30 Nights and Tomorrow On

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Flowers filled with buzzin’ bees, in places we won’t walk (Bruno Major – Places We Won’t Walk)

It was a perfect alibi. An overtime salary man, coming home with faults in his head, navigating through his room and cleaned everything on his way in hope of a good sleep for once, 8 PM going 9 when he thought a little trip to the abandoned dumpster at the back of his place would clear his head out of the world’s misery, not knowing it would only add one after another.

“Yeah, I used to leave my trash bag before my door.” Gilbert scratched the back of his neck, stifling a yawn. The police officer before him frowned in disapproval. “In the morning, usually. I was in a hurry so I didn’t leave one that day. Only did a little cleaning in the night, and I thought leaving it in the corridor would just… smell, you know? So I was like, fuck it, and ran my way to the back dumpster. I never—ever—been there before. It’s creepy as hell.”

“But you decided to go there, anyway.”

Listen, prick, I don’t think that’s the case here. Gilbert rested his chin on the back of his palm, elbow digging to the cold questioning table. He got no time for playing innocent witness here, when all he wanted was for the case to be solved quickly. So there would be no more serial killers running in his neighborhood, hurting anyone—not anyone in particular, definitely—and added more to the long list of undiscovered dead bodies lurking somewhere around his place.

Gilbert shrugged, keeping his attention intact with everyone in the room, switching it time to time and prayed the gesture would make him look more believable. “I thought once won’t hurt.”

“That was a bad start, perhaps,” one of the officers said, closing the files map in resignation, his pen rolling off the table. “The count keeps getting higher and higher, it’s concerning. We keep getting dead ends when the other side is having too much fun doing their spree.”

“Well, have you got suspects maybe?”

He raised an eyebrow, and Gilbert raised his in exchange. “If you continue being cooperative with us, maybe we do.”

“Of course,” he replied, deadpan.

There had been no single days until recently Gilbert thought he would be suspected as a serial killer, but here he arrived. Because of a selfish choice he didn’t have to take, or rather wasn’t supposed to take, he got himself in the said situation. He couldn’t be complaining, when things were falling into his deck, just a bit slower than he wanted it to be. They had to catch the perpetrator before the fated time, or else everything Gilbert had sacrificed would be futile. And if that happened, then there’s no meaning of continuing his daily life.

It’s the right step. He took the best shot of the situation.

That’s what he told himself every time he woke up in the morning, thinking he made a mistake.

The morning was breezy with early spring air when he stepped out of the police office, unconsciously tightening his jacket around the chest area. Once again he didn’t get enough sleep last night for all the watching over the whole process of retrieving the body out of the dumpster, police and forensic team mingling around the scene for a good two hours, yellow barricade tape blaring bold everywhere. Flash of camera, siren of both ambulance and police car creating the most confusing sound ever, the neighbors—still in their blanket—getting off their doors to gather around the area, whispering and muttering and guessing. Sad, that the only time this part of the complex was alive with people was because a murder took place there.

Gilbert got dragged by an officer to be questioned for another hour and was asked to drop by the office the next morning. Several eyes were on him, bathed in unmasked judging intent, noting for the slightest movement he made and linked it with possibility. Now his name would be all those middle aged ladies talked about when they met each other, conspiring theories that sounded more like a baseless accusation directed to the ‘weird white haired young man with no fixed work schedules living alone in his room, probably broke and in need for some quick cash’.

What a wild night.

He had another hour before his work started and his mind kept wandering back to get a Subway as his stomach growled in agreement, only his feet shook in disapproval and led him down the lane to one of the most unexpected places he could ever think of. It wasn’t far from the police office, a few minutes stroll through the busy pedestrian walk to the opposite direction of the downtown, just before the suburb area.

He didn’t know why he went here. Hell, he was at loss too in what he found, as if a strange, unexplained force had lured him to the spot where it wanted him the most. It had to be an exhausting day to be thinking of crashing here, or else Gilbert might as well check himself if he’s going crazy or just needed a nap. Could be another effect of the painkiller. Who knew, really.

The building he was facing wasn’t much different than the last time he had visited. The front garden was cleared now, rather than covered with snow like how he remembered, dead trees were starting to grow some sprouts, faint grass patches coming back alive as it led Gilbert more into the area.

It was mostly empty, since there’s no mass held by the time Gilbert entered the complex. There were only nuns passing by the cobble paths that connected the main building with the community building at the back, each of them holding a box while they chatted with one another, morning smiles plastered over their wrinkly face. He should probably find Mrs. Lee and say hi, even when he’s not sure if the lady was even here.

Before he could reach the community building, his attention froze at the fractured light coming from the inside of the church, the side door was slightly opened when he went to investigate. He wasn’t planning to enter the hall at all, let alone pray like what he did last time. It’s just… he couldn’t keep blaming the strange force to draw him in when he could just refuse and walk away. Gilbert hesitantly stepped into the nave area of the church, the door creaked when he pushed himself in, his own footsteps echoed throughout the empty halls, sunlight breaching dimly into the mosaic windows all across the building.

It was darker with no candles to lit up the altar, and chilly air started to get on his nerves as Gilbert scanned the whole hall, trying to find the answer to the force. He traced the empty rows of chairs, until his eyes captured a figure kneeling on the front row of the left wing, where the light had caught tangled on her long brown hair, the color’s shining golden in a room that was just pitch black until earlier. She clasped both of her hands with her elbow rested on the counter, forehead pressed tight against the knot like her life depended on it, her posture slightly hunched forward as her shoulders raised and fell.

Gilbert might mistake her as an angel, if only he never met her before.

(then again, do angels need to get on their knees and pray?)

Elizabeth looked up upon the shrill of Gilbert’s footsteps drawing nearer and nearer, eyeing him as he stopped in the same row aisle as her, sliding his hands into the pocket and standing tall facing the altar beyond.

She exhaled, making a cross to end her prayer but didn’t get off to sit. Still on her knees and clutching her hands together, she offered Gilbert a smile that reminded him of Mrs. Lee. Warm, accepting, welcoming, but sad in any way.

“I thought you hate this,” she said, quiet giggles traveled and resonated within the thin air.

Gilbert saved himself a loud ugly laugh. Elizabeth would have known he was mocking himself if he had done that. “Fancy meeting you here, Miss.”

By her shoulders, draped the same long black coat she wore the day when they came to their teacher’s funeral. Her cheeks were puffed red and so were the rim of her eyes. They glimmered under the intruding ray, the same color of her hair as another bubble escaped and rained the soft skin beneath. Before it could roll down further to the cheekbones, she brushed it off with her arm and blinked it a few times, until she’s brave enough to stare at Gilbert again.

“Me too,” Elizabeth’s voice went shaky. “I was just thinking to drop by for a while since I haven’t been around here for months.” She chuckled, and halted to chew on her bottom lips. “And you?”

Gilbert clenched his fists, holding himself back from sliding next to Elizabeth and wiped her tears, kissing away the remaining sadness in her eyes. “Same reason,” he replied. “I thought I might meet Mrs. Lee and said hi.”

“Mrs. Lee is teaching at the school during these hours. Unless it’s the weekend, then she’ll be here dragging people to attend mass.” She laughed, contagious enough for Gilbert to ease the doubt in his heart. “But I’m also here to… if having a one-way conversation with God is by everyone means ‘praying’, then yeah. That’s it.”

He raised an eyebrow, as Elizabeth snickered. “Weird coming from you. I never consider you religious despite popular belief.”

“I am not.” She stood up from the kneeling pad and fixed her rolled up skirt, joining Gilbert in the hallway. Her eyes flew to the empty altar where the cross stared back at them in darkness. “But sometimes, looking at the serenity this place radiates in times like this is just… consoling? Comforting? It’s beyond my understanding too. Perhaps it’s God’s own way in responding to my needs, whether I trust Him or not.

“After all, in the middle of utter helplessness, we tend to yearn for something to hold on to, something to believe.”

And something to blame, in case things don’t go right in the end.

Gilbert’s gaze followed to where Elizabeth led him, swallowing the sight of tranquility and tried to make sense of it. He saw a shadow of him standing alone, foul mouth shouted at whoever listened to him while his fierce eyes cried for help. Back then, he didn’t have much thoughts on what he wanted, almost felt like going to a shrine without a wish. Now, right now, he knew well what he wanted.

And he’s not sure if God’s going to grant it to him again, the same way He did it in vain last time, even when the man was no more but a lost guy in the middle of a crossroad.

“Well, He surely has a funny way to respond, sometimes.”

Elizabeth threw him a curious look. “What do you mean?”

Gilbert shrugged, turning on his heels to the direction of the main door. “He’s funny.” He swallowed, looking back over his shoulder to see Elizabeth studying him like an old complicated clockwork. He reached out a hand, tugging the curve of his lips tauntingly. “You’re coming or not? I know you don’t have any more work.”

Elizabeth’s cheeks went redder as she roughly linked their hands together, all pouting and snorting when Gilbert burst into laughter—the loud and ugly one—it echoed menacingly throughout the hall. “I’ll curse at you as crazy as I want when we’re out!”

“Is that what people do? Cursing someone, then kneel to beg forgiveness?”

Banters followed their conversation as they walked up the aisle, to where the exit sign glaring green at them. By the time they slipped out of the door, Gilbert prepared himself to be slapped (metaphorically or literally) by Elizabeth. She stopped, alerting Gilbert when the only thing that was keeping him from leaving was the strong tug of her hold against his.

“What?”

Elizabeth stared at him, wordless and worrying, before she stepped closer and shook her hand away from his grasp to wrap both of them around Gilbert, hugging him tight enough to muffle away her thoughts. Startled, yet melting, he hugged her back, burying his arms and hands in the warmth of her back and in between the tangle of her hair as he combed it with his fingers. Elizabeth choked to his clavicle, pulling him even closer when he pressed a kiss to her head, soft streaks of hair tickled his nose.

“You okay…?”

She nodded quietly. And Gilbert let it settle between them, without adding more questions, running his hand up and down her back until Elizabeth felt better enough to pull away, leaving a trail of wetness in the shoulder area of Gilbert’s jacket. She tried to rub her eyes, but Gilbert stopped her in the middle, cupping her face as delicate fingers that weren’t her own swept the tears away.

“Liar,” he whispered to her, loud and sharp enough to make her shudder. “I’m not going to make you spill something you’re not ready to talk to, but let me know if I can help.”

“I’m not—” she stifled a sob “—maybe not now, but it’ll get better. To be honest, it’s nothing really.”

“You were crying before in the church—” Gilbert shook his head, dropping both of his hands to his side. Elizabeth looked lost without him holding her anymore. “If you say you’re going to be alright, then okay. Just… don’t ever think about bearing everything alone. I’m here. Yuriko too. Rely on your friends.”

“I told you, it’s nothing.” She wiped her eyes again with the sleeve of her coat, squinting at the wet spots before letting it fall, returning her eyes to Gilbert only to take it away when she started talking again. “You see, uh, I was thinking of giving away my stuff to people. When I went to tidy them up, I ran to a lot of things from my childhood and got reminded of some, well, bad memories.”

“Really?” Gilbert frowned, not buying it at all.

“Yeah, of course.” She pressed her lips into a thin line, gaze slowly climbing up to meet his. “That being said, Yuriko told me to hold a charity event or something to donate some of them. She said she’ll take care of a portion of it, but I’m still trying to find a place for me to hand it myself.” She winked, ignoring Gilbert’s puzzled look. “What do you think of this place?”

So she’s not completely bluffing about trying to get rid of her stuff, huh? Putting his hand to his hip, Gilbert took his eyes on a detour around the church complex, Elizabeth’s eyes lit up every time he hummed, and her smiles getting wider and wider when he nodded. Well, at least she didn’t fake that one.

“I mean, why not?” Her squeal was cut off right away. “What kind of stuff are you planning to give away, again?”

“Oh, you see. Like my novels, magazines, my hats, the grandma clock at the hall—” Elizabeth put on an offended look when Gilbert winced his eyes, clearly not amused “—wait why?”

“Who the fuck accepts those?”

There’s a long pause, nuns were coming out from the building next to church, slightly waving at them. Elizabeth eyed them with wary smiles, before folding her arms and thrusting her hips. “They don’t?”

***

It didn’t occur to Elizabeth, that maybe those weren’t what the church wanted at all.

She returned to her apartment, reorganizing all her belongings that she’s about to give away, making lists of several places that might want them, planning the most effective route to go through each of them as she’s busy dialing numbers and asking whether they opened for donation.

Yuriko dropped by again in the evening with two of her co-workers tagging along, bringing big boxes into her room and began shoving down the content of Elizabeth’s fridge into each of them. They also helped pack some of her clothes and unused bathroom supplies, as well as the stationery Elizabeth loved to collect but never used it. She ended up giving her electronic devices too; the stereo and radio, her dismounted gadget, leaving only her phone and the TV because it was too big to be carried right away. It’s been almost 9 PM and they hadn’t nearly done; Elizabeth might think she had either bought too many things for her studio-sized room over the course of her life here or she’s simply spending too much time reminiscing the backstory of every single thing she picked up. Probably the latter, since the two of Yuriko’s friends sometimes couldn’t help but to raise their glares on her.

“I’m sorry, you’ve been too much of a help!” Elizabeth closed the last box, putting them on top of another pile they gathered in the hallway, almost blocking their way out. “Thank you so much!” She bowed alternately to them.

They nodded, and without speaking a word went past Elizabeth to push the boxes out to the corridor where they would need some time to move all of them into their car. Yuriko snickered, leaning on the wall instead of following them, her long fringe clang to her sweaty temples. She took off her fogged glasses and rubbed it against the material of her shirt before putting it back in. “It’s not even done yet. You have too much stuff!”

“Ah, do you think I have too many?”

“I may as well drop by again tomorrow.” Yuriko glanced over her shoulders, to three trash bags that sat next to her tiny trash can. They managed to clean the whole place in the process, thanks to Yuriko’s hysteric scream when they accidentally found a dead spider below her washstand. “There’s still your bookshelves and—”

“You don’t have to!” Elizabeth retorted quickly. “You did a lot for me, it’s more than enough. I’m planning to give the rest myself tomorrow. Just leave it to me!”

Yuriko’s brow arched. “You’re sure? I mean, that’s a lot.” She pointed back at the untouched potted plants on the windowsill, red petals barely bloomed between her cactus prickles. “I can take care of them too, if you want.”

“You take care of them?”

“I mean, ask someone to take care of them. I’m bad with plants, you know that.” She chuckled.

“That’s too bad. I was going to give them to you if you really want it.” Elizabeth’s eyes stilled on the plants, a certain face came to her thought and it’s enough to bring her a smile. “Nevermind, I have someone on my mind already. He’ll better accept them.”

“Aw, you’re like a concerned mother, about to find a daycare she can trust enough to drop her children.” Except she would never return to pick up her children, Elizabeth thought, but that went unspoken. “Okay then, see you soon. We better meet again before you leave or I’ll never forgive you.”

“I’ll help you carry them out!”

They finished at 10 PM, Elizabeth waved her hands as the car drove away bringing eight boxes in total to be donated somewhere. She returned to the lift, limbs were lanky from the unexpected exercise. When she arrived at her door, Mrs. Lee across her room was taking out her trash bag, still wearing her work outfit. Elizabeth paid her a smile as she unlocked her door. “Don’t go showering late in the night, Ma’am!”

“Oh, speak to yourself!” Mrs. Lee winked at her. “If you’re developing a habit of staying up late since young, you’ll end up like me in the next 30 years.”

Elizabeth forced herself to laugh. Mrs. Lee had yet to know that she’d be leaving earlier than her. “Do you think so?”

Mrs. Lee dropped the bag on the corridor, tugging on the knot to make sure she tied it safe enough. “I see that your friends were coming over. What are the boxes for? Are you moving out?”

“No, it’s just…” She averted her gaze too quick, she wondered if Mrs. Lee would catch on that despite of her being short-sighted. “I want to do room makeovers, but there’s just too much stuff. So I’m donating them away.”

She chuckled, pushing the handle of her door. “Wish you all the success, then. Invite me over when you’re done.”

“Ah, Mrs. Lee!” Elizabeth went to stop Mrs. Lee from closing the door completely. “I was wondering if your church has an orphanage or something? Any place that I can give things away.”

Mrs. Lee seemed to be taken aback, but it didn’t take long for her smiles to soften. “They do. About a five-minute walk from there.” She pulled back the door again, inviting Elizabeth to come in. “I can help you arrange an event if you want.”

***

Elizabeth woke up fresh on her bed despite staying up late talking about the kids on the orphanage with Mrs. Lee. If anything, she should be the one apologizing to the woman for taking away her sleep times. The air in her room still smelled like the freshener Yuriko and her friends sprayed across last night, and while it didn’t look like anything had changed at all in the slightest, Elizabeth almost had a heart attack when she opened her cupboard to find most of her clothes missing, temporarily forgot that she had packed them away with all the other boxes.

That went the same too with the fridge. She only left out a loaf of bread and a box of oatmeal, along with two milk cartons and eggs, enough to make her last for another 4 days. She cooked herself the most perfect omelette she ever made, put it between the bread, drops of tomato sauce spread even more as they pressed together. The warm yellow melted to her hand when she took another bite through it, her other hand watered the potted plants, heart drumming triumphantly upon seeing the inner petals started to split, revealing the stigma beneath.

A text message popped in, the first one the sender sent since his last two days ago. “What time?”

What time are you done today?” Elizabeth replied. Now that she thought about it, would Gilbert say anything to her if they hadn’t met at the church yesterday? She’s not sure if she’s been exaggerating by their lack of communication lately that it bothered her to the point in a way it shouldn’t if they had stayed friends. Or rather, what she concerned was: Is he okay?

The phone buzzed not long afterward. “Seven. But I got a long break at Three until Six.”

“That’s perfect!” Elizabeth sent him the address of the orphanage she and Mrs. Lee spoke about yesterday, pretty sure he’s familiar with the area already. “But come here first to help me pick up the boxes!”

Aight, Madam.”

Elizabeth sent him a smiley emoji before putting her phone aside, scanning over her room to land her eyes on another box near her bed which by her wish didn’t get shipped together with the others. Alright, time to work then.

***

Gilbert managed to get off early, thanks to his rapid steps. He’s not going to say that he’s running from the bus station just to be there early, because that would be too lame to admit how much it hurt his bruised hips, but he did. And before he knocked on her door, he made sure his clothing was convincingly neat enough for Elizabeth to believe his casual walk story.

Elizabeth was wearing one of her old cardigan when she let him in, eyes gleaming upon catching sight of the red scarf Gilbert wore. She undeliberately showcased her almost empty furniture, making Gilbert have a hard time believing himself what he saw. He blinked at the empty bookshelves that used to be filled with her stupid vintage stuffs, photo frames, and books. “You discarded them yourself?!”

“Don’t call it 'discard'!” She pouted, Gilbert wanted to kiss her. “Yuriko helped me a good half of them yesterday. I went door to door to sell the rest this afternoon, using the money to buy school supplies for the orphanage kids.”

It’s still too surreal for him to see how hollow this supposedly vibrant room was. He was here when Elizabeth first moved in, back when it’s all boxes with zero decoration and personal belongings placed in every corner. Right now he was here too, with boxes piling messily on the hallway and ripped off decoration, the room slowly losing its color as its owner prepared to move out. He knew well this was going to come, but it still hurt.

“Are you okay?” She waved her hand in front of his eyes, knocking Gilbert from zoning out further. “I’m serious, are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay” What else would he be? “Where are the school supplies you want me to carry?”

“There.” She tapped the box right next to Gilbert, alarmed frown didn’t leave her face. Gilbert sighed, testing the weight of the box before completely taking it in his hold. It’s not that big or heavy, but the pain on his left side did contribute to the extra sweat. Elizabeth, in all of her unexpected sharpness, noted the light grimace Gilbert tried his best not to show. She stepped in his way before he could make it to the door, “I just remember that you shouldn’t be doing this.”

Gilbert turned around in reflex, keeping the box away from being snatched by Elizabeth. “No, I’m fine! It’s no biggie, it’s not like you ask me to take out your TV or anything!”

“You didn’t get enough sleep too last night! I can tell!”

Gilbert looked away from the fierceness of her eyes that told the truth. He couldn’t sleep a complete hour before waking up in sweats lately, even when he’s not using the heater anymore and had been switching to the air conditioner. Could be a nightmare, but he remembered always waking up with his hands around his neck. He’s not sure if he’s trying to protect himself or straight up strangling it. “I slept 8 hours last night, but this is just how my face looks every day. Stop making it a fuss.”

“It’s concerning. You’re acting weird lately.” She went to his side and tiptoed, her lips made their way to land on his cheekbones. The ghost of them tingled on his skin after Elizabeth drew away. “I’m not going to ask you to say you’re fine anymore if you never mean it. Right now, I’ll…” Sighing, she moved past him to grab her phone on the table. “I’ll call a taxi. Let me help you with the box afterward.”

Gilbert’s mouth went dry. He looked down to the box he’s holding, feeling like the world shrinking away on his feet, leaving him cold and alone in the outer world. It took him all the effort not to drop down the box and scared Elizabeth even more, so he breathed in and quickly collected himself.

“Okay,” he breathed out. “I’ll pull myself together better next time.” But the last one wasn’t loud enough for Elizabeth to hear over her phone conversation.

***

She was enjoying it, Gilbert could tell, and that was enough to lift his mood a little bit.

The orphanage was a two-story old school building, the yellow paint had faded and peeled off at some corner. Only the metal column to frame the new glass windows that indicated it had been renovated just a while ago during these years. The children ranged from toddlers to high schoolers, about forty in total, most of them were orphans while the rest were dropped by their poor parents. They were in evening cleaning duty when Gilbert and Elizabeth arrived, hands full with boxes containing stationary supplies for them as well as a week’s worth of groceries. The staff welcomed them warm, before bringing them to the hall where the two of them would be introduced to the kids.

It’s weird, truly, seeing the kids assembled before his eyes. They were happy, polite smiles fueling on their mouth when they passed them while curious gazes maintained friendly in between their talk. Perfectly normal kid, a little more behaved than he would expect, saved for the older boys who were all grumpy and uninterested—probably going through their emo phase—it took Gilbert everything not to glare at them when they laughed at Elizabeth’s name during her introduction.

“Pretty generic name,” one of them blurted out, followed by a trail of shier laughter.

Elizabeth frowned, but she joined the crowd in a short matter until the children realized she was laughing horridly with them. “Well, I wasn’t the one naming myself! If I were the one to choose, I’d pick the goth one. Like Adreen, or Zelda, or… Mangirl?” Another round of laughs backed up and Elizabeth hugged her stomach in pain for too many laughs as she wiped her teary eyes. “Anyway, you can call me Liz! Looking forward to having fun with you guys!”

It’s weird, because Gilbert could picture the younger him among the crowd, being the bitchiest of them all and would do anything to spite whoever pretty lady in front of him before running away from the hall, for the sake of her attention.

He fit there, nonetheless. Yet he stood—an adult before them.

They played a few games together, drawing more and more interest to the event. She had stood in the middle of a circle, hopping her toes as she recited the lovable story of Johnny Appleseed, leaving a gruesome part of it, casually taking a bite on the apple on her hand while the story progressed. In the end, they all got apple juices as she promised at the start (she tricked them into thinking only the behaved kids who didn’t sleep or talk over her would get a sweet apple juice, while the rest got nothing more than coal water).

There was a singing session in which it’s just a disguise of Elizabeth having an exclusive karaoke show (because no one between Gilbert and Yuriko were willing to compliment her singing skills), making the children’s jaw drop as she flexed on those notes. That was the sealing deal to make her likable, everyone was clinging to her by the end of their times, including the rebellious older boys who definitely developed a crush over the past three hours. Who didn’t, though?

Some of the girls came personally to thank Elizabeth for the stationary she gave. It’s exam season currently and their old ones began to wear out. Elizabeth smiled, motivating words falling out easily like the one she used to utter to her clients. Today, the people she’s speaking to weren’t going to die in the next thirty days. They still had a long time here, future spread with endless possibility. And Elizabeth was certainly glad enough to be a part of it, even if this was going to be the last time of their encounter.

She patted their heads, still muttering words and advised them to study. Hers and Gilbert’s gaze met for a while when she tried to find a certain kid in the crowd. She offered him a quick, lopsided smile before getting up her knees to dance with another party in the center of the hall, tapping her feet to the hip hop beats like she knew them.

She sucks.

Gilbert leaned to the column, bringing his hand to his mouth to cover his yawn. He’s not sleepy at all, just a little exhausted from the handling services Elizabeth shoved him after another fight on whether Gilbert could really do it or not. The bruises cooling low from the earlier force and constant stretch, but Gilbert couldn’t be bothered to pay them even the slightest attention when Elizabeth was being as captivating as usual in front of him, thrilling and compelling in every movement she made, reminding him again and again why he was drawn into her in the first place. She was like the Versailles he always dreamed to visit, and perhaps he would not need to dream about it anymore as long as he’s with her.

If all of his efforts went in vain in the end, and everything he did turned into an irreversible mistake, it would be his best mistake that he wouldn’t take guilt for his lifetime.

“Miss Elizabeth seems to be enjoying it the most.” An old man approached Gilbert and leaned to the column next to Gilbert’s, his cough stopped him from drifting away further to his thoughts. Gilbert wondered if he showed too much, whether his head was a giant space of greenhouse everyone could easily look into without much effort.

“She does look happier.” Gilbert forced his eyes to still on the man: on the rough wrinkles drawing lines on his freckled face, on his slouched shoulders, on the black beanies covering his head, and the worn out winter vest he’s wearing on top of his thin shirt. Elizabeth had talked to him earlier when they first arrived, standing side to side with Mrs. Lee with big smiles and boisterous laughs. Probably the owner or one of the main staff.

When Gilbert’s eyes returned to meet the man’s, he was already greeted by the sharp edges of a gaze that had seen countless things—countless greenhouse—and not only he peeked into the glass, he breached in without notice. “I see,” he said, shifting on his weight to the other knee. “This kind of thing suits her, don’t you think?”

“She did mention she wanted to be a teacher.” Feeling blood rushing in blatant embarrassment, Gilbert threw his stare across the room, carefully not landing directly on Elizabeth. “So yeah, it suits her.” A lot, Gilbert didn’t say it, he’s afraid the sourness could be another hole to his mind the man could use.

“Then why didn’t she become one if she loves it that much? What is she doing now? Working in an insurance company?”

“She couldn’t just ditch the—” His eyes widened as he bit his tongue on time. The man’s stares dug deeper, rummaging the wet soil as if Gilbert had an underground room beneath his greenhouse. Hesitantly, Gilbert grabbed a water bottle from his bag and swirled the cap open, easing the itching in his throat. “I mean, she has her own circumstances.”

“A forced one?”

“Yeah, a forced one.” He sipped the blandness, keeping a glance on the change of the man’s expression.

“Like a… reaper-stamper kind of thing?”

A flow of water went uphill to his nose as he choked an amount of it. Now his nose stung, a matching pain with his throat. “W-What?”

“Well, usually you —” he offered Gilbert a handkerchief from his pocket in which Gilbert thoughtlessly snatched to wipe the running water on his philtrum as well as his chin “—you have quite a wide option on basic matters in life, even when it’s shortly limited. To not have a choice at all on doing something else, I figured it out, it only comes down to one thing.” He grinned, the edges of his eyes softened. “I know how it feels.”

Gilbert coughed the remaining water and wiped his mouth again. “It doesn’t always resort to one thing. She could be anything in this world and you may never know.” He sighed, folding back the handkerchief neatly in a way he didn’t always do it. “I’ll wash this and hand it back to you—”

“Take it. I have a ton of it back at my house.” He cackled, a group of roaring laughs followed in the background. Elizabeth was playing another team building games with the children again. “You’re right about that. But somehow I understand her. I just have this gut feeling when I see you two.”

“Heh, church people are really perceptive these days.”

“I’m not church people, boy.” He sent him a dismay look. “I only happened to open an orphanage close enough with a church to be their business partner.”

Why the hell you call it business, Gilbert was about to say when the man laughed louder, cutting through Elizabeth’s voice.

“I’m joking! It’s a running joke between me and the church people, none of them are really offended when I phrase it that way.”

“Then what are you, sir?”

“Me?” The man tilted his head, his beanies stretched to reveal a patch of graying hair growing thin above his left ear. “Your ordinary retired guy. The headquarter men gave me enough money for the rest of my life and said it’s up to me how I am going to spend it. So I opened an orphanage.”

“Headquarter?” Gilbert felt his face drop. “You were… that?”

“You are that, too! You know what I said!”

“That’s only because—” he swallowed, while the other man wheezed “—so people like us can live long enough to retire, and those bastards will fund us until the day we’re numbered? You mean that?”

“Yeah.” He smiled again, this time the sincerest of them all. “Those bastards will.”

Gilbert saw the man in a new shed of light, taking more notice on his old, wise appearance. This was the first time he ever met the kinds like him during his rolling career. Up until now, he was only taught about the retirement contract in classes and sometimes heard mouth to mouth telltales between fellow workers. He probably encountered more on the street, dressing like ordinary people he didn’t bother to take a second look unless they’re wearing the uniform. But really, he thought servants of God would be numbered sooner as they aged, left rotting like anyone else before they could taste the golden age of retirement.

“I worked a while in the headquarter ten years before they granted me off. After a while, you just sort of launch through the ranks. If you did good and well, I mean.” His eyes gleamed in the reflection of his reminisce.

“So you’re the good and well guy?”

“Only the late years. When I was your age, I was a bandit.” He dragged a bench from the side of the hall to the place he was leaning earlier. Gilbert pushed himself to stand straight and went to help him, head’s dizzy from the exhaustion. “I was a full time reaper and also secretly a guitar player in a local band. I had a night shift starting from 10, and boy it was hectic to run from the stage and arrived on time at the first case.” They set it just before the columns and while the bench looked sturdy enough despite the stand being wobbly, they sat on it with a full hope of seeing tomorrow. “It was crazy! I was late every time they assigned me an area in the suburbs, a few guys from the headquarter even came to check on me a couple times, following me around like I was a hell of a criminal on leash or something. Eventually, I got found out. They sent me off the town, and that’s the story why I ended up here.”

“So you’re not from here.” Gilbert put his right ankle on top of his left knee, his white unwashed sock was sticking out low just below where his jeans were pulled up. “What happened to being a full time guitar player then?”

“I left my band of course! What a pity. They’re all good buddies.” His chuckle faded off, a flood of emotion crossed his face several times before settling down to the nostalgic tone. “But I think my biggest event was that time when I tried to assist an elopement with someone numbered. I somehow got a hand on their death records and brought them away from it. We—” he cleared his throat when they both noticed the slipped crack on his voice “—we managed to stall for half the day before, well, those bastards really knew how to corner people, huh.”

A bile rose tight in Gilbert, and all of a sudden his chest pained from the rapid pounds underneath. His body went stiff, cold air and cold sweats clashed together over his exposed skin, and a sharp sting made his eyes dizzier than ever. He forced himself to breathe, when he realized he wasn’t inhaling anything but circulating the same toxic over his body again, letting his thoughts consume him as a whole piece of trash.

A gentle hold on his tensed arm caught Gilbert back to life. He breathed in, finally getting the air he deserved as his static sight returned normal. He released his grips from the sharp edges of the bench, where the wooden planks were scraping off and cut him somewhere in one of his fingers, but he wasn’t in a position to care about such minor pain when his whole body was a whole lot more of an emergency.

“Are you okay?”

Gilbert took another deep breath before straightening his feet, blinking his teary eyes a couple times as sweats rolled down his eyelashes. In between the burning sensation of opening his eyes, he saw Elizabeth sitting with her back facing him, helping one of the kids open their snack bags. There were only a few meters apart, but it felt so far away, Gilbert’s afraid he might never be able to follow her again.

The hand on his arm moved to the scarf—Elizabeth’s scarf—he was wearing, calloused fingers loosened the knot gently until the rim of it fell to Gilbert’s lap. His breathing became so much easier now that the suffocating tightness had gone. When Gilbert went to look on the man, his eyes had widened upon whatever things he found on the younger man’s face.

“Are you sick?” he asked, the previously blaring voices now went deep until it’s swallowed by the children’s whine. “You looked not okay just before. You want to go to the infirmary?”

“No.” Gilbert looked down to his lap, to the falling scarf, to his weakly clenched fist, hand unconsciously reached out for the bruise around his uncovered neck. It had gone faintly purplish when he checked it last time, not bothering to linger his eyes longer on it when he always felt its presence crippling on the spot 24 hours a day. “What happened… afterward?”

“After what?”

Elizabeth stood up, waving the kids off as she turned around and made her way to them, where they put the boxes and their bags right under the column Gilbert’s leaning.

“After you all were cornered.” Gilbert exhaled harshly, keeping his tone even. “I assumed the one with the number died and was sent off. What happened… to the other one?”

“Does it matter now?” the man scoffed. “Does it matter if you know the rest of the fallout? What are you going to do with the information anyway?”

“It turned out that bad, huh?”

“Don’t ever think about it, kid. You can’t change anything. You’re never going to be the first one to get away from it. It’s all been decided from the start. Sometimes—” Elizabeth’s eyes met them, her smile widened as she hoped into their way “—it’s better to just let go.”

“What are you guys talking about?” She bent down to grab something from her bag, pulling out a thick envelope. “Allow me to interrupt, please. I hate to think I’m a forgetful person.”

Gilbert shut his mouth the moment Elizabeth went past him and handed the envelope to the old man. The man widened to her offer, hands still hanging in the air while he peered over her through his guessing glances.

“It’s not… much.” Elizabeth chuckled, shoving the envelope closer to the man. “Mr. Roger, I’m afraid I won’t be coming around anymore, so please take this for the sake of the orphanage. They’re good kids.”

“This is a lot for a donation.” the man exclaimed. “Are you sure, Miss?”

“Come one! Who asked donors if they’re sure or not?” Elizabeth grabbed the man’s hand and put the envelope on his palm, making sure the man had wrapped his fingers around it before she let go. The man, despite not fighting back anymore, still left agape toward the thick pile underneath where his thumb had constantly rubbed in disbelief.

He exchanged stares with Gilbert, who shrugged and grabbed his bag, slinging it by the shoulder. “Just take it, she has come a long way here.”

“Oh, what’s wrong with you, Gilbert?” Now Elizabeth’s attention shifted to him. “You’re looking kinda pale.”

“Gonna search for air,” he said, purposefully looking away so Elizabeth couldn’t make out more of his face. Elizabeth was about to stop him exiting the hall but the man stood up and bowed, saying thank you repetitively in a perfect way she couldn’t just ignore and go away.

In the end, Gilbert locked himself for the rest of the session in the toilet, washing his face with cold water until he regained the color once again.

***

Gilbert walked Elizabeth home just before six, in which they took a city bus for a thirty minutes ride with nothing but Elizabeth’s stories and feelings all poured up to rushed sentences. Gilbert filled it occasionally with unnecessary interruption, like saying she looked exactly like an evil witch prying for kids, chasing them with scary faces around the hall, but no mention of anything else about himself.

“Did you enjoy today?” she finally asked, after they got off at a bus stop five minutes away from Elizabeth’s apartment.

The orange streak of sunset spread in line with the skyline before them, as they headed deeper to the neighborhood with less traffic, and Gilbert savored every sight of it in exchange of having to look directly at Elizabeth. “Good, I guess. You seemed to enjoy it so I’m fine.”

“No—I mean—you personally.”

“I didn’t do much other than helping labor work. And seeing you chasing the kids like a witch.” He flashed a smirk. “It’s fun enough to keep me entertained.”

“Seriously, I’m not a witch!” Elizabeth curled down her mouth, but dropped the conversation as fast as she started talking about dinner, like they’re going to have it together tonight too.

They arrived shortly in front of the apartment building where Gilbert supposedly excused himself to go to his next case. Elizabeth, however, tugged on his jacket sleeves and asked him to go inside with her.

“What? I’m not going to have dinner with you. I have to go, remember?”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and pulled him with more force, dragging Gilbert’s reluctant steps through the glass door. “I know! Just 5 minutes, okay? There’s something I need to show you.”

“Your empty room?”

She pushed him into the lift, furiously pressing the button. The rushing voices from the lobby soon came to sleep when the metal door shut closed, replaced by their harsh breathing throughout the ride. Shoulders pressed together, Gilbert dared himself to sneak a glance on his girlfriend and found her peering him down with sharp gazes, a confident grin added the unsettling factor to it.

Her low voice cut through the heavy silence. “It hasn’t yet to be empty, you know.”

When they arrived at the floor, Elizabeth twisted the door knob open, revealing the room behind that was, indeed, emptier and the hollowest Gilbert had seen since the afternoon. The boxes were long gone, wall decorations put down to nowhere, a long thread of tumbler lights Elizabeth wrapped around the headboard of her bed was donated today along with the carpet under her bed and the rest of her bookshelves collection, leaving the space oddly haunting.

The only thing that had yet to be emptied was the windowsill, where the natural light cast warm into the room, the golden hue lit up the wet soils where tiny sprouts began to spring out. The most prominent one that caught Gilbert’s attention was the red flowers on the other side of the opuntia cactus. It was blooming, not fully but quite there, probably later after sunset.

“Oh, look. You’re a mother now!” He pointed at the sole flower. “Congrats, I guess?”

“What mother?” Elizabeth put her hands on the hip, gazes fixated at the potted plants. “Do you know that some cacti tend to bloom and wither on the same day?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “And as long as the body is alive, life still goes on.”

Gilbert gulped, stepping back from the area. He watched, as a streak of light showered the side of Elizabeth’s face, brown eyes turned golden through the flutter of her eyelashes, gazing beyond the plants. She’s truly the best spring Gilbert would ever have.

And he couldn’t imagine how the first spring without her would go.

“You said you wanted to show me something.”

“I’m showing you right now.” She looked up to meet his gaze. “These plants, I’m giving them to you.”

Gilbert felt something drop to his stomach. Something that made him stiff to his toes. “What—why?”

“Well, why not?” Elizabeth went to scratch her nape. “Someone has to look after them!”

“You can just sell it or give it to plants lover community or whatever!”

“Of course I can!”

“Then what?”

Elizabeth stared at him in disbelief, mouth’s left open with words that didn’t make it. Gilbert folded his arms, waiting for her answer. In his defense, he knew zero about growing plants.

“I grew them with the remaining energy I have,” Elizabeth spoke, voice’s stumbling but firm stares kept Gilbert on hold. “I give them the best soil and fertilizer, water them enough for their own needs, buy them the prettiest pots, put them on the best spot where the sunlight comes through. I love them, they’re the small garden I’ve been dreaming to have.”

Gilbert broke their eye contacts, his eyes stung again.

“Even after I leave,” she continued, “I can’t afford them to die with me. I want them to continue living, flourishing, blooming. And to just give them to strangers… I don’t think I can do it.”

“Yuriko may have it instead of me. Women are much more gentle about this stuff.” Gilbert tried to sneak a snicker, yet failing miserably when he felt the smile cold against his own mouth.

“She can. But I trust you more on this. And—” she licked her lips “—I think you’re the one needing them the most.”

Elizabeth stepped into Gilbert’s space, wrapped her hand loosely around his wrist. It’s warm, the same warmth of the early spring sun, or the early spring afternoon air, spreading through his body like a wildfire. And then it cooled, as cool as the early spring evening air, or the early spring rain, blowing off the wildfire and healing the burnt soil beneath. In the summer, flowers would blossom out of the topsoil. It would be a grassland of colors, pretty in May and nothing like a barren waste land it used to be.

“So I want you to help me continue to take care of them. They may look like nothing to you now, but it can be our garden.”

Garden.

Relationships are like gardens.

You can’t water a garden if you don’t have one.

When Gilbert returned to his flat later before nine, Elizabeth had already sent all of her potted plants to his door, all seven of them. Three were cactus and succulents, two were herbal plants used for cooking, one was sunflower, and the last, the smallest sprout yet, was said to be daffodil in the notes she had glued to each pots, along with general instruction on how to take care of it.

He moved them to the kitchen table, tearing down the cardboard and plastic bags that were used to keep the plants intact. His windowsill was much bigger and spacey than Elizabeth’s, and though he wasn’t sure if the side of his window would get enough sunlight as hers did, Gilbert could only find out the next sunrise. Meanwhile, all he could do was to place them on the sill, lining them up neat enough to fill the usual empty space behind the curtain.

The flower on the cactus, as expected, was fully bloomed that night. Bold red, rose courageously in between the prickles like a spit of blood caught in the middle. Gilbert poked the stigma, fingers caressing the light petals as thorns stabbed him a few times. He thought it’s okay, since he wouldn’t see it again tomorrow when the flower withered.

***

But it’s not the end, wasn’t it? After all, he got six other plants waiting in line for the perfect time to mature.

He’s thinking. Perhaps happiness was a dwarf sunflower peeking through the window in search of the sun. Or rosemary leaves growing tall and thick as they waved by the slight breeze breaching into the window gap. Or the small pad growing overnight that would later become too long for the cactus to support it by themselves.

Or… or maybe the currently nothing but a single leaf and a stem that one day would become bright yellow flowers, strong enough to fight the wind, beautiful enough to be the first flower people saw once they looked into the garden. And she would wake up early—way earlier than anyone else in the garden—to show her smile to the world as she marked the end of winter, showing the way to the start of spring; a new beginning.

And in a few years, Gilbert would start seeing another face in her bloom instead of the bright yellow flowers she’s supposed to be. A face so blurry, yet so familiar, so similar, so nostalgic—pouring him with the same warmth to help him embrace another spring.

Another spring without her.


Time remaining: 4 days.

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