To the stars that we never really owned as ours (The Head and the Heart – Honeybee)
It was damn early in the morning. Gilbert swore this would be the last time he ever spared his sleeping time to actually visit the headquarter. Not to mention his shift was over long ago. Only because he couldn’t sleep last night, he assured himself.
The hall leading to the main room was long, Gilbert didn’t remember for the walk to be this far. He had not visited for a while after all. A few lamps through the corridor were dead, leaving only his intuition to get it right. The end of the hall was approaching—Gilbert might have missed it along the way.
“I expect you to look for me, but not this early.”
He turned around to find the right person peering at him, a glass of coffee at her hand. Gilbert exhaled, his feet gave up.
“Where the hell is your room?! Did you move?”
Yuriko shook her head, barely visible. “It’s not even on this floor.”
“Shit. Sorry. You found me, anyway.”
“The guard told me. I figured out you must be lost. This is the who-knows-how-long-since-last-time visit of yours to the headquarter. I’ll be damned if you still remember.”
“Ha! I remember the cafeteria and toilet!”
“They moved it, by the way.”
Yuriko coughed between her laughs. Elizabeth was right, she didn’t look very good. The work drill hit her close this time. “We should talk. I want to clear out something.”
“I’ve heard a little,” he cut her immediately. “Azrael ordered you. You couldn’t just reject him. He’s your—our—boss. He’s not even a human. We are his workers.”
“That’s true. But I could just say no, or refuse politely. He’d understand.”
Gilbert clicked his tongue. He somewhat knew where this was going. “You thought it was for the best.”
Yuriko nodded. “They’re trying to promote her to be a guardian angel. So the first step is to have her dead to be sent to heaven. I was reluctant to agree on this, but seeing Elizabeth felt so torn after stamping people—I couldn’t help myself. Perhaps she’s never happy killing people. The more I thought, she’s more fitting to become a guardian angel rather than a reaper, don’t you think?”
“It’s... everyone feels the same too. Doesn’t mean she’s unhappy with—”
“She doesn’t have to put up a facade if she becomes an angel. True, it is for the best. She doesn’t have to suffer anymore from being born special. Do you know much she wanted to be a normal human who went to college instead of learning how to bring death to people?”
Gilbert didn’t know that. He always thought this was the pathway God had chosen for his behalf that he couldn’t refuse. He didn’t even bother going to school, his parents sent him straight away to the church and had him learn various things about this ‘bringing death to people’ thingy. He always thought that’s what happened to everyone who was born the same as him.
But... Elizabeth wanted to go to college and live normally?
“Gilbert,” Yuriko called. “I only tried to help you. We’re running out of time. This sunrise her mark will decrease by one. You might regret everything if you still act the way you do now.”
“You won’t get to say goodbye properly if all you do is fool around. She’s opening her heart for you, you know. Make her happy. This is the last chance.”
Gilbert wanted to laugh. He didn’t even ask this. These people were the one who shoved it to his throat. Yet they still pushed him around and blamed him everything, as if it’s Gilbert’s fault things turned out this way.
His laugh burst. He had enough.
“Why should I? If anyone out there who should be by her side, isn’t it supposed to be you? Didn’t you feel remorse at all stamping her out of her knowledge? I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t even feel anything toward her. She’s none of my concern. Now stop bugging me into thinking I ever liked her.”
Yuriko blinked at him. The coffee on her hand trembled a bit. She forced it to stay calm. “I did feel regret. But someone had to stamp her.”
“Fuck that. Don’t excuse yourself—”
“If she’s really none of your concern, why did you run all the way here in the dawn to ask me? You could just leave her to die and rot.”
“I’m asking you why—”
“—why—how could you do that to your own friend? You don’t get to define what’s happiness for her—”
No good, if he kept going, he’d lose it.
“—you don’t just decide what’s best for her just because you feel like it—”
Did he even know what’s best for her, though?
“—Damn it, Yuriko! I trust you.”
“I trust you too, Gilbert.” A sheer lift at her tone, her grip on her coffee clenched. “That’s why I ask you to take care of her. A month is not that long. You should learn to treasure every day from now on.”
“How about you?! You just leave after everything you did?!”
“I’ll visit once in a while.” She pulled a smile far from her eyes. He never saw her that sad before. “See you around.”
Sometimes he forgot they were only humans. Mortal humans. One day he’d be stamped too. He’d go through that 30 days knowing he’d be dead shortly. He’d be meeting a grim reaper that was not himself, asking to confirm his name and death time. He had someone laid their hands on top of him, wishing him a peaceful rest as they sent him off.
Life and death were two sides of the same coin. Stuck forever back-to-back, but never saw each other. Meant only one thing, but never facing the same direction. They were inseparable as well as inescapable.
Gilbert had waited an hour before the prior time, sitting at a hospital bench and letting himself be poured by the dreary light above. He could hear a faint cry from the room in front of him; an old lady crying for his husband. Gilbert thought it was a nuisance. They stamped him a month ago, yet his wife still couldn’t let him go even after being given such time. Wasn’t that the function of the stamp?! Didn’t they make use of the notice?!
He stood up once the minute and second hit zero, pulling in his hood of his jacket and casually pushing off the door to find the husband standing next to his deathbed, facing his not-breathing-anymore body. His wife still cried on him, cupping his face as she roared the word, ‘I love you, I love you still,’ again and again. Gilbert shrugged at the sight. It wasn’t the first time seeing this but every time he did, it always left him wondering.
“Mr, uh, Reaper. Should I be meeting you?”
Ah, he forgot about him.
“Yes. You must be Mr. Smith.” He bowed down. “I am Gilbert, your assistance onward. You died on February 13th at 9:41 AM for the cause of lung cancer. You have lived a good life. You may now relish everything and move to the next stage of life.”
“Ah.” the old man was stunned. “Now that I think about it, I haven’t lived a good life after all.”
Gilbert tilted his head. “Is there anything wrong, sir?”
“I left my wife sad even though we promised to part with smiles.”
“It’s a natural response of being sad. It means she cares and loves you.”
“But it’s still no good. If she still breaks down after the whole 30 days countdown, she really can’t live without me at all. And that’s what scared me the most.”
Gilbert turned around to watch her drops into her knees, reverting to a quieter sobs as her other hands moved blindly to press the help button. She tried to be as calm as possible, reporting what had happened before the other side of the line comforted her and told her to wait for the nurses. She got up and wiped her tears off. It was faster than any breakdown Gilbert ever witnessed; he wondered if she overheard him and her husband talking behind her back that she forced herself to be a steel now.
“Look, she’s fine now. She can totally live without you.”
“She’s fine now because she chose to. The nurses are about to come after all. She doesn’t like being seen crying by other people.”
Gilbert turned at him instead, irritated yet had not forgotten to be polite. “I’m sorry, but what can we do for you to be assured she’s going to be okay? Because according to the law, I have to send you off now.”
“Can I talk a walk outside?”
“Sir, you’re a soul now—”
“You may join me. I have no intention to escape.”
Gilbert didn’t believe this. Walking down the hospital’s garden with a dead man next to him, telling him old tales of a love story. About how a man and a woman met at a literature class. About how they fell in love by the slight touch of their fingers when they exchanged books. About how they got married and moved uptown with three kids, all success and beautiful. About their dream to go on a road trip together but failed because the man’s health weakened. About how she waited for him everyday at the hospital, praying so he could get better and drive. About how she learned how to drive on his behalf so she could take him for a trip later. About how her ‘I love you’ kept him from losing his mind.
“How many souls do you have to harvest today?”
“Ten in total,” Gilbert replied shortly. “Twelve as a penalty for getting the souls late.”
“You are a human too, right?”
“How does it feel to be able to pick up souls everyday?”
Gilbert wasn’t sure what to react to that question. He could just say the truth; he didn’t feel anything special since it’s his everyday job. But the old man might get scared about how bland he was, so Gilbert made a quick answer for him—the textbook answer. “I was sad to know a beautiful life has ended. But death is how the world managed its system so it is surely inevitable.”
“Have you ever lost someone important then, as a part of the inevitable system?”
The answer was no until yesterday, it could have changed now. Gilbert was too scared to find out. “I might.”
“Did you treasure the remaining days with that person?”
“Why did you ask?”
The old man stopped once they reached the end of the garden pathway. Gilbert stopped later, a few steps ahead, turning to see the man frowning at him. It’s not the frown of confusion, for sure.
It’s probably the pity one.
“You looked like you were having a rough day.”
His eyes widened. “I don’t—”
“Your face looked like my wife’s during our last 30 days.”
Gilbert didn’t know how big Elizabeth’s eventual death had affected him. He thought it didn’t matter because the end was already decided anyway and that he’s going to be just fine like how it’s been. Sure, what Yuriko did still pissed him. He’s sad, knowing a long partner of his soon would be nothing more than name. But that’s it.
His body said differently, though.
And it had to be noticed by a dead person of all people.
“Young man, it’s a lifetime lesson,” the old man said, taking a step toward Gilbert. “I’m way more lucky than you. We lived a good 40 years of marriage. We have done everything we never thought we could. Nevertheless, every good book has to end. Today is the last chapter.
“Yours, however, is still ahead though not long. So make sure to wrap it up nicely. Not all stories are rewarded to receive a sequel.”
The hood fell back to his neck when he found the deceased man’s wife sitting on the corridor’s bench. She’s all curled up, palms covering her face, shoulder’s going up and down in a rather quick pace. When she noticed his presence, she looked up and met his eyes. The man’s right; she’s not looking fine at all.
“Mrs. Smith,” Gilbert called, making sure his voice dipped soft as it could. “Deep condolence for your husband. He’s in a better place now.”
Mrs. Smith wiped the bubbling tears on her lids. She took a deep breath before pushing to her feet, bowing down to Gilbert. “Glad to hear that.”
“No need to be so formal. I was... Mr. Smith’s student. He left me a message for you.”
Mrs. Smith’s eyes grew widened before reverting back to her usual soft edges. She asked him to sit, waiting a good second for Gilbert to carefully sort out the words. In all his professionalism and greatness, Gilbert had to admit; talking heart to heart to a post-heartbroken person was never his specialty, even when he only ought to deliver a few words.
"I had left all my love for you to stay in this world. Therefore, all you have to do is to return my love back by living well until the end. I have never really gone anywhere, to be frank, I just moved forever to reside in your heart. That’s okay, right?" Gilbert swallowed, his mouth itched from saying all those unusual sentences. “That’s everything he said. Forgive me if I deliver it wrong.”
It was a cold silence until Mrs. Smith laughed. Tears were once again flowing down her cheeks, yet she didn’t sob anymore. Gilbert thought he made a mistake by making Mr. Smith’s final message sound like a stand up comedy.
“John, oh my Lord, I swear...” She brushed away the remaining tears, a smile reached the beam of her cheeks. It’s like watching a rainbow unfolding before your eyes. “He’s not a good poet. Did he ever read his poem in front of your class before? Don’t pick up on him. He’s cheesy. Forty years ago I told him he’d never win a woman’s heart with that cliche.”
Gilbert blinked, not sure what to take. “I think they were good poems, nonetheless.”
“They were,” she replied. “I just realized, forty years after I married him.”
Relationships are like gardens, the man told Gilbert shortly before he sent him off. You couldn’t expect them to grow well by themselves; they’d grow into weeds if you left them be. You had to water them everyday and give them all the attention needed. If you forgot once, they’d forgive you. If you forgot twice, their heart would break. Even so, they still loved you. If you forgot a lot and eventually left, they’d wither. Now you gotta do something to fix it, or else you’d lose them.
“Some flowers stay, though, while the others turn into weed. That’s when you know they’re special. Treasure them, they might not survive it next time,” that old man said.
Out the corner of his eyes, a black figure came up from the end of the corridor. Gilbert had just finished his talk with Mrs. Smith a while ago, and he could feel a lightning strike him when he saw her. Even worse when he knew she’s here not to get him.
“Mrs. Smith, am I right?” the figure said, just when Mrs. Smith was about to pack her things. “Do you have a moment?”
Gilbert’s eyes lingered at the slight brush of her hands with Mrs. Smith’s arm. He immediately left, eyes suddenly got heavier knowing what would happen next.
Gilbert was supposed to move to another place afterward, but he didn’t. Instead, he waited at the hospital’s entrance, watching the smoke of his breath be blown away by the winter breeze. Though she didn’t make him wait that long.
“Are you waiting for me? My my~ how rare.”
Gilbert flinched when she pushed him a bit, the politeness earlier directed to Mrs. Smith had shifted to something more casual, and rude. Well, the same goes for him, then. “You had a really bad timing today.”
“Her husband just died, right?” She exhaled. “She’d be meeting him soon anyway, what’s with that ugly face? I thought you didn’t have any empathy regarding this kind of thing.”
“I still don’t. Don’t get me wrong.”
Elizabeth smiled, and it’s the warmest thing Gilbert saw today. “She talked a lot about you. She said when you came to say those words, you looked like an angel. Or sort of. I tried my best not to laugh.”
“Angel?” Gilbert now the one burst into laughter. “Right when I’m a literal reaper?!”
“I know, right. What did you say to her, by the way, for her to adore you that much?”
“Something about those who got left behind. They—” He shook his head. Why the hell she needed to know everything. ”—nevermind. I’m going home.”
“What the hell?! Gilbert, wait!” She caught him in the arm just in time. The ghost of the touch tingled after she let it off. “Jeez, you waited for me then you left as you wish!”
“I’m only here to get some air. Don’t make assumptions by yourself then get disappointed by it!”
“I really wished you’re waiting for me outside. So at least you can just say yes and let me be happy for once!”
“I don’t care about your happiness.”
Elizabeth was now glaring at him. Gilbert felt guilt fluttering up in his stomach.
“Look, I—” her stares softened ”—I was wondering if you had work tonight. There’s a new restaurant by the end of the street that I really want to try and Yuriko can’t seem to make it, so...” They were trailing up to meet Gilbert’s. “If you’re being kind enough today, that’s it.”
That’s new; Elizabeth asking him to have dinner with her? She’d usually gone with Yuriko. Well, she did say Yuriko couldn’t make it—
Fool. It’s just her scheme to trick him. She had to be short on money for asking a guy to dinner. How cheap.
“Fine.” Wait, what. “Meet you there. Just don’t forget to send me the address later then expect me to come.”
Too late. Before Gilbert could process what his tongue had let out, Elizabeth’s face had beamed up into something so blinding; it could be the end of the world anytime. She grabbed his hands and squeezed them, muttering thousands of thank you before going off by her own.
The same kind of emotion once again whirled inside his stomach. This time, he really fucked up for sure, Gilbert thought.
Elizabeth was a special flower, indeed, for holding on to a jerk like him.
When Mr. Smith passed his message to his wife through him, Gilbert felt like that man was also talking to him. It was tough to remember those lines exactly the way he said it. Once it clicked, however, Gilbert could feel all the words resonate with every fiber of his being—about how fitting the situation was. It might be a pure coincidence, though.
Or so he thought.
Was it ever a coincidence, everything that happened so far in this world?
Sometimes he wondered if God had also planned some fates to a grim reaper like him.
Well, then again, there’s Elizabeth.
He ended up coming first and waiting for half an hour, beat thumping heavily in anticipation. The restaurant didn’t have many customers yet by the time he arrived, but now that he’s done scrolling through his phone in boredom and actually looked around, he noticed a few things; 1) there’s a lot more customers coming just before dinner hours; 2) the interior was really nice with their cozy 90′s aesthetics and classic vinyl playing jazz in the background; 3) this restaurant was a dating spot, apparently. Gilbert couldn’t stop squinting at every couples who passed by his table, holding hands like a fucking lovebird they were.
And all of those people, Elizabeth had yet to appear.
“Sir, have you decided what to order?” One of the waitresses who had been peering at him earlier started to get impatient. Amazing, Gilbert thought, she was literally blushing despite him not doing anything. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“Yes, I am.” Gilbert checked on his watch. The air felt more suffocating as time flew; he’d rather lie on his bed now if he knew she’s going to be this infuriating. The waitress, however, flinched after his short reply. “I was, actually. Might order a take away since I have to go.”
“Oh, that’s okay too.” Her eyes lit up though her tone showed empathy. “Your friend isn’t coming?”
Gilbert flipped through the menu. His appetite had drained due to being irritated for too long. Even french fries felt like a little too heavy for his own liking now. What else could he do? Going out of the restaurant after sitting for like 40 minutes without ordering anything seemed kind of rude. “Well, she’s always been a disappointment, not surprising at all. What’s today’s recommendation?”
“You ain’t ordering without me, bastard!”
The voice had Gilbert almost fell from his chair. Rapid footsteps getting closer until she showed up in front of him, surprising the hell out of the poor waitress. Gilbert couldn’t say he’s not surprised too.
While Gilbert went straight from work to the restaurant, not bothering about what to wear or how messed up his hair looked now, Elizabeth was... surely not what he expected. She had her winter coat hanging on her arms, revealing a white dress no one would wear in winter, her fringe was braided neatly and tugged to the other side of her ear, rose lips pouting as white heels knocking at the floor. For a while, Gilbert forgot how to breathe.
He also forgot Elizabeth was mad.
“Uh, a-are you his friend...?”
“What? No.” She pulled a chair in front of Gilbert and sat, eyes trailing on Gilbert’s never ending shocked face which grew even more shocked now that she grabbed his hands and laced their fingers together. “I’m his date.”
Gilbert coughed. The waitress almost dropped her pen; she quickly pulled herself together, disappointment smeared obvious across her face. The glow up on her eyes and the faint flush on her cheeks turned into another red of embarrassment. “Can I take your order now?”
“I heard you serve parfait for free for couples. I want one.”
Gilbert swore, this would be the last time he’s ever got fooled by a woman. Of course she asked him out for dinner for free food! Not to mention she’s using him for her advantage. He should just—
And he hated himself for being unable to get mad at it. Hated himself so much, for enjoying the sudden warmth her hands gave.
The waitress left shortly afterward, probably what she’s been eager to do since Elizabeth came. Elizabeth immediately withdrew her hand, and Gilbert found himself already missing her. They sat there, staring at each other without words until she tilted her head, hair brushing her exposed neck.
“Am I that pretty for you to can’t help but to stare?”
Darting his eyes, Gilbert felt blood rushing to his head. “This is a co-workers dinner session, as far as I can recall, not a date or party.”
“Yes, it is! Who said I wanted to date you?! I only want the parfait!”
“So why dressed like that?! You got me almost leaving for waiting you braiding that ugly hair and choosing your dress... probably.”
“Okay, that one is my fault! I didn’t look at the time when I was doing some make-up. But I don’t need any specific reason to look pretty on some occasions, do I?! And if I really want the parfait, I have to work hard for it by going all-out since you wouldn’t bother looking like you’re going on a date or something.”
“Again, this is a co-workers dinner session.” Gilbert dared himself to look at her again, this time admitting how fitting the white dress with her make-up. She looked like spring in the midst of winter; fresh and bright. The numbers were slightly peeking through the tip of her dress. Ah, he forgot that too. “I want to talk to you.”
“Perfect.” Elizabeth smiled, going along with the shift of mood. “I also want to talk to you.”
“I thought you only wanted the parfait.”
“That’s...!” She swallowed. “Another thing. Can I go first?”
The parfait and Gilbert’s Americano came. They sat in odd silence, waiting for the servant to finish his job and leave. Elizabeth casually picked the cherry from her parfait and ate it. Gilbert looked away again, not wanting to see the provoking sight.
“I heard you talked with Yuriko this morning.” That information alone was enough to have Gilbert’s attention back at her. Elizabeth continued, “Yuriko said you were super mad.”
“I wasn’t!” Gilbert snapped, then quickly regretted it. “I mean, I wasn’t mad that she stamped you. I was mad after... hearing her reason.”
“You mean Azrael’s reason?”
Gilbert’s eyes widened in mention of that name. “You know?”
“Actually—” she sipped her drink, whipped cream stuck everywhere on her face including the bridge of her nose ”—I met with him this morning.”
“Woah,” he replied dryly, barely keeping his shit inside. “That was fast.”
“He’s handsome. I can’t take my eyes off him.”
“Rumor got him right. He’s charming. A prince on his white horse. No men in this world can keep up with—”
“I don’t want to hear that! What did you discuss with him?!”
Elizabeth pulled her chair closer to the table as she rose to close the distance between. Meanwhile, Gilbert couldn’t stop watching the cream on her nose. It’s distracting, as if she’s herself not distracting enough.
“The world is getting crueler. Heaven needs more guardian angels to guide these poor, kind people. They usually pick from a deceased soul, but lately there were less souls to meet up the condition. So they began to run a search on both stampers and reapers department. I was one of the chosen.” Her voice was lowered until it’s nothing more than a whisper, yet they sounded loud and clear in Gilbert’s head.
“Maybe if they lower their condition enough for more souls to get in, they won’t get themselves into trouble. So practically, it is their fault.”
“Yeah, you’re kind of right.” Gilbert raised his face, a little surprised at Elizabeth’s rare, nonchalant affirmation. “To be honest, I feel honored hearing that.”
The Americano would go cold by just Gilbert staring at it. He even lost more appetite than before. “Yuriko said you really wanted to go to college.”
“If I were a normal human being, yes. The reality is, I’m not. It’s not that I’m hating on this job. I just... didn’t think it’s my tea.” Elizabeth closed her eyes, taking a deep breath that sounded more like hopelessness. “All these years I’ve been thinking. I thought I had no choice. So when a good opportunity like this comes, I’ll be glad to take it. You know, being a guardian angel sounds more exciting than stampers who stamp people to their death. I’ll be the one who gives them protection and happiness, not the one who takes it away.”
“But to do so you have to die.”
“Well, it’s one of the stages. Everyone including you will encounter it someday.”
“So all these years we’ve been together, you’re not happy?”
Elizabeth lifted her gaze. “I was happy that I met you and Yuriko, though. You guys are the one who makes me stay.”
Gilbert froze, mouth hanging open, the coffee had gone cold.
“I haven’t decided which people I’d be a guardian to. But they’re probably kids. Dunno, I think of some ways during this remaining time. You’re not sad that I didn’t choose you, right? Who in the world wanted to be a guardian to a bimbo like you anyway.” She finished her parfait, all empty and clean, except for the cream on her nose. “That’s all I have to say. Now your turn.”
It’s a wave of emotion. He’s not sure how to take it. It’s not the fact that Elizabeth was actually excited to die in order to become a guardian. It’s not the fact that she didn’t really favor her current job. And it’s not the fact that she made it so easy for her to just leave.
It’s the fact that despite her being happy with how things turned out, he couldn’t feel the same way. It’s nauseating to say, at least, that Gilbert thought Elizabeth was selfish when he’s the most selfish one here.
“Forget it.” He forced himself to smile as he wiped that cream off her with his hand, pinching her nose a little. “It’s not relevant anymore.”
“I remember having some work to do. I’m afraid to say that I can’t stay here any longer. Do enjoy your meal. I’ll tell the waiter to bring it faster.”
“Wait, Gilbert! You said you didn’t have work to do!”
He got up, leaving the coffee untouched as his eyes searched for any waiter, asking for bills. Elizabeth had chased him to the exit, but Gilbert was walking full speed away from her, not wanting to show her what kind of face he made right now.
It was ugly. His face. His heart. His thoughts.
“I should be happy,” he murmured to himself under the wash of streetlights. “She’s happy. So I should, too.” The lights were blinking on him as he traced the remaining walk to his home. “And if I still can’t...
“I just have to fool myself.”
Time remaining: 28 days.