina. Night and day, people come in and out like walking-talking PowerPoint slides to a presentation aptly titled The Lives of the Dead: there’s the young seducer, the wizened healer, the New Age witch, the dazed one doomed to take suicide’s rooftop-to-pavement route, the jittery one showing early signs of dementia, the unsatisfied wife, the housewife, the single mother, the happily married man, the happily married gay couple, the bachelor, the gym buff, the congressman’s mistress and the congressman’s aide she bonks on the side, the publicist for a fracking company, the lobbyist for a mining firm, the bastard son of purple-pants-wearing televangelist Brother Eddie, the physics teacher, the biology experiment gone bad, the fledgling dancer, the unlicensed dermatologist peddling homemade placenta soap, the med student dealing Cytotec pills filched from a supply cabinet of Avenida General Hospital, the washed-out yet still gorgeous actress who could not act but top-billed six Tagalog B-movies in the 90s simply by taking off all her clothes, the self-styled poet and his insufferable shtick, the self-styled contemporary artist who cannot draw so he drips paint onto canvasses to be later sold as “Self-Portrait as Apocalypse of Sesame Seeds” or “Moss Green Variation No. 4 with Emerald Trimmings and the Prepubescent Pickles that Inspired Them” in yet another bid filed under the catch-all artistic statement exhorting us to “challenge our preconceived notions of art,” the up-and-coming chess player (he’ll reach Boris Spassky’s peak Elo rating two years from today), the runner dead-set on qualifying for the Olympics try-out (he won’t make it), the retired basketball star, the sly middleman, and the local news reporter rushing to his beat. Night and day, the soundless swing of the front glass door leading to the dingy lobby of the apartment building you have lived in for eleven years.
And yes, yesterday, the fourth floor of the building disappeared, something you’ve witnessed as you happened to be right outside the post office on the opposite side of the street. You can say you were waiting for a post office clerk to bring up the charges for a parcel addressed to someone in Davao City and from right across the street, you were looking at your apartment building when its entire fourth floor disappeared and the fifth floor quietly settled down as the new fourth floor. You wonder about the fourth floor residents. You wonder what has become of them. Or you can say to yourself that the fourth floor of this apartment building never existed in the first place, that its residents never were.
It is seven in the morning. You don’t want to take a peek outside just yet. We’ll give you a heads-up, though. Don’t be alarmed. There’s time for that later. While you were sleeping last night, the post office building right across the street vanished. And on the spot where the sixteen-year-old structure once stood is now just freshly turned ground, good loam from the looks of it. Or you can say to yourself that the post office building never existed in the first place, that its clerks never were.
Tomorrow, you might want to check out the pharmacy at the end of the block. It just might disappear. Or you can say to yourself that the pharmacy never existed in the first place.
It won’t matter, really, what you say or refuse to say about this slowly disappearing world. Predictable to a certain extent, this story never ends because it just can’t end. You’ll see.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, including the short story collections Age of Blight, Butterfly Dream, and The Drone Outside, as well as the poetry collections Lifeboat, Meditations of a Beast, and Black Arcadia. She is co-editor with Nalo Hopkinson of the British Fantasy Award-winning anthology People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction and poetry editor for LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Her stories have recently appeared in the Cincinnati Review and World Literature Today. She grew up and continues to live in a rural town in southern Philippines.