‘Cause I swallowed the bubble gum, oh and these seven years will be pretty dumb (Clairo – Bubble Gum)
It was spring.
It was spring when the river behind the church flowed with fresh water again. Gilbert was eleven at that time, spending his first April in a place far away from his home, in a place full of strangers teaching him things he’s too ignorant to care. With wobbling legs and weak arms, he would sometimes play at the river to ease his boredom. Other kids would join him, but they often left too early once their clothes got wet enough. Boring, he thought. Even more boring when the church sisters persuaded him to come back to the house when it’s still afternoon.
He had not many friends. Kids in church were too good for his liking while Gilbert dreamed of life full of thrill and shrill. The place his parents sent him was never one he wished for. He knew he was born different, he just proposed a possibility where he could break free from the rules and live a life the way he wanted. That would be cool and not lame. That’s why not even the kids were bothered to get close to him.
Well, maybe Yuriko was an exception. That four-eyed girl was the coolest person he found so far at that church. She might not dream a life full of thrill and shrill like him, but the way she just didn’t give a fuck of everything sort of sparked an interest on Gilbert. They’re not that close, only chatting a few random things before parting for their own bustles. At least she didn’t judge him like most kids and sisters did. It made Gilbert comfortable being himself near her.
Until one day. A new kid joined the community. She was shy and polite-mannered, with a bubbly voice and brown hair, straight bangs fell to stab her own eyes. Gilbert yawned on her introduction, already marking her as another of the boring. Yuriko, who happened to be instant best friends with that girl, almost slapped him for picking his nose when the girl went past him.
In reality, that kid was really boring. She soon became the top of the class and everyone’s favorite. She befriended everyone and abased herself when they complimented her. Every time she blushed, everyone went crazy. Yuriko, too, got carried away with her. Together, they were boring.
So once Gilbert left himself out of the new phenomenon at the church, he found himself sitting by the river alone, playing skipping stones against himself. He used to think he’s cool for being different with everybody, but it never occurred to him that everybody probably thought he’s the most boring person ever.
It was lonesome, not to have any friends to celebrate with when he broke his own record—ten skips through the midway of the river. He stood up, blank eyes trying to find another stone when the rush of grass behind him ruined the perfect tranquility. He looked back to see amber eyes piercing at him. The tip of her dress fluttered on the breeze as she stepped closer.
Gilbert clicked his tongue. Here came the princess.
“Are you finally getting tired of everyone’s attention that you decided to invade my quiet space? Or are you angry because I am the only person in this place who doesn’t give a damn about you?” Gilbert smirked in satisfaction upon the halt of her steps. “Right. Whichever it is, don’t come closer and blame me if you come back crying!”
“I...” Her voice was shaking, and so was her whole body. She squeezed her hands together, eyes blinked in nervousness as she found other things to look at instead of the flare in Gilbert’s eyes. They looked watery already. “...saw you playing here alone everyday and thought to invite you inside... you seem lonely...”
“Who gave you permission? Because I ain’t getting back there!”
The girl was crying for real now, even though Gilbert had not done anything to her. It made him look like a bad guy, for all he cared. He thought it’d be easy to ease the guilt, but to be honest he never once made a girl cry before. So he’s now panicking inside on whether he should just run away or be responsible.
“What are you?! Are you crying for help?! Who do you think I am?! A monster?! Yeah, that’s right! I’m a monster, you should just run now before I hurt you!”
She cried even harder. Gilbert exhaled. He had expected the sisters to come and yell at him for causing troubles if only the river wasn’t that far from the house. It might take a while until someone heard loud sobbing and rushed here.
“So you really come here to cry on me. I’m flattered,” he said, planning to ignore her as he continued to search for stones.
“I-I’m here to d-drag you in!” she yelled, cracked between the sobbing.
“Not even your mother’s tears can tell me otherwise.”
“You’re so mean...”
He found one, the perfect size. Squeezing it inside his palms, Gilbert was so sure he could straight break a new record with this stone. So he stepped back to prepare for a square off before launching his arm forward, releasing the stone that’s trapped between his thumb and middle finger, mouth’s grinning brilliantly as confidence took him over—
The faint shout came too late. As his body leaned forward, his foot slipped on a mud and toppled his whole body to the ground. As if the world had promised things would never get worse than it’s already been, he fell right to the mouth of the river, face planted flat to the river stone.
Warmth started to flow down his burning nose. Body’s aching in pain, he forced himself to drag his face up and wiped it, only to find blood smearing his palms. He stared down to how soaked he was, shrugged in numbness as he plunged his face to the stream to wash away the remaining blood, ignoring the flickering pain on his nose. Looked like he broke it.
It took him rather a few seconds to notice the constant screaming from behind. Yeah, he completely forgot about her. The kid who watched him tripping at his favorite place, crying on the outside and probably laughing on the inside, soon returned to spread the sight to her fans and made fun about the whole thing. It’s stupid. But after a while, Gilbert might have deserved it in some ways.
He dared himself to look back and meet her eyes once again. She looked so ugly with red rimming her eyes, mouth’s agape in horror. “You’re bleeding!”
“Yes, princess, in case you never bleed yourself. Sorry for giving you such a sight.” Gilbert felt like crying because he couldn’t forever act fine and forget the pain, but his eyes were too dry. So he just stared at her, kept pushing the smirk until it also hurt. “You got what you want now. Come back and don’t talk to me again—"
To his surprise, she approached him, running down the grass to the riverside. Extending her arm to reach him, she didn’t hesitate when her feet touched water. The bottom lace of her dress soaked wet as she pushed forward and let more and more of her body sink to the depth of the river.
Until she also tripped herself and fell underwater.
Gilbert glared at her sudden disappearance. His heart’s been throbbing inside his head, wondering if she could swim or at least caught a breath in the process. The stream wasn’t that wild during spring, but strong enough to carry a thin girl like her if she didn’t fight back.
Without thinking, he inhaled big enough and immersed himself down the water level, looking for signs through his already stinging eyes. The water wasn’t too clear to hurry the search. Gilbert swore under his breath if once he swam up and found a reaper muttering her cause of death, he’d never forgive himself for being such a bad luck.
A strange flow hit his radar, turning him straight to the source. He dived up and inhaled a handful of air before plunging back and grabbed a part of wrist, pushing himself and her upright to the surface. Took him the last bit of his stamina to carry both his aching body and her dead weight back to the riverbank. Delicately, he laid her on the grass and slapped her cheeks softly.
Gilbert just realized he had never made an effort to actually remember her name. So all he shouted was hey! oi! dipshit, wake up! dang it!
The girl’s eyes fluttered open, brown eyes navigated the surrounding before she became alerted. A fountain of river water spurred from her mouth—some splashed Gilbert’s face—as she struggled to rise and sit.
For a moment, they sat there. Eyes meeting eyes, one soul staring into another soul, breath clashed together in a polite distance. She, Gilbert thought, though was soaking mud and gravel from head to toe, was strangely beautiful.
The girl’s sudden giggles broke Gilbert’s stray thought. A faint beam flushed her cheeks as she continued laughing with her wet, long hair tangled on each other; some fell and covered her face; droplets by droplets dripped from each pack of strains. Had she gone crazy, did she hit her head with a rock?. Then again, she didn’t hit him and run away when her clothes got way too wet like most of those children did.
“What is dipshit?” she asked between her laughs, voice squeaking in amusement. The tense earlier had been replaced with easy tease. “Is it some kind of words we have yet to learn?”
“N-None of your business!” Gilbert felt his face hot. “Don’t ask the sisters either!”
She stopped laughing, mouth’s fall in shock. “I-Is it one of the forbidden words?”
“What are forbidden words?”
“The sisters told us to be careful with some words since they can easily hurt someone...”
“Bullshit. It’s called curse words and adults grow used to it!”
Ah, he said it again.
“What is bullshit...?”
“You’ll know later! Keep it a secret for now!”
She was about to rebut when a sharp shout cut through from the house. They both turned around to see some older sisters were already running to their direction, worry and anger sparked on their face. Even a few meters away, Gilbert could hear a chain of scolds and nags, waiting to eat him alive once they dragged both him and her inside.
“It’s Liz,” the girl said slowly, just before the sisters arrived. “You can call me by my little name.”
“Ugly,” Gilbert muttered.
Just as he expected, they were both dragged to the house as the sisters scolded them about safety and not skipping class. The talk didn’t stop when they dried their hair with warm towels and tended their bruises. For a second, Gilbert forgot about his nose, which was more broken than ever by the time they took him to a hospital. He underwent a surgery and woke up with bandages encircling his face, body’s all numb and light.
Good, he swore under his breath, he’d be even more in surveillance once the hospital discharged him. No more escaping classes, no more playing on the riverside by himself, no more skipping stones, no more... running away from his problem.
The class mostly laughed at those stupid bandages; a very little people actually asked his condition out of worry, the rest just didn’t care. Gilbert didn’t care either. He would graduate this whole nonsense and be a reaper and take each of their souls mercilessly, not sparing a glance on their wishes. That way he could both be responsible for his fate and get revenge.
Except that now, somehow, he’s ‘friends’ with this Liz girl.
She’s the only one who’d check on his condition every day and asked if it still hurt or if he wished to rest in the infirmary. Gilbert once thought she’s teasing him, but turned out those eyes were genuine.
It’s annoying to receive such affection. Because he’s been starving to have it since the first day he arrived here. And he’s scared to cling into one because he knew it wouldn’t last forever.
“Is it a short for Lisa?” Gilbert once asked when he’s waiting for the nurses to unwrap his bandages. For some reason, she decided to tag along, sitting at a long bench with both feet dangling in rhythms.
She looked up and smiled. “No!”
“Sounds like a bad girl name. I’m not bad, you know!”
“Cute.” She pouted. “But nope!”
Gilbert sighed. “Is it even taken from your real name?”
“Maybe you should pay attention more when new people introduce themselves. It’s rude to ask someone’s name whom you’ve been with every day!”
“I didn’t choose to be with you! It’s because you follow me everywhere!”
“You seem lonely... So I take that as an invitation!” She stuck out her tongue while trying to make a buzzing sound. “It’s Elizabeth, by the way.”
The nurse came to undo his bandages, carefully unwrapping it from his face. When he stared into the mirror for the first time in months, he frowned.
Even Elizabeth caught that.
“Wow, Gilbert! You grew some nose! You look more handsome now!”
“It’s called being sharp-noise, dimwit. I didn’t just grow two noses in one face!”
Elizabeth closed her eyes, blocking every possible light from her bed lamp. Fragments of unrecognized shape clouded her lids as she tried so hard to shut her mind, but it wouldn’t. So she opened them again and blinked, feeling how dry her eyes were.
She didn’t know whether it was anger, relief, disappointment, or triumph that made her so restless at 2 A.M.
Grabbing her phone, she scrolled down the recent chat she had with Yuriko. It’s nothing important, she’s basically just reporting.
"Ha! Gilbert said he didn’t have any feelings for me!" she typed three hours prior.
"Oh? And it’s so urgent you have to tell me now?" Yuriko replied not long afterward.
"Yes. So you can’t shut up."
“How about you? How do you feel about him?"
Elizabeth had frowned upon the question. What did she feel about Gilbert? Certainly not nothing, but not anything either. Gilbert was her friend who had been on the same boat as her in terms of doing this job. They’d been through a lot but never strayed from each other. It’s not because they’re bound by any special connection—that’s just how friends worked. Elizabeth might feel safe and comfortable with Gilbert, but that’s it.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Yet something had stopped her from typing all of it.
So she left the question hanging, pretending to be asleep while she couldn’t even get a good one hour of peace. It’s strange that Gilbert, whom she saw indifferently five hours ago, might turn different today and tomorrow because of a spark of question.
Now that she thought about it, it could be a harsh rejection if she ever meant to confess for real. That only happened if she had felt different.
She shook her head and typed furiously to Yuriko, even knowing she wouldn’t be up at this hour.
“Got no time thinking about that.”
She became more restless when morning came. When she stared at the mirror, a soulless woman was staring back at her with those heavy eye bags and ripe pimples peeking out of her fringe. Elizabeth swallowed a scream, fiercely applied her concealer as she picked a uniform for work.
Back on the road, she flipped back and forth her agenda, making sure she’s going to the right address. It was an old-designed apartment on the town side; a building with uninteresting color with its garden withering to death. Elizabeth flinched at the sight before clenching her gut and stepped in.
Room number 5H, fifth floor with no lift. It’s good to work her thighs out and burn some calories after a sleepless night, so she refused to complain. After all, whoever was behind room 5H was going to have it worse than her.
She knocked and found a man in his thirties opened the door, shirt crumpled and splashed with different colors of paint, hands covered in worn out gloves, frizzy hair going into every direction, a pair of saggy eyes matched hers.
An artist, Elizabeth hummed in intrigue, but was let down knowing this wouldn’t end good.
“Hello, good morning,” Elizabeth bowed down, greeting the unshaken man. “I’m sorry to interrupt your work, Mr. Hansen. Can you spare me a second?”
“Is it...” He squinted his eyes at the small window on the corridor. “Morning already? Damn, the world shows no mercy on rotating, huh.”
“Ah, sure.” He rubbed his nape. “It’s messy inside. Forgive me for not taking care of my studio.”
“Ah, let me introduce myself first! I am Elizabeth and I’m here to ask you to join our charity program. That includes—"
Before she could finish conning him, the door was already opened wide for her to get in. “Inform me inside. You looked cold and tired.”
“Well...” Same went to him, but Elizabeth tried to bite back any unnecessary comment. “Thank you for having me in.”
His room was magnificent, if any words could describe what she felt now. It was exactly how she imagined a painter den would be. A raw, messy, untouched gallery. Framed paintings of different size hung asymmetrically on walls, each radiating different genre and styles. There were also unframed paintings that still sat on the stand, some covered with white cloth while others were put to face the wall. The rest was, well, a sea of chaos, with brushes and paint cans being thrown everywhere. That included the unmade bed, too.
At least she could still find a spot to sit, unlike Gilbert’s room that was a total lost cause.
She waited as Mr. Hansen made a drink for both of them. Taking appreciation for every painting she laid her eyes on, she hummed in grace whenever something interesting caught her eyes. Like a tiny little detail of smiley face drawn in disguise between a painting of sunflower petals. A cloud that resembled a bed, probably meant someone’s been dreaming of getting to bed soon. Bubbles that reflected an illuminated room. Christmas tree with blood dripping from its leaves as someone crumbled under it—
Okay, that was dark.
She stopped at a painting that was still on the stand, sun ray bathed every rough strokes Mr. Hansen made. It was put far away from the others with a chair before it, probably still in progress. What had Elizabeth stared seconds longer was how sad the painting spoke to her.
It was a painting of a woman. Wearing a white dress and a tiara, she sat facing forward, eyes glimmering in emotion as her thin lips curled up. She looked beautiful, like a bride on her special day.
It was supposed to be beautiful. Faint, soft colors made it look delicate and gentle. It spoke pure love and innocence, and Elizabeth could tell even when she’s no art critic.
But the fact that her smiles didn’t reach her eyes had Elizabeth’s wondering.
“Her name is Agatha.”
A cup of hot tea was set on the table, snatching Elizabeth’s attention back to Mr. Hansen. Unsure, she asked, “the woman on the painting?”
“She is such a sweetheart. I love painting her. Every now and then. I always imagine her in a white dress and think how breathtaking it will be.”
“Well, you see her now.” Elizabeth smiled. “She is definitely your Monalisa. Will you show her off in an exhibition?”
Mr. Hansen sat before her, his whole face frowned. “I can’t. Besides, it’s a request. I’m actually chasing my deadline now.”
“Oh. Did I interrupt you?” Elizabeth quickly sipped her tea. “Well, right. I make it quick then. Would you...”
She talked about how her ‘charity’ would mean to those who lived under a bridge, those who barely afforded a bottle of mineral water, those who never touched a school textbook. Mr. Hansen just nodded through her explanation, not bothering to second guess the fraudster. Elizabeth had done this too many times and never once considered this an easy job, but Mr. Hansen made it too easy today.
In the end, he agreed to donate a part of his leftover cash on his wallet. Elizabeth smiled as sincere as she could when their hands brushed each other and fraudulent money rolled to her palms.
“I’ll make sure to make good use of this. Just so you know, Mr. Hansen, you have saved a life or two,” Elizabeth said cheerfully, keeping her pitch high to cover the tremble beneath.
“Will I? Good then. At least I do well today.”
That twisted her stomach. “Mr. Hansen,” she called him. They were at the doorstep now and Mr. Hansen might set his eyes on her now, but he’s not quite there to catch her. “Could you promise me something?”
Mr. Hansen’s tired eyes slowly darkened into focus. “What promise?”
“That you’ll be happy no matter the outcome.”
“That’s impossible,” he replied quickly. “I’ve been trying, but every outcome has left me in another pit. I guess I just never recover.”
“Why?” Elizabeth protested. This was the first time someone ever dismissed her encouraging words. “Perhaps you should switch your glasses. We’re not living in a static world. You say it yourself that this world is rotating, so we have no choice but to follow, otherwise we’re doomed.”
“Miss Elizabeth.” Elizabeth jolted upon hearing the thickness of his voice. “I’ve been rotating with the same person since the start. What will I do now if she decides she won’t be with me anymore?”
She froze. “I—"
“How can I continue rotating by myself when I can see her happily rotating with someone that’s not me? Even the world itself will continue to rotate without me on it.
“Who am I... without her?”
She watched as her hands dropped Mr. Hansen’s bucks to a real charity box on the nearest church she found from his apartment. Now she donated them right, she washed away all the guilt from her. Well, in the end it’s still a wrong thing to do. Right, the sisters should just teach how to tell people what their intention was without scaring them back. Instead, they taught her how to use Microsoft Word to write a report to the headquarter.
Elizabeth stared at the boring-looking church and decided to visit in. Just as she imagined, it’s also plain on the inside, filled with plastic chairs instead of the wooden ones with kneeling pads. She sat anyway, watching the altar from afar with only a pierce sunbeam lighting her sight.
She prayed deep within for God to go easy on her, considering how short her lifespan had become. No more hard cases, no more naughty clients, no more far addresses, no more over 5000 words reports.
“Also please go easy on Mr. Hansen. I know he’s about to die, therefore he should spend his last moment with relief and happiness,” she muttered under her breath. “Gilbert and Yuriko, too. They are nice people. If possible, let them keep their smiles.”
By the time she went out of the church, the sun was nowhere to be seen. Heavy clouds were covering the sky as if a blizzard was about to whack the earth. Elizabeth quickened her steps to the bus stop when she felt a gaze had been following her from behind.
A creep, she thought. And sighed.
Clutching her bag, she’s about to do a roundhouse kick with her stiletto and stopped midair—since the creep turned out to be someone from earlier.
“Mr. Hansen!” She covered her wide open mouth. “I-I’m sorry! I thought you are—"
Mr. Hansen looked unfazed with her amazing reflex system. Instead, he tucked both his naked hands to his coat’s pocket and looked down.
“Did something happen?” Elizabeth dared herself to ask.
“Ah, well. I need to apologize to you for being rude earlier. I thought you’re just a nobody trying to talk me out without knowing anything, so I snapped. Turned out you’re just being nice.”
“Well, yeah. It’s fine. I understand—wait, does it mean you—?”
“Aren’t you those guys?” He tried to motion his words with his hands. “Stampers?”
Elizabeth was about to burst. Just how many times already she was found out. She’s so bad at this job. “You saw it, didn’t you? Y-Yes, I am stampers. And I may have lied to you, but I swear on my life I really donated your money for charity. Please forgive me.”
Mr. Hansen rubbed the spot on his collarbone. “Does that mean I’m going to die in thirty days from now?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth straightened her posture. “It’s a reminder for you to patch things up and make peace with yourself before they take away your opportunity.”
Mr. Hansen took a step closer so he could lower his voice. “Does it have to be exactly thirty days?”
“I know it’s short and unfair for some people, but everything goes back to the divine’s rules. It can get hard at times so I recommend you to start from today and not worrying about the numbers on your—"
“Can you shorten it until like three days?”
Elizabeth wished she heard wrong.
Mr. Hansen cleared his throat and bent down to reach Elizabeth’s ears. “Can you make my death scheduled faster? I know that’s impossible, but trying to discuss it with your superiors may prevent an act of suicide so I deeply appreciate if—"
"—I’ll be glad to take my death tonight, if possible.”
Elizabeth blinked at him in disbelief. Looked like God decided not to go easy on her today.
There were cases when numbers didn’t define their remaining times. One of them was caused by the humans choice themselves—suicide.
And it was the stampers’ job to make sure their clients didn’t die before the specified time. Or else, they’d receive a great sanction from the Angel of Death himself.
Elizabeth shivered at the thought, holding on the fabric of her coat as she ran on her heels. It was past dinner time and for all her love, she had managed to finish the rest of the job without losing her mind. But Mr. Hansen’s words rang in her mind at the end of the day. And Elizabeth couldn’t help but to pity him.
“Agatha was my lover,” he said earlier at the bus stop. “We’ve always been. She said she was in love with me and my creation. I painted her things and she’d sit next to me and watch as I stroked my brush on the canvas. I loved her—I love her. I painted her in secret and thought to surprise her the day I asked her hand on marriage. But the day never came. One time she stopped calling me for days. The next time I saw her on the streets, she was with another man.”
“So he is so heartbroken that he hopes to die quick,” Gilbert cut her story off when she met him later at a ramen stall. “How greedy. He should be happy he’s going to die in thirty days.”
“No, Gilbert. I think—" Elizabeth swallowed “—he’s seriously planning to die even before I stamped him. The idea of waiting thirty days for his life to end doesn’t even faze him a little.”
Gilbert slurped his remaining soup. “So it means you are the unlucky one for having to handle a suicidal client. Congratulations, you win a jackpot, I guess.”
“I’m not joking!” She accidentally slammed the whole table and shocked not only Gilbert, but the poor cook who’s probably been listening shyly. “This, well, I’m going to be honest that I don’t want to be punished for having my client die before the prior time, but I also genuinely want the best for him. I just never meet a client who is complaining that thirty days are too long...”
“We should check on him, then,” Gilbert replied, unusually calm and helping rather than being a jerk he used to be. “It could be tonight or anytime.”
“I’ve called the suicide hotline and gave them his address. So tonight’s probably fine. What scares me the most is tomorrow when everyone leaves him.”
“Let’s meet this Agatha person and see if we can persuade her.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “Persuade her to what?”
“To fix things between them. Neither we nor Mr. Hansen knows Agatha’s reasons, so let’s start from there.”
“Okay.” Elizabeth sighed, staring blurry at the now-cold tea in front of her. “Thank you, for being oddly supporting today.”
Gilbert threw a glance at her before reverting back to stare at the wall absently. “Actually, I didn’t have any money left in my wallet and I was thinking to find someone I know to—"
Mr. Hansen mentioned that Agatha worked in a local bakery downtown. After an overnight mapping over the city, they were able to estimate the total bakeries they had to visit later.
“There’s a lot,” Gilbert grumbled. “I can only do it from morning to 10. Sunday doesn’t mean no one dies, you know.”
“It’s fine. We can split up.” Elizabeth yawned, throwing herself to the puff of Gilbert’s bed. It was soft enough (and clean, thankfully) that she could snuggle her face to the material of his pillow. “I also have work. Ah, probably should visit Mr. Hansen first.” It smelled both peppermint and sandalwood, Elizabeth wondered if that’s how Gilbert smelled usually.
She stared at Gilbert for a while, who was still busy tidying up his maps. She had not known how and why she agreed to end up here; Gilbert had only offered a place to talk and she nodded, following him to the same apartment she’s been barging in for about five years. But the second she stepped her feet in, she wondered why it felt different when it’s supposed to be the same room. It’s still messy and the interior placement didn’t change at all, yet she felt like stepping into some kind of new territory that was... a man’s room.
And Gilbert—still in his leather jacket with a creeping faint smell of smoke, sitting on the bed while facing her—was oddly different too. Perhaps it’s because how close and often she looked at him, she didn’t notice how those baby fat cheeks she saw when they first met had shrunk into his current jawline, framing the entire feature of his face. Or how broad those shoulders had become overtime, and how much he grew ever since Elizabeth cursed him into being a midget. And how the edges of his eyes softened at some occasions, how polite and respectful he could be toward his clients even after all the swears he did behind the scene.
“Is there something on my fucking face?!”
She caught Gilbert crunched his nose at her and snorted. That totally ruined the moment.
“Don’t stain my bed, Liz. You think you’re still clean after a long day on the street?!”
“You haven’t showered, too!”
“This is my bed. Besides, I haven’t showered because of you!”
Elizabeth rose to sit, heat crawling up the back of her neck. “Fine. Go clean yourself. I’m going home.”
Her feet had not touched the ground when she could feel a press on her shoulder. Her pulse’s racing, and she turned around to see Gilbert as flustered as her, guilt overlapping his voice. “Kidding. You can stay here for the night.”
That’s unexpected. Elizabeth didn’t know how to respond. “What are the odds of me not going home safely? I still have 25 days left.”
“It’s just...” He lifted his palm, rubbing his neck as he tore his gaze away. “Something worse than death often happens at 11 PM. For example, you can be kidnapped or sold to a prostitution. There are more humans and organs trafficking lately involving hypnotic—"
“I don’t get it if you’re supposed to assure me to stay here or terrorize to me.” Elizabeth sighed and looked around. This room—this very same room she had been visiting—might feel different because she’s too tired to be aware. Elizabeth might as well have proved that there would be nothing changed between them by surviving one night here. That way she could both tell the world (and herself) that everything was as it was. “Okay, then, if you insist. But I don’t have spare clothes and I don’t know where to sleep.”
Gilbert rose to his feet and opened his drawer, rummaging its innards. “Got your leftover shirt from last time you’re having an uninvited slumber party here. You can choose to sleep on the couch or floor. No way I’m giving my bed to you.”
He threw a shirt at her as she caught it, checking it up close. “Did I purposely leave it here? You can just return it to me the next day!”
Gilbert grabbed his shirt and walked to the bathroom, not batting a glance at her. “Well, considering how often you crash drunk here, might as well save a spare on my drawer. You should be thankful, no friends will want to do that.”
“Boyfriends do that,” Elizabeth blurted out, before being slapped awoke by her own words. She looked up in horror to see the bathroom door had already been closed from the inside and a rush of shower filled the afterward silence.
She screamed in her mind.
It couldn’t get any worse, she thought, even when he came out of the shower fully-clothed. The water dripped from each strain of his hair to his shoulder, some flowed slowly from his temple down to the line of his jaw, tracing every nook of it until it dropped to the floor.
“Your turn,” he said.
She didn’t answer him, just running like a madman into the bathroom and locked it, falling into a pool of his shower as she cupped the warmth of her face. The air around was too damp and she could smell mint and sandalwood stronger here than ever, knowing they didn’t help at all.
Gilbert was lying on his bed when she came out, arms stretched to the air as he ferociously typed on his phone. The light’s off and only the dimness of moonlight struck through the small part of his window. Elizabeth threw herself at the couch and spread a random blanket over herself and gripped it tight. She hated that literally everything in this room smelled like its owner.
“There’s no guarantee this Agatha will give us an honest answer.” His voice pierces through the buzzing on her ears. “Don’t be disappointed if we can’t do anything to fix it. Just remember you have done all you can to prevent his act.”
“Can I say that to Azrael and wish he forgives me just because I’m dying, without getting my contract canceled?”
“He will. They need you after all.”
“Okay.” She breathes out. “But I’m really doing it for Mr. Hansen. That’s why I’m going to push through.”
“Then again, I come to think a love quarrel is not worth it. Leave him be, whether he wants to die or not. No matter how much we try, sometimes we just can’t understand it. Love, I mean.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure if he choked on himself or downright chuckling. “Well, I’m here to help you only.”
“I wonder why Agatha did that,” she replied, voice as silent as snowfall in the night. “If she’s brave enough to leave him that way, then she might never have an idea at all how much she meant to Mr. Hansen. That’s not fair. What is everything they ever did even all about?”
“That’s why I told you we can’t understand it.”
“Does everything he did to her not mean anything to her? He’s been sweet and kind to her, even sparing his time to paint her portrait. Now the painting doesn’t even mean anything. I know exactly where Mr. Hansen’s sorrow comes from. Every time he looks at her in the painting, it’s like looking at his graveyard.”
“Well, there goes those left behind people. They suffer the most.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“What about me, then?”
“You? What about you?”
Elizabeth looked up to see Gilbert staring at her from the edge of his bed, already putting off his phone. Gilbert licked his lips and Elizabeth couldn’t help but to follow.
“Do you think everything will be okay after you leave?”
“Why? It won’t?” Elizabeth slurred and winced at how uncertain it sounded. “It’s not like the world will end afterward.”
“The whole world won’t. But the tiny little one everyone has may.”
Mr. Hansen’s words once again rang in her ear. That he couldn’t survive by just rotating alone.
“You make the sound of ‘leaving’ easy to people. You shove any thoughts of people may suffer from losing you just because it pleases you the most. People who only want you to be happy will have no choice but to accept the way you treat them. You decide things on yourself, thinking you’re being generous, but in the end all you do is to hurt them.”
Gilbert got up and moved to sit on the floor where he could finally face her, locking their tired eyes together. Elizabeth felt a shock electricity flowing down her spines. She couldn’t move.
“To be gravely honest, I’m sad. I’m sad of you leaving. It’s not just one-day-then-I-get-over kind of sad, I don’t think I’ll ever recover from it. For some reasons I can’t bring myself to tell you because I’m too hot headed to admit while you’re so busy thinking I’ll be okay. But it’s been five days and it got worse since. So what if... what if you admit the fact that everyone is sad and scared of what will happen? You don’t have to act strong around us, because no matter what you do, we still feel deep loss whenever it comes to you. That shows how much you mean to us.”
It’s strange. Seeing Gilbert wearing his feelings at his sleeves bare like this was strange. What’s more strange was all he said was true.
“Thanks for telling me, though. It’s way better than hiding it—"
“I’m scared too!” Elizabeth snarled, voice cracked embarrassingly. “But what can I do but to put up strong? Crying everyday and whining every second possible about my death to you? Letting everyone know I’m sad and have them pitying me on a daily basis? I know I’m dying for a reason but I still love you guys, that’s why I keep assuring people that it’ll be okay because that’s how life is supposed to go! Letting go and moving on, accepting new people, loving every person who may come and go in their life. If you can’t at least do that, you’re going to end up empty like Mr. Hansen!”
Silence screamed. Gilbert’s eyes were flaring. Elizabeth’s tongue burnt.
“But seeing you faking smiles these days even makes it harder.”
Warmth bathed Elizabeth’s freezing palms, calloused hand wrapped up around hers. Anything Elizabeth had on her throat vanished and her mouth flew close, eyes trailing down to the foreign touch. Even if it’s foreign, she felt safe wrapped like this. So she didn’t pull away.
“Let’s do it together.”
She looked up again, her heart throbbed harder. “Do what?”
“This 30 days shits, you don’t have to go alone.”
She only remembered nodding before giving in to the moment, letting the loose end of their conversation answered the rest of the unspoken. As the night went, and dreams awaited behind her heavy eyes and the smell of mint. When she woke up, he’s still there next to her, the tip of his fingers brushed hers.
Time remaining: 25 days.