The Case

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 –“

“Very pretty.”

“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.”

“Any luck?”

“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.

 

 

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Oculus Dei

oculus

The beakers and test tubes were arranged neatly on the table top. They were grouped according to their use and arranged by size. The air was getting dense as steam rose from the sink. Hot water poured into a basin filled with stainless steel tools. The rest of the room was bare. The walls were white and unadorned. The singular stool was gray and wiped clean of any marks. The laboratory’s metallic casework gleamed beneath the fluorescent lights. The only anomaly that could be found was a crude drawing of the milky way galaxy on one of the hanging cabinets. The picture was spangled with silver dust dancing around a chalk-white swirl that, in turn, circled the grainy black background. It stopped short in the middle and left a gaping core of darkness at the centre. At the lower right corner, yellow letters were written out with the brisk strokes of an unsteady, almost spastic hand. “For Dad. Sorry I ran out of white crayons!” The drawing was carelessly taped onto the cabinet, dangling above a sizeable microscope; its shadow waved  back and forth and was cast over the man below.

Dr. Nichols stood before the microscope with the natural grace of a nobleman. His posture, completely erect, exuded the regal air of the absolute monarchs who once ruled the Empire with the divine right of kings. As a world-renowned scientist, he carried himself in a manner perceived as confidence by his admirers and pompousness by his critics.

The microscope was nearly triple its usual size. It stood alone on its bolted base, towering over anything in the lab. Its height was such that a step-ladder was needed to properly operate it; its massive knob required the turning of the whole hand instead of the gentle manipulation of the fingertips; its objective lens resembled a small cannon in shape.; its body tube was akin to a telescope in length and functioned just the same with its advanced ocular (how fitting. It’s Galileo’s birthday today) Dr. Nichols thought; its magnifying capability enabled the user to see the tiniest particles in any specimen; its efficiency was likened to a telescope seeing the farthest edges of the universe; its clarity could penetrate the darkest depths in existence. The device was christened Oculus Dei. And despite its innovative components, its complexity made it difficult for any scientist to operate. The privilege was therefore extended only to the most experienced scientists, a fact that Dr. Nichols boasted about to his colleagues. (Being Oxford’s top geneticist comes with its perks).

The university was tapped to lead the Royal Genomics Program — a government program that aims to screen and select specimens exhibiting immense potential to serve King and Country. The Nazi experiments on eugenics have reached new heights and the war was taking a toll on continental Europe. Oxford had been tasked to counter the measures with its own genetic exploration. Dr. Nichols was at the helm of the program — a task that has proven to be a taxing one. Parliament has been opposed to experimenting on adults due to ethical standards (self-righteous pricks). The alternative was to extract samples from the incubated embryos of volunteer parents (a  far too sensitive undertaking).

Dr. Nichols soaped and lathered with a thoroughness that left his hands raw. He deftly put on his white, rubber gloves and proceeded to place the specimen underneath the lens.

There were scores of specimens to be examined each day, a fraction of the thousands of embryo samples lined up for the program. A selection process had been sanctioned to seek out the offspring of gifted individuals but the criterion failed to narrow down the search; the sheer quantity was exhausting. Mornings were filled with a vigorous excitement as the energy wanes throughout the day. It was fast approaching midnight when Dr. Nichols examined S-1842 — the one-thousand-eight-hundred-forty-second specimen.

Despite his weariness, the scientist conducted his inspection with the thoroughness he was known for. He dabbed the lens with a piece of cloth and wiped it clean. He peered into the microscope and adjusted the multiple knobs with methodical precision. The various bead-like shapes fused together into a chain, producing a bright spark at every collision. Soon, however, the double helixes emerged in the vast emptiness around it. Their white light was a spectacle to behold. The nucleic core was much larger than Dr. Nichols expected. Its massive cells blazed with a fury of a thousand suns, fuelled by an endless series of powerful combustions. Its sheer brightness struggled to be contained as it burst out in little flashes. Its overwhelming radiance threatened to obliterate all that was around it. The light was too blinding. Dr. Nichols stepped away from the lens to prevent any trauma to his eyes. He immediately jotted down some notes. “The subject exhibits immense intelligence,” he was relieved to report. (God knows this country needs more competent citizens).

The helixes continued to burn bright. Its translucent form allowed him to see through its inner fibres. They beamed with great intensity. Dr. Nichols noted the core’s resemblance to a star ( a tiny, Red Giant casting its light across its own subatomic universe) “S-1842 shows genius level faculties with a cerebral potency fit for battle strategy. It can design weapons.” Dr. Nichols watched eagerly, energized by the possibilities the sample showed. He had been examining countless specimens for the past few months and this one displayed the most potential.

The Red Giant swelled to an immeasurable size. Its outer cells began duplicating at a furious pace; their movements emitted a bright glow that amplified its mass;  its rays formed outstretched claws, reaching for the darkest corners and radiating a soft light on the surrounding cells. Their scope and speed baffled Dr. Nichols. (Their going past the speed of light) He reached for his journals, skimming through the pages, chapter by chapter,  to look for an explanation. Having found none, he returned to the Oculus. His eager posture betrayed his newfound sense of curiosity as it bent forward and shifted its weight onto his shoulders.

He took note of every development. The immense energy carried by nucleotides was startling. The subject’s capability for rapid cell division was unprecedented. No deterioration can keep up with such a pace.”S-1842 displays boundless energy. It can sustain work efficiency w/o supervision.”

Dr. Nichols turned the knob up another notch.

The Red Giant’s core now began to settle down. The chain-like helixes coiled up to a sphere, its light slowly concentrating at the centre. Ripples of flashes going towards it. The core appeared to be vacuuming the energy from the darkness around it (An unheard of phenomenon!) “S-1842 shows signs of being fiercely independent and obstinately assertive.”

The scientist’s interest was further piqued, his body was now bent from the waist in an ape-like hunch.

Around the edges of the radiant core, the intense light began to flicker. The solid red glow disintegrated in the farthest corners leaving a phantom-like trace that floated away into the darkness. Shadows emerged  beneath it. “S-1842 has poor eyesight. Bifocals recommended.” The scientist stepped back from the Oculus and wiped his spectacles. (It’s almost ridiculous to include such petty details but even appearances are noted in the selection) “It has a lean frame, big ears, wide lips.” Dr. Nichols grudgingly jotted down. “a sharp nose, a pleasant smile, thick hair.” The outer layers were now shrinking, dashing towards the centre. “and challenged hand coordination.”

Suddenly a sizeable chunk vanished as the core accelerated its pull. Dr. Nichols was alarmed at the rapidness of the change. The pace of the reduction indicated the age of effect. The speed of decline exceeded normal standards. “The subject shows symptoms of an early onset of muscular atrophy.”

The core rapidly devoured the outer layers. Its sheer force created a powerful suction that no particle could escape. Dr. Nichols pulled away from the lens, stretching his heavy shoulders. “It exhibits properties of rapid neuron deterioration.”  He wrote down as he arched his back. He was reminded of the pains of poor posture.

The light was swiftly sucked into the core. All at once the dazzling brightness collapsed into a dense ball of light whose crushing force could not be contained. The powerful force violently expelled the outer particles as it exploded with an intensity that annihilated the neighbouring cells. There was a blinding flash followed by a brief and haunting afterglow and the Red Giant was no more. “It manifests the properties for a fatal motor neuron disease.”

The only thing that remained was an invisible force at the centre of the little star. A gaping hole, pitch black, swallowing any vestiges of light in an all-consuming darkness. It was the powerful nucleus of the disembodied cell (the overlord brain). Dr. Nichols breathed a heavy sigh. His shoulders hunched from exhaustion. (The intellect’s overpowering, it’ will devour the remaining faculties). “S-1842’s genius cannot be contained in a primitive primate body whose brutish mechanisms are not equipped to handle the sophistication of its advanced cerebrum,” he wrote. A single sentence sealed the embryo’s fate. (That kid’s going to die young. He’s going to die way too young).

Dr. Nichols stepped off the ladder. He took off his gloves and left them dangling on the microscope’s tube. He reached into his lab coat and produced a pack of cigarettes. He lit one and took a long drag. The ashes fell onto the freshly polished floor. He opened a giant directory and went through the pages. He found the subject’s name and called.

“Good evening, professor. I’m Dr. Nichols of the University of Oxford. This is regarding the Royal Genomics Program…Yes about your son. May I ask you to come here with your wife for an important notice. It is rather urgent….Thank you.”

Dr. Nichols put down the phone and took another drag. He leaned onto the microscope, staring blankly into space. (How the fuck am I going to tell them?) The pain on his shoulders grew unbearable. The fatigue was kicking in. He crossed his right arm and rotated his shoulder blade, leaving cigarette burn marks on his crisp, white lab coat.

In the corner of his eye, the milky way galaxy waved along, casting its shadow over his vision. He stood there and admired the drawing. The pain began to throb.  He took one final drag and put out the cigarette on the Oculus’ lens.

Dr. Nichols tidied up his files. He stacked the folders of information sheets on the lab desk. S-1842 was on top of the pile. He read the data over and over again as he waited.

“Dr. Nichols, we came here as fast as we could. How is my son?”

A woman in a white dress walked in briskly. She was puffing. Her shoulders were hunched from her shortness of breath. She was followed by gentleman in a coat and tie. He sauntered into the room with an air of unwavering confidence. He stood with Dr. Nichol’s regal posture.

“Good evening, Dr. Nichols. It’s an honour to meet a scientist of your calibre! I am-”

“How’s our son? Aren’t urgent calls for grave circumstances?” the woman interrupted.

“Isobel! Don’t be rude. We haven’t even introduced ourselves. Dr. Nichols, I am Dr. Hawking. A fellow alumnus of Oxford. This is my wife Isobel, a professor from this university as well!”

“I know who you are, doctor. It’s all on the data sheet,” replied Dr. Nichols. “Mrs. Hawking, would you like a glass of water?” he added, noticing her short gasps.

“It’s fine, doctor. I just need to know how my son is.” Her worried expression made Dr. Nichols anxious. He pretended to skim through the data to avoid looking at her.

“Relax, Mrs. Hawking. Have a seat first. You too, doctor.”

“Oh, please, Dr. Nichols. I cannot bear the anticipation. I must know my son is!”

Dr. Nichols silently read S-1842’s information sheet. Keeping his eyes on the findings as he figured out what to say.

“Well, doctor?”

Dr. Nichols let go a sigh. He looked across the laboratory, at the milky way galaxy, and forced a smile.

“Dr. Hawking. May I ask what you plan on naming your son?”

“Why my wife and I agreed on ‘Stephen’!”

“Stephen? That’s a nice name, doctor. I’m sure Stephen will be a great man one day.”

Perverts and Whores

burg

The drunken foreigners walked along P. Burgos Street. They were old white men who struggled to find their way around. The neon signs flashed at them “Ivory”, “Rogue”, “Bottoms.” They followed the lights the to the nearest bar. Mrs. Roman, the manager, saw their intoxication and welcomed them in.

The room smelled of cheap perfume as the whores danced around. The foul odor was soon mixed with the stench of sweating bodies as more men entered in throngs. They were dressed for the summer heat, bearing the scorching Manila weather. They came for the native girls –the dark brown-skinned women who capitalized on their exotic preference. They flaunted their half-nakedbodies as they approached the foreigners.

Sitting at the bar across them, a young man named Gabriel finished another bottle of beer. He mumbled to himself in the local language though his immense capacity for drinking would have him mistaken for the foreigners around him. Yet he was silent all throughout — unlike the carousing perverts who now danced with the whores. This he was proud of.

In the distance, Mrs. Roman surveyed the crowd. She was a blunt woman who had grown impatient with age. She eyed Gabriel who was now visibly drunk. The bar had a strict policy: drinks must come with women. The young man indulged in one vice and abstainedfrom the other.

“Ask him to leave,” Mrs. Roman said.

“He’s not bothering anyone and he’s only one customer anyway,” reasoned Maria. Her fine features gave her a dainty look that stood out among the other women. “Too innocent-looking for a whore,” they would tease her.

“It’s either he gets a girl or he goes.”

“I’ll take care of it,” replied Maria. She had been observing the young man for quite some time. Hehad a boyish look to him. His face was devoid of the stiff bristles andhard crevices of the old white men.  They were similar in color, however. Along with his sharp nose, he was certainly a mestizo, Maria thought. He wore a thick, black coat that stood out among the half-naked bodies. It was a peculiar choice of clothing given the weather but he did not seem bothered by the heat. He coolly drank his beer, detached from the frenzy around him. He did not speak to the eager bartender. From the distance, he looked handsome despite his icy demeanour — an observation that was confirmed as she got a closer look.

Gabriel stared blankly at his drink. He had a pensive look plastered on his face. She saw the pain in his eyes, a pain she’s seen in a dozen lonely men before. But his was a quiet one. An unimposing heartache that carried itself with a certain dignity. She knew men like him did not want to be pitied.

“You have to get a girl or they’ll ask you to leave,” Maria warned as she sat beside him. The young man didn’t stir. His soft eyes stayed glued on the empty glass. He ordered another drink and continued his binging.

“I’m serious! They’ll kick you out!”

There was no response. The music was getting louder as the merriment grew around them. The old white men were laughing away, engaged in an unspoken contest to out-drink one another. They stumbled onto the whores and spilled liquor all over them.

“What’s her name?” Maria half-shouted, making sure the young man heard her amidst the noise.

Gabriel turned to face her and was surprised to see her pretty face. Her fair skin stood out from the other women around. She was a whore like them, he was sure. Her scanty clothing was evidence of that but she seemed different somehow. She had a pleasantness to her. Her smile – for she was smiling now for some reason – was warm and sincere, unlike the forced smiles of the other girls. She meant well, he knew.

“Let me guess? She’s special. She’s the love of your life?” Maria pressed on. He listened now, intrigued by her insights.

“She’s anangel? A saint?A princess?What else? Go on!” He was tempted to respond but listening to the pleasantness of her voice was comforting. It was far from the cigarette-hoarseness with which the other women spoke.

“Men are such fools. Women are not as innocent as they seem! No matter how much they look the part!”Maria went on, lost in the flurry of her words.

“You can go on believing that fairy-tale all you want but look where that’s brought you!”

Gabriel smiled. Her bluntness was endearing.

“I don’t think any girl is worth th—“

“You know a lot about women,” Gabriel interjected, saving her from the breathlessness her endless barrage was causing as he admired the flushness of her cheeks.

“Well no—no. I mean, yes! Yes I do!” Maria replied, blushing even more. “Anyway forget her! Why don’t you get a girl? I mean that’s what you’re here for, right?”

“You’re a girl.” He took another swig of his beer.

“Oh well yeah. I am,” she replied softly, the whisper so gentle it was almost lost in the sea of noise around them. “But I don’t think you’d want me.”

“Why not?”

“Well those dirty old men don’t like me. Our manager said they think I’m too pale.”

He noticed the change in her once fiery tone. He immediately felt sorry for having asked the question.

“I’m not one of those dirty old men.”

“I know. I didn’t mean to—well I’m also quite shy the other girls said.”

“That’s true.”

“Yeah I know.” Maria hid her face as she turned away.

“Shy enough to make unsolicited assumptions about my motive for drinking,” Gabriel quipped.

“Hey! I just meant that—“

“You look like her you know,” the young man said. “Same eyes, same smile, and all.”

“So she looks like a whore?”

“No. You look like an angel.”

Maria grew flushed.

“Or a saint.Or a princess. Which one was it again?”

She snickered. Her laugh was pleasant, unlike the forced giggles of the whores, Gabriel thought. The old white men were now sitting with the them, whispering all sorts of flattery in their ears.

“Look at them. Perverts travelling half-way across the world to indulge in their fantasies.”

“And you?”

“Oh I live just a few blocks from here!”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I know, I know! Don’t get all flustered!” Gabriel laughed.

“What are you doing here anyway?”

“Well I was originally planning on yeah…But I realized I’m not into that kind of thing.”

“And I thought you weren’t a dirty old man!”

“I’m not!”

“I know, I know. Don’t get all flustered!” Maria quipped.

The night was getting colder as the summer heat gave way to a gentle breeze. She now felt her nakedness.Gabriel noticed her trembling body. He removed his coat and covered her up.

“Thanks but the manager might see.” She had noticed Mrs. Roman watching them from across the bar. She was about to remove the coat when Gabriel stopped her.

“I’ll take care of her.”

“Don’t. Maybe we should pretend we’re flirting a bit just to show her.”

“I don’t like pretending.”

“Look we’ll both get in trouble if we don’t.”

“I’ll tell her you were trying but I just didn’t want to.” The young man sipped from his glass. He sat straight despite his evident intoxication. Maria wrapped his coat around her, burrowing herself into it.

“So I guess you’re really not a pervert?”

“And you’re not really a whore. Perfect! Together we can bankrupt this entire joint!” Gabriel exclaimed, momentarily catching the attention of the now dwindling crowd. It was getting late and the music was dying down. The old white men made their way out in small groups, leaving few behind. The silence was slowly taking over.

“It’s ironic,” the young man said as he looked around the bar. “All these places are on a street named after a priest.”

“P.Burgos?”

“Padre Burgos. He was a Filipino mestizo priest.”

Gabriel gazed at the crowd.  The handful left managed to maintain the scandalous atmosphere of the bar.

“Oh. Well we’ve had priests here too!”

“Oh. Why? To save you from hell?”

“To take them to heaven!”

“Ah. I guess men are not as innocent as they seem. No matter how they look the part.”

“No one ever said men were innocent.”

“Touché.” Gabriel turned to Maria and couldn’t help but smile. The liquor was sinking in further into his system, dousing his anger. He now only saw her. She was beautiful, he thought to himself. And the resemblance was uncanny.

“You’re too good for this place, you know?”

“It doesn’t matter. I have nowhere else to go.”

Gabriel paused for a moment as he savoured the numbing effects his drink..

“You can stay with me.”

“What?”

“You can live with me.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Drunk men are sincere.”

Gabriel stood and paid for his drink. He offered her his hand. Maria smiled at the gesture, her cheeks were once again flushed red. As she got off her seat an enormous shadow clouded over her. It was followed by  the haunting sound of an all-too familiar voice.

“Maria! This is Mr. Pariseo, one of our best customers. He has personally requested your company.” Mrs. Roman, the manager, introduced.

He was fatter than the rowdy men. His face was covered in a thick white beard that contrasted his dark brown skin. His forehead was marked with the deep lines of old age.

“You look exquisite,” the old dark man said with a local accent, flattering Maria with a kiss of her hand. He was hideous. A real pig, Gabriel thought.

“Would you mind accompanying sir to our VIP booth?” Mrs. Roman urged.

“I’m her customer, might I remind you,” Gabriel interrupted.

“I’m sure we can arrange for another girl. We have plenty here for you.”

“Look here if you think–”

“It’s alright,” Maria interjected. “Thank you for your time,” she whispered as she handed Gabriel his coat back. She smiled at him. The same forced smile the whores wore.

“Now, sir. You can stay if you order a drink for one of our girls. That ought to keep them warm even without a coat,” the manager pressed with a thinly-veiled scowl.

“Alright,” replied Gabriel as he watched Maria walk away with the old dark man. “Get me a whore. Your least talkative one.”

A woman came to accompany him moments later. She flattered him endlessly, giggling at his infrequent responses but the young man didn’t listen. The bar was growing emptier by the hour. Gabriel watched the remaining old white men. They sat in their booths alone with the whores. He drank his beer and saw how sad they were.

Rainbow

gasoline rainbows

The kids sat on the hood of the flashy car as the tank was being filled. The sky was gray from the recent rain. It was another Monday in wet July, but there were no calendars and they could not read. To them, it was just another day in another month in another year in their only lives.

“He’s on his way back!” cautioned Toto as the other children got off the hood. Like clockwork they began waxing and polishing the ostentatious vehicle, their dirty rags doing more harm than good. They made sure, however, that the windshield was wiped clean. That it always does the trick. The old, fat man handed them a peso each before he drove off into the road. Never looking back. They looked at their meagre tip and scratched their heads.

“We should’ve dirtied it up a bit more!” exclaimed Damgo as he pocketed his share.

“Don’t worry I gave him less gas than what he asked for!” replied Toto.

The other children were busy collecting their day’s pay. It was getting late and they needed to get back home. They said their goodbyes and went their way. As they walked along, a little kid, younger than the rest, flashed his brand new twenty-five centavo coin to his friends. It barely shone in the darkness of the afternoon. Dusk was fast approaching.

“You staying?” Damgo asked Toto. They were the only two left in the gas station. The eldest among all the children.

“Yeah mama won’t be home until eight anyway.”

They sat on the curb outside an American diner where cool air seeped through the door’s crack, giving them their share of the air-conditioning. It was their usual spot.

“Oh where is she?”

“Mass with my little sisters,” replied Toto as he lit a cigarette.

“They told us not to smoke here…”

“Well they also told us they were gonna pay us more,” Toto quipped. He blew smoke into the air and watched it disappear into the gray sky.

“Aren’t you going to mass?”

“I already did this morning with my parents and ate Dorothy.”

“Dorothy? Oh you mean Dolores?! When did she become so fancy?”

“I don’t know. But she told me to call her that from now on. She said ‘Dolores’ means sorrow while ‘Dorothy’  means ‘gift from God'”

“Yeah sure whatever! ‘Dorothy’! It’s Dolores!” Laughed Toto.

” Well it’s all the same to me, really,” replied Damgo as he gazed above the clouds.

“What are you looking at?”

“I’m waiting for a rainbow. Nanay said it comes after strong rains like the one earlier. I’ve never seen one.”

“I saw one once before but I was just lucky. They’re rare. I don’t think you’ll see one now.”

“Well who knows? Nanay said if I pray hard enough, one might appear.”

“Where’d she get that idea?”

“She said God makes one if enough kids pray to their guardian angels!”

“Oh. Really? I’ll pray to mine for five pesos!” Toto jokingly offered, he put out his empty palm and made the sign of the cross with his other hand in mock display.

“Very funny..” remarked Damgo. He grew pensive; his eyes now fixed to the ground.

Toto noticed the change in his friend’s expression. He took one last puff of his cigarette and put it out on the diner’s door.

“Hey, cheer up! I’ll show you something.”

Damgo reluctantly followed. They ended up in the back corner of the station hidden from the rest of the area.

“You want to see a rainbow, right?”

“Yeah but you’re right. I have to be lucky…”

“You are with a friend like me! Look at this!” Toto pointed to a puddle of gasoline spilt on the floor. The thin layer of liquid glistened with multiple colours.

“It looks like the rainbows from the pictures!” declared Damgo, ecstatic at the sight.

“This one’s better! It’s actually real!”

“But I thought they’re supposed to be in the sky?”

“Well it’s all the same to me, really!” quipped Toto. “These things usually form after the rain too. I think the water mixes with the spilt oil or something.” he added.

“Oh. Well it looks incredible! Look at all those colours!”

“Yup! And that’s not even the best part!” exclaimed Toto as he kneeled down and brought his face within inches of the puddle. “Just follow what I do, okay?”

Toto took a whiff of the gasoline. His eyes widened at the smell of it. He proceeded to inhale another dose, deeper than the last. His head began to loosely move about, as if it were scarcely attached to his neck.

Damgo looked on, frightened yet fascinated by the what was going on.
“What’s happening to you, Toto?”

“I see your guardian angel, Damgo! Mine too! All of them!” declared Toto. He was beaming with joy. He stood up, stumbling with each step. “They said you should pray to them!”

“What? You’re lying! I’m getting scared, Toto! Tell me what’s going on!”

“Just try it! It’s like praying, Damgo! Just go down on your knees, close your eyes, and take in the holy spirit!”

“I–I don’t want to. Let’s just go! Before anyone sees us!”

“Oh don’t be so lame, Damgo! Just one whiff then we’ll leave! Come on!”

Damgo hesitated before dropping to the ground. He looked at the gasoline rainbow below him. It was mesmerizing. Each colour bled into each other while staying distinct. The scarce light played tricks with the puddle as it glistened from one shade to the next, flashing in all its iridescent glory. He was hypnotized by the spectacle as he inched closer and closer to the artificial rainbow. He took a whiff.

Seconds later his eyes rolled back as he clumsily walked in circles. He saw the station transform into an explosion of blinding colours and amorphous objects. The once gray sky merged with the ground through a whirlpool of stained clouds. The coins in his pocket were magically enlarged a thousand-fold. Their dull gray face now a shimmering silver mirror. The diner floated towards him, wrapping its soft walls around his body as an endless number of fried chicken, pizzas, and meatball spaghettis hovered in the air, waiting to be picked and enjoyed. From up above, a group of winged creatures, dressed in shining white flew towards him, their faces oddly familiar and pleasant to look at. They seemed almost human as they spoke to him in unintelligible words. They were reassuring him of something, that much he could understand. Across him, Toto was dancing gracefully with all the whirling colours. The winged creatures flew both of them up above the hazy hues where they drifted about in unbridled happiness.

A few moments later they looked below. A number of hauntingly glowing tigers raced towards them, growling fiercely to catch their attention. They flashed their vicious fangs at the frightened boys. The colours began to dull fading into their old dreary shades. The sky emerged from the ground soaring rapidly above them. The various fantasies that whizzed and hovered around them were obliterated in a brilliant explosion of light. The winged creatures disintegrated into a million particles. The two boys fell sharply from the sky, crashing towards the waiting mouths of the hungry tigers. They screamed their lungs out until a sudden beam flashed before their eyes and rocked them back to reality. The boys were welcomed by a chorus of beeping horns. They looked around to see an endless number of luxury cars honking their horns, looking for someone to service them.

Damgo and Toto rubbed their eyes awake as they shook themselves out of their reverie. The smell of the gasoline still lingered in their noses. The rainbow puddle lost much of its sheen in the darkness of the evening. The two boys gathered themselves amidst the incessant noises that harassed them. They slowly walked towards the beeping vehicles and back to their lives.

Montauk

montaukAnd there she stood by the platform edge. The tips of her dainty shoes barely touching the yellow line you weren’t allowed to cross. She looked down and smiled that mischievous smile. I stayed behind. She moved closer to the edge. The guard whistled. She stepped back with a satisfied grin. The train arrived and we got on.

There was one seat left. I was about to offer it to her but someone was quick to do the same. A good-looking fellow dressed sharply in his coat and tie. He offered the seat with a firm yet pleasant gesture that said “he wouldn’t take no for answer.” He was a real gentleman. “No thanks,” she said. The man was puzzled. He stood silent for a while until she did this little curtsy and presented him the seat. He was taken aback as she smiled that mischievous smile. He sat down still bewildered by it all. I snickered to myself. She heard me. I stole a quick glance. She was looking at me. She snickered along. I turned to her. We both laughed then fell silent in the afterglow.

I looked outside the window. The snow poured. It was getting colder. My body turned numb. My arm dangled on uncertain of what it was supposed to do. It swung ever so slightly towards her. My hand inching closer and closer to hers; looking for warmth. I dared to look down. Casually. As subtly as possible. Her hand stayed perfectly still, steady amidst the train’s rocky movements. I pulled my hand back a bit and looked back up. She was staring down at my hand. I quickly tucked it my jacket’s pocket. Pretending nothing happened as I fixed my eyes on the window and focused on the falling snow. It fogged up the glass; I couldn’t see a thing. I waited with bated breath for the moment to pass. A thousands thoughts raced through my head, scolding me for my foolishness. Reminding me of the reality of things. And how the world works. That if it’s meant to be it will happen. I stood in the awkwardness of it all for a while. It was torture. I shouldn’t have done that…That was stupid…This isn’t the place or time…Then again…maybe…Just maybe…I stole another glance. More carefully this time. She was looking out the fogged-up window. Her cheeks blushed. She smiled. Maybe it was the cold…Yeah, it was the cold that coloured her cheeks. It must be. What else could it be? Yes it was the cold; I hardened my resolve.

The train went on. And the snow kept pouring. We passed by several stops and I was nearing mine. My time was running out. For what exactly? I didn’t know. For something worthwhile, I guess. Another stop. The cold rushed in every time. I had both hands in my pockets now. Sinking deeper and deeper into the warm pouches. If it’s meant to happen…Well you know the rest. The train was starting to empty. Anytime now. She would walk away. Forever. “Babylon, Bay Shore, Islip,” the signs flashed, one after the other. She stayed. Maybe she lives in…no way…Another stop. “Bellport.” I checked my ticket. We’re getting closer. Now what? Just one word. One try, one word. “Hi”? yeah “hi” would be great…”Hi” would be perfect. “Hampton Bays.”  Then what? What if she just says “hi” back? What’s after “hi”? My hands sunk deeper into the pockets. “Southampton” the passengers got off.  “Hi” is good enough. “Hi” will do for now. “Bridgehampton.” The train doors opened and closed. Just say “hi.” It will follow.  Maybe “hello” would be better? “Hello’s” more complete. “Hi” is too short. “East Hampton.” It’s nearing the end of the line. Do something! What? Just fucking say “hi.” Say “hi” now. Just say “hi.” “Amagansett.” The train stopped.

“Hi.”

“Hey!”

Now what?

“Well this is my stop! So yeah…”

“Oh.”

“You?”

I stood dumbfounded. My mind shut down. The snow was pouring harder outside. I had to do something. Anything. Anything at all. I took my hands out and stretched my arms. I yawned. Feigning sleepiness.

“Here. My stop’s here.”

She looked at me, puzzled.

“Oh but your ticket says Montauk.”

I looked at my numb, outstretched arms. There was a ticket attached to the end of my hand. Clutched at the end of my fingertips. It said “Montauk” in big block letters. I stared at her. Speechless. It was over.

“Unless they made a mistake?” she said. She smiled that mischievous smile.

The red light flashed. The train screeched, warning that the doors were about to close.  The cold had settled in, fogging up the outside. I couldn’t see anything.

“Yeah. Yeah they did!” I said to her.

I put the ticket back in my pocket. Deep inside the warm pouch.

“Fuck Montauk!” I smiled back at her. She snickered. We both laughed. Then we fell silent in the afterglow. We looked out the door and got off the train, crossing that yellow line.

Expectations

tarot 2

The cards were laid atop the rustic, apothecary table. The old woman, dressed in an exotic attire of rainbow-coloured linen, focused intently on the assortment of images on each face: there was a lit candle melting to its base, a silhouette of a man running, and a series of cars stuck on the road.

“Well what’s my future?” Ed asked. The old woman didn’t respond, keeping her eyes on the cards.

Ed’s entire body suddenly jolted up. He felt the familiar shudder in his pocket. He checked his phone. Where the hell are you? it read. It was from his wife. Ed grunted, placing the mobile back in his pocket. “Can’t I have a moment’s peace anymore?” he thought to himself as he took in the bizarre feel of the room. The tent’s interior was what he had expected. The canvass ceiling hung uncomfortably low as giant cobwebs dangled below it. Its grotesque effect was amplified by a pale green light from a swarm of fireflies trapped inside a jar — the creatures struggled to illuminate the entire room. Further out was a collection of fanciful and morbid items: spiders crawling inside large glass boxes, garishly-coloured potions bubbling about, curious-looking tapestries loaded with mystical symbols hanging from the walls. “Authentic enough,” Ed mumbled, still surveying the peculiar sights around him. His fascination was disrupted by the rude vibration of his mobile. You better have a good excuse for not coming home on time! his wife messaged him. “Nagging bitch,” he mumbled under his breath, putting his phone on silent.

The old woman who was now squinting at the cards, her eyes nearly glued to the table.

“Well?” Ed asked impatiently.

“I don’t know.” the woman replied.

“What do you mean ‘you don’t know?’ ”

“I can’t read it properly. I need my glasses.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Hold on, hold on! I’m sure it’s just here!” the old woman replied, holding the jar of fireflies in her hand as a lamp.

Ed stared at her in disbelief.

“Ugh. It’s always hard to find things in this damn tent!”

“Can’t you just turn on the light. I don’t mind. I’ve gotten my fill of the whole creepy, psychic effect.”

“No light. They cut us off a couple months ago.”

“Oh.” Ed felt a sudden surge of sympathy for the old woman. He was about to apologize when he noticed the cards before him. Candles, running men, cars, they seemed too mundane for his liking. “Well I’ll be damned. I can probably get this in any store!” he thought to himself.

“Hey are these even tarot cards? They look like regular cards to me!” declared Ed.

“They’re whatever you want them to be. But they will tell you your future. What do you wanna know, anyway?” the old woman asked as she scoured through her things. Ed decided not to pursue the card’s illegitimacy any further.

“Well my marriage mostly. Been on the rocks lately. Just wanna know what’s gonna happen.”

“Ah worried about Mrs. Dane?”

“Ho–how do you know my name?” Ed asked, puzzled.

“Says there on your tag. ‘Edmund Dane’.”

Ed looked at his shirt. He was still wearing his nametag from work.

“Oh. Ed would be fine, actually. And you? ”

“Estelita.”

“Oooh what does that mean?”

“It means I’m Puerto Rican.”

“Ahh.” Ed blushed in embarrassment.

“Well listen, Estelita. I’m in a bit of a hurry. My wife’s nagging me to come home.”

“You can just have your money back if you want. This might take a while.”

Ed had opened his mouth but quickly stopped himself. Despite its muted state, he swore he could feel the humming of his mobile, beckoning him to answer. He didn’t want to answer it.

“Err…actually no it’s fine. Might be better to stay here first, anyway.”

“Alright.” Estelita replied.

“Been arguing a lot, huh?” she added.

“Pretty much. Work’s been piling up.  Can’t do anything about that. She says I haven’t been around much lately.”

“And you’re worried about what that means for you two?”

“Well I guess, yeah. It sounds crazy but I get paranoid sometimes…”

“Affair?”

“Yeah. Well maybe. I mean she’s always out…Look I just wanna know what’s gonna happen.”

“Tough. Look you look like you need a drink. Here. It’s on the house. Relax while I look for those damn glasses.” Estelita grabbed one of the bubbling potions from the shelf and placed it on the table. “Vodka soda. Hope that’s fine.”

“Oh thanks!” Ed replied. Surprised at her hospitality. He took a sip of the cocktail. “So that’s all liquor?” he thought to himself as he stared at the potions.

“Any kids, Ed?”

“Yeah I have a daughter in the fifth grade.”

“They grow up fast, huh?”

“Yeah tell me about it. How ’bout you?”

“Two sons. Twins in the first grade. And a daughter in the sixth.”

“I see.” Ed replied. He peered at Estelita’s veiny hands. “She looks a lot older than it seems,” he thought as he took another sip of the vodka.

“Do they help around here?”

“From time to time. They coloured those in. Arts and crafts project.” Estelita pointed to the several hanging tapestries.

“Oh.” said Ed. “They’re really good then.”

“Yup! Home-ec.” The old woman lifted the dangling sleeve of her gaudy garment. She was knee-deep in a pile of toys in the corner.

“And I suppose those are for the science fair?” Ed pointed to the spiders. He let go a laugh as the liquor was slowly easing into his tense body.

“No.” Estelita replied. Ed suddenly felt a sharp bite on his nape.

“Ouch!”

“Flies. Too many flies here. Keeps them away,” the old woman said.

Ed was still reeling from the pain. He was ready to complain when Estelita interjected.

“Aha! I found it!” she declared. Lifting the spectacles in triumph.

“Alright. You and your wife, right?”

“Yes. What’s gonna happen to us?”

The old woman fixed her eyes on the cards, deftly rearranging them multiple times. She shook her head.

“She’s gonna leave you.”

“What? Why?!”

Estelita examined the images closely.

“Is it because of work? How busy I’ve been getting?”

“No. Not that.”

“She’s having an affair!”

“No. She’s not.”

“Why then?”

“Because you won’t make it to her birthday again.”

“Well her birthday’s not until a few days from now! But thanks for that…I guess,”  Ed said with a mixture of relief and disappointment. “That’s it? Some psychic you are!” he mumbled a bit too loudly.

“Oh when’s her birthday?” Estelita asked with a wicked smile.

“The fifteenth of October!”

The old woman chuckled as she pointed to one of the tapestries. The man, puzzled, looked at what seemed to be a jumble of numbers. The words suddenly made sense. It dawned on him that that particular tapestry was actually a calendar. He gasped. He took his mobile out.

10 missed calls. 20 new messages. It flashed on his screen. It was all from his wife and daughter. He quickly read one of them. “Dad where are you? Mom’s crying ! She’s about to blow out the candle! We’re just waiting for you!” his daughter messaged him. Ed’s jaw dropped in disbelief.

He hurriedly collected his things. Without a word he ran out onto the poorly lit street. The shadows completely covering him as he sprinted towards the parking lot. The woman watched the spectacle from inside her tent. She couldn’t help but smirk as she neatly piled up her cards.

“There’ll be a lot of traffic in a while. It’s almost rush hour,” she thought to herself.

“Everyone knows that.”

Star-catcher

Nebula

The little boy stood by the open window in his star-filled pajamas, his eye was glued to a large telescope pointing to the night sky. It was his grandfather’s; he liked stars. His bedroom was filled with plastic stars glowing in the dark from the ceiling to the floor. Even his books were covered with stars! Those that fell from the ceiling years and years ago. His grandpa never bothered cleaning them up. He likes it that way he told him.

The little boy saw the twinkling lights. The telescope made them look more like silver jackstones than tiny dots. He never liked jackstones but these ones were very pretty. One, in particular, shone extra bright. It was further away than the other stars, just right above the North Star. It sharply sparkled in the evening sky.

“Grandpa! Grandpa! Look! That star is super bright!” the little boy called, eager to show his grandfather his new discovery.

“Oh? Let me take a look see,” replied the grandfather. He was an old man with gray hair and wrinkly skin but he stood straight like a soldier on guard. “Don’t stand as if you have an elephant on your shoulders, my boy!” He would always remind the little boy when he slouched.

“Oh dear! This isn’t good!” exhaled the old man. He had a very worried look on his face.

“Huh? What’s wrong, grandpa?”

“Oh, my boy. I’m afraid that that star is dying!” the grandfather declared as he continued to examine the star.

“Dying?! What’re you talking about, grandpa? It looks so bright!” replied the little boy.

“Yes I see that. Sadly that means it’s about to die.”

“But why is it shining like that if it’s dying?”

“Well, my boy. You’re seeing that star from several years ago! It’s so far away that it takes a long time for its light to reach our eyes!” answered the grandfather.

“Oh. But I still don’t get it! Why is it the bright one that’s dying?”

“Because the light of the past is clearer! The older the star, the brighter it gets. If it’s really bright that means it’s the most its light is gonna shine! It will start to fade and die from then on.”

“Ahh. But how about the not-so bright stars?”

“Oh those? They’re still very young. Their light can’t be seen yet because they still have much to shine! We don’t have to worry about them yet!”

“So that star’s really gonna die?”

“Yes, my boy. I’m sorry to say so,” sighed the old man.

“Can’t you do anything grandpa? Don’t you save stars or something? Why don’t you save that star!” begged the little boy. His eyes welling up.

“Oh dear! I don’t save stars, young one! I catch them! I’m a star-catcher, remember?” the grandfather replied pointing to his glittery pajamas. It was dark blue with silver stars similar to his grandson’s.

“Oh yeah! You’re gonna catch it! But that does that mean it’s gonna fall?”

“Hahaha! Not literally, my boy! It won’t actually fall! It will die, though. And it will either explode and destroy the other stars around it or it will crush itself from within and produce a blackhole! That’ll suck in everything surrounding it and we don’t want that as well!”

“So what’re you gonna do, grandpa?”

“Well star-catchers take the dying star to their final resting place. We take care of them first. Spend some time with them before they need to go, for they do get quite lonely. Then we guide them going there and make sure they go to sleep peacefully!”

“Ohhh! Can I come when you catch that star? Please, grandpa! I wanna see that star up close before it dies!” the little boy pleaded. He wiped away his tears as his eyes lit up.

“Hmm I’ll think about it! That star is several lightyears away! By the time we get there and back here on Earth you will be a lot older!”

“Oh no! But that means you’ll get older too, grandpa! You’ll be wasting your remaining time!”

“Hahaha! My dear young one, time is never wasted when you’re out chasing stars!”

“Can I come then? Please! Oh, please sir super great Star-catcher!”

“You’re too young for flattery! Hahaha! We’ll see tomorrow! But right now you get a good night’s rest!” the old man tucked the little boy in. He kissed him good night and turned the lights off. That night the little boy couldn’t sleep. He stared at the ceiling; his room was also filled with stars. They glowed peacefully in the dark, lulling him to sleep.

The following day went by quickly. As night came the little boy was getting excited. He barged into his grandfather’s room to beg him to let him come. The old man was nowhere to be seen, however.

The little boy looked all over the house but he couldn’t find him. Finally he went to his grandfather’s telescope and looked outside. Through the large magnifying glass he saw an old man standing by an empty lot. It was his grandfather; he was in the old cemetery near the forest.  He was fully dressed and and it seemed like he was ready to leave. The little boy chased after him.

“Grandpa! Wait! Don’t leave me!” he yelled after the old man.

“Hahaha! Oh my boy I’m not leaving yet! I just got dressed so I won’t be late. I have to get there fast before that star fades!” the grandfather replied.

“Oh okay. What’re you doing in the cemetery, though?” the little boy asked.

“Just visiting your grandmother! I wanted to say good bye before leaving!”

“Oh. Where is she? Why doesn’t she have a mark?”

“You mean a tombstone? She didn’t want one! Which makes it really hard to find where she was buried exactly. I planted a blue rose here when she passed away to mark it. It hasn’t grown since, though!”

“Maybe you should water it more!”

“My dear boy, I’m afraid I’ve watered it too much actually! It’s time I leave it be!” the old man looked at the unmarked ground. His upper lip trembled slightly, the ends struggling to curl into a smile. It was the first time the little boy saw his grandfather like this.

“Do you miss her, grandpa?”

“Very much, my boy. Very much.” replied the old man, his eyes stared blankly at the earth beneath him.

“Was she a star-catcher too?”

“No. No she wasn’t. Your grandmother was a very cheerful person. She always lit up the room. She didn’t like dying stars; it made her too sad!”

“Oh. What happened to her?” the little boy gently asked, noticing his grandfather’s reddening eyes.

“She decided to rest, my dear boy. She’s smiling down at us from up there now!”the old man exclaimed, returning to his usual spirited self, the little boy noticed.

“Now are you sure you wanna come with me? By the time you get back you’ll be a lot older!”

“It’s okay! I can’t wait to get older! I’m tired of being a kid!”

“Oh, my dear one! Don’t be too in a hurry to grow up or you’ll miss out on a lot! But alright. Since you so stubbornly insist, it looks like I have no choice but to take you!”

The little boy beamed. He gave his grandfather a quick embrace and they were headed off. They walked towards the nearby cliff with the moonless night shining above them.

“Is your rocketship here, grandpa?”

“Rocketship?! Hahaha! I’m afraid not. This is where we’ll begin our flight!”

“We’re gonna fly?! But how?”

“Well we’re gonna jump first, of course!”

“But won’t we fall?”

“I suppose that’s possible!” replied the grandfather.

“We’re gonna fall?!”

“I said it’s possible, my dear grandson. But it’s also possible that we fly!”

“So how will we know which one will happen?”

“Well there’s only one way to find out!”

“But I’m scared, grandpa!”

“So I am, my boy! So am I!”

The little boy looked down the cliff. It was a long way down from there and the bottom was filled with sharp rocks and bolders. His eyes widened at the sight. He turned to his grandfather. He was looking up at the stars. At the brightest one shining above the North Star. The little boy smiled and held his grandfather’s hand.

“Are you ready?” asked the old man.

“I think so…”

“Hahaha! Well that’s good enough!” roared the grandfather as he ran and dove off the cliff, holding tightly to the little boy. They fell sharply upon leaving the ground, heading towards the jagged rocks. The little boy closed his eyes in intense fear. He clutched his grandfather’s hand harder, staying silent the whole time. A few seconds later they began to fly. Their arms were stretched like an eagle soaring straight to the sky. The little boy slowly opened his eyes and saw the majesty down below. A million lights shined from the city. The skyscrapers were all illuminated from top to bottom.

“Ah you see all that light pollution? It’s clouding up the view up here!” the old man said. The little boy tilted his head up. The stars were a million times brighter. They danced along the evening sky, playing little tricks with their light.

“How are we flying, grandpa? Is this pixie dust?”

“Pixie dust?! Oh don’t believe those fairytales, my boy! This is the real thing!”

“But how are flying?”

“I don’t know, dear child! All that matters is we are!”

They flew towards the heavens, admiring the sights from up there. Soon they exited Earth, soaring in warp speed, the planets blurring before their very eyes. The colors of outer space all merged into one. The little boy felt his entire body stretching. His bones were growing and his face was changing its shape. By the end of their ride, they were shot out of the tunnel of time, thrown across the galaxy where they floated above a million stars.

They hovered over the myriad lights. The stars were growing brighter and brighter as they approached, its intensity too much for their eyes. “A divine experience!” thought the old man.

“I can’t see, grandpa!” the little boy cried.

“Yes, my dear. We just have to keep flying ahead and hope for the best! We need to hurry before that star disappears!”

The light soon faded; they opened their eyes. The white heat was now a warm silver, twinkling spectacularly around them. They floated towards the one that shimmered the most. The light stayed brilliant but it quickly dulled as they neared.

“Are we here already, grandpa?” the little boy asked. He noticed the change in his voice. It was a lot deeper now, though, it still had remnants of his high pitched tone.

“My you’ve grown, my dear boy!” the grandfather remarked. His gray hair had turned snow white but he looked the same.

“Yes! My voice is much deeper now, grandpa! Like yours!”

“What’re you talking about, young one? My voice is as high as when I was a kid! Now what do you know. Here she is!”

The little boy gasped. He knew at once that it was the star but he couldn’t understand how it was possible. The stars they passed looked nothing like this. They had the same silver jackstone form he saw from his grandfather’s telescope. “I suppose they look different when you’re up close,” the little boy thought to himself, still a bit puzzled.

The star took the shape of an old woman. Her hair was frizzy from age; her face had wrinkles like the boy’s grandfather’s but hers were less noticeable. She also stood straight, walking quite gracefully, giving off the impression that she was very proper lady. She was holding a lamp; it gave of a dull yellow light that colored her entire face and body. “That’s where their light comes from!” the little boy mumbled to himself.

“Hello, dear child!” the star greeted him with a pleasant smile.

“Hello…ma’ — ma’am,” stuttered the dazed little boy.

“This is Agnes, my boy!” the old man introduced.

“She’s the bright star you’ve been fascinated about these past couple of days…well years now to be precise.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Agnes, ma’am!”

“My how polite! Agnes would be fine, dear!” replied the star.

“Marcus! He looks a lot like you! I hope isn’t as stubborn, though!” she teased, turning to the old man. The little boy hadn’t heard his grandfather’s first name in the longest time. No one really ever called him that these days. In fact there was no one around to call him anything but “grandpa”, the little boy thought.

“Oh even more than me, Agnes! But to be honest he looks more like you!”

This shocked the little boy; it was true! He looked at the star. They shared the same almond-shaped face. Her smile was the one he would see every time he looked into a mirror. The boy was confused; he never thought a star could resemble him.

“Excuse me, Ms. Ag– I mean Agnes. But are you really a star?”

“Star? Hahaha! I haven’t heard that word in a while. But yes I am a star, dear. Here we’re called light-bearers, though, because well we bear lights.

“Oh right! I forgot to tell you! That’s what stars do! They light up the universe or it will be shrouded in darkness. That’s no good. The other heavenly bodies would blindly crash into each other without them! So they need bright light-bearers, like Agnes right here!” explained the grandfather.

“Oh, Marcus! You’re too old to indulge in flattery! But yes, he’s right, dear. Although there are billions of us around so one dying light-be– I mean star wouldn’t make a difference!” said Agnes. Her smile was still quite pleasant but her lips started struggling to keep the curls up, “just like grandpa in the cemetery!” the little boy thought.

“It makes all the difference in the universe, Agnes! It really does,” replied the old man. He held the star’s hand with both of his, smiling weakly at the woman.

“It’s alright, Marcus! Really! I’ve long accepted my fate.”

“So you light up a room? Like what grandma used to do? Right, grandpa?”

“Hahaha! Something like that I guess. I light up a very, very big room! But these days my light usually stays with me.”

“Because you’re dying, right?” the little boy asked. He suddenly felt sad. As if he suddenly remembered what they had gone here for and was hoping they wouldn’t need to do anything. His eyes began to tear up.”

“Oh no don’t cry, dear! Come here! I would appreciate a hug from you!” the little boy slowly approached. He was still shy about it all but her kindness made it easier for him. He went towards her and accepted her waiting embrace. She felt warm like hot chocolate on a rainy day, very comforting. He wanted to stay forever; it felt quite familiar like he had known her his whole life, like she was always watching over him. The little boy closed his eyes, relishing every moment.

But the warmth suddenly disappeared. He opened his eyes. The yellow light had grown even duller. Agnes looked exhausted. The boy held on. Hugging her more tightly than before.

“No you can’t die! You can’t! Grandpa will save you! I’m sure he can do something!”

“I can’t, my child. I can’t,” the old man whispered. His head was bowed as his throat ached from holding back his tears.

“But we just got here! We saw your light just few days ago! And now that we can finally see you up close, you’re gonna leave us! We’re too late!”

“It’s never too late, my child. We still saw Agnes! You saw how bright she shined back on Earth and on our way here!”

“Yeah but we only saw her light when she was about to die! By the time we got here she was dying even more! Why couldn’t we see her light when we still had the chance to visit her properly!”

“I wish I knew, dear child. I wish I knew!” the grandfather replied in a whisper almost too soft to hear.

“I’m sorry I didn’t see your light right away, Agnes. I could’ve come earlier. Spent more time with you.”

“Don’t say that, Marcus! There’s no use in regretting things! You’re a big boy now, right? You have to keep it together, okay?” said Agnes, her voice shook but never cracked.

“But you can’t die! It’s not fair! You can’t die!” the boy yelled, his voice was growing coarse from all the sobbing.

“Everything dies, dear. Even the stars,” replied the old woman as she gently soothe the boy’s shivering body. The boy continued crying as she held on.

“Take care of him, Marcus.” The old man didn’t reply. He was struggling to stifle his sobs. His back hunching with an invisible, heavy load on his shoulders. “An elephant,” he thought to himself.

“Now, now! You have to be strong for your grandson. Now look there. Do you see it? That blue rose is growing quite well, huh?”

The old man summoned enough strength to cease his crying. He looked far ahead. In the distance was an azure flower, blossoming further and further. He smiled. He walked towards the little boy and gently took him in his arms.

“Agnes is right, dear one. We have to be strong. You remember that rose I planted for your grandmother? Well it looks like it’s gonna bloom after all!”

The little boy slowly wiped his tears away.

“How do you know?”

“I can see it from here. We see the stars from Earth but they also see us, you know? But it’s the opposite. We see their past light. They see our future. It helps the stars direct the movements of the universe.” the old man consoled the little boy.

“But why can’t I see anything?”

“Because you’re too young, dear. Old people can see their future because it’s kind to the eyes; its light is bearable because it’s beginning to fade. From the Earth the past light looks much brighter. But from up here it is the future that shines the most! You’re still too young. Your light is still too bright.It will just blind you to look too closely at it.” explained Agnes. Her lamp’s light beginning to flicker.

“Oh okay,” the little boy yawned. He was exhausted from all the sobbing.

“I’m glad you understand. You’re a good boy.” said Agnes. She started breathing heavily, leaning on the old man for support.

“I’m afraid it’s my time. Marcus if you could kindly accompany me.” The old man looked at her. Still beautiful after all these years he thought to himself. She will always be. He held her cheeks, as soft and smooth as before, and kissed her forehead.

“I’ll make sure to show grandpa the other stars right away! Before they get too bright. He lets me use his telescope every night!” called out the little boy.

“You’ll

He carried her on her shoulders. They floated across into the cloud of hazily lit stars. This was her final resting place.

Agnes made his way towards the cloud. She bid them farewell as her light was swallowed by the rest of the stars. She whispered “thank you” as she disappeared into the empty spaces in between. The cloud shined brilliantly. Colors swam around, dull enough for the naked eye, they swirled along the darkness leaving traces of brightly colored dust behind them. It was the most beautiful thing the boy had ever seen.

“Is that a cemetery too, grandpa?” asked the little boy, still looking at the fading stars.

“Yes it is. But it’s also where other stars are born. It’s called a nebula, young one. They all get blurred into one after a while. That’s why they never mark their graves.” explained the old man. He held on tightly to the little boy’s hand. The stars were beginning to fade, leaving ghost-like markings in the sky. It was pleasing to the eyes.

“Now let’s go back and take care of that rose!” the grandfather eagerly declared. “He does sound like a little kid,” the boy thought as they flew their way across the universe.