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 "Why a long face, Helga?" Rose smirks. "Oh, I forgot. You already have a long face. Pathetic."

"Your accusation is misplaced, girl. I can file a libel case against you and you know what? You can spend years behind bars." Helga grins. "But then again, what should I expect? Having an infamous drug lord as a father is already a giveaway, isn't it? Of course, like father like daughter. He lied. You lies. Full of deceptions. Family of criminals. Pathetic!"

Rose's eyes widen with sudden glint of amazement and bitter anguish, her face turning as pale as a frozen corpse.

"How-How did you- "

"I did my own research, Rose. You think you're the only one? Huh! I did not become a valedictorian and a magna cum laude just for nothing, dimwit."

"Annie, let her be." Groaning, Jack rises up. He weakly grab Rose on the shoulder. "Let Mom handle this. She knows someone in DOLE. They will pay for what they have done."

Helga nails her eyes upon Jack, still smirking.

"Speaking of your mom, how is she, Jack?"

"None of your fucking business."

"I've heard she has a Canadian lover. Is it true?" Helga slowly shakes her head, her face grave and thoughtful, but her eyes still bore on them the same callousness and malevolence she always had when dealing with agents she really despises. "Oh, yes. Of course, it's true. I can see it in your eyes. Your mom's a cheater and a pathetic liar.  Just like Rose and your drug lord of a dad. Family of liars and criminals. Disgusting!"

"You fucking bitch!" Rose lunges forward.

"Annie!" Jack grabs her by the waist with both arms. "No. Just let her-"

Something smashes against the large picture window nearby Sharon's desk. The glass shakes and moans, the metal framings vibrating and reverberating like loosed guitar cords. Life-size human skulls situated over the windowsill go crashing down the floor with loud, sickening thuds.

"Bloody hell!" Clutching her heaving chest, Helga stares at the window, eyes huge behind her spectacles. Her megaphone lies on her feet, forgotten. "W-What the hell was that?"

Maggie, totally awake now, and more confused and frightened as ever, hastily picks up her blanket on the floor and bolts towards us.

Behind the battered window, a huge black thing riddled with ragged edges is leaning against the glass pane. Grey-brown leaves, wrinkled with time and as dead as nail, protrudes from its upper body.

Precious tightens her grip around my right arm, her left cheek pressed against my shoulder. Her eyes are closed, her lips quivering as she mumbles words only she can hear.

"I should have ordered that stupid tree cut a long time ago." Helga grimaces, eyes surveying the window. "It's a good thing the glass is strong." She looks up at Sharon. "Make it your personal business to dispose that tree once and for all. As soon as possible."

"Noted, Helga. Tomorrow I'll find-"

"See? Your callcenter is a piece of trash. As rotten as your soul, if you have any, that is. Pathetic!" Rose picks up her sling bag, smiling smugly. She throws Helga one contemptious look. "As filthy as your long face, moon-face. Disgusting!"

"Compare your face to mine. You aren't any rose yourself." Helga smiles back, eyes sparkling with mischievousness. "With your silly outfit, it's either you're an escaped patient of San Pablo Mental Institute of Criminally Insane or a **** victim of a freaking gorilla. Which one, bitch?"

Rose lunges forward, but Jack still has his arms around her waist.

"Let me go!"

"That's enough, Annie. Let her be. A storm is coming. Let's go home. I don't want to get stuck in here with these two bitches bossing us around. More hour and I may do something I might regret for the rest of my life."

"Oh, I'm shaking, Jack. I'm shaking."

"Helga, please." Sharon put her hand over Helga's shoulder. "Enough."

"Get out! Both of you!"

Jack picks up his helmet and backpack lying on the floor, wincing.

"Double time!"

"We're not finished, chin-girl" Rose's voice is full of contempt and hatred as she stares at Helga. She smiles thinly. "We'll come back in this shitty place of yours. And with officials from DOLE. Mark my word, you miserable cunt."

"Just do it. I'll just wait here, bitch. Now, get out of my callcenter."

"Helga, I think we should at least give them their salary for this month and-"

"Shut your pie-hole, Sharon."

"But Helga..."

"Get out! Faster!"

Jack and Rose starts walking their way towards the front door. Jack clasps her left shoulder, silently groaning, his jaws clenched. Rose holds him in the arm, guiding his steps.

"Masama talaga ang ugali ng babaeng 'yan."

Napalingon ako sa likuran ko. Salubong ang dalawang kilay ni Marco habang nakatingin sa gawi ni Helga. Nakakapit sa braso niya si Jennifer na bahagyang namamasa ang mga mata habang nakatingin naman sa gawi nina Jack at Rose.

"Lower your voice, Brent."

"Helga, totoo po bang walang permit itong call center n'yo?"

Taas ang kilay na tumingin si Helga sa gawi namin ni Precious.

"You should refrain from asking questions, Precious, if you know what's good for you." Malamya ang pagkakasambit ni Helga pero ramdam ko ang bigat ng mga salitang lumabas sa bibig niya. Helga really means business, and no one, not even Precious, can stop her from gaining the upper hand and playing the ace card.

"But Helga..." Bumitiw si Precious sa pagkakahawak sa braso ko. "I want to know if-"

Dumagundong ang malakas na ingay na parang mga batong nag-uumpugan at gumugulong sa kung saan. Nag-vibrate ang dingding maging ang mga ngipin ko sa tindi ng ingay na pumapailanlang papasok dito sa loob. Nagtayuan ang mga balahibo ko nang madampian ng preskong hangin na sinlamig ng yelo. Ngayon ako lubusang nagsisisi kung bakit mummy attire pa ang naisip kong isuot. I should have wore a vampire attire instead, though I doubt if I can afford to buy or even rent one. I'm flatbroke, after all. Kahit singko, wala ako.

Nagliparan ang mga papel mula sa ibabaw ng lamesa ni Sharon. Tumagilid ang flower base at nahulog sa sahig. Sa kisame, naggagalawan sa pagkakatali ang mga Jack-o-Lantern maging ang mga miniature skeleton na mistulang nagsisipagsayawan sa saliw ng hangin.

Agad na napakapit sa baywang ko si Precious at nanginginig na nakapikit habang panay ang tawag kay God. Bahagya akong napangiwi dahil sa higpit ng pagkakayakap niya sa tiyan ko. Gusto ko siyang itulak palayo pero tila naparalisa ang buo kong katawan. Hindi ko maiangat kahit mga kamay ko.

Sa labas ng nakabukas na sliding door, isang matangkad na pigura ang nakatayo sa gitna ng veranda. Kumakampay sa ihip ng hangin ang laylayan ng suot nitong puting roba maging ang itim na turban na nakabalot sa ulunan nito. Nakatalikod ito at nakaharap sa may kadilimang front lawn.

Sa tuwing nagliliwanag ang kalangitan, lumilitaw ang makakapal na usok na iniihip ng hangin mula sa mukha nito.



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