Scourge And Minister (Part 2)

Between the bus stop and her apartment building, a tremendous gust of wind blows Dr. Vicente’s umbrella inside out and breaks the spokes, leaving her open to be drenched. When she gets home, she takes a hot shower then goes to the kitchen, cooking penne and heating up some amatriciana sauce. She eats standing by the sink. When she finishes, she mixes herself a strong drink and pours it into a coffee mug.

The students’ term papers are piled in four neat stacks on her desk. There is no rush to mark them now. Dr. Dimaano had drawn her aside and recommended a mandatory week off. Someone else could substitute for your classes, he had said. You take a break and get back in touch with yourself.

She knows she won’t be able to stand this.

The main thing is Lacey. Take Lacey down and she can finally have her peace and her students can get some real work done.

The difference between Lacey and the criminals she had broken is that people like Burgos and Elevado had always been on her side. Dr. Dimaano had been no help. What she has to do is to get Lacey alone, away from people whom Lacey could use against her.

She checks the university’s student information system online, her fingers tingling. Lacey has two classes tomorrow with a free hour in between. It would do. An hour means Lacey wouldn’t have time to go roaming around too far or leave campus. The girl would hang around the lecture halls, aimless, like everyone her age. At most she’d go to the cafeteria or fall asleep at the library. It wouldn’t be difficult. All it takes is a good head and clear intentions. Start out firm and polite, and if that doesn’t work, go for the jugular. Like teaching.

She could approach Lacey gently, tell her the whole thing had been a misunderstanding, say she’s sorry, bring the girl’s guard down. That’s what had gotten the girl, the other girl, the one from that night, to come out to the hallway. The girl hadn’t wanted to but she was compliant, almost to the point that Dr. Vicente had thought the girl could finally be taken away from that hellhole. The girl’s eyes had been skittish but that was understandable: she was so young and in so much trouble, and all she had ever needed was some good-intentioned help.

Like Lacey, who shouldn’t be going around directly addressing everyone in their minds. At that impressionable age, it takes only one rotten mind, which would usually be strong enough to be overwhelming, to take advantage of her. She shouldn’t be led to believe that exposing herself to people would bear no consequences.

If Dr. Vicente were careful enough to purge any thought of her real intentions by focusing on the leaves of the trees, the individual bits of gravel on the path, Lacey would be arrogant enough to think her apology is genuine. Lacey wouldn’t turn down a brag-worthy peace offering from her professor, like coffee at an imaginary faculty-only lounge found in that airless, claustrophobic alley behind the Arts building littered with Dr. Dimaano’s cigarette butts. Perfect for that sense of exposure, unfamiliarity, and isolation needed to dismantle the girl’s mind of its last defenses.

No transitions, no preambles, no grandstanding about moral righteousness. Let the girl feel the stress of experiencing sudden extremes. Lacey’s mind would open like a fresh wound.

Lacey would put up a fight, of course, but challenge makes it all the more worthwhile, like a good dissertation. A struggle that ends with a snap and a final, tranquil quiet.

***

The students stream out of the doors, a denim flood. Dr. Vicente stands across the hall. She is chewing at the skin around her fingernails as she hunts for Lacey’s dyed hair and eyeliner. Dr. Vicente has already forgotten how long she’s has been standing there. The tediousness of waiting is insignificant when there is a prize at the end. Silence. Absolution.

As the students pass her, a hundred of their voices erupt in her head and she fights them, represses each of them, looking only for that one metallic timbre that belongs to Lacey Saloma. Keep calm. Compartmentalize. If you get caught in the current of a thought, you’ll have to finish the ride, no matter how long or roundabout it is. Dr. Vicente has no time for that.

When you’re looking for a specific, buried thought, something the person’s not thinking of at the moment but you know it’s there, like a location, a person, a reason for an action, like murder, like rape, like suicide, like bullying a teacher, talking directly to her mind, why would anyone want to do that? it would take every bit of willpower to find it.

It’s the composed person who triumphs. Part of the skill is to avoid the temptation of taking a mass of images with you, an entire color palette held together by delicate, referential ink blots, and trying to sort it out in your own mind. You have to tease it out like a broken drawstring from a waistband.

There she is.

***

If you bring someone’s entire mental detritus into your own head, how do you expect yourself to keep it together?

***

The sight of Lacey makes Dr. Vicente realize how close she is to beating this and something in her lets go, a fist opens, a flower blooms, the anchor drops.

Suddenly Dr. Vicente can’t stop smiling. Tiny balls of light accumulate behind her elbows and knees, fighting to be released. The students’ lips separate and close, mouthing words she cannot hear. Their hands and arms move and make gestures towards heaven.

***

You might as well just hand your mind over, open like a fresh wound, and let the multicolored tide crash into everything.

***

A name demands to be allowed into her consciousness and she calls it out loud, Patricia Aning, Patricia Aning.

Lacey turns around at the sound and sees Dr. Vicente, a spasm of panic twisting the girl’s face the same way it had disfigured the prostitute’s.

***

If you want to know what death feels like, really, in the mind of someone dying, when it’s too late to pull out, to distract yourself, it’s like being in a tiny corridor, drafty / I want my jacket, please I’m not dressed, I / can anyone get me my / hands everywhere, never gentle / light bulb, flickering / why had no one fixed / flickering / screaming questions / brown belt on the floor / like a snake / like him / questions / don’t think of Endriga / don’t let it slip / hands / like everyone else / is that the one he used to hit me with, because / I’ve been hit by those too, police boots, as thick as / there’s four pairs / one pair of heels, where / like mine / but nicer, red, I would’ve / a woman / a woman in red heels / who’s she / can’t see in this light / questions again / boots /cold wall / blood tastes like metal / don’t think of him / no / Endriga / brown belt on the floor/ don’t say anything, no matter / brown belt on the floor / brown belt on the floor / stop / Oh God / brown belt on the floor / will they let me go back / please let me / who’s that woman / rich-looking / damn light bulb / been looking at me, she looks sick, what / I want a jacket / what do you want / what’s that / cold, drafty, jacket, please / Endriga / let me go back / how does she know / Endriga / what’s she telling / how does she know / what / what’s she telling them / Oh God / how / bitch / get me out of here / who is she / devil woman / let me go / over / no more of this, no / how does she know Endriga / who is she / that’s the only way / who is she / otherwise, everyone else / only way / metal / yes / take it / otherwise, everyone else would / heavy / how do they carry this with them all the time, so small but / Endriga had one too / so heavy / everyone else / this is where he used to put it, here on my / is this what he wanted, is this what I wanted / Oh God / everyone else / pull it / pull

***

Burgos is outside, his thumbs hooked on his belt and his arms hanging by his sides. The police car is parked next to him and Elevado is in the driver’s seat nursing a cigarette, the smoke spiraling out the open window and melting under the rain.

“Rosemary.” Burgos visibly relaxes when the glass doors open and she comes out. He leans his apple-shaped body against the granite wall of the university infirmary, adopting the same casual posture he puts on before a raid to put Dr. Vicente at ease – as if he were on his way to buy some milk, despite knowing that when they reach the supermarket, someone might get hurt and they can’t tell who it’s going to be until it happens. “I’ve been calling you. I finally came here and this is where I find you. What happened?”

Elevado gives a half-wave from the car.

“I had a bad headache,” Dr. Vicente says. “I passed out a bit.”

“Are you all right? What did the doctor say?”

Fantastic, Rosemary. We used a nut for interrogations.

“Just a dizzy spell, it’s nothing. A student of mine brought me here.”

“Oh, the girl who was waiting around some time ago? Long hair, glasses? Do you need to sit down?”

How many innocent people did we put away because of what you told us?

“Really, I’m fine. You said you were calling me?”

“Since morning, yeah, but you weren’t answering your phone.”

And that’s not even the worst part.

“I did tell you I didn’t want anything to do with this anymore,” but her tone is nostalgic, as if she is trying to remember what she had said before.

“I know. That’s why I came looking for you.” He rubs the back of his neck and she notices the dark rings under his eyes. “We found Endriga.”

A girl shot herself because of you.

Now that the adrenaline has completely worn off, she is adrift in its tepid, aimless wake, close to touching the sea floor. She feels as though she has no rib cage to protect her lungs and her heart, only a paper bag that’s been crumpled and thrown away too many times.

“We just need you to spend a couple of minutes with him,” says Burgos. “If you feel like it’s starting to get screwed up, you just give us a sign and you’ll be out of there in seconds. I’m sure whatever you would have gotten by then would be very helpful already.”

Gun in mouth.

“She looks quite similar to her.”

“Sorry?”

“Lacey, the student you saw earlier. Her and the other girl.” When he doesn’t answer, she says, “The girl who killed herself.”

Remember how loud it was?

“Patricia Aning, you mean.”

She lets the name in and it runs through her memories of the past week like a knife. The first time she had seen that name was in the newspaper the day after. The newspaper claimed that the prostitute, in an overwhelming fit of guilt, had committed suicide. She remembers quickly folding the paper up to cover the name and throwing it away into the trash bin. “Yes.”

If only you had been more discreet. If only you didn’t show the girl that you can read her mind. You just stood there and blabbed it all to Burgos, right in front of her.

“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. They all look alike,” he answers. “Girls nowadays. I didn’t get a good look at her because she was on her way out when we arrived, but she seemed pretty worried. Your student, I mean. Seems like she was hanging around here for a while.”

You can’t get a damned thing right, Rosemary.

“I’ll have to thank her,” she says. She brings her hand to her face to massage her eyes and Burgos politely looks away. “You said you found Mr. Endriga?”

“Yeah. Roberto Endriga. Very minor league. He’s ambitious enough have a prostitution ring of his own but he’s just some bigger fish’s boy. We found him in a McDonald’s on the other side of town.”

You’re going to get someone killed again. Maybe Burgos. Or even a bystander this time.

“He used to threaten his girls by putting a gun into their mouths too and pretending the safety lock wasn’t on,” says Dr. Vicente.

Someone so innocent you can never just chalk it up as collateral damage.

“You told us before.”

A casualty of your incompetence.

She stands up, adjusting the collar of her white shirt. “It’s a confession you’re looking for, right?”

Your fault all over again.

Burgos waves at Elevado, who puts the cigarette out and starts the engine.

***

In his office, Dr. Dimaano might be pulling up her folder and reviewing her history in the university. Harassing a student is not something taken lightly. She might be asked to undergo a psychological assessment. They’ll find a fresh PhD to substitute her classes while she takes more weeks off. Dr. Vicente doesn’t have tenure. The fresh PhD might stay there forever.

a woman / the woman in the white shirt / who’s she / can’t see in this light / questions again /

But right now Elevado is driving and Burgos is next to him, talking about a new barbecue place he has found.

brown belt on the floor / brown belt on the floor / stop / Oh God / brown belt on the floor /

The marinade they use is excellent and the chicken is always burnt just the right way, so the skin falls off easily but doesn’t taste like ash.

what’s she telling / how does she know / what / what’s she telling them / Oh God / how /

Dr. Vicente knows they’re talking about the restaurant for her benefit and she’s grateful. She rides in the backseat and looks at her reflection against a backdrop of moving buildings that meld into gray and blue layers of steel and glass.

who is she / that’s the only way / who is she / otherwise, everyone else / only way / metal / yes / take it

The rain blurs the rust stains on the buildings, washing away the filth that had crept from the sewers to the walls to the skin underneath everyone’s fingernails.

Be quiet, she tells the window. I can do this.

***

Roberto Endriga is dressed like a real estate agent with his shirt and jacket. When they walk in, he smiles from the interrogation table but with the faint look of irritation of someone whose privacy has been intruded upon.

Elevado is brisk and almost show-offy. Omitting Dr. Vicente’s part from anything, he tells Endriga about the raid and asks him to explain himself. Endriga doesn’t answer. Like a kingfisher watching over a minnow beneath the shallow waters, he looks at Dr. Vicente on the other side of the table, a small, quizzical frown on his brow. He asks who she is. Elevado tells him to just answer his question. Endriga’s eyes leave Dr. Vicente and he tells Elevado he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Elevado answers that he doesn’t think so. Endriga glares at the one-way mirror where Burgos is watching.

Elevado gives Dr. Vicente the sign and she takes her pen and her paper out.

Despite his smoothness, Roberto Endriga is, as Burgos had said, still just someone’s henchman. The moment she had walked in, his mind had already been open, running through the list of his backers and reminding himself to stay away from mentioning anything related to them.

Then here, suddenly, a silvery coil of thoughts about Patricia Aning.

It’s fleeting but Dr. Vicente holds on to it, looks at how it’s woven with memories and shot through with threads of resentment and dull hate.

Endriga says he’s never heard of the girl then jokes that if he had he might have paid her little love nest a visit while she was still alive. He laughs alone. Elevado barely covers his grimace.

Dr. Vicente writes down the names of Endriga’s backers. As she passes the slip of paper to Elevado, she asks Endriga, Isn’t it a shame he was never drunk enough before to have killed Patricia Aning himself, during one of those evenings when the May breeze blew in between the curtains of the room at the Orange Suites and the summer heat and the beer in his stomach copulated to produce an oppressive miasma, and Patricia, his prize, his slut, rolled her stockings up in front of the mirror, smug and self-satisfied.

Endriga’s face turns white. Dr. Vicente stands up and walks out the room, leaving Elevado to take care of the confession.

***

She returns home by herself. Burgos had offered her a ride but she had refused.

Dr. Vicente chops lettuce and moistens the salad with vinaigrette, then eats by the kitchen sink.

She loads the laundry into the machine. She had done the same on the night Patrician Aning had shot herself, throwing the clothes in the wash because they smelled of blood and vomit. She listens to the machine run, luxuriating in its meaningless drone.

Now Dr. Vicente allows herself to replay the agitation on Patricia Aning’s face just before she had died. The girl’s last thoughts hadn’t been of the police or of the woman in the white shirt. They had been memories of Endriga putting a gun to her mouth to demonstrate what he would do to her family if she said anything.

Then the girl had pulled the trigger and the bullet had ripped through the ceiling of her mouth and into her brain, interrupting those memories forever, letting them hang in the charged air of the tiny corridor, abandoned, sparks dancing a jig of liberation one moment in the light that bled around them, in the rush of air stripped of pause, before vanishing into the smoke of spent gunpowder.

The washing machine growls and rumbles, trembling from the force of its movements. Dr. Vicente turns away as her face slackens. When the tears finally arrive, she welcomes them, surrounded by the stillness of no one’s thoughts.

—-

Crystal Koo was born and raised in Manila and is currently working in Hong Kong. Her latest publications include short stories in First Stop Fiction, The Other Room, and Corvus Magazine, while forthcoming publications will be in the World SF Blog, Lauriat: An Anthology of Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction, and Philippine Speculative Fiction 7. She maintains a blog at http://swordskill.wordpress.com and a Twitter account @CrystalKoo.

The above image is from here.

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