30 Nights and Tomorrow On

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Because maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me (Oasis – Wonderwall)

Elizabeth woke up to the swoosh of wind. Morning light pierced through the flimsy sheets, blinding enough for her to squint. Her body was sore from leaning too long to the edge of a bed in front of her; she’s not sure how long she had slept in that position. While couldn’t quite make out of any surrounding sounds, she relied on her barely adjusted eyes to see around and hopefully remember what happened.

Ah, yesterday.

It’s beyond chaotic.

Elizabeth had never ever gone to an exorcism before, until recently. When she did (out of her junior’s desperate request), she cried looking at rotten chunks of bodies, got slammed to the wall from trying to catch a weight equal to her own, and almost got herself killed just because she couldn’t bear to see anymore dead persons.

She thought she perished for good in that place when she decided to jump in front of Roderich, her old friend, who was about to get stabbed by Vasquez’ long, sharp nails that looked more threatening than a shark’s thousands teeth. She didn’t even dare to look at Gilbert for the last time, knowing all she would see was a disappointed look. So she shielded Roderich with her body, closed her eyes, and waited for the release.

It never came, though. Tae Hee and his promised (a little late) backups arrived and immediately wired Vasquez’ body again, including her hands that were a step away from Elizabeth’s back. Now that there were more people to hold her still, plus the help of the souls of the dead reapers, they proceeded to exorcism chant. A chain of shrills and cursing; a lot of struggles and fights; reapers simultaneously blown to the back, replaced by more tropes behind; a few more cries and revolts, approximately thirty minutes were spent to depress her soul into fragments of nothing, raining the whole room as well as ending the bloodbath.

The aftermath was, maybe, what it looked like the finale of a war. People were exhausted, injured, and driven to tears. Some of the remaining reapers were either crying from suppressing the transfer of Vasquez’ malice aura during the exorcism, or they’re strong enough to stand and walk. They had a bit of a chat with the dead reapers before using their remaining energy to send them off, even bowing to their scattered bodies on the floor. Elizabeth watched them with a hollow somewhere inside her, still hugging Beatrice to her embrace. She might not contribute to the exorcism, but the least she could do was to protect the innocent daughter and close both her ears so she couldn’t hear her mom crying as being ripped apart.

Roderich was half-conscious at the end, absently watching his comrades while they carried him and Mr. Vasquez to a different stretcher. She remembered Gilbert’s still well and fine with those bruises marking his body, helping them carry the rest of the injured out. He came back to her after a while, still managed to scold her good and loud in front of everyone. He asked her to bring Beatrice home immediately and checked on her frequently for a time being as her genuine apology for making her go through such a traumatizing experience.

Knowing it was all her fault for thoughtlessly making such a dangerous call on her own, Elizabeth was prepared to receive more scolding and lecture when Gilbert, well, his body just decided to shut down without notice and collapsed on top of her. For the love of Jesus, he’s way too heavy for her not to panic and push him forward, whereas he didn’t have a balance to stand still and proceed to just give up and embrace the ground.

Therefore, Elizabeth had two regrets to pay: Beatrice and him. That’s how she ended up waiting for Gilbert to recover in his hospital room and spending the night doing so.

It looked like he also slept through everything since he collapsed. There’s no signs he ever woke up for just a minute and if that didn’t worry Elizabeth, perhaps the fact that he’s sleeping so quietly instead of snoring like how he usually was would do.

Gilbert, dressed in the hospital’s gown, facing stiff to the ceiling, eyes shut with neither signs of twitching nor moving, head’s wrapped in reddish bandage, skin as pale as his hair and covered in purplish to reddish bruises—Elizabeth had never seen him as peaceful as he looked at the moment.

That’s even more of a factor to worry.

Well, the doctors said he’s lucky enough for not having any of his bones broken, except maybe for a minor black eye on his left one, a couple swollen parts on his cheeks, and mostly severe bruising on both his back and rib cages. It’s going to be just fine; he’s one hell of a stubborn guy. Fools didn’t even catch a cold, how could they even die.

No doctors would comfort ones like that.

Elizabeth couldn’t help herself anymore. She bent forward, placing her ear as close to Gilbert’s chest, looking for the tiniest glint of beat. It was there, rhyming in harmony despite being a bit more rapid than she expected. She wondered if his body was in pain, or perhaps he’s deep in his nightmare. Elizabeth rose, wrapping both her palms to fit in Gilbert’s cheeks, tapping them lightly with her fingers like how someone would play a song through a piano.

No reaction, either. She couldn’t just slap him to an eye-opening moment, she guessed.

So she drew closer, closer than she planned, until she’s right breathing to his freckles she had counted the night before—wasn’t sure what she’s about to do, but certain that it’d work something out. Lining their features together, there she could finally trace the line of his eyes, the structure of the crease, the fine arch of his eyebrows, as if she had yet to notice them earlier that she had to ignore the solemn muscles beneath, smearing painful black all over the place.

Elizabeth was a few seconds too late to draw back when those eyelids moved out of any blues, revealing a pair of glazed, brown eyes staring back at her.

She swallowed a curse and jolted herself back, still widened about the sudden situation. Gilbert’s still lying in the same position, not moving or reacting exaggeratedly (like he always did) to Elizabeth’s presence—except that now he’s awake and couldn’t stop eyeing Elizabeth with those heavy, yet lazy stares.

“You, uh, hi?”

Gilbert blinked, slightly drew his gaze away to avoid excessive light coming from the window. His voice was croaking when he decided it’s time to try and open his mouth. “Has it been a few days?”

“No.” She gulped. “It’s just yesterday.”

“And you?” Gilbert pushed his back straight, groaning from the flashy pain from various parts of his body. “You’re here all night?”

Elizabeth would want to avoid the truth that she pushed him to fall, worsening at least the big bruise located on his top right forehead. Let’s keep it a secret for now, the reason for her guilt. “Th-They told me to look after you.”

“I’m not a baby, what the hell,” he hissed, eyes hoping from one bruises to another, pinpointing everything that’s visible for now. “Did I break a bone? Feels like I should have.”

“You didn’t.”

“Then why am I still here? Can they send me home already?”

“Because you were literally passed out until like two minutes ago! And your head’s still bleeding, last time they changed your bandage.”

Gilbert froze for a moment there. Elizabeth thought she lost him.

“Really?”

“Maybe I should report to the doctor that you have shock trauma on your brain and see if you can get better treatment than—”

“Don’t!” A firm hold stopped Elizabeth from reaching the call button midway. “I’m fine, alright? It’s not like I have partial or a whole ass amnesia. Bleeding is just bleeding, it’ll solve itself!”

“Shut up, Gilbert. You’re no doctor.” Elizabeth, deliberately ignoring the stream of relief she felt when she noticed warm from the hold on her wrist, went to press the button anyway, explaining to whoever picked the call from the other side that the patient had woken up and needed a run of check immediately. She sat back to her chair, all proud and accomplished, totally looking down on Gilbert’s pouty face. “It was the right thing to do.”

“Good. I’m still tired and have to undergo a check-up right now. How heavenly.”

“You have no right to complain. Who knows what might happen to you and everyone if Tae Hee’s really late bringing those guys!”

“Yeah, I got to scold that brat, too. Oh, wait!” He turned his head quick to Elizabeth. “How’s the others, seriously? Mr. Vasquez? Beatrice? The dead reapers? Roderich?”

“Calm down, geez. They’re fine.” Elizabeth took a breath, her mind’s wandering to what happened during the critical hours last night. “The dead reapers were safely sent off in place. Their documents will be soon rewritten by the authority, not a mere ghost this time. Mr. Vasquez was already conscious by the time I visited him last night. His arm is fractured, but nothing serious. I walked Beatrice home and consoled her a bit, definitely will visit her again these days. Roderich is a floor below you. He’s awake, too. No broken bones. Just exhausted and mild bleeding.”

“So I’m the last one to wake up?” Gilbert let out a chuckle. “That’s why you’re so worried, you thought kissing me would jolt me back to senses for sure.”

Blood rushed to her face and boiled itself, everything Elizabeth retorted was a mere embarrassing nonsense Gilbert had again taken with laughs. She really sounded stupid just now, all slurred and stammering, forgetting how to flex on her vocabulary skills.

“That’s so stupid, Liz. Such a good blackmail material.”

“S-Shut up! You got it wrong, ’kay!”

“Yeah, of course I’m wrong. I just can’t find the reason why you’re so red when I’m the one mistaken here.”

They fell into the typical five years old bantering session again, except neither of them were five and Elizabeth was trying all her best to drain the butterfly flying in her stomach while still maintaining a head to head argument with Gilbert.

But she lied, though, when she said she didn’t miss this. She just wished her feelings wouldn’t go in between and ruin everything.

“Speaking of Roderich—” she cleared her throat “—he told me.”

“Oh, yeah. Fuck, I still got to talk about our deal.”

“What deal?” Elizabeth crossed her arms. “That if you helped him with this case, he’d cut all contact with me?”

Gilbert choked. “You knew?”

“I said, he told me. Everything. Including that incident in school.”

Gilbert shut his mouth. His stares darkened as the clench on his jaw became apparent. Elizabeth was surprised to see the way he reacted, even when she had already prepared to embrace anything that came with it. It might be the past she had overcome overtime, but for Gilbert that’s not the case. Unsure why, Elizabeth could only know by talking to him. That’s why she’s here now, blabbering and pushing his buttons.

“Everything?” he said, pitch went an octave lower. “Like what?”

She remembered visiting his room last night, a bucket of flowers on her hand. She remembered a small talk turned heavy as Roderich wrung his fingers in a repetitive motion until he said he got something to say. The man dipped to the floors, despite him having hemorrhage, stood on his knees and cast his head down. She remembered being numb when he retold everything that happened on that incident—the incident everyone on the same year as her knew and could recite with closed eyes—this time it’s told from the perpetrator’s raw point of view.

“Why?” She dragged her tongue, seeking any hints of anger. “Why telling me this now?”

“You risked your life for me,” Roderich replied. “Thought at least you should know how much a dick I really am.”

People would have gotten angry, maybe snapped and started cursing on him. Knowing the real person behind the downfall of one’s future was right there, begging for their forgiveness in the lowest manner possible, Elizabeth had all the right to burst and blame him. She had Yuriko as her backup; they could report him to the government and had him confess to Azrael, which at very least would certainly strip him off from the chariot he’s been riding on top of Elizabeth’s sorrow all this time. Once everyone knew, they would go praise Elizabeth and turn their back on the scum Roderich. No one would judge, since that’s what he deserved.

But at what cost she did that?

Was there a point anymore?

“He apologized to me.” Elizabeth lifted her gaze, back to the furious Gilbert. “He promised he’ll resign from his position and before that, try to put me in a higher spot. He even let you win the deal.”

“Oh, that’s good enough. He should just confess to the whole headquarter and let everyone know who’s the boss. That’ll be satisfyi—”

“I refused, though.”

Before Gilbert could continue spilling his ‘what the fuck’, Elizabeth took a breath and smiled. The same smile she showered Roderich with.

“I expect myself to be mad. Just like you right now. It was pretty shocking for me to hear the truth from someone you deeply trusted and therefore, considered as friends. I was waiting for the waves of emotion to hit me with realization, to make me start seeing Roderich differently now that he has shown his true intention. It was finally there, but not powerful enough to make me… revert to the seventeen years old me. I wonder why.”

Elizabeth shut her eyes as she tried to recall the shuddering thunder from last night.

It wasn’t there.

“I didn’t feel anything. Perhaps the seventeen years old me would cry and feel heartbroken. But even knowing I can finally repay Roderich for what he deserved, I just can’t… see myself doing it. That’s when I know it’s been years already since I decided to overlook this matter. Been years already—since I decided to forgive whoever they are.”

Gilbert stilled. The hard face he put on earlier had melted into something softer, leaving only the clench and raised eyebrows. Elizabeth sighed, piling her hands on Gilbert’s and held tender onto it.

“Half of it was on me, anyway. Should be more careful going out with those guys. I don’t know why you’re getting so worked out about this when I’m the only victim here. And don’t tell me whom to be friends with! Your deal is dead ass canceled!”

“You still want to be friends with that clown?” Gilbert sneered. “And the fact that Roderich still has the nerve to show in front of you shows a lot how thick his brick face is!”

“See? You’re the one being so difficult on this! It’s never even your problem!”

“You are just too kind on everything, Liz. And Roderich happened to pick the kindest of them all to mess with, hoping he’ll get away with this later! But what about me? How do you think I would react upon knowing someone I care about got hurt upon some unworthy imbeciles?!”

“But that is not a form of ‘caring’ I want! You being there and comforting me was more than enough! I don’t want your violence, Gilbert. I want that unwavering loyalty and the warmth of your heart that you’re still afraid to show off.”

Gilbert shook his head. “You read me wrong. I never have such things to begin with.”

“Then why are you still here?”

Why are you staying? You should just leave a dead man like me alone, if that’s really the case.

A few knocks on the door had Elizabeth withdrawn her tightened hands and stood up when a doctor and his nurse showed up for the check-up. She politely excused herself from the room with a ‘gotta back for work,’ and implicitly showed guilt upon leaving Gilbert in serious remarks.

She hated that it always ended like this. It’s always disagreeing about this, fighting about that, without anything being resolved for once. Elizabeth would have been fine dealing with the communication issue between them if she had not been dying. The banter could go a little bit longer with them taking their time figuring out each other, and Elizabeth would value every second of it—if she weren’t in such a hurry.

She only wished for a day they could finally see one eye to another in an honest way; no more shades and lies cutting in the middle. Just two tired minds searching for comfort in each other, all in all with each of their imperfections.

***

On the way to the lobby, Elizabeth found Beatrice on the bench in front of his father’s room, hugging her knees with her head tucked down. Disbelief in herself, Elizabeth took a stride closer to get a better look. Beatrice looked up from the heavy knocks of Elizabeth’s heels and almost lost her balance when their eyes met together.

“Dear.” Elizabeth sighed. “Are you skipping schools?”

“No, I mean—yes! But, uh, not really.” The teen dropped her knees to the ground as Elizabeth invited herself to sit next to her. “I went to school and the teachers sent me back because it seemed like I have a bigger matter to worry.”

“But your father is fine,” Elizabeth said, pointing at the door. “You can just leave him. And I’m always here with the others to check on everyone.”

“Well, as for that, it was an excuse. I just really want to skip schools in the end.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry. It’s only one solid day off with no addition. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“If you say so.” Elizabeth hummed. “I guess you deserve a day break after all.”

“How’s the others? Mr. Gilbert and his friend?”

“Stable.” Elizabeth felt her eyes twitched. “Gilbert’s just conscious this morning.”

“You’re there with him all night long?”

“I was guilty, okay? I pushed him and scarred his pretty stupid face and now I can’t even say that one of them is on me! He probably thinks I’m a creep or worse for staying the entire night for no absolute reasons.”

The memory of Gilbert’s chapped lips tugged her nerves so hard, she had to excuse herself for making a face.

“That guy could have liked it, though.” She got a glare from Elizabeth and replied to it quickly with a shrug. “I don’t know, Miss. He could be a perv and what’s so wrong about a creep liking another creep—sorry, I was joking.”

“That’s not a very decent thing to say.”

But it made Elizabeth smile a little, so guess what? Maybe she’s the real creep all along.

They fell silent for a couple seconds, between the slight rush of nurse patrols and groups of families passing by, the smell of disinfectant was stronger around here. Now that Elizabeth noticed, she felt a twist of protest from her belly asking for nourishment. She had to go soon, the empty belly signaled.

But her heart said she couldn’t go wordlessly, especially with that burden still lurking at the back of her mind. So Elizabeth broke the silence, slowly wishing she didn’t scare Beatrice out.

“Listen, Beatrice. I, uh, it may not be a formal statement to cover my lack of professionalism during the event yesterday. I am, however, really sorry for how things turned out. And I would like to apologize for my behalf of bringing you to the scene without much consideration from me and consent from the others, ignoring that it could bring you harm and traumatic experience. It was all my incompetent to drag you in.”

She bowed down, eyes-shut to the loud pounding in her chest, waiting for Beatrice’s response with sweats chasing down her side-profile. The apology had come late and Beatrice would probably laugh at those report-like apologies. But it’s still a thing that had to be done, no matter how overdue and embarrassing it was. It’s concerning the life of a precious child, after all, and Elizabeth wouldn’t want to ruin it more after what she’d done.

And formality was never overrated when it came to apology.

“I… It’s fine. Really.”

Elizabeth lifted her head and saw Beatrice smiling. “No, it’s not!” she said. “How can you be fine after all that stuff? You’re just a teenager, Beatrice. Of course it’ll be too much to carry!”

“It is.” Beatrice dropped her gaze, a pond of pain welled up on her eyes. “I’ll be lying if I say it’s not that much. I mean, seeing my mom in that state and all the ruckus she made during the period of time of her being a ghost are… if not crazy, I don’t know what to call it. It’s a little traumatizing, to be honest. But surprisingly, I don’t feel much regret.”

“No, but still! It could have been avoided if I had not brought you there! Stupid me, thinking the problem will be solved once you meet her. It’s only getting worse from there.”

“But I did kinda buy the time, didn’t I?” Two hands shook Elizabeth’s shoulder, raising her head until she could see Beatrice as a whole again. “Stop blaming on yourself, Miss. I was at fault, too, for running by myself to the scene without preparation. I should have waited for your instruction. But I was too eager to meet my mom. I just… wanted to talk to her again.”

At this point, Beatrice was crying silently. Tears were pouring down her cheeks, but she got to keep the smiles bright. “You know, Miss. I don’t feel regret at all. Because I could finally see my mom. And heard her last word. Do you want to know what she said?”

“Last word?”

“At the very last moment before her soul was exorcised, you turned my head from the sight and closed my ears tight. I thought I really didn’t see anything or hear her screams anymore. But after the exorcism, when those pieces of fragments were raining the whole room, I could hear a whisper. Her whisper.

“It was the same voice my mom used to have back then. Soft. Warm. Caring. Loving. So I just figured out it was her. She said, ‘she’s not your mother. Don’t think of her as your mother. Don’t forgive her either. Because your mother is the woman who cooked your favorite soup every dinner and asked you how school was when you got home. She loved you and wouldn’t want you to be sad at all. Remember her and the happy moments only, then you’ll be okay. Thank you for being born, Beatrice.’ And then the whisper disappeared when the fragments ruptured into nothing.

“That’s weird, I thought at first. I was supposed to be unable to hear anything! Maybe it’s not the fragment speaking at all. Maybe it’s my mom visiting my heart and speaking to me. Whatever it was, I felt so glad and relieved. It felt like… I’ m back home again.”

Beatrice wiped the droplets running down her cheeks. They were genuine falls, the kinds of drops people shed in happiness. Elizabeth’s heart ached. For someone as young as Beatrice to understand and accept such a thing in the most impossible situation was a blessing as well as a curse. So mature of her to be positive, yet so sad of her to finally find out her mom in the worst way she could get. She simply said she was glad after all that happened just because she didn’t realize she could have a much better option.

The girl quickly blinked away all the remaining tears once she caught a figure approaching them from behind. Elizabeth was surprised to meet the brother she never met. That’s true that Beatrice mentioned she had a younger sibling. He was wearing an elementary school uniform, a bag slung sloppily across his back as he ran toward them. The boy hopped into Beatrice’s embrace and hugged her back, screeching in excitement while Beatrice excused herself from Elizabeth.

“He’s a bit clingy,” she said, cackling.

“I never got to meet him until now. Hello, boy.” Elizabeth bent down to match the boy’s height and found two familiar blue eyes staring back in confusion. “What’s your name, darling?”

The boy didn’t respond. All he did was glaring at Elizabeth before switching back to Beatrice and tugged her sleeves. Clearly Elizabeth wasn’t a mom or a sister before, but she thought it wouldn’t get this much worse.

“Ah, well. Stephen is a little bit uncomfortable around new people,” Beatrice filled in, still wrapping her brother in her arms. “Not like he has anything against you. It’s just… he can’t understand you. He’s still bad at lip-reading.”

Oh my.

“I usually communicate with sign language at home or just simply write stuff on a paper. He’s kinda slow at reading but it’s been better these days. One thing he should work on next is probably talking to new people without me.”

Elizabeth couldn’t say anything.

Beatrice bent down and started to run a sequence of hand motion in an understandably slow speed that had Stephen turned around to Elizabeth’s direction again and bowed down fast. He returned to Beatrice’s arms while watching his sister smiling wide at him.

“You didn’t say anything bad, did you.”

“I only introduced you!”

“As a grim reaper?”

“As my teacher, apparently.”

“Alright. Close enough.” Elizabeth smiled, restraining herself not to pat Stephen’s head or poke his cheeks. What a torture, she thought. “You must have had it hard since the beginning with your dad. Let alone taking care of your brother. I… we can’t offer you anything, but let me know if you need help. It’s the least of what we can do.”

“We’re fine, really. It’s always been this way ever since Mom died.”

“But, Beatrice, especially with your father’s condition, you are going to be the family’s backbone for a long time. And it is our fault that we worsened it. So I’m planning to suggest a proposal to the higher-ups that can provide you with—”

“Miss, even now you have work waiting, don’t you?”

Elizabeth held herself not to frantically look at her watch or flipping her agenda. She’s late, and she’s aware of it. “I have it scheduled.”

“No, but, you’re busy. Everyone is busy. I can’t afford to bother you even more with our unfortunate situation. I’ll be lying to say I have everything under my palms, but at least I can assure you it’s controllable.”

“Beatrice—”

“As long as—” the grip around Stephen tightened “—as long as someone in the family stays strong, the rest is going to be fine.

“Count on me. I’ve been doing it forever.”

***

Beatrice’s word wouldn’t stop ringing in her ears.

Elizabeth didn’t have everything under her schedule. She’s late to most of the places where her clients were because she couldn’t stop dozing off on every bus stop she’s in. As if things weren’t bad enough, she slept in one of the transit buses and had to be woken up by the driver at the last stop. Well, she said to herself in between the misery, looked like someone from the headquarter was going to make a call tonight.

After stamping the last client, who was a last-stage cancer patient and bid them a good bye, Elizabeth went home to change her clothes before going back to Gilbert. Ah, right. She still had unfinished business with him. Perhaps she stopped by Beatrice and Stephen first to drop some bento boxes. That could boost her mood a little before facing the demon lord Gilbert whose head was both light and dense at the same time.

On the way home, she passed the same construction site she’s been watching for the past months since it was built. The famous neighborhood gossip said it was a private property that would soon turn into a game center or something. Upon passing through, she was reminded that once she had to trespass the site by jumping over the rear fence just to stamp a worker there. Elizabeth wondered how he’s doing now.

Wait.

When was it again?

Had it been thirty days already?

She stopped her walk when she saw a group of workers were gathering on the left side of the site with their faces worryingly furrowed that it made Elizabeth anxious. She found herself approaching the crowd, going past the supposedly restricted gate and felt even more uneasy when no guards had come to stop her. They were too fixated on a body lying on the ground, a middle-aged man in his work outfit sprawled over the pool of his blood, all gone and scorched.

Oh my god.

“WHY ARE YOU GUYS NOT DOING ANYTHING?!”

“What can we do, sir?! He’s dead! Are we supposed to call the police?”

“Lord Jesus, how did he die?”

“Electrocuted while fixing the pole. A long drop to his death.”

“That was a rough way to end me.”

Elizabeth jolted from her thoughts when she heard things. She looked around and found the soul of the man behind her, smiling ear to ear as if nothing happened. “Mr. Jensen!”

“Hello, again, uh, Miss.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Considering this coincidence, I assume you are the one who stamped me last time.”

Elizabeth made her way out of the crowd, to the back of a building where she stamped him there after conning as a real estate agent. The soul of Mr. Jensen followed her while talking about his horrific experience to get electrocuted before falling free to the ground. Good thing he only got to experience it once in his life, otherwise no one would like to die twice.

“Did you forget you hit zero today?” Elizabeth cut him off, surprising herself with that unintended raise of voice. “How could you still get up for work, knowing you might die here?!”

“Oh?” Mr. Jensen raised his eyebrows. “Was I supposed to stay at home?”

“That’s what people normally do,” she replied, turning down her voice a little. “Spending time with families, or praying. Saying both gratitude and apology to people. If you go outside on your due day, you’re most likely going to die there in more various ways. People tend to avoid that.”

The thing about the due day was it wasn’t specified to the client what time he’s going to die. It could be early in the morning after they just woke up, or in the afternoon during their naps, or at night when they thought they could escape death. Some even were scheduled to die the second their marks turned to zero. Once Elizabeth heard Yuriko complaining about Azrael tended to make death less meaningful since he didn’t seem to care about the times and procedures. I don’t care when and how they’re going to die. In the end, they will become souls I can finally collect, he said.

Being an angel he was, you didn’t think he could comprehend the sentimentality humans felt toward another, especially on an important event such as death. No one could blame him, though.

“That’s true, Miss. I should have spent time by myself at home, even though I have no family. I really wished I could pull that off now, after knowing how tragic my death’s going to be, and how bad the company has to suffer from the loss.” He cackled as sirens went past them. “Still, back then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I know I’m going to die today. But how? Is it here, in my bedroom? On the toilet? When? Can I have my breakfast first? I was worried that I wished it would be scheduled earlier. That’s when I realized I couldn’t just stay here at home, spending my remaining time doing nothing but worrying how I am going to die when the outcome will be just the same. I have to work. These guys need me. Now that I know I died working, I feel accomplished. And full. I feel like I’m doing my best until the very end.”

A man who appeared to be a reaper called them out and scowled Elizabeth for making him search for Mr. Jensen the entire site. She watched the reaper sending his soul off and stayed there after he left. The crowd surrounding Mr. Jensen still had not disbanded when the police and ambulance crew came to retrieve the body. It wasn’t any more chaotic than the first few minutes of the death, but at least some people were respectful enough to leave the rest of the matter to the authorized and stepped aside to mourn. Another middle-aged man was sitting on the curb, neither cried nor sobbed, just hunched with his shoulder slumped down and eyes staring emptily to the ground. He looked like a soldier who just lost his friend.

Mr. Smith died on his deathbed after telling his wife he loved her. Anna died falling down her stairs, unable to tell her parents anymore that she’s dying and running out of time. Agatha died fighting her disease while hiding her pain and suffering from Mr. Hansen, her lover. Vasquez died in spite and grudge, losing herself to hatred, and almost lost her daughter’s love and trust.

Elizabeth brushed the mark on her collarbone, pondering in what way would she die too.

***

“Fucking low scum piece of shit. If you had not been lying weak in that deathbed of yours, I would have kicked your ass to hell until you kissed the devil itself.”

Roderich gave him a squint of disappointment before slumping back to his bed, completely trying not to be bewildered by Gilbert’s sudden (and uninvited) visit. “What else you got to say?” he said, flipping the next page of his book.

Gilbert, despite emerging with a stick holding half of his weight, not to mention his visible uncombed hair and unbrushed teeth, still managed to continue throwing more insults to Roderich as if it’s his last day of telling him so. He’s on the rush, you see. He had to finish this mission before Elizabeth came back.

“Fucking dickbag. Bitch of donkey. Burden of earth. Waste of oxygen!”

“Alright, that’s enough. My mom didn’t give birth to me for you to curse on my existence.” Roderich sighed, closing the book and putting it aside. “First of all, I don’t have any excuse to tell you to shut up, but let’s calm down, okay? You know Elizabeth and I talked last night.”

“Yeah, no shit.” Gilbert pulled a chair nearby and dropped his ass on that. “Can’t believe she let you go that easy! If I were her, I would bake you alive right now.”

“Not sure if it’ll be a delicious cake, but I understand.” Roderich put off his glasses and blinked to the sudden change of sight adjustment. He shook his head and turned sideways to Gilbert. He might look blurry, but Roderich knew well what kind of expression Gilbert wore. Furious, and stern, if not holding ire beneath. “I want to keep the deal on, but looks like Elizabeth is going to be quite persistent about it. I’ll be only greeting her for formality, but I won’t ever touch or talk to her outside work. I have no face to do that anymore. How’s that? Satisfied yet?”

Gilbert hummed, playing with his stick absently until silence stretched too long between them and Roderich started getting worried over his state. Gilbert did take a lot of blows to the head last time.

“Gilbert,” he called out. “Please respond.”

He looked up, brows furrowed and mouth twitched, the crinkle on his nose clearly showed disgust. He then laughed—so out loud—and only came to stop to Roderich’s look of dismay. This guy had lost it, Roderich thought.

“That’s a tempting offer, man. If possible, I want you to perish from my life too.” Gilbert cackled again before the triumphant look banished into something softer and less concerning. “I wish I could mean it. Really. Guess I’m just all talk and insult in the end.”

“What do you mean?”

“Insults are just enough to satisfy me. You don’t have to continue the deal. Let’s call it off.”

Roderich was wide agape. He had to be hallucinating to hear the words itself from Gilbert, who despised him more than anything else in this world. “Why?”

“I just thought…” Gilbert gulped, tearing his gaze apart from Roderich. “I still hate you with every fiber of my being. But Liz forgives you. That’s bad news. Because now, I don’t have any reason to bash you again since that reason has forgiven you. I’m just a man with an empty grudge now.” He took a deep breath, shaking his head over and over again as a whirl of emotion washed over the light on his eyes. “I don’t know—I feel so empty. Why am I even here anyway? What matters I have with you? Why am I so bothered since the start? Why can’t I just let this shit go?! I lost the only reason why I’m like this and now I’m hanging loosely between these unresolved feelings.”

Roderich might have never experienced this before. Hell, all his life he spent on chasing the position he had now, slightly bumpy and wrong in the process, but he did throw the obstacles away. He took down Elizabeth, the girl of talents whom everybody loved, grabbed the advantage and made the person he’s now. He never bothered to look back, let alone bringing it up (if not because of that bastard Gilbert reminding him again and again) because he couldn’t afford to lose anything he had up until this point. Roderich never spent his time on trying to tidy up his feelings—whether it’s affection, grudge, resentment, or even guilt—he pushed them down and continued to drive forward. Everything, to live up to the expectation people thoughtlessly put on him.

Until recently. Someone knocked down his wall. His ego. His pride. His fear of failing.

But he knew. He knew it from first sight. When he saw Gilbert tailing him behind those old church walls the day after the incident, scowling Roderich’s entire existence and loudly wished him a painful death. When he watched Gilbert cleaning up the mess on the school’s announcement board, ripping every evidence Roderich plastered to roar the sisters—he even made sure none was left in secret and sneaked out at midnight to burn them in the church backyard. When he overheard Gilbert scolding Elizabeth for skipping her breakfast again and went out on his way to the nearest convenience store to buy her a microwaved rice bowl, he received another detention for skipping the morning class that day. And yet, he flashed her a smile before the sister closed the door and locked him up for the rest of the day.

“It’s okay, Liz.” the younger boy said, that time when Elizabeth first came to class after isolating herself days since the incident; that time when she’s all swollen eyes and poignant smiles. “You’re going to be just fine. You are a good person. Everyone knows that.”

Damn it. Roderich couldn’t help himself but knew.

“It’s fine. You can continue hating me all the way you want like it’s your privilege,” he said, low and sincere. The poor guy had lost count when the last time he let himself this bare. “You care for her so much, Gilbert. That’s why you feel like you’re losing your mind when someone hurts her. That’s normal. Because you don’t ever want to see her sad.”

Gilbert froze. The stick on his hand fell and the clang echoed.

(Or perhaps it was Roderich’s voice that echoed endlessly in his ears.)

“I’m sorry that I have ever been such a bad guy in your life. I have no excuse. I have learnt my lesson.”

***

Gilbert thought about it again and again once he returned to his room. He still hadn’t figured out whether his sore back was from Vasquez’ constant and rough slam, or simply because he lied down too much. Otherwise the throbbing sensation from all the bruises he had, head to toe, was real and literal. And he still didn’t know whether trying to distract himself from the pain with the whole Roderich’s apology was a good idea or, well, the worst.

He came to relieve his stress by throwing insults to Roderich, hoping he’d come back later happier and lighter. God, however, forbid that. Because now Gilbert was feeling nothing but miserable as effing hell.

The longer he contemplated, the longer he’s convinced. Perhaps he’s never mad at Roderich at all. The bad guy in his life? What’s wrong about that? Every protagonist had at least one big antagonist they had to overcome. It happened by default. Things went wrong when they couldn’t stop the opposing sides from winning. That was what happened to Gilbert.

Perhaps all these years he’s been hating on himself, for not being able to protect Elizabeth; for standing still in front of the detention room, legs were shaking as time continued to tick, wishing it was Elizabeth who opened the door from the other side instead of him breaking in; for being scared to stand up for her just because he knew he’s going to lose against the sisters without even considering to try; for always saying that he cared for her while doing nothing to prove it.

And why was he so upset about that?

It happened last night. A night nobody knew but him.

The memory was crystal clear on his head. It was around midnight when he’s first awake, all numb from painkillers running through his veins. He spared a glance to the window, to where the moonless sky was, and deducted it’s been approximately ten to twelve hours since he passed out. That was quite long, he thought, moving auto-pilot to press the call button to the nurse room.

Just before that, a weight shifted at the edge of his bed. And he looked down—and quickly discouraged himself to not press the button. Because if the nurse had come to run a check on him, he might need to wake up the sleeping beauty in front of him.

That could wait until morning, he guessed, so he leaned to the back of his bed, body’s suddenly all stiff and eyes glued to the ceiling. He didn’t know why he wanted to avoid looking at Elizabeth at all cost; it probably had something to do with why his stomach was acting funny. She did (probably) wait for him the entire evening (despite work), and so what? Why did it matter? Why Gilbert felt warm. Why was he happy. That’s stupid. What an unreasonable reaction.

The denial continued, but he didn’t have to stall for too long, because someone caught his iv-ed arm and gripped it tight, driving Gilbert even more tensed than he already was. He dared to lay a look on Elizabeth to find her clutching on his left arm, occasionally pressing and muffling her cheeks against his bare skin—god, that ticklish like hell, what a torture—before casually intertwining their fingers together and hummed in satisfaction. What’s more amazing was she did all of them in her sleep.

Gilbert was doomed. He’s fucked.

Okay, calm down, Gilbert. You’re twenty three this year, not a brat on his first day of school. Get your shit together.

Either she’d pull away in her sleep as well, or she woke up to it and felt embarrassed about it later, Gilbert couldn’t care less. He’s going to sleep through this. Even though it seemed impossible with these stray butterflies crowding his chest and stomach, he’s going to SLEEP, whether he woke up tomorrow or not, or whether he had to sleep through the end of the world—he’s going to nail this. Lately, those symptoms had been getting worse, especially with her around. Gilbert was certain he’s going to google it later and found out what the fuck’s happening to him, then fixed it to the root. Soon.

But for now.

She moved again, pulling away from him. Ah, finally.

But then he felt cold creeping the abandoned arm and hated it. He hated himself afterward for feeling that way. He just hated everything, didn’t he.

Gilbert grew addicted to the sight. Elizabeth, sleeping with her head on the bed, brown hair draping over the side of her face, probably covering a droll underneath. Along with that peaceful expression, Gilbert could fall asleep watching her shoulders going up and down in constant rhythm. To think blood’s still running in her veins today when he woke up, Gilbert couldn’t be anymore thankful than this.

He wanted to caress her. Just to make sure she’s still warm. And he’s not dreaming.

He slapped himself, instead.

No, fuck yourself, Gilbert. There’s this thing called physical harassment and here is the reason why you should not ever cross the line. Go back to your sleep. And dream shits. Just don’t forget to wake up.

Gilbert forced himself to sleep for the rest of the night, turning his back on Elizabeth and shut his eyelids tight, his mind’s focusing on counting those imaginative sheep jumping over the fence one by one. He swore he wouldn’t tease anything to Elizabeth later when he woke up, for he didn’t want to tell her that he was awake late in the night when she’s asleep and immediately thought of brushing his fingers up to her face—god, how did he manage to make it sound more disgusting.

That’s how he ended up there, being thought as the last guy to wake up. Been hours since that unfortunate event, Gilbert still couldn’t shake off the warm, fuzzy feeling he had when she laced their fingers together. It still felt the same, just like that time when she slept on his couch and spent the night breathing so close to him.

Speaking of the devil, here came the real deal.

Elizabeth returned at some time after sunset, changing into something more comfortable: her waffle sweater and baggy pants. She did look like she’s ready to spend the night here again, the plastic bag filled with snacks really gave it away. Gilbert passively changed the TV channel from a bear family documentary to a drama and tossed the remote to his leg.

He also pretended to casually ignore her presence, even though Elizabeth made it clear enough that she wanted his attention by making loud steps and sighs.

“Sir.” She cleared her throat, dragging a chair next to him. “How’s your day today? Anything uncomfortable?”

Gilbert almost lost it by saying you. “The usual, I guess. The painkiller is wearing off. A little bit of sting and pain here and there.”

“Alright,” Elizabeth said, narrowing her eyes to Gilbert’s dry attempt of avoiding her eyes. “Have you taken a bath? Or shower?”

“You kidding me? I can’t even walk one meter ahead without this body begging for mercy. Peeing and taking shit are enough!”

“Ohoho? But the nurse said you just returned from visiting a fellow patient whose room is one level below?”

Snap.

He could feel Elizabeth’s victory grin spying on him from aside.

She didn’t comment on it, though. Either she decided not to push on the matter, or she had enough chit chat with Roderich before she hopped into this room. Whatever it was, Gilbert was thankful enough.

Elizabeth stayed all quiet when she stood up to find a clean towel and fill a bucket she found on the toilet with the shower warm water. The sound of her plunging the cloth into the water clashed with the evening drama’s dialogue, something Gilbert had a hard time to choose which one to focus on. Squeezing it later, she used the wet towel to compress the bruises on Gilbert’s arm—gently and delicately without missing a beat—up and up across his upper arm. Once the towel went cold, she dipped it again to the bucket, squeezed it tight and pressed the now warm one to another spot.

It went like that over and over again, same treatment to his other arm. At this point, Gilbert’s not even paying attention to the drama anymore. He’s just staring blankly at the wall in front of him, feeling his muscles tensed and relaxed against her touch. It’s twinging when she pressed it, but somehow he didn’t hate it. He liked it. Pretty much.

Like the way she curled up her lips every time she thought he wasn’t looking. Like the way her idle fingers caressed his skin while she’s busy compressing his arm. Like the way she had to sit so close to him in order to reach his arm, that he could effortlessly smell her shampoo and cologne. Like the way her hair caught the color gold instead of brown under the dim led. Or the way she didn’t bother to look up and find his face, otherwise he’d look dumb from smiling so profound at something that’s supposed to be painful.

Maybe he’s a real masochist. Who knows.

Except when she accidentally ran the towel across a bleeding wound, Gilbert hissed and pulled his arm away in reflex. His first instinct was to jokingly complain at such bad and inconsiderate services, so he hurled a glare toward her.

Wide eyes met worried ones.

“Ah, sorry. Are you okay?”

The jokes crumbled apart. Gilbert missed the chance.

“God, it really hurts, huh? Do you need me to stop?”

No, wait—

I’ll make you warm tea instead? You’re okay with that?”

The next time he knew, he had his hands wrapped around her wrist; wide, intimidating eyes were long gone to be replaced with pleading eyes. “No, I’m fine. Do continue.”

Elizabeth, too, looked taken aback with the unexpected response. Gilbert bit his lower lips, overthinking whether he surprised (or crept) her. She tugged a smile in the end and moved closer again, rolling the sleeves of Gilbert’s gown. “If you say so. I’ll be more careful this time.”

“Ye-Yeah, idiot. You should have.” He let go of her wrist and curled his palm, burying it to the mattress where it clenched. “The elbow, too. You missed it.”

Elizabeth hummed. “Ah, you’re right.”

“Now that I think about it, my wrists are also sore. And the finger joints have been acting funny. Can you massage them at the same time?”

That successfully drew Elizabeth gasped in disbelief. “Oh my god. Am I a masseuse now?! Remember I don’t get paid for any of these!”

“Geez. If you’re going to do it, then do it with your whole heart. The nurse from earlier did wash the whole body and even helped me strip out. Well, my bad for expecting something from you.”

“She WHAT?!”

“I chat with her for a bit while she’s doing her job. Apparently she’s single now, been actively going to blind dates but still can’t find someone. What a pity, she’s so pretty. I wonder if—”

“Alright, dimwit. You can shut up now.”

Elizabeth pulled his wrist and pressed the warm towel all over his hand, massaging his knuckles in between. She looked so furious and displeased; even under the lamp’s orange hue the roses on her cheeks were too visible to hide. Gilbert’s cheeks hurt from grinning too much, he’s enjoying this.

“Don’t forget the palm.”

“I know! Patient, please!”

Later when she’s asleep on that guest couch two feet apart from his bed, Gilbert sneaked on his phone and typed all the things that had been bothering him for the past weeks in the search box; for the love of God he prayed google didn’t diagnose him with cancer or any autoimmune disease—just because it’d be troublesome to treat and his job only covered half of the insurance.

‘why my stomach feels strange whenever i’m around this person and my heart is beating faster than usual and my face is getting hotter the longer said person smiles at me what kind of disease is this which doctor i should go’

He pressed enter.

They said the screech could be heard until five kilometers radius; it woke up the whole hospital and its neighborhood.


Time remaining: 19 days.

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