The first to visit her is the little boy with the butcher knife in his heart. There’s dried blood on the handle, and he looks like he’s going to topple over any minute from the weight of it. But he isn’t standing up. He’s sitting on her bed, the little feet idly swinging against the wood, as if he just woke up from his nap. He looks up when she opens the door.
She closes it again and steps back.
She goes to the kitchen to put the kettle on, grabs her favorite mug and pours in two packets of strong instant coffee granules. She watches with satisfaction as the hot water dissolves them into a dark pool of bitterness. She takes a swig as if she were drinking whiskey, and revels in the heat scraping down her throat like scraggly fingernails. The bitterness threatens to make her gag, but she manages to keep everything down in the end.
She opens the door again and enters her bedroom.
“Hi,” the boys says, his voice shrill and tinny in the silence of the evening. He looks down at the knife sticking out from his chest. “It’s not heavy anymore. I think I might have gotten used to it.” He wipes his small, pudgy hands on his blood-soaked shirt. She cringes at the thought of those hands against her sheets.
She sits down next to him. “Why are you here? No. You know what, I think I know why. But why now?”
“You need some convincing,” he says, looking up at her with his dark eyes, a clump of curls falling across his brows. He does have an adorable head of black curls. They seem to be the only part of him that’s dry and clean. “You need to get back to writing.”
She laughs, the way that people at dinner parties laugh when they don’t really get the joke, “Why you of all the characters in my head?”
“I’m the one you care about the most.”
“How are you sure? Maybe you scare me the most.”
“I’m both,” he shrugs.
She sighs in begrudged acceptance. “Listen, Nicolas. I can’t go back down that road. I’ve only managed to survive getting out of it.”
“You can’t run from who you are. Where would you go? There’ll always be a haunted road up ahead.”
She smiles at him, she can’t help it. “You’re a wise, old man for a murdered child.”
“You made me, so please feel free to take the credit.”
Her smile fades. “Please go away. I can’t.”
His dark eyes never waver from her face. “You’re the one who summoned me. Or, at least, your subconscious. It’s full to bursting. Sooner or later, everything will spill out and God only knows who’ll come out next. If that happens, are you ready?”
She looks down and fiddles with her hands on her lap. When she turns to him, there’s no one else in the room but her. She allows herself to fall back on the mattress, and doesn’t sleep.
She walks down the block to work, feeling a little scraped around the edges. Was the boy right? Is there really no escape? The last story she wrote was three years ago, and then she swore never to write again after that. She hated the long hours, the long silences, the agony of building a life around a character. The sleepless nights. She hated the pressure of her mentors and the scoffing of friends who thought she was wasting her time. But mostly, she hated the demons in her head.
She was in the middle of writing Nicolas’ story, when she decided to walk away. She got as far as the murder scene, when Nicolas’ drunk of a dad whacked him in the chest with that knife. She just suddenly stopped writing. She got up, walked to the nearest convenience store and proceeded to devour a liter of ice cream with a plastic spoon (also bought from the store). The cashier gave her a strange look, which she returned. She didn’t go back home until midnight, when she was sure that her laptop had run out of battery and have died by itself.
She never resurrected it, and instead shoved it under her bed, where it still lays in the thickening dust. She thought she might as well just commit to keep on running.
Something tugs on her coat and she looks down. The boy is trying hard to keep up with her, his bare feet moving at nearly comically warp speed. She takes pity and slows down. It really is too much, what with that knife in his chest.
“This is how it’s gonna be, huh?” she says.
“Yes,” he says, simply. “For now, at least. Which would you have preferred to come out? That housewife who drowned herself in the bathtub with her apron and pearls? A tad too melodramatic if you ask me, that one.”
“And you aren’t?” she says, with a fond smile.
His curls bounce as he shakes his head. “I’m real. There’s always a Nicolas out there in the ditch with a bullet in his head or beaten to death. Children are the easiest to hurt or kill, you see. After animals.”
She stops short and nearly bumps into the person walking behind her. She mumbles an apology and waits for the man to overtake her. “I’m reminded why I decided to stop writing about you.”
He waits quietly for her to continue, an expression of such calm trust on his face that she can’t bear to look at it. “It’s not my responsibility,” she continues. “Your fate. Humanity’s fate. It’s not my responsibility to make sense out of it.”
He stares at his dirty feet for a moment as if in contemplation. “It’s not your responsibility,” he says with a nod. “Who says it is? You’re just here to tell a story.” He starts walking again, his little legs scuttling forward like a tiny spider’s.
“You talk as if those are not the same thing.”
This time, he’s the one to smile at her. “Come, you’re going to be late. You don’t want another memo.”
She can’t concentrate at work. She keeps expecting Nicolas to pop out from under her desk or in the restroom or in the pantry. She doesn’t know how she’ll manage to remain sane if he keeps appearing. But, he stays away. Somehow, she is disappointed.
She wakes up when she feels the slight dip on the bed. She still sleeps on the left side long after the right side had remained empty. Old habits not only die hard but insist on sleeping with her, as well as memories. She turns to her side and watches Nicolas make “snow angels” on her silk sheets. Thankfully, his bloody hands don’t smear.
“This is nice,” he says. “Do you think I’m the one who would appreciate nice things?”
“You look like it. Maybe a nice red firetruck,” she says.
He smiles and his movements still. He stares up at her cobwebbed ceiling. “It’s not all bad. Inside your head, I mean. I see a meadow sometimes and tall grass, the ocean from a distance. Your childhood home?”
She looks away. She doesn’t want to admit that she doesn’t remember that much anymore. From the corner of her eye, she sees him nod just the same.
“There’s sunshine in there, too. Why do you keep writing sad stories like mine? They’re not the only stories out there, you know. And it looks like you have some happy stories in you.”
She stares at the ceiling herself and shrugs. “Happy stories always sound false to me. I mean, I know happy stories exist, but they are so rare like gems inside a volcano or something or other. They’re a novelty. And so, disconcerting.”
“But you like disconcerting.”
“I also like truth. No matter how painful.”
“It’s okay to write happy endings, when applicable.”
She turns to look at him. “I haven’t met a happy ending I liked. But maybe someday.” Her gaze falls on the protruding handle on his chest. “Want me take that off? You don’t have to walk around with that.”
Nicolas sighs deeply, as if he has lived through an eternity. “Leave it. I’d rather carry around a knife than a hole.”
“I’m sorry for what I put you through,” she says.
She manages to fall asleep again.
She looks underneath the bed as if she were about to jump into a volcano. Her hand shakes when she finally manages to find her laptop. She cringes at the sorry sight of dust, gritty and grimy against her hand. She knows without a doubt that it would still work, so she’s only mildly disappointed when the screen turns on. There’s only one document on the desktop and she clicks on it. She scrolls down to the last sentence.
The child lay pinned on the bed like a spider with red goo oozing out its chest, legs twitching in a dark dance.
She feels the bile about to rush up her throat.
She closes the laptop and returns it under the bed.
When she stands up, he is sitting on the bed once more. “You can do it.”
She closes her eyes. “I can’t.”
“All roads have an ending,” he says. “No matter how endless they look. You can only run so far, before you see your own self waiting at the end.”
She nods. “Then, I’ll run just a bit longer, if you don’t mind.”
She’s eating a sandwich for lunch at a bench in Ayala Triangle when he starts to amble over to her. But he makes a quick run to the playground instead and up a slide, waving his arms in delight when he goes down. She tries not to stare at the knife going down the slide with him, like a dark zipper pull. She is reminded of a body bag opening and shakes her head to dispel the memory into the glaring heat.
He climbs up the bench next to her, breathing hard. “This is…cozy.”
“Sometimes you just want to see something green for a change, instead of white paint.”
He nods, although he looks a bit distracted. “Do you ever miss it? Writing, I mean.”
She grimaces as if she just smelled something nasty. “Sometimes. Like the fool that I am.”
“We’re all fools in our own way, so get in line.”
She smiles at him. “You old, old man.”
“Death has made me wiser beyond my years.”
She swallows the last piece of sandwich and takes a sip from her coffee. “It’s what I want to believe. That you’re in a better place. That you’re all…better.”
He doesn’t say a word.
“But it’s not true isn’t it? I made it all up. But it doesn’t make it true.”
“It’s not wrong to hope,” he says, after some time.
They sit in silence among the gentle swaying of the trees in the warm breeze. Hot and humid and sticky, like all the summers of this island. But she would always prefer the heat over the merciless cold. The stinging cold of a lifeless hand in a morgue, for example.
“It’s not wrong to hope,” she says, “but it hurts terribly.”
She dreams of the boy that night. She hasn’t dreamed about him for years. But now he still looks the same, with his red shorts and baseball cap. The little sandals on his feet. He’s running across a meadow towards her like an old fairytale, and she opens her arms to him. She picks him up, and he turns into the dead thing that she always knew he was. Saggy, blue flesh and yellowing teeth. He smiles at her just the same and wraps his arms around her neck.
She can’t breathe. She feels him reaching around to feel her pulse. He wants it. She can’t breathe, and she feels the ground open up to receive her, at last.
But she wakes.
She wakes like the mercy that it is. And the punishment that it is.
She is breathing hard, and Nicolas is kneeling by her feet. In the darkness, his eyes glimmer with naked sadness. He holds out his bloodied hand to her. She feels the tears on her cheeks when she grasps it.
“You can’t bring him back from the dead. Not by writing, at least,” he says.
“Then why do you want me to?”
“It’s not about him anymore.”
She drives up to the cemetery with a rented car. She turns the engine off and stares into the rows of tombstones in varying stages of maintenance. Some, white as snow, placed carefully on still-tender earth. Others, covered with mildew and cracks and the eventual neglect of forgetting. She doesn’t want to see what his graveyard looks like.
But she finally locates it after getting lost twice. It’s not as bad as she imagined it to be. Someone still comes to tidy it up, at least, based on a vase of barely wilted roses right next to it. Perhaps a relative. She looks down at her own bouquet of sunflowers and wonders what on earth possessed her to bring such a cheery floral arrangement. It doesn’t matter anyhow as the dead don’t care. She places it next to the roses and appreciates the contrast nonetheless. Maybe the dead don’t mind a little pick me up now and then, after all.
She should have brought a firetruck, but that would have been too much. For her, at least. That would have been a plunge into the water instead of a dip of the toes. She doesn’t have the fortitude for that, anymore.
Nicolas speaks behind her, and she doesn’t even flinch. She knows he’s always going to be nearby. “He would have wanted one of those candy canes you used to give him. The melted ones. He preferred those.”
She turns around to look at him. “You don’t know that.”
He shifts his gaze from the tombstone to her face, and she falls silent.
They lay facing each other on the bed, her hand under her pillow to keep her from brushing away the curls that keep falling on his face. He doesn’t seem to mind them and stares back at her. He is relatively silent tonight, and it makes her uneasy.
“I didn’t realize your eyes are brown,” she says.
“You didn’t have enough time to look closely.”
“Maybe I did. I just didn’t want to. You were always sitting on the stairs just across my door with your amputated toys. Why were you always trying to pull their limbs off?”
He shrugs. “I wanted to know how it feels like.”
She feels her throat closing up. He waits for her, and because she’s a coward, she remains silent. He looks down at his little hand on the sheet and continues.
“How it feels like to hurt somebody. If there’s some kind of happiness to it.”
Her vision blurs against her will. If he notices it, at least he doesn’t point it out. She loves him so much at that moment, and she finds she is not ready for the surge of affection like a roundkick in the chest.
“And because of that, I can’t hate him. My dad. Because I know there isn’t any happiness in the hurting, and so he must have taken no pleasure in it.”
She shakes her head. “You don’t know that. You can’t forgive him, just like that. You can’t. People like him don’t deserve it.”
“I didn’t deserve to die and yet here I am.” He gives her a shy smile.
She gives him a wobbly one in return. “I can’t give you that ending. I can’t, I’m sorry.”
He nods, barely. “You’re not ready, I understand.”
“I want him to die,” she says. “Your dad. I want him to die slowly and painfully.”
She pauses. “I want you to live.”
“You know there’s only one way to make me immortal.”
She hates how he always end up in the right.
“When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?” he asks as he trails after her in the supermarket. She steers clear of the kitchen utensil section. She pretends to read calorie content on boxes for some time and ends up shoving them in her cart, anyway. She tries not to answer him, but she knows it’s too late to pretend that he doesn’t exist.
She sighs and turns to him. “Would you like to ride in the cart? Did your dad ever let you do that?”
He shakes his head. “He didn’t take me anywhere.”
Her heart crumples like dried leaf. She gestures toward the cart. “Please.”
He glances at the cart, unsure, before finally climbing in. She pushes, starts to walk briskly, and then finally sprinting, gaining enough momentum, before she steps on the base of the cart as if she were on a scooter.
Nicolas giggles and it sounds like the most beautiful music ever written. She parks the cart next to the candy aisle, breathing hard and giggling herself.
“Ma’am, please don’t step on the cart,” a store attendant says behind her. She is suddenly ashamed, as if she were caught shoplifting. She mumbles an apology, before pushing the cart around the corner.
“Are adults always this joyless?” Nicolas says.
“When they live long enough.”
She succumbs to old demons and ends up drinking a bottle of wine. She knows she shouldn’t. She’s worked hard to get to where she’s at. It was no small feat, but she doesn’t care at the moment. At the moment, all she wants is a moment’s peace. When he appears on the chair opposite hers, she nearly screams in both frustration and relief. He is both her guardian angel and tormentor.
“I know what you’ll say,” she says.
“Naturally,” he says. “I’m your character.”
“You are operating under the assumption that characters are controllable.”
He stares down at his hands on the table. “I sit corrected.”
He takes a deep breath as if he were preparing for battle. “You never answered my question. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?”
She shakes her head. “God knows. It’s like any old marriage. You thought you could make it work.”
“And?” he prods, when she falls silent for quite some time.
“And, you realize you’re not brave enough for it. That you’re not the person you thought you were. And it’s so deeply disappointing.”
He nods as if he understands.
“When I write, it feels like all I ever do is dig up old wounds that still smell,” she says when she can’t bear his empathy any longer.
“You don’t have a choice, sometimes,” he says, clasping his hands together as if praying. “At least this way, you’ll dig them up on your own terms.”
She is horrified to realize that she is openly weeping like the drunk that she is. “It isn’t fair.”
He shakes his head. “No, it isn’t.”
For some time, there is only the sound of her sniffling.
“You couldn’t have saved that boy, the one who lived next door to your old apartment,” Nicolas says. “No matter how much you go over it in your head. You couldn’t have known.”
She shakes her head even before he stopped talking. “I knew his father was a drunk and violent. I knew his father regularly beat him up. I heard it through the walls. I knew I should have called for help. I knew it was only a matter of time, before he turns up dead.”
“You were scared, it’s understandable.”
“No, it isn’t. I don’t understand.”
“Like you said, it isn’t your responsibility to save everybody.”
She wipes her face with the sleeve of her cardigan. “I can’t purge demons by writing, I tried. They only give birth to uglier ones.”
“Isn’t that why you wrote me in the first place? Because I’m both real and imagined? Because I’m the Nicolas that you knew and the Nicolas that you want to preserve and the Nicolas that you would have wanted to grow up. Because you wanted me to save you.”
She tries not to wilt in the face of her utter selfishness. “I wanted another chance. To do the right thing. But it still ends up wrong, no matter how I write it.”
“Write, anyway,” he says. And there is such an incredible tenderness in his eyes that she can barely keep herself from sobbing again. She doesn’t deserve his compassion. “Write as if it doesn’t hurt. Write as if you can save yourself.”
“I don’t know how anymore.”
She remembers that night, when she got a call to show up to the nearest morgue to “identify a body.” She knew already whose it was before she even parked her car. She watched as they slowly zipped down the body bag to reveal the bruised face of the boy, one eye puffed up like violet pudding. She took his small, limp hand, because she didn’t know what else to do. Just a few days ago, she gave him yet another candy cane. She gave him a lot of candy canes over that past year, every time he showed up on the stairs with his little plastic soldiers, a bruise or two on his arm or leg. A candy cane for her cowardice.
In the morgue, his chest had a large gaping hole, where a butcher knife cleanly sliced through. Outside, she watched as his father, face frozen as if the last bit of his sanity has deserted him finally, got towed into an ambulance in a straitjacket.
She didn’t return to her apartment after that. She never returned, even when the landlord threatened to bring her to court for breach of contract. There wasn’t anything in the world that would convince her to step back into that place again. If only leaving her memories was as easy, and as final.
“How would you like it to end?” she says, clutching Nicolas’ hand across the table. “Tell me. Tell me what to write.”
“Like I said. Happy endings, only when applicable.”
She sits in the semi-darkness long after Nicolas has disappeared and sobriety has once again closed its arms around her. The screen illuminates her face like a spotlight. She watches the cursor blink and wait for her for what seems like years. She begins typing, slow and steady through the night. She bears the weight of the years as much as she can. Unwrapping their covers with words, prying open all the fingers that have shut tight around them like a shell. She peels open the body bag. She scrapes off the hide of her heart and though it hurts, she keeps scraping until there is only the sound of its unmistakable thudding.
She shapes him and molds him from the husk on the morgue table. Carefully, she rebuilds his sinews and muscles and skin. Closes the hole in his chest. Return the ruddiness in those sunken cheeks. She brushes his curls with the click-clack of the keyboard, puts on a clean shirt on him, which she took straight from the clothesline outside where the smell of sunshine still clings. She polished his eyes until they shone like a newly purchased doll’s, painted a small smile on his lips.
She begins the very slow and painful and sacred process of immortalizing him.
She doesn’t stop until the first light of dawn seeps through her kitchen window. She doesn’t stop until the sun finally takes it rightful place on the sky.
A few hours later, she wakes up with a start, from where her read was resting on her arms. The laptop had died.
She opens her bedroom door and stares at the empty bed. “Nicolas,” she exhales, like an incantation. She feels the overpowering desolation and knows that he has truly left. And yet, she thinks she hears him in the air.
We’ll come out when you need us.
It was both a promise and a threat.
She comes home one day to find the lady sitting on one of the dining chairs. Her skin is bluish and soggy. Her wet hair is plastered over her face, like dark shiny plastic, the water dripping down to her pearls. She is clutching the edge of her floral apron. A pool of water had congregated around her chair. She watches the liquid crawl outward like fingers scraping the floor.
This time, she doesn’t hesitate. She grabs her mug and fills it with dark courage. She sits across the lady.
“How would you like it to end,” she asks.