I’ve seen your flags on the marble arch; but love is not a victory march (Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah)
They were laughing.
They were laughing about something in the dream. He wasn’t sure why, but he’s certain it’s a dream: one he couldn’t control.
Elizabeth, her short fringe bounced as she giggled to one of his lame jokes, her uniform stained with dirt the same amount with Gilbert’s. It was sunset on the church’s back river, somewhere in the middle of autumn where the flow was calm and quiet. Two people sitting on grass patches turning yellow, burnt out from class and all the bullshits they’d been fed.
They were seventeen again, and for how many times Gilbert wasn’t sure why. But he’s certain it’s all that mattered.
Perhaps one of his futile prayers had come true, for time to tick back to when everything was easy. If only he knew how easy it was before to be happy, then probably Gilbert wouldn’t be as lunatic as he was now.
“My personal best is 14. Last time.” The young and naïve him picked up one of the pebbles at the shore, half-wet from the visiting waves. He flicked it, tossed it to the air a couple times before flying and jingled just above the surface, skipping a few times before it sunk to the bottom like the rest of their stories. He hissed, kicking himself to let out his childish tantrum. “Damn it! So close!”
“Not even close,” Elizabeth dissed, another clatter of laughter set free from her mouth. She pushed herself to her feet to join Gilbert up there. “I counted too. They were ten at best.”
“Twelve! The last one counts!”
“So, your point?”
“I can do twenty!” Gilbert was about to pick up another stone, but a warm hand stopped his wrist just when he bent down. “What?”
“I’m bored,” she said, accompanied by a smile despite what her words meant. “Watching stones being thrown around.”
“Uh—” Gilbert tilted his head “—that’s kinda the whole point of the game, though.”
“The stream is calm. The water is shallow too.” She pulled him up straight, and with a gaze as captive as her never-leaving grip, she made him nod along her sentence. “Let’s walk on it!”
“Well, Liz, that’s dumb—what?!”
She didn’t wait for him to elaborate and just pulled him into the river. Gilbert yelled, trying to shake her grip off him as his feet kept him steady by the stony shores. Because no way in hell he’s going to swim and drown there, let alone give himself a few splashes. Back then he would love it, but that was the time from when they still didn’t have to do laundry.
Push-and-pull, neither one of them gave up. Instead Elizabeth was the most persistent between the two, dragging Gilbert closer to where she already touched the water. Even when Gilbert had no idea why she’s this forceful, a part of him that was losing thought perhaps he just wanted to believe.
Especially when she kept telling him to trust her.
Gilbert closed his eyes the moment his feet could no longer hold him aback, the force drew him forward toward the body of the water; the deepest part of the river which didn’t have a single ford in sight. When he left the ground, he expected some splashes to his shoes and trousers, water coming in to cloak him with additional weight, and maybe some sisters screaming their names at the back doorway of the church.
When he opened his eyes—and seconds before that—no splashes nor cold flow pulling him down. Her hand’s still on his wrist, he found both of them in the middle of the river, their feet standing right above the surface in no way water could get them.
It clattered, Gilbert’s eyes snapped in panic and fear as Elizabeth burst out laughing.
“What—what happened?!” He jumped and kicked the water. No reaction, still firm in the spot. “Why are we not drowning?!”
“Let’s just say I pull you across the river. Like your favorite stones, except we don’t sink.”
Elizabeth put her finger before her mouth, winking slyly at him. “It’s a secret.”
Gilbert bent down, looking at himself in the reflection of the water. It’s hazy and blurry, thanks for the mild stream, but he could see those stripes of nightfall gleaming in many shades of red. And when he tried to dip his finger in it, he touched nothing but the sky. The feel of the sky at the tip of his finger; breezy and warm.
“Do you want to cross the river?” Elizabeth asked, the sight of her was blinding enough from the setting sun behind. “With me. Together. To the other side.”
Gilbert, who couldn’t get enough of the sorcery, nodded. “Why not? We’re halfway in, anyway.”
The other side of the river was another forest. None of the children dared themselves enough to pass through it, even though the river itself could be easily crossed during a certain season. A well-kept secret of the nearby community on what laid there. One certain thing to note in each mind: it’s a forbidden place to go on personal wills.
Like hell that’s going to scare Gilbert away. As he said, he’s already half through the obstacles, why not pushed forward a little farther?
“Okay! Let’s do—”
Just after he stood up, catching Elizabeth’s smiles as she took the first step forward, Gilbert gasped when the warm weight keeping him steady on the wrist disappeared—along with the rest of her presence. Suddenly in the middle of a nowhere river he was alone, the red strides turned violent above him with a murder of crows crossed a strike through the falling temperatures.
The water clattered again just below him, and the awaiting sight down there scared him to a hoarse scream.
Below him, underneath the thin separating layers of the world and the beyond, Elizabeth drowned. Deeper and farther, closer to the unknown bottom than she would ever be to Gilbert, her eyes closed but one of her hands was held up to the direction of the surface—to what Gilbert called ground—as if she’s still reaching out.
Reaching out to him. To save her. From falling deeper and disappearing for good.
“No, no, no, no…” Gilbert’s knees fell to the surface, teeth gritting together as his nails dug against the sky below him that began to morph into a void. Red sunset turned into a deep pool of blood, the darkness fell upon him eventually when none of his attempts of trying to shatter the ‘barrier’ between bore any fruit. While Elizabeth’s sinking away and away, her body’s getting smaller and smaller to the last sight of her reaching hand left unreached, until the void ate her fully just like that.
Gilbert was yet again alone, in the middle of a nowhere river, knuckles white and head’s heavy against the water, shivering from his own pathetic pleas for Elizabeth to stop playing with him even though it’s clear none of them were even playing in the first place.
His only thought was why couldn’t he drown together with her if that’s how they’re going to end? Why… leaving him alone in a world that became meaningless soon after she left?
In the end the stone skipped, but only for a matter of time before it sank—just like how it’s supposed to be.
There’s never a miracle.
Gilbert woke up, cold-sweat, his body unconsciously pushed him to sit. And if his heart wasn’t already beating mad and mind’s fucked enough to process what just happened, he realized the other side of the bed was empty even though Gilbert remembered well to whom he fell asleep to that evening.
Stumbling his way downstairs, Elizabeth was still nowhere to be seen. It’s almost 5 in the morning, the sky’s still dark with mild pour outside. The toilet’s light was off. She didn’t pick up his calls, and while their bags were packed at the entryway as if they were ready to be moved into the car, Elizabeth’s boots were gone.
The lake chimed in silence, Elizabeth wasn’t anywhere around it too.
All the puzzle was answered when Gilbert returned to the cottage, his eyes caught on the crumpled paper tossed near the trash bin just next to the fireplace. He didn’t need to see what that was to understand what happened in between; the pieces fit the links so perfectly that it hurt.
A direct blow to his gut, the unspoken rejection from the last person Gilbert ever wanted to receive.
Grabbing his car key, Gilbert rushed to the mustang. The engine growled as he forced his way into the rain, the faint trace of muddy shoe soles coming from their cottage leading him down to the only place she could ever go in this situation.
He’d meet her again. He just had to beat Yuriko into it.
The rain drizzled to the metal roofs of a group of houses ahead, still quiet in the wake of dawn. Elizabeth sneezed, cold creeping through her wet hair and clothes, not even her jacket could save her from the earlier pour. Her sore legs brought her into the destination, the lack of patrols batted her with one glance and noted her disheveled appearance before letting her in. Another lost tourist, one of them whispered to another.
It was day zero. She expected a warm comfort of her room in her last hours; totally far from anything like this.
It was a huge complex; cabin houses facing each other with a path of cobblestone leading deeper toward the center of the town, patter of water dropped from the edge of the roof, pooling in some of the holes in the ground, same vegetation of trees bordering the area like its mighty guardian, shadowed by the descending fogs. A queue of dim streetlamps guided her into the porch of a bigger house, probably acting as a community building, a perfect place as she’s looking for a shelter.
Elizabeth herself was surprised her phone was still working after all of that. She immediately notified Yuriko about her arrival and her exact location, now that she’s standing next to a tourist map board just before the door. It didn’t until she read Yuriko’s last message trying to reassure her, Elizabeth didn’t notice her shaking hands.
A burst of laughter coming from the inside of the house provoked her curiosity. She narrowed her eyes, trying to grasp something from the blurry window. The lights inside were faint, a group of men sat in circles with empty bottles nearby, shouting the name of the cards they were playing. There’s leftover pastries next to the bottles, and a lit fireplace at the back.
Elizabeth gulped. She was shivering from the cold, starving, exhausted, and on top of that, she’s scared. She should probably look for a place to hide if she didn’t want Gilbert to easily track her, and this community house seemed more promising. If collecting leftover snacks and food were a bit too much, then Elizabeth would just beg for a place to hide and rest, be it on the floor or the kitchen. At least, until Yuriko came to get her.
“Uh, helloww? Miss?”
Elizabeth turned back to find a middle-aged man joining her on the porch. His face was flushed, dilated eyes scanning her while his boozed-smelling body couldn’t stop swinging left and right. He looked way more disheveled than Elizabeth with the unkempt curly hair and messy patches of facial hairs, in which she suggested the same to those people playing cards inside.
“Can this man—” he burped “—help ya? Anything?”
“Are you living in this house too?” She bowed at him, having no choice. “Hello, sorry for the disturbance. I’m looking for a shelter at least until morning comes. Can you please take me in? Only for a short while, I don’t have money to rent a real hotel room or anything…”
The man blinked, and then laughed out loud it probably woke up the next few doors. “Of course, Miss! We are glad to have ya in this household, whatcha even thinking? A bother? Huahahahah!”
He barged into the door, and those people inside straight away turned at him. Elizabeth was right, they didn’t look any different with that middle-aged guy.
“Bro! We got a big guest!” He moved aside so he could show Elizabeth behind him. “This pretty lady wants to sleep here, in y’all house! We let her in, right?”
Pairs of dizzy eyes ran through her up and down, Elizabeth felt so small under the scrutiny. Her dress didn’t make it any easier either, as she took off her heavily soaked jacket. A gust of wind blew from the outside and those eyes lit up when they saw Elizabeth shivering.
“Whaddya talkin’ bout’? Bring her in!” One of the guys said, dropping all his cards to the floor.
“Sure, why not?!” another one added, then chugged a whole bottle of booze.
“Thank you…” Elizabeth unlaced her boots, at this point walking up to this distance had scared her legs and feet. The first man ushered her in, gave her a place to sit on the couch near the fireplace. Elizabeth refused, choosing to sit on the floor instead, three meters away from the circle of those guys who continued playing their games. She’s still wary of them, but decided not to bother it too much. She had no choice but to trust them, and it kind of sealed the deal when they handed her a blanket and a glass of beer just to lessen her tensed shoulders.
She checked her phone again, a new message from Yuriko saying she’s on the way. Another wave of relief, her eyes flew to fix on the clock across the room, the pendulum swayed as seconds went by. The clock looked similar to the one she watched back in the cottage while Gilbert was talking to Tae Hee.
The memories didn’t age well. Who would have thought it’d turn like this. To know Gilbert was her assigned reaper. To know he never intended to fulfill that particular job of his. To know he had been trying to run her off by tricking her innocent side, deciding things by himself and lying—doing things as far as making God his enemies like he had the power to outrun Him. The world would turn against him for his decision and… she would be the sole reason of his suffering at the end.
And it hit her. Pained her. For how stupid and ignorant she had always been toward anyone. Thinking it’s always her problem and her problem alone, people came to her wearing broken masks everyday yet she still couldn’t see through any of them. For her to foolishly believe in a happy ending without ever working toward it. In the end, all she did was to burden everyone with her wishes.
Thinking back, letting Gilbert know about the numbers that night was definitely a mistake.
Where are you now? Are you still sleeping in the cottage? Please don’t chase me here… please don’t see me here…
“Miss, ya’ ok?”
Elizabeth pulled her sight into focus. She’s curled up on the couch, blanket draped down to her ankles, her hands clutching it like her life depended on it. Well, that thing didn’t matter anymore in a few hours anyway. She could attempt to die right now if not for the protocols, and not following the protocols meant bad things would happen for both her future career and Gilbert’s.
“Ya’ve been glaring at the clock for a while, are ya somewhere sick?”
“No, I’m—fine.” She exhaled, feeling suffocated in her chest. All those minutes she spent not breathing and dozing off, she might look like the most insane person in the room right now. “Someone should pick me up soon. Please don’t mind me here.”
Another man peered him from the floor, looking at his pals one by one before nodding his head and whistled. “If ya bored there, ya can join us here. Some devil cards won’t hurt!”
“Like they said.” The middle-aged man gestured to the circle. “I mean, if you gotta be stuck here for god-knows-how-long, then you better be entertained.”
“No harm!” shouted a different man, cigarettes lit up in his hand. “We’re the host here, we just tryna help ya.”
Yuriko always said watch out for drunk men, or just strangers in general. Despite her original job of working with strangers, she knew well how under protected she was aside from what her job provided. And Gilbert once said how she’s so good at attracting danger. A woman. Young. Alone. Lost. There’s no reason for her to trust these men, whom she never meant to judge especially from their appearance, but…
Perhaps it’s the feeling of desperation and despair that ruled her head, brain’s frozen from the broken heart, she wanted to believe in them. That after all the things they gave her for free, maybe they were just that genuine.
And if she had to choose whether to stay within them or return to Gilbert—the latter would be thrown out of the window first.
She shrugged, her shoulders loosened up as she slumped more to the couch. “Maybe, later…”
“Well, I hope there’s a later ’cos we haven’t damn sleep since yesterday but maybe we can spare another round if ya want. After all, ya’re—” The man never got to finish his sentence, his eyes widened to one spot in Elizabeth that she couldn’t quite get at the first time until he pointed it out, his finger trembled. “M-Miss, ya—ya have—it’s zero…”
Elizabeth looked down to catch her dress strap fall again to her arm, the zero on her collarbone was too black against her pale skins to be missed out. The guys from the floor stood up to take a glimpse too, all of them were gawking at her in the same manner it made anxiety pooling low in her again.
“Ya supposed to die… today?”
“Miss, I’ll be blunt—” one of them gulped “—are you… on the run? From someone?”
Elizabeth pulled her strap back in, hated how vulnerable she was in the spot. Clenching her fist, the words welling in her throat along with her heart. She just wished she was a second early to speak before the sound of rapid knocks from outside took their attention, a familiar voice pierced through the door and the wall, crying out her names to come out.
It didn’t make her feel relieved. The voice instead stabbed her.
“Is it… the one ya expected to come and pick ya up?”
Elizabeth bit her lips, but the throbbing pain inside her chest didn’t just go away. She shook her head, once and twice and thrice. What’s worse to think about was the fact that the voice who currently stabbed her had once saved her from loneliness, wrapped her like a warm blanket, and cleared her out from any form of doubt she ever had.
It was her strength once, and now it’s nothing more than a curse Elizabeth had created herself.
Gilbert hastily ran toward the cabin the guard on the post pointed him to, taking notes on how immediate they recognized Elizabeth’s characteristics before he could spell out the whole thing. This must be it, he didn’t bother parking his car in the side street, just about right to block the entire main road as he slammed his way out. Without any hesitation either, he knocked the door loudly, saying her names like a pray of desperation. The chilly dew blew soft to the back of his neck, but his insides were all squirming with heat and the rest of emotion he couldn’t quite sort out.
Was he angry? He didn’t know, perhaps it’s his fault to begin with that Elizabeth had no idea what he had gotten themselves into. It’s not like he could tell her directly that he’s about to make her run away with him, or maybe he could at least think what he would do after she found out she wouldn’t be returning to be sent off.
But he was angry for sure, when he barged the door in and found a group of drunk men circling Elizabeth, one of them had already held her wrist and urged her to escape from the back door. Elizabeth herself was no better, she was still drenched from the night rain from top to the bottom, her legs and dress were both covered in dirt, and she didn’t have the expression Gilbert remembered from their times in the cottage. It was all replaced with fear and anger clashed in those glaring brown eyes, directed to no other in the room but him.
When he stepped more into the house, those men’s faces hardened as their steps mirrored to Gilbert’s alert ones, inching closer to him with curled fists and red eyes. At the corner of his sight, he could see the other man trying to push Elizabeth to a door. She’s protesting something in a murmur, but the man insisted.
“Take your filthy hand off her, you motherfucker!” Gilbert barked, cracking his fingers in return as the rest of the group charged to his direction. He grabbed an idle baseball bat from the basket before the entryway and aimed for their chins and necks, which they took like a pushed domino. There were six persons attacking him right now, but Gilbert wouldn’t forget the fact they were all drunk and probably sleep-driven, some were tipsy and some were seeing two of him. The punches were weak and easily dodged, Gilbert bent his way forward and knee-struck them, using his sober advantage to win over the bigger guys.
Elizabeth’s scream in the distance snapped his head up. The middle-aged man that pushed Elizabeth before had a revolver in his hand, the muzzle was already pointed at him while his fingers threatened to pull the trigger. Gilbert swallowed, adrenaline was already pumping through his veins for him to back down from a damn stupid gun. Before the man could proceed further, Gilbert threw the baseball bat at him, noticing how trembling his hands were after the distraction. The younger man charged as fast as he could and tackled him to the ground. As he locked him from above, he dislodged the revolver off his hands to a distance they both couldn’t reach out.
An empty booze bottle was staring at them the whole time. Gilbert grabbed it with his hand, itching to smash the bottle into the back of his head. A piercing shrill cut out for the second time into the air.
“STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
It rang, rang, rang, inside Gilbert’s head until he realized how quiet the room had become if not for the sound of his eratic heartbeat and Elizabeth’s outcry.
So he looked around and see people lying down all over the first floor. His knuckles went white and bruised, and under him lay a beaten man drying blue from his headlock. A woman, the one he loved, watched him doing all of that, her hand’s covering her mouth as teary eyes screaming in disbelief, she used every remaining strength she had not to drop down from her quivering legs.
“Stop it, please…” she begged, sobbing, like she’s deep in pain. “I—alright—I’ll go with you! J-Just, leave them alone!”
Gilbert, ignoring the fact that he’s also shaking, dropped the bottle and raised to his feet, hurriedly grabbed Elizabeth’s wrist—to which he could see her flinching under him—and led her outside of the cabin. The car had already waited, and Gilbert made sure Elizabeth got in first to the front seat, her expression turned from sad to grim, tightened and full, and he had to spend an extra minute outside to think what he should say when he hopped back into the driver seat.
“I’m sorry that it has to be this way,” he finally said, and settled with that. Locking the door and turning the key, Gilbert didn’t want to waste anymore time in this town. As soon as the engine roared, he stepped on the gas and the woods as well as the mountains started moving again.
“Do tell me more about it.” Elizabeth had her arms hug her upper body, face looking away to the window where the last of the town’s house could be seen. She didn’t even put on the safety belt.
“I’ll explain, but earlier it’s—” the hold on the wheel hardened as the bruises stung like a reminder “—why are you staying with those guys?! Of all places that you can… damn it, Liz! They’re a bunch of drunk hungry men preying on a sole unprotected woman like you, couldn’t you see?!”
“I don’t care! In fact, I feel more safe with them than with you right now.”
“You really have turned blind, aren’t you?! Good grief I got you out of that devil’s trap.”
“Gilbert!” His attention was stern on the street, but he couldn’t help but to sense ire from the seat on his right, looking through him like a sharpened blade. “Tell me we’re going back to the city right now! We can still make it back before the due time if you—”
“Liz.” His voice thick under his hot breath, slipping through rows of gritted teeth. “Let’s run away together.”
Gilbert felt like his own breath was failing him; the words that couldn’t be contained anymore bled through the open wound of his heart.
“I... I know it sounds ridiculous and straight up impossible, but let’s make it true with both of us! We can go to the next town and lead a normal life. We can change our names, our identities, lie low and move away after a while, so that we can finally… do things we can’t do this whole time! Like you, being a teacher, and me playing baseball. You don’t have to worry about anything, just stay by my side and I’ll make it work. I will protect you.” He took a deep breath, his foot on the gas pedal firmed. “Let’s be the first one to challenge fate.”
The silence poured after them. He couldn’t see Elizabeth’s expression because of her hair falling to the side of her face, so he waited. Waited for her to give him a chance, to ask for more explanation. As he navigated the road in his head, looking for a place to stop and rest so he could calm her down, he thought anything but nothing would be enough for him if a direct yes or no was too much.
Elizabeth exhaled after a minute, a long one, her shoulders rose and fell. “That’s all you have to say?”
“It may sound insufficient to convince you fully for now, but as we go I’m going to figure out more for both of us. You have to believe in me first.”
Believe in him, feel safe again around him, give him time to think for both of them… just like how it’s always been. If Elizabeth had been doing those since the start, then it should have been easy for her to agree.
When Gilbert tried to caress her hair and tucked it behind her ear, so he could at least see the forming constellation in her cheek, Elizabeth skimmed his hand away. Their eyes met, and they were the same fear and anger from earlier, this time they also blazed with disappointment. Gilbert hated it, that he was the reason why those once caring and gentle stares changed, and how they backfired him in the worst way possible.
“So you told me to cut off everyone I adore back in the city, so I can have the supposedly-perfect-life you promised me earlier? You think I’ll be happier that way?”
She leaned to the driver seat and with both hands tried to grab the steering wheel and took control, claiming what Gilbert supposed to have.
“Who are you exactly trying to prove here? God? Me? Yourself? No—you don’t prove anything other than your own selfishness you’re trying so hard to project in the name of us!”
She turned the wheel into a U-turn, and with fiery grip her energy matched the force Gilbert used to push back so the turn couldn’t happen. Four hands in total fighting to win the control over an old wheel, the engine’s screech was deafening enough to silence the growls those two breathed.
“And I don’t… I don’t want to live a life like that—even if it’s with you!”
Elizabeth changed her force and decided to twist the wheel into the opposite direction, slamming the car into the fences that bordered the road and the woods. Gilbert missed the brake pedal, and as long as Elizabeth still had her hands on the wheel, the car continued striking forward into the wood until a dense trunk stopped them. A loud and rough thump, the car bounced them back and forward with no airbag to float and catch them. The last thing Gilbert saw before he gave away to the aching sting in his head was the smoke coming out from the dented front engine, shattered glass on the dash—and Elizabeth’s bleeding head as she tried to forcefully break the lock.
One final kick to the door, Elizabeth left only the trail of her shadow in the car. Arms holding tight the abdomen, teeth biting the bottom lips as if she’s trying to muffle any cries, she hobbled back to the empty street and disappeared just around the junction, drops of crimson followed her down the pathway. The acrid odor of smoke grew to suffocate, and Gilbert jerked his head off the steering wheel, in between his focusing gaze he caught the same patch of blood flowing down the wheel. He freed himself from the belt, ignoring the sharp pain throbbing from head to chest, in no less severity he limped his way down to Elizabeth.
Love is a death sentence.
Such a thrill to be a part of it; the falling, the chasing, the yearning, but we all have signed a contract we don’t know how to end, without knowing what awaits at the bottom of the pit.
It is, indeed, a beautiful doom ever graced to humanity.
Gilbert stumbled his way to the end of the trail. The wind was surprisingly warm and friendly, rustling between branches and lured him to the scenery. Arching pine trees, blue sky touched by the slight ray escaping the graying cottons. The smell of early spring, the wet earth within, dawn chorus of those blessed with wings. The place was too good for a tragedy to happen.
Beyond him was a vast array of woods, separated by a far drop into the tinkling streams below. Elizabeth was standing at the edge of the cliff just before the ravine, her white dress was smeared by the dripping blood from her head, hair’s waving to the sound of wind as she appeared to be looking down. Her boots were already taken off, leaving her bruised feet bedraggled with wet mud and grasses.
Ten meters away from her felt like an eternity to reach. Gilbert slowly made his way into the cliff, but Elizabeth had been aware of his presence beforehand.
“Stop right there.” Despite the firmness she wanted to show, her body couldn’t lie when a gust of wind ran by and her voice came out frail. “If you make another step, I’ll make mine too.”
“You—we don’t have to do this, Liz.” Gilbert was no better. His body hurt so bad, he probably had fractured another bone along the way, but no one could be bothered when the most aching part in him right now was that stupid nonexistent organ located somewhere under his chest, suffocating the air in his lungs and his ability to think. It hurt even more, seeing Elizabeth using her lifeline against him, while it’s the foremost thing Gilbert wanted to protect. “Come back here, we can still fix things if you don’t like what I said.”
“That’s where it went wrong, Gilbert.”
A click coming from his side, a loaded gun once again pointed to his head. The woman behind the trigger heaved, her other hand pushed her glasses back where those deep accusing eyes met Gilbert.
“Give it up. You stand no chance.”
“Yuriko, you too.” Gilbert sighed, a creeping electricity ran to where his fists clenched, his eyes met in the middle where the hole threatened him. “You’ve been waiting for this moment, don’t you?”
Yuriko snatched out a piece of paper from her pocket, unfolding it in front of both him and Elizabeth like a warrant, along with the visible tremble she couldn’t conceal. There’s a red dread of stamp at the bottom, with Azrael’s sign mocking whatever he decided to make Yuriko deliver to them. Either way, Gilbert hadn’t yet to finish reading it to know that somewhere in the world, the angel was laughing at them.
“The order has been changed.” Her grip hardened until the letterhead crumpled. “Due to the condition Gilbert made that resulted in the possibility of the event not being able to make it at the scheduled time and place, the headquarter issued a warrant that allowed Liz to be sent off anytime she’s found. This is also to avoid any more unnecessary intervention.” The direction of the gun shifted, Elizabeth’s eyes widened upon being the one its focus landed to. “And to do that, she has to die first. By any means.”
“Yuriko, you fucking mad—do what I say and drop the gun right now!”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I’LL FIRE AT YOU FIRST!” For a moment, the trigger left Elizabeth and went to face Gilbert again when he tried to approach her. Knowing those glares held the weight of her words real, Gilbert backed down, the lump in his throat bringing him down as drops of sweat burnt the wounds it rolled through.
Yuriko returned to Elizabeth, after freezing Gilbert in his place. Elizabeth swallowed, slowly raising her hands to the air as if she had decided to surrender her fate to those hands. Though her face said a different thing, a piercing gaze of golden and tightened jaw on behalf of the previously exhausted one. The paper flew to the ground between and blown away by the wind, traveling up and down the taunting ravine behind.
“Yuriko…” her friend pleaded. “It doesn’t have to be you, there are other ways.”
Yuriko shook her head, smudged glasses blurred the puffy eyes behind. “No, it has to be me.”
“It’s the last thing I can do to make up for my mistakes!” Words blabbered between the gritting teeth, clattering like a daylight thunder. “For letting all of this to happen, for even giving up in the first place even though I have choices I can work. It’s all my fault! At least… At least what I can do now… is to put an end to everything I have started. Including to release you from all the burden I created.”
“Is that what you always thought about us? Every time we’re hanging out, is that what you have in your head? That you’re burdening me?”
Yuriko swallowed. “Yeah.”
Elizabeth cussed under her breath, she looked everywhere but Yuriko, trying to catch any sense but found nothing. The bare hands in the air turned into a ball as she couldn’t find any better place to store her frustration. “You know that isn’t the case at all, Yuriko! You know it’s not true!”
“Stop saying nice things to me now! Once this is over, you can condemn me all you want to your grave and heaven and I swear I’ll bear them all!”
Her other hand reached out to support the gun she’s holding, crawling around the trigger like it weighed her the sky and the world to pull it. Despite how final she made it sound like, Yuriko was… crying. Her lips bruised from all the biting to hide the pain inside, her veins were swelling red and blue in suppression of her emotion. She had her gun ready to be aimed at Elizabeth, and for a while it seemed like the world was on her side.
But she didn’t come with the most important thing; the guts to pull the trigger.
That deep inside her, she wanted to believe that all Elizabeth had said was true. That it was never her fault, and she didn’t have any obligation to end things she never started. The memories of their last laughs in the bar echoed, and how could she forget how warm Elizabeth’s hand was against her when she pulled her to the dancing floor.
“I’m sorry…” She’s shaking, shaking so bad she felt like her inside was being ransacked. Her quiet sniffles turned into sobs before she completely broke down to her knees, her head banged the dirt as her falling hairs covered her tears and the rest of the agony. “… I couldn’t do it.”
Elizabeth heaved a breath of relief while Gilbert rushed over and tackled the gun off her. It landed a few meters away from where the cliff ended, still loaded with its bullets. Holding her gently, Gilbert said her names out loud as she choked, her back and hair drenched in cold sweats.
“If you’re this suffering from the start, then you should have listened to me,” he said, trying to lift her up from the ground, but Yuriko had her nails crawling to the dirt, refusing to let herself be pulled. “I got plans for us, okay? You don’t have to come back to that hell, let’s just go and leave everything behind. The three of us, starting new lives.”
She coughed, nails digging deeper. “If I have to say, you are more responsible for this than you think you do, Gilbert.”
Yanking away the arm holding her back, Yuriko forced herself to raise, her hand still supporting half of her weight as she turned to Gilbert, stray hairs covering her bare face while she left the glasses on the ground.
“What do you mean?”
“If you don’t pull any of this bullshit, neither of us will be in such pain right now! It’s all because of you and your stupid dream of happy ending—” voice cracked, she continued to soar with those sharp eyes carefully witnessing the fading light in Gilbert’s expression “—you think you’re trying to save her, but in reality you do nothing but to prolong her suffer. Don’t say I don’t remind you. You promised me before for none of this to happen, yet you broke it just as easily!”
“Because I thought of a better way for us all! And you just have to fucking ruin it while still blaming everything to me!”
“A better way? And what is that?” Yuriko regained herself, pushing herself to sit on her side, her smirk widened ironically. “Run away? As if it’s going to solve all the problems?”
“We can figure out—”
“Please stop, you two!”
“Shut up, Liz! I’m trying to knock a sense to this stupid friend of yours!”
“You are the one who’s out of sense here!”
When he looked at her again, it felt like he had been slapped. Again. Elizabeth was furious, anger melted into disappointment directed to Gilbert alone, the one he never saw before. Despite having listened to both arguments: giving up or trying, she was still standing firm on the edge of the cliffs, not even moving slightly to enter the spectrum. Until the end, she decided she couldn’t do it even for him, and she probably would never forgive Gilbert for this.
Because this was her final answer to the long-stretched fight. The thirty days she spent weighing on choices, how she’d spend it and how she’d end it.
“It’s no use anyway,” Yuriko continued. “Everything you orchestrated. I have my guards and reapers ready by the border of towns and hills, all the escape routes you can think of. It will be a massive cat-and-mouse chase, except this is just you losing. Liz will be sent off immediately once caught, and you… they’ll drag you back to the headquarter as your sentence awaits. I suggest you surrender now, the punishment can be eased at the last minute if you behave.”
Gilbert looked down at himself, and saw a broken fraction of machine ticking in him. He was exhausted, shivering, and covered in bruises. On the other hand, Elizabeth and Yuriko were no better. Three friends getting their own fear and insecurity tangled up with each other, somehow managed to make it even worse that there’s no way back anymore. He thought he was driving them somewhere, only to realize he’s been going in a circle. What was he doing, then? Elizabeth was going to die and he tried everything, he tried, tried, and tried, even if it meant to go against Elizabeth. And then he saw it himself, the last door to the closest thing called happy ending they could get, was slammed shut in front of his eyes.
“… you don’t prove anything other than your own selfishness you’re trying so hard to project in the name of us!”
Elizabeth was right.
What was he fighting for, all this time?
Is it what it is?
“Do you understand now? That your plan has failed?”
There’s no way to save her.
Let her go.
Another blow of breeze carried the whisper to the brim of the stone where she stood, as well as the rushing water beneath. Elizabeth buried the possible height between it and her at the back of the mind, but the fact that it could definitely break her skull was accounted for sure.
Her resolution didn’t change. If anything, she was the one feeling terrible, for all the pain she caused for both Yuriko and Gilbert, for all the days she spent being clueless about it. It was her fault, therefore she should be the one ending it and brought the pain with her to the afterlife.
Whether God forgave her by still giving her a place and position in heaven as He promised or not…
She didn’t care anymore.
She’s not going to let any of them take everything alone because of her again. And that’s why, when she saw Gilbert stagger his way to grab the gun with his fingers tottering around the trigger, she felt like crumbling apart. And the wounds she had on her head and arms worming down to ache everywhere.
“What are you up to…?”
She could hear Yuriko cursing at the back, in the same wide disbelief reflected in her eyes.
He lurched forward, slowly, closing the painful distance between. Elizabeth’s mind raced quick, trying to find a way to talk him out. No, I’m not going to make you kill me. I’ll do this myself, just let me.
“I’m trying to finish this,” he said. Elizabeth hated the way she couldn’t fully make out of his face, and that made her even terrified.
No, please step back. Drop the gun. You don’t have to bring yourself into this.
“You were right, Liz. I’m selfish. Everything I have done… is for me. I was so afraid of being alone. Once I heard about you, I immediately thought of ways to save myself. It’s… It’s never about you. I’m sorry, it’s all on me.”
You can heal, Gilbert, you have a lifetime ahead. You will find your ways, just as you always have.
“I’m really sorry… I mean it.”
Because you still have a future. And I want to be a part of it, even if I can’t be by your side.
“But to me, there’s no future if it’s not with you.”
He halted, last steps kicked firm to the dust. A few steps away from Elizabeth, she could finally see his face up close, between those falling hair shading his eyes.
She stepped in just in time, when the gun that was supposed to aim at her turned back to the one holding the trigger, almost pressed all the way to the back and launched straight to the heart—if not for Elizabeth to wrap her hands on it, forcefully pulling it to any direction but him.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
“LET ME GO!”
Out of the corner of her sight, she could see Yuriko gasping in horror as she shakily reached out her phones, one hand covering her mouth as she cried out to the other side of the line, “BRING BACKUP HERE, A FEW PEOPLE, TAKE STAFF 146 GILBERT BERNHAGEN AWAY FROM THE SCENE AT ANY COST!”
He was much stronger than her, despite the exhaustion drawn clearly from the wrinkles around his eyes, pulling the gun back to him. Elizabeth knew that, but she also knew when she felt his hands twitched under her grip, she could win the fight even if it’d cost her everything. Putting one foot in the front while the other held her when she pulled back, she bit her tongue and told herself to endure.
The dirt below, however, was sleek from the night rain. And Elizabeth was only pulling them closer to the brink rather than getting the hold of the gun. Her heels struggled, just as much as her arms and clutch.
“LIZ—JUST LET ME DO THIS! IF I’M DEAD, NO ONE IS BOTHERING ANYONE ANYMORE AND EVERYTHING WILL END!”
“HOW COULD I—YOU GOT IT WRONG, GILBERT! I DON’T WANT THAT! I DON’T WANT ANYONE TO BE MISERABLE!”
“I’LL BE EXACTLY THAT IF YOU LET ME LIVE RIGHT NOW!”
Elizabeth’s getting defeated, she could feel Gilbert’s finger moving to push the trigger. The gun was still facing to his side, warm and slippery under the stubbornness of the two. Yuriko pushed herself to her feet, unsteadily dragged her body to them, her mouth chanting Gilbert’s name to stop like a siren, except he’s not listening at all. He growled, pushing deeper the trigger Elizabeth tried so hard to prevent.
“Gilbert—please,” she sobbed, “I love you. Don’t do this to me, please.”
His eyes widened.
For a split of second he inhaled, closed his eyes, his jaw tightened—until he went for the final push.
No, Elizabeth gritted her teeth. A series of vivid memories flashed before her; the one when both of them laughing after a tough day at the ramen stall near the neighborhoods; or that one in too many times they were playing skipping tones at the back of the old church while insulting each other; that long night of romantic movie marathon on bed, breathing in peppermint and sandalwood; snarky kisses and comments exchange on the peak of a ferris wheel ride; and when they walked down the riverbank the first and second time, warm from the promises and faith they spilled at each other in hope of a future.
What would happen to them now?
No, she gritted her teeth. At the last minute, using the remains of her senses, she snapped Gilbert’s wrist and brought the aim away from his side. Had her eyes shut and mind’s at point zero; she didn’t mind, she repeated to herself, as long as Gilbert didn’t get hurt, she didn’t mind.
Even if the bullet ended up thrusting at her side, warm crimson flowing down her skin, tainting the tassel of her white dress.
Even when she realized it was too late to do anything, her feet gave up to the wet ground as the force of the bullet drove her back—farther and farther away from Gilbert—plunging her to the pit she’s been looking over since she arrived.
Even if the last thing she felt was the lightness of her body in the mercy of gravity, and Yuriko’s hysterical scream echoing along with the shrill of fired bullet nearing the streams below, and the hand Gilbert stretched for her to grab only to remain untouched, was still stretched out even though she’s too far away to change her mind.
She didn’t mind.
Once again, the world didn’t side with him. He’s been walking on a paper-thin ice, not knowing how deep they cut him from under.
A hard kick of the bullet leaving the barrel was strong enough to push Gilbert away until he lost his balance and fell to the ground, delaying his response to the following horror.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened as blood running down the side of her arm, droplets ticking every second it had passed. And she tripped, falling away and away from his vision until neither of her two feet touching the very end of the land—
Gilbert was quick, quick enough to hurl himself to the edge and extend his arm, and he’s strong enough to pull Elizabeth back to the cliff. He’s still tireless enough to carry her on his back as Yuriko’s men chased them down to another side of the mountains.
Only thing he failed to realize, none of them would be happening if she’s unwilling to accept his hand.
Because Gilbert couldn’t push himself any further from the edge to be able to catch her, and Elizabeth was only smiling at him as her last reply.
Those hands he’s afraid so much to let go the moment she let him hold them, meant nothing now as they failed to connect.
Down to the bottom of the river, pierced a harrowing scream that was deafened by the loud ringing in their ears and the gnashing water in mourning. They screamed, screamed, screamed, like it could bring the person back if it was loud and agonizing enough to reach the sky.
Gilbert looked back, to tell Yuriko to stop, because even if He did listen, He wouldn’t be doing anything—only to realize she had passed out since long—and it was him screaming.
And he couldn’t stop. Even if his mind was already emptied out, leaving a giant hollow of void that wouldn’t be able to carry his body any longer. Yet the body moved by itself; stuttering steps rambled their way down to the slant landslide just next to the mouth of the cliff; trees blocking him everywhere but only the light at the end of the slide that filled his vision. Even after his feet gave up and sent him rolling down the sharp edges of the ground, breaking bones here and there and scarring his wounds even deeper, he wouldn’t stop hollering until there’s nothing left in his throat to give—
Because how else was he supposed to channel the spreading wildfire that rummaged through his insides, tearing his heart apart and devouring his hopes alive?
It couldn’t be one of his nightmares.
He could tell. He should have woken up now if it’s all a dream.
The pain was just too real.
His head hit rough stones where the earth had tossed him, as his body skimmed through the rocky surface. His hands ached when they tried to lift his torso and he felt them wet against the ground until the sound of running water struck him completely.
He was here. At the bottom of where it started and ended.
Not far from where his body intended to lead him, he didn’t have to limp further to see the white flounce waving in the wind—Elizabeth was sitting on a bigger stone just a few steps into the river as her brown hair gleamed below the peaking heat of afternoon, the smearing blood over her from earlier was cleansed and she seemed to be playing with the cold current under her feet, except that it didn’t drench her at all.
Instead, two meters behind her, sprawled a woman with blood coming out from her head, arm, and back. It stained the white dress she was wearing, tainting her bare pale skin and dyeing strands of her brown long hair as it tried to find its way to flow through the crack those pebbles made. The living proof Gilbert wanted to deny was there as well: the bullet resting peacefully in the hole it dug for both its and her grave.
His knees dropped in front of the cold body, a hand reached out to caress the dirt in her cheeks, down to the curve of her jaw and rested at the seam of her lips: stiff and color-drained, breathless. The sky was clear above him yet a rain fell upon Elizabeth’s, one drop and two, until a new, quiet stream was made.
“You’re late, Mr. Reaper.”
A voice cut through the suffocating air. Gilbert turned around and saw Elizabeth staring at him, a frown settled behind her fringe. Her soul was dimly sparked when clouds passed by, fading to the background of another cliff’s wall beyond. A literal ghost, was what he made her become.
“I’m here, you know.”
She approached him with steps as light as feather, bent down and bruised the tip of his cardigan, pale hands worked on the loose buttons to cover his shaking body, her mouth’s moving faintly as she complained why would he wear such thin layers when winter wasn’t over yet—
And it’s all Gilbert could take; everything left in him to stand on his knees, and a whole broken piece of heart not to succumb to the ground and decay with her; when he clearly knew this would be the last time they could ever feel the touch of each other.
So he flinched.
But she held him still.
Trapping his cheeks with both her hands, so those eyes wouldn’t fly away to anywhere unnecessary. Like she’s trying to tell him to look at her only and properly, this very last time.
“You have to do this, Gilbert,” she said, even voice leveled with the blaring alarm in him. “Look at me. We’re here. At the end of the road. We can’t run anymore, so please do what you have to do.”
“No, no, no, please—” he couldn’t breathe under her gaze, those blazing brown eyes pinning on him and punched air out of his lungs, smarting eyes burned from all the dried tears that would scar him for life “—I, I, I can’t, I thought I can do this, but… I’m sorry… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”
Her clasp tightened, and even with those seemingly small hands she was able to wrap him around her fingers like this, for it reminded him that she had him once, and so did he. “For what?”
For failing to protect you. For all the lies and broken promises. For not being the best person for you. For being a selfish coward even until the end.
“… for being a scum to everyone.” He forced a laugh, and it choked him all the way up. “I’m such an idiot.”
“You don’t—You’re not a scum, Gilbert… Why would you think like that—”
“You must hate me, right, Liz? For all the crazy shits I’ve made you go through. Don’t you feel disgusted? Why are you even here, talking to me? You should run to Yuriko, you’ll be safer with her and anyone but me!”
“Why would I? They’re not my reaper!”
“And I wasn’t either!”
“Yes, you are!” Through the mirror of her glassy eyes, Gilbert saw himself widened. “You are, now and then! Now shut up and act like one. I’m not a reaper, but I know you’re not supposed to cry at this moment, aren’t you?!”
Her hands fell to his shoulders, they’re cold against his layers and pierced right to his bones, sending shivers from top to the bottom. And she never let go. She never let him go alone, no matter the situation was.
From the start to the end, that’s “Liz” for him: his childhood friends that grew up to be a strong and beautiful woman, the one he fell for, and soon would be the only one.
“Remember when you told me you wanted to be my reaper so you can talk to me for the last time? This is it. It has come true, Gilbert, and I—” she swallowed, tears rolled down. “When you said that, I… for the first time I really wanted it to be true. Because I know I’m going to be scared, and I can be wavering at the last moment. I want them to be someone I can find comfort within, someone that whenever I look at them, I can be strong again. And the only person I can think of to give me all of that… was you. It has to be you.”
“But I didn’t do anything that you wanted from me.”
“Yeah, you didn’t.” She laughed, and Gilbert was met with no gust of air. “But I’m still glad it is you. Because of that, we can still talk like this, sorting out all the mess and leftover feelings we have. You know, of all people, I don’t want us to go badly. Maybe with this, we aren’t such a sad ending after all.”
Gilbert faltered under her. He still didn’t realize there was a heavy river down his face the whole time, and that his body was trying hard to keep him intact from breaking down even when the raging storm inside him hadn’t passed. Elizabeth seemed to notice, as she brought his head to rest on her shoulder where the rest of the tears would be buried together with her. So he bawled, and bawled, when no words and gestures in the world could carry his broken heart anymore, for it to be delivered to the woman before him.
And she would comfort him, like always, just like what she had been doing when they were ten during those cloudy nights in December at the church, except he didn’t bite his lips anymore to hide those ugly whimpers and incoherent pleas.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she whispered, then and now, while tapping light rhythms to his back. “We’re going to be fine. It will pass soon.”
Right, it will pass soon.
“We will be happy again. This won’t last forever.”
We will meet again.
Slowly, as if someone from behind had pulled him warm, Gilbert wiped away the doubts in his face and clenched his fist. He found himself looking at Elizabeth only and properly this time, taking notes on the curve of her face and swore to himself he wouldn’t ever forget how they looked like when she laughed, when she bitched about him, when she cried, when she’s looking at him. It was carved within him, and it would be the one memoir he brought everywhere with him that he wouldn’t ever lose.
Then he took a deep breath and started it: the chant that used to slur out his tongue like a daily prayer now weighed all the stories they made together and tasted more bitter than their favorite coffee.
“Miss Almássy, you died on March 13th for the cause of—” he choked himself again with the sobs, his eyes shut in a fight with the overbearing pain inside. “You… You have lived a good life. You may relish everything and move to the next stage—of life.”
The wind blew rough, stroking the tip of his hair and reminding him of his position. The silence hung in between, suffocating enough for Gilbert to desperately gasp for air. His hand, however, was cold stiff by his side, as if it’s another torture for him to raise and put it where it had to go.
“Wait, can I have one last say?”
Gilbert opened his eyes, feeling his chest tightened from all the pressure he trapped himself in. “… alright.”
She let go of him finally, leaving a sharp biting trail everywhere in his arms, shoulders, and face. Elizabeth had her tears wiped away too, and though she was a mere soul that wasn’t going to last any longer, the dim light in her turned brilliant than before. She’s the brightest soul Gilbert had ever encountered, and had ever laid his hand upon, and he was glad she was.
“I don’t prepare any dying letter for you, well, I’m…” Elizabeth rubbed the back of her neck, a habit she developed over time. “I’m bad at being a sappy person. So here I go, telling to your face in the most unromantic way of declaring my—”
“Liz, you know I—”
“I know you love me. So much.” She smiled, an unexpected one. “And I love you too, just as much. Maybe, a little bit too much.”
“I know,” said Gilbert, breathless.
“But listen. After this, I don’t want you to live for me anymore. I don’t want you to still think that a future without me is impossible. Your life is your own, so live for yourself. Love, or whatever it is, is only one of the fuel. The real fuel is the heart inside of you.”
She pulled his hand and put it over her head, and she didn’t leave until it firmed—and until she saw the tiniest bit of smile in Gilbert’s lips, Elizabeth sighed in relief for the first time.
“It was short, but it was fun.” Elizabeth winked at him. “I really meant it when I said I was happy. All thanks to you.”
His jaw hardened, reserving the smile and pushing it wider, and when it touched his eyes a tear rolled down again, but this time in a different meaning than before. “Thanks to you too, I was happy. It’s never smooth from the start, but… we somehow made it.”
“Made it in a beautiful ocean, huh?”
Clenched and unclenched, Gilbert arrived at his decision. With them smiling onto each other, there went the old saying that did them apart.
“May your soul rest in peace, Miss Almássy.”
Under the clutch of his hand, her soul shattered into thousands of subtle broken crystals that shimmered in the blue sky by the passing breeze; the reflection of soft tremulous light consisting of blue and purple dancing delicately around him before ascending further and higher, to where it had become out of grasp anymore.
And Gilbert watched them in awe, with both of his eyes. And when he realized they had gone too far away for him to reach, he took a step forward. And forward, and forward, until he ran to chase those fragments, in hopes of catching some of the miracle.
He hurled himself for the final crystal in the sky, landed on his chest with his hands clasped together in the air. When he opened it, all beamed up with hopes and faith,
there was only emptiness waiting at the end of the line.
The rest of the guards rushed over to the bottom of the pit, where they found a young man wailing on his knees, the shrill was sharp enough to cut a pity in them.
“All of you, stop.”
Yuriko, carried by two men by each of her sides, pulled off from their hold and dragged her feet to his direction, where she stumbled a couple times and dropped her glasses midway. She passed Elizabeth’s dead body, and not wanting to break early, she continued to limp until she arrived next to Gilbert.
“Good work,” she said, and her hand on his back was warm in contrast to what a soul had left him with earlier. “You did right.”
A bare sight of two heartbroken people and one tragic soul; and so the sun rose and the world continued spinning toward an uncertain future.
Time remaining: none.
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