30 Nights and Tomorrow On

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I know you love me, but forever is too much. I wanna hear you say: I do (Renzo Reisch – My Mellow Love Song)

Elizabeth tried not to think of what happened last night, instead she focused on catching a sign of every local bakery she found on this side of the city. They were both exhausted and Gilbert was unusually, well, open. It could be for the liquor they drank hours before they got into the discussion. Even if it was, it projected a clear view on how he felt and Elizabeth was not sure why she could snap her whole feelings at him when it’s the last thing she ever wanted to talk about.

Gilbert didn’t mention anything from last night too. He just woke up and put on his clothes, stating the first bakery he had his eyes on. Elizabeth came to think he had forgotten almost all of it.

The smell of fresh-baked pastry traveled through the air as she pushed another door. If only this was the first bakery she visited, she might get excited over the delicious smell. A bell placed at the back of the door rang, immediately buying attention.

“Good morning, may I help you?” The lady on the cashier greeted her. “Isn’t it too early to work?”

“I got an unfortunate shift, apparently.” Elizabeth chuckled as she narrowed her sight to scan the surrounding. Only one worker so far, and her name tag didn’t match what she looked for. It’s the ninth bakery and none of the previous workers knew what she talked about. She already felt bad herself for leaving each of them without buying anything. “Uh, Miss, I’ve been looking for someone named Agatha who’s working at a bakery in this district. Perhaps you know her?”

The lady stared at the ceiling for a while before shaking her head. “Well, never has any employees named Agatha here.”

Well, there went another bummer.

“But I do recall a thing or two about that name. Recently, it’s been flying from one mouth to another.”

“Really?” Elizabeth drew closer, too excited for whatever the outcome was. “Can you tell me about it?”

“It’s not pleasant news, young woman.”

Elizabeth gulped, but continued, “I am prepared.”

The lady bent down to reach Elizabeth’s ears and whispered. There were only both of them in the bakery, but Elizabeth swore she could hear something shattering.

Her phone rang and Gilbert’s name popped out on the caller ID. She picked it up in a hurry as she strolled out and ran her way back to the meeting point. “Good timing, Gilbert. I was about to call you.”

“Yeah. We need to talk.” He also sounded panicked. “Did you hear it too?”

“A little.”

A little devastating truth, if she could be honest now.

“Let’s meet at Mr. Hansen’s apartment. We need to tell him.”

***

Elizabeth arrived earlier at the apartment. She didn’t get on the same bus with Gilbert, so she’d predict Gilbert would arrive by the next stop which was ten minutes later.

That’s considerably a long gap of time; Elizabeth was in no position to forsake any minute longer. She rushed inside, taking each step of the long stairs until she arrived at room 5H. Not bothering to lower down her tone, she knocked his door to its death, sweat rolled down her forehead impatiently. She breathed for the first time when Mr. Hansen opened the door, this time not wearing any gloves or splashed with paints.

“This is too early,” he said, letting out a smile. “Thank you, Miss Elizabeth, for your assistance yesterday. I assume you’re here to inform me of good news.”

“Right. Mr. Hansen, you might not believe me but—"

“Have you talked to your superiors?”

Elizabeth stopped midway. “Talked?”

“Ah, you haven’t.” His smile wavered. “I asked you to shorten my number, did you forget? There’s no way you forget, though. I surprised you last time.”

“It’s mundane,” replied Elizabeth quick, catching her breath. “There’s nothing we can do about your numbers. The talk itself is not worth the try.”

“I see.” Mr. Hansen flinched in utter disappointment. “I was right all along.” He took a step backward, still letting the door open. “That I should have just ended it.”

“Sir!"

“It’s not your fault, Miss Elizabeth. I have made up my mind. The numbers—" he caressed his shoulder as he continued to fall back ”—don’t matter at all, for the outcome is the same.”

Elizabeth felt like chained to the wall. She saw it with her own eyes that Mr. Hansen’s life was about to slip, yet she couldn’t do anything at all. Her words failed to reach him. A part of her hated herself, because that part thought Mr. Hansen was right.

Once you were numbered, whoever you were, the outcome would be the same. In the end, everything you did during the last thirty days would only be a memory for those you left behind. It’s all an act you did so you could die in peace and guiltless.

Because we all lived for the sake of dying without regret someday.

But Mr. Hansen had no longer had a person to free his guilt. So there’s no absolute reason to continue holding on. He’s dead once she’s gone.

Elizabeth watched him climbing the room’s windowsill. The morning light bathed him softly as he looked down, measuring how high it would be. He smiled and turned his back for Elizabeth one last time. “You better flee, Miss. I don’t want you to become the first suspect of my death.”

“Mr. Hansen.” Elizabeth said, staring at a completely different focus. “What are you going to do with the paintings, then?”

“Ah, my paintings?” Mr. Hansen ran his eyes around his room. “They don’t matter. None of them ever holds any meaning. I just painted them because I need money.”

“Not because of someone?” Elizabeth raised her voice. “Not because... you have someone to show?”

Mr. Hansen peered at her, his eyes pulling into focus. “What do you mean?”

“The sunflowers with a smiley face.” Her fingers pointed out sharp to a painting hung on the wall. “You had happy times. It seemed like sunflowers reminded you of someone whose smiles were as bright as the flowers. You projected those memories into a painting so you wouldn’t forget the feelings.”

“Sunflowers are a universal sign, you know. I only paint it out of demands.”

“The clouds that look like a bed. At first I thought there’s only one person in the painting: the Mr. First Person himself. But I noticed someone else at the other side of the street, drawn faintly so she could blend with the crowd, waving her hand directly at Mr. First Person. It was hard to notice at first, but once you saw her there, it’s getting hard to ignore. My guess is you met this particular woman back when you were young and since then it’s hard to not see her face first in a crowd, you couldn’t help but to dream of spending a night with her.”

“They are minor details I don’t bother drawing in—"

“The bubbles.” Elizabeth cut a gaze through, it lingered long there. A sudden well flowed up her stomach as she stared at the painting. “It reflects a room. Looks like a bar to me. It was beautiful, you’re playing the colors well. You’re also making sure anyone who sees it spots a woman’s back reflected in one of the bubbles. Her back was turned from Mr. First Person. She seemed like she’s about to leave him.”

“I just don’t want to draw her face!"

“The bleeding Christmas Tree. The guy who is sobbing underneath the tree looks like he’s going to spend his first Christmas alone. Not only he didn’t receive any gifts, he even made sure he decorated the tree well in case someone would be visiting him to celebrate Christmas together. A clean party is no party, no one comes.”

“Miss!”

“Your Monalisa.” Elizabeth’s voice pierced across the room. “Miss Agatha Wellington on her wedding. You said someone ordered the painting, and you’re rushing toward its deadline. So why did you give up finishing it? It’s your dear Agatha we’re talking about.”

“Because it didn’t matter, like I said!” Shrill carried through the air, Mr. Hansen’s dead eyes now burnt in rage. “Why should I finish a piece I don’t like? Why should I finish a piece I won’t be proud of? She’s going to get married to another man and his man asked me whether I can paint her beautiful—what am I supposed to respond to that?! I better die, leaving this piece as my revolt, than having to see it displayed on her wedding!”

“Miss Agatha is not going anywhere, Mr. Hansen.” Elizabeth went firm. She swallowed the hard lump back to the throat before dropping the truth. “She always chooses you, no matter where she ends up. It’s her choice, and she might be looking at your paintings now. So don’t bother leaving them rotting.”

Mr. Hansen sighed, shaking his head. “She doesn’t care anymore.”

“No, she does!”

“In what deal I should trust you when you know nothing?”

“We know, though.”

Elizabeth turned around to see a man approaching. Gilbert looked disheveled as if he had run here instead of taking the bus. As much as he tried to look nonchalant, he shoved both his hands to the pocket and walked in with heavy breaths, ignoring the concerned look Elizabeth threw down the corridor.

Mr. Hansen was about to question him when Gilbert picked up the white cloth that was covering Agatha’s painting. He took it from the stand and stretched it across until the three of them could see it together.

“She’s pretty. At least that’s what I learnt from your painting. For a guy to hopelessly fall to her, spending his times polishing this piece. A pity, then.” Gilbert breathed out and looked Mr. Hansen in his eyes. “This woman is no longer here with us to witness her own masterpiece.”

“What...?”

Elizabeth looked away. She had heard everything from the cashier lady: the truth about Agatha Wellington. Yet she couldn’t help but to be as disbelief as Mr. Hansen right now when Gilbert dropped the tone.

“Agatha is dead.”

The mirror shattered. Elizabeth had witnessed the fallen of a man.

“Agatha’s already dead,” Gilbert repeated, letting the cloth fall. “Exactly a week before you saw her walking with another man. I looked up the data through my connection and found out the cause: brain aneurysm. Apparently, she’s been hiding the severe headache even after getting stamped.”

Mr. Hansen dropped his gaze. The ember of anger blazing throughout his body had gone out, replaced with nothing but hollowness. He shook his head and mumbled uncontrollably. But the truth remained untouched. “I saw her with that man... and then a man came and asked me to paint her in her wedding dress. That man... was the one by her side!”

“Mr. Hansen, I’m sorry to say this, but—" Elizabeth paused to swallow a hard lump ”—you’re hallucinating. There’s no such thing.”

“Foolish! I saw him with both my eyes, I-I remembered every word he dropped and every way he held her hands! There’s no way I’m mistaken; Agatha is not dead!”

“In your world.” Gilbert cut off again before Elizabeth could jump in. She glanced at him and saw a perfectly calm man, facing a suicidal man who’s about to jump, and he remained shoving those hands to his pocket. Sometimes she wondered whether she’s also hallucinating or that man was truly Gilbert, her childhood friend. “Remember one last time, sir. Did the man who asked you to paint her flash you a familiarity? Did you ever recognize him?”

“He’s a complete stranger!”

Mr. Hansen was shaking.

“Think again.” Gilbert stepped forward. “Try to make out his whole face and body features. He might be someone you knew.”

“I don’t know!”

“Who else could be walking by Agatha’s side other than you? Whom else Agatha accepted to accompany her? Who else from you two could replace one with another, if not death itself? When you think about it, it’s impossible, right?”

Mr. Hansen flew silent. The winter breeze blew inside, gnawing at Elizabeth’s bones even when she’s still standing at the doorstep. Mr. Hansen had to be shivering to death, relying his entire body on the small windowsill like that.

Elizabeth spoke up, clutching her coat closer to her body, “Everyone on the downtown witnessed you coming to her funeral. You knew she’s dead from that time, yet it was so hard to let go that you altered your own memories. Instead of making a happy one, you forced yourself to find a way to let go by hurting yourself, making up a story of Miss Agatha leaving you. In the end, everything backfired to you.”

“There’s never another man, Mr. Hansen,” Gilbert continued, looking up to the man who’s breaking apart before him. “You’re the only one for her. Until the end. She chose you.”

Every droplet of water that fell to the sink sounded suffocating. The air thickened, sending twist to her stomach as hushes of breath traveled across the room. The silence was murderous, until Mr. Hansen laughed hysterically.

This was the first time Elizabeth ever saw such a rich expression coming from a man who declared himself soon-to-die a while ago.

“It’s me,” he said between the uncontrollable chuckles. “It was me who walked with her on that street. It was me who asked to paint her. It was my face all along who pissed myself at how much close I was to her. So it was all for nothing! I have lost!”

“Agatha had left you with her love. Therefore, you should repay her by living to the fullest, even for only less than thirty days. That’s the proper thing to do after all.”

Gilbert’s words rang a bell on her. It’s the same as what she overheard back in the sorrowful corridor where Gilbert and Mrs. Smith sat after her husband’s death.

“Proper thing to do?” The laugh had calmed down, but a pair of gaze that met both Gilbert’s and Elizabeth’s wasn’t getting warmer. What they found wasn’t relief or motivation. Darker than before, emptier than ever. This man carved the end. “There’s no proper thing to do. I’ll end it right away just as planned because nothing has changed after all. Agatha is dead? So what? Does it fix me a little?”

“You shouldn’t think like that. You have hurt Agatha enough these days!”

“Did she ever listen? If she’s here, then she should just end my suffering instead of luring me into one! You’re just making things up!”

Gilbert’s flaring, taking out both his hands out of the pocket. “Stop it! She’s watching you now!”

“Now that’s nonsense.” Mr. Hansen tore his eyes away to the point below the window. The ground was covered thick by snow and how terrifying it would be to be tainted by blood splash everywhere. The man didn’t care anymore. He dragged his feet to the verge and let gravity take over his balance. The eyes before the fall were smiling.

“Farewell, world.”

“MR. HANSEN!”

Elizabeth ran forward as a loud crash drew jolted cries from passerby under, ignoring Gilbert who didn’t do anything to help. She gaped at the split second nightmare before climbing the windowsill, afternoon sun ray blinded her sight as anxiety raced at the back of her mind.

It’s never about the punishment she’s trying to avoid.

She’s scared. To see people this afraid of life. To think they’d rather die than living it with every of their remaining heartbeat. Because she had not many left, and often wondered if someone wanted to trade their yesterdays for her tomorrows.

A pull on her forearm made her stiff under Gilbert’s grasp. His breath was fueling against her scalps and the still grip on her arm burnt like a molten lava. Elizabeth’s mind went blank, body’s trying to break free while eyes locked on the windowsill where whispers from the ground could be heard through. She fought, screamed, and begged—but Gilbert’s hold tightened.

“LET GO OF ME! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Liz, what are you doing?”

His voice was surprisingly calm that it alarmed her. The tension of her struggle lessened when she looked back to stare at him. “It’s not too late, Gilbert! He might still be breathing now and we can help him! Or if you’re that coward and have given up on him, let me go down and help my client myself!”

“M-Me? Coward?” He snorted. “Just so you know, I helped him. I helped a lost-cause who had planned it all, who couldn’t be talked through any word, who believed his imagination more rather than reality, so I let him do whatever he wants because that’s the only way he can experience it! And that’s the only way I can prove my point.”

“Experience what? A suicide fall? Death? What point are you trying to prove?”

His voice dropped. “That miracle in the form of love does exist.”

A bile of sourness fell to her stomach. “What do you mean?”

Gilbert let go of her gently, letting Elizabeth’s balance waver to the lost support. “Didn’t you see it? The figure you want to become?”

Elizabeth blinked at him. A sudden realization ran through her spine and woke her. She didn’t spare any time to climb back the windowsill and look down, this time with no intention to jump and chase after Mr. Hansen. Because he was already safe inside an embrace of an angel.

It’s exactly how Elizabeth portrayed inside her mind; the guardian angel looked so beautiful with a long, white dress dangling below her knees. She had a pair of faint wings carrying both her weight and Mr. Hansen’s as she gently fluttered down to set him on his feet. Her long hair was braided low and tucked by a crown of daisies. Thin lips pressed tight, mirroring Mr. Hansen’s bitten lips. He looked at her in wide eyes and expression reflecting the mix of spring and forest fire.

There’s no mistake that the angel was Agatha Wellington herself.

People beneath were watching in disbelief as Mr. Hansen was descending in a pace that was too slow to not attract any eyes. To them, Mr. Hansen was literally flying his way down alone. To himself, Elizabeth, and Gilbert, someone was risking her presence for Mr. Hansen with tears flowing down her cheeks and heart at her throat.

Mr. Hansen gaped at her, even after she landed him, all safe and unhurt. Not a second later, he was crying. He dropped his knees to the ground and cried, ignoring his surroundings for she was the only one that mattered right now. Agatha bent down next to him, lips curled and finger brushing his left collarbone, digging the spot where two digit numbers were printed the day before. She was pale and didn’t look human anymore, but her smile surely never changed. Because as soon as he looked at her again, he caressed the edge of her unfurling lips and choked at how real it was—how real she was even when his touch went through her.

She mouthed something, her hands were shaking midair when she tried to wipe his tears. Mr. Hansen closed his eyes to try to recall the warmth they used to share. When he opened his eyes, she’s no longer there, leaving him with only the ghost of her voice and feather touch, praying it’d linger longer on him, at least until the time of their reunion came.

Elizabeth watched all unraveled with a palm pressed to her shoulder, the man behind stood patiently while tasting bitter at the back of his throat.

***

They waited in silence for the next bus, empty roads stretched endless before them. The winter at this side of town felt colder and haunting because of the lack of interaction and neighborhood; someone as susceptible as Mr. Hansen could easily fall for depression when living here. The breeze bit bones and inhaled blood, Elizabeth shivered for sitting at the face of death in search of some transportation to take her away soon from this place.

A coat fell from her side, draping on her shoulders and warmed her. She glanced sideways and found Gilbert yawning at her, wiping bullets of water on his eyes.

“That’s so sweet of you,” Elizabeth joked instead of thanking him, but it came out weak. She’s tired of having to deal with work while the pressure from numbers on her collarbone weighed her down. What happened last night replayed in her head again; she remembered how warmth immediately spread out her whole body when only the tip of their fingers brushed; how soft and comfortable Gilbert’s couch was; and him sitting next to her while sending lullabies of sweet words, assuring her that she didn’t need to fake it anymore. Those sad eyes, and those feelings worn openly like it never came out before, with the moonlight lit the part of his face she liked the most. “You’re really going soft, aren’t you?”

And lots and lots of things she had yet to notice from him, ready to devour her someday. Elizabeth was half-upset that she was the only one who had to remember what happened as she suffered alone for it.

“You lent me your scarf. Just consider it as my return.”

“You mean, your whole coat?” Elizabeth stroked her finger through the material of its sleeves. “Thanks!”

“Fuck you, Liz. Buy it yourself.”

“Ah, I can’t. It will be a waste after I’m gone.” Elizabeth let herself smile. “What am I going to do with my wardrobe then? I should be thinking about it. Like, what happened to the room who has lost its owner? Does someone come to clean it up?”

Gilbert looked up, eyes searching for the answer up in the sky. “Don’t know. Usually the families come to take over things. The remaining furniture and utensils are left generously for the next owner.”

“But won’t it be too sentimental for the next owner? Using tools from a dead person, that sounds bad enough.”

“Well, as long as the next owner has no connection with the previous one, everything’s good, I guess.”

“Right, then. Do you mind taking over some of my stuff? Like TV, kitchen tools, books, um, potted plants? They’re easy to care for. You only need to be gentle when watering.”

“Uh, uh...”

The Gilbert today, Elizabeth thought, lacked his usual fiery bite. It’s almost a shocking news to see him quiet, like he’s deep in thoughts or something, not looking for a way to insult her.

Elizabeth sucked her lower lips and grinned when she found a material to banter. “I lost today, okay? I thought you really gave up on Mr. Hansen. I was so scared to think about my punishment, but I guess it’s my fault for not realizing it. Miss Agatha is pretty, isn’t she? The painting doesn’t lie. Ah, I wish someone would paint me before I die. Whoever they are, I’ll be their guardian angel!” She squinted her eyes, dragging them to Gilbert. “Except you. Not that you want to spend your time painting me anyway.”

Gilbert fully-turned at her now, lifting his chin so he could look down on her. Elizabeth smiled at the riled up, the label of childhood friend had once again returned once Gilbert decided to send her a mocking glare. “Are you trying to admit you’re lost, or are you trying to bash on how untalented I am at art? Either way, I absolutely give no shit.”

“Ohoho, quite an attitude! You can tell me honestly that you want me to be your angel. I keep it a secret and may as well consider it.” She laughed though not sure if she ever meant it.

Gilbert still had his chin tilted at her, only there was uncertainty swimming across his face when he frowned. “It will be a waste, though. Guarding me, I mean.”

Her laughs halted. “Why? Do you think you're strong enough to survive alone in this world? Good for you because there goes my decision on considering a cocky like you.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Elizabeth felt her stomach clenched upon an unexpected retreat. “I’m just a man who is trying his best to complete my purpose, not a fully-functioning human in the society. My position can be easily replaced by anyone else once I’m done, and then I’ll be nothing. So I’m not that worth it to be guarded.” He breathed out hastily. “I recommend you go for orphans. They need you the most.”

“What the hell?” Elizabeth blurted out without thinking. “What’s with you today? Deadly quiet and gloomy. You’re supposed to answer me, ‘Hah! No one wants to be guarded by a cocky angel like you too!’ or something like it. Don’t just go along.” She stopped herself before going further, already regretting half of her words. “Well, you’re right about going for orphans, though...”

Gilbert lowered his chin until they were on the same eye-level, digging deeper to Elizabeth’s glare. He stared and stared, lazy eyes scanning her for a long moment, enough to make Elizabeth uncomfortable.

“W-What?”

“I feel like… I messed up big that time. Sorry, I wasn’t in the right mind. I shouldn’t have invalidated your feeling when you’re only trying to cope.”

“We—" Elizabeth cut herself, heat rushing to her head ”—you mean, last night? You remember?”

The memory of fingers lacing together through the rest of the night tingled heavily. Elizabeth shook her head, hoping it would go away by itself.

Gilbert sighed, leaning closer to her so he could lower his voice. “Slightly. I don’t remember planning to tell you those, it must be the liquor effect. I guess I was quite harsh on you, even though you were only voicing your thoughts. Sorry, again.” He turned around to see a bus coming from the distance. “I was also getting tired pretending. So that spilled.”

“So it was real...”

“Did I shock you?” He turned back at her, now with a smile stretched tauntingly. “I learnt that honesty is the perfect way to score an argument.”

Elizabeth ran her tongue on her teeth. “Are you really sad that I’m leaving?”

It took him a few seconds to register, a few seconds to pass for the bus to stop smoothly in front of them. Its door flew open, inviting her in but not him—because apparently it wasn’t the bus with a line Gilbert wanted to take. Gilbert didn’t react about having to part with her. He stood instead and ran his hand through Elizabeth’s messy hair, some strands getting caught between his fingers.

“Why would I be sad over you taking a different bus with me?” he said teasingly, pulling his coat from her shoulders. “Just leave. The driver is glaring.”

“It was you who—" Elizabeth stood up, a bluster of emotion exploded ”—you’re the one who told me to be honest! So be it now! I want to understand you!”

“I am.”

The honk startled both of them. Elizabeth turned her back to bow for the driver, asking for additional one minute, only to be shoved by Gilbert into the bus and cut by his quick apology to the driver.

The door closed and the road moved. The bus stop moved, Gilbert moved. Or they did not. It was her who left them, further and further, being the only passenger on the bus that would deliver her to a place she’s not sure of.

Elizabeth slumped to the nearest seat next to the door, thinking about some nights. Night when she told him about her numbers. Night when she heard Gilbert had stormed into Yuriko’s office because he’s mad she stamped her. The same night she fake-dated him for free parfait, the heart on his eyes broke when she said she was happy to leave.

Night when he crashed into her room only to make sure she’s fine after stamping Mrs. Lee. Night when they stopped at a crossroad, Elizabeth was sure she heard something crack (not sure if it’s hers or his) when Gilbert said he didn’t have any feelings for her. She thought about nights in Gilbert’s messy room, spreading out maps on his bed and reading them together, shoulder to shoulder, eyes to eyes, the smell of sandalwood and mint clashed and drove her drunk.

Some nights when they’re still students in a countryside church, learning that they wouldn’t grow up normally like any of the children their age. Nights when they sneaked out together to read fairy tales at library and laughed at how stupid they were. Other nights when she crossed his room after a toilet-break and heard muffled cries from the inside. One night when she dared herself to peek through the gap of the door and found him fighting back his sobs while holding an old photograph of three persons: him, a man, and a woman.

Elizabeth closed her watery eyes; she hated herself for being capable of loving someone.

***

Gilbert stared at empty liquor bottles at the kitchen and thought, ah, this must be it. These were the things that sent him insane last night, enough to make him spill everything, making Elizabeth worry the hell out of her, and now crawling at his back as a regret.

He had admitted to Elizabeth that he’s sad about her death, but what would come from that? Would it change anything? Would it tamper their whole relationship now? The ignorant Gilbert who didn’t care if the world went to end tomorrow, did actually care under the brick of his facade, which he carried until he himself got sick of it. Amazing, what a character development.

Throwing himself to his bed, he could almost feel any trace of Elizabeth from last night to this morning by heart. When the first thing she did when she arrived here was to get a drink on the kitchen, when she stole his alcohol from the drawer and drank it herself before offering to its respectful owner, when she jumped to his bed, sprawled over the sheet in excitement as he offered her theories and stuffs, and the way his bathroom air turned humid after her shower. When she slept at the couch, hairs falling to the floors and left a few strands there—

He stared at his fingers and dropped it as soon as he remembered what happened.

It’s a wonder why Elizabeth had not freaked out and ran outside regarding his sudden change of behavior.

“God, why...” He had to slap himself hard with his pillow to regain his senses. But it’s not enough to relieve the heat that’s slithering from his face to neck.

It was evening and his backbone hurt from work when a phone call forced his eyes to open. For a second, he wished it was Elizabeth calling him for no reason (just like how it’s always been) and quickly got his hope crushed. Despite the pain, he straightened his back and picked up the call, face darkened upon waiting a voice from the other line.

“Staff 146 from District 8, Gilbert Bernhagen. You are called to the headquarter one hour from now. Please confirm your attendance on behalf of yourself.”

Gilbert sneered. “I have a choice now?”

The voice from the other line went quiet.

He sighed and got up from the bed. “Not like I have something to do. What is it all about?”

“The Secretary of General Department has to talk with you regarding a few things about internships.”

“Internship?” Gilbert ransacked his drawer, looking for an appropriate tie to match with his bland white shirt. “Am I going to be sent somewhere?”

“No, it’s...” The voice gulped. “You’ll hear about the details later. It’s not necessarily bad news, depending on how you receive it.”

“Oh, definitely bad news.”

He hung up and grabbed his coat, stepped out his room and navigated his way to the headquarter. Blinking lights showed his path forward to a mysterious building no one other than reapers and stampers knew. Frankly enough, he thought he had done something unforgivable to be summoned by the higher-ups. The word ‘internship’ did ring a bell or two inside, at least it meant he wouldn’t get punished after all.

Searching the right corridor to go, he finally arrived in front of the Secretary of General Office at the headquarter exactly one hour later, noting he’s going to be scolded for his annoyingly-on-time habit. He knocked the door, a shout permitted him in, and he pushed it. Warm air blew on him as he found Yuriko sitting in the middle of the room.

She grinned at him, but chose not to scold him.

“Evening, sir.”

Gilbert rolled his eyes. “You better have a good reason to summon me here.”

“I do, though.”

Gilbert took steps closer until he’s face to face with Yuriko, crossing his arms when he looked at the report document Yuriko shoved at him. A CV of a young man, face bright and smile as wide as the length of his face. “Who is this Asian guy?”

“Your responsibility, Gilbert,” replied Yuriko, pinning him by the corner of her eyes. “He’ll be in your care.”

Gilbert put the document aside and frowned at her. “Do you mean this when you say it’s about an internship?”

She hummed. “What else?”

“How the hell...” He slammed the document down her table. “Who in the world thinks it’s the right choice to let me take care of a rookie?! Ain’t nobody got time for that. Do I not look crazy enough for you to have one more head to look after?!”

“I know, it’s bad. You got Liz already.” Yuriko smiled dimly at him, and Gilbert had not been sure what to make out of that. “So that’s why. This innocent young man will be your good distraction. Learn to become a dad, Gilbert. It’s a survival skill.”

“That has nothing to do—"

“It’s been decided.” Yuriko closed the report, leaning to her chair. “Not merely as a medicine to your broken heart, but a direct order from the superior. All you have to do is to provide knowledge and accommodation to him while we raise your pay during his internship, as well as giving him allowance, so no need to worry about finance—"

“I HAVE TO SHARE MY APARTMENT TOO WITH HIM?”

“Oh, come on, Gilbert! It’s not like you were never an intern before!” Yuriko huffed, adjusting her glasses. “I met him before. He’s a funny guy. You should be thankful not getting assigned to a grumpy solemn old guy like yourself. They’re the kind of interns you need to be scared of.”

“I’m still twenty two!”

“We heard you.”

A rapid knock on the door, followed by a formal greeting. Gilbert knew well what he’s about to face as he cursed at Yuriko’s winning smirk and went to open the door. The same boy whose face appeared on the CV stared at him with these twinkling, gleaming, hopeful eyes and quickly bowed to him.

“Good evening! My name is Kim Tae Hee and I am 18 this year! My aspiration is to become a reaper and I’m pleased to be placed anywhere in this world, as long as I can fulfill my job. Please take care of me for I will try my best!”

Loud, boisterous, over-enthusiastic, hot-blooded.

Gilbert hated that type the most.

***

“Cool! Are you going to be my teacher, then?”

This Tae Hee guy couldn’t stop talking for one minute once they left Yuriko’s room. He was only Gilbert’s shoulder tall and all bones, sweet smiles and shining eyes, but his voice was twice as loud as Gilbert’s medium shouting. If every word he said could be typed into a subtext, then it’d be all caps lock and exclamation point without commas or periods. Perhaps all the energy was stored in his oddly wide forehead where his third lung lived.

He led him through the corridor, earning a look from everyone who passed by, probably annoyed from his voice.

He stopped midway on a quiet hall and proceeded to turn around, startling the poor boy behind. “Kid, listen. This is not a playground. You can’t just shout all the way down and make my image worse than it’s actually been. Please cooperate. I have enough today.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, sir! I’ll be careful!” He bowed down again, as he shouted.

Gilbert rubbed his thumbs against his temples, and decided not to let it get into him. It was past dinner time and he had lost his appetite, but not with this boy. So he took him out of pity to a seafood stall near the headquarter and bought him a plate of crab. As expected, he ate passionately.

“Thank you for the food! Are you sure you don’t want a bite, uh... how am I supposed to call you? Teacher? Mr. Bernhagen? Brother?”

“Gilbert is fine.”

“Isn’t that too impolite?” He shoved a handful of crab meat down his big mouth. Gilbert frowned at his capacity. “I heard we’re only four years apart, but that doesn’t mean I can drop honorifics.”

“I rarely respond to honorifics.” Gilbert drank his shot and cringed at how sour it was. “As long as you don’t embarrass me in public, you don’t have to speak that polite to me. That didn’t apply to the rest of your superiors though. Be thankful enough you got me.”

“Really? Man, now I’m getting more excited!” Tae Hee also took a full shot of his soda, draining the can at once before slipping back to stripping the crab shells. “I just arrived this morning and was wondering where to sleep until Miss Yuriko told me I’ve been assigned to one of her best friends! So lucky!”

“We’re not playing hotels, kid,” Gilbert muttered, the sourness tied his tongue. “I’ll be working you to death as a matter of experience. Whether good things happen, they’re just bonuses.” He smirked when Tae Hee’s smiles dropped. “Reaper is not an easy job. Be prepared. Tomorrow is a hell day.”

“Can you at least give me a detour or something? I’m excited to jump to the execution, but everyone needs a preface before learning the core.” He sounded scared now and Gilbert had never felt this satisfied for a long time.

“Preface? Nah, there’s no preface. Life is hard and death is also hard. Deal with it.”

“Gilbert...?”

The familiar voice jolted him more than anything even though he had heard it countless times already, even for today. Two women entered the stall and soon spotted both him and Tae Hee. Gilbert felt like burying himself to the earth and never resurfaced. The memory of that afternoon lingered cloudy at the back of his head.

Tae Hee stood up, a crab shell stuck on his mouth. He bowed down hastily with his mouth still full. “Good evening again, Miss Yuriko. I’m glad to be seeing you again after approximately one hour apart since our last encounter.”

Yuriko laughed a little, waving her hand off. “Don’t mention it.”

Tae Hee’s eyes got caught with the woman next to Yuriko. Those shining eyes gleamed even more to the sight as he bowed down again, deeper this time. “I don’t know your name but it’s nice to see you! I’m Tae Hee and I’ll be working as an intern with Mr. Gilbert as long as I’m needed!”

“No one needs you, honestly. I was forced.” Gilbert snorted. “And drop the honorifics!”

Elizabeth stunned at the whole interaction, face’s stiff in shock before softening at Tae Hee. She patted his hair and chuckled—Gilbert could see Tae Hee’s shoulder tremble in reply. That... also reminded him of something from the afternoon.

“You can call me Liz. I happened to be both Yuriko’s and Gilbert’s friend, so no need to be so formal. We’re friends, too, okay?”

Tae Hee looked up, face’s shimmering in admiration before he registered something. “Liz, as if in Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth tilted her head. “Well, that’s my name.”

“Are you a stamper?”

Her single nod was enough to make him gasped widely. All flies came together to eat him alive.

“OH MY GOD! I CAN’T BELIEVE MY EYES. MY FRIENDS HAVE BEEN TALKING ABOUT YOU THIS WHOLE TIME. YOU’RE PRETTIER IN PERSON, MISS ELIZABETH!”

“Eh?”

He grabbed both of Elizabeth’s hands and clutched them with his hands, still holding eye contact with her. Not sure what to do, she turned around to Yuriko and asked for help, but Yuriko just shook her head and passed her glance to Gilbert, who was as shocked as her.

“Congratulations, Liz. Your fan base has expanded. We got an intern who’s madly in love with you.”

“Fan base?” Gilbert asked, pushing to his feet.

“Ah, you have no idea, don’t you? Not surprised, since you’re rarely in the headquarter, you missed all the hot topics,” Yuriko said, earning a disapproving look from Gilbert. “Our friend over here, Elizabeth, has gone famous for her beauty, enough to be our district’s model who’s loved by almost everyone. Words has spread out across the country and it feels like every stamper and reaper in this world knew her or at least ever heard of her.”

“Yuriko, stop it!” Elizabeth curled her lips and pouted, worry flashed blatantly in all her gestures. “It’s not like that! I don’t think reapers and stampers from across the ocean know me, so don’t make up rumors!”

“But it’s all true, though!” Tae Hee said, raising his voice even more. “I bet you’re famous among commoners too! You’re too good to be existing. When I see you, I feel like the garden in my heart is blooming like it’s spring. So refreshing!”

Elizabeth’s face went red to the compliment as she tried to wave it off, but Tae Hee kept throwing her worships by worships, Gilbert couldn’t help but to feel nauseated to witness such a bizarre phenomenon. He didn’t get the hype at all. Elizabeth? Beautiful? Fan base? Loved by almost everyone? Where? Where did the statement come from? He wanted to sue them for spreading false information. Because there’s no way, his childhood friend—Elizabeth—hair’s brown and sometimes glowing in golden under direct sunlight, tied into a neat ponytail on morning, half let out during the afternoon, untied by the start of evening, eyes bright and lips like ripe peach, natural blush bringing her small face to a closure, walking (sometimes running) dangerously on heels by daily basis was.... beautiful.

This was getting ridiculous.

“Okay, stop it there!”

Walking tall to the groups, Gilbert yanked Tae Hee’s arms behind and sent him waves of hellish glares before scrunching his nose at Elizabeth who was also glaring back at him.

“What the hell?” she barked.

“Yeah, what the hell?” Gilbert crossed his arms, lifting his chin high as he tried so hard to move left and right to block Tae Hee’s view. “We are having an introduction dinner and suddenly you’re here to ruin everything!”

“Sorry?” She put her hands on her hips, her weight leaning on one side. “I haven’t even picked my seat and your little intern was coming to greet me so I, as a great senior, greeted him back and introduced myself. What’s so wrong with that?”

“You’re distracting him!”

“Was I?” She bent her upper body to sneak a peek at a terrified Tae Hee behind Gilbert’s back. “It’s neither my fault nor him, though. Everyone has the right to talk to someone.”

“But he didn’t just talk to you! He—"

“Alright, guys. Let’s end it here!” Yuriko had stepped between them, pushing each other away in the opposite direction. “Remember to take pride in yourself wherever you are, that includes public places like a crowded street stall.”

A tug on his sleeves made Gilbert turn back, finding Tae Hee luring him with his apologetic eyes. “I’m sorry, Mr—no, I mean, Gil—I mean—sir! I will get more serious next time. I won’t let a pretty lady distract me again.” He nibbled his lips before returning his gaze on Elizabeth. “I apologize for getting too confident with your girlfriend, too. I have no idea before...”

“You better take notes on the—wait, what? Girlfriend?!”

Elizabeth and Yuriko both turned to the word.

“Yeah!” The boy’s face gleamed. “Miss Elizabeth, right?”

“NO!” shouted the two in unison, startling Tae Hee to the point he lost his balance and jerked back. Yuriko’s laughs mocked loudly in the background.

***

The walk back was quiet after Gilbert accidentally snapped at Tae Hee’s series of apologies. The bright kid now looked like the sun during rain, looking down to his feet as he fumbled his way to Gilbert’s apartment. Gilbert, not sure what to do, twisted the key to his door and opened it wide, inviting Tae Hee in.

“Put your shoes here.” He pointed out a messy rack next to the door. “Don’t complain about how bad-maintained this place is. This world doesn’t just offer free estate to anyone.”

“Yes, I understand,” he said, still staring low at the flooring.

“This is too sudden.” Gilbert sighed, throwing his shoes and coat everywhere. “I don’t have a spare mattress. Just take the bed.”

“Woah, I can’t! How dare I?”

Now his voice regained its usual frequency. Gilbert hid his smirk and threw himself to the couch, already claiming it beforehand. “Isn’t it nice? Sleeping in luxury on your first day of work? Pay my kindness with your hard work tomorrow because I won’t go easy on you.”

Shivers running up his spine, Tae Hee forgot to blink and breathe. Moving in broken motion, he took off his coat slowly and folded it neat, putting it on the coffee table near the TV, then unpacking his luggage next to the bed. Quietly he breathed, as if he tried so hard not to make any sound. He found his toiletries bag and pajamas, hugging them while making his way to the bathroom. The funny thing was the way he avoided looking at Gilbert in every of his movements despite only being apart for three meters in a room this small. Gilbert gulped down a laugh, carefully eyeing him like a hawk stalking its prey.

“Can you... not look at me like you’re going to murder me...?” Tae Hee said abruptly just when his hand touched the bathroom’s doorknob.

“You’re an easy target. Always amusing,” Gilbert replied, revealing his evil smiles. “What happened to your bright personality from earlier? Do you finally know your place and decided to act like a sheep?”

“I just...” His hand on the knob trembled, sweats forming and flowing down the side of his face. “Kind of. I feel like I have made one big mistake that I haven’t yet to finish apologizing.”

Gilbert narrowed his eyes, fixating his gaze on him. “I said stop it, didn’t you hear me? It’s only a misunderstanding that I wish people would stop pushing it on me. Since you’re a newcomer, I might as well warn you early about it.”

“Are you guys exes?”

That flickered something in Gilbert’s stomach. “Oi, oi, what have I said before? Don’t push my buttons.” He could feel something draining there when Tae Hee threw a glance at him between his fringe. “We’re not.”

“So, casual affairs?”

“Where the heck did you learn those words from?! No, we’re nothing like that! We’re just... coworkers, I guess.”

“Really?” Tae Hee’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t guess, though!”

“Was that sarcasm?”

“No, I’m serious!” Slowly those eyes moved up to meet Gilbert’s, remorse shifting into curiosity. “I really walked here thinking I have messed with exes who haven’t gotten over each other, but no? It’s just my imagination? That’s weird.”

Gilbert straightened his back, tilting his head as he examined Tae Hee’s innocent curiosity. “What’s so weird about us?”

“You are just fine, sir. I was thinking about the way Miss Elizabeth flinched when you both denied my accusation of your possible relationship. You were scolding me for like ten minutes, but she has gone completely quiet until we left the stall.”

“Did you want to be scolded by her too?”

“She looked uncomfortable like—" Tae Hee put his stuffs down so he could imitate something with his hands “—wringing her fingers the whole time like this, stealing a glance of you a couple of times before settling on her chair, distracting her mind by idly playing with the ketchup bottle.”

“She probably likes ketchup that much.”

“Then again, sir! When we were about to leave, she didn’t join Miss Yuriko to tease us goodbye. After we walked quite far from the stall already, I decided to look back to them only to find her staring at your back. She has this sad-looking face like a longing, dreamy face over her lover. That’s why I thought you guys might have history together and immediately went to apologize to you!”

Before Tae Hee could open way more, Gilbert had walked to his direction, picked up his stuff from the floor and shoved it to him, barely keeping a perfect straight face. “You’re good at observing. I hope it comes handy on our work tomorrow. Now go to shower so you don’t spread the smells of your disgusting sweat over my mattress.”

“A-Aye, aye, sir! That’s all I can say for my first report. I-I go shower now! See you—"

The door was banged from the front, cutting the rest of Tae Hee’s formal speech. The room sounded oddly silent afterward. Gilbert cleared his throat and walked back to the couch, sinking his body deep to the aging foam beneath. He closed his eyes, listening to the sound of crashing water from the bathroom and Tae Hee’s shower songs. It’s probably a Korean song which he knew nothing of, since he couldn’t make out any of the words sung.

Elizabeth also hummed when she was on the very same shower a night ago. The nameless tune hadn’t left his head until now.

Smacking a pillow to his face, Gilbert forced shut his wandering mind and curled inside, focusing his body to sleep. Tae Hee’s voice wasn’t that bad to hurt his ears, and the rushing water calmed him once in a while. The couch was too soft and small for his adult body, but enough to serve as a proper sleeping pad. The smells were mostly from Tae Hee’s sweats and his, but it was soon covered by the mix of sandalwood and mint from the pillow Gilbert hugged. The lamp was turned off and the room was dim, a flare of moonlight burst between the curtains from the window above his bed.

The situation was comfortable enough for him to sleep, yet he couldn’t.

He couldn’t, when the memory of Elizabeth curling in the same couch yesterday came back to haunt him. She probably hurt her back in the process because Gilbert was too almighty to give up his bed, now that he could feel what she felt. Or perhaps he was too consumed by the ‘sad-looking face like a longing lover’ Tae Hee told him just before when he described what face Elizabeth made when he left her at the stall—

Something was shifting. And it’s getting closer. Gilbert wasn’t sure if he’s ready to embrace it.


Time remaining: 24 days.

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