The plan was this: resign from work, fly to Vegas on her tourist visa, stay with family, and wait for an H1B sponsor to hire her.
“And how’s that working out for you?” Alejandra asked.
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?” Ruby said. “So not good.” She sighed. “I’ve been applying to jobs online for months while working in Manila. I got some interviews, but none of them panned out. My aunt said it might be easier if I were already in the US when the other employers called. I’ve visited her before. She encouraged me to fly here again and just wait here. She even paid for my plane ticket. I figured, might as well do it. I’m twenty-four, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a husband, my aunt’s offering a room in her house, I have enough saved up to tide me over for a few months. And, you know, maybe I’ll get the phone call I’ve been waiting for while I’m here on vacation. Turns out—” Loud sigh. “Turns out my aunt and I were just being incredibly optimistic and naïve.”
Alejandra and Ava stared at her while they sipped their raspberry iced tea. Alejandra had won twenty dollars from one of the slot machines earlier and used it to buy fries for the table. No one was eating them, and they now sat limp and greasy in the wire-mesh basket.
“So,” Ava said, “you’re here to ask for a green card?”
One of the craps tables erupted. Someone had won. Ruby sipped her coffee and said nothing.
“I didn’t mean to offend,” she said. “It just seems like such a high price to pay for a—”
“We did say Grand Café, right?” Ruby said, craning her neck. It was midnight, and there were only a handful of patrons inside the restaurant.
“Are you really related to her?” Alejandra asked.
“She’s a distant cousin,” Ruby said. “I knew her when I was a little girl. I remember visiting her at home in the province every summer until my mother decided we’re not to talk to her anymore.”
“And she found you on Instagram?” Ava asked.
“I didn’t even know she was in Vegas until she commented on one of my photos.”
“What does her house look like? Do you remember?” Alejandra asked.
“No.” Ruby turned to her. “Why exactly are you here, Alex?”
“Alejandra,” Alejandra said.
“Okay,” Ruby said.
Luciana arrived at that point, sliding into their booth with a drink in hand, talking a mile a minute: “—so there I was with three vouchers worth eleven dollars each, and I put them all in this machine with Cleopatra’s face on it and I get the major bonus of one hundred dollars and I kept betting and this lightning sound came and I got eight bonus spins and I see Cleopatra’s eyes filling up the screen and—”
“You’re the witch?” Alejandra said.
Luciana lost her smile and stopped talking.
“I’m sorry, I was just—”
“Were you expecting someone who smelled like dead rat?” Luciana, who was wearing a black cocktail dress and large earrings that sparkled in the restaurant’s dim light, took a clumsy swig of her whisky and coke, sloshing some of the drink onto her hand. She did not smell like dead rat. She smelled like Pink Apple mixed with Black Velvet Whisky.
Luciana turned to Ruby and smiled. “Honey!” she said.
“Hi, Ate Lucy,” Ruby said. “You’re not drunk, are you?”
Luciana took one of the fries from the basket. She held it in her fist for a second, and opened her hand to reveal a small yellow snake. Alejandra and Ava shrieked, making some of the patrons turn their heads.
“I’m drunk,” Luciana said, letting the snake wrap its body around her wrist like a bracelet, “but you don’t need me anyway. At least not after I give you the instructions. You’ll be doing most of the work.” She waved a hand over the snake, and it fell to the table, a limp fry again. “How did Ruby find you two?
“Reddit,” Ruby said.
“No,” Luciana said, and slammed a hand on the table, laughing so hard she started gagging. “I’m okay,” she said when Ruby reared back in reflex. “I’m okay.”
Alejandra had the look of someone beginning to regret their decision.
Luciana downed another swig of her cocktail. “Okay,” she said. “You all have Filipino blood, correct?”
“I was born here,” Ava said, “but both of my parents are Filipino.”
“My mother is Bulakeña and my father is from Cavite,” Alejandra said. “They migrated here before I was born.”
“Thank you for the family history lesson,” Ruby muttered.
“What?” Alejandra said.
“Is Filipino blood necessary for this to work?” Ava asked.
Luciana began to giggle and waved a hand in front of her mouth. “Sorry, darling. No, no. I was just curious.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Alejandra said, “how did you end up in Vegas?”
“I married an American, dear,” Luciana said. “He was twenty years my senior. Then he got very, very sick, then he died, and now I spend my nights getting plastered in front of slot machines.” She stared off into the distance, finishing her drink. After a silent beat, she turned to Ruby. “Marriage. That’s something to consider, you know. Instead of this.”
“If the Many-Eyed Mother can grant any wish,” Alejandra said, “why didn’t you wish for your husband to be cured?”
Luciana sighed. “You may be too young to understand, but some people, after much pain and suffering, they just decide they’re done with life. They’ve seen enough, they’ve done enough. They’d rather rest.”
“But oblivion is not rest.”
Ava shifted in her seat. “Maybe you should stop asking all this personal—”
“You loved him, didn’t you?” Alejandra said, with the treacly eagerness of a noontime variety show host.
Luciana and Ava stared at Alejandra with a look of confused revulsion. Ruby rolled her eyes.
“We don’t need to talk about why we’re doing this, right?” Ava said. “I mean, because I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh, definitely,” Luciana said. “I don’t care. That’s between you and the Many-Eyed Mother.”
Alejandra swallowed audibly.
“She sees all,” Luciana said. “Do you really want to go through with this?”
They looked at each other. Luciana reached a hand into the wire-mesh basket, picked up a handful of fries, and began to eat them.
“Last chance to back out,” she said. “I won’t even be mad.”
“I’m not backing out,” Ava said.
“Yeah,” Alejandra said. “We’re going through with this.”
Luciana nodded, looking impressed. “And you?”
“I’m in, Ate.”
“Okay.” Luciana wiped her fingers on the table napkin and took out a folded piece of paper from her purse. Ruby reached out for it, but Luciana snatched it back at the last minute.
“At least one of you needs to go through with this,” she said, “or endless harm will come to you.” She held their gaze. “And that endless harm will come from me. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
“Okay,” Ruby said.
“I’m not kidding, Ruby. I can turn a fry into a snake, but I can do the same to your intestines.”
Ruby felt a jolt of terror. “I said okay.”
“Okay.” Luciana handed her the paper, and snapped her fingers to call a server. “Hello? Can somebody give me a menu, please? I’m dying over here.”
They unfolded the paper in the parking lot while standing next to Ava’s car.
HELLO! DO YOU REALLY WANT TO DO THIS?
DO YOU REALLY REALLY WANT TO DO THIS?
ARE YOU SURE THAT YOU REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT TO DO THIS?
“For fuck’s sake,” Ava mumbled under her breath.
“We are sure, right?” Alejandra asked.
Below the message was a residential address on West Tropicana Avenue.
YOU’LL GET FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS ONCE YOU GET TO THE HOUSE.
THE DOOR COMBINATION IS 3467
“I like your cousin,” Alejandra said as they settled in the car. Ruby sat in the back. “She’s quite a character.”
They pulled out of the casino parking lot.
“Can I drop by my house for a sec?” Ava asked. “We’re near West Tropicana so it won’t be too much of a detour.”
“It’s your car,” Ruby said.
Alejandra glanced at Ruby through the rearview mirror.
“What do you do back home, Ruby?”
“Are we really doing this?” Ruby said. “This isn’t a road trip.”
“All right, jeez,” Alejandra said. “I’m just making conversation.”
Ava took the 215, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.
“I’m a copywriter,” Ruby said after a few minutes.
“My relatives who left the Philippines worked blue-collar jobs,” Ruby said. “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, expecting to get a cushy office job here. Tita Chona worked as a domestic worker in Hong Kong for many years before moving here to work at a casino. My own father worked for five years in Taiwan. Do you know what his favorite job-related story is? Being driven around Taipei in a Volvo, except that the Volvo belonged to his boss and he and his co-workers were being driven to the boss’s house to earn some extra cash by cleaning up his living room for Chinese New Year.”
“Your relatives are very brave to leave home to provide for their family,” Alejandra said, and Ruby suppressed a groan. “Is that why you’re planning to leave home?”
Ruby closed her eyes. The reasons passed behind her eyelids like the pictures on a zoetrope: standing inside the MRT with her breasts squashed against another passenger, running after a bus and elbowing a woman away in order to get a seat, losing a day’s pay after the government closed several roads without prior notice so visiting state officials wouldn’t experience Manila’s infamous traffic, the Philippine peso plunging to fifty-two against the dollar, her inability to save enough money despite her many side gigs, the sudden increase of her electric bill, the daily reports of death related to the drug war, alighting a jeep in Divisoria only to find her backpack slashed and her wallet stolen, eating a Mini-Stop hotdog while waiting for the Friday traffic to die down and feeling so lonely and weary and miserable she wished the ground would just open up and swallow her, standing in the sunlight outside the Parañaque LTO for three hours only to be told that new driver’s licenses would not be available today, thank you, please just come back tomorrow, and growing angrier every day, the anger growing as large as the guilt because what was she complaining about, really, you earn a salary and eat three times a day, what’s wrong with you, you should be marching on the street and fighting this drug war and the government corruption that you say you hate so much instead of finding a way to leave the country—
Ruby tried to sift through these reasons and formulate an answer, but couldn’t.
About fifteen minutes later, she glanced out the window and saw a large brass sign that said Spanish Trail. Alejandra whistled as they drove up a driveway and stopped in front of a yellow-lit mansion the color of the desert.
“You live here, Ava?” Alejandra said. “What do your folks do?”
“Do they need a dishwasher?” Ruby said, only half-joking.
“I won’t be long,” Ava said, unbuckling. After a moment, she seemed to reconsider. “Do you want to step inside for a minute?”
They stood at the entrance to the family den. An episode of Sneaky Pete played with the sound on mute on the 120-inch TV. A young girl who resembled Ava sat on a fluffy area rug, earphones plugged in her ears, typing on her laptop. Without looking up, she said, “Mom’s going to kill you.”
“You’re still up,” Ava said. To Alejandra and Ruby, she said, “That’s my sister, Rita.” And as if to defend herself, added, “My parents are out on a call, and they said it’s okay if I went out tonight.”
“Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner?” Ruby said.
“I have schoolwork,” Rita said, still not looking up from her laptop screen. “Are you out because of schoolwork, Ava?”
“I just need to get something,” Ava said, and ran across the floor and up a staircase they couldn’t see. Alejandra and Ruby remained standing by the entrance, hands in their pockets. Rita continued typing.
Ava came back a minute later. “Okay, let’s go.”
“It’s amazing,” Alejandra said as they drove away from Spanish Trail. “Our parents coming here to give us a better life.”
Ruby laughed. “A better life,” she said. “I wonder what kind of life I’ve led so far, then.”
“I would love to go to the Philippines, you know,” Alejandra said. “Find out more about my roots.”
“Why are you here, Alejandra?” Ruby said.
“Guys,” Ava said, “I thought we agreed not to—”
“It’s fine,” Alejandra said. She glanced at Ruby. “I’m writing this novel set in Manila—”
“Oh, perfect,” Ruby said. “That’s just perfect.”
“You have the Philippine flag symbol next to your Twitter handle, don’t you?” Ruby said.
“I bet you went by ‘Alex’ until you got bit by the Pinoy Pride bug and thought the Anglicized version of your name is somehow less pure. You should take it a step further. You should start calling yourself Awit or Kawayan or Ilog or—”
“I feel like you’re mocking me,” Alejandra said.
“Publishers would love you,” Ruby said. “You speak unaccented English and has exotic stories to tell. Filipino but not too Filipino. You know? We have writers back home who would never receive the kind of exposure you will receive—and you haven’t even been to Manila! Thank you in advance for the representation. Tell me again how brave my relatives are. Tell me again how magical the Philippines is.”
They drove down West Tropicana Avenue in uneasy silence. The address was in a quiet neighborhood jutting out into the desert. Every house was the same shade of ochre and had the same potted succulent on the front porch. Ruby always found the silence of US suburbs eerie. Her Tita Chona lived in a neighborhood like this, and Ruby had never seen anyone out on the street past six PM, had never even heard the hum of conversation spill from behind the smart-locked doors.
Ava decided to park one street away. They walked to the house and stood shoulder to shoulder on the front porch. Ruby held the piece of paper from Ate Lucy in front of her, right hand hovering over the touchscreen.
“I’m on your side, okay?” Alejandra suddenly said, making Ruby jump. “Representation in whatever form is—”
Ruby sighed and keyed in the combination. The door opened with a whir, and they stepped into a living room lit only by a small lamp. There was a piece of paper stuck to the lamp. Ruby hit her knee against the couch as she rushed over to read:
YOU MADE IT!
NOW OPEN THE DOOR TO YOUR LEFT.
They all turned their heads to look at the door.
“Okay,” Ruby said, rubbing her knee.
“Is this Ate Lucy’s house?” Ava asked, picking up a framed photograph from the side table. It was a photo of Luciana and her blond husband at Red Rock Canyon, his sunburnt face nearly the same shade of burgundy as the mountains behind them.
“Why would she make us go to her house?” Alejandra said.
Ruby, who didn’t know the answers, walked over to the door and opened it.
Inside the room was a woman, bound and gagged. She was sitting on the floor. She began struggling against the duct tape wound around her wrists and legs when the door opened, and screaming as best as she possibly could from behind the ball of cloth shoved inside her mouth.
Ruby slammed the door shut.
“What the fuck,” Alejandra said.
“There was a,” Ava said. “There was a piece of paper on the floor.”
Ruby opened the door again. The woman, tired from screaming earlier, now sobbed, her eyeliner making her tears visible as they rolled down her face. She had a large wound on the crown of her head, the blood coating her hair. She was wearing a black shirt, jeans. One foot bare and covered in tiny cuts, the other clad in a black Converse sneaker.
The floor was covered with plastic. Next to the door was a plastic jug with a post-it note that said CHLOROFORM! (LIKE IN THE MOVIES!) and a folded piece of paper.
I TOOK THE LIBERTY OF SECURING THE SACRIFICE.
NOW ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS GOUGE OUT HER EYES FOR THE MANY-EYED MOTHER.
“Jesus,” Alejandra said.
NOW DON’T BLAME ME: I DID ASK YOU MANY MANY TIMES IF YOU REALLY WANTED TO GO THROUGH WITH THIS.
NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH AND SO ON.
NO CONSEQUENCES HERE SAVE FOR YOUR WISH—BUT ONLY IF YOU FINISH THE RITUAL.
p.s. SPEAKING OF FREE, FEEL FREE TO GET FOOD & SODA FROM THE FRIDGE. RITUAL IS HUNGRY WORK!
JUST DON’T FREAK OUT WHEN YOU SEE THE OTHER STUFF IN THERE.
p.p.s. PLS DON’T GET THE REMAINING CAN OF DIET SUNKIST, I’M TRYING TO SAVE THAT FOR TOMORROW. SMITH’S ALWAYS RUNS OUT OF DIET SUNKIST. I HATE THAT.
Ruby walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. Next to the butter and eggs and leftover Spam and cream cheese were jars of eyeballs suspended in cloudy liquid, bloody nerves and veins trailing behind them like tadpole tails. One jar was empty. NEW EYES HERE! the note said. Ruby took out the empty jar and walked back to the living room.
“I’m going to be sick,” Alejandra said.
“Please don’t,” Ruby said.
The woman’s sobs now had the shape of words. She was pleading with them.
Ruby closed the door, handed the jar to Alejandra, and sank into the couch. Alejandra and Ava joined her. They sat for several minutes in stunned silence until Ava said, “Now what?”
“Guys,” Alejandra said, still hugging the empty jar to her chest, “I don’t think I can do this.”
“You figure your novel’s not worth all this trouble?” Ruby said. Alejandra slammed the jar on the coffee table and covered her face with her hands.
“My mother would know how to properly gouge out eyes,” Ava said. “She wouldn’t even cry, or overthink what she’s doing. She’s like granite.”
“She’s a surgeon,” Ruby said, feeling compelled to state the obvious.
“I would love to be like her,” Ava said. “To be like granite. Instead of—” She took a deep breath. “Well, what did we expect anyway? It’s not like Ate Lucy would ask us to plant flowers.”
Alejandra lowered her hands from her face. “We can’t do this if the woman in there is tied up like that. We need to lie her flat on the floor.”
“We need to knock her out,” Ava said. “There’s chloroform in the room.”
“She’s going to scream once we remove the gag, though,” Alejandra said.
Ruby grabbed a clean dishrag and pocketed a pair of scissors from the kitchen. They went back to the room. The woman started struggling and pleading again, until she looked past Ruby.
Ruby glanced over her shoulder and saw Ava standing by the door with a gun.
“Holy—” Alejandra said.
“Is that what you took from your house?” Ruby said.
“Hurry up,” Ava said, pointing the barrel at the woman, who had gone as still as a statue. “Look, lady,” Ava said, licking her lips. “Um. Don’t scream. Okay? Or I will shoot.”
“Not in the head though,” Alejandra said, “because we need—maybe in the neck?”
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Ruby said. She felt her stomach drop. “I think we should just let her go.”
“What?” Ava said. “No. No. We’re doing this.”
“I can talk to my cousin. We can work it out.” Ruby sighed. “This is crazy.”
The woman looked up at Ruby with hope in her eyes. Ruby stepped forward and saw the woman’s bound hands behind her back. She stopped cold. There was a ragged cut in the duct tape, and the woman was holding a small, dull-looking knife. How long did it take for her to reach into her pocket or her socks to get that knife, to cut herself free?
Ava trained the gun at her. “Untie her and I will shoot you.”
“Okay,” Ruby said. The woman stared at her, holding her gaze, not blinking. “I’m just—I’m just removing her gag.”
She grabbed the end of the gag with her thumb and forefinger, and pulled out the spit-drenched rag from the woman’s mouth. The woman coughed, began to retch.
“Oh, please don’t throw up,” Alejandra mumbled.
“Give the dishrag to Alejandra,” Ava said. Ruby did as she was told.
“What’s,” Ruby said, as Alejandra prepared the dishrag. “What’s your name?”
“Don’t do that,” Ava said. “We don’t need to hear that.”
The woman lifted her head and stared at Ava with blank eyes.
“I was there when the first of my daughters began to see,” she said.
They stopped moving.
“What?” Ava said.
“I see everything,” the woman said. “I see the light. I see the void. What I see, you can never survive. I borrow your eyes to see a different life, to experience not knowing. To escape, even through your darkest days. And you have a lot of dark days, don’t you, Ava?”
“How did you know my name?” Ava said.
“I understand the need to just fade away, Ava. To not hurt anymore. To not hurt anyone.”
The gun in Ava’s hands began to tremble.
The woman shook her head, and when her hair fell away from her face, her eyes looked at Ava and the gun in horror. “My name is Pam,” she said, sobbing again. “Please. I work at Orleans. Please. Please just let me go. I won’t tell anyone.”
“What the hell?” Ruby said.
“Out of the way,” Alejandra said, holding the rag now drenched with chloroform.
Pam lunged at Ava, her hands now free. They all fell back in surprise. Ava crashed into Alejandra and Ruby dropped to the floor, leaving the door wide-open for Pam to hop through. “Here!” Ruby shouted, and took out the scissors from her pocket to cut the duct tape around Pam’s feet. A moment later, she was running.
“Help!” Pam shouted, heding to the kitchen and sliding open the glass door that led to Luciana’s small backyard and the dark, shapeless desert. Ava pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger. Pam shrieked and dropped to her haunches, and the bullet hit the coffee machine on the counter, making glass fly in all directions.
Pam slid the glass door open and ran into the desert, screaming for help. Ava ran after her.
“Wait!” Ruby shouted. She felt her shoes sink into sand, felt grass whipping against her ankles. She touched her jeans pocket and swore. Her phone was not there. She couldn’t see anything, save for the gun in Ava’s hand, glinting in the distance as she ran. “Ava! Just let her go!”
A gunshot. And another.
Something slammed into Ruby. She screamed. But it was just Alejandra, gripping her shoulders, peering at her with wide eyes.
“We need to go back,” Alejandra said.
“No, Ava is—”
“I can’t run anymore,” Alejandra said. “Okay? We need to go back.”
They limped back to the house. While standing in the living room waiting for her thoughts to coalesce, Ruby found her purse with her phone in it. There was a message from Luciana.
YOU DID IT! (OR AT LEAST ONE OF YOU DID.)
THE MANY-EYED MOTHER IS PLEASED.
Ruby turned to Alejandra and saw her holding up her phone. She had received the same message.
“Pam from Orleans,” Ruby said. “Jesus Christ.”
They walked with heavy steps out of the house, into a street, a world, that felt fundamentally different. They tried to look for Ava’s car but couldn’t find it.
“She probably already left,” Alejandra said.
Alejandra glanced at her screen while Ruby booked an Uber. “Why would you want to go back there?” she demanded after seeing the destination.
But Ruby wanted to know if Ava was safe. Rita, her laptop resting on one arm, earphones still plugged in her ears, answered the door.
“Hi,” Ruby said. “Is Ava home?”
Rita frowned. “Who?”
“We were here with her earlier,” Alejandra said.
“We just wanted to check if she made it home safe,” Ruby said.
“I think you got the wrong house,” Rita said, and began to close the door.
Ruby put her arms up. “Wait, wait. Ava’s your sister, right?”
“Who the hell’s Ava?” Rita said. “I don’t have a sister.”
Rita glanced over her shoulder. “Mom?” she called. “Dad?”
A middle-aged woman in scrubs holding a large mug of coffee appeared next to Rita. She’s like granite, Ruby remembered Ava saying.
“They’re looking for some lady named Ava,” Rita said, and skipped away from the door.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “There’s no Ava here.”
“That’s impossible, we were just here with her a few hours ago—”
“Never met them before, Mom,” Rita said from inside the house.
The woman smiled. “Please leave.”
“Do you want me to call the police?”
They ran down the street and kept running until they reached the Spanish Trail brass sign. In the Uber, Alejandra covered her face with her hand and began to sob.
“Is your friend all right?” the driver asked. Ruby leaned her forehead against the window and closed her eyes.
When she got back to Tita Chona’s house, Ruby called the airline, packed her bags, and announced that she would be leaving the next day.
“Already?” Tita Chona said. “But I haven’t even taken you to Trader Joe’s yet!”
Ruby mostly slept during the fifteen-hour flight. She dreamt of a shelf full of jars, each jar with an eye staring at her.
The plane landed in Terminal 1. Her SIM reconnected to the local network, and the texts came one after the other: her parents asking her if she finally got a job offer, her sister asking if she bought the jacket and the shoes she liked, her cousins asking if she could take them to Duty Free and did you get any chocolates?
Why does homecoming feel so much like defeat?
A man approached her at the entrance, offering to help her with her bags and get her a taxi.
“Balikbayan?” the man asked.
Ruby was tired. “No,” she said, putting on her sunglasses and switching to the American accent she had perfected while working at a call center during her college years. “My family’s picking me up. I’m just here for vacation. Excuse me.”
Undeterred, the man switched to English, giving her tips on where she could go “for a good time.” “I have a van your family can rent,” the man said. “You should go to Baguio. The weather is cooler there. You’re used to cool weather in America, correct?”
“We’ll take Uber,” Ruby said, and walked away, rolling her bags behind her.
“But Baguio’s too far for an Uber!” the man called after her. He turned to another man behind him. “Hello! Balikbayan?”
Ruby entered a nearby eatery to get away from the stifling heat. She looked up from the sauce-splattered laminated menu and stared at the television mounted on the wall. It was tuned to the news. An old woman in Tondo faced the camera, crying. Her sixteen-year-old son was shot on the street by three masked men on motorcycles. Ruby wondered what that mother would give to get her son back and end this suffering, what she would do to not be powerless, to not be dismissed, to not be here at all.