She might be the death of me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way (Mr. Probz – Space for Two)
The soul of Mr. Nilsson, a famous writer in town, turned into fragments and carried by the wind at his home office, books were scattering and monitor’s still on, revealing the last word he typed.
Water your garden, it said.
Gilbert still had his hands on top of something that was previously Mr. Nilsson’s hair before realizing he’d been dozing off and immediately pulled his hand away. He turned back to see Tae Hee writing almost everything in his memo, including how cool his senior was when chanting the formal ‘sending off’ speech.
“Sir, you looked seriously cool and manly. The image of grim reaper fits you the best!”
“Was that a compliment?” Gilbert squinted his eyes and grabbed his memo, reading it out loud as it got worse toward the end. ”When sending off souls, look directly into their eyes, pull out the most sympathetic face you can so the soul knows you are trying to give a meaning to their death. Watch in awe as the fragments disappear but try to keep a flat expression because we can’t be too tacky especially in front of juniors-—WHO IS TACKY HERE? NO, I DON’T DO SHIT LIKE THIS!” He slammed the memo back to Tae Hee and snorted.
“I thought it’s all for dramatic effect, no?”
Gilbert sighed, rolling his jacket’s sleeves to snatch a peek of his watch. It was almost time for the next death, he had no time to teach extra lessons to his annoying junior. So he dragged him out from Mr. Nilsson’s office and closed the door, leaving Mr. Nilsson’s cold body on his chair, his last words on text still ringing in Gilbert’s ears.
“I did read a few of his work. He was a good romance writer,” Tae Hee blurted out when they’re back on the road, riding a crowded city bus. “I wonder what will happen to the unfinished novel? I’m sure he’s trying to get it finished before he dies. What happened in between?”
“Maybe he becomes tired,” replied Gilbert, eyes fixed at the window. “Aren’t you too young to read an adult novel?”
“I was—” Tae Hee blushed ”—well, I skipped the adult part! It wasn’t that bad, I was already sixteen by then!”
Gilbert sneered. “A wonderful life, indeed.”
“I said, I didn’t read anything bad!”
They went down by the next stop and strolled into the twist and turn of the city, looking for the address on Gilbert’s agenda. It was a big, old family house at the end of the lane. When they arrived, people were running at each other in panic while another group were swarming over something in the middle of the open yard. Gilbert drew closer and slipped between the crowd until he could see what they were shedding their tears for.
“Is it our next client?” Tae Hee asked when Gilbert returned to him. “It does seem pretty horrid.”
“Yeah. She’s probably the flower in this area. Dying would worry the hell out of people, so she might hide it from everybody.” Gilbert scanned the surrounding, trying to pick up a figure among rushing people and the approaching ambulance. Its siren was deafening, as if shouting and the whole situation weren’t bad enough.
“What to do, sir? Shouldn’t we search for her?” Tae Hee raised his voice, mildly tiptoeing to reach Gilbert’s ears. “It’ll be bad if she ran away!”
That depends on the nature of that girl, Gilbert thought and kept it inside. He waited at the side of the road as a number of people carried away his client’s body to the ambulance. The other turned on the key of their cars and got ready to catch up, and the rest decided to go back to their houses and waited. The yard was now empty after the ambulance hit the gas, followed by a bunch of cars behind. All that was left were Gilbert, Tae Hee, and a girl who’s sitting on the fences of the yard.
She smiled a little at them, forcing out a blush on Tae Hee. Gilbert shook his head in dismay.
“There are two?” she asked with wide eyes, paying attention to their looks. “Am I that special?”
Gilbert pushed his other hand on Tae Hee’s back so they both could bow down, ignoring a chain of lecture on the tip of his tongue about NOT falling in love with a soul. “Good afternoon, Miss Torres. I am Gilbert, your assistance onward. I happened to be accompanied by my junior today, please don’t mind him.”
He could hear Tae Hee protesting under him.
“You died on February 18th at 1:12 PM for the cause of pulmonary embolism. You may now relish everything and move on to the next stage of life.”
“Mr. Gilbert, I need to take notes!”
He raised his head (and Tae Hee’s too) and noticed a book Miss Torres was carrying faintly on her hands. It was a surprise no one saw a flying book around if not for the chaotic situation.
Tae Hee beat him to it. “Mr. Nilsson’s novel? Miss, you read it too?”
Miss Torres stared down at the book and smiled as she traced the curve of the old copy. “Well, I didn’t particularly read it. I just love staring at it and, hm, pray if I can take this with me when I die.”
“You can’t take anything from the mundane world to leave with you, Miss,” Gilbert said, something weighing on his throat. “If you wish to finish the book now, I’ll let you have a couple hours.”
“I didn’t need to read it, I said.” She chuckled, clutching the book to her chest. “I memorized it by heart. This one is my favorite. Do you happen to read it?”
“Of course, it was his first book!” Tae Hee said in excitement, his face lit up as soon as Miss Torres showed him the cover. ‘Looking for a Sunshine in a Storm’, printed bold and capitalized. “How can I forget? Everyone knows it’s his masterpiece!”
“We’re on the same boat, then! Remember when Stephanie jumped from her balcony to land in Adam’s arms on her wedding? I still cry until today!”
Tae Hee’s already half-crying, half-sobbing when she said that. “Or when she slept with him under the city’s bridge, all cold and homeless but full of love?!”
“Or the scene in the burning car as they exchanged ‘I love you’ breathlessly?!”
“And the scene when she almost killed her protege for hurting him?! So much, I lo—”
Gilbert cleared his throat, sending both of them a quiet shiver. “I don’t give you a couple hours for fangirling with my junior. As you can see, we have too much important work for that.”
“Ah, that’s right. I’m sorry.” Miss Torres laughed nervously, flipping her long, blonde hair to her back. “Okay, then. You may send me off now.”
“Now?” Tae Hee pulled Gilbert’s shoulder slightly, but enough to stop him from stepping closer. “Isn’t it too fast?”
Gilbert threw a glare at him. “Is this the first time you see a send off? We don’t stall times, kid. We do it efficiently and as on time as possible, according to the agenda. Whether I give a client a bonus time or no, it’s up to my judgement as a reaper. Write that on your memo.”
“No, I mean!” He swallowed, trailing his eyes down. “Well, if you insist...”
“Young love does die quick,” Gilbert chuckled in a mocking tone, politely sliding off his shoulder from Tae Hee’s grip. “Go inside the house and wait until it’s over. I know you can’t take it.”
“Just go inside,” Miss Torres cut. She waved her hands and flashed another smile. “It’s cold.”
Tae Hee switched stares between Gilbert and her, before giving up and bowing down for the last time. He ran inside with hiccups of sobs, probably re-contemplating his life decision.
“You’re hard on him.” Miss Torres drew closer, straightening her shirt between her steps. “He’s still young to keep up. Just let him be sometimes.”
“I read on your bios. It said, you were an editor.” Gilbert ran his tongue over his teeth, not sure how to put the word together. “Perhaps you were Mr. Nilsson’s editor?”
Miss Torres looked up and gave him unreadable eyes. “Does it have something to do with my send off?”
“He died. Earlier. I thought I should let you know.”
“Oh.” Miss Torres dropped her gaze, hair falling to cover the side of her face. “I didn’t meet him often these days. I wonder what’s up lately.”
“Did you read his last draft? He died, writing another novel in his office. Perhaps I’m just curious. Can I ask you what’s it all about?”
“Mr. Gilbert, I...” She shook her head, returning to look at the ground. “I didn’t know he’s writing another novel. Sorry to disappoint you. Why didn’t you ask him before?”
“Well, it’s not much of a big deal. And we have to catch a bus or else we can’t send you off.” Gilbert ruffled his hair and wondered why he suddenly got frustrated. “Anyway, thank you for the information. I’ll have you send off now.”
He placed his hand on Miss Torres’ head and took a deep breath.
“May your soul rest in—”
“—it’s my fault for not watering our garden that we lost each other. I hope I get to meet him and talk about his new novel.”
The smile turned into fractions and got swept away too early before he could register anything. The book she’s holding dropped to the ground, flipped by the wind to the midst of the story. Gilbert, still eyes-widened, picked up the book and read the first few passages;
Adam kissed a rose on Stephanie’s family garden, and said it was the only kind in the world. Stephanie said it had survived a storm and a quake, and oh Lord, she’d die for the rose one day.
“Even when the thorns hurt me sometimes,” Stephanie said longingly, as written there, “I’ll figure out a way to love him unconditionally by coming to terms with the purpose of them. We all have thorns underneath the layers of our skins to protect who we really are, after all.”
Adam then replied, “True. The thorns don’t matter. Flowers can only bloom beautifully if we water them as they need.”
“Sir, you’re staring blankly again.”
Gilbert jerked up to see Tae Hee standing in front of him, head tilted slightly to peer at him.
“Is staring in awe for dramatic effect a real thing now? You should just let me write it down on my memo!”
“Write, ‘mind my own business’ on that, instead.”
Gilbert put the book slowly to the ground as he pushed Tae Hee away from the house, tracing the road back to the bus stop. His head was filled with questions by questions and for once, he regretted his action of sending both Mr. Nilsson and Miss Torres too quickly.
“Apparently—” Tae Hee’s boisterous voice once again startled him “—Miss Torres was Mr. Nilsson’s affair for quite some time.”
He almost choked hearing that. “Huh?”
“I just thought I have to share it with you, sir. The news about his affair was going around last year around the production of his seventh book, after shocking shots of him and a young woman went viral. The fan base had gone crazy over time, it ended exposing of the woman’s identity, that was Miss Torres herself. The news went down after Mr. Nilsson’s family published an article that denied all the accusations. He already has a wife and two daughters by that time.”
“So it’s just a thoughtless gossip in the end.”
“Well, some people choose to think like that.” Tae Hee’s expression darkened. “I was still in the church when Mr. Nilsson came there personally and spoke with the priests. He seemed like asking for advice. A week afterward, his wife divorced him and took both of their daughters away. The whole thing got press coverage, so we never really know what happened.”
“So Miss Torres wasn’t merely his editor...”
“I didn’t want to believe it. I admired him so much.” He sighed, leaving a trail of fresh breath. “I soon recognized her by her last name when you’re briefing me about our clients today. I tried to think positively; maybe she isn’t the Torres I hate so much. But the fact she’s holding his first novel and admitting she memorized all the lines, and that she has piles of Mr. Nilsson’s draft in her room… I finally figured out.”
Gilbert shoved his hands to his pocket, flinching from the gloomy aura. “Ah, I thought you were having a love-at-first-sight moment with her.”
“I was just testing.” He huffed, suddenly taking long steps to precede Gilbert.
“You’re more grown up than I thought you’d be.” Gilbert whistled, earning another sobs from the boy who’s now a few steps ahead. He didn’t try to chase him. Walking slowly behind, his mind flew back to her last word that got him shaken.
...it’s my fault for not watering our garden that we lost each other...
They stopped before the crossroad that would lead them back to the main avenue. The street filled with people again, cars and buses rushing to live up the busy hours. Gilbert didn’t specifically hate the noise, he’s used to it. It’s better than having to listen to ambulance sirens.
“What are Mr. Nilsson’s novels about? Like all of them. Are they sequels?”
Tae Hee looked up, jaw dropped all the way to hell. “Y-Yes. Are you interested now? Woah, that didn’t take long!”
“No, idiot.” He softly slapped his back. “It is for the honor.”
“Well, if I have to sum up the entire nine novels, it will be like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s more romantic.”
Okay, forbidden love.
“Because unlike Romeo, Adam didn’t come from a noble family. He was just homeless, going around to help people with money he got from doing odd jobs. Stephanie was a pure patrician, about to be wedded with another noble. She was upset about it, but decided to hide it as she went undercover to the town to relieve her stress. But the horse she rode suddenly ran amok and dropped her in a nowhere village. That’s when she met Adam who helped her despite not recognizing her title.”
“Does it have to do with something like... garden? Or flowers?”
“In the third book, they were separated by an autocrat and couldn’t see each other for years. Adam then made a garden of roses by the countryside that he watered once in a week while Stephanie would come everyday to water it sometimes, whenever Adam wasn’t there. It’s like their meeting point, you know, except they’re never lucky enough to come at the same time. So it’s just a way to keep in touch with each other.”
“They couldn’t see, talk, or hear each other, but they still made sure to water their relationship, huh?”
“Yes! In the end, they really met when the roses were fully-bloomed! Imagine how romantic that is!”
“Huh, huh. Romantic.” Gilbert scoffed. “A full-blown cliche, if you ask my opinion.”
“Hey! It’s not like that! You have to appreciate the effort.” Tae Hee huffed, narrowing his eyes on the traffic light. “The garden got destroyed in the ninth book, though. I really hope Mr. Nilsson has someone rebuild it—hah! As if the tenth book will be published after his death. I guess no one really bothers with that subplot, except me...”
The light went green. Gilbert turned to Tae Hee and grinned before striding over the cross.
“He’ll have someone rebuild it, so he can continue watering it.”
You can’t water a garden if you don’t have one.
Another situation when numbers didn’t define death times—a dire situation when neither Angel of Death nor his subordinates had planned on their agenda—was homicide. Planned or not.
The sad truth was the reapers were not police. Unless given permission, a homicide done by mortals wasn’t something to investigate and judge. The killer might get loose as they wanted, away from the department’s surveillance. Well, it wasn’t that Azrael and his underlings were a bunch of useless immoral. Catching the murderer was never on the top of priority. The task itself should fall under Uriel, The Angel of Judgement... or something, said Gilbert’s teacher once in his boring lecture.
But once given permission to investigate, it’d go to their priority slot without saying. Polite withdrawal wasn’t even an option.
Gilbert flipped the report back and forth, frowning his forehead at a countryside cafe he’s in with Tae Hee and a fellow reaper they were tasked with, Roderich. Yuriko had canceled the rest of his schedule that day to make him run an investigation with Roderich upon a certain stray ghost, it seemed.
He sighed, slamming shut the report. His coffee’s gone cold. “So, it’s a woman named Vasquez who died six months ago for the cause of being taken hostage. Her husband didn’t want to pay the ransom, so basically he let her die and rotted at the very same place she was tortured.”
Roderich, the nerdy four-eyed guy who was known as one of the noblest reapers for his achievement and obedience, nodded weakly. “It is what it is.”
“And you were tasked with sending her off.” Gilbert tapped his finger repeatedly to the table, creating disruptive rhythms while making the situation even more uncomfortable. “But for some reason, she got away before you could do anything. And she’s been on the run since then.”
“No leads. Only rumors flying in the street.” Roderich ruffled a part of his brown hair, it’s gotten longer than the last time Gilbert had seen him. “I’ve been investigating for long before the higher ups decided I’m not competent enough and therefore, need a partner.”
“Ridiculous.” Gilbert yawned, a droplet of water gathered at the verge of his eyes. He took a peek of what face Roderich’s making now and liked it. “So why me? Why suddenly proposing me to the higher ups? Did you see me on the streets and thought how much free times I have, then planned to make me work more than I already am? Forget it. Take this boy I found a while ago with you and catch that stray I could care less.”
Tae Hee spat his strawberry smoothies to Roderich’s dinner plate. “Sir! I appreciate we’re going to catch a ghost, but me alone? I’m only here for less than 24 hours!”
“That’s why it’ll make a good experience.” Gilbert winked at him.
Roderich sighed this time, wiping the smoothies with his napkin. “Gilbert, I thought we’re good friends.”
Gilbert narrowed his eyes to him, sipping his coffee. “Hah! You don’t go make an assumption on yourself then get disappointed by it!”
“I asked you a favor because I know we’re that close to help each other.”
“No, no. I don’t feel the same way.”
“That’s right. But I have a better offer.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll pay for your breakfast, lunch, and dinner for as long as it takes for our investigation.”
Gilbert opened one of his eyes and saw a determined look on his ‘long lost friend.’ It’s intriguing for Roderich, whose arrogance topped everything including the devil himself, actually tried to beg Gilbert into helping him out of his already broken image. Gilbert did not particularly care with Roderich trying to save his image and grace back to his title as the noblest reaper, he only wanted to break him until he’s desperate enough.
“That...” He rubbed his jaw, staring at the ceiling. “That won’t be enough.”
“Your room rent too.”
“Not that I’m struggling with it, but...” He smirked, imagining all the possibilities. “Okay. But still not enough.”
“I’ll have you promoted soon, too. True that we have to nail this case first to make it easier for you to climb up the ranks.”
He also didn’t really care about that. “Whatever. I thought you’re much more than that, however.”
“Then what do you want?!”
He’s getting impatient, Gilbert wanted to laugh. He didn’t want anything right now except for a good twenty hours of sleep in his room, without Tae Hee having to shout across and jolted him awake. Perhaps a good bath that’d relax his muscles and soft jazz playing in the background, chilly wind blew from the window as the heater’s on, someone’s singing a lullaby next to him, ruffling his hair until he’s asleep—someone who’s still there when the morning came and so on because she had promised she would never go anywhere.
That’s just mad. It’s too much, even for Roderich, to make it true.
“Well, if you could transfer this intern away from me, then I’ll be gladly to help you.”
Roderich didn’t even flinch when he shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s the least thing I can do. I’m in a position of giving recommendations, but never in power to be in charge with rookies.”
“The deal’s off then.”
His mouth hung open as Gilbert got ready to leave the place, a direct call from Roderich’s phone stopped him at the door, though. He watched as Roderich’s eyes woke open to whoever the caller ID was and immediately picked it up; the sourness and distress on his face earlier were replaced with beams and a slight flush as he changed the tone of his voice.
“Why are you suddenly calling? Not that I’m busy right now,” he said in a lighter tone. A few chuckles as he peered Gilbert in the doorstep, he switched the phone from his right ear to his left as if he planned to talk longer. “I’m at the cafe now. Discussing Vasquez with Gilbert.”
“Who is that?” Gilbert drew closer, abandoning the already opened door. He bent to stick his ear as close as it could get to the phone Roderich was still holding, barely catching anything the other person said.
Roderich laughed again, politely moving away to keep a respectful space between. “Well, yeah. He’s quite stubborn. If not for you calling, he’s really going to leave. Poor his intern, having to deal with such an ill-mannered senior.”
What the fuck, Gilbert muttered, drowning the urge to just snatch the phone and scream thousands of swear words to the caller. It’s obvious Roderich’s been bitching about him with the other person for so long, they’d become too comfortable with it even in Gilbert’s presence. Whoever they were… fuck them.
He heard someone’s laughing back from the other side and thought he recognized the voice.
“YOU—COME OUT, YOU ASSHOLE!”
In the end, he really went to snatch the phone and screamed to the caller. The worst thing was he could picture Elizabeth smiling at the other side.
“Good evening, Gilbert. How’s the discussion going?”
“You still keep in contact with this guy?!” Gilbert dropped his gaze on Roderich, who’s all smirking now like he knew he’s going to win. “You sure have a great connection with everyone, I hope you date one someday!”
“I’m not allowed to? Roderich is my precious friend, too precious not to get in touch. Unlike you who are all loud and blood-boiled, he’s cool and calm and polite. He’s the dream man for every woman, you know!”
“Disgusting. I don’t know what women see from him!”
“Well, because you are a cishet.”
“The hell is wrong with you?!” Elizabeth’s right, though. Gilbert was all loud and blood-boiled, easy to be carried away with anger. Compared to Roderich, he had lost all the points to make ladies interested in him. Perhaps that’s the second reason why he hated Roderich in the first place. A mere burn of jealousy; that guy was everything he wasn’t.
He could hear Elizabeth’s calling him cheap from the other side.
“Gilbert? You’re still there?”
“I hang up,” he said, before pressing the red phone icon for real and handing the phone back to Roderich. He hated his expression now. It took Gilbert too long to realize that the moment Roderich called him here, Gilbert’s already lost. Well, that’s what he got from playing dirty.
“You’re still close with Elizabeth, I see,” Roderich said idly while wiping his phone screen with his shirt. “As expected. You two are really inseparable.”
“You know what. I take the case. I’ll help you out.” Roderich looked up, face’s frozen to whatever face Gilbert’s making now. “But I’ll decide the deal.”
“Drop all the sweet-talk. I’ll work even harder if you swear to stop getting in touch with her.”
Roderich raised his eyebrow, keeping his face flat even when Gilbert had pinned him with wrath and threat. “That’ll be difficult. It’s not something to decide on one side, you know.”
“Don’t think I ever forgot that day when you deceived her for your own good.”
Roderich’s eyes darkened until they matched Gilbert’s. “Ah, that day? That day when you failed to save her for your own good? Good times.”
“I’m maybe evil, that’s right. But I only did what I thought would benefit me the most. What fucked her up more wasn’t me. It was the sisters who showed how flawed the system was. And you—” he grinned, Gilbert had to hold his breath because he finally realized the first reason why he despised him so much ”—failed to set it straight.”
A cold, trembling grip on his sleeves jerked Gilbert up when he’s a few seconds away from committing violence. He looked back and saw Tae Hee, in whom he had forgotten for a while, his face was pale as if he just finished a horror movie.
“Sir, it’s getting dark. Let’s go home.”
Coming back to his senses, Gilbert could feel the suffocating air around him. Tae Hee was right; it’s getting dark.
“You’re right.” He shifted away from Roderich and pushed Tae Hee to the door, frowning at how cold his body was through the layers. One last glance before he stepped out, Gilbert suppressed the erupting rage on his stomach, as well as the nauseating memories from back then.
The rough noise of page-flipping raced with the clock ticking. Seconds passed like hours, hours passed like days. At this point, he’s sure of his sleep deprivation.
The bathroom barged open, the smells of cheap shampoo invaded the room. Gilbert looked up to see Tae Hee scanning him from the door, towels hanging on his shoulder. He had the same look of concern he wore the night before when they were talking about Elizabeth.
Gilbert sighed, getting up from the floor. “What now?”
“Are you taking the case for Miss Elizabeth?”
“This is the hundredth time I warn you not to push my buttons.” Gilbert ruffled his shower hair, wetness dampened his palms and cool against the air. “Well, for most parts, yes.”
“Are you jealous?”
That definitely came way too aggressive. Tae Hee took a step backward, slowly nodding with agape mouth. “O-Okay. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Forget it.” Gilbert threw the report at his direction so Tae Hee had to stumble in a rush to catch it. “We’re exorcising a ghost tomorrow. Get ready.”
“Exorcising a ghost... Is it a big deal?”
“Sometimes. Some reapers died doing so.”
That alone successfully froze Tae Hee in his place. Gilbert grinned mischievously, already laying his body across the couch. It’s not like he lied about how dangerous exorcism is, however. Ghosts are souls who ran away just after they died and before the reaper can send them off. Many reasons underlay their fugitive. Most of those are to seek revenge and fulfill satisfaction, for they didn’t die peacefully. That makes ghosts malice and vengeful, rather dangerous for alive beings.
Speaking about malice and vengeful, human beings could be as evil as stray ghosts too, apparently. Gilbert closed his eyes, the memories from five years ago haunted the blackness of his eyelids.
"Don’t you think Roderich is cute?"
He remembered Elizabeth saying that right into his face. Gilbert was eating his lunch at the church hall when he almost choked on his favorite sandwich. “Rode—what? Is he from a cowboy family?”
“Roderich!” Elizabeth shoved him a spoonful of broccoli from her plate. She casually gestured to the boy sitting not too far from their table, alone with his bento. Four-eyed nerds, lonesome, in-need of social attention freaks, probably got bullied a lot during his teenage years. Yet Elizabeth saw him with stars and comets in her eyes. “The new transferred student in Yuriko’s class. She said he’s hella smart and almost topped my grades last test.”
“You just call your potential rival cute?”
“Intelligence is cute, you know!” Elizabeth huffed, Gilbert suppressed an urge to wipe away her pout. “I have to talk to him. I have to befriend him. I have to ask for his contact. What dorm room he’s in?”
“You’re one hell of crazy girl. Are you going to sneak in and assault him at night?!”
“A-Assault?!” He earned a smack on his head. “I guess too much watching porn does affect your mind after all.”
Elizabeth did go and talk to that nerd. They seemed on-click with each other, because the next day she started walking to class with him. It felt like the close circle of him, Elizabeth, and Yuriko just opened a vacancy out of Gilbert’s permission—and it pissed him off. Elizabeth spent less time with him and laughed more with the other guy, as if Gilbert’s no longer there anymore. The most upsetting thing was how oblivious this Roderich guy was upon receiving Elizabeth’s attention. He acted like he deserved it, like he owned it, like everything else didn’t matter as long as he’s together with Elizabeth. Spoiled brat, attention chaser, WOLVES DISGUISED AS SHEEP, were what Gilbert would curse every time Elizabeth left him for lunch with Roderich.
“That burns.” Yuriko one day said after the classes were over and they saw them walking back to the dorm. “Step up your game, Gilbert.”
“What game?” Gilbert said, wrinkles were all over his face. “Did you encourage her to approach him? She has become more glued to him each day.”
“That’s her decision.” Yuriko whispered back, adjusting her sling bag. “They look good together. Rumors say if they really get together, they’re going to be the power couple of this school. Because brainy is the new sexy, duh.”
“That doesn’t apply if one of them is a creep!”
Gilbert looked away, his eyes stung upon the sight. He couldn’t really mention one reason on why he’s so disgusted at Roderich; the only thing he could tell was how he had a pretty bad feeling about him, and that’s not even a valid answer. Yuriko had diagnosed him with this disease called ‘jealousy’, but Gilbert only knew the superficial meaning of that word. Had he only realized it by then, things wouldn’t go complicated like this.
He spoke with Roderich once not long afterward, and it’s not even a proper talk. He was about to turn around the corner of the corridor when Roderich happened to do the same from the other side, resulting in a hard bump on each foreheads as they both fell to the ground. Gilbert was about to apologize when he recognized the small feature of Roderich and immediately pulled on his deadliest glare.
“You, damn it!” He got up, wiping dust from his uniform. “Watch out where you’re going!”
“I’m sorry...” Roderich picked his bag and slung it across his back, head’s looking down to his feet. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“You better be.” Gilbert scanned him from head to toes (minus his face) and wondered what Elizabeth found good on him. Now that sparked an idea in his mind to actually turn the tables. “You lanky. Do you even sports?”
Roderich had his hands gripped on his bag, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. He shook his head, voice was so faint that Gilbert barely heard if not they’re in a quiet corridor. “No. I have to study.”
“Ah? Again? As if studying in class and doing homework aren’t enough?” Gilbert peered the shorter boy down, drawing his face closer to the shades under his fringe. “Boy, what are you trying to aim? Liz’s attention? Or... her position?”
To Gilbert’s surprise, that unintentional taunt raised his glares. For the first time ever Gilbert saw the burning fierce on his eyes, and he thought how devilish they kind of looked. “None of your business.”
“Whatever it is, you can’t win her if you’re not athletic enough. Let’s do one-on-one basketball sometimes. It’ll be a good test to measure your capability overall.”
“Don’t want to.”
“If I piss you off now, will you want to do it so you can spite me?”
“Haven’t I spited you enough for today?”
Gilbert’s blood boiled in his head, the fist in his pocket tightened to the point he could release it anytime while making sure the damage would be great enough to deliver anyone to the hospital. Instead, he calmed himself down to the noise of several sisters walking down the corridor and interrupted them.
“Roderich? Gilbert? Why are you here? Don’t you have class to attend?”
“I’m on toilet break,” Gilbert said shortly, not even looking at the sisters’ eyes. “Dunno about this guy, though.”
“I was fetching a report to my class.” Roderich put on his smiles and Gilbert gagged on how fake it looked. “Then I bumped into him and got taunted.”
“For the record, it’s you—”
Gilbert thought he misheard. But the look of Roderich’s face told everything. “He forced me to play a round of basketball with him and neglected my study. Then he threatened and belittled me with curse words. I have tried to calm him down but he just won’t stop.”
Gilbert ended up spending the rest of his day in detention room, interrogated by the headsister like a fucking criminal he was. None of his explanations went through, and they treated him like he’s the wrongest person in this world.
“I didn’t do that!” He remembered how frothing his mouth was explaining shits again and again, almost sounded like a desperate plea toward the end. “I only challenged him for basketball because he looked tired from studying and wondered if playing a round or two would help!”
“According to Roderich, you cursed four times. That included calling him slutty.”
“Slutty?” Gilbert laughed, feeling himself losing grip on reality. “When I only said ‘damn it’ once? Do you have a recording of me saying it?”
“No need of recording, son.” The headsister smiled at him, putting down her notes to the table and stared grimly. “Unlike you, we trust Roderich with our heart because we know he’s a good kid. He is our human monitor, our recorder of everything.”
Gilbert got released an hour later after they forced him to admit all the charges he had ‘done’ and had his names written in bold red ink in their report book. He didn’t know what kept his sanity in place during the whole questioning, but he had learnt that sometimes admitting all your wrongdoings (even when you didn’t do anything) was the best option in order to get away. It might make him look like a loser, but as long as the loser was free, he could do anything including revenge.
He had also learnt that Roderich was truly the sisters’ pet.
And that would make all of his revenge plans go to waste. No matter what he did, the sisters would always protect him, like how parents cradling their babies tight. At this point, it seemed more impossible to touch him, especially after they both considered Gilbert as a threat.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, had not been aware of the whole situation, thanks to her ignorance.
“You topped the whole school again in one blow. Congrats, Liz!” Yuriko squeezed Elizabeth’s cheeks with hers, hugging her until she’s about to burst. They were in the garden in early spring, flowers bloomed as cool breeze blew. “No one can lay a hand on you, really.”
“It’s nothing!” Elizabeth would say, now and then. “If you guys actually try to learn and understand a few sentences, you can pop off too!”
“A few sentences from those boring textbooks?” Yuriko yawned, and Gilbert could totally relate. “No way. No way in heaven and hell.”
“Come on! You didn’t even try!”
“I heard the church offered you a good position once we graduate,” Gilbert cut their conversation, still chewing his gum. “What’s it all about?”
Yuriko raised her eyebrow. “Really?”
Elizabeth smiled, putting Yuriko’s clingy hands away. “A reward for my grades, apparently. I don’t really catch on what they said, probably a position in the government seat.”
“Government? Are you going to work with the Angel of Death, then?”
Gilbert scoffed. “Is the Angel of Death even real?”
Elizabeth laughed, pushing a few strands of her hair away from her face. “Regardless, I might as well accept it. If I sit in the government, it’ll be easy for you guys to voice your opinion.”
“Woah, talking like a real legislative itself. Isn’t it too early?”
Gilbert’s bubblegum burst when it almost hit his biggest record. He slurped it back into his mouth and chewed it again, preparing for another blow. His chewing stopped when a certain figure caught his eyes. He was looking at them in the distance, books in his clutch, mouth pressed into thin lines and smoky glasses covered his entire eyes. Gilbert couldn’t make out what expression he’s wearing now, but the lump on his stomach twisted and that alone wasn’t a good sign.
“You’re joining?” A soft slap to his back woke him. Two pairs of eyes narrowed at him, waiting for his mouth to open.
Gilbert dragged his gaze to the girls, mind’s blank and not sure what to make. “Join what?”
“Karaoke!” Elizabeth scowled. “With the boys from Yuriko’s class. They’ve booked a room yesterday and we’re free to invite.”
Gilbert’s head was too dizzy to think straight. He looked around to see whether people were listening to them or it’s just him. “Don’t you think the sisters will be mad if we go outside for... karaoke?”
“You’re the last person I expect to hear this from, Gilbert.” Yuriko rolled her eyes, clinging to Elizabeth’s arm again. “It’s not like we’re out to drink or gamble. And we have legal permission!”
“Or perhaps you two have never tasted the cold wall of the detention room.” The sun was setting from afar, evening sparks dripped in orange hue and painted the skies above. Gilbert shook his head and got up. “I’ll pass. Too sleepy for a sing-out party.”
He looked up to see Roderich had gone into nowhere to be seen, even though it was barely two minutes since he saw him there. That’s weird. Gilbert put aside the thought and went straight to his dorm, drowning his head to the pillow and drove to sleep.
The next morning was a wreck. People’s running through the hall, bumping to Gilbert and almost pushed him down or slammed him to the wall. The worst thing was they didn’t even care about him. Gilbert swallowed down a harsh comment as curiosity took over him instead, joining the rush that led him to the announcement board. A sea of people were covering the board, not even tiptoes and jumps could bring Gilbert to see the fuss. It was until words traveled from front to back through loud whispers and gasps, Gilbert forced himself to dive into the crowd and made his way to the front.
Photos. A lot of them. They were about a room with couches and a big monitor. The room was dim and there were people wasted on the couch, still on their uniforms, bottles and cigarettes on their hands, karaoke microphones lying dead on the floor. In one of the photos, captured two boys Gilbert didn’t recognize and a girl sitting in the middle, her arm draped on one of their shoulders as she laughed, unaware of any hidden cameras.
He recognized the girl.
He escaped the crowd to see Yuriko calling him just around the corner. Her eyes were naked without the glasses, red around the lids as water started to form again. She choked several times and Gilbert had to pat her on the shoulders and brought her to the nearest bench until she could stop sobbing.
“What the hell were you doing yesterday?” Gilbert asked, carefully lowering down his voice.
“It’s not like the photos at all!” she said, between the crack of her voice. “We didn’t do anything! Well, I mean, Liz and I!”
“We’re really just hanging out until some of them brought out liquor and weeds. We tried so hard to refuse and they didn’t push it anymore. But it’d be impolite for us to just leave, so we decided to hang in there for a little longer while trying to make up an excuse to go. Liz stayed behind to persuade the boys while I went to the toilet to call for help and you!”
Gilbert remembered having four miscalls from Yuriko and it was damn too early to process what’s happening.
“I went straight to sleep yesterday.”
“Yeah!” At this point, Yuriko was just shouting at him. “I didn’t notice someone was taking pictures of us and intended to spread false rumors to the church! The sisters have already caught several boys from my class and hunted down those who hid and ran away. I haven’t met Liz since morning, so perhaps she’s already with them too!”
“Snap.” Gilbert ran his fingers through his hair, eyes shut as he scratched his scalp harder and pulled out some hairs in the process. “But somehow you’re not in their wanted list, though?”
“I wasn’t in the photos.”
“Probably...” Yuriko wiped the tears away and tuned her voice down. “Whoever took the photos rolled to their action when I was on the toilet. And when everyone else wasted. Perfect opportunity. He slipped in and blended with the rest, casually recorded everything. So, an outsider.”
“It’s unlikely for an insider to leak the photos knowing well they were forbidden, so—” Gilbert froze, eyes darting to where the noise of footsteps came. It was a quiet corridor, and the tap of his shoes sounded like the seventh trumpet as the revelation said.
“Don’t you think I should turn myself in?” Yuriko sobbed again. “There’s no way I’m letting Liz alone in that room, not being able to stand for herself!”
“Don’t.” Yuriko jerked up to see Gilbert’s raising to his feet. “If you become among the accused, Liz will lose a witness. So just return to the class and act like nothing happened. Lay low.”
Gilbert left Yuriko there and ran toward the footsteps. He saw the exact person in his mind and immediately thought of punching him in the face. The view of several sisters backing him up behind stopped him from doing so.
“Hey,” Roderich greeted him. The nerdy look on his face was replaced with blatant pride, and he’s looking to Gilbert eye to eye, ignoring the height difference between them. It almost seemed like they’re on the same height with how powerful his presence had retained Gilbert’s. “I’m sorry for dumping you to the detention room last time. Turned out there are worse people than you in this church.”
“Worse? Are you sure you’re only catching the bad guys?”
“Yes.” Roderich smiled. “They left for a sing-out party excuse when there’s more to involve. Alcohol. Weed. Sex. I could spill more beans to the sisters, but I’m quite forgiving these days, so I leave the rest to them.”
“After all, I have just received a beautiful gift from them. How can I worsen things when I’m all bloomed up for spring?”
Roderich drew closer until they’re shoulder to shoulder, mouthing things that disgusted Gilbert more than anything. “A place in the government.”
That closed the whole point; everything about Roderich’s real intention. He’s never aiming for Elizabeth’s attention. Perhaps it’s never his intention to make Elizabeth interested in him. He’s only using her as a stepping stone, building trust between so he could use her one day. Studying so hard to beat her and seize his position, he’d do anything to have what he wanted. That included playing dirty and ruining his rival’s future.
It’s never about the bad guys with alcohol and weeds. It’s always about the innocent girl Gilbert knew since childhood, who’s just trying to enjoy her life while doing her best, who didn’t deserve half of the disastrous things thrown at her just because she’s smart and pretty and kind and selfless.
Elizabeth lost all the offer and trust, her name was written in bold red ink on the report book, and everyone started to talk behind her back. Slut. Bitch. Whore. Gilbert met her for the first time since the accident three days later, after he’s convinced she’s been avoiding him. That time, she forced a smile.
It didn’t reach her eyes.
“I’m fine,” she said.
Gilbert jolted from his couch when Tae Hee’s loudass alarm rang just above his head. The sun was barely there and he had to be reminded again that he had to work with that asshole today.
Time remaining: 23 days