You pick up any stranger’s thought as readily as you’d pick up a pretty shell by the beach side because all of them, even the most banal ones, catch your eye and you can’t help it. Sometimes a thought is brilliant and hard as a diamond, or edged and serrated like a dagger, or full of intent as a snake is of venom. Sometimes it seems bottomless, smooth and pure like silk, shedding its endless layers the moment you pick it up.
So you compartmentalize. That’s always been the ticket. Keep boundaries. Focus on the color of his pants, the bit of spinach between his teeth, the flashing lights of his cellphone.
If you’re still picking up a thought when you don’t want to, then you’ll just have to read the damn thing and move on.
Dr. Vicente bursts into the auditorium doors and barely stops herself from vomiting. She staggers to the desk on her red heels, her umbrella leaving a wet trail to the podium. The undergraduates respond by opening their books liturgically to where they had left off days ago. A titter here and there and a general clicking of pens, and from somewhere at the back, Dr. Vicente picks up someone’s thought, I wonder how much she drank last night. It floats over a sea of How boring is today going to be, I hope Dr. Vicente finally throws up so we could get a class off, Why did Shakespeare have to write this damn long about everything, Dr. Vicente looks like my mother on Friday nights.
She shifts her students’ thoughts away from her mind. It’s easy to suppress each of their voices until they collectively become a static hum because she knows their thoughts are harmless and made only in passing. They’re nothing like the thought Dr. Vicente feels is coming towards her now, from that girl with long hair who always sits under the fire exit sign, her glasses reflecting the green photoluminescence. Its succinct, crystalline phrasing sticks out of the other students’ low-frequency realms of thought: Someone ought to report you, Dr. Vicente.
Safe in the silence of telepathy and in the unspoken covenant that no one should find out both of them are able to do this, the student continues. Just because university professors don’t need qualifications in education doesn’t mean you can’t do it wrong. I really should report you.
Dr. Vicente hasn’t come unprepared. This has been going on for a week. She makes a show of looking at the class list then spotting a name as if for the first time. “Lacey Saloma?”
Dr. Vicente tells her she’s made an appointment for both of them with Dr. Dimaano and would Lacey please stay behind at the end of class.
The girl’s immediate astonishment isn’t the smirk-wreathed reaction Dr. Vicente was expecting but she compartmentalizes anyway – let Lacey become someone else’s problem. Despite everyone’s studious scribbling and highlighting on the page, Dr. Vicente knows which few in the class still don’t understand the significance of what she’s about to quote next and she’ll have to work on getting everyone onboard without Lacey Saloma’s need for attention.
“Polonius is dead,” Dr. Vicente says, turning on the projector, “and Hamlet justifies himself with these words: ‘…heaven hath pleased it so to punish me with this – ”
Maybe I can ask Dr. Dimaano what is this going to be all for when we’re out working for the man, our salaries peaking when we turn forty? Lacey tells her. Tell us what life outside has to do with Polonius being dead. The tedium, the pigeonholing, when your metabolism slows and you slide toward death everyday. When you come to work with a hangover, Dr. Vicente.
“ ‘…and this with me, that I must be their scourge and minister.’” Dr. Vicente uncaps a red marker in the middle of Dr. Vicente, you haven’t answered my question. Should I raise my hand? and a five-day-old storm lashing against the whitewashed walls outside.
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 –
Actually Dr. Vicente doesn’t even remember what the prostitute was called. Doesn’t remember, doesn’t want to remember, doesn’t matter when the name is gone at the end of the day. Burgos had tried to catch the girl when she had crumpled on the floor, his gun still lodged between her mouth and her own hand. The corridor had turned suddenly silent, as though a door to a noisy eatery had slammed shut. Then the rain started, a quiet scurrying on the walls of Orange Suites that accompanied the police inspector as he checked for the girl’s pulse more for the sake of procedure than anything else because there was already a gaping hole in her cranium. Elevado took off his jacket and tried to stanch the expanding pool of blood before it could turn into something that would need to be hosed down. Some of the apartment residents opened their doors and the rest of Burgos’ squad told them to go back in.
What Dr. Vicente remembers is standing by the brothel door the girl had been leaning against a few minutes ago, listening to the storm, the muted thunder of everyone’s shock. It was only when the place was cordoned off and the girl’s body was bagged that Dr. Vicente realized she had vomited a little and her nails were scratching specks off the drywall. Below the slightly crooked OPEN sign of the door, the white sticker lettered with www.143love.com was now sprayed with blood, and underneath it were sobbing teenaged girls, their make-up smudged and garish.
Dr. Vicente had wanted to go home but Burgos said they should at least try to get what they could from those other girls before the media came. Elevado hustled all the girls back inside. He had a fresh cut on his upper lip from a small scuffle he had with the dead girl earlier, when he was trying to get her out of the apartment to answer some questions. Given the state of shock the girls were in, Elevado said it was a good time to get more information about their pimp, the one the dead girl had called Endriga. Elevado pushed the door open and immediately the heavy smell of sour fluids seeped out, as if a fruit had been left to rot in a corner and had been forgotten.
Dr. Vicente couldn’t move. Burgos assured her that everything would be fine; the girl shooting herself was unfortunate but a one-off. She wanted him to promise her that but she couldn’t find the words. Burgos took her shaking arm and gently moved her towards the door, which Elevado pushed open wider.
The couch in the middle of the room was made of brown faux-leather, each dark stain on every square foot illuminated by two tubes of white, fluorescent lighting above. Four girls were huddled on it, their twig-like, stockinged legs curled below them.
Burgos shut the door and sat himself down on a chair. He asked them gently who Endriga was and where he had gone. No one answered and Burgos asked them again, a little more urgently. When the same silence returned, he gave Dr. Vicente the sign.
Dr. Vicente couldn’t respond. She was imagining the dead girl huddled in with the rest of them on the sofa, telling the girls not to think of Endriga, to say nothing, to look at the floor, to put the barrel in their mouths, to point it at their brains or else Endriga would do it for them and their families. She wasn’t sure if the stains on the sofa were semen or blood. Dr. Vicente tried to stop herself. Compartmentalize. Keep it together.
One of the girls stood up. From the corner of her eyes, Dr. Vicente saw Elevado tense his body and suddenly the girl was screaming about them murdering the other girl. Burgos waved at Dr. Vicente, making bigger signs with his hand.
The girl tried to run for the door before Elevado leaped up and brought her down to the floor. A crack and cries of pain. Another girl moved to the window, opening it before two of Burgos’s men pulled her away. A strong blast of monsoon air blew into the room, slapping the sill with wet palm leaves.
Burgos gestured furiously at Dr. Vicente and she tried to focus. In the confusion, the girls’ thoughts had scattered, unguarded, like marbles dropped out of a bag. Flashing images of siblings and parents and grandparents in their own tiny, run-down houses, clients, so many of them, handsome men, fat men, short men, old men, boys, and underneath them all, holding them together like a net, she found Endriga.
An hour later, when Dr. Vicente was at home ready to fall into sporadic, alcohol-tinged spots of sleep on her bed, she would ring Burgos’s phone and tell him calmly that yes, she was fine, she was sorry for leaving without telling him, and also that she was quitting. But right then in that brothel, as she wrote down descriptions of Endriga and the places he frequented and gave them to Burgos, as she walked past the money exchanges and the telecom shops across the building and emerged into the latticed lights of Cubao, all she thought of was how she had deluded herself into believing she knew anything of what she was doing.
All of them are doppelgangers of each other at that age. Dyed hair, eyeliner, charms on cellphone lanyards, leggings that end with a pair of Mary Janes.
“I don’t understand what I’ve done, Dr. Vicente,” Lacey insists. Not one small, painful smile of bravado from the anxious undergraduate, who is frowning and tapping her nail-polished fingers on the podium with concern. The open microphone amplifies the sound through the empty auditorium.
For a moment, Dr. Vicente honestly thinks she must have been mistaken. Lacey isn’t demonstrating feigned innocence right now; Dr. Vicente’s seen too much of that from the other end of the interrogation table to recognize it as soon as she sees it. What she feels from Lacey’s mind is real bewilderment and a barely restrained dash of fear.
Dr. Dimaano hates meetings, especially the ones where nothing gets done. He wouldn’t mind a cancellation. Maybe it’s the wrong girl. Dr. Dimaano would be more than just irritated if it were. And anyway Dr. Vicente was never sure herself how she would explain the situation without giving herself away.
Lacey bites her lower lip. Then the thought lacerates the silence between them: You have no idea what you’re doing, do you, Dr. Vicente?
And here’s the rush of validation, sharp and sweet. Dr. Vicente is almost relieved she wasn’t wrong. She tells Lacey that she hadn’t talked to her about this behavior since she started doing it a week ago because she thought Lacey was just being childish, wanting attention like that.
“Like what?” asks Lacey, her voice catching, and at the same time: Do you really want to waste Dr. Dimaano’s time? He’ll fry your ass.
Dr. Vicente shoves all her papers into her leather satchel and picks up her umbrella. She tells Lacey to start walking.
This isn’t high school, Dr. Vicente. Should you be in this position of authority at all? Do you know the kind of power your position gives you over people?
“Shut up,” she tells her. The girl looks shocked, but if the girl can address her directly in her head, which no one has ever been able to do, then the girl can be capable of feigning anything. That’s the problem with female students, the passive aggression. Boys are easier because they’re straightforward about the trouble they’re causing. Girls just make martyrs of themselves, as though guilt were some cheap thing they had the right to induce in people.
Maybe someone else deserves that power, Dr. Vicente. Someone who knows what she’s doing.
Focus on the color of her shirt, the bit of cake between her teeth, the surface glare of her cellphone. Why do all these girls dress alike?
Once you figure out no one can do what you do, you realize how alone you are. You can take it two ways. One, you consign yourself to the reality that you’re a freak show and the media will be all over you if word gets out and that no one will ever understand why being moved from talk show to talk show isn’t a good thing, so you give up. Tune out. Try to avoid anyone’s thoughts altogether.
Or two, you figure that you’re special. This talent of yours ought to be used for something worthwhile, like part-timing as a special interrogator for the police. The downside to this is that the leaky faucet will keep you up at night not just in the usual way. You’ll hear the drip move from spout to basin to drain and you’ll think the tinkle it makes isn’t just telling you that the gasket needs replacing. Like every sound you hear, you’ll turn it into a conversation.
“Do you mean she shouts over lectures?” asks Dr. Dimaano. The Department Head is a large man in his late fifties with round corners and a pedantic accent. He is dressed in a dark, acrylic sweater. She has always smelled tobacco smoke off him, although the cigarette is never seen.
“Psychologically, Ted.” The question and Dr. Dimaano’s blaring, nasal voice irk Dr. Vicente.
Dr. Dimaano glances at the girl, who is wedged in her seat and shaking her head slowly. “We could really use some specifics here about how this girl has supposedly insulted your competence and disrupted the class.”
“I don’t know what Dr. Vicente is talking about,” says Lacey and Dr. Dimaano looks at Dr. Vicente, seemingly inclined to agree.
So are you going tell him the things I’ve said, so I can just flat out deny it, Dr. Vicente? Or are you going to go ahead and tell him that you can read my mind? What exactly did you think you can achieve, bringing me here? Did you think he won’t ask questions? Why are you even teaching us? You can’t get a damned thing done right.
The frustration swells in Dr. Vicente’s stomach like a wave of acid.
“Rosemary,” Dr. Dimaano says, “there’s no point bringing her in if she hasn’t actually done anything. Besides, class management isn’t really something I ought to be arbitrating on – there’s the Student Discipline Committee – ”
Makes sense because that’s always a fount of help. Are we done here?
“She’s doing it again,” Dr. Vicente says before she can stop herself.
Dr. Dimaano looks up from the desk drawer he has pulled out, his interest in her situation ebbing. Dr. Vicente knows it’s a pack of cigarettes that he had been looking at. “Doing what?” he asks.
Lacey stares back at Dr. Vicente with the indignation of the innocent. Dr. Dimaano shoves the drawer back in, runs his tongue over his teeth for a moment.
He asks Ms. Saloma to wait outside. Relieved, the student grabs her bag and rushes off on her Mary Janes. Later, Dr. Vicente, the timbre of the thought metallic, and the door slams.
Dr. Vicente swallows, trying to calm her heaving stomach down. “That was disappointing, Ted.”
“You’re not giving me much to work with here.” He looks at the jumble of triplicate documents on his desk. “You seem to be the only one who knows what’s going on here, which I’d really appreciate you telling me as soon as possible.” Where did I put that damn lighter? he thinks.
That student is talking to me in my head, Dr. Vicente thinks. Your damn lighter is on the carpet, below your desk, and I know you’re in a hurry to have your smoke, which you have to do in that alley behind this building because you think people here don’t like authority figures carrying on with a dirty habit like that and it’s bad enough they don’t like you that much to start with but you smell like it anyway and people think you’re doing something else there, in the same way I know you failed a student last semester for personal reasons.
She pauses in her private catharsis and would have gone on if not for the You can stop right there, Rosemary, you self-righteous little bitch that suddenly assails her.
Dr. Dimaano has hit the lighter with his foot and has bent down to pick it up with an exclamation of joy.
You didn’t like that girl either in your Medieval literature class last year, yes, that one, with the fake eyelashes and all the carrier bags she brought into class. She wasn’t a complete airhead but you made her out to be in the grades sheet.
Dr. Dimaano emerges from the desk, beaming and palming the lighter in his hand. “Eraser. Been looking for it for a while. Sorry, you were going to answer my question.”
There’s plenty more where that came from, Rosemary.
She grabs the thin, plastic arms of the chair. “I’m sorry?”
“Regarding Ms. Saloma.” Dr. Dimaano has his hand on the handle of the desk drawer, looking impatient. “Rosemary, are you serious about this accusation at all?”
Don’t you think people wonder why you sneak off so frequently in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of a meeting or a dissertation defense without even a paltry excuse we can all pretend to believe in? Do you think we won’t look kindly at the revelation of your working for the police at the same time? Or that you have the ability to know what we’re thinking? For someone so incompetent, you have such little faith in us.
She stands up from the chair, telling him she’s late for a class. She doesn’t look at him so she won’t see the deep frown ridging his brow as she walks away and quietly closes the door, her hands shaking.
The last time her hands had shaken so violently hadn’t been on that night in Orange Suites. All she had done then was vomit because of the smell and the sight, which had been understandable. It was on the next day, the afternoon after she had told Burgos she was quitting. She was in the middle of a lecture and a persistent headache when Burgos started calling her cellphone. She let it vibrate silently for as long as Burgos was patient, which he was. He didn’t stop until she rejected her call. He kept ringing. It took him six attempts before she picked up and turned away from the microphone, her lecture notes in her other hand.
He asked her if she needed counseling to deal with what had happened. She said all she needed were boundaries before immediately hanging up. Then she realized her hands were shaking so badly, as though they wanted nothing to do with her anymore, that she dropped the phone and her notes at the foot of the podium and spent a few minutes crouched on the floor, picking up the pieces of plastic and sheets of paper and putting everything back together again. The whole class had turned silent, bewildered by the sight of Dr. Vicente’s professional severity being undermined by the frailty of her outstretched arms. It was then that Lacey started speaking to her.
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.