Noli Reyes pulled his tricycle to the curb, the gentle thud-a-thud of the engine vibrating between his thighs.
“Hey, mate.” The white passenger had a funny sort of twang to his speech. “You—speak—English?”
Noli motioned to his sidecar. “Where to, Joe?”
The foreigner stepped into the sidecar, placing a briefcase beside him. “Old Makati. Greenbelt. Cheers.”
Makati? Why in the world would a tall, well-dressed foreigner like this be heading to the Makati Wasteland? Noli kicked his 60 cc engine into gear and roared down the road.
“By the way, why’d you call me Joe?” the man asked.
Noli had never really considered the question. White foreigners were Joe. They just were. As he sliced his tricycle through the gap between two taxis, Noli struggled to form an explanation in English. “Because you’re American, sir.”
Noli frowned. “If you say so, sir.” He cut his engine, braked, and swerved to ride diagonally over a speed bump. The rusty sidecar rattled and shook.
The man clutched the roof, staring out the window with a look in his eyes as though he expected a bus to roll over them at any moment. “You probably want to know why I’m heading to the Makati Wasteland.”
“I work with Plumbers Without Borders. We’re working on getting water-saving, toilet paper-flushable toilets to everyone on earth.”
Flushing toilets…in Makati?
Noli had known a few NGO workers to pass through the Philippines. You really had to look after them. Most didn’t speak Tagalog and didn’t know how to get around Manila. They didn’t understand that the cost of a chicken skewer wasn’t really thirty pesos. In Manila, this guy was more helpless than a child.
“We just feel so sorry for you mates here,” the NGO Joe said. “Mechanomancer, jeepneys, famine, human sacrifice…we had to do something, you know?”
Noli drove up an on ramp for the Old EDSA Highway, his engine struggling with the incline. They passed a decaying billboard that had a shirtless man holding a can of tuna. Due to a hole in the billboard, now he was also headless.
Noli scratched his stubble. It wasn’t a beard, just scattered patches of hair. He was taller than most Filipinos, skin darkened by the sun to the color of coffee without enough creamer. A dirty shirt hung from his torso, and he bore the telltale lankiness of a man in his thirties who had neither wife nor mother to cook for him. “Thank you for coming, sir. Makati needs you, sir.”
“Yes, yes.” Was he actually wiping his eye with a handkerchief? About flushing toilets? This NGO Joe was going to have a very rough time in Anno Jeepney Philippines.
The ground leveled out, and Noli rolled to a stop behind a bus. The road was four lanes wide—which in Manila meant a mass of cars, vans, and busses between five and seven vehicles across. Traffic was at a complete stop. A dark cloud hung in the still air: the familiar tang of exhaust. This was really bad for 10 a.m. Across the divide, just a single car drove north. In the median between the two sides of the highway, a series of crumbled cement pillars once had supported the raised MRT railway but were now a monument to its demise.
Noli idled. He hated idling.
NGO Joe peeked out of the sidecar. “What is with this traffic?” He coughed. “I’m getting lung cancer. Can you get around? I’ll give a big tip. Look, no traffic on the other side!”
Noli pulled between a van and a bus—nearly removing his mirror in the process. With another zig and a couple zags, he reached a break in the median made for U-turns and used it to pull into the northbound lanes. And then he gunned his throttle.
NGO Joe resumed his terrified grip on the shaking sidecar frame. They had to be hitting nearly fifty kilometers per hour—something usually impossible on Old EDSA. Here and there, an apartment or grocery store still stood, but no skyscrapers, no malls. Big buildings like that hadn’t lasted long against the jeeplords. Most of what remained were the mismatched houses of squatters built amid growing piles of trash.
On the left, steel rebar stuck up from cement pillars like strange, leafless bamboo reaching for the sun. People would do that at times: try to offset the destruction with a sense of progress. No matter how grim things were, the Filipino spirit never surrendered. Even with rampaging jeeplords, the Philippines had not forgotten how to smile. Noli’s mom had used to say things like that: “Don’t focus on how bad today was. Tomorrow might be a wonderful day.”
He dodged a pothole, footprint of a particularly large jeeplord. Other motorcycles were also taking advantage of the empty lanes to go south.
“First time in Manila,” NGO Joe said. “I mean, I’ve seen pictures, but to be here, to see all this…” He removed a hand from the tricycle frame long enough to handkerchief his eyes again. “Words just can’t express it.”
Ahead, a few dozen motorcycles and tricycles were stopped in a large clump—all those who had, like Noli, taken advantage of the empty northbound lanes. He rolled up behind them, unsure what the problem was. Maybe an accident?
“Mate, why you stopping? Don’t forget the tip.”
Noli shook his head and weaved around the clump. This guy was in too much of a rush.
Ahead, he could see northbound cars in an uneven line, as though stopped at a traffic light. Except there was no signal. It was so weird. As he drove toward them and looked for another U-turn lane to get back to the southbound side, he saw the reason for the backup. A jeeplord lounged across the median, blocking two lanes on both sides.
A lesser jeeplord, thankfully: only five jeeps. Two formed the legs, one a torso, and two the arms. The hood of the torso jeepney stuck up just above the point where the arms attached, like a head. It was like a person without elbow or knee joints. The plate above the windshield on the head piece still bore the original name written by some now-deceased driver: Alaska. Noli slammed on his brakes, but he was already isolated in the no-man’s-land around the jeeplord. The torso section rotated toward Noli. If the window-panes had been eyes, it would have been looking straight at him.
“Sorry sir, I’ll drive fast now,” Noli said.
He plowed over the curb of the median, prompting swearing from NGO Joe at the awful bumps in a sidecar without shock absorbers. Here, the traffic was reversed: southbound empty, northbound waiting for the jeeplord to go away. Noli floored the throttle, passed the jeeplord, and quickly reached his top speed. He peeked over his shoulder, hoping against hope that—
Alaska stood in an upright position. At the sight of that form, Noli trembled in anger—an anger shared by all Filipinos for the destruction of their homeland. And anger for all that Noli personally had lost. But right now, there was no time for anger. He roared down the road as fast as his bike would carry him, his engine a heavy metal concert accompanied by the thundering drumbeat of his rattling sidecar. Hundreds waiting in northbound traffic stared at him. Maybe another car or motorcycle could have snuck by, but jeeplords always noticed Noli. Always.
“Hey mate, it’s bumpy in here. Watch it!”
“Sorry, sir,” Noli said, hugging his bike close in the hopes he might eke out a little more speed by cutting his wind resistance. Fat chance while tugging a sidecar.
NGO Joe finally peeked behind them and saw it—the jeeplord, running, just beginning to pick up speed. “This thing have a seatbelt?”
“Sorry, sir. No, sir.”
Noli looked around for an alleyway: something, anything to avoid the charging jeeplord. But he’d just passed onto some kind of bridge. It was at least a quarter kilometer to the other side. And—strange how the mind worked in these crisis moments—he realized where he was. He’d driven over this bridge a thousand times back before the jeepocalypse.
For a moment, he considered pressing the sidecar eject button, an illegal modification that was ubiquitous in Anno Jeepney Manila. And then he looked at that helpless NGO worker: pale-skinned, so tall he had to curl up to fit in the sidecar, wearing a clean polo shirt that was probably ironed. If he ejected NGO Joe, the jeeplord was just as likely to go after the sidecar as to chase its real target—Noli. No, he just couldn’t do that.
And then he saw it: a break in the guard railing on the opposite side. The twisted railing still hung over the empty space beside the bridge. This wasn’t going to be fun.
“Hold tight, sir.”
He swerved hard left, just in front of a bus—blaring horns—behind a truck—more blaring horns—and straight through the break in the railing. With a thump, they were airborne. For a moment, his body drifted weightless above the motorcycle. NGO Joe screamed. And in the midst of the terror, a funny thought came to him: at least I cleared up the traffic.
Some kind of bright blue fabric wrapped around them, blinding Noli for a moment. Great, they’d landed in a market.
Slam! They hit the ground, metal screeching against the pavement. They tore a clean hole through the blue tarp, revealing flies buzzing around raw meat on tables, chicken intestines roasting over coals, and stalls lined with old T-shirts. Noli swerved left to avoid a kid carrying ice cream and slammed on his brakes, unable to keep up that kind of speed in this crowd. He peeked back at the overpass, hoping, hoping, just maybe…
The jeeplord appeared above the bridge, windmilling its arms as it leaped through the air.
Noli swerved around another tricycle, smacking a balut table with his sidecar and sending eggs spraying in all directions. Then he heard it—a tap, tap, tap at his side. He peeked. The welding on his sidecar had come loose. One of the two steel bars holding it in place had snapped off. He didn’t have long. However, this market was along his old route, and even with all the changes, he knew this area better than the palms of his own hands. There was a church nearby. He rocketed toward it.
“Hey, hey, let me off!” NGO Joe yelled.
Noli gripped the motorcycle handles. “Sorry, sir, you will die, sir.”
Behind him, a huge crash signaled the jeeplord’s landing in the market. Noli passed a taxi, and the church came into view, a huge stone thing built by the Spanish. Statues of saints lined the outside of the building. He aimed his tricycle for one of the large doors on the side. All around him, people ran for the sanctuary.
The second bar snapped off. Noli swerved to avoid falling at the sudden shift in weight. His sidecar screeched to a stop. It would be so easy just to leave.
“No, too many have died because of me,” Noli whispered.
He leaned in hard and pulled a U-turn around a small truck, driving against traffic back to his sidecar. The jeeplord loomed large, stomping through the market, stall tarps wrapped around its feet and billowing in the wind like the hem of a wedding dress.
Noli arrived just as NGO Joe stumbled out of the sidecar. “Get on back, sir.”
NGO Joe pulled his briefcase out of the sidecar, leaned down, and stuck his face inches from Noli’s. “No, you idiot, you almost killed me. I’m walking.”
“Turn around, sir.”
The jeeplord towered over them, just a few steps away. NGO Joe jumped on the back of the bike and embraced Noli like a long-lost lover. There was no time for a U-turn back to the church. Noli sped toward the jeeplord.