30 Nights and Tomorrow On

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And though it hurts so much, you’re the one I wanna hurt with (Christian French – Paper Thin)

Same person with the same feelings, facing the same building they had shared for years. The same arid meadows waving in the wind regardless the season, same moldy bricks struggling to hold the Victorian-architectural church upright, same eerie atmosphere they used to expose their bones to—except instead of sisters wearing nun clothes greeting them at the gate, there were sisters wearing black dresses greeting them at the gate.

Gilbert and Elizabeth weren’t that much different, wearing the darkest dress they could find in their drawer. While Gilbert chose to take advantage of the simplicity of a white shirt and a full set of black suit with its tie; Elizabeth went with a plain dark dress layered with white blazer. She tied her brown hair half-up and tucking the now longer fringes into the knot—the usual hairstyle she wore during their school days. He didn’t ask her why she did that, maybe it was the right choice all along to just blink at her outlook and move forward.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

Gilbert jolted from his steps. “Like what?”

“Like I’m wearing the wrong costume or something.”

“No, there’s nothing wrong.” He ran a gaze over her again. “I think you look just appropriate.”

She rolled her eyes. “What a word. I‌ was just about to ask. What’s up with your hair?”

“What’s with my hair?” Gilbert caressed his perfect hair today. He usually let it down during work and never bothered to put up a product. This morning when he got dressed, though, the idea came across and for once he thought it’s cool. “Don’t you like it?”

“We’re attending a funeral, Gilbert, not a wedding.”

He took the last glance on Elizabeth before they reached the church’s yard. How could he stop grinning, when it was obvious Elizabeth was sulking and blushing. “Just say I look good today. That won’t hurt.”‌

He got silly slaps.

There were new faces among the sisters who greeted them in the gate, but some were recognizable as far as their memories kept up. Those were the older sisters, giving nods of affirmation once Gilbert and Elizabeth went past them. A few greeted them like they’d been friends for twenty years while no one from the church really contacted anyone after graduation. It made Gilbert cringe; he already wanted to go home.

The deeper they traced their way to the main hall, the more buried memories coming to the shores. The very corridor with high mosaic windows where they used to play chase, shadows of children running once the sisters were out of sight. There was Gilbert chewing a candy he stole while standing on the corridor with only one leg because he had been late to the class for five times straight. There was also Elizabeth falling on her knees and crying for the whole three hours with blood running down her leg because neither Gilbert nor Yuriko could find any passerby to help tend her injury. And other countless events that happened inside solely one room.

They didn’t take a detour around the building to reminisce about the old times. Instead the two went straight to the hall where the funeral’s going to be held, sitting in the middle row. It was the biggest hall the church had, the roof was high and sculptured into statues of what supposed to be angels. It was also the longest hall, with the most royal altar in the very front, middle cross was so big it might fit a real person to be crucified there, and a frame photo of Mrs. Anderson’s smiling hiding a coffin behind. She looked so peaceful in the photo, making everyone think that’s how it looked like spending your life serving to God. In reality, one could fake such a perfect smile if practiced almost their whole lives.

That’s what Elizabeth did too from the gate to the hall. Smiling, pretending that she’s fine with everything.

A nudge on her arm and the echoing voice of a lector woke her up from being swallowed more by her melancholic episode. Elizabeth paid a glance on Gilbert, returning his nod as he bumped his pinkie toward hers.

She giggled for how cute his shyness was.

“Today in the name of God, He has gathered us to remember fellow server, Maria Anderson, who has returned home peacefully. May she be accepted by His side.”

They closed it with a cross and reverted into deep silence. Elizabeth didn’t register, she had her eyes locked on Mrs. Anderson’s photo the whole time, tracing the familiar wrinkle of the lady’s face she used to look up. A few rows ahead, she saw the headsister, clutching her hands with her mouth mumbling, eyes shut tight. She looked back and saw Roderich closed his eyes too, except he’s probably just asleep.

Oh, it’s prayer time.

She faced forward again, about to look down and did the same thing when she caught a glimpse of someone wringing his fingers next to her. Elizabeth nudged him, this time, whispering quick to his ear, “pray, you idiot.”‌

“Why?” Gilbert replied, in a quieter manner. “Go ahead, I ain’t following.”

“For once, don’t be a—” the word came out lower and sounded more like a push of breath “—dick.”‌

Gilbert hissed. “Don’t cuss on church!”

Before one could return the banter, a choir of ‘amen’ echoed throughout the hall and everyone made the cross again. Elizabeth cleared her throat and slumped back to the seat, thinking of asking forgiveness later once the ceremony ended. Gilbert seemed pleased for scoring.

The headsister went up to the lectern next, the heels of her shoes sounded like loud knocks over the building. She was seventy four by the time the two graduated, yet now she didn’t look aged. Must be the power of gospel.

“I didn’t know the next time they’ll put me on the lectern is to give a message to my best friend, Maria,” she said in front of the microphone, sharp cat eyes navigating the entire audience, voice as husky as an old witch even back then. “We were fellow teachers, teaching these special kids God has entrusted to us. I have to admit, though we have been in this for almost our lives, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Most of these children were blind by the time they’re sent here. Maria, however, she understood this right and wielded her compassion and wisdom to guide these children. She was one of the best among us, and her loss was definitely a win for heaven. I’m sure she’s watching us now and smiling. To see how many of you care enough to attend the last thing we could do to send her away in grace, bless us for she’ll be forever our guardian angel.”‌

“She’s a guardian now, or what?” Gilbert leaned in, scrunching his nose in irritation. “I’m right about heaven’s shortage of people lowers the bar.”

Elizabeth shrugged, her shoulder knocked Gilbert back to his space of seat. “She technically didn’t do many wrongs and I‌ can see why heaven favored her. She’s obedient.”‌

“You know, Liz. You look like a better person if paired up with these people.”

Elizabeth held back another slap.

“Among us, many of her former students have come to send her love. I‌ remembered a few, actually. There’s Samuel, Jacob, Louisa, Roderich—”‌ her gazes finally landed on Elizabeth, she could feel them piercing through her gut just like last time when she accused her in the detention room “—Elizabeth, hello, coming with her friend, Gilbert.”‌

She was forced to make a smiley face to the podium on behalf of Gilbert’s sulking face.

“Truthfully it was a joy to have you here again. Maria would have felt the same. You might have been clueless about this but she missed you all. She wished to see you again.”‌

Elizabeth was thankful for being clueless, if that’s the case.

“If possible, I would like to hear a word from one of you about Maria. Just share us a story or two about how it’s like to be studying under our dear friend’s warm embrace. So, please, we welcome your presence here.”‌

This time, it was Elizabeth who leaned closer. “She must be running out of words, I can’t believe she’s asking for a formal impromptu speech at times like this.”‌

“She’s just buying times—”

Those cat eyes, unfortunately, landed on them again. This time, specifically on Elizabeth whose sweats turned cold when the headsister nodded at her.

“Miss Elizabeth? You seem to have a lot to say, care to share it with us?”

Elizabeth was too shocked with all the sudden attention on her, as if she had done something so sinful in a church hall and was about to be judged. She shook her head, pushing a wobbling smile to the headsister.

The headsister didn’t catch on that, instead asking for the lector to come after Elizabeth. “She’s a shy kid,”‌ she said to the lector.

So now Elizabeth had a guy tapping on her panic nerves, pressuring her to go up the podium while she continuously said she really didn’t have anything to say.

“What the hell?” Gilbert intervened at some point, his face boiled with wrath. “This is like school all over again! Are we still a student here, getting our ass embarrassingly beaten because we refuse to go in front of the class?! She said no, in case you have a bad hearing day!”

“Sir, please pay attention to your words. We are at—”

“Why her? I‌ heard the headsister mention other names aside from her, can’t you go to them? Maybe they have better speech than her, why don’t you ask them instead?!”‌

“But the headsister specifically requested for her—”

Why specifically her? Because she’s bored and therefore someone must get humiliated for something they don’t want to do only for the sake of stirring things up?”‌

The headsister spoke, her voice was loud and clear as it drew her more attention, as if Gilbert’s loud ass remark wasn’t enough. “Miss Elizabeth? What’s the matter?‌ Come up here and say something. I choose you because I‌ know you adored our Mrs.‌ Anderson so much, just like us.”‌

Elizabeth hissed from the stupid debate. She turned her face away from the lector who’s still on his throat with Gilbert, closing her eyes and ears as tight as possible to block them away. She didn’t want to go there. She didn’t want to speak. What she wanted was to leave.‌‌ Now.

The talks still continued, whispers and murmurs filled up the hall really quick, asking why Elizabeth was so defensive about the whole thing, why the man next to her was so worked up, and why the headsister seemed so pushy. It looked like it could go days and days until she finally gave up, just like back then. When the word ‘yes’ felt like a retreat more than the truth.

In the end, she’s the one sacrificed again. Like Gilbert said, why her?

Elizabeth was tired. She wanted it to end.

Gilbert’s voice, though, broke all the barrier Elizabeth had put herself behind. “Fuck, okay! If you insist, I’ll be the one speaking on her behalf! I-It’s fine, I can bullshit a few words—”

“No, I’ll go.”‌

If they really wanted to crush her so bad, fine, she let them. Because that didn’t matter; there’s also one thing Elizabeth wanted to do before she’s gone.

“Liz, you don’t have to—”

“I came up with something to say.” Elizabeth winked at Gilbert. “I‌ mean, I‌ have to. I adored Mrs. Anderson after all.”

So she walked up to the lectern as the headsister stepped back, a grin of satisfaction looked oddly comforting to Elizabeth instead of intimidating. She wanted her to talk? Well, okay, she’d give her that too.

Elizabeth tapped the microphone, once again drawing the attention back to her, now standing behind the lectern. “Good afternoon, ladies and gent—” the speaker screeched high, blowing Elizabeth’s first line. Everyone in the hall closed their ears in pain.

It startled her a few steps back, until she’s right next to the headsister. When their eyes met, Elizabeth was sure she’d be looking like a mess because of how triumphant the headmaster’s face was.

“Ah, I’m sorry.” She leaned back, making sure her voice was clear enough after some technicians ran to fix the intervention. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Elizabeth, once a student under Mrs.‌ Anderson’s wings. I am now a stamper, thanks to her.”

A sequence of hums filled the room. Elizabeth noticed she was shaking, from legs to arms, voices to eyes. It’s not even a stage fright, she’s not there to stretch the time. Scanning the entire room, she found two most familiar faces sitting anxiously watching her.‌ One was Gilbert, frowning the whole time at her. The other one was Roderich, widened eyes hid beneath thick lenses, observing the slightest of her motion.

Sorry, Roderich, she murmured before progressing to the next lines.

“It was an honor to stand here and share my story. You see, growing up in this community was a lucky opportunity for me. I got to meet a lot of nice people: the sisters, Mrs. Anderson, my friends. It is true that I‌ looked up to Mrs.‌ Anderson a lot, she’s always my role model. When‌ I saw her teaching us, I thought, ah, must be nice to be a teacher. If I didn’t become a stamper, I‌ would have gone for that job for sure.”‌

Now everyone was laughing. It was somewhat glorious to hear it from the altar.

“Every time I have a problem,”‌ she continued, “I would go to Mrs. Anderson. Because she always knew the solution. It’s comforting to know there’s someone on your side in case you messed up. I grew up far away from my parents, so no wonder I‌ saw her like my mom, a person I‌ could count on. That’s how our relationship was, from my point of view.

“Well, except that one case everyone thought I‌ messed up, for once I didn’t.”‌

This was it. She could feel someone glaring a fire to her back.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, neither did Roderich who gave away the photos. But I‌ was brought to the detention room, which later tainted my name and my scholarship opportunity, and interrogated in a manner I was forced to admit that I was wrong. And those were the times I needed Mrs.‌ Anderson to defend me the most, but she—”

“Miss Elizabeth, I‌ think that’s enough—”

“—chose to side with the headsister.”‌

The audiences were now silent. There were faint whispers at most, the rest was shaken up. That included Gilbert, and Roderich himself who just looked down to his feet.

“‌Miss, this is not something appropriate to say in front of the crowd!”‌ The headsister started panicking with her now visible English accent, trying to drag Elizabeth away from the microphone.

Elizabeth yanked her away, purposely leaned closer to the mic as she replied calmly to her. “Ma’am, you were the one who wanted to hear my story. Let me finish it, please?”‌

“Stop it right there—!”

“I was disappointed. Truly.” She sighed, leaving a trail of breath resonating between the growing murmurs. “You said God entrusted us to you, but all you did was to backfire Him by distrusting what was His. If only back then you would listen, then I might still look up to Mrs. Anderson and this whole church.”‌

“Lector! Take her away from here please!‌ She’s mumbling to herself!”‌

The lector tried to grab Elizabeth’s wrist, stopping her from continuing her speech. Another hand wrapped around her other wrist, pulling her stronger to the other side. When she looked back, the grim on Gilbert’s expression was all she saw.

“I’ll take her. Let her go.”‌

***

It’s been four years, yet Gilbert still managed to remember the layout of the building. He led her stealthy, like a pair of thieves they were, tracing the corridors and secret doors by the tip of their toes. A route worth of years of skipping class and running away, Elizabeth didn’t know one day she’d be taking a part on this.

Not that they were students anymore.

She didn’t question him where he took her; she waited until he turned around at her and grinned, kicking a flank on the wall that was supposed to cover up a big hole.

They crawled out from there and it was refreshing to feel the late winter breeze again hitting her face. She was greeted by a familiar sight of rocky rivers, the current was a little less heavy than usual. The riverbank was looking like a barren wasteland now, with no green growing in sight. Well, actually the whole area looked like one if they’re honest enough.

“Welcome back to the playground, I‌ guess.” Elizabeth swallowed back a praise. Gilbert didn’t yet deserve that just because he helped take her away from the altar. “Do you suddenly feel like skipping some stones?”

“Just say you are impressed!”‌ He squatted down, trying to make out the shaking image of his face as proposed by the mirror beneath. “The water is not as much as spring. Must be a little more difficult to toss some stones now.‌”

Elizabeth sat next to him, hugging her knees. “Thanks for taking me away. For a moment I‌ just wished to be anywhere but there.”

He hummed, dropping his ass to the ground, shoulders were now pressed against each other. If only Elizabeth reached out her palm, Gilbert would have found a way to bump his into hers.‌ “Why? Were you embarrassed? I thought you were cool just then.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Really? You’re not saying that to make me feel better, aren’t you?”

He shook his head. “You’re seriously the coolest person ever speaking in public. You blew the crowd away, no one dared to oppose you. Even the headsister. She’s in stroke listening to you.”

That drew a laugh on Elizabeth. Gilbert’s definitely exaggerating. It’s not that she managed to impress everyone by saying out of blue, off trail revelation. They were just too stoned to process what happened, that’s all.

“Then again, I was just all talk. Bombing shits and stuff, for the sake of explosion.” Elizabeth sighed. “It happened long ago in the past, no one bothered to look it up anymore. Besides, I‌ came to speak without evidence. No one is on their right mind to ever take it seriously anyway.”

“Well, you are right.” He groaned, running his hands on those perfect (not anymore) hair. He pushed it down now, just like how it looked like on his usual days—so unattractive. “At least you tried! You speak up!‌ You’re attempting to clear out your name!‌ You show them you’re not the same overly-submissive kid anymore! To me, that’s all that matters.”

That sent a whole jolt to Elizabeth’s nerves. Gilbert be like talking how damn cool and right she was and couldn’t stop, and Elizabeth would get more embarrassed the longer he talked about it, only to realize she’s been counting on the wrong people this whole time. The one who would always be on her side, her most faithful ally, was literally right by her side.

She laughed. Out loud. Like she had never been this past few days. Gilbert stopped talking, probably thinking how ugly she looked when she’s laughing that crazy. “Oh, Gilbert! Are you saying I’m submissive?! What in the world is going in your mind?”

“B-Because you are!” Now even he himself wasn’t sure. “Yes this, yes that, when would you think about yourself? You always took the blame, and all other unwanted responsibility. But do you ever stop and think what is it that you want? You could be mad at Azrael and protesting that he didn’t have any right to tamper with your life duration—you did not have to go along with it!”

“Are you stupid?” Elizabeth half-smacked his head. “Azrael is the Angel of Death. Of course he has the right!”‌

“I mean, he can’t just do that just because heaven is a little bit vacant, not to mention he didn’t ask for your consent first!”

“No, but, did he really need to ask for consent before deciding whether one should die?”

“What I‌ mean is—!”‌ He stood up, now with the face of defeat, gritting his teeth as he found the nearest stone and threw it to the river, earning four flops before the flow washed the stone away.

“That’s a lot!” yelled Elizabeth, pushing to her feet as she tried to find a similar stone, tossed it from above her head and got zero skip. “That’s bare minimum.”

“Four is too few! The world’s highest record is 88!‌ Did you hear that?!‌ 88!”

“Oh? I thought your best was like… five?”

“That was back when I was still eleven!” He scoffed, taking for another stone. “My highest score happened before graduation, it was twenty-like-eight or something. That’s good enough for a river this small. I’ve trained hard for it.”

“Really? I wonder how you passed the AP‌ test.”‌

He didn’t reply to that comment, or more like he wasn’t sure himself how he passed that. Getting into his stance, this time he’s trying for real. Focus, adding strength to the swing. Tightening his grip on the stone, his muscles warmed up quickly as he made a square off.

Elizabeth, of all people, had not let him win apparently. “Remember that one time you fell on your nose, they had to put a bandage on it and suddenly your nose grew? That was around the first time we met, wasn’t it?”

“I didn’t grow a nose!‌ It just became sharper!”‌ He released the stone and it skipped for less than 7 seconds. “That was fifteen!‌ I counted for sure!”‌

“Yeah, good luck on reaching eighty.”‌

“You talked to me! That’s why I failed!‌ Damn it!”‌

He tried again, and it hit twenty.

“Maybe break another nose? People said you tend to be more focused when pain is inflicted.”‌

“Which fake science books did you read last night?” Gilbert breathed out, ambition written all over his gesture. Stripping himself from his tight suit, he loosened up his tie and unbuttoned his sleeves as well as the collar before once again getting into the position. Younger Elizabeth would have scowled at him for being such a big kid but current Elizabeth was worried she might stare a little too long at the sight of messy-clothed Gilbert.

He swung his arm, a little bit lower this time, and released the stone just right as it flopped through the surface.

One… two… five… eleven… sixteen…

It went on and on and on, Elizabeth had lost count. When it almost reached the other side of the bank, the stone sank as deep as Gilbert’s jaw dropped.

“T-THIRTY! I‌‌ GOT‌ THIRTY! THAT’S‌ MY‌ BEST‌ RECORD!”

Elizabeth was about to spit him some mature advice until she saw the glint on his eyes, shimmering like a gem stone under a moonlight—the lift of his facial muscles creating the happiest smile this guy ever made. When she thought about it, it’s been a while since the last time she saw him making such an expression. Probably that time when he won a doll from the last summer festival’s lottery.

In the end, Gilbert was a kid—a grumpy and difficult one—trapped in an adult body. For some reason, it pulled Elizabeth in a way she couldn’t help but to scream as well.

“REALLY? THE‌ FOURTH‌ TRY? YOU’RE A GENIUS!”

“HELL YEAH, I AM!” Gilbert yelled, jumping on his toes. “WHO‌ IS THE HOPELESS KID NOW? NOT ME, HAH!”

They laughed, Elizabeth tore the tears in her eyes, wondering what reason she should be happy for such a useless record. What was coming wasn’t on her list of expectations, though it didn’t even register on her mind until she felt a hard fabric rubbed onto her face, a gentle force pulling her deeper to embrace.

The next thing she knew, she had her head half-leaned to Gilbert’s board shoulder, with the guy himself still jumped out of joy, strong arms locking Elizabeth from behind, his head resting on top of hers, shaking her right and left like a ship in a storm.

She’s sure she’s going to die suffocated if not she pushed him back. It’s not that he hugged her too tight to cause respiratory problems—she would first die suffocated by his overflowing warmth and her erupting feelings.

Poor kid, the push shook Gilbert so much, it stripped all the victorious grins from before. Rather, it looked like he’s not aware of what he did, trembling eyes now looking confused at the sight of blushing Elizabeth.

“Why… why are you pulling me into a hug?!”‌ she protested, crossing her arms before her chest. “Pervert!”

“Why?!”‌ Gilbert stepped back, scratching the back of his neck. He tore his stares away just in time before they lingered too long on her. “I-I was just happy!‌ And I‌ didn’t mean it in any way you imagined! So stop acting like I wronged you!”‌

“What?!”‌ Now the phrase had made things even more difficult and disgusting to talk about. Wronged what?!‌ What did he mean? “Wrong is wrong! You touched me!”

“I only hugged you!‌”‌ Gilbert argued. “Besides, didn’t we hug countless times before? Why making it a big deal now?!”‌

It’s true. It was a usual sight to catch them hugging. When Gilbert’s crying in his room, missing his parents. Or days after Elizabeth’s scandal broke out. Yuriko often pulled them into a group hug, like how it happened during graduation. It was nothing more than a loose bump, numbers of soft pats on the head and back, so much awkward back then since they happened to be as tall as each other. Now, though, Gilbert was a head taller than her, making him the perfect dummy to hug. She’s lying if she said she’s not tempted.

But, could she? Could Elizabeth dare herself to give in…?

“It’s not the same,” she said, as calm as possible through the pounding beneath, “since we have something in between now.”‌

“That’s because I asked you to go out with me?‌ Woah.” Gilbert snorted. “S-Shouldn’t we be doing that kind of thing now? We’re in trial after all.”‌

“Dumbass!‌ I-I‌ told you it’s not that easy!”‌ Elizabeth really didn’t know what to say, so she grabbed her bag and walked away. She didn’t want Gilbert to notice how in-mess she was because of a single hug that supposedly didn’t mean anything.

***

Gilbert managed to catch up to her in the nearest bus station, the same place they got off earlier. He held the door from closing, forcing his way in and tapped his card, eyes immediately searching for that one woman sitting alone, staring empty into the window.

Thankfully the bus was empty that time, otherwise he’d be looking like a pathetic husband asking forgiveness from his superior wife.

“I’m sorry, okay?!” He flung himself to sit next to Elizabeth who couldn’t bear to wear a nicer expression. “That was completely unintentional of me.”‌

“You’re just an idiot,” murmured Elizabeth, still persistent not to pay Gilbert a glance. “I don’t care if you branded it as a friendly hug. For me, it’s different now.”‌

Gilbert hummed, pushing his shoulder deeper to Elizabeth’s territory. “Why? Are you admitting that you like me?”

“I want to hear from you first! Are you even serious about this?!‌”‌ Elizabeth bit back, soon regretting her mouth. Her temper really went wild from the recent incident and all she wanted to do was to lock herself in her flat and slept. Probably cried in the middle. “Don’t think you can play me out just because I only have a little time left.”‌

Gilbert seemed to take time replying to that, he dragged the silence too long. When Elizabeth turned to check on him, he was looking down.

“Is that what you always think? Is that why you’re doubting me?” he said, low and slow.

“You’re the one who is doubting yourself. Otherwise, you would have given me the answer and I‌ wouldn’t suggest to go on a free-trial like this.”‌

“I’m serious, in case you didn’t notice that. I said it before,‌ I don’t joke about this kind of thing.”

“Then say it.” Their eyes met, and they found the same doubt swimming tauntingly, just like two days ago. “Say that you like me.”‌

While Elizabeth was afraid of being taken as a joke, Gilbert still feared the whole ‘all or nothing’ consequences. What would wait for them at the end of the line? What should he face ahead for the decision he made? Many other doubts and thoughts led to days after days hanging Elizabeth with uncertainty.

Gilbert liked her. He loved her.

Once those words came out, consequences followed, all new opportunities he never thought he’d do would unravel before his eyes. Dating with and without those words, of course, had different fallout.

“I like you,” he said, eyes firm onto hers. “I’m serious.”

Elizabeth was taken aback from his bluntness. She might be good at pressing buttons, but she didn’t expect that it would come out this fast. On a country bus, more importantly.

“S-Since when?”

Now that shocked Gilbert. His lips were trembling as he lost his stares for a second there, wandering to find the answer. “I don’t know? Does that matter?”

“Well, now that you don’t know the answer, it becomes a matter to me.”

“Hey,‌ I‌ answered you! How about you? What about you?!”

Elizabeth slumped her back to the seat, taking her face away from Gilbert with a slight huff. The arid lands behind the windows transformed into something more lively with pedestrians and higher buildings.

“Isn’t it obvious?” was what she said.

“You’re avoiding me now!”

Gilbert shifted his body up front so he could see her face. He didn’t expect to see Elizabeth completely covered in red.

“I-It’s rather complicated to be explained.”‌ She shoved him back to his seat, turning her face as far as she could as she pinned him further down to his seat with his arm. Little did she know, Gilbert enjoyed that.

The bus took them back to the hustle of the city, whereas they passed through a district of housing. Kids were walking in their school uniforms, splattering from the gates as if they had been freed from prison. The only thing that made both situations different was the fact they seemed pretty happy and burdenless and had many friends after being released.

Gilbert caught a view of the long yard ahead of him, bordered by short wire fencing a kid could just hop over. Boys were running as the others tried to swing a ball flung at him. The shrill of whistles pierced the cold air of February as the girls cheered from the dugouts. Sweats and adrenaline clashed with the chilly breeze. They were never chased by the balls, but the responsibility itself.

“Do you know what I‌ wanted to be in the future, if not for this stupid job of harvesting souls?‌”‌

Elizabeth looked toward him. “You have a dream?”

“Baseball player.” He pointed at those kids. “Pitcher. I‌ envy them a lot every time they put the show on TV.”‌

“Childish.” Elizabeth chuckled, still looking at the passing yard until the very last of the fences. “Lucia from District 15 is a famous model who still fully works as a stamper too. You just have to find the opportunities and times.”‌

“Who is she again? No—I mean, she has her links!‌ And she’s hella supported by insiders. I ain’t got those!”

“You’re right. If it weren’t for the illicit support, she would have been in trouble for living a double life.” Elizabeth sighed, flattening her lips into a thin line. “I, too, wanted to be something else before.”

“What is it?” Gilbert asked, genuinely this time.

“Kindergarten teacher.”‌

“What?” Before he could laugh any longer than a fume of gasp, he stopped himself to the sudden wrath on behalf of her glares. “Okay. Sounds cool. You’re good with them. Kids,‌ I‌ mean.”‌

“And none of it matters anymore because of this job!”‌

“And we still have to bow to Him who chased our dream away. Thank Lord for the rain! I guess.”‌

“Stop that!” Elizabeth smacked him in the mouth. “Doesn’t mean we can insult God for not giving us what we wanted. Someone had to do this job after all.”‌

“Not us, of all people. He has shit tons of army and still chooses sinful humans to do His work, then blames us for crossing the lines. What di‌d He expect anyway?”

“Sacrifice is regardless important,” Elizabeth replied calmly, as if she learnt it from the bible. “Think about what happens if you’re on a mound right now and I become a teacher. Two different fields working so far away, not knowing that they could have met if they choose to take this stupid job.”‌

“I—” Gilbert strangely had no counter to that.

“In the end, I want to believe that everything happens for a reason. That God isn’t just playing up there and He knows what the hell is He doing to us right now, no matter how painful or joyful we’re told to feel. Because—” the fists on her lap tightened “—there’s no other possible explanation to why are we suffering for so long to this day if not for that.”‌

The sound of the wheels underneath them went off, replacing the hush of anger earlier. There was no way to make out her face right now with those conveniently falling long hair, but Gilbert just knew.

That she’s as frustrated as him. Just a little bit to the denial side.

“Hey.” He found a way to her hand, wrapping his into hers. “You’re hungry?”

Elizabeth looked up, using her other hand to wipe away something out her eyes. They were red. “Am I?”

“Do you want some Chinese? I‌ know a good restaurant.” Tracing her palm lines until both fingers met, Gilbert locked the lace and his gaze. “I used to live around here. This is my hometown.”‌

Elizabeth didn’t say anything for a long second. Those frowning eyes kept steady at the area between Gilbert’s eyes, not sure what she saw but that’s definitely not the matter right now.

She shook her head and withdrew her hand. “Sounds good. We’ll drop out here?”

“Yo, what the hell? You resist me?”‌

“I‌ mean—” She pushed him away softly, making a disgusted face “—we’re not official yet! I don’t want to jump into something so uncertain.”‌

“What do you mean ‘uncertain’? Have I yet to make it clear for you?”‌

“We’ll drop out here!” She stood up, squeezing herself out of the seat row and totally walked over Gilbert who’s wasted by her weight there.

Gilbert sighed and chased after her, like a boy chasing his crush on a late school bus. Mumbling things like, please slow down, I’m bad at understanding you so at least tell me what’s going on—until he saw her blanking in front of the bus stop; he almost bumped into her if not for the sight of two people passing by with their hands full of grocery bags.

Recognition started to register, both parties straight froze at their place.

Gilbert’s jaw dropped, as well as theirs.

“YouDad?!”‌

***

Elizabeth met them a couple times, when they visited Gilbert at the church back then. She didn’t think much of them, other than knowing that those figures were the ones who always made that tough brat crying silently at nights, even when she always thought they were pretty nice.

She envied Gilbert for this. At the same time, she’s glad for how things turned out for him.

They ended up having lunch together at the Chinese restaurant Gilbert promised earlier, and Elizabeth could recall every moment how similar events like this happened in the past. They brought food to the church for him, Elizabeth, and Yuriko. They advised them with every advice they could come up within the short thirty minutes visit. They took care of both Elizabeth and Yuriko like their own daughters. This time was no different, except their hair had turned grey and wrinkles started to fill their face, the office suits those two used to wear for the visit were replaced with comfy cardigans and grandpa sweaters.

Nonetheless to say, they were still the same needy mother and father Gilbert threw his face away from.

“You didn’t say that you’re passing our house!‌ If so, we’d ask you to come by and we could probably have a little feast or something!” said Mrs. Bernhagen, pointing her chopsticks at him. His father nodded firm beside her, slurping his tofu bowl.

“I didn’t plan to drop here at first, no need to ghost me over this!” Gilbert replied mouth-fully, pouring the last soup into his bowl like he’s in a battle with his father or something. “And I‌ have work! As you can see, I’m a professional at my field—”

“Nah, he lied. He said he’s planning to crash and sleep for the rest of the day after this,”‌ Elizabeth said, putting down her plate.

“LIZ, YOU—!”

“There you two again.”‌ Mrs. Bernhagen massaged the bridge of her nose. “I missed you all. But not like this.”‌

Mr. Bernhagen nodded again, this time finishing off his tea.

“Where are you from, anyway?‌ Dressing black like that?” She raised her eyebrows. “Are you two dating?”

That coughed a liter of soup out from Gilbert and Elizabeth. It was already painful enough not to look like they’d been having heart-to-heart conversation on the bus earlier.

“NO!” they screamed in unison, almost too immediate for Mr. Bernhagen not to drop his chopsticks and looked startled as the rest of them.

Gilbert cleared his throat, taking the initiation. “I mean—just finished attending a funeral. Someone from the church died and we’re only there because we’re once her student.”

“Oh my!”‌ His mother gasped. “Someone from the church? Was it one of your sisters? Dear Lord, why didn’t you tell me too?!‌ We could have shown up and paid a condolence! Especially to the headsister!”‌

“For that reason alone, I didn’t want to let you know anything,.” Gilbert sighed, the appetite started to wear off. “It’s not like they were heroes or something.”‌

“They were your teachers, Gilbert. Teachers are heroes!”‌

Sadly, that’s not always the case, Elizabeth would like to butt in, but decided to stay silent and let Gilbert defend her in some ways.

“Yes, until they let you down too often, you’re starting to question your belief.” Gilbert drank his tea. “Anyway, it’s just a death.”‌

Now it’s their turn to spit out their drinks. They looked up in sync, chopsticks and beans were falling from their hands.

“Huh?

“Ah, I‌ remember something—!” Elizabeth chewed as fast as she could in an attempt to save Gilbert’s stupid ass again. “How’s your house? Has the flood gone down already?”

Her attention shifted to Elizabeth. “What flood, honey?”‌

“A-Ah, that time you hurried to meet Gilbert when we’re still in class. Gilbert told me that your house was flooded.” She forced a small laugh. “But that happened a long time ago. Surely it has gone down already. Haha, forget it.”

“Right, thankfully it has.” Mrs. Bernhagen returned a laugh. “You grow up beautiful, Liz. Although I‌ always think of you one. Thank you for taking care of our Gilbert. He’s such a pain, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he is.” She chuckled, earning a snort from the man next to her. He really is.

All the serves were almost empty by the time Elizabeth put her attention back to the table, mainly because of all of the unnecessary competition between Gilbert and his father during their talk. Hesitantly and secretly, Elizabeth took the last mayonnaise shrimp, away from two pairs of hungry eyes.

“Ah! I‌ remember! I was about to text, you know.”

“About what?”‌ Gilbert slurred with that much food he chewed while still managed to casually steal a kung pao from Elizabeth’s plate.

“It’s your aunt’s wedding next month. You see, she has found someone to settle down last year and it’s about time. Think you can make it to her invitation?”‌

“Next month?” He hummed. “I‌ don’t know yet. I can get quite busy too, you know.”‌

“Well, you can still text me your RSVP towards the day. I really hope you’ll empty your schedule for that.”

“Look,‌‌‌ it’s not something I‌ can decide by myself. These dudes are pretty strict with work and personal stuff. So if I‌ don’t drop a news, you know I’m not going.”‌

“Gilbert, it doesn’t hurt to call me to say you’re not going—” Elizabeth was quite startled when she turned at her “—I really hate to ask you for something he should have done, I’m sorry we’re like this all the time.”

“Ah, it’s not—”

“You’re invited too, Liz. You’re like a family to us.” She smiled, snatching Gilbert’s chopstick away so he stopped eating. “I’m sure you come if Liz also comes.”‌

“She can’t come,” he snarled. “After all, she’ll be—”

“—transferred!” Elizabeth felt a sheer panic running through her vein, immediately resorted to stepping on Gilbert’s below the table. He groaned and was about to yell at her until he saw her glaring at him.

Let me, her eyes said to him.

“I’m moving away by the end of this month.”‌

“Oh? To where? You alone?”‌

“U-Uh, they haven’t decided yet. But it has to be somewhere far. And yeah, it’s a little bit sudden.”‌

Mrs. Bernhagen gasped again, grabbing Elizabeth’s hand. It was warm, the same warmth she received back on the bus to here. “Honey, are you going to be okay? Aren’t you scared going somewhere you don’t even know? Can you just reject it?”

Elizabeth smiled, returning her warmth. Heaven was surely a place she didn’t expect. Though deemed safe and peaceful, it’s still a new place for her. Exploring and getting to know could be quite scary for some people. “I’ll be alright, Mrs. Bernhagen. I’m scared, but there will be kind people who help me adjust things, I’m sure about it.”‌

Just like their first day together. The lonely boy and the outskirt girl; crossing their paths onto each other.

“I still can’t believe it,”‌ Mrs. Bernhagen said, eyes curving to the sight of Elizabeth. “That’s too soon. If we know earlier, we could have arranged a trip together to send you away.”

“You don’t have to, it’ll be too much of a bother!”‌

“What are you talking about? Of course you deserve that!” Her chopsticks slid to Gilbert now. “And you, Gilbert! See what am I talking about? Why don’t you tell us about this? You never tell us about anything—it makes me crazy to know a lot has changed. I’m your mother and he is your father, we just want to know that you’re okay and not lacking anything!”‌

A clang of utensils, the son raised to speak up. “So what if I’m not okay and lacking everything? Are you guys going to make any difference?”

“Gilbert!”‌

Call me, give me news, talk to me, and all that shit you’re telling me to do. But where were you the night when she‘s gone? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you take me home to see her and instead leaving me alone in that doom of hell, all miserable and feeling like the worst person ever?!”

“Oh, I thought we’re over this! We couldn’t do anything, Gilbert!‌ There were some unwritten rules by the church we had to follow, and sacrifices needed to be made!”‌

Right, sacrifices.

Does it ever cross on you” Gilbert squeezed his fist, blinking his eyes away from the person he talked to “that it still hurts after years? After countless deaths I’ve witnessed, yet the one I didn’t see is the most painful one?”

“Drop the act, sweetie. She never wants you to be like this. It’s been years already and you shouldn’t let it rule over your head for that long!”‌

“Shut up, you don’t understand. Well, you’re not my mom anyway.”

“ENOUGH!” Elizabeth jolted out of her chair when Mr. Bernhagen stood up and slammed the table. His previously nonexistent presence now was overbearing all over the room as he began glaring at Gilbert with his blowing red nose and breaths getting caught in between his teeth. “No one raised you to talk back so carelessly like that. Fucking grow up, Gilbert. There’s too little time for a redemption arc in this life. The only one prolonging your suffering is yourself. So get it together, you sick kid.”‌

Today Elizabeth just gained knowledge that 1)‌ Mrs. Bernhagen, in fact, wasn’t Gilbert’s mother; and 2)‌ Mr. Bernhagen was the beast of anger. Like literally. He made Gilbert shut up. The atmosphere was too cold to be taken lightly as the two of them looked like they were about to murder each other..

“Now, now, darling. Come down here, won’t you?” Mrs. Bernhagen caressed the length of her husband’s arm. “Gilbert is not wrong. I wasn’t here from the start, of course there’s something I‌ have yet to understand. Well, maybe if he decided to open up, then I’ll gladly try to understand.”‌

“There’s nothing to talk about between us—”

“You can always drop a ‘hi’ at us. It doesn’t hurt at all. Not necessarily to make me happy, but I will surely be. Your father, too.”

His mother—or more like stepmother—smiled.

“And your mother in heaven too, of course.”‌

***

Gilbert’s parents divorced when he was eight, barely understanding the concept of marriage itself other than two people taking turns in taking care of him. He was closer to his mother; it was quite a devastating moment to know his father won his custody. Not long afterward, he remarried and soon the Bernhagen family became complete again.

Except that the son didn’t feel the same way. Somewhere in his heart hollowed.

Apparently his biological mother was seriously ill by the time Gilbert was sent to the church. His parents didn’t let him know that she’s been stamped. Even after her death, Gilbert bore no knowledge at all. It wasn’t until one of the kinder sisters told him in secret, he forced his way to the telephone box and dialed the number home, his heart broke to hear his stepmother greeted him like nothing happened.

The picture he held crying at nights was the last family picture he took with his mother.

“You never told me about this,”‌ Elizabeth mumbled when they’re back at the bus stop where it all started. Ten minutes, it said, until the next bus.

Gilbert snorted. “Not a very pleasant memory to share with people.”‌

“You can at least give me a heads-up,” Elizabeth grunted. “See?‌ This is your problem. You’re bad at opening up.”

“Oh, now you shut up too.”

“Do I have a say? I‌ thought you’ve gone too far earlier. To your stepmother,‌ I‌ mean. She loves you, the same way your biological mother loved you.”‌

“What do you know? She only wants my father,” Gilbert scowled. “I’ve never in her pictures, neither in my fathers recently.”

“Right, I don’t know. But how come you reach that conclusion?” Elizabeth bit back, pushing him off the seat. “Go back and say your sorry.”

“Liz, what the hell! Don’t—” he brushed off her hand, a little bit too harsh for such a casual push “—I‌ don’t want to! Even if I have to, I’ll just knock their door and shout the loudest and angriest sorry ever, kick their window and off I‌ go!‌ Don’t act like you understand me now.”‌

Elizabeth fell silent as a heavy sigh came out aggressively. He looked up and blinked his eyes several times, face red with rushing blood beneath. After a long time, this was the closest thing Elizabeth ever was, to see Gilbert tearing up.

Well, almost.

“Sorry,” he muttered, after a long drag of nothing. “I just remember to go somewhere. You can go back alone, don’t you?”

Elizabeth was a little taken aback with the abrupt change of plan, but she nodded and let the man push his feet and cross the road before him, waving her a goodbye after he arrived at the other side. She grumbled for being left alone, but decided it was foolish to force him to stay with her. With that emotion erupting the heart that had never been taught to express itself, wise enough for him to take the first step and go.

She leaned back, straightening her sore feet as eyes trailing the moving clouds above her. It was grey and gloom, much the same as the sky she peeked through her dusty window when she was nine. She didn’t understand whatsoever what the adults in the living room were arguing for, one thing she knew and implanted deep within her at such a young age; neither of them wanted to keep her.

“Just drop her at some orphanage if you don’t want to take the blame!”

“She’s too big for that! Don’t you think it’ll be easy for the police to track us?! Abandonment of child, they’ll say, huh?”

“I told you to fucking dispose her when she was born!‌ Why you gotta keep her until now?!”

“Because I thought you might want to take responsibility of her!‌”

“I don’t!”

It was suffocating. Little Elizabeth closed her eyes and wished she could just join those vague creatures she often saw passing the street once or twice during the day and often during night. They seemed dead, and fun.

“The church said what?”

“She is gifted. They told us to give her to them. Serving God or whatever. They’d be dropping us some monthly ‘gratitude’ if we agree.”‌

“Yeah, whatever! Let’s just send her there!‌‌ Tell the church we’ll be giving all of her to them, so no need to return her back if they have enough.”

“I don’t think that is possible, unless we send her far, far away.”

“Deal, then. Transfer her to the farthest church you can find and make sure we won’t meet her again.”

The laugh, the last she heard of them, was the ugliest thing Elizabeth ever doomed to experience. She was glad when they really dropped her in a foreign land she had zero knowledge of, having no friends or someone she could trust by default. Scary, but thrilling, and refreshing. She inhaled freedom for the first time in a place Gilbert labeled as a confinement.

Of course she didn’t understand anything about parents’ love for it was something she barely received. One thing she understood deeply, however, was how to tell the difference between the real ones and the scum ones.

If she were him, she’d treasure what's still left on her.


Time remaining: 13 days.

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