Chen stared at his reflection and gently dabbed his cheeks with rouge. He colored his lips a bright crimson, and inexpertly used eyeliner to finish his bedtime ritual. He tuned out the sniggers and whispered insults that he heard, and walked to his bunk.
Roy thrice asked Chen why he dresses like a queer before he goes to bed at night. Chen always avoided the question, except that one time when he uttered — phi am. Roy just assimilated that answer by flipping a finger Chen’s way presuming that it was a slur in Taiwanese.
Chen knew no fear. Except for the darkness that seeped in when the lights went out. On his second year of incarceration he knew of 10 nocturnal deaths. The prison authorities put it down to a phenomenon known as Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death (SUND).
Tonight as he pursed his crimson lips and looked at Roy, he prayed that Death would roll the dice and choose some other poor soul. Before the lights were switched off, Roy sarcastically blew a kiss his way. As the darkness enveloped their cell, Chen saw an outline form near the foot of his bed, and that’s when he closed his eyes shut.
Roy’s face was a rictus of horror illuminated by the sunrise. His passing seemed to have been a torturous affair. Everyone wondered whether it could’ve been Chen. Was it a jealous rage that caused this death? But Chen’s explanation of what took Roy’s life fell on deaf ears.
It defied science and logic, the prison authorities said. They threw Chen into isolation despite his explanations about it being the phi am. They researched the phi am, and laughed. They found out that the Japanese call it pok-kuri. Filipinos call it batibat. In Vietnam, it is the tsob tsuang.
They sent Chen for a psych evaluation, convinced that he was suffering from homicidal proclivities when he was violently insistent that it was a widow ghost, which preys on the soul of young men, that took Roy away. As they threw him back into isolation, he begged not for food or water or freedom, but just one thing — Can they please keep the lights on?!
They refused, and as the seconds morphed into minutes and then hours, Chen’s consciousness drew him back to that fateful night when the phi am trailed it’s nails with surprising and sympathetic gentleness along his naked thighs, and finally, confused by his feminized features, floated towards Roy and laid on his chest, trapping his breath and suffocating him slowly.
He still could see with clarity the way Roy reached out his hand pleading and begging for his help; and, how by morning that same comatose hand with its fingers pointed defiantly at Chen looked like an accusation that would forever be imprinted in his mind.