Mrs. De Los Santos stood in the shadow of her husband’s towering bookcase, nursing the bruises on her arm. In the shade, no one could see her injuries and she had taken the extra measure of wearing a loose, full sleeve dress to cover the evidence. Still, she felt exposed to the hefty man standing across her by the sunlit corner of the room. He was dressed in a black overcoat with a glass of whiskey in hand.
The man savored his booze, admiring the immense woodwork laid out before him. Its size was daunting, stretching from wall to wall in length and standing just below the ceiling in height. Its shadow, equally huge, encroached on half the room, shrouding it from the afternoon sun peeking through the curtains.
Mrs. De Los Santos watched her guest, yet another one, become fascinated with the bookcase. It was an antique passed on from generations back. An English oak with breakfront doors at the center section, covered in polished, wavy glass. Its etched Victorian scrolls inlaid on its stepped crown was indicative of its nineteenth century origins. The details made it even more elegant, her husband would often brag to visitors he would tour around his study. The molded cornices were intricate enough to blend well with the overall carpentry, devoid of any ostentation adored by dandies and the nouveau riche. She had inherited it from her own father, a man known for his noble tastes himself. And now, it was her husband’s. He has filled the shelves with tomes written by heavyweights of the legal profession which he had come to collect over the years like priceless works of art. They were countless and from all over the world.
Mrs. De Los Santos did not know any of them.
“Manny was always the biggest bookworm,” said the man, taking a swig of the whiskey. “Even back in law school. He’d stay in Friday nights, reading in advance when we would all go out. He was the good boy. A real live saint,” laughed the man, holding out his empty glass.
Mrs. De Los Santos did not reply. She topped off her guest, careful not to smell the liquor. She had developed an aversion to alcohol in the past weeks that she could not shake off. Her stomach would churn and twist, and she grimaced at the pain growing inside her.
“Care to have a drink, Mary? I brought this for you. It’s Manny’s favorite.”
“No, thank you. I’m not feeling well.”
“You need some fresh air. This room’s too stuffy. Bask in the sunlight a bit! I can hardly see you in your little corner.”
“I’m sensitive to bright lights. It’s best if I stay here,” said Mrs. De Los Santos, clutching her arm and holding it close to her body. She was wary of men like him. Eloquent men with voices of honey.
“Now, don’t be ridiculous. I won’t bite.”
The man approached, quickly coming face to face with the young wife, prompting her to step back further into the shady corner.
“We shouldn’t get too close. The maid might come in any time to clean the room. She gossips and I don’t want her to get any ideas.”
“I’m your husband’s best friend, why would she get any ideas?”
“Did he send you here?”
“I already told you, no. I was headed home and your house was on the way. Just wanted to check in on you with Manny being busy with the trial and all.”
“He came here last night,” said the young wife, lowering her gaze to the floor. “Just dropped by,” she mumbled almost inaudibly.
“Yeah we really can’t stay away for too long. It’s a tough case. Very sensitive matter. It’ll take a while. Haven’t seen my own wife and kid in weeks. Elizabeth just gave birth and —“
“So, he’ll be gone for a while?”
“Yes. He’s the one prepping the victim before she takes the stand. He has to stay with her.”
“Stay with her in the hotel, you mean?”
“Yes, in the hotel and away from the press. Again, it’s a sensitive matter. They’ve been holed up in his room for days prepping for –“
“She’s in his room?” cried the young wife, feeling the anger in her own voice rise. She was growing nauseated from the stench of whiskey wafting through the air, the insides of her stomach churning in protest.
“He’s preparing her for —“
“She’s pretty, Noel. I saw her in the news the other day.”
“She’s a rape victim, Mary. If you think something’s going on –“
“Now look. Your husband only has eyes for you, Mary, you know that.”
“You’d lie for him. He’s your best friend. You’d lie for him.”
“I’m growing tired of this, Mary. The guy’s a damn saint. And a hero now with this case he’s leading. Now can we talk about something else? I’m not even allowed to discuss an ongoing trial to you or anyone.”
Mrs. De Los Santos kept quiet. She recalled all the times her husband hushed her for asking about his cases. It was better not to push it, he taught her over the years. She shuddered at the thought, now eager to change the subject.
“Okay. How’s Elizabeth?” asked the young wife.
“She’s still recovering. The baby’s size was a bit of a problem. The doctors had difficulty delivering a thirteen-pound child. He was just too heavy. She was hysterical the whole time. They upped her dosage of anesthesia to keep her sedated but she was still screaming her lungs out. Wouldn’t want to be one those surgeons,” quipped the man. His laughter booming across the room, unsettling the young wife.
“Oh my. I hope she’s well.”
“She is. She’s sleeping all the time now.”
“Oh. So who’s taking care of the baby?”
“One of the maids.”
“Will he be fine with her?”
“He better be. I’m paying her double for that.”
“What’s his name? The baby, I mean.”
“Emman. Short for Emmanuel.”
“Like you and Manny.”
“Yup. Like your father too, I heard. Elizabeth wanted to name him Bryce or Blake. One of those crappy new age names. But I wanted a junior. How about you guys? Manny’s been telling me you’ve been trying.”
“Yeah, he wants a junior of his own.”
“No. None yet.”
“Well knowing Manny, it’s not for want of trying. That I’m sure,” cackled the man.
The young wife felt her stomach tense. Coupled with her enflamed bruises, the pain was overwhelming. She found it difficult to keep it unnoticeable.
“Are you okay, Mary?” asked the man.
Mrs. De Los Santos was beside herself in anguish. The burden was too much for one person to bear.
“Noel, please tell me. Manny and that woman…”
“Not again. Please understand, Mary. It’s a tough case. I hope you understand. You grew up with a lawyer father after all. Manny told me, he prosecuted assailants, hard core criminals in his heyday. Wasn’t he away a lot too when you were growing up? It’s part of the job, Mary. And rape is the toughest. Your father must’ve known that. It’s the vilest and most depraved crime. And by God, it may take ages for this girl, but we’ll do right by her” cried the man, pouring another glass for himself.
Mrs. De Los Santos did not listen. She stared at a huge family portrait across the room. It was a classic oil on canvass commissioned by her father. The portrait was enormous, life-size and framed in ornamented gold. It had gathered dust and cobwebs until her husband made her father’s study his own. From then on, he instructed the maid to polish the frame regularly.
It was a formal portrait, no smiles or intimate gestures, painted in the style of the old-world aristocrats, dignified and sober. Her father donned a thick, black overcoat over his suit. His face, though clean and shaven, was the epitome of manliness with its strong jawline and stern features. Mr. Emmanuel Ciclo towered over his wife with his stiff posture, resting his hands on her stooped shoulders. His knuckles were cut and calloused. He used to brag about being a street brawler in his younger days, recalled Mrs. De Los Santos. He was a good one at that.
The woman in the portrait had a slight, almost bony figure. Her eyes were watery, glistening in her empty stare. Her face, though beautiful, had a slight swollenness to it if seen up close. She wore a full sleeve black gown not dissimilar to Mrs. De Los Santos’s own garment. In the middle of the couple, stood a child with ghost-like paleness, clad in black ruffles, held close by her mother. Her hair flowed to her waist, smooth from her mother’s constant combing. She had to look pretty, her mother would often tell her, to find a good husband. The portrait took nearly half a day to finish, the young wife recalled. And in the end her disproportional distance to her father ruined the balance of the painting. Her father insisted on redoing it but his impatience outgrew his determination.
The smell of whiskey entering her nose cut short the young wife’s daydreaming. Mrs. De Los Santos tensed and turned away, covering her mouth, feeling the sickness in her stomach rise to her throat. Outside, the curtains billowed and the light came in. The sun remained high even in the afternoon and the young wife was careful to stay in the shade while the pain inside her stomach throbbed intensely. She leaned on the bookcase, resting her entire weight on the sturdy fixture. Up close, she noticed that it was a decrepit chunk of wood salvaged only by the application of an excessive amount of varnish that covered its termite-eaten parts. Together with the family portrait, it was an antique anomaly in their house, she thought, as another violent cramp bent her in half.
“Mary! What’s wrong?” cried the man, rushing to her aid.
“It’s nothing. Just some stomach cramps,” said Mrs. De Los Santos, steadying herself on her way to the sofa. The man sat beside her, rubbing her back in a soothing manner. Despite her uneasiness, Mrs. De Los Santos tolerated his closeness, if only to cure her intense nausea. The man smelled of peppermint, sweet enough to cover the stench of whiskey. She burrowed herself in his chest, desperate to keep the scent in her nose. Minutes passed until her malady subsided. She almost fell asleep from the smell of mint when the feeling of warm breath on the top her head jolted her awake. The man breathed in the fragrance of her hair in a manner too intimate to her liking. A pang of guilt rose within in her.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” the young wife protested, breaking free from the man’s clasp.
“It’s alright. Just stay here first. You’re not well,” replied the man who was now nuzzling her neck.
“We’re both married. Jesus, you just had a kid, Noel.”
Mrs. De Los Santos made her way to the door.
“I’m calling the maid to clean up the glasses. You may stay if you like and if you promise to stay decent. And please keep the bottle away. “
The man sighed and chugged the remaining whiskey down his throat.
“He’s having an affair,” he announced in a now slurry voice.
The young wife stopped in her tracks. She must have heard wrong, she thought. The slur made his speech incomprehensible. Or perhaps his drunkenness has dismissed all good sense in him.
“With our client,” continued the man.” Yes, the victim. So much for the Manny the saint, huh?” he laughed. His voice echoed in her ears. His laughter, on loop, getting under her skin. She felt her stomach twist and not from the stink of the whiskey. It burned now. Alive and anxious. She walked, towards the sturdy case yet again, in need for something to hold on to. She felt the coolness of the glass on her fingertips as she glided along the panels. She continued doing this until she felt numb.
The man, aiming to comfort her, soon wrapped his heavy set of arms around her waist.
“You deserve better than that, Mary. He has no shame,” accused the man, nuzzling her neck yet again. His hot breath felt disgusting on her skin. “He sent us all out her room, insisting that she only trusted him with the details of the incident. But the walls are paper thin and I could hear them from my room. I’m sure she can say Manny’s name on the stand over and over again.” The man chuckled, his hand now slid up and down the young wife’s waist. The young wife felt a shudder go through her body, but she could not move.
The man carried on with the details of her husband’s affair. It did not matter that his words were now all but incomprehensible to her. His laughter rang inside her ears along with the muffled words. They were all noise to her which she preferred over the silence of her mind.
She remained up against the glass as his fingers crawled up her dress followed by rough hands that mauled her breast and stroked her legs, left bare by her bunched up bottoms. She ought to scream, she knew. But her voice died in her throat. She felt more and more numb. Only the pain in her stomach, returning with a vengeance, stirred inside her. Still she remained motionless, looking through the thick glass, reading the names of authors she did not know. The letters merged in her eyes, blurring in and out of clarity, made worse by the tears flowing down her cheeks; their heat bringing her back to her senses.
In a sudden rush, she felt the calloused palms kneading her chest, the reek of whiskey and saliva being smeared across her face and neck, the dampness of sweat soaking through her dress, and the sturdiness of the glass panel pressing against her cheek. She wanted to break it. To destroy the hideous structure that stood before her. The pain in her stomach raged, beating at her walls and growing hot, yearning to be unleashed.
“You don’t need him, Mary.” repeated the man in her ears. The pain tossed and turned and ate away at her numbness. Her chests tensed and her fists drew tight. The slurred, looping voice clobbered her piece of mind. And her stomach ignited in fury. Her vision blacked out and she awoke from hearing her own voice screaming.
Her bloodied knuckles were slamming away at the solid glass, cracking inch by inch with her relentless pounding. The insides of her stomach clawed away at her, blinding agony taking over. But she did not stop. The glass broke, and through the hole, she grabbed one of the heavy books and hammered away at her husband’s prize piece. The startled man watched in a daze crippled by shock and awe. Books came flying towards the cabinet. The pain inside was aggravated with every exertion but she kept on. She rammed her bruised arm repeatedly into the cabinet. She was yelling at the top of her voice now. In the hysteria, she pushed and tugged down the cabinet, causing it to teeter to and fro. The weight was all but insurmountable. Her efforts bore down on her stomach until, finally, it burst along with the noise of a giant crashing to the ground. The thud reverberated throughout the room, shaking it upon impact. The case had fallen. It laid there, glass shattered, wood destroyed, books damaged and in disarray.
“Ma’am Mary!” cried the maid, rushing into the study after hearing the noise. “What happened? You’re bleeding!”
Mary felt the pain slip away outside of her, dripping down her stomach in steady streams. It flowed without end. The sea of red underneath her, bloody as a childbirth scene. She smiled in relief and collapsed among the shards of glass on the floor.
“Stop the bleeding! Call Manny! The poor child! Does he know about this? Call an ambulance!” The maid and the man screamed in alarm but she could not hear them. She looked to the havoc she wrought and felt pleased. The voices seemed distant, echoing in the air above her. He would make her pay for this, she knew. He had always wanted a boy. But she was satisfied. Her pain, her burden was gone.
Outside the breeze blew through the curtains, and the afternoon sun felt warm on her face. She lay down, shutting her eyes and basking in the soft light. At last, she felt fine.