Something changed along the way; winter never turns to spring (Z Berg & Ryan Ross – The Bad List)
The crime scene was exactly how Gilbert pictured how it’d be in his head earlier during the ride. The place where Vasquez got tortured and killed, deep in an abandoned lane of a rotting city, no lives in sight as the air’s getting dusty. Gilbert followed Roderich deeper to the building, with Tae Hee gripping the back of his coat a little too tighter for the word ‘brave.’ The aura around was full of loathing and hostility even in broad daylight, though Gilbert could barely sense any other presence except the three of them.
As expected from a place where human deaths were tossed around like livestock.
“Did she have children?” Gilbert blurted out upon entering a colder zone.
Roderich raised the intensity of his flashlight as they dove inside another building with shattered windows and almost no furniture except for a small table with empty snack bags. “Two, I think. Is it important for our investigation?”
“No.” Gilbert clicked his tongue, though. “I’m just sympathizing with them.”
“Wow, sir! You’re really a kind guy!”
“Yeah, I’m kind enough to shelter you from any kind of danger even when you’re supposed to do it yourself!”
“Ssstt... you’re disturbing them.”
Roderich turned around and stared into Gilbert. “Don’t you feel it? There’s one.”
Gilbert pulled himself into focus for a solid three seconds before nodding in agreement. “Not Vasquez though. But let’s meet him.”
Tae Hee’s grip tightened as he gasped in panic. “Wait? Do you mean we’re near a real ghost now?!”
“Right. Brace yourself. One of us might die.”
The second floor of the building with a plain, empty space and no light was oddly warm for a place where a ghost lived. Roderich shot his flashlight at the figure and Gilbert had to cover Tae Hee’s widening mouth and forced him to bow down.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Roderich politely greeted. “We’re here to gather information about a certain death and wonder if you know a thing or two.”
“Aren’t we going to exorcise him?” Tae Hee asked, muffled by the force of Gilbert’s hand.
“He seems cooperative enough. Nonetheless it’s up to him and Roderich. If he willingly does so, we’ll send him off quietly. Exorcism happens when we force a send off on these guys.” Gilbert took off his hand from Tae Hee’s mouth when he’s sure the kid wouldn’t scream at any moment.
“How do you know he’s cooperative?”
“His presence bears no threat and malice, much the same as souls who just died. You’ll learn how to differentiate them as you encounter more.”
The ghost, who had an appearance of an old man in a windproof coat, bowed back and smiled. “Oh, are you guys grim reapers? Been a while since they visit this place. Must be about Vasquez, isn’t it?”
“Actually, yes.” Roderich cleared his throat. “You’ve been residing here since this place turned into a ghost town. Have you met Vasquez, then?”
“I never met her, sadly. I overheard a conversation that she died in this building, five floors above. It’s not that I stayed here everyday that I can safely assume she never went back, but if I were her, I wouldn’t want to revisit the place where my life ended.”
Good point, Gilbert thought. “How about rumors? Or an idea about her whereabouts?”
The old man stunned for a while before slowly speaking. “I suppose she sought revenge on men who did this to her. So unless they’re all dead, she should be anywhere near them by now.”
“It’s true that she terrified all the citizens in this town because she’s trying to hunt those men using her power. That means they have the possibility of being alive and on the run since then. We’ll check on it.” Roderich pulled out his notebook and wrote down a quick notice. “As for you, sir, do you wish to be sent off now? I see that you have no reason to be wandering as a ghost with no bad intention.”
“Ah, well. The truth is I previously died from a hiking incident in the South and fled out of curiosity because it took too long for reapers to access their way to my death point. They found me later in this town and soon realized that this was the very same town where their wanted list happened to die before. They spared me ‘alive’ so I could reside here and update them whenever I got new information about Vasquez.”
“Cool!” Tae Hee jumped in excitement. “We got a ghost ally now too!”
“Yes, sort of.” The old man laughed.
Gilbert pierced the man down with his dead stares. “But you haven’t got any new information since then. Are you perhaps covering for her?”
“Gilbert!” Roderich snapped.
Gilbert tilted his head to see the man’s expression and proposed an apology. “I was just being realistic. Truthfully, you have no reason to help Vasquez. If anything, she’ll prevent you from being sent off soon.”
“Don’t worry about that,” the man said. “I’ll be glad if my nonexistent body can provide any help.”
“Can I at least see the seventh floor, then? I want to investigate the crime scene.”
“Ah, it’s...” The man coughed, eyes went unfocused as they traveled quick to the ceiling. “It’s too much to bear. I have seen it. It’s so traumatizing. Your younger worker could faint to the sight.”
Gilbert held Tae Hee tight, forcing him to stand up on his trembling knees. “He won’t. I’ll teach him for good if he ever backs down.”
“But, it’s really—"
“Is there another reason I can’t go up—"
“Gilbert, it’s enough.”
Gilbert tore his eyes away and now stared into Roderich’s hardened face in irritation. “Hey, I’m trying to work hard here. As your partner.”
“Is it necessary to go up and check when nothing is there anymore? I got several photos from the police if you want to see it. For now, let’s not waste our time and move to the next subject.”
“Are you scared, Roderich? Seeing the photos and actually seeing it with your own eyes won’t be the same experience.”
“Gilbert, I’m the head of this investigation. Just listen to me and we’ll be safe.”
Gilbert clicked his tongue, suddenly uncomfortable being faced to power dominance. “Fine. Let’s leave.”
They bowed down to the old man for the last time before leaving the building and town. Gilbert’s head ached from earlier and he tried so hard not to think about other possibilities and schemes someone probably put them into. And having Roderich being a hot-headed and control freak he was didn’t make anything easier either.
Driving back to the downtown, they spent most of the journey in silence; Roderich focusing on the road, Gilbert lost in his thought, and Tae Hee shivering in the backseat. The view of high, alive buildings with pedestrians crossing before them and melting snows along the sidewalk were no longer boring for they had seen the worst an hour ago.
“What’s our next agenda, partner?”
Gilbert jerked to his left, shocked to see such words coming from Roderich. It’s a taunt, he thought, and then remembered how he almost had no say in the previous investigation. “Since you refused the idea of seeing the crime scene, I suppose we have no chance but to track down the men who killed her. That being said, we should look for information in the police office or the old report from the previous reapers-in-charge.”
“We can split!” Tae Hee stuck out his head to the gap between the seats. “That way it’ll make our work progress faster!”
Gilbert hummed. “Yeah, not like I can spend a minute longer with you two. Let’s split, then.”
Roderich stopped the car before the yellow light. Tapping his fingers to the steering wheel, he considered Gilbert’s jokes before actually agreeing to it by blowing a dramatic sigh. “I can drop you two in the headquarter. Leave the police record to me.”
“This brat and me? Again?”
“Two things. The headquarter’s private record about Vasquez and the whole archive collection. We’ll gather the information later and decide whom we will go first.”
That made sense. Gilbert just didn’t want to admit it. “Fine. By the way, aren’t you the previous reaper-in-charge? Don’t you have the report already?”
The lights turned green. Roderich didn’t waste any time before hitting the gas. “Only my personal notes. And I wasn’t the one leading during the previous investigation.”
“Where are your superiors now?”
“They left. Transferred overseas.”
Roderich half-turned his face, eyes were fixated on the road but the wrinkles in his forehead flared obvious. “Another point to investigate, I guess.”
The thing was, being around Tae Hee’s hyper-enthusiastic energy was so exhausting that Gilbert couldn’t help but to stay away as much as he could, though he failed miserably in his countless attempts. The kid’s peeking at him through layers of book racks, saw him startled and screamed for every little detail he found; Gilbert shook his head repeatedly before returning to the rummage he made.
If only he could pinpoint her husband’s new address and go there to ask in detail... Then again, explaining why they needed the data so much would be a new problem itself.
“Sir, do you have time?”
Gilbert closed another wrong document and put it back into the rack. He made sure he’d been looking in the right year draft, but somehow for a popular top wanted ghost like Vasquez, he couldn’t seem to navigate anything useful. “What? Make it quick.”
Tae Hee rubbed the back of his neck while politely shoving a whole pile of paper to Gilbert. “This is the data of the previous investigation. Look, there’s even a photo of Mr. Roderich from his rookie days.”
Roderich looked exactly like a newborn potato he was during those cursed school years. Gilbert bit back a mocking laugh. “Kid, I told you to look for their notes regarding the case, not their bios or background.”
“Yes, but Mr. Roderich told us to investigate his superiors’ transfer. So I figured out to look back at their latest activities and find them mostly the same.”
Okay, that’s interesting. Gilbert skimmed through the document and even made sure to read it twice. There were at least four reapers, who were all Roderich’s superiors including the first-in-command—also got transferred all at once during their last investigation in one summer. Their new addresses were written empty with no new contact details to follow. And the four reapers recent activities before they left were all focused on the same thing: Vasquez.
10th of July, investigating the neighborhood.
11th of July, exchanging information with ghost Marcus.
12th of July, planning to revisit the crime scene all together.
13th of July...
“The report ended with them visiting the crime scene.” Gilbert scratched his chin. “That’s odd.”
Tae Hee flipped the pages and stopped at the last one. “After the 13th, someone else filled their reports, saying all of them were willingly transferred overseas. It ends there, with no traces in other files.”
“Whoever wrote their transfer must be an insider, then. There’s no way a stranger could locate this place and even fill things on behalf of authority.”
“What if it’s a ghost...?”
Gilbert looked up, shivering at how chilly the archive room became. “A ghost filled this in?”
Tae Hee also trembled as he hugged himself with his arms. “I don’t want to believe it, too! But after listening to your explanation about them, perhaps there are possibilities.”
“That was a heavy assumption. Don’t make a judgement by yourself.”
“I don’t! N-No one tries to joke in this kind of situation!”
“It can’t be a ghost!” Gilbert snarled, his lips went dry. “This is the most secure place in the city. If one comes, then we’re all dead from the beginning!”
“I-It could be what the ghost wants us to believe, sir...”
“Or maybe we have been consumed by our own useless thoughts! Because there’s zero chance a—"
Cold, it’s getting colder. The sudden breeze. The ignored footsteps from behind. The weight of a set of gaze on Gilbert’s back. The faint but sharp, icy touch against his shoulder, felt like it could creep anytime to his neck and choke him dead—
Gilbert found himself screaming and stumbling to Tae Hee’s feet, mouth stuttering thousands of apologies as the figure stepped closer. The ghosts might be real, foolish him. And one was here to end his life, just right in front of him, drowning his screams of agony. Hell was near, he was on the gate. This ghost delivered him.
Once he stopped to catch a breath, he could hear Tae Hee calling his name over a woman’s panic voice. Gilbert dared himself to open his eyes. They landed on a woman with long brown hair, wearing a formal black and white uniform with her favorite stiletto—
“WHAT THE FUCK, LIZ?!
“Mr. Gilbert! You’re awake now!”
Gilbert pushed himself to his feet, ignoring a few aching spots from falling before. Elizabeth was still dumbfounded at him though the panic had been replaced with something close to amusement. She tilted her head and hugged her agenda book tighter. “What was that, Gilbert?”
“We’re talking about ghosts when you suddenly appeared behind and unintentionally scared Mr—"
Gilbert elbowed Tae Hee just in time and cleared his throat. “Why are you here?”
“Roderich called me and asked if I could help you with your investigation. I don’t have many clients today and generously offer my spare time to ease your work. Whether you accept me or not, it’ll be up to you.”
Roderich, that jerk. How dare he contact Elizabeth again. Well, technically the deal hadn’t been fulfilled yet. Until then, he’s free to stretch his basic right of getting in touch with anyone. Gilbert never wanted to spit on someone this much before. “I’m telling you now. We’re not struggling or having a hard time. But if you insist that much, fine. We’ll let you help.”
“You make it sound like I’m the desperate one.”
Elizabeth’s mouth hung open but no words came out. She quickly closed it back and licked her upper lips, eyes darted away to the racks around. Something about her movement warmed the pool in Gilbert’s stomach and he hadn’t sure what that meant yet.
“I’m looking for the Vasquez family info. Probably around these drafts, there’s more I haven’t checked though.”
Elizabeth nodded and moved her feet to her post, straight up focused on her work. Gilbert turned to Tae Hee and sighed.
“Let’s keep that for ourselves for now. Go around the headquarter and ask people. It’ll help you become familiar with the headquarter layout from now on.”
“A-Aye, aye, sir!” And he ran out of the room as fast as light, leaving Gilbert with a pile of neglected files in his hold.
Elizabeth found the document first, on the corner of the last rack no one ever bothered to check. Dusty, crumpled at some part, looked more worn-out than every older document in the room. They brought it to the center tables which was lit enough by the breaching sunray and spread the papers on, scrambling unconnected threads and leaving it as it was.
“She’s pretty.” Elizabeth’s first reaction was to pick the first page of the documents; Vasquez’ bios. There were personal data, addresses, family contact details, photos of the late woman, and short chronologies of her death. “For a woman in her forties.”
Gilbert’s first measure was the scattered photos of the crime scene; taken by the first reaper who was in charge to send Vasquez off. There were five in total, all surrounding the seventh floor of the building they went to earlier. It was the same, spacious room with minimal lights and shattered windows, but with a chair in the middle. Blood (whose?) splashed everywhere: the chair, the floor, the wall. There were red footprints molding throughout the room without clear direction, it seemed. Gilbert picked another photo that was slipped under other papers. That one photo was nothing more than Vasquez’ dead body, freshly evacuated to the morgue.
“Not pretty anymore.” Elizabeth snatched the photo and squinted her eyes at the lifeless black, long-haired woman picture. “She died horribly. Poor soul.”
“Tortured, huh?” Certainly there were shallow cuts through her arms and legs, presumably done with a knife or scalpel as a matter to scare her. Her pinkie and ring fingers from right hand were also butchered clean, indicating the possibility of more weapons used. The flesh appeared dark against her pale skin, smearing her body as the result of her husband’s refusal of paying the ransom. “I wonder if she still holds grudges to her husband. Well, if he’s still alive, then.”
“He is. This file comes with his address.”
Gilbert pulled his sleeves to reveal his watch. They got a few hours before the sky darkened and another whole day before meeting up with Roderich. The faster, the better. It’s been one and a half days but he already missed the excitement of harvesting souls. “Let’s go now.”
He briefly told Tae Hee about his new plan and that he could go back to their apartment once he’s done digging information in the headquarter. Tae Hee stopped his protest once he saw Elizabeth waiting for Gilbert in the hall, waving her hand at him. The pout upturned to a wicked smile that made Gilbert scared for a solid second there.
“Leave the rest to me, sir!”
“What’s with that sudden change of attitude?!”
When Gilbert turned on his heels (after giving Tae Hee a short lesson), he saw Elizabeth was laughing with someone on her phone. Her face flushed, arm swinging in compliment with the words she mouthed. Gilbert didn’t have to listen to the conversation to know whom she spoke to. Her overexcited high-pitched voice gave it away.
“We’re getting ready to visit—ah, what are you doing, Gilbert?!”
Ignoring her attempt to have her phone back, Gilbert walked straight to the exit, her phone’s on his ear, blood in his head. “Roderich! How’s the police office digging going?”
“That’s rude. I was talking to Elizabeth before.”
Roderich sounded displeased. It made Gilbert smirk triumphant. “Let’s meet tomorrow and combine the information. For today, don’t either contact me or Liz. We’re out of order for the rest of the day.”
Click. The line was dead.
The bus was mostly empty by the time they got in. All the passengers got off at the previous stop which was the busiest part of the city with malls and shopping centers. It’s the weekend after all.
Elizabeth pushed Gilbert down to the backseat and pressed him against the window as she purposely tried to take as much as space she could. She’s still scowling from getting cut out with Roderich even after Gilbert told her to focus on work. It irked Gilbert sometimes that Elizabeth’s acquaintance with Roderich continued to bloom to a better direction than his, even though she’s been sold out by him before. Gilbert never did that to her. Yet, he didn’t get half of her admiration and liking as they were all wasted to that Roderich asshole.
Well, Gilbert had to understand. Neither Elizabeth nor Yuriko knew the truth from five years ago. He kind of hated his old self for doubting whether he spilled it out to them or not. If only he knew that Roderich was still lurking behind them, then...
A gentle smack on his shoulder, Gilbert straightened his back and faced Elizabeth fiercely. He’s not sure why he did that, because Elizabeth’s now looking at him in dismay.
“After you cut me off from Roderich, you’re blacking out at the view of your ugly shoes, probably regretting why you did that to me. Am I right?”
He’s regretting his cowardice of not being able to protect her.
“There’s no need to be still talking with him, right?” Instead, he proceeded to blurt out the stupidest thing. “You guys are in a different league and district with no links whatsoever. If there is one, then he should be talking through ME, not directly to you.”
“Woah, since when you can restrict me?” Elizabeth crossed her arms, eyebrows furrowed. “For you, it always comes down to work-related. Can’t I have a relationship other than co-workers, subordinates, and superiors? Can’t I have friends?”
“Anyone but him!”
“Anyone but him?” Elizabeth dragged herself closer to pin Gilbert with her stares. “Aren’t you just jealous?!”
He was. In fact, if he’s not jealous, he wouldn’t take any ridiculous drastic measures against Roderich like this.
As if time stopped, Gilbert swam himself through the depth of Elizabeth’s eyes. From up close, he could see her freckles scattering around the bridge of her nose; the faint blush on her cheeks; the furrow of her forehead; the refined edges of her eyes, untainted with make-ups; or how soft and peachy her lips as he trailed his eyes down, holding back to urge to close their distance.
Time ticked again. The pound of the previously halted bus jerked them to the opposite side, Gilbert’s head accidentally hit the window behind.
“Ouch! That can kill someone!”
When he shifted his gaze back to Elizabeth, he saw her panting.
“Are you okay...?”
She glared at him. “Yes! Obviously!”
They spent the rest of the road in silence, both looking away like they didn’t know each other. Gilbert was too glued with the passing scenery and Elizabeth with her phone, chatting with some other people Gilbert might not know. She was the one who realized they’re about to arrive at the right stop and tugged his arm up, balancing her steps on the bumpy aisle.
The neighborhood was quiet, they met several elders walking down the road from their grocery shopping errands, greeting the two young adults on their way. The house they were looking for was deep in the alley, covered with trees and weeds. Gilbert was about to knock on the gate before he realized something.
“What will be our excuse?”
Elizabeth tilted her head. “Excuse?”
“For what purpose we come here and why are we asking so much about a dead woman.”
“Well...” She drawled the word long until she backed down with her silly smiles. “I tricked a lot of people with my insurance offer. This will do, right?”
Gilbert found himself stuck at noting her face again before shaking his head and knocking the door a little too aggressively than it intended to be. “I leave that to you, professional con-artist.”
“I’m not a con!”
A teenage girl opened the gate, eyes narrowing down to the two strangers. She didn’t say anything, hands stilled on the knob of the wooden gate. Certainly an uninviting gesture.
Elizabeth soon slipped to her role. “Good afternoon, darling. We’re here from the insurance company Mr. Vasquez has worked with. Is he perhaps home now?”
“Dad’s not home yet,” the girl spoke, cold and flat.
“Ah, is it going to be long to wait for him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can we wait inside? It’s getting cold—"
Gilbert rushed to hold the almost slammed gate, voice reverting to the most harmless and kindest he’s ever pulled, though he viciously cursed under his breath. “Sorry, kid. Can we at least get his contact details? We want to talk about something important and your father has previously agreed with sparing his time for us.”
“You two are from an insurance company. Why don’t you have his contact?”
“We tried!” Elizabeth blurted out. “B-But he didn’t pick up. That’s why we want to know if he has another number that is more reachable.”
The girl rolled her eyes. She took her time to scan both of them in matter of appearance while Gilbert tried his best to keep his face friendly and warm even when the cells on his face were all crying out of pain. Elizabeth was a natural at this, hell if she wasn’t. They wasted around a minute being mentally interrogated by this teenager until she decided it was enough and let them in. “It’s cold. Wait inside so I can find you his number.”
“Thank you very much!”
Perhaps it’s the fact they both were shivering that had them pitied.
The living room was small, one set of couch was forced to fit in the space. It was modest at most for a motherless family, easy to clean and maintain. Gilbert sat stiff at the center, shoulder brushing Elizabeth’s as they waited for the girl to rummage her phone book. Two glasses of water were placed on the table in front of the family’s tube TV. The silence between them stretched too much until Elizabeth nudged him.
‘Go!’ she signaled him, eyes flaring as she shook her head to the girl’s direction, who’s still busy searching for her dad’s numbers. ‘Do something! We’re not going to wait for her father forever!’
Gilbert looked at her in dismay, gaze shifting to the surrounding, mind’s racing to find a way to open a friendly conversation. The girl came to approach them not long afterward, a piece of paper hanging in her hold. She handed it silently, as if she’s gesturing for them to walk out now.
Elizabeth cleared her throat, taking the chance first. “Is your dad always out on weekends like this? Doesn’t he spend time with you often?”
The girl froze for a moment. Her unfocused eyes slightly glinted to the question, before fading back those empty stares. “Why did you ask?”
“Ah, I’m sorry… I mean, isn’t that what family is supposed to do?” Elizabeth laughed nervously, Gilbert wasn’t sure whether he’s disappointed with her or proud because he wasn’t the one doing that. “Where is your mother? She isn’t home too?”
“My mom died months ago.”
That was quick. Gilbert rubbed his temples, his other hand went to grab his portion of water. “Yes, Miss. That’s why Mr. Vasquez requested insurance for his wife. Why didn’t you read my report earlier?”
He fought back a laugh when Elizabeth turned at him, glaring. Betrayal never tasted this sweet before. “W-Well, excuse me, sir. I’ll be sure to read twice.”
“He requested an insurance for Mom?” The girl hurried to sit down next to them, bored face switched to genuine intrigue. “He… did?”
“Yeah.” Gilbert swallowed a hard lump, becoming aware that they’re falling deeper to their lies. “That’s what people normally do. Is it a big deal that you’re surprised by the news?”
“He never cared about Mom. He probably only wants the money.”
Elizabeth beat him to the question. “Was their relationship that bad? Or are you just short in finance?”
“Been bad before everything.” The girl sunk to the couch, her breath out sounded more like a release of stress. “Yes, we were short in money. But instead of working to get more, Dad blamed it all to Mom, saying she spent everything we had for Grandma’s medication. She got constantly yelled and beaten by him at times. One time my younger brother and I tried to call the cops, but Mom stopped us. She said everything would be okay, once they got more money…”
“That’s terrible. I’m sorry you have to experience it,” Elizabeth said, frustration clearly plastered all over her face. “That explained why he couldn’t pay for her ransom.”
The girl’s eyes flew wide. She hopped out, rapidly blinking at them. “Ransom?”
“You didn’t know?” Gilbert hopped out of the couch too, surprised. “That your mom—”
The door was slammed open. A middle aged man appeared from behind, his eyes landed on the sight of Gilbert and Elizabeth. His face turned red as he clenched his teeth, his fists tightened to balls when he approached them. Gilbert’s first instinct was to stand before Elizabeth.
“Beatrice! What the hell is this?! How many times have I told you not to let strangers in?!”
His voice was heavy enough to jolt the girl—Beatrice—out of where she stood, her tiny body trembled in response. “T-They w-were from insurance company you re-requested. T-They’re here for you…”
“Insurance company?!” Mr. Vasquez ran his eyes on Gilbert, noticing his attire before growling a train of curses. “NEVER REQUEST ONE!”
“Sir, listen. We are here to ask about Mrs—”
A hard punch landed on Gilbert’s cheek, almost knocking him out to the ground if Elizabeth didn’t hold him from behind, screaming his name in worry as Beatrice pleaded for mercy. Gilbert remembered blocking another stray punch directed to Elizabeth out of his consciousness before surrendering to the dizziness.
Another punch to the other cheek. Now both were even.
Another yell and shouts.
“THIS GUYS ARE REAPERS, BEATRICE! HOW MANY TIMES I SHOULD TELL YOU THAT—”
The daughter was crying.
“I JUST WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT MOM—”
He remembered being dragged in hurry, his longer feet brushing against the hard concrete as Elizabeth continuously called him, words stumbling one to another. His cheeks stung, probably blue now as the bones underneath recovered from the sudden terror. Sight was a noise of black and only Elizabeth’s small hisses went through.
He didn’t know how many times had passed until he could hear a voice calling out ‘Roderich.’
Flew awake as if electricity had his heart pumped blood again, Gilbert forced himself to sit and snatch the phone away from Elizabeth again. Not even looking at the caller ID, he pressed the red phone button and put it between them, still catching a breath in process.
Elizabeth frowned at him, in contrast to what Gilbert expected her to do.
“So you’re okay,” she said, grabbing her phone and slipping it back to her pocket. Gilbert’s stares trailed her movement all along. “I thought of dialing Roderich and asked for medical supply if you continued to doze off for another hour.”
“I didn’t pass out—” Gilbert caught his surroundings. They were at a port, sitting on the fences at the side of the street. The breeze tickled his exposed skin, pulling out a shiver as well as realization. It’s past sunset already, and the sky was pitch black. “What time is it?!”
“Seven.” Elizabeth sighed. Her other hand reached out to press a ball of heat to his cheek. The coldness of night and the heat clashed on his side of face. For once it felt nice, especially when it’s done by Elizabeth’s gentle hand. Gilbert then remembered his bruises. “You’ve been out for approximately three hours since a madman punched you several times in the face.”
“Definitely a madman.” Gilbert stayed still, enjoying the soft puff on his cheeks. “What happened to the girl?”
The breeze blew again, this time harder until both of them froze on their respective place. Gilbert was the first one to open his eyes, got surprised himself when he found Elizabeth was half-leaning on him. He bit back a taunt and moved a few centimeters back until the distance between them became comfortable, as well as before she could open her eyes and embarrass herself.
Elizabeth opened her eyes, looking at Gilbert as she continued puffing the ball to his other cheeks. He didn’t want to admit that she at least looked disappointed by the lack of follow up.
“The shouting went down after we left the house. Hopefully she’s okay. I think we should check on her later.”
“What a hell of a family.”
“There’s a few odds I noted, though. Something is wrong there.”
“The fact that the daughter didn’t know the whole thing about the ransom?”
Elizabeth gulped, pulling her hands away from Gilbert. He found himself immediately missing the indirect touch. “That. And more fucked up thoughts.”
Gilbert leaned closer, shoulders touching hers again. “Care to spill some?”
“I—” Elizabeth shook her head. “Not until I get a bigger picture of the whole situation. It’s a big jump of assumption after all.”
“Okay. It’s fine.”
They both stared into the eternity of high seas stretched in front of them. Everything was dark, only a glimpse of crashing waves under dim streetlight marked where the shorelines ended. Big boats were parked near, smaller ones were out farther back to the sea. Their lights blinking in distance, illuminating a part of the breezy night. Every once in a while, the lighthouse would take turns to flash the seas, bringing ships to light before moving away and drowning them back into the dark.
Gilbert’s cheeks throbbed against another press of heat.
“Ouch! I’m not a horse, be gentler!”
He was replied by a harder press. “If I don’t press enough, it won’t heal properly. Would be a shame if something as bad happens to such a pretty face.”
“Did you just call me pretty—Ouch! Okay, okay! Slow down!”
Elizabeth chuckled, reverting to a much softer one. She switched cheeks and made sure Gilbert enjoyed every puff she did. Because there’s nothing more satisfying to see Gilbert sitting still like a good dog as she tended him.
On the other hand, Gilbert was wondering why the hell compressing bruised cheeks with hot rice made a girl beam this much.
“I got a few weeks ahead before slipping to death and here I am, treating your wound as if I don’t have something better to do.”
Gilbert tilted his head, leaning to the heat. “I don’t ask for this, though.”
“Because it’s immoral to just leave you dead there.”
“Playing angel, I see. It’s probably on your to-do list or something.”
“You know what else is on my to-do list?” Elizabeth sneered a lopsided grin, words from her mouth traveled close to his ear. “Renting a boyfriend.”
Gilbert let out a laugh, it felt forever since he did that out of sarcasm. “I’m waiting. Given to your popularity both in the community and this mundane world, I doubt it’ll be long to find one.”
“No, I mean like a complete stranger! I don’t want to date someone close to me. It’s the same as taking advantage of them! Especially when I’m only renting them to go on dates with me!”
“Why do you need a boyfriend, anyway? Tired of being alone? Don’t wanna die a virgin? Wanting to taste real adulthood before you die? Or—”
“Shut up. It’s not like that. And I’m just joking. Why would a dead woman like me go out to find love.” Elizabeth once again pulled the ball away. She dipped her finger in and shook her head. “It’s gone cold so fast.”
“I can treat it later. Stop worrying about it.” Gilbert traced the soft skins of his cheeks with the back of his hands, rubbing them for as long as Elizabeth took her time searching for a bin to throw the ball away. He stopped doing it once Elizabeth returned to sit next to him. It’d probably look funny to her, he thought.
Why the hell he cared if she’s going to laugh at him or not, anyway.
“What’s your type, though?” Gilbert asked before he could stop himself. “I-I mean, asking for friends. You’re popular, you know.”
Elizabeth blinked, processing the question like it’s a math test or something. “Type of men?”
“Ideal man. The kinds you most likely date.”
He swore he almost saw her scorched by her own thoughts. She looked around like she’s being paranoid whether someone was listening when in reality it’s just the two of them—except for a couple fishermen and port officers hanging out on the street, too caught up in their own political conversation. She ended up repeating the whole question. “My ideal type of man?”
“For god’s sake, Liz. You can just say no if you’re really that scared of answering.”
“I’m not scared! I’m just—” She landed her gaze on him and nibbled her lower lips. Gilbert noticed how flushed her cheeks had become. “It’s hard to explain.”
“Is he like an elf or something? A wizard? A dragon tamer? Something so abstract like a ghost?”
“A human! A normal human with a normal appearance of a human!” she scowled, tearing her gaze away from whatever parts of Gilbert’s face she had been staring. “Tall, like six feet tall. Tanned skin of an athlete. Black hair with blue eyes. Own a penthouse with three Jacuzzis. Can cook, sing, dance, draw, paint, sports! Polite-mannered and smooth-talker, romantic but not cringey. Have three degrees at least and a notable graduate from a notable college overseas with a perfect GPA while still maintaining his social skills—”
“St—Stop! Enough, okay? I get it that it’s…” everything I’m not, it’s what Gilbert was about to say. “There’s a reason why you never have a boyfriend.”
Elizabeth breathed out, the color of her face had yet to drain. “They don’t exist. That’s why.”
Gilbert felt a whirl formed underneath his chest and wondered why his stomach had been hurting for a while. Probably because he skipped lunch and dinner, though he still couldn’t explain why his heart also beat erratically until he couldn’t hear anything else from outside.
Good thing Elizabeth still kept her eyes away from him. He didn’t want her to see him blowing warm air to the tip of his thumb as a vain effort to calm down the frantic pulse.
“What about you, Gilbert? What’s your type?”
Gilbert swore he almost jumped from his place. Putting down his thumb, he circled his eyes around the woman next to him. Through the soft edges of her fringe, she’s watching ships passing near the horizon, trying to find a light home. Lips slightly parted, the wind once caressed her hair into fluttering merrily before falling back to cover the side of her face. Her ears were red from the cold, fingers gripping the tender woods she’s sitting on. Dangling her legs over the fences where the sea crashed beneath, bathed in the sheer light of half moon above—Gilbert thought—she looked beautiful like this.
Except that she refused to look him in the eyes.
She only did when Gilbert laid his hand to brush strands of her hair away from her face, tucking them behind her ear gently because he thought of seeing her up close. Elizabeth was paralyzed under the touch, stifling a gasp when Gilbert drew closer, locking their gaze into the hands of fate just because he knew this wouldn’t go forever.
“You,” he breathed out, and it echoed for the rest of the night.
Elizabeth was that one plant he ignored but never died. She grew on him, annoying him with her feral roots though she’s no weed. She’s a flower, a really pretty one that went evergreen fighting the east wind. Before he knew it, she grew a garden for them all by herself, keeping them watered and happy for the sake of pulling out a smile from him someday. But Gilbert was too much of a gardener who couldn’t even take care of one single plant. So instead of continuing her work, he feigned ignorance because he thought he didn’t have to work anymore when someone else had already filled him in.
It wasn’t until the flower started to shrivel out of nowhere, he became aware of what was what; what was the most precious for him, what was the thing he wanted to keep, what was the thing he wanted to see everyday, what was the thing he didn’t do when he still had times.
What was it… that taught him how to smile and laugh.
Elizabeth was like the four seasons. All beamed up and bloomed, just like spring. Fiery eyes and thundering smiles in the summer. Autumn, withering. And by winter, she’s gone.
“What do you say?”
The whirling pool in his stomach flared. He wanted to kiss her, all of a sudden.
Another wave crashed. Gilbert’s eyes widened, upon reaching the sight of her mouth.
He licked his lips and pushed her softly. His mind buried the memory of Elizabeth shivering under his gaze. “You. You are exactly what I pictured of someone whom I won’t take their hands on marriage.”
“Woah.” Gilbert dared to look her eyes again only to find furrows and several other unidentifiable emotions swimming there. “Is this a romantic comedy show in which all men fall deep for this woman except for this one cocky, bratty, good-for-nothing guy who’s just all pride but no heart, but in the end he’s just playing hard to get?!”
“Do you want me to join your fan club that much, princess? Ain’t got time for that, duh!”
“I—” She ruffled her hair through the groan of frustration. “Whatever, Gilbert! Let’s drop this topic. I’m going home.”
“You’re the one starting the topic!” Gilbert pushed himself to his feet, following Elizabeth to the crossroad. “How does it feel like to get rejected twice by the same man, huh?”
“No one is confessing to anyone, okay?!”
The crossroad leading to another district looked grim in the dark. Elizabeth stopped through the middle, causing Gilbert to bump into her abruptly. “What?”
“Your home is that way.” She gestured to the left wing of the intersection.
“Right,” he replied, before coming to senses on what she meant. “Oh, you can walk home by yourself, kiddo?”
Elizabeth didn’t smack him. “Don’t forget to apply ointment to your bruises when you get home. They should fade by the next day if you do it right.”
“What if it doesn’t disappear tomorrow?”
“Then maybe you—” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll rub it for you with my ointment tomorrow. Who knows if yours have expired already.”
Gilbert felt boozy to the thought of Elizabeth treating his wounds again, quickly shoving it down to the back of his mind upon realizing how wrong was that. “Right. Thanks. See you around, I guess.”
“Rubbing them with your hand can also increase blood circulation around the area. Do it softly but regularly at times.”
“I’m not your mom!”
“Gilbert, I swear to God—”
It’s nice. It’s always nice this way. Bantering back and forth, exactly how it was back during their younger days. When none of them were bothered enough to consider the good in each other, or wavered by the sudden changes of perspective of each individual. When all they thought was about how to outwit each other while still having fun, because when one smiled it meant they’re happy for the other’s company—not because they’re falling.
Gilbert really hoped it stayed this way forever.
But at what cost?
Time remaining: 22 days.